Friday, August 7, 2015

Designing a general strength circuit for distance runners

Weights, general strength circuits, plyometrics, and hip/core strength exercises all have their place in the training of a distance runner.  Today, I'd like to focus on general strength circuits specifically. 

Each word in that phrase has a particular meaning.  General means not specific. i.e. not exercises that are very similar to running or that involve running.  An example of a more specific strength exercise might be uphill sprinting or bounding.  Strength means more or less what you'd expect it to be—resistance exercises for muscular strength.  Finally, circuits denotes that we're talking about a high-intensity strength routine with many different exercises and short recovery. 

Why should a distance runner do this type of strength work? There are three reasons, and each of them illustrates one of the three domains from which a good coach will draw wisdom.

Why do strength circuits?

1.  Anecdotal observations on strength

The first domain is anecdotal observation.  Subjectively, I (and a lot of other coaches) have noticed that fast, injury-resistant runners tend to be stronger and more athletic than their slower, injury-prone counterparts.  Of course, there are exceptions—a skinny, uncoordinated kid who wins the state meet, for example—but if you spend enough time around budding distance runners, you'll find the general trend is undeniable.  This alone is reason enough to do some type of work for improving strength and general athleticism, since it's also evident to any experienced coach that "just" running won't make you strong and athletic.

2.  A physiological argument for strength circuits

The second is drawing from physiology and training theory.  In distance training, we know that it is advisable to build a base of general, less-specific running before moving to race-specific workouts.  We can apply the same principle to both strength work in general and to high-intensity circuits in particular.  Before we start doing any heavy weight lifting, high-intensity plyometrics, or hill sprinting or bounding, it makes sense to improve our general strength and athleticism so we're better-prepared for higher-intensity, more running-specific stimuli further down the road. 

Additionally, there's a general-to-specific argument to be made for high intensity circuits with regards to development of a finishing kick.  Think about what happens when you kick at the end of a race: you call upon your fast-twitch fibers to work at a high intensity, even though they're already awash in acidosis.  We can train this in a specific way by doing certain workouts (or just by racing), but how could we train, in a general, non-specific way, the ability to recruit fast-twitch fibers in a fatigued state? A general strength circuit is the perfect solution.

 3.  Scientific research on strength circuits and hormone levels

If you keep up with pro running news, you'll know that there has been a lot of buzz recently about the possibility of illegal doping being much more widespread than was previously thought.  There are three go-to pharmacological aids for drug cheats: EPO, which boosts your red blood cell production, testosterone, which boosts muscle growth and recovery, and human growth hormone, which also aids in muscle growth and recovery.  Wouldn't it be great to be able to boost levels of these hormones naturally?

With EPO, we're out of luck unless we live at altitude, but with regards to hGH and testosterone, the situation is a little more interesting.  Scientific research shows that a general strength circuit designed with a couple of guidelines in mind will boost levels of human growth hormone and testosterone in the blood for several hours post-exercise.1

By now, it should be clear that strength circuits should be a part of any competitive 800m to 10,000m runner, and should be a serious consideration for long-distance runners from a recovery and injury-resilience perspective too.  The next question is how to actually design a general strength routine.  To do so, we'll look to the scientific literature for guidance. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

My history with loss of leg coordination while running

I try to avoid anecdotes and personal histories when dealing with running injuries.  They're fraught with the dangers of recall and confirmation bias, and worse, people seem hardwired to give more credence to a personal story than reams of scientific data.  But in the case of loss of leg coordination, I don't really have a choice—the scientific data is extremely sparse, and there aren't even any case studies in the medical literature describing anyone with the hip-centric loss of leg coordination symptoms that seem to be a variant of "runner's dystonia."  On top of that, I know of only a handful of people who claim to have made full recoveries from the loss of coordination problem—and I'm one of them.  As you read my account, remember that I'm not a doctor, and I'm also not an unbiased observer.  My views on solving loss of leg coordination are no doubt informed by my own experience.  For a more objective review of the problem, see my extensive article on loss of coordination published last week, or the executive summary.

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To understand my story about loss of leg coordination, it will help to have a bit of a background on my journey as a runner.  I started running cross country and track as a freshman in high school, having done a little bit of each sport in middle school.  I didn't become a runner until my sophomore year of high school.  Until then, my times were decidedly unimpressive, and I did not train in the offseason or take the sport seriously.  Starting in fall my sophomore year, I began running year-round.  I was not particularly athletic, so I did not have other sports to do in the winter and summer anyways.  Plus, I wanted to see if I could improve.

And I did—I dropped from 5:40 in the mile as a freshman to 4:40 as a junior.  During those two years, I started experimenting with doing longer runs (12+ miles), and even ran Grandma's Marathon after my sophomore and junior years.  I did not start doing what I would now consider "high mileage" until before my senior year; that summer, I had a few weeks around 80 miles, and that winter, I averaged over 70 miles a week for almost three months, with a high of 90.  Again, this paid off, and it set me down the path of being a high mileage runner.  Throughout high school I was eminently healthy; I never missed a single day due to injury.

I ran in college, and continued improving thanks to high mileage training.  A few 100-mile weeks my freshman year dropped my times further, and going into my sophomore year, I logged eleven weeks in a row over 100, including several at or above 120.  This culminated in probably the best race of my career, a 25:34 cross country 8k in Wisconsin.  I missed that winter for a non-running-related injury, but with that exception, I did not miss much time due to injuries until my junior year.  Starting that summer, and for the rest of my college career, my progression was interrupted by overuse injuries, mostly in my hips and feet.  Later, I would realize that a lot of these were likely the result of not enough hip strength work, but that's a story for another time.

In many ways, my background fits the typical profile of a runner who develops loss of leg coordination: young, fairly serious and competitive about training, and a history of high-volume training.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Loss of leg coordination while running as a task-specific focal dystonia distinct from runner's dystonia: An executive summary of findings

Loss of leg coordination while running as a task-specific focal dystonia distinct from runner's dystonia
An executive summary of findings on loss of leg coordination while running

John Davis

 Loss of leg coordination while running is the working term for a rare neurological problem that occurs in long distance runners.  It is characterized by a gradually increasing sensation of tightness, weakness, and poor coordination in the muscles of one leg that occurs only while running—stopping to walk or stand still all but eliminates the symptoms.  Runners with loss of leg coordination cannot point to a specific area of pain; rather, there is a more general feeling of tightness, vague aching, and an overwhelming sense of something being "off" with the functioning of the affected leg when they run.  Further, classic signs of neurological injury, like numbness, shooting pain, or a "pins and needles" sensation, are absent.

These symptoms are also highly specific to running.  Other activities, even cyclical and highly aerobically demanding ones like using an elliptical or riding a bike, do not reliably recreate the symptoms.   The loss of coordination sensation is typically localized to the muscles which are the prime movers of the legs: the calves, the hamstrings, the quadriceps, and the gluteal muscles.  Despite the weak, uncoordinated sensation while running, absolute muscular strength is normal. 

In most cases, running longer, faster, and on flat surfaces exacerbates the problem.  Some runners find they lose coordination with any kind of running, but most are able to run at an easy pace on rough terrain (e.g. on trails or over cross-country).  Short intervals of fast running are not usually a problem, but longer intervals at fast speeds and especially fast continuous runs and races bring on loss of leg coordination more rapidly.  Ceasing a run makes the loss of coordination sensation go away almost immediately, but some lower leg muscular tightness can persist for a few days after a particularly bad episode.

Searching for answers on loss of leg coordination while running

This is an extremely long article.  For a shorter executive summary, click here to read in your browser, or click here for a printable PDF version.

 Most of the injury articles on this website are long, detailed, and rigorously cited, with their claims being supported by solid scientific evidence.  Although this, too, is an injury article, it is not like the rest.  The topic of this post is a rare and frightening phenomenon that I and others have tentatively termed "loss of leg coordination while running."  This is an "injury" of sorts that has affected me and, as a very long thread on has made me aware, many other runners.

Because medical and scientific literature on this problem is scant, much of what follows is based on reports from runners with loss of leg coordination and logical inferences from what's known about how the body works it is running correctly.  Because of this, you should view everything I have to say below with skepticism, especially because I'm not an unbiased writer (having suffered from this problem for quite a while before recovering). 

I told myself I would write this article when I was able to run 50 miles per week again with some faster running.  That point came and went a long time ago—it was far easier to get distracted by my own running again, but it's long past time I write this article.

The working definition of loss of leg coordination is something that I've come up with by analyzing as many descriptions of the problem as I can find.  Much, though not all, comes from posts on the thread. 

Put in its most universal terms, "loss of leg coordination while running" is characterized by a gradually increasing sensation of tightness, weakness, and poor coordination in the muscles of one leg, but only while running—stopping to walk or stand still lessens the symptoms.  There isn't pain, per se, just tightness, vague aching, and an overwhelming sense of something being off.  And the sensation of losing coordination isn't localized to any precise area; rather, it is associated with a more general feeling of your leg not doing what you want it to do.  It feels like your stride is just "off," like your leg just won't go.  Instead, it flops along uselessly. 

Further, these symptoms seem highly specific to running.  Other activities, even cyclical and highly aerobically demanding ones like using an elliptical or riding a bike, do not reliably recreate the symptoms.   The loss of coordination sensation is typically localized to the muscles which are the prime movers of the legs: the calves, the hamstrings, the quads, the calves, and the glutes.  Some people find that the tightness and poor coordination progress from one muscle group to another as the problem worsens, but there isn't any distinct pattern to this.  Some posters find that their problems start in their feet or ankles and progress upwards, while others have issues in the thigh and calf only.  Though these muscles feel weak and uncoordinated when you run, you can head into the weight room and do just as much weight on hamstring curls, leg extensions, and single-leg squats on your "bad" leg as you can on your good one, so there is no frank loss of muscular strength.  Though this initial wave of symptoms might sound similar to a nerve problem like sciatica, there is not usually any numbness, shooting pains, or "pins and needles" feelings like you would expect with a nerve problem. 

Certain running conditions also exacerbate the problem.  Running faster magnifies the degree to which coordination in the leg is lost, with high speeds resulting in the leg seeming to flop around uselessly, while the opposite leg (the healthy one) picking up the slack.  Puzzlingly, flat, even surfaces like tracks, roads, and treadmills bring on symptoms to a much greater degree than uneven terrain like trails or grassy cross country courses.  Some runners describe being able to complete very long and challenging runs or workouts without any problem on rough terrain, but being completely unable to run any faster than a slow, easy pace on flat surfaces.  Other runners are able to run at an easy pace, but cannot complete any workouts involving faster running.  Some experienced problems at virtually any pace, though faster running on flat surfaces certainly magnified the issue.  Stopping makes the loss of coordination sensation go away almost immediately, but some lower leg muscular tightness or "off-ness" can persist for days after a particularly bad episode, even if you aren't running on the following days.

Further complicating the diagnostic puzzle is the fact that continuing to train with loss of leg coordination often causes a slew of secondary injuries because of the abrupt change in stress on the body.  Several runners reported foot, knee, and hip injuries that occurred concurrently.  In my case, I suffered a sacral stress fracture.  The people with this problem also have the usual smattering of Achilles, plantar fascia, knee, and shin issues that are common in regular runners. 

Add on top of that all numerous health-related idiosyncrasies ("I get tingling sensations in my left elbow," "If I flex my hamstring on my bad leg for a while, it cramps up," "I tore my hamstring playing hockey when I was 12 and have a lot of scar tissue"), plus the rarity of the problem, and you've got an incredibly difficult to diagnose issue.  It's not even clear that all or even most of the people posting about this issue online even have the same problem. 

Doctors, physical therapists, chiropractors, and any number of other medical professionals seem unable to pin down the problem.  Some of the posters report seeing dozens of different doctors and spent thousands of dollars yet coming back empty-handed.  MRIs, nerve conduction studies, and other diagnostic tests either come back clean or identify fairly common issues that are often asymptomatic, like a herniated lumbar spine disc.  Runners report that physical therapists and chiropractors inevitably find muscular weakness or tightness, often in the hip muscles and hamstrings, but they report that their rehab exercises have, at best, very limited and short-term success.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Running specialization for young athletes: when should you become a year-round runner?

As my bio states, one of my areas of interest as a coach and writer is long-term development for young athletes: what is the best way to take a talented young runner and maximize his or her ability, both in high school and college/beyond? I've been thinking a lot recently about the idea of specialization—at what age is it appropriate or optimal to become a full time distance runner who trains year-round instead of doing other sports?

Perhaps eight or ten years ago, opinion in the running community leaned pretty heavily towards early specialization.  AAU track meets were (and to some extent, still are) popular for runners in elementary and middle school, and high school cross country programs saw a lot of growth in numbers when they started integrating a middle school "feeder program."  In the past few years, however, it feels like momentum is swinging back towards not having runners focus exclusively on running until a lot later—continuing to be multi-sport athletes throughout all of high school, in some cases.  I think the genesis of this was the success of runners like Grant Fischer, who played soccer up until his senior year of high school, plus backlash against hyper-early specialization in big-money sports like football and hockey, where training can completely take over your life, even at a young age. 

Coaches pushing ever-younger kids into two, three, or four-hour daily practices, plus the pressure of performing well at such an early age, can have some real negative consequences on enjoyment of the sport for a young athlete.  At the same time, missing out on too much of the fundamentals will definitely put you at a technical disadvantage, at least temporarily, compared to your competitors. 

This is true for most team and skill-based sports, but what about running? As distance runners, we trade in technical proficiency for raw physiological fitness, and because our sport is a repetitive, high-impact one, we can't put in long hours of training at a young age like swimmers or lacrosse players can.  The typical middle school or high school runner runs cross country and track, perhaps doing a bit of summer running before cross country, but does not train at all over the winter.  Maybe he or she plays basketball, swims, or does indoor soccer.  At what point should we encourage a promising young distance runner to fully commit to the sport? And are there any disadvantages to dedicating yourself to distance running at an early age?

When is the latest you should commit to year-round running?

There's no denying that having a strong lifetime mileage base is important in distance running.  The age of the top runners in the world for each event is proportional to the race distance: The best 1500m runners are 23-24, the best 5k and 10k runners are 26 to 28 years old, and the best marathoners are often in their thirties.1  The older you get, the more lifetime training you can accumulate, and the stronger your aerobic system can be. 

Additionally, a particular race distance has a certain minimum level of training that is required to in order to run it well.  Barring a few supremely talented exceptions, nobody runs a great 10k off thirty miles a week.  The question for the high school runner, then, is "How many consecutive training cycles are required to reach an adequate training level for 5k cross country and 3200 meters?"

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Basic Training Principles is FREE to download on Kindle for the next 2 days!

Quick update! Through Amazon's KDP Select program, I'm able to run limited-time free promotional campaigns for my e-books.  At 12:01am PST on Monday, June 29th, my first booklet, Basic Training Principles for Middle and Long-Distance Running will be FREE to download and share forever for the next 48 hours! Get your copy while you can!

If you don't already know about Basic Training Principles, here's the blurb!

"Rome, 1960. World record holder Roger Moens headlined an impressive field in the men’s 800m final at the Olympic Games. At the gun, Moens led with a fast pace, and by 600m, the lead pack had thinned to five runners. It looked to be a sure victory for the Belgian. But then, something curious happened..."

So begins Basic Training Principles for Middle and Long-Distance Running, a short booklet which gives you an introduction into the structure of a proper training program through the eyes of Arthur Lydiard's legendary training methods, first described in 1962. This booklet is short, gripping, informative, and written at a level which even complete novices can understand. It is designed to be an introductory lesson in fundamental training methods for newly-minted competitive runners.

This booklet was written to get young, promising high school runners eager to embark on a training journey and to set them on the right track for long term development, but any runner, young or old, newbie or veteran, can gain something from Basic Training Principles.

 Thanks as always for your support and I hope you enjoy this free deal! If you enjoy it, it would be fantastic if you could leave a review! Click here to go directly to the Amazon e-book store for Basic Training Principles.  Sometimes it can take the free deal a few hours to kick in, so if it's still priced at $0.99 at midnight PST, wait 'til morning and it should be free! The deal lasts until 11:59pm on Tuesday night.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Modern Training and Physiology & Basic Training Principles are now available on Kindle!

Exciting news! My first full-length book, Modern Training and Physiology for Middle and Long-Distance Runners, is now available on Kindle! It took a bit longer than expected to convert the book to a Kindle-friendly format, but it's finally done.  The paperback version of Modern Training is still available on Amazon if you want a hard copy.

There are two great things about the Kindle edition.  First, it's only $3.99! And second, if you've already bought the hard copy, you can buy the Kindle edition for 50% off with the Amazon MatchBook service! Handy if you've already read my book but want to be able to reference it on the go.

Additionally, you can also find Basic Training Principles for Middle and Long-Distance Running on the Kindle store.  Basic Training is an introductory booklet to running training aimed at middle and high-school aged runners (though anyone can learn something from it!).  Basic Training is listed at only $0.99, but better, it will be completely free from June 29th to June 30th! Be sure to download your free copy on this upcoming Monday or Tuesday.

If you enjoy either of these books, please write a review on Amazon and tell your friends! Modern Training and Basic Training are the culmination of many years of work, and your support makes it all worth it. Thanks to you, Modern Training has sold almost 1,200 copies! Now, that's not going to impress any publishing industry big-wigs, but that's still pretty cool.  Over one thousand runners have bought this book! Now it's accessible to even more people through the Kindle store.