Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Hundred Pound Feather; The Hundred Pound Truck

Believe it or not, upper body strength is fairly important for marathoners. And believe it or not even more, I think this is especially so for marathon walkers. For one thing, you are on the race course longer when you walk, and for every step, your arm opposite to your moving leg moves a little. It doesn’t move by itself – it is propelled by your arm and shoulder muscles. So the longer you are out there, the more times you move your arms. For another thing, I think there is a tendency for walkers to move their arms a bit further than runners do. Not the extremely exaggerated motion you see with some walkers where they swing their arms like they are reaching for the moon, of course. That is a waste of energy and muscle power. But you need to move your arms when you walk and run, and repeated tens of thousands of times as happens during a marathon, you do need some upper body strength.

I learned this a few years ago when I was training for walking the San Diego Marathon. I was near the end of a 21 mile day when I came to a wall that was about five feet high. It was either clamber over the wall, or retrace my steps and do an extra mile. I eyed the wall, and thought it would be easy to hoist myself over it. Wrong! I tried twice, and my arms were so tired I couldn’t lift myself even a foot!

When I trained for my first marathon, in 2005, I did a lot of upper body workouts. This is me, five years ago, doing just that. I would do three sets of 15 repetitions each with 140 pound weights on a military press machine. And I would do three different exercises with that machine, plus lots of work with 15 to 25 pound hand weights. Compared to a football player, that is not a lot of weight, but it was plenty for an endurance racer, and for a guy my age. I was pretty strong. Now and then, I would lift 100 pounds just to see how it felt, and it was like lifting a feather.

Fast forward to 2007. Some time around June, I partially tore my right rotator cuff, probably lifting 20 pound weights laterally. It was painful for a couple of years, and probably was finally healed only within the last six months or so. I did the 2008 Arizona Marathon with this injury, and I had to just about give up all upper body training. When I could resume it, the doctor stressed using low weights but a lot of repetitions. This was after some physical therapy with specific exercises, which I still do at times but not often or consistently enough. I started with 30 pounds and worked my way up to 70, which felt like too much for the number of repetitions I was doing. So a couple of months ago, I backed down to 50 pounds, doing 50 reps for those same three exercises.

A few weeks ago, just for grins, I tried 100 pounds. That weight, the exact weight that felt like a feather five years ago, now felt like a truck! Okay, not exactly like a feather or a truck, but you get the idea. It felt very heavy, and it required real effort to lift it. Five years ago, it was effortless. So while I will stick with the lower weights and more reps, I am thinking of maybe every three workouts of doing more weight and fewer reps. Maybe that will build strength and not just endurance. Are any of you experts on strength training? I’d love to hear ideas.

I wonder if I will ever get back to 140 pounds, and if 100 pounds will ever feel like a feather again? Maybe not, but I hope I at least get to the point where it doesn’t feel like a truck.

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