Injury Recuperation: More Thoughts 2

As I promised in yesterday's post, I wanted to share some anecdotal ponderings on what I've learned during my injury lay-off.

Yesterday, I spoke at length about how to approach selection of your Training Programme and, more generally, the way in which you train day by day.

Let me mention, by the way, for those who found this slightly too generalistic, I will present my personal remake of the SERIOUS training methodology to incorporate the new Brain Training methodology based on Tim Noakes' newest theory on what causes limitations in performance: The Central Governor Theory. So I hope this will serve as a more directly applicable methodology for people.

Today, however, we I would like to talk about what I have learned about a particular area of cross-training generally referred to as "Strength Training". Wikipedia contains a nicely descriptive definition of Strength Training:

Strength training is the use of resistance to muscular contraction to build the strength, anaerobic endurance and size of skeletal muscles.

It's also often referred to as Resistance Training, and I use these terms interchangeably as all strength training uses some form of resistance to workout your muscles (be it resistance bands, weights, or the ubiquitous force commonly known as "gravity").

In exercise theory, exercise categories are sometimes divided into aerobic exercise (running, skating), anaerobic exercise, agility training (training focused on balance, coordination, and reflexes) and strength training. I find these categories dubious as the aerobic/anaerobic model has now been cast in doubt and the line between one and the other is blurred. Secondly, numerous types of exercises can be placed in multiple of these categories making them virtually meaningless to use.

I will here simply talk of strength training as methods that primarily target increasing strength and size of skeletal muscles. The bring this in line with the latest research on the Central Governor Theory, such training would also serve to train the brain to recruit more muscle fibres and generate greater force without putting the heart at risk.

Notice, plyometrics also fall outside of this definition as it focuses on increasing the speed or the force of muscular contraction (e.g. ability to generate explosive movements). Plyometrics focuses on how quickly strength can be converted into speed rather than just pure strength.

This is actually a key realisation, because it means you would do well to engage in pure strength training first before moving on to the more advanced plyometric exercises. Plyometrics, like aerobic cross-training, deserves an article of its own.

Types of Strength Training
There are a large number of strength trainings available, and most readers of my blog will be familiar with most already, so I'll only give them a brief introduction here. I will not cover the strengthening benefits of endurance cross-training (such as swimming, climbing, skating, skiing, martial arts, etc.), as that topic really warrants a full article of its own.

Some typical forms include:

  • Core: Not really a category of its own but rather the popular term for calisthenics (below) and weight training focusing on the core (abdominal and lower back) muscles.
  • Calisthenics: A combination of the Greek words for "beauty" and "strength" are an array of simple movements using only your own body for resistance such as push-ups, dips, and squats.
  • Pilates: Originally called "Contrology" is a widely misunderstood methodology of muscle strengthening focusing on performing movements with great control and focusing on the core postural muscles.
  • Weights: Very popular form of training that uses gravity, in the form of dumbbells, barbells and other weights, to oppose the force generated by your muscles. Weights are not necessarily static as the popular variation "Circuit Training" most clearly attest.
I won't touch on yoga, another type of controlled physical exercise, as it's a very wide ranging methodology including also spiritual, meditative and mental aspects, and I don't know enough about it to give it proper treatment. It's an area of physical exercise I expect to look into at some stage, however.

What I Learned
When I got injured I decided to buy the book "The Ultimate Guide to Weight Training for Running", a very good resource on how to use weight training to become a better runner (which I will review later on this site).

I always presumed I had a good understanding of weight training, having taken it up back in 2001 and having studied and practiced it in great degree from 2001-2004 (as much as 6 sessions per week at my peak).

This book, more than anything I've read before opened my eyes to my shortcomings, and revealed to me while I had failed in achieving the gains I had set back in 2001. My training started well, and I went from a scrawny 63 kilos to a solid 76.6 kilos (not all muscle it must be said), training weights and heavily increasing my dietary intake.

After that, however, I stagnated, and now I know why: Like running, you must build a base before you can build power.

Here's a few Golden Rules that I would advise runners interested in Strength Training to follow:

Rule 1: Train at least 3 times a week off-season (less than that will not be enough for gains)
Rule 1b: Train at least 2 times a week in-season (this is the bare minimum to stave off muscular loss from heavy training and should keep your muscular strength stable throughout the season).
Rule 2: Divide your training into phases and have variety in your workout
Rule 3: Always warm up with 5 minutes of core workout

These are the very rudimentary basics that you need. I would rather not provide a more detailed description, as I really think you should buy a book on the topic if you want to start serious weight training. You owe it to yourself to look at the exercises, evaluate the theory behind it and have a look at how you want to implement it.

I want to share a little bit more of the basic theory with you, however:

Phases of Strength Training
Just as you must start your running training with a base phase (slow runs, not too hard intervals etc.) to prepare for the later stages of more intensive training, you must start by training weights for endurance (this means higher number of repetitions or "reps" and less weight).

Only after having build basic strength like this, will you go for Power and Explosiveness (something covetted by many runners), this training uses faster movements, and fewer reps.

Finally, you can implement pure "strength" focus, which means low repetitions but very high weights (I recommend keeping this to a minimum as an endurance athlete as it does lead to increase in muscle size and too much of this won't be beneficial for your running).

You should start with endurance then move onto alternate weeks between endurance and power or endurance and strength (always keep endurance in there, its the basis for everything else). When you get into your final stages of preparation, I recommend really choosing training the focuses on the areas where you feel the weakest. I do a lot of calf raises for instance, because my weak calves is a major problem of mine.

Also, you'll find in the afore-mentioned book (and others) a variety of different training concepts such as antagonistic and synergistic training, pyramid training, circuit training, training to failure, and super-setting. All these methods have slightly different desired outcomes, and I recommend you give them a read and if you find yourself thinking "that's the type of strength I need" or even "that sounds interesting", to integrate into your program.

Above all "keep it fresh."

Another Feedback Loop

A final word on this, is that flexibility is still important, and strength training must always incorporate this. Because of this I do pilates on my rest days between the weights sessions, and I always stretch after a weight session, as I would after running.

As you do strength training and flexibility exercises, you'll become painfully aware of where you weak muscles are and where your range of movement is most restricted (e.g. where are you "stiff as a board"). This is crucial information for you to use to address these weaknesses so they don't impact your running.

Pilates showed me that the range of motion in my hip is unbelievably restricted and weights showed me just how weak my hamstrings and calves really are. No wonder they could not master the punishment of my running regime. It is not surprise. As Noakes' put it "injury is not an act of God!"

In the hope that this provides some readers with a useful new look at weights training I wish everyone happy lifting...