Training Errors & Three Toos

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The three twos: Too much, too fast, too soon.

Lately, I’ve been listening to Jason Fitzgerald’s Strength Running podcast. As the name implies, his show discusses

Running too much, too fast, too soon is a recipe for injury.

strength training for runners. I think it’s excellent and full of useful information. If you’re a coach or trainer who works with runners, or if you’re a runner with an inquisitive mind who wants to improve your performance then you will enjoy it.

recent episode reminded me that training errors may be the most common source of injury among runners. Jason said he had a cross country coach who used the term the “three toos,” meaning too much, too fast, too soon. Many of us get hurt by running too many miles, running too fast, and doing either or both before we’re ready for all that training stress. Research shows that injuries are often preceded by inappropriate, excessive increases in training stress.

(This problem of excessive training isn’t confined to runners. Almost anyone from bodybuilders to cyclists to golfers with a zest for physical activity and competition, who believe himself or herself to be eternally bulletproof and able to withstand superhuman levels of grueling hard work may succumb. I think social media exacerbates the problem.)

I often write about aches, pains, and how to recover from injury. Much of what I do with clients involves doing specific exercises to either mobilize a joint, increase his/her movement skill, or get stronger in a specific way. My thinking (and I don’t think I’m the only one) goes that if this hurts then that exercise will fix it. That may not be the best way to approach a problem though. To get a full picture, I need to always remember to ask the question, “What happened before you got hurt.” Unless someone suffered an acute injury, it’s likely that he or she increased their training suddenly and did more work than his/her body could handle. Smart training is the best protection and that’s why hiring a coach to help you with your training is a good idea.

 

9 Exercises to Make Your Big Toe Work Better

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The big toe might be the Rodney Dangerfield of the body. It don’t get no respect!

Whether you’re a runner or not, you will benefit from stronger, more competent feet—particularly the big toe, or hallux. Hallux mobility and stability are critical to how the foot absorbs shock, stabilizes the stride, stores energy, and pushes off.

Without adequate foot mobility and strength, any number of problems may arise, including pain in the ankles, shins, knees, hips, and lower-back.  When foot problems arise, we tend to rely on inserts, special shoes, tape, and other external aids to solve our problems. There’s a better way: Mobilize the feet and make them strong and engaged, starting with the big toe.

Read more of my latest article for Podium Runner.

Management of Running & Lifting

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Near the beginning of the race – looking back at the Whetstone Mountains.

It’s seven weeks to the Grand Traverse Trail Run, my first ultramarathon. (Also, seven weeks remain to raise $3000 for Running Out of Time, my effort on behalf of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Do you want to help save the outdoors? Can you donate? Please do!) I ran a little over 40 mi. last week, which is high mileage for me. I’ll run about 35 mi. this week. That’s included some hard intervals, hill climbs, and heat. I’m also fitting in a few bike rides. I am feeling all that hard work. Deeply. I fade early in the evening, sleep hard, and wake up tired. (But I LOVE the process!) This isn’t alarming. It’s 100% normal for this stage of training. Consequently, I have little left for weight training.

Typically I do well with twice-weekly weight workouts. With all the running though, I’m averaging a weight workout once per week, and sometimes those workouts are minimal with just one or two exercises. I only have so much time and energy to expend. I can’t put my all into everything. This is the reality of resource allocation when it comes to physical activity.

The timing of lifting sessions and running workouts is important. Lifting compromises running performance in the short-term due to soreness and a diminished ability to generate force through the legs. I need strong legs for speed workouts and long runs, so I need to be strategic in planning runs and lifting sessions. This article from Runner’s World discusses research pertaining to lifting and running. It suggests several ways to combine them:

  • Run first before lifting if running and lifting on the same day.
  • Separate runs from lifting sessions by at least six hours
  • One example:
    • Day 1: Hard run
    • Day 2: AM easy run, PM weight workout OR
    • AM hard run, PM weight session on the same day

Fortunately, strength training once per week is entirely adequate to preserve strength and some research indicates I can get stronger with training only once per week. Paul Ingram at PainScience.com has summarized research on lifting frequency.

The benefit to constrained lifting opportunities is that I’m forced to focus on those lifts that will benefit my running the most. I must drill down to the essentials. Constraints like this are benefits disguised as obstacles.

 

31 Flavors of the Single-Leg Squat

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Balance and strength on one leg is essential for successful running.

Consider three truths:

1) Running is a series of hops from one foot to the other. Upon landing, you perform a partial, one-leg squat in preparation for the next hop.

2) Research suggests that strength training aids running performance, and

3) The principle of specificity says that to improve at a given physical task, training should resemble that task.

Given these truths, it seems clear you can benefit by including single-leg squats as part of a regular strength program. The hop-and-land sequence of running demands strength and stability in order to perform well and avoid injury.

To continue reading, follow this link to my latest article on PodiumRunner.com.

Training Update: 10 Days Until Behind the Rocks

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I’m running the Behind the Rocks 30k in Moab, Utah on March 23rd. It’s my first race of the season and my first race since my calf injury last year. I’m happy to report that all my parts feel strong. I’m pleased and proud to have overcome the problems from last year. Strength training aimed directly at the calf has been the key.

Calf exercises

Calf and lower-leg strengthening is my religion. I do specific calf strength exercises twice a week. I rotate among the following exercises. I also jump rope and do other two- and one-leg jumping exercises at least once a week:

I use several different weight and rep schemes for the exercises:

  • Heavy loads for <6 reps. This builds strong muscles and strong, stiff tendons. Stiff tendons are like stiff springs. Stiff tendons absorb and transmit forces efficiently which makes for efficient running.
  • Moderate loads for 8-15 reps. This builds muscle bulk. More muscle mass helps make muscles strong and durable.
  • I may go as high as 20-30 reps for the mini-squat. That’s due to the soleus muscle (the main muscle in that’s worked in the exercise) being comprised mostly of endurance muscle fibers. I typically put a barbell on my back.
  • For the jump rope, I’ll mix two- and one-leg jumping and I’ll jump for about 1 minute x 5 sets.

Other key exercises

The hip hike and offset lunge are great exercises for lower legs, quads, glutes, hip adductors and hip abductors.

I like the single-leg tubing squat as well.

Coaching

Finally, Coach Andrew Simmons of Lifelong Endurance has been indispensable. He listens to me, pays attention to detail, and inspires confidence. I’m grateful to have his guidance. If you’re looking for a running coach, I recommend him highly.

The War On Metatarsalgia

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If there’s a foot problem then I’ve either had it or I’m going to get it. Currently, I’m battling a tasty little bit of metatarsophalangeal joint pain in my left foot. My symptoms are described to a T in this article from Merck.

I am frustrated but I can overcome it. I’ve overcome a host of other frustrating aches and pains. On that note, I’ve found a series of strength and mobility drills that I’m going to play with and see what happens. It’s from the innovative people at GMB.io. The full article is here. There are three videos in the article. I’m exploring this one now:

Try Harder? No. Relax.

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“If you want to get a little zen about it, you could say that the non-doing is just as important as the doing.”

-Todd Hargrove

I appreciate and enjoy professional instruction. Coach Mary-Katherine Flemming has been a huge help to me as a runner. She’s helped me bring up my weaknesses and train smarter. I also try and take at least one ski lesson every year. Mountain biking is much safer and a lot more fun since I’ve gone through several skills clinics with Lee Likes Bikes.

I recently started working with my fellow personal trainer and boxing coach Zane Beck. He’s teaching me how to throw punches the right way. I’ve met with him twice and I’ve had a amazingly challenging workouts in just 30 minutes. We’ve broken down the mechanics of punching and it’s been fascinating.

During our last session, I could feel myself tensing up on some punches, particularly the right hook and right upper cut. Those are awkward punches so I tried harder to throw them. Trying harder was a mistake. I was too tense. Zane could see it and feel it. So I slowed down and stopped rushing. I worked to throw good punches one at a time and I worked to relax. The effort to relax led to a brief conversation similar to conversations I’ve had with my clients.

“I worked to relax…” That’s an odd concept, no? Relaxing should be easy, right? If my arms are overhead then I relax them and they drop to my side. Simple. By sitting down my legs relax. Also simple. Seems like relaxation shouldn’t even require any thought. Sometimes though, relaxation is remarkably hard to come by though, especially in athletic endeavors.

I often see clients try hard and harder to perform certain exercises, especially new exercises. For example, kettlebell swings and cleans are often performed with overly tense hands, straining arms, tight necks, and an overall rigid body. Clients try to muscle the kettlebell into the air rather than using the stretch reflex of the muscles to do most of the work. Similarly, I have a client who often defaults to rigid high tension on medicine ball throws. He braces his whole body like it’s about to be hit by a truck. The result in all these cases is poor performance, poor exercise technique, and excessive fatigue. The same teeth-gritting, wasteful strategy might be employed by someone swinging a golf club, swimming laps, or sprinting.

Thus, I work with my clients to bring awareness to their unproductive tension and help them turn it down. Relaxation can take a surprising amount of work. Bearing down harder is the exact wrong way to get better. While many if not most exercises should be performed explosively, one shouldn’t rush too much.Impatience is rarely a virtue in any circumstance. Athletic movements require the right amount of tension, not necessarily more tension.

Steve Magness is a big-time running coach, writer, lecturer, and running expert. (His recent book, Peak Performance is superb. If you want to perform better in life, not just in athletics, then you should definitely get a copy.) He captures the importance of relaxation in this recent Facebook post:

Another excellent discussion of relaxation comes from movement expert and author Todd Hargrove. He wrote The Skill of Relaxation in 2008. It includes these important points:

“Most people trying to improve their movement ability for sports will therefore spend time lifting weights to train their ability to quickly and forcefully contract their muscles.

“That is a fine idea, but it sometimes ignores the equally important flip side of the coordination coin. If coordination means all the right muscles firing at the right time, this also means that any muscles not involved in the movement must relax in the right places at the right speed at the right time. Therefore, any act of coordination requires the skill of relaxing the muscles that aren’t essential to the movement. If the non-essential muscles aren’t relaxed, they will cause extraneous movement or tension that interferes in the desired movement and wastes energy.”

Feet & Toes Should Be Strong and Able

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When was the last time you walked into the gym and said, “Okay, it’s foot day! Let’s get to work?”

Most of us aren’t too excited about building strong, healthy feet, probably not until we encounter pain. But why not? After all, it’s only every single step that we need those lower appendages to work well. Unless you don’t have feet, unless you walk on your hands, or maybe unless you live on a planet without gravity, then there’s no question you need a pair of mobile, stable, well-functioning feet.

And if we encounter foot trouble then we want to put in an orthotic, buy shoes with arch support, or do something other than make the feet stronger. Why is it that we don’t think to treat the feet like the rest of the body? Why don’t we see the need to work the feet like all the other muscles and body parts we have? I suggest that rather than resort to external aids we should work the feet in a wide variety of ways.  Here are a few ways to do just that.

I don’t promise that any of these exercises will fix a specific injury. If anything hurts then back off. See a physical therapist, chiropractor, or podiatrist for a full diagnosis and treatment strategy.

Big toe adduction/abduction

There’s no fancy name for this exercise. You can experiment with all sorts of bands. Please notice that I do this exercise under control. I’m controlling the exercise, the band isn’t controlling me. Allow the big toe to come in far enough that you feel a stretch.

Toe differentiation (aka yoga toe)

Can you do this? You should be able to. It may seem 100% impossible when you first try it. Keep working on it. Most people can figure it out in a day. Takes work and concentration. Take notice of my arch and inner ankle. Notice that the arch doesn’t drop, and my ankle doesn’t dive in as I move my big toe.

Toe grabs on a box

Sounds like one of Vincent van Gogh’s very obscure works. It’s not. I just don’t have a better name for it. It works well though. I learned it from Denver chiropractor extraordinaire Dr. Nick Studholme. You can do this on the top of a flight of steps or over a book.

Funny walks

This is a quick, easy way to engage, stimulate, and strengthen all of the muscles of the lower legs and feet. Try it and see how you feel.

Pain vs. Discomfort

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Everyone and anyone who’s been in a gym has heard the phrase “No pain, no gain.” What does that phrase really mean? Do we want our clients exercising in pain? What should effective exercise feel like?

In my experience, clients often interpret “No pain, no gain,” as “Pain is inevitable and it should be ignored.” I believe that for the good of our clients’ health, trainers should examine this misunderstood statement with their clients. This is a vital conversation, especially with clients who are new to training.

Pain & discomfort defined

I don’t recall if it was in a seminar or an article, but someone smarter than I once discussed pain vs discomfort. I’ve stolen the idea and used it ever since. (If you made this description and you’re reading this then thank you! It’s been highly valuable to me and my clients.)

My clients should understand that in order for exercise to do the things we want it to do — if we want to create favorable adaptations to exercise — then a client must exercise to the point of exertion and fatigue. The client must work hard. He or she might sweat, grunt, groan, and work to the point of fatigue and discomfort. A description of the D-word:

Discomfort:

  • Often a burning in a working muscle or muscles.
  • Comes with a feeling of fatigue.
  • Doesn’t alter the way you move (compared to a limp, for instance)
  • Is usually symmetrical if for instance you’re squatting, swinging a kettlebell, doing pushups, running or cycling.

Discomfort is a sign that we’re working near your accustomed limits. That’s a good thing, and that’s how you get in better shape.

I also tell my clients about pain. We don’t want pain. (Some minor, intermittent pain may be OK. More on that in a moment.) Some characteristics of the P-word

Pain:

  • Often felt in a joint, not a muscle
  • Sharp or electric
  • May not accompany fatigue
  • Severe pain alters your movement: Knee pain causing a limp or low-back pain altering how you bend down and pick up something
  • It’s often asymmetrical: Knee pain in one knee when squatting, shoulder pain in one shoulder during pushups or bench press, low-back pain on one side of the low back

If a client feels pain then we stop and we evaluate. Persistent, serious pain should not be a part of our day-in-day-out experience at the gym. Pain is not something to be ignored or masked with pain pills. Pain is a signal from the brain that something isn’t operating as well as it should be.

Color-coded pain

In another case of I-forgot-where-I-read-it disease, I read about a physical therapist’s color-coded, traffic-light guide to pain. I’ve adopted it and it helps guide me as to when to when or if I need to alter an exercise for a client due to pain. It goes like this:

GREEN: Everything feels fine; no discomfort anywhere. Client is ready to rock ‘n’ roll!

YELLOW: Minor, sporadic, or short-lived pain during the exercise but it’s not bad enough to stop or alter the movement pattern. We keep going as long as it doesn’t get worse.

RED: It hurts. We stop.

If pain becomes more intense, and/or more frequent, and/or lasts for more than a week then it’s probably time to seek medical care of some sort. Trainers should have a physical therapist, chiropractor, or some other licensed medical professional to whom he or she can refer clients.

I like this code system in that it’s rare that everyone is going to feel 100% perfect all the time. It’s not uncommon for us to feel something that is less than optimal but not so bad that we need to stop entirely. With the yellow reading, we can keep going through some minor pain, and we can avoid catastrophising around pain. If a client can experience a little bit of pain yet continue working then I think we can build resiliency in the client and protect against what’s known as fear-avoidance of certain movements. If we get to red then we can always stop and change things.

The fear-avoidance model. You don't want to be caught up in it.

Fear-Avoidance Model. Avoid it.

 

Unfamiliarity: Is it pain or discomfort?

Exercise newcomers may have no idea what it feels like to work hard. Their experience with muscular discomfort may be sporadic and in the distant past. Unfortunately, many people experience all uncomfortable feelings the same whether it’s joint pain or the normal sensation of hard work. They are different and our clients should learn the difference.

A classic example is low-back pain/discomfort. The epidemic of low-back pain is a unique pain in our culture. It is widespread and debilitating for many thousands of people. For those who suffer low-back pain there can be tremendous fear of recurrence. At the same time, exercise is an effective antidote for many forms of pain in older people, and for chronic (but not acute) back pain.

Numerous muscles attach in and around the low back. The glutes, erector spinae, lats, obliques, and other spinal muscles live and work all around the low-back area. Just like any other muscle, if you work these muscles hard then you’ll feel it. Exercises such as squats, deadlifts, kettlebell swings, and bent over rowing can cause serious — and totally normal — discomfort in the low back. Yet for many clients, any sense of low-back discomfort can be bad and scary. Thus it’s very helpful and reassuring to a client if a trainer can discuss the issue of pain vs. discomfort.

The spirit of “No pain, no gain”

The knowledge behind that phrase is well-informed and comes with good intentions. Plus, it rhymes! It sounds good. But clearly it can be misunderstood. (If I ruled the world, I’d change the phrase to “No discomfort, no pain.”) The truth is, no one will increase his or her physical capacity by sitting comfortably. Anyone who wants to get in better shape must work hard. At the same time, pain, as I described above, isn’t a normal part of working out. Pay attention to it. Get help if it doesn’t go away.

Achilles Pain. Time to Take Action!

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I’ve had periodic issues with my left Achilles tendon. I’ve never had trouble with my right Achilles until just lately. I felt a bit of soreness one morning and found some swelling. I knew it probably wouldn’t “work itself out” (I sort of hate when someone says that about something. Nothing “works itself out.” Someone has to put in work in order to see progress.) The upside to having had this problem before is that I know how to address it now.

I believe my trouble may have started because of the long trail run/hike I did a couple of weekends ago in Telluride. It was about 12 miles which was a sizable jump from my prior long run of 7 miles. (Sometimes I’m not smart.)

I have attacked the injury with a fairly conventional strategy of slow and controlled heel raises. Here’s what it looks like:

I’m doing these exercises frequently throughout the day. If I can hit 15 reps then I add weight. Fifteen reps isn’t a magic number by the way. Most importantly I work to a high level of exertion, pretty much to failure.

I’ve run several times since feeling pain and doing the calf raises and I feel fine. That’s a good sign. I probably don’t need to take time off from running.

This exercise is boring and I hate doing it. (Sounds like what a lot of people say about going to the gym.) I have shown a propensity for weakness in my Achilles tendons in the past though. This is exactly the type of thing I need to do and I should be doing continually. It’s easy to skip this stuff because I don’t enjoy it. My body doesn’t  though even though there are potential negative consequences to this course of non-action.

There are lots of things in life like that.