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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

How many carbs do I burn when running?

Carbohydrates are one source of fuel our bodies use to provide energy for our daily activities and for our runs. Fat is the other source of fuel our bodies use. Carbohydrates have to be replaced during training and racing, but fats don’t. How much and how quickly we burn through carbohydrates and fats depends on a variety of factors. Understanding how many calories we burn and where it comes from can help us dial in our nutrition plan for race day and for training.

When we run fast and for shorter distances we burn mostly carbohydrates. As our distance increases and our pace decreases we begin to use fat as a fuel source too. We begin to use fat at slower long distance events because we have a lot of energy stored up in fat, even very thin people. Fat takes more oxygen to burn so if you’re running hard, it’s not a good source of energy. Fat also takes longer to burn, so if you’re running fast, it’s not a good source. If you’re running a 5k-half marathon, you’re tapping into your carbohydrate stores and burning very little fat.

This is the core of the belief that endurance athletes can perform well on a low carbohydrate diet. The problem comes when the same athlete tries to push hard and go fast. I raced and trained on a low carbohydrate diet for 18 months and was fine, unless I wanted to push my limits and then…I died. Despite being low carb (under 50 g a day), my body still could not burn fat fast enough to sustain hard effort. So I switched back to a higher carbohydrate diet.

One way to figure out the ratio of carb to fat that you are burning is to use your heart rate. To do this you need to know what your maximum heart rate is (220- your age. This is a guestimate). During your run, check your heart rate. At 70 percent of your max heart rate, about 50 percent of your fuel comes from carbohydrates. At 75-80 percent of your max, it increases to 65% carbohydrate.

So a person who is 150 lbs, running at a 7 mph pace (8.5 min/mile) for one hour burns about 782 calories. If that puts the person at 70% heart rate that’s 391 calories from carbohydrate. At 75-80% heart rate that’s, 508 calories from carbohydrates. The same person running at a 5 mph pace (12min/mile) burns 544. Because they are going slower, the amount of calories coming from carbs is less and the amount coming from fats is more.

The American Council on Exercise has a physical activity calorie counter that is based on your body weight, duration of exercise, and intensity. You can find it here. There are a bunch of different tools there to try out, if you’re curious.

Once you know how many calories per hour you’re burning on average during your runs, you can begin to understand and build a strategy for resupplying your body with those calories. Your body cannot process enough food to be able to make up for the amount of calories lost through carbohydrate burn if you maintain a high intensity. The most you can hope to process per hour is about 352 calories. We’ll get into how to maximize that in the next post.

 

 

Running Preggers: Baby Belly Support

A maternity belt is going to be a must have for most running moms-to-be as they near the third trimester. Many women even with the support of a maternity belt decide to stop running during the third trimester because it becomes too uncomfortable. There is no shame in taking a brake during your last weeks of pregnancy ladies.

Keep in mind a belly band and a maternity belt are different. If you’re running, a belly band isn’t going to help support your baby belly. The band allows you to continue to wear your pre pregnancy clothing for a longer time and delays the purchase of maternity clothing. It will cover your belly as your shirt creeps up and it will hold your pants up when you leave them unbuttoned and the zipper more and more down as baby grows.

A maternity belt will help lift some of the baby belly weight up and distribute it more evenly across your back and hips. You can start wearing one whenever you want. I started wearing mine around week 27. I actually tried a bit before then, but found that my belly wasn’t big enough to make any difference. I should have bought a size small rather than a medium, which would have allowed me to wear it sooner.

When you reach the third trimester, baby is about 2 pounds, still pretty small, but over the next 13 weeks baby will add on 4.5-5 pounds, and maybe a little more. Running with a medicine ball attached to your abs that increases in weight every week is tough. Many women begin to feel very tired and have round ligament pain as the uterus grows to its max height and baby’s weight increases. Pelvic pain can be problematic because the hormone relaxin is relaxing those tendons/ligaments holding your pelvis together. You can also have a feeling of increasing downward pressure (not time to exit yet kiddo), which is uncomfortable.

I bought the Gabrialla belt after reading some reviews from other running mamas. Things you want to be aware of when selecting your belt are: first, washability. That thing is going to get sweaty and you’ll want to wash it pretty regularly. Second, regular washing, means you want it to be durable. The third thing to consider is breathability. Being pregnant generates a lot of extra heat, so wearing something around your middle that traps heat in, is not going to work.

The Gabrialla goes around your low back and then under your belly. If you do it up too tight it can push on your bladder. You want it snug and comfortable. My daughter will kick and push at the belt before and after our run, but she is rocked to sleep while we are running. You can wear it over or under your clothing. I wore it over just because I didn’t want to risk any chafing.

I’ve had a few women come and ask me about the maternity  belt when I finish a workout at the gym and I’m always happy to help keep another mom-to-be active and happy.

 

Play Nice on the Trail

Trails can be crowded, especially, in the spring and if there happens to be a waterfall somewhere along the route. Everyone likes to see waterfalls. There are dogs, runners, bikes, children, and hikers out there. And we’re all out there wanting the same thing, to enjoy the outdoors, breath some fresh air, and climb some mountains.

Sometimes we get so caught up in our own enjoyment, that we forget to play nice and share the trails with others. I’ve been known to complain about mountain bikers and I’m sure they have complained about me. The weather is warming up where I live and the snow is melting, which means everyone is aching to get into the mountains and those first few sunny weekends will be busy with very excited mountain goers.

We can have mixed feelings about other people on the trail because we want everyone to enjoy them so they can be protected and taken care of, but we also want to be able to enjoy them without other people disturbing our solitude. Choose your trail and time of day wisely and you will be able to get the experience you’re looking for.

Here are some gentle reminders of how to play nice out there. When passing from behind, make sure and announce yourself before it’s time for them to move out of the way. If you’re moving significantly faster than the other people, call out to which side you’d like to pass on (and then keep in mind this confuses some people and they move into the space you were planning on using). This is especially important when you are cruzing around blind corners.

If you listen to music while your out on the trail, keep the volume down so you can hear others around you, such as the runner needing to pass or a moose crashing through the trees. And please use your earbuds, I personally find music rather annoying when I’m on the trail because I want to listen to the wind, water, and my feet on the dirt. If I’m on the road, I don’t care, but out in the mountains there is enough natural music for me.

Remember the yielding rules. Bikes yield to hikers and runners. It is nice of hikers and runners who yield to bikers that are struggling up a climb, but it’s not required. The rule is bikers yield, so mountain bikers need to ride with the expectation that hikers and runners will not yield. This doesn’t mean that runners and hikers can just go about their day willy nilly. You have to be aware when bikes are out there because you don’t want to get run over. Also it is very helpful when the lead bike calls out how many are in their group.

Hikers and runners yield to horses. Horses have the right of way when it comes to all other trail traffic. Horses can spook and hurt everyone around them. Hikers and bikers should stop and move to the side of the trail to allow horses to pass. Never get close to a horse from behind. If you come upon a horse and need to pass, call out from a good distance giving the rider time to adjust their position and keep their horse calm.

Hikers vs. Hikers. those going uphill have the right of way. this is because those going up have a smaller field of vision and are usually in a rhythm of climbing which can be hard to regain after you stop to let someone pass.

Be nice to one another out there.

Running Preggers: Clothing issues

Sure, you can just wear larger sizes of clothes, but who really wants to do that? It’s much more fun to show off that baby bump, especially, at the gym, on the trail, or out running on the road. Show the world pregnant women are strong and fit.

The problem is maternity fitnesswear is kinda expensive and then you’re only going to be wearing it for a few months. Every woman and every pregnancy is different and will change what clothes you need and when you need them. If you’re planning on future pregnancies and/or you have extra money (after all the baby purchases), buy the clothes that make you the most comfortable, even if they are a little pricey.

Depending on how you’re carrying your baby (high or low) changes what you may need. If your carrying low, pants and shorts can become a problem before shirts do. If you carry high, shirts are a problem earlier in your pregnancy. By the end, it’s all going to be a problem though. Shorts with drawstrings and longer shirts may be the most cost-effective solution.

Sports bras are another ball game all together. You’re going to need a larger size and you may need to go up a size after that depending on how things play out. If you’re planning to breastfeed your baby, you’ll want to invest in some nursing sports bras, plus their just a bit more comfortable than normal nursing bras.

Sports bras are expensive especially as the size increases and you need more and more support. No one wants the girls bouncing around and when you’re pregnant it can be painful. If you’re going to be breastfeeding, it is probably worth the extra cost to get the higher quality nursing bras that have good support since you’ll be using them for a while. But, don’t get them too early because once your milk comes in you could go up another size. You’ll want to wait about five days postpartum before you get more than one (because you might want one to wear home after the birth).

What’s a woman to do, when you know your bra size is most likely going to change throughout pregnancy and the sports bras are pricey? Double up. Yep, wear two bras. It does create more heat, which can result in a slight heat rash for some women. But I can get two cheaper bras for less than a really high quality supportive one. If the girls were going to stay that size forever, I’d buy the more expensive one, but they’re not.

Another clothing issue you may be lucky enough to experience is chafing. Your higher body temperature and blood volume make you start sweating earlier in your workouts. Add that to your not so great fitting clothing and you’ll be investing in Body Glide or other anti-chafing cream.

Good luck ladies!

Running miles: I’ve been able to maintain the 3 miles a day at a 10:30 pace. I’m 31 weeks three days pregnant. I’m supplementing with the elliptical or stair master for the rest of my aerobic workout.

Heat Acclimation

It’s still winter where I live, but if you’re planning on running early spring or summer races, preparing for running in the heat should be on your mind. There are lots of changes that occur in your body when you become adapted to the heat during exercise.

One of the first things is you have a lower heart rate when exercising at a particular temperature. Your blood plasma increases, which allows you to move warm blood toward the outside of your body to dissipate heat. Increased blood plasma also allows you to begin sweating earlier and at a higher rate. Sweating earlier means your body will start sweating when your core temperature goes up by one degree rather than two or three. This head start may not seem like much, but is important for maintaining a lower core temperature.

Without the increase in your plasma volume, you would compromise your cardiovascular output as more energy was shunted to decreasing your body temperature through sweat and moving your blood around.

Now keep in mind that just because you are more efficient at running in the heat, does not mean that you can slack off on your hydration. You are actually losing more fluid because you are sweating earlier and at an increased rate. The change in the amount of sweat lost can be huge. Normal fluid lost for one hour of exercise is 0.5 to 1 liter. As you become heat acclimated, this can increase up to 1-2 liters per hour.

How do you get ready for the heat? run in the heat. hot and humid is difficult to adapt to but you can do it to a point. If it’s winter or just not hot enough where you live, there are still some things you can do. The bottom line is you want to increase your core body temperature to about 100 to 101.5 degrees.

Some options include building a really simple heat chamber in your home, over dressing. If you have the space, create a room that gets really hot. You can use space heaters or stop the clothes dryer from ventilating outside (which will increase humidity too). Ideally, you’ll have a treadmill, but some other type of exercise equipment like a stationary bike or elliptical machine will be all right.

Over dressing is pretty simple. Just put on lots of extra clothing and then go running. In doors is going to be the best, but out doors will work if you don’t have another option. This isn’t an ideal way to prepare but it is better than nothing.

Another, less effective, way is to do some high intensity exercise until your core body temperature is up to 100-101.5 and then go sit in the hot tub or a sauna.

Adapting to the heat takes about seven to fourteen days of heat exposure for one hundred minutes a day. You can do a much shorter period of three to five days and it will help you feel better when running in the heat, but for endurance events the longer period is what you should be doing.

The problem is that heat training makes you tired, so you don’t want to do this super close to your race date, but you have to balance that with not losing the heat adaptation you’ve tortured yourself to develop. Try to complete your heat training 3-4 days before your event.

 

Block It

We all get stuck in a rut, but it can be really easy to do with your workout routine. I know I’m guilty of this on multiple occasions, with both my running and with my strength workouts.  There are a few problems with the rut: first, you don’t make any progress; second, you lose motivation; third, it’s boring!

The first is the most important for runners who want to improve. Not all runners want to improve. They are content running their six miles four days a week at a comfortable pace. That’s not me. I want to get better and I like to see progress. Even if improvement isn’t your think, staying motivated to get out there and not being bored the entire time should be enough for you to want to change things up every few weeks.

Many runners work through their training in blocks. Blocks can be four, six or eight weeks long and during each block you focus on a different aspect of your running. That doesn’t mean you drop other aspects of training, they just aren’t the focus point. Other runners switch things around by every other week. And still others, do a rotation over a ten-day period.

Strength Blocks: Starting a block rotation with strength is great because the number one goal of strength training for runners is to reduce risk of injuries. There are three types of strength training typically used by runners. First is body weight. This uses light weights or no weights with high repetitions. The idea is it builds strength and stability without the mass. Second is plyometrics. Plyometrics are explosive movements, such as jumping and springing. These are great but need to be implemented in small dosages especially at the beginning. Third is heavy lifting. Heavy lifting is low repetitions and max weight which strengths your connective tissue. Lifts should be done very slow and controlled. You’re runs during a strength rotation should be lower in intensity because you’re kicking up the intensity with strength training.

Speed Blocks: during your speed block you’re going to have an intense speed workout once a week and then throw in some fartleks during your long run. For your weekly intense session, choose different types of work outs. Don’t just do 800s. There’s nothing wrong with doing a week of 800s, just don’t make it an every week thing. Use pyramids, tempo runs, ladders, or 400s.

Hill Blocks: during your hill block you will have one run a week dedicated to running hills and then you’ll throw in extra hills for your long run. You can run hill repeats or find a long steady climb to conquer. If you’re doing short repeats, walking the downhill is fine, but you’ll have to find some longer downhills to practice downhill running. Downhills will tear up your legs if you don’t build them into your training.

Build Blocks: As endurance runners, especially at ultra-distances, your long run is going to stay in the weekly rotation. However, if you’re not doing a build phase, you’ll only do one long run a week rather than the back to backs. You can also choose to run one long run and then the next day a ten-mile run. But if you’re not in a build block, you’re not increasing the miles on that second day.

The important part is that you are changing things and challenging your body in new ways. Using the same workouts doesn’t get you more of the same results. It gets you a flatline.