Friday, August 31, 2012

Science Friday: The Strength Training Debate

Are these counterproductive?
Advice from the running community (coaches, magazines, books) always includes the plea to supplement your running with strength training. It can help correct muscle imbalances, prevent injuries, and improve your running economy. But most runners are resistant. We run because we love running, not hanging out in gyms heaving weights around. We sneak our runs into our already busy schedules, early in the morning, on our lunch break, after work while others are out enjoying social lives. Do we really need to make time for strength training also?

But when I stumbled upon an article about combining endurance training and strength training, I found that the scientific community seems to think the opposite. Since endurance training and strength training target two opposing mechanisms, it may be counterproductive to do both.  (Endurance training increases mitochondria in your muscles, while strength training increases growth of muscle cells, or hypertrophy.) The research seems to suggest strength training will interfere with the effects of our endurance training. (For example, the resources needed to increase mitochondria might be used up trying to increase muscle size.) Could it be true? Could we get away with skipping the weights? Would we have a scientific excuse to do so?

The short answer, unfortunately for all you running purists, is no, we can’t skip the weights just yet. While most of the articles I read mentioned this interference, their findings showed it didn’t really hold up.

One article was a recent meta-analysis (basically a combination of all previous data, reexamined for large trends) that compared groups that did strength training only, endurance exercise only (running or biking), or a combination. As expected, they did find some interference. Tests of power were the most striking: people who only strength trained had greater power than those who strength trained and did endurance work. This fit with their hypothesis: by supplementing running, weight lifters may sacrifice some power. But to us runners, what we care about is the endurance group compared to the strength + endurance group. In that comparison, people who did both strength and endurance training had improved power versus those that only did endurance training. (See figure below.) More importantly, adding strength training did not affect VO2 max, so lifting weights doesn’t interfere with all our work done on the roads. Additionally, body fat measures were lowest in the strength + endurance groups, and lower for runners than bikers. (Take that cyclists!) As a side note, high intensity exercise increased body fat loss the most, consistent with other research. (So keep up with those intervals if that’s what you’re looking for.)

For us runners, we are most concerned with the comparison between endurance training alone (checkered bars) and endurance training + strength training ("concurrent," horizontal lined bars.) In all categories, adding strength training either helps or doesn't hurt.
So it seems like it’s not as bad as some research would imply. But does it help? What does it mean practically, and why should we bother?

Another group did a review of the literature (the difference from a meta-analysis is they didn’t reanalyze any data.) They found improved endurance capacity (measured by time trials or time to exhaustion) when there was a combination of strength and endurance training. This was true for both short trials (less than 15 minute time trials) and longer trials (over 30 minutes.) They also found that sprinting at the end of the trial (the finishing kick) was improved with strength training. Interestingly, they found that these improvements were made without increasing hypertrophy. The authors speculate that in this case the interference might be a good thing, because it prevents hypertrophy while still allowing for some improvements. So while strength training is helping, it’s not causing you to bulk up, something most runners will be happy to hear. (This article says that lots of reps of heavy weights are best, although I’ve read just the opposite elsewhere. That will have to be a story for another day.)

So here is what the advice for runners is built on: if you strength train, you can run faster over shorter distances, longer distances, have a better finishing kick, and not fatigue as quickly. And no, you won’t bulk up.

Crap, the coaches/magazines/books were right. Time to hit the weights.

On a completely unrelated note, there was an interesting piece this week about changing the way we sell exercising. In a world fueled by a desire for instantaneous results, it seems long term benefits of exercising (living longer and healthier) aren’t enough to encourage people to start exercising. So if you are trying to convince friends and family to develop healthy habits, you might want to emphasize how awesome you feel after a run or from being a runner, rather than how awesome it will be to live longer and healthier. (Good luck selling them on the lifting.)

Dream big,

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Steady State Runs

Fall is around the corner and racing season is almost in full swing. My major races for the season:

September 16: Philly Half
October 21: Army 10 Miler
November 11: Veterans Day 10k
December 8: XC Clubs (6k)

The season builds backwards, from longer races first to shorter races later. For me, this means easing off marathon type workouts and into faster, shorter stuff. But training for a half first means I don’t need to ignore my favorite aspects of marathon training just yet.

I like long, slow runs, but they are just that: LONG. If you’re not pushing the pace, they literally drag on for hours. You can’t (and shouldn’t) push the pace on every long run. There are both physiological and psychological benefits to running at a comfortable pace for a long time. But every few weeks I do think it’s nice to insert some faster miles to add a new training stimulus and break up the monotony.

For the marathon, the best way to do this is the marathon pace run. I put a lot of emphasis on these workouts and dread them beforehand (they are not easy!) but I’m all the better for it. If they go well, it breeds confidence. If they go poorly, it gives me a kick in the butt when I need it. And of course, it makes the next long, slow run seem that much more enjoyable.

Naturally, I wondered how I could adjust the workout to translate to the half. Greg McMillan describes the benefits of what he calls steady state runs, which are essentially the same thing only shorter. Whereas for marathon pace runs I generally start with 8 miles at MP and progress to 14, for steady state runs I started at 4 and will stop at 8. Again, the miles are nestled into the latter half of the long run for the week, providing a nice break from long and slow. The idea, of course, is to run them close to marathon pace, or somewhere between easy and tempo effort.

As per usual, my first attempt wasn’t great. But on my second I got faster, and more importantly, felt a lot better. (My third and final one will come this weekend, before a well deserved vacation.) Another difference from marathon training is to adjust the emphasis placed on these runs. Unlike for the marathon, these aren’t the most race specific workouts, so there’s no sense in beating myself up over them. (The bread and butter of half training is the tempo run.) Steady state runs help build confidence that you can maintain a good pace even after many miles, and for me it helps to know that, despite some training changes, I’m not losing too much in the endurance department. Also, it helps when the long run doesn’t take quite as long.

Dream big,

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Fake Fall

Running makes you more invested in the weather. Nonrunners can stay inside when the weather turns ugly. But runners must deal with the elements, leading them to complain incessantly about the heat, the humidity, the wind chill, the rain, the snow. We runners are like the Goldilocks of weather: too hot! too cold! But fall is the Baby Bear of seasons: just right.

Fall is ideal running season. When there is a crisp chill to it, you can almost smell cross country in the air. There’s a reason there are more marathons in the fall than the spring. After months of hard training through hot summer days, you can feel the change of seasons and sense your hard work is about to pay off: it’s racing season!

I love fall. I love the trees changing colors and being able to wear sweaters and jackets again. I love all things pumpkin flavored: bread, beer, tea, cookies. I love that it always has a feeling of a fresh start, a newness, born from years of back-to-school routines. I love the holidays that come one after another, each with different things to celebrate (and different treats to eat!) And of course, I love running, ideally in shorts and a long sleeved T-shirt.

In DC, this past week has felt like fall. Granted, it’s still August, but the mornings have been cooler and it’s enough to trick you, is it fall? I find myself noticing stray leaves crumpling under my feet. They are old, dead leaves, leftover from summer storms, but in my mind they are orange and red, freshly fallen off autumn trees. Kids are back in school, football is starting... well, preseason football. People are running in long sleeves. (Seriously!) Ok, I’m excited too, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. 

Of course it’s not yet fall. Stores aren’t even touting their pumpkin flavored treats yet, and stores’ schedules are ahead of everyone else’s. Soon it will go back to normal late summer heat and humidity, but until then I’ll enjoy my fake fall and dream of happier times. My long sleeved T-shirts are ready and waiting.

Dream big and dream of fall,

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

17 Days of Ups and Downs

I’m sorry I’ve been MIA for the past few weeks. During the Olympics, I was living a double life: staying up late to watch the best athletes in the world and waking up early to work on becoming my own version of a better athlete. During the in-between hours, I ignored the internet and any Olympics news until I could watch in prime time. I crawled under a rock and stayed there, glued to every athlete’s move, under the complete power of Bob Costas. My anti-internet campaign, combined with every free moment filled with workouts or watching people enjoy the fruits of their own workouts, made it difficult to blog. To make up for it, here’s a summary of ups and downs of the Olympic days from both my spectating and running perspective.

Friday July 27:
Nothing like enjoying decadent dessert
while watching the fittest people on the planet.
Spectator Teal: Opening Ceremonies. I was dead set on watching them, having fallen asleep during the famed Beijing Opening Ceremonies, only to hear for weeks (and years!) afterwards how amazing they were. I don’t make that mistake again. But as expected, the Opening Ceremonies are pretty weird and not even in the British humor Monty Python kind of way. (That comes in the Closing Ceremonies.) Worse yet, the NBC anchors can’t get over how the Queen just parachuted into the stadium with James Bond, when that was clearly a (poor) job of camera editing. Still, I’m excited it’s the Olympics and make festive brownies to kick them off. 

Saturday July 28:
Runner Teal: I meet some of the GRC girls for a long run. We chit-chat through a leisurely 12 miler. Nobody kicks my butt. Oh yea: long, slow running, this is the part I’m good at.

Spectator Teal: In my excitement, I make a rookie mistake and start too fast.  I watch fencing and archery and am glad to see Misty May and Kerri Walsh are back. It won’t be the last I hear of them. (It will be the last I see of archery and fencing.)

Monday July 30:
Spectator Teal: Missy Franklin, the sweetheart of the Games, wins gold less than 15 minutes after swimming a semi. It’s unprecedented, sure, but given how many events swimmers can compete in I start to wonder how that’s possible. Why is the recovery so much faster than track? 

Tuesday July 31:
Spectator Teal: In the afternoon, I overhear my coworker screaming “He only lost by a stroke!!” Ingeniously, I put two and two together. Later, I watch Michael Phelps lose by a hair. I decide I need to start wearing headphones during key racing times. The women's gymnastics team wins gold, and my 8 year old self leaps for joy.

Wednesday August 1:
Runner Teal: My track workout is terrible. I’m exhausted and can’t get in the rhythm. I’ve eaten all the brownies, the lure of archery and fencing is gone, track has yet to begin. I hit a mid-race slump.

Friday August 3:
Spectator Teal: Track starts! I crawl deeper under my rock. Runnersworld and basically every site I ever go to are now strictly forbidden. Fortunately, the only other race that I hear about before watching is Bolt winning the 100m. If anyone had told me the results of any longer races, I think I would have slapped them. Fortunately, I have very kind and understanding friends and family, who don’t like to be slapped.

Saturday August 4:
Runner Teal: I get in my long run on Saturday in anticipation of the women’s marathon Sunday morning. I try to do some of the final miles fast. I bomb. I’m only slightly comforted by the fact that I do a variation of this workout every season and the first attempt is always a disaster, but I’m still upset. I come home and bang out an entire strength workout that I almost always skip.

Spectator Teal: Hours later, I’m tuned in to the (Live!) men’s 10k with my aching legs propped up on the couch. Until the final laps, when Mo and Galen put on such a thrilling race that I’m jumping up and down, screaming, and (in my eyes) willing them to an amazing, unforgettable 1-2 finish. I celebrate with more screaming, jumping, clapping, tearing up. Somehow my neighbors don’t call the cops. Best moment of the games, hands down.

Sunday August 5:
Spectator Teal: Apparently there are two reasons I get up early on weekends: to run and to watch running. At 6 am, I’m glued to the TV and the women’s marathon, the event I’m looking forward to the most. But slowly, on the rainy and twisting streets of London, my hopes for Kara and Shalane fade. Shalane hangs tough for a long time, but fades hard. They finish 10th and 11th, and in a touching moment Kara, the more seasoned marathoner, picks Shalane up off the pavement and they walk arm and arm away from the finish.

Runner Teal: After the race, I go for a short jog to shake out yesterday’s run and spontaneous Mo-Galen-triggered plyometric workout. I think about the American marathoners and my heart aches for them. Not only because it’s the Olympics, which I certainly cannot relate to. But because of all the hard work they put in, how they felt they were in the best shape of their lives, and yet (while their performances are still impressive) they’re unsatisfied. I can relate to that. And now all they can do is take time off, recover, and then do it all over again.

Monday August 6:
Runner Teal: I do my full strength workout again. I’m not sure whether I’m inspired by the Olympics or disappointed in my own progress. Whatever it is, it’s working. I continue to do my strength workouts through the Closing Ceremonies.

Wednesday August 8:
Runner Teal: We have a doozy of a track workout, which I’ve been dreading since I got the email on Monday. It’s 6 x 1 mile with a shorter recovery that usual. The paces start slow, but drop frighteningly close to my mile PR. Also, I’m still exhausted. Somehow I make it through five of them right with the pack. On the last, I manage to cling on until the last straightaway, when I fall back but still hit the line in 5:41, 7 seconds faster than our intended pace, and 4 seconds faster than my PR. 

Friday August 10:
Runner Teal: I switch my workouts around and end up doing an easy 12 miler in the morning. I haven’t gone that far before work in a while and I enjoy it, in my weird-masochistic way. While reading about the contenders in the women’s marathon a few days before, I saw a picture of one of them running NYC. Something about the fall colors in the background and the famous course triggered a pang of missing the marathon. Today’s run reminds me again.

Spectator Teal: Final lap of the women’s 1500 and Morgan Uceny falls. Again. I can’t believe it; I am close to tears. She is filled with very real tears, pouring them onto the track. People say she should have gotten up and finished the lap, but I don’t think so. In her situation, I probably would have done the exact same thing. It’s heartbreaking. When will she get her redemption?

Saturday August 11:
Runner Teal: Tempo run. As you may recall, I’m not great at tempo runs, but I manage this one all right. I average two seconds slower than my goal pace, but it’s apparently one of the faster tempo runs I’ve ever done (although it’s on the shorter side) and it was the day after a 12 miler.

Spectator Teal: In the 5k, soon-to-be Sir Mo Farah does it again. I scream and clap but I don’t jump up and down as much. Even though it’s an incredible double, it’s almost like it’s old news to me. Of course he would win again. He’s freaking awesome.

Sunday August 12:
Spectator Teal: 6 am, it’s marathon time again. From the start, it’s obvious Ryan Hall is off. He usually runs in the lead, and he’s falling further and further back. He drops out. Not long after, Abdi is out too. Meb is all we’ve got left. At halfway, he’s in 17th place. Meanwhile, the three vying for medals are clear: Kirui and Kiprotich (aka Kipsang) from Kenya and another Kiprotich from Uganda. The two Kenyans are chatting back and forth and around mile 23 it seems they are finally pulling away from the Ugandan Kiprotich. Ugandan Kiprotich does the sign of the cross, and I think “oh man, he’s praying that he can hang on, at least get bronze.” But the next thing you know, he’s caught the Kenyans and is blowing past. He must have prayed for the strength to make his move, and his prayers were answered. He amasses a lead that he won’t lose, and he gets Uganda gold (its first marathon medal). Meb, somehow, claws his way through the field to finish 4th. He’s a few minutes out of the medals, but it’s no matter. Many people, myself included, may have counted Meb out of this one, but once again he proves us wrong with his tough, fighting spirit. Before the race, he was the American who seemed injured. Afterwards, he’s the only one left standing.

Runner Teal: I take the day off. It’s been an exhausting 17 days.

Dream big,