So, How Many Hats Do You Wear?

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Pensacola, Florida, United States
Husband. *Dog Dad* Training Specialist. Runner. Triathlete (on hiatus). USATF Certified Coach. USATF LDR Surveyor. USAT (Elite Rules) Certified Official, Category 3. Observer Of The Human Condition; sometimes what I write is *smooth and drinkable.* Other times it needs a little bit of lime and salt.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Daylight Savings?

Daylight Saving Time.  Wow, what a misnomer.  Well, it pretty much signals the beginning of the "extra" season; extra snacks, extra beers, extra parties.  I've written about the stretch between Hallowe'en and New Years' Day in the past in terms of social life and in terms of weight control.

So I'm not going to go there.

In most parts of the country the first race/s of the year probably won't happen until the middle of spring.  In the southern-most portions, though, we have a flipped-coin season.  Nobody in their right mind produces a running event between June and September.  At least, not one that's going to make a major profit.  We can train almost every weekend of the year down here, with very little in the way of alibi or excuse for not getting in that run.  Our attire doesn't change all that much, either, with the exception for perhaps a couple of weeks where gloves, caps and tights are a good idea.

Those who live in the cooler climes would laugh at our choice, but that's what occurs when your blood thins out.

But darned if folks don't decide to put their running shoes up for nine weeks, or at least replace them with the party shoes.  I can see the logic and reason of taking a few days to a week off every six months or so, just to give your mind and body a little rest.  Rest as in "other activities which are fun," or "long walks at the places where the shoppers aren't..."  Just as starters.  Taking a week isn't going to kill whatever fitness you built up over the summer; hiatuses which go longer than a week are the ones which will bite you in the fanny.

It always drives me up the wall to talk to friends who treat fitness as a zero-sum activity.  If they can't do it full-bore then to heck with it, they aren't going to do it at all.  Really, the only reason to take more than a week away from a consistent workout schedule is - naturally - an injury.  Some of the things I've considered and done to try and be an athlete and a socially-inept citizen with varying success are below:

Keep the Training Impact - If you track the time spent working out and the intensity level of the work you have the elements to measure your training impact.  For those who haven't read any of Eric Bannister's 2004 research, time in minutes multiplied by heart rate or perceived effort provides a score which can estimate how long it will take to recover from a workout or how much work you're doing each day.  So, if you average an impact of 120 points a day (say, 60 minutes at a 70-percent or a seven-of-ten effort level), you could cut off twenty minutes and work at 80 percent/"eight."  Or...

Split the Time - Daylight Savings only means that daylight is going to be GONE in the afternoon. The post-work run is going to be just as much keeping live batteries in your headlamp and dodging drivers as it is putting one foot in front of the other.  Might as well consider breaking up the workouts into two pieces; they don't have to be equal parts but it can give you two chances to get something in.

Something, Something - Dark, gloomy running during this time quickly becomes a near-solitary effort; why is it I'm the only one devoted to this thing!?  This is where the higher-intensity speed-focused workouts suddenly become more fun.  Keep those long aerobic pieces for the weekend when you have the time to adjust the start and get out for longer.  But there's nothing wrong with working on that speed and keeping that speed up over the dreary days.  The great Zatopek even said that there was a need for great runners to be fast and have endurance.  He did lots of short, intense pieces; a 200 here and a 200 there, next thing you know you've got a mile in.  Or two.  Or three.  Turn the classic "endurance first, speed second" train of thought upside down.

You might find with these three concepts, especially the third, that you're not alone during that last week or two before New Years' Day.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Running In The Information Age

The most difficult part of being an athlete in the information age is not the lack but the abundance of information.  Back in the "good old days" the tried and true strategies were passed along from the more experienced generation to the newer crop of athletes.  Didn't matter so much that many of the "truths" passed along were eventually debunked by athletes who either didn't benefit from the "truth," or by scientists who finally asked the question, "does this stuff really work?"

Now, the problem is that there is too much information, and most of it is either wrong or lacking in detail.  Take for example the use of compression wear; I can see a BOLD TYPE HEADLINE on the cover of a running magazine, see an article in a major newspaper's health and wellness section, and receive an e-mail from a sportswear manufacturer about a pair of tights which will (as I've written before) guarantee faster marathon performances, decreased muscle damage and world peace. 

Once I've paid my $7.50 at the local bookseller for the running mag, I find little more than a three-sentence blurb referring to a research article.  Which happens to be the same article referred to by the major paper.  And, worst of all, neither the article or the blurb...or the advertising for that matter, say anything close to what the research really said.

I'm not saying that fitness writers are foolish people, but sometimes I wonder if research articles, and the fine art of gleaning pertinent information from them, are covered deeply enough in journalism schools.  It doesn't take too much, though, to look at the original article copy (which in most cases are hyperlinked to on-line newspaper articles) and see what the researchers REALLY had to say. 

The scientific method, for those of us who might have forgotten it from high school, can be summed up this way: 

Smart people try stuff out.
I wonder if I can duplicate it?
What happens if I change a variable? 
I better write this down so someone else can try it later.

When it comes to the "write this down" part of science, research articles are set up in a fairly standard form:  Title, Abstract, Introduction, Method, Results, and Discussion.  The title is pretty much that 25-words-or-less "what happens" statement.  That's what makes research so easy to find.

The abstract is for those persons who don't have a lot of time to spend reading lots of words or looking at pretty graphs and charts.  Each of the sections are boiled down to one or two sentences each; perfect for search engines and the like.  The introduction gives the researchers time to talk about what inspired them to do the research; any studies they felt like replicating, or what variable caught their attention.  In the case of compression wear, for example, was there a difference between sprinters and distance runners?  This is where the hypothesis is written, the "I think this will happen when I change this variable..." statement.

The method section goes into the details of how the experiment was performed, just in case another researcher months or years down the road wants to test out the theory to see if the same thing happens.  This is where you find out if elite athletes were tested, or if treadmills were used, or the kind of treadmill, shoe, sports drink, etc.  One of the thing to look out for when reading the hypothesis or method of the test is the difference in control and treatment.  If a researcher is testing whether a sports drink is effective, are they comparing to fluid...a different sports drink...or a different dosage.  Sometimes the researcher intentionally or unintentionally skews the difference between control and treatment to favor their hypothesis.  In my humble opinion this is the second piece of the article...but of the most importance.

In most cases the results section of a research paper - unless you've studied statistics - is of the least importance.  If you've studied statistics then you will probably be able to assume for yourself whether or not a researcher uses the terms "of statistical significance," which you'll find mentioned (or not) in the discussion section.  This is the place where the researchers are going to tell the reader, "we tried this and found that."  Even more important, this section is going to tell you the, "if we had it to do all over again, we'd try this," or the "if we can get some more money for research, and perhaps a few well-intentioned undergraduate student assistants, we'd like to look at..." statements.

So if an article's abstract catches your attention, then go to the article's discussion, where the really smart folks can tell you why they think they got the question figured out right.  After that, if you want to know what got them to that point, you can go to the references section at the back of the paper.  Lots of footnotes usually means more refinement on an old question...or another group of folks saying, "it works, and here's why."

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Achilles. Heal.

One of my favorite running couples, Betsy and Aaron, came my way this last weekend, which gave us both a very good excuse to run together.  The run was a rare treat; in the past we've not been at equivalent fitness levels - either I was on the mend or they were.  Okay, Aaron probably would have whipped both of us if not for jalapeno peppers the night before, but that's another topic altogether.

Betsy spent a lot of the run in a state of concern.  In her haste to be packed up and out of town she apparently overlooked the physio tape she uses to support her Achilles' tendon.  I reminded her as I finished off my pre-run coffee that I was not that long out of the woods from my own chronic tendon troubles.  The effort level for the run was going to stay comfortable for all of us; sending the least-wounded and gimpy of the trio back to my house to get the car and pick up the others was nothing any of us wanted to do.

If you've never had issues with your Achilles' tendon consider yourself fortunate.  If I'm not mistaken (I'm not, I took the time to look in the book.), physical therapist and author Jeff Dicharry wrote in his book "Anatomy for Runners" that 80 percent of runners are injured.  It's not only the injury part that is less than fun; add the inability to do anything fun while you're recovering.  That pain in the heel may - or may not - go away after a healthy dose of what my military friends call "Vitamin M," which is another term for one of the more common non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents which can be taken by mouth.

I don't consider taking NSAIDs as my latest (as my loving bride jokingly calls them) "hobby horse," otherwise known as the pet peeve of the month.  I'll say I take far less than I used to, and more for those days when my head - and not the head of my metatarsals - aches.  I learned over time that the prostaglandins and those other hormones and chemicals which would make my heel swell after a run that was too hard in intensity, to long in duration, or too soon for sufficient recovery was trying to, um, encourage me to either rest or take up an activity which was a little less damaging while I figured out what was going wrong.

There are multiple treatment options for this and other overuse problems, most of which I took the time to point out to Betsy.  On those days when my calves feel very tight, usually on days when I've done speed training, I'll make certain to use a self-massage tool like the TP Baller Block or "The Stick."  While it's a pale imitation to the hands of a good massage therapist, you can't go wrong budgeting for a hands-on session once a month...or more often if you're running high mileage.  Make sure, however, that you massage the entire muscle, proximal-to-distal, medially, centrally and laterally.  In plain English, that's from the crook of the knee to the heel.  After you do that, don't forget to roll the arch of your foot.

The zero-drop shoes are pretty much out of the question, from personal experience.  And just to make certain I'm not tugging on the tendon too much I add a small wedge of silicone rubber in the heel of my running shoes.  If I'm on the road doing one of those things I get paid for, which includes a great deal of standing up, I'll even place the wedges in my work shoes.  I've also been fortunate to find black leather walking shoes which don't look like sports shoes.

And say what you want about the treadmill being a piece of machinery sent from the infernal regions, but I'm all in favor of using them for training.  Sure, they're boring as hell and you don't get any of that nice, cooling breeze, but I've done 75 percent of my training mileage since my injuries on them.  I'm only a little slower than I'd like to be, and I'm getting in anywhere from 35-to-45 miles per week (easy running, hills, tempo running and speed repeats) without walking like a guy ten-or-fifteen years older than I am.  Plus I can control how fast I run and how soon I finish; should that tendon decide to act out four miles into a planned five-mile run on the road you've got a sweaty and often painful walk to your car or the house...or wherever the run started.  Should the slightest thing begin to feel wrong on the treadmill, one punch of the "STOP" button calls it a day.

Speaking of calling it a day, it doesn't hurt to have those rest days - or at least "days when I'm NOT running" - plugged into the schedule.  Want to walk the dog or spend the day on the couch, that's fine.  Doing something that isn't aggravating what you aggravate when you run I would count as "rest," too.

I can lay no promises or hard-and-fast timetable on recovery.  Depending on the level of injury and the willingness to LEAVE WELL ENOUGH ALONE, the only thing I can say is "it takes time."  Impatience, stubbornness and hubris will most certainly make an injured runner more desperate, more angry, and more willing to accept "silver bullet" recommendations.  No injury is caused by a single factor, and no single fix is going to take care of it.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Less Is More

Music was a constant in my house while growing up.  My father worked at a radio station and had a large record collection; both my maternal and paternal grandparents performed either on stage or in studio.  Even during his retirement years, my grandfather would pull out his old Gibson, sit on the couch and play the occasional bluegrass tune.  I developed an ear for melody, harmony and an appreciation of structure.  To this day I find live concerts (with extended jam sessions) irritating because I start to compare what was done in the comfort of the studio; a couple of artists get a “free pass,” sure, but I want to hear the arrangement duplicated as close to the original as possible.
I have discs from some big name groups which, once you hear the tracks which didn’t necessarily see the light of day, you begin to wonder the classic question “what in heaven’s name were they thinking when they did that!?”  Why, in the middle of a tune with a crunchy guitar riff and bass groove would you inflict a weenie keyboard solo?  The instrumental would have been better to fade out before that last fifteen second reprise of the tag.  Okay, I’m not a producer and I’ve never played one on television but sometimes you know like you know when someone’s added one too many things to the painting.
Like a hair barrette on the Mona Lisa.
I get the same feeling when someone training for a marathon tells me they have a 20-miler on the agenda.  Training runs of that distance, especially when run by first-time and relatively-inexperienced marathon aspirants, are a closer to four-hour journey than to three.  Add to the mix the low-level orthopedic trauma and the need for recovery – an easy concept to explain to spouses and significant others, difficult to explain to children. 
Hard to hear as Billy Ray Cyrus.  Or Miley, for that matter.
Two and a half hours of running at a pace closer to the desired pace on the marathon day is much better.  It is true that you’ll still be hit like a wrecking ball, and perhaps a little dragged out the following day, but you can repeat the process the following week.  Even better than a repeat is a slightly shorter long run, around two hours in duration which is a little faster, then do another 150-minute jaunt the week after that.  Not only do shorter “long” training runs done on a repeat basis make sense from the physiology standpoint, but more importantly from the mental.
Say you decide to do that twenty-miler and completely "crater" it.  If that training run is half (and in the case of some training plans, more than) your weekly volume and you can’t get it in, or you crash and burn it’s not impossible to imagine the mental state at which you’ll be.  "Soup sandwich" is a commonly-used term in my world.  Of course, it’s no guarantee that your mind will be in any less of a state of freak-out if you were to attempt and fail during two or three two-and-a-halfs.  (I had to bail on two sixteen-milers during my last attempt at the marathon, but it had more to do with unresolved achilles tendon issues – overtraining – than it did a lack of training.)
Shorter quality is better.  Less is more.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

One Star? Really?

"A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing." - Oscar Wilde, English author, playwright, poet (1854-1900)

An article came out last year about "one-star" reviews of national parks; natural wonders in my nation which were panned by travelers and the reasons they were not felt to be worth the entry fee.  Someone in my social media-verse posted it up last week.  After reading the article it's easy to see how, and even why people could easily, for want of a better term, "miss the forest for the trees."

Within these spaces I've made snarky comments about events which I've considered not worth the entry fee because the course was poorly laid out, or the awards were terrible, or the shirts were cheap, or there was no beer.  As a consumer with limited income and endless wants (the first law of economics) it makes perfect sense for me to seek out the events which provide me the greatest utility (happiness), based on the factors I find most important.

When it comes to sporting/endurance events, the best-produced events are the ones where the participant sees little or none of the inner workings.  Stuff magically appears and everybody goes home happy.  Folks who have worked to produce or support the production of a sporting event will tell you that things rarely go as smooth as possible; if you only have a "plan B" in your contingency planning you're likely going to have a bad day,  And when it comes to higher-level events the layers of production and collaboration are at a level which would boggle the mind of the average athlete.

It's like putting up a Disney theme park, training the workers, running the show, and tearing it down in a matter of days.

But let me go back to social media and missed perspective.  I've found the attempt to place additional perspective as an event volunteer, a race organization worker, or a low-level official of a national or international sport federation (Credentials which with $2.25 will get me a cup of coffee at Denny's in my hometown, should I decide to cross the picket line.) is like, as the saying goes, trying to teach a barnyard animal to sing.  Providing clarity in a social media bulletin board wastes my time and energy, annoys the person who's mind is already made up on who to blame, and exposes me to the question, "dude, are you speaking for yourself or for the organization?"  I've learned the hard way that most of the folks who are at the highest levels in the national or international federations - and can speak for the group - have learned to stay out of what might be seen as "kindergarten level" arguments.  Are they concerned about the opinions of the folks who participate in their races?  Sure they are.  But they're also at the level where they have more of the story.

What do I mean?  Well, take for example what's happened today in Thailand.  Today's edition of the New York Times was not printed there. The printer who receives the copy for printing was concerned about violating Thai laws having to do with offending the monarchy.  It's not the individual printer who's going to take the flack for the unavailability of the Times; that's most likely going to be aimed at the Times.  When it comes to big races and big events, while the national and international governing bodies - or promotion companies are the "face" of the event, there's a local organizing committee which actually pulls the levers, much like "Oz, the great and terrible...and by the way, stay away from the curtain."

They're pretty much at the mercy, sometimes, of local bureaucracies.  A city with two professional sporting events happening on a day are pretty much going to tell a local organizer and the federation to compress their schedule, limit venue locations, and so forth.  Unless they're receiving "Olympian" amounts of money, and then they might flex a little.  Add to this a little term called "force majeure," the classic "stuff that happens" that no deity would claim themselves as directly responsible for, and those "Times" parties receive blame for what goes wrong rather than having contingency plans down to "E" and at times "F."

So it's not that I want to recommend everyone who participates in large and high-level events to cower before the projected image of "the great and terrible," but take a moment before exercising what you might perceive as your entitlement as consumer, depositing the burning bag of "yuck" at the front porch of the people whose face is out front.  They might be doing their best to operate within the constraints which have been placed upon them by a higher authority.  It's like blaming the bus driver for the route which got changed because of street repairs.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Numbers and Measured Things

Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted. Albert Einstein, (attributed) US (German-born) physicist (1879 - 1955)

The fine folks who make exercise feedback devices - heart rate monitors, running watches, distance and activity trackers - do a great job at collecting and displaying raw data. The devices are smaller, more independent and able to learn what is quote-unquote normal for the individual wearer. 

Honestly, would anyone now put up with the first consumer GPS receivers? The first versions I saw my old training group teammates wear years ago look absolutely gargantuan when set next to the latest fitness trackers. And those big things couldn't track your heart rate. 

I think I raved about a year ago about the ANT+ wireless communication protocol and how I could communicate from my heart rate chest strap AND the stationary bicycle I was working on at my spin class. Naturally, that rave turned into a rant once I had battery issues and the inevitable (sweat-related) problems. Buy a less-expensive (read: cheap) Chinese-made strap, just to learn the age-old adage: 

You get what you pay for. 

Fast forward to the past month. Tracking exercise efforts based on average pace works okay if you're not in the need for really-granular information. And in the case of this old coach/guru, the less-granularity, the better. Until you decide, after a few months of running...without walking like an zombie the next day...that it might be time to dabble at racing. So there was a need - again - to know just how hard I was going, and more importantly, when to stop. 

Lately the fitness devices have; added stuff which you couldn't track without going to a laboratory and paying a couple of hundred bucks. I didn't need that information because I had a test about eight years ago; that sort of baseline data doesn't change much over time. At least not in a drastic manner. Even better was the fact I found a device which didn't need a chest strap. Great! That means in the event I want to scare off little old ladies and small children (by running shirtless like I used to, so long ago) I could get my "half-unclothed serious distance runner in training" on I could do it without looking like an absolute geek. 

Even with technology improving by leaps and bounds - providing everything to the point of estimating when you could repeat the workout which just finished kicking you in the butt - it's still a number. 

Repeat after me: Distance, pace, heart rate, vVO2, EPOC, training Intensity, and so on, are data. Numbers. 

The most important thing is to know what those numbers mean to your body. How does my body feel at a particular pace? How do my legs feel after a particular distance? How long does it take for me to recover from a workout at a particular effort level? If my heart rate monitor reads 'x' and my legs feel 'y' and my lungs feel 'z,' then which of the following do I trust and act upon? The heart is a demand pump. The oxygenated blood is sent to the places the body informs the brain it is most needed. That means there's a lag time between an effort is performed by the muscles and when the blood arrives to replenish the muscles...kind of the reverse of the way our automobile's carburetor works. Depending on hydration (or dehydration), weather conditions, fitness, etc., a particular pace effort can vary in heart rate. 

Feel "good" but the heart rate is higher than you'd like: If the workout is not planned as a hard effort, then I recommend backing off. A six-minute-per-mile pace is not always going to equate to a 145 beat-per-minute rate, just to give an example. 

Feel "bad" but the heart rate is lower than typical: So, last week I had a ten mile long run on the plan; based on where I turned around I ended up getting eleven, with the last four miles taking a great deal out of me. The next morning's run was supposed to be an easy 3.5-to-4 miles, depending on how I felt. I got two very dead-legged, chest-heavy, heart rate-light miles in and decided to call it a morning. That evening's run was a slog, as well as most all of the easy efforts during the week. Thought I had it figured out completely by yesterday morning's eight miles, but my body told me I was still fatigued by way of a high heart rate during a long easy walk. A trend of fatigue is pretty much a warning sign of overreaching. Push through that too quickly and the next stop is most likely overtraining. 

When gauging how hard your workouts need to be, or when it might be necessary to take an extra day of rest, heart rate is only one number to measure over time. How's your sleep, your work stress, your hunger and thirst, and your diet? Another data point to consider is how you feel going into the workout and how you feel mentally coming out of it. Not everything can be measured to that little device.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Define "Better"

A couple of weeks ago I read through the local running club's (e-mail) newsletter and learned a coach from the local college has agreed to provide free individually-focused weekly speed workouts at one of the local high school track facilities.

My first reaction was to say, "Honey, did you see this?"

After about ten years, off-and-on, of working with individuals and small groups - sometimes growth from individuals into small groups, other occasions small groups trickling off to individuals - I couldn't help but smile and say, "Finally!  The local run club is approaching what I think is their core mission." 

Since I've played in most if not all corners of the proverbial sandbox it's a given I have some strong opinions about the players which make up the running community; the roles and responsibilities, and the situations where they probably need to withdraw their nose so as to not get it bent out of shape.  And I catch enough hatred and discontent, enough "get over yourself, 'coach.'" 

With the term 'coach' used in a derisive manner. 

Usually by people who haven't read the 'blog title.  It's okay.  After all this time I see myself less as "coach" and more as "guru."  Besides, people like the transcendental nature of a teacher/guide more so than they like the hard-and-fast "do this" nature of a coach.

A guy who has a job working with athletes, who earns a paycheck based on academic or professional credentials, is (in my humble opinion) a welcome addition to a running community.  When talking about the "pie" (defined as potential users, money, recognition, whatever floats your proverbial boat...), more "pie" is good; more "pie consumers" not so much, at least not without more "pie."  And the arrival couldn't have come at a better time.  I've considered on several occasions what it would be like to not be a "pie consumer" (even of "my" infinitesimal portion), and almost completely stepped away a second time. 

When a national governing body for sport decides certifications (especially the process to maintain professional currency) can be an income stream but doesn't place equivalent worth...  I've said on many occasions.  "This certification, and $2.25, will get me a cup of coffee at a Denny's in Deming, New Mexico.  If I decide to cross the line of protesters."  Just because my Ni..., oops, USA Track and Field coaching certificate expires on 31 January 2016 doesn't mean I'll be less-effective on 1 February, should someone want me to help them be a better runner.

Define "a better runner."  Sometimes I cannot help but understand why folks who want to get off the couch and enjoy the fresh air and scenery at a pace slower than a drive but faster than sitting still.  Especially without all the political bologna; most of us have forty hours a week of political bologna, and that's without counting the television, radio or social media.  And those athletes who operate at the highest levels of performance aren't immune from it, either.  What a frustration it can be for a young man or woman who is forced to renege on a legally-binding agreement with the person who writes their checks, just because another person has a bigger ego, a bigger checkbook, and the inability to collaborate, compromise, develop a mutually-agreeable course of action, or at least a convenient flap on the jacket, a'la Reebok and the 1992 Olympic basketball team. 

"A fish rots from the head down." 

Which doesn't surprise me when those of us closer to "the tail" decide to run in "virtual events."  No timing, no schedule, no hassle.  Just sign up, run the distance, and pay for the finisher medal.  Sounds pretty simple.  Someone who wants to do those kind of events, or get up every morning and run for the sheer joy of the act, who might want to merely improve upon the "them" they were last week, last month, or even last year...perhaps that is the purest definition of "better runner?"