One legged chair squats

With my speed improving over the past month, I took another read of Pete Magill’s Speedrunner book to see what extra I could learn. One of the things I’ve found with learning is that rereading stuff is helpful. The first time you read something it may seem to go in and be understood. If you then begin to apply what you’ve read and grow, a reread brings a different perspective on the same material.

Among the exercises listed in the book are one-legged squats. These are nothing new to me and last November I started doing exercises as I wanted to be able to do a pistol squat which is a full one-legged squat to the ground and back up. I did exercises for about six weeks which were beneficial but when combined with the faster running I was doing, my left glute got sore and I decided to put them on hold rather than get injured.

Reading Speedrunner as I sat in my garden last Monday, it was one of the rare sunny days we’ve enjoyed this summer. The front half of the book is an explanation of the concepts of maximum velocity, acceleration and sprint mechanics while the second half details exercises that will help to improve these.

A variation to the one-legged squat was also detailed. Begin sitting in a chair (as I happened to be doing at that point) and raise yourself up out of it on only one leg. This allows you to go with a smaller range of motion plus the security of not falling backwards or collapsing on the floor. I gave it a try.

My right leg was just about strong enough to do five reps, it was a struggle but I got them done. The left leg was not so easy. Almost immediately on trying the hamstring muscles in the back of my thigh were crying out in pain with the difficulty. I could do it but it was on the edge of a strain. Fortunately I know my body well enough to know when to keep going and when to back off. I did the five reps and that was it.

In the following days, I continued to do five reps each leg, each day. The left leg still strained at the effort but subjectively I knew the pain was reducing, so the muscle must be getting stronger. Plus the exercise itself is also an improver for balance and coordination. It’s worth noting that for all the technology we have, there is nothing that could tell me I was improving beyond a subjective assessment.

By Saturday, after five days of this, I was feeling strong enough to do ten reps on each leg. The left leg was still a little grumbly about this, the right leg strong but actually not quite as good at balancing when up out of the chair.

On Sunday I went for my long run and with the combination of miles and a decent pace (rather than recovery) it’s the sort of run where any new form can begin to be ingrained. I didn’t particularly notice anything different with the left leg starting to strengthen up but in the last mile or so, I found my right shoulder dropped and began to swing a little easier. They may not seem connect but the arms and legs working in opposite pairings, so the right leg / left arm swing together in time as do the left leg / right arm.

Fixing form issues is quite often a case of looking at the whole body as a system, not simply focusing on the body part you thing is an issue. A good example of this is when you have a runner who heel strikes. The instinct is to get them to run on their toes more but quite often I find it is happening because their hips or glutes aren’t working properly. And I reckon this is what happened to me this past week. I got the left glute-hamstring area stronger, it worked better and consequently that led to the counterbalance from the right shoulder correcting itself.

I’ve continued with the one-legged chair squats this week and they are getting easier and easier. The reps of standing up onto the right leg are now beginning to feel as easy as it does when standing up as normal onto two feet. The left leg is still a tad weak but it will strengthen up. I’ve noticed the right shoulder seems to be dropping into place more often when running and during sprints my form felt great.

One of the surprises is that I need to do this strengthening work. While I do press-ups, corework and dumbbell curls to keep my upper body in shape, I had always considered running was enough for my lower body, particularly in recent months where I’ve been doing hills. Apparently it wasn’t and while it is difficult, if not impossible, to find a set of tests to identify any weakness; it certainly highlights the benefit of doing a range of activities outside of pure running.

The VO2 lull

I’m currently going through what I term a “VO2 lull”. It’s something I’ve encountered across my running years but taken a long time to understand, and even longer to recognise when it’s happening. Last Saturday I ran a good, hard parkrun at Upton House. Combining efforts up the hills with surges to try and catch runners ahead of me, as well as bursts to stay in front of those behind me, it was an all-out effort. With fresh legs going into it, from three days of easy running, I found an extra gear whenever I needed it. While I felt fairly good immediately afterwards, my legs have had nothing all week. I’ve lost a good minute off my easy run pace and this is what I’m calling the VO2 lull.

First off I need to explain the V02 part. Exercise physiologists like putting runners on treadmills and measuring the effects of running at ever-increasing speeds. One of the key measurements they take is the amount of oxygen breathed in, as well as carbon dioxide breathed out and heart-rate. When they measure the oxygen (O2) intake and utilisation it is correctly termed V̇O2 with a little dot over the V indicating it’s a rate but most people refer to it as VO2 partly because how do you pronounce a dot? It’s partly because it’s too onerous for them to figure out how to get the dotted V̇ on a word processor!

In chapter 8 of Build Your Running Body, Pete Magill details the growth cycle of mitochondria which are fundamental to producing aerobic energy. Mitochondria are often described as the powerhouses of the cell as they convert oxygen to energy which then powers your exercise. The importance of mitochondria to any distance runner cannot be overstated enough – they are the source of your aerobic ability which itself is key to distance running success.

Magill explains that it takes 4-5 weeks for mitochondria to fully grow but there’s a problem. “When mitochondria first begin adapting, they can’t contribute to aerobic energy production … this phase lasts from ten to thirteen days and creates an “oxygen utilistation problem” … you can expect to feel sluggish doing workouts that were easy the previous week” (p.142)

That’s exactly where I’ve been this week. Last week I was running a 20:55 parkrun at 6:45/mile pace; the next day my legs could barely achieve eight minute miles on my long run. This might have been due to recovery factors but it’s continued on through the week. My Tuesday Steady run which I was running at an average of 7:20/mile last week came in at 8:10/mile this week. Wednesday’s recovery run averaged 9:10/mile; today’s, five days after parkrun, came in at 8:44/mile. My legs have got nothing – no bounce, oomph or power. I’m barely getting out of the fat-burning zone on these runs.

So I now just have to wait for the mitochondrial adaptation to take place and in the meantime, plod along. This isn’t the first time I’ve been here but this phenomena is so poorly known that, in the past, I would start to take action to try and get back ontrack. I might rest (not a bad option if it’s only a day or two), do some strides (poor option as legs are already tired), do less mileage (not great as you won’t necessarily reinforce the growth), or try to continue doing what I usually do at the usual paces (effectively overtraining which usually led to injury). When it happened to me after marathons, it usually led me to quit running for six months or more. It’s only now I realise you just have to jog until the legs splutter back into life as they eventually will. It’s quite a remarkable experience because one day running feels awful, the next it’s like you’re running on bedsprings as the adaptations finally kick in.