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.

Training Both Ends of the Spectrum: Strength & Endurance

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For years I’ve been faced with a question to which I have yet to find the answer. The more I Iook for the answer, the louder I hear the question, and that is this:

Which do I love most, strength training or endurance training? Do I love lifting heavy stuff or spending hours running and biking? It’s as much of a question now as it’s ever been.

The truth is I love both activities. I love to lift weights and I love endurance activity. I can’t choose one. Periodically my interest swings more to one or the other but I have yet to find a way to de-emphasize one and specialize in the other. Why does this matter?

Concurrent training likely causes some conflict at the cellular level in terms of trying to achieve gains. That is, lifting a lot may interfere with endurance adaptations and significant endurance work my inhibit strength, power and muscle-growth adaptations.

From what I’ve come to understand, aerobic conditioning seems to inhibit gains in strength, power and muscular hypertrophy more so than the other way around. As regards endurance performance, carrying around extra muscle mass makes running and biking more difficult—especially when going uphill.

(Want to read more about this? StrengthandConditioning.com has a good discussion of research on the topic titled Should we avoid concurrent training to maximize hypertrophy?)

If nothing else, I often feel like a party of one. Sometimes it seems like I’m the only person who is enthusiastic about both lifting for five reps and under as well as suffering, sweating and panting for over an hour. I don’t meet many others who share my enjoyment of both types of activity.

Because of all of the above, I’m excited about an ebook from Juggernaut Training Systems called the Hybrid Athlete. I’ve been following a sample program from the book for a couple of weeks now and I’m enjoying it. I’m lifting more than I have in a while and at the same time I’m running, biking, and hiking a lot.

There are several different sample programs but it’s not a book of cookie cutter workout templates. The book discusses the underlying mechanisms at work during both strength and endurance training.

Most important, this book discusses recovery and the need to strategize lifting and endurance workouts. For someone trying to train hard on both ends of the exercise spectrum, managing recovery is crucial. Thus, there are ways to train for strength while resting the endurance systems and vice versa such that the athlete won’t be overwhelmed, burned out, and possibly injured. The Hybrid Athlete discusses all of this.

Finally, what makes me respect this work is that the writer, Alex Vada, has walked the walk. He’s competed in Ironman traithlons as well as put up impressive numbers in the power lifts.  He’s relied on academic learning and experience in the gym, on the road, and in the pool to develop this book.

Follow this link to learn more about essentials of the hybrid athlete training.

 

 

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.

Moab Trail Marathon Part II: Done and done. All’s Well!

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The word “awesome” is thrown around in a casual way. You go to a restaurant and order the onion rings and the server may exclaim, “Awesome!” with genuine earnestness and enthusiasm. Now, I love onion rings but this type of thing does not actually generate anything a reasonable and honest person would call awe.

Puny humans!

Puny humans! (click for the original pic)

In contrast, my experience at the Moab Trail Marathon absolutely filled me with awe. Both the environment and the effort were like nothing else I’ve experienced. The language fails me and I can’t adequately describe my enthusiasm and wonder about the whole event.

Moab is another planet.

The Scorched Earth Wall. A colossal fiend. (Click pic to get the original.)

The Scorched Earth Wall. A fiendish foe. (Photo: Allison Pattillo | Competitor.com)

 

I’ve seen pictures and they fail miserably to portray the truth of the land. I come back to the word awesome… and that word fails too. The size and scale of the rocks, cliffs, canyons, vistas and mountains was titanic. It bordered on terrifying. (This is coming from someone who lives near and ventures frequently into the Rocky Mountains.)

It is a no-joke hostile and potentially dangerous place too. We ran over, jumped down and over and slid down some very unforgiving terrain. A wrong step could have caused major problems and all sorts of injuries. (I’m not saying this to tell you how daring I am but I need to describe the terrain accurately.)

The ground was very dry for the most part but there were some muddy spots and we had to run through a few streams. The vast majority of the terrain was the classic Moab concrete-like slick rock but I was surprised at the amount of sand on the trail. I hadn’t expected that. Nor did I expect to begin the day the way it began…

The Universe has a sense of humor.

Athletes in all sports often have game/race-day rituals and we don’t like to stray from those patterns much at all. It’s rarely a good idea to experiment with things like pre-race breakfast or any part of race-day nutrition on race day. I brought my typical multi-grain hot cereal, nuts, fruit, butter and protein powder that I planned on cooking in the breakfast room. I would have that with two cups of coffee then about 1/2 hr before the race I would down three scoops of UCAN with coconut milk. Too bad the electricity went out in Moab at 4:30 AM.

So I was up extra early. (My wave started at about 8:20 AM.) There was nothing hot to eat or drink at all. I couldn’t go hungry so I downed all the cereal makings except the cereal itself. (Wasn’t sure what uncooked multi-grain cereal would do to the GI tract.) I couldn’t buy an energy drink or coffee in any stores because they were darkened and the cash registers didn’t work.

Looking down from Scorched Earth. The La Sal mountains are in the far background. The picture doesn't come close to doing the scene justice.

Looking down from Scorched Earth. The La Sal mountains are way back there with the snow. This pic doesn’t come close to portraying the drama of the place. (Photo: Allison Pattillo | Competitor.com, click for the original pic.)

No caffeine?! What sort of sick joke was the universe playing on us?! (Perhaps my long-departed, sadistically funny Uncle Roy had been put in charge of events on earth…)

This story doesn’t get a lot more interesting. Panic and anger wasn’t going to help. This episode was a minor hiccup. I was fed and adequately caffeinated by race time and I felt rested. A lesson has been learned: Bring an alternative breakfast and an energy drink next time.

Notable and notorious highlights

Two sections of the race stood out. Well, let’s be clear. Every inch of the whole race was dramatic in an operatic kind of way. It was all soaring and full of perfect, humbling, breathtaking solitude. (Do you get what I’m saying? There was a lot of cool stuff to look at.) My thoughts return to two sections: one beautiful and amazing, the other, nasty and maddening.

The climb up the Scorched Earth Wall was the sort of thing to challenge Godzilla. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, this bit of geography looked like the Wall if the Wall were built on a desert on Mars. This was about 1000 feet of climbing in about 1.5 miles; all of it on hostile, dry, red, broken rocks. It it started around mile 14.

This leviathan towered to my right, looming like red storm clouds. At first glance it almost brought hysterical laughter. The psychological effects were semi-devistating. I’d encountered this type of thing on long bike rides in the mountains. The idea of running/walking up this incline was a cosmic joke that would cause Sisyphus to weep! The height and distance were massively intimidating. Looking up this eminence I could see tiny moving specks which turned out to be my fellow competitors moving up and up and up. I had work to do.

I walked most of this thing but I ran what sections I could. Mentally I wanted to slow down and plod. I didn’t though. I marched as fast as I could and I passed maybe 5-10 people.

The views from Scorched Earth Wall were splendidly desolate. This was the only place where I regretted not bringing a camera. Looking back from the trail I could see the La Sal Mountains which were powerfully enchanting as their snow-capped peaks contrasted with the red, desert-like rocks of my immediate surroundings. All of this dramatic massive scenery was tremendously humbling to my minuscule human existence.

Another part of the race was far less inspiring and wonderful. It was more of a cruel and brutal joke. Whatever malevolent supernatural force had cut the power this morning had also clearly influenced the race course design.

At just past mile 21 I could see the finish. It was a ways away but I could see and hear the end of the race! I had to run a stretch of trail along the Green River and I would be right in the neighborhood of the finish. Almost done! But “almost done” in a marathon can be an eternity of anguish.

Once to the finish area I still had three miles to go in sort of an out-and-back lollipop loop. This was no victory lap. It was horrendously difficult. I still had a rope ascent and descent as well as tough running up and down very challenging terrain.

(Let me be clear: My mom may read this blog post so I won’t use my foulest language to express my experience over this final stretch. I invite you to insert all the foul words you’d like though. I recommend a liberal sprinkling of the S-word, the F-word, a couple of words that start with C, a multi-syllable word starting with M. You may know others.  Use them!)

Muscle cramps had been threatening for several miles. I felt like I could cramp to death at any moment. I truly thought at any moment I would experience a body-wide muscle seizure from my eyelids to my toenails and I’d be reduced to crawling. I was particularly fearful of cramps while doing the ropes section.

This wasn’t true mountain climbing up some vertical surface but it was using a rope to climb up and down very steep inclines. At this point in the race, this was nothing to take lightly. A cramp and/or a wrong move would likely result in some serious and ugly discomfort at best.

By some amazing miracle, I never was leveled by cramps and I have no idea why. I did manage to lose the trail right near the end so I was rewarded with about an extra 200 m of running, again proving that the universe is a perverse practical joker.

My training worked.

Winner Mario Mendoza navigates the rope ascent.

Winner Mario Mendoza navigates the rope ascent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The modified Hansons Marathon Method plan worked very well for me. I felt strong and able for the vast majority of the race. The plan had me running lots of miles and many of those miles were run on tired legs. As difficult and tiring as the training was, it was exactly the preparation I needed.

I also believe the weight training I did was very effective in preparing me for the run. There was significant climbing in which I had to step up over and over and over…. and over. That meant my glutes, hamstrings and adductors did a lot of work.

I did step-back lunges with a barbell on my back for several weeks prior to the race. This exercise did a nice job of preparing those muscles and that movement pattern for the work to come.

Finally, a significant point of pride for me is that I overcame several injuries and aches and pains prior to this race. My ACL was rock solid and I had no knee pain. My perpetual Achilles/heel issue were no where to be found. I vanquished these foul foes to past it seems.

I will give much thanks to Denver-area chiropractor Nick Studholme and Boulder-area movement coach Mike Terborg. They were absolutely critical to my completing the race. It’s also nice to have a wife that encouraged/tolerated all my training.

Next time

I have some very definite ideas on how to better train for this race next time. As I just said, the step-up/lunge movement pattern is essential for this race. I had to move this way while in a significantly fatigued state. Unfortunately, near the end of the race I felt serious cramping sneaking in, particularly in those stretched-out, stepping-up type of situations.

(Contrary to popular belief, cramping doesn’t seem to be very closely related to either hydration or electrolyte status. Rather, as discussed here and here, cramps are more likely brought on by a very high effort and the associated intense and repeated muscle contractions of that effort.)

The SAID Principle dictates that I train along the lines of both the specific movement requirement (stepping up repeatedly at varying angles while in a fatigued state) and energy system requirement (highly exerted and fatigued.) My idea is to complete a long run and then do a high volume of step-ups (either at the gym on a plyo box or a picnic table near the trail), weighted step-back lunges, and various 3D lunges both up on to and down from various boxes. I’ll also do some jumping down in this fatigued state as the run frequently required me to jump down from rocks of various heights and land in control.

Look at that grin! Can I get an IV of beer?

Ya got a beer?

Finito

The post wouldn’t be complete without a little blatant display of my abilities. Full results are here.

  • Net time: 5:20:31 (I was hoping for an under-5-hour finish but I’m pretty pleased with this.)
  • Overall place: 171 out of 486
  • Place by gender: 141 out of 303
  • Place by age category (40-44): 17/41

I found my wife and a couple of friends right at the finish line. I plopped down and very quickly my thoughts coalesced into along the lines of, “I don’t want to train for another marathon for a while. Maybe never.” I was cooked. Spent. Demolished. Wiped out. Eviscerated. I was real damn tired too. I was looking forward to some serious eating and drinking, a soak in the hot tub and NOT running for a little while.

This was a grueling experience. The race was just the capstone of the process too. Training for this thing took a lot of time and involved frequent strenuous effort. Weekends were dedicated to long runs and resting. I spent a lot of weekdays in a semi-stupor. By the finish I was fairly certain that it would be a while until I ran another such race. Not for nothing, I’m also one of those runners who develops blisters under his toenails. Several. You do the math.

Fast forward to Tuesday, 72 hours after the race. As I reflect on this event I keep saying to myself, “I don’t know how I CAN’T run this again.”

Summary of the NSCA Endurance Clinic: Day 1

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Part of what I love about the Denver area is that it’s home to numerous very good athletes and coaches–particularly of the endurance variety. We’re also not far from Colorado Springs which is home to both the Olympic Training Center and the headquarters for the National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA), one of the top certification bodies in the world of health, fitness and sports conditioning.

I was at the NSCA from last Friday to Sunday attending an endurance clinic. It was SUPERB! It far exceeded my already high expectations. All the speakers had volumes of valuable information. Not only did they present valuable academic information, they also told us how they applied this information in the trenches with their athletes. These guys weren’t just born as successful coaches. They’ve gone through a lot of trial, error and very hard work to get where they are. It’s very helpful to hear that type of information.

We didn’t just sit and listen though. Saturday and Sunday had us getting out on the field and into the performance center to learn about strength exercises, mobility drills, and plyometric drills. I got to meet a lot of my very capable peers and I got to work out in what is likely one of the top lifting facilities on earth. It was a fantastic weekend.

I’m going to give a rundown of some of the pearls of wisdom I collected on Day 1. I can’t do each presentation thorough justice, but I’ll try to highlight some of the most important things that I heard.  I’ll follow up with days 2 and 3 as soon as I can.

Day 1:
Dr. Carwyn Sharp – Intro to Endurance Training

  • Exercise scientist, triathlete and ultra-runner who’s worked with NASA and has 14 years coaching experience.
  • Endurance athletes are often averse to resistance training thinking it will bulk them up.
  • He presented several studies which demonstrate that strength training enhances speed and endurance performance.
  • Sand, snow, wind, and hills can all contribute to the athlete’s resistance training.
  • On recovery from intervals: if you feel the effects of previous interval → you didn’t recover sufficiently.
  • The basis of speed is strength. Several studies demonstrate that heavy resistance training and explosive training improves performance.
  • 1-leg training is very important.
  • Progression
    • Move well on 2 legs (squat, deadlift) and get strong.
    • transition to split squat
    • then to 1 leg stability
    • 1 leg squat and deadlift
    • 2 leg plyos
    • 1 leg plyos

Bob Seebohar: – Nutrition for the Endurance Athlete

  • Registered Dietitian and USAT coach who has coached and advised Olympic triathletes
  • Metabolic efficiency – use more lipids/less carb/preserve glycogen
  • Nutrition periodization – “Eat to train. Don’t train to eat.”
  • Food First – Don’t use supplements to make up for poor eating.
  • moderate supplement use; only part of the season
  • prevent weight gain in off-season – no sport supplements during
  • He supports the lower-carb/higher-fat approach. I was very happy to see that.
  • Food log
    • Doesn’t as about amount of food eaten but rather…
    • What?
    • When?
    • Why? I love that he asks “why” someone ate something.

Dr. Randall Wilber – Overtraining: Causes, Recognition, Prevention & Illness

  • Physiologist to the US Olympic team.
  • Overtraining–or “underperformance” as he calls it–often isn’t due to too much training.
  • nutrition
  • blood work
    • Iron is often low in women.
    • Vitamin D deficiency is common
  • endocrine panel
  • urinalysis
  • Physiological and psychological metrics for tracking fatigue/recovery
    • overnight heart rate
    • blood chemistry
    • sleep quality
    • Salimetrics – He said look for the price to come down on this.
  • Take the athlete back to active recovery. Progress very gradually back to regular workouts.
  • If they perform well and feel good at their first LT workout then they’re on the right road back.
  • Coach Bobby McGee: “More performances are spoiled by slight overtraining than by slight lack of fitness. An athlete who is 90% conditioned for an event will do better than an athlete who is 0.5% overtrained.”

Training Update: I’m Running Well.

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My training–particularly my running–is improving very nicely.  I’m getting faster and I’m able to run without pain far more than I’ve been able to in roughly a decade.  I think several factors are at work here:

1)  I’m using my glutes: I’ve mentioned recently (here and here) that I’ve learned a tremendous amount of how to use my glutes to both stabilize my knees and propel me forward.  This has been a huge bit of progress for me.

2)  I’m aware of my arches:  I recently stood on a device called a pedobarograph.  Quite interesting.  It showed me pressure was distributed through my feet as I stood on it.  Turns out my arches were a bit collapsed.  It wasn’t anything terrible but something worth working on.

I’m an advocate of minimal shoe running so I didn’t want to turn to an orthotic insert.  I did a bit of research and found a tremendously helpful article about the three different arches of the feet–not just the one arch most of us think of.  The article described where each arch is on the feet and how to move and perceive the arches.  Unfortunately, the article and the site it came from seem to have vanished from the universe. I plan to do a video demonstrating where these arches are and how to move them.  The video in the next paragraph should be helpful as well.

3)  I’m toeing off:  Along with using my arches, I’m also focusing on using my big toe to help propel me forward.   It’s the last thing I feel on the ground as I drive forward.  I’ve realized that in past years I haven’t been doing a very good job of this. This is a complex thing.  Here’s a video from the Gait Guys that touches on the muscles and the actions that are responsible for good toe and arch mechanics.  (BTW, the Gait Guys put out a lot of detailed info on all things pertaining to gait.  They can also be found at Youtube.  If you’re having problems with your feet, knees, hips, etc. you may find their information very helpful.)

The video is a bit technical but the long and the short of it informs me that the exercise known as the calf raise or heel raise should benefit me.  Specifically the heel raise should help condition the muscles that maintain the arches in my feet (the flexor hallucis brevis, the abductor hallucis, and the tibialis posterior) I’m doing a lot of these daily in the 15-20 rep range.  I’m also jumping rope.

4)  I’m lighter and stronger: I’m under 200 lbs. for the first time in about 10 years.  Less of me always makes running easier.  It’s also a big help in mountainbiking.  Not only am I lighter but my numbers in the gym are pretty decent being that I’m running and biking a lot.  I power cleaned 175 lbs. recently.  My squat is around 225 lbs. for 2 reps (I’d really like to get that number up….  some day).  My deadlift is about 335 lbs. for 2-3 reps.  My pistol squats are improving in terms of range of motion, reps, and technique.  Stronger + lighter = better.

5)  The FIRST plan is working:  I “first” used a Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training (FIRST) run plan for the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler several years ago.  It was the best race I’ve ever run so I figured I’d use the FIRST half-marathon and marathon plan for my two upcoming races.I like these plans because they have me running only three days per week.  I’m doing a speed workout on the track, middle distance “tempo” run, and a long run.  I’m doing other things on other days of the week, typically lifting and/or cycling or just resting.  Three runs per week is quite a bit less running than is advocated by other plans.  For an explanation of the plan, have a look at Training Science.com.

6)  Beet juice(?):  I’ve mentioned the benefits of beet juice.  Now, I never attribute one outcome to only one factor, but every time I drink beet juice before a run I feel really good.  I go (for me) fast and I’m able to cover (for me) long distances while feeling quite decent.Perhaps this is a nonsensical placebo effect, it’s all in my head and purely psychological.  Guess what: Who cares?  If I think it makes me a better runner then it’s probably making me a better runner.  Hooray for me and my brain.  We shall choose to be happy.

A Questionable Case for Running Shoes

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The New York Times Health section discusses a study from the University of Colorado in Boulder comparing the metabolic costs of running in shoes vs running barefoot.  The results suggest that shod running is more energy efficient than unshod running.  These results deserve a few questions.  First some background on the study. 

Subjects of the study were 12 barefoot runners–runners who knew how to run barefoot in contrast to novice barefooters.  “It was important to find people who are used to running barefoot,” says Rodger Kram, a professor of integrative physiology, who oversaw the study.

These runners were then asked to run several times in a yoga sock on a treadmill or while wearing the 150 gram Nike Mayfly, a lightweight running shoe.  Then the researchers taped 150 grams’ worth of thin lead strips to the top of runners’ sock feet. By adding an equal amount of weight to the bare foot, they could learn whether barefoot running or shod running was more efficient.  The study reports these findings:

1. For every 100g (3.5oz) (the average weight of a deck of playing cards) added per foot, energy cost increases by approximately 1% whether running barefoot or shod.

2. Running barefoot and in lightweight shoes do not significantly differ in energy cost.

3. When controlling for shoe/foot mass, running in lightweight shoes requires ~3-4% less energy than running barefoot.

So it seems that wearing a shoe is a good idea if you want to conserve energy as you run.  This would be important obviously during a race.  Here are some questions and observations:

1. The positive result of wearing a shoe was seen in 8 of the 12 runners.  That means 1/3 of the subjects saw no advantage from running in shoes.  Extrapolated out to a large population that means a significant number of barefoot runners are at no disadvantage running in bare feet.  I wonder if any of them are more efficient in bare feet?

2. The study was done on a treadmill.  Treadmill running is quite different from real running.  What if the study was done on a road or trail?

3. The study looked at the Nike Mayfly.  What about other shoes?  It’s a light shoe.  Would even lighter shoes be better efficiency?

4. A commentator on the Times article made the following observation: “Flaw: the only way for the comparison to be valid is if the weight distribution of added weights were precisely the same as the weight distribution of the shoes themselves. Anyone who has ever studied the effects of mass distribution on movement would know that.”

So did the way the weight was added to the (mostly) bare feet affect the runners’ efficiency?  What if the weight was distributed differently?

5. The study enlisted experienced barefoot runners as subjects.  Alex Hutchinson of Sweat Science and Runner’s World discusses that issue:

Finally, all the runners were midfoot or forefoot strikers, both barefoot and in shoes. This condition was imposed to prevent confounding effects from comparing rearfoot to forefoot striking efficiency.

These conditions raise an important caveat. One of the proposed advantages of barefoot-minimalist running is that it automatically helps to correct overstriding — an extremely common problem among inexperienced runners. The fact that all these runners were already forefoot strikes suggests that none of them were likely overstriding, which would make them less likely to benefit from barefoot running. It’s possible that a truly ‘random’ group of runners might have been less efficient in the shod condition, because more of them would have been dramatically overstriding.

It’s good that someone has done this study.  The debate isn’t over and it’s always good to have another view.  There’s plenty more studying to be done.

One thing that I keep coming back to is the fact that the fastest runners in the world wear shoes–at least when racing.  So from the performance standpoint there seems to be some benefit to putting something on your feet.  Further, if you’re happy with you performance and enjoyment of running then you should probably stay with what you’re doing whether it’s shod or unshod.

More Questions About Supplements: Athletes, Antioxidants & Recovery Methods

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“Hopefully now you understand that damage and soreness are not necessarily bad things, but instead are essential triggers for the adaptations we all seek to improve performance.”
– Steve Magness, Running Times

The previous post on supplements got me thinking about various articles I’ve read recently on the possible negative effect that antioxidants may have on endurance training.  Here is some information to consider.

Alex Hutchinson writes a blog called Sweat Science.  He also writes a column called Jockolgy for the Toronto Globe and Mail and he’s written articles for the New York Times, Runner’s World and Popular Mechanics.  Beyond that he’s your ordinary, every day physicist and elite-level distance runner.  Seems like a smart guy to me.  I listen to what he has to say.

He recently wrote a piece titled The case against antioxidant vitamin supplements.  It’s of a similar theme as an earlier post called Does Vitamin C block gains from training? Both posts suggest the idea that supplementing with antioxidants may inhibit the training effects we want from strenuous workouts.  This may seem counter to what many of us have been told.

Science tells us that antioxidants protect us from cellular damage done by free radicals.  Free radicals are produced by strenuous exercise.  So recent conventional wisdom says that we can protect our bodies by taking antioxidant supplements such as Vitamins C and E.

New research though is telling us that our supplementation may be interfering with the cycle of stress and adaptation that a workout provides.  Hutchinson refers to research in the latest issue of Sports Medicine that supports this concept.  He cites the following (The ROS mentioned are free radicals.):

“The traditional theory goes like this: strenuous exercise produces “reactive oxygen species” (ROS), which cause damage to cells and DNA in the body. Taking antioxidant supplements like vitamins C and E helps to neutralize the ROS, allowing the body to recover more quickly from workouts.”

“The new theory, in contrast, goes like this: strenuous exercise produces ROS, which signal to the body that it needs to adapt to this new training stress by becoming stronger and more efficient. Taking antioxidant supplements neutralizes the ROS, which means the body doesn’t receive the same signals telling it to adapt, so you make smaller gains in strength and endurance from your training.”

“The new paper comes down firmly on the side of the latter view:”

“The aim of this review is to present and discuss 23 studies that have shown that antioxidant supplementation interferes with exercise training-induced adaptations. The main findings of these studies are that, in certain situations, loading the cell with high doses of antioxidants leads to a blunting of the positive effects of exercise training and interferes with important [reactive oxygen species]-mediated physiological processes, such as vasodilation and insulin signalling.”

The researchers conclude with the following statement:

“We recommend that an adequate intake of vitamins and minerals through a varied and balanced diet remains the best approach to maintain the optimal antioxidant status in exercising individuals.”

All of these ideas and observations are similar to the views expressed by exercise scientist and running coach Steve Magness in his article When Damage is a Good Thing in Running Times.  His article discusses not only antioxidant intake but also ice baths, anti-inflammatories, and carbohydrate drinks.  If you’re an endurance athlete then you should definitely read the article.  Magness sums up things well with the following statement:

“Hopefully now you understand that damage and soreness are not necessarily bad things, but instead are essential triggers for the adaptations we all seek to improve performance.  The goal should not necessarily be to minimize them automatically, but instead to work with them–this means allowing for enough damage to take place to initiate adaptation and then allowing for the body to go through its natural recovery response before trying to aid recovery.  The goal should be to work with the body, not against it.  So keep in mind the goal of each training session and the goal of whatever recovery methods you use, and plan things accordingly so your recovery efforts help you to improve performance, not hinder it.”

Incidentally, all of this has caused me to rethink my recovery strategies.

Goals & Motivation

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Choices to make: strength or endurance?

I feel fantastic these days. My varied lingering aches and pains are dwindling to fleeting annoyances.  I actually feel like some sort of athlete!  And now my mind turns to various athletic goals.  I have strength goals–pulling 500 lbs. on the deadlift, mastering the barbell snatch, and cleaning and jerking my body weight (at the very least) for instance.  I also have endurance goals such as running a marathon and doing the Epic Single Track mountain bike race series at Winter Park next year.  I want to do it all! But as I’ve mentioned before (here and here) it’s not realistic to pursue both high-end strength and endurance goals at the same time. If you work hard enough in one direction, then your abilities at the other end will suffer.  From the injury and burnout perspective, doing a lot of endurance work plus heavy strength/power work will very likely put you in a bad spot very quickly. So I’ve got to choose, and it’s a tough call.

Short-term reward vs. long-term benefit

I mentioned previously that getting stronger helps one’s endurance abilities but it doesn’t work the other way.  Increasing one’s endurance work tends to make one weaker.  Further, dropping weight via dropping muscle mass makes running and biking much easier.  Hauling around extra weight never helps.  The whole idea of losing strength and mass is sort of tough to swallow.  But if I continue to lift to the degree that I’ve enjoyed–then I’ll impede to my endurance abilities.

As I’ve thought about all this, I realize I’m facing the sort of dilemma faced by many of us who want to get in better shape.  The issue boils down to a short-term reward vs. a long-term goal. We know in some part of our brain what we should do, but in some other part we desire something else in the here-and-now. We’d like to be thin some day for example but a bowl of ice cream is looking mighty good right now.  Or maybe I’d like to have more muscle mass and better bone density, but I really feel like watching TV right now.  Does this sound familiar? In most cases, the short-term reward wins out. This can be a titanic struggle at times.  It’s you vs. your brain!

Add weight to be strong.

One of the most respected and knowledgeable strength coaches in the country is Mark Rippetoe, owner of the Wichita Falls Athletic Club, and co-author of the books Starting Strength and Practical Programming for Strength Training.  (If you want to get stronger, stop reading right now and order both books.  They are superb.)  If he’s talking, I’m listening.  Recently, I watched a video from his site about tall athletes.  (I’m 6’3″ and that qualifies as reasonably tall.)  It’s a forum discussion with Rippetoe, former Olympic weight lifting champion Tommy Suggs, big time powerlifter Jim Windler, and strong man/nutritionist John “Johnny Pain” Shaffer.  An audience member asks about training concerns for tall athletes.  (See, tall people have long limbs or levers. Long levers can’t move as much weight as short levers.  Thus we tall people have a few questions sometimes on what we should do to get stronger.) The discussion moves to eating and body weight.  Shaffer recommends one weigh 3 lbs. per inch of height–as a starting place— in order to be able to use your levers effectively.  For me that’s 225 lbs.  Right now, I’m just about 200 lbs. Here’s the video in case you’re interested:

Roundtable: Tall Athletes from stef bradford on Vimeo.

Roundtable: Tall Athletes from stef bradford on Vimeo.

Weigh more.  Go slow.

So, to be strong–really strong–I should eat to get big.  But the creator of the universe is a comedian and he or she has dictated that if I’m big I’ll also have a really hard time running very far or biking up through the beautiful Rocky Mountains of Colorado.  It’s obvious: As body mass goes up, endurance performance goes down and vice versa.

I’ve had personal and dramatic experience with this sort of thing.  Back in college I went to Europe for four weeks to take “classes.”  (It was a vacation disguised as school.  Had a wonderful time!)  At the time I was riding bikes with a group from a local bike shop in Denton, TX.  I didn’t touch a bike while overseas.  I ran a lot.  I lifted a very few times and I walked constantly.  I dropped about 1o or 15 lbs without thinking about it.  I got back to TX and the next time I rode I smoked everyone but the very fastest rider in the group.  So I became a much better cyclist without improving my cycling skills.  The weight made the difference, and this shouldn’t surprise anyone.  Here’s some more evidence.

An article on Peak Performance Online cites a study from the University of Georgia that compared run times of men vs women.  Part of the study had the subjects perform a 12-minute run test.  Here’s a discussion of the results:

“Males did significantly better on the test, running an average of almost 3300 metres in 12 minutes, while females covered just 2750 metres. Although male performances were about 20 per cent better, males didn’t run more economically than the females, and male V02max values were only slightly (5 per cent) higher. What caused the big difference in performance?”

“As it turned out, percent body fat averaged 20 per cent in the females but only 11 per cent in the males. When Sparling analysed the data, he found that 74 per cent of the variation between male and female performances could be accounted for by the difference in body fatness, while a much smaller amount (20 per cent) of the difference was determined by the males’ higher V02max values. The higher amounts of body fat in the female runners acted as ‘dead weight’, increasing the energy cost of running and making quality running paces seem more strenuous.”

Now, clearly fat and muscle are different types of tissue, but too much muscle will still count as “dead weight” during a ride or a run.  So the debate in my head continues.  Fortunately, as I’ve eluded to before, strength work does help endurance athletes.  So as it stands, I can still get a lot stronger and improve my endurance performance.  The downside is that I will not reach my genetic potential in strength so long as I continue the endurance activity.  I’m also going to focus on reducing my body fat.  I don’t carry too terribly much body fat but I also don’t work much to reduce it, and I probably should.

Shifting Gears from Strength to Endurance Work: Part I

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Springtime in Denver means it’s time to bicycle.  So now I’ve shifted my focus from heavy strength and power work to endurance work.  (I never did hit 500 lbs. on the deadlift.  I did however pull 435 lbs. for two reps.  I’m content with that.)  Endurance activity and strength/power work lie at two opposite ends of the exercise/movement/exertion continuum.  From what I’ve read and in my own personally experience, it’s very difficult if not impossible to develop a high-end level of strength while also training for an endurance event like the Sunrise Century (which I’ll be doing in June.)  Simply put, trying to maximize one area of performance means the other will suffer.  If you try to maximize all areas then you won’t reach your potential in any one.

Terminology: Endurance, Strength, Power

I’ll define some terms.  Endurance work is something like long distance cycling, running, or cross-country skiing.  These are long-duration activities executed well below the participants’ maximal abilities.

Maximal strength work is often a slow moving, short duration type of thing. If you attempt to lift a maximum weight you won’t be moving it very quickly. Heavy deadlifting, bench pressing and squatting typically move slowly. These activities can only be sustained for a very brief amount of time–several seconds at most–before the muscles fatigue significantly.

Power sports require a combination of strength and speed. Think of a shot putter, long jumper or an Olympic weight lifter. These athletes must move a fairly heavy object very quickly. Maximal power may be expressed in two seconds or less.  Power sports and endurance sports occupy the furthest opposite ends of the exercise spectrum.

So what happens if we decide to mix endurance work, strength work and power work together?

Endurance Work May Inhibit Strength Abilities

The National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA) offers a document titled Concurrent Strength and Endurance Training for Strength/Power Athletes.  Here we have evidence that suggests mixed results for combined strength and endurance work.  Several studies suggest that endurance work impedes strength gains.  Other studies show no interference.

Confusion and questions come up when we start to dissect the studies.  The article states:

“Differences between these studies may have been due to differences in the length of the studies, experience level of the subjects, and the training protocols utilized. For example, studies differed with respect to the specific exercises performed, whether strength and endurance training were performed on the same or different days per week, the sequence of training modes (strength before endurance or endurance before strength).”

We don’t have a definite answer to this question.

In my personal experience I run into difficulty if I ride/run a lot while also lifting a lot.  I become too sore and stiff from one activity to perform well at the other.  So I have to reduce one type of stress as I increase the other. Further, I find that riding my bike up mountains quite sufficiently addresses my strength needs. (Now we’re starting to get into the SAID Principle or Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands.  Then we start to ask whether strength developed in the gym has any effect on strength expressed on a bike…)

In subsequent posts I’ll examine the effects of endurance work on power performance.  Then we’ll drive the other way up this street and ask the question, “To what degree does strength and power work affect endurance performance?”