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10 Percent Undertrained

Posted by Matt Fitzgerald Feb 21, 2008


There is an ancient expression used in endurance sports: "It's better to be 10 percent undertrained than 5 percent overtrained." I've never been too sure what to make of this expression. I mean, isn't it best to be 100 percent perfecly trained? But of late my attitude toward this unattributed piece of wisdom has changed, largely due to the frequency with which I see athletespaticularly American distance runnersperform surprisingly well in early-season tune-up races and other races preceded by relatively moderate training, and perform poorly in peak races preceded by very high training loads.



It happened again at the U.S. National Cross-Country Championships in San Diego, which I had the pleasure of watching live. Dathan Ritzenhein blew away the field, winning by 26 seconds, despite the fact that an IT band injury had forced him to train exclusively on an antigravity treadmill until just 10 days before the event. Ritz's coach, Brad Hudson, told me after the race that he had been unsure whether Ritz should even compete, fearing that the young runner might have his confidence crushed by losing badly. He needn't have worried. Apparently his greater "freshness" more than made up for his limited fitness.



I'm starting to believe that there's no such thing as being 100 percent perfectly trained for a race--or at least that there's no way to know whether you're 100 percent perfectly trained. What the maxim that I cited at the beginning of this post now means to me is simply that one should always train somewhat conservatively in order to minimize the risk of overtraining. It's not that one should try to show up to races undertrained. It's that training is a blind process, in the sense that you cannot discern a clear line marking the threshold between undertrained and overtrained ahead of you. If you try to feel your way right up to this limit in training, you put yourself at great risk of crossing it, and I do believe that every step beyond the limit is equivalent to two steps behind it.



I think I overtrained myself slightly for my last marathon in December. This year I'm going to take a lesson from Dathan Ritzenhein and others and train with a bit more restraint. I still plan to do some workouts that are just as hard as the toughest workouts I did in my recent marathon ramp-up; I just won't do as many of them, and I will train more lightly betwen them as well. It's worth a try.



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The Rust Buster

Posted by Matt Fitzgerald Feb 18, 2008


What's the best way to get your running groove back after a bad week or two, when you miss a bunch of workouts and/or are forced to sharply reduce the length and intensity of your runs due to hectic workdays, a family situation, oras was the case with me a couple of weeks agoa home relocation? I believe the best course of action to take when you decide you're ready and able to resume intensive training is to do one or two or perhaps a few "parachute" workouts followed by a "rust buster" workout. Let me explain.



A parachute workout is a workout that serves to slow the rate of descent of your fitness level, but not necessarily stop it or send it back in the right direction. After you've missed a bunch of training, you don't want to just jump right back in where you left off.  It's better to be patient and first do one or more comfortable runs that are no more than slightly longer and more intense than the runs you've been doing (if any) during your detour from normal training. These workouts will serve to gently refamiliarize your body with the stress of proper training and help you regain your stride rhythm.



A rust buster is a workout that puts a hard stop to your fitness deterioration and turns it back in the right direction by administering a modest dose of very intense running. The great thing about very fast running is that it doesn't take much to have an effect. That's because you're "pushing your limits" almost as soon as you start a 200-meter hill interval or a 45-second fartlek interval, whereas it takes a while to push your limits in a tempo run. A few short intervals at 5K pace or faster are also better tolerated when your fitnes level has slipped than 20 minutes or so of threshold-pace running and are more beneficial in such circumstances.



I believe there's also a psychological benefit to going hard, but not long. When you head outside and burn your lungs and legs with some fast intervals you can almost feel the rust coming off, yet it's over with before you're forced to realize just how much fitness you've lost. If you do a moderately hard workout insteadsomething closer to race paceyou'll have your face rubbed in your inadequacy very quickly.



My recent rust buster was a session of 3 x 800 meters at roughly 3,000-meter race pace with 800m active recoveries between intervals. It hurt just a little and my split times weren't so bad. I was a little sore the next day and a little sluggish the day after that. It's been nine days now since my rust buster and I'm feeling more or less as fit as I was before the moving madness. Long live the rust buster!



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Not everyone agrees about grains.  Some nutrition experts (and would-be experts) believe that grains should be a major part of everyone’s diet.  Others believe that grains should be marginalized in the diet.  Whom should you believe?  Let’s take a look at what science and common sense say about the place of grains in a healthy diet.


The Anti-Grain Arguments


There are two distinct camps that stand against grains: the low-carb advocates and the ancient diet advocates. The Low-carb advocates argue that grains should have a small place in the diet because they are high in carbohydrates, and carbohydrates should be limited in the diet because they cause weight gain, diabetes and other horrors.


The problem with this argument is that there is no solid evidence that a high-carbohydrate diet causes weight gain or metabolic disorders.  In a recent review of the scientific literature, University of Virginia nutritionist Glenn Gaesser, Ph.D., found no association between carbohydrate consumption and overweight or metabolic diseases.  In fact, he found that the balance of research indicated that those who consume high-carbohydrate diets tend to be slimmer than those who eat fewer carbs.


The ancient diet advocates have a more credible argument against grains.  Their position is based on the fact that grains did not become a significant part of the human diet until the agricultural revolution occurred in approximately 10,000 B.C.  Since humans were more or less fully evolved by this time, according to this argument, grains are not ideally suited to the human genotype, which represents an adaptation to the vegetables and other foods that humans ate for tens of thousands of years preceding the incorporation of grains.


The nutritional profile of grains is certainly very different from that of the vegetables, which contain a greater density and variety of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients and a lower density of calories than grains do.  Research has clearly shown that fruits and vegetables are the most indispensable foods in the human diet.  Men and women who eat the most fruits and vegetables have fewer chronic diseases and live longer than others.  By contrast, grains can be completely eliminated from the diet without consequence as long as the level of fruit and vegetable consumption remains high.  No vital nutrient is underrepresented in the diet of those who follow “Neanderthal” or “Paleolithic” diets.


That which is unnecessary is not necessarily harmful, however.  The scientific literature contains no evidence that high levels of grain consumption are harmful.  In fact, studies have found that higher levels of whole grain consumption are associated with lower risk of overweight, heart disease, diabetes, and various types of cancer.  Notice I wrote “whole grains,” though, and not simply “grains”.  I’ll say more about this distinction below.


The bodies of many men and women do not react well to grains.  Some are allergic to the gluten contained in wheat and other grains while others experience sluggishness, slow thinking and other such symptoms due to the high carbohydrate load that comes with grain consumption.  These problems have a genetic basis and provide a solid indication that grains are not the human genome’s preferred source of nourishment.  Life is better for gluten-allergic and carbohydrate-sensitive individuals when they minimize grain consumption.  Everyone else can maintain a fairly high level of grain consumption without consequences as long as the overall diet is balanced and the activity level is high.


What The Establishment Says


Mainstream nutrition experts have long recommended that people eat more grains than any other type of food.  The nutritional establishment is most fully represented in the MyPyramid nutrition guidelines created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which advise men of my age, height, weight, and activity level to consume nine servings of grains per day and only five and a half servings of fruits and vegetables combined.


The problem with these guidelines is that they suggest that high levels of grain consumption are necessary for good health, when they are not.  You can be perfectly healthy with a diet that includes no grains whatsoever.  One must understand, however, that the MyPyramid guidelines are based not only on nutrition science but also on cultural dietary norms.  Grains are the most abundant food in the typical American diet, and most of us would be loathe to eliminate them.


The MyPyramid guidelines also include a recommendation that half of one’s daily servings of grain be whole grains.  If I could, I would tweak this recommendation to read: “Get as many of your grains as possible in the form of whole grains.”  As you know, refined grains such as processed wheat flour have been stripped of most of their fiber and vitamins and minerals, leaving only the calories.  Consequently, replacing most of the refined grains in your diet with whole grains will have a significant, positive long-term impact on your health.


For example, a new study from Penn State University provides new evidence that a diet rich in whole grains may promote weight loss and reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes. Participants in the study were 25 men and 25 women with metabolic syndrome. All 50 subjects were placed on the same weight-loss diet for 12 weeks, except that half of them were counseled to get all of their grains in the form of whole grains. Members of both groups lost weight8 to 11 poundsbut those in the whole grain group lost more abdominal fat. In addition, members of the whole grain group exhibited a 38 percent decrease in C-reactive protein, a marker of whole-body inflammation, which underlies various chronic diseases, whereas C-reactive protein levels remained unchanged in members of the control group.


The straight dope on grains can be summarized as follows: Eat as many or as few grains as you like, as long as your overall diet is well balanced and your body seems to tolerate grains well.  Regardless of how much grain you eat, make sure most of it is whole grain.


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Adapt or Perish

Posted by Matt Fitzgerald Feb 7, 2008

This spring the book I coauthored with Brad Hudson, +Run

Faster from the 5K to the Marathon+, will be published by

Broadway Books. The book shares many of the secrets of Brad's brilliant

"adaptive running" philosophy of training.


I'm living a lesson in adaptive running these days. Last weekend my

wife and I relocated from Northern California to San Diego. It was the

most challenging move of my life, and as a result my training went to

pieces for a while. Then, on my fourth day in San Diego, I began


commuting to an office job for the first time in seven years. My whole

lifestyle has been turned upside down. If I'm going to run any good

races this year, I'm going to have to adapt my training to fit the

constraints of this new lifestyle.


Fortunately, I work in an office full of other endurance athletes.

By my third day on the new job, their passion had fully infected me and

I suddenly found myself highly motivated to get back to serious

training--and with that kind of motivation, solutions are inevitable.




I think I've found the solution to the training challenges imposed

by my new daily schedule. I am fortunate to have access to a

state-of-the-art fitness facility in the building my wife and I now

live in. My plan is to wake up early each weekday morning and do a

quick half-hour workout: 30 minutes of easy running on Tuesdays and

Thursdays, and 10 minutes of warm-up running plus 20 minutes of

functional strength training on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Friday.




On weekday afternoons, I will run from my office. (This practice is

not exactly frowned upon around here.) Most of it will be easy stuff as

well, but I will mix in some threshold runs, hill sprints, and the

occasional longer run. My hardest workouts of the week will occur back

to back on Saturday and Sunday, when I have more time available.

Saturdays I will hit the track and Sundays I will run long.




It remains to be seen whether this system will work for me (I've

never regularly run twice a day before), but I'm hopeful. The education

in adaptive running that I received from working with Brad Hudson has

given me confidence in guiding my training in a creative, responsive

manner--a quality every runner in this lightning-paced modern world can

benefit from. So be sure to check out Run Faster

when it's published this spring!



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Endurance athletes are accustomed to thinking of metabolic stress

(the high rate of energy use associated with endurance exercise) and

exercise fatigue (the involuntary loss of work capacity) as

inextricably linked. In other words, we tend to think of energy

depletion as the cause of declining performance during exhaustive

exercise. However, it is possible to fatigue the muscles without

significant metabolic stress, for example by repeatedly jumping to the

ground off a platform. So, how would local muscle fatigue induced

without metabolic stress affect endurance exercise performance? If

metabolic stress were truly THE cause of exercise fatigue, then it

would have little or no effect.



Muscle fatigue during endurance exercise is typically associated

with an elevated cardiovascular response. The heart rate increases at

any given level of sustained work output. It is commonly assumed that

metabolic stress is the link between muscle fatigue and the elevated

cardiovascular response associated with it. But in light of the fact

that it is possible to induce muscle fatigue without significant

metabolic stress, researchers from Bangor University in Wales recently

investigated the effects of muscle fatigue induced by drop jumps on

cycling performance and heart and breathing rate.



In this study, subjects rode stationary bikes to exhaustion at a

high intensity level. The ride was later repeated after the subjects

completed 100 drop jumps from a height of 18 inches. This resulted in

an average 18% decline in the maximum amount of force they were able to

generate with their quadriceps. Despite the fact that the drop jumps

had cost the subjects little energy, their time to exhaustion following

them was significantly reduced compared to the control trial and their

heart rate and breathing rate were significantly elevated.



So, what caused these effects if the subjects' muscles still had

plenty of energy available even after the drop jumps? The study's

authors concluded, "These effects seem to be mediated by the increased

central motor command and perception of effort required to exercise

with weaker locomotor muscles." In other words, the muscle fatigue

induced by the drop jumps impaired the brain's capacity to drive the

same level of cycling work output compared to the rested state.



So, what does this mean for you? Aside from the obvious

lesson--don't do 100 drop jumps before an endurance workout if you want

to perform at your best in the latter--there's nothing practical to be

gleaned from this particular study. I just find it interesting as

further evidence that the brain is truly the governing organ in

relation to exercise performance.



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