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, February 27, 2012

The Bow That Couldn't Shoot Straight

A story is told of a religious leader known to have had a fiery nature during his younger days. Another religious scholar, disguised as a hunter, came upon the man stroking a tame partridge while seated underneath a tree. The scholar marveled over the fact the religious man would 'waste his time' in such trivial activity.

The religious man asked in return, "do you always carry your bow unstrung?" The scholar responded, "no, for if I were to keep it strung continually, the bow would weaken. If I then needed to shoot at a boar or large animal it would no work correctly." The religious man replied, "if the bow that is continually bent will eventually cease to shoot straight, then do not worry about my brief period of relaxation."

It's important for the individual/self-coached runner to know certain things before they begin to develop their training plan. The most important factor is to know how much time they have available to train. The second-most important factor is the event or events which they are targeting with their training. Almost as important as the first two factors is to determine the day (or days) in the week to rest from training.

Professional athletes and younger adults might be able to get away with a seven-day-a-week schedule - but the runner who works a "real job" usually does not have the option of resting when not training. The choice is simple; take time off or risk progressive weakening.

Some running coaches have espoused the idea of taking a day off each week for every decade over thirty. So a 40-year-old would take one day, a 50-year-old two days, and so on. Other coaches "cut-back" training intensities/distances every third or fourth week of training, depending on the athlete. Others have recommended a day off each week, a week off (or easy!) each month and a month off each year. And yes, there are coaches who believe the need for a rest day is proof the runner has trained too hard or running too fast in their training.

The day of rest provides physical and mental recovery from the stress of running. It lets the person have something which vaguely resembles a life, rather than be "just a runner." While the amount of rest needed varies by person it cannot be overlooked completely. The body needs rest and recovery and it will get what it wants, either by choice or by circumstance.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Finding The Sweet Spot

"These sudden joys have sudden endings. They burn up in victory like fire and gunpowder. . . . Too fast is as bad as too slow."
--"Romeo and Juliet," Act 2, Scene 6 (William Shakespeare, ca. 1597), in modern English.

My loving wife often warns me about what she calls "hobby-horses." She knows I tend to be fixated to the verge of obsession on certain topics. When I served as RRCA state rep for North Florida, headphone use was my "hobby horse." I've had other "hobby horses," too, but the headphone thing was most-notable.

I've talked a lot about treadmill running with people who hate treadmills. Some of them are folks who say TMs are no good for training, others don't like the boredom factor. Since late November, I've done every weekday run, including speed workouts, on a treadmill. True, the TM can be breathtakingly boring, but they let me control many training variables. I can adjust one variable at a time and see how my body reacts, or I can end the workout the instant my tendons are in distress.

The initial 35-minute runs are now 60-minute runs, averaging eight minutes per mile. The good news is I'm near the training volume where I was when I was running six days a week and racing once every three months. But the ache in my back and hips is not so good.

It's not the shoes - the oldest of my three pairs has somewhere between 260-270 miles on them, with the newest pair less than thirty. Could it be the treadmill? The "Gait Guys" wrote an article for Triathlete magazine; they warned readers about how a treadmill can adversely affect a runners' gait.

After reading the research by University of Virginia physical therapist Jeff Dicharry, I called the overwhelming majority of the "Gait Guys" article bupkis. Except for that "downhill" thing.

Like a road or trail surface, the feel and comfort of a treadmill varies by manufacturer, model, and even the machine's installation. Ed W. sees treadmills and elliptical trainers as warm-up, not the workout itself...that means run/tri guys like me are not his gym's typical customers. The treadmills in his cardio area are on solid rubber flooring, and thick rubber matting supports his lobby area TMs. There might be a slight slope in the lobby naturally; all the lobby treadmills seem to have this feeling like one is running slightly downhill.

The "Gait Guys" say the downhill sensation is caused by the "pull" of the belt on the runner's lower extremity, in contrast to the "push" of the lower extremity on the ground surface. They say it affects the gait; Dicharry has proven whatever variations exist (in 40 percent of runners) are so miniscule that to tell the difference it requires equipment which exists in only two sports labs in the country.

So, runners who sense that "downhill" feeling on the TM may benefit from an elevation tweak of 0.5-to-1.0 percent. I've tried both; for me a 0.5-percent adjustment is enough to take away that sensation.

The cause of the hip ache is simple - spin class on the "off" days. The exercise bicycle in the gym cannot be adjusted as readily as a "real" bike, or like a "spinning" bike. Different movement patterns cause musculoskeletal aches and soreness.

Any runner who has ever tried to run a pace that is too slow for their comfort has probably found out too late the error of their ways. I like to tell the tale of running with Suzanne at Honolulu's Ala Moana Park in January 2008; a solid minute-to-two-minutes-per-mile decrease in pace left me hobbling after the third day. A pace that is much slower than a runner's intrinsic efficiency forces major gait adjustment, either in stride length or stride duration. A shorter stride length is not biomechanically injurious; a longer stride duration means a longer period of compression time for the large muscle groups and joints. Drive with your shock absorbers compressed beyond their normal range for an extended period of time is most likely going to shorten their lifespan.

So, perhaps it's possible not only for a runner to go at a pace that is too fast - leading to fatigue, overstriding, a compensated gait pattern, and heel-striking - but also too slow on a treadmill.

How can a runner determine what are good training paces for treadmill runs, without going into a lot of trial and error? There are a couple of really good on-line calculators developed by some of the nations' best running coaches (e.g., McMillan, Daniels) which provide optimal pace ranges for easy runs, recovery jogs, and speed work of varying degrees.

I used my Daniels VDOT training pace for easy/long runs as the starting point for treadmill runs. After a time it appears the easy/long run pace is too slow. So, I will probably start at the "marathon pace," a little closer to 7:30/mile, and adjust downward until I find the least uncomfortable pace which doesn't feel too slow.

That's why the later editions of Running Formula, and McMillan's calculator, have pace ranges, because there will always be a sweet spot at each of the intensities which feel best for the individual runner. While running too fast on the treadmill can injure a runner, too fast is no more injurious than running too slow.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Bad Workout? It's All In Our Mind

The latest books I've read have not been without their own degree of controversy. Much like the reading (running) public stepped to one side or the other of the line drawn in the sand over barefoot running and Christopher McDougall's "Born To Run," they seem to stand on the same kind of dividing line over Matt Fitzgerald's newest work, "Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen, and the Greatest Race Ever Run."

Sometimes you have to look at the subtitle a little more closely. While Fitzgerald writes, with the assistance of two decades worth of research materials, about Scott and Allen, it's...well, it's not all about them. Iron War also tries to explain what made them different in 1989, and what makes endurance enthusiasts different now.

Yes, there are biographical pieces on Scott and Allen (which for this writer drew a parallel to other freakishly-good athletes like Michael Phelps and Lance Armstrong), but Fitzgerald looks at the sport of triathlon and the type of person drawn into it, especially the ultra-distance multisport events which were born of a bar room argument after the Honolulu Marathon thirty-plus years ago. He asks not only what drives the elite endurance athlete, but also what keeps their foot on the accelerator when the vast majority of us are begging to mash the brake pedal?

Or, as I began to think, why is it we tend to have crappy workouts when we are rushed for time; when we shoehorn in that speed workout in between the morning budget meeting and the afternoon conference call? Samuele Marcora says it might be more in our mind than we care to admit.

Marcora believes fatigue is more a perception of our mind than a physiological state. Watch runners break into a sprint for the last 200-to-300 yards of a race when they looked like they could not run another step just a half mile before. Timothy Noakes' central governor model of exercise performance says the brain makes a conscious effort to limit energy expenditure in order to save fuel for the heart, brain and lungs. But Marcora says the anterior cingulate cortex in the brain, the area responsible for control of our heart rate, breathing, autonomic responses, and conflict resolution, is the "boxing ring" for the struggle between the part of us that wants to quit and the side that wants to keep going.

Why do we feel physically fatigued after a sustained period of sedentary office work, like reconciling a budget spreadsheet (or sitting in a foreign language class)? The anterior cingulate cortex is engaged when we engage in an activity - even mental - which involves sustained attention to detail.

That might be another reason folks hate treadmill running so much. All that data - time, pace, distance, heart rate, calories and the like - is displayed before the runner. We start to do the mental gymnastics of how much longer before the end of the treadmill program, etc., and the little voice in the head begins to remind us of all the other things we need to get done...right away.

Even those runs which get shoehorned in between the rush-hour drive time and the drive to the youth soccer match can be affected by the other "noise" in our heads. The mental to-do list makes us more tired on our run, which makes us get down more on ourself because we're not running as well as we would like.

Sometimes it just pays to know "when we're training well we're probably not training well." It's not the "mark-a-star-on-the-training-calendar" runs which do us the most's the ones where we want to beat ourselves up mentally which make us stronger.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Hydration On Knowledge, Not Marketing

Last summer, when we were in Singapore's Tanjong Pagar district, we walked through a fruit market. Vendors were selling, among the durians (horrible!) and papaya (delicious!) green coconuts sliced at the top to fit drinking straws, which I assumed was for coconut milk.

Suzanne, in her goodie bag from the ING Miami Half-Marathon, found a small carton of coconut water. My initial assumption was the beverage sample was for a local concern; considering our proximity to the Caribbean I thought it might be a product sold in the local groceries or bodegas.

Fast forward three weeks to yesterday evening. I felt the compulsion to take my loving wife out for a bite to eat, partly because it was St. Valentine's Day, partly because I did not want to return home immediately after our language class. I've seen my d-a-w-g try to comprehend me babbling Japanese verb conjugates for a thirty-minute period. He looks like he understands every word, but does not know what to think.

Some dining establishments are more amenable to conversation than others - one of our faves, believe it or not, is a place called Beef O'Brady's. The nice thing about Beef's is they have enough television sets playing a variety of sporting events. Suzanne can watch basketball; I let my borderline A.D.D. run its course and try to watch everything else. Beef's also puts us with our interesting discussions, which can range from physiology to economics to familial gossip, depending on who's not drinking at the moment.

This time Suzanne saw an article in the Wall Street Journal magazine, which reminded her of the coconut water drink in her ING goodie bag. She said she liked the taste of the beverage and it seemed to not hinder her recovery after the half marathon. She's not one to tout or maintain devotion to a particular product. If she says something really positive about a product I'm likely to give it a second look.

As we read the WSJ article we learned the increasing demand for coconut water has led to a recent leap on the bandwagon by the usual band of soda sellers.

What's the best way to figure out whether something might possibly be snake oil?

- If a singer markets the product, or owns a share of a product supply chain, it's probably a good idea to give the item a wider berth.
- If the advertising tag line sounds like something you might read on a bumper sticker, walk away...there's nothing to see here.
- If the marketing campaign includes the terms "super-," "mega-," or "extreme," the odds are good there will probably a lawsuit in the not-too-distant future.

And in the case of one maker of coconut water drink, a suit has already been settled.

A proposed nationwide class action suit was filed the other week after an independent study revealed one coconut water product didn't contain the electrolyte levels indicated on the label. While there might be some sort of electrolyte balance or recovery benefit from drinking coconut water, there's no scientific proof at this time it's a more effective means of hydration (or cramp prevention - which has more to do with signals traveling through the nervous system to the muscles than other possible etiologies) than other less-pricey sports drinks.

So, while it might be a good hydration product for those persons who prefer to drink 20% of the calories (50 per 8 ounce serving) of the most common sports drink with the addition of dietary fiber, it's more difficult to tell whether the amount of electrolytes stated on the label (or in the shell, for that matter) merit the hyperbole.

Just because the big boys jump on the bandwagon it's not going to make the product any better. Only more popular.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Ticky Tacky and Toe Shoes

First, a very big tip of the running cap to Malvina Reynolds for her song, "Little Boxes." Those of you who have seen the Showtime series, Weeds, know this little song:

"Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky; little boxes on the hillside, little boxes all the same. There's a green one and a pink one and a blue one and a yellow one, and they're all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same."

I have a copy of Bill Squires' "Fast Tracks: A History of Distance Running Since 884 BC," and recently looked back at the shoes of distance runners of the late 19th and early 20th century. To look at the overwhelming majority of the pedestrians it's simple to understand why running might be looked upon as a frivolous pursuit. Most of the photos and lithographs show them in lightweight leather shoes or sneakers.

And when I talk sneakers, I'm not talking about the stuff I wore playing indoor volleyball in the mid-1990s, but Keds and Chuck Taylors, the shoes I played in as a youngster up until my first pair of tennies issued to me in the Air Force in 1980. Since running tracks were cinder or dirt in those days I bet there wasn't much of a demand for cushioned shoes. And I can guess most folks didn't do a lot of distance running because the shoes weren't all that supportive for their feet. My loving bride ran the Crescent City Classic ten-kilometer road race in a pair of hot pink Chuck Taylors. I bought that pair because they looked good with the costume she was wearing, not thinking she would get fed up with walking and decide to run the last two miles. Ten years later, she swears she'll never pull that sort of stunt ever again.

And the people in the houses all went to the university, where they were put in boxes and they came out all the same. And there's doctors and lawyers, and business executives, and they're all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.

Frank Shorter's Olympic marathon victory in 1972 is heralded as the advent of the first running boom, which was aided by the mass-marketing of trainers by shoe manufacturers like adidas, Onitsuka (now Asics) and Nike. I had no clue whether the shoes I had for track my senior year in high school, a pair of Sears-Roebuck-branded joggers (I would have gladly traded, along with my step-mother, for a pair of adidas), were harmful to my feet. At least I was able to protect my tootsies from the myriad of thorns and stones I encountered on my training runs.

Fast-forward a quarter-century and technology has advanced to the point where our shoes can almost talk to us. Nike gave us air. Asics gave us gel. Saucony gave us grid. And we gave more of our hard-earned dough for more of their technology. Ever see a pair of shoes which looked so damned ugly you knew they were not meant for you? I have three words: Asics Gel Kinsei.

And they all play on the golf course and drink their martinis dry, and they all have pretty children, and the children go to school, and the children go to summer camp and then to the university, where they are put in boxes and they come out all the same.

The great monolith Nike waited until after the death of Bill Bowerman. Visionary, tinkerer, and curmudgeon, Bowerman eventually criticized his own initial creation and Nike's tendency to add too much to the shoe over time...for no other reason than to make money off the running public. Too much money for too much needless technology. Much to their horror, Nike also learned some their sponsored athletes (particularly under coach Vin Lanana) were training barefoot. How can you make money off the bare foot? Looks like a lot of the shoe manufacturers went back to making shoes which either were light and minimally-supportive like racing flats, or like reinforced socks.

You would think the "barefoot running" purists would rejoice at the market slowly turning back toward lightweight, minimally-supportive, minimally-cushioned shoes as a method of strengthening the lower extremities of runners while protecting from the most hazardous aspects of modern outdoor running. But no.

And the boys go into business and marry and raise a family in boxes made of ticky tacky and they all look just the same. There's a green one and a pink one, and a blue one and a yellow one, and they're all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.

I thought I had seen parochialism and dogmatism in the world of training plans and coaching philosophies. The "barefoot" community makes almost any other pluralistic group seem, well, pluralist. Case in point: I purchased a pair of Fila Skele-Toes, partly because I wanted to try out a pair of "barefoot" shoes (I'm not certain what one would consider a foot covering for the "barefoot" running enthusiast, so "shoes" will have to do.), and partly because I did not want to spend the money on a more-expensive pair of Vibrams. To look at the comparison reviews, one would think they had inadvertently landed on the forum of "The Nation" or "The American Spectator".

The Fila Skele-Toes are definitely not as flexible in the sole area as the Vibrams. There are also versions of the Fila with soles which look much like the Nike Free, with a little more firmness. But, the Filas have less cushion than my K-Swiss K-Ona triathlon running shoes (a borderline minimalist shoe) and are narrower in the footbed, so it's a good step in the direction of a completely barefoot walking experience. Yes, I said walking. I have no intention to move in the general direction of barefoot running. I want to see if a minimalist shoe/modality enables me to develop enough lower extremity strength to protect the achilles tendons.

And if it works, I could care less what the Vibram/barefoot purists have to say.

Because we all don't have to be the same.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Doing Business That Makes Me Smile

“…So why didn’t you run the race this morning?”

Barb, my friend, posted this message on my Facebook wall, which I read minutes after coming home from a two-hour trail trek. Since the questioner is a close friend, dignifying the query with an answer was almost mandatory. “I had a commitment which had to be honored. Suzanne’s not here to support me. Besides that, I’m not in racing shape.”

Barb’s response came back while I was cleaning up: “You could have run the 5K.”

“No. I could not. What needed to be done, needed to be done at 9:00. Besides, I don’t race unless I feel ready to race.”

One of the things an overuse injury does, once a runner can run again, is encourage a focus on quality. Junk mileage, miles for mileage sake, miles to impress ones’ fellow runners; all that egomania gets kicked to the curb. Quality workouts come to the fore. Rest and recovery become important. Races transform into as much of a celebratory event as a test of heart.

After fifty-plus weeks of progress from no running, to twenty minutes, thirty, forty-five, and right at the edge of sixty minutes five or six times a week, I HAVE to keep running fun.

I recently downloaded a copy of Christopher McDougall’s 2009 book, “Born To Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen,” for a number of reasons. I’ve slammed barefoot running as a sort of snake oil fix, and I wanted to read straight from the source material many barefoot running enthusiasts cite as their inspiration. (My suspicion is many barefoot zealots choose to go buffet-style rather than accept the entire menu.) But before I use the broad brush to paint a Picasso-like mural of barefoot true believers, I figured I’d hear the man out. As Bob Dylan once sang: “…don’t criticize what you can’t understand.”

I read through the first hundred pages or so without difficulty. Reading “Born To Run” probably won’t fill you with the compulsion to throw out your Asics Cumulus altogether, or replace them with a pair of Fila Skele-Toes.

Or perhaps it might.

But it’s a very fun read into the mindset of a couple of cultures so different from our own, that of the Tarahumara of Mexico’s Copper Canyon, and that of the ultra-runner.

So, why do people run barefoot? Why do they run ultras? Why do my grandkids love to run and play? What caught my attention in the first hundred pages or so is McDougall’s discussion of famed distance running coach Joe Vigil’s observations of the Tarahumara during the Leadville 100 trail ultramarathon in the 1990s:

“…the real secret of the Tarahumara…(they) remembered that running was mankind's first fine art, our original act of inspired creation….perfecting the art of combining…breath and mind and muscles into fluid self-propulsion over wild terrain.…You had to love running, or you wouldn't live to love anything else. And like everything else we love—everything we sentimentally call our "passions" and "desires"—it's really an encoded ancestral necessity. We were born to run; we were born because we run. We're all Running People, as the Tarahumara have always known.”

If nothing else, what I’ve learned so far from McDougall, from Vigil, from the Tarahumara - and from the guys who spend their Saturday mornings on the wooded trails, miles from the nearest 5K road race, is that running is art. Stephen Stills sang, “I don’t do business that don’t make me smile.” While I understand there are many of my friends who are driven by the pursuit of beer glasses and applause of companions, but if “breath and mind and muscles in fluid self-propulsion” doesn’t bring a smile to our face, we might as well forego the application paperwork and the cotton t-shirt and hand our $25 to the beer vendor.

If it isn’t fun, why do it?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

What Is Wrong With These Pictures?

Suzanne and I were sitting in PizzaBar in Miami Beach, noshing out on a humongous slice of New York-style pizza, dividing our attention between the X-Games, our observations of the human condition, and the guys making pizza. Up. In. Our. Face. Oh, yes, there was beer, too. How could I forget that?

Suddenly, a very edgy commercial with parkour and sprinters, football (the round ball) players and gymnast/fitness-types splashes on the screen. I followed along with rapt attention, until I noticed something very wrong in the commercial.

What was so wrong? Take a close look at the aerodynamic helmet.

If you still can't answer the question it might be because you're not a triathlete. If you are a triathlete with a USA Triathlon membership and you still can't answer the question, here's a hint: USAT Competition Rule 3.4 (i).

Maybe Charlie Crawford or Jimmy Riccitello has had a word or few with the fine folks at Yurbuds. They have a great product, one I like a lot. But this commercial might send out an unintentional message to participants in USAT and WTC races: "if you want to break through the barriers on race day it's okay to wear Yurbuds..."

Thanks. I'm off the soapbox now.