In his autobiography OPEN, Andre Agassi describes quite vividly his relationship with the legendary fitness trainer, Gil Reyes, and his training experiences. Gil was with Agassi from 1989 until the end of his career and helped the latter discover new realms of fitness almost unimaginable those days in the tennis world. Locker room anecdote has it that Agassi, who could bench only 135 pounds when Gil joined him, ended up with a press lift of 315 pounds, fourteen years later! But that’s another story!
What is relevant to this article is that Agassi describes in the book how Gil completely took him out of long endurance runs, replacing them with short, hard wind sprints or hill sprints. In fact, that is all the conditioning work that Agassi used to do. Even in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Gil was aware of sports science wisdom that long, slow endurance runs merely drain out an athlete and do nothing to enhance his or her performance on the pitch or court. However, even 20 years or so down the line, modern day coaches, whether in football, cricket or tennis, are still making their athletes do too much of endurance running and not enough speed or agility work.
Even if they do put in speed work, the heavy accent on endurance conditioning tends to negate the benefits of speed and lactate threshold training by adapting the muscle fibres towards more slow-twitch orientation. The muscle fibres get confused with antagonistic instructions from the brain and the body never realises its full potential to be a quick, strong and agile athlete.
The legendary Kapil Dev was fond of preaching long runs for all quick bowlers to build stamina and strength. Everybody likes to look at his illustrious career but few realise that in the last few years of his life, he was at best military medium and his strengths were swing and seam. Compare this to say Imran Khan, who was quick if he wanted to be, even in his 40s and Michael Holding, who could generate lightning speed well into his golden years.
Far from building stamina for sport, slow, long-distance running actually reduces your heart and lung reserve capacity. Reserve capacity means that your heart has the ability to pump more blood in times of stress. Reserve capacity for your lungs allows them to deal with high exertion activities like lifting, carrying heavy objects or running up the stairs. By performing slow, low-intensity jogs over 30-40 minutes, you are sending a message to your heart and lungs to become fuel-efficient and pump blood economically. So, you become a great fuel-efficient machine — but when you have to deliver power, your body systems crash. But modern day sport is about power, speed and anaerobic endurance.
Jim Fixx, a popular fitness guru of the 1970s, claimed that the secret to a long and healthy life was long and slow endurance running. The ultimate irony was that Fixx died of a heart attack in his 50s, while running. The term ‘Jim Fixx phenomenon’ was later coined to describe symptoms of heart and lung problems in young marathoners.
Paul Chek, an expert in the field of corrective and high-performance exercise kinesiology, and Charles Poliquin, a strength and fitness training expert, warn against long and slow-distance running and regret the “aerobicisation” of society. In their opinion, any aerobic activity like slow long-distance running encourages glucocorticoid release (cortisol, cortisone, etc.) in the body. These hormones are antagonistic to strength and muscle development and affect the cardiovascular system. They cause free radical damage that leads to early ageing.
Sport is primal
As a sports specific bio-mechanist, my job involves studying sport movement patterns to alter musculo-skeletal dysfunctions. My firm belief is that the movements for sport have firm origins in man’s primal patterns. I believe that the human body is built to move fast with explosive movements.
To grasp this, you will have to first appreciate and understand early man’s need to run. It would have primarily been to hunt prey and escape from predators and other natural dangers, such as a forest fire or an active volcano. This needed really quick, sharp movement patterns. There seems to be no real reason why a man would need to jog (a gentle and slow repetitive form of running). In fact, in the animal kingdom, I cannot think of one animal that would survive if it chose to jog instead of run.
Faster, the better
A study in the early 1980s, conducted by Gary Dudley at the State University Of New York at Syracuse, revealed that just 10 minutes of fast running daily over an eight-week period at close to 100% of VO2 max can roughly triple cytochrome* concentrations (a key compound found inside mitochondria that helps to enhance aerobic capacity of a cell). In contrast, running daily for eight weeks for 27 minutes at roughly 85% VO2 max enhanced cytochrome production by only 80% and running 60-90 minutes at 70-75% VO2 max only improved cytochrome production by 70% or so. This clearly establishes that athletes do not have to train for aerobic capacity separately. Training anaerobically will enhance both aerobic as well as anaerobic capacity.
*(Influence Of Exercise Intensity and Duration on Biomechanical Adaptation in Skeletal Muscle......Journal Of Applied Physiology -1982)
So, what’s the conclusion? As Dudley and his colleagues concluded, “For the same adaptive response the length of daily exercise necessary to bring about the change becomes less as intensity increases.” In other words, a 10 to 15-minute run at 4-5 K pace is far more beneficial to a sportsman than a 30 to 40-minute run at lower intensities.
Realistically, however, it is not possible to train at high intensities everyday. The coach needs to vary exercise intensities and duration to suit competition timetables and the athlete needs to enhance performance and reduce injury potential.
Learn the technique
My advice to young sportsmen is to seek a good athletic coach who can teach you the rudiments of running. Sports like tennis, football, hockey, basketball and even cricket all involve high volume of running at medium to high intensities.
A strength and Conditioning Coach/ Athletic Trainer will be able to identify and correct any musculoskeletal dysfunctions that obstruct good running form and technique.
All over the world, 60-70% of sportsmen get injured or develop chronic injuries due to poor running mechanics. Most of these injuries happen due to muscle tightness or weakness and because kids jump into sport before performing a proper musculoskeletal test.
Some of the exercises/drills mentioned below can help.
Begin with one leg lifted to approximately 90 degrees, with the arm on the other side lifted too. Start with a counter movement on one leg. Jump up and forward on one leg. The other leg should remain in the starting position till landing. Land in the starting position on the same leg. Immediately repeat the skip with the other leg.
A bound is an exaggeration of the running gait; the goal is to cover as great a distance as possible with each stride.
Bounding drills, which involve exaggerated movements with great horizontal speed, are usually done over approximately 30m and may include single- or double-leg bounds.
They are measured typically by the distance covered in each bound. Sometimes, they are measured by the number of repetitions performed over a fixed distance too.
Push off with the left foot as it contacts the ground. Bring the right leg forward by flexing the thigh to a position parallel with the ground and the knee at 90 degrees.
Reach forward with the left arm. Land on the right leg and immediately repeat the sequence on the other side on landing.
Single-leg skip with alternate foot flicks
Jump on one leg and drive the other leg in a flicking action with the feet almost “scratching” the ground underneath. The knees should be high and the foot should try to touch the glutes at the back.
(The writer is a certified coach from the National Strength and Conditioning Association of America, and has worked with the Indian cricket team, the Bengal cricket team and the East Bengal Football Club. He currently coaches the Indian golf team.)