Monday, January 25, 2016

Thoughts on Healthy Running

Considering that I am now training for the Leadville 100 trail run, I thought this would be a good time to discuss some of the things I've come to believe over the years about distance running.  Let's get right to it shall we?

#1 - You should run in a way that makes you healthier and happier.

I believe that the benefits of competition and performance are the least of the benefits a person can get from learning to run pain-free.  Running pain-free is a joy.  It's fun.  It's playful.  I ran with pain for years and it wasn't a pretty thing.  It began to feel obligatory.  It was work.

For runners, if you go back to my aerobic development post, you'll see the scheme I generally use to build my training for a running event.  The true gift of aerobic training is that you can build health and performance together with less risk of over-training.

Running should help you get happy, happy.

#2 - You can have too much of a good thing.

How much is too much?  There will be an obvious difference between people but there's no denying the science that running really far and really fast for years and years isn't healthy.  Endurance athletes have a higher incidence of cardiovascular abnormalities than the general population and I think this is because of the too far, too fast culture of endurance running.  We know that a certain amount of physical activity is important for the body to function normally.  Some exercise boosts your immune system while exercising to exhaustion temporarily makes you more susceptible to illness.  Do this chronically and you may find yourself sick often.  Some activity strengthens your body tissues, your heart, and physiologically and enzymatically makes you more efficient.  Too much activity has the opposite effect, you'll become weaker, slower, mentally drained, and physiologically overtaxed.

We all know about the professional athlete who has to perform well enough to make a living.  I don't really argue with their lifestyle too much because they're trying to pay bills and sometimes that can be a very stressful thing.  By the time athletes get to a high-level, they usually have a first-hand understanding of what's going to happen to their bodies and their health over time if they wish to stay competitive.  The key however is that the professional-level athletes tend to be privy to reality.  You can expect that if you're an NFL player or a professional dancer, major injuries and surgeries are likely part of earning your paycheck.  In order to be a top distance runner, you can expect that you will need to put in serious mileage and work the intensity to a significant degree.  There is of course no crystal ball to the question, how much is too much?  It all depends on your body and if you're listening to it you can often avoid trouble.

#3 - Preparation is everything.  However your preparation should be generally sustainable.

You need to prepare for events if you hope for them to be a good experience.  That said, there's a smart way to do it and a really stupid way of going about it.  Sustainability is your key word.  I learned the following rule from a few masters athlete runners and it works like a charm.  Most of your runs should be easy.  You should finish most workouts and feel that you could do it again at the same intensity.  It's almost too good to be true.  It's almost like I'm telling you to never try hard but that's not the case.  It's just that your hard efforts should be intelligently performed, you don't need two interval training sessions per week every week of the year.  Instead, you build a certain thing at a certain time to peak for a small number of events, this greatly minimizes the potential to over-train or injure yourself but you still get good performance.  Go back to the aerobic training link at point #1 to review the pyramid of training.

If you want sustainability as a runner, don't skip on the aerobic base.

Easy running is sustainable while hard running for long distances over years and years is not.  We are all still human and our bodies still require recovery periods despite the amazing feats our top-tier runners have accomplished.  Outside Online ran an excellent piece on top ultra-runners developing chronic over-training syndrome.  Many of you may also be aware that famed distance runner Ryan Hall recently retired from the sport of competitive running due to chronic over-training as well.
I named my bone spur The Talon (circa 2014).  I had an x-ray after a long stint of plantar fasciitis to look for signs of stress fracture.  I had been training unsustainably for years and accumulating body trauma.  Why so stupid Sam?  I refused to slow down to fix mechanical issues that needed attention because I always had a race or event on my schedule to train hard for...the silliness eventually lead to me not having a choice to stop running.

Summer sandal trail running is my favorite kind of running.  I used to over-stride and heel strike heavily.  Learning good technique was part of the solution to my chronic injuries.  It took several months of improving muscle memory (technique) before I really got back the spring in my step.  I also worked on specific mobility, stability, and strength for runners.  Preparation is as much about these factors as it is your running pace/mileage.

#4 - You can't have it all, all the time.

Inherently there is nothing wrong with wanting to become a better version of yourself.  There's nothing wrong with wanting to see how far you can go or how good you can be.  It's just that there will be a cost.

Sometimes it's okay to push.  Sometimes it's okay to really go for it.  In preparation for the Spartan World Championships I trained well within my capacity but when it came time to compete, all bets were off.  I went all out and did things in the race I would never do in training.  For months I trained sustainably, no injury or illness, so that on event day I could take more risk.  This is what I recommend to other non-sponsored, non-multi-million dollar athletes- train smart and sustainable, and if you really want to take a risk, save it for the competition.
Runner #1 just wants to have fun.  This is totes awesome-sauce, fine and dandy.  This runner will train sustainably and enjoy their events in a sustainable way as well.  They'll be able to participate in many events on their calendar year, for years and years, because they aren't wrecking their body.  They will enjoy the health and social benefits and probably live forever.
Runner #2 wants a challenge but also wants to maintain physical activity into old age without serious pain, health problems, or orthopedic surgeries.  This runner should train sustainably and compete hard once in awhile ensuring full recovery between difficult events.  This runner wants the physical challenges but within reason, they aren't getting a retirement out of this.
Runner #3 wants to be an Olympian and set world records earning multi-million dollar sponsorships.  They will sacrifice long-term health for short-term gain but in their heart it may be worth it to be the best in the country or the world.

I trained sustainably for the Spartan World Championships, knowing that I might only be 90% prepared, it was worth it to be 100% uninjured at the starting line.  I placed 12th in an elite field of women from around the world in only my 2nd spartan race.  All bets were off during the race and I went as hard as I could.  The final results suggested that if I'd been slightly better prepared I could have been a top-10 finisher.  My priorities created the outcome of which I am 100% content.  I have no issues putting my health above a performance, however there may be athletes who take this to mean they should work harder next time.  Understand that sentiment isn't always without harm.

Bottom Line:

Lots of heavy training and competing without adequate recovery isn't healthy (especially when done for years).  It's possible to see a temporary improvement in performance or a few good seasons but it is very rarely sustainable for a career.  I don't recommend it unless your goal involves making lots of money so you never have to work again.  When we are thoughtful about the way we train, we can enjoy great experiences, enhance our health, and avoid permanent damage to a great extent.  We can be old and not needing walkers and canes.  We can play until the day we die.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Leadville Saga Begins

The legendary "Race Across The Sky" 100-mile run is where it all started back in 1983. This is it. The race where legends are created and limits are tested. One hundred miles of extreme Colorado Rockies terrain — from elevations of 9,200 to 12,600 feet. You will give the mountain respect, and earn respect from all.

You heard it, straight from the Leadville Race Series website.  This year I secured a spot via the lottery for the 2016 race.  I was surprised to gain entry through the lottery and I am looking to make the most of it.  I know many who want to run who will not be running this year simply because of luck.  Many people see me as a runner and very much believe that I can cover the 100 miles.  I appreciate their support and while I've run up to 50 miles at once, it's been awhile (5 years) and anything can happen.  People who've won the race some years didn't finish in other years.  I'll be doing my homework to say the least.

How did I contract the Leadville 100 bug?  Last year I paced my friend Tim from miles 50-70.  The picture below is of us at Twin Lakes at mile 40, just before Tim has to head up and over Hope Pass for the first time (runners must run up and over the pass twice).  I met him on the other side in Winfield and ran with him back up and over Hope Pass to Twin Lakes and on to the next aid station where we missed the cutoff time by 14-minutes.

Tim at mile 40 (Twin Lakes aid station), August 2015.

Wearing my very American sunglasses and enjoying the August sunshine.
It's fun to just be a helper at this event.
Despite throwing up already during the race, Tim was in high spirits at the Twin Lakes aid station.  They say almost everyone throws up at some point in Leadville.  We will see, I have a "no-throw up streak" going since 2001.  I only broke it once in Afghanistan in 2012 after what I believed to be bad chicken cordon-bleu.
Tim and I arriving back to Twin Lakes aid station at mile 60.

I carried Tim's lunch meat, cheese, and crackers in a gallon zip lock bag and handed him food periodically.
It was pretty funny as I kept thinking a tired runner with lunch meat
was a perfect target for a bear in the woods.

Excited to have made the 60-mile Twin Lakes cut-off, considered the hardest cut-off spot in the entire race.

The Leadville motto is, "You're better than you think you are.  You can do more than you think you can."  Do I believe it?  Yeah.  I believe it.  It's why I would ever try to get in the race in the first place.  It's why I'm going to attempt to run twice the furthest ultra distance I've ever run.  Many people I know well and not so well have inspired me to go for it.  I will prepare and I hope to post my progress to NPR's blog over the next several months.  That said, understand that I am more of a journey person than a destination person.  While I hope to get to the finish line, I'm less focused on the goal and more focused on the process.  In the end, despite all preparation, there will be the unexpected.  The question always remains, what do I need to do right now to get there?

For all practical purposes, I expect to mainly work on a solid aerobic base (HR-training via the Maffetone Method) for most of the year.  Time on my feet learning to stay relaxed and maintain good form when I am tired will be the bulk of my training.  If everything holds up I will add speed work to the mix in the summer to help sharpen the legs.  I'd also like to do several long training sessions in the mountains, either Pikes Peak or the actual Leadville course, to prep the legs and lungs for lots of time at altitude.

Last year I made the transition from injured runner to barefoot/minimalist runner.  By the end of the year I could handle quite a few miles and even the occasional intense workout.  This year I expect that journey to continue and I'll write as much about my feelings as I will my actual metrics.  In my 50-miler experience at the 2010 Rocky Raccoon, I ran 52 miles (added extra) in 7:59 without running more than 22 miles in training and never doing two long days back to back.  I don't really run like that anymore but it doesn't mean I can't get there again some day.  Leadville is very much a different course than the Rocky Raccoon.  I know somewhere deep down I have speed for ultras, but for me, as with many others, staying healthy is the name of the game.  And so it will be good form and good endurance and strength as my foundation with speed playing a smaller role.

I have registered for one race thus far (a 50k in early April) to prepare while several are slightly more tentative on the calendar.  A few of my friends may run the 52-mile "rim to rim to rim" at the Grand Canyon at the very end of April and I might try to join them.  There are many other race options in the area where I can practice my nutrition to get an idea of what works on my stomach.  Last I remember...I love Oreos when I run ultras.  Like a whole pack.  Never touch the stuff outside of ultra-racing but during a run an Oreo always seems to sound tasty.

Stay tuned over the next 8 months to watch the saga unfold.  I will try to keep all of my updates light and fun - while I appreciate good preparation, I never take my running or competition too seriously.  It's a gift to be able to run and I will not complain about pace or distance or some other arbitrary metric.  I am getting from point A to point B on my own two feet and that is a blessing in and of itself which I cannot fully express in words...