Two Big Reasons to Trail Run (or just hike.)

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I’ve been trail running consistently for several weeks now. I see this as a marker of success in both the continuing rehab of my reconstructed ACL (surgery was May of 2014) and in overcoming stubborn Achilles tendon pain. If all this nice

progress continues, I plan on running the Aspen Golden Leaf half-marathon in October (Damnit!  It’s sold out. I need to move on that earlier next year.) and then the Moab Trail Marathon in November. So all this trail running has me thinking…

Nature & depression

Good for me.   Good for you.

Good for me. Good for you.

An article in the Atlantic titled How Walking in Nature Prevents Depression discusses a study that demonstrates the real psychological benefits to tromping around in the outdoors. Specifically, the researchers found this:

“Through a controlled experiment, we investigated whether nature experience would influence rumination (repetitive thought focused on negative aspects of the self), a known risk factor for mental illness. Participants who went on a 90-min walk through a natural environment reported lower levels of rumination and showed reduced neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness compared with those who walked through an urban environment. These results suggest that accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world.”

When I’m on the trail, I’m very much “in the moment” as the saying goes. I am consumed with the ground and where I put my feet. I’m aware of the plants, the rocks, the temperature, and if I’m in the right spot, I might hear the rush of a stream. I Iam deeply engrossed in the experience. Rarely if ever do I think about the hassles and conflicts that await me in good ol’ “civilization.”

Searing physical exertion is often a part of my trail running experience as well. Despite the pain, I keep coming back. It would seem some part of my brain wants to be there.

Trail running & movement variability

I’ve mentioned the idea of movement variability (here and here). It (to me) is an exciting concept and a hot topic in sports skill training and injury pre-/rehab circles. The smart people at Cor-Kinetic discuss movement variability in this impeccable blog post. The writer states:

Viva movement variability!

“Movement variability is inherent within a biological system. Not only is it inherent it is also beneficial for reducing risk of overload and enabling the ability to adapt to events that occur within our ever-changing environment. Elite athletes cannot reproduce exact and invariant movement patterns repetitively even through hours of devoted practice. The best movers are those that can execute the same stable end point skill but in many variable ways dependant on the constraints and context of performance. It could be that part of being resilient and robust lies in variability. The ability to tolerate load may come in part in the way in which it is internally processed through our coordinative variability.”

If we think about trail running, then we see that it takes place in a highly variable, constantly changing environment. As we run (or walk) we can’t consciously think about how we place our foot every time we step. Rather we must react. This is a job for our subconscious and our reflexes. The movement variability researchers suggest that through this process we may protect ourselves from a lot of potential injuries. (Nothing in the world however can protect us from all injuries.)

On the trail, we have to stay upright, balanced and moving while our running parts deal with all sorts of odd angles and shapes. The great part about negotiating this rocky, rooty, up-and-down environment, is that our feet, ankles, knees, hips—and especially our nervous system—builds what I call a movement database. Our brain soaks up the subtle changes in movement that we experience so we increase our runnings kills. We have an opportunity to as the Cor-Kinetic post says, “execute the same stable end point skill but in many variable ways dependent on the constraints and context of performance.” Our tissues are stimulated in a remarkably well-rounded way so that we become more durable than if we run only on flat, monotonous surfaces.

I’m pleased that I’m not the only one thinking this way. (I’d love to come up with an original thought some day.) Similar observations on trail running are discussed in the Running-physio.com article titled Trail running – Natural rehab?

The writer describes his own experience in trail running:

“Despite running long distances over challenging terrain and including more hills than I’ve ever done before I have far less pain running on a trail than I do on the road.”

And he suggests the mechanism by which this process may work:

“I’m not the only one to find this, so how can trail running reduce pain and help injuries?

It’s all to do with repetitive load – running on a fairly uniform surface stresses the same areas of the body over and over again. Those areas become overloaded and you start to develop pain. Trail running involves a variety of different surfaces – I usually run over grass, mud, gravel and forest ground with treacherous tree roots. This variety means the load on the body is constantly changing rather than overloading certain areas. It may also act as its own rehab – your body adapts to the constant challenges to your control and stability. Running a trail becomes like an advanced balance work out.”

Wisely, he goes on to discuss when trail running may NOT be the right thing for you and how to gradually introduce trail running into your routine.

All of this is anecdotal evidence. I don’t know of any strong studies that show trail running will fix any given injury. That said, a trail run fits the bill very well for a variable movement experience and it’s my belief that many runners who aren’t trail running will benefit from adding some time on the trail into their schedule.

 

The Big Running Plan Begins

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There’s a big event that I’ve had on my mind for years.  It’s the Gore-Tex Transrockies Run. This year’s gig is six days, 120 miles with 20,000 feet of elevation gain. I’m looking at running the 2015 race so I figure the mileage and such should be about the same. Go here for maps and descriptions of this year’s stages.

Preparation for the Transrockies run means a whole lotta running this year.  I need to do more trail races and another marathon, most likely a trail marathon. I’m running a lot (for me) right now. I’m up to about 30 miles per week. I’ve got a 5k this weekend and more races planned (more on that in a moment.) The very good news is that everything is feeling solid and strong, including my stubborn, chronic Achilles/heel trouble.

I’ve also consulted with Denver-area running coach Jay Johnson. I saw him speak at the NSCA Endurance Clinic a few months ago and I became very interested in picking his brain a bit. I’ll be communicating with him every month or so to fine tune my workouts and run plan. Speaking of which…

My first and only marathon (two years ago) was based on the FIRST Run Less, Run Faster plan.  This plan has only three run days per week: a track workout, tempo run, and a distance run.  Two days a week were devoted to a cross-training workout on a bike or rower.  I also ran the Ft. Collins Half-Marathon and Park-to-Park 10-Miler based on this plan. It’s a minimalist running plan. It’s very useful if there’s limited training time available. This plan got me through several races but I want to know if a different type of plan will increase my performance. I’m curious if more running will make me a better runner.

The Transrockies run is a lot of running for several days in a row, thus with the SAID Principle in mind, it makes sense to me that I should train in as close a fashion to the race as possible. This time around, I’m going the maximalist route with the Hansons Marathon Method.  (I also need to get the Hansons Half-Marathon Method.)

Something to consider with this high-volume plan is the opportunity to practice running. That is, with all the miles and the recovery runs, I get the chance to refine my running skills. Running is a skill just like playing a horn or driving a golf ball. Running improvements don’t come just from the obvious increases in fitness that come from speed work, tempo runs and tough long runs. Matt Fitzgerald discusses this idea in a Running Times article called Rethinking Junk Miles:

You see, running is a bit like juggling. It is a motor skill that requires communication between your brain and your muscles. A great juggler has developed highly refined communication between his brain and muscles during the act of juggling, which enables him to juggle three plates with one hand while blindfolded. A well-trained runner has developed super-efficient communication between her brain and muscles during the act of running, allowing her to run at a high, sustained speed with a remarkably low rate of energy expenditure. Sure, the improvements that a runner makes in neuromuscular coordination are less visible than those made by a juggler, but they are no less real.

For both the juggler and the runner, it is time spent simply practicing the relevant action that improves communication between the brain and the muscles. It’s not a matter of testing physiological limits, but of developing a skill through repetition. Thus, the juggler who juggles an hour a day will improve faster than the juggler who juggles five minutes a day, even if the former practices in a dozen separate five-minute sessions and therefore never gets tired. And the same is true for the runner.

 (BTW, Russian kettlebell and strength expert Pavel Tsatsouline discusses the exact same principle but with regard to strength training.)

The Hansons Plan has me running often in a fatigued state. The longest run I do though is 16 miles. Most marathon plans feature a 20 mile run. So why only 16 as a longest run? This 16-miler will take place after several days of running. I’ll have a tempo run then an 8 or 6 mile run the day before the 16-miler. The idea as they say in the Hansons book is that I’ll be training to run the last 16 miles of the marathon. Sounds interesting and plausible to me. That goes along with something Coach Johnson suggested. He said that at some point, in preparation for the Transrockies Run, that every other week I should run back-to-back long trail runs. Again, this goes to the idea of training specificity. I imagine I’ll do that next year.

Here’s a list of races and potential races I plan to run this year:

  • 3/2/14 – That Dam 5k – Denver: I need to run a 5k so I can derive my training paces for the marathon plan.
  • 4/6/14 – XTERRA Cheyenne Mt. Trail Run 12km – CO Springs: Don’t know anything about this race but I’m looking fwd to it.
  • 5/4/14 – Ft. Collins Marathon 13.1: Ran this one last year and had a great time.  Went out a tiny bit too fast though.  Hope to better my time of 1:47.
  • 6/7/14(maybe) – Boulder Sunrise Duathlon 3.1 mile run / 17.3 mile bike / 3.1 mile run – Boulder: My wife is doing this triathlon. I don’t swim well enough to do a tri but I’ve done some duathlons and this might be fun and a change of pace.
  • Summer – 5k: Coach Jay Johnson suggested I train for and race a 5k. He said putting in that speed work would be useful for a Fall marathon.
  • 8/23/14 (maybe) – Continental Divide Trail Race 15.5 mi. – Steamboat: Ran this one a couple of years ago and it was brutal but beautiful and a very laid-back kinda thing.  Wouldn’t mind taking it on again in a better pair of shoes. Not sure if this one fits into the overall race plan.
  • 9/20/14 – Aspen Golden Leaf Trail Half-Marathon – Aspen: This race got a great write-up in some running magazine (Runner’s World?  Competitor?) recently. We’ve never been to Aspen. Sounds interesting. Should be good preparation for the marathon.
  • 11/8/14 – Moab Trail Marathon: This is my main race. We’ve never been to Moab and this is a great reason to go.

That’s my plan right now. I’m very excited about this! I’m feeling great right now. I really love the process of getting to these races. I love the anticipation and the training. We’ll see what happens.

Stuart McGill, Born to Run & Ketogenic Eating

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Here’s what I’m into right now:

Stuart McGill

I recently finished Stuart McGill’s Ultimate Back Fitness & Performance.  It has definitely contributed to how I view conditioning and care of the spine.  For instance:

  • I’m very careful to avoid much if any bending or twisting at the lumbar spine.
  • According to McGill, the core musculature responds best to endurance-type training, so I now go for time rather than out-and-out strength.
  • McGill makes the observation that excellent athletes tend to have a very rigid core–but very mobile hips and shoulders.
  • Here are two videos with McGill.  The first has McGill discussing several myths regarding low back pain and core strength.  In the second video we see demonstrations of three exercises often prescribed by McGill.  These are often called the Big 3: the curl up, side plank and bird dog.?

Born to Run

I’m a little late to the party but I recently finished Chris McDougal’s Born to Run. This book has done more than almost anything to push the popularity of minimalist running.

Born to Run is more than a book about running.  Much of the book concerns the history and culture of the Tarahumara people who live in the isolated Copper Canyon region of Mexico.  Non-runners with any interest in other cultures will find this book very interesting.

The book and author have generated some controversy. Any runner knows about the hot debate over minimalist/barefoot-type running.  I won’t go into all that.  (For just about the most thorough discussion on minimalist running, you can’t do better than the Sports Scientists dissection of the subject.)

Here are some thoughts on both the book and discussions that have followed:

  • The story is quite entertaining.  It’s possible that the entertainment value of the book and a subsequent New York Times article from McDougal have somewhat overshadowed some facts.
  • Alex Hutchinson who writes the Sweat Science blog for runner’s world describes an interview with McDougal that clashes with later statements from McDougal.
  • Hutchinson brings up several points in his response to McDougal’s article titled The Once and Future Way to Run.  One is this:

“4. The one part of the article that made me kind of angry was this passage, about McDougall’s visit to the Copper Canyon in Mexico that led to Born to Run:

I was a broken-down, middle-aged, ex-runner when I arrived. Nine months later, I was transformed. After getting rid of my cushioned shoes and adopting the Tarahumaras’ whisper-soft stride, I was able to join them for a 50-mile race through the canyons. I haven’t lost a day of running to injury since.

I actually interviewed McDougall back in 2009, shortly before Born to Run came out. And that’s not the story he told me. Here’s what I wrote then:

Long plagued by an endless series of running injuries, he set out to remake his running form under the guidance of expert mentors, doctors and gurus. He adjusted to flimsier and flimsier shoes, learning to avoid crashing down on his heel with each stride and landing more gently on his midfoot. It was initially successful, and after nine months of blissful training, he achieved the once-unthinkable goal of completing a 50-mile race with the Tarahumara. But soon afterwards, he was felled by a persistent case of plantar fasciitis that lingered for two years. “I thought my technique was Tarahumara pure,” he recalls ruefully, “but I had regressed to my old form.” Now, having re-corrected the “errors” in his running form, he is once again running pain-free.

I’m in New York right now, and won’t be back home until Monday night, otherwise I’d see if I can dig up my actual notes from the interview. But I remember McDougall telling how stressed out he’d been, because he’d spent all this time working on a book about the “right” way to run — but as the publication date loomed ever nearer, he’d been chronically injured for two years. It was only shortly before publication that he was able to get over the injuries and start running again.”

McDougal responds to Hutchinson’s post here and Hutchinson replies back.

Personally this doesn’t do much to bother me or take away from a) a great story that’s told in Born to Run or b) the value and importance of minimalist running. I think it does suggest that McDougal is not a scientist and that the need to create a compelling story may persuade a writer to drift towards a bit of exaggeration.

What’s your take on this back-and-forth?

Ketogenic Diet (high-fat/low-carb/moderate protein intake)

Here’s another party to which I’m a bit late: the high-fat ketogenic diet.  In fact, most people who’ve tried it probably abandoned it back in the early 2000s. (I think they should’ve have.) You’ve heard of the Atkins diet.  That’s largely what I’m doing now.

In reality, I’m becoming more focused and precise with this type of eating.  I switched to a higher-fat diet when I became familiar with the Perfect Health Diet.My current efforts are informed by the Art & Science of Low-Carbohydrate PerformanceJeff Volek, PhD, RD & Stephen Phinney, MD, PhD are the authors. I like their credentials and their experience. To me, it lends weight to their words. Here’s a rundown of the main points of the book:

  • Their book is well-referenced and fairly easy to understand.
  • They present convincing evidence (to me) in favor of a) greatly reducing carbohydrate and b) greatly increasing fat intake and c) why this strategy can be very effective for athletes.
  • How?
    • Burning fat for fuel (aka ketogenesis) is a cleaner process.
    • Inflammatory stress is lower compared to using carbs for fuel
    • You’ll be less damaged from exercise and you’ll recover faster
    • You have a nearly limitless supply of fat for fuel compared to a limited supply of glycogen.
    • By shifting your metabolism to prefer fat, you’ll avoid bonking.
    • Also, by shifting your metabolism to prefer fat you’ll improve your body composition.  Besides the aesthetic appeal of a lean physique, if you’re lighter then you’ll have a better ability to produce power.  If you’re lighter then you should be able to run and bike faster.
    • Endurance athletes who experience GI distress may do very well on the high-fat diet.

I was motivated to dig into this type of eating after I spoke with my former client and friend Mike Piet.  He’s moved in the low-carb direction after his friend and accomplished ultra-distance runner  Jon Rutherford.  Jon’s experience as an athlete who’s increased his performance is described in  the Art & Science of Low-Carbohydrate Performance. Thus far, I like the results. I’ll talk more about them as this experiment continues.

Look for Mike Piet’s guest blog post as he describes his very interesting low-carb/high-fat experience during the Savage Man Olympic and half-Iron distance triathlons–done on consecutive  days.