Try Harder? No. Relax.

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“If you want to get a little zen about it, you could say that the non-doing is just as important as the doing.”

-Todd Hargrove

I appreciate and enjoy professional instruction. Coach Mary-Katherine Flemming has been a huge help to me as a runner. She’s helped me bring up my weaknesses and train smarter. I also try and take at least one ski lesson every year. Mountain biking is much safer and a lot more fun since I’ve gone through several skills clinics with Lee Likes Bikes.

I recently started working with my fellow personal trainer and boxing coach Zane Beck. He’s teaching me how to throw punches the right way. I’ve met with him twice and I’ve had a amazingly challenging workouts in just 30 minutes. We’ve broken down the mechanics of punching and it’s been fascinating.

During our last session, I could feel myself tensing up on some punches, particularly the right hook and right upper cut. Those are awkward punches so I tried harder to throw them. Trying harder was a mistake. I was too tense. Zane could see it and feel it. So I slowed down and stopped rushing. I worked to throw good punches one at a time and I worked to relax. The effort to relax led to a brief conversation similar to conversations I’ve had with my clients.

“I worked to relax…” That’s an odd concept, no? Relaxing should be easy, right? If my arms are overhead then I relax them and they drop to my side. Simple. By sitting down my legs relax. Also simple. Seems like relaxation shouldn’t even require any thought. Sometimes though, relaxation is remarkably hard to come by though, especially in athletic endeavors.

I often see clients try hard and harder to perform certain exercises, especially new exercises. For example, kettlebell swings and cleans are often performed with overly tense hands, straining arms, tight necks, and an overall rigid body. Clients try to muscle the kettlebell into the air rather than using the stretch reflex of the muscles to do most of the work. Similarly, I have a client who often defaults to rigid high tension on medicine ball throws. He braces his whole body like it’s about to be hit by a truck. The result in all these cases is poor performance, poor exercise technique, and excessive fatigue. The same teeth-gritting, wasteful strategy might be employed by someone swinging a golf club, swimming laps, or sprinting.

Thus, I work with my clients to bring awareness to their unproductive tension and help them turn it down. Relaxation can take a surprising amount of work. Bearing down harder is the exact wrong way to get better. While many if not most exercises should be performed explosively, one shouldn’t rush too much.Impatience is rarely a virtue in any circumstance. Athletic movements require the right amount of tension, not necessarily more tension.

Steve Magness is a big-time running coach, writer, lecturer, and running expert. (His recent book, Peak Performance is superb. If you want to perform better in life, not just in athletics, then you should definitely get a copy.) He captures the importance of relaxation in this recent Facebook post:

Another excellent discussion of relaxation comes from movement expert and author Todd Hargrove. He wrote The Skill of Relaxation in 2008. It includes these important points:

“Most people trying to improve their movement ability for sports will therefore spend time lifting weights to train their ability to quickly and forcefully contract their muscles.

“That is a fine idea, but it sometimes ignores the equally important flip side of the coordination coin. If coordination means all the right muscles firing at the right time, this also means that any muscles not involved in the movement must relax in the right places at the right speed at the right time. Therefore, any act of coordination requires the skill of relaxing the muscles that aren’t essential to the movement. If the non-essential muscles aren’t relaxed, they will cause extraneous movement or tension that interferes in the desired movement and wastes energy.”

Pain vs. Discomfort

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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.

Running Injuries and Running Performance: A Podcast and an Article

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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.

Sometimes It’s Simple

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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.

Hip Adduction: What It Is and Why You Need It – Part I

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All human movement occurs in three planes. Forward/back movement occurs in the saggital plane. Rotational movement happens in the transverse plane. Side-to-side movement take place in the frontal plane. This post is about the very easily overlooked frontal plane movement known as hip adduction.

His left hip is adducting.

His left hip is adducting.

(Adduction’s opposite twin is known as “abduction,” or movement of the limb away from the body’s midline. I have no idea why it was named abduction. I think it should’ve been named “out-duction.”)

Hip adduction. What is it? 

Look at his right hip and  you'll see adduction.  HIs leg has moved toward his body's midline.

Look at his right hip and you’ll see adduction. HIs leg has moved toward his body’s midline.

Adduction is the movement of a limb toward the midline of the body. If we think of the hip then we’re looking at the pelvis and the femur moving toward each other. Hip adduction can happen either with one leg off the ground and the leg moving toward the pelvis (Think of a soccer kick.) or it can happen with the foot on the ground and the pelvis moving toward the leg. (This should happen every time we take a step.)

Hip adduction is vital for everything from walking and running to skiing. Two aspects of hip adduction must be considered. First we must be mobile enough to achieve hip adduction. Equally if not more important, we must be able to control movement into and out of hip adduction.

Why is hip adduction important?

  • Without it, you have problems.

All of our limbs and joints are connected. We are a closely linked system of systems, not just a bunch of individual parts. What happens in one part of the body can strongly influence what happens elsewhere in the body.

The image on the right shows excessive hip adduction during gait. Too much of this may lead to knee or back pain. It's also indicative of poor balance skills.

The image on the right shows excessive hip adduction during gait. Too much of this may lead to knee or back pain. It’s also indicative of poor balance skills.

With that in mind, consequences of poor mobility and control of hip adduction can include back pain, hip pain, knee pain, ankle/foot problems and even shoulder or neck problems. Issues such as IT band syndrome and hip bursitis may be consequences of poor hip adduction skills.

  • Balance

Clients with balance problems often have poor hip adduction abilities. Their hip abductor muscles on the outside of the hip are often tight which limits their ability to move into adduction. This shows poor mobility. Typically, when they try to stand on one foot, the unsupported side drops uncontrolled into adduction which shows poor adduction control.

(Sometimes I hear clients say, “I think it’s just a balance thing,” as if balance were some ephemeral, magical thing that has no relation to muscles, limbs, joints and control of those parts via the nervous system. Balance isn’t “just a thing.” It’s a movement skill that is learnable and unlearnable.)

  • Sports performance

Preparing for a backhand, his left hip undergoes hip adduction.

Preparing for a backhand, his left hip undergoes hip adduction.

Sports performance may suffer due to hip adduction problems. Significant hip adduction skills are required for effective skiing, running,  golf, and tennis to name a few sports. Without good hip adduction skills, an athlete may not be as fast, powerful and effective as he or she may wish.

During the backswing, his right hip undergoes hip adduction. Follow through has hip adduction occurring in his left hip. If a golfer can't adduct on both ends of the swing then there will likely be problems with the shot.

During the backswing, his right hip undergoes hip adduction. Follow through has hip adduction occurring in his left hip. If a golfer can’t adduct on both ends of the swing then there will likely be problems with the shot.

 

In Part II of this post I’ll show not only how to mobilize the hip into adduction but also how to build strength and stability.

 

Gluttony Season is Almost Here. What’s Your Plan?

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Halloween kicks off several months of partying, gobbling, and guzzling. Very soon, swirling all around you there will be a galaxy of the richest and tastiest food and drink. Not only do you have a list of occasions for feasting, but also the days grow cold and dark. That means you’re less likely to be active and more likely to huddle in your warm, cozy home.

Is it any surprise that you tend to gain unhealthy weight under these conditions?

In all truth, it’s not a done deal that your health and fitness must suffer. You’re a grown-up. You can make good decisions. With some forethought, planning and awareness, you can avoid the slide backwards into feeble flabbiness.

Here’s an idea: Start your New Year’s Resolution early. Put in some thought and effort before you’re beset on all sides by wicked temptations. If you start building just a few healthy habits now, you can do a lot to minimize the usual holiday temptations and pitfalls. With some thinking and a plan in place, you can feel confident and you can avoid the guilt that often comes with holiday over-indulgence. Here are a few examples:

  • Will you exercise 3-5 days per week? For 30 minutes? (Or if you’re not currently exercising, can you start with just one day per week?)
  • Will you eat 1-2 fist-size servings of vegetables at each meal?
  • Will you limit sweets and/or booze to one day a week?
  • Will you talk to a friend or loved one about eating better and exercising together?
  • Will you consider hiring a trainer now instead of in January or February?

If it’s important then why wait?

 

Off-Season Part I: Resting is Weird.

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I just finished a 10-mile trail race and I feel good. I’m pleased that my Achilles held up. It seems I took the right approach to addressing the pain in that are.

I am grateful and very happy to have had a lot of fun over the past few months in the great Colorado outdoors. This spring and summer were full of activities including the following:

Besides these events, I put in the time to train for all of them. I’ve also continued lifting though for most of these past few months it’s been at a minimal level, about twice a week though that has changed recently. It’s been a lot of fun and a lot of hard work, but now it’s definitely time to shift gears.

I’m feeling a bit tired and beat-up. I can say without hesitation that it’s time for some rest. Rest is an interesting concept. Most people probably get a little too much rest. Some of us find it difficult to take time off though. Strangely, it can be a challenge to time away from challenging physical work.

Saying, “It’s so difficult to take a break from all this grueling stuff,” sounds loaded with pretentious fake humility. I don’t say this to sound like some sort of supreme, tough-guy super-athlete. There is a strange type of mental state that many of us have that isn’t entirely rational, healthy or wise. Our love our chosen activity(-ies) can verge into irrational dependence and obsession.

Our running, riding, swimming, climbing, skiing, lifting, — our athletic achievements and work — define us. What are we without the sweat, toil and achievement?

We also start to think crazy thoughts. Take just 48-72 hours off from working out and many an exercise aficionado starts to go insane. We think things like,

“All my muscles have shriveled like prunes and I’ve gained 30 lbs of pure fat!”

“My lung capacity is probably that of an emphysema victim!”

I am nothing but crippled, human lard!

That’s just after a few days! Taking several weeks or a whole month away from training can be excruciating!

This is all nonsense crazy-talk. It’s foolish to think we can keep pushing and pushing to no end. Following a serious season of training and/or competition, rest is exactly the activity an athlete needs. It’s easy to accept this fact on an intellectual level. It’s more difficult to accept it emotionally.

So It’s Your First Race…

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Running your first race should be exhilarating, challenging, life-affirming and, of course, fun. I find races to be very emotional. There’s a type of excitement near start that I don’t find many other places. There’s more to this process than just showing up and running though. Thoughtful preparation pays off big-time for an optimal race experience.

Any new experience is guaranteed to come with some surprises. If you’ve trained hard and done everything in your power to ensure a successful race, then you don’t want anything to detract from all that effort. To minimize the chances of trouble, here’s a rundown of things you may want to think about as you prepare for the big race.

Getting to the race

Is your race out of town? If so, do you know how to get from your hotel to the race? How long will it take? If you’re racing at home, how long does it take to get from your house to the race? Set your alarm appropriately. (My suggestion: Set it a little earlier than you think you need to.)

Will you drive to the race, take public transportation, ride a bike or travel by foot?

If it’s a weekend or holiday, what’s the public transportation schedule? Are there street closures for the race? If so, what’s your route to the race?

Exactly where does the race start and finish?

Where do you want to meet your friends and family after the race?

How about bathrooms? Where are they? Early morning race jitters can demand multiple trips.

Sometimes the answers to these questions aren’t obvious.

Sleep

You should aim for a good night of sleep two nights before your race. It’s very typical that you won’t sleep well the night before a race. You’ll have some jitters and if you’re away from home then your normal rhythms and habits will be altered. Don’t worry too much about it. You’ll be fine, but get good sleep 48 hours prior to your event.

Gear and clothing

Many races allow you to drop off warm-up gear and extra clothing. If that’s the case then where do you leave things and where do you pick them up?

If you’re traveling what do you need to pack? By race day, you should know what sorts of things are essential. The Road Runner’s Club of America gives the following checklist:

  • shoes
  • insoles or orthotics
  • socks
  • shorts
  • underwear
  • long sleeve shirt
  • short sleeve shirt
  • tights
  • jacket
  • gloves or mittens
  • headgear: winter hat, cap, visor, headband
  • watch
  • race number if picked up early
  • safety pins or race belt to which attach race number
  • course map
  • race instructions
  • change of clothes for afterwards
  • athletic tape
  • skin lube or powder
  • sunscreen
  • water bottle or hydration pack
  • sunglasses
  • towel
  • pre-race food/fluids
  • post-race food/fluids
  • wallet/money

Depending on the weather, you may or may not need things like a winter hat or gloves. If you’re racing in a Spring or Fall race, especially in places near mountains or the water, then the weather could change radically and quickly. Don’t assume the weather will be what you expect it to be. If you think you might need it, then pack it! It’s much better to have a piece of gear and not need it than to need it and not have it.

I like to start packing several days beforehand. I always seem to almost forget something. If I start packing early then it’s far less likely that I forget anything.

Finally, race day is not the day to try anything new. No new shoes. No new clothes. No new caps, glasses, socks, or anything else. As the RRCA stresses, “No new is good new.”

Nutrition

Breakfast

If you’re a morning runner then you have it figured out. What did you normally eat for breakfast while training? Stick with it. If it’s new, then don’t do it! You might pay for it with some nasty GI troubles.

If you’ve been running in the evenings and your race is in the morning, then it may take a little more thought. The pre-race meal varies widely from person to person. Generally, you want to eat anywhere from 1-2 hours prior to the race. You want to have enough time for the food to digest, but not so much time that you’re famished at race time.

My GI tract is fairly calm and I can tolerate a fairly wide range of pre-race meals. Other people are the polar opposite and they need to be very precise in the timing and content of pre-race food.

Fruit and yogurt, oatmeal, UCAN, or a smoothie are a few examples of things I like before a race. I’d avoid the steak & eggs trucker special if I were you.

Race nutrition

If your race is something like a 5k then food during the race isn’t much of an issue. It’s not long enough to demand much in the way of sustenance. Water’s probably the only thing you’ll want.

If your race is longer then you may need some calories during the race. Similar to breakfast and race gear choices, this should be determined in your training. Some things to consider:

Will you carry a hydration system and your own food? Will you carry a hydration pack or a hand bottle?

If you plan on eating/drinking from the aid stations, what foods and drinks to they provide? Have you used those products in your training? Recognize that consuming anything that you’re not accustomed to while running may cause you some digestive woes and grind your race to a potentially messy halt… or at least a walk.

Finally, your swag bag will likely contain various snack-type items such as gels, bars, electrolyte drink mix or something similar. If it’s unfamiliar to you then don’t eat it before or during the race. Save it for after.

If you remember nothing else regarding nutrition practices then remember this: No new is good new. (Have you heard that before?)

Running your race

Don’t start too fast.

Your first race! Adrenaline! Excitement! You’ve trained hard, you’re wide awake and you feel electric! Today’s the day for greatness! … And you start out too fast.

I am nearly certain that anyone who’s ever run a race has started out too fast. I have! Some time later that fast start has to be paid for with a slower pace. At worst, it can reduce you to a walk to the finish line.

(I think it’s not only inevitable but also essential that everyone experience a too-fast start at some point. It’s not fun but it’s a very valuable learning experience. It teaches humility and respect for proper pacing.)

No matter how good you feel, no matter how exceptional and strong you believe yourself to be, you won’t do your best if you launch out of the gate too fast. If you’ve been training with paced runs then you’ll know your race pace. Stick to it even it feels way too slow. If you haven’t used paces before then pay attention to how you feel. Pay attention to your breathing and effort. Remember that your hard effort needs to be spread over the entire distance of the race. If you’re feeling strong later in the race then that’s the time to pick it up a bit. Don’t do it at the start though.

Temperature

Spring and Fall morning races may be cold at the start. It’s tempting to bundle up and feel toasty warm. The problem is that once you start running you’ll be hot as hell. If it’s a cold day then you should be a little chilly at the start. You should be a little uncomfortable. Generally, I find that if my hands and ears are warm then I’m comfortable. (Turns out cooling and heating of the hands can have powerful effects on performance. If the topic interests you then read this from Peak Performance )

Finally

This racing thing can be a lot of fun. If you do some planning then it can be a smooth experience. Experience is the best teacher. The more you race the easier the preparation becomes.

Hip Internal Rotation: You Need It.

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All human movement can be described in three dimensions. We move in the saggital plane (front/back), frontal plain (side-to-side), and the transverse plane (rotation.) Certain movements are one-plane dominant: Distance running is mostly a saggital plane movement. Swinging a baseball bat is mostly a transverse plane movement. Ice skating and rollerblading feature a lot of frontal plane movement. Still, each of these movements also contain elements of the other two planes.

(Beyond moving in these planes, we also must stabilize our limbs against forces that are trying to move us in each of these planes.)

In my observation, a lot of people lack movement skills in one or more of these planes. Many times it seems clients lack adequate transverse plane movement, especially in the hips where the femurs attach to the pelvis. (We describe transverse plane hip movement as internal and external rotation.)  If we lack good transverse plane hip movement then we may have trouble with all sorts of activities from walking to running to skiing to golfing. Poor transverse hip mobility may result in back pain, knee pain or even shoulder or neck pain. Restricted transverse plane movement may also negatively impact sports performance.

I’ve found that restrictions in the transverse plane are often hidden. , Many people may feel tight hamstrings, tight pecs, or tight neck and upper back muscles, but rarely do I hear encounter a client who’s aware of something that doesn’t move well in the transverse plane. It seems a lot of us are walking around with no clue that we lack adequate rotation in any of our joints.

Why might an individual lack internal or external rotation? It could be any number of reasons. I believe our modern, seated, immobile lifestyle is probably a major contributor. Other reasons could be an anteverted or retroverted femur. These are structural issues of the femur that can’t be changed. Some sort of past injury could also be a culprit. All three issues could be at play.

I rest my case that hip internal and external rotation is important.

Here’s a video discussing hip internal rotation, why it’s important, and how to achieve it. Live it up kids!

Running Technique: 3 Simple Cues

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Running form is a frequently discussed topic among injured runners and runners looking to perform better. How should we run? Is there one ideal way to run? Should we run on the forefoot, mid-foot or heel? Does our core matter? What should our upper body do when we run?

There are many schools of thought in the running world and there doesn’t seem to be any ironclad consensus on any of these questions. If you’re running pain-free and you’re performing as well as you’d like then I don’t believe you should change your running form. In other words, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

If, on the other hand, you experience pain when you run or if you’re not as fast as you’d like to be then some technique changes may be in order.

Run tall.

A lot of us run in a hunched type of posture that resembles the way we sit (and sit and sit…) in our work chairs or in our cars. This hunched position may be problematic and may be contributing to running problems. To address this issue:

Imagine a chain is attached to the top of your skull. That chain pulls you up. It lengthens your spine and makes you tall. See if you can feel this long, tall spine as you run. As part of this process, keep your gaze up and out toward the horizon. Don’t stare at the ground directly in front of you. This tall posture should help with some of our other running form considerations.

Tight hip flexors may contribute to a hunched posture. The following stretch sequence may help.

Run light.

The impact of the foot hitting the ground is worth considering as it concerns injuries. Recent evidence suggests runners who hit the ground lightly are injured less than runners who hit the ground hard.

You may run with earphones and you may be unaware that you stomp and pound the ground with each footfall. So to run light, remove the earphones and pay attention to the sound you make.

Imagine you’re weightless. Your strides are feathery light, and energetic. You don’t pound the ground but rather you glide across gossamer.

Another way to run lightly comes through this skipping drill:

Use a short, quick gait.

One way to lighten the impact of running is to drop the foot very nearly under your hips. This should result in your shin being vertical or near-vertical. Look at the picture. Try running like #2. The skipping drill from above can help you feel that foot landing directly below your hips.

Runner #1 is pounding. Runner #2 is running lightly.

Want to run lightly? Run like #2.

Don’t concern yourself with whether or not you’re hitting on the heel, mid-foot or forefoot. Where the foot lands is more important than on what part of the foot hits first.

Quickening your cadence too much can be a problem. There is an obvious point at which gait can becomes too quick and inefficient. An excellent way to work on your cadence is to use a metronome. Kinetic Revolution has a great article that discusses research on cadence as well as how to introduce metronome running into your training. The article also links to a digital metronome that you can download.

Change takes work.

Running may seem like something we should all be able to do. In fact, most of us can execute some version of movement in which we rapidly put one foot in front of the other. Kids learn to run without detailed instruction and without much in the way of typical running injuries. Shouldn’t adults be able to do the same thing? Maybe or maybe not… If we hurt while running or if we think we’re too slow, then some sort of alteration to our running style may make sense.

Changing your gait takes some tinkering, some awareness and mindfulness. It won’t happen automatically. Physical therapist Rick Olderman helped me to change my running gait. He once said that “if it feels normal, then you’re doing it wrong.” He meant that in the early stages of changing how we move, it should feel weird and unnatural to us. Learning any new skill requires some struggle and awkwardness. If you practice frequently and work at it then things should improve at a reasonable rate.

Personally, I never listen to music while running. I pay attention to how I run, where my foot falls, how I move. I don’t want to fall back into bad habits.

Finally

I can’t guarantee that any of these changes will result in either a pain-free running experience or a podium finish in a race.Time with a physical therapist, podiatrist, chiropractor and/or a running coach may be what you need.  That said, these cues have helped my running as well as several of my clients’ running experience. I’ve also incorporated things like the short foot drill, ankle dorsiflexion work, and a wide variety of single-leg squats and lunges (here, here, here for instance) to improve my movement competence. Clearly, there are a lot of moving parts to consider when we run!