It’s a powerful combination when too frequently-cited minds in the monthly wrap-ups get together – and that’s what happened in Jeff Gaudette’s podcast interview of Alex Hutchinson, author of Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights? If you aren’t familiar with Alex, he has carved a niche as one of the preeminent dissectors of scientific research on sports (especially endurance sports) on his Sweat Science blog on Runner’s World, and his book is basically an attempt to analyze over 100 “common knowledge” concepts to see whether they hold water.
After the usual review of Alex’s running background (in which he revealed that he would have been a 4:00-miler if only the mile were more common in Canada), they began discussing a few of Alex’s favorite topics from the book. These include an interesting discussion on carbo-loading for the marathon (yes – it is important) and the value of stretching (highly dependable on the individual, but on average not beneficial).
The conversation then shifted to the title topic of the book, whether it’s better to do your cardiovascular or your strength-building work first. Like most fitness-related questions, the answer is “it depends,” but for runners, the answer is really to run first as this “flips a switch” that prepares you to maximize aerobic gains. However, that’s not the interesting point. Rather, it’s the follow-on discussion that is more important, in which Alex emphasizes that the gains from doing it this way are pretty minimal, so don’t sweat it if you have to do your strength training first.
This raises two significant points when you think about your approach to training. The first is that the accumulation of little things does, in fact, matter. Yes, you can afford to be suboptimal (say 95% versus 100%) in a few areas and still make gains. There are dozens of “little things” that can impact the quality of your training, such as
- Perfecting your diet (going the last steps to get the right balance of energy sources, for example)
- Sequencing your workouts appropriately
- Running the right pace on your easy long runs
- Introducing variety in your running routes (to mix up the stimulus)
- Finding the right mix of strength training to target your vulnerabilities
- Improving your running form one step at a time (and therefore your economy)
- Avoiding sitting at your desk all day
- Varying the times of day that you workout
Such shortfalls can be OK individually. But the effects start to multiply if you fall short in many areas – so 95% on your diet, 95% on your sequencing, and 95% on your pacing starts to make you maybe 86% optimal overall – and such a difference is notable (yes, this is an oversimplified analysis, but the point is still valid).
On the flip side, you shouldn’t let these “little things” get in the way of doing the “big things”. In other words, don’t let the fact that you don’t have time or energy to strength train after your run prevent you from doing strength training. Otherwise, you become “0%” optimized on that key aspect of your training, and everyone knows what “0%” times anything equals. Slightly suboptimal is far better than non-existent. It should be abundantly clear that, when it comes to running as so many other things, perfect is the enemy of good. Don’t let everything you read here or from other sources of running information get in the way of taking action.
So yes, the little things matter – they especially matter when you are just starting, and small gains are that much more significant. And they matter at the margins for more experienced runners, but as you advance in your abilities, everything happens at the margins (otherwise we’d have plenty of sub-2:00 marathoners by now). You should strive to get as many of the little things right as possible. But the moment you let a little thing serve as a barrier to doing a big thing, you’ve given back all of the gains that you’ve fought to achieve. Don’t be “that runner”.