“All people are born to run.” Chris McDougall, author of Born to Run
Is this quote really true? Are humans made to run? Why, if this quote is true, are 66% of runners injured (http://www.runnersworld.com/article/0,7120,s6-241-285--13413-0,00.html)? Running is a very popular activity. You have people that run competitively, for recreation, for weight loss, to meet people and because you can basically just lace up some shoes and go outside and run. But overuse, bad programming, poor mechanics, lack of strength and poor biomechanics are leading to an over abundance of running related injuries. How you decide to construct your running program might be the single most determining factor of success. Are you just running? Are you implementing specific strength work to your program? Do you adjust your training when fatigue sets in? Do you know your level? These are all concepts I will discuss in this article.
Running comes in different forms. You have elite marathon runners who can bust out 4:55 minute miles during a race (pretty much a sprint for most people). You have recreational “runners” (probably considered “joggers”) who start running for weight loss, improved health and/or to be around like-minded people. You have athletes that despise running anything over a mile but enjoy running sprints and shorter intervals. You have ultramarathoners who clock in 150-mile weeks on a consistent basis and battle through 100-mile ultra races. And then there are the weekend warriors who train just as hard as the professionals and put in just as much time but also have a full time job and full family responsibilities. People love to run. The Boston and New York City Marathons usually attract over 25,000 people to their races. Unfortunately running can be a risky and debilitating activity due to the impact it puts on the body and the lack of understanding and implementation of smart programming. Running haphazardly is detrimental and can lead to serious long-term injury. Running long, done correctly, can be a great activity, a fat loss tool, a fun primitive movement and an endorphin creating sport. Keeping the body strong and balanced, and how you progress, plan and program your runs are important parts to keeping the body safe, injury free and functionally sound.
I want to talk about 5 areas first before getting into the specifics of a running program.
1. “Don’t run to get fit, be fit to run.” This quote by physical therapist Diane Lee is important to understand in regards to long distance running. Too many beginners step outside, lace up their shoes and start running. In fact, too many experienced runners do the same thing. They disregard crucial elements of a balanced program. Without proper functional strength, mobility, stability and biomechanics, this is a recipe for injury. First get strong. And when I mean strong, I don’t mean single joint exercises like leg extensions, leg curls, biceps curls and/or triceps extensions. Strength is the ability to control the body’s weight. Strength is adequate flexibility and range of motion. Strength is left and right side symmetry. Strength is learning how to move cohesively. If you just run without being fit to run, you will increase your chances of injury.
2. Running long doesn’t have to be for everyone. I do not encourage my general fitness clients to run long distance. If capable, we do sprints, running drills and push the sled as part of our training programs. But very rarely do I advise them to run on the treadmill for 1 hour or go on a run outside to “burn fat”. When it comes to training general fitness, I am trying to create a program that creates minimal impact on the body and also utilizes their training time in the most efficient way possible. If I have clients that are training 3 days a week or less, I give them appropriate work that incorporates the entire body each workout. I also coach endurance athletes. They need long steady work implemented to build their aerobic capacity. Depending on their level, years in the sport and movement capabilities will depend on their running volume. I play on the conservative end when prescribing running volumes for people. I will get into this side of things later in the article.
3. Running can be for many people. Notice I didn’t say running “long” on this point. When appropriate, running can be for a wide variety of individuals. In terms of total body movement, core strength, mobility, stability and fat loss, running is awesome! Sprinting, running drills, sled pushes and hill running are all great activities. I have clients’ ages 8-65 running at our facility. But it goes back to advising appropriate volumes and intensities depending on the individuals’ fitness levels. Always do one less repetition than one too many.
4. Running long will utilize fat. Again, I repeat, I do not advise just long slow runs for fat loss. But running long distance does burn fat. It’s a fact. Physiologically speaking when you run at lower intensities for long periods, you oxidize fat for energy. There are long distance runners that are strong, look great and are very healthy. Looking at the total program is imperative. I know of some runners that log between 80-100 miles a week and are some of the healthiest and fittest people. I also know many people that do not run at all and have great looking and lean bodies. There are many ways to get results. The point being, running long does burn fat and can assist in a fat loss program. Should an individual who is 50 pounds overweight go out and run long? It depends. They should start small with their running volume, get in the gym and build strength, and play conservative. Running can be used as a tool to lose weight or lose fat, but shouldn’t be the only “tool” that is being utilized.
5. Running is a primitive pattern that humans should be able to handle. In a sense, I believe this point. But our society and way of life has led us down the wrong road and forced poor moving bodies. We sit more, eat more, are less active and pain symptoms are continually rising. Shin splints, plantar fasciitis, IT band problems, knee “itis”, low back pain, and weight problems are forcing people out of activity. Many of these problems were non-existent 30 years ago. But our lifestyle patterns and poor programming has led to an influx of these overuse injuries. If we switch our thought process around, decide to build a balanced program that is centered around injury prevention, functional strength and recovery strategies, we set ourselves up to devising a successful running program. Learn to do it correctly. Don’t just run to run. Run with focus, with good mechanics and develop smart training protocols.
In regards to actual running specifics, I have laid out some important base lines to follow.
1. Know your level. Beginners should never increase their mileage from week to week over 10%. This is a recipe for disaster, overuse injury and chronic pain. In fact, I advise beginners to run the same mileage for 2 weeks in a row before increasing mileage. Advanced athletes should always know their running volumes each month. I believe in looking at the bigger picture more so than a week by week basis. If you run 100 miles this month, increase the next month by 30%. This allows you to follow the weekly 10% rule with some variance but will also allow for a recovery week mixed into the month as well. The same goes for athletes who perform sprint work in their programs. I could have a group of clients/athletes that are at different fitness levels. I will then modify the repetitions according to the specific level of the client. I might have 2 athletes perform 6 x 40 yard sprints, while the other 3 athletes perform 8. And then the following week each athlete will increase their sprint repetitions by 2 to continue progressing without overtraining.
2. Do not let volume be the sole determinant of your program. When we start to focus on “more volume, more volume”, we let ourselves get carried away on running loads more so than running efficiency. Focused running is more important than long useless mileage. Depending on the goal will dictate the running volume that is needed. Longer endurance events (half marathons and higher) need more aerobic work than shorter events (1 mile – 10k). But these “shorter” events will still need aerobic foundation to maximize fitness. The key is to not overtrain and allow overuse to creep up because then you cannot train and improve. I am always going to lie on the conservative side and do one less repetition or 10 minutes less if I see fatigue is starting to set in. Make sure you are logging workouts to assess your volume week-by-week, month-by-month and year-by-year.
3. Add other elements. Like mentioned above, if all you do is run, injury is destined to be in your path. There must be focused attention to flexibility and mobility work, functional strength, optimal nutrition and adequate recovery. Before you run, proper warm-up strategies should be implemented. Cutting 10 minutes off your actual run to add dynamic warm up movements to prepare the body beforehand will create a smarter training program. You can purchase my “Ultimate Dynamic Warm-up” DVD to learn how to warm up correctly, www.justintrain.com.
4. Think long term. When an athlete approaches me about training for a specific event, I always lean towards the conservative end of training. Beginners need to understand that training for a long endurance event takes time. Too many people sign up for half marathons and beyond and only allow 10-12 weeks of training to get ready. Again, a big recipe for injury, overuse and burnout. My general guidelines are as follows:
(This all depends on the individual’s level of fitness and physical capacity; this is a general guideline)
Marathon: 36-52 weeks
Half Marathon: 16-26 weeks
10k: 12-16 weeks
5k: 8-12 weeks
Speed or sprint work: 6 weeks of general preparation in the form of drills, strength work and tempo running
5. Improve your running technique and economy. Biomechanics is a critical component to running injury free. Running with perfect form still puts impact on the body so running with poor form will increase your chances of injury. All “runners”, whether the goal is to run long distance or primarily run short spurts, need to implement drills into their programs. For my general fitness athletes, drills are integrated into every workout. These drills become movement based and can play a significant role in improving mobility, flexibility and coordination. “Do it everyday if it’s important”, says wrestling legend Dan Gable. Drills should be done consistently during the week. Every time you land a foot on the ground when you run, you put 2-5 times your bodyweight of impact each strike. If you have poor fundamentals, weak deceleration capabilities, extra bodyweight and/or poor stability, you create more pressure and pounding up the chain. When you improve mechanics, you run more efficient, with less impact and you will increase longevity in the sport.
6. Become strong. I mentioned this above but wanted this to be a point discussed in detail. Bernard Lagat, a USA elite 1500m/5k/10k runner has been quoted saying that he owes his success to the time spent in the gym. Craig Alexander, winner of the Ironman World Championships, said that he spent more time and effort in the weight room the past season. Strength work for runners will assist in injury reduction, joint integrity, proper range of motion, total body strength and stability and reducing poor movement qualities. Plain and simple, when you move better, you become more athletic and you improve as an athlete. Whether you are an elite runner or a recreational runner, it is critical to add specific strength work to your overall training program. But what you do in the gym matters. Add full body, multi-joint movement training into your weekly schedule. Functional training is training that will correspond to your goals outside the gym. Strength work should be a balanced system that will assist your needs as an athlete to develop symmetry, athleticism, power and total body awareness. So whether you are a recreational runner preparing for your first marathon or you add sprints to your training regimen, developing functional strength is mandatory to reduce injury, enhance performance and set you up for a successful overall program.
Here is an example of a strength day for a runner: (again, always depends on the level of each individual)
Strength Day Example:
Foam Roll: IT band/Glutes/Calves
Stretch: Glutes/Hip flexors/calves
Dynamic warm up and movement prep. drills
1a) Front Plank 2x20 seconds
1b) Hip Lifts with mini-band around knees 2x20 seconds
1c) Birddog 5x5 seconds
1d) Deadbug x10
1a) 1-leg hop and stick x 4/leg (focus on landing mechanics)
1b) Med. Ball OH Slams x 6
1c) Med. Ball Chest slams x 6
1a) 1-leg squat x 6
1b) Suitcase carry walks
1c) Inverted Rows x technical failure
2a) Stability Ball leg curls x 8
2b) ½ kneeling cable chops x 8
2c) Lateral push-ups walks x5 left/right x 2
(you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for pictures and/or video of the above exercises)
Random running without attention to progressions, strength development and smart tactics will lead to injury. You have to understand your body, pay attention to signs of overuse/overtraining symptoms and be willing to adjust the program accordingly. As an industry, let’s not bastardize running; let’s reward people for getting out there, pushing themselves and improving their health. The key is education. If you are a strength coach or running specific coach, hammer knowledge into the runners you train about smart training principles and get them to understand the complete picture. If you are a runner, be wise. Don’t just run without adding other elements to the program. Let’s remember, running is a sport that many people enjoy. Let’s encourage activity and promote smarter training so we can continue living healthy and taking advantage of every day!