Tag Archives: conditioning

A training logic in 4 basic steps.

In recent posts I’ve outlined some of the difficulties that runners face when training—a phenomenon I call the runner’s catch-22: people want to start running, but they either don’t get fast, or they become overtrained and their health deteriorates.

This is because running is relatively physiologically demanding: the minimum requirement for being able to run at all is far more rigorous than (say) for cycling. Most of the time, the reason people experience the Runner’s Catch-22 is because they’re physiologically not ready to train for their chosen sport. They need to develop more fitness on multiple levels before they’ll be genuinely ready to begin running.

In this post, I provide the basic concepts I use to develop a training plan. This is not just for runners, but for anyone that hopes to increase fitness in a safe, structured, and predictable way. My goal for this article is not just to provide a bird’s eye view of the “how-to,” but also to give the reader a framework to understand why it might not be a good idea to run some race or get into some other sport until certain requirements have been met. To do so, I divide this process into 4 basic steps: Training for (1) the person, (2) the sport, (3) the event, and (4) competition.

At the end of each step, I provide several questions whose answer will help you figure out the duration, frequency, and type of exercise that is best suited to helping you develop towards your athletic goals. (Keep in mind that in practice, these steps are far less discrete than I make them out to be.)

If you skip one step, you’ll have a very difficult time meeting the next. And the problem isn’t that you’re flaky, or that you’re not an athletic person, or that you’re not determined. No amount of determination will be enough to overcome the fundamental problem: That you skipped a step.

 Step 1. Training for the person:

 Even before you pick a sport to train for, it’s crucial to consider your overall situation: physical, physiological, psychological, nutritional, etc. If you’ve been sedentary all your life, hoping to suddenly be able to run and lift things over your shoulders will be damaging at best and impossible at worst.

Take a long, hard look at your particular body: all the muscle imbalances, digestion problems, moods, energy levels. Typically, any body is well-suited for its present activity levels: what, how long, and with what intensity you do whatever it is that you do. But the less activity you do (or that any part of your body does), the harder it is to change.

The best strategy is NOT, for example, to become a runner despite insulin resistance or a severe muscle imbalance. You’ll just hurt yourself in obvious and non-obvious ways. Instead, any training program should first address the constraint—muscle imbalance, insulin resistance, etc.—(and eliminate it) in order to bring the body back to a relative baseline of physical and physiological competency. What does that baseline look like? In a basic sense, when you go searching for odd pains, sorenesses, various symptoms of sickness, and you just can’t find any.

Keep in mind that while the process of doing so might include some “running” (for example), the fact that you’re “running” doesn’t mean that you’re actively training the running movement, or that you’re explicitly training for the running sport.

Ask these questions about yourself, and train according to the answers:

  1. At present, how (and how much) are you physiologically able to train?
  2. In the simplest terms, what is the biggest barrier to growth?
  3. Considering the answer to question (1), how can you train to remove it?

Note how question #3 is about training yourself out of the constraint, rather than mitigating the constraint through other means. NOT training yourself out of the need for orthotics (to the extent possible), means that it will be more difficult to get faster and perform more consistently. In systems terms:

“Any long-term solution must strengthen the ability of the system to shoulder its own burdens.”

This is how I start.

Step 2. Training for the sport:

 When I say sport in this context, I mean “the specific movement or movements required for participation in the sport.”

There are minimum basic requirements that must be met to even be able to participate in any given sport. (Training for proficiency at a sport comes later.) Any conceivable sport has minimum participation requirements in at least 5 domains of human motor expression: mobility, stability, skill, power, and endurance. However, for all sports, one or two key requirements reign above all others. For example:

  1. Deadlifting: The most salient requirement for deadlifting is more transparently understood as a mobility requirement: to perform a clean toe-touch. While standing upright with feet together and knees straight, to be able to reach down and tap your toes with the tips of your fingers without having to strain (read: while breathing continuously). If you can do this, it’s a good bet that you’re going to be able to consistently grow and develop in the deadlift.
  2. Running: The requirement for running is more transparently understood as a power requirement: To be able to accelerate into a cadence in the ballpark of 180 steps per minute (spm). This ensures that the critical neuromuscular processes necessary to efficiently maintain the running movement are developed enough to carry your weight.

(I say that a “salient requirement” is “more transparently understood as X” because if you really pick apart the toe touch or the ability to hit 180 spm, you’re going to find mobility, stability, skill, power, and endurance components for each.)

For some people, a cadence as low as 175 spm works just fine. I’ve yet to meet the person who hits peak efficiency below 170 spm. Keep in mind that a cadence of 180 spm is brisk as hell.

In order to meet that requirement, your joint stacking (the alignment of your ankles, knees, hips, and shoulders) has to be excellent—and has to stay excellent for the minimum amount of steps that it takes to accelerate into 180 spm. (And that’s just for starters. Maintaining a cadence of 180 spm for any kind of distance is much more difficult).

If you don’t have the requisite mobility in a given area (say, you have a hip restriction), movement becomes more awkward. That means you probably can’t produce stability: your abs can’t keep your upper body steady, making it difficult to control the arcs of motion of your arms and legs. So you can’t develop a high level of skill (the ability for your entire body to move in the best possible way given its structure and capabilities).

This means that it takes a lot more power to accelerate into a cadence of 180 spm. So, training for just about any event (short or long) becomes inordinately difficult—and as a result, you might just end up coming to the (wrong, wrong, wrong) conclusion that you’re “not athletic.”

A few guiding questions:

  1. What are the minimum requirements for your chosen sport (mobility, stability, skill, power, and endurance)?
  2. How (and how much) do you need to train to meet them?

 Step 3. Training for the event:

 I define event as: “the minimum planned volume of sports-specific activity.”

If the deadlifting competition starts at 100 lbs, then you better be able to meet the minimum requirement for deadlifting when loaded with a weight of 100 lbs. What does this mean? That you have to be able to perform the equivalent of a clean toe-touch—no straining—with 100 lbs on you.

It’s similar for running. If you want to run 100 yards, you have to be physiologically capable of accelerating into a cadence in the ballpark of 180 spm for 100 yards. If you want to run a marathon, you have to keep a cadence of 180 spm for the entire marathon.

This is why training for the event is s Step 3 in my list (and not Step 1). I’m well aware that a lot of people would like to pick from a menu and “choose” to run a marathon instead of a 5k because they “like” the marathon better. It doesn’t work that way. That would be like a novice “picking” to enter a deadlifting competition that starts at 250 lbs instead of 150 lbs, because they “like” 250 lbs more. For obvious reasons, you don’t do it.

What we don’t realize is that distance must be earned as surely as weight. Weight, is volume. Distance, is volume. They may not be the same kind of volume, but they’re both volume. They both deserve the same respect: they’ll both break you (in different ways) if you don’t train accordingly.

If you haven’t earned a certain distance (read: if you can’t physiologically meet the sports-specific requirement for the entire duration), pick a shorter distance. Here’s 2 questions to help you in this process: 

  1. What are the sports-specific requirement at the planned volume (duration, weight, speed, etc.)?
  2. How (and how much) do you need to train to meet them?

Step 4. Training for competition:

I define competitiveness or competence as “being able to exceed the sports-specific requirement for a particular event.”

It has nothing to do with being particularly good (that would be “elite-” or “semi-elite competitiveness.” It’s just about being better than the minimal physical and physiological requirements the event requires.

Training for competition, then, occurs when you can already meet the sports-specific requirement for the event, and now you want to exceed it. This is also a great way to gauge whether you’re ready for a more demanding event. Once you can hit 190 spm for 100 yards, you’re pretty sure you can train for 200 yards at 180 spm (and expect to make good gains). Same with deadlifting: if you are able to do 2 reps at 100 lbs, you can probably start training (say) for 1 rep at 150.

An important caveat: None of this means that the best, or the only way to train is to increase reps first, or increase power first (or whatever). Training is always strategic and multileveled, and you always approach it from as many angles as there are people in the world. The above only means that exceeding the sports-specific requirements at a given event is a decent gauge of whether you’re ready to train for a more challenging event.

  1. Can you exceed the event-specific requirements?
  2. How (and how much) do you need to train to exceed them for . . .
    • Greater competitiveness at the same event?
    • Participation in a more challenging event?

Final thoughts:

In future posts, I’ll break down these steps further and provide concrete examples of what they look like in training. I’ll discuss how to use the 4 steps together to design a more comprehensive training plan.

The slow progression

When most people start the long process of becoming a runner, they often begin with a question: “how can I run so that I won’t get hurt?” The very short answer is to begin from almost absolutely nothing, and to go very slow.

I first heard of the slow progression from a story told to me by a friend of a friend (who is a devoted martial artist), who went to China, and sequestered himself with Shaolin monks to develop his skills. For those who don’t know, the Shaolin are a centuries-old order of martial artists, and according to legend, the precursor of Kung Fu.

What I expected were accounts of brilliant and esoteric meditation techniques and rigorous, multifaceted training routines. But what I heard instead was about simplicity. This story has to do with how young monks are taught to jump high. They are told to plant an apple seed, and jump over it 100 times each day.

The first week, the monks only need to jump on flat ground—a challenge so easy that it almost seems like a joke. But slowly, the tree gets bigger. Soon, the monks are jumping inches, and then feet into the air. And they are doing this 100 times a day.

That might seem unremarkable, except for its hidden brilliance: the sheer slowness of the increase. To jump one sixteenth of an inch higher every day does not take remarkable effort—not even when it’s a sixteenth of an inch up from six feet. That’s the point. It takes so little effort to make that tiny increase that the relative wear on the muscles, connective tissues, skeleton and connective tissue is tiny. But the task continues to demand increased power.

The body responds…and continues to respond. The slow progression does its work at the threshold of our awareness: if we’re barely aware of the changes, it’s only because the difficulty of the task is almost nonexistent. To put this in context, think about a contrasting situation: we’re usually hugely aware of something like twisting our foot. Awareness signifies a notable change—an alteration to our structure. We become very aware of twisting our foot because the body will need a long time to heal the bone, tendon, and muscle damage incurred.

In simpler terms, making such a small change is easy. And when the changes remain that small,  even when we’ve already progressed a bit, they get relatively smaller to our perception—the same reason that months and marathons fly by when we’re older, but drag on forever when we’re younger: since we experience more time as we grow older, another month is a comparatively smaller chunk of our experience.

Similarly, as the slow progression continues, development becomes easier (less effortful). And because performance is not only based on power and tissue density but on the brain’s grasp of the task at hand, we develop ever more effective strategies fro engaging with the task—making the relative burden on our biomechanics and metabolism even smaller.

But how should we apply this to endurance running?

Run every day for 2 minutes, at whatever speed you want. Keep that up for 2 weeks. The next 2 weeks, run 4 minutes. The two weeks after that, run 6. 2 minutes is a tiny increase, especially when the previous increase occurred two whole weeks before.

Although this may seem extremely slow at first, why don’t we do the math: There’s 52 weeks in a year. That means that at the end of the year, you can be running 52 minutes a day, every day.

There’s madness to this method. Many of us are inclined to run more at first, because 4 minutes seems like nothing. Like I mentioned above, that’s the point. With the slow progression, we can stay ahead of a multitude of components, including the psychological:

If we run less than we think we can, soon we’ll want it more, and soon we’ll become hungry for it.

How’s that for developing a habit?

There’s more: Most running injuries occur due to the body’s inability to cope with the stresses of the run, in concert with the lack of mechanical knowledge of how to use the body to better deal with those stresses. The sheer slowness of this progression allows our body to learn exactly that—more effective strategies of how to run.

In addition the slow progression develops the fasciae, the fibrous connective tissue of the body, which hold together muscles, tendons and bone. They are only developed under certain conditions: low levels of activity, high repetitions-per-minute, and low strain (effort). As soon as the activity becomes difficult, the body will shunt all blood to the muscles, to meet the demand, and away from the fasciae. We’ve got to keep it easy. For the beginner athlete, effort must be kept at a minimum. All we have to do is follow the slow progression in a disciplined manner.

Developing the fasciae will allow the body to become denser, more interconnected, and more competently able to resist stresses. If the body can’t resist the stresses of the task, it’s will know, and the athlete will feel fatigued and without energy. Fatigue is how the body protects itself.

Strengthen the fasciae, and the body won’t feel the need to protect itself as much from those small shocks—the fasciae have become capable of absorbing the excess energy. The body won’t be worried about developing muscle power anymore, and pretty soon it’ll want to cut loose.

So, you’re 4 weeks in. You just moved up to 6 minutes a day. During those 2 weeks you got progressively faster, as your body became more comfortable with the strain associated with that time. But now it’s 6 minutes. Detecting the slightly increased load, your body slows down. But towards the end of those 2 weeks, you speed up again: your fasciae and other often-uncredited subsystems have gotten more powerful. This is reflected not in the fact that you speed up, but in the ease and the naturalness with which you do so.

You continue the progression up to 52 minutes, and beyond. The limits are far enough away at this point for them to be nonexistent.

A bit of caution: This version of the slow progression will get the beginner athlete far, but it’s not the only necessary exercise for someone who did not spend most of their childhood strengthening their muscle, bone, and connective tissue through competition and play. If you train the correct form for running in parallel to the slow progression, you’ll go much further, much faster. A way to do that, of course, is by jumping rope.

Hint: You can build a slow progression into jumping rope too.

The philosophy of the slow progression is exemplified by a saying that I keep attributing to the special forces (but who knows where these sayings really come from):

“Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.”

Internalize that, and hold it in your mind when you’re thinking of setting your timer for just one more minute, and you might go further than your best expectations. After all, this was never about reaching some goal. It was just about taking another tiny little step. If you keep going like that, sooner or later you’ll leave the finish line in the dust.