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!