A Foundation-First Approach to Your Best Running

Stay the CourseIt’s human nature to have a complexity bias. First, when something happens, we tend to ascribe a complicated explanation as to why. This is where superstitions are born. Second, we tend to believe that the best solution to a problem is the most complicated. Complex and technical is usually more costly, difficult, and sexy–which all make complex approaches more attractive. But is complexity necessary for survival, let alone success?

What about simplicity? Simplicity is straightforward and usually inexpensive. It is obvious. But for those very reasons, we seldom acknowledge the importance of the most-simple approaches.

This mindset is commonplace in ultrarunning. Indeed, the allure of the sport lies in its complexity: the intertwining challenges of distance, terrain, environment, body, and mind. But does a complex problem necessarily require a complex solution? My answer is, hardly. In fact, ultrarunning only magnifies the importance of the simple, foundational necessities.

This idea hit home listening to a new podcast/interview, “Coaches Corner”, organized by the Science of Ultra’s Shawn Bearden, and reading a recent article in Trail Runner magazine by coach David Roche about the importance of “minimum velocity.” This concept, originally discussed on the podcast by Ian Sharman, refers to the importance of elevating one’s foundational running pace. Both Sharman and Roche emphasize that foundational elements of fitness–not the extremes of speed, strength, gear, or other preparation–are what make the difference between elite and midpack performance.

Indeed, many of us runners are ‘penny wise’ with high-volume, intense training or complicated gadgetry. And in racing, we push early for an extra few seconds per mile. But too often these strategies result in ‘pound-foolishness’ or sacrificing key running foundations that cost us minutes per mile in the latter parts of ultramarathons.

The rest of this article examines the simplest ways to elevate our running.

Wisdom: Consistent Aerobic Fitness

Consistent aerobic fitness is the foundation of all types of healthy running. Very simply, we have to run–not necessarily a lot, but consistently and at fairly low intensity. From this comes many positive metabolic, neurological, and muscular adaptations.

Foolishness: The following complexities can undermine aerobic fitness, including:

  • Excessive high-intensity training – While there are many benefits of high-intensity training ranging from neuromuscular recruitment to race specificity, there are risks, too. We went to think that fitness is trickle down. We think, If I run hard, I get fast. That, in turn, becomes, If I run everything harder, everything gets faster. It doesn’t work that way. High-intensity running is inflammatory and must be artfully counterbalanced by both rest and low-intensity running. Too much at high intensity erodes aerobic fitness, creating what I call upside-down fitness. Folks with upside-down fitness can often run–and run fast–for a short period (a few miles to a few hours) only to implode with longer distances.
  • Excessive cross training – The same goes for cross training. Excessive cross training, especially at higher intensities, can cause both mechanical and chemical stressors that can erode aerobic fitness, especially if it interferes with other aspects of recovery. (See more below.)

Solution: Run consistently and easy. As I tell my high-school and private coaching athletes, training is convincing your brain that what you’re doing is safe. Peak performance begins from a foundation of safety and strength, and consistent, easy running does just that. This is priority #1 for all runners, before adding any other complexity.

Wisdom: Running-Stride Efficiency

Another Uhan maxim: How we run plays the biggest role in how we feel and how we perform. Literally, how one moves his/her body is most important. This is mechanical efficiency, and coupled with consistent aerobic fitness (metabolic efficiency), it accounts for the vast majority of running performance. Yet stride efficiency is largely overlooked by both athletes and coaches. Nowhere else is this more important than ultrarunning. While it may rob a runner of a few seconds in a mile, or a few minutes in a marathon, inefficiency can put an ultrarunner on a cot or beside the trail, in a long ultra, where seemingly small issues get geometric magnification.

Foolishness: Factors that can degrade running efficiency include:

  • Excessive training volume – Some runners recognize that, If I run X miles per week, I get hurt. Why? It could be too much chemical stress, but what about mechanical efficiency? What I see as a coach, runner, and physio is that, with increasing training volume, mechanical efficiency decreases, for two reasons. First, fatigue increases. More miles, more fatigue, and as a result, our form degrades. Secondly, higher mileage increases joint and muscle stiffness. This can impair functional mobility and decrease stride efficiency. In short, we run a lot, we get tired, we get stiff, and we get sloppy.
  • Inefficient high-intensity training – It is believed that high-intensity workouts improve stride efficiency. I’ve seen enough hard workouts as a coach to know one thing for sure: high-intensity running only punishes inefficient running. (See also: minimalist shoes.) And if high-intensity running doesn’t overtly punish inefficiency, it will reinforce it.
  • Excessive gear – The volume of gear and supplies we take on our runs can have huge implications on efficiency. Though the latest generation of hydration systems can carry several liters of water, all that hydration can have a serious impact on not only our weight, but also our posture, stride efficiency, and even breathing integrity!

Solution: Efficiency first! Efficiency–like all things athletic–must be identified, modeled, and honed. Then, beware of anything that may compromise your most efficient stride.

Wisdom: Sufficient Sleep

It cannot be overstated, the importance of sleep, both in quantity and quality, for running performance. Few runners would argue against this. However, the challenge is determining how much and the quality of sleep we require. Rest and recovery platforms (such as Fitbit and Whoop) can no doubt help with this, but even without high-tech metrics, it is safe to say that in today’s age of hypertasking and ubiquitous internet (and electronic blue light), few of us get enough good sleep.

Foolishness: Factors that can impair sleep quality and quantity include:

  • Overtraining – While consistent, easy running is a top priority, at a certain point, running becomes ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul.’ The point at which it is more worthwhile to not run (and instead rest, or sleep) is an important one to recognize. Acute peaks and valleys of work and rest in a training cycle are okay, if not expected. Chronic imbalance only worsens fitness. This is the point at which training is truly more harmful than none.
  • Early morning training – The same goes for early morning training runs. Many runners must run in the pre-dawn hours to fit in training amongst an otherwise packed day. But at what point does the sleep runners lose to enact it cost more than the training is worth?
  • Altitude tents – The altitude-simulation tent is square in my crosshairs for penny-wise, pound-foolish ‘training.’ While they can impart the benefits of sleeping at altitude, the cost of sleep in them can be enormous and hardly worthwhile. Common complaints of excessive heat, poor air circulation, and the inherent strain of decreased oxygen pressure too often cause significant sleep impairment, far outstripping any altitude benefit. Talk about Peter robbing Paul! My advice is that altitude tents should be a top-tier, finishing-touch intervention, only when all other foundations are soundly covered!

Solution: Sleep more and better. Dedicate first to getting more sleep. Commit to a time at which all electronics are powered down. Then study and hone techniques to improve sleep quality.

Wisdom: Sound Nutrition and Gut Health

While there’s a lot of convention and new thoughts on nutrition, if there’s a final frontier to both general wellness and running performance, it is gut health. It’s not just what we put in it, but how our gastrointestinal (GI) system and the gut microbiome it houses process that food.

Over the past year, I’ve been forced to learn the hard way of the importance of the food-microbiome-GI system axis, a system impacted by the quality of food we eat, the quality of the bacteria and other organisms (and the good-versus-bad balance) that digest the food, and the integrity of the gut lining and what it lets pass into our bloodstream. A runner’s ability to train hard, race fast, and recover well rests firmly on the integrity of this axis.

Foolishness: Some of our best efforts can impair a healthy GI system, including:

  • Special (or radical) diet changes – Ultrarunning is on the forefront of many dietary trends ranging from veganism to high fat. Runners should beware of making radical and rapid dietary changes. Even if these changes are deemed to be positive, the GI system and its microbiome–not unlike our orthopedic and metabolic systems during hard training–take time to adjust to changes. Moreover, a gut with chronic impairment may fare quite poorly adjusting to even a ‘clean, healthy’ dietary adjustment. As with training, adjust slowly and (when possible) with some help from a professional.
  • Hard training propped up by refined sugars – This is a commonality in ultrarunning. As training and racing demands increase, and we feel compelled to fuel with equal aggression, and far too often it is done using refined sugars. Training at high intensity, it often feels necessary to pop multiple gels during a training run. Then we often give ourselves permission to pound cans of soda after a long run. Regardless of source, refined (non-whole food) sugars have an inflammatory effect on the body. Moreover, excessive simple sugars tend to feed the bad elements of our gut microbiome. These sugars can also be fermented by bacteria and create pro-inflammatory chemicals that enter both our bloodstream and nervous system. In short, even if you burn it off, too many simple sugars is bad news.

Solution: Eat and fuel whole. Consider a consult with a GI specialist for significant issues. Whatever you prefer on the fat-carb spectrum, eating a diet of whole and naturally raised foods is a solid foundation for good running health. That said, if you have issues affecting running or life, including impaired digestion, poor sleep (especially after otherwise healthy meals), poor and/or unpredictable GI habits, and digestion issues during running, you should consider a consult with a GI specialist. At best, poor gut health is a nuisance. At worst, it can be a double-barrel wound of malnutrition and blood poisoning.

The take-home message of this article is that, before going complex, check in with simplicity. Are you nailing the fundamentals? These elements may be simple, but they’re not always easy. Invest your time and energy here first before taking your running time, energy, and resources to the next level. You might be surprised with the payoff.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What are the foundational aspects of your running and overall health that you focus well on? And what foundational aspects do you ignore or think less about?
  • Have you caught yourself making life and running more complicated than it needs to be? How so?
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 12 comments

  1. Michelle

    Fantastic article, Joe. “…before going complex, check in with simplicity. Are you nailing the fundamentals?” A great reminder for running and other areas!

  2. John Vanderpot

    As someone who’s had little faith in science over the years (my mother was told by her dr. it was ok to smoke when she was pregnant with me — talk about old!) I’ve gotten very accustomed to simply listening to my body and what it tells me… more and more, it turns out, science eventually confirms what I suspected, and these last few years, regardless of the question, simplicity is more often than not the answer! Around here (SoCal) people often joke about how not complicated I am about all of this, and I often joke, behind their backs, about how many problems they’re having…

    Thanks, I’m gonna keep doing what I’ve been doing — I couldn’t care less about going any faster, I just want to keep going!

    JV

  3. Mark

    This is a fine article. A great clarifier and simplifier is the maxim: “run for joy” When I remember it, it keeps me on track, and filters out the impurities and complexity. Here’s to running minimalism!
    thanks Joe

  4. Jadan

    I’ve run for more than 40 years and coached athletes to International level in cross country, road and trail ultra and mountain running disciplines and this is one of the best articles I’ve read in a long time. Thanks Joe.

  5. James Clarke

    That was awesome, would that explain why I have had an upset stomach after a day eating gels and gummies (for a race) rather than the whole food I usually eat in training.

  6. matt

    The article states inefficient high intensity work punishes and refers to minimalist shoes. Does the author mean that running in these shoes is detrimental to less proficient runners?

  7. AT

    I was listening to Zach Miller speak in an interview about how he just believes in consistency, day by day, week after week. Running is a cumulative venture, and too often, more times than I’d like to admit, I found myself running too hard, too often. During my recent marathon build up, I took a few down weeks and just ran 30-40 minutes vs 60-80 minutes per run and cut my long run in half that week. While common sense to many, it’s amazing to see how refreshed you feel after just one week of reducing volume yet still getting that steady dose of aerobic stimulus in. Happy running to all.

  8. Alex

    Simple sugars (and believe me, it doesn’t matter if it’s artisanal organic honey or C&H crystals – it’s the exact same thing to your body) are an important racing tool that is easy to misuse. There’s a reason gels are popular in races, especially shorter, high-intensity ones. Consuming carbohydrates is essential to maximally sparing muscle and liver glycogen, and therefore extending the duration at which you can perform maximally. Simple sugars, which can be directly absorbed without requiring digestive breakdown, are the most efficient way to do this. The critical thing to understand is how much simple sugar (and in what sucrose:fructose ratio) you can absorb per hour (hint, it’s not a huge amount) and limit your intake to that. Most people who have trouble with gels, gummies, etc are consuming too much too fast and leaving a syrupy mass swirling around in their stomach/small intestine. Not good when you are trying to run. The box of gels says “1 every 45 minutes” on it for a reason – ignore at your peril!

    Also, given that the vast majority of training miles should be at much less than race intensity, I’ve never seen a good reason to be sucking down gels in that setting, when a good old fashioned PB&J will keep you fed and running!

Post Your Thoughts