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.

Invitation, Yoga Sculpt, and a Beautiful Romanian Named Simona

The Jidori chicken was tasty, bathed in adobo sauce with rapini, caramelized red onion, and potato panadera. When we were seated, she moved her chair from the opposing side of the table to my adjacent side. I liked that. She ordered the sea bass. “Tell me about yourself,” she said. (She stole my line.) Simona is the kind of woman who gets noticed when she walks into a room. Her looks are striking. She has a thick accent. She grew up in the dictatorship of Romania, which gives her a different perspective than most. She’s grateful for a life and a freedom that most people take for granted. She talks about how coming to America was the best thing that ever happened to her.   

A half hour before looking into Simona’s hazel eyes and enjoying the Jidori chicken, I was in a pool of sweat at CorePower Yoga in Yoga Sculpt class. Wow. I was not expecting that. It was hard. It was hot. Nearly 100 degrees in the room hot. And the instructor was all business. He talked so fast I could hardly understand what he was saying. It was obviously choreographed. I tried to follow the moves as best I could.

I’ve never been much into yoga. Nearly all the yoga classes I’ve taken in my life have been on the invitation of a girl. Girls seem to like yoga. Like really like yoga. Really. I’ve never seen what the fascination with yoga is. But this class, on this day, in this very hot room, was not yoga. This was yoga meets cardio and muscle sculpting with dumbbells. And it didn’t stop for 60 minutes. Within five minutes, I was completely drenched. Throughout the class, I had to stop every couple of minutes to towel the sweat off my face and body. The last time I sweated this profusely was during a half marathon in Tel Aviv in July when I competed in the Maccabiah Games.

I could sit here after midnight, writing this blog post a few hours after the class, still thirsty from all the water I lost through sweat, and say it was easy for this lifelong athlete. But I would be lying. It wasn’t easy. And it taught me something about exercise and about myself. First, about exercise: Specificity of training cannot be underestimated. Just because you’re good at one thing doesn’t mean you’ll be good at something else. Being a newbie at Yoga Sculpt is very difficult, no matter how fit a person is. For crying out loud, there were girls in the class who did a better job keeping up than me. Although I’m 99.9% sure I would kick their ass on the track, they have something on me: Experience. Specificity of training. Even the best Kenyan distance runners in the world would have had trouble in this class. Second, about myself: 33 years of running 6 days per week has enabled me to master something. My body knows how to run. It is as natural a movement for me as walking is for everyone else. I often expect that running is my savior, that no matter what the challenge is in my life, running will save me and protect me. But today I was humbled. I’m a long way from the 8th grader who did 24 chin-ups to break the school district record. I don’t have that kind of specific fitness anymore. It made me feel sad that I lost it somewhere. And it hurt my confidence.        

“Want to take a yoga class with me?” Simona texted me about a week ago. I didn’t want to tell her that I don’t like yoga. “Sure, sounds like fun,” I replied. “It’s cardio and light weights,” she said.

The Best Explanation of How Running Slower Makes You Faster

 

When I was a kid, I loved watching the TV sitcom, I Love Lucy. Lucille Ball was one in a million. There was a famous episode during which Lucy and her friend Ethel work at an assembly line, where they were assigned to wrap pieces of chocolate as they came down the conveyor belt. At first, the job was easy. The chocolate pieces were coming down the belt at a slow enough speed that Lucy and Ethel could easily grab each piece of chocolate and wrap it.

Then the speed of the conveyor belt quickened, and Lucy and Ethel had their hands full. Literally. They couldn’t wrap each piece of chocolate in time before the next piece was already passing them, so they grabbed handfuls of chocolate and shoved them in their pockets and in their mouths. It was hilarious, and that episode became a famous part of TV history.

Little did the director of that scene know that he revealed the secret to how to become a better distance runner. 

Clearly, increasing the speed of the conveyor belt didn’t work. Lucy and Ethel weren’t able to keep up with the pace of the belt. If the company that Lucy and Ethel were working for wanted to produce more wrapped chocolates in less time, they should have had more factories with more assembly lines and more workers like Lucy and Ethel wrapping chocolates coming down the multiple conveyor belts.

Deep inside your muscle fibers, those factories are the mitochondria, and those workers—the Lucys and Ethels—are the enzymes that catalyze the chemical reactions involved in aerobic metabolism. The more mitochondria your muscles have, the greater your muscles’ capacity to use oxygen and the faster pace you will be able to sustain. The most efficient way to make more mitochondria—more factories, more assembly lines, and more workers—is to run more. And to run more, you have to slow down your runs, because there is an inverse relationship between training intensity and duration: The faster you run, the lower the total amount you can run.

The number and size of mitochondria in your muscle fibers is sensitive to the volume of work performed. When the factories are stressed because of greater demand, more and larger factories will be built to increase their supply to match the demand. If those pieces of chocolate kept coming down the conveyor belt long after the 30-minute I Love Lucy episode was over, more conveyor belts, and more and larger factories to hold those conveyor belts, would have been built to keep up with the demand for chocolate.       

One of the biggest mistakes runners make is thinking that to run faster in races, they need to run faster in workouts. So they run their workouts faster than their current fitness level dictates. I once coached a college runner who ran 19 minutes for 5K and she told me she wanted to be trained like a 17:30 5K runner. So I told her to run a 17:30 5K and then I’ll train her like a 17:30 5K runner. Races, which tell you your current level of fitness, dictate the training speeds, not the other way around. As a distance runner, don’t run to practice running faster; run to improve the physiological characteristics—to make more assembly lines—that will enable you to run faster in the future. Even if it’s not as funny as the I Love Lucy chocolate episode. 

2:00:25, and What That Means for the Rest of Us

 

Yesterday, Eliud Kipchoge from Kenya, along with two other East African runners, attempted to run a marathon in under 2 hours, as part of Nike’s Breaking 2 project. On a flat, criterion-style course with groups of pacesetters, perfect weather, on-course nutritional support, and even specially-made shoes, Kipchoge, the Olympic marathon gold medalist last year in Rio, held on to the pace longer than the others, finishing in 2 hours and 25 seconds. That equals a pace of 4:35 per mile. To put that in sharper perspective, he ran for 2 hours at a pace of only 45 seconds per mile slower than his best time for 1 mile (he has run 3:50 for 1 mile). Elite runners are not just fast; they can endure. And that is a lesson for all of us. 

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Runners are always telling me they need to do speedwork to improve their 4-hour or 3½-hour marathon. But it is not speed that is limiting your marathon performance. It is endurance, the ability to sustain a high fraction of your maximum. Scientists refer to this as the “fractional utilization of VO2max.” Train your legs to sustain a faster aerobic pace—a higher fraction of your VO2max—and your marathon (and half-marathon) will improve.

If you’re not a runner, this ability to endure is also important, because endurance is a big part of life. As I wrote in The Inner Runner, “With all of the technology and amenities and surplus we have in our Western culture, we can go through most of our lives and never find out how far we can be pushed, how much we can endure, how much we can handle. But when we push the limits of our endurance, we find out how much we can endure.”

What Eliud Kipchoge showed, indeed shared, with us yesterday is not only what the human body is capable of, but also the inspiration for all of us to make the choice to learn just how far we can be pushed, how much we can endure, how much we can handle. And conquer the cowardice in ourselves.

Incisions and Time

 

A fraction of a second. watch

That’s the time it takes to cause damage to our bodies. Whether a car accident, a cat scratch, or a surgeon’s incision, it takes less than one second to cause bodily damage. 

Weeks to months. 

That’s the time it takes to heal the damage. Whether a car accident, a cat scratch, or a surgeon’s incision, it takes weeks to months to heal the bodily damage. 

Why? 

Why the difference in time?

What if a bone took just as long to heal as it does to break? What if the swelling and scarring from a surgeon’s incision healed by the time we woke up from the anesthesia?  

I have always been interested in how damage is created so quickly, but the healing of that damage takes so long.

Why?

Why the difference in time?

There must be a reason, some evolutionary advantage to a slow heal. Is it to force us to slow ourselves down and give ourselves a rest? Does a forced rest somehow give us an evolutionary advantage? 

If you read my blog or follow me on Facebook or Instagram, you know that I had hernia surgery three weeks ago. So this difference in time between damage and healing has been on my mind. It sucks that I can’t run. But I have to patient and let my body heal. As I wrote in The Inner Runner:

“When we lose our ability to run because of illness or injury, it’s easy to feel helpless, vulnerable, and even scared, because the fitness and vibrancy we get from running is taken away. With all the people who don’t want to exercise, it’s a sealed box to be in when you’re entirely willing but physically unable to or precluded from running. There is a huge difference between not wanting it and having it taken away.

My biggest disappointment that comes from not running, and from the accompanying loss of fitness, is the existential crises and near-depression that mounts. I’ve always seen myself as someone working on being the complete package of a sound mind in a sound body. Running is a huge part of me, but I struggle with it not being all of me. On days that I don’t run, which are few and far between, I feel guilty, like I missed out on something important. I suppose this falls within the realm of addiction, and I guess others would say I’m addicted to running. Interestingly, research has shown that the risk for exercise addiction is associated with narcissism. Highly committed exercisers have substantially higher levels of narcissism than less committed exercisers. Am I so narcissistic that I can’t miss a single run? When I can’t run, I am soundly disappointed to find such weakness and doubt. Surely I cannot be so lame that the only thing that matters is chasing a time on the stopwatch or looking good in the mirror. I have so many other things to be happy about and thankful for, but here I am feeling weak, out of shape, under-engaged, and anxious.

It’s hard to say that my few injuries or other illness-driven breaks from running were ever worth it as a learning experience, because, quite frankly, it sucks and I want to run. What do injuries teach you anyway? That you can’t do what you want to do in the way you want to do it? If you get injured while training for a marathon, does that teach you that you can’t run a marathon? That’s not what you want to learn. Perhaps injuries teach you the importance of training smarter. But you don’t necessarily need an injury to learn that lesson. I’ve spent my entire career trying to teach runners and coaches how to train intelligently, and I’ve written multiple books about it. If nothing else, injuries or other forced times off certainly do encourage you to put things in perspective.

Each time I return to running, I am more thankful for it and feel a growing sense that I must take care that my life would still be fulfilling if I were never able to run again. Not running doesn’t detract from my value as a person, nor does it yours, although it often may feel like it does. We are more than a weekly mileage total or a PR. We are more than a VO2max value or a 10-mile run or a bib number. Yet we are all of those things, too. Running does not define who we are; we define who we are.”

FitnessFest, Weight Loss, and Drastic LIfestyles

 

I just got back from FitnessFest in Mesa, Arizona, where one of my presentations was on weight loss. It’s a hot topic, of course, given that nearly 70% of the U.S. population is overweight or obese. 

Once you lose weight, you want to keep it off. There is little point to going through the exercise (pun intended) of losing weight if you’re just going to regain it. Maintaining lost weight is itself a lot of work, and most diets don’t emphasize the critical aspect of being able to maintain weight.

fat to thin

 

Just as your body adapts to every running stride you take, so, too, does it adapt to the pounds you lose. A multitude of hormones are involved in the regulation of body weight, the concentrations of which are altered after you lose weight. Many of these alterations persist for at least a year after you start to lose weight, even after you have started to gain the weight back, suggesting that the high rate of weight regain among dieters has a strong physiological basis and is not simply the result of lack of willpower or the resumption of old habits. Because most weight-loss studies are of short duration, the only reliable proof of what works for permanent weight loss comes from the people who have actually achieved permanent weight loss. And the studies that have examined those people have shown that no one diet is better than any other. Behavioral factors—monitoring weight, exercising daily—matter more.

For example, in a study by a group of scientists at the University of Colorado–Denver, the physical activity patterns of weight losers in the National Weight Control Registry were examined. Successful weight losers engaged in an average of 41.5 minutes per day (290 minutes per week) of sustained moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, while a control group of overweight individuals exercised an average of just 19.2 minutes per day (134 minutes per week) and a control group of normal-weight individuals exercised an average of 25.8 minutes per day (181 minutes per week).

In another study from the Brown University Medical School and Miriam Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, scientists compared the amount and intensity of exercise of successful female weight losers to individuals who had never been overweight. To be in the study, the people in the weight-loss group had to have had a body mass index (BMI) of at least 25 at some point in their lives, but at the time of the study were of normal weight (with a BMI between 18.5 and 25), had lost at least 10 percent of their maximum body weight, and kept off at least 10 percent of their weight for at least 5 years. Conversely, the people in the always-normal-weight group had no history of being overweight or obese (defined as a BMI of at least 25) and had to have always had a BMI between 18.5 and 25. Their weight also had to be stable, being within 10 pounds of their weight for at least 2 years prior to the study. The scientists discovered that the weight-loss maintainers spent more total time being physically active and spent more time doing high-intensity exercise when compared to the always-normal-weight group.

What do we learn from this research? Individuals who have lost weight require more exercise to maintain their new weight and BMI than individuals who have never been overweight and who weigh the same and have a similar BMI as the previously overweight person. In other words, if you’re 200 pounds and you lose 50 pounds so that you’re now 150 pounds, you will always need more exercise to maintain your 150-pound weight than will your friend who has always been 150 pounds. But why? Why isn’t 150 pounds always 150 pounds?

Energy balance, like most of human physiology, is largely regulated by your central nervous system, which senses metabolic status from a wide range of hormonal and neural signals and controls energy intake. In other words, when you’re thin, your central nervous system “knows” you’re thin because of the feedback it gets from specific hormones, and it regulates your appetite and storage of fat accordingly. When you’re overweight, your central nervous system “knows” you’re overweight because of the different feedback it gets from specific hormones, and it regulates your appetite and storage of fat accordingly. When you’re overweight and lose weight, your central nervous system “thinks” it needs to “correct” for your weight loss and it activates multiple compensatory mechanisms (making you feel more hungry, for instance), including changes in circulating hormones and reductions in resting metabolic rate and the efficiency of your mitochondria to produce energy via aerobic metabolism.

These mechanisms all work together to encourage weight gain and return to your original weight. To be a successful weight loser and maintain your new weight, minimize the magnitude of these compensatory adaptations by losing weight relatively slowly, using small energy deficits. In other words, don’t drastically change your life all at once by eating much less than what you’re used to and running much more than what you’re used to in an attempt to lose 5 or more pounds per week. It’s hard to sustain that drastic lifestyle. Let the drastic changes happen over time, a little at a time, so that they become habits and so that your metabolism and central nervous system have time to adjust and adapt to your changing weight.

[tweetthis remove_twitter_handles=”true” remove_url=”true” remove_hidden_hashtags=”true” remove_hidden_urls=”true”]Don’t drastically change by eating much less & running much more to lose weight. Let drastic changes happen slowly so they become habits.[/tweetthis]

Running as a habit is very effective at keeping your weight off once you have lost it, because running steers the calories you consume away from energy storage and into energy use. People who don’t exercise are not only more likely to gain weight, it is inevitable that they will.

Excerpted from Run Your Fat Off. To order, go to Amazon or get a signed copy at Run-Fit.com.

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