March 16, 2023

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Why B+ workouts are better than A+ workouts

As an athlete, Mark Coogan ran a 2:13:05 marathon best and qualified to run in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Marathon. In recent years, he has been head coach of the successful New Balance team of elite track and road racers. And now he has also authored a training book, Personal Best Running, with crack running editor, Scott Douglas. 

Several excerpts from the book have made the rounds at popular running websites, and I particularly like this one. It’s titled “Why B+ workouts are better than A+ workouts”--a great  headline. The subhead reads “Why training harder usually doesn’t lead to racing faster.”

The article goes on to explain what Coogan means. He tells the story in first-person anecdotes from his own training and racing career. In college, he and his teammates trained super hard almost every day. But they “consistently underperformed in races. Then, dissatisfied with our results, we would try to run our next workout even harder.” 

That’s what we all do after bad races. In fact, I don’t know any runner who hasn’t made this classic mistake. You run a disappointing race, and you want to fix things as quickly as possible. Obvious solution: You didn’t train hard enough for that bad race, so now you’ve got to double down in training.

Obvious, yes, and almost always wrong. Coogan’s next coach gave him many more B+ workouts, and these turned around his faltering career.

Coogan does a nice job explaining the rationale behind B+ workouts. First, they don’t drain your willpower bank account, which is limited for all of us. This doesn’t get discussed very much in training circles, but deserves more attention. 

Of course, there’s also reason number two: “The second big reason I favor regular B+ workouts is that A+ workouts take a greater physical toll. It’s a lot easier to pull a muscle or tweak a tendon or get really sore from all-out workouts.” 

I haven’t read the full book yet. But the thorough discussion of B+ workouts makes me want to, and also convinces me that the book itself is probably an A if not an A+. More at Runner’s World.

A simple (but brutal) Kenyan fartlek workout

When we talk about running environments, the discussion often turns to Kenya. What are they doing over there to produce so many great runners? Americans Nell Rojas and Natasha Rogers recently decided to live and train there for a time to find out. Rojas was the first American finisher at the last two Boston Marathons, and is training for a three peat. Rogers is an elite 10,000 meter runner.

Both were struck by the natural beauty of the Rift Valley, and by the throngs of talented runners--as many as 200, most very fit and strong--who will show up together for group workouts on the roads and track. Yup, that even includes Eliud Kipchoge on occasion. Notes Rojas: “On a walk back from a run, you will bump into 2:17 female and 2:06 male marathoners who are happy to talk with you.”

Rogers has had to increase her calorie intake to match all the energy she’s burning. “I have never eaten so healthy in my entire life,” she reports. “Every meal is well-balanced.”

The training couldn’t be simpler. It’s often easy, especially at the beginning of runs, and sometimes very hard. The Thursday fartlek session is famous but basic, with the athletes running for about 50 minutes with hard/easy segments of 1 minute/1 minute, or 2/2, or 3/3. You don’t need a degree from MIT to follow that one, but you’d better be ready to feel the burn.

One day Rojas decided to pace herself off a particular Kenyan woman. “She turned out to be a 2:23 marathoner, and dropped me after 6 repetitions.” More at Women’s Running and Inside Hook.

Yes, you can run away from depression

It’s always interesting to ponder changed attitudes and reasons for running. And they have changed. As beginning runners, most of us wanted to see how fast we could go, and also to improve our heart health. After all, Ken Cooper was a cardiologist and a big influence back in the early days--the 1960s and 1970s. Running was all about our physical selves.

Now, many would say they run for the peace of mind, the centered feeling, the anti anxiety and anti depression state that comes with running. And the research in this area is absolutely … well, mind boggling. Running is now often about our mental selves. Here’s a quick roundup of the latest.

This paper actually explored running specifically. It asked a basic, direct question: What’s more effective, antidepressant medications or running? Conclusion: Running wins. While the two “had comparable effects on mental health,” running improved physical health, while the medications worsened physical health. So running gives you a two-fer. More at Journal of Affective Disorders.

Meanwhile a group of Aussie researchers performed a systematic review of studies that explored “the effects of physical activity on symptoms of depression, anxiety and psychological distress in adult populations.” There’s been a lot of work in the field, and they uncovered research involving more than 128,000 subjects.

Conclusion: “Physical activity is highly beneficial for improving symptoms of depression, anxiety and distress across a wide range of adult populations.” Therefore, “Physical activity should be a mainstay approach in the management of depression, anxiety and psychological distress.” More at Brit J of Sports Medicine.

Does too-much running harm your heart?

While the debate over running and arthritis seems to be smoothing out, the question of excessive exercise/running and heart health hasn’t reached that point yet. This week we saw the biggest and best-yet report on how exercise levels of 6 to 8 hours a week affect coronary artery plaques--those nasty blockages that can lead to heart attacks. The result was unexpected, and thus confusing.

Previous studies had shown that high volume exercisers, especially runners, have higher than expected amount of plaque buildup in the heart. This is classic atherosclerosis, and no one wants to have it. But the earlier studies also indicated that the exercisers had a type of plaque--highly calcified vs soft and mushy--that didn’t often lead to heart attacks.

That’s what the researchers expected to see in their new investigation, which looked at large groups of lifelong exercisers vs adults who became active after age 30 or 40 vs healthy controls who did little exercise. It was their stated hypothesis: The lifelong exercisers would have more of the “stable” calcium-filled plaques, which would prevent serious heart complications.

Only that’s not what they found. They found the opposite. The lifelong exercisers “had more coronary plaques, including non-calcified and mixed plaques” than the fit, healthy controls. Those who began exercise at midlife scored between the lifelong and non exercise groups. Most of the subjects were cyclists, not runners, while runners are known to have higher coronary calcium scores. 

This sounds worrisome, and it’s going to take a lot more research to figure out what’s going on. For now, the crucial thing to understand is that the study didn’t measure any “hard endpoints.” It didn’t count heart attacks, and it didn’t follow mortality trends between groups. Also, “Vulnerable plaques, which carry the highest risk for events, were rare and not associated with an athletic lifestyle.” 

Conclusion: “Lifetime endurance sport participation is not associated with a more favorable coronary plaque composition” in a comparison with healthy, fit controls. The researchers hope to continue with a multiyear follow up study to provide some answers to the questions they have raised.

I happen to be one of those lifetime runners with a high coronary artery plaque “burden,” as they say. I learned this a decade ago, and have never had any overt symptoms. I know, of course, that tomorrow is not guaranteed to any of us. Still, I can’t see any reason to stop a running routine that has made me so happy and healthy for so long.

More at European Heart Journal (free full text). Also, here are several very detailed blogs on the subject at Brady Holmer Substack.

SHORT STUFF you don’t want to miss

>>> More than just a salad dressing: A sports drink containing olive oil could improve exercise performance and recovery.

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

NOTE: If you were a subscriber to the complete, full-text version of RLRH for $4/month, you would also have received new articles about:

# Marathon runners don’t develop arthritis (and they really love the marathon)

# How eating too little  affects performance, both good and bad

# Training that delivers the max from the minimum

# Why volunteering at races can boost mental health

# No additional comment but exercise “warrants further investigation” for premature ejaculation

# An inspirational training quote from Muhammad Ali

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