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Myth Busting: Challenging 3 Common Training Assumptions

Following blind assumptions that aren't based in physiological reality can hamper recovery and lead to injury or burnout.

Following blind assumptions that aren’t based in physiological reality can hamper recovery and lead to injury or burnout. 

I spend a lot of time interacting with my own community of runners, answering training questions, and participating in message boards. Amongst these discussions, I’ve heard almost every running myth and training falsehood you could imagine. In my experience, the training myths that are often the most difficult to fight are those based on assumptions that seem to make sense because of how runners feel during training, but aren’t grounded in physiological realities.

Let’s examine three of the most common training myths many runners believe are true, but can often hamper recovery and lead to injury or burnout.

Myth 1: Minimalist Shoes Force You To Run “Correctly”

The accepted theory is that running barefoot — or in minimalist footwear — decreases the impact forces on your legs because the lack of cushioning encourages you to land on your forefoot. This is definitely true, but running in minimalist footwear doesn’t automatically mean you’re going to evolve to be a forefoot striker.

Consider a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina. Researchers interviewed 35 runners who wore minimalist shoes and asked them whether they were heel or forefoot strikers. All 35 responded that they were forefoot strikers, but after analyzing footstrike patterns with a slow-motion camera, it was found that 33% of the runners were actually heel strikers.

The problem for runners who wear minimalist shoes and don’t land on their forefoot (when they think they do) is that vertical loading rates can be up to 37% higher than if they were heel striking in traditional shoes and 50% higher than those who actually do forefoot strike in minimalist shoes. It doesn’t take an advanced degree to realize that increasing your ground impact by 50% with each step can lead to some serious injuries.

What you can do:

First, this study is a good demonstration of how difficult it can be to identify your specific running form issues when your foot strikes the ground so quickly. This means you can’t always rely on sensory data to make improvements to your own running form. Reading the latest article on “the secret to proper running form” and trying to apply the principles spelled out by the author can be dangerous. Be careful with adjustments you make and take the time to get proper guidance and analysis from a professional before you make changes to your footwear, form or both.

More importantly, if you’re going to transition to barefoot running or minimalist footwear, take the time to develop your proprioception, foot strength, and proper barefoot running form. Don’t just assume that switching to minimalist shoes means you’ll start running correctly. Dr. Mark Cuccuzzella, widely considered to be one of the leading experts in minimalist running, suggests spending at least two weeks building a foundation of strength and balance in your feet, lower legs and hips.

Myth 2: Your Marathon Long Run Needs To Be 20 Miles — Or More!

When training for the marathon, a long run of 20 miles seems to be the magic number for many runners. Psychologically, most runners feel that once they are able to run 20 miles for their long run, they’ll be able to handle 26.2 on race day. However, while hitting the 20-mile mark might feel like it’s an essential component of marathon training, is it really any better physiologically than 19 miles, or even 16 or 17 miles? The scientific research suggests that it’s not.

RELATED: A Short Cut To The Long Run

In terms of aerobic development, which is one of the main benefits of the long run, research demonstrates that 90 minutes to two hours of running seems to elicit the greatest amount of mitochondrial growth. Research has yet to show that running longer than two hours provides any greater stimulus to aerobic development.

So, even if there isn’t any real physiological benefit to running more than 2 hours (which for most sub-elites, is less than 20 miles), why not run 20 miles anyway if it makes you feel more confident?

1. The longer you run, the more tired you become. As a result, your form will begin to break down after 2 hours of running. Major muscles become weak and susceptible to injury while overuse injuries, like tendinitis, begin to take their toll.

2. Recovery time after a very long run is significantly longer than following a moderate long run. This means you can’t complete more marathon-specific workouts, like tempo runs, throughout the week.

What you can do:

Make sure your long run is a complimentary piece to the marathon training puzzle rather than a slow, 3-4 hour run that make up 50 percent or more of your weekly mileage.

As Luke Humphrey, Olympic Trials marathoner and author of The Hansons Marathon Method explains, you should you downplay the role of the long run and focus instead on increasing your overall weekly training volume and hitting your marathon-specific workouts throughout the week. To simulate the fatigue of the marathon distance, utilize the principle of accumulated fatigue to get your legs prepared to handle the full distress of 26.2 miles.

One way to do this is by buttressing the long run back-to-back with a medium length run at a steady pace. Using this idea, your weekend workouts might entail 8 miles of running at just slower than goal marathon pace on Saturday followed by 16 to 18 miles, with the last 3-6 miles of that run completed at goal marathon pace, on Sunday. At the end of the weekend, you’ll have run a total of 24 to 26 miles (with many of them hovering around marathon pace), yet you’ll actually reduce the risk of injury and recover faster than if you had tried to hammer out a 20 or 22 miler.

RELATED: Is running 26.2 miles necessary before the marathon?

Myth 3: Faster Easy Days Help You Hit Your Goal Sooner

One of the most common training mistakes new runners (and some veterans) make is running too fast on their easy days. It’s not hard to imagine why. In almost every other sport, trying harder is almost always a surefire way to improve. So, when athletes take to running, it’s a common assumption that the harder you run, the faster you’ll improve.

Unfortunately, this isn’t how running works. Each day in a well-designed training plan has a specific purpose, and the easy run is no different. The purpose of an easy day is to facilitate recovery and develop the aerobic system. Running too fast actually diminishes your ability to do both.

An easy recovery run increases blood flow to the muscles, helping clear out waste products while delivering fresh oxygen and nutrients. If you run too hard on your easy days, you create more muscle tears than you’re fixing, extending the amount of time you need to fully recover. This can cause you to run poorly on subsequent workouts because your muscles are still fatigued.

RELATED: How fast should your easy long runs be?

What you can do:

While running your easy days faster might seem like a fast path to achieving your goals sooner, it will actually hinder your progress. By running too fast on your easy days, you don’t maximize aerobic development and you run the risk of being too tired to perform the essential workouts that will make you faster.

Take a cue from 2:37 marathoner and Olympic Trials qualifier Camille Herron and slow your easy runs down. Despite having a marathon pace of 6 minutes per mile, Camille runs her easy days at 8:30-9:00 minutes a mile (and oftentimes slower). In doing so, she has been able to keep herself healthy after seven stress fractures over the course of two and a half years. She also dropped more than 10 minutes from her marathon time.