2013-06-05

Adding Distance

Yesterday, I received a question from a runner who wanted to know how to increase his daily running mileage. The issue was not simply, "Run more miles, duh! lolzy-face!" The issue was that he has already tried the usual ways of adding mileage, but none of these methods were resulting in his being able to handle an increase in mileage, despite his best efforts.

So the real question is, What do you do to increase mileage, when nothing seems to work?

I admittedly fumbled with the question, because I've been adding and subtracting miles to my weekly regimen for over twenty years. This blog post is my attempt to supply a good answer to his question.

Why Can't A Person Run Farther?
The first line of attack with regard to answering his question is to list out all the reasons why anyone might not be able to handle an increase in mileage. Here is the most exhaustive list I am able to supply, phrased in the first-person [Note: although this list has been worded comically, it is not intended to be humorous]:

  • If I run any farther, I feel as though I will seriously injure my muscles, joints, or tendons.
  • I cannot run any farther, because I already injured myself.
  • If I run any farther, I feel as though my lungs will burst out of my throat.
  • If I run any farther, I feel as though my legs will catch on fire and burn me alive.
  • I cannot run any farther, because everything hurts.
  • If I run any farther, I feel as though I will get vertigo and possibly pass out.
  • If I run any farther, I feel I will lose control of my own mobility, stumble, and fall on my face.
  • I believe I can run farther, but my lower back is starting to hurt.
  • I cannot run any farther, I keep running the same distance slower, and I feel tired all the time, even when I'm not running.
I honestly cannot think of any other possibilities, but if you think of some, please add them in the comments, so that they can be addressed by me or other readers.

Having listed the possibilities, I am going to go through them one-by-one and address how each one should be overcome. Some of the items on the list have multiple interpretations, and other items on the list mean roughly the same thing as other list items. I'll try to keep them straight.

I Will Injure / Have Already Injured Myself: Stop Running
This one is easy to fix. Stop running. It is always the safest bet to stop running if you feel you are at real risk of injury; and obviously this applies tenfold if you are already struggling with an injury.

Running with an injury doesn't merely aggravate your existing condition (although that is an obvious risk), it also changes your running form in many imperceptible ways, the sum total of which results in further injury of related or complimentary muscle groups. Whenever you feel you might be injuring yourself, that is your cue to stop running, take a few rest days, and possibly reduce your mileage as opposed to increasing it.

Lungs Burning / Muscles Burning: Run Faster, But Do Not Increase Mileage
Both of these feelings are telltale signs of insufficient cardiovascular training. Here's how it works (covered more in-depth here):

You start to run, and your body must engage in some anaerobic respiration; you use up your muscular energy stores fairly quickly. As you continue to run, your body switches over to aerobic respiration for the majority of its energy requirements, but you are unable to do so with kind of efficiency that a marathon runner might be able to. Every runner "hits the wall," but you hit it much earlier than someone with a higher VO2-max.

The end result of this is that, however fit your leg muscles happen to be, your lungs and heart are incapable of supplying them with sufficient oxygen to enable aerobic respiration for any distance greater than your current maximum. Your muscles start to burn as they are filled with the acidic byproducts of anaerobic respiration; you gasp for air, and no amount of gasping seems to do the trick; your heart pounds and pounds, to no avail. You stagger to a halt.

The one and only way out of this trap is to increase your VO2-max. There are several ways to do this (see for example, here and here), and none of them are particularly fun. The simplest advice I can give you is to just start running faster from now on. Forget about adding miles to your training regimen until you are capable of running your current mileage at a much faster pace.

There is no one, correct pace that indicates it's time to increase mileage. If you're bonking like this, though, my advice is to consider an arbitrary 10-point scale, where 10 is the fastest running pace you can imagine, and 1 is slowest.

Do you have that scale in your head? Good. Now start telling yourself that your daily run has been about a 3, and you shouldn't increase your mileage until you reach at least 5 on the scale. Don't do too much math here, it's supposed to be a subjective scale.

Vertigo / Decreased Mobility Or Mobility Control / Passing Out: Eat More Food
If, by the end of your run, you feel dizzy, your vision is somewhat white-washed or perhaps you are experiencing some mild optical illusions, you feel chilled or trembling, and perhaps frantic, and you almost feel as though you are going to pass out, you may be experiencing hypoglycemia, i.e. low blood-sugar.

If you run long distances, and particularly if you run them extremely quickly, you may experience exercise-induced hypoglycemia from time-to-time. A "perfect" body should not normally do this, but it can happen. You need not worry about it unless it happens with some regularity.

If you find it happening quite often, though, your first response should be to start eating a light snack before you run. The snack should be easily digestible and of moderate carbohydrate content. A glass of Gatorade is always a safe bet, but you should stick to what works for you. Perhaps you could try a slice of bread-and-butter, a serving of fruit, a glass of chocolate milk, or the like.

While we're talking about it, if you aren't ending your workout with a snack comprised of both carbohydrate and protein, then you should certainly start. Doing so will aid in muscle recovery, help smooth out your blood sugar levels, and may slightly decrease the amount of post-workout cortisol released by your endocrine system.

Lower Back Pain / Decreased Mobility / Mild Muscle Burning: Hit The Gym
Runners can sometimes neglect strength training. I have been very guilty of this, myself. When a person does a great deal of running without maintaining their overall muscle mass, a funny thing starts to happen: the unused muscles start to deteriorate from lack of regular use. This will change your physical posture and potentially weaken a number of important running-related muscles.

For example, decreased shoulder and back strength has an extremely adverse impact on overall running form. If this applies to you, you will end up running inefficiently, spending a lot more energy than you would otherwise need to. These muscle groups will tire early, making your body feel clumsly and slow despite the fact that your leg muscles basically feel fine.

Decreased abdominal strength will result in greatly diminished running capacity. Many people underestimate the role abdominal muscles play in the basic running motion, but if you think about it, you will notice their role right away. The body's trunk naturally twists back and forth while running, and the oblique muscles are also involved in the movement of a person's arms while running. Weak abdominals will strain your posture, particularly when running downhill, and you will find that you will suffer some manageable, but noticeable, lower-back pain.

The solution here is a relatively easy one: Hit the gym. If you are dedicating most of your time to running, then all you'll need is 2-3 strength training days per week. During that time, you should focus on abdominal muscles (a lot), shoulder muscles (to a great degree), and back and arm muscles (a fair amount). This could be as simple as doing some crunches, pull-ups, and push-ups twice a week. Start with three sets of ten, and see how it goes. Add to taste.

Getting Slower At The Same Speed / General Fatigue: Take Rest, Then Increase Variety
Over-training can be a real problem for any runner, even if you don't run very many miles. The most common way people engage in over-training is by doing exactly the same workout, every day. This is no different than doing exactly the same weight training exercises every day. That is to say, if you never give your muscles a chance to rest, you will slowly wear them down until you're just tired all the time. It happens to everyone.

To overcome over-training, start by taking two days of complete rest. No yard work, no cross-training, no spending all day at the mall... Nothing. Spend a couple of days at home, reading, instead of exercising or being active. Your body needs rest.

Once you've taken adequate rest, you'll need to start adding more variety to your workouts. You might consider replacing one day of running during the week with a day of biking or swimming. Or, you might consider splitting your days up into speed days, recovery run days, long run days, and race days. Doing different kinds of runs during the week will ensure that your muscles will get a full workout, but not the same workout day in, day out.

Everything Hurts! Time To Increase Those Miles!!!
I've saved the best for last. If your general problem is that you go running and, by the end of it you simply cannot go any further because you feel like everything is a big struggle and the misery of it all will not subside, I have some bad news for you: Your problem is all in your head.

Think about it: Once we've ruled out all the physical constraints you're facing, the only remaining constraints are the psychological ones. Running takes a tremendous amount of will power. In fact, that's one of my favorite things about it; it has the wonderful ability to train people how to overcome adverse physical sensations with the power of the human mind.

Something I noticed early on in my running career is that, when you start to get in shape, many of the "pains" we experience while running never really go away. If you're running at a good pace, it won't really matter if you run two miles, three times per week, or ten miles, seven times per week. The underlying discomfort never really goes away. What changes? Eventually, you grow accustomed to it.

Believe it or not, your mind is capable of over-coming much of this physical discomfort. Competitive runners do it during races all the time. When a person runs any faster than, say, 7:00/mile, the body simply starts to throwing up resistance messages like a stubborn mule. Few can even imagine what it might be like to run a 5K in under 5:00/mile pace, but take it from me: the body absolutely and relentlessly screams. The only way to overcome this is to push through it.

The tool for this is will power. A competitive athlete needs sufficient will power to endure 15 minutes of hell, knowing that it is something that will only last 15 minutes. Of course, marathon runners experience a similar sensation, but it lasts for hours. The only trick involved is that there is no trick. It's just a matter of will-power.

This becomes all the more obvious the first time you see a person push themselves to literal exhaustion. Most people have pushed their muscles to exhaustion at the gym. If you haven't, you should really give it a try some time: Do sets of pull-ups until your arms literally won't work anymore. Feel free to take as much rest as you need. Within 30 minutes, your body will feel fine, except that your arms won't work.

Few of us, however, have experience pushing our cardiovascular system to the exhaustion point, the point at which you can't take a single step because your body simply won't take another step. I've seen people run so hard for so long that they pass out right on the track.

When someone says they can't run any further because they just can't, I have to wonder if they're being completely honest with themselves. If you're still standing - if you're still capable of stopping, catching your breath, and then walking home - then you're not actually incapable of increasing your mileage. In fact, you can probably handle a few more miles than you think you can.

It's important to remember that the nature of exercise is that we're going to run into plateaus from time to time. Pushing through them is really the only way to reach the next level. The only way to do this is to use your will power. I realize that's an anti-climax, but it's the truth.