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Maintaining muscles with strength training and protein

[This article originally appeared in the May 2002 issue of Northwest Runner magazine.]

Q. I am 195 pounds at about 19% body fat. Assuming I get active and lose some of the fat over the next four months (I hope to run the Chicago Marathon in October), will my daily protein intake requirements stay the same?
--Jeremy Buchanan, Kansas City, MO

A. Your protein needs depend on two main things: (1) your lean body mass -- the more lean mass you have, the more protein you need (James, Postgraduate Medical Journal 60 (Suppl. 3), 50-55, 1984) -- and (2) the amount of exercise you get -- the more active you are, the more protein you need (see my previous column on protein for details).

In training for the marathon, you probably won't change your lean body mass (muscles, internal organs, etc.) that much. However, you will be increasing your activity level significantly. If your lean mass remains fairly constant while you increase your activity level, I would expect your total protein needs (along with your carbohydrate needs) to increase.

Q. One other question. I have mild cerebral palsy (CP) on my right side. Do you have any advice on focused training to strengthen my right side before the running training schedule begins? The CP affects my entire right side; muscles are weak and contract when not used and stretched. So I need to build right-side (especially leg) muscle mass without building the left side to balance -- otherwise running aggravates lower back cramps and pains and I'm sure would have very undesirable effects later in life.

A. To be honest, I'm not an expert on either CP or strength training. However, I will offer some general thoughts that may be helpful.

I think the most important thing to keep in mind here is the training principle of specificity -- i.e., when one trains one's body to do a particular task, the body gets better at that task, but it doesn't necessarily get better at other unrelated tasks. The improvement is therefore said to be specific to the training task. (See my previous column on specificity for a more detailed discussion of this topic, including examples and references.)

So how does one apply the principle of specificity to your particular question? Your goal is to run a marathon; consequently, you should strengthen your right leg with exercises that mimic the movements of running. The basic parts of the running stride are, first, you land on your foot and stop your body from falling toward the ground, and, second, you roll forward from your heel and push off. Therefore you'd be wise to perform strengthening drills in which your right leg supports your upright body against gravity and/or pushes off in a running-like motion. Examples include heel raises (supporting all your weight on your right leg, in your case), one-legged squats (ditto), lunges (lunging forward with your right leg), one-legged jumps (taking off from and landing on your right leg), etc.

Owen Anderson of Running Research News also recommends something he calls "runners' poses," which he describes as follows: "Stand relaxed and with erect body posture.... Then swing your right thigh ahead and upward until it is just above its parallel-with-the-floor position. (Your right leg should be flexed as you do this, so that the lower part of the leg should be pointing almost directly at the ground, i.e., it should be nearly perpendicular with the ground.) Full body weight is supported on your left foot only. As you swing your thigh ahead and up, simultaneously bring your left arm forward, as you would do during a normal running stride. In your support (left) leg, the hip, knee, and ankle should all be slightly flexed. Hold this 'right-thigh-up' position for five seconds while maintaining relaxed stability and balance, and then bring your right foot back to the ground and your left arm back to a relaxed position at your side." (From Running Research News 16(10): 1-4, 2000.)

If you do try these drills, remember to build up slowly. Even if they don't feel that hard while you're doing them, you're likely to wake up sore the next day! (At least that's what happens to me when I do them....)

Finally, please note that if you add muscle mass to your right side, your daily protein needs will increase more than they will if your total muscle mass stays constant (as I assumed in my answer to your first question).

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