Tag Archives: training

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:

Biomechanic

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:

Metabolic

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

Conclusion

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.)

No good reasons to prioritize anaerobic training. At least 9 great reasons to do some.

A friend of mine recently asked for my thoughts on an article titled Nine reasons to prioritize anaerobic training over cardio. Leaving aside the issue that “cardio” is ill defined and often contains an anaerobic component (which means that it bugs me when people use the word), this is an extended version of what I answered.

My contention is that the article in question doesn’t actually give any good reasons to prioritize anaerobic training over “cardio”—by which I’m assuming the author means “aerobic training.” (For the rest of this article, I’m defining “aerobic training” in opposition to anaerobic training: “aerobic training” is training with no anaerobic component whatsoever).

Don’t get me wrong: the article gives 9 excellent reasons for why to include anaerobic training into your exercise routine. But I’m unconvinced that these are reasons for why to  prioritize anaerobic training in the sense of “if you only have time to do one of these two kinds of training, do anaerobic training.”

Simply stated, that’s not a good idea. While many may argue that I’m splitting hairs, consider what the effect of “why you should prioritize anaerobic training” is to a lay audience. (I believe that) the effect is “anaerobic training is better than aerobic training”. This raises an important question: if it’s good to prioritize anaerobic training, when exactly should we do aerobic training?

Although no training can be said to be “better than another” in a strictly metaphysical sense, aerobic training and anaerobic training each have their advantages. And it is when you consider their relative advantages over one another that the question I italicized above becomes so pertinent: the time to do aerobic training is in fact before and so that you can safely perform anaerobic training.

 So we return to the beginning: while anaerobic training is important and necessary and has its place, its place is auxiliary to aerobic training. This is why:

In my most popular article on the site, titled High-Intensity Fitness Culture, Explained in Systems, I discussed how the anaerobic system is essentially the emergency, high-intensity, powerful, dangerous, and rapidly-exhausting turbocharger that an organism uses to overcome an immediate threat to its existence.

While the anaerobic system is a critical system (worthy of development and training), there are costs to using it: anaerobic activity produces acidic hydrogen ions, which wear down the body. Those costs will become exacerbated insofar the anaerobic system becomes the dominant energy system in the body.

All of which brings us back to the aerobic system. What exactly, does the aerobic system do? Essentially, its function is to provide long-term energy to the body by oxidizing fats (combining fats with oxygen to provide energy), and to assist recovery from anaerobic activities by processing its main by-products: lactate and positive hydrogen ions.

Insofar as your anaerobic system is more powerful than your aerobic system, your body will have a more difficult time recovering from anaerobic workouts. This is a problem for those who gave given anaerobic training priority over aerobic training, and consequently possess anaerobic systems that are more powerful than their aerobic system can sustain.

The aerobic system also happens to be the system that the body uses for its upkeep and longevity. This is an issue for another article, but the reason is because “longevity” is essentially “long-term recovery”—in other words, the ability of the body to keep recovering for longer, before breaks down enough that it dies. (Here’s a hint you can use to reverse-engineer the content of my next article for yourself).

For the sake of clarity, let me reiterate what I discussed in paragraph 4: all the reasons given in the article I’m discussing are great reasons to do anaerobic training, all legitimate and grounded in extensive research. My contention is NOT that the reasons given in the article are somehow illegitimate, but rather that when they are cast as reasons to prioritize anaerobic training, they become (1) quite misleading to the lay audience and therefore (2) dangerous to those who take the article at its word(s)—the particular words in question being “prioritize over”—and naively follow them to their logical conclusion.

(I am NOT arguing that anaerobic training will become dangerous to those who take the words “prioritize over” to mean “modestly include” regular anaerobic workouts into their predominantly aerobic training).

Is there really a difference between “injury-prevention” and “training specificity”?

A lot of us are familiar with sports specificity: you tailor your training to achieve greater performance in individual sports. Some of us go as far as being “event-specific.” We train trails for trail running events. We practice running the inclines and hill lengths we’re likely to encounter during the event.

But I think that we can take the concept of training specificity a lot further: particularly as it pertains to the realm of injury prevention.

What does an injury mean from the perspective of athletic competency? It means that there was some stress, supposedly germane to the sport, that the body simply could not tolerate. Presumably, this is a stress that the body can (and should) adapt to.

I’m not talking about obscene stresses such as the micro-concussions that have been shown to cause brain damage in football players. I’m talking about simpler things: dehydration and hypoglycemia after a marathon, shin splints, etc.

Let’s take shin splints, for example. Shin splints are reputed to occur due to the repetitive stress associated with running. Shin splints—and the subsequent stress fracture—cause people to lose training time and training quality, increase the overall stress of training, etc.

My point is this: an inability to cope with a particular stress (resulting in an injury) is a bottleneck to development.

If an injury prevents a runner from improving, or puts their athletic future at risk (and it does), then injury-prevention should be at the very top of the priority list. Put another way, injury-prevention is the ultimate sports-specific training: it means training the body not just to get better at the sport, but to train the body to handle the basic stresses associated with the sport.

This is a difficult proposition for many people: it is different on a case-by-case basis. The same symptom (shin splints) can have a multitude of causes. When the issue is the amount of stress, increasing lower-leg strength by itself can solve the problem. But others may need to fix an imbalance between the front and back muscles of the lower leg, for example. Others yet may be erroneously unburdening the big calf muscles by giving the job of knee flexion entirely to the hamstrings.

Failure to address any of these issues can dramatically reduce the training response: tighter muscles and less mobility means less neuromuscular feedback. But a higher heart rate is necessary to drive stiff (and weak) muscles. This means more stress. And because some muscles are stiff, the body geometry is disadvantageous: it isn’t going to align itself (or remain aligned) with the primary vectors of force.

Fixing any of these issues will allow the body to learn from and adapt to the sport. Ultimately, I believe that the runner who “paradoxically” spends time correcting muscle imbalances or strategically strengthening bone, muscle, tendon, and connective tissue—and running less miles because of it—will need to run far fewer miles to observe the benefits of training.

We need to make the choice to not merely roll out our tight quads or hip adductors after the fact. I think we need to address the underlying cause of that tightness (a process which may or may not include myofascial release). And I think that we need to put this within the larger context of our training and racing: in no way does injury prevention or rehab constitute “taking time off” from training.

Preventing injuries and doing the rehab is a much better—and more honest— example of “training the body” than going out and slogging miles that are just going to put us back on the table. In every way that matters, we’re doing the training that our body needs, right now.  Tomorrow, we’ll be able to go out and do the training we want, and achieve the effects that we want.

And how much happier, faster, and healthier would we end up if we can trick ourselves into wanting to do the training our body needs?

The Overlooked Mystery of Movement, Unlocked: My experience with the Pose Method Sports Technique Specialist Certification

Movement isn’t generated by muscles.

This is the central theoretical point made by Dr. Nicholas Romanov, founder of The Pose Method, when teaching movement. He points out that the similarities between all the different human movements—swimming, walking, pitching, kicking—run deep, while the differences (which we naïvely believe are the larger part of the equation) are actually astonishingly superficial.

Dr. Romanov makes a critical distinction between movement—the displacement of our body in space (or of another object, such as a ball)—and repositioning (moving arms, hands, legs or shifting our torso around while remaining in the same spot).

Muscles allow us to reposition, sometimes at great speed. But in order to transform repositioning into movement, we need to add another critically important (and almost universally overlooked) component to the recipe: gravity.

Similar to how animal physiology evolved with the assumption that oxygen is a constant, the movement mechanics of all animals evolved with another assumption: that gravity is another constant, which we harness for movement as we harness oxygen for life.

Leonardo Da Vinci wrote: “Motion is created by the destruction of balance.”

What happens when we destroy balance—when we lean juust enough in some direction (say, forwards)? Gravity accelerates us quickly enough that we reflexively throw our foot down to catch ourselves in an attempt to find balance anew. And what if instead of stopping, we let ourselves continue falling? We’ll find that we need to throw down another foot, and another, and another. At that point, we’re running.

All movement begins with the destruction of balance, but there are an innumerable amount of movements that the body can make. The difference between each and every one of them is which position we initiate from.

But how about in throwing? Isn’t it quite clear that we “generate power” from the hips? Let’s see.

We all know the throwing stance: ball in hand at the level of the ear, elbow at ninety degrees and square with the shoulder, back foot pointing to the side and front foot pointed forward. But there’s more. We rotate our shoulders so that they are aligned in the direction of the throw.

quarterback

Our upper body is essentially twisted into a spring, ready to snap back around as soon as we release the potential energy we’ve created.

But in order for this to become a throw, there is one exceptionally important component missing—an action called unweighing. If there’s any shared movement between all sports, this is it. Unweighing is essentially an explosive shoulder shrug—the idea behind it being that initially it’s much easier to reposition a structure like the shoulders (which aren’t weighed down by something on top of them), and then follow in sequence with torso, hips, legs, and feet (which are).

Unweighing happens in a big way in this video of Drew Storen’s pitching mechanics, as well as in just about any video of Usain Bolt.

Once you’ve unweighed, your shoulders are flying. For all intents and purposes, they’re suspended in air. The abdomen isn’t supporting the shoulders anymore. The spine is free to extend, and accelerate the abdomen into the air. Your hips, knees, ankles, and feet are free to move.

Unweighing is the necessary first step to any human movement. While movement is still possible without active unweighing, performance suffers.

But remember, unweighing isn’t the only component: throwing involves a forward step—a momentary loss of balance. With it, gravity gets the perfect opportunity to accelerate our body. The bigger the step, the bigger the acceleration.

“The object which moves most rapidly is farthest from its balance.”

—Leonardo Da Vinci

Movement is in no way “accidental” or “passive” just because gravity is involved: A bigger “fall” in running or throwing means that the appropriate muscles have to contract more quickly in order to negotiate the greater acceleration and help the body travel to another balanced position—a second Pose.

When that foot lands, our leg stops moving abruptly. Milliseconds later, our hips, shoulders, elbow and wrist each come to a stop—and all that kinetic energy gets transferred into the ball, which continues to travel at great speed.

In throwing as in running (as in jumping, punching, and even swimming), every athletic movement is instigated by a loss of balance.

Let’s explicitly state the counterintuitive elegance of Dr. Romanov’s Pose theory: the variety of athletic movements isn’t due to a different “action” or “effort,” but rather that the initial position—the Pose that we lose balance from—and the ending position—the Pose that we travel to in order to regain it—are different.

For any movement, exactly two things happen between Poses: acceleration in some direction due to the force of gravity, and our single voluntary contribution—our only action: an explosive “unweighing” that allows the body to quickly (and reflexively) reposition its parts in its quest to return to balance.

Implicit in Pose theory is this notion: the best way to teach movement isn’t by teaching movement. The way to teach movement is by teaching the initial and ending Pose, teaching how to unweigh, and finally by teaching the conscious mind to let the body do its thing—to get the hell out of its way.

As Bruce Lee once said: “. . .and when there is an opportunity, I don’t hit. It hits, all by itself.”

Running “correctly” will mean different things for different people—up to a point.

Next time you go see a marathon, go look at the elite runners—and then look at everyone else.

You’ll see that elite runners run like little toy soldiers: although they have different body types, their running forms are all nearly identical. The further back you get in the pack, the more “variety” of running strides you’ll see. In other words, across all humans, there is a specific recipe for speed.

Our bodies are all different. Some of us have big feet and short calves, others have long calves and really short arms. When a runner has really long legs but small feet, it becomes really easy for the knee joint to open and close: even though the feet are far away from the hinge (the knee joint), it doesn’t take a lot of power to move them because they don’t weigh very much.

In comparison, a runner with short legs and big feet might use the same amount of energy to open and close their knees. This short-legged runner is at a disadvantage, however: shorter legs means that they cover less ground with each gait cycle, meaning that more energy is expended across the same distance.

However, these differences don’t mean that different runners should use different stride types or different body positions. Achieving a “correct” stride will mean that for one runner, the parts of their body will be at certain angles relative to each other, while for another runner, those angles will be slightly different.

But our bodies all express strength in the same way.

For example, let’s suppose that somebody has a really short abdomen but a really long chest. This person may be inclined to hunch down to lift a heavy object, instead of bending their knees. For them, it may be simpler to stretch and contract the longest part of their upper body, their chest, instead of bending their knees, which is what they should do, mechanically speaking. In other words, this person has to work much harder to develop the muscles that hold their lower spine rigid (back extensors, illiopsoas), in order to safely be able to perform this maneuver. But despite these differences, the only mechanically feasible way to lift heavy objects is by bending from the knees.

Similarly, there is only one mechanically feasible way to run: by forming a smooth, unbroken arch from the base of the head to the ankle of the leg that’s pushing off the ground. This arch can only be formed when there is a very pronounced knee drive with the opposite leg (which means that the knee continues to be fully flexed at the end of the swing phase).

Because of individual differences such as those mentioned above, certain runners will have to work a lot harder than others at developing certain muscles, in order to create this continuous arch.

In my case, I have short legs, a short lateral arch (of the foot), and a long medial arch. Without going into the nitty-gritty details, this means that it is very easy for my foot to supinate too early in the running stride. Note that this does not mean that I am “a supinator”—or whatever. This means that my anterior compartment (hip abductors and hip flexors) has to be significantly more powerful than if I had longer legs and shorter feet, in order to maintain a midfoot strike while still using the entire foot tripod for pushoff.

My body has to work harder to keep my foot “more” pronated, and my leg “more” everted, throughout the  running stride, because the muscles that cause my foot to supinate are longer (and therefore get powerful more easily) than the muscles that cause my foot to pronate.

This means that the “untrained” version of my body (without a strong anterior compartment) wants to overstride. Why? Because in order to push off with the entire foot tripod, my body wants to start the contact phase when my foot is at its most pronated. In other words, because I supinate early, my body wants my foot to contact the ground early—and the easiest way to do that is by overstriding.

Furthermore, the only way for that untrained version of my body to midfoot-strike is by contracting the soleus muscle early in the contact phase. In order to go from the contact phase to the stance phase, my ankle has to dorsiflex. But because the soleus was already contracted, it has to work eccentrically in order to allow for this dorsiflexion. This form of midfoot striking put a huge eccentric load on the soleus, which means that my calves can get really really tight really fast if I don’t work heavily on strengthening my anterior compartment.

When I first started running for real, that’s exactly how the story went. My calves were chronically tight, and the answer to that was in developing my frontal compartment. Although different people may have to develop slightly different muscles (for example, someone may need a quadriceps muscle whose lateral head is relatively more powerful than the medial head), the answer for basically everyone who overstrides, or has posterior muscle tightness, is to strengthen the frontal compartment in some fashion.

My end goal was to create a particular structure—a structure which can hold a lot of tensile force, which is firm yet mobile, and which is correctly aligned relative to the force of gravity. As I mentioned above, that structure is a smooth, continuous arch from the base of the head to the ankle. Going about the process of creating that means something slightly different for me than it does for anybody else on the planet.

But nobody will be the most resilient (or fastest) version of themselves without first creating that arch.

Meditation: an epic training tool. Slow yourself down to become faster.

Meditation calms the mind. It lets us collect the various parts of ourselves and bring them together to work on a specific objective. That objective can be to develop our athletic expression.

In training and life, it often happens that things just aren’t going our way. We’re in such a hurry that we stop functioning well: we drop a vase, and then we have to hurry even more to clean it up. The cycle just quickens—hurry only begets more hurry.

Paradoxically, in order to move faster, we have to learn how to slow down. But when the pressure’s up, that’s usually the very last thing we want to do. The ability to defuse those impulses is what separates good performers from the very best. That’s why you often hear in the Special Forces: “slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” As I’ve discussed before, elite performers understand that when there is too much speed in a system—when they get the jitters—things start to go bad. On the other hand, when the non-elites see the elites moving faster, they assume (based on their mental models) that it is because the elites are putting more speed into the system.
Continue reading Meditation: an epic training tool. Slow yourself down to become faster.

Don’t confuse exercise with training!

Outside Magazine just came out with an article that talks about the difference between exercise and training. The contention is that exercise is more of a social activity, while training focuses on the development of the body.

The article cites an interview with Mark Rippetoe, the first coach to give up his National Strength and Conditioning Association credential. Rippetoe believes that one of the problems with the fitness industry is that they develop and market exercises to appeal to the consumer, not to develop the body—and worse yet, they either obscure this distinction intentionally, or are happy it remains in neglect.

I am excited that Outside Magazine is grappling with these distinctions, and promoting knowledge for the lay athlete. Because these marketing and social forces shape and ultimately define our training, our athletic development is at their mercy. The key to dealing with them is knowledge: by “trusting” in an exercise or a diet, we are sure to be playing to someone’s marketing scheme.

Ultimately, simplicity wins out—but it is impossible to market. There will never be an exercise better for developing aerobic power than endurance running. Since it is simplicity that makes it work, no amount of sophistication will do the trick. The same goes with strength: floor and barbell exercises are by and large all you need—and perhaps a simple weight such as a kettlebell.

So the fitness industry has no choice but to fabricate a story as to why so much variety and so much complexity is so important. Buying into this media machine means that while we look for ever more obscure and esoteric exercises, the athletes that keep it simple will be faster and stronger—and the reasons for their speed and power will remain completely obscure to us: the media veil that the fitness industry succeeded in putting over our eyes filters those reasons out of our awareness.

As Bruce Lee said:

“It’s not about the daily increase, but the daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.”

He said this for a reason. It’s up to each of us to explore why.

Workouts don’t develop the body. Resting after them does.

I often hear fellow athletes and fitness enthusiasts bemoan that they missed a workout.

There’s a lot of reasons people have this attitude. Maybe someone’s counting calories, and they are too tired to burn their allotted amount today. Maybe they have a strict training plan, and they feel obliged to stick to it. Maybe someone’s worried that if they stop they’ll never go back because they’ve hated the workouts, hated the nutrition, and only do it for the looks—or the speed.

You can’t “miss” a day of training, especially if you’ve been training so much (or eating so little) that the reason you missed training today is because you’re exhausted. Continue reading Workouts don’t develop the body. Resting after them does.

Don’t be late to the present. Learn to live and train in real time.

When we’re stuck inside our heads, our experience of the world is two-tenths of a second behind the present moment. In practically any situation, social or physical, that’s a serious disadvantage. In every way that matters, two-tenths of a second is an eternity.

This is why a lot of people stress the importance of “living in the moment.” But I don’t like that phrase. It carries too many connotations of spirituality and abstraction that are too vague and esoteric to be of much help to many people.

Think about it: what is living in the moment? How can we characterize it, emotionally and cognitively? What are the mental circumstances of living in the moment: when does it “start” and “stop”?

Continue reading Don’t be late to the present. Learn to live and train in real time.