Those of us in the New York City area tend to love our sports, and I’m sure most people are happy that both of the city’s football teams won their games on Sunday. I’m more interested in the training for football than the actual games themselves, so the wins weren’t that important to me. What I do find a little more impressive is that during the New York City marathon, the runner total and first place time were both course records. 47,107 started the race this year, with Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya breaking the decade old record, crossing the finish line at 2:05:06. Mutai also won the 2011 Boston Marathon, completing the fastest ever 26.2, at 2:03:02. (Unfortunately for him, that’s not recognized as a world record.) To Geoffrey and his fellow runners, congratulations on all your hard work.
If you know how I generally feel about high volume endurance training, you may be thinking that there’s something wrong with me. Why am I talking about Marathons? I must be going crazy! No, crazy is running 26.2 miles…
Despite that, plenty of people participate in the roughly 500 marathons held around the world each year. Very few of them enter for the purpose of winning; there are professional runners who train year round for these events. If you’re not going to win, then why do it?
If I were conduct a poll I’m sure that I’d have a different answer from each person I asked. In general, people tend to run for reasons related to either the challenge of the event, or their health. If you run a marathon for that sense of accomplishment, or because it’s hard, that’s your prerogative, but I will remind you that things didn’t turn out too well for Pheidippides, who started this whole trend. The young Athenian herald ran 150 miles in two days, then ran 25 miles from the battlefield near Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory over the Persians. After announcing “Nenikékamen!” (“We have won”) he collapsed and died on the spot from exhaustion.
While we don’t want to recreate Pheidippides exact results, most people consider running a marathon, or at least training for one, to be the pinnacle of aerobic fitness, the panacea of lifestyle related disease. Thanks to some important research and intelligent marketing from Dr. Kenneth Cooper starting in 1968, the vast majority of the exercise world begins and ends their definitions of health and fitness with aerobic exercise. It is pretty important, isn’t it?
Cardiovascular fitness is certainly important, don’t get me wrong, but there’s a lot more to fitness than putting in your miles on the pavement. Let’s take a swing over to the over side of athletic performance, shall we? If the super high volume event of the marathon is considered important, let’s think about a very low volume event; powerlifting. For the sake of these examples, I’m going to think about who is considered the best in each sport; the fastest time and the biggest weight. As of right now, Donnie Thompson is the strongest man in the world, being the first person to ever total 3,000lbs. Check out his World Record 1260lb squat:
Donnie squats 3 times more than me, and I can’t even fathom having that weight on my back. I also can’t fathom running a marathon, so we’re at a fair starting point. Outside of world class sports performance, plenty of people participate in recreational exercise, including long distance running, and strength training using the traditional exercises, such as the squat. As a culture, we tend to be a little biased about them.
If you were to compare a picture of both Geoffrey and Donnie, not on the course or on the platform, most people would assume Donnie’s severely overweight and Geoffrey’s rather underweight. Both would be true statements. When you compare them as world class athletes, they’re undeniably the best of the best, albeit at opposite ends of the strength/endurance spectrum. Both men know much more than I do when it comes to preparing for their respective sports, and if I were to compete in either, I’d differ to their expertise. Thing is, I’m not competing, and odds are you aren’t either. You’re likely just trying to be somewhere in the middle, right? Have good cardiovascular capacity, be able to pick up heavy(ish) things, look decent in a bathing suit. Well then, why is your training so skewed to one side instead of the other?
Before I continue, let me point out the irony in me complaining about the way that people exercise in a country where our 34% of our population is considered overweight and another 34% is considered obese. If you think about it, practically anything we can do to exercise is going to be good for us! That’s certainly true, and I agree; we need to move more, regardless of how we’re moving. Once we are moving though, we should make more of that time involve barbells instead of those silly little 2.5lbs Zumba weights.
Most exercise programs tend to go heavy on the aerobic exercise, often neglecting the rest of your body; you do have more muscles than your heart, ya know! If you’re living a sedentary lifestyle, you’ll certainly need to plan in your aerobic exercise. (You should probably also look into changing that sedentary lifestyle.) We constantly hear about the negative effects that physical inactivity has on the heart, lungs, and circulatory system, but it also has plenty of bad effects on the myofacial, skeletal, and nervous systems. Want a quick example? Okay! Let me predict that you’re sitting down while you read this. If you’ve been there for a while, it’s likely that your hip flexors have shortened because they don’t need to maintain their full length. At the same time, your glutes have stretched out. If I’m assuming that you read sitting down on a regular basis, I can predict that the adaptive shortening/lengthening of muscles occurs regularly, and you have some sort of chronic tightness in your hip flexors, and some weak glutes. You might not know what Janda looks like, but he knows what you look like:
“Experimentation becomes gesture. Gesture becomes habit. Habit becomes posture. Posture becomes structure.” -Vladimir Janda
Following Dr. Janda’s logic train, you can see how the habit of physical inactivity can really beat your body up. When it comes to those who turn to long distance running as a way of regaining or improving their fitness levels, most are starting at a level of inactivity that’s not conducive to their musculoskeletal health. If you’re a runner yourself, or you know a runner, when was the last time you were injured? (The commonly reported injury rates vary between 24%-77%, so I’m confident it’s happened relatively recently.) If you’re injured, you can’t run. If you can’t run, you can’t develop your fitness. For that week or so, you’re going backwards, unable to train. In that sense, running to improve your fitness makes about as much as sense as my ex-girlfriend dating the guy she said was an idiot who would only ever date stupid girls. You can’t explain that.
Let’s get back to our Greek friend who collapsed after his run. I doubt that he was prepared for the task at hand, but think about his 300 allies who were protecting the pass at Thermopylae. In this historically accurate picture that dates back to 480BC, does it look like King Leonidas was an avid long distance runner? I don’t think so.
When it comes to planning what you’re doing in the gym, I think a focus on movement and strength training should take a priority to dedicated aerobic work. From a practicality standpoint, you can develop aerobic fitness by increasing your activity throughout the day, but you probably can’t use a barbell to develop musculoskeletal strength throughout the day. We began by comparing the fastest marathon runner in the world to the strongest squatter in the world. If we combine the two, and look towards the middle, think about the fastest sprinters in the world. Not only can these folks lift some heavy weight and develop power, they also have very respectable cardiovascular capacity. I think that almost everyone would agree that they’re at the top when it comes to both physical performance and aesthetics. For about the 896th time since I began writing, here’s one of my favorite pictures:
When it comes down to exercise you can enjoy throughout your life time, I know that you’re going to stick with the things that offer you the most pleasure. Maybe that’s running 26.2 miles, maybe that’s squatting singles. Whatever it may be, good for you! If you’re looking to maximize your physical potential and health, it should probably be somewhere in between. Sure, go for a long jog every once in a while. Clean up your squat and push your numbers up. Have some fun kicking your own butt so you can come back for more the next day. Enjoy yourself.
If I ever happen to compete in a marathon or a powerlifting meet, I’ll be sure to let you know.