The Anatomy of a Runner: Thermoregulation

The body prefers a relatively stable temperature of 97.7– 99.5°F (36.5–37.5°C). Whether shivering from the cold or sweating from the heat, the body is attempting to maintain the core temperature close to 98.6° Fahrenheit. This process is called thermoregulation.

Early studies concluded we have a thermal circuit-breaker (also known as the Central Governor) that trips when we get too hot, and those studies limited sports research for some time. Subsequent studies, however, have shown that trained athletes are able to push their core temperatures higher than sedentary people. In fact, that thermal circuit-breaker seems to be triggered more by a perception of heat rather than the temperature itself, and our perceptions of heat are blunted by the mere presence of competition.

The first event of the 2016 UCI Road World Championships in Qatar was the women’s team time trial, a mid-afternoon 40-kilometer cycling race in temperatures averaging 98.4°Fahrenheit (36.9 C). Three cyclists from one of the teams swallowed ingestible core-temperature-sensing thermometer pills with their breakfast as part of a study to investigate the effects of hot-weather, competitive exercise. The researchers found that the three women had peak temperatures during the race ranging from 105.4° to 106.7°F (40.8 to 41.5 C).

It had long been accepted that if you ask an athlete to exercise for as long as they can in a hot environment, they’d quit when their core temperature reached somewhere around 104°F (40 degrees Celsius). These three cyclists all reached higher temperatures than the perceived threshold, yet they hadn’t collapsed. They won a medal.

CAPO VELO, Cycling Collective

Exercise produces heat that the body must eliminate so that it can maintain a stable core temperature and prevent over-heating. Exercising in hot conditions is even more challenging since the primary source of eliminating heat through sweating is less effective in hot and humid environments. If the body sweats so much that it depletes itself of fluids and salts, there’s nothing left to sustain the evaporation process. And when the process of regulating ceases, body temperature soars causing heat illnesses or even heatstroke.

Studies find that after a period of heat training/acclimatization, however, our bodies are able to produce more sweat and earlier, overall core temperature and blood lactate is reduced, blood plasma volume increases creating better cardiovascular fitness, skeletal muscle force increases, and we get better while training in a wider range of temperatures including cold weather. In fact, purposely training in the heat may be more beneficial than altitude training since we adapt more quickly to heat stress than to hypoxia (oxygen deprivation).

While many of these benefits can be obtained by simply living in the heat, exercising in heat speeds up the process. And there’s ways to mimic heat training, in case your next race is in a hotter climate than where you live.

This post discusses key points regarding the athlete’s response to heat; hydration, dehydration and sweat; heat versus altitude acclimatization; pre-cooling methodologies; and thermotolerance training techniques and guidelines.

Major Players

Brain: an almond-sized portion of the brain (the hypothalamus) is hyper-sensitive to changes in core temperature. If the core increases by even one degree, it reacts by opening blood vessels near the skin and routing blood to the periphery where it can cool. In an environment where the air, humidity, wind and sun feels warmer than 99.5°, the brain will limit contraction of the muscles as a way of telling the body to stop generating so much heat. This forces the athlete to slow down before becoming too hot.

Skin: As warm blood reaches the skin, pores expand and you begin to perspire. The sweat evaporates and cools the blood directly underneath. If the air is warmer than your core temperature, sweat is actually wasted and your condition worsens since the sweat fails to cool but contributes to dehydration instead. Pouring cold water onto the skin will help, but only temporarily.

Heart: When blood is over 98.6°, and more blood is being pumped near the skin for cooling, the heart is working harder, beating faster. Perceived effort will increase and recovery will be longer.

Of Special Note: Data from a multidecade study of 2,300 Finnish men found that those who hit the sauna four or more times a week were only a third as likely to develop dementia or Alzheimer’s compared with those who took just one sauna a week.

In a 2017 study from Qatar, participants showed a 17 percent boost in muscle strength after 11 days of sitting in a heat chamber at roughly 120 degrees for an hour at a time. The technique might be particularly relevant for injured athletes or those recovering from surgery as a way to maintain their muscles when they can’t exercise. (Alex Hutchinson, OutsideOnline).

Dehydration and Sweat

While fluid plays a role in heat, it is actually more minimal than we may realize. When athletes are allowed to pace themselves in trials where they are limited to small volumes of fluid or do not drink at all, they reach the same core temperature as when fluids are consumed, but they take longer to finish. It’s not necessarily the fluid ingested that keeps us cool, but the metabolic rate, or how hard we are exercising that affects core temperature. The guiding principle here is to always drink to thirst.

Sweat rate also has nothing to do with the rate we burn fat or calories. An individual’s perspiration rate is mostly dependent on genetic make-up, training, and how the body responds to heat stress.

Some people lose more fluids than others, and men perspire more than women. Testosterone can enhance the sweating response, as will anti-depressant, anti-anxiety, allergy, decongestants, and weight loss medications. Caffeine has a similar effect.

Urine color is determined to be a simple way to assess hydration. Observe urine over the course of a day and notice changes in flow and color. Volume and frequency should be consistent and the color should be lighter, or close to clear, toward the end of the day.

Why It Hurts

Core Temperature = Heat Production vs Heat Loss

Heat is produced when muscles contract and is directly proportional to how fast you are running. Run two times faster, twice as much heat is produced. Consequently, it’s the shorter, more intense races that produce higher core temperatures.

Heat loss depends on evaporation, convection and radiation with the environment being the crucial factor:

– high humidity prevents evaporation,

– high air temperature prevents both evaporation and convection from cooling the body.

Runners learn to push through the pain, but to successfully push through the pain means we must also understand the warning signs that would spell disaster in any given situation.

If our perceptions of heat are blunted by the mere presence of competition among other things, overheating could become the unintended outcome. Know the symptoms of overheating: headache, dizziness, disorientation, nausea.

The Gender Gap

In 2011, VF Corporation, the parent company of Smartwool and The North Face, commissioned a 1,200-person study examining how women and men respond to exercise in hot and cold temperatures.

Their findings show that women run warmer than they perceive. In winter, women’s coldest zones are the backs of the hands, the glutes, outer arms, and kneecaps. Women’s upper backs, calves, collarbones, and pelvis emit more heat during stop-and-go cold-climate activities, such as skiing. During hot-weather exercise, women’s legs are markedly cooler than their upper bodies, while men are more evenly balanced. Women’s feet are always colder than men’s, regardless of the outside temperature.

Acclimatization and Thermotolerance

Thermotolerance is the end result of a successful program of heat acclimatization, where an athlete trains with the specific purpose of making the body functional in a warmer climate to which the athlete is accustomed. (Encylcopedia.com)

Acclimatization methods consist of two types: heat and altitude.

The body undergoes a natural acclimatization to warmer temperatures or higher altitudes, known as passive acclimatization. It is possible to speed up this process through a gradual buildup in training volume, known as active acclimization. While both heat and altitude alone are stresses to the body that will contribute to the acclimatization process, heat or altitude without exercise will not be as effective.

Altitude Acclimatization develops the ability of the athlete to better utilize oxygen, which makes them more effective at sea level competition. At higher altitudes (≥8,000 ft / 2,500 m), the body compensates for the decrease in available oxygen by increasing its production of red blood cells, which transport oxygen through the body. Altitude training will increase oxygen capacity by between 2% and 3% in a period of about three months. Although this benefit will remain for several weeks in an ever-decreasing amount, it will be completely lost within three months of returning to lower altitude.

Note: Altitude training is broken further into three types: “live high/train high,” where the athlete both lives and trains at altitude; “live high/train low,” a regime where the athlete lives at altitude but trains at sea level; and sea-level training, where the reduced oxygen environment of higher altitudes may be replicated through an artificially configured house or training “tent.” The extensive scientific research regarding altitude training confirms that all three methods will enhance sea level performance.

In the Heat Acclimatized athlete, cardiac function improves resulting in increased plasma blood volume accompanied by a 15-25% decrease in heart rate. This means there’s more water in the blood stream that can be used by the sweat glands to produce more sweat. Thinner blood means it can also transfer heat more effectively to the skin. (Note: the systems of the body adapt to heat exposure at varying rates.)

Heat acclimatization also reduces muscle glycogen utilization and post-exercise muscle lactate concentration. Chris Minson, a professor of human physiology at the University of Oregon who studies heat acclimation responses in athletes, has also found that changes to the heart’s left ventricle specifically helps to increase oxygen delivery to the muscles.

Hot and dry environments are different from hot and humid environments (desert vs jungle) – sweat rates being higher in humid environments (the rate of sweating influences thermoregulation). Acclimation is also dependent on the volume of exercise, intensity, and how long the core temperature remains elevated.

In a nutshell, heat acclimatization causes the body to shed fluids sooner by sweating sooner, lowering the core temperature, and making the athlete more comfortable – perception of effort being key to exercising longer (a decrease in ‘perceived exertion’ occurs during the first five days of exercise-heat exposure). An added benefit is that many of these adaptations will be useful even in cool weather training.

The human body is very adaptable to heat, and to corresponding humidity, with the major benefits achieved within 10 to 14 days of beginning a heat training program; most athletes will reach an acclimatization of approximately 75% (defined as an ability to perform to 75% of their top level) within five days. If the athlete is not exposed to warm weather conditions on a regular basis, however, the body will require another acclimatization period. On the bright side, re-acclimatization occurs more rapidly than the initial acclimatization when re-exposed to heat (Weller et al., 2007).

The chart below compares the benefits achieved during heat training as compared to passive acclimatization (no exercise) and exercising in cool conditions.

The Central Governor Effect (and sometimes lack thereof)

In a 2012 study, the negative effects of cycling in 89-degree heat were partly erased when the thermometer in the room was rigged to read 79°F. In other studies, athletes react to hot conditions when their skin temperature is warmer to the feel even though their core temperatures were actually lower. There’s also research that suggests our perception of effort is lower in competition, partly because our attention is focused on the competitors rather than our own pain.

Exercise physiologist, Jo Corbett, and a team at the University of Portsmouth put cyclists through a series of 20k time trials in cool and hot conditions, with and without competition. The cyclists hit higher temperatures during the competition than when they were soloing in the heat, although their ‘perceived’ measurements were the same. ”Thermal sensation” (how hot they felt) was the same, as was “thermal comfort” (how pleasant or unpleasant the heat felt). Racing against a competitor created a disconnect between how hot they were and how hot they felt even though they cycled faster and generated more power during the head-to-head competition in hot conditions.

When athletes in one study were equipped with a small electric heat pad tucked in the pocket of their shirt, they gave up 9 percent sooner even though none of the physiological measurements – blood lactate, core temperature, skin temperature, heart rate, stroke volume, cardiac output, oxygen uptake, ventilation – were different. They simply quit because they felt hot.

This doesn’t change the fact that our bodies undergo significant added stress while exercising in the heat, but it may be useful to know that a great deal of the pain is purely psychological.

The Pre-Cooling Option

Numerous studies have shown that pre-cooling before prolonged exercise in hot temperatures may help sustain intensity and speed, however, definitive conclusions on its effectiveness have not yet been established.

Methods of pre-cooling include whole-body cold water immersion (17-30°C for 30 minutes); cold air exposure; cooling garments; cryotherapy; and internal cooling methods, such as cold beverages, ice slurries, and ice bars.

Some athletes follow the low-tech protocol of simply applying ice packs – to the back of the neck, chest, underarms or between the thighs – with preference to areas with the highest blood flow. Because thermoregulating the brain is essential (and ‘perception’ is everything), ice on the neck significantly relieves perceived heat stress. One study also found a 20% increase in cycling power during an intermittent sprint when ice was placed between the thighs.

Nike sent ice vests for pre-cooling to select olympic athletes competing in Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008. (One of the athletes, runner Meb Keflezighi, won the silver medal at Athens). Here Rafael Nadal is wearing the Nike cooling vest during a practice at Flushing Meadows. Courtesy: rafaelnadalfans.com

Athletes sometimes report feeling heavy or sluggish following whole-body cold water immersion. An alternative is to expose just part of the body to cold water by soaking garments in cold water, or submerging specific active or inactive body parts directly in cold water (such as the hands or legs).

Practicality is a logical consideration when choosing a pre-cooling protocol.

Pre-cooling:

Hampers the performance of sprinters

Better for sports with intermittent sprints

Best for endurance events, triathlons, cycling races or marathons

* Pre-cooling has also been shown to improve performance in lower ambient temperatures.

Pre-Cooling tips:

  • Make a reduction in skin temperature your major goal;
  • Aim to pre-cool for 8-30 minutes;
  • Practice your chosen pre-cooling technique before using it on race day.

Heat Training Protocols

Heat training approaches can be as simple as running outside when it’s hot; using the thermostat to create a hot environment indoors; wearing extra clothing that is certain to make you run hot; or spend time in a sauna, hot bath or hot tub post-workout.

Because heat is an added stress, however, any protocol that separates the stress of heat from the workout allows the quality of the workout to be preserved. When training in heat, training volume and/or intensity would be reduced initially as the body adapts.

A 2015 study shows that using a six-day, 104°F post-run hot tub protocol was effective at triggering heat adaptation, including a 4.9% improvement in 5k time in 91° heat. The advantage of using a sauna or hot tub is that it prolongs the amount of time the core temperature remains elevated (going for a run in normal conditions elevates the core temperature, and the hot tub prolongs this period of time).

Here’s a graph that shows core temperature (38.0 C is 100.4 F; 40 C is 104 F) at the end of a 40-minute hot run before and after the hot tub protocol:

Heat Training Guidelines

The most successful heat training programs will follow a progression:

  • Training volume and training intensity are reduced initially.
    Both volume and intensity are increased as the athlete begins to adapt.
    Exercise extreme care to ensure proper hydration is maintained at all times – before, during and after training sessions. When dehydration or salt deficits exist, cardiovascular and thermoregulatory responses may be negatively affected, and the theoretical risk of heat illness increases.
    Increase the sodium in your diet for the first few days. Sodium helps the body retain necessary fluid for temperature regulation.
    Take breaks to allow the body time to cool down.

Ultra running coach Jason Koop says, “at a certain level, you have to compromise training quality for the heat acclimation. Acclimating to the heat is additional stress [on the body], just like more miles or intervals, so you can’t simply pile it on. Something on the training side has to give.”

If you want to incorporate heat into your workouts, here’s how Koop recommends doing it safely.

1. First, pick a protocol (sauna, hot bath, or exercising in the heat) that minimizes the impact on training, both physically and logistically.

2. Koop most commonly recommends that his athletes use a dry sauna immediately after running. “It doesn’t impact training nearly as much as running in the heat, and the effects are similarly positive,” he says. He often tells his athletes to not drink water during these sessions to enhance the effect. Koop recommends spending 20-to-30-minutes in the sauna, depending on tolerance.

3. Koop says that when he has his athletes exercise in the heat—either naturally or by wearing extra clothing to simulate the experience—it will be on a long, slow day for 60 to 90 minutes. The time completely depends on the athlete’s tolerance and previous experience. But he stresses to not do this on a recovery day, because heat training is an added stress on the body. Koop recommends drinking 30 to 40 ounces of an electrolyte drink per hour during these sessions And for safety, he advises using low-traffic sidewalks and bike paths—not trails.

4. Despite the benefits of heat training, Koop reminds his athletes that running in the heat is extremely difficult and usually replaces a hard day. “You are substituting one potential gain for another one,” he says. In other words, use it carefully.

Know the risk factors of heat illness:

●Strenuous exercise in high ambient temperature and humidity

●Lack of acclimatization

●Poor physical fitness

●Obesity

●Dehydration

●Acute illness

●External load, including clothing, equipment, and protective gear

This post is not intended nor recommended as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your own physician or other qualified health care professional regarding medical questions, concerns, and before beginning any new training regimen.
References and Additional Reading:
The Effect of Head-to-Head Competition on Behavioural Thermoregulation, Thermophysiological Strain and Performance During Exercise in the Heat; Sports Medicine May 2018
Competitor presence reduces internal attentional focus and improves 16.1km cycling time trial performance. Sports Medicine
The Psychological Side of Heat Exhaustion; OutsideOnline, Alex Hutchinson, Apr 2018
Heat Slows You Down, Even When It’s Not Real. OutsideOnline, Alex Hutchinson Feb 2019
Heat Acclimatization to Improve Athletic Performance in Warm-Hot Environments; Gatorade Sports Science Institute, Michael N. Sawka, Julien D. Périard, Sébastien Racinais Jan 2016
Is Seltzer Water Just as Hydrating as Regular Water? The Food Network
How much am I supposed to sweat during a workout? OutsideOnline, Cassie Shortsleeved Jun 2015
The Central Governor and the Athlete’s Clock: Pacing and performance; The Science of Sport, Mar 2011
7 Shocking Facts About Drinking Water Cold vs Room Temperature; Bustle, Carolyn Steber Feb 2019
The Performance Lab Studying How Women Sweat; OutsideOnline, Kelly Bastone Jan 2019
Dear Sports Scientists: Will drinking fluids keep me cool? The Science of Sport Sep 2010
Thermotolerance induced at a mild temperature of 40 °C alleviates heat shock-induced ER stress and apoptosis in HeLa cells; Science Direct, Jan 2015
A Post-Workout Soak Might Boost Performance; OutsideOnline, Alex Hutchinson Jan 2019
How Elite Athletes Respond to Extreme Heat; OutsideOnline, Alex Hutchinson Dec 2018
Is Sunscreen the New Margarine?
The Benefits of Sweat; Care2.com Jul 2015
Exercise and Thermotolerance; Encyclopedia.com
HEAT ACCLIMATIZATION; Lawrence E. Armstrong, Ph.D. Department of Sport, Leisure, and Exercise Science, University of Connecticut
The Surprising Benefits of Training in the Heat. Is heat better than altitude? The science seems to say so. Meaghen Brown Jul 2016
How Heat Therapy Could Boost Your Performance; OutsideOnline Aug 2018
Does Precooling With Whole-Body Immersion Affect Thermal Sensation or Perceived Exertion? A Critically Appraised Topic; Timothy M. Wohlfert and Kevin C. Miller, School of Rehabilitation and Medical Sciences, Central Michigan University
Pre-cooling for endurance exercise performance in the heat: a systematic review; Paul R Jones, Christian Barton, […], and Stephanie Hemmings
A study done in 2006 found that runners wearing Nike Ice Vests before a cross country race had a lower core temperature after the race (Warming Up With an Ice Vest: Core Body Temperature Before and After Cross-Country Racing, 2006. Ian Hunter, et al.).

Inside The Runner’s Brain

The lull in anatomy ended several months ago. This only means my days have once again been filled with reading – reading books, re-reading books, and weeks of days spent delving into the far reaches of the internet in search of the latest revelations on the runner’s brain.

It would be a fair assumption to think this post will ooze facts about all the positive benefits running gives back to your brain. The benefits are countless and noteworthy, but my curiosity lies more in what the brain contributes to our running, or our capacity to keep running. In other words, has anyone confirmed whether the brain controls or limits endurance?

Early studies concluded it was the heart itself that became fatigued, which resulted in too little blood being supplied to the skeletal muscles and brain. Running all out at our fastest pace for several minutes could make us all support this theory, but the heart does not fatigue. This realization led to the idea of a governor that terminates exercise before maximal blood flow to the heart is achieved and the heart is damaged. The supporting data suggested that a governor somewhere within the body terminates exercise before the heart and skeletal muscles are forced to contract anaerobically (without oxygen). These notions persisted and evolved for a long time.

The central governor theory has ultimately come under attack with compelling arguments. One scientist observed that with the exception of combat activity, sport is perhaps the brain’s biggest challenge, requiring more cognitive skills than is often appreciated.

The ability to plan and execute performance, make corrective adjustments to behaviour (e.g., modify skill execution or pacing strategy), resist temptation, manage emotions, elevate collective obligations above myopic self-interests, and persevere despite disappointment all constitute acts of self-control (or self-regulation) implicated in successful sports performance (Friesen, Devonport, Sellars, & Lane, 2013; Hardy, Jones, & Gould, 1996; Tamminen & Crocker, 2013). This is one of the lines of thinking that gave us a new term, ego depletion, and a string of new theories about the limitations of endurance.

I’ve contemplated abandoning the brain several times. There are other anatomy posts I could churn out in an afternoon, and I’d much rather move on to the creative side of writing. Instead, the typical routine is to do my research in the late afternoon while my husband reads or watches the news. Some days, the world seems to be in total chaotic calamity in the background noise of the news – all the while I needle my way through the theories of endurance.

It was a breakthrough day when I came up with an outline from the 25 pages of research notes I had collected. Then I found a thesis written in 2016 by a Doctor of Philosophy student at the University of Wolverhampton. The author presented research from four studies that examined self-control in sport, and co-authored two additional studies that explored emotion as a factor in the self-regulation of endurance. The best news of this discovery was that it’s written in plain English, and presents the studies and opposing arguments of the studies already in my research notes. Even better, all of the studies’ control subjects were athletes, and in one case they were competitive endurance runners. The bad news of this discovery is that the thesis is 292 pages long. The reading phase begins again.

It’s fairly typical for me to regurgitate my research at the end of the day over a glass of wine with my husband. Sometimes it just helps to talk about it and get it out of my head, but mostly his reactions help me sort through the data. He reminded me one day how few people experience the feeling of pushing their body to the point that the brain would shut them down. And there may be fewer people still that observe this shutdown on a personal level in someone else. It’s a humbling experience on both sides, but as he said, the experience almost always leaves the athlete more confident and empowered.

I presented several questions in a previous post about the heart: Do the muscles fatigue and reduce their output because the body has reached its maximum potential to deliver oxygen? Does the heart force the muscles to reduce output because it senses a lack of blood flow (oxygen) and works to protect itself? Or, does the brain anticipate when the blood and oxygen supply to the heart is about to become inadequate and reduce the recruitment of the muscles causing exercise to diminish or cease (fatigue) before damage is incurred to the heart or skeletal muscles?

Even if we acknowledge the body’s central governor must be found in the brain, and thereby controls the mechanisms that dictate endurance, this simply raises more questions. Stress, will-power, emotion, fatigue, motivation, the placebo effect, and even personality traits originate in the brain and each one contributes to, or limits endurance. . . the brain is still under construction.

A Lull in Anatomy

I had this idea to write a series of posts on the anatomy of a runner. So far, I’ve published several posts – chapters as my husband calls them – on various body parts and their contribution, or hindrance, to our running goals.

I had set parameters for myself from the beginning. First, each post should contain everything there was to know about the function of a particular area: how our bodies work so ingeniously, what can go wrong, why it goes wrong, and the most up-to-date remedies.

My past frustration was that every resource for this information contained one tidbit of information or another, but not everything. You may hit a dozen some odd sources before finding all you need to know about an injury – not to mention that some of these sources propagate the same gobbledygook year after year despite new research or methodologies, which leads me to my second parameter. . . that I must find the latest and most conclusive research, limiting my references to those studies completed within the past 10 years.

Surprisingly, some topics haven’t been studied in the past 10 years, even though previous studies were inconclusive, and some of the new studies raise more questions than answers leaving us nowhere.

The third parameter was that this would not be a conglomeration of anecdotal advice. If there was ever a personal reference, it should only be to offer affirmation of the scientific findings.

With this in mind, I compiled a short list of running-related anatomical topics. There’d be a post on all the obvious players – the legs, feet, lungs, heart, and the list kept growing. Researching one topic yielded fascinating facts on another topic. I’d cut and paste links to these findings into draft documents dozens of times a day. The more I researched, the more fascinated I became.

It’s not easy to read scientific studies though. They have all kinds of words I’ve never heard before. They’re complex, and, at times, boring with all that science mumbo jumbo. It’s a massive effort to sort through the data, understand it, confirm it with other sources, and figure out how to dialogue it into a post that made sense. After the second or third topic, my husband declared we should plan on these posts taking me three weeks to finish. That proclamation has proven true, and has even grown to six or seven weeks in some cases.

Then I understood we’d have to cover some parts of the body before others, otherwise things wouldn’t make sense. So there became an order to the postings, and the research. Shortly after finishing the upper and lower leg, I realized we’d better address pain, for example. The general topic of pain, even excluding chronic pain, became one of the most intense topics to date. After days of editing, my husband carefully suggested the post was long enough that it could become two topics. I had severely broken the word count bank. I took out any reference to perhaps the worst of all running pain, hitting the wall, and made it a separate post. It wasn’t the only time I split one post into two.

The next topic on my list is the brain. I had already gathered enough research to compile a formidable post when Alex Hutchinson announced his new book, Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. I may have been first on the pre-order list, but this great book remains on the table by the sofa still awaiting my full attention. There’s been a lull in my effort.

By all accounts the brain is shaping up to be the most fascinating topic of all the running-related anatomical topics. The past decade has produced “paradigm-altering research” in the world of endurance sports, and what we once viewed as physical barriers is actually limitations created by our brain as much so by our bodies. Pain, muscle, oxygen, heat, thirst, fuel, as Hutchinson describes, involves the delicate interplay of mind and body. As does writing I have learned.

Stay tuned – the brain is under construction.

 

Creating A Full-Year Training Plan

I Resolve: to do my homework, learn a new word every day, lose weight, get more rest, be a better person, exercise. Every year there’s a new list of most popular resolutions, and every year I guess we all wonder how we’ll keep these resolutions.

Last year I vowed I would finally sign up for a yoga class. I talked myself right out of it, bought a book on the subject, and called it a day. No matter how I arranged my schedule, I didn’t seem to have time for yoga. Except that wasn’t true. I could have, and should have taken that class on a cross training day.

Last year was also to be the year I would register for the 50-mile segment of the Blue Ridge Breakaway cycling event. This was the first year they cancelled the Blue Ridge Breakaway. My husband and I decided 2017 would be the year I would not run a marathon so I could focus on shorter races. I ran my first 50k Ultra Marathon last year. Resolutions don’t always work out the way we plan.

This marks my fourth year-long training plan experiment. There have been mixed results.

It was just over 4 years ago that I discovered sports periodization: a system of training – actually, the planning of training – that encompasses weeks, months, or even years; a system that has ultimately been adopted by nearly every professional sport, and has even been applied to the athlete’s diet.

The idea is to divide the year into phases where each phase emphasizes a different training goal. For example, the year may include a period of time for building a strong base, improving speed and strength, flexibility, and time dedicated to active rest/recovery.

I’m especially dedicated to the endurance phase. I simply adore running to the point just shy of exhaustion day in and day out. And the more you run, the more your body allows you to run. It works out well that way.

One year I held onto a peak weekly mileage of 55-65 miles for 8 weeks. I did well in the half marathon before the peak, and flopped in the two marathons I ran after the peak. Last year I held a peak weekly mileage of 35-45 miles for most of the year. I did not do well in a spring half marathon, but then I survived a 50k. In retrospect it’s always easy to see the error of my ways, but I love these year-long experiments – not to say they aren’t exceedingly frustrating from time to time.

I can see that my best years have been when I’ve incorporated more variety into my training, which ultimately leads back to those phases, or periodization. The good thing about breaking the year into phases is that one goal (yoga for example) doesn’t have to become overwhelming. It becomes part of one phase; if you like it, keep doing it.

Resolution:

1. a firm decision to do or not to do something, or. . .

2. the action of solving a problem.

The first question to answer is what activities will best solve our problem and/or allow us to meet the goal of each phase of training? I’ve decided there’s more than one answer.

A handful of periodized programs can be found across the web, and it turns out they pretty well match a runner’s periodized schedule: Endurance/Base-Building, Strength, Speed, (perhaps a build-up for a key race), Rest and Recovery.

One of these programs is from OutsideOnline; a five-part (five-month) plan called “The Shape of Your Life.” Each month the training focuses on a different goal: 1) endurance, 2) strength, 3) flexibility, 4) speed and power, 5) balance and agility. Month six focuses on active rest and recovery – then you start the process again.

The value of changing the focus of each phase is that you can also change the sport, if that’s something that interests you more than doing the same sport all year. And even if you prefer to train all year in your dominant sport, cross-training can balance your program and help achieve the goal of each phase.

For example, running, swimming, rowing, basketball, cycling, dancing, and even yard work will build endurance. Each of these activities can also be used to build speed and strength when performed fast, or devote a phase to a different anaerobic sport, such as racquetball, tennis, sprinting, or weightlifting.

Cross-Train with the Right Sport

Runners: Cycling maintains leg strength and cardio fitness while giving you a break from impact on your joints.

Cyclists: Running and rowing develop strength in the torso, quads, and glutes.

Climbers: Calisthenics use body-weight resistance to build strength without adding bulk.

Swimmers: Rowing builds key strength in the shoulders, arms, legs, and torso.

Kayakers: Swimming works the arms, shoulders, and torso, improving power and range of motion.

(Bones weaken if you do only low-impact activities. Strengthen your skeleton by mixing in high-impact workouts like running, jumping rope, or playing ball sports.)

A Full-Year Periodized Schedule

Endurance

Endurance, or aerobic, activities increase breathing and heart rate, which keeps your heart, lungs, and circulatory system healthy, improves overall fitness, and delays or prevents diseases (including various cancers, diabetes & dementia). If you’re always running out of energy after about an hour, you may not have created a strong foundation or you’ve skimped on the base-building phase.

”Technically, endurance is a combination of efficiency (lean body mass), physiology (a dense network of mitochondria that produces energy in the muscles), genes (a high percentage of slow-twitch muscle fibers), plumbing (an efficient heart capable of moving more blood per pump), and strength in those areas that help transfer force between the upper and lower body (the hips, lower back, abdominal, and other core muscles).” Outside Online

Duration: some programs specify a base building phase of 4-8 weeks, while others suggest as long as 6 months. Arthur Lydiard, Olympic and international running coach (also known as the “Father of Jogging”), has been quoted as saying to base build “As long a time as possible.”

For Runners: base building includes miles, and lots of them. Determine your peak mileage, how much time you want to devote to this phase, then choose a plan that matches the two safely. One approach is to follow your favorite marathon training program, eliminating or reducing the speed sessions, for as many weeks as desired (stop after 4 – 8 weeks, stop when you reach the program’s peak mileage, extend this phase to six months by duplicating weeks in the middle of the program, or by ramping up mileage more slowly).

Remember, this is the time for aerobic development. If you intend to increase your mileage to a new peak, you may not want to combine the stress of speed work concurrently.

Non-runners: swim laps, walk, cycle, play basketball, skate, ski, climb stairs/hills, dancing, or rowing. Even yard work, such as raking leaves, digging, mowing, chopping firewood, etc can be aerobic. Work up to a minimum of 150 minutes (2-1/2 hours) each week using any combination of activities that keeps you engaged. Start slow.

Strength

A low-volume, moderate to high-intensity weight training program, when added to an endurance training program significantly improves upper and lower body strength as well as running economy. Adding speed work will improve running strength, but this is different from maintaining a strong core. Incorporating a strengthening program to the endurance phase establishes a good base/foundation from which to build on during the strength phase.

Studies have shown that a strength training program added to the endurance runners’ training results in little or no impact on V02max, blood lactate accumulation, or body composition, yet improves speed.

Of two runners that are equal except for muscular strength, the stronger runner will be faster over any distance. Lowering the maximum strength required for each stride translates into improved efficiency and consequently greater endurance.

When muscles don’t need to work as hard, they don’t require as much oxygen or circulating blood, and will not put as much demand on the heart, resulting in a lower heart rate. Greater strength equals greater endurance.

A good weight training/strengthening program (upper and lower body specific exercises) should be a part of every training phase to one degree or another (running may be reduced during this phase while strengthening exercises are increased). Build a strong base during endurance and increase the effort during the Strength phase. Strength and Speed phases may overlap in some programs.

DB09BBBB-4E35-4DB9-A568-D2C495FC6F8C
A sample strengthening session. Read more….

How to Build Strength to Improve Running Efficiency

10 Essential Strength Exercises for Runners

Speed

Anaerobic exercise (exercise performed without oxygen!) is defined as short duration high intensity exercise lasting anywhere from merely seconds to around two minutes. After two minutes, the body’s aerobic system kicks in. Anaerobic exercise is typically intense enough to cause lactate to form, and is used by athletes to promote strength, speed and power and by body builders to build muscle mass.

To run fast you need strong muscles. Speed training builds stronger muscles, including the heart, improves running efficiency and form, creates mental toughness, and ultimately improves the runner’s pace. RunnersWorld says, “Research suggests that 30-second to five-minute bursts of intense exercise interspersed with rest periods will yield unique physiological changes—from faster fat loss and better blood sugar control to improved blood vessel function—that slow runs cannot deliver as efficiently.”

Duration: 4-10 weeks is the general guideline.

Runners: There’s lots of variations of speed training: intervals of various distances at the track, hill training, strides, tempo runs, fartlek runs, 3/1 runs (speed up the pace for the last quarter distance of the total run), etc. Reduce overall mileage during this phase to compensate for the added stress of speed.

Follow the speed workouts included in a shorter distance training program, such as for a 10k, 5k or shorter race, or simply incorporate weekly bouts of speed training (1-3x). This is also a good time to test yourself with shorter races or time trials.

Non Runners: Keep in mind that almost any sport can be performed in an anaerobic state (i.e., running/cycling/walking/swimming fast). Other traditional anaerobic sports include: Racquetball, Hiking (especially with a weighted pack and uphill), tennis, sprinting, weightlifting, possibly baseball/softball, ice hockey, and soccer.

8 Common Running Workouts, Explained (With Examples) 

Four Fast Speed Workouts for Any Runner 

Running 101: Basic Speed Workouts For Runners

Avoiding the “Black Hole” of Training

For runners, the next phase may be a second endurance phase that would re-build peak mileage in preparation for a marathon race (including a taper). Other athletes may focus on balance and agility, or a flexibility phase to improve range of motion, which just might incorporate that yoga class.

The last, or first phase depending how you look at it, should always be a period of active rest (3-6 weeks – more or less as needed).

There’s two types of active rest:

1. a significant reduction of training – for example, cut your training by a third or half – called a step-back week (like taking a deep breath before charging forward again), and

2. just as almost any exercise can become anaerobic, almost any exercise can be used for active rest. With a duration of about 20 minutes, walk or run at a very slow pace, swim, cycle or complete a series of easy stretches. Easy movements (that don’t stress the system) aid recovery, in most cases, more so than being sedentary.

I’ve been working on my full-year plan all week. The post-marathon rest and recovery period from last year inadvertently lasted all the way through the holidays leaving me with a longer than usual base building phase this year – probably six months. This should give me the advantage of warmer weather, however, for the strength & speed phase when I can cycle outside and every ride will become incredibly anaerobic tackling those hills I haven’t seen since last summer. The last endurance phase will build-up mileage for another 50k race this fall, and maybe this will also be the year for yoga.

Other approaches to Sports Periodization:

The Greatest Fitness Tips. Ever.

Here’s how to reach peak shape for any sport with one 12-week program.

FIRST MONTH: Complete a full-body weight-lifting circuit twice weekly. Do your cardio workouts on three other days, going long once. Each week, increase the duration of the long day’s workout by 10 percent. During the fourth week, cut the workout load by 50 percent.

SECOND MONTH: Follow the first month’s plan, but cut back to lifting once a week and add another day of cardio. During the eighth week, which is for recovery, cut everything in half.

THIRD MONTH: Stop lifting and use that day for cross-training. Ramp up speed by completing one cardio day each week with intervals at your intended race pace. Your long cardio day remains the same for the first two weeks, and for weeks 11 and 12 you cut its duration in half. During week 12, taper by doing only 50 percent of week 11’s work.


Here’s a simple way to periodize your training: Alternate three-week phases in which you perform three sets of 8-12 repetitions in the first phase and four sets of 4-6 repetitions in the second phase. Adjust your weights accordingly so you’ll use lighter weights for three weeks and then heavier weights for the next three weeks. This approach will help you increase strength, raise your metabolism, and improve muscular endurance. — Craig Friedman, Performance Specialist, Athletes’ Performance


Simply alternating cardio and strength days, while important, is not enough. As a diagram, periodization might look something like those blocky steps and valleys you see on preset treadmill programs—go hard, ease off; go hardest, ease off; go hard; ease off. The popular training programs developed by Joe Friel—author of The Mountain Biker’s Training Bible and The Triathlete’s Training Bible—present a monthly workout schedule in which the third week is the hardest of the four. The key is to create a program with multiple layers of periodization, taking the staggered approach within each workout, each week, each month, and ultimately through the duration of your program. “Periodization is the most likely way to achieve athletic success,” says Friel.

Building Strong

Strong means different things to different athletes. The strongest among us are usually described in terms of their knockout rate, explosive dead-lift strength, or that rare football player that is said to “produce the most locomotive force of any human on the planet” – the label given Houston Texans’ defensive end Jadeveon Clowney in 2014. But strong, no matter the sport, seems to have at least one thing in common. Hard work.

Weight lifters hold a unique perspective on the pursuit of strong. The strength coaches of some of the most seriously strong of these athletes discussed what they believe separates the strong from the weak (10 Things the Strongest Athletes in the Weight Room Have in Common). They say the attributes of the strongest athletes include perseverance, consistency, having a plan, and working toward a goal. Very few athletes – even the ones who are gifted – are particularly strong from the get-go. They work at it for a long time.

I can vouch that it is possible to be a fairly good runner for some period of time with barely an ounce of true strength. A couple of years had passed after my first marathon before I discovered the plank or felt any need whatsoever to do one. Eventally I suffered through an endless list of injuries.

Writing a series on the anatomy of a runner has taught me that one of the major causes of injuries is muscle imbalance. Muscle balance is considered to be the harmonious action where muscles that surround a joint work together with normal opposing force to keep the bones involved with that joint centered. An imbalance occurs when an opposing muscle is incapable of contributing its share of the load, which may cause joint inflammation, tissue damage, pain, or abnormal muscle movement. Strength training is a simple remedy for the imbalances caused by the repetitiveness of our sport. Perhaps our individual rate of injury coincides with the time it takes our muscles to fall out of balance, and you need not be a runner or even an athlete to suffer these ill effects.

The strengthening program I’ve used for several years comes from Coach Jay Johnson. His Core H and Better Myrtl are a series of mostly 1-minute exercises specifically for runners that definitely create a burn.

Maybe they look easy enough. No kidding, they’re tough. The thing is that at the height of marathon training I don’t always have the energy (or the commitment) for tough. This year I decided there must be a fix for those few weeks of the most intense running of the year that would maintain strength without zapping me mentally or physically – a minimalist approach of sorts. Turns out I wasn’t the only one thinking this way.

Strength coaches tell us that when we don’t hold onto the strength we’ve built in the off-season, it takes a long time to build back up to where we were. “In-season training doesn’t need to be hard and heavy—just enough to maintain and pick up where you left off” – Tony Bonvechio, strength coach and co-founder of The Strength House.

Brad Stulberg writes Outside’s Science of Performance column (and author of the new book Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success). Last month he wrote “The Minimalist’s Strength Workout: Five exercises that will guarantee you have the strength to adventure all weekend, well into your eighties.”

The article came out at the peak of my last marathon training program, and I immediately added the minimalist’s five to my weekly routine. I saved them for late afternoon 2-3 times each week rather than following a run, and it made all the difference in the world.

Having fully recovered from my latest marathon, I’ve reverted back to the Core H and a Better Myrtl program (Coach Johnson has since updated the Better Myrtl with a  Strength & Mobility version) although the minimalist exercises still have a spot in my routine. I’ve come to appreciate their simplicity and their added-value, and finally I’ve been able to pick up where I left off in the last off-season.

Following is a brief guide to each of the five exercises, but it’s worth reading Stulberg’s full article here.

B9D9FFEC-B49B-4B6F-9ABB-AB613F5C58A3
(Erin Wilson)

Grip the bar with your palms facing out and hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Pull yourself up so your chin is above the bar. Hold for one second. Then extend all the way down so your arms are straight and elbows are locked. Throughout the movement, focus on keeping your core taut. You’ll know you’re achieving this because your legs won’t be swinging around. 3 sets x 6 reps.

5CC0ADB8-7049-4581-BB5C-DF1B4BB62E71
(Erin Wilson)

Stand with your legs slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, feet pointing slightly out. Hold a kettlebell by the horns, or a dumbbell with palms facing up, close to your chest. Squat down, keeping your heels on the ground. At the lowest point, your butt should be parallel to or just below your knees. Then push up to a standing positioning, locking your knees at the top. 3 sets x 8 reps.

BF92D806-C464-4101-A2F8-D7B3D786B43C
(Erin Wilson)

Begin with your chest down and palms pressing into the ground, thumbs at or a little outside of your nipples. Press up, locking your elbows at the top. Lower your back all the way down, so your chest hovers just a centimeter or two off the ground. Press up. Repeat. Be sure to tuck in your stomach and keep your core tight throughout the movement so you have minimal arch in your spine. 3 sets x 16 reps.

1922754E-B3FB-43E9-B132-CDE787C97622
(Erin Wilson)

Stand straight, toes pointing forward, feet about six inches apart. If you’re using dumbbells to increase the challenge, hold an equal weight in each hand at your sides, arms straight. Step forward with either foot so your knee is above your ankle. Push through the heel of the forward leg to return to an upright standing positioning. Repeat, this time stepping down with the opposite leg. 3 sets x 8 reps.

53B88899-CFE8-4D79-943E-75713172E5F4
(Erin Wilson)

Stand on one leg, keeping your knee slightly bent. If you’re using dumbbells, hold them on the same side as the leg you’re standing on. Bend forward at the hip, extending your free leg straight behind you for balance. Continue lowering until your chest is parallel with the ground, dumbbell almost touching the floor. Then press back to an upright position. 3 sets x 8 reps.

 

Additional Reading:

Champions Are Made In The Off-Season

General Strength and Mobility Training

Periodization: you can’t train the same way all of the time.

Confessions of the 50k

The 50k: it’s not about the distance, really. It’s how you get there.

My husband says the title of this post should have been, “The 50k, finally.” I admit it has taken me a few years and several false starts to get here. For more than a few years he really thought the race itself would kill me. I really thought the training would kill me.

Hal Higdon’s training programs have always been my go-to marathon plans. His 50k program lasts 26 weeks. Six months. The first 18 weeks follow a typical marathon training plan on steroids with three 20-mile runs and one full marathon (26.2 miles for those non runner readers). Then we get to the really fun training weeks where the long runs are simply described by how many hours one should run in one session. When I trained for the 50k a couple of years ago, it wasn’t that I got injured. I just wore myself out.

Luckily for me I’m retired so that I can run every morning. This is handy when you still want to have a life. I followed a Canadian marathoner last year. She ran before work, sometimes during her lunch break, after dinner wearing a headlamp, and followed a long-run route that crossed a frozen lake. We’ve all been there. You just do what you’ve got to do. Even in retirement our alarm routinely rings at 5:30a so I can finish a run before lunch. And if you’re determined to be the best you can be, this doesn’t last for 12, 18, or 26 weeks. If you want to be really good, you follow this schedule to some degree or another all year.

Earlier this year I remembered reading from a fellow runner (Dan’s Marathon) about the ChicagoUltra. The full 31.1-mile course is on the Chicago Lakefront path – imagine flat, scenic, flat, a slight breeze, flat . . . sheer bliss. Even better when I realized this could be an anniversary race of sorts. I ran my first marathon in Chicago in 2007. How perfect to run my first ultra in Chicago ten years later. . . maybe nothing’s worse than a nostalgic runner.

My husband and I decided on a training plan that wouldn’t kill me and I began training in May. Some number of months later, there was an out-of-state family emergency.

It came on a Wednesday. No problem I thought, and I reworked my schedule to accommodate two days off in the middle of the week. Then the same family emergency came again the next week.

It was at the end of the second week that I told my husband I had really screwed up. I had run 80% of the week’s miles in three days for two weeks in a row: Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with the long run on Saturday both weeks. One week later I ended the Saturday long run with stress fractures in both feet.

In my last post I wrote about stress fractures of the lower leg: “Studies released this year build on a growing body of research that suggests it’s not how much you train in isolation, but how the training load changes (training load errors).”

The strategy for this year will go down as “go for broke.” I went into full recovery mode training thinking there was nothing to lose. I had already been cycling for cross-training, so I ramped up the cycling schedule, added extra long walks as soon as I could walk without it hurting, and spent serious recovery time focused on being off my feet. Four weeks later I was able to restart my training.

I’ve emotionally held my breath for every run. Going back to Hal’s programs, I settled on another one that would pick up where I had left off, and hopefully prepare me for the race without re-injuring my feet. Last Saturday I finished my longest training run, and (as of now) I’m still injury-free.

My dad has once again agreed to babysit the dogs, I’ve paid my money, and I’m finally registered for my first 50k.

My husband used to warn us about getting too excited about a successful meeting with investors years ago in our start-up businesses by saying, “It’s a long way from the cup to the lip.” In other words, lots of things can go wrong in a short space of time.

Today is the first day of a shortened 2-week taper, and although lots of things could go wrong, I’m still on a strategy of go for broke. Race day is Saturday, October 28th. Stay tuned.

Cycling through Summer

There is no crying in baseball. . .” It’s my husband’s favorite response when my life runs amuck, so there was no whining at my house when I came home black, blue and bloody from what started out as a delightful morning bike ride.

Cycling is not my primary sport, although it has been my favorite cross-training for several years. After running two marathons (and remodeling two houses) last year, there has been little time for cross-training of any kind, and this year I vowed to reintroduce cycling to my training regimen. It’s had its ups and downs.

The best part of my re-entry to cycling is location. I can leave my driveway and cycle for just over an hour with relatively few climbs. The downside of my cycling is what I have learned to be toe-overlap; where your toe hits the front tire when turning. It seems this is a common problem for road bikes with racing geometry. Racing bike = racing geometry = short wheelbase.

The online advice is fairly consistent: get used to it. When you go fast, you don’t need to turn the wheel – just lean. But what about when I want to do a u-turn in the middle of the road to head back home?

IMG_3459
My simplest route is an out-and-back: 3 right turns, 3 left turns, 1 u-turn.

Two years ago I traded the standard pedals that came with my new bike for the clipless style pedal. These rocket-science style pedals have special cleats that attach to your cycling specific-shoe soles, which serve to hold your feet in proper position and will not let them go. Of course, I was given instructions at the time: just step down to click into the pedals and twist your feet to the side to exit. It has never been that simple.

Throughout this past winter I left my bike locked into a trainer upstairs in the gym and spent several minutes of every ride clicking in, and twisting out. Surely by the time summer came around it’d be a piece of cake. You would think.

So, in celebration of the 200-year anniversary of the bicycle, I thought I’d share a few of my thoughts on the art of cycling; lessons learned during this blissful sometimes torturous summer of cycling.

Look the Part.

Nothing gives a rookie away faster than a black streak of grease on their calf. And when my chain fell off one day during a poor gear change, I realized it would look even worse should I finish that ride with grease on both calves, both hands, possibly my face, and blood running down one arm. Avoid looking like a rookie at all costs.

Follow the Leader?

Cars fly past at unconscionable speeds. Trucks roar by with all their might threatening to blow you right off the road. An interesting phenomenon seems to happen, however, when these vehicles pass you on your cycling journey.

If a driver is particularly respectful of your space and moves to the outside lane, chances seem good that the next car after will do the same. Likewise, if a car remains in the right lane and passes you with only inches to spare, hold your breath for dear life because there may be a string of these cars yet to come. Once in a great while a driver will see this infraction, think on his own accord, and break rank from the leader to once again make things right. God bless these brave souls. They are a valuable example for all walks of life.

Don’t Stop Pedaling!

I have read that one of the easiest ways to determine the experience level of a cyclist is to see how early they clip out before coming to a stop. A novice rider will clip out as much as a block before a stop sign or red light (that’s me). To look cool, they say, let the bike come to a full stop before clipping out. To look Eurocool, never clip out. Track stands are the only acceptable way to wait at a red light. Maybe next summer.

IMG_3464

IMG_3462
The first bicycle was devised in 1817 with a front wheel capable of being steered, a padded saddle, and armrest. Although pedals were eventually added in the late 1850s, only the front wheel could be pedaled until the chain was invented in 1869.
IMG_3460
The Future. . .  Photo Courtesy “History of the Bicycle: A Timeline” at brown.edu