My Running & Strength Program

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I’ve got a trail race coming up this weekend in Steamboat Springs. It’s the Ski Haus Continental Divide Trail Race. It’s 15 miles with 4800 ft. of elevation. This is the longest race I’ve ever run and it’s by far the longest race I’ve run in over two years–and I’m hugely excited about the prospect. It’s going to be reasonably brutal but beautiful and fun.

I feel like I’m fairly well prepared. I’ve used a modified version of the FIRST half-marathon program. It’s a three-day per week program that uses speed work on the track, tempo or moderately fast runs, and long slow runs. I’ve also been strength training twice per week. The main feature of my workouts have been various types of jumping. A notable Finnish study has shown that explosive jumping-type movements improve running economy in a way that simply running will not.  (I’ve written previously about strength work for runners, here and here.)

(Jumping work like this is sometimes called plyometrics. The definition may vary depending who’s doing the defining. Some insist that plyos must be a rather high magnitude type of activity such as depth jumps off of a high box. Simply jumping or bounding from the ground doesn’t necessarily count as true plyometrics. In any event, the stuff I’m doing for this workout plan involves jumping. You can decide whether or not to call this jumping a plyometric workout.)

I based my plan loosely on this one from the Running Times. I added work each week for three weeks. Plans of this type vary in nature. The Finnish study involved a 9-week plan. The Running Times plan was a 6-week plan.

Plyo workouts are very intense and there’s a lot of loading on the muscles and connective tissue. For this reason it’s very easy to quickly overload things and become overtrained or injured. Further, my run plan involves both track workouts and hill workouts. Those type of workouts are in some ways similar to plyometric workouts and they can be quite taxing. For these reasons and because I know that more work doesn’t always equal better work, I opted for a 5-week plan. I didn’t want to grind myself up too much. Going forward, I may try a longer plyo plan.

Jumping exercises:

  • Week 1:
    • 2 leg jumps up from the ground 2 x 10 reps for both workouts.
    • I simply focused on jumping as high as I could into the air and then landed as softly as possible with as little noise as possible.
    • The soft-as-possible landing approach was used on all jumping exercises.
  • Week 2:
    • 2-leg box jumps x 6 reps
    • Workout 1 is 3 sets
    • Workout 2 is 2 sets
    • First week was onto and off of a 1-ft. high box.
    • Following weeks were onto and off of a 2-ft. high box.
  • Week 3:
    • 2-leg box jumps x 6 reps
    • 1-leg hops onto and off of a small box x 10 reps each leg
    • Workout 1 is 3 sets
    • Workout 2 is 2 sets
  • Week 4:
    • 2-leg box jumps x 6 reps
    • 1-leg hops across a basketball court
    • 2-leg long jump across a basketball court
    • Workout 1 is 4 sets
    • Workout 2 is 2 sets
  • Week 5: Taper week–this week!

I’m backing off my workload this week in order to allow all my previous hard work to take hold. I wasn’t sure at the start of this plan whether or not I’d do any plyos this week. Doing more work this week definitely won’t improve my race performance by much if any. Doing too much work this week can definitely have a negative impact on my race.

Barbell clean & press: Lifting weight overhead is known as a press. Before the bench press became popular in the 70s, the press was the original weight exercise that indicated your manhood.  To get the weight overhead, one must bring the weight from the ground to the shoulders or clean the weight.  The ability to do these things is tremendously useful, fun and generally wonderful. My goal is to clean and press my body weight (200 lbs.). This exercise may have no effect at all on my running. That’s fine with me.

  • Workout one is 3×5 reps. Most recently I used 100 lbs.
  • Workout two is heavier at 3×3 reps.
  • Taper week is only one workout.

Pistol squat: The pistol is an interesting exercise. It’s essentially a squat on one leg. They’re nearly impossible when you first try them, especially if you have long limbs like me. I’m doing them because running is a one-legged activity. Also, I’ve been doing a lot to get my glutes to work correctly. If your knee caves in on this exercise then the glute isn’t doing its job. I keep the knee aligned with the outside of my foot when I do these. This exercise works everything from the foot to the glutes and spine. I figure getting strong on one leg is a good idea.

  • Typically I did 3×3 reps. Other days I did double or singles.
  • I varied the exercise. I started by doing a short-range squat onto a high box, then working down to lower boxes then no box at all.
  • Right now I can do three good pistols on my right and two on my left. I’m fairly excited about my progress. I’ll add weight at some point.

Pull-ups/Chin-ups: What can you say? Pull-ups and chin-ups are very challenging. Done properly they are a tremendous upper body exercise. Hands, arms, shoulders, back and abs all get work here.

  • Workout one is about 4-5×5-6 reps
  • Workout two is 2-3×5-6 sets.
  • I superset most of these sets with the following exercise, the glute/ham raise.

Glute/ham raise (GHR): This one is a tough one to describe. This article describes it well. This is an essential assistance exercise used by Olympic lifters and powerlifters. Very strong people often do them, so why shouldn’t I? We don’t have a genuine GHR machine at my gym, so I’ve done a modified version. Similar to the article, I’ve hooked my feet under a pull-up machine. These are very very tough! So, I’ve used bands wrapped around the machine and myself to give me further assistance in doing the exercise.

You might wonder if a hamstring curl could provide the same benefits. Probably not. The GHR calls on the glutes, hamstrings and abs to contract together. This is similar to how we actually move when we run, jump or lift. In contrast, the hamstring curl isolates the hamstrings. This rarely if ever happens in typical human movement. Further, I’ve found hamstring curls promote overextension of the lumbar spine which is rarely a good thing.

  • Workout one is 3 x 8-12 reps
  • Workout two is 2 x 8-12 reps
  • I typically supersetted this with pull-ups.
  • I used different thicknesses of bands to provide either more or less assistance.

Kroc row: The “what?” The Kroc row is a slang term for a version of the one-arm dumbbell row. Read the linked article to get a full description. I’m doing this to 1) get a stronger upper back to help with my pressing and 2) build my grip for deadlifting which I will resume in the Fall.

  • Workout one is 3×12-15 reps depending on the weight
  • Workout two is 2×12-15 again depending on weight.
  • I superset this one with the ab rollout

Ab wheel rollout: You’ve seen the ab wheel on an infomercial. Doesn’t mean it’s not a very useful tool. This is a very good exercise to engage the external obliques and thus keep the pelvis in neutral. Keeping a neutral pelvis is very important in avoiding back pain. I know because I spent a lot of time not keeping my pelvis in neutral. Mike Boyle’s article dissects the ab wheel rollout very thoroughly.

  • Workout one is 3×5-6 reps
  • Workout two is 2×5-6 reps
  • I superset this with the Kroc row.

 


Excellent Squat Instructional Videos

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I’m squatting quite a bit these days and I’m teaching clients to squat.  There are a lot of fine points to this excellent exercise and it can be challenging to both learn and teach correct squat technique.   I’m also on Twitter a lot these days and I found a great two-part series on squatting from EliteFTS.com.  (Tons of good strength info at this site.)  I’m planning on incorporating some of these teaching points into my squat instruction.  And if you have no interest in squatting, you’ll at least get a look at some high quality facial hair.

So you think you can squat part I

So you think you can squat part II

Thoughts on Getting Stronger

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Get Strong!

I’m reading Marty Gallagher’s Purposeful Primitive right now and it’s fascinating.  If you’re a fitness professional or someone who’s dedicated to exercise, then I suggest you check it out.  It’s all real-life stories of Marty’s time in the trenches of big-time weightlifting.  He profiles various elite strong men such as Paul Anderson and Ed Coan, bodybuilders such as Bill Pearl and Dorian Yates, and other freakishly strong individuals.  Most interesting to me are their methods to getting stronger–and it’s all fairly simple: Lift Heavy & Use Perfect Technique. Barbells and dumbbells are the tools for the job. Lifting more is the task, not exhausting the muscle with 10-15 reps.


Go pick up something heavy!

Similar to Pavel Tsatsouline’s advice, lifting heavy for a very few reps–five and under–is the ideal way to get genuinely strong.  There should be one very high quality “top set.”  That is, there should be a few warm-up sets performed on the way to one all-out maximal effort set.  Stop a rep or two before failure.  The technique must be perfect.  Lifting heavy can be dangerous.  Going to out-and-out exhaustion is a good way to get injured.

This concept is in contrast to many of the popular gym classes in which participants lift very light weights for an endless number of reps.  This won’t make anyone stronger.  It may not necessarily be bad but it’s probably not the best use of your time if your goal is a) getting stronger or b) looking stronger.  Now, this strategy can turn bad if you lift to the point of utter fatigue and your technique fails.  From what I’ve seen of some of the “sculpting” classes and such, technique is not a prime concern of many instructors.  “A few more reps!” does seem to be the primary concern though.  But guess what, “a few more reps” won’t work any miracles for your physique, but if you’ve hit the failure point then those extra reps may well push you to the point of pain and possible injury.  That may mean no exercise for you for a while.

Very few exercises are needed to create more strength.  Squats, bench press, deadlift, overhead pressing, and various rows are essential.  Complicated pulley machines are useless except to sell gym memberships.  Plastic inflatable objects like BOSUs and Dyna Disks are junk that have more in common with kids pool toys than strength and muscle building implements.

Typical Gym Mindset

Whether we admit it or not, the main reason we’re in the gym is to look good–to look strong.  Physique building developed from the old-fashioned strongmen–those guys with the funny bathing suits, handlebar mustaches, and who could hoist hundreds of pounds overhead with one hand.  These guys were strong number one.  The impressive physiques were a nice byproduct of their ability to perform.  But most gym goers aren’t actually interested in being strong.  The cart has become far more important than the horse it seems.

It’s quite funny to observe our modern fitness center environment.  I often see people working really hard doing easy exercises!  Popular ineffective waste-of-time exercises include partial range pec deck flyes, hunched over triceps extensions, and the always famous 50 reps of 1/4 inch wiggle cruncheson an odd, overly technical crunch machine.

These complex machines actually make exercise easier.  Balance and precise control is eliminated from the process.  Most of these popular machine exercises are done while seated or lying down.  Sounds comfy right?  But why come to the gym for easy exercise?? These machines allow for half-hearted effort disguised as hard work.  Further, machine exercises tend to promote poor posture: forward head, hunched shoulders, tight hip flexors.  This is the opposite of tall and strong.  This is no way to achieve a strong physique!

Getting Strong is Fun.

My reading has caused me to rethink not only how I train myself but also how I train my clients.  For a while now I’ve scaled back on the number of exercises I’m using and I’m focusing on training in that strength zone of 3-5 reps–maybe up to 8 reps–and avoiding failure at the end.  Turns out lifting heavy objects does some cool stuff.  First, it’s quite safe.  Using perfect technique and working only to exertion but not exhaustion is the ideal way to avoid pain.  Ending the workout just when fatigue begins to set in means we avoid aggravating the nervous system.  Plus, knowing that you could’ve done just a few more reps means you’ll be raring to go at the next workout.

Further, picking up heavy objects does good things for our brain.  Again, whether we really want to admit it out loud, some part of what drives us into the gym is self-image and/or self-esteem.  We want to like ourselves more.  Be it through physique change or performance goals, we exercise to make ourselves proud.  So lifting heavy is a great way to feel a sense of accomplishment.  As the weeks go by and the poundage goes up, you can’t help but get excited!  And somewhere along the line you might accidentally create a better looking you.  What more can you ask for?

Strength Training for Runners: Part II

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These make you faster. Lift them. Don't run with them.

In Part I of this post I discussed some of the evidence and ideas behind the idea that distance runners benefit from explosive movements and heavy strength training.  In Part II I’ll discuss some of the exercises and workouts which you might incorporate into your current program.

First, when we talk about strength or “resistance” training programs we can think of several methods including plyometric or jumping exercises, weights, hill running or running with parachutes attached to the runner.  This discussion will focus on jumping exercises and weight exercises.

Jumping Exercises

Also known a plyometrics, these exercises include but aren’t limited to the following:

Be careful with depth jumps.  Impact forces generated from landing off of a box can be enormous depending on the height of the box involved.  Think of box height like you would weight on a bar.  Start with a low box and work up to higher boxes.

Weight Exercises

These are total body exercises employing barbells.  Avoid machines like leg extensions and leg curls.

Frequency

Plyometric and strength work should not be used more than three times per week.  Rather than simply pile this work on top of your endurance work, two sources (here, here) suggest replacing 20%-30% of endurance training time with explosive or weight training.  The point being that you don’t need to spend very much time doing this work in order for it to be effective.

Reps & Sets

– Bounding: You may think of bounding in terms of distance or reps.  This is short duration/short distance.  For example, bound the length of a basketball court or for 20-30 yards.  Or bound for up to 10 reps.  Start with two sets and add one set per week up to 10 sets.  Recover fully between sets.  THIS ISN’T ENDURANCE WORK.

– Box jumps, power step-ups: Go no higher than 10 reps.  Use the same set scheme described above.  Recover similarly.

– Depth jumps: Again, be careful.  Go no higher than six reps per set and no higher than 10 sets.  Recover at least 30 seconds between jumps and recover fully (up to three minutes) between sets.  Only use depth jump workouts once per week.  Progress to depth jumps only after several weeks (2-3) of jumping and bounding.  Don’t start with depth jumps.

– Weight exercises:

Lift heavy and always use perfect technique.  The rep range is 1-5.  Work to the point where you know you can get one more rep and stop.  (For more on this topic, read Train to Success Part I and Train to Success Part II.)  You may get more reps just get them in subsequent sets.  Use as few as two sets when you begin and progress over the course of weeks to as many as 10 sets.  (10 sets of 2 reps for instance.)

A good method of tracking your lifting is to multiply weight x reps x sets.  For instance: 200 lbs x 3 reps x 5 sets = 3000 lbs.  If you’re doing three workouts per week then you can add the totals together to get your weekly score.  Follow the 10% rule for running with your weight program, that is add no more than 10% per week either through weight or volume to your weekly score.  You may use the same scoring method for your jumping work.

Jumping or weights?

You could use an infinite combination of jumping and/or weight exercises but why not keep it simple?  For example, you could use one jumping exercise exclusively for all workouts for one to three weeks then use one weight exercise exclusively for the same amount of time.  Take a week off then start over with new exercises.  The research suggests that it doesn’t take a lot of time or many exercises to get the results you want.

Workout intensity should build over the weeks.  Take a break then start over at a slightly higher intensity than where you previously started.  Your workouts may vary during the week.  Don’t set your workouts in stone.  Depending on how you feel you may use higher or lower volume (reps and sets) or you may vary your intensity (weight).   All of this variation is known as known as periodization.

Is it working?

The research suggests these methods work to increase running ability.  One way to make sure you’re progressing is to test yourself.  This is fairly easy.  Select any distance you want (1 mile for instance) over a standard course.  Run the mile each week and track your time, average heart rate and rate of perceived exertion (RPE).  If you are progressing then your run time may decrease, and/or your average heart rate may drop, and/or your RPE may drop.

What else?

Remember to taper your gym work as you would your running work.  Don’t start a new strength program in the middle of your season.  Start this program before the competition season.  Workouts should be brief and robust.  Done correctly, these workouts should not negatively impact your run workouts.  To that point, strength workouts should be separated from your hard running workouts.  Both your strength workouts and your runs should be high-quality.

Engage in some sort of dedicated joint mobility program before, after and possibly during your workout.  Z-Health is a fantastic method to prepare your body and nervous system for hard work.  Addressing joint mobility and joint awareness will keep you pain free and performing at your highest potential.

Don’t lift weights in your running shoes!  They’re not made for that.  Running shoes put your heel up on a wedge which may promote hyperextension at your low back.  Further, the squishy cushioning will impede proprioception or your sense of how to interact with the ground.  Choose a flat-soled shoe preferably with a thin sole.  The Converse Chuck Taylor is a good choice as are Vibram 5-Fingers.

(Are you sure I won’t bulk up???)

YES!  If you could bulk up you would’ve already bulked up.

In conclusion…

It may seem counterintuitive that distance runners can benefit from heavy weight lifting and explosive jumping exercises.  These things don’t much resemble distance running!  However the evidence is in and it’s growing.  Don’t waste your time in the gym doing high-rep/low-weight lifting–stuff that feels like endurance work in other words.  Leave the stuff that feels like endurance work… for… well… endurance work!    Use your time in the gym to build strength.

Strength Training for Runners: Part I

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Many runners I speak with in the gym believe that in order to improve their running, they need to lift weights in a fashion that’s similar to running.  That is, they believe lifting very light weights for many many reps (thus creating an endurance-like situation for their muscles, heart and lungs) will lead to better performance.  Conversely, many endurance athletes see no reason to lift heavy weights.  They often believe they’ll become muscle bound and/or injured.  (Besides, when was the last time the winner of a 10k stopped to deadlift for three reps?)  The fact of the matter is, runners–both sprinter and distance runners–will benefit from lifting heavy weights and/or explosive movements.  There.  That’s what I have to say.  Now let me explain…

Strength is  your friend.

Strength is like money: No one ever complains that they’ve got too much.  (Please let me know if, after a race, the 2nd place finisher said to the camera, “I’d probably have gotten first if I’d just been a little weaker.)  Stronger muscles will propel you faster and/or further.  Our view of endurance however may clash with our view of strength.  They may seem like two very different concepts.  We may think that endurance is strictly a heart & lung thing.  Strength and endurance aren’t that different though.  Strength and endurance are very strongly linked.  And for the endurance athlete, improving muscle strength will also improve his or her endurance.

Several studies have indicated strength training increases endurance performance in cross-country skiing, running (here, here, here) and cycling (here, here, here).  Explosive exercises and very heavy strength training (1-5 RM) have been researched and shown to improve running economy, anaerobic power, and lactate threshold.  (Further discussion and references can be found here and here).   Thus, exercising in a fashion that’s very different from running–that is a very few seconds of explosive movement and/or lifting very heavy objects a few times will benefit an activity done at a much lower intensity for a much longer time.  So while it’s obviously vital to engage in your endurance sport of choice in order to improve in that sport, the addition of the right strength training protocol will increase your performance.  What’s at work here?

Physiology

Endurance performance is more than just the heart and lungs.  Several sources (here, here) have suggested that neurological and muscular factors play important roles in endurance performance.    We know this because several of the above studies show an increase in performance with no improvement in VO2 max.  That is, the heart/lung function didn’t improve–but something did!  Improvement in running economy is indicated in several studies. 

We should consider a couple of effects of explosive and heavy weight training.  First, the muscle fibers used in running are likely made stronger via these methods.  Thus muscles can generate more force and a more powerful stride.  Second, more muscle fibers may have been drawn into action, again making for a greater ability to drive forward during stride.  The results from either of these situations is that we should be able to use less energy to run just as far and as fast as before–AND we should be able to run farther and faster period.  Great!

What about muscle and weight gain?  

Many runners are worried about gaining weight from lifting too much heavy weight.  The fear is reasonable in that any sort of weight gain will likely slow down a distance runner.  (The right amount of new muscle mass in a sprinter however may be beneficial.)   The reality is though there is nothing for a runner to fear from lifting heavy.   There are several reasons.

First, putting on lots of muscle is mainly a function of eating.  To put on mass, one must eat like a grizzly bear: several sizeable meals per day (not just snacks), gobs of meat, lots of all sorts of food.  This sort of eating can’t be done unconsciously.  There must be intent

Second, we have the genetics issue.  It’s very likely that people gravitate to endurance running because they’ve been dealt a hand of genetic cards that facilitates running.  This same hand of cards DOES NOT facilitate growing large muscles.  Thus there is often a self-selection process that sees certain people participate and excel in endurance sports while others may tend toward strength-and-power sports or bodybuilding–activities that in order for the participants to excel, require large amounts of muscle mass. 

Third, explosive and heavy strength training doesn’t build big muscles.  (Huh?)  These methods are far more stimulating to the nervous system than they are to actually growing bigger muscles.  That is, we’re looking at getting the brain to cause more muscle fibers to fire in order to create an explosive movement or lift something heavy.  A different process is at work for growing muscles, and this process is better stimulated by lifting moderate weights for roughly 8-15 reps. 

To give a further example, if we look at sports involving weight classes (boxing, wrestling, martial arts, weight lifting, power lifting for example) we see that many of these athletes need to get stronger without gaining weight.  Otherwise they’ll end up in a weight class in which they can’t contend.  These folks need to get stronger but not bigger.  (Sound familiar?)  How do they do this?  They lift heavy.

Next, I’ll discuss workouts based on these factors.

The Benefits of Supervised Strength Training

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Supervised Strength Training is More Effective, Swedish Study Finds, is an article from  Science Daily.  What does it tell us?   It turns out that supervision and personalization is an important component of an injury-prevention (prehabilition) workout–at least when it’s performed by Swedish volleyball players.  This information probably isn’t a huge shock but the implications are worth considering not only for injury-related issues but also for any fitness or sports performance goals.

The study surveyed 158 elite-level volleyball players by way of a questionnaire.  The answers indicated that almost all the players performed some kind of injury-prevention program yet almost half of the players had been injured.  Most of the players exercised without supervision.  Further, two groups of players were given exercise programs.  One group was given a personalized program and was supervised by a physiotherapist.  The other group was given a non-personalized program and they were not supervised during workouts.  The supervised group both improved their performance more than and had a lower injury rate than the unsupervised group.

Now, from the description of the study, there are several weak points that we could discuss: small sample size, physiological differences in the groups that might predispose or protect the players from injury, effect of the supervision vs. the effect of the personalized workout in the results, validity of the questionnaire.  What’s more important though is that even elite-level athletes might benefit from a personalized, supervised conditioning program.

“I have a feeling that more athletes really stick to the program and focus on the task if there is a coach present. Many players may feel that the strength and conditioning training is the boring part of their sport, which makes it tempting to ‘cheat’ when nobody is watching,” says Sofia Augustsson, author of the study.

These are people for whom their sport is a major focus of their lives to the point that they may be earning a living from volleyball, so we might expect very strict adherence to any exercise program given to them.  However, the behavior of these athletes and the results of their exercise programs confirms something I learned in graduate school: personalized programs and close interaction with individuals has impact.  The more a fitness instructor or coach can work with one person or a small group the more likely that person or group will adhere to a program and succeed.

Does this sound like an argument for hiring a personal trainer?  Well, yes, absolutely it does!  Obviously I’m biased here but at the same time, there seems to be just a little bit of science to back up the idea.

To take it a little further, what I often see in the gym are people exercising but putting forth little effort.  They’re often doing the same workout over and over.  They may be neglecting their needs in favor of their “wants.”  (“I want bigger pecs,” or  “I want washboard abs” for example but what he or she may need is more hip or spine mobility, better shoulder stability or better nutrition.)  So often these folks are putting in the time but they’re not getting the most value for their time–but at least they’re doing something in the way of exercise.   Many more gym goers will give up altogether.  They’ll spend some time exercising but never knowing the important whys and hows of getting to their goal.  They’d stand as good a chance of getting a college degree without a degree plan.  (BTW, here are some interesting stats on Americans’ exercise habits…  Had to throw that in somewhere.)

It’s entirely likely that some time (and yes money) spent with a trainer could improve things dramatically.  Just about anyone will benefit from a different set of eyes to look over their goals and their methods to achieving those goals.  Even the most dedicated gym rat works harder when someone else is pushing him or her.  Getting in shape and staying healthy is more than just reading an article or doing the workout you did in high school.  So if you want to get the very most out of your time in the gym, or on the road, or on the track, the pool, the basketball court–wherever it is you exercise, seek out professional advice and you may achieve more than you ever imagined.