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  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.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Five steps to long-term success in high school boys' distance running

A lot of people like to overcomplicate training.  Advanced workouts, intricate training schedules, and complex strength circuits all have their place in pushing the limits of talent and race preparation, but when it comes to the real legwork of training—getting a young, talented runner into great shape, or getting big improvements out of a less talented runner—the road to success is really pretty simple. 

The following steps, in order, are the path that I believe male high school distance runners should take if they want to improve long-term.  The training progression laid out below may not be ideal for running your fastest right now, but that's not the intent—the intent is to improve long-term. 

The specifics of a training program are highly variable and depend on a lot of factors.  That's why I'm not a huge fan of pre-packaged training plans.  But despite that, there are principles that apply to nearly everyone.  There will always be exceptions: if you're very talented but highly injury-prone, for example, you'd want to adopt a substantially different plan, as consistency and health is more important than peak volume.  Runners with substantial speed (under 56 in the 400m for boys without very much training) would also likely adopt a schedule with more focus on developing speed.  But if you're a relatively durable but average, unathletic, skinny guy, this is the roadmap you want to follow during your "off season" training—i.e. the summer and the winter. 

Your off-season training is usually the part about your running where you have the most control, and it's where you'll likely make the most improvements.  Another perk is that you are pretty much guaranteed some good races if your off-season training is good.  While training and workouts during the racing season are obviously important, it's very hard for anything but a totally incompetent coach to screw you up too badly if you're already an aerobic monster. 

Many of the same principles apply to girls, but I'm not comfortable putting down concrete paces or run distances because I just haven't coached very many of them.

The below steps should be done in order, and you should not move ahead to the next step until you're able to do the previous one.  For example, if you can't run six days per week without getting injured, figure out WHY and fix it before you try to do all of your runs faster.  Avoiding injury is a big subject, one which deserves its own "roadmap to success," which I'll write up some other time. 

A few of these steps can be adopted simultaneously or in any order, and are noted below.  Do note that it will take a long time to progress through this plan.  Not "long" as in months; "long" as in years.  In most cases, the year you start running six days a week will not (or should not) be the one where you start doubling four days a week and doing fifteen mile long runs.  Running is for the patient—marshal your ambition!

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Championship Racing with Renato Canova, Part II: The Training of Caleb Ndiku

Some of the most popular posts on my blog are the articles on the training schedules and coaching philosophy of Renato Canova, arguably one of the most successful running coaches in the world.  Canova, born in Italy, rose to prominence by coaching many top Italian runners but is best-known now for his work with elite Kenyan runners.  The Olympic and World Championship medalists he has coached are too many to list concisely.  But what's perhaps more remarkable about Renato Canova is his willingness to share the training schedules of his athletes with the rest of the world.  While other coaches keep their athletes' schedules tightly under wraps, Canova posts them online, usually at, for anyone to look at.

This article concerns the last nine weeks of the training of Caleb Ndiku in preparation for the 2014 World Indoor Championships at 3000m in March.  Ndiku, an incredibly talented 21-year-old Kenyan, secured the gold medal in a slow, tactical race with a long kick from 500m out.  As Ndiku lacked the blistering finishing speed of other top runners, Canova designed his training schedule to foster the development of a long, sustained drive to the finish.  The strategy worked out brilliantly, as Ndiku covered the last 1000m in under 2:22—28.4 second 200 pace!

If you haven't read anything about Renato Canova's training philosophy, you can use my article, "Something New in Training: The Methods of Renato Canova," as a helpful introduction.

Another good companion article is Preparing for Championship Races with Renato Canova, an article of mine which reviewed the preparations of Sylvia Kibet, Silas Kiplagat, Imane Merga, and Thomas Longosiwa before the 2011 World Championships in Daegu.  You will see many similarities between those schedules and the training of Caleb Ndiku. I have also analyzed Canova's marathon training schedules for those who are interested.

A Brief Note on Percentages

Most workouts in a Renato Canova training schedule are prescribed using percentages of race pace.  Canova does the math a little different than an American might.  Percentages are always expressed as fractional deviations from the original pace—so to take 90% of 5:00 mile pace, Canova (and I when figuring out the paces of these workouts) would do 5 * 1.1 = 5.5 or 5:30 per mile, not 5 / 0.9 to get 5:33 per mile. All percentages portrayed in the schedule are calculated using this method.


As usual, I need to caution that these interpretations are wholly my own.  I'm not Renato Canova, so I can't guarantee that my analysis is correct.  So take what I say with a grain of salt.  With this schedule in particular, I had to make a lot of educated guesses, as I can't compare it to a similar schedule from another athlete preparing for the same race as I could with the other Canova schedules I analyzed.  Because of this, it's hard to distinguish what might be an idiosyncratic workout that plays to a unique strength of Ndiku, or something that is a part of the general Canova plan.  I also take responsibility for any typos or mistakes, of which there are sure to be at least one or two.

The Training Schedule

Caleb Ndiku's last nine weeks of training are available as a .pdf here.  The paces of his workouts are provided both in actual pace/splits and as percentages of 3k and 5k pace.  I used Ndiku's 3k performance of 7:38 in Düsseldorf as a basis for the 3k pacing, and a converted value (7:38 → 13:18) for his 5k fitness.  

You will notice a ~4 week gap in the workouts around when Ndiku traveled to Europe to race.  Canova did not provide Ndiku's schedule during this period, so unfortunately I had to leave it blank. The schedule itself is sized to 17"x11" paper but can be easily printed at 11"x8.5", albeit in a pretty small font.

The original LetsRun thread can be found here.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Brief thoughts: How to properly run interval workouts

I'm a big proponent of thinking about HOW you do a workout, not just what workout you do.  Just as there are good workouts and bad workouts (or perhaps "not so good" workouts), there are also right and wrong ways to go about doing a workout. 

As a high school coach, I see a lot of young runners going about doing workouts the wrong way.  While I do my best to correct them, coaching can only go so far.  Experience, understanding, and fitness also have a lot to do with your ability to run well in workouts. 

Let's say the workout of the day is 6x1000m at anaerobic threshold with a 200m jog recovery—goal pace, 3:45 per km.  Novice runners usually go about doing the workouts one of the following ways:

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Runners Connect podcast on training, injuries, and physiology

I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed by Lucas Felten of for their regular podcast on all things running related.  Over the course of the 45-minute interview, we talked about the science behind why runners get injured, what you can do to prevent injuries yourself, and how to go about training the right way.  It's great to get an opportunity to articulate my philosophy about how to approach training for distance runners and to spread the word about avoiding injury.  We also talked about physiology, threshold training, and my book, Modern Training and Physiology for Middle and Long Distance Runners.

If you've got some time to spare, check it out! The link below leads to the splash page for the podcast.  Download the mp3 directly here.

4 Simple Methods to Improve Consistency and Reduce Injuries. Interview with research expert John Davis

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Should young athletes undergo testing for heart abnormalities before participating in sports?

One of the big stories in the running world a few weeks ago was Mo Farah's collapse at the New York City Half-Marathon.  Though it turned out okay—Farah regained consciousness and was carted away in a wheelchair, then appeared later at the post-race press conference—for a moment, everyone present surely feared the worst. 

Usually, when runners collapse after a race, they'll be fine.  The most common cause of post-race collapse is a transient drop in blood pressure that occurs when your muscles stop contracting rapidly and when your heart rate drops precipitously after you stop running.  After lying down for a bit, elevating their legs, drinking some water, and being tended to by medical staff on-site, they'll recover quickly.  But occasionally, runners collapse at a race for much more serious reasons.  Hyperthermia and hyponatremia usually affect slower runners for a number of reasons (they tend to be heavier, their race takes longer, they have more time to drink too much water, etc.), but are rare in elite runners.1  But being an elite runner offers no protection from another cause of collapse: sudden cardiac arrest.

In 2008, professional runner and Olympic hopeful Ryan Shay collapsed and died only five miles into the Olympic Trials Marathon.  The cause was a previously-undetected heart defect, known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.  Though Ryan Shay's death was one of the most well-known in recent memory, a substantial number of runners die of sudden cardiac failure every year, either while training or while racing.  Many of these are middle-aged or older runners succumbing to the same kind of heart disease that claims the lives of thousands of sedentary people every year, but a troubling number are young, seemingly healthy runners aged 35 or younger.  These people, like Ryan Shay, have undetected heart abnormalities that leave their hearts prone to failure.  Just last week, a 16-year-oldgirl collapsed and died after the Virginia Beach Half Marathon, one of a significant number of high-school and college-aged athletes to suffer sudden cardiac death during the course of their athletic pursuits. 

Hard numbers are difficult to come by—given the rarity of sudden cardiac death, numbers in individual studies are all over the board.  But the incidence rate appears to be around one death per 100-200,000 young athletes per year.2  While this seems like a vanishingly small number, when you consider that there are about eight million high school and college athletes in the United States at any given time, this lines up with the estimate of about one hundred young athletes dying every year in the United States, extrapolating from a small study of Minnesota high school sport participants.3  Of course, sedentary young people die from sudden cardiac death too, but being an athlete increases your risk by about threefold.