The oldest track & field blog on the internet

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Distance Training Theory

Let's Run was once a fantastic resource for serious distance runners. The home page is now a pretty good (if amateurish) place to follow professional and college track, but the "world-famous" message board has basically jumped the shark (and admittedly, yours truly has contributed to its downfall).

It's still worth following, because every now and then you get some really good discussions going on. One concerns the implications of Tim Noakes' Central Governor Theory on training, with the general consensus that theories have no place in developing a training regimen; practical experience, both personal and collective, is the key.

In another thread, on the usefulness (or not) of slower recovery runs, one poster gets to the basic misinterpretation of modern exercise phys that Noakes' theory seeks to address:
I agree with the idea of doing the easy days real EASY. But, me and some friends have been wondering: Why should it be running?

When running slow, my form is nothing at all like when I run fast. According to the principle of specificity, I'm not training the right muscles when I run slow and I'd be just as well suited to ride a bike or something. It will pound my legs less, and the motion is no further away from my racing form as slow running is (although it's different than slow running).

There's got to be something wrong with that logic, so someone point it out....

Perhaps the answer is this: Running is a lot about managing and transferring impact forces. Slow running may not look like fast running but it still could be training your body to deal with impact forces (just in a softer, lighter way) that biking/pool running never can. Even the lighter impact forces from slow running are still training many of the same muscles used when handling the harder impact of fast running. So, even if I'm shuffling, the "right" muscles in my quads are firing and the right muscles are still getting capillarized/mitochondria development etc.
(emphasis added)

The poster's final point shows just how strong a hold the traditional Aerobic/Cardiovascular Theory has on most runners. Even though this guy has hit on the important idea of impact in running, he still wants to attach it to factors associated with VO2max. But Noakes reports that runners who are the best at managing and transferring impact forces have the best economy--that is, their racing performance is far better than predicted by their VO2max.

And, most tellingly, the most efficient runners also tend to do the most milage...and milage is the mantra of Let's Run, which has revolutionized American running as of late. It's not that exercise physiology is useless so much as the scientists are way behind the coaches in terms of observation and knowledge.

From a practical perspective, knowing why high milage makes us better runners doesn't matter. If, however, your brain can't tolerate such ambiguity, you probably realize there's a combination of increased capilarization/mitochondrial action and increased neurological efficiency. I'd be willing to bet there's yet another issue in play that no one ever talks about. To really understand it, we shouldn't look to exercise science but food science.

The best learning tool for that kind of science is a series on the Food Network called Good Eats. It's a cooking show with a plot and recurring characters and...well, you just have to see it. The host, Alton Brown, makes a point of teaching the viewer about the structure of the food to be prepared. When it comes to animal flesh, this includes learning about types and relative amounts of connective tissue that permeate the muscle in question.

Here's the interesting part. In general, the more an animal used the muscle, the more connective tissue that muscle contains. This stuff makes meat tough and rubbery (until, of course, it is cooked using the right technique). From my perspective, it only stands to reason that humans follow the same pattern.

A runner who puts in multitudes of triple-digit weeks would develop a greatly increased amount of connective tissue within the respective leg muscles. Since footstrike involves a great deal of eccentric muscle deformation and reformation, the runner with more collagen, reticulin and elastin in his muscles simply uses less muscular effort to propel himself forward and bounces off the road like a well-inflated ball.

Bullshit? Maybe. But at least I'm thinking.

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