Heavy Lifting

Slow and steady wins the race. Well, not always but it’s the best way to strengthen your connective tissue and prevent injuries. As runners we’ve all heard that we should do strength training using body weight and light weights with lots of repetitions. I’ve said this myself many times. Lifting light weight with high reps is a great way for runners to improve strength, endurance, and maintain lean muscles. It’s definitely something you should be doing to maintain core and upper body strength.

But it’s not the only type of strength training you should be doing and if you’re really struggling to just get your runs in, due to other obligations, lifting heavy is an avenue you should seriously consider.

Lifting heavy will improve your speed and reduce your injury risk. It will help you power up steep climbs and prepare your legs for the steep pounding descents. You’re speed increases because your power increases. You’re injury risk is decreased specifically to your tendons and ligaments. Heavy lifting is the only evidence-based way to prevent injuries to those tissues. Injury to those tissues equals time off of running and usually more than you’d like since blood flow to tendons and ligaments isn’t as good as it is to muscles, so they heal slower.

Heavy lifting means you are lifting close to your maximal effort. It’s obviously going to be different for everyone and don’t be embarrassed about where your max effort is when you start. It’s essential that you lift slow and use the correct form for each lift. You don’t have to lift the weight very many times 4-6 repetitions is enough and 2-4 sets is enough. What’s great about this, is you don’t have to do a full body workout. Major benefits can be seen with 1-2 different lifts done daily. If you’re going to be doing several different lifts 2-3 times a week is enough, but you still shouldn’t be doing a full body work out.

The best lifts to include for runners are squats and deadlifts. There are many different types of squats you can use, but there are two that will help you, as a runner, the most. First, stand with your feet shoulder width apart. You can use either two dumbbells or a single barbell. With dumbbells you’ll want to make sure you keep them in the same position in both hands. They should be held at shoulder height with your forearms facing forward. If you use a barbell it should be on your shoulders. Now squat. Remember to keep it slow and controlled on the down and the up. Your knees should not go out in front of your toes, which means your butt has to come back, like sitting in a chair. Don’t bend forward.

The second squat is split squats. You can use either the dumbbells or a full barbell, which should be held in the same position as for the squat I just described. Stand with your feet parallel and shoulder width apart. Take a step forward with one leg. Squat straight down, keeping your back straight. Again, your knee should not go in front of your toes and if you’re off balance tighten your abs. If your knee waves in and out pull in your glutes and really focus on keeping your legs solid. If you can’t maintain good form, lower the weight or you’ll hurt your knees. Raise your self up and down for the set and then switch legs.

Deadlifts are done with a barbell. If you’re not able to put plates on the ends, set both ends up on something no more than 4-6 inches off the floor. Step up close to the bar. Your feet will be below the bar. Bend your knees while keeping your back in a neutral position. Lift the bar with both hands by straightening your legs and moving your hips forward. Lock your hips and knees (squeeze your glutes). Return the bar to the floor by moving your hips back and bending your knees. Keep your back in a neutral position.

Heavy lifting like this won’t bulk up your legs and make you slow because you do a lot more running than lifting. If you were to stop running then you would see gains in the mass of your muscles.

Downhill Training

Running downhill is the easy part, right? Wrong. Anyone who has run downhill for more than a few minutes knows it is a sure-fire way to rip up your quads. Most ultramarathons have climbs and descents of various degrees. Everyone thinks about training for those uphill climbs, but training for the downhills is just, if not more, important.

There are some coaches out there who do not advise their runners to train for downhill mountain running because of the inherent risk for injury from the increased impact and the risk of falling. However, if done with the right amount of caution and focus, downhill running can be used to great benefit during training.

I cannot imagine standing at a starting line of a race with more than 25,000 feet of descent without having done significant downhill training. Yes, downhill running does pose a higher injury risk, but not doing downhill running and starting a race with lots of downhill poses a significant DNF risk and places you at an even higher injury risk, in my opinion, because you’re tired, your form is not perfect, and it may be dark.

Learning to run downhill proficiently has major benefits. It improves strength in your legs. It reduces DOMS because your body adapts to the higher impact load. It’s a great way to make up time you’ve lost on the long climbs.

Downhill running improves leg turn-over rate for faster running on flat ground. Because of this, even runners who don’t run a lot of downhill races, training on down hill can improve your performance.

Running downhill is an art. Some people come to it naturally and others have to practice and learn all of the skills of the trade. Start with short lower grade hills and work your way up. Choose hills that are not technical. You can even start on grass hills at a park or on the road. Don’t venture out onto unknown downhills until you’re comfortable doing the ones you do know.

While your working on building the muscle strength and endurance for downhills you can work on your foot work with an agility ladder. Trail running requires quick feet. You can search YouTube for agility training and find a bunch of exercises you can start right away.

Keep your eyes at your feet but move them between 8 feet in front of you to 2 feet in front of you. Your steps should be short. You want to lean forward a bit at the ankles but not to the point that you’ll lose control of your speed. Bend your arms at the elbows and flare them out a bit to maintain balance. Make sure you’re hydrated and fueled before heading down a long descent because You don’t want to have to find things while your navigating rocks and roots.

If you’re running technical downhills, you’ll probably fall at some point, so try not to keep things in your hands and have a small first aid kit in your pack and in your car. If you feel yourself starting to fall, try to counter balance with your arms. If you’re going down, protect your head and face as much as possible with your arms and tucking your chin. Try not to stretch your arms out straight in front of you to brace for the fall because you could break something. You want to be in a pushup position, so your bent arm can absorb the force. If you’re going straight forward or straight back, try to turn onto your side and keep your arms and legs bent.

HIIT

High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is something every runner should be adding to their training routine, but especially runners who find themselves short on time for those extra long runs. Interval training is not new to runners. Most think of it as speed training such as 800 or 400 repeats. But HIIT can and should be more than just speed interval training. HIIT that incorporates strength moves helps build total body fitness in a way that just speed interval training doesn’t do.

HIIT is hard. You should be close to maximal effort. If you ever feel nauseous, light headed, or dizzy take a break before getting back to it. Some experts say that fifteen minutes of HIIT provides about the same physiological benefits as three hours of long slow distance. That does not mean you can train using only HIIT.

Adding in HIIT once or twice a week will actually allow you to reduce your total weekly miles by 10-20% without losing any fitness gains you’ve made. Many running coaches recommend that 20% of your training should be HIIT because of the many benefits you will reap. HIIT focuses on the fast twitch muscle fibers and as endurance runners we don’t tap into these all the time, but we do when our slow twitch muscles are fatigued because we begin to recruit anything we think will help. Training those fast twitch muscles will give a boost to your slow twitch as they become fatigued.

Another benefit of HIIT is the psychological training. HIIT makes you push through barrier after barrier when your body is screaming stop. You can tap into those experiences when things get hard out on the trail. Other benefits of HIIT: it’s very effective at burning fat, it boost your metabolism, and builds muscles

How long your HIIT workouts should be will depend on your current fitness level and your fitness goals. You can start with 20-30 minute and build up to 45-60 minute workouts. Here is an example of a HIIT session you can start with.

If you are recovering from an injury do not start HIIT training until you’re fully recovered. The intensity will increase the likelihood of re-injury. Warming up before a HIIT session is essential to reduce the risk of injury.

Workout ONE 30 minutes

3 minute dynamic warmup: Jumping jacks, high knees, lunges, inch worms, and leg swings.

1 minute rest

First set: 1 minute pushups: 20 second rest; 1 minute squat jumps: 20 second rest: 1 minute front plank: 20 second rest: repeat.

Second set: 1 minute burpee: 20 second rest: 1 minute dumbbell row: 20 second rest: 1 minute bicycles: 20 second rest: repeat two times

Third set: 1 minute mountain climbers:  20 second rest: 1 minute dumbbell/kettlebell swing: 20 second rest: 1 minute split squats with a jump: 20 second rest: repeat two times.

Running Preggers: Relaxin

I wish I were trying to be cute and leaving the “G” off Relaxing, but Relaxin is a hormone produced in increasing amounts during pregnancy. It’s a necessary hormone, but as an athlete, it’s not something you want in increased amounts. Relaxin is a protein-based hormone found in men and non-pregnant women. Pregnant women have ten times the amount as non-pregnant women.

Relaxin relaxes the blood vessels, ligaments, and tendons in your body. It begins its work in the beginning of pregnancy (before actually) by preventing contractions in the uterine wall and making implantation easier. It allows your blood vessels and arteries to expand to accommodate the extra blood volume. As you’re baby grows and shoves your internal organs into your ribcage you’ll be glad relaxin has made expansion of your abdominal muscles and ribcage possible. What you’ll be most happy about is relaxin ensures that your pelvis will be able to expand not only to accommodate your growing child, but to allow the child to be born.

Relaxed tendons are a problem if you are an athlete. It can be problematic if you’re not an athlete and you just want to go about your day without any pain or discomfort in your joints. Instability in your ankles, hips, and knees is something runners try to minimize and correct through strength training. When you’re pregnant, strength training isn’t going to help and you really, on some level, don’t want it to help because that baby has to exit somehow.

The instability can cause achiness and pain in your joints with just everyday activities, let alone running. Relaxed tendons and ligaments places you at higher risk of injury, even when doing exercises you have been doing for years pre-pregnancy.

What all of this means for pregnant runners is be careful and rethink increasing your miles or the intensity of your running workouts during your pregnancy, especially, during the first and third trimester when relaxin levels are at their highest. You’re also likely to feel increased soreness after runs, especially, in your pelvic girdle, hips, and lower back. Try using a maternity belt to help reduce the pressure of the baby on your pelvic joints.

You’ll likely have to decrease your miles and your pace as your son or daughter grow and their debut approaches. Reducing your miles to prevent injury, especially, an injury that could stop you from getting back to running after baby is born, is a small price to pay. Cross training with low impact exercises, such as swimming and cycling, will become your go to activities at the gym. I know this can be frustrating, but keep in mind it also means you’re closer to holding your little one in your arms.

Tired Body or Tired Mind

Have you heard the expression, “An ultra is 50% physical and 90% mental,”? No, well then, you’re probably not an ultrarunner or haven’t been one very long. A critical aspect of training that doesn’t get the attention it deserves is the psychological side of getting your body to keep putting one foot in front of the other for 100 miles as quickly as possible.

We all know it’s important, but we don’t spend much of our training time on it. I’m guilty of this myself. Sure, I have strategies I use when I get into that dark place, but I have never taken the time to actually make psychological strategies a part of my training to the point where I actively think about and practice them during my training runs. There are two types of psychological strategies you must have for an ultra. First, is dealing with the negative moods and thoughts. Second, is dealing with being so freaking tired.

The problem with not actively including psychological strategies as a core aspect of your training plans is that it’s mental fatigue that will stop you before physical fatigue in a race. Might want to read that again. Mental fatigue is more likely to put a stop to your race than physical fatigue.

That’s right, it’s your brain being tired that is going to slow you down and stop you before your muscles and nerves will. It actually takes an enormous amount of energy to fight off the persistent urge to sleep. I’ve fallen asleep while running and my pacers have had to persuade me not to crawl into small caves to take a nap while out on the course. I’ve seen runners curled up on the side of the trial sleeping while their pacer waits. When 100-mile events can take up to 36 hours it’s no wonder that those who run at the mid or back of the pack are exhausted, in every way, by the time they cross the finish line.

There are a few things we can do to be prepared for this level of extreme mental fatigue. Use caffeine strategically. Most ultrarunners are using caffeine in some form for a race, and caffeine is very effective at keeping you awake. However, if you drink a lot all the time, it’s not going to be as effective. You should taper off caffeine about 30 days before a race for it to be most effective during a race. Caffeine comes in all forms. You can get gels with caffeine, tablets, or drink it.

Another option is to take a nap. What!? I know, I know. I will admit I’m one of the last people who would suggest this. I’ve never napped during a 100-mile race, but if you’re out of options and falling asleep on your feet, sleeping for 30 minutes might be your best bet for picking up your pace. It goes back to the amount of energy it takes to force yourself to stay awake. I’ve run many relay events where my team runs through a day, a night, and a day. I know that if I sleep for two hours, I’ll be as good as new for the last leg of my race on day two. My muscles haven’t had time to recover, but I’m able to sustain the same pace as my first leg if I get those two hours. If I don’t, I’m going to be slower.

Another strategy is to train your mind to deal with being tired and running anyway. There are a couple of ways to do this. First, do something mentally challenging throughout the day (this is easy if you have a job that is mentally challenging) and then go for a long night run without sleeping between the two activities. Another way is to perform challenging mental tasks while you run. A research study used cyclists and the Stroop Test. The Stroop test is like the picture above. You have to read off colors when the word is written in a color other than what the word says.

The cyclists who did this training had a significant increase in their ability to stay mentally focused beyond the point where they previously became mentally fatigued to the point where it impaired their performance. The Stroop test is a little difficult to do while running, unless you’re on a treadmill (yuck!), but it maybe worth your suffering. You can use anything that is going to cause your brain to really work while you run (complex math anyone?).

Ultras challenge us in more than one way and we have to prepare for each. Psychological training is not an area you want to let slip by.

When to Walk in an Ultra

Ultrarunners walk. It’s just one piece of ultrarunning and knowing when and how long is essential to finishing at your best. The easy answer to the question of when to walk, aka power hike, in an ultra is, you walk all the uphills. But if we wanted easy, we wouldn’t be ultrarunners now would we?

Do all ultrarunners power hike? Yes, at the 100 mile distance everyone is going to do some form of power hiking on the uphills. At the 50k distance, it will depend on how steep and long the hills are. At the 50 mile and 100k distances, pretty much everyone is doing some power hiking.

The factors that go into a decision to power hike rather than run are: the length of the race, the steepness of the hill, the length of the hill, your training/conditioning, current weather/trail conditions and your current physical status. None of these factors can be considered without thinking about the others. It’s a multifaceted decision. The only one that takes priority over the others is your current physical status.

Your current physical status is how all of your bodily systems are functioning. Uphills can be a perfect opportunity to rehydrate and refuel. The slower pace may allow your body to absorb water and fuel easier, but don’t count on it. Hiking up a long steep slope can be just as taxing as running hard on level ground. If it is, and your stomach protesting at everything you put into it, you may be better off trying to refuel on the downhill or on a flat. If you’re experiencing pain, hiking an uphill is a good time to assess the situation. You’ll be using different muscle groups to climb, which may help you rule in or out particular muscles as the problem. It will also give sore/cramping muscles a chance to recuperate.

There may be times where hiking flats and downhills is the most appropriate course of action given your physical status and you shouldn’t be ashamed of this, at least you’re still moving forward. If you’re vomiting or have diarrhea walking/hiking is a must. You need to give your body a chance to regulate and it can’t do that if you’re pushing the redline.

The length of the race plays a major roll in when you begin your power hiking. The longer the race the earlier you’re going to begin hiking. Changing to a hike allows you to engage different muscles from those you use for running. This change gives muscles a chance to rest and prepare for the next time they’ll be needed as the primary force. This is true even in a very flat race with little to no uphills.

The grade (steepness) of a hill can demand that you hike rather than run. At some point, a hill becomes so steep it’s just easier and often faster to hike. Whether this is an 8% grade or 15% grade depends on you. Research says a grade of 15% is the point at which it becomes more energy efficient to hike than to run up a slope. However, keep in mind this research was done with individuals who were fresh. In other words, they hadn’t already finished 75 miles and they didn’t have 95 miles to go. The best way for you to figure out where you are, is to practice. Train on all types of grades and hit them at different times in your long training runs.

The length of an uphill is important too. Maybe you’ve come to a hill with a moderate grade and thought, “It’s runnable.” But is it runnable for three miles? It’s okay to start running it and then decide a bit later that it’s no longer runnable. You can even take a run/walk approach to these types of uphills.

Weather and trail conditions can also dictate when you should be running or hiking. Rain and snow can change visibility. Swampy conditions can conceal rocks and other hazards. Heat can change a mild runnable slope into a death march.

What you don’t want to do is walk due to a mental block or because you’ve hit a psychologically dark mood during your run. The only way to avoid this is by having a plan of action. When you get the first inkling of a drop in your mood or mental state, ask yourself if you’ve kept up on hydration, electrolytes and fuel. If you haven’t, start there. If those systems are where they need to be, initiate your positive mood plan. You can use imagery, mantras, recalling when you’ve overcome other challenges, or repeating positive words. For these to be most effective, you need to develop them in your training.

Your training is the key to knowing when you should hike and when you should run. Training on hills is going to give you the strength (mental and physical) to conquer those hills that are within the realm of sensible and the wisdom to know when it’s not sensible. The definition of what is runnable and what’s not is going to change, and you need to be able to evaluate yourself and each hill under the current circumstances.

Hate Hills?

Hate Hills?

When I first started running, I didn’t like running uphill. I don’t think that comes as a surprise to anyone because running hills is hard. It makes your legs and lungs burn. You want to stop before the hill begins or find another route without a hill. As I’ve continued to run, becoming stronger in the process, I’ve also learned to love running hills, both up and down.

They have become a welcome challenge. When I learned the value of hill training, my perspective on running hills shifted. If you’ve been running long enough, you know running down hill can be just as hard as going up. Training schedules should include a run focused on hill running (up and down) at least every other week.

Unless you only run on a treadmill or a track you’re going to come upon a hill. It’s best if you can foster a good relationship with hills. Even if you’re the kind of runner who only chooses to run routes and races where there are the least number of hills and the smallest of hills, you should find some hills to run.

Uphill running improves your form by increasing your knee lift, joint mobility and neuromuscular communication. Hills also improve your leg strength and your cardiovascular fitness. When you’re running uphill, keep your head held high and looking forward. This will help keep your hips, knees and ankles aligned. Your stride length should automatically shorten because the ground comes up to meet your foot sooner than on a level surface. Running uphill is a good time to really become aware of your body and where it is in relationship to your surroundings.

As you climb, don’t lean forward at the waist into the hill because it engages the quads and calves more than necessary and leaves the glutes and hamstrings out of the work. This may not sound too bad in a short race, but in a longer race with lots of downhill running you’re going to wish you had relied on your glutes and hamstrings for more of the climbs. A runner’s forward lean on any grade comes from the ankles not the waist.

Downhill running improves your foot speed/cadence, your range of motion and reduces your risk of injuries. Running downhill efficiently requires mindfulness and a little bravery. It’s important to maintain control as you’re speed increases. You want to keep your stride length short and your leg turnover (foot cadence) fast. Try not to dump your hips forward or lean back, which causes a breaking action. On a mild to moderate hill, try to maintain your form as if you were on flat ground. As the descent becomes more intense, you’re going to have to find a happy balance between leaning forward and breaking based on your own experience.

Hills are not only physically challenging, but psychologically challenging too. In fact, I think it’s the psychological component that really messes with us. When you’re out for your next easy run, take some time and think of a mantra you can use as you approach a hill. You can also imagine yourself conquering hills and then use that while you’re pushing up your next hill. If that’s all to new age or complicated, just think of a word you can say to yourself as you climb such as “Powerful,” or “Strong.” You can use the same word or come up with something different for your downhills.

As an ultrarunner, uphills usually translate into power hiking during races and even longer runs because it is more energy efficient to hike than try to power up at a run. However, don’t think that means you get to skip hill training. All the benefits above apply to you as well. There is a lot that goes into deciding which hills to run and which to power hike. It’s going to depend on the distance of the race/run, grade of the hill, and the length of the hill. Your physical condition will also play a role. The longer the race, the more power hiking you’re going to be doing. The steeper or longer the hill, the more likely it is you will be hiking (more on this in the next post).

A few quick exercises you can add to the end of your easy runs to help you up the hills. Do four sets each:

Foot slaps: stand with your feet hip-width apart, rock onto your heels to lift your forefoot high and then slam them to the ground. Do repetitions of twenty and increase to fifty.

Quadruped Hip Circles: Get down on all fours, extend your left leg behind you, bend it to circle to the side and forward, then straighten it back out. Do 4 reps and then change directions then do your right leg.

Reverse Sliding Lunge:With a towel beneath your left foot and your weight on your right leg, slide your left foot back into a lunge. Push through your right heel to stand. Do 10-12 reps per side.

High Step: Plant your right foot on a tall bench, so your right knee is higher than your hip. Press through your right heel until your right leg is straight. Lower back down and repeat 5-10 reps per side.

Remember: Every hill you conquer makes the next one easier, both physically and mentally.