So you want to run? Endurance Training for Strength Athletes, Part 2
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So, you want to run? (Part 2: Specifics, and the routines)If part one of this series achieved its objective, at this point it should be possible to construct a basic running/lifting routine that should return good results over time. Right now the greatest risk will come from “tweaking” the overall plan- If the overall framework is solid, then further modification may only serve to overcomplicate the result. Generally speaking, if one’s training plan looks like a cross between the wiring diagram for an “easy to install” surround sound system and the delivery schedule for a UPS hub around Christmas season, then it may be worth tossing and starting from scratch.
This does not mean, however, that more information or specifics are necessarily BAD. The most critical piece that has not been adequately addressed is understanding WHY different forms of endurance training need to be done. There are several endurance training programs out there that recommend nothing but short, hard runs, going on the assumption that the majority of aerobic adaptations can be realized in 20-30 minute workouts, and longer distance work is simply catabolic and can lead to overtraining. This has certain elements of truth to it, but ignores several crucial points when constructing an entire program.
The specifics of aerobic adaptation- what strength routines, and why not just run intervals?
Many individuals reading this may be familiar with the fundamentals of strength and power production. These include the relationship of muscular cross section to strength (a larger muscle is a stronger one), optimizing motor unit recruitment (training a specific movement for maximum force/power production), speed-strength, strength-speed, etc. etc. The training system I recommended (Westside) is simply one of many concurrent/parallel (often incorrectly termed “conjugate”) training systems that exist nowadays. Though in my opinion it is one of the best, (due to its flexibility, its proven effectiveness, and perhaps most importantly the large number of skilled trainees using the system who can serve as both models and advisors), nearly ANY system can be used in conjunction with aerobic training.
This is said with a major caveat- the system SHOULD allow for fluctuating intensity over the course of a week (or other chosen microcycle), and should train all facets of strength more or less simultaneously. Utilizing a sequential system with a “hypertrophy” mesocycle, a “maximum strength” cycle, a “sports-specific” cycle, etc. will complicate the aerobic component and make combining the two quite challenging. Even excellent systems like 5/3/1 are not ideal for combination purposes as the intensity is still relatively consistent throughout the week.
Note that there are now multiple systems used by many athletes that incorporate rotating max effort/ dynamic effort/ hypertrophy, etc. For all intents and purposes, these are all concurrent systems, though several of the newer ones do not fluctuate intensity and volume over the course of a week in a method conducive to incorporation of multiple running distances and intensities. The additional risk to using these systems is that they are optimized for a single sport, and as a result intentionally do not leave a lot of recovery on the table. Approach these with care.
Assuming the strength training portion of the routine has been selected and a framework designed, the most important next step is to optimize and understand the endurance portion. Again, bear in mind, the following routines outlined are NOT the best routines out there for improving one’s mile, training for a marathon, etc., but rather a compromise- they are designed to give the trainee the most “bang for the buck”. Many gifted marathoners and milers may feel that some of these routines do not focus heavily enough on certain specific drills or exercises, but this is intentional.
To understand why these routines have been created, a review of aerobic training is worthwhile. Aerobic adaptations are not only numerous, but many of them are also quite transient. They are easily gained, but just as easily lost, certainly compared to what most consider “strength” adaptations (many of which are mentioned above). As for the most important adaptations, they include the following:
1) Increased respiratory capacity
2) Increased stroke volume
3) Increased capillarization
4) Reduction in size of type I fibers
5) Improved lactic acid clearance
6) Improved utilization of lipids for energy
7) Improved movement efficiency
Bear in mind this is a gross simplification of the various adaptations the body undergoes, but they represent the majority of the noticeable changes. Note that some may be surprised by item 4 above, a reduction in cross sectional area of type I fibers. As mentioned in the previous installment, this is indeed a method by which the body can improve the relative efficiency of these muscle fibers, as a decrease in overall area with an increase in the capillary network means proportionately more blood flow to each muscle fiber. This does NOT occur in runners and other endurance athletes who weight train regularly, however.
The question may arise- which of these factors has the greatest impact on endurance performance (answer- it depends), and how does one go about optimizing their training to focus on these items? The answer to the latter is that nearly all forms of endurance training improve nearly all of these. The real question should be- what is the limiting factor in endurance training for the individual athlete? Certainly the best indicator of absolute limit endurance performance at high levels is the lactic acid threshold (LT)- the body’s ability to clear lactic acid (and therefore continue fueling activity) without accumulating excessive amounts of this compound and experiencing the resultant decrease in performance. (This decrease in performance is commonly associated with a burning feeling in the legs and the realization that possible loss of bladder control and ACTUAL loss of bladder control are becoming harder and harder to distinguish.) It is for this reason that many elite athletes discuss “speed work” and REPS/interval training- this high intensity training causes rapid accumulation of lactic acid, which forces the body to adapt and improve at utilizing and clearing this energy substrate. (Note, this is actually a bit of an oversimplification- lactic acid itself is a substrate and does not cause the pain and resultant decrease in performance, but its presence and accumulation is generally a good indicator of energy system usage.)
However, for the NON-elite endurance athlete, this is far less relevant. A first time marathoner or triathlete (or even an intermediate level endurance athlete) will RARELY be performing at or near their lactic acid threshold for extended periods of time. They simply lack the other adaptations and experience to operate at high intensity for hours on end- in fact I would often recommend they intentionally do not until well experienced at a given race distance (exceeding one’s LT multiple times throughout a race can EASILY result in “bonking”). To be clear- an individual with an average VO2 max (~55ml.kg-1.min-1) and superior lactic acid threshold (let’s say 85%) should be able to do an easy 2:30-2:45 marathon, however this is often not the case (If you’re wondering where this data came from, MJ Joyner wrote an excellent piece in the Journal of Applied Physiology back in 1991 discussing “ideal” models for performance). For many athletes looking to get into distance running and experiencing difficulty performing at peak, other factors such as hydration, running form (and therefore injury/discomfort/cramping during a long race), glycogen stores, respiration, etc. all fail long before their theoretical limit is reached. (Note that for a miler or aspiring miler, this may be different, hence the incorporation of more of this training in the miler routine below)
There is also, as mentioned in the previous article, the overly frequent high intensity aspect. Three or four intense runs a week, combined with three or four intense weight training workouts, will compromise performance in both. The majority of natural trainees simply cannot physically repair the physical microtrauma caused by high load movements so many times a week, and mentally this sort of intensity can become exhausting.
Thus, the emphasis on the long slow run, which has fallen out of favor with many coaches and training systems who jumped on the “intensity” bandwagon a few years ago. Simply put, these long slow runs offer MANY of the benefits of high intensity work (improvements to the circulatory system, improved lung capacity, increased ability to use lipids as fuel, and most importantly RUNNING FORM ECONOMY) without being nearly as stressful to the nervous system or muscles (particularly the type II fibers). It is this last point that addresses the question posed in the section heading- pure interval running is suboptimal for specific strength gains (as it compromises recovery and teaches different movement patterns, compared to say a squat), and it is suboptimal for teaching an athlete HOW to run a long race. Efficiency is particularly relevant to the more muscular than average runner, as those athletes not built like Kenyans burn exponentially more energy via wasted effort (e.g. “heel braking”, excessive vertical bound, excessive arm swing, etc.)
The long run defined. Loosely.
The term “long run” is relative. A long run for an ultra runner leading up to a 100 mile race may be 35 miles (few ultra runners do training runs anywhere near race distance), which is a third of their target distance, while milers may often exceed 4-5 miles of running in the course of a practice, or throw in 5k’s on the weekends for simple base building- closer to four or five times race distance. The determining factor should always be: What will this run do for you? An individual looking to improve their mile time will clearly be operating at a high level of intensity for a few minutes at a time, but can’t simply run intervals and half mile/mile repeats all week- he or she would burn out (particularly if he or she is lifting heavily as well). Some of the aerobic adaptations this athlete would need can be easily trained by engaging in 30-40 minute easy jogs on the weekend, which also serve as excellent recovery runs.
For a marathoner, as mentioned earlier there are some schools of thought that believe there is no difference between running 5 miles and running 25, it’s simply a matter of pacing. To anybody who has ever run this distance, they know this to be absolutely false. Nutrition strategy is critical. A practiced, efficient gait is critical (a minor shuffle or minor postural issue may not bother you after 30 minutes of running, but after three hours these could have you unable to walk). Understanding how your body begins to break down is critical. Learning how to head off potential issues is something you can only understand by pushing these limits. For someone looking to do their first marathon or half marathon, long slow runs may start out as a slow shuffle matching the longest distance the athlete has successfully run in the last six months, and will often top out around 80-90% of race distance.
So what defines a long run? A long run is a “high volume” run that challenges your ability to maintain proper gait and consistent pacing over time, while minimizing intensity.
Recommended running drills:
Former sprinters may wish to take a deep breath before reading these drills- these are NOT speed drills, they are efficiency drills, aimed at making an inefficient runner (most of us) into an efficient runner. The first three drills are “passive” drills that can be done during ANY run. The second three are “active” drills that should be done on drill days only.
Passive drill 1: Leading with the chest. For this drill, the runner focuses on one thing only- keeping the chest puffed out as far as possible, as if one was attempting to break the finish line tape. Doing this keeps the head up, spine erect, shoulders back, and prevents the feet from striking far out in front of the body, while maintaining enough forward lean to continue movement. A sagging head and shoulders will create tremendous upper body discomfort after an extended period of time, and result in a floppy, inefficient gait.
Passive drill 2: Arms like Optimus (Prime). So named by an athlete who had a way with words in reference to the old Transformers toys- the goal here is to keep the arms nearly fixed against the body, elbows at around 80-90 degrees. The athlete should not be “punching” the air with his or her arms while running; the rotation be slight and should start at the shoulders with the arms moving relatively little against the sides. Many sprinters may find this counterintuitive, but one need only watch Ultra runners (models of efficiency) to see this solid torso at work. Those who aren’t familiar with the race below may wish to do a Google search on “Badwater Ultra” first, lest you underestimate what these individuals are doing.
Start at 2:40- Flailing arms is wasted energy.
Passive drill 3: Running on thin ice. Pounding the ground imparts tremendous strain on the body- the objective of a heavier than average runner is to minimize this as much as possible. Over-exaggerate your joints’ absorption of the impact and try to land as silently as possible- this encourages a midfoot impact and prevents overstriding.
Active drill 1: Strides. Simple 100 meter runs consisting of a slow jog, accelerating to a full run at the halfway mark (not sprint), then slowing to a slow jog. The runner then returns to the starting point at a jog. These are excellent for marginally improving speed, stretching the legs, and (most importantly, to most athletes) encouraging the runner to maintain a jog AFTER a maximum effort burst.
Active drill 2: Sandal run. This is not to advocate barefoot running, but for many individuals these are highly instructive. Bring either an old ratty pair of running shoes or plain sandals to the track (or wherever you choose to run). If using shoes, do NOT put your heel inside the shoe, wear them as a clog. Simply trot for 50-100 meters at a time while keeping the shoe on. Do not “jam” the toe into the front, just take care to keep the shoe on at all times. To do this drill successfully, the runner will need to strike with their midfoot, NOT overstride, and land carefully, all key elements of an efficient stride. If the athlete feels like the movement is a bit of an overly delicate prance, this is a sign it is being done correctly.
Active drill 3: Quick feet hill climbs. Any moderate hill will do- begin this run about 50 meters from the base and approach at a constant moderate jog. As the hill begins, attempt to double your cadence and halve your stride (for more gradual hills, a 25% reduction in each may be more appropriate). The objective is to maintain a constant ENERGY EXPENDITURE, and not be completely winded at the top. This is useful for improving cadence/turnover, and highly instructive for many larger runners who often expend disproportionate amounts of their energy stores on even relatively minor climbs by taking large, loping steps which consume a great deal of energy.
Now, how it all comes together. The last article contained a basic framework for how to structure this overall concept. The following routines will break down a sample week for individuals looking for specific goals or specific combinations. Unless otherwise noted, the lifting workout is ALWAYS performed first. Also please note the number of CrossFit focused workouts- this is in direct response to the earlier article, where a great deal of feedback was received from this particular athlete population. As a group that prides itself on finding new and creative ways to make themselves vomit, I should have known this combination would be right up their alley.
1) CrossFit and a faster mile
Critical to understand here is that metcon volume will need to be drastically reduced, and skills maintained though modification of the lifting. Incorporating heavy, intense metcons will dramatically hinder recovery of ALL systems, and as such need to be included carefully. Given the relatively short distance of a mile, however, this sort of anaerobic interval work can still be included- though for an off-season CrossFitter, I would still recommend the athlete focus purely on absolutely strength and absolute endurance, (as with program 3 below.) If progression to a CrossFit competition is the goal, the base-building work will need to be reduced in favor of increasing focus on metcons.
Exercises should be selected carefully, with the athlete replacing the majority of accessory lifting with low intensity Olympic lifts to maintain proficiency. Increasing metcon number is not recommended. Note the short distance of recovery runs and the recommended length of the intervals. Interval work should be performed within +/- 10% of target mile pace, no faster. The mile race pace run can also be divided into shorter timed AT (aerobic threshold) run runs- this day is the most flexible week to week, and should be varied frequently to prevent burnout. Every fourth week should be a full deload, with distances and speed reduced to several short runs of less than a mile at a slow jog, and lifting for the week shifting to moderate weight/moderate repetition. This is a fairly high deload frequency, but necessary given that both the mile and a typical CrossFit metcon will work similar energy pathways.Note the lack of running drills- given the nature of a mile, the rate of return (cost/benefit) for drills tends to be lower for relatively inexperienced athletes than it does for sprints or extreme distance. It is still recommended that the long slow distance run emphasize some of the “form” components mentioned in the previous section.
Finally worth mentioning is that the day 4 metcon can be more intense and higher volume, relatively speaking, than the day 7.
2) CrossFit and completing a marathon
Worth noting is that with the longer distance, metcon volume does not have to be reduced. The athlete looking for these dual goals has the luxury of engaging in far less speed/interval work, with even the higher intensity runs being far from the runner’s lactic threshold. Note that this is a program for a beginner to intermediate runner who is not necessarily looking for a sub-3 hour marathon.
Note the lack of speed work included here. The vast majority of DNFs or slow times for a first (or fifth) time marathon runner tends to be excessive speed early on, and a severe bonk later in the race. Also take note that the metcon on day 7 has been moved to day 6, as while the long slow distance run for a miler may only take 30 minutes (and therefore use minimal energy stores), the long slow distance run for a marathoner is as much as anything an exercise in energy management, and performing this run relatively fresh is critical.A minor carbohydrate load is HIGHLY recommended after day 6’s workout, I usually recommend 0.15g/kg/mile to be run. In other words, a 100kg athlete running 10 miles the following day should take in approximately 150 grams of ADDITIONAL carbohydrate immediately following their activity.
One other point worth mentioning- given the medium distance runs and metcons on days 3 and 6, respectively, it may be tempting to “leave something in the tank” during the lift for the additional activity. This is an absolute mistake- the medium distance run on day 3 will actually be IMPROVED if the athlete’s legs are fatigued, as form issues and fatigue-related breakdown will become far more apparent. Prioritizing the DE lower work over the metcon is similarly critical, as the primary purposes of this routine are maintaining or gaining strength while improving extreme endurance- anaerobic endurance may suffer somewhat in the short term at the expense of pursuing extremely disparate goals.
Deloads should be very individual- I would recommend once every six weeks on this program, or once every eight weeks for more experienced runners. The overall leg volume here is QUITE high- recovery runs will be critical to minimizing DOMS, and I would highly recommend reducing long run distance every third week to give the joints some time to recover. (e.g., 10 miles one week, 12 miles the next, 6 miles on the third, back up to 14, and so forth). A routine like this will also call for an extended taper, as the athlete will be overreaching in the last few weeks leading up to the marathon.
3) Powerlifting and running a fast 5k
Though this routine may seem to have less complexity that the miler routine above, the lack of metcons simply allows for increased focus on the lifting. This is essentially the routine given in the previous article, with distances included for reference.
Again, worth noting is the recommended distance for the interval work. Shorter distances at higher speeds would encourage unsustainable speed and alter running form, thus negating the purpose of the exercise. I would recommend rotating deloads, with a lifting deload every six weeks, and running deload every eight. This is the sort of program which can be easily modified for all skill levels and experience levels, and one which I put the majority of my hybrid athletes on.4) Powerlifting and completing an Ironman
This has been included simply to show the flexibility of this general design. This program was used by the author to complete his first Ironman while steadily improving in powerlifting. To truly peak and COMPETE in an Ironman (not simply complete), the routine WOULD need to be adjusted.
Note that days 1-3 are all relatively high intensity, though the lower body is given a complete break on day 2. Day 4 is an extended carb up and recovery day, with the excess calories serving both to aid recovery and load for the long workout on day 5. Day 5 itself is relatively low intensity, and the emphasis during those workouts is to keep heart rate and exertion levels consistent, with similar performance during the first hour as during the final (with a heavy focus on nutrition strategy). Swim drills and a recovery run complement the DE work on days 6 and 7. The overall swimming volume is FAR lower than a typical Ironman training program, as swimming can be tremendously detrimental to a strong bench press (and a strong bench is a major goal of the program).This is also a program designed for an individual with a decent running/cycling background, and assumes that the athlete has successfully completed some form of long distance run or bike event within the last year.
The two best training aids for this program, in the author’s estimation, are bacon and donuts, because this routine will burn a tremendous amount of calories. Deloads should be every eight weeks, though individual session deloads may be called for more frequently.
Early on in the first article, the question was asked, “What’s your goal?” If you’re an aspiring CrossFit competitor but feel that both your long term endurance and absolute strength are limiting factors, you may need to ask yourself if it’s still necessary to do metcons while building your base. This would be no different than an aspiring D1 football player emphasizing speed and strength in the offseason and avoiding scrimmages- he is no less of a football player simply because the short term emphasis has changed. Maintaining technical skills is still critical, but these can be done in a non-taxing manner.
Also remember that the routines above are meant to give a snapshot, a glimpse of what a typical training week would look like for different athletes with different goals. These are just templates, they are not final routines that should be followed to the letter. Individualization is a huge component of any sort of multidisciplinary program. Every individual is different- different biomechanics, different athletic backgrounds, different fiber type composition, different lifestyles… the list of variables is endless, and every athlete attempting any of these programs needs to take a long hard look at what their specific strengths and weaknesses are. At the end of the day, though the body is a nearly infinitely complex system, fitness itself is relatively simple. Train hard, recovery properly, and go in to every workout knowing exactly what you’re looking to improve.
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