Thursday 18 December 2014

A finely tuned engine is no use in rusty chassis

My original motivation to start running was less than noble: it was so I would not be doomed to a life of pants with elasticated waists. In those first years of dabbling with formal exercise, I toyed unenthusiastically with gym routines and aerobics classes, but always drifted back to running. When I added biking and swimming to take up triathlon, I abandoned the gym entirely.

There are many things I love about running and biking that I never found in a gym: the pursuit of personal goals in the form of races, the endorphin high from running fast, the peace and clarity from a long run, which is the antithesis of the impatient crankiness I felt in the pounding, beeping gym.

I struggle with gym regimes because their goals tend to be focused purely on promises of a magical bodily transformation which by itself does not hold my interest. The funny thing is that while I started running to look good, I continue to run (and bike and swim) to feel good.

Unfortunately, endurance training is not a magic panacea for the perfect body, neither for form (for me, six marathons and two Ironman triathlons have not yet eliminated a mild case of muffin top) nor function (I have little upper body strength and have some imbalances in my leg strength). So, after many years of ignoring the gym, I began to incorporate some functional strength training into my week. Now, however, I have a new motivation: to avoid injury and get faster.

Endurance athletes spend hours working on their aerobic engine, but tend to ignore the chassis that carries it. So often (especially during marathon or Ironman training), as endurance fitness improves, the fitness of the supporting frame (muscles, tendons and ligaments) is ignored.

Runners and triathletes tend to have specific muscle groups that are weak, including the lower back, glutes, upper hamstrings and hips, and which lead to over-use injuries. All of these areas benefit from a core strength workout.

Strengthening your legs can be done simply. Squats, lunges, burpees and step-ups/box jumps all help leg strength and are beneficial without incorporating weights, at least to start. If you are like me and need guidance and motivation (in the guise of someone shouting "HOLD THAT PLANK!" with a stopwatch in their hand), then it is worth seeking out a local strength and conditioning class – these have been multiplying furiously in Ireland over the past couple of years, so there is almost certainly one near you.

If you are a runner or triathlete who is constantly picking up injuries, a short strength routine will help immensely to eliminate muscle weaknesses and make you stronger, which will keep you healthy and running consistently – and that will ultimately make you faster.

I have been splicing together an unscientific short half-marathon programme, combining my first week of CrossFit strength training – after a short introductory course – with some focused running to get me ready for the US Half-Marathon in San Francisco this Sunday.

As this is not a big-goal race, I am taking a relaxed experimental approach to see if the strength and functional core work from CrossFit helps my run progress.

The off-season gives me a good opportunity to work on some weaknesses and learn some new skills. As the racing season ramps up in spring, I will likely dial back to a less time-committed maintenance strength plan.

So, with my experimental population of one, I am going to keep testing the CrossFit regime for a while to see if it helps my trail chops at the Rodeo Beach race in December.

Irish Independent

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