Creating A Full-Year Training Plan

I Resolve: to do my homework, learn a new word every day, lose weight, get more rest, be a better person, exercise. Every year there’s a new list of most popular resolutions, and every year I guess we all wonder how we’ll keep these resolutions.

Last year I vowed I would finally sign up for a yoga class. I talked myself right out of it, bought a book on the subject, and called it a day. No matter how I arranged my schedule, I didn’t seem to have time for yoga. Except that wasn’t true. I could have, and should have taken that class on a cross training day.

Last year was also to be the year I would register for the 50-mile segment of the Blue Ridge Breakaway cycling event. This was the first year they cancelled the Blue Ridge Breakaway. My husband and I decided 2017 would be the year I would not run a marathon so I could focus on shorter races. I ran my first 50k Ultra Marathon last year. Resolutions don’t always work out the way we plan.

This marks my fourth year-long training plan experiment. There have been mixed results.

It was just over 4 years ago that I discovered sports periodization: a system of training – actually, the planning of training – that encompasses weeks, months, or even years; a system that has ultimately been adopted by nearly every professional sport, and has even been applied to the athlete’s diet.

The idea is to divide the year into phases where each phase emphasizes a different training goal. For example, the year may include a period of time for building a strong base, improving speed and strength, flexibility, and time dedicated to active rest/recovery.

I’m especially dedicated to the endurance phase. I simply adore running to the point just shy of exhaustion day in and day out. And the more you run, the more your body allows you to run. It works out well that way.

One year I held onto a peak weekly mileage of 55-65 miles for 8 weeks. I did well in the half marathon before the peak, and flopped in the two marathons I ran after the peak. Last year I held a peak weekly mileage of 35-45 miles for most of the year. I did not do well in a spring half marathon, but then I survived a 50k. In retrospect it’s always easy to see the error of my ways, but I love these year-long experiments – not to say they aren’t exceedingly frustrating from time to time.

I can see that my best years have been when I’ve incorporated more variety into my training, which ultimately leads back to those phases, or periodization. The good thing about breaking the year into phases is that one goal (yoga for example) doesn’t have to become overwhelming. It becomes part of one phase; if you like it, keep doing it.

Resolution:

1. a firm decision to do or not to do something, or. . .

2. the action of solving a problem.

The first question to answer is what activities will best solve our problem and/or allow us to meet the goal of each phase of training? I’ve decided there’s more than one answer.

A handful of periodized programs can be found across the web, and it turns out they pretty well match a runner’s periodized schedule: Endurance/Base-Building, Strength, Speed, (perhaps a build-up for a key race), Rest and Recovery.

One of these programs is from OutsideOnline; a five-part (five-month) plan called “The Shape of Your Life.” Each month the training focuses on a different goal: 1) endurance, 2) strength, 3) flexibility, 4) speed and power, 5) balance and agility. Month six focuses on active rest and recovery – then you start the process again.

The value of changing the focus of each phase is that you can also change the sport, if that’s something that interests you more than doing the same sport all year. And even if you prefer to train all year in your dominant sport, cross-training can balance your program and help achieve the goal of each phase.

For example, running, swimming, rowing, basketball, cycling, dancing, and even yard work will build endurance. Each of these activities can also be used to build speed and strength when performed fast, or devote a phase to a different anaerobic sport, such as racquetball, tennis, sprinting, or weightlifting.

Cross-Train with the Right Sport

Runners: Cycling maintains leg strength and cardio fitness while giving you a break from impact on your joints.

Cyclists: Running and rowing develop strength in the torso, quads, and glutes.

Climbers: Calisthenics use body-weight resistance to build strength without adding bulk.

Swimmers: Rowing builds key strength in the shoulders, arms, legs, and torso.

Kayakers: Swimming works the arms, shoulders, and torso, improving power and range of motion.

(Bones weaken if you do only low-impact activities. Strengthen your skeleton by mixing in high-impact workouts like running, jumping rope, or playing ball sports.)

A Full-Year Periodized Schedule

Endurance

Endurance, or aerobic, activities increase breathing and heart rate, which keeps your heart, lungs, and circulatory system healthy, improves overall fitness, and delays or prevents diseases (including various cancers, diabetes & dementia). If you’re always running out of energy after about an hour, you may not have created a strong foundation or you’ve skimped on the base-building phase.

”Technically, endurance is a combination of efficiency (lean body mass), physiology (a dense network of mitochondria that produces energy in the muscles), genes (a high percentage of slow-twitch muscle fibers), plumbing (an efficient heart capable of moving more blood per pump), and strength in those areas that help transfer force between the upper and lower body (the hips, lower back, abdominal, and other core muscles).” Outside Online

Duration: some programs specify a base building phase of 4-8 weeks, while others suggest as long as 6 months. Arthur Lydiard, Olympic and international running coach (also known as the “Father of Jogging”), has been quoted as saying to base build “As long a time as possible.”

For Runners: base building includes miles, and lots of them. Determine your peak mileage, how much time you want to devote to this phase, then choose a plan that matches the two safely. One approach is to follow your favorite marathon training program, eliminating or reducing the speed sessions, for as many weeks as desired (stop after 4 – 8 weeks, stop when you reach the program’s peak mileage, extend this phase to six months by duplicating weeks in the middle of the program, or by ramping up mileage more slowly).

Remember, this is the time for aerobic development. If you intend to increase your mileage to a new peak, you may not want to combine the stress of speed work concurrently.

Non-runners: swim laps, walk, cycle, play basketball, skate, ski, climb stairs/hills, dancing, or rowing. Even yard work, such as raking leaves, digging, mowing, chopping firewood, etc can be aerobic. Work up to a minimum of 150 minutes (2-1/2 hours) each week using any combination of activities that keeps you engaged. Start slow.

Strength

A low-volume, moderate to high-intensity weight training program, when added to an endurance training program significantly improves upper and lower body strength as well as running economy. Adding speed work will improve running strength, but this is different from maintaining a strong core. Incorporating a strengthening program to the endurance phase establishes a good base/foundation from which to build on during the strength phase.

Studies have shown that a strength training program added to the endurance runners’ training results in little or no impact on V02max, blood lactate accumulation, or body composition, yet improves speed.

Of two runners that are equal except for muscular strength, the stronger runner will be faster over any distance. Lowering the maximum strength required for each stride translates into improved efficiency and consequently greater endurance.

When muscles don’t need to work as hard, they don’t require as much oxygen or circulating blood, and will not put as much demand on the heart, resulting in a lower heart rate. Greater strength equals greater endurance.

A good weight training/strengthening program (upper and lower body specific exercises) should be a part of every training phase to one degree or another (running may be reduced during this phase while strengthening exercises are increased). Build a strong base during endurance and increase the effort during the Strength phase. Strength and Speed phases may overlap in some programs.

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A sample strengthening session. Read more….

How to Build Strength to Improve Running Efficiency

10 Essential Strength Exercises for Runners

Speed

Anaerobic exercise (exercise performed without oxygen!) is defined as short duration high intensity exercise lasting anywhere from merely seconds to around two minutes. After two minutes, the body’s aerobic system kicks in. Anaerobic exercise is typically intense enough to cause lactate to form, and is used by athletes to promote strength, speed and power and by body builders to build muscle mass.

To run fast you need strong muscles. Speed training builds stronger muscles, including the heart, improves running efficiency and form, creates mental toughness, and ultimately improves the runner’s pace. RunnersWorld says, “Research suggests that 30-second to five-minute bursts of intense exercise interspersed with rest periods will yield unique physiological changes—from faster fat loss and better blood sugar control to improved blood vessel function—that slow runs cannot deliver as efficiently.”

Duration: 4-10 weeks is the general guideline.

Runners: There’s lots of variations of speed training: intervals of various distances at the track, hill training, strides, tempo runs, fartlek runs, 3/1 runs (speed up the pace for the last quarter distance of the total run), etc. Reduce overall mileage during this phase to compensate for the added stress of speed.

Follow the speed workouts included in a shorter distance training program, such as for a 10k, 5k or shorter race, or simply incorporate weekly bouts of speed training (1-3x). This is also a good time to test yourself with shorter races or time trials.

Non Runners: Keep in mind that almost any sport can be performed in an anaerobic state (i.e., running/cycling/walking/swimming fast). Other traditional anaerobic sports include: Racquetball, Hiking (especially with a weighted pack and uphill), tennis, sprinting, weightlifting, possibly baseball/softball, ice hockey, and soccer.

8 Common Running Workouts, Explained (With Examples) 

Four Fast Speed Workouts for Any Runner 

Running 101: Basic Speed Workouts For Runners

Avoiding the “Black Hole” of Training

For runners, the next phase may be a second endurance phase that would re-build peak mileage in preparation for a marathon race (including a taper). Other athletes may focus on balance and agility, or a flexibility phase to improve range of motion, which just might incorporate that yoga class.

The last, or first phase depending how you look at it, should always be a period of active rest (3-6 weeks – more or less as needed).

There’s two types of active rest:

1. a significant reduction of training – for example, cut your training by a third or half – called a step-back week (like taking a deep breath before charging forward again), and

2. just as almost any exercise can become anaerobic, almost any exercise can be used for active rest. With a duration of about 20 minutes, walk or run at a very slow pace, swim, cycle or complete a series of easy stretches. Easy movements (that don’t stress the system) aid recovery, in most cases, more so than being sedentary.

I’ve been working on my full-year plan all week. The post-marathon rest and recovery period from last year inadvertently lasted all the way through the holidays leaving me with a longer than usual base building phase this year – probably six months. This should give me the advantage of warmer weather, however, for the strength & speed phase when I can cycle outside and every ride will become incredibly anaerobic tackling those hills I haven’t seen since last summer. The last endurance phase will build-up mileage for another 50k race this fall, and maybe this will also be the year for yoga.

Other approaches to Sports Periodization:

The Greatest Fitness Tips. Ever.

Here’s how to reach peak shape for any sport with one 12-week program.

FIRST MONTH: Complete a full-body weight-lifting circuit twice weekly. Do your cardio workouts on three other days, going long once. Each week, increase the duration of the long day’s workout by 10 percent. During the fourth week, cut the workout load by 50 percent.

SECOND MONTH: Follow the first month’s plan, but cut back to lifting once a week and add another day of cardio. During the eighth week, which is for recovery, cut everything in half.

THIRD MONTH: Stop lifting and use that day for cross-training. Ramp up speed by completing one cardio day each week with intervals at your intended race pace. Your long cardio day remains the same for the first two weeks, and for weeks 11 and 12 you cut its duration in half. During week 12, taper by doing only 50 percent of week 11’s work.


Here’s a simple way to periodize your training: Alternate three-week phases in which you perform three sets of 8-12 repetitions in the first phase and four sets of 4-6 repetitions in the second phase. Adjust your weights accordingly so you’ll use lighter weights for three weeks and then heavier weights for the next three weeks. This approach will help you increase strength, raise your metabolism, and improve muscular endurance. — Craig Friedman, Performance Specialist, Athletes’ Performance


Simply alternating cardio and strength days, while important, is not enough. As a diagram, periodization might look something like those blocky steps and valleys you see on preset treadmill programs—go hard, ease off; go hardest, ease off; go hard; ease off. The popular training programs developed by Joe Friel—author of The Mountain Biker’s Training Bible and The Triathlete’s Training Bible—present a monthly workout schedule in which the third week is the hardest of the four. The key is to create a program with multiple layers of periodization, taking the staggered approach within each workout, each week, each month, and ultimately through the duration of your program. “Periodization is the most likely way to achieve athletic success,” says Friel.

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Building Strong

Strong means different things to different athletes. The strongest among us are usually described in terms of their knockout rate, explosive dead-lift strength, or that rare football player that is said to “produce the most locomotive force of any human on the planet” – the label given Houston Texans’ defensive end Jadeveon Clowney in 2014. But strong, no matter the sport, seems to have at least one thing in common. Hard work.

Weight lifters hold a unique perspective on the pursuit of strong. The strength coaches of some of the most seriously strong of these athletes discussed what they believe separates the strong from the weak (10 Things the Strongest Athletes in the Weight Room Have in Common). They say the attributes of the strongest athletes include perseverance, consistency, having a plan, and working toward a goal. Very few athletes – even the ones who are gifted – are particularly strong from the get-go. They work at it for a long time.

I can vouch that it is possible to be a fairly good runner for some period of time with barely an ounce of true strength. A couple of years had passed after my first marathon before I discovered the plank or felt any need whatsoever to do one. Eventally I suffered through an endless list of injuries.

Writing a series on the anatomy of a runner has taught me that one of the major causes of injuries is muscle imbalance. Muscle balance is considered to be the harmonious action where muscles that surround a joint work together with normal opposing force to keep the bones involved with that joint centered. An imbalance occurs when an opposing muscle is incapable of contributing its share of the load, which may cause joint inflammation, tissue damage, pain, or abnormal muscle movement. Strength training is a simple remedy for the imbalances caused by the repetitiveness of our sport. Perhaps our individual rate of injury coincides with the time it takes our muscles to fall out of balance, and you need not be a runner or even an athlete to suffer these ill effects.

The strengthening program I’ve used for several years comes from Coach Jay Johnson. His Core H and Better Myrtl are a series of mostly 1-minute exercises specifically for runners that definitely create a burn.

Maybe they look easy enough. No kidding, they’re tough. The thing is that at the height of marathon training I don’t always have the energy (or the commitment) for tough. This year I decided there must be a fix for those few weeks of the most intense running of the year that would maintain strength without zapping me mentally or physically – a minimalist approach of sorts. Turns out I wasn’t the only one thinking this way.

Strength coaches tell us that when we don’t hold onto the strength we’ve built in the off-season, it takes a long time to build back up to where we were. “In-season training doesn’t need to be hard and heavy—just enough to maintain and pick up where you left off” – Tony Bonvechio, strength coach and co-founder of The Strength House.

Brad Stulberg writes Outside’s Science of Performance column (and author of the new book Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success). Last month he wrote “The Minimalist’s Strength Workout: Five exercises that will guarantee you have the strength to adventure all weekend, well into your eighties.”

The article came out at the peak of my last marathon training program, and I immediately added the minimalist’s five to my weekly routine. I saved them for late afternoon 2-3 times each week rather than following a run, and it made all the difference in the world.

Having fully recovered from my latest marathon, I’ve reverted back to the Core H and a Better Myrtl program (Coach Johnson has since updated the Better Myrtl with a  Strength & Mobility version) although the minimalist exercises still have a spot in my routine. I’ve come to appreciate their simplicity and their added-value, and finally I’ve been able to pick up where I left off in the last off-season.

Following is a brief guide to each of the five exercises, but it’s worth reading Stulberg’s full article here.

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(Erin Wilson)

Grip the bar with your palms facing out and hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Pull yourself up so your chin is above the bar. Hold for one second. Then extend all the way down so your arms are straight and elbows are locked. Throughout the movement, focus on keeping your core taut. You’ll know you’re achieving this because your legs won’t be swinging around. 3 sets x 6 reps.

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(Erin Wilson)

Stand with your legs slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, feet pointing slightly out. Hold a kettlebell by the horns, or a dumbbell with palms facing up, close to your chest. Squat down, keeping your heels on the ground. At the lowest point, your butt should be parallel to or just below your knees. Then push up to a standing positioning, locking your knees at the top. 3 sets x 8 reps.

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(Erin Wilson)

Begin with your chest down and palms pressing into the ground, thumbs at or a little outside of your nipples. Press up, locking your elbows at the top. Lower your back all the way down, so your chest hovers just a centimeter or two off the ground. Press up. Repeat. Be sure to tuck in your stomach and keep your core tight throughout the movement so you have minimal arch in your spine. 3 sets x 16 reps.

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(Erin Wilson)

Stand straight, toes pointing forward, feet about six inches apart. If you’re using dumbbells to increase the challenge, hold an equal weight in each hand at your sides, arms straight. Step forward with either foot so your knee is above your ankle. Push through the heel of the forward leg to return to an upright standing positioning. Repeat, this time stepping down with the opposite leg. 3 sets x 8 reps.

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(Erin Wilson)

Stand on one leg, keeping your knee slightly bent. If you’re using dumbbells, hold them on the same side as the leg you’re standing on. Bend forward at the hip, extending your free leg straight behind you for balance. Continue lowering until your chest is parallel with the ground, dumbbell almost touching the floor. Then press back to an upright position. 3 sets x 8 reps.

 

Additional Reading:

Champions Are Made In The Off-Season

General Strength and Mobility Training

Periodization: you can’t train the same way all of the time.

Confessions of the 50k

The 50k: it’s not about the distance, really. It’s how you get there.

My husband says the title of this post should have been, “The 50k, finally.” I admit it has taken me a few years and several false starts to get here. For more than a few years he really thought the race itself would kill me. I really thought the training would kill me.

Hal Higdon’s training programs have always been my go-to marathon plans. His 50k program lasts 26 weeks. Six months. The first 18 weeks follow a typical marathon training plan on steroids with three 20-mile runs and one full marathon (26.2 miles for those non runner readers). Then we get to the really fun training weeks where the long runs are simply described by how many hours one should run in one session. When I trained for the 50k a couple of years ago, it wasn’t that I got injured. I just wore myself out.

Luckily for me I’m retired so that I can run every morning. This is handy when you still want to have a life. I followed a Canadian marathoner last year. She ran before work, sometimes during her lunch break, after dinner wearing a headlamp, and followed a long-run route that crossed a frozen lake. We’ve all been there. You just do what you’ve got to do. Even in retirement our alarm routinely rings at 5:30a so I can finish a run before lunch. And if you’re determined to be the best you can be, this doesn’t last for 12, 18, or 26 weeks. If you want to be really good, you follow this schedule to some degree or another all year.

Earlier this year I remembered reading from a fellow runner (Dan’s Marathon) about the ChicagoUltra. The full 31.1-mile course is on the Chicago Lakefront path – imagine flat, scenic, flat, a slight breeze, flat . . . sheer bliss. Even better when I realized this could be an anniversary race of sorts. I ran my first marathon in Chicago in 2007. How perfect to run my first ultra in Chicago ten years later. . . maybe nothing’s worse than a nostalgic runner.

My husband and I decided on a training plan that wouldn’t kill me and I began training in May. Some number of months later, there was an out-of-state family emergency.

It came on a Wednesday. No problem I thought, and I reworked my schedule to accommodate two days off in the middle of the week. Then the same family emergency came again the next week.

It was at the end of the second week that I told my husband I had really screwed up. I had run 80% of the week’s miles in three days for two weeks in a row: Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with the long run on Saturday both weeks. One week later I ended the Saturday long run with stress fractures in both feet.

In my last post I wrote about stress fractures of the lower leg: “Studies released this year build on a growing body of research that suggests it’s not how much you train in isolation, but how the training load changes (training load errors).”

The strategy for this year will go down as “go for broke.” I went into full recovery mode training thinking there was nothing to lose. I had already been cycling for cross-training, so I ramped up the cycling schedule, added extra long walks as soon as I could walk without it hurting, and spent serious recovery time focused on being off my feet. Four weeks later I was able to restart my training.

I’ve emotionally held my breath for every run. Going back to Hal’s programs, I settled on another one that would pick up where I had left off, and hopefully prepare me for the race without re-injuring my feet. Last Saturday I finished my longest training run, and (as of now) I’m still injury-free.

My dad has once again agreed to babysit the dogs, I’ve paid my money, and I’m finally registered for my first 50k.

My husband used to warn us about getting too excited about a successful meeting with investors years ago in our start-up businesses by saying, “It’s a long way from the cup to the lip.” In other words, lots of things can go wrong in a short space of time.

Today is the first day of a shortened 2-week taper, and although lots of things could go wrong, I’m still on a strategy of go for broke. Race day is Saturday, October 28th. Stay tuned.

Cycling through Summer

There is no crying in baseball. . .” It’s my husband’s favorite response when my life runs amuck, so there was no whining at my house when I came home black, blue and bloody from what started out as a delightful morning bike ride.

Cycling is not my primary sport, although it has been my favorite cross-training for several years. After running two marathons (and remodeling two houses) last year, there has been little time for cross-training of any kind, and this year I vowed to reintroduce cycling to my training regimen. It’s had its ups and downs.

The best part of my re-entry to cycling is location. I can leave my driveway and cycle for just over an hour with relatively few climbs. The downside of my cycling is what I have learned to be toe-overlap; where your toe hits the front tire when turning. It seems this is a common problem for road bikes with racing geometry. Racing bike = racing geometry = short wheelbase.

The online advice is fairly consistent: get used to it. When you go fast, you don’t need to turn the wheel – just lean. But what about when I want to do a u-turn in the middle of the road to head back home?

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My simplest route is an out-and-back: 3 right turns, 3 left turns, 1 u-turn.

Two years ago I traded the standard pedals that came with my new bike for the clipless style pedal. These rocket-science style pedals have special cleats that attach to your cycling specific-shoe soles, which serve to hold your feet in proper position and will not let them go. Of course, I was given instructions at the time: just step down to click into the pedals and twist your feet to the side to exit. It has never been that simple.

Throughout this past winter I left my bike locked into a trainer upstairs in the gym and spent several minutes of every ride clicking in, and twisting out. Surely by the time summer came around it’d be a piece of cake. You would think.

So, in celebration of the 200-year anniversary of the bicycle, I thought I’d share a few of my thoughts on the art of cycling; lessons learned during this blissful sometimes torturous summer of cycling.

Look the Part.

Nothing gives a rookie away faster than a black streak of grease on their calf. And when my chain fell off one day during a poor gear change, I realized it would look even worse should I finish that ride with grease on both calves, both hands, possibly my face, and blood running down one arm. Avoid looking like a rookie at all costs.

Follow the Leader?

Cars fly past at unconscionable speeds. Trucks roar by with all their might threatening to blow you right off the road. An interesting phenomenon seems to happen, however, when these vehicles pass you on your cycling journey.

If a driver is particularly respectful of your space and moves to the outside lane, chances seem good that the next car after will do the same. Likewise, if a car remains in the right lane and passes you with only inches to spare, hold your breath for dear life because there may be a string of these cars yet to come. Once in a great while a driver will see this infraction, think on his own accord, and break rank from the leader to once again make things right. God bless these brave souls. They are a valuable example for all walks of life.

Don’t Stop Pedaling!

I have read that one of the easiest ways to determine the experience level of a cyclist is to see how early they clip out before coming to a stop. A novice rider will clip out as much as a block before a stop sign or red light (that’s me). To look cool, they say, let the bike come to a full stop before clipping out. To look Eurocool, never clip out. Track stands are the only acceptable way to wait at a red light. Maybe next summer.

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The first bicycle was devised in 1817 with a front wheel capable of being steered, a padded saddle, and armrest. Although pedals were eventually added in the late 1850s, only the front wheel could be pedaled until the chain was invented in 1869.
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The Future. . .  Photo Courtesy “History of the Bicycle: A Timeline” at brown.edu

The Runner’s Four Letter Word

Some say true athletic development is not possible without periods of rest. Most of us would say just shoot me now. Then we learned about periodization.

Athletes can’t train the same way all the time. Some training programs incorporate this keep-the-body-guessing approach on a daily basis, but runners need only divide their season into distinct segments that includes time for base building and endurance, strengthening, speed-work, and maybe a taper before the target race.

Periodization also includes time for rest. And what pray tell does an athlete do during a period of rest?

There are the expected answers: fishing, golf, video games, reading, sitting on the beach, or even mass doses of bingo.

Hanley Ramirez from the Boston Red Socks spends his off time cooking, and Texas Rangers pitcher, Colby Lewis, drives Go-Karts on a track he set up in his back yard.

Professional athletes in every sport take some time off completely from their sport every year – usually two to six weeks, although Croix Sather (2012 world record holder for the solo self-sustained crossing of Badwater Ultramarathon) took a six-month break.

Bernard Legat, a Kenyan-American middle and long-distance runner and 5-time Olympian, says he gets “fat” during his time off – and we may as well not kid ourselves, we obviously lose some level of fitness. A planned break, however, is always better than a forced break (i.e., injury), and fitness is regained sooner than you may think after returning to training.

Greg McMillan says of this, “Science is discovering that the chemistry of the brain, the hormonal system and the immune system are compromised during hard training. Breaks rejuvenate these systems, allowing us to train better, more consistently and with more zeal across the next training plan.”

He put his own advice into practice by taking a month off after a marathon, and ran 2 minutes faster in a subsequent 15K than he had run it before. He was convinced the recovery phase was the critical component.

Rest and adequate recovery helps head off problems while the tell-tale signs of not taking these breaks are disrupted sleep, moodiness, chronic fatigue, poor concentration, a noticeable difference in appetite, a general lack of interest in other activities, and eventually injury.

A full week of rest fit nicely into my training schedule last week, so I took the land-based route to Chicago for a getaway to see my son, including a week of days sleeping past 6:30am, shopping for endless hours, long naps, and lovely dinners. Ahhh, rest.

The Despicable 5k

It was in June of last year that I stumbled onto a post, “Are Marathons Stupid?” Three little words, and I was captured.

The author, Jon Waldron from therunnereclectic.com, quickly referenced an article by Christie Aschwanden that had been published a few days earlier on fivethirtyeight.com, “The 5K, Not The Marathon, Is The Ideal Race“. I had already read this article, and thought it was a lousy attempt to upsell the 5k.

Waldron had the perfect response: “But the problem I have with the piece and others like it is that it makes no serious attempt to really grapple with the reasons people choose to run hard events, or competitive events, or long, life-altering events, rather than convenient ones. People don’t run for no reason, they run for a variety of reasons, some simple and some complex, and like any other human behavior, people engage in it because they apply a calculus that convinces them that it’s worth it.”

The last 5k I ran (and at this point there have only been two in my life) was 7 years ago. I wrote about the experience: “Less than 10 minutes in, I was saying to myself, “Shit! This hurts. I hate this!” A few minutes later I had decided nothing was worth hurting that bad for. I would quit. I stepped off the course and stopped running. For the next few seconds, I tried to picture how I would unwind myself from this race. Walk back to the start? Walk to the finish? Good lord, how would that look. How long would that take? My husband was standing at the finish line waiting for me. Did it really hurt so bad that I couldn’t finish? No, it didn’t. I put my feet back on the course, stopped at the aid station for water and, cussed all the way to the finish line. . . in 3rd place for my age group.”

Almost every year I try to convince myself I should run a 5k. They must be great for improving speed. It’s a nice way to set realistic expectations for other races scheduled that year. It’s only 3 miles. I hate the 5k.

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fivethirtyeight.com

Last Saturday I ran a 5k. It set me back $15. There were no finish medals, no mile markers, no aid stations – although there were plenty of bagels, donuts, coffee, water, oranges and shirts for all. And I won a blueberry bush from the drawing at the end of the race.

My only training included testing a theory that riding my bicycle would fire up the fast twitch muscles as well as sprints at the track, so I’ve spent about one day each week cycling instead of running fast. Otherwise, I focused on maintaining fitness for a spring half marathon instead with 25-30 miles/week and one longish run of 10-12 miles. It’s been heavenly.

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As race prep, I looked up the last 5k I ran (in 2010) and realized I had never recorded my finish time. And since it appears those race results have long ago been deleted from world history this took me to my very first 5k in 2008, which I finished in 24:19.

So there I stood at the starting line last Saturday morning hoping for a finish just one minute slower, but knowing I’d be happy with a two-minute gain over 9 years.

Maybe the 5k race strategy seems pretty simple. Run. Fast. Do. Not. Stop. There are other approaches.

Lauren Fleshman became an ambassador of sorts for the 5k. Her advice for running the perfect 5k goes like this:

“Try this next time: Run the first mile with your head, the second mile with your focus, and the third mile with your heart. In the first mile, you can’t let any emotion or excitement in at all. Start with a pace you are confident you can maintain and then relax a little bit more. Until you see that one mile marker, all you are allowed to think about is running smart. From 1-2 miles, focus on maintaining your form and start to look around you, taking a survey of which runners around you probably went out too hard, and which ones you should make your prey in the third mile. You are taking some time to strategize for the big battle, and you aren’t allowed to draw your sword until you pass the 2-mile marker! The last mile, start to pick off your victims.”

With the passing of time (old age), I’ve realized that if I can get my feet moving fast and then settle my heart rate back down by relaxing into the pace, I can maintain that pace for a while (however subjective that may be). On race day this translates into: start fast, settle in and feel good, momentarily crash just past midway, recover, and surge to the finish. Turns out it’s a viable strategy.

Rick Morris wrote “5k Race Strategy And Tactics” for Running Planet where he differentiates the 5k strategy based on the runner’s experience level:

“It has been drummed into our heads that we should always be conservative during the first mile of a 5K race so we are able to pick up the pace in the middle and last miles. But is that always good advice? Maybe not. There is evidence that competitive runners will usually perform better with a stronger start. Scientists at the University of New Hampshire studied 5K pacing strategy of eleven moderately trained women distance runners and found that the best performances were obtained when the athletes ran their first mile at between 3% and 6% faster than their average split times for the entire 5K race distance. Another study from South Africa that studied record breaking performances found that the first and last kilometers of most record breaking races were run significantly faster than the middle miles. Both of these studies seem to support the benefits of competitive runners running the first mile at a slightly faster pace. . .”

I survived my token 5k race of this year (decade?) with a finish time of 26.03. It felt pretty good to run faster than usual for the first mile. Things looked good when I made the turn at the halfway point, and then I nearly crashed on an uphill around mile 2. I had vowed not to stop and walk. I stopped and walked. Cussed when the 50-something woman ahead of me didn’t stop and walk. Recovered and surged to the finish.

It was the most miserable 26 minutes of this year.

Now that I have run the 5k race three times in my life I realize the length of the race is not commensurate with lessons learned.

In just 3 miles you can reach your limit, recover, and make a decision whether to continue or quit. . . “and just like any other human behavior, people engage in it because they apply a calculus that convinces them that it’s worth it.”

Happy racing, runners – no matter the distance.

The Anatomy of a Runner: it’s all about that bass (the Upper Leg & Glutes)

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The first in a series of posts about what makes runners uniquely equipped to do what we love to do most. . . run.

Functional Overview:

The lower leg is the part of the lower limb that lies between the knee and the ankle. The thigh is between the hip and knee and the term “lower extremity” is used to describe the colloquial leg. For this discussion, the runner’s base is considered the upper leg, which begins at the hip and the Gluteus Maximus and continues to the knee.

In human anatomy the knee is the connecting line between the upper leg and the lower leg. This connection, and the resulting tension caused by its relationship between the two has caused the topic of the knee to be moved to another post. We’ll get a feel for the knee’s function as it relates to the upper leg, but delve into specific knee injuries another time.

Key Facts: The only bone in this region is the femur, the largest bone in the body. The femur’s head creates the ball of the ball-and-socket-style hip joint. The base of the femur makes up part of the knee.

Major Players:

Gluteus Maximus (the “glutes”): muscle located in the buttocks regarded as one of the strongest muscles in the human body. Responsible for movement of the hip and thigh, contributes to good running form and alignment. Standing up from a sitting position, climbing stairs, and staying in an erect position are all aided by the gluteus maximus.

Hamstrings: three muscles at the back of the thigh that affect hip and knee movement.

Quadriceps: the strongest and leanest muscles of the body – a four-muscle group at the front of the thigh that work to extend the knee and lower leg.

Knee: a pivot-like hinge joint that connects the bones in the upper and lower leg. It is the largest joint in the human body. The knee is where the femur in the upper leg meets the tibia and fibula bones of the lower leg. The patella, or kneecap, is at the center of the knee.

Tendons, ligaments, and protective elements, such as cartilage and bursa, connect and protect the bones to keep them in place and prevent them from grinding against each other while also allowing the knee joint to flex and twist slightly.

Glutes

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Healthline.com

Why it hurts: The most common cause of a gluteus injury is stretching or straining one of the muscles beyond its normal range of motion – especially prominent with soccer, football, and baseball players who make sudden movements and overexert their legs during a play.

However, track events such as hurdles or the long jump, or a runner’s rapid acceleration (particularly up hills) can also increase the likelihood of a gluteal strain.

Excessive acute stress on a gluteal muscle can cause it to tear, which usually results in immediate pain and leg weakness.

Where it hurts: symptoms include numbness in the buttocks, hip and possibly the thigh down to the ankle with difficulty walking normally and rising from a seated position.

Prevention/Recovery: rest, cold/hot therapy, massage, and eventually strengthening exercises. According to a review in the November 2005 issue of “New Zealand Journal of Physiotherapy,” a full squat and running on an incline require the greatest gluteus maximus function. Start slow and easy.

Test Your Strength:

30 Second Chair to Stand test: this test measures the ability to stand up from a seated position as many times as possible in a thirty-second period of time. Testing the number of times you can stand up in a thirty-second period helps assess strength, flexibility, pain, endurance, and progression of recovery.

Runner’s Note: according to the physique-oriented website Waist, Hips & Thighs, doing repeat sprints using starting blocks is the best way to build the gluteal muscles. If you’re hoping to avoid the over-emphasized glutes (aka “bubble butt”), focus on long, easy mileage rather than short, intense bursts of speed.

Hamstrings

Why it hurts: also known as a pulled hamstring, is defined as an excessive stretch or tear of muscle fibers and related tissues. Hamstring injuries are common in athletes participating in many sports and are very difficult to treat and rehabilitate. Track and field athletes are particularly at risk, as hamstring injuries have been estimated to make up 29% of all injuries in sprinters.

Research proposes predisposing factors to injury include muscle weakness, muscle imbalance, poor flexibility, fatigue, inadequate warm up, poor neuromuscular control, and poor running technique. One of the few predisposing factors that most researchers agree upon, however, is previous hamstring injury. Brokett et al. (2004) stated that “the athletes most at risk of a hamstring strain are those with a previous history of such injury” and noted that 34% of the hamstring injuries were recurrences.”

Cameron et al. also found that 34% of injuries recur in the same season. Arnason et al. generalized these numbers, saying that previous injury was in itself an independent risk factor for re-injury.  (Reference: Wikipedia)

Where it hurts:

Grade 1: Sensation of cramping or tightness and a slight pain when the muscles are stretched or contracted.

IMG_2927Grade 2: Immediate pain more severe than the pain of a grade one injury. It is confirmed by pain on stretch, swelling and contraction of the muscle.

Grade 3: A grade three hamstring strain is a severe injury. Immediate burning or stabbing pain, unable to walk without pain. The muscle is completely torn and there may be a large lump of muscle tissue above a depression where the tear is.

Prevention/Recovery: almost always, the hamstring strain occurs just before the lead foot hits the ground, when hamstring tension peaks to resist forward motion of IMG_2924the swinging leg. Incorporate agility and trunk stabilization exercises, stop and stretch during runs.

Avoid over-the-counter anti-inflammatories, which can interfere with tendon remodeling.

Deep tissue massage is better for recovery and pain.

It is usually possible to continue running through recovery.

Shorten your stride, increase cadence, and keep the pace slow.

If the injury is too painful to run, avoid prolonged wet-vest pool running. Although it is true pool running maintains aerobic capacity while recovering from injuries such as stress fractures, pool running fails to adequately stress the hamstrings since the resistance provided by the water forces the quads to pull the lead leg forward while the hamstrings are stressed only while pulling the leg back.

The natural function of the hamstrings is to fire eccentrically when they lengthen to stop forward motion of the lead leg. By failing to strengthen the hamstring eccentrically, pool therapy often results in rapid hamstring re-injury as soon as the runner attempts to run fast.

 

Test Your Flexibility:

Test it With:  Toe Touches. To see if your ‘strings are supple enough for Deadlifts and Olympic lifts, put your feet together, bend over and touch your toes. Can’t reach? Back rounds when you do? Better loosen up.

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Fix it With:  Leg Lowering Pattern. Lie on your back with both legs in the air. Place a band around one foot, then lower your opposite leg, keeping the leg straight and core tight. Perform 3 sets of 10 reps on each leg.  (Read more at Champions Are Made In The Off-Season.)

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Runner’s Note: the glutes and hamstrings have far more fast-twitch muscle fibers than the quads, making them more powerful and explosive. If too much attention is placed on strengthening the quads, thereby creating an imbalance, the glutes and hamstrings will suffer. A lack of strength in the hamstrings compared with the strength in the quads can result in an unstable knee joint and assorted lower-body injuries.

Quadriceps

The Marathoner vs The Sprinter

Why it hurts: As mentioned above with the hamstring movement, eccentric loading occurs when muscles lengthen and shorten at the same time. When we run, our quadriceps contracts when our foot touches the ground. This stabilizes our knee and stops us from collapsing. But even stabilized, our knee bends slightly, stretching our quadriceps as it shortens. This eccentric tug-of-war creates enormous tension on the quads.

Where it hurts: Athletes with quadriceps strains often complain of a “pulling” sensation in the front of the thigh. Pain, swelling, bruising and muscle tenderness may also occur. Its severity is categorized by the same grades as with the Hamstring injury.

Prevention/Recovery: a counterintuitive strategy for recovering from a quad injury was offered by Pete Magill in Runner’s World: Cure Quad Pain, Calf Pain, and Heavy Legs: “Running downhill can cure quad pain once a runner’s legs adapt to the eccentric overload caused by the activity,” says Beaverton, Oregon, coach and exercise scientist Tom Schwartz. “Initially, the soreness caused by downhill running can be quite harsh.

A parallel is the soreness caused by starting a new weight training regimen. Soreness is caused by the lowering of weights, which is the eccentric loading. Lifting weights, which is concentric loading, doesn’t cause soreness.”

Brisk downhill running increases the eccentric load on our quads, causing more muscle damage. The good news is that once our body repairs this damage, we’re left with quads that are pain-free, stronger and protected from further injury.

Although there is no substitute for real descent repeats, eccentric single-leg squats and lunges may also prepare the muscles for downhills.

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Other eccentric Quad strengthening exercises include the straight-leg deadlift, good morning squat and the calf raise used by shortening the concentric phase to one second and extending the eccentric phase to at least three seconds. (Read more at runningcompetitor.com.)

(Additional Reading: Quad Strengthening Exercises from the Bay Area Orienteering Club.)

Runner’s Notes:

Weak hip muscles can allow the legs to angle inward or outward instead of keeping each stride in line.

Underdeveloped gluteal muscles might cause the runner to lean his or her trunk forward.

An imbalance between opposing muscles, particularly, is a major cause of the repetitive stress injuries.

Next up in our series: be still my beating heart.

Meghan Trainor declared, “I’m all about that bass, ‘Bout that bass, no treble, …”, and while runners everywhere train by the very beat of their heart, Meghan’s lyrics may be more true than we first thought.

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