LOSING MUSCLE WITH ENDURANCE RUNNING, AND THE SUPERIORITY OF SHORT, HIGH INTENSITY RUNNING
Jacob Wilson University of Tampa
WHAT'S THE BEST CARDIO WHEN BUILDING MUSCLE?
ENDURANCE RUNNING AND "BONKING" - WHAT YOUR BODY MIGHT BE TELLING YOU
The "Central Governor" Theory
BONKING: A LITTLE PHILOSOPHY WITH THE SCIENCE
Whatever camp you fall into, the reality of bonking - mentally shutting down (talking yourself out of finishing, i.e. this is beyond stupid, I can't do any more, and why did I sign up anyway) - is an unquestionable reality of endurance running. Furthermore, beyond the willpower to move there is the undeniable inability to push lactate laden legs one more inflamed, tortured step. Sometimes, to be fair, it's a matter of under or improper training. But even with the best training, gear, and genetics, there is a limit. For the mainstream population of runners, there is the all-too common experience of coming up against your personal limits where you simply cannot go on another step. There is pain, and there is mental disappointment. Sometimes there is just a breakdown of all our systems and we cannot continue.
Does this sound necessary, natural, or healthy?
I propose that a case can be made for such a situation, but this would be rare and not a preferred prospect under ordinary conditions of the world. Without a doubt, our current predicament in the world at large is that we do not find ourselves in much of a state of need or want that would fall under the designation of "rare or non-preferential prospect" - like war or survival, since most of us never go to war or find ourselves on the edge of survival. Dire situations of this nature have been practically eliminated for the vast majority, and this is not a bad thing. But we paradoxically find life flat, boring, and meaningless once you've sanitized it to the degree that there's basically nothing left to keep the heart pumping (figuratively and literally). Thankfully, in both urban and rural settings alike, athletics at large helps us retain a vestige of the culture of the ancient warrior or hunter, for those who don't find themselves in mortal combat against a foreign enemy nor in need of traveling great distances on foot for food, and can satisfy the need for physical challenge without the inevitable loss of life that regularly accompanies war or the dangers of the wild that comes with hunting over vast unpopulated terrains.
But isn't it true that often going hand-in-hand with team (or any) athletics is injury? This is true. It is hard to imagine any physical endeavor of the nature of athletics that has zero risk of injury. In fact, the careers of professional athletes of most major team sports are short lived and bear immense testimony to this. Injury is common, and sometimes career-ending.
But this is also often an acceptable risk, given the compensation for engaging in those arenas of athletics at the professional level. The risk is worth the reward, if in fact you are half frugal and wise with your earnings.
This is not the case with recreational endurance running.
Weekend warriors are not compensated monetarily. Rather, we clearly go in the hole with each race and each training season, for the costs of race entry and gear - not to mention the additional nutrition and supplementation required to keep the machine in top order. Most of us only lightly complain over this (or not at all).
Moreover, that's not the most costly part. We regularly incur common joint injuries that usually need some degree of physical therapy, and then worse, almost always will sideline us from the demands of the seasonal training schedule, putting us way behind in the game.
But of course, this pales in comparison to the unavoidable issue of wear and tear on the heart. The one muscle that makes all this elegant and bad-ass performance possible also needs the respect of it's "owner" and "driver" (to use a little race car analogy). Similar to a race car, the driver needs to be highly sensitive to what the car is feeling like, and therefore telling him or her. The driver must pay attention to the signs, the signaling through gauges and instruments, as well as how the car's handling may be changing. All of it is crucial not just to win a race, but to prevent a crash that may well end in death.
Bonking is a major signaling factor that tells us something is wrong with the vehicle. I propose further, it could be a sign that this sport - like performance car racing - is not for everyone. While driving may be good for us all (serving us well to accomplish tasks that would otherwise take countless hours or days to complete), racing may be out of the question.
The problem in making such a case, as I see it, is connecting the dots of cause and effect. Now, a heart attack will get attention. But it doesn't happen in a day. The trajectory is years, and the damage is years in the making. Same with the enlarged heart syndrome, or atrial fibrillation. Or type 2 diabetes, or lung cancer, for that matter, although unrelated to a career ending running calamity. Point is, these disorders don't happen overnight, and often show no symptoms.
Now with long-distance running, we runners have come to accept the fact that a certain amount of pain is expected and part of the game. Even injuries are a trade-off deemed okay - as long as I can get back on the crack as soon as possible. We are, over time, accustomed to the pain. It is part and parcel to endurance running. DOMS comes with the territory.
My theory is that the very dismissal or acceptance of pain might be an acceptable trade-off where life is not on the line, or where the reward-risk scenario makes a lot of sense. Champion boxers come to terms with the fact that there is a percentage of chance they could be dealt a fatal blow, given all the variables of the fight falling into place just so. But the prize money may seem worth that risk for them. They come to terms with it. And, like world-class Motorsports, it is a highly specialized and elite athletic endeavor, with little equal. Again, I hope it is clear, that is not the case with a weekend endurance warrior, however bad-ass they feel about their performance.
So here's the rub: the pain is good, and the pain is bad.
How is the pain good? Well, in quite a number of ways. Pain is reality, and (in my estimation) should not be avoided or escaped, necessarily. Life-threatening injury, I believe, clearly falls into another category. But not pain, unless that pain is so desperately acute, and there is no chance of relief, that is becomes debilitating to the point of removing all reason to go on living. But we are not talking about that kind of pain. We are talking about pain that actually hardens and strengthens. This kind of pain is worthwhile, as it builds us up instead of tearing us literally apart. This kind of pain is likened to the micro-tearing of muscle fibers within strength training that leads to hypertrophy, not the rending of flesh from a devastating mortar wound in combat. Very different insults, with very different outcomes.
The difficulty, in the end, is knowing oneself. What is the behavior that I do causing? What effect comes of my activities that I love? And by extension, how does this directly or indirectly fan out into the world in concentric waves to affect others - loved ones, coworkers, or neighbors? All of our behaviors have consequences, and both action and effect are ours to own. Nobody else's.
So it becomes our job as recreational athletes to deal with all these concerns within the domain of athletics we have chosen and that belongs to us. That's what an adult does (or does for their kids). What is my personal physiology (not the physiology of the cohort of a study)? What is the overall economy of the sport of my choosing (risk vs. reward, both physically and monetarily)? What activity we allow me, over time, to reap the most benefits while incurring the least amount of loss? In a word: what will bring the most joy into the world and extend the greatest contribution to all?
My conviction is that it will not be a sport that causes physical and mental crashes - events that are highly likely large signals from the body that damage is occurring and it's time to take the car into the pit (or shop), and at the least find out what is going on and mitigate further damage. Or better, perhaps, make a call whether or not this car I'm driving is built for motor speedway performances, or only driving to work and the grocery store.
Address the signals.
WHAT ABOUT THE OUTLIERS?
DAMAGE TO THE HEART: CAN'T SEEM TO GET AROUND THIS ONE
THROWING THE BABY OUT WITH THE BATHWATER? WHAT PLACE DOES ENDURANCE RUNNING HAVE?
Should we simply NEVER run?
I don't think that is the answer.
I think the evidence points to knowing yourself, and thereby exercising accordingly. It is sad that Micah True did not either know himself (biologically) well enough, or did not act on it if he did. I'm sure his personal situation was much more complicated than that. It always is.
We can know ourselves better in a number of ways:
Genetic testing is available. Anyone who can afford it (and if you are a recreational runner who spends money on race fees, you can afford it) can avail themselves of a once-and-done test from 23 and Me. With this, you can pay them or a third party to parse the raw data and have access to all of what makes up your physicality on the genetic level. Genetic expression and understanding of all this genetic material (what genes express this or that) is another matter for another article. The main thing is that you can know quite a bit about what you are suited for as this information is more and more forthcoming.
Simple blood testing.
How we feel after a run workout - intuition. Are we a naturally faster or slower runner? How do we feel? What is our heart telling us?
And of course, resonance. Do we like it, or merely tolerate it? Is it a fit? Does it makes sense for my life? Does running 15-30 miles a week really fit in a balanced way in my life?
Of course, there is also the more glaring question... does it have to be endurance running? The answer is unmistakably no. As already covered above, the most healthy running turns out being some combination of very low level zone 2 (aerobic) running for no more than a couple of 30-40 minute sessions per week, or sprint running of a limited volume (say, tabatas).
Bitter news after the finish of the 2021 St. Jude Memphis Marathon race today. I ran the half, and my friend, Gavin finished it also.
After his finish, the tragic event mentioned in the text he sent me (as seen in the image to the left) happened.
This hit close to home.
I had been struggling with this issue of Run or Not Run for some time. Or should I say, not overdo running.
Obviously, from this year's workouts, I did not have that issue front and center. I completed 35 half marathons this year. Maybe not my most brilliant choices.
So I was faced with this glaring question: is it really best to continue like this?
The obvious answer is leaning hard into the NO corner.