Previewing the 2017 Route 66 Marathon

The start of the 2015 Route 66 Marathon. (Route 66 Marathon photo)

It’s mid-November, and that means we’re in the heart of fall race season. Where I live, it also means the Route 66 Marathon is upon us.

This is one of the biggest races in the state and region, and it’s one I’ve been running every year since 2013. A lot of people in the Tulsa area and beyond are going to be in this one – several thousand, in fact – and the race is shaping up to be a good one.

If you’re running this one, listen up. I’ve got some information about the event you’ll want to see, and a detailed course description for all of you running the full and half marathon races. So, here goes…

First off: the packet pickup and expo. The expo takes place at the Cox Business Center in downtown Tulsa. You can pick up packets for your race from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Nov. 17 and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Nov. 18. At the expo, there are going to be a ton of vendors, speakers and a bloggers’ forum. If you’ve got time, check ’em all out.

Second: Let’s talk about the course. It’s the same as it was when the race changed its format to finish in the Tulsa Arts District downtown, right by Guthrie Green.

The marathon and half marathon follow the same initial loop right up into the 13th mile, when marathoners head out of downtown for their second loop. Here are some things you need to know…

Don’t be fooled by that first mile. It’s mostly downhill, so it’s fast, and the excitement of the race will amp up a lot of people’s paces. Soon after reaching 15th Street, you will meet a really big hill. You’ll climb part of it, then turn off into a neighborhood by Maple Park. Then it’s back east on 21st and a sizable hill. It will be the biggest incline you face until you hit Mile 11.

The hill gives way just before Utica Avenue, but the hilliness of the course won’t stop for a while. Running through the neighborhoods of near Woodward Park is scenic, but there is a lot of up-and-down between Mile 2 and Mile 7. Pace yourself accordingly.

The hills will relent as you go through Brookside, then turn west on 41st Street. Turning north on Riverside will remain flat, but the course ducks back east, then north again on Cincinnati Avenue and into a neighborhood. Mild elevation gains and losses prevail from Mile 8 to Mile 10. After that, it’s a good, flat section of Riverside Drive into Mile 11. And then it gets real.

At Southwest Boulevard, you will begin the climb back into downtown, and it’s not small, lasting the better part of a mile. Just past Mile 12, you’ll turn north at Denver Avenue and start heading north and downhill toward the Tulsa Arts District. Marathoners will turn back east at Second Street to begin their second loop while those doing the half will continue north on the last mile — one more climb, then a mostly flat finish.

For those going the full 26.2, it’s another trip out to midtown, but in different areas. You get to avoid the hills of 15th Street to start, instead eventually making your way south on Peoria between Mile 13 and Mile 15. Here, you’ll turn back east on a familiar road, south past Utica Square, but then farther east into different neighborhoods. I’ve found these areas not as hilly as Maple Ridge, but that will change soon enough. The mellower grades continue from Mile 15 through Mile 18 as you head north toward the University of Tulsa.

You hit one small but steep climb on 21st Street, then a long, gradual uphill slog toward the school between Mile 18 and Mile 20. The uphill continues through the school, then relents a bit as you leave and go back south on Delaware.

And then, my friends, comes the biggest mental test of the full, at least in my estimation. Just before Mile 22 begins, you hit 15th Street (also known as Cherry Street), and its sizable hills. Between Delaware and Peoria, they are big and somewhat steep.

Just when you think another huge hill awaits, you turn north back on Peoria (between Mile 23 and Mile 24) to start the trek back downtown. Fortunately, the hills of Midtown are behind you. If you have any gas left in the tank, you can make some time here. If you don’t, at least gravity won’t be devouring you the entire way there. A slight grade up takes you from Mile 24 to Mile 25, then a gradual downhill on First Street to Denver Avenue lets you coast.

If you want to do the Center of the Universe Detour, it pulls off the course in the middle of the First Street stretch. It’s a party up there, and they give you a commemorative coin for your trouble. Back on the main course, you go downhill fast on Denver Avenue, under a bridge, then one last, short uphill climb to the Tulsa Arts District and the final, mostly flat portion of the course to the finish.

Last few observations…

First, I hope you did some hill training. Though only a few of the hills are big and there are some sizable flat spots, this is not a flat course. At all.

Second, expect good course support. Organizers have lots of aid stations along the way, well-stocked and well-manned.

Third, watch the weather forecasts. So far, it looks good. A cool start in the mid-40s, and a high in the upper 50s. Dress accordingly, and keep watching the forecast. Weather in this state can be fickle.

Last, enjoy it! I’ve run this one a few times, and it stacks up well with any race I’ve done. The course is scenic and challenging, which always makes for a good time.

Bob Doucette

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Training update: Signs of progress at the Tulsa Run 15K

For a short burst, I was actually fast. But really, this race went pretty well.

I set out in late summer to create a new challenge for myself. Knowing that the cooler temperatures of fall were approaching (and fall race season), it seemed like a good time to see what I could if I trained harder for a specific goal race.

For me, that’s the Route 66 Marathon’s half-marathon event. Last year, I surprised myself with my second-fastest half marathon time. I learned a lot from that and wanted to take those lessons into this fall to see what might happen. I snagged a more aggressive training schedule and got to work.

It’s important to follow your training plan. While it’s fine to have a plan, it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t follow it. So I’ve been strict about that. Since late August, I’ve missed one workout (I went hiking in Arkansas instead of competing in a 5K, per the schedule) and modified one other (speed work on a treadmill during a downpour instead of running four miles outside). On everything else, I’ve done the work, even when I didn’t feel like it.

What’s also important is measuring the results. If you’re not making progress, it means you’re either going through the motions to check a box or something else is wrong (illness, injury, etc.). I think I’ve been making progress. But they only way to know for sure is to test myself and see.

I had a good opportunity to do that last weekend. The Tulsa Run is a classic local race, and this was the 40th annual version of it. The main event is a 15K road race through some of the hillier portions in and around downtown Tulsa, a course layout that is a change from the race’s traditional out-and-back, mostly flat aspects. My training schedule called for a 15K race last weekend, so instead of a slow-go long run, it would be a more energetic effort on a race day.

I’ve run the Tulsa Run five times, including three times on the newer, tougher course. So how did it go?

Gratefully, the weather was perfect: 34 degrees at start time, sunny and light winds. There would be no overheating, so I’d be able to push myself.

The race starts out with about a mile leading out of downtown downhill. From there, it’s a roller-coaster of hills, some big, some small. I feel bad for the runners who didn’t train on hills. They suffered.

This lasted from Mile 2 through Mile 6. After that, there is a flat section that goes on for two more miles before the course winds its way back up the hill to downtown and the finish. In my opinion, that last mile is the toughest part, a series of rolling hills that goes ever up until you cross the finish line.

My expectations weren’t that high, seeing that I’m still weighing at or near 190 pounds (I do love me some barbecue and tacos). But during training, I’ve made sure to include hill climbs. Weekly mileage volume is in the 30s now.

All of that paid off. All my 5K splits were nearly identical. Yes, the hills were hard. But on the downhills, I could lengthen my stride, control my breathing and regain my wind while making up time lost on the inclines; running on hills is good practice for the real thing, and experience counts.

Oddly similar splits. Not bad.

I finished at 1:31:23, my second-fastest 15K and the fastest since the course change a few years ago. The 9:48 pace is not far from my goal pace for Route 66. Much closer than I thought it would be. These aren’t barnburner times by any stretch, but for a guy who has been slow for several years, it’s not too bad. And a sign of progress.

The Tulsa Run is a good test for people running Route 66, as the characteristics of the courses are very similar. I always fail that final hill climb on Route 66’s half, just like I used to do on the Tulsa Run’s last mile. This time was different, so I’m hoping I can make more progress these next few weeks, smash the remaining workouts and maybe hit that goal. And PR, of course. Either way, I’ll let you know.

Bob Doucette

Seen on the run: Reminders from the past of why I run

We have these, right here in town. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo)

I remember the first time I saw an eagle in the wild.

No, it wasn’t on some adventure deep in the Rockies, or some other rugged mountain landscape. It was about six miles from home, in the middle of a city, and not far from the river that splits my community two.

Not 30 feet from the paved path I was running on, and overlooking the Arkansas River, there it was: A big, bald eagle, surveying the waters flowing by and likely looking for lunch swimming under the surface. It was one of the coolest and most random things I’d ever seen on a run, and to see it smack in the middle of Tulsa’s southern reaches made it that much more unreal. And yet there it was, in all of its regal glory, presiding over its domain. As it turns out, bald eagles have become a fixture along the river. You just have to know where to look.

More importantly, you have to be out there in the first place. If I hadn’t been on my weekly long run, I’d never have seen it at all.

***

I remember when I first started running more seriously, and how enamored I became with the little details I saw during even the shortest, simplest runs. I made a point to take my phone with me not to provide music or capture my pace, but to snap photos of how the downtown Tulsa skyline looked from a certain angle, or the way the glow of a sunset bathed the buildings in warm, fading light.

I’d come home and write notes about interesting people I saw, weird things I smelled and small epiphanies I had while I ran. I learned a lot about my city. One park I run through commemorates the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, something that for many Tulsans was left out of their history lessons despite being the scene of the single worst outburst of racial violence in American history. Years later, I still run through that park, reminded that we’ve yet to get past racial divides.

Night running scene.

There were other details of the city to be gleaned from these runs, too. On a couple of occasions, I’d run at night. An urban landscape has an entirely different feel at night than it does during the day. Light from street lamps catches broken glass on the pavement and in alleys, making them glisten in a harsh sort of way. It’s harder to see people’s faces, thus more difficult to discern intent. But no one ever bothered me. A smoky bar served up whiskey shots next door to a private workshop where a bearded, tattooed fella in a plain white tank tinkered under the hood of a classic car. Nighttime in the city, away from the “safer” venues, is just as alive as it is in the day. It just feels more mysterious, if not risky.

And many times, I’d notice people. The suits and the slackers mixed at different paces, and transients often barely budged. On one street, I’d spot someone talking to himself while walking briskly, totally focused on whatever conversation was happening via Bluetooth. Around the corner, someone else, slumped against a wall, might be wallowing in his own puke, having drank too much bourbon the hour before. Down the street, a tattooed pizzeria worker sat out by the curb, getting one last smoke in before his break was over.

I see scenes like this every day when I run. It fascinated me for a long time, me being a guy who until that time had spent a lifetime living in suburbs and small towns, far from anything one might define as urban.

As the years have gone by, however, all of this has become normal. I still see cool stuff, but more often any run is more of me and the run itself, battling through fatigue, the elements, injuries and whatever else is motivating me or telling me to stop. And as I age, the chorus of inner voices telling me to bag it seems to get bigger. And louder.

***

Last week was one of the lousiest weeks of training I’ve had in a while. Fall is here, but Oklahoma rarely pays attention to the calendar. It was just another hot, humid week, and if you run much you know that heat and humidity sucks all the fun out of running. If I didn’t have a couple of races to train for, I’m not sure I’d even have bothered.

But we got a break this week. On Monday, cloud cover. Blessed cloud cover. Eighty-eight degrees in direct sun (plus humidity) is one thing. But 88 and cloudy is another. As in better.

I was out on a simple four-mile out-and-back run through a neighborhood that might be generously classified as “working class.” It’s on the upswing, but there is plenty of industrial desperation still waiting to be remedied here. Not that it bothers me – that sort of environment is way more interesting than any suburban scene I’ve ever trodden.

Anyway, I ran by a house where a fella was on the porch, working on some sort of machine, and he had his tunes on full blast: ‘80s funk and R&B. I ran past, reached my turnaround place and headed back. I’d pass his house again, this time from the same side of the street. On deck: Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching me,” featuring none other than the King of Pop. I’m not sure why, but when I got in earshot, it gave me an extra bounce, and I made sure to let the dude know that I wish I had his tunes with me the rest of the way. We both got a laugh out of that.

Getting some miles on the trails. I see cool stuff out here. (Clint Green photo)

A day later, on a six-miler, I was on trails close to the Arkansas River again. I didn’t see them, but I heard them: eagles. Somewhere close by, the master raptors were calling out, and would likely be on the hunt for more fish soon. It got me thinking about all the other wildlife I’ve seen, usually when trail running through nearby wooded hills. Squirrels and rabbits, hurrying away from the path. An armadillo ambling along, rooting through the leaves for bugs. And on one blessed run, a massive owl that was silently gliding below the canopy, then extending its wings to make a full stop just a few feet away from where I ran. One of the most majestic things I’ve ever seen.

That’s when I was reminded why I still do this. Races are fun, and great motivation to get in shape. But for me, there’s no finish line or medal worth the weeks and months of training that it takes to finish a long-distance race. Instead, it’s the things I encounter along the way.

The random faces that make a city live and breathe.

The myriad of colors of a cool evening sunset.

The smell of fall from decaying foliage on the forest floor.

And timely reminders from the past, be it the cry of a regal bird of prey, or the music pumping from the speakers owned by someone getting their funk on during a warm autumn afternoon. Any finish line glory is gravy after that.

Bob Doucette

Three things on running, goals, and a plan to go with it

Chugging my way toward a goal.

I think there are generally two types of runners. The first kind encompasses those whose fitness revolves around the run. Training for races is a year-round endeavor. Their social lives might be centered on running, races and other runners. In terms of fitness, everything else is secondary, and there really is no offseason. These people could be anything from 5K speed-burners, habitual marathoners, ultramarathoners, or execisers who have found their “community” in running.

The second type of runner is the person who incorporates running into a larger fitness regimen. These people mostly enjoy it, but the intensity of their running workouts varies on the goals. Under this sizable umbrella will be recreational runners who race occasionally, exercise generalists (think Crossfiters, beginning exercisers or recreational athletes) or those who look to use endurance training for specific goals (professional athletes, adventure racers, mountaineers and so on). Rather than being the central focus of training, these people use running as one of many tools for conditioning.

I’m in the second camp, more or less. I don’t race year-round, and frankly, I don’t race much at all. Running is a means to an end, but it’s also something that clears my head and gets me outside. It doesn’t matter to me if that time is spent running two miles or 20. I run more when it’s cooler, and I definitely have an offseason where I’m running fewer than 15 miles a week.

That said, when the fall rolls around I look forward to packing on the miles and training toward a goal. And that goal would be a race or two. I’m not racing for a spot on a podium; I’m not that fast. But I like challenging myself, finding ways to make the body God gave me push past old barriers. The cooler temps of fall make this season the ideal time to do just that.

Last year, I’d come off a so-so period of training that gave me some mediocre results at the finish line. I’m getting older, and it would be easier (maybe expected?) to attribute eroding times to the inevitable progress of time. I know that will be true one day, but I refuse to give in now. So in the fall, I worked on a few things and earned an unexpected finish: my second-fastest half marathon time. It was cool seeing a training plan produce results.

This fall, I’m turning it up a notch. Once again, I’ve signed up for the Route 66 half marathon in Tulsa (this will be my fourth time to run it). I picked out a tougher training program (Hal Higdon’s Intermediate 1 half marathon plan), dialed back the lifting and plugged in some more time on the bike. I’m three weeks into it now, and a few things have become apparent.

Lean and mean back when I was in race shape. Maybe by November I’ll be in this form again.

First, it sure feels good to regain my conditioning. I had fun with the weights, and there is a different kind of conditioning that comes with strength training, but there is a beauty to seeing your endurance return. As the miles pile up, so does the sense of accomplishment. I’m not there yet. But I’m getting back into race shape.

This piece of paper is partially running my life. But that’s not a bad thing.

Second, a structured program is a good thing. You can make stuff up on a day-to-day basis, and there’s a place for keeping things unstructured. No one wants to be on a training program for 365 days a year. But following a training program works. When you stick to the program, results will follow. It’s a great metaphor on life: get the information you need to succeed and put in the work. Success often follows.

Cross-training on this guy FTW.

Third, it’s good to have one workout a week that’s just fun. It’s important to have something to look forward to that’s not a rest day or a burger binge. For me, it’s the weekly cross-training workout on my bike. These workouts never exceed 60 minutes, which is a modest bike ride by most people’s standards. I’m not a “cyclist,” but I enjoy my time in the saddle. Sunday rides are the best.

It’s going to get harder, and balancing work, life and this training program will get tougher as November rolls around. But I’m cool with that. The hard things are usually worthwhile, and I know if I can stay healthy and stick to the plan I should see improvement over races past.

Are you running in the Route 66 Marathon of the half? Or are you doing any other fall races? If so, let me know how it’s going in the comments. You can also follow my progress on the training program daily on Twitter by searching the #rt66run hashtag.

Bob Doucette

Strength training: Go with the four-by-four program for gains

Literally getting ugly with the iron.

Many moons ago, when I was a college kid with a fascination for all things weight lifting, the dorm director where I was living threw a two-part opportunity toward the guys: Sign up for a campus wide powerlifting meet, and he’d show us some tricks about how to get stronger fast.

That may as well have been catnip to me. I attended a seminar he put on and learned about his “four-by-four” program and immediately signed up to compete.

I didn’t do that great at the meet, but I learned a lot. And that four-by-four program stuck with me. I went from pushing around weenie-weight to rattling some plates in a matter of a few months.

Many years later, I found myself looking for a good program to boost strength in the big lifts: deadlift, squat and bench press. And I remembered that program my dorm director wrote out on a chalk board when I was a scrawny little freshman stuck in the “curls for girls” mentality of strength training.

I’m glad I went back to it. As challenging as it can be, it’s also been rewarding. Over the spring and summer, I’ve tacked on 50 pounds to my squat.

So how does it work? I’ve modified it a little: the original program was heavily dependent on doing singles, right up to a one-rep max. Nothing wrong with singles, but I think that’s a thing you should do very occasionally.

First, you need to figure out what your one-rep max is in the lift you’re performing. And then you’ll calculate some percentages to build the workout. Here’s an example of it looks like:

Warm-up with an unloaded bar, 10-12 reps.

Continued warm-up, 135 pounds, 8 reps.

Six reps, 60 percent of your 1RM

Four sets of 4 reps, 90 percent of your 1RM.

Two sets of 5 reps, lighter weight with a variation of the lift you’re performing.

So let’s say you’re working on your bench press, and you know your 1RM is 200 pounds. The workout would look like this:

1×10, unloaded bar

1×8, 95 pounds

1×6, 120 pounds

4×4, 180 pounds

2×5, 115 pounds, close-grip bench press (or some other chest press variation)

Or, say you’re squatting, with a 1RM of 300 pounds. Here’s what that might look like:

1×10, unloaded bar

1×8, 135

1×6, 205

4×4, 270

2×5, 150, front squat (or some other squat variation)

Finally, here’s what this workout would look like if you were deadlifting with a 400-pound 1RM:

1×10, lightly loaded bar (light bumper plates)

1×8, 135

1×6, 240

4×4, 360

2×5, 225, Romanian deadlift (or some other variation of the deadlift)

They key with making this work is to progressively increase the weight you’re using over an 8 to 12-week span. Back in the day, we were taught to go for about 10 pounds per week. I’m more conservative – I shoot for 5 pounds a week, and if my body ain’t feeling it, I’ll stand pat if I must.

You’ll also want to scale up the 1×8 weight a little as you progress. You don’t have to make that weight challenging; just heavy enough to give you some resistance while warming up your muscles. A lot of times, a 135-pound bar is great for lifters who are in that “intermediate” stage of strength training development.

One other thing: Let’s say you’re lifting legs twice a week. If you’re going to do the four-by-four program, use it once a week. On your second leg day, do another type of workout. Maybe something with the same or similar exercises, but lighter weights with more reps (I currently do a 5×10 workout, increasing weight with each set, but not topping out at more than 75 percent of my 1RM). That way you can still get in quality work, but not fry yourself in the process. And don’t forget to program a deload week every 6-8 weeks.

Include supporting exercises for the back end of your workout (maybe some reverse lunges, calf presses, leg extensions and kettlebell swings, if you’re doing a leg day workout) to round things out.

This is one of those plans designed primarily for strength. It’s not a hypertrophy workout (though as you get stronger, you’ll probably pack on some size), nor is it designed to get you ripped (that happens in the kitchen, homie). But it will help build a good base of strength, and as we know, that can lead to a whole lot of other good things.

Bob Doucette

Strength experiment, part 3: Posterior chain, aka, working your backside

The primal joy of the deadlift. Sah-weet!

It’s been fun recapping the strength workouts I did over the winter. Some are harder than others. Today we’re going to hit on an area that, for most people, offers the greatest potential for growth, and yet is often sorely neglected: the posterior chain.

So, what the heck is that? Simply put, it’s all the musculature on the back side (posterior) of your body, starting with the muscles in your neck all the way down to your hamstrings. So many people focus on the “mirror muscles” – the muscles they see when looking their reflection – that they forget about crucial areas which will make or break you athletically, and will affect your long-term health.

Let me lay out some truth to you. You cannot be strong if your back is weak. You will not stay healthy is your back is weak. You will likely become injured, physically compromised and otherwise headed toward greater immobility if your back is weak. Bench-pressing a truck is great. So is squatting a house. You will do neither if your back is weak.

And think about all the other things you do. Running, skiing, hiking, backpacking, recreational sports – just about anything, really – depends greatly on a strong back, and will be hindered if you are weak in this area. Some of the most debilitating injuries you can imagine are back injuries, and if your spine is not protected by strong back and core muscles, you WILL hurt your back. It might happen while grabbing a rebound. Or on a 20-mile hike. Or while running your next half-marathon. Or picking up a basket of laundry. That’s the truth, folks.

Here’s another: The deficiencies in your back can be solved by you.

Earlier this week, I mentioned the four main movements of strength training. One of those was the hip-hinge. Another was the pull. That’s what we’re going to focus on today.

When describing “pulls,” we’re talking about pull-ups, chin-ups, barbell rows, dumbbell rows, and cable pulls. These will primarily work the lats, those big muscles that flank the spine from your armpits down to your tailbone. Your biceps will also get some work here, as will the muscles on the back side of your shoulders. Being strong in these areas will go a long way toward balancing your anterior workouts and promote shoulder health as well as back strength.

Hip-hinge exercises are deadlifts, hip thrusters and kettlebell swings. The latter two exercises are great at working the glutes and hamstrings. But the deadlift rules them all. Deadlifts work the glutes and hamstrings while also giving your quadriceps some love. But wait, there’s more! Deadlifts will also work all the muscles in your back – from the muscles at the base of your neck to the base of your spine. An added benefit is holding a weighted barbell does wonderful things for improving grip strength. Master the deadlift and you will become strong.

I do two posterior chain workouts per week. The first one is an “easy” day. The second one is the toughest, most taxing workout of the week. Done right, these workouts will become the core of building strength.

Here’s the plan:

“Easy” day posterior chain workout

Lat pulls, 3×8

Cleans, 3×5

Seated cable rows, 3×10

Straight-arm cable pull-downs, 3×10

Mix in some core work and you’re good to go.

One note: If you haven’t done cleans before, go light and practice the form. This is a tricky, skill-based Olympic-style lift that will build back strength and overall explosive power, but get it wrong and you’ll jack up your back.

“Hard” day posterior chain workout

Warm-up: Pull-ups, 8, 9 and 10 reps; Sumo deadlifts with a kettlebell, 3×10

Barbell deadlift, 8, 7, 6, 5 reps (escalating weight with each set). If you’re brave, try adding fifth set of a 2-rep or a single rep with a heavy weight that you’re not sure you can get.

Standing horizontal cable pulls, 3×10 (escalating weight)

Farmer’s walk, loaded trap bar, 3 sets, walk with the weight for 45 seconds per set

Dumbbell bicep curls, 3×12 (escalating weight)

Hammer curls, 3×10 (escalating weight)

Throw in some planks and dead bugs, 3 sets each.

I added in the dumbbell curls to give your biceps a little more love.

But what I really want to address is the farmer’s walk. Such a great exercise. If you don’t have a trap bar, you can carry plates or dumbbells. The farmer’s walk, or any other loaded carry, works your back, legs and core. It will test your cardio. And it will build grip strength. This is one of my favorite exercises, and it has practical applications.

One last admonition: Form on the deadlift is crucial, especially when the weight starts getting heavier. You must brace your core and keep your back straight. A bowed lumbar is a recipe for injury.

So there it is. No lift scares me more than a really heavy deadlift single. No exercise makes me happier than the deadlift. And nothing is more satisfying than loading the bar with a big weight, walking up to it, and hoisting that bad boy off the ground. It’s simple, primal, aggressive and oh so good.

As a bonus: The deadlift is a total body exercise, and if you get strong doing these, you will get stronger everywhere else.

In the next installment, I’m going to discuss what I did for self-care during this strength cycle. It ain’t sexy, but it’s important.

Bob Doucette

Strength experiment, part 2: Leg day

If you want stronger legs, you’re going to have to get under the bar.

In the last post, I went over different variations of the press. Specifically, overhead presses and chest presses. Good stuff to power up the upper body.

But as we all should know, the foundation of any athlete is a good set of legs. All the upper body power in the world won’t do much (aside from looking good) if your legs are weak. Hiking, running, sprinting, jumping – you name it, if there is any sort of land-based locomotion going on, your legs are going to be heavily involved.

Go into the fitness corner of the internet enough and you’re bound to hear the admonition to “never skip leg day.” Sometimes that’s accompanied by a photo of a dude with a stacked upper body and the spindly legs of habitual computer gamer.

As a matter of disclosure, I wish mine were stronger. They don’t look like much. That’s why I never skip leg day. In fact, I make sure I do leg day twice a week and spend plenty of time under the bar.

Going back to my original theme of four basic movements, my leg day workout centers on the squat and its variations. The goal is to strengthen the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes and calves.  When I think about these muscle groups, the quads and glutes power you through jumps and quick bursts as well as being the primary “push” engines of your lower body. Your glutes work with your hamstrings to propel you forward when you’re running or sprinting. The calves assist in all of these, but have enough slow-twitch muscles in them to make them ideal stabilizers for everything from all-out sprints to holding your place on a wall when climbing. I know I’m barely scratching the surface here, but it gives you an idea of how these muscle groups make you move.

If you’re strong in your legs, it’s a pretty good bet you’re going to be strong everywhere else. Strength training for legs is hard. Really hard. But it’s also crucial, not only in your athletic performance now but in your mobility as you age. Running alone won’t cut it. You really should be lifting. Don’t neglect the legs!

Anyway, enough of that intro. Like I said, I do two leg day sessions a week, with the core of the workout centered on the squat. Here’s what it looks like:

Warm-up: 3×10 sumo squat with a kettlebell; 3×10 single-leg calf raises w/dumbbell (escalating weight with each set on the calf raises). I include those calf raises because that movement stretches the calf muscles and Achilles tendon, allowing for better mobility once I get under the bar for squatting. I use a 60-pound kettlebell on the sumo squats; nothing too heavy, just enough weight to help wake up the muscles in my legs and hips for the work to come. When I’m done with these, I’m ready for the real deal.

Barbell back squat, 1×8, 1×7, 1×6, 1×5 (escalating weight)

Barbell front squat, 3×6

Barbell Romanian deadlift, 3×6

Peterson step-up w/kettlebell (light weight), 3×10 each leg

Kettlebell swing, 3×12

Leg extension, 3×15 (escalating weight)

The key to this is that both squat variations should be challenging weights. The rep ranges are not high, so the weight must be on the heavier side, relative to your ability. Generally speaking, you’re going to be able to squat much more weight on the back squat than you are on the front squat. The Peterson step-ups are a really good single-leg exercise to build your quads, especially that “teardrop” muscle on the inside of the kneecap. The Romanian deadlifts pound your glutes and hamstrings. Same thing with the kettlebell swing, but more explosively. The leg extensions at the end of the workout are a great way to safely roast your quads before you call it a day.

I usually don’t do core work on leg day, as your core is going to get a lot of work doing the squats. But that’s a call you’ll have to make for yourself.

For conditioning, I like to do three rounds of a barbell complex. The goal here is not really strength, it’s more about quick-burst lifts to raise your heart rate. And believe me, a barbell complex will do it. Mine includes some lifts that aren’t “leg day” lifts, but by this point it’s more about conditioning than lifting anyway. Here’s what a round of mine looks like:

Hang clean x6

Front squat x6

Standing overhead press x6

Romanian deadlift x6

Bent-over barbell row x6

With the barbell complex, you load a light weight (I’ve seen some people do it with an unloaded bar). Perform all the lifts in the entire complex without stopping to rest or put down the bar until the round is finished. It’ll spike your heart rate nicely, and is a good way to end a leg day workout.

My first lift of the week is always a leg day workout. I’ll do it again three days later.

So there it is. Next time, we’ll tackle the hip-hinge and the posterior chain. See you then.

Bob Doucette