| January 4, 2017

Fitness, Health & Fitness, Health & Sports, Podcast

Podcast #266: The Myths and Truths of Distance Running

There are some people who absolutely love running, and others who flee screaming from it. They hate how it feels, and they think it’s a poor form of exercise because it overly stresses the body, causes tons of injuries, and doesn’t even help you lose weight. Right?

Are these objections accurate? Today I talk with competitive runner Jason Fitzgerald to get his answers. Jason is a USA Track and Field certified coach and has finished in first place in marathons and obstacle course races across the country. He’s also the owner of Strength Running, a website that provides coaching and programming for long-distance runners who want to not only get faster, but become stronger and more durable. 

Today on the podcast, Jason and I discuss some of the myths about long-distance running that keep people away from the sport, why runners often neglect strength training (but shouldn’t), and what programming should look like when first starting out with running, as well as when you want to get more competitive.

Whether you’re a veteran runner, someone who’s made a new year’s goal to train for a 5K or marathon, or think you don’t want anything to do with the sport, you’ll find this an interesting show. It’s maybe convinced me to put down my barbell now and again and go for a run. Maybe.

Show Highlights

  • Why a lot of people hate running
  • The parallels between strength training and running
  • The importance of having a program or plan in place for your running
  • Example programming for new runners
  • Will you lose muscle mass if you take up running?
  • Why runners should incorporate strength training
  • What a strength program can look like for a runner
  • The runner-specific strength exercises that can help prevent injury
  • An example weekly schedule for a runner which includes regular strength training
  • Examining the criticisms levied at distance running
  • Does running have a high injury rate, and what are the most common injuries?
  • The three “too’s” which predispose a runner to injury
  • The importance of form, cadence, and pace (and what those all mean)
  • Jason’s approach to dieting and nutrition for runners
  • Does slower, low-heart-rate running work?
  • How elite runners train, and what the Average Joe can take from them

Resources/Studies/People Mentioned in Podcast

If you’re looking to compete in a 5K, obstacle course race, or even a marathon this year, be sure to check out Jason’s site Strength Running for lots of free advice. He’s also got a podcast. And if you really want to make a commitment to improving your running, consider signing up for one of his coaching programs.

Connect With Jason

Jason’s Website

Jason on Twitter

Jason on Instagram

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. While there are some people who absolutely love running and there are others who flee screaming from the sport. They hate how it feels, they think it’s a poor form of exercise because it overly stresses the body, causes tons of injuries and doesn’t even help you lose weight. Are these objections to running true? Today I talk with competitive runner Jason Fitzgeraldg to get his answers. Jason is a USA Track and Field certified coach and has finished first in marathons and obstacle course races across the country. He’s also the owner of Strength Running, a website that provides coaching and programming for long distance runners who want not only to get faster but become stronger and more durable.

Today on the show Jason and I discuss some of the myths about long distance running that keep people away from the sport, why runners often neglect strength training, like barbell exercises, but they shouldn’t, and what programming should look like when first starting out with running as well as when you want to get more competitive. Whether you’re a veteran runner, someone who’s made a New Year’s goal to train for a 5K or a marathon or think you don’t want anything to do with the sport you’ll find this an interesting show. It’s maybe convinced me to put down my barbell now and again and go for a run, maybe. After the show is over check out the show notes at aom.is/strengthrunning, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Jason Fitzgerald, welcome to the show.

Jason Fitzgerald: Thanks so much for having me.

Brett McKay: You are a long distance runner, competitive yourself, you also coach other long distance runners. You have a site called Strength Running. What I love about your approach to running … You’ve written content for our site about strength training and running, preventing injuries during running and training for obstacle course racing. What I love about you is you emphasize strength training and running, unlike a lot of other … Sometimes I feel like runners overlook the importance of strength. We’ll get into the details of strength training and how you incorporate that into a running program. Let’s do some defense here. There are some people who don’t like running, long distance running, and I’ll admit I’m one of those guys. I like to sprint, I like doing obstacle course racing but the idea of running a 10K, a marathon, I don’t know if I want to do that. What do you think are some of the reasons that people hate running or think they hate running?

Jason Fitzgerald: Good question. I’ll be the first one to say that I didn’t always like running either. I was the kid in middle school during track and field week that was throwing the shotput and trying to do the 100 meter hurdles instead of doing the mile run. I tried to avoid it at every opportunity. It definitely is a learned passion. I think a lot of people don’t like running because they don’t give it a chance. Just like any sport it takes a few months to acclimate and get used to it and become proficient enough at it where every single run is not a struggle.

Imagine if you’re a strength athlete, Brett, you go into the gym, someone who’s never lifted before, and you try to do a clean and jerk. You probably aren’t going to be very good at it, you’re probably going to hurt yourself if you put too much weight on there and it’s not going to happen. I think a lot of people take that same principle and try to apply it to running. They go for a couple of runs and then they try to run a 5K or a 10K and they realize, wow, this is a lot harder than it seems and I don’t know if I like it.

The other thing that I see all the time is that runners try to make running too hard. They don’t have a purpose to their training, they’re not very strategic and most of the runs end up being either hard or this moderate effort where they don’t have any easy runs, they don’t have any recovery runs and without that balanced approach they’re destined to either get hurt or get overtrained. There’s a lot of problems that come with making running harder than it has to be.

With all that said I am not in the business of getting people to like running. If you don’t like running, that’s fine, go find something you do enjoy that gets you motivated to get out and exercise and live a healthier lifestyle. If you’re not someone who enjoys running then first I’d say give it a chance, let’s do it the right way, let’s do it with a proper structure to your training. At the end of the day if it’s not for you then that’s totally fine.

Brett McKay: I’m one of those people not having a program when I’ve run in the past. Okay, I’m going to go for a jog today. I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing and the next time, okay, I’ll try to do a little bit faster or should I go longer? I have no clue. The lack of direction threw me for a loop.

Jason Fitzgerald: It sounds like me in the gym. I have the exact same problem when it comes to strength training because I get in the gym and I don’t like to lift very much. I would so much rather run 10 miles than go in the gym and lift for 45 minutes. I’m the same way. If I don’t have a program, if I don’t understand why I’m doing what I’m doing, then I’m going to get in the gym and randomly do some strength work but it’s not in the systematic way that’s going to help me develop the habit of lifting just like it’s so important to develop the habit of running over a long period of time. I think no matter if you’re a runner, if you like to lift weights, you have to have a program and it needs to be a good program.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about that programming before we get into some of these other questions. What does running program … What does programming for running look like? Say if you’re a beginner, someone’s listening to this, yeah, I want to run a 5K. What would programming look like for that?

Jason Fitzgerald: Now, are we talking about just the running itself or the strength work in addition to that?

Brett McKay: Let’s talk both. Let’s talk about running first and then how you would incorporate the strength training into that.

Jason Fitzgerald: Sure. I think it all comes down to the level of whatever runner we’re talking to. If this runner is a total beginner, they haven’t gone for any runs in, let’s say, six months or a year, in other words a long time, then the first real principle of a good training plan is simply developing that consistent habit. They need to get into the good routine of going out, let’s say, three times a week for, I would say, 20 to 30 minutes. Then after a couple weeks we can start ramping that up, they can get into 45-minute runs and then maybe after two or three months they can start getting into 60 to 90-minute runs. It has to be done in a progressive way. We can’t increase mileage too quickly, we can’t introduce too much intensity too quickly. Intensity is the speed of your runs.

I think a lot of runners try to go out and I’m going to run three miles and I’m going to try to do it a little bit faster than the run before it. This isn’t a strategic approach to getting in better shape and improving upon a race time, for example. The programming for a true beginner is about consistency with running and that’s it. The more advanced you are the more advanced things you can then do. You can get into more complex workouts, you can do long runs, you can do race specific types of long runs where let’s say for the marathon you’re including some goal marathon pace at the end of a 20-mile run. That’s admittedly very advanced, that’s a very advanced thing to do. A new 5K runner isn’t going to do something like that.

In terms of general programming we want to make sure the runner is starting where they are right now, not where they want to be or not where they used to be 10 years ago when they were a teenager or before they had kids and worked long hours. Knowing where you are now and having that level of self-awareness is critical. Then from there you take the next logical step. Maybe you increase your mileage by 5 or 10% every two or three weeks and you go from there. You very gradually increase the volume, you tentatively add intensity to the program so that you can work on not only speed but also the race specific endurance that you need to finish a good 5K or 10K.

Brett McKay: It sounds very similar to weight training programming. You want to add that stress, there are different types of stress you can add, volume or intensity, volume for weightlifting is repetitions, intensity is weight. You have a volume day where you maybe run long distance and then you have an intensity day and then in weight training you have a back off day where you might allow yourself to recover.

Jason Fitzgerald: Exactly.

Brett McKay: Same principles in running.

Jason Fitzgerald: Exactly. It’s funny, I think we have a mutual friend in Steve Kamb, and he runs the site Nerd Fitness. Last year I was a guest instructor at his camp and it was funny, we had a programming class where I was with two strength athletes and coaches who were talking about how to program for lifting. This was a power lifting focus, how to lift more than you can lift a month ago, for example. It was almost exactly the same, all the same principles are at play with running that are at play with strength training. It’s the stress adaptation cycle. You want to introduce a stress to the body, let the body recover and then in doing so it super compensates and allows you to get stronger faster with more endurance.

Brett McKay: Okay. Before we get to the strength training part of training for running, let’s talk about some of the myths that exist about distance running. One of those that is out there is that people say distance running diminishes muscle mass. I’m not going to do that because I don’t want to be skinny sinewy little guy, I want to be strong, I want to be … Is that true? Does distance running diminish muscle mass?

Jason Fitzgerald: It certainly can. Distance running is catabolic, in other words it breaks down muscle mass, but so does any endurance oriented form of exercise. If you’re hiking the Appalachian Trail that’s a catabolic activity, you’re probably going to lose muscle mass. The same thing is true for the elliptical or swimming or cycling. Any endurance sport is working on the cardiovascular system as opposed to the muscular side of things. Most runners don’t have to worry about this because they’re not going to lose any muscle mass if they start running.

Now it is problematic for, let’s say, runners who are over 40, or those running very high mileage or high intensity running programs. These runners must include strength training in their programming if they want to maintain muscle mass. Of course, with that said, I think every runner should include strength training in their running program because the benefits are undeniable, but those two types of runners have to include some strength training if preserving muscle mass is one of their goals.

More common, it’s that running is going to prevent additional gains in mass. For the average 30-, 40-year-old guy, you’re not going to lose muscle mass if you train for a 10K, for example. Presumably this type of athlete is also going to continue lifting weights at the gym in addition to any running training that they’re doing. They are not going to put on 20 pounds of muscle during that three month training period, for example, but they’re not going to lose muscle mass. I think for the runners who are trying to combine two opposing goals, like gaining 10 pounds of muscle and training for a marathon, then we’re in a situation where your goals are at odds with each other and you’re probably going to fail at both.

It’s definitely something that I think should concern older runners and it should concern particularly older runners who are more competitive because more competitive athletes are going to tend to run higher mileage, they’re going to have more intensity in their training program. These are the runners that are most at risk for losing muscle mass and potentially getting injured because of that. For those groups it’s definitely more important to include more traditional strength training, say lifting in the gym.

Brett McKay: Again, this goes back to your whole website, Strength Running, you’re a big proponent of runners incorporating strength training into their running programming. Why do you think most runners shy away from weights though? I know a lot of runners and a lot of them it doesn’t interest them, they’re incorporating on putting in the miles. Why do you think those runners shy away when they might stand to benefit from strength training?

Jason Fitzgerald: Yeah. I think the number one reason is that runners like to run, they don’t like to lift. I’m such a great example of that, even though my wife jokes around and calls me a core whore because I’m always doing some body weight strength work, I don’t like to go to the gym. Like I said, I’d rather go run 20 miles than spend an hour lifting weights in the gym. I think there’s this misconception that runners don’t lift. Runners who don’t train properly don’t lift. If your programming smart training for runners you’re definitely going to include some strength training there. If you look at why more specifically runners don’t lift, I think it’s an ignorance of proper training. If runners understood the long list of benefits of strength training, then they are definitely going to include it in their program if they want to become a better runner.

Brett McKay: What are the benefits of strength training for a runner?

Jason Fitzgerald: There are so many. The benefits of strength training for runners are enormous and if you’re a runner and you are getting in the gym once or twice a week to do some weight lifting, you’re including also some more runner specific body weight exercises, you’re going to have a faster finishing kick, this is how fast you’re able to finish a race, your form is going to be more economical, in other words you’re going to be more efficient, and use less energy to maintain the same pace. Your recovery from long runs and fast workouts is going to be faster, you’re going to have higher testosterone and your risk of repetitive stress injury is going to be dramatically lower. Any runner who listens to that and then says, “I’m not going to lift weights,” is doing themselves a disservice.

Brett McKay: What does a strength training program look like for running? What sorts of exercise should a runner be doing?

Jason Fitzgerald: Great question. I think the basics work the best, squats, dead lifts, those are probably the two best exercises for runners, and then of course there’s many different variations on those that you can do in the weight room. I think when it comes to programming strength training for runners, I think you need to look at it in two different ways. There’s, number one, more traditional strength training and that’s I think what people think of when they think of strength work. This is lifting weights, doing squats, doing dead lifts, racking up the weight and trying to lift heavy.

For distance runners there’s also this weird misconception that I don’t understand that runners are going to get in the gym and they’re going to lift for 15 or 20 repetitions because they’re lifting for endurance, they want muscular endurance. The problem is we get enough muscular endurance from running, we’re running all the time, we don’t need extra muscular endurance for lifting. What we do need is power, what we do need is strength, and we get that from lifting heavy weights. When you see runners in the gym they should be doing squats and dead lifts and other strength exercises that are basic fundamental multi-joint compound movements, but they also should have relatively heavy weight on there depending upon the athlete’s weight and ability and absolute strength. Those are the best strength and power exercises for runners. Most runners, if they’re ready to jump into a program like that, twice a week I think is a good baseline for how many times they should be lifting in the gym.

Then in addition to that, and this is the other side of things, the more injury prevention and more postural stability side, and that’s where we get into runner specific strength exercises. Here there’s a lot of core work, and core does not mean just your abs, I like to say it’s from your knees to your nipples, it’s everything from your hip flexors to your hips, your glutes, your hamstrings, your obliques, your lower back, it does encapsulate the entire trunk of a runner. That postural stability is important for injury prevention mainly because most injuries happen because runners get tired, and when they’re tired their running form falls apart. When your running form falls apart at the end of a race, at the end of a long run or a fast workout, that’s when you develop all these abnormal movement patterns and you become a lot less efficient. That’s when you start running in a certain way that predisposes you to overuse injuries. In addition to avoiding what I would call the three toos, which is doing too much mileage at too fast a pace too soon before you’re ready for it, trying to develop more postural stability is going to help with injury prevention.

Going back to frequency, if you’re lifting twice a week in the gym, then you should also be following all of your other running sessions with, I would say, about 15 minutes of more runner specific body weight strength exercises. I have an easy way for runners to remember to do this is to remember that every run should be sandwiched between a dynamic warmup and a runner specific core or strength routine. Then in addition to that you would go to the gym twice a week and lift more traditional weights with more traditional exercises.

Brett McKay: To give an idea, I’m trying to lay this out big picture, it would be like you run Monday, Wednesday, Friday, then Tuesday, Thursday you’re in the gym lifting?

Jason Fitzgerald: Sure, that schedule works.

Brett McKay: Okay. Is that enough? Is Monday, Wednesday, Friday enough running? I know some people they do it every day.

Jason Fitzgerald: That’s a good question and it depends on your definition of enough. If you want to finish your local 5K in a month then sure, that’s enough. If you want to see what you’re capable of, if you want to see what your potential might be as a runner, then the general principle of run as much as you can holds true in this situation. If you are trying to become a competitive runner, if you want to run at the college level and compete at university, if you want to be an age grouper and win age group awards or try to win some local races, then the more you can run the better runner you’re going to be.

With that said, the more that you run the more important strength work becomes because it’s almost balancing out the catabolic effects of high mileage. Yes, it can be very dangerous if you’re running 100 miles a week or something crazy like that and you’re not doing any strength work because you’re way more predisposed to injuries. If you’re running a lot then you have to be in the gym, you have to be doing some body weight work. For you to stay healthy it’s absolutely critical.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about another criticism levied at distance running, that it causes the body an unhealthy amount of inflammation and stress. There have been these studies people would keel over who look completely healthy, they look in shape, but after a marathon they keel over from a heart attack and then come to find out they had so much inflammation. What’s the thinking behind that idea and what’s your response to that claim?

Jason Fitzgerald: Yeah, there’s a lot of different ways that we can talk about this. The issue about runners dying at a marathon, that is … I think any time you have 30 to 40,000 people competing in a grueling event, and the marathon is grueling, there’s no doubt about it, it’s 26.2 miles, you’re running on concrete or asphalt, it’s very jarring on the body. The studies have shown that the deaths from marathon running are not because of the event itself but because of abnormal defects in that runner’s particular heart. When they get to a level where they’re very stressed at mile 23 or 25 of a marathon, that’s when issues start to happen with their heart.

When it comes to inflammation, that’s true, running does produce inflammation. I think it’s helpful to know that any hard exercise is going to produce inflammation and it’s not necessarily bad. Inflammation is necessary for that whole adaptation process. If you want to become a stronger strength athlete, you want some inflammation because if there was no inflammation your body would not get as strong or as fast. Unhealthy amounts of inflammation usually occur much more often when you’re running either very high mileage or high intensity or both with insufficient recovery. This isn’t necessarily specific to runners. If you try to play five games of ultimate frisbee every day for a week or you participate in the Crossfit Games, you’re going to experience an unhealthy amount of inflammation, that’s the nature of hard exercise.

When it comes to runners it gets to the fact that most runners are not training appropriately. You look at … I think there’s a straw man argument that is popular in the Crossfit world that runners are weak, they’re all on the treadmill every day running for 45 minutes or an hour at this medium-moderate intensity. That’s not how runners should be training and you’re never going to find a high school or college cross-country or track team training that way, you’re never going to find a professional runner training that way. I think if we all trained more like college-level athletes or professional athletes, scaled back of course, then we’d all be healthier with normal levels of inflammation that prompt that adaptation process and help us become better. At the same time we need to make sure that we’re recovering properly if we’re training hard and we’re doing everything we can to minimize unhealthy levels of inflammation while also recognizing that inflammation, to a certain degree, is our friend, it’s what helps us get faster.

Brett McKay: Right. You touched on injuries a little bit but another reason people shy away from running is the injury. They’re afraid of getting the bum knee, they pull a hammy. Does running have a pretty high injury rate? If so, what are the most common injuries to running? I think you mentioned the exercise you can do to prevent that, but anything else that people can do to prevent those types of injuries?

Jason Fitzgerald: Right. Unfortunately the injury rate is pretty high among runners. Some studies put it at roughly 70% of runners will get hurt this year and every year. That’s enormous. That’s higher than professional football. I think there’s a lot of reasons for that.

Number one is probably because running is an impact sport and it does require some skill. Most people think that it’s easier than that. People who are just getting into the sport of running, they train in unsafe ways and it leads them to fall victim to those three toos that I mentioned before, running too much too soon too fast. I think training errors is the number one reason why runners get hurt because they think that running is much more simple and easier than it is.

The other reason is that runners, we tend to be type A people. We don’t listen to our body if we’re sore or if something … We have a little niggle or something is bothering us. We’re very goal oriented and we look at that 10K that we’re training for next month or the fact that we’re chasing a Boston marathon qualifying time. We know that if we take three days off from training, that’s going to compromise our fitness and we might not reach our goal. We try to push through things even when we shouldn’t. I think this is such a big mistake that I see all the time. It’s funny, I’m a running coach and I think a lot of people see my job as the boot camp instructor, I’m yelling at everyone, “Do another lap, let’s go faster.” Where in fact a big part of my job is reining runners in, telling them that it’s okay to take an extra day off, it’s okay to cut a workout short, it’s fine, we must listen to our body and calm down a little bit and not push ourselves so hard.

Then of course the other part of it, and this resonates with me, is that runners tend to dislike strength training and strength training is a perfect complement to running and it very much is included in smart training for runners. I think if you combine all these things together, runners who aren’t strength training, they’re very goal oriented so they don’t listen to their bodies as much, and they think that running is easy so they run. I’m going to run 30 minutes and then next week I’m going to run 60 minutes and next thing you know they’re running way too much before they’re ready for it. That’s why the injury rate is high. It’s a big issue but I think if runners were to structure their training a little bit more intelligently, add in some strength work and listen to their body, the injury rate would be far lower than it currently is.

Brett McKay: Does running form have any role in that as well, the injury rate?

Jason Fitzgerald: Yeah, it does. Running form is definitely important. I think what we’ve learned in the last maybe five or 10 years of research is that it’s not as important as we thought. “Born to Run,” the famous running book that came out in about 2009 or 2010, it got everyone to think about running form and it pushed a lot of people to run in either very minimalist shoes or even try some barefoot running. I think what we learned from that is the pendulum swung way to the side of minimalist shoes and focusing on that element of form, which demonized heel striking. Now we’re learning that heel striking isn’t necessarily bad, the problem is if you’re an aggressive heel striker who’s also overstriding.

Overstriding is when you land a lot further ahead of the rest of your body. Ideally you would land directly underneath your body, underneath your hips, underneath your center of mass. If you do that it’s hard to overstride and it’s hard to aggressively heel strike. If runners reduce their overstriding and, in addition that, increase their cadence, which is the number of steps that you take per minute, to, I would say, roughly 170 or more while they’re running at an easy effort, then that’s going to take care of almost every running form flaw that is common among runners.

Brett McKay: It seems like the cadence could be helped by strength training, it’s a power issue. I feel like if you had more power you could increase that cadence a little bit faster. Am I wrong in thinking that?

Jason Fitzgerald: Good question and I’m not sure either way. A lot of runners struggle with increasing their cadence because they end up running faster. One of the best ways to increase your cadence while at the same time running the same pace, let’s say you’re running nine minutes per mile and you realize your cadence is 155 steps per minute, you can set a treadmill for a nine-minute mile pace and then play with your cadence. You’re not going to be able to run faster than that pace unless you plow straight through the treadmill, and that’s a good way to do it. Brett, I’m not sure if strength training has a direct effect on your cadence.

Brett McKay: Okay. Help me get my mind around because your cadence is different from your pace and that’s hard to … You think if you increase your cadence you increase your pace but that’s what most people want to do when they increase their cadence.

Jason Fitzgerald: Right. It’s interesting, the opposite side of taking more steps per minute is taking longer steps. There’s only two ways to run faster, you take faster steps or you take longer steps. A lot of people try to take longer steps by reaching out in front of them and then they’re overstriding, they’re heel striking, that’s not how we want to do it. How we want to lengthen our stride is to impart more force into the ground. If you’re doing that then you’re going to have a longer stride because your swing phase is going to be longer, your trail leg is going to swing behind your body. If you have good hip extension then that’s a nice movement and you’re going to cover a lot more ground with every single stride that you take.

Strength training will help with that. If you’re doing heavy squats in the gym then you’re much more likely to have a more powerful stride. That’s one of the reasons why heavy weightlifting is able to give you a faster finishing kick. You’re able to recruit more muscle fibers so that when it comes to draw upon those muscle fibers you can use them to run faster.

Brett McKay: A lot of people take up running to lose weight, drop some fat, but you see plenty of runners out there who have been running for months who still got the gut, the little ponza, that’s how you say it in Spanish. What’s going on there? Why is it that you can be running every single day but you’re not able to drop the fat or drop the weight?

Jason Fitzgerald: Right. I think you can find out of shape looking people who are involved in running, strength training, cycling, whatever. It’s not, I don’t think, specific to running itself. The reason is because running is not a cure all. You can be a runner and also be overweight. Diet is a lot more important than exercise when it comes to weight loss.

There’s this weird trend in the running world where you have these recreational runners who, they run a local 5K, they’re loading up on pasta the night before, they’re having an energy bar and a bagel before their 5K and then afterwards they’re going to have a Gatorade, treat themselves to a cookie. Of course maybe the race is giving away even more bagels, they have another bagel. Next thing you know in a 12-hour window this person has had 800 grams of carbohydrate and they’ve only run 3.1 miles. There’s definitely runners who treat themselves to way more processed carbohydrates than they should. That’s a big contributor to the fact that running is not necessarily going to slim you down because diet is a much more prominent factor in weight loss.

The other issue I think is inactivity. You might run 40 miles a week but if you’re spending the rest of your time sitting down then you might still be soft. You also have to live an active lifestyle and not just be totally sedentary for the other 23 hours of a day when you’re not running.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about diet a bit because there’s been a lot of discussion about that, the best diet for distance runners. Mark Sisson, who’s advocating high fat diets, very little carbs, and there’s that idea that you need to carbo load, your body needs glycogen or glucose to fuel these long distance runs. What’s your approach to dieting and running and training?

Jason Fitzgerald: Yeah, I think it’s not necessarily an either/or discussion, you can do both. You can of course eat a low carbohydrate diet if you’re not running very much, but carbohydrate is fuel and it is the body’s preferred fuel source. You’re not going to find any world class runners eating a paleo diet. When you get to 100-mile ultramarathon runners, you might find some at the world class level who are experimenting with a high fat, low carbohydrate diet, but that’s because the intensity of an ultramarathon at that level is so low and you don’t use as much percentage of carbohydrate at that level. It lends itself more to that kind of an approach. For the average person, not only does it take at least six months or so to adapt to the high fat, low carbohydrate diet, but it’s a difficult transition, you’re going to be cranky, it’s like giving up coffee.

The human body prefers carbohydrate, glucose is the preferred fuel source for the brain, it’s the preferred fuel source for any high intensity exercise. I think it all comes down to a runner’s goals. If you’re running very low mileage, if you’re running not necessarily a very high intensity program, then high fat, low carbohydrate diet might work well for you. If you’re a marathoner, if you’re running relatively high mileage, then carb loading is going to be very beneficial, particularly for the race itself. Carb loading has been shown to increase performance. There have been some researchers in Britain followed several … I think it was 200 London marathoners from a few years ago and they found that the runners who carb loaded the most ran the fastest and those that didn’t carb load ran the slowest. It was this very clear trend with carbohydrate consumption and your overall finish time.

I think when it comes to overall diet for distance runners it’s about fundamentals, it’s about the basics, whole foods, less processed foods and try to avoid refined sugars as much as you can. About balance, you don’t want to have meals that are strictly carbohydrate because then you’re going to be hungry an hour later. You want to try to include the major macronutrients in your eating program because that’s going to leave you fuller for longer, it’s more healthy all around and I think it’s going to be better for not only your performance but also for your recovery too.

Brett McKay: Piggybacking off this idea of carbohydrates versus fat, there’s a lot of advocates out there, Chris Macdougal, Mark Sisson, they say the high fat diet is great for aerobic because cardio or running is an aerobic activity. We’ve had both on the show to talk about this, they promote the idea this is heart rate running, where you try to keep your heart rate beneath 180 minus your age, I think is what it is. When you do that it ends up … You end up running slowly but the idea is that’s how you stay in aerobic phase where you’re burning fat not carbohydrates. What’s your take on that approach to training, that heart rate monitor training?

Jason Fitzgerald: Yeah, this sounds very similar to the Maffetone method where you essentially put on a heart rate monitor and for an extended period of time, maybe it’s a month, maybe it’s three months, whenever you go running you don’t exceed that heart rate. I have a couple issues with this approach because no major coach advises spending that much time only training the aerobic system, there’s a lot of other systems. There’s the anaerobic system, there’s the alactic system. To be a good runner, to be a well rounded runner, you need to make sure that you have every element in your training. Of course during the many phases of training, whether you’re in recovery mode or you’re trying to peak for a race, you’re in the middle of a competition phase of training or you’re early in base training, the focus is on different things but that doesn’t mean that you totally eliminate any of the essential aspects of training. You’re never going to not do easy runs.

At the same time, no distance runner should ever get too far away from never running fast, almost at the peak of their top speed. Now with that said, it doesn’t need to be a hard workout, you could do four strides after an easy run where you get up to 95 or 98% of your maximum speed, but you get a full recovery. They’re not even difficult, they’re just a drill almost in how you practice turnover and foot speed.

It’s interesting in theory but in practice you don’t see any elite runners do it and I think that’s the ultimate litmus test. If elite runners are not doing what these more general theorists are prescribing them to do then it means it doesn’t work. If it was working then you would have the best runners in the world doing the most forward thinking training that is being proposed. You don’t see that happen, you see runners that are running 80% of their mileage at that easy effort, but then 20% of their mileage is fast, it’s hard. You need that balance to reach your potential. If you don’t then you’re not going to get as fast as you would if you followed a more intelligent training approach.

Brett McKay: Jason, we covered a lot in this conversation but there’s a lot more for people to learn. Where can people learn more about your work and what you do?

Jason Fitzgerald: The best place is strengthrunning.com, this is where, just like the Art of Manliness, we have a blog, we have a podcast, a lot of different resources for runners. I try to focus on helping runners stay healthy long-term because that injury rate, like we discussed, is so astronomically high. If we can get runners to stay healthy and prevent those injuries then they’re going to be able to train like gang busters and become better runners than they ever thought. strengthrunning.com is probably the best option but I’m on Instagram and Twitter for those social media folks. What is my handle? @jasonfitz1, unfortunately my name was taken.

Brett McKay: Awesome. Jason Fitzgerald, thank you so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure.

Jason Fitzgerald: Thank you so much for having me.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Jason Fitzgerald, he is a USA Track and Field certified coach and the owner of Strength Running. You can find out more information about Jason’s work at strengthrunning.com. Also check out the show notes as aom.is/strengthrunning, where you find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

That wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice make sure you check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. Our show is edited by Creative Audio Lab here in Tulsa, Oklahoma. If you have any audio editing needs or audio production needs check them out at creativeaudiolab.com. As always we appreciate your continued support. Reviews on iTunes and Stitcher helps out a lot. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

Last updated: March 6, 2017

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