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:

 

Health & Fitness News: Cooked Food Grows the Brain; High-Carb Diet Contributes to Alzheimer’s; Lifting Weights Helps the Brain and Protects Against Metabolic Syndrome; Lactose Tolerance & Evolution; Tighten Your Left Fist to Perform Better

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A wide range of interesting things have popped up in health-and-fitness news. You should know about this stuff!

Cooked Food Grows the Brain:

“If you eat only raw food, there are not enough hours in the day to get enough calories to build such a large brain.  We can afford more neurons, thanks to cooking.”
– Dr. Suzana Herculano-Houzel, neuroscientist, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil

The human brain has far more neurons than our primate relatives such as apes and chimps. Relative to our body weight, we carry far more brain mass than our ape relatives, and we use far more energy to run our neurology than apes. Why? And how have we managed to acquire all the energy to manage this process over the past several hundred thousand years? It seems that the answers lie in humans cooking their food. An article from the Guardian titled Invention of cooking made having a bigger brain an asset for humans discusses the issue further. The article is informed by a study from the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

High-Carb Diets May Contribute to Alzheimer’s:

“Older people who load up their plates with carbohydrates have nearly four times the risk of developing mild cognitive impairment, a study out Tuesday finds.”
– USA Today

There’s more news regarding food and neurological function. USA Today reports on a recent study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease indicates that a high-carbohydrate diet (as is suggested by the FDA) may contribute to early-onset dementia. Medline also reported on the study saying:

“Those who reported the highest carbohydrate intake were 1.9 times more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment than those with the lowest carbohydrate intake. Those with the highest sugar intake were 1.5 times more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment than those with the lowest intake.

Those whose diets had the highest levels of fat and protein were 42 percent and 21 percent less likely, respectively, to develop mild cognitive impairment than those with the lowest intake of fat and protein.”

The Medline report also makes the following important observation saying, “While the researchers found an association between sugar-laden, high-carb diets and mental decline, they did not establish a cause-and-effect relationship.”

I personally have lost weight by cutting carbs–particularly processed carbs such as cereal, bread, crackers, tortillas, muffins, etc–and replacing those calories with fibrous vegetables, fat and protein.  I’ve become convinced that an FDA-type high-carb diet is probably not the ideal way to eat for most people.

Lifting Weights Helps the Brain:

“Where previously we had seen positive associations between aerobic activity, particularly walking, and cognitive health, these latest studies show that resistance training is emerging as particularly valuable for older adults,”
Dr. William Thies, chief medical and scientific officer of the Alzheimer’s Association

Of course I love any evidence that suggests lifting weights is good for you. I have particular interest in evidence that weights help us beyond simply building muscle and bone mass. Mind Your Reps: Exercise, Especially Weight Lifting, Helps Keep the Brain Sharp comes from Time. The article reports on four studies presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Vancouver.

I’d like to know what loads are best used in preventing Alzheimer’s. Does any type of strength training prevent Alzheimers or are certain exercises better than others? What’s the minimal effective dose to derive the benefits? I hope someone is looking into these questions.

Lifting Weights Protects Against Metabolic Syndrome:

“Research has linked greater muscle strength and muscle mass to lower rates of metabolic syndrome. Since lifting weights increases muscle strength and mass, it might also help to decrease the development of metabolic syndrome.”
– Sciencedaily.com

Such a wonderful thing this weight training!  Science Daily discusses research by the National Strength & Conditioning Association that indicates lifting weights protects against metabolic syndrome. What is metabolic syndrome? The article says:

“Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of risk factors linked to increased rates risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. People with at least three out of five risk factors — large waist circumference (more than 40 inches for men and 35 inches for women), high triglyceride levels, reduced levels of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL, or “good” cholesterol), elevated blood pressure, and high glucose levels — are considered to have metabolic syndrome.”

The proof keeps on stacking up. Lifting weights is a staple of healthy living.  Are you currently on a strength training program?  If not, why?

Lactose Tolerance & Evolution:

“Everywhere that agriculture and civilization went, lactose tolerance came along. Agriculture-plus-dairying became the backbone of Western civilization.”
– Slate

Humans are the only animals that consume milk beyond the age of infancy. (Not all humans actually. Two-thirds of us are lactose intolerant. Still, there are a lot more humans that drink milk in their adulthood compared to other mammals.) Why is this? What makes so many of us so different from other mammals? Are there advantages to lactose tolerance? The Most Spectacular Mutation in Recent Human History is from Slate Magazine. The article discusses the speed with which this genetic mutation spread and possible theories on why it ever happened at all. There are no solid answers to the questions here, but it seems that in much of the world, civilization and lactose tolerance have gone hand-in-hand:

“The plot is still fuzzy, but we know a few things: The rise of civilization coincided with a strange twist in our evolutionary history. We became, in the coinage of one paleoanthropologist, ‘mampires’ who feed on the fluids of other animals. Western civilization, which is twinned with agriculture, seems to have required milk to begin functioning.”

There clearly seem to be some advantages to a lot of people in consuming milk and/or other dairy products. There also appear to be some real disadvantages. Read the New York Times article Got Milk? You Don’t Need It for another view of milk consumption. The article states:

“Osteoporosis? You don’t need milk, or large amounts of calcium, for bone integrity. In fact, the rate of fractures is highest in milk-drinking countries, and it turns out that the keys to bone strength are lifelong exercise and vitamin D, which you can get from sunshine. Most humans never tasted fresh milk from any source other than their mother for almost all of human history, and fresh cow’s milk could not be routinely available to urbanites without industrial production. The federal government not only supports the milk industry by spending more money on dairy than any other item in the school lunch program, but by contributing free propaganda as well as subsidies amounting to well over $4 billion in the last 10 years.

I think the Times article raises some valid points. Clearly many of our fellow humans do fine without consuming milk as adults. The FDA guidelines insisting that we drink milk are a bit bogus, and completely influenced by the dairy industry. However, in lactose tolerant adults, I’m not sure milk is a bad thing. I haven’t been completely convinced one way or the other. I drink milk sometimes but not often. More often I consume cheese and yogurt which are fermented versions of milk.

Make a Fist to Perform Better:

“Athletes who made a fist with their left hand did better under pressure than when they made a fist with their right hand…”
– “Preventing Motor Skill Failure Through Hemisphere-Specific Priming: Cases From Choking Under Pressure,” Journal of Experimental Psychology

I find this article from the Atlantic enormously interesting. The results are in the quote above. In this study, right-handed athletes (Righties only were tested.) performed better when they made a fist in the left hand. What’s going on here? The article states:

According to the researchers, freaking out is primarily associated with the left hemisphere of the brain, while the right hemisphere deals more with mechanical actions. Meanwhile the cortex of the right hemisphere controls movements of the left side of the body, and the left hemisphere controls the right side of the body. So they figured that if you can purposely activate the right hemisphere — in this case, by making a fist or squeezing a ball with your left hand — it will improve physical performance and draw focus away from the ruminating left hemisphere.”

Interestingly, anyone who’s learned the RKC Hard Style of pressing has learned to make a fist in the opposite non-pressing hand. The effect is powerful. You get stronger when you do this! Maybe this study indicates why.

 

Exercise and Relationships, Lift Weights to Lose Weight, Books

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Exercise & Relationships

What happens to a relationship when one person exercises a lot and the other doesn’t?  The Wall St. Journal offers an analysis of several such situations in A Workout Ate My Marriage.  As you might imagine, stress may develop if one partner spends a lot of time training and the other doesn’t.

We see this situation with Caren and Jordan Waxman.  Jordan is not only a Merrill Lynch exec with two law degrees and an MBA, he’s also an Ironman triathlete who competes all over the country.  His time spent training plus his job requirements means significant time away from his wife and family.

The article quotes a therapist:

“Exercise is getting more and more couples into my office,” says Karen Gail Lewis, a Cincinnati marriage and family therapist.

The article profiles other couples including the strange pairing of an avid marathoner and vegetarian with a sedentary mean-and-potatoes fellow who just recently gave up a two-pack-a-day smoking habit.  Lois and Gary Berkowitz occupy opposite ends of the exercise spectrum yet they seem happily married.  He accompanies her to races and helps edit a running newsletter.  All seems well for them.

(Interestingly, all the athletes profiled are endurance athletes.  No weightlifters, powerlifters or bodybuilders appeared in the article.  What are their relationships like?  Perhaps the much smaller time requirements to get stronger mean happier marriages than the hours and hours required to win marathons and triathlons.)

Lift Weights to Lose Weight

Alwyn Cosgrove and his wife Rachel are both highly successful trainers and owners of Results Gym in California.  Alwyn’s blog is full of useful information, and I recommend you have a look at it.  One such article is The New Science of Fat Loss.  (This first appeared in Men’s Health.)  The article discusses the old myth that low-intensity aerobic exercise is the best way to shed fat.  New research suggests that weight training burns more calories per unit of time.  Researchers put subjects on a reduced-calorie diet and put them in three groups.  One group didn’t exercise, another performed aerobic exercise 3 days a week, and a third did both aerobic exercise and weight training 3 days a week.   The article states:

“The results: Each group lost nearly the same amount of weight—about 21 pounds per person in 12 weeks. But the lifters shed 5 more pounds of fat than those who didn’t pump iron. The weight they lost was almost pure fat, while the other two groups shed 15 pounds of lard, but also gave up 5-plus pounds of muscle.”

What’s the take-home message?  Weight training is a must for physique change! If you’re using plodding, long-duration/low-intensity cardio work as your primary means of weight loss you’re behind the times and you’re wasting time.

My Reading List: The Talent Code, Sports Vision, Motivational Interviewing

If you’re a fitness professional and/or a fitness geek like me, there are three books you’ll want to have a look at.  The first is The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born.  It’s Made.  Here’s How. Daniel Coyle’s book looks at the physiological and psychological components of “talented” and highly successful individuals from athletes to musicians to mathematicians.  Three key points discussed in the book are:

• Deep Practice Everyone knows that practice is a key to success. What everyone doesn’t know is that specific kinds of practice can increase skill up to ten times faster than conventional practice.

• Ignition We all need a little motivation to get started. But what separates truly high achievers from the rest of the pack? A higher level of commitment—call it passion—born out of our deepest unconscious desires and triggered by certain primal cues. Understanding how these signals work can help you ignite passion and catalyze skill development.

• Master Coaching What are the secrets of the world’s most effective teachers, trainers, and coaches? Discover the four virtues that enable these “talent whisperers” to fuel passion, inspire deep practice, and bring out the best in their students.

Do you train vision?  In the gym?  Do you ever think about your eyes when you’re working out.  If not, you should.  It’s our most vital sense after all.  In the Z-Health community, we often discuss vision and the tremendous influence it has on all our bodily processes–including pain, strength and mobility.  Sports Vision: Training for Better Performance is required reading for Z-Health trainers.  It goes deep into the role our visual system plays in our ability to perform.  The book contains many drills designed to improve visual acuity and thus sport performance.

Finally, Motivational Interviewing is considered a must-read by anyone involved in a field such as coaching or personal training.  Too often we trainers and coaches focus on the exercise portion of weight loss and athletic performance.  We don’t spend enough time figuring out the psychological components of motivation and behavior change.  Our role is to motivate clients and athletes to work hard and achieve big goals.  Therefore this book is essential to any fitness professional’s library.