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.

 

 

 

Back Pain?

Back pain is no joke. Many adults and even children suffer from back pain, specifically lower in their backs. There are a whole host of things that contribute to back pain, some are life style choices and some are genetics. Back pain can remove you from daily life activities that are both fun and necessary. Runners are not immune. Running involves repetitive stress and impact for long periods of time, which obviously has the potential to cause some back pain or tightness at some point. Maintaining good running form, following some basic training rules and keeping the back muscles loose will save you from missed work, and more importantly missed running.
Maintaining proper running form and a strength training routine (see mine here)  focusing on the core muscles (including the lower back) is going to go a long way in preventing lower back pain. Running form can make you a more or less efficient runner and it can make you a more or less injury prone runner. What is proper form? First, you don’t want to make big changes to your running form at a time, pick one of these and do it until it becomes automatic and then move to another. If you notice any pain, which you shouldn’t, make sure you are doing it correctly. If any pain continues, reduce it to every other run until it’s comfortable and then increase to every run.
  1. Head up and shoulders back, not uncomfortably but might feel a little weird if you sit at a computer for a long time each day.
  2. Chest up. Imagine a string attached to your sternum about nipple height pulling up to the sun or moon. This is probably the most helpful with aligning your body.
  3. Be aware of your legs. they should be under your body when you land not way out in front, especially downhill otherwise every step is like putting on the breaks and causes major impact to go through your body improperly.
  4. Foot plan should be mid-foot or forefoot. If you are doing one or the other, don’t switch. Basically, you don’t want to heel plant see number 3 above.
  5. Arm swing. Hold a ninety degree angle at the elbow, hands loose, like you’re holding a potato chip. Don’t cross your arms past your mid-line, center of your torso. Your elbows should come up to your hip and swing back until your wrists are at your hip. They should go straight back and then straight forward, a little pull toward the center is okay, just don’t cross over.
Another important factor, is increasing your miles by the 10% rule and taking rest weeks every 4th week (reduce your miles by 20-25% for the week). Increasing your miles too quickly doesn’t give your body enough time to build the muscle to handle the next level of training. Training with big mile jumps leads to over use injuries. Rest weeks are equally as important because they give your body time to heal and get stronger. As we run we create micro tears in our muscles. This is good because they heal stronger and build more muscle. But if you don’t give it time do do that effectively, it will just do the best it can with what it has, which doesn’t work well long term for you.
Self massage on the back. Sure being able to afford regular massages by a professional would be awesome, but not all of us runners have sponsors, which means all our money goes to our shoes and socks… That leaves massaging to our significant others or more often ourselves. The least expensive and surprisingly very helpful are La Crosse balls. Buy two of them from Amazon or a local athletic store and tape them together. Keep the tape smooth and make sure they are secure. Place the taped balls between your back and the wall with the indentation in the middle over your spine. The balls will be on either side. Now slowly raise and lower yourself against the wall. Keep your hips neutral (great squat workout too). Stop on knots for a few 20-30 seconds to see if you can get them to release. Keep going for 2 minutes or longer if you’d like.
A wonderful tool for total body massage (no they don’t pay me) is the Body Wrench, find it here. It’s a bit pricey, but remember it’s an investment in your body and it’s 100% money back guaranteed. You can use it for strength training as well (a 2-fer). It comes with a storage bag and an instruction manual. There are instructional videos online, found here.
Running forever, means we are going to do what we need to do to prevent and fix injuries and pain.

Hips and Running

    Running is a whole body exercise and because of this, you need to strengthen your entire body.  If you don’t do any other strength training, do hip strengthening. Your hips drive you forward. There is a bunch of research out there that supports the importance of hip strength in preventing injuries in runners. Additionally, the fastest and surest way to improve your efficiency and speed is by doing hip strengthening. Why is hip strength so important? Your hips are a part of your core muscle group which is where all of your movements, upstream and downstream, originate from.
Weak hips are actually fairly common among runners of all distances. And of course the farther you run the more likely you are to end up with an injury related to your weak hips. Your hips help stabilize your pelvis as you run. When I say hips, the muscles I’m including are: hip flexors, the outside and inside of your upper leg, your glutes, and your hamstrings. Hip flexors and hamstrings work together to move your leg back and forth. The inner and outer upper leg muscles make sure those leg swings are aligned properly with the rest of your body.  Runners hip flexors and hamstrings tend to be tight exacerbating the problem of the weak hips.
So what does weak hips cause? ITBand syndrome, runners knee, shin splints, bursitis, plantar fasciitis, and low back pain. As it turns out, hip strength alone is only one part of this equation. Don’t throw up your hands thinking, “this is too much!” just yet because this part is easy and doesn’t require work outside of your running. It’s a matter of being aware, aka proprioception; it’s knowing where your body is in space in relation to the other parts of your body. Sounds complicated. It’s not. It’s a matter of knowing what it feels like for your hips to be in the right position and then making sure they are while you are running. Your spine and hips should be in a neutral balanced position. To keep your hips in a neutral balanced position, think of your pelvis as a bowl. As you run, don’t let your bowl spill out the front, tipping too far forward, or the back, tipping too far back. During your training runs check in with your hips and spine asking yourself, are they were they are supposed to be. You can even do this throughout the day as you move around. Obviously, if they are not, correct them. Pretty soon this will become your form and you won’t have to think about it.
Alright so back to strengthening those hips. Whenever you are doing strength exercises you should focus on the body part you are using and use slow controlled movements. Using proper form during the exercise is more important than pushing your body to exhaustion. Perform these exercises three to four times a week. You want to do three sets of 10-20 repetitions.
  1. Bridges
  2. Jane Fonda’s
  3. inner thigh lift
  4. lunges
  5. piston squats
How to:
  1. Bridges: lay on your back with your arms down at your sides. Raise your hips as high as you can and hold for 2-3 seconds. You can progress to doing them with one leg, then two legs on a swiss ball, then single leg on the swiss ball.
  2. Jane Fonda’s: Lay on your side and lift the leg on top as high as you can. Hold your leg at the top for 2-3 seconds. Remember this should be a slow controlled movement. Don’t throw your leg up there because you could pull a groin.
  3. Inner thigh lift: stay on your side. Bend your upper leg and place your foot on the floor at your hips or knee. Lift your lower leg. Hold at the top for 2-3 second.
  4. Lunges: From a standing position, step forward and lower down until your front knee is bent at a 90 degree angle. Your knee should not be in front of your toes. Hold for 2-3 seconds and then do the other leg. You should be moving forward.
  5. Piston Squats. From a standing position, hold your arms out in front of you 90 degrees with your torso. Hold one leg up keeping it straight. Your foot should be 6-8 inches off the floor to start with. Bend your other leg, keeping your knee behind your toes. This one is difficult, so don’t be surprised if you can’t lower your self very far. Keep working at it.
Your hips are the key to injury prevention and improving your running in both speed and efficiency and what runner doesn’t want those three things?

Making the Leap to the Ultra-World: Training

making the leap 6

The same two golden rules of training for marathons and shorter races apply to training for an ultra. First, never increase your miles by more than ten percent. Second, reduce your miles by 20-25% (or however much you need to make an active recovery) every fourth week.

The training programs you find on the internet for ultras usually have you running five days a week. I haven’t found this to be necessary. And I believe the extra day is “junk miles.” What I mean by junk miles is, they don’t help you improve. It’s typically on Wednesday and fairly short compared to the other distances.

Your energy is better spent doing functional strength training than throwing in miles you don’t need. Functional strength training uses body weight and light weights, such as kettle bells and dumbbells. It’s focus is on balance and your core (knees to nipple line).

Balance and core strength are critical when running trails. Rocks, roots, and the shape/angle of the trail can put you off balance. You need to train your body to adjust on the go—quickly. Core strength also helps with balancing. However, the more important reason for core strength is maintaining your form for the entire event.

Form failure causes injuries due to compensation. Injuries cause more damage/strain due to compensation. The longer you can maintain your proper running form, upright, slight lean forward, shoulders back, head up, 90 degree angle-loose hand arm swing, and landing on a bent knee, the less likely you are to cause an injury during the event. The other piece of this equation is, poor forms decreases energy efficiency. Your body has to work harder to put one foot in front of another if you are hunched over, heel striking, landing on a straight leg, or have tense shoulders/arms you’re burning through energy you should be using to run.

Speed work is controversial among ultrarunners. I have mixed feelings about it as well. I know it can be helpful, but you have to balance the increased risk of injury when doing speed work, such as pulled hamstrings or shin splints. The benefit is increased leg turn over, which translates into more speed and less impact per step. These are good things, but I wouldn’t have a beginning ultrarunner do speed work. I would have more experienced ultrarunners include some speed in their Tuesday or Thursday runs, either as fartleks or 800 meter intervals.

The back to back long runs are the keystone to ultrarunning. Your back to backs should be long enough to keep you running on tired legs on the second day, but short enough to allow you to recover for the training week to come. This comes with time. When you first start back to backs, you’re going to be tired. Your legs will feel heavy until your body adjusts. Remember the two golden rules and you’ll be fine.

My athletes train six days a week. They run Tuesdays (10-12 miles), Thursdays (10-12 miles), Saturdays (long run), and Sundays (long run). On Monday and Friday they do functional strength training. Wednesday is a total rest day.

Environmental condition training includes the terrain, weather, and time of day. To be prepared for a mountain race, you have to run mountains. To be prepared for a flat race, you have to run flats. It’s that simple. Try, as best you can, to mimic the terrain of your hundred. During an ultra you can get snow and heat in the same race. There may be torrential rains and hurricane force winds. Because of this, don’t save your training for a sunny day. Get out there and deal with the crappy weather.

One hundred mile races take most people 24 hours or more to complete. This means you will be running during the night. You need to be comfortable with a headlight and negotiating trails with the limited light. If you’re not, they will significantly slow your pace throughout the night. That’s a long time to be slow. The night time hours can be the perfect time to increase your pace and make up some time because of the lower temperatures at night (most of the time). Don’t lose this chance. Train in the dark.

Mental exhaustion is another thing you can mimic in your training. You’re going to have it during a 100 and maybe even a 50. How are you going to deal with it? Caffeine is a possibility or energy drinks of some sort. Just be careful because these increase your heart rate and your core temperature. You obviously don’t want your heart rate or temperature up any higher than running 100 miles causes.

Finally, be consistent. You’re going to be tired. Don’t let it be an excuse to not get your training done.

Making the Leap to the Ultra-World: Introduction

making the leap intro

What do you do when you hit the marathon distance and you run marathons for a few years and it just no longer satisfies the need? Go longer.

Ultrarunning is challenging and not everyone wants to be an ultrarunner. It takes a pretty big commitment in order to finish races and not be injured. The internet is packed with information about how to make the transition from “regular” runner to ultrarunner. I’m going to try to simplify things and make it not so daunting.

I love running and I want everyone to love running, so I try to make this crazy thing I do easier for others to digest. If you run less than a marathon, I encourage you to get to the marathon distance before jumping into an ultra.

An ultra is anything over a marathon. Most people think about the 50 or 100 when ultras are mentioned, but there are also the less known 50k (31 miles) and 100k (62 miles). I’m going to give you an overview of the differences in this post and then give you more detail on each section over the next few weeks by comparing the marathon, fifty miler, and 100 miler when it comes to training, food, crew, pacers, gear, and what I’ll call body functioning issues.

Here is a snapshot of what I’ll be covering:

Training: there are definitely differences here. First, the back to back long runs. Second, speed work. However, the rules of ten percent a week increase and taking a rest week every fourth week still applies. This gives your body time to adapt to the increase in miles. Speed work is more controversial some ultrarunners do it and some don’t. There are costs and benefits both ways, which will be in my next post so stay tuned.

Food: You’re going to need to increase your calories obviously, but what I want to tell you about is eating while running. There are few ultrarunners who get all their fuel from gu, or similar product, while running. Solid food is the norm or a mix of solid and energy gels. Bottom line is you need to find things you can eat while you run that won’t make you sick and you need to train your body to digest while you are running.

Crew/Pacer: Once you move into the ultra-arena it becomes harder to organize your events and get through them without a little help from people who love you and like watching you torture yourself (or achieve greatness. It’s really the same thing here). Who you have out there with you and what they do can make or break your race. The more you know about ultrarunning the better prepared your crew and pacer will be to help you.

Body functioning issues: The possibility of injury is always there for runners, but just because you run farther doesn’t mean you will get injured more. And injury is not the only body functioning issue you can encounter. Runners of all distances can have problems with vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration and other pleasant things. The longer you’re out there the more chances there are for body functioning problems to arise. You need to know what causes them and how to fix or minimize the problem and keep going.

Gear: There is always lots of new fun gear out there for runners. As an ultrarunner, it’s easier to justify buying fun new things because well…you’re out there for a really long time and you need things, Right? Of course you do. There are some things that can be helpful for ultrarunners to have like blister kits, hydration packs, and drop bags.

Like in anything new, there is a learning curve, but I hope this makes breaking into the world of ultrarunning easier. If nothing else it gives you enough knowledge to begin asking questions or enough to deepen your belief that we’re all crazy. Either way, I’ve done what I set out to do.

The Weigh In…

weigh in

 

Does your body weight impact your race? Of course it does. American culture puts the screws to both men and women to have the perfect body. Women want to be thinner and men want to be more muscular. Weight has become a part of our self-identity, which is very unfortunate. People judge others based upon their weight in a variety of ways. They make an assumption about lifestyle, intellect, and financial success. This is ridiculous.

The most important question is what is the healthiest weight for my lifestyle and where do I feel comfortable?

Hanging out at either end of the spectrum can hurt your running. Being underweight will slow you down more than being overweight. Your energy bottoms out, your speed declines, and you loose lean muscle. If you need to measure something, you should measure body composition, not weight.

It’s hard not to focus on the numbers. Runners hear losing one pound will make you two seconds faster per mile (or some such thing). Heavier runners are more likely to injure their joints. It’s a balance. The goal of athletes should be health and fitness regardless of their body weight.

If you believe you need to change your weight in either direction talk with a doctor or sports nutritionist to determine what is a good weight for you based upon your goals and lifestyle. They can help you lose fat while maintaining muscle mass.

Make sure you are fueling your body with a healthy balanced diet. I know, I know, we all run so we can eat the extra piece of cake or Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. That’s fine and good every so often, but 95% of the time you should be choosing fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein, whole grains, and health fats. What you put into your body, really does matter because you get out what you put in. We learn all this stuff when we’re kids remember the food pyramid. As adults, life gets busy and it’s hard to make time to cook rather than dump stuff out of a box.

There are a lot of “ideal weight” calculators out there for runners and just for anyone. These are helpful, but I caution everyone not to get overly caught up in whatever it spits out as your ideal weight.

Your ideal weight is where you feel healthy and strong.

The Wind

wind

Oh, how I hate the wind. I have done some very windy runs. Two years ago, I ran the Salt Flats 100 where there were wind gusts up to 40 miles an hour. It was a tough race and two-thirds of the runners dropped out.

This past weekend, I found myself pushing against more wind gusts although not as wicked as Salt Flats. I was running along the side of a canyon toward the mouth and the closer I got to the mouth the worse the wind became. This wasn’t surprising of course, but it was still unpleasant. It was strong enough to push me around a bit and to bring me to a walking pace as I came around a few of the bends.

The wind is the most frustrating weather condition for me, especially, when it comes in conjunction with rain, hail, or snow. I don’t mind rain hail and snow without the wind. I do mind the wind alone. Even a tail wind, is unlikely to be met with neutrality let alone gratitude. The wind is a tricky thing and changes direction in the mountains with each bend in the canyon or drop in elevation.

Why do I hate the wind so? Because there is nothing I can do about the wind. Nothing. A wind resistant jacket you say? I suppose it helps keep the chill out, but it doesn’t stop the fight.

The only intervention I have come up with is reframing. I have to look at the wind as an ally. Well, I don’t know if I can go that far without some therapy for the Post traumatic Stress of Salt Flats 100, but I need to see it as benefiting me in some way.

Changing our perspective to see things we don’t enjoy to a more beneficial or at least neutral way can decrease our overall stress, especially when it is something we have to deal with on a day to day basis.

How does the wind benefit me? It makes me stronger both physically and mentally. When I was fighting with the wind around the bends this last weekend, Salt Flats immediately came to mind and I thought, “It could be worse, I can get through this.” Any adversity makes it easier to deal with the next challenge. When it is similar in nature or even the exact same, it really helps our confidence to endure again. Physically, it’s like running hills.

Challenges make us stronger when we overcome them. Don’t back away. If you aren’t successful, try it again. Tenacity, it’s a good quality in a runner.