True speed work—training your maximal velocity—belongs in every runner’s training program. (That includes you, marathoners.)
You have to go fast to get faster. That sounds like common sense, but runners still trap themselves into training with threshold runs and lots of mileage. Only the combination of both speed and pace work will guarantee your ability to change gear. As the 2004 Olympic Trials marathon winner Alan Culpepper told Runner’s World, he’s at his marathon-best when he’s in 5K and 10K shape.
And track work can do more than help you change pace: it frees you up to thrive over those final meters of any race. Most runners typically learn this the hard way. After “hitting the wall and running in slow motion on the homestretch” at the end of a race, Jeff Galloway, a member of the 1972 U.S. Olympic team, began to focus on the importance of pace work to boost neuromuscular fitness—something he’d eventually integrate into his coaching practice.
Tim Cary, training manager and coach for Fleet Feet Sports St. Louis, explains to his athletes that varying heart rates through different speeds during workouts is imperative for effective marathon pace work. “You have to hit the heart-rate zones that mimic the spikes you’ll reach during races,” he says. “At the height of Boston training, we do a 16-miler at one minute less than race pace, and then a 16-miler at race pace the following day,” Cary explains. “And we do one track workout a week that targets anywhere from a two-mile to a 10K pace.”
Incorporating six to eight 50- to 80-meter “striders” after three workouts a week is a good starting point, says Cary. Striding, which is running at the maximum relaxed speed, is like pedaling a bike downhill: you’re flying without having to work at it. Fartleks are another old standby for speed play, but taking that to the track pretty much guarantees slowdowns and speedups. Jog the first 100 meters, stride the second 100, sprint the third 100, and walk the last 100. You’ll knock out four paces in one lap, while allowing your body to adapt between all of them.
During marathon season and beyond, it’s easy to get stuck in the pace rut. But your legs can do so much more than race pace, and working more pace variety into your workouts can lead to a faster, more reliable race pace than ever before. Now—go conquer Heartbreak Hill without a huff or a puff.
Though in the past studies have focused quite a bit on elite runners, less research has gone into the health of more casual runners, which is increasingly important as marathon-running has undergone a surge in popularity over the last ten years, at least partially because of more participation from the middle-aged. “Most ‘recreational runners’ train with the goal of safely finishing the marathon and usually train less than their elite competitors,” says Dr. Jodi Zilinksi, the lead investigator of the study.
The researchers also focused on middle aged men because previous studies had found that population has a significantly higher heart attack risk while running a marathon than other populations.
The team followed 45 male recreational runners between the ages of 35 and 65 who were preparing to run the Boston Marathon on a charity team (they didn’t have to qualify to run, though about half had already run three or more marathons). The runners were provided with a training guide, nutrition tips, pacing advice and regular correspondence with coaches and asked to run between 12 and 36 miles per week. About half of the runners also had one risk factor for heart problems, like high cholesterol or blood pressure.
At the end of the 18-week program, runners saw significant changes in the factors for cardiovascular risk. Bad cholesterol fell by 5 percent, total cholesterol by 4 and triglycerides dropped by 15 percent. BMI also dipped slightly, while peak oxygen consumption went up four percent. “Even in a population that was relatively fit at baseline, they gained additional benefits from marathon training,” Zilinksi says.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to prep for one for heart health. It’s likely that running about 25 miles a week—however you do it—might give you the same effect. “Observational data has suggested that moderate, not extreme, amounts of physical exercise promote optimal long-term health,” Zilinksi says.
Decades ago, fitness consisted of two workouts: all-out, all the time; and “LSD”—long, slow distance training. Then fitness went high-tech. Personal-metrics devices from companies like Polar, Garmin, Nike, and others became a billion-dollar industry. Nutrition took wild turns, too. Rocky-style raw-egg shakes were replaced by beet juice smoothies as the (legal) performance-enhancing drug of choice. At last, science-based training had replaced superstition.
But along with the research came the meaningless buzzwords, pseudo-science peddlers, and gimmicks (Shake Weight, anyone?). What's more, every age-grouper suddenly seemed to be an expert in exercise physiology. We've been following this stuff for a long time (37 years, to be exact), and we know how challenging it is to ferret out rules that actually work. Here are the 12 you need to know—and apply—starting now. Welcome to the new rules of fitness.
#1: Stop Overdosing on Vitamins and Supplements
The multivitamin industry is widespread and lucrative—but it’s always been difficult to demonstrate that taking supplements offers a real benefit, says Thomas Sherman, an associate professor of pharmacology and physiology at Georgetown’s Medical Center. For years, multivitamins were considered a low-level insurance policy and performance upgrade. Pop one if you’re worried you’re not getting the right nutrients, and you’ll be healthier—perhaps even stronger and faster. The problem: “There is a lot of theory, but no real data,” Dr. Sherman says. To make matters worse, a string of recent studies suggests that antioxidants get in the way of training adaptations, making them detrimental to performance.
#2: Go the F*ck to Sleep
Somewhere along the way, Americans, with their Puritan work ethic, decided sleep was a bad thing. But if you're an athlete (or, hell, just a human), you need to take sleeping as seriously as you do training and eating. “In the past, many athletes would continue to train well past their body’s physical ability,” says Michael Breus, Ph.D., author of The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan: Lose Weight Through Better Sleep. Less sleep theoretically means more time for PRs, but your body doesn’t see it that way. Performance rests on a good night’s sleep, when your body chemistry shifts, and all kinds of beneficial bodily repair gets underway.
Need proof? In a recent study, 11 Stanford varsity basketball players maintained their sleep schedules for 2 to 4 weeks then slept as much as possible at night for 5 to 7 weeks—aiming for about 10 hours. Researchers measured timed sprints, shooting accuracy, and reaction times after every practice, and levels of daytime sleepiness, and mood throughout. The results: Athletes sprinted faster, shot more accurately, and felt better.
#3: Get Away from Your Chair
You probably go above and beyond the American Heart Association’s guidelines for 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week, but that may not be enough if you’re planted in a seat all day. That’s according to a new study that found an hour of sedentary behavior increased people’s risk of being unable to perform basic functions—like doing household chores—by 46 percent even if they still met the exercise requirements. “We don’t like to be idle,” says Allen Lim, Ph.D., founder of Skratch Labs.
There are ways to lessen the blow, though—without having to actually train more. Research by James Levine, Ph.D., M.D. of the Mayo Clinic found small movements throughout the day—fidgeting, walks, or getting up to go talk to someone instead of hitting send on an email—can work toward counteracting the effects of sitting.
#4: Train Specific to Your Sport
Ten thousand hours of practice may not make you an expert—if you’re training at the wrong intensity. A recent study in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performancethat studied Olympic medal-winning speed skaters and their fitness regimes reached an interesting conclusion: While performance increased throughout the years, there was no increase in training or skating hours. The shift, instead, was to polarize training—training at a very high intensity in this case.
“It’s important to ask yourself what you’re training for,” says Lim. “Speed skaters do short, high-intensity events, so it makes sense that they train specifically for that,” he adds. But if you’re training for a century—and need the fitness to survive six hours in the saddle—then you need to put in that time. After a disappointing showing at the 2010 Tour de France, Bradley Wiggins revamped his training to meet the exact demands of the 2012 Tour. Forgoing many of the early season races, Wiggins spent time on the island Tenerife, preparing for the races's high-altitude summits. And his approach paid off: In 2012, he became the first British cyclist to win the race.
#5: Quit Flexing in the Mirror
The media has driven home the same message for years: If you look good with your shirt off, you’re healthy. The truth? “You can be protected from disease if you exercise—even if you are over eating and gaining weight. Unfit and skinny may be worse than fit and fat,” says Lim.
The new mantra is simple: “Beat yourself up over whether or not you are getting enough daily physical activity not over how you look,” says Lim. “Thin man syndrome”—or being skinny, but lacking muscle and having a high percentage of body fat—can put you at an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, says Stacy Sims, MSc, Ph,D., co-founder of Osmo Nutrition. Carrying a little extra weight—so long as you have the muscle—won’t negatively impact your hormone profile or appetite like being scrawny, she says. Fit versus fat is an ongoing debate—and the jury’s still out on how much fat you can have without being “unhealthy.” The bottom line: Lean muscle is critical for overall health—even if the mirror isn’t reflecting those results yet.
#6: Be a Little Salty
“Sweat sodium is much more variable than we thought with a stronger genetic link than previously known,” says Lim. What he means: When you sweat and lose salt, there’s huge variability between you and the guy next to you. “Someone can lose 200 milligrams (mg) of sodium per liter of sweat an hour and someone else could lose 2,000 mg per liter of sweat per hour,” he says. That’s like having a shoe store and needing to stock size 2 to 200 to accommodate everyone.
The practical application of this is listening to your body—and not assuming that salt is always so bad for you. “Our own mechanism for taste can be affected by how much you salt you lose,” he says. So if you’re athletic, you sweat, and you crave salt, eat salt,” Lim says. The "salt is unhealthy" mantra probably doesn’t apply if you workout frequently.
#7: Stop Playing the Age Card
There’s a common misconception about aging that needs to be laid to rest—and it’s that you get old, and you lose your ability to move. Some research suggeststhat you lose 8 percent of your muscle mass each decade after age 40 and muscle loss increases significantly after age 75. But in a recent University of Pittsburgh study of 40 competitive athletes ages 40 to 81 who worked out four to five days a week, researchers found that athletes in their 70s and 80s had similar thigh muscle mass as those in their 40s. The 40-somethings were also just about as strong as the athletes in their 60s.
Those results make sense when you look at people like Kelly Slater—the 42-year-old pro surfer, the oldest to ever win the Surfing World Championship—or American cyclist Chris Horner, who last fall became the oldest champion of one of cycling's three-week grand tours. Though a calendar would tell you their time has passed, a lifestyle of movement has kept them in the game.
“As you get older, you simply have to take training in a different approach,” says Sims. Plyometric work and pure strength workouts help maintain neuromuscular connections and muscle mass and help generate speed and power.”
#8: Minimize the Junk Miles
Give those long, slow jogs a break. According to a 2008 study in the American Journal of Physiology, one and a half hours a week of high-intensity intervals will improve arterial structure and function just as much as five hours a week of lower-intensity workouts. Even more: When highly trained recreational cyclists reduced their distance from 200km per week, swapping it with 12 x 30s sprints a few times a week and four minute intervals, their performance improved.
With intensity, your body learns to recognize stress, and overcome it without taking hours out of your day. Being more responsive to immediate stress increases your aerobic capacity, decreases bad cholesterol, works to build lean mass—much more than a long, slow fat-burning workout can offer, says Sims.
Another noteworthy study that discovered great variability in results was the A to Z study, which tested people on four different kinds of diets. While statistically, all diets yielded similar weight loss after a year, a closer look at the data reveals incredible variation. “People who were outliers in one group did better on a different kind of a diet,” Lim explains. When it comes to diet performance, it’s—again—so particular. What works for you may not work for everyone else—and vice versa.
#10: Embrace a New Era of Hydration
In 1965, when Gatorade was introduced to the sidelines of a University of Florida football game, a craze was born. “The typical mindset is to replace carbs and electrolytes,” says Sims. “But the bottom line is that anything’s that over a 4 percent carbohydrate solution can dehydrate.” Why? Water goes from a low concentration to a higher concentration, she explains. So drinks that are too sugary can force your body to move water out of your blood and muscles instead of into them, she says.
Hydration should be about just that: Hydration. And as research continues, low-concentration approaches to hydration like Nuun, SOS, and Sims’ own OSMO, have become popular.
#11: Workout Before Breakfast
Breakfast may be the most important meal of the day, but if you’re waking up to a fast sweat, it can wait. In a recent study, two groups performed a high-intensity workout before or after eating the same morning meal. The results? The group that sweat before eating lost more weight, says Lim.
One reason: When you wake up, you have plenty of fuel stored from the night for a short workout—your blood glucose levels are stable and your body is in fasting mode. “Your workout stimulates muscle sensitivity to insulin, so when you eat, most of the food goes back into muscle rather than fat,” Lim says.
#12: Train Your Brain
Ten years ago, hardly anyone trained their minds like they trained their bodies. Now, just about every serious athlete practices visualization or specific relaxation techniques—arousal control or pre-performance routines. “Everyone on the world class stage is closely linked when it comes to physical capabilities and technical proficiencies,” says Michael Gervais, one of the best sports psychologist’s in the business who coaches the likes of Olympian Kerri Walsh and professional daredevil Felix Baumgartner.
That’s why the U.S. Olympic Committee staffs five full-time sports psychologists: In order to win a gold, you must have a mind-body connection that’s strong enough to stop worrying about the crowd, failure—or arguably worse, brimming success. Take Team USA Swimmer Eric Shanteau: After receiving a cancer diagnosis weeks before the Beijing Olympics, he spent days at a facility near his home undergoing brain training simulations for focus. While Shanteau didn't medal at Beijing, he set a personal best in the 200-meter breaststroke and went on to earn a gold medal four years later at the 2012 London Olympics.