"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Thursday, April 26, 2018

How Fasting Patterns Inform Training Patterns

After only one track workout, I've thrown out my back (from yard work). So, back to weird ideas.

Since the 1930's, it's been known that cutting an animal's calorie intake by 20% from what it would choose to eat increases its healthy lifespan. There are several reasons for this, but I'm going to focus on blood glucose levels, as that bears on the energetics of training. Continuous semistarvation, though it may have been the common state of man before agriculture, is unpleasant and difficult. It's been shown that many of the benefits of reduced caloric intake can be achieved by eating only every other day; because of a satiation response, one doesn't simply eat twice as much on the feeding days. This too is challenging; it has led to the popular "5-2 diet," where one eats 25% of the usual day's calories two days per week, which turns out to be the same 20% reduction in calories as in standard caloric restriction, but in a pattern that is achievable for most people.

A second fasting pattern that has its advocates is a monthly fast of 3-5 consecutive days with 30-50% of normal calories. While this does not reduce the average calorie intake per month by as much, it seems to have a positive effect on insulin response to glucose levels. It's worth noting that the original carbohydrate loading plan for marathoners, as devised by Åstrand, had a three day glucose depletion diet; though the utility of this depletion has become suspect, the biochemistry of fasting is useful to know:

On the first day of a fast, the body uses its supply of stored glycogen to meet the needs of cells that require glucose, such as blood cells. This gets exhausted, so on the second day, the body starts making glucose from breaking down proteins in a process called gluconeogenesis. Because the major source of protein is muscle and the body needs muscles to acquire food, it then begins another process on day 3 without food, turning fats into ketone bodies, which the brain can use as fuel in place of glucose. After three days, the body starts making long-term changes to adapt to not having fresh sources of glucose and after 6 weeks [how sad it is that we have good scientific data on people not eating for 6 weeks] only 6% of calories come from protein and 94% from fat stores.

The ketogenic diet, popular among ultrarunners, duplicates the starvation described above by eliminating carbohydrates from the diet. Because even a lean runner stores enough fat to run 500 miles, they eliminate the constant need to feed that other distance runners have. As a short distance specialist that never ran a great marathon because of running out of glycogen, it might have been worth trying, but it seems senseless for short distance that require some anaerobic running. Muscles can't burn ketone bodies and they require oxygen to burn fat, so after depleting a very small store of creatine phosphate (5 seconds), they have to burn glucose if working anaerobically. On a ketogenic diet, this glucose comes from protein. It seems unlikely - and here I have no good science to back me up, it's just opinion - that the body would adapt to convert enough protein to glucose to form significant amounts of glycogen to store in muscles. The best evidence I can find to support this is that the body stores water with glycogen and the "shredded" look that comes with such diets comes from not storing water in muscles. I tried the ketogenic diet for a bout 4 months and hated every minute of it; it's not for me.

A third method of fasting is to eat only during a few hours each day (how many hours varies according to source). Again, the idea is that satiety keeps one from eating as much in those hours as one would if grazing throughout the day. Here, glucose levels drop very low until feeding, but not long enough for one to start gluconeogenesis. I'd actually done this for years before I'd ever heard of it - it just happened to fit with how I was living. I can say from experience that it's difficult to avoid occasionally binging on junk when doing this.

None of the fasting research involves athletes. It's generally acknowledged that exercise is important for a long healthy life, but no one's connected the energetics of exercise to that of fasting. I think there's a clear connection that will show fasting is immaterial if one exercises correctly.

The continuous restriction diet is the same as heavy training loads, energetically. If one's eating 2000-2500 calories per day, a 20% reduction is 400-500 calories, or 4-5 miles per day or 30-35 miles per week. The problem is that we are uncannily accurate in taking in the calories we expend. You'd have to stay at the same number of calories, but increase mileage 30-35 miles per week - which is possible, but requires diligence that few can muster.

Never taking in carbohydrates to keep glucose levels low is equivalent to constantly burning calories throughout the day. Hunter-gatherers might walk 12 hours or more every day, but few of us are capable of staying active all day. The closest we can come are two-a-day workouts (there are people who have run 3-5 times per day every day for months, but they are rare for logistical reasons).

Getting glucose levels very low by not eating for most of a day can be compared to a standard practice among distance runners of not eating until after they've run in the morning; some claim this helps train the body to use glycogen sparingly. What is certain is that carbohydrates eaten immediately after exercise tend to get stored as glycogen in muscles where it can't contribute to blood glucose levels.

The 5-2 diet depletes glycogen twice per week. That's also what two hard workouts per week - what people commonly do - accomplishes. The body routinely stores enough glycogen to run 13-15 miles, but one doesn't need to do two long runs each week. A truly hard workout - "running to failure," to the point where one has to stop or dramatically slow, depletes glycogen.

I said the monthly fast, as I described it, is similar to what's seen in carbohydrate loading, but it also has a connection to what's known as crash training, where hard workouts are done back-to-back, or in this case for 4 days every three weeks. I recommend four different workouts, to hit different aspects of training and deplete muscles differently. Day 1, I'd do an interval workout working on maximal oxygen uptake. Day 2, I'd do a fast continuous run. Day 3, I'd do a long stamina run. Day 4, I'd do a sprint workout. The order would depend upon one's strengths and goals. The latter workouts will be difficult and slower than usual, which is why several rest days are needed afterward.

If you wanted to incorporate all of these into a training plan, I suggest running in the morning and skipping breakfast, then having a second workout later in the day that is cross-training and either extremely long and easy (preferably on weekends) or short and explosive; alternately, add a 4-5 mile run each day. Run hard on Tuesdays and Saturdays each week and every three weeks also run hard on the Sunday and Monday to make four consecutive days.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Mile Plan C

Most guys my age trying to get in shape for a mile fit into one of two categories.

1) 400/800m specialists moving up in distance. Their plan is simple: lower 400m time as much as possible and practice running mile pace for longer and longer, ideally hitting 1200m at pace in training once before racing. Then do a bunch of track races, waiting for conditions to be right for an attempt at a record.

2) 5K road specialists who do a few mile races each year. They have their previous times to use as a guide and either do no specific training or 2-3 specific workouts as a test that they use each year. 10x400m at mile pace is standard.

There's not much for: guy who trained to run a trail 100 mile last year, spent the winter rehabbing injuries, threw out his back, got the flu, has no access to an actual track and has maybe 12 weeks to train before the only local races - and it's still snowing.

I'm planning on using two killer workouts. The idea is to maximize oxygen uptake, increase the pace run at maximal uptake, increase time that can be run at that pace until lactic acid build-up, increase time that can be run while building up lactic acid and increasing the speed run while in anaerobic lactic phase - in that order. This will be done with two alternate weekly killer workouts.

Week plan:

M 6 miles
T 8, last 3 faster (ideally 15K/10 mile pace)
W 2
Th 2
F 0
Sa 6 miles INTERVALS
S 6

Interval workout 1: 1200m @ 5k, 600m easy, 1200@5k, 600, 1200@5K, 600, 1200@5K, 400 all-out, 1000 easy, 400 all-out.

Alternate workout 2: 600m @ 3K, 200easy, 600@3K, 200, 600@3K, 200, 600@3k, 200, 600@3k, 1000 time-trial (aiming for mile pace)

These are versions of a workout known as "lactate stackers." The standard way these are done is to run 400-1200m as hard as possible, then, without recovery, run another 400-800m as fast as possible (necessarily slower than the first part). My workouts are at the bottom and top ends of MVO2 speeds, done essentially to exhaustion, then followed by hard runs when already tired. The first one has a second hard 400m after a recovery to show that even when exhausted, there's "still something left in the tank."

These are maniacally tough workouts. We'll see how they go. It looks like I'll have to shovel off a cinder track this Saturday to find out...

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Brief Update

I'm months behind where I expected to be in my training. I threw out my back and, for once, it did not heal quickly (so this is what getting old is like). This is my second week back and I'm running almost a minute per mile faster than I did last week; the rapid improvement in the early weeks is always fun. The plan is to do 6-8 weeks of just endurance work with two days of slow hill repeats before doing any real hard training. I was planning on racing through the spring, but now late May at the earliest and July at the latest seems to be when it'll happen.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

The Fundamental Training Error

I'm hoping this goes somewhere eventually, but I have a half-formed thought that I need to express.

If you improve a race time, you think that whatever you changed since the previous race is the reason you improved. Beside non-training reasons, improvement might have been from a long-term trend, rather than an immediate cause.

When you improve, you think that repeating the change that led to improvement will lead to further improvement. The unique circumstances before your improvement will never happen again. Doing something again does not guarantee the same results, nor is more of something necessarily better; there might be something else that is better still.

If you make a change and improve, then make the same change and fail to improve, you might think "I've become accustomed to the stimulus. I need even more of it."

Success leads to more. Failure leads to more. More leads to injury.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

False Start

I was six miles into my fourth run after resuming training when I felt a twinge in my back. These things tend to sort themselves out. 50 yards later, I was unable to move without severe pain. I managed to get to a park bench and found some gentle stretching relieved most of the discomfort, so I started moving again, slowly. About 1/2 mile from home, it hit again. It took a long time to do that last bit and then I hurt so much I couldn't change clothes (or sit or lay down or lean or kneel...)

Three days later, it occurred to me what had happened. On Saturday, it got to 45 degrees, so I had decided to (unsuccessfully) chip away at an ice ridge at the end of my driveway. It was that weird jarring action that must've tweaked my back, but didn't make itself known until the next day.

It's hard to say what it is. There's a piriformis/gluteus medius problem and a psoas/quadratus lumborum problem, but it seems there might be actual sciatica issues as well. It's getting better, but not fast enough.

Friday, February 16, 2018

A Very Rough Start

I took essentially the entire winter off from running, for the first time in decades, trying to get old injuries under control. Every now and then, I'd go for a 2-3 mile jog and come back saying, "Now my (choose one: plantar fascia, gluteus medius, tensor fascia latae, peroneals, hip adductors) hurt" and I'd start working on a new issue.

I said that once the weather improved - and we never get two consecutive days below zero after Valentine's Day here, regardless of what people say - I'd start training again. It's been a brutal February.

On Tuesday, I did repeats of the Ohio Street "snake" hill, which I intend to use for MVO2 repeats when in shape (at 0.4345 miles and 174 feet of climb, it approximates well to 1000m on a track). I ran as easily as I could and had difficulty managing 7 repeats at any pace - last year, I did as many as 20 nearly 3 minutes per mile faster.

Thursday, I went to the Ramsey Street hill, which I also intend to use for lactic acid tolerance repeats later (0.2156 miles, 117 feet climb - very close to 1/3 mile on a track). There was a large patch of ice, so I went carefully, and quit when I saw this:

I thought my maximal heart rate was 180 (it was 184 in 2008), so this was a true maximal effort, though it was a slow jog. Seven repeats, a bit over 3 miles, in more than 37 minutes. Last year, also in February, I did 25 repeats, a minute per mile faster and at a heart rate 20 beats per minute slower.

That's not starting from zero. That's starting from negative ten. With luck, I'll improve quickly, but it will take a long time before I can race. On the plus side, nothing hurts - and I haven't been able to say that in longer than I can remember.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Masters Running - VO2max

One of the things that seems to happen as one ages is that maximal oxygen uptake decreases, though I suspect that, as a trainable factor, the reason for this is that masters runners aren't doing the correct workouts. Top elderly athletes like Ed Whitlock have had unusually high VO2max recordings; Whitlock also had an unusually high maximal heart rate for his age - whether he had an unusually high rate when he was young or his maximum decreased unusually slowly (probably both) is unknown. His training appears to have consisted of "slow" 2-3 hour runs and frequent races, without what most would consider typical VO2max training.

But let's take a look at the matter.

VO2max is measured by running on an inclined treadmill for about 12 minutes. It's a good measure of one's ability to run 12 minutes, so it's best for 5K comparisons. Jack Daniels, considered the foremost authority on the subject, says training for it is done at (or very near) maximal heart rate, ideally in 5 minute bursts. I can only manage my maximal heart rate under unusual circumstances and for at most 2 seconds, as other factors impede me before I get there. I think that this may be common; if something keeps a master runner from being able to run at a pace that would correspond to their actual maximal VO2max, they will have a lower measured VO2max, because that's all that can be measured. I'm going to say that VO2max training is done at the average heart rate one can manage for a 5K, which may be considerably lower than one's maximum heart rate. That leads to some possible explanation of how masters runners should train in order to increase their VO2max.


This is probably the most straightforward method. If you can mimic the effort without the pounding effects on the body, you should be able to do a lot of VO2max training, so you could train at the (assumed) VO2max heart rate while doing some other activity; cross-country skiing is probably best (the highest VO2max recordings have been measured in cross-country skiers), cycling probably the most convenient.

Progression Runs

When you run long, either you slow or your heart rate increases over time (cardiac drift), or both. If you run long enough at a pace above an ultramarathon pace, your heart rate should eventually hit your VO2max range. Unfortunately, running this long seems to lead to overuse injuries and running a fast-ish pace for a long time is close enough to racing that it requires a very long recovery, cutting down the amount of useful training you can do. A way around that is to do a progression run, where you intentionally run the last few miles faster (necessarily running less distance); cardiac drift means that you start the harder section with an already increased heart rate, so it doesn't take much extra effort to push to VO2max. I personally find this next to impossible to do, but there is another option. If you have a long hill at the end of a long run, one's heart rate has to climb as one climbs the hill (often even when slowing down), allowing VO2max training at a relatively slow pace.

Intervals vs Hills

There are two different ways to use interval training to improve VO2max. One is to use short intense repeats with very short recoveries, e.g. the Billat protocol of running for 30 seconds at the pace one could manage for 6 minutes, followed by 30 seconds at half that pace, repeated as long as possible (24 repeats seems to have been the most done in the study). Because one's heart rate doesn't fall enough during the recovery, one's heart rate during the hard parts climbs quickly and one even eventually hits the VO2max heart rate during the recoveries. This is problematic for older runners such as myself, because the very fast pace, particularly on curves, leads to injury.

The other method is the standard. 3 to 7 repeats of 800 to 2000 meters at 3K to 5K pace  (about 4-6 minutes) are done, with approximately half as long a recovery as the time spent running hard. As Daniels points out, the first two minutes of each repeat may be spent in reaching the appropriate heart rate, so one doesn't run the entire workout at VO2max. As one ages, it may become difficult to run much more than two minutes at this pace, so the workout falls apart.

The alternative is to switch the workout to a hill of 4-6% incline. This causes one's heart rate to climb much faster, so you can run slower and get the same results, plus there's less of a lag time building up to the desired heart rate. The challenges here are that running downhill is stressful and can lead to injury and taking too long going down the hill could let one's heart rate drop too much. This could be obviated by doing the workout on an inclined treadmill.

Race more

It's quite possible that Whitlock was running at his VO2max during his races and that this was enough to keep him in shape. To duplicate this, one would have to race frequently and be careful to both not over-race and to not run so hard during the races that a long recovery is needed. Very competitive-minded runners such as myself find running races as low-key time trials rather than all-out races a challenge. It's probably easier when, like Whitlock, you could jog almost any race and win an age class award.