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The Cool Impossible: The Running Coach from Born to Run Shows How to Get the Most from Your Miles-and from Yourself Kindle Edition
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I will confess that I did all the steps up to the 2nd half of the strategic running program, but had to stop there due to personal reasons. However, by the end of the 1 1/2 months of preparation phase and 3 months with the Strategic Foundation Program, my long run had progressed from 5 miles to 20 miles, I was injury free, I was rarely sore, and felt energized all the time, even after a 3-hour run.
The book "Born to Run" by Christopher McDougall was a revelation for many runners that the way they were going about running might be wrong; bad posture, over-striding, heel striking, overuse muscle injury, and muscular imbalance, etc. being just a few of the ailments. If you missed that book, pick up a copy as well as it is an enjoyable narrative and inspiring, albeit a little jumpy in it's storyline (or maybe that is just how I read it).
The forward to Eric Orton's book is written by Christopher McDougall and so The Cool Impossible is the logical next step for those who wanting to get started down the rabbit hole of learning how to run again.
Taking the first steps into The Cool Impossible by Eric Orton, it is a running book, but it is a little different than you might be used to if you've spent any time in this genre. It is written as a narrative with the premise that you, the reader are visiting Eric in Wyoming and training with him for a week. This might put some off, but that is how he wrote it and it works fine. The style is conversational like a coach would interact with his athlete. One recommendation that Eric Orton makes is that you should read through the entire book before beginning training. I would say read it once, start training, read it again once you've gotten into the Foundation running program, then refer back to it as needed throughout your training.
Here is a quick look at what you will need to follow this training program:
$12 The Cool Impossible. Yep, probably need this.
$15-$20 An exercise ball, they are sized by your height so choose accordingly
$5-$80 Wobble board, Stability disk, and ski polls
$200-$600 GPS watch and heart rate monitor (I used the Suunto Ambit2 GPS w/ HR strap, great product). You could also use a cell phone with a HR strap, but I don't like running with my phone.
$80-$150 Zero drop shoes. Zero drop is defined as .00 difference between the forefoot of the shoe and the heel, if there is a difference it is measured in millimeters.
An exercise ball and the wobble board/stability disks will be used for the strength training. I made my own board and stability disk out of scrap materials I had laying around so I had very little cost. For those who don't have access to materials or who aren't handy, you can purchase the board, disks, ski polls, and videos as a bundle from Eric Orton's website, or purchase something similar from a fitness store. What I constructed perfectly matches the product that Eric Orton sells, but what I do wish I had was those videos. However, it is possible to learn the strength drills through the book alone, it just requires carefully performing the drills and referring back to the pictures and descriptions in the book. One note I will add is that Eric Orton throughout this book says that who you buy equipment or shoes from doesn't matter, just make sure if fits within the parameters he outlines.
The concept of progressions is essential. If we think of our training as a succession of building blocks, each block being necessary in order to add another one, then we need to exercise maturity in not jumping ahead in the program, whatever program that is.
The book and your training will progress in this way:
Correcting mindset, e.g. training vs. working out
Building strength from the feet up
Learning how to run with the correct form
Putting that new running form into practice in a 4-6 week "performance" phase
Begin the two-part strategic foundation running program which takes 20 weeks total (5 months)
To start off Eric makes the statement that being an athlete is a choice. Making that choice involves undertaking the mindset of an athlete training, not just someone "working out". An athlete is aware of everything and how it affects him; his mindset, running form, eating habits, etc. Running well without awareness is almost impossible since as an activity it is complicated enough that if done improperly it will break our bodies down. However, it is simple enough that once we learn how we should move and become aware of how we are currently running, we can start to correct those biomechanical faults and get on the path of proper running form. Done correctly this will open up the potential for a lifetime of injury-free running, and run beyond what we thought was possible. This I found to be true.
Just like a house which requires a solid footing, the body needs strong feet in order for the rest of the body to not fall apart from the demands we place on it while running. Eric Orton starts with the feet because they are one of the most ignored aspects of running and therefore need the most attention starting out. Weak feet lead to incorrect form, incorrect muscle recruitment, and muscle imbalances. He also addresses the core and upper body, again focusing on runners who tend to have specific weaknesses. The stability disk, wobble board, and fitball will play the biggest part in the strength phase. Don't skip this step!
Learning To Run
Most people think that they don't need to learn to run. I know I thought this, but Eric Orton points out that no one thinks that way about swimming, golf, tennis, baseball, etc. We all recognize the importance of a coach who breaks down our golf swing and makes adjustments until we have mastered the basic swing. There may be some advanced variations, but they are exactly that, a variation off of that basic swing.
Eric Orton takes you through the five key principles of running form, provides drills for practicing good form. An additional benefit is that as you are practicing and referring back to the book, you begin to catch Eric's advice or corrections in the book. "If you feel this, then that is going on", etc. You may have to experience it before those coaching tips make sense, but it falls into place as you do it. Which points to the value of reading the book as you train in order to truly pick up on the full value of this book.
Putting It Into Practice
While performing the strength training and running form drills, Eric Orton wants you to start running and work towards four half hour runs per week, for four to six weeks. This is for both the novice and veteran alike. For the novice, this makes a lot of sense. But if you are a veteran I would just suggest that you put aside thoughts that you are beyond the basics. In reality, we are talking a month and a half at most. That really isn't a lot of time and I think you will find the time spent is well worth it and will make you a significantly better runner. These runs are slow runs where your main focus is on your running form and preparing for the foundation program. He advises that you govern yourself and your intensity here by breathing only through your nose. If you can't breathe through your nose then your run is too intense, back off until you can. This allows time for your body to adapt to the strength training and new running style which places different demands on your body with potential for a lot of soreness early on. After two or three weeks that soreness will go away. By running at a low intensity you will have shorter recovery times from these runs.
I can't say enough how important this step was for my growth. Before I found this book I was beginning to run, but I was trying to run full throttle all of the time. I didn't understand that my all or nothing approach was actually holding me back from developing as a runner. Once I slowed down my progress exploded.
It is through this phase that I would say you don't need to invest in a GPS watch or heart rate monitor, (usually they work together, or you can use your phone with a running app with a heart rate monitor that you purchase separately). I'm not sure if this is by design, but as it is you can match your investment in equipment to your actual progress. You can give the program a shot, if you find that you are consistent and are progressing through the program, you can then get the watch and HR monitor before you start the Stategic Running program.
Having a plan is key to success. Fortunately, Eric Orton provides a running schedule that is catered directly to your fitness level. How does he accomplish this? He does this using two tests. You perform these tests immediately prior to beginning the strategic running program so that you know your exact fitness level. The first test is your 1-mile time. The second test is your average heart rate when running as fast as you can sustain for 20 minutes. You then have two charts supplied in the book, along with a running schedule that calls out runs based on these charts. The two tests are used to assign heart rate zones (HRZ) and speed zones (SPZ).
To be honest, I balked at the heart rate monitor and the running schedule when I first went through the book. I tried for awhile to keep running without jumping into this. However, I finally decided to give it a shot. My progress accelerated. Ironically, that didn't mean that I was doing intense running all the time. I would say that only 20% of the runs were speed intervals, hill running, or higher HRZ's.
The Strategic Running Program is split into two phases. The first is focusing on endurance, so slow runs, in lower HRZ's punctuated by the 20% of higher intensity.
The second phase is bringing in a greater emphasis on strength and speed. This is where I had to stop due to personal reasons, but the gains I had made up to this point were beyond what I thought I could ever do. The second phase runs get shorter, but are more intense.
The plans are geared towards a 6-day running week. However, he placed in asterisk next to days that you could skip if you wanted to do 3-4 days of running per week. You can also choose to run less each day as well. So, where many runs would get up to an hour long you could easily modify the runs to 30 or 45 minutes. By taking ownership of your training you can make it suit your life and goals.
To be honest, this is the chapter I paid the least attention to and have little to say on it. Overall I would say my family has a fairly sensible diet and so I skimmed through this chapter. Likewise the chapter on visualization. That's just me, others may find both these chapters beneficial.
On another note, they way I ate did change. I ate more. In some of those long runs I was burning 3500 calories (estimated by heart rate, duration, effort, etc.). It wasn't unusual for me to come home after a 3-hour run and consume half a dozen eggs, toast, and anything else I could lay my hands on.
You will also need to plan on learning how to stay nourished and hydrated during long runs if you are running beyond 12 miles. I would suggest to keep your learning just ahead of your ability. E.g. if you are only running 3 miles, then don't worry about it, focus on the program. As your run times and distance grow, then you can start looking at what you will need to do. Eric gives guidance on this as well, but I had to augment through trial and error and further research. Which gets back to Eric Orton's main theme:
Athleticism = Awareness. Eric Orton is getting you started on this path, but you have to take your training upon yourself, put in the effort, and become aware of how your body is performing.
This program is accessible to both the novice and veteran runners. I experienced many great gains and PR's while using this program. If you were to get the book for the coaching advice alone, I would say it is worth it. Keep running!
1. Eric Orton wrote the book as a narration of the experience of a week long one on one seminar with him. This is exceptionally irritating. There are phrases like, "We are driving out to my favorite trailhead, you see a bear cub off to your right. That's Grand Teton over there. Drink it in. This natural beauty is recharging your soul." This seems like a terrible format. Maybe it was chosen to fluff up the book due to lack of content. It was fine when he was talking about the mental states of running, but in the last few chapters when he gets into some New Age mantra/visualization talk, it's really annoying. Really annoying. It comes off like football coach jock speak.
2. The exercises in the book for foot strength look very good and I will be implementing them. However, he advocates you get a slant board, something he sells on his website for almost $80. On a break from reading the book, I made one out of wood scraps I had at home and some sandpaper, Took about 10 minutes. Don't buy one of those! Find a picture online and make one. For the wobble board, I'm going to cut a lacrosse ball in half and glue that to a board. For ski poles, I'm using 2 cross country skis my friend threw away. Free. That gear is free. Don't buy more gear.
2a. The layout for the exercises is kind of obtuse and it seems difficult to follow.
3. The training program for running is 5 months long. This is the focus of this book and it's a very regimented, watching your heart rate, keeping a journal kind of thing. Maybe someday, not now. Orton has a lot of experience and for some, this zone workout might be worth the price of admission.
4. The chapter on nutrition is a joke. It could be one sentence long...."Eat good stuff." Instead you have to read about going to the store with Eric. There is very little content and he is hedging his bets against pissing off the different tribes of eaters. Scott Jurek's a vegan, Mark Sisson's a caveman. Eric didn't want to tangle. I remember getting the same lesson in nutrition from watching an episode of Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders. The trainer said "If it has more than five ingredients, don't eat it. If it doesn't look like food in it's original shape, don't eat it."
5. The chapter on running form, the reason I bought this book, is nothing more than what is on his youtube videos. If you want to hear his take on form, get those videos. Actually the dvd "Run Faster and Injury Free" is the best form tutorial I have seen. You have to ignore that it sounds like an infomercial, but that's a really sound video.
6. There isn't a lot of science in this book. He speaks anecdotally about the Tarahumara but doesn't tie it into other stuff.
7. I don't know what I got out of it. I will do the foot exercises, maybe if I want to get really serious I might consider the 5 month program, but I didn't feel like there was much in this book besides "Be aware of your body. Take note of how eating different things makes you feel. Have a forefoot strike." The philosophy was weak, pandering and awkward.
8. The title, and the catch phrase of the book "The Cool Impossible" are really weird. There is no explanation of it in the beginning. It keeps popping up and it's like he is trying to brand himself, or the idea that you should go out and strive for your dreams. It's weak. It's just more jockspeak.
9. This book is about training your body for athleticism, not just running and that's good. I much prefer Mark Lauren's "You are Your Own Gym." Me and several of my friends have been using the courses in that for years and everyone is seeing great results.
All and all, I feel like this book is what I feared it would be, the last character from Born to Run writing a book because everyone else is making money on theirs. Orton ties into that story early on because it gives him a place in the fitness book world. He definitely has cred as a trainer, and we need those, but he can't carry it across to everyone. I don't think I could hang with the guy. The book is confused, it's not just about running, ultras, nutrition or athleticism; it tries to tie all of these together as pathways towards achieving your mysterious "Cool Impossible" fantasy. But the concept is weak and I didn't find it very motivating. If you want to stampede towards your goals, you have to start ingesting the heavy stuff, books with deep teachings, this book is pretty light.
Every running book with training plans has something to offer even if the reader doesn't actually follow the plans. This one is no different; there are several good tips here. The most unique feature of this book compared to others that I've read is the emphasis on foot/ankle/calf strength development by practicing semi-isometric stances in varied positions. After seeing some videos on YouTube, this is what I bought the book for and feel that these exercises (still a work-in-progress for me) have been helpful not only in my running but inline skating and cycling as well.
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