On Saturday, I repeated the hopping test. I consider the distance covered in 5 hops on one leg is a good test of running-specific strength. Seb Coe used to do a similar test. He could cover 25 metres on 8 hops, but as a cronky old-timer my target is much more modest. Before the episode of arthritis that afflicted me in January 2010, I could cover 9.71 m in five hops on the left leg and 9.24 m on the right. The discrepancy between legs reflected the fact that previous episodes of arthritis had affected my right knee more than my left. In contrast, the episode in early 2010 attacked my left knee (in addition to my left wrist and neck). The arthritic pain lingered through most of 2010, causing me to minimise forces transmitted through the knee. By December 2010, I had lost about 20% of my hoping strength, and now my left leg was weaker than my right; I achieved 7.39 m on the left and 7.44 on the right. My attempts to remedy this loss by plyometrics in early 2011 were thwarted by recurrence of pain in the left knee.
Several other health problems also interfered with training but by late summer 2011, I was once again able to train regularly. As described in recent posts, in the following 11 months I trained regularly, unhindered by illness or injury, and my aerobic fitness improved greatly. But by July 2012, I was stuck in a rut. I found it very difficult to maintain a pace of 5 min/Km for more than a few Km despite evidence of good aerobic fitness. It appeared that I had such small reserves of muscle strength that even at 5 min/mile pace I was recruiting not only all my type 1 fibres but also most of my type 2 fibres. Not surprisingly, I could not maintain such a pace for more than a few Km. A repetition of the hopping test in July confirmed that lack of muscle power was the problem. I covered 7.45 m on the left and 7.77 m on the right. Eleven months of mainly aerobic training, with a modest amount of hill work and interval training, had produced only a 2% improvement in hopping.
At that stage, I commenced a ‘quick and dirty’ program of weight lifting – ‘dirty’ in the sense that I built up the load quickly, rather than painstakingly developing by the technique and basic all round strength necessary for safe lifting at near maximal capacity. But at that stage, there would be no prospect of going to maximum loading before the RH half marathon in September so I spent a few weeks building rapidly to moderate loads before returning to predominantly aerobic training for the final few weeks. In the event, the strategy worked. I ran a reasonably good half-marathon, and then a few weeks later, a satisfying 5K.
Because maximal-effort hopping presents significant risk of musculo-skeletal injury for an elderly person, I perform the test sparingly. Nonetheless, by last Saturday it was time to repeat it, both to confirm that my training since July had indeed produced an increase in hopping performance, and to provide a base-line for assessing future improvement. I achieved 8.65 m on the left and 8.46m on the right. Thus in the past 3 months, I had improved a further 8% , and have now recovered about half of the strength that I had lost following the arthritis in 2010. In contrast to the 2% improvement produced by 11 months aerobic training including some hills and intervals, 3 months that included a mixture of weights, drills and further aerobic training produced an 8% improvement. This evidence of increased hopping distance accompanying the improved running performance provided addtional confirmation of the conclusion that I was stuck in a rut in July on account of inadequate muscle power to utilise my aerobic capacity. The fact that my hopping performance is now about halfway back to where it was at the beginning of 2010 indicates that there is scope for further improvement in hopping capacity, and hopefully, also in running speed. Nonetheless, the question of whether weight training is useful for distance runners remains a matter of controversy
What do the Kenyans do?
In a balanced review of the issues, Pete Pfitzinger remarks with a touch of irony ‘the Kenyans are so secretive in their iron-pumping that no one has ever seen them lift. Travel to Ethiopia, and you will see an equally impressive absence of muscle-building.’ This observation is indeed reason to consider the issues carefully before embarking on a time consuming and demanding weight lifting program. However, Pfitzinger’s observation must be set against the evidence that very demanding resistance training is not unknown in Kenya. The fascinating video of the BOSS Baltic team including Asbel Kiprop (1500m gold medallist in Beijing and world champion in 2011) training in the rain at Iten stadium in November 2011 reveals an extremely demanding session that included dragging car tyres around a water-logged track; running against a restraining waist band; and intense plyometric jumps over a series of hurdles.
The experiment with N=1
While there is abundant scientific evidence that combining weight lifting with aerobic training improves running-specific factors such as running efficiency and time to exhaustion when running in the upper aerobic zone, there is no large study that has demonstrated that weight training improves racing performance at any distance from 5K to marathon. However each athlete is an individual and must weigh up the evidence of what is likely to be helpful for him or her. There is an abundance of anecdotal evidence regarding the benefits of weight training for individual runners. How closely do the anecdotes match my own situation?
Her fourth place in the 10,000m final in Sydney in 2000 demonstrated yet again that Paula lacked the strength in the final lap required for victory at the highest level of competition. In an attempt to define the problem, Irish physiotherapist, Gerard Hartmann asked Paula to do 20 hops up and down from a 16 inch high box as fast as she could. In contrast to Kelly Holmes who had had achieved 20 hops on and off the same box in 12.5 seconds, Paula took 27 seconds on her first attempt. This led Hartmann to devise a program of plyometric exercises and heavy weight sessions. In 2002, Paula won her first senior world title (long cross country in Ostend, Belgium) and also won her debut marathon in London, in a time only 8 seconds slower than Catherine Ndereba’s world record of 2:18:47. Later that year, in Chicago, she staked her claim to ownership of the world record by slicing 89 seconds off Nderaba’s best. The following year, in London in April she recorded the awe-inspiring time 2:15:25, a mark that remains unchallenged.
In my post six months ago following Mary Kietany’s victory in the London marathon in April, in which she shaved a few seconds of Katherine Ndereba’s best, I speculated that a new generation of Kenyan women might be about to mount a serious challenge to Paula’s record. I should also have added Ethiopian woman to the field of contenders as Tiki Gelana had recorded 2:18:58 in Rotterdam a week before Kietany’s win in London, and Aselfach Mergia had broken the 2:20 mark earlier in the year in Dubai. Indeed there was no reason to limit my horizon to Africa as the second fastest female marathon runner of all time is Liliaya Shobukove of Russia with a time of 2:18:20 in Chicago in 2011, while about a dozen other woman including Mizuki Noguchi, Irina Mitenko and Deena Kastor have recorded times under the 2:20 mark. However, so far there has been no sign pointing to an imminent quantum leap in women’s marathoning. Since April, the only woman to get anywhere near 2:20 was Aberu Kebede with her winning time of 2:20:30 in Berlin in September. Paula’s record from 2003 looks as secure as ever.
As I watched the video of the BOSS team training in the rain soaked stadium in Iten, I was struck by the contrast between the male athletes and the lone female athlete wearing a red top and blue trousers. She too dragged the tyre around the track, and battled persistently against a restraining band tethered to a post, but the power of her legs paled in comparison with that of the men. I do not know what distances she races, and wish to draw no conclusion other than noting that the video provided a graphic illustration of the major gender difference in strength, a difference that is manifest in the power of the movements that are required for running. In my post in April I had speculated that women should less severely disadvantaged relative to men in the marathon than in shorter events because the event is largely fuelled by reserves of fat, but I think that speculation missed a crucial point. Even the marathon is an event requiring strength, a point illustrated not only by Sammy Wanjiru in Beijing but even more dramatically by Wilson Kipsang Kiprotich in London in April of this year. His powerful surge shortly after the halfway mark crushed most of his opponents. He tried a similar tactic in London in August. But whether it was merely the heat of that August day or the fact that his body was beginning to fatigue after three top-level marathons within 10 months (starting with his near world record breaking win in Frankfurt in October 2011), his strength failed him in August and he faded to third place behind Stephen Kiprotich and Abel Kirui. Nonetheless, it is clear that the men’s marathon is a test of strength as well as aerobic capacity. I suspect that Paula stands unrivalled among female marathoners not only on account of her tremendous aerobic capacity but also on account of the strength program that Gerard Hartmann designed for her in light of her dismal hopping test performance in 2000.
However Paula’s story has a sad coda. After dropping out of the marathon in Athens in 2004 apparently due to complications arising from treatment for a leg injury; her subsequent game but ill-starred attempt in Beijing in 2008 following a stress fracture; and then a failure to even get to the starting line in London in 2012, her Olympic dreams have been dashed. Of course luck plays a role. But the video of her world record breaking run in Chicago in 2002, and of her spectacular run in London the following year, reveal a runner tensing almost every muscle as she strains to drive herself onward. Perhaps the unwarranted muscle tension provides a clue to the contrast between her unrivalled performances when her body lasted the distance, and the numerous occasions when her body failed her. I understand that Gerard Hartmann made a determined efforts to help her reduce the head bobbing that characterised her running prior to 2002, but I wonder whether she might have added an Olympic medal to her otherwise unrivalled record if she had devoted more attention to integrating her strength into a well coordinated, relaxed running style.
In a press conference shortly after Mo Farah’s dominant performances in the 5000m and 10000m in London in August, Alberto Salazar described how, when Mo joined him team in Oregon 18 months earlier, he was a skinny distance runner who performed strength exercises like a 90 lb weakling. He recognised that if Mo was to fulfil his potential and hold off the world’s best in the final lap of a 5000m race, he would need strength. Salazar got him lifting weights alongside Galen Rupp, and the transformation of his physique was dramatic. In Alberto’s opinion, the seven hours every fortnight spent lifting weights in the gym played a more important part in Mo’s victories in London than the 110 miles a week of aerobic training.
Thus, anecdotal evidence regarding both Paula Radcliffe and Mo Farah indicates that in individuals in who have an identifiable deficit in strength, resistance training including the lifting of heavy weights can produce worthwhile improvements in running performance.
My goal is to run a good marathon at age 70 but the first step is to run a half-marathon in less than 100 minutes. I am now within sight of that goal, but I think the evidence that I am limited more by lack of muscle power than by my aerobic fitness in now unequivocal. There are several options: I could build type 2a fibres by running long hills; I could increase my strength and endurance by training in a weighted vest, just as I acquired the power required to run a marathon in under 2:30 over forty years ago by spending many days walking and climbing up mountains with a pack weighing between 30 and 40% of my bodyweight on my back; or I could lift weights. I think that in old age, as anabolic hormone production wanes, the surge of anabolic hormones produced by brief periods of heavy lifting makes weight lifting the preferred option.
Lifting weights will develop type 2a aerobic fast twitch fibres. While these fibres are in themselves of considerable value when running near the upper end of the aerobic zone, especially on a hilly course, the major requirement for a marathoner or half marathoner, is abundant type 1 fibres. Gehlert’s study of cyclists who switched to program of high volume/low intensity training demonstrates that type 2a fibres can be transformed to type 1 fibres, at least in those individuals who have a predominance of type 2a fibres prior to the switch in training. Unfortunately, the role of other factors such as one’s genetically determined predisposition towards type fibre 1 dominance in promoting or inhibiting this transformation remain a matter for speculation.
Whatever plans I make for training, it will be a unique experiment on myself. Neither anecdotal accounts of the experiences of others such as Paula Radcliffe and Mo Farah, nor systematic studies of groups such as that conducted by Gehlert will answer the question of how I can best develop the muscle strength that I require. However, the evidence suggests that the best strategy should include three phases: strength development; incorporation of this strength into a well coordinated relaxed running style: and finally the transformation of at least some of the type 2a fibres to type 1 fibres while I rebuild my aerobic capacity.
As outlined in a recent response to a query from Robert, my current provisional plan is as follows:
Phase 1 (8 weeks) : primary goal – strength development. The key activity will be 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 my current type 1 fibres. I anticipate increase in volume of type 2 fibres with only small loss of type 1.
Phase 2 (3-4 weeks): primary goal – incorporation of strength into running action. I will do hills, drills and intervals to maximize incorporation of strength into a relaxed, efficient running action, with a small amount of weight lifting to maintain strength and a modest amount of low aerobic training. I will evaluate progress in a 5K time trial in January. The anticipated main changes in muscle will be refined recruitment of fibres rather than a change in fibre composition.
Phase 3 (12 weeks): Primary goal – aerobic development. I will do predominantly aerobic training with increase in length of runs; some weight lifting to maintain strength; drills. hills and intervals to maintain speed. The program will end with a two week taper to a half marathon in April. I anticipate conversion of type 2a to type 1 fibres in this phase, but also hope to maintain a moderate proportion of type 2a fibres.
Ewen has picked up the gauntlet in a challenge to be the first to break100 minutes for a half-marathon in April. My eyes remain focussed on the marathon in the long term, but in the short term, this virtual duel with a fellow spirit from the other side of the globe will add a little spice to my endeavours.