Talk to Yourself

I talk to myself. A lot. Out loud. It helps me to think. To create. My mother used to tell me that only crazy people talk to themselves. I guess I’m crazy.

Believe it or not, successful people talk to themselves. Often, they have on-going conversations with themselves, verbalizing and solidifying in their own heads what they want to accomplish. While you may not want to talk to yourself out loud in public for fear of being thought of as crazy, self-talk can be a very powerful strategy to run a successful race and be successful in life.

Jason

Unlike the 100-meter dash, which is over in a few seconds, distance races give you a lot of time to think. They are also physically uncomfortable, which can lead to negative thoughts and doubts about being able to hold the pace or beat other runners. Any time a negative thought enters your head before or during a race, say, “Stop” and replace it with a positive thought. Say to yourself, “I’m strong,” or “I’m fast,” or “The other runners are even more fatigued than I am.” Early in your race, say things to yourself that keep you calm and relaxed. In the middle of the race, when you start to feel fatigued, say things that keep you encouraged to hold the pace. You may want to focus on a specific landmark on a road or cross country course or lap of the track, and say to yourself, “Just hold the pace until I get to the landmark,” or “Just the hold the pace until the next mile marker,” or “Just hold the pace for one more lap.” If there is a specific runner you want to beat, say to yourself, “Just stay with him (or her) for one more mile (or one more lap).” Toward the end of the race, say things that get you fired up to run as fast as you can. Say, “Go, go, go!” You may even want to have a specific mantra for your races, something that means a lot to you and triggers a feeling of empowerment.

And next time your mother tells you you’re crazy, she means it with love.

Get more racing strategies in 101 Winning Racing Strategies for Runners

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Top 5 Ways to Be a Better Runner and a Better Success in 2017

1. Run More

More than any other factor, how much you run each week has the biggest impact on your running success. More than any other factor, how much you do has the biggest impact on your success as a person. So, commit to run more and do more this year. Pick a goal and stick to it, no matter what gets in the way. No excuses.

2. Train with a Variety of Speeds

If you run slowly all the time, you’re just going turn into a slow runner. Train along the whole continuum of speeds, from very slow to very fast. Understand when it’s time to run slowly and when it’s time to run fast. Live life along the whole continuum of speeds, from very slowly to very fast. Understand when it’s time to slow down and relax and when it’s time to push the pace. You don’t have to rush through life at someone else’s pace; you have only to take life at the pace that is right for you.

3. Optimize Recovery

All of the adaptations you make when you run occur during the recovery between workouts, not during the workouts themselves. So to adapt optimally, you need to recover optimally. That means staying hydrated, consuming adequate carbs and protein, not stressing your body outside of your workouts, and getting adequate sleep every night. As successful people, we also need to optimize recovery. If you push, push, push all the time, you’re going to, in my mother’s words, burn the candle at both ends. So take time for yourself (this is the hardest lesson for me to learn myself).  

4. Be Patient

To become a better runner and raise your level of performance takes time. You have to put in the work and be patient. You can’t do one interval workout this week and expect to be faster next week. You can’t do one thing this week and expect to be a better success next week. Success in all aspects of our lives takes time. Few things in running and in life happen on our timeline. Focus on the work itself rather than the timeline of that work.   

5. Train with Others Who Are Faster Than You

To be a better runner, run with other runners who are just a little faster than you so they can push you to reach for something better than you are. To be a better success and a better person, work and hang out with other people who are a little smarter, a little more compassionate, a little more sophisticated, and a little more savvy than you.

6. Love More

To be a better runner, you have to really love it. There’s a lot involved — lots of mileage, long runs, tempo runs, interval workouts, hills, speed work. If you don’t love it, it’s not going to be a good experience for you. To be a better success, you have to love what you do, you have to love the people you surround yourself with, and you have to love yourself, even in the face of failure and rejection. So love more in 2017 and watch your running and your life be better.

Through running

Goals, New Year, and Compasses

Some people may find it odd that I rarely talk about goals. It’s not that I don’t have any; just that I would rather focus on making them happen than talk about them.

Most people are talkers. They talk and talk and talk and nothing ever happens. The few times I have had a regular job, it’s been a frustrating experience. There is so much red tape and bureaucracy. I can’t believe how many meetings there are. People have meetings to decide when they’re going to have a meeting. Few things get accomplished, and none of them quickly.

For me, running has always been my compass, providing me with direction on how to get things done. As I wrote in The Inner Runner, “Running puts us on the right path. It directs us toward a life of meaning. And it helps us get more done.”  

But just because running is my compass, it doesn’t have to be yours. Find what gives you pleasure, what you are deeply passionate about, what makes you get out of bed in the morning because you want to, not because you have to, and make that your compass.

So, as we complete yet another year of our lives, remember that December 31 and January 1 are just days. There is no greater meaning to them other than what we attach to them. We don’t need “New Year, New You” campaigns and we don’t need to make a pledge that “This year I’m going to do X.” All we need is a compass.

Happy December 31 and happy January 1.

Racing, Lessons, and Marlboro High School

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke at a track and cross country coaches clinic in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and met the current coach at the high school I graduated from in New Jersey. He gave me the school’s track/cross country racing singlet, and yesterday was the first chance I had to race in it. It was the first time in 25 years I had worn a Marlboro High School racing singlet. It was pretty cool.

Marlboro2

As I wrote in The Inner Runner, when you pin that race number to your shirt, you make a promise to yourself and to the other runners around you to give your best effort. And when you cross that finish line, you’ll know whether or not you kept that promise. I kept that promise yesterday. Even though I’m not as fast as I used to be as a teenager at Marlboro High School, I can still promise to give the race everything I have. 

When I first started running track and cross country in school, and for many years after, I defined myself by how fast I ran my races. If I didn’t run as fast as I wanted, I would get down on myself. I would mope around for days after a disappointing race. My identity was tied to my race results. Although I still get disappointed when I don’t run as fast as I want or think I should, I’ve slowly and reluctantly realized that I’m not defined by my races. I’m still a great person if I don’t run a 4:29 mile or a 2:59 marathon. And so are you.

Except for the few people who have the ability to win races, racing is not about winning. Sure, it feels good to win. I’ve been fortunate enough to win a number of races in my life, all of which were when I was younger and none of which were of any real consequence other than how good it made me feel. I fell far short of the Olympic dreams of my youth. No matter what level of runner you are, running is about how much we can put ourselves on the line, literally and figuratively, to measure up against our true selves and to shorten the distance between who we are and who we want to be. When we put ourselves on the line and pledge to run as fast as we can, we become vulnerable. We expose ourselves to the one person we matter most to—our self.

Racing is the best example of living through our bodies. When we race, we push our bodies to their limit. Or at least we hope to. We are given the rare opportunity to act like an animal in the wild, running free and showing our inner strength. Racing, if we do it with our whole heart, forces us to face what is happening right at that moment, in a way that few other experiences do. We give it our all, and we get even more back.

I always tell the runners I coach when going into a race that the most important thing is that they finish the race feeling like they couldn’t have done any better on that day. Regardless of the outcome—the time on the clock and the place you finish—what matters most is that you walk away from the race being able to say to others and to yourself that you gave it everything you had. That alone is something to be immensely proud of. That alone is worth the race entry fee.

Thank you, Coach Raymond Sypniewski, for the Marlboro High School racing singlet. I’ll wear it with pride when I race, and remember to always give my best effort. Go Mustangs!

How Fast Should You Run?

Runners ask me all the time how fast they should run for various types of workous — easy runs, tempo runs, intervals. Most runners run either too fast or too slow to obtain the desired result. To determine the correct speed, you must know the purpose of each workout. Always remember that the goal of training is to obtain the greatest benefit while incurring the least amount of stress, so you should run only as fast as you need to meet the purpose of the run. And guess what? You only need to run at four speeds. Yup, that’s rght. Just four. From slower to faster, here are the four speeds at which you need to train.

Picture1

Easy Runs and Long Runs

The purpose of easy and long runs is to stimulate the physiological, biochemical, and molecular adaptations needed for endurance, including the storage of more fuel (glycogen) in your muscles, an increased use of intramuscular fat at the same speed to spare glycogen, an increased number of red blood cells and hemoglobin, a greater capillary network for a more rapid diffusion of oxygen into the muscles, and an increased mitochondrial density and number of aerobic enzymes to enhance your aerobic metabolic capacity. Since many of these adaptations are volume-dependent, not intensity-dependent, the speed of easy runs is not as important as their duration. The single biggest mistake competitive runners make is running too fast on their easy days. By doing so, you add unnecessary stress to your legs without any extra benefit and you won’t be able to run as much quality on your harder days.

Your easy runs should be done at about 1½ to 2 minutes per mile slower than your current 5K race pace, about 70-75 percent maximum heart rate. As you increase your weekly mileage, you may need to run slower to accommodate the extra volume. Speed-type runners (those who are better at shorter races) will have a greater difference between their race pace and easy running pace compared to endurance-type runners (those who are better at longer races). I have always been more of a speed-type runner; my easy runs are much slower than the pace I race at. 

Marathon Pace Runs

If you are training for a marathon, I will add a fifth speed to this list because the marathon may be the only race for which it is very valuable to practice specific race pace, for both the value of the pace itself and for the fueling/hydration strategies that you will use in the marathon. Include some long(ish) runs at your realistic marathon pace as you get closer to the marathon. 

Lactate Threshold Runs

The lactate threshold (LT), or what I call the acidosis threshold (AT), demarcates the transition between running that is purely aerobic and running that includes significant oxygen-independent (anaerobic) metabolism and the development of acidosis. Therefore, AT is the fastest speed that you can sustain aerobically. The purpose of AT training is to increase the speed at which your AT occurs, which allows you to run faster before anaerobic metabolism and fatigue begin to play a significant role.

I’ve noticed that the AT workout is the most difficult type for runners to run at the correct speed since it requires holding back and not pushing the pace. There’s a comfortably hard feeling to the pace that requires practice. AT pace is about 10 to 15 seconds per mile slower than 5K race pace, or about 10K race pace (75-80% max HR) for recreational runners, and about 25 to 30 seconds per mile slower than 5K race pace, or about 15 to 20 seconds per mile slower than 10K race pace (85-90% max HR) for highly trained runners. The better your endurance, the longer you can sustain your AT pace and the better you’ll be at sustaining any fraction of your AT pace. In other words, if a 15-minute 5K runner can run 30 seconds per mile faster than AT pace (which equals 110% of AT pace) for those 15 minutes, a 25-minute 5K runner is not also going to be able to run 30 seconds per mile faster than AT pace (which equals 106% of AT pace) for 25 minutes, which is 10 minutes (and 66%) longer than the good runner. What matters is how long it takes to run the distance, not the distance itself.

VO2max Intervals

The purpose of VO2max intervals is to increase your VO2max by running at the speed at which VO2max occurs, which corresponds to your max HR, max stroke volume (the volume of blood the heart pumps per beat) and max cardiac output (the volume of blood the heart pumps per minute). Cardiac output = heart rate x stroke volume.

If you can’t get to a laboratory to determine your VO2max pace, either run at close to your maximum heart rate or use your current race performances. Many coaches and runners like to do workouts at 5K or 10K race pace, but there is not much benefit running at 5K or 10K race pace other than to practice that pace since 5K or 10K race pace does not correspond to any physiological variable that affects race performance. For example, 5K race pace is too slow for a VO2max workout and too fast for an AT workout. VO2max pace, which is the fastest speed that can be maintained for about 7-10 minutes, is about 1- to 1½-mile race pace for recreational runners and 3K or 2-mile race pace (10-15 seconds per mile faster than 5K race pace) for highly trained runners.

Interval workouts with reps lasting 3 to 5 minutes are ideal for training VO2max since they provide the greatest cardiovascular load, however research has shown that shorter reps can also improve VO2max as long as the recovery intervals are very short to keep VO2 elevated between reps. An advantage of shorter reps is that you can accumulate a greater distance or total running time at VO2max pace. Regardless of the duration of the reps you choose, the speed should be the same since the goal is the same — to improve VO2max. As you progress, make the workouts harder by adding more reps or decreasing the duration of the recovery intervals rather than by running faster. Only increase the speed of the workouts once your races have shown that you are indeed faster. If running 800-meter reps in 3:15 (6:30 mile pace) elicits VO2max, running them in 3:05 (6:10 mile pace) will also elicit VO2max. But since the key is to run only as fast as you need to obtain the desired result, don’t run each rep in 3:05 when 3:15 will suffice.

Anaerobic Capacity Intervals

The purposes of anaerobic capacity intervals are to cause a high degree of muscle acidosis so that you enhance your buffering capacity, to increase the number of enzymes involved in anaerobic glycolysis, and to increase speed by recruiting fast-twitch muscle fibres. The speed of these reps, which should be 45 seconds to 2 minutes with recovery intervals up to 3 times as long as the time spent running, should therefore be just fast enough to cause acidosis and recruit fast-twitch muscle fibres — 800-meter to mile race pace for competitive runners and 400-meter race pace for recreational runners.

Next time you go out the door to run, ask yourself what is the purpose of the workout. If you run all of your workouts at the correct speeds, not only will you be rewarded with new personal records, you may even be able to tell other runners how fast to run.

Einstein, Pyruvate, and Simplicity

I am often asked how to become a better runner. The answer is simple… and complex. As Albert Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” So, in honor of Einstein (whom I share a birthday with), here is a simple explanation of how to become a better runner. Understand this picture and the words beneath it and you understand a lot. (I know it’s a little blurry when I enlarged it, but it’s still understandable).

Presentations

When you run, you use carbohydrate (glucose) and fat. Glucose is metabolized and produces pyruvate, which has 2 fates: oxidation in the Krebs (Citric Acid) Cycle, or chemical reduction to lactate. (I discuss lactate in another blog, My Love Affair with Lactate.)

When you run slowly, the pyruvate that is formed from glucose metabolism is directed into the Krebs Cycle. When you run faster, you rely more on glucose and less on fat, which produces more pyruvate, and you begin to put a strain on the ability of the Krebs Cycle to “accept” more pyruvate. At some pace, which is different for everyone, the Krebs Cycle becomes overwhelmed and can’t keep up with the production of pyruvate from glycolysis. When this happens, the pace starts to become more “anaerobic,” with anaerobic metabolism playing a more significant role to supply energy (ATP) for muscle contraction. Lactate accumulates in the muscles and blood, along with other metabolites, like hydrogen and potassium ions, which cause fatigue.

The goal of training for a distance runner is to make the pace as fast as possible whereby pyruvate continues to be directed into the Krebs Cycle, delaying the reliance on anaerobic metabolism. An out of shape runner may become anaerobic at 8 minutes per mile, while the best runners in the world become anaerobic at 4 minutes per mile.

So how do you increase the pace at which pyruvate continues to be directed into the Krebs Cycle? By running more and by running at a faster aerobic pace, because that kind of training increases the metabolic machinery needed to accept more pyruvate. The Krebs Cycle and all of its associated enzymes are inside the mitochondria. The more mitochondria you have in your leg muscles, the greater the capacity of those muscles to run aerobically. Running more also increases the amount of capillaries you have surrounding your muscle fibers, which enhances oxygen delivery to your muscles.      

It is for this reason — enhanced Krebs Cycle activity through stimulating the production of more mitochondria — that runners must run a lot to become better. There you have it — simple as possible, but not simpler. Now go run. 

And if you haven’t read my latest book, THE INNER RUNNER, buy the book for yourself and another for a friend. It is a great holiday gift. And it will touch your heart. Not a bad thing to do for the holidays.
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My Love Affair with Lactate

 

This piece first appeared in Track Coach magazine in Spring, 2005. It remains one of my favorite articles. Feel free to share with your colleagues and friends.

It all started with an innocent race once around the track in sixth grade. Midway through the final curve, I felt something, something that would change my life. Her name, I discovered later, was Lactate. As I continued to run, she teased me with her power, drawing on the reigns, gently at first, then harder with each passing moment. Harder. Harder. By the time I had reached the finish line, she had taken control of my whole body with her rapture. I could no longer move. It was love at first sight.     

First discovered in 1780 in sour milk, lactic acid, or lactate, as she is known at the pH of body fluids and to her friends and paramours, is produced in a metabolic pathway known as glycolysis. Her mother, pyruvic acid, also known as pyruvate and herself a product of glycolysis, is converted into lactate when oxygen is not supplied fast enough to meet the needs of the cell. This happens a lot during intense exercise because the muscle cell’s need for energy (ATP) is too immediate to wait on oxygen, who left pyruvate standing alone at the altar—the entrance to the Krebs cycle—for his duties as the patriarch of metabolism.

“I’m oxygen,” he says to the muscle cell, with more than a hint of superiority. “I can give you a lot of ATP, but you will have to wait for it.” Oxygen knows that he is worth the wait, as he controls the fate of endurance (not to mention that he is the sustenance of life). Therefore, as it is well known, there is an accumulation of lactate in the muscles and blood during intense exercise. And from the time I first experienced her caress in sixth grade, I was hooked. I still regularly sneak away from home to go to the track, just so I could be near her, feel her engulf my body, yield to her desires. 

It wasn’t until years later, when I began my graduate work in exercise physiology, that I learned how misunderstood lactate really is. And it was then, when I finally understood what was misunderstood by so many, that our love affair blossomed.

Fatigue’s Faulty Scapegoat

Fatigue is a difficult thing to pin down. Because there are so many things happening simultaneously inside muscles when they are working hard, it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine the exact cause of fatigue. It’s like trying to find out what causes cancer. Fatigue, like cancer, has many different faces. The fatigue associated with the marathon is not like the fatigue associated with the 800 meters, any more than breast cancer is like prostate cancer. Scientific inquiry typically begins with the formation of a hypothesis and the design of a research study to test that hypothesis. One of the key attributes of a well-designed study is the controlling of confounding variables, things that can interfere with the outcome. It is only when these confounding variables are controlled that a scientist can determine if the observed outcome is an effect of the treatment that was given. It is similar to determining why you ran well or poorly on a given day. After all, there are many things that influence athletic performance. Things like the weather, the training program, the athlete’s level of fatigue, the pacing of the race, the athlete’s degree of anxiety or nervousness, stress from other areas of the athlete’s life, all could have influenced the athlete’s performance on Tuesday. But how does the coach know which is the cause? Such is the case with determining the cause of fatigue. 

From the time Nobel Prize winners A.V. Hill and Otto Meyerhof discovered in the 1920s that lactic acid is produced during fatiguing muscle contractions in the absence of oxygen, lactic acid has been the exercising community’s scapegoat for fatigue. But why? Why does lactate get all the blame? There has never been any experimental evidence that has shown a cause-and-effect relationship between lactate production and fatigue. While lactate increases dramatically during intense exercise, so do other metabolites, most notably hydrogen ions, which are considered the major threat to the muscle’s acid-base balance. Lactate doesn’t even reveal all of herself unless the exercise uses anaerobic glycolysis as the predominant metabolic pathway. So in events like the 100 meters, the marathon, or any of the field events, speaking about lactate is like speaking about your mistress in the presence of your wife. When anaerobic glycolysis is the predominant energy system being used, hydrogen ions, like lactate, accumulate in muscles and blood. However, it is the accumulation of hydrogen ions, which are produced from the breakdown of ATP during muscle contractions and from other chemical reactions of glycolysis, that decreases muscle pH, causing metabolic acidosis and, ultimately, fatigue. But even hydrogen’s role in fatigue has been questioned by some scientists, who lay the blame on yet other metabolites. Because of lactate’s concomitant increase with hydrogen ions and the simple method of measuring her concentration, blood lactate is used by scientists only as an indirect measure of acidosis. Although it has been widely accepted by the scientific community for a long time that lactate is innocuous and is not the cause of fatigue during intense exercise, lactate still takes the blame and still is regarded by runners as the enemy. Scientific terminology is, unfortunately, slow to change, and lactate has been the chief sufferer. 

Lactic Acid is Burning Me

Jane Fonda may have been the first to popularize muscle burning during exercise, asking her exercise video audience to “feel the burn.” As a result, there have been many misconceptions about the nature of the muscle burn, including the wrong assertion that lactic acid is the cause, possibly due to the connotation of the word “acid” and its association with burning. However, lactic acid is a weak acid and, as already discussed, is not the cause of acidosis. No physiologist has ever burnt himself when taking a blood sample from a subject containing a high blood lactate concentration. “Burning” may even be the wrong term to use when describing how muscles feel during intense exercise, since the sensation is certainly not the same as putting your hand over a fire or pouring hydrochloric acid on your skin. (Now that’s burning!) No one seems to know exactly what causes the sensation of muscle burning, but it is possible that it is nothing more than the increase in muscle temperature that accompanies intense exercise.

Will Lactic Acid Massage My Sore Muscles?

Many athletes, coaches, fitness professionals, and the general public think that lactic acid is also the cause of muscle soreness. However, muscle and blood lactate return to pre-exercise levels within 30 to 60 minutes after exercise, so lactate is long gone by the time soreness develops. Muscle soreness is rather the result of microscopic tears in the muscle fibers, causing an initial mechanical injury (which may be related to the contractile proteins—actin and myosin—pulling apart), and a delayed biochemical injury, which usually brings about the perception of soreness. The soreness typically worsens during the first 24 hours after exercise, peaks from 24 to 72 hours, then subsides within five to seven days as the muscles heal. 

Oh, Lactate!  How I Need You!

Not only does lactate not cause fatigue, her production in muscle is vital during intense exercise, as she serves a number of roles. Lactate production maintains the ratio of certain biochemical molecules, supporting the continued ability of glycolysis to keep working. Lactate is also used as a fuel by the heart, is used by the liver to make new glucose (blood sugar) by a process called gluconeogenesis, and is converted back into glycogen (the stored form of carbohydrate) by a reversal of the chemical reactions of glycolysis. Both the new glucose and glycogen are then themselves used as fuels by muscles so exercise can continue at the desired intensity. So much for lactate being a waste product. 

Lactic Acid Whispering Sweet Nothings in My Ear

As a mirror to what is taking place in the muscle during exercise, the lactic acid concentration of the blood, which is typically obtained from a prick to the finger or ear, tells us the changing relationship between effort and speed. My first finger prick came in the fall of 1995 in the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Calgary. A number of finger pricks generates a graph like the one shown below. At slower speeds, lactate increases slowly, while at faster speeds, lactate increases rapidly. But why the tease? Why does lactate change the rate at which she reveals herself? At slower speeds, lactate is removed from the muscles as quickly as she is produced. At faster speeds, however, when there is a greater reliance on anaerobic glycolysis for energy, lactate removal starts lagging behind lactate production, and lactate begins to accumulate in the muscles and blood. Think of a bucket with a hole in it that sits out in the rain.  When it’s drizzling, the water that fills the bucket empties through the hole. But when it’s pouring, water fills the bucket faster than it empties through the hole, and water accumulates in the bucket. To take the analogy further, there is an intensity of rainfall at which the amount of water emptying the bucket is just enough to keep up with the amount of water entering the bucket so that the level of water reaches the top of the bucket but does not overflow.  If the rainfall is heavy enough, the bucket will eventually overflow. The point at which lactate quickly accumulates—the overflowing bucket—is an important marker in physiology, and is affectionately called the lactate threshold. With an increase in aerobic fitness, the “lactate curve” shifts to the right (the red curve in the graph) because there is less lactate accumulation at the same submaximal speeds.  With training, the lactate threshold occurs at a faster speed. This happens because endurance training improves the ability to remove lactate—someone cut a larger hole in the bucket. The lactate threshold could just as easily be called the acidosis threshold since, as already discussed, the accumulation of lactate is only a reflection of the state of muscle and blood acidosis. 

The rightward shift of the lactate curve (from blue to red) indicates an improvement in endurance.

effect-of-training-on-the-lactate-threshold

Biochemically, a lactic acid value indicates the status of pyruvate metabolism, with a high value indicating conditions that favor the conversion of pyruvate to lactate instead of its transportation into the Krebs cycle. People who achieve high maximal lactate values (the highest point on the graph’s curve) do so because they have many fast-twitch muscle fibers that use anaerobic glycolysis as their primary energy system. Being able to increase an an individual’s maximal lactate value through training would help performance in races that rely on anaerobic glycolysis and therefore result in high lactate values, such as 400 and 800 meters. Being able to produce lots of lactate is a good thing.

Lactic acid is also used in the clinical setting, where a high resting lactic acid value may indicate liver disease or hypoxemia (deficient oxygenation of the blood). Since the liver uses lactic acid to make glucose, a high lactic acid value may indicate liver dysfunction. Alternatively, a high lactic acid value may indicate hypoxemia since, in the absence of oxygen, pyruvic acid will be converted to lactic acid.

Although my intellectual love affair with lactate over the years has sometimes been put on hold to study other things, our physical love affair has always remained, reuniting with her every time I go to the track. Perhaps, someday, she won’t be misunderstood, and she can be admired for what she truly is.

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Running Technique, Riding a Bicycle, and Repetition

If you watched the New York City Marathon yesterday, either in person or on TV, you may have noticed something if you watched carefully. It’s pretty amazing, even extraordinary: People have different running styles. Woah! Can you believe it? Unbelievable!

Most runners heel-strike, others mid-foot strike. Some hold their arms low, some hold them high. Some even make circles with their arms and twist their torso. Some runners’ technique is as pretty as pretty can be, some are as ugly as ugly can be. And guess what? It’s not all the elites that look pretty and all the recreational runners who look ugly. They are all mixed: Some recreational runners look pretty and some elite runners look ugly. But somehow, they all get the job done.

Most people who run are told there’s a specific technique they should use. But no one really knows what the “best” way to run is, or even if there is a “best” way at all. The “best” way is likely slightly different for each runner, because every runner subconsciously runs as efficiently as he or she possibly can. Your body is not going to do what is inefficient, and it is not going to adapt in a way that hurts you. Running biomechanics are influenced by skeletal alignment, flexibility, and strength. If you try to change a runner’s biomechanics without changing the factors that influence it, he or she can get injured.

Like any other skill, from playing the piano to riding a bicycle, running expertise comes through constant repetition. Read that sentence again.

Acknowledging that there is no ideal running technique that should be adopted by every runner, there are certain things you should strive for when you run. The most important technical thing a runner should focus on is having the foot land as close to directly underneath the hips as possible. This minimizes any deceleration (“braking”) and assists the “rolling” from one step into the next.

If there is nothing else you focus on, focus on that. Get your feet under your hips when they land on the ground. You can also think of this as moving your hips to keep up with your legs so that the hips are directly over the feet when they land. Everything else will take care of itself if you run enough to ingrain the movement.

If you have not ordered your copy of THE INNER RUNNER yet, Christmas and Hanukkah are coming. And this year at the same time!

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Two Schools of Thought

“There are two schools of thought,” the college coach said to me seven years ago, as I watched the 800-meter runners run 200-meter reps on the track at 800-meter PR pace in November. She was referring to how to train middle distance and distance runners — with lots of speed training or lots of endurance training. “You’re right,” I responded, “the right school of thought and the wrong school of thought.”    

I spent this morning watching seventh and eighth graders in a cross country race in southern California. One of the parents invited me to watch the race and talk to her and some other parents about how to train their talented kids. And I heard the same story I’ve heard hundreds of times before: The coaches subscribe to the wrong school of thought.

People always tell me that they like my candid, direct way of stating things, that I’m very good at simplifying the science so that everyone can understand. And so, as Albert Einstein used to say, I will make things as simple as I can but no simpler: The single biggest factor in your long-term running success is the amount of running you do, not the intensity, and if you do a lot of high-intensity interval training, especially at a young age, you will sacrifice your aerobic development and retard your progress as a runner. 

One of the main goals of training is to increase the pace at which you can run aerobically, before oxygen-independent (anaerobic) metabolism begins to play a significant role. Because when the pace starts to become anaerobic, fatigue is imminent and you will slow down. So, the faster you can run before that happens, the faster you will run a race.   

You cannot keep getting faster by hammering more and more interval workouts. This is true for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that the anaerobic side is limited (you can only increase speed by so much) and constantly pulling the pH of your muscles down with anaerobic workouts (a condition called acidosis) negatively affects muscle function. In contrast, the aerobic side is virtually unlimited, at least up to the point that your genetics will allow for further adaptation.  

If you have kids, or if you run yourself, the best way to train, especially in the developmental years, is to take a methodical approach, focusing on the aerobic training, increasing how much running you can handle each year, and sprinkling in just enough speedwork to improve speed and create a peak in performance. You can improve speed from aerobic strength; doing it the other way around by trying to improve speed first doesn’t work. You’ll get faster more quickly that way, but your long-term development will get flushed in the toilet. It’s amazing to me how many coaches still don’t understand that, including that college coach I had the conversation with seven years ago.

For distance runners, the volume of training induces the biological signal for adaptation and dictates the performance capacity. And in order to accomplish a large training volume, the runner must perform most of the running at a relatively slow pace, and then by doing quality aerobic work.

Aerobic running develops many physiological and biochemical traits:

1) It increases total blood volume.

2) It increases the number of red blood cells and the amount of hemoglobin contained within them, giving your blood vessels a greater oxygen-carrying capability.

3) It creates a larger spider web of capillaries around your muscle fibers, enhancing oxygen delivery to your muscles by shortening the diffusion distance from capillaries to mitochondria. Think of a highway system — you want lots of highways traversing your muscle fibers so that when oxygen takes an exit, it has only a short distance to travel to arrive at the mitochondria.

4) It increases the volume of mitochondria in slow-twitch muscle fibers, where aerobic metabolism takes place. 

5) It increases aerobic enzyme activity, which enhances the speed at which the chemical reactions of metabolism occur. 

6) It enhances neuromuscular coordination, improving running economy, the oxygen cost of running at submaximal speeds.

7) All of the above improves VO2max, the maximum volume of oxygen your muscles can consume per minute. 

The more aerobically fit runners are, the more they will ultimately get from their subsequent speedwork. Since recovery is an aerobic process, being more aerobically fit enables runners to recover faster during the rest intervals of interval workouts (which enables them to run more reps) and in the days following a workout (which enables them to do fast workouts more often when it is the right time to do them).

As I wrote about in a previous blog, the best 800-meter runners and milers in the world run a lot of miles each week, because even a race that short requires a large aerobic engine (i.e., a high VO2max) and is more aerobic than anaerobic.

Seven years after my conversation with the college coach about the two schools of thought, and the cross country team is still near the bottom of the conference. Perhaps one day, if she truly cares about her athletes, she’ll go back to school.

Biceps, Butts, and Bikinis

When I got a phone call on Wednesday this past week to judge the Musclemania bodybuilding, bikini, and physique competition on Saturday, I thought it was a prank call. Apart from having great legs, why would anyone ask a runner to judge a physique competition? I’ve never gotten a spray tan, after all.

It took me a few days to decide whether or not I was going to do it, because I didn’t really feel like taking a few hours out of my Saturday to judge overly-bronzed bodies on stage.

I decided to do it… and it was so worth it. I met a lot of great people, including the other judges, one of whom looked like he should have been one of the competitors himself.

judges

It’s not easy to be judged while posing on stage half naked, and it’s not easy to do the judging. I only had seconds to score the competitors on different criteria, like symmetry, condition, and appearance. And to judge each as an individual, without comparison to the others, was even more difficult. Our brains naturally make comparisons. We know beautiful only because we know ugly; we know strong only because we know weak.

Although I had fun and met great people, that kind of competition doesn’t appeal to the athlete in me. Why spend all that time training to pose on a stage and win or lose based purely on what you look like? Why not train to develop a skill instead? There are other types of athletes who look even better than the men and women I saw on that stage, and they look that way by training skill. Gymnasts could rival any one of these physique competitors, but they do it by achieving tremendous skill. What they can accomplish is extremely impressive and extremely difficult.

Some of the bodybuilding and physique competitors from the Musclemania Fitness California Championships 

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The 2016 U.S. Olympic Men’s Gymnastics Team

gymnasts

And then, of course, there’s Usain Bolt and other world-class sprinters, who train to develop speed and power. I once stood right next to Carl Lewis, winner of 9 Olympic gold medals. It was like standing next to a sculpture. Sprinters, like all athletes, train movement, not muscle. Bodybuilders and physique competitors train the opposite way—muscle, not movement.

Bolt

I have written many times in my articles and books that what muscles look like isn’t as important as what they can do. Just ask the world’s best distance runners with the skinny legs and arms, who can run unbelievable speeds for long periods of time (the men’s and women’s marathon world records are 4:41 and 5:10 per mile pace, respectively).

Judging last night’s competition opened my eyes to a new area of the fitness industry. But I still believe that people should train for function rather than form. If you do that, your muscles will not only be able to perform well, they will look great, too. Form follows function, after all.   

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