Tuesday, April 22, 2014

When A Runner Can't Run...

Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably heard me complaining about not being able to run because of this mysterious, lingering health issue.  Unfortunately the mystery remains unsolved.  And although I'm TRYING to ease back into running (we're talking 20 miles per week of sad, slumpy jogging), what has kept me sane through this entire ordeal has been the fact that I have been able to continue strength training.

As such, I figured why not do a little spotlight piece on the man, the myth, the legend that has been keeping my body in the best shape possible considering the circumstances.  So last week, I sat down with Luke Carlson, owner and trainer at Discover Strength, to pick his brain about strength training and runners.

Quick background on Luke:  he is the founder and CEO of Discover Strength. Luke is a practitioner, speaker, and author on the topic of strength training and evidence-based exercise programs. Luke is an American College of Sports Medicine certified Health and Fitness Specialist (HFS) and holds the unique distinction of being an American College of Sports Medicine Certified Cancer Exercise Specialist (CES). He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology and a Master of Science in Kinesiology with an emphasis in Exercise Physiology from the University of Minnesota.  Luke has been working with strength training for distance runners for over 12 years.  Over those 12 years, Luke and the Discover Strength staff have worked with hundreds of runners ranging from first time marathoners to Olympians and everything in between.  He is the co-author of the book, "The Female Athlete: Train for Success."  (Basically, he's a BA...and if you don't know what that is, you're not one.)

                                                 The Man - Luke Carlson

KB: So, we all know runners love to run, but there's more they can do to improve other than just hammering more miles, for example...strength training!  What are the biggest benefits of strength training for runners?

Luke: There are really two broad categories, and both are incredibly important.  
Firstly, strength training contributes to injury prevention.  By strengthening the muscles, tendons, connective tissues, and bone tissue, we have an improved ability to withstand the physical demands of distance running.  Great performances are largely the product of sustained periods of uninterrupted, injury free running/training.  So first and foremost, strength training should be viewed as a means to prevent injury (and in order to do this, it has to be done correctly).  
The second category is performance enhancement.  Of course, by remaining injury-free, we see improvements in performance because an athlete can actually complete prescribed workouts/runs over a sustained period of time.  The real performance benefit of strength training appears to be enhanced running economy.  Running economy is defined as the amount of oxygen we use to run at a given speed.  If we can maintain the same speed and use less oxygen, we have improved our running economy.  Running economy is highly correlated with race performance.  Literally every research study conducted on how strength training impacts distance running reveals that strength training improves running economy.  Interestingly, runners, running coaches, running magazines, etc. spend an enormous amount of time and energy experimenting with and touting the benefits of so many different aspects of running/training: mileage, pace-work, speed work, plyometrics, tempo work, flexibility, hill training, (and the list goes on)… When interesting, there is very little scientific research that definitively proves that any of these variables is the "key" to great performances.  While on the other hand, most coaches and runners ignore one training element that the research very clearly supports as being effective for enhancing performance: strength training.  This never ceases to amaze me.   In addition to these benefits, strength training also improves body composition and even enhances cardiovascular function.    
KB: Great answer, but I'm still going to have runners who are reluctant to give up their time to run because they're skeptical.  What's the biggest misconception runners (specifically distance runners) have about strength training?
Luke: The biggest misconception is that strength training isn't beneficial (when in fact, all of the research supports it's efficacy).  Other misconceptions abound and include how many reps a runner should do, a focus on "functional" training, and the myth that strength training will make a runner "bulky."  Even those who support the importance of strength training for distance runners fail to navigate many of these misconceptions.  

KB: Of course I think everyone should come see you and the great team at DS, but if that doesn't work, what are three lifts every runner should be doing on their own?
Luke: If a runner could choose only thee exercises/lifts, they would be: 
1. Leg Press/Squatting motion, 
2. Pull-up or Pull-down, and 
3. Chest Press or Pushing movement.  
These 3 exercises incorporate the vast majority of the musculature in the human body.  Notice, I didn't mention any "core" work.  Research indicates that a balanced approach of upper and lower body strength training is more beneficial than emphasizing "core" work.  The overemphasis of the "core" may in fact be one of the largest myths pertaining to strength training for distance runners.  

KB:  Sweet, more pull-ups, less crunches...check!  Any insights about the timing and/or frequency of strength training?  For example:  before vs after a run; on high-mileage days vs low-mileage days; how many days per week; how many days between lifting sessions; etc.
Luke: We would recommend 1-2 strength workouts per week.  In a perfect scenario, try to piggy back the strength workout after a hard effort (speed work, tempo, or even a long run). A morning tempo run can be followed by a strength workout later in the day.  In this instance, the runner can spend the following day recovering from both the tempo and strength workout.  It is imperative to have a minimum 2-3 days between strength workouts.  

KB:  I must say, before this whole health debacle that I'm going through popped up, my work with you played a big part in my break-through performances last spring and early summer.  The question then becomes this: in the metro area, which is so saturated with gyms, personal training studios, crossfit groups, etc., what makes DS different or how would you describe the DS philosophy? 
               Last summer when Luke and the DS team had me in top form!
Luke: Our approach can be summed up with the term "evidence-based."  This mean that rather than adopt fads and trends, or listen to the testimony of "experts," gurus, or successful athletes… we base our exercise prescription on the preponderance of scientific research.  An evidence-based approach to exercise ensures better results and a safer training experience.  I'm always shocked that the concept of research based exercise isn't incredibly popular to all runners (and exercisers in general).  If you aren't implementing evidence-based exercise, you are simply throwing darts at a dartboard.  One of our company's 4 Core Values is "Science-based Programming" and we will never, ever deviate from this.  
In a nutshell, the 4 things that really make us unique are:
  1. Educated, expert staff (not people who simply like fitness, but who have degrees and advances certifications in bio-mechanics, physiology, motor control, etc.)
  2. Efficient.  Our workouts are 30 minutes in length and we recommend 1-2 workouts per week.
  3. Evidence-based.
  4. Strength training focused.  We love all forms of exercise, but our only focus is strength training.  We make a conscious decision to focus in this one area.  
So, there it is.  Straight from The Man's mouth.  Hopefully any and all readers, whether runners or not, will gain a little insight on strength training.  Now, go pump it up!  

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