Injuries – a philosophical pondering

When we get injured, it’s often easy to point to a specific cause, e.g., overtraining, speed without enough warm up, twisting your ankle on a rock. However, maybe those causes and the injuries are just the manifestation of deeper meanings.

Sometimes, your body, the universe, etc., sends you signals that you need to back off, not press so hard so quickly, or that your priorities are out of whack. Sometimes, we miss those early signals, or choose to ignore them. Perhaps, when you get sick or injured, that’s your body’s way of shouting, “PAY ATTENTION IDIOT. You didn’t listen earlier. Now I’m going to make you listen!”

Next time you get sick or injured in the middle of a training cycle, after your anger and frustration settles, take a deep breath, step back, and contemplate your whole life. Ask yourself:

  • What else is going on in my life?
  • What/who is really important?
  • What/who have I been neglecting?

Then, before you get back to training, look for ways to rebalance your life, your priorities. Training, life, should be sustainable. There are times when it helps for life to get out of balance; e.g., when you have a child, finals week, very brief periods of training. However, running is just running, it’s not life (unless you’re a pro). In order to maintain a long term, sustainable, and healthy relationship with running, I think it’s important to keep it in perspective and life in balance.

So, before you get sidelined, step back, take a few deep breaths, see how running fits in your life – whether it’s in balance, or crowding out other important things. Listen for subtle messages before they start screaming at you.

 Have fun. Train smart. Stay healthy.

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Muscle Cramping

I recently listened to a very good podcast (https://soundcloud.com/user-562497687/fast-talk-ep-26-busting-myths-about-cramping) on muscle cramping. From the website, “For decades (almost a century, in fact), we’ve been told that cramping is caused by electrolyte imbalance or bad hydration. But new science suggests that this probably isn’t why you cramp during exercise. So why do you cramp? It all comes down to something called altered neuromuscular control.” Briefly, fatigue is the main component. However, it’s more complex than that (as with most things).

The podcast is long, 70 minutes, but is both informative and entertaining. It gets deep and technical at times, but they do a good job at bringing it back to an easily understandable lay level. I encourage you to listen. However, it you don’t want to, or as a preview, here’s a synopsis and my take-aways.

Muscle cramps defined – A muscle that contracts without relaxing. Cramping is a syndrome that can have multiple causes.

Altered Neuromuscular Control

Historically, the theory that cramping is due to electrolyte imbalance and dehydration, comes out of observations from workers on the Hoover dam, and coal shovelers in old steamships. That became the predominate belief for endurance athletes too. It wasn’t until the 1980s that scientists started to look at cramping.

Ironically, it was attempts to prove the electrolyte/hydration theory that led to the altered neuromuscular control theory. Sampling of athletes in competitions found no difference in electrolyte balances or plasma levels between cramping and non-cramping athletes. Cramping almost always happens at the latter stages of races, often just before or after the finish, another strong sign that fatigue is the key factor. Also, questions of athletes showed that those who were injured, sick, or fatigued (i.e., not adequately tapered) going into the events were more likely to get cramps.

These types of observational studies seem to be the best for studying cramping. It’s hard to study cramping in the lab because electrically induced cramps are not the same as cramping during exercise.

There are two key organs that control the contraction and relaxation of muscles. The muscle spindle organ excites, or contracts the muscle. The golgi tendon organ relaxes the muscle. Muscle fatigue can cause the spindle to send excess signals, and the golgi tendon to send fewer. This imbalance can cause twitching or cramping.

Not all fatigue is equal. Cramping tends to happen when competing at a higher level, or in different conditions (e.g., racing in a hot spring race when you’ve trained in the cold, or racing hills when you’ve trained mostly flats) than which you are trained. Cramping tends to happen at the latter stages or after the race. Intensity. It’s also more likely in the early season, when you are racing at intensity before you have adequately trained at intensity.

Other factors that contribute to cramping:

  • Pre race muscle damage, such as from an injury or inadequate taper. This can be tested with high creatine kinase (CK) levels, which indicate muscle damage.
  • Not feeling well, which can lead to early fatigue.
  • Heat and humidity may be a factor, but only because they lead to early fatigue. There are no studies that show a correlation between heat and cramping. Cramping can happen in cold too.
  • Males are more likely to cramp than females. Older athletes are more likely to cramp than younger ones. The reasons are unknown.
  • Certain medications can contribute to cramping, e.g., statins and Beta2Agonists. Also, some underlying medical conditions, e.g., hypothyroidism.
  • Weakness in supporting muscles; e.g., lower back, core, abductors and adductors.
  • Family history of cramping. People tend to have different cramping thresholds. There may be a genetic component.

Other interesting info on cramping. Camping is more common on muscles that cross two joints; e.g., calf, hamstring. Cramping happens when muscles are in a shortened, contracted state; i.e., when the spindles are engaged. So, cramping can occur after a race, for example, when you bend your leg while sitting.

Repeated cramping may indicate some underlying medical or physical issues. In that case, it might be worth getting a CBC blood test and consulting a physician, one who is familiar with endurance athletes.

How to Prevent Cramping

The best way to avoid cramping is to train, to be adequately trained for the race and intensity you are planning to do. There are not magic bullets. While most speed workouts are done when relatively fresh, you should also add Intensity when you are fatigued. This will prepare you to push through the latter stages of a marathon, or to make that finishing kick without cramping.

Back in the day, one of my favorite ultra workouts was to run up Waterton Canyon to the Platte and back, ~31mi, along the northern end of the Colorado Trail. Towards the end of the run, coming back down the canyon, I would run progressively harder the last few miles, sometimes hitting 6:00 for the final almost flat mile.

Add strength training. Stronger muscles better resist fatigue and cramping. Strength training doesn’t necessarily have to involve weights or a gym. Plyometrics, or quick, explosive moves, such as box jumps, jumping rope, or 6-10 second hill sprints.

Don’t make your first race of the season your key race. Do some earlier, shorter, high intensity races, to prepare you for your big race.

Vary your stride. This is, perhaps, the biggest reason why trail running is easier on your body than road running.

What to do if you cramp

If you do get a muscle cramp, don’t try to run through it. That is likely to make it worse. Instead, you should slow down or stop. Muscle twitching may be an early warning sign of impending cramping.

Stretch, longer stretches. The initial stretch may activate the spindle, making it feel worse. If you hold it, typically longer than 10-20 seconds, the golgi tendons will activate allowing the muscle to relax and lengthen; i.e., settling into a stretch.

Put pressure on the golgi tendon cluster, jam your thumb into and vigorously massage. This is a theory, it hasn’t been shown in studies, but seems to be effective for some athletes.

Eat something sharp, pungent, and spicy. There seems to be something in the neural pathways in the mouth that can affect the whole body. The mechanism for this isn’t known, but it may be because sharp tastes overwhelm the neuromuscular signals elsewhere. Related, studies have shown that a sports drink rinse, not ingesting, can increase time to fatigue, meaning that just the sensation of taste can effect muscle control. Many of you may have seen ads for the product Hot Shot. The key ingredients in that product are capsaicin (the chemical in peppers that makes them hot) and cinnamon. You may able to get the same effect from biting on a jalapeno pepper.

Hyperventilating or drinking pickle juice. Studies have shown that increasing blood acidosis can relieve cramping. There is no evidence that electrolyte supplements help. The reason pickle juice may work is because of its acidity or pungent taste, not the electrolytes.

These may fix the immediate problem, but don’t address the underlying causes. Long term, better fitness reduces the likelihood of cramping.

Shit Happens – How to handle it when problems occur at races.

Once again, another major race had problems this past weekend – busses didn’t show, so some racers didn’t make it to the start of the full marathon in time, and the half marathon was cancelled, sort of. This is not the first, nor will it be the last time something like this has happened. Yet, many race organizers don’t seem to be prepared to handle these situations, haven’t learned from mistakes others have made in the past, and end up making the situation worse than it could be. Here’s a guide of what to do when problems occur.

As some of you know, I am a race director and have been putting on races for myself and others for many years. Although my races are much smaller, I have had management positions with major races including BolderBoulder and the original Boulder Backroads Marathon.

Communicate: Let the racers know as soon and often as possible when there are problems that will affect them. When racers are standing around, delayed, but not knowing what or why, that creates frustration, anger, resent.

This appeared to be the case at Revel as a couple of thousand racers were left waiting for busses, standing, getting cold and stiff, not knowing what was going on. It would’ve been better if, as soon as they knew there was a problem that was going to affect the race, to let the racers know. Don’t wait until you have a resolution or answers. They could’ve had a series of messages, starting with something like, “There’s a problem with the busses. We don’t know what happened, but we’re working on it. Please be patient as we try to resolve it.” Then, come back fairly soon with updates, even if you the situation hasn’t changed and you don’t have any answers yet, and continue coming back until you have a resolution or decision.

Control the message: Or, it will control you. This has always been true, but is even more so in this era of lightning fast social media. Get out early with information, as much as you have. Don’t keep secrets. Don’t keep people guessing. Don’t let those who are the most vocal, often the most angry, lead and dictate the conversation.

Apologize, be humble, and explain. Don’t assign blame to others. Don’t defend yourself. Explain what happened without assigning blame. Tell them you’ll make it right. Simply say something like, “I’m sorry. Busses we contracted for didn’t show up. Because we couldn’t get most of the runners safely to the start, we thought it best to cancel the half-marathon. We allowed those who were already at the start to run the course. We know some full marathon runners also didn’t make it to the start. We will do our best to make it right for those affected. Now, we are busy managing to situation. We are listening you you, and will come up with a plan to make it right shortly.”

Follow the conversations and respond, cautiously, if you have the resources. If you don’t have the resources, a simple post that you are listening. Look for major, repeated themes in the conversations and correct gross misinformation. Don’t get into arguments. Don’t defend yourself. Don’t assign blame. Don’t respond to the most vitriol and outrageous comments and commenters. Often, the population of other racers will control that on their own.

Lifetime didn’t do this after the problems with the 2013 Leadville 100 run. They let the blogosphere and social media run wild and free with comments and criticisms. They didn’t say anything for months, only after they had a full response. By that times, many who might’ve listened had already tuned out.

While Revel could’ve said more earlier, they did have a good response that included the following, closing line, “We take complete responsibility for this distaster and will gladly accept your constructive ideas and critism [sic] as we evaluate and analyze the various options.”

Be consistent in your message and actions: As decisions are made, be communicate and follow them consistently. If you are canceling the race, cancel the race. If, as in this case, you are going to let people run the course anyway (in this case, those who were at the start were allowed to run down, and many who didn’t make it there decided to run up-and-back half-way from the finish). It’s one thing to time those who ran, but don’t give out awards when so many couldn’t (and certain don’t give out the wrong awards).

Safety first: The safety of runners, volunteers and staff should always be an overriding consideration when making decisions. Other major factors to consider include the impact on the environment and the neighborhoods.

In this case, while many people posted that they would’ve driven to the start had they known, there wasn’t parking available near the start to handle many cars. At the 2006 the Imogene Pass Run, they altered the course due to snow the night before, starting and finishing in Ouray. Although is was sunny on race day and some runners did choose to go over the pass, snow towards the top meant it would’ve been difficult to get rescue vehicles up, and more likely that people might’ve needed help (with frostbite). In both cases, I think they made the right decisions.

Make it right: Offer full refunds or free entries to other races. It may be appropriate to offer racers a choice. You might even consider throwing in some free merchandise. Whatever financial hit you may take in doing this now, pales in comparison to the hit on your reputation and subsequent loss in reputation in not making it right.

It is impractical to make everyone whole. There are people who spent money traveling to the race, time off of work, away from families, etc. You are not going to be able to make those people whole. Do your best to be humble and apologize, and make reasonable offers. More than a few of the comments about Revel have asked for some of that. Recognize that some people are just going to be angry, and there’s not much you can do about it. Don’t waste too much time trying to make everyone happy. If you do a good job with most, they will help counter those comments for you.

Plan and over correct: Any large race organization should’ve thought through potential logistical issues and have contingency plans in place. It’s something called Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA). That’s just a fancy way of saying that you look at all the critical functions and steps in a process in advance, analyze the risk and consequences of failure, come up with solutions in advance if possible, and contingency plans if not. You ask a lot of what ifs. Any major project, whether it’s a NASA mission or the Boston Marathon, has done something like this.

Over correct for whatever problems you have. The worst thing that could happen is to have the same mistakes or problems happen again. For next time, get even more busses, have backups on stand by, get even more aid station supplies, volunteers, swag, whatever it was.

If you are humble and apologize, if you make it right, the people who were affected can become your greatest advocates in the future.

Running on Ice

Techniques for running fast and efficiently on ice, and how it can improve your running form.

If you live in a place with a real winter, you’re probably going to have to deal with snow and ice when you run. Running on ice does not have to be that treacherous, and can actually improve your running form. In this article, I’ll talk about technique and strategies for running on ice.

This is not about traction devices. FWIW, the only traction device I use is cheap and simple to make screw shoes on hilly & icy trails. I almost never use anything on roads or flat trails.

Hit the ground running
“Pawback” is a key part of an efficient stride. Your foot should be pulling back when it hits the ground, like a cat pawing. And, you should land with your feet under your body mass. This is true whether running on dry or slick ground. If you land with your foot still going forward or even flat, with your foot in front of your body, or on your heels, you are braking and losing momentum. Like driving a car in the snow, your best control is when you are continuing forward.

Shorten your stride. Besides being more efficient, a short, quick (and light) stride gives you more control, and better ability to adjust quickly. With quicker strides, you are landing with less force, thus less likely to slide out of control. And, with lighter, quicker strides, you are better able to quickly adjust your stride and body weight if/when you slip.

We have a natural tendency to lean back and on our heels when we’re afraid. If you do any skiing, you know that’s what most beginners do, and that’s exactly what makes skiing and control harder. The same is true with running. You want to lean forward slightly, stay on the balls or middle of your feet, stride back, and keep moving forward.

This won’t prevent slipping on ice. It may even feel a bit like falling – good running form almost feels like falling forward. Your feet may slip back on ice, like running on loose dirt, but if you keep your momentum moving forward and your feet moving under you, you should stay in balance and hardly notice it.

Powdered or Glazed?
Some surfaces are inherently more dangerous than others.

Snow usually has better traction than ice. Aim for the white stuff, a dusting of snow atop of ice, over glazed ice. Dark patches may indicate ice or dry pavement. That can be hard to distinguish at night or from a distance. At night, I assume it’s ice and am more cautious (unless I know it’s mostly clear). The edges of snow, where it changes to pavement, are often slick. This is where it melts and refreezes as ice. Try to avoid these edges by adjusting your stride. It’s better to take extra short strides, than to lengthen your stride or leap (landing with more force).

If patches of dry pavement are small and scattered, it may be better to just stay on the snow and ice. You risk hitting more edges. And, different surfaces have different feels, and it takes a few strides for your body to adapt. Two or three strides on pavement may take more effort adjusting than it’s worth.

Turning on ice is hard, just like with driving. Slow down and shorten your stride before a curve. Then, go through the curve with very short & quick strides, staying nimble up on the balls of your feet.

Painted road surfaces can be slicker than unpainted pavement. Try to step over or around them, without making abrupt lateral changes.

Changing surfaces can be tricky – pavement to dirt, sidewalk to street, path to bridges. Not only might the snow/ice differ on the new surface, but the feel is different. Subtle cues from your feet, allow your body to automatically make adjustments and stay in balance. When the feel changes, it takes a little time for your body to adapt. If you know it’s icy, or don’t know what it’s like, slow yourself by shortening your stride (not by braking on your heels) before the change, and transition with caution.

Rapid changes in direction or speed can be risky. Look ahead to anticipate changes, and adjust your stride and line before you get there. When you see that you are going to need to change lines, drift over gradually, making small lateral changes, and try to hit any new surface going straight.

Snow can make it easier or harder. Running in a few inches of new snow is a lot of fun. When the snow is soft, you fly right through it. Packed snow gives pretty good traction too, as long as it’s not crusty. Snow can actually make it easier on trails, by filling the gaps between rocks.

Old, crusty snow is different than ice, but can be as hard to run on. You don’t know what’s underneath – soft snow, ice, hard ridges – often until it’s too late. When the snow is more than a few inches deep, the crust can cut your ankles, and hard ridges of snow can twist them. If you can’t avoid deep crust or exposed areas of hard, uneven snow, go very slow, and walk if needed. If there’s lots of it, find somewhere else to run.

When running icy/snowy hills, control is best when your feet are under your body mass. Shortening your stride even more, keeps your feet under you more. Going uphill, try to hit the hill straight, and carry momentum into the hill. Think of lifting your knee up to initiate the next stride and leaning into the hill (from the ankle, not bending at the waist), using gravity to help propel you forward, rather than pushing down against the slick ground. Slow yourself before a downhill. Then, hit the descent as straight as possible. Stay up on the balls of your feet and don’t lean back. You lose control and can’t adjust your balance from your heels, or when your feet are in front of you. It’s better to tip-toe down on your toes, than to slide down on your heels. If it’s really bad, you can turn your feet and side step up or down.

Practice
Running on ice takes practice to learn the technique, and experience to gain confidence. It takes practice to learn how to fall forward, and how to be comfortable doing it. That’s good running form – using gravity and momentum to your advantage – dry or slick. Start by practicing on dry ground. Lean forward – keep your body straight, leaning from your ankles, not bending over at your waist – stride quickly and kick your heels back until it starts to feel like you’re falling. Find your comfort limit, and then lean a little beyond it. See how fast you can go by striding faster, not longer. Over time, you’ll become more and more comfortable with this. When you take it to the snow and ice, you’ll want to tone it down a bit – slightly less forward lean, and slower running speed; though still leaning forward and with a fast stride rate.

I actually look forward to racing in tricky conditions. While my times may be slower, I know that I handle them better than most other runners, and can use it to my competitive advantage. The 2005 Greenland Trail 50km had just about every trail condition possible – dry, snow, ice, slush, mud – at different parts of the course, and different times during the day. I remember passing lots of runners, gingerly taking 7 or 8 steps to get through a snow drift or ice patch, while I cruised through with just 1 or 2 steps. There was a race at Cherry Creek, in February, with ice and slush on the road. I took straight lines through slush and ice, maintaining my speed, while others slowed and/or maneuvered wide around slick spots. I don’t have to be that aggressive when I’m just out for a training run, but I don’t fear the ice either.

You don’t have to be afraid of the ice and snow. While you need to be more cautious, it doesn’t have to keep you from running or racing. Practice. Build confidence. Get out there and have fun.

Be smart. Train Smart.

Adam

Training Inside: treadmills, stair climbers, and other torture devices

Most runners I know don’t like training inside. They hate the treadmill, sometimes called the dreadmill or hamster wheel. I don’t like it either. However, there are times when training inside just makes sense – when it’s extremely cold, when you’re traveling, or when you’re recovering from an injury. Yes you can run on snow and ice, and many of you would much rather do that than spend time on a treadmill. Some workouts, speed work, are difficult, nearly impossible to do efficiently and safely outside when it’s very cold, you’re bundled in clothing, and the footing is questionable. There’s more than just the treadmill. Stair steppers are a great way to simulate hills, and low impact. Also consider ellipticals and spin bikes.

Treadmilll1

Treadmills
Running on a treadmill is running, though not quite the same as running on a road or trail. Treadmills take some getting used to – the feel of running in a confined space, running on a moving belt, and using the controls. Start slow (they typically start at a slow walk), getting used to the feel of running on a treadmill. Then play with the controls – adjusting the speed and incline – to get used to how they work, how quickly the speed and incline change, and adjusting the controls while running.

The treadmill forces you into a set pace. This can be beneficial, training your body to run a target pace, teaching you the mental discipline to keep a steady pace, and to stay focused for longer races. In 2000, Christine Clark won the US marathon trials, training almost exclusively on a treadmill, while living in Anchorage. With the trials in March, training outside through the Alaskan winter wasn’t practical. She used this strategy, going 17-18 miles at her target (5:30) pace. It’s hard to let your mind wander on the treadmill like it does outside; you have to maintain some focus to stay on the treadmill. If you find it hard to stay focused as long as you want to run, make minor, temporary variations in speed and/or incline for a break before returning to your target. It can also help to break a longer run into segments. For example, start with running for just 15 minutes. Then, once you’ve hit that target, shoot for another 15 minutes, then another, and another. Before you know it, you’ve hit your target of an hour or more.

Speed training can be difficult and unsafe to do when the air is frigid, you’re bundled in layers, and the footing is slippery. However, it can be quite effective on a treadmill. Many treadmills have pre-set interval programs that automatically adjust speed and incline. Some allow you to program your own custom programs. Personally, I prefer making my own changes manually. It takes a bit of practice to change the settings, especially while running hard. Although I never hold on while running, sometimes I’ll briefly put my on hand on the rail or panel while I’m changing speed/incline. Note that it takes several seconds change the settings, and for the belt to move to the new settings.

It’s easier to do intervals on the treadmill by time, rather than distance. The time display is usually more prominent than distance, and it’s easier to start on and keep track of whole and half minutes, than fractions of a mile. Because of the act of changing the settings, and the fact that it takes a few seconds for the treadmill to adjust, longer intervals are easier than short sprints. For example, I might do 3:00 hard at 10mph (6:00/mi pace), with 1:30 recovery at 7mph (8:34/mi). Note that unlike a track, the speed up and slow down is gradual, and you’re not going to stop and/or walk. Tempo runs and tempo/cruise intervals are even easie because you don’t have to change the speed that often or that much. Short sprints are hard to doI don’t like to do intervals that are too short, typically not shorter than 2:30 hard, slowing it down by 2-3mph for the recovery interval.

Incline intervals can be fun, and are a good way to train for hills. I’ll stay at my long run speed, crank the incline up to 10% or more, then see how long I can maintain my stride, perhaps a minute or two. There are fewer button presses and a quicker adjustment with incline vs. speed changes, so this is a way to simulate short intervals. I simulate striders this way, as my last warm-up before starting an interval workout.

For most, running on a treadmill is easier than the roads at the same speed. Although, some of you might find it harder, depending on your stride efficiency. If you’re new to treadmill running, start at a slower pace than you would run outside for a few minutes. Then, gradually increase the speed. As you approach your normal outdoor pace, see how it feels compared to outside. Find the speeds that match the feel, not necessarily the pace.

Most treadmills display speed in mph rather than min/mi. You may need to make the calculation in your head. See my conversion table below.
MPH Min/Mi MPH Min/Mi MPH Min/Mi MPH Min/Mi
4.0 15:00 6.0 10:00 8.0 7:30 10.0 6:00
4.1 14:38 6.1 9:50 8.1 7:24 10.1 5:56
4.2 14:17 6.2 9:41 8.2 7:19 10.2 5:53
4.3 13:57 6.3 9:31 8.3 7:14 10.3 5:50
4.4 13:38 6.4 9:23 8.4 7:09 10.4 5:46
4.5 13:20 6.5 9:14 8.5 7:04 10.5 5:43
4.6 13:03 6.6 9:05 8.6 6:59 10.6 5:40
4.7 12:46 6.7 8:57 8.7 6:54 10.7 5:36
4.8 12:30 6.8 8:49 8.8 6:49 10.8 5:33
4.9 12:15 6.9 8:42 8.9 6:44 10.9 5:30
5.0 12:00 7.0 8:34 9.0 6:40 11.0 5:27
5.1 11:46 7.1 8:27 9.1 6:36 11.1 5:24
5.2 11:32 7.2 8:20 9.2 6:31 11.2 5:21
5.3 11:19 7.3 8:13 9.3 6:27 11.3 5:19
5.4 11:07 7.4 8:06 9.4 6:23 11.4 5:16
5.5 10:55 7.5 8:00 9.5 6:19 11.5 5:13
5.6 10:43 7.6 7:54 9.6 6:15 11.6 5:10
5.7 10:32 7.7 7:48 9.7 6:11 11.7 5:08
5.8 10:21 7.8 7:42 9.8 6:07 11.8 5:05
5.9 10:10 7.9 7:36 9.9 6:04 11.9 5:03

You may have heard that you need a 1% incline to be the same as running outside. The amount of adjustment partially depends on how fast you run. A 1% incline will offset the lack or wind resistance for many mid-pack runners, about 8:00-10:00/mi pace. Faster runners generate more wind resistance so would need a higher incline, and slower runners might not need any. Any adjustment also depends on how efficent your stride is on a revolving belt vs. a stationary road. There are some benefits of not making any adjustments. Spending some time running at a slightly faster than normal speed trains your body to move at a faster speed. See my How to Run Fast article.

If necessary, you can step off the side. Most treadmills have non-slip pads on both sides of the moving belt. However, before stepping back on, stop, or significantly slow the treadmill speed before stepping back on. Stepping on a rapidly moving treadmill belt can result in a nasty fall.

Stair Steppers
Stair stepper machines are the closest non-treadmill machine to running. They provide a great simulation of hill running. They’re also good when you need some low impact training. I used them frequently when recovering from my last ankle surgery, and when I had a calf strain. It allowed me to run without the stress of landing (using the type where the foot platform goes up and down, not the type with rotating stairs). It’s easy to get your heart rate up, so it’s good for a tempo workout. Use the handrails as little as possible, and only for balance, not to support your weight.

Ellipticals
I don’t like elliptical trainers. While the leg rotation is similar to running, it’s not running. There’s resistance in the wrong spots – namely at the top of the stride, which makes it feel like you are striding way in front of your body. Also, the kick back (follow through behind you) is too short. They can be good if you are recovering from an injury and need a low impact workout, but I prefer stair steppers.

Spin bikes
Biking is biking, and running is running. However, biking builds strength (i.e., good for hills), is good cross-training (i.e., builds strength in areas that running misses), and is low impact.

The term “spinning” means different things to different people. The term comes from bike racing, where it means using an easy gear at a high cadence. It’s often done in warm-up, cool-down, or on recovery days to help loosen up sore muscles. It can mean a lot of different things at a health club, and a spin class can be a lot of different things. Some spin classes simulate training on a real bike. A number of bike shops offer classes where you bring your own bike and ride it on a trainer (either your own, or one provided by the store). However, a lot of health club spin classes are different than riding a bike outside where the bike just happens to be a tool for fitness training. Either way, it can be a good workout.

If you’re new to spin bikes, get there early and spend a couple of minutes adjusting the bike. Set the seat height so that your legs are not quite straight at the bottom of the pedal stroke – most of your power is as your legs are straighter, but going completely straight, or even hyper extending the knee, can be damaging. Adjust the seat forward and back, and the handle bars up and down, so that it feel comfortable. As you move the seat forward and back, this will change the distance to the pedals, so you may have to readjust your seat height. Test it out both seated and standing (some spin drills call for you to stand while pedaling). Play around with the resistance knob to see how different resistances feel sitting vs. standing. Heavy resistance may affect the fit and feel. If you’re new to cycling, you’re likely to start out more upright than experienced riders, and adjust to be more bent over over time. If you’re an experienced rider, but new to spin bikes, note that it’s hard to get a spin bike to feel like your regular bike.

Be smart. Train smart.

Adam

How to Run Fast

How to run fast

Have you ever watched faster runners at a race? Next time you’re at a race or out running, pay attention. You should notice a difference between how faster and slower runners look. Of course faster runners are faster. However, if you ignore the speed difference, they look smoother, lighter, like they’re running more easily.

There are three ways to get fast – train, train, train! Of course, how you train matters. But there’s more to it than that. How you run matters too. Part of running faster is teaching your body how to move at a faster pace. Doing so will make you more efficient at any running speed, and will make it easier to get faster.

Strong & fast feet
Faster runners generally have much quicker and lighter strides. The difference in stride rate is largely a factor of how much time your foot is on the ground. More time on the ground means, less momentum is carried forward, more energy is absorbed by your body, and more energy is required to propel you forward. Fast feet are strong feet. Here are some exercises to help your feet get stronger and faster.

Alternating hops: Find something stable to hop on, about 4”-6” high; e.g., curb, stair, old mattress. Start with one foot up one the object and the other on the floor. While staying on the balls of your feet, hop simultaneously off of both feet, alternating the foot that’s up/forward and down/back. Focus on hopping as soon as your feet land, alternating as quickly as possible, slightly faster than is comfortable. It’s OK to lightly hold onto something to help your balance. The goal is foot speed, not power, so lower is better than higher. You can even do this on a flat surface by alternating front and back.

Striders … done right: Many runners do striders, or know what they are. However, many who do may not be doing them right. Done right, striders are about leg speed and form, not pure sprinting speed. The goal is not to see how fast you can run the straights, but to see how quickly you can stride (in the process, you’ll go pretty fast).

For those who don’t know, striders are alternating short sprints with slow jogs/walks. They are often done on a track – sprinting the straights and jogging the curves – but can be done anywhere. They are done after a good warm-up, often just before starting a speed workout. You’ll also see many runners doing them before the start of a race.

Start with a few strides walking and/or skipping, start to run, gradually picking up your stride rate, reach full speed about half way, then carry that speed through to the end. Keep your stride short and quick. DON’T REACH! Imagine you’re running on hot coals, so that you’ll want to land light, and lift your feet as soon as they hit the ground. On the track, build your speed until midway down the straight, and then sprint through to the end of the straight. This can be done anywhere, preferably on flat and smooth ground. Build your speed for 15-25 strides (left-right = 1 stride), then hold that speed for the same. Walk/slow jog between each strider about the same distance, twice or more the time. You want a near full recovery. As you do these, keep your body upright (don’t bend at the waist) and your chest open, leaning forward from the ankles. Pump your arms, but keep them and your body (including your face) relaxed.

If done right, your stride should feel a bit uncomfortably short/compact and quick, and a bit like you’re falling forward. You’ll get used to it. In the process of striding quicker, your stride will actually be longer (but under you, not reaching in front), and you’ll be going faster.

Skipping: As simple as what we used to do as kids. Focus on springing off your feet as soon as you land (hot coals). You can incorporate a high knee exercise into skipping. Bring your knees up by lifting from your hip, not jumping up from the ground (while your knees come up high, your body shouldn’t come up that much), and exaggerating the backwards arm pump.

Embedded striders: These are striders, as above, but embedded into a longer run. Starting 20-30 minutes into your run, do 4-5 sets of 10-15 seconds of striders, 45-50 seconds of slow. Then, continue running your normal pace. Repeat these about every 30 minutes. This is especially helpful on longer runs where your stride tends to slow, and you can develop a shuffle stride as you tire. These help remind your mind and body to keep your stride light and quick. And, after doing striders, going back to your “normal” stride will seem slow, and that normal stride will start to become faster.

Power
Speed can be calculated by the length, times the speed of your stride. Above, I tell you hot to increase your stride rate. Here, I will tell you how you can lengthen your stride without over striding (DON’T REACH!).

Stride length is a factor of strength and flexibility. The distance you can drive your body forward, can be increased by generating more power in your stride. The inability to generate much power is largely due to not working the faster twitch muscles. Longer, slower runs barely touch these faster fibers. You need to work them to be able to use them effectively. Here are some exercises to help build power.

Short hill sprints: Very short, 6-10sec, very hard sprints (98%), uphill. It’s important to keep them that short. This allows you to fully engage the faster twitch muscles, and without tapping into your longer term stored energy systems. Hills add power and reduce the risk of injury from sprinting on flat ground. Choose a hill that’s steep, but still run-able without struggle. If you don’t have a suitable hill available, a set of stairs can work.

Be careful doing sprints. Warm-up well before doing any sprints. Don’t go all out from a dead stop. Start with a few walking, then skipping (optional), then jogging strides, then go nearly all out for 6-10 seconds. Walk down the hill for a near full recovery, jogging easily for an additional 15 seconds or so if needed. Repeat. Do 4-6 repeats to start, a couple of days/week. You won’t feel the workout right away, so wait until the next day to see if you’re sore. Don’t increase the number of repeats until you can do them without being sore the next day. You can increase this to 8-12 repeats over a few weeks.

If you haven’t done any speed work in a while, start with flat (above) and uphill (below) striders.

Uphill striders: Similar to striders (above), but with additional focus on driving the arms back and the knees up. As with flat striders, keep the stride uncomfortably compact and quick, and gradually build your speed.

Extended hill sprints: This is a bit of a hybrid of shorter hill sprints and uphill striders. Start with a walk, skip, then take 5-10 strides to build to full speed (~95%), then hold that speed. Go to the point where your legs start to tighten up, your form starts to, and your stride slows, usually about 20-25 seconds, then just 2-3 seconds more. You want to push just beyond that limit while working to maintain your form. However, there’s no benefit in continuing if you’re struggling and sloppy. Walk back down the hill for a near full recovery.

Start these after 4-6 weeks of the short hill sprints. You can transition by doing one day/week of the short sprints, and one on the extended. As with the short sprints, start with 4-6 repeats, and increase to 8-12 over time. Once 20-25 seconds becomes easy, you can start extending the length of the sprints. Remember that the goal is to go just beyond the point where your form starts to break down, your legs start to tighten up, and your stride rate slows.

Vary your pace
Many runners spend too much time running the same effort level/pace. And, I’m guessing for many non-elites, that effort level is too hard and the pace too fast. The bulk of your running should be fairly easy, at zone 2 or below. For those not familiar with heart rate or metabolic zones, zone 2 is also known as the Aerobic Threshold (not to be confused with the higher lactate threshold, zone 4), Onset of Blood Lactate Accumulation (OBLA), or Maximum Aerobic Fitness (MAF) level for those Maffetone fans. Breathing should not be labored. You should be able to talk in full sentences without having to catch your breath, and still be able to sing. A lot of non-elite runners spend too much time in zone 3 because they don’t feel like they’re getting a good workout unless they’re breathing a little hard. However, staying at a lower effort level, even if that means walking, allows you to build fitness with less stress, and greatly improves your ability to utilize fat as a fuel, and to do so at faster paces.

Bursts: As an introduction to speed work and faster paces, add some short bursts of speed to your otherwise easy to moderate effort, medium length runs. After a good warm-up, sprint hard (95%-98%) for about 15-20 seconds, then return to your normal pace. Repeat this periodically through your run. These bursts don’t have to follow a rigid pattern. Here’s where the term fartlek, or speed play, applies. If you’re running flats, you can pick objects to guide the bursts. E.g., sprint to one utility pole, jog the next three. On hills and trails, you could sprint up a short hill, then jog for a while. The goal is to introduce your body to the mechanics and feel of running fast, not too overstress your cardio systems. So, it’s alright to have fairly long breaks between bursts. And, although the focus here is more on speed, still maintain a strider like form with short, quick, light strides, and DON’T REACH!

Keep it Short
A lot of runners feel the pull to go longer. Resist. Don’t step up in distance. Don’t do a marathon or ultra. If you have, and you want to get faster, step it back down first.

It’s very difficult to get faster while you’re going longer, and likely that you’ll get slower. You’ll likely be focusing on longer runs and building endurance. Adding speed work at the same time that you’re adding distance can lead to injury. A better approach is to build speed at a shorter distance first. Then, when you start to add more distance, you’ll have more speed, and it will be easier to add in the speed work again once you’ve adapted to the new distance.

If you want to run a faster marathon or ultra, especially if you’re struggling to make cut offs, then back away from longer races and training for a while and learn to run faster.

 

Faster running is something you need to teach your body to do. Faster running is generally more efficient biomechanically. I realize that it’s not more efficient cardiovascularly (metabolically), and not sustainable. As you do gain fitness, you will be able to incorporate more of these faster, more powerful strides into your running, and for longer periods of time.

Notes, terminology and Links
Time/Strides: It can be hard to time some of these very short and hard efforts. I find it easier to count strides instead. If I assume 90 strides per minute (spm), that’s 1.5 strides per second. Thus, a 10 second hard effort is about 15 strides.

Stride Rate: I count left-right as one stride, not two. Thus, I use 90spm where others mention 180. Either way, the result is the same. I just find counting L-R = 1 easier. Most articles on this tell you to try for 90/180spm. I don’t. Counting is good, but don’t obsess over hitting that number. Rather, figure out where you are now, and work on getting a little faster.

Set: A combination of exercises done as a group. In the examples above, it’s a combination of hard and easy efforts. For example, 5 sets of 15 seconds hard and 45 easy means to run hard for 15 seconds, easy for 45, then immediately repeat 4 more times.

Pace/Effort: I use those terms somewhat interchangeably. I prefer to run and coach by effort level, most of the time. However, effort is subjective, and using it effectively is a learned skill. Pace is fine on flat ground, when conditions aren’t too extreme (hot/cold, windy), and you’re feeling fine. If it’s easier to use pace do so, just make adjustments for terrain, conditions, and how you feel.

Links for additional reading and exercises:
How to strengthen your feet and why it’s important – http://www.runuphillracing.com/write/StrongFeet.html

The benefits of and techniques for increasing your stride rate – http://www.runuphillracing.com/write/StrideCount.html

How training for a 5km will make you a faster ultra runner – http://www.runuphillracing.com/write/5k4Ultras.html

How to slow, and reverse the decline in stride length with age – http://running.competitor.com/2014/09/training/fast-40-master-stride_113559

Have fun. Train smart. See you on the trails.

Winter Hydration

It’s cold outside. Don’t forget to drink! What? Isn’t hydration a hot weather concern? It can be easy to forget, but you lose a lot of water when it’s cold too.

Cold, winter air is dryer than warm, summer air. Nature likes a balance, so that dry air sucks more moisture from your body. That steam rising from your forehead after a run, that’s moisture evaporating from your skin. That mist when you exhale, that’s moisture getting sucked out of your lungs. Your dry nose, mouth and skin in the winter, that’s the result of dry air sucking moisture from your body. You need to replace that water loss.

Also, when you bundle up from the cold, your body is sweating underneath those layers. If you’re wearing tech fabrics, that moisture is being pulled away from your skin and evaporating in the cold, dry air.

Her are a few tips to manage your hydration when it’s really cold.

If you’re using a hydration bladder and tube system, run the tube inside your outer layer and, more importantly, keep the bite valve inside clothing to keep them from freezing. If the bite valve does freeze, rub it between your hands, or put it next to your warm skin, covered by clothes, until it melts. You may need to take frequent, small sips to keep the valve from freezing.

If you’re using a bottle and hip pack, put the bottle in upside down. This helps insulate the opening from bitter cold. Be aware that if you’re snowshoeing, you may be kicking snow up your back and into your bottle holder. In this case, even an upside down bottle will freeze. So, pull your jacket over the top of the hip belt to keep the snow out. If it does freeze, you can pour water from the bottle (perhaps cold, but presumably unfrozen) over it to break up the ice. If necessary, you can hold the opening in your warm mouth until it starts to flow. If you’re carrying a handheld bottle, it may be necessary to take frequent, small sips to keep the opening from freezing.

Sports drinks tend to have a lower freezing temperature than plain water. Even something like mixing a gel in your water bottle can help keep it from freezing.

Don’t let the cold air fool you. It’s dry and sucks the moisture right out of you. Remember to hydrate well to keep your runs fun and races successful.