Sunday, January 24, 2010

More on Running Faster

As mentioned in a previous post on running faster, I have the triathletes I coach do some form of the basic strides drill year round. As with swimming, it seems you can never devote too much time to improving your run technique. I once coached a pro triathlete who was an All-American runner in college and considered one of the fastest runners in triathlon. I still had him work on technique year round. You should too.

The downhill strides workout described in the
original running faster post is very simple. All you do is run fast for 20 seconds several times on a soft surface such as a grassy park that has a very slight decline (such as 1%). If you do not have a history of calf, Achilles or plantar fascia injuries then I'd have you substitute “uphill strides” for the downhill strides workout after a few weeks.

This session will help you develop more running force. As explained earlier, there are only two things you can do to run faster - increase your stride length or increase your cadence. What you would really like to do is both. In that previous post I described how to improve your cadence. Let's now look at how to improve stride length which is just another way of saying improve force.

Developing greater running force will make your stride longer without even trying. Combine that with the higher cadence you have been working on with downhill strides and your running is sure to improve. But it won’t happen overnight. Your aerobic system must also improve to allow you to maintain the combined higher cadence and longer stride. And the nervous system must also adapt to the changes. All of this will take some time as the aerobic and nervous systems change slowly. By the start of the Build period in a few weeks, if you’ve been diligent about both speed skills and force training, you will be running faster at the same effort as when you started Base training. You must be patient and persistent to realize the improvement. In the mean time, don't try to artificially increase your stride length while running. Let it happen naturally.

Uphill strides workouts for force are done on either a short, very steep hill or on something like the stairs you find in a football stadium or basketball arena. If you have had some Achilles, calf or plantar fascia injuries then you are better off using the stairs - if you do this workout at all. The ankle flexion is significant when running up a steep hill and puts a tremendous load on those soft tissues. For this reason I prefer stairs for this workout for most runners but they are harder to find than hills.

The uphill strides workout is simple. Warm-up well and then do three sets of three intervals up the hill or stairs. Run as hard as you can on each interval – but not so hard that your technique breaks down. If running stairs you may need to take two or even three steps with each stride depending on the width and rise of the stairs. Count 12, right-foot strikes stopping on the twelfth. Turn around and walk back down the hill or stairs. Do not run down. Jog easily for five minutes after each set.

This is a very risky workout. Be cautious with its progression. Do this no more than twice a week with at least 96 hours between them. Once a week is better for most athletes. Start with one set and add another each week for three weeks. If you have “glass legs” you would be wise not to do it at all. In that case just continue doing the downhill strides for speed skill. Not all of the athletes I coach do the uphill strides workout. I’m very conservative when it comes to risky running workouts. You must avoid injury.

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Force Training

In the last several posts I've described various aspects of Base-period training including aerobic endurance, speed skills for cycling, and speed skills for running. Now I'd like to discuss a third Base-period ability - force.

The main message here is this: Endurance athletes who are deficient in force will never fully realize their capacity to swim, bike or run fast because they lack power. You also need power to climb hills and plow through rough water. Having a good level of force, the ability to overcome resistance (such as gravity or drag), is a critical aspect of power. Let’s examine power from a physics perspective and then tie it into our world of endurance sport.

In physics, power is defined as work divided by time. I’m sure you know what time is, but what is “work”? Work is force multiplied by the distance moved. Huh? Ok, let’s try to get a handle on this by thinking about riding your bike.

If you choose a high gear, something such as 53t x 14t, the bike travels a relatively long distance on every, single revolution of the pedals. Had you chosen a lower gear such as 39t x 18t the bike would not go as far on one turn of the cranks. So a higher gear means a greater distance traveled. That’s the “distance moved” part of the power equation.

If you are in that high gear it takes a lot of muscular force to drive the pedal down. That should be obvious. When you are in a 53t x 14t you have to push harder than when you’re in a 39t x 18t. (This, of course, assumes a lot of things such as you are on the same section of road with the same wind both times.) That’s a second part of the power equation – “force.”

The last part is “time.” This is how long it takes you to turn the pedals through one, complete revolution – from the 12-o’clock position back to 12-o’clock. A high cadence means you are turning the cranks fast so the time of one revolution is brief. A low cadence means the revolution time is long.

So the application of this equation is that the way to have great power on the bike is to have the capacity to drive a big gear at a high cadence. It’s the same for swimming and running only now we are talking about stroke or stride length instead of gear size. The bottom line is that you can go faster by increasing force or distance – or both. You can also go faster by decreasing time. This means a higher cadence, or higher stroke or stride rate. I explained stride rate in the last post on running speed skills. Any of these three changes will make you faster. In the next post (when I get some time again - more travel on the way) I will introduce the process I use to improve force in order to help the athletes I coach become more powerful. The key to force is greater strength in the muscles that you use in your sport.

Here's the short message for where I am going with this: There are two training routes to improving your muscles’ ability to produce force. The first is resistance training in the gym. The other is the sport-specific development of force while swimming, biking or running. I like to have athletes start with a short, resistance-training phase in the early Base period and then switch over to sport-specific training in the mid-Base period while maintaining the gains made in the weight room. While resistance training is not the same thing as swimming, biking and running, it gets your muscles ready for the sport-specific phase which is where the greatest gains are eventually made.

I hope to follow up on this with details in a few days. Check back soon.

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Friday, December 4, 2009

Thoughts on the Base Period

All of the athletes I coach are now in their early Base periods. So I've been talking with them about why this period is so important. Here's the gist of what these conversations have been about.

In many ways Base is the most important training period of the entire season. If it goes well you will be able to train at a higher level in the following periods. If it doesn’t go so well you won’t be able to train to your limits later on in the Build period and you’ll be more likely to break down due to overtraining, illness and injury.

Training in the Base period has been compared with laying the foundation for the construction of a house. Build a solid foundation and the house will be sound and free of cracked walls and sagging corners. Do a very poor job of constructing the foundation and the house is likely to collapse as it is stressed by harsh conditions.

The Base period has also been described as being like an Egyptian pyramid: The broader the base of the pyramid, the higher the peak that can be built on it. I've always liked this analogy.

However you like to think about it, the bottom line is that the Base period is when you construct your season. Everything you do after this period is dependent on what you accomplish now. It’s certainly not an 'off season' in the sense that it is relatively unimportant. This is a time that is critical to your success later on. You need to have defined objectives for the Base period and a training plan for accomplishing them. The higher your goals are for your racing this season, the more important clear objectives and a plan become.

The biggest mistake athletes make in the Base period is by-passing the basic-ability workouts that should be done in order to get to the truly hard sessions of the Build period such as high-intensity intervals, anaerobic hill repeats and 'racing' with training partners. Athletes commonly skip the Base period because the workouts seem too easy. They come to the conclusion that they aren’t working hard (read 'intensely') enough. If that happens and you cut out Base training, your fitness will not be as great later on as it would have been following several weeks of laying down a solid foundation.

There are four 'abilities' I strive to improve in the Base period for the athletes I coach: aerobic endurance, speed skills, muscular force and muscular endurance. The last of these is dependent on the previous development of aerobic endurance and muscular force so is delayed until later in the Base period. These are described in my books.

The bottom line for the serious athlete: Know what it is you must accomplish in the next few weeks, develop a plan and follow it closely.

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