Advice for Runner’s World

December 31, 2009

The January 2010 issue of Runner’s World poses the question, “How many weeks can I skip running without losing all of my hard-earned fitness?” The following answer is given:

[A2] It depends on what you’re doing instead. If you do nothing more than channel surf, your fitness begins to erode within a few days. After three to six weeks, it disappears completely. But if you rigorously cross-train, you can preserve your running-specific fitness for up to three months. If you stay in the middle of those extremes and stay modestly active, you can regain your form within a couple of weeks.

That’s not such a great answer, is it? It claims that cross-training for three months will preserve “running-specific fitness,” which is sort of a contradiction, since any fitness that can be preserved via cross-training must not be completely specific to running. Likewise, it doesn’t distinguish between cross-training that mimics running (e.g., stair-stepping or pool running) and cross-training that works the muscles in different ways (e.g., swimming or powerlifting). It implies that three to six weeks of inactivity will negate all fitness in all people, regardless of how fit they were initially or many years they had been training up to that point. Finally, the conclusion that bouncing back should only take a couple of weeks seems a bit optimistic.

If I were asked the same question, here’s what I’d say:

[A1] It depends on what you do during those non-running weeks. At one extreme, a few weeks of bed rest or nonstop TV watching may completely erase all fitness gains achieved during recent months. Conversely, a rigorous cross-training regimen that incorporates intensive stair-stepping, pool running, and/or other running-like activities should preserve running fitness fairly well even if no actual running is done for two to three months. Even participation in less closely related sports, like swimming, will maintain cardiovascular function somewhat, though running-specific muscles will revert toward their pre-training state. Also, maintaining a healthy weight will limit the negative impact of periods of inactivity and will make the transition back to serious training easier.

It’s conceivable that you could have read something like that in Runner’s World . . . because they DID ask me this question, and I submitted response A1, shown just above. But after several rounds of editing, A2 is what appeared in print. It was attributed to “Greg Crowther, Ph.D.,” but it wasn’t really what I had in mind.

I had a somewhat similar experience back in 2003, when the October Runner’s World ran my response to a question about the use of bases (like sodium bicarbonate, the active ingredient in Alka-Seltzer) to counteract lactic acid. After briefly discussing the rationale for and possible implementation of this strategy, I added, “Seek help from a health care professional in finding a dosage that is both safe and effective.” Unfortunately, that sentence was either softened in or omitted from the published answer, prompting at least one reader to ask whether I was advocating dangerously high doses of aspirin, which can be found in some varieties of Alka-Seltzer.

My point is not that editors are bad; on the contrary, editors can both clean up one’s writing and ensure that it’s suitable for the intended audience. I’m not here to trash Runner’s World indiscriminately, either; I grew up reading it and, although I’m no longer a subscriber, I still enjoy a lot of its free online content. What I want to say is that, if the magazine wants geeks like me to contribute answers rooted in solid science, it needs to give us a bit more space and a bit more freedom to say what we mean, rather than what it wants to hear.

Can we make a deal that if I continue to minimize my use of jargon and journal citations, you’ll try harder to uphold the original intent of my words?


  1. illuminating, thanks for that. belated congrats on jfk, btw.

  2. Right on Greg! That's one of the reasons I dropped my RW subscription – they are selling out to the instant-gratification mindset. Can you write a letter to the editor to correct the misstatements? And ensure they don't edit your letter?

  3. Laura: I doubt they'd print such a letter, but, regardless, I'm not sure I'd want them to. My goal is not to embarrass Runner's World per se but to encourage it to do a better job of meeting scientists halfway along the thoroughness/readability continuum. If I raise a bigger fuss than is warranted, RW might decide that talking to people like me is not worth the hassle and might become even less inclined to consult scientists about anything. And that would be a shame.

  4. Nice. In the future… if you are a contributor, then please post a similar blog post so we can see what you really said!

  5. I enjoy your insight. I especially liked your comments on AJW's DNF post.And how are you not trashing the editors or RW? Of course you are (though trashing might be a little harsh). They badly misrepresented your scientific running insight.I'm a little surprised they actually use "real" experts. Why don't they just say what appeals to them (and most of their readers) and tag a Phd to the quote. Most wouldn't know the difference anyways.Keep up the good work in running and writing!

  6. Matt: Your question about trashing RW is a perceptive one with interesting parallels to the AJW DNF discussion — touché! (For others who are curious: http://ajwsblog.blogspot.com/2010/01/dnfs.html.) In the case of RW I am indeed criticizing them for their handling of the "Ask the Experts" blurbs, but I don't mean this specific criticism as a dismissal of the entire magazine. I have added a word above ("indiscriminately") to make that distinction a bit clearer.

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