Tuesday, November 27, 2012

How I ran less to run better: 5 things I did to qualify for Boston

This post is the final part of a series of posts on endurance sports and heart health.

Training is both a science and an art form. There are, of course, scientifically supported ways to optimize performance - training structure, duration, intensity, biomechanics, etc. But, as much as I've learned from books, podcasts, and other coaches, I've learned even more from simple experimentation. That's where the science starts to blend with the art form.

To me, training has always been about testing myself and finding new ways to achieve even greater performance. By developing an intimate understanding about my physiology - how my body responds best; when it's tired; when to up the intensity; and what type of fuel is best - I've been able to make huge improvements and go beyond what I originally thought were my physical limits.

In my previous post I talked about how nervous I was leading into the 2012 Philadelphia Marathon. It wasn't the distance, but my preparation. My training was dramatically different than what I was doing just a few years ago. I basically had two fundamental goals with my 2012 training: 1) maximize performance (particularly speed); but at the same time 2) optimize overall health and well-being. The first part is fairly obvious, but the second is a much greater recognition and appreciation for many of the negative health effects resulting from chronic endurance exercise. I wrote about this in greater depth here and here.

5 things I changed to improve my training and qualify for Boston:

1. Biomechanics

Running is all about efficiency and economy. One of the greatest causes of stride inefficiency is over-striding, or when your foot lands in front of your center of gravity. Think physics - force is always equal and opposite. When you over-stride, the force generated comes back up into your heel, your knees, and your hips, slowing you down, but also increasing the risk of injury. The biggest warning sign is a significant heal foot strike. (I'll admit, I followed the classic "heal-toe" advise for several years and even wound up with a slight hamstring injury from overstriding.) So, the goal was to make sure my foot always struck under my hips.

To get there I changed three things: 1) I started actively picking up my feet (as opposed to pushing off the ground); 2) I increased my cadence; and 3) I ditched my old clunky shoes with tons of cushion for a more minimalist shoe, which forced me to address some of my faulty biomechanics I was getting away with, and assumed a more natural stride and foot strike.

2. Training volume

Less became more and quality replaced quantity. There's a growing body of research that points to the benefits of high intensity interval training, particularly when comparing metabolic and biochemical adaption with traditional endurance training. In addition, interval-based training is one way to get around some of the longer-term negative health effects, particularly with the heart (which I reference above), from chronic endurance training. I made intervals the foundation for my training approach.

My weeks usually included three days of solid run sessions, with a fourth optional recovery day. One week always included a shorter interval-based workout (never more than 40 minutes), a shorter tempo or fartlek run, and a longer interval-based session. The focus was always on intensity during the workout, and recovery afterwards. Long workouts were never more than 2 hours or longer than 16-17 miles total, and total weekly mileage was never more than 30ish miles. This is in stark contrast to the 40+ miles a week of old.

Training philosophy was the hardest thing to change, mostly because it was totally counter to everything I previously thought. But, I trusted it, and it worked. 

3. Training style

Becoming a better runner isn't necessarily always about running more. I think my many of my improvements over the past 18 months have a lot to do with the non-running parts of my training. Triathlon training has been key. First, cycling forced me to improve the strength, power, and endurance in my legs, particularly my quads and glutes, offering a great carry-over effect with my running. Also, incorporating sessions that improved my cycling cadence had a similar effect that "taught" my legs to turn-over faster, which was essential for the tweeks I made in my biomechanics.

Second, swimming had less of a carry-over effect, but my interval-based training in the pool improved my cardio-pulmonary capacity in ways that complemented my running. Not to mention, including kicking drills on a regular basis were great for both strength and recovery.

Lastly, I religiously incorporated at least one (and often two) days of strength training and/or plymometric work to increase power and develop functional strength. This has been vital for injury prevention, longevity, and speed.

4. Overall Nutrition

Goodbye processed food, wheat and many carbohydrates. Hello real, whole foods.

I was never overweight, but my diet wasn't necessarily "clean." In other words, because I was playing sports and exercised (and probably from a genetically faster metabolism), I found I was able to get away with not always paying close attention to what I ate. Things like pasta, bread, chips, pancakes, cookies, etc, were pretty routine. I even thought I had to eat this way because my body was burning so many calories and carbohydrates.

Now, vegetables, fat, and protein form the foundation of my diet, with carbohydrates, such as oats, lentils and quinoa cycled into my training based on when my hardest workouts are. By keeping carbohydrates in check, and being strategic with intake, my body adapted to burn more fat as the primary fuel source. Not to mention, I'm able to maintain a much more constant blood glucose level, rather than the peaks and valleys that go along with massive insulin spikes. One of the simplest (though hardest at first) things I found was to eliminate wheat, which is one of the biggest culprits with blood glucose fluctuations. Not only are there a variety of ways wheat contributes to chronic disease (a must read on the subject is "Wheat Belly" by Dr. William Davis), I also found eliminating wheat (and all refined carbohydrates and sugars) helps me 1) maintain more constant energy levels; 2) allows for better recovery post workouts (particularly long/intense workouts), and 3) because stored carbohydrates carry more than double their mass in water, drop about 15-20 pounds of what I call "junk weight."

One of the huge advantages of dropping this "junk weight" - where I went from weighing about 20lbs less during the 2012 Philly Marathon compared to 2007 - was it's effect on running economy. In what is probably one of the most comprehensive book on running, Dr. Tim Noakes writes in "The Lore of Running" that research has shown that "the addition up to 4kg to the torso increased the oxygen cost of running by...2.5%." Further, that "the addition of 0.5kg to each thigh or to each foot increased the oxygen cost of running by 3.5% and 7.2% respectively." In short, a lighter runner can more easily be a more efficient runner.

5. Race-Day Nutrition

I said goodbye to sports drinks and gels, both in training and on race day. Instead, I used UCAN Superstarch for workouts over 90 minutes and on race day. UCAN Superstarch is a slow-releasing, high molecular-weight carbohydrate that results in a much smaller insulin spike compared to simple sugar-based products like sports drinks and gels.

Why is this important?

Two points. First, the body has a limited supply of glycogen, or storage sugar, which, if used exclusively, is exhausted over the course of a couple hours (faster at higher intensities). This is the basic reason behind consuming sugar in the form of sports drinks or gels during a marathon or triathlon. However, this leads me to the second point. When suger is ingested, huge insulin spikes follow, resulting in the body preferentially burning glucose and essentially shutting down its ability to burn fat. When blood glucose levels are maintained in a more moderate range, the body is better able to tap into its massive fat stores. And for those more fat adapted through their everyday diet, like myself, this has huge performance and endurance benefits.

There ya have it. Five big changes I made to improve my running performance. These weren't all done overnight, and many were things that took a lot of patience. But in the end, it was about trusting the approach, and trusting myself.

Let me know your thoughts.

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