The 10% myth

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

Everywhere you go, you hear about it. Even those of us who try to avoid hearing about it can’t get away from it. The "10% rule". That supposed rule that a person shouldn’t increase their weekly mileage by more than 10% from week to week or they will risk injury, fatigue, burnout, and a multitude of other bad repercussions. Of course, a corollary to this rule that some strongly promote is that, as long as you are within this guideline, you’re perfectly safe. Is this really true? Well, let’s look at a few facts as well as some observations I’ve made.

First, let’s look at the numbers. We’re told that this "10% rule" applies to everyone at all levels. OK, so how does a person start running? You can’t increase from zero miles by 10% and end up with anything but zero. Maybe that’s why so many people are afraid to start running. They would be breaking the "10% rule". OK, that’s a little extreme so let’s take a situation I was once introduced to. Someone ran 8 miles in a recent week and was asking what would be reasonable for the following week. This person mentioned that, by Wednesday, she was already on the verge of breaking the "10% rule" but still felt good, so did she really have to stick with 10% or could she go higher? I gave my usual advice, listen to your body and let it guide you. After all, is it really reasonable to expect a person to go from 8 miles to 8.8 to 9.6 to 10.5? If she was to do 9 or 10 miles that first week after the 8 mile week, would that mean sure injury or burnout? What if she tried to stick to 8.8 miles but measured a course wrong and ended up running 8.9 or 9 miles? She broke the 10% rule, now she’s going to get injured? Let’s be realistic here. There was no doubt in my mind that she was ready for 10, 12, maybe even more miles. Maybe she would have to maintain for a short time once she hit 12 miles but everything she said suggested that she was ready. Of course, that didn’t stop a "10% rule" proponent from saying I’m full of it and that she should in fact run 8.8 miles the following week, 9.6 the week after, and 10.5 on the third week. This person informed me that it was a proven and time tested principle. Really? I’d love to see the evidence of that but I’ll get to that later.

What about the opposite end of the spectrum? Some of those who promote this "rule" say that, as long as one stays within the guidelines, they will be fine. What does this mean for someone who just ran a 100 mile week? Well, that person runs 110 miles the following week, 121 the week after, 133 the next week, 146 on the fourth week, and 160 on week five. That’s a 60 mile per week increase in barely over a month. Staying well within these boundaries, a person could increase by 6 miles per day in a month’s period. What are the chances that someone could actually increase the training load this quickly without problems? Again, let’s be realistic here.

Next, let’s look at some facts. A number of sources will tell you that, as long as you increase by 10% or less, you are at a low risk of injury and burnout. As soon as you cross over to more than 10%, though, you are at a high risk of injury and burnout. This is a very interesting theory. All I can do is ask what makes 10% so special? I know of many people who, on a very regular basis, increase their mileage at a much higher rate with no repercussions. I have actually done that myself from the beginning of my running years. I also know of many people who have increased by much less than 10% and ended up with very serious injuries. From my observations, I have seen no sign that 10% is some magical turning point where injury risk suddenly increases. Also, I have seen no studies that have found this to be the case.

In the end, I just have to ask why 10%? Simple, it’s a nice round number that sounds good. It’s a middle ground. Many people get injured increasing at 5% or less per week, many others don’t get injured when increasing by 20% or more per week for a short period of time. Most runners will be safe at 10%, although many would also be safe at 15% and those who wouldn’t be safe may or may not be safe at 5%.

Well, if most runners are safe at 10%, why do I have a problem with this number? Simple, there is a better, less limiting and even safer way to increase. It’s called listening to your body. At points, if you listen to your body, you will probably increase your mileage by more than 10% per week. This is the point where 10% is too conservative and is actually limiting your training. At other points, if you listen to your body, you will probably increase your mileage by less than 10% per week and maybe even stop increasing for a few weeks before starting the buildup again. This is the point where 10% is too aggressive and runners who follow it to the letter end up developing problems.

The 20 mile long run

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

Can you run a marathon PR without running a single 20 mile long run? Ask Allan. This spring, he twice ran under 4 hours after entering this year with a PR over 5 hours.

I’ve been asked a few times recently about long runs in marathon training. It seems people are beginning to question the need for the 20 mile long run. As anyone who knows me well, I’m celebrating these questions!

First, more about Allan and the story of his astonishing 66 minute PR, followed 62 days later by another 6 minute PR. Allan began running in 2011, completed a half marathon on a typical 12 week plan, then stopped running and fell into some bad health habits. In the spring of 2012, he began running again. After building up for a while, he again followed a standard marathon plan that included two 20 mile long runs. In October, he had some knee problems starting shortly after halfway and ended up walking a lot on his way to a 5:05 marathon.

In early December, we began working together. One of the first questions he asked me was about the long run. Having read up on the Hansons training philosophy, he was interested in how I felt about the need for the 20 mile long run. What a match! I don’t think he knew when he asked the question that I’ve long argued that 20 miles is not necessary. At that point, we planned to cap his long runs at 18 miles.

With his long runs capped, Allan was able to do more workouts and was able to get more intra-week consistency in his training. Previously, the long run was such a big part of his week that the rest of the week was largely about recovering from the prior long run and preparing for the next. By reducing his maximum long run distance by as little as 10%, we were able to put more focus into getting some real training done between the long runs.

I’m not going to claim the lack of the 20 mile long run was the only factor in these great improvements he achieved. There were many factors that led to a 72 minute improvement in 6 months. However, it should be obvious that he didn’t suffer by dropping the 20 mile long run.

That’s just the point. The 20 mile long run, while considered necessary by many, is too long for some runners. When the long run throws your whole week out of balance, it’s not doing you any good. By reducing the distance of the long run, even just a little, you can get more out of the rest of your week. Balance in training matters. If you can drop your long run by 2 miles but get an extra 10 miles a week and add a speed workout into the mix, you’re going to come out ahead, even in a long race like the marathon.

Now, the shorter long run isn’t for everyone. When I was running my best, my long runs were up to 30 miles but my weekly mileage was up to 150-160 miles at times and regularly topping 140. Another runner I’m coaching needs her long runs. If we don’t get enough 20 milers in, her marathon performances suffer. We found that through experience and adjusted accordingly.

So how do you know if you need 20 miles? First, consider your training balance. Is the long run about the only thing you can focus on or is it just another day in your overall training week? If it’s just another day, you’re probably fine where you are. If it’s the only thing you can focus on, you might be doing too much and a decrease in your long run distance may be warranted. Once you make this decision, try it and see how it works. Be sure to take advantage of the benefits of the shorter long run, though. Cutting the long run distance isn’t going to help without other changes. Get in some meaningful workouts with the extra energy you have, log a few more miles over the rest of the week, make the long runs mean more by adding some faster miles late in the runs. Figure out what your training is most lacking and make sure you are adding some of that in.

In the end, we are all different. Some people do in fact need long runs of 20 miles or even longer. The key I want you to take away from this is that not everyone does. Consider the possibility that you might only need 18 or even 16 miles. Weigh whether this shorter long run would allow you more balanced training that would not leave holes in your fitness on race day. Then don’t be afraid to go against convention. You might find out that a shorter long run allows you more well rounded training and will be one step toward a PR.

Minimalist shoes and the boom/bust cycle

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

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Earlier this week, it was reported sales of minimalist shoes "plummetted" by more than 10% in the first quarter of 2013. It’s being reported that the "fad" is over. People are realizing that minimalist shoes are getting them injured and going back to stability and support shoes. So is this really what’s happening?

I’d argue that, in a way, this is what’s happening but it’s more complex than just that. As with many things (low fat diets followed by low carb diets, for example) the pendulum swung. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, the attitude toward shoes was the bigger the better. Those of us who didn’t want a whole lot of foam and rubber between our feet and the ground were forced to choose from an ever-decreasing list of choices. Eventually, we were down to a handful of "lightweight trainers" or racing flats.

Then came Born to Run. I have some issues with the book (I have been thinking of tackling one big issue I have yet to find an answer to in a blog post but I always feel like I’d just be tilting at windmills when I think of typing something up). However, one benefit is that it swung the pendulum. People began thinking maybe bigger isn’t always better. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the pendulum swung too far, too fast. People went from wearing Brooks Beasts and other similar shoes to Vibram FiveFingers without a proper transition down the line. As I’ve often stated, you can’t go from having your shoe do all the work for you to having it do no work for you overnight without problems. It can take years to go from a fairly moderate traditional trainer to a fairly moderate "minimalist" shoe or racing flat. To go from one extreme to the other in days, weeks or even months is just asking for problems. Even if you don’t need all that shoe, you can’t just ditch it overnight after you’ve become used to it and, to some extent, dependent on it. Worse yet, the message for a while was that minimalism or even barefooting is right for everyone. It will cure every injury, it will make you more efficient and faster. There are no down sides, only benefits.

Not surprisingly, the correction came along. People got hurt, either because they tried to change too fast or because they simply aren’t cut out to run in minimal shoes. People gave up on minimalism. Some people stuck to it because it worked for them but some left. This is what we’re seeing now. Of course, in the marketplace, the manufacturers are usually behind on trends like this. Just like you couldn’t get enough shoes labeled "minimal" a few years ago and they sold at outrageous prices, you’re now seeing a wide selection and prices are dropping rapidly.

What do these market changes mean? Well, there are now more people wearing "minimal" shoes than there were several years ago. I think manufacturers will to some extent keep making shoes for this market. It may be a niche market but it’s large enough that I don’t think Nike, Saucony, Brooks and others want to ignore it. In the meantime, hopefully that pendulum swing will settle to a more reasonable middle ground. People who need more shoe shouldn’t be shamed into getting less shoe than they need to stay healthy. At the same time, people who don’t need so much shoe shouldn’t be ridiculed for wearing racing flats or "minimal" shoes if that’s what works for them.

I’d love to see people settle into a state of saying "I want to wear as much shoe as I need but no more, whatever that means". If you don’t need the 17 ounce shoe, try the 15 ounce shoe. If that still seems like more than you need, try the 13 ounce shoe. Eventually, you’ll find your sweet spot. That’s where you want to be. More isn’t always better but less also isn’t always better. Some people will still be wearing the 17 ounce shoe because that is what they need. Others will keep wearing FiveFingers because that is the shoe that works for them.

In the meantime, I’ll keep sticking with my roughly 7 ounce moderately cushioned shoes. In April, I even bought my first pair of "minimal" shoes (see the picture at the top of the post to see what I will be wearing as I head out to run today). They cost me less than the racing flats I usually get and, structurally, are extremely similar. I like the current market. The price points are very nice.

Effects of sports drinks in mid-distance road racing

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

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For terms of this post, I’m considering anything 90 minutes and under to be a "mid-distance" race. For most of us, that would be somewhere between 15K and half marathon at the upper limit.

This is something I’ve often wondered about. We know our bodies can store enough glycogen for about 90 minutes of running so how useful are sports drinks in a race of less than 90 minutes? Your body already has enough fuel on board, does it really help to top off the tank?

This study suggests the answer might be no.

What does this tell us? Well, we might be just as well off with water as with a sports drink during a race that is less than 90 minutes long. Topping off the tank doesn’t appear to do anything for us. This is good news for runners who have sensitive stomachs and may not be able to handle sports drinks in shorter, more intense races.

Of course, as with all studies, this finds that on average sports drinks don’t help. Your results may vary. However, if you have trouble taking a sports drink during a shorter, more intense race, don’t get too worried about it. Especially if it gives you problems, you might be better off without it and the person next to you taking one may not be gaining a performance benefit anyway.

Running by effort

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

I think I sometimes drive the runners I coach crazy talking about efforts. Easy, 10K effort, 5K effort, half marathon effort. These are common phrases in discussions.

Just this past week, I’ve had discussions with three runners I coach on what exactly these efforts mean and/or why I prefer training by effort over other methods, such as pace. I may explore this topic further in a future post but I’d like to share some high level thoughts on a few key points that I believe make training by effort the best way to train.

1) Training by effort helps you learn the correct effort to run a race at. You’re going to make a few mistakes when learning a new skill like running by effort. Would you rather make those mistakes and learn from them in a workout or in a race? Why is this skill important in racing? Read on…

2) Training and racing by effort allows you to adjust for variables on the fly. Once you’ve honed your skill to run by effort, you will naturally adjust for things like adverse (or more ideal than expected) weather conditions, course related factors such as hills or even factors such as the lack of sleep you got last night or the stress of a bad day at work. Running simply by pace won’t account for these factors and will leave you running a less than optimal pace/effort level. Running by heart rate may help you with some of these factors but it won’t do much when your legs are fatigued because you helped your friend move yesterday. Also, your heart rate doesn’t always respond to all stresses in an expected way and doesn’t always respond to your effort level instantly. If you fine tune your ability to feel your effort, you can know instantly when your effort level changes. Relying on heart rate may leave a delayed response. You’ll find out before disaster strikes but will you find out in time to adjust for an optimal performance?

3) Running by effort ensures you’re doing the workout you intend to do. When trying to stimulate a physiological response from our training, we need to hit a certain effort level. Depending on some of the factors mentioned above (weather, course factors, life factors leading to more or less stress than usual) a given pace may be too fast or too slow to best target the training stimulus we want to focus on. If you’re doing a workout that should target 5K pace/effort but you take the workout to the hills, you have to back off your pace. How much? Every hill is different. It’s hard to tell without going by effort.

4) Running by effort removes your succeptibility to technological glitches. Just last week, I had a run where my Garmin flaked out. It had me starting far from where I actually did start and reported a first mile of 3:31. No problem. I wasn’t relying on it so I just ignored it and figured it was just a stopwatch for that run. What if I was relying on it to set my pace? Would I have been lost until it locked into my location? What if this happened on race day and I was relying on it to set my race pace?

Effect of weight loss (dehydration) and muscle break down on performance

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

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Writing about another study (I promise this blog won’t become all about reviewing studies but this will be a part of it). This time, a study of how weight loss as a proxy for dehydration and myoglobinuria as a proxy for muscle breakdown are related to reduction in muscle power. Essentially, the idea of this study is to determine what the correlation is between late race muscle fatigue and two commonly held explanations for that muscle fatigue.

In a break from commonly held assumptions, body mass loss (the proxy for dehydration) did not seem to affect muscle power output. Participants in the study ranged from gaining body mass to losing more than 4% of body mass (that would be 6 pounds for a 150 pound person) during a marathon but loss of power output was not correlated with body mass loss.

On the other hand, there is a quite strong correlation between myoglobinuria production (the proxy for muscle breakdown) and muscle fatigue.

What does this tell us? Well, I would still strongly suggest not ignoring fluids during a marathon, especially a warm weather marathon. However, don’t go to extremes. I recall a few individuals telling me that I should follow their hydration plans because they actually gained weight during marathons. Why should we believe that this is ideal? It’s been shown that the best marathoners tend to lose weight during marathons, typically in the range of 5% of body weight but some even more. Now, we have more evidence that this singular focus on hydration may not help.

Instead, we should be focused on not breaking down our muscles. So how do we do that? We train our muscles. Nothing all that new here. Lots of long runs, lots of volume at faster paces. In addition, though, I think this suggests again the importance of not going out too fast. If you go out too fast, your muscles are going to break down earlier. This will reduce their ability to keep performing at an optimal level earlier than if you go out on pace or even negative split a bit.

With Boston coming, here’s another thought. The early miles are downhill. Getting too carried away on early downhills will damage your muscles, especially the quads, even more. We all know (I hope) it’s important to not get too carried away early at Boston. This likely explains one reason for that. Your muscles will break down earlier and you’ll again lose your ability to perform at an optimal level earlier than if you play it safe on the early downhills.

Breaking news: Hill repeats are good for your 5K

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

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Hill repeats will of course help if you’re racing here

Well, maybe not exactly breaking but a recent study backs up what we’ve known for some time. It also adds to the picture a bit.

This study found that hill repeats of any kind improved a runner’s 5K performance by about 2%. That’s a pretty significant number. For a 20 minute 5K runner, 2% would be a 24 second improvement.

What I found interesting here is that they looked at repeats at different intensities and how that affected running economy and 5K performance. The result was that the highest intensity hill repeats improved running economy the most but, to quote the author, "there was no clear optimum for time-trial performance". In other words, while running economy improved most with the highest intensity hill repeats, other factors played into making 5K performance gains similar across all intensities.

What to take from this? First, hill repeats are good. No news here. Second, high intensity repeats are great for running economy. This shouldn’t be a huge surprise. We’ve known that short bursts of high intensity work are good for running economy already. That’s why we all do strides, even marathoners. Many runners would already at times take those strides to a hill to get a little more intensity. Third, there are other benefits to longer repeats. Again, we already knew this. That’s why hill repeats have been popular for decades.

So why am I writing about something that just tells us what we already know? First, it’s always good to make sure the science confirms what you already believe. Second, it never hurts to remind ourselves of what we’ve already known. We all know strides are good for us but I know I’ve forgotten this lesson at times and gotten away from doing strides. Have you gotten away from hill repeats? Maybe this is an opportunity to consider whether it would be a good idea to add them back.

Barefoot running: It’s about how you run more than what you run in

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

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Another study on barefoot running is out. I find this one to be of particular interest because it’s asking a question I would like to see asked more often: is the benefit of barefoot running due to what you’re running in (nothing or next to nothing) or how you’re running (eliminating the heavy heel strike)? I have my opinion on this answer but I’d like to see science back it up.

This is a small study (only 12 runners) so it hardly closes the book on the question but it’s a step forward in beginning to explore the question.

As for the answer itself, it seems to conclude the same thing many people, myself included, believed. The benefits (and risks) of barefoot running have to do more with how we run (forefoot plant) when barefoot than what we’re running in.

Specifically, the runners, whether wearing shoes or not, gain shock absorption when switching to a forefoot plant. Going barefoot and keeping your heel plant, not surprisingly, increases injury risk. The risk of switching to a forefoot plant, also not surprisingly, is an increased load on your calf muscles. Specifically, the gastrocnemius, which is the outer muscle of the calf.

What’s the takeaway of this? Here’s what I’m taking out of it. If you’re going to consider minimal or "barefoot" shoes or barefoot running itself, remember, the shoes are a tool. It’s not the shoes that improve your running, it’s the form changes that the lack of cushioning in those shoes forces. At the same time, proceed with caution. Your calves will need to work harder than they are used to if you currently heel plant. As with anything, build up slowly.

In other words, the same thing some of us have been saying for years, going back even before Chris McDougall’s book was published.

Thoughts on GPS watches after 6 months with one

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

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It’s been just over 6 months now since I began using my Garmin Forerunner 410. My first run with the Garmin was September 8th. As any of you who know me well know, I’ve long had concerns about using GPS devices for training. I have to say that some of my concerns have been proven correct through my own experience, while others have been allayed. At the same time, I’ve found some benefits to using GPS.

First, to go over my primary concerns and what I’ve found through personal experience:

Runners trust the GPS too much. I know it’s not 100% accurate so I haven’t fallen into this trap but I’ve seen the inaccuracies that show how dangerous this trap can be. When running on roads, it’s usually quite accurate. There is some error in the early stages when the device is still locking on to the satellites and you can always find error even late in a run but it will get your distance pretty accurate most of the time. There are exceptions, though, so you’re playing with fire if you place too much trust in your GPS. On wooded trails, it’s another story. You will get very strange results. Don’t be surprised when your readings turn out very inaccurate. I’ve heard of similar problems when surrounded by tall buildings in urban areas but I have no personal experience in this regard.

As a sidenote, certified race courses as well as many that aren’t certified are measured with far more accurate methods than GPS. Please don’t tell race directors their courses aren’t accurate based only on the fact that your GPS said it was a little off. Chances are it’s the path you took through the course and/or inaccuracies in GPS measurement that are a little off.

Runners are too dependent on the GPS, forgetting how to run by feel and focusing too much on trying to hit the "right" number. This is a real problem. Maybe it’s partly because I’ve always been a numbers guy but this has personally been a constant battle. The numbers are too readily available. I can check my current mile pace at any time in real time and it’s generally reasonably accurate. I can get reasonably accurate mile splits. This creates constant problems for a numbers guy like me. Maybe it’s different for others, though that’s not what I hear when I listen to other runners talk about using their GPS watches, but I’m constantly working on paying less attention to the Garmin. I generally do a good job but I won’t deny falling into the trap at times.

Now, a couple primary benefits I’ve found:

Workouts are even easier. Want to do mile repeats? Not a problem. Set your watch to give you an alert by distance. Want to do timed repeats? Just like any good running watch, it can also handle that. Mile repeats with timed recoveries? No problem. Of course, we can accomplish the same type of workout by time. 5 or 6 minute repeats in place of mile repeats will, for someone running 5-6 minute pace, be the same workout. However, I don’t think I’m alone when I say there’s something nice about doing mile repeats. Also, when not running on a track, it’s nice to have time and distance so you know what paces you were hitting.

Tracking your training is a breeze. This can be a double-edged sword but, used properly, can be very helpful. Just upload your data to Garmin Connect and it’s all there. I’ve been able to easily notice where in my tempo runs I might surge or let up a bit, which has allowed me to focus on those parts. This helps me get more out of my tempo runs and carry over what I learned into my racing so I can run my races more efficiently, which should translate to faster times.

I know I’m leaving off a lot of both pros and cons of GPS watches. I’ll probably touch on some or even expand on the above topics in the future. In the meantime, do you think I left off something that is a significant benefit or detriment? Feel free to comment with pros and/or cons that I left off the list.

New study on the benefits of foam rolling

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

Foam rolling has become very popular for runners. As soon as I got a roller last year to attempt to rehab some hip tightness, I was convinced. Combined with stretching, it took less than a week to relieve the persistent tightness I had been experiencing for quite some time. In the intervening time, it’s helped me quickly handle relapses in the hips, as well as work through calf tightness, hamstring tightness and various other minor problems before they became major or persistent problems.

One of the nice things about foam rolling is that it improves your flexibility without the drawback of reduced power production that static stretching can cause.

However, not much study has been done on foam rolling. The benefits have been anecdotal. Now, anecdotal evidence has its place and I’ve been a strong proponent of foam rolling, as a few of the people I coach can tell you, but it’s nice to see controlled studies show what we have seen anecdotally.

Now, we have the first study.

To sum up the study, participants were tested for knee joint range of motion and muscle strength before, as well as 2 minutes and 10 minutes after foam rolling. Strength was not reduced after foam rolling but range of motion increased by fairly significant amounts.

Now, this was a small study (11 participants) but the results do confirm what we’ve believed all along. Foam rolling is an effective way to increase flexibility without reducing muscle power production.

What should we take from this? Here’s what I’m taking from it. There are good reasons to not do static stretching before a run. We all have heard about the warnings of stretching a cold muscle. Along with that, there is evidence that we do lose power production at least for a period of time after static stretching. This could result in performance decreases if you static stretch before you run. So the question is, if you are tight and need to loosen up before a run, what do you do? Based on this, foam rolling seems like one alternative.

I’ve done pre-run foam rolling before early morning runs just because it feels good and I feel like it helps “wake up” my legs before a run. These results don’t surprise me at all, as I can feel a lot of that early morning tightness disappear after those sessions.

What do you think? Have you tried pre-run foam rolling?