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Art of the Trail Run: Optimizing “Cardio” for Improved Elastic Power?

Cardio is worse than smoking.

Cardio will destroy your joints.

Cardio will age you 10 years or more.

Cardio is evil.

Cardio is Evil

Well sure, some or all of these could certainly be the case if you decided to start plodding 60-100 miles a week on the road, but is there a place for any form of “cardio” (or even extended interval training) in the realm of training speed and power athletes?  Here is something you might not be aware of.

Cardio runs can increase your vertical and make you faster. 

Wait, what?!!

Well, yes, in context, but before you mention to the whole internet that I’ve lost it, humor me and read on.

Cardio must be done with a purpose, and understanding of the underlying mechanisms.

What are the primary purposes of cardio for an explosive athlete?

  • Basic cardiovascular health and well-being (It has been said by the great Dan John that a weightlifter needs to do about the same amount of cardio as a distance runner needs to lift. Makes sense.)
  • Basic mobilization of excess body fat reserves
  • Para-symphathetic nervous system boosting (especially when done in nature)
  • Possible basic recovery modality via “vibration” qualities
  • Education and re-education of basic ankle and hip patterns via steady state and long interval-based trail runs (this last one is what this article is really about)

I was inspired to write this article after going for an hour interval trail run this weekend with my friend Paul Cater of The Alpha Project, down in Monterey, California.  I’ll talk more about how that short run re-ignited many of my athletic qualities in a few paragraphs.

Keep in mind that I almost never “run” these days.  I sprint, but I rarely run/jog/”yog”/etc.

Even the modern world doesn’t really require running as a basic functional requirement.  We may need to sprint to catch the bus, or grab that made-in-China TV on sale on Black Friday (while simultaneously side-checking senior citizens and knocking over children, and finally ending up on the local news or social media), but we don’t utilize jogging as a functional aspect of modernism.   We need to squat, carry, hinge, and sprint, but who ever said jogging was functional?

Marathons

A “marathon” run may have been needed in ancient Greece, but we have far more practical tools for the job available in 2016.

I tend to live and enjoy the alactic (<7 seconds of sustained effort) world of training, and have become a “alactic generalist” of sorts, working on the disciplines of bouldering, sprinting, jumping, Olympic lifting, and even short burst swimming to gain a better awareness of aquatic movement.

Despite this absence of steady-state cardio work, I’m not a terrible runner, as I’ve broken 20’ in the 5k on a hot day, hilly course, and in the complete wrong choice of running apparel to boot (old track speedsuit as a joke).  I have always enjoyed the occasional mile or two jog on the trails, particularly at the heights of my speed-strength performance as a track and field competitor.

This leads me back to my recent trail running enlightenment I’d like to share with you in this post.

The Art of the Trail Run

This weekend, Paul Cater took me out on a trail run in “back country” Marina, California.  We jogged out to the trail on the sidewalks, but Paul doesn’t really advocate actually running the sidewalk, but rather, jogging on and off of the curb, on the grass, and trying as hard as possible not to actually fall into any sort of steady, “pattern like” death march.

The curb is your friendWhen running on the roads, the curb is your friend

Remember, cardio death is more about the low-variability repetition then anything else, kind of like Chinese water torture.  The same “drop” of ground strike over, and over, and over is the slow demise of multiple bio-motor abilities and the athletic response.

Therefore, combining “cardio” with variability is critically important.  This mentality helps to keep the mind and body more active and engaged in the run.  It keeps the feet and hips alive, instead of succumbing to shoe-based destruction of repeat confined exposure to the concrete.

Back to our “trail run”. 

When we got off the sidewalk, and hit the trail, we proceeded to do quick, but not over-bearing intervals through the rugged trails (sprain your ankle rugged) in around a 2/1 ratio of work to rest, occasionally stopping to soak up some sun, or have a spirited primal yelling contest through the valley (if you’ve never had the opportunity to yell at the top of your lungs in the middle of nowhere, you’re really missing out).

Immediately post-run, I had the glow of a nice, but not too extensive cardio effort, and to boot, my VMO’s (the critically important phasic quad muscles on the lower, inner portion of your legs) were pretty fried from the running effort, meaning that they were engaged during a very good portion of the workout from all of the dynamic stabilization they had to do.  Hell, I felt more out of those muscles in that run than any squatting or related weightlifting workout I’ve ever done.

As Frans Bosch mentions in his “Strength Training and Coordination” book, the “centrifuge model” means that the faster the movement, the more muscles must operate in their intended length and function.  In a slow squat, muscles can operate well outside of the length and tension models of running, but the faster you get, the more those muscles are relegated to their actual, primal function.  There is nothing more functional then the VMO needing to rapidly stabilize the knee hundreds of times while running through treacherous terrain.

Remember, a footstrike running at 60% of your maximal velocity is still quite a bit faster then nearly any weightroom movement.

How Find 3 Inches On Your Vertical Jump in the Backwoods

All this is well and good, and isn’t really much out of the ordinary in terms of many of our experiences (who hasn’t done a trail run?).  Here is why this run was great though.  6 hours later, I had club track practice, and had to demo a few sprints and jumps.  Despite the hour of running earlier in the day, I felt incredibly explosive in my sprinting, and most of the kids jaws dropped at how high I got when I demonstrated a long jump and land drill.  I felt amazing, and the pop through my hips and feet was something that reminded me of my elastic power in my teens and early 20’s.

Not only this, but the next day at work, my 3-step vertical had increased a full 3 inches from when I tested it the Friday before! 

Although it was lots of fun actually doing the trail run, it was probably even more fun to be flying in jumps and sprints in the next 48 hours.

The key in our run, that has applications to athletic performance specialists was that the trail had many elevation changes, surface undulations, and ruts that forced our feet to rapidly adjust to the ground with every stepHalf of the time, I felt like I was going to sprain my ankle, the lateral grades were so steep, particularly on the downhills.

Funny enough, I started the run feeling much of the movement in my hamstrings, but towards the end of the run, more of it was in my glutes, especially the downhills.

After reading about co-contractions in Frans Bosch’s new book, I have a new appreciation for the ability of the body to adapt to subtle running surface changes and undulations faster than even reflexes can handle.

It is theorized that these “co-contractions” (which are the rapid-fire pairings of opposing muscle groups to dynamically stabilize a joint, and more specifically, the involuntary, and extremely rapid contraction of an antagonist muscle to counter an agonist) are of the utmost importance in any speed-power movement, because of their high speed action.  Co-contractions are highly related to “starting strength”, the ability to stabilize a joint, and powerfully move in a fraction of a second.

Jogging has been termed by Frans Bosch “bad running with more muscle slack”.  (“Slack” is whatever the current level of tonus in a muscle is.  Contact the ground with a low tonus in key muscles, such as the gastrocnemius, and your body will need to take more time on the ground to develop the required tension to push off and actually exceed braking forces).

Marathon runners

 Jogging in a steady state on a flat surface is a muscle-slack nightmare.

I think that Bosch is absolutely right, but I also think that the “interval style trail run” keeps muscle slack to a low level because of the extreme need for “co-contractions”.  Good athletes use counter-movements to keep muscle slack to a low level, but the most explosive athletes get a great benefit from powerful co-contractions that drive movement even more quickly.

The response when running over uneven or jagged grades, even at a submaximal speed is one that is extremely friendly for developing this powerful co-contracting mechanism.  When running uneven trails, the muscles always have to be at a state of “readiness” for any bump or threat that could send an ankle into extreme pronation, or twist a knee!

I do think that there should be at least some higher speed intervals on these trails to get the full benefit of what I am describing.  Doing a “conversational pace slow jog” through this type of terrain is nice, but it won’t put the muscles at their highest functional requirement.

Further Anecdotes and Application

My recent trail run experience opened my eyes to look back on former experiences of mine, and those of other coaches when it comes to utilizing either longer runs, or varying surfaces when it comes to improving athletic performance.

Team Sports

Before I get any farther, I do strongly believe that team sports inherently carry a strong element of required multi-lateral co-contractions.  I feel that many athletes can get a great workout in this regard simply by playing their sport, and this has always been some of what I’ve observed in terms of the elastic response of athletes who play sports vs. those who tend to just do lifting, sprinting and plyometrics.

Rugby match

Again, there is a reason that athletes can waltz off of the basketball court and win an indoor national title in high jump, only to stagnate in the outdoor campaign.  Dull the response of the hips and feet, and watch your vertical jump and speed disintegrate.

A nice thought is that the strategic use of the trail run could be an excellent alternative for track coaches who don’t want to risk team sports in building multi-lateral elastic power.  Of course, there is the risk of the rolled ankle in a trail run, but I’m starting to think that unless there is enough stress to harm ligaments present, the body won’t react strongly enough to provide a useful training effect.

Tennis

One thing that I have been doing already this year is to utilize some existing surfaces with natural distinctions in the warmup protocol of my tennis players.  We will often warm up in an upstairs hallway with a pattern of randomly placed circles that are either grey or black.

I’ll have players hop on one or two legs on one, or alternating colors of circles as part of the warmup process.  We’ll even do wheelbarrow walks and crawls with the hands contacting the circles in a similar manner.  This keeps the players engaged, and feeds their CNS a new pattern each day, as well as building eye-body coordination.

Track and Field Jumpers

Another anecdote, and I mention this pretty regularly, is Polish track coach, Tadeuz Starzynski’s practice with jumpers is to do tempo intervals on a rugged trail, as opposed to the track, for the exact reasons I mentioned previously (I’ve mentioned before that “there is nothing new under the sun”).

If you don’t have a rugged trail handy, you can still make tempo style runs entertaining and functional by putting tall, or mini-hurdles in them.

I had an interesting experience in my first year coaching track at Wilmington College in my first year.  I had a talented freshman jumper who was having a great outdoor season.  He shot up to a jump of 6’9.5” from an old best of 6’7” one meet in particular.  After the competition, he informed me that he had been doing 2-3 mile trail runs a few times a week.  I’m not saying that this is why he jumped the height (and as a coach, I’d like to say that my training program had a lot to do with it), but I know that the runs certainly weren’t hurting him!

A practice we also started doing in my time at Wilmington was lateral plyometric work on slant boards.  These are commonly seen in Eastern bloc training literature, and I know that Russian jump coaches have been fond of their use.  We often used rapid fire plyometrics on this type of board to finish off workouts.

Chris Korfist’s Basement

One of the coolest training spots I’ve ever seen is actually in, believe it or not, a basement.  This is not any basement though, but the basement of sprint and performance coach Chris Korfist.Chris Korfist Basement Gym

Within this training mecca lies not only a variety of useful machines to improve speed, but also a variety of surfaces.  Athletes here train barefoot, and Chris uses this to his advantage, as the athletes will work on and off of various surfaces, which improves their foot function.

Conclusion

And so concludes a brief excursion into a hopefully “new” (but not really) school of thought in some of what creates that explosive spring that a lot of athletes are looking for that they can’t find in the weightroom, or even in that new plyometric exercise that everyone is talking about.

Sometimes, you just have to get outside and train hard in a challenging environment.

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Edición Española

 

15 comments

  1. This doesn’t surprise me. For a while now, I’ve suspected the “cardio will kill your gainz!!1” squad might not be entirely correct. I’m in more of a GPP phase right now in my own, strictly-for-fun training, and have been doing about 25-30 miles per week of really easy running, and have seen no drop-off in jump height. In fact, it seems to have gotten very slightly better, and this with only maintenance volumes of speed/jump work. In the meantime, I do seem to be able to relax better and more completely since adding in the aerobics, and of course it is fun in its own way to be able to run up a couple flights of stairs without getting winded.

    • Ryan,

      You’re right, I think an integral view of all systems of movement is important before making a hard-line statement regarding the use of a training modality. I would suspect, however, that maximal velocity is more affected than vertical jump regarding “too much cardio”, but I could be wrong.

      I will say also that extended running is good for the relaxation element of contractile tissues, which is also an important performance factor.

      Joel

      • Not that I am arguing with you, but what do you suppose is the mechanism which would cause the decrease in maximal sprinting speed?

        I first decided to start doing some more easy conditioning based on two thoughts:

        1. a muscle fiber that is not recruited, by definition, cannot receive any training effect. Therefore I thought that by keeping the intensity of running quite low (meaning for me, heart rates of 135-140 or so), muscle recruitment would be mostly, or even perhaps entirely, restricted to type I fibers, thus preventing any significant change in the type II fibers important for jumping/sprinting.

        2. any recruitment of type II fibers (even for high speed or ballistic movements such as top speed sprinting, jumping, or throwing) will cause a shift away from fast IIx to intermediate IIa isoforms over time, so 1. may not even matter anyway.

        In this way, it was my hope that by “keeping the highs high, and the lows low,” I might gain some general fitness and work capacity while minimizing the impact on my nervous system.

        • I should also note that it was not my intention to do this in perpetuity, but rather, this would be for occasional GPP blocks. SPP blocks would incorporate far lower amounts of running. For me, it would be on the order of two or three 2-3 mile runs per week.

          • Ryan,

            I think 2-3 short runs a week is no problem. I remember I used to do distance running on trails in the “transition weeks” between big SPP style blocks of work, and did this especially my best season in HJ, which was also when I was sprinting my fastest.

            I do think that the biggest negatives from the longer running are that of the compliance of the muscle tendon complex, the temporary muscle-slack situation, and then if you did too much, the motor program for sprinting. Most people don’t train in a way to alter/optimize their sprint motor program, period, but if you were trying to run a lot, and concurrently sprint as fast as possible, it could be troublesome.

            Kind regards,

            Joel

  2. Great article,
    I used to jog a shortcut through a golf course trail at night filled with tree rots, uneven ground, rolled my ankle more than a few times but after a while developed more of a choppy, reflexive style that often left me with an explosive plyo effect (especially after hearing a rustle in the bushes that made me run faster lol)

  3. Very interesting. I have noted that Chinese weightlifters do perform
    cardio (2-3 miles several times a week).
    As well as Chinese Gymnasts (on the order of 9 miles per week).

  4. Hi Joel

    What is your recommendation in terms of the distance of each run and the amount of runs each week. (For vertical jump training)

    Thank you

    • Sean,

      I wouldn’t say a lot of runs are necessary. It’s been 2 weeks since my trail run, I haven’t run again, and my sprint and jump numbers are still up. I would say 1x/week is probably fine, and for a length of 20-45 minutes. I would encourage the run to not be totally “steady state”, but find places to attack particular sections of the trail, and then rest and walk. A “6×200 mentality” run through the trail would also be a good idea once a week or so.

      Joel

  5. Great article, thanks as always!

    Where is that ankle slant board from (at end of article), because that’s looks great? Is it purchased or homemade (and if so, can I also ask the dimensions)?

    • Tim,

      You can buy the slant board for way too much money online. I just made one based on what I guessed would work well. I think it was around 36″ long, and 10-12″ high. There was about 12″ width on the flat space in the middle. I think that different slants would offer different elements of strength for the ankles, so I wouldn’t say mine is the perfect slantboard. It was nice though!

      Joel

  6. Hi!
    Really great article! Featured it on My recent blogpost on here http://www.callmetrailz.com/trailrunning-vs-roadrunning/ I do prefer trails over Road due to it being a wholebody workout.

    Cheers!

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