Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Training for the Warrior Dash

Who doesn't want a furry Viking helmet?  
Over the past couple of years, obstacle course races such as the Warrior Dash have become insanely popular.  Since I first posted about training for the Warrior Dash, I've gotten a lot of inquiries from clients and other trainers about how exactly one should train for the Warrior Dash or similar short distance obstacle course races.  I've heard people tout everything from Crossfit to P90X to not training at all as being the best way to train for one of these races, but I believe there is a middle ground that can serve far more people, especially beginners, without getting too extreme or requiring a lot of equipment.  Obviously, the best training protocol is tailored for the individual, but with a little information, its relatively easy to tweak a program for your own needs and fitness level.

The first time I saw a video of the Warrior Dash on Youtube, I thought to myself, "Those people are crazy."

I also thought, "I want to do that".  

I watched a few more videos and realized that once you got past the mud, fire, and viking helmets, most of the folks running the race were quite diverse.  The majority of the participants were young and in relatively good shape, but there were a good number of middle-aged and even older folks, all kinds of body shapes, and equal numbers of men and women.  All of them seemed to be having a blast.  

Farmers walks are a highly underrated exercise for back
and grip strength as well as postural endurance.
It immediately occurred to me that this would be an ideal event to give to my clients as a training goal.  I was quite sure that all of them could, at the very least, complete the race.  A lot of my clients are my age or older and mainly train to maintain or improve their quality of life.  To me, this means making them strong and giving them a good base of power and endurance to get through their daily routines while still having some gas in the tank to play with their kids or whatever other activities they engage in.  I typically train folks with barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, and odd objects such as tires, ropes, sleds, sledgehammers, etc.  Our workouts consist of focused strength or power training followed by general conditioning work.  Although a lot of them can't do a single pullup, they can hang from a bar and do farmers walks with considerable weight so their grip strength is good which is what is needed for climbing over cargo nets or objects with ropes.  Therefore the only thing left to train was the actual distance, some obstacle specific movements, and the transitions between running and obstacles.    

If you are a full grown adult and you haven't run in a long time or never ran any considerable distances, working up to three miles can be a horrible experience.  No one wants to feel like they are inhaling fire while simultaneously being crushed under a large boulder.  

Perhaps I exaggerate a little bit . . . 

Regardless, the first thing we needed to address as a group was whether or not we could cover the distance.  Some of my clients were already regular runners running 3-4 miles 4-5 times a week and so this was a non-issue for them.  Some hadn't run regularly in a while, but had no problems working up to a few miles on their own.  Others needed a little more help.

For my rank beginners, for whom the fire and boulder metaphor might apply, we started with pacing intervals.  I described pacing intervals in a previous entry and I think it still gets the idea across rather clearly:

So, lets say you are used to walking or jogging at a moderate or pathetic pace, but every time you try and push yourself to go faster, you end up with a stitch in your side, or just plain worn out before you go the distance. Pacing intervals are designed to help you increase your intensity over time until you can maintain your new intensity for the entire duration of your run/bike/swim/row, etc.
For example, using a rate of perceived exertion scale, you are used to running at an intensity level of 5 on a scale from 1-10 with 1 being walking through the mall and 10 being close to death. You want to increase your pace such that the distance you run in 45 minutes is longer. To do this outright, you could just sprint. But after about 2-3 minutes, you would be lying on the side of the road, possibly vomiting.
Instead, try increasing the pace and/or intensity at which your run a set time or distance and then rest for a set period of time before repeating. If you were on a treadmill, let's say you are used to jogging at 4.5 miles per hour. To use pacing intervals, try increasing the speed to 5.5 mph for 2-4 minutes (don't push yourself to failure or you won't be able to complete the workout). Walk or jog to recover for 1-2 minutes.Repeat this interval for the normal duration of your run. If you don't rest too much, the immediate result is that you will have covered more distance. In the meantime, your muscles will have adapted to the higher demand for fuel and will start generating more mitochondria. Your respiratory and cardiovascular systems will respond to the increased demands for more oxygen and become more efficient. Over time, you will want to extend the length of the intervals until you are running the entire distance/time at the higher pace.  
Even marathoners had to start running one mile at a time.
So, the typical way in which I worked with my beginners was to have them run 400 meter increments of 1-2 miles with a 2 minute full rest, either walking or just standing between efforts.   We would typically do this at the end of a training session.  At least once a week, we would walk/run a full 3 mile distance and would gradually increase the distances we were running until we worked up to running the whole distance with only one or two breaks.

Now, my clients were relatively strong, but only about half of them could do a pullup or squat their bodyweight.  Here's the good news.  You don't have to be able to do a pullup or squat your bodyweight to complete an obstacle course race.  Most of the climbing involves using both your arms and your legs and/or using a rope to pull yourself up and over an obstacle while pushing yourself over with your legs.  So, although grip strength and the ability to hang from a bar will benefit you, you are more likely to benefit from being able to pull about half your bodyweight up a rope.  The more extreme races have monkey bars across relatively large bodies of water or pits of mud, but even monkey bars don't require a pullup so much as a flexed arm hang.

A strength endurance circuit of lunges, kettlebell swings,
situps, and pushups.  (Yes, I was making them pose.)
So, what kind of strength work do we need?  Its a good question and depends on the individual, but you want all your participants to have a good base of strength such that they can maintain their posture through a variety of tasks.  This requires strength endurance more than anything else and can be trained primarily with lighter resistance training or even just bodyweight training. You also want exercises that are going to support your running, climbing, and crawling over and under the various obstacles.  A little flexibility doesn't hurt either.   Lunges, squats, body rows, bear crawls, step ups, curls and presses, pushups, and whatever kind of core training you can imagine will all help your efforts.  Its easy enough to combine 4-6 exercises in a circuit of 15-20 reps of each for 4-6 rounds for a full body strength endurance workout.  As you get closer to your race, you can start combining these strength exercises with your running efforts.

For example:
Run 1 mile
Perform 20 lunges on each leg and 20 pushups
Run 400 meters
Perform 20 squats and 20 body rows
Run 400 meters
Bear crawl 30 meters
V-sit Russian twist, 20 reps to each side
Run 400 meters
Perform 20 weighted step ups and 20 kettlebell or dumbbell windmills, each side
Run 400 meters
Jump over fire (just kidding, save that for race day)

Tires are very useful.  If using them for box
jumps, be careful to step back down
and not jump, especially if you are a beginner.
If you want to get a little more intense with your training and you don't have a lot of equipment, get an old tractor or 18 wheeler tire (they are free if you can find a tire place that changes off road tires) and practice flipping it, dragging it with a rope, doing step-ups or jumping onto it, doing pushups off of it, or hitting it with a sledgehammer.

If you want to get a little more specific, the over/under obstacles are a good one to train specifically for.  Another tool that will help you with the over under obstacles and overall flexibility is a split rail fence.  Yup, go over and under it.  The typical height is about 3 feet.  If you don't have one, get four bales of straw.  stack two on top of each other, place the other two about 4 feet apart and put a length of PVC pipe or a broomstick across it.  Climb over the stacked hay bales by placing your hands on top and swinging your legs under.  Move under the pipe by getting low or, if you have a more substantial bar or board, swing yourself under it.  Repeat.

Right before crossing the finish line.

The last component is a willingness to get completely filthy and cold.  You're not just going to get muddy, you're going to be getting wet in yucky ponds that are full of who knows what and are typically a lot colder than the air.  I ran my first Warrior Dash in October and because my legs went numb halfway across the log-filled pond, I ended up diving over the remaining two logs before climbing out of the muck.  I don't mind being filthy, but you definitely don't want that stuff getting in your mouth.

At the completion of the first Warrior Dash I did with my group, all of us finished it, and all of us ran the whole thing.  Some members of our group even set some impressive times.  We were all filthy, banged up, some of us had a few cuts from the mud and gravel (and from grabbing a hold of the barbed wire, its not fake), but overall we felt good, no one was terribly sore after the fact, and we all had a great time.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Training Our Youth: What Happened?

 One of the big questions in the strength and conditioning community is "Are good athletes born or made?"  I think the answer depends on how you define the words "good athlete".  If you mean an individual who performs flawlessly at the top of his or her sport with tremendous strength, power, grace, and determination, well, that's mostly genetics.  If you simply mean someone who is dedicated and performs reasonably well under pressure, then we can cast a wider net.  I gave birth to one natural athlete and two others who are more like me, ie, can be improved with focused training.  All three benefit a great deal from the training we do at home which primarily takes the form of play and a little bit of work.  However, I think that if we are interested in raising a generation of healthy active people, we need to focus less on turning our children into great athletes and go back to focusing on general fitness.  This will serve both our athletes and our general population much better in the long run.

Kids develop skills such as balance and agility simply from
exploring their surroundings.  
Children, when playing, are doing the most fundamental and important sports training of their lives.  Hopscotch, playing tag, climbing trees, etc., builds strong agile bodies capable of performing a variety of tasks.  When children transition into playing sports, some will exhibit abilities that make them better suited for their sport of choice.  The natural inclination is to then to get the child to focus on one sport.

As a coach and a fitness trainer who has worked with kids of all ages, I find the focus on early sports specialization and the effect it has on children a little unnerving.  I see burnout and higher injury rates in the participants and I also see kids who try very hard to perform well being cut from teams because they aren't "good enough".  If the purpose of youth sports is to give kids a way to stay active and healthy, why has it it resulted instead in high injury rates and a focus on outcomes and not performance?  Winning is great and all, but its not everything.

According to the experts at Stop Sports Injuries, over 3.5 million children under the age of 14 receive medical treatment for sports injuries every year.  More than half of these are preventable.  More disturbing is that 70% of children drop out of youth sports by age 13 with the top three reasons being adults, coaches, and parents.  In high school athletes, 62% of injuries are from overuse.  The statistics are rather disturbing.

I have parents ask me regularly why there is such a high rate of sports injuries, particularly ACL injuries these days.  It didn't seem to happen when I was a kid.  I don't have any recollection of any noticeable sports injuries except for maybe one or two soccer or football players in high school.  But now, its rather commonplace.  I think there are two factors at play.  One being early specialization without proper strength development and injury prevention practices.  The other, is that in our digital age, kids aren't building that base of strength and conditioning by simply going outside.  I attended a lecture given by a track and field coach who stated that in his observation over the past 25 years, there has been an obvious decline in basic athletic skills of children including basic running mechanics, overall strength, and agility.  Kids are more delicate, less coordinated, and easier to break simply because they no longer go outside and play.

I read Dan John's new book Easy Strength this morning and in it, he talks about a concept of training quadrants in which athletes are characterized by the kind of training they need.  According to his model, children should be doing general strength and conditioning and learning a broad variety of sports and skills.  Calisthenics, bodyweight exercises and simply running are more than adequate for this accumulation phase.

In Verkoshanksy and Siff's book, Supertraining, they talk about the time it takes to begin playing a sport and to develop into a high level athlete.  This happens over decades, not years.  Furthermore, early specialization in the young athlete rarely results in a long athletic career in that sport.  It is recommended that children spend up to 3 years developing a base of strength and endurance with simple bodyweight exercises and calisthenics.

Jumping rope is an easy exercise
with a lot of carry over to other skills.
You can probably begin to see now the problem with children's training.  Here in America, we do the exact opposite of what the Russian sports scientists recommend based on their decades of research and observation.  Our kids aren't physically active and if they are, they are specializing too early and too intensely.  It would be nice if physical education programs at our schools could provide this general training base, however, kids may go to PE once a week these days, if at all.  I volunteered at my children's school to help with the Presidential Fitness Test and was a bit troubled by what I saw.  I had to teach fourth graders how to jump.  More than half of them couldn't even jog an eighth of a mile, that's 200 meters, without walking.  Half of them didn't know how to jump rope.  More than half of them were overweight.  I won't even get into the fact that there were first grade girls showing up to run wearing high heels.

Based on my own observations, I believe that the training base we establish as kids stays with us our whole lives.  One of the questions I ask my adult clients is what kind of sports did they play when they were younger.  I find that those are the energy systems and movement patterns that I can tap into first to get them started.  It might take a little waking up, but its there.  What if our youth today never get the opportunity to develop those qualities when they are young and easy to develop?  What is going to happen when they are adults? What is going to happen to all these young people who have had one or more joint surgeries in their teens?

I'm still pretty good at climbing trees.  
As a completely uncoordinated kid, I was lucky to have played soccer, softball, and flag football.  I had a passion for hurdles in high school, but since I periodically wiped out at least 2 or 3 of them every other run, the coach didn't tap me for the track and field team.  I can't really blame her, I imagine it was frightening to behold.  In addition, I was lucky enough to grow up on 3 acres of fields and woods to run in and long dirt roads to ride my bike.  And, I had a father who was very fond of teaching kids to do things like push a lawnmower as well as split, load, carry, and stack firewood.  Although I'm actually scared of heights and uncoordinated, I am also a champion tree climber.

I was never a terribly good athlete, but with all the work and play at home and school I had the opportunity to develop a solid base of strength conditioning.  Although I'm still not a good athlete, it has helped me a lot in my athletic pursuits as an adult and I'm in pretty good shape for a woman about to turn forty.  With my own children, I've made an effort to get them moving whether it be with me in the weight room (age appropriate of course), helping out with yard work, going for long walks around the neighborhood, or playing games in the back yard.  Unfortunately we don't have any good climbing trees, but we're about to remedy that with an outdoor structure for rope climbs.

I'm not going to single-handedly solve the issue with sports injuries, but I'm going to try and do my share with the kids and parents I coach.  I encourage all of you to think about how often you go outside and get moving.  Going outside to play and work is about the best form of exercise we can have.  Its not just good for our kids, its good for us.  Its free, its fun, and its a great way to spend time with your children.  You're not just spending quality time together, you're giving their bodies an invaluable advantage for staying whole and healthy as long as possible.  To me, this is far more important than winning a few games.