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.

Want to get faster at ultras? Train for a 5km

It’s been said that if you took all the runners at an ultra and had them run a 1mi race, the finishing order would look pretty much the same for both races. It’s not just that Nick, Ian, Rory and Ellie are fast in ultras, they are fast runners. If you watch them run, they look different, smoother and more efficient.

In 2004, I was able to watch Matt Carpenter (CR at Leadville, 15:42) run up the back side of Hope Pass as I was running down. His stride was light and quick as he seemed to float, almost effortlessly, up the incredibly steep climb.

Far too many ultra runners spend far too much time doing long, slow, plodding miles. While you may become somewhat better at the highly inefficient ultra shuffle at 15, 20 min/mi pace, you need to include some fast running to become more efficient and stronger, which will make you faster in ultras. Fast ultra runners learn how to run fast short before they learn how to run fast long.

Benefits of Speed Training

Training for speed will make your stride more biomechanically efficient, increase your cardiac output, and increase your leg strength. These improvements will carry over to ultra running.

Stride: When you run fast (properly), your stride rate is faster. Namely, your foot spends less time on the ground with each stride. That means that more of your momentum from each stride is carried forward to the next one. More momentum means less energy is needed to generate and maintain speed.

The ultra shuffle – where your feet barely get off the ground, your foot slides forward when it hits the trail, making that sandpaper sound, and spends a long time on the ground – is very inefficient. First, when your foot hits the ground sliding forward, much of your forward momentum is lost. This actually puts the brakes on your forward momentum. If your foot hits the ground pulling back (paw back), it’s much easier to propel yourself forward. Also, when you strike pulling back, your foot spends less time on the ground, thus losing less forward momentum. Second, it takes more energy to swing a low foot forward than a high one, one that’s closer to the pivot point. You should be lifting your foot using muscles in your hip area, rather than driving it up from below. These lifting muscles are much less prone to fatigue than the leg muscles. Paw back, leg lift, and time on the ground work together to make an efficient your stride.

Cardiac output: When you stress your body (within limits), your body responds by getting stronger to adapt to that stress. When you stress your cardio system, your heart responds by getting stronger, allowing it to pump more blood volume with each stroke; your lung capacity increases, allowing your blood to capture more oxygen; and your blood vessels adapt, allowing the blood to pass through more easily. Short, high effort, VO2Max (zone 5) type intervals (in measured amounts) give a greater stimulus to increase cardio efficiency than long, slow, ultra miles.

Leg strength: A determining factor in how long your stride is, is how strong and how much of your muscle fibers you use with each stride. A stronger stride will help you power along the trail faster. Like with cardio, faster running provides a greater stimulus to increase leg strength than long, slow, ultra miles. The VO2Max type intervals as well as hill sprints are good for leg strength.

Speed before Distance

Isn’t that contrary to everything you’ve ever heard about training? No. I don’t mean you should do your speed work before you build your base. What I mean is that you should develop speed at shorter distances before you increase the distances you are running and racing.

When you first start running, you should run slow and easy. Develop a base level of aerobic fitness and muscle conditioning before you work on speed. Your heart, lungs and muscles need to be able to handle easy running before you increase the stress.

Once you develop a basic level of fitness, a base, you can start to work on speed. The first step in that is working on form; i.e., teaching your body how to run fast. That means doing drills and striders before doing hard intervals. Then start doing some hard speed training, such as intervals, specific to the distances you are running and racing. Take some time to build your speed at shorter distances before moving up.

As you move up, from 5km, to 10km, to ½-marathon, to full marathon, to beyond, repeat the process of building a base at the longer distance, then adding speed. As you build a bigger base, back off on doing speed training, the hard speed work, but continue to do drills and striders to maintain that fast running stride. Then, as you add speed training specific for the longer distances, maintain an element of 5km speed training.

If you’ve already been doing ultras, this might seem like starting over from the beginning. It is to an extent. However, since you already have a big endurance base, you can compress the time it takes to step up through the distances. I do recommend taking time off from ultra training for a while. Take an entire year off from ultra racing and training if you are able (that’s largely a psychological question that you need to answer for yourself). At the very least, take a good part of the off and early season to focus on speed. A 2-hour run is OK, but longer, slower runs plodding up and down the sides of mountains are likely to hinder your progress. Do some 5km races (I hate them too, but sometimes you need to do what you hate to get better), or a little longer.

5km Training

5km training includes both drills and workouts designed to teach you how to run fast. While this is not about how to train for a 5km, here are examples of the types of training to include.

Drills:

  • High Knees – With a quick stride, while moving forward slowly to moderately, exaggerate your knee lift, like in a marching band. It’s the stepping that’s quick, not the forward movement. Exaggerate the pumping of your arms (back) to help drive the knees up. A variation of this is skipping. High knees will help with leg lift, and skipping will help with quick feet.
  • Stairs. Run up stairs, and walk down. Keep your stride short and quick, taking only one stair step per stride, even if you can take more.
  • Butt Kickers – With a quick stride, while moving forward slowly to moderately, exaggerate your heel lift in back bringing it up to literally kick your butt.
  • Striders – Gradually build your speed for 20-30 strides, then maintain the speed for another 20-30 strides. Jog slowly to recover for a minute or so. Often this is done on the track, striding the straight, then jogging the curve. However, by counting strides, it can be done anywhere. Very important – DO NOT REACH OUT WITH YOUR STRIDE! Keep your stride under you (it should feel like you’re falling forward), a bit uncomfortably short and quick. Imagine that you’re running on hot coals. Striders are about how fast you step, not how fast you run.
  • Embedded Striders – On your longer runs, embed series of striders to help keep you from falling into the ultra shuffle. After a good warm-up, every 30 min, do 5 sets of 30 sec striders, 1 min jog.

Speed & Power:

  • VO2Max (zone 5) – Approx. 2.5-5 min long, at ~10 sec/mi faster than 5km pace/effort, with rest/jog ~50% of the hard effort time. For example, if you run a 5km at 8:00/mi, do 800m or ½mi hard intervals in 3:55, with ~2min rest. You want to keep the rest fairly short so that you can get back up into the zone more quickly and spend more time there. I prefer rest by time rather than distance because it keeps you honest; it’s too easy to get lazy and rest too long if by distance.
  • Uphill Striders – Do your striders uphill, on a grade that’s moderately steep (hard, but not so hard that simply running is a struggle), and on a road or not that technical trail. Focus on a quick stride and good uphill form.
  • Hill Sprints – If you haven’t done these before, start by doing uphill striders. For hill sprints, use a steep, but still run-able hill. Take several strides to build speed, sometimes I skip into them (don’t go hard from a standstill), then go hard for 5-10 seconds. Take a full recovery in between. Start with 5 or 6, at the end or middle of an easy to moderate effort, short to medium length run 2-3 times/week. 5-6 may seem easy, but if you haven’t done them before, you’re likely to be sore the first few times, or at least need some time for your muscles to adapt. Gradually increase to 10-12 sprints over several weeks. After a few weeks at 10-12 sets, change to sprinting for 20-40 seconds, on a slightly less steep hill. After a build up to full speed, run hard until your stride rate starts to slow and your legs tighten up

A few notes of caution about speed training. First, if you haven’t done speed work before, or not for a long time, ease into such workouts slowly, just one short interval workout per week. No matter how good you feel and how easy the first workout may feel, the soreness may come a day or two later. It takes time to adapt to something new. Too much, too soon, risks injury. Second, always make sure you are well warmed up before starting the intervals. Third, keep your stride short and quick, like with striders. DON’T REACH! Fourth, higher efforts put greater stress on your endochrine and immune systems. Thus, limit how much and how often you do speed training.

Running fast and efficiently is a learned skill. You need to practice to develop and maintain that ability. This takes time, especially if you haven’t done speed work (or not for a long time). Take a good part of the off and early season, to learn how to run fast. I’d even recommend taking a whole season away from ultra running to work on speed and do shorter races. Then, watch how your ultra running becomes more efficient and faster.

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

Building Strong Feet

Your feet are your foundation for your entire body when you run. How your foot strikes the ground affects how the stresses of the impact are felt in your muscles and joints up through your body, and how much of your momentum, the energy from each stride, is carried forward to the next stride or lost.

Strengthening your feet and improving your balance are important for all runners, whether your feet are healthy or (and especially) are recovering from a foot/ankle injury; whether you wear orthotics or (especially) if you plan to go barefoot; whether you run primarily roads or (especially) trails. This article will show you ways to strengthen your feet and improve your balance, and how that can improve your stride and reduce injuries.

Sensing the ground

Walk barefoot, around your house as often as possible, and even for short walks outside. This will help teach your feet to better sense the ground. Along with strength and balance, sensing the ground will make your feet better able to automatically adjust to changes in the surface and your stride, making your stride more efficient.

 Muscles under the foot

The muscles on the bottom of your foot support your arch, and provide a spring-like effect. These muscles undergo a lot of stress from pounding, stretching and contracting. If they are not up to the task, they will cause excessive energy to be transmitted up through the body leading to injury in the leg muscles and joints, and can be damaged themselves (e.g., plantar fasciatis).

Toe Curls: Lay a wash cloth, bandana, rag, t-shirt, or something similar, flat on a hard floor. Stand with the ball of your foot just on or off the edge of the fabric. Grab the fabric with your toes, curling them in a raking fashion, to pull the far end of the fabric towards you. A couple of variations of this include picking up a pencil with your toes, or standing with your toes dangling over the edge of a stair step, and grabbing the edge with your toes.

Arch: Place something small, like a pencil or marble, on the ground. Stand with the arch of your foot over the object, and try to pick it up with your arch. You can’t actually pick it up with your arch – at least I don’t know anyone who can – but just squeezing your arch – trying to move the ball of your foot closer to your heel – works those muscles that support your arch. This uses different muscles than the toe curls, so it should feel different. It may be hard to figure this one out, so work at it for a while.

Alternating toes: With your foot on the ground, raise your big toe while pressing the other four toes down to the ground. Then switch, raising the four smaller toes while pressing the big toe down.

Balance

Your ability to balance as you land affects how hard your foot has to work, as well as your risk of sprains. While we almost can balance, this is a skill that can be improved, lost if injured, and regained.

Stand on one foot: This may sound simple, yet it is a very powerful exercise. Notice that your foot will wobble. This is the natural process of starting to lose, then regaining your balance. Training this reflex will help keep your feet stable when they land, reducing the risk of injury, and making a more efficient stride. It is especially important for trail running, where every step can be on uneven ground. If you’ve sprained your ankle, you may have lost this reflex and need to regain it. I’ve had numerous sprains and three surgeries on my right ankle (the last in 1994), and have lost and regained this reflex several times. Despite this, my ankles are more stable now than before the first sprain (1981), and I am confident, aggressive and fast on technical down hills

Depending on how good your balance is, you might need to start with just 20 seconds or so on each foot, several times/day. If you’re very unsteady at first, especially if you’re  recovering from a foot or ankle injury, you might need to start by standing in a doorway and lightly touching the sides to help you balance (not a bad idea for elderly people with balance problems). Gradually wean yourself away from support. You’ll probably notice that your balance is better on one foot than the other (if you’re right handed/footed, it’s usually your left foot that has better balance because that is the foot that you plant on when kicking). Spend more time on the less stable foot.

Start on a flat, even surface. As you progress, there are numerous ways to add more difficulty while standing on one foot:

  • Stand on towels, foam, a trampoline, or something else that’s not quite so stable a surface. You don’t need to buy a wobble board.
  • Close your eyes.
  • 1-legged squats.
  • Forward bends, like warrior pose in yoga
  • Cross bends. For example, stand on your right foot, twist and bring your left elbow down to your right knee, then come back upright. Then, bring your right elbow down and left knee up to meet in the middle.
  • Get up on the ball of your foot. First just try standing on the ball of your foot without movement. Later, you can add some of the above technicques while on the ball of your foot.

 

Dynamic Motion

As you get more advanced, add motion to the exercises. Motion better simulates the demands of running.

  • Skipping.
  • 1-legged hops.
  • Lydiard/Nordic bounding. Forcefully drive knee up and out, and drive same arm back, as if elbowing someone behind you in the gut. Both should be exaggerated over a normal running stride. Driving the arm back will help generate a more forceful forward leg drive. As you go forward, try to hang in the air, unlike a running stride. Go slow, don’t rush, don’t race To start, pause when you land. If you have to put your other foot down to balance, practice the non-moving exercises more. As your balance improves, bound forward with the other leg as soon as you land (spend as little time on the ground as possible). First do this on flat ground. Add more difficulty by bounding up increasingly steeper hills. If you have good balance, you can also try this downhill. In addition to balance, bounding also builds leg strength. Below are a couple of videos demonstrating bounding:

Slow motion bounding on flats – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wHYLRBRi8d8

Hill bounding – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F1EvhPf6DPg

  • Jumping rope, first with both feet, then just one. If you’re worried about the coordination with a rope, simulate the foot and arm motions without a rope.

Transitioning to Less Supportive Shoes

Transitioning to less supportive shoes takes time. You’re not going to go from wearing orthotics to running barefoot overnight. It takes time for your muscles to strengthen and your stride to adapt. The less you run in your old shoes your old way, the quicker you can make the transition. Unless you are willing to sacrifice almost all of your training for a while, it might take several months to over a year to transition to running barefoot/minimalist full, or most of the time. Running with less supportive shoes too much or too soon can lead to injury. Be patient, be realistic, be conservative.

Remove the insoles from your running shoes. The insole provides both cushioning and arch support. As the muscles in your feet become stronger, you can try running without the insole support. Start gradually, just short runs, one day/week. This doesn’t work with all shoes. It depends on how much, where and how rough the stitching is under the insole.

Get a somewhat less supportive shoe. Look for a shoe that’s not highly engineered, without a lot of bells and whistles – easy to flex longitudinally, hold the heel and push up from under the toe, and easy to twist, at least easier than your current shoes. They’ve been making shoes like this for decades, well before the term “minimalist” came along – they’re called racing flats and lightweight trainers. Don’t go from a highly supportive shoe straight to a minimalist shoe. Gradually work your way down through less supportive, neutral cushioned trainer, neutral lightweight trainer, before moving to a racing/minimalist shoe.

Run barefoot: You don’t need to spend $70 or more on so-called barefoot shoes. Start slowly and be conservatively. Run inside on carpet or a nice grass field (no rocks, garbage, etc.). A treadmill is a great place to start. Your first few runs may only be for 15-30 seconds. It takes time for your calf muscles to handle the strain of forefoot running, and the bottom of your feet to handle the foot strike without a cover.

 

Having strong, balanced and quick feet is essential to an efficient and injury free stride. For a long time, runners just used to run without working on form. This is different from most other endurance sports: swimming, cycling, Nordic skiing, etc. The popularity of books like Chi Running and, especially, Born to Run, have gotten mainstream runners to start thinking about and working on form. These exercised don’t have to take a lot of time. Many of them can be done at home, in your spare time. The dynamic motion exercises can be done at the end of easy to moderate runs, a few minutes, a few days/week. Change doesn’t happen overnight. However, with consistency, your stride will improve and your risk of injury will decrease.

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