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.

Running posture, glutes, cramps and Achilles tendinopathy

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I’ve written several times about my problems with Achilles tendinopathy and plantar fasciits. I’ve also written an article about cramping. My solution has been to strengthen the lower legs for the Achilles problem, and strengthen the adductors and hamstrings to fix the cramping. I think the strength work has helped, but there’s more to the story.

A few weeks ago I attended a running seminar with Jay Dicharry, a physical therapist and running/cycling coach. It was a superb course and I got to revisit some biomechanics and running technique concepts to which I’d been exposed in the past.

We discussed stacking the ribs over the pelvis while running. This posture helps take pressure off the lumbar spine and it puts the pelvis in a position to optimize the use of muscles that attach to the pelvis, especially the glutes. This posture enables a runner to use the glutes to propel the runner forward which is an efficient way to run in that the gluteus maximus is the largest muscles in the body.

I realized during this discussion that though my running technique had improved, I could improve it a little more. Specifically, I saw that I wasn’t using my glutes enough to run and as a consequence, I was using my calves and probably my adductors (which extend the hip along with the hamstrings and glutes) too much. Forward propulsion wasn’t being distributed evenly among these muscles. The glutes weren’t doing their fair share to create hip extension and the abs weren’t helping maintain good pelvic position. The calves and adductors were doing too much work. The overexertion was causing excessive strain on the Achilles and plantar fascia, and causing early fatigue of the adductors which led to cramps.

I believe I can also trace my ~10 years of low-back pain to this faulty running technique. Again, my lack of glute contribution demanded that I use lumbar extension to get my leg behind me.

This position brought on low-back pain, hamstring/adductor cramps, and Achilles/foot pain.

 

I’ve been running a little differently lately. I’ve become more aware of where my ribs are positioned in relation to my pelvis. I’ve also tuned in to my glutes. I work to feel them contract to push me forward. I’m aware of my ribs being stacked over my pelvis as I run.

This position is better for me. I’m stronger, more efficient, and I don’t hurt. The glutes and abs are doing their job.

This isn’t the first time in my fitness career that I’ve reexamined something I thought I understood only to realize I’d missed something significant. Coming back to information like this is similar to reading a good book a second time in that I see the same information in a different way. This second exposure to core and glute function expanded my understanding tremendously.

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.

Weight Training for Running

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Research supports the use of weight and plyometric (jumping) training to aid running performance. Read all about it here, here, here, and here. I lift and jump about twice a week. I expect specific outcomes from the exercises I use. This is a discussion of my strategy.

Plyometrics

In running, the muscles and tendons act as springs. As the foot hits the ground, the muscles and tendons of the feet and legs lengthen and store energy from impact. The stored energy is then released, propelling the runner forward through the gait cycle. (The Achilles tendon is an especially powerful part of the SSC equation.) This process is called the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC.) Plyometric training is a way to build stronger springs. There are many plyometric exercises to choose from. I use two exercises.

  1. single-leg hurdle hops: This consists of hopping over six low hurdles as quickly as possible. I try to land and balance in control on the very last hurdle. I rest then hop back on the other leg. I accumulate 50-70 contacts on each leg.
  2. two-leg pogo hops: This is a new drill for me. It’s different from a two-leg jump. I pull the toes up toward the shins when I’m in the air. I slap the ground hard on impact—using only the ankles—while keeping the knees nearly locked. I do 10 reps (20 foot contacts) x 5-7 sets for 100-140 total foot contacts.

Key strength exercises

  1. Calf raises: I worship at the altar of lower leg strength. I’ve been injured there and I want armor the lower legs against injury.  A calf raise is a great catchall for not only the calf muscles but the foot muscles and tendons too. Twice a week I do some sort of calf raise or jump rope. I work high weight/low reps and moderate weight/moderate reps.
  2. Step-up: I’m a trail runner so I step up. A lot. I’ve also had cramping issues in my adductors. My strategy for cramping is to a) go right at the cramp-prone muscles and make them stronger, and b) strengthen the supporting muscles so the cramp-prone muscles will have more help doing their job. This exercise does both. I work 5-10 reps typically for 2-3 sets.
  3. Various lunges: Running and lunging are biomechanically somewhat similar. They work the hip adductors, abductors, quads, and glutes very well. I lunge forward, sideways, and I rotate left and right to lunge. This is one of many lunges, the offset lunge.

4. Leg curl: Cramps have been a problem in my hamstrings too. This exercise should help strengthen the hamstrings appropriately. It’s also a good glute exercise. I’m able to do almost 20 reps in the single-leg curl. That’s a little high for strength work. I need to find a way to weight this exercise but I’m not sure how…

Other strength exercises

I consider these exercises less vital to running but useful nonetheless. First and foremost, I enjoy lifting. I also like to stay generally strong and resilient and I want to maintain my lifting skills.

  1. Back squat: I like to squat. Squats build general total-body strength. I work up to three heavy sets of three reps. This keeps me from being very sore and doesn’t overstress my nervous system.
  2. Incline press, standing press, or dips: I like to maintain some general upper body pushing strength. I work various rep ranges from 3-10.
  3. Pull-ups: Same as above.
  4. Ab wheel rollout: It’s one of many good ab exercises. I do two to three sets of 10-15 reps.
  5. Hitting the heavy punching bag: I’ve done a little boxing training with another trainer and I watch boxing videos. Hitting the heavy bag, throwing combinations, and doing something very different from running is a lot of fun.
  6. Road cycling and mountain biking: I’m a cyclist! Gotta pedal the machines sometimes. I’m happy if I get two rides per week.

When to lift?

I get the lifting in when I can fit the lifting in. I aim to lift twice a week. I prioritize the calf work and the plyometric work as I believe those are the most important to my running. Running, work, and other responsibilities dictate that some weeks I may only get one day of lifting in.

A common phrase among coaches is, “Make the hard days hard and the easy days easy.” Thus, I try to lift on the hard running days, which are Tuesdays and Thursdays. The problem is I feel better when I have 48-72 hrs between lifting sessions. That means I often lift on easier days. I typically try to do plyometrics on easy days. Plyos should be done in a non-fatigued state. On some lifting days, I feel tired or sore from running, or I may not have time to do everything, so the workout may consist of only one or two exercises for one or two sets. Other days, I feel great and I have plenty of time so I get more work done.

In the grand scheme, I’m more concerned with being consistent, and less concerned about following a precisely perfect schedule. Brad Stulberg has good thoughts on consistency:

 

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.

Calf Strength Progress

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A calf injury derailed this previous racing season. I’m taking steps to avoid a repeat. Primarily I’m making my calves and feet stronger, not just the muscles but the connective tissue as well. My process is detailed in an article for Competitor Running. Every week, twice a week I spend time working on the lower legs. I treat it like religion. The work isn’t especially exciting but if I don’t do it then I can expect more problems. Thus, I don’t give myself the option to avoid the work. Here are the main features of my lower-leg workouts:

  • I choose two of the following:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=darNO5nfl48&feature=youtu.be

  • Bent-knee or straight-knee depending on the part of the calf I want to target
  • High-weight/low-reps (< 6) to strengthen and stiffen tendons to improve running efficiency, and increase force production of the muscles
  • Lower-weight/higher reps (>8) for muscle hypertrophy which should also help with strength and durability.
  • I jump rope 6 x 1 min or I do various two- and one-legged hops once or twice per week.

I expect this program to enable me to train for and run several big races in 2019, including the Grand Traverse Run from Crested Butte to Aspen on 8/31. Sim sala bim.

 

An Abrupt End to the Racing Season :-(

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It is with a snarling, frustrated, heavy relieved, accepting, grateful heart that I must call an abrupt end to my 2018 trail racing season. I’ll miss both the Pikes Peak Ascent and my main event, the Grand Traverse. It’s all due to a gimpy left calf and a bad decision on my part.

Good decisions

The calf strain came a few weeks ago while climbing during a race. I did the right thing. I quit the race and avoided further injury. I took two weeks off from running. I saw Dr. Nick Studholme who taped my foot and calf and helped me understand the injury. We decided on a collection of exercises to help the area heal and get stronger. I did calf and lower-leg strength work to my level of tolerance.

Last Monday I did an easy road run for the first time and I felt good. Great! Then I had a decision to make: Do I continue a slow, gradual return to running protocol? Or do I jump quickly back into hard training?

A bad decision

I chose option two, a seven-mile trail run with intervals. Everything felt fine until about mile three. I took a big step off a rock, landed on my left foot, and felt some pain low in the calf, the same area that was hurt in the race. I didn’t crumple in agony but there was noticeable discomfort. I kept running. I hoped the pain might fade out or simply be a minor annoyance. It hurt more as I ran and hurt less when I walked. That is a clear-cut indication of an acute injury that must be unloaded and allowed to rest. I made the wrong decision.

The Pikes Peak Ascent is two weeks away. Uphill running will put my calf under massive stress. I was running uphill when I hurt it the first time. Two weeks is probably enough time to start running again, but by god isn’t nearly enough time to prepare for an 8000 ft. ascent.

Madness

The 40+ mile Grand Traverse is four weeks away. Four weeks… That’s not much time… Is it enough time…? If you’re an endurance athlete then you may recognize the following line of “reasoning.” The conversation I had with myself went something like this:

“I’ve heard of athletic miracles, of players coming back from near-disastrous injuries and illness with incredible performances. Can that be me?”

“Can I replace running with mega-miles on the bike, rehab the calf, and get to the start line of the Grand Traverse?”

“Are there miracle drugs? Can steroids help? If so, should I attempt to use them?”

(I’ve never considered steroids but I did learn a few things about them. The good news is that several significant factors including ugly/weird other effects put me off this route.)

Panic

I screeched into a blistering panic for about 48 hours. I came up with all sorts of irrational, desperate thoughts. It was agonizing and depressing. The emotional part of my brain had a flailed and reeled as the rational part held up the facts about my injury and the reality of running a 40-mile race in four weeks.

Waaah! The poor privileged white man may not get to run recreationally through the woods! 

In the context of the wider world, of suffering, of true hardship, this was not an actual problem… but sometimes things bother me.

Sanity and calm

I spoke with my coach, Andrew Simmons of Lifelong Endurance. He helped me. He did what a good coach should do: Tell the truth. We both agreed that Pikes was out. As for the GT, he said there was a far outside possibility that I could jog/hike the race, stagger across the finish line in misery,  damage my calf severely, and destroy my ability to run for 60-90 days. These were the facts. My decision was crystal clear. No more racing. Heal up. Get ready for next year.

We agreed to reconnect again in several weeks. He recommended I be able to run 20-25 miles per week with 10-12 mile long runs before I commit to serious training.

To be very clear, I place no blame on Andrew or the running plan for my injury. I was making solid progress and I have been entirely satisfied with Andrew’s coaching. I fully intend to enlist his help again on future races.

The upside

Adverse events are guaranteed to happen. Any athletic endeavor comes with risk. Trail running is risky. Ultra-distance running even more so. There are innumerable variables that must align for a successful race and a successful season. It’s entirely likely that something or several somethings can go wrong. How does one react? To me, that’s a crucial issue. Does one wallow in self-pity and self-criticism or is there a better way? I choose to observe several positive details:

First and most importantly, my mind is right. I love the training: running in the mountains, preparing to race. My motivation is sky high—I love the process! — and I am deeply grateful for my time on the trail in the mountains. I have every intention of running the races I missed this year. I carry no negative emotions around trail running.

Second, I try to be resilient in these circumstances. I’m not Mr. Spock, I have emotions and I definitely experience the intense anguish familiar to any athlete who’s hobbled by an injury. Once the teeth gnashing and the freakout is over though I try to move forward in a positive way. Ruminating and stewing over past events is wasted energy, it won’t heal my calf faster, and unless you have a time machine I can borrow so I can go back and fix my mistake, I’ll never be able to change the past. Move forward.

Third, I recognize the significance of my weak link. My left lower-leg/ankle/foot/calf is a continual problem. I do just enough rehab/strength work to push the problem away, then I ignore the weak link and the problems return. I believe the recent hard running I’ve done has exposed the weak link again. Calf work is boring for me. I don’t like it so it’s easy to avoid it. The problem is that it’s critical for my running success. (I’ve discussed this in the past.) It stares me in the face. I have a choice: I can continue to follow the same process and thus I should expect the same problem to return. Or I can devote significant energy to build up my lower leg, armor it, make it strong and resilient, and expect to perform better. I have a chance to make a better choice going forward and address my calf strength the way I should.

Finally, I had a great experience working with my coach. We moved my running in the right direction. Specifically, we worked on tempo runs. I got faster over longer distances. The hard runs felt good and I made progress. My final long run of 20 miles felt superb. I fully believe that I’ll return to a high level of performance with Andrew’s guidance.

There is always an upside to a regrettable situation. Always. Now I get to spend a lot of time on the mountain bike!

A 20-Mile Confidence Boost & a Race This Weekend

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I’m in the thick of training for several races, the big one being the 40-mile Grand Traverse on September 1. Yesterday, 7/8, I completed my first 20-mile run for this project. I started with two miles out and back along the Burning Bear Trail then ran out and back on the Abyss Lake Trail for about 16 miles. Both trails are located along Guanella Pass between Georgetown and Grant, CO.

It was a pristine morning, cool and quiet. Rain fell sometime in the night. There were no crowds, just a few people at the start and a few more when I finished.

At this point in my training, I’ve accumulated a lot of miles and fatigue. I’m often sore (not injured, sore). My mood and enthusiasm for running are low some days. This isn’t a surprise. I’ve gone through it before.

I was intimidated going into this run. Last week I ran 17 miles and it was a nasty slog. (Forest fire smoke was a significant factor last week, not this week.) Twenty miles is a genuinely long run, even if I’ve been hovering near that distance for a while.

I finished surprisingly strong on this run. I wasn’t beat up, beat down, or overly brutalized. Tired, yes but not dead. This was a breakthrough run for me. This was a huge confidence boost for me as I head into the Under Armor Copper Mt. 25k.

I believe one of the reasons I felt so good is that I took three acetaminophen tablets at Abyss Lake, a little further than halfway through the excursion. I’ve used acetaminophen on several long runs after I read about the performance-enhancing effects of the drug discussed in Endure by Alex Hutchinson and in this Runner’s World post by Amby Burfoot. (Yes, it’s a drug. Yes, I took it. Call the cops if you want.) I’ve taken two tablets in the past. I’m big, about 200 lbs., so I thought I’d take a little more and observe the effects. I don’t intend to take more. I will continue the acetaminophen consumption on my long runs.