Sunday, February 26, 2012

Masters Running Advice - Top 10 List (Part II)

This is a continuation of Masters Running Advice - Top 10 List (Part I):

#5 You are Smarter than 90% of the Guys 1/2 Your Age
'Smart' is not really the right word here, because you can do a cycling hill climb against a 20 year old rocket scientist and probably kick his butt if you have the right experiences and he does not.

If you've lived a cognitive and introspective life, then with those years comes wisdom. All those countless articles you've read on lactate threshold, equipment, nutrition, Spanx - Uhmm - well, maybe not so much that.

And the time you've spent living in that body of yours. You know how most of your bits and pieces respond to various training plans, workouts and recovery rituals. You know your weak spots and can zero in on them. You are attentive during a run and can zone in and zone out as needed on certain little details in the middle of a race.

You know what it's like to suffer. You know that it's 'discomfort', not pain - because chances are by now, you've been through something where you experienced real pain. You know that the suffering actually has a limit - and that mostly, it's built into our bodies to scare primal beings into backing off. It's like the 'beep-beep' of the electric fence. You know you can get a bit closer though.

You understand tactics, even if it's because you've learned by making mistakes. Like going out too fast. You've done it enough to know you can't bank time. You'd be surprised how many 30 year olds are unconvinced of that fact. You know how to come around a corner and surge so that when the racer challenging you from behind comes around the corner and sees the gap you've opened, it's that much more mentally tough for them to close it. You know to keep the stride short on uphills, stay tall, and kick over the top instead of the rookie stall. You've run more miles and your body has spent more time adapting to the nuances of your sport.

You understand recovery and sleep. You have the discipline to know how important it is. I know I can generally tell when I am within 4 hours of being recovered enough for my next run. And I've pushed a run without adequate recovery enough times to learn my lesson. You know rest is PART of training, not an ABSENCE of training.

Remember in Kung Fu when the master told Grasshopper to take the pebble from his hand? The master knew he wasn't physically quicker. He just knew that Caine wasn't in control of his emotions. He telegraphed.

#4 Strength Training is No Longer Optional
As you get older, you start to lose muscle mass. Studies have shown that around age 45, you start to lose about 1% per year. This accelerates to about 2% per year after age 50.

There are a couple ways to slow this down. You can start with more muscle mass or you can simply 'tell' your body you still need all that muscle. You accomplish both of these by incorporating regular strength training into your routine. And don't worry. You're not going to 'bulk up' and end up looking like Ahhnold. That takes years of focused training coupled with a genetic gift for looking that way. Nope - you'll just be stronger.

As a bonus, you'l probably get faster and / or have increased endurance. And you'll have less aches and pains in the morning after a tough run. Especially if you focus on the right exercises to compliment your sport. But in general, you can't go wrong with things like lunges, squat to press, planks, push-ups and pull-ups. Just search for something like "strength training for <insert activity here>" on Google and you'll get articles, pictures, videos - all free. How cool is that?

#3 Improve Your Economy
No, not the fiscal kind. Economy here is defined as how efficiently you can use oxygen while maintaining a particular pace. You could broaden the term to simply say it's about maximizing the effort you need to exert into pure movement in the desired direction. For example - clenching your fist is not very economical. You are simply standing still - letting muscles fight against each other, all the while dissipating heat and burning energy.

Over the years, your body adapts to the movement patterns it is asked to do most often - provided you give it the right guidance and practice the proper movements over and over.

Want to know why an East African runner looks like graceful and effortless while running a 5:00 min pace per mile? It's because they've run a lot. Their muscle fibers are aligned to the motion of running. Their neuromuscular system knows how to relax certain muscle groups when opposing groups contract (i.e. they don't fight each other) and how to 'pre-load' the muscle prior to impact with the ground. Their connective tissue has reached just the right degree of 'springiness'. Muscles that are important to running have been emphasized and developed while others are less developed.

A world class cyclist knows how to sit and relax on the bike. They have very little tension in their arms and upper body (and faces). They have a very smooth and efficient pedal stroke. They 'pedal in circles' as opposed to most amateurs that 'pedal in squares' (and death grip the handlebars while their at it). Want to see how well you fare? Unclip one foot and pedal one footed. See how smooth and fast you can do it. Then do the other leg. When you go back to pedaling with both feet - you'll be a tiny bit smoother. Now do that drill and others over a period of years. You'll be more efficient, more economical - i.e. you'll be faster dude.

Bruce Lee once said that "Practice does not make perfect." Rather it is the coupling of practice with a constant attention to improving movement that make us better.

Spend some time getting a form analysis done - preferable someone that video tapes you and knows what to look for. It takes time to incorporate a change to your form - so make sure the recommended change comes from someone credible. Those changes will feel awkward at first, but as your body adapts to the new movement pattern, it becomes second nature. Make small changes at a time and let them sink in.

But most importantly - do your sport in a mindful way. Always be thinking about how to relax more, even at speed. I was running with a friend doing hill intervals. On one of the recoveries I asked him why he clenched up his chest when he was running hard? I told him to think about water flowing uphill. He instantly ran the fastest repeat of the set.

#2 Get a Coach
If the hard work of your youth that you poured into a business or company has paid off, you probably have a bit more disposable income than you had when you were 25 years old. Of all the stuff you can spend your money on in the sport, nothing will be money better spent than having a seasoned vet helping you with your training and form. It's also a nice feeling to have that personalized attention when you're an age grouper. It's nice to feel 'taken care of' to some extent and to not have to worry about the nitty gritty details of training schedule planning.

It's also good to have another perspective. When I ask to change certain things in my schedule, I trust that my coach will push back if I'm doing something I probably shouldn't. Sometimes we can blinded a bit by our own ambition and work ethic - to our detriment. A good coach keeps you on track to your goals.

It's also a motivator to know that someone other than me will be looking at my training schedule. On those days that I'm struggling being mentally motivated to run, or to put in a solid effort, I suck it up because I don't want to put a big goose egg in that day's workout log and have to explain myself. Don't get me wrong - if I know somethings not working that day, I still back off and write it down. But I have to really believe it's more than just laziness to face my coach regarding that workout.

In short - having a coach has made me a better runner.

#1 Share Your Knowledge - but More Importantly, Share your Enthusiasm
Finally - with all that knowledge comes a responsibility to share it (which was part of the motivation for me to write this article). While I'm not one to provide unsolicited advice to the misguided souls I sometimes see pounding away and rolling along on the paths and roads around Denver, I will often offer unsolicited encouragement to someone that looks like their suffering or struggling. Saying to someone 'nice pace', or telling someone that they have a nice smooth stride, or look really relaxed on the bike goes a long way to adding to their motivation.

But anyone that knows me knows that all you have to do is ask a questions, and I'm happy to share what I've read or experienced personally through years of training. Sometimes I spew out more detail than they were probably looking for, but often it's the simplest of questions that unearths the most complex answer. Questions like - "Which bike should I buy?" or "How do I get faster?"

Still - the best advice you can give as an experienced athlete is about how to stay motivated and in love with a sport year after year after year. How do you get up every morning, not eat that doughnut etc... In short - how do you stay consistent?

One of the best answers I've found is when I've crossed the finish line, I head back to the line and cheer everyone else on. I wave when I pass every runner, cyclist and walker out on the road. I joke around with other cyclists when I'm climbing on the bike. And regardless if I'm passing or being passed, I remark, "Nice work!"

postscript: Well, that's it. My top 10. I'm sure if I thought some more I could come up with more or perhaps distill this down to less. But hopefully you found something useful here. And although I started writing this aimed at Masters runners, looking back - much of this could probably apply regardless of your age group. Finally - if you've got other tips that go along with this or comments, send me an eMail. I'd love to hear from you! 

Happy <insert activity here>!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Masters Athlete Advice - Top 10 List (Part I)

Having been a competitive athlete most of my adult life, I definitely have some observations about the transitions I underwent being competitive in the various age groups. Being 48 now, I think I have some good data to share, especially what it means to transition between being a 30-something athlete and a 40-something athlete.

In 10 years I'll probably write another version of this post, but whoa - let's not get ahead of ourselves (or make me any older!). For now, let's stick to the topic at hand - in classic Letterman, 'Top 10' format.

Top 10 Things to Know about Making the Transition to Masters Training and Competition
(a.k.a - Becoming an old guy that doesn't get fat in the winter)

#10 The Field Doesn't Get Easier
I don't know why this is, but the masters ranks (in both men and women) are among the most competitive out there beyond the collegiate. I can speculate that it's because the aging process has a way of 'weeding' out those that are not as committed or talented (or those that are more injury prone). We masters also have more time to train (as the kids get older) and more disposable income to spend on coaching, training camps and equipment than when we were younger. We're also spending less time on distractions like the bar scene and partying late into the night. For whatever reason though, there are many times where I would actually place *better* in the age group below mine (45-49) and sometimes better two age groups down.

What I'm saying here - is that the competition remains strong and relative no matter what your age, but Masters racers in the 40 - 55 year old range are mercilessly competitive. So read on.

#9 Know Thyself
The downside to aging is that you lose lots of natural biological advantages. The upside is that you've spent more time pushing your body and know how it works. You know where your strengths are, weaknesses that need attention, what sits well in your stomach, how much sleep you need, what workouts have the best training adaption for you, how much time you need to recover properly, etc. So leverage this advantage. Really spend time seeking to understand your body and what it's capabilities are. If you don't keep a training log, then now is a good time to start.

#8 You can (and should) still PR
We've all heard that we 'slow down' as we get older. But that statement ignores the fact that most all of us have operated far below our genetic potential for all our lives. So yes, it's true that our genetic ceilings start to lower as we get older, but there is still a ton of head-room to carry us well into our Master years.

Another thing to consider is how long you've been doing a certain activity. Our bodies continue to adapt for periods of 7 to 10 years (often longer) - meaning we get more 'tuned' to a particular activity we train at. So if you were a regional cycling champ in college, you most likely have already seen you glory days. But if you're 40 and you just started running - well then my friend, you have nothing but a road paved with PR's in front of you if you choose to go get them.

As an exclamation point to this - the picture on this blog post is 'Deadly' Ned Overend who was the NORBA Mountain Bike Racing champion from 1986 through 1992 (and one of my personal heros).

In 2010, Ned placed second overall in the Mt. Evans Hill Climb, one of the most grueling and competitive bike races in the country. Not in his age group, not in the citizens - but overall as a pro. Ned was 55 that year.

'nuff said.

#7 You're Days of Crappy Nutrition are Over
Besides being below your genetic potential, you also are most likely leaving another huge potential improvement on the table - specifically the dinner table. My wife is a registered dietitian with a background in sports physiology and nutrition. We both listen to tons of podcasts and read all sorts of nutritional advice from a variety of sources. We eat a pretty healthy diet, yet we are constantly injecting improvements into our  own nutritional plan (i.e. eating).

Good nutrition is something you shouldn't ignore, and not just on race day. Proper nutrition, matched to your training plan means that every day you are getting 100% out of each and every workout and maximizing your recovery and thus your training adaption response from that workout. You'll also spend less time getting sick (i.e. away from training), have healthier joints, bone mass and muscle, and find it a lot easier to manage to a proper lean body mass.

Can you still train and race well eating empty processed foods, being deficient in key vitamins, minerals, amino acids and enzymes and mis-timing all your caloric intake? Sure. But I'm scratching my head trying to figure out why.

#6 You Have More Going On in Your Life - Accept It
As an older athlete, you've probably got a lot more 'other' responsibilities. Increased responsibilities at work and kids are the two big ones that increasingly create a time crunch for fitting in the secondary things like training. These things also create additional stress on our bodies like lost sleep due to sick kids, 7am company meetings or worrying about this or that. Travel for work that puts you in cramped airline seats, restricted access to your usual training cues and facilities as well as being away from your fridge stocked with healthy alternatives (per #7 above) to the near-nightmarish* nutritional qualities of most restaurant food.

*The deeper you delve into proper nutrition, the more you'll realize that words like 'nightmarish' are not that much of an exaggeration. 

And let's not forget that with school age kids comes more opportunities for your immune system, compromised from a particularly tough morning long run, to be totally overwhelmed by the latest strain of genetically mutated viruses sneezed directly into your face by your 5 year old.

Given all the above, many people just give up. It's too tough to keep any kind of reasonable training schedule with all the additional load of 'life' being thrust upon you.

To this I say, 'bollocks'. I feel I'm justified in speaking about this. I have a demanding job, I travel 4x per year to Asia as well as probably 10-15 domestic trips per year on top of that. I have four kids from ages 4 to 21. And yet I've been able to maintain a reasonably consistent training schedule throughout all my 30's and 40's.

What you have to do is prioritize your free time that you do have and get creative at how you work with what you have on your plate. I've amassed a ton of 'tricks' on this subject (so much that it probably needs it's own posting), but here are a few bullet points:
  • TV is a giant time-sink with little residual value. Most training plans could be accomodated completely with time salvaged away from that luminescent 'litter box'
  • It never gets easier to get up early and head out in the cold / rain / dark for a workout. You just get better at dealing with it. Get your own "Sarge"
  • and Google Maps are your friends when trying to figure out a route when traveling
  • Kids LOVE to be involved. Run your easy runs with them, take them to the track, get a jogging stroller / bike trailer, involve them in your home strength workout (they make great weights) - or just play with them outside vigorously as cross training. Bonus points: you can learn alot about proper running form watching your kids run barefoot around the backyard.
  • Schedule your workouts just like meetings. Eat (healthy) at your desk.
  • To be continued in a future post...
Finally, realize that there are some things that are unavoidable, so don't pretend they don't exist. Meaning, if you had to work late and have a choice between doing a recovery run or sleeping - cut your time in half, do some yoga and opt for the sleep. If you've been up all night with a sick child, then doing that hard tempo run may do more harm than any good.

That's the countdown to #6, I'll pick up the final countdown in Part II of this series

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Long Run Nutritional Epiphany

Ok, not really an 'epiphany' but rather a 'slow steeped realization' - but epiphany sounded more exciting for the title of the post - call it marketing.

After my California Marathon race last December, I've been thinking more and more about my nutrition - before / during and after longer races. I've also been doing a lot of reading and listening to podcasts. Ben Greenfield on Endurance Planet podcasts is someone that I've been listening to lately and I've picked up a lot of good nutritional advice that I'm slowly incorporating into my training and every day eating. 

DISCLAIMER: So although I mention a lot of specific products in this post, I don't represent, nor am I paid to advertise these products (specifically UCAN, Hammer and Ultragen). I'm sure there are lots of high quality alternatives. I'm simply passing them along since they are working well for me. 

Somewhere around Christmas time I stumbled on the massive library of articles available on the Hammer Nutrition website.

The information there is overwhelming, but on the home page there is a 'Problem Solver' link. 

Now the two biggest problems I have on what I would term 'relatively high sustained effort over long runs' (i.e. marathon racing) are:

1. Stomach distress
2. Running out of steam at about the 2:30 mark

Normally my pre-marathon and racing nutrition looks something like this: Eat something easily digestible a couple hours out from the start of the race. Then use a sports drink throughout (mostly on course provided) coupled with trying to down gel packets starting at mile 10. This works 'ok' - but on almost all races I've felt some stomach distress even before the gun goes off and I seem to be running out of steam right around the 2:15 mark.

After poking around with the problem solver and recommended articles to read, I hit upon a formula that was worth trying. I also coupled in some advice I got from a coach at Boulder Running Company.

Basically, what Hammer tells you is that for 'longer efforts', eating before-hand starts you down a path that is much better targeted for efforts under 2 hours. For longer efforts - it starts you burning glycogen at too fast a rate, shunting your fat burning side of the equation due to an influx of insulin to offset the blood sugar rise induced by eating a couple hours ahead of time. They say that although you will 'feel' hungry on race morning - the overnight fast has not done anything to reduce your glycogen stores. Eating in fact makes you use your energy systems in a way that is incompatible with racing for more than a couple hours. Here's the article (although I read a few others as well):

So based on combining all that reading, I started experimenting with a formula that I've seemed to hone down to something workable. Here's what I've been trying out for the last few long runs:

No food in the morning. Instead, take in a dose of UCAN about 30mins before the run. 

Then instead of using something like Hammer Heed (sports drink), use Hammer Sustained Energy, mixed in a multi-hour flask. I take a hit off that about every 15 mins, and wash it down with just water (from my hydration pack). The Sustained Energy is listed as 'flavorless' - but the mixture (to me) tastes like watered down pancake batter (but not as sweet). Now I know you are thinking "BLEAHH",  which is EXACTLY what I would have thought, but I can tell you that I've actually found it to be (VERY) surprisingly tasty while running. It goes down easy and stays down.

The above is do-able for racing because all races have water on course. This means I can get away with just carrying a 2.5 hour flask with me and that's it.

Right after the effort I then take in the Ultragen Recovery (Espresso flavored). I've had great luck with this product after hard efforts (not just long runs).

I was kind of skeptical the first time I tried this (incidentally it was while I was in China). But I've followed this now like 4 times and every time the result has been great. My stomach feels better throughout the run than it EVER has and I feel like an Energizer Bunny. I'm just able to hum along with a nice steady energy level. My recoveries have been better too.

So it will be interesting to try out for the Chicago Marathon. For all my other races, I do like the UCAN idea - although eating before shorter race distances doesn't really have the same negative effect (according to the article - in fact; you kind of want to fire off mostly pure glycogen for shorter duration events. But again - I generally always have stomach issues on things like 1/2 marathon distance too, so I may do at lead that instead of trying to figure out what's going to stay down.

I'm sure there are lots of comparable products out there for all of these - but these are working for me extremely well, so I'll stick with the formula.

If nothing else - the articles and content on the Hammer site were of exceptional help to me in cracking a problem that has been dogging me for a while. Thought I would share.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Smokin' the Mill

So yesterday morning I felt a little bit more of a bad-ass in my running. I was doing a tough set of 6x800m repeats that get progressively faster (with 400m recoveries). Pace started at 6:40 (min/mile) on the first one and got 10s / mile faster with the last one being at 5:50 min / mile.

The main reason I felt good about the workout is that it's the same workout I did a year ago, almost to the day - also on a treadmill. I went back and looked at my notes - and it was a tough run for me to complete back then. My specific notes on the 5:50 (last repeat) was that I wasn't sure I'd finish it.

Well, not on this day. For most of the repeats I was listening to a podcast from Endurance Planet. For the last one (knowing it would be tough), I put on Eminem, "Lose Yourself", put on my 'game face', and pretended I was running through the burned out neighborhood where I was born (it wasn't burned out then, but I've seen what it's become via Google street view and can recall the imagery as needed).

And I cranked that sucker. I could have run a full 1600m baby.

But what added to the bad-ass factor is that the treadmill started to emit a burning smell. Now granted, those babies are generally good to about 12mph (and I'm only running 10.3) - but still, I was imagining the whole repeat that the treadmill would start smoking, catch fire, and then explode, noisily grinding to a halt with the sickening sound of meshing gears - right in the middle of the last repeat.

I imagined then stepping off it as it collapsed with a mechanical groan and listed to one side. I'd put up my hands to the room and announce triumphantly,

(in my best Mr. Chao voice from  The Hangover movie),

"THAT WAS ONE SICK RUN BITCHES!" it never caught fire or even smoked. It quietly stopped smelling of burning rubber as I went into the recovery portion of my run. It was probably just some heated up grease spill-over from the last maintenance cycle.

But as I dismounted, I turned back to the line of treadmills and whispered menacingly, "Fear this"

I swear I saw one of them shudder a bit.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Chicago Marathon!

I registered for the Chicago Marathon today! Right when registration opened - I was ready.

Also got my flight (via miles) and reservation at the 'HoJos' (Howard Johnson's) - yeah, it's not fancy, but it's like 1/2 mile from the start / finish - and it was 'relatively' cheap. The sponsor hotel was like $344 / night.... uhhhh... yeah, no. Mine is $135 / night :-)

My previous times put me in the first corral - so I'm going to be chased by about 45,000 people. Yikes - that's intimidating.

I'm really looking forward to it. It will be a major race for my season and the last one. Plus, I really love that city and have spent some time there over the years. So hopefully I'll get some sightseeing in while I'm on course.

We'll see what my target pace is shaping up to be by fall, but my goal is still to run a sub-3 hour marathon. I have a little work to do. Still, sea level and flat as a pancake with a lot of crowds. Now just have to hope for some nice cool weather!

"Shake it on baby now"