Category Archives: Training Ideas

Marathon Training, Part 1: Basic Requirements

When people want to know how to train for a marathon, they usually ask you for a training plan. This typically typically center around the following:

  • What kinds of workouts you’re supposed do.
  • How long those workouts should be.
  • How long you have to train before you’re ready.

Answering these questions is very difficult (if not impossible). Everyone is different, and begins their training at a different point. 

These questions are far too vague (or depending how you look at it, far too specific). It’s only a question that applies to you in particular. So instead of providing a training plan, I like to arrive at the issue from a different direction. The question I ask is:

How do you know that a body is ready for a marathon?

This question is much more useful. Why? Because being ready for a marathon is the same for every human.

The catch is that how to get there might be wildly different from one person to the next. For one particular person, your basic marathon training plan might be exactly what they need. Someone else may need to train for much longer, or with less intensity (or both). For yet another person, it might not include a crucial element that particular person needs—an element with which the training plan might work perfectly.

You’ll find that when you genuinely ask the above question—and truly inquire as to what it takes for a body to be physically and physiologically ready to run a marathon—you’ll inevitably conclude that ninety-five percent of the people who do cross the finish line of a marathon were not prepared to run the race.

I believe that one of the most important reasons that injury and illness is so rampant in the marathon is NOT because the marathon is inherently injurious, but rather because it is so physically and physiologically demandingand the vast majority of people who run it have not achieved the capability of meeting those demands.

A major goal of mine in life is that people do NOT get injured running a marathon (or any other race). And I believe that a first step in that direction is to help people understand what “being ready for a marathon” really means from a physical and physiological standpoint—beginning with the idea that there is such a thing as being “marathon-ready.” Only then can we genuinely expect ourselves—the individuals who constitute a modern athletic culture—to face a marathon with every expectation of success.

 I answer the question of marathon readiness in the following ways:


In order to run at peak efficiency, you must be able to sustain a cadence in the ballpark of 180 steps per minute (spm). This is important because the critical systems necessary for maximizing running economy only become activated at around that cadence. For an array of biomechanic and metabolic reasons, it’s important that our definition of “running” includes the activation of these critical systems. The above means that to run a marathon:


It is said that 99% of the energy that you use to run a marathon comes from the aerobic system. This means that you must be able to run the race at an overwhelmingly aerobic intensity. How fast?

Putting the two together

The above two requirements, when put together, give us a third, “master” requirement:

  • You must be able to produce a cadence in the ballpark of 180 spm while running at a pace that is 15 sec/mile faster than your speed at aerobic threshold, and maintain it for the duration of the marathon.

A word on training load

There’s another way to look at this issue: how much someone needs to be able to sustainably train in a given week to be reasonably certain that they can run the race.

Sustainably means that there is no increase in stress, no nagging pains, and every reason to believe that the body can continue to train at that rate without injury.

So, a marathoner’s easy week should look like:

  • A volume of twice the race distance (50-53 miles).
  • An intensity that is exclusively aerobic (under the aerobic threshold).

*A good way to estimate the aerobic threshold without the need for a laboratory is by using Dr. Phil Maffetone’s 180-Formula. The 180-Formula produces the MAF HR, or Maximum Aerobic Function Heart Rate.

Sample easy week

All training is under the MAF HR, and cadence remains relatively close to 180 spm.

  • Mon    7 mi
  • Tue     9 mi
  • Wed    7 mi
  • Thu     9 mi
  • Fri       7 mi
  • Sat       12 mi
  • Sun     REST


There are no guarantees in life. But if you can run an easy week like this, I can be reasonably sure that you’re ready (or almost ready) to run a marathon. How to work up to this, and how to navigate the many pitfalls and angles of the journey, is the hard part.

Part of why I rarely give training plans or talk about these requirements—popular demand has essentially forced me to—is because you can’t really meet them if you haven’t ironed out all of the physiological, biomechanic, and neuromuscular issues your body may have.

(And again: that’s the hard part—and it’s the part that you can’t really address with a training plan.)

And even if the prospect of running a marathon has never been in your sights, once you do iron out enough of your body’s athletic issues, you’ll find that going on 25-odd mile, easy long runs every month has become a fact of life. You’ve become familiar with the distance—and the idea of running it a little faster with a lot of other people seems as simple as that.

(This post is about being ready for a marathon. How to become competitive at the marathon is, of course, a different question.)

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.

It’s almost impossible to do an “easy workout” when you’re stressed.

A while ago I read an excellent article titled Why heart rate always matters. It goes into great detail on a topic I’ve previously discussed here on running in systems: why the heart rate is always going to be an excellent representation of what is happening with the body’s stress response and energy metabolism. I think that some of the topics it discusses, as well as the excellent debate in the comments, are worth expanding on. Here’s an excerpt from it:

“Our fight-or-flight system often activates without any actual demand. When we get ‘stressed out’–engaged in a heated argument, mulling over a burdensome worry, or simply sitting in traffic–seldom is any physical task being undertaken. But the body is being activated. The engine is revving higher and tremendous sugar–the preferred fuel of fight-or-flight responses–is burned when under psychological stress, which is a major factor in ‘stress eating!’ We function as if we’re fighting an intense battle.

Stressed out and going for a run? Your body will perceive the cost of that run as higher (because it is already dealing with your life stress) and will activate a more intense energy system to cover all the demands. More energy cost!”

There was a particular comment in the article that I wanted to address:

“Very well written article and I agree with most of it.
However, I think you overstate the impact of activation level on energy expenditure…

…In my understanding, the energy demand dictates the energy production. And the energy demand is mainly dictated by the mechanical work of the muscles and all the side processes needed for that level of power output.
I agree, that the excitation level directly impacts the chosen energy supply system but as long as this system doesn’t actively provide energy, it’s [maintaining] cost will be relatively low.
Yes, a higher activation will have a higher energy demand but I don’t believe it’ll come anywhere close to exceeded mechanical [energy] demands.”

I agree with the commenter in that I, also, believe that the author was overstating the impact of activation level on energy expenditure. However, I think the author’s overstatement makes it difficult to observe 2 key implications of this discussion:

  1. Activation level  (a.k.a. stress) changes the type of energy metabolism, which means that it changes the ratios of fuel (fat and sugar) that it uses.
  2. Training stimulus is inextricably tied to activation level and energy metabolism. This means that the ratios of fuel usage have a much bigger say in how the body perceives the workout (as low-intensity vs. high-intensity) than the rates of fuel usage.

The point is that while the author does overstate the energy cost of the stressors he mentions, it doesn’t really matter—there’s things the athlete just can’t get out of training if their body is taxed in the ways the article mentions.

A lot of people think that low-intensity means “slow,” “easy,” or “consuming little energy.” It doesn’t. Low-intensity is when the workout is easy on the body—specifically, when the body is burning a majority of fats for fuel, and the sugar that is being utilized is burned wholly aerobically  (in the presence of oxygen). In other words, there is no substantive anaerobic work. Highly-trained endurance athletes, who burn fats at much greater rates than the rest of us, can run at very high speeds while remaining in a completely aerobic state. Such an athlete may be running blazing times in a workout that is for them, metabolically speaking, a low-intensity workout.

Now let’s look at higher intensities: In order to produce the energy necessary to approach your top speed, a lot of changes have to happen within the body. One of these is that the body has to go from burning a greater percentage of fats (which burn relatively slowly and so provide energy at a relatively lower rate), to burning a greater percentage of sugars (which burn relatively more quickly and so provide energy at a much faster rate). So, in order to get closer to your top speed, a greater percentage of your energy has to come from sugar.

In order to release more sugar to the bloodstream (to be utilized by the muscles), the body releases hormones called glucocorticoids—glucose (a.k.a sugar) releasing hormones. The main glucocorticoid is cortisol, which many will recognize as the main stress hormone. Another hormone that is release during the stress response is insulin, which helps muscle cells avail themselves on the sugar that cortisol released into the bloodstream. Cortisol and insulin, then, work synergistically to produce (and increase) sugar metabolism.

To recap: want to run closer to your top speed? You need to release more sugar. How do you do that? By getting more stressed. But because of some of the body’s more complex molecular mechanics—fodder for another post—the body can’t release a bunch of sugar and still be releasing fats. What would happen is that you’d just flood the bloodstream with unhealthy concentrations of both fuels. So, when insulin is released or when anaerobic function (which is dependent on sugar) increases, fat-burning drops. If sugar-burning goes up, fat-burning goes down (and vice versa).

This works the other way around too. If you get more stressed because, say, you had a rough day at work, or you got into an argument, you’ve got more cortisol and insulin running through your body. But it’s not like the body can decide to release (and use) sugar only when the reason for cortisol and insulin release is because of increased athletic demand (a.k.a. athletic stress). For any other stress (work stress, etc.), cortisol and insulin become released, and increase carbohydrate metabolism. Research on the metabolic effects of social stress in fish supports this idea.

This, incidentally, is why people get tired after a stressful day at work or an argument that stretches for too long. They didn’t use up all their fat-stores at work, obviously. But because the stress put them in sugar-burning gear, enough of their sugar ran out that they start feeling tired. It’s not that they ran out of fuel, but rather that they ran out of the fuel they’ve been stuck using.

It also takes a relatively long time for the cortisol to get out of your system—and when it does, it’s not like you can just pop back into action and go for a run. The adrenal glands, which put out cortisol (not to mention various other mediators of the stress response) have been used up. They’re tired, and will resist further activity. And since you use all the glands in the body to one (significant) degree or another during training, it’s not a good idea to train with exhausted or depleted glands.

Asking your body to work out when you’re already out of a major fuel and your stress glands are tired is an even worse idea: the “same” workout is relatively much harder for a tired gland that’s nearly out of adrenaline and cortisol than for a rested gland. Training after a period of stress is, in physiological terms, almost exactly like doing back-to-back training sessions. Effectively, you’re extending the period of stress.

And if on top of that, your blood sugar is low (as usually happens after a period of stress), you’ll be asking those tired glands to produce even more cortisol and adrenaline than they would usually have to: in their already tired state, it’s not enough to simply produce enough cortisol to maintain blood sugar levels—they have to make up for the lack of sugar in the bloodstream.

If on top of that, you’re “stuck” in sugar-burning mode because you still have all that errant cortisol and insulin flowing through your system (since you’re still stressed), you’ll be depending on sugar—which you’ve substantively burned through—for the duration of your training session. Because the body is inhibited from fueling itself with fats (due to the insulin in your system), it has to rev up those exhausted adrenals even more to provide the requisite cortisol.

Insofar as your body is stressed, it will respond to what is normally an “easy” workout as if it were a “mini high-intensity workout.” In other words, you can’t really have a “low-intensity training session” when you’re stressed (and expect to accomplish your goals in any sort of way). 

This is why doing MAF training—exercising under the aerobic threshold—under stress (or after a period of stress) produces such a dramatic drop in speed/power output at the same heart rate. When you’re under stress, exercising at a rate that looks anything like the aerobic training you do when unstressed would mean elevating your heart rate far beyond your aerobic threshold. Because aerobic work output is so reduced in a stressed state, it’s a much better idea—and a much simpler fix to the problem—to simply rest for the day and do your “easy” training session tomorrow.

Verticality, Part I: Basics of uphill trail running

“Verticality” is a term I’ve heard loosely thrown around in rock climbing and mountaineering circles. It means, well, just about exactly what you’d expect it to: sometimes it describes the sheerness (a.k.a. the slope) of a rock face, and sometimes it describes the skill of being able to interact with that face.

I use “verticality” in the second sense, to think about trailrunning.

I’m currently training for the McDonald Forest 50K trail run here in Oregon, which has a ridiculous amount of elevation change—for a road runner like me. My challenge, then, is to learn how to interact with the variables that make the typical trail different from the typical road. These are:

  • Slope (Uphill vs. Downhill).
  • Variability (rugged terrain, rocks, roots, mud, etc.)

In other words, I’m not training “endurance” or “power” for this trail race. I can’t really expand them significantly when so little time is left before the event. But what I can develop, of course, is verticality.

Particularly in trail races, I think that a person’s ability to interact with the many variables present in trailrunning is a much bigger determinant for success than, say, power. While power is still very important, our ability to interact with the trail determines whether we get to use it or not.

Essentially, the added variables in play means that the skilled runner—the runner whose body understands those variables and knows how to use them—will see their physiological advantage magnified over the runner who doesn’t. (I use the term “advantage” because skilled runners also tend to be both more physiologically powerful and more experienced in different slopes and terrains than unskilled runners, because they usually have spent more time running).

Trailrunning is an immense can of worm, so I’ll discuss each part in a separate post. In this one, I’ll deal solely with uphill running.

The typical runner facilitates uphill running by bending forward at the waist much like one does during acceleration.

This seems like a pretty good idea on the surface: by leaning forward, you are able to cruise up the hill faster without working harder. But there’s a trade-off: you compromise the stacking of your ankle, hip, shoulder, and head. Specifically, this means that you put a lot of strain on your lower back, similar to the strain a person experiences when they bend from the waist to pick up a heavy object.

When you compound this across thousands of steps, and the lower back becomes significantly tired, the hamstrings have to step in to provide hip stability (say). Without going into the details, this essentially creates a snowball effect that increases the difficulty of running, and therefore the likelihood of injury.

In a popular video, ultrarunning god Scott Jurek explains how one of the key features of correct uphill running is to keep your hips in neutral position, or correctly stacked over your shoulders. This might lead us to say that the key is to lean forward “from the ankle,” like many suggest. That’s somewhat true, but doesn’t really describe the best strategy for running uphill.

Looking at elite ultrarunners like Kilian Jornet (2:35) and Dakota Jones (1:15), we can see that their strategy for climbing steep slopes is by pulling their foot from the ground and back under their hips very quickly. An easy way to observe the effect of this pulling action is by seeing just how much they raise their thigh. Even though they’re covering comparatively little horizontal distance, their foot has to come up quickly enough that their thigh gets almost parallel with the horizon before their foot lands on the ground.

UPDATE: The raising of the thigh—also known as “thigh spread,” is just an obvious marker. For running to be effective, the focus must be on pulling the foot from the ground back under their hips. While this is fodder for another article, let me just say that one of the reasons runners should focus on the foot and not the thigh is because if we control the movement of the foot, we also control the movement of the calf and thigh (but if we control the movement of the thigh, we do not necessarily control the movement of the foot or calf).

kilian dakota

Instead of “powering up” the trail, skilled runners “fall up” the trail in the very same way that during a lunge someone falls further forward by increasing the flexion of their swing leg. (A lunge, of course, doesn’t have the same “pulling” action as running—the foot of the swing leg moves ahead of the center of gravity, instead of staying under it.) But the point is that in both movements, the degree of flexion of the swing leg determines the amount of distance covered.

While the hip extension of the back (stance) leg is greater in a deeper lunge or a higher step, a greater flexion of the swing leg is actually what accomplishes this. (In running, this means “pulling” the foot; in the lunge this means reaching forward). As far as the back leg is concerned, the difference between a shallow lunge and a deep lunge is not in ankle or knee extension—both shallow and deep, the stance leg knee is in near-full extension and the ankle is close to neutral. As far as the stance leg is concerned, the difference is in the degree of hip extension.

Lunge - fall

Like for the lunge, in uphill running it’s not the prerogative of the back hip to extend as much as it wants, whenever it wants. If the front leg remains relatively more extended during the stride, it’s impossible to (1) open up the compass, or to (2) lean forward “from the ankle” as I discussed above: the slope gets in the way. But if (3) the swing foot is pulled faster from the ground, it can cover a larger distance.

Uphill - Fall

A simpler way to say this is that hip extension of the stance leg occurs in function of flexion of the swing leg.

The key to uphill running, then, is (a) to lean forward only insofar joint stacking isn’t compromised, (b) to pull the foot up faster, and (c) to maintain stride rate, as Dr. Nicholas Romanov (founder of the Pose Method) points out in an excellent video. (Maintaining stride rate is a result of a quick and efficient pull).

Of course, this brings an additional level to the discussion: pulling the foot faster means that the runner has to be that much more powerful, or at least have that much more of a conditioned pull than someone who runs on more moderate slopes.

But if the degree of pull of the swing foot gets to determine how much hip extension of the stance leg you get, this means that the rule for uphill running also applies to regular running. The faster person on level ground will also be the faster person on the uphill.

One final point: the slope doesn’t lend importance to the pull. It magnifies it. (Put another way, the same rules apply to a slope of .003 percent than to a slope of 15. The magnitude of the slope determines how apparent they are.) The greater the slope, the more powerful a pull you need to be able to move continuously, smoothly, and successfully up it.

This has dire implications for the runner who has trained under the paradigm that “pushing”with the stance leg is the primary form of propulsion: insofar as this is the case, the degree of effort it takes to run uphill will be that much greater. The greater the slope, the faster the pulling runner will pull ahead* of the pushing runner.

(What does the pulling runner have to do to win an argument about running physics? Find a hill.)

*Pun intended.

PS. Here’s a great article that discusses several pulling drills!

PPS. Here’s another great video by Dr. Romanov discussing foot-strengthening exercises for uphill running!

Strategizing Stress, Part 1

Training, like life, is a messy business.

I say this because lately I’ve been working with two excellent models of athletic training, Pose Method and MAF. Writing about them is the easy part. Applying them is more difficult. I recently ran across a very interesting case of a Pose/MAF enthusiast who wants to develop an aerobic base according to MAF principles, but has to sacrifice the correct form (a.k.a. running Pose) to do so.

(And ends up getting plantar fasciitis in the process.)

However, just because you get plantar fasciitis when you run at an aerobic intensity—which for most people means “running slowly” (OK, very slowly)—does NOT mean that you get to skip building an aerobic base. Building an aerobic base is important. And to ensure any sort of long-term well-being (particularly as an athlete), it’s necessary. One of the key functions of the aerobic system is to buffer and absorb the stresses induced by high-intensity activity.

In order to develop a good aerobic base, it’s important to stay at a low intensity. According to the MAF Method, the point at which you get the most bang for your buck out of aerobic base building is just under the MAF Heart rate (what researchers refer to as the “aerobic threshold”).

But a certain amount of energy is necessary to maintain good running form. If the aerobic system can’t provide enough energy, then your body has to work harder (increasing the intensity) and recruit the anaerobic system to provide the rest. When the aerobic system becomes relegated to its auxiliary function—processing the by-products of anaerobic exercise (lactate and hydrogen ions)—it will begin to break down. Two strategies help protect its health:

  • Allowing it to rest between periods of high-intensity activity.
  • Creating opportunities for it to be the main provider of energy for exercise.

So, when someone has to forgo the period of low-intensity training that we typically term “aerobic base training,” it becomes very important to strategize the stresses of exercise. On the metabolic side, running slow isn’t worth the plantar fasciitis it’ll create (in this case). And on the biomechanic side, we have to be careful that the stresses of running at a higher intensity don’t exceed what an untrained aerobic base can handle.

A safe way to do this is by taking a hybrid approach:

Combine 2-3 days a week of relatively easy Pose training (running+drills) with 2-3 days a week of walking, jumping rope 5 days a week anywhere from 5-15 minutes. While this isn’t really aerobic base training, it is still a way to develop (or at least maintain) aerobic fitness while taking steps to remain injury-free. While the Pose training is “higher intensity,” there are two options for how to manage it correctly:

  • Keep sessions short (read: fatigue-free) and high-intensity (threshold pace and above).
  • Do longer (also fatigue-free) sessions below the anaerobic threshold.

In regards to aerobic training: even if you walk quickly, you’re unlikely to come close to your MAF HR. However, you’ll still be able to develop aerobically at a slower pace. A better option, if you have the means, is to go doing moderate hiking with your heart rate monitor, which should put your heart rate a little bit closer to MAF, for the most part. I myself happen to have trails 5 minutes away from my doorstep (downtown!), but that isn’t the case for most of us.

Jumping rope will get your heart rate closer to MAF than walking. Another benefit is that it helps you train one of the key components of running: the Pose. The Pose is that snapshot of the running gait where one foot is on the ground, the other is passing under the hips, and the body is in a slightly S-shaped stance.

By jumping rope—or even better, (a) jumping rope while alternating feet or (b) doing simple Pose drills in the process—it’s possible (for a lot of us) to train the running Pose without going over the MAF HR. (Remember: trying to maintain the running Pose was the initial reason for exceeding MAF.) But after having practiced the running pose under the MAF HR, it’ll take comparatively less aerobic base training to be able to produce the running Pose at the desired, low-intensity heart rate.

How long will it take to develop an aerobic base that’s good enough to maintain a running Pose throughout a run? It really depends on the person: their metabolic and biomechanical starting point, lifestyle, and devotion to their pursuit of athleticism.


Reader question: How would I fuel during a long run?

A couple of weeks ago, SteveL asked me in the comments:

“How would you fuel during a long run?”

Allow me to be a bit tongue-in-cheek here. If SteveL means what we usually do by “long run”—that is, a training run and not a race—my answer is, “with body fat and oxygen.” In other words, not at all.

The physiological details of this are best left to another post, but the short answer is this: the goal of a long run is not just to run for a long time, but to develop the system that helps us run long. Crucially, that system is known as the aerobic system, which you can think of as the system that burns fats in presence of oxygen.

Here’s the critical detail: the fat you eat doesn’t reach your bloodstream for a few hours. So, unless your long run is very long, any fats you ingest during the run aren’t really going to go towards fueling that run.

Let’s discuss the more conventional fuels people use on their long run (sugar-laden fuels such as a 3-6% carb solution or gels). Great for races, but I’ll get to that in a bit. If you ingest them during a training run, you’re enabling your body to lean on its sugar-burning energy system (which it uses for short-duration, high-intensity bouts) for a long time.  This means 3 things:

  1. First and foremost, it enables your long run to be faster than is healthy: you’re liable to do what looks like a long run but is actually a bunch of short, medium/high-intensity training runs that in aggregate masquerade as a long run.
  2. Because you’re fueled with sugar lets your aerobic (fat-burning) system off the hook , which is the system that is supposed to power your long run.
  3. You’re using the short-duration, high-intensity (sugar-burning) system for a what should theoretically be a long-duration, low-intensity activity (which you’re effectively turning into a long-duration, medium/high intensity activity). You’ll wear your body down disproportionately.

To recap: no fuel for long training runs. Fats won’t help, and sugar is counterproductive.

(While the body does burn a mix of sugar and fat at all times, the longer the duration, the more fat should be in the mixture. Because the rate of fat-burning peaks at around 50-55% maximum work rate for most people, very long training sessions shouldn’t exceed this low intensity.)

Fueling during a race

Fueling during a race is different. You’re not trying to train anything here. You’re trying to get every bit of power you can from the machinery you’ve been developing in training, with the provisos that you (1) finish the race and (2) don’t blow the engine.

This means that you want to make sure you’re well-fueled (and you stay well-fueled) during a race. For anything that’s marathon length or below, fats still won’t help. For the vast majority of us, it’s still too short of a race. So, such races are the ones you want to approach with the run-of-the-mill advice on race fueling: your carb solutions and gels work great here.

There’s one consideration: don’t start fueling until you’re 20-30 minutes into the race. When your body isn’t already warmed up, it’s very easy for a shot of sugar to kick up your insulin levels, which reduces your fat-burning ability. But once you’re warmed up and burning fats at a high level, sugar has a much smaller effect.

 Fueling during an ultramarathon

Here’s where it gets tricky. There’s two sets of priorities to discuss: the physiological needs of the body and the practicality of fueling on the run.

The physiological needs:

  • Hydration (water plus electrolytes)
  • Nutrition (the right combination of macronutrients)
  • Digestion (continued function of digestive system throughout the run).

The practicality of fueling on the run:

  • Combining hydration with nutrition.
  • Creating a food that fits easily through the valve of a handheld water bottle.

Here’s a drink recipe which (for me) meets all these criteria:

Basic Ultramarathon fuel 



  1. Add 1 cup of water into blender.
  2. Add all ingredients (heavier ingredients first).
  3. Blend on low until well-chopped.
  4. Add the rest of the water.
  5. Blend until smooth.
This is what I use…

Nutrition Facts_1

Nutritional Rationale


For a recipe such as this, I usually drink one serving (about 42 oz) over a period of 2-3 hours. This generally takes care of both my fueling and hydration concerns.

This suggestion is a TEMPLATE for people to try out during training runs. It’s important to adapt this or any recipe, workout, training plan, or racing strategy to your personal needs.


The reason I like including sizeable portions of all 3 macronutrients (carbs, fats, and proteins), is to incentivize the body to maintain the digestive system activated in a low-key but comprehensive way. This applies for protein in particular: while protein will not go towards fueling the body during a race, I put a small amount of it in order to create a more balanced digestion process.

The same goes with fiber (occurring mostly in the spinach, blueberries, and chia seeds). Ultramarathoners are prone to cramps, indigestion, and other digestive issues during the race. By putting a small amount of natural fiber in here (not so much that it slows down digestion), we can help “smooth out” digestion during the race.


As you’ll notice, one serving of this drink has a staggering amount of potassium (almost 1.3g) and a respectable amount of sodium (just over 0.13g). The reason I like this 10:1 ratio of potassium to sodium is because a lack of potassium is linked to muscle cramps, and reduced nervous system function. (This can lead to lower coordination and reaction time, which can cause an injury).

Generally speaking, more potassium is better (up to a point, of course). 130 mg of sodium every 2-3 of hours is quite enough to keep a well-adapted athlete going during a long race.

Carbs and fat

The sugar calories are straightforward: these will go towards topping off your glycogen tank, in order to stave off fatigue and help your aerobic engine continue to burn fats.

Now we get to the tricky bit. Supposing that you drink 1 serving of the recipe in 2 hours, you’re getting around 160 calories of carbs and 155 calories of fats an hour. You might think that’s not really a lot of carbs. However, that’s the reason a majority of the fats in the drink come from medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), sourced from coconut oil.

Why MCTs?

MCTs are relatively easy to digest relative to other fats, and they also become available for fat-burning very quickly upon hitting the bloodstream, helping to increase fat-burning and accelerating the metabolism. In other words, “reducing” the possible sugar content of this drink by balancing it out with coconut oil is an excellent strategy for endurance races.



Shoulder (T-Spine) training for runners: Completely overlooked, and absolutely necessary.

The benefits of lower-body training have always been obvious for runners. For the past few years, we’ve seen that the ill-defined and ill-understood “core” has come into its own as a legitimate focus of attention for runners who want to better their athletic situation.

The shoulders are just as important as the core—and yet almost completely neglected.

Most of us who are a little bit studied in the science of running know that arm swing is largely passive—a way for the body to contralaterally balance the movement of the legs. So why should we even worry about the shoulders?

We should care because of how they are connected to the body and how they affect the areas around them. The shoulder region is also known as the “T-Spine”—the T-shaped structure created by the backbone, the shoulder blades, and the collarbone (and of course, the hugely complex array of muscles, tendons, and ligaments that contribute to its function).

If any one of the muscles implicated in T-spine function is impaired, functionality of the entire structure goes down the drain.


Developing T-Spine functionality is important not only because the shoulders and arms are part of the body (and are needed for running well) but because in that immediate vicinity is the ribcage—and the ribcage houses the lungs and the heart, which are the main facilitators of the aerobic system (a.k.a. the distance runner’s main engine).

Bad T-spine function isn’t isolated to runners—it’s one of the biggest motor problems in the general population. In this sedentary world, our brains never had to understand how to use this complex (yet astonishingly elegant) interface between the arms and the torso.

Think about what happens when someone has bad general stability (they are “klutzy”), and their stability is challenged by walking on a balance beam or a raised log: they tense up and are unable to complete the task—or alternately, grossly underperform relative to someone with better motor control.

The same thing happens to the T-spine, particularly in a dynamic, repetitive-impact sport such as running. (Imagine, if you will, the same log or balance beam shaking repeatedly).

When faced with this kind of challenge, any impairment in function causes the T-Spine to seize up and refuse to move.The arms stop being able to swing freely. The “natural” arc that the arms would follow passively (if there was total freedom of movement) gets altered. Because the arm swing directly counterbalances the movement of the legs, either the legs move differently to match the different arm-swing, or the movement of the body stops being in sync with the forces traveling through it.

As is the case with Mr. Shutterstock here.

These are the building blocks for a running injury. (But it gets worse).

Since the shoulder blades sit on top of the ribcage (and the rest of the T-spine mechanism is literally all around it), the ability of the ribcage to expand and contract is immediately impaired. The diaphragm must work harder to make the lungs expand. Less oxygen permeates the body (with more effort), resulting is less aerobic development. In the long-term, improvement stagnates.

A mechanical problem can have far-reaching consequences: it can (indirectly) impair the body’s ability to utilize energy.

Or it can force a hopeful distance runner to think that they “aren’t made for endurance.”

The problem becomes exacerbated for broader-shouldered runners (like me) who lose upper-body mass due to the natural emphasis running places on the lower body system. These runners have comparatively more bone mass up top, which means that they need comparatively more muscle mass in order to keep that heavier structure mobile and stable.

When the T-Spine is neglected, muscle strength may drop to the point that it takes a lot more effort to keep this structure stable. Adding distance (or increasing power) may cause the weakened structure to seize up.

A seeming conflict of interest arises here: stockier runners have an increased need to lose weight to improve running economy. Keeping the muscle mass necessary to stabilize the T-Spine may mean that they won’t be as fast, at least in the short term.

The thing is, it’ll open up oceans of future potential. Usually, the main bottleneck for the development of a distance runner isn’t their weight. As Gray Cook said in a recent interview on T-Nation, “Technique is always the bottleneck of limitation.” This is true even when applied to something as basic as T-spine mobility. If the body—or a part of it—can’t move right, that athlete is never going to fulfill their potential.

T-Spine function is not the only problem plaguing runners. But how many runners may be plateauing because of this—and don’t know it?

UPDATE: While we can’t pinpoint the origin of Mr. Shutterstock’s problem from a picture—the problem may originate in the pelvis, for example—it is plainly evident that the shoulders, arms, and the entire T-Spine isn’t moving correctly.

UPDATE 10/22/15: Matt Whitehead from Oregon Exercise Therapy shared an excellent article about many of the specific postural imbalances associated with T-Spine dysfunction. He makes a great point about the “dos” and “don’ts” for correcting these kinds of problems: “[Nike athlete Mary Cain’s] coach can drill her over and over about swinging her arms straight forward and back, but it just won’t happen until her upper body posture is improved.”

Running MAF

NOTE: This is an unusually journal-entry-ish post for me. But I think it has some pretty useful concepts. I hope you like it. (Any mention of today refers to Friday, Sept 18, 2015).

For about 2 months now, I’ve been building my aerobic base under the MAF (Maximum Aerobic Function) principle, proposed by Phil Maffetone. I’ve seen an improvement of about 1 minute to my MAF pace—the speed at my aerobic heart rate, which is 148—and yet, I feel like today is the first day I really understood what running MAF is like.

The idea behind MAF training is to lower the intensity at which we train, in order for the aerobic base to kick in with theoretically no anaerobic function. This removes the majority of chemical stress associated which exercise, which comes from the release of hydrogen ions (H+). These ions acidify the body and create an added burden for recovery.

Training under this “aerobic threshold” allows the aerobic base to be developed quickly and efficiently. Typically, 3 to 6 month long period of exclusive MAF training strengthens the aerobic base to the point where it can efficiently absorb the stresses of high-intensity (anaerobic) exercise.

As editor on the MAF website, I answer a lot of difficult questions in the comment sections. For people are first calculating their MAF heart rate, a predictable question always pops up:

“Are you sure that my MAF Heart Rate is 148?” (or whatever). “This can’t be! I’m, like, really athletic. I stuck my first vault at 4 months of age. At two, I was running 5 minute miles. Are you sure it’s not at least 151?”

And honestly, I often feel exactly that way. It’s as if everyone (myself included) is trying to negotiate their way into a higher heart rate—thinking it is the highest possible heart rate (aerobic or otherwise) that will bring the most benefit.

I constantly tell commenters what it has taken until now for me to truly absorb: we have to lower the intensity to maximize the aerobic benefit. Trying to always be right on top of that aerobic threshold—what I’ve decided to call greenlining (as a riff on “redlining”)—is that very same high-intensity mentality, haunting a game that’s all about going low, not high.

Don’t get me wrong: when I run MAF—usually 1 hour, 5 days a week—I scrupulously bookend my workout with 15 minutes of warm-up and cool-down, in which I slowly and steadily bring my heart rate 3 or 4 BPM under my aerobic threshold.

Every warm-up, I notice the same thing: my heart rate oscillates its way up to MAF. It doesn’t climb steadily. Even once I do get close to MAF, it keeps oscillating. It goes up and down some 4 heart beats every 30 seconds or so, meaning that if I want to stay under MAF (which for me is 148) I have to stick with 143.

As a perfectionist, I always try to iron these things out. Maybe it’s fine for the heart rate to oscillate as long as it remains under MAF. But it’s still important to consider what oscillations mean. It means that metabolic work (and my speed) is rising and falling continually, when in theory we want to stay at the same metabolic output.

Maybe I’m overthinking this far and away, but to me this seems like a car lurching down the highway when a few tweaks to the engine would be all that’s needed to create a smoother ride.

Almost by accident, that is exactly what i did. It had been an uncharacteristically bad run: I went out after an hour of having eaten, and I just didn’t want to take my heart rate up there. I did my warm-up, and then dropped back down to 20 under MAF. I just felt like jogging.

As the minutes passed, my heart rate—and my speed—slowly began to increase, at a rate of about one beat per minute. And like that, over the next 20 minutes, I slowly approached MAF. My heart rate came to within 1 BPM, and for the next 40-45 minutes, held constant.

Today’s run was exceptional: I had far better joint stacking. It was extremely easy to keep my breathing in sync with my steps—three steps to an exhale and two to an inhale—and my breathing was also deeper than usual. The experience of running was one of incredibly little stress. When I did get up to MAF speed, I was faster by a full 15 seconds per mile.

And two hours after the run, I was full of energy, and my leg muscles, instead of feeling empty, felt warm and fuzzy. I’m not kidding.

But this makes perfect sense to me: calibration, not raw power, is the primary source of performance. Think of a 1000-horsepower engine with a timing belt that’s just a tiny bit loose. It can’t express a bit of that power. Think of that same engine attached to a gear box with all the wrong ratios, or mounted on a car whose tires are too pressurized. When that engine expresses all of its power, that car is going sideways.

Too often, as athletes and fitness enthusiasts we try to add horsepower when we should be checking the timing belt, or changing the stiffness of our valve springs. I think that in today’s workout—which feels like the highest-quality workout of my life—I enabled my body to focus on the small stuff . . . and get it right.

I’m willing to bet that this very long, very easy warm-up, which “sacrificed” time spent training at a higher intensity, was a central part of it. And I expect my bet to pay dividends in speed.

UPDATE: On Saturday I had an even more protracted warm-up. My speed increased by yet another 20 sec/mile.

A bit of running advice.

During the swing phase, lead with your knee, not with your foot. By “floating” the knee in front of you as your leg swings up, maintaining knee bend as long as possible, you will:

  1. Increase full-body forward lean.
  2. Allow a complete contraction of the extensors (gluteus maximus, hamstrings, and calf muscles).
  3. Allow a complete contraction of the flexors (Sartorius, iliopsoas, frontal calf muscles).
  4. Increase your speed by increasing thigh spread (the distance between your swing thigh and your pushoff thigh).

Galen Mo

Look at Galen Rupp and Mo Farah in the picture above: their swing thighs are in a very similar angle to the ground despite Galen being in late stance phase and Mo in early pushoff. (The main difference is the angle between their thigh and their calf, not the thigh and the ground). You can see that their swing hip is completely rolled forward, meaning that their feet (off camera) can easily manage full pronation.

Floating the knee should feel like you’re falling, similar to what you feel during a lunge, except that your foot ends up coming down under the center of gravity. You should feel your swing hip hike up and your pushoff hip press down. Master this by skipping, focusing on bringing your knees far, far in front of your body with your thighs in a straight line.

Bonus points: Look at their body geometry. At the height of the swing phase, you can draw a straight line from the top of the knee to the bottom of the elbow in both athletes, smoothly connecting thigh and forearm. Elegance always holds the key to speed.

A few ideas for generalized injury-prevention for runners.

As I often discuss here, I don’t believe that injury-prevention should be put in a different category from athletic training. Injury-prevention isn’t something you should do on the side. It should form an integral part of your training. Why? Because injury-prevention is all about resilience, and as far as the human body is concerned, resilience means using more muscles to achieve the same task.

It doesn’t matter what athletic discipline you practice: running, golf, or martial arts. The more of your body that goes into whatever movement you’re doing, the better off you’ll be. And that means one thing above all others: use more muscles.

That’s why a lot of injury-prevention websites for runner’s knee focus towards working the small muscles—gluteus medius, hip adductors, foot dorsiflexors—a.k.a. all the neglected ones. By putting all of these muscles in play during athletic activity, the body not only becomes more resilient, but more powerful.

In other words, the more resilient you can make your body, the more powerful it will be.

So how can we apply this to running?

One of the main problems most runners experience is that the posterior muscles (calves, hamstrings, glutes, back extensors) become too developed, since they have the most vital functions in the running stride: the first is concentric—extending the leg and back to push against the ground. The second is eccentric—arresting the body’s forward lean so that the runner doesn’t crumple forwards. With a few exceptions, the anterior (frontal) muscles main function is to work opposite to the posterior muscles, in order to allow the runner to lift the leg forwards during the swing phase.

(Think of it this way: muscles at the back generally move body parts backwards, and muscles at the front generally move them forwards).

This means that the most common form of muscle imbalances, which often lead to lateral knee pain and other ailments, are rooted in a dominance of the posterior muscles over the anterior muscles. The most basic thing that any athlete can do, for the purpose of preventing injury—and making their running stride more powerful as a side-effect—is to develop the anterior muscles so that they can move more powerfully.

Given all of this, injury-prone athletes should focus on exercises that strengthen the anterior muscles:

  • Sit-ups that emphasize balance through core activity (such as those shown in this video).
  • Because the gluteus maximus—the most powerful posterior muscle—works not only to extend the thigh but to abduct it (rolling it away from the body), it’s necessary to work on the adductors (which roll the hip in), in order to balance out these muscle groups. Leg/Knee raises help address this. The closer you bring the legs towards the chest, the more you will emphasize the inner abdominal muscles (such as the illiopsoas), as well as the hip adductors.
  • Hanging leg lifts. Doing it with straight legs works the obliques of the core and thigh.
  • Bicycle crunches are also amazing for balancing all of the core/hip muscles.
  • This exercise is great for strengthening to frontal calf muscles.

Even though running is all about triple extension (of the hip, knee, and ankle), you need to be able to flex those joints, in order for your extension to have a greater and greater range of motion. The stronger your posterior muscles get, the more you’ll find yourself “staving off” muscle pain by stretching. The ultimate answer is to strengthen the anterior muscles, so that they can interact properly with the posterior muscles.

For a sport like running, you can count on the posterior muscles to take care of themselves. It’s the anterior muscles (and obliques) that you have to worry about. I love this quote by The Gait Guys, which captures all of this in one simple thought:

“Develop anterior strength to achieve posterior length.”