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

Nature vs. Nurture

We’ve all heard that the Kenyans are built for running-it’s in their genes. Statements like that raise more questions for me, such as: do genes(nature) limit my ability to improve my running? do my genes determine what type of training(nurture) or races I should do? How much of my improvement is from my pure stubbornness to succeed (is that genetic too?)?

I think it’s obvious that both genes and training play a role in our progress and ability in our sports. And I’m not sure if knowing which one is dominant is helpful because if it’s genes, the brain of many runners could get in the way of them making improvements through training hard due to a belief that they are limited.

There are more than 100 genes that have an impact on physical capacity. The belief that our genes determine our running performance seems reasonable, after all, our genes determine our body size and shape. Both of these influence our running performance. Those with smaller bone structures are going to be lighter on their feet. They are less likely to have non-propulsive muscle mass weighing them down.

Two measures scientists use for unraveling the nature vs. nurture questions are VO2 max and Lactate threshold. What they’ve discovered is that the degree to which VO2 max increases in response to exercise has a 47% genetic component. That leaves 53% friends-more than half. The degree to which Lactate threshold increases in response to exercise is a 55-80% genetic component. That’s a pretty big spread if you ask me.

How important is VO2 Max for ultrarunning? VO2 max is the highest rate at which your body can transport oxygen to your muscles, through blood, to provide your muscles with the energy they need. Most people can only sustain this level of effort for 8 minutes. Not helpful in an ultra that lasts up to 36 hours. Your VO2 max becomes less important as the distance of your run increases. This is not to say doing VO2 max training isn’t worth while. See my post on that here.

What about Lactate Threshold (LT)? LT is the point at which the level of lactate accumulating in your blood is higher than what your body can get rid of. During lower intensity exercise (ultrarunning by nature), lactate levels remain at or near resting levels- a steady state. Training your LT is still important. See my post referenced at the end of the last paragraph.

Other factors that determine running performance are diet, attitude toward running, daily activity pattern, amount of sleep, injuries, running efficiency, determination, and much more. What the science has concluded so far is there are just too many genes that impact sport performance to be able to predict who will be a good athlete and who will not.

So what can our genes tell us? no more than our personal experience which is the better route to go. Yes, there are companies out there who will test your DNA and tell you if you have a low, medium, or high aerobic potential, but I ask again does that really help you to know? I think this is a situation where ignorance is bliss. If we believe we have an insurmountable genetic limit, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I look out there at my fellow ultrarunners and I see the “impossible” accomplished at every race. Grit is a better predictor of our ability to succeed than any genetic test.

 

 

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: To Breathe or not to Breathe

Remember how great it feels to pull in the fresh air of the mountains until your ribs are at their limit and then to let it out slow just because you can and your lung capacity is impressive as a runner. Well, if you’re in your third trimester of pregnancy (28-40 weeks), you’re missing that ability and those impressive lungs.

Having reached the third trimester, you can see the finish line (even if you’re not ready for it) and you’ll be able to realize those breathing dreams once again and even baby will be expanding their lungs as yours reclaim their glory.

As your uterus grows to it’s max, it pushes on your diaphragm which shifts upwards about 4 centimeters. This also compresses your lungs a bit. This combination means you are not taking in as much air with each breath. To compensate you breathe more slowly. Wait that doesn’t make sense…

The hormone progesterone stimulates your respiratory center in your brain so the air your breath in stays in your lungs longer allowing you to get as much oxygen out of it as you can. There are a few things you can do to help with this feeling of being out of breath all the time.

First, good posture. Make sure your sitting and standing straight. If your hunched over when sitting it’s going to compress your diaphragm and lungs more (and it may keep baby turned sunny side up which is not the optimal position for birth).

Second, keep running and/or exercising. You may have to slow down to compensate for your cramped internal organs. Pregnancy isn’t the time to hit a new personal record anyway. Mostly you want to maintain your fitness level or lose as little as possible. Yoga also helps with it’s use of the breath during poses and it’s breathing exercises.

Third, relax and don’t over do it. Being hyper-vigilant about your breathing is only going to make things worse. Take time to relax each day even if it’s only for ten minutes.

Fourth, if your having trouble with breathing because of congestion try using a humidifier at night. Exercise will also help break up the mucus.

Take heart, your baby is almost ready to be held in your arms rather than in your belly. As baby gets into position to be born, she will drop into your pelvis and you may find it’s easier to breath. This is also called lightening. It usually happens two to four weeks before delivery. If this is not your first child, baby may not drop until right before delivery. As nice as this lightening is on your lungs and diaphragm, it’s not so great for your bladder.

Weekly Miles: My running is very inconsistent at this point. I run on days I feel good and it’s comfortable to run. Other days, baby’s position makes it very uncomfortable. I don’t really track miles. I’m just happy when I’m able to do a little run. Thirty-eight weeks and counting.