Prep your body for exercise to improve performance & decrease injury risk
Man, I cringe whenever I see someone hop on a treadmill next to me, crank it up to 8.0, and start immediately slogging away, huffing & puffing. Or the guy at the gym who walks out of the locker room, loads the bench to 225, and barely squeaks out 7 reps on his first set of the day.
If you aren’t properly preparing your body and mind for your workouts or races, you’re likely not reaching your peak performance and you’re increasing your risk of injury. Have you ever had those runs where you just feel like garbage and you’re not sure why? Or the days where the weights just feel super heavy at the gym? Well there’s a good chance that stepping up your warm-up game can help limit those random workouts where you feel like the Tinman from Wizard of Oz.
Not only will a good warmup improve performance and decrease injury risk, it also prepares your mind for your workout, increasing your focus and tolerance for pain.
More specifically, warming up before your workout:
Directs blood to your muscles and raises your heart rate so you can get more oxygen to your muscles during your workout
Increases muscular elasticity and expands your range of motion
Promotes the flow of the synovial fluid that cushions joints and reduces friction
Raises your core body temperature (pro-tip – warmup indoors before cold winter runs!)
Improves your mental focus and coordination and can increase your pain tolerance. Especially for those early morning workouts!
Warmup Tips & Ideas
A good warmup should specifically target the muscles that will be active in your workout. So a simple (but effective!) warmup is to just mimic the movements of your workout but at a reduced intensity.
For example, walk for 5 minutes then jog slowly for 5 minutes before a run workout. If you’re doing heart rate-based endurance training, make sure you slowly ramp up your heart rate until you reach your target zone, taking the first mile or so of your run to do so. For a strength training workout, go through your circuit for one round with 50% of your weights to go through the motions and get loose for the main workout. Do a few sets of knee pushups and arm circles before a heavy bench day. And so on. It doesn’t have to be rocket science.
I’ve included a few videos below that shown some specific dynamic stretches and drills for prior to running or lifting to give you more ideas.
How Long Should You Warmup?
It depends a lot on both the intensity of your workout and your age. A warmup probably isn’t very important if you’re a 20 year old setting off for a long, slow endurance run. But if you’re middle-aged and preparing for an interval session or an intense circuit-style workout, for example, you really should set aside extra time for a warmup. If you’re looking for a rough rule of thumb: 10 minutes should do the trick for most workouts.
For races – it may seem counterintuitive that the shorter the race, the longer your warmup should be. This goes back to the workout intensity and the simple fact that you will be running harder in your short races. So, very little warmup (10 minutes or less) is needed for a marathon where you’re looking to conserve your energy and glycogen levels. While for a 5K, especially if you’re a competitive runner, you should adopt a warmup that lasts 15-20 minutes and contains both jogging, strides, and dynamic stretches and drills (see below)
Pre-Run Warmup Drills & Dynamic Stretches
The following video shows some of my go-to warmup drills before a high intensity tempo or interval session. I like to repeat some of all of these for five minutes or so after a walk or slow jog.
Pre-Workout Warmup Flow
The following video has a sequence of some dynamic stretches & yoga-inspired movements that make a great warmup prior to running, lifting, etc., sped up for viewability. I originally put together this routine for a client of mine who was returning from a lower back injury to loosen up his back and hips, but it serves as a solid full body warmup.
Pre-Workout Dynamic Stretching Routine
The warmup flow above is an evolution of the older one below (you can see I love “wipers” as a first, gentle movement in a warmup). I use these dynamic stretches specifically for waking up my hips and hip flexors before a run.
A short and light yoga class or quick flow is a great way to warmup for running or lifting. Some people also like to foam roll before workouts to prime their muscles. What about static stretching? There’s some debate there, but I save static stretching for after workouts/runs and opt for light cardio and dynamic stretching before instead.
Whatever you do, just do something! Make it a routine. Your body will thank you for it.
Last summer, following a short hiatus from running, I made a concerted effort to rework my running form as I began to ease back into training. My goal was to run more efficiently by reducing overstriding; focusing on increasing my running cadence with shorter, quicker steps. I was able to track my progress by monitoring my run cadence data (in SPM – steps per minute) measured by my Garmin watch. Over the last year, I can show I’ve boosted by cadence from a SPM in the 160s when I started, to around 180 SPM now! I’ll talk about how I showed my improvements using Garmin data and mention how the new, quicker cadence is paying off now.
A thorough explanation of overstriding can get pretty technical, and a tutorial on how to fix it would require at least an entire separate blog post; so I’ll keep it brief for now. Overstriding is super common among distance runners and occurs when your front foot makes contact with the ground in front of your center of mass while running, see below:
As shown in the diagram, when your foot lands out in front of you body, the tendency is also to make contact with the heel first (“heel striking”), often with a straight leg. Doing so is essentially applying the “brakes” with each stride, making you less efficient. There is also a ton of impact absorbed by the rest of your leg and body by landing in this position, increasing your risk of injury. In fact, overstriding is often the root cause of many common running injuries like runner’s knee and IT band syndrome.
Landing under your center of mass while running (image on the right) can make you a healthier, more efficient, and ultimately faster runner. Increasing your cadence isn’t the only thing to focus on to reduce overstriding, but it is a very important component of improving running form. Plus – cadence is measured by most newer running watches, making it easier to see and track improvements made…
The Proof is in the Data
For any fitness goal, it’s really important to have a quantifiable way to track your progress. Whether it’s logging your weights/reps at the gym when training for strength, or monitoring your weight loss on a new diet, it’s motivating to see progress over time in an explicit way based on your goals.
So for me, the average cadence data measured by my Garmin watch was the perfect metric for me to track as I set off to increase my SPM. And because I’m a scientist & programmer nerd, I enjoyed taking this tracking to the next level with this blog post 🤓.
I downloaded one year’s worth of workout data from the Garmin connect app in spreadsheet form. I then wrote some code to load, process, and visualize the data. I filtered out all non-running workouts and runs with paces slower than 10:00 min/mi. I then plotted the average cadence from all remaining runs versus the time of year from March 2019 to March 2020 as circles, and colored those circles by average pace (blue for slower, red for faster). I wanted to be able to see how my cadence increased with time, but also how much the pace of the runs affected my cadence.
I was pumped with the result! I was able to clearly see a trend of increasing pace from June – October and it was obvious that my average cadence these days is signficantly higher than last year at this time. Also, I can see that even my slowest runs now have a higher cadence than my fastest runs back before I started. This is awesome, because it used to be a challenge to move my feet fast when the pace was slow.
At first I thought I made a mistake in my data processing when I saw the gap in runs you can see around May 2019… but then I remembered I had ran in a 24 hour race on April 27th (my first ultra), and took a brief break from running afterwards to let my feet recover 😧. What’s also cool is you can see all of the slower-paced runs leading up to that race (the darker blue dots) where I was doing lots of long and slow walk/jog workouts to train.
Further evidence of the improvement can be seen by looking at a couple races I did before/after making upgrades to my stride. Check out a comparison of my stats from Richmond Half Marathon (2018, 2019) and the Oozlefinch 10 Miler (2019, 2020) below:
The pace and finish times between the two years were remarkably similar, but my cadence increased significantly (I think the average cadence showed from Oozlefinch 2020 is actually slightly higher because I forgot to turn off my watch after the race for almost a minute 😅).
Feeling Lighter & Quicker
With an average cadence of around 180 these days, I’m feeling light and quick on my feet, even during the long, slow runs. Like learning anything new (or re-learning something you’ve been doing for years), it takes time to change, and even longer for the change to feel normal and second-nature. I’m just now getting to the point where I can keep my feet moving fast without focusing on making it happen.
With the exception of periodically tight/sore calves (landing on the balls of your feet as opposed to heels puts more emphasis on the backside of your legs, especially calves), the quicker turnover has my legs feeling fresher. It’s only been a relatively short period of time, but for what it’s worth, I’ve avoided any injuries/tweaks to knees/hips/shins/feet over this stretch.
The healthier stride also motivated me to finally switch up my running shoes for the first time in over five years. I switched from the heavy and super cushioned Brooks Glycerin to the lightweight Saucony Kinvaras. The difference is huge: going from a heel-to-toe drop of 10.5mm to 4mm; and a weight of 11oz to just 7.8oz. It’s hard to imagine now how I ran with such heavy-duty shoes.
Finally, another thing I love about changing my stride and focusing on fast cadence is having a new, powerful cue for the end of races and hard runs. I’ve noticed that when I get fatigued, my cadence tends to drop, even if my pace is the same. So now when I come to the final mile or two of a race, my internal cue is to keep quick feet. I bring up the cadence display on my watch and focus on keeping the number high. To me, it’s mentally easier to focus on fast cadence than focusing directly on fast pace… but the faster pace naturally comes with it.
Where to Start
Looking to learn a healthier stride? As I mentioned, changing something so ingrained over time like your natural running stride is going to take some time. The best time to make changes to form and technique is in the offseason or in between training cycles. You’re more likely to fall back into your same habits if you feel rushed and pressured to build speed and endurance for an upcoming race.
The first step is simple and is just about observation to find out where you’re at now. Look through your run data just to get an idea of what cadence range you tend to run at. Then change your watch settings to show your current cadence on one of your displays. Pay attention to how your cadence may tend to slow when you’re fatigued.
Once you have an idea of where you’re at – start small. Aim to increase your cadence by 5%. Add in drills at the beginning and end of runs that emphasize good form and quick feet like strides and downhill running. Although I haven’t tried this, some people even recommend running with a metronome to hit a target cadence. I also found an app that will change the tempo of your favorite music.
That’s it for now. I’ll put it on the to-do list to revisit this topic more from a how-to standpoint, but in the meantime check out some of the links in this post for more details. Happy running!
A compilation of 70+ fun & creative core exercises grouped by the equipment they require
Building a strong core is super important whether you’re an athlete or a weekend warrior. A solid core will give you the foundation to increase your strength and endurance, improve your balance and stability, and can improve your posture and help prevent injuries.
Since I became a personal trainer, one of my hobbies and coaching specialities has become concocting new and challenging (and sometimes off-the-wall) ways to work your core. I decided to go back and collect all the core compilations videos I’ve made over the last couple years into one place. The exercises are grouped by the equipment they require and chances are you own at least one (got one dumbbell??). Take a look and put together your own at-home core workout with the options below!
The foam roller… not just for self-massage / myofascial release. The exercises:
Plank walks (move forward to increase the challenge)
Forearm forward rollouts
Side plank rotation roll-up
Combine 1-3 for fun combos. Or toss in the foam roller push up for an added chest and shoulder stability challenge. These exercises are deceptively hard if you don’t train your core regularly – set your feet up nice and wide, drop to your knees, and/or put the foam roller on a soft surface to decrease the difficulty at first.
Sliders are an awesome fitness tool because they’re cheap and portable. You can get a complete workout with just one set and a small space on a floor that slides. You can also do slider exercises using just towels (or in your socks!) on a hardwood floor at home. This video has eight of my favorite core exercises that use sliders. Check ‘em out! The exercises:
Knee tucks (with obstacle)
Around the worlds
Three point knee tucks
Plank slide outs
My favorite way to get a good core workout with sliders is in the form of circuits or supersets. Pick 2-3 out of this list to perform back-to-back with no rest 💪⚡️.
I like the stability ball because it forces you to use your stabilizer (duh) muscles to do the exercises clean and with control. With that in mind, it’s important to think about doing the reps of these exercises slowly and maintaining good form. You’ll notice that the one exercise that most people probably think of, the stability ball crunch, didn’t make the cut because I think these eight exercises are more effective! The exercises:
Around the world
Plank knee drives
This is the third time we’ll see a variation of the plank saw in this series (see sliders and foam roller), and I think this one is the most effective. It’s important to remember to really brace your core on this one and limit the range of motion if you feel any stress in your lower back – you’ll feel the burn with even tiny saw motions 🔥. The Around the World exercise takes the forearm saw to the next level, requiring more stability and control. Taking a nice wide stance on both of these exercises gives you more leverage and make them a little bit easier. I think a lot of these exercises are deceptively difficult, I’d recommend starting with the dead bug and V-up pass for beginners. I was personally caught off guard by how hard a side plank is on the stability ball is – give it a shot and let me know what you think!
This video is cool because it’s practical – a lot of people have a pair of dumbbells lying around at home. Now you can go beyond your run-of-the-mill bicep curls and get a complete core workout with one of those dumbbells too! These are also solid exercises to know when the gym is packed and you wanna squeeze in some core work at the end of your workout – just grab a dumbbell off the rack, find a quiet corner, and let it rip. The exercises:
Sit-up + oblique crunch
Plank dumbbell push
Plank dumbbell drag
Plank front raise
Side plank raise
Side plank fly
Side plank hold (+ leg raise)
For many of these exercises (1, 4, 5, 6, 7), the lighter the dumbbell, the better. The challenge here is stabilizing your (side) plank while you’ve got the dumbbell movements altering your center of gravity, so no need to overdue it on weight. You’ll also notice that most of these exercises will secondarily work your shoulders, so I like to use these as a way to get my core work in at the end of a shoulder workout. Try exercises 1 & 2 back-to-back as a fun superset (~8 reps on the right then left for each). And give exercise 8 a shot if you’re getting tired (or too good at) holding a standard side plank.
Known mostly for ballistic movements and swings, kettlebells can also be used to light up your abs/obliques with these core-isolating exercises:
Plank walk over
Some tips & cues: For the windmill exercises, think about trying to stack your shoulders at the end of the movement, keeping your eyes focused on the bell and the bell pointed straight up at the ceiling the entire time. I like to think about standing in a narrow space between two walls while doing the standing variation to keep my movement in the frontal plane. The kneeling windmill is a slightly more challenging variation, make sure you control your motion all the way to the ground, engaging your obliques to land softly on your hand.
For all the lying exercises (#3-6), focus on keeping your lower back pressed on the ground to keep your core engaged and your back safe. For the leg raise and windshield wiper, see if you can keep the kettlebell as still as possible by imagining that you’re pressing it up towards the ceiling (it’s hard to do with the wipers!). Keep a “proud” chest on the Russian twists, and rotate your shoulders as well to make sure you’re using your core. Pick a heavier kettlebell for the plank walk overs to make it more stable or go lighter if you want more instability for a good challenge.
This video uses one resistance band (and anchor point) to do seven challenging core exercises, including two variations of a new favorite of mine, the Palloff press. Resistance bands are nice because we can easily control the resistance using distance from the anchor point, the more the band is stretched, the more challenging the movement. So make sure you get a good squeeze at the top of the movements when the resistance is highest! The exercises:
Kneeling Palloff press
Overhead Palloff press
Side plank rotation
Side plank row
Side plank press
Band pull leg raise
As I mentioned, the Palloff press is one of my new go-to’s. It teaches and strengthens core stability, which is great for beginners learning to engage their core or for more advanced people building a solid foundation for more powerful lifts or endurance training. As you press the band away from your body, you need to use core stabilization to resist core rotation (for kneeling Palloff press) and lateral flexion (for overhead Palloff press). These are awesome exercises for your obliques and for shoulder stability too. For all the side plank exercises, think hips high & core tight. Try to rotate a full 90 degrees on the side plank rotation, pointing your elbow to the sky and straight out to the side. Drop to a knee, use a lighter band, or move closer to the anchor point to decrease the difficulty at first if needed.
Alright, alright I know everyone doesn’t have a TRX Suspension Trainer lying around their house. But most gyms have a couple of them. And more importantly, I think the TRX is probably the single most effective tool for training your core. With your feet suspended in the straps, your core works double-time to keep these exercises under control as you crunch/rotate/extend in the air with little leverage. The exercises:
Knee tuck twist
Side plank rotation
Side plank crunch
Side plank knee tucks
Exercises 1-4 target your abdominals while 5-9 primarily target your obliques. I like to select a few exercises from each group accordingly to emphasize one or the other in a single workout. Disclaimer: these core exercises on the TRX are pretty advanced. You can make them a little bit easier by backing up underneath your anchor point to create less resistance in the crunching/knee-tucking exercises (moving forward will make them more challenging). A good starting point is just working on your plank and side plank holds with your feet in the TRX. Once you feel stabile and comfortable here, you can start to experiment with the exercises in the video.
Slamballs – not just for slamming! 🤓 Light up your core with these exercises:
Sit up foot strike
Sit up knee tucks
Russian twist slams
Side plank hip dip
Side plank rotation
Side plank heel/toe tap
➡️Beginners – start with exercises 1, 4, and 5 and modify the side plank exercises by putting your forearm on the slamball instead of your feet to make them easier. ➡️People with back issues – skip the knee tucks (2) and sit up knee tucks (3) or use a lighter slamball and make sure you’re keeping your lower back pressed into the ground throughout the movement (reduce your range of motion if you can’t). ➡️Runners – incorporate side plank hip dips (7) and heel/toe taps (9) into your strength training routine to work your core while getting some bonus hip abductor/adductor strengthening in for a sturdier foundation to prevent injuries!
Last but not least, a rapid-fire video of 10+ core exercises for cable machines in 60 seconds 🔥 Most are rotation and anti-rotation that work your obliques and transverse abdominals (your deep/functional abs). The palloff press variations have been some of my go-to’s over the last couple years cause they don’t only work your core but require you to activate basically all of your major muscle groups. They’re also perfect for beginners and more advanced people alike. The side-plank row/press/fly exercises are awesome accessory work for your push/pull days at the gym…. And yes, I had to throw in some of the (boring?) classics like chops and crunches 🤷♂️ Give em a whirl! 💪
I think sometimes I sound like a broken record talking about how and why to use heart rate-based training for runners and triathletes. But I wanted to beat that drum a little bit more and give a quick example from my own training with a couple runs I did last week. I also wanted to show that, even though I’ve trained like this for years now, I still have seemingly “bad” runs with the approach, but that’s okay. I keep plugging along and trust the process.
I’m showing an image comparing two runs from last week, four days apart, nearly identical route, similar conditions, with more-or-less the same heart rate. But I was about 30 seconds per mile slower in the second run shown on the right, and for a shorter distance. Bad run right? Nope! I was patient. I executed the run just as planned. I followed my heart. And it wanted me to have a slower run on that particular day.
Running by heart rate…
Heart rate training is all about listening to your body. Wearing a heart rate monitor while you run and workout is the most objective way we have to gauge effort level and understand the stress your body is under. There is also a lot of research and differentapproaches to tell you the specific training effect that running in different heart rate zones will produce. So, I argue that (in most cases) we should set target heart rate zones for our runs, and let the pace be what it may. Rather than setting a target pace for our runs, and letting your heart rate, workout stress/effort, and resulting physiological impact be what it may.
Running by pace…
Sure – running according to a specific pace is probably the first and simplest approach most runners use when they’re starting out; and one that many people stick with through their running career because it’s so simple (and because it’s fun to show off how fast our long run was :-P). For example, “I want to do all of my long training runs at 10:00 min/mile for this upcoming marathon”. But, how does that 10:00 min/mi pace feel to you when it’s 40 degrees out versus say, 85 degrees? With/without the Virginia summer humidity? Or running on the flat road versus up the side of a mountain on a trail? Or when you’re well-rested versus sleep-deprived and recovering from a cold? You get the point. A difference in conditions like these can turn a leisurely afternoon stroll into an near all-out effort. So are you still getting the the training effect you intended on with your long run in those cases. Probably not.
Running according to heart rate takes these conditions into account. When it’s hot, heart rate is elevated, naturally slowing your pace to level out the effort and training stress. Same thing with hilly terrain or humidity. It’s also known that higher heart rate can be a leading indication of a pending cold or sickness. Your heart rate will also naturally be higher when you’ve missed sleep or if you’ve been stressed. This is your body asking you to slow down. And following your heart rate monitor for your run will meet that request. It’s a more direct reflection of effort.
Running by feel…
Alternatively, you could run by feel instead of by pace or heart rate. And for many seasoned runners, this is a valid option. However, what’s going on in your head and in the rest of your body can be completely different. How many times have you surged out of the starting line of a race fueled by adrenaline. Only to crash and burn a couple miles after you realized you’re running wayyy too fast.
Running according to heart rate can also be a great pacing tool for these situations. The more you become aware of the connection between your heart rate and effort level, the more you understand how much longer your body can continue to run at a certain heart rate. So, when race day comes – you’ll have your heart rate monitor as an objective voice yelling “slow down!!” after you shoot out of the gate.
Wrapping it up…
Back to my “bad” run on the right. I don’t know the exact cause of the slower pace. I hadn’t slept quite as much as I would’ve liked over the few days in between, maybe that was it. Maybe I wasn’t fully recovered from the run on the left (my farthest in quite a while). Maybe my body was feeling more stress than my head was leading me to believe.
I do know that my 8:09 min/mi pace was exactly what it should’ve been for that day though. Because pace is the result of my run, not a set target I’m aiming for. Yeah, I’d like for all of my runs to be “fast” and increasingly fast, but I’m in it for the long haul. I just want incremental progress over time. And I nailed the target heart rate to get the training effect I’m looking for to keep that progress rolling, and that’s what counts.
Last weekend I raced in the Virginia 24 Hour Run for Cancer, my first ultramarathon. I managed to cover 90 miles, earning an award for the best mileage for a first time ultra attempt. I had a great support crew who helped make that possible, and learned a ton about ultra-endurance training from my preparation. Here’s a not-so-quick recap of the race and the training that went into it.
It’s funny, a lot of people keep asking if (or assuming that) last weekend’s 24 hour race was the hardest endurance challenge I’ve ever done. But honestly, I don’t think that it was. It was just different. It was tough for sure, but a different type of tough. Compared to a marathon, the intensity of the pain/discomfort was a bit less, but it was just stretched over a much longer time. There’s more emphasis on strategy, pacing, nutrition, and logistics. The performance balance is shifted a bit from pure physical ability to mental toughness and experience. Proof of this: the number of people in their 40s, 50s, and up who are in the top 20 runners – there’s a 60 year old lady ranked right in front of me with 93.5 miles!
Quick Training Recap
With much more focus on strategy and experience, and me being totally new to the ultra game, there was a ton for me to try to learn in the couple months leading up to the race. See my last blog post for some more details on how I was planning out my training. As I mentioned there, I was pressed for time, with only 8 weeks between a Spring marathon I had trained for and the 24 hour race, minus a few weeks for recovery/tapering and lots of traveling mixed in too. My primary goals in that short amount of time we’re to find my strategies for nutrition/hydration and pacing, and to put in a lot of time on my feet.
While you can sometimes get away with being loose about fueling for a marathon, I knew the 24 hour race would be a lot less forgiving. I needed a plan, I needed to test/tweak the plan in training, and I needed to do my best to execute that plan for the race. The plan would be primarily based on consuming proper amounts of 1) calories (mostly carbs), 2) fluids, and 3) sodium.
From doing a goodamount of research, I learned that the body can only absorb between 150-300 calories per hour. I would shoot for the upper end of that, testing it out beforehand to make sure my stomach agreed. As opposed to fueling for a higher intensity race like a half/full marathon, solid options for food were on the table for this race. I would split my calories primarily between gatorade, energy gels, gummies, and PBJs.
For sodium, a rough rule of thumb is to consume between 200-300mg per hour during exercise. More for when it’s hot/humid, and/or if you’re a salty sweater, like me. Again, I’d shoot for the upper end of that range with a combination of gatorade and an electrolyte supplement in pill form.
Hydration is a little bit trickier to plan out, it’s very dependent on weather/individual. For this, I would bring a scale to the race and monitor my weight periodically. If I noticed a significant drop in weight, I’d make it a point to increase my fluid intake. (Note: at the race I lost 2.5 pounds in the first 6 hours, and was able to climb back close to my starting weight by putting more emphasis on hydration.)
I made an excel spreadsheet to map out and calculate how I could take in the target amounts of calories/sodium per hour that I had planned 🤓, here’s an example:
My pacing strategy would be based on splitting up each hour into equal parts walking/jogging (30:00 walk->30:00 jog or 20:00->20:00 then 10:00->10:00, etc.), where the jogging portion would be done according to heart rate.
After testing this breakdown out in some training runs, I found my target walking pace to be about 15:00min/mi and my target jogging pace to be about 10:00min/mi. This averaged out to a 12:00min/mi pace overall, or 5 miles per hour. My goal for the race would be to hold this pace for the first 12 hours to try to rattle off 60 miles by evening, before taking a more substantial break to eat dinner, rest, massage, stretch, and regroup.
My pacing and nutrition strategy went hand-in-hand. If I wanted to regularly eat something solid and more substantial (like a PBJ), I knew I’d have to take some time to walk and let it digest before jogging again. So I landed on the following eat/walk/jog pattern:
Walk 30 minutes -> Jog 30 minutes
Eat energy gummies
Walk 20 minutes -> Jog 20 minutes
Eat energy gel
Walk 10 minutes -> Jog 10 minutes
This represented two hours of race time and about 600 calories of fuel. My goal was to repeat this pattern (or something similar) through the first half of the 24 hour race.
Long Training Runs
The longest workouts for any endurance event should be treated as dress rehearsals for the actual race. As far as I was concerned, the long training runs I put in for the 24 hour race we’re just as much (or more) about figuring out the mental/logistics battle of nutrition/pacing than getting in better shape physically.
With just two free weekends available for the type of long training walk/run I needed to prepare for the race, I needed to be creative about getting some longer efforts in and putting in more time on my feet. I managed to squeeze in a third long workout by logging three runs over the course of a workday, with a total mileage of 26.2 (marathon!), see right.
The peak of my training was three weeks out from the race when I was able to put in an 8 hour walk/run, covering 40 miles. This was my true dress rehearsal for the race, practicing my nutrition/hydration/pacing plan mentioned above. I set out to do three 2-3 hour loops around the neighborhood, returning to my apartment between each one to pick up supplies for the next round. Check out my crazy route and stats below:
Overall, the 40 miler went pretty well. I stayed relatively on target with my nutrition, hydration, and pacing (see the 12:06 min/mi above) and my stomach faired pretty well. I did tweak the arch of my left foot, however, probably because I went a little bit too far too soon, and because a majority of this walk/run was done on sidewalks and asphalt (two things I generally try to avoid). The soreness went away after a few days but I worried that the pain might return on race day (spoiler alert: it did 😅) .
I decided in the weeks leading up to the race that I wouldn’t attempt to sleep/nap throughout the day/night and would opt to power through the entire 24 hours instead. So, I made it a point to save up on sleep in the few days prior, clearing my schedule so I could get 8-9 hours of sleep. With the exception of nerves keeping me up for a little while the night before, this worked out pretty well and I entered the race well rested.
I lucked out with weather also – it was a windy day, but with highs only in the 70s and no rain. It had stormed the day before so parts of the course were muddy making it more challenging, but the trail conditions were much better than I expected.
I received some insider tips before the race about logistics and saw a video of last year’s race showing elaborate camps set up with tarps, canopies, hammocks, cooler, grills, and more. So when I rolled into my first 24 hour race that morning to set up, I at least looked like I knew what I was doing 😎, setting up shop near the turnaround of the 3.75mi course loop:
I learned in the weeks leading up to the race that a majority of the runners had entered the race as part of a team. On race day, it became more and more clear just how important having a team was for this type of challenge, given the logistics involved and the mental struggle of such a long race. Thankfully, I had an amazing support crew there to cheer me on and help out, despite the fact that I had signed up as a solo competitor. My girlfriend, Katie, was there for the entire 24+ hours to help me out, my Moms drove down from New Jersey to cheer me on, and about a dozen other friends showed up periodically throughout the day to say hi and give me encouragement. I can’t thank them enough. Check out some members of my awesome pit crew below:
For the most part, the first half of the race went smoothly. I was happy with how I executed the nutrition/pacing strategy I had created/practiced during training. Just as I had planned, I covered 60 miles in just over 12 hours before taking 30 minute break to recover and eat before the night shift. I broke that stretch into 3 hour chunks, taking 5-10 minute breaks between each one to stretch/regroup/change socks quick.
As I approached the evening and got into the night hours, things got a lot tougher. The race director had said several times in emails leading up the race that it’s usually a runner’s stomach or feet that is their downfall on race day. My stomach was fine, but my feet did prove to be my limiting factor..
I had purchased a pair of shoes that was 1/2 size bigger than my usual running shoes specifically for the race to account for swelling in my feet that would come with such a long race. Problem was, I waited just a little too long to switch to them. Around 8 hours in, my regular shoes started to feel tight and I told myself I’d do one more lap and then put on the bigger pair. During that lap, I could feel my toes jamming against the tops of my shoes. When I made it back, I took off my shoes and saw that the damage was already done. The nails on my two big toes and one other smaller toe we’re black and swollen, with blood blisters forming under the nails (I decided to spare you guys the photos 😇, but they were gnarly). Still, the pain wasn’t enough to stop me from being able to continue jogging, and my bigger shoes gave my toes a little bit of initial relief.
Around 11 hours in though, right before taking my 30 minute dinner break, I encountered pain that would be much harder (and eventually impossible) to jog through. The arch on my left foot that I had tweaked on a training run three weeks prior had finally had enough impact. I had felt a dull pain growing in the few hours leading up to this point, but on this lap in particular the pain suddenly got sharp. I experimented with different ways to tweak my form (flexing my toes, pronating my feet, tiny/light strides) to lessen the pain, each one providing only temporary relief. I iced my foot between each lap. Tried KT taping the arch. Put bandaids on my toenails to prevent them from falling off. Took Ibuprofen. Anything to keep my feet functioning.
When I hit 50 miles just a lap or two earlier before the foot pain, I had started to gain confidence. I set my sights on a goal of 100 miles. I tried to keep my expectations loose heading into the race since it was my first attempt, saying that at least 75mi would be nice, but had started to feel like 100 was attainable. Once my feet gave out though, and it became clear that I’d be limited to walking for the remainder of the race, I told myself I’d just do my best to keep it moving through the pain, and make it as far as I could given the circumstances.
So I kept on trucking! I managed to tack on 30 more miles throughout the night by walking and continuing to do damage control on my feet between laps. Running in the dark with a headlamp, something I had never done before, ended up going relatively smoothly (and was actually pretty cool). The sleep deprivation factor really wasn’t so bad either, I only started to feel super tired around 2 or 3am. Eventually, I tossed my nutrition strategy out the window when none of my original go-to food was appetizing, and opted instead for a steady diet of iced coffee, candy, and chips. Friends and family alternated keeping me company on the last few laps when I was a complete zombie and could barely move my legs.
I finished my 24th lap of the 3.75mi course at around 6:10am for an even 90 miles, throwing in the towel at that point and collapsing into a chair, exhausted. I earned a plaque for reaching the 75mi point, and later on learned that I had gone farther than any other first-timer by about 15 miles, earning an award for best first attempt that they give out each year. In fact, the race director told me that 90 miles was the farthest he remembers anyone doing for their first ultramarathon, which made me feel both super pumped/proud but also nervous about how sore that meant I’d be the next day 😅. I mentioned at the beginning that I don’t think the 24 hour race was the hardest endurance event I’ve ever done per se, but I may have set a personal record for soreness on the following day!
The 24 hour race was a totally unique and new challenge for me. There’s so much more emphasis on nutrition, pacing, mental toughness, and overall racing strategy as compared to half/full marathons. But I really enjoyed that aspect of training, and I learned a ton through my preparation. I also learned the value of having a great support crew at this type of race.
Next time (if there’s a next time… 100mi does have a nice ring to it…), I’d set aside more time for training to properly ramp up my duration/mileage and prepare my feet for the beating of 150,000+ steps. I’d take some more precautions on race day to keep my feet in good shape as well (switching to bigger shoes earlier!). But overall, I thought the pacing/nutrition strategy I laid out for myself worked out pretty damn well, never truly feeling a crash from lack of energy, dehydration, or low sodium.
Proud of the preparation and effort I put into my first ultramarathon to make it 90 miles, and really thankful for all the people who supported me for it. On to the next challenge!
I’ve faced a lot of difference challenges in 10+ years of endurance training and racing, but the 24 hour ultra run coming up in April will be a totally unique experience.
I’ve always said that I wasn’t interested in ever running a distance beyond a marathon. So I’ve never participated in an ultra-marathon before. But something about the Virginia 24 Hour Run/Walk for Cancer, giving runners a set amount of time to run rather than distance, lured me in. The race takes place at a local park, Sandy Bottom Nature Park, and the goal is to complete as many four mile loops as possible within the 24 hour time period. I think the idea of having an open-ended distance is what appeals to me (technically I could stop after just a marathon and call it a day…).
I’ve trained for a variety of endurance challenges in the last decade or so, but this will be a unique event. I’ve competed as a collegiate rower, where we prepared as a team for races that typically required 5-25 minutes of highly intense effort; trained for my fair share of marathons and intermediate-distance triathlons, where the focus is prepping your body to move at a submaximal, but relatively intense effort for anywhere between one and six hours; and I’ve biked across the country, which is totally on the opposite side of the duration spectrum – keeping your legs moving day after day, at low intensities, for weeks on end. The event that I’ve trained for that was probably the most similar to the upcoming ultra was the Ironman Triathlon I completed in 2013, which took me about 12 hours to complete. With double the duration, the 24 hour ultra run will be all about a slow and steady walk/jog/rest combination, keeping my body adequately fueled and my mind engaged as I move around the clock.
As far as my preparation for the race goes, there’s the good news and the not-so-good news…
The good news: I’m currently in marathon-shape, with eight weeks between the marathon I just completed two weeks ago and the 24 hour race in six weeks.
The not-as-good news: it’ll be a pretty busy eight weeks…
Out of the 7 weekends between races, I spent 1 recovering from the marathon, one will be spent tapering for the ultra, and 3 I’m already booked with traveling or other plans, leaving just 2 weekends available for long workouts. Since I usually base my training programming around a weekly longgg effort for races similar to this, I’ll need to think outside the box with my training strategy, and use the time that I do have wisely.
Here are a few of my points of emphasis as I prepare for the race…
Put in (lots of) time on my feet
Speed is irrelevant in my training for this race. The more time spent jogging slowly, walking, or even standing, the better. Thankfully, my part-time job (trainer) has me on my feet, and at my full-time job (researcher), I’ve got a standing desk. There, I’ve written myself a little program that builds up my standing time to the point where I’m standing at my desk for the entire work day within a couple weeks of the race.
Focus on my running efficiency
Form-wise, I’ll be thinking about shortening my stride length slightly and bumping up my cadence a little bit to reduce impact and save energy for the long haul.
Build muscular endurance
With the heart rate-based style of training I practice, I’m relatively confident in my level of cardiovascular endurance heading into the 24 hour ultra, so I’ll be tipping the balance a bit in my training towards muscular endurance. I’ll be incorporating more low weight, high rep strength training into my routine. Plus a new, go-to weekly workout I’ve set my mind on: the long duration, relatively slow paced, continuous stair climb. A way to maintain an aerobic effort while getting a solid leg workout.
Research. Read. Learn.
This is a learning experience. Period. And I’m excited about the opportunity to try something new and expand my background. I’ve started reading ultra marathon blogs for training/racing strategies, and I’ll be reaching out to a couple ultra runners I know for some tips. What’s the best way to run at night? Prevent blisters? Keep your body fueled and hydrated for 24 hours of continuous exercise? Stay awake and alert for that long period? When I signed up for this race, I wasn’t sure about many of the nuances that come along with such a long race. But by the time I walk up to the starting line, you better believe I’ll have a much better idea.
Just like training for any endurance race, the fundamental component of my training will still be the (weekly??) long duration workout, time permitting. I have two free weekends before the race, and you bet I’ll be spending each Saturday there with an epic walk/jog journey, where I ideally spend 5+ hours moving throughout the day. Besides that, I’ll be getting creative – I’ll be choosing a weekday each week where I run before work, run on my lunch break, and eventually, run after work as well, while I’m also focused on spending a lot of the time at my desk standing throughout the day. It won’t be an easy workday, but I’ve gotta get the time in when I can with my busy upcoming schedule.
I’m pumped for this race. I embrace and genuinely enjoy taking on new challenges in my own training. But beyond that, I ultimately aspire to be the go-to guy for anything and everything endurance related in my professional role as a coach. And part of that is being able to deliver advice from firsthand experience in addition to knowledge I’ve acquired from research, certifications, etc. I had no idea what I was getting into when I committed to ride my bike across the country. But after reading about it a lot and jumping into the deep end to learn by doing, I feel like I could give someone some really solid advice for taking on that challenge. The 24 hour race on April 27-28 will be another opportunity to learn and accumulate that experience.
Check back in after to find out how it went and the lessons I learned!
Variety in your training is the key to getting in great shape… and having a blast while doing it.
Jungle Gym Strength and Conditioning is a three week cycled group fitness program that I proudly call myself the Conditioning Coach for. One of the reasons it’s so effective: It keeps your body constantly guessing and adapting. Not to mention that the variety and creativity of the workouts is just plain fun too. Last year I did a quick heart rate study to demonstrate the typical variation in Jungle Gym workouts and the resulting stimuli provided to your body. Check out the details below! 📈💪
First though – I’d be completely remiss if I didn’t at least point out the single most important aspect that makes Jungle Gym unique: the community we’ve built and continue to grow through fitness. Jungle Gym creates a way of training that can integrate each and every one of our clients, with a huge range of backgrounds, goals, and fitness levels. Inside our walls, you can find a powerlifter trying to get stronger, working out next to a marathon runner building conditioning, next to a weekend warrior trying to lose a few pounds, next to a retiree who just wants to move better. I guess you could say that variety truly is the common denominator between the Jungle Gym workouts and clientele.
Now on to the study: over the course of one month, I did all of the workouts in class while wearing my heart rate monitor. I produced this graph that shows my heart rate during a workout from each one of our three workout weeks:
Muscle Development: High-volume resistance training. A finisher to get the heart rate up and burn out that day’s muscle group.
Yard Work: Team-based conditioning workouts. Lots of continuous movement and functional lifts.
Strength: Short bursts of heavy lifts with more rest. A focus on improving three barbell lifts: squat, press, deadlift.
The punchline: each type of workout provides a unique challenge and provokes a completely different response from your body, as shown by the variability in heart rate during each one.
There’s a huge difference in how my body responds to a workout during Strength Week versus Yard Work Week, for example. In Strength Week, we rely on short, high intensity sets to get stronger at our primary lifts, resting more between sets to fully recover. My heart rate in the graph is from squat day, where you can see spikes of about 40BPM between resting and the end of my squat sets.
On the other hand, Yard Work Week is a essentially a lifting-based cardio/conditioning workout, where you can see my heart rate hovering consistently around 140+ BPM for most of class. Muscle Development Week is somewhere in between, with more training volume overall compared to Strength Week to build muscle, but more resting than Yard Work Week in order to get quality lifts in. Here, we like to toss in a burnout finisher to end the workout, as shown by the spike in my heart rate at the end of class.
This variety is key to getting in great shape and why Jungle Gym is so effective. How often do we sink into the same exact weekly routine and do the same set of exercises when we’re designing our own programs? By doing so, our nervous and muscular systems adapt surprisingly quickly and we won’t be as challenged, leading to plateaus in our fitness.
Physiological stimuli aside – the variety is what helps make Jungle Gym fun! You come to class not knowing what to expect. You learn new exercises. Each day, week, and training cycle is a new challenge. If I picked out three different classes and made this graph again, it would look completely different. This is not to mention the fact that we offer several other weekly classes including a rowing and running-based conditioning workout and a mobility/flexibility/body-weight exercise recovery session.
Contact me or Geoff Morehart (the owner of Jungle Gym and mastermind behind the programming) if you’re looking for a new challenge that will stay like new forever. Come try us out for a free one week trial!
Last weekend I ran one of the fastest 5Ks of my ten year running career after two months of slow,low-intensity marathon training. I crunched some numbers to show just how slow my training has been and mention why I think this unique approach of slowing down to speed up is so effective.
A Unique Approach to Endurance Training
Four years ago, I adopted an entirely new approach to marathon/triathlon training that relies on heart rate monitoring to build endurance in an optimal way. The approach focuses on doing most cardio training at relatively low intensities based on heart rate.
I’ve improved my speed significantly and gained a lot of confidence with this type of training for longer races like half/full marathons over the last few years, but was still surprised when I nearly PR’d a 5K last weekend without any speed work leading up to the race. As I’ll show later – I spent only 1% of my training at paces faster than 6:30 min/mile over the last two months, but was still able to hold a 6:00 min/mile pace at the race.
How can that be? The short answer lies in the fact that it’s your aerobic system (not anaerobic) that dominates during even the shortest road races, and the best way to build aerobic fitness is through low intensity exercise …
Training Slow to Race Fast
The training slow to race fast philosophy is a result of the principle of specificity – basically, we need to focus our training around exactly what we are trying to excel at. For example, a powerlifter is not going rely on hundreds of pushups to improve their 1 rep max on bench press, they need to build strength by lifting heavy. Similarly, a marathon run improves their performance not from 100m sprints at the track, but from long, sustained, sub-maximal efforts. Sprints primarily target the anaerobic system while low-intensity, long-duration exercise benefits the aerobic system.
While many people know that the aerobic system is mainly responsible for the energy consumed during long events like marathons, most don’t realize just how important aerobic fitness is to shorter races like 5Ks. Check out the table below:
The aerobic system produces around 90% of the energy needed for a 5K, and over 99% of the energy needed for a half/full marathon. So – it’s clear that we need to focus on building aerobic fitness to succeed in endurance races and spend relatively little time on anaerobic capacity. The other piece of the puzzle is that the aerobic system is primarily utilized/improved while operating at low heart rates and intensities. This is motivation behind slowing down to speed up.
While I could go on and on about this training philosophy (and will do so in a separate blog post in the future), here I’ll just focus on a data analysis study I did on all of my training run data from the last two months. This approach is also called the MAF method, and I’ve borrow a lot of my training ideas from this book, if you’re interested.
Crunching the Numbers
I analyzed my running data from the last couple months (11/19/18 – 1/10/19) leading up to the 5K race I did on 1/12/19 to break down my training intensity over that period. In total, I did 22 run workouts covering 190 miles over 27.5 hours.
My target aerobic heart rate based on my age and running history is 150BPM, so I do a vast majority of my training at/below this heart rate to build endurance. The main result of my run data analysis is the following chart, showing the break down of my heart rate over the span of the 22 training runs considered:
You can see that I spent 82% of my training time at a heart rate below 150BPM! And only 6% of my time at a heart rate over 160BPM. This means I only spent about 1:20 over the last two months running at what I consider to be high intensity. My guess is that this is probably pretty surprising to people who aren’t familiar with this specific type of training.
Next, I looked at the breakdown of my pace over the last two months of training, which can be seen below:
What I think is especially cool here is that I spent very little time running at my high end speed (only 1% of time spent running faster than 6:30 min/mi), but was still able to run my 5K at 6:00 min/mile pace! That’s only about 15 minutes over the last two months spent running “fast”! I think that this is really a testament to the importance of the aerobic system even for shorter races, and the ability to build aerobic fitness through low intensity exercise.
Obviously, “fast” and “slow” are relative here. My slow might be your fast, and I’ll get smoked at my next race by plenty of faster people. But low intensity according to heart rate is more transferable. Chances are if you went out to run at 150BPM (or lower if you are older than me), it’s going to feel relatively easy. The coolest part of this type of training is that I’ve continued to get faster and faster at low heart rates as I’ve consistently practiced over the last few years.
I visualized my running data in a couple other ways as well to take a more detailed look at my training. Below are histograms of my training pace and heart rate over the past two months, showing a more complete distribution of training intensity:
The histograms show most of my training centered around a pace near/below 8:00 min/mi and a heart rate of 150BPM.
Finally, I plotted my heart rate over time for each one of my 22 training runs, the graph is shown below:
Again, my focus of keeping my heart rate at or below my target of 150BPM for a majority of my training is clear. There are just a few exceptions of higher intensity training.
The Moral of the Story
I’ve been a strong proponent of the train slow to race fast philosophy to endurance training since I adopted it four years ago, training both myself and others to tackle half/full marathons and triathlons using the approach. The aerobic system is responsible for nearly all of the energy consumed during these long races, and the best way to build aerobic fitness is through low-intensity training based on heart rate. I was surprised, however, at how well I performed at a shorter 5K race using this type of approach, where I spent almost no time on speed work in the preceding two months. I attribute this to the fact that the aerobic system is still the dominating force behind powering you through even these shorter types of races.
If I wasn’t sold before on slowing down to speed up for endurance training, I certainly am now. And I have some data to back it up 🤓.
Have questions about the train slow to race fast approach? Interested in trying it out for your next endurance race? Contact me at email@example.com!
A timeline of what to do after a long run to speed up the recovery process and keep your legs fresher for next time
0-10 minutes after the run:
Step 1a) Take a cool down walk– after you’ve hit your target distance/time for your run, don’t stop. Keep walking. Cool down for a minimum of 5-10 minutes. This will help your heart rate lower gradually, prevent pooling of blood in your extremities, and jump start the elimination of lactic acid and other waste products from your muscles for faster recovery. The longer and harder the run, the more important a proper cool down is.
Step 1b) Rehydrate – while you’re taking your cool down walk, start the rehydration process immediately. Take a lap around the block carrying your water bottle or sports drink. The amount of fluids needed will vary by person and with weather conditions, but a rough rule of thumb is to aim for 16-20oz of fluids in this initial recovery period. Replenishing your electrolytes after a long workout is a must (especially when it’s hot!) – so opt for a sports drink like Gatorade or water with a Nuun tablet added. Another quick and easy option that I used today are electrolyte supplements in capsule-form. If at this point, you’re feeling dizzy or your limbs are tingly, it could be symptoms of hyponatremia – have a salty snack to restore your sodium levels quick!
10-45 minutes after the run:
Step 2a) Muscle recovery: foam rolling and stretching – I prefer to foam roll first, it’s like priming the muscles for stretching, releasing the muscle fibers and promoting blood flow. Hit the major muscles (glutes, IT bands, quads, calves), spending extra time on knots and soreness that you come across. Plan on at least 5-10 minutes of foam rolling depending how much time/soreness you have. With extra time this morning, I started with a softer foam roller before upping the intensity (and pain!) on a firmer one, and finally worked my calves with The Stick. If you’re new to foam rolling, you can find a helpful how-to here.
After foam rolling, spend a good 10-15 minutes stretching those primed muscles. Pay special attention to your hip flexors, hips, quads, and lower back, but more-or-less you want to hit all the muscles in your legs and upper body that are tight. Here‘s a small sampling of some good post-run stretches.
Step 2b) Have a quick/easy snack – it’s important to have an initial dose of carbs and protein (150+ calories) within 30 minutes of finishing your long run to send immediate help to your depleted muscles. Ideally, this snack is consumed while you are foam rolling and stretching (hence 2b). My go-to is below: a fresh juice (prepared beforehand) and protein shake, but there are plenty of other options. I like this approach because it’s digested/absorbed quickly to facilitate recovery, it’s easy on the stomach, and requires almost no preparation time so I can quickly grab it before I start foam rolling. It’s just enough to hold me over until I eat something more substantial…
60 – 90 minutes after the run:
Step 3) Hot shower – ahhhhh
Step 4) Eat a healthy, more substantial meal – the snack in step 2b) was just meant to send some immediate nourishment to your muscles, but it’s important to have a more complete meal within 90 minutes of your long run. This meal should have plenty of carbs, protein, and healthy fats. Today I made sure I got some solid foods in after my shake/juice with avocado+egg toast and a strawberry+Greek yogurt parfait 😋.
The rest of the day and beyond:
Some more tips for speeding up your long run recovery after the initial two hour window:
Stay hydrated! Weigh yourself throughout the day to make sure you’ve returned to your normal bodyweight.
Get a good night’s sleep! 😴
Schedule an active recovery workout for the following day – low intensity, low impact cardio like swimming, walking, elliptical, etc.
Doing some form of meal prep is the KEY to a healthy diet. But I think a lot of people feel overwhelmed at the thought of starting up a meal prepping routine. Not knowing where to start. Or thinking they don’t have the time/money/energy/knowledge/etc. Especially when they see over-the-top meal prep pics and posts from other health nerds (guilty as charged 🤷♂️). Well it doesn’t have to be rocket science. Or take forever. Or cost a lot of money.
Here’s one of my go-to dinners for weekends when I’m pressed for time, and one that I recommend to my clients who are new to meal prepping. I pick up a roasted chicken and some frozen vegetables from the grocery store. I pair that with some quinoa for some carbs and 1/2 avocado for a good source of fats. I simply shred up the chicken while I boiled some water for the veggies and quinoa. 25 minutes from start to finish. Quick. Cheap. Healthy. Easy. And honestly, pretty tasty.
Yeah, I’d prefer fresh vegetables. Roasted. I would prefer to have salmon a night or two to mix it up. Marinade my own chicken. Etc. But I was busy. And this works. And now I don’t need to cook this week, I’m saving some money, and I know I’m set up to have a healthy week overall.
Pro tip: I used Trader Joe’s Everything-But-The-Bagel Seasoning to make the veggies and quinoa a little more interesting 👌.
Give it a whirl if you’re just getting into the game or just plain busy. Mix & match veggies. Swap out quinoa for some brown rice. Add your own favorite seasoning. Etc.