I previously mentioned reading Sky Waterpeace’s Lazy Man’s Guide to (Ultra)Marathon Running. While obviously not that lazy myself, Kindle Unlimited granted me free access to the Kindle version. The somewhat insightful book got me experimenting with keto, which was fine for the month I actively practiced it.
But Sky also harps on the writing and work of an accomplished marathoner and ultra runner named Tom Osler. Sky’s principles are based considerably on Osler’s principles. As an appendix, Sky included a 28 page booklet written in the late 60’s by Osler about his fundamental training approach called The Conditioning of Distance Runners. You can now find the booklet on Amazon and other sources.
Along with being a precursor to today’s gumroad e-books if you think about it… Osler’s booklet, however esoteric and outdated on the surface, outlines a sound approach that in some form has been both practiced and ignored in the decades since, to this present day.
There are two camps in endurance runner training. One emphasizes a healthy dose of recurring harder workouts alongside your easy and long runs from day one. The idea is that the harder, faster workouts are what makes you faster and fitter, that without regular fast running you cannot possibly get faster, and possibly even get gradually slower. This approach is far and away the most popular of the two, because people generally aren’t patient, and coaches traditionally have learned to always train this way (plus it’s harder to be hands on when all the pupil’s running is easy running).
The other camp argues to initially emphasize a large volume of (often exclusively) easy training, only introducing harder workouts after having built a sizable easy running base over months. The understanding that developing your slow-twitch aerobic mitochondria is what improves your natural fitness and performance over time, and that speed/tempo work should build upon that base fitness after it has been developed.
Let me throw some arbitrary labels on these two camps for ease of discussion. I’ll call the first camp “Speed and Base”, as the two are utilized in tandem each week. I’ll call the second camp “Base then Focus”, as the theme is you spend months running easy at first to build a base, then only utilize harder training when closer to the goal event(s).
Below are some examples of writers or coaches whose approaches fall into each of the camps. Again, it’s worth noting the lion’s share of coaches and writers traditionally fall into the Speed and Base camp. For them I could name dozens of coaches, but I’ll stick to four.
Within the 21 Day Cycle is a series of 3 day cycles. More than anything the best approach to each 3 day cycle is an approach, a mindset, towards each of the individual days.
At its core, the 3 day cycle is this:
Day 1 involves strength training and easy aerobic training. Day 2 involves easy, slightly more demanding aerobic training. Day 3 involves a longer and/or tougher aerobic training session.
Of the three days, this day’s aerobic training should be easiest. If it needs to be a day off from aerobic training, then it should be a rest day from aerobic training, with only strength training.
Your primary focus on Day 1 is two things:
1) Get your strength training session done. Strength training can constitute whatever you individually need it to, though during base and race training I wouldn’t make it too tough. I do the Full Fourteen, which with efficient sets and 60 second rest breaks (longer as needed for transitions) takes me about 25 minutes.
You could can do a 20 minute strength routine, and rotate between different blocks of workouts. Since you’d strength train every three days, you could hit every muscle group in every single workout if desired.
2) This should be the easiest, shortest aerobic training of the next three days. I often take a rest day from running on these days. If marathon training, I probably do short easy recovery runs to build training volume. Generally, I often cross train on these days, though on weekends I’ll just strength train and rest completely from aerobic training on these days, since I typically train heavily during the workweek.
If you’re a workaholic, I’d recommend setting a Day 1 cap of 45 minutes on any aerobic training. This workout is setting the bar for Days 2 and 3, and if you set it too high you’re either not going to hit it or burn yourself out doing it. The idea of the 3 day cycle is to moderate your workload so you ebb and flow between challenging training and allowing for recovery.
While this is also an ‘easy day’, Day 2’s aerobic training should be longer, more demanding than Day 1’s training. Three important points:
1) Keep this aerobic session to no more than 60-65 minutes. I saw that so if you’re cross training or running on a gym machine, it’s okay to get to 60 minutes and do the full 5 minute cooldown. Also, I don’t want anyone to freak out if e.g. they’re running outside and see their run has gone 1:00:23.
2) If you rested totally from aerobic training on Day 1, then any easy training on Day 2 will suffice. As a minimum, I recommend you train on Day 2 at least one minute longer than it took for you to strength train on Day 1. If I only strength trained 25 minutes on Day 1, I want to run or cross train for at least 26 minutes.
3) You however want to not train too much on Day 2, because Day 3’s training should be longer or tougher than Day 2’s. So you don’t want to set the bar so high that exceeding it on Day 3 is too difficult.
If you did aerobically train on Day 1, then you want Day 2’s training to last at least one minute longer than your aerobic training. So if I decided on Day 1 to do a super easy 20 minute run with my strength training, I’ll want to run or cross train no less than 21 minutes on Day 2.
If you want to do speedwork (tempo runs, track stuff, fartleks, a regular run with any sort of fast segments, etc.), or even a run on unfamiliar harder terrain like mountain trails, I’d pick either Day 2 or Day 3 for that.
But no matter what you do for Day 2 training, again keep it below 60-65 minutes. As I mentioned with Day 1, your mindset is to keep Day 1 short. Again, I’d recommend setting a Day 1 cap of 45 minutes on any aerobic training, so that this Day 2 workout builds on and proves tougher than Day 1.
This is of course the longest of the three aerobic training days. On Day 3 you go longer, or you go harder, than Day 2.
When I originally wrote up the 21 Day Cycle, I recommended this aerobic workout be 60-90 minutes. That is generally true, and if you’re training for a race that will last longer than 90 minutes, you want your weekend Day 3 workouts to be sufficiently longer. Half marathoners should aim for closer to 2-3 hours. Marathons should build towards at least 2-3 hours, probably towards 4 hours if your goal time is that long or longer.
Otherwise, midweek, cap these workouts at 90 minutes. While you should aim for at least 60 minutes, if Days 1 and 2 were shorter, and anyting below 60 minutes would be longer than those two days, then you can go less than 60 minutes… e.g. Day 1 you rested from aerobic anything, Day 2 you went 30 minutes, Day 3 you could go as little as 30-35 minutes if desired or needed.
The general intention on Day 3 is to work on your aerobic endurance. But if you went 60 easy aerobic minutes on Day 2, you could on Day 3 work on speedwork. In this case, it’s okay to also do 60 minutes on Day 3, e.g. you ran easy for 60 minutes on Day 2, so on Day 3 you spent 60 minutes running repeats, or do a 60 minute tempo run, or an easy 60 minute run with a 15 minute fast finish, etc.
Otherwise, during midweek you can go up to 90 minutes on Day 3. This is where various research (that I won’t cite for now) shows your workout hits the peak of the bell curve on aerobic development. The only reason to go longer is to work on developing endurance for a longer race, and given the body’s recovery needs you generally want to avoid doing that more than once every 6-8 days. The sweet spot for aerobic fitness development in an easy workout is 60-90 minutes.
THE WEEKEND PIVOT
My original 21 Day Cycle recommends two long workouts within 6 days of each other, followed by two weeks off from any workouts longer than 90 minutes.
While this allows ample recovery from the long workouts, some may find this doesn’t allow them to sufficiently build up their long run in marathon training.
It also reduces one’s margin for error in marathon training, that if they have to miss one of their scheduled long runs, they’re now facing at least 3 weeks between long runs, which could lead to a loss or setback in fitness.
So maybe you want to schedule a long run every week, and want to schedule one during that odd 2nd weekend where Day 1 falls on a Saturday and Day 2 falls on a Sunday, leaving the longer Day 3 on a Monday. (And yes, the occasional Monday holiday makes a long run work there, but 95% of the time it doesn’t.)
If you want to run long every weekend, I propose an alternate 3 day cycle for those odd weekends:
Day 1: You strength train, and either take off from aerobic training or do an easy aerobic workout, as usual.
Day 2: Do your long run here.
Day 3: Either take this day completely off, or do the same sort of easy aerobic workout you would do on day 1 (but no more than 45 minutes).
Then the following day you go back to Day 1 as before and resume the normal cycle.
If your long run isn’t any longer than 2 hours, I would say this is not at all necessary, that you could follow the original 21 Day Cycle as usual. This Pivot is largely for marathoners and similar long distance athletes who find the scheduled weekend off from long training more concerning than rewarding, or otherwise feel they must be able to train long every weekend.
And of course, if you do need an easy weekend, you can always go back to the original 2nd weekend schedule as needed.
YOU CAN DO OTHER STUFF
I often cross train each morning throughout the week regardless of what other running or strength training I have scheduled each given day or week. I’ll do super easy, zone 1, 50-60% of max heart rate “wake me up” cross training a lot of mornings or afternoons on the spin bike or similar. I also take a lot of walks during breaks at work.
You will want to be careful not to overdo any of this, especially as you build serious training volume, but if comfortable for you it’s totally fine.
I often take it easy on the weekends. If I don’t have a strength session or long run on a given day, I’ll often take a total rest day.
IF LIFE INTERVENES, IT’S OKAY TO BAIL
You wake up on your Day 3 and you feel sick as a dog, or something hurts more than it should, etc? Just take the day off. Take a whole 3 day cycle off if you want.
None of this is legally binding! The cycle does make it easy to get back in the swing of things should you need to take a day off or an extended break. Obviously, if you need a long break during a trianing block, you still need to reconsider your race goal as usual. But live your life and make adjustments as needed.
Since ramping my training volume back up I’ve had an ongoing problem with staying in an aerobic, zone-2 type of heart rate zone during my “easy” runs.
The general rule is always to run as slow and as easy as you need to in order to stay in zone 1-2 (up to 75% max heart rate). When you’re undertrained and you go to run easy, what often happens is your heart rate steadily climbs at the same effort, until finally there is no pace slow enough for you to continue running.
From experience, I definitely have the aerobic endurance to go for hours, but I often get into 75-80% of max HR after a while, and then it’s no longer an easy workout. It’s more of a moderate, or what Jack T. Daniels would call an M Pace workout. Different stimulus, different training result, than I’m seeking. Even if I walk for a bit, when I run again it just spikes right back past zone 2. Walk breaks do no good. I’ve redlined my cardiovascular system for that workout, and there’s no going back.
Lately my 45 minute easy training runs, while I can complete them, are rather arduous. Whether the gym is well air conditioned or not, I was struggling and my heart rate would typically get into zone 3 before I was done. I actually got to the point where I was dreading the idea of doing another one. That’s not good. I’m not going to just beat my head against that wall again.
I like to get to the gym on weekday mornings, or during a time on the weekend when I know the gym usually isn’t busy. Still, it often does get a bit busy, and so to minimize any disruption either way I order my exercises according to what best makes sense.
You cut out almost all of your carb intake, outside of insoluble fiber. Instead, you eat a decent amount of protein, and a lot of dietary fat.
During exercise your body typically looks to burn glycogen (sugar) first, then fat. When you deprive your body of glycogen, your body adapts to produce ketone bodies from your dietary and stored fat. These ketones can mostly stand in for the glycogen you would get from consumed carbohydrates. This state of primary ketone production is called ketosis. The Keto diet (obviously) gets you into ketosis.
Why do this? Isn’t any low-carb type of diet bad for endurance training?
First of all, it makes more sense to not run or aerobically train on the strength training day. The swolework is already fairly challenging, and my body has lately responded better to an easy day of strength training with no running/cardio every three days than it has from running or cardio every day.
Secondly, continuing my research on training monotony, I’ve noticed that monotony scores are helped by not having any other training on the strength days. Monotony has gone up as I’ve gotten back to regular training, and it indicates that aerobically training everyday would probably be unsustainable. With every three days being only strength training, the monotony stays closer to normal.
This also indicates it may be sensible to make an otherwise do-able 2nd day run shorter, in order to vary that week’s training stress and reduce overall training monotony.
Conversely, it’s often a good idea to make the 3rd day workout longer, or add a 2nd cardio session elsewhere in that 3rd day, to increase the variance between days and reduce overall monotony.
So scheduled swolework days would come up and I’d make the judgment call to skip them. After a bigger 8/6/22 workout (which itself came after a 5 day break), I went two weeks until my next strength workout.
I’m not oblivious. During that time away, I realized my rotating strength workouts had become somewhat demanding. This was fine when I was not seriously run training following Vancouver 2022.
Now that I’m getting back to longer aerobic runs, the strength training sessions were a little too much. I wanted to scale back strength training but not train too infrequently, or go too long between training muscle groups.
So I made an adjustment
Right before my 8/21 workout, I decided to keep my current 3 day micro-cycle (strength + maybe cross train, running 2nd day, tougher running 3rd day, repeat). But instead of cycling between two workouts with 4-sets per group, I would do one set of every exercise. This reduces the demand a great deal, but also allows me to train everything more frequently.
Plus, with running now once again taking focus, strength is secondary and this volume better reflects that. I won’t get so tired or sore that it impacts my running, and reduces chances of having to skip workouts. Why skip what should be more easily attainable? Even if I dread an exercise, it’s just one set! I can do that!
I would maintain the overload progression I’ve been following to good results: Progressing from 8 reps to 12 reps over multiple workouts, then increasing the weight, dropping back to 8 reps, repeating. But now, it’s just one set, of every single exercise.
I did my central seven exercises, with some revisions. In my last such workout, I incidentally tried Overhead Squats with dumbbells instead of on the Smith rack. Since that felt considerably better, I decided going forward to do overhead squats that way. I also re-added Russian Twists, which would give my obliques some neglected work.
It went fine.
The 8/21 workout was fairly simple and went great, before I got on the spin bike for some low aerobic work.
Garmin Connect’s strength heat-map shows muscles worked. Red sections indicate groups that were primary movers in the workout. Yellow sections indicate secondary movers. Gray sections are untouched.
This workout was a nice snapshot of all the muscle groups I had been working over the last couple months. Everything from both workouts was for the first time together on one chart. (The exception is the obliques, as I hadn’t been doing Russian Twists in a while before this workout.)
It also provided a clear picture of what muscle groups were missing work. The workout was so easy, and I had only done 8 exercises, with plenty of room for more.
Connecting the missing links.
I decided to research a bit and try to get the whole picture red or yellow in one workout. I wanted every muscle group to work in at least one exercise. And then one set of all that can be my go-to total body strength workout.
In Garmin Connect, I’d go back to a prior workout that worked few muscle groups, then edit in different exercises to see the heat-map change. Then I’d delete them. This allowed me to find do-able exercises that would hit the different muscle groups.
I decided to re-introduce deadlifts, which I’d done in prior workout plans months ago. This addresses missing red work for the lower back core muscles. I injured my lower back doing them last December, so I had avoided them since. Some helpful feedback (from the Manosphere of all places) recently fixed my form issues that contributed to that injury. I decided to start deadlifts at a definite sub-max weight and progress from there. I also decided to avoid the Smith rack (where I suffered the December injury). Instead I’ll use dumbbells (DB’s), which I’ve done before with good results.
I mentioned re-adding the Russian Twists. I do these with one of the DB’s from my bench presses, so they’re done at half those exercises’ weight. This reds the obliques, so they’re staying in. I do these on the decline or flat bench after those bench presses.
I re-added triceps extensions on the cable deck. I had removed these, as my other upper body exercises were already involving triceps as secondary movers. However, I wanted one set of red primary exercises for triceps, so the extensions are back.
I re-added work on the hip abduction machine (your legs are in weighted clamps and you press them outward). They’re usually a skippable isolation exercise. But the abductors are a hard muscle to red out otherwise, and hip abductions are a red exercise for those. Abductions are not hard to do with considerable weight and proper form.
The hardest heatmap group to find exercises for is the neck. Exercises you think impact that group (like shrugs or neck extensions) don’t impact them on the Garmin heatmap. Randomly I thought of the levator scapulae muscles. I found a Garmin option for the Levator Scapulae Stretch (a neck stretch against resistance from your arms). It turns out that exercise turned the muscle group red! So I’m doing those now (no weight added).
I gave this a try this morning.
This morning I knocked out a total body strength workout. I did 1 set of 11 reps for all twelve (12) exercises, in this order.
This workout, tough but do-able, only took 21 minutes.
After I finished, I updated Garmin Connect and then realized I hadn’t done or programmed anything for calves. Calves however are pretty easy to program. I just did a quick set of standing bodyweight calf raises, to get to 13 exercises total.
My heatmap for this morning’s workout then looked like this.
So, cool. I managed to work every single muscle group. And, a few of them are yellow. So, I now want to make the whole chart red. This ensures every muscle group Garmin calls out is a primary mover in at least one exercise. This is a total body strength training workout should do.
I had good energy in this workout (at 7am, despite no coffee, I might add!). There’s certainly room to add more exercises. (I’m currently not concerned about keeping these workouts to 20 minutes. It’s a total body workout rather than a split routine. These can now go 30 minutes if needed.)
The muscle groups in question:
The hip flexors
The hip adductors (inner thigh and groin muscles).
It would be easy to just do specific isolation exercises for those groups. But finding other compound exercises that worked with other muscle groups would be more productive and better for run fitness. Isolation is better suited to bodybuilding, which needless to say isn’t a high priority goal of mine.
So I went to work:
I programmed a new total body strength workout, that would work every muscle group as a primary mover.
If you create a strength workout manually in Garmin Connect, you won’t get a heatmap for exercises. I just figured out that doing a super quick set and saving it on my watch allows me to freely edit that workout with a full heatmap.
So I did a couple squats, saved that “workout”, and went to town in Connect on swapping in/out different exercises.
The Hip Flexors
The Flexors are a hard muscle group to program. We use them a lot in our lives, but isolating them as a primary mover is another matter entirely.
Initially I was at a loss for what exercises to consider. But then I randomly thought of burpees, the classic ‘squat to full plank, do a pushup, jump back to plank, tuck jump straight up and back down to squat, repeat’. I entered that as a lone exercise, and found myself a mother-lode exercise:
The burpee works so many muscles. It does in one set what bench presses, squats, and calf raises would do. Plus it works anterior hip flexor muscles as a primary mover, not the easiest group to program. It does all that in one exercise.
So I definitely will add burpees, which I’ve done many times before. I won’t have trouble doing one set of 8-12.
Now, I could subsequently remove my bench presses, since this uses the pecs as a primary mover. But I still want to improve my incline/decline bench weights, as well as build my overhead squat. So I’m leaving those bench presses in. My chest will just get 3+ sets of work every workout at different angles, as will my quads and glutes. Plus, the overhead red-works my deltoids and traps (shoulders).
The one set each of those exercises isn’t a killer, and fronting those with burpees won’t be a problem.
So that only reds out the hip flexors and calves. It also eliminates the need for the hanging leg raises, which red-worked the abs and quads. The raises were always a secondary priority, and finding the captain’s chair free is often a pain anyway. That eliminates a hassle at the gym.
I always do Hammer Curls, a stiff-forearm bicep curl that along with biceps work the forearms as a secondary mover. I really didn’t want to waste time on separate forearm curls or similar.
It was while separately considering Farmer’s Walks (walking the gym while carrying weight at your sides, akin to carrying groceries into the house), seeking out an alternative to obliques and hamstrings, that I found the Farmer’s Walks actually red-work the forearms as its primary mover.
Yes, you are carrying weight with your legs. But your leg, shoulder and back muscles are actually secondary movers. It’s the forearms that do the bulk work holding and balancing the weight. So the rest of your body can capably walk with it.
This seems a lot more cumbersome than simple forearm curls. But its total body engagement is closer to what I’m looking for. Plus, it’s essentially a dynamic cousin of the deadlift. Most of all, it’s one of the more functional exercises you can do. Think about how often you’ve got to carry stuff this way in everyday life (e.g. I mentioned carrying groceries).
No matter how crowded the gym gets, walking across with a pair of weights has never been a problem. So Farmer’s Walks are definitely going in.
There’s pretty much no other exercise aside from the Adductor Machine that works the inner thighs as a primary mover, without being cumbersome and needlessly redundant. Doing burpees on the floor is fine, but I’m not doing clam-shells or weird squats/planks on the floor just to red out one muscle group, when I can just get on a machine and knock out one easy set in seconds.
I’ll just use the adductor machine, before moving to the abductor machine.
The Full Fourteen
From all this I have put together a sequence of what is now fourteen exercises. Below is the Full Fourteen, a total body strength workout (including sample reps and weights). All listed exercises are just one set, with at least 60 seconds rest (longer is OK as needed).
Entry of all these exercises into a sample Garmin Connect workout confirmed that every muscle group is red-worked.
Garmin Connect estimates this workout would take about 21-22 minutes if done efficiently. I’d imagine some breaks would run a bit longer as needed, so it’s more like 22-25 minutes, certainly less than 30 minutes even with some challenges.
Let’s do it.
This going forward will be my total body strength workout, done on schedule every three days (barring races or race taper timing requiring a day off).
I will follow my 8-12 rep and weight progression normally, and see how far I can go with all of the above. For new exercises, I’m using a known-do-able weight and will just progress that the same as the other exercises. This last workout was 11 reps of everything. So the next workout will start with sets of 12 reps. If everything’s fine, I’ll increase exercises’ weight by 5-10 lbs and go back to 8 reps.
Go ahead and give it a try.
Obviously, you’re free to take this template and use it as a workout yourself. Google and research any exercises as needed. From my experience, these are easily do-able exercises in a gym for most people.
Eventually, I will devise a total body-weight strength workout equivalent, and will post it here.