Tri Talk Triathlon Podcast, Episode 67

An interview with Joe Friel who reexamines the importance of hydration and electrolytes. Introducing a new testing protocol, and correcting another. Plus, the effects of detraining and how to mitigate a run injury. Today, on Tri Talk.

Welcome to Tri Talk your podcast source for triathlon tips, training, news and more. To participants at the upcoming New Orleans half-Ironman, best of luck at that 70.3 event, where you can also watch PowerTri.com sponsored athletes Heath Thurston and Kerri Robbins kick some butt. Keep an eye out for those two at the event. To new listeners from St. George, Utah, my back yard, congratulations on snagging the latest Ironman venue. That’s right, Ironman is coming back to my home state of Utah in 2010. My goal at Tri Talk is to help you swim, bike, and run faster, to meet your personal triathlon goals. Whether you are an elite or amateur triathlete, we cover sprint distance to Ironman distance. I’m your host, David Warden, and this is Tri Talk Episode 67.

Episodes 67 will start off with an exclusive interview with Joe Friel. I considered ending the episode with Joe’s interview, but it has some outstanding content that deserves a place at the top of the podcast. Joe will take a critical look at hydration and electrolytes, as well as a new test protocol. Well, Joe’s been using it for years but it is a new test protocol to me. Joe also clarifies a mistake that I made when podcasting on his decoupling protocol last year. For the second half of the podcast, I’ll also be sharing the results of some studies on the effects of detraining, and research confirming a theory I’ve had for some time on how to mitigate the effects of a run injury.

Let’s get onto the good stuff! Last month I presented at the annual TrainingBible Coaching Conference in Chicago, and managed to get 15 minutes of Joe’s time for a quick interview as we were leaving. The good news is, the interview has great content. The bad news is, the background noise is much worse than I remembered. I literally had to sit down with him at the lobby of the building as he was about to leave for the airport. This is another reason why I am not a professional broadcaster. I have the perfect face for radio, I just lack the competencies. Background noise aside, let’s take a few minutes to consider just how wrong we may have been on some long-accepted training theories.

(transcript of this interview not available)

Moving on. In the past year I have coached 3 athletes who have had to temporarily stop running due to injury. The injuries ranged from foot to lower leg to IT band. One of these 3 athletes was actually me. 2 weeks before my uber-A race of 2008, I pulled my right gastroc so badly that my doctor put my on Celebrex as an anti-inflammatory, and warned me that I was close to tearing the insertion point and having my gastroc muscle drop down into my ankle. Gross! You can imagine, 14 days before my A race and no more running until it healed was a devastating blow. But, I modified my training regimen in the same way I have been recommending to my athletes for years, and the results were satisfying. I’ll give more details later, but let’s look at some studies that confirm that a run injury for a triathlete is not as bad as we think.

For example, a study in the JAP showed that 7 endurance athletes lost 7% of their VO2max after 3 weeks of no training at all. That represents about a full minute over a 5K for a well-trained athlete. Certainly, that is a heck of a lot, but the loss was only 3% after 2 weeks, and again that was without training at all. This means that you could potentially stop running altogether for 2 weeks and lose just 30 seconds over your 5K run time. What is interesting about the loss in VO2max in these subjects was the fact that the researchers concluded that the primary initial loss in VO2max came from a reduction in stroke volume.

Well, if the primary VO2max loss was from stroke volume from total lack of training, what if we can keep the stroke volume from declining through other types of exercise? If you can’t run due to injury, can you maintain your run fitness through other training?

In 1993, California State University took 11 moderately fit runners, and had them either run 4 times a week, or run twice and cycle twice a week for a total of 5 weeks. At the end of that 5 weeks, the VO2max values and run performance between those 2 groups in their mile and 5K run were not statistically significant. Basically, running 4 times a week or running 2 and cycling 2 over those 5 weeks ended with the same result.

This is probably no surprise, but how about other types of exercise than cycling? Let’s say that you are training 10 hours a week, of which 5 hours is cycling and 3 is running. Would it really be a good idea to go to 8 hours of cycling, replacing all of your run volume with cycling volume? This could simply put you at a greater risk for a cycling injury. What if you replaced your run with something that more closely mimicked running, without the strain on the run injury?

Also from California State University, another study took active college women, timed their base 1.5 mile run, and then for 9 weeks and either assigned them to a treadmill or a stairmaster for 4 days a week. The women trained at up to 90% of their MHR for 45 minutes, so this was like time trialing on a treadmill and stairmaster, they got up to some pretty good intensities. At the end of those 9 weeks, the stairmaster group had their run time improve by 8%, and the treadmill group had their run time improve by 11%. Again what I find remarkable, is imagine not running at all for 9 weeks, over 2 full months of no running, and then still having your short-distance run improve by 8% from a stairmaster. Remarkable.

Another study from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland took 22 participants and split them into 3 groups. Treadmill, elliptical, or stairmaster. At the end of 12 weeks, all 3 groups had the same improvement in a cycling time to exhaustion test. This is a bit different than the other studies I we discussed, in that it took a cycling baseline test, the participants did not cycle for 12 weeks, but rather did treadmill, elliptical, or stairmaster for 3 days a week, and at the end of those 12 weeks, their cycling performance and VO2max had all improved statistically the same. This indicates that you could also maintain some cycling fitness if you have a cycling-specific injury as opposed to a run injury, if you make up that volume doing some other sort of exercise.

I had one of my athletes who had a foot injury recently ask me about water running, and so I cracked open a few physiology journals and come up with one from 1984. This study compared water running, cycling, and running for maintaining VO2max and 2-mile run performance over a 6-week training period. Thirty-two trained subjects were evaluated for maximum oxygen uptake and 2-mile run performance. Subjects were randomly assigned to water running, cycling, or running training. The three groups trained with similar frequency, duration, and intensity over a 6-week period. After 6 weeks of training, there were no differences pretraining performance level. It was concluded that over a 6-week period, runners who cannot run because of soft tissue injury can maintain VO2max and 2-mile run performance similar to running training with either cycling or water running. 1-2 weeks of no training.

Let’s sum all this up. The flaws in all of these studies, when trying to apply them to triathletes, is that the running distances were all under 5K, and some as short as 1.5 miles. I am very skeptical that replacing running with a combination of cycling, stairmaster, or elliptical would result in the same benefits over longer run distances.

However, at the very least, these studies show that an injured runner can at least minimize the loss in run fitness by replacing the running with other training.

Let’s look at some less convincing but very applicable anecdotal evidence. Back to my personal run injury from 2008. I did not run at all for 2 weeks prior to my big A race of the season, and replaced all of my running with elliptical training. I kept the duration, frequency and intensity the same as I would for my run. Any brick workouts scheduled in that 14-day period were still done with a transition from the bike to the elliptical. I kept up an aggressive physical therapy schedule, and did lot’s of stretching and massage on that injured leg. The injury was feeling very good after 2 weeks.

On race day, I ended up with my fastest ever 10K time off the bike, with a performance consistent with what I was doing in training 2 weeks prior. I can’t say that I was faster than if I had been able to run for the final 2 weeks, but I can say that I did not lose any run fitness over those 2 weeks.

I can give similar stories about 2 of my TrainingBible athletes who also had to take 2 weeks off their run. One is training for an Ultraman (by the way, and Ultraman is a 6.2-mile swim, 171.4-mi (276 km) bike ride, and a 56.4 mile run), and had to take two weeks off running due to an IT band injury. After 2 weeks of elliptical, he started his distance running again and his run was like he had never taken it off.

Another of my TrainingBible athletes is training for an Oly this summer and an IM in the fall, had a recent foot injury sideline him for 2 weeks. Also on the elliptical for 2 weeks while he healed, he came back strong and so far it is like it never happened.

But, let’s look at the reality of a run injury. The truth is that the Principle of Specificity in training means that a run injury is never good, and that you will always be a better runner from running. The purpose of this topic is not to convince you that you can get away with not running, but rather that you can mitigate the detraining effects by replacing it with another sport.

My recommendation for run injuries is to replace the run with the elliptical. Of all the exercises, I think it mimics running best, even better than water running because you can keep your cadence high. The key is to do the elliptical without grabbing onto the support, but let your arms float free just like you would when running. Obviously, you can only do this if your injury is not aggravated by the elliptical, but my experience so far is that the elliptical does not aggravate foot, IT Band, shin splints, gactroc and soleus injuries, but it does tend to aggravate hamstring injuries in some athletes and on some elliptical machines.

The disadvantage of training on an elliptical, is that it is an elliptical. It can be a mind-numbing experience spending an hour on that thing, and it takes real guts and discipline.

Another way to introduce the elliptical into your training program is not after you get an injury, but before. Many veteran athletes have an excellent feel for their body, and can feel an injury that may be about to occur. In those cases, it seems like a good idea to perform the next 1-2 run workouts on the elliptical to recover, and then go back to regular training. This is certainly better than taking a full 2 weeks off from running.

The bottom line is don’t panic or despair when you get a run injury. There is plenty of evidence that you can at least maintain your short distance run, and keep your long distance run fitness from significantly eroding from replacing your run with another exercise.