Monday, 5 December 2011

Thoughts on barefoot running and my half marathon

I’ve got a lot of things I want to say here, hence the length. I know attention spans are only around 500 words, so feel free to skip ahead to the sections that interest you. I want to share my thoughts and experience with barefoot running, particularly over long distance. I will also explain my training programme for the half marathon I recently completed, and the method behind the madness. Finally I’ll let you judge how well my training worked by sharing my experience of the race.

I want to get this out of the way first – I don’t believe humans evolved for endurance running, and I didn’t do this for my health. I did it to test my body and will power. I’m unconvinced by the claims and suggestions that humans evolved for endurance running, in fact I gave a talk for the Auckland University's Reason and Science Society on the topic (I should write that talk into a blog post). I fully understand that endurance running is not primal, and that it’s not good for my body. Now that’s out of the way. . .

Barefoot running and increasing your distance

Vibram five fingers are my primary shoes of choice, I wear them every day to work, I hike, and do parkour in them. When I run Tabata sprints I do them barefoot on a rugby field. For the previous year I did no other running but I thought all this barefooting would easily prepare me for running in vibrams – I was wrong. When I decided to do the half marathon I had 7 weeks to train and Mark de Grasse from My Mad Methods warned that I should build my distance up slowly to prepare my legs and joints for running, I’m so glad I took this to heart.

The first week I decided to test the water with a 2km run. I tried to with good form, high cadence, fore or mid foot strikes and most importantly – running quietly with little impact. The first km was easy, and then my achilles began to hurt. My calves are very short (in fact my whole posterior chain is short) and this meant that running barefoot was going to not so gently stretch out my claves and achilles. I thought 'that’s fine; I’ll just build up slowly'. The first two weeks I did four, 2km runs and by the end of the two weeks I had no pain in my achilles. The third week I upped the distance to 4km, again the final km was hard on the achilles. I never pushed this too hard, to avoid the risk of damaging myself. The next 4km run that week was fine. So I upped the distance to 6km and again that last km was hard on the tendons. At this point I knew that I had time to bring my distance up to 10km running comfortably, but after that it would be hard on my achilles. I thought I might push to 15km in the race then snap a tendon and I wasn’t willing to risk that.

So I decided to swap to my conventional running shoes for the rest of my training and for the race. I ran an 8km and a 10km in these shoes for the two weeks leading up to the race and found that due to the heel lift my claves and achilles were fine but the muscle crossing the front of the hip was working too hard and that would hurt after a run. However, that I could deal with, and I would stop running in the conventional shoes and swap back to building my running volume up in vibrams after the race.
Some thoughts and suggestions:

Mark Sisson says that training in a primal way by lifting heavy things and sprinting once a week is all the preparation you need to be able to jump into a 5 or 10km fun run if you feel like it. While primal training prepared my aerobic metabolism for running, it did not prepare my legs for long distance running, despite over 6 months of near exclusively walking in vibrams.

My suggestion to gauge how prepared you are for a given distance is to be able to comfortably run half that. This is why I built up to a 10km run, I found I could easily run 10km and feel fine the next day. I don’t know if this is the best way to go, maybe it’s too far, maybe not far enough but I feel like it’s a good rule of thumb. Another rule of thumb I have is to never run more than the distance you are training for in a single week for example when I trained for the half marathon I could do two 10km runs in a week, but I wouldn’t do three. Again this could be too much or not enough, but it seemed to work for me.

In addition to my weekly runs I did three kettlebell workouts which focused on both strength and conditioning (I was doing the strong as an Ox, lean as a Lion plan from My Mad Methods). I would also try to do one set of Tabata sprints each week, as well as either Tabata skipping or burpees when I had time. I really enjoyed this but often found myself quite worn out. I wouldn’t call this over-training, I would say I am under-trained, I intend on keeping up a similar training volume from now on, with shorter (and more intense) 2 or 4km runs being my distance of choice.

Running the half marathon (and the aftermath)

For the first 7km my legs were screaming at me to quit and walk back but I knew if I just keep running I would get in a groove. Between about 8 and 12km I was really in the zone and running well, at this point I was on time for a 1:45 finish. Then at 15km I hit the wall and couldn’t keep up the pace, I slowed down and all I could do was keep my legs turning over but still doing ok. Then just before 19km (about 1.5 miles from the finish) both of my calves cramped badly. I pushed through and kept running and got it for a 1:50:03 finish, which I’m happy with.

Aftermath: My hips and calves were killing me all afternoon, and when I got home I sat on the couch exhausted for the rest of the day. The next day the fronts of my hips were very painful and climbing stairs was hell. Even three days after the race I could still feel my hamstrings and ankles took a beating.

For the next race I plan to run in vibrams or invisible shoes, so I think I won’t have the same pain in the front of my hip. I also plan on taking in more water and electrolytes during the race to hold off the cramps. I’ll also be in a better position to start the build up next time.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Homemade Gymnastic Rings.

Gymnasts are incredibly strong, and this is due in no small part to their use of gymnastic rings. The rings bring a new level of intensity to all exercises such as press ups, pull ups, dips etc. Since one has to stabilise the forward/backward and side to side movement of the rings, all exercises require and develop much more strength and stabilisation than if they were performed on a straight bar alone. It is for this reason I decided I would get a set of gymnastic rings. But when I looked into it they often cost the better part of $100, money I just don’t have right now.

Luckily for me I stumbled upon a blog where someone had made their own set of gymnastic rings and that reawakened the desire to have a set for myself.  The blog I saw these on first was The Crucible Gym, who got the idea from Ross Training.

These rings were made with PVC pipe softened in an oven then formed into an arc to stand as the bottom half of a gymnastic ring. I was able to get a metre of 25mm PVC pipe for free but it would have only cost $10 NZ to buy. I cut these down to 50cm so that I had two pieces which would give me rings of approximately 18cm in diameter (18cm X 3.14 = 56cm) which is the standard size of a gymnastic ring. The rings were formed around a pair of dumbbell plates I borrowed off a friend, these plates were just the right size for rings, but others have used pots to form their rings.

To prep the pipe for forming I put a length of rope through the pipe, with enough rope to tie up tightly to form the rings (see pictures down the page). This rope must be cotton or some other material which will not melt in the oven, I used plumber’s hemp. Next I taped one end of the pipe and filled it tightly with sand then taped up the other end. The sand prevents the pipe from collapsing when bent into a circle. It is important that the sand be packed in hard so that if the ring isn’t formed right, you can put it back in the oven and try again. If the sand is too loose it will shift on the first attempt and on the second attempt the pipe may collapse or fold in places, giving you a warped ring.

While I prepared the pipe I pre heated the oven to 150˚C. I didn’t have any baking paper to put down on the tray I was using which meant I had to scrub melted duct tape off the tray, which was a pain. The pipes take about 10 minutes each in the oven to soften up, in which time the duct tape melts so if you have a more heat resistant tape I suggest using it. While it softened I set up my dumbbell overhanging the kitchen bench, DO NOT copy my dodgy set up, the dumbbell fell off the bench, but luckily missed mine and my photographers toes. Find a more stable way to set up your dumbbell if you use one.

After 10 minutes I took the pipe out with leather work gloves and gently bent and stretched the pipe around the dumbbell then tied the rope tight around the top to let it cool down. While the first piped cooled I put the second pipe in the oven. After the pipe had hardened up sufficiently I removed it from the dumbbell and placed it in the sink to cool further. Once both rings were cool I took out the rope and sand. To complete the ring I put a piece of rope through the pipe twice and tied off.  

In the back yard I have a big old frame that I think used to be a kids swing frame, it’s now the frame for my gymnastic rings. To hang the rings I bought a pack of four tie downs for $25 NZ (the two pack was only $15 NZ). Hanging the rings was easy, and I can also use the second pair of tie downs to lower the rings for dips, or lower them down to just above the ground for press ups. Or I can swap the rings out for a straight bar if I like.

So for $25 NZ I made a set of gymnastic rings in under an hour, instead of giving up the better part of $100.

Enjoy, and work hard.

Edit: Since building these I made some changes to the set up. Here are the updates.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Ab wheel 2.0

The core is the most important set of stabilising muscles in the body. They are recruited when performing everything from simple movements like a push up or pull up to advanced moves like the planche. A strong core is vital for keeping good position in these movements and for simple activities like sitting in good posture. A solid core is also necessary in sports, particularly fighting such as MMA.

We all know sit ups are boring and not very effective, planks, v-ups, L-sits etc. all work well, are challenging and can be more interesting than sit ups. But variety is the spice of life, so when I came across ab rollers on Ross Training I decided to get a set.

Ross Enamait built his own rollers with pipe and lawnmower wheels (link). His ab rollers had the wheels on the outside and a handle on the inside. He uses these for standing roll outs and since each ab roller is one handed he can also use them for one arm roll outs which are impossible with the standard wheels in the centre design. He also uses them for pecs by rolling his arms out to the side from a press up position then rolling them back, like a fly. The video is here.

He also linked a video from a guy (second video) who bought 2 ab wheels where the wheels were in the centre and the handles on the outsides. He cut the grips down, shifted them to the centre and fixed the wheels to the outside with pipe clamps.

Since ab rollers can be found easily, are so cheap, and standing roll outs looked like quite the challenge, I decided to buy a pair and modify my own so that someday I might perform a one arm, standing roll out.

The ab rollers I bought were on trademe (New Zealand’s equivalent of ebay) for NZ$1 reserve. So two rollers shipped to my door was only NZ$11. The pipe clamps I bought were expensive at NZ$9.50 for four. And that was all I needed to buy, the whole project cost NZ$20 plus change.

I hack sawed the ends of the grips off so that they would slide into the middle, and the pipe clamps would fit on either side of the wheels. The two grips were then slid into the middle, wheels put on, then the clamps and I was done, ready to start rolling.

I gave mine a try outside (probably better used inside since the wheels are cheap – good for ad breaks). I only tried a kneeling rollout since my core is not yet strong enough for a standing rollout, but I’m working on it.

This won’t burn off fat around the belly and it won’t give you a beach body in 30 days or whatever rubbish they write on the box, it is however an excellent tool for building a strong core.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The Benefits of Sandbag Training.

This is my first guest post and its  by Matthew Palfrey of Sandbag Fitness, a great blog devoted to training with sandbags.
The Benefits of Sandbag Training.

By Matthew Palfrey of
Sandbag Fitness
I spend lots of time working directly with athletes and Iʼm always trying to figure out ways to make my coaching more efficient and more effective. This process means I’ve spent a good portion of my career trialling and testing various different training methods and modalities. I didn’t actually start working seriously with sandbags until I found I was unable to get to the gym and started training from my garage. I quickly realised that the sandbag was going to become a staple in my training programme.

What’s So Good About A Bag Of Sand?

This is a common response from individuals who haven’t tried training with the sandbag. But it’s a interesting question and it raises the point that the sandbag is essentially a free weight like many others. This is a very important point, and one that needs to be stressed. Any external load can be used as an implement to improve your strength and conditioning - barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, medicine balls and sandbags can all be classed in this way. While each has itʼs own particular benefits, there is no magic at work here - we still need to apply the principles of any good free weight training programme: progressive overload through a high intensity programme.
The Particular Benefits Of The Sandbag

The sandbag is an awkward, odd shaped object to lift. With a constantly-shifting load youʼll struggle to “get into the groove” with many of the exercises. While many see this as a disadvantage, it is actually one of the key benefits of sandbag training. It makes sandbag training more akin to real world applications. Chances are that when you actually need to lift something in daily life it will be a pain in the ass - it will be unbalanced and there probably wonʼt be a nice handle to grab onto. Sandbag training replicates this perfectly and prepares your body for real life.

For the same reason, I love to use the sandbag with athletes. It is an especially great tool for those who train for contact sports. The sandbag can be effectively used to simulate an opponent in various carrying, lifting and throwing drills.

Grip training is another aspect of modern exercise that is typically left out. Trying to control the sandbag while lifting it will challenge your grip like nothing else - reducing the need for lots of additional grip training. 

Types of Sandbag
There are essentially two different types of sandbag - homemade or custom-made. Youʼll get all the benefits of sandbag training with both options but the custom-made sandbags will typically be more versatile and hardwearing.

Editors note - For a homemade sandbag you can see my post here.

For custom-made sandbags I can whole heartedly recommend Brute Force Sandbags. They come with 3 filler bag inserts that allow for the quick and easy change of the weight of your sandbag. Plus, with 8 different handles, youʼll be able to perform a variety of exercises that just arenʼt possible with a homemade bag.

Sandbag Fitness

For weekly workouts, the free 68 page Sandbag Fitness Training Manual and how-to
videos please check out Sandbag Fitness.

Train hard!

Sandbag Fitness

Homemade sandbags

Sandbags are a cheap, but invaluable and versatile pieces of training equipment which I think everyone should own, or at least have access too, however this article isn’t about why you should train with a sandbag, for that see the article here.

Edit - After some use I made changes to the sandbags seen here. The changes are detailed here.

Tied and duct taped.
To make my sandbags I bought 10 woven plastic bags (actually called sandbags), these were $1NZ each but I think you can get them in the US for 25c each. I filled 5 bags with 10Kg (22lb) of sand each, they could hold 20Kg, but this would not allow for the sand to move around much which is an important element in making the sandbag different from conventional weights. I tied and duct taped each bag closed and then double bagged them all giving me five 10Kg filler bags. The 50kg’s of sand cost me only $12NZ.

I felt like 40kg (88lb) would be a good starting weight for me so I put 4 filler bags into a larger firewood bag ($1.20 each), this was then tied, duct taped and double bagged. Again I didn’t do this too tight, and left room for the sand to move about; this also gave me material to grab in a pinch grip.

I gave it a test and I could overhead press and squat it, but because of the weight I couldn’t do several sets of these, or any high rep work (10+ reps) which is what I want to do. So I had to remove one of the filler bags. Once I had retied and taped the bag I then tied some ropes around the top of the bag to act as handles, useful for lifts such as the zercher clean. And because I left it loose when tieing it up there is enough material on the sides to get a good pinch grip – great for grip strength.

Double bagged and put in a fire wood bag.
I didn’t have a large duffel bag to put the garden bag into, but it’s not really necessary, as the bags I used are strong and should hold up to some abuse. If I happen to find a large duffel bag I’ll probably use it, which will make adding weight easier.

I still had two filler bags left over so I decided to put these into a small duffel bag I had to make a 20Kg sandbag. This size will work well for higher rep work until I build up the strength to use the 30kg bag.

Duct tape is invaluable.
As I worked out with the 20kg duffel bag one of the sides split open (it’s a really old bag), but a few rounds of duct tape fixed that and it should hold well. The filler bags inside are much stronger and I’m not worried about them opening up.

I’m happy with how the two bags turned out, in total it took less than an hour to make them and cost about $25NZ. If you can, I suggest making several sandbags of different sizes. These smaller sandbags are great now, but if I wanted a larger bag (50Kg or more) I would probably buy a Brute Force Sandbag.

Here are some closing thoughts on sandbag construction:

-The filler bags worked out great; they are strong and allow the sand to move around. If you’re making a sandbag I strongly suggest these.

-If you can, buy a strong duffel bag, or canvas bag which you can open and close easily to change the weight. I’m stuck with a 30kg and a 20kg bag now, unless I want to cut the duct tape off and move the filler bags around.

-While handles are not necessary, and you will build your grip strength without them, some lifts will require handles, such as the zercher cleans.

-Check out Sandbagfitness or My Mad Methods for workout ideas, and information on correct form.

I hope you have gleaned some ideas from this write up, there are lots of other guides around on how to make a homemade sandbag so do a Google search and see how others have made their sandbags.

 "Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own." — Bruce Lee

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Homemade drag sled

I first got the idea for making a drag sled from a mobilityWOD video. Kelly had made his from a tyre filled with concrete, then later bought one made by rough fitness which is loaded with free weights. I then saw a few different sleds on The Crucible, Ross training and The Garage Gym Online. These were built with tyres, kid’s sleds, and sheets of metal. They were loaded with rocks, weights, logs, etc. A sled seemed like a great way to improve my leg power and a fun way to get an intense workout.

From seeing these various sleds, I decided I didn’t care how much weight was loaded onto it, what mattered is how hard it would be to drag - which isn’t always the same thing. More weight would need to be added to a kid’s sled to add fiction, than to an old tyre. So I decided my sled was to be a tyre and I would fill it with concrete then load weights on top as necessary, or just fill the tyre with rocks.

How to build the sled

A sled can be often made for free, tyre shops will likely give you old tyres, and then all you need is some rope and rocks.
First I needed a way to attach a rope, so I drilled out holes for a U bolt and attached that to the lower part of the tyre. If you don’t have a U bolt you could just push a short piece of rope through the holes and tie the ends off for the same effect (I suggest using a screwdriver to push the rope in).

Since I may later fill the tyre with concrete I decided to screw a piece of ply wood to the inside, I could then pour the concrete onto that, for now it keeps all the rocks in the tyre. First I marked the ply so I could cut out the size I needed; this was then cut in half so it would fit inside the tyre.

This next step was a pain in the butt because I’m such a perfectionist, and was under a time limit to get the sled finished (I failed at both these things, but I still ended up with a working sled). The ply and tyre had to be drilled then the ply bolted in place. I had trouble getting the ply to sit nicely and the bolts to line up (aesthetics only) so it took me a long time. There is still a gap between the ply, but duct tape will cover that if I decide to fill it with concrete.

The final touches were to add a rope (padded with a pool noodle in the middle) and rocks for weight. With the amount of rocks I have in the sled it is too heavy for me to run with much speed (for now) but I can still drag it.

At first glance it may not seem it, but the sled is a versatile piece of equipment. Obviously there is the forward and backwards drag, but also standing and pulling the sled to you such as hand-over-hand, bicep or tricep curls (like a row). You just have to use your imagination. If you have enough room (30-50 meters) you could do repeats of the different drags and pulls until you can no longer move. You could even add body weight, kettlebell or sandbag exercises at each end of a drag if you really want to sweat (store the kettlebell or sandbag on the sled for max weight).

This sled can be put together in only 30 minutes or so. I hope you have fun putting together your own WOW, or WOD.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Slosh Can

A slosh can is basically a large container partly filled with water. It is part of a huge array of items which can come under the phase ‘odd object lifting’. I made my slosh cans (‘made’ is used loosely) from old jerry cans I scavenged off a local greenhouse for free (they were just piling up), and I remember seeing scores of them thrown out when I worked in a factory. So depending on who you know or ask, it should be easy to find a few jugs for free or cheap. Any container which can hold a reasonable amount of water for your strength level will work. Anywhere from 10 to 50 litres will be perfect; I know I would max out at 50 litres. 

Once you have your container all you need to do is fill it up (mostly full). Since I’m rather particular about these things I weighed mine out to 20Kg each (but you can just eyeball it or go by feel). 20Kg worked out just right for me, they are about 4/5 full, with room for the water to slosh around, making it harder to lift and carry. This effect helps to recruit your stabiliser muscles into your exercise and probably reflects the movement of a fresh kill being carried home.  Just make sure you put the lid on tight; it won’t be fun to lose that water down your back during an overhead lift. Note- for those in a cold climate you might need to think about adding a bag of salt or less ideally some anti freeze to stop it from freezing up on you.

If you are interested in weight alone for odd object lifting you could fill your container with something other than water, such as sand or gravel.

So that was easy, but what kinds of movements can you do with a slosh can (or two)?

-Use as a stand for depth press ups and declines.
-Dead lifts: Good morning, suitcase etc. 
-Overhead lift, hold and carry (hell on the arms, shoulders and core)
-Squats: Zercher, bearhug, sumo etc. (nice to add a bit of weight to squats)
-Walking lunges (this can double as a farmer’s walk)
-Farmer’s walk (build up grip strength)
-Do a plank on them

I need to work on keeping my feet forward and my back straight.

Use your imagination for different moves; keep in mind that you probably won’t be able to lift as much as you can with a solid weight which isn’t a bad thing. And remember to keep good position, back straight, shoulders back, knees out on the squats. 

Saturday, 9 July 2011

No Gym? No problem.

Swings, clean and press with 16Kg
I have never set foot in a gym and I don’t see a gym as being necessary for me to get in the best shape possible. You would never see me in a pump or spin class, and it would be a cold day in hell before I try zumba. The only reason I might like to go to a gym would be so I could do max dead lifts and max squats, (bench, overhead press, curls etc. are less important to me).

The gyms I’m talking about here are the globo gyms, all machines, half the floor is cardio, 2kg kettlebells and posers as far as the eye can see. Crossfit is different, and I would love to join a crossfit gym but being a student, and not having one near me is a barrier.

Not being part of a gym is in no way detrimental to me; in fact it has been beneficial. I’ve saved hundreds of dollars, built up a pile of my own gear (which I use daily, without having to leave home) and I do complex, functional workouts instead of isolated lifts for muscles that are only for show, or an hour long spin class which breaks them down. Note: Exercising without a gym, need not mean working out on your own. Working out with a friend, or in a group can be beneficial to your performance and to the whole experience. Personal trainers are also an invaluable resource to guide and push you to the next level.

So how should one start working out without a gym? 

Bodyweight workouts are an excellent place to start (and to continue on with as a mainstay). Mark Sission has put together an excellent set of bodyweight exercises into a well rounded workout. Check out the primal blueprint fitness guide here and download it if you haven’t already. This is an excellent place to start and great for progressions but it is supplemented well with a few extras. Two great sources of ideas are Al Kavadlo and Mike Fitch, they each have great websites with loads of exercises and progressions which could be used at all levels. On a side note I suggest to anyone doing the primal blueprint fitness workouts to add in some dips since they are missing from the plan, Al Kavadlo has written on dips here and here.

Bodyweight workouts can get you amazingly strong and will give you superior control over your body. So with a pull up bar alone (plus maybe some rings and parallels) you can get in incredible shape and never need to lift a set of weights. There is even an elite level of bodyweight strength work exemplified by Al Kavadlo and the bar-barbarians. They practice moves such as human flags, front and back levers and various muscle ups.

Overhead press and bear hug squat with 40Kg
While bodyweight is sufficient for excellent fitness, a little variation can go a long way too. Sandbags and kettlebells are an excellent addition to a workout and extremely cost effective. Both build functional fitness, strength and conditioning (and a whole lot of grip strength). There are endless websites, dvds and books out on kettlebells, but my favourite is My Mad Methods (MMM), which I have previously written on. MMM is also a great source for sandbag exercises and workouts, so is Matt Palfrey from Sandbag fitness.

Not having a gym membership doesn’t mean that you can’t have a gym. Basements, garages, driveways and backyards can be your gym (for photos of some set ups check out My goal is to slowly collect and/or build a selection of different and unconventional training equipment such as kettlebells, sloshtubes, Indian clubs, etc. so that I can put together my own functional full body workouts which I can use while keeping the naturalmethod in mind (be strong to be useful). The founder of The Crucible Gym puts all these ideas together nicely with a strong philosophy and functional workouts.

I think I’ll end with the catch phase of the crucible. – “Reject the awful normal”