Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Running or Lifting? How about both. Meet an Ultra Marathoner who Squats 700 Pounds

An ultra-marathoner with a 700 pound squat?! You read that correctly. Alex Viada is a different breed of athlete, he is a hybrid athlete, combining tremendous strength and exceptional endurance, he pushes his body in ways that few even thought was possible. With PRs of 705, 465 and 700 raw w/ wraps in the 220 class and a mile time of 4:15, Alex has reached levels that even few specialists can match. At his Durham, NC based facility, Complete Human Performance, Alex works with athletes of all kinds helping them take their strength and conditioning to new levels through well thought out hybrid training and sound nutrition. Learn more about Alex…


I can only pick one?
The biggest misconception I’ve seen is that the programming components can be approached as different entities- by that I mean the biggest failing of many approaches I’d tried myself in the past was precisely that the strength training component “ignored” the particular challenges of the endurance component, or vice versa.  The easiest emails that I get to answer lately are the ones along the lines of “Hey, I’ve got this strength training program I’m running which I’m sticking with, but I was hoping you’d program in some running for a half marathon I’m doing this year”.  The answer is “No.”  Without modifying the lifting, both components will be sub-par.  I constantly get inquiries about programming one portion of training but not the whole deal- this doesn’t work, period.  I am always amused at these “lifting programs for runners” that are half-assed circuit routines that do nothing to enhance strength, and simply get tossed randomly into a serious running program for the purpose of giving runners another way to tire themselves out on their off days… these are almost as bad as serious lifters following couch to 5k programs and wondering why their legs always hurt and their squat has gone to hell.
Hybrid training is all about understanding and managing recovery, and learning when systems are “fresh” enough to hit again, or when they can handle being hit differently.  A good strength training program or good endurance training program should be pushing the body to its limits- giving sufficient stimulus for adaptation, then just given enough recovery to allow some level of super compensation before hitting that same system again.  Recovery capabilities are finite, and when you introduce novel training modalities into an already taxed system, it is VERY easy to completely overwhelm the body’s recuperative capabilities….i.e. fall flat on your face.  This means even the greatest program should be modified- in fact, ESPECIALLY the greatest systems should be modified.  The mediocre programs leaving recovery on the table probably need fewer changes, since they’re not truly challenging the athlete to his or her limit.
The key, then, is understanding how each type of training taxes the body- what does, say, high intensity low volume resistance training do to the muscles and bones?  What energy systems are being taxed?  How long do the muscles need to recover?  Can the involved muscle groups be worked again in a different manner without slowing recovery between heavy lifting sessions?  Will sprints tomorrow compromise my squatting the day after?  What about sled pushes?  A slow run?  A short recovery spin on my bike?  Compiling a hybrid program is no different than planning any other integrating sporting program, you just need to think about the day to day impact of each kind of training and plan accordingly.


I can tell you that I have not had a single athlete succeed on any kind of low carb, ketogenic, IF, or paleo-type diet.  The energy requirements are simply too high- larger, more muscular athletes burn tremendous amounts of energy when engaged in endurance activities- they are heavier, more powerful, and inherently less structurally efficient (at endurance sports) than dedicated endurance athletes.  Repair from and adaptation to resistance training is also tremendously costly for the body after exercise is completed- regular lifters know this, but common is the dedicated runner who experiences extended soreness and performance decrease from, say, a strength-focused squat program… who has not made an effort to increase calories tremendously from baseline.  Long story short- eating everything in sight as often as possible is more often than not the initial recommendation.
As far as protein requirements go, I rarely recommend much beyond 1.5-2g/kg of bodyweight for athletes engaged in even heavy training cycles- there’s simply not much data to support higher levels in well trained athletes in an iso- or hyper-caloric state.  (Note- dieting changes this equation, but I rarely recommend any kind of cardiovascular training when dieting except for specialized endurance athletes who are cutting for performance purposes- i.e. cyclists).
The most important emphasis for hybrid athletes that gets too often overlooked by the specialists are proper micronutrients- minerals in particular, given the higher need for iron, calcium, magnesium, etc.  I’ve become a huge fan of juicers lately, simply because they represent a tremendously convenient way to cover all your bases when it comes to vitamins, minerals, and various antioxidants.  Note that none of these are magic bullets- a good multivitamin could supply this as well, but the extra calories are certainly a benefit!


Absolutely, though the degree to which they should do this is open for interpretation.  If nothing else, there is certainly the health aspect of regular cardiovascular training, which I assume I don’t need to explicitly state here…  2-3 even low intensity sessions per week, which could include 30-40 minutes of walking on an incline, rucking, swimming, fast walking or jogging, is at the BARE MINIMUM a good idea just for optimum health.  (We’re talking long term effects on insulin sensitivity, CVD, etc.)
That aside, since many elite athletes really only pay lip service to “health” (until they lose it), there’s a performance enhancing component for all athletes- improving general work capacity is a benefit for any strength athlete- increases in heart stroke volume, mitochondrial density, peripheral vascularity…  all these things can somewhat speed recovery between workouts and help a strength athlete handle a longer, more intense workout with a lesser decrease in performance.
Improved specific work capacity can also be a benefit- improved lactic acid clearance in your legs can indirectly make you a better Powerlifter or Olympic lifter, for example, if it allows you to perform higher volume, higher intensity work when your program calls for it.
Really, this calls for a much broader view of the athlete, though- not simply focusing on maximum performance parameters, but focusing on those components that are important to REACH maximum performance parameters.  Even if maximum force development in a single plane is the SOLE goal of, say, a bench press specialist, the individual still needs to be able to train hard- to combine volume work, explosive work, hypertrophy training if needed, active recovery…  if the individual is too focused on pure force development, he or she may not be able to train these other components of strength, particularly if he or she can’t make it through an extended base building workout in the offseason because his or her conditioning is so poor.  If this individual can, say, improve his strength-endurance, and therefore handle a higher benching volume in a single workout, at the mere cost of a few low intensity swimming or rowing sessions a week, why wouldn’t he?  Provided the additional work doesn’t interfere with strength progress, the cost-benefit is a no brainer.


Truthfully, aerobic conditioning itself has proven to be the most useful form of active recovery, particularly when stacked with light resistance stimulus of the target muscle group.  Nothing aids in the recovery of a muscle better than putting it through its paces- multiple full contraction/relaxation cycles under light load, increasing bloodflow and getting the heart rate up…  I have to admit I do not place a tremendous focus on “mobility” work for recovery- to fix any movement restrictions and improve performance, sure, but assuming this is not a need, most recovery recommendations are to eat a balanced diet, engage in active recovery even on rest days (a short 10-20 minute session at an easy pace), and indulge in hot water baths or a few minutes in a sauna after a workout whenever possible.  (I am not a believer in ice baths!)
There’s also the sleep factor.  Up above where I mentioned that a lack of adequate calories was the biggest detriment?  A lack of sleep is the second biggest.  Simply put, sleep IS your body’s number one mechanism for recovery.  All the stretching, mobility, contrast baths, ART, PNF, and so forth simply can’t compare to just letting the system rest and repair.  Heck, some of these “recovery” tools can do more harm than good if an athlete is not getting sufficient sleep- certain forms of massage or muscle release actually cause MORE trauma to the muscles, which certainly doesn’t help if a lack of time for repair is the problem.  I know entirely too many athletes who spend a tremendous amount of time on active recovery who would be better served taking those minutes and hours and logging them with their eyes firmly shut.
Finally, don’t forget your cooldown.  Whatever you do, DON’T skip your cooldown.  Do not.  Really.  I can’t stress this enough.  When I write “c/d 7:00 @ 9:15/mile” on my workouts, I believe most athletes read this as “Go home seven minutes early and have a beer”.  It does not mean this.  Easing your body back down from maximum effort is as important as easing it into maximum effort.


Interestingly enough, 5 years ago was roughly when this entire methodology began to gel.  Prior to this, I’d just started experimenting with “hybrid” training, and made a tremendous number of mistakes.
The biggest realization for me was that, to be good at multiple things, I had to be lazy- to be specialized, to do ONLY what I needed to improve at each discipline and not a bit more.  Eliminating the waste from my programming was a difficult thing to do- I couldn’t afford to do three or four accessory lifts every session- I had to limit it to one or two.  I couldn’t “go out on a run” just for the sake of going out on a run- if it didn’t make me faster, improve my overall endurance, or aid in recovery, it would be a waste of time.
When I work with a new athlete, I always first look at WHAT they want to be when all is said and done- i.e. what they look like as an athlete.  Any training cycle, any training week, any workout, any exercise, any repetition or interval that doesn’t help them go from where they are to what they want to be is a waste of time.  My mantra has become “no junk miles”- every workout needs to have a purpose.  (This doesn’t look catchy on a black and white motivational poster with a barbell on it, but it’s served me well).
My lifting routines are simple, my running routines are minimal, my training cycles are not terribly complicated.  For every athlete: Get in, do what you need to do, get out, fuel, and sleep.  And if something is working, for the love of god don’t change it!  Introducing more variables just complicates the equation.
I also switched from spending endless hours reading PubMed and scouring journals to far fewer hours reading textbooks.  It’s amazing how many training questions basic, established science can answer without having to resort to primary literature- I’d be surprised if most of the folks out there writing long training articles and citing three dozen sources in the course of two pages of text couldn’t have written a more thorough piece if they’d just scoured a good biochemistry or anatomy text.   I learned more from a single graduate course in human nutrition than I did from years of reading nutrition articles on the internet.
These might sound like two different answers, but they’re really part of the same general thought process- the more I’ve learned over the years, the more simple my approach has become.  Over years of trial and error, quality consistently rises to the top- good ideas remain good ideas, while things that work in theory but don’t produce results fall by the wayside and are discarded.  Overcomplicating nutrition, strength training, endurance training, supplementation, recovery methods… these are all “junk miles.”  There’s no magic out there, no mystique, no “advanced training methods only the pros know”- what differentiates a great coach or athlete from a mediocre one is their ability to ignore the garbage and focus on what will make them better… and then do it twice as hard.
Alex Viada is an NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, a USA Triathlon coach, Ironman triathlete, occasional Ultra runner, and Powerlifter who specializes in training hybrid athletes- individuals who wish to perform and compete in both strength and endurance events concurrently. His company, Complete Human Performance, at any given moment has roughly 60 athletes on the coaching roster, including active duty Military, Police / Firefighters, Powerlifters, MMA fighters, CrossFit competitors, Ultra runners, Triathletes, and Cyclists… most of whom fall into several of these categories. He squats and deadlifts 700+, runs a 4:15 mile, and occasionally manages to stay injury free for an entire season.  

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