A New Year’s Resolution Part I: Why?

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Unless you first change your mind, don’t expect your health goals to materialize. As the saying goes, it’s not the horse that draws the cart, it’s the oats. It’s not the gym, Pilates class or diet that will change you – it’s your mind.

That brilliant statement comes from an article in U.S. News & World Report. The same article says, “By the second week of February, some 80 percent of those resolution-ers are back home with a new kind of remorse staring back at them in the mirror – the remorse of disappointment. ”

That has been and soon will be the fate of hordes of Americans as they embark on a myriad of ill-fated health & fitness voyages. I believe failure comes down to two vital issues: motivation and planning.

Motivation

This is your “why.” It’s emotional investment. With motivation you have a sense of purpose. Motivation is the be-all-end-all for success at anything. (Last year about this time I wrote about motivation, and I’ll expand on the concept in the next post.) Your goal must be important to you on an emotional level. A true sense of purpose comes with emotional investment. One example:

An intermediate runner wants to run his first marathon. He’s spent time running, enjoys it, and has progressed from a raw beginner to a more serious athlete. The marathon represents to him a major sense of achievement. He knows it will take a lot of hard work and if he finishes then he’ll feel a powerful sense of accomplishment. He’s motivated by that sense of accomplishment. Accomplishment gives him a deep sense of satisfaction. Accomplishment sustains him on an emotional and spiritual level. The marathon is not just an arbitrary goal to him. This is important too: the goal of running a marathon is both challenging and realistic.

Another example:

A new mom isn’t as fit as she used to be, and she knows it. She recognizes several things: First, she’s going to need a lot of energy to keep up with the new kiddo. She knows exercise, a healthy diet and good sleep habits will help. Second, she wants the child to be healthy so she decides to set a good example by living a healthy lifestyle. Next, she wants to live a long life so she can spend as much time as possible with this wonderful little person.

Her profound love for her child is her motive to live a healthy life. She’ll do anything for the kid! She can’t lose! Success is the only option. Even if she’s not a serious athlete and she may not be in love with exercise, the love she feels for this new baby has ignited a tremendous sense of purpose in her, so her motivation is sky-high.

Hard work is made feasible through motivation. Or as Matt Fitzgerald puts it in his book Diet Cults, “Motivation allows for the application of willpower.”

For good or ill, the truth is that if you aren’t sufficiently motivated, if you don’t have a strong emotional bond to your resolution—if you don’t have a purpose—then it won’t happen.

The plan

No significant accomplishment happens without a plan. Saving for retirement, building a house, writing a novel, attaining a degree, running a successful business all require a plan. Your resolution is no different. How many days will you exercise? Will you lift weights? (You should!) If so, which exercises will you select? Do you know how to lift properly? When will you add weight to the bar? What about cardio? What about rest days? You need those! Have you thought about nutrition? You can’t lose weight without it. What changes will you make to your diet? Should you go on “A Diet?” (Probably not. Everyone “used to be on a diet.” Most of them aren’t sustainable.) Have you thought about adequate sleep?

Far too many smart, well-intentioned souls enter a gym with no plan and no knowledge of how to exercise properly. Stumbling through the dark and stabbing blindly at your goal is inefficient at best and a sure ticket to failure at worse. Bad planning or no planning can kill your motivation. Do you have a plan? If not, then get one.

*****Please note: A generic, cookie-cutter plan made for someone else’s needs isn’t your best option. It’s best to have a plan custom-made to your needs, skills, and preferences. That’s why I have a job!

I hope I’ve convinced you that in order to attain your worthwhile New Year’s Resolution you must think hard about it. It won’t happen through luck or chance. I’ll expand on motivation and planning in subsequent posts.

 

 

Getting Serious About the 5k

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A 5k? You can do that in your sleep can’t you?”

A client said that to me when I recently told her I’m training up for a March 5k, the Cherry Creek Sneak in Denver. She knew I’d run several big, difficult trail races and two marathons. She figured a 5k would be easy for me, and in terms of distance, yes, running 3.1 miles isn’t a big deal. But to run it fast…? That’s the challenge.

(In case you didn’t know, the 5k is an Olympic event. Look at an Olympic 5k runner at the finish line and and ask him or her if the race was easy.)

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It seems like most grown-ups think about running longer and farther. Many of us look at the marathon, or in trail running circles, ultra-marathons, as the ultimate running thing to do. Similarly many of us look at 5ks and 10ks as fairly easy runs done just for fun. Most runners progress from the shorter runs to longer runs, leaving behind those short runs doing them mainly for training purposes around their long-race goals.

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In contrast, grown-ups rarely look to run faster. (In comparison, ever watch kids run? They only sprint!) I want to run faster. As I’ve said before, I love the training process. I want to experience the process of speed development. I’ll be doing track workouts and tempo runs, which are very different from trail running. I like the idea of doing work all along the energy system continuum, with short, powerful efforts at one end, and much longer efforts at the other. It seems to me a well-conditioned, athlete should make stops all along the way.

 

Strength Training Fights Cancer

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“The study shows exercise that promotes muscular strength may be just as important for health as aerobic activities like jogging or cycling,” said Associate Professor Stamatakis.

“And assuming our findings reflect cause and effect relationships, it may be even more vital when it comes to reducing risk of death from cancer.”

That statement comes from Associate Professor Emmanuel Stamatakis of the School of Public Health and the Charles Perkins Center at the University of Sydney. He’s the lead researcher in a study titled Does strength promoting exercise confer unique health benefits? A pooled analysis of eleven population cohorts with all-cause, cancer, and cardiovascular mortality endpoints. The study appears in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

I’m surprised and delighted by this finding. Most of us have known for a quite a while that exercise of some variety or another helps reduce cancer risk. Most of the research has looked at exercise with a cardiovascular emphasis such as walking, cycling, and swimming. This study is novel in that it looks at strength training.

This is great news to those of us who like to lift heavy stuff! However…

Strength training has a negative connotation for some people. Some people say, “I don’t wan to get too big,” “I don’t want to get hurt.” Other people associate strength training with the bizarre bodybuilding steroid stereotype. None of this needs to be true! Lifting heavy stuff can be very safe, it can be done by normal people in an enjoyable way — and now we know it’s the smart, healthy thing to do. If you’re not lifting, then you should be and I’ll be glad to help you do it right.

 

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.”

Read These: I Became Obsessed & the 7 Pillars of Running

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Two recent articles are worth reading. If you have time then definitely have a glance.

Has extreme fitness gone too far?

‘It’s intoxicating – I became obsessed’: has fitness gone too far? comes from the Guardian. It discusses some negative consequences for novice trainees caught up in extreme fitness fads. These hopeful gym-goers are lured into inappropriately brutal workout routines by attractive online fitness celebrities who may have no idea what they’re doing. In this world, boring concepts like patients, persistence, and gradual progress is replaced by more-is-better high-intensity punishment. Bad idea. I like this statement:

It is a sentiment echoed by one health and beauty magazine editor, who asks to remain anonymous because her views don’t tally with that of her employer. “These days, a strong Instagram following, good gene pool and even better spray tan can make you a fitness star, regardless of what qualifications you have. Not only do many of these ‘fitness stars’ know little about what constitutes safe exercise (the truth is that no amount of likes come in handy when you need to solve a gym-induced injury), they also create a false sense of what fit and healthy looks like – and it doesn’t always look 21 and great in a bikini. Add to that the fact that these social media stars get paid to shift fitness gadgets, gimmicks and protein shakes, and you’ve a whole load of dangerously misguided followers.”

So many of of these and similar workouts cater to the desperate hopes of people who want to be in cover-model shape right now!  Unfortunately, that isn’t the best mindset for gaining true health and fitness. The enduring fitness facts are there is no magic, there are no miracles, there is nothing new under the sun. The only path to long-term fitness and health is through persistent hard work, patience and (this is highly undervalued) self-acceptance. Read the entire article to gain all the insights.

Running wisdom from a wise man

In contrast to fitness extremism, we have the sober, reasonable, and frequently skeptical voice of Alex Hutchinson who writes the Sweat Science column for Runner’s World. His latest, and sadly, his final piece is titled The Seven Pillars of Running Wisdom.

I always appreciate his writing in that he discusses the science behind many of the latest running and fitness trends, strategies, and equipment. We are often told with certainty that some latest-and-greatest tech will revolutionize our running or that some extreme type of diet will cure all of our ills. Hutchinson discusses the actual science behind many of these claims The truth is typically far less exciting than the sales pitches we hear from the snake oil sales force. Big surprise here: most of the magic silver bullets are some familiar ideals: persistent hard work (sometimes very hard work), generally healthy diet, lots of patience. These are the best routes take for peak performance and lifelong health. The seven pillars are:

  1. Running is good for you “in moderation,” which is defined as “a lot more than you’re doing.”
  2. If it comes in a bottle, it’s probably not going to make you faster or healthier.
  3. The best technology for tracking and guiding your runs is the device between your ears.
  4. You probably got injured from doing too much, too soon.
  5. The magic workout, shoe, or superfood is whichever one you’ve been ignoring lately or have never tried.
  6. You can probably run better; start by running more.
  7. You’re capable of more than you think, but it will take time to get there.

Read the whole shebangabang to learn much and more!

Feet & Toes Should Be Strong and Able

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When was the last time you walked into the gym and said, “Okay, it’s foot day! Let’s get to work?”

Most of us aren’t too excited about building strong, healthy feet, probably not until we encounter pain. But why not? After all, it’s only every single step that we need those lower appendages to work well. Unless you don’t have feet, unless you walk on your hands, or maybe unless you live on a planet without gravity, then there’s no question you need a pair of mobile, stable, well-functioning feet.

And if we encounter foot trouble then we want to put in an orthotic, buy shoes with arch support, or do something other than make the feet stronger. Why is it that we don’t think to treat the feet like the rest of the body? Why don’t we see the need to work the feet like all the other muscles and body parts we have? I suggest that rather than resort to external aids we should work the feet in a wide variety of ways.  Here are a few ways to do just that.

I don’t promise that any of these exercises will fix a specific injury. If anything hurts then back off. See a physical therapist, chiropractor, or podiatrist for a full diagnosis and treatment strategy.

Big toe adduction/abduction

There’s no fancy name for this exercise. You can experiment with all sorts of bands. Please notice that I do this exercise under control. I’m controlling the exercise, the band isn’t controlling me. Allow the big toe to come in far enough that you feel a stretch.

Toe differentiation (aka yoga toe)

Can you do this? You should be able to. It may seem 100% impossible when you first try it. Keep working on it. Most people can figure it out in a day. Takes work and concentration. Take notice of my arch and inner ankle. Notice that the arch doesn’t drop, and my ankle doesn’t dive in as I move my big toe.

Toe grabs on a box

Sounds like one of Vincent van Gogh’s very obscure works. It’s not. I just don’t have a better name for it. It works well though. I learned it from Denver chiropractor extraordinaire Dr. Nick Studholme. You can do this on the top of a flight of steps or over a book.

Funny walks

This is a quick, easy way to engage, stimulate, and strengthen all of the muscles of the lower legs and feet. Try it and see how you feel.

Imogene Pass Run Race Report

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The stage

I ran my first Imogene Pass Run last weekend and it was a monumental experience. The race was both exhilarating and brutal. The environment and scenery were stunning beyond words (but here are some words.) Living in Colorado, we get used to seeing some amazing scenery. That said, the landscape of this race course was inconceivably dramatic. The San Juan Mountains are the creme de la creme of what Colorado is all about. My wife and I loved the town of Ouray and we can’t wait to go back.

The wife, dog, and spectacular Ouray, CO

The wife, the dog, and spectacular Ouray, CO

The weather was beyond perfect. No rain whatsoever until just after I finished in Telluride. I can’t fathom running this race in foul weather, but run this race in foul weather indeed they do.

Before going much further, I must give credit to my coach, Mary-Katherine Flemming for helping me prepare for this monster. My hiring her to help me was an excellent decision. She planned a variety of progressively challenging workouts, gave me honest, useful advice, and made me feel confident as I moved toward the race. I plan to enlist her again in future races.

Uphill

I was very pleased with my uphill abilities. None of the climbing was easy but 99% of the time I felt strong and able. The final mile was rough. And by rough I mean nasty. (I’m holding back on the foul language that’s essential to describe what I’m talking about.) The average gradient was 18.9% with a max gradient of 33%! Steep slopes plus an ever thinning supply of O2 was almost overwhelming. That the fastest runners are still running at this point in the race is an absurdity to me!

A brief pause before the summit. Look closely at the trail below. Can you see the people?

A brief pause before the summit. Look closely. Can you see the people on the trail?

Slow-slogging it was an attractive option at times. I saw many participants doing a sort of meandering tromp and the siren song of a slower pace was enticing. It definitely felt good to slow down just a bit. I didn’t allow myself to get comfortable though. I was there to do the best I could, not be comfortable. I didn’t “just want to finish.” So when the going got very tough I continued to push as hard as I realistically could while not blowing up.

I found smaller quicker steps were better than long strides. Try climbing stairs two or three at a time vs. one step at a time and you’ll experience this. Sure you can go faster if you take longer steps but you’ll burn out faster too. That’s not a successful strategy for this race.

The hard part is over! The MONUMENTALLY hard part is about to begin.

The hard part is over! The MONUMENTALLY hard part is about to begin.

 

Downhill

Savage and unrelenting are good words to describe the descent. The entire route was loose rocks and dirt of the sort that demanded constant attention, focus, and concentration. There was never ever an opportunity to coast, to relax, to take it easy in any way. To let the mind wander was to fall and f__k oneself up badly.

The start of a long, technical downhill. Much soreness awaits.

The start of a long, technical downhill. Much soreness awaits.

I experienced a very strange sensation during the descent. There were were times when I wanted to close my eyes and fall hard asleep. It was almost like I had narcolepsy or something. I’ve never had it happen before. I actually felt like I could’ve napped on my feet. I have no idea why. Do I have to mention that this experience was no help at all?

The technical descent demanded that I focus just a few feet out ahead to know where and how to place my feet. This was an exceptionally difficult task, especially as the descent took over an hour. The urge to let up a little, concentrate a little less, and look well down the trail was alluring but it would’ve been a disaster had I done so. So the entire descent involved determined concentration. If you’ve ever had to concentrate while (extremely) fatigued then you know it’s a uniquely difficult task.

I have no idea where that switchback road goes. I'd like to find out.

I have no idea where that switchback road goes. I’d like to find out.

 

Battling cramps with ducks & pigeons

I had some cramping near the top of the ascent. They continued to flare up during the descent. I had some cramping episodes during training runs and I wasn’t surprised to cramp during this race. What worried me is that I’d cramp badly and be reduced to a walk. That would’ve crushed me. Fortunately, I developed a strategy during training that allowed me to keep the cramps at bay to an acceptable degree. I employed that strategy in the race and though not perfect, it again allowed me to keep running.

I ran while internally and externally rotating my femurs. In other words, I’d run for several strides alternating between a duck-footed or pigeon-toed position. Somehow this would push the cramps away for a while. I had to do this several times during the descent. It’s definitely not an optimal way to run, especially over rough ground, but it worked. I also had to walk but only a very little.

My belief is that I employed the principle of reciprocal inhibition to relax my cramping muscles. Here’s an example: The muscle opposite your bicep is your tricep. Contract your bicep and your tricep will relax to allow for elbow flexion. That’s reciprocal inhibition and that’s how we move. In my case, my adductor muscles (inner thigh muscles, aka hip adductors and internal rotators) cramped. Thus I guessed that by activating those muscles’ opposite numbers (my hip abductors and external rotators) that I might be able to calm the cramping inner-thigh muscles. Seems to have worked. Further, it’s possible that by altering my bone and joint positions with this weird running technique it allowed some of the cramping muscles to rest just a little bit.

External rotation of the femurs

External rotation of the femurs

I won’t go into all the details of muscle cramps but I’ll say that it’s highly unlikely that it’s either dehydration or electrolyte depletion that causes them. It’s more along the line of intramuscular dis-coordination. For a brief and worthwhile discussion on the current ideas on muscle cramps and how to avoid them, then follow that link.

Internal rotation of the femurs

Internal rotation of the femurs

 

The final statistics

To see all the final stats for all runners go here. My numbers are as follows:

  • Time: 4:07:47
  • Overall: 451 out of 1227 finishers (Roughly top 1/3 of participants. That’s pretty cool!)
  • All males: 311 out of 645 (Top half of men. I’d love to improve on that.)
  • Males 40-44: 36 out of 82 (Top half. I’m happy about that too and improvement would be good.)

I like those results. This race was no easy fun run. You have to come prepared to finish it. I worked hard and I feel like I belong among some high-end athletes. I want to do my best and I want to get better. The top finisher in my age category finished in 3:02. I wonder how close I can get to 3 hrs… Coach Flemming, what are your thoughts?

(Honestly, I’m amazed that I’m thinking of running it again. After that finish I was certain that I didn’t want to run anywhere for any reason maybe ever again. What nonsense!)

What would I do differently?

I would love to get this thing done in under four hours. That seems realistic in good weather. If I want to race this race faster and/or just feel better then I need to improve my downhill conditioning.The descent is 7.1 steep, loose miles which is a very long distance. With that in mind,  I need to dedicate more time to running downhill on witheringly tired legs. There aren’t many opportunities outside of this race course to descend that far. (If you know of one in the Front Range area, please let me know about it.) I will confer with my coach on the subject but in my mind, I might want to incorporate something like giant hill repeats. For these I would run up something like Chimney Gulch, Mt. FalconDeer Creek, parts of the Bergen Peak Trail, or maybe best of all, Herman’s Gulch, then run back down and repeat the whole nasty process a few times. I think a few near-crippling workouts like this might help me survive the horror show/descent a little better.

Finally

Here is some superb photo documentation of the race. This guy isn’t me and I don’t know him but he deserves accolades for how well he captured the runners and the exquisite scenery.

The Imogene Pass Run Looms Before Me…

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The main event for the year is the famed/notorious Imogene Pass Run. (Three days and a few hours to race time! Am I ready? Doesn’t matter does it? That’s when I’m running.) The website gives the basic description:

“The Imogene Pass Run (IPR) is a 17.1 mile point-to-point mountain race within the western San Juan mountains of Colorado, run along a route which connects the towns of Ouray (7810 ft.) and Telluride (8750 ft.) by way of 13,114 foot Imogene Pass.”

This race has us climbing 5300 ft. After having run multiple 3000+ ft runs, I can confirm that THAT’S A LOT OF CLIMBING. I ask you to ponder, as I have, this passage from the course description:

“Mile 5.45 –   Lower Camp Bird bridge (9755 ft.), spanning Sneffels creek. At this point the runner might philosophize a little and consider just where he or she is in this effort called the Imogene Pass Run. At this bridge you have climbed 1945 feet (net) of elevation in 5.45 miles, at an average of 356 ft./mi., or 6.8% gradient overall. To reach Imogene Pass from here you must climb 3365 feet in the next 4.60 miles, at an average of 731 ft./mi., or 13.85% gradient overall. Your effort so far has simply been a warmup. The steep gradients of the named hills below you are now less than the average gradient ahead of you.”

If you’re not familiar with trail running and/or hiking then these numbers may not mean much to you. If you are a trail runner and you’re a mere mortal such as I, then your head might swim.

My coach, MK Flemming, says she has no worries about my completing the race. That’s solidly reassuring to me. My hope is that I complete it in a respectable time. (That it’s called a “Run” is optimistically generous. Most of us will be doing something like a power hike up that mountain.)

The site suggests that our run time will be similar to our marathon time. My only road marathon was 3:57. A finish time of 4-5 hours sounds good to me.

I’ve done the work.

Not only do MK’s words give me confidence about the race, but I also I know that I’ve put in the time and effort to prepare for this race. I’ve spent a lot of time trail running. Training started in March. I’ve completed several 4+ hour runs. The race tops out at 13,000 ft. and I’ve been in and around that elevation several times. Runs at 10,000 ft. and above have been common in my training. Gaining elevation has been bread and butter on my runs. Several times a week I’ve gained anywhere from 2000 ft. to nearly 4000 ft. of elevation. Much of that work has been done on 15-20% gradients which is what I’ll encounter on the IPR.

The only minor worry that I have is that I haven’t actually gained 4000 ft. during a run. I’d planned to do so but there aren’t many routes that boast that elevation. I considered ascending one of the nearby 14er peaks but most of those peaks contain scrambling over boulders and scree to get to the summit. Those conditions won’t exist at the IPR. Again, this is not a major concern to me.

Loving the process

In order for success to happen, one must find a way to love the process. (I’ve discussed the idea here.) The mountains are my favorite place to be. I crave time in the wilderness. Solitude and epic views are magic. I always want to go and I never want to leave. (BTW, Time spent in nature can have powerful positive effects on us.) Trail running in the Rocky Mts is more than just fun or recreation. It’s church. Some of my favorite runs include:

I can’t say my heart swelled for every run. A good portion of my training occurred on the steep pitches of the service roads on N. Table Mt., Green Mt. and the short but utterly ridiculously steep Mt. Morrison Trail. These weren’t the most scenic runs. They were nasty and dirty. Thinking of them, I envisage a world filled with the most towering foul language. Still, I love the process.

Loving the gear

All that time on the trail demands adequate gear. Two of my favorite items are these:

Nike Zoom Terra Kiger 3.

Nike Zoom Terra Kiger 3 plus some dirt.

The Nike Zoom Terra Kiger 3 has made my feet very happy. I’ve gone through two pairs. What I like most is the roomy toebox. I’ve had problems in the past with losing some toenails due to friction up front. I’ve had no such grotesque problems with these shoes. And though there’s plenty of room up front, the rest of the shoe is comfortably snug which is reassuring while running over variable terrain. The grip is very solid. The shoe is comfortably flexible and it has what seems to be just the right amount of cushion to protect my feet from sharp rocks and such.

Next, the Ultimate Direction PB Adventure vest has been an excellent purchase. It’s light, breathable, comfortable and it carries a lot of useful gear. Conditions can change rapidly in the mountains and it’s necessary to carry several items in case of bad weather or an injury. Starting at the top: 70 oz bladder, knit hat, soft flask, 1st aid kit and antiseptic, long sleeved technical shirt, waterproof jacket, light neck gaiter, gloves. I can also carry hiking poles but the race doesn’t allow them so I haven’t been using them. Not pictured: the phone which took this picture, lots of bars, gels, cheese sticks, and other fuel.

Ultimate Direction PB Adventure Vest plus most of the gear I carry in it.

Ultimate Direction PB Adventure Vest plus most of the gear I carry in it.

Finally

I am tremendously grateful to be able to train for this event. It’s been a memorable experience. I spent several years in my 20s unable to run due to chronic pain. That’s gone now. I’m very durable and strong. I take more than a little bit of pride in both my willingness to take on this race and my ability to train for it. This undertaking is not in everyone’s wheelhouse. It’s in mine though.

The Upside to a Bad Experience

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Shot down in flames! An arial representation of my recent half-marathon experience

Shot down in flames! An arial representation of my recent half-marathon experience

I recently ran the Georgetown to Idaho Springs Half-Marathon. It didn’t go well! I was tired, slow, and wasn’t prepared for a road race. I bonked right near the end. I was about 15 min slower than my best half-marathon time. It was overall a rotten experience — but with a silver lining! Upon review, that I ran poorly was no surprise. Why?

  1. Two days prior I ran a tough 12-mile trail run at a fairly high elevation. Fatigue often peaks at 48 hrs after the triggering workout. I ran the race with no taper. In fact, you could say I did the opposite of a taper.
  2. I haven’t been doing any real road runs. All my big workouts have been on trails. I’ve only done short, easy runs on the road. This lack of training on roads speaks to the SAID Principle, or the Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands. In essence, the SAID Principle says that if I want to be good at a thing, then I need to do the thing. If I want to be a good road runner then I should run more on the road.

I thought that since I had been running a lot that this would be an easy run. I thought I had several advantages: First, many of my runs have been over 13 miles. Second, Those runs have been of long duration. I spent a lot of time on my feet. Third, this race was mostly downhill with little climbing. I’ve spent lots of time doing hard climbs and running fast, technical downhills. Overall, I thought that my running endurance base would’ve allowed me to complete the half- in a respectable time and that I would’ve felt good doing it. Nope.

My best half-marathon time was 1:47 so I started off with the 1:45 pace group. Didn’t take long for them to leave me. Then the 1:50 pace group left me… Then the 1:55…  I don’t remember if the 2:00 pace group passed me or not but I finished in about 2 hrs. I was wiped out. Felt horrible! I ran too hard for too long.

Upon review, I think a significant factor is that trail running is typically much slower than road running. And though I’ve spent many hours on my feet, trail running is different enough from road running that some of the benefits didn’t transfer. Further, I believe that running on dirt and rocks was different enough from running on pavement that my muscles experienced something to which they were unaccustomed, and that caused me significantly more fatigue than if I’d spent the same amount of time on a trail.

I can’t forget the importance of the taper. Two days prior I’d slept in a car at a trail head then run a long trail run at high altitude. Thus it was entirely normal that on race day I was full-on very tired.

But so what?

This wasn’t a big race. It was just something I wanted to do. It’s just another run. There was and is no reason to fret and hate on myself because of this lackluster showing. What I’ve learned in recent years is that in “failure” there is always an opportunity to learn. This is an exceptionally valuable outlook! It’s a lot better than flagellation.

Pain vs. Discomfort

Standard

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

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

Pain & discomfort defined

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

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

Discomfort:

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

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

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

Pain:

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

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

Color-coded pain

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

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

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

RED: It hurts. We stop.

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

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

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

Fear-Avoidance Model. Avoid it.

 

Unfamiliarity: Is it pain or discomfort?

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

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

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

The spirit of “No pain, no gain”

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