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Improving your your personal best at any distance may not be an issue of running more frequently, but rather taking the time to improve strength and technique.

Running is easily the most popular form of exercise around the world. It makes sense because it is one of the most primal expressions of muscular endurance and power, and is a major aspect of many of the worlds most popular sports.  It can be a healthy way to engage your body and your mind.  The high that can come from a good run is exhilarating.  Here in Lincoln Park, and throughout Chicago, endurance running or "distance" running, for many people, is a staple of their active lifestyles.  The gorgeous lakefront path and abundance of parks seem to entice many people like a siren’s call.  Participating in charity 5Ks, half marathons, and running groups is just as popular as the Chicago Marathon, which sells out in record time each year.  The dedication of many of these runners is inspiring and requires a lot of hard work.  Whether you are a competitive endurance runner or a casual endurance runner, if you want to improve your pace and stay healthy, you must be just as dedicated to improving technique, maintaining adequate strength, and maximizing recovery.

 

Too much of a good thing...

There are numerous physiological benefits to running, but there is a limit to the amount of time and energy that should be spent training in any mode of exercise and running is no exception. It may seem logical to run more often, constantly trying to go harder, move faster, and run longer distances. However, doing so without devoting attention to strength training, muscle tissue quality and adequate recovery can lead to chronic and acute injuries.  Increasing the number of training runs requires a larger time commitment, while increasing recovery demands, and offering limited benefits.  Becoming a better runner is not a matter of running more often, it is a matter of becoming a stronger, more efficient runner.

Different needs for different speeds...

In the context of most sports, sprinting is a more accurate term for the act of getting from point A to point B as fast as possible, by foot.  The energy needed by the muscles to produce power in this mode is provided by adenosine triphosphate (ATP) through the body’s phosphogenic pathway.  Our bodies can only produce a limited amount ATP and therefore the duration of all out sprinting is also limited.  Fatigue sets in quickly during extended periods of sprinting, which is why this type of running requires the most recovery time to refill ATP reserves.

Endurance running is performed at a lower intensity, but for a longer period of time. This mode of running requires less power and utilizes the bodies glycolitic pathway to access the energy of ATP .  Once the body has used up its reserve of ATP, Glucose (carbs/sugars) can be used to re-synthesize ATP through Glycolosis for a longer period of time.  Any running performed continuously for more than three minutes is, by nature, endurance running.  The pace of this mode of running can still be challenging, but the muscles will not be able to produce maximum power.  While fatigue may not set in as quickly during endurance training, the highly repetitive nature of endurance running requires essential recovery not only for muscular energy, but bones and joints as well.  rely on the body’s anaerobic metabolism.  The anaerobic metabolism functions without the need of oxygen for energy production.  Glycolosis can support running for extended durations (≥3 minutes), but the body will eventually resort to it’s oxidative energy system when necessary.  In this mode oxygen and fatty acids become essential for  energy support and utilizes your body’s aerobic metabolism to maintain continuous muscular output.

Running at less challenging paces is typically referred to as jogging.  This long, slow running offers few benefits.  It offers a low caloric expenditure and requires longer training sessions, which means more repetitions and more stress on the body.  The popularity of jogging as a method for fat loss stems from the misconception that using fatty acids as an energy substrate will equate to more fat loss relative to higher intensity exercise.  Unfortunately, fat loss is ultimately about burning more calories than you consume.  For this reason jogging is the least efficient mode of running, not only for fat loss, but for improving conditioning.

Energy systems are activated when needed, but aerobic metabolism efficiency allows for higher energy output before anaerobic activation occurs.  The body’s ability to produce and utilize enough energy to support the muscular output of the pace directly impacts performance and well being.  Metabolic efficiency can be improved and manipulated to meet the demands of any mode of running, and increasing the number of training runs is not necessary to do so.

Quality over quantity...

If your goal is to complete a race or improve performance times, these goals can easily be achieved through consistent practice and systematic progression.  This does not mean running more often and harder, it means addressing all aspects of training to run well, stay healthy, and enjoy your experience.  In fact, if you are running more than three times a week, you might want to consider running less often.  This may be considered running heresy by some, but I have had personal and professional success with distance training that never called for more than 3 training runs per week and sometimes only 2 runs a week.  Aerobic and anaerobic conditioning are a matter of using the body’s energy systems to support the levels of intensity and duration of each run.  Tempo runs and interval runs designed to improve energy system recruitment in order to increase running capacity and performance.  By focusing on technique and varying intensities, you can get more out of each run, minimize the stress put upon the body, and minimize amount of time spent running.  That extra time could be invested in strength training and recovery to enjoy your efforts and maintain an active lifestyle.

 Stay Focused...

Many running enthusiasts tell me they use endurance running as a way to "zone out" because they don't have to think much while training, but this lack of focus allows the body to take the path of least resistance.  When energy is low, inefficient running patterns develop because muscles lack the necessary strength to produce power and form suffers. Heel striking, hunched shoulders, and knees and ankles wobbling like hula-hoops are common when muscles lack the strength and tissue quality is ignored.   Next time you are out, just take notice of many runners’ form and you will surely see many of these issues.  These inefficient movement patterns put excessive stress on ligaments and tendons, compromise joint integrity, and increase spinal compression.  Considering how common it is for people perform the exercise poorly and still perform the exercise for many repetitions and miles, many days a week, it should come as no surprise that many casual runners experience chronic or nagging pain that can be avoided.  Our bodies are incredibly durable, rechargeable, and capable of taking a beating, but there is a limit to the abuse they will take.  Making a consistent effort to improve mobility and paying attention to proper form during every training run will help prevent injuries.

Take a few minutes to stretch...

If you are not addressing your stretching and mobility needs everyday, you are doing yourself a great disservice and you should stretch right now.  When most runners show poor form or exhibit distorted movement patterns it is due, in part, to poor muscle tissue quality. This is typical in a culture where many people sit, stand and move in the same patterns for long periods of time without addressing the need to stretch and reenergize.  Tight muscles that constantly pull and over-extended muscles that can’t work optimally result in poor form and possible injury, simply because stretching and mobility work are too often disregarded.

Mobility routines can be very efficient when you want to get in a quick stretch between long bouts of repetitive or sedentary activity.  This simple habit will help maintain muscle tissue quality and help avoid injuries. Focus on intentional breathing patterns, gentle stretching without bouncing, and maintaining tension to stabilize joints.  Pain is typically an indication that you have stretched too far or too long.  Whenever pain is experienced, stop stretching and assess the pain.

If you haven’t stretched today, stretch right now...

Give these stretches a try if you are in a hurry.

Or do any of your favorites...

Go ahead...

I’ll wait...

... a few minutes later

Do you feel better?  Of course you do.  Do that for yourself at least twice a day!

Get Stronger...

Strength Training is a crucial element of fitness for every runner, but is often the last need a runner addresses when looking to improve.  Running is simply jumping from one leg to the other (if you always have at least one foot on the ground you are walking.)  Jumping from leg to leg for the thousands of repetitions needed to run even a single mile requires muscular endurance, not only to run faster, but to maintain proper form to minimize damage to joints and bones.   Strength training increases muscular capacity and muscular endurance, which in turn, improves the quality of each training run.

A comprehensive training program for every runner should include: soft tissue work, preparatory stretching and mobility exercises, dynamic warmups, resistance training, and anaerobic conditioning when suitable.  Systematic progression of both strength training and distances of training runs should be done with consideration to individual needs and an emphasis on optimal recovery. If you are strength training less than two hours a week, you should adjust your training to meet that goal.  This does not mean that each strength training session should be exhausting or done in some “Boot camp” or “CrossFit” manner.  In fact, each strength training session should be challenging enough to improve performance without experiencing exhaustion.  Exhaustion through strength training or cross-training will only hinder running quality and performance.  Body weight exercises are always a great place to start.  Training focused on mastering pushups, pull-ups, squats, and lunges will have a profound effect not only on your running, but your general fitness.

 

The following bodyweight workout is quite simple, but when done consistently, will have a positive impact on running performance.

Running can be a healthy activity enjoyed alone, with friends, or in competition.  To get the most out of your experience, stay healthy and improve your personal bests, focus on technique and intensities during your runs and prioritize time to increase strength, improve mobility, and build anaerobic capacity.

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