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.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Breakdown...Go Ahead, Give It To Me

There is the occasional morning when I awaken a little more stiffly than I would prefer.  Something which makes my wife and I both chuckle, especially on Sunday mornings is to repeat the tag-line from a favorite viral video of ours: "I am a marathon runner...I must run...I am injured..."  If you've not seen this's definitely not for children.

Within the last year - after several years of abject stupidity, foolishness and plain mule-headedness - the proverbial light bulb went off in my head.  You can only kick the can so far down the road, progress from one overuse injury to the next, before the woman's side of the discussion in the video makes sense.  You realize, yes, you are an idiot for trying to run through injuries. 

It seemed like the right thing to do...someone asked whether I ascribed to the "no pain, no gain" school of coaching.  I told them, "discomfort is okay, but pain is no way."

But what now frustrates me is when I encounter runners who suffer from an overuse injury; to hear them talk, one would assume they were professionals, their livelihood would be at risk if they did not run.  Nearly half of all runners are hurt at any given time, and over eight of every ten will suffer from an injury within their lifetime.  And while there are some biomechanical abnormalities which predispose us to injury, most running injuries are the result of a screw-up on our own part; environment, equipment, or execution.

When the injury happens I tell athletes that rehabilitation, not (race) preparation, has become their goal.  While I like to leave the major medical decision-making to the persons who have initials following their names, I believe a series of simple questions can break down the breakdown to one or more causes which can be remedied with little expense.  This fault logic diagram (a thumbnail sketch of Dr. Timothy Noakes' "Lore of Running," Chapter 14) can guide the athlete - or coach - to a macro-scale solution set.  Yes, a set of solutions; rarely if ever is a running injury caused by one single factor.

When you see "no run" or "rest" as a potential treatment, that doesn't necessarily mean "complete rest."  Complete rest would only be advised in the event of more-severe injuries, such as stress fractures.  Of course, I haven't hit all of the possible categories, and I'm not prescriptive on the strength training, stretching, or cross-training.  That's where the smart folks with the initials after their names come in; just don't let them tell you to stop running altogether.

I like to think I can get to a failure cause in training method, as well as a degree of injury, but there are times when the athlete isn't giving the entire story; "nothing has changed," they say.  "All of a sudden...I can't run..."  Sometimes, the mule-headedness is karmic retribution for my own past doings.  There's not much you can do, in that case, except shrug your shoulders and recommend a week of no running, with a "wait and see" attitude.  Sometimes a causal factor suddenly pops into an athlete's head when they've had a couple of days off the trails.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Preschool Football

The runner's life requires discipline, sometimes the occasional denial of of life's more-pleasurable pursuits.  But when a Simon's football (you may call it soccer) match and a hash kennel (mis-)management meeting falls on the same afternoon as a workout, common sense states it's better to defer the task and make many (female) family members happy.  Because, like the old phrase says "when Mama (in this case, "Grammy" Suzanne...) ain't happy, ain't nobody happy." 

And this coach is all for happiness.

Four-year-old footballers, like Simon, do not naturally exhibit the same skills as the first-division professionals I've enjoyed watching for the past three decades, with the exception of the one kid who had the "crumpled on the turf" posture at the mouth of the goal down pat, which occurred immediately after the opposing team's score.  The match looked kind of like what happens when an order of french fries is dropped in the parking lot of a Burger King in Florida:  The french fries represent the soccer ball, the seagulls are the players.

So I laughed and cheered both sides for twenty minutes, and marveled at the fun the small fry were having; it was clear they were enjoying themselves.  What they were doing was - for their benefit - a simplified version of football, without corner kicks or offside rules.  Everybody played the entire game, and - save a few handball calls - no real fouls in spite of the two goal mouth dives from that one kid.

"You beat my husband up pretty good on Saturday," said the hash treasurer.

I explained that her husband was as much responsible for his own beating as I.  Suzanne concurred with my assessment of the situation, and suggested "hash cash" could keep him company at the next Saturday morning workout.

She said, "I just started a 'couch-to-five-kilometer' training program at the local running emporium, and all they do is tell us to 'go run.'  I was paired up with a guy who runs slower than I do, and I really don't feel like I'm getting any benefit out of it."

"You couldn't run any faster?"  I asked.

"No.  And what about nutrition?  What about core, stretching, and cross-training?  Sure, they gave us an information sheet, but I feel like I paid for something..."
"More prescriptive?"


"Tell you what I'll do." I said.  "Let's do dinner some Friday evening.  We can talk about all this and find out what you want to get out of a training program.  I'll try to answer your questions to the best of my ability, and point you in the right direction."

The "hash cash's" lament succeeded in winding me up in the manner of a cheap wristwatch, but, because I promised my wife I would not speak ill of local running impresari I made only weak comments.  It wasn't until the following morning as I was preparing for work - amazing what a hot shower (and Tina Turner's "Private Dancer...") can do for encouraging deep thoughts - that it all came to me.  The goal of a Cto5K program isn't that far removed from that of a recreational football program for four year-olds:  Minimize the hard stuff, maximize the fun.  So what if the other team beats you by two goals; everyone got to play, everyone got to chase after the ball, right?  And everybody on the sidelines were cheering for you, right?

In Kenny Moore's biography, Oregon coach Bill Bowerman considered running an act which was as easy as brushing ones' teeth.  Bowerman's protege' Bill Dellinger clarified that belief; running may have paralleled basic dental care, but training was like having ones' teeth cleaned for an hour each day.  It's bad enough that middle and high school physical education teachers, athletic coaches at all levels, and the military service have turned running from a joyous activity into punishment and drudgery.  Sometimes we need to take the activity and restore it back to it's most simple form of placing one foot in front of the other, repeatedly, for as long as we can enjoy it.  When a world record holder in the marathon (Alberto Salazar) recommends running no more than 30 minutes a day for five or six days out of the week, and adding other forms of exercise to build muscle strength and flexibility, there might be something to be said about why we run for longer than that duration.

We run because it makes us happy.  And if we aren't happy, and if we aren't running in a way that makes us happy...

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Refresh My (Muscle) Memory

Beverly has been one of my favorite training partners over the past five or six years.  Her husband, Steven, and I used to measure race courses together; I worked with them on several triathlon and distance swim events during that time.  Her blend of humor and education, when she shows up to run, guarantees our discussion will stray from politics and movies...and my pace will average about 30 seconds faster per mile.  That makes Beverly a welcome guest athlete. 
But, rather than recount the obligatory veterinary office joke which she told during the first mile; a tale which had something to do with an angry (sneezing, appetite-less) cat and an owner whose primary language was almost English…this morning, I found an offer in my e-mail for a pair of compression shorts, which reminded me about the second topic of the day’s run.
Bev managed to acquire, by means of a running friend, a pair of compression stockings.  She asked me how I felt about them.  My 30-second response was something along the lines of: ‘I think they are fantastic for recovery, but there isn’t a lot of research supporting the benefits of them on the run itself.’  I’ve trained one or two athletes who happen to like them, or their cousin, the calf sleeve.  I might disagree on whether they work or not, but it’s a non-issue if it makes them a happy runner.  I do like happy runners.  Happy runners, quite often, are also fast runners.  Fast runners make coaches look good.
But back to the e-mail:  When you receive an e-mail offer for a pair of compression wear (shorts) which “offer to help me guide my knees into a proper position and assist in creating muscle memory,” well, you kind of take the time to read the rest of the information, if nothing else, then at least out of curiosity.  I’ll go for almost anything which will assist my memory; muscle, brain, whatever other part of my body may possess one of them.  My wife says she married me for my memory…as far as I can rightly recall.  These shorts had not one, but two compression layers, which were supposed to lead to proper joint loading and an end-state of improved performance, speed, workout recovery and injury prevention.  And world peace.
Okay, so I’m kidding about the world peace part.  Forgive me if I’ve disappointed you with a claim that could never come to pass from a pair of stretchy pants.  I’m all for world peace; if a pair of tight pants helps…
There are elite runners who have run world-best/world record times while wearing a pair of compression stockings, and the manufacturers of the compression tights, calf sleeves, and full-body compression wear have been quick to postulate the preventative benefits from the hospital ward and rehabilitation unit to the recreational runner.  I asked my sprint-focused coaching colleague whether he encouraged his athletes to use compression wear.  He said, ‘up to the 800, absolutely.  Sprinters have so much muscle oscillation and pounding during such a short time, but going to the 1,500 and beyond you’re talking a totally different world.’  There’s muscle oscillation to a lesser degree with distance runners, and when you get out to the half-marathon and marathon it’s cumulative low-level damage we inflict upon ourselves.
When it comes to performance, recreational athletes may benefit a couple of percentage points over the course of a 5K, based on an improved stride length, power maintenance (that oscillation thing) and total work.  But, contrary to the claims of many manufacturers, researchers learned there were no physiological benefits while wearing compression stockings; the body cleared excess lactate from the blood at the same rate as with ‘normal’ exercise clothing, there were no appreciable differences in VO2 or heart rate during exercise trials.
Compression wear is most beneficial during the period of time immediately following a bout of exercise.  While compressive wear might be uncomfortable being worn, the limbs and affected areas of the body are less likely to become inflamed.  There’s also the thermal benefit to the muscles; keeping the muscles warm and controlled also allows muscle fibers to rebuild in a straight line – that means the muscle is less likely to develop ‘knots.’  Creatine kinase and myoglobin (chemicals found in the blood after a heart attack, a marker for muscle damage) levels dramatically decreased in the first 24 hours following an exercise bout when compression wear was worn during that time.
The problem with compression wear and compression stockings is that the fit has to be correct.  Not every athlete is built in exactly the same way.  My wife, for example, would most likely not be able to wear the same type of compression stockings or tights as I.  We learned the hard way after I loaned her a pair of my Nike compression stockings; not because of the fact her legs are three inches shorter than mine, she has a very large calf muscle structure.  Her gastrocnemius and soleus muscles are large…almost as large as mine (and I have some calf muscles, the by-product of much cycling during my youth), she also did not like the tightness at the ankle.  Variations in the way an athlete’s body is built requires - especially with “graduated compression stockings,” where the stockings (or wear) are ‘tighter’ at the distal end of the limb (near the hands and feet) and less tight as you approach the torso – a more-refined sizing structure.  You can’t go “numbered sizes,” or “small, medium, large, extra-large” and get the same result across the board.
I looked a little closer at the shorts…in many ways they look like the nylon and lycra compression shorts I see on the ladies at my local gym…with an additional three or four inches of inseam, about the same length as a pair of bicycle shorts.  I really had a hard time swallowing the claims of the short manufacturer; it’s difficult to say that a pair of shorts will guide a knee toward a proper position for a couple of reasons: knee position is very much a personal thing, based on specific biomechanical baselines.  And the individual runner’s knee position is affected not solely by the large muscles of the legs, but by the strength or weaknesses of the muscles around the hip or the foot. 
It takes more than a pair of ‘spankies’ to provide muscle memory.  It’s making the mind and the muscle ‘smart’ about what it is doing that leads to muscle memory, and a more efficient running form.  That means learning the specific limiters and weaknesses, then strengthening those areas, then focusing on proper form; not a pair of pants.
Most of the research studies over the past five years indicate that compression garments aren’t going to increase a runner’s performance during a long race.  They do limit the vibration or oscillation of muscles, and reduce the chance of swelling and the perception of muscle soreness during the recovery period, but the problem is that many of the research findings are often limited to an activity unrelated to running, or has been mixed across several studies and the manufacturer willingly decides to overlook it and go with the placebo effect - if you think it's going to make you faster, you just might be correct.
Ali, Creasy, Edge (2010). Physiological effects of wearing graduated compression stockings during running. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 109, pg. 1017-1025.
Ali, Creasy, Edge (2011). The effect of graduated compression stockings on running performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25, 5, pg. 1385-1392.
Dicharry (2012). Anatomy for runners: unlocking your athletic potential for health, speed and injury prevention. Skyhorse Publishing.
Goh, Laursen, Dascombe, Nosaka (2011). Effect of lower body compression garments on submaximal and maximal running performance in cold (10*C) and hot (32*C) environments. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 111, pg. 819-826.
Kraemer, Flanagan, Comstock, Fragala, Earp, Dunn-Lewis, Ho, Thomas, Solomon-Hill, Penwell, Powell, Wolf, Volek, Denegar, Maresh (2010). Effects of a whole body compression on markers of recovery after a heavy resistance workout in men and women.  Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24, 3, pg. 804-814.
MacRae, Cotter, Laing (2011). Compression garments and exercise: garment considerations, physiology and performance. Sports Medicine, 41, 10, pg. 815-843.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Need (To Race Weekly) And The Damage Done

"I want to improve my 5K time."  "My race times aren't improving."  "Why do I keep getting beaten at races?"  This statement was said by no runner.  Ever.

I am surprised at the number of times I hear something along these lines, as well as the occasional "weight issue" and "how can I improve my triathlon performance" queries.  Those are questions which are really "tell me the secret to successful running" questions.  When I tell them the uncomfortable truth; the fact they race too much and train too little, it's my way of informing them there's only one secret to being a successful runner: "Choose your parents wisely."  There are no miracles in running, and only one secret.  The successful runner chooses their target races wisely.  They train wisely leading up to the race date, and they return to training when their body is ready.

Depending on the training focus - race distances, specific times of the year - and the individual athlete's economies (physical and fiscal) a well-trained runner can sustain peak racing performance for four to six weeks.  A longer, more-controlled training year with a single peak period will reveal a longer peak, a two peak focus or longer distance target races are closer to four weeks.  I know persons who participate in half-marathon and marathon events on a weekly basis; most do little more than the event as their weekly volume, and often at paces which more closely resemble quick walks.  Regardless of the pace, damage happens.  I often wondered why I could trot 5,000 meters on a Saturday morning at eight-minute pace and grade papers or study with no ill effect, but a 5K road race run six minutes faster would find me asleep in the recliner for two hours.  Damage happens in training runs, but more acutely so when we race.

Double a race distance, and the muscular and molecular damage which comes from racing is not just doubled; it's doubled, plus "interest."  A marathon isn't only eight and a half times the distance of a five-thousand meter race, it's ten times the damage.  So the recovery rules-of thumb - complete rest for each hour of racing, easy run training for each mile of racing - aligns well for the 24-minute 5K runner and the four-hour marathoner; followed wisely, all other things being equal, both can start another 18-to-24-weeks of training as long as the base training has been done.

But many recreational runners fail to ensure they've developed a good, solid base.  They don't consider long, steady runs which develop muscle, brain and heart to be necessary.  Speedwork, including short repeats and tempo runs of 20 minutes, aren't that important to them.  Everything is run at the same pace, with little variation from day to day.  To continue to do the same thing from week-to-week, without variation and expect anything else but the same performances, searching in vain for the secret, is the runner's way of living a lie.

"I want to live a lie."  This statement was said by no serious runner.  Ever.