How to be a better runner #toughlove

Time and time again I will have athletes ask me about what running workouts they need to become a better, more successful runner. While I agree how you train from a running perspective is very important to your success, there are a few other factors that should be seen as important (or arguably more so) to your success.

First of all, let’s be clear. Running is not just running. Somehow, somewhere, along the way someone got the idea in their head that running is a simple sport because “all you need is shoes” and then spread that as the truth. #fakenews! What they neglected to acknowledge is that your body is literally your equipment when you run. Just like any other sport, if you don’t invest in good equipment or maintenance of that equipment, your performance is going suffer and eventually that equipment may completely fail you leaving you broken and disappointed. Sure, some people have more natural ability, but without cultivating that talent and a strong body to support it, loads of potential is going to be missed.

Building a sustainably successful runner

The average runner takes 160-170 steps per minute. For a 10 minute mile, that is about 1650 steps. Each step is essentially a tiny single leg hop forward in which a single leg takes the load of the entire body with a force of 3-5 times your bodyweight. Do that math for a second. Take your bodyweight and multiply that by 3 and then by 5. That is the force that just one of your legs needs to stabilize in an instant, while in motion. (And the faster you run, the more rapidly your body needs to respond to stabilize and propel you forward.)  Shoes can help with the impact, but if your body isn’t properly conditioned and efficient you are going to end up with not just some performance leakage, but some pretty angry body parts from being banged up, as well. Your body needs to be strong enough to stabilize with good posture and propel you forward and you also need to have enough flexibility and joint mobility for your body to go through a full range of motion. It is a complex chain of events that happen structurally and responsively when you run.

So to be a sustainably successful runner, you need to be considering more than your running workouts. Here are the top things that you should consider and be working on:

  • Posture/Form
  • Range of Motion (Flexibility and Mobility)
  • Strength
  • Muscle activation

The first two are going to have an influence on the bottom two and vice versa. If you do not have proper form or range of motion throughout your stride, you are not going to get proper muscle activation and the strength that comes from those muscles. If your muscles aren’t strong enough or are not activating, you are not going to be able to maintain proper form or propel through the range of motion needed for an efficient stride and to protect your body from injury. To add insult to injury, every time you go out for a run your body is looking for shortcuts which could reinforce muscle weakness and activation issues. Long duration aerobic/cardio also increases the stress hormone “cortisol” which causes the body to break down of muscle of fuel as well as increases fat accumulation leading to less strong, “skinny fat” runners. (Not a fan of the term “skinny fat” but it is appropriate in this case.) A runner needs to in many ways counteract the damage they are potentially doing with their running to help support their running. It’s an important cycle that shouldn’t be ignored.

Making the investment

I hear it over and again…

“I haven’t had time to focus on my strength work.”
“I haven’t had time for stretching or rolling.”
“I don’t understand mobility work so I’m not doing it.”
“Things have been crazy so I could only get my runs in this week.”

First of all, if you aren’t getting in all this “other” critical work, you are not training properly. Period. If all you are doing is running, you are figuratively–and quite possibly literally if you have glute activation issues–half a**ing it. Let me say that another way. IF YOU ARE ONLY RUNNING AND SKIPPING THE REST OF THE WORK, YOU ARE NOT TRAINING PROPERLY. #toughlove If you want to be a successful runner with a sustainable “career”–recreational or otherwise–you must put in ALL of the work.

Now I know some are probably thinking “I don’t want to gain weight with strength training” or “I don’t want to add to my recovery time with strength training” or some other nonsensical excuse. As long as you are not training and/or eating like a bodybuilder, you are not going to bulk up. (Just think about all the effort that they put into that!) The importance of diet during training is a topic for another day, but adding muscle is actually going to help you be more lean by boosting your metabolism and helping to burn more fat. As for the recovery time, well, that is why periodization is important and you should definitely take into consideration how you approach strength training based on your training cycles. During base and off-season you should be focusing more on strength and as you get into peak training your strength training should be less of a focus and less intense, but also not completely ignored. During non-peak training you are looking to increase strength and build that engine stronger. During peak training you are looking to maintain strength and remain injury free. Mobility and muscle activation work will not have significant recovery time and should be a focus year round.

Successful runners are self-disciplined

We all know those runners who never miss a workout. Those dedicated and disciplined runners who get up before dawn to run in inclimate conditions. I define discipline as doing things you don’t want to do with as much consistency and drive as you put into the things you want to do. It doesn’t take any discipline to do something you want to do every day. It takes discipline to make the decision and follow through on all that stuff you like to de-prioritize then pass off as a victim of a busy schedule or compromise for/at a social event. For example, it takes discipline to get your run in when the weather isn’t ideal or your schedule is cramped or you are just so dang tired from all the work you have put in. It also takes discipline to get off the couch after a long day or avoid it after a long run so you can get in some mobility work or roll. It takes discipline to get your butt to the gym and do all that stuff that hurts and you hate. It takes discipline to skip that other more enjoyable activity for the time you need to dedicate to the work that you don’t enjoy as much.

At the end of the day, you have to be disciplined in all aspects of your training, not just your running workouts. And trust me, no one can motivate you day after day for any length of time without your commitment and drive–your own discipline. In my opinion, YOU have to be the one to driving your success 98-99% of the time. Your coach and support network can be there to help motivate you that 1-2% of the time that you are unable to do it for yourself. This type of self-discipline can be a very good indicator of mental strength. If you can’t push yourself to do 10 minutes of mobility work a day, how do you expect to push through a tough run when you are actually physically in pain? Learning how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable is so valuable as a runner and just in life in general.

DO. Or do not. There is no try.

In the grand scheme of things, the things you need to be focusing on outside of your running shouldn’t add much time to your calendar if you integrate wisely with respect to your periodization. In my opinion these things do not get de-prioritized because of lack of time. Excuses are made because you don’t have the discipline or don’t think it is as valuable as whatever else you are spending your time doing. #toughlove

For muscle activation, mobility, flexibility, and self care like massage and foam rolling, you don’t need much to see benefit–you really just need a consistent practice. For strength/conditioning work, sure, a couple of hours a week would be ideal, but if you are doing absolutely nothing now 10-20 minutes a day or even every other day of bodyweight exercises could have benefit as a start. Some of this stuff is stuff you can do on the floor in front of your TV, on a break by your desk, or you can incorporate it into pre and post workout routines. The key is spending your time on things that will benefit you most. If you aren’t sure what that is most runners could use work on their glute and hip strength and associated mobility. The core is also super important and a no regrets place to focus on. Ankles, feet, and calves can also be a good place to start. Create a simple routine (or find one online) and be consistent with it for 3 weeks before changing it up. This gives your body enough time to adapt and build strength.

I think the most important and challenging aspect of being a runner is learning, accepting, and embracing the need to stop solely looking to your running workouts on the track, your long run, or your weekly mileage for success. Whether you want to be a sustainably successful runner or just want to PR that next race, you are selling yourself short if you are trying to get there by only running. To train smart, train STRONG.

Further reading

How’s your running body?

To make it to the next level, strength training is a must

Strength training for runners: How to do it right

 

 

Mental clarity

It’s been over two months since I have run. Since then I have had a couple of x-rays and MRIs and found out a few things. I’ve DNSed a couple races. I’ve stopped training cardio entirely. One might think this has lead to some significant mental anguish, but the truth is I am happier than I have been in a couple of years.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Why is this extended time off going so well mentally? (And physically, to be honest.) The answer that I have come up with is two fold: one is that I am training for myself which isn’t really different than before, but the second is that I am no longer needing to validate myself, to myself, in the same ways as I had been.

Exactly three years ago to the day, I ran my longest run to date at Bronx 10 mile. Just a 4 months before that I had run 5 miles for the first time. And the year before that, I had quit running entirely and would stage a slow comeback later that summer. Since that 10 mile run three years ago, I have run a marathon and trained for two 50ks. I’ve increased mileage on my long runs, weekly volume, and cumulative elevations. I’ve been chasing bigger and bigger goals with some physical, but no mental breaks.

I’ve never been one who cared about speed. Getting into the Boston Marathon is an amazing accomplishment that I have no interest in whatsoever. I have always been driven by endurance and strength over getting from point a to point b in the fastest way possible. Something about drawing out the run longer and making it more grueling is very appealing to me. This isn’t just about physical strength, it’s about mental strength–over an extended period of time. To me, the physical was always the limiter. I focused on getting stronger and trained right on the edge of my fitness a lot of the time. When physical limitations got in the way I would do everything I could to address them, but keep moving forward. I had to get to that finish line.

My last 50k training cycle was the most extreme example of this drive to get to my goal race. I did everything I could trying to work around whatever my body was cranky about. By the time I got to within weeks of the starting line I was mentally exhausted. I knew I was mentally strong enough to get to the start line and get it done, but I also knew once it was over that I was taking a break. Well, the start line didn’t happen and a few weeks after that I decided to pull the plug on running entirely for awhile.

So I here I am with no running goals and happy as a clam. I’ve decided that not just my body, but mind is going to guide me not a finish line on the calendar. I’ll know when the time is right both physically and mentally. In the meantime, I’ve been seeing a trainer twice a week who I really like and I am getting super strong. I’ve learned more about my body and am learning how to work around certain peculiarities. (Metatarsus adductus, hammertoes, tailor’s bunions, an angry adventitial bursa in my foot, neuropathy in my feet, and of course those two discs in my back) My back and the rest of my body excluding my foot feels better than it has in years. My foot (bursitis) is still getting inflamed and obviously needs some more patience. I am happy to oblige.

I’ve learned to appreciate the daily and weekly progress with strength training and focusing on nutrition. There is something rewarding about not just lifting heavy weights, but acknowledging the mental strength it takes to lift your body weight and more from the ground. That’s not just muscular strength, you have to believe you can do it. I’ve also learned to appreciate quick or simple wins like nailing my nutrition on a Saturday, getting an extra 10 seconds on my hang or handstand, or noticing my mobility improving in different joints. I feel like I am building a race car and am focused on making sure each and every part is performing at it’s best. Maybe less of a race car and more of a Peterbilt truck, all terrain vehicle, race car hybrid with a super smart dash, but you get the idea. I’m really taking pride in and appreciating the work. And to be honest, I’m not mad about having my weekends free to reconnect with friends and adventure in different ways.

My top 10 exercises for a strong runner body (1-5)

Here are my top 10 picks for strength and conditioning exercises for runners. This doesn’t encompass all you could or should be doing, but these 10 will give you a lot of “bang for your buck”, require little space, and most require no equipment. Using just your body and a hallway’s worth of space you can keep your body strong for all those miles!

Feeling strong! My first leg kicks off around 1615 PT. 💪🏃✨🦁✨💕

A post shared by Distance Traveled Endurance (@distancetraveledendurance) on

 

You have heard it before and it is worth stating again, a focus on form and quality over quantity is important for all of these. I tend to subscribe to the “rep until fatigued” model and if it is taking too many reps then it might be time to add some weight. For most of these I will do multiple sets (2-3) to fatigue. (Read: until I can’t hold good form anymore.)

As a reminder, I am a running coach and not a personal trainer. I highly encourage you to work with a certified trainer to tailor a specific program to your needs especially if you have special considerations like injury. At the very least you should consult with a certified trainer to confirm your form is sound before performing these on a regular basis. Performing some of the exercises incorrectly especially with weight could lead to injury! Since I feel strongly that you should consult with a trainer on form, I will refrain from giving detailed instructions for how to perform each exercise and just share some of my thoughts on each.

Push-ups

“an exercise in which a person lies facing the floor and, keeping their back straight, raises their body by pressing down on their hands

Seems simple, right? Push-ups are one of the most valuable body weight exercises when performed correctly as they engage your entire body. Haven’t been feeling your glutes and legs in your push-ups? You should focus on your form. Ground your toes, engage your core (suck your belly button into your back), engage your glutes and hammies, and flatten your back so that your entire body is straight. This should also mean your pelvis, shoulders, and neck are neutral. Make sure to keep this straight and neutral position all the way down and back up. Do not let your back arch and hips dip! I find focusing on pressing up through my entire body as opposed to just my hands to be helpful in keeping form on the way back up. Keeping your elbows tucked in and at 20-40 degrees to your body puts less strain on your shoulders than flaring your arms to 90 degrees. It makes the push-up more difficult, but remember quality over quantity!

One of my favorite things to do with push-ups is to lose the momentum by slowly lowering towards the ground and holding a few inches above it before pushing back up. If you are unable to do a full push-up, you can place your upper body higher than your lower body to make the exercise easier. So instead of putting your hands on the ground, you use a chair, table, or bench.

Planks

“(also called a front hold, hover, or abdominal bridge) is an isometric core strength exercise that involves maintaining a position similar to a push-up”

I would argue that a plank can and should also be a full body exercise in the same way that push-up is and I would include forearm, full, and side planks here. Your form for the full plank is going to be the same as a push-up in the up position. For forearm planks, you are just down on your forearms. Not letting your back arch and hips sag is important here. It is also important to not let your butt drift too high as that is going to “turn off” some of the key muscle groups that you are trying to work. Video yourself with your phone from the side or use a mirror to check your form for these to ensure you are getting the value out of them! Once you have worked up to a reasonable amount of time, you can sweeten the deal by moving from full to forearm and back again during your hold or try doing some single leg lifts during your hold. Make sure to keep your form and keep the lifted leg in line with your body.

Side planks can be performed with a fully extended arm, on your forearm, and with the bottom leg fully extended so your foot is the point of contact with the ground or with your leg bent to 90 degrees at the knee and your knee as the point of contact. Important things to consider here are keeping your hips in line with your body. So hips and pelvis should be square with the upper body and hips should be stacked directly on top each other. Watch for dropping towards the floor at the hips, sticking the butt out too far behind you, and your top hip rolling forward or back. Mastered the side plank? Trying lifting the top leg up and holding or you can shift the top leg’s foot back behind you a bit and do slow leg lifts in this position. Height of the leg lifts should be a balanced counter to your grounded leg. No need to kick the foot to the ceiling!

Dead bugs

No definition found for a dead bug?! These are a deceivingly complex and a totally underrated exercise in my humble opinion. If you have ever done these and felt they were easy, you were probably doing them wrong! Key points to performing deadbugs properly are maintaining a flat back, not hyperflexing the knee, and speed of the reps. To get into proper starting position, exhale to bring your ribcage down and flatten your back to the floor. This should rotate your pelvis and allow you to engage your glutes and core. Your knee should be at about 90 degrees and arms extended directly in front of you towards the ceiling in the starting position. From here, you should focus on slowly lowering one leg and the opposite arm while continuing to engage your core and keeping your back flat on the ground. Arm should not stray out from your body and should be directly above your shoulder, next to your head, and close to your ear. Foot can be pointed. Now hold for a few seconds before SLOWLY coming back to starting position. Again, keep your core engaged and your back flat against the floor. Ten of these should be enough to get you shaking. I do these to almost completely fatigued which for me is about 10!

Bird Dogs

“a classic core exercise that emphasizes lower back strength and balance”

Alright, now I am just repeating myself–form and speed are key components to this exercise! For this exercise you are on hands and knees so the first part of form is correct placement of those. Be sure to have your hips and shoulders in the correct position and weight evenly distributed through your four limbs. As with all of these exercises, your hip, pelvis, and overall back alignment is really important. Suck in that belly and tuck your tailbone to engage your core and tilt your pelvis into neutral. Back should be flat and not rounding including they shoulders. As you raise your arms, think about that dead bug positioning — arm should be straight in front and close to your head and ear not straying out from the body. Your leg should lift to be in line with your body and straight behind your glute so foot is in line with your butt cheek. If you don’t have the strength to lift the leg and arm at the same time, you can do just legs and then just arms. Your raises and lowers should be slow and deliberate and you should focus on keeping your pelvis, hips, and back in proper alignment. You can hold the raised position for added intensity.

Squats, deadlifts, and pistol squats

“a compound, full body exercise that trains primarily the muscles of the thighs, hips and buttocks, quadriceps femoris muscle, hamstrings, as well as strengthening the bones, ligaments and insertion of the tendons throughout the lower body. Squats are considered a vital exercise for increasing the strength and size of the legs and buttocks, as well as developing core strength”

Phew! That’s a lot. So why didn’t I put these amazing exercises first? Because these are next level exercises, in my humble opinion. Get the form wrong on these and you can end up with ill effects. All of these are in the same family and have the same general form and motion, but have some important unique benefits. At it’s simplest form, a squat, when performed correctly improves strength in the posterior chain. (All that stuff on the back on your body instead of the front.) A strong posterior chain is super important for a runner as this is what stabilizes you and helps to propel you forward. Squats can be performed as a body weight exercise or with weight. Squats (with a barbell) and deadlifts may seem like the same exercise with just a shift in barbell placement, but they actually work the muscles in different ways so are both important to include your routine. Pistol squats add balance and really test your unilateral strength. I will refrain from giving pointers on form for these as I do feel it’s really important that you consult a trainer for proper form and weight recommendations here!

The first 5

So that’s my first 5 exercises! These exercises are great at improving your strength through body weight and movement. They can be performed without equipment, in very little space, and many of them can be done every day without fear of too much fatigue or soreness. I’ll be sharing my next 5 soon. In the meantime, let me know what you think of these 5 and I loved to hear what you think my next 5 will be!

 

How injury is making me a stronger athlete

So we all know the story by now, right? It started with a pain in the neck about two weeks after the marathon and then a sneeze at the beginning of January that set me back again. It’s been a crazy few months trying to balance my recovery–physical therapy, acupuncture, rest–with the rest of my life including a challenging project at work and several other leadership position responsibilities in other groups. Add to that being a new coach with 2 athletes and I have plenty on my plate!

So how in the heck is this injury making me stronger?

  1. Being injured is a tough mental game. And I’m not just talking about the frustration of dropped races, missed runs with friends, and feeling like all my training gains from my marathon training cycle are withering away. Not being able to workout and especially run, changes your brain. No workout endorphins, no familiar form of stress relief, and a total disruption of routine will have physical effects, for sure. Add a little bit of a feeling of a loss of identity on top of uncertainty of when full recovery will happen and training can resume and there was a lot to wade through all at once. It wasn’t all bad and I did enjoy my social life a bit more, but I did find myself feeling more stressed than usual. In the past couple weeks I have definitely noticed a mental shift as I learned how to adapt. Maybe not so coincidentally, my recovery had a sharp upturn in progress when than mental shift happened!
  2. Consistency in strength and conditioning. During marathon training, I was getting in strength and conditioning about twice a week for at least 45 minutes each session. My physical therapy calls for 10-15 minutes of stretching every morning and evening with a few minutes here and there throughout the day. Additionally, I have 30-45 minutes of strength exercises to get in every day: single leg balances, 60 squats, 60 weighted lunges, 60 single leg bridges, several different core exercises in multiple sets, some weighted upper body work. It was a lot to keep up with. But I learned that I can do strength work every day and it’s not too much. It was also great mental training on the days I just didn’t want to do it. This was especially true for days that work erupted or other life stuff seemed to compete. There were days I had to dig really deep into the motivation well to get that strength workout in! And the results are apparent both in my increased strength and my body composition.
  3. Adding cross-training to the mix. During marathon training, I was also supposed to be getting in 1-2 non-impact cardio (spinning or elliptical) workouts each week. I hate the gym and riding my bike in the city freaks me out. Needless to say, I made it out for 2 cycling sessions at the start of my training cycle then quickly forgot about the 1-2 cross-training days. My physical therapist only wanted me doing elliptical and walking on a treadmill for awhile so I had to work past my gym anxiety if I wanted to recover. I signed up for the rec center gym around the corner from my apartment and have been twice in the past week. When I get back to training, I plan to keep the elliptical and stair climber in my routine at least twice a week.

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    I’ve been cleared for elliptical and short run/walk intervals so this morning I signed up for 6 months at the local gym and hopped on the elliptical. Followed that up with 30 minutes of strength and 15 minutes of yoga/stretch. I feel like a totally new person. Not training has been TOUGH. Much tougher than actually training!
  4. Letting go of expectations. For the first 2 months of injury, I was pushing to get back to training–sometimes to the detriment of my recovery. After the sneeze, I resigned myself to taking my time and removing expectations. My desire to plan my entire year’s race schedule (including goal times) faded and I became comfortable with the idea of just getting better and being able to run short distances. My physical therapist told me I can probably train for a Fall marathon, but I’m not even looking. I know there is still plenty of time to figure it out. I can figure out my goals as my recovery progresses. There is no need to declare my goals months or even weeks in advance.
  5. Getting back to basics — and appreciating them. A few years ago, I never thought I would run again. That first and second year back I was just so excited about every small goal — a 5 mile run, finishing my first half marathon. Last year I had a really great year full of PRs, heavy training, and a marathon. When I crossed the line at NYC Marathon, I felt like a real runner and athlete. I was so proud that I felt great for most of the race and was able to make my last mile my fastest. I was ready to push myself to the next, bigger goal. Being injured and not being able to do anything for awhile has reminded me of what a gift it is to be able to run. (Or just workout, for that matter.) To have a body that is able and mind that is willing to move is truly a blessing.
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First time running since New Year’s Eve. Only 2-3 lanes cleared on the track after last weekend’s storm. This was mostly walking, only 10 of the 30 minute workout was running and it was only 1 minute intervals. I’ll start increasing my run intervals until I get to 30 minutes of solid running again. It felt great just to be on the track and moving a little!

I’m slowly getting back to running with run/walk intervals and hope to be up to 30 minutes of solid running in the next week or two. Then I will start slowly building my mileage through March. No speed work until at least April, but I will be able to run both Broad Street Run (10 mile) and the Brooklyn Half in May. My physical therapist let me know this week that she is hoping we can wrap up our work together in the next week or two, but encouraged me to continue with acupuncture which I am more than okay with. I don’t know how soon I will go back to group runs, though. Running with friends on New Year’s Eve was fun, but also stressful as I felt the need to keep up with them. I think I will continue to fly solo for awhile until I get back into a comfortable pace for myself.

I’ll save the updates about my new role as coach for another post. However, if you are interested in a personalized training plan based on Jack Daniels (VDOT) philosophy do let me know!