Gerry Lindgren, Running, and a Lesson About Life

 

“I couldn’t run a few steps without falling over,” Gerry said as we ran through Honolulu’s Ala Moana Park. Little did I know that running with 71-year-old Gerry Lindgren during my short trip to Hawaii to teach the REVO₂LUTION RUNNING™ certification course was going to be so profound of an experience.

Gerry began running as a high school sophomore in Washington state “to get out of the house.” His father, he told me during our run, was an alcoholic and his mother was an enabler.

“I was the slowest runner on the cross country team,” he said. One day, he sprinted out in front of everyone during an interval workout on the track. Halfway through the lap, he ran out of gas and everyone passed him. “I always saw myself as a wimp. I have been a wimp my whole life,” he says.

After that workout, his coach took him aside and told him, “You’ll never beat these guys when they get in shape, but you can help the team by taking the early lead, because they just ran their fastest workout by chasing you.”

And so Gerry Lindgren took the pace out fast in every race so he could help his team.

If you follow track and field, you know who Gerry Lindgren is, and you know how this story ends. This uncoordinated teenage kid who couldn’t run a few steps without falling and who saw himself as a wimp went on to run a 4:01 mile, 8:40 two-mile, and 13:44 5K while in high school, set American records, ran in the Olympics, and became one of the best runners in the world. But what you probably don’t know is how and why he got there.

“When I had run the fastest time in the country for two miles, I said to myself, “Now how could a wimp be the fastest in the country?” It’s remarkable how something as simple as running fast can quickly improve your self-esteem.

Given my interest in how running enables us to deal with discomfort that I wrote about in The Inner Runner, I asked Gerry how he was able to take the pace out so fast and hold on, where that ability to deal with discomfort came from.

“I was able to do it when I knew it was for the team. When I ran for myself, that ability was never there. When I ran to help others, it was always there.”

Gerry Lindgren’s words were so profound that they nearly stopped me in my tracks in Ala Moana Park.

“That’s a life lesson, Gerry,” I said to him. “You could take that message all over the world.”

I learned a lot about Gerry Lindgren (and about life) while running with him in Hawaii. He told me his favorite runner to race was Ron Clarke from Australia because Ron always ran an honest race, running fast from the start. (“Because Ron ran so fast early in the race, he didn’t have a great kick, so he could be beaten if the other runners could stay with him early,” Gerry said.) But what I learned the most is that we can accomplish a lot more when we get out of our own way and serve others instead of serving ourselves. Gerry truly believes that, and believes it was the reason for his success. I wish I had met Gerry Lindgren and knew his story before writing The Inner Runner because I would have included his story in the book.

I asked him how many people knew his story. “Not that many,” he said. Well, I hope they do now.    

Follow Gerry Lindgren on Facebook (@gerrythejogger), and if you’re ever in Honolulu, go for a run with him and ask him to tell you a story. 

How to Do Interval Workouts Correctly

 

Once the training secret of the world’s best runners, interval training is now done by everyone, from competitive athletes to grandma next door.

Emil Zatopek of the former Czechoslovakia, who won the 10K at the 1948 Olympics and 5K, 10K, and marathon at the 1952 Olympics, was the first athlete to popularize interval training. However, it wasn’t until the 1960s that famous Swedish physiologist Per-Olaf Åstrand discovered that breaking up a set amount of work into smaller segments enables individuals to perform a greater volume of work at a high intensity. Sounds obvious, but Åstrand’s simple observation is the basis for interval training. For example, you can run 5 x 1,000 meters faster than you can run 5,000 meters; you can run 10 x 500 meters faster than 5 x 1,000 meters; and you can run 20 x 250 meters faster than 10 x 500 meters. However, this is where a lot of coaches and runners make mistakes. We’ll get to that in a minute.

When interval training was first studied in the 1930s by coach Waldemar Gerschler and physiologist Hans Reindell of Germany’s Freiburg University, they focused their attention on its cardiovascular aspects and believed that the stimulus for cardiovascular improvement occurs during the recovery intervals between work periods rather than during the periods of activity, as the heart rate decreases from an elevated value. Thus, the emphasis of the workout was placed on the recovery interval, prompting Gerschler and Reindell to call it an “interval workout” or “interval training.” Gerschler and Reindell’s original interval training method consisted of running periods ranging from 30 to 70 seconds at an intensity that elevated the heart rate to 170 to 180 beats per minute, followed by sufficient recovery to allow the heart rate to decrease to 120 beats per minute, signifying the readiness to perform the next work period.

During the recovery interval, the heart rate declines rapidly, but there is a lot of blood returning to the heart from the muscles, which leaves more time for the left ventricle to fill with a lot of blood, and subsequently eject a lot of blood with each beat (called the stroke volume). The increase in stroke volume places an overload on the heart, which makes the heart stronger. Since stroke volume peaks during the recovery interval, and because there are many recovery intervals during an interval workout, stroke volume peaks many times, providing a stimulus for improving maximum stroke volume and thus the capacity of the oxygen transport system. Pretty neat, huh?

Also during the recovery intervals, a significant portion of the muscular store of quick energy—creatine phosphate (CP)—that was depleted during the preceding work period is replenished via the aerobic system. During each work period that follows a recovery period, the replenished CP will again be available as an energy source.

Interval training manipulates four variables: time (or distance) of each work period, intensity of each work period, time of each recovery period, and number of repetitions. With so many possible combinations of these four variables, the potential to vary training sessions is nearly unlimited. Possibly the greatest use of interval training lies in its ability to target individual energy systems and physiological variables, improving specific aspects of your fitness level.

Back to the mistakes that coaches and runners make with interval training, and how to do interval workouts correctly.

(1) Know the purpose of the workout and match the pace to the purpose. If the purpose is to improve VO₂max, then run at your VO₂max pace, which you can determine from a recent race, from heart rate, and eventually by feel as you gain experience with these workouts. Do not run workouts at arbitrary paces, which is what most runners do. Always match the pace of the workout to its purpose.

(2) Run only as fast as you need to meet the purpose of the workout. If the purpose of the workout is to improve VO₂max, then run at your VO₂max pace, no faster. Make the workout harder by doing more volume at the right pace (or decrease the time of the recovery interval between reps) rather than run faster than the right pace. Just because you can run faster doesn’t mean you should. To stress the system, run at the upper limit of that system; there is no reason to run faster because that confers no greater benefit.

(3) Design interval workouts correctly, with an understanding of Åstrand’s research: By breaking up a period of work into periods of work and rest, you can perform a greater volume of work at a high intensity. For example, if you run 10 x 400 meters at 5K race pace, that workout doesn’t adhere to the purpose of an interval workout. It’s actually too easy of a workout because 10 x 400 meters is only 4,000 meters, which is less than the 5,000 meters that you could have held the pace for without any recovery intervals. So if you’re going to run 400-meter reps at 5K race pace, you need to run enough reps such that the total distance of the workout exceeds 5,000 meters, which is at least 13 reps. And since the reps are only 400 meters in length, which is only 8% of the distance that you can hold the pace, you should do many more than 13 reps at that pace to stress the system.

(4) Don’t run (or at least limit how much you run) at 5K, 10K, or half marathon race pace, unless you are specifically trying to practice running at race pace. These race distances don’t correspond to any specific physiological factor that influences performance. For example, 5K pace is too slow to achieve the benefits of a VO₂max workout and too fast to achieve the benefits of a lactate threshold workout. It’s much better to design workouts that specifically target the physiological variables that dictate your race performance. If you improve lactate threshold, VO₂max, running economy, anaerobic capacity, etc., your races will get better even without running at race pace because you will have improved the specific factors of your physiology that make you a better runner.    

Aerobic Power (Cardiovascular) Intervals

One of the best methods to improve the capacity of your cardiovascular system—specifically, your heart’s ability to pump blood and oxygen to the active muscles—is interval training using work periods lasting 3 to 5 minutes and recovery periods equal to or slightly less than the time of the work periods. The cardiovascular adaptations associated with interval training, including hypertrophy of the left ventricle and a greater maximum stroke volume and cardiac output, increase your VO₂max (the maximum volume of oxygen muscles consume per minute), raising your aerobic ceiling. Since VO₂max is achieved when maximum stroke volume and heart rate are reached, the work periods should be performed at an intensity that elicits maximum heart rate during each work period. This type of interval workout, which is very demanding, is one of the best workouts you can do to improve cardiovascular conditioning.

Anaerobic Capacity (Speed Endurance) Intervals

Anaerobic capacity refers to the ability to regenerate energy (ATP) through glycolysis. Work periods lasting 30 seconds to 2 minutes target improvements in anaerobic capacity by using anaerobic glycolysis as the predominant energy system. These short, intense work periods with recovery intervals 2 to 4 times as long as the work periods increase muscle glycolytic enzyme activity so that glycolysis can regenerate ATP more quickly for muscle contraction and improve the ability to buffer the muscle acidosis that occurs when there is a large dependence on oxygen-independent (anaerobic) metabolism.

Anaerobic Power (Speed) Intervals

Anaerobic power refers to the ability to regenerate ATP through the phosphagen system. Work periods lasting 5 to 15 seconds target improvements in anaerobic power by using the phosphagen system as the predominant energy system. These very short, very fast sprints with 3- to 5-minute recovery intervals that allow for complete replenishment of creatine phosphate in the muscles increase fast-twitch muscle fiber activation and the activity of creatine kinase, the enzyme responsible for catalyzing the chemical reaction that breaks down creatine phosphate.

Sample Interval Workouts
Make sure you warm-up and cool-down before and after each workout.

Aerobic (Cardiovascular) Intervals (Aerobic Power):

• 5 x 3 minutes @ VO₂max pace (95-100% max HR) with 2½-3 minutes jog recovery
• 3 x 4 minutes @ VO₂max pace (95-100% max HR) with 3½-4 minutes jog recovery
• 3, 4, 5, 4, 3 minutes @ VO₂max pace (95-100% max HR) with 2½-3 minutes jog recovery
VO₂max pace = 3K (2-mile) race pace or slightly faster for good runners; about 1½-mile race pace for recreational runners 

Anaerobic Capacity (Glycolytic) Intervals (Speed Endurance):

• 4 to 8 x 30 seconds at 95% all-out with 2 minutes jog recovery
• 4 to 8 x 60 seconds at 90% all-out with 3 minutes jog recovery
• 2 to 3 sets of 30, 60, 90 seconds at 90-95% all-out with 2 to 3 minutes jog recovery & 5 minutes rest between sets
Anaerobic Capacity pace = Mile race pace or slightly faster for good runners; about ½-mile race pace for recreational runners  

Anaerobic Power (Phosphagen System) Intervals (Speed/Power):

• 2 sets of 8 x 5 seconds all-out with 3 minutes passive rest & 5 minutes rest between sets
• 5 x 10 seconds all-out with 3-4 minutes passive rest
• 2 to 3 sets of 15, 10, 5 seconds all-out with 3 minutes passive rest & 10 minutes rest between sets

If you like this, you’ll LOVE the REVO₂LUTION RUNNING™ certification, where we go very deep into how to train correctly to get the best results. Try it out at http://revo2lutionrunning.com.

How Should I Breathe When I Run?

 

“How should I breathe when I run?” 

I get asked this question all the time. We often take breathing for granted.

Many runners are told to “belly breathe,” to breathe from their diaphragm and take deeper breaths to take in more oxygen. However, the main stimulus to breathe, especially at sea-level, is to exhale carbon dioxide, as the partial pressure of CO2 rises in the blood from metabolism. At sea-level, your blood is nearly 100% saturated with oxygen, even while running a race, so it’s fruitless to take deeper breaths since what matters is how much oxygen is transported in your blood, not how much oxygen is in your lungs. The best distance runners in the world are small people, and so they have small lungs. When I measured total lung capacity of runners in the lab, I found that the smaller runners had smaller lung volumes, even though they were better runners. There is no relationship between your lung volume and how fast you run a 5K or marathon.

Since your diaphragm and other breathing muscles also use oxygen, the muscle contractions associated with deeper breaths can potentially “steal” some of the oxygen your leg muscles need to run. When you travel (or live) at higher altitude, you breathe more to compensate for the decreased partial pressure of oxygen in the environmental air. (Oxygen molecules travel from areas of higher pressure to areas of lower pressure, so the greater the difference in oxygen pressure between the environmental air and the air in our lungs, the greater the driving force for oxygen to travel from the environment into our lungs. The higher up in altitude you go, the less the pressure difference between the environmental air and the air in our lungs.)

While taking deeper breaths won’t help your running, coordinating your breathing to your stride rate can. Most animals, like the cheetah, coordinate their breathing patterns to their stride rates because of how the movement of their forelimbs assists the movement of their chest cavity. And so four-legged animals take a 1-to-1 step-to-breath ratio: For every step, they take one breath.

This coordination of breathing to stride rate, which is called “entrainment,” also happens in humans, although it is not as tightly coupled since humans have a greater anatomical separation between the movement of their legs and chest cavity. In humans, the entrainment of breathing to stride rate is linked to running experience, with more fit and experienced runners exhibiting greater entrainment. For my doctoral dissertation, I measured this entrainment of breathing and stride rate, and found that human runners take 3 or 4 steps per breath (inhalation + exhalation) when running at easy to moderate paces, and two steps per breath when running fast. With many miles of training, runners may learn how to most effectively ventilate their lungs and minimize the metabolic cost of breathing, which can improve running economy (the amount of oxygen you use to maintain a given submaximal pace).

Although the entrainment of breathing to stride rate seems to happen naturally with training, you can voluntarily coordinate the two rhythms. When you run, begin to exhale when either your right foot or left foot lands on the ground, and go through a complete breath (exhalation + inhalation) every 3 to 4 steps, always exhaling when your foot lands on the ground. When you run fast, try to take two steps per breath. 

 

Food or Exercise?

 

I spend a lot of time thinking about which is more important for weight loss and health—food or exercise. I have always believed that exercise is more important, that one really can outrun a bad diet, perhaps because I don’t ever want to give up chocolate or sugar cereals. Admittedly, I’m biased. But not in the way most people think. I’m not biased because I’m a lifelong daily runner who eats sugar cereals and still weighs the same as he did in high school 27 years ago. I’m biased because of my education. I don’t believe one can go through so many years of school and read and be involved with so much research and come away with any conclusion other than that exercise is more important than diet. While many (most) people will disagree with me, science doesn’t.

The scientific research on weight loss shows a number of things, including:

1. Diet plus exercise provides greater weight loss than diet alone.

2. The amount of aerobic exercise is closely linked to body weight. More exercise equals lower body mass index and body circumferences.

3. Starting vigorous exercise and stopping it decrease and increase, respectively, body weight and intra-abdominal fat, with the changes proportional to the change in amount of exercise.

4. Exercising more than 250 minutes per week is needed for significant weight loss and for weight maintenance.

5. Weight regain is related to decreases in physical activity during weight loss.

6. The exact macronutrient composition of a person’s diet doesn’t matter as much as the total number of calories consumed.

7. To lose weight, diet (cutting calories) is more important than exercise; to keep weight off, exercise is more important than diet. 

I came across an article that was posted online last week, in which one of my colleagues at the University of Colorado-Boulder also says that carbs are not the enemy and exercise is more important than food. You can read the article here. I shared this article on social media and, of course, many people chimed in, because when it comes to weight loss and diet, many people have strong opinions, most of which are based on their experiences.   

The reason why exercise is more important than food is because of what exercise can do for our bodies that food alone cannot do: provide a strong stimulus to which our muscles and metabolism adapt. No one will argue that food isn’t important, because of course it is, but food doesn’t make us fitter. Only exercise can cause muscles to change their metabolic profile by affecting mitochondria to become better fat burners. 

If we take two people, and one eats perfectly clean with a nutrient-dense diet and no processed foods but doesn’t exercise much, and the other runs a lot and does resistance training but has a mediocre diet with the occasional Twinkie or chocolate chip cookie, who is going to look better and be fitter? The latter. 

I’m pretty sure I didn’t get my sculpted legs and ass from eating kale salads; I got them from running six days per week for 33 years. And so it is for other people who exercise.

A New Secret to Weight Loss

 

I developed a new secret diet for you if you want to lose weight and keep it lost for the rest of your life. There are 3 steps to it, but you have to be in the right place in your life at the right time to do it, because if you don’t want to lose weight and look great really, really bad, it’s not going to happen. So you have to want it more than you want anything else. More than you want to breathe. And if you really want it, it’s really easy. Ready?

At this point, I could send you to a website that promises the secret and asks you to submit your email in exchange for a “free” gift (which is usually some kind of e-book written by someone who can’t write and has no education on the subject matter), which is really just a ruse to get on my email list so I can sell you stuff, like my books, training programs, or online coaching. But I’m not an ass like that. So here’s the secret…

STEP 1:

Cut 300-500 calories out of your normal diet (frappucinos, sodas, chips, etc.). Make the initial cut in carbs, but not too much of a cut because carbs are extremely important, and you’ll need carbs for STEP 2. Do this until your caloric intake is down to around 1,200-1,500 calories per day, with about 40% coming from carbs.

STEP 2:

Exercise using big muscle groups (running, cycling, circuit-style weight training that keeps you moving the whole workout). This will create metabolic demands so that the carbs and protein you eat are directed into meeting those metabolic demands (glycogen resynthesis, protein synthesis for adaptation, etc.) instead of getting stored as fat on your butt and belly.

STEP 3:

Repeat every day, and see food as you see gasoline for your car—fuel to drive (exercise) tomorrow. People who lose weight and keep it lost (like those in the National Weight Control Registry) exercise every day. So should you.

If you want more information, including the research on weight loss, read Run Your Fat Off

 

Training Older Adults

 

Beginning in the seventh grade, I became fascinated with age—specifically how our bodies’ functional capacities decrease with the passage of time. When I once shared this perception with my 98-year-old grandmother, she said, “Just wait until you’re 80.” I’m still far from 80, so I can only imagine how difficult it will be then to stand up from a chair or run around the neighborhood.

The biggest factor in the decline in physical capacity with age is level of physical activity. When you remain active throughout adulthood, you can retard the aging process and continue to live a life worth living. I know 70-year-olds who are fitter than 30-year-olds.

Physiology of the Older Adult

After age 30, most physiological functions decline at a rate of approximately 0.75 to 1 percent per year. Perhaps the biggest functionally-related physiological change with age is a decrease in muscle mass, called sarcopenia, which is due to a loss of motor units (a motor neuron and all the muscle fibers it connects to) and atrophy of fast-twitch muscle fibers. With the loss of motor units comes denervation of muscle fibers (a lost connection between the motor neuron and the fibers within the motor unit). This denervation causes the muscle fibers to deteriorate, resulting in a decrease in muscle mass, which significantly decreases the older adult’s muscle strength and power, making certain activities of daily living difficult.

Men and women generally attain their highest strength levels between ages 20 and 40, after which the strength of most muscle groups declines, slowly at first and then more rapidly after age 50. Muscle strength decreases approximately eight percent per decade after age 45, with greater strength losses occurring in women compared to men. In both men and women, lower body strength declines more rapidly than upper body strength.

With the loss of muscle mass also comes a loss in mitochondria, which decreases muscular and aerobic endurance. Mitochondria are unique in that they have their own specific DNA, so when older adults lose mitochondria, they also lose mitochondrial DNA. If your clients want healthy functioning muscles as they age, they need lots of healthy mitochondria.

Cardiovascular fitness also declines with age, in part due to a decrease in maximum heart rate and stroke volume (the volume of blood the heart pumps per beat). With a lower maximum heart rate and stroke volume comes a lower maximum cardiac output (the volume of blood the heart pumps per minute), a decreased ability to deliver oxygen to the muscles, and thus a lower VO2max (the maximum volume of oxygen the muscles can consume). VO2max decreases by 8 to 10 percent every 10 years after the age of 30 in healthy, sedentary adults. When maximum cardiovascular functioning declines, so does the workload that can be tolerated at a given percentage of the (lower) maximum. Decreases in VO2max with aging can be variable, particularly if your clients remain active. But if not attended to, a youthful run becomes an aged walk.

Training the Older Adult

Although many physiological factors decline with age, up to 50 percent of this decline is due to deconditioning rather than aging. With proper training, older adults can lessen the physiological effects of aging and remain fit and functional.

Arguably, cardiovascular exercise will always be more important than strength training throughout your life because heart disease is the most common cause of death for both men and women. No one has ever died of a weak biceps muscle. But people die of weak hearts every day. One cannot live very well or very long without a strong heart. Since the risk of heart disease increases as people age, older adults need cardiovascular exercise just as much or even more than do younger adults. Like younger adults, older adults should do at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise on most, if not all, days of the week. The more physically fit one remains, the slower the rate of cardiovascular decline. Maintaining exercise intensity, rather than a higher volume of training, is the key to minimizing the loss of aerobic fitness as you age.

Strength training also becomes more important as people age. Given that aging is accompanied by a decrease in muscular endurance, strength, and power, resistance training should take on greater weight (pun intended) when training an older adults. I’d even go as far to say that every person over the age of fifty should strength train because that’s about the age at which people start to lose a significant amount of muscle mass. And that loss in muscle mass with age affects your ability to function. If you’ve ever seen a senior citizen try to stand up from sitting in a chair or witnessed how catastrophic a fall can be to a senior, you know how much benefit strength training can have. The positive effects of strength training on bone density, muscular strength and endurance, balance and coordination (which reduces the risk of falling and fractures), functional mobility, physical aesthetics, and self-esteem cannot be denied.

Older adults should train with heavier weights and fewer reps per set to target improvements in muscular strength, or with lighter weights lifted quickly to target the fast-twitch muscle fibers and improvements in muscular power. Greater strength gains occur at intensities of 80 to 90 percent of the one-rep max (the maximum weight that can be lifted just once). Although we tend to think of power training as something done to improve athletic performance, it has big implications for older adults, whose muscles lack strength and power. Research has shown power training to be very effective for strength and power development in seniors. Since it takes longer to recover from workouts as people age, older adults should take more time between intense resistance and cardio workouts.

If older adults train with higher intensity, less volume, and more recovery between workouts, not only will they be fitter and stronger, they may even be able to keep up with my 98-year-old grandmother.

 

 

 

Understanding Interval Training

When Swedish physiologist Dr. Per Olaf Åstrand discovered in the 1960s on a stationary bicycle in the laboratory that if you take a set amount of physical work and break that work up into periods of work and rest, you can accomplish more work at the same or higher intensity, the interval training that runners were doing in the 1930s & 1940s gained the credibility it needed to propel it into the training programs of athletes everywhere. 

The secret of interval training is in the amount of work you can accomplish. For example, you can run 5 x 1,000 meters faster than you can run 5,000 meters; you can run 10 x 500 meters faster than you can run 5 x 1,000 meters; and you can run 20 x 250 meters faster than you can run 10 x 500 meters. Sounds obvious, but Åstrand’s simple observation is important when designing workouts.

Interval training actually originated in Europe in the 1930s to develop fitness in track athletes. While athletes used interval training without knowing exactly why it worked, coach and physiologist Waldemar Gerschler and Hans Reindell of Germany’s Freiburg University believed that the primary stimulus for cardiovascular improvement occurs during the recovery interval when the heart rate is reduced from 170-180 to 120-140 beats per minute.

During the recovery interval, the heart rate declines quickly since the runner has stopped running fast, but there is a lot of blood returning back to the heart. Since the heart rate declines rapidly, there’s a greater filling time in the left ventricle to accommodate the return of the large volume of blood to the heart, resulting in a brief increase in stroke volume. The increase in stroke volume places an overload on the heart, which makes the heart stronger, and enables the skeletal muscles to be cleared of waste products quickly due to the elevated rate of blood flow when there is little demand for activity from the tissues. Since stroke volume peaks during the recovery interval, and because there are multiple recovery intervals during an interval workout, stroke volume peaks many times, providing a stimulus for improving maximum stroke volume and thus the capacity of the oxygen transport system. Hence the term interval workout—to place the emphasis on the recovery interval between reps.

Gerschler and Reindell’s original interval workout required running for 30 to 70 seconds at a speed that elevated the heart rate to about 180 beats per minute. The run was followed by sufficient recovery to allow the heart rate to return to 120 beats per minute. 

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, interval training was made popular by Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia, the only runner to win the 5,000 meters, 10,000 meters, and marathon in the same Olympics. Also during that time, Hungarian coach Mihaly Igloi developed the concept of sets of short distances run quickly to permit a greater total training stimulus. His coaching centered on large amounts of interval training, believing that a large amount of speed training also built stamina. This opinion was echoed by Zatopek himself in response to those who told him he was spending too much time training with short distances as if he were a sprinter: “…but if I run 100 meters twenty times, that is two kilometers and that is no longer a sprint.”

To do an interval workout correctly, either do more volume at race pace (e.g., 5 x 1 mile at 5K race pace or 6-8 x 400 meters at 1-mile race pace) or run the same volume at faster than race pace (e.g., 6 x 1/2 mile at faster than 5K race pace). Thus, if you’re going to run mile reps at 5K race pace, you need to run more than 3 because a 5K is 3 miles and you could run that pace without taking breaks. By breaking those 3 miles into 1 mile segments, you either need to run each mile faster than 5K race pace or run more than 3 miles in the workout at 5K race pace. Likewise, if you run 20 x 200-meter reps, run them faster than 5K race pace because 20 x 200 meters is only 4K. Remember the purpose of an interval workout.

Learn all the details of interval training (and a whole lot more!) with the REVO₂LUTION RUNNING™ certification.

Do Runners Need to Strength Train?

 

I was having a conversation with someone tonight at the track after the San Diego Track Club workout, and she brought up strength training as a way to become a better runner. This is not the first time someone has tried to convince me that runners need to strength train. I have written and spoken extensively about this. I, and many other coaches who have come before me, starting with Arthur Lydiard in the 1950s, believe that runners can get a lot more out of running hill sprints or bounding up a hill than by doing lunges while holding dumbbells. Rather than repeat what I already have written, here, in its entirety, is one of my articles on the topic, reprinted from Running Times magazine.

When I was in eighth grade, I broke the school record for chin-ups. I still have the certificate of achievement from the school’s principal proudly displayed on my wall. I still brag about the accomplishment to others. It doesn’t matter that it was so many years ago or that some tough kid has probably come along since to break my record. At the time, I had the strongest biceps and forearms in junior high. I used chin-ups to show off to the girls in class. My mother even bought a chin-up bar and attached it to my bedroom doorframe so I could train at home. I did chin-ups every day. Until I became a distance runner.

At first glance, distance running doesn’t seem to have much to do with big, strong muscles. Indeed, the best runners in the world are quite small, with slim legs and arms that would make actress Lara Flynn Boyle drool. But, as I tell my athletes, it’s not what your muscles look like; it’s what they do that matters. And, if trained properly, muscles can be taught to do some amazing things. Just ask the Kenyans and Ethiopians with the skinny little legs.

These days, athletes in all sports lift weights to supplement their sport-specific training. Even distance runners have jumped on the bandwagon. Indeed, much has been written about strength training for the runner—everything from lunges while holding dumbbells in your hands to calf raises on the edge of a stair to endless repetitions of abdominal crunches while balancing on a big, lime green exercise ball. Does anyone else listening to these training suggestions ever wonder if they will really lead to a new 5K or marathon personal best?

My research on the training characteristics of the 2004 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials qualifiers, published in International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance in 2007, found that these marathoners do little, if any, strength training. During the year of training leading up to the Olympic Trials, the men averaged less than one strength workout per week and the women averaged 1.5 strength workouts per week. About half of the athletes did not do any strength training at all. One of two conclusions can be drawn from this—either the U.S.’s elite marathoners do not believe that strength training will make them better marathoners, or they do not have the time to strength train given the time they devote to running. 

Why Strength Training Won’t Make You Faster

Unlike most sports, which require strength, speed, and power to be successful, distance running performance is primarily limited by the delivery and use of oxygen. There are no studies showing that strength training improves oxygen delivery from lungs to muscles, which is largely dictated by your athletes’ cardiac output (the amount of blood pumped by the heart per minute), their muscles’ capillary and mitochondrial volumes, and many other physiological traits. Oxygen wouldn’t recognize a dumbbell if it were hit on the head with one. The physiological changes resulting from strength and endurance training are also contradictory. For example, when the volume and intensity are high enough, strength training stimulates muscle fiber hypertrophy (growth in muscle size). This may increase body weight, which increases the metabolic cost of running. Larger muscles also have a smaller density of capillaries and mitochondria, which is detrimental to endurance. It is well known that endurance training causes muscles to respond in an opposite fashion by increasing the number of capillaries and mitochondria to facilitate the diffusion and use of oxygen. Endurance training also decreases body weight, optimizing oxygen use. Contrary to strength training, which has a “pressure effect” on the heart, endurance training has a “volume effect” on the heart, increasing the size of the left ventricle so it can eject more blood (and oxygen) with each beat.

Despite the different physiological adaptations between strength and endurance training, many runners still lift weights, typically with light to moderate loads and a high number of repetitions, programs that are geared toward increasing muscular endurance (the ability to sustain or repeat a submaximal force) rather than strength (the maximal amount of force muscles can produce). But is performing a few sets of 10 to 20 repetitions going to increase muscular endurance over and above what you already achieve from your weekly running or what you would achieve by running more miles? Think about how many repetitions you perform while running just 5 miles. Surely a mere 20 to 60 reps extra in the gym is not going to make you faster. While some studies have found that this type of strength training may help inexperienced runners who have a low fitness level improve their performance, other studies have shown it to be ineffective. Traditional strength training also may not benefit experienced, highly-fit runners and may even hinder them, especially if it is performed at the expense of more sport-specific training. The fact is that most runners, unless they are highly-trained and have maximized their running training, don’t need to strength train to improve their distance running performance. A 20-minute 5K runner is better served by improving the cardiovascular and metabolic parameters associated with endurance than by strength training.     

Why Strength Training May Make Your Faster

Sometimes, science can be a tricky business. Although the value of strength training to improve distance running performance is not readily apparent, it may help you to become faster if done with the right type of program. That’s because increasing your muscular strength will increase your muscular power, which is the product of force (strength) and speed. Athletic performance is ultimately limited by the amount of force and power that can be produced and sustained. Force and power are influenced by a number of physiological traits, including neuromuscular coordination, skeletal muscle mechanics and energetics, efficiency of converting metabolic power into mechanical power, and the skeletal muscles’ aerobic and anaerobic metabolic capacities. 

Most movements in sports occur too quickly for muscles to produce maximal force; it is far more important to increase the rate at which force is produced. For example, while racing, your feet are in contact with the ground for only a fraction of a second, not nearly enough time to generate maximal force. The goal of strength training is to get your muscles to increase their rate of force production, so you can have stronger muscle contractions in a shorter time. Also, by increasing muscle strength, you will reduce the percentage of your maximal strength required for each contraction during running, delaying the recruitment of fast-twitch muscle fibers and the associated inevitable fatigue. This is where strength training comes in. Research suggests that strength training, when geared toward training for power, has some value for endurance athletes. Maybe the football player and the distance runner have something in common after all. Interestingly, power training has been shown to improve running economy, which is the oxygen cost of maintaining a given pace and is one of the three major players affecting distance running performance (the other two are VO2max and lactate threshold). 

Maximal/Explosive Strength Training

Recent studies have shown that running economy is improved when subjects include explosive or heavy weight training in their training programs. Two studies, one published in Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports and the other in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, had their subjects perform lower body exercises using heavy weights (greater than 85% of one-rep max, the maximal amount of weight that can be lifted once) with fast speeds for 3 to 4 sets of 5 to 6 repetitions. Other studies have used 3 to 5 sets of 3 to 5 reps to muscular failure with greater than 90% one-rep max. In addition to improving running economy, the subjects of these studies got stronger without gaining weight. Admittedly, this type of strength training, which may be intimidating at first, is likely different from what runners have been told to do in the past. Unlike a muscular endurance training program, which incorporates many repetitions of a moderately light weight, lifting very heavy weights will overload the force-producing characteristics of muscles. Because of its strenuous nature, you should work with a partner to help you determine your one-rep max for each exercise and do the workouts together. Since heavy weights can’t be moved very quickly, focus on contracting your muscles, making sure you move the weight safely with proper form.

Plyometrics

Contrary to heavy weight training, which focuses on the strength component of power, plyometric training focuses on the speed component. Plyometric training, which includes jumping and bounding exercises involving repeated rapid eccentric and concentric muscle contractions, has also been shown to improve running economy. Muscles produce more force during the concentric (shortening) contraction if the contraction is immediately preceded by an eccentric (lengthening) contraction. In a study from the Australian Institute of Sport, a group of highly-trained runners that added nine weeks of plyometrics to their running training improved running economy and leg power more than did a control group that only ran. In another study from Finland published in Journal of Applied Physiology, one group of runners combined endurance training with plyometric exercises (5 to 10 reps of 20- to 100-meter sprints and jumping exercises) and lower body weight training with light weights (0 to 40% one-rep max) lifted quickly, while another group did only endurance training. Only the runners who did both the plyometric and endurance training improved their economy and 5K time.

None of the above studies using either heavy weights or plyometrics found changes in other cardiorespiratory measures important to distance running, such as VO2max or lactate threshold. This is an important finding because it suggests that the improvements in running economy do not result from cardiovascular or metabolic changes, but rather from some other mechanism. When lifting maximal weights (strength component), or when performing quick, plyometric movements (speed component), you recruit a lot of muscle fibers, which serves as a training stimulus for the central nervous system. The result is that the muscles increase their rate of force development, getting stronger, quicker, and more powerful, without the negative side effect of increasing muscle size. The more effective muscle force production translates into better running economy. While all runners can certainly benefit from an improved economy of movement, only a couple of studies have actually measured whether racing performance improved after power training. These studies found that performance did improve, using either a 3K or 5K time trial. The muscle power needed for these short distance races, which are run at or close to VO2max, is important. However, it is unknown whether power training will improve performance for longer races, such as the marathon.

If you’re planning on adding weight training to your program, periodize your annual training plan to circumvent the abovementioned incompatibility between strength and endurance training. Use specific periods of the year during which you focus on either endurance or strength/speed/power. Do the bulk of your strength training during your speed phase of training rather than during your aerobic endurance phase, since speed, strength, and power are more closely related physiological traits than are strength and endurance. Likewise, do your strength/power workouts on your speedwork days rather than on your recovery run or long run days.

If you have already increased your running volume and intensity as much as you can, or if you cannot handle the physical stress of running more miles, power training with weights and plyometrics may be the next step in your training program. And if you train hard enough, maybe you’ll even be able to break my middle school chin-up record.

 

 

 

Is Nutrition (Diet) More Important Than Exercise for Losing Weight and Looking Good?

 

I hear a lot in the fitness industry about the importance of clean eating. Indeed, most fitness professionals quote that physical appearance is 80% due to nutrition and 20% due to your workouts. I don’t know where those numbers come from, but those percentages are unknowable.

 

 

If we are to assign a relative importance to each, it’s presumptuous to think that the specific foods we eat are more important to our health, fitness, and cosmetics than are genetics and training. People like to claim that abs are made in the kitchen, but the truth is that muscles are made by exercise. I’m pretty sure I didn’t get my sculpted legs and ass from eating kale salads; I got them from running 6 days per week for 33 years. And so it is for other runners as well.

This is not to say that a person’s diet doesn’t matter. Of course it does. But to place such a large emphasis on diet over exercise misses an important point—cutting calories and eating a more nutritious diet does not make you fitter. Although your nutrition is undoubtedly important, it doesn’t give your muscles a stimulus to adapt. Only exercise can do that and thus give you all of the fitness and health benefits. The sculpted legs of runners and upper bodies of fitness magazine models didn’t get that way just by eating fruits and vegetables.

Research shows that you need both diet and exercise. Diet gets your weight off, especially initially, and exercise keeps it off. To lose weight, you must consume fewer calories each day. To maintain weight, you must exercise on most, if not all, days of the week.

There is a ton of research to show that body weight and body mass index are directly proportional to the amount of exercise people do. If we take two people, and one eats perfectly clean with a nutrient-dense diet and no processed foods but doesn’t exercise much, and the other runs a lot and does resistance training but has a mediocre diet with the occasional Twinkie or chocolate chip cookie, who is going to look better and be fitter? I hope you said the latter. Truth is, exercise and genetics exert a greater influence on how you look (and on your physical performance) than your diet does.

For more information, pick up a copy of Run Your Fat Off.

Genetics vs. Environment

 

“I have always been interested in genetics,” I said to 3-time Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier Susan Loken this morning as we were running together along the San Diego harbor. I knew before we started running that I was going to be pulled faster than I usually go. I could only hope that the 17-mile run I had on her training schedule yesterday, which she completed at 7:37 pace, would take the sting out of her legs. It didn’t. So I let her do most of the talking today so she wouldn’t know that her coach, who is 10 years her junior, was breathing heavier than usual for what was supposed to be an easy run.

Genetics.

Ever since I was a kid running track at Marlboro Middle School in New Jersey, I noticed things about athletic performance.

Susan Loken can kick my ass in a marathon. Despite her age, she has a talent for aerobic endurance that most people don’t have. But I would kick her ass in a 400-meter, 800-meter, or mile race. I have always had better anaerobic than aerobic qualities.

Athletic performance, of course, isn’t the only thing influenced by genetics. But what about personality, what about the choices we make and what is controlling those choices? How far do genetics go?

On the drive home from my run with Susan, I listened to a collection of TED talks on the genetics of our personalities and if the choices we make and the lives we live are controlled by those genetics. The geneticists claim that we are 100% our DNA (our genotype), and that our genetic personality dictates every choice we make, that there really is no such thing as free will. The epigeneticists claim that our personalities are partly due to our DNA and partly due to our environment that changes how our DNA is expressed (our phenotype). The research does show that DNA is not set, but rather that there is plasticity to our DNA. Environment does matter in shaping who we are.

But what if it doesn’t?

In one of the talks, a scientist spoke of the research that examined the behavior of mother rats and how baby rats that were licked by their mother (a sign of love and affection) thrived as adults and led different lives than rats who were not shown this affection by their mothers. To answer whether or not the way the baby rats turned out as adults was a genetic or environmental difference, the scientists separated rats at birth and had half the litter grow up with affectionate, licking mothers and half with non-affectionate, non-licking mothers. And they found that it wasn’t important the genes the rats got from their mother. What was important was the affection they received, that this affection can reprogram “bad” DNA and allow the rats to thrive as adults. Environment matters. We all know how important it is for parents to show affection toward their children, that the environment we grow up in affects our adult lives.

But, wait.

What if our environment is the way it is because of the genetics of the people who make up that environment? For example, what if the mother rats who didn’t lick their offspring didn’t do so because they didn’t have loving, affectionate genes? What if human parents who neglect their children or parents who show affection make that choice because that is who they are genetically? Is this an environmental difference or a genetic difference?

Do you and I make choices because we have the will to live how we want, or do we make choices based on our preferences and personality strengths and weaknesses that are dictated by our genes? To have that conversation while I’m running, I need to run with someone who won’t keep me out of breath.

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