– Derek M. Hansen –
At first glance, it sounds like an unnecessary question: “Are we running enough?” If we looked at the unprecedented growth in obesity in North America, the obvious answer would be “no”. However, taking that angle would be considered “easy pickins” as societal obesity is a much more complex problem of lack of education, depression, over-consumption and lack of movement of any kind. Would more running solve the problem? Possibly, but it would be a tough sell and would have to be bundled with a comprehensive program of lifestyle modification.
The main thrust of this article is to examine current training methodology and determine if athletes, particularly athletes who run in their sport, are running enough in their training to prepare them for both training and competition. And, are these athletes doing the correct type of running to prepare them optimally? In both cases, I would argue that there is not enough attention paid to the optimal prescription of running for modern athletes. This issue also pertains to rehabilitation. In the fields of training and rehabilitation, the proliferation of individual exercises, complex protocols, irrelevant testing batteries and fancy terminology have inundated the professions to the point of suffocating progress. In many ways we have interfered with proven methods of training, preparation and rehabilitation.
Provided below are some of the primary examples of how running, in many different forms, could be better integrated into a training, rehabilitation and injury prevention model to enhance the abilities of all athletes.
Sprinting and Speed Development
I often use the line, “In order to get faster, you need to run fast.” There are very few statements in the field of training that hold more truth. Others may argue that athletes must first get stronger, achieve more endurance or must be towed behind a car to imprint faster running onto their nervous system. While you must have adequate strength and work capacity abilities to improve your speed, your primary improvements are going to come from the high quality sprinting that you undertake in your training program. If someone is towing you faster than you can run, you are both idiots and deserve the road rash on your chest when the experiment goes terribly wrong.
How much high quality sprinting is enough? You will often see high-level sprint coaches document a minimum of 400 to 600m of high quality sprinting per workout, with three training sessions prescribed per week. That is approximately 1200 to 1800m per week. For athletes running 100, 200 and 400m distances in their competitions, with some athletes running multiple races in a day, this type of volume makes sense. For team sport athletes such as football, baseball and soccer players, I would argue that a smaller overall volume is required to address their speed requirements, as well as strengthen their muscles and connective tissue for the demands of numerous repeat accelerations in a game. The total workout volume can be cut in half, yielding workout totals of 200 to 300 meters per session, or a total weekly volume of 400 to 900 meters, depending on how much high intensity running is being undertaken in an athlete’s sport practices.
Consideration of the total sprinting volume in a sport practice is important when calculating overall stress and the requirements for adaptation in an athlete. In cases where sporting practices and competitions yield a significant volume of acceleration and fast running, sprint-training volumes can be reduced and a greater emphasis can be placed on other elements such as maximal strength or recovery and regeneration. However, some sport practices may involve a good deal of standing around and rehearsal at sub-maximal speeds. In these cases, sprint volumes in training must be increased significantly to compensate for the lack of quality running taking place. Assuming that simply playing your sport will satisfy your sprint training requirements is naïve and may result in a de-training effect and diminished speed abilities. Additionally, inadequate high intensity sprinting work in training can lead to a higher probability of injury once you are actually required to run fast in a competition.
Work Capacity and Muscular Endurance
For sports that involve a significant amount of running, high to moderate volumes of low intensity running can satisfy the general endurance requirements. It is very common for athletes to undertake other forms of cardiovascular exercise – using machines such as a stationary bicycle or elliptical trainer – in an effort to replace running. The common reason for replacing running workouts with these alternative methods is to reduce the impact stress on the lower body. While this may be a legitimate excuse in some instances, nothing replaces the actual act of running.
People do not consider running a complex training activity. In many ways, it is considered one of the lowest forms of exercise. However, the specific act of running prepares the muscles in a way that is only specific to running. The ground contact phase engages a wide range of muscles eccentrically, while the push-off phase requires a powerful concentric effort on the part of numerous large muscle groups. All of this occurs in a cyclical manner that turns muscles on and off in a fraction of a second over hundreds upon hundreds of repetitions. In the game of soccer, athletes will typically run a distance of 10 kilometers at varying speeds. Athletes that cannot handle this volume of running – with all of the stops, starts, direction changes and skill-specific footwork – will not be able to perform at a high level over the duration of their competition and may be at greater risk of injury.
Running provides special endurance training for the muscles involved in locomotion for most sports. Swimming, riding a stationary bike or using an elliptical trainer cannot provide the same level of specific muscular endurance. While these forms of endurance training can provide general improvements in fitness and conditioning, they are lacking the biomechanical specificity provided by running and, hence, are incomplete for preparing athletes for the large majority of sports. Running must be part of the preparation. It would be like a boxer relying on rowing or exhaustive push-ups for his upper body endurance for competition, without incorporating actual punching skills and drills in his training program. There would be limited transfer and the results could be disastrous.
A quick look at a MET (Metabolic Equivalent Task) table will show you that running is easily one of the most effective ways to train the aerobic energy system. While the intensity of exercise will always have a significant bearing on the impact of the exercise, the list below provides a relative sense of the demands of various activities.
Measurement in MET’s Per Hour
2-3 Slow walking, Playing musical instrument, Slow Dancing, Bowling, Fishing
4-5 Brisk walking , Climbing stairs , Moderate cycling, Slow swimming
6-8 Rowing, canoeing, kayaking vigorously, Dancing vigorously
7-12 Singles tennis, squash, racquetball
8 Jogging (1 mile every 12 min), Skiing downhill or cross-country
10 Running 6 mph (10-minute mile)
13.5 Running 8 mph (7.5-minute mile)
16 Running 10 mph (6-minute mile)
If you are pressed for time and want to maximize your time spent exercising, running will be your best bet. I know a high-level swim coach who uses running as a staple for building aerobic capacity with his athletes. It is a good way for him to improve aerobic systems of the athletes without having to pay for more pool time and potentially wear out their shoulder joints. This is a perfect example where running has provided additional value to a sport that doesn’t even involve running. Yet, there are still many cases where coaches are not fully including running in their aerobic training – and these are sports where running is the primary means of locomotion.
Although there have been many books written on preventing and treating running injuries, an appropriate amount of running can help to minimize the risk of injury. For athletes that are required to run at high velocities, a minimum amount of high-speed running must be consistently maintained throughout the year. High velocity sprinting places a significant amount of stress on the lower extremities, particularly the hip flexors, quadriceps and the hamstrings. Sprinting also involves a high level of precise, inter- and intra-muscular coordination at extremely high velocities. Individual muscle groups must contract concentrically, eccentrically and isometrically at different stages of the stride cycle in mere hundredths of a second, transitioning from handling excessive loads to being unloaded. If an athlete’s body is not put through this combination of stress and coordination on a regular basis in the appropriate amounts, it can increase the probability of muscle strain when the athlete is required to move at high velocities.
This phenomenon is common in recreational sports where old buddies get together for a game of touch football. Because most, if not all, of these participants have not maintained their sprint capabilities through regular high-quality training sessions, they are not prepared for high-speed running. When the first long pass goes up and the designated receiver tries to break into open space and make the catch, it is not uncommon for the play to be ended with the receiver clutching his hamstring. In many ways it becomes a “use-it or lose-it” proposition. If you haven’t been using it, you will suffer the consequences.
At higher levels of performance, we sometimes see baseball players in season – with a rigorous game schedule and little time for training – have periodic problems with muscle strains in the lower extremities. Casual observation reveals that the game can be quite explosive – with hitting, throwing and base-running occurring at high velocities – but also very sedentary with lots of sitting in the dugout and lots of standing around in the outfield. This mixture of inactivity and extremely high velocity bursts can spell trouble if the athlete has not maintained a baseline volume of acceleration and sprinting in their training. The games alone do not provide enough opportunities for high-quality running to maintain an athlete’s minimum requirement of sprinting volume and keep injuries at bay.
Low-intensity running over higher volumes also helps to maintain overall fitness and circulatory abilities that keep an athlete more resistant to injury. Good aerobic conditioning not only allows athletes to warm-up more easily, but also keeps their bodies warmer throughout a long game or training session, even if there are lengthy periods of inactivity between plays.
Unfortunately, running is often regarded as one of the last activities to be undertaken as part of a rehabilitation regime for most injuries. I have athletes that tell me that their physical therapists won’t allow them to run until week 12 or week 16, but they can do lots of fancy exercises with balls, bands and balance boards. My common reply is, “Then how are we going to get you ready to play? Your sport does require you to run all of the time, doesn’t it?”
Like weightlifting, running can be introduced at lower levels of complexity and intensity presenting little to no risk to a rehabilitating athlete. In the case of athletes undergoing ACL rehabilitation, low intensity marching knee-lift drills can be introduced a few weeks after surgery, encouraging athletes to support their bodyweight during the stance phase, as well as introducing more knee flexion work during the knee-lift phase. This work can gradually progress to skipping drills and low-amplitude jogging or shuffling (sometimes referred to as “ankling”). While many ACL rehabilitation programs do not have athletes running until the 12th week following surgery, it is possible to insert elements of running very early on in the process. These early interventions not only allow athletes to run at an earlier stage in the rehabilitation process, but also give them a larger foundation of preparatory work that makes them stronger and more durable at later stages of their recovery.
In the case of rehabilitating a hamstring after a first- or second-degree strain, running is probably the most important rehabilitation tool to apply after the first 48-72 hours following the injury. Because the vast majority of hamstring strains occur during running, it is imperative that the running motion be incorporated into the rehabilitation process. As described previously, running is a complex task of recruitment and relaxation at high velocities. Only running drills and actual running can load the recovering tissues in a way that will duplicate this sequence and prepare them for the rigors of sprinting. Intensity can be managed by limiting the speed of acceleration and the distance covered over each sprint repetition. Starting with low speed accelerations over 10 meters for five to ten repetitions per set is common. Each day of rehabilitation can include slightly higher velocities, longer distances and greater overall volume. Depending on the severity of the strain, athletes can build themselves back up to full speed running in anywhere from five to fifteen days.
We are living in a time when technology is king and finding new ways of doing things takes precedence over tried and true methods. Unfortunately, running is not innovative, trendy or sexy, and the human race has been doing it for thousands upon thousands of years. However, it is important to point out that we cannot outrun evolution and arbitrarily decide which “flavor of the month” exercises are best for enhancing performance or preventing injury. I constantly see and hear so-called “experts” describing new methods for running faster, including new weightlifting exercises, new diets, new contraptions, new running techniques and greater core strengthening. My advice is to just go out and run. Learn the proper technique, follow the proper progressions, use appropriate volumes, give yourself adequate recovery and maintain your abilities through regular, consistent training sessions. And, support your running with common sense use of weights, plyometrics, warm-ups, nutrition, stretching and general conditioning. Unfortunately, there may not be an iPhone App for you to download and follow, but common sense, evolution and history can guide you much better in the long run.