Runners Connect Fri, 28 Nov 2014 12:44:25 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Are You Sabotaging Your Long Run by Running the Wrong Pace? Mon, 24 Nov 2014 10:00:11 +0000 The long run can be a complicated and daunting part of training for a longer race. Runners Connect takes the fear out of the long run by breaking in down into a simple, but individualized structure to make sure you are getting the most out of your long run.The underlying principle of any training program, regardless of your goal or ability, should be the development of a solid aerobic base.

It’s the fundamental structure followed by almost every elite runner, in particular that of Kenyan athletes who spend around 85% of their time running at an ‘easy’ or ‘recovery’ pace.

Mo Farah reportedly runs around 120 miles per week, of which 80% at an easy pace. No doubt he and Galen Rupp are having a good old chat as they run up and down the hills in Boulder. Not the picture of hard elite training that you might imagine? Well, we can all learn from their approach.

Yet this is what most recreational runners get wrong. Running ‘easy’ doesn’t feel right (or hard enough), so they intuitively run at a ‘moderate’ pace, kidding themselves they’re running easy. Struggling to hold a conversation, a heavy sweat, and red face post run is a giveaway that you did not run ‘easy’!

Running at an easy pace – and by that I mean well into the aerobic zone around 70% of your maximum heart rate – is actually quite hard to do.

You have to slow down A LOT and it feels like you’re going nowhere. But it’s important to stick with it.

In time (usually just a few weeks), your body will adapt, your pace will quicken (for the same effort level) and you’ll have developed a super efficient fat burning engine. So, stick with me here…this is the bedrock of your future training.

Why running easy works

When I work with my beginner runners, we just focus on gradually increasing the length of time they can run for, and build up consistency of training – it’s simple and it works.

This is not the time to think about speed and pace, it is best to just get used to comfortable running where your body can adapt, stay healthy, and develop an efficient running rhythm.

Too many training plans out there have you doing speed intervals, tempo runs, and hills when you are just not ready. Of course it’s important to include a little of this ‘high end’ work, but a solid aerobic base is the fundamental foundation on which you’ll build everything else.

Regular aerobic training will train your body to utilize oxygen, preserve glycogen stores by using fat for fuel, and generally become more efficient.

However, I estimate that at least 75% of runners – of all abilities – run too fast too often, and end up in the ‘mid zone’; training neither the aerobic or anaerobic systems correctly.

Many coaches, myself included, recommend an overall balance of hard/easy training (whilst avoiding the moderate zone), a method now becoming known as ‘polarized training’. The avoidance of ‘moderate’ training is the key, and runners focus on ‘easy’ paced running for the majority of time, with a sprinkling of really hard work (where you really can’t chat!) mixed in for approx 20% of the weekly mileage.

Not only do you train a more efficient fat burning body, but the benefits mean you recover faster, and can therefore put in some harder efforts, rather than being chronically fatigued from ‘mid zone’ running’

Recent research from Dr Stephen Seiler et al from the University of Agdar, Norway, backs up this methodology; finding that high volume, low intensity training stimulates greater training effects for recreational runners, in particular when using the 80/20 split of easy/hard training.

A conclusion backed up by the 2014 Salzburg study published in the Frontiers of Physiology, found that the concept of ‘polarized’ training demonstrated the greatest improvements.

After a 9 week training period, runners using the 80/20 easy/hard split had improved their ‘time to exhaustion’ by a whopping 17.4% and change in peak speed by 5.1%.

This group had completed 68% of their training in the low intensity zone, and 24% at high intensity, with only 6% in the ‘moderate’ zone.

So what does that mean for you? How do you put this into practice?

In a world of high intensity training fads, advice to slow down might seem counterintuitive, but it works The key to running further, and ultimately faster is to slow down, especially for your long runs. Easy to say, but harder to do. If you take only one thing away from this article, it’s this – faster is NOT always better.

When you first start out running, you’re likely to have one pace. As you get more experienced and your fitness improves, you will need to develop a wider range of paces. Your long run or easy pace may be 90 seconds – three minutes slower than your ‘top end’ pace.

US Marathon Champion Esther Erb likes to make sure she takes her easy running seriously, “I see hard recovery runs as an indicator of insecurity. When it comes to recovery, it takes more confidence to run slowly than it does to run fast”. Erb runs the majority of her easy runs between 8:00 and 9:00 per mile! Although that pace may seem fast, keep in mind that her race pace is around 5:45 per mile!

This is the key to building up your long run. Simply slow down – to a walk if you need to – spend more time on your feet and just extend the time/distance bit by bit.

How slow?

Using heart rate as a guide

But how slow is slow? If you want to be scientific about it, you can work out your heart rate training zones and try to keep your pulse at around 70% of your max. If you want to go down this route then use the following calculations:

1. Calculate your Maximum Heart Rate (MHR):

Women: 209 – (0.9 x age) = MHR

Men: 214 – (0.8 x age) = MHR

2. Calculate your Working Heart Rate (WHR) by subtracting your resting pulse (RHR)- measure as soon as you wake up in the morning (while still in bed) from your MRH.


3. Calculate 70% of WHR (0.7 x WHR) and add to your RHR. That should give you your 70% zone HR. This is where the bulk of your running, including your long run, should be. For the vast majority of people it will be around 130-140bpm.

You can also use our training zones calculator to assist you with this.

To work out your ‘top end’ zone, do the same but calculate 85%.

Using pace as your guide

If you don’t like heart rate (we don’t :), then you can use pace as your guide.

Your optimal long run pace is between 55 and 75 percent of your 5k pace, with the average pace being about 65 percent.

From research, we also know that running faster than 75% of your 5k pace on your long run doesn’t provide a lot of additional physiological benefit. Therefore, pushing the pace beyond 75% of 5k pace only serves to make you more tired and hamper recovery.

In fact, the research indicates that it would be just as advantageous to run slower as it would be to run faster. 50-55 percent of 5k pace is pretty easy, but the research clearly demonstrates that it still provides near optimal physiological benefits.

Need help converting your race times to optimal long run pace? Download our FREE calculator and we’ll do the math for you.

Get My Calculator Now!

Additional Notes about Easy Long Runs

  • If you do not use a heart rate monitor, run at a comfortable pace where you can chat easily, without gasping for breath. If you can hear yourself breathing, you’re going too fast. On a scale of 1-10 (with 10 being super hard) you’ll be around a 5. It should feel really comfortable and the sort of pace you keep going at that pace for hours.
  • Forget about measuring your ‘pace’ and distance on your GPS watch at this stage. Focusing too much on your watch will only lead to you push on too fast, and undo all your good work.
  • Learn to run to ‘feel’ rather than keeping to a pace. Don’t forget, that ‘feel’ should be easy. Walk up hills, keep it steady and don’t put any pressure on yourself other than to go a little further.
  • Run with a friend (find one slower than you normally), have a nice chat, and check out the views. It might take a bit of time to get your head around it, but this is exactly the methodology that will take you to the next level.

You can also use our training zones calculator to assist you with this.

Those long easy runs – through the countryside or on the trails, with your partner or running buddy – are to be treasured. Use the time to catch up with your spouse or kids, explore new routes and revel in the joy of going long. There’s nothing else like it.

Now you know what pace to run your long runs at, check out the second part of this post next week, focusing on how to build up distance in your long run.

Are you guilty of going too fast on your long runs? Have you ever struggled with your training because you did not take your recovery runs easy?

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Why Your Big Toe Might be the Cause of Your Running Injuries (And How You Can Fix It) Thu, 20 Nov 2014 10:00:15 +0000 Even though it is not talked about very often in running communities,  a “stiff big toe” (or as it’s often referred to, ‘hallux limitus’) can actually be a very common source of pain in the ankle, knee, hip or lower back.

hallux limitusNormal big toe movement

Imagine you are running, and one of your feet is about to touch the ground in front of you. The foot is pulled back slightly (dorsiflexed) in preparation for initial contact. The big toe (hallux) is probably also dorsiflexed but as your foot is still off the ground this is not significant.

However, once your foot touches the ground and starts to support your body weight, the degree of dorsiflexion that the big toe joint is able to go through becomes important.

As your body passes over the supporting foot, there comes a point called mid stance, when the hip, knee and ankle stop flexing (bending) and begin to extend (straighten). The technical term for the ankle when it extends (i.e. the foot points downwards instead of pulling back) is plantarflexion (annoying, I know).

As you can see in top image of the diagram below, normal joint motion involves the first metatarsal (bone behind the big toe) plantar flexing, and as the arrows indicate a slide & climb of the metatarsal head up onto the sesamoids (two small bones underneath the first metatarsal).

This movement permits the degree of big toe dorsiflexion required for stabilizing of the foot (via the windlass mechanism) during propulsive loading.

If slide & climb movement within the MTP (metatarsophalangeal) joint becomes restricted, the big toe will not be able to dorsiflex sufficiently, causing alternative foot mechanics to be sought, which in the long term could lead to discomfort and possible degenerative arthritis.

Functional hallux limitus

The presence of limited movement in the MTP joint (as opposed to no movement at all) is referred to as hallux limitus. It is important to differentiate two distinct sources of this limited movement: functional vs. structural.


The middle image in the diagram illustrates functional hallux limits; although movement is limited, this is not the result of joint degeneration. During assessment, the toe moves freely whilst there is no weight on it.

The reduced movement is due to a ‘jamming’ of the first metatarsal with the big toe, i.e. no slide & climb.

Repetitive jamming often stimulates extra bone growth over the top of the joint, causing a characteristic bunion.

Research is still unable to determine what causes functional hallux limitus. It may be that particular dynamic foot biomechanics lead to the jamming. In some cases, the first metatarsal being abnormally long or short is thought to place extra stress on the big toe joint.

Other possible causes include: running on the toes, wearing shoes that are too small, wearing high-heel shoes too often, or as a result of a trauma e.g. stubbing the big toe or dropping a heavy object on it.

There are many ways to treat hallux limitus that do not involve surgery, so it is important to get it taken care of earlier, rather than waiting until it becomes totally restricted (hallux rigidus).

Structural hallux limitus

The last of the three images in the diagram illustrates structural hallux limitus, often thought to be a progression of the above but can also be a result of a trauma. The repeated jamming we saw in functional hallux limitus can cause a wearing down of the joint cartilage and eventual degenerative arthritis.

If present, this will show up on an X-ray, and in contrast to functional hallux limits, movement can be restricted even when you are not weight bearing. If it goes untreated, range of movement can will decrease, until eventually there is no movement at all, i.e. hallux rigidus.

Compensation and pain

Both hallux limitus and hallux rigidus can cause immense pain, so it is hardly surprising that the brain finds an alternative (compensatory) way of getting that foot off the floor.

However, compensation patterns do not eliminate the load (force) experienced when hitting the ground during running; they simply shift it to other parts of the body which can lead to pain elsewhere.

Lower leg pain

If your big toe has limited dorsiflexion, your lower leg will not be able to move correctly over your weight bearing foot (limited ankle dorsiflexion).

As a result, the calves shorten with each stride, and can become extremely tight, causing altered dynamics in the lower leg and pain in both the calf and Achilles tendon.

Knee pain

The human body is a kinetic chain. What happens at one joint will have a knock on effect at another joint. Lack of ankle dorsiflexion when running can lead to an early bending in the knee, which in turn can disrupt the whole efficiency of the gait cycle

Hip/lower back pain

Reduced ankle dorsiflexion can increase the duration of time in which the heel is off the ground. The resulting change in foot biomechanics can cause a decrease in hip extension, which may in turn force the hip flexors (on the front of the hip) to work harder than they normally would had optimum hip extension been reached.

This may manifest itself as pain in the hips and/or lower back.

Testing for hallux limitus

In reality, all therapists should be testing you for reduced big toe mobility when you present yourself with any of the above symptoms.

You can also assess yourself by watching your big toe when you walk. Does it bend back easily and push off the ground without the need for extra effort?

Bear in mind that simply pulling your big toe back is not a test for functional hallux limitus. It is the dynamic weighted movement that creates symptoms.

If you have structural hallux limitus, pain is likely to be elevated when you try pulling the toe back when not standing on it.

If you do suspect limited movement, consult a running specific sports therapist or physiotherapist as they will be able to investigate further using gait analysis and more tests. An X-ray will show up structural changes such as joint narrowing and bone spur formation.

Norms for range of movement

The average dorsiflexion range of motion of the first MPJ during walking is thought to be around 45 degrees.

A grade system of 0-4 is used to describe the extent of hallux limitus/rigidus. Grade 0 represents a dorsiflexion range of 40-60° with no symptoms. The other end of the scale is a Grade 4 in which 0o dorsiflexion is presented along with severe joint degeneration.

Many people assume that running requires a greater range of movement in all joints than walking does.

This is not always true.

In fact, as far as dorsiflexion of the big toe goes, the required range of movement is actually less when running. This explains why some people with hallux limitus suffer less pain when running compared to walking.

Treating hallux limitus/rigidus

As we have already mentioned, diagnosis in the earlier stages allows more treatment options to prevent surgery. Depending on the cause of the symptoms, a podiatrist may be able to fit you with a suitable custom foot orthotics that will restore normal motion to the joint when weight bearing.

  • A simple change of footwear can also help: wearing something with maximal stiffness across the forefoot may decrease the dorsiflexion moment across the MTP joint and help avoid the big toe from jamming.
  • Some runners find success by swapping their running shoes for a lightweight hiking shoe.
  • Ground surface can also make a difference: try swapping the unforgiving hardness of roads (asphalt) to grass or dirt trails.
  • If the condition has progressed, and you are in severe pain, the number one priority first of all is to reduce that pain. The typical PRICE protocol (protection, rest, ice, compression, elevation) should be used until the acute symptoms have dissipated.
  • Corticosteroid injections may be help reduce severe pain, but they must be regarded as a short term way of reducing pain, and not a solution to the problem. The same goes for taking NSAIDS (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatories) like Ibuprofen. They can help relieve pain but are again not a long term strategy. Whilst you mask the pain, deterioration of the toe joint can still occur.
  • Manual therapy such as joint mobilization is thought to help increase range of movement in the first MTP joint. Strengthening of the muscle that pulls down the big toe (flexor hallucis longus) and the plantar intrinsic muscles of the feet is promoted to help improve stability of the first MPJ.
  • If the restriction is structural in nature, surgery may be advised. There is little research on the long-term effects of surgical treatment for runners, but given that less dorsiflexion is required for running than walking, even if surgery does not see a full return to the 400 generally regarded as necessary for pain free walking, you may see a return that is enough to allow running.
  • In severe cases of joint degeneration (Grade 3 and 4), fusion of the first MTP joint (arthrodesis) has shown good results with regards to eliminating pain.

In summary

Hopefully this article has shown you the relevance of adequate mobility in the big toe. If you are suffering from the symptoms described above, the time to do something about it is now, rather than waiting and risking a need for surgery. If you are suffering from persistent ankle, knee, or hip pain, make sure your therapist has considered hallux limitus/rigidus.

Have you ever considered your big toe as a source of pain? 


Matt Phillips is a Run Conditioning Coach, Video Gait Analyst & Sports Massage Therapist with over 20 years experience working within the Health & Fitness Industry. Follow Matt on Twitter

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Does Correct Head Positioning Make You Run Faster? Mon, 17 Nov 2014 10:00:01 +0000 “Keep your head up”!

Go to a race course of any kind, and you are likely to hear this phrase. Running coaches are fond of this advice, because it conveys both a metaphorical and literal message: keep a positive attitude, and HEY! get your eyes back on where they should be; on the person in front of you, not at the ground with your neck bent at a weird angle.

Almost everyone will agree that an upbeat attitude is critical to peak performance in training and racing, but if your head is tilted down or your chin is pointed to the sky when you run, is it really that big of a deal? After all, you run with your legs, not your head!

Lets look at how your head position affects your entire body.

Running form

According to research presented at a scientific conference this year, the answer is a little more complicated than a straight “yes” or “no.” A group of researchers led by Dan McCann at Gonzaga University attempted to try:

  • The study recruited 16 female distance runners from Gonzaga’s DI track team- impressive with respect to both the number of subjects and the caliber of their running ability.
  • Each subject underwent a series of three treadmill runs while wearing a specially-designed neck brace set at a predetermined neck angle. In random order, the athletes ran one mile at seven-minute pace with the brace tilting their head down, keeping it straight forward, or tilting it back.
  • Each runner’s oxygen consumption and heart rate was measured during the treadmill runs, and they all rated their perceived effort level during each condition.

The results showed that neck position had no influence on any of the physiological variables measured; however, the runners’ perceived effort level was significantly higher in the tilted-forward and bent-back head positions.

This study hints at an emerging trend of research on minor changes to running formsmall alterations in form, especially in the upper body, have a small or nonexistent effect in the absolute physiological cost of running.

Research published earlier this year by Christopher Arellano and Rodger Kram showed that running with your arms completely locked behind your back, not swinging at all, only increases the metabolic cost of running by three percent.

Unfortunately, Arellano and Kram did not investigate the perceived effort level of their subjects, which means we cannot make a direct comparison with the first study.

McCann’s research suggests that perceived effort should be examined in addition to physiological variables like oxygen consumption or heart rate.

Perceived effort

Some may find it hard to believe that perceived effort could have any impact on running performance, but a growing body of research supports the idea that your exertion level has a substantial impact on your pacing in a race, time trial, or workout.

In a 2009 review article, Ross Tucker at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa cites a number of studies in support of this theory, which used clever tricks including giving athletes in a time trial inaccurate splits or distance information, to show that rating of perceived exertion affects pacing strategy.

Perceived effort, Tucker says, is a two-way street: perceived effort influences our pacing, and is also influenced by factors like heat, fuel availability, caffeine, and other external factors that impact your performance.

Therefore, it’s at least plausible that an uncomfortable or awkward neck position could hamper your performance.

In addition, if you hold your head at a strange angle, it gives others around you a psychological boost as it is well known that when you are struggling, your form will begin to break down. This can lead to a competitor passing you, which brings in more negative self talk, and a higher perceived effort to maintain the same speed.


So, what does this mean for neck position during running?

  • Try to keep a level head, both literally and figuratively.
  • If you keep your neck relaxed, in a natural position, it will help you feel more relaxed when you run, which will help you to maintain speed.
  • However, if you have to dig deep at the end of a workout or in the final stretch of a race, don’t feel too bad—it’s only impacting your running physiology by a negligible amount.
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Meet Our New Coach; Tina Muir! Wed, 12 Nov 2014 18:30:04 +0000 I am very excited and proud to announce we’ve added a new member to the RunnersConnect team!


Tina Muir originally hails from England, but moved to the States in 2007 to pursue her running and education.

An 11 time Division II All-America athlete for Ferris State University, Tina capped off her collegiate career by finishing 3rd in the 10k at the 2012 Great Britain Olympic Trials.

Tina spent two years working as an Assistant Coach for La Salle University, a Division I University in Philadelphia, while completing her MBA.

Tina juggled a full workload with her post collegiate training, improving her personal bests to a 16:08 5k, 32:24 10k, and 1:14 half marathon.

DDC 2013 4

Tina is a member of the Saucony Hurricanes Team, and recently ran a 2:45:51 in the Chicago Marathon, but is hoping for big things in 2015 as she prepares to race on her home course at the London Marathon in April.

Tina has a very popular training and fueling blog; Fuel Your Future with Tina Muir, which attracts readers from all over the world as a source for recipes on how to fuel correctly to maximize performance, as well as training advice and inside information on what life is like as an elite athlete. You can check out Tina’s blog at

Now living in Central Kentucky, Tina is preparing for a wedding with her fiancé, Steve next summer. Steve was recently appointed Head Cross Country and Track Coach at Morehead State University.

Tina’s official position is Community Manager, but she’s more like our Ambassador of Buzz.

Her passion for running is palpable and she wants to help bring that same excitement to you! You’ll see Tina on our social media platforms, authoring articles on the blog, forums and anywhere she can help you train smarter!

We’re excited to have Tina on the team and if you ever get in touch with us via social media or email (which we encourage), I am sure you’ll hear from her!


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Are Race Conversion Calculators and Race Time Prediction Charts Reliable? Mon, 10 Nov 2014 11:00:41 +0000 What pace can you run for a marathon if you just ran a 25:00 minute 5k? What about for the half marathon?

That’s a question almost every runner has at least a few times in their training cycle.

As you may well know, it can be tricky to figure out what’s a realistic goal for an upcoming race, but fortunately, conversion charts can make this process a little easier.

Most runners are familiar with race conversion and equivalence charts or calculators, like the tables in Daniels’ Running Formula or various tools online, all of which are easy to find with an internet search.

But when a chart says that a 20:00 5k converts to a 41:20 10k, what is the significance of this?

Today, we’re going to take a closer look at how these calculations are made, and under what conditions they are valid.

Understanding race conversions

Broadly speaking, there are two different ways to look at how one race distance converts to another.

One is by calculating the physiological “expected outcome” of a runner of a given fitness level running a particular race distance; the other is calculating the equivalent performance from a competitiveness perspective.

Option 1: Expected fitness level

In the first case, the basic question that’s being asked is this: “Among runners who are currently in, say, 18:00 5k shape, what is their average time when they run a 10k, half marathon, etc.?”

While it’s pretty easy to look at either a list of lifetime PRs or season-best performances over a range of distances and determine a formula to convert from one race to another, there are several assumptions that go into this sort of project.

  • First among these is the race course and conditions: a flat, fast road 5k will overestimate your performance in a rainy, windy, hilly 10k.  Since the most easily accessible databases of lifetime or seasonal running performances are from elite runners, times in the 5k and 10k usually come from the track—which is, of course, much faster than any road course.
  • Second, the predictions made by a conversion formula are only averages. Some runners fare better at one distance than another. Even a conversion that is very accurate in the statistical sense can be pretty vague in the real world: a 2% difference in a 5k time, for example, could be over 30 seconds!

Another major assumption is that you are equally well-prepared for the two distances you are converting to and from. While it isn’t too hard to be in shape for both the 5k and the 10k, you can’t always say the same about the 5k and the marathon!

Because of this, a converted time doesn’t always mean “you could run this time right now” — it might mean something more along the lines of “you might be able to run this if you train for this event.”

Additionally, conversions become less valid the further you get from the race distance you’ve been training for.

For example, a lot of high school runners can hit five minutes for the mile, but very few can run under 2:50 in the marathon—even though this is an “equivalent” performance!

Option 2: Equivalent performance calculation

Calculating an equivalent performance is a slightly different undertaking.

These sorts of charts attempt to answer the question of “how good is my time?” by looking at the relative competitiveness of that race performance compared to another event. The best way to picture this is in terms of “world ranking.”

It’s a bit absurd to think about your world ranking if you’re a 25-minute 5k runner, but this doesn’t mean the statistics don’t have merit.

There are sets of equivalent performances in the 10k, marathon, and so on.

This is also the same concept behind age-grading percentiles: these tell you “how good” a certain time is for a certain age group.

While performance equivalences work reasonably well as conversion charts too, they do have some shortcomings.

  • By their nature, they overestimate your performance in less-common race distances. Using our world-ranking analogy, it’s easy to see why: far more runners have recorded times in the 5k or the 10k than more exotic races like the 25k or quarter-marathon (yes, those do exist!).
  • And a performance equivalence chart is going to be less accurate for slower times, since these charts are almost universally made by referencing elite times—running a 13-minute 5k become a very different event than a 20-minute 5k.

Final thoughts

Conversion and equivalence charts can be very useful training tools, but don’t put too much stock into them.

They are best used for getting a rough idea of what you can run for an unfamiliar race distance, or figuring out which race distance is your best.

Specifically, you must factor in weather and course conditions and, more importantly, whether you’re training for the specific demands of that event.

To help you understand exactly how you should be training for the specific demands of your goal race, we’re conducting a series of webinars over the next few weeks. If you’re interested, you can see the available times below:

Help with marathon training

5k and 10k specific training

Half marathon specific workouts

Finally, you shouldn’t let a conversion chart beat up your ego. If you can’t run an “equivalent” performance, it might be for any number of reasons: you may not be training for that particular event, you may have run your first performance in better conditions, or you might just be better at shorter or longer races!

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The Scientific Research on How to Prepare Yourself to Run Back-to-Back Marathons Mon, 03 Nov 2014 11:00:57 +0000 For most people, training for a single marathon is enough.

But a growing number of runners desire something more. They’ll run two in a weekend, or four in a month, or even four or five marathons on consecutive days. Other runners seek out several-day-long ultramarathon events, contested in stages similar to the Tour de France.

The rising popularity of becoming a “marathon maniac” or completing multi-stage ultras has demonstrated that these sorts of feats are indeed doable by thousands of runners.

While there’s no problem with running consecutive marathons, it’s readily apparent that doing multiple marathons in a short time period isn’t going to net you a big PR.

But if your heart is set on back-to-back marathons or a staged race, you may want to know more about how these events affect your body.

How the body responds to racing long distances

Fortunately for us, this is beginning to be addressed by scientific research.

Since the population of runners who partake in these extreme endurance events is so small, studies on their effects are limited to case studies of single individuals, or observational studies of small groups.

Even though these studies are limited in size and scope, they nevertheless offer some answers on how your body copes when you push the limits of long-distance endurance.

A 2008 study by researchers in Switzerland and Germany examined changes in body composition in 10 men who competed in a 17-day, 750-mile race across Germany, measuring changes in hydration, body weight, muscle mass, and fat mass throughout the course of the grueling race.

Over the course of the event, the men lost almost nine pounds of fat and four and a half pounds of muscle.

Interestingly, their weight did not change significantly: the loss of muscle and fat was made up for by an increase in total body water.

The authors proposed a number of potential explanations for these results.

Muscle proteins breaking down from the pounding of 40 miles a day could have overloaded the kidneys, which increased total body water percentage, or the body may have actually “eaten” the muscles for fuel or nutrients, causing a shift in hormone levels which control water retention.

The authors noted that they did not measure an essential variable—dietary intake during the race, which could have a significant impact on the body’s response. The muscle and fat loss could also be chalked up, in part, to inadequate caloric intake.

Caloric intake for multi-day races

Research on a few multi-day endurance events has found that it can be very challenging to meet daily caloric requirements given the constraints of the event.

  • A study of four cyclists competing in a 3,000 mile cycling relay race found that each cyclist’s daily workload required 6,400 Calories of energy, but the cyclists only averaged a daily intake of 4,900 calories, creating a significant deficit by the end of the race.
  • Similarly, a case study of a competitor in a five-day, 1,400-mile cycling race in the Alps found that the competition incurred a 8-11,000 Calorie deficit, resulting in loss of body and fat mass.
  • Returning to running, a case study by Rebecca Hill and Peter Davies followed a two-week segment of an ultramarathoner’s run around the circumference of Australia (9,000 miles). Using a highly sensitive measurement technique, Hill and Davies determined that the runner’s average energy requirement during each of his 40-55 mile days was about 6,300 calories. The authors were not able to determine his daily energy intake, but the runner only lost about three pounds of weight during the two-week observation, and at the end of his 195-day run, he had only lost a total of two pounds, proving it is possible to maintain an equilibrium of energy intake even during such an event.

These cases are obviously extreme, but they illustrate something important: your energy requirements are enormous during multi-day endurance events, whether it’s a staged ultramarathon or several marathons in a week.

If you’re taking part in these kinds of events, your caloric intake will need to be at least double what it usually is.

And, unlike running a single marathon, you can’t just refuel with carbs alone. The demands of extreme endurance events require protein and fat as well—not to mention fluids.

The ultramarathoner studied by Hill and Davies turned over 1.6 gallons of water per day!

Now, if you’re not doing 40 or 50-mile days in Australian heat, you do not need quite so much, but the point stands: extreme events require extreme fueling.

Recovery from marathons

One import consideration when racing consecutive marathons is recovery between races.

One study concluded that CK damage persisted more than 7 days post marathon while another study confirmed the presence of myoglobin in the bloodstream post marathon for 3-4 days post race.

Both of these studies clearly indicate that the body needs at least 7-10 days of rest post marathon to fully recover from the cellular damage caused during the race.

Another scientific study conducted on the calf muscles of marathon runners concluded that both the intensive training for, and the marathon itself, induce inflammation and muscle fiber necrosis that significantly impaired muscle power and durability for up the 14 days post marathon.

As such, recovering from your first marathon is essential to success at your next race.

How to recover properly

To ensure that you’re optimally recovered before your second race, jump starting the recovery process immediately after the first race is essential. Here is a quick outline of the ideal recovery process:

  1. Hydrate as soon after your race as possible with Gatorade or electrolyte drink. You want something with sugar to stimulate the insulin response.
  2. Eat a small meal or snack that contains a 4 to 1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein. If you can handle eating more than a small meal, eat as much as you can.
  3. Perform a quick cool down. If you’re more experienced, this can be a very light jog for 10-15 minutes. If you’re a beginner runner or very sore, walk for 10-15 minutes. Stretch major muscle groups and anything that is sore or tight. Roll out any nagging injuries or problem areas.
  4. Take an ice bath as soon as you can after the race.
  5. Eat another decent sized, healthy meal 2-3 hours after the race.
  6. Nap, put your feet up, or get a massage.
  7. Take an Epsom salt bath before bed.
  8. Roll out on a foam roller or with the stick and stretch well.
  9. Get plenty of sleep.

Admittedly this routine is extensive, but it will drastically improve your rate of recovery and help get you back to training for the second race as quickly as possible.


It’s a fairly safe conclusion that improper fueling during multi-day events will lead to poor outcomes and possibly health risks as well.

We also can conclude that failing to focus on recovery between events will significantly hinder future performance.

Beyond this, there isn’t enough evidence to draw any conclusions on whether multi-day ultras or back-to-back marathons have any long-term health implications, either from an injury or overall health perspective.

Some (though not all) studies of marathon finishers show increased levels of proteins that indicate heart damage, so there is some concern that running several marathons in a short period of time could exacerbate this damage, but there simply isn’t enough research yet to draw any firm conclusions.

At the very least, the athletic accomplishment of ultra-endurance runners and marathon maniacs demonstrate that at least some portion of runners are able to thrive and even make a second career out of multi-day events or several marathons in quick succession.

If this is something you’d like to try, the biggest take-away from the science so far is that proper fueling and focus on recovery is paramount to preserving your body’s integrity.

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How Reliable Are GPS Watches in Tracking Your Pace? A Look at the Scientific Literature Mon, 27 Oct 2014 10:00:38 +0000 One of the most critical skills you need to develop as a runner is calibrating your “internal speedometer.”

If you’re racing a 5k and your goal is to run seven-minute miles, it’s very important to be able to hit the right pace!

This applies to threshold workouts, tempo runs, and pretty much every other kind of training too. Elite runners can hit a given pace within a second or two per mile— so how can you foster this kind of precision yourself?

One option is by using a GPS watch. Only a few years ago, GPS units were big, bulky, and very expensive. But as technology has progressed, GPS watches are now available that are nearly the same size as a regular running watch and priced very reasonably.

It should be pretty obvious that a GPS watch can help you hit the right pace when you’re wearing it, but does it actually help instill a sense of internal pacing—that is, if you run without the watch, will you still be able to hit your splits?

Will your internal pacing still work without a GPS watch?

This was precisely the question asked by Jacob Smith, Matthew Moran, and John Foley of SUNY Cortland and Sacred Heart University in a study presented at a 2010 conference and later published in a scientific journal last year.

The authors examined whether college distance runners using a GPS watch during lactate would learn to control their pace more accurately than those who did not receive any pacing feedback.

  • Smith, Moran, and Foley split 11 distance runners into two groups; one received a GPS watch, while the control group did not.
  • All runners performed an initial 4-mile lactate threshold (LT) run at the outset of the study without any pacing information.
  • Throughout the study’s three-week duration, all of the runners completed LT runs at their predicted lactate threshold, based on a time trial performance.
  • During these LT workouts, which were done on a one-mile loop, the control group was allowed a regular stopwatch, so they presumably could figure out their mile splits.

At the study’s conclusion, everyone did another LT run without a watch.

Study results

The results showed that the GPS group had significantly less variation in their splits at the study’s conclusion: the GPS group decreased their average pace variability from 18 seconds per mile to four, while the control group dropped from 12 seconds per mile to nine, a non-statistically-significant drop.

Remember, neither group got any pacing feedback—not even mile splits—during the final LT run, so being able to hit the proper pace within four seconds per mile is pretty good.

How reliable are GPS watches?

Like any other training tool, GPS has its limitations.

A study published in April of this year by Jonathan Rawstorn and other researchers at the University of Aukland demonstrated the shortcomings of current GPS technology over short intervals.

Rawstorn et al. were testing the validity of GPS for tracking the movements of soccer players, so they used two interval-style drills, a sprint/jog/walk around a loop, and a shuttle run between two lines, to test how accurate a GPS watch would be for about eight miles’ worth of interval work.

The back-and-forth trials in the shuttle run test are not of much interest to a runner, but the loop repeats, done on a 200m loop, are representative of the kinds of tight turns you might find when running on trails or doing loops at a neighborhood park.

The GPS watches overestimated the distance traveled on the loop by almost three percent—not too relevant if you’re just going for a run, but notable if you’re doing a workout or a race on winding trails.

Other work published last year in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research also looked into the reliability of GPS watches in various environments. Nielsen et al. reported that, on a flat, straight path with a clear view to the sky, a GPS watch is within one percent of the true distance of a run.

In an urban area with buildings nearby, the error margin is just a bit over one percent, but when running through a forest, the error margin jumps to 6.2%.

Again, it’s not a big deal if your 10-mile run is really 10.6 miles, but if you’re doing a workout on a one-mile loop that’s off by a hundred meters, that can be a big difference in time!


A GPS watch can be a great investment. Smith, Moran, and Foley’s research shows that getting real-time feedback on pacing from your GPS watch can teach you how to properly pace yourself in workouts or races, so if you’ve had problems with pacing in the past—and who hasn’t?—there’s never been a better time to get a GPS watch.

That being said, you do need to know the limitations of the technology: it won’t be as accurate on tight turns or wooded trails. Even in suboptimal situations, a GPS watch is still fairly accurate, but do expect an error margin of 3-6% if you’re taking a lot of tight corners or don’t have a clear view of the sky.

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3 Reasons the Sauna May Be Your Secret Weapon to Improved Performance Thu, 23 Oct 2014 10:00:17 +0000 Most runners are familiar with Abebe Bikila, the great marathon champion from Ethiopia most famous for winning the 1960 Rome Olympic Marathon running barefoot.

While Bikila’s barefoot victory makes most people hearken back to visions of early humans covering long distances without any need for shoes, a different aspect of his training routine might have been years ahead of its time.

At the insistence of his Swedish coach Onni Niskannen, Abebe Bikila took twice-weekly saunas.

Paul Rambali’s 2006 biography Barefoot Runner details how Bikila used the sauna to boost his recovery from his demanding marathon training regimen:

“Over the years, [Abebe Bikila] had come to look forward to sitting in the wooden cabin full of hot steam at the end of a training session. The heat took away the aches that came of running, the pangs he tried to ignore as he ran but which grew more insistent with the years.”

While barefoot running became something of a craze, Bikila’s sauna habit, no doubt rooted in his Scandinavian coach’s beliefs about its health benefits, has not caught on.

Luckily, modern scientific research has uncovered several ways in which sauna bathing could be beneficial for your running.

Benefits of sauna bathing

#1 Heat Adaptation

Breathing in the hot, dry air of a traditional sauna, which can range in temperature from 160 to 212 °F, has a number of direct physiological effects.

A 2001 review study by Minna Hannuksela and Samer Ellahham summarizes the body’s response to the heat of a sauna.

Heart rate increases, sweat production increases, and blood flow to the skin rises sharply.

These changes are very similar to the kinds of adaptations seen when first acclimating to a naturally hot environment.

Because of this, regular sauna bathing might be a way to acclimate to hot weather, which could be very useful if you’re living in a northern climate but planning on running a winter or spring race in a hot location.

#2 Improved Lung Function

The heat of a sauna has a direct impact on the lungs as well.

As described in a 1988 review by three researchers in Helsinki, lung capacity and function increase by around 10% in the sauna.

According to Hannuksela and Ellhham, people with asthma and chronic bronchitis report that saunas clear up their lung congestion and help them breathe easier.

One small study even found that regular sauna bathing decreases the incidence of the common cold by up to 50%

However, be aware that saunas did not decrease the duration or severity of symptoms, and other researchers caution that you should not take a sauna while you have an upper respiratory infection like the cold, or any illness that produces a fever.

Hannuksela and Ellahham also cite five studies showing that sauna bathing increases growth hormone levels in the blood by 200-500%. Though this increase is transient, growth hormone has powerful and well-known benefits when it comes to workout recovery and performance increases.

#3 Direct Performance Improvements

Only one study has investigated the direct effects of regular saunas on running performance, but its results were impressive.

A 2006 study by Guy S.M. Scoon and other researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand measured the effects of post-workout saunas on performance over a treadmill run to exhaustion.

Over the course of the nine-week study, six male runners undertook a series of three 3-week training blocks: one where every training session was followed with a 30-min sauna, a “washout” period to eliminate any confounding variables, and a control period with the same training but no sauna use.

After each training block, the runners completed a treadmill run to exhaustion at personal-record 5k pace.

Regular sauna use resulted in a 30% increase in time to exhaustion, which, according to the authors, would translate to about a 2% improvement in time in an actual race.

You might be able to write off the results as artifacts from small sample sizes, but Scoon et al. were able to show a strong correlation between improvement in time to exhaustion and increase in blood volume.

Bonus: The ‘hot taper’

This change is particularly interesting in light of the concept of a “hot taper”—a phenomenon where training in the heat appears to improve exercise performance even in cool weather.

One proposed mechanism for this benefit is increased blood volume.

Could regular sauna bathing be another route to achieving a hot taper? Only more research can confirm this, but Scoon et al.’s study represents a promising start.


Even though sauna bathing is a tradition that’s hundreds of years old, research into its possible uses in runners is still in the early stages.

General research on the physiological effects of sauna bathing suggests that taking regular saunas can improve your heat adaptation, increase growth hormone levels, clear up congestion, and increase your resistance to upper respiratory infections like the common cold.

Additionally, one study even suggests that the sauna confers a performance-boosting increase in blood volume, similar to the effects of doing a stretch of training in hot weather before returning to cool weather to compete.

Unfortunately, even the basics of what constitutes “ideal” sauna usage aren’t hammered out: study protocols range from daily post-workout saunas that last 30 minutes to once or twice-weekly sessions that can be substantially shorter.

Ideal temperature and humidity are similarly unclear.

We’ll definitely report back when we know more about ideal protocols.

In the meantime, if you decide to incorporate sauna bathing into your routine, ease into it like anything else, and do be sure to rehydrate well afterwards!

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The Reason You Need to STOP Icing Your Running Injuries Right Now Mon, 20 Oct 2014 10:00:13 +0000 Icing: there’s probably no injury treatment that’s more ubiquitous.

At high school cross country meets, you’ll see ice bags and ice cups littered everywhere. At running stores, you’ll find reusable ice packs and specially-designed icing sleeves. And if you ask a doctor what to do about a running injury, the response will almost invariably include “ice it.”

However, as researchers and coaches are starting to learn more about how inflammation works, our understanding of how to treat injuries is changing.

For example, about 18 months ago we published this post on why you shouldn’t use anti-inflammatories (one of the go-to treatments when runners get hurt).

In short, the research shows that some inflammation is a natural and good thing so inhibiting it actually hinders the healing process.

But, what does the research say on icing? Is it the same effect as anti-inflammatories? Is icing useful in every situation? If so, what’s the best way to go about it?

Icing and overuse running injuries

Given the near ubiquitous recommendation to ice when injured, you’d expect there to be reams of studies on such a universal injury treatment. But, astoundingly, there aren’t.

There’s a moderately-sized collection of controlled experiments on using icing (or “cryotherapy” as it’s known in medical circles) for acute injuries, like ankle sprains and post-surgery recovery, but research into icing for overuse injuries, like the ones runners get, is quite limited.

Some papers mention cryotherapy as a treatment for tendon injuries, plantar fasciitis, or shin splints, but it’s only in passing—there’s been essentially no rigorous testing of icing as a treatment for running injuries.

Icing was used as control treatment in a 2007 study on eccentric exercises for Achilles tendonitis; the rehab exercises were vastly more successful than icing. Aside from this, nothing!

Because of the lack of research, we can’t conclusively prove whether or not icing is a useful therapy.

However, this doesn’t mean there’s nothing to take away from the research about icing.

Instead of looking to direct studies on icing for running injuries, we’ll have to learn from research on icing for acute injuries with the understanding that we are operating under the assumption that icing helps with overuse injuries.

Going by the anecdotal experience of many thousands of runners in the real world, this seems to be a safe assumption, but until the science is in, it’s nothing more than that.

Quick icing therapy for ankle sprain

One thing appears certain: quick icing is definitely the proper response to an acute injury like an ankle sprain. (*acute injuries are those that occur suddenly, like when you turn your ankle, while overuse injuries are those that occur due to repeated stress)

A 1982 study of 37 people with ankle sprains investigated the effects of ice and heat on time to recovery. The researchers reported that the patients who heated their injured ankle during the initial days following the sprain took over twice as long to recover as those who iced immediately.

The timing of the icing had a big impact, too—delaying icing for a day and a half similarly resulted in a greater than two-fold increase in recovery time in serious ankle sprains when compared to icing within the first 36 hours following the injury.

Other research suggests that doing “intermittent icing” is more effective than longer continuous blocks of icing. A clever 2006 study by three researchers in the UK split 89 people with ankle sprains into two groups.

The first group was instructed to ice their injured ankle continuously for 20 minutes every two hours over the first three days following the injury. The second group also iced every two hours, but iced for ten minutes, removed the ice for 10 minutes, then iced for another 10 minutes.

This small difference in icing strategy resulted in significantly less pain during activity in the first week following the injury. After this, both groups reported the same levels of pain, which dropped off over the next five weeks.

Takeaway message

If icing is beneficial for running injuries, it is likely most beneficial as a front-line treatment used immediately after an injury flares up.

Acute injuries, like ankle sprains, are marked by inflammation—icing is known to help limit localized inflammation by reducing blood flow.

It’s been well-established that overuse injuries like tendonitis are not inflammatory after several weeks, but some researchers believe there is a brief “inflammatory phase” that lasts a few days or a few weeks.

If this exists, this is likely when icing would make a difference.

The usefulness of icing in the treatment of running injuries is unclear—on one hand, since there isn’t a single study supporting the use of cryotherapy in the treatment of overuse injuries.

On the other, there are ice bags and cups in nearly every athletic training room and physical therapy office in the country—ignoring anecdotal evidence of that magnitude isn’t a particularly attractive option either.

What we can say is that if icing is beneficial, it’s going to be most effective if you apply ice immediately after you aggravate an injury, then do not ice again.

Further, it is best to use an intermittent approach: ice for ten minutes, then remove it for 10 minutes, then reapply the ice for another 10 minutes.

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Should Your Training Plan Include Speed Work If You’re Not Training For a Race? Thu, 16 Oct 2014 10:00:15 +0000 One thing that keeps me excited about coaching after all these years is that every runner I work with has different goals.

Some are training for their first race, others are qualifying for Boston, and many are using running as a way to stay fit or get healthy.

Most training plans and articles focus on the subset of runners who are training for a specific race, but that’s not very helpful if you’re just running to stay fit, lose weight or maintain between races.

So, the question is, how do you structure your plan if you’re not training for a specific race? More specifically, do you need to include speed work into your weekly routine?

In this article, I’ll examine the roll of speed work in your training plan if you are not training for a specific race, outline why you should include it, and give you some workouts to try so you can maximize your results.

Goal: Improve Your Overall Health

The case for speed work

You’ll build stronger muscles

Speed work recruits different muscles than slow runs do and also strengthens the bones, ligaments, and joints, so they can absorb and adapt to higher workloads.

This effect is similar to weight training. The heavier the weight you lift, the stronger your muscle will become because the muscle is having to resist more weight. With speed work, the more you push the leg muscles to move faster, the more total muscle fibers you activate and the more explosively you contract them. This results in greater strength and injury resistance.

You’ll boost your heart health.

Speed sessions evoke an increase in the maximal stroke volume of heart. This is a fairly complicated cardiologic discussion but simply stated, stroke volume is the amount of blood that can be pumped from the heart in one stoke. A greater stroke volume decreases the heart rate and, in a sense, makes the heart more efficient.

You’ll see progress.

One of the biggest challenges of not training for a specific race is staying motivated. Running an easy pace every day is going to get boring and feel like you’re not making any progress.

By running speed workouts – and repeating the same type of workout every two to four weeks – you’ll find that you’re running faster, or with less effort, and this is going to make you feel like you’re getting fitter.

Even if you don’t have a race goal, all that motivation will keep you going when you don’t want to get out the door or the weather gets bad.

Sample workout

Short, explosive hill sprints are a great way to have fun with speed work, especially because they are not too difficult.

1. Choose a hill that has a fairly steep grade (5-8%).

2. Warm-up your muscles by running a mile or two or perform the Lunge Matrix.

3. Starting at the bottom of the hill, sprint up as fast as you can for 15 seconds.

4. Slowly walk back down, jog very easy for 3 minutes, and repeat. Start with 5 repeats and work your way up to 10.

Goal: Lose Weight

The case for speed work

At an easy pace, running a mile burns about 100 calories. However, the faster you run, the more calories you’ll burn during that mile. Plus, high-intensity training keeps your metabolism revved even after the workout is over. What’s more, research seems to suggest that the after burn – the number of calories your body burns after your workout, when your metabolism is revved – lasts for longer when you run faster.

Sample workout

Short, fast interval workouts at near maximal effort will maximize calorie burning. Try this workout:

1. Warm-up with an easy mile of running and some dynamic stretching.

2. Run 400 meters at 90 percent effort. You should be breathing very hard when finished.

3. Jog slowly for 2 minutes to recover.

4. Repeat 4 to 8 times.

Goal: Training Between Races

The case for speed work

Speed work helps maintain efficiency by stimulating the central nervous system and activating more slow twitch muscle fibers.

More importantly, speed work helps reduce injury by gradually introducing speed into a training schedule.

Many runners get hurt when they try to run at speeds their muscles, tendons and ligaments aren’t ready for. Easy speed sessions help prepare those muscles for the harder workouts when you get back to training.

Sample workout

The fartlek workout (a Swedish term for speed play) is a great way to inject a little speed but still gives you the freedom to run by feel and avoid the mental stress involved with a more structured workout.

1. Warm-up with an easy mile of running and some dynamic stretching.

2. Run anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 minutes at a moderately hard pace. You shouldn’t be gasping for breath, but it shouldn’t be easy either. The actual pace isn’t important – it’s the fact that you ate “turning your legs over” and providing your body with a change of pace.

3. Recover by walking or very slowly jogging for an equal time you ran hard. If you ran 2 minutes hard, recover for 2 minutes.

4. Repeat until you’ve done 20 to 30 minutes total of fartlek running.

As you begin to setup your training plan, consider what your goals might be (even if you’re not training for a specific race) and begin adding speed work the right way to maximize your results!

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