As Einstein once said, “Whether or not a race course or trail in the DC area is ‘hilly’ is relative to the individual.”  This is your reminder to have your own rating scale for hills and courses based on your own running experiences and perceived fitness.  

As I remind the runners I coach each year that head up to Boston for the marathon, Heartbreak Hill is overrated if you’re a DMV area runner.  Relative to us (DMV area residents), that hill isn’t too daunting. Relative to someone from most parts of Florida, then sure, it’s a doozy.  I address this topic in my book “The Art of Run Training” in a few sections; most notably the section titled “The DC Advantage for Runners,” as well as the section “Long Hills Don’t Exist.”  For more advice, you can click those links and check out the respective Blogs for both of those points.  

Additionally, make sure you reserve the word “hilly” for courses that deserve it.  The fitter you become, the less effect the smaller inclines have on you, so don’t do them the favor of considering them hills any more.  Use that word sparingly.  You can make distinctions between “hilly” vs. “rolling” vs. “incline" vs. “gently rolling.”  

The same approach applies to the weather.  “Hot” is 90-degree weather; it hasn’t been hot yet.  “Warm” is a better word to use, or “fair.”  Hilly and hot conditions might set you up for an adverse mental state going into your run, whereas, “scenic” or “sunny” have a positive connotation that frames the run differently.  So, with the exception of perhaps your run coach, don’t let other people’s perspectives of what constitutes a hilly course change your opinion too much, or at least as it pertains to strangers.  Trusted run friends and race directors certainly have valid opinions, but either way, make sure your own perspective of your own fitness is the guiding light.  

E = mc2 would have been an impossible riddle for all of us to solve, but to Einstein it was (eventually) relatively easy.  ‘Twas not a Heartbreak-Hill-esque problem for him, just a “roller.”  Choose your own vocabulary and make it work for you.  Use some words only sparingly.

Train hard!



The Relationship Between Sleep & Athletic Performance

I recently read a 2015 review article published in Sports Medicine, titled "Sleep and Athletic Performance: The Effects of Sleep Loss on Exercise Performance, and Physiological and Cognitive Responses to Exercise.”  

Below I provide a summary of the authors’ main points, followed by my 2 cents (interpretation of the results) from a coach’s perspective.

Authors’ main points:
Although sleep is considered critical to optimal performance, many athletes appear to lose sleep prior to competition for various reasons, including noise, light, anxiety, and nervousness.  While there appears sufficient evidence to imply complete sleep deprivation can have significant negative effects on athletic performance, the effects of sleep restriction (partial disturbance of the sleep–wake cycle) are more conflicting; a concerning issue given that athletes are more likely to experience this mode of sleep loss.  The detrimental effect of sleep loss on most aspects of cognitive function remains unequivocal, with only minor conflicting findings present for the extent of the effects of mild sleep restriction, findings that would predictably suggest negative consequences for athletes requiring high neurocognitive reliance.

Much of the previous research has reported that exercise performance is negatively affected following sleep loss; however, conflicting findings mean that the extent, influence, and mechanisms of sleep loss affecting exercise performance remain uncertain. For instance, research indicates some maximal physical efforts and gross motor performances can be maintained. In comparison, the few published studies investigating the effect of sleep loss on performance in athletes report a reduction in sport-specific performance. The effects of sleep loss on physiological responses to exercise also remain equivocal; however, it appears a reduction in sleep quality and quantity could result in an autonomic nervous system imbalance, simulating symptoms of the overtraining syndrome. Additionally, increases in pro-inflammatory cytokines following sleep loss could promote immune system dysfunction.

My 2 cents:
For those who read the fine print of this review article and saw that the several studies that showed a decrease in performance were mostly in maximal power output (i.e., 30-sec Wingate/cycling test), I would ask them to raise their hand if that is a meaningful carryover into their own training (answer: most likely not).  Sleep deprivation (SD) vs. sleep restriction (SR) is where the other significant findings of the article are contained, but I also don’t think any of local amateur athletes are facing actual sleep deprivation.  In short, if it’s the night before a race and you don’t get much sleep, then don’t worry about it, especially since there are very little (if at all) cognitive aspects of endurance events, whereas team-sport athletes might have other considerations depending on their position/demands, but even then the results are mixed with no need to sound an alarm.  

It’s important to note that the article points out that physiological measures don’t always show adverse effects from SR, so the authors postulate that central fatigue (as in central nervous system fatigue/ self-talk) is most likely the mechanism, especially if you factor that perceived exertion (effort) was diminished in some studies.  In other words, if the athlete believes that the sleep restriction is going to have an adverse effect, then he/she might be likely to create a self-fulfilling prophecy!  Get the idea out of your head, and do so with confidence, as the empirical evidence supports that short-term SR likely won’t affect your endurance the following day.  

Chronic sleep restriction is a separate issue not addressed by this article, and I think we would all agree that at that point there are going to be performance detriments (even with just a few days), along with an increased chance for injury (i.e., relationship between chronic muscular fatigue and injury).  I can empathize with any athlete who doesn't get a solid night of sleep the night before a big game/race, but what’s probably more important is the sleep you get two and three nights before a significant effort.

Train hard!



Nutrition & Happiness

How did nutrition and happiness end up in the title of the same blog?  Let's find out together.

There is a collective theme emerging this winter from the runners I coach in that they are proactively taking control of their own healthy eating and fueling habits.  Some of them have purchased books on the topic, and whether or not it’s a run-specific nutrition book is irrelevant at this point.  They’re setting specific goals in this category, with tangible action plans.  Much of that starts at the grocery store (e.g., reading labels), and then carries over into their choices when dining out (e.g., no alcohol).  Quick side note: Alcohol affects your sleep, and then lack of sleep, especially over an entire week or month, will affect your performance and increase your risk for inflammation injuries (overuse injuries).

Some of you have a body type that doesn’t have much room to improve, whether that’s in terms of body weight (you’re already as low as you’re going to get) or body composition (lean vs. fatty tissue), but your goal with proper diet can still be to be energetic day-in, day-out, and to get good sleep (I have a separate Blog on BodyTypes, which also appears in the Nutrition chapter of my book).  

The off-season is the best time for experimentation and to attack all the off-the-field elements of your training.  Yes, we incorporate all aspects of training during the entire year (a holistic approach), but we mentally prioritize (key word) things like, ST, PT, XT, and nutrition in the off-season.  To mentally prioritize everything all the time means you’re going to drive yourself crazy.  The key to “finding balance,” like your hippie yoga friends preach, is not to reduce everything to the same level (same amount of priority) throughout the day, week, month, or year, but instead to focus/prioritize certain aspects more than others for a while (however long that needs to be) before switching focus/prioritization to something else, so that at the end of a month or year, the overall weight of everything has balance.

To use run training as a quick example (explained in greater length and depth in the Periodization chapter of my book), racing is the lowest priority in the winter, with ST at the highest.  Then that slowly but surely shifts in the opposite direction as we hit the fall season, which is peak race season.  Monitoring exact paces for workouts follows suit (low priority now, high priority later).  You should be able to apply this same mental approach to all aspects of your life: professional, athletic, social, and family/friends, with further breakdowns within each of those major categories.  I’m sure some of you already do this with elaborate color coding on your monthly planners or through journaling, or though meditation, but if not, then give it a whirl.  Take an hour to dissect your life on paper...your schedule, your priorities, your goals, and your happiness.  As an athlete in the Mid-Atlantic region, this is the perfect time of year to do it (winter off-season).

So, as you focus on nutrition now (here in the off-season), you are adhering to a key component of happiness, which is to the Purpose and Pleasure Pendulum, for which I have a separate Blog, and reading that will explain how nutrition and happiness ended up in the same title of this Blog :)

Train hard!



Be Your Own Color Commentator


As part of your longer runs, a strategy you can use to practice positive self-talk and keep it fun is to play the role of being your own color commentator, treating the run as if you’re out there with imaginary opponents!  Bear with me here :)  You’re already talking to yourself in some way, shape or form when you’re running, right?  So why not spice it up!  I first started doing this with my friend Brian many years ago when we did 3-5 hour bike rides together out in the middle of nowhere VA/MD.  The invention of iPods has changed the game since then, but when cycling with someone else, you tend not to bring your music with you.  So I would entertain us both by doing my best impersonations of the Tour de France commentators as we had to pass the time somehow while climbing all of those hills, staring at trees, and inevitably getting lost on occasion. 

The commentary kept the training fun, but I also started to see common themes emerge once I kept this up on occasion during my solo run training.  I noticed that it helped keep me positive, as I could create positive self-talk at any point in the workout to help me push through to the end.  When training each week can otherwise become monotonous, this is a way to generate some excitement.  Even on the days I wasn’t feeling my A-game, I could still pretend that “everyone else on the course is suffering too, but I’m still in command and winning.”  Therefore, I mostly used this fun tactic toward the end of my workouts, when I was more likely to need a mental boost.

Give it a shot.  Be creative, have fun, give it your own flavor, add an accent too if you like.  Any time you pass a runner who is going either direction, you can make them part of the story.  You can even turn it into the overly (overly) melodramatic NBC-style coverage we are bombarded with during the Olympics.  It’ll also allow you to be brutally honest with yourself (if you’re not already), as you can remind yourself of the obstacles you’ve overcome, that you are probably fitter than you’re giving yourself credit for, and so you can soul search in the midst of all this commentary.  It’s a good way to get to know yourself as an athlete.  It’s also a great way to get in the habit of envisioning success, whether it’s actually winning a race or hitting a goal time or PR.  At the end of the run, who the hell is there to say otherwise!?  Nobody.   

I have separate sections on Self-talk and Imagery in Chapter 6 of my book “The Art of Run Training.”  Chapter 7 offers many other strategies for different race distances, but I really like this one even though I didn’t put it into the book.

Train hard!



Thanksgiving Week for Runners


Regardless of how much you actually celebrate this holiday (or the next big one coming up), it can also simply serve as a time to gather with family and friends.  With these two holidays comes extra time to yourself (I hope!) and time to relax your mind and decompress…and eat Mom’s world famous mashed potatoes.  Enjoy yourself this week.  Allow yourself time to do some soul searching over the next 5 weeks in total. 

As it relates to Turkey Trots, your goal there is probably an all or none mentality, right?  Meaning, you’re either still riding high on the coattails of peak fall season and you’ll therefore shoot for a 5k/10k PR, or you are in your recovery period with a mellow approach to fitness/training and you’ll jog the course with friends/family.  There’s probably not much grey area, nor would I encourage anything in between at this point.  Pick one: Go for the PR or jog it to enjoy the festivities.  For those pushing the pace that day, then yes, you should absolutely stick to your normal (healthy) routine on Wed so that you feel right on Thurs morning.  This message is not in conflict with the previous paragraph; both messages can coexist.  For the folks I’ve been coaching for at least a year, they also know that this mentality of embracing a recovery week is part of our normal training plan anyway.  You also know that this time of year (for most runners) is an extended, planned Recovery Phase.  I discuss this time of year in more detail in its own section in Chapter 2 of my book, The Art of Run Training. 

From microlevel to mesolevel to macrolevel, we have off/rest days (in a week) + recovery weeks (every 6 - 9 weeks) + a Recovery Phase (2 - 5 weeks at 1 – 2 times per year), respectively.  All 3 levels should be built into a yearly program.  If you believe that an rest day can benefit you, and if you also believe that recovery weeks are a good idea, then you must believe that a Recovery Phase is a fabulous idea.  The latter is typically 2 - 5 weeks following your peak race, and/or before your off-season, and/or during the holidays.  Fortunately for those of us in the Mid-Atlantic region, we have actual winter weather that is separated 2 - 5 weeks from peak race season.  The timing is perfect for a recovery week and a Recovery Phase. 

As we change seasons, we change the type of training we do and simultaneously change the “mental approach to training and racing” (the main service of DCRC).  Recovery weeks/phases don’t mean couch potato, nor does the off-season mean less training.  The former is an intentional recharge period; the latter is the intentional rebuild period.  The Art of Run Training outlines this whole process in more detail.

Train hard (and rest hard)!



Purpose and Pleasure

Purpose and Pleasure are the two points on the pendulum of happiness.  Remember that both exist and each has its own time and place on a daily, weekly and monthly basis.  This reminder allows you to work your butt off, either professionally or with training, and not think "I'm working my life away," and it also allows you to unwind, do nothing, maybe even engage in some debauchery without thinking, "I need to get my act together."  Do both.  "Keeping the balance" doesn't mean trying to have purpose and pleasure at all times throughout a day, week or month (that's impossible).  You have to let that pendulum swing to both sides and stay there for extended periods of time.  However you choose to define "extended" is up to you...hourly, daily, weekly, etc.  Just be sure that pendulum swings back the other way at some point!  

The same is true for healthy interpersonal relationships.  Meaning, a relationship of any sort, whether it’s with siblings, coworkers, lovers or close friends, is rarely going to have a 50-50 split of responsibility, effort and energy.  Sometimes you’ll be carrying 80% of the load and other times the other people in your life will be carrying more than half the share.  What’s important is that at the end of the year there’s a mutually perceived balance in the aspects of the relationship that matter most.  As long as you know this in advance, then you’re better able to surf the ebb and flow of the different waves that enter the relationship.  Once again, we’re reminded that “knowledge is power” and “foresight is more powerful than hindsight”.  So, “keeping the balance” among any facets of your life should not involve constantly trying to ensure an equal share/split among those facets at all times, because to do so is what drives many people bonkers.  Let the ebb and flow happen.  

As it relates to training, this is why I love the periodization model of training theory (chapter 2 of my book) because it allows for this ebb and flow to occur over a period of many weeks, months or even the entire year.  We don’t need to, nor should we, try to focus on all elements of training in one week or one season.  Otherwise, overtraining and mental burnout are inevitable.  This is the main service I offer with DCRC: The mental approach to training and racing, as in knowing when to prioritize certain types of training and workouts and when to back off in favor of other activities.  All the while, periodization is geared to keeping you injury free, happy and reaching a peak level of fitness in the fall, which is racing season (running season).  You can’t be all things, all the time in relation to your training.  The body can’t handle it and/or you’ll mentally burn out.

I read a fascinating research article a few months ago about the experience of a midlife crisis.  Why it happens, who it happens to, how intense it becomes, and how long it lasts (if at all).  It was a very good empirical review of the topic.  Regret is often what rests at the base of a midlife crisis (if someone is to have one), and it’s found that those with less regret tend to fly right past any such crisis, and that makes logical sense to me.  So, to come full circle in talking about purpose and pleasure, make sure you’re not living with any regrets.  Avoid feeling regretful or guilty when highly engaged in either purpose or pleasure.

Additionally, don’t dwell on past mistakes or past negativity.  Learn from those experiences if/when you recall them, but don’t dwell…there’s a big difference between those two different ways of recalling the past.  Similarly, don’t get caught up on not having accomplished something that was once a goal.  If you still think you can achieve it, then sure, “never give up on your hopes and dreams.”  But if another reality quite simply states (objectively) that you can’t achieve it or get it back, then that’s a bit harder to move past, but you must move past it.  I always thought I’d compete in the Olympic Games, but so much for that.  At least I have 8 more lives to try again.  There’s lots of clichés and sappy songs about how to "move on,” and I can dig it.  

Allow yourself a pleasurable life and don’t feel guilty about it.  Being selfish is very highly correlated with happiness, but the key there is to change the definition of the word "selfish."  As long as you’re not harming others or detracting from their happiness to gain your own, then this display of selfishness may actually be needed for your own happiness.  Otherwise, how often are you needlessly depriving yourself of pleasure and happiness!?  Keep the pendulum on both ends of the spectrum at various points.  As a coach, I don’t want a healthy, active lifestyle to detract from your purpose or your pleasure; rather, my aim is for your training to contribute a little bit to your purpose and your pleasure.

Train hard!



Old School Training vs. New School Training

It’s the end of July; your summer run training doesn’t have to hit peak volume yet, and that applies to everyone, regardless of what fall race(s) you’re training for.  Yes, most of you are running more miles, or at least longer long runs, than you did in the spring, but summer training can still place a bit of priority on ST and XT while the run mileage settles into a nice steady level (this is not a bad thing).  Some of you are getting over some minor injuries, some of you are dealing with hectic summer travel schedules (or kids’ schedules), and others are trying new types of training (including running form), any of which won’t necessarily be the case for the fall.  With that in mind, remain patient and be mellow.  

I address this topic in more detail in another Blog titled “Time”.  So, when considering whether you still have enough time to train for your peak fall race, the answer for most of you is “yes."  I am contractually forbidden from telling a lie.

On the topic of mileage, a simple Amazon search on run books will show the increasing popularity of the training method dedicated to running faster on less mileage.  This isn’t a new strategy; it’s just that it’s taken a while to be embraced by the run community against the grain of the “more mileage means more fitness” mentality that has dominated for so many years.  U.S. pro runners learned that more isn’t always better, as our top times plateaued for a loooong time while we tried the more-mileage approach.  Meanwhile, the rest of the world kept getting faster.  "More mileage means more fitness” is true, but only to a degree, or else we’d all be running 100-mile weeks in order to improve.  To tie this back to the first paragraph, put that extra time into ST, XT, PT, massage, and more ST, especially in the summer (it mirrors the winter in that sense).  

There’s plenty of time for us to hit key long runs in the fall and increase the total run volume/mileage too at that point.  Yes, my goal is to get athletes to do more running (up to a point), but I’m not hell-bent on it as a coach.  If you can’t stand on 1 leg for 30 seconds without wobbling, then trust me, more mileage isn’t your #1 priority (insert plug for ST here ____).  

“More mileage” is old school, just like “weight lifting”, as the latter has been replaced by “strength training.”  "Weight lifting" dominated for years because it was new and took up lots of space in local gyms, so why wouldn’t you do “weight lifting,” right?  Now with the popularity of Pilates, TRX and functional training, we have better ST.  In sum, don’t be old school, and don’t stress about mileage.  I’d rather a runner be more obsessive and neurotic about even pacing during track workouts and/or perfect ST form.

Keep enjoying your summer, the fall isn’t close enough yet, so keep your fall races out of your head and live in the moment.  

To use a Caps metaphor, this means it’s still not quite time to Unleash The Fury! 

Train hard!


P.S.  Next year is the Caps’ year.