Hal Higdon’s Running Programs

“[Hal Higdon]’s all about the democratization of running,” his daughter, Laura Sandall, said. “He was all about making sure that anyone who wanted to get out and run could have a training program at their fingertips.”

At their fingertips, and at the top of Google search results. His free training plans have remained some of the most frequently used — a rarity in a world where most plans and coaches cater to runners who are willing to shell out hundreds of dollars for personalized schedules.

-Talya Minsberg, “The 90-Year-Old King of Training Plans.” The New York Times: Running Newsletter. July 19, 2021

The Hal Higdon website has a variety of plans for various distances. I simply looked at the base plan for intermediate runners, which as you can see below, is a perfectly sane running program. Bookmarking for future reference.

The Maximum Human Life Span and Conjecture on Step Counts to Get There (15,000 Steps a Day)

“For the study, Timothy Pyrkov, a researcher at a Singapore-based company called Gero, and his colleagues looked at this “pace of aging” in three large cohorts in the U.S., the U.K. and Russia. To evaluate deviations from stable health, they assessed changes in blood cell counts and the daily number of steps taken and analyzed them by age groups.

For both blood cell and step counts, the pattern was the same: as age increased, some factor beyond disease drove a predictable and incremental decline in the body’s ability to return blood cells or gait to a stable level after a disruption. When Pyrkov and his colleagues in Moscow and Buffalo, N.Y., used this predictable pace of decline to determine when resilience would disappear entirely, leading to death, they found a range of 120 to 150 years…

The researchers also found that with age, the body’s response to insults could increasingly range far from a stable normal, requiring more time for recovery. Whitson says that this result makes sense: A healthy young person can produce a rapid physiological response to adjust to fluctuations and restore a personal norm. But in an older person, she says, “everything is just a little bit dampened, a little slower to respond, and you can get overshoots,” such as when an illness brings on big swings in blood pressure.”

-Emily Willingham, “The Maximum Human Life Span Is 150 Years, New Research Estimates
A study counts blood cells and footsteps to predict a hard limit to our longevity
.” Scientific American. May 25, 2021.

Open Questions: How many steps a day are required for optimum fitness and health? Is there also a strength measurement that can be used to add an additional dimension?

The Nature research article is available online. I think the interesting thing about this study is it is another example where step counts are used as a proxy for health. There are recent studies in JAMA, Journal of Sport and Health Science, and others that suggest that increasing step counts lowers overall morbidity and mortality in older adults.

As an N of 1 thought experiment, I checked my daily step count over the last year. I average just over 10,000 steps a day. There are studies that classify step counts in the following way:

  • sedentary category (<5000 steps/day)
  • low active (5000-7499 steps/day),
  • somewhat active (7500-9999 steps/day)
  • active (≥10,000 steps/day)

The same study also makes the following observation: “We also observed that each 1000 steps/day increase in [physical activity] level over the 6-month follow-up was associated with a 0.26-kg (95% CI −0.29 to −0.23) [or just over 0.5 pounds] decrease in weight.”

The math is pretty easy. Let’s suppose 1,000 steps is about half a mile or a kilometer. That’s about ~60-75 calories, depending on intensity, walking or running. Let’s say 6 months is 182 days. So, 60 calories * 182 days = ~11,000 calories. That’s about 3 pounds or a bit over a kilo. Factor in additional urge to eat, and it sounds about right.

So, as a rule of thumb: Increasing step counts by 1,000 will generally reduce your weight by 1 pound a year, as well as your overall risk of morbidity and mortality. There’s probably some point of negative returns. I’ve seen some reports talking about hunter-gatherer groups walking on average around 7 or 8 miles a day, which would roughly be around 14,000 to 16,000 steps / day, which is probably a good benchmark comparison with humanity over an evolutionary time frame rather than comparing our activity with other people in our historical moment. Which I suppose suggests that I, and practically everyone, have some work to do to get our physical activity to an optimum level.

Minimal Physical Fitness Standard: Four Flights of Stairs in One Minute

“Climbing four flights of stairs in less than a minute indicates good heart health…”The stairs test is an easy way to check your heart health,” said study author Dr. Jesús Peteiro, a cardiologist at University Hospital A Coruña, Spain. “If it takes you more than one-and-a-half minutes to ascend four flights of stairs, your health is suboptimal, and it would be a good idea to consult a doctor.”

—Sophia Antipolis, “Test your heart health by climbing stairs.” EurekaAlert. December 11, 2020.

Add Phone-Free Walking to Your Day

“Find a way to add phone-free walking to your daily schedule. Make it non-negotiable. Make it easy. Skip a bus ride from your house to the station. Get off a station earlier on the way to work. Use 30 minutes of your lunch break to walk to a far-off cafe. The important thing is to leave the phone off the body. It can be in a backpack, that’s fine. Keep it out of easy reach. Even better: keep it at home. I don’t know if the lightness will register for you, but it does for me. Phone, no phone, two entirely separate universes. Like starting the day with the internet on or off. A totally different quality of time and thinking. For me, the phone removed or reduced to a simple tool brings me back to the walks, and in being brought back to the walks I remember the floating consciousness, and from that, if I’m lucky, a dollop of grace.”

—Craig Mod, “Responses to SMSs Part 4.” Ridgeline. January 28, 2020.

Also, “all the best tricks to life seem to sound reductive and dumb when you say them out loud.”

2020 Experiments: Exercise & Running Program

Open Question: What is a reasonable program for people to follow to develop a good level of fitness?

I’ve been thinking a bit about the 2018 Experiment: HIIT Burpee and Running Program. The challenge of that program was to met a minimal standard for health, which I define using the American Heart Association standards:

  • 25 minutes of aerobic activity, 3 times a week
  • moderate intensity muscle-building, 2 times a week

Aerobic Activity

I prefer running for cardiovascular fitness. I have always wanted to run a sub-20 minute 5K. So, I was thinking that a speed program at the desired speed, 9.0 on a treadmill or 6:40/mile pace on Monday and Fridays, incrementing as the current level becomes easy.

  • 0.25 miles with 0.25 mile recovery walks, moving up one from 4 to 12 reps
  • 0.5 miles with 0.25 mile recovery walks, moving up one from 2 to 6 reps
  • 0.75 miles with 0.25 mile recovery walks, moving up one from 2 to 4 reps
  • 1 mile with 0.25 mile recovery walks, moving up one from 1 to 3 reps
  • 1.5 miles with 0.25 mile recovery walks, moving up one from 1 to 3 reps
  • 2 miles with 0.25 mile recovery walks, moving up one from 1 to 2 reps
  • 2.5 miles with 0.25 mile recovery walks, moving up one from 1 to 2 reps
  • 3 miles at one rep.

On Tuesday & Thursdays, it’s an easy 4 miles. On Wednesday, it’s either a easy 6-10 miles, an easy 4 miler or a rest day, depending on how I’m feeling. I’m not sure how long this kind of program will take, but I think taking two years seems like an achievable time frame.

Moderate Intensity Muscle-Building

But, the burpee program I came up with was positively brutal. I wanted to avoid making the same mistake this time, and keeping this easy.

This year, I spent some time revisiting The Hacker’s Diet, and I think his idea of having a low-intensity, low-time commitment exercise regime that can be done daily and anywhere is a good one. I took his program, and modified it to include a stepped program that increases 7% from 10 up to ~200 of bends (hands over head, legs spread, touch toes and return), sit-ups (hands across chest), skydivers (one rep, 4-count, hands to head and legs), push-ups, scissors (one rep, 4-count), jump squats, planks (front, back, each side for X seconds and 20 second rest period in between each), and jumping jacks (one rep, 4-count).

Each exercise is done for one set. The first rung takes less than 15 minutes. It’s easy to start, but it has the potential to become seriously challenging as you progress.

Modified Hacker’s Diet Exercise Program

Rung Bend Sit-up Skydivers Push-up Scissors J-Squats 4-Planks Jacks
1 10 10 10 10 10 10 45 10
2 11 11 11 11 11 11 50 11
3 11 11 11 11 11 11 50 11
4 12 12 12 12 12 12 50 12
5 13 13 13 13 13 13 55 13
6 14 14 14 14 14 14 55 14
7 15 15 15 15 15 15 60 15
8 16 16 16 16 16 16 60 16
9 17 17 17 17 17 17 65 17
10 18 18 18 18 18 18 65 18
11 20 20 20 20 20 20 70 20
12 20 21 21 21 21 21 70 21
13 20 23 23 23 23 23 75 23
14 20 24 24 24 24 24 75 24
15 20 26 26 26 26 26 80 26
16 20 28 28 28 28 28 80 28
17 20 30 30 30 30 30 85 30
18 20 32 32 32 32 32 85 32
19 20 34 34 34 34 34 90 34
20 20 36 36 36 36 36 90 36
21 20 39 39 39 39 39 95 39
22 20 41 41 41 41 41 95 41
23 20 44 44 44 44 44 100 44
24 20 47 47 47 47 47 100 47
25 20 51 51 51 51 51 105 51
26 20 54 54 54 54 54 105 54
27 20 58 58 58 58 58 110 58
28 20 62 62 62 62 62 110 62
29 20 66 66 66 66 66 115 66
30 20 71 71 71 71 71 115 71
31 20 76 76 76 76 76 120 76
32 20 81 81 81 81 81 120 81
33 20 87 87 87 87 87 120 87
34 20 93 93 93 93 93 120 93
35 20 100 100 100 100 100 120 100
36 20 107 107 107 107 107 120 107
37 20 114 114 114 114 114 120 114
38 20 122 122 122 122 122 120 122
39 20 131 131 131 131 131 120 131
40 20 140 140 140 140 140 120 140
41 20 150 150 150 150 150 120 150
42 20 160 160 160 160 160 120 160
43 20 171 171 171 171 171 120 171
44 20 183 183 183 183 183 120 183
45 20 196 196 196 196 196 120 196

So, I’m going to give this a try next year, and I’ll report back on how it worked out.

Bad Exercise Advice, Exhibit B

“Despite the apparent complexity of modern exercise programs, you really have only two options if you want to get fitter: you can train harder than you’re currently training, or you can train more. Those two variables, intensity and volume, are the basic levers that all training plans fiddle with in various ways. But let’s be honest: two variables is still too many. We all secretly want to know which one is really the master switch that controls our fitness.”

-Alex Hutchinson, “Is It More Important to Run Faster or Run Longer?Outside. August 14, 2019.

As covered in the discussion on adaptation response, there is no “master switch that controls our fitness.” If you want to be good at doing push-ups, do push-ups. If you want to swim the English Channel, then practice swimming miles at a time in cold water currents. If you want to be able to hold your breath for an extended time, then practice holding your breath. If you want to have six-pack abs, then you need to reduce your eating and increase your activity to the point that you can get your body fat below 10%. Everybody has six pack abs, it’s just that, for most of us, they are hidden behind a thick layer of fat.

Of course, goals tend to be more complex. If you want to run your first marathon, then you need to run more. You should work up to running 50 miles a week and be able to run for 20 miles straight a month before your race.

If you want to run faster than your last marathon, then you can increase your mileage up to 120 miles a week of elite runners and you can work in as much speed work as your body can handle at that volume, which will not be much unless you have been running that kind of volume for years and your body has adapted to it.

It is possible to run shorter distances fast and move up to the marathon. So, after years of adapting to a high volume of speed and middle distance running, you can start training for longer distances and increase mileage.

However, if your new to running, your goal is to run a marathon and you don’t have a decade time horizon to do it, then it’s probably easier to start with running more rather than a running program focused on running faster. Conversely, if your goal is to run a sub-20 minute 5k race, then running more than 50 miles a week will likely make you slower, not faster. Better to do intervals of 5k, a mile, a half-mile and a quarter mile with lower total mileage.

Your training has to reflect the activity you are training for. Sprinting is not the same as long distance running. Cycling isn’t the same leg exercise as doing squats and deadlifts. Our body (and mind) adapts to the training (or lack thereof) we give it.

Adaptation Response

“Stress + Rest = Growth. It’s as simple and as hard as that.”

-Brad Stulberg, “The Equation That Will Make You Better at Everything.” Outside Magazine. July 26, 2019.

There’s a lot of advice on the internet. From the vague, live your best life, to the strangely specific, drink more water, everyone has a suggestion about changes we can make that is going to make our lives better. Most of it is harmless, even if it is baloney.

But, this idea about stress is good, if poorly articulated. The problem is that ‘Stress’ should be ‘Training.’

Stress is not necessarily good. Hate your job and find yourself wolfing down a whole Meat Lover’s Pizza from Domino’s Pizza every Friday night? That’s a maladaptive response to stress.

Training, on the other hand, implies a purpose. It also implies progression.

I read an article in Men’s Journal several years ago, called “Everything You Know About Fitness Is a Lie.” It covers a lot of territory, such as bad gyms, but the main idea is that if we want to be fit, we need to train to be strong. If you want to get strong, you should probably listen to Mark Rippetoe:

It is May 15, and you decide that this year you are going to get a suntan – a glorious, beautiful, tropical suntan. So you decide to go out in the back yard (to spare the neighbors and innocent passers-by) to lay out at lunchtime and catch a ray or two. You lie on your back for 15 minutes and flip over to lie on your belly for 15 minutes. Then you get up, come in and eat lunch, and go back to work. That night, your skin is a little pink, so the next day you just eat lunch, but the following day you’re back outside for your 15-minutes-per-side sunbath. You are faithful to your schedule, spending 30 minutes outside every day that week, because that’s the kind of disciplined, determined person you are. At the end of the week, you have turned a more pleasant shade of brown, and, heartened by your results, resolve to maintain your 30-minutes-per-day schedule for the rest of the month. So, here is the critical question: what color is your skin at the end of the month?”

-Mark Rippetoe, “The Biggest Training Fallacy of All.” StartingStrength.com. May 6, 2013.

The vast majority of people get this question wrong because they think a month long change of behavior is stress. The reality is that we have adapted to the new stress within a week. As Mark puts it:

“[A]daptation occurs in response to the stress, and specifically to that stress, because the stress is what causes the adaptation. This is why calluses form on the part of your hand where the bar rubs, and not on the other parts of the hand, or on your face, or all over your body. It can obviously be no other way.

Furthermore, the stress must be capable of being recovered from. Like the 2 hours of sun the first day or the 55 bench reps once a month, the stress must be appropriate for the trainee receiving it. So, if the stress is so overwhelming that it cannot be recovered from in time to apply more of it in a time frame which permits accumulated adaptation, it is useless as a beneficial tool that drives progress. And if this excessive stress is applied so infrequently that any adaptation to it has dispersed before you get around to it again 3 months later, no adaptation can accumulate.

An awareness of this central organizing principle of physiology as it applies to physical activity is essential to program design. Exercise and training are two different thingsExercise is physical activity for its own sake, a workout done for the effect it produces today, during the workout or right after you’re through. Training is physical activity done with a longer-term goal in mind, the constituent workouts of which are specifically designed to produce that goal. If a program of physical activity is not designed to get you stronger or faster or better conditioned by producing a specific stress to which a specific desirable adaptation can occur, you don’t get to call it training. It is just exercise…

-ibid.

You could replace stress for exercise in the preceding paragraph, and it would still be right. The adaptive response is a fact of life, whether we are talking about our careers, skills or relationships. But, how many of us are deliberately training ourselves toward goals by seeking out new challenges? The problem with advice like: “Stress + Rest = Growth” is that it’s like sitting out in the sun for 15 minutes a day and thinking it’s going to result in a tan. Having a goal is useless if the road you are walking on won’t take you there. In order to grow, we need to plan and progress toward it. Stress, by itself, isn’t going to do it.

Inflammation Might Be the Root of Preventable Disease | Harvard Magazine

“Evidence has been mounting that these common chronic conditions—including Alzheimer’s, cancer, arthritis, asthma, gout, psoriasis, anemia, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, and depression among them—are indeed triggered by low-grade, long-term inflammation. But it took that large-scale human clinical trial to dispel any lingering doubt: the immune system’s inflammatory response is killing people by degrees…

…The metabolic stress that is a hallmark of modern life, the stress that the body has not evolved to handle, is constant eating, he continues. When people eat, energy and nutrients enter the body rapidly, are processed, produce in turn a lot of by-products, and then need to be reduced to ‘functional substances that are distributed throughout the body, and then disappear very quickly. Many cells and tissues actually undergo a huge amount of stress during this process,’ he explains, ‘as they store appropriate nutrients and dispose of harmful intermediates.’ Part of this process also involves mounting an immune response. ‘The pancreas, for example, must secrete four to five hundred milliliters of enzymes every day’ to be able to manage the incoming energy load with every meal. ‘If you place these organs under constant stress, they start malfunctioning.’ The consequence is that ‘right now, one out of every 10 individuals has diabetes. One out of every four individuals has fatty liver disease. And if you reach a certain age, one out of every three individuals will develop neurodegenerative disease.”

—Jonathan Shaw, “Raw and Red-Hot.” Harvard Magazine. May/June 2019.

Bad Gyms

When some one enters a gym for the first time, what are they looking for? If they are young, the driving force is often performance. Athletes want to be better at their chosen sport, and the gym provides a training ground in which to improve.

For the non-athlete entering the gym later in life, the focus may be on a particular goal – such as losing weight, cardiovascular fitness, or strength, but these too are performance goals. A desire for improvement is the motivation.

But, there is an interesting disconnect between the user of the gym and the gym owner. The concern of the gym owner, particularly if the gym owner is a corporation, is to reduce their risk of liability and reduce costs.

Enter any “fitness center” offered as an amenity by a corporation and you will find a wide variety machines that are designed, primarily, to prevent people from injuring themselves. These machines encourage repetitive, defined movements that limit the range of motion and the potential for injury. Free weights, if they are available at all, are confined to low weight dumbbells.

The simple fact is exercise machines are less effective forms of exercise than exercising with free weights. Yet, machines are the only options on offer because they are safer, and machines are cheaper than paying for staff to help people learn to exercise with free weights safely.

As a result of this typical safe gym environment, we almost never hear the simple truth. The overall best exercise for improving fitness is lifting heavy weights over a complete range of motion. If you wish to improve your health and fitness, deadlifts and squats are the single best way to do it. People using the gym need to learn how to do these exercises safely. A good gym trains people to do effective exercises safely. A bad gym provides machines to do less effective exercises that are safe and cost effective. Almost all the gyms we have are bad.