This is a continuation on the post on how Greatness is Elemental. In that post I broke training behaviors into different elements, Oxygen, Water, Food, Shelter, and Discipline. This is the third follow-up post on the topic. Today we'll talk about the Food level.
To catch you up, the Oxygen level corresponds to the will to get out the door and run. It's the most important facet of greatness: the motivation to do the work. The Water level includes essential training activities like proper hydration, stretching, eating enough, warming up and cooling down, sleeping enough, and adding some "training" to your running (intervals, etc.).
Here's what I wrote about the Food level in my original post:
Many runners start to falter at the Food level. Why? Because of food, actually. First and foremost, this level includes eating a healthy diet. Most distance runners I know fall back on an "it's all fuel in the furnace" mentality about food. That's simply junk food justification and there's no place for it if you want to be great. Other activities in this category include weight training/exercises/plyometrics, form drills, studying and reading (about running), keeping a training log, and getting massages and icing pre- and post-workout, respectively.
Animals can go without eating for quite a long time. But in the end, it catches up to them. Same for runners. These activities are what separate the very successful from the guys who tell their kids how they coulda woulda shoulda.
Let's take a look at these in more detail.
I'm breathing, and I'm drinking, but I'm still so darn hungry...
Eating healthy: In my previous post I discussed the need to eat enough. With food, quantity is more important than quality. You have to stay within an appropriate range. But that does not mean that quality is unimportant. Champions eat like champions. They make tough choices about what they will eat and when. They refuse to succumb to junk food justification.
You don't have to be a diet-Nazi to be a healthy eater. Just try to maintain about a 60-20-20 balance between your carbohydrates, your protein, and your fat. Try to keep your carbos complex (pasta, cereal, bread) rather than simple (fruit, juice) and run and hide from refined sugars (candy, soda, doughnuts, etc.). Try to eat fresh or steamed vegetables instead of boiled or fried. And stick with healthy snacks when possible.
I'll be perfectly honest. I'm a big fan of Fatburger. And Tommy's chili burgers. I like an animal-style Double Double from In-n-Out as much as the next guy, too (but I'll pass on the 100x100). But when I decided to get serious about my training, I stopped eating them. Not because an occasional burger was going to ruin my training. But because every choice is an opportunity. To get stronger. To get healthier. To be your best. And the fact is, the cheeseburger of champions will never make you a champion.
Weight training/exercises/plyometrics: It is apropos that I'm writing this just after the NY Times ran an article about the benefits (or lack thereof) of weight training for runners. I believe as Ryan Hall's coach Brad Hudson does that it's important to "Do upper body, core and lower body. The stronger the athlete is in a total body perspective, the more efficient they become as a runner."
I put strength exercises in the following order of importance:
sit-ups, obliques and lower back
upper body & arms
lower body joint strengthening
plyometrics & power exercises
Of course, this is from the distance runner's perspective. If you are going to run middle-distance, this may change. The only one I really want to discuss in detail is sit-ups.
Sit-ups and obliques are essential because they directly impact your ability to breathe late in a race. Contrary to popular belief, your lungs do not suck in air. Your lungs take in air because the muscles in your stomach and diaphragm expand, creating a vacuum. So when those muscles go, so do your lungs. (And as a bonus, women seem to like tight abs.) Here's a good link for abs workouts.
The following links discuss chest, shoulder & arms, lower body, and plyometrics exercises you can do to improve your strength. You don't need to do all of these things. But gradually building some of them into your training will help you.
Form drills: Form drills are very similar to some of the above exercises, particularly when they are mixed into circuit training. If you've run on a high school or college team, you've likely done some of these. They include butt-kicks, high-skipping, high knees, bounding, and stiff-legged running.
These are great to add into your warm-ups, as they assist in loosening up your muscles. They also improve your range of motion, your explosive power, and your stride length. In the end, these activities serve to improve your running form, which will help you conserve energy throughout your workouts and races.
Studying and reading (about running): It's amazing to me how few coaches encourage their runners to read books about running, be they biographies, history or physiology. It's not just about motivation. The more a runner knows about his or her training, the more perspective they will gain. They will be more likely to understand the effort that goes into great achievement. They will be more likely to recognize barriers they are setting and remove them. They will be more likely to recognize situations others have experienced and react to them based on that knowledge.
Great achievement is rarely achieved by people with little understanding of the history and variety of experience in their chosen field. Running is no different. All runners should aspire to be able to coach themselves, whether they ever actually do or not.
Keeping a training log: I was never a dedicated training log keeper. In some part, I blame my high school coach. When you first start running, you should be required to keep a detailed training log and to turn it in to your coach. Ideally, your coach would comment on it and help you learn to analyze it.
At various times in my life I have used Excel, a little pocket notepad, a RunnersWorld notepad, and even logyourrun.com. In all cases I've been diligent for a while and then stopped. The result is I don't have a comprehensive historical record of my training. That means I can't go back and look for trends that led to injuries, trends that led to success, or really answer the question of how much I got out of the time and energy I've devoted to training.
This is in the Food level because it isn't essential to being a great runner. But with the sport becoming more and more scientific all the time, having the power of information on your side will continue to be an advantage for those aspiring to be their best.
Getting massages: Actually, this may even belong in the Water level. I don't know of any world class runner who does not get a massage on a routine basis. Still, I've put it here because even though it may be essential to achieving great success, it falls below activities like getting sufficient sleep or hydrating appropriately in the big picture.
A good massage can significantly increase the body's ability to loosen up prior to a workout (say, when you have tight calves) and to recover from the rigors of intense training. Unfortunately, for most runners, this isn't a feasible aspect to include in their training. To some extent, self-massage works very well, and where it doesn't (hamstrings, for example) I recommend asking a teammate, parent, or boyfriend/girlfriend. For you guys out there, another piece of advice: use copious lotion on your hairy legs. Trust me.
Icing: This is another hugely important aspect of training. I also wavered on whether to put this up in the Water level or not. In the end, I decided to keep it here. I want to add, however, that if you are doing very high mileage or very high intensity, icing becomes even more important.
My college coach used to tell us that sitting in a cold whirlpool for 15 minutes could reduce 75% of the next days soreness. Frankly, I think he made that number up. But I always felt it helped, and many runners make a post-workout icing session an absolute requirement. Meb Keflezighi, for example, sits in the famous Mammoth Creek after every run.
Whether it's sitting in an ice bath or icing localized areas due to soreness, don't put this off. Icing helps the healing process and it does contribute to decreased general soreness.
The Meat and Potatoes of this post
So what's the take-away here? Basically, you need to do these things if you are going to excel in your sport. Sure, they are slightly less crucial when compared to activities at the Water level, but that doesn't mean you can just shirk them. No great runner shirks these activities. I repeat. No great runner shirks these activities.