Ask Joe Uhan: Your Questions Answered

Stay the CourseHey Readers!

Thanks for the responses to my call for a questions a couple weeks back–you all collectively sent a fine array of questions across the board of running science, and definitely some fodder for future “Stay the Course” columns!

Happy reading.

Strength Training

Hey Joe,

I love your article and thanks for taking questions.

During 2-4 months of winter I’ve been transitioning from only trail running to mostly weight room activities (cardio and weights), is there an off season weight and cardio routine that you recommend for trail and ultra runners to not only maintain a level of fitness but to actually improve next season’s speed and stamina?  I come from a weight lifting background and each year I struggle trying to settle into a routine that isn’t like my old muscle building for shot putters & football players routine.  Thanks in advance!

Best,

Chris W.

Chris-

Thanks for the question. The fact that you actually have an off season is a great thing. True periodization–of having a different training focus during each part of the year–in the sport is rare, but a vital part of sustainable improvement.

With regards to aerobic activity, any option that you enjoy is a viable option. Just be sure it’s truly aerobic and, by and large, low intensity. Quantitatively, this means a heart rate of only 60 to 70% maximum. By feel, it should be ‘easy-does-it’ breathing, though different activities might feel tougher on the arm and leg muscles.

Some of the best athletes –past and present–cross train in the off season. Historically, Western States legends Tim Twietmeyer and Bruce LaBelle spent their late fall and early winter months cycling, hiking, and backcountry skiing. Not only were these enjoyable, exciting activities that were very different from running, but they also kept them fit. Modern-day examples include Kilian Jornet and Rob Krar, who spend a lot of time hiking up mountains, then skiing down in the ‘off season.’

As far as strength goes, standard weight programs typically emphasize high-intensity (e.g heavy weight, low rep) lifting plans. My current favorite strength philosophy comes from the book Convict Conditioning, which emphasizes old-school body weight calisthenics training. Not only can you do these exercises every day, but they will get you really strong and trail ready!

IT Band Syndrome

Joe,

IT Band syndrome: it seems to happen for various reasons: stride deficiency, hip/muscle weakness and or simple accumulation of muscle scar tissue (tightening of IT band fascia due to interaction with tight muscles, etc). Experts differ widely on solutions:

1) foam role/massage IT band and/or just surrounding muscles and/or trigger points around hips and glutes,

2) ‘stretch’ IT band (others say it can’t be stretched) and/or surrounding muscles,

3) don’t worry about stretching, simply strengthen hips via ‘walt reynolds IT band exercise’ or ‘frankenstein walk with stretch band’, do general abduction exercises (clam shells, leg raises, etc)…

With all the mixed info, I personally did some of all the above, but was left not knowing what really ‘worked’ and should get more attention…thanks.

Patrick

Dear Patrick-

Good question, thanks for asking. My professional values are centered around the following treatment philosophy: mechanical, neuromuscular, and motor control.

That said, the vast majority of standard running-injury treatment strategies focus on mechanical, only: how to stretch and massage the tissue. After that, there is basic, non-specific strength work. And while muscle activation is important, there is no guarantee that a certain hip exercises will activate a muscle properly while running.

Ultimately, all non-traumatic (non-idiot*) running injuries come down to motor control: how you run. That said, iliotibial band pain is almost always a result of one or more of the following factors:

  • overstriding–when the foot lands in front of the center of mass during the run stride;
  • running too narrow–where the foot lands excessively narrow, resulting in excess lateral leg loading; and/or
  • deficient knee flexion during swing phase–the knee isn’t bending enough to stretch out the IT band.

(*running too much, too quickly, without adequate build up)

Sustainable recovery from IT band pain requires addressing and improving stride efficiency. The rest of it–the massage, stretching, and strength work–may be useful to speed recovery, but is secondary to running better.

Piriformis Problems

Hi Joe,

Faris here, an avid reader and runner from Jordan, Middle East.

My question would be about piriformis syndrome/piriformis muscle and its effect on posture and running posture. I suffered a herniated disc with terrible sciatica, my piriformis muscle is often tight up causing an internal shift in my posture, with recurring bouts of sciatica down to my calves.

What do you recommend? to stretch or strengthen? How can a runners work on his pelvis alignment, to keep in proper in light of a back injury?

Looking forward. All the best,

Faris

Hey Faris-

Thanks for the message, and thanks for supporting iRunFar and “Stay the Course” over in Jordan! That’s fantastic! The trail running community is a small world, indeed.

Sorry to hear about your back and pelvic issues. Piriformis syndrome–or any pain or dysfunction related to the piriformis muscle and surrounding posterior hip and pelvis area–is typically the result of excessive stress to the low back and pelvis. That said, it’s logical that a low-back issue (e.g. herniated disc) could be accompanied by piriformis or piriformis-like symptoms.

I’m big on unifying principles: the idea that it makes more sense to have one answer to several questions, instead of different answers to each problem. What may be best for your piriformis should also improve your low back.

Running efficiency requires:

  • trunk (spine and pelvis) stability;
  • hip mobility; and
  • an efficient footstrike under the trunk.

That said, my recommendations would include:

  • Stretch, then strengthen the spine, with heavy emphasis on arm and leg movements on a stable trunk. The best whole-body exercise to work on this is the deadlift, recently outlined here.
  • Stretch, then strengthen the hips, namely by stretching hip flexors, and working on isolated hip-extension exercises, again on a stable trunk.
  • Lastly, be sure your foot is landing directly beneath your center of mass while running. A primary cause of lumbar and pelvic/piriformis stress is overstriding.

Good luck, and keep reading!

Overtraining

Joe Uhan,

I’m a huge fan and have enjoyed all of your columns. Please keep up the great work!!

My questions pertain to overtraining/overreaching. I recently came off of a badly-planned training block in preparation and completion of a 12 hour adventure race (not enough recovery). I planned to take some time off depending on how I felt after the race – I felt good, so after four days of rest, I got right back into training for a 50K.

I had three nights in a row of VERY bad sleep. I simply could not fall asleep. It felt like my body would wake up or my heart rate would increase when I would try to sleep. I took two weeks completely off thinking I may have overreached/overtrained. During those two weeks, I still struggled for hours to fall asleep. I started to take about 1mg of melatonin before bed, and this has worked wonderfully (I also stopped drinking coffee).

Are insomnia and sleep issues a normal effect of entering an overtrained/overreached stage? Are there other causes of insomnia and sleep issues in endurance athletes? How long should this take to correct itself? I am not stressed and have not changed other factors in my life. I plan to take less and less melatonin until I am completely off of it. I recently started running again and am wondering how I will know if it is okay to continue training. I am sleeping well and taking less than 1mg of melatonin. After a few more days, I will completely stop taking melatonin – what should I do if I continue to have sleep issues?

Thank you so much!

Alex P.

Alex-

Thanks for the great question, and your support of iRunFar.

Overtraining (OTS and its spectrum of symptoms and consequences) is a huge issue in ultra-endurance exercise, but it rarely gets the attention it deserves. As I wrote about last year, the sport of ultra trail running is especially susceptible to OTS issues. Trail ultras stress different physiological systems – such as the neurological, metabolic, endocrine, and immune system – more severely than the muscle and joint systems, and those stresses are often very difficult to perceive.

One of the earliest signs of the OTS spectrum is disordered sleep. The only true need for sleep, based on decades of research, is neurological rest and reintegration. When sleep is disrupted, that signifies the neurological system is overtaxed.

As for your questions, one should differentiate between “normal” and “healthy”. I would say that it is normal to have disrupted sleep in the days following a taxing effort (I almost never sleep well the night following an ultra). But the more prolonged the sleep disruption, the more taxed your body is.

Respect your whole body, and rest–and maximize recovery–until sleep improves. But like all things neuro… the more you stress about it, the more difficult it becomes. Read up on some tips on sleep hygiene and cover your bases there, then… just don’t worry about it. Being restful doesn’t necessarily require unconsciousness. Stay home (or somewhere quiet and relaxing), prop the feet up, fuel well with healthy, whole foods, read a book, and… don’t be surprised if you nod off.

As far as training goes:

Our bodies have a physiological memory of years. How we perform at a single race has more to do with what we’ve done (or not done) over the past several years, than it does the past several weeks or months. The best athletes in the sport are the ones who have trained consistently and sustainably for years. Max King’s performances in 2014 are a great example of the good that can happen with consistently strong, sound, and balanced training.

But those long-term effects have a flip side: mild overtraining, or even minor imbalances between training volume and real life (work, family, relationships) can accumulate over years. Most of the documented severe OTS cases have presented with a stress-rest imbalance going back three to four years, or more.

That said, take a good, hard look at how you’ve trained in the past half decade. How much are you running, and how filled is the rest of your life? The perception of ‘stress’ is different than load. No matter how you perceive life activities, ‘six pounds of stuff in a five-pound bag’ is still an overload.

For right now, read up on my articles on OTS, including the recommendations on activity. In general, you should not progress beyond short, easy runs until sleep is restored.

Long term, your best bet would be to find a skilled coach to help you sort through this, then decide on a sustainable plan of action, not only for training and racing, but on how to optimize the activity-versus-rest balance in your life.

Good luck!

Weight

Hi Joe,

I’m about 5’10” and fluctuate between 160-165lbs. I race distances from 5/10k to 100k but prefer the marathonish-50mile race. My question revolves around weight, and more specifically, what are the healthy/reasonable limits when it comes to weight for someone endeavoring to be a competitive athlete? Do the drawbacks to trying to drop pounds outweigh the benefits? Though everything I’ve heard says otherwise, is it possible to lose weight productively during race season?

It’s a pretty broad series of questions, but some insight into the relationship between overall weight and performance would be really helpful.

Thanks,

Michael B.

Michael-

Good question, thanks for asking.

Optimal weight for runners is a salient issue in running for two reasons. First, many of us are motivated to run for the health benefits, which includes weight management. Second, weight management is, along with performance, a result of a balanced approach to training, nutrition, and the rest of life.

Optimizing one’s ideal weight is highly individualized. There’s no way to determine whether an arbitrary number is either attainable, or sustainable–for either running or general health. Instead, the decision to adjust body weight should be based on a few factors:

  • Body composition: How much of your weight is lean muscle mass, versus excess body fat? The best ultra-trail runners, across the board, are ‘bigger’ than their road and track counterparts. This is likely due to the benefits of being strong. This strength is beneficial in holding things together and keeping the stride efficient. However, this mass tends to be quite lean. So to wish to ‘lose’ this mass may have deleterious effects to both running and health. Conversely, excess weight around the midsection, for example, may indicate that weight loss may be possible and/or healthy.
  • How you perform at different weights: Most runners have mild to moderate weight fluctuations. It’s important to note any differences in performance at various weights. Almost all elite runners have experienced such fluctuations and can tell you at what weight ranges they perform well, and what ranges–either too high or too low–they perform less well.
  • How you feel, day-to-day, at different dietary levels: One of the interesting ironies of long-distance running, for me, is, the more I run, the less time I have to eat, and the less appetite I have, while the converse is also true! At a certain point, if you run too much and (either through appetite, or timing) eat less, there will be a point of compromise.

However, your body will tell you what it needs, if you choose to listen. Too much work with too little fuel will result in fatigue, slow recovery, difficultly concentrating, and–almost invariably–cravings. I often hear runners note that, on certain restrictive diets, they’re always hungry. That is a sign that the body is deficient in something.

I believe in unifying principles, that what’s good for one aspect of us, should be good for many others. That said, whatever your ideal training and racing weight should be, you should not only train and race well, but feel well: strong, healthy, energetic, and fulfilled. Regardless of weight, if any aspect of life precludes those things, or leaves you feeling weak, deprived, or hungry, you need to re-examine your goals and your strategies to get there.

A good resource for runners on the topic is Matt Fitzgerald’s Racing Weight.

Calf Pain

Joe- I’ve had tight calves for years. I do active stretching before every run, and usually still have to stop once or twice in the first mile or two to stretch them again. I stretch both the soleus and gastroc after every run.  I roll out any knots and get Graston on them to get deeper knots worked out. And yet they remain tight, and at times this has led to Achilles issues, PF, and calf strains.

Since nothing I’m doing to treat them is working, I’m guessing something else in the kinetic chain is off that needs to be addressed. Where do I start?

Thanks!

Sean G-

As I discussed above, how one runs is the most important factor to address in any running-related ache and pain. A running problem needs a running solution.

The vast majority of all running-stress issues come down to two factors:

  • An inefficient landing; and/or
  • An inefficient push-off.

Tight calves are often due to overstriding. Any time the foot lands in front of the center of mass, it is braking, wasting energy that must be absorbed by the body. The calves are the first line of defense, especially when landing with a fore-to-midfoot strike.

Less common but also possible is a deficient push-off where the hips aren’t extending enough, and the calves are trying to do the pushing. If the glutes don’t do the work, the buck will be passed along to either the hamstrings, quads, or calves.

I recommend you have some gait analysis done, or, short of that, have someone film a side view of you. A simple, slow-motion view can easily determine if your foot is landing in front of your trunk. If that’s the case, and if you appear to be too upright when running, focus on a forward trunk engagement, as well as improving your hip power in your stride.

Good luck!

Statin Use and Ultrarunning

Hey Joe. This is a strange one, relevant only to those of us in the “golden years” of running.

I started on a statin (Crestor) in Sept 2013, and was delighted that I experienced none of the dreaded side effects I feared (e.g., muscle soreness, etc.). In fact, I’ve gotten faster (at age 50), and even PR’d in a road 10k and marathon (first road races I’ve run in a few years).

But here’s the rub: In every ultra I’ve entered since starting Crestor I’ve had serious troubles starting in the 20-30 mile window, often with a progressive bonk that will not remit or respond to food, fluids, and the usual ultra interventions. I’ve completed two 50ks (not without trouble in the later miles) but dropped somewhere between 40 and 55 miles at every race longer than 50k since. In my last 50 miler, which I had run the two years previous and finished well, I slowed to the point of being pulled for not making the cutoff at about 40 miles. It’s tough when all you can do is walk. And my legs were totally fine. Pretty demoralizing.

An exercise physiology friend of mine said that statins can interfere with ATP, the energy driver at the cellular level, and invoke a “central governor” override which shuts things down. I know you’ve written about the central governor in previous posts.

Any thoughts or knowledge about statins and their effect?  It’s pretty hard to explain to folks–physicians included–that I can run a marathon but have trouble beyond that as a result of a statin!  (For what it’s worth, I’ve been off for a month now and am nervously anticipating the winter/spring ultra season.)

Thanks in advance for any insights.

Andy Meisler

Andy-

Interesting question, thanks for asking!

I’m not a doctor, but I’ve been following with keen interest the current research on statins, which are the world’s most commonly prescribed prescription medications. And, as you have indicated, the array of side effects is significant.

Statins work by inhibiting DNA replication that produces cholesterol. But since it’s impossible to design a drug to target one specific cellular process, one can easily imagine how ‘inhibiting DNA replication’ might adversely affect the human body! As such, you’re right to question how they may impact your overall health, as have many doctors and scientists, who question their safety and efficacy for our health.

But instead of delving into an area that’s out of my scope of practice, I’ll put on my coach hat and ask: how do you know it’s the statins that are creating your beyond-50k malaise?

This is a classic coach’s question: how do specific variables affect performance? Because the symptoms you describe could be attributed to myriad factors, most of which center around fat-burning capacity: that aerobic gear that uses fat as the primary fuel source. We tend to have two to three hours worth of glycogen in our bodies for exercise, and when those stores are fully tapped out, the body tends to shut down. For many of us, this occurs in the marathon to 50k range, which is part of what makes the long ultra so intriguing.

It’s entirely possible that you’ve somehow lost fat-burning capacity in the past two years, and this could be due to several factors: overtraining and racing, changes to life and work demands, deficient nutrition, and illness or injury.

Speak with your doctor should you have further questions about statins, or do your own homework by reviewing the latest studies on the subject. But if you continue to have issues beyond 30-plus miles, consider addressing your fat-burning capacity.

High-Intensity Cross Training

Joe,

Not sure if this will really fit the column you’re interested in writing, but I’ll ask anyway.

I really enjoyed your article on metabolic concepts and recovering from an injury a while back. In it, you mentioned that even low-impact cross training at an intensity over one’s anaerobic threshold can inhibit recovery. I have always been interested in how this jives with pool running, which is the gold standard for cross training during injury and has numerous success stories. Due to the dullness of pool running, pretty much everyone suggests that workouts are structured as high-intensity intervals. Any comments on this?

Thanks so much!

Tyler J.

Tyler-

This is an excellent question, thanks for asking it!

High-intensity cross training during a chronic, inflammatory injury is a bad idea. All high-intensity exercises gives off pro-inflammatory chemicals, regardless of actual injury. This is the brain’s way of premptively protecting us: it perceives the effort to be dangerous, and releases these chemicals–cytokines, and cortisol–to repair any damage. These chemicals then ‘bathe’ our tissues and attack sensitive areas that are already healing, slowing down the process.

I experienced a disappointing example last spring, when one of our best runners was injured early in the season. A plan was selected that included daily, high-intensity pool workouts. Yet, despite cross-training for two months, the injury didn’t heal. I surmise it was the exercise intensity–as well as deficits in stress management (running injuries are emotionally stressful!) in slowing down recovery.

I recommend all injured runners to stay completely aerobic (using Maffetone’s 180-Formula as a guideline) in order to heal most quickly. Then, once ‘the fire is out’, you can get back to running, and return to the specific work necessary for optimal performance.

A Random Question

On a solo 30-mile trail run, would you prefer to be encountered by 1 horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses? Assume that the horses/ducks are aggressive and you will have to engage them in a battle to the death. You can also assume that the duck-sized horses maintain their endurance and speed abilities while the horse-sized duck is able to fly as normal.

Please explain your choice and strategy for survival.

Regards,

-Keith B.

Keith-

Easy question: one horse-sized duck. Agility and technical running skill is everything in ultra-trail races. The horse-sized duck, with it’s large, uncoordinated webbed feet, would be no match for a course such as the Western States Trail. I would lure such a horse-sized duck into the steep Deadwood Canyon and, when the moment was right, simply push it off the edge. Indeed, even a few Tevis Cup horses have met their demise in those steep canyons over the years.

However, if these were Oregon Ducks, it wouldn’t matter. Big or small, they crush everyone.

[Writer’s Note: Keith B. was one of my first athletes when I started high-school coaching in 2002, when he was a high-school freshman. He was a smart ass then, and still is today.]

Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome

Hi Joe,

I am a Joe as well and have been suffering from PFPS [Patellofemoral pain syndrome] since my first 50K in October. The event had roughly 4,000 feet of gain and 4,000 feet of loss. I finished fine with no knee pain but now any run longer than 4-5 miles makes my knee flare up. I have been using one of those “sticks” to help massage muscles, foam rolling, and most recently had PT tell me there was no grinding or tracking issues with my knee and suggested some stretches. He also said a brace would be some cheap help but only wear it for 2-4 weeks as I should not rely on the brace for complete healing.

I signed up for another ultra 3 days after my previous one which is in March. This was before the knee issues. Should I take time off with no running? Thinking of getting a gym membership and doing some of the runner training you mentioned in other articles but nothing about PFPS in those.

Thanks and let me know if I need to clarify anything.

Joe B.

Joe-

Thanks for the message, and sorry to hear about your knee.

Similar to the question above about calf tightness, the primary causes of running-related knee pain include:

  • Overstriding: This is when the foot lands in front of the center of mass, which causes braking. That force is absorbed somewhere in the leg, often the knee.
  • Landing too narrow: A stride width that is too narrow, particularly when it’s only on one leg, can produce joint pain. This topic was covered previously here.
  • Insufficient heel recovery: This refers to how high the heel curls under the hip when the leg swings through after push off. This is a product of strong hip flexion and extension. An adequate heel recovery gives a healthy stretch to knee, while an insufficient heel recovery tends to stiffen the knee.

My advice, as always, is to obtain a skilled gait analysis to determine if any of those stride flaws are occurring. If so, addressing them could alleviate your symptoms quickly!

Western States 100 Training

How to plan your year of training leading up to WSER? Training blocks…what’s a block? How to travel to a race? What are some tips for races that are a flight and hotel away from your backyard races?

@ultrarunt

Hello ultrarunt,

Thanks for the question, and a timely one at that! Training for any major focus race should include a balance between general ‘physiological’ preparation, and specificity training.

General preparation is preparing your body’s basic physiology for the task at hand. For endurance events, this always includes hefty doses of low-intensity aerobic conditioning (though I will add, many runners wholy underestimate just how ‘easy’ this training needs to be to actually condition the aerobic system). Other physiological training includes muscular strengthening (both movers and stabilizers), and gradually loading the neuromuscular, metabolic, endocrine, and even the immune systems, which ‘get in shape’ via the progressive loading of a long, patient race build-up.

Once this foundational, general prep is in place, it is time for the specific work. For a race such as Western States, this should include: time-on-feet runs or experiences, practicing the physical and mental duration of the event; vertical work, including prolonged climbs and descents that mimic Western States’s famed canyons; and heat training, preparing for the high temperatures typically experienced.

A ‘training block’, therefore, could be considered the totality of work done to build up for a race. Or, it could be considered sub-sections of a focus race preparation: an easy base phase, a strength phase, and a high-intensity phase might each be considered separate blocks.

As far as travel goes: this is a personal preference based on experience, and the event you’re running. Most sub-alpine races tend to be near major cities, and most well-traveled ultrarunners fly in a day (or two, if they have the time and financial luxury), run, then fly out the day after.

However, if you’re considering a high-altitude race or international event, consider arriving a good week–or even two–ahead of race day. Events such as Leadville and Hardrock are at such significant altitudes that prolonged acclimitization is considered a must-do, in order to maximize performance. The same goes for overseas races, where one must adapt to prolonged travel and time changes.

That you’re asking this question hopefully means that you’ll be doing one of these things in 2015, and if so, good luck and enjoy the adventure!

Hip Labral Tears

What’s the latest, greatest on hip labral tear non-surgical rehab, recovery, return to trail ultras? I know two in that boat right now (not me) who are strong in their age group in their local area and facing this. Obviously they need to be seen by an experienced PT who specializes… Any new specifics?

@kjz

Hi kjz,

This is a great question, one I’ve received a few times, and certainly fodder for a future “Stay the Course” column.

As background, the hip labrum is a connective-tissue o-ring inside the joint of the hip that acts to deepen, cushion, and stabilize the ball in the socket. For various reasons, it can tear, causing pain and dysfunction in the joint, including clicking and catching.

While hip joint problems are common, surgical outcomes to repair the labrum or associated tissues are quite poor. And I think the reason is that seldom do we truly address and correct the factors that caused the tear. Moreover, the hip joint is very complicated, with dozens of muscles and ligaments stretching across it, every which way. That said, it is unbelievably difficult–even with state-of-the-art imaging–to truly determine what individual structures is actually causing your pain.

To anyone I help with a labral tear, I always ask them, “Is your labral tear the cause of your pain, or just another symptom?” In other words, is it the torn labrum that hurts, or just wear and tear as a result of stressing out the joint?

This is an important question to answer, and perhaps why, when people have labral repairs, more than half of them continue to have significant hip pain. So why have the surgery?

In my clinical experience, the keys to addressing hip pain and joint dysfunctions include:

  • Restoring full range of motion to the hip and the spine, namely the low back.
  • Finding pelvic neutral, where the rim of the pelvis is perpendicular to the spine. This may be the most important factor in hip-joint pain. A pelvis tilted too far anteriorly (downward, with too much back arch) or too posteriorly (upward, with a rounded low back) puts undue stress on the hip joint.
  • Activating the deep core stabilizers. The core stability muscles hold the spine and pelvis in place, providing a strong base of support from which the hip muscles to pull, as well as facilitation hip flexion during the run stride. Poor core stability makes these muscles work harder, which creates excessive force of the ball into the socket. In addition, strong core stabilizers also facilitation hip flexion during the run stride.
  • Optimizing the run stride to avoid overstride stresses at all costs. Overstriding creates braking, and that force travels up the leg, into the hip socket. This may be the ultimate pain producer among runners with hip pain.

This can be a heady task for runner and healthcare practitioner alike, but I’ve had good success in treating runners, without them having to go under the knife. My hope is that your friends can find a skilled physical therapist in their area to address those factors, as well as optimizing their stride to avoid any further joint stress.

Good luck to everyone!

Food

Write about what you eat Joe. The high fat science being done recently is really interesting.

@themanwq

and if you do write about this it would be interesting to me if you touched on whether the “carb limiting” concept for a runner includes limiting fruits and vegetables or just grains and processed sugars

@Ullr

My diet fits under my general training and living approach, which many call “optimized fat metabolism” (OFM). It is, in essence, what it sounds like: strategies that best promote fat metabolism for fuel. My initial interest in OFM came from reading about the epic 1989 Ironman Triathlon, where Dave Scott and Mark Allen fought neck-and-neck nearly the entire 140.6 miles, until Allen broke away with less than two miles to go in the marathon. In his book, Lore of Running, Tim Noakes does the math on their performances, which included a still-standing Ironman record 2:40 marathon, and concluded that conventional glucose storage and intake, even for these elite athletes, could not have possibly fueled them alone. Based on his calculations, he theorized they’d become supremely fat efficient and used their fat stores to propel them to new heights. This theory is echoed by the works of Phil Maffetone, who counseled Allen on both diet and training in the early 1980s.

Then, then athletic exploits of other fat-philic ultrarunners, such as Tim Olson and Zach Bitter, cemented home for me the running benefits of this training and dietary approach.

Optimized Fat Metabolism might be considered low-carbohydrate, based on conventional diets, which tend to promote carb intakes (especially for runners) upwards of 70%, by calorie. An optimized fat metabolism diet might have anywhere between 10 to 25% carbohydrate, with the bulk being fat (50-plus %) and the rest protein (20 to 30%). The idea is to provide a higher level of dietary fat, such that the body (including the brain) adapts to using fat–or fatty-acid molecules–as fuel.

However, a high-fat diet is only part of OFM. The other arguably more important component is training. To optimize fat metabolism, one must trail at a level where the muscle cells are able to use fat as fuel. This is, by definition, true aerobic training. However, most distance runners push their easy pace too quickly, which can inhibit the development of fat-burning enzymes. Phil Maffetone’s “180-formula” is a popular method to estimate maximum fat-burning effort, using one’s heart rate to determine running effort.

Ultimately, optimizing fat burning revolves around three interrelated factors: diet, exercise intensity and overall life balance (or stress management). Diet is only a third of the equation.

But since you asked, I tend to limit carbohydrate intake in the morning and midday. By taking in higher levels of fat (and moderate protein) at this time, the body learns to use fat as fuel. In the evening, my nutrient levels are more balanced, where more carbohydrates are added.

Most runners who have adopted an optimized fat metabolism approach will tell you they can run farther with less energy expenditures, have less bonking episodes, and be more consistent in workouts. Off the trail, they also report more consistent energy during the day, have less hunger, and tend to lose body fat (and gain lean muscle mass) because their bodies are metabolizing fat more than ever.

That we’re beginning to finally realize that a balanced diet of moderate-to-high fat, and low to moderate protein and carbohydrate diets have better outcomes for weight loss, heart disease, diabetes, and even brain diseases like Alzheimer’s is yet another unifying principle that, indeed, this approach is optimal for peak running, as well.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • For those of you who asked questions to the answers Joe has provided here, what takeaways have you learned?
  • Did any of these questions particularly interest you? If so, why?
Joe Uhan

is a physical therapist, coach, and ultrarunner in Eugene, Oregon. He is a Minnesota native and has been a competitive runner for over 20 years. He has a Master's Degree in Kinesiology, a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, and is a USATF Level II Certified Coach. Joe ran his first ultra at Autumn Leaves 50 Mile in October 2010, was 4th place at the 2015 USATF 100K Trail Championships (and 3rd in 2012), second at the 2014 Waldo 100K, and finished M9 at the 2012 Western States 100. Joe owns and operates Uhan Performance Physiotherapy in Eugene, Oregon, and offers online coaching and running analysis at uhanperformance.com.

There are 15 comments

  1. Emily_C

    This is an awesome article, but has a bit of misinformation. Statins do not inhibit DNA replication – that would indeed cause quite the side effects. Instead, they inhibit cholesterol synthesis by inhibiting the enzyme HMG CoA reductase. Fortunately, statins are some of the safest drugs, so hopefully this runner will be able to keep running healthy and happy.

    – an ultrarunning lipid biochemist

  2. rmsquires

    Well I missed the call for questions, but here's mine anyway: I get lower back & hip flexor soreness on level terrain, which are absent when going uphill. Any thoughts or suggestions would be appreciated

  3. mikehinterberg

    Thanks Joe (and Keith B.) — I thought about the horse-duck/duck-horse dilemma for way too long (i.e. more than zero minutes) on my run today!

    1. jdcheesman

      The answer Joe gave is wrong, though you can't just push a duck over the edge of a canyon, it's got wings (Duh!)

      Clearly duck-sized horses would be the better option.

  4. allybeaven

    Cheers for this post Joe, useful as always. I'd be interested in your take on an HR question.

    I've been working on fat burning in training recently and I'm a little puzzled by Maffetone’s formula. It puts my threshold at 154 but my heart rate on steady runs of just about any length averages out about 129, with 154 feeling much closer to a 5k effort or faster. I'm aware that heart rate differs from person to person but this seems like an awfully large disparity. Faulty HRM, cardio anomaly or lazy bastard?

    1. tfcfool

      I'm with ya, Ally. Been thinking the same thing: my MAF is 152, putting me in a range of 142-152. Given the articles and discussion I've seen online, I've just decided I've been a lazy bastard for most of my training and (excitedly…and hopefully) am faster than I thought. It is pretty quick though. Curious what other "MAFers" think.

      1. 00joeuhan

        Hey guys-

        The more I work with athletes on MAF training, the more I realize that:

        A.) there's a TON of variability in HR between one person and another (same age, same general health, etc)
        B.) individual testing should happen with anyone who's serious and commited to MAF training

        That said, you may have a naturally low[er] HR, where your max and VT may be 170 and 150, respective. This then could mean your MAF (max fat-burning) could be 130 or so.

        I'd recommend getting a metabolic test!

        1. tfcfool

          Hi Joe,

          Thanks for the response! One more question, which I think I know the answer to: your metabolic system/heart rate/etc. will change with regard to age, fitness, etc., correct? I did a VO2 Max Bike Test at UT Austin about seven years ago, but I assume a whole new metabolic test makes sense, correct?

          Thanks, I look forward to getting more into MAF with your guidance!

          Cheers!

          1. 00joeuhan

            The motivations for testing depend on what you want to know. My experience is,based on fitness AND diet:

            – lactate threshold (HR) and max heart rate have LOW variability
            – heart rate of max fat burning has moderate variability
            – VO2max has HIGH variability

            That said, a test that's 7 years old is likely obsolete. I like to test people initially, then 3 months later…then perhaps yearly after that: to get those max values, establish a MAF training zone, then see if it needs any adjustment over time. But most folks, once they lock into a steady MAF, will train there indefinitely (-age, over time), and simply try to get faster at the same HR.

            1. tfcfool

              Amazing, Joe: thank you! I need to do some more research and reading, but I'll likely be e-mailing you for more advice and possibly some coaching! Thanks again,

              -scott

  5. @chasingultra

    Great article. I'm curious about one piece – Joe says for high altitude races, arrive 1 to 2 weeks in advance but most of the other literature I have read says less than 24 hours or 2 weeks and nothing in between because in between your body is expending more energy adjusting (creating more red blood cells, etc.)…so why the 1 week opinion? Has the concensus shifted or is Joe an outlier (which does not necessarily mean that he isn't correct)?

    1. 00joeuhan

      Thanks for the comment!

      There are a couple different adaptations with altitude, and while this isn't an area of expertise, my understanding is:

      – to get any red blood cell increase (or actual increased O2 update), you need a minimum two weeks
      – to get a "brain effect" (e.g. Central Governor adjustment), you need a solid week

      The "dead zone", then, is anywhere between 2-7 days, where – in theory – both the central governor and/or the physiological systems get bogged down: the brain reacts negative to the decreased partial pressure of O2, AND the body realizes it has to start producing more RBCs…both creating perceived fatigue.

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