Metabolic changes vs. Structural Changes

Yesterday I posted the following on my twitter feed.

Mixed results for today’s workout. @DadVaughn did good work, but we need to be careful – metabolic fitness precedes structural readiness

I think this issue warrants more of an explanation than I can give in 140 characters on twitter.

Mike Smith of Kansas State University is the person who shared this concept with me when I was first starting my coaching career. The point is simply that the athlete gains aerobic fitness (or even anaerobic fitness/tolerance) quicker than their structure – their bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments – can handle that fitness. For this reason Mike believes in a lot of non-running work for middle and long distance runners. I’m a convert to this worldview, as evident in our Building a Better Runner series of DVDs. Simply put, I’m asking the athletes I coach to do a lot of non-running work so that they can tolerate more fast running.

So that’s the idea, metabolic changes occur faster than structural changes…and that’s usually why you get hurt. You’re fit and you can hammer 10 miles at 5:30 a mile, but your posterior tibialis can’t handle the stress and soon the inside of your “shin” is sore. Or your gluteal muscles are weak and your IT band tightens during the run and in the later days you can’t run because of your IT band. You get the picture. For some reason you can gain the fitness to run a solid 5 mile, 10 mile, 15 mile effort before your body is ready for it if all you do to train your body is run. Yes you can foam roll and yes you can get on a message table weekly, but I still think athletes need to do a lot of work to get strong (in all three planes of motion) to be able to withstand both the training paces and volumes and the race paces that athlete dreams of running.

Okay, so what does this look like? Well, my biggest concern with Tyler running the BAA Half Marathon last weekend was that we’ve done very few kilometers at the pace he was going to need to run in the race. It’s scary to think that his body might not be able to handle 21k under 5:00 when the most he’d done in practice was 10k of work in a day at that pace. Or we could look at Brent and the reason for that tweet. Brent did a 4.5 mile tempo, then 2x2k where he ran 68/90/68/90/68 for each 400m of the 2k, then we did a circuit with some 700’s. The circuit was killer and it’s a circuit that really challenges the gluteal and hip area. For his second run that day his hip was bothering him, so obviously we did something incorrect in the morning. We’re doing the circuit to see how fast they ran run on fatigued legs which is a great way to train specifically for longer races, but there is no way to quantify it. I know I did a good job paying attention to him during the circuit and changing the circuit as we went along (fairly easy as he was the only one working out at that point) but in the end it was still too much. And who is to say the pace of the tempo and the 2,400m at 68’s, on a cold wet day too, wasn’t the problem. Who knows, but the bottom line is that three part workout as a bit too much. The good news is (knock on wood) that we’ve done a lot of strengthening and when evaluated by Dr. Hansen he’s got good flexibility and strength. But a couple workouts in a row where we over reach and he could be hurt, just like he’s been in the past. You could argue that the more talented you are the more you have to worry about this – your engine is big to begin with, yet your chassis.

I hope this has made sense. Feel free to ask questions and I’ll be happy to answer them

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  • JackMartin1


    We were only discussing the number of nagging injuries we have been experiencing this season. We have upped our training this season a bit and the fellas are training better and racing faster. We have been big proponents of the Building a Better Runner concepts and this has certainly helped in reducing the annoying type of problems. We also do a weekly circuit to correct some of the defiencies and work on core strength and balance. We are fortunate to have a parent lead a weekly yoga session as well. It all helps but it is certainly beneficial to be reminded of the importance of keeping structural fitness as close to the metaboic level as possible. Thanks.Jack Martin Westfield HS, NJ

  • Frank

    Hey Jay, great info. So, is it your contention that metabolic improvements outstrip structural ones because of a greater stress on the metabolic systems relative to structural ones when only running? Some would argue that, due to the longer recovery time required for the structural systems, their rate of improvement will necessarily be slower than metabolic systems. Are you suggesting that increasing the stress on the structural systems with non-running exercises will increase the rate of recovery from this stress? Or that simply focusing on addressing structural readiness as early as possible in the macrocycle and consistently improving the efficacy of the structural system throughout the macrocycle will lead to the ability to shoulder more of the specific stress of running fast?

  • Travis


    This post reminded me of a strategy I implemented to an athlete returning from an injury a couple years ago at Lane CC. I remember having thoughts, that if we just started running and returning with pure running workouts, that he might again injure himself. So after several weeks of supervising his strength/balance or neuromuscular work in the weight room and several weeks on a returning to running program, that very very gradually increased his time on his feet running, the real workouts we started doing were really inspired by your “The Machine” circuits workouts, basically trying to combine the running with the work he had done been doing in the gym. The running he did in between each exercise was probably about 600m, then we'd do an exercise, then run and alternate. He might do this for 30-40 minutes after a short warm up, but really had only gotten less than half that time on his feet running and his heart rate always remained high. It just seemed to make a lot of sense on what we were trying to accomplish at the time. He was prepared to do some more intense work after time both from a metabolic and neuromuscular level, because of those workouts. He had a very short track season, but had definitely had some success and was able to move forward with his running. Soooo a much delayed thanks for the ideas.

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  • Fitz

    I know all to well this problem – after months of solid volume and ancillary work, I am in great shape. Just last Monday I was doing some hard 150's in XC flats when I tweaked my knee. It turns out that my left glute feels like somebody kicked me with a steel-toed boot, so I'm sure some gluteal weakness is causing my ITB to be tight at the knee insertion.

    This has historically been an issue for me, and something I should have guarded against because I had been slacking on a few strength exercises every week due to time constraints.

    Jay, in your opinion are these types of injuries best dealt with the standard RICE kind of treatments, or is additional strength work targeting the glute/hip region the key?

  • Steve Mally

    It is vert interesting to read this article. I used the GS work all year and I have stronger runners with less injuries. Is there a study that I can read about this relationship between these 2 systems?

    It is interesting and I would like to know more of the science behind it to keep myself current.


    Steve Mally Holmen HS, WI

  • CoachKedge

    This is a good post and timely for me. As we (my team) progresses deep into the heart of the HS XC season; Oct., Nov., hopefully Dec. I tend to trim back on much of the GS work because I'm trying to cram in hard VO2 max stuff, recovery with strides, longer runs, and weekly races. Reminder to self – we don't have to hit every metabolic system with each variation of training each week in a seperate session. I need to get back to some combonation workouts like a tempo, down to cruise interval workout, or a tempo progression down to VO2 max workout, even some recovery runs that still dabble into some quicker stuff at teh end. That would give me some time to keep some of the needed structural work in the routine.

  • Matt

    Thanks for this post, Jay. I've seen this a lot with the girls' XC team this year. Some run every workout in the summer, and some only come out in the fall, and don't even come to every workout then. Some of the latter are very talented, but are quickly injured. It makes it hard to set up workouts for a team that covers people strong from 700+ miles since track to new runners to those slightly injured to those trying to come back from an injury. (Not to mention everything else that goes on with HS girls.)

  • Clay

    Thanks for a great posting Jay,
    As a running physical therapist I see the damage to the HS runners that have fantastic metabolic systems but infantile structural readiness.
    Clay Patten P.T.

  • Brendan

    Fantastic stuff Jay! As runners we most definitely need to have certain guidelines in place that can serve to keep injuries at bay. Research has shown, and this is of course just generally speaking here, that metabolic adaptations occur in the four to six week neighborhood. I have never come across any studies or information out there that is similar with regards to structural adaptations. They obviously take longer to occur, otherwise we'd all be out there hammering 180 miles a week and much of it near our threshold pace! If we could establish a guideline, or timeline rather, that addresses structural/tensile strength adaptation, we might be able to head off injuries much better.
    Any thoughts?



  • CoachJay

    Wow. That's a interesting, and complex, way of looking at it and I hope my answer is sufficient.

    I think the answer is both. I think that standing on one bare foot, with the other leg up as if running, forces the foot, ankle and lower leg to work. Dr. Hansen refers to this as “foot intrinsics” but to me it's simple the strength we need to run a lot and to quality workouts. But rather than assign them this work daily I've been doing it only on workout days, after they've run, and under my eye (and mostly with Vaughn as he's the one making the biggest jump in volume this year). The reason being that if he's extra wobbly it could be because he's fatigued from the workout, but it could also be because his foot, ankle and lower leg are tired, and in that case we don't do any more of that work. So, in that instance we'd do ancillary work to speed up the process of structural adaptation – which may be wrong headed – with the assumption being that while the running causes the structure to adapt we need to do a bit more to get a better structure.

    In terms of when to do this, I fully agree with your question, that early in the season or macrocyle we do more and then we do enough to maintain. I know of a college coach who has a “prophylactic” phase of training in the middle of the season, which I assume is there because during main competition phase the intensity is so high that you need to make sure the structure can handle both the competitions and the intense workouts inbetween them.

    To end, I think the key thing is that distance runners need to move in all three planes of motion, firts and foremost. My experience in the last 4-5 years doing the LM daily is that it really helps with injuries, from big bones being fractured to little tendons being tight. The next level down is a lot of mobility, such as the Myrtl routine (see videos), both before and after practice. I've gotten lazy calling this work General Strength when it's really mobility, yet in my mind I view it a bit differently. Then below that is General Strength (GS), everything from planks to med ball stuff. I don't know if Grant Green is up on the internet anywhere, but if it is, that's a great example a routine that has lots of Mobility but also some General Strnength, most noteably “rockys” which are push-ups with a clap. Those are in Grant Green because I wanted some GS and that is different than Lionel Hampton or Myrtl, where the whole routine is Mobility.


    1) Work in all three planes of motion
    2) Mobility, both pre and post run
    3) General Strength

    Please let me end by saying three things. First, this is just one view of how to do things. As Vern Gambetta said in his blog recently “A wise man once said that there are many roads to Rome. My corollary to that is that some are more direct than others.” This is my road today; no doubt there's a more direct route; my current route is a lot less circuitous than my old routes. Second, I knock on wood daily when talking about the health of runners, to the point that even the athletes pick up on it, as Vaughn said the other day, “We're not made of glass. We can train.” Finally, Mike Smith at Kansas State is the person who explained to me the principle that athletes/runners aren't the same today as they were 40-50 years ago in terms of their ability to handle work and do work. After I bought into that, he then gave me answers to the questions of “what can I do about it?” and for that I'm grateful.

    Thanks again Frank for your detailed question.

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  • Jason

    Coach Jay, this is such a great post and I have been sharing it w/ many people, as a PTA and runner. Because of post like this I recently sent you an email regarding online coaching. Can you tell me if you do things like that for us non-elites? Love your blogs and videos!

  • Curtis Beach

    Coach Kedge, good to see you on here.


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  • Paddy Moran

    Hi, you say that “Mike believes in a lot of non-running work for middle and long distance runners”. Could you give some examples please – do you mean swimming, cycling, etc (described as cross training) or do you mean gym work, strengthening the core, leg muscles, etc. This is an issue that has caused me to lose about four weeks due to calf muscle tears so I’m hoping you can be more specific on the non-running work that I could have done to minimise the risk of these injuries. Thanks and regards, Paddy

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