The Grand Traverse Run is August 31 which means I have a little bit of time to raise a few more bucks for the Natural Resources Defense Council. You may have already donated and if you have then I thank you. If you’re seeing this for the first time and you’d like to help out a good organization doing good work then please follow this link where you can donate. Much thanks!
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
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.
A 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
I once thought of corrective exercise as a magic ritual that would instantly fix pain. I believed a Z-Health drill, an FMS glute bridge, NSCA balance exercise, exotic kettlebell move, or some specific stretch or core activation routine would instantly change something so that I could move freely without pain—and without thinking about it. That’s magical thinking and now I think otherwise.
Corrective exercise is only corrective if the movement skills or sensations learned during the exercise transfers to the “real-life” activity for which the correction is sought. This process entails diligent thinking and crucially, it requires awareness. A corrective exercise should promote awareness of how to use certain muscles and/or how to move or stabilize a limb in a new, more effective way. Here’s an example:
At a recent running-related clinic conducted by running coach and physical therapist Jay Dicharry. we discussed a common problem among runners in which forward propulsion comes from too much lumbar spine extension and not enough hip extension. This is inefficient and may cause low-back pain, knee pain, and other problems. We learned several strategies to run in neutral posture while extending the hip. More specifically, we used the abs to bring the ribs down toward the pelvis, reducing lumbar extension, while simultaneously contracting the glutes to drive the leg backward. Several exercises helped us gain awareness of glute contraction, hip extension, and ribcage positioning. We didn’t stop with exercises. We took the awareness created by the exercises to the act of running. We had to think and pay close attention to what we were doing.
In the context of corrective exercise, my job is to facilitate habit change in my clients. I must select the exercises that help my client move and feel better. The exercises should have adequate similarity to the activity in which my client wants to improve. I must use cues that resonate with my client, that help them understand and feel the proper movement pattern.
This process may require using several exercises that link to the activity itself. For running, we may start with a simple exercise to simply feel a muscle, the glutes for example. We may start with some sort of bridge, lying supine on the ground. We may progress from lying on the ground to kneeling, to standing on two legs to standing on one leg, and then to running. All the while, I must use the right cues and instructions to keep the client focused on the task at hand. Finally, I must ensure my client repeats the new movement pattern. Repetition is essential for learning.
The corrective exercise process is fundamentally about habit change. It’s about focused learning to create and allow new, different movement. The new movement process must be practiced and ingrained so that it replaces the old, painful movement. Corrective exercise is not about an automatic fix.
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.
I ran the Collegiate Peaks 25 Mile Trail Run on Saturday 5/4. My wife and I stayed in Salida, about 30 min away from the start in Buena Vista. That meant a dark and early wake-up of 4:30 am. Such is life sometimes.
We had superb weather: sun, clear skies and temps in high 30s at the start and highs in the 60s. Views of the Collegiate Peaks (above) were prominent and dramatic. For me, this is going to church.
The well-marked race course was mostly non-technical and followed Forest Service roads. There were some prolonged sandy spots which made for slow going at times but it wasn’t terrible. The sand was much less of an issue than the sand in Moab at the Behind the Rocks Race. A few of the climbs and descents were steep but most slopes were mild. The final few miles came through some fun singletrack of medium technicality. (I MUST come back with the mountain bike!) Here’s the course elevation profile:
Runners encountered a shin-deep water crossing at about mile 10. I brought extra socks with me and changed into them soon after the crossing. I thought about gambling and continuing to run in wet socks but I didn’t want to risk blisters. My cold hands made removal of tight compression socks aggravating though. It took a little longer to change than I wanted but again, such is life.
This was a small race with 212 finishers. I finished in 5:05:38. That put me just in the top half overall and among men. I finished just barely out of the top half of men in my age group. I hoped to do better in that category but I’m not overly distressed. I prepared well, ran hard, and did my best. I do this for the experience, not with the expectation of winning.
I’ve had some bad adductor and hamstring cramps in both legs in some longer races. I’m pleased this time that cramps only happened in my right adductor. They were minor. A sudden cramp hit with maybe three miles to go. I stopped briefly and stretched the area. I continued to sort of stretch it in a weird way while running. The cramp vanished in a few minutes and didn’t bother me any further. Minimal cramping in a long race gives me confidence that I’m on the right track with my strategy of direct strengthening of my cramp-prone muscles.
Not only will I continue with the strength program, but I also plan to run with mustard packets. Sound strange? You may have heard about the anti-cramping powers of pickle juice. The same anti-cramp effect seems to work with mustard too. The research is limited but it seems that the vinegar in both substances is probably the key. Apparently, the vinegar stimulates certain receptors in the mouth that trigger a neurological reset of cramping muscles.
No calf problems
The left calf gave me no problems. It feels strong and I will continue my strength program.
Metatarsalgia or ball-of-foot pain in my left food reared its head in the final few miles. I’ve battled it in the past. It hasn’t been an issue at all since I’ve placed metatarsal pads in my shoe inserts. This could be a problem for the Grand Traverse. I plan to take the same approach as I have with my cramp-prone muscles and the calf: strengthen it. I have some ideas on how to specifically strengthen the toes.
Overall I had a fun experience. I liked the course, I liked the small size of the race, and my wife and I both liked Buena Vista. We look forward to a return. If you want a full-on Colorado trail race experience then the Collegiate Peaks Trail Race fits the bill.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Incline press, standing press, or dips: I like to maintain some general upper body pushing strength. I work various rep ranges from 3-10.
- Pull-ups: Same as above.
- Ab wheel rollout: It’s one of many good ab exercises. I do two to three sets of 10-15 reps.
- 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.
- 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:
CONSISTENCY means showing up, even when you don’t want to. It makes you better at not only your craft—via compounding gains—but also the skill of exerting effort itself. Sustainable peak performance isn’t about being consistently great. It’s about being great at being consistent.
— Brad Stulberg (@BStulberg) April 23, 2018
Modern living, competition, achievement, and seeking external validation all contribute to burnout. Burnout is more than just feeling tired at the end of the day. It’s a condition that comes with real, negative health effects. Two recent articles discuss the idea and how to counter it.
Burnout is not a recognized medical condition in the US but it is recognized as such in France, Denmark, and Sweden. These countries recognize it as a legitimate reason to take time off from work. A Washington Post article discusses burnout with psychologist Sheryl Ziegler:
“Ziegler defines burnout as ‘chronic stress gone awry.’ The big three symptoms are emotional exhaustion, cynicism and feeling ineffective, according to the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), a survey designed to measure employee burnout in the workforce. Other symptoms can include frequent colds or sicknesses, insomnia and a tendency to alleviate stress in unhealthy ways, such as with too much alcohol or online shopping.”
The article discusses the difference between stress and stressors:
“Burnout is caused by chronic stress, not stressors… It’s important to differentiate the two. Stressors are external: to-do lists, financial problems or anxiety about the future. Stress, on the other hand, ‘is the neurological and physiological shift that happens in your body when you encounter [stressors],’ Emily and Amelia Nagoski write in their book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle.”
Fixing burnout isn’t necessarily easy. It involves recognizing the condition and making some changes, not just checking more things off of your to-do list.
“To fix burnout, people need to address the stress itself. They must allow their body to complete its stress response cycle. Instead, people tend to focus on stressors. ‘They assume their stress will go away if they’re on top of things, if they’re accomplishing things, and constantly checking things off their to-do list,’ Emily Nagoski says.”
Read the full article for more information.
I’m an enthusiastic fan of running coach Steve Magness and researcher/journalist Brad Stulberg. They are the authors of Peak Performance, an excellent book. Their second book is the Passion Paradox. I’m looking forward to reading it soon.
Burnout and what Stulberg and Magness call harmonious passion are the subjects of a recent blog post titled Burnout Runs Deeper Than Too-Much Work:
“Harmonious passion is when an individual becomes completely absorbed in an activity because they love how the activity itself makes them feel. Obsessive passion is when an individual gets hooked on something because of external rewards: fame, fortune, a promotion, or in this day and age, social media followers. Obsessive passion is firmly linked with burnout.”
“Harmonious passion requires three main things. This has been studied for over 45 years and the evidence is highly replicable across diverse fields of practice:
1) Autonomy: the ability to have significant control over one’s work.
2) Mastery: the ability to see improvement and progression in one’s craft.
3) Belonging or relatedness: a feeling of connection and community.
If you think about the fields where burnout is especially prevalent (e.g., medicine, teaching, corporate work, and sport) you see that at least one, if not more, of these critical attributes is missing.
Read the article to learn more.