Thursday 15 July 2010

Q and A on Canadian Distance Running

After a long drought, I offer an unprecedented second post in 3 days! This one is a Q and A with former TOC club mate who is, I think, preparing a piece on what ails Canadian distance running today. (I will post a link if and when an article appears). What I intended to be a very brief reply turned into something a little more lengthy, so I thought I'd share it with readers of the blog (take that, Luke Steer, for dissing me on Facebook over my recent lack of attention to this space!!).

1.What do you think of the Brooks Marathon Project? (a Brook's Canada sponsored training group operating out of west end Toronto--SB)

I'm a supporter of the BMP idea, although I think it should be focused a little more on road racing in general. Many of the younger guys that have gone through the program have not had enough race experience at shorter road distances to become good marathoners. The marathon is, after all, just a very long road race. If I were running the BMP, I would not make it a requirement that athletes run a marathon in their first couple of years in the program, unless they were coming in with tons of road race experience, similar to what some of our best from the 70s and 80s had when they ran their first marathons.

2. American distance running, with the likes of Chris Solinsky, Ryan Hall, Kara Goucher, seems to be in the process of re-birth. Do you think this is a possibility for Canadian distance running? What would have to change? What would we need to do differently in this country?

It is certainly possible to rebuild Canadian distance running on the model of the U.S., with its many post-collegiate training enclaves. Speed River in Guelph is proof of how little is required in terms of resources to do this. What is required is a good coach with enough time, energy, and passion for the sport to convince more post-collegians to give serious distance running a chance. DST in Guelph has been that coach for a while now, but others must step forward (and I am trying to do just that in my new role as Head Coach of Cross Country and Distance track at Queen's). And I would emphasize that this is as much a matter of passion as of expertise. Before we can deploy whatever experience and expertise we might possess, we must be able to convince post-collegians that spending a few years trying to become the best runner you can be is a great life-choice, and something you will never regret, regardless of the level of performance you manage to attain.

3. Do think that Athletics Canada provides adequate support and funding for distance athletes? Why, for instance, does Athletics Canada make the Canadian Olympic Marathon standard much faster than the International Standard (with the consequence of supporting athletes who are already there as opposed to helping develop future contenders)? AC also seems to be putting an emphasis on some events over others, like sprinting and hurdles.

Through making it much more difficult for Canadians to qualify to represent Canada internationally, AC is certainly not helping when it comes to rebuilding this event group. In essentially "killing the dream" of major international competition for athletes who can meet the standards set by the championships themselves (although the COA plays a special role here too), but not Canada's special standards. However, it is important that we understand precisely why this occurs; and, when we do, we will probably learn to stop expecting AC to act as a leader in building or re-building anything to do with this sport. The fact is, AC is structurally bound through its funding relationship to Sport Canada to take the line of least resistance when it comes to event development. AC's level of funding, which determines, among other things, the number of people it can employ, is determined by the rate of top 8 and top 16 finishes in major international competitions, regardless of event group. This means that, if there happen to be a few more good hurdlers or throwers in this country at a given time, AC will, for it's own financial good, support these individual athletes by supporting their coaches and event groups. If, by chance, a few jumpers come to the fore as the throwers and hurdlers are retiring, the organization will switch focus in towards the jumps. The problem for Canadian distance runners is that their event group is dominated by athletes from the "poor majority" world, rather than from the "rich minority" world, since success in distance running, if a country has enough people determined to make it, requires relatively rudimentary coaching and few material resources, yet offers a relatively large potential pay-off for poor athletes. Canada, being itself a rich country, and therefore one that can afford good facilities and at least entry-level coaching, will always do better in these more technical event groups, even without a real development model (and at the moment, the NCAA is Canada's de facto elite development system for track and field, to the extent that it has one at all). AC, whose funding is tied to top 8 and 15 major championship finishes by its athletes, will continue its strategy of pouring resources into already largely developed, potential top 8/16 athletes, leaving development-- or re-development, in the case of distance running-- to others. Although it could do a few small but important things to mitigate this reality, it is structurally incapable of performing a serious developmental role. I actually think Canadian distance runners are pretty lucky to have access to carding; but, beyond that, they can't look for leadership to AC or Sport Canada, which are operate strictly on an "elite sport as propaganda" model.

4.Today more Canadians are running than ever before. However, despite the popularity of the sport, collectively our times have gotten slower. What do you think needs to change? Do you think anything needs to change?

Canadian's times have gotten slower for two reasons, one demographic (we're older, on average), and the other sport-specific (Canadians, beyond the age of about 18, no longer actually train for running). We can't do much about the former, but we can do something about the latter, and the solution starts with better elite development programs at the age class level (much as Canadian soccer, which faces a similar problem, is now attempting to do). We need greater cooperation from high schools-- which is where the vast majority of young athletes get their first real exposure to the sport-- in supporting the development of year-round training groups for serious and talented young athletes. At the moment, the high school system (e.g., here in Ontario, which is the nation's hotbed for the sport), jealously guards its control of top athletes through participation rules that inhibit serious athletes from following their training and competition plans year round. As a result, most young athletes begin the sport without any concept of a long term development plan, because the vast majority of school coaches lack the will or expertise to develop one. Most school programs, if they have any success at all, do so with only the most abundantly gifted, or early-maturing, athletes, and rarely prepare their athletes for the longer term. But, of course, most programs have little real success at all, even as they require their most serious kids to spend 4-5 months of the year working in well-meaning but amateurish school programs. The net result, as you have observed, is that serious running becomes, like soccer, a sport for kids and a few fitness-minded adults; the elite level all but dissappears, as potentially successful young athletes drift out of the sport during or after high school. If more Canadians had exposure to real training programs when they were school-age, the average times in Canadian road races would be faster than they are, even with the changes in demographics. This was the case years ago in Britain, when thousands of young people got experience training in clubs, and went on to be fairly decent adult runners, even if they were not elite. Through working with my local and on-line adult groups, I see everyday how much faster Canadian runners can be with exposure to serious training programs. The level of general knowledge of running as a sport in Canada is pretty abysmal, in spite of the fact that the activity is now wildly popular.

5. Most runners today are both older and younger today. How do we inspire kids to run past elementary school?

As I've been saying for years to anyone who will listen, I actually think the way to inspire kids to continue beyond elementary school is to actually restrict elementary school competition to the older grades. In my board, where kids start competing in grade 3, the challenge is to retain them beyond grade 6! If you expose kids to distance running too early, many are instantly turned off and/or convinced that they have no ability if they are not winning right away. If we can restrict their involvement to say, grades 7 and 8, we will have many more kids this age coming out, and a few more interested in continuing in high school. Adults often think it's "cute" to see 8 year olds huffing and puffing around a cross country course. I can assure them, however, that, cute or not, the cost of this early involvement is the early and permanent exit from the sport of many, many future running talents. I refer to the example of my own son, who wanted to try a cross country race in grade 3. He finished 63rd out of 100 or so in his first race, which was a bit of a shock to him, considering how hard he felt he had worked. It took some convincing over the next couple of years to get him to believe that he might eventually be able to do much better, and even one day finish near the front, if he allowed himself time to grow, mature, and try a little bit of training. He's now showing real talent; but, he's only still interested because he's bullshit-lucky enough to have a dad who understands how early development typically works in this sport. Whenever I see him run (and he is now in grade 7), I wonder how many kids with his basic talent walked away in grade 3, never to return, as he no doubt would have without my knowledgeable encouragement. Of course, a similar thing occurs in grade 9 when kids try the sport for the first time (i.e. if they don't succeed right away, many decide they have better things to do); but, it is far easier to explain to a 15 year old about variable development rates than it is to an 8 or 9 year old who's just experienced the shock of extreme exhaustion, coupled with a the feeling of having failed competitively! We need to remember that distance running, when done seriously, is not really a kid's sport. There is little or no play element, it can take a lot of work before you get to see how much ability you really have, and getting there can be very frustrating indeed. Kids need to be fully ready for this reality before being introduced to the sport. If they were, we would retain more of them post-elementary school and beyond.

Tuesday 13 July 2010

Determining Your Optimal Performance "Bang"/Training "Buck" Ratio and June POM

Now that I've successfully (I think) navigated my way through the Perfect Storm of coaching demands that formed when my acceptance of the coaching position at Queen's met the demands of high school season (to say nothing of the onset of summer yard work!), I've finally found a moment to update the blog. I do so with a post I've been planning for a while. With the personal training/fitness business exploding, and producing a shower of new ideas and modalities for improving our basic strength and endurance, I ponder the question: How are runners to determine the best use of their available training time? I also name the P-K POM for June.

The question of how to determine the best allotment of one's training time and energy is a perennial one, born of the fact that no one, not even the rich professional athlete, has unlimited time and energy. But the continual advent of new types of potentially beneficial and accessible forms of training, some through slick marketing and others through natural cross-fertilization between sports disciplines, or, occasionally, through the modification of injury rehab modalities, make this problem ever more potentially tricky. And for the recreational athlete in general, and time and energy-challenged older athlete in particular, the problem of optimizing the training mix is that much more vexing.

I begin with the following disclaimer: Ultimately, the optimum allotment of training time and energy between the available options is highly specific to the individual athlete, and requires consideration of a vast range of personal variables. It is thus something to be determined between coach and athlete, and negotiated over time through trial and error. What I offer here are therefore only general guidelines based on what I understand to be the best approach to producing performance improvements in runners falling into range of very broad categories, including: younger developing runners (i.e. ages 13 to 22); experienced "peak-age" runners; older beginning runners; and experienced older runners. The forms of training I consider can be placed in similarly broad categories, including: strength-based (i.e. various kinds of mostly low-speed resistance training, most typically involving weights); aerobic power-based (i.e. running at speeds and for durations requiring maximum possible oxygen uptake); endurance-based (i.e. sustained running at speeds that are known to over time produce gross anatomical and physiological adaptations, such as increased cardiac output and blood volume, and improved oxygen and energy usage through cellular development within the relevant muscle fibres, typically associated with high performance in long distance disciplines); and finally, new and older forms of alactic/ballistic/plyometric (ABP) training heretofore more typically used by sprinters rather than distance runners (i.e. jumping, bounding, very short sprinting, and even barefoot running). (Note: I exclude the category of flexibility training because I have already discussed this in a previous post. At best, I think this form of training belongs in the strictly optional, or "bet-hedging", category for all but the most leisured distance runners.)

For younger developing runners-- and, in particular, those who have come to the sport at what I consider to be the proper age, and with a background that includes plenty of formal and informal play-based physical activity-- the vast majority of the training stimulus should come from aerobic power and endurance-based training; and between these types, 80-90 percent of training time should be allotted to the latter. For those without an extensive background in play-based activities, some form of APB-based training may be beneficial (but, this can often be achieved by young athletes "playing" at a range of other track and field disciplines in the context of an all-events track club). Where younger developing runners are concerned, however, the main consideration when it comes to their involvement in the sport of distance running must always be psychological/sociological rather than physical. To ensure the best chance at both short term enjoyment and long term performance maximization, training of any kind should be very moderate before ages 15-17 (i.e. from 2 to 5 hours per week only). Training for distance running, because it is overwhelmingly based on the very long term and intensive promotion of gross bodily adaptations, is acutely work-like. And play and self-discovery, not work, should be the foundation of childhood as far as possible, especially in light of the fact that children already "work" 6 or more hours per day at their educational development. As younger runners reach the typical age of psycho-social maturity (typically ages 15-17), their volumes of training can increase fairly significantly, with the emphasis, as I say, on developing the kinds of capacities most central to success in the sport, and most susceptible to improvement through training-- aerobic power and endurance. At this stage, however, the role of a coach becomes more important than at any stage of athletic development, and crucial for the young athlete's longer term development. Younger athletes, even while they may be physically and psychologically ready to train very hard, still lack much feel for which forms and quantities of training that work optimally for them at their particular stage of development. And most runners before the age of 21 or 22 remain somewhat lacking in the patience required for long term development. They are also easily discouraged by the occasional and inevitable poor performance.

For peak-age athletes (those in their senior post-secondary years to about age 35), the vast bulk of the training stimulus should continue to come from the two staples-- aerobic power and endurance-based training; but, there is an increasing premium on strength and ABP-type training in these years. Luckily, athletes in this age range will typically have more disposable time and greater energy to train than at any stage of their lives, making it relatively easy to accommodate these new training demands. The greater necessity for these other forms of training arises as training capacity in the two main forms begins to peak, and as acute specialization begins to erode the basic support structures (like core-strength, balance, and power)that were formed in childhood through play-based activities. On the most basic level, high-level distance training is somewhat catabolic and well as neurologically narrow in demands, meaning that it tends to reduce overall muscle mass and retard basic athleticism.Some of this is the inevitable and beneficial result of intense specialization, but the line between functional specialization and over-specialization can be fine one. This tendency towards over-specialization can be countered to some extent through strength and ABP-type training. I say this, however, with the following caution: New types of ABP training, especially plyometrics and alactic running, are currently in great vogue among runners with the time to fit them in, and many are quite alluring in their novelty and apparent sophistication, creating the strong impression that they must be useful and effective (and certain specific forms may yet prove to have little or no real benefit for distance runners). Such is the attractiveness-- and even fun-- of these forms of training that athletes may be tempted to substitute them for additional running (i.e. in cases where athletes have still have room beneath their capacity for more running volume). And I have a more specific fear that the vogue of strength and power work may feed into the stubborn misconception that, because distance races are frequently won with fast finishes, training that improves speed and power is of equal importance to aerobic power and endurance work. (While understandable, this is misconceived: first, because, in distance races, speed is only really effective once maximal aerobic and endurance capacities are reached; and, second, because the finishing speeds required to win even the highest level distances races are attainable by even the average high school sprinter, and by most good high school distance runners. Finishing speed-- i.e. for finishing long distance races-- is thus much more a function of aerobic power and endurance (to say nothing of emotional drive) than it is of the kind of speed and power that ABP-type training promotes. The proper place of this kind of training is, therefore, as one of the supports of a high-volume running program, whose benefit is mainly prophylaxis against injury rather than direct performance improvement. But even here, however, runners-- even strong, peak-age athletes-- must be aware of the injury risks as well as the benefits of ABP-type training.

And it is with risk/reward ratios of various training modalities that discussion of the next category or runners-- that of the older developing runner-- must begin. The middle-aged beginner athlete (and here I mean not someone who has never run at all, but someone who has never trained seriously for running) will typically lack the the accumulated benefits of any kind of training-- either the gross physiological adaptations associated with years of serious aerobic and endurance training, or the strength, power, speed and balance associated with resistance and ABP-type training. This category of athlete, in other words, will be able to make significant gains (subject, eventually, to some age-graded loss, of course) in all of these basic areas; yet, because he/she is older, and therefore at somewhat greater risk of injury, due to his/her inevitably slower recovery rates and, quite likely, reduced leisure/recovery time. For this category of athlete the question therefore becomes one of where to place the bulk of the training emphasis across a range of almost equally beneficial options. In my view, the older developing athlete must have greater balance in his/her program between strength, aerobic power, and endurance-based forms of training, using ABP training only very sparingly, if at all. As with younger developing athletes, the older beginner must focus the bulk of his/her training on improving endurance and aerobic power. The older athlete, however, will typically be lacking in muscular strength, and in the cores areas in particular (i.e. the stabilizing muscles of the low/deep abdomen, and of the low back, glutes and hips). Older beginners will also typically have weaker feet and lower legs. All of this atrophy is the product both of age and the reduced daily, dynamic physical activity associated with modern adulthood. A program of strength training that focuses on typically weak areas is therefore not only beneficial, but frequently crucial for the success of the older newcomer to the sport. The combination of a soft core, thin,inflexible feet, and weak calves is an injury time-bomb, and doubly so when the slower rates of recovery and repair associated with the aging process are factored in. As for ABP training, one might assume that it would come highly recommended for the older athlete. These kinds of training, after all, are designed to produce highly movement-specific forms of strength and power. The trouble with this form of training when it comes to the older athlete, however, is that it produces these gains in dynamic strength, power, and balance through the sometimes extreme and repetitive eccentric loading of the muscle (i.e. the rapid simultaneous stretching and loading of the muscle fibres). Older muscles, being usually a little shorter, less elastic, and slower to recover from micro-trauma, are much more susceptible to injury when worked in this way. There is no question that ABP training can be highly effective for older runners; the question is whether the performance gain is equal to the injury risk, especially considering the fact that the greatest net gains for the older runner, as for the younger athlete, are likely to come from simply running more and running a little faster a couple of times per week. As a coach of older beginners, I never rule any kind of training completely out for all runners; my general caution to new runners over 35, however, is that they spend their scarce training hours and energy running more, and doing non-eccentric forms of strength training, focusing mostly on the core and often on the lower legs, leaving the fancy ballistic/plyometric drills to the school-age and professional runners.

The final category of athlete is that of the older, experienced runner. (In other words, people like me!). The older more experienced athlete, and the ex-elite runner in particular, will typically have reaped all, or nearly all, of the basic gains they are every going to get from the staple forms of training-- aerobic power and endurance-based forms. This category of runner will typically have run tens of thousands of easy miles, and have completed hundreds of intense, max V02-building sessions on the track, road, and trail, to say nothing of hundreds of races over a variety of distances. As a result of all this training and racing, the older, experienced athlete, if he or she has followed a sound training plan all those years, has nothing to look forward to in terms of increased performance; after about age 35, it is a slow but steady downhill slide (although the speed of the decline will typically vary greatly from person to person, and can be greatly mitigated by continued long and hard training). My advice to the older, experienced athlete who still retains a taste for training and racing is to concern his/herself more with remaining injury-free, which means following a reduced and balanced program in which the training focus is varied regularly throughout the year. The older, experienced athlete, because he/she has trained throughout adulthood, will have retained a great deal of the basic athleticism required to effectively use the full range of training modalities, including ABP-type exercises. The older experienced athlete will gain less from an additional mile logged or hard workout completed than will the older beginner, and can thus afford spend a few weeks each year making, say, strength or plyometric power, rather than aerobic and endurance training, the focus of his/her training. As a general rule, however, this category of athlete-- the rarest of them all, for obvious reasons-- is advised to recall that he/she cannot safely manage the same total training volumes as during peak years. Older experienced athletes who cannot adjust to this reality are eventually frustrated, and find themselves relegated to the sidelines, physio table, and cross training regime.

I conclude with a reminder to runners of all ages that the basis for success in this sports remains running itself, and longer, aerobic running in particular. The runner who has not explored the limits of his/her capacity for daily aerobic running is a runner who has not yet entered the real world of the sport. It is frequently said that the beauty of running is its absolutely simplicity; that the challenge for the Olympian--to push his/her body to the limit in search of the greatest possible level of adaptation to the basic demands of the sport-- is no different than for the average age-classer. The difference between the best and the merely average resides in part in the sheer capacity of the former to survive the grind of training required to reached the most extreme levels of adaptation; but, the struggle of all athletes to realize their maximum personal potential is a very much a struggle to run as much as possible without breaking down. Other forms of training may help shore up the embattled body of the serious runner, but they are never a substitute for the activity itself. Many have chosen, for one reason or another, to believe otherwise-- to believe that additional speed and power, for instance, can produce greater performance gains in long distance runners than more long distance running itself; but, when one observes the training of the sport's best at every level, the verdict is in, and has been in for decades: To run fast over a long distance, one has first to run slowly over a much longer distance, and many times over. It is only on this foundation that the other forms of training discussed can have a meaningful impact on racing performance.

June POM:

With the spring road racing season winding down and the summer events just getting underway, the focus for June POM honours was bound to be the high school scene. The high school season in Ontario ended, as it has for some 50 years, with much hyped-- many would say, and not without reason, over-hyped-- Ontario Federation of Schools Athletic Association (OFSAA) championships, which pit the top athletes in the province against one another in 3 age groups: Midget (grade 9); Junior (grade 10) and Senior (grades 11, 12 and additional year). The P-K juniors were well represented at the meet, with two-- this month's POM nominees-- overcoming substantial obstacles to secure their spots, and going on to perform above expectations in the championships themselves. By the time the qualifying meet rolled around in late May, Rob Asselstine's place on the OFSAA starting line looked secured, and his odds of finishing top 10, or even top six, very good. Looking back only a year, however, and the picture was far different. Rob did not even contest high school track in his grade 11 year, and did not appear to have the ability to become a bona fide contender in as short a time as one year, if indeed at all. Nevertheless, one year later, and only three weeks after his first ever race win (the City Championships), Rob would finish 10th in the 3000m at the OFSAA Championship in a time of 8:41, a mark more than a minute better than his personal best before the year began. (And look for Rob as a nominee for July POM honours, following his recent 5th place finish in the junior nationals 5000m in Moncton, NB last weekend). The other nominee-- Cleo Boyd, whose name should sound familiar!-- had been a frequent visitor to the OFSAA finals in track, even making the final in the 800m in grade 9. Since grade 9, however, her progress had been plagued by recurrent calf strains, which had lately relegated her to the elliptical trainer for a little less than half of the 8 months leading up to the start of the season, and causing her to miss all of the 2009 cross country season. Thus it was that Cleo entered the track season simply hoping to remain on her feet till the end. Thanks to heart-rending diligence and determination-- to say nothing of maturity and self-control beyond her years-- she was able to do this and more. Running in her first year as a senior, she not only qualified for OFSAA in her chosen events, the 1500m and 3000m, but ran a substantial personal bests to make the final in one (the 1500m, which she chose not to contest in order to better prepare for the 3000m) and
finish 7th in another personal best in the other. Her 3000m time was good enough to qualify her to run at the national junior championships, which she did, equaling her OFSAA time in less favourable conditions. If Cleo (and I) can manage to solve the riddle of her recurrent calf problems (and she/we have already explored many avenues), or if she simply grows out of the problem, she has the potential to run near the very front in her final year of school. For her OFSSA 3000m performance, Cleo earns POM honours for June, and enters the running for POY honours come January 2011.