Research Answers to Running Questions

I had  a number of questions posed to me before I left for the Malibu Running Camp. Owen Anderson was very accomodating to share some research tidbits on those questions.

Is creatine really helpful for runners?

Yes, the reserach does support its efficacy to a degree. The down side is that you retain fluids and weight gain is a very common side effect. One research study showed its participants as gaining 1% in body weight and a corresponding 1% slower time for a 3000 meter time trial. If you live in the hotter climates, the retained water may be good for you or may not – there is no direct research on this.  Creatine has been shown to help with power and explosive training (not distance). Therefore, it will be more beneficial to someone who focuses on races generally 1500 or less.

How long should your last long run be before a marathon, and how far should your longest run be?

Of course, this varies with the capabilities of the runner. An intermediate runner (35-50 miles per week; perhaps a first time Boston qualifier type) should run the last long run 4-5 weeks prior to the marathon. It should be 20-22 miles but not longer with 10 miles at goal pace. Cellular recovery for this kind of a run requires about a month (4 weeks). You do not want to enter a marathon with damage remaining in your muscles. This means despite your “great” condition, they will not be capable of responding in the race because their function is impaired. Longer runs than this have not been shown to improve marathon times, but quality training incorporated into workouts has.

I’m training for an ultra-marathon, what is the longest I should run and how long before my 50 miler should it be?

Your longest run might get up to the low 30s (30-35 miles). Doing these once a month is sufficient. Your last long run should be 4-5 weeks before your race. One fear is that you will lose conditioning in those last 4-5 weeks. This is not true at all. In fact, with continued quality workouts you can further enhance your conditioning. Quality miles on shorter long runs will greatly benefit your race day efforts; such as 15-20 miles at goal pace. Or you can run 10-15 even faster than that if you can tolerate it. But be careful for Tweener Miles (see other blog post). Also, a little known fact is that most of the elite ultra marathoners have relied on track workouts and high quality running. The famed Bruce Fordyce is one example. Yes, they will have long runs and some weeks they boost mileage, but they are consistent with quality as well. They do not take a long slow distance approach to training.

When and how should the deMeirler workout be used in preparation for marathoning?

In Owen Anderson’s programs he formerly advocated workouts called deMeirler workout. It is a twist on the old carbohydrate loading that was popular int he 70s & 80s. At this time, he no longer recommends this. There does not seem to be the benefit to conditioning or adaptation that was once thought.

What do you advocate and what does the literature say about advising runners to become more forefoot, midfoot or rearfoot strikers?

There is no research that Owen knows of on this directly. However, forefoot strikers appear to predominate world class runners. This does not answer the question should we change someone to a forefoot striker. There are non-forefoot strikers who are world class runners also. Therefore, any gravitation towards becoming a forefoot striker should be done organically… that is, naturally instead of arbitrary or forced. The body must be strong enough to handle this “new” way of running or injuries will ensue.The best approach is to improve functional strength, running specific strength, use explosive drills and drills for coordination in a complete program. This way, the runner will optimize their own form and biomechanics. And so to directly inform someone to run on the forefoot is ill-advised.

Is there a preferred breathing pattern for runners (i.e. 4 steps to one breath)?

There is no research on this topic. However, breathing is merely a mechanism to get oxygen into the body. The heart delivers the oxygen to the muscles. As intenisty increases, the demand for oxygen increases as part of the energy generation cycle. The total amount of air inhaled is called tidal volume. This varies by person, fitness levels, etc. As previously noted in the blogs from Malibu Running Camp, maximum oxygen consumption (VO2max) is a poor indicator of running performance. The goal of breathing is to supply the demand of the body. Therefore to arbitrarily “pace” breathing may in fact inhibit performance. Breath with your mouth open to get as much oxygen in as possible and blow it out to get your next breath. There has been some good research supporting exercising all your breathing muscles (diaphragm, intercostals, other ancillary muscles). This can be done with an inspirometer like device. These are the same type a respiratory therapist uses with patients in the hospital suffering from COPD, emphyema and the like. The device restricts flow of air so that you inhale against resistance. (Perhaps you could think of it like push-ups for your chest?) After a program of using this device it was show to improve breathing and yielded improved running times. Anecdotally, I have one of these and it is a challenging device. I have not used it routinely enough to be able to tell you if it helps.

I drink half water and half replacement drink because it upsets my stomach, what is the difference in doing that versus alternating water and replacement drink?

It used to be advised to alternate water with a replacement drink (Gatorade or the myriad of others). These drinks should be between 6-9% carbohydrates. More is not better in this case as it decreases absorption and has a higher incidence of gastric upset. It is now advised to drink a replacement drink every 15 minutes or so and eschew the water. Since these replacement drinks have water, it is ok to just drink them as long as the concentration remains at the 6-9% levels and you do not use energy gels. Energy gels are like syrup in your stomach and inhibit absorption of water and carbohydrates. If you use them, you must drink enough water to dilute them (probably to that 6-9% solution) for your body to use it most efficiently.

So to answer the question, a 50-50 mix of water and a replacement drink effectively decreases the concentration of carbohydrates to less than the optimal 6-9%. That is not good. On the other hand, if it is the only way you can get a replacement fluid into your body then you must do it. Having an upset stomach or diarrhea is not worth getting the “right” concentrated drink in you. You will certainly benefit from this more than just plain water.. which by the way, is all we ever ran marathons on for years.

Related, studies have now shown that carbohydrate drinks combined with protein do not enhance performance when compared with similarly caloried drinks of just carbohydrates.  Surprise! Don’t listen to the advertisers. They used false comparisons for their studies so their drinks appeared to be better.

If I qualify for Boston in a marathon in January, is there really enough time to recover and then train to run Boston in April?

Absolutely yes. If your preparation for the January marathon is comprehensive, (all phases of training) and not a “12 week wonder” program you will not lose conditioning while recovering. That is of course depending on doing a proper recovery, not forcing yourself back too soon, and doing some shorter quality work during that time. You could recover and not lose endurance through some quality work over a period of 3-4 weeks. Coming back too soon would not be good due to the cellular damage done during that kind of long run which lasts about a month (4 weeks). That would still leave 4-5 weeks in February and March to train as you were prior to your January marathon and still taper for the mid-April event. I will add that reading your body is critical. If you really put it on the line in the first marathon it may take longer to recover. The best startegy, is to run fast enough to qualify without going over the edge. And of course, go to Boston to enjoy the event… it is not a race to plan on setting a PR. 

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About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - trailrunningclub.com. I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for Running-Advice.com. I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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