Pain vs. Discomfort

Standard

Everyone and anyone who’s been in a gym has heard the phrase “No pain, no gain.” What does that phrase really mean? Do we want our clients exercising in pain? What should effective exercise feel like?

In my experience, clients often interpret “No pain, no gain,” as “Pain is inevitable and it should be ignored.” I believe that for the good of our clients’ health, trainers should examine this misunderstood statement with their clients. This is a vital conversation, especially with clients who are new to training.

Pain & discomfort defined

I don’t recall if it was in a seminar or an article, but someone smarter than I once discussed pain vs discomfort. I’ve stolen the idea and used it ever since. (If you made this description and you’re reading this then thank you! It’s been highly valuable to me and my clients.)

My clients should understand that in order for exercise to do the things we want it to do — if we want to create favorable adaptations to exercise — then a client must exercise to the point of exertion and fatigue. The client must work hard. He or she might sweat, grunt, groan, and work to the point of fatigue and discomfort. A description of the D-word:

Discomfort:

  • Often a burning in a working muscle or muscles.
  • Comes with a feeling of fatigue.
  • Doesn’t alter the way you move (compared to a limp, for instance)
  • Is usually symmetrical if for instance you’re squatting, swinging a kettlebell, doing pushups, running or cycling.

Discomfort is a sign that we’re working near your accustomed limits. That’s a good thing, and that’s how you get in better shape.

I also tell my clients about pain. We don’t want pain. (Some minor, intermittent pain may be OK. More on that in a moment.) Some characteristics of the P-word

Pain:

  • Often felt in a joint, not a muscle
  • Sharp or electric
  • May not accompany fatigue
  • Severe pain alters your movement: Knee pain causing a limp or low-back pain altering how you bend down and pick up something
  • It’s often asymmetrical: Knee pain in one knee when squatting, shoulder pain in one shoulder during pushups or bench press, low-back pain on one side of the low back

If a client feels pain then we stop and we evaluate. Persistent, serious pain should not be a part of our day-in-day-out experience at the gym. Pain is not something to be ignored or masked with pain pills. Pain is a signal from the brain that something isn’t operating as well as it should be.

Color-coded pain

In another case of I-forgot-where-I-read-it disease, I read about a physical therapist’s color-coded, traffic-light guide to pain. I’ve adopted it and it helps guide me as to when to when or if I need to alter an exercise for a client due to pain. It goes like this:

GREEN: Everything feels fine; no discomfort anywhere. Client is ready to rock ‘n’ roll!

YELLOW: Minor, sporadic, or short-lived pain during the exercise but it’s not bad enough to stop or alter the movement pattern. We keep going as long as it doesn’t get worse.

RED: It hurts. We stop.

If pain becomes more intense, and/or more frequent, and/or lasts for more than a week then it’s probably time to seek medical care of some sort. Trainers should have a physical therapist, chiropractor, or some other licensed medical professional to whom he or she can refer clients.

I like this code system in that it’s rare that everyone is going to feel 100% perfect all the time. It’s not uncommon for us to feel something that is less than optimal but not so bad that we need to stop entirely. With the yellow reading, we can keep going through some minor pain, and we can avoid catastrophising around pain. If a client can experience a little bit of pain yet continue working then I think we can build resiliency in the client and protect against what’s known as fear-avoidance of certain movements. If we get to red then we can always stop and change things.

The fear-avoidance model. You don't want to be caught up in it.

Fear-Avoidance Model. Avoid it.

 

Unfamiliarity: Is it pain or discomfort?

Exercise newcomers may have no idea what it feels like to work hard. Their experience with muscular discomfort may be sporadic and in the distant past. Unfortunately, many people experience all uncomfortable feelings the same whether it’s joint pain or the normal sensation of hard work. They are different and our clients should learn the difference.

A classic example is low-back pain/discomfort. The epidemic of low-back pain is a unique pain in our culture. It is widespread and debilitating for many thousands of people. For those who suffer low-back pain there can be tremendous fear of recurrence. At the same time, exercise is an effective antidote for many forms of pain in older people, and for chronic (but not acute) back pain.

Numerous muscles attach in and around the low back. The glutes, erector spinae, lats, obliques, and other spinal muscles live and work all around the low-back area. Just like any other muscle, if you work these muscles hard then you’ll feel it. Exercises such as squats, deadlifts, kettlebell swings, and bent over rowing can cause serious — and totally normal — discomfort in the low back. Yet for many clients, any sense of low-back discomfort can be bad and scary. Thus it’s very helpful and reassuring to a client if a trainer can discuss the issue of pain vs. discomfort.

The spirit of “No pain, no gain”

The knowledge behind that phrase is well-informed and comes with good intentions. Plus, it rhymes! It sounds good. But clearly it can be misunderstood. (If I ruled the world, I’d change the phrase to “No discomfort, no pain.”) The truth is, no one will increase his or her physical capacity by sitting comfortably. Anyone who wants to get in better shape must work hard. At the same time, pain, as I described above, isn’t a normal part of working out. Pay attention to it. Get help if it doesn’t go away.

My First Ragnar Trail Relay: Just Don’t Blow Up, The Fajita Lesson, & Astronomy

Standard

The Ragnar Trail Relay came to Aspen, CO last weekend. I ran the race with seven other people, mostly from my wife’s company. We were the Kenzan Running Club. This was my first Ragnar. It was unique among the races I’ve run. I like to recall specific moments after events like this and reflect on what I saw and felt. Experiences like this are the highlights of my life. The memories and emotions are important.

Most teams were eight-person teams like us. The race consisted of three loops: the green easy loop, yellow medium-difficulty loop, red hard loop. We all ran all loops once. I ran first (green), ninth (red), and 17th (yellow.) We were finished when runner eight crossed the finish line.

The Kenzan Running Club immediately post race.

The Kenzan Running Club immediately post race.

The night before

My wife and I camped out the night before the race. It was COLD that night. There was frost on the ground and tents in the morning. We slept well. Sleep was limited from there on out. It also didn’t stay cold.

Fortunately for us, some other teammates got to the camp site early and grabbed a prime spot. We were close to the toilets and the transition area. A word to the wise: If you do this race, get there early. Very early.

Don’t blow up

Teams were put into flights with the slower teams starting earlier and faster teams starting later so everyone would finish within a certain window. Flights left every half-hour starting at 10 am. We started at 1 pm. I was the first runner. The first loop was very warm, high 70s. No shade. Heat throbbed off of the parched trail. The temperature climbed.

The challenge in an endurance event is to take a very hard effort and spread it out over the entire course of a race. Every runner has started out too fast and paid the price at some point later in the race. That’s not good. At the same time though, you don’t want to finish thinking, “I could’ve run harder.” Another wrinkle was the fact that the race required us to run again and then again.

A few people passed me. Whenever I’m passed, I listen to their breathing and I watch how they move. Do they run strong and relaxed or brittle and tense? If it’s the latter of those two, then I know I’ll probably catch them sooner or later. I like passing people. I don’t win trophies and I’m not a top runner, but I truly enjoy beating other runners to the finish line, especially if I did it by running smart.

My mantra was, “Just don’t blow up.” That meant run my race, not someone else’s. Don’t give in to the urge to charge ahead early just to catch someone. If someone passes you, let them. Be patient. Wait until the end is near to hit the gas.

The most shade anyone would see on the trail.

The most shade anyone would see on the trail.

My coach made the analogy of holding on to an electric wire, the type used to keep cows away from the fence. You can hold on for a little while but you can’t hang on to that thing forever. If you grab ahold too tightly, too early, you’re cooked. You blow up which means you screwed up. The blow-up/electric wire paradigm played on a loop in my head throughout the race.

I was very pleased with my conditioning and performance. I was never overly sore and none of my joints hurt. I was especially happy with my downhill running as I had to do a lot of it in the dark on very tired legs. I never crashed or flew off the mountain into space.

A well-run operation

The organization and execution of the race was impressive. From what I can tell, the Ragnar race is a complex thing with a lot of moving parts. Everything seemed to operate smoothly. I didn’t detect any crises or surprises on the part of the staff.

Parking for team vehicles and shuttles to other parking areas worked very well. I was very grateful to see well-marked trails, especially at night. The workers were organized and helpful. The campground was crowded but very adequate. There was plenty of water available and food for purchase if you wanted/needed any beyond what you brought—and there were free ice cream sandwiches!

Now this is really important: The port-o-potty situation was excellent! The effort and efficiency in maintaining and cleaning those things was phenomenal! Thousands of people using those things over and over, round the clock—especially in the heat!—was a true marvel. What a relief to have access to mostly clean, well stocked toilet facilities. Don’t think I’m joking. This is a huge thing.

Epic view from the red loop. This is why we do this.

Epic view of Snowmass ski resort and from the red loop. This is why we do this.

The Kenzan Running Club

Our team was a very compatible group of people. We got along very well, had a lot of laughs and were very comfortable around each other. Everyone was well-prepared. We happily shared space, food, equipment, and encouragement.

To expand beyond our team, my impression of all the Ragnar competitors was very positive. I didn’t see any drama or dumb behavior. I saw no meltdowns, freak-outs, arguments, or fights. I did see a lot of courtesy, encouragement, and the always appealing magic energy that is shared among people suffering together. We passed each other and were passed while exchanging kind words. The camp site was somewhat crowded but we all made do and lived comfortably together. The trail running community tends to be a laid-back, respectful group.

Between runs

Managing rest was a challenge. We made constant efforts to avoid sunburn and drink lots of water. Staying off my our feet was a priority. We all spent a lot of time chasing shade as the sun passed over us from east to west. We were already spending a lot of time in the sun and any time spent in the cool shade was essential to feeling human. Lying in the grass under trees was heavenly and refreshing.

The Red Loop & the Fajita Lesson

The world isn’t perfect and neither was my race. Here’s the story:

There was a complimentary dinner Friday evening between my first and second runs. I had two thoughts:

  1. I’ll need a lot of calories for this event.
  2. I should have enough time between my first run and the second run for the food to digest and I’ll be OK to run. (On this point, I think we all felt like our next loop came much faster than we anticipated.)

Thus I ate a pretty big plate of chicken fajitas, onions, peppers, tortillas, guacamole and cheese. The magnitude of my gamble might seem obvious to you right now. It’s obvious to me now but due to some sort of faulty psychology, I thought my decision was reasonable. And it was hot…

Fast forward 2-ish hours. I felt okay and I continued to feel well enough during the long, steady, climb at the front of the 6.7-ish mile red route. I started at 8:10 pm. Twilight was coming on. I didn’t need the lights yet but I would soon. (More on night running in a moment.)

Almost time for moonset in Aspen, CO.

Almost time for moonset in Aspen, CO.

Fast forward a little further and it was time for a 2 mile, high-speed nighttime downhill dash over fast, swoopy terrain. There was jostling and sloshing. My digestive system lodged a prolonged protest. I knew this race would be tough and I welcomed the challenge. I didn’t welcome this. I began to fantasize about those port-o-johns. I thought my teammates might have to hose me off at the finish. By some combination of force-of-will and supernatural providence, I was saved. No hose down needed. That’s enough about that.

Running at night

This was a new thing for me and I enjoyed it tremendously. During my second run, the red loop, the hardest run of the race, I saw day turn to night. To my left, as I ran along the high ridge line I watched the pink sunset fade to black. On my right, a massively swollen blob of a moon rose and dominated the sky. I don’t see that happen every day. It was a stunning sight and a unique experience. (I took a pic while high up on the ridge line but it was no good. You’ll have to settle for the one up above which was taken after my 2nd loop at about 4 am. That’s not the sun.)

My wife, ready to march into the night.

My wife, ready to march into the night.

The early nighttime atmosphere was electric. There transition area buzzed with powerful energy. Music blared and thumped. A bonfire blazed. Everyone had on their nighttime running gear. We all looked like we were about to do battle with the Cylons, Klingons, and/or the Decepticons. We were sharp, confident, and energized. This was all happening before the wee hours, before the music got turned down so we could grab a few moments of sleep, before the deep fatigue set in and we were zombified.

Looking up at the mountainside from camp we saw the continuous trickle of bobbing little lights. Those were runners descending from the red and yellow loops back to the start/finish area. I wish I had a picture of that for you.

The finale

My final run started around 4 am and ended about 40 minutes later. For me, anything before 5 am isn’t morning—it’s night. This was far outside my experience. I had maybe three hours of sleep before the final leg but I felt OK. It wasn’t as cold as the prior night which was good. This was the yellow loop, or the middle-difficulty loop. I was grateful that the red loop wasn’t my last loop and I was very happy to avoid more exposure to the heat. Runner number eight came through and I was off.

The climbs were tough on the last two loops but the descents proved difficult both from the the fact that it was night and that my legs were very tired. The challenge was to descend as fast as possible without the legs collapsing and careening down the mountainside.

I like descending. There is a focus that’s required to run fast down a mountain. It puts one very much in the moment. It’s meditative. It’s not like sitting in rush-hour traffic. I passed a lot of people and only one person passed me. He was moving much faster than I.

Our final runner came in several hours later, between 11 and noon. A couple of our team fell and got skinned up a little but no one had any major injuries or issues. The race finished at 6 pm. We were grateful to be through before that.

Finished before the sunrise.

Finished before the sunrise.

The trails for this race were not very technical at all. They were smooth and relatively free of rocks and roots. Compared to most of the Denver-area trails on which I trained, these were sidewalks. That was probably a good thing for night running.

My lights were the Black Diamond ReVolt headlamp and the Nathan Zephyr Fire 300 flashlight. A lot of people ran only with a headlamp, but several articles I read about night trail running suggested a headlamp and a handheld light. I liked having both. I could see both the trail at my feet and further down the trail.

If I had it to do over, I would’ve brought a little less gear with me on the red loop. I brought more than I needed to drink and a winter hat and gloves that I didn’t need.

I might’ve also done a night run during training, just to get feel for the lights. I don’t think I missed without a night run though.

For anyone thinking of doing this race I strongly suggest you familiarize yourself with trail running. This was very challenging. I wouldn’t recommend it for a green beginner. That said, it wasn’t overly brutal. It was very doable. The vast majority of us were very mortal.

That’s most of my story. Our stats are below. Follow this link for a look at all the teams’ stats. I think we did well. Several of us want to do it again.

Kenzan Running Club
Finish Time
22:59:51
Overall : 82 / 227
Gender : 47 / 126
Categ : 35 / 99
Race No 181
Gender Mixed
Category Open
Status Finished
Splits
Split Name
Time
Time From Prev Leg
Loop 1 Green 00:40:32 00:40:32
Loop 2 Yellow 01:19:45 00:39:13
Loop 3 Red 03:00:30 01:40:45
Loop 4 Green 03:48:33 00:48:02
Loop 5 Yellow 04:40:19 00:51:45
Loop 6 Red 05:55:50 01:15:31
Loop 7 Green 06:35:32 00:39:42
Loop 8 Yellow 07:10:30 00:34:57
Loop 9 Red 08:26:52 01:16:21
Loop 10 Green 09:09:07 00:42:15
Loop 11 Yellow 10:01:45 00:52:37
Loop 12 Red 11:29:07 01:27:21
Loop 13 Green 12:18:18 00:49:11
Loop 14 Yellow 13:01:06 00:42:48
Loop 15 Red 14:20:57 01:19:50
Loop 16 Green 15:00:05 00:39:08
Loop 17 Yellow 15:43:38 00:43:32
Loop 18 Red 16:59:41 01:16:03
Loop 19 Green 17:54:44 00:55:02
Loop 20 Yellow 18:41:27 00:46:43
Loop 21 Red 20:21:08 01:39:40
Loop 22 Green 21:06:29 00:45:21
Loop 23 Yellow 21:49:06 00:42:36
Loop 24 Red 22:59:51 01:10:45

||Hide

http://www.racetecresults.com/MyResults.aspx?uid=16432-2143-1-58655

The Best Know How to Rest

Standard

Our popular culture is filled with admonitions to “Just Do It” and “Push your limits.” We hear aggressively pompous questions like “What’s your excuse?” aimed at people who don’t adhere to some sort of arbitrary exercise pattern. A lot of this is good marketing but it’s not reflective of the reality behind truly great sports performance, career longevity, creativity, and good health. We don’t hear much about the massive importance of rest.

I’m very happy to see a discussion of rest in Sports IllustratedHow extended breaks in training help elite athletes—and why you should take them too is an excerpt from a book titled Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success by Steve Magness and Brad Stulberg. They offer the example of 42-year-old Bernard Legat the multiple Olympic medalist and world champion runner:

But here’s the thing: If we never take “easy” periods, we are never able to go full throttle and the “hard” periods end up being not that hard at all. We get stuck in a gray zone, never really stressing ourselves but never really resting either. This vicious cycle is often referred to by a much less vicious name—“going through the motions”—but it’s a huge problem nonetheless. That’s because few people grow when they are going through the motions. In order to give it our all, and do so over a long time horizon without burning out, we’ve got to be more like Bernard Lagat: Every now and then, we’ve got to take it really easy. In addition to his year-end break, Lagat also takes an off-day at the end of every hard training week. On his off-days, Lagat doesn’t even think about running. Instead, he engages only in activities that relax and restore both his body and mind such as massage, light stretching, watching his favorite TV shows, drinking wine, and playing with his kids.

Every hard-exercising, hard-working person should read this and take this advice to heart. This doesn’t just pertain to high-end elite athletes. In fact, the article does a very good job discussing how the need for regular and at times extended rest periods applies to everyone in any field of work. Learn it. Know it. Live it.

Tapering for the Ragnar Relay

Standard

The Ragnar Trail Relay is next weekend, June 9-10. My workouts are now getting a little easier and a little shorter. Runs will continue to ease up with the expectation that I will peak for the race, feel good, and perform my best.

The past four weeks have been very challenging. My coach has been prescribing longer runs and runs with specific hard-effort drills. Hard runs have been on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Easier efforts have been on Mondays and Saturdays with rest days on Wednesdays and Fridays.

HRV

It has been interesting to watch my heart rate variability (HRV) as my training has progressed. Briefly, HRV is used to measure training status. With HRV, I can see if I’m fully recovered and ready to train hard (green), somewhat fatigued and in need of a light workout (orange), or very fatigued and in need of rest (red).

The art of overreaching

Typically, one should adhere to the green/orange/red training recommendations shown by the HRV app. Most days it’s a good idea to train hard if one is fully recovered, to back off if one is tired, and to rest if one is very fatigued.

There are exceptions to most rules and HRV training rules are no different. Hard training when the HRV is orange or red may be useful if applied correctly. (Overreaching is the term used for this training strategy. This article discusses overreaching on the bike but the same concepts apply to any athletic endeavor.) I have definitely been in the orange and red more often these past few weeks.

As a big, general rule, I love trail running. It’s a meditative experience, and my time out in nature is a very exciting yet calming experience for me. Some might call it spiritual.

But with a sustained increase in training, not only have my HRV scores dropped, my attitude toward running has changed. I’m not as enthusiastic about it. I often look at a workout and I think, “Ehhhh? God… What?! Hill intervals on top of other hill intervals for how long? Who thought this was a good idea?

This shift in attitude is no surprise.Too much training, and too much hard training done for too long can result in overtraining, which is nothing anyone wants. Overtraining symptoms may include mental decline, weakness, sickness, and injury. Overtraining may take months and potentially years to overcome, and overtraining is partway down the road to death! Apathy is part of my nervous system’s way of protecting me.

I’ve experienced this diminished mental state in the past during hard training but it’s interesting to analyze it alongside both the coach-prescribed workouts I’m doing and the HRV readings.

With no interest in either dying or being overtrained, why would I want or need to overreach?

It’s because overreaching + adequate rest = bigger & better performance. With training, we dig a hole. We beat up the organism to a certain degree. We stress muscles, bones, connective tissue, the endocrine system, circulatory system, the mind, and the nervous system in general. If we rest adequately (taper) then we should see the organism rebound, get stronger and thus be able to perform at a high level. The diagram illustrates the idea.

This is how training is supposed to work.

This is how training is supposed to work.

The value of coaching

I feel that working with a coach has been invaluable in that she is guiding me safely through these rocky training waters. She’s had me work hard enough to realize significant fitness gains and she’s kept me from working too hard and becoming overtrained. She’s said several times that she wants the hard workouts to be so hard that the race is a piece of cake. After last Sunday’s 2.5- hour, 12.4-mile gruel-fest through Golden, CO, I can say that I believe I’m firmly on the right track and that the Ragnar Relay may actually feel like a jog in the park. Next weekend will give us the truth.

Running Injuries and Running Performance: A Podcast and an Article

Standard

Injury and performance exist on a sliding scale. At one end we are completely broken down, hurt, and unable run/bike/swim/lift/fight/hike/etc. At the other end we’re performing at our peak. Probably every active person has been injured and I’m willing to bet that every active person would like to perform their very best. This post is for runners in either or both camps.

Runners are often injured. According to a review of literature in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, rates of lower-leg injury ranged from 19.4% to 79.3% among study subjects. The magic questions are 1)Why do we get injured? and 2) How do we overcome injuries?

I think it stands to reason that if we hurt while running then very likely it’s the way we run that’s the problem. Running requires complex coordination among many parts and systems. It is mind boggling to try and dissect running form, find the problems and then either teach or learn new, helpful techniques.

Meanwhile, if we’re not injured and we’re able to run, then we probably want to know how to run faster and more efficiently. How do we we achieve these goals? These questions aren’t easily answered. With all that in mind, I found two resources that may offer some very valuable information on these issues.

The first is the Physio Edge Podcast 049, Running From Injury with Dr. Rich Willy. At about the 20:30 mark Dr. Willy gives some good external cues to help promote running form that may help with IT band pain. The cues involve the knees and the hips:

  1. If the knees cave in too much while running: He puts brightly colored tape on the outside He has the patient run on a treadmill facing a mirror. He tells the patient to push the tape out toward the walls.
  2. If the hips are adducting too much: The runner runs on a treadmill facing a mirror with the waistband of their shorts clearly visible. He instructs the runner to keep the pelvis level by keeping their waistband level.

Listen to the podcast to get all the details.

Next is an article from the always informative Alex Hutchinson at the Sweat Science column at Runner’s WorldWhat Makes a Running Stride Efficient? Hutchinson discusses a study from Loughborough University in England that looked at biomechanical factors

“For running economy, three variables stood out: vertical oscillation (measured by the up-and-down motion of the pelvis; less is better); how bent your knee is when your foot hits the ground (more bent is better); and braking (also measured by looking at the motion of your pelvis; less slowdown as your foot hits the ground is better).

“Overall, these three variables explained 39.4 percent of the individual differences in running economy—and the vast majority of that (27.7 percent) came from vertical oscillation.

“For running performance, four variables stood out: braking (as above); the angle of the shin when your foot hits the ground (closer to vertical is better); duty factor (basically a measure of how long your foot stays on the ground relative to your overall stride; quicker is better); and the forward lean of your trunk (more upright is better).

Overall, these four variables explained 30.5 percent of individual variation in race times, with shin angle (10 percent) and braking (9.9 percent) as the biggest contributors.”

Something I always appreciate about Hutchinson’s writing is that he lays out some of the errors in thinking that we might encounter when we assume that employing new running techniques will automatically equal better, faster, pain-free running. Are these characteristics of efficient runners chickens or eggs?

“For example, you could imagine a study that compared elite runners to ‘regular’ runners and found that the elite tend to have more highly defined calf muscles. It doesn’t necessarily follow that doing a whole bunch of hardcore calf exercises will make you faster. It’s more likely that a whole lot of training, combined with some genetics, has given elites more defined calves. Fixating on getting better calf muscles would be distraction that’s unlikely to help you, and takes away from things that really would make you faster, like running more.”

That said, (and he mentions this) it may well investigating new strategies based on these findings. From my experience in helping people with their running, aiming to achieve these biomechanical outcomes can help. (This post offers a few cues that I’ve found useful to use with runners.)

Ideally, you should be videoed while running.Trying to adjust your gait without knowing how you’re currently running might be near impossible. Video is a very powerful tool when it comes to making adjustments to sporting techniques and I highly recommend it.

Definitely read the article and listen to the podcast if you think you need help with your running or if you’re a coach who works with runners. And if doing it yourself isn’t getting you the results you want then I strongly suggest you employ some sort of running coach to help.

Smart Coaches Use Coaches

Standard

When it comes to lifting weights and being athletic, I think most men feel like we can do it on our own.

“My high school coach taught me how to lift. I don’t need help.”

(In looking back at what my coaches taught me about lifting… My god… They knew little to none about the subject. And when I look around the gym and see men “lifting,” I think they must’ve had the same quality of coaching I had.)

If we ask for help then we run the risk of looking weak. The ego won’t allow it! Meanwhile, all pro athletes use coaches. If it’s good enough for them then just maybe it’s good enough for you and me.

Hell, I’m a certified trainer and a running coach. Shouldn’t I be able to do it all myself? Apparently not.

Two concepts come to mind:

  1. The more I learn, the less I know. (I think that should be modified a little to “The more I learn, the less certain I am.) And,
  2. Much like the lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client, the athlete who does his own coaching might have a pretty dumb athlete on his hands.

There’s also this:

Regarding my knowledge:

  • There are things I know,
  • Things I don’t know,
  • Things I know I don’t know,
  • Things I don’t know that I don’t know, AND…
  • Things I think I know but about which I’m wrong!

If you total all that up, then you see that the chances of my being in possession of knowledge is very slim! I have lots of room to screw up. Hence a coach.

I could’ve continued to bumble forward on my own, trying and probably failing to cook up a great running plan. Maybe I could’ve cobbled together a very good performance but I doubt it. More likely I would’ve wasted a bunch of time trying to coach myself. Fortunately, I received wisdom from who-knows-where and I enlisted help.

I hired a running coach and I am very happy with the decision. Her name is Mary-Katherine (MK) Flemming and she’s helping me run smarter, not just harder.

Every time I talk with MK I say to myself, “I didn’t know that!” or “I hadn’t thought about that.” So that’s very good. I feel like MK is coaching me based on sound principles and a throughly thought-out plan. That’s better than me guessing and hoping I’m doing things the right way. It also saves me time to do other things I’d rather do, like write this blog post.

Further, we all like to do what we like to do. None of us are very proficient at doing what we don’t want to do. For example, I want to lift more. It’s easy for me to convince myself that I feel okay, that I’m not too fatigued and that “just a little lifting” will be fine. But my version of “just a little” turns into quite a bit. The cost of lifting more while running is that my muscles ache more, I’m fatigued more often, and my nervous system will fry. Overtraining looms…

(I thought I might be able to simultaneously get stronger in the weight room and become a better runner. I’m not sure how feasible that is. Waaahh…)

MK provides accountability. So important! She treats me like an adult and tells me I can lift if I want to and there will be consequences. My running workouts will suffer and I won’t get the most out of my investment. I hate hearing that!… But it’s true and she’s right.

In short, the benefits and the value of having a coach:

  • She’s an running expert and specialist.  I benefit from her knowledge.
  • I don’t have to struggle and agonize over a plan.
  • My plan is individualized.
  • She’s provides objective eyes and accountability. That is, she tells me what I need to know, not just what I want to hear.

Do you think you know it all? You don’t. If you’re serious about your athletic performance and you’re a fitness expert/coach/trainer/whatever, you would do very well to enlist the services of a coach. Get an expert to help.

Sometimes It’s Simple

Standard

I’ve taken lots of courses, read lots of books and articles, listened to podcasts, and attended seminars dedicated to helping my clients move better and get out of pain. I’ve spent time and money learning about so-called corrective exercises. I’ve learned that rarely is the site of pain the site of the problem. I recognize that the body is a highly interconnected system of systems and that what happens at one end can have powerful effects way out at the other end. I’ve tried to absorb and apply all sorts of complex information and sometimes, my brain gets in the way and I overlook simple solutions.

Patty is one of my senior clients. We’ve worked together for several years. She has intermittent knee pain on both, but mostly her left knee. It’s not terrible but it bothers her after tennis games and often while climbing and descending stairs.

It’s important to recognize that the knee is caught between the hip and the ankle. Rarely is it the fault of the knee that’s causing the knee pain. (An obvious exception would be an acute injury like a ligament sprain or some sort of impact to the knee.)

I’ve had her do all sorts of exercises and mobility drills for her hips. We’ve done glute drills in all three planes of motion. We’ve done all sorts of lunges in all sorts of directions. We’ve done a bunch of ankle and foot mobility work too. In the past, I spent way too much time giving her a bunch of instructions to squeeze the glutes when she walks and to try and make her leg do this or that as she moves. (These are examples of intrinsic cues. They’re usually not the best cues.)

Sometimes her knee(s) feel better but for the past several weeks she’s reported fairly consistent knee pain, particularly on stairs. This was frustrating to me in that last week we did a variety of drills and exercises such that she was able to take the stairs without pain. I was hopeful though. If we could eliminate her pain last week then we could do it again.

We went to the stairs. I planned to review a couple of things we did the prior week. My mind filled with cornucopia of lunges, stepping drills, and ankle mobility exercises. How would I tweak the exercises? How would I load them? There were many options. My brain started to overheat as I tried to contemplate them all.

Then I paused and thought, “What’s the simplest possible way to find success?”

Coach her to walk the stairs differently. No drills, no exercises, nothing special. I would give her a minimum of instructions on how to walk the stairs in a different way than when she arrived.

There were two tactics from last week I wanted to try. If those didn’t work then we could move to all the wacky, exotic stuff. The two main instructions were these:

  1. Ascending: Lean forward a little. By leaning forward I expected the glutes to work more than if she stood fully upright. It didn’t need to be a big lean forward, just somewhat of a lean. Don’t think about the glutes either. Jus lean forward.
  2. Descending: Let the heel of the rear foot stay flat longer. That way the ankle would dorsiflex more thus taking some of the load from the knee. Also, try and descend softly. Try not to slam and clunk down to the next step. My hope was that this would prompt a controlled descent as opposed to a sort of lurching slam into the step.

(I’ve seen this ankle/knee relationship several times in the past. A few of my clients have presented with knee pain and limited ankle dorsiflexion. The knee pain diminished or vanished once dorsiflexion was restored and then used during gait.)

Both strategies worked immediately! How cool! For the next 5-10 minutes I had her practice the new stair walking strategies. The only time the knee pain popped up was when she let the heel rise too early during the descent.

I didn’t tell her anything about her glutes or her knee or any other muscles or joints. Just, “lean forward,” and “keep your heel down longer.” I need to remember that sometimes giving simple cues can do world of good. I don’t always need to go through a rigamarole of creative exercises to help someone move and feel better.

Reading & Learning: “Real Movement” by Adam Wolf, PT

Standard

I am reading with much enthusiasm the book Real Movement by physical therapist and massage therapist Adam Wolf, aka the Biomechanical Detective. In a big way, it’s like re-reading a very good book that I’ve enjoyed in the past. I am familiar with a lot of the concepts discussed by Adam and what I enjoy immensely is coming back and examining those concepts through his eyes and his experiences.

Wolf is among other things, a Fellow of Applied Functional Science (FAFS) by way of the Gray Institute. I also study and apply Gary Gray’s material. I always like to see how other practitioners apply the principles of 3D movement. I love gaining new perspectives on how to create functional exercises, or exercises that most translate to real life. You can see a lot of examples of this at the Adam Wolf, PT, Biomechanical Youtube Channel.

liebenson2_1_8896

If you ain’t got that sling then you ain’t got that swing.

Something I just learned is that Adam’s dad is Chuck Wolf, another functional exercise and movement professional. Many years ago I was introduced to the concept of Flexibility Highways at one of Chuck’s seminars. These highways aka muscle slings, aka myofascial lines, are networks of muscle and fascia that often  work together during real-world, whole-body movements. (“Real-life” movements are in contrast to many of the artificially isolated movements that we see in gyms, especially those performed on machines.) One example is the posterior oblique sling as used in a golf swing. Another example is the anterior oblique sling used when throwing.

The anterior X sling is a big part of throwing, batting, golfing, running, punching and all sorts of things.

The anterior X sling is a big part of throwing, batting, golfing, running, punching and all sorts of things.

The fascial sling system was an interesting concept to me at the time but it has sort of faded from my thinking in recent years. Now, reading Adam’s book and watching his videos has brought those flexibility highways or slings to the front of my mind. These sling concepts are informing both the mobility work I’m doing with clients as well as my exercise selection. In working along and within these sling systems I feel like I’m capturing just about all of the movement we humans are capable of. Check out the following videos from Adam Wolf where he discusses how you can move better by following these fascial lines.

I’m Training Like A Mother.

Standard

That title doesn’t make a lot of sense. Or, it does make some sense and that last word denotes something that shouldn’t be said in polite company.

What I’m really saying is that I’ve connected with a running coach. Mary-Katherine (MK) Flemming, an RRCA-certified running coach, reached out to me after my last blog post. She’s a mom who trains moms. Other than being a humanoid-type creature with two arms, two legs, and a head, I may not be her standard client/athlete. I’m not sure who/what I had in mind for a running coach but I probably wasn’t thinking about joining a mom-related sort of organization. Call me a backward chauvinist caveman—but what can I say?—my brain just wasn’t tuned in that direction. I’m very glad I kept an open mind though.

We talked and I was very pleased and impressed with what she had to say. I respected and admired her intense curiosity about running, management of planning, strength training, rest & recovery, and how to coach dedicated runners who also live normal lives. MK, like me, has been through various setbacks to her running career yet she persevered. I was excited to see someone who shares my passion about physical activity and performance. You can read about Mary-Katherine’s background and credentials here.

Further, she was able to answer all my questions and she helped me realize there were a lot of questions that I’d never thought to ask. Questions such as:

  • How does one incorporate both road and trail running when training for trail races?
  • How should runs be progressed based on heart rate? (She’s very much into HR training.)
  • How does one manage biking, hiking, and weight training while running?
  • I’d read Steve Magness’ Science of Running and I wanted to talk with a coach who was familiar with those methods. She follows his work and spoke on his methods..

Heart-rate training is a cornerstone of MK’s training plan. You can read about her approach here and you can hear her discuss heart-rate training here. Her training approach is influenced heavily by Coach Phil Maffetone. The essence of the strategy is that by spending a lot of time training at a fairly low heart rate (determined by this formula), you train your engine to burn fat for fuel and you build a significant and broad aerobic base. A strong aerobic base then allows for trainees to better develop anaerobic power and speed, avoid injury, and ultimately race their best.

I’m about a week into the plan and I feel good. If I hadn’t had the experiences that I have, then I would say I’m surprised at how easy the runs have been thus far. It seems that a lot of us runners need to ease down a little, run a bit slower and rest more. MK discusses this interesting and very common phenomenon in this podcast interview.

I’ve seen similar challenges with some of my clients. For some of us, sweating and picking up heavy things is fun and we love it.  We plan our day around or workouts. Or weekends feature extra long bouts of exertion. Even our vacations are built around strenuous activity which we enjoy.

But rest? That’s a tough one. We think that if we don’t lift/run/ride/swim enough then we’ll get weak and fat. The truth is that we CANNOT get stronger/faster/better if we don’t rest enough and recovery adequately. This is one huge reason to employ a coach. You may think you can do it on your own, but very often professional help is absolutely a great investment. To learn more about employing a coach, check out the training programs of the Train Like A Mother Club.

 

Sport Metabolism Testing at the CU Anschutz Health & Wellness Center

Standard

Doing my best Bane impersonation. Might be good for Halloween.

I’m currently training for some road and trail races. Part of that training process is running at different paces to elicit various training effects. Those paces are built around such factors as the aerobic threshold and the lactate or anaerobic threshold. (The definition of those terms are beyond the scope of this blog post. To understand them I suggest you read this from endurance coach Joel Friel.)

Up to this point I’ve used pre-made running plans such as the Run Less, Run Faster and the Hanson’s Marathon and Half-Marathon Method. Those books prescribe paces based on 5k and 10k race finish times. From those race times it’s possible to

I bet its hard to run in that coat.

The Batman villain Bane. I don’t know what his VO2 max is.

predict race finish times of distances up to the half marathon and marathon. Along with race finish times, training paces for speed, tempo, and long distance runs are also derived. I’ve discovered

those training paces, particularly tempo run paces, are too fast for me. Rather than blunder around trying to solve the problem by myself, I sought help.

Testing at Anschutz

A few days ago I visited the sports performance lab at the Colorado University Anschutz Health & Wellness Center in Denver. I underwent the sport metabolism assessment. The test started with a 12-minute warm-up on a treadmill that went from walking to jogging to slow running and running up to a 9:10/mile pace. That was followed by a five-minute rest. (The test conductor explained the whys and hows of the warm-up and rest period. I won’t go into all the information but now I use that process before all my runs. Essentially it enables me to perform better.)

The fun began after the rest period. I ran in two minute intervals. Speed was increased after every two minutes. This process was repeated until I was nearly blue in the face and I couldn’t run anymore. It took about 12 or 14 minutes to hit my limit.

As you see in the pictures, I wore a mask connected by a tube to

Running & bleeding

Running & bleeding

a computer. The computer measured my O2 intake and CO2 expiration. This gas analysis allowed us to see at what paces my aerobic and anaerobic thresholds exist.

Not only did we analyze my breathing, but we also analyzed my blood via a finger prick delivered near the end of each two minute stage. I can’t tell you what joy it is to combine bleeding with intense running…

(For cycling performance testing, the same test is done on a type of stationary bike.)

What did I learn?

I NEED TO SLOOOOW DOWN.

From my speed workouts to my tempo runs to my long runs I should run slower. Running faster isn’t just about running faster — and I knew that! Countless running articles and books preach the idea and I thought I had it figured but I was wrong. The big points and the factors that need improving are these:

Fat metabolism:

I need to spend 80% of my time running for base endurance. In this zone, I use mostly fat for fuel. This works out to a pace of about 11:30/mile. Prior to the test I thought this pace was about 10:00 to 10:30/mile. The good news is that an 11:30 pace is really easy!

Anaerobic Threshold:

My AT occurs at a 7:45 pace. I should be able to maintain that pace potentially for a full marathon. But right now, when I hit my AT I crap out quick! I need to gradually nudge my ability along. If I run at or over my AT (which I have been doing) then I overwhelm my ability to function at that pace. So now my tempo runs are 9:10/mile.

Anaerobic training:

This is speed work and this is where I will improve my VO2 or my ability to utilize oxygen. The pace for this work is 8:40/mile. I had been running my speed work at about 8:00/mile.

What else?

First, the idea that I can get my tempo/race pace down to 7:45/mile is fairly exciting to me. It means I might be able to hit a 3:30 marathon! That’s a powerful motivator for me. All the slow miles I’ll need to put in won’t be done aimlessly.

I’ve said it for the past few years and I’m saying it again: I need to work with a coach. I’m a certified running coach but it’s not something I practice much. As the saying goes, “The lawyer who represents himself in court has a fool for a client.” I need an objective set of eyes on me. A good coach can adjust my training schedule where a book or a pre-made running plan cant. It makes sense to work with someone who coaches runners on a regular basis. I am considering several resources: