Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Forget the PR, Mohican 50K and 25K Trail Race

            A group of us from Grunt Girls and a few of our friends stayed in a cabin at Mohican Adventures, where the start/finish area moved for this year’s race.  Two of us ran the 50K while seven ran the 17.4 mile long “25K”.  For our friend Will this 25K was the first race of his adult life (he’s 28) and he came out of it wanting to do more.  I really like going to races with a big group and making a weekend of it, even if it does mean maybe a little less sleep and an extra glass of red wine.  This time it also meant an audience for the two of us who ran the 50K and followed it up with an ice bath.  An audience is good, it keeps you from backing out when you stick your first foot in or from getting back out before fifteen minutes have passed.  For Gabe this was his first 50K and his first ice bath.  He did very well with both, finishing the race in a flat out sprint which he says hurt like heck, and concluding that he likes 50K trail races better than 15 minute ice baths.  I have to say I agree completely and wouldn’t bother with the torture if it didn’t get my legs working right again so quickly.
            Rob Powell, the race director (and an all around great guy), changed the course for both races this year and I’m a huge fan of the changes.  Now there are better hills, including the aptly named “Big Ass Hill”, which has its own sign at the bottom and is followed closely by the “don’t hate the hill, hate the race director” hill.  Also, this year both distances included the waterfalls loop, which is a really beautiful section of trail everyone should get to see.  There are parts along the creek where the trail is really just a creek with flags along it to tell runners they’re really still on course.  Later the flags actually lead under a waterfall before climbing up out of the ravine through tree roots runners have to grab hold of due to the steepness of the side.  This kind of course is why I trail run and I love it.  The river crossing was intimidating for a few but made for great pictures and everyone in our group made it across.  Stacy fell in up to her neck but bravely went on to finish strong if a little chilly.  Gale was a little nervous about the iffy footing at first but Gabe came along on his second loop while she was considering her strategy and they crossed together, arm in arm.  Someone on the bridge above captured them on camera and posted the pictures on the race website so we all got to see.
            For me this was my best 50K so far.  It was my second fastest but a more challenging course by far than the Fool’s run three weeks ago where I managed a PR.  The two loops are not identical in length or terrain, with the half way point coming a couple miles before the end of the first loop.  This meant managing pace more by paying attention to effort than by watching my GPS watch.  I was still jogging small hills in the last few miles of the race and crossed that finish line very, very tired but running.  Learning to pace by learning how my body feels at a particular distance is a goal of mine and something I really enjoy.  I also finished first woman and fifth overall, which is the highest overall finish I’ve ever had.  I like running for its own sake but I also really like the feeling of training hard and racing hard and then seeing the results.
            What did I learn from this race?  Well, my body definitely races better on more calories.  Every time I went too long without a gel, even just by a little bit, my legs would start to tell me I’d run the earlier miles too fast after all.  10-15 minutes after putting in a gel or two my legs would change their tune.  I think low blood sugar gives me illusions of pain.  I ended up putting in four Accel gels with protein, two Gu gels and I think seven or eight Hammer gels.  Talking to a couple fast runners after the race, I think I need to add more healthy fats to my breakfast before long races but maybe I’ll just always need a lot of calories to go fast.  I’m planning to experiment with a couple spoonfuls of natural peanut butter before my next few long runs to see what kind of impact that has. 
            Endurance athletes mostly get pretty comfortable discussing body functions and learning what to do about them during our sports.  A couple members of our group have a history of problems with fast moving digestion (the kind that causes emergency pit stops in the woods) and stomach cramps during or after long races.  I had some problems last year (three problems in one 25K) and have dealt with it ever since by taking a couple Immodium about two hours before any race longer than ten miles.  I have had great success with no follow-up trouble the next day, so of course I shared this information with my friends.  Everyone who tried this approach over the weekend felt that it worked very well, and Andrea, who has always had pain in her guts for the rest of the day any time she runs long said she felt great this time.  I share all this in case anyone reading it has similar problems.  It’s not one of those things you see mentioned much in running magazines so maybe it’s not a big problem out in the running community but if you have a problem with it then it is probably big to you.

Friday, April 8, 2011

How to Run; Notes on Form


If you google ‘running form’ you’ll find all kinds of different theories and vocabularies.  Sorting through the pages upon pages of information isn’t all that much fun so I’ve gone ahead and summarized the main three popularized running forms below.  I’ve experimented with these forms and ideas about running, reviewed them with a few people in the know, and written down the good stuff that you really need out of all of it.

Barefoot running: This is the notion that more shoe is a bad thing, that our bodies are made for running.  Running shoes pretty much get in the way and cause us to land heel first and hurt ourselves as well as correcting for weaknesses in the muscles in our feet and in our motor control.  It is suggested that this ultimately leads to more injury and that we need to build distance slowly and strengthen our feet.

Pose running:  This is a technique advocating short stride length and a mid-foot strike.  The body should angle or lean forward slightly.  The heels never really touch the ground and the feet never get in front of the hips.  This is not the same as running on your toes.  You’re meant to use hamstrings and hip flexors as well as your ‘core’ muscles, to keep your body moving, as well as your overall forward lean.  Do not bend from the waist but at the hip joints so that you do not hunch over.  Run with your upper body relaxed.

Chi running: The focus here is on efficiency and relaxation.  Forward lean of the whole body and mid-foot strike are emphasized as well as not letting the arms cross the midline of the body.  And the whole body is meant to be kept in line as with Pose running.  The focus in Chi running is more on imagery and energy than on mechanics.

What it pretty much boils down to;
Longer stride=injury Your feet need to stay under you while you run, your hips and butt too.  Don’t reach out in front of you with your feet and slam your heel into the ground.  If your foot lands in front of you then you’re putting on the brakes and sending a shock wave right up your body.  Longer strides are only for powerful sprinters when they are sprinting.  The very best distance runners in the world have short strides and take lots of them.  Why?  A short stride is like lifting a light weight.  You can do it lots of times.  You’re a distance runner, you have to lift your weight a really lot of times.  Also, do you really think you should stretch your muscles out as much as you can and then bang on one end of them?  Yup, that’s what a long stride length does. 
    For the rest of it, tilt your whole body, hips and all, forward a little, run happy and pay attention.  Tilt forward does not mean arch your back.  Your spine should be in the same position it is in when you are in a neutral standing position.  Why run happy?  Because misery just makes you tense and tension is a huge waste of energy and not really very much fun.  Do you know why drunk drivers wreck and don’t get hurt?  It’s because their bodies are so relaxed.  Running isn’t the same as slamming into a phone pole and probably shouldn’t be done immediately after downing a bottle of wine, but it should be done relaxed.  The cumulative impact of a week of running might add up to driving into a phone pole.  I’m not going to do the math here but surely you get where I’m going.  Whatever you need to get right in your head to help your body relax, whatever you need to picture or think about, find that.  Get loose, check in with yourself during your workouts. 
If you’re not sure about ‘vertical alignment’ or ‘whole body forward tilt’, try this; picture a string coming out the top of your head, pulling all of you up toward the sky.  Maybe it’s pulling you forward slightly but it still pulls mainly up.  You can’t bend at the waist because you’d have to pull down against the string to do it.  The string stretches your spine out.  Your legs can stay bent as they kick back behind you, propelling forward like the motor on a boat but the rest of you can float along above.  I say float because even when your legs are tired and heavy it’s important to try to find a way to stay relaxed.  Most of us run tenser when we’re tired, resulting in even more tiredness.
    Pay attention to what?  Pay attention to how your body feels.  Do you know whether your toes point in, out or forward?  There’s a certain amount variation because our bodies are all different so this isn’t about figuring out whether you run just the same as somebody who’s a little faster than you.  This is about you learning your own body.  If you don’t take the time to feel how far behind you each leg gets at the end of a stride or how much rotation your hips have or which part of your foot you land on then how will you ever change if you need to?  Try altering the curve in your back one way or another to see how it feels.  Try changing the position of your shoulders or even shrugging them up and down just to get a feel for where and how they move.  Most of us have a distorted perception of our own form and need to play around with it to get more aware.  If, for example, I were to try to shrug my shoulders up and find that they didn’t go far that might mean I was already running with them shrugged up a bit.
Once you can feel the way your body moves, then you can play with it, you can change things up and see how it feels.  There is no special scan or test or piece of equipment that can get inside your body, there’s just you.  You’ve got to remember that you are inside your own body, and your brain and your body aren’t really separate things.  It sounds a little silly and new age but there it is.  And really, feeling a little silly while you run might just do your form good.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Speed Work for Long Distance Running

Is speed work for making you faster?  No, not really, not for most of us.  How can I say that?  Well look at it like this; I can already run fast enough to run marathon in two hours, the trouble is I can’t maintain that pace for much distance at all.  Well yeah you’re thinking to yourself, of course not.  The fastest I can run isn’t going to improve much no matter how much I speed train either so this is why I say speed work won’t make me faster.  For some people it will, sure, that’s fine, but still that’s not actually why we as endurance athletes must do our speed work if we wish to maximize our improvement.  Actually, just reading this one may take a little endurance.  It took up two whole pages when I wrote it but if you don’t know a lot about speed work’s hows and whys this will be worth it and it’s written in a manner that should make sense to everyone, not just you science people.
            So why?  Well, there is a set percent of my personal maximum pace/heart-rate/endurance-buzz-word that I can run at and be able to sustain it for any particular distance.  A whole lot of what determines this is the details of my body’s biochemistry.  There are little energy factories inside muscle cells called mitochondria which turn sugar into the stuff your muscles can use to work.  There are also transporters that bring raw materials into the cell and enzymes in the cells and mitochondria.  Everybody has different amounts of all these different things that are needed to get a muscle to contract.  If you don’t have enough of one or all of these things to sustain the pace you are trying to sustain then the system will back up and you will slow down.
            Well that seems unfair, right?  I mean what, I’m just lucky and have more of all this stuff than you?  Well then do your speed work.  Your body can adapt to all kinds of demands.  Speed work creates the kind of intense demand that will cause your body to make more of all the various ingredients.  You may not get any faster as a sprinter and your VO2 max and max heart rate may not change but the percent of that max you can run at without having to slow down will change.  It can change a lot and it can make a big difference in your race results, not to mention your comfort level while you are running.
            Here’s the thing about doing speed work; it hurts, it sucks, for most of us it’s not fun.  You may decide that running is recreation for you and that if it’s not fun then you’re not doing it and that’s okay.  So what do we mean when we say speed work and how much should you do?  Do not do more than two sessions per week or you will ruin the quality of it and deprive your body of the time it needs to respond to what you did and make all the good stuff that will help you.  Once a week is just fine and missing the occasional week especially right before or after a long race, won’t stop you from benefitting.  For purposes of brevity and simplicity I’m going to break speed work into two types below and explain them.  You should do both types alternating weeks or be hardcore and one of each every week.

1)      Tempo runs: For this you warm up 10 min. minimum then run at a pace that is uncomfortable to you but that you can sustain and do it for a set amount of time.  You may start with 15 min. but should be able to get up to 45 min. and doing even up to 10 miles can still be tempo if you’re fit enough to keep the pace even.  Tempo runs do help make the part of the stuff that is mitochondria and aerobic enzymes which is good for making the ATP which is the stuff that your muscle uses to contract to make you go.  If you can make more ATP faster, then you can contract your leg muscle at a higher rate for longer.

2)      Intervals:  Warm up for 10-20 min.-know your own body.  I take 15 min.  Run 1-4 mins. as fast as you can go for that time/distance.  The newer you are to this the closer to 1 min. this should be.  Quarter mile intervals are a good and convenient distance.  Rest 2-3 minutes between intervals.  5 repeats is a good start and 10 is a very good workout.  If you don’t rest but try to keep jogging in between your intervals then your intensity will go down.  If you make your intervals too long then your intensity will go down.  Why is that bad?  Because short, intense intervals create such a specific and intense demand within the body that they result in real change in the body.   This helps with the mitochondria and enzymes like a tempo run BUT also does something else.  Remember that there are transporters for getting some of the stuff into the muscle cells?  These are proteins in the cell membrane and the number of them you have is not set.  Short, intense intervals will cause your body to make more of them so you can get the stuff that gets broken down inside the cell out of your blood and into your cell much faster.  This means more muscle contractions sooner.  This means you can sustain that pace. 
3)      I know, I said I would have two types.  This is a technique note.  Did you know that the cadence, the number of strides per minute while racing is about the same for elite sprinters as for elite marathon runners?  Crazy!  The sprinters have way more power and therefore, a longer stride length so they cover ground faster.  Why do I bring this up?  Because amateur distance runners often try to lengthen their stride when doing speed work and often at the cost of cadence.  Too long a stride over long distance and especially when it is not backed up by enough strength WILL get you injured.  As distance runners seeking to improve we need to pay attention to form which includes cadence so:  Instead of only trying to cover the ground as fast as you can when you are running intervals, work on the cadence part.  Do not let your steps feel long to you.  The point is not a faster quarter mile.  The point is to have good form that won’t injure you and to get really, really painfully out of breath.

This is a very simplified explanation.  If you are interested in learning more, the break-down of glucose to pyruvate, the conversion of that to lactate when there is a back up in the citric acid cycle, MCT 1 are all things you can google or look up in biochemistry and physiology textbooks.  I’ve read them and they’re fascinating and boring all at once. 

Here is the take home message; Your body has factories for making energy.  If you never demand much of them then they won’t upgrade equipment, they’ll just get slowly run down.  If you demand more than they can handle all of the time then machines will break and not get fixed and your workers may stage a walk out.  If you make some pretty big demands and you give the factory time to upgrade, then it will.