I’ve been in a certain relationship for a long time. We’ve been together for several years and it all started when I was 19. I was young, inexperienced and naive and I made mistakes but I came out the other side and have learned a lot.
You see when I was 19, I started running. I’d been playing sports at University and needed a way to keep my fitness levels up in between competitions and practice.
So I would run. I didn’t own running shoes or even know how far I was going. I’d just run about for 20 minutes or until I felt tired.
Then I’d come back.
Several years later, I started training in martial arts. It was then that I stopped running. The conditioning sessions at training were so brutal that I had no need for pavement pounding other than a little bit of recovery. It was a happy time as I sat at my (at the time) target weight of 78kg.
Cardio and I were finished. Over. Ancient history. We went our separate ways thinking it was the end.
The Cardio/Conditioning Conundrum
After a couple of years I hung up my gloves, shin guards and jock strap and went back to running. This time I had the right shoes and would even wear a Nike+ which was like a primitive FitBit that had an uncanny ability to measure distance based on how much bouncing around you did.
But things were not all rosy as I ran my 4 and 6 mile circuits of Glasgow’s mean streets. I was developing a number of problems that were going to come back to bite me. I needed a change if I was going to be able to keep my fitness and knees intact.
The Problem with Cardio
First up, I’m not having a go at all forms of cardio. So hold your angry comments about how you ‘run 50 miles a week and have the hormone levels of a 15 year old’ to the end.
But that said, there are issues with too much cardio. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to use ‘cardio’ and ‘running’ interchangeably. Mainly because that’s what I know about. Don’t like it? Tough – go read another blog.
I’m going to have a guess and say most people do cardio to lose or manage weight – I used to run so I could eat more pizza. You may do cardio to have clear head or to feel healthy. Or maybe you do it so you can leer at the girl in the green on the cross trainer. Hey, I’m not here to judge.
You may even do it for sports performance which is probably a good idea if you’re a long distance runner or cyclist. But there are draw backs to constant cardio sessions – especially those lasting more than an hour. These are the main ones I’m concerned with:
If you’re a Dad, time is at an absolute premium. There are people who can go for 2 hour runs on a Sunday morning – good for them. You don’t have the time – or the energy. Running has an amazing way of eating into your valuable time.
But your body also has running sussed due to something called homeostasis. Homeostasis is where your body wants to be ALL THE TIME. It’s the metabolic equivalent to lying on the couch and watching Mad Men marathons while eating dry Cheerios from the box. It’s the physical Easy Street.
And your body will do anything to get you there. When you do any kind of exercise, your body responds in order to get back to its homeostatic state. The end result is you get fitter, leaner and recover faster. Great.
However steady state running (when you go at a consistent pace over the course of the run) has a limited benefit because your body can adapt quickly to this type of exercise. You may make progress quickly but you’ll quickly arrive at the Plateau of Diminishing Returns.
The worst recurring injuries I’ve had are from running. The first was shin splints which is a catch all term for a variety of shin conditions – all of which hurt. A lot. I had pain whenever I ran for months and wore compression socks for years. This helped but the paid would come back over longer runs.
Another common one is what is ominously known as Runner’s Knee. The medical name is Patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS). The symptoms consist of pain in your knees due to wear and pressure from running on the knee cap.
To collect the whole set you can also include IT Band Sydnrome. This isn’t a computer programmers’ rock group. It’s when the tendons along your leg tighten causing your knee to be misaligned. I’ve suffered on numerous times.
There isn’t really a cure – just rehab. Which hurts almost as much as having a giant rubber band pull your kneecap off. If you get desperate (or rich) you can have a Cortisone injection which might mess your ligaments up. Not really a win-win.
3. Interesting it is not
OK, so I was struggling for a third ‘I’. But I have to say that long distance running has to be one of the most uninteresting activities I’ve participated in. I’ve only done 2 half marathons and on the first I was so bored at the mid point that I welcomed the unimaginable pain in the second half.
Falling in Love With Conditioning
If you’re reading this and are still thinking of clinging to your running shoes and calling me a Philistine, that’s OK. I’m not done with running quite yet.
But there has to be a better way to keep fit without knee problems, boredom or your metabolism camping out on the sofa. And there is.
When I started using Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 protocol, I realised that there were ways to train that I’d never come across before. One of these was conditioning.
Sure I’d done conditioning workouts when training Muay Thai and had done the odd hill sprint. But to programme conditioning into my own training was new.
Jim Wendler suggests doing conditioning 3 times a week in addition to lifting 3-4 times per week. That’s achievable even with a busy schedule, work and kids.
My favourite conditioning are kettlebell circuits, hill sprints or circuit training. They all hurt but nothing gets you fitter faster. Plus no wonky knee caps in sight. Incorporating conditioning into my training has got me to my leanest yet and it will work just as well for you if you give it a shot.
Getting Back Together With Running
Although I dumped my running habit, we still see each other once a week and occasionally on the weekends when I’ll do a buggy run at my local Parkrun. As with most things, the key is balance. Too much running and it’s back to squint knees, shin splints and boredom. But a little goes a long way.
One of the biggest benefits is the mental relaxation. I will either switch my mind off as I stride or let my mind wander. I’ve entered some strange places while running where I return home not knowing or remembering where I’ve been – a real Flow state.
If you’ve just been doing running or another form of cardio, think about mixing and switching it up with conditioning. Your body will thank you and you might even see some better results.
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