Feel the BURN
Push through the BURN!
Embrace the BURN!
I have a couple of real problems with ‘the burn’. First, it is just plain incorrect. Second, it’s connotations do not motivate- for most people, this word does the opposite.
To my first point, the term ‘burn’ is commonly applied to a by-product of anaerobic metabolism- lactate. When we are at rest, we produce lactate at a rate that we can comfortably manage, so the blood lactate concentration stays low, and stable. As we start to move with increasing vigour, we produce lactate at an increasing rate- as a result our blood lactate levels start to elevate. As the intensity continues to increase, as does our blood-lactate concentration, and accordingly, so does our heart rate and breathing rate (to help process and clear the lactate). As this is happening, chemoreceptor nerves in our muscles are detecting this, and communicate this up to our brain. Our brain is constantly evaluating this situation and making determinations as to what should be done.
At no point in this process are our muscles ‘burning’. There is no tissue damage occurring. The term burn is just plain wrong, like ‘slipped disc’, or ‘bone-on-bone’. Lactate ‘burns’ our muscles in the same way that sliding into a beautiful warm bubble bath burns our legs- it doesn’t!
All that is happening is exactly what should be happening. We are experiencing the wonderful, complex, automated machinery of our body responding to an increasing workload. Anaerobic metabolism, and the associated increase in lactate production that results is a vital physiological skill that we possess. So why do we tag it so negatively?
This brings me to my second problem with ‘the burn’.
If I told you that I like to hold lit matches against my skin because I loved the way it burned, you would likely be a little concerned, right?
If you do not enjoy the ‘burning’ sensation in your thighs as you hike up a steep hill, I think that is completely reasonable and rational. Yes, there are those in the ‘fitness-set’ that just loooovvveee the burn, but exercise is used by some as an act of self-flagellation- a punishment for some perceived transgression. Many of these people work in the fitness industry. This is a whole other thread that I won’t pull for now.
When I hike up a hill my legs don’t burn. Yes, my leg muscles produce increasing quantities of lactate, I just don’t call it burning. I feel a deep warmth, like a warm bubble bath- or a therapeutic deep tissue massage. Alternatively, I just feel the expected sensations that indicate my body is doing exactly what it should be doing. My leg muscles should be producing lactate, my nerves should be sensing this, my heart rate should be elevated and my breathing should be faster and deeper. Systems check- everything appears normal Captain!
The term ‘burn’ is a construct that was created, and has been perpetuated by my industry. It implies that in order to get fitter you have to be tough enough to endure that pain- no pain no gain, right? This message is bullshit- my industry has failed spectacularly by promoting this narrative.
It is a narrative- one that you have the power to alter. It takes practice, but in time you can learn to enjoy the sensations created when you hike up a hill, or lift weights at the gym, or ride your bike to work. Burn ‘the burn’, and let something more true grow in its place.
I ring my bicycle bell in my most polite tone as I approach a dog-walker from behind. Nothing.
A little more stern this time. ‘Please be aware I am approaching from behind’ my bell implies. Again, nada.
‘DING DING DING DING!!!’
The tone is a little frustrated now. ‘Oi, I don’t want to run over your previous little furball, so please keep her under control’ sternly orders my bell. You guessed it, no response.
I slow to a crawl as I pass, narrowly avoiding muffin/precious/schnookums as she lurches across the path towards an intriguing smell.
‘Oh sorry’ exclaims the walker, as he jumps to his left, jerking fluffy over with him. ‘I didn’t hear you!’.
Well of course he didn’t. He couldn’t. He has an earphone in each ear, listening to his favourite true-crime podcast, or Cold Chisel playlist. He was completely oblivious to my approach. This makes me upset. It’s not anger at the slight inconvenience it caused, nor the mere seconds it added to my commute. I am certainly glad I didn’t mash teddy into the pavement. I’d never forgive myself if I hurt a dog whilst riding my bike regardless of my degree of culpability. It upsets me as this individual is leaving a massive spectrum of potential health benefits on the table by occupying one of their senses with something other than the sounds of nature all around them.
A practice that the Japanese refer to as ‘Shinrin-Yoku’, or Forest Bathing has been heavily scrutinised by Health Science Researchers in recent years. And the findings are impressive. There is good evidence indicating that Forest Bathing Therapy can yield the following metabolic and mental health benefits:
- Reduced blood pressure.
- Reduced resting heart rate.
- Improved heart rate variability.
- Reduced cortisol and adrenaline levels.
- Reduced triglycerides and increased adiponectin (both good things for those struggling with body weight).
- Improved immune, inflammation and antioxidant indexes.
- Increased high alpha and high beta brain waves (indicating both increased relaxation and increased attention).
- Reductions in stress, anxiety, depression and anger.
(Kotera et al, 2020; Wen et al, 2019).
So what the hell is ‘Forest Bathing’?
The study designs across the papers differ slightly in some of the specifics- but the most common features of a Shinrin-Yoku, or Forest Bathing are; gentle walking in a forest or nature space, and engagement with and attention to multiple senses during this experience.
Put simply, you can enjoy immense benefits across a broad spectrum of health measures by simply removing your earbuds, switching off your phone and engaging your eyes, ears, nose, even touch during a short, gentle walk in a green space. If you want to sit in a park and scroll through your newsfeed, or walk along listening to some mental junk-food podcast, you should not expect the benefits outlined earlier.
Listen to the birds, watch the breeze gently moving the leaves, smell the fresh air, feel the bark of a tree. I know this sounds like new-age tree-huggery, but it is founded on a bedrock of science.
I encourage you to try this. You might just hear me say ‘hello’ if we cross paths in the Greenspace.
I woke Wednesday morning to the sound of rain on my tin roof. It was about 10 minutes before my 5:45am alarm. Wednesday morning is my long run time slot. But it’s raining. Do I still run?
If you know me, you’d know that was a rhetorical question. Of course I bloody run!
Since becoming a father my windows of opportunity have become less abundant and less flexible. If I don’t run Wednesday I miss out. So rain, or even hail for that matter will never stop me from running.
Over the years I have had many runners tell me that they couldn’t get out for their run because it was raining.
That’s fine, but let’s clarify what actually happened. It’s not that the runner couldn’t get out because of the rain- it was that they didn’t want to get cold and wet.
Rain is not a reason to miss a run, it’s an excuse.
If you don’t like getting cold and wet, I think that is completely reasonable and rational. But don’t absolve yourself of responsibility for your choice. It was not the rain’s fault you missed your run, it was your choice. Own it.
I choose my words deliberately both with my clients and myself. And for good reason. As a practical exercise to illustrate this, read the following two sentences and reflect on how they make you feel.
- I couldn’t run because it was raining.
- I chose to miss my run because it was raining.
What do you think?
For me, the first sentence just doesn’t compute.
The second one actually annoys me a little bit. I want it to rain now just to prove a point!
We are only just entering winter in Adelaide. For the sake of our environment, hopefully it’s a wet winter.
That means lots of sliding-doors moments for you to choose between staying warm and snuggly in bed or getting soggy outside. The choice is yours. But remember- THE CHOICE IS YOURS!
Can it help?
In short, the evidence suggests yes it can. A systematic review by Yamamoto et al (2008) including 5 studies on various strength training methods on performance in highly trained runners concluded positively for the inclusion of a strength training program for maximising running performance.
These results were mirrored and expanded upon by a later systematic review by Denadai et al (2016) which also reviewed the effect on explosive (power) training on running performance. This study included 16 studies. Once again, power training, as well as strength training were recommended based on the available evidence.
Finally, a study by Beattie et al (2016) that looked at a 40 week strength training intervention with 10 competitive distance runners (plus 10 controls) also concluded positively for the inclusion of a strength training program for improving running performance.
What can it help?
The systematic review by Denadai et al (2016) showed that Running Economy was improved by an average of 4% after a strength training program or an explosive training program. The effects upon running economy increased as the duration of the training intervention extended.
The 40-week Beattie et al study (2016) also showed an improvement in Running Economy of approximately 3.5%, as well as an improvement in velocity at VO2max of approximately 4% over the 40-week training period.
On top of the improvements to Running Economy, the review by Yamamoto et al also found improvements in 3km and 5km time trial performance after a strength training intervention.
It should be noted that the improvements to running performance reported in these publications were seen despite the fact the V02max was not changed at all in any of the studies, and body composition also remained the same (importantly from a runner’s perspective, the participants in these studies got stronger and ran better without increasing muscle bulk!).
So whether you are a sprinter, middle-distance or long-distance runner, weekend warrior or elite, the evidence is clear: Strength Training must be part of your training regime. But what is strength training exactly?
Strength Training vs Resistance Training
These two terms are frequently (and incorrectly) used interchangeably. They may appear very similar from a distance- however they are crucially distinct.
Resistance Training can be defined as the act of using a form of repetitious resisted exercise to benefit overall health and well-being.
Strength Training on the other hand can be defined as a systematic training strategy aiming to increase the maximal force one is able to generate.
Whilst resistance training can yield many worthwhile benefits for a runner, if you want your time devoted to weight training to translate to improved running performance, your goal should be to get stronger.
Strength Training Safely
A mantra that iNform preaches is ‘you have to earn the right to lift heavy’. Someone has ‘earned the right’ to lift heavy under our guidance when they can demonstrate adequate joint control, dynamic mobility and muscle firing so that we can safely increase loads.
These three traits (in relation to the needs of runners) can be evidenced through the performance of a Single Legged Squat. The performance of this apparently simple exercise offers great insight into the runner’s ability to:
- Move freely through the hip, knee and ankle joints in the sagittal (back and forward plane).
- Control the joint position, and the rate of motion through these joints.
- Apply adequate strength across the core, glutes, quads and calves to complete the movement.
In a future post I will outline a typical exercise progression pathway that I use with my runners to build an awesome Single Legged Squat.
Beattie, K., Carson, B. P., Lyons, M., Rossiter, A., & Kenny, I. C. (2016). The Effect of Strength Training on Performance Indicators in Distance Runners. Journal of strength and conditioning research/National Strength & Conditioning Association.
Denadai, B. S., de Aguiar, R. A., de Lima, L. C. R., Greco, C. C., & Caputo, F. (2016). Explosive Training and Heavy Weight Training are Effective for Improving Running Economy in Endurance Athletes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Medicine, 1-10.
Yamamoto, L. M., Lopez, R. M., Klau, J. F., Casa, D. J., Kraemer, W. J., & Maresh, C. M. (2008). The effects of resistance training on endurance distance running performance among highly trained runners: A systematic review. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 22(6), 2036-2044.
The Power of Nature
A piece of advice that I was given during my training with Operation Flinders was ‘nature does 90% of the work’. This resonated powerfully with me. In my early 20s I climbed my way out of a self-inflicted hole riding a Mountain Bike acquired via a trade with one of my dodgy mates. Toiling up hills against nature, inhaling lung-full after lung-full of crisp, clean air was the catalyst for me righting the direction of my life. What I have learnt since is that it was not the battle against the wild that was so critical for me, it was the immersion in it.
The Science of Greenspace
There is a mountain of evidence proving the myriad health benefits of what the researchers call, ‘Greenspace Exposure’. A systematic review by Twohig-Bennet & Jones (2018) detailed the following benefits of Greenspace Exposure across the 143 studies included in their paper:
- Decreased heart rate.
- Decreased diastolic blood pressure.
- Improvements in Heart Rate Variability (HRV).
- Decreased risk of type 2 diabetes.
- Decreased all-cause mortality.
- Decreased cardiovascular mortality.
- Decreased incidence of stroke, hypertension, dyslipidemia, asthma and coronary artery disease.
Furthermore, a systematic review by Wendelboe-Nelson et al (2019) found that approximately 70% of the 263 studies included in their paper reported a positive effect of Greenspace Exposure on Mental Health and Well-Being. This followed a 2018 Systematic Review of Greenspace Exposure on Children’s and Adolescents Mental Health (Vanaken and Dackaerts). This study highlighted the following benefits in young people:
- Reductions in hyperactivity.
- Improved attention.
- Reduced depressive symptoms.
To sum it up, our mind and body are tremendously grateful to us when we spend time in nature.
Watching it in action
I would not define the young people’s experience with Operation Flinders as ‘Greenspace Exposure’. Rather, it was a week of complete immersion in a wild, rugged and potentially dangerous environment.
Hydration and skin protection against the heat of days was of paramount importance. Then we rugged up and built shelter to fend off the cold and wet of night.
At lunch we’d sit and watch falcons work as a team to hunt a flock of finches. Then marvel at small rock pools filled with fish the size of my hands. How the hell did they get in there? We’d also keep small creatures for company at night- some with four legs, some with six, some with eight!
We would have our minds blown by gazing up and the stars at night and attempting to comprehend the reality of what we were looking at.
Over the course of the week, there was a clear change in all of the boys. Despite the mounting fatigue there was a loosening, a lightening. Conversations became more relaxed, but also deeper. There was more laughter and more tears as the week progressed. It was their toil in nature that did this.
The Critical Factor
Up at Yankaninna Station, there is no telephone and internet coverage. The boys were told to not bring their phones- most complied, but those that disregarded that advice had devices that could really only function as cameras, and could not be recharged. They were forced to disconnect from their online world, and spend a week wholly in the real world. This disconnection from the internet is crucial if you are to reap the rewards of ‘Greenspace Exposure’. If Operation Flinders ensured full internet coverage and recharge facilities for all of their participants I am confident the program would not be nearly as effective.
When I am out hiking, running or riding out in one of Adelaide’s beautiful conservation parks I am always a little dismayed when I see people with earphones in, or sitting and scrolling. If you do this, you are leaving so many benefits of your time outdoors on the table. Take your phone with you, but only as a safety device, not an entertainment device.
Nature has provided you with a symphony of sounds and spectrum of colours for you to enjoy. I urge you to show your gratitude by giving nature your full attention.
Twohig-Bennett, C., & Jones, A. (2018). The health benefits of the great outdoors: A systematic review and meta-analysis of greenspace exposure and health outcomes. Environmental research, 166, 628-637.
Vanaken, G. J., & Danckaerts, M. (2018). Impact of green space exposure on children’s and adolescents’ mental health: A systematic review. International journal of environmental research and public health, 15(12), 2668.
Wendelboe-Nelson, C., Kelly, S., Kennedy, M., & Cherrie, J. W. (2019). A scoping review mapping research on green space and associated mental health benefits. International journal of environmental research and public health, 16(12), 2081.
In May 2021 I completed my first walk for Operation Flinders as an Assistant Team leader (ATL). The implication that this will not be my only walk is deliberate. Truth be told, I can not wait to be back up there.
I have taken with me incredible memories. I’ll remember the bravery in the young men I walked with; bravery to toil against the pain of fatigue and injury, and bravery to voice their fears and doubts. Bravery to cry.
I’ll remember vistas so achingly beautiful it brought tears to my eyes. And sharing such moments in silence with people who were strangers only days before.
I’ll remember rolling around in a dry riverbank in a fit of laughter so intense it was painful.
I’ll remember the elegant simplicity of life out there. Our days centered around satisfying the bottom rungs of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Our days started by reigniting last night’s smoldering coals; we’d then pack up our shelters- basically a yoga mat underneath a small tarp. Food is just fuel for the day- we’d fill our bellies then fill our packs with the leftovers. Water became our most precious commodity, so our last job before we’d start making tracks was to fill all of our bottles.
Our days’ were spent hiking to our next camp where food, water and firewood awaited. We’d arrive into camp at dusk, and use the remaining light to build our new shelter, scrounge for kindling and dig a shit-pit. Sitting around the campfire at the end of each long day, warmth, shelter food and water all in order, we could relax into some conversation of real value. The lads were funny, honest, vulnerable, inappropriate, offensive, relaxed.
I loved living that way. I think to to some extent our whole group did. When life’s most basic needs are your foremost concern, the complexities that we’d all left behind at home did not exist. Some of these young men had left behind some incredibly difficult circumstances- and a week out bush was never going to change that. The hope is that these young people return home changed in at least some small way for the better. At the very least they will have returned learning a little bit more about themselves.
At home I am greeted by a warm bed, heating at the push of a button, a full pantry and fridge and cold and hot water at the turn of a tap. I also return to a loving family and great friends. I am grateful that my basic needs are satisfied, yet I miss that simple daily struggle to meet them. However, there are things I can change to take elements of my time out bush and incorporate them into my normal life:
- Dig a fire-pit and cook in it.
- Sleep outside under the stars just for the hell of it.
- Walk all day from time to time.
- Sit and enjoy the quiet.