How to Get (Even) Faster

Are there any shortcuts in training?

You bet.

I’m guessing you expected a resounding “No!”

In fact, there are few shortcuts to improving fitness and race results. Yet, very rarely, someone discovers a new approach to improving fitness, faster. I stumbled across such an insight recently, and I’m eager to share it.

It started when I listened to a podcast by Running Times editor Scott Douglas with masters ace Pete Magill.

In the interview, Magill cites evidence that one of the most important factors in age-related speed loss is loss of leg strength, resulting in a shorter stride length.

Magill has the creds to deserve a listen. At 48, he was the world’s top-ranked 45-49 5K runner, and at 47 he ran a 14:49 road 5K, making him the oldest runner ever to break 15 minutes. He also holds U.S. 45-49 age-group records at 3000m (8:36) and 10,000m (31:27).

Magill cited the two biggest mistakes runners make, regardless of age. First, he says, we train too hard, often much harder than is needed to get the desired results. The mistake here is that we train so hard that our bodies can’t recover, so we don’t improve, and may even lose fitness.

The second mistake is that we look for shortcuts to our goals. Magill says, “The truth is this — the fastest way to become a better runner is to take your time getting there.”

Magill believes we need to aim for gradual, steady progress. And we need to schedule our target races so that we have plenty of time to understand how our bodies are responding to our training.

At one point in the interview, Scott Douglas played devil’s advocate, when he asked Magill about master’s runners who believe they don’t have time for a long training buildup, since every day takes them farther from their peak years.

Magill began his answer by explaining why he believes in training “by effort, not by pace.”

He described how, at age 40, he would do an easy 7-mile recovery run two days before a race. He generally did the run in around 45 minutes. Four years later, he was running the same course in 49 minutes. At that point, he decided to take off the stopwatch and run at the pace that he sensed his body could comfortably handle on the day. Two weeks later, he timed the run in 61 minutes — 12 minutes slower! Magill says it was a big eye-opener, because it helped him understand how he’d been overriding his body’s signals and ignoring its real needs.

He began doing all his training the same way, running at a pace that felt exactly right, judging by the feedback from his body. In time he realized, “When I get out there, I know what pace I’m supposed to be running.”

When asked why runners slow as they age, Magill pointed out that age-related slowing begins as early as age 30, when many runners have already been training “the same old way” for perhaps 10-20 years, and the muscle fibers responsible for efficient running form have atrophied from repeating the same, inefficient workouts over and over.

“Almost ever single study done for the last 20 years shows that runners maintain the same stride frequency (the amount of times we’re turning our stride over) even to our sixties, seventies, and eighties. What’s happening — and I think it accounts for a lot of the slowdown in masters runners — is that over that same period of time we lose up to 40 percent of the stride length…. If you aren’t going out and trying to maintain that stride length, you’re getting slower.”

Magill recommends plyometric drills to “reactivate those muscle fibers, correct imbalances, give us back our youthful stride, and help protect us from injury.”

He recalls how a high school friend, a former college NCAA Division I distance champion, was dismayed, upon reaching his mid-forties, by how much his speed had deteriorated. His 5K times had fallen to a distressingly slow, for him, 19 minutes. Magill said, “Dude, you gotta try drills — you gotta maintain that stride.”

Magill couldn’t persuade his friend to do the plyometrics, but he did convince him to do hill workouts of 8-10 repeats of about 40 yards.

After the first session, his friend emailed him: “How long is it supposed to be until those hill repeats have an effect on my stride.”

Magill answered: “Dude — instantly.”

Starting the next day, he found that he could run faster with equal effort. And two weeks later he ran a 17-minute 5K — a two-minute improvement.

In the podcast, Magill draws the obvious conclusion: while other runners our age are losing up to 40 percent of their stride length, being able to maintain our stride can give us a huge advantage.

To learn Pete’s drills, watch his entertaining video, “Masters Stars Demonstrate Running Form Drills.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found it disconcerting to be cruising at 80% of max heart rate — a strong aerobic effort — and have other runners pass me, looking as if they were making the same effort as I. At 80% of MRH, surely I should be going faster! What could I do to improve?

For about eight months, I’ve been doing Lydiard-style aerobic base training. I do a weekly 2½-hour long run at a “medium to high aerobic pace,” as Lydiard recommended. The long run has gradually become easier. I enjoy it very much, but I’m sensing that it’s time to move on to the next phase, which is hill running.

I’m following the Lydiard Foundation’s official training guide: Keith Livingstone’s book, Healthy Intelligent Training: The Proven Principles of Arthur Lydiard. I highly recommend it, because it’s like an extended conversation with the master himself — a “Lore of Lydiard,” with many interesting stories and tips from Lydiard and his disciples.

I had imagined that Lydiard’s hill phase would involve — well, simply running up hills of a prescribed length and steepness, at a prescribed pace. And I was surprised to find that Lydiard taught drills very similar to those Pete Magill recommends — the difference being that while Magill has his runners do them on grass, in light training shoes, Lydiard’s runners did them on hills of varying steepness.

I’ll skip the details, because I don’t want to steal Magill’s or Livingstone’s fire. Suffice it to say that I now had three options for improving my stride length and speed, and I didn’t know which to choose.

The first was Lydiard’s drills.

On a recent run, I chose a route over hills that I thought would offer the right combination of slope and length once I began doing the drills. Trotting down a hill, I decided it was the right configuration for Lydiard’s “Steep Hill Running” exercise. Halfway down, I turned around and did the drill for about 5 seconds. I knew it wasn’t wise to mess with plyometrics during a long run, but I wanted to see how it felt.

To my not terribly great surprise, after the run I felt a twinge in my right ankle. Hmm — was it really smart to start doing these very strenuous drills at my age? And what about Pete Magill’s grass drills, which seemed equally risky for an old dude like me.

Whenever I face a choice between several alternatives, and I have no clue which one is right, I find the smartest thing I can do is to get calm and ask a higher intelligence for guidance. It seems self-evident to me that the universe either (a) emerged from an unknown but strictly material source, as most atheists and biologists believe; or (b) that it was created and is sustained by a conscious source of vast intelligence and energy.

As a corollary, if that primal source is infinite and conscious, then it’s probably also infinitessimal — that is, not only infinitely large, but infinitely small and capable of helping me figure out my running. I’ve tested the latter hypothesis for about 44 years, asking thousands of questions, and I find that when my questions are sincere, and when I really mean business, I always get answers.

After asking for help, I felt inspired to re-read the weight-training chapter in Healthy Intelligent Training, which suggests that runners can reap nearly all the benefits of hill drills with weight work of a specific type.

That was my third option.

Keith Livingstone explains that the goal of hill running is to activate the trainable fast-twitch type IIB fibers and their associated nerve networks, and that doing deadlifts with very heavy weights accomplishes essentially the same physiological changes. For example, a deadlift workout might include 1-5 sets of 1-5 reps with weights of 85-100% of our one-rep max, for no more than 10 seconds per set and a 5-minute break between sets. Of course, deadlifts done slowly, with proper form, are much safer than plyometrics, especially for older runners. (To determine your one-rep max, see the note at the end of the article.)

Livingstone credits running coach Barry Ross with helping him understand how heavy lifting can help runners improve. I spent a long time on Ross’s BearPowered website and was fascinated by the stories of runners who’d improved their times thanks to the deadlift. I bought his downloadable ebook, Underground Secrets to Faster Running and read it that evening.

Ross cites a 2000 Harvard study by Peter Weyand, Ph.D., “Faster top running speeds are achieved with greater ground forces not more rapid leg movements.” (You can download a PDF of the study here.)

In the same year as the Weyand study, a 14-year-old high school freshman approached Ross and asked him to guide her weight training. Her name was Allyson Felix, and as you may be aware, she would win six World Championships golds at 200m, 4x100m, and 4x400m, as well as a gold in the 4x100m at the 2008 Olympics, and Olympic silvers in the 200m in 2004 and 2008.

Of the three options before me — hill drills, grass drills, and heavy lifting — the one that elicited the clearest feeling of “rightness” was deadlifts.

I wondered, of course, if lifting very heavy weights at my age (68) would absolutely destroy my back. I was aware that Clarence Bass and others were lifting heavy, well into their sixties and seventies. But every athlete is an experiment of one.

I went to the gym and did a heavy session of deadlifts, topping out with two reps at 95% of my one-rep max. It felt as if every cell in my feet, ankles, legs, and back was being worked hard, and that all the nerves to the cells were being blasted with energy. After the workout, my body felt stimulated and alive.

The next day, during a relaxed 30-minute run, darned if my pace wasn’t a bit quicker. Two young women, probably 40 years younger than I, passed me, yacking happily, but not as easily as they’d have done a week before. Dude — the results were immediate.

A word about deadlifts. When I ran ultras, I built up my leg strength using the inclined leg-press machine, working up to five sets of 12 reps, starting at 190 lbs and topping at 605. My legs became tireless on the trails, and my piriformis sciatica vanished. But it was a different kind of strength. It didn’t increase my stride length or make me faster, just tougher and more enduring.

Barry Ross points out that pushing a weight away from the body (as with the leg-press machine) works the muscles very differently than pushing a weight away from the floor (as in the deadlift). The latter develops the type IIB fibers, whereas the former doesn’t; instead, it’s likely to build mass, which runners would want to avoid.

Also, limiting each set to 10 seconds prevents delayed-onset muscle soreness and allows the muscles to recover faster, enabling a runner to repeat the workout 3-5 times per week. The metabolic systems that create inflammation and soreness don’t kick in until after about 10 seconds. According to Barry Ross, deadlift sets longer than 10 seconds activate slow-twitch fibers and increase muscle size.

A word of caution: if you have any history of back problems, or even mild twinges, see your doctor before you undertake heavy lifting. In fact, it’s far better to begin conservatively and ease into the heavier lifts, as both Ross and Livingstone recommend. If you’re unable to do the heavy lifts, you can always try working your way gradually into the plyometric drills.

Runners should be aware of another factor that can limit leg strength: dehydration. A 2008 study, Active Dehydration Impairs Upper and Lower Body Anaerobic Muscular Power, found that muscle power decreases by up to 19% at a dehydration level of 3% (3% of total body weight). That’s highly significant. Moreover, the participants’ perception of fatigue increased by a massive 70%. Not the kind of feeling you’d want to carry into the gym or a race!

Notes:

How can I calculate my one-rep max without actually lifting that much weight the first time?

You’ll find a handy one-rep max calculator here. Alternatively, to ballpark your one-rep max, divide your 2 rep max weight by .95; or your 3-4 rep max weight by .90; your 5-7 rep max by .85; your 8-12 rep max by .80; or your 18-15 rep max by .70.

The calculator and formulas will give you a fairly close approximation of your one-rep max. It’s a lot safer than going to the gym and trying for your one-rep max too soon, and perhaps breaking some body parts.

How long will it take my legs to recover after doing heavy deadlifts?

As Ross and Livingstone predicted, I’ve experienced no soreness after doing brief, heavy deadlifts every other day. However, my system definitely felt “stretched” afterward.

Two days after a heavy workout, I set out for a long run, on a route that includes long, steep hills. Knowing that my body was recovering from the weight work, I started at a relaxed pace, content to have an easy day and only do as much as my body could handle.

The long, easy warmup is a topic I discuss often in my book and these articles — I suspect it did its usual magic, because I ended up running 2½ hours. My heart rate was a notch higher than usual, but my body seemed to handle the run well, without strain, and I recovered normally. I’m guessing that this particular type of weight work stresses different bodily systems than a long, easy run does.

What other results have you experienced from heavy, short lifting with long rest?

I’ve been doing heavy deadlifts for only two weeks, but I’ve already had notable results. Arthur Lydiard’s weekly schedule for the aerobic base-building phase calls for two runs at 80% to 85% of max heart rate. That’s a brisk clip — it’s “sub-threshold” running, at or near the highest aerobic pace. Those runs are important, because they gradually push up the anaerobic threshold, so you’re able to run faster, aerobically. I’ll write about that in a separate article. Suffice it to say that this morning I did my first sub-threshold run, for 47 minutes, and my legs felt great throughout — much stronger than they would have, just two weeks ago. This, despite my age, 68, and despite having set a new one-rep max of 245 lbs in the deadlift yesterday. I’m a believer.

How can I learn correct form for the deadlift?

Former over-40 world-champion bodybuilder Clarence Bass read the article and reminded me to tell readers how important it is to keep the back straight and “pull with the hips” while deadlifting.

Most of the effort comes from straightening the legs. Don’t shrug your shoulders or arch backward at the end of the lift.

Barry Ross tells his coaching clients to lift just past the knees, then drop the weight to the floor. He says it allows doing more reps in 10 seconds. But that might be frowned upon at some gyms!

There’s a long scientific explanation of the deadlift on the BodyBuilding.com website.

On YouTube you’ll find what I think of as Mark Rippetoe’s deadlift college. Start the first video and a series of videos will begin to play, one after the other.

Are there other good sources of information on short, heavy lifting?

After writing the article, I spent time with my copy of Pavel Tsatsouline’s excellent book, Power to the People. Pavel is the former Soviet special forces strength trainer who brought Russian kettlebells to the U.S. He’s a great believer in the deadlift; his discussion is entertaining and thorough.

Are squats as effective as deadlifts?

For my thoughts on this, please see my response to Robert Wildes’s comment.

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2 Responses to How to Get (Even) Faster

  1. Robert Wildes March 26, 2010 at 7:55 am #

    I think that squats are superior for the purposes stated.

    I have Ross’ book and have spent some time on his website
    also. I simply feel that the squat is a superior exercise
    for runners for at least two reasons. It is easier, in my
    opinion, to squat with decent form versus the DL and the
    squat is much better for flexibility, which is a problem
    for many aging runners.

  2. runbei March 29, 2010 at 9:31 am #

    Robert – I agree, squats are more likely to create strength with flexibility. In fact, Barry Ross says that for the purpose stated – to increase power to the ground – squats and deadlifts are equally valuable. He spends 3-4 pages analyzing the differences and explaining his reasons for choosing the DL. Essentially, they boil down to – deadlifts don’t require equipment or spotters when we’re working with very heavy weights. Also, with the DL you can drop the weight after lifting to just above knee height, allowing more reps to be done in 10 seconds. He points out that a full squat with 95% 1RM can take up to 20 seconds – far longer than an equivalent deadlift. (It’s easy to do 2 reps of 95% with a DL.) Because lifting heavy beyond 10 seconds evokes a different neuromuscular response, you get soreness and increase in mass, which isn’t what a competitive runner would want.

    I agree with you – I love the squat. And as you say, it’s easier to learn than correct DL form. I do find that when I nail correct form, the DL becomes much easier – it’s why I’ve returned to the Mark Rippetoe videos on YouTube to be sure I’ve caught all the nuances.

    Another point Barry Ross makes is that the DL targets more muscles in the upper body, making it a more efficient lift if overall strength is your goal. Thanks for the comment – always appreciated.

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