How to start running: A biochemical perspective

How to start running: A biochemical perspective
Photo by Isaac Wendland / Unsplash

I started running seriously last year, coming from basically no aerobic base. I think I made big improvements in a short amount of time, and it's largely because of how I focused my training.

There are 3 main modalities of training:

  1. Mechanical - musculoskeletal, kinetic patterns, strength, flexibility
  2. Mental - attitude, discipline, patience
  3. Metabolic - energy sources (fat vs sugar), organelles, biochemistry

I've ordered this list below in order of what people tend to focus on the most, and at the bottom is what I think is under-appreciated.

People forget that their body is basically a big biochemical bag, and often neglect the metabolic aspects of training. Biochemical load is just as important as mechanical load, especially when it comes to long distance running.

This past season, I've focused on running through a metabolic perspective, so a lot of my running tips will be focused on that. But since I was coming from zero, I've also sprinkled in some tips for avoiding injuries (mechanical).

What is "load"

Mechanical load is pretty simple: The load of a squat, for example, is weight * reps (or: force * distance). Your fitness increase is your body's response or adaptation to the load (over days long recovery period). Mechanically, this could look like more neural recruitment, more muscle fibers being rebuilt, etc.

Biochemical load is similar: The load is how much your body is (for example) deprived of energy, and your body's response is the compensation to that energy deprivation. Your fitness increases because your cells have to figure out a way to make more energy.

In the simplest example, imagine an athlete doing high altitude training: The load is oxygen deprivation and the body responds by making more red blood cells to transport more oxygen to the muscles.

Think if your training like that. You need to deprive your muscles of energy (by exerting energy), and you get better at running as a result.

1) Run slow to run more

The biggest mistake most runners make is that they're running too hard during their easy runs. I spent my first month doing extremely slow running in order to keep my heart rate at Zone 2. It was frustrating, and frankly, it hurt my ego to even be seen in public running that slow. My watch kept beeping: "you're creeping into Zone 3!"

It all paid off in the end, and it will for you, too. Just trust the process. The more you run slow, the faster you'll be at it (to a certain extent). You'll notice your pace getting faster at the same heart rate. That's a biochemical adaptation. Your muscles are making more mitchondria, and tells your heart, "hey you don't have to pump so much blood, I got this 💪." It even makes more smaller blood vessels around your muscles so it can deliver more energy! Cool, right?

(When I started running, my Z2 was at 10:45/mile... six months later my Z2 went to 7:50/mile)

There are LOTS of benefits to running slow:

  • Much lower injury rate. There's less ground impact force of your feet hitting the ground.
  • Recovery is short. It's far easier to run the next day when your body has fully recovered from the day before. My mantra was "I run today in a way such that I can run tomorrow." It's far easier to get higher volume training with easy running 5 days a week, rather than moderately hard running every other day. Volume comes from frequency, not intensity.
  • It's more social. You can run with people and have a conversation. Most people actually can't run and talk at Zone 2 (some people's Zone 2 is speed walking) but once you train consistently enough for 1-2 months, you can run and talk at the same time.
  • You burn more fat. Low intensity running uses fat as the energy substrate. This is the ultimate goal of any long distance runner. There are 200,000 calories of fat your body can use; there are only 2,000 calories of glycogen (which is used in higher intensity runs). By the way, burning fat does NOT mean you will have less fat on your body. Sorry.

2) "Sprint" uphill to avoid injuries

You should do sprints. In running fitness, you want to raise the floor, AND raise the ceiling. Slow runs "raise the floor" (your slow runs get faster). Sprints "raise the ceiling" (the maximum work output, period). When you run, you'll exist somewhere between the floor and the ceiling, so move both.

(Btw: If slow running makes more mitochondria in your muscles, then high intensity enlarges those mitochondria.)

But as a beginner, you should do sprints uphill. This is to avoid injury. It's not about how fast you're actually going, it's about – say it with me– the biochemical load! You can jog up a hill and it'll feel just as hard as sprinting on a flat track. The difference is that there is half as much ground impact force jogging up a hill. It's the same ground impact force as walking, but with all the mechanical and metabolic benefits of sprinting. This is a neat trick that lots of runners do to avoid injury and have longevity in their training.

Btw, the opposite is true: running downhill has MORE ground impact force and increases your risk of injury by a lot. It also has no metabolic benefit (because all the work is done by gravity). So just be extra careful on those downhills and use them as your recovery between your sprints.

3) More work could mean better recovery

This is counter-intuitive, but running an extra easy mile at the end of a high-intensity workout makes it much easier for your body to recover.

Have you ever watched the Tour de France documentaries and you see the cyclists doing more riding on a stationary bike AFTER a stage? You're probably thinking, "why aren't they conserving their energy for the next stage?" This is because they produced a ton of lactate from the stage, and they need to do easy riding so that their muscles eat up that lactate (for energy), and not let it accumulate so they can stay fresh for the next stage. This is way more effective than a Theragun at "flushing out lactate."

So, if you're doing some sprints, or any other kind of threshold/anaerobic work, make sure you spend an extra 10 minutes with easy running afterwards so that your muscles eats up all the lactate that it's producing. It makes recovery so much faster.

4) Time not distance

Throw out the training plans that are based on distance. They are all working back from the ultimate goal (some distance-based race), but distance is a loose proxy for the amount of biochemical load that is put on your body.

Instead, focus on the amount of time you're running. I have some loose rules in my training plan. For building an aerobic base, there are only two durations never change: 40-60 minutes for a base run, and 20-30 minutes for a recovery run. (Do all of these at Zone 2 unless you're really dead tired, do Zone 1.)

I almost never look at distance. Personally, I don't think anything less than 30 minutes is productive for training. If you can't do more than 30 minutes, then decrease your intensity until you can. I've noticed 50 minutes is my sweet spot (I can do this every day, and I still get faster).

Time is a kinder metric to measure yourself against. Your biochemical load is just stimulus x time, anyway. Your mitochondria don't count distance.

Just as marinading meat, time is what gets you deep flavors. Zone 2 is your marinade, so just focus on clocking in the time.

5) You have to strengthen smaller muscles

Please respect the teamwork required of every muscle that lets you run. The smallest muscles in your feet, ankles, lower calves are important even though it's the big muscles that feel sore most of the time.

I highly recommend buying barefoot/minimal shoes (like vivobarefoot) and wearing them throughout the day, walking to work, and even taking them on smaller easy runs. This will teach your feet to re-engage the small muscles. Don't believe me? Try it for a day and you will notice how sore your legs will be in places you didn't know could get sore. It will stop hurting eventually.

This will bulletproof you for the high-load workouts where you need to really push yourself.

Have fun!

Subscribe to @westleydang

Don’t miss out on the latest issues. Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.