So, How Many Hats Do You Wear?

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Pensacola, Florida, United States
Husband. "Dog Dad." Training Specialist. Runner. Triathlete. Masters' Swimmer. USATF Certified Coach. USATF LDR Surveyor. USAT Certified Official, Category 3. Observer Of The Human Condition; sometimes it's smooth & drinkable. Other times it needs a little bit of lime & salt.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes...

It was great to spend a quality weekend (Read: One without excess social media or being tethered to my computer...the very reason this article is late in arrival...) with my wife and some really good friends at the Crescent City Classic.  The down side was that I didn't feel like working out too much.  Major thanks go to Betsy and Aaron and the clan for crawfish and hospitality, Bea and Goody for conversation and good sea stories, Eric for letting us drive sag on course, Chuck for the compliments at the expo, Bill and the NOH3 for great beer and meat-like substances...

I did miss the familiarity of my typical Sunday morning long run, which as of late has been a blend of chatting up and psyching up as we get into the last weeks of the racing season here in the FL Panhandle...my little group will soon start to prepare for the autumn half- and full-distance marathons.  When runners step into that murky and sometimes frightening world of longer-distance training runs it is easy to tell when the fatigue has set in. 

One of my wife's favorite teaching tools, especially when she works with younger children, is to teach them the basics of a foreign language.  She collaborated with Japanese teachers earlier in her career and took the time to learn simple children's songs...one of her favorites is the "head, shoulders, knees and toes" song.  The observant coach and the mindful runner can borrow from this song, if nothing else but to check their status during efforts of all intensities.  Check early, check often...

Head - Where are the runner's eyes focused?  If the terrain is uneven, root-strewn, rocky or slick, or they're running in a close pack, the vision ought to be focused at a point which exceeds fifty yards in front of them.  Keep the head in a natural  position with the jaw as relaxed as possible.  If you can't say a few words, even at speed it's most likely the jaw is clenched a little too tightly, too.

Shoulders - Can the runner lower their shoulders?  If the answer is 'yes,' the odds are good they're running tensely.  From experience, I can say this is the most challenging correction; from the shoulders I have to look more distally, down toward the elbows and the hands.  Are the hands clenched so that I could not place a roll of quarters there?  Are the elbows bent at a sharp angle, as if the runner is showing off their biceps muscles (runners who carry music players or smart phones in armbands often show this)?  While we're at it, how are the arms swinging; front to back is good, side to side not so much.

Easiest way to drop the shoulder comes from lowering the hands closer to the waistline, which opens the elbow angle and relaxes the shoulders.  That will also make it easier to breathe.

Knees - Visualize, now, an imaginary string from the crown of the runner's head going downward.  Ideally the line will go almost perfectly straight down to a point behind the knees.  The ideal amount of forward lean, or erect posture, is in the one-to-four degree range from direct vertical.  Runners, when they begin to fatigue, tend to either hunch over (when running slowly) or lean backward (when running quickly).

Toes - Listen.  No, really.  Do you hear a lot of scuffing along the pavement?  How about slapping?  That means the gait needs a little adjustment.  We're not talking major tweaks, but a slightly quicker turn-over with a shorter stride (and a little concentration) can make for less-fatiguing running.  Quiet feet are happy feet, in my humble opinion.

Quite simply, it all boils down to a sense of mindfulness.  A mindful concentration on your run and the mechanics which affect running performance can save you time, energy, and a little bit of discomfort.  It all boils down to paying attention to your head, shoulders, knees and toes.

Monday, April 14, 2014

K.I.S.S. On A Sunday Morning

Taking a stroll through the park in front of our house the other evening; Suzanne, the "Rude Dog" (also known by his former racing name "Majic Rubin," his adoptive name "Rubin," and the diminutive "Roo Dog") and I were discussing potential topics for this space.

I considered talking about the importance of family, but that's one I've touched on a more-frequent basis as my father became more frail.  Diet was pretty much out of the question; I like beer, I tend to eat most any food substance that fails to pre-emptively sink its teeth into me.  And Nancy Clark, R.D. is so much more skilled than I at writing about good stuff.

Shoes?  Haven't done that topic in a while.  Books?  The latest stuff I've read I've talked about. There's a book I've thought about reading (which I'm not certain whether to purchase in paper or electronic form), Haruki Murakami's "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running" kind of has me thinking...I ran with a different running partner the other Sunday.  Drop my average pace 45 seconds per mile and I'm a chatterbox...it wasn't a happy morning for her.  We got to talking about a few varied topics, which I left more or less to her to bring up...can't say my old pastor's dictum "don't answer un-asked questions" wasn't remembered.

"What is the longest run I need to do?"  Run as long as you can get away with, at a pace which is comfortable for you.  Not easy, but comfortable.  The maximum distance ideally should be no more than one-fourth of the week's total distance, or longer than 2 hours, 30 minutes in duration. Yes, we read that Mo Farah runs 27-milers, but he's got a few things in his favor: genetics, physiotherapists, and people who pay him to run...not necessarily in that order.

"But I'm doing a ten-mile 'mud run.'"  Sounds like the kind of event where sustained running is NOT going to happen.  In fact, unless you're at the front of the wave with the intent to make like a special operations trainee, I'd be comfortable with runs in the five-to-six mile range.  Seven at the most.  And most likely the finish time is a secondary thing; participation without major injury seems to me to be the primary.

"I was thinking about a pair of those 'finger shoes.'"  For the kind of terrain, or the lack of, footwear that's minimalist (less shoe to me equals less space for mud, water and debris) would be acceptable.  It's probably the only time I'd even think of taking the "skele-toes" I save for weight machine workouts at the gym on anything which resembles a run.  In my humble opinion, too many folks look to the newest 150-dollar offering from the legion of shoe manufacturers (call them legion, for they are many...) to make them "better runners."

K.I.S.S.  Varied run training, flexibility and strength work are less expensive, both in the immediate and in the long-term, and more-effective than the latest gadget at the local running emporium.

Friday, April 4, 2014

History Rhymes

"I've run from the arms of lovers. I've run from the eyes of friends. I've run from the hands of kindness. I've run just because I can." - Mary-Chapin Carpenter, 'The Moon and Saint Christopher'

The missus and I both use multiple social media outlets, to varying degrees. We differ in the way we use each individual medium, though. If you looked at my wife's focus on one particular site you would think she's all about the business area in which she's spent the last dozen years. Go to another site and it's more personal, with some business. With me, on the other hand, I'm not so certain there's a clear-cut social media "identity" per se. That might have much to do with the fact my "work" identity depends on the definition of "work." As many readers of this space know I'm a very fortunate guy; I have over 25 years of service with an employer who occasionally looks the other way when I engage in shenanigans which would have me frog-marched out the front door of most corporate organizations.

It did and it did not surprise me, this morning, when my loving bride informed me a former schoolmate of mine asked to connect with her on a professional-based social network. It was a surprise because I thought the schoolmate would have figured out after ten years my wife and I have moved on with our lives. It didn't surprise me when I thought more about it; stalkers have mad-serious endurance, the type for which many athletes would sell their mama to the gypsies. It doesn't mean endurance athletes and runners are not plain nuts. Our saving grace is that most of us are a stride shy of what cartoonist and triathlete Jef Mallett described as "naked, flag-waving, Tour de France-fan crazy."

And when we start to think we are that crazy, something in the world outside reminds us of the very reason we started running. Sure, there are the kids who were nurtured early on in life, the ones who were found to be blessed with the great genetics...all lungs, heart and legs. Most often those are the kids who enter the high school-to-college-to-shoe deal-to-coaching track. But I bet that if I someone gave me a dollar for every citizen-athlete who turned to running because of some slight, some disillusionment, some heartbreak or disappointment, I might be able to buy a few nice things.

What makes me wonder how close we are to that "naked, flag-waving, etc., etc." form of craziness is what happens after a while. The person whose screwed-up life or lifestyle drives them to lace up the shoes and get away from their demons, well, first they appear to have tamed the beast which once threatened to eat them whole. Then, after a while, the demons which they fled show up again. And...rather than make the conscious decision to avoid repeating history, they try to figure out whether Mark Twain was correct, and see if history merely rhymes.

It's the kind of decision-making which makes a coach shake their head.

We are probably the last person who wants to remind the runner of they way they were, a'la Barbra Streisand...they forgot the painful remembrance.  Our job is to point the way forward, not to dust off the rear-view mirror.  That's where it becomes the responsibility of the fellow runners.  Because if we say it it's going to sound like it rhymes with something.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Adapt or...Well, Adapt, Silly...

Often when I write about the difference between plan and reality the plan is much more entertaining, faster, (pain-free!) and positive than the real end-result.

This weekend was a complete flip of the switch on that situation. The plan was to get eight miles yesterday at close to a ten-minute pace. Not only did we get eight, we got it in at a pace about fifteen seconds per mile faster than planned.

Okay. There was a down side. I ended up subluxating (popping) one of my ankle tendons five miles in; something I end up doing once every six months or so. To top it all off, I had no choice but to walk or run another two kilometers...up-and-down a bridge (I will not receive any sympathy from those friends who live with elevation changes.). I guess I could have swam across the bayou and saved myself about 1,500 meters of limping. Actually, once I got to the top of the bridge my heart rate made me forget about the ankle. While the training isn't as fast as what I used to do it was a major improvement over how I felt some time back.

Think back to the last time you had a sudden leap in performance; perhaps you were able to run for a longer period of time without feeling the need to stop or slow down. Or, even better, you knocked a big, honking chunk of time off your best performance on a run course.

Quite simply, you adapted to a stress.

The Austrian-born Canadian psychologist Hans Selye likened a graphic version of the physiological response to stress - especially the way we adapt or fail to adapt to it - to that of a sine wave, dropping during the period of time during and immediately following a workout, then slowly returning back to the baseline.

Once baseline is reached a period of what he called "supercompensation" can occur, depending on the level of stress induced and the period of time given for recovery. Put one-too-many hard workouts in succession and that wave might not return to baseline for a while...that's a state known as over-reaching or over-training.

Do some easy workouts, or focus on a different areas of fitness while the ones you stressed are recovering - any functional fitness enthusiast would tell you there are as many as ten, to include cardiorespiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, accuracy, agility, and balance - and that supercompensation will not only occur, but will eventually raise the baseline so that your former supercompensated state is now your new baseline. When I look at the list of ten "fitnesses" it's easy to tell that distance running has a strong focus on some, and not as great a focus on others. This is most likely why we're starting to see top-shelf elite runners hit the weight room and take on functional fitness training regimens as adjunct training.

(I don't think we're around the corner from seeing Dave Castro's ideal functional fitness enthusiast, a person who can both run a five-minute mile and deadlift five hundred pounds. But, I'm sure there's a golden mean between the folks dropping iron and the treadmill crowd working to drop fat pounds in my local gym.)

The goal of the training, whether it's strictly running, or if there's weight training or cross-training or functional fitness added in...is to get the sine wave of fitness back to that peak of supercompensation faster, higher and to stay there for a longer period of time. Sometimes that means a deeper level or a longer period of "down."  When you hit that level of down it's time to focus for a little while on something else.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Best Way

A long time ago, in a strange (Lack)land called Texas, a young man (who had not learned to coach or teach yet) was taught many valuable lessons on life by way of a very cranky man who wore an olive drab set of clothes with several dark blue stripes and stars, as well as a blue Smokey the Bear hat with a silver eagle pinned on the front.

While growing up, the young man had learned there were two ways to complete a task; the right way and the wrong way. However, this very cranky man - who never seemed to stop yelling - taught the youngster there three possible ways to approach a task:

The right way.  The wrong way.  The military way.

As the young man grew in wisdom he found there were many parallels between the military life and the running life; discipline, blended with pragmatism, would most often win the day. Especially when, on deeper review, the battle was found to be one not worth sacrificing one's self over.

It's often funny, and a little bit sad, when a runner begins to have injury or performance issues; for most situations are rarely if ever resolved by one single corrective measure. That's because in many cases the problem is the end result of more than one root cause. And you run into, much like the young man thrust into the military environment, at least three different ways to correct the problem.

There is the poor way. There is the good way. There is the best way.

The poor way, in most cases, consists of doing nothing at all.  Well, I guess nothing at all doesn't necessarily mean assuming that rest alone will fix the problem.  Or, worse yet, that a couple of (or many) non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs will work to fix the situation.  From personal experience, I'm going to say this is the course of action which leads to much pain, suffering and frustration...down the road.

More often than not, the good way is really a short-term fix.  Please note that I did not necessarily call it a "bad' way.  It usually entails the use of modalities - knee straps, "special" shoes, and such...the things which fill half of the magazines whose covers are filled with "ten weeks to a ten-mile personal best...gadgets which, not unlike a neutron bomb, deal with the symptom and leave the body relatively unchanged.  It's not the best way, when you look at the cost-to-benefit calculation.  The runner still fails to look closer at the less-sexy, slower-to-the-goal, long-term genuine correction to what really is the problem.

The best way.

So many times we learn that we've taken the exceedingly-quick George Lucas-like "dark side" approach to injury fixation.  We fail to find our weakness and work to strengthen it.  We decide the few excess pounds are an acceptable price to pay in return for sore joints and slower run times.

And, on many occasions, the very reasons we began to be runners become the reasons we stop chasing after our better selves.

Monday, March 17, 2014

(Dis-)Comfort Food

It appears that spring in all its beauty...and pollen...has arrived in my little corner of the world.  And it proceeded to knock me on the base of my running shorts.  Sore throat, aching accessory muscles (those are the small muscles which become fatigued when you have a problem breathing); nope, not a good thing.  So then I started asking myself the "conventional wisdom" question...starve a cold, feed a fever...feed a cold, starve a fever?  Shoot, I don't even know what it is, but my body is telling me it doesn't matter; I have to eat something.  The worst part is that when I get sick I want "comfort food," usually an item I would not normally grab during the course of the week.  On days when I feel this badly Suzanne will strongly consider bringing home some Indian curry.  However, she's out of town; worse yet, the nearest Indian restaurant is closed.  It's not like I'm going to starve.  It's just that I'll feel less miserable about recuperating at home today.

Since I've got my train of thought deeply immersed in the topic of food, one of my athletes asked me the other day:

"What are some good dietary options for before our Sunday morning long runs?  Should I grab something an hour beforehand or go on an empty stomach?  I think some of the slowing of our pace might have had to do with the fact I didn't eat anything this morning.  Are there any good books I should consider reading on the topic?"

Mind you, Angela's target race is eight months down the road, so to speak, but it's never too late to develop or reinforce good eating habits.

Timothy Noakes, M.D., author of "Lore of Running," had some fairly strong convictions about a high-carbohydrate diet earlier in his career, but in the past two years has pretty much told people to "rip the dietary advice out of the book."  He now recommends a carbohydrate-restricted diet, specifically limited to eggs, fish, organic or grass-fed meat, milk, cheese and yogurt, leafy, low carbohydrate vegetables, nuts with the exception of peanuts, lower carbohydrate fruits like apples and berries, water, tea and coffee.

Of course, the question presents itself both in matters of content and of timing.  Alex Hutchinson, Ph.D., "Which Comes First, Cardio Or Weights?" states that the time solid food takes to transit from the mouth to the stomach and upper colon (when nutrients taken from food begin to enter the bloodstream) averages as little as three hours, so that means unless your peanut butter on toast, or a PowerBar, or a bowl of oatmeal is a midnight snack, you'll probably be better off making certain your Saturday lunch and dinner have the right amount of good fats, protein, carbs, micronutrients and sufficient hydration.

I've known folks who can't stand to eat anything the morning of a run.  For me, a slice of toast with butter and Nutella or peanut butter and a cup of coffee seems to work quite well; more so for the stimulation to my lower gastrointestinal system than for any nutritional benefit.  And if your GI system isn't happy on the long run morning, believe me, you are not going to be happy, either.

When it comes to literature on diet and sport, I claim a certain degree of ignorance.  Dietitian Nancy Clark writes a great number of professional and public literature for sports and fitness magazines; most every article I've read of hers has good, solid information.  Several other coaches have written on athletic-focused diets, with a look toward the long-term season-to-season building of lean muscle, shedding of excess weight and energy allocation.  "Chris Carmichael's Food for Fitness: Eat Right to Train Right." - recommends a focus on certain types of food sources during each phase of training (foundation, preparation, competition, transition).

But...like I said before... n=1. What works best for you might not work as well for someone else. There is no such thing as a single "super-food," and no magic time to eat immediately before a workout that will guarantee the best performance.  A diet which is consistent in content as well as in time will.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

This Is Only A Test

Thunder and rain. Perfect.

Like my old coach used to say, "one excuse is as good as another if you don't want to do something."

The original plan was to run a half-marathon about a half-hour's drive from home; over in Gulf Shores, Alabama. The previous week's trip was good training (4,300 foot elevation change = altitude training) but a financial nightmare. Staying as long as I possibly could with family, then flying home the night before the race made it all but impossible to do little more than support the runners I train. The weather encouraged me to sleep another couple of hours.

Later in the day, after a good gym workout, I learned the event had been cancelled. Perhaps sleeping in was not such a bad choice after all.

"So now I'm wondering what to shoot for next. Maybe I should drop the HM altogether and shoot for the shorter stuff." Ashley's message to me made me think about the (long) path of long distance training.

Every so often we need to test ourselves. I think that's the reason many runners sign up for and participate in races. Sure, it can be as simple as drawing a line in the dirt and agreeing upon a particular turn-around point; the old classic "first one out-and-back is the winner" test against the peers with which we run every weekend. Or it can be as complex as Rock n' Roll, the Classic, Peachtree, Cooper River, and the other big races.

Racing is a good way to figure out how well we've trained over the past weeks or months, and when it comes to some events, a year or more. When it comes to the time and effort behind the money on a race entry, it's a good idea to do a status check or a diagnostic on yourself. You can set up the occasional time trial or race-like effort as part of your training plan to see if training paces need to be adjusted or run distances need tweaking.

Depending on the target race distance, a time trial which ranges from two to six miles can measure your progress. Prepare for these tests in the same manner you would prep for the target race, from your dinner the night before, to sleep, to shoes and gear, to breakfast or coffee (or not!) the morning of. If you're lucky you can jump into a local race to use as a rehearsal, but a lightly-trafficked stretch of road or trail which closely resembles the courses on which you're going to run will work just as well. I'm not particular toward any surface, but I like out-and-back courses. Since I wear a GPS/heart rate monitor I don't worry too much about the distance splits. Running watch (low-tech?) enthusiasts might want to have a course with marked splits.

As for distance, a two-mile test will do well for those into racing 5Ks, otherwise I consider tests (or race-like efforts) no longer than one half of the target race distance to be best. A 10-kilometer runner might run a 5K (fitness) test every five-or-six weeks during the training cycle; a half-marathoner might do the same with a distance of 5-to-8, perhaps even 10 kilometers. Those folks preparing for a marathon might run a couple of 5K or 10K tests, plus a half-marathon, but no later than eight weeks out from race day.

The goal of the test is either to adjust training paces during the training cycle, to measure increase in performance from the previous test, or to replicate the performance at a subjectively decreased (rate of perceived exertion) or an objectively decreased (heart, respiratory or recovery rate) level of effort. In short, you want to be able to say, "yes, I'm on the right track." Staying static is also acceptable, too. Then again, the runner might also figure out they've begun to overreach (overtrain) and take a little down time.

The most important thing is to leave nothing to chance on race day; in this case one excuse is not as good as another. It means that I as a coach have not prepared the athlete for the optimal performance.