Thursday, November 20, 2014

Building a plyometrics program for distance runners



Dr Yuri Verkhoshansky (L), the "Father of plyometrics"
Usually, training techniques in distance running are ahead of the science.  A lot of things most runners and coaches would consider core elements of a training program, like high mileage, short repeats for speed, or long runs aren't supported by a solid body of science.  And that's okay! Some things, like proper long-term development, just aren't well-suited for a laboratory study.  What's really perplexing, though, is when training lags behind the science.  One area where this is true is explosive strength training, and plyometrics exercises in particular. 

Background

"Plyometrics" is a term that was applied to explosive jumping exercises developed originally by the Soviets.  The actual root of the word means, in Greek (plio / plythein + metric), "to increase the measurement."   Today, "plyometrics," or "plyos" for short, is often taken to refer to pretty much any body weight jumping exercise, but historically it referred to a very specific kind of jump training. 

True plyometric training takes advantage of a muscle process called the stretch-shortening cycle, which (without getting too bogged down in details) allows your muscles and tendons to temporarily store energy from impact for a fraction of a second, then release it to help rebound off the ground.  This is what allows you to jump higher after doing a "windup" instead of jumping from a dead stop.  The stretch-shortening cycle plays a major role in running economy in distance runners, as the greater the percentage of impact energy you can return, the less "new" energy you need to expend each step.  The critical thing to remember about the stretch-shortening cycle is that it is time-dependent: unlike a spring, it can't store energy indefinitely.  The stretch-shortening cycle works best when your contact time with the ground is limited to a few tenths of a second, so slow or medium-speed jumps (or jumps which don't involve an impact immediately prior to takeoff)  aren't truly plyometric.

Additionally, plyometric training is designed to get maximum force and energy return out of your muscles.  As such, each plyometric exercises in a plyo training regimen needs to be done fresh.  This means plyometrics are not a conditioning tool; doing many plyometric jumps in succession without taking adequate rest undermines your ability to return the maximal amount of energy possible, and thus hampers the training effect.  There is no such thing as "plyometric circuit training" (though certainly similar exercises can be used in circuit training).

The lack of plyometrics programs for distance runners

Getting back to our initial point, plyometric training is a well-documented way to improve running economy and performance in distance runners.  This has been documented in recreational runners (~10 miles per week, no performance data)1, moderately trained competitive runners (35-50 miles per week, 3km PRs of 9:22-10:17)2 and highly trained elite runners (60-90 miles per week, 3km PRs near 8:30).3  The fact that plyometric training has been demonstrated as an effective training method even in high level runners would make you think that it'd be quite popular.  Unfortunately, that's not the case.

I don't doubt that many top runners and coaches employ plyometric training, but this practice hasn't percolated down to the distance running rank-and-file.  This might be intentional, or it might just be that high level coaches are too busy to bother with publishing their entire strength and conditioning programs.  There's certainly no shortage of brief articles or blog posts extolling the virtues of plyometrics, but these conclude with bland recommendations like adding a few squat jumps to your weekly routine.  Full plyometrics training programs designed for distance runners are sorely lacking.  After having researched plyometrics in-depth and not finding anything in the way of quality plyometrics programs for distance runners, I decided to construct my own.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Getting the warm-up right



 
How do you warm up for a race or workout? If you're like most high school and college runners, your warm-up is probably not too far off from Joe Rubio's humorous characterization of the typical runner's pre-workout routine

"10-15 min easy. 4 half-hearted strides. BS a bit. Run the workout"

This might be sufficient if you're a novice runner.  But if you're at all serious about competitive running, it's well worth the time to take your warm-up more seriously.  Today, I'd like to take a look at several elements of the warm-up and consider how a more advanced runner might use them to his or her advantage.

To be clear, the purpose of a warm-up is to get your body ready for the demands of the workout (or the race).  Because of this, different workouts or different races will necessarily demand different warm-up routines, as will different individual runners.  If you warm up for a 10k the same way you warm up for a mile, you probably need to reconsider your warm-up routine.  In this article, we will analyze several elements of the warm-up routine and discuss various ways to modify them based on the situation.

1.  The warm-up run

The first and most obvious part of a warm-up routine is the warm-up run itself.  The most basic and most common way of doing this is 8-15 minutes of easy running.  This can be modified in two directions to suit your needs: you can either do more running (20-30 minutes, for example), or you can do some or all of the warm-up run at a faster speed. 

Running at a higher intensity near the end of your warm-up routine primes your body for a sustained effort in a workout or a race.  If you jog a bit, do a few short strides, and start doing a workout like 8x1000m at anaerobic threshold with a minute rest, you'll find that you don't feel your best until the second or third repeat.  That's because your body wasn't fully revved up for the first one.  Like starting a car engine cold, you naturally feel off-kilter during your first few minutes of faster running.  If a workout or a race is important to you, it's vital to get this off-kilter sensation out of the way before it starts. 

Now, it's not mandatory to do faster running during the warm-up run.  I do think it's mandatory to do some sustained faster running at some point during the warm-up as a whole, but it can also come in the form of a medium-length repeat done before or after strides, which we'll discuss later.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Using Shoe Goo to secure a loose insole in racing flats


I'm a big fan of doing faster workouts in racing flats—lightweight, low-profile running shoes designed for road races.  The light weight allows you to go run faster, and the lower heel-to-toe differential gets your ankles, calves, and Achilles tendon used to working through a broader range of motion.  This can help prevent lower leg injuries and calf soreness that can crop up when you do a longer race in spikes. 

You can see creases from the crumpling

Partially thanks to the now-fading minimalist movement, racing flats have gotten a lot lighter and lower to the ground over the past several years.  While this is great from a performance perspective, the drive for ultra-light shoes sometimes causes design flaws to be overlooked, and this can ruin an otherwise-great shoe. 

I've been wearing New Balance's RC5000 flat in track workouts and road races for about nine months now, and overall, it's been great.  But recently I've had problems with the shoe's insole crumpling up under my toes.  Usually, if a racing flat has an unusually-thin insole, as the RC5000 does, it is glued down so this does not happen.  This is the case with virtually all insoles in spikes as well—having a flap of foam or fabric peel up under your forefoot during a race or workout is extremely irritating.  But New Balance either chose not to glue it down, or used an inferior glue that can't withstand the stresses of fast running. 

In any case, I decided to glue the insole back into the shoe so I could keep using these flats.  I contacted New Balance to see if they had any advice on what adhesive to use, but their response, quoted below, wasn't particularly helpful:

We don't recommend gluing your insoles in your shoes. We make our shoes with removable inserts to allow you to further customize your shoe fit through the use of our upgraded insoles or your own orthotic. You can try another type of insole, such as Dr. Scholl's. Another idea is trying a different lacing method to keep your insoles from moving

So instead, I did some research.  Surprisingly, there is not much on the internet about how to fix a running shoe insole that's peeling or crumpling up under your foot.  I've used Super Glue (cyanoacrylate) to fix a peeling insole before, but that was on a pair of Nike spikes with a flat, smooth surface immediately underneath the insole.  The bottom of the New Balance flat has a mesh overlay, visible above, and I suspected that Super Glue would not adhere very well to it and could potentially leave hard lumps under my feet.  So that wouldn't do.  I considered a number of other adhesives, like contact cement, epoxy, and barge glue, but they didn't seem like good candidates: they either dried into a hard, brittle substance, cured nearly instantly, or wouldn't work well on foam EVA and fabric.  I settled on using Shoe Goo, a polymer adhesive that hardens into a strong but flexible rubbery substance after curing for several hours. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Brief Thoughts: Long easy runs in marathon training


The long run is a central piece of marathon training for everyone from recreational marathoners all the way up to national-level competitors.  There are a lot of reasons why distance runners, and marathoners in particular, do long runs; these include increasing mitochondrial and capillary density, improving leg strength and resilience to the pounding of a two, three, or four-hour race, and, most pertinent to this post, to put in mileage in a low glycogen availability state.

If you aren't up on the latest training jargon, that last point just means that one purported benefit of long runs is to deplete the stored carbohydrates in your body so you are forced to burn more fat.  When your body has run out of carbohydrates, you have "hit the wall," colloquially speaking—fat is much less efficient to burn than carbohydrates, so you end up slowing down significantly.  When this occurs in a race, it's sometimes called "bonking."  This is obviously undesirable during a marathon, and one way to avoid it should be to train your body to parse out its carbohydrate stores more efficiently, sparing more for the end of the race, hence the long run as a staple of marathon training.  The long run takes on such importance in a typical marathon training plan that you'll often see runners doing as little as 30 or 40 miles a week putting in a 16-22-mile long run every week to prepare for the marathon.  Moreover, this run is virtually always done at an easy pace, or with only small segments at marathon pace.

There are a number of problems with this situation, but the one I'd like to focus on today is the carbohydrate-burning aspect.  In short, doing long easy runs is not going to deplete most runners' carbohydrate stores! Let's take a look at why.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Preparing for championship races with Renato Canova, Part III: Caleb Ndiku's training before the Commonwealth Games 5k


Workout schedules and analysis of the training of Renato Canova's athletes have become some of the most popular content on my website.  Today, we're taking a look at a short block of training done by Caleb Ndiku.  Regular readers will remember Ndiku—I analyzed Ndiku's training schedule before his victory over 3000m at this year's World Indoor Championships.  Ndiku's outdoor campaign this spring and summer included a 13:01 win at the Prefontaine Classic 5k in Eugene, a 7:31 3k in Europe, and a victory at the Commonwealth Games in the 5k.

Canova graciously provided the final seventeen days of Ndiku's preparations for the Commonwealth Games, and in usual fashion, I have formatted them into a printable schedule and translated the paces into relative percentages of race pace.  The preparations for this race are especially interesting because, as Canova remarks on the LetsRun thread in which he detailed Ndiku's training, it was written with the assumption that reigning Olympic and World Champion Mo Farah would be in the race, and thus Ndiku would need to be in peak shape to win.  Farah ended up not running, citing medical problems, handing Ndiku a fairly clean victory over compatriot Isiah Koech and New Zealander Zane Robertson.

 
Info and Disclaimer
All of the usual caveats about interpretations apply—I'm just a coach and writer, I'm not Renato Canova himself, so this is only my opinion and analysis of the training.  And I accept any responsibility for mistakes or typos.  Percentages are calculated in the "Canova" method, meaning that 90% of 5k pace, for example is 5k pace * 1.10.  Based on Ndiku's performance at the various Diamond League meets this spring, I set Ndiku's current 5k pace at 13:00 for the calculations.  Varying this by 5-10 seconds will have no significant impact on the percentage calculations.

At the link below, you'll find the training schedule, formatted, converted to imperial distances, and with paces translated to relative speeds.


 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Feature in Running Times on sports drinks

I've been up to a lot behind the scenes recently: doing a lot of research for an upcoming injury article, doing freelance work, and keeping up with my regular articles at RunnersConnect.net.  One of my biggest recent projects was an article for Running Times magazine on some of the marketing claims of new sports drinks.  The hard copy version came out in the July print issue, and the online version was just posted.  Check it out!




Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The different roles of strength training for distance runners


Strength training for distance runners is a pretty popular and contentious topic in the world of training, and I don't have much up on my blog about it.  I recently got an email asking about my opinion on strength work for distance runners, and it spurred me to condense what I know so far about the subject, so I've adapted my response to that email into a blog post.

Strength work, and especially weight lifting, is in a bit of an awkward place right now, because (unlike most things with training) the science is actually ahead of the coaching—or at least the coaching material that's out in the open.  Weight lifting was dismissed for so long for distance runners that there's very little training literature on how to actually go about integrating it into a training routine.  On one hand you've got running coaches who know nothing about lifting saying you should only do body weight stuff 1x a week, and on the other you've got weight lifting coaches who know nothing about running saying you should lift heavy 3-4x a week and not run on those days.

Whether it was fears that weight lifting would cause a runner to "bulk up" and slow down, or claims that most strength work isn't specific enough to distance running, a comprehensive theory of how strength training fits into an overarching training plan is distinctly lacking in the coaching literature.  I don't doubt that there are plenty of coaches out there who are far more knowledgeable than I am on this subject—there certainly are—but there's a distinct lack of literature (books, articles, interviews) describing how to go about piecing together a comprehensive strength program.  Sure, you can watch a video on Flotrack of Galen Rupp doing single-leg barbell squats, or read a magazine article about how Shalane Flanagan does hurdle drills for hip mobility, but there's no Daniels' Running Formula for strength work.  This problem is particularly bad when it comes to weight lifting.

When evaluating whether a certain kind of strength work is useful for you, you need to ask yourself "what purpose is this serving?" and "is this the best way to achieve the outcome I want?" Weight lifting and strength training in general can serve one of several purposes in training: injury prevention, general strength, maximal muscle fiber recruitment, or running-specific explosive training.  I'll go through each of these four purposes one by one.


Strength work for injury prevention

A lot of people think that you should lift or do "core work" to prevent injury, but really, the best kind of strength  for injury prevention is boring, physical-therapy style exercises for hip strength.  Scientific research supports strengthening the hip muscles, ESPECIALLY the abductors and external rotators, as a way to prevent injury—especially knee injuries like runner's knee or IT band syndrome, but hip strength appears to be connected with overall injury rates as well.

There's a huge range of hip strength exercises out there.  Based on some rudimentary research on muscle activation patterns, I particularly like these four:

*Side leg lifts
*Clamshell leg lifts
*Glute  bridge with leg lefts
*Monster walk with theraband

I myself do these four exercises six or seven days a week, 20-25x for the leg lifts, 90-120sec for the glute bridge, and 2x30 for the monster walk.  This is just one example, and there are a lot of other exercises that are likely equally good, but if you're ONLY looking to prevent injury, this is the kind of strength work you want to do.  It's not fun, it's not exciting, and it's not physically challenging in the same way a pushup is.  That's why I call this routine "the boring exercises" with the high school runners I coach.  Instead of a 30min ab strength routine, you're far better off just doing hip strength.  Ab strength isn't bad,  per se, but it's not been directly connected to injury risk.

Instead of core strength routines that only strengthen the abs and the lower back, I'm partial to the Pedestal routine, developed initially (I think) by Dan Pfaff and probably popularized among distance runners by John Cook, who coached a number of American elites, including Shannon Rowberry and Leo Manzano.