Resistance training for distance runners

Classically, a sprinter has the torso of an ox while a marathon runner has spindly legs and arms.  Sprinters spend a substantial time in the gym lifting weights and afterwards eat a lot of protein; marathon runners spend even longer on the road depleting their muscle glycogen and then consume carbohydrate to replace it.   When finishing a long run at a pace near to race pace, marathon runners are actually in danger of burning the protein from their own muscles.  If they work with weights it is usually using high repetitions at moderate load to build up strength endurance rather than the power which a sprinter aims to develop with fewer repetitions with much heavier weights. These distinct training patterns have proven successful, on the one hand for many sprinters and on the other hand for many endurance runners.   Clearly, the physiological needs of the sprinter, whose first requirements are muscle power and neuromuscular coordination, differ from those of the endurance runner, whose primary need is to supply oxygen and fuel to the muscles at a rate adequate to sustain aerobic metabolism for long periods.

However, it is interesting to note that sprinting speed is a good predictor of one’s ultimate performance in distance events.  Nonetheless, a novice endurance runner will get best value from time spent training by working on building aerobic capacity.  A powerful engine is of little use without oxygen and fuel.  But once oxygen and fuel supply are more than adequate, perhaps it is time to focus more on muscle power.

There is an even more general rule about training and that is: repeating the same training stimulus time and time again yields diminishing returns.  When the returns begin to diminish it is worth asking the question: what is now limiting my performance and what training stimulus might best break through the current limit?

Limitations

In recent years several illnesses and also lack of time for training had been the most easily identified limitations, but the past year has been different.  I been free of illness and injury, and have actually spent more time training than during any year of my life – even those years over four decades ago when I could run a marathon in less than two and a half hours, though it should be noted that in those days, other activities especially mountaineering, contributed a great deal to my basic fitness.

In the past year the time spent training has produced substantial gains.  However, about three months ago, in the final few months of preparation for the Robin Hood Half Marathon at the end of September, it was clear that I had run up against a serious limitation.  My aerobic fitness, as indicated by low heart rate when running at an easy pace, was good.   My customary measure of aerobic fitness, the number of heart beats per Km, was typically in the range 630-640 b/Km during low aerobic runs, and there was very little upward drift of heart rate during long runs.    I would have anticipated that such a level of aerobic fitness would allow me to maintain a pace in the range 4:35-4:45 min/Km for the duration of a half marathon, to produce a finishing time of 1:40 or less.   But to my dismay, when I tried to maintain paces in this range, even for a few Km, I simply couldn’t muster the speed.  I could not even maintain 5 min/Km pace for 4 Km.   So it appeared that my limitation at that time was not aerobic fitness.

It was easy to identify the problem: the first factor is that I am in my late sixties, and suffering the general loss of muscle strength that accelerates alarmingly in the later part of the seventh decade.  The second problem was that I had suffered an episode of acute arthritis two years ago that had affected several joints including my left knee.   Painful movement leads to involuntary decrease in application of force, and as a result, my leg muscles, especially quads and hams, had atrophied even more than would be expected due to aging.  The hopping test, in which I measure the total distance covered in 5 consecutive hops on one leg, had deteriorated dramatically from around 9.5 metres to 7.5 metres.  In the subsequent two years lingering pain in the knee thwarted my attempts to introduce a program of plyometrics, while, ironically, marked pain in my arthritic left wrist made it difficult to lift weights.   It was clear that I had to find some way around these problems.

Fortunately, around the time I received an email out of the blue from a runner named Kieren. Several years ago Kieren’s blog had inspired me both to run and to blog, and I had been saddened when he suffered an injury, stopped running, and eventually stopped blogging.  I had discovered incidentally that he still posted occasionally on the Fetcheveryone website, and I had been interested to see that he had taken up resistance training a few months ago.    Although his recent email to me was triggered by my posts on heart rhythm, we got to discussing resistance training. He emphasized the value of squats for building ‘whole body’ strength, but especially for strengthening the major muscles of the posterior chain: the glutes, hams and hip adductors.  He recommended an excellent book by Mark Rippetoe which provided detailed clear guidance on how to squat safely and effectively.

As I mentioned in a previous post, at that stage I commenced a gradual progressive build up of weights and after four weeks was delighted by two outcomes: my painful arthritic wrist was much less painful, presumably due to increased support by stronger forearm muscles, and my pace during stride-outs at around 80% maximum effort, had increased, though of course, this is a rather imprecise measure of improvement.  Nonetheless, the signs were encouraging.  But by that point in my preparation for the Robin Hood half marathon, it was necessary to revert to predominantly aerobic training.  However, I continued with body weight exercises and drills.  Although there was not time to properly assess my ability to sustain a higher speed in those final few weeks before the race, short tempo runs during the taper suggested that I was now able to  maintain a pace of 5 min/Km or even a little faster with reserve power.  In the event, this proved to be the case. I crossed the line in 1:41:50, reflecting an average pace of 4:50/Km for the full 21.1 Km.  Some of this improvement was no doubt due to a successful taper, but on balance, the prospects for further improvement with continuation of strength development looked promising.

Body weight

But before committing myself to a major program of resistance training, it is necessary to consider the crucial issue of possible weight gain.  For the sprinter, the greatest energy cost of running is the cost of re-positioning the swinging leg.  But at the paces typical of endurance running, the greatest cost is the cost of elevating the body on each stride, and this cost is directly proportional to body weight.    Irwin Stillman estimates that a long distance runner should weigh 15% less than the average non-athlete of the same height, though some coaches consider that 10% less than average is ideal.   Until one reaches the state of emaciation where hormonal and immune function begins to be compromised, loss of fat is almost certainly beneficial to the distance runner.   Weight training is potentially effective for promoting fat loss, and therefore, a substantial proportion of the weight change in early stages of a weight lifting program are likely to a beneficial loss of fat.  I am currently about 9% below average weight for my height, so I do not need to lose much more weight.  Some of this deficit is due to muscular atrophy, so I will probably profit from replacing fat by muscle.

But depending on the regimen adopted, gain in muscle mass from weight training might well overshadow the loss of fat, especially for a distance runner with little fat to spare.  So if my running performance is to improve, it is crucial that any gain in muscle mass ‘pays its way’ by producing an increase in power output that more than compensates for the extra work I will have to do in order to get airborne on each stride.   It will also be crucial to ensure that I maintain the ability to deliver enough oxygen and fuel to the muscles to sustain aerobic metabolism for several hours.

Muscle fibre types

This brings us to the key issue of types of muscle fibre.  The sprinter relies largely on type 2B fibres, anaerobic fibres dominated by massive contractile machinery capable of rapid, and hence powerful contraction.  Muscle contraction is produced by  the ratchet-like interaction of actin and myosin fibrils that slide past each other as a result of making and breaking molecular bonds, employing energy provided by the energy molecule, ATP.  Several different types of myosin fibrils exist.  Type 2B fibres contain ‘heavy duty’ myosin capable of very rapid contraction.  Thus, type 2B fibres are best equipped to utilise readily available ATP and creatine phosphate, which can be rapidly converted to ATP.  Although oxygen is subsequently required to replenish the supply of ATP and creatine phosphate, this is usually done at a leisurely rate during recovery.  Therefore, the development of type 2B fibres sacrifices capillary density for the sake of contractile machinery.  These type 2B fibres are of limited use to a distance runner.

The distance runner relies largely on type 1 fibres in which there is a balance between contractile machinery and capillary density, and it addition, abundant mitochondria. The mitochondria contain the oxidative enzymes required to generate ATP by oxidizing fuels such as glucose.  Thus type 1 fibres are well suited to aerobic metabolism.  However, the variant of myosin in type 1 fibres can only contract at about 1/10th the rate of the variant found in type 2B fibres.  Therefore the type 1 fibres are best suited to producing a modest power output for long periods using aerobic metabolism.   But it is unlikely that lifting heavy weights will do much for the development of type 1 fibres.

The next question is: what fibres are enhanced by resistance training?  The answer is perhaps a little surprising.  Resistance training enhances mainly type 2A fibres.  These are the aerobic fast twitch fibres.  They contain a type of myosin fibril capable a fast contraction, but are also fairly well adapted to aerobic metabolism.  They contain substantial numbers of mitochondria and a moderately high capillary density.    Therefore, they are well equipped for tasks that require a moderately large power output sustained for a moderate duration, tasks such as running up long hills.   As almost all cross country events and many road races include some hills, it is clearly desirable for the distance runner to have fairly well developed type 2A fibres.  Unfortunately, I have poorly developed type 2A fibres.  In my duel with Emily the Keyworth Turkey Trot two years ago, I could not match her on the ascents and had to rely on shrinking the gap during the descents.  Similarly in a 5K parkrun two days ago, I was very evenly matched with a young man on the level stretches, but could not match him on the mild ascents, and again, had to rely on closing the gap during the descents.  So, it is likely that further development of type 2A  fibres will in itself improve my performance on hilly courses.  But the cardinal question is: is it possible to convert type 2A fibres into other types of fibre?  The answer to this question is still a subject of some uncertainly, but encouraging evidence is emerging

Conversion between fibre types

Before tackling the crucial question of the possibility of converting type 2A fibres to the type 1 fibres required by the distance runner, it is intriguing to ask how it is that weight training helps sprinters develop the type 2B fibres that are the key to speed.  Enigmatically, the answer appears to be: by doing very little.  It appears that type 2A  fibres naturally revert to type  2B fibres when not subjected to repeated loading.  It is probable that type 2B fibres are the default state to which other fibres regress if not required to work.  This is illustrated by the fact that after a period of paralysis, the proportion of type 2B fibres is high.   Thus, it is likely that the best strategy for a sprinter is marked periodization.  In the pre-season, he/she should lift heavy weights, leading to the development of type 2A fibres.  Then during the competitive season, the emphasis should be on sharpening neuromuscular coordination.  Meanwhile the type 2A fibres developed during the pre-season weight lifting will revert to the required type 2B fibres.

But can an endurance athlete convert the type 2A fibres to type 1 fibres?  The answer is less clear.  It appears to depend on the initial fibre composition of the muscle.  In a study of 21 cyclists who undertook training program in which volume of training was increased while intensity decreased, there was a significant decrease in proportion of type 2A fibres and a trend toward increased proportion of type 1 fibres, when averaged across the entire group.  However, perhaps the most important finding emerged when the 21 cyclists were subdivided into a group with high initial proportion of type 1 fibres (the HPS group) and those with a low initial proportion of type 1 fibres the LPS) group.  In the HPS group, the change to higher volume, low intensity training produced no appreciate change in fibre composition, whereas in the LPS group, there was a marked increase in type 1 fibres and a decrease in type 2A fibres.   The question of whether or not the difference in initial proportion of type 1 fibres was determined by genes or by previous training was not addressed.

Thus, the study demonstrates that an increase in training volume and reduction in intensity is likely to produce a shift from type 2A to type 1 fibres in some endurance athletes, but not in others, and that difference in training effect is determined by the proportion of type 1 fibres at the beginning of the high volume training.  Unfortunately, the question of whether it is the genetic influences on the initial fibre composition or previous training experience that determines the likely outcome remains unclear.  However, it seems to me that prior training is the mostly likely factor, since cyclists with a genetic predisposition to a preponderance of type 1 fibres would have been more likely to be in the HPS group at the start.

I suspect that due either to my genes or to my childhood experience of running to and from school, I have a natural preponderance of type 1 fibres, and therefore, in my present state, further high volume. low intensity training will not increase my proportion of type 1 fibres.  However, the available evidence indicates that a program of weight lifting might increase my proportion of type 2A fibres and subsequent high volume, low intensity training might lead to an increase in type 1 fibres.

The available evidence also indicates that the outcome of training depends on one’s initial state at the beginning of the training.  There is no single answer to the question of how best to train.  But after a careful evaluation of my own condition, I think that a program of weight training is a good bet in my case.  However it is also noteworthy that in order to achieve the distance runner’s theoretical ideal of a very low amounts a type 2B, moderate proportion of type 2A and a large proportion of type 1 fibres, I need to revert from weight training to aerobic training well in advance of my next half marathon.

There are additional issues to consider.   These include the effect of weight training on hormones, especially growth hormone, and also the question of what particular exercises I should include in my weight training program.  I will return to each of these questions in future posts.  I will finish this post with an account of how I plan to monitor progress.

Monitoring progress

I will monitor three ‘running specific’ variables: my time for a 5K, the distance achieved in 5 consecutive hops on one leg, and my weight.

With regard to 5K performance, I did my base-line test in a parkrun last Saturday.   I achieved a time of 22:19.  I was delighted with this, since in my first parkrun a year ago, run after about three months of systematic training, including both hills and intervals, I had achieved a time of 24:48.  Thus, in the subsequent year, I have managed to reduce that time by about two and a half minutes.   Whether this reduction can be attributed to the intervening aerobic training or to the resistance work and drills over the past few months in uncertain. The fact that I could not maintain 5 min/Km pace for 4 Km three months ago, at the end of a long period of predominantly aerobic training, suggests that it was a combination of both.   Thus, I am cautiously optimistic that an appropriately periodized combination of weights, drills and aerobic training will lead to yet further improvement, though of course, reduction from a starting point of 22:19 is a greater challenge than reduction from a starting point of 24:48.

An finally, as a counterbalance to the somewhat gruesome photos of my efforts to conjure speed from my atrophied leg muscles in the RH half marathon, here are some photos taken during the two-lap parkrun on Saturday, by the husband of Plodding Hippo, a runner and doctor whose wisdom on running-related medical matters is much valued by readers of the Fetcheveryone website.

About to begin the final sprint with about 100 m to run. Original at http://www.flickr.com/photos/nozzawales/8105262635/in/photostream

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19 Responses to “Resistance training for distance runners”

  1. Tim Huntley (@MyAthleticLife) Says:

    Congratulations on your progress this year with respect to race outcomes and also being injury free!

    And thank you for the tutorial on muscle fiber types – Sounds like I need to try and maintain a larger percentage of type 2A fibers for my goal of a sub-60 second 400 meter dash.

    • canute1 Says:

      Tim
      Thanks for your comment. Although I did occasionally do the 400m to earn points for my club in interclub competition many years ago, I have never trained explicitly for the 400m..

      Nonetheless, I am sure that a 400m runner needs a good supply of type 2A fibres and anticipate that resistance training would help develop these fibres. Good luck.

  2. Robert Osfield Says:

    Another intruguing post. Well done on the 5k performance, another very encouraging sign that you are making progress.

    W.r.t muscle fibre type adaptions, one thing you didn’t disucss is whether you can develop entirely new fibires or whether you can loose fibres entirely during atrophy. I have read conflicting material on this topic so would appreciate you views.

    Since you’ve dicussed using resistance training to build type 2A fibres and then converting these to type 1 fibires by high volume low intensity do you feel that the resistance training itself can lead to creation of new type 2A fibires? Or is its simply just strengthening existing fibires up prior to converting to type 1?

    The idea of doing resistance training prior to base building is an interesting evolution of the usual base building, then tempo, then high intensity repeats common in distance training plans. Do you have in mind just how long the period of resistance training should be before moving on to base building?

    • canute1 Says:

      Robert,
      That is a key question. It is technically and ethically difficult to count total fibre numbers in human muscles. Studies in animals demonstrate that increased loading of muscles causes both hypertrophy – an increase in the amount of contractile proteins in an existing fibre, and also hyperplasia – an increase in the number of muscle fibres. In humans, indirect evidence derived by measuring total muscle diameter and also the diameter of individual fibres, indicates that in some circumstances the majority of the increase bulk can be accounted for by hypertrophy but in other circumstances, there is strong evidence for hyperplasia.

      Studies in animals demonstrate that both hyperplasia and hypertrophy depend on activation of satellite cells – a type of stem cell that can mature into muscle cells. Either overload or trauma cause satellite cells to proliferate (i.e., undergo cell division) and give rise to new immature muscle cells. These new immature cells can either fuse with an existing muscle fiber causing that fiber to get bigger (i.e., hypertrophy) or they can fuse with each other to form a new fiber (i.e., hyperplasia).

      Although I am not aware of adequate evidence to provide a fully convincing picture, I think the balance of evidence suggests that three relevant things can happen in response to weight training:

      1) type 2B fibres convert to type 2A due to a change in the myosin fibrils;
      2) existing type 2A fibres can increase in size due to fusion with activated satellite cells, thereby increasing the amount of contractile protein they contain.
      3) new type 2A fibres might be generated by fusion of activated satellite cells.

      All three of these processes might be beneficial for a distance runner, though to get maximum benefit, it would be necessary for many of the type 2A’s to be converted to type 1 during subsequent aerobic training. As described in my post, it appears this can occur provided the initial proportion of type 1 is not already very high.

      The first process is unhelpful for a sprinter but the other two are helpful provided the resistance training is followed by a period in which the focus is on developing neuromuscular coordination, while the type 2A fibres revert to type 2B.

  3. Ewen Says:

    Great post Canute. On the point of distance runners being 15% lighter than the general population for the same hight, that wouldn’t be the general U.S. population 😉

    On genes v training for a person’s mix of fibre types for the starting point of training, my gut feeling is that it’s 90% genetic. One can watch a group of U7 kids sprinting at Little Athletics and pretty much guess the mix of fibre types for these untrained runners. I’d rate myself as being about 90% type 1 as I was always dead slow in the sprints at school.

    As an older runner I can see the advantage of increasing (strengthening?) 2A fibres as I’m in the exact same position as you (aerobically strong but speed endurance/strength weak). One thing I’ve started doing to remedy this is running a course that has many short hills of varying grades (some so steep as to require ‘toe running’ to ascend and others gentle enough to run ‘fast’). I think running this course could kill two birds with one stone — develop type 2A fibre strength and improve stroke volume of the heart. There would be other ‘stones’ that would be improved by this type of running — coordination, ability to cope with surges in races etc. The only tricky thing would be recovering sufficiently after such workouts before the next hard workout.

    Congrats on your 22:19 – that’s an excellent time. By the way, are those training shoes? If you could cope with a lighter racing flat type of shoe you’d be quicker by 15+ seconds.

    • canute1 Says:

      Ewen,
      Thanks. Your lighted hearted comment about the average weight for the US population in fact addresses a crucial issue. Stillman’s estimates for the average non-athlete depends a formula that yields a body mass index (weight in Kg/(height in metres)2 of approx 23, which is in the upper part of what is usually regarded as the normal range, 23 would be absolutely unacceptable on the catwalk in Milan but is certainly not overweight.

      With regard to the proportion of different fibre types in muscle, I agree that genes are the main determinant. However in regard to Gehlert’s study of cyclists, the important issue is that some individuals did exhibit a significant shift from high type 2/low type 1 to high type 1 when training volume increased and intensity was reduced. The point I was trying to make is that in these individuals the baseline high proportion of type 2A was more likely to be due to training than to genes. Although I did not express this clearly in my post, my hopeful speculation is that these individuals had acquired their preponderance or type 2A by virtue of high intensity training rather than due to genetic predisposition.

      Even more speculatively, I hope that individuals who have a genetic tendency to type 1 predominance, will be the ones who can convert the type 2A’s developed by resistance training into type 1’s. To me it seems plausible that those with genetic predisposition to type 1 predominance tend to produce extensive development of capillaries and of mitochondria during aerobic training. However to convert the type 2A’s to type 1, one needs not only to increase capillaries and mitochondria but also change the predominant type of myosin from type 2A to type 1. I do not know of any convincing evidence regarding a mechanism by which this might occur. Nonetheless, following aerobic training, there is extensive activation of satellite cells that appear to reinforce the type 1 fibres. My hope is that fusion of satellite cells activated by aerobic training with the types 2A’s generated by prior resistance training might transform the predominant type of myosin to type1. However this is speculation that it nearer to fantasy than to rigorous science.

      I agree that your hill training workouts will be good for development of type 2A fibres. However my own experience suggests that I need an even greater stimulus to type 2A development and I hope that squats with a fairly heavy load will achieve this. I also think that a squat session is more likely to promote growth hormone release than a gruelling hill session. At this stage I do not know how much a heavy squat session will interfere with my ability to do aerobic workouts in the same week.

      With regard to shoes, those are my heaviest shoes, but they are not very heavy. They are NB 980’s and weigh in at 253 gm each. I also have some Asics Hyperspeeds which are about 60 gm lighter. Based on Roger Kram’s data for the energy cost of increased shoe weight, I estimate that the anticipated time with the Asics would have been about 10 sec faster. I wore my NB 980’s because the course was mainly gravel path and gravel tends to lodge in the honeycomb pattern on the sole of the Asics. I would hope than wearing my Asics on a track, I could take at least 20 sec off my parkrun time.

  4. Robert Osfield Says:

    I am intriguied by the idea of doing strength training to build Type 2a fibres prior to aerobic base building so am considering trying it out in the build up to next seasons races.

    I haven’t yet decided on the races but it’s likely to focused on ultra’s and then 10k, half marathon, marathon and hill races as fillers. Given this Type 1 fibres will be my key type of fibre, so build Type 2a now and then converting them to Type 1 will be important.

    So my next question would be to how to go about it. I don’t have weights at home, is weight training essential? I was hoping that I might be able to come up with a few exercises that I might be able to do that don’t rely on any more equipment than my own body weight. I have plenty of hills locally which may help. Do you have any suggestions.

    A recent post from William Sichel about weight vest training was interesting, and makes me wonder if there is some cross over here with what you’ve discussed bout Type 2a fibre development and conversion.

    http://www.williamsichel.co.uk/?p=7864

    I am curious for your thoughts on this and about the types of training and the period of training required to illicit changes to numbers of Type 2a, and the period of time that would be required to convert these over to Type.

    Thanks.

    • canute1 Says:

      Robert,
      The question of the best strategy for producing type 1 fibres via resistance training is speculation based on the observation of what happens in studies of various aspects of fibres adaptation not directly related to a training protocol.. The experimental studies involving training protocols lasting for about 8 weeks demonstrate that concurrent aerobic and weight training leads to significantly greater improvement in running efficiency and in time to exhaustion when running in the upper aerobic zone, when compared with aerobic training alone. These effects are seen at the completion of the period of concurrent training, and therefore might be the effects of increased type 2 development or even merely the effects of more efficient recruitment of preciously existing fibres. Alternatively it might be that during concurrent resistance and aerobic training, type 1 fibre develop.

      With regards to a weight vest, I think that substantial improvement in distance running performance is likely. Forty years ago, I could run a sub 2:30 marathon based on a relatively small amount of running training. However at that time I did a lot of walking and climbing up and down mountains with a load around 30-35% of body weight on my back. With regard to fibre development, I suspect that I was developing type 1 fibres directly, because carrying such weight led to a fairly rapid development of the ability to walk for hours carrying such a weight with relative ease. That level of endurance certainly indicated substantial development of type 1 fibres. But when I took the pack off, I could spring from rock to rock in a manner demonstrating explosive strength typical of type 2 fibres – but I suspect that I had simply developed the ability to recruit a very large volume of type 1 fibres fairly quickly.
      On balance I think there is more evidence demonstrating race-relevant improvements from combining aerobic training with fairly conventional weight workouts, employing lifts such as squats, but the available evidence regarding weighted vests is encouraging. But simply, running up hills is likely to produce at least some of the benefits.

      Furthermore, I suspect that for an elderly person, the hormonal benefits of short bursts of heavy lifting are more beneficial, but for a younger person, hills and/or weighted vest might be the more effective approach.

      • Robert Osfield Says:

        An interesting mix of ideas here, the reserarch you meantion about concurrent weight and aerobic training being useful but this I would suspect the stimuls is different than building Type 2a fibires then convetting them to Type 1 with aerobic training. It sounds more like just concurrent training would build Type 2a fibres, fibre recruitment patterns and hormones release and these itself is useful for performance.

        The tantalising idea you’ve put forward in your article that one might be able to subsequently convert Type 2a fibres to Type 1. I presume such a conversion would require one to lay off from the types of training that would require Type 2a fibres and just concentrate on Type 1 fibre development.

        If we were to build a training program around these ideas would this sound reasonable:

        Stage1: Concurrent strength + aerobic training

        Aim: build Type 2a fibres whilst maintianing existing Type 1
        How: Weight training + hill sprints for Type 2a development
        Easy training runs to maintian Type 1.

        Stage 2: Aerobic base building

        Aim: Convert Type2a to Type 1 and strength Type1
        How: Reduce volume or strength related exercises
        Increase volume of aerobic runs

        Step 3 onwwards… usual post areobic base distance training

        The Stage 2 here would be a bit like Maffetones idea of just doing aerobic exercise.

        Thoughts?

    • canute1 Says:

      Robert,
      In Gehlert’s study of cyclists, which found a significant increase in type 1 fibres after high volume . low intensity training, in that those individuals who initially had a predominance of type 2a fibres, the high vol/low intensity training consisted of 157 hours of cycling over a 12 week period at power output corresponding to 40-45% VO2max. As noted in my posting, it is important to note that only thse who started with a high proportion of type 2 showed an increase in type 1. Some individuals who started with an initial predominance of type 1 fibres actually decreased the proportion of type 1 fibres. This study did not establish whether or not the initial ratio of type 1/tye 2 was determined by previous training, though on balance I consider this is likely. If so, the requirements for conversion from type 2a to type 1 are: prior intense training to develop an excess of type 2 fibres.; subsequent high volume (eg 13 hours/week) at 40-45% VO2max. Although Maffetone specifies his recommended training intensity in terms of HR rather than proportion of VO2max, I suspect that 40-45% VO2 max would qualify as Maffetone-intensity training.

      So I think your plan for stage 1 and stage 2 correspond quite closely to my ‘prescription’. However, it seems to me the really crucial question is the role of genetic factors. Is the requisite initial excess of type 2 over type 1 an excess relative to genetic predisposition or an absolute excess? In other words, if a person has a genetic predisposition to type 1 predominance, would they experience type 2 to type 1 conversion during the low intensity phase provide that they had generated a relative excess of type 2 in the preceding high intensity phase or would they only experience the shift to type 1 if they had sacrificed their natural intioal type 1 predominance. The former possibility seem more plausible to me, as one would expect those with a natural tendency to type 1 predominance to exhibit a type 2 t type 1 conversion when there is a relative excess rather than absolute excess of type 2a.

      My own provisional plan for the next 6 months is:
      Phase 1 (8 weeks) : Primary goal – strength development. Main focus on high load, low repetition weight lifting, together with hills and drills to initiate the incorporation the additional strength into running-specific action, and a modest amount of low aerobic training to maintain current type 1 fibres. I anticipate increase in volume of type 2 fibres with only small loss of type 1
      Phase 2 (4 weeks): primary goal: incorporation of strength into running action. Hills, drills and intervals to maximize incorporation of strength into running action, with a small amount of weight lifting to maintain strength and a modest amount of low aerobic training. 5K time trial in January. The main muscle changes will be recruitment patterns rather than change in fibre composition.

      Phase 3 (12 weeks): Primary goal Aerobic development. 12 weeks of largely aerobic training with increase in length of runs; some weight lifting to maintain strength; drills. hills and intervals to maintain speed. Two week taper to a half marathon in April. I anticipate conversion of type 2a to type 1 fibres but hope to maintain a moderate proportion of type 2a.

      This is provisional. Each athlete is an experiment of 1, and I will adjust the program according to how well I appear to be achieving the anticipated development of strength, speed and subsequently, endurance. The biggest mental challenge might prove to be tolerating some deterioration in aerobic capacity in the first 8 weeks.

      • Robert Osfield Says:

        Thanks for your explanation. It’s interesting challenge trying to make educated guesses on what is best to do. I guess part of the fascination about this stuff is teasing out the truth of how our bodies work and how they adapt from various studies and anecdotal evidence.

        On the anecdotal front, when I was a young teenager I was cross country runner who reluctantly did track in the summer. I was faster at the age of 13 then I am now at the age of 43. Back then I probably only ran 8 to 12 miles a week, with one interval session, one 8 mile “long” run and fortnightly weekend races. Looking back the “long” runs were done a tempo pace as we always tried to beat our times/our friends rather than trying to take them easy. Outside of training I did lots of walking to/from school and climbs up hills at weekend which I never thought as training but probably helped building aerobic fitness. Despite all the high intensity training I never got faster at sprinting, but I gained year on year with my longer distances. Given this I always assumed than my genetic predisposition towards for Type 1 fibres, and very few Type 2 fibres. Perhaps it’s just Type 2b fibres I lack.

        These days I do very little high intensity work, mostly easy runs albeit with plenty of hills. I’ve dabbled with a bit of high intensity work such as intervals and hill sprints but as I’ve had problems with injuries since I’ve been back running I’ve always struggled to ramp up the volume of high intensity work.

        If I can solve the my current disposition to injury I’d be curious to see what happens once I add strength and high intensity workouts into my training. Perhaps strength training might be the key to this… Can but hope.

        I haven’t run in the last few days because of my cold, but I have started dabling in squats, including one legged ones. It’s interesting getting the muscle fatigued feeling with just a minute or two of exercise.

    • canute1 Says:

      Robert
      Your school running experiences certainly suggest that your natural tendency is for a predominance of type 1 fibres. Though it is also possible that ability to recruit fibres rapidly plays a role in speed that is only loosely related to fibre type. Maybe explicit exercises to facilitate rapid recruitment might have improved your sprinting in those days. However, the major issue now is whether you will have a tendency to convert type 2a fibres developed by resistance training into type 1 fibres. I think it is worth a try.

  5. Robert Osfield Says:

    Canute, another area I’m curious about is the how different types of muscle loading effects the types of fibres activated and the types of fuel used. Perhaps you’ll be able to shed some light on this topic.

    From various reading I’ve done I get the impression that for short explosive activation when a large force and rapid contraction is required then Type 2b fibres as used. For small forces and slower contractions Type 1 fibres are used. For things inbetween Type 2a fibres can be used. One will also get a mix of fibres used when muscles fatigue or when extra force is required or you are in a transitional zone of intensity.

    The part that I am curious about is that hill sprints are often equated to having a similar training stimulus as flat sprint intervals. This may be so, but from a biomechanical standpoint I see hill sprints and flat sprints as very different. Hill sprints are done at a much lower pace, and the ratio of time in the air vs ground contact time is much lower so the peak forces will be much lower when hill sprinting vs flat sprints. The amount of work in turn over is also likely much lower. For me hill sprints is characterised by the work being done by a low force applied over longer distance (as the muscles shorten when pushing off), while flat sprints are characterised by work being done high force over a short distance.

    So the work done and the loading on the energy systems might be similar between hill and flat sprints but the nature of loading is very different. From this perspective I would expect hill sprints to stress Type 2b and Type 1 fibres, while flat sprints would take Type 1 and Type 2b fibers.

    The loading in hill sprints would also be mostly concentric power generation, while flat sprints would be a balance of eccenetric and concentric loading. Downhill sprints be contrast would stress the concentric loading which adds another interesting training aspect to the mix.

    With the discussion about polymetrics being a strong driver to muscle adaptions then perhaps Downhill sprints might be another thing to add in to the mix to force muscle/neuromusculer changes.

    I also wonder if uphill walking might be able to work out just slow twitch fibres and keep aerobic whilst still enabling one to get a good areobic workout in. I mention this as ten days ago I did a 2 hour hill session and walked all the steep hill sections in prep for the Jedburgh ultra’s hills, and my HR during the walking ascents was up in the mid 160’s without me even having to walk that briskly. On the flat a HR in the mid 160’s would be getting into a tempo run territory.

    • canute1 Says:

      Robert,
      You raise several interesting issues. First, with regard to type 2b fibres, although these are maximally used when sprinting, somewhat paradoxically, they develop by default from type 2a fibres. Resistance training (and I suspect sustained sprinting) develops type 2a fibres, which revert to type 2b when not used. Hence a sprinter should do heavy resistance training pre-season and then during the season, focus on improving speed of recruitment of fibres.

      In other words, while sprinting makes different demands from running up hills, the type 2b fibres required for spring develop by default from the type 2a fibres developed in pre-season training. During the season, the sprinter mainly focuses on facilitation of rapid recruitment by activities such as very short (eg 20-30m) sprints.

      I would anticipate that walking up steep hills will develop type 2a fibres because large forces are required. Walking up a steep hill might also produce a HR typical of a tempo run on the flat because the energy cost of lifting the body against gravity on a steep hill might outweigh the energy cost of repositioning the limbs during a tempo run on the flat. As a rough guide, when running up a 10% slope the energy cost is roughly double that on the flat. So walking up a hill steeper than 10% might demand more energy than a tempo run on the flat.

      • Robert Osfield Says:

        Hi Canute,

        “I would anticipate that walking up steep hills will develop type 2a fibres because large forces are required.”

        I don’t belive walking or running uphill necceserily requires large forces, so could you please qualify this statement.

        I believe the ground reaction forces will be lower when going slow uphill rathen then are when you go at normal pace on the flat even. The knee flexision will be greater at the begining of stance which will lead to higher relative loads on the quads for a given ground reaction force, exactly how the reduced GRF and increase flexion balance out is hard to say and will depend greatly upon cadence of the walker/runner. With higher cadence the knee flexion is lower so forces on the muscles will be lower. When running uphill is possible to use a much higher cadence than when walking so it may even be possible to run with lower forces than walking…

        Anyway my key point is I don’t think there are strong grounds to support that walking/running up steep hills requires large forces.

        For me the about uphill running/walking is that amount of work done, where a modest force is delievered over a relative large distance ends up easily equally the demands of energy required for running on the flat.

        Going downhill is another interesting conundrum – it requires very little work to be done by the muscles but requires a large amount of work to be absorbed by them as the lengthen under load. Steep downhill walking and running does require significant flexion and also breaking so the loads on the quads could be quite high, but again I think it might not neccesserily be the size of the load that is particularily high, but the nature of the load being applied over a relatively long movement.

        For hill climbing and descent could it be the ability to deliver or absorb larges amount of work rather than loads and the loading rate that will be determiner of the type of fibres required. I pose this question as the answer may reveal how hill training may be able to stress particular parts of bodies.

    • canute1 Says:

      Robert,
      I accept your point that the force is not necessarily very large when running or walking up hill. My wording was careless. What I intended to say was ‘ large vertical impulse’, though even this statement is based on my subjective experience of the foot pressing on the ground rather than calculation. Type 2 fibres are effectively engaged by the requirement for a large power output. As a rough guide, power requirement is approximately doubled during ascent of a 10% slope relative to the same speed on the flat. Therefore I think that running up hill (and probably even walking when the slope is very steep) ) is a good stimulus to type 2a fibre development.

      When running downhill, the force of eccentric contraction is much greater than when running on the flat . Eccentric contraction is much more potent than concentric for tearing muscle fibres. This provides a very strong stimulus to the mobilization of satellite cells, and will lead to subsequent hypertrophy and hyperplasia, provided the damage is not too great. I think this process is likley to affect both type 1 and type 2a fibres. Microcopic analysis of fibres after concntric loading revleas satellite ceels fused to type 1 fibres. The value of plyometrics is based largely on the eccentric contraction. I suspect that the stimulus to hypertrophy/hyperplasia following plyometrics arises from two related factors: the eccentric phase will produce tearing of muscle fibres thereby promoting enagement of satellite cells, while the subsequent concentric contraction will be more powerful than an isolated concentric contraction and therefore will promote additional recruitment of type 2a fibres, producing further microscopic damage.

      Many coaches advocate running downhill to improve speed, though as far as I am aware most offer a rationale based on improved ability to coordinate rapid recruitment of fibres, rather than stimulation of hypertrophy or hyperpasia.

      During my recent HM preparation, when I realised I was stuck in a rut in July, my first response was to do weekly down- hill stride sessions, but after several weeks there was no clear cut evidence of benefit. That was the point at which I decided to lift weights. Interestingly, the weight lifting led to a subsequent increase in pace during downhill strides at about 80% max effort, (though of course this is an imprecise measure). Nonetheless, I think that the type 2a fibre development produced by weight lifting increased my capacity to sustain large eccentric forces, and hence allowed me to run faster down hill – and also to achieve 5 min/Km pace with much less effort, on the flat.

      My own experience indicates that weight lifting was more effective than either downhill striding or long uphill sessions, but I am aware this might be true for me on account of my age and or the atrophy secondary to the arthritis, but not necessarily the case for a younger runner.

      • Robert Osfield Says:

        Hi Canute,

        Thanks for perserving with me being pinickty about exactly what is happening with the forces and work done when going up/downhill. Interesting finding w.r.t weight lifting vs hill sprints vs dowhill strides.

        I find that big hill descents cause alot of DOMS in subsequent days and indicator of damange and repaior in progress. It only seems to take me a week to adapt to to the stimulus and subsequent similar descents and long runs I suffer far less with quad fatigue and DOMS in following days. After a lay off it might just take a 1000ft of descent to drive these changes, but when well trained I still find a the 3000ft ascent/descent of my local mountain Ben Ledi a great driver for adapations.

        Whether these adaptions are primarily strengthening or neuromuscular I can’t say. I do wonder if the body gets lazy with muscle fibre recruitment on easier descents, but given a sufficient stimuls might become more conservative and start using more muscle fibres to spread the load out. Or perhaps it’s just the timing of activation that is improved to reduce the damage.

        I wonder if one could use workouts back to back to produce a stronger stimuls. Perhaps hill sprints or weights for the intense stress on power production and then polymetrics/hill descents to add an extra dose of stimuls for adaptations. One would have to be careful though as one could easily end up injured with doing too much at once. Working up slowly to such back to back sessions might be apporpriate.

    • canute1 Says:

      Robert,
      The question of how to combine strength sessions with intense running sessions throws up some interesting challenges. In general, I would be very cautious about back to back sessions that each provide a large stimulus to fibre development, as adeqaute stimulus entails damage and it would be difficult to avoid excessive damage, Maybe occasional back to back sessions would work in a simlar way to the way that supersets do, but I have always be very wary of supersets. .

      However I am intrigued by the possibility that a brief intense weight session might be an effective warm up for a speed session, on the principle a brief intense session facilitates maximal muscle recruitment immediately after, and might facilitate the incorporation of gains in power from a preceding strength development program into running action.

  6. exercise ball Says:

    Great article. I’m going through a few of these issues
    as well..

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