Runners Connect Thu, 18 Sep 2014 14:08:10 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Research on the Effectiveness of Foam Rolling Thu, 18 Sep 2014 10:00:25 +0000 Earlier this week we published an article on the 4 common mistakes runners make when using the foam roller. In that article, we simply bushed over the idea that foam rolling works.

Of course, we got a lot of emails from savvy readers like you that wanted to see the proof.

And we appreciate it! After all, we’re not about fluff here at RunnersConnect and we want to substantiate every piece of advice we give you.

Since foam rolling is so new, there hasn’t been much research published on it until recently. But with several studies coming out in the last two years, it’s now possible to learn more about what foam rolling can do for your running.

The Science of Foam Rolling for Recovery

A study published this year in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise sought to find out whether foam rolling can reduce soreness and boost recovery by investigating the impact of a foam rolling program on post-exercise soreness following a series of squats.

In the study, twenty men with weight lifting experience were split into two groups. Both groups underwent a very fatiguing squat protocol, which consisted of ten sets of ten back squats at 60% of one-rep squat maximum. After the initial bout of squats, both groups were evaluated for their soreness level, quad and hamstring range of motion, performance on a vertical leap test, and a variety of measurements of muscle electrical activity. These measurements were repeated one, two, and three days after the squat protocol as well.

After the initial post-squat soreness and range of motion tests, half the men did a five-exercise foam rolling routine targeting the muscle groups in the thigh, while the other half did no additional exercise.

In the foam rolling routine, each muscle group was rolled twice for sixty second on each leg, for a total of about twenty minutes of foam rolling. This foam rolling routine was repeated after the one- and two-day post-exercise evaluations as well.

Designing the experiment this way ensured that the study did not merely identify a short-lived effect of foam rolling: for a difference in soreness or range of motion to be detected, it would have to be the result of the previous day’s foam rolling routine.

In the results, foam rolling had a statistically significant impact on three important measurements when compared to the control group.

  • First, it reduced muscle soreness one, two, and three days after the squat routine.
  • Foam rolling also resulted in a small but statistically significant increase in quadriceps range of motion.
  • Finally, it led to better performance in a vertical leap test.

While it’s hard to apply these results too directly to running, it does look like good news: less soreness and better performance on a vertical leap test both suggest that foam rolling can give your recovery a potent boost, and allow you to run better in subsequent workouts.

And improvements in range of motion could open up new possibilities for treating and preventing injuries, which often are associated with poor range of motion in a particular muscle group.

Foam rolling and range of motion

The range of motion issue was investigated more directly in a study published last year by Graham MacDonald and other researchers at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada.

This study looked at the “acute” effects of foam rolling—the immediate benefits you get within a few minutes of finishing a foam rolling routine. To do so, they evaluated the range of motion and maximum strength of the quadriceps muscle in eleven men before and after two sets of one minute of a foam rolling exercise which targeted the quads.

Like the previous study, foam rolling had a small but noticeable impact on range of motion.

  • After only two minutes of foam rolling, quadriceps range of motion increased by ten degrees, but less than one degree after a control trial of two minutes’ rest.
  • Moreover, the increase in range of motion persisted for at least ten minutes after the foam rolling; the study participants still had nearly nine degrees more motion at their knee joint after foam rolling, versus only one and a half degrees after rest.

Ongoing research

Still, there’s a lack of scientific evidence on foam rolling for runners specifically. Undoubtedly, lifting weights is very different than doing a hard 10k on a hilly course.

Can foam rolling help in these kinds of situations too?

That’s the topic of research currently underway at the University of Minnesota. A study led by Emma Lee, a graduate student in kinesiology, is examining whether foam rolling can boost recovery after a session of downhill running.

Downhill running is a form of eccentric exercise, which is where muscle fibers lengthen and contract at the same time, and has been shown to cause soreness and impair running economy,” she says.

Lee’s study aims to uncover whether a one-time session of intense foam rolling after a downhill run will have a detectable effect on running economy and performance in a 3k time trial. If it does, this study will further cement foam rolling as an invaluable recovery tool after a hard workout, long run, or a race.

Why foam rolling works

The underlying biology of foam rolling is not yet clear—what’s the mechanism by which foam rolling decreases soreness, boosts recovery, and increases range of motion?

According to Lee, manipulating connective tissue may be the key to foam rolling’s success.

Eccentric exercise damages connective tissue, which stimulates pain receptors and inhibits muscle activation,” she explains. Using a foam roller might help repair damage to your connective tissue, thereby decreasing soreness and preventing a drop in performance after a hard workout—a hypothesis also forwarded by MacDonald et al.

However, more work needs to be done to confirm this theory.

Conclusion (and tips for foam rolling)

Our knowledge on foam rolling is still in its infancy, but there are still some useful tips to be gained from the research done so far.

  • Foam rolling is a fairly effective way to increase a muscle’s range of motion in the short term and decrease soreness when done daily. Current research supports rolling for two one-minute segments per muscle group every day following a tough workout or a hard race.
  • There also appear to be some benefit to using a dense foam roller: MacDonald et al. cite research which proposes that a hard foam roller, made by wrapping a thin layer of foam over a solid PVC pipe, is more effective at manipulating connective tissue than a softer all-foam roller, but it’s unclear what firmness is ideal, and whether a roller can be too hard.

There’s sure to be more research published in the next few years, but so far, foam rolling looks like a cheap, easy, and very promising recovery method.

Also, as a reminder, Lisa Hamilton and I will be conducting a free 30 minute webinar on Foam Rolling (followed by an unlimited Q&A) on the evening of September 22nd at 8pm EST.

If you want to learn more about the right way to foam roll, how to avoid the common pitfalls, foam rolling for specific injuries and more, join us for our FREE webinar by clicking here.

Even if you can’t join us live, signup to get the webiar replay and some exclusive free content we have planned.

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The 4 Mistakes You’re Making When Foam Rolling (and How to Fix Them) Mon, 15 Sep 2014 10:00:49 +0000 I can still remember a time when foam rollers were the latest novelty in training rooms across the country. Using one in public usually got you quite a few stares.

Nowadays, foam rollers can be found almost everywhere you look – gyms, physical therapy clinics and on the living room floors of most runners I know.

And that’s great because, unlike many training fads, foam rollers actually work!

Plus, as they become more ubiquitous, new runners are introduced to the awesomeness of foam rollers every day.

However, just like any other effective training or recovery tool, it is possible to use foam rollers in the wrong way.

In this article, we’re going to look at exactly how foam rollers work so you can understand the mechanism and physiology behind the tool for better results. Then I am going to show you four of the most common mistakes runners make when using the foam roller (and how to fix them).

How Foam Rolling Works

Let’s start with a lesson in fascia

fascia-runnersRunning causes your muscles to go through a constant process of breakdown and repair.

Over time this causes the muscles to become tight when the fascia, the connective tissue that surrounds the muscles, starts to thicken and shorten to protect the underlying muscle from further damage.

Sometimes the fibers and fascia contract so much they form trigger points, which manifest as sore spots needing to be released.

Fascia also has the ability to contract independently of the muscles it surrounds. It responds to stress without your conscious command.

That is a problem.

Why? Because it means fascia is impacting your movements, for better or worse. It means that this stuff massage therapists and physical therapists and orthopedists have right at their fingertips is the missing variable, the one they’ve been looking for.

Fascia is made primarily of densely packed collagen fibers that permeate your muscles, bones, nerves, blood vessels and organs.

There isn’t a place in your body where fascia doesn’t exist.

When fascia becomes restricted, adhesions form causing soreness, restricted movement, gait change and potential injury.

For example, tight fascia around your IT band can cause your knee cap to track incorrectly; loosen the muscles around your it band and magically, your knee cap begins tracking correctly and your knee stops hurting.

So, how does foam rolling help?

Foam rolling, also known as myofascial release, is the application of pressure to eliminate scar-tissue and soft-tissue adhesion by freeing up your fascia.

The good news is fascia and trigger points can be released. Even better, once released, every one of the problems tight fascia and muscles have caused usually clears up.

The goal of myofascial therapy is to stretch and loosen the fascia so that it and other structures can move more freely.

This results in decreased muscle and joint pain, increased circulation and improved mobility, balance and gait for peak performance.

In short, myofascial release through the use of a foam roller helps you become a stronger, faster, less injury-prone runner.

4 Critical Foam Rolling Mistakes

Sounds great, right? Foam rolling can be the savoir for injury-prone runners and those training extra hard — if used the right way. If not, you risk irritating, and possibly injuring, your body further.

To help you get it right, here’s a breakdown of the four most common mistakes I see runners make when using the foam roller.

Mistake #1: You foam roll directly on an injured area

It would seem to make sense that if your IT band is hurting then rolling directly on the IT band would help alleviate that trouble spot.

However, the body doesn’t work this way for a number of reasons.

First, when it comes to foam rolling and myofascial release, constantly working the area of pain could create more inflammation and tension in the area, further tensing the muscles and fascia.

Second, where you feel the pain is not always the source of the injury. IT band trouble, for example, isn’t typically a result of the IT band itself being tight. Rather, IT band issues are typically a result of tightness in the muscle groups that attach to the IT band, like the gluteus maximus (your butt).

What to instead

Rather than constantly working directly on the area that causes pain, slowly foam roll your way away from the pain center to the connecting muscles.

Once you hit the attachment areas, work those thoroughly. Then proceed back to the area of pain and work gently at first. Visualize yourself “melting away” the tightness.

Not only will you avoid inciting excess inflammation this way, but you’ll target the real source of your injury.

Mistake #2: You foam roll too quickly

Foam rolling hurts. Period.

Runners that know they should foam roll sometimes speed over areas because it hurts less than using slow, deliberate movements. Or, runners short on time will breeze through a session to check it off their list.

Unfortunately, foam rolling quickly doesn’t accomplish the objective – releasing fascia and relaxing muscles.

What to do instead

While it feels better to go fast, and you do circulate blood flow, releasing fascia takes time.

Fascia is a thick, fibrous web of tissue. As such, it can’t be released with a quick pass of the foam roller. You need to be slow and deliberate in your movements.

Once you find a sensitive area, slowly work back and forth over the spot. Again, be thoughtful and think of foam rolling like melting through the muscle and fascia.

Mistake #3 You stay on one spot too long

Ok, so this seems like a contradictory statement to mistake #2. But it’s not. Stay with me.

Runners take things to the extreme. Case in point; in college the trainer told me I needed to ice my achilles as much as I could when it flared up on me.

I asked her how long between each icing was needed. She said 90 minutes.

I set my watch to 1 hour and 45 minute intervals. Every 90 minutes I iced for 15 minutes. I did this all day 6 am to 10pm when I went to sleep.

I woke up the next morning with freezer burn on my achilles.

That’s just a little story to illustrate I know how runners think.

With foam rolling, you’re instructed to work over and sometimes pause on very tight spots in your legs.

I’ve seen runners take this advice and sit on the foam roller for 5 or 10 minutes, directly on the point of pain. However, staying on one spot for too long might irritate a nerve or damage the tissue, which can cause bruising and further inflammation.

What to do instead

Be gentle at first. Start with half your body weight, using your hands or other leg to adjust pressure, and slowly work into full body weight.

The maximum amount of time you should spend on any one area is 20 seconds or so. After this, you only risk irritating the spot more than you’re helping it.

If you have a really troublesome area you can always come back for another session in the evening when the muscles has had time to relax.

Mistake # 4: You use bad posture and form

Foam rolling is hard work. I almost guarantee you’ll break a sweat.

The IT band position places almost all your body weight on your one supporting arm. Rolling the quads is basically the plank position.

It’s easy to let your form deteriorate, especially if you are tired after a run. Your pelvis might drop from not having tight abs when doing quad work or your hips my sag while working the IT band.

This can exacerbate existing injuries, form flaws or muscles weaknesses

How to prevent

Don’t approach foam rolling haphazardly. Stay focused on your form throughout your entire session.

If you find yourself too tired after a hard workout, come back to foam rolling after you’ve rested or maybe in the evening.

You can also videotape yourself using your phone. It’s quick and provides immediate feedback after your session to see if you need to improve any of your positions.

Conclusion & How to Learn More

As you can see, when done right, foam rolling is one of the most effective recovery tools in a runners gear box.

That’s why I’ve partnered with Lisa Hamilton at Conscious Runner to produce the Foam Rolling Guide for Runners.

The program will show you the right way to foam roll and help you avoid the most common mistakes so you can make the most of your time on the foam roller.

The program launches on Monday, September 22nd. You can signup to get notified here (it’s free).

As a bonus to those who express interest, Lisa and I will be conducting a 30 minute webinar followed by an unlimited Q&A on the evening of September 22nd at 8pm EST.

If you want to learn more about the right way to foam roll, how to avoid the common pitfalls, foam rolling for specific injuries and more, join us for our FREE webinar by clicking here.

Even if you can’t join us live, signup to get the webiar replay and some exclusive free content we have planned.

Hope to see you then!

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The 2 Simple Reasons Your Easy Days are Ruining Your Training Thu, 11 Sep 2014 10:00:34 +0000 One of the simplest concepts of successful long distance running also seems to be one of the hardest for many runners to grasp.

Running easy helps you race faster!

If you are invested in your running, it is important to run with a purpose each and every time you step out the door, even on easy days.

In this article, we’ll look at the purpose of different types of workouts, how easy runs fit into the training puzzle, and why keeping them slow is essential to staying injury-free and running faster.

The purpose of each of type of run

Long runs

Long runs help you to reap specific benefits after a certain amount of time on your feet. They also help to grow capillaries and increase muscle enzymes.

Long runs not only build endurance, they help your body to develop the strength it needs to handle hard, race-specific workouts.

Hard workouts

Your hard workouts are the real “meat “ of your running program.

The VO2Max intervals, the anaerobic threshold building tempo runs, even the hill sprints and strides are all designed to make you faster by breaking down your muscles and/or raising the point at which your body creates lactic acid faster than it is cleared away.

In essence, the hard workouts exist for the purpose of damaging your legs so that they can learn from being broken down and fighting through the heavy, burning feeling in the muscles when racing hard.

Easy runs

Let’s do the math; if your hard workouts are designed to break your body down, it makes sense that your easy days are there to build your body back up.

It is important to think of your recovery days as just that “recovery”.

With that in mind, there is a very simple rule regarding recovery runs: You cannot run too slowly on a recovery day, only too fast. Make sure you understand that. It is a simple concept that is notoriously hard to grasp.

Slow, easy running helps to flush oxygen-rich blood through the legs and also heals micro-tears and other damage that a workout creates. As soon as you begin to push the pace, you are creating more damage to your legs rather than helping them heal.

Common problems when running too hard

Many runners have one long run each week, 1-2 hard workouts and 4-5 easy recovery/rest days. This training schedule is set up and spaced specifically to offer your body the adequate amount of hard work and easy recovery running.

When you run too hard on your easy days, there are two distinct problems that arise.

Running too hard before a workout

When you push the pace in the days leading up to a workout, you run the risk of fatiguing your body to the point that you compromise the pace of your hard workout.

When you stand on the starting line of a race or hard workout, you want to feel fresh, like a horse chomping at the bit to run. Putting “junk” into your legs means that you won’t be able to reap the full benefit on your hard days.

This is one of the most common mistakes I see in beginners of the sport, especially young runners. To kids, every run is a race. In high school, I would often race my easy days around 6:45 mile pace and run my workout days around 6:30 pace.

Ten years later, as a professional runner, I run many of my hard workouts at 5-minute mile pace or faster and my easy days at 8:30 pace or slower.

With time and experience, I realized that in order to get the most out of my hard days, I had to get the most out of my easy days too.

It finally hit me that my easy, recovery days are just as important, if not more so, than my hard workouts.

Running too hard after a workout

As mentioned previously, the days immediately following a hard workout are when your legs are at there most damaged and vulnerable.

One of the easiest ways to get injured is to run too hard following a workout.

Think of your training as a set of stairs, just as the hard workouts are a steep climb that propels your fitness higher; your easy days are a plateau that allows your body to rebuild and reset after the hard workout and before the next big climb.

Imagine how much easier it is to climb a set of stairs than to walk up the side of a wall. We need the plateau in order for our fitness to climb.

How hard is too hard?

Rather than following a complex heart rate formula or a specific pace equation (like max HR minus a certain amount of beats or marathon pace minus 2 minutes), my advice is to simply leave the watch at home, choose a route you are familiar with and allow your body to run at a pace that is easy and light.

Your easy pace (and heart rate) may vary from day to day or even within a run, that is normal.

It is perfectly natural to feel sore an stiff following a hard workout, and it is important to remember that there is a difference between soreness and stiffness and the pain that comes with pushing the pace too hard.

If you need an additional checkpoint, you should be able to say the Pledge of Allegiance, or keep a conversation with a friend, without being short of breath on an easy run.

If you really listen to your body, it will tell you when you are running too hard on your easy days. Let’s learn to pay attention to our easy days so our fast days can become our fastest yet!

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Can Altitude Masks Really Replicate Altitude Training? Mon, 08 Sep 2014 10:00:16 +0000 Wouldn’t it be great to get the benefits of living and training at altitude without having to uproot your entire life?

One way to do that is with an altitude tent, which uses compressed nitrogen gas to thin the oxygen in the air to replicate high-altitude living in a tent-like shroud around your bed.

Aside from the obvious drawbacks of a claustrophobia-inducing plastic canopy, altitude tents are also extremely costly—upwards of $10,000 for some models. So unless you’re a pro runner with a big contract from a shoe company, tents are out of the question too.

But recently, companies marketing “altitude masks” for very reasonable costs have made claims that these relatively simple masks can provide the same benefits of training at altitude.

These masks don’t actually generate lower oxygen concentrations in the air that you inhale, like an altitude tent; they use mechanical valves to generate resistance to inhalation instead.

Can this respiratory muscle training produce the same benefits of living or working out at altitude?

Studies that show altitude masks don’t really work

There’s been a flurry of scientific studies looking into the potential benefits of altitude masks.

There are a few drawbacks to all of this research, however: the quality of the studies varies considerably, and some studies are authored by people with vested interests in the results (like owners of a company that makes an altitude mask!).

So we’ll have to be a little more discerning than usual when reviewing the science.

A 2002 study by researchers at Texas Tech University investigated the effects of “respiratory resistance training” (the mechanic behind altitude masks) in seven collegiate distance runners.

The athletes undertook a slew of performance tests before and after a four-week respiratory muscle training program to identify whether the program had any effect on their fitness.

After the four weeks, the runners showed marked gains in direct tests of their respiratory muscle strength and endurance—basically, how “hard” they could breathe—but showed no change in their maximum oxygen consumption during exercise (as measured by VO2 max) or in their performance over a run to fatigue at 85% of VO2 max pace.

One drawback of this first study is its lack of a control group.

A better-designed study would have another group of subjects which did not undergo respiratory muscle training to serve as a comparison; fortunately, a study with just this design was carried out by D.W. Morgan and coworkers at Arizona State University.

In their study, nine moderately-trained cyclists were divided into two groups, one which underwent a three-week respiratory muscle training program, and a control group which continued their regular training.

As with the first study, the cyclists had their breathing muscle strength and endurance measured before and after the training, as well as their VO2 max and their performance over a cycling ride to fatigue.

And again, the results were the same: the respiratory muscle training significantly improved performance on breathing-related tests like maximum ventilatory power, but led to no improvement compared to the control group in the cyclists’ VO2 max or their performance in the endurance ride.

Several other studies, many of them well-designed, have also found no significant benefit to respiratory muscle training.

Studies that show altitude masks may work

In contrast, another set of studies have found beneficial effects of respiratory muscle training.

One example among these is a 2004 study by researchers at the University of Arizona which also looked at cyclists, parsing 20 trained subjects into a respiratory muscle resistance training group, a “sham” group, which did simulate breath training against no resistance, and a true control group which did no breath training.

This study did find an increase in VO2 max in the experimental group compared to both the sham and controls. A number of other studies have supported respiratory muscle training in rowing, swimming, cycling, and intermittent shuttle-run tests.

So what’s the bottom line?

Resolving the controversy is problematic because there are many different studies with vastly different protocols:

  • Some use respiratory training for three weeks; others, 15 weeks!
  • And that’s not even accounting for the wide range of sports evaluated—surely, the shuttle run is not the same as competitive rowing or swimming or long-distance cycling
  • And let’s not forget the experience level of the studies’ participants, which ranges from totally sedentary to NCAA Division I distance runners.

Given all this, it’s no surprise that the results vary so much.

Some researchers have attempted to pool the results from several studies to discern whether any net benefit can be detected

One such “meta-analysis study” published in 2012 concluded that there appear to be some benefits to respiratory resistance training, but these are more strongly exhibited in unfit subjects, and less so in trained athletes.

This effect is fairly common—when you’re an out-of-shape couch potato, pretty much any kind of training will get you in better shape. In contrast, a high-level athlete requires a very sport-specific stimulus to elicit further improvement.

There is also evidence that the scientific literature on respiratory muscle training is skewed by an effect called publication bias, where studies with a negative result (i.e. no benefit to respiratory muscle training) are not published.

This is either because scientific journals deem them not noteworthy enough or because the authors themselves decided not to publish. This could artificially inflate the apparent usefulness of respiratory resistance training, as measured by review article and meta-analyses.

Does breathing harder help you run faster?

One common misunderstanding about the studies on altitude masks is the potential benefit of improving the “strength” of your breathing.

Sadly, improving your respitory muscles (how hard you can breathe) will not lead to an increase in performance.

This seems backwards, since we certainly breath hard when running fast.

However, in running, the main problem isn’t usually getting air into your lungs anyways—it’s getting oxygen from the air into your blood, and then putting that oxygen towards a useful purpose in your leg muscles

Improving your lung strength and being able to exhale and inhale more forcefully will not help with this.

Takeaway message

At this point, there isn’t enough evidence to support using an altitude mask or other breathing muscle training device as part of your training regimen. The wide range of study quality and design are just too shaky to put faith in.

Given that there are so many better things to spend time and money on to improve your performance, like lighter shoes, interval workouts, a strength training routine, or better nutrition, getting an altitude mask is not a worthwhile investment unless better research comes out supporting its use in well-trained distance runners.

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How Donating Blood Impacts Your Training and Racing (And 4 Strategies to Mitigate the Impact) Tue, 02 Sep 2014 10:00:23 +0000 There’s not much that’s more essential to your running (and your life) than your blood.

The more oxygen-carrying power your blood has, the faster you can run. Without enough oxygen, your body is quickly plunged into acidosis, the deep burning sensation in your legs that you feel at the end of a race or a hard workout.

Doing anything that would decrease your body’s oxygen-carrying potential would be crazy right?

Well, maybe not if it can save somebody’s life.

Donating blood is an admirable endeavor—according to the American Red Cross, over 41,000 blood donations are required every day in the United States, and given the short shelf life of whole blood and plasma, there’s a constant need for blood.

Though blood donation is lifesaving, runners are often hesitant to give blood because of its potential impact on their training and racing.

So, how much does giving blood or plasma affect your performance? How long do the effects last?

For some answers, we’ll look to the scientific literature.

Blood and plasma donation and running performance

A 2013 study by David Hill, Jakob Vingren, and Samatha Burdette examined the short-term effects of donating blood and plasma on a cycling endurance test in nineteen test subjects. Each subject underwent a ride to exhaustion on a stationary bike before giving blood or plasma, and again two hours, two days, and seven days after the donation. The researchers measured both time to exhaustion and maximum oxygen consumption, or VO2 max, during each of the four tests.

Unsurprisingly, they found that both VO2 max and time to exhaustion were negatively impacted in the immediate aftermath of a whole blood donation.

VO2 max dropped by 15% and time to exhaustion decreased by 19% during the exercise test two hours after a blood donation. VO2 max was still 10% and 7% lower than pre-donation levels at two and seven days post-donation, respectively.

The results of plasma donation are more interesting.

Although the plasma donation resulted in no change in VO2 max at any point, time to exhaustion was decreased two hours post-donation, but not two days or one week out.

Hill et al. hypothesized that this was because the drop in overall blood volume from the plasma loss interfered with anaerobic capacity. Plasma volume is restored rather quickly, which explains why this phenomenon was not seen two days or a week later.

Hill et al. showed that whole blood donation still impaired performance a week after giving blood, but how long do the effects linger?

How long is performance impacted?

This issue was addressed by a 2011 study by T.B. Judd and other researchers at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, who studied 12 subjects’ VO2 max before a blood donation and once every week for a month following the donation.

Like the previous study, Judd et al. found a marked decrease in VO2 max the day after blood donation.

Over the following weeks, the subjects’ VO2 max gradually returned to normal, reaching its pre-test value three weeks out from the date of the blood donation.

The one drawback to the above studies is that they used only moderately active people from the general population, not trained athletes. It stands to reason that a well-trained runner might experience a greater drop in fitness with loss of blood.

A 1995 study examined well-trained cyclists who gave blood, but only followed them for one week post-donation, with findings mostly in line with the previous studies. Aside from this, there’s no long-term research in whether blood donation more seriously hampers a well-trained athlete.

Changes in iron levels after blood donation

There’s one more issue with blood donation that deserves to be mentioned, and that’s iron levels.

When you donate blood, your body replaces the lost red blood cells by synthesizing new ones, a process which consumes iron stored in the form of ferritin.

A rigorous analysis of almost 3,000 blood donors by Clement Finch and other researchers at the University of Washington found that your body’s iron levels (as measured by serum ferritin) are negatively correlated with how often you give blood.

Frequent blood donors are much more likely to be anemic, and this relationship is especially true in women. Even among the general population, donating blood more than once every 8-12 months can lead to a high incidence of low ferritin levels in women.

Men can donate more often, but if they exceed three blood donations per year, they too run the risk of having low ferritin, which has a negative impact on your ability to train and race. The authors suggest that increasing the amount of iron in your diet could help counteract this effect.


  1. A good time to donate is during the recovery time after your goal race when your body isn’t under the constant demands of a training season.
  2. Plan the donation around a rest day and follow with several days of short, easy effort workouts until you begin to feel 100%.
  3. In the 4-5 days following your donation, throw out your watch! Your times are going to be slower (the research shows it) so just forget about pace and put some time on your feet.
  4. Stay hydrated and eat well before and after the donation. This will help you recover faster from the donation itself.


The bottom line when it comes to blood donation is that there will be a notable drop in your performance, but the research to date indicates that your body returns to normal after about three weeks.

Recovery from plasma donation is even quicker—less than two days and you’re already back to pre-donation fitness.

There’s still more research needed on whether blood donation has an especially large impact on well-trained athletes, as is the case with some other performance inhibitors (like altitude), but if you don’t have any races for the next month, and you’re okay with your workouts being a bit slower for a few weeks, go ahead and donate blood.

One final consideration is your iron status: if you donate often, make sure you have your ferritin checked to be sure it’s not too low, especially if you have a history of low iron.


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The Importance of Setting the Right Race Time Goal (and How to Find Yours) Mon, 25 Aug 2014 10:00:10 +0000 You’ve picked out the race, booked your hotel, and confirmed your flights. Everything is ready to go for your next big race.

Now it’s time to set a time goal so you can get training!

If you’re like most runners I coach, picking your goal time is a somewhat arbitrary process.

Usually you pick a goal designed to get you under some barrier like two hours for the half marathon, four hours for the marathon – or to qualify for a specific race (Boston being the most common).

While this seems reasonable – after all, how critical can selecting a goal time be – I believe setting a time goal that is too ambitious is the most common reason runners get injured, plateau, and race poorly.

So, if choosing the right goal is that important, how do you determine what your goal time should be? What’s wrong with shooting for the stars and laying it all on the line?

In this article I’ll walk you through why setting an arbitrary goal time is a dagger to your training and provide you with a simple 3-step system to make finding your goal time a breeze.

The dangers of setting the wrong goal time

1. Not targeting the right workout efforts

The most immediate problem with choosing the wrong goal time is that almost all template plans are based on your goal finishing time.

As such, the workouts and the paces you are assigned to run all assume you’re targeting and hitting a specific physiological effort. However, if you are not at that level of fitness, then the workout is wasted because you didn’t accomplish the objective. Here’s an example:

In marathon training you’ll be assigned workouts called aerobic threshold runs. Aerobic threshold is defined as the fastest pace you can run while using the aerobic system as the primary energy pathway. Aerobic threshold is important because it’s the pace that is the perfect balance between fat and carbohydrate utilization. The faster your aerobic threshold pace, the faster you can race the marathon without bonking.

To target aerobic threshold you need to run at aerobic threshold pace, which is roughly current marathon pace. If you run too fast you’ll actually be running a lactate or anaerobic threshold run – a workout that targets a different energy system. Here is a specific example:

Let’s say your goal is to break 3:45 for the marathon (8:35 per mile pace) and you base your training off this. But, your current fitness is more like a 4:00 marathon, which is 9:09 pace.

That means when you’re trying to run aerobic threshold runs at 8:35, you’re WAY too fast to target your aerobic threshold properly. At almost 40 seconds a mile quicker, this is more a high end or anaerobic threshold run.

Sure, it’s going to get you fitter overall, but it’s not going to help you improve in the marathon. This is exactly why you keep getting fitter and maybe even PRing in shorter events but bonk or fall apart during the marathon.

In short, when your goal time is off, all of your paces are going to be off. That means you’ll be running all the wrong effort levels and negating the most important benefit of your harder workouts. You’ll be wasting your time training.

2. Increased risk of injury

The second major flaw in training for the wrong goal time is that it dramatically increases your risk of injury.

Typically, runners will choose a goal pace that is too fast. As such, the balance of hard work and recovery is thrown off, which leads to overtraining. Here’s another example to exemplify this idea:

A tempo run is designed to be a moderate or medium-effort workout. Your training plan therefore assumes that you’ll be recovered and ready to run hard again or perform a long run just a couple of days later.

However, if the tempo run was too fast for you, then the effort level was also increased. This means you won’t be as recovered for your next training session as planned. This fatigue slowly builds up throughout the weeks of marathon training until you become overtrained or your muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones give in and get injured.

3. Ruining race day with bad pacing

Finally, race day pacing is one of the most crucial elements to having a successful race. In fact, studies have shown that running the first mile of a 5k race more than 6% faster than goal race pace considerably reduces performance; so much so that almost all the subjects that ran faster than 6% failed to even finish the race.

In the marathon, running too fast for the first few miles will burn through your glycogen stores faster. This will lead to you bonking and having a terrible race.

Once again, we’ll use the example from the aerobic threshold run to illustrate this concept.

To hit your goal time of 3:45 for the marathon, you start out at 8:35 or 8:45. However, if your fitness is currently is more like a 4:00 marathon (9:09 pace) then you’re already running 20 to 25 seconds faster per mile at the start of the race. You’re race will be doomed from the start. It won’t matter how “bad you want it”, you’re going to bonk.

How to find your goal pace

Now that you understand the pitfalls of choosing the wrong goal time, how the heck do you decide what pace you should shoot for?

Step 1: Establish a baseline

The first thing you need to do is determine what your current fitness level is.

If you’ve run a race recently, you can use this time to extrapolate what you could run for a longer or shorter distance. Greg McMillan has a great calculator on his site here.

If you plan to race the same distance again, no calculations are needed. We can simply use this time as your data point for step 2

If you haven’t run a race recently that you feel reflects your fitness or a good effort you have two options:

  1. You can race a 5k. This is your best choice if your goal race is more than two months away. The race doesn’t have to be big or fancy. You just need a race effort.
  2. If you have no races available, you can do a one mile time trial. This option is recommended if you have 1-2 months between now and your goal race because it can be incorporated into training quickly and a mile won’t leave you too tired to pick up training where you left off.

Whichever method you choose, just enter your time in the calculator mentioned above and you can extrapolate to any race distance.

Step 2: Factor in your likely rate of improvement

Now that you have your fitness level established we can use your training history to help determine your rate of improvement.

If you’ve been running less than a year and improving with each race, you can expect about a 6 to 8 percent improvement in performance over the course of your training. As an example, if your data point shows you’re in 4:30 shape for the marathon, you’d be looking at a goal time of about 4:08 to 4:13.

If you’ve been running for more than a year but you’re still PRing in most races and increasing your commitment to training, you can expect a 4 to 6 percent improvement to your performance. As an example, if your data point shows you’re in 4:00 shape for the marathon, you’d be looking at a goal time of about 3:45 to 3:50.

If you’re more experienced and have been training for many years, then you should expect a 2 to 4% improvement in performance. As an example, if your data point shows you’re in 3:20 shape for the marathon, you’d be looking at a goal time of about 3:12 to 3:16.

Since I know calculating percentages of race pace and goal times can be difficult, you can download our calculator here if you need help.

Step 3: Adjust and adapt

Finally, your rate of performance isn’t something that is standardized. While I’ve given you some good guidelines to follow, every runner is going to be different.

After three to four weeks, if you think you’ve gotten fitter or you want to measure your rate of improvement to determine if you’re making progress towards your ultimate goal, run another race. Try to keep the race as integrated with your training as possible (for example, run the race in place of a hard workout) so you don’t impact your long-term progress.

With the new race data, you can plug your time back into the performance calculator from step 1 and see how much your goal pace has improved.

I hope this in-depth look at the science of choosing your goal pace helps you avoid one of the most common pitfalls and sets you up for a great training segment!

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The 5 Recovery Mistakes You’re Making That Are Hampering Your Recovery From Hard Workouts Mon, 18 Aug 2014 10:00:10 +0000 Recovery is one of the most important elements of training. In fact, I’d argue it’s even more important than the hard workouts you do.

Without recovery, training is just wasted time with no opportunity to actually improve. It’s no wonder then that runners focus, or should be focusing, so much of their attention to recovery.

Unfortunately, like many aspects of training, many runners are unintentionally hampering their recovery thanks to pervasive myths based on outdated science. In this article, we’ll look at five of the most common ways runners get recovery wrong and how you can make sure you don’t fall into these traps.

Mistake #1: You’re taking Ibuprofen or Advil

Like many runners before you, when faced with a slight twinge, inflamed tendons, or delayed muscle soreness from training, you may have popped a few non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs for short), such as ibuprofen and Advil.

However, as our understanding of inflammation has evolved, we now know that anti-inflammatory drugs can actually limit or cancel out the very training benefits we’re so desperate to achieve.

Our outdated view of inflammation suggested that inflammation delayed healing and removing it as quickly as possible would aid in the recovery process. But, we now understand that inflammation is a crucial first-step in the body’s natural healing process.

Inflammation is the body’s way of activating specific cells (mainly leukocytes, monocytes and macrophages), which help to repair the muscles. You can still recover without inflammation, but it will likely take longer without the help of these cells.

Moreover, we also know that anti-inflammatory drugs can actually limit training adaptations. One study on the effects of Ibuprofen on skeletal muscle showed that taking ibuprofen during endurance training canceled running-distance-dependent adaptations in skeletal muscle. Another study confirmed in the laboratory that the use of NSAIDs after exercise slowed the healing of muscles, tissues, ligaments and bones.

The research is clear. Taking anti-inflammatory drugs such as Advil and ibuprofen after a workout will result in slower recovery times.

Mistake #2: Ice baths

Now that we understand a little more about the role of inflammation in recovery and for training adaptations, we need to reassess the use of ice baths as well.

Like NSAIDs, the goal of an ice bath is to reduce inflammation following a workout. But, we now understand that inflammation may actually help promote recovery and training adaptations. Moreover, reducing inflammation may inhibit fitness gains.

So, where do ice baths fit in now?

The Nike Oregon project (thanks to Steve Magness and Dr. Jeff Messer for outlining how the Oregon project uses ice baths) actually changes their use of ice baths depending on the phase of training they are in.

In the adaptive phase, when the athletes are trying to derive as much benefit from workouts as possible, they do not ice bath.

For the average runner, this type of phase would be when you’re hitting your hardest workouts (i.e. after a gradual build-up) and before the taper or the last 2 weeks of training.

In the restorative phase, when athletes are preparing their body’s for competition, they do use ice baths.

This is because in the last two weeks of training, you’re not looking to enhance fitness from a workout (since you can’t benefit from a workout in that short amount of time) but rather to feel as fresh and strong as possible.

You’re takeaway – don’t ice bathe after your hardest workouts or on a daily basis. Use ice baths in the final weeks of your training to help your body feel rested and strong for race day.

Mistake #3: You’re taking antioxidants to reduce oxidative stress

Oxidative stress, a term used to describe the release of hormones and other chemicals in response to physiological stress, is believed to inhibit recovery and suppress the immune system. As such, many runners take antioxidants, like vitamin C to help reduce this oxidative stress and therefore recover faster.

But , like inflammation, our previous understanding of how antioxidants work is being challenged. It’s now understood that trying to block or reduce all oxidative stress can be detrimental to training adaptations.

First, “oxidative stress is essential to the development and optimal function of every cell,” write Peternelj and Coombes in their research.

In the context of exercise,these reactive oxygen species are part of the stress on your body that induces improvement. Blunting that oxidative stress will lead to less adaptation from the stress.

Moreover, further research has demonstrated that Vitamin C supplementation prevented the creation of mitochondria, the “power plants” of your muscle cells that are essential for endurance performance.

Therefore, loading up on antioxidants after a workout is not recommended. You should still eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables that provide a healthy, natural source of antioxidants, but skip the pills.

Mistake #4: Not eating correctly after a workout (no food or not the right ratios)

Providing your body with the right nutrients to recover after a hard workout is essential to repairing the muscle fibers and providing your body the fuel it needs to stimulate recovery.

Many scientific studies have determined the optimal time and the amount and ratio of nutrients needed to be consumed in order to maximize the recovery process.

Ideally, nutrient intake should begin at least 30 minutes after you finish your run and continue for about an hour to 90 minutes after. (read more here)

During this time, you should consume a 4 to 1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein. This means that for every 4 grams of carbs you consume you also need 1 gram of protein.

The first mistake many runners make is not eating anything within this recovery window. The most common reasons include (1) not being prepared with something to eat or drink; (2) not being able to stomach foods after a hard run; (3) or trying to lose weight and believing this will help.

To optimize recovery after a workout, you must eat within 1 hour, ideally within 30 minutes. If you can’t stomach solid foods, try recovery beverages (almost every company makes one) or even chocolate milk.

The second, more common mistake, is the consumption of too much protein post-workout.

Like most runners are hard-wired to think, more is better right? Not in the case of protein post-workout.

The consumption of too much protein after a workout will inhibit your body’s absorption of the carbohydrates by slowing the gastric emptying rate.

That’s why the optimal ratio is set at 4grams of carbohydrate for every 1 gram of protein. You should aim for 100 to 300 calories total.

Mistake #5: Not stretching, massaging or foam rolling

The concept of stretching has caught some major flak in the past few years (and rightfully so), which has resulted in many runners finishing a workout without properly treating their muscles.

The problem is that we lump all types of “stretching” into one big group with static stretching; yet, not all types of stretching are bad.

In fact, other types of “stretching” such as yoga, mobility drills, active isolated stretching and even foam rolling and the stick (which I consider akin to stretching) can be immensely helpful when it comes to promoting recovery.

Incorporating dynamic stretching after a run (active isolated stretching, drills, and mobility exercises) has been shown to help improve flexibility to help you execute the biomechanically sound movement patterns when running (such as proper hip extension).

Drills and mobility exercises have also been shown to help improve neuromuscular function and can serve as a cool down to help deliver blood and oxygen to the muscles that are in need of repair.

Foam rolling can also be a huge benefit. And, I am excited to announce a new guide to foam rolling we’re producing in a few weeks. It will be the most comprehensive guide available, so stay tuned.

In the end, you must expand your concept of stretching to better understand how it fits in with your recovery from hard workouts.

I hope this article helped open your eyes to some of the potential mistakes you’ve been making in your quest to enhance recovery. I know I certainly made all of them in my running career and I am grateful to know better now!

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How to Get the Benefits of Altitude Training (Without Going to Altitude) Thu, 14 Aug 2014 10:00:26 +0000 If you follow elite running news, you’re sure to hear plenty about the high-altitude training camps around the world that are frequented by top runners between races.

Places like Flagstaff, Arizona, St. Moritz, Switzerland, and Iten, Kenya all have a few things in common: they’re situated at high altitudes, they have plenty of good roads and trails to run on, and they’re home to a lot of very fast runners.

There’s been a lot of research into the benefits of altitude training in distance runners, but let’s face it—the odds of you finding the time to spend eight weeks living in a cabin in Flagstaff are not good, no matter how much of a benefit altitude might have.

But surprisingly, there are still some useful lessons for the rest of us that can be learned from research into altitude training.

The training camp effect

Early studies into the effects of altitude on the human body’s athletic performance were fairly straightforward: scientists would conduct some initial performance testing on a group of athletes, take them up to high-altitude, train for a few weeks, then return to sea level and carry out the same tests again.

One example is a 1967 study by John Faulkner, Jack Daniels (who would later go on to write the best-selling “Daniels Running Formula”), and Bruno Balke.

Faulkner et al. took five runners and 16 swimmers up to 7,500 feet above sea level for a three week training camp.

Following a return to sea level, all of the athletes had more red blood cells in their blood, and the runners improved their performance on a VO2 max test and in time trials (though interestingly, the swimmers did not).

However, it doesn’t take an exercise physiology PhD to spot a problem with this kind of study: it doesn’t have a control group which does the same training, but not at altitude, as a reference.

As pointed out by Damian Bailey and Bruce Davies in a 1997 review article, only about 30% of the scientific studies on altitude training extant in the literature used a control group.

Only three of the 27 studies which did include a control group found a statistically significant improvement in aerobic fitness when comparing high-altitude training to equivalent sea-level training.

But this doesn’t mean that the runners, swimmers, and cyclists in these studies weren’t improving—they often did get more fit! But whether or not they were at altitude didn’t usually make a difference.

And here’s where things get relevant for sea-level residents like you and me: the most plausible explanation for what causes the improvement in the athletes in these studies isn’t the stimulus of being at altitude, but the vast improvement in training, recovery, and quality of life.

Takeaway message

There’s no denying that the “training camp effect”—heading off to a low-stress location, spending more time getting in quality workouts and solid recovery, and training with other athletes with similar goals—can have a profound impact on your fitness, whether that training camp is at 700 or 7,000 feet above sea level.

There’s been a lot more high-quality research into altitude training since Bailey and Davies’ review study, and altitude training, especially “live high, train low” strategies (which involve living at high altitudes, then driving or even taking a plane to sea level to do high-intensity workouts), is a part of the yearly training routine of most professional runners in the United States and Europe.

But it’s still important to remember the training camp effect: even if altitude on its own is beneficial, so too is a training camp!

By contrasting the ideal “training camp” for you with what your typical daily routine consists of, you can figure out what kinds of things are holding you back.

Here are some examples and a few tips

  • You probably don’t get enough sleep, you likely could eat a bit better, and you could make more of an effort to get some workouts in with other runners with similar goals. Try to improve just one of these things this week. Short on time, fine-tune your diet. Changing your diet too difficult? Get some extra sleep. Focus on just one thing this week!
  • Maybe you can’t block out a month-long sojourn to the mountains, but you can turn a long holiday weekend or a vacation into a mini-training camp. This is especially useful if you have a big training block coming up (as most of you might with upcoming fall marathons).

In the end, it’s about taking this message and acting on it.

De-stress, sleep in, eat better, and get some quality workouts in. Even if you’re not a pro runner, better training coupled with better recovery is sure to lead to improved race performances.

If you’re interested in giving yourself your own training camp effect in preparation for your big fall race, we still have 2 slots open for our 3-day training trip to Zap Fitness Thursday, September 4th through Sunday September 7th.
Here are the details.

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Why Doing Shin Exercises With a Theraband Won’t Help you Avoid Shin Splints Mon, 11 Aug 2014 10:00:18 +0000 Shin splints are perhaps the most common injury for beginner runners.

Unfortunately, thanks to the constant spread of outdated information, the treatment for shin splints remains unhelpful.

Stop me if you’ve tried this – ice, take some ibuprofen to reduce swelling, and grab the theraband to strengthen the shin muscle.

I’m willing to bet that hasn’t worked.

Sure, the ice and ibuprofen probably helped reduce the pain. But, the injury likely came back.

In this article, we’ll look at what is really causing your shin splints and outline a specific strengthening routine you can implement to actually get results.

The role of the shins and common reasons for injury

shinThe “shins” are actually a group of muscles and bones that make up the front, lower part of your leg.

For runners, the most well-known muscle in shin area is called the tibialis anterior, which is responsible for dorsiflexing and inverting your foot.

However, the primary bone runners are concerned with is the tibia, although the fibula can present problems as well.

The role of the shin bone during running is to help absorb and dissipate the impact generated with each foot fall.

Much like a beam on a bridge or in a skyscraper bows slightly when it’s supporting a lot of weight, your tibia bends backwards slightly on impact with the ground, putting compressive forces on the medial side of the bone.

In healthy runners, the stress a bone experiences after a long, hard run is not a problem.

The body responds to the stress on the bone by remodeling the tibia to be stronger and thicker.

This is why shin problems are more common in less experienced runners: their bone has not yet adapted to the stresses of a high-impact activity like running.

How to strengthen and prevent injuries

The outdated theory on preventing shin splints was that tightness or weakness of the shin muscles caused them to tug at their insertion point, irritating the periosteum, a thin, skin-like structure that envelopes the tibia itself.

This is why you may read about doing shin strengthening exercises with a theraband as a common treatment for shin splints.

Unfortunately, because a weakness of  the tibialis anterioris (shin muscle) is not the real cause of shin splints, strengthening the tibilias anterior will only help prevent shin splints slightly. (Mostly because it’s such a small muscle and its primary function is dorsiflexion of the ankle, not shock absorption.)

In reality, improving calf strength, abductor strength and pelvic stability are a better approach to preventing shin splints.

The calves are the largest muscle group in the lower leg (more on them here) and research has shown that strengthening them will help you stabilize the tibia with each impact.

Moreover, the size of your calves is directly related to the size and strength of your tibia since the tibia “grows” in response to the muscles around it.

Likewise, several studies have demonstrated a strong connection between hip abductor strength and shin splints.

Specifically, studies have shown that runners with shin splints had significantly worse hip abduction strength and had significantly more motion in their torso and hips when they landed and pushed off compared to healthy runners

Therefore, the most effective strengthening exercises for strengthening your shins and preventing shin splints are going to be calf raises and hip abductor strengthening exercises.

Shin splint prevention routine

So now that we know all this new information about the cause of shin splints, how can you develop a routine to prevent them?

Below is a sample of four exercises from our Strength Training for Runners program, which also includes injury prevention routines based on scientific research for 8 of the most common running injuries.

These four exercises are designed to target the abductors and the calves. Of course, we have plenty of additional exercises to choose from, but this should help you get started right away.


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Instructions: Keep the pelvis perpendicular to the floor rather than rolling backwards, which is a way to cheat this exercise. Work up to 20 repetitions and for additional difficulty, wrap a theraband around your knees. It is not OK to substitute this exercise for the multi hip machine at the gym!

Donkey kicks

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Instructions: Keep your abs tight and your back flat. Imagine placing a broomstick on your back and keeping it in place throughout the entire movement. Perform 15-25 repetitions per leg.

Hip thrusts

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Instructions: At the top of the movement your body should be in a straight line from your knee to your head. Beginners can thrust on both legs while advanced runners can rest their foot on a medicine ball or swiss ball for added difficulty in balance. Perform 15-25 repetitions each leg.

Eccentric Calf raises

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Instructions: Slowly lower yourself down from a step with one leg and use the other leg to raise yourself back into tip-toe position. Perform up to 25 of these exercises and add a weight with a backpack once they become easy.

If you’re currently experiencing shin splints or they have plagued you in the past, incorporate this routine into your training two to three times per week.

Now you’ll be targeting the real cause of your shin pain rather than strengthening a muscle that really doesn’t contribute to the injury.

Notice to fans: We’re re-launching our Strength Training for Runners Program!

  • We’re adding 4 brand new routines (an advanced hip, advanced core, advanced leg circuit and new marathon cramping routine), taking our total to 24 running-specific strength routines
  • We’ve re-shot many of the videos and added video descriptions for all of our injury prevention routines
  • We’ve moved all the content online so you can access anywhere, stream the videos and download the material the way that best suits your style.
  • Finally, we’ve revamped our race distance prescriptions based on some of the latest performance research.

Join the early-bird list to get notified when we relaunch, receive exclusive access and a special discount
Get on the List!

*If you’ve already purchased the Strength Training for Runners program, your account will automatically be upgraded. We’ll always take care of you!

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3 Simple Ways to Take the Pressure Off Your Next “Big Race” Thu, 07 Aug 2014 10:00:19 +0000 Goal races at the end of a training segment define a certain timeline for many runners.

Marathoners often spend months on a proper training build-up towards race day and become mentally and emotionally invested in the outcome of the goal race, which is often seen as the culminating result of hard work and desire.

The phrase “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” warns us not to invest all of our energy into one specific project or endeavor lest that endeavor fail and we are left with nothing to show for our effort.

We as runners would be wise to take to heart the words of this Proverb, which can unlock the secret to taking the pressure off of the big race.

To help you along, here’s a simple 3-step system you can use to take the pressure off your next race.

Step 1: Set “non-goal race” related goals within the cycle

Tune-up races

Adding separate goals to a season apart from the big race is, in essence, putting your eggs into separate baskets.

Having 1-3 tune up races during a longer build-up towards a goal race can allow a runner to not only test fitness, but to validate a season.

During my build-up towards the New York City Marathon in 2011, I chose to race the USA 10 Mile Championship as a tune-up race a month before marathon race day.

I placed 5th at the 10-mile Championship running 55:15, far faster than I expected and beating a lot of women I did not expect to beat. It was a great race.

The NYC Marathon was not a great race.

I ran over 10 minutes slower than I hoped, but my season was not a failure because my fitness and mental strength was validated at the 10-mile race.

Tune-up races allow you to focus on smaller goals, one at a time, before the larger goal race, thus taking the pressure off of the goal race, and allowing more opportunities to have a great season and prove one’s fitness.

Personal fitness goals

Forming goals within a season that are not race-related can also help alleviate the pressure of race-day.

When I was a sophomore in college, I made the goal of maintaining an average of 100mpw during my fall cross-country season. I was just as pleased with my accomplishment of high training volume as I was with my accomplishments in the races that season.

Setting personal fitness goals that exist within a season give you a reason to be proud of your training and add confidence that is essential heading into race day.

Personal fitness goals can be anything you want them to be; a certain amount of mileage, a core routine twice a week or a beneficial cross-training routine are all good suggestions.

Step 2: Set checkpoints

A standard marathon build-up is roughly 12 to 16 weeks long. Within that time, it is important to set mental and physical checkpoints that can help you evaluate your progress within the build-up and improve on areas

Every 3-4 weeks during a marathon build-up, I like to have an honest conversation with myself about how my training is progressing. The most important question I ask myself is how I am handling the emotional stress of a marathon build-up.

Runners often discuss the physical hardship and fatigue of marathon training, but few discuss the mental toll that high volume, intense workouts and the looming pressure of race day take on an athlete’s morale.

I’ve often thought of the pressure of an impending race day as a weight that grows heavier and heavier on my mind until it is released by the race itself.

Setting up mental checkpoints in which you ask yourself key questions can help put this “weight” into perspective.

Key questions ask yourself

“How much time each day do I spend thinking about the race?”

If your honest answer reveals that you are spending far too much time thinking about the upcoming race, do something about it; plan ways to take your mind off the race by spending time with non-running friends, seeing a movie or taking up a new hobby that will distract you.

“ Am I feeling worn down by my training or bursting with an over-abundance of mental energy?”

The answer to this question will help you decide whether you need to back off a bit in training or talk to your coach about adding more mileage and harder workouts. Marathon training should leave you “comfortably tired”, using up a large amount of your energy but not completely drying up the well.

“Is running a chore or something I truly enjoy?”

I have had seasons where the answer to this question changed every few weeks. Part of being a committed distance runner is logging the miles even when you don’t feel like it, but if you find yourself dreading every run for more than a week or two, it may be time to give yourself a small break to mentally regroup before race day.

Allowing yourself a step back from running can leave you hungry to compete and excited for race day rather than dreading it.

Step 3: Set multiple goals

Having a set of goals as you approach race day can help lift the pressure of breaking a specific barrier or PR on the big day.

Set yourself a good goal, a great goal and a shoot for the stars goal.

  • A good goal should be a reasonable, very reachable goal, a time that your training indicates you should be able to run even on an “off” day.
  • A great goal should be attainable but challenging, perhaps a new PR or a time that breaks the nearest barrier (for example, 4:10, 4:00, 3:50).
  • A shoot for the stars goal is a personal, dream goal that you believe you could accomplish if absolutely everything goes right on race day and your legs have that magical feeling of being able to run forever. This can be anything you want it to be; the sky is the limit.

If you are having trouble with goal setting, talk with your coach about what may be a reasonable goal for you to shoot for.

Arming yourself with these tools as you head towards race day will help you to step back and enjoy the process of a season build-up without overly stressing about the outcome of race day.

Of course, it is natural to experience a certain amount of anticipatory pressure as you approach your goal race, and it can help to look at it through the eyes of famed sprinter Michael Johnson who said, “Pressure is nothing more than the shadow of great opportunity”.

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