5/3/15

Find Your Own Haven & Voice


 
I've written on the topic of Breakthrough Performances in an older Blog.  As it pertains to this blog in particular, ask yourself: Where do I have my best workouts?  Which trail, route, course, or track always treats you well?  Or, which place do you only visit sporadically that also seems to allow you to have your best workouts?  I refer to such places as "havens".  

The other question to ask is: Whose voice do I hear in my head when I need to keep pushing myself?

I went to my own haven last week and had my best track workout of the past 2 years while running at my alma mater; the haven is the track at Widener University.  It also helped that I ran into my old track coach as I was jogging down to the track.  We only had a single minute to chat, but as I turned to keep jogging he said in a purposeful voice, "Hey...workout hard today!"  I had his voice in my head during a few moments of the the workout and it kept me focused.  I turned in my fastest times in recent history without an increase in perceived exertion.  This is the power of positive self-talk and imagery done correctly.  Who is the voice inside your head?  I expect it to be your own voice 90% of the time, but what about the other 10% of the time?   

A few months ago, I finished Stephen King's book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (what a genius mind), and he said that he always had the voice of his wife (also a writer) in his head when he was contemplating decisions about his storyline (or similar).  He welcomed an extra (conjured) voice to help him break through decisions about his writing.  In sum, not only should you have a place where you can go for A-game workouts (King created his own haven, his own special writing room in his house), but you should also have a good default setting for your internal dialogue voice while training.  You don't need one all of the time (shutting the brain off is a hallmark of elite athletics and a central theme in the book I've written on run training), but when you do have a voice, choose a wise one.  Keep it in reserve, like a "Break in Case of Emergency" glass case.

Train hard!

Mike

2/24/15

Run in the Snow



In case the sun god melts away our final amount of snow until next year, here is a blurb to help you through this final week.  Personally, I enjoy the snow runs because they are a unique run you only get a few chances to do each year.  It’s also enjoyable to me because you can also feel like a kid again.  On my last run in the snow I took a few minutes to simply run up the steepest sections of hills to see if I could make it to the top before gravity and the slickness made me slide back down (thank goodness for long tree branches).  If you're hell-bent on monitoring your pace for every run then you might miss out on the opportunity to "practice random acts of childness."  Our brains (dopamine receptors) need new stimuli.  Fact.

Coincidentally, I just received this recap from a runner I coach, and it's good to hear these tales from others, so it’s not all just coming from one place: "Ran in the snow!  It was like being 5 again.  Saw a couple other runners out there.  This one old man in striped spandex was pretty cool.  I felt gratitude to live so close to a park where I can just pop right into the park for an easy, scenic long run route.  Didn't trudge, didn't get too cold, nice peaceful, flat and quiet run."

I have sections on running in cold weather and the snow in the recent book I published on training and coaching.  Run form is very much related to determining who might slip on the ice and who won't.  It's not related to pace (at least not as much as you might think).  Give it a read.  Hopefully that section motivates you to stay outside and not resort to the treadmill.  I understand there may be a time and a place for the latter, but I view that decision mostly as a way of life.  I do give credit to those who opt for the treadmill rather than scrapping the workout altogether, but hopefully you can rearrange your schedule to still do the runs outside. 

I had a flashback today to the only (single) time I ever ran on a treadmill...spawned by the fact that I saw that very treadmill in the same local gym.  That session was ~7 years ago (in late Feb) and only lasted 8.5 minutes before I decided there's got to be more to life.  I then bundled up and did ~15 laps around my small neighborhood block since the roads were too treacherous.  It feels good to feel alive and that's what being outdoors in any/all conditions does for me, and that is how/why I consider it a way of life.

Train hard!

Mike

2/8/15

Body Types



During a recent hill workout with my group, we arrived at the bottom of the hill midway through the workout and were greeted by a woman walking her uber-fit looking dog, who had a ton of energy.  We all know dogs are better than cats, so I used the extra 10-second recovery before the next rep to say hello to the dog (and the owner).  She said, "Oh, I bet he could keep up with you going up that hill."  My initial thought was, "I bet you dollars to gel packs that this dog would not only keep up, but this dog would smoke us up that hill and never be seen again."  I had that thought because I noticed this dog looked like a running machine!  The legs, the muscles, and even its eye of the tiger.  Body type has an effect on ability and performance.   

An athlete should dedicate his/her off-season (wintertime for the Mid-Atlantic area) to reshaping the body (composition).  This doesn't mean we have to be vain.  Although I recognize that "looking good" is motivating for some people to a degree, the research shows this is one of the least motivating reasons for exercise/training.  So, to repeat, transform your body so that you perform well.  Running faster and/or farther will then be easier.  You'll feel like an athlete and that's a wonderful feeling.  There is certainly no harm to your self-esteem and confidence if you are confident in your abilities...and happy with how you look, which you all should be.

In the breeding of animals, we do breed some types of dogs and horses to be faster and stronger.  We have the capacity to be very direct and selective with animals, yet not so much with humans.  Sports Illustrated continues to run its "body type" issue each year, where athletes representing the full spectrum of different sports are posing in their skimmies in black-and-white images.  With a bit of photo shopping, you get to see what the body types look like across various sports.  Some body types are more advantageous for basketball, some are better for discus throwing, and others are better suited to sprint up a hill like a wild dog.  My observation comes on the heels of finishing a marvelously written book The Sports Gene by David Epstein, who was a pretty good collegiate runner himself.  It's now in my top-5 books of all time, which is a damn tough honor to achieve.   

The book highlights how our loooong genetic evolution has made certain populations of humans (based on ethnicity and/or region) primed for certain athletic pursuits.  Nature vs. Nurture?  It's always both, but this book delves more in detail about the who, what, when, where, why and how of elite performance from the point of view of genetics, muscle fiber types, height, leg length, ankle mass, and you name it.  Epstein is an outstanding writer.  He presents clarity in his points, he's very clever and witty, and extremely on-point with a scientific mind that helps dispel many myths we once held about elite performance.  He even covers the game of chess in chapter 1 when he explains the vision/eyesight of elite athletes and why/how it's different than the general population.  Even if you have no interest in reading about "sports," you can believe that this book often merely uses sports as a backdrop.  If you're like me and you get excited reading about evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, anthropology and history, then add it to your wish list.

To come back to the main point, without becoming obsessed with your body, continue to brainstorm and be brutally honest with yourself about how you can change your body, or if you even want to, or need to.  Consider how it can help you reach your goals.  Are your nagging injuries due to weak muscles, not enough muscles/strength, or extra weight you're carrying around?  The Sports Illustrated issue I mentioned above reminds us that mom and dad gave us our body types, we can only change them by so much (or so little).  However, even though your upper and lower limits are set, that middle portion in between is large! Maximize it!  

"Most people start running in order to get fit, whereas more people should first be getting fit in order to run."  This quote reminds us to take your strength training and cross-training to heart if you have ambitious running goals.  You don't have to look like "a runner" to perform your best, but you should revisit your checklist of what it is that you can do to love yourself (your body...that thing that hosts your consciousness, which makes you human).

Train hard!

Mike

1/26/15

Now vs. Later (What to Focus on During Winter)


 
In January of last year, I wrote a blog about Time and being patient with your winter training and not pulling the trigger too quickly on your emotional involvement with your spring race calendar.  It is still only January and we don't need to be thinking too much about spring races right now.  With 5 more weeks left in the true off-season period, make it count.  Pack it in now before the spring race season arrives.  Generally speaking, we shift gears both mentally and physically once March 1st hits, with strength training (ST) getting slightly less priority as your race schedule gets broken in and your weekend runs become more intense.

In order for an off-season to be effective and to accomplish its goals, we need it to be relatively long.  8 weeks would be the absolute minimum, but as non-professional athletes, we tend to have much more catching up to do in terms of general strength, specific strength, flexibility, coordination, balance and athleticism, all of which are related to your race performances and your ability to make your ST sessions dynamic and functional.  So, we want to make the off-season 16-20 weeks in order to better prepare the body for the harder training that will come in the summer and fall.  "Most people run to get fit, whereas more people should be getting fit so that they can run."

Month to month we should begin to make subtle shifts mentally in terms of prioritizing certain types of workouts and how much emotional energy we're giving to spring racing.  As I remind my athletes each fall, a training program in Dec should look much different that it does in Sept.  Similarly, February and March training should look different than Dec, and so on.  The physical aspects of training and the mental components will hand in hand.  Keep the focus on ST right now, it's still only January and you’re not racing.  Carry that gym rat approach through the end of Feb and transform your body as much as possible via ST, XT and PT.  Knowing that all of these off-the-field aspects of training are taken care of lends itself to lots of confidence at the start line of spring races.  But as I stated above, you have to be really dedicated to these aspects of the off-season or else the changes won't happen.

It takes many, many weeks of training and repetitions (ST, XT and PT) to attain benefits.  No PT or chiro has ever said, "Just do those exercises here and there once or twice per week and you'll be fine."  That would be rubbish.  You can't fake fitness and you can't fake functional corrections in the body.  It either is, or it isn't.  Injuries are not mysterious; nobody is "unlucky" in that regard.  Stronger, leaner, more resilient athletes don't get injured, and now you know why.  They become stronger, leaner and more resilient because they beat the hell out of their bodies (in a good way, without overdoing it) for a long, dedicated off-season.  Read any of their post-race championship interviews and you'll see what I mean.  Therein is lots of motivation for ST in February.

The reason I encourage everyone to delay this shift toward racing and race mode is mostly due to the principle of specificity of training and also due to the weather.  Remember, the physical aspects of training and the mental components go hand in hand.  Meaning, if the specificity of training is still relatively low in January, then I doubt that you're feeling (mentally) your spring races during your workouts.  Rather than dabble in a grey area of "mental training," I say nay...just wait until late Feb or March 1st to get fired up for spring racing.  There will be more connections between mind and body at that time because, a) your legs will feel fresher/faster due to less intense and less frequent lower-body ST, b) your run workouts, like track work and select long runs, will begin to resemble races, and c) we can't forget about the large role that weather has.

Each summer I encourage all of my athletes who are running a peak fall marathon or Half not to be in "race mode" yet.  Why?  Because if you honestly think that a 2 hour run in 90-degree weather with 85% humidity gives you any resemblance of the "feel" or your fall marathon, then you are unnecessarily dooming yourself.  I would take it a step further and say that you're dabbling in a grey area of mental training and detracting from your confidence.  So, the same rationale about the summer also applies to the winter.  Regardless of how well you train in the winter (god bless you all), the winter is not the spring.  You cannot deny the effects that the weather has on our bodies during key workouts.  Don't compare apples to oranges.  Don't compare summer slugfests vs. perfect fall weather.  Don't compare how your body feels in 35-degree weather with slightly fatigued legs vs. perfect spring weather on fresher legs.  In sum, if you are struggling to "feel" the races during your winter workouts, then stop trying, there's no reason to put dents in your confidence.  Put that mental energy back into ST, XT, PT.  Patience is a virtue, but in this respect, the real virtue is in understanding the body-mind connection because specificity of training applies to the mental training too.  As you may guess, you can insert here what you think I would say about exact pacing (and garmins) during Jan/Feb. 

Train hard!

Mike

9/7/14

Long Hills Don't Exist


 
The steepness of a hill and its duration are always relative.  Sure, there are some hills in the DC area for which we would all agree are tougher than others, but those are the exception, not the rule.  The faster our pace, the shorter the hill lasts, so there's another reason for the difficulty of a hill to be subjective.  The specific point of this Tip is to offer you a mental strategy for running up long inclines.  (Note: Because we think in terms of language, and word usage affects our beliefs, calling it an "incline" may serve you more good than calling it a "hill").  

If an incline is long enough (let's say a minute or longer) then you may be able to convince yourself that the hill isn't there.  How so?  At some point on that hill you settle into a steady pace, or at least I hope you do!  With that in mind, you should have the ability to do what you always do on your runs, focus on intensity and not pace.  When the intensity/ perceived exertion begins to level off soon after starting the incline (that's a good thing), it may feel as though you're out there running on a flat stretch of pavement.  Don't believe me?  That's okay right now as you read this, but give it a shot next time you're out there.  This strategy is made easier if your thoughts are positive or even focused on something else, the latter of which is bound to happen on most runs anyway.  

When I'm halfway up a long stretch of incline, like coming up Nebraska Ave from Rock Creek Park, or up Wisconsin Ave leaving Georgetown, I honestly forget sometimes that I'm even running uphill.  How?  Because I'm focusing on perceived exertion (intensity), and as long as I feel like I did when I was on the flat portions, in my mind, I'm merely running—nothing more, nothing less.  Try it out.  See if you can't convince yourself that the rhythm of your feet and the rhythm of your breathing are just the same as running a flat stretch, and once you're on the hill long enough you become desensitized to it.  It becomes a part of your present moment and it's not there anymore. It's no longer "this dreaded hill that won't end." 

Train hard!

Mike

8/12/14

Boredom = Creativity





Part 1
I read an interesting article today explaining the notion that "down time" (away from work, away from monotonous brain tasks, away from number crunching, etc) helps stimulate new, creative thoughts.  Therefore, following down time, subsequent productivity increases. Hence, my shorthand title: “Boredom = Creativity".  How does this apply to runners? I'll give that punch line at the end.  

The old story goes that Einstein formulated many of his original theories while sitting at his desk job, daydreaming out the window (yes, I know his brain was freakishly wired anyway, but it's a good example nonetheless).  Similar stories have been told describing scientists who are struck by their "Eureka!" moment when not at work, rather, when on vacation (or even just staring into an active fireplace).  

There is even a good plug for naps in this article and their positive effects on the brain, but "who the hell gets to take a nap!?" (I can hear some of you through your computer screens).

Here is the article, "Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain."  Give it a read when you schedule your next down time.


Part 2
I address this topic in the university sport psych class I teach when we discuss Mental Health & The Psychology of Exercise.  I tie these topics into the amount of vacation days Americans take in comparison to the other industrialized/ 1st-world nations, and also what we do on vacation...or what we don't do enough on vacation (relax).  Keeping busy is good, but most Americans claim to be too busy for most non-work-related things, even exercise. Perhaps that's why I view my own coaching goals as important.  Can I convince my athletes that they have plenty of time in their week to work toward their athletic goals?  Or, have we adjusted their goals accordingly to match the amount of training time they do have?  (Note to parents: Each year I become increasingly aware of the role that toddlers play in the amount of down time you have.)

How much actual vacation time do you give yourself each quarter, or even during your vacation itself, even if it's a "stay-cation"?  In other words, how much down time do you give yourself in a day, in a week, in a month?  Are you a guilty vacationer, not allowing yourself to enjoy your time off from work or workouts?  Being self-employed, I have to ask myself these questions a few times per year, as I don't have a supervisor giving me paid vacations in the truest sense of the term.  I hold myself very accountable to all ~50 of the folks I coach. 

So, as it relates to running, although the link above tackles a different field/ area of study, I'll be damned if it doesn't apply to runners and the "guilt" they experience when missing a workout, or not doing long runs (that "magic bean" of running, right?), or not training for the magical marathon distance.  I had a phone discussion today with a runner I coach and explained my rationale for not scheduling any group track workouts the last 8 weeks of the year, and why I introduce the concept of an off-season to everyone.  Answer?  It's not only to prevent overtraining and injuries, but also to help prevent mental burnout, to allow your brain to mellow out from data, numbers and pacing for a while.  This is why I'm not heavy on wintertime racing.  As a coach envisioning longer-term goals, when it comes to racing, I'd rather my runners chill out in the winter (no pun intended).

Here is another explanation (in video form) of the benefits of boredom and how it leads to creative thought and productivity.


Part 3
Most of the time I schedule athletes' recovery weeks around their vacations and travel.  I try to offer the method behind the madness when it comes to my rationale.  When they're on vacation I want them to enjoy vacation. Does this mean becoming a couch potato?  Are down time and training in conflict with one another?  No, but for the most part I am scheduling down time away from running while you're on vacation, so that you can explore, do other activities, and perhaps enjoy some boredom.  It's healthy, both mentally and physically.  This is old news to most of my athletes, but if we need to take recovery weeks anyway, why not take them while you're supposed to be decompressing on vacay?  

I'm aware the some athletes need to capitalize on the increased free time away from work and train more on vacation from work.  And I'm also aware that many runners use running as down time to brainstorm and collect their thoughts. You can choose any of the following phrases: "a time and place for everything," "to each their own," "everything in moderation," "keep the balance."  They all apply, and whichever one you subscribe to, hopefully you don't lose sight of the major point here: Allow yourself unstructured time...time to be bored and therefore brainstorm, which is where we tend to engage in synthetic learning (tying concepts together), a great skill set for any employee at any job.  Agreed?  

When any of my university students tells me they studied an ungodly amount of consecutive hours for an exam I'll ask them, "Why on Earth would you do that?"  First, I know that the brain typically doesn't operate at peak capacity for periods longer than 1 - 4 hours at a time. We need breaks. Second, taking a break will allow your mind to play around with the material, much like Einstein did (sorry to use Him as an example again).  Think about how this might apply to your own professional careers.  Do you allow yourself a lunch break? How many consecutive hours do you work without a down time when you collect your thoughts on the project or task?  Are you working long hours due to work piling up because you're not taking occasional breaks to reset your brain?  In other words, does your work quality decrease as the number of consecutive hours worked increases?  Would your productivity and/or energy levels change if you changed your work pattern?  What are your options?  Maybe I'm not privy to all the ins-and-outs of your professional duties, but consider what you can do to unwind while at work.  The 12:00pm corporate wellness walking group I've been leading the past few weeks is very happy to get some vitamin D midway through their work day. I heard one of them say, "Why didn't we think of this before?"  

Finally, I leave you with a comedic short clip about vacation and boredom from Tom Hanks' greatest film.

In closing, for those who seek a more creative brain:

1) Exercise increases blood flow to the brain.  Scores on cognitive tasks usually increase following a normal bout of exercise.  Exercise = creativity.

2) At some point in the week, don't be afraid to just sit and do nothing. Boredom = creativity. However, chronic sitting and doing nothing = laziness.

3) Once you're done being creative, go to sleep or take a nap to allow your brain to form new connections.  Sleep = creativity.

4) In addition to your professional and familial/social obligations, find a way to do the other 3 during the week.  


Enjoy the journey,

Mike

5/18/14

Total Work Volume



I am asked on occasion by the runners I coach if yard work or mowing the lawn count as cross-training (XT), or if hiking counts as XT.  My answer?  "It depends."  Depends on what? Heart rate (HR). Meaning, it depends on who you are and the nature of the hike or yard work (no pun intended).  For some of you a hike is a blistering workout (no pun intended, I have no idea where all the puns have come from in the last year, it's very odd to me, I'll look for an off-switch).  Anyway, if the hike drives the HR up, then sure it's XT. However, if your hike was equivalent to "a walk through the woods", then no, in a technical sense, it wasn't a workout.  Me and your doctor have one thing in common; we want your HR to get around 70+% for at least 30 minutes, 3x per week.  That's basically 3 jogs per week.  I refer to this short-term goal for beginners of running 3 x 30 minutes as the "doctor's orders program". The other consideration; however, in defense of hikes, is that it may count as ST.  But in this case, you most likely have to be taking the path less traveled so that your leg muscles are working to overcome rocks and/or steep hills, so that elements of the hike are equivalent to walking lunges or box step-ups.  The same answer applies to yard work. The HR while weeding on your knees is probably no different than when washing dishes; hardly XT. However, depending on other elements of the yard work, you may be getting a good hamstring workout if you are bending/lifting correctly, as in not relying on, nor overusing, the back.  So in this instance, yes, yard work may be ST, the same way shoveling snow may count.  

As it relates to total work, yes, I want my runners to be as active as possible without the risk of overuse injuries.  ST and XT have a very low likelihood for causing any injury, so when I talk about increasing the total volume (work) of a program, it is these 2 elements that can get more attention.  The off-season (winter) is typically where total training volume is at its highest (or should be!). Increasing the run volume depends on the runner.  Who are you, what are you training for, how many months do we have, and what does your running form look like?  Those are the variables to consider regarding increasing run volume. Getting back to total work, you all know I like the phrase, "sweat once per day." So, do whatever you want that makes you sweat—it could be hiking, it could be yard work.  I schedule OPEN days, or "OPEN XT/ST" the programs.  These are days for my athletes to explore this option.  Think about the total time you spend moving around each day.  This is what is meant by total work.  It can be run-specific or not run-specific.  Just move.  Sweat.  

At one of our group track workouts, there was a 10-year-old boy flipping a big 30-pound tire that was left behind by the college team.  He did this while his parent ran lap after lap.  He took breaks, he went about it slowly, he was a kid being a kid (a.k.a., trying to cure boredom), but I couldn't help but notice how many tire flips he did in that time...total work! What a helluva workout for a 10-year old!  I was also at a friend's BBQ later that night and I noticed he only had 1 kettle bell on his outdoor patio (usually you would have at least a small set), so I asked.  His response is that 1 kettle bell is all he needs because it's heavy enough to challenge him for a few different exercises and he just whips that sucker around for many, many, many reps and sets.  Total work.  You may notice that the body builders in your gym (whether professional or just a pseudo body builder) do longer workouts than everyone else.  Their ST sessions may be 60-90 minutes from start to finish.  Total work.  I'll ignore the diet and psychological aspects of that approach for now (they are not important to the main point), but their bodies show for their high volume training.  Pure Ironman triathletes?  Yup, lots and lots of workouts during the week, plus they are active all day, every day.  Total work and as fit as they come.

What does this mean for you?  Make time for yourself each day to be energetic. A body in motion will stay in motion.  The more you train, workout, exercise, the more you will want to (that's the theory).  Fitness is invigorating.  There is much scientific evidence to support this claim.  A workout does not have to make you tired for the rest of the day (very long runs/rides can be exceptions), rather, it gives you energy for the rest of the day and the next day.  Walk around at the office, take the stairs, bike commute, flip tires...the list goes on.  As often as you can, finish your run a few miles away from home so that you get to enjoy a long, scenic walk back home, increasing the total volume.  Cure boredom, apathy and fleeting bouts of depression by moving around.  Don't you want to be healthy? Or faster? Healthier or faster; it doesn't matter to me, I can work with both.  You can always measure fluffy words like "dedication" and "motivation" by your ability to make the time for physical activity and training.  After all, "there ain't no wealth but your health." 

Personally, I rarely (if ever) had any motivational issues in all my years of sports. I was like the 10-year old kid my whole life, where sports, ST, nighttime jogs, etc were all fun!  I need to be in motion, I enjoy it way too much, I enjoy feeling alive. I don't train for Ironman tris anymore, but guess what?  I'm just as active.  The total work now vs. then may be slightly lower now, but I'm still in motion all the time.  The nature of my work sets me up for an active day, whereas your job may not.  Point taken.  So, if you're in this category where you feel you don't have 20-30 minutes per day to dedicate to yourself, then let's explore options together. That is also the nature of my work.

Train hard!

Mike