Saturday, January 23, 2016

What's the point? Considering the various reasons to go for a run

Do you understand why you go running? I don't mean on a philosophical or motivational level; I mean on an actual performance-related day-to-day level: do you know why and how going for a regular run (as opposed to an interval workout or a specifically-paced tempo session) helps you run faster?

If you know your physiology—or if you've read my book, Modern Training and Physiology
—you can probably rattle off a number of reasons.  Increased red blood cell count, more mitochondria, deeper capillary beds, et cetera, et cetera.  All of this improves your aerobic capabilities, and this is why the first thing to do in order to get faster is to run consistently, and run more.

If you approach the question of why you should go for a run with the mindset of a complete novice, you'll realize there are some obvious points to consider.  How far should you run? How fast should you run? Should you run the same speed every day, and the same speed year-round?

"Going running" is the staple starch of a distance runner's training.  But I've come to realize that a lot of athletes can't articulate what purpose the plain old boring run serves in training.  They know VO2 max, they know lactate threshold, they know marathon pace and critical velocity and hill sprints and creatine phosphate sprints and any number of other highly technical tools of training, but have only a vague inclination of the purpose of just going for a run.

Part of why this question is a little tricky to answer is because the standard run has a number of different uses.  This leads to confusion about how fast to run, how far to run, and so on.  In order to get a better intuition about the purpose of running generally, and easy running specifically, it will be instructive to look at the range of uses of the "regular run."

Going for a run to improve your aerobic fitness

First, a thought experiment: If a total newcomer to the sport—say, a high school boy who runs 5:30 for the mile in gym class with no running-specific training—starts running 30 minutes at an easy effort every day, will he improve? Certainly, yes.  The new stress on his body will stimulate a physiological response in the form of improvements in the "oxygen delivery system"—all those physiological markers of performance that you read about in textbooks.

The same high school runner, a year later, decides to start training harder.  He still runs 30 minutes per day, but increases the effort level, running at a moderate to fast pace at least 4-5 times per week.  Will he improve? Again, yes.  Though the volume of training is the same, the intensity is higher.  This, again, creates a new, stronger stimulus on the aerobic system, which responds in turn.

Now consider an alternative: Instead of running faster, our runner decides to run 60 minutes per day, still at the same easy effort as before.  Will he improve? Yes.  A new and greater stimulus leads to a proportional increase in fitness.

Finally, a third situation: our runner, a year after starting his training program, decides instead to keep doing the same thing—running 30 minutes per day at an easy effort.  Will he still improve? Maybe a little bit...but eventually, his aerobic fitness will not get any better.  This is one mistake that die-hard Lydiard fans often make—believing that the same training (e.g. 100 miles a week) can produce improvements in aerobic fitness forever.

In reality, of course, high schoolers often do continue to improve year after year with the same training, because they're maturing and developing, which also contributes to performance.  And our simplistic thought experiment doesn't take into account the effects of workouts and races.  If your workouts are progressing over time, in volume, speed, intensity, or some combination thereof, you can improve your performances even if your off-season training is the same, but that's outside the scope of our topic for today.

So, we might conclude that the purpose of running—in the off-season at least—is to produce a new stimulus on the aerobic system in order to improve our fitness.  This is correct, but it's only part of the purpose of the easy (or not-so-easy) run in training.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

How to break the marathon world record in Atlantic City, New Jersey

Welcome to our special coverage of the "World's Fastest Marathon" presented by Johnson & Johnson, I'm host Tim Hutchings here with co-commentator Stuart Storey, broadcasting live from beautiful Atlantic City, New Jersey.  Conditions could hardly be better—as we approach our 8 p.m. start time, the temperature has sunk to a chilly 36° Fahrenheit, and there's hardly a ruffle of wind blowing off the ocean.  Runners from the 10k community race held earlier tonight are touring the newly-revitalized Revel Resort, enjoying the post-race entertainment and placing their bets on the outcome of the upcoming professional races. 
 Floodlights illuminate the ten-kilometer loop course, which the competitors will run criterium-style—four laps for the full marathon distance. 
 The start of our men's race is only a few moments away; the women's field will start two minutes later.  The men's pacers will look to hit halfway in sixty-one minutes flat, and the women have asked for just over sixty-seven minutes at the half.  The goal for both races: the fastest marathon in history...

Does this sound like an impossible dream? Well, read on, and let me convince you.

We are currently living in a golden age of marathon running.  Paul Tergat's 2003 world record has been bested forty-one times in barely twelve years—an unprecedented occurrence, especially considering that top marathoners typically only race one or two marathons per year.  Performances that, only a decade ago, would be earth-shattering are now relegated to also-ran status.

There are a number of reasons why elite marathon times are routinely three to four minutes faster than a decade or two ago: more young, talented runners are moving to the marathon in their prime running years; prize money and appearance fees have never been higher at big-city marathons; track 10,000m events are rare and not profitable to run anymore; and top African runners and their coaches have discovered new training methods that push the body to find new sources of energy, creating a breed of what coach Renato Canova calls "turbo-diesel" runners. 

The relative importance of each of these explanations for the current banner crop of sub-2:05 marathoners is up for debate, but analyzing these is not my goal today.  Instead, I want to outline how current champions can go even faster.

It doesn't involve drugs, and it doesn't involve any changes in training.  Instead, making a number of alterations to the actual marathon event itself should do the trick.  Modern marathons are still conducted according to the logistical needs of a big-city event that caters to the general population, and sometimes, this doesn't result in ideal circumstances for running as fast as possible. 

Attempts at distance world records on the track are planned months in advance: the entire field consists of world-class runners, expert pacers are enlisted to ensure the pace is spot-on, and the venue is selected only after careful consideration of things like temperature, wind, and quality of the running surface.  In the future, marathon world record attempts will look very similar.

Big-city marathons that have played host to world record attempts, like Berlin, London, and Rotterdam, still have a number of deficiencies which could be costing elite marathoners precious seconds over the course of the race.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

How much easier is running on an AlterG? Developing equal-intensity curves for anti-gravity treadmill running

Have you ever run on an AlterG? Once firmly in the realm of space-age gadgetry only available to professional athletes, AlterG anti-gravity treadmills seem to be cropping up everywhere nowadays.  College athletic departments, physical therapy offices, and even the occasional high school are purchasing AlterGs for their widely lauded ability to allow runners and other athletes to continue to train pain-free even with significant injuries.  By reducing your effective body weight, the AlterG allows you to run at normal training speeds with drastically reduced impact and active forces.  With careful modulation of the body weight settings, you can often maintain running fitness even during the rehab period of formerly season-ending injuries like a stress fracture. 

The AlterG achieves its anti-gravity effects using a pressurized "bubble" that encapsulates the runner's lower body.  Special compression shorts with an airtight skirt zip securely into a thick vinyl bubble that surrounds a standard running treadmill.  The heart of the AlterG, a computer-controlled air pump, inflates the bubble to above atmospheric pressure, applying an evenly-distributed force from air pressure to the runner which counters the force of gravity.  By adjusting the air pressure inside the bubble, the AlterG can adjust your effective body weight. The AlterG uses a force plate to correlate changes in the bubble's internal air pressure and your effective weight while standing on the treadmill.

In the past few months, I've been fortunate enough to have access to an AlterG.  I've also been fortunate to not have to use it for any injuries (knock on wood...), so I used the opportunity to look into a question that I've been wondering since learning about the AlterG: How much easier is running on an anti-gravity treadmill compared with running on land?

Because the majority of the metabolic cost of running comes from absorbing impact and accelerating your body weight against the force of gravity to propel yourself forward, it's axiomatic that reducing your effective body weight while maintaining the same running speed will reduce the energetic cost of running.

Notably, this is not the same situation that occurs when a runner loses weight normally—if a 150 lb runner decreases his weight to 140 lbs by restricting his caloric intake, muscle loss is inevitable (this is part of the problem with the idea of "racing weight").  Though he now weighs less, and thus the energetic cost of running a given speed is decreased, he has also lost some muscle, so his ability to produce energy is reduced as well.

There's no good bio-energetic equation to predict the metabolic cost of running; the only way to get a good answer would be with an experiment, which I set out to conduct. 

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.

*   *   *


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.