Monday, February 29, 2016

Mechanics, Interval Training, Squats and Rest Days

I try not to brag too much on the blog, so I don't talk too much about specific improvements I'm making. First of all, who besides me really cares? And second of all, what looks like a breakthrough to me is just another day at the office for someone else. Everything is relative.

But I'm going to set that aside for a second. Two years ago, I ran the New Jersey Marathon in 4:18 in difficult conditions. I might have done 10 minutes or so better without the major headwind in the last 6 miles. About two months before that, I ran the E. Murray Todd Half Marathon in 1:56, which is just below a 9-minute pace.

I am running both of those races again this spring, and so far my pace in training runs has been significantly faster -- 8:30/mile or faster on longer runs. And it feels very comfortable. I'm pretty sure I can hold that pace for 13.1, and even if I slow down for 26.2, I'll be well ahead of where I was two years ago.

So what gives? How have I gotten better? 

I can speak only for myself. Others have had success with their own programs, but a few elements have helped me, and I want to share them.

After last year's New Jersey Marathon, where I was a volunteer and a spectator, I wrote about running form. It's not universal, but there's a clear pattern in any race: Faster runners tend to use good mechanics, and the slower the finishing times are, the more likely the runners are to have weird form. I try to focus on a few things:
Weight over my feet!
  • Mid-Foot Strike: I don't believe this is make or break for everyone, but I've found that I'm much better about keeping my weight above my feet if I focus on landing on my mid-foot instead of my heel. Otherwise, I tend to overstride and lose efficiency.
  • Arm Swing: I don't allow my arms to come across my body. A little bit of twist, in conjunction with hip rotation, is OK, but more than that is a waste of energy.
  • Quads and Glutes: I pay attention to which leg muscles are doing the hard work. If I feel like I'm asking too much of my calves. I try to lean forward a bit and "loosen up" to allow my quads and glutes -- the big guns -- to move my legs.

Interval Training 
Two years ago, I was hit-or-miss with interval training. Without making it a regular part of your program, and doing it at least once a week, you're not going to get a lot of benefit from it. This time around, Monday is interval day, period. I don't have a complicated program -- I do three basic lengths, with half those lengths recovery.
  • 400-meter repeats faster than 5k pace, with 200-meter recovery.
  • 800-meter repeats around 5k pace, with 400-meter recovery. This is a bedrock of marathon training.
  • Mile repeats at 10k pace with 800-meter recovery. 
  • One I haven't done in a while: Straights and curves. Go hard on the straights of the track, ease up around the curves. Good for explosive speed, not so much for endurance speed.
Intervals help build cardiovascular strength by forcing a lot of blood through your heart. The real work actually gets done in the recovery phase, when your heart is trying to slow down and the blood is rushing through.

As I mentioned, one of the keys in my running mechanics is trying to be sure the big muscles -- the quads and glutes -- are doing the work. But that's only going to pay off so much if those muscles aren't up to the task.

Enter squats. Not bodyweight squats, or kettlebell squats, or dumbbell squats. Real squats with a barbell. The first time I tried them, over the summer, I found out just how much room I have for improvement. And I've made a point of working them into my marathon training.

The key, I've found, is making sure you're doing them right. Don't let your lower back do the work. Make your quads and glutes push you up. And don't cheat -- get your thighs at least parallel to the ground. If that means less weight, so be it.

Rest Days
When I started out in this training cycle, I adopted Hal Higdon's Intermediate 1 marathon plan. It involves running five days a week, with one day for cross training and one full rest day.

My running partner needs a break, too!
It took me only about four weeks to realize that six days on, one day off doesn't work for me. It simply doesn't give my body the time it needs to recover. And recovery is the key to getting faster or stronger. Exercise tears muscle fibers; they repair themselves at rest. If all you do is tear and never repair, you're going to plateau.

So I've gone to running four days a week, with one day for cross. I'll still get plenty of miles done, and I'll have more time to rest up, heal up and push forward.

But What If You're Not Training for a Marathon?
Most Regular Guys aren't looking to run 26.2 miles, and probably never will. That's not a black mark -- in fact, my fitness regimen was much better rounded before I went into race training. But these tips aren't actually just for runners.

  • Mechanics matter in any exercise. The better your form, the more you benefit and the less likely you are to get hurt.
  • HIIT is a great way to work some strength into an efficient cardio routine.
  • Squats are one of the most effective full-body exercises you can do, no matter your goals.
  • The principles behind rest days apply to any fitness routine.
So if you're a fan of the Regular Guy mantra of Keep It Simple, Stupid, this is as good a road map as any.

What Do You Think?
What are the basic principles that you apply to your exercise regimen? How much attention do you pay to mechanics? How many rest days a week do you take? Let's hear it! Sound off on Facebook, on Twitter or in the comments below.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Dogs Don't Like Interval Training...And Other Oddball Marathon Wisdom

Unless this is your first time reading the blog, you surely know by now that I'm training to run the New Jersey Marathon for a second time. A couple of advantages come along with not being a noob:
  • I've been able to compartmentalize how training fits into my life better. It's still a dominant part of my life, but it's not all consuming.
  • I have a better sense of how I should and shouldn't alter my training plan.
  • I'm simply a better runner than I was two years ago. 
But the best part, for me at least, is all the oddball wisdom I'm acquiring. Silly stuff that I was simply too focused, too dialed in, to notice the first time around. And I want to share some of it with you.

Getting ready for a run
Dogs Don't Like Interval Training
I run with my dog Lily as often as I can. But she's really not welcome on a track or a treadmill, so she'd never done interval training with me -- until recently. There's a loop of streets around my home that I've mapped out to be just a hair under a mile. And I figured out that the midway point is a convenient landmark, a VFW hall. So I can do half-mile or mile repeats, give or take a few yards, and she can come along.

Problem was, she couldn't keep up. She's in great shape and generally has to hold back to stick with me. But doing a full mile at well under an 8-minute pace was tough! The final fast interval, she was dragging. "Come on, Dad, slow down. I'm not gonna make it. Can't we just jog?" Well, she made it. And then proceeded to spend the next three hours in her favorite chair.

Don't Tie Your Shoes While Wearing a Backpack Water Bladder
Maybe it's just the model I have or the way I had the hose configured, but on my most recent long run, I leaned over to re-lace my left shoe, and water started pouring out onto the ground and my sweatshirt. You don't want a cap on those things, because you want it as easy as possible when you're huffing and puffing. But sheesh!

Lesson learned. If I have to do that again, I'll take the backpack off.

I'm Frequently the Fastest One at the Gym
This is kind of fun, in an ego-boosting way. During the cold months, I often have to take my running indoors. It's not just the weather, but a function of my and my family's schedules. Generally when I get on the belt at the gym, there are a handful of other people using treadmills -- some running, some walking. But most people on treadmills fall into two categories:
  • Folks who are just trying to be a little more active.
  • People who focus on strength training and are just working in the cardio they need.
Among dedicated runners, I am decidedly average. I hope to finish in the top half of my age group in my next couple of races (a half-marathon before the full). But it feels pretty good to look like the "real runner" once in a while.

A neighbor and another Loyal Son of Rutgers
You Learn About Strangers' Lives
If you run in your own neighborhood frequently enough, especially at roughly the same time of day every time, you're going to start seeing the patterns in your neighbors' lives. You'll get to know who has to get their kids onto the bus, who's out on the front porch for a morning cigarette, who warms up their car and who just drives off. You will have encyclopedic knowledge of where every dog in your neighborhood lives. You may even catch a glimpse of people's TVs through their front windows. 

I'm not sure what good any of this knowledge does me, but I feel like I know a lot about where I live.

Just some basic race gear
I'm Like a Prop Clown
One of the things people always tell runners who are just starting out is that, unlike just about any other sport or form of exercise, you don't really need any equipment. Yeah, right. On any given run I could have on my person:
  • Backpack water bladder
  • Handtowel for wiping away sweat
  • Gloves
  • Hat or balaclava
  • Armband with phone inside
  • Glucose gel packets
  • Tissues
  • Car key
  • Identification (I carry an expired driver's license.)
And that doesn't even count if I'm with the dog, in which case her leash has a carrier for poop bags.

Maybe I'll Get Serious Next Time
This is just a little bit of the useless knowledge and wisdom I've collected over the past month and change. Of course, you learn some more important lessons about your body, your life and what you're truly capable of, too. We'll get to those another time. 

What silly stuff have you learned while working out? Talk about it in the comments below! 

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Keep It Simple, Stupid

Do you get confused by all the health and nutrition information out there? Who can blame you? It's way too easy to get lost in all the details.

But most Regular Guys should simply stick with good ole-fashioned KISS -- Keep It Simple, Stupid.


Specialized Diets
There's a diet advocating just about everything. Some so-called experts suggest cutting out all simple carbs. Some say go vegetarian. One that's getting a lot of press lately is the High-Fat, Low-Carb diet. How are you supposed to know which ones work and which ones don't?

For starters, if you're not eating food you like, and enough of it to satisfy you, it's not going to work. You might hold out for a week or even a few weeks, but eventually, if you're miserable, you're going to give it up. As you should.

My other rule of thumb: If a diet purports to circumvent the first law of thermodynamics, it's bogus. You can't beat Calories In, Calories Out.

A More Basic Approach
Let's assume you're just looking to eat healthier overall. Maybe you're not one for smoothies, or you can't see how the Paleo diet would work when cavemen died at age 30. The big trick is to cut your calories (while still getting the nutrients you need).

But are you really going to count your calories? Weigh everything on a food scale? When I was first looking to lose some weight and get healthier, I made it much simpler:
  • Don't eat too much.
  • Don't eat a lot of crap.
Add in a little exercise, and it's a recipe for success for most Regular Guys. So how do you cut down your calories without counting? Here are some things that worked for me:
  • Leave 10 percent of whatever you're eating on your plate. Just eyeball it.
  • Make a point of having a salad or a vegetable at dinner every night. Put more of that on your plate and a little less of the other stuff.
  • Cut your burger, sandwich, whatever in half, and eat that. Still hungry? Cut it in half again, and eat that. Many times we eat more than we should because it's literally in our hands.
About a year ago, I spelled out a few of these tricks and added a few others. Check them out here.


What the Heck Should You Do?
Get out on the big, bad Internet, and it won't take you long to find a gazillion different workout plans and even more suggestions for individual exercises. There's cardio vs. strength, compound vs. isolation, weight vs. bodyweight... That doesn't even get into mobility and flexibility, let alone aerobic, threshhold and anaerobic cardio. And you can totally get lost thinking about which of your more than 600 muscles you're targeting with a specific exercise. It's enough to make your head spin -- which is not a good exercise.

Much like with your nutrition, if you want to stick to a workout plan, you need to find the exercises you like doing. Yes, a daily walk is better than nothing. But you do want to be sure to build both aerobic fitness through cardio and strength through resistance training. How much of either depends on your goals. What works for me is close to a 50-50 balance, though I have tipped the scale in favor of running while I build up to the New Jersey Marathon in May.

A More Basic Approach
Really, I think a basic DIY workout program should do two things:
  • Elevate your heart rate for at least 30 minutes at least three times a week -- and preferably more.
  • Target every major muscle area -- core, arms, shoulders, chest, back, glutes and quads, and calves -- at least once a week each.
You can get into more detail as you continue in your fitness journey, but if you're doing those two things, you're already well on your way.

The Fine Print

I've always been very up front on the blog that I am not a pro -- just a guy who loves fitness and wants to foster the conversation. I think my advice is good, but before you make any big changes, be sure you're up to the task -- and if you're not sure, talk to your doctor.

What else should you do? If you learned something here, or even just found an idea you'd like to discuss more, share this article with a friend. The more Regular Guys we have, the better the conversation will be!