VK Treadmill Challenge

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Surprisingly, in over 20 years of running, I have never attempted serious hill workouts on the treadmill. In a bid to avoid running in torrential rain one afternoon, I ran a VK (1000 metres of vertical ascent) on the dreadmill (...treadmill). Since the treadmill stops automatically after 60 minutes, I decided that a one-hour vertical kilometre attempt would be a fun challenge. 

After the first attempt, I was keen to explore the infinite, looping landscape of the treadmill further and completed another three VK sessions. I have outlined each of the workouts (also in a printable version) so you can try them too. I recommend printing a copy or keeping your phone handy on the treadmill so you don’t have to memorise the exact structure of the workout. Remember to maintain good form throughout: these are tough sessions, so it is better to shorten them, or adjust the incline to suit your current fitness.

What did I learn from my VK Treadmill Challenge?

⁃     Firstly, treadmill workouts can be a good substitute for hill training, especially if the focus of your workout is to improve uphill running technique. My previous journal post Running Technique (2): making hills easy discusses some of these techniques. 

⁃     A recent study suggests that classic endurance variables like VO2max and running economy on a +0% slope is not a strong predictor of short trail running (20-30km) performance, however, adding more trail specific variable, like running economy on a +10% slope, allows good characterisation of trail running performance. If that is the case, I am ready to chase that efficiency! Find the study here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29077639

⁃     Breaking your workout into stages or setting a protocol of intervals makes it less of a mental challenge.

⁃     It is the quickest and most accessible way to experience a true vertical kilometre (not a single step downhill) if you don’t live by the mountains. Even in hilly Auckland, you cannot find pure uphill stretches that climb 1000 metres. 

⁃     Finally, I learned to appreciate that 15% incline on the treadmill is actually a big deal when you are out on the trails. A one-hour uphill effort can earn you spectacular views – unfortunately this is not the case when you are in the gym!

Workout 1: VO2Max Uphill Intervals

Eight 4-minute intervals at 15% incline, with 1-minute recovery between each interval at 3-5% incline.

General warm-up
Mobility drills + stretching (5mins)

Treadmill warm-up
10min 1% incline 10km/h

Main set
Note: @hard means at a pace that you find challenging, but sustainable for the length of the interval. The pace can change between intervals. RI – is a recovery interval.

8 x (4min @hard (15% incline at 7 to 10km.h) + 1min RI @easy (3-5% incline at 8km.h))
[with a longer 3 min recovery break halfway through the intervals]

Cool down
3min 1% incline 10km/h

Download printable version here


Workout 2: Pyramid threshold session

Intervals in this workout will become gradually longer, but not recovery interval. 

General warm-up
Mobility drills + stretching (5mins)

Treadmill warm-up
5 to 10-min 1% incline

Main Set
Note: @hard means at a pace that you find challenging, but sustainable for the length of the interval. The pace can change between intervals. RI – is a recovery interval.

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4-min  15%  @hard / 2-min RI 7% incline @easy
6-min  15%  @hard / 2-min RI 7% incline @easy
8-min  15%  @hard / 2-min RI 7% incline @easy
10-min 15%  @hard / 2-min RI 7% incline @easy
8-min  15%  @hard / 2-min RI 7% incline @easy
6-min  15%  @hard / 2-min RI 7% incline @easy
4-min  15%  @hard / 2-min RI 7% incline @easy

Cool down
5min 1% incline 10km/h

Total
46min at threshold pace

Download printable version here


Workout 3: Threshold + Power session

This workout is split into three stages where I ran three 10-minute sets at varying inclines, ending each set with three 30 second bursts at 15% incline. Notice how the 30 second sets ratchet in speed. 

General warm-up
Mobility drills + stretching (5mins)

Treadmill warm-up
5 to 10-min 1% incline

Main set (progressive structure)
Stage I. 
10min 8% incline ~10km.h (sub-threshold) + 1 min RI (8% 6 km.h) + 3 x (30s 15% 10-11-12 km.h / 30s RI 15% 6km.h) + 2min RI at 6% 8km.h 

Stage II. 
10min 10% incline ~10km.h (threshold) + 1 min RI (8% 6 km.h) + 3 x (30s 15% 11-12-13 km.h / 30s RI 15% 6km.h) + 2min RI at 6% 8km.h

Stage III. 
10min 10% incline ~10km.h (threshold) + 1 min RI (8% 6 km.h) + 3 x (30s 15% 12-13-14 km.h / 30s RI 15% 6km.h) + 2min RI at 6% 8km.h

Cool down
2min @easy pace at 1% 8km.h

Download printable version here


Workout 4: Threshold + VO2maxsession

This workout is in two stages, with three longer intervals in the first stage, and 6 shorter intervals in the second stage.

 Heart Rate Analysis: Workout 4

Heart Rate Analysis: Workout 4

General warm-up
Mobility drills + stretching (5mins)

Treadmill warm-up
5 to 10-min 1% incline 

Main set (progressive structure)
Stage I. 
3 x 8min 15% incline 8-10km.h + 2 min RI (6% 7 km.h)
[1 set: moderately-hard pace; 2 set: hard pace; 3 set: really hard pace] - see heart rate analysis

Stage II. 
6 x (2.5min 15% incline @threshold + 1min 15% incline @VO2max + 1.5min RI 6% incline 7 km.h)

Cool down
2min @easy pace at 1% 10km.h

Download printable version here

Running Technique (2): making hills easy

Yes, hills are sometimes hard, and hard for a good reason. To travel vertical distance for a body is actually the hardest thing, that takes up to 80% of all running energy expenditure. And if you find it hard to adopt your running form in uphill sections of your run – I truly believe (and know) that a casual training run can easily become real sufferfest.

A few things you can do to make hills easier!

[This text was recorded on a hilly run in order to keep this advice practical and real]

Shorten you stride (but increase the rate). This advice will teach you some basic physics – I am talking about the length of the lever arm. Here is an example to understand this point. Put a box in front of you. First, try to step on a box from a distance, and then walk close to the box and do it again. The difference is obvious! When running uphill - stay “compact” and put your foot close to your center of mass. This will save lots of energy and biomechanically is more efficient.

Don’t let your heel go to low. This is the best time to be a forefoot or midfoot striker. Keep your ankles and calf active, and don’t let you heel to go too low – this will help to save some energy (otherwise used to pick your heel from the ground with each step) and will put less strain on the ankle joint.

Lean forward. Running uphill you should lean slightly forward. Now it is very important point, it has to be a full body lean (“from your ankles”), not just a bend from your hips. A few more tips about correct running posture HERE

Reduce your running pace. If you want to maintain an overall exercise intensity at a similar physical exertion level, then you have to reduce you pace in the uphill sections. If you are one of those runners that worry about how bad overall pace will look on Strava, you should know that total vertical ascent (i.e. how much you climb in one session) is a completely legit way to describe running session’s difficulty. Also check GAP (aka. grade ajusted pace) on Strava, which is an overall pace taken into account all hills and downhills.

Use your arms. Arm motion during uphill running can actually help you. Using powerful arm swing we help to stabilise core (remember, all muscles in our body are related and form kinetic chains), which in turn can help to achieve more powerful contraction of “uphill running muscles” and improve your uphill stride.

Use track knowledge. Pacing is an integral part of running. Some hills are as short as 50 meters, but others might take an hour to run (or hike). Knowing the track can help to make informed decisions and pace yourself correctly through difficult and challenging hilly sections. This becomes even more important in road/trail running events. Study race elevation profiles and if you have a chance – familiarise with race course during your training.

Be an optimist. The beautiful thing about uphills is that the higher you go, the more you see. Don’t be a pessimist.

Smile. When you smile, you relax,  and when you relax – you relaxthose body parts that need to be relaxed. Don't be afraid to smile running alone. People think that you are crazy enough just because you are running those hills.

 

 

Running Technique (1): Running Cadence

In the past two weeks I had a few opportunities to speak to a bunch of enthusiastic runners and physios working with athletes about running technique and how to make runners more efficient.

Personally I am very excited about the fact that we – humans – are so efficient at running long distances and long hours (though, it is a completely question of whether we are trained to do that at any given point), and the stand out feature installed in our bodies that help us to achieve that - our tendons. Think about having “springs’ in your legs that store elastic energy during each step when foot contacts the ground and releases it during the push-off. A free and sustainable energy source!

However, there are conditions when tendons aren’t using all of their potential. For runners, efficiency is lost with either low step rate or very high step rate (aka. cadence). The optimal cadence has been an area of debate for quite a while, but 180 steps per minute is suggested, as this step rate optimize elastic recoil in tendons, which literally means that at a given running pace tendons work more and muscles conserve energy. This number is backed by research studies measuring metabolic work when bouncing at various frequencies (Dean and Kuo, 2011). This number is also coming from the analysis and observations of elite runners and their naturally chosen cadence. However, by no means you have to be running exactly at 180, but if you stay somewhere close to that number, you are likely getting it right.

Above all, if you already have issues with running related injuries, like ITB friction syndrome, patellofemoral syndrome (i.e. anterior knee pain) or just want to more efficient, there is some evidence that increasing your cadence by only 10% can improve things that are causally linked to common running injuries (look at the slide above from the Running Workshop we presented recently).

Some runners adopt new/efficient running cadence very quickly, for other is takes more time and those changes cause even discomfort while new running form is become natural.

What is my approach to coaching athletes when it come to improving their cadence?

Know your cadence. In a middle of your run count how many steps you make in 20 or 30 seconds and you will have a good idea what is your “working” cadence per minute. GPS watches usually give Cadence for each kilometer split after you upload data to your account, just check it (photo above from Movescount)

Apps. Practice getting it right with various available apps that give you sound hints about your cadence.

Sprinting. Running fast will teach you to cycle legs much faster, because that is a physical requirement if you want to maintain the speed. I do recommend doing short 50 to 100 meter sprints (6 to 10 repetition) after your regular run, once or twice a week. Choose softer ground or grass. It is important that you concentrate on controlled and efficient running form while sprinting, rather that maximal speed you can achieve.

Running Drills. Simple and routine drills like running in one place, high knees and butt kickers also are useful to improve running cadence.

Running Workouts (1): 1K intervals - VO2max session

1K interval workout is "The King” workout for all long distance runners!

STRUCTURE OF THE WORKOUT

Warm-up | running at easy intensity for 10-20 minutes

Stretching | light 5 min stretch of the major muscle groups (hamstrings, calves) to restore neuromuscular balance

Running drills | the part of dynamic warm-up – high knees drill, butt-kickers drill, skippings, short 50 meter sprints. Check this video for more ideas for running drills: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HvH5WZk0f90 Running drills are important because they warm-up your core and legs musculature and prepare for the following main-set intervals.

Main set | 6-8 times of 1000 meters (hard intensity, at 95% capacity) with 3 minute recovery of slow jogging after each interval. Look below for recommendations on exercise intensity.

Cool-down | easy jog for 10 minutes, to put the heart rate down

The exercise intensity (i.e. running pace), at which you should do this session is usually a speed associated with VO2max (i.e. maximal oxygen consumption). There are several ways to estimate your speed at VO2max. The most precise way is to measure it directly during laboratory treadmill test (but this has a price), however there are several Apps that could calculate your Interval training pace based on your previous race performances (a bit tricky for trail runners!). Check VdotO2 APP (https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/vdot-o2/id977666802?mt=8)

 

Disclaimer – for beginner runners, interval training at lower intensities (65-80% VO2max) might be as effective for increasing aerobic capacity as training at high intensity. Likewise, beginner runners should take into account possible negative effects of high-intensity training, like greater risk of musculoskeletal injuries.

Physiology behind? The most direct aim of interval training is to improve aerobic power (or VO2max – your body’s ability to uptake oxygen and use it for energy production). VO2max is considered important characteristics for long distance runners. If we look a bit deeper to what we actually improve by getting our oxygen consumption higher with interval training, we:

increase the size and volume of mitochondria (“power plants” of our cells)

improve heart’s ability "to pump" more blood

increase muscle capillary network (thus less stress on capillaries during running) etc.

It is generally accepted that trained runners have to reach intensities of 90-100% vVO2max for optimal adaptation. However, once we start running at vVO2max (Interval) pace, it takes approx. 90 seconds to achieve VO2max (see figure on the right). In other words, it takes time to warm-up your "engine" to reach its maximal capacity. For that reason, VO2max intervals are usually longer than 2 minutes (intervals lasting 3 to 5 minutes are ideal for this particular session). Keeping work-to-rest ratio about similar (e.g. 3 minutes of running and 3 minutes for recovery) will allow enough time to start the following interval fresh thus allowing to maintain necessary running pace during all session.

Have fun training and feel free to comment!