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.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The First Workout: "Czech," Please!

There was a year when I actively courted runners, invited them to train with my little group, and put across the effort to let them know I had a vested interest in their success. That sort of intensity leads to a coach emotionally tying themself to every success and failure.  More emotional trauma...when an athlete makes to 'move on' to another coach, to stop training with the group, or worse, to quit running altogether.

There's only so much deep blue funk one can stow in the trunk. After a while, Suzanne felt the need to provide some wifely advice, 'just worry about the folks who are still here.'
Now when the occasional phone call/e-mail comes I provide a thumbnail sketch of what I'm about, what I do, when and where I can be found, and so on. Even when the initial feeling-out period is lengthy when a runner comes out for the first time the first workout doesn't feel like a first date.  It feels more like a blind date.

Thank goodness for the Internet. Just like a potential courtship merits a quick background check to ensure no unpleasant surprises, I appreciate the opportunity to chat up the athlete via e-mail or telephone. I try to do a little homework; look for recent run performances and trends which give a hint what this person wants out of a coaching arrangement. This way the first session can be spent observing the athlete go through a baseline workout, rather than 'getting to know you' questions. Not unlike those occasional unguarded moments after the first adult beverage has kicked in, athletes often reveal important stuff later on in the first meeting.

Sometimes everyone goes home happy. Sometimes, like real-world dates, the first encounter doesn't quite synch as perfectly as both parties initially hoped.

After a couple of months of e-mail chat an athlete came out for the first time, just recently. I had a few recent race results to give baseline expectation, and I looked forward to pairing with an athlete around their ability level. The new athlete showed twenty minutes into the warm-up, when I asked them to do a quick mile jog.  They then went off onto a grass field near the track without telling me a thing. So far, this is not going well. 

The equivalent of your date texting friends between drink service and appetizer arrival.

After the first set, I assigned a set of 350-meter repeats at a little under threshhold pace. The athlete complained of some hamstring discomfort, so I modified the effort.  Then they asked to run the opposite direction on the track, to which I acquiesced. Finally, I decided it prudent to shut the workout down. After an easy quarter jog, I asked if there were any possible causes for the hamstring discomfort.

Unguarded moment: The athlete ran a trail half-marathon a week earlier, on a training volume which included thirty miles of running, with an aggressive schedule of weight training, core work, Pilates and stretching each week.

Unless the efforts are of very-high quality (less likely!) a training volume of thirty miles a week is a little on the light side for a good (comfortable!) half marathon experience. The additional weight training, core, Pilates, and stretching...what Dr. Jack Daniels describes in his Running Formula as 'support systems,' may "produce fewer direct benefits" in run performance, "but may mean the difference between success and failure." Athletes who lack flexibility, muscle strength, or need a little more mental/psychological toughness may benefit from these types of 'support system' work. Daniels warns, however, that adding a load of training just to fill time gaps in the week, rather than satisfy known deficiencies is unproductive to the overall training program. There is such a thing as too much strength training, stretching, or cross-training. What's the goal? If the goal is to become a better runner and the exercise regimen is not improving -- or worse, causing you injury -- you're probably better off doing something taking some down time after a race.

The idea of recovery after a half-marathon -- no running for every hour raced, no hard running for every mile raced -- had never crossed this particular athlete's mind.

To top it off, the athlete then said they preferred longer repeats during workouts, to which I replied it would take a few weeks for us to get more comfortable with each other. I have a four-to-six week cycle of workouts I consider a base for future training. Shorter repeats allow a runner to learn to go fast and stay relaxed.  Short fast efforts, over time, allow the runner to do longer, fast efforts. 

I have two words for anyone who thinks short repeats at speed are only good for short racing distances.  Emil Zatopek.

If running repeats up to 400 meters, at varied intensities, was good enough for Olympic medals in the 5,000 meters (twice), 10,000 meters (twice), and the marathon, then who am I to argue?

I'm not saying short repeats are the only training necessary to be a decent distance runner.  Overdistance builds basic physiological and mental adaptations to the task at hand; tempo runs and easy running also have their place, but sometimes we focus on a particular distance or intensity, not because we knew our limiters, but because it reinforces what we already do well.  It makes us feel good about our running. 

Sometimes, run training isn't about feeling good at that particular moment in time.  When jogging (easy running) was described as being as simple as brushing ones' teeth, (Olympic medalist and coach) Bill Dellinger replied, "true, but training is like having your teeth cleaned for an hour, every day."

I walked out from the track to my car as the athlete went to go do a few extra miles on the trail.  At that point I was certain who would lead and who would follow in the dance between coach and athlete. 

Whether the tune will's too soon to tell.

Michael Bowen is a training specialist/running coach who lives and trains in the Pensacola, FL area. He works with runners of all ability levels, both remotely and in-person. He and his wife, Suzanne, travel frequently to New Orleans to participate in and support races and triathlons. He also writes a blog, "If I Were Your Coach..."

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Put A Different RICE In Your "Diet"

"Achilles tendonitis..."

I turned in the direction of the voice.  Valentino, in a voice which seemed almost a laugh, said again, "Achilles tendonitis!" 

"You?"  I asked.

"Yeah, me.  I suspected that's what was wrong.  I could feel it when I got out of bed the past couple of mornings; all the popping noises and such."

"It's a sign we're getting old, man.  Our breakfast cereal is supposed to make noise, not our body," I replied. 

I'm not into schadenfreude, the concept of having joy at the misfortune of someone else, but it did seem a little bit ironic.  Val's also a running coach; he specializes in sprints at the high school and Junior Olympic level.  During my autumn of pain, he would shout angrily when I would limp into the office the day after my own track workouts -- workouts which had intensities or distances too much for my fifty-year-old (still-injured) tendons to endure.

So, Val has appointments with the base medical clinic, the physical therapist, base pharmacy and the like.  But he's going to keep running because he's stubborn...and he hates cross-training.

When runners think about injuries and their treatment, most of them have heard of the mnemonic RICE: Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation.  While this treatment method works well for the discomfort of soft tissue injuries, it's not a cure, and isn't as effective when we begin to talk about the more common overuse injuries from which runners suffer.

The same mnemonic, RICE, can be used to treat the cause of injuries like achilles tendinosis, plantar fasciitis, iliotibial band syndrome, patellar tendinosis, and the like.  Unlike the soft tissue RICE, this RICE stands for: Reflect, Identify, Correct, Evaluate.

Reflect - stop and think:  Has there been a sudden change in the run/workout routine?  Have I added distance, changed terrain, altered surface, or increased intensity?  When did I purchase this pair of running shoes?

Identify - what are the most-likely causes for the damage?  In the case of overuse injuries the culprit usually begins with "too:"  Too much speed work.  Too much added distance.  Too little recovery.  Too old shoes.  Too many hills.  Too many crowned or bad surfaces.

Also, take the time to identify what sort of exercise you can do to replace running for the next few weeks; you might lose some cardiovascular fitness during this period, but exercise which does not aggravate the present damage will allow blood to continue to flow to the injured area, continuing the healing process.  Anti-inflammatory drugs can be taken to ease swelling but shouldn't be taken to mask pain just so you can go out and run...remember the discomfort/pain is a message that something is injured and needs to heal.

Correct - what can you do to keep this injury from reoccurring?  A lot of overuse injuries are the result of a musculoskeletal imbalance or a muscular weakness, leading to compensation by a connecting part of the body which was unable to handle, or recover from, the increased strain.

Evaluate - is there really a need to train at the level which caused the injury in the first place?  If the root cause of the injury is strictly to do with poor equipment then I would recommend a gradual return to the training regimen where no pain existed.  If terrain, mileage, intensity or surface changes were the cause, then consider very conservative changes or increases, giving the body sufficient time to recover and adjust to the new stress.  If the cause is too little recovery, then you'll have to figure out a way to assist the recovery process either by taking a day off, engaging in "active rest," or implementing modalities like self-massage, massage therapy, compression garments, stretching and so on.

So, when it comes to injuries, you still need to remember the RICE mnemonic, but it's a completely different form of RICE.  Reflect.  Identify.  Correct.  Evaluate.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Lace Up Those Shoes, Kiddies

I don't get the phone calls as often as I used to.

I could guarantee at least half-a-dozen phone calls between February and May from the parents - or grandparents - of potential youth running prodigies.  And the phone message, give or take a few words, always sounded like: 'I found your name on the (blank) web site, and I see that you do track workouts on (day of week).  My (child) runs for (coach) at (school), but I want to help them improve at the (race distance).  Please call me back with more details about your program.'

So, I'd call back and graciously decline their offer to potentially coach the 'next great American runner.' Lake Wobegon syndrome ("...all the children are above-average") notwithstanding.  To me, youth coaching is a trip to the dark side of the Freudian pleasure-pain calculus.  Think Clarence Thomas at a confirmation hearing.  Bill Clinton defining 'is' during a deposition.  Lance Armstrong in an interview with Oprah Winfrey.

My (nearly) hard/fast guideline is that I will not coach anyone younger than 16.  If the kid can't drive themself to the track, I want no part of working with them.  And if they already have a coach, well, I'm not going to take another guy's/gal's kneecaps out, just to have another young athlete.  I've had family members recruit me within earshot of the other coach (a personal friend).  We had a good laugh over that one after the parents were gone.  The scariest thing about running, especially when youth are involved, is that a family member can screw up more than one person's career at a time.

Kids should be encouraged to take up running as sport.  It's one of those activities which needs little more than a place and decent shoes.  The list below contains most of the Road Runners Club of America guidelines for youth running, based on developmental principles of training and racing for young distance runners written by Larry Greene, Ph.D. and Russ Pate, Ph.D.

My sport is your sport's punishment.  Every time I've seen youth baseball players do sprints or laps around the field for screwing up a double play I want to shriek in horror.  First and foremost, running should be fun.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it; if it looks really broke, make very small adjustments.  Once upon a time, a family member made a wise-crack about my run form (back when I played baseball); they said I appeared to have been impaled by a broomstick.  Strangely enough, my father recalled this observation during the height of my (healthy) racing career.  A proper (erect) form and reasonable stride length, taught early on, will eliminate bad habits and potential injuries later.  There are other little things which can be discouraged, like excess arm movement, twisting the upper body, or over-striding.

You might not be the best, but you can be a good one.  Strangely enough, the over-emphasis on awards, trophies and personal accomplishments also seem to scare away many adult runners.  The goal is to develop the habit of life-long activity and participation; middle school, high school and (some) college competition can/will come soon enough.  Personally, if not for a college coach who encouraged me to "just go out and have fun," I might not have even considered racing.

We're all individuals, exactly the same as the next person.  In the same way that one marathon training program - or race distance, come to think of it - is not the best fit for every runner (differences in time to train, time to recover, resiliency), it's important for adults and coaches to allow for different abilities and physical maturity levels within the group.  Around age 12-to-14 training distances and durations can be slowly increased, leading to systematic and competitive training.  I was questioned the other weekend about the optimal training volume for 5K racing, at which point the father of a young man who was working out with the group looked at me in a shocked manner.  I then had to remind him my answers and guidance focuses more toward adult runners, and that in the case of his son I would have to err on the side of slightly less intensity and duration.

I am thankful that running is the most egalitarian of sports:  Simple persistence and patience can turn any individual into a more-healthy, more-active, and more-engaged person.  As a well-known running writer has often said, 'there is no limit where running can take you.'

Friday, April 12, 2013

"Relay" does not mean "Delay"

The sign at the college campus entrance provided a knee-deep sense of foreboding...which quickly turned hip-to-waist-deep once I saw the tents and pop-up covers.  A fund-raising relay event on the track, in 25 words or less, meant no chance for speed work on the track.

If you're doing workouts on your own this isn't a big deal; you just have to go to another track, right?

What if there isn't another track nearby, or the track has a less-than-desirable location/surface?  I first had to deal with this "problem" during a two week assignment to Orlando, many years ago.  The hotel gym had a "typical inexpensive hotel gym" quality treadmill (translation: great for walking and not much else); and the staff did not know the location of the nearest track.  However, there was a long, straight stretch of roadway, about three miles in length, with light poles spaced about fifty yards apart. 

Speed workouts don't necessarily require a track; a favorite jogging path, stretch of road or trail will do.  The most-popular form of speed work done on paths, roads or trails would have to be fartlek, which is the Swedish for "speed play."  The fartlek workout has certain benefits as well as drawbacks:  A runner can pretty much push the pace for as long (or not as long) as they feel, they can vary the pace, and they can vary the recovery periods. 

However, I'm a bit of a knucklehead about speed work, and in fact, about most of my runs.  There has to be a purpose, some sort of plan, behind all of this; otherwise I might as well have my feet up on the couch watching SportsCenter.  If there are regularly-spaced landmarks along the way I'll figure it out from the outset and plan something like this:

First two miles - comfortable jog
Next mile - 200 meters, more or less, with 50 meters recovery jog
Next mile - 400 meters, more or less, with 50-to-100 meters recovery jog
Next mile - 200 meters, more or less, with 50 meters recovery jog

The efforts would be anywhere from highly aerobic (a pace I can hold steadily for five kilometers) to eighty-percent of maximal effort.

Now, with the consumer-grade GPS we can probably keep a closer eye on distance efforts and recovery intervals.  For those persons who aren't into GPS, another option would be to set a running watch on countdown timer for a thirty-to-sixty second period, set to repeat. Jog easy for fifteen to twenty minutes, then alternate harder and easier efforts during each repeat.  The distances are not so much the important quantity as much as the effort and recovery times.  Harder efforts, naturally, will most likely require longer recoveries.

So don't let that "Relay for Reality" or the infield soccer camp make you set aside your speed work.  Find yourself a place to let your horses run free.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Leave No Man Behind

I'm going to get on my soapbox for this post.  If you are offended by association, dear reader, then my mission is complete.

What do the names Steve Larsen, Ryan Shay and Jim Fixx have in common?  All three at one time or another were known names in the running, cycling or triathlon world.  All three also passed away during - or immediately after - a race or a training session from cardiac-related events. 

Now, take a look at the sports news.  There's another headline about an age-grouper dying at a triathlon or marathon because of a previously-undetected cardiac problem.  It makes me shudder each time I see a report.  I could have been one of that number three years ago.  I quit mid-way through the swim portion of Ironman Florida because I felt fatigued; the medical technicians suspected an issue with my heart (premature ventricular contractions) and recommended I be taken to the hospital.  Fortunately for me I had enough time to call Suzanne and let her know what had gone wrong.  Yes, she was freaked out.  But she was glad I was smart enough to know to get out of the water, becoming an Ironman was not worth killing myself.

Since that morning (even with the Hash House Harriers), I have worn a heart rate monitor when I run.  I don't care that someone might mock me; I wear the "strap" to track every effort (and recovery).  The emergency room doctor at the hospital in Panama City, my general practitioner, and the cardiologist who performed my echocardiogram all gave me a clean bill of health, but sometimes a guy can never be completely certain.  Not because I need to quantify what I feel; I've been doing this long enough to "ball park" figure the effort.  I also wear the heart rate monitor to remind me the chances of something going wrong.  I tell Suzanne the route or location of my workout, a thumbnail sketch of what I plan to do, and my projected return.  She does the same.

We have become really conscious of telling each other our intentions in the past year, the seeds of this attitude were sown a couple of years ago by several situations:

Suzanne and I had recently purchased a couple of road bikes after I decided I was interested in multisport.  On our first group bike ride, our friends launched into a twenty-minute mini-lecture on flat repair kits, extra bike bottles, money, snack bars and such - my flat-kit-less bike was proof we were under-prepared for even the shortest of distance rides.  At first, I wanted to pass it off as typical (northern) German efficiency and preparedness, but it wasn't just for the rider themself as it was for the group.  Later that spring at a thoroughly-cold and miserable Crescent City Classic we left the huddled masses at City Park because Scott, the thinnest member of our little group, was shaking so badly he was spilling beer all over the grass; after a brief bus ride, hot showers and dry clothes for everyone we continued our Easter weekend in good conscience.  I may have been their coach, but I learned from Christian and Petra that the well-being of any group is based on the well-being of each individual.

Probably around this time, I stopped at a porta-john during the latter stages of a group long run.  Rather than hang back and wait on me the group decided to continue.  Furious, I ran at 5K race tempo for the next two miles to catch the group.  By the time I caught them I had a half mile to go, so I continued at that pace, climbed in my car and went home without a word.  The next weekend, the teenage son of one of the group was having a bad day and falling farther behind, without a word of concern from any of the group.  I decided after that to run with a smaller group under what I call "Ranger Rules."  It's a very simple rule, borrowed from the movie "Black Hawk Down." 

Leave No One Behind. 

If you hit a porta-john, someone stays back to pace you back up to the group.  If you feel badly, someone maintains that pace with you.  If you feel very badly, someone gets help.

When it comes to personal health, there's a certain degree of personal responsibility that needs to be exercised.  It makes perfect sense to be checked by a health professional on a regular basis, just to ensure no unpleasant surprises.  Chronic conditions which require a medication or dietary regimen are just that, a requirement.  It's irresponsible not to meet that requirement.  A responsible person will communicate these issues with the people closest to them, carry a cell phone with an "ICE" - In Case of Emergency - number, or carry some sort of contact information, just in case things go very wrong. 

If you know something is going wrong with your friend, don't leave it to the tender mercies of someone else; take care of it yourself.  If you are fortunate you might be helped by a person you least likely expect to save your tender behind.  Or you might end up in the news.