I love my off season. It usually starts the week after the Disney Marathon weekend and depending on my first race of the year may extend through April. My off season started a little later this year as I did another race the week after WDW Marathon Weekend out at Disneyland…oh yes, it was awesome!
The off season is a time to work on other aspects of fitness so I can improve for the coming year. An off season is crucial to overall fitness, helps alleviate burnout, allows for recovery from any nagging injuries from the previous season, but more importantly, allows for your running muscles to be worked in a different way and helps you enjoy your run even more.
The last six weeks I’ve been focusing on strength work and I’ve made some gains in the gym. I lift four days a week with a rest day on Wednesday. The focus is muscular strength. Muscular strength is the ability of a muscle group to develop maximal contractile force against a resistance in a single contraction. Put more simply, it’s the heaviest weight you can lift in good form, one time. Traditionally, you hear some folks talk about their bench press max or their squat max or maybe even their dead lift max…there are other lifts, but you get the picture. I do a four day split to focus on Chest & Triceps, Back & Biceps, Legs, and Shoulders, Traps & Core.
During my race season I still lift, but I lift for muscular endurance. Muscular endurance is the ability of a muscle group to exert submaximal force for extended periods. Again, put more simply, it’s the number of times you can lift a weight that is less than your 1-rep max. It’s all relative to the person, but having some level of muscular strength and muscular endurance is important to overall fitness and important to helping you perform better as a runner.
Runners who work both muscular endurance and muscular strength are less injury prone, faster, can tackle a more diverse terrain, and recover faster than a runner who focuses solely on “just running more.”
So, with the that being said, I am ready to move on to the next phase of training which includes increasing my weekly mileage and working on muscular endurance. Game on!
Today was my second swim lesson. I started last week and was paired with a young high school swimmer as my swim instructor. We’ll call her “The Minnow” to protect the innocent.
If you need a quick catch up remember that I registered for my first triathlon later this year in September. So I need to learn to swim better as I am severely under trained for the swim portion of the triathlon. I mean if you can’t ride a bike anymore then you pedal slower or get off and walk the bike, if you can’t run anymore then you walk, however, if you can’t swim anymore then you sink to the bottom and drown…hence the swim lessons.
Also, you may recall that I don’t swim. I mean I can swim, but I haven’t really done any real swimming outside of splashing around in a high school pool since junior high. See, I’ve never really been comfortable in the water.
For one, don’t forget that I was a fat kid growing up so I had to endure all the usual teasing whenever we went to the pool, but all that is behind me now and those assholes work for [insert worst employer imaginable for low pay] in my fantasy world so they don’t bother me anymore.
Second, I had a brother who was a bit of a bully to say the least so any time I went near water he thought it was fun to grab me and hold me under. If you are wondering how this affects a person’s love of oceans, lakes, pools and bodies of water in general I will let you know that I just see big open expanses of beautiful deep blue death!
Friend: Hey Brian! Want to go to the beach?
Brian: You mean the sand next to the deep blue death? I’ll pass, but thanks though!
So anyway, last week The Minnow thought I needed to retrieve a 10 pound black rubber brick from the bottom of the pool…the deep end…the 11 foot deep end.
The Minnow explains it.
Minnow: It’s easy! Just go down to the bottom of the pool and get the brick. Then swim back up…simple!
Brian hears: Waaaawaaawaaawaaa bottom of the pool of death, grab the WaaaWaaaWaaaa from the bottom of the pool of death and then WaaaaWaaaWaaaaa from the depths of the pool of death…simple!
Long story short, I didn’t get the stupid brick last week though I did get well acquainted with getting near the bottom of the pool of death and then making a quick exodus to the surface of the depths of the deep end of the pool of death.
The rest of the lesson was treading water and working on my head position when breathing during free style. I told you I needed lessons!
This week I opted to try and get the stupid brick before treading water for 10 minutes. The first couple times I missed it but got close, but finally I got fed up and just jumped off the side of the pool to get to the bottom quicker, grabbed the stupid brick and then came back up. I retrieved it three more times from the depths of the pool of death before treading water.
I also found out that unlike Michael Phelps, my arms and legs do not move in a coordinated effort…quite the opposite. In fact there are times when what I believe that I am telling my legs or feet to do have no effect on what they actually do!
The Minnow had me grab a kick board so I was using nothing but my legs to go through the water. Apparently, my legs can help me go about 12.5 yards before running out of propulsive power, awesome! Only 2,099.5 yards to go for my swim in Lake Erie in September! Did I mention the deep blue lake of death for my triathlon is Lake Erie? Wow, can I pick ’em or what? The only great lake with a scary name! Let’s do this!
So there I was stuck in the middle of the pool, kicking to beat hades and going no where. I turn my head in time to hear the life guard on the stand say, “Dude, you need to relax.” in what had to be the best impersonation of Ted from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure that I have heard since 1989. My thoughts, “Easy for you to say from that chair…I’m the one in the pool of death!” ….then I realized where I was at and just put my feet down.
The Minnow had me finish up with a couple sets of 50 yards on pull and standard stroke. All in all I am realizing that I have a decent amount of fitness for a mid-pack recreational runner and I am finding that this level of fitness in no way helps me swim.
Abs Abs Abs will be my focus as The Minnow told me that the abs tie the upper and lower body together and make swimming a whole lot easier. Learn to love abdominal work she says.
It occurred to me that I could elaborate a bit on the core work that I suggest doing for the Dopey workouts. Thanks Tammy & Tammy’s friends who are following the program!
First let me reiterate that core work is very important to running or any sport. A strong core will help you maintain your running form across the long miles of the Dopey Challenge or any distance really. A strong core is also great if like me, you have a desk job that may have you slouching all day. Before we get to the exercises I suggest in the plan I made let’s first discuss what is meant by “The Core.”
Most people think of their core as just their abdominal muscles or their “Abs.” While the abdominals are included, the core is made up of around 30 muscles depending on how you count them. I’m not going to go through all 30 here so don’t worry this isn’t a Gross Anatomy 101 lecture.
Here they are! Your core muscles as one part of the core.
Psoas Major/Iliacus: Known as the hip flexors, these muscles lift the thigh toward the abdomen and limit excess motion of the hip joint. **Limiting excess motion means a better running form so these tiny muscles are important to runners!
Erector Spinae: This collection of three muscles straightens the back and, along with the multifidus, a short muscle, supports the spine. Remember I said that I have a desk job? Slouching over a desk kills these muscles. Strengthening them helps your posture throughout the day and during a run.
Now, let’s talk about the abdominal muscles of the core.
Obliques: These muscles rotate your torso and work with the transversus abdominis to support your center during movement. If these are weak and you need to make a quick directional change then it’s going to be difficult.
Rectus Abdominis: These are what the lay person means when the say “The Abs.” These form the six-pack we all long for at the beach. Primarily, this muscle helps stabilize your core, its main function is to flex or curl the trunk like during a crunch or bending over to tie your shoes.
Transversus Abdominis: This muscle is your natural weight belt. It’s a very deep set muscle sitting under the obliques and wraps laterally around your center just like a belt.
Okay, now that you know the basics of the anatomy of your core let’s talk about how we are going to make them stronger because you know Dopey has a six pack under that tunic he wears to the mines, right? That’s because he is an avid core worker and his job is physical. The dude is stacked!
Working your core is imperative for your training as a runner especially for the novice runner. As you run long distance your core stabilizes your entire body from your upper torso to your hips and spine. As your core fatigues your running form begins to degrade and you must expend more energy to keep running or maintain pace. Worse yet, as your core stabilizers weaken across the long miles it is easier to become injured as your ability to recover from a quick side-step or a high curb lessens. DO NOT SKIP your core workouts! Ask me if you don’t know how to do these exercises. I’m happy to explain!
Oh, and forget sit-ups. Sit-ups are worthless. I almost didn’t add crunches as I don’t do them, but I know the standard crunch is a recognized exercise by many people. Try to move from one core exercise to the next with minimal rest between exercises and only 30-60 seconds of rest between sets. If you are just starting take it slow at first and work your way into the workout little by little.
After you finish the core work stretch out the major muscle groups for 20-30 minutes holding for 15-20 seconds for each muscle and do 3 sets each. Hamstrings, quadriceps, glutes, and calf muscles should all be stretched after your core work.
Low Plank w/one leg off the ground: both legs
High Plank position. Knee to elbow. Both legs
Crunch w/arms crossed on chest
The Core Exercises:
The standard plank has two positons, Low Plank & High Plank. The high plankposition is just like when you are doing a push-up and you have your arms locked out straight at the top of the movement. Your hands and elbows should be directly below and in line with your shoulders. There is a straight line going from your head to your heels. Don’t allow your pelvis or hips to sag toward the floor and keep your head in line as well. Also, don’t stick you butt higher than your shoulders. Remember, a straight line is the goal. Just holding this position is a great beginner’s exercise for core work. Work your way up to holding it for 60 seconds for three sets. The low plank position is the same except you’re resting your weight on you forearms as your elbows are bent at 90 degree angles. Again keep a straight line going from your head to your heels just as with the high plank. Your elbows should be directly below and in line with your shoulders. The low plank may be an easier start for the newbie athlete as compared to the high plank. The picture below shows both high and low plank position as well as how to transition between the two. The transition from high to low plank and back again is another exercise for the core if you want to add it later.
Low Plank w/One Leg Off the Ground
Get into the low or high plank position. I suggest low plank for beginners. From the low plank position and while maintaining the straight line from head to heel you will simply lift one foot off the ground so it is 6-8 inches off the ground. You will need to balance on one foot and your forearms. This is more difficult than the standard plank as your core has to work to balance you.
High (or Low) Plank – Knee to Elbow
This is an advanced move. Get into the low or high plank position. From the plank position and while maintaining the straight line from head to heel you will bend your right leg at the knee and hip bringing your right knee toward your right elbow. Depending on how flexible you are you may be able to touch your knee to your elbow (I can’t do this so no worries if you can’t either). Just don’t force it! Slow and controlled is the key until you learn the movement. Avoid allowing your butt to raise into the air as this compromises the integrity of your core. Remember, slow and controlled. Work your way up to the suggested number of repetitions ans sets. Repeat for the other leg and keep the number of repetitions and sets the same for each side. NOTE: While I suggest doing this in high plank you can also do it from a low plank position as well. In low plank you will need to bring the knee to the outside of the body a bit more so you don’t scrape your knee on the ground.
When training I assume nothing so let’s go over the proper form for a basic crunch. Do these at the end of your workout as this exercise is from the most stable position. I don’t want you to pre-fatigue your abdominals until you’ve learned well the movements discussed above and built some dynamic core strength.
Lay with your back flat on the floor with your knees bent so that your feet are also flat on the floor. For beginners, cross your arms on your chest. Using your abdominal muscles lift your shoulders and head off the floor reaching your forehead toward the ceiling. DO NOT GO TOWARD YOUR FEET but rather toward the ceiling for proper form. I always describe having a string tied to your nose that pulls your head and shoulders toward the ceiling. Apologies, I don’t have a picture for this one as all the ones I found show the improper technique of yanking the head toward the feet with the chin pressed against the chest. there should always be space between the chin and the chest for this exercise.
Additionally, avoid putting your hands behind your head until you have gained enough core strength to not use your hands to lift (yank on) your head. This is hard on your spine and lessens the exercise as your arms are doing all of the work instead of your core.
These can be done “cardio style” or they can be done more as a slow and controlled “set and rep” style. From a standing positon raise your knee straight in front of you until your quadriceps (the front muscle group of your legs) is parallel to the ground. You don’t have to raise the knee higher, but you can once you get used to the exercise and learn the movement. Avoid just throwing the leg up, but instead use the core muscles (Psoas Major/Iliacus…hip flexors) to lift the leg. Cardio style is when you do these fatser and for a specified amount of time. Learn the movement before trying them “cardio style”. Play the right music and you could even do them Gangnam Style.
So that’s it for the core! There are basic and advanced moves in the program that hit all of the core muscles. If you wanted to do this more than once a week you definitely could. I do a 17 minute core workout twice a week on Mondays and Wednesdays before work. My exception is that I don’t do crunches or sit-ups. There are a lot more exercises and versions of the exercises we discussed above that you could add, but this will get you started. As always, if you have questions I am here to help.
You’ve heard it before. Cross-train, cross-train, cross-train, but you may not have the desire nor the equipment or time to do so…or at least that’s what you tell yourself. After all, how can you fit in cycling workouts along with your interval work, tempo runs, hill repeats, base mileage, LSDs, and recovery runs each week, right? It’s a busy training schedule going for that PR or just trying to hit that new distance and they say you should get a rest day in there too or “run the risk”…see what I did there? …of over training.
Cycling however is a g-r-e-a-t, GREAT way to compliment your run training and will improve many aspects of your run. This is why if you see any current program I create for someone or just look at a plan that I’ve created for myself you’ll notice that I’ve put in at least one day of cycling whether it be a road bike, spin class or ye olde gym bike.
1. Mental Recovery
This isn’t usually listed as a cycling perk, but let’s face it, there are times when we need to take a break from running. Please hear me out before you start to warm up the tar and pluck the chickens. Running is a great time to think and solve the world’s problems, but there are times when we do dread going out that door with our kicks knowing that for the next few hours we’ll be pounding pavement. So let’s get a little variety to save our sanity and at the same time improve upon what we love to do the most, running, by spinning out a few revolutions in the saddle.
2. Improvement in Foot Turnover
If you are new to running or just haven’t done a lot of reading on running form then you may not know that increases in speed come from faster foot turnover, NOT by elongating stride length. What can help you with a faster foot turnover? You guessed it, cycling. If you are hitting the bike try to go for a 90+ rpm rate and then build into a more difficult gear as you improve strength on the bike.
3. Works the Same Muscles in a Different Way
The primary muscles for the “power phase” of cycling are the glutes and quads. On the “recovery phase” the primary muscles are the hamstrings and tibialis anterior on the front side of the lower leg. The hip flexors are used at the top of the cycle going into the power phase while the calf muscles are used at the bottom of the cycle going into the recovery phase. So if you know your anatomy then you know these are very similar to the primary running muscles which include the glutes, quads, hamstrings, calf muscles and iliopsoas.
Therefore, you can work these same (or similar) muscles without all of the pounding of running so your joints will thank you for the occasional change of pace. I like to do a short bike ride at times putting in 5-10 miles on the bike before doing a run. This is referred to as a “brick” in triathlon/duathlon training, but you as a runner can use it too! This way you can get in the feel of a long run in less time….you still need to do long runs though. 😉
4. Active Recovery
Remember how you are supposed to rest occasionally? Well this is 100% true. You do need a day off now and again where you are doing NOTHING, but you may also choose on occasion to take an “active recovery” day where instead of laying on the couch all day (yeah right…I have yard work to do.) instead you choose to NOT run, but instead go for an easy bike ride. I like to do this after a long run or any other run where I might have a bit of lactic acid build-up. Just moving the legs helps to flush out the lactic and speeds recovery by improving blood flow in comparison to just resting.