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.

7 thoughts on “The Runner’s Catch-22, Part 1”

  1. Hi Ivan
    Thought provoking article as usual. It so common that people think they are to ‘advanced’ to walk (as a workout I mean, not as a way of getting around or as a leisure activity). I guess its just because marketing has taken over and HIIT and cross fit etc are so popular right now.
    On a side note – how would you train for a mountaineering trip (ascending mostly snow slopes, minimal hard technical climbing) for someone who lives in a fairly flat area and can only get to the hills once a month or so for more specific training.

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  2. Ivan,
    “An overwhelming amount of aerobic training (in sports where you can meet the power requirement).”

    This is something that has been on my mind as I ride my bike in the MAF zone (and below). If my ultimate goal of biking is to develop the power to run at MAF heart rate, should all of my pedaling be at a cadence of 90 rpm (180 spm) or higher regardless of the wattage/speed I’m producing. My first couple of MAF tests have been productive (in the low-80 rpm range) but I am able to put out more watts/speed at lower cadences. I’ll be doing my riding on an indoor trainer soon as the weather is cooling quickly which makes it easier to control variables.

    Should I switch to testing at 90+ rpm?

    Thanks!

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    1. Addressing that exact question in long-form is what I’ll do in some of the next posts of that series. But the short version is that power you train cycling doesn’t automatically transfer to running, so it’s a longer process.

      The medium-length answer is that cycling doesn’t really use the tendons’ stretch-shortening cycle, while running really depends on it. So, if you train at a cadence of 90 rpm—which is a good thing—you’ll be “kinda sorta” helping yourself run at 180 spm, but not so much because you’re not training the stretch-shortening mechanism that holding a running cadence fundamentally depends on. So pick a comfortable rpm that is on the fast side, and stick to that (I don’t know as much about biking as I do running).

      But know that while training on the bike is going to help develop your aerobic system in a general sense, to really get running-specific power you’ll have to do running-specific plyometrics. And that will help the aerobic power you developed on the bike to carry over to your running.

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      1. I actually have an interesting self ‘case atudy’ on this. Last year myself and a friend trained for a trail half marathon together. There’s only one year difference in age so our MAF hr was nearly identical. Last year we did 80-90% of our training together and our HRs were nearly always within 5bpm of each other and never more than 10bpm. This year my friend was still running but not with as much volume as last year whereas I was training for a cycling event but still doing a small amount of running (2 x per week approx). This year even though I was doing a lot more aerobic training in hours than my friend due to the cycling, when we did run together his HR would generally be be low to mid 130s whereas mine would be pegged at MAHR or slightly under -150. A big change from the previous year! Although I did fins that even with minimal running on the occasions this year that I did long runs I could still ‘go long’ which must be attributed to the cycling. Interestingly my friends MAF test was faster this year than last despite much less training volume and a long break from running last winter, although he has added strength training this year.

        Liked by 1 person

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