So, How Many Hats Do You Wear?

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Pensacola, Florida, United States
Husband. *Dog Dad.* Instructional Systems Specialist. Runner. (Swim-challenged) Triathlete (on hiatus). USATF LDR Surveyor. USAT (Elite Rules) CRO/2, NTO/1. RRCA Rep., FL (North). Observer Of The Human Condition.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Don't Say You Don't Belong

My wife ran another half-marathon this weekend. She's been very fortunate to mix business travel with road running, and I think if I could do the same with my work I would. Actually, I was able to during the first two years. After that work-related travel was pretty much minimized. If it couldn't be accomplished by phone or video conference then...and only then...did you have the chance of going on the road.

So there we were, in Miami Beach for an information technology conference. Well, she had the conference. I could have run the event if I had felt the compulsion, but still being injured and recovering, I didn't want to sidetrack my slow progress back to running fitness.

So, I decided I'd hang out along the course for a while and cheer my wife on for once. After which point I could go to breakfast and get a little run of my own. I had two mysteries of the universe which needed solution, though:

How can a guy in a tiny storefront restaurant be overlooked by two servers at eight o'clock in the morning? I wanted my cortadito, damn it. I needed my cortadito.

When looking at marathon and half-marathon participants it's not so much a spectrum of fitness as it is a Venn diagram: There are two categories - the fit and the insane. Then you have the intersection of the two groups, making up the insanely fit. I can understand the fit and the insanely fit doing it, but why do thousands of people who would fall under the "insane" category see the need to run or walk - 13.10938 or 26.21876 miles?

I'm not the best of spectators, especially for live sports events. Especially for live sports which I can do. Little league baseball and middle school basketball might have much to do with this attitude. I couldn't throw a baseball for beans, and I didn't touch a basketball until I was age ten. So I spent more time picking splinters out of my baseball uniform pants during the summer. Basketball was worse; I was more practice squad material than benchwarmer. I didn't get to play during "garbage" time; the coach didn't realize until the last game of the season ended.

Once I hit high school I figured out I was a better musician and actor than an athlete.

But during the spring of my senior year I had too much free time on my hands and sure as hell didn't want to go home early to deal with...never mind. So I went out for track, specifically distance running; in my school that was the 800 meters, mile and two-mile. The coach focused more on the sprints and hurdles than the distance guys; their training was more 'go out and run, you'll figure out what you need' than doing technical stuff or sprints. So I'd go run, then walk home from school after track.

It was dusty and very anti-social. But I was not at home. I never knew anyone who was cut from the track team. They might have quit, but they didn't get cut.

That's the nice thing about road running. You can quit, but nobody can say you don't belong. As long as you know how to place one foot in front of the other repeatedly from point A to point B you have a place in the grand scheme of things.

Got a brain, heart, lungs and limbs which are capable of propelling you along? Good.

Got a pair of shoes? Good.

Got a trail, path, track or road? Good.

And perhaps that's the reason people do road races. Call it "Occupy the Road," if you like. I guess you could just as easily run that 21.0625 or 42.125 kilometers out on a wooded trail, a beach, a stretch of sidewalk, a grassy field, or whatever surface (including a treadmill in the privacy of your own home or local gym...) you desire.

And those who have done it enough have heard the catcalls, insults and spurious warnings from the world around them. So for that amount of time, anywhere from one to six hours, on those Miami/Miami Beach streets, those 25,000 people were saying: 'I can quit if I feel like it, but you cannot say I don't belong here.'

And standing on the side of the road, as a rehabilitating runner, I was reminded the entire population, including the subsets described by John "The Penguin" Bingham - the "very fast," the "pretty fast," the "sort of fast," and the "penguins" - all belonged out there.

A couple of them held out their hand to swat a high five with me. I recognized one of my Marathon Maniac friends from the Christmas holidays. About five minutes later, my wife came by. Usually she's the one on the sideline and I'm the one racing.

"Go, honey! Go, honey! Go, honey! Go, honey!" I called out.

She looked at me and smiled. Sure, it was insane of her to be doing this, but she was having a good time.

The two gentlemen near her marveled at her one-man fan club, to which she replied, "I guess we can all be 'honey' today..."

Running might be an insane act, but don't ever let anyone say you don't belong out there.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Cramps - I Believe in Santa Claus

The question of cramping came up in a chat session with some running enthusiasts the other day, and pickle juice was mentioned as a possible solution to the problem. I guess I would have laughed a little more loudly if I hadn't read the same thing in a recent edition of Outside magazine.

Most runners or athletes have had a muscle cramp at one time or another, and we can all agree they are no fun. Somehow we manage to endure the pain and try to go on. And everyone has an opinion on what to do in order to keep the cramp from happening. I've heard people attribute cramps to dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, glycogen shortage and a host of other possibilities. I have a couple of suspicions myself, one of which involves the chairs at the Village Inn restaurants.

I kid you not.

It doesn't matter if I've run an easy five miles, or completed a hard speed workout, or gone to the pool for a masters' swim. Within five minutes of sitting down for a meal at the Village Inn it's guaranteed I will have a massive cramp in one or both of my hamstrings. And we're not talking the 'ouch, that's a cramp,' cramps. I'm talking about the type of cramp which is able to literally pitch a guy off the side of the chair and on to the floor. The type of cramp which makes grown men cry like seven year-olds who have just been told Santa Claus is fiction.

So now I sit at a booth. And I still believe in Santa Claus.

The Outside magazine piece took on several commonly-held beliefs about exercise and physical activity. When it came to the subject of cramps, runners have been told by the running cognoscenti they were caused by dehydration. Other smart people said the cramps were caused by a lack of electrolytes. Some even hold on to the belief that a lack of fuel (glycogen) is the cause.

I'm one of those who considers the fuel theory of cramping to be a strong possibility. It stems a great deal from what I've read of the Central Governor Model for Exercise, originally written about in the 1920s by Nobel laureate Archibald Hill and expanded on by physician, physiologist, marathoner and ultra-marathoner Dr. Timothy Noakes about ten years ago. Noakes' theory says, basically, our brain pretty much calculates a safe level of exertion based on past exercise experiences, metabolic state, and the intended duration of the exercise activity.

For those of you who might remember the old Star Trek series, exercise is like having the Enterprise getting hit with photon torpedoes and taking on damage. And, naturally, Captain Kirk would tell Mr. Scott in engineering to shut down everything except for life support. Okay, I'm glad we kept life support up. Duh.

Noakes writes that our central governor is going to hold back fuel (glycogen) to keep the heart, brain, and lungs alive, shutting down the fuel source to muscle fibers here and muscle fibers there. That's the reason fatigue sets in, our stride gets choppy and our range of motion decreases. Once more fuel comes to play, or the exercise bout ends, the brain recognizes the threat is over and returns (eventually) to normal function - homeostasis.

This old coach's take? The cramp either comes along because of too many muscle fibers being shut down, or from some sort of nerve-related thing (in my own personal case with the Village Inn chairs, pressure).

So why does ten milliliters - less than three ounces - of pickle juice seem to take care of cramping? Some think it has to do with a quick burst of electrolytes. Others think the tart, salty taste of brine causes a disruption in the nervous system...confuses the nerves.

A fitness enthusiast (who just happens to sell an electrolyte balancing beverage) believes the cramp comes as a result of an electrolyte imbalance. Sodium contracts muscle cells and potassium relaxes them. Calcium signals the sodium ion channel to open to begin the contraction cycle. Magnesium then encourages potassium to rush in which relaxes the cell. When a cramp happens, it’s the elements in charge of the relaxing half of the cycle, magnesium and potassium, that are missing.

Pickle juice is predominantly vinegar, which is another form of acetic acid. Acetic acid is used to treat individuals with high blood sodium levels. So, in the mind of this person, lower the sodium level in comparison to the potassium, and you may not begin the cramp.

But Schwellnus, Nicol, Laubscher, and Noakes found in 2004 there were no significant differences between two groups of ultramarathoners - those who cramped up during a race, and those who did not - for pre-race or post-race body weight, percent change in body weight, blood volume, plasma volume, or red cell volume. The immediate post-race serum sodium concentration was significantly lower in the cramp group than in the group which did not suffer from cramping. The immediate post-race serum magnesium concentration was significantly higher in the group of runners who suffered from cramping. There also were no major differences in hydration status in runners who suffered from cramps after participating in an ultra-distance race.

The cause of exercise-associated muscle cramps is probably a little closer to our brains and our nervous system than we care to admit. We might be able to drink it away with pickle juice, but all of the preventatives are more myth than truth.

I believe in fuel, and I still believe in Santa.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Twenty Minutes To (More) Speed - Tempo Runs

Everyone has seen this runner: They toe the line at the local 5,000-meter race, go out at 6:30 pace for the first mile, subsequently slowing down to 7:30 pace on the third one. When you approach their gasping form as they hang onto a signpost, they tell you, 'I could have raced this one, but this was only a tempo run.'

Oh? Really?

When I coached weekly workouts it was my "job" to provide training which worked as many energy systems as possible.

(ED. COMMENT: My coach reminded me we used to do tempo runs as part of the group's training, for which he is correct...a few things changed some over the course of a few years...sometimes change does not always move toward the more beneficial.)

One day a week we did a lot of aerobic-to-threshold-pace stuff at a short (one-to-two-minute) duration. The second workout of the week consisted of efforts lasting anywhere from two-to-five minutes. Several members of the training group liked the longer repeats a great deal. But it was difficult to encourage tempo running as a solo workout outside of training sessions.

I didn't run regular tempo workouts, either. Yes, there were the occasional "anti-social" Wednesday evening beach runs, where I'd go out at a low-seven-minute pace for as long as my lungs could stand, then push a little harder for the last three miles. But it wasn't until I became treadmill-bound and more-closely focused on my own training I started to look a little more closely at the tempo run.

Most recreational runners don't like tempo running; I'm not certain if it is because they don't know what pace to run, they think tempo runs are too painful, or they'd much rather socialize during their runs. But I can tell you they're missing out on some free speed at a low (time) cost-to-(speed) benefit ratio.

First, let's look at what constitutes a tempo run. Dr. Jack Daniels, in "Running Formula," says that (ideally) twenty (to-thirty) minutes of steady running at threshold pace is a tempo run. That's twenty minutes of steady running at an effort level where our body uses the lactate as fast as it is produced from carbohydrate metabolism during physical exercise.

For example, a person who runs a 21-minute 5,000-meters would - according to Daniels - run tempo runs at about 7:10/mile pace (for those who speak treadmill, that's about 8.4 mph). If you still don't have a copy of "Running Formula," never fear. Take your 5,000-meter race pace per mile and add 25-30 seconds.

Are tempo runs painful? I will say they are no easy, breezy walk in the park. After running my first tempo run in about a year - and my first tempo run on a treadmill - my average heart rate was about five beats higher across the board, and my max heart rate near the end was just shy of 85 percent of maximum. For those runners who prefer to not inflict twenty minutes of "comfortably hard" effort on themselves, Daniels recommends what he calls "cruise intervals" of one-mile or ten-minutes, broken up with 30-to-60-seconds of recovery.

Another challenge of tempo running comes from having the right course. The right circuit or course can make all the difference. If your favorite training stretch - for example, from the hotel where Suzanne and I like to stay to Audubon Park and back - has a lot of intersections and traffic, it's easier for me to run "cruise intervals." A good, lightly-trafficked and distance-marked loop or bike path, like the 4.25-mile or 5.8-mile loops on Pensacola Beach, are good for tempo work. Levees and rails-to-trails are also good.

And it doesn't necessarily have to be a solitary affair. Social runners who are at or near the same ability level can work together and ensure the run tempo does not slack off.

Tempo work is probably one of the most under-appreciated, and under-used, workouts which are available to the self-coached runner. The only things necessary for longer-distance speed gains are to know the proper pace, set aside twenty quality minutes, and keep pushing the entire piece.

Monday, January 9, 2012

A Bad Day, And A Revelation

This week marks, more or less, the 52nd week since my most painful two weekends of running in nearly two decades of the activity. I ran a half marathon almost a year ago which was actually an enjoyable first eight kilometers, followed by a very uncomfortable fourteen. Not to be outdone, the next weekend's (scheduled) 16-mile training run transformed into a tale of two loops; one good, and one terrible.

Since that harrowing fortnight I've been on the mend. I've tried to do as many things as "right" as possible, in the hope I can return to full-fledged running craziness. There have been good days/weeks and bad runs/recoveries, transitions and changes, and - most of all - a changed philosophy about my own training.

This week was the first of a three-week cycle where the running or non-impact exercise was scheduled for fifty minutes. Everything went fine yesterday, mostly because it was a non-impact day. Today, on the other hand...

...well, let's call it a bad day. I felt beat-up at the two-mile point on the run, and had to shut down at the thirty-minute mark. I walked the additional twenty minutes so as to say I did fifty minutes of some sort of exercise. One thing I made the conscious effort not to do, this time, was to berate myself or punish myself for not being able to complete the least beyond thirty seconds, and the time taken to mark my calendar entry with a yellow highlighter.

Too many runners are more likely, in the wake of a poor workout effort, to redouble their effort the next day. If the schedule called for an easier effort run, they most likely would scrap that effort to take the previous day's run on, just once more.

Don't do it. The best solution for a bad day is another day.

If the offending workout is a series of repeats, save it for the next speed work day...or leave it be. If a long run, do it on another course, or do the same course which kicked your tail before. But "a steak and a nap," an old friend's way of saying "be good to yourself," will give you time to look at some of the things which might be going wrong.

It could be something as simple as wearing the wrong pair of shoes, the wrong shirt (if you sweat like I do, that's more important than you think), or, strangely enough, the wrong terrain.

Who knew that a mulch-covered trail could cause me such pain?

It flies in the face of conventional wisdom passed along by generations of runners and coaches: Softer surfaces are better for distance running. That's why the Kenyans are such great distance runners, right? That's why ultradistance events are on trails, right? I guess not.

Exercise researchers, interviewed for a (July 19, 2011) New York Times article, concluded there was no direct correlation between running regularly on soft surfaces and decreased tendency toward musculoskeletal injuries. In fact, the researchers found that runners tend to adjust to the surface on the fly in order to maintain a consistent ground reaction (impact) force. So, we're less stiff when we run on a roadway, but our legs stiffen when we hit the softer surfaces.

So, from where does the discomfort, or injury come? Like any situation where one of my athletes has complained of aches and pains, I start to look at what was recently added to the training regimen. Running one day on a treadmill, the next on a mulch trail, and perhaps two days after on an asphalt roadway, may have caused too much "confusion." Simply put, there was too much new stress in the past couple of days for this (nearly-50-year-old) body to adapt.

It doesn't mean I can't run on the mulch trail. Just that I need to add the trail in smaller doses. Once again, at least in my case, the best solution for a bad day on the trail is to schedule the trail for some other day.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Alice's Restaurant

Went out for a run on New Years' Day with a couple of (former) athletes and good friends. Late into the run, my friend Beverly told me about a mutual friend of ours, Mel, who became so motivated by his performance at Ironman Florida he took up running with a passion. Next thing she knew, she said, he read Christopher MacDougal's "Born to Run" and began training for a "real" marathon. We spent the remainder of the run discussing the next book to recommend; she thought it should be John L. Parker, Jr's. "Again To Carthage," I held out for "Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner," by Dean Karnazes.

Listening to "born-again runners" is a joy. Most of them cannot help but reveal what they consider their personal (secret) revelation to the world around them. Most runners know there really are no secrets, other than 'train your heart out, rest when not training.' I also like to hear someone speak about running, as Arlo Guthrie once sung, "with feeling..."

Sometimes the feeling can make us parochial, even dogmatic, about what we think is best for our fellow runner. As a coach, I admit I've recommended running specialty shops, web sites, coaches, training plans, races, lodging, and - on rare occasions - shoes, equipment, and gadgetry. Years after my last lodging arrangement, I still get 'hey, just curious if you're booking rooms for such-and-such race' e-mails. From people who never trained with me.

" should tell every young runner to use (brand) running shoes and (device)," the boy said to George and myself over a beer last night. That's the type of statement to which my old coach, Dale Fox, would reply, "Oh? Really?" Rather than immediately shut my ears to what Steve (a.k.a. "the boy") said I decided to take a few moments and listen. Not so much to dissassemble his assertion like an assault rifle, eventually laying the greasy little parts in front of him. I trained for a few years alongside Steve's his father, so there's a familial obligation involved. I also appreciate the boy's "salta de qualitat," or recent leap in his run performances.

Shoe manufacturers can market their shoes with a statement saying "the way you should run," but normative statements don't get marketing gurus and advertising agencies in hot water. That kettle of fish is usually saved for the coach or the running emporium proprietor who has to hear from the athlete, 'so, what do you think of...?' So the shoe, which costs about 20 percent more than what the athlete already wears, is designed to make the athlete adapt their running gait? Ah, but if I were to focus the athlete on a faster turn-over and a shorter stride - the very same mechanics the shoe purports to encourage - would they give me the additional 20 percent they would have spent on the shoe?

Probably not. Shoes are sexy. Coaching isn't.

There are an abundance of gadgets on the market which are a great help to runners, but there are certain things a massage therapist will be able to do that a roller, stick, or ball won't. But a runner on a tight budget may consider self-massage items a good (inexpenxive) substitute for regular massage therapy. I have a retired friend who knows his way around a dollar. I guess when you can retire before 55 you have a blend of skill, luck and the ability to know your way around a greenback. Rather than spend 40 dollars on a self-massage modality, he took the same 40 bucks and made a bunch of very-workable self-massage sticks, giving them out as holiday presents a couple of years ago. I still have his stick in the corner of my living room, next to a 100-dollar massage kit. You can take a wild guess which gets used more often.

A new friend, Galen, ran (at least) seven marathons in seven days last week here. He told me he sees the strangest things at some of the distance runs he does. Probably the most frightening was the (his words) "runner wearing the Camelbak as well as the 'hand grenade' bottle belt."

Overkill? I think so. Galen told me he asked the name of the running store proprietor, probably in order to tell newbie runners "enter at your own peril."

So before I "rhetorically" sing a bar of "Alice's Restaurant" ('you can get anything you want...') and walk out of any conversation, I always like to remind friends that every runner is a unique experiment, a sample population of one. What works for you, works for you. If you see something cool and new, take the time to do the research or ask if you can give it a trial run before springing the big bucks.

That's probably one more race entry, from what I can figure. Races are more fun than gadgets.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Will Stretching Make Me Faster? Probably Not.

There are persons who stretch a lot. There are persons who say all runners should stretch a lot. Then, there are others who say too much stretching can be a bad idea.

The January 2012 issue of Outside magazine took ten of the biggest fitness myths to the mats. One of them had to do with stretching's effect on running parformance. FSU researchers asked ten male athletes to stretch for 16 minutes, then run for an hour on a treadmill. In a later session, the same crew sat quietly for 16 minutes, then hit the treadmill for the same duration. Without the pre-run stretch, the men covered more distance while expending less energy.

So, I don't feel quite so bad about my inability to stretch. At least I can run.

Ah, you say, but if you did stretch you probably would not have to deal with the nagging little injuries you've had in the past year. Not so fast, my little friend. In several large-scale studies of athletes and military recruits, static stretching did not reduce the incidence of common overuse injuries such as Achilles tendinopathy (one of the issues with which I deal) and knee pain.

In my humble opinion, stretching is a personal matter. I'm not going to tell someone they shouldn't stretch if they feel it helps. When specific muscles are tight or I have run a lot of mileage, I will do a little bit of stretching, usually the calf muscles (which also impacts the achilles’ tendon), the iliotibial band, & the hamstrings, since these are the muscles which become most inflexible because we run.

One thing you will not see me do is throw my leg over the back of a chair, or do what I see most recreational runners do, what I like to call "flamingo imitations." You've seen the person. They're the one who take their foot and pull it directly behind them up to their backside. I'm not certain whether they're working on their knee flexibility or their quadriceps muscle. Neither one really seems all that essential to run performance.

All three muscle group stretches can be done by having a flat surface, something with which to lean against, and a bench or chair. A fifteen-minute warm-up, consisting of a jog and some stretching - at the most - and on to the run.

The calf stretch can be done while leaning against a wall, bleachers, pole, or any solid object. Hold the stretch for 30 to 60 seconds without bouncing, then switch legs.

The iliotibial (IT) band stretch is done by crossing one leg behind the other 6-9 inches, then leaning toward the rear leg. Again, hold the stretch for 30 to 60 seconds without bounce, then switch legs.

The hamstrings can be stretched by placing the leg up on a bench or support between knee & waist height (there are variations which keep both feet on the ground). Bend slowly forward at the waist until the stretch is felt, hold for 30 to 60 seconds, then switch legs.

Some things you don't want to do:

Never try to stretch a muscle that has not been warmed up. A few minutes of easy jogging (the same amount of time it takes to run about a mile) will raise a muscle’s temperature enough to make it pliable.

Never bounce during a stretch. Just stretch as far as the muscle will allow; stay relaxed & breathe. You don’t get awards for being the most flexible at the race.

Never over-stretch. You really can stretch too much & leave your joints susceptible to injury.

If you really feel the need to do it, stretching does not need to look like a return to dance classes of our youth. As long as you do it in a manner which aligns with your day-to-day functionality you probably won't need to worry about loss of muscle strength, or hurting your joints.