Monthly Archives: March 2009

Neuromuscular Training and Hill Climbing

A lot of focus on hill climbing in either running or cycling is on building leg strength, and aerobic capacity to support a strong push up the hill. Hill climbing for me has been a real challenge; I have been training constantly to increase my leg strength. However, I did discover another piece of training that is also important to hill climbing on both running and cycling. This is neuromuscular training.
Ever go sprinting up a hill and you’re going anaerobic? Your breath is heaving and your legs are burning. You’re using up all that strength and energy to accelerate up that hill and once you get over it, your legs collapse in energy output, just happy to not be exerting any more. You find that as you crest the hill, you have no more left and you just let the back side of the hill accelerate as you coast down the hill. Or worse for running, you find that you can’t even move your legs because you wasted them and your aerobic capacity going up the hill and now you can’t take advantage of the down hill to speed up because your legs are wiped out.
In the last few months as my leg strength has increased, I have found that neuromuscular training has played a nice role in maintaining and increasing speed as I blast up the hill and crest it. How is this so? It mainly comes from training the legs to continue their movement even while you have used up some anaerobic/aerobic capacity going up the hill. Most of the time, after we crest the hill and after a hard effort, our legs are so wasted that they can’t even move any more. But this is bad. They need to keep moving so that we don’t lose speed and we can accelerate on the downhill.
Neuromuscular speed training helps us to relax and become accustomed to mvoing our legs very quickly. It becomes second nature to move our legs very fast and we learn how to do it with minimal energy expenditure.
Thus, as we crest the hill, I have found that I can relax the legs to rest after the hard effort up the hill, but keep my neurons firing to cycle the legs and either keep revolutions going on the bike, or keep my legs moving and running downhill. When I relax my legs, they recover from the hard effort and it also lets my aerobic system recover as well. I don’t slow down, which is the key thing. I can maintain speed or accelerate but also recover.
It has reinforced the need for neuromuscular training for both the bike and running. Fast one legged sets at 100+ RPM, and super fast short running sets on the treadmill – both of these really brought me some unseen benefits in hill climbing.

Training in Cold Sucks

Yesterday I went out in 50 degree cloudy weather to go do some climbing laps on Kings Mountain and Old La Honda. I did not anticipate the temperature drop on top of the mountain, which combined with the wind chill factor did me in.

Clearly I did not dress correctly. My exposed finger gloves and half covers for my shoes weren’t enough to prevent near frostbite on them as I zoomed down Kings after my first climb. I think the wind chill was in the high 30s and my body was starting to really shut down. I considered going to Old La Honda and doing that once but it was too much. I went for the fastest way home as I felt like my body just couldn’t give anymore and didn’t want a total shutdown out on the road.

I made it home and stood in a hot shower for many minutes to get warm.


I hate training in cold. I’m already of low body fat such that low temps are just uncomfortable. Keeping warm during cold day workouts just saps me of extra energy keeping warm. It also increases the risk of getting sick too. I remember forcing myself to go out for 6 hour rides back in late 2004 to prep for my first Ironman NZ. I got sick a few times but also during those cold rides I never felt like I never could really push hard because so much energy was used to keep warm.

Time to watch the weather better and just wimp out more and enjoy longer focused interval rides on my Computrainer.

Gua Sha and STARR Tools

I just went to my physical therapist and he turned me on to some tools made out of plastic, which were very much like metal Graston tools but much thinner. I doubted that they could hold up to the abuse of scraping my muscles, but after a treatment session, they seemed to hold up fine. They also exhibit another vibratory quality than thick stainless steel; you can feel and hear the vibrations of the adhesions and bumps within muscles much better (so thick stainless steel better than a spoon, but plastic better than either).
These are the tools of Gua Sha, whose roots are in China now in the US. In China, these tools are often made of jade, or bone, or animal horn. When I first mentioned Graston to my mother years ago, she told me that the Chinese had been doing this kind of treatment for a long time, probably longer than Graston has been around.
Gua Sha stands for “scraping sand” and that’s what you do with the tools, which is to scrape your muscles. The principles are the same as Graston although the explanations are often in Eastern concepts, using qi and energy meridians and flow. My PT person told me that he went to a seminar and the teacher who is a Westerner had also incorporated a lot of other concepts, like the concept of Anatomy Trains where muscles are linked together around the body and often treating the entire muscle chain is much better than treating just the local affected area.
Gua Sha scraping can be light up to super deep, resulting in a bruised appearance lasting many days. My PT person and I talked about this and we both feel that extensive bruising resulting from super deep scraping is bad for people in-season. I’ve often felt the results of deep Graston the next day when my muscles are too traumatized to perform well, even as they are healing.
For a more in-depth discussion on Gua Sha and its usage, pick up this excellent book from the Gua Sha Tools website. It’s packed with lots of detailed information, and crosses from Eastern and Western philosophies.
I did want to mention that I found a Graston tool substitute that was better than my spoon. A few weeks back I searched the internet looking for, perhaps, a set of used Graston tools on ebay or elsewhere. Amazingly, I could not find one instance of a used set anywhere! But after much searching, I found the STARR Tool. The website is a bit ghetto as far as design goes, and with anxiety I pressed the Buy link to purchase the STARR tool. Thankfully, it arrived a few days later!
The stainless steel STARR tool is excellent. The steel transmits the vibrations much better than a metal spoon I was using and it has multiple edges to be used on various parts of the body. Its heft really allows me to get into muscles deeper too. It also comes with a CD that goes over the basics of scraping technique.
While I admire Graston very much, I also like the fact that people are getting alternatives out there, especially for an adventurous soul such as myself who dares treat my own ailments. I can’t get into my PT person’s office all that often, and between visits, I bust out my trusty STARR tool and help my body along in its healing and recovery process.
I did buy a set of Gua Sha plastic and jade tools, so once I get them I’ll do a post on how they feel relative to my STARR tool and Graston as well.

Intermediate to Advanced: The Different Types of Training

In my interactions with my coach M2, I have learned that there are 6 types of training. These are:
1. Neuro-muscular – training of the nervous system to do something either differently, better, or to some form which maximizes efficiency and minimizes effort. Example: super short high speed treadmill intervals for 15-30 seconds per interval, form focus workouts for swimming.
2. Speed – training that results in being faster. Examples: swimming speed sets, sprinting track workouts for running.
3. Strength – training that results in you being stronger, and to put out more energy at the same effort. Examples: hill climbing in running, hill climbing or more watts on the computrainer in cycling.
4. Endurance – training for the ability to race or produce energy output for some length of time. Example: gradually lengthening the duration of a long run over a period of weeks.
4b. Stamina – I make this a sub-section to endurance, which is the ability to maintain a level of speed/strength for a long period of time. Example: gradually increasing the time of your intervals and reducing your rest periods while maintaining the same wattages during Computrainer bike interval workouts.
5. Recovery – stimulation of blood flow by raising heart rate and circulation but not raising effort to flush the body of exercise by-products and promote healing. Example: cycling on a computrainer at negligible watts, but high RPMs for about 20-30min.
It is somewhat obvious that whenever you go out to train, you’re most likely training more than one of these areas simultaneously. However, I wanted to point out:
1. You can train to focus on only one of these areas.
2. It’s good to have a mix of all 6 areas as you’re building for a race. The mix depends on where you are in your training schedule.
3. You have to be aware that potentially you could be detracting other areas if you’re not focusing on these areas.
Let’s talk about the first point.
Focusing on one thing is possible and many times desirable. Of the 6 training types, I’ve focused on mostly neuro-muscular, strength, and recovery. It’s all based on what you individually need.
For example, over the winter, I did a lot of treadmill training where I’d warmup with track drills, ie. kick backs, skipping, and then started doing 30 min intervals at super high speed, building from 6 MPH to as much as 11 MPH (where the interval drops to 15-20 seconds due to the fact that the treadmill takes too long to accelerate to that speed). By the way, I have not found a gym treadmill that goes faster than 11 MPH, although I have heard that you can actually get treadmills that go that fast. What this achieved for me, is not necessarily the ability to maintain an 11 MPH/5:27 min/mile pace over a race. It does help train my neuromuscular system to fire my muscles quicker so that I get used to running at a higher turnover rate, at paces I can maintain. This results in me being faster simply because my body is accustomed to moving my legs faster.
For strength training, over the last 2 years I started climbing and doing laps on Old La Honda and Kings Mountain. These laps have built up my leg strength considerably and increased their resilience on hill climbs, where I was defeated utterly at Ironman Austria a few years back.
I am also a big user of recovery workouts. I figure out if, for a given workout, I need to back off. If I do need to back off severely, often I’ll do a recovery workout. An example of this is a pedaling efficiency workout involving a lot of high RPM one-legged pedaling drills at minimal wattage. It doesn’t stress my muscles from a power standpoint, but it raises my heart rate and circulation so that blood is flowing through my muscles and the flushing effect helps my recovery so that the next day I’ll be able to perform a normal workout.
Second point: The mix.
Training all in one type means that you’re not gaining the full benefits or reaching your potential for a race. If all you’re doing is sprinting workouts on the bike, you may not be able to last an entire century. If all you’re doing is running at endurance pace every workout, you may find that you aren’t increasing your speed, or you don’t have enough strength to pass someone when you want to.
You need to mix it up and include all types and improve on them all. You can figure out, as I have, where my deficiencies are, and do some focus on improving some areas. But overall, you need to train all 6 types as you build through your season to the big race.
I tend to focus on neuromuscular workouts during the offseason, as they don’t stress my aerobic system and are great for recovery workouts. Then I move from neuromuscular focus as my training season starts to building speed and strength with a lesser endurance emphasis. This is because endurance is easiest to build, but speed and strength take lot more time. As I hit mid-season, I am adding more endurance and stamina into the mix as I try to extend the speed and strength I’ve built up to longer times.
Third point, watch out for what you’re not focusing on and don’t let it slide.
As you’re focusing on certain aspects of training, you have to watch out that you don’t reduce other aspects. An easy example is that as you build endurance, you may find that your form (neuromuscular aspect) gets really messy as you get tired. This is very bad! The trick is to maintain form even when you’re butt tired, and as you focus on building endurance. Otherwise, you could injure yourself through poor form, as your muscles are tiring and you engage other weaker muscles to compensate.
Another example is when you’re supposed to be doing a recovery workout, but yet you feel energized and so you try to push harder and do something with more energy. But then all of a sudden, half way through the workout, you find that you burn through that initial burst of energy which fails you later because you weren’t fully recovered and you don’t have enough stamina to continue. Recovery when you have to and don’t force yourself to do something your body just isn’t OK for.
Yet another example is not gradually increasing your workout intervals to improve stamina. You mentally don’t feel like doing fast intervals beyond a certain point, and thus your stamina never improves. You hit race day and you find that as you try to maintain speed, you can’t and you’re slowing down as you move through the miles.
While training typically involves the simultaneous training of all 6 types of training, I think that there is a lot of benefit to identifying where your personal needs are, and coupled with where you are in your training season, you can focus on specific areas which need improvement and advance them greatly. Categorizing the different types of training really helps in thinking about training and how to race faster.