Running Preggers: Relaxin

I wish I were trying to be cute and leaving the “G” off Relaxing, but Relaxin is a hormone produced in increasing amounts during pregnancy. It’s a necessary hormone, but as an athlete, it’s not something you want in increased amounts. Relaxin is a protein-based hormone found in men and non-pregnant women. Pregnant women have ten times the amount as non-pregnant women.

Relaxin relaxes the blood vessels, ligaments, and tendons in your body. It begins its work in the beginning of pregnancy (before actually) by preventing contractions in the uterine wall and making implantation easier. It allows your blood vessels and arteries to expand to accommodate the extra blood volume. As you’re baby grows and shoves your internal organs into your ribcage you’ll be glad relaxin has made expansion of your abdominal muscles and ribcage possible. What you’ll be most happy about is relaxin ensures that your pelvis will be able to expand not only to accommodate your growing child, but to allow the child to be born.

Relaxed tendons are a problem if you are an athlete. It can be problematic if you’re not an athlete and you just want to go about your day without any pain or discomfort in your joints. Instability in your ankles, hips, and knees is something runners try to minimize and correct through strength training. When you’re pregnant, strength training isn’t going to help and you really, on some level, don’t want it to help because that baby has to exit somehow.

The instability can cause achiness and pain in your joints with just everyday activities, let alone running. Relaxed tendons and ligaments places you at higher risk of injury, even when doing exercises you have been doing for years pre-pregnancy.

What all of this means for pregnant runners is be careful and rethink increasing your miles or the intensity of your running workouts during your pregnancy, especially, during the first and third trimester when relaxin levels are at their highest. You’re also likely to feel increased soreness after runs, especially, in your pelvic girdle, hips, and lower back. Try using a maternity belt to help reduce the pressure of the baby on your pelvic joints.

You’ll likely have to decrease your miles and your pace as your son or daughter grow and their debut approaches. Reducing your miles to prevent injury, especially, an injury that could stop you from getting back to running after baby is born, is a small price to pay. Cross training with low impact exercises, such as swimming and cycling, will become your go to activities at the gym. I know this can be frustrating, but keep in mind it also means you’re closer to holding your little one in your arms.

Tired Body or Tired Mind

Have you heard the expression, “An ultra is 50% physical and 90% mental,”? No, well then, you’re probably not an ultrarunner or haven’t been one very long. A critical aspect of training that doesn’t get the attention it deserves is the psychological side of getting your body to keep putting one foot in front of the other for 100 miles as quickly as possible.

We all know it’s important, but we don’t spend much of our training time on it. I’m guilty of this myself. Sure, I have strategies I use when I get into that dark place, but I have never taken the time to actually make psychological strategies a part of my training to the point where I actively think about and practice them during my training runs. There are two types of psychological strategies you must have for an ultra. First, is dealing with the negative moods and thoughts. Second, is dealing with being so freaking tired.

The problem with not actively including psychological strategies as a core aspect of your training plans is that it’s mental fatigue that will stop you before physical fatigue in a race. Might want to read that again. Mental fatigue is more likely to put a stop to your race than physical fatigue.

That’s right, it’s your brain being tired that is going to slow you down and stop you before your muscles and nerves will. It actually takes an enormous amount of energy to fight off the persistent urge to sleep. I’ve fallen asleep while running and my pacers have had to persuade me not to crawl into small caves to take a nap while out on the course. I’ve seen runners curled up on the side of the trial sleeping while their pacer waits. When 100-mile events can take up to 36 hours it’s no wonder that those who run at the mid or back of the pack are exhausted, in every way, by the time they cross the finish line.

There are a few things we can do to be prepared for this level of extreme mental fatigue. Use caffeine strategically. Most ultrarunners are using caffeine in some form for a race, and caffeine is very effective at keeping you awake. However, if you drink a lot all the time, it’s not going to be as effective. You should taper off caffeine about 30 days before a race for it to be most effective during a race. Caffeine comes in all forms. You can get gels with caffeine, tablets, or drink it.

Another option is to take a nap. What!? I know, I know. I will admit I’m one of the last people who would suggest this. I’ve never napped during a 100-mile race, but if you’re out of options and falling asleep on your feet, sleeping for 30 minutes might be your best bet for picking up your pace. It goes back to the amount of energy it takes to force yourself to stay awake. I’ve run many relay events where my team runs through a day, a night, and a day. I know that if I sleep for two hours, I’ll be as good as new for the last leg of my race on day two. My muscles haven’t had time to recover, but I’m able to sustain the same pace as my first leg if I get those two hours. If I don’t, I’m going to be slower.

Another strategy is to train your mind to deal with being tired and running anyway. There are a couple of ways to do this. First, do something mentally challenging throughout the day (this is easy if you have a job that is mentally challenging) and then go for a long night run without sleeping between the two activities. Another way is to perform challenging mental tasks while you run. A research study used cyclists and the Stroop Test. The Stroop test is like the picture above. You have to read off colors when the word is written in a color other than what the word says.

The cyclists who did this training had a significant increase in their ability to stay mentally focused beyond the point where they previously became mentally fatigued to the point where it impaired their performance. The Stroop test is a little difficult to do while running, unless you’re on a treadmill (yuck!), but it maybe worth your suffering. You can use anything that is going to cause your brain to really work while you run (complex math anyone?).

Ultras challenge us in more than one way and we have to prepare for each. Psychological training is not an area you want to let slip by.

When to Walk in an Ultra

Ultrarunners walk. It’s just one piece of ultrarunning and knowing when and how long is essential to finishing at your best. The easy answer to the question of when to walk, aka power hike, in an ultra is, you walk all the uphills. But if we wanted easy, we wouldn’t be ultrarunners now would we?

Do all ultrarunners power hike? Yes, at the 100 mile distance everyone is going to do some form of power hiking on the uphills. At the 50k distance, it will depend on how steep and long the hills are. At the 50 mile and 100k distances, pretty much everyone is doing some power hiking.

The factors that go into a decision to power hike rather than run are: the length of the race, the steepness of the hill, the length of the hill, your training/conditioning, current weather/trail conditions and your current physical status. None of these factors can be considered without thinking about the others. It’s a multifaceted decision. The only one that takes priority over the others is your current physical status.

Your current physical status is how all of your bodily systems are functioning. Uphills can be a perfect opportunity to rehydrate and refuel. The slower pace may allow your body to absorb water and fuel easier, but don’t count on it. Hiking up a long steep slope can be just as taxing as running hard on level ground. If it is, and your stomach protesting at everything you put into it, you may be better off trying to refuel on the downhill or on a flat. If you’re experiencing pain, hiking an uphill is a good time to assess the situation. You’ll be using different muscle groups to climb, which may help you rule in or out particular muscles as the problem. It will also give sore/cramping muscles a chance to recuperate.

There may be times where hiking flats and downhills is the most appropriate course of action given your physical status and you shouldn’t be ashamed of this, at least you’re still moving forward. If you’re vomiting or have diarrhea walking/hiking is a must. You need to give your body a chance to regulate and it can’t do that if you’re pushing the redline.

The length of the race plays a major roll in when you begin your power hiking. The longer the race the earlier you’re going to begin hiking. Changing to a hike allows you to engage different muscles from those you use for running. This change gives muscles a chance to rest and prepare for the next time they’ll be needed as the primary force. This is true even in a very flat race with little to no uphills.

The grade (steepness) of a hill can demand that you hike rather than run. At some point, a hill becomes so steep it’s just easier and often faster to hike. Whether this is an 8% grade or 15% grade depends on you. Research says a grade of 15% is the point at which it becomes more energy efficient to hike than to run up a slope. However, keep in mind this research was done with individuals who were fresh. In other words, they hadn’t already finished 75 miles and they didn’t have 95 miles to go. The best way for you to figure out where you are, is to practice. Train on all types of grades and hit them at different times in your long training runs.

The length of an uphill is important too. Maybe you’ve come to a hill with a moderate grade and thought, “It’s runnable.” But is it runnable for three miles? It’s okay to start running it and then decide a bit later that it’s no longer runnable. You can even take a run/walk approach to these types of uphills.

Weather and trail conditions can also dictate when you should be running or hiking. Rain and snow can change visibility. Swampy conditions can conceal rocks and other hazards. Heat can change a mild runnable slope into a death march.

What you don’t want to do is walk due to a mental block or because you’ve hit a psychologically dark mood during your run. The only way to avoid this is by having a plan of action. When you get the first inkling of a drop in your mood or mental state, ask yourself if you’ve kept up on hydration, electrolytes and fuel. If you haven’t, start there. If those systems are where they need to be, initiate your positive mood plan. You can use imagery, mantras, recalling when you’ve overcome other challenges, or repeating positive words. For these to be most effective, you need to develop them in your training.

Your training is the key to knowing when you should hike and when you should run. Training on hills is going to give you the strength (mental and physical) to conquer those hills that are within the realm of sensible and the wisdom to know when it’s not sensible. The definition of what is runnable and what’s not is going to change, and you need to be able to evaluate yourself and each hill under the current circumstances.

Hate Hills?

Hate Hills?

When I first started running, I didn’t like running uphill. I don’t think that comes as a surprise to anyone because running hills is hard. It makes your legs and lungs burn. You want to stop before the hill begins or find another route without a hill. As I’ve continued to run, becoming stronger in the process, I’ve also learned to love running hills, both up and down.

They have become a welcome challenge. When I learned the value of hill training, my perspective on running hills shifted. If you’ve been running long enough, you know running down hill can be just as hard as going up. Training schedules should include a run focused on hill running (up and down) at least every other week.

Unless you only run on a treadmill or a track you’re going to come upon a hill. It’s best if you can foster a good relationship with hills. Even if you’re the kind of runner who only chooses to run routes and races where there are the least number of hills and the smallest of hills, you should find some hills to run.

Uphill running improves your form by increasing your knee lift, joint mobility and neuromuscular communication. Hills also improve your leg strength and your cardiovascular fitness. When you’re running uphill, keep your head held high and looking forward. This will help keep your hips, knees and ankles aligned. Your stride length should automatically shorten because the ground comes up to meet your foot sooner than on a level surface. Running uphill is a good time to really become aware of your body and where it is in relationship to your surroundings.

As you climb, don’t lean forward at the waist into the hill because it engages the quads and calves more than necessary and leaves the glutes and hamstrings out of the work. This may not sound too bad in a short race, but in a longer race with lots of downhill running you’re going to wish you had relied on your glutes and hamstrings for more of the climbs. A runner’s forward lean on any grade comes from the ankles not the waist.

Downhill running improves your foot speed/cadence, your range of motion and reduces your risk of injuries. Running downhill efficiently requires mindfulness and a little bravery. It’s important to maintain control as you’re speed increases. You want to keep your stride length short and your leg turnover (foot cadence) fast. Try not to dump your hips forward or lean back, which causes a breaking action. On a mild to moderate hill, try to maintain your form as if you were on flat ground. As the descent becomes more intense, you’re going to have to find a happy balance between leaning forward and breaking based on your own experience.

Hills are not only physically challenging, but psychologically challenging too. In fact, I think it’s the psychological component that really messes with us. When you’re out for your next easy run, take some time and think of a mantra you can use as you approach a hill. You can also imagine yourself conquering hills and then use that while you’re pushing up your next hill. If that’s all to new age or complicated, just think of a word you can say to yourself as you climb such as “Powerful,” or “Strong.” You can use the same word or come up with something different for your downhills.

As an ultrarunner, uphills usually translate into power hiking during races and even longer runs because it is more energy efficient to hike than try to power up at a run. However, don’t think that means you get to skip hill training. All the benefits above apply to you as well. There is a lot that goes into deciding which hills to run and which to power hike. It’s going to depend on the distance of the race/run, grade of the hill, and the length of the hill. Your physical condition will also play a role. The longer the race, the more power hiking you’re going to be doing. The steeper or longer the hill, the more likely it is you will be hiking (more on this in the next post).

A few quick exercises you can add to the end of your easy runs to help you up the hills. Do four sets each:

Foot slaps: stand with your feet hip-width apart, rock onto your heels to lift your forefoot high and then slam them to the ground. Do repetitions of twenty and increase to fifty.

Quadruped Hip Circles: Get down on all fours, extend your left leg behind you, bend it to circle to the side and forward, then straighten it back out. Do 4 reps and then change directions then do your right leg.

Reverse Sliding Lunge:With a towel beneath your left foot and your weight on your right leg, slide your left foot back into a lunge. Push through your right heel to stand. Do 10-12 reps per side.

High Step: Plant your right foot on a tall bench, so your right knee is higher than your hip. Press through your right heel until your right leg is straight. Lower back down and repeat 5-10 reps per side.

Remember: Every hill you conquer makes the next one easier, both physically and mentally.

Running Preggers: Shoes

Since the past few posts have been about shoes, I thought I should just continue the theme and just complicate the whole issue with being pregnant. There are obvious changes to a woman’s body that occur when she is pregnant that will impact what she wants and should put on her feet.

There are many articles out which stress how important it is for women who are pregnant to wear clothes and shoes that are comfortable. This is even more important if you are a runner. The recommended weight gain for a woman, with a healthy weight to start with, is 25 to 30 lbs during pregnancy. I’m not going to get into the details of where all that weight comes from, but it’s certainly not all fat (only about 7-8 lbs actually).

The weight alone is reason for you to consider your shoes. If you’re running in a shoe with minimal cushion you may want to consider running in something in the mid range. Going high cushion, if you’re not use to them, is not recommended because it can cause some instability in the ankles, knees and hips.

Pregnant runners do not want to do anything to add to the instability of their body since pregnancy hormones and an ever increasing belly does that enough. The hormone Relaxin causes our tendons and ligaments to relax in preparation for child birth. This begins to happen fairly early in pregnancy and continues until the very end.

No tendon or ligament is left behind. From head to toe your ligaments and tendons relax. This can cause instability in your hips, knees, and ankles. You’re larger belly also throws off your balance and stability. If you start to have some aches in your joints consider switching to a more supportive shoe or adding insoles, if you don’t have them already.

The hormone Relaxin also makes your feet flatten out more. The repeated flattening of your feet causes the tendons and ligaments to stretch out, possibly permanently. The translation, bigger shoes. You’re likely to go up a half size during pregnancy and may stay that way. You could also need wider shoes. Many women experience swelling in their feet and ankles too. When you do end up at the running store, and you will if you’re planning to run throughout your pregnancy, make sure you try on shoes with more support, more length and more width. Don’t just go for your tried and true shoes.

It can be hard to let go of your sleek running shoes and move into a clunky stability shoe that weights nearly double your racing flats, but preventing injury and running safe through your pregnancy is what’s important. You’ll have your favorites (just in a larger size) cradling your feet soon.

Weekly miles: With baby girl growing more now (25 weeks along), running longer has become more uncomfortable, so over the past two weeks I’ve switched from 3 two hour runs to running one hour a day.

What’s in a Shoe? Cushion.

Cushioning is another place where you’re going to see or hear the word minimalist. I’m going to stick with high cushion and low cushioned shoes as terms to avoid confusion.  Cushioning is usually talked about in millimeters (mm). As we have seen in recent years, there are shoes out there with barely anything under your feet, aka barefoot running shoes, and those with cushioning over an inch thick (an inch is 25.4 mm).

The theories on why one shoe is better for runners abound and often contradict one another. The idea behind high cushion is that it reduces impact forces and thus reduces injury. What does the research say? Research does not support a lower injury risk or less muscle fatigue with a higher cushioned shoe. It is the alignment of our lower leg that changes impact forces, and the alignment of our leg is changed due to sensory input our brain receives as we run.

Don’t fret all is not lost my high cushion loving runners. Here are some things we know about running with and without cushion.

Heel striking runners should not run in low cushioned shoes. It can be hard to tell if you are a heel, midfoot, or forefoot striker. The most reliable way is to look at the bottom of your shoe or have someone watch you run (when you’re not paying attention to your foot strike, because you’ll alter it). If you have more wear on the heel of your shoe, you’re a heel striker. About 80% of runners are, it’s not a bad thing, so long as you wear the right shoes. If the wear on the sole of your shoe is on the forefoot, you’re a forefoot striker. This is pretty rare and is usually sprinters and shorter distance runners.

Higher cushioned shoes can cause instability in the ankles and hips, especially, for beginning runners who have not developed the ankle and core strength to tolerate the instability. This instability can also be a problem on trails, which are already uneven. Some high cushioned shoes compensate by having a wider sole, although, this solves SOME of the instability it adds the problem of a wide ass shoe. A wider sole can get stuck between rocks easier. Also keep in mind that a wide ass shoe sole does not always translate into a wider toe box.

High cushioned shoes can protect the bottom of your feet from rocks, roots, and other nasties. As we age we lose some of the natural cushioning on the bottom of our feet making a higher cushioned shoe possibly a better option for runners as they age.

Heavier runners (over 170 for men and over 160 for women) are going to want a shoe with stiffer cushioning rather than the pillow soft stuff because of the compression that occurs when you land. If you have super soft cushion, it’s not providing you with much protection.

What I want you to take away from this whole series on shoes is everyone is an individual and research results are an average. Sometimes if researchers look at individual runners there is a difference. It could just be the runner’s belief (placebo effect) or other biomechanical differences between runners, but if it makes a difference for you, stick with the shoes or dump them as appropriate.

Wear what makes you happy and don’t be afraid to dry new stuff.

Happy running.

What’s in a Shoe? Heel to Toe Drop.

Why do we care about heel to toe drop? Well, because it’s one of the aspects of a shoe that have people thinking it could help or contribute to injuries.

The heel to toe drop of a shoe is the difference of the sole’s thickness at the heel compared to at the toe of the shoe. Most shoes have a heel to toe drop of 10-12 mm, while minimalist shoes have a heel to toe drop of less than 4 mm. To give you an idea, an inch is 25.4 mm

For clarity’s sake, I want to be clear on what I mean by minimalist in this post. There are two major tenets of minimalist: first, the amount of heel to toe drop and second, the amount of cushioning. This post is talking about heel to toe drop, which I’ll use instead of the term minimalist. If amount of cushioning comes into play in this post, it will be clearly indicated.  If anyone is interested the other tenets are weight, added motion control technology and flexibility. Here is a scientific article on how a minimalist shoe is defined.

The most recent research says there’s no difference in injury rate in runners who run in a lower drop shoe as compared to those who have a higher drop shoe so long as the runners who have switched to lower or zero drop have done so with an adequate transition, which we’ll talk about in a second.

A lower heel to toe drop could be good for people with a neuroma or arthritic changes in the big toe joint because it places less pressure on the forefoot. However, they may not be good for people with plantar fasciitis or Achilles/posterior tibial tendonitis because a lower heel to toe drop requires more extension in your Achilles, knees and hips.

Transition to a lower or zero drop shoe is critical, and it can take weeks, so before you buy your zero drop shoes, make sure you’re committed to the transition. You should start by wearing your zero drop shoes for a 1-2 miles of your runs and then increase a little each week. If you start to feel soreness in your lower leg or knee, don’t increase the distance at all and think about backing off a little. This is true whether your new to running or a more experienced runner because most people walk around in shoes with a 10-15 mm heel to toe drop.

Research on body weight compared injury rate in runners in the Asics Piranha, 9mm to 4.5 heel to toe drop, and Asics Gel Cumulus, 23 mm to 13 mm heel to toe drop.  The runners who were selected to run in the Pirahna’s did a 26-week transition to the shoes. The results showed runners over 165 lbs (the average for the study group) had an injury rate four times higher than those under 165 lbs. The researchers also looked at the type of weight, so was the higher body weight due to muscle mass or height as compared to someone who is overweight due to the amount of fat they are carrying on their body. The results showed no difference, which lead to the conclusion that it is the weight regardless of where it comes from that is correlated with the higher injury rate.

What does lower injury risk when it comes to heel to toe drop? Running in shoes with different heel to toe drops. This makes your musculoskeletal system adapt and become stronger under different circumstances.

Happy running. Next up is amount of cushion.