Cut It Short?

There is a time and place when we have to cut our runs short. This can be a very difficult choice for many runners, especially, those who have a busy scheduled with little flexibility. So what do you do when, you reach a point in your run and begin to think it might be best to cut it short?

I’ve had this thought a bunch of times out on the trail. The struggle is deciding whether or not this is a real reason to cut a run or if this is a day where you need to push through a tough spot in a run. We all have tough spots in runs and as ultrarunners, it’s very important to learn how to push through those.

There are a few things to take into consideration when making the choice to either push through a training run or to cut is short. Start by asking yourself just how weak and tired you actually feel? If you are exhausted and have nothing to give-cut it short. If it feels more like a time when your energy has just bottomed out but will come back with a snack-get a snack and push on through.

What about the middle? If you’re some where in the middle you have to ask more questions: First, what do you have planned the rest of the day? If you have a jam packed schedule requiring concentration and focus, cut the run short. If you have a day of other physical activities, cut the run short. If you have a day free from mental and physical strain and think you can spend that time recovering on the couch with a good book or movie, go ahead and finish the run.

Second, what has your sleep and rest looked like over the last week? what does your future schedule hold for sleep and rest? If you’ve had little rest and no high quality sleep for the past few days and you’re looking at more of the same, cut the run short. If you’ve had horrible sleep, but this will improve beginning with the next day, go ahead and finish the run.

Third, are you nursing any injuries? if you have that telltale twinge from your ankle, hamstring or hip flexor that says you’re pushing the limit, cut the run short. Running when you feel weak and tired coupled with a problematic area feeling twingy is not a good combination. You could end up taking a week or more off if you make a poor choice in your foot plant or just push the muscle/tendon beyond what it can do that day.

Fourth,  what does your running schedule look like the rest of the week? if you have another hard run in 48 hours, cut your run short. If you have a few easy days or are willing to adjust them to easy days, go ahead and finish the run. BUT you have to be able to stick to the easy days.

Cutting a run short is a difficult decision. You have to learn to listen to your body and know when it’s a head game and when it’s time to rest.

 

The Importance of Interval Training

Love it or hate it, interval training is here to stay and you should be doing it. I’ve never been a big proponent of doing speed work as an ultrarunner. Ultrarunners don’t run “fast” so why should we train fast? it increases your risk of injury and I’d rather focus on things that reduce my risk of injury. So the big questions why would we do interval training as ultrarunners and how do we reduce our risk of injury.

First, let’s address the injury issue. There are things you can do to reduce the possibility of sustaining an injury during interval training. Do a warm up! Run at a slow pace for 10 minutes. Don’t use static stretching before you run. Do use dynamic stretches such as high knees, butt kicks and toy soldiers before you start, but not a ton 20 meters of each is enough. Do three box jumps. Take advantage of your recovery time. If you have a history of hamstring pulls, knee pain, or other lower body injuries do your intervals on hills rather than on flat ground. If your injury prone or coming back from an injury do your intervals on a bike or other stationary exercise equipment. You can even do them in the swimming pool as pool running.

The Why. You should do interval training because at some point you’re going to hit a plateau in your training if you are always running near the same pace. Most of the gains you’ll make will happen early. Later gains will come but much more slowly and then it will feel like you’re not making any progress.

The reason is you’re not challenging your body and it has adapted as far as it’s going to without another stressor. As runners we want to be able to improve the cardiovascular and respiratory systems along with muscle strength. That’s how we get better.  Interval training trains a different part of those same systems. When you make an improvement in one aspect, it increases your ability to make gains in the one that has plateaued.

Interval training is the best way to increase your Vo2 Max and your Lactate threshold, which are two aspects of that same system we use as ultrarunners. Here are a couple workouts you can use to increase both. It’s best to use these your early training blocks and then as you get closer to race day drop these in favor of more race specific training such as climbing/descending, heat training and the like.

Vo2 max: All out for three minutes, recover for three minutes. Repeat 5-8 times. Do this two days a week for four to six weeks.

Lactate threshold: Run as fast as you can sustain for 40 to 60 minutes (like a tempo run). Do this two days a week for four to six weeks. You can break these up into ten minute blocks (ten on ten off) but keep the total hard time as 40-60 minutes.

 

Hip Engagement: Part Two

This is the second part of a two-part post on engaging and strengthening your hips to improve your running and to reduce your injury risk. Here is a link to the first part.

When we analyze our injuries, as we recover from them, we look for ways to prevent the same injury and reduce the risk of other injuries we fear will follow. At times we forget to look upstream and downstream in the kinetic chain. Lower body injuries often times begin in the hips and thus, hip strength and engagement should become an essential part of our training.

  1. Knee-out running.

This one is going to feel awkward, but it helps with knee alignment and getting the max benefit from engaging your glutes. This is a drill not the way that you will run. Part of what the glute does is rotate your hip outward. This outward turn allows you to get maximal hip extension. It’s easiest to practice this on a line such as on a track or the white line at the edge of the road. Try to keep your knee turned out a bit while your feet remain directly beneath you. Start with short distances or 30 seconds a few times during a run and work up to longer durations of 60-90 seconds.

  1. High knees.

High knee drills are the staple of many track teams and there is a reason for it. It works the hip muscles for both legs. You use your abdominals to lift one leg while you get a lengthening in the other hip.

While you’re running be aware of your knee height because this extra length in your hip flexor is going to give you more power. You don’t want to exaggerate the movement like you do in drills, but just checking in with your lift during your run will bring your attention to it enough to make sure your engaging those muscles.

  1. Arm swing.

This one goes back to those tendons that connect your shoulder blades to the opposite hip. Maintaining a good arm swing where your wrist/hand comes to your hip on the back swing and your elbow comes in front of your hip on the forward swing, will help maintain a good strong rotation in your legs. Especially, in the later miles of an ultra. When your legs are thrashed from all the climbs and descents, have your crew remind you to run with your arms. You can also put a note in your drop bags.

  1. Strong feet.

Having a strong foot is important for efficient powerful running. Feet, although necessary to running, are remarkably the lower body muscle group most neglected by runners.  Your feet are what pushes you off the ground. Poor push off can misalign your leg as it comes forward. You also loose power if you don’t roll forward onto your toes. You can improve feet strength through single leg calf raises where you lower your heel below your toes on a step. You can also strengthen your feet using an exercise band by wrapping the band around your forefoot and holding it back with your hand to get the right amount of tension. Extend your toes out (tension pulling your forefoot to your chest), turn your foot in (tension should be pulling your forefoot to the outside0, and turn it out(tension should be pulling your forefoot to the inside).

No one wants to be injured. Research has shown over and over again many running injuries originate in the hips and spending some time each week focused on strengthening hips is well worth the time even if it cuts into running time.

Hip Engagement

This post has two parts. This is the first part. As runners, we aren’t too surprised when we end up with an injury in our quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, or pretty much anywhere in our legs. We may spend hours, days, or even weeks wondering what caused the injury- too much training, shoes, not enough sleep, too much junk food or whatever. After spending some time wondering how and why we became injured we start looking for ways to heal and then prevent future injuries.

Having strong engaged hips is essential for preventing injuries in every muscle and tendon below the hips. Increasing your hip strength and engagement leads to running faster and reducing injury risks.  Here are some drills and strategies to ensure you’re engaging and strengthening your hips to get the most bang for your buck.

  1. Lean forward, so you have your chest, over your knee, over your foot.

The forward lean while running allows you to engage your hip as the primary source of your forward momentum. It you’re upright you’re forcing your knee and ankle to do the work. You knee and ankle are supported by smaller muscles and thus they get tired and worn out faster than the bigger muscles of the hips.

  1. Mildly arch your back or at a minimum keep it neutral.

The mild arch in your back should come from just below your shoulder blades, rather than just above your pelvis at the lower back. There are tendons which connect your shoulder blade on the right to the hip on the left and the left shoulder blade to the right hip. This brings the power of your arm swing and shoulder into your running. This is something you want to maintain while running.

  1. Pawback pull.

This is one is the most complex and uses drills to perfect. The pawback ensures your foot lands beneath your center of gravity (reducing breaking) and it enhances hip extension (more power). Reducing the breaking forces when your foot hits the ground with each step and gaining more power with each push off should be enough for you to start doing this drill, but here are a few other reasons why it’s helpful: it preserves your quads because you don’t overstride, especially on downhills. It reduces shearing action inside of your shoe which reduces blisters.

How to do the pawback: from standing start by driving one leg up into a forward flexed position-knee up at a 90 degree angle. From there, flick the foot out in front of you. Then, pull it back so your foot returns to the floor. The important thing is when you pull it back flex that glute. Here is a video to make this more clear.

You’re obviously not going to do this while you’re running. How you pull these benefits into your everyday running is by being aware of your engagement of that glute and hamstring, which you’ve become very familiar with during these drills.

The next post will cover four more ways you can engage your hips and become a more powerful runner and reduce your risk of injury.

 

Ultra-Sleep

Picture from Trail Runner magazine

How much sleep we need never really lines up with how much sleep we get, at least for most adults in the United States. About 30% of adults in the US sleep less than six hours a night (I’m definitely in this group). Sure, we think we function alright, but do we really? Many of us are so used to being sleep deprived that it has become our new normal and we don’t know what it feels like to be full rested on a regular basis.

Adults who find themselves in this six hours or less situation during the week usually take advantage of the weekend (or days off) to get a full night’s rest. Not so for ultrarunners who tend to get up even earlier on the weekends than they do during the week to get their long run in before the day really gets going.

Going through life in a chronically sleep deprived state has health consequences and performance consequences. It’s associated with higher risk of mortality and increased chronic diseases.

Athletes need more sleep than most, which makes perfect sense. We spend our “leisure” time breaking down our muscles and depleting our bodily systems. If our sleep is interrupted or cut short, our ability to repair muscle, consolidate memory, and release hormones is compromised.

As ultrarunners, we should be getting seven hours a night minimum and up to about ten hours. Our reaction time (important on the technical trails), accuracy (also useful on trails), and speed can increase with additional rest.

Our bodies have a preprogrammed rhythm when it comes to wakefulness throughout the day-Circadian rhythm. Between the hours of 6-9 a.m. cortisol and body temperature increase waking most of us naturally. Between the hours of 1-3 p.m. we have a natural dip in our energy and then it picks back up between 5-9 p.m. This early evening pick-up means taking a nap after work is difficult and so is going to bed early.

From 2- 6 a.m. is a low point and if you’ve ever run through the night you know that those are the most difficult hours and the most crucial. Having a pacer is essential and a good caffeine plan. Once the sun comes up, you’re re-energized at least for a few hours. Countless ultrarunners start their day between this 2-6 a.m. time, especially, when doing long runs.

Another issue, kind of a tangent, with being out during these hours is our core body temperature is at its lowest. I’ve always said the outside temperature always dips at 2 a.m. but it’s not the outside temperature, it’s my inside temperature. This is something to be aware of when you’re packing your drop bags for the night time aid stations.

So, what’s a runner to do? Let’s start with the “easy” stuff. Do everything you can to prevent your sleep from being interrupted. If you have children, this can be impossible. Next get to bed an hour early or stay in bed an hour later. Get in a 20-30 minute nap over lunch when ever possible.

If you have a hard time falling asleep, establish a bedtime routine. Make sure electronics are off an hour before lights out. Keep lights low a half an hour before you go to bed. Turn down the temperature in your house. Listen to relaxing music or a meditation. Read a book rather than watch TV. Before an event, make sure your taper includes more sleep.

Running Preggers: The Weight of It.

Pregnancy and weight gain go hand and hand obviously. The recommendation for women who are of average weight, BMI of about 18-24%, is to gain between 25-35 lbs during their pregnancy. There are few women, or men, who want to gain an extra 25 lbs. During pregnancy gaining too much or too little has health consequences for both mother and baby.

There’s a certain level of anxiety about gaining weight during pregnancy and the ability to loose it afterward. We all have friends or relatives who never lost the “baby weight” and if they get pregnant again, they put on more weight.

You’re not going to loose all that weight the moment baby is born. Some of it is fat that you’ll slowly work off over the months that follow the birth of your little one. How much fat?

For the average baby and mother the weight distribution is something close to this:

Baby: 8 lbs

Placenta: 2-3 lbs

Amniotic fluid: 2-3 lbs

Breast Tissue: 2-3 lbs

Blood supply: 4 lbs

Larger uterus: 2-5 lbs

Stored fat for delivery and breastfeeding: 5-9 lbs.

So you’re looking at losing somewhere between 12-14 lbs right at birth. Your blood volume will return to normal over the six weeks following birth and your uterus will shrink down over the same period of time. That’s another 6-9 lbs. That leaves you with breast tissue and your store of fat.

If you are planning to breastfeed your baby, you’ll add some weight when your milk comes in (2-3 days after birth of baby), which shouldn’t surprise anyone who has picked up a quart of milk. The average milk capacity of a human female is between 25-35 oz a day. Breastfeeding burns an extra 600-800 calories a day (you should be eating 500 extra calories to maintain your milk supply), which means merely feeding your baby will help you burn of some of that fat store.

You’ll still be wearing your maternity clothes for a while after baby is born, so don’t pack your skinny jeans in your hospital bag as you prepare for the birth of your baby. The important thing is to know this is normal and not to be concerned about it. Your body just created a whole other person inside of it which took nine months. You should give it the same amount of time to lose the weight.

Lugging around an extra 25 lbs is hard work and since it’s not all fat stores, I like to think we’re getting stronger in the process.

Losing weight can be a slow process after baby is born because it’s harder to get to the gym or hit the trails for a run, not only because you have a little one to care for, but because you’re tired. But it’s doable. Give your body time to recover from the most important endurance event in your life.

Taper Adaptations

Tapering for a race is really difficult for many runners. I know that there are some elite athletes who don’t really taper at all, although, they may take the two days before a race off. An important, possibly critical, difference between elite runners (many not all) and us not so elite runners is we all work typically full-time jobs. This means we don’t have the same opportunity to recover between our runs during training and thus we reach race day more depleted making tapering more important for the average runner.

I’ve tried both three week tapers and two week tapers. I didn’t find any difference between the two. Again, that’s me. Other people may be different. Tapering is– as many aspects of running are– very runner dependent.

The professional research based recommendation is three to four weeks. This is because a taper  is giving your body the time and rest needed to take all the training you’ve been doing and lock it into place in your various bodily systems.

For ultrarunners, your aerobic system has pretty much reached maximum conditioning. Other system haven’t. There are actual changes down to the protein synthesis level. Some of the adaptations that your  body makes during your taper are:

  1. Training causes minor tears to muscles. The muscle need a chance to rebound and repair.
  2. Immune system needs time to get rid of any inflammation and repair cells.
  3. Hormone profile rebounds which takes some time especially cortisol and testosterone. Both of these become depleted during your training.
  4. Red blood cells become consistently damaged when you’re running high miles, so your having to manage that while training. The taper allows those to be repaired and to increase. This is important for oxygen transportation to muscles.
  5. Metabolic wise, rest allows you to store more  glycogen in your muscles and liver.
  6. Running 100 miles is a mental as well as physical challenge. We also tend to be a bit sleep deprived which has both physical an mental components impacting our performance. It improves your vigor and mood.
  7. Many ultrarunners have some level of dehydration pretty much all the time. The taper gives you time to balance your hydration.

In addition to sleep and reducing your running, nutrition is a major part of recovery. Eat healthy whole foods, which will give you what you  need and reduce the chance of gaining weight close to the race once your body is using less calories to rebuild.

Regardless of whether you run by time or miles, you should reduce your running by 20% each week beginning three weeks from race. You on’t need to reduce the intensity, but you shouldn’t increase it. You can maintain the number of runs per week. It’s very important that you keep in mind you are going to feel better as your body rests and recovers (the point of the taper), but you shouldn’t increase your efforts. You’ll need to use pace rather than perceived effort during your runs. You’re not going to lose any fitness by giving yourself the three weeks to rest and repair.

Here is an easy way to remember the “rules” of tapering:

Trust in your training

Adjust your Calorie Intake

Perfect your race day strategy

Embrace the “free” time

Rest and recover