Dr. Philip Skiba, left, talks with Matt Ancona before the beginning of the Chicago Spring Half Marathon, May 19, 2013 in Chicago. Skiba is a sports medicine doctor who has a training formula that makes workouts more efficient. With Skiba's help, Ancona trains 10 to 15 hours weekly without the pain he suffered in his old routine. (Taylor Glascock/Chicago Tribune/MCT)
CHICAGO — Shortly after Matt Ancona started running to lose weight, his competitive nature kicked in. He ran a marathon, then a triathlon, and within three years he had completed an Ironman triathlon. Hoping to get faster, he sometimes trained for 20 to 25 hours a week, pushing himself to outdo his pace or mileage.
“It wasn’t uncommon to ride my bike for six hours and run for an hour afterwards,” said Ancona, 32, a management consultant at Accenture in Chicago.
But more wasn’t necessarily better.
Between a busy work schedule and planning a wedding, Ancona was strapped for time. He suffered nagging injuries, such as pulled muscles, strained IT bands and problems with his calves and ankles. Burned out by the time a race day rolled around, he wouldn’t perform his best.
That began to change 2½ years ago, when Ancona started working with Dr. Philip Skiba, program director for sports medicine at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill., and CEO of PhysFarm Training Systems, a coaching company that uses research and technology to help athletes excel.
“You can spend less total time training, which is important for people who have real lives and real jobs,” Skiba said.
Skiba’s research revolves largely around the concept of “critical power,” which is the threshold of exercise intensity beyond which people start to fatigue very quickly. The idea is to train at, just below or briefly above the threshold — so you’re performing at the maximum power you can without setting off the bodily reactions that force you to stop or slow down — in order to increase your body’s tolerance of that intensity and slowly push the boundary higher.
The formula Skiba uses to calculate an athlete’s critical power is complex and requires long-term monitoring of the athlete’s progress. But even recreational athletes can benefit from his philosophy: You can perform better and prevent injury by training shorter but smarter.
At the heart of this type of training is variety, mixing long and easy training sessions with shorter high-intensity sessions to build both power and endurance. Skiba, himself an amateur runner, said that using the techniques got his own 5k run time down from 35 minutes to 22 minutes.
“Instead of thinking in miles, think in points,” Skiba said, wherein a point equals how many minutes you’ve run multiplied by your heart rate. “You can run lots of minutes at a low heart rate or fewer minutes at a higher heart rate, and you present your body with the same average.”
So, for example, the longest training run for a marathon need not be any longer than 18 miles, Skiba said, but during that same week, run a set of hard 1-mile repeats at threshold pace.
The exact recipe isn’t important, Skiba said; what matters is that you incorporate both long and short workouts, start easy and build up slowly, never more than 5 percent or 10 percent more a week.