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 rhythm, 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 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 that "dreaded hill that won't end." 

Train hard!



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,



Total Workout Volume

Your doctor and I both want your HR to get up around 70% of maximum (or higher) for at least 30 minutes, three times per week.  That’s basically three jogs per week.  For beginners, I refer to this short-term goal of running three days per week for 30 minutes as the “doctor’s orders program.”  The runners I coach ask me on occasion if yard work or mowing the lawn counts as cross-training (XT), or if hiking counts as strength training (ST).  My answer is that it depends on whether or not the HR increases.  Meaning, it depends on who is asking and the nature of the hike or yard work.  For some folks, a hike is a blistering workout (no pun intended), so if the hike drives up the HR then of course it’s XT.  However, if the hike was equivalent to “a walk through the woods,” then no, in a technical sense, it wasn’t a workout. 

If hiking is going to count as ST, then the individual most likely needs to take “the path less traveled” so that the leg muscles are working to overcome rocks and/or steep hills.  This ensures that elements of the hike are equivalent to elements of ST.  This same rationale applies to yard work.  Someone’s HR while in a kneeling position is probably no different than when washing dishes (hardly XT).  However, depending on other elements of the yard work, it may be a good hamstring workout, especially if bending and lifting movements are done with flawless form, as in not overusing the back muscles.  So in this instance, yes, yard work may be ST, the same way shoveling snow may count as ST. 

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) in a program, it is these two elements that can get more attention off the bat.  The off-season is typically where total training volume (all elements of training combined) is, or should be, at its highest in order to change body composition and prepare the body for the increased RV that lies ahead.  At any local gym, the body builders (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.  That’s a great deal of total work.  I’ll ignore the dietary and psychological aspects of their approach for now (it’s not important to the main point), but their bodies show the results of their high-volume training.  Similarly, elite Ironman triathletes do lots of workouts during the week, are active all day, every day, and they’re as fit as fit can be.

Recalling the expression “Sweat once per day,” I allow runners to choose any activities that make them sweat—it could be hiking, yard work, or a Zumba class.  Open days are the days for my athletes to explore this option.  The total time spent moving around each day is what is meant by total work.  It doesn’t have to be run-specific all the time.  Make time each day to be energetic.  A body in motion will stay in motion.  The more someone trains, workouts, or exercises, then the more he/she will want to do so in the future.  Fitness is invigorating and it perpetuates itself, and there is much scientific evidence to support this claim.  A workout does not have to cause one to be tired for the rest of the day (long runs might be the exception).  On the contrary, training typically increases energy levels for the rest of the day and the next day.  Walk around at the office, take the stairs, bike commute, try a group exercise class—the list is endless.  Fluffy words like “dedication” and “motivation” can be measured by the ability to make the time for physical activity, even with a busy work schedule. 

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!



Ditch Your Garmin

Pace vs. Intensity. There is a difference between pace and intensity, with intensity being much more important for runners due to the myriad of factors that can affect the pace. Trying to hold yourself to a given (numerical) pace without accounting for temperature, humidity, terrain, wind, hydration/ fueling status, energy levels, clothing selection (ability to sweat), and race experience may do you more harm than good in a race.  

It's very possible that holding yourself to a given intensity will bring you to your predicted- or goal-pace (or vice versa), but always consider the race conditions (course + weather) and your body's real-time status first.  This might sound like common sense, but then why might Garmin runners are less likely to be at peace with their finish time?  Answer: Their craving for data might be too strong.  

The same personality trait that wants to buy the Garmin in the first place is the same personality that might overanalyze (key word) the data. Obviously, this does not describe all runners who use a Garmin, but in my experience as a coach, a Garmin watch too often tells the runner they could have run faster, which leads to a dose (great or small) of feeling unsuccessful.  As much as a runner wearing a Garmin might say, "oh, it's a hilly course, I'll just run based on feel," I bet you dollars to gel packs that he/she will forget all about that idea once the gun goes off and when they take that first peek down at their watch, and mutter, "boy, I'm way slower than my PR right now."  Talk to that same runner after the race and you'll hear, "well, it was a hilly course, I ran slow, it wasn't a good race for me." Aren't the hills supposed to affect your pace?  Yes.  So then why would the runner use the phrase, "slow" and "not a good race"?  

Again, I offer that it's the personality of the runner that adores data and numbers; therefore, faster pace (faster numbers) are more attractive to look at and are typically dominate this runner's thoughts mid-race or mid-workout.  In turn, this data analysis creates an unlikelihood to accept the slower paces that are predictable based on race conditions (terrain + weather). Ultimately, the runner feels slow, or is less likely to feel successful.  I see this distinction all the time between the runners I coach who use a Garmin vs. runners I coach who have a simpler watch using only elapsed minutes and seconds.  Having stated the above, you can imagine how much worse it gets when the Garmin signal cuts out and throws off their pacing.

Bottom line?  Race based on intensity (perceived exertion). Garmin watches (and heart rate monitors) will not always guide you accurately. Knowing how your body is reacting in real-time is more important than the actual pace you are holding.  For instance, being very in-tune to your rhythmic breathing and stride length during training will enable you to know whether or not your effort can be sustained during a race.  I would like to see more runners ditch their Garmin completely for a greater portion of their training.  When such a watch is being worn during adverse conditions, then it should merely be satisfying curiosity.  

The pace is merely a byproduct of the course conditions and shouldn't dominate one's thoughts. Proper pacing is related to the phrase "staying in your element."  Your element is your stride length, cadence, posture, amount of tension in your body, the nature of your thoughts (positive vs. negative), and your breathing, which are all of the things we hopefully tune-in to occasionally during training. 

Train hard!



Self-talk is a Skill That Requires Practice

Positive self-talk is a skill that requires practice just like any physical skill, and it lends itself to confidence.  Here's how:

First, let's take a quick, recent example from one of the runners I coach.  Joe cracked 3 hours for the first time in his recent March marathon.  Yes, hard work pays off and he was well prepared to run under 3 hours, but the reason I use his race as an example is because the weather was rainy with a bit of cold and wind.  These are certainly adverse conditions, but they are something we experienced all winter long.  So, rather than let the conditions turn any self-talk to the dark side, Joe kept his composure and reminded himself that "I've trained through these conditions all winter."  Positive language = positive mood = confidence.

Does the weather affect our bodies and pacing?  Yes, absolutely.  The goal times I send my athletes typically reflect the race conditions.  However, the weather does not have to affect your mind.  That is the difference.  One definition of confidence that I use with my athletes is "the feeling that you've been there before."  That's a common one for public speakers, too.  In Joe's case (and all of you as well), you have run in non-ideal conditions before. Remind yourself of that.  That is one method to keep the self-talk positive.  

Could Joe have run a minute or two faster in better weather?  Sure, maybe, probably.  The weather can affect our pacing via its effect on the body, but keep it together upstairs (composure) and have positive mantras (self-talk) that you actually believe in.  You can't BS yourself!  It doesn't work that way.  That is why the point of this blog is to remind you that positive self-talk is a skill that requires practice in training.  You can't just hope that it works on race day because it often won't.  

To think about this another way, here is a message I just sent to another DCRC runner, and I know it will help others as well:

Pressure and anxiety can be habit forming, like Pavlov's dogs and classical conditioning. Soaking up all the positive results of a workout/race while dismissing the negative aspects is definitely a skill that great athletes practice.  Knowledge is power in this regard.  If you know why something is hard or why a workout is going a particular way, then that should eliminate any negative thoughts (anxiety, pressure, "I'm slow").  Many people can easily point to the factors/variables in a race/workout and understand the practical effects, such as wind, hills, etc.  However, the big, big difference lies in how they interpret it at the moment, which unfortunately is the not-so-easy part for many runners.  Meaning, what exactly do you say to yourself at that moment?  "It's windy...I'm slow" (period, that's it) vs. "My pace is off an ideal time because it is windy, I'm still running well".  I believe that many runners adopt the former self-talk, instead of latter.  

Moods are transient; they can come and go based on thoughts.  The thoughts and feelings come from the language we use when interpreting situations, the same way phobias occur...it's related to the exact phrases a person says to him/herself when entering a crowded subway car and then beginning to feel "boxed in".  So, continue to practice positive self-talk as a skill.  It's not voodoo, it's reality.  The brain changes chemicals based on your mood, and your mood comes from your thoughts and language.

Train hard (and keep it positive)!




Pink Floyd’s song “Time” has been my favorite song since I was a teenager.  The lyrics are timeless and apply to everyone at some time in his/her life.  Time is a very peculiar concept, a concept made all the more mind-boggling given the notion that it’s an expression of distance/movement and might not exist otherwise.  Would it even exist without the universe’s existence?  I don’t mind engaging in a deep conversation on such a topic; I enjoy a good mind melt.  On a more casual basis, we can all agree that time is relative.  For example, how quickly is your next big race approaching, like the first race of the season, your spring Half, or the Boston Marathon?  Is two months a long amount of time or a short amount of time?  Well, it depends because time is relative.  Relative to what?  At this point I’ll chime in (pun intended) and say it’s relative to the degree of confidence you have in your preparation, which is also a byproduct of how much emotional stock you have in the race.

If you’re feeling confident in your abilities for an upcoming race, then the race can feel like a long time away.  If you’re not feeling confident, then you may feel like you’re behind the 8-ball (not good).  If you don’t have much emotional stock in the race (maybe it’s not an A-race or you’re jogging it with friends), then once again the race has plenty of time to arrive, even if it’s a few weeks away.  On the other hand, if this race will be part of defining who you are as a runner and how you measure success (lots of emotional stock), then maybe a race six months away feels like it’s coming up too soon.  Catch my drift?  So, as the song lyrics state, you either fritter and waste the hours in an off-hand way (lots of time, no perceived pressure or time crunch) or you’re running and running to catch up with a sinking sun (not enough time).

I understand that personality can be a factor in this equation.  Perhaps a worrisome self or type-A personality feels the impending race looming on the horizon, causing pressure, stress, and feelings of being under-trained and not up to par (behind the 8-ball).  Therefore, there’s a dreaded time crunch.  On the contrary, perhaps a mellow self and type-B(uddha) personality views any race as having ample time to prepare.  “Which is which, and who is who?” (I slipped in another Floyd lyric there).

This is a department where a coach can help.  In knowing each athlete’s personality, I know which elements of running, ST or XT can be matched emphasized accordingly to redirect their focus away from the race date.  It seems like merely a distraction, but the focus needs to be on the process goals anyway, not the race date.  In this way, I offer assurance that we have enough time to work together and prepare.  In essence, we’re adjusting the perceived timelines.  As with many aspects of athletics, the solution rests in proper goal setting.  The more realistic and better managed the goals, the more confidence that exists, along with an increased likelihood to feel that there is ample time.

As a quick aside, this is an easy “sports as a metaphor for life” analogy.  Whichever personality-type you possess, do you carry this same approach into the workplace?  Managing your own expectations and happiness in your career, with deadlines and a daily to-do list, is related to your mental approach.  For instance, is it realistic that you’ll accomplish all the tasks you’ve given yourself this week?  If not, then here comes the stress and worry.  Similarly, if the goals related to the task are too challenging (unrealistic), then that deadline will certainly feel much shorter than it actually is.  Here comes more stress, less sleep, and the sniffles and a cough...

Getting back to running: I’m always going to try to help my runners become as fit as possible in the most efficient manner, yet when taking the science and physiology of the training into account (periodization) then yes, some goals take more time than others.  This understanding reminds us, “Knowledge is power.”  Knowledge becomes the building blocks of attitudes, whereas the knowledge about the timeline of our goals shapes our attitude (mental approach) as to what is realistic.  Physical therapists should be operating under this same principle—giving athletes knowledge about the timelines for strength gains and/or recovery from injuries so that there is more confidence in the rehab process.  In turn, the rehab won’t be derailed by a perception of a time crunch.

My goal is to have athletes thinking that life is long and that there is plenty of time to achieve their race goals for the entire year.  Many of the folks I’ve coached have shared their longer-term goals with me, and all of them have demonstrated much patience and maturity in adjusting their goals on the fly mid-season, which adds to the overall feeling of success.  That last point is a hallmark of champion athletes.  Take it day-to-day or week-to-week, and don’t put the cart before the horse.  Enjoy training in the present day, live in the present, and the races will get here when they get here.  I know that’s sometimes easier said than done.  If it feels like the big event can’t get here fast enough and you’re chomping at the bit, and even a few days before the race can feel like an eternity, then remind yourself that there’s nothing you can do to change the clocks.  You can also remind yourself that this eagerness probably means you are ready!

The take-home message is to mentally push these races back so that you can feel confident that there is enough time to prepare, as well as to enjoy life in the present.  Does this mean that we adapt a lax, passive attitude toward training and life?  No!  It means that you don’t need to put a sense of urgency on your training.  If you struggle to do this, then what can you do to reconfigure your mental approach to training and racing?

Enjoy the bending of the strings:

Train hard!