Monday, May 30, 2011

Ankle Sprains and Vulture's Knob

Saturday, May 28th I ran the Vulture’s Knob 15K trail race down in Wooster, Ohio with a bunch of friends.  For anyone who is not familiar with the location, it is a mountain bike trail built in part, on top of an old landfill.  The terrain is hilly, rocky, and on this particular day, due to recent storms, waterlogged and muddy.  There were places where narrow single track hills were narrow creek beds running ankle deep.  A shorter race means a faster pace and on this kind of terrain that means a certain amount of risk.  For me, I took off from the starting line with the lead pack and was determined to stay as far toward the front as I could for the duration of the race and the strategy paid off, although there were a few scary moments. 
From late summer last year, through several fall races and even through the late winter of 2011, I had chronic mild ankle sprains, especially of my left ankle.  Nothing requiring crutches, but a whole lot of ice and a few skipped runs.  Any time I stepped wrong, that ankle just seemed to want to turn over.  How did it hold up during Vulture’s Knob?  Great!  Did I get super lucky?  Well, I never want to totally discount chance but I did spend a few months trying very hard to get both ankles stronger and now they are.  Want to know what I did? 
      I started with more standard ankle exercises that many of you have probably heard of already.  I drew the alphabet in the air in front of me with my toe, I pointed my toes then pulled them up toward my head, I stood on one foot while brushing my teeth.  My ankles felt better but I still had trouble if I stepped just wrong enough and over enough training miles that will happen from time to time.  Switching to a trail shoe with less heel cushion so that the heel of my foot is closer to the ground did help but most of my improvement I attribute to one simple exercise.  I began to do single foot raises every day.  Any time I found myself with a little time, waiting for coffee to be done or waiting in line at a store, I would balance on one foot and pop up on my toes as high as I could go without holding onto anything for help.  For the first week this meant getting halfway up and losing my balance and having to put my other foot down before trying again.  Now I can do ten or more of these in a row.  I can even hold my other leg out behind me or way off to the side and keep going.  There are no weights involve, no equipment, I do these barefoot or in shoes.  There is a bit of mental discipline in terms of remembering to do them but that’s really the hardest part.
    During the Vulture’s knob race I did step wrong on that foot a little bit two times that I remember.  I felt my ankle start to turn but my body seemed to make a decision to push up onto and then off of my forefoot.  I say my body decided because I was already into my next stride as I noticed what had happened.  Any motion that you repeat enough times will become reflex.  People will look at you funny in the grocery store or where ever else you happen to be when you realize that really you need to keep practicing your ankle exercises.  You will get very tired of doing this ankle exercise if you really take it seriously but then you’ll find that it gets to be a habit and you just do them all the time.  Fifty or so a day spread across five or even ten sessions is a great number to do.  Any number more than one is better than none.  I don’t even really keep an exact count of them, but I do know that for three races in a row now I have been completely free the recurring sprained ankle.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Protein Update

Gel update

    After posting my last blog I got to thinking about how I would personally like it if Hammer Nutrition made a gel that had protein in it since I really like their products and really like gels.  Shortly thereafter I took it upon myself to email their customer support department to ask whether they had ever considered making something like that.  I have trouble using Perpetuem or any powder that mixes with water because I need to carry water in my water bottle and find running with two water bottles to be just a little too much weight relative to my size.  I’ve tried solid forms of protein and they’re great unless I’m racing and trying to go fast for something like a 50K.
    But enough about my troubles, here’s the important part; their fabulous customer support person, Katey, emailed me back the very next day.  Not a form email either, but a personal and very helpful email.  She explained to me that there is no way to make a protein/carb mix into a gel and have any kind of shelf-life without adding a bunch of preservative.  Hammer Nutrition does not believe preservatives provide any athletic benefit.  I’m inclined to agree, especially with new research showing that some preservatives that have been thought of as safe are actually carcinogenic.  Hammer gel may come in cool colors and flavors but none of them are artificial. 
    Katey went on to offer a solution to my difficulty and here it is;  mix 3.5 scoops of Perpetuem with 1-2 ounces of water, mixing until it is about gel consistency.  Put it into a 5 ounce flask (Hammer makes those for gel, I use one and it fits into my fuel belt) and it should last 4.5-5 hours.  She shared that she is a 130 lb cyclist and that’s about how long it lasts for her.  Since Perpetuem includes carbs, proteins and healthy fats, total caloric needs should be a little lower as compared to gel only.  She also suggests freezing the a bottle overnight if the next day will be hot and you plan to put it in a drop bag or simply not start to use it until you’ve been going for a couple hours.  If you were inclined to use aid station gels or food for some of your calories then this would get you through a 25K-50 mile race given a drop bag for the 50 miler. 
    I don’t usually endorse or promote particular products on my blog since that’s not my purpose in writing it but I do try to talk about my own experiences and research.  This was some very good and friendly customer service and also some very good information.  She’s right about the whole protein/carb/fat mixture too.  Chia seeds help because of the healthy fats they contain.  Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at aid stations are a similar idea.  For some of us, variety is more important and for others of us, a simple and easy to transport source of calories that will do it all is ideal.  I hope all of you out there find this helpful.  After I beg or buy some Perpetuem I will test this out on a couple long runs and update everyone again.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Artificially Flavored Chemicals

Why and how you should put calories in during runs if you are a distance runner:    
   You run a race faster and longer than you usually train and with a bunch of adrenalin to boot.  You do this with low blood sugar and you expect a good result?  Not likely.  Even the best breakfast is going to wear off after a couple hours of running and then your blood sugar will plummet if you don’t put more sugar in.  The brain cannot store sugar at all so when your blood sugar gets too low your brain can’t work well anymore.  Knowing this, the brain will try to stop you from using up what sugar is left in your blood by telling stories about what’s happening in the body.  Bad stories.  Low blood sugar turns a little soreness into aching pain.  It turns a tightness you could have run on into something that feels like a torn muscle.  It turns sniffles into the flu.  I am not exaggerating at all and yet I’ve met very good runners who don’t seem to know that pain signals and the interpretation of them can change radically in response to blood sugar fluctuations.  We wouldn’t be distance runners if we weren’t hard headed but there is a time and a place for that.  Ever been so hurt and sick you staggered across the finish or didn’t finish at all but then felt a whole lot better that very evening?  Consider your nutrition. 
    So now it’s time to talk about what I actually mean when I say “sugar”.  I don’t mean table sugar.   That gives you a spike and a crash and is no good for you at all.  I do mean easy to digest carbohydrates.  How much carbohydrate?  No matter how much you put in, your body can only absorb 65-80 grams of carbohydrate per hour.  Extra will just give you the runs after a while.  Waiting until you really need the sugar means hoping your body can make up a deficit and since you can only absorb so much at a time, that’s going to be difficult and probably slow you down. 
Do you need to max out on this stuff, put in as much as will absorb every hour?  I don’t know, I’m not you.  That kind of question has to be answered through experimentation during training.  Whatever it takes to fuel your training, remember that since you run faster when you race you may want to pay attention to how many miles per gel instead of how many gels per hour so that you can better figure out what you’ll need in a race.  If I ate one gel an hour jogging 12 minute miles then two an hour at 10 minute miles but then race at a 9 minute mile pace, I may need three gels an hour to race (and for me, I do if it’s going to take me more than four hours to finish).  Also, trail running burns more calories per hour than road running because irregular surfaces mean more different muscles get used, especially for newer trail runners.
    How do you decide which brand and which type of product to use?  Go to a running store or even a cycling store and buy a bunch of different brands and flavors then test them on yourself DURING TRAINING RUNS not during races unless you want to risk a few ruined races.  I love Hammer gel but some people hate it.  I used to like Honey Stinger gels but the sweetness can be too much for me after a couple.  A friend of mine can only use solids, or at least gummies, like Shot Blocs, but I don’t want to have to chew anything during a race.  What if your stomach objects?  Didn’t your legs object when you told them to run a new distance?
    Your digestive system is full of muscles and enzymes with variable levels sort of like your legs.  Your digestive system can be trained.  When I first started running distance I had to eat breakfast at least two hours before runs and drinking water during runs without cramping up was hard for me.  I kept at it.  Now I can eat gels while I run.  Oddly, I find that if I chew while the gel is in my mouth it seems to settle a little better or maybe more quickly.  Crazy?  Who knows, maybe my body wants an extra signal to tell it the glob of artificially flavored chemicals I’m swallowing is actually food. 
Don’t like the taste of anything you’ve tried?  If it doesn't taste great you'll wash it down with extra water and then you'll stay hydrated.  Nothing wrong with a little extra reminder to keep putting fluids in.  The other odd phenomenon I've noticed is that gels start to taste better as your body learns to associate them with feeling better.  Do know that if you have trouble with stomach cramping or getting the runs during races or just after, Immodium will probably fix it.  For anything longer than a 10K race I take two an hour or so before.  I have a friend who takes an Immodium before any run of more than 8 miles or so because without it her guts are in knots for hours.  The Immodium wears after five or six hours and digestion returns to normal.
    Why not just tough it out during training and try to get used to performing with lower blood sugar?  Okay, first of all, you need sit somewhere quiet and consider why you are trying to make ultra running even harder.  I have spent a little time on that one myself and have gotten much better about water and calories and I think it’s one of the things that has helped me get faster this year. 
On a more physiologic note, if you run at a moderate or better intensity for much more than an hour, especially more than an hour and a half, then, if you don’t put in any calories at all, your body will break down the muscle in your legs more than if you had put in just a little hundred calorie gel or something like it.  This break down is not something that will make you stronger.  This breakdown will only slow your recovery, causing subsequent workouts to have less intensity.  This means you won’t get better as fast as you could.  Running a border line amount of time and don’t want to carry stuff?  Don’t start on empty and put something with carbohydrate/sugar back into your system right as soon as you stop (not after talking to your running buddies for 15 minutes in the parking lot).
    This same problem of muscle breakdown happens with protein, by the way, only with protein it takes another hour and with protein you don’t need a whole lot.  5-10 grams will make a difference in a four hour run.  There are protein gels like Accel gel and protein single serving solids and powders like some of the Cliff bar products or Hammer Perpetuem.  If you don’t like any of those, consider that a Payday candy bar contains 7 grams of protein in addition to the sugar.  Heck, put some nuts in a little Ziploc and chew one every now and then.  I’ll write more about protein and running and solid food versus not solid foot on another day though because I think this is plenty to digest for one post.