Runners Connect Wed, 16 Apr 2014 14:27:51 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Can Vitamin C Help Improve Recovery from the Marathon and Ultramarathon? Mon, 14 Apr 2014 10:00:15 +0000 If you’re looking for the ultimate challenge in long-distance running, you’ll find it in the marathon and ultramarathon.

While most runners are familiar with the marathon distance, fewer (although the number is increasing) have heard of or run an ultramarathon before.

A term reserved for races that are further than the standard 26.2 mile marathon, “ultras” range from 50 km (31 miles) all the way up to 100 miles or more.  They are often on difficult, hilly trails, or run up and down the side of a mountain.

The challenge of the marathon and ultramarathon are mental, physical, and logistical.

Not only do you need to possess the fitness and the mental grit to complete a race that could last you the better part of a day, but you need to be able to manage your food and water intake over the course of the race, plus any issues that crop up on the way like blisters, bad shoes, and navigating the course.

The presence of these qualities in marathoners and ultramarathoners makes them particularly attractive subjects for scientific study.  Physiologists are often drawn to extreme physical specimens, so there have been a number of fascinating studies on how specifically the ultramarathon affects the human body.

As anyone who’s run an ultra can attest, the physical effects are tremendous: your muscles are sore for days, new injuries can crop up, and you’re very prone to getting sick following an ultramarathon race.

Naturally, scientists have wondered whether there’s a way to blunt the damage to your body from running such a long race.

Blood bio-markers of the stress and damaged caused racing an ultramarathon

The fatigue, soreness, and susceptibility to illness that are associated with running an ultramarathon appear to be related to levels of certain chemicals in your blood.

After finishing an ultra, your body releases a cascade of hormones and other chemicals in response to the physiological stress of the race.  This response is known as oxidative stress, as it is related to the large amount of oxygen that your body uses during exercise.

Some of the chemicals released in response to oxidative stress are known to cause inflammation and dampen the immune system.  Because of this, being able to reduce or alter these inflammatory and immune-suppressing chemicals should improve recovery after an ultramarathon.

Can vitamin C mitigate these effects?

Using some basic knowledge from biochemistry, researchers hypothesized that taking vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant, could limit the damage from oxidative stress on the body.

Why vitamin C?

Vitamin C plays an important role in the healing process by building new protein for the skin, scar tissue, tendons, ligaments and blood vessels. Vitamin C also helps our bodies maintain cartilage and bone tissues.

In addition to the healing properties, vitamin C offers internal protection against free radicals. Free radicals are molecules in our body that can cause significant damage and come from our external environment, such as the foods we eat, high intensity work outs (like running), and chemicals we are exposed to.

Promising studies

Early research into this idea was promising.  A 1993 study by E.M. Peters and other researchers at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa found that ultramarathoners who took 600 mg of vitamin C every day for three weeks before the Comrades Ultramarathon (a 90 km race) had significantly fewer upper respiratory infections in the two weeks following the race.

Some 68% of runners who did not take a vitamin C supplement came down with a cold following the race, while only 33% of the vitamin C group did.

Later work by the same group of researchers bolstered this finding with another study that showed a decrease in some of the chemicals associated with oxidative stress when a group of runners took 1000 mg of vitamin C for seven days before another Comrades Ultramarathon.

Is vitamin C really a miracle supplement?

Some other research has questioned this, however.

A research team from Vanderbilt University and Appalachian State University found no difference in blood markers for oxidative stress when a group of ultra runners took 1500 mg of vitamin C for seven days before the 80 km Umstead Ultramarathon in North Carolina.

Another paper by a group of scientists at Oregon State University also found only minor changes in vitamin C-supplemented ultra runners after a 50km race, and found no effect on muscle soreness and fatigue following the race.


At best, it seems that taking a vitamin C supplement could reduce your risk of coming down with an upper respiratory infection in the weeks following an ultramarathon.  You’ll still be quite sore and your muscles will still be quite fatigued.

If you think dodging illness post-race would be nice, you can follow the protocols laid out in the studies we’ve looked at above: take 600-1000 mg of vitamin C every day for about a week before your ultramarathon, and continue to take it on race day and for two days post-race.

Foods rich vitamin C include: citrus, berries, kiwi, peppers and broccoli.

Vitamin C is a water soluble vitamin that your body does not have the ability to make, which means you need to consume it on a daily basis.

Even so, Peters et al. found that your risk of illness only drops by about half, so don’t expect the humble vitamin C tablet to ameliorate all of the effects of an ultramarathon.

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Why the FIRST ‘Run Less, Run Faster’ Method Doesn’t Work Thu, 10 Apr 2014 10:00:50 +0000 If you’re a regular reader of our blog, you’ll know that I don’t have a “one-size-fits-all” approach to training.

I believe each runner is an experiment of one and proper training needs to take each individual’s strengths, weaknesses and limitations into account to be effective.

That said, I do believe there are a few universal physiological truths of training that can’t be ignored and are critical to the development of any runner, regardless of their background, goals or speed.

I am pretty open to all methods or philosophies of training as long as they don’t ignore these physiological truths.

If you’re training for a marathon, for example, Hansons, Pfitzinger, Hudson, McMillan all have different approaches, but in the end the training all boils down to the same basic physiological components.

However, there are some “systems” of training that I feel completely ignore some of these basic tenants of exercises physiology.

In this article, I want to discuss one of these methods – the FIRST: Run Less Run Faster approach – and why I think it’s highly unlikely the appropriate training plan for you.

What is the FIRST: Run Less, Run Faster approach

The FIRST method is a “system” of training developed by researches by Bill Pierce, Scott Murr and Ray Moss that centers around a few main tenants:

  1. You run a maximum of 3 times per week with all runs being either hard workouts or long runs
  2. You supplement these runs with at least 2 days of hard cross training each week
  3. The running workouts are designed to be intense – usually as hard as you can go
  4. The long run makes up 60-70% of your weekly mileage.

The idea behind this system is you can maximize your time spent running by eliminating easy miles and only running hard workouts.

Why it’s appealing to most runners

1. Seems like a good fit for busy people and those that don’t like running

Obviously, this approach is very appealing to who have yet to fall in love with running. The promise of only having to run three times per week is attractive to those that don’t want to be running and are maybe only running the race as a charity or as a one-time event.

It’s also a tempting approach for busy professionals or parents, since it would seem that you only have to workout three days per week.

But, there’s a false logic in this belief because the cross training is an important part of the program. Using the FIRST method you’ll still be working out 5 days per week.

2. Plays on the misconception that mileage equals injury

Most importantly, there is a common misconception among runners that increased mileage has a direct correlation to an increase injuries. Beginner runners have an irrational fear that running more will automatically get them injured.

This simply isn’t true. Mileage alone does not cause injuries.

Intensity, mechanics, strength and unintelligent training (as we’ll outline below) are far more likely to cause an injury than running easy mileage.

But, the FIRST plan plays off the fear of mileage well enough that many runners see it as a way to avoid injury. Unfortunately, the FIRST method is more likely the best way to guarantee an injury!

The flaws of the FIRST: Run Less, Run Faster approach

Now, to the real meat of this article – why I don’t recommend the FIRST: Run Less, Run Faster approach.

Lack of long-term development

The most critical flaw in the FIRST approach is the blatant lack of focus on aerobic development. But, why is the aerobic system so important and why doesn’t the FIRST system improve it?

In any event longer than 5k, the aerobic system contributes more than 84% of the energy required to run the race. In the marathon, that number is 99%. Here’s the data if you don’t believe me.

That means to run your best at longer distances from 5k to the marathon you need to fully develop your aerobic system.

So, how do you develop the aerobic system? With slow, easy runs. If you’re curious, I outlined in great depth what the aerobic system is and exactly how easy runs develop it here. I highly recommend reading that article if you haven’t already.

The problem with the FIRST method is that it completely avoids easy running. Even the cross training you do is supposed to be hard.

That means you’ll spend 0% of your training time working on the energy system that contributes 99% of the energy required to run a fast marathon.

Hmmm – does that make sense?

Methods based on incomplete data

“But my friend used FIRST and ran well?” You might say.

Hard workouts, any hard training really, will make you generally fitter. This is especially true if you weren’t doing any running prior to the start of the program (as was the case with the FIRST method’s research subjects).

But, you’ll be limiting perhaps the single greatest factor in long-term improvement – aerobic development. So, you may improve a bit in the short-term, but I don’t think it’s a program designed for long-term success.

“Also, didn’t the researchers show that runners who used their program increased their VO2max by 4.2%?”

They sure did.

But, what did the control group, who ran nothing but easy mileage, increase their VO2max by?…Trick question. There was no control group, so who knows how much they could have improved.

Furthermore, the tricky element of aerobic development is that it’s difficult to measure. To gather data on aerobic development, you’d need to measure a runner’s myoglobin content, capillary number, and mitochondria size to name a few. That takes a lot of funding and participants usually aren’t too keen on being poked and prodded.

However, researchers love to measure VO2max since it’s pretty easy (just run on a treadmill) and painless to gather. Thus, researchers point to increases in VO2max as a sign of increasing fitness and a training system’s effectiveness. But, VO2max has little bearing on your ability to run a marathon.

Moreover, having an absolute higher VO2max does not mean you’ll be a better or faster runner.

For example, consider the comparison between Steve Prefontaine and Frank Shorter, two athletes whose VO2 Max values differed by 16%, yet whose best 3-mile times differed by even less (0.2 seconds).

Why is this?

Well, VO2max is only one component to how fast someone can run. Running efficiency and economy (believed to be the case between Prefontaine and Shorter), lactate clearance abilities, aerobic development, and a myriad of other factors.

Increased chance of injury from too much speed

As mentioned briefly above, most runners have an irrational fear that mileage is a primary cause of running injuries.

While I’m certain drastically increasing weekly mileage totals play a role in the likelihood of running injuries, my experience and research has shown that too much intensity is a far more likely reason you might get injured.

Intensity (or speed work) increases your chances of getting injured because it places a far greater stress on your structural system (muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones) than easy running.

For example, you may be able to head out the door and hammer out a long run or a tempo run at 8 minutes per mile (or whatever your tempo pace is), but your hips might not be strong enough yet to handle the stress of the pace and, as a result, your IT band becomes inflamed.

The FIRST training program prescribes speed work at much faster paces and much more often than most “normal” training programs. This is outlined in their literature and it’s their reasoning for why their system works – “you’ll run faster workouts than other programs so you’ll get fit with less running”.

Unfortunately, one of the selling points of the FIRST method is that running less will help you avoid injuries. In this case, I think running such intense workouts is more likely to get you injured.

Increased chance of injury from running too long

Another very common reason marathoners get hurt is trying to run far too long on their long runs. Not only does running 18-22 milers provide very little physiological advantage, but the chances of injury increase exponentially with each mile.

While there is no doubt that a 20-mile run (or longer) can be a great confidence booster, from a training and physiological standpoint, they don’t make too much sense. Here’s why:

Research has shown that your body doesn’t see a significant increase in aerobic development, specifically mitochondrial development, when running over 90 minutes. The majority of physiological stimulus of long runs occurs between the 60 and 90 minute mark. This means that after running for 3 hours, aerobic benefits (capillary building, mitochondrial development) aren’t markedly better than when you run for only 2 hours.

Therefore, a 16 mile long run for most beginners builds about as much aerobic fitness as a 20-22 miler.

We also have a lot of research that shows injury risk increase significantly during the latter stages of a long run. Specifically, we know that as you get tired your running form begins to breakdown due to muscle fatigue. This places additional stress on the hips and knees (two of the most common injury areas in runners) and forces the body to rely on smaller muscle groups, like the calves, to produce the forces necessary to maintain pace.

All of this leads directly to an increase risk of IT band, runner’s knee, shin splints, and achilles tendonitis.

For the full breakdown of exactly how this works, you can read our article on how running form changes during long runs here.

Despite all this research and the drastic increase in injury risk, the FIRST system places a huge emphasis on running 18 and 20 milers, which makes up 65-72% of a runner’s weekly mileage.

Of course, as a novice runner it makes all the sense in the world that to race a marathon you need to at least run 20 miles in training, right?

Completely false.

You can implement tactics like systematically utilizing accumulated fatigue, depleting glycogen stores, strength training, fatigue-resistant workouts and a myriad of other training strategies that train you for the race distance while reducing injury risk. Here are some great examples.

But what about those runners FIRST has worked for?

Of course, as with any training method, you’ll find countless runners who’ll say it worked for them. But, I’ll ask: was their success because of the FIRST method or in spite of the system?

  • Some runners will be able to finish, and run well, at a marathon regardless of their training method. That doesn’t mean they are reaching their potential. A 3:30 marathoner could very well be a 2:59 marathoner with better training.
  • Likewise, beginners often improve drastically from their first marathon to their second regardless of their training program (assuming they stay healthy).
  • For many, it’s the consistency – 10 months running is 3 times better than only 3 months training no matter how you do it.
  • You also learn a lot in your first marathon – pacing, fluids, fuel – that lead to direct performance improvements outside training factors.

My final thoughts

I’m usually not too hard on different approaches to training as I think there is value in exploring unique ways to train. As long as it keeps athletes healthy, it’s worth investigating. And, as I mentioned earlier, different methods will work for different people.

But, for programs like FIRST’s Run Less, Run Faster, the physiology just doesn’t make any sense. Worst, and most importantly, I believe it guides runners down a road that significantly increases their chance of injury.

Have you tried the FIRST method? I’m open to debate and would love to hear your take, experience, questions or thoughts.

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Why Runners Collapse During or After a Race Mon, 07 Apr 2014 10:00:00 +0000 At this year’s New York City Half Marathon, reigning Olympic 5km and 10km champion Mo Farah of the United Kingdom took on Geoffrey Mutai, one of the best marathoners in the world.

Though Mutai bested Farah by a good 17 seconds, that wasn’t the biggest story of the day.

Moments after the finish, Mo Farah collapsed to the ground. He was immediately tended to by medical staff at the race and reappeared in good health not too long after at the post-race press conference to allay any fears, but it was still a nerve-racking incident.

As any veteran of endurance races knows, runners collapsing either during or after a race is not unheard of.  If you’ve been to enough races, you’ve probably seen this happen first-hand.

There are a number of reasons why athletes collapse on race day; some are relatively benign, while others are very serious. In today’s article, we’re going to explore some of those reasons so you can help prevent them and ease any fears a situation like this might have caused.

Causes of runners collapsing during and after races

A 2011 scientific paper by Chad Asplund, Francis O’Connor, and Timothy Noakes, three researchers and medical doctors from the United States and South Africa, investigated the various reasons runners collapse during and after races.

Heat stroke

Heat stroke is one potential cause—when you run hard, your body generates a large amount of heat, and if you can’t get rid of it effectively, this will result in an abnormally high body temperature. This in turn causes massive, body-wide problems, which manifest as confusion, dizziness, vomiting, and collapse.

Dehydration can increase your risk of heat stroke, but it is not the only cause. Outside temperature and a rise it internal body temperature from working hard can also cause heat stroke. And while heatstroke is more common on very hot days, it can happen even on days with moderate weather.

Here are 6 helpful strategies for how to perform well and race safely in the heat.


Hyponatremia, a drop in the sodium that circulates in your blood, is another possible cause of collapse.

Typically, this occurs in runners who drink far too much water during a race, which dilutes the sodium in their blood so much that it disrupts their body’s normal biochemistry. Hyponatremic runners also commonly vomit, become confused, and collapse.

Athletes at greatest risk are novice runners or slower runners who may take 4-5 hours or more to finish a marathon and who are drinking mainly water. These runners often have an easier time drinking while running at a slower pace and also have more time and opportunities to fill up on fluids.

As the marathon and other long-distance races become more popular, especially among newer recreational runners, more athletes are likely to be at risk for hyponatremia.

For a more in-depth look at hyponutremia and how you can prevent it, here’s a great article written by our nutritionist Emily Brown and based on the work of Dr. Tim Noakes. You can also check out our podcast with Dr. Noakes himself.

Heart conditions

Traditional heart disease can lead to a heart attack during a race, even in apparently healthy middle-aged runners, and many young runners train and race with undetected congenital heart conditions.

One study done in Italy, which requires all young people to undergo cardiac testing before participation in sports, found that 2% of all young athletes had potentially dangerous heart abnormalities. Every year, a handful of high school and college athletes suffer sudden cardiac arrest during athletic events.

One well-known case occurred in 2008, when professional runner Ryan Shay collapsed and died only five miles into the Olympic Trials Marathon.

It’s always advised to consult your doctor before jumping into a training program, especially if you haven’t been exercising regularly before starting.

Postural hypotension (the most likely cause)

As worrying as the three conditions above are, there is some good news

Asplund, O’Connor, and Noakes point out that the majority (though not all) of runners who collapse after reaching the finish line of a race are likely suffering from a relatively benign condition called postural hypotension.

This happens in part because you’ve stopped running.

  • During an all-out effort, like a race, your heart rate is sky-high, and as a result, so is your blood pressure. 
  • Additionally, the rapid, rhythmic contractions of your muscles while you run provide a strong pump-like effect on your blood vessels, encouraging blood to circulate back from your legs.

Once you hit the finish line, both of these mechanisms cease.

The result is a sudden drop in blood pressure, which produces dizziness, fainting, and collapse, much like when you stand up too fast after sitting or lying down for a while.

Collapse from postural hypotension still needs medical attention, and Asplund, O’Connor, and Noakes provide guidelines for medical personnel treating collapsed runners. But it’s easily treated with leg elevation and oral rehydration, and it’s not a life-threatening condition.

News stories report that this is exactly what happened to Mo Farah after his half marathon.

Final message

To be sure, there are several very serious life-threatening medical problems that can cause a runner to collapse, even after crossing the finish line. But research suggests the runners who are most likely suffering from a serious problem tend to collapse during the race, and most of the runners who make it to the finish line before collapsing are going to be okay.

Still, any collapsed runner needs medical attention right away.

Knowing the various reasons why a runner might collapse in or after a race could save a life, so it’s worth learning!

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3 Race Day Quirks You Must Prepare for in the Final Weeks of Boston Marathon Training Thu, 03 Apr 2014 10:00:32 +0000 The journey from Hopkinton to Copley is one of the most famous treks in marathon racing. Many a runner has spent a career chasing their Boston qualifying time and, thanks to Boston, moving up an age bracket is perhaps the only reason a runner actually celebrates a birthday.

While some runners prefer to run the Boston marathon at an easy pace, taking in the sites and enjoying their well-earned reward for qualifying, many runners relish in the opportunity to race against history and challenge the infamous course.

If your goal is to conquer the Boston course, then it is critical that you’re aware, and practice for, some of the quirks that make Boston so special.

In this article, we’ll look at three important and unique factors to racing Boston and outline the steps you can take in the next three weeks to bolster your chances of having a great race on Marathon Monday.

1. Adjusting to the mid-morning start time

Perhaps the most interesting twist at the Boston Marathon is the late start time.

Almost all other major marathons begin early in the morning before most “normal” people are out of bed; however, the Boston Marathon starts at 10am or later, depending on your corral seeding.

While this late start time is great for spectators, it can create confusion when you’re accustomed to racing and training early in the morning, especially when it involves what to eat before the race.

With just a few weeks to go before your race, now is the time you need to start honing in on your pre-race meal and teaching your body how to run mid-morning.

While it may only take one or two hard workouts to adjust to running at 11am, figuring out what to eat might require a bit more experimentation.

My suggestion for eating is to wake-up moderately early, say six or seven, and consume a substantial breakfast that will sit well in your stomach and provide the fuel you need.

This will ensure that you have ample time to digest what you eat and let the food settle.

I recommend foods such as oatmeal, a bagel with peanut butter, energy bas, yogurt with granola, a banana or some V8 juice. From here, you can go back to bed or simply relax until run time. Depending on your start time, you can than consume a much smaller meal, with more simple sugars an hour before your gun time.

Since this approach is so far from what your might normally do, you should simulate this strategy on your last few weekend workouts or long runs.

You don’t want to realize a week before the race you don’t know what sits in your stomach well, especially since you can’t survive on normal pre-race foods like GU if you have a sensitive stomach.

Further, as anyone who’s run track and therefore competed in lots of afternoon and evening races, not racing first thing in the morning can be more jarring than it appears and you need to prepare your body for this.

2. Practice pacing

I’ve written many times before on this blog about the importance of pacing and provided some helpful tips for how to hone your sense of pace.

Perhaps nowhere is pacing more important than the fabled Boston course

As such, it’s critical you spend these last few weeks perfecting your ability to run under control, especially downhill.

Almost everyone who is preparing for Boston has heard about the danger of starting too fast. But, despite the universality of this knowledge, you’ll still find many runners starting way over their heads after 5 or 10k, only to crash and burn after Heartbreak Hill.

Asked why they didn’t run slower at the start and most will say “it didn’t feel that fast”.

Over your final few marathon paced workouts, pick a course that starts slightly downhill or find one that is deceptively easy to start. The more you can simulate having to put on the brakes to run what feels like a pace that is “too easy”, the better prepared you’ll be on race day when the first few miles feel like a jog.

Don’t worry about losing any fitness. In the final weeks of training you’re not trying to gain any fitness anyway – the goal should be on starting to feel good and absorb all your hard work. It’s far more important to learn how easy marathon pace will feel the early miles and teach yourself to hold back.

3. Train for the weather

A common expression in New England is “if you don’t like the weather, wait an hour”. It’s not uncommon to experience swings of 50 to 60 degrees in a matter of days in Boston, especially in the Spring.

Unfortunately, for most runners who train in freezing winter conditions, Boston has the tendency to be very warm on Patriots day.

For runners coming from warmer climates, it’s far easier to adapt to the cold than the heat. The body will instinctively perform well in temperatures down to 40 degrees for most runners. Plus, all you need to do is where extra clothes to stay warm if needed.

On the other hand, if you’ve been training in cold weather, perhaps mother nature will be on your side this year and race temperatures will remain cool. However, if a heat wave engulfs the city as it has in the past, your performance is going to suffer more than runners from warm climates.

Use these final three weeks to get heat adapted. Research has shown that it takes about five to 10 days to begin adapting to running in the heat.

  • Wear an extra layer of clothes and keep the gloves and hat on, even when the weather gets above 40 and 50 degrees. You don’t have to go crazy, but consider always wearing pants and a long sleeve shirt when training these last few weeks.
  • While wearing a few extra layers won’t make you as comfortable running in the heat as you would be in the middle of the summer, it will be enough to improve performance should the weather be warmer than you’ve been training in.

Race day is almost here and it’s about time to see all those long, cold, early morning miles pay off. Use these last few weeks to specifically prepare yourself for all the quirks of the Boston course and Marathon Monday and enjoy your best race yet!

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Marathon Nutrition Strategy of Elite Runners: What You Can Learn and Apply to Your Training to Prevent Bonking Mon, 31 Mar 2014 10:00:20 +0000 Over the past several weeks, we’ve had a lot of articles on the various aspects of fueling for the marathon, including: does carbo loading work, how to calculate electrolyte loss, the best fueling sources for the marathon, a 3-step process to determine your refueling needs, and how to calculate when you’ll hit the wall.

To run your best, it’s vital that you arrive at the starting line well-prepared and have a race plan that doesn’t neglect keeping your body’s carbohydrate stores high so you don’t hit the wall before the finish.

There are certain guidelines that should be followed for increasing your body’s carbohydrate stores before the race, choosing the right kinds of fuel to consume during the race, and planning out a schedule of how much and how often you should refuel during your marathon, plus how early into the race you should start.

This can seem like a dizzying combination of factors to take care of, and it would be hard to blame yourself if you feel lost already.

Fortunately, in the world of running, there is always one fallback when you’re not sure what to do: look up what elite runners do! In this article, we’ll examine the research and practical examples of the refueling strategies of elite marathoners so you can see an example plan in action.

How elite runners refuel

Elite times in the marathon have been dropping at an incredible rate over the last few decades. Certainly, much of this is due to improvements in training methods and a more talented slew of runners taking to the roads, but better fueling almost definitely has an impact as well.

How elites used to fuel

According to legend, Spyridon Louis, the winner of the very first modern Olympic marathon in 1896, consumed nothing during his race, save for a single glass of wine.

As recently as the 1970s, it was believed in some corners that refueling during a marathon was unhelpful. It’s telling that elite runners today who are moving up to the marathon spend a significant amount of time considering their fueling strategy.

But things have changed as our understanding of nutrition an exercise science have improved dramatically.

Differences between elite marathoners and you (does it matter when it comes to fueling?)

Now, recreational and modestly competitive runners face some challenges that elite runners don’t.

First, elite runners don’t weight very much and aren’t carrying much extra body weight. This means they require fewer calories per mile of running than a more generously-proportioned runner who’s perhaps got a bit of “hibernation weight” around his or her stomach.

But this is offset by the fact that elite athletes run at a very high percentage of their VO2 max, meaning a greater portion of their calories must come from carbohydrates.

Additionally, they have a lot less time to ingest calories while running.

Mathematical models of “hitting the wall” predict a 3:30 marathoner and a 2:10 marathoner running at the same intensity relative to their fitness level will hit the wall at around 20-21 miles into the race. The difference is that the elite runner arrives at that point in about an hour and 45 minutes, while the middle-of-the-pack runner takes almost three hours to get there.

Your ability to absorb carbohydrates is independent of your running fitness, so you can see why elites pay so much attention to their fueling plan.

The other drawback of not being an elite runner is that you don’t get to submit your own personal fueling plan to the race director—you’ve got to make do with what’s available at the race. There are some workarounds for this, like carrying gel packets with you, but in general you’ll have to plan your own fueling around what is provided at aid stations.

With all of this in mind, let’s take a look at how a few elite runners approach fueling in training and on race day.

Training and race day refueling the elite way

A 2012 scientific report by Trent Stellingwerff at the Canadian Sport Institute details the training and race-day fueling plans of three marathoners who would go on to run personal bests of 2:11, 2:12, and 2:16 in their marathons following the case study.

Stellingwerff writes that all three runners used “low-CHO [carbohydrate] availability training” 3-5 times during preparation for the race.

Here is the step-by-step training nutrition protocol they followed during training, before the race, and during the competition:

Nutrition in training

  1. The elites practiced glycogen depleted runs before key workouts and long runs early in the training cycle. This was usually accomplished by running first thing in the morning without eating any food and drinking only water or coffee.  These were done to steel the body against the fatiguing effects of carbohydrate depletion that can occur late in the marathon.
  2. As their marathon approached, the runners worked to practice refueling during their marathon workouts and long runs. They were instructed to gradually increase their rate of carbohydrate ingestion in training until they were able to tolerate at least 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour—Stellingwerff cited research showing that higher intake rates of refueling solutions (sports drinks or gels) with both glucose and fructose produced superior results than lower rates of carbohydrate intake or solutions containing only glucose.

Nutrition in the weeks leading up to the race

  1. In the final weeks of training, the runners ate a high-carbohydrate diet and practiced consuming carbs during training very often. This was done both to top off the body’s carbohydrate reserves and to avoid any potential GI distress on race day from an unfamiliar fueling strategy.

Nutrition during the race

  1. During the actual marathon race, the athletes all aimed to take in at least 60g of carbohydrates per hour. They accomplished this by consuming 15g of carbohydrates and 150 mL (5 fluid ounces) of water every 15 minutes throughout the entire race.
  2. This was accomplished by a combination of sports drinks, water, and gel packets. By tallying up the total fluid and carb intake, Stellingwerff determined that the three runners actually consumed 49, 56, and 77 grams of carbs per hour and between 16-26 fluid ounces of liquid per hour.

You might not be able to achieve quite the same precision with your marathon fueling plan—perhaps your local race only has aid stations every four miles, or maybe you don’t have the time to get up and run first thing in the morning several times a week—but nevertheless, the fueling preparations of the three elite marathoners described above should give you a better impression of how all the science on marathon fueling comes together in the real world.

Occasionally training with low carbohydrate stores, practicing refueling during workouts and long runs, picking the right fueling options, and following a pre-determined fueling plan on race day came together for these elite marathoners, and it can come together for you, too.

What is your strategy for your next marathon? Does it look like what these elites are doing?

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Can Correcting Your Cross-Over Gait Banish Your IT Band Problems? Thu, 27 Mar 2014 10:00:56 +0000 Linking running form to injury is always a tricky area when it comes to research.

The moment one study links a certain movement pattern to a particular running injury, another study will come along and conclude there is no link at all. Such contradictions serve to strengthen the argument that although we all run, our individual physical and psychological makeup means that our bodies can react differently to the associated strains that running brings.

It therefore often falls on coaches and therapists to use successful experiences they have with one runner as a potential way to help another, whilst avoiding the temptation of labeling any one strategy as the ‘magic bullet’ that will help everybody.

A good example of this is a strategy that frequently helps some runners (not all!) get over ‘ITB Syndrome’, the common pain on the outside of the knee where the Iliotibial Band (ITB) inserts on the lateral condyle of the tibia.

This strategy? Correction of the ‘Cross-Over Gait’.

What is cross-over gait?

Imagine you are running down a line in the middle of a road.

If when landing your foot/feet cross over this middle line, you are said to possess a cross-over gait, in other words a very narrow running gait.

An example can be seen in the diagram below where the midline is on a treadmill. For each foot placement, both the left and right foot can be seen to cross the midline.

Photo by: StrideUK

It is important at this stage to note that not all runners who experience ITB pain run with a cross-over gait. Likewise, not all runners with a cross-over gait suffer from ITB pain.

However, clinical experience does show that runners who are suffering from ITB pain and possess a cross-over gait can benefit from following a suitable ‘gate-widening’ program. In many cases, the pain is reduced if not eliminated.

Not always, no magic bullets, but enough to make it worth trying.

What does the research say?

A study by Meardon et al. (2012) titled ‘Step Width Alters Iliotibial Band Strain During Running’ assessed the effect of step width during running on factors related to ITB syndrome. Fifteen recreational runners ran at various step widths including their preferred width, +5% of their leg length and -5%.

  • Measuring changes in strain and strain rate according to step width revealed that greater ITB strain and strain rate were found in the narrower step width condition.
  • Relatively small decreases in step width substantially increased ITB strain as well as strain rates. Running with the feet just 3cm wider reduced ITB tension by up to 20%.

The study concluded: ‘increasing step width during running, especially in persons whose running style is characterized by a narrow step width, may be beneficial in the treatment and prevention of running-related ITB syndrome.’

What causes cross-over gait?

This is where most articles would present you with a tidy table showing you which muscles you need to ‘strengthen’ and which muscles you need to ‘stretch’.

Hip weakness is indeed linked to many running injuries, although the exact mechanisms of injury remain unclear. The gluteus maximus and gluteus medius are in particular regarded as key players in controlling the degree of hip adduction (leg moving inwards towards midline) and internal rotation, with poor control of these thought to lead to increased stress on joints, ligaments, and tendons.

Though a program of ‘strengthening’ certain muscles and ‘stretching’ others can lead to the targeted muscles becomes stronger or more mobile, experience and research shows that there is not always a sequential ‘carry over’ to when you are running.

Those of you who have religiously followed a stretching & strengthening programme only to find the pain is still there are testament to this.

The thing is, although anatomy books present muscles to us as individual units with origins, insertions and functions, real life movement depends on global organisation of the body as a whole. The roles of muscles can change drastically according to where the joints they work across are in relation to each other, time and space. Also, overlooking and controlling all of this movement is the brain.

Running is a cyclical motion, as we saw in this article . Every part of the gait cycle is a product of what came before.

How your right leg moves whilst it is off the ground (the ‘swing’ phase) will directly effect how it later moves when in contact with the ground (the ‘stance’ phase). Likewise, how your right leg moves during the stance phase will have a direct effect on how the left leg moves during its swing phase, and so on.

So, although a cross-over gait is indeed typically accompanied by a drawing in of the leg in late swing phase, just stretching the muscles on the inside of the leg (adductors) and strengthening the muscles on the outside of the leg (abductors, e.g. gluteus medius) may not automatically stop this drawing in from occurring when you are out running.

In the same way, the excessive pelvic drop we often see on the opposite side’s supporting leg during a cross over gait will not decrease just because we integrate some hip hikes into our conditioning program.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying give up on these hip strengthening and mobility exercises.

I am just saying that in order for the brain to select a new way of moving (and stop feeling threatened by the overload that our current way of moving is causing), we need to practice the new movement within its true context – in other words, we need to practice it whilst running. This is the essence of gait-retraining (considered in more detail here).

Gait retraining whilst on the run

Gait-retraining has many forms and ideally involves you making a modification whilst receiving some form of external feedback, e.g. from a coach or a mirror.

However, in the case of slightly widening your stride, this can be achieved very simply whilst you are out running.

Find a line (e.g. one that marks a bicycle lane) and as you run down it notice if your foot / feet are indeed crossing over it on each landing. If so, take 20 seconds to widen your stride just enough so your feet do not cross the line.

Note that this drill is to be performed over just 20 seconds a time, not for the whole run!

We need to be careful not to overload muscles not used to this new movement pattern so always start with short intervals. Specific moments within your easy long run would be an ideal opportunity to practice this.

How long does gait retraining take?

As we saw in the article ‘Introduction To Running Biomechanics,’ for a change of habit to become permanent it is generally agreed that the process of change needs to pass through four stages – a structured journey that sees conscious effort evolve into unconscious competence:

  1. Unconscious incompetence. You have not had the gait analysis yet and are therefore totally unaware (unconscious) of the movement pattern we plan to modify.
  2. Conscious incompetence. You have had the gait analysis and are now conscious of the new movement pattern and can commence a suitable program of strength & conditioning / drills / gait retraining.
  3. Conscious competence. You are now able to produce the desired movement pattern but occasionally still have to think about it when running, i.e. it is not yet happening completely naturally.
  4. Unconscious competence. Congratulations! You are have producing the new movement pattern whilst running without consciously having to think about it.

Efficient distance running demands optimum use of all available energy so the ultimate goal is for the brain to be able to select the right movements at the right time without the need for any conscious effort, for as long as possible.

Gait-retraining needs to involve a slow, progressive return to running.

In re-distributing the forces associated with running, we have to be careful that the newly receiving muscles do not get too much too soon. They need to be given time to adapt to the new demands.

This is where the strengthening and stretching exercises that are typically done can help as they will aid the muscle’s tolerance to these new demands.

Don’t always Run in a straight line

Though the exact reason for many running injuries is still unknown, most will agree that the repetitive nature of running plays a great part.

To ensure that the same tissues are not receiving the same overload every run, we encourage variety – rotate different types of footwear, vary the type of ground surface you run on, etc. With this in mind, something else I advise people suffering from ITB syndrome is try not to always run in a straight line. Mix it up, thread to the left and right like a meandering river.

Maybe not during a race (unless you are in pain in which case I do recommend you try it) and definitely not on a treadmill, but when outside training think variety.

If injury comes from repeated overloading of a tissue, reducing the demands on that tissue and increasing the demands on others by changing direction makes sense.

Modified lunges

Regular readers will know I am a big fan of coach Jay Johnson’s version of Gary Gray’s ‘Lunge Matrix’, as I demonstrate here. All exercises can be modified to suit what one is trying to achieve, and lunges are no exception.

In my experience, of the many runners I have seen with a cross over gait, the majority (if not all of them) perform a forward lunge with a similar cross over. They also tend to naturally allow the front knee to shoot way over the toe, in effect using the quadriceps muscles of the thigh to stabilize on the way out and push on the way back (instead of engaging the glutes as we need to in running).

Consciously performing a wider lunge introduces the brain to alternative movement, typically accompanied by a sudden loss of balance.

I commonly use the visualization cue of ‘lunging on a railway line instead of a tightrope’. Keeping the knees in line with the feet as you lower the back knee towards the ground again introduces new movement, instead of allowing the natural adduction of the leg that we saw during the cross over running gait.

These and other teaching points can be seen in this video.

In conclusion

If you suffer from ITB syndrome and run with a cross-over gait, a slight widening to your step width may reduce / eliminate ITB pain.

Isolated exercises to strengthen/stretch typically targeted muscles may not be enough to promote a natural widening of your gait (though they may well play a crucial part in you being able to maintain the wider gait and delay onset of fatigue).

As well as performing the exercises, embark on program of gait-retraining in which you consciously add the new movement pattern whilst out running (for short bursts, not for the whole run). In theory, over time this conscious effort to coordinate new movement will become an unconscious pattern, leading hopefully to an elimination of the pain!

If you have any experiences in battling ITB syndrome by employing any of the recommendations above, do please let us know by leaving a comment below. We look forward to hearing from you.

Happy running!

Matt PhilipsMatt 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 Carbo-Loading for a Marathon Work? If So, What is The Best Way to Do It? Mon, 24 Mar 2014 10:00:05 +0000 In previous articles, we’ve seen how critical fueling is in the marathon. Without enough carbs to get you to the finish line, you’re bound to “hit the wall“—that is, be forced to switch to burning mostly fats at a huge cost to your pace and of course your overall finish time.

The most obvious way to keep from hitting the wall is to refuel during the race with sports drinks, gels, or solid food.

But this can be difficult, as all three of these can cause gastrointestinal problems, and you can only absorb about 240 calories worth of carbs per hour of running. If you hit the wall early in your marathons, it might not even be possible for you to consume enough carbs during your race to push the wall back beyond 26.2 miles.

Fortunately, there’s another option.

By following a protocol called carbo-loading in the days leading up to the race, you can increase the amount of carbohydrates that your muscles store in the form of glycogen. It’s akin to upgrading your car’s gas tank so it can drive further without needing to refuel.

The Science on carbo-loading

Carbohydrate loading is a systematic and scientific practice that takes course over the weeks and days leading up to competition with the purpose of maximizing the storage of glycogen in muscles.

During intense, continuous endurance exercise, your muscles will become depleted of glycogen after about 90 minutes. Carbohydrate loading is meant to store extra glycogen that your muscles can tap into once the normal stores are used up.

As carbohydrate loading received more attention for its ability to improve athletic performance in endurance events, more research has focused on effective methods.

Do you need to deplete you carbs before loading?

Early theories about carbo-loading postulated that a period of muscle glycogen depletion was necessary before the period of carbo-loading. Under this model, you’d intentionally restrict your dietary carbohydrate intake for a few days, then eat more carbs than usual in the last few days before your marathon.

But the process of depleting your carbohydrate stores is physically and mentally draining as well as unnecessary for peak performance, as argued by physiologist David Costill in a 1978 article in Runner’s World.

Instead, recent scientific research has focused on carbo-loading protocols that only involve a “superloading” portion.

Carb-powered athletes

A typical example of the kind of carbo-loading program studied in scientific literature is described in a 1995 study by Laurie Rauch and other researchers at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. In this study, eight cyclists completed two three-hour trial rides. Before one of these rides, the cyclists increased their dietary carbohydrate intake by about 72%, and before the other, they consumed their normal diets.

After analyzing biopsies from the muscles of the riders, as well as their times for the trial rides, Rauch et al. found that the carbo-loaded athletes were able to ride faster, cover more distance, and put out more power over the final 60 minutes of their trial ride.

The carbo-loading protocol increased the muscle glycogen content of the cyclists by an average of 47%. In a runner, this magnitude of increase would push back the wall by several miles.

A 1997 review article by the same research group surveys several other studies that confirm the benefits of carbo-loading on endurance events that last longer than 90 minutes.

Hawley et al. write that carbo-loading will push back fatigue (i.e. the wall) by about 20%, and can improve your time over a set distance by 2-3% as a result.

This would be a 3-6 minute improvement for a typical marathoner, a pretty significant margin!

So, how should you go about carbo-loading before your next marathon?

More recent scientific research indicates that athletes should aim to increase their carbohydrate intake to 8 grams of carbs per kilogram of body mass in the final three days before their race, but such a specific target isn’t very much use to anyone but the most nitpicky of calorie counters.

Instead, it’s probably best to aim to increase the amount of carbs you consume by 50-75% over the three days leading up to your marathon.

The cyclists in Rauch et al.’s paper accomplished this by chugging chocolate-flavored mixtures of potato starch and water—not the most appetizing of diets—but a more reasonable approach would be to drink more fruit juices and sports drinks, eat more carbohydrate-rich foods like pasta and rice, and cut down on fat and protein-rich foods like burgers and eggs.

To achieve optimal carbohydrate loading, you don’t need to do any complicated math on your carb consumption per kilo of body mass. The scientific literature indicates that a relatively wide range of loading strategies is effective in increasing your muscle glycogen storage when carried out in the last several days leading up to a long race.

However, if you want an in-depth, step-by-step approach for how to carbohydrate load for your next marathon, please take a look at our nutritionist’s article on this topic found here.

Final notes

  • Try to increase your carb intake by 50-75% for three days before a race lasting over 90 minutes.
  • You’ll want to go easy on fiber-heavy foods, since these can throw off your gastrointestinal system before your race if you aren’t used to eating a lot of them.
  • According to Darlene Sedlock, an exercise physiologist at Purdue University, the form of carbohydrates you load up with doesn’t particularly matter; the simple sugars found in fruit juices and sports drinks should work just as well as the complex carbohydrates found in pasta, rice, oats, and potatoes.
  • A “depletion” period isn’t necessary, and when done properly, carbo-loading can push back the wall, delay fatigue, and improve performance.

Have you tried cabo-loading before? How did it go? Did you notice a difference and what protocol did you follow? We’d love to hear your experiences and suggestions in the comments section.

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The Importance of Electrolytes During the Marathon (and how to calculate your sweat rate for optimal replenishing) Thu, 20 Mar 2014 10:00:53 +0000 In previous articles, we’ve looked at why fueling is important in running long races like the marathon.  Taking in fuel in the form of sugar will allow you to get all the way to the finish line without hitting the wall.

But another fueling concern we haven’t addressed is the loss of electrolytes via sweat.

Electrolytes, as you might know from the marketing efforts of sports drink producers, are charged ions that play a multitude of essential roles in regulating your body, not just during exercise, but during your everyday life as well.

The electrolytes sodium and potassium play a critical role in regulating your body’s water balance during exercise: the levels of these electrolytes allow your muscle cells (and every other cell in your body, for that matter) to retain the right amount of water.  But when we exercise, we lose electrolytes via sweating.  The sodium content of sweat is why it tastes so salty.

In a short race, like a 5k, electrolyte loss isn’t a major concern, even on a very hot day.  But in long races in the heat, especially if you aren’t acclimated to exercising in hot weather, electrolyte losses can impair performance.

If you are trying to rehydrate by drinking a lot of water, failing to consume electrolytes at the same time can upset the balance of electrolytes in your bloodstream.  In a worst-case scenario—drinking lots of water during a very long race in the heat, for example—this can even lead to a dangerous condition called hyponatremia, where blood sodium levels drop too low.

Therefore, keeping your electrolytes balanced is critical for both performance and health. In this article, we’ll outline why maintaining electrolyte balance is important and outline a scientifically formulated plan to help you do it.

The benefits of maintaining electrolyte balance

Even in more mundane situations, when not racing in extreme heat, maintaining your electrolyte balance has its advantages.

A 2001 study by Sanders, Noakes, and Dennis found that cyclists who consumed a sports drink with sodium in it during a 4.5 hour ride produced much less urine than those who consumed an equivalent volume of salt-free sports drink.  They concluded that this was because the cyclists did not need to excrete as much water to balance out the sodium concentration inside their bodies.

This bodes well for marathoners—after all, who wants to have to take a bathroom break during a race?

It seems strange that the “saltiness” of a fluid influences how much urine your body will produce, but when the fluid you’re drinking (the sports drink) is closer in electrolyte concentration to the fluid you’re losing (sweat), your body can more or less replace the sweat one to one instead of having to add in electrolytes that are already in your body, resulting in lower overall sodium levels in your blood.

According to Tim Noakes, a physiology researcher and medical doctor in Cape Town, South Africa, sodium is the only electrolyte of importance to endurance athletes during exercise.  Although potassium and magnesium ions are lost as well, their concentration in sweat is so low that depletion of these electrolytes is not a problem.

The best way to replace electrolytes

So, what’s the best way to replace the electrolytes you’re losing?

Old-school salt tablets are certainly an option, but because you would need to take them with water anyways, sports drinks are probably the better option.

While Noakes writes that he would prefer modern sports drinks to have a somewhat higher sodium content, he admits that the electrolyte content of popular drinks like Gatorade and Powerade are at least close to being adequate for marathoners.

While sports drinks are perfect when racing, when you’re replenishing electrolytes throughout the day, you don’t want to be consuming high amounts of simple and artificial sugars. So, here are a few different, high quality electrolyte supplements on the market you can add directly to water or your favorite beverage (Note: These are affiliate links. I have searched the web for the best selection and prices for you. By purchasing from them, you help support our efforts):

Hammer Fizz: Calories 10 (per serving)
calcium 100mg, magnesium 50mg, sodium 200mg, postassium 100mg

Nuun: Calories 3
calcium 13mg, magnesium 23mg, sodium 360mg, potassium 100mg

Nathan Catalyst: calories 0
calcium 26mg, sodium 135mg, potassium 60mg

Hammer Endurolytes (1 capsule)
calcium 50mg, magnesium 25mg, sodium 40mg, potassium 25mg

SaltStick Electrolyte Cap
calcium 22mg, magnesium 11mg, sodium 215mg, potassium 63mg

When and how much to consume

When it comes to when and how much to consume electrolytes, you can follow basic guidelines for hydration during exercise.

  • Hydrating during a workout or a race usually isn’t necessary unless it will last longer than an hour.
  • In longer events, drinking “ad libitum“—i.e., to thirst—is the recommended method.  For most people, this ends up being between 14 and 20 fluid ounces per hour of exercise.  In marathons, you’ll also have to take carbohydrate fueling into account, as depending on your fueling needs, this amount of fluid intake may or may not provide you with enough sugar to prevent hitting the wall.
  • As with almost everything in running, when it comes to losing and replenishing electrolytes every runner is different. Some runners are “salty sweaters” and some people sweat very little. Luckily, we’ve created a very handy sweat loss calculator for runners that will help tell you exactly how much sweat you lost and give you a much more accurate estimation of how much water and electrolytes you need to replace.
  • Finally, it’s important to note that your electrolyte loss (and fluid loss in general) will be greater in the heat.  Fortunately, this is compensated for by an increase in thirst, so drinking to thirst in workouts and races that last longer than one hour should keep you on the right track, as long as you’re consuming sodium as well.
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4 Simple Tweaks You Can Make to Your Training That Will Make You a Better Runner Immediately Mon, 17 Mar 2014 10:00:44 +0000 What is one thing you can do to be a better runner today?

For those of you like me who eat, breathe and sleep running, it’s easy, and a lot of fun, to get caught up reading about the latest training theories, race-specific workouts, and nutrition secrets. The problem for most runners (and myself) is putting this advice into action; either it’s not specific to what you’re doing right now (how to recover from a marathon for example) or it’s not specifically actionable advice (learning about the 3 different types of thresholds).

To help you avoid information overload and to facilitate you being able to make positive changes to your running right now, I am going to share with you 4 quick wins you can implement right away.

Do one of these things each day this week (and continue doing them) and I guarantee you’ll be a better runner in just 4 days!

1. Add hip strengthening to your training

All coaches would agree that staying healthy and training consistently are the primary keys to success. If you can train healthy for months and years at a time you will improve – it’s one of the only guarantees in running.

The problem is actually staying healthy.

When research estimates that nearly 72% of runners will get injured sometime in their running career, how can you avoid being part of this statistic and actually run injury-free?

The easiest and simplest way is to strengthen the areas that are most likely to lead to injury. In running, that’s the hips.

Research clearly identifies weakness and tightness in the hips as the primary cause for almost all knee injuries (including IT band) as well as a secondary contributor to injuries such as plantar fasciitis and achilles tendonitis.

So, we know that strengthening the hips will greatly reduce the likelihood of running injuries.

Luckily, adding a running-specific hip strengthening routine to your training doesn’t have to take long. In fact, thanks to more great research we’ve uncovered, it takes as little as 5 exercises to strengthen the hips for running.

A simple and quick routine based around clamshell exercises, side-steps, single-leg glute bridges, and quadruped hip extensions will provide everything you need. Here’s a quick demo of these routines, but if you need more detail, you can learn here.


Now, “not having enough time” is a terrible excuse. This routine takes 5 minutes at most and can go a long way towards keeping you healthy.

Can you do more in-depth and rigorous hip strengthening routines? Absolutely – and I hope you do. The more you can target the hips, the stronger and more injury-resilient you will become. Here is a great free routine you can try.

But if you can only do one thing today to make yourself a better runner, add this simple, effective hip routine that takes less than 5 minutes.

2. Perform a dynamic warm-up

Another quick, simple way to avoid injuries is to ensure that your muscles, tendons and ligaments are prepared to handle the impact and stresses of running before you actually begin to run.

Most runners think simply starting their run at a very easy pace will help get them warmed up, but you’re still landing on each leg with roughly 2.5 times your body weight with each step you take, even at a very slow pace. Personally, that’s still a little too much stress on the structural system, especially when you’re running almost every day.

Once again, luck is on our side as we now know that we can easily prepare the specific running muscles for the stress and impact of running with a short and simple dynamic warm-up.

The exact dynamic stretching routine you do in your warm up will depend on your fitness level and the type of running you plan to do. But, at the most basic level all it takes is 3 minutes.

Yes, just 3 minutes a day before each run could help reduce injuries and improve your stride.

Personally, I like the lunge matrix that was developed by Gary Grey and popularized by Jay Johnson. It’s a simple series of 5 lunge movements that will help engage your running muscles in all planes of motion. You can see a video demonstration here or an outline with pictures and descriptions here.

There are plenty of other sources for dynamic stretching on the internet: ankle rolls, toe pumps, leg swings, single leg deadlifts, etc. Finding routines is not the issue.

The issue is ensuring you avoid the massive temptation to miss it out before you run. You will come up with every excuse under the sun: “It’s too cold,” “I don’t have time,” “I’ll do extra tomorrow to make up for it.”

It’s just 3-5 minutes people!  Believe me, it will create focus, readiness, and mark the beginning of fewer injuries & improved running performance.

3. Improve your cadence

Most runners strive to improve their form, but actually improving running form can be a difficult and confusing process.

Not only is it a challenge to identify what specific improvements you should be making since running movements occur in fractions of a second, but it’s also difficult to feel if you are properly implementing these changes.

Moreover, everyone’s got a different take on how exactly you should improve your form, what good form looks like, and what you should be focusing on. One week you’ll read heelstriking is bad, the next you’ll read that heel striking is more efficient. On and on it goes until you’re so confused you don’t know what to actually work on.

We could debate endlessly about what is right and what is wrong ( and we’ve published tens of articles that discuss running mechanics in-depth), but the underlying question remains: What can I do to improve my running form today?

The simple answer is to work to gradually increase your cadence.

You can read our very in-depth articles on what cadence is and why it works here and here. But, we’ll keep it simple for the purpose of this article and helping you make an actionable improvement to your running starting today.

  1. Determine your current cadence by counting the number of times your left foot hits the ground whilst running for 30 seconds at normal easy pace. Let’s imagine yours was 40. Double that to get the total for 60 seconds (80); then double it again to get the total for both feet (160). Your cadence (for that particular running speed) is therefore 160spm.
  2. If your cadence is less than 170 spm, consiously increase this number by 5% for 30 seconds during your next run. If your cadence is already 170spm or higher, you don’t need to worry and can move on to our next piece of advice.
  3. Once you can comfortably run at your new spm (without thinking about it), add another 5% and repeat the process until you reach a cadence between 170-180spm.

This subtle increase in step rate can substantially reduce the loading to the hip and knee joints during running and may prove beneficial in the prevention and treatment of common running-related injuries

4. Slow down

Slowing down on your easy runs is not only one of the easiest ways to prevent injury, but it will help you race faster as well.

Wait. Running slower will help you race faster? Are you sure you’re reading RunnersConnect and not Runner’s World?

Yes, it’s true. And it’s all thanks to the aerobic system.

At the heart of aerobic training is the scientific fact that to exercise, your body needs to break down sugar and convert it to glycogen so it can be used as energy or fuel.

In the presence of adequate oxygen, the body utilizes the aerobic system, also known as aerobic glycolysis, to power continuous running. When you are “running aerobically” (or running easy), your muscles have enough oxygen to produce all the energy they need to perform.

Since the aerobic system contributes up to 85-99% of the energy needed to race, improving your capacity to transport and efficiently utilize available oxygen to produce energy will enable you to race faster.

Since running easy helps develop the aerobic system there’s no better way to increase aerobic development.

Scientific research as been able to identify exactly how the aerobic system responds and adapts to certain training paces. You can read the full research (and download your own optimal easy run pace calculator) here, but the body of evidence is clear, your optimal easy run pace for aerobic development is between 55 and 75 percent of your 5k pace, with the average pace being about 65 percent.  For a very simplistic example, that’s about 2 minutes to 2 minutes and 30 seconds per mile slower than 5k pace.

Running slower helps prevent injuries

If improving your performance by developing your aerobic system doesn’t convince you to slow down, perhaps looking at why running faster on easy days contributes to injuries will.

The faster you run on your easy days, the more stress you place on the muscles, tendons, ligaments in bones. For example, you may be able to head out the door and hammer out an easy day and feel fine with your breathing, but your hips might not be strong enough yet to handle the pace or the consecutive days of faster running and, as a result, your IT band becomes inflamed.

Easy days can also function as active recovery from your hard workouts – but not if you run them too fast. Easy running delivers oxygen and nutrients directly to the muscles used during running. When running easy enough, the stress and micro tears that result from running are virtually non-existent, so the recovery outweighs the slight muscle damage.

The simple answer to reducing your injury risk is to slow down. On your next easy run, really work to slow your pace down so you’re running at least 2 minutes slower than 5k pace. Even better is if you’re 2:30 slower per mile than 5k pace!

Don’t wait, become a better runner today

Don’t read this article, file it away and say “yes, I’ll come back to that”. Take action right now and start making yourself a better, more injury-resistant runner.

Implement one of these ideas each day for the next week. It will add a total of 8 minutes to your daily running routine – that’s it.

If you continue to implement these quick changes you’ll take dramatic steps towards reducing injuries and training healthy and consistent long-term.

Let us know how the changes went for you. Be accountable and share how these simple tweaks worked for you!

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What is a Tempo Run: Understanding the 3 Types of Thresholds and How to Target Them in Your Training Thu, 13 Mar 2014 10:00:08 +0000 One thing that many runners learn the hard way is that long distance running is not a sport of instant gratification. Running as fast as you can for as long as you can every day rarely leads to personal bests and instead leads to injury and fatigue.

Racing fast means running smart and targeting workouts at precise paces that reap specific benefits.

Most runners have heard the term “tempo run” before, but many don’t realize that there are actually 3 different types of tempo runs (better referred to as thresholds) and that understanding the precise differences between the three is critical to targeting the right effort levels.

With terms like lactate threshold, tempo run and anaerobic being thrown around interchangeably, understanding your training can get pretty confusing.

To help you better target your training and efforts, we’re going clarify what the 3 different zones of threshold running are and how you can tell when you are running the right pace to achieve a specific benefit.

Zone 1: Anaerobic Threshold

The anaerobic threshold is often defined as the level of exercise intensity at which lactic acid accumulates in the blood stream faster than it can be cleared away.  Muscular acidosis, which is the lowering of muscle pH due to hydrogen ions accumulating in the tissue, creates a burning sensation in the legs, telling an athlete that they are running right on the edge of their anaerobic threshold.

The word anaerobic means “without oxygen” and in the world of exercise science it describes strength-building exercises in contrast to longer, endurance training.

In essence, when a long distance runner performs anaerobic threshold (often called tempo runs) correctly, they are running at or very near anaerobic threshold intensity, and their body is producing lactic acid slightly faster than it can be cleared from the blood stream.

Increasing one’s anaerobic threshold is important for runners who are racing all distances because it allows the body to run at faster and faster speeds before fatigue and lactic acid take over. Athletes who race the 1500 meters all the way up through the marathon should make anaerobic threshold work a part of their training program.

Which workouts target the anaerobic threshold?

Tempo runs and cruise intervals at tempo effort are the workouts that increase an athlete’s anaerobic threshold most specifically.

  • Tempo runs are run at a pace that an athlete could maintain for about 60 minutes, and are sustained for approximately 20-40 minutes.
  • Tempo intervals are run at the same pace as tempo efforts. Think of tempo intervals as a broken tempo run. For instance, one week you may run a 40 minute tempo effort and the following week you may run 4 X 10 minutes at the same tempo effort with a few minutes of rest in between these intervals. Tempo intervals allow an athlete to put in a significant amount of time at the anaerobic threshold with less of a strain on the body than a consistent tempo run.

How can I make sure that I am running the right pace to increase my anaerobic threshold?

Finding the right pace for your anaerobic threshold (a pace you could maintain for about 60 minutes) is just a matter of math.

For runners who complete a 10k in one hour, the anaerobic threshold is the same as the 10k pace. For runners who complete the 10k in 50 minutes, the anaerobic threshold would be the 10k pace plus roughly 10 seconds per mile, and so on.

For some of the best runners in the world who complete a half marathon in 60 minutes, their half marathon pace is also their anaerobic threshold pace! Of course, as a runner becomes fitter and faster throughout a season, the threshold pace will gradually increase.

Although it is often tempting to run every workout as fast as possible, straying out of the anaerobic threshold range negates the benefits of increasing the anaerobic threshold.

Often, when an athlete feels good and wants to run faster on a day that is a designated tempo effort, they do so at a pace that does not help to increase the anaerobic threshold and by running faster they are actually doing less to help themselves race fast in the long run.

Zone 2: Lactate Threshold

As you run faster and faster, your body uses less of your aerobic system and more of your anaerobic system that produces energy through glycolysis, essentially the fermenting of the muscles that produces the byproduct lactic aid.

Many runners confuse the anaerobic and lactate thresholds. The two terms, while similar, should not be used interchangeably.

The terms anaerobic threshold and lactate threshold describe different points on the lactate curve. The lactate threshold is the point at which lactic acid is just beginning to accumulate while the anaerobic threshold describes the point at which lactic acid builds faster than the body is able to remove it, usually occurring at about 4 mmol/L of lactate.

Which workouts target the lactate threshold?

The differentiation between work that targets the lactate threshold and anaerobic threshold lies in the math. Workouts that increase the lactate threshold are run at 85%-91% of the anaerobic threshold, 66%-75% or VO2max or 71%-75% of maximum heart rate.

Simply put, lactate threshold efforts are slightly slower than the workouts that target the anaerobic threshold and thus, should feel slightly easier on shorter periods and can be extended slightly on longer pieces.

Basically, workouts that are longer endurance workouts or easy speed workouts help to build your lactate threshold.

Zone 3: Aerobic Threshold

The work aerobic means “with or involving oxygen.” A runner’s aerobic system uses oxygen and burns fats, proteins and carbohydrates. It is the main energy system used in long distance running. Unlike the anaerobic system, the aerobic system produces energy slowly so it cannot be relied upon when large amounts of energy are needed immediately.

The aerobic threshold is the level of exercise intensity at which an athlete can run without accumulating significant lactic acid in the blood. For most runners, this is roughly current marathon race pace.

The reason that runners work to increase their aerobic threshold is that the higher the aerobic threshold, the faster and longer they can run before they cross the line into anaerobic metabolism, a zone that they cannot sustain for a long period of time.

For marathoners specifically, aerobic threshold is the fastest pace at which you can still burn fat efficiently as a fuel source. This is critical since increasing your efficiency to burn fat when running at marathon pace is the key to avoiding the wall and racing faster.

Which workouts target the aerobic threshold?

Workouts that target and are run at current marathon pace increase the aerobic threshold. Workouts that focus on endurance and stamina rather than short bursts of speed are the kind of workouts that benefit the aerobic system.

  • My favorite aerobic threshold workout is the steady run. Generally, steady runs are performed at about 10 seconds faster to 20 seconds slower than current marathon pace. The distance is usually between 4 and 8 miles, depending on the athlete’s mileage level.
  • Many coaches advise longer intervals at marathon pace, such as 8-12 mile aerobic threshold or marathon paces runs.
  • Additionally, occasionally running portions of your long runs at marathon pace are beneficial for increasing the aerobic threshold.

How can I make sure that I am running the right pace to increase my aerobic threshold?

A good rule of thumb for those without a definable marathon race pace is the target heart rate zone of 60-80% of maximum heart rate, where as the aerobic threshold falls between 80-100% MHR. As most athletes know, 220 – age = MHR.

However, training by heart rate rather than current marathon pace experience is not advisable because of the many factors that can influence an athlete’s heart rate from day to day. Read this article on why I don’t recommend training by heart rate for more in-depth thoughts on this.

Why is understanding the nuances between thresholds important?

As you can see, each type of threshold run is designed to elicit a specific physiological response. When you run outside the “zone” of the threshold you’re targeting you’re not able to take full advantage of the workout.

This happens most often with marathon runners who set out to target the aerobic threshold.

During the workout, they feel good and aerobic threshold pace feels easy so they start running faster. Or, they decide to use goal marathon pace as their aerobic threshold pace, which has nothing to do with your current physiological reality. Unfortunately, this transitions the body into working the lactate or anaerobic threshold rather than aerobic threshold.

It’s a slight difference, but instead of teaching their body how to burn fat efficiently at marathon pace and improving their ability to run longer at this high end aerobic pace, they target the anaerobic threshold, which is great for improving the ability to buffer lactate, but does nothing to improving marathon specific readiness.

This is why runners will often run great in training and PR in tune-up races but crash during the marathon.

Try to think of a threshold as a giant pit of mud during a race. For most of the race, you are feeling great, running hard and fast and pushing the pace. All of a sudden, you enter the mud pit and your effort increases tenfold as other runners fly past you.

What if you could push that mud pit farther and farther away so that you barely touched the beginning of it as you were crossing the finish line? That is what threshold work aims to achieve.

Each threshold causes increased effort and physiological difficulty when you cross it. By raising those thresholds, you can race farther and faster more comfortably.

So stay in the zone, run smart and race hard!

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