June 2, 2014

Some things about running, fitness, and balance.

This blog was born as a place to deposit my thoughts on coffee, in all of its various aspects. I was a barista - a good one, I think - hence the name "baristing". Even then, I tried mostly to write in a fairly direct, personal style. There were plenty of "authority" blogs already; I did not pretend to possess such expertise, nor did I aspire to.

That "dear diary" approach to writing has remained, even as the topic has shifted from coffee to running, primarily. Though it's not my job, it is the thing I'm most passionate about everyday, which coffee preparation used to be. Again, while I attempt not to suck, I'm not a viable expert. I have neither the academic credentials nor the speed to claim as much.

This is fair enough. (Although, I would note that many great coaches - Colm O'Connell comes first to mind - share that apparent lack of credentials.)

Enough hedging? I hope so. Because I don't intend to present this as anything other than the idle thoughts of a hobbyjogger who reads quite a lot of academic literature, both at work and (seriously) for fun.

Today, while working on The Journal of Athletic Training (a favorite), I came to an article on strength imbalances in volleyball players (not published yet, obviously, so I can't link). As you might expect, their "spiking arm" and accompanying shoulder tend to be stronger than the less used side. It was noted that this is not uncommon. And truly, it isn't. There've been similar articles about many athletes that play what I'll call asymmetrical sports: Golf, baseball, basketball, softball, football, etc.

In fact, it's quite rare to find an athlete who can match the strength - nevermind, coordination - of their "good arm" (or leg, if we're kicking things) with their lesser one. And it stands to reason. Not only do these athletes likely have a natural disposition towards a dominant side, they further this with years of dedicated practice. A right handed pitcher doesn't practice throwing left handed, just to balance things out. Certainly, they (and the other athletes noted) do general strength and mobility work to achieve "enough" general fitness (well, by the looks of some baseball players, maybe this isn't so certain); but they certainly don't aim for complete balance. It would be impossible, first of all, and counterproductive even if it weren't.

Simply put, an imbalance is not a problem per se. We need context.

The next great hockey player can't do a pullup? Again, context. He's young, and incredibly skilled. Does anyone else remember when Kevin Durant couldn't bench 185 lbs for one rep at the NBA combine? He turned out okay. Probably, he's stronger now (though the 2010 video of him "benching" 315 is quite fake, and an intentional joke). But more importantly, he can shoot a basketball really well. While hockey is certainly more physical than basketball (hence the pads), it remains primarily a sport dominated by agility and puck handling skill.

Of course, running doesn't relate to such "ball (or puck) sports" exactly. Running, importantly, is much more symmetrical. Although most people have a dominant leg, it's advantageous for runners to prevent this from manifesting to any greater degree than is necessary. And so we do lunges, squats, glute bridges, etc. At least, we're told we should. And to be clear, I believe we should. I do these things every day, and (stress fracture aside...) I've found my soft tissue holds up well. In this, I believe as Jay Johnson does, that we should get and remain strong enough to support quality running specific training.

But we still need to do that training.

Perhaps influenced somewhat by Crossfit Endurance's methodology, or the broader fitness shift towards circuit/interval training, there seems to be a lot of discussion - both among academics and the general population - about how such supplemental training could work to replace a fairly high percentage of running volume. Specifically, that many so-called "junk miles" could be omitted.

This, I think, is a mistake. Especially if we're discussing ultra/marathon training, as seems so often to be the case. Could you run a 50 miler without ever running longer than an hour in training, with a high diet of lunges to build up muscular endurance? Of course. But I don't believe it would yield your best possible performance. Furthermore, I'd question why you'd want to do that in the first place. There's nothing at all wrong with running 10-20 miles a week, focusing on fast intervals and heavy weights. But do that, and probably don't venture beyond the 5K.

If I can indulge in a brief n=1 anecdote: I did lunges, squats, and glute bridges nearly every day last year, in the buildup to my two target races - one a trail marathon, one a Kansas country gravel/dirt/road 50. And I won both! (Both smallish local races, and my times aren't fast enough to even be called slow on Let'sRun. But both were also large improvements over my times from the previous year at both races.) Probably, that had more to do with the 14 or so miles a day I averaged for a few months. More specifically, my max bench, pull ups, and squat all dropped from my then PRs, which were already well below my lifetime bests. Didn't matter. I was strong enough to support my running, which was my only concern.


I was training to run long races. Not powerlift. Not attempt to qualify for the Crossfit games. Not Spartan Races.

Context matters, which is another way of saying specificity matters. The right handed pitcher throws with his right hand, and gets better by doing so. Getting stronger at the military press will strengthen both shoulders, but will only have limited utility in making him a better pitcher. Supplemental training is supplemental. Fundamental training is fundamental. Don't try to live on a multivitamin. Eat your vegetables.


  1. I think this is a post well worth reading. I am always a bit disappointed in the media play CrossFit gets for recommending shorter high-intensity workouts in place of well-studied paths to success in running. The Outside magazine article about the guy who was marathon training by running as fast as he could up a hill in Seattle made me roll my eyes. I don't doubt people can benefit from high-intensity short training. But if that worked for elite athletes, I'm pretty sure we'd see the Kenyans, Ethiopians, and top Americans using it as well.

    I really liked your observations about symmetry as well. As a tennis player, I worked (not always successfully) to keep my weaker side within striking distance of my dominant half. Looking at pros, it is a bit absurd in some instances just how overbuilt one side is when compared to the other.

    While I was aware of that issue during tennis. It never occurred to me just how symmetrical sports like running and tennis are in terms of muscle development.

    Thanks for the post.

    1. Glad you got something out of it. I feared it was a bit... out of sorts? Certainly not organized. Not that I ever bother with that.

      Anyway, my point, which you seem to have gleaned quite well, was that training should be geared towards what you want to accomplish. Arbitrary judgements and absolutes are, well, arbitrary.