Individual or Team Sport?

Do you think of running as a team or individual sport? One of the appealing things about running, for me, was that I could do it as an individual. When I began running my schedule was such that no one else in their right mind wanted to do (2 am long runs since I had young children).

It wasn’t until years later that I began running with friends and on a team (relay team). I loved running with my team and would love to pull another team together for more relay races in the near future.

But Ultrarunning as a team? Why not? I’ve met many couples who run as a team and some running partners/friends who run as a team. I think this can be very beneficial to many people and if you are a social runner, I highly encourage you to find others who are social runners and make it a team event.

The most difficult decision a team must make is if one drops out do the others? What if one runner just doesn’t have it that day, and so they are going at a much slower pace than what the others can do. Does everyone slow down (no runner left behind kinda thing)? I think these are questions every team should answer before showing up to the starting line.

If you are teamed up with another runner and are sharing a crew and pacers, the questions above become even more relevant if you’re going to continue while a teammate either slows down or drops from the race.

I’ve trained with other runners and have always been very upfront about race day and running together. If we happen to be going at the same pace great, if not, we’ll wait for each other at the finish line. To sum it up-training together doesn’t mean racing together.

Even if you don’t run with someone else, ultrarunning can still be viewed as a team event because there are few ultrarunners who get through a race alone. You have your pacers and your crew and they are your team. Choosing individuals who work well together is very important. The more you work with them as if they are a team the better your outcomes will be. Conducting team meetings and recruiting the same people for multiple events will help you achieve better outcomes at your races. Obviously, these people must love you and you’re likely crewing/pacing for their races.

For those out there who think that ultrarunning is a lonely sport, you are sadly mistaken. We are a tribe of individuals who share a passion for putting one foot in front of the other. Although our teams look different than those of a cross country team, they are likely more closely bonded with one another than many other sports teams. After all, sacrifice, suffering, sleepless nights, and a common cause form bonds that run deeper than the blood we leave on the trails.

Embrace the Pain

We’ve all been to the darkest part of the pain cave in an ultra. The question is what did you do when you reached it? You don’t have to tell anyone if you crumbled into a pile of rubble or if you curled into a ball and closed your eyes. Honestly, there is no  shame in having taken one of those two approaches, at least the first time you enter the pain cave. After that, you really have to get your head in the game and come up with strategies to embrace the pain and use it to push you through to the other side.

When most people (non ultrarunners) think about the tough part of running, they of pushing your speed up a notch to stay fractions of a second ahead of the runner on your heels. This usually results in vomiting shortly after crossing the finish line or other unpleasantness. In the ultrarunning world, the pain cave is much darker. It’s continuing to move forward as fast as you can while combating hours of nausea, dehydration, blisters, sore muscles, exposure to the elements and possibly a rolled ankle or scrapped up hands and knees. As if that were not enough, you’re exhausted.

How do you prepare yourself for entering the pain cave, walking all the way through it, and reaching the other side? You build your mental endurance. You become familiar with the pain cave by training inside of it. Schedule workouts that are hard and run with people who challenge you to push past what you think are your limits. Here are some runs that you can use to get you into the pain cave:

Back to back long runs. Hill repeats. Carbohydrate depleting runs. Heat runs or cold runs. Intervals.

When you have a few of these under your belt, you can draw on these during races by telling yourself you’ve done hard things before.

Another strategy is to stay mindful of what is actually going on in your body. Some people check out of their body when things get hard. They go to their “special place.” Other runners become more focused on what is going on inside. They observe what is happening and without jumping on the pitty wagon (where we tell ourselves it hurts, it’s hard, or I can’t). These runners simply acknowledge that there is a pain/ache/unpleasant sensation and they watch it.

The damage comes when your thoughts start stacking negative and self defeating thoughts on top of the pain/ache/unpleasantness. Keep things simple in the pain cave. Recognize there is an issue and observe it. This takes practice. That’s why we train hard.

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.

Coming to Terms with a DNF

At some point in an ultrarunner’s career there will be a DNF, Did Not Finish. They happen for many reasons. Regardless of the reason, in the moment, it feels like an absolutely legitimate reason. Then there is the next morning, where you’ve slept and eaten a real meal, at that time, your reason for pulling out of the race may feel like the wrong decision.

It’s hard not to beat yourself up over, what you see as, a less than adequate reason for the DNF. And maybe some self criticism is warranted, doubtful but maybe. The problem is it gets you no where. It doesn’t help you improve. It doesn’t make the DNF go away. It doesn’t make you feel like getting back out there.

I have three DNFs. All three of them were in the same year! The first was at the Speedgoat 50k. My dropping from the race wasn’t voluntary. I missed the cut off by five minutes. The second was at my first 100 miler, Pony Express 100. I went into the race injured. I had rolled my ankle 5 weeks before and then proceeded to run on it for a relay run for 50 miles. I couldn’t let my team down and knew when I chose to do the relay, I was putting my 100 at risk. At mile 75 of the 100, my knee was so painful I could barely walk. I decided it wasn’t worth risking a long time injury. My last DNF was at Buffalo Run 50 miler. I pulled out 12 miles from the finish with mild hypothermia. I had stayed in an aid station waiting for warm broth. During the time I was there my body temperature dropped, since I wasn’t moving. The next morning I went out and finished the last 12 miles.

It sucks to get a DNF. I remember each of these very vividly. I did beat myself up after each and everyone, especially the Buffalo Run 100. After sulking for a week, I decided I was done and I was going to learn from each of these experiences. I went back and asked myself several questions about each.

What when wrong?

What could have prevented the DNF?

What can I do to include these prevention strategies in my training in the future?

Ultimately, I decided two of the three could have been prevented. I realized my training for Speedgoat was not what it should have been to make the cut off times. For Buffalo, I learned to never stay in an aid station for more than what is absolutely necessary. I talk to my crew about this every time. I also learned how to better educate my crew and how to pick crew who will throw me back out into the cold, even if it’s a blizzard.

You can look at a DNF in two different ways and you’ll likely see both in each DNF you have beginning with the Did Not Finish and concluding Did Nothing Fatal.

 

 

 

Running Preggers: Vein Popping

Popping veins may be every body builders dream, but as a pregnant runner it’s not something you show your friends with joy and enthusiasm. It’s more along the lines of shock and horror. Varicose veins are another one of those lovely pregnancy symptoms. Not all pregnant women have to deal with them.

Varicose veins appear during pregnancy because your blood volume increases and at the same time the rate at which blood flows from your legs to your pelvis decreases. This increases the pressure on the veins in your lower body and can cause them to become enlarged.

Another contributor to varicose veins is the increase in progestin levels, which dilates veins. The pressure of the uterus on the inferior vena cava, the vein that carries blood from the legs and feet to the heart also adds to the possibility of having vericose veins.

There are a few things you can do to minimize and/or prevent varicose veins during pregnancy. First don’t sit or stand too long. Changing position is your first line of attack. Next is don’t wear high heels (none of you wear them anyway because your runners, right?). Wearing high heels weakens your calf and can shorten (through tightening) your Achilles tendon.

Third, wear compression socks or sleeves on your calves or you can go full out and get maternity support hosiery. Fourth, don’t cross your legs (like you could if you wanted too) during pregnancy. Fifth, elevate your legs every so often to improve circulation. Sixth, sleep on your left side. This takes the pressure off of the inferior vena cava I mentioned earlier.

Finally, exercise. Specifically, running and/or walking. The idea is to have strong calf muscles which promotes good blood flow in the lower legs. Other than these suggestions, there isn’t much you can do about the vein popping while your pregnant.

Varicose veins that appear during pregnancy typically go away within three to twelve months after baby is born. But if they don’t, you’ll be joining the ranks of 1/4th adults in the U.S. who develop them during their life time.

When they don’t go away what’s happened is the small valves within the veins that prevent blood from getting backed up are not working like they should and the blood pools and increases the pressure in the veins. The body then tries to widen the veins to compensate and they end up bulging and thickening.

Varicose veins that don’t go away after pregnancy or that you develop outside of pregnancy should be monitored by a doctor. They can cause achiness, heaviness, throbbing, cramping and swelling in the legs. They are treatable and seeing someone about them sooner is better since they can indicate a more complicated issue.