Exercise Physiologist, Skyler Tanner, is course leader for the latest HITuni short course release: Running with Strength. Since filming the course with Skyler, we have had the opportunity to sit with Skyler to ask him about his background, his business, his approach to strength training and about his passion for running.
From Basketball to Smart Strength
Many of you reading this post will likely know of Skyler; through his great blog posts, presentations and the work he does at Smart Strength. For those who haven’t yet had the pleasure or are interested in to learn more about background, read on. Skyler has a Masters degree in Exercise Science from Texas State, with an emphasis on clinical exercise physiology and cardiac rehabilitation, he is also a certified Exercise Physiologist. Skyler’s interest in exercise goes further back than his post-graduate education, it was teenage involvement in basketball and high jump that led to an awakening of what has become a lifelong passion: strength training.
At high school Skyler’s basketball coaches were keen for him to gain weight and suggested he start strength training. This provocation resulted in Skyler finding himself in April of 1998 at a gym where the Coach ended up offering to train Skyler for free 1-2 times per week. Skyler soaked up the training to the degree that progressing from trainee to trainer was rapid: by the end of 1998 he was training clients himself in that same gym.
At 21 Skyler moved to Austin, Texas to work as a trainer at Efficient Exercise where he would ultimately become a partner and director of trainer education. The next step came when Skyler took the opportunity to flex his entrepreurial muscles and buy one of Efficient Exercise’s facilities in the Westlake area of Austin, out of which he now operates Smart Strength, the start of a “roller coaster” he has been on since.
Skyler’s Smart Approach to Strength Training
Skyler describes the ethos underpinning his approach to exercise at Smart Strength as: evidence-based resistance training focused on how little a person needs to do, to get the results they want. Indeed, he encourages his clients to “Spend as little time with me as possible” and instead to “tell me about all the amazing things you are doing” with the strength they have built through their Smart Strength workouts. How little time do his clients spend with him? Smart Strength’s smart slogan communicates the commitment concisely: 22 minutes x twice per week = twice as strong.
SKyler explains that his focus is on getting his clients stronger, and a key upshot of getting stronger is they become more active in their daily lives. He notes they move more, activities of daily living are performed at a higher effort level and in their leisure time clients’ MET values are increased meaning their metabolic output is higher.
Skyler points out that he sees strength increase as the core value in resitance training. He explains how strength actually decreases faster with age than muscle mass does, and that “strength is the currency we live our lives by”. Having more strength means you have more currency to pay the daily costs of living, more currency to spend for fun and more to keep in reserve for when you may need it most of all.
Skyler’s Approach to His Own Training
In his own personal strength training Skyler has experimented with varying approaches over the years, his default routine starting out was a Big 5 +1 performed once a week and today his baseline is a 10 exercise machine-centric full body routine performed 1x per week. However, he has also experimented with significant periods of bodyweight only training including a spell of a simple chin up, push up and wall sit routine performed once every third day. He has also enjoyed throwing in performance challenges including the 60 second up and 60 second down, brutally slow, chin up.
He has tested the waters of higher frequency resistance training, although notes that it did not make any difference in outcomes for him and he has settled into a rhythm of 1 full-on HIT workout per week and occasionally a second weekly workout that is focused more on his current performance goals. What he is most clear about is that his training needs to both fit and benefit, his lifestyle as a business owner, husband and father of three children.
As Skyler’s more recent passion for running has developed his resistance training workouts have morphed to help support that athletic endeavour. This means more attention being focused on areas such as the ankle joint and the mid-back musculature. For those considering taking up running themselves, he points out that strength training needs to come first, that building a base of strength is essential.
From HIT to Running
Most trainers involved in HIT accept that resistance training to muscular failure is the key form of exercise that most individuals need to achieve optimal general physiologic fitness/health. Skyler is a great person to ask about this position as he has direct experience of adding running to his weekly schedule after many years of exclusively resistance training, and he is someone who keeps tabs on the metrics. I asked him what physiologic changes if any, he has seen since adding running to the mix. Skyler is clear in his answer, running has not had an impact on his general physical health markers: results of his blood draws and his bodyfat levels have remained the same. His VO2max has increased since running, but to a minor, non-significant degree. There is however, one physical marker that has significantly improved: his lactate threshold. This is unsurprising as lactate threshold is task specific and highly trainable. This means that Skyler’s ability to generate fuel with increasing acidic load- as happens when running at threshold pace, has improved.
If not for the sake of his physiologic health, what is Skyler’s case for running or for that matter any physical activity/sport? He explains his perspective clearly: through strength training you have generated more muscle mass, more strength and more resilient connective tissue- you are, in a word fitter… perhaps you want to explore using these adaptations, as Clarence Bass might say “Challenge Yourself”. A subtle shift in perspective may see you enjoying all those hard won advantages outputted through a physical activity or sport, for simple pleasure or challenge.
Make no mistake Skyler loves HIT, or evidence-based resistance training- it is the cornerstone of his wellness and fitness approach, one that produces the greatest increases in the most important health metrics for little time investment. Or as Skyler puts it, it can produce the highest possible plateau from which you can then use those benefits to engage in other physical activities you may enjoy: in Skyler’s case running.
Skyler is aware that some individuals may find his interest in and presentation of running, a “heretical physical activity”, perhaps controversial. He suggests that there are those who may miss a big picture plus of strength training- not only to be strong, but also to enjoy that strength. Some may enjoy expressing strength and muscle through powerlifting, some through competitive bodybuilding, others through running, hill walking, cycling, surfing… the list goes on pretty much infinitely, only limited by what actually gives you pleasure.
The Tipping Point
What was the genesis of Skyler’s interest in running? It initially came from the influence of his closest human, wife Sarah, who was a Texas All-Region cross-country runner, specializing in 1 mile, 2 mile and 5K distances. Sarah continued to run races, including half-marathons and marathons, despite Skyler’s initial not so positive attitude to running. Then he observed something he saw as important: Sarah was not only getting a huge sense of accomplishment from both her training and competitive runs, but also was not suffering from any injuries in the process. This reality was contrary to some of the views on running Skyler had previously absorbed and taken for fact.
As busy career driven adults and parents, time spent together in leisure is a luxury cherished by Skyler and Sarah. With his perspective on running gradually shifting, Skyler saw the opportunity to spend more time with Sarah: by joining her for a weekly run.
Since then running has become a passion for Skyler, an activity he derives pleasure from, with performance goals to strive for. Based on his own positive experience, the mistakes he made in the process and the years spent refining his approach to running, Skyler wants to reach out and teach others how to explore and experience the same pleasure he has been rewarded with in a safe, time efficient way. The result is the Running with Strength course.
Running with Strength: A Union
As Skyler puts it, a HIT trainee already has the baseline strength required to run. To those who want to explore the road or trail it is simply a matter of adding some specific strengthening exercises for key “running muscles”, and acquiring the right running technique, skills and specific fitness. Add to that some smart programming to balance strength and time-efficient running workouts and anyone can transition successfully into running and attain “the gift of human flight”.
Skyler enjoys the physical experience and physiologic challenge of strength training: the effort of training to muscle failure, but notes that this experience is very short-lived in the seconds prior to the culmination of a set. With running he notes that he gets to appreciate the feeling of a more protracted build-up of lactate that occurs during 2-4 miles of threshold pace running and the challenge of enduring it. He derives instinctive pleasure from deep conversations with the central governor that happen in the brain, in the psyche, as he attempts to push harder for longer whilst running.
Despite this enjoyment, Skyler also points out that having to run everyday would be a misery for him. Whereas a frequency of once or at most twice a week running, provides the enjoyment, the physical challenge and the tangible performance improvements he is seeking. And it is certainly working, at the age of 36 Skyler is now both quicker at running shorter distances such as the mile and better at running long distances than he was at the age of his high school athletic peak at 17. All on one HIT strength workout per week and 1 or 2 cleverly structured runs per week.
Whilst he enjoys running faster, and running longer races too, he appreciates that may not be a goal for everyone. He points out that the Running with Strength course is just as relevant for those who want to be able to cruise around the block and gain the parasympathetic benefits of easy running with its associated endocannabinoid release and mild sense of euphoria as a form of stress-relief and moving meditation. On the flip side, for those motivated by performance goals the techniques and programs in the course will enable you too, to run your best from from sprints, to the mile, 5K, half marathon and beyond.
Skyler Shows How its Done
On 28th September 2019, Skyler Tanner ran the J&J 25K Trail Race in Rocksprings, Texas. Race day saw temperatures that reached 86F, the course tough and hilly, with lots of short steep up and down, over scree and boulders, through river crossings, scrub and cactus. He ran the course in a time of 3 hours and 15 minutes coming in 10th overall and 3rd in the 30-39 age division.
His training in the lead up to the race consisted of 1x strength training workout a week and 1, sometimes 2 runs a week, with his longest training run clocking in at just 9.5 miles. His time investment in training for the race was well below an hour per week. Over the course of his preparation, he was able to take 2 minutes off his 2-mile time trial best.
Skyler’s running approach is to build the engine with the lowest amount of wear and tear, to come in fresh to the race without the need for a taper. He notes that he suffered no injuries from competing in the race, or from the 8 months he spent preparing for it.
You can learn to run like Skyler in the Running with Strength course.