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.

 

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.

First Ultra?

I love running and I want everyone else to love running, so I try to make this crazy ultrarunning thing easier for others to wrap their minds around and jump in. Here are my eight quick tips for runners who want to make the leap to ultrarunning:

  1. Physical Training.

Training must be a priority and it must be consistent. You don’t have to run a hundred miles a week to be an ultrarunner. Many ultrarunners run 60 miles a week and complete 100-milers. Your training does need to be race specific. If the race has mountains, you train mountains. If the race is flat, you train flat. If it’s going to be hot, run in the heat. If you’ll run through the night, train in the dark.  Weekly long runs, up to 20-30 miles, are a must. Back-to-Back runs should be done at least a few times throughout your training. Speed work is good to include, but not necessary. Be careful, speed increases your risk of injury.

  1. Mental training.

In ultrarunning, training your mind is as important as training your body. There will be dark times during the race where you question your ability to go on. Positive self-talk, mantras, and remembering how you’ve overcome other difficult times can get you through them. My favorite is, no matter how dark it gets, the sun always rises.

  1. Rest.

An injury is the last thing you want to have as you near your goal race. Taking a rest week every fourth week by cutting your miles back by 20%, will decrease your risk of injury and help build your endurance and strength. Listen to your body and take a rest day when needed. It’s better to take a break early in training than push through and have it get worse and force you to rest late in training.

  1. Strength training.

It’s more important to add strength training than to cross train or to stretch. Core and hip strength are critical to maintaining your running form and preventing injuries. Two to three days a week is enough. If you have time add in squats and deadlifts with low repetitions(4-5) and maximum weight 4-5 days a week.

  1. Nutrition plan.

Plan what you’re going to eat during your race. If you’re going to take stuff from the aid station, know what’s there. Train with what you plan to use in the race (this goes for gear/clothes too). Relying on gels and chews is not enough for most ultrarunners. Train with solid foods that are easy to digest, high in carbs, low in protein and low in fiber. Use caffeine strategically. Stop using caffeine a month before the race, so you can use it to stay alert during the night portions of the race.

Know your hydration needs. Drinking to thirst isn’t enough during an ultra and electrolytes are a must.There are a lot of sports drinks out there, find one that works for you or use salt capsules. Pack enough for the whole race in your drop bags and with your crew.

  1. Body Functioning issues.

Plan for dealing with blisters, vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, nausea, cramps, aches, and general pain. We all hope we don’t have to deal with these issues, but if you’re caught unprepared they can ruin your race. I keep a blister kit with my crew and a small one in my hydration pack. I also have ginger chews, antacids, Imodium, and Icy Hot. I avoid any pain medication.

  1. Crew/pacers.

Chose happy supportive people who won’t let you back out of your goals, even if you’re crying and limping. Family and spouses are not always the best for this. Finding crew and pacers who have experience with ultrarunning is going to be very helpful to you. If you don’t have anyone with experience, you’re going to need to educate them as best you can. See my page on the Ultra crew.

  1. TAPER wisely.

Trust in your training.

Adjust your calorie intake to match your decreased training.

Perfect your race day strategy.

Embrace the “free” time.

Rest and recover.

Hydrating, It’s Complicated.

Staying hydrated is essential to being able to sustain a good pace on race day. Too much or too little water can cause serious problems for runners. Maintaining optimal hydration is more complicated than we’d all like.

There are many factors that play a role in your hydration during training and races. We all hear the pervasive message of 8 glasses of 8 oz of water a day, but is that right for everyone? It’s not even close. It’s difficult to calculate exactly how much fluid a person needs each day. Some factors that impact your recommended fluid intake are: the type of food you eat, your activity level, your body fat percentage, and your acclimatization to the heat.

Another recommendation we hear a lot is to drink to thirst, but once again the phrase, “it’s complicated,” rears it’s head. When you’re exercising, especially for extended periods of time, your body may not signal you to drink because of imbalances in your system. You need to be looking at other objective measures such as the amount of fluid you are taking in, the temperature, the color of your urine (we’ll talk about this more in a few paragraphs), and any GI issues you’re having.

You’re unlikely to need to hydrate during a 5k or 10k event. For a 1-2 hour run, you’ll need water, but not electrolytes. If you’re running five plus hours, you’re going to need some form of electrolyte replacement strategy. If you’re between the 2-5 hour range, water is necessary and electrolytes would be helpful but are not necessary like they are after 5-6 hours. Electrolytes are helpful in the 2-5 hour range because they help you hold onto the water you’re consuming rather than it just going straight through you.

 

Most ultrarunners use some type of electrolyte supplement during training and in races. There are lots of options as far as different sports drinks, powders, and tablets/capsules. It’s likely that you’ll want a variety of options when you’re racing because things change and some times something that has worked throughout training suddenly stops working. Sports drinks usually do double duty by providing you with both carbohydrate and electrolytes, so make sure you have options for both when the drink doesn’t work so well. Aid stations typical fare will consist of foods with both carbohydrate and with sodium, the main electrolyte you need, so keep a mental note that you’ve taken in some electrolytes there too.

After a run or a race, there’s no need to ingest a sports drink to replenish your electrolytes. Your body will be able to balance it out within the next 24-48 hours. If you have another run within that time frame, however, drinking a Gatorade is probably a good idea.

One way runners often judge their hydration is through urine color. The problem is there are a lot of things that impact your urine color, so it’s not always the most accurate. You can have clear urine because your body doesn’t have enough electrolytes to hold onto the water so it just spits it back out. The best time to judge hydration with urine color is when you first wake up in the morning because it’s had time to accumulate. The first urine in the morning tells you about your hydration the day before. So if you track your hydration and exercise, you’ll get a good idea of what your body needs for different workouts.