This will be the sixth and final post in my series (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) on my 2014 physical training. In this post, I will discuss the conditioning work throughout 2014 and into 2015. I will particularly focus on my attempts to improve my running ability.
I stopped running regularly sometime in the fall of 2011. I was getting out of the Marine Corps and decided that I wanted to focus my effort on getting stronger, rather than wasting time on silly things like running. This was one of the dumbest choices I have made in relation to my training, and it was over two years before I started running regularly again (early 2014). I maintained some passable fitness by continuing to hike once or twice a week, but by fall of 2013 (when I moved to a flat area) I had stopped hiking more than once a month or so. In late 2013, my RHR was around 80bpm, my blood pressure had climbed to the high 110s over the 80s, everything felt creaky and frail, and easy trails had gotten difficult. It was time for a change.
I began by figuring out why I wanted to train my conditioning: so I could enjoy hiking, so that in any emergency my conditioning would not be a limiting factor in my (or others’) survival, so that I could rejoin the Marine Corps if I decided that I wanted/needed to do so, and so that I would be able to take up running as a hobby if I felt like it (without worries about injury). I decided to prioritize hiking, and decided to look at a hiking-oriented program I had picked up a few years back: the Afghan Training Plan from Military Athlete. It’s a conditioning program specifically designed to prepare military personnel preparing to deploy to mountainous regions in Afghanistan, building a strong “combat chassis” (legs, lungs, and core) and ability to hike under heavy loads up hills.
The program is brutal and impressive, and one of my takeaways from it was that it is possible to simulate hiking by doing step-ups (on a bench/box) with a pack. The program recommends the use of a 16-19″ box, a fact which I missed as I built a ~8-9″ high box out of 2x6s. Whoops. I already had a 50lb pack (ALICE pack with 2 25lb kettlebells in it), and started “hiking”: 5 min of step-ups with my left leg, then 5 min with my right leg. I gradually worked up to 3×8 min on each leg, which was pretty unpleasant but absolutely helped me get my hiking abilities back with relatively little actual hiking on trails. The only change I would make, going back, would be to use a proper-sized box. I was pleased with my outcomes for this. (I would recommend not pushing very hard with it if you are trying to train your squat, though.) If you really want to push your abilities here, I would suggest putting squatting into maintenance.
I quickly decided that I would also like to work on my running. I mapped out 2- and 3-mile courses near my house, and started running regularly. (The courses started from the same place, so I could use them for any length of run which was longer than 2 miles, increasing in 1 mile increments: 2-mile course twice for 4 miles, 2- and 3-mile course once each for 5 miles, etc.) I tried to improve pretty quickly and I think it just got overwhelming. I saw running as an optional part of my program and ended up skipping it quite a bit. (Another issues is that both of the courses go through a gated community, and I hadn’t yet figured out how to get in when the gates were locked — I never trespassed, but the community’s security was really bad about unlocking the gates when it was “open to the public”. Eventually I found that one of the gates on the trail had a trail that went around the fence and into the community.) My running attempts were sporadic in February and March. I started running again in late May, and decided that rather than attempt to kill myself running quickly, I would just breathe through my nose. This was not a great idea (and I maintained this silliness for most of the fall as well — waste of time which kept me very slow). I, again, tried to ramp up to running 4+ miles within about a month, and it was just too much — especially in the 110ish summer heat. So I stopped again.
In early August 2014, I started a more sensible progression: I would run on Wednesdays and Saturdays, starting out with a 2-miler and a 3-miler, respectively. (In this time, I also planned to “hike” once every other week, though I ended up mostly just running.) I would do that for a month, and then add a mile to my weekly mileage for two 3-milers. I would maintain that for a month, then a 3-miler and a 4-miler. And so it went.
It all went well until November (4/4), when I ended up running only about once a week. This entailed a drop in total mileage over the month of over 25%. This was all fine until December (4/5), when I managed the first run of the month (5 miles) without issue. My next run was 2 miles, though due to poor note-taking I can’t remember if it was because I had my first “cramp” then and cut the 4-miler short or because I had intended to run only 2 miles. Anyhow, on the next 5-miler it felt like my right calf exploded about 1.5 miles in. I thought this was a “cramp,” and concluded the problem was to stretch better and get back at it. Well, the rest of December and all of January was a constant attempt to stop “cramping.” It was only in early February that I realized it was probably an actual muscle strain: I was usually able to finish the run despite the strain, but it would leave my calf stiff and hurting for days. (Incidentally, in this time period — from May to November — I reduced my RHR from ~80bpm to ~66bpm, and my BP from 118/89 to 111/63.)
So, at this point, I needed to figure out how to rehab the calf strain (which I’m guessing was due to my sudden December mileage ramp-up). It turns out that even the most minor calf strains can take 7-10 days to heal fully, and with more severe strains taking a few weeks and total tears taking months. This explained why I was so ineffective at healing. I decided to take two weeks entirely off from running (the middle of February). After a few days, I would use Tabata Calf Raises (TCR) from the Military Athlete program mentioned earlier: 20 seconds of calf raises, followed by 10 seconds of “rest” (up on toes), for 8 rounds or a total of 4 minutes. Not wanting to wreck my calves, I planned to do 1/2 TCR at first, and after two weeks add in some sprinting-based conditioning. My intent was to use this to build some durability in my calves so that by the time I started LSD running again, they would be a lot tougher and fully-healed. We shall see what happens, as I start my sprints on Saturday.
My intent is to progress the recommended 10% of distance per week, but do a deload week every fourth week along with my other deloads. To that end, I mapped out a .3 mile course with the same starting point as my others, making increases much more incremental. Hopefully, I’ll get up to 5 miles twice per week sometime this summer.
For other conditioning, I did a few things: the Military Athlete Barbell Complex (BBC), the Military Athlete Leg Blaster, the 5 min back squat AMRAP (can re-rack the bar during to rest), and of course the GST work I was doing was conditioning-heavy. I made progress with the back squat AMRAP and the Leg Blaster, but little with the BBC — mainly due to lack of regular practice, I think. I would absolutely use all of these exercise habits as part of my ordinary conditioning when I move to a conditioning-focused cycle. For now, my conditioning is primarily coming from running (or running rehab conditioning) and GST.