Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Importance of Running Specific Musculoskeletal Strength

  I was doing a bit of running 'research' this morning, ok I was wasting time reading about running on the internet because the wind chill is once again in the @#$%ing miserable level and I'm supposed to be starting a workout.  Anyway I came across a quote from Rob De Castella in an interview back in 1983 talking about how to that point in his running career he had only missed 10 total days of running due to injury.

Deek said, "You've got two levels- skeletal strength and physiological fitness.  If the latter surpasses the former it means you can push the body further than it is really able to sustain.  I think that's when you get injured." * This is something I have thought about through my long injury history and never been able to sum up nearly so concisely but it really drives home a simple point that I believe is largely missing from our current conversation about training.

  It is no secret I have had a long and extensive injury history.  I think that some of this can be simply attributed to my habit of always wanting to push harder and not listening to my body.  Still I think there is more to it than that.

  Separately I have long felt that my limiting factors in performance had become muscular more than aerobic.  This is part of why I felt I didn't have success in my short stint at altitude.  In fact I had the opposite. I think most americans, most first world runners, are undertrained aerobically and go to altitude where the stress on the aerobic system is inherently increased greatly and  they see a jump in performance as a result of this redistribution of effort.  Where as I went up there and put even more stress on the aerobic system and even less on the muscular system and saw a loss of fitness.  Now this isn't to say I or someone else like me couldn't find great success training at altitude just that it would take a well thought out plan to address this balance but that is for another blog.

   I think that most of your good training schedules have a good balance between muscular and aerobic development but I don't think that most coaches put enough specific thought and focus into creating this balance.  Most often I think the balance that is being thought about is aerobic and anaerobic work.  Further more I think too often we think of muscular and anaerobic work as the same thing.  I know when I started out I did.

  The problem with hard intervals lead to severe fatigue and under fatigue our form falls apart so instead of taxing our muscular system in a nice balanced way and teaching good strong muscular pathway our form falls apart and we build bad habits and imbalances.   Anaerobic workouts can be great muscular sessions but only for a very developed athlete who has spent years building great muscular strength so their form doesn't break down under stress.  For the rest of us the solution is to do work that is specifically targeting fast dynamic motion while maintaining relaxed control so that we are teaching good form and balanced muscular development.

  From the beginning of our running we should be doing daily work to build our muscular skeletal system to excel at the specific demands of running and running fast.  How?  Mostly with fast relaxed running.  This can be in the form of strides or short hills.  It can be fast relaxed tempo running.  This can be repeats at all sorts of distances AS LONG AS THE EFFORT IS CONTROLLED!  This is what is always missed.  Also you can do running specific drills, skipping, lunge walking and other dynamic running and core exercises to build a muscular skeletal system that can stay healthy and deliver on all the aerobic power you can build.

  I honestly believe that my biggest failure as an athlete was a failure to develop a strong dynamic muscular skeletal system from the beginning.  I believe if I had done more aerobic work sooner I could have been more successful at a younger age but that it would not have improved my overall development.  However if I had started out doing strides daily, controlling my effort in 99% of my workouts to maintain form and doing dynamic general strength work, like the type of stuff you see from  John Cook or Jay Johnson, I honestly believe I would never have had the injury problems I had in college nor do I think I would have developed my coordination problem.  I honestly believe my failure to do this work from the beginning of my running cost me a career as a at least high level national class marathoner.

  I do much more now to try and develop the muscular strength.  I do the yoga for general strength and when I'm not banged up I do strides daily or close to it.  I have also developed a lot of strength over the last couple decades so my workouts are now a means of building strength as well.  Still if there is one area that I need to do more for it is specific muscular strength and endurance.  So often in my training I am strong.  I can run miles on top of miles and feel fine I can run quickly, say 5:20 per mile or even faster and have it feel like walking but as soon as I need to get just a little bit more muscular sub 5:00 at time, sub 4:40 per mile most of the time, I struggle, sometimes to hold these paces for even a few hundred meters.  It may sound crazy but it is not uncommon for me to find myself in a place where I can run for an hour or more feeling relaxed at 5:20 per mile but I struggle to run even a kilometer at 4:40 mile pace.  In the stretches where I have been able to do all the muscular work I start to see huge improvements in my middle distance racing.  So often I find myself very fit but racing fairly slowly.  Where as if I was maintaining my muscular training better I could be running much much faster, if not quite national class certainly much closer.  Specifically I should often be running in the 23's for 8k instead of 24's and 29's for 10k instead of 30's. sub 14:40 for road 5k instead of sub 15:10.  Now you can sharpen up and run faster with anaerobic work but that isn't what I'm talking about in this instance.  I have run sub 30 for 10, sub 24 for 8k and sub 14:40 for a road 5k without doing much if any real anaerobic work.  I can run those times off good balanced aerobic and muscular training.  Too often I fail to do the muscular work to make running relaxed enough at those paces to hold them without good anaerobic fitness.  This slowed my overall development and means I have a lot of decent races in my history but few very good ones.

   I cannot encourage you enough to plan for muscular development as specifically as you do aerobic development.  These two things are the foundations of all running success.  You can always do race specific and anaerobic work later but if you don't build a great foundation of muscular strength and aerobic endurance all the race work in the world won't be worth a bucket of piss.

* P.S. a bit of an aside but the article the quote comes from is in the August of 1983 Runners World.  It is mind blowing to me that they would run an article like this complete with discussion of his racing career, a sample training week and intelligent conversation about his thoughts on his current training and where he would like to take it in the future.  I just can't imagine coming across the same type of article with one of the Geoff Mutia's in this August's Runners World. link to article


Mitja said...

Excellent blog post! Your writing is provoking my thoughts.
After reading some books on Lydiard, I just finished a base phase the lydiard way. Problem is... I injured myself in week 11. Guess my lifestyle hasn't development the muscular strength, Lydiard's runners in New Zealand had back in the day.
No wonder their focus was more on aerobic development, they were very strong...
Due to having to take two weeks off for my stupid ankles, I started pondering over the meaning of life (i.e. running and training).
No point in having that aerobic base when my musculoskeletal strength is failing me.
I really can relate to a lot you're writing about in this blog.
This is something I'm going to consciously implement in my daily training.
Next up is figuring out how much strenght is enough...
I'm a guy who likes to kamikaze in the deep end of things. On more then a few occasions I sank with that approach.
But... enough thoughts.

Thanks for inspiring! said...

Mitja- Lydiard did a lot of muscular work. For some reason it doesn't show up as much in the schedules in the book however a detailed reading shows that he encouraged a weekly session of 10 to 20 100meter strides during the base as well as two to four sets of 15mins of hill sessions (bounding springing etc..) Then you do the muscular hill phase.
That said if you jump into lydiard from a traditional USA background it is easy to get hurt during the base before you build up the muscular side in the hill phase. This is part of why I like a program that incorporates more muscular stuff right from the start.
Anyway don't get down on yourself. Dust yourself off and start again.

Ewen said...

Great post Nate. If approaching 4:40/mile pace is where you begin to struggle, do you see any value muscularly in doing a large volume session of 400 repeats at 69 or 70s per 400? Walk or slow jog 100m recoveries - rather than the 8 x 400 Aussie quarters float recoveries. Say building up to 20 or 30 x 400?

I have a similar problem in that I'm fit aerobically and want to run 21:30 - 22:00 for 5k at age 58 (similar age-graded to what I ran in my 30s) but anything faster than 4:30/km pace (even though I'm doing regular strides) is where I start to struggle. said...

Ewen- absolutly. Doing a high volume of reps at a quick pace is a great way to build muscular endurance and improve efficiency at that pace. The only caveat is that you need to stay RELAXED for it. This for me means I almost need to be on a track or similar very flat well measured surface- both currently not available in my area thanks to an epic winter that just won't die. But yes in the past I have used, very effectively, and will again use large volume of short reps at 5k or 10k pace up to double the total volume of the race with pretty close to full recovery. IE as much at 50x400m at 10k pace or 50x200m at 5k pace with relaxed 200m jog recoveries. Also these sessions are not so great for specific marathon prep. They are just very muscularly exhausting and you aren't going to be able to get another very good effort in that week and this isn't a marathon workout so that is a heavy cost to pay.

Justin Heitz said...

Hi Nate, have loved reading your blog and totally have been inspired by your example and story! Any advice for a runner with a super slow top end speed? Haven’t run an all out 400 since high school (best of 68), currently 32 and training for marathons after taking about 10 years off. Anytime I get in the low 5 min pace range it feels very uncomfortable and unsustainable. I ran my last two marathons in 235 and 236. Sub 6 pace is comfortable however I’m concerned similar to what you’ve described that in order to break thru to the next level that my top end speed and the leg soreness in the moment of running at these top speeds is holding me back. I’ve run a few 200’s at 98-99% this year in the 31-32 second range so I think with the right training I could possibly expand on this. Would love any advice as I feel as if I am a very similar runner to you in terms of muscular fiber ratio etc. Appreciate any advice you would be willing to share! said...

There are a few different issues here and it is easy to conflate them as one.
So first getting faster as in basic speed which for the purposes of being a distance runner lets use 200m sprint speed. For this your two most effective things are an A -exchange drill, and doing 100m "sprints" at about 400m to 600m race pace with full or near full recovery but in great volume. So given your top end of 15.5 to 16s per 100m lets say 17s. Start at 10 to 15 and build to 30 of them. Ideally done on the minute meaning if you run 17 flat you get 43 seconds rest. Those two things will have the greatest impact on your 200m time.
However you could get down to 29s and not neccessarly see any improvement in your marathon or for that matter even your mile. So next we look at speed endurance. The 100's session above will help with this. But also Alternation type reps like broken 600's. So Running a 600 going 45,35,45. Really anything where you burn up not at full bore but at what is generally uncomfortably fast for you so lets say the 4:40 to 5:00 range and you mix it into some running that is quicker marathon pace or faster. The trick is you don't want to do it at the end of the rep as a big kick and you don't want to do it for so long that it gets crazy hard. Instead you want to mix it in with CONTROL and then go back to a pace that you can run with some control before you HAVE to go back. This will start to teach the body two things. One to be more relaxed at the faster pace and two to engage more muscle fibers at the slower pace which will build more muscular endurance for use at the faster pace. Now this will help your mile to 10k running but it may not have any impact on your marathon.
So that gets us to the crux of the problem. If you have run 2:35( 5:55 pace) and you want to run 2:25(5:31 pace) and you tell me that you uncomfortble at low 5 pace I think this is not a speed problem. It is an endurance problem. 10 to 20 mile tempo runs at 90 to 100% of your current marathon pace (ALL OF THOSE PACES NOT JUST THE FAST END) and alternation workouts 10k to 20k in distance where you mix in fast sections at 5k to half marathon pace with recoveries back at that 90 to 100% of marathon pace. Those are your bread and butter.
Now if the final goal is 2:12 and you need to get comfy at 5:02 per mile then the middle section is super important for that long term development but the third part is still your bread and butter.
Two real world examples. I could run a quarter under 60 in a jam but only managed it a handful of times. I ran a 200 in 28. At my best I felf RELAXED down to 5:00 pace. I ran a marathon in a few ticks under 2:15 but if I'm being honest if I didn't have the coordination issues or even if that race had been on a different course a 2:11 was very realistic. But even when I could run sub 14' for 5k- 4:28 pace or faster. I was never felt comfortable or sustainable. Dick Beardsley who ran 2:08:53 and in better conditions or with pace setters could have probably run 2:06 told me his 200/400 speed was pretty similar to mine. He said he felt very comfortable at his best, down to 4:50 per mile but that anything under that, even when he ran 29:00 for 10k (just under 4:40 pace) never felt comfortable or sustainable.
So what I'm saying is when you are slow, as we three are, you will butter your bread with strength. Speed can improve your longevity and if you MAXIMIZE your fitness it can make you a bit better. It can help in your shorter races but if your goal is marathon performance don't misapproapriate your energy there as your real gains are still to be found at other paces.

Justin Heitz said...

Wow Nate, this is some incredible advice. I have never heard any of these first few pieces of info and have done a lot of research on this topic. For the 600’s how many reps would be ideal? Would this be like Aussie quarters and role into another 35 or single 600 reps with a minute or so rest? Thanks again for your advice and encouragement! said...

The broken 600's and other reps like that would be true reps so you would take recoveries between them. Standing or walking or slow jogging.
There isn't a magic number here. You can acutally shape reps like this to match other purposes in your training. So for example you want to mix some of this in and yo are getting ready for a 10k. If your goal time is 33:20 (roughly equivelant to a 2:35 marathon) and you were thinking of something like 10x1k at 3:20 maybe you run the 1k's as "broken" or alternation k's so running the 1st, 3rd and 5th 200s in 43 and the 2nd and 4th in 35ish. Then take whatever rest you normally would for specific reps, ie 200m jog or what have you. You could just as easily do this for 5k specific work. Think 10x500m targeting a 16:00 flat 5k doing 200 in 40, 200 in 35, 100 in 20 for each 500. Or the half marathon doing say 2 mile reps where you are running the 2 miles at goal race pace ~5:40 but you do so mixing in a 400 down around 75 in each mile, say the 3rd 400 of each.
Specifically for the broken 600's, ie you are doing the workout totally as a stand alone. I would say 6 to 8 reps with pretty decent recovery between them so that you feel pretty ready to handle each rep would work fine. That might be a minute but frankly if it is three it isn't really important because it isn't race specific work so the recovery times don't matter much. When you are doing race specific intervals then the recovery is EVERYTHING but for this it really is a minor concern. You want to finish the session knowing you could have done more.