The Runner’s Catch-22, Part 2: Power Facilitates Endurance.

In my first post of this series, I discussed a very common training problem plaguing the beginner runner: that it takes a certain amount of power to habitually produce an efficient running cadence (in the ballpark of 180 steps per minute, or spm), and it takes incrementally more power to produce it over longer and longer periods of time.

Enter the beginner, relatively untrained runner, who aspires to run longer races such as marathons. While it’s quite possible to run at 100% of maximum power output for 100 yards, it’s necessary to run longer distances at a decreasing percentage of the body’s total power output: in order to sustain activity for the long periods of time in which it takes to run a marathon, a runner must be working at around 55-65% of their maximum power output.

The problem is that producing an efficient cadence takes power. What happens if it takes 85 or 90% of your total power output to produce an efficient cadence? You won’t be able to sustain that cadence for a mile, let alone a marathon.

(This is a bigger problem than it seems.)

Think about deadlifting a 250 lb barbell. It’s not just about being able to lift the damn thing. At that weight, you should be able to (say) maintain the shape of the lower back, relax the shoulders, and produce a proper hip flexion and extension through the entire movement. The point is that it’s not just nice to be able to meet the minimum power and mobility requirements for the deadlift. You have to, or you’re flirting with injury.

Same thing for the marathon—it’s about being powerful enough to sustain a cadence in the ballpark of 180 spm for the duration of the entire race (for starters). This means that you need to be a good bit more powerful to run a marathon than to run a 5k.

In order to produce a certain cadence for a long period of time, you must be more powerful than to produce that same cadence over shorter periods.

 Over the course of this series, we’ll keep coming back to the same issue: in order to run well, the muscles need to be powerful enough to produce that cadence. If they’re not, they’re less efficient. Let me be completely clear: a powerful runner who can hit 180 spm habitually is more efficient than one who can’t. Let me reiterate this: if you are powerful, you get an added efficiency bonus that a less powerful runner doesn’t have. One last time: if you’re weak, you’re slow and inefficient, but if you’re powerful, you’re fast and efficient.

There is a crazy tangle of ironies to be exposed here: when the muscles are too weak to produce a cadence of 180, it takes a lot more muscle power to be able to run at the same speed. But because your muscles are weak, the speed you are able to run at is much, much slower than you’d expect if you supposed that both the fast and the slow runner were equally efficient.

If you’re powerful enough to produce a cadence of 180 for 50 or 60 miles (in other words, really powerful) you get massive dividends in energy savings.

(This is related to why the “correct” running form—not just for sprinting, but for all running speeds—is the one aligns the body in such a way to help it produce the most power.)

Thanks to this, runners like Jim Walmsley are able to sustain blazing speeds for very long periods of time. Gear Junkie reports that Walmsley recently crushed Rob Krar’s Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim record, running 42 miles with over 40 thousand feet of elevation gain (and another 40,000 of elevation loss) in just over 5 hours and 55 minutes.

Power is necessary for endurance for very specific reasons. In order to produce endurance—a.k.a. to stay in activity for long periods of time—you need to be burning fuel for long periods of time. But the body’s fuels (fat and sugar) aren’t created equal. The body burns less fats and more sugar as it works at a higher percentage of its total power output—a problem because even a very lean body stores about 100 times more calories in fats than it does in sugars.

Let’s say you’re trying to run at an efficient cadence. The less powerful you are, the more sugars you’ll have to be burning to sustain that cadence. Even if you’re burning 40% sugar to sustain an efficient cadence, you’ll run out of sugars that much more quickly than a more powerful athlete—who might only need to burn, say, 15% sugar to sustain the same cadence.

At some point, you’ll be left with 2 choices: (1) stop running, (2) reduce your cadence (and speed) to the point that you’re burning almost only fats.

Notice how stark these choices are: number one means that you just can’t run as far as the more powerful athlete. And number two means that now that you’ve bonked/hit The Wall—yes, this is what “hitting The Wall” means—you need to run the rest of the distance less efficiently than you’ve been doing so far. Got it? Now that you’re exhausted, you need to spend more energy per mile for the rest of the run.

We’re getting at what it really means to be “ready” to run a marathon—or any other race. It isn’t just about being capable of finishing itin the sense that your body didn’t fall apart before you got to the end. You need to be able to run the whole thing above a minimum threshold of performance. (Now you tell me what that is.)

The Runner’s Catch-22, Part 1

I’m calling this series of posts “The Runner’s Catch-22” to address a very common problem in the running world. A lot of beginner runners—let’s face it—want to run long. Very long. But in attempting to do that, they get ill, injured, or overtrained. And their hopes of running long (and doing so consistently) get quashed.

Running isn’t just about running (as every injured runner knows). It’s about how to run well. But in all sports—in fact, in all movement—there’s a minimum power requirement that must be met: if you want to stand (correctly), your legs, along with your core and spine, have to be able to move into a standing position and be strong enough to support you. If you want to walk (well), your leg joints have to be able to flex and extend to a certain degree, and one leg has to be able to support more than your bodyweight while the other travels through the air. And if you want to run (properly) you have to be able to meet an even more demanding set of requirements. And this is where the story of the “Runner’s Catch-22” really begins.

A lot of things have to be working well for a runner to be powerful—form and movement are vital, for example. Having proper form feeds into your ability to produce power (in the same way that it would work for a weightlifter or a baseball player). So with poor form, you might never be able to meet the power requirement—or go significantly beyond it. So, what is this power requirement?

The body must be able to produce a habitual cadence in the ballpark of 180 steps per minute (spm). 

The body is most efficient at around 180 spm: this is the cadence that best engages the tendons’ elastic component, maximizing the amount of energy that can be taken from the previous step put into the next one. (This is a concept also known as energy return).

UPDATE: For people who are new to running (particularly those who only started being active as adults), meeting that power requirement usually requires a lot of power training, which is a problem for beginners. Experienced runners often are able to produce a cadence of 180 spm easily and habitually, for runs of any distance. (In fact, hitting 180 easily is how I would define “experienced.”) If that’s you, most of this post won’t apply to you.

Power training uses and develops the body’s anaerobic system, which is very powerful, but also produces negative by-products that, in large quantities, are ruinous to the body’s tissues. The anaerobic system is counterbalanced by the aerobic system, which disposes of those harmful by-products and allows the body to remain in activity for long periods of time.

So if you want to be able to train without trashing your body, you need a powerful aerobic system to support the anaerobic system. Just one little problem: while the anaerobic (powerful but dirty) system grows extremely quickly, the aerobic (less powerful but clean) system grows veeery sloooowly.

This is the runner’s Catch-22: Until you have a well-trained aerobic system, it is almost impossible to safely do large amounts of anaerobic training. Trying usually means burnout, illness, injury, or overtraining. But if you can’t do a lot of anaerobic training, you can’t develop power to the point that you can produce an efficient cadence (of 180 spm) at the kinds of low intensities where you can develop the aerobic system.

The wrong move—the one that so many runners take—is to lower their cadence to run more distance. Why? Because they’re set on running, or because they don’t know that there’s better ways to train the aerobic system when you’re not powerful enough to ballpark 180 spm:

  • Cycling/Spinning
  • Walking
  • Rowing

(I’d add bodyweight circuit training to this list, but it’s typically far more aerobically demanding than running would be.)

It’s important to realize that the other option—running at an inefficient cadence while the aerobic system develops—is NOT a neutral, “eh, screw it,” kind of option. It’s not very bad—the aerobic system will probably still develop in time—but it’s not the fastest way to train, and certainly not the best way to guarantee you’ll achieve your goal.

(There’s ways to produce a cadence of 180 at slower speeds, such as shortening your stride. But that opens another can of worms—to be featured in another post of this series.)

Learning a movement pattern the wrong-slash-less powerful way—yes, they really are the same thing—is the best (and probably least-discussed) way to prevent you from performing at a high level. If you learn how to throw a ball by releasing it far forward of your body instead of at ear level, you’ll very quickly plateau in terms of how much force you are able to put into it (meaning that you’ll never throw at 60 mph, let alone 90).

Your body develops through movement. If you don’t move, you don’t use your muscles, which means that your metabolism doesn’t develop.  If you can’t throw a ball faster than 60 mph (because of poor mechanics), your muscles won’t be able to grow in strength beyond what it takes to throw the ball at 60 mph. So your metabolism (aerobic or anaerobic) will never need to grow beyond that.

It’s impossible for your metabolism to grow to be able to produce an energy expenditure that you don’t have the biomechanic possibilities to harness.

Slow or low-cadence running isn’t a death sentence. Slow runners with relatively few biomechanical problems or muscle imbalances do increase their cadence and low-level strength by slow running . . . in time. So it’s often the case that people do end up running much faster and at a much higher cadence after a few months (or years) of slow running. But your power (and your cadence) won’t improve with slow running as fast as it could with actual power and cadence training.

How to get around the Catch-22? Below is the short answer. (The long answer will take a few posts).

  • An overwhelming amount of aerobic training (in sports where you can meet the power requirement).
  • A small amount of running-specific power training (mostly plyometrics).
  • A small amount of running at a cadence in the ballpark of 180 spm.
  • Monitor metrics including HRV (heart rate variability) and MAF (Maximum Aerobic Function) Test to determine your short- and long-term physiological readiness for power training.

Endurance: the ultimate test of physiology.

For a beginner runner to get into running because in 6-12 months they want to run an ultra-endurance race (or even a marathon) is—to put it mildly—folly.

There’s a reason the marathon is the final event in the Olympics: It’s by far the hardest. A recent The New Yorker article reports on one athlete trying to describe the experience of running a 2:10 marathon: “You feel like you will die. No, actually die.”

There are fundamental differences between the endurance sports and the power sports. Oftentimes, when discussing these differences, people think about what gives an athlete a competitive edge: for power sports, it’s higher concentrations of Type I muscle fibers. For endurance sports, it’s more mitochondria, and a greater oxygen carrying capacity.

This is important, but it’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about understanding the endurance sports by attempting to discuss what “endurance” is—not human endurance, or endurance at sports, but rather what “endurance” means in a fundamental sense. And for that, I find it best to discuss extremes.

Take a power sport: the 100 meter sprints, for example. Usain Bolt is a phenomenal athlete. There’s no question about it. And there’s no question that there’s a certain glory to be had in being the fastest human being on the planet—glory that is simply not available to the marathoner. Let’s set that aside. What would have to happen for Bolt to be unable to continue competing?  In other words, what would “catastrophic system failure” mean for Bolt?

My answer is: an ACL injury, or a torn hamstring, probably. In other words, something breaks.

Now let’s look at the marathon. Rarely does something break in that way in the endurance sports. There’s plenty of microdamage—achilles tendinitis, stress fractures, chronic fatigue, etc. But when something breaks, truly breaks to a point where the person cannot compete (in the “catastrophic system failure” sense discussed above), what does that look like? It’s typically the entire system that fails. Take a gander at a list (compiled off the top of my head) of the quintessential ailments you see in a marathon:

  • Extreme dehydration
  • EAH/EAHE (Exercise Associated Hyponatremia/Hyponatremic Encephalopathy)
  • Heart attack
  • Kidney failure
  • Heatstroke
  • Respiratory infections

What these issues all have in common is that they’re systemic failures—they’re what happens when the body as a whole, rather than a specific part (say, the hamstring) can’t cope with the event. In other words, they’re what you get when the body starts to come apart at the seams.

The best way to think of this difference is that when you bust a hamstring (or even break your spine in certain places) you can still use your body as a whole except for the part you broke. But when you get any of the illnesses that typically occur during a marathon, it’s the entire body that is put out of commission—sometimes permanently.

To put it simply, we can think of speed and power as a question of how powerful the body is. And while speed and power have tons of importance in the endurance sports, we can say that endurance is primarily a question of how good the body is at holding itself together. In other words, endurance is a test of the body’s fundamental integrity: of how much stress can you subject it to for how long without any substantial collapses in any critical processes.

And this is the main difference between the endurance and the power sports. In the power sports, the body has to be very, well, powerful, but it doesn’t have to be all that good at holding itself together—at least not in ways that relate to the ailments described above. After all, the power sports only ask the body to perform for a few moments: it stops before it becomes dehydrated, or before enough lactate builds up that the kidneys fail, or before the lungs become stressed enough that they become susceptible to infection (etcetera, etcetera).

But that’s not the case in the endurance sports. The body is going to be in activity for a very long time. If any of its systems (respiratory system, cardiovascular system, etc.) are working at different rates, some of those systems are going to get tired first. This is a problem: those systems were only active in the first place is because they were providing a critical service to the body’s endurance performance.

When one of those systems fails, some critical process associated with it also stops. If the body continues activity in this state, critical processes start falling like dominoes. And the body starts coming apart at the seams.

It’s not that endurance sport are “better” or “more of a sport” than power sports. But it is the case that being highly successful at an endurance sport takes much more time, much more consistency, and much more athletic maturity than to be highly successful at a power sport. This is why, for example, it is not uncommon to see 19 and 20 year old athletes competing in power sports at the Olympic level—the 400m, the 1500m, etc.

It’s usually those very same athletes who, 10 or 15 years later, are running marathons. Once their athletic career was already taking off, it took their body an additional 10 to 15 years to be physiologically organized and cohesive enough to run a marathon.

On the other hand, any athlete who is seriously contending for a medal at an endurance sport at 20 years of age, is a unicorn. Either they’re already so athletically mature that they’ll have a wildly successful career ahead of them, or they have already pushed themselves so far, so fast, that decades of chronic illness and overtraining are already on the horizon.