Are you tired? No, why? You've been running through my mind for a while

I was asked to comment on the suggestion that running can be the fool's gold of fitness. It was a fairly easy request in some respects as I have on several running related ventures gone on the record as saying "running is for stupid people". No I blame that on discomfort as a product of distance but in my training practice I certainly adhere to the less offensive approach of not commenting on intellect and just reducing the amount of running I ask of others. But why? This is one of those occasions when I can think about what I do and talk to others about it.

Just the other day, somebody came up to me at my dayjob while we both doing something else and started a conversation which ran something like this:
"You alright mate?"
"Not bad ta, you?"
"Not bad. Look, I need to start running again, what sort of distance should I aim for to begin with?"
"What? Erm, sorry, what are you shooting for?"
"To go running but I'm not sure what I should set myself"
"I got that but what are you training for, what's your end goal?"
"Oh right, well, to get fitter. Should I set out for 1-2km/miles?"

Once upon a time I probably would have wheeled my soapbox out for the general topic but I'm mellowing in my old age. If you like running, don't let me stop you, knock yourself out. By way of passing comment I will say this: running well is a skill and, like any skill, you will benefit from the watchful eye of a coach to advise on technique. The research varies but the indications are that somewhere between 60 and 80% of ALL runners suffer an injury during an average year (where injury is defined as a physical problem serious enough to force a reduction in training). It appears that the more miles you accrue, the more time you spend running and the higher your risk of injury. To be honest, that's not really telling you anything, it's a simple logical progression. Even so, there is little in the universe that is risk-free, so even with the injury rate in mind, if running is something you enjoy and you're prepared to take the gamble, crack on with my blessing (but please get you technique looked at).

BUT the greater majority of people that I have come across don't run because they enjoy it. At least, not for distance! So, if you're one of the people who pounds the pavements or one of those who go to their nearest gym/health club, clamber on the treadmill, press some buttons and then proceed to while away the hours while staring at the monitors around you, stop for a minute. [If you're one of those people who gets on the treadmill with a book/magazine/newspaper we need to talk.] Answer me this:
"What are you shooting for?"
To put it another way:
What are you hoping to achieve by running?
Why do you do it? (and I'm not asking to get a rise from you, I'm genuinely interested, as you should be)

I ask this question a lot, in various guises, in many aspects of my life. Why? Firstly because I hate doing things just for the sake of doing them. Secondly, once you have figured out in your mind what it is you are trying to do, it becomes easier to recognise whether your progress is in the right direction. Not only that but it is possible that there is a better way of achieving your end.

Almost hardwired into the lore of boxing is the idea of roadwork. Getting out and running. The iconic images of Rocky running along surrounded by the neighbourhood children, finishing his run on top of the stairs.Why, why do boxers feel the need? It's part aerobic fitness, part mental fitness - just gutsing through, learning that you mind can carry you through the hardest situation. The body adapts to the specific demands being placed on it. However, the reality is that in order to run for an extended period of time you will have to drop the pace to a sustainable level. This pace will not be sufficient to impose additional demands on the body such that you might have some new adaptations. The demands imposed are those within your capabilities. OK, so you may gain from an appreciation of your capabilities but there is no definitive advantage to be had at this point (and anyway, if you want a gut-check I can design you one of those which will be more appropriate to your goals and will have you assessed in much less time!).

In adapting to the demand, your body will start to shift muscle fibre away from fast-twitch to slow-twitch. The oxidative capacity and fatigue resistance of the skeletal muscle comes at a cost, as specialisation always does. If you are a fighter, rugby player or power athlete you could be forgiven for questioning the merit of shifting your body's capacity away from your needs of it. There is even a good case for arguing the long, slow, distance work does not even encourage that the right adaptations required to race.

Let's return to the health club, to the legion of folk on the treadmill. What are you trying to achieve? Lose weight? Get fitter? Don't know, hadn't really thought about it? These are all reasonably common responses. I'll save any further talk about goal-setting at this stage (but seriously, we need to talk!) and address these objectives individually.

  • Lose weight - Let's deal with this one straight off the bat. Nutrition, diets, scran, food. Whatever you call it, 80% of any of progress on weight loss boils down to managing your food. We've all been there, we've all picked up copies of "Guns, buns and fitness" with a promise of washboard abs in 6 weeks, leafed through it looking for the secret spell which will let us lose 3 stone, drop 20% bodyfat and give us a full head of hair, all without actually having to do anything. I know, as much as I enjoy my training, it would be so much easier if I could just get the dramatic results while maintaining my current lifestyle. NEWS JUST IN... doing the same thing over and over and over will get the same results.  If we accept that a calorie is a calorie and that they are all treated equally (and honestly, that's up for debate, hence the variety in ratios of calories in the various diets) we still need to create a deficit between calories taken in and calories used. There is a lot of physiological processes going on which will impact on your results but at this stage we can take at face value that a 1lb of fat has a calorific value of 3,500. Want to create that sort of deficit? In a week, just drop the daily muffin and your milky coffee. Getting your fuelling sorted out is a quick and, in some respects, easy way of creating your energy deficit. The downside? It takes discipline and a sense of denial. We'll look at these in a different article.

  • Get fitter - where to start with this one? How will you know? You will be able to run further in less time? You will be able to do more in your chosen sport, or recover quicker when you have done things? I don't know but all the serious endurance athletes do it this way don't they? 

I've worked with de-trained individuals (and depressingly have put myself in that category from time to time) - let's map out the usual stages of development:
  1. Initial - to varying degrees - stairs cause breathlessness, walking is loathsome. Running is anathema.
  2. Starting out - short distances only. Pace is slow but heart rate is high anyway (slow though the pace is, it is faster than you have propelled yourself for a while). Shock to the system. The body adapts to this new load being placed on it.
  3. Continuing - Able to sustain pace for longer distances. Starting to go a little quicker
  4. Able to maintain steady pace for satisfactory distance - comfortable while running (adapted to it).
What now? At this point, the ability to move oxygen around the body is no longer the problem. Sessions are unlikely to stop because of breathlessness.

Congratulations, our example de-trained individual has dragged themselves off the sofa, got themselves moving, has avoided a heart attack in the early stages and through a combination of improved aerobic capacity and pace recognition/control can maintain a steady pace for a while. This mythical runner now find themselves in one of the categories nearer the beginning of this article. and yet, fitter, they're still not satisfied.

Still not satisfied? At this point it could either be because, despite their improved fitness, they're still not living, looking, performing like the movie in their head. See above about drawing out goals. Alternatively, it is more to do with a sense of potential that their nascent fitness has given them. A door has been opened and they want to step through. In either instance there is a need to tie down what is wanted so that can be steered toward and, to varying degrees - depending on the needs and awareness of the individual - into next steps. 

So what next for the runner? 

It has been suggested (Sinnett et al, 2001) that distance running is limited by one of three physiological variables - VO2 max; lactate threshold, and running economy. Research has further indicated that VO2 max is "a good measure of aerobic capacity, [but] it is not a good predictor of running performance" (JSCR 1997 11(4) 224-229). For my sins, I have put myself through a handful of ten-milers, some half-marathons and a marathon and in preparation for those I did a wee bit of research (I mostly declined to do the really long-distance runs as I was playing rugby at the time and frankly, I could not face them!). One of the things that stuck out as a feature was the, normally Sunday, weekly long run. And the justification? To put miles in the legs. There is a psychological element as well, I do not think most runners would feel comfortable reaching the 14 mile marker in a marathon and find themselves thinking "bugger me, this is the furthest I've ever run". I suspect then that the long runs also serve the purpose of giving the individual the confidence of knowing that the distance is within their capability. And I have a degree of sympathy with that but wonder if the occasional time trial might not be more effective in terms of training longevity than the high mileage pounding. Or perhaps I am just coloured by my own experience of being a "bigger" runner and working with bigger runners! Quite possibly! However, it always struck me that "getting the miles in your legs" meant accustoming your ankles, knees, hips and soft bits in between to the load requirements of the run. Load requirements? There has to be a better way of achieving that, does there not? Indeed there is - strength and mobility work and, according to some research, speed-endurance work (Iaia et al, J Appl Physiol 106: 73-80, 2009).

I've gone on enough for this outing but what I hope you will take from this is - technique, strength, speed and speed endurance. These will make significant improvements to your fitness and, if you really must run for distance, will help you do that quicker and better.


  1. at the adapted stage (4-5 miles)and don't really want to run for longer than 45 minutes.

    Time for the occassional short runs to include hills, up tempo and sprints!!

    also squats, lunges and stepups!!

    Sound about right?

  2. Scrim, Thanks for comment.

    That's about the size of it. Add some weight to the exercises to further stimulate the adaptation (seek some advice, coaching for technique and appropriate loading).

    The increase in intensity and anaerobic activity will result in growth of your connective tissue, stimulate production and circulation of hormones like testosterone, human growth hormone, IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor) and others. Not to mention the benefits to blood pressure, stroke volume and cardiac output and as a result of resistance training, bone strengthening too.

    And all without the pavement pounding (although with technique work you have other ways of taking the edge off that) and the muscle breakdown and power reduction which starts to occur with chronic, high-volume aerobic exercise. If you're an elite runner or cyclist this is one of those trade-offs you may find yourself needing to make but for most of us I don't think it's needed... but that's obviously dependent on you, your background and goals!

  3. Thanks Ben.So what do you suggest for anaerobic exercise other than running?

    An example would be good mate......and how often would you do an anaerobic session.

    Trying not to break myself yet and am happy to think long term.

  4. Good question (although we haven't answered the question about your goals).

    Standard but sensible disclaimer: get clearance from your doctor before setting out on an exercise programme. Also, get your technique checked out, it's easier to spend time getting it right at the outset than have to undo years of bad habits later. Like your health, get the base right and you will progress, ignore it and you will be in trouble at some point.

    First up, remember, we're not really wired up to do any one thing endlessly. Variety is cool and good for you both physically and mentally. You can get good mileage for health, body composition and fitness out of something like 1-2 sprint sessions, 2-3 sessions of lifting stuff (the technical term) and a couple (3+) of longer sessions of low intensity e.g. walking as it's low enough that you're deep in fat burning fuel pathway, low enough that you can sustain it and not so high that you will start to feel beaten up.

    Specifically though, having determined that you're mechanically sound (limitations of the internet people!), and medically fit (get yourselves checked out people - heart failure in the middle of a programme can really hamper your progress!) I would probably start you off keeping your mid-length runs, as you are comfortable with them, for 1-2 (ish) sessions per week. We'd do this while we get you started on some strength development, mostly so you keep interested and don't feel like you're losing ground as you're learning skills. Personally I'd like to get you off it, but having worked to get your fitness to that level can understand if you're reluctant to leave it (as ever, this would be moderated by your goals). I would also be quite keen to keep in contact/an eye on you to determine load and your response.

    Initially 1 session of weights for a week or two, just to see how you respond. If it's the first time you might feel quite beaten up quite quickly. Then up to 2 per week. Results and progress vary from individual to individual and can be influenced by general stress, diet, sleep etc etc

    Third session would either be a circuit type session; a straight sprint session; or to reduce impact to legs, if you have access to an erg (rowing machine like the Concept 2), some 500m repeats.

    Less is more with the high intensity stuff. Technique and quality of movement are important while you're learning and developing. Strength to be able to hold postures and move your body/kit. Build up the intensity levels, then look to increase duration of the session.

    If you're interested in something really specific and individualized contact me on and we can go through some stuff. For preference, a little bit of face to face work would not go amiss for my peace of mind and tehcnique and assessment purposes but even without that there's things that can be done.


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