Ancillary Work as a Path to Underdistance Racing Success -or- Quaffin' ON! in Columbus (A Columbus Challenge Triathlon – 5k leg – Race Report)

1st place team, 1:06:09 (my 5k leg, 14:48.4 official)
- Strava data (via Suunto Ambit2 S)
My support crew!
On Saturday morning, I joined the Quaff ON! Racing crew over in Columbus, Indiana for the Columbus Challenge Triathlon and Duathlon.  The race had both sprint and Olympic distance tri's, a team triathlon, and a duathlon (which was a 5k run – 15 mi bike – 5k run).  Two of my Quaff ON! Racing teammates with different specialties squared off in the duathlon.  Danny Fisher (running specialist) and Tim Proctor (former cycling specialist, now into the running) had a pretty cool battle with Danny predictably leading after the first run, getting caught on the bike, and then giving chase after Tim on the second run.  I got to watch this unfold prior to and during my own race, which was fun to watch.  Tim managed to hold off Danny by a mere 7 seconds in the end.  Another quarter mile, and the outcome may have been different!  It was a lot of fun to spend the morning in Columbus with my teammates, including a post-race brunch—complete with Quaff ON! beers of course—at Tim's house.

I competed in the team triathlon.  The Quaff ON! folks are mostly runners and cyclists, so for the team triathlon we enlisted a local high school swimmer from Columbus.  That was Sam, who is swimming at the University of Wyoming next year, and he did a great job for us, finishing the 800m swim leg in about 12 minutes.  After a quick transition, Todd Pettyjohn nailed the bike with a low-37 minute time, putting us well in the lead.
Me and Todd Pettyjohn drinking some Hare Trigger and Yellow Dwarf within minutes after the race (Quaff ON! knows how to take care of us!
As I took off on my 5k running leg, I knew it would be a solo effort.  My adrenaline was pumping a little more than usual because I had rushed to get out of the transition area as quickly as possible.  I realized within about two minutes that I was probably going too fast, so I dialed it back just a touch.  The run course was basically a big loop that was relatively flat (217 ft of total elevation gain for the route — not Chicago-flat, but about as flat as you'll get in southern Indiana).  My aggressive start put me at 4:42 for the first mile—likely too fast, but nothing to do about it at that point.

The winning team (Sam can have some Quaff ON! brews in a few years...)
The last two miles was your typical solo effort, race-toughness situation, just holding on the best you can.  I felt like I did that fairly well, with 4:52 and 4:53 2nd and 3rd miles, and a final time of 14:48.  This was a modest road PR, besting the 14:59 I ran in April, though that was on a tougher course.  I'd imagine this would translate to at least a 14:30-something on a track with a bit of competition, which I would be pretty happy with.

The interesting part of my race is that my three mile splits (4:42, 4:52, 4:53) are the fastest three miles I've run since that April race.  So why am I running PRs and significantly faster than I could in college off of essentially no faster-paced or anaerobic work?  Part of the answer to that question is simply accumulated lifetime aerobic fitness.  Our aerobic potential is essentially limitless, and I've been developing mine since I was 11 years old without too many breaks.  So I'm aerobically stronger than I was in college, and even a race as short as the 5k is primarily aerobic.  But I was also doing a lot of short, anaerobic, and race-specific work in college.  

So what else is a factor here?  I've said it before (like after this spring's Soldier Field 10 Mile), but I think the amount and variety of ancillary work I do is largely responsible for the quicker times at shorter distances.  I would count that mainly as functional strength work, drills, strides, and hill springing and bounding.  Strava user Derek Morgan asked me if I would go over some of these things: why they're beneficial, and what exactly I do (how much, how often, etc.).  

Functional Strength Work
I try to do some functional strength work at least 2-3 times a week (some would generally call it "core" though what I do isn't all core-focused per se).  The routine varies some over time, though I try to have a stability component to almost everything I do.  For instance, if I do single-leg squats (already inherently with a balance component), I do them on an Airex balance pad.  Another favorite is this set of resistance band balancing exercises put together by Jay Dicharry (quick plug, his book Anatomy for Runners is incredible and should be on every runner's shelf!).  I do these exercises on the balance pad as well.  A few quick references for good exercises are the Dirty Dozen routine on the Oiselle blog as well as the routines Jay Johnson put together for Running Times.  I do some exercises from both of these.

Additionally, if you run on trails, you get a lot of this type of work naturally on your run.  When you're going up and down and around tight corners on varied surfaces, you have to stabilize yourself in a lot of directions all the time, so this is constantly working on your strength/stability to some extent.  And it's super functional (of course), as you're actually doing your activity—running!

To me, the main payoff of this strength and stability work is twofold (though there are other minor benefits, like upregulating testosterone, which helps with recovery).  First, strength and stability are an insurance policy against injury.  This is reason enough to do it, yet some runners (especially when healthy) have a hard time finding motivation.  Which is why it's important to note the other major benefit: it helps to improve form, especially as you fatigue.  For example, if you have weak hips and glutes, as you tire your pelvis will come out of neutral and start to tilt (likely forward).  In this position, you have a less efficient foot strike (with more of a braking component), and poor hip extension, shortening your stride length.  Quite obviously, you are wasting energy and losing time when this happens.  If you are strong and stable and can hold good form throughout an entire race, your finishing time will benefit greatly.

Finally, I include a dynamic warmup before every run.  I introduced this about four years ago in order to help me warm up prior to my runs.  Ever since, my legs feel better from the start of each run.  However, it's also a great way to sneak in a bit of extra functional strength work all the time.  Once you make it a habit, it's second nature before each run.  Jay Johnson prescribes his lunge matrix for a dynamic warmup, which works great.  I do an abbreviated version of this plus a few other exercises that I like: runner touches, 4-square jumps (single and double-legged), and jumping jacks (focusing on springing from the ankle).  

Strides
Strides are something that almost all runners could do more of (myself included).  The idea is simply to run fast but relaxed for about 100m (thus remaining alactic, and not going anaerobic), which helps improve running economy at all paces.  Additionally, doing regular strides helps you to hold onto your top end speed as you age.  I've read where coaching legend Joe Vigil has had athletes stay in touch with some faster-turnover running nearly every day of the week in one form or another.  If you're a runner who hits a lot of hills, you can get some nice turnover running downhill as well, which is great.

I aim for one day a week with a focused drills and strides session (more on drills below).  I think 6-8 x 100m is sufficient to get some nice benefits, but if you've got the time and are able to recover, you can build to up to 30 repeats.  If you get there gradually, your body will get used to the load and you can handle it without much recovery time after, since you remain alactic on all the reps.  Nate Jenkins, a 2:14 marathoner and 7th place at the '08 Olympic Trials Marathon, would do 30 x 100m in 15s.  I aim for 16 reps (but take my time to build up to that number), but may increase it eventually.  The pace on these should be something like 800m race pace.  For me, that's right around 15 seconds or just a hair faster for 100m (i.e. a sub-2:00 800m).

Form Drills
These are something I began doing in college, and I've done on and off ever since.  Ideally, I try to do a full routine of running form drills once a week.  Additionally, I do an abbreviated version of the drills before any higher-intensity workout to help me warm up.  The drills I do consist of ankle pops (or ankle springing), heel-to-butts (some say butt kicks, but I think that invokes the wrong image, and form is important here), A skips,  B skips, runner karaokes, side-to-sides, springing, and bounding.  I linked the ones I have videos to, but I don't have them all I'm afraid (I need to make some!).  

The idea with most of these form drills is to reinforce proper muscular firing patterns, which helps with biomechanical efficiency (and remaining injury free).  In order to integrate these patterns with your stride, it helps to do strides immediately afterwards or even integrated as part of the routine.  For instance, my Monday this week looked like this: 2 sets ankle pops, 2 x 100m, 2 sets of heel-to-butts, 2 x 100m, 2 sets of A skips, 2 x 100m, etc.  

Hill Springing and Bounding
Hill springing and bounding originated with Arthur Lydiard, who included an entire training phase focused almost exclusively on these exercises.  Lydiard's hyper-periodized model doesn't work well for most athletes today (because we're not peaking for a single race a year, e.g. the Olympics), but hill springing and bounding is still incredibly beneficial and has a place in anyone's training.  I really need to make a video of these exercises because I can't find any good ones out there, but there is a nice written and pictorial explanation here.  Lydiard's athletes (first the Kiwis, then the Finns) had incredible form and economy and could unleash a wicked kick due in large part to hill springing and bounding.

These exercises are great because they are plyometric—increasing power and muscle fiber recruitment—and also extremely running specific.  If you're going to do any plyometric exercises in your training, I would much rather see hill springing and bounding than squat jumps in the gym, for instance.  I try to include hill springing and bounding once a week in my training.  Realistically, for most runners, it's probably best to alternate weeks with drills/strides and weeks with hill springing and bounding.  I always do some light drills before I begin, and then do 2 or more sets up a hill of ~10% grade.  I go about 30-50m for hill springing and 80-100m for hill bounding.  As I get consistent with these, I build to 6 or more sets.

Because hill springing and bounding recruit more and different muscle fibers than standard distance running, they can be incorporated into workouts in some cases as well (the same can be said of short hill sprints).  For instance, during marathon specific work, you could do 4-6 x hill springing and bounding immediately followed by an 8 mile tempo at marathon pace.

Other Things I Should Do More
Despite all of the above work that I do, there are a few more things I should be doing more.  When you look at top pros (especially in the professional arena of track & field and marathoning), this is what sets them apart and yields career longevity (think: Meb).  I should be doing more: active isolated stretching (AIS) (here's a nice foot/ankle routine from Phil Wharton); focused static stretching (like for my hip flexors, in order to improve my hip extension and thus economy); self-massage and fascial release; arch rebuilding and strengthening exercises.

The Payoff
In addition to keeping you injury free, the major payoff of all of this ancillary work is improved running economy.  Improved economy = lower unit cost = a faster pace for the same energy expenditure.  And that's what we're all after—running faster!  We have a real problem in the U.S. of focusing way too much on the "engine" (our aerobic system, making sure we get our tempos, our long run, our mileage goals, our V02 max work, etc.) and not near enough of the "chassis" (the muscular support system that allows you to actually use your aerobic strength).

One final note is that work is still work, even if it's not running.  If you suddenly add all of the above on top of your regular training volume, it probably won't go too well.  You need to keep in mind the idea of global volume and build these things slowly.  Running 80 miles a week with no extras might be roughly equivalent (in terms of how taxing it is) to running 60 miles a week but including all of the work outlined above.  For my money, I'd go with the latter.  And lastly, don't forget how important recovery is!  You don't improve from hard work, you improve when you recover from and adapt to the hard work.

I hope that helps explain what I mean when I talk about how important the "little things" are.  If you have any questions, feel free to post in the comments, and I'll do my best to answer.

4 comments:

  1. Great read, Matt! This is the most complete article I've ever read in terms of explaining all of the ancillary work we should be doing. If I wrote the article, the entire article would be the title of your 2nd to last header, "Things I should Do More". Wish I could help you out with the hill springing/bounding video! I like to aim for 12-15 days (which can take 5+ weeks) with either strides, drills, or hills before getting into traditional tempo, VO2 max, etc. workouts in any given build up.

    Periodization comes into play somewhere here. It is hard to compromise your big long runs and tempo runs when you are 6 or so weeks out from a goal marathon. If only we would do all of the things you have outlined here for 2 months before that period... that'd be nice, eh?

    Awesome read again. I'll be sharing!

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  2. Excellent article! Will try to include copious amounts prior to fall ultras.

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  3. Extremely helpful. Just found your blog through Strava. Thank you for describing your routine.

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  4. Graham— Yeah, periodization is certainly a consideration. In a proper buildup for, say, a marathon, this stuff would belong mostly in the Fundamental Phase. So if we're dealing with a 6 month window after your last marathon, it might look like:
    2 weeks off, 6 weeks Introduction Phase, 8-10 weeks Fundamental Phase, 8 weeks Specific Phase.
    The Introduction phase would slowly reintroduce all of this work at lower volumes/intensities, and it would continue to build and be integrated in the Fundamental Phase. In the Specific Phase, the amount would really diminish a lot—the focus would be maintenance. That's really the whole idea of Specific work. You focus really heavily on a specific race's demands, and necessarily neglect everything else. So it makes sense to do this for about 2 months to really maximize your potential in an event, but it's not sustainable. Which is essentially why you can really only run 2 (maybe 3) peak marathons a year at a world-class level (assuming you're that good to begin with!). If you're good at racing a lot, you can maybe run 6 or 7 at a very high level, but it's inevitably not your peak, because you can't properly periodize.

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