Four ideas on dealing with injuries during training

My friends. But they don't care if I'm injured.

My friends. But they don’t care if I’m injured.

Tell me you’ve heard this one before…

You’re training hard, working toward a specific goal. Things are going great, progressing nicely, and then it hits: An injury.

Now what?

I’ve faced this a bunch over the years. A cranky back, tweaked neck, wonky shoulders and sprained ankles. Last spring it was a tweaked hamstring, and there have been elbow, wrist and foot problems, to boot.

Last week, it was something else.

I’ve been working hard on building strength for the past couple of months, dialing back my running and pushing hard in the weight room. I still run, but less frequently and shorter distances. The bike has taken over some workouts where running used to be.

But a little over a week ago, I was doing a deadlift workout and tweaked my right trapezius muscle. The trapezius is a long back muscle that starts at the top of your neck, widens and thickens on your upper back, and runs down the side of your spine.

The trapezius. Mine was angry.

The trapezius. Mine was angry.

It is a crucial muscle in any lift where a hip-hinge movement is involved, and if it’s freaking out, you’ll know it every time you get out of bed, turn your head or try to pick something up.

I did a lot of rehab exercises to try to work out the kinks, but by late last week, it was still angry. The workout I had planned included Romanian deadlifts – a great hamstring and glute move that also works the back, and therefore, the trapezius. Additionally, I’d also be lifting a barbell off the floor to the front squat position for another exercise. Same deal, and my back was saying no.

The rest of my body was fine. But one ticked-off muscle can throw you for a loop.

I ended up doing two things. First, I modified that day’s workout to a lighter-weight circuit that included back squats, calf raises and reverse lunges. Six rounds of that, with minimal stress on the traps. Second, I skipped the next day’s shoulder workout entirely and just ran trails.

By Saturday, I was good to go for another deadlift workout (which also included farmer’s walks, cable pulls and pull-ups, all of which recruit the trapezius). I slayed that workout.

There are some important lessons here, and to be frank, sometimes you have to learn this the hard way, like me. Whether you’re training to get strong, for a long-distance race, or preparing for a major physical challenge (say, climbing a mountain), injuries are going to happen.

How do you handle them? Here are some ideas:

Sometimes you have to suck it up and train through it, but work around the problem. Not every injury requires you to shut it down and wait it out. Think it through and find ways to keep up your training without aggravating the problem. What I described above is a good example. Another: runners facing roadblocks can hop on a bike or swim for their conditioning needs until their bodies are well enough to hit the road.

Many injuries are caused by overuse and imbalances. These in turn put undue stress on others parts of your body, leading to injury. Diagnose that, and find ways to train those weak areas so other parts of your body aren’t overcompensating for the weakness and leaving you sidelined. For runners, “dead-butt syndrome” is a perfect example (lack of glute strength). Many lifters suffer from shoulder impingements (poor postural alignment, or underdeveloped back musculature are common there). The fixes are simple, but they will take time. Commit to it.

Your “form” in your training sucks. Fix it. So many runners I know pound their knees into oblivion by hard heel-striking. Others bounce too much, putting a ton of stress on the Achilles tendons. In strength training, poor form – especially on compound exercises, Olympic lifts and explosive movements – lead to potentially serious problems (and don’t get me started on doing these lifts in a fatigued state). My ongoing back issues can be traced back to piss-poor squat form over a decade ago that left me injured. I’ve had to work on that diligently to keep myself from getting hurt again. Proper form in any athletic pursuit mitigates injury. It’s usually pride that keeps people from fixing the problem, and ultimately leads the prideful to the sidelines, bemoaning a fate that could have been avoided.

Sometimes, you really do need to stop and heal. Injuries happen. If you rip your knee up, wrench your shoulder, suffer a stress fracture or hurt your back, there may not be enough chiro work, at-home rehab, Ibuprofen, inner toughness or other tricks to keep you moving forward. When that happens, you need rest, time to heal, and a plan for rehab and recovery. Whether it’s something as relatively minor as an ankle sprain before a big race or something major like a blown disk or ligament/muscle tear, there are definitely times when you need to swallow your pride, shut it down and get well.

If you're like me, you don't want to stop. But we have to be smart about it.

If you’re like me, you don’t want to stop. But we have to be smart about it.

I was fortunate that I knew what I could and couldn’t do in terms of what was a minor physical setback, but one that was big enough to potentially derail my training. I could do my squats; but the overhead presses the next day? Nope. And it all worked out in the end.

Bob Doucette

Can you be a fast runner and also be strong?

The changing physique of Ryan Hall is instructive.

The changing physique of Ryan Hall is instructive.

I saw an article in Outside Magazine recently that attracted a bit of ire from readers. In it, the writer checks out the case of American endurance athlete Ryan Hall, and how being so good at long-distance running made him, physically speaking, weak.

Hall has retired from a prolific and successful career as an elite runner, and has since taken up weight training to go alongside a less intense regimen of running. Since his retirement, he’s packed on some muscle and become noticeably stronger. The conclusion: Elite distance runners are fast on the course, but that speed comes at a cost. Namely, strength.

This is where a bunch of online readers collectively lost their minds. They attacked the article, the writer and the publication. You can read it here.

But what they failed to objectively conclude was that the premise is the article was right.

If you’ve read this blog much, you might be surprised to hear me say that. I’m a committed runner, regularly racing in 15k, half marathon and 25k events. Mostly, I run for fun. How can I dare to say that runners are weak?

Let’s step back a moment. There are some things we have to square away before I can defend the article in question, and my agreement with it.

We need to define “strength.” From the outset, let me say that it takes a mentally strong person to run big distances, and to run those distances fast. Running long distance at higher speeds is grueling. Pain is constant. The body is telling you to stop. You can’t be a sub-1:30 half marathoner or a 3-hour marathoner and not be mentally and emotionally tough, not to mention well-conditioned.

But it’s important to distinguish between being “well-conditioned,” “mentally strong,” and “emotionally strong” and what qualifies as “strength.”

Strength is quantifiable. You can objectively measure it. The easiest way to do that can be found in how much mass you can move. Can you pick that thing up off the floor? How much weight can you lift above your head? These types of questions can be answered — and usually are — in different weight lifting moves. Someone who can deadlift 500 pounds is stronger than someone who can’t. It’s that simple.

At the elite level of long-distance running (or even at distances like the 5k), efficiency is key. The heart and lungs are going to be taxed at the highest levels, so any mass (muscle or otherwise) that is not essential to the goal is either going to slow you down or be pared off your frame. There are muscley people who can do a 5K 21 minutes, but you won’t see anyone who looks jacked running 15-minute 5ks or 80-minute half marathons. The extra muscle competes too much with the rest of the body when the pace approaches that of runners like Hall, or Meb Keflezighi, or even college scholarship athletes involved in endurance sports.

On the other end, it’s extremely unlikely you’re going to see high-level distance runners who can squat or deadlift twice their body weight. The training that goes into running really fast, or really far, or both forces the body to adapt, and when it comes to running, the sacrifice comes at the cost of muscle, and ultimately, strength.

This is even true of fast-but-not-elite runners. The 1:30 half-marathoners, or the 3:30 marathoners, for example. Or most people who run ultras on a regular basis, regardless of pace. Similarly, you won’t find any power lifters running 24-minute 5ks or any bodybuilders breaking four hours in a marathon. They might be strong, but they won’t be fast or be able to go very far.

(I might add for beginning runners and exercisers, you can gain strength and speed for awhile, but those goals will eventually collide.)

I’d look at my own history here. When I run less, I gain strength. When the miles pile up, I lean up. But I also lose strength. Right now, I weigh about 190 pounds. During marathon training, I dipped to 172. I can deadlift probably 80 more pounds now than I could then. But I doubt very seriously I could come within an hour of the time I hit for those 26.2 miles, and my current 5k is a couple of minutes off my PR. (As a matter of disclosure, I have tried to be both, but the results have been predictable: At my best, I’m moderately strong and not very fast.)

What I’d conclude is this: When you see articles like the one mentioned above, don’t freak out. Don’t get offended by a headline that tells you endurance running will make you “weak.” Understand that strength is objectively quantifiable, and being really fast while also being really strong are competing goals that, for most people, won’t happen simultaneously. Go ahead and train hard for the goal you want, and embrace your own “strength.”

Bob Doucette

Five fitness trends that need to go away

Do you even breathe, bro?

Do you even breathe, bro?

Consider this my periodic grumpy post. The “get off my lawn” eruption that has to happen to relieve pressure in my skull before it pops like a shaken soda can.

I follow fitness trends quite a bit, mostly because this is not only a subject that interests me, but one I believe is vital. I want to be climbing mountains, running trails and pumping iron well into old age. That’s not a pride thing; I just don’t want to be infirm and immobile in my later years, so I plan to do everything I can to prevent that.

I follow the trends to see what might help me achieve that long-term goal. Some things are worthwhile. Others make me cringe. I want to address the latter. So here goes…

It’s time to retire the Bosu ball.

Ankle/knee injury in 3...2...1...(Sean Hiller/dailybreeze.com photo)

Ankle/knee injury in 3…2…1…(Sean Hiller/dailybreeze.com photo)

I’m sure there is a use for this semi-spherical cousin of the Swiss ball, but every time I see people squat-pressing dumbbells while standing on a Bosu ball, I want to hit something. Hard. I understand the desire to work all those stabilizer muscles, which is what the Bosu ball is all about. But there is a good chance if you’re squatting, or squat-pressing or — God forbid — doing some single-leg movement on a Bosu ball, there is also a high likelihood you are performing the exercise with dreadful form, and likely entrenching said bad form into your muscle memory. You’d be better off doing your bilateral and unilateral exercises on a sold surface, and maybe do some band walks, side lunges or maybe some cone or ladder drills to work all those precious stabilizer muscles you think you’re neglecting. Unless you’re a surfer, the idea of standing on an unstable surface while exercising is more silly than useful, and potentially injurious.

Let’s send the burpee to pasture.

burpees1

Burpees seem to be the staple metabolic conditioning exercise of boot camps and Crossfit gyms everywhere. Social media is rife with people doing burpee challenges. Yes, they’re hard and will get your heart rate up quickly. But here’s something else: Burpees also reinforce something most exercisers need to de-emphasize — anterior movements. Anterior movements, if you don’t know, are exercises that focus on the front side of your body. Most of us, because of our jobs (white or blue collar), already have tight chests and shoulders and stretched/weak back muscles. This is why so many people have shoulder joint problems, poor posture and hunched backs. The squat and jump of the burpee is fine, but that push-up is just one more exercise working the front side of your upper body, when what you probably need is something that works your back (posterior movements!). A butt-kicking WOD or endless boot camp circuits that rely on burpees are taking you to the fast track of shoulder issues. Need met-con? Do some sprints. And throw some pull-ups in there, chief. Make sure every front-side push is balanced by at least a couple of back-side pulls. If you’re not doing that and you’re loading up on burpees, it’s time to rethink that circuit. Show some imagination!

The training mask. ARRRRGGHHH.

Yes, because not being able to breathe will help you squat better.

Yes, because not being able to breathe will help you squat better.

I can’t decide if this is a residual of Ultimate Fighter wannabes trying to look more legit at the gym or if there is a market for people wanting to look like Bane from Batman. The concept is to mimic altitude, or just make it harder to breathe while pounding out circuits on the treadmill, or lifting weights, or whatever. This is dumb, so please stop. Simulating altitude is a matter of making your conditioning harder. So do that! Ratchet up the intensity — it’s free, and you don’t have to wear that sweaty thing on your face. And wearing one while lifting? Just don’t. You need all the oxygen you can get to lift as much as you can while training. That’s how you get stronger. Making it harder to breathe while you lift will only force you into lifting lighter weights, for fewer reps, and for fewer sets. That’s no way to get stronger. Oh, and let’s dump the snorkel masks, too.

The ab crunch and its angry granddaddy, the sit-up, need to go.

crunches

These exercises, even when done right, ain’t too swift for the lower back. Most people also pull on their heads during the upward movement, which also IS. NOT. GOOD. And the payoff? Far less than you’d expect. Replace these exercises with some planks (but don’t be a weirdo and hold planks for five-plus minutes), side planks, and maybe a few other wonderful core exercises (dead bugs and Pallof presses/holds come to mind) that will actually work your core without torqueing your spine. Speaking of that, let’s dump weighted crunch machines, too. All of the yuck of crunches and sit-ups, but with weighted resistance added. Sounds like turd stew to me.

Put a stake in the heart of the run streak.

Man, my knee hurts. But I've got to keep my run streak going!

Man, my knee hurts. But I’ve got to keep my run streak going!

Runners are a funny bunch. Every day not consumed, in part, by a run feels like a wasted opportunity to this crowd. They want to run every damn day. So someone concocted the idea of the run streak, which is a lot like these month-long burpee challenges that annoy me so much. But with run streakers, the party goes on and on and on… and then you get hurt. Runners are particularly vulnerable to overuse injuries, which is why we are often told to program rest days, to taper before races, and even to take occasional breaks from running for a week or two. The run streak negates all this, never giving your body the time it needs to recover from all those miles. Why do this? Pride? Fun? Motivation? OK, do what you want to do. Just tell me how proud you’ll be of being sidelined, how much fun it will be when you can’t run, and how motivational people will find you when you’re in a boot with a stress fracture. One of the most important parts of training is recovery, so if you want to be a runner over the long haul, you’ll blow off all those stupid run streaks. Rest so you can run another day.

Glad I got that off my chest. Cranial pressure is (temporarily) relieved. Do you disagree? Holler and tell me why. Have some more fitness trends you’d like to see sent packing? Comment below.

Bob Doucette

Injuries: Dealing with one angry muscle

One little muscle.

Well, not that little. But it’s just one. You’d be shocked, however, at the amount of work that thing does, and how little you can do when it’s injured.

I’m talking about the trapezius. You have two of them, one on each side of your upper back, running from the base of your skull, down the spine, and flaring out toward your shoulder joint. The trapezius helps you lift things over your head, stabilizes your neck and head, and it an integral player any time your pick something up from the ground.

The trapezius. Mine was angry.

The trapezius. Mine was angry.

So I hurt mine about a month ago. I’m not sure, how, but I think it happened while performing a barbell complex exercise, and the poor thing got overtaxed, freaked out, and stayed tight as a drum for weeks. It’s just now getting better. But I learned a lot about how critical this muscle is to a lot of simple functions.

First off, the injury. Yuck. It made turning my head to the left very iffy and stiff. It’s a residual thing from my martial arts days, when my neck would get cranked when grappling. Every now and then it wants to act up again.

The good news is the injury did not stop me from running. It did slow me down some — any aggravated muscle will do that to you. Injuries tend to tax you all over, I suppose.

But the list of weightlifting exercises I couldn’t do for three weeks is rather lengthy.

No bench press. No incline presses. No deadlifts. No barbell back squats. Even things like tricep cable push-downs and chin-ups flared it up, as did a number of other, seemingly innocuous lifts you wouldn’t think included much use of the ole traps. Boy, was I wrong.

So what did I do for three weeks? I found substitute exercises and otherwise backed off.

Here are some examples…

Instead of barbell back squats, I did the leg press. No weight on the shoulders, but still some work for the thighs and glutes. I was also able to do a lot of light single-leg dumbbell moves (single-leg Romanian deadlifts, lunges), and goblet squats were still OK.

Instead of bench presses and incline presses (which were totally out), I used a seated chest press and did pec-deck flies. Not the best subs, but it was something. And it didn’t aggravate my neck.

Instead of cable push-downs, I did light single-arm triceps extensions with lots of reps. Again, not ideal. But you do what you can.

Some exercises were completely unaffected. I had no problems working biceps and calves, for example. Others, though, were just out. No barbell deadlifts, no pull-ups or chin-ups (though cable lat pulls were OK), and no isolating shoulder moves at all. And forget planking and push-ups. Face-down on a horizontal plane just means the traps had to work that much harder to keep my head stable, and my neck was having none of that.

Most importantly, though, was this one simple trick: I backed off. I knew I could run and do some lifts, but doing all the biggies had to go away for awhile until that muscle chilled out. So between the rest or light work, there was a lot of foam-rolling, postural exercises and rest.

And it worked. I’m back to a normal routine again, my left trapezius is calm, and I can turn my head to check traffic when I’m out on a run or just driving without having to turn my whole body.

So the bottom line is this: If you injure a muscle, don’t push through. Figure out what aggravates it and stop doing that. Give it time to heal. If rest isn’t enough, then maybe professional help is needed. But for the most part, a little TLC and some down time is what your body needs.

Bob Doucette

Three reasons to avoid using the Smith machine

You’ve probably read somewhere that if you really want to get strong, you need to do squats.

You may also have wondered how you can do that difficult and taxing exercise with the highest degree of safety. And heading into your gym, you saw a couple of things: a standard free-weight squat rack and a different sort of setup that looks a lot like it — a Smith machine.

The Smith machine. It might look like a good alternative to free-weight barbell squats or presses, but it's not.

The Smith machine. It might look like a good alternative to free-weight barbell squats or presses, but it’s not.

Upon closer inspection, you notice that the bar is attached to the machine on vertical rails, and racking it is mostly a simple matter of a turn of the wrist. The weight won’t move around, and because of its fixed nature, you won’t be pitching forward, backward or to the sides, even if it’s heavily loaded.

Slide a bench in there, and you could say the same thing for a bench press or shoulder press inside the Smith.

And then you might be tempted to conclude that the Smith machine might be a safer way to get in a few of your bigger lifts.

And you couldn’t be more wrong.

Let me say from the outset that you are highly unlikely to have a disastrous weight-dropping failure doing exercises on the Smith. Conversely, many too-proud lifters have had their fair share of mishaps with a heavily loaded barbell on their back or hovering over their chest. Bench press accidents, on very rare occasions, have killed unlucky solo lifters.

And it’s for this reason that many smaller gyms or corporate fitness centers buy these things instead of settling on a decent squat rack or bench press. Aside from “safety,” they also can forgo the cost of buying a squat rack, bench press and incline bench for the price of a Smith and an adjustable bench, and save some space in the process.

I truly would like to eradicate this type of thinking from people who run gyms and fitness centers. I was dismayed that a company where I used to work included a Smith machine in its dramatic renovation of its fitness center. And at the gym in the building where I live, I’ve lobbied in vain to get managers there to clear out some room for a real squat rack.

Thankfully, I also have access to another gym that has the tools I prefer. But just so you know where I’m coming from, here are three reasons why you should forgo ever using a Smith machine:

The motion of the machine only works in a straight line, whereas you naturally squat and bench press in an arc. When squatting, your hips go back as you descend, the bar takes a slight sweep back following the hips, then does it again in reverse when you rise back up.

Similarly, a proper bench press starts with a descent to the lower pecs, then goes back up slightly toward your eyes to finish the lift. Most Smith machines are straight up and down, a very unnatural motion. Even angled Smith machines still stay on a track, limiting overall muscle recruitment.

Lifting on a Smith machine puts increased strain on your joints and back. When you’re doing a big lift like a squat, a whole slew of muscles get used: Quads, glutes, hamstrings, and many other, smaller muscles throughout the legs, hips and core. But because of the isolating nature of a Smith machine’s movements, many of those muscles just don’t fire. You lose hamstring tension, which in turn puts increased strain on your knees. And because the action of the Smith machine squat has you pushing against the bar rather than allowing the bar to move with you, hello lower back pressure. I can tell you first-hand how awful that feels.

The problem is less acute on the bench press, but it is there. The bench is hard on your shoulders; it’s even harder when performing the exercise on the Smith. And the one-track motion of the Smith machine makes it almost impossible to get the right arc on a good military press.

Finally, as I stated earlier, you’re just not working as many muscles on a Smith machine as you do on a free bar exercise. This is especially true with squats, where the muscle recruitment of the exercise is so complex. The whole purpose of doing these big lifts is to hit lots of muscles, not isolate them. The Smith machine leaves out key muscles, thus making a squat or bench on them an inferior lift.

So what it a Smith machine good for? Well, it’s just dandy for inverted rows, and when you rack the bar on its highest setting is a good place to do chin-ups in a pinch. But that’s about it.

So do yourself a favor. Avoid the Smith machine. Find a free weight squat rack or bench press and do that instead. And if your gym only has the Smith for these exercises, find another gym.

Bob Doucette

Fitness: Deadlifts, clean-and-jerks, pull-ups and more for a full-body workout

Old-school weightlifting can lead to huge strength gains. Make the barbell your friend.

Old-school weightlifting can lead to huge strength gains. Make the barbell your friend.

I’m a creature of routine. I find things that work for me, then stick with it. This can be a good thing when it comes to training; while some preach constant changes (muscle confusion, brah!), I’m more of the type who believes you create a program, use it over time and give it time to work.

However, there comes a time to change things up. It’s a tough balance between distance running and weight training for me. These forms of exercise compete with each other for time and resources. Want to be fast? You won’t be very muscular. What to be big and muscly? Fine, but forget about being fast over the long-haul.

I’ve accepted that reality. I know that I’ll only get so big or so fast, and I’m cool with that. As long as I can tough out a race over 15 miles or more, I’m good. And while I may not ever be a body builder or a power athlete, I like the idea of being strong. A little bit of both goes a long way in terms of staying healthy for a long time, and performing well in the outdoors.

Anyway, I digress. I decided it was, in fact, time to shake things up. My leg-day workouts were getting too long, too taxing. And there were areas in my training that got short-changed as a result.

So I split up some of the stuff I do on leg day, then added some more goodies. The end result? A workout that blasts the posterior chain (back, shoulders, glutes and hamstrings) while also balancing out a rather imbalanced weekly workout schedule. Here’s a review of the exercises:

Barbell deadlift: I do four to five sets of these. I start light, but quickly get heavy. This is a power lift, one that requires heavier weights and lower reps. Stand at the bar, feet about shoulder width apart. Hand grips vary; I choose to have one hand palm out, one hand palm in (the axle grip), and both hands gripping the bar outside of my stance. Grip the bar tight, and tense those lats. Pull up on the bar to take up any “slack,” or the little bit of room that exists between the bar and the plates. Keeping your head and neck in a neutral spine position, drive up by firing your quads, squeezing your glutes and driving your hips forward. Your back should be straight, and your chest slightly up (to the point where someone could see the logo on your shirt as you began the lift). When you’re at standing position, your chest should be out (proud) and your shoulders slightly back. Then slowly lower the weight down, bending at the knees and getting your hips back. Tip: DO NOT hunch your back; keep it straight. And don’t tilt your head back to look up at the mirror; doing so will deactivate your hams and glutes and overly recruit your lower back, which you DON’T want to do. If you can’t avoid hunching over and pulling with your back, use less weight and get the form right.

Barbell clean-and-jerk: One of the standard Olympic lifts, this is also a power move, and a complicated one at that. The clean-and-jerk is very technique-oriented, and I recommend good coaching and research before performing this move. That said, it’s an awesome full-body, compound exercise that builds explosiveness and power, and ultimately, strength in your legs, core and back. Stand at the bar in a deadlift position, but place your hands further apart than in the deadlift, and both palms down (no axle grip). To start the lift, explode up with the bar, but instead of stopping at a deadlift finish position, raise that bar to a front-squat position. You will likely come up on your toes a bit (the whole leg gets involved). Once in this position, you will do a push-press to finish the move — squat down slightly, then explode up powerfully with your legs, press the bar up, and lock out. For balance purposes, you might feel comfortable having one leg forward, one back, then coming to a neutral standing position once this lift is complete. This lift is easier shown than explained in type, so here ya go:

I do this in sets of four reps. This ain’t an exercise where you do high-rep sets. Even so, you will get a cardio element during your sets. Tip: This exercise is VERY technique oriented, and it is a riskier move than most other lifts. It’s vital you do weight you can handle, and don’t break form.

Farmer’s walk: This one is a lot easier to master. Simply pick up two heavy weights, then walk slowly with them in your hands for a minute. Dumbbells or plates work here. Maintain good posture and keep tension on your shoulders. A real trap-buster, and it will really help your grip strength, too.

Nothing beats the old-fashioned dead-hang pull-up.

Nothing beats the old-fashioned dead-hang pull-up.

Pull-ups: The king of back exercises, especially those broader lat muscles. But don’t be fooled, pull-ups and chin-ups are awesome for the entire back/shoulder muscles groups, as well as for your biceps and grip strength. I strongly recommend doing dead-hang pull-ups (no kipping) for optimal strength gains and muscle growth. Grab the bar, and “pack” your shoulders (don’t start from a completely relaxed position); flex your shoulders so they are supporting your weight at the bottom of the lift). Concentrate on pulling your chest toward the bar until your chin clears it, then lower yourself slowly. With this, do as many reps per set as you can.

Rear-delt band pulls: Band pulls? Really? Yes, really. I’ve read some really great stuff from elite lifters who use band pulls to strengthen those small backside shoulder muscles (rear delts, rhomboids), which in turn opens their chest and allows them to get huge gains in exercises like the bench press. Take an elastic band and grab both ends with your hands. Then slowly stretch the band out until your arms are fully extended in full-wingspan mode. Then slowly return to your starting position. Sets of 20 to 25 reps are good on this one.

Flexed-arm hangs: A good finishing exercise for the back. Go up to the pull-up bar, then pull yourself up to where your chin clears the bar. Hold that position for, say, 10 seconds. Then slowly lower yourself back down. Repeat. As you get stronger, increase the time.

So my workout looks like this:

Deadlift: sets of 8, 6, 4, 3, 2 (increasing weight)

Clean-and-jerk: 3 sets of 4 reps (increasing weight)

Farmer’s walk: 3 sets, 1 minute per set

Pull-up: 3 sets, as many reps as possible for each set

Rear-delt band pulls: 3 sets of 20

Flexed-arm hang: 3 sets, 10 seconds per set (more time if you’re stronger)

This is causing me to redo some of my other workouts during the week, but I’m good with that. A lot of the things I do are geared toward promoting a stronger posterior chain. This has a couple benefits. First, you can’t be a strong person without a strong back. And second, if you’re an endurance athlete, that entire posterior chain — back, glutes, hams and calves — need to be strong if you’re going to perform well and prevent injuries. Elite distance runners may need to tweak this (for the sake of being fast). But in general, if you’re interested in a high level of general fitness, doing the work on that ole backside should be a priority.

Bob Doucette

Running tips: Getting stronger and faster with weights, speed workouts and hills

runningman

By now, many of you are headlong into fall race training. Some of you may have races coming up in the next couple of weeks. So far be it from me to interrupt your training schedule with more stuff to heap on top of what is probably an already rigorous plan.

But I need to speak a little truth here. And then I want to offer you a solution. I’ll speak in generalities, meaning that the general profile of a runner may not fit you, but that it does often describe the typical long-distance or endurance athlete. So here goes.

A lot of you run big races. Or you want to run big races. Whether it’s 13.1 miles, 26.2, a 50K or something even longer, those are the things that get you amped up to train. Many more of you like to go for shorter distances. Either way, you’re piling up the miles. You’re getting more capable every week. You’re pretty pleased at how long, how far and how fast those legs of yours will take you.

But here’s the truth: If you’re like most runners, you’re not as strong as you think you are. And as much as I hate to break this to ya, you might actually be muscularly weak.

Endurance athletes — recreational or competitive — put up with a lot of pain, soreness and gut-checks along the way to finish line glory. Many are fine with not looking like a body builder, because body builders can’t do what we do.

But while you shouldn’t be expected to do what they do, there is a good chance you need to look at how strong you actually are.

“Strength,” in this case, is measured by how much power your muscles can bring to bear when called upon. Strength builds speed, and we all know that speed is good. It’s more fun to be fast in a race than not.

Strength also make a difference in how well you handle hills. Unless you plan to glide on flat courses for the rest of your life, you’re going to see hills in your future, especially if you want to run on trails.

Lastly, strength gives your muscles the ability to handle the stresses of running and take a little pressure off your joints.

What I want to concentrate on are some exercises you can do to build strength, power and speed, and include different kinds of running workouts that will help you maximize what you build in the weight room and what you do on the course. Many of these exercises are of the single-leg variety (hugely important for runners), and none of them incorporate the use of weight machines. So here goes:

WEIGHTS

Split squats: With one foot forward and one back (like a lunge position), lower yourself down until your back leg knee is barely above the ground. Then rise back up, concentrating on squeezing your quads, hamstrings and glutes. Do 8 reps each leg for 3 sets. If you’re strong enough to do more than bodyweight split squats, hold some dumbbells in your hands as you do the exercise.

Side bench step-ups: Another single-leg exercise, but with a different twist. Find a short bench (maybe an aerobic step bench, or something slightly higher), about 12-18 inches high depending on your strength level. Stand to the side of the bench, and put your foot next to the bench on top. With the other foot, raise your toe off the floor. Then with your foot that’s on the bench, raise up, then slowly back down. The leg that’s on the bench should do all the work, with NO push-off from the other leg (that’s why you’re raising your toes up; to prevent any sort of push-off). This isolates the leg that’s on the bench and makes it do all the work. Do 3 sets of 10 reps each leg. If you’re getting stronger, hold a dumbbell or a plate to your chest. This will really work your quads and glutes. As a bonus, this will help with balance, too.

Side bench step-ups. (T-nation.com photo)

Side bench step-ups. (T-nation.com photo)

Single-leg Romanian deadlifts: Holding a dumbbell or kettlebell, lean forward with the weight in one hand, and have one leg trailing back, lowering yourself slowly, keeping tension on your hamstrings and glutes with your leg that’s planted on the ground, Then raise yourself back up slowly, really pulling with those glutes/hams. Do 3 sets of 10 reps per leg.

If you’re curious what my lower body workout looks like, here it is:

– Single-leg calf raises w/dumbbells, 3×10 (escalating weight)

– Barbell squats. 8, 6, 4 reps (escalating weight)

– Split leg squats, 3×8 (escalating weight)

– Barbell deadlifts, 8, 6, 4, 3, 2 and 1 reps (escalating weight)

– Offset bench step-ups, 3×10 (bodyweight, slow)

– Single-leg Romanian deadlifts with kettlebells, 3×8

– Barbell hip bridges, 3×10

– 5 minutes simulated hill climb on the exercise bike

SPEED WORK

It is crucial that not all of your running workouts be at the same pace. Moving faster builds your muscles in new ways that will make you faster come race time. So incorporate speed training in your weekly plan.

You can get a lot of speed work done at the track.

You can get a lot of speed work done at the track.

Intervals: Head to the track, or find a place where you can run anywhere from 400 to 800 meters without having to stop. Do a one-mile warmup jog, then do your intervals by running 400 meters at your best speed, then walk or jog the next 400 meters. That’s one rep. Shoot for eight reps in your workout. If you’re feeling particularly strong, or want a bigger push, do these in 800-meter intervals. The 800-meter variety is often called Yassos, named after famed running coach Bart Yasso.

Fartleks: The term “fartlek” is Swedish for “speed play.” The idea behind fartleks is to break up a run with bursts of higher speeds, then slowing back down. It’s pretty easy: You’re out on a run, a aquarter mile ahead, you see a bridge. Increase your speed to, say, 5Kpace,then when you get there, slow back down and continue your run.  Find more targets, vary your speeds and distances. Keep it random, fun and challenging.

Tempo runs: These are great. Let’s say you’re doing a 5-mile run. Start out that first mile at an even, mellow pace. Then, for the next 3 miles, speed up to your race pace. Challenge yourself here. Then slow it back down that last mile. It’s that simple.

Alternate these speed workout methods from week to week. It will help!

HILL WORK

I’m amazed at how many runners avoid hills during their training for big races. Sure, some races are flat. Most aren’t. So there’s two ways to tackle hills.

Hill courses: Plan routes for your short- and medium-length runs that have hills. Even include hilly portions on your long runs. If you’re really a planner, check out the elevation profile of your next planned race and mimic that in your training. You owe it to yourself to be prepared.

Find hilly places to run. It's going to make you suffer, but it's going to make you better.

Find hilly places to run. It’s going to make you suffer, but it’s going to make you better.

Hill repeats: Warm up for a mile, then find yourself a good-sized, moderately steep hill. Then run up and down that thing. Start out at 20 minutes and work your way up. I prefer trails, as trail hills are often bigger, longer and steeper than what you get on the road. Either way, find a hill and push yourself. This will make you physically and mentally stronger as well as faster. Do a hill repeat workout once a week.

Incorporate these running workouts into your week, and program in some strength training using the exercises I listed above. There is more that you can do (you shouldn’t ignore your core or your upper body, particularly the back), but I can promise you that if you vary up your training with these things, you’re going to run faster, stronger, and with fewer injuries. Give it a shot!

Bob Doucette