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.

The Best Know How to Rest

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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.

Smart Coaches Use Coaches

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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

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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.

 

Intent & Variability: Notes from Frans Bosch

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I’m currently navigating the deep waters of Strength Training and Coordination: An Integrative Approach by sprint coach Frans Bosch. This is some thick reading. Among many things, he discusses two concepts that have grabbed my attention.

Move with intent

I’ve read and written in the past about the idea of internal vs. external movement cues. Anyone who’s golfed, skied, played tennis or performed almost any sort of sporting movement knows that if we focus on how we execute the movement (internally directed) then we’re screwed. Rather, if our focus on accomplishing the task or directed on our environment (externally directed) then we have a good chance of performing well. The way we direct movement is fairly powerful. Bosh makes several statements that have drawn my attention.

  • “If two or more movements share the same intention, then the system marks them as related.”
    This goes to sport specificity. It matters in that if we want a particular exercise to transfer to our sport then the strength movement should share the same intent as the sport movement.
  • “So the body does not think in terms of processes, but in terms of the results of the movement.”
    This happens constantly throughout our day. When we step out of the car, put something on a shelf, lift groceries out of the trunk, etc. we don’t think of how the joints, bones and muscles do the job — we just do the job. Why don’t we take the same approach to our gym exercises?
  • “In coaching, including sport-specific strength coaching, this transfer must be effected as as well as possible. That is why it is a good idea, wherever possible, to add an intention to a strength exercise that has no clear intention of its own.”
    This relates to the first bullet point. I must work to choose the right language and analogies in order to get my clients to use an external focus. Choosing the right language is sometimes very challenging!
  • “If attention is focused outside the body on features related to the movement, then the movement and motor learning processes will be controlled more effectively. Controlling movements effectively is thus a matter of focusing attention externally, and hence using vision effectively (making optimal use of central and peripheral vision).”
    The execution of movement skills suffer if the athlete pays too much attention to how the task is performed. Look at targets. Move toward or away from them.
  • “Directing attention at the result and hence the intention of the movement provides room for the intended organization of the movement…”
    Intent-driven movement with an external focus fits with how we learn motor control.  In contrast, focusing on contracting muscles, joint position, and posture goes against the way in which we learn to move. (Think of how a baby learns to move. No one gives a baby instructions on how to roll, reach, crawl, or stand up. The baby just figures it out.)
  • “Besides providing information for learning, KP [knowledge of performance which is externally directed] information also increases motivation, which may well be the most important driving force in learning.”
    Motivation is TREMENDOUSLY IMPORTANT!

Movement variability

Movement variability is a big deal. (I’ve discussed it here, here and here.) Bosch talks about movement monotony and variability:

  • “However… if the movements during coaching are repeated again and again in an unchanging environment, the learning effect will be less than if the performance and the practice environment keep changing. The link between sensory and motor patterns must be shaken up in order to generate motivation to learn. Sensorimotor chaos is, if you like, the basis for learning. (Schollhorn et al., 2009)”
    Doing the same thing the same way in the same environment gets boring. We don’t learn when we’re bored. By varying the training environment we can avoid boredom, maintain motivation and thus keep learning. Thus, I need to continually change things for my clients and myself.
  • “It [variation] is so important that the reason why periodization models appear to work so well is not the perfect planning of the components in relation to one another, but above all the simple fact that periodization leads to variation in training.
    I’m not sure this is entirely true but it’s an interesting idea. I wish he would provide data to back this up. I hope it’s true but I’d like to see supporting information.
  • “Variation is therefore the first and most important training principle, along with individualization.”
    This makes sense. In the simplest terms, if we never add weight, speed, volume or complexity to an exercise then it is impossible to make progress.
  • “Of course it is training for endurance sports that is at most risk of monotony… However, if the athletes include strength training in their total programmes, variation increases. That is why strength training for endurance athletes yields not only coordinative and perhaps physiological benefits, but also the important benefit of reducing monotony in coaching.”
    I’m glad to hear this. If variation is as vital as Bosch suggests, then gym work is a simple way to provide that variability. I have several questions:

    • What’s the best way to strength train endurance athletes?
    • Endurance sports vary widely from swimming to running to cycling to skiing. Does each discipline require different strategies?
    • Should strength work replace some endurance work?
    • What’s the best way to fit strength work into the endurance athlete’s training schedule?

There’s more to read and digest…

 

Off-Season Part II: What Does It Look Like?

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As I noted in my prior post, I’ve engaged in a lot of fun and challenging physical activities. Now it’s time to step back a bit and rest.

Effective training is made up of peaks and valleys. Training and rest are flip sides of the same coin. Rest must follow training in order for adaptations and progress to take place. The more extensive, prolonged and/or intense the training, the more rest is needed. Here’s an outline of how I plan to conduct my off-season.  (It’s not technically a full season, btw.)

Short-term plan

Week 1:

  • No running.  None.
  • Only easy bike rides: to/from work, maybe 1 or 2 easy road rides, no mountain biking
  • de-load week from lifting: This is week 4 of a 4-week block. I’ve been lifting 4 days/week; this week will probably be just 2 at the most. I’ll do some variations on the lifts I’ve been doing. Workouts will be short. Less will be more.
  • Prioritize sleep.

    Week 2:

  • To paraphrase a friend’s take on off-season: If I feel like it, I’ll do it. If I don’t feel like it, then I won’t.
  • “It” being anything from road/trail running to road/trail riding to hiking to whatever else there might be.
  • Start a new 4-week lifting block. This will involve hard work but since my riding and running will be reduced, I’ll still be resting to some degree.
  • Continue to prioritize sleep.
  • Weeks 3-4:

  • This will take me to the end of October.
  • Continue lifting
  • Some mountain biking
  • Some trail running
  • No real planned training beyond the lifting schedule
  • Ski season comes up soon.
  • Feasting/gluttony season is also waddling my way.

Beyond one month:

We have a big trip coming up the first week in December. It’s a scuba diving and other-fun-stuff trip to the Caribbean island of Dominica. Since it’ll be a beach gig, the wife and I want to look our best in swimsuits and such.

The real challenge is that my wife and I are in fairly good shape. We don’t need to lose much fat. Our big-picture eating habits are mostly very good. We exercise very regularly and we have a consistent, healthy sleep routine. There aren’t any big, bad habits we need to change. Thus it’s small details we need to mind. Here are some thoughts:

  • We’ve given up booze except for my birthday and Thanksgiving.
  • The only sweets we’ll have are following a significant (minimum 2-hr) physical effort such as a ride, run or strenuous hike.
  • It’s probably a good idea for me to give up peanut butter. It’s probably a little too easy to eat. Further, that it’s ground up makes the calories easier for my body to access than regular nuts.
  • Maybe consider giving up dairy?
  • As December approaches we will likely cut the carbs a good bit, and up the protein, fat and vegetables.
  • It’s very easy during this off-season situation for weight to creep up. With all the training I was doing this summer, I needed to eat a lot and I could eat a lot without any consequence. Now I plan to lower my activity level but my nervous system will still want to eat like I was during the summer. Thus…
  • I’m trying out the Eat This Much app to help me plan meals that correspond to my needs. This helps bring awareness to my current habits so I can tweak them in the right direction.
  • I need someone to take my body comp.
  • The current lifting scheme should help add muscle.
  • I’ll gradually resume significant endurance activity which should contribute to reduction in body fat.
  • Review my Precision Nutrition text to figure out else I need to do.

 

 

Notes on the Triple Bypass: Riding, Descending, & Managing Fear

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I recently completed the famed and fabulous Triple Bypass bike ride. The route went from Evergreen, CO to Avon, CO in about 120 miles. It took me about 8.5 hrs to complete the ride and I felt good. I’m not sure there’s any way to make a ride like this easy but adequate training makes it a very reasonable journey.

You're not Eddy Merckx.

You’re not Eddy Merckx.

Ride lots: climbing

A journalist once asked the great Belgian cycling champ Eddy Merckx to give advice to young cyclists. His reply: “Ride lots.”

That answer embodies the best way to prepare for a big bike ride. In athletic training, the specificity principle means that if we want to be prepared for a thing, then we better spend a lot of time doing that thing. If I want to be a strong cyclist then I should spend plenty of time on the bike. Swimming, running, yoga or weight training probably won’t do as much for my cycling ability as cycling will. Thus, I pedaled a lot.

Since the Triple involved riding in the mountains, I rode in the mountains. I trained from early May to the first week of July. I averaged 100 miles per week. Most of those miles came from two big rides, one on Tuesday and one on Saturday or Sunday. I also did sprint intervals on Thursdays. Other rides were short, slow and easy. I ran sporadically and squeezed in about one, maybe two weight workouts per week.

Besides simply climbing, I did a lot of climbing intervals. These weren’t highly organized. They were mostly fartlek-type workouts in which I would ride very hard for anything from about 30 seconds up to several minutes during a climb, then back way off, ride easy, then repeat the process. My sprint interval workouts were similar.

(Many such workouts are more highly organized They usually consist of timed work/rest intervals such as 1 minute of work to 2-3 minutes of rest. I didn’t feel the need to be so precise.)

I was pleased with my performance. I felt strong during the climbs. I passed a lot of people and I was passed by only a few. (The Triple isn’t a race, but I still pay attention to such things. My bet is most people do too.)

Ride lots: descending

What goes up usually must also come down and riding in the Rocky Mountains means there are many fast downhill rides. I have been witness to some incredibly fast descents by people who appear to be fearless. I am frequently in awe of the downhill skills of some of my fellow riders. I’m a bit more cautious and hesitant than some people. I want to go faster downhill though. I want to be a better descender. I figure if others are so comfortable with gravity then so too can I.

There’s no one magic way to descend fast. Like any skill, it takes mindful, frequent practice. I watched videos, read articles, and then went out and tried to apply what I learned.

There are numerous articles and videos on going downhill efficiently. I found this article, Descending, to be very through and useful. Among the many videos I watched, I got some good information here:

(A note on braking while descending: I’ve always heard that I should brake early, scrub some speed, then lay off the brakes as I go through the turn. The Descending article discusses why braking should occur up to the apex of the turn. It’s worth reading. Also, the video discusses how to use the front brake differently from the rear brake. All of this was valuable info to me as I worked to improve my descent. I tend to use my brakes as described in the article, and I’ve been laying off the front brake if I feel the need to reduce speed further while turning.)

With the idea of specific training in mind, it’s clear the only way to get better at descending, was to descend. I practiced a lot and I stayed mindful of the skills I was developing.

Fear & learning

Riding a bike fast down a mountain can and probably should cause a bit of fear in a normal human brain. It definitely does in mine. The fear must be managed. It probably can’t be eliminated. I must live with it.

Whether it’s cycling, skiing, or the trumpet, Effective learning can’t happen in the presence of overwhelming fear. Too much fear causes us to revert back to old habits, clamp down, tense up and freeze. At best it means no new skills are gained and we stay frightened of the task at hand. At worst it can mean catastrophe and maybe severe injury. Thus, only through gradual exposure to faster speed, greater lean angles and tighter turns could I build my downhill skills.

My process was one in which I gradually took (and continue to take) a little more risk each time I descended. I worked on my position, braking, and leaning the bike every time. I worked to keep my fear in check. The result is that I’ve become faster and more comfortable on the downhills. I never made any great leap forward but rather I made gradual progress which I expect will continue.

Regarding fear in sports training, I found a very worthwhile articled titled Learning from athletes in extreme sports – know and use your fear to improve performance (and achieve more for yourself). I like this:

During a recent coaching conversation, a World Cup Mountain Bike racer described how, if he was in touch with a sprinkle of fear, he would execute his ride very well. If he didn’t have this feeling, he might be a bit more sloppy in his riding, make mistakes or choose less effective lines.

These athletes are in touch with their fear and they know it well. I believe that there is a strong link between how well an athlete knows their fear and their success. The better they know it and can work with it, the more they’ll achieve.

Thus far I feel I’ve made respectable progress in going downhill. I’ve been moving faster through turns than in the past. I wasn’t the fastest descender in the Triple but I felt I kept pace with plenty of other people. The process will continue.

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.

Exercise, Stress, Work, Injury, Life… & Crossfit

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A couple of recent articles have me thinking…

Unfortunately for many of us, exercise and injury (or just pain) live very close to each other. I’ve heard a lot of people say things like “I can’t run anymore because of my knees,” or, “The bench press hurts my shoulders.”

Something that’s supposed to be healthy hurts us? That doesn’t sound right.

Exercise and the big picture

When “Healthy” Habits Aren’t comes from Whole 9. It’s written by Kate Galliett of Fit for Real Life. She gives discusses a big-picture view of our exercise habits within the context of our often stressful, unbalanced lives.

She says:

“Exercise is not meant to break you. Exercise habits are not meant to suck other important aspects of your health dry. Exercising is not meant to be a numbing agent to things your body is telling you.”

Seems obvious, right? Who would argue that we exercise in order to feel bad and get hurt? Yet the reality is that multitudes of gym goers, runners, and all sorts of recreational athletes inhabit a world in which their chosen activity puts them in pain every day. This picture is out of whack. Pain is a way of telling us that something needs to change. (Remember though, pain doesn’t always equal injury, but pain is not to be ignored.)

I like this:

“Chronic stress is not helpful for fat loss, muscle gain, or performance improvement. It’s also not helpful for any of the health factors that keep you alive & kicking well into your later years. And many habits society deems ‘healthy’ are much less so when looked at in context to modern, busy, stressed lives.”

And to the previous point, this is extremely important to remember:

“Stress is stress. It’s the same to your body whether you define where it comes from as ‘good’ or ‘bad.'”

Living organisms need a certain level of stress to flourish. With the right amount of stress applied in a progressive way plus rest, plus food, that organism gets stronger. Too much stress of any type plus inadequate rest and/or inadequate food and that organism breaks down. We don’t want that but that’s where a lot of us are.

Why exercise?

A lot of us identify in part by our physical activity. “I’m a runner,” I’m a cyclist,” “I’m a powerlifter,” or “I’m a Crossfitter.” Self-image matters a lot, whether or not you want to admit it. This paradigm can get a little out of control.

Sometimes it seems we get to where we’re working out just to work out. And sometimes we push harder thinking we’ll get stronger yet in reality we’ve dug ourselves a hole and we’re digging harder to get out.

“Take a break? Back off? Are you insane? That’s for losers! I HAVE TO WORK OUT! THAT’S WHAT I DO!”

Well… Okay… But are you realizing a benefit?

Not if your workout hurts you. And if you’re piling stress on top of stress on top of stress, and you’re working harder despite the fact that you’re not sleeping enough, your job is killing you and your family is driving you crazy—all during allergy season—then don’t be surprised if you feel like a wreck. It might be time to try something different.

To me, the takeaway message of the article is that the actions and habits we practice in the pursuit of health and fitness don’t exist in isolation. These practices exist alongside a wide range of other influences in our lives. There are times when we need to take a step back, look at the big picture and at times modulate our beloved running, swimming, weight training or what-have-you. Read the full article for the whole discussion.

The Wellness Continuum

To expand a bit, this article reminded me of something I learned about in grad school, something called the Wellness Continuum.

The Wellness Continuum

The Wellness Continuum

I’ve talked with a lot of people who view health exclusively through the diet and exercise lens. In this view, diet and exercise are separate and distinct from all other aspects of health. To me, this view is like looking through a microscope.

With the Wellness Continuum, we can examine our lives with a telescope. We can see an amazing range of interrelated factors that contribute to or take away from our overall health. Most of us, myself included, probably do very well in some of these categories while other categories deserve extra attention.

To reiterate, none of these factors exist in isolation. These conditions all blend together to determine our well being. If we ignore one aspect of health then the whole operation is diminished.

Crossfit & Injuries

High-intensity workout injuries spawn cottage industry comes from the Washington Post. The article discusses not only injuries that may be generated from Crossfit workouts but also the businesses that have sprung up to treat said injuries.

One observation of the article is this:

“Many people who do the high-intensity workouts aren’t adequately conditioned for such rigorous workouts, or have back and spine conditions that could worsen, said Dr. Marc Umlas, chief of orthopedic surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami, who said his office has seen an increase in injuries from workouts at CrossFit and similar programs.

“’They plunge headfirst into a high intensity workout and they get injured,’ Umlas said.”

The article describes various business that offer treatment strategies for such injuries. A trainer, Lauren Roxburgh said something related to the theme of the previous article on healthy habits:

“’In our lifestyle it’s been very much about the doing. … It’s all about pushing through, doing, doing, doing, and it hasn’t been enough about the yin, which is the being, being in the moment, being present in our bodies,’ she said.”

That sounds like yoga-speak for respecting the need for rest and recovery. More more more harder harder harder exercise isn’t always better better better. There’s a time for hard work and a time for backing away from hard work.

“It depends…”

“What do you think of Crossfit?”

I’m often asked that. As with most questions, the most accurate answer is “It depends….” on a lot of things.

(To be clear, I’m not a Crossfit coach. I’ve never worked out in a Crossfit gym.  I’ve met lots of Crossfitters and I’m aware of a lot of what I’ll call the Crossfit culture and its components.)

I love that Crossfit has re-popularized free-weights, the Olympic lifts and body weight training. I love that in many Crossfit facilities there is a supportive community that bonds through tough workouts. I’ve met good Crossfit coaches who recognize the need for proper technique and proper progression in doing these workouts.

I’ve also seen some horrendous exercise technique displayed by Crossfitters. I’m aware of a mentality in many (maybe not most) Crossfitters that the harder and faster the workout the better. Some in the Crossfit culture view this mentality with pride. I think it’s a questionable approach.

My answer is it depends on the condition of the individual participant. Is this a raw beginner or an experienced lifter? How well does the person move? Who’s coaching him or her? Does the culture at a particular Crossfit facility emphasize good technique and proper rest and recovery strategies? Or is it all “Go! Go! Go! Ignore the pain!”

Adaptation to imposed demands

Human beings can adapt to all sorts of stresses and conditions. As it relates to exercise; if we work in a progressive manner; gradually applying stress to our bones, muscles and connective tissue; consuming appropriate calories and nutrients; and resting appropriately then our structures will adapt to those imposed demands. (Read up on Davis’s law and Wolff’s law for more on how this process works.)

If, on the other hand, we go hell-bent-for-leather into a new workout routine (particularly if we don’t spend time on learning good exercise technique) then we may outrace our body’s ability to adapt.

To compound issues, if we undertake some sort of intense Crossfit-type workout, and our personal Wellness Continuum is out of balance then it’s highly likely that aches and pains will soon follow.

Discipline

With exercise, most people equate discipline with getting up early, working out hard every day and “pushing your limits.” I would offer that “discipline” really means doing what you need to do, not just what you want to do.

For we who love exercise, working out isn’t the problem! We love being in the gym, on the road, on the trail or in the pool. Sweating and lifting heavy things isn’t the hard part. It’s taking a break that’s near impossible! Taking easy days, letting injuries heal, doing our rehab exercises, tapering for a race, taking off-days or god-forbid, taking an off-season?! …That’s discipline.

So… There’s that.