6/30/11

The "DC Advantage" for Endurance Athletes

 
This blog is more or less a tribute to the hilly terrain in the DC region.

If you are an endurance athlete, then you should love the DC area!  During training, I'm usually reminded how well the DC area prepares endurance athletes to race anywhere in the country, or the world for that matter.  Barring the extreme courses that border lunatic fringe, DC proper in itself provides ample hills and undulating courses to meet the challenging terrain offered by other U.S. cities.  I consider being a DC resident an advantage for training purposes, so I hope you never get turned-off or discouraged by what our trails can do to your running pace (take it with a grain of salt), which is certainly another reason I am not a strong proponent of Garmins (too much emphasis on pace).  Once you go even as little as 15 miles outside the city, the rural areas of MD and VA offer some intense hills and spectacular courses.

I've raced in 15 or more different states, most more than once, plus 3 other countries, and I can honestly say that I've never felt under-prepared, even if any of those other courses were considered "hilly" or "challenging."  I know I'm far behind many athletes who have raced in more corners of the world than I have, but if they originate from this region I'd like to think they'd agree with my sentiments.  I've done training in other states and I've never felt that the DC area paled in comparison to where most road races and triathlons take place.  I thought Ironman St. George (UT) in May 2011 was the toughest course I've ever tackled, but I know Skyline Drive in Shenandoah Valley had me more than adequately prepared.  I've coached athletes of all backgrounds, skill levels, and distances, and most of them have done quite well in their races around the world, even if the course was deemed to be daunting at face value.

The Take Home Message is that if none of what you just read resonates with you personally, then you need to explore the area more!  Pack your run shoes more often when you travel and head off the beaten (touristy) path.  You'll notice there aren't many places you'll travel to that offer as many challenging routes as our region.  Also, if you train outside year-round in DC, then you also know the weather in other states won't keep you down.  It gets muggy here in the summer, so if you've been acclimating well, then your mid-summer vacation to another hot destination might actually allow you to have some higher-quality workouts.

You can try treating some weekend workouts as special days so you can go looking for the spectacular sites.  Finally, on the other hand, you also need to make sure you aren't doing all of your key workouts on rolling terrain.  You need to ensure you have solid long runs on flat courses, which is related to another topic/blog of Breakthrough Performances.
Train hard!

Mike

6/27/11

Technology vs. Zen




This topic surfaces a good deal when I discuss proper goal setting and pacing in the weekly replies to my athletes.  There is a crucial distinction between pace and intensity, with intensity being more important due to the myriad factors and extraneous variables that can affect pace.  Many runners love numbers and data, which means they love pace.  However, trying to maintain a given pace without accounting for variables like temperature, humidity, dew point, terrain, wind, hydration status, energy levels, clothing selection (ability to sweat), and experience may do a runner more harm than good.  When the variables are favorable, then it’s very possible that holding a given intensity will lead to the goal-pace (or vice versa), but the aforementioned variables and the body’s real-time status should be considered first. This may sound like common sense, but why then are so many runners not at peace with their finish times?  Perhaps it’s because a runner’s craving for data is too strong.  So let’s hear about Garmin watches.

The same personality trait that wants to buy the Garmin in the first place is perhaps the same personality that has the potential to overanalyze data mid-race or post-race.  Obviously, this does not describe all Garmin runners, but in my experience as a coach, a Garmin watch often ends up being detrimental because it tells a runner that he, technically speaking, could have run faster, which often leads him to think that he was “slow.”  Either of these thoughts can lead to a dose (great or small) of feeling unsuccessful.  As much as a Garmin runner may say, “It’s a hilly course; I’ll just run based on feel,” I find that he will forget all about that idea once the starting gun goes off and when he takes that first peek down at his watch and mutters, “Gee, I’m way slower than my PR pace.”  Post-race, that same runner might say, “I was pretty slow on the hills…not a good race for me.”  If the hills were supposed to affect pacing, then why would the runner use the phrases “pretty slow” and “not a good race”?  How can we address this mentality before the race or workout even begins?

Using data to help guide training is perfectly fine; it’s natural.  However, my conjecture is that a personality that adores data and numbers is more attracted to faster paces on the watch, so those numbers (faster numbers) become the dominant thoughts mid-race and post-race.  In turn, this data analysis may create an unwillingness to accept the slower paces that are actually predictable based on race conditions (i.e., terrain and weather).  Ultimately, a runner is prone to feel slow or less likely to feel successful.  I too frequently see this distinction between the runners I coach who use a Garmin versus those who have a simpler watch using only elapsed minutes and seconds.  With this in mind, you can imagine the extra processing that takes place midrace if the GPS signal cuts out.

I can recall a particular Time Trial I coached on the track when some runners were bamboozled when their Garmins told them the distance of the TT had elapsed when there was still a half a lap to go.  A regulation track is 400m, so the track is never wrong.  Keep it simple when using the track; set the watch to timer mode and just peek at the watch every 200m or 400m to check splits (elapsed time).  Other times during races, Garmin watches have signaled that a mile has surpassed some distance before or after the course mile markers.  Rarely does a runner finish a race with an accurate GPS readout according to the official race distance.  This discrepancy is due to GPS/satellite interference, as well as the fact that it’s not always feasible to run the course exactly the way it was measured by a race official.  I attempt to convince runners to ditch their Garmins more regularly, which has positive effects on race day, especially in the long-term.

The idea of running based on perceived exertion (intensity) is new to everyone at some point in his/her running career.  Some runners are more experienced in this way and may not even own a watch.  Eventually, it should be easy to pace well on a trail without mile markers or to know the exact pace 20 seconds after a race starts.  Garmins will not always be proper guides in a race setting.  We need to know our limits and what we’re capable of achieving based on how the body feels and what it’s saying.  In this regard, it can be more useful to monitor heart rate (HR) as opposed to pace, but more on that in a moment.  Garmins should not be telling us how fast to run during the middle of a race; rather, they should merely be satisfying our curiosity.  Knowing how the body is reacting in real-time is more important than the actual pace maintained.  For instance, becoming very in tune to rhythmic breathing and stride length during training will enable one to know what kind of effort can be sustained during a race.  Moreover, sometimes the weather for a weekend run is too perfect to get caught up with numbers, and this falls in line with Zen running—race day can be a part of this practice, too.

I once attended a collegiate baseball game and hung out by the field before the game started.  I listened to a pitching coach, a former two-time NCAA World Series MVP and MLB player, as he was coaching a freshman pitcher during pre-game warm-ups.  In order to coach the pitcher how to throw pitches to targets everywhere in the strike zone, the coach emphasized the point of focusing on how the pitch delivery felt.  The coach repeated, “Stop aiming it and just throw it!”  He even positioned the catcher ten feet outside the strike zone, just to teach the young pitcher that he should have the ability to throw to any target by knowing what it feels like to hit a target.  I feel the same about learning different running paces.  A runner should be able to hit ten different speeds in a run with relative ease, without a Garmin or HR monitor as a guide.  To paraphrase the pitching coach, “Stop aiming with your Garmin and just run it!” 

Personally, I typically run without a watch and can therefore easily convince myself after any run that it was the fastest I’ve run a particular route.  Without anything/one to tell me otherwise, I’ve been riding a PR-high for over 10 years, which doesn’t allow for many gaps in my confidence.  If, on the other hand, my track splits were off the mark and my race times remained stagnant, then I could say that I’m not running hard enough during my weekly jogs, but as long as my track data continues to be on par, then it’s a good system for me and a good mental tactic to incorporate into training.  The main coaching service I offer is not the training programs (on paper); rather, it’s the mental approach to training and racing.  I haven’t had a “slow run” in over 10 years of training, unless selective amnesia is doing its job (a marker of elite athletics), and I don’t think I’ll ever feel “slow.”  That mentality builds tremendous confidence.  I can’t open a lid on a runner’s head and dump confidence into his brain, but this tactic just described is a great way for a runner to increase confidence himself.

Train hard!

Mike

6/21/11

Proper Running Form - It's Not About The Shoes!


This is Part 2 of a two-part Blog on the relationship between running form and footwear.  Click HERE for Part 1.  I have since added another blog related to how I teach folks to land midfoot.  Check it out HERE and share!

Proper running form as the main factor in preventing running injuries is related to more than your footwear.  If I stated last time that running like your 8-year-old cousin would go a long way in preventing most injuries, what does that imply?  It means running like a sprinter, running fast (relatively), or running like a kid again, all of which fall under the umbrella of running naturally.  It also means that not everyone will be able to run with proper form if they have limitations in their hip flexibility and hamstring strength.  Regardless if you are running barefoot or in the latest high-tech shoe, you legs first and foremost must have the physical capability to move through the proper motion.  This is easier to do as kids because we haven't picked up any bad habits at that stage, nor have we adapted a lifestyle of sitting in chairs for hours on end that gives us tight/weak hamstrings and hips.  On top of this, knowing how to move your legs through the proper motion is vital. 

It's in that last step (knowing how to move the legs) where running shoes are only a secondary factor.  Keep in mind that runners who have good mechanics would have proper, midfoot strike in construction boots or the older, traditional running sneakers, mainly because they have the proper strength and flexibility required, and they've been running correctly for years.  So, to follow-up on the take home message of Part 1, barefoot running isn't necessarily bad, it's just overrated, because it doesn't factor in other important elements of good run mechanics. 

Take a look at the fastest runners on the start line of the bigger road races and you'll notice that regardless of how "skinny" they may look, they've all got well-developed hamstrings, and the hamstring is known as the "running muscle".  When your foot leaves the ground to begin a new stride this is often referred to as the "push-off" phase.  However, this in itself gets many runners in trouble.  Most runners can relate to this phase and say, "yes, I know what it feels like to push off the ground each stride," but this is essentially the problem.  As Danny Abshire points out concisely in his book Natural Running, heel striking is the cause of this unnecessary push off (over-using the calves and hamstrings) because it then resembles walking.  Walking is heel striking, but that is okay, we won't get injured or fatigued in the muscles in the back of the leg ("propulsive muscles") when walking, but we are in fact pushing off the ground at that point.  On the other hand, when we rely on these muscles to continually propel us forward in running, these muscles get over-worked, fatigued, or worse, injured.

Danny Dreyer, in his popular book, Chi Running, makes much of the same sense in getting runners away from a "push" to get them going.  Instead, use a simple "heel flick" to start the new stride.  If you've gone to a track and seen runners doing the "butt kick drill" as part of their warm-up, they are essentially doing heel-flicking drills.  I use the same drill in different ways to teach proper sprint mechanics because sprinting and jogging are essentially the same movement.  When your foot hits the ground with a midfoot strike, you can easily start the new stride by simply flicking your heel up off the ground and then pulling it forward with your hamstring strength (depending on how fast you are running this also requires additional "knee drive").  So, the way we use our hamstring after heel striking (propulsion) is different than how we use our hamstring after a midfoot strike (lifting).  When you compare how much more energy is required for the former, you can see why some runners get fatigued more easily during track workouts and longer runs, as evidenced by slower cadence and shorter strides.  A midfoot strike not only saves us from all the adverse rotational forces associated with heel striking, but it also saves our hamstrings (the running muscles) by using them in a different, more economical way.  Additionally, with a midfoot strike the foot spends less time on the ground so the cadence is usually higher in this regard, and your pace quickens naturally whether you like it or not. 

In the end, runners with tight or weak hamstrings don't have the strength required to pull the leg up and under the body to allow the foot to come down onto the midfoot.  What ends up happening is that the foot stays very low to the ground, which is a problem with runners having strides that are too short, and their running stride ends up resembling walking, where they kick the foot forward at the last second, hitting with a heel strike.  I see this dozens of time per day down on the National Mall in DC (a running haven) with runners in Newton's, Kinvara's, Vibram's, or barefoot.  I hypothesize that these runners are, a) misinterpreting what it means to run with a "shorter, quicker stride," b) lacking hamstring strength and/or working an office job, c) unaware of how to move their legs, or d) running too slowly.  Whatever the case may be, it's not entirely about the shoes.  It's about the body and knowing how to run.  If I have weak hamstrings and tight hips and then I take off my shoes, how has my strength and flexibility changed?

Jesse Kropelnicki, owner of QT2 Systems, LLC and run coach to some of the fastest Ironman runners in the world, produced a great video explaining why hip flexibility is important for good mechanics.  As stated above, when your foot leaves the ground with a heel-flicking motion, you would then pull it up toward your butt and then forward with your hamstring.  How much you pull it upward is what is known as stride length.  Stride length is what takes place behind the body, not in front.  Many runners think lengthening their stride means reaching farther out in front of the body with their foot.  You can see how this would lead to landing with a straight leg and heel striking, instead of having a slight bend in the leg upon impact.  Stride length is how much ground you cover from left-foot contact to the next left-foot contact.  Flexible hips help in this way because they would allow your upper leg (thigh) to have a greater (more open) angle during this "recovery phase" of the stride.  A flexible hip would allow your thigh and the rest of your leg to move farther back during the recovery phase of running, thereby creating longer "flight time" for your body (stride length) before the elasticity of your tendons whips your leg back through (quickly) with the aid of good hamstring strength.  The fastest runners in the world have both greater stride length and a faster stride rate.  Usain Bolt of Jamiaca (100-meter gold medalist) is a prime example of both.  But do we really want to bring the mechanics of a sprinter into our distance running?  Yes!

When I review running form with my runners I want them to think of themselves as sprinters, all the time.  The benefits are good forward lean, longer strides, and a midfoot strike.  If I can get them doing more strength training for the hamstrings, hips, and glutes, then their endurance will increase independently of their actual run training.  Too many runners see sprinting and distance running as two separate entities instead of viewing them as one in the same.  The only difference is that endurance runners take relatively shorter strides.  Watch the 2011 Cherry Blossom 10-Miler pro race.  What is "short" about their strides?  Nothing.  It's only relatively short if you compare it to the type of stride they could bust out during a 100m sprint.  If you watch Carl Lewis and Ryan Hall run side by side, you'll see the same exact mechanics, it's just that Lewis is maxing out his stride as a sprinter, as he should, but Hall would still be running with good sprint mechanics during his marathon.  It's not uncommon for top college distance runners to workout with the sprint coach during the week.  So in teaching folks how to run, I attempt to employ sprint drills on the track, getting them away from jogging and more into running (like the old Pearl Izumi ads).

When you want to focus on improving your run form, aim to land with your leg bent and under the hips, or slightly in front of the hips, because a straight leg implies you are reaching in front of you, similar to walking.  A straight leg, therefore, typically goes hand-in-hand with heel striking.  But it's more than just focusing on a bent leg; you also need to train your hamstrings and hips to move through a greater range of motion, like a sprinter, so that the foot can come up after the heel flick and then fall downward to the ground to strike flat-footed (midfoot), instead of kicking the foot forward like kicking a soccer ball.  The other benefit to using the hamstrings to pull the foot higher under the body is that your leg now becomes a shorter lever, and we know from our high school physics class that a shorter lever is a faster lever.  This is the same rationale applied to using a compact arm swing at all times.  Your cadence can therefore remain high when you lengthen your stride, there is no need to sacrifice stride rate when increasing stride length.  Again, look at Usain Bolt as the prime example.

Running correctly almost feels like you're doing one-legged cycling drills.  Train your hips to be more flexible and train your hamstrings to have greater concentric and eccentric strength and you'll be more likely to have better mechanics.  By running faster in training, you'll be moving closer to natural running.  Kids have great form because they sprint!  Kids play games, like tag, baseball, basketball, that involve sprinting.  I can't recall ever seeing kids play a game that involved pacing themselves or jogging. 

The type of shoe you wear is more related to tipping you toward heel striking or midfoot striking, it's not the only factor.  Heel strikers will continue to heel strike even in minimalist shoes unless they change their mental approach to running.  Midfoot strikers will continue to land midfoot even in thicker, traditional run shoes because they've got good mechanics engrained in their brains and nervous systems.  To reiterate, minimalist shoes are a good first step (pun intended) toward good running mechanics, but without knowing how to run like a sprinter, your endurance running would continue to be labored and the nagging injuries would persist.

The final advice in this department is something that is not always politically correct in the running world: Perhaps by being more competitive with your running you'll become more likely to engage in natural running due to faster paces.  If you are now thinking, "yes, but I'll get tired more easily and won't be able to run as far."  Then I agree 100%, thus my reasoning that not everyone is cut out for longer distance events…at least not yet.  There is such a thing as running too slowly.  Many runners don't want to put themselves in a competitive environment and/or don't want to push themselves to run hard, so they jog at a very relaxed pace and say, "I just want to enjoy the run."  I do agree with this mantra and coach many runners who I don't push to be competitive.  However, for many runners, it's the mentality of running slowly that puts them into unnatural running form.  I employ lots of patience with my runners.  I often encourage them not to sign up for marathons and Ironman races because they don't quite have the full-body strength needed to maintain a solid pace (a.k.a. good run mechanics) at the longer distances. This is where I jokingly dub myself as the crusher of hopes and dreams, but I know it's worth it in the long run (pardon the pun).  My runners will be more successful at the longer distances when they're patient because they'll have better mechanics and therefore fewer injuries.  Hey, they'll even be faster!  It's fun to be fast!  So if you are experiencing shortness of breath when correctly changing your stride, and the cadence is faster, the pace is faster, and you suddenly feel out of shape again, don't sweat it.  You're now running correctly, you're running naturally, and you can now safely build toward the longer distances again.

DC Running Coach, LLC offers Running 101 sessions for anyone wanting a personal review of his or her running form. Best of luck with your new stride!

Mike

*There are certainly more details about running form that could have been covered, like arm swing, cadence, posture, etc, but that is beyond the scope of this blog as it pertains to run shoes and the mental approach to running.  Check out Part 3 HERE.

6/13/11

Barefoot Running: Overrated

This is Part 1 of a two-part Blog on the relationship between running form and footwear.  Click HERE for Part 2.

The run community is still in the midst of an explosion of enthusiasm!  More people are running for fitness, more runners are moving on to the Marathon and Half-Marathon distances, races are selling out quicker, and more races are appearing on the scene.  The tip of the iceberg in the latest installment of running enthusiasm is the hype surrounding barefoot running and minimalist run shoes.  The hype exists because there now appears to be an answer (a magic pill) to the riddles plaguing most runners, namely, injuries.

Every company that makes running sneakers has put out their version(s) of minimalist shoes (e.g., Nike's Free, Saucony's Kinvara).  On paper, the Vibram Five Finger models are the middle ground between running in sneakers and the other end of the spectrum, running barefoot.  The concept of a minimalist shoe isn't recent; just take a look at the sport of track & field, whose athletes have been wearing lightweight racing spikes (or flats) for decades.  I won't delve into the history of the running shoe industry; Danny Abshire, in his book Natural Running, has accomplished this task with a thorough and well-written chapter. 

The theory is that running barefoot, or running in minimalist shoes, will reduce injuries because the brain will sense less cushioning/padding in the heel, thereby naturally forcing the runner to land more on the midfoot.  The benefit to landing on the midfoot is a reduction in both braking forces and rotational forces, as compared to those forces that occur with a heel strike.  However, simply running barefoot (or minimalist) does not guarantee this correction from a heel strike to a midfoot strike.  There are factors at play that determine foot strike other than what's attached (or not attached) to your feet (more on that later).

*There are other benefits to a midfoot strike, compared to a heel strike, namely, faster cadence, faster speed (with all else being equal), and less strain on the muscles in the back of the leg.  These benefits will be addressed in Part 2 of this blog.

Notice I am not using the term "forefoot".  The term forefoot is getting lots of runners in trouble, as they are misinterpreting this to mean landing on the toes or even the ball of the foot without ever dropping the rear of the foot toward the ground.  This is not preferred unless you are a 100m – 400m sprinter.  Trying to run 5k through marathon distances on your toes, or the balls of your feet, is most likely going to strain your calves and/or the muscles in your feet, not to mention make you more unstable over uneven terrain.  To distinguish a forefoot strike from a midfoot strike (as is done in some empirical studies) is like splitting hairs, and a "forefoot" strike in these studies does not imply the runners were landing on their toes.  I argue that it's better to eliminate the term forefoot altogether, given that misinterpretation of the term has the potential for adverse effects.  Think "midfoot" and you'll be okay.

Getting back to the main issue, there should be a distinction between running barefoot and running in minimalist sneakers, for which I would argue much more support for the latter and reiterate the title of this Blog—running barefoot isn't something we should avoid, rather, it's just overrated.  There isn't anything you can accomplish running barefoot that you can't accomplish in minimalist sneakers, other than perhaps getting some nice puncture wounds from debris on the ground.  Granted, you can find nice stretches of grass to run on for some striders or take some laps on the grass field inside your local track.  However, I don't think any coach would promote those instances as legitimate stand-alone run training (it's simply not enough volume, agreed?).  So while I do think there can be a time and a place for barefoot running (hey, I grew up as a kid with a big backyard), I also think it does more harm than good, given the type of training an adult runner would try to implement with today's city streets and layout of state roads.

I felt that Abshire communicated similar points in Natural Running.  He acknowledges the proprioceptive benefits of barefoot running, but also acknowledges it's not very practical in the environment of today's cities.  As a dual-role coach-personal trainer, I promote the proprioceptive benefits of ditching the shoes during strength training, but I will assert that becoming sidelined with a freak injury while attempting to move into barefoot running is not worth the grief you will experience after being forced to take that unfortunate break in training.

Despite what I've written so far, injury from taking a wrong step here and there is not the more important argument against barefoot running.  For instance, there is some research to suggest running barefoot actually imposes more stress on the lower leg than running in shoes.  In a recent blog from the doctors/writers at The Science of Sport, they quoted the Lieberman study (which could have used more control groups) that showed barefoot running often led to no change in foot strike, and also led to increased impact forces when continuing to heel strike (as one might expect).  So, are we damned if we do, damned if we don't?  No.  And this is where I think minimalist run shoes pay the role of Equalizer.

As I stated previously, the claims that barefoot running grants runners a higher degree of proprioception can also be applied to lighter sneakers and those without much elevation in the heel.  This is where Abshire enters his Newton running shoe (although I'm a Saucony fan myself).  However, having stated the above, the key element to proper run mechanics, specifically, foot strike, is knowing how to run.  Most runners have to overcome some measurable disadvantage, like muscular weaknesses/imbalances, to gain good run mechanics.  In Lieberman's study, they referred to running "skill" or "familiarity" in relation to how much a runner is affected (if at all) by the transition to running barefoot.  The skill mentioned in this study was whether or not the runners had barefoot running experience, but there is additional "skill" required (in the traditional sense of the term) for good mechanics and that is knowing how to move your legs through the proper motion, starting from the instant the feet contact the ground.

I will paraphrase the finding of the above study and stretch it into the anecdotal evidence I see every day as a running coach, not to mention as an impartial observer to the hundreds of runners I see daily on the National Mall in DC.  There are throngs of runners heel striking while running barefoot, and in Vibrams, and in other minimalist shoes.  "Good" runners can run in construction boots or they can run barefoot, it doesn't matter.  When you have good running form (via foot strike) you can run virtually any number of miles in any type of footwear on any type of run surface and still have a very low predisposition to injury (name your injury).  This is attributable to the required hip flexibility and hamstring strength to move the legs through the correct range of motion; therefore, every stride hits the ground in the same fashion.  The footwear and the running surface, and even how many miles are being run, become irrelevant.  There's simply not much stress on the bodies of good runners, regardless of how fast they run (good runners come in all speeds).  However, admittedly, the pro athletes make better candidates to be a poster-child for all the new minimalist shoes.  Most of us have some catching up to do before we can safely and confidently say how wonderful the minimalist shoes have been to our bodies.  I would say it takes even longer before we can say the same thing about running barefoot.  Again, I point to the Sport Scientists Blog for a thorough explanation of why barefoot running is not for everyone, and could even be avoided altogether.

There are plenty of factors preventing the middle-50% of runners from achieving the sought after proper run mechanics.  Here are the 3 major factors contributing to proper running form and injury prevention: 1) strength and flexibility in the hamstring and hip, 2) what kind of shoes you run with ("traditional" vs. minimalist), and 3) the one factor everyone forgets about is quite simply knowing how to run.  If everyone ran like their 8-year-old cousin, there would be much fewer running injuries.  Call it a shameless plug for a running coach, but I'll explain what this means and address these 3 issues in Part 2 of this blog

Good luck!

Mike

6/9/11

Track Workouts & Racing in the Summer




To follow up on the last blog about running in hot/humid conditions, I want to give more tips on running in the summertime.  

First, racing in the heat is tough, especially the longer distances.  There aren't many summer marathons scheduled in hot regions for this reason.  Some race directors are quite honest about discouraging beginners from entering their marathon because of the safety concerns.  During the summer, I recommend short-distance racing for the runners I coach. Fortunately there are twilight races in the DC area.  Check the calendars.  

I rarely cancel the group track workouts I coach because there are many ways to get around having to scratch the workout completely or moving it indoors to a treadmill.  Everyone should obviously know their limits, and not everyone is affected the same way by the weather.  When considering a tempo workout on the track, the general alterations to your workout are to, a) slow the pace ~10 - 15 seconds per mile, b) take an extra 20 - 30 seconds between reps, c) cut the distance of the reps 200 - 400 meters, and d) reduce the number of reps you are running.  In some instances, you can take all four precautions.  The idea is to keep getting exposure to the elements without overheating yourself and/or getting too far out of the training (heart rate) zone.  

We all know the importance of hydrating and we all see the popularity of water bottle systems, like Fuelbelt, being used on distance runs, but I am surprised at how few runners hydrate during track workouts.  Your heart rate is obviously higher here than on your distance run, so why not take extra steps to keep the heart rate down?  You need to keep water in the muscles to keep them functioning optimally.  Being hydrated has less to do with whether or not you have cotton mouth than it does the state of your muscles, specifically, preventing premature fatigue.  There's a thin line between being tough and being foolish.  The goal of every track workout is quality reps.  The instant you become dehydrated on the track, you're engaging in low quality training.  In other words, in order to race fast, you have to train fast.  Take a water bottle with you and hydrate between reps to keep the heart rate down and to have a high-quality workout. 

As far as going shirtless (for the guys) or wearing a sports bra, it can be an individual preference.  The benefit, even compared to wearing a lightweight singlet, is that less skin coverage is better in terms of sweat evaporation and cooling the body.  However, if it's a relatively long run/race on a bright, sunny day, the direct rays against your skin will add to your core body temperature, so experiment and choose wisely.  If you anticipate racing in hot/humid conditions it's a good idea to do a training run in the exact clothes in which you're going to race (hat/visor included, if applicable).  Then you'll know if your race clothes are comfortable enough.  There should be no surprises on race day. 

Also consider whether or not you have the capacity to change your race goals in drastic weather.  Some athletes are not wise enough to do this, so they end up feeling like the day was unsuccessful because they only focused on the finish time or certain splits instead of keeping things in perspective and having multiple goals (e.g.,process goals).

Finally, embrace the opportunity to run on a rainy days (not a thunderstorm, just rain).  The rain will keep you cool.  I will admit there is a bit of toughness that develops from training in the elements, but it does not (and should not) have to be a constant.  Knowing that running in the humidity each week can be difficult, running in the rain does make some sense.  Plus, it could rain on race day and you'll know ahead of time how you handle it.  Don't let it ruin your plans.  If it's raining, then see it as a chance for a PR—most running records are set on overcast days with temperatures in the 50-60s.

Train hard!

Mike

6/6/11

New Considerations to Beat the Heat


Summer is here.  In the DC (Mid-Atlantic) region most people equate summer with heat and humidity.  The whole running community is ready to dispense its articles on this topic reminding you to hydrate, run earlier in the morning, and to wear breathable clothing, but here are a few tips for runners you might not catch anywhere else:

1.  Run in the heat!  Acclimation is the best guard against the adverse effects of the summer weather.  You need exposure in order to adapt.  Don't expect to set a PR on a hot days (unless you're a beginner or don't have many races under your belt), but you can ensure you hit your full potential for a given day by acclimating to minimize the adverse effects of the weather.  Fitness in general is another great guard against the heat, so keep running outside and be patient.  You'll notice that the fitter runners have less issues in the summer.

2.  Related to the first point, let go of your pacing goals.  Ideal temperatures for setting a PR is mid-50's to low 60's.  Again, unless you're a beginner without much racing experience, it's harder to set a PR with each degree increase in temperature.  This is especially true at the longer distances.  Ditch the Garmin and enjoy the run.  If it's a race, adjust your goals.  Many Garmin runners are unwilling to make this sacrifice, so they end up feeling slow without truly understanding how much the odds were stacked against them.

3.  Get out of the air conditioning.  If you are a serious athlete shooting for a big race that is in a hot and humid climate, then you should avoid living in an air conditioned world for about 2 weeks before the race (and in general).  If you are serious about improving race performance and are looking for little advantages here and there, this is a big one: Stop living in the A/C.  We here stories about people passing out (or worse) during hot and humid race conditions, but by no means does it mean you can't adapt to heat.  How do some people do it?  We are animals primed for acclimation, so get used to the heat by turning off the A/C at home (use fans) and drive with the windows down in the car.  Turning off your A/C for the summer will allow you to acclimate to the elements more quickly.  This tip is only practical if racing is a high priority to you, so this tip is not for everyone.  

4.  Wear a visor, not a hat.  Visors and hats are beneficial if you don't run with sunglasses, but I am partial to visors for three reasons, a) you want to aid in the body's ability to let heat escape from the top of the head, b) it's ensured that the cold water you are dumping on your head to stay cool will make contact with your head and not be absorbed by a hat, and c) they are a tad bit lighter, and as comical as that sounds, think running over a long course.  If you're balding on top, then a hat is probably your better option.

5.  Get a haircut!  Contrary to popular belief, we don't lose more heat through our heads, but we don't want to trap it either.  If you're running with a Fuelbelt (or similar), pouring water on your head can keep the body temperature down on a hot day due to the number of blood vessels near the scalp (brain), so consider getting a shorter haircut to let the water make it to your scalp.  Heart rate increases naturally on hotter days because in addition to blood being demanded by the exercising muscles, more blood must also be transferred to the skin to aid in sweating (the cooling process).  So a shorter haircut may produce less sweating by not inhibiting the escape of heat. Consider it a "summertime haircut" and then you can unleash the hippie within and grow your hair out again once the winter rolls around. 

6.  Run at night.  It is cooler in the morning, but also more humid.  Evening runs will be less humid, but higher temps.  Pick your poison, see if evening runs are a better option for you. 

To summarize, there are ways of getting around the heat/humidity in the summer without having to cancel your runs.  Consider your gear, from head-to-toe, including shades, visors, hats, wicking clothes (no cotton), thin socks, sun block, etc.  You should always be well hydrated ("drink before you're thirsty"), but make sure you have a Fuel Belt and also have places where you can stop if needed (at least to douse your head).  Then, if all else fails, you should at least be able to do your run inside on a treadmill, there's no shame in that, as it's better than skipping the workout altogether.  Finally, check the weather in advance to see if you can rearrange your weekly schedule around the hotter days.  In the end, consider what you can do to become better acclimated to the heat (lifestyle changes).  

As Tom Petty reminds us, keep running and "Don't Back Down" in the summer weather! 

Train hard (and be smart)!

Mike