Foot strength for runners

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As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)

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Also in today’s Globe, I have a very short piece about foot strength for runners:

During a one-hour run, your feet push off the pavement about 10,000 times – enough of a workout to build some pretty impressive foot muscles, you’d figure.

“Considering the countless miles that runners put in, most think that they have very strong feet,” says Matt Ferguson, the president of Vancouver-based Progressive Health Innovations. “And they do – but only for one motion.”

Running does wonders for the muscles involved in plantar flexion – pointing your toes toward the floor – but leaves a host of other small muscles throughout the foot and ankle weak. The result is an increased risk of common running injuries like plantar fasciitis, shin splints, Achilles tendon problems and even ankle sprains… [READ THE REST OF THE ARTICLE]

The article takes a brief look at a few difference ways of strengthening your feet, ranging from barefoot running to old-school soup-can-in-a-sock exercises to fancy new gadgets like the AFX Ankle Foot Maximizer.

Cycling efficiency: strength training is key for masters

THANK YOU FOR VISITING SWEATSCIENCE.COM!

As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)

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The links between strength training and efficiency in sports like cycling and running have been studied for over a decade, but a study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology offers a new twist: the role of strength training becomes increasingly important as you get older.

Researchers in France studied nine masters cyclists (average age 51.5) and eight younger cyclists (average age 25.6), and measured their “delta efficiency” before and after a three-week strength training program focused on knee extensions. Each workout consisted of 10 sets of 10 bilateral knee extensions. While the younger cyclists improved their cycling efficiency by 4.1%, the older group improved by 13.8%.

Traditionally, researchers have figured that the big decline in endurance performance with age comes from lower maximal oxygen consumption, which seems to reduce performance by about 10% per decade. The new study suggests that the muscle loss that accompanies aging could also play a key role in endurance, perhaps because inefficient fast-twitch muscle fibres have to be recruited earlier in an exercise bout. That would explain why the older athletes saw a bigger jump in efficiency when they improved their strength, even after only three weeks.

You’d expect the same thing to apply in running. Bottom line: another reason that I need to get more consistent with strength training!

Is strength training really better than cardio for weight loss?

THANK YOU FOR VISITING SWEATSCIENCE.COM!

As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)

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I did a radio interview today with Angela Kokott on QR77 in Calgary, and one of the questions we discussed was the perennial claim that lifting weights is better than aerobic exercise for burning calories. It’s a claim that isn’t totally crazy — even the most recent American College of Sports Medicine position stand on weight loss reverses earlier stands by acknowledging the possibility that resistance training could contribute to weight loss by elevating resting metabolic rate, increasing fat oxidation, and making people more active generally. Here’s the funky flowchart they use to illustrate this process:

Still, the “evidence statement” endorsed by the position stand is: “Resistance training will not promote clinically significant weight loss.” In other words, it’s a nice theory, but the studies of actual people losing weight don’t back it up.

The reason I bring this up is that James Fell has a good article in the Los Angeles Times that tackles this topic — in particular, taking on the oft-repeated whopper that every pound of muscle burns an extra 50 calories a day. He turns to Claude Bouchard of Pennington Biomedical Research Center, who offers the following breakdown of resting metabolic rate (RMR):

Brain function makes up close to 20% of RMR. Next is the heart, which is beating all the time and accounts for another 15-20%. The liver, which also functions at rest, contributes another 15-20%. Then you have the kidneys and lungs and other tissues, so what remains is muscle, contributing only 20-25% of total resting metabolism.

The punchline, according to Bouchard: a pound of muscle burns about six calories a day while a pound of fat burns two calories a day. Don’t get me wrong: strength training is great for many reasons, and I certainly encourage everyone (including, reluctantly, myself) to do some. But it’s not a miracle weight-loss technique.

How fast can you start putting on muscle?

THANK YOU FOR VISITING SWEATSCIENCE.COM!

As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)

***

The traditional view is that it takes at least 6-8 weeks of hard resistance training before your muscles start getting bigger. You’ll see strengths gains long before that, the theory goes, but they come from neural factors (basically the “contract” signal from your brain gets the message to your muscle fibres more effectively). In the last few years, though, that orthodoxy has been challenged by a few studies that claimed to see muscle increases after just a few weeks of training. A new study from the University of Oklahoma, published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, should help settle the debate. They set out to do a study with three key characteristics:

  1. Hard training: the subjects trained three times a week for eight weeks. The program was leg press, leg extension and bench press. Each exercise was three sets to failure with two minutes rest, with the weight chosen so that failure occurred after 8 to 12 reps in each set.
  2. Frequent testing: instead of just doing before-and-after measurements, the testers measured strength and muscle cross-sectional area every week for eight weeks.
  3. Sensitive measurement: a tape measure won’t cut it. They used a CT scanner to measure the muscle cross-sectional area at the midpoint of the thigh.

Here’s what they found:

The top line is muscle size, bottom is strength. The first two data points are the pre-training baseline measurements. It’s possible that the initial jump in muscle size after the first week (i.e. after just two training sessions) is predominantly due to swelling associated with muscle soreness. But the soreness had totally dissipated by week 3, so by then we’re unquestionably dealing with actual hypertrophy. By the end of the eight weeks, the total increase in muscle size (CSA) was 9.6%. Two comments. First, I was curious as to why they included bench press when all the measurements are on the legs. In discussing why an earlier study failed to see gains quite this early, the researchers note that

subjects only performed one exercise (leg extensions), so the training stimulus was not as great as that in the present study.

Does this mean that upper-body training can contribute to lower-body hypertrophy, perhaps by tweaking anabolic hormone levels and ramping up whole-body protein synthesis? I’m not sure — if anyone can clarify, please do so in the comments section. Second, this training program is hard. Three times a week, three sets of three exercises may not sound that tough — but every set is to failure (much like the controversial low-weight approach advocated by Stu Phillips, actually). If you really want to put on muscle quickly, you have to work hard.

Putting on muscle with only light weights

THANK YOU FOR VISITING SWEATSCIENCE.COM!

As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)

***

This is a topic that should stir up some controversy: a study suggesting that you don’t need to lift heavy weights to put on muscle. I blogged about this when the study first came out a few months back; I’ve since had the chance to chat with Stuart Phillips, so I wrote a Globe column with more details:

For once, scientific studies, decades of practical experience in the gym, and logic all point to the same conclusion: you need to lift reasonably heavy weights to gain strength and muscle. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 60 to 70 per cent of your “repetition maximum” or RM (the most you can lift for a given exercise) for novices, and 80 to 100 per cent for experts.

So recently published results from McMaster University, which suggest that you can build muscle just as well – or perhaps even better – with weights as light as 30 per cent RM, have been greeted with surprise, to put it mildly.

“There are plenty of people who just don’t believe it,” admits kinesiology professor Stuart Phillips, the senior author of the paper, which appeared in the journal PLoS ONE.

The results would be welcome news for older people and weight-room neophytes, but there is a catch. The key to stimulating muscle growth, Dr. Phillips believes, isn’t linked to any particular weight or number of repetitions – it’s reaching the point of failure, where you can’t lift anymore.

Phillips has since completed a training study that actually attempts to put these finding into practice. It’ll be exciting to see what the results of that study reveal when they’re analyzed and released.