My philosophy: Train, don’t strain

Arthur Lydiard, my greatest training inspiration, coined the today ubiquitous phrase ‘train, don’t strain’, a principle so simple it boils down to understanding the graphic below:

TRAINDONTSTRAIN

The ‘war-face’ gives away an athlete outside the boundaries of what they can control. Arthur Lydiard had another illuminating quote on the topic:

‘Train to failure, train to fail’.  

-Arthur Lydiard

Listening to a podcast with Z-Health founder Dr. Eric Cobb, I recently got a modern perspective on this old observation providing the scientific rationale. Any coach or personal trainer knows the SAID principle: Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands. Dr Cobb warns us in his teaching material that we must add the two words ‘ALWAYS’ and ‘EXACTLY’ to this fundamental principle of training:

Your body always gets better at doing exactly what you practice regularly.

– Dr Eric Cobb, Z-Health, I-Phase Product Manual

His observation came from the effortlessness with which the world’s best performers carry out their sport. Many have made this observation before. If we ‘strain’ to the point where we make our ‘war-face’, you can be pretty certain that many other aspects of how you carry out your running are also ‘falling apart’. Since you ALWAYS get better at training EXACTLY what you practice regularly, you should aim to finish your hard sessions with your form and technique mostly intact so this becomes the conditioned response when the going gets really tough in races.

I know from experience how difficult it can be to fully internalise this principle because many of us are drawn to the masculine values of running and the notion of ‘having the most guts’ or ‘being a good sufferer’. This can happen to a point where it becomes part of your athletic identify. For many reasons – physical and psychological – such an approach cannot be sustained healthily for long.

Elite athletes who look like a picture of calm at the end of a world class performance will often still be suffering inside. The difference between them and you is that they have learnt to do so without falling apart. We must do the same and from a training perspective this begins by avoiding ‘training to failure’.

This principle holds sway in all areas of your life – if you spend more time sitting slumped and collapsed than standing tall and erect, then you are also ‘training to fail’. If your normal position is sitting down for 8-10 hours per day then you will ALWAYS get the adaptations that are EXACTLY appropriate for sitting. You can deduct without difficulty that these adaptations are the opposite of what you will require as a high performance runner.

If you are not yet convinced consider another nugget of wisdom from the good Dr Cobb: exercise is a drug meaning it is dose dependent. Incidentally, this is true even of healthy substances – too much water will kill as surely as too little will. In the world of drug the challenge is to find the ‘minimal viable dose’ so we can get the benefit without the risk of an over-dose that harms us. Most runners I know train as if this principle did not exist: more is always better and ‘exercise is good for us’. In reality ‘the right amount of exercise is good for us and the wrong amount is harmful for us’ sums things up more neatly and lies at the heart of the ‘train, don’t strain’ principle. This requires that you have confidence, intelligence and patience. If you believe you lack these skills, do something about it or hire a coach to keep you on a leash until you learn.

An entirely different dynamic also comes into play when we look at how your brain responds to regular high-threat and high tension stimuli. I will touch on that in the next post when I discuss another useful metaphor provided by Dr Eric Cobb called ‘The Threat Bucket’.

In the meantime, I hope this little insight into the ‘train, don’t strain’ principle helps you make better decisions in your regular practice sessions.

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My practice: Junior ‘MovNat’

2016-06-02 14.05.57I believe one of the most important fitness methods of the recent years is MovNat (short for ‘Move naturally’) recently in the spot-light with Christopher McDougall’s book ‘Natural Born Heroes’. MovNat define their approach this way:

MovNat is a fitness and physical education system based on the full range of natural human movement skills. The Movnat system trains physical competence for practical performance. MovNat aims at effectiveness, efficiency, and adaptability. 

Source: MovNat Certified Level 1 Trainer Manual

My colleague Jason Kehoe and I have practiced and integrated this physical education system into our training with runners since 2011 and both use it regularly. Since it involves crawling, jumping, balancing, vaulting, climbing, running and similar real-world movement that kids engage in naturally, its a perfect fit for conditioning aspiring young athletes.

Our sport of athletics revolves around the core human movements running, jumping, throwing and walking. MovNat is a perfect foundation for developing the sports-specific jumps, throws and walks later by creating a foundation based on jumping, gait and throwing patterns you would use in real life.

I drew up a session with some basic equipment I had designed by TD Gym Equipment based on my designs:

2016-06-02 14.04.52

We keep the ‘core’ running-emphasis of the session intact by having running interspersed throughout the short ‘obstacle course’ (the MovNat system refers to this type of workout as a ‘combo’ – a combination of different movements with emphasis on smooth transition between each movement). The movements included in this ‘circuit’ are:

  • Running
  • Sprinting
  • Walking
  • Balance walk
  • Balance lunge walk / split squat
  • Vertical jump
  • Depth jump
  • Broad jump
  • Step vault / hurdle / side vault
  • Foot hand crawl (‘cat crawl’)
  • Inverted crawl (‘crab crawl’)

In addition you have a number of transition movements such as the rotation you do as you switch directly from a foot hand crawl (face down) to inverted crawl (face up).

What energy systems does this train?

It depends purely on the intensity at which you execute but there is a significant explosive component to the workout from the vaults and jumps although these are short and brief and do not incur significant oxygen debt.

However, I am not one to obsess or focus heavily on hitting particular systems within the body. I want us to look at the session from a movement perspective: what we are training is the ability to efficiently and safely perform a series of potentially life-saving movements against increasing tiredness.

Our junior session

We had roughly 17 juniors at this evenings session, we began with a ‘prison break’ game around the pitches where I, as the coach, play out a scenario that encourages the juniors to go into various different walking gaits and crawling and creeping motions as well as sprinting ‘walk side-ways across the wall, NOW sprint across the yard’ etc.

The inverted and foot-hand crawl were then introduced and a game of ‘Cats and Crabs’ a team ball-game I invented featuring hurdles as goals and a tennis ball to get ready for the main menu.

When introducing the vault and balancing obstacles (as shown in the video below), I do not go through meticulous instruction as I would with a group of seniors. The juniors concentration levels are better suited for simple mimicking of what they are shown. Because of age differences and the large group, the juniors were encouraged to use a wide variety of techniques to go over or even under the bar. This increases the fun and gives you as a coach an interesting insight into the movement ability and confidence of each junior athlete.

If I could redo the session, I would cut down the movements from the 6+ to 3-4 as younger runners tend to gravitate towards their favourite obstacles and ‘break order’ or lose track of the various parts of the game.

Finishing it off

In order to integrate the session with running, we finished off with 5 minutes of ‘wolfpack Fartlek’ where the runners are in three packs following a nominated ‘alpha’ around until they hear the whistle blow. A new alpha is now nominated and the kids follow that person until the whistle blow again – and so forth.

While this may seem like a lot of content, it took only 1 hour and kept everyone engaged and having fun while stimulating a wide array of physical abilities.

Watch the video