January 19, 2023

THINK stronger, act stronger, become stronger

I used to think that marathoners and the chesty bench-pressers in the gym were from Venus and Mars. I’ve modified that view. We marathoners need strength too--in certain muscles, and without most of the mass. 

Research into strength training (called “resistance training” in most scientific papers) is probably more common than papers about running. There’s lots of it. Which means: Things can get complicated. 

Here Alex Hutchinson does his usual topnotch job of summarizing an important, new review piece that you can read in free, full text at the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. It’s about ways to optimize your strength training.

You’ll find info on low reps/big weights vs high reps/lower weights. Both seem to get you to about the same place so long as you “lift until close to failure.”

Then comes the stuff so cool that it boggles the mind. Almost literally in this example: The more clearly and forcefully you engage your brain while lifting, the bigger your strength gains. In fact, simply thinking hard about lifting (without actually moving a muscle) can improve your strength. I wouldn’t call this a “free lunch,” because hard focus requires real effort. 

Now listen up. It appears that thinking hard “is trainable.” Practice it seriously, and you’ll get better at it, opening a new door to strength training. Which sorta begs the question: Can you improve your lactate threshold by thinking hard about a tempo run for 30 minutes? 

I don’t know about that one. I’m dubious but maybe that’s the problem. Afterall, what did the White Queen say to Alice in Wonderland? “Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Perhaps I just have to work at it a little harder.

Back to strength training. A few amazing studies have shown that training one arm or leg strengthens the other even if the other does not move. This becomes very practical advice for runners with a leg injury. Do what you can do with your healthy leg, and you’ll actually help your limited leg. More at Outside Online.

How do missed training days affect your marathon performance?

Here comes an answer to a question we have never been able to crack before, because we lacked sufficient evidence. That makes this new paper both novel and exciting. Since it’s also marathon-focused, it will interest the many runners who spend weeks and months on their marathon training plans.

All marathon runners have wondered: What happens when I miss several days or weeks of training during my 12-16 week training period? How does this affect my race-day performance?

Irish runner and big-data specialist Barry Smyth and colleagues now have some answers for us, based on an analysis of 292,323 Strava runners who competed in 509,979 marathons between 2014–2017.

Here’s the low-down: Over 50% of runners experienced short training disruptions up to and including 6 days, but the disruptions over 7 days were the ones that hurt most. Those runners recorded marathon finish times about 5 to 8% slower than those with shorter disruptions. That’s 12 to 19 minutes in a marathon of 4 hours, give or take a little.

There’s more. Statistical tests indicated that “long training disruptions lead to a greater finish-time cost for males (5%) than females (3.5%).” Also, faster runners suffered more than slower runners, losing 5.4% vs 2.6%. You won’t be surprised to learn that lost training time close to the marathon is more impactful than earlier in your buildup. If you lose time early, you can always make it up and get stronger, healthier. Closer to race day, the outlook gets scarier.

This paper doesn’t tell you what to do when you experience a marathon training setback. But it provides a clearer view of the setback’s influence. The researchers say they hope it “can help runners and coaches to better understand the relationship between training consistency and marathon performance. This has the potential to help them to better evaluate disruption risk during training and to plan for race-day more appropriately when disruptions do occur.”

That’s no small contribution. Having a realistic plan on your marathon race day is a big part of your success/failure ratio that day. More at Frontiers in Sports & Active Living (free full text).

Do super shoes help mid-pack runners as much as elites?

There have been a number of quality studies on the new Nike super shoes (and other super shoes), and how they affect performance of elite runners. They make the runners faster by about 3 percent on average. Of course the elites represent only .01% of the total running population.

Less is known about how the shoes affect more modest runners--those who cross the finish line after the clock reaches 3:15. This is an important topic because anywhere from 80- to 90% of all marathoners finish after 3:15.

Now we have such a paper by senior author Geoff Burns, a PhD biomechanist, top ultra runner, and keen observer of other super-shoe research. If we cut to the chase, here’s the key finding: The super shoes do less to boost slower runners, but still make a clear difference. It amounts to 0.9% to 1.6% depending on your pace. This amounts to “an approximately 3-minute improvement for a 3:30 runner and approximately 2.5 minutes for a 4:15 runner.”

The study protocol was fascinating. Burns recruited veteran male and female runners with 5K bests roughly equivalent to a 3:30 to 4:15 marathon. They each ran efforts in a Nike super shoe (the Nike ZoomX Vaporfly Next%, the newest available at the time), and a “control shoe”--an Asics Hyper Speed racing shoe. Since the Nike shoe was slightly lighter than the Asics, Burns & co added several “wing nuts” in the Nike lacing system to achieve equal shoe weights.

The subjects exhibited very small differences from shoe to shoe for: heart rate, step frequency, vertical oscillation (“bounce”), and ground contact time. I found it interesting that they increased their step frequency in both shoes from 173 to 178 when speeding up from 9:40 pace to 8:00 pace.

Burns and co-authors concluded: “From these data, it appears that the VFN2 still enhances running economy at 10 and 12 km·h−1 ; however, these benefits are smaller in magnitude compared with previous research at faster speeds.”

Also, since Burns is interested in ultra-running, he noted that super shoes could do more than just help 3 and 4-hour marathon runners. “Certainly, these findings could also extend to longer duration events (ultramarathons and triathlons) contested on road surfaces, often at similar speeds to those studied here.” More at Int J of Sports Physiology & Performance.

How to change your stride for winter running

It’s pretty obvious that frigid winter weather changes things vis a vis outdoor running. You’ve got everything from potential frostbite to falls that cause injury. Yet many of us love winter running--I’m at about the 95% level. We enjoy getting out there. We also want to run smart.

Here a running physiotherapist takes a good look at how winter running can change your stride and your overall biomechanics. He notes three big differences from warm weather: decreased range of motion, increased tissue stiffness, and impaired stride efficiency. And he’s got good advice for all three. More at I Run Far.

“Good morning” a good time for working out

Most high school and college runners train in the afternoon when their coach calls everyone together. Adulthood brings new challenges, and many runners switch to the morning: It seems a good way to start the day and get things done before life rushes in to overwhelm you.

And that appears to be a good strategy. Here’s a strong article with scientific references that lists many benefits of a morning run. These include better cognitive and heart health, and increased fat-burning. Also, there’s no denying that most races are held in the morning, so you might as well get your body accustomed to that time of day. More at Training Peaks.

Skip the compression socks on race day

Compression running socks don’t seem as popular now as a few years ago, though there are certainly runners who continue to favor them. Research has been at times supportive, and at times less so for both improved performance and better recovery. But most previous studies have suffered from a “placebo effect” problem--subjects knew when they were wearing the socks after all.

A newer review from Sweden went deeper. Literally. It measured intramuscular pressure and oxygen delivery at the muscle-cell level among experienced runners who did one treadmill run with compression socks and one without. With socks the runners experienced more muscle pressure (a sign of fatigue) and less oxygen. Also a blood test revealed that the socks did nothing to reduce muscle-damage enzymes. 

Conclusion: “The use of CS during running affects the muscles in the lower leg negatively in healthy individuals.” (The researchers noted that medical compression stockings could still be helpful in preventing blood clots for certain individuals and situations.) Here’s a link to the original thesis page, and here’s a good article at Study Finds.

Sign up for sighing to improve your mood and energy

Here’s a blog from the authors of a recent systematic review on mindfulness for elite athletes that I previously summarized. Now they explain what they did and what it means, writing:  “Overall, athletes that underwent the mindfulness-based programmes reported improved mental health compared to the athletes in the control groups. Significantly reduced symptoms of stress, psychological distress, and anxiety were reported. Full text here at British J of Sports Medicine.

In the past, we rarely heard much about mindfulness, stress reduction, mood control, relaxation techniques, and similar approaches for athletes. Now they are considered an ever more important part of the “whole-athlete” approach, and research is flourishing.

This new paper from Stanford University says: Hey, mindfulness, we got a better way. It’s called “cyclic sighing,” which is a form of breathwork that emphasizes long exhales. The study team found that “breathwork improves mood and physiological arousal more than mindfulness meditation.” Also, “Cyclic sighing is most effective at improving mood and reducing respiratory rate.”

Cyclic sighing is essentially the same as sighing--taking in a big breath and letting it out in a long, slow exhale. The research team recommends 5 minutes a day. More at Cell Reports (free full text).

How to use Relative Perceived Exertion in your training

Relative Perceived Exertion (RPE) might be one of the most important concepts in training, coaching, and exercise physiology. But it comes under indirect attack everyday because you don’t measure it with digital gizmos backed by huge marketing budgets (read: heart rate monitors, pace trackers, stride counters, HRV monitors, sleep monitors, glucose monitors, and the like). 

As a result, RPE doesn’t pop up in direct ads on web pages or in the billions of ads auto-generated by search-engine algorithms and economics. And if you don’t see something every day in your web browsing, you don’t pay much attention.

Too bad. Because in many ways, RPE is more powerful and helpful than all the above. It generates an outcome based on the sum of the above, not just the small fractional parts. 

Here’s the rub: You can’t read your RPE from a tiny blinking screen or anywhere else. It exists in your brain as a gauge of your overall well-being, which you then have to translate into a number on a scale (either 6 to 20, or 1 to 10). 

Unfortunately, many runners don’t trust their brains in the same way they can’t figure out how much to drink when told to “drink according to thirst.” We have become overly reliant on external measures that aren’t nearly as useful as our internal feedback. The brain: Use it or lose it.

Here are several examples of RPE’s utility: Say you’re running a high-altitude race. Or a hot and humid one. Or one for which you didn’t fuel up adequately (for whatever reason). Your devices can’t tell you what to do across different conditions like this. But your RPE can, as long as you have trained yourself to tune into it.

RPE was invented by Swedish physiologist Gunnar Borg in the 1970s. He eventually put his RPE findings on a 6 to 20 scale that measures your sense of wellbeing and exertion. Since those numbers perplexed many, RPE was also verified on a 1-10 scale. Both extend from no effort to max effort. 

If you begin to pair RPE with your post-workout entry in a training log, you might move yourself toward an enhanced notion of training intensity and recovery adaptation through the days and weeks of your training. If your RPE is too high for several days, you need some rest. If it’s lower than you would expect, you might be ready to increase your training load. Here’s a big background paper at Int J of Environmental Research & Public Health, including a free, full text history with updated neurophysiology and practical applications.

SHORT STUFF you don’t want to miss

>>> Exercise is better than medicine: 100-yr-old works out every day at gym.

>>> Nose strips: A systematic review found some evidence for nasal dilators for “maximal oxygen uptake and perceived exertion,” but the evidence quality was “very low.”

>>> Most active World Cup soccer players covered about 7.5 miles per game.

GREAT QUOTES make great training partners

“Perseverance is a great element of success. If you only knock long enough and loud enough at the gate, you are sure to wake up somebody.” 

– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

That’s it for now. Thanks for reading. See you next week. Amby