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9 Things I Learned Reading The Science of Running by Steve Magness

Steve has a knack for making dense sports science literature very understandable - the book is more for coaches and elite runners than beginners, but still a fun read!

Keegan Leary
Keegan Leary
“Scientific testing can’t determine how the mind will tolerate pain in a race. Sometimes, I say, ‘Today I can die.” Percy Cerutty...

I've been dreading writing this despite having finished the book a few weeks ago, mainly due to the enormous amout of highlighting I did.  Even with my techno-fancy Readwise app which syncs to my Kindle highlights, I know it's going to be a lot of work to sift through all of the delicious nuggets of running training that Steve has consolidated in this treatise on running.

Writing feels like running in this respect.  All the advice I read is that if you're new to it, the VERY BEST thing you can do is JUST START.

So, let's start there, with me writing one paragraph.  JUST STARTING.  And if you're looking for similar inspiration but in the context of running, you're probably better served by just going out and putting foot to pavement.  I think I bought this book hoping it would answer some of the following questions:

  1. How should I train to so that I can run longer distance faster and more easily?
  2. How can I get motivated to run MORE?
  3. How can I optimize my own training?

If I zoom out and reflect on what I just read, I think the book does best at answering this question:

  1. What do professional runners and coaches think about when they think about getting better at running?

Yes, JUST RUN, is probably some of the easiest and the best advice for a new runner, but it doesn't account for how fun it is to read about and learn what's going on at the pinnacle of sports performance science.  I think the general population, me included, will never grow weary of what can be done to optimize performance.

Here are my 9 takeaways from the book:

  1. There is a divide between elite running coaching and cutting-edge running sports science.  Namely, the scientists are endlessly trying to find an optimum training plan (some super-potent combination of distance, pace, cross training, nutrition, what-have-you) while the coaches are trying to desperately to fit individual runners into their blanket training methodologies (which usually point to whatever science supports their methods).  Steven Magness argues that since each runner will respond differently to various stimuli, both the scientist and the coach are chasing after a result that doesn't exist!

It is very rare that a coach can completely adapt to the individual. Instead, most coaches try to adapt the individual to their training system, instead of adapting the training system to the individual.
This example illustrates the differences in approach between scientists and a coach. Scientists must think in isolation as they are trying to discern the exact effects of one variable. Good coaches on the other hand are concerned with the end result or, in other terms, the global effects of a workout. We have to stop thinking of the singular effects a workout might have and start thinking about the global effects it will have on the athlete. Not only do the global effects of one particular workout need to be considered, but also how the workout interacts within a training program needs to be considered. One example that has already been researched is the interference effect with concurrent strength and endurance training. The takeaway message is that to be useful in the real world of training athletes, the isolation method cannot be used. Training does not occur in isolation.

2. You may be genetically predisposed to be better at speed or endurance running based on your muscle fiber type - slow twitch vs. fast twitch.  All people have some of each, so think of it like a spectrum.  Additionally, based on the type of training done, you can shift the spectrum one way or another away from your genetic baseline.  The good news is with enough training you can probably be great at either discipline, though if your dreams are at Olympic levels, your muscle fiber makeup may be worth deeper, i.e. invasive biopsy, inspection.

On one side of the spectrum we have what we’d call a pure ST fiber and on the opposite is the pure FT fiber. In between these two extremes is a range of fibers with different ratios of FT/ST characteristics, and this is where the majority of fibers fall. Where exactly a fiber falls depends on its individual characteristics, which include mitochondria density, capillary density, oxidative and Glycolytic enzyme activity, creatine phosphate stores, and contraction velocity. Along this continuum, training can shift fiber types to either the aerobic (ST) or anaerobic (FT) side. With acute training, the shifts are very small, but with long-term training, a larger change can occur.
..fiber type percentages have been altered in elite skiers as shown when they were tested during their beginning stages of training and then 8 years later. A longitudinal study by Rusko found that after 8 years of training and a doubling of training volume, the percentage of ST fibers in a group of Cross-Country Skiers increased by 11% (1992). Put these two together and it makes sense that a large amount of volume (or in other words, damage) is needed to change fiber types.

3. There are essentially three fatigue models: Buildup, Depletion, and Complex-Integrated-Model-with-dash-of-Human-Emotion 😫. Buildup refers to the common, but incorrect, model of lactate buildup (it's really lactate byproducts such as H+ ions causing a pH decrease which inhibits ATP replenishment, but let's not get into that) which causes fatigue.  Depletion refers to fuel sources, i.e. glycogen and carbohydrate stores, running out and causing fatigue.  The current understanding is of course the most complex, and the best summary I can come up with is something like... We aren't exactly sure how to model fatigue.  We know some of the physical indicators but really our brain knows a lot more than we do, and it auto-regulates and even anticipates our efforts by slowing us down, without us really knowing it.  I highlighted the fatigue chapter way more than the others, and Steve points to some incredibly interesting research that explores how our nervous system participates in performance.  The chapter alone is worth reading.

There are an old model and a new model of fatigue. The older model of fatigue was developed based on isolating fatigue. Originally, research focused on simple exercises such as handgrip or a simple bicep curl; then, when research progressed to dynamic exercises such as running or cycling, it was done in an unnatural way (run at X pace until you can’t, instead of a self-paced trial). These two methodology quirks shaped our understanding of fatigue throughout the 20th century.

4. Long distance training should still include speed work.  Block periodization training seems to be going out of fashion these days.  I like the idea of training effort being based on recovery, but want to explore the idea further before I write more about it.

One of the most important is in terms of muscle fiber recruitment. Sprinting is one of the only ways in which a distance runner is going to recruit a very large amount of his harder to recruit FT fibers. Why is this important? First, because in learning how to recruit these muscle fibers, you are increasing the recruitable fiber pool. Having those fibers available to jump in and do some of the work when those ST fibers are being overwhelmed will help an athlete sustain his pace for slightly longer. Second, it allows for the athlete to more easily recruit these fibers at the end of a race when it is time to kick. Lastly, a distance runner rarely stresses his CNS to such a high degree in such a short term. Since everything begins and ends in the brain and CNS, doing some work to deal with a high stress on the CNS could help with central fatigue.
Many runners get caught in a no man’s land of training, where there is no difference between their recovery pace and their normal distance pace. This is a bad practice to get into.

5. Extend your time-horizon to YEARS when you think about training.

The mileage question is always the first to be asked. The answer is that it depends on the person and their event, but some overarching principles remain. Total volume should be progressively increased throughout a runner’s career until he reaches the point that is necessary for maximizing his potential in that event. How long it takes depends on the goal event, but for most non-marathon runners max mileage can be progressed to within 5-7yrs of beginning serious training.   Maximum mileage needs for event specialist (low end is for FT athletes, high end for ST): However, there comes a point where mileage is counterproductive. Once a large volume of training has been done there will be diminishing returns, and the same amount is no longer needed to maintain the stimulus. In addition, more and more of the training will be shifting from general to more specific. Thus, a mileage drop is needed. This once again depends on the goals of the athlete, but once an athlete hits his peak mileage, a drop in mileage can occur the next season or mileage can be kept constant for a year or two before that drop occurs.
Beginning runners should focus on the extremes and have a much higher percentage of general training. The goal should be to gradually increase the amount of general aerobic running they are doing and perfect their general speed. Other types of work can be done but it should be low volume and low stress. By approaching it this way, the runners will develop a large aerobic system, gradually adapt their musculoskeletal system for the demands of running, and impart neuromuscular development and good biomechanics through pure speed training. Or simply put, the first couple of years should be spent on laying a foundation on which to develop a better runner.

6. "Maintenance phase" is a real thing.  It's OK to dial back training significantly, just don't turn it off.  I had always wondered about this.

Research has demonstrated that it takes a lot more training to build a particular parameter than it does to maintain it. Maintenance only requires a little spurt of that type of training every now and then. The key is that we don’t neglect it so that detraining occurs.

7. Don't forget to go to the well sometimes.  You might even see God.

My High School coach, Gerald Stewart, called it going to the well. There are only so many times an athlete can go to the well before the well runs dry. For this reason, the majority of work should be done within your limits feeling like it was a good hard session but that you could have gone a little further or done one more repeat if need be.

Occasionally, there will be a time when, to use a phrase Coach Stewart coined, you need to have a “see god” day. Races themselves are very intense efforts, so on rare occasions, the effort needs to be similar. Usually these see god days are reserved for a small number of key specific sessions that essentially function in the place of a race.

8. Training is all about presenting stimuli to our body so that it can adapt and become better at responding to similar stimuli in the future.  I loved how Steve likens training to "embarrass the body."  Perfect imagery.  Read the book if you want to know more about the biological mechanism at play here.  The chapter on this was thick with acronyms from the world of the white coats 🤓.

The key to remember is that how you manipulate the workout determines what adaptation we get, whether it’s toward speed, or endurance, or how fatigue is handled and dealt with.
At first, the movement pattern is rough, uncoordinated and inefficient, but as a person becomes better trained, this process is refined and improved. Initially, the exact recruitment pattern or how to relax the opposing muscle is not known or refined. Slowly, the body becomes more efficient at determining exactly what muscles need to be working and for how long. This refinement results in a smoothing out of the movement and is an improvement in neuromuscular control, which creates an efficient movement pattern that enhances performance via improving efficiency. This process is called motor learning, and contrary to popular belief, running is a skill that needs to be learned and refined.
If the marathon is an event that is dependent on the optimal fuel use ratio between carbohydrates and fats, how do we signal the body to change that ratio so that there is more reliance on fat. We need to “embarrass” it and send the signal that more fat needs to be used. How do you do that? Simple, by running a workout that depletes the glycogen stores to a significant enough amount that the body adapts to make sure that it does not run low on glycogen the next time. It accomplishes this by increasing the use of fat as a fuel and/or increasing glycogen stores. This example just took you through the process of adaptation without mentioning a single complex name. Use this technique to design solutions for to how to train for the upcoming race.

9. Steve sums his training philosophy as follows: Start backwards. Work the extremes. Bring it together. Never leave anything behind. Progress everything.

Honestly, it's tricky to understand that without the context of the rest of the book.  He reveals this philosophy nearer to the end, when he lays out example training plans for various events.  He expands upon each bit, such that it makes sense when you read it, but looking at it now I'd have to go back to the book to get up to speed.

Steven gets into a whole bunch of other stuff that I don't touch on in this article. Foot strike and running form, running economy, double days, biomechanics, additional stressors (elevation, heat, fasted running) and amplifiers (medicine, caffeine, massage).  If you want to know more, be sure it's there.  He also gives tons of different workouts that can be used depending on the adaptation being sought: strides, surges, hills, etc.  That's all there too!

Personally, I probably would have been better served picking up something aimed more at beginners, but I kept reading as Steve has a wonderful talent for pulling actionable data from the dense sports science literature.  I would assume this is required for anyone who is an elite runner or coach, and still has plenty of fun snippets for those of us simply interested in what those folks are up to, and who like to run around a bit ourselves.  Also, if you are interested in how one can make science literature more digestable to the masses, Steve is the expert.

BONUS! How to build a training plan:

In general, most athletes can handle a week that includes 2 hard workouts and 2 medium workouts with the rest being a combination of distance runs and recovery runs. An example of such a set up would be hard workouts such as specific endurance work on Monday and a Threshold run on Friday. For the medium days, Wednesday could be an aerobic interval workout such as pace 200’s or hill sprints, while Saturday would be a long easy run. Sunday would then be a designated recovery day consisting of only slow recovery running or a day off, while the rest of the week would be filled with a mix of easy to moderate distance runs and recovery runs.

Keegan Leary

10 years in the Navy as a Nuclear Submarine Officer. Soon to be be Naval Reservist. Fitness, Books, Cooking, and Coding.