Thursday, April 30, 2015

Does Running Form Matter?

Last year's NJM - courtesy Christine McDevitt
Hey all you Regular Guy runners out there: Have you ever really given serious thought about your running form?

I volunteered at the New Jersey Marathon this past weekend, and stayed a few hours after my shift to cheer on the runners. Two minor digressions:
  • This was my first time volunteering for a race, and it was a great experience. If you have the opportunity, do it.
  • If you go to cheer at a race, cheer everyone -- and be loud! Your friend or loved one isn't the only person who needs encouragement. It really helps -- trust me.
One thing I noticed while I was watching and shouting and clapping is that there's so much variety in people's running forms -- stride length, foot strike, arm swing, posture, etc.

But that's only part of the story. As the race wore on, and the slower runners came through, I started seeing more and more awkward form. Yes, there were some quick runners with strange strides. And yes, there were some five-hour marathoners who looked picture-perfect. But an aggregate pattern was definitely evident.

In the Regular Guy spirit, I've long held that you should run the way that feels natural and that works for you. But now I'm re-thinking that.

I should acknowledge up front that correlation is not the same as causality. More to the point, which is the cause and which is the effect? Does poor form cause you to run slower? Or was the awkwardness a result of their slowness?

My guess: It's the former.

So What Is Good Running Form?
You could fill a whole section at the library with articles and even books about running form. One of the most popular fitness books of the last decade, Born to Run, ultimately hinges on it. There are plenty of disagreements on the finer points, but all of the coaches, authors and experts agree on one basic idea: Your form should propel you forward as efficiently as possible. And when it doesn't:
  • You tire more quickly, which limits the amount of cardiovascular gains you'll make.
  • You may not be able to reach your ultimate goals.
  • You put yourself at increased risk for injury.
A few caveats here: 1) I'm not a running coach, and I'm basing these thoughts on my reading and on what works for me. I can't guarantee anything. 2) Every human body is different, and even if we all strive for "perfect" running form, there will be differences. 3) Better running form is not going to lop 30 minutes off your marathon time -- at least, not by itself.

One morning this week, I was able to slip out the door before the dog had gotten up, so it was a good run to focus on form. And here are the things that I was paying attention to. It's worth noting that a lot of these concepts are interrelated -- for example, cadence, stride length and foot strike.

Running Cadence: Running coaches say you should shoot for approximately 180 steps per minute. There are some variables at play here, not the least of which is your fitness level. I included a few pickups in my run, and I found myself increasing cadence to achieve speed. 

Stride Length: As I mentioned, stride length is related to cadence. The longer your stride, the fewer steps per minute you'll be able to take. There are two issues here: It's less efficient, and it makes you more susceptible to getting hurt. It's less efficient because you're not engaging as many muscles as fully as possible -- in other words, you're asking your calves to do more of the work. And you're more prone to injury because your weight is not directly over your feet. Gravity is pulling away from your support structure, and that jars your joints.

Overstriding, heel-striking
Foot strike: There is an absolute avalanche of reading material about foot strike -- about what part of your foot you land on when you run. Some people insist on a midfoot strike. Some people say a heel strike is OK. I think the debate actually puts the cart before the horse. If you're not overstriding and keeping your weight above your feet, there's a good chance you'll land on your midfoot naturally. Or, conversely, if you find yourself heel-striking, there's a good shot you're overstriding, too. So on my run, I paid attention to my landing not as a goal, but as a means to ensuring that I was keeping my weight above my feet.

Launch: Tangentially related to stride length and foot strike is the launch. I think many beginning runners don't realize that this is where you do most of your work. If your weight is over your feet, you're in the best position to use the most muscles -- and the biggest ones, your glutes. And if you're looking to increase speed, this is where it's at. This is logic: The more you're able to propel yourself with each step, the farther each one will carry you in the same amount of time. When I was out on my run, I focused first on my landing, but then on rolling through the step strong, engaging my glutes, quads and even abdominal muscles.

Posture: This is also tangentially related to foot strike, in that you want to keep all of your weight above your feet -- not just your legs. The big key here is that you should not slouch or bend at the waist. I always think of two concepts: Run through your gut, and imagine someone is pulling your head toward the sky with a string attached at the top

That's some poor arm swing, Andrew! Courtesy Mark Stalford
Arm swing: So many runners swing their arms across their bodies when they're running. Is this a dealbeaker? No. but you are twisting your body a bit instead of moving it forward. I like to pretend I'm pulling myself along with guide ropes -- shoulders relaxed and swinging my arms forward and back. And relax your hands, too.

Breathing: Some coaches advocate a set breathing pattern that goes along with your footfalls. Many also suggest breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. But for my money, running guru Hal Higdon has the best advice: However you can get the most air -- and thus the most oxygen into your bloodstream -- is what you should do.

The Bottom Line Is Propulsion
Ultimately, what all of this really comes down to is moving yourself forward in the most efficient way you can. 

What I've found is that when my systems are working well, I feel like I'm really moving. And when things aren't working properly, I feel like something is literally holding me back as if it were a stiff headwind. When that latter issue comes up, I check in with myself. Am I overstriding and feeling it in my heels? How is my launch? What am I doing with my arms? Usually, the answer is somewhere in there.

What about you? How much thought have you given to your form? Does it feel good when you get out there on the roads and trails, or do you beat yourself up? What tips do you rely on to keep yourself moving forward and away from injury? Comment below, on Facebook or on Twitter!

Friday, April 17, 2015

Regular Guy Reads of the Week: April 17th

It's been a wacky week. Sorry this is a little late and a little thin. I definitely put a lot of time into the You Gotta Put In the Work post, so I haven't had as much time to compile links. But here's what I have.

Losing Fat Without Macro Counting - 10 Simple Strategies: Some interesting and, in my opinion, scientifically sound advice that cuts against a lot of current thinking.

Stop Thinking Personal Training Is Black and White: This is directed at professionals, but there's some really good advice along the lines of "do what works for you." For example, don't worry so much about free weights vs. machines.

From 1879 to Today, Nothing Has Changed: Ignore all the trends in health, diet and fitness. The challenge today is the same as a century and a half ago: getting people motivated.

The Real Worldwide Epidemic Is Not Obesity: This one is a little dense, but there's a really good message here: The goal shouldn't be solely to lose fat -- though that's a good goal -- but to gain muscle.

61 Ways to Lose Weight: You probably do a lot of these already, but there are some good little hacks in here.

The Right Dose of Exercise for a Longer Life: A good recap of the new studies debunking the BS "too much exercise will kill you" studies.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

You Gotta Put in the Work

The best thing for you is not to exercise too much and not to worry about your weight.

Perfect, right? The best route on your fitness journey, according to SCIENCE, is basically not to worry about your health. Break out the Doritos and fire up the Netflix!

OK, you probably realize I'm not buying this one. And as you also probably realize, I'm not the only one. So why did these two notions recently spread like wildfire over the Internet? If you've been following the blog, you know that I'm a big believer in doing what works for you, and a big critic of beast-mode fitspo. So I apologize if this comes off a bit harsh, but the reason these things went viral: Some people are simply looking for the easy path. And what easier path than not worrying about your health at all?

You Had to Know There'd Be a Catch
Here's the problem with limiting your exercise and not worrying about your diet: Shockingly, it's not actually good for you.

Alex Hutchinson at Runners World has been beating the exercise drum for some time now, and he's more or less dispensed with the O'Keefe worldview of limited activity. And a new study -- with a much broader set of experimental data -- strongly supports what we knew all along: It's pretty dang difficult to exercise too much. 661,000 people studied, and the lowest mortality risk was among those who do three to five times the exercise the government recommends.

Meanwhile, critics who point to the so-called "obesity paradox" -- data that suggests that overweight and mildly obese people live longer -- are cherry-picking their facts. As it turns out, COPD patients -- particularly those with peripheral artery disease -- tend to have below-average BMIs and waist circumferences. COPD is the number-four killer disease in the U.S., and about 10 percent of people worldwide suffer from it. In other words, there's strong scientific evidence that it isn't so much that you live longer if you're fat, but that you die early and skinny if you smoke. Moreover, scientists are learning that BMI is a crude measure. People who are "big-boned" aren't the ones at risk -- people who carry a lot of actual fat are.

Of course, none of this is proof-positive of anything, but for my money, when science leans in the direction of common sense, you should give it a lot of credence.

There's No Sense Complaining
So let's agree that there's only one way to improve your health and fitness, and it's really simple: Eat less and move more. Note that I didn't say "easy." I said "simple." Which brings us to the title of this post: You Gotta Put in the Work.

I hope you've been checking out FftRG's weekly Regular Guy Reads of the Week feature. Lots of good advice there from people who know much more than I do. On the same Friday I cited the articles about too much exercise and not worrying about your weight, I also linked to this gem: "So You Say You Hate Exercise." Personal running coach Debbie Woodruff  makes a point that's so simple in its wisdom that it's pretty much irrefutable: We do lots of things we don't like, because they allow us to live our lives. You go to work. You do the dishes. You balance the checkbook. You scoop the kitty litter. You clean the gutters. None of it is any fun, but you keep doing it. Why should taking care of yourself be any different? All those "have to's" aren't worth anything if you're not doing your best to live an active, healthy, happy life.

Some Other Shortcuts, Besides Not Trying at All

OK, so if you've stayed with me this far, you're on board with the idea that you gotta do the work. Yes, there are short-term strategies that can give you a jump-start, but committing to a healthy life over the long term means adopting a diet and exercise plan you can sustain forever.

Replacement Shakes: For a short-term fix or a jump-start, I have no problem with Isagenix or Shakeology or the like. I know people who've had success with them. But you can't drink two shakes a day instead of breakfast and lunch for the rest of your life. You'll go nuts. And the real benefit to these things is convenience, not superior nutrition. Once you're done with the shakes, you still have to craft a diet that hits your calorie allowances and macros. So why not just start with that in the first place?

Metabolism Boosters: As I wrote a few months ago, these are total BS. Green coffee extract, raspberry ketones and the like will leave you lighter in the wallet, but that's it. There are variances in basal metabolic rates from person to person, but they really don't have anything to do with your weight, and pills won't do anything to change them.

Low-Carb Diets: There's actually some reasonable science behind Atkins and the like, but many of its advocates make ridiculous claims about inflammation and insulin production. Your body uses more calories to burn protein than it does to burn carbs -- you can use up to 20 percent of a high-protein food's calories just by digesting it. And protein tends to leave you feeling fuller, so you may eat less of it. The problem: Your energy levels will be in the toilet, and you'll be so sick of steak and chicken that you'll be willing to kill for a single slice of pizza. Again, it works in the short term, but it's really difficult to sustain. You also run the risk of kidney damage by eating too much protein. (Before I scare you, I'm not talking about 100 or even 150 grams a day, but like 300 or 400.)

"Fat-Blasting" Workouts: Anytime I see an article promoting a workout or move that promises to "blast" or "fry" fat, I ignore it. Chances are, there's nothing inherently wrong with any of these, as long as they don't increase your risk of injury. But this one's actually pretty simple -- it's just math. Burning calories -- and thus fat -- is solely a function of how high your heart rate gets, and how long it stays there. If you're interested, you can delve into the details of aerobic vs. anaerobic exercise, but the science behind this is 100 percent clear: Cardio burns fat. It's simply a question of how much.

Cleanses: Evolution gave you a liver and kidneys for a reason. They already do a damn good job filtering stuff out for you. You are not going to lose any additional fat by drinking lemon water or eating cabbage soup for a week. You may lose weight by virtue of calorie restriction, but not because those things have any magic properties.

What Does It Mean to Put in the Work?
I know a number of Regular Guys who've made the commitment to getting healthier after years of self-neglect. Heck, I'm one of them. And that got me thinking about another Regular Guy Read of the Week titled "At Races, How Slow Is Too Slow." A few weeks ago, a story went viral after a runner was allegedly pulled from the course in mile one of a 20-mile race. (The facts are actually in dispute.)

There are two basic camps here:
  • One side says that runners come in all shapes, sizes and ability levels, and if the ultimate goal is to encourage people to be more active, we shouldn't be threatening to "sweep" them when they fall behind a certain threshold.
  • The other side suggests that at some point, you're not really running anymore, and the expense and burden shouldn't be on race organizers to accommodate what they see as self-indulgent non-athletes who didn't train.
I'll be honest: I think there's validity to both sides of this argument. We should be doing anything we can to encourage people to be more active. And by "we," I mean the running and fitness communities. On the other hand, someone who's averaging 16-minute miles is moving at less than 4 miles per hour. I have friends who would disagree, but to my mind, that's walking. 

But I think that seeing the validity of both sides of this argument is actually exactly what it means to put in the work. No Regular Guy is going to win the Boston Marathon, the Mr. Universe championship or Olympic gold in the 100-meter dash. So what you're really measuring yourself against is you. Putting in the work means trying to improve you.

And that's not really a difficult concept. It's a bunch of little things, like declining that second piece of cake, going a couple more minutes on the treadmill or bike, adding five more pounds to the bar before you lift, or incorporating progressions (such as staggered-hands pushups) into your workout. In other words, it's not settling for good enough. Or, to bring this one back home, it's about not taking the easy path.

Remember, it's not just about you. It's about all the people around you who care about you and depend on you. You're worth the effort!

Sound Off!
Have you been on the diet and exercise roller coaster before? What are you doing now to make a long-term commitment to your health? Let's hear it! Comment below, on Facebook or on Twitter!

Friday, April 10, 2015

Regular Guy Reads of the Week: April 10th

It's been a wacky week for me, but I've definitely stumbled onto more good reads than I did last week. As always, be in touch if you have anything you'd like me to add to my pile.

Four Ways to Break Out of a Weight-Loss Rut: Some unusual ideas here for people who've hit a plateau.

Why Healthy Habits Don't Work: This is a pretty unusual take, but I like it. The idea is that you have to find a way to make fitness and health mesh with your values. Trying to adopt a habit you don't actually believe in doesn't work.

How to Be a Beast on the Uphills: Too many runners fear hills. But IMO, they're what separates the serious runners from the recreational people.

Strength Training for the Cardio Fan: You know you need to do some strength training to achieve your goals, but maybe you don't know where to start, or are intimidated. Here are some ideas for you.

An Open Letter of Apology to All My Clients: If you've followed my blog for a while, you know I'm a big Mike Samuels fan. I LOVE what he did here. Guilt, shame and picayune rule-following is not the answer.

Fear Not, Marathoners: Too Much Running Won't Kill You: Another study, with actual new experimental data, takes down the O'Keefe "too much exercise" baloney. At some point, O'Keefe will be in the same dustbin as the anti-vaxxer study.

A Marital Spat Over Running Shoes: This is actually a story about how attention to form helped one runner not just on the road, but in real life. Great read.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Regular Guy Reads of the Week: April 3rd

It's been a thin week for good Regular Guy reads -- that's why I'm always looking for suggestions! Here's the best of what I've seen.

Avoiding Cardio Could Be Holding You Back: Cardio gets a bad rap, but here's a common-sense, scientifically backed perspective. A little technical, but a good read.

What Type of Cardio Is Best for Fat Loss? You might expect a lot of badmouthing of cardio from a site called Muscle and Strength, but this is a refreshing piece. It outlines the differences between steady-state and high-intensity cardio.

How to Stay Motivated When You're in a Running Rut: I like that this writer eschews "fitspo" and acknowledges that sometimes you feel like it simply sucks.

Should I See a Doctor About My Running Injury: We've all mucked through little dings and aches, but here's some good advice on when you need to take it more seriously. And no, there's no "listen to your body" advice in there.

What the Heck Is the Perfect Workout: I like some of this and disagree with some of this. The "Avoiding Cardio..." article above actually debunks some of it.

Four Ways to Build Mental Toughness: This is nuts-and-bolts stuff, not general encouragement. There have been a lot of studies showing that mental toughness is essential to maximizing athletic performance.

5-Minute High-Intensity Circuit Training for Runners: I do just about all of this stuff. But it's going to take more than 5 minutes.