Have a plan to get lean, to get fast

Getting to a healthy race weight is a crucial part of performing well in endurance events. You need to have a target weight, a plan to get there, and then weigh yourself each day, adjusting the programme when required based on your weekly average weight. A simple strategy is to eat better and move more, but what if you need more guidance?

Researchers at the University of Oxford have created a list of 53 weight loss actions as part of their PREVAIL programme to help people make daily action plans. The weight loss actions are divided into seven categories:

  1. Eat in a structured way
  2. Avoiding or swapping specific foods
  3. Changing what you drink
  4. Creating a healthier diet
  5. Meal-time tactics
  6. Burn more calories
  7. Be more active as part of your daily life

The Oxford researchers carried out a study measuring the effectiveness of self-regulation on weight loss, allow individuals to weigh themselves daily in the morning and then create an action plan from the list for the day based on the result. At the end of the week, they evaluated the effectiveness of the actions chosen and their effect on weight change. Over an eight week study, participants, all starting with a BMI of over 30, lost an average of 4.18kg, 3.2kg less than the control group.

How to create a self-regulation intervention plan for weight loss

  1. Find your A: Weight yourself first thing in the morning
  2. Find your B: Set a target weight
  3. Weigh yourself first thing each morning
  4. Choose one or more actions from the list for the day
  5. Perform the planned action(s)
  6. Reflect on the effectiveness of the actions weekly
  7. Repeat until you reach your target weight

Aim for no more than 0.5kg per week, increase your protein intake, and do regular resistance training to avoid muscle loss. If you are continuing to train hard while losing weight, make sure you have a clear plan for fueling pre, during, and post workouts to ensure you have the energy to perform the planned activity and feed your body with what it needs to recover. This fueling plan should be differentiated for the various intensities and durations of your workout; fuel long and intense workouts but perhaps do some of the shorter, less intense workouts fasted.     

My plan

My current average weekly weight 83.7kg, according to my Withings Body+ scale weekly email. I have a target race weight this season of 78kg based on the Stillman height/weight ratio table and my current body fat percentage. I have signed up for the Maderia Skyrun, so I aim to hit my race weight for the 8th of October. This goal gives me just under 24 weeks to lose 5.7kg or 0.24kg per week. 

Each day this week, I will weigh myself immediately after waking up and pick at least one action from the PREVAIL study to focus on that day. My Witherings email summarising my weekly weight is sent on Mondays, so I will use that day to evaluate my progress. I prefer the positive actions where you add things rather than remove them. I will focus on these actions first, including burning more calories, drinking at least a litre of water a day or a pint of water before each meal, and using fruit and veg or a protein shake as snacks.

Physiological measures of fitness

There are three critical physiological metrics for endurance athletes in measuring improvements in fitness; aerobic capacity, anaerobic threshold, and efficiency. Performance increases come from improving one or more of these.

Aerobic capacity:  The maximum amount of O2 in ml an athlete can use in one minute/kg of body weight.

The medical dictionary

Anaerobic threshold: The level above which pyruvate—an intermediate product of anaerobic metabolism—is produced faster than it can be used aerobically. Unused pyruvate splits into lactate (lactic acid) and hydrogen ions; continued exercise above the anaerobic threshold results in accumulation of these ions (acidosis), causing exhaustion and intramuscular pain.

The medical dictionary

Efficiency A measure of effectiveness; specifically, the useful work output divided by the energy input.

The medical dictionary

Training can improve aerobic capacity by as much as 20% through structured training over time—lots of volume at a low intensity and spending time at your current V02 Max intensity through intervals. Aerobic capacity is measured as a factor of body weight, so losing excess fat to reduce weight is a quick way to improve this factor of fitness.  

The anaerobic threshold, measured as a percentage of your aerobic capacity, can be improved significantly but is sport-specific. Most endurance athletes focus their training on this element. Your anaerobic threshold can be raised to a higher percentage of your aerobic capacity through increasingly higher volume training and frequent long intervals at or around your current threshold.

Efficiency is less well understood by current science, but improvements to this metric can produce significant performance gains in longer events. Many elements of efficiency are genetic such as the percentage of slow-twitch muscle fibres and body proportions. Your technique, body weight, mobility, and strength affect efficiency. Training with frequent and intensity in your sport, strength training, and technique drills will improve efficiency.

Leaner is faster

Men require around 6% body fat for a healthy functioning body; anything more will slow you down in endurance racing. The top endurance athletes in the world can get close to this number for a short period around key races in the year, but 10% is a more realistic target for the weeks around goal race for the most dedicated top-level amateur athletes. Reaching minimal body fat percentages requires extreme discipline but reaching it while maintaining muscle mass is where the performance gains are realised.

The simplest way to ensure a faster 5k is to run light. Weight loss of even five pounds can improve your 5k time by anywhere from 5 seconds to a minute.

Pete Magill

Healthy weight loss will increase your V02 max, reduce the impact on your muscles and joints, and improve your running economy. Combining these three improvements will make you faster, less prone to injury, and able to maintain high intensities for longer. 

The process of losing weight, particularly if you lose it too quickly, will have a temporary negative effect on performance as you have lower muscle glycogen stores to fuel exercise. If you do not eat enough protein while cutting back on food, you might be losing muscles and fat, making you slower. Many people struggle to lose weight initially, even when they reduce their calories and increase exercise. It takes time for the body and specifically the metabolism to adjust.

To minimise the risk of the adverse effects:

  1. always eat some carbs within 30 minutes of a workout to restock glycogen
  2. target a maximum of 0.5kg weight loss per week
  3. perform strength training workouts two to three times per week
  4. use high-intensity interval training to increase your metabolism
  5. train daily to keep your metabolism going 

If you are at the beginning of your endurance journey, then incrementally eating a healthier diet and gradually increasing your training volume is all you need to think about to move towards an optimum race weight. As your body adapts to regular training, becoming more efficient, and having your eating in a good place, you will have to become more thoughtful about reducing your excess fat.

Researchers at Oxford University suggest weighing yourself daily as feedback towards reducing body weight. The daily marker helps you self-regulate, letting you know if you are moving towards your goal weight or further away from it. With this information, you can constantly adjust your eating and training habits accordingly and then measure the effects of these changes, learning how your body reacts to different behaviours over time.

The effectiveness of self-monitoring is hypothesised to be based on a self-regulation process, whereby monitoring oneself allows for (1) the comparison of the current status to a previously set goal, thus providing (2) the opportunity to reflect on the effectiveness of previous behaviour, and enabling (3) the formulation of an action plan to reach the goal, which is followed by (4) the performance of the planned action (Boutelle, 2006; Kanfer & Karoly, 1972; LaRose et al., 2009)

Kerstin Frie et al.

For most amateur runners, losing some body fat will make you run faster. Healthy weight loss for those without a medical condition is simple, eat better and move more. Try to keep weight loss to a maximum of half a kg per week. Keep your protein intake high and strength train to maintain muscle mass. To help you learn how your body responds to changes in your habits, weigh your self at the same time each day and reflect on how your behaviours affect your weight over time, then adjust these behaviours based on where you want your weight to be. 

The longer the distance you race, the more critical being lean becomes. Focus on shorter races at first and let yourself get leaner over time as you increase your training volume and experience. 

Posture and a flat stomach

We all want to look healthy and make a good impression, but with a year of staying at home hunched over laptops and slumped down on sofas with only a little walking, our bodies have lost some of their stature. In England, lockdown is beginning to be lifted as the days become warmer and the successful vaccine programme takes its effects on infections. Now is the time to start undoing some of the negative impacts of remote working and returning our natural posture. 

Arnold Schwarzenegger has two suggested daily activities that will significantly impact how we look, and probably how we feel as a result; stomach vacumes to build the muscles that hold in our stomachs and wall stands to straighten out our bodies and stand tall.

Posture

Arnold suggests we spend five minutes daily standing with our back to a wall. Your feet should be a couple of inches away from the wall, you should stand tall imagining a cord being pulled up from the crown of your head, and you should have three points of contact with the wall; bum, shoulders, and head. I like to put my B&W PX7’s on and enjoy a 5-minute track while my muscles stretch back into position.

Flat stomach 

Most of us have weak stomach muscles from lots of sitting around and from under-exercising them. Try three sets of 15 seconds stomach vacumes. To perform a stomach vacuum, pull in your belly button as far back towards your spin as possible and hold it there for 15 seconds. You may find bending over slightly and resting your hands on a table helps you get into the position and hold the vacuum for longer.

Arnold also recommends 200 crunches first thing in the morning.

Dead hang

I find that dead hanging from a bar for 30 seconds works great to undo my poor sitting posture too. I do my first 30 seconds after exercise in the morning, the second when I break for lunch, and the third as I finish up working at the end of the day. You can learn more about the benefits of the dead-hang from my post on shoulder health. 

These three exercises performed daily will have a noticeable difference in the way you look and feel in just a couple of weeks. You will stand straighter, have a flatter belly, and healthier shoulders. 

Peter Coe’s Diagnostic Tests

Peter Coe was the father of Seb Coe, and an engineer turned middle distance coach. He approached his son’s training scientifically and helped Seb achieve 13 World Records and countless trophies and medals. Coe wrote a book detailing his training methods, strength and conditioning approach, and running workouts to help other middle-distance runners win.  

There are runners who seem to be performing quite well but are often, quite unknown to themselves, not reaching their full potential because of a lack of specific or all-round strength.

Peter Coe

In his book, Winning Running; Successful 800m & 1500m Racing and Training, Coe lists a set of tests and standards to help runners identify gaps in their overall conditioning. Once the gaps are identified, the runner can create a programme to address them.

TestStandardDetails
Balke TestRun as far as possible in 15 minutes. Divide the distance in meters by 15 to give the speed in meters per minute. Subtract 133 from this number, then multiply by 0.172, then add 34.4 to get oxygen intake in ml/kg/min.
Standard Broad JumpAthletes height plus 25%A standing long jump
Hopping Test10 hopsMark out a 25m track, one-legged hop the distance. Repeat on the other leg to identify imbalances 
50m Dash6.5 secondsAs the name suggests
Free Weights
– Curl50% body weight
– Press70% body weight
– Squat100% body weight
Sarjent Jump65 cmMeasure the maximum verticle jump
Harvard Step TestScore of 180Using a 20 inch (50cm) step and a metronome set to 120 bpm and perform 30 steps per minute (4 beats per step) for 5 minutes. Rest for 1 minute and count the beats for the next 30 seconds. Multiply the time in seconds by 100, divide it by the 30 second pulse count, and then multiply it by 5.5 to get your score. 
Height-weight Ratio10% less that the Dr Stillman formula result for your heightUsing Dr. Stillman’s formular  – give 50kg for the first 1.5 meters of height then add 2.5kg for each additional 2.5cm 
Percentage Body Fat8%
Muscular Endurance TestThe maximum number in a minute
– Press-ups50
– Squat thrusts50
– Sit-ups60
– Pull-ups20
Diagnostic tests for middle distance runners

Train all your running muscles

Running is a full-body activity, and the faster you run, the more of your body you use. There are close to 700 muscles in the human body, and you use most of them when running fast. If you do all of your training at a slow pace as many long-distance runners do, you do not train the majority of your muscles, and you miss the opportunity to get faster.

There are three types of muscle fibers; slow-twitch, Intermediate fast-twitch, and fast-twitch. At low intensities, you only use your slow-twitch, and as the workout gets more intense, you start to include your intermediate and then fast-twitch fibers. Pete Magill in Fast 5K suggests that you need to vary your runnings paces to train each type of muscle fibre and reach your maximum running potential. 

Jack Daniels suggests that you need to train using five specific paces relative to your V02Max. Daniels provides an online running calculator to work out these paces based on your most recent race performance.

Training intensitypercentage of V02MaxPace based on 1:35 1/2 marathon
Easy59-75%5:18-5:50 min/km
Marathon75-84%4:41 min/km
Threshold83-88%4:24 min/km
Interval95-100%4:03 min/km
Repetition100%+3:48 min/km
Running training paces

If you miss any of these five paces from running training, you leave gains in speed on the table. Start to build in all five paces into your running to get faster and wait till eight weeks before any race to start introducing specific workouts targeted at that event. 

6-Second sprint test

My approach to holding 4 watts per kilo for an hour (FTP) on the bike has been to get strong, convert that to power on the bike, and then work to hold it for longer. First, I built up my strength with weight training with a target of a one and a half times bodyweight squat, and now I am working on building my power on the bike. But how much power do I need before focusing on maintaining that power for more extended periods?

Dr Andrew Coggan developed a power index with numbers for 5s 1 min, 5 min, and functional threshold power (60 min) to reflect neuromuscular power aerobic capacity, maximal oxygen uptake (V02max) and lactate threshold (LT). The index The numbers equivalent to an FTP of four w/kg are:

5s1 min5 min60 min
17x bodyweight 8.3x bodyweight 4.7x bodyweight 4x bodyweight
Andy Coggan Power Index

For a weight of 82.5kg, that works out to:

5s1 min5 min60 min
1403w685w388330w
Power index at 82.5kg bodyweight

The 6-second sprint test

The 6-second sprint test is used by both the UCI World Cycling Centre to assess if a rider is more suited to sprint or endurance events and by the Janan Institute of Keirin as an entry exam.

The results of the test will give you an idea of your peak power and cadence. To perform the test, you ride as hard as possible for 6 seconds. You will get two figures, peak power over the single pedal revolution usually reaching in the first few pedal strokes and an average over the 6 seconds. 

You will recover from the test quickly and so the 6-second sprint can be performed fairly regularly before a normal workout.

This weeks training

An example of a current week of training:

MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
Bike30/15 – 3 sets of 11 reps @125% FTP60 mins between 62.5 and 75% FTP90 mins + 6 second maximal sprints30/15 – 3sets of 12 reps @125% FTP60 mins between 62.5 and 75% FTP 90 mins + 6 second maximal sprints Off
S&CMP 5x(2,3,5)
Snatch 3×7
Swings 3×7
Squat 8-6-4
Deadlift 120kg
Swings 10×7
C&P 5×1
Snatch 3×7
Swings 3×7
C&P 5×1
Snatch 3×7
Swings 3×7
Squat 8-6-4
Deadlift 120kg
Swings 10×8
Loaded carries
C&P 5x(1,2,3,4,5) Off
Core50 sit-ups
60-sec  plank
50 sit-ups
70-sec plank
50 sit-ups
80-sec plank
50 sit-ups
90-sec plank
50 sit-ups
100-sec plank
50 sit-ups
110-sec  plank
Off
Run20-25 minsHill sprints 3x 8 sec 20-25 mins
10 min warm-up
Surges 8x 20 secs w/ 40 sec jog
5 min cooldown
OffDrills
Hill sprints 3x 8 sec
20-30 mins
20-25 minsOff
StretchDead hang
Squats
Couch stretch
Indian knot
All – 3×30 secs
Dead hang
Squats
Couch stretch
Indian knot
All – 3×30 secs
Dead hang
Squats
Couch stretch
Indian knot
All – 3×30 secs
Dead hang
Squats
Couch stretch
Indian knot
All – 3×30 secs
Dead hang
Squats
Couch stretch
Indian knot
All – 3×30 secs
Dead hang
Squats
Couch stretch
Indian knot
All – 3×30 secs
Off
Training plan for week commencing 22nd March

My main goal is to get to a four w/kg FTP on the bike and total around seven hours of riding on Zwift each week. As my main priority, the riding is done in the morning to make sure I don’t ever miss it. The schedule follows a polarised programme with two HIIT sessions per week. The 30/15 intervals involve repeats of 30 seconds at 125% FTP, followed by 15 seconds at 50% of that number.

The strength and conditioning workouts support my riding goal and is mainly maintenance. Swings are with a 40kg kettlebell (The Bulldog), the presses are with a 24kg kettlebell and a 32kg for the 5×1 clean and presses. The strength sessions are short and fit into a break at lunch on most days.

I am using the running to get some additional aerobic training, get out of the house, and prepare for the second half of the year when I transition to focus on getting to the next level of the distance runners progression 40 minutes 10km. I run in the evening after work.

My current morning routine

6:00 Wake up

6:05 50 sit-ups

6:10 Protein shake

6:15 Plank

6:20 Yogurt + berries

7:00 Bike

8:30 Shower

8:40 Stretch

8:50 Work

Running. Getting into the flow

I don’t think I have ever experienced runners high, but I know that there are times during runs where everything clicks and running feels effortless. During these periods, all my muscles are relaxed, my whole body from my arms to my legs move together, my legs just turn over, and every movement feels like it is driving me forward. These times are few and far between, but they are what makes the training worth it.

I am two weeks into my running training for this year, and I have one goal; increase the frequency of this feeling. I assume that this flow state represents the most efficient and effective way to run and maximising the times when I feel this will make me faster. But the question is, what can I do to trigger this running sensation?

To improve my running flow, I perform pre-run dynamic stretching and post-run strides each time I run, short maximum effort hill sprints twice per week and one set of technique drills.

Pre-run warm-up routine

Before every run, I perform this short dynamic warm-up routine from @coachtommy.nrg on Instagram to get my legs moving:

  1. 10x Calf raises
  2. 10x Lunges
  3. 10x Squats (full range of motion)
  4. 10x Knee to chest
  5. 20x Leg swings on each side
  6. 30x Heel flicks 

Technique Drills

Once per week, currently on a Friday lunchtime, I perform technique drills from Pete Magill’s Fast 5K to work on my form:

  1. Skipping
  2. High skipping
  3. Long skipping
  4. Flat-footed marching
  5. High knees
  6. Bounding
  7. Quick feet
  8. Quick hops
  9. Butt Kicks

Each drill is performed for one repeat of 20 meters (on my driveway and down the side of my house), jog back, then stride the 20 meters, then walk back to the start for the next drill.

Very short, very steep, very fast hill sprints

Twice per week, I am performing hill sprints. I go to a steep hill (around the corner from my house) and run up it as fast as possible (maximal effort) for between 8-12 seconds. Walk down to recover and then repeat up to 10 times. Brad Hudson in Run Faster provides a progression:

  • Week 1: 1×8 sec hill sprint
  • Week 2: 2×8 sec hill sprint
  • Week 3: 3×8 sec hill sprint
  • Week 4: 4×8 sec hill sprint
  • Week 5: 5×8 sec hill sprint
  • Week 6: 6×8 sec hill sprint
  • Week 7: 7×8 sec hill sprint
  • Week 8: 8×8 sec hill sprint
  • Week 9: 10×8 sec hill sprint
  • Week 10: 8×10 sec hill sprint
  • Week 11: 10×10 sec hill sprint
  • Week 12: 10×10 sec hill sprint
  • Week 13: 8×10 sec hill sprint
  • Week 14: 5×10 sec hill sprint

Post-run strides

Strides are short, fast runs of around 10-20 seconds with at least 40 seconds of light running between to recover. I have started to add them to the end of each run down a wide ally near my house. I run for 20 seconds and then jog back to the start. Jess Tonn, a seven-time All-American at Stanford, has built up to doing six to 10 of them nearly every day, often logging more than 50 post-run strides in a week. I am running four days per week and follow a progression similar to the hill sprints for each run:

  • Week 1: 2x 20-second stride
  • Week 2: 3x 20-second stride
  • Week 3: 4x 20-second stride
  • Week 4: 5x 20-second stride
  • Week 5: 6x 20-second stride
  • Week 6: 7x 20-second stride
  • Week 7: 8x 20-second stride
  • Week 8: 10x 20-second stride
  • Week 9: 8x 25-second stride
  • Week 10: 10x 25-second stride
  • Week 11: 10x 25-second stride
  • Week 12: 8x 25-second stride
  • Week 13: 5x 25-second stride

Grease The Groove

I am currently following the Rite of Passage programme from Pavel Tsatsouline, working towards pressing a 40kg kettlebell overhead with one arm. As part of the programme, Pavel suggests that you can do ‘Grease The Groove’ (GTG) single-leg squats to supplement the main workouts.

‘Grease The Groove’ describes performing regular reps of a movement throughout the day to build the skill of strength while avoiding fatigue. Pavel suggests in ‘People to the people!’ that strength is a skill; to get stronger, you must practice strength consistently. He states that the strongest people in the world only go to max effort infrequently and for a reason such as competition. The rest of the time, strong athletes push their limits with weight and tension, rather than going to exhaustion with excessive reps sticking to 5 reps or less and always able to do at least one more each set.

There are two main ways to get strong:

  1. Train heavy: If 100% intensity is the maximum you can lift, focus on reps at 85-95% of this.
  2. Train often: around 50% of your max weight/reps, and training as often as possible while staying fresh.

The ‘train often’ strategy is based on stimulating a neural pathway, described by the Hebbian rule. The more you repeatedly stimulate the pathway by repeating a strength movement, the stronger and more efficient that movement becomes. You will develop the ability to lift more with the same effort in that specific movement. For example, if you can do ten pull-ups with good form, you would perform sets of five pull-ups (50% of your max) throughout each day. After a few weeks, you would retest your max number, and you will now be able to do more than ten. GTG is specific to the skill, and so focusing on form is essential, and the volume of reps will reinforce the technique you use. 

If you are training to failure, you are training to fail.

Dr Terry Todd,

You should make the five sets part of your day, spacing them out with a minimum of 15 minutes rest in between. A common technique is setting a timer at the top of each hour during work hours. You could do a set each time you sit down or stand up from the desk. Another alternative is to do a set when you pass a place in your house or even each time you open the fridge. 

Grease the groove

  1. Pick an exercise in which you want to become stronger, and you can do between 5 and six reps.
  2. Perform the exercise several times a day with two to three reps with at least 15 minutes break between each set.
  3. Blast the groove with the final rep of the last set.
  4. If you feel it the next day, take a day off and reduce the number of sets or reps the following day.

For my Single leg squat, I can only do one rep on each leg currently, so I need to find a regression that I can perform five to six reps with to use for my daily sets. I will use cossack squats for the next two-four weeks and then retest the number of single-leg squats I can do after all the practice.