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October 26, 2014

Caring for your body to endure distance runs

The temperatures are getting cooler, just in time for runners who are thinking about running a marathon this year to start putting in some longer runs. It makes those longer runs easier when the temperatures are not so hot.

There are several things that runners need to think about when planning on a marathon. One important item is that longer runs take a toll on the body; and a runner needs to build in some rest days to allow the muscles to recover.

Another part of the training is to do some strength training a couple of times a week. Runners have, on occasion, been afraid to do weightlifting because of the belief that lifting weights will build bigger muscles, add more weight and be detrimental to training for a marathon.

The key to a strength program is that lifting weights can be designed to enhance your specific sport. Lifting weights to benefit the marathon training program is not the same as a football player’s or a power lifter’s program. A runner can build strength without getting bigger muscles or gaining a lot of weight in excess muscle.

It helps to understand how a muscle works. A muscle is composed of many muscle fibers within the bulk of the muscle. When a muscle fiber is hit with a nerve impulse to contract, it contracts 100 percent. It is the workload the muscle is asked to do that determines how many muscle fibers in the main muscle contract.

Those muscle fibers that contract will contract to their maximum. A heavy workload will require more muscle fibers to contract, and a lighter workload will have fewer muscle fibers contract.

Longer runs will require those muscle fibers to work for more time to cover the extra miles that the runner is putting in. If the muscle is not strong, and the workload of that long distance is putting a huge demand on the muscle itself, then one of two things can happen.

One is that the muscle fibers are put under a strain and will become injured. The other thing that happens is that the muscle fibers are pushed to their maximum, and a longer recovery period is needed before another training run is scheduled.

A strong muscle has two advantages to handling the stress of a long run. One advantage is that, with stronger muscle fibers, the workload on the whole muscle is not as demanding and will not tire the muscle as much, and will allow for a shorter recovery period. The stress of a long run on the muscle will be closer to that of a light workload than a heavy workload.

Another part of a stronger muscle is that not as many muscle fibers are needed to handle the workload; and when some of them become tired, there are other muscle fibers that take over and keep working. It adds up to a muscle handling a lighter workload and having more muscle fibers to carry the runner through that long run.

There are advantages to having a strength routine built into your marathon program; and the worry about building big, bulging muscles should not be a concern.

One more advantage of having stronger muscles is that a strong muscle has good muscle tone, or tension in a relaxed state. With the stress of hitting the pavement with the feet on a long run, things happen to the body. The feet absorb some of the shock from hitting the pavement; the joints and tendons will absorb some more of this shock, and even more shock is absorbed by the muscles.

A strong muscle absorbs shock more easily and efficiently than a weak muscle. A program that develops muscle strength in the quadriceps, the hamstring muscles and the muscles in the calf is important for handling the stress of a long run on the legs.

It all comes down to making training for a marathon comfortable and successful.

Moe Johnson
Dr. Maurice Johnson - better known around San Marcos as “Moe” - is a professor in the Department of Health, P.E., Recreation and Dance at Texas State University - San Marcos. Moe has been a fixture in the San Marcos running community - both as a runner and race organizer - since way back when Moby Dick was a minnow. His column on running and fitness appears each Sunday in the Sports section of the San Marcos Daily Record.

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