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Training: Go Beyond The Bare Minimum

Doing the mileage is one thing, but adding the little things to your training will help you reach your goals.

Doing the mileage is one thing, but adding the little things to your training will help you reach your goals.

In the movie Office Space — one of my all-time favoritesJennifer Aniston’s character, Joanna, is chastised for only wearing the bare minimum amount of flair (fancy pins on her suspenders) at the restaurant where she works. When confronted about her decision to wear only 15 pieces of flair, her manager, Stan, responds, “Now, you know it’s up to you whether or not you want to just do the bare minimum. Or, uh … well, like Brian, for example, has 37 pieces of flair.”

While this scene certainly helped make Office Space a cult classic, the message Stan is comically trying to convey to Joanna applies to many runners who are chasing down big goals and fast times. If this were a conversation between a coach and an athlete, it might look something like this:

Coach: We need to talk about your training.

Athlete: Really? I … I’ve been getting in all my runs and workouts.

Coach: Well, OK. Getting in the mileage is the minimum, OK?

Athlete: OK.

Coach: Now, you know it’s up to you whether or not you want to just do the bare minimum. Or uh … well, like Brian, the Boston Qualifier, for example, he’s doing extra things like core work, strides, stretching, ice baths. And he has a terrific smile.

Athlete: OK. So you … you, uh, want me to do more?

Coach: Look. Everyone’s putting in the mileage and workouts, OK? The ones that take their race times to the next level are the ones putting in the extra work. The little things. Got it?

You: Yeah. OK. So more then, yeah?

Athlete: Look, we want you to achieve your goals, OK? Now if you feel that the bare minimum is enough, then OK. But some people choose to push the limits and really see what they can do with their running and we encourage that, OK? You do want to get the most of your running, don’t you?

You: Yeah. Yeah.

Athlete: OK. Great. Great. That’s all I ask.

You: OK.

If you’re satisfied doing the bare minimum in your training, this article is not for you. However, if you want to take your training to the next level and find that extra five to ten percent to help you reach your ultimate goals, keep reading.

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Doing The Little Things

After winning a silver medal in the 1,500 meters at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, New Zealand’s Nick Willis was asked what he changed in his training to become one of the best milers in the world. “The main difference in 2008 was being more consistent with the little things. We call them the five percenters because they are the areas that only help you in the last five percent of your training … Starting in January, I did [core, strides, drills, and strength work] each week through to the Olympic Games in August. This I feel is what helped get me to the new level I achieved in 2008 compared to past seasons. The mobility, strength and speed these sessions gave my muscles allowed me to be much more consistent throughout the year.”

You don’t have to be an Olympian to benefit from what Wills describes as the “five percenters”. Beyond helping to improve your performance, doing the little things will help keep you injury-free and consistent in your training, which is a struggle for most runners.

What are the little things?

Typically, runners avoid the little things because they don’t think they have time to get them in or they feel they’re already doing enough. Certainly, fitting in grueling workouts with a busy work schedule and a family is difficult, but the following three little things add up to about 20 minutes per day of extra attention. When you’re questioning whether the bare minimum is enough for you, ask yourself: Is 20 minutes a day worth staying healthy and getting me closer to my goal?

Core And Hip Strengthening
Recent research has shown that a weak core and weak hips are two of the main contributors to most running injuries. Specifically, researchers have found that weak hip flexors and hip adductors are observed in almost all runners who suffer from IT band syndrome and patellofemoral joint pain (runner’s knee). Likewise, numerous research studies have demonstrated that core work (such as planks, back extensions, and oblique exercises) help prevent injuries, improve balance and improve running performance.

The good news from all this research is that you don’t have to perform hours of core work each day to make positive gains in hip and core strength to prevent injury. A 5- to 10-minute routine consisting of side leg lifts, clams, back bridge, plank, abdominal twists, and supermans can help keep you injury-free. If you have more time, you can perform a full set of running-specific core routines and a running injury prevention hip routine as well.

Muscular Training
As you’ve read here before, training your muscular and neuromuscular systems is critical to becoming a more efficient and economical runner. Not only does muscular and neuromuscular training improve performance, but it also helps prepare the body to better handle more rigorous speed work.

My two favorite forms of muscular work are strides and explosive hill sprints. Both are easy to add to the end of a run and require only 5 to 10 minutes of your time, but they provide a huge return on investment. Plus, they’re a lot of fun if you’ve been stuck in a mileage rut.

To execute hill sprints, find a steeper hill with a 7 to 10% grade. Stand at the bottom and, from a standing start, sprint up the hill as fast as you can. Land on the balls of your feet and pump your arms like a sprinter. The sprint is designed to be at maximum effort, so don’t go over 15 seconds. Six to 10 reps of 10 to 12 seconds is ideal. Walk slowly and gently back down the hill, rest until you are completely recovered, then begin the next repeat.

Strides, or 4 to 8 accelerations of 15 to 20 seconds in duration, can be added on to easy runs. Ease into the stride over the first 5 seconds, reach 90-95% of max speed for 10 seconds, and then decelerate the last 5 seconds. These strides will help you improve your running form and develop the neuromuscular system for more efficient running and a faster finish.

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Preventive Maintenance
Finally, be proactive in regards to potential injuries and stop them before they become serious. Heating before a run, performing a quick set of dynamic stretches during the warmup, and icing after a run are quick and easy ways to stay injury-free.

One of my favorite methods to proactively treat injuries is to take ice baths after my hardest workouts. The Cochrane Collaboration, a nonprofit organization of scientists and doctors who support evidence-based medicine, reviewed the major studies on ice baths and found that there was evidence that following intense exercise, cold water immersion reduced muscle soreness over the next several days. Simply immerse your lower body in a bathtub that is between 50-59 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes.

I also recommend heating any troublesome areas before running to improve blood flow to the area. While you don’t need to heat before every run, definitely take the time to warm up if you’re even the slightest bit tight or sore, especially if it’s a typical trouble spot.

Coach Jay Johnson is a big advocate of the lunge matrix as a dynamic and specific way to warm up your muscles and prepare them for all types of runs. Likewise, many runners have benefited from active isolated stretching before or after their runs. Regardless of which method you prefer, adding a dynamic warmup only takes about 5 minutes and can significantly reduce your injury rate.

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