Blending Consistency with Variety to Gain Peak Fitness

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Blending Consistency with Variety to Gain Peak Fitness

Contributor: Mark Allen  Category: Training

Human beings are hardwired to become efficient at the things we do consistently. Artists perfect their paint strokes over time. It becomes easier and more automatic for a ballet dancer to perform a specific routine when practiced again and again. Endurance athletes are exactly the same. The more we do our sport, the more efficient we become at doing it. But there’s a downside to getting more and more efficient!

The snag is that as you get more fit, if you continue with the same training, the effect in the future in terms of overall gains from your workouts will become less and less. Think of it this way; in the beginning of the season when you are out of shape, even a week or two of training will net some very noticeable improvements in speed, endurance, and overall efficiency of motion. But by the end of the season when you are extremely fit, those gains become almost imperceptible- even with a huge amount of work. And in terms of metabolic efficiency, in the beginning of the season it takes a large amount of calories per hour to fuel your training. At the end, that number can be a third to half of what it took earlier that same year.

Don’t get me wrong. The efficiency gained from consistent regular training is one of the things you want to have happen, especially if you are targeting a long race like a marathon or an IRONMAN. You want your body to be able to go the distance on fewer calories per hour. And building that efficiency only comes by doing the same thing over and over and over. This is your consistency. As an example, the bulk of your aerobic fitness will come from the long endurance workouts completed each week and from the faster speed sessions that, for many people, are also a weekly part of training. All other days that you include are going to be ones that provide smaller gains in efficiency.

But there is only so much to get out of doing the same thing for months on end. This is where variety becomes essential. A new stimulus on the body will provide a greater net improvement in that specific area of fitness that it targets than the fitness gains earned from doing something you have done a thousand times before. You’ve probably experienced this if you are a cyclist who is extremely fit, but then you go out and do your first run in months. You will be sore the next day! So while consistency is essential to become an efficient athletic machine, adding some variety is essential to keeping fitness gains from plateauing.

Here are five tips on how you can add actual variety into your workouts to keep your fitness gains coming along with efficiency.

Vary the Intensity

The easiest way to build fitness over the long haul is to vary the intensity levels in your performance. Most people tend to work within a very limited physiological range. For some that may be training anaerobically, while others it could be doing all their training at a steady aerobic state. Regardless of where you do 90% of your training, if you mix up the intensity levels by adding in more of what you normally don’t do, you will increase your body’s ability with improved fitness.

Keep in mind that when people think of mixing up the intensity usually what comes to mind is to add in more speed work. However, if you are a speed demon, slowing down your workouts to a level that stimulates the aerobic metabolism will bring huge gains in fitness because it is a physiological stimulus that you are not accustomed to getting.

Vary the Terrain

If you have a favorite long bike route or a meat and potatoes long run that you do all the time, the variations in terrain will always come at the same point of the workout. But just like monotony in the intensity levels, if you do the same loops and trails and workouts every week, there will be a falloff in the fitness gains you get. So mix it up.

Do a loop backwards! By doing a loop in reverse the hills and undulations will come at a very different time of the workout, which will help keep your fitness gains coming. Think of it this way, if you always have a 10-mile climb 30-miles into a long ride your body gets good at doing that climb at that point of the ride. But if you do the ride in reverse, perhaps there will be a climb 80-miles into the ride that you would never get doing the loop in your normal direction.

If you consider swimming, there is no terrain to work with. But what you can do is change up the days of the week that you do specific types of work. Generally, in Masters swim programs there are weekly days that are endurance-focused and others where speed is emphasized. If you can, mix those days up so that the weekly cycle is different. It is a slight difference, but your body will be getting something on a day that it is not ready for, which will give it a big boost in fitness.

Vary the Duration

This is a key piece. Most people tend to do the same length workout every week on the same day. For a triathlete getting ready for an IRONMAN that can be something like a 5-hour ride on Saturdays and a 2-hour run on Sundays. They do this week after week. Initially, huge fitness gains will happen. But over time, your body gets used to that rhythm and will get all of the efficiency it is going to get out of it. So, again, mix it up!

One week ride 4:30, the next 5:30 or 6:00. Run 1:45, then 2:15 or 2:30 the next. The average workout length can be the same over time, but the simulation is always a bit different. Someone who does two months of 5-hour rides every week will not be as fit at the end of that time as someone who varied the length of those rides week to week even if they both end up with the same average over the two month period. Variation keeps your body guessing!

Do a Body Shock

This is the trickiest variation to get right, but one that can deliver a huge bump in fitness as a result. It’s doing a day or week of training that is way beyond your norm. It is a very short in duration but a significant increase in the lengths of your workouts, the intensity, or both.

Here is an example. Maybe you are doing a long run each week of about an hour and you feel like it is not doing anything any more in terms of building your fitness. So try one week where you run 1:30-1:45 on that day. It will take you way past your norm into a realm that you are not accustomed to, but it will give you a huge bump in your overall fitness. Keeping this shock to one week is what will also allow you to do it without a lot of risk of injury or burnout that can happen if you were to maintain this level or volume every week for a month or two.


This is one of the biggest variances you can add into your overall fitness planning. There is nothing like a race to bump up your fitness. Races are sustained efforts for longer periods of time at higher intensities over the length of the race than you will ever do in training. Yes, you may do longer training days and speed sessions that have you going at speeds for short intervals that you will never hit in a race. But it is the sum total of speed and duration combined in a race that is nothing you can recreate in training.

The race can be within your sport or it can be something that is close to it. The result will be the same. So for example, if you are a triathlete, doing a running race will give you huge gains across the board. The main thing is that you are doing an effort that is nothing like what you can do in training, and that is a great variation!



The Benefits of Regular Stretching and Strength Training

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The Benefits of Regular Stretching and Strength Training

Contributor: Bryan Heiderscheit     Category: Running Form, Training

I often hear from runners that they avoid regularly stretching or strength training because they’d rather spend the time running. Who wouldn’t? Once daily work, family and general life demands are completed, there are only a few precious minutes left to exercise. What better way to use that time than lacing up the shoes and hitting the road. While this approach can lead to short term satisfaction, it jeopardizes long term success.

It’s important to make sure that your body can tolerate the demands that running will place on it. This means that you shouldn’t ignore those tight hip flexor muscles or weak calf muscles unless you’re willing to face the consequences of injury and time away from running. While it’s seemingly impossible to prevent all running-related injuries, regular stretching and strengthening exercises to key areas can go a long way toward keeping you healthy.

Here are 5 exercises to target common areas of need that won’t require a gym membership or an extra hour in your day.

Hip Flexor Stretch

This stretch can be done anywhere (such as waiting in line for your morning coffee) and will help alleviate knee, hip and low back pain. Stand as shown with the front foot a step length ahead of the back foot. Keeping both feet pointed straight ahead, shift your weight forward toward the front foot by bending your knee. Keeping your back knee straight, squeeze your glutes and perform a posterior pelvic tilt (i.e., tuck your tail) without moving your back. You should feel the stretch in front of your hip in the back leg. Hold this position for 30 seconds and do this stretch frequently throughout the day.

Heel Raises

Although the calf muscles are a primary running muscle, regular running is not enough to prevent age-associated weakness and changes in elasticity. Those of you over the age of 35 that have experienced a calf strain, Achilles tendinopathy or plantar fasciitis can attest to this. Ending each run with  single-leg heel raises off of a step can help reduce injury risk and maintain calf muscle power production necessary to run well. Each repetition should be done quickly, completing the full up-and-down movement within 1 second. Start with 20 on each side and build up to 40-60.

Hamstring Strengthening on Ball

While its purpose is self-explanatory, this exercise can be quite challenging.. This exercise will not only target the hamstring muscles, but can be very demanding to your core muscles. Start by lying on your back on the floor with your knees straight and lower legs placed on a physioball. Your arms should be on the floor slightly out from your sides. Lift your hips off the floor about 6” (bridge) and hold; do not let your legs roll off the ball. While holding the bridge position, pull the ball closer to your hips by bending your knees then return the ball back to the starting position. Repeat 15 times, keeping the bridge position throughout. To make it more challenging, you can cross your arms over your chest, do with only one leg on the ball, or a combination of both.

3-point Hurdles

Hip mobility is a common area of concern for runners, especially when considering the hours spent sitting during the day. The key to this exercise is moving your hip through its full motion while keeping your back and pelvis stable by contracting your core muscles. Start with your forearms and knees on the floor, and then lift one knee off the floor by pushing down with your toes. By keeping the knee off the floor, the hip muscles on this side are also challenged. Next, lift the opposite leg entirely off the floor and simulate the circular motion of moving it over a hurdle. Perform the circular motion 15-20 times, keeping the opposite knee off the floor throughout. Switch legs and repeat.

Leg Pendulums

This is a great exercise to do right before and after a run to loosen up the hip muscles. Begin by standing tall and holding on to a stationary object (e.g., railing or wall) for balance. Shift all your weight onto one foot so the other leg can swing free of the ground. Keeping the unweighted leg relaxed, move your pelvis side-to-side in a rhythm so the leg swings with long pendulum arcs. The leg should swing across your body then out to the side, and then across again. This swing direction nicely stretches the muscles of your outer hip and inner thigh. Repeat 15 times with each leg.

This pendulum motion can also be done with your swing leg moving forward and backward to stretch your hamstrings and hip flexors.

Improved strength and flexibility will become obvious after a brief period of consistently doing the above exercises. The next step is to ensure that you are taking advantage of these gains by using good running form. This includes such things as keeping your pelvis level, not over-striding and avoiding too much up and down movement of your body’s center of mass. Building strength and flexibility is an important part of running with good form, and will keep you out on the roads and trails enjoying the sport you love.




When Dehydration Becomes a Limiting Factor for Performance

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When Is Dehydration a Limiting Factor for Performance?

Contributor: Matt Dixon     Category: Training

Within training and competition, dehydration becomes a performance limiter once you hit about a 4% level of dehydration.  This refers to fluid loss as a percentage of your body weight. For example, if a person weighs 100 lbs and is 4% dehydrated, they have lost 4 lbs of fluid. Away from a scale, this can only be estimated but we know this is where performance detriments occur. Prior to this level, it is not really a factor, so most athletes can drink to thirst, unless great heat and humidity are a factor.  In longer events, then it truly can become a massive factor.  Let’s use my sport of triathlon as an example to explain the key behind managing hydration.  

An IRONMAN event takes at least 8 hours, and often occurs in higher temperatures.  This makes hydration important.  The key behind this is realizing that most of it is related to our volume of blood in the body.  Of course, our body is a ‘closed’ system, with between 5 and 6.5 liters of blood circulating to the muscles to deliver oxygen, to the skin to dissipate heat generated by work, and to the GI (Gastrointestinal) system to help absorb calories.  As an athlete becomes dehydrated, the blood volume drops, as the fluid loss creates declining plasma volume (the clear portion of our blood).  This drop in blood volume creates competition between the muscle and skin, as we try to maintain output, but also need to get rid of the heat we generate.  With less blood to go around, the competition increases.  It is worth realizing that the skin will always win, as heat can be an organ killer!  This means there is less blood going to the muscles to allow us to maintain pace, and an increase in the perception of fatigue.

It creeps up on an athlete, but if an IRONMAN athlete forgets to hydrate well on the bike, the ensuing marathon can become a real slog.

To prevent dehydration, follow these tips daily:

  • Drink 1-2 glasses of water with each meal
  • Rehydrate post exercise with a glass of water (add a pinch of salt and a squeeze of citrus for optimal results)
  • Drink to thirst (and listen to the mechanism) in most training. For extended duration or intense training you will need a proper hydration plan.



How To Cope With Stress: A Dynamic Approach to Training

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How To Cope With Stress: A Dynamic Approach to Training

Contributor: Matt Dixon     Category: Training

We need to remember that our training is a STRESS in itself.  Most of us lead big lives, with many stressors, and our overall goal of training is to maximize our training load while delivering positive adaptations.  This means we must be in tune with the ebb and flow of life stressors, and adapt our training load relative to life.  We cannot expect to simply dump a training program, full of highly specific training stress, on a life already at capacity with stress.

A good way to think of stress is as ‘global hormonal load’.  All of the following factors increase the load on us systematically:

  • A lack of sleep quantity or quality
  • Poor nutritional platform (quality or quantity)
  • A lack of post training refueling
  • Stress from work
  • Stress from family and relationships
  • Travel stress

And many more.  While we want to optimize our hard work, we must have a dynamic approach to our training to ensure we can yield the results of our own hard work in training.



Introduction To Integrated Recovery

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Introduction To Integrated Recovery

Contributor: Matt Dixon    Category: Training

The first thing to realize about recovery is that properly integrated recovery is about much more than simply taking a day of rest.  We can break recovery into three main areas:

  1. Training Recovery;
  2. Lifestyle Recovery;
  3. Modalities.

1. Training recovery includes seasonal breaks. These include:

  • Complete days of rest;
  • Multiple days of easy training in a row to allow rejuvenation;
  • Weekly lower stress sessions that help us recover from, and prepare for, the all important KEY sessions.

It is important for runners to embrace the lower stress sessions as a part of the program, and it takes real courage to embrace this.  Too many make the light sessions too hard.

2. Lifestyle recovery cannot be separated from the program.  We have to include some focus on:

  • Sleep;
  • Fueling immediately following the workouts;
  • A platform of healthy eating;
  • A chance to nap / meditate if possible.

We tie this into the program, but without proper sleep and fueling, any great training program cannot be optimized.

3. Recovery modalities, which include:

  • Massage / Manual work;
  • Compression socks;
  • Foam Roller / Trigger Point;
  • Heat or Ice therapy.

In other words, everything you can buy!  For me, these are pure afterthoughts, relative to the critical need to create positive habits around the training plan and the lifestyle recovery.  These only become truly productive on a bedrock of good general habits.


The Secret to a Successful Training Program

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The Secret to a Successful Training Program

Contributor: Matt Dixon     Category: Training

The key components to any endurance athletes success in a training program include these four elements:

  1. Consistency;
  2. Progression;
  3. Specificity;
  4. Patience.

Bump into any success story, at any level, and these key components typically bubble up into the discussion of ‘how they did it’.  This is the backbone of why all athletes should employ some form of ‘periodization’ into their training.  You cannot expect an evolution of performance if you simply repeat the same thing over and over again, without a shift in stimuli and load, so it is time for fitness enthusiasts up to elite athletes to embrace the main concepts of periodization.

At purplepatch, we tend to break a seasonal progression into four main phases, which layer onto the back of the previous, and build a ‘season of performance’.  We globally talk to athletes about: Build the physiology, then train for the specifics of your race.

You can utilize a similar mindset, even if the goal is simply recreational fitness and improvements, as it is the best way to achieve results.  Our four phases progress as:

1. Post season

This is a period of recuperation and lighter stress, which is critical for consistency on an ongoing basis, but also important for development.  All the focus here should be focused on form/biomechanics improvements and low-stress training that is designed to gradually strengthen tissue, ligaments and muscles to prepare the body for harder work coming soon. For more on this phase, see Matt’s article “Post Race Recovery Training”

2. Pre season

We think of this as resilience development.  A progression of load to ‘real training’, but you are ready to because of the preparatory work done in post season.  Plenty of strength-based work and endurance in this phase.

3. Power

As early season racing begins for the athlete, we tend to aim to sharpen up with some more sustained speed and power type training.  This tends to be a shorter phase, but with a high speed focus in the key sessions.  This means the remaining sessions are very low stress and intensity, to enable best performance when it counts.

4. Race specific

Taking up at least 50% of the calendar year, this phase is all about training you for the specific demands of your key races.  The key sessions are specific to race intensity and preparation.  Of course, if you are not racing, we have a wide range of options to hit here, but some interval work will always be present to continue development and improvements.


Strength Training Circuit for Runners (by Runners)

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Strength Training Exercises for Runners (by Runners)

Category: Running Form,  Training

A lot of runners have tight hip flexors with weak glutes and a weak core, likely from sitting all day. This pattern often causes runners to use the wrong muscles during their runs. The glutes are the powerhouse muscles of the body and should be used during explosive exercise such as running. When the glutes are working properly the load placed on the other lower extremity soft tissue (calf, hamstrings, IT band) is reduced.  Here are some exercises to help improve some of the common weakness runner’s experience.

Circuit program (2 days/week)

Multiplanar lunge – Forward, Lateral and Reverse Lunge

Forward Lunge – Helps reduce tight hip flexors as well as the back leg is stretching the hip flexor.

Lateral – Recruits the abductors and hip-stabilizing muscles need to stabilize your hip and pelvic region during your run.

Reverse Lunge – A great one for runners as it requires more hip extension which is often lacking for runners. Having to extend the hip during push off while requiring more balance requires activation of the glutes – a neuromuscular pattern we are hoping for during your runs.

Do 2-5 reps in 1-2 sets working up to 10 reps of 3 sets over time

Curtsy Lunge

For this one, you are working in the sagittal (side) and frontal planes at the same time. This will help you learn how to stabilize during a powerful movement.

Do 5-10 reps in 1-2 sets working up to 15 reps of 3 sets over time

Lateral walks

This exercise strengthens the gluteal muscles needed during running. Place a resistance band around your ankles, squat down with your knees behind your toes.

Do 2 x 20 meters working up to 4 x 40 meters

Double or Single Leg Squat

Once you are able to do 10 double leg squats with proper form (no weight), move on to single leg squats. After all, running is a single-leg exercise as both feet are never on the ground at the same time. Make sure you have proper form before increasing your reps. Remember you are trying to develop proper muscle recruitment along with improving your strength.

Do 5-10 reps in 1-2 sets working up to 15 reps of 3 sets over time

Single-Leg Deadlift

A necessary exercise for sitting runners! This exercise gets at your glute and hamstring strength and teaches your body how to recruit these muscles under load. This is one of the best exercises for runners who have office jobs.

Do 5-10 reps in 1-2 sets working up to 15 reps of 3 sets over time

Clam Shells for Drop Glute Medius

Focusing on strengthening the gluteus medius these exercises were shown to be one of the best hip strengthening exercises. This is an easy one to cheat on so place your thumb on the side of your butt muscles and make sure you feel a contraction of the muscle. Adding a resistance band when it starts to get too easy will help you to continue to strengthen this muscle.

Do 5-10 reps in 1-2 sets working up to 15 reps of 3 sets over time


Arm swing is an import element of your running technique. Although you want to reserve your arm pumping for late in the run, you want to ensure you have it, especially for the more explosive races at high paces such as a 5K.

Do 10- 20 push-ups working up 50 push-ups over time

Marching Bridge

Glutes, Glutes, Glutes – the power house muscles for running. This exercises ensures that you are targeting them and work directly on strengthening them.

Hold for 30 seconds working up to 2 mins over time


In order to have proper mobility of your legs, you need adequate stability of your pelvis and trunk. This means that you have something to push against (along with the ground) as you move forward over the ground. Planks have been shown to be one of the best core exercises. You can increase your difficulty with planks by lifting a leg or an arm or eventually both. Just make sure you are maintaining good form when you increase your difficulty level. 

Hold for 30 seconds working up to 2 mins over time

Additional Resources:

Mark Allen’s 12 Best Strength Exercises, Mark Allen –

The 5 Best Exercises to Strength Your Hip Muscles and Prevent Injury, John Davis –

The Strength Moves that Every Runners Should be doing, Jason Fitzgerald (May, 2015) –

The Whole Body Fix, Katie McDonald Neitz (Feb, 2014) –




Why Is the Pelvis Important?

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Why is the Pelvis Important?

Category: Running Form

When you think of running form and improving performance and efficiency, historically the focus has been on foot strikes: forefoot, mid-foot, or the controversial heel-strikes. There have been many studies and debates around the what is the best way to land on your foot, and how “we’re all doing it wrong” in terms of preventing injuries, running faster, etc.

What often gets overlooked, though, is our pelvic stability while running. So much of our focus pours into where and how we’re landing on our feet, that we’re forgetting that a lot of what drives running happens above the knee, at the core of our bodies.

Our core, specifically our pelvis, is the starting point of all movements so it makes sense – both from an injury prevention standpoint and an enhancing performance standpoint – to pay more attention to our pelvic movement as we run. Physical therapist and coach, David McHenry explains:

The foot is really just the end of a big kinetic whip–the leg. Core and hips are where every runner should be starting if they are really concerned with optimizing their form, maximizing their speed and minimizing injury potential.

Additional Resources

It’s all in the Hips, Runner’s World –
Good Running Form Starts with Balance, Alignment, Sage Rountree (October 2013) Competitor –



The Right Way To Change Your Form

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The Right Way to Change your Form

Category: Running Form

An important principle is to gradually ease into your new mechanics and eventually finish with a maintenance program that involves less coaching time. The second thing, of equal importance, is to ensure that your body has an adequate foundation of  stability (strength) and mobility (flexibility/range of motion) to effectively begin training your body to move in a more efficient way. For example you need a stable foot and pelvis to push off and a mobile ankle and hip to allow the leg to swing correctly through the gait cycle.

Changing your form takes time since you are changing the demands of your body. You need to ensure you have enough strength in the muscles that you need for your new form, you need to teach your brain to recruit these muscles and you need to learn to do it all while running. Therefore, it is best to change your form before or after a training program (e.g a 12 week half marathon training program) rather than during your training. Training already puts a large demand on your body so increasing that demand can lead to too much stress on your body. It is possible to retrain your body to run with efficient form during your race training but it needs to be done very gradual.

Running Form modifications are a topic that has gained a lot traction over the last few years. Most of the conversation revolves around changing your foot strike pattern or transitioning to be a barefoot runner. The barefoot training programs suggest starting off gradual by only running 1 mile or so in the beginning and then increasing your distance slowly over a few weeks. This should also be considered when changing an aspect of your form. Changing your form will always feel bad before it feels good. Think of how you feel when you increase your pace, you have pushed your body out of your comfort zone but eventually your body adapts. The great thing is the basic principles of these progressive programs are the fundamental principles remain true for most gait training.

Here is an adaptation of Dr. Davis’s advice via barefoot running tips and training with respect to the pelvis:

Build up slowly!
If you vigorously work out any weak muscles in your body, they will be sore and stiff. So please, don’t overdo it doing too much too soon often results in injury.  

  • Start by thinking about your cues during walking frequently. (i.e try to contract your abs during walking).
  • First week: no more than a quarter mile to one mile every other day. As mentioned above change puts stress on your body so it’s best to introduce a form change when the intensity of your planned run is not an exhaustive effort.
  • Increase your distance by no more than 10% per week. This is not a hard and fast rule, but a general guide. If your muscles remain sore, avoid increasing your training. Take an extra day off or maintain your form focused distance for another week.
  • Stop and let your body heal if you experience pain. Sore, tired muscles are normal, but bone, joint, or soft-tissue pain is a signal of injury. See a medical professional if it persists.
  • Be patient and build gradually.  Remember that recommendations like a 10% weekly increase are good to use to guide your starting point, but ultimately,  your body and how it feels is the best guide when it comes to making a change with your form.  If  you develop a lingering soreness your body is telling you that this change is stressful and it needs some extra time to adapt and get stronger.  Allow your body time to get stronger as pushing through high levels of soreness and fatigue too often won’t properly allow your body to become stronger and more efficient.  So the key message is use guidelines to determine your starting point, but trust your body’s feedback to maximize the process of positively and permanently optimizing your form and don’t hesitate to progress at a more gradual rate.

Dr. Carey Rothschild has also published on the topic. Below is an adaptation to her barefoot progression plan (3) summary table of her suggestions.

This one can be adapted as follows:

Table 2: Sample of running form progression program

Week 1 – 4        preparatory exercises: 2-3 times per week. Be mindful of creating a neutral pelvis while walking for 30 minutes daily.
Week 5-6 running ¼ mile -1 mile: 2-3 times per week. On a surface such as a grassy field or rubberized track.
Week 7-8 increase by 10% to ⅓ – 1 ¼ miles:  2-3 times per week. On a surface such as a grassy field or rubberized track.
Week 9 +  increase by additional 10% to ½  – 1 ½  miles:  2-3 times per week. Progress to smooth paved surfaces as desired.
  • Do not progress mileage if soreness persists.


  1. Willy, R.W., Scholz, J.P., Davis, I.S. (2012). Mirror gait retraining for the treatment of patellofemoral pain in female runners. Clinical biomechanics. 27(10):1045-51. 
  2. Noehren, B.; Scholz, J.; Davis, I. (2010)The effect of real-time gait retraining on hip kinematics, pain and function in subjects with patellofemoral pain syndrome. British Journal of Sports Medicine 45 (9): 691-696.
  3. Rothschild, C (2012). Running Barefoot or in Minimalist Shoes: Evidence or Conjecture? Strength and Conditioning Journal 34(2): 8-17.
  4. The Proactive Athlete (2012). Barefoot Running Part 2 (Lessons from a course with Irene Davis) –




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