One thing that all runners want to know is what shoes are right for them. For many people, with running shoe collections that would make Imelda Marcos proud, finding the perfect shoe is a lifetime endeavour.
I am a big advocate for 'minimalist' running shoes, a somewhat vague term encompassing all shoes that are light weight, flexible and have a small differential between heel and toe height. (For a great resource on minimal shoes check out La Clinique du Coureur.). However, as with everything it is possible to have too much of a good thing and strapping on a minimalist shoe is no guarantee of reduced injury risk. In this article I look at how minimalist shoes can help you become a better runner. The article first appeared in R4YL magazine.
The rapidly expanding range of minimalist running shoes currently available reflects the greater understanding researchers are now gaining of good running mechanics. The idea that the way you run is not pre-ordained but is rather a modifiable, learnable skill has surprisingly only recently started filtering into the public consciousness. Until recently changes to your running form focussed on footwear and enhancing the level of heel lift, cushioning, and arch support in shoes in order to increase comfort and mitigate the risk of injury. However, research from prominent academics such as Australian Doctor Craig Richards and Harvard Professor Daniel Lieberman, has called into question whether this is indeed the best way to look after the body when we run. In fact it seems that the very best way to run in order to maximise comfort, efficiency, technique, and perhaps even reduce the risk of injury may be as our children do every day of their lives – namely barefoot. Ironically, the current movement towards barefoot running and the improvements in running form that going barefoot encourages have seen the invention of an entire new genre of running footwear – namely minimalist/barefoot shoes!
Minimalist shoes such as Vibram Fivefingers are characterised by their light weight, flexibility, thin or non-existent midsole and reduced differential between heel and toe heights. The rationale behind their construction is to minimise the effect the shoe has on our foot strike and to allow us to run in as natural a way as possible. Rather than supporting and cushioning the foot, minimalist shoes actively encourage the muscles in the feet and legs to work, developing greater strength and utilising the body’s own muscles and joints to absorb the impacts associated with running. Not surprisingly, the promise of greater efficiency and fewer injuries has piqued the interest of many runners with sales of minimalist shoes soaring. Does this mean that running injuries are on the decline and that everyone who owns a pair of minimalist shoes is gliding through the streets like Anton Krupicka? In a word: no.
Running is a highly complex skill requiring co-ordination of many different movements into the fluid action we recognise as running. As with all complex tasks, it requires practice, refinement and sometimes teaching to perfect. Unfortunately it does not appear that any shoe can magically ‘fix’ flaws in your running technique. In the same way I have not come across a special glove that allows you to play guitar like Hendrix. Rather than trying to patch up poor mechanics with shoes, I have found clinically that the best approach to managing running related injuries is to look directly at technique and work on improving the way we run. Some of the aspects of barefoot running that are favourable biomechanically such as a midfoot strike, upright posture, alignment through the hips, and increased cadence can all be taught and learned whether wearing shoes or not. The great advantage of minimalist shoes in learning to run with good technique is that they offer greater feedback with the ground and reduce interference with normal movement of the foot. Therefore, running with good technique is not an automatic effect of putting on a pair of minimal shoes; however, it does make the process easier for many people and will ultimately enable you to optimise your running form.
Are minimalist shoes the answer to your injury concerns? Not on their own, but as one piece of the puzzle you certainly may find they help you discover your optimum running form.
For more information about running technique please click here.
In February, Spartan Race will be coming to the Gold Coast for the first time with what promises to be another fun dose of mud, obstacles, and burpees (not too many hopefully!). Since exceeding all my expectations and winning the Spartan Ultra Beast race in Brisbane last year, I have had many requests for tips on training for these challenging events. So without further ado, here are my top five tips for success at Spartan.
There is no doubt about it, the single biggest factor separating the front and back of the pack is your running ability. The distances between the obstacles can sometimes be quite large and your running pace will largely dictate where you finish (unless of course you have a nightmare and fail too many obstacles). If you haven't already, get yourself outside and run on some trails. Looking for hills and technical terrain will prepare you best for a race like Spartan.
Many of the obstacles rely on your grip strength to get you through. Kettlebell hoist, rope climb, overhanging rock climb, kettlebell carry, monkey bars.....the list goes on. Strengthen your grip with rock climbing, pull ups, carrys, or even use some grip trainers like the Captains of Crush.
One of the lovely things about Spartan is that if you fail an obstacle you get a 30 burpee penalty. During the Ultra Beast I failed 6 obstacles (out of 70+) and therefore had to cop 180 burpees on top of the 42k of running and the obstacles themselves. On most of the obstacles you only get one chance. If you fall off a balance beam - 30 burpees. Can't get up the rope climb? 30 burpees. Unless you are really good (and lucky), it is guaranteed that you are going to be doing some burpees. Practice them and make sure you do them all the way down, chest to ground and jump at the top.
4. Spear throws
Which is the one obstacle that almost everyone fails? Yes, the cursed spear throw! As I mentioned above, during the Ultra Beast I had to do 180 burpees, but what makes this all the more distressing is that 150 of them were from failed spear throws. A few minutes spent practicing these might save you a lot of time and a lot burpees. You might even get to have a well earned rest whilst your mates (who didn't practice their throws) are busting out burpees.
5. Be prepared for anything
If one thing is guaranteed during Spartan it's that Max and team will think up a few uniquely devilish challenges and new delights. The first Spartan I did, we had to build a Lego model in under 10 minutes! Sounds easy enough, but when your hands are shaking, you're sweating and covered in mud this was a surprisingly difficult test. Be ready to have your limits tested!
So there you have it, the top 5 tips for a successful Spartan race. Above all, these races are amazing fun, a great challenge - even for the kids - and guaranteed to leave you bruised and battered and with a great sense of achievement. See you out there. AROO!
Heart Rate Based Training
It is the start of a new running season and people are starting to set themselves new goals for 2016. In order to get a clear picture of my own current fitness state and kick start my training I decided, at the tail end of last year, to undertake a VO2 Max (MET) Test. This is a service I offer to my clients to help guide their training and is something I use myself to make sure I am training effectively. Fortunately, at Physiologic - here on the Gold Coast - we have a fantastic VO2 Max testing facility so I didn't have far to travel.
VO2 Max is a measure of your maximal rate of oxygen consumption and is usually expressed relative to your bodyweight in ml/kg/min. The people with the highest recorded VO2 Max are generally the most elite endurance athletes with human values topping out around 90ml/kg/min (e.g. runner Kilian Jornet reportedly has a VO2 Max of 92ml/kg/min). Although the general trend is for better athletes to record higher VO2 Max scores, the correlation to race performance is not as close as for other measures such as lactate threshold. What this means is that finding out your own VO2 Max is nice but is not really that useful in itself aside from bragging to your running mates about who has the highest score! So what is the purpose of doing the test if it isn't to find out your VO2 Max?
The main thing the VO2 Max test does really well is give you a very clear picture of your personal metabolic profile. How well do you burn fat? At what heart rate do you start burning more carbohydrate than fat? Which heart rate zones should you be training in to optimise your training?
My test started in the most relaxing way possible, with a 20 minute resting metabolic test. This measures what your metabolism does when you are not exercising and gives an idea of your fuel usage at rest (more about this later). This is done by wearing a mask connected to an indirect calorimeter which analyses the make-up of your exhaled air. From this analysis it is possible to work out the percentage of fats and carbohydrates you are burning as fuel.
Next it was over to the treadmill. At first I thought it would be awkward to run wearing a face mask but after a few minutes I got used to it and was able to concentrate on giving 100% during the test. The exercise test is where the real fun begins. Starting at walking pace, Tom, who ran my test, closely monitored what my heart rate registered (via a standard HRM chest strap linked to his laptop) and each time it stabilised he incrementally increased the gradient and the pace of the treadmill until I was running at my absolute limit. The goal of the test is to run (or ride - it is just as easy to do the test on a stationary bike) until you reach RQ=1. This is the point at which you are burning 100% carbohydrate as fuel and basically signals the end of your exercise session - it is impossible to hold this very high intensity for more than a few seconds.
Tom used an AIS testing protocol on me which took me from walking on the flat at 5km/h to running at 15km/h on a 15% gradient in increments lasting a few minutes each. The whole test took about 25 minutes and I reached RQ=1 right at the point when I felt my legs turning to jelly and with my HR at 200bpm.
A few days after the test, Mark Barrett, physio and metabolism expert sat down with me and went through all of my results. His analysis showed some really interesting things that I was able to implement straight away into my training.
First up, my VO2 Max was 75.4 ml/kg/min, not as high as Kilian's but pretty good! Better still was my ability to burn fat, even at relatively high heart rates. All the way up to a heart rate of 186bpm (93% of max HR) I was able to burn more fat than carbohydrate. This is a really good thing for someone doing long distance running as it means that I can preserve my limited carbohydrate reserves and use stored body fat as my main fuel. Theoretically this means running further and faster without hitting the dreaded 'wall'.
On the flip side, given my above-average ability to burn fat when exercising, my resting fat burning was quite poor - actually relying heavily on carbohydrates at rest. Mark thinks this could be because I am not getting enough overall calories to fuel my training and am preserving my fat reserves. It could also be an indicator of stress.
In addition to this my top end carbohydrate burning was quite poor. This is seen in the graph where I almost struggle to get my carbohydrate burning fuel system going even at very high heart rates. This top end is needed for shorter faster efforts, but more importantly for short bursts of strength within a longer event, such as a sudden uphill section in an otherwise flat run, or maintaining leg speed on a taxing technical downhill. This indicated to me that I need to incorporate more strength sessions into my training such as short and fast sprints, or lifting heavy weights.
So what does this mean for my training? Well, I now have some actual numbers to work off for my heart rate zones. For example to train in my aerobic zone, with carbohydrate use kept to a minimum I need to stay under 147bpm when running. Estimating this figure from HR zone formulae would be highly inaccurate.
Many people will be familiar with age-based HR zone estimates such as 220-age=max HR. If I followed this formula I would have a max HR of 220-38= 182bpm. The VO2 Max test showed my actual max HR to be 200bpm. This shows that the estimates can be wildly inaccurate and could lead to poor programming in your training.
The test has also shown where my particular strengths and weaknesses lie and given some clear direction to my training. Armed with this knowledge I can enter into my training for 2016 with confidence that I am training efficiently and not over (or under) stressing my system.
If you would like to learn more about VO2 Max testing or are interested in incorporating HR training into your training please visit these links.
Huge thanks to Mark, Therese and Tom for the testing. Happy Running :)