Train Your Body

It's no surprise that accomplishing a goal requires commitment and training -- weeks and weeks of continuous and relentless dedication, as well as frequent sacrifices of time and rest.  Training involves getting into the game mentally and gradually increasing the physical workload in an effort to trick the body into doing things it didn't know were possible.  

I've been reflecting on this idea of training the body, a concept which tends to be thought of holistically and according to gestalt principles that the whole (the body) is greater than the sum of its parts.  However, the body is made up of individuals parts and systems, and training involves not only training one's entire body, but also training the parts.  This has been my new mindset during my current training period for my upcoming half marathon.

So let's talk about the systems that come into play when Training the Body...

Train the Legs:  This is probably the most obvious part of the body that runners have to train, and it doesn't just mean putting on the miles.  Leg training involves strength training at strategic points during the season, with careful attention to key muscle groups involved in running.  For me, I have to keep in the mind the importance of targeting the hamstrings just as much as the quadriceps, focusing mainly on closed chain or weight-bearing positions, and paying close attention to my gluts and hip abductors to promote proper alignment of the knees.  My priorities for training my legs are to increase my muscle endurance, but more importantly prevent injury.

Train the Heart and Lungs:  In running and biking there's always a limiting factor; for some people it's their leg muscles that give out, while others feel short of breath before developing soreness.  The only way to improve breathing and cardiovascular fitness is by challenging the heart and lungs.  Long, steady runs are not the ticket here.  It's important to incorporate interval training, cross-training (biking, swimming, etc.), high intensity aerobic bursts (such as in a Boot Camp class) and heart rate zone training to improve fitness and endurance.  Climb stairs, avoid the elevator, run hills, and add variety to workouts.  I'm finally at a point at which I can carry on a conversation during running, and shortness of breath doesn't limit me.

Train the Arms:  Believe it or not, I get sore biceps on long runs.  If you're maintaining a 90 degree angle at the elbow for two hours straight, then you should too.  Lots of runners ignore their arms, but proper upper body alignment can help conserve energy for the rest of the body.  My high school track coach taught me to keep my shoulders in neutral rotation and prevent crossing over in front of the body, and 12 years later I still keep this in mind.  I also remind myself to keep my shoulders down and back, and avoid breathing with accessory neck and shoulder muscles.  Lately I've also been reading about tilting the upper body slightly forward to even out the spine and prevent excessive pressure on the knees.  Learn more about forward running here: Running Technique

Train the Core:  The core -- which includes not only the abdominals but also the spinal extensors, hip flexors, quads and gluts -- is the foundation of running form and injury prevention.  A strong core will support the rest of the body and maintain neutral spinal alignment.  The pelvis will rotate during gait, but should not be tilted excessively forward or back, which is often the result of muscle imbalance.  "The back bone's connected to the... leg bone."  But for real, everything from our lumbar spine, sacrum and pelvis down to our hips, knees and ankles is connected.  Got back pain?  Well you'll probably develop knee pain if you don't get it taken care of.  Or, limping because your hip hurts?  Well now your ankle is going to hurt.  It's all part of the lower extremity kinetic chain, and because I tend to be of the "top-down" school of thought, I believe the chain begins with the core.  Training the core begins in the months before training for a race, and should continue throughout the year.  (Good article about the importance of the hips in the kinetic chain here: It's All in the Hips)

Lower extremity kinetic chain

Train the Knees:  I have struggled on and off with various types of knee pain for about the past 8-10 years.  This has been my limiting factor in several races, and for me, training my knees belongs in a separate category from simply training my leg muscles.  Strategies that I have found to be effective in preventing knee pain (besides the tips listed above) are shortening my stride when discomfort begins to develop, wearing supportive shoes 24/7 leading up to a race (definitely NOT flip flops or ballet flats), foam rolling frequently, maintaining hip flexor length, gaining awareness of my sleep position and lower body alignment, avoiding sitting in a chair for long periods of time, ice massaging as needed after long runs, wearing the right leggings or running pants, gradually increasing my mileage over the course of several weeks, and probably most importantly, allowing my legs to settle into a comfortable and natural gait pattern without forcing anything new or uncomfortable. 

Train your Cadence:  We all have an internal clock that sets our comfortable cadence, or the number of steps we take in a minute.  This is why running or walking at comfortable pace feels so good, but going a little faster can stress us out.  In both running and biking, though, we can train our cadence and become more efficient.  It think it's important to experiment with stride length and cadence, not just overall velocity, to trick the internal clock into being comfortable with various paces.

Train your Digestive System:  Sorry for the overshare, but my stomach has been my limiting factor in many-a-race, not to mention many-a-race-recovery.  I was so dehydrated after Nashville that I was tempted to go to the emergency room for some IV fluids, and the only thing stopping me was my severe stomach cramps preventing me from sitting upright long enough to call a cab.  Figuring out my diet has been a major goal this year.  In addition to dehydration during endurance training, the body also struggles with redistribution of blood flow during athletic events.  During exercise, the body directs circulation to the muscles and brain, and sends less blood to the digestive system.  Therefore, overeating before a race can be disastrous.  However, I also discovered that being hungry, essentially shutting down my digestive system entirely, is also disastrous for post-race recovery.  My solution has been to eat small meals frequently in the days leading up to a race, and also to eat small bites of fuel throughout a long run.  I'm in love with the Clif Shot Bloks and Vanilla Bean Gu.  I  occasionally have slightly more cramping during the end of a long run than if I didn't eat at all, but I have been able to recover much more efficiently.
I plan to follow these suggestions for race week nutrition: What To Eat
And I also really like this article on effective carb loading: Carb Loading the Right Way

Photo from Runners World.  See link above.


Train your Bladder:  Again, maybe an uncomfortable subject, but when I'm sufficiently hydrated then I can't help but wonder How far to the closest porta-potty on the race route?  I refuse to waste valuable race time standing in line for the bathroom, and during most training runs there isn't a bathroom anywhere nearby, so I have learned to tolerate a full bladder for the entire duration of the run.  The bladder wall is muscular and can stretch in response to filling, so yes you can hold it for a couple hours.  This, too, involves training to get used to this feeling and learn that the urge will go away in a few minutes.

Train your Endocrine System:  Most runners probably don't ponder the endocrine system during their 10 milers, but this goes hand in hand with getting comfortable with bladder and GI functioning during intense athletic events.  During stress (aka races or long endurance events), the Fight or Flight cascade kicks in, triggering numerous physiological changes in the body.  Heart rate goes up, blood pressure goes up, the pupils dilate, blood clotting cascades increase, we start sweating, and the digestive system shuts down (as mentioned above).  The body is in survival mode.  This is great for a sprint event, but it is not really a happy or healthy place to be for an extended period of time (i.e. for a half or full marathon).  Relaxation strategies, deep breathing, prolonged stretching, imagery, and feeling in control of the situation can all help calm the body down to balance out the signals from the brain.  Admire the view, think positive thoughts, or listen to music to counterbalance the Fight or Flight reaction.

Finally, Train the Brain:  Runners and endurance athletes are a little nuts.  To survive out there for hours at a time, we have to be mentally tough.  Mental toughness has many components.  Getting in the game mentally involves positive thinking, self-encouragement, and being one's own cheerleader.  Many sports psychologists have written about the importance of cutting the negative inner dialog in order to succeed in sports.  Think positive thoughts.  Training the brain involves tricking it into do what it didn't think possible.  The brain might say, "This hurts and I am miserable and I need to stop now because if I keep going then it will just get worse."  But we can consciously choose to shut out those thoughts and instead say, "This is miserable but I know from experience that I will feel great when it's over, and I'm going to be just fine."  There is a lot of research about the power of visualization, which actually triggers the same neurological pathways as physically completing a motor tasks.  Training the brain is what helps up overcome adversity and stress. 
"In sport, fatigue is highly subjective. The brain processes physical cues (chemical and electrical signals from the muscles) and environmental information (how we expect to feel) and concludes, Hey, we're done here. But years of research shows that the mind can override the body—that fatigue, more often than not, is a product of perception rather than true physiological depletion."  Michelle Hamilton for Runner's World
Great article on how to Train Your Brain

There's a lot to think about when it comes to training the body...  I guess it's a good thing that runners have a lot of time to ponder their thoughts when out on the trails!

Two more weeks until my next Half Marathon! :-)


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