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.



Making the Leap into the Ultra-World: Gear

making the leap 2

There are so many neat running toys out there and more come out every month. Not all of it is necessary, but it’s nice to have during an ultra.

Necessary items:

Good shoes and socks: this is pretty self-explanatory. You’re on your feet for a really long time and you train a lot. Make your feet happy or they will ruin your race. I’ve written a post on choosing trail shoes as well click here.

Appropriate clothing: Have you heard the saying, “There is no bad weather, only bad gear”? Clothing should be number one in this area. You don’t need to buy the most expensive stuff. I get a lot of my running clothes from Target. Layers are important because weather changes. My bottom layer is what I expect to be wearing the whole race (unless I have to completely change for some reason). It could be shorts and a T or long pants. From there I add depending on weather at the time. Hats and/or visors and gloves also go down on my necessary list.

Headlamp and extra batteries: You’re going to running in the dark and trails can be tricky. There are different ways to wear a headlamp if you don’t like it on your head. I wear mine on my hips. You can also wear it around your chest. A flashlight or knuckle lights are good options if you can deal with the movement of the light and having something in your hands. If you fall, your flashlight could break or go missing, so have a back-up option. I carry a small flashlight with me because I’ve had my batteries die, and even with a headlamp you could fall and break it. Find something lightweight and throw it in your pack.

Hydration system: I use the word system because there are various options: handheld, vests with bottles, vests with small bladders, belts, and hydration packs. Different strokes for different folks. Aid stations in ultras are far apart either by distance or time, sometimes both. It’s not unusual to have ten miles between aid stations. Even if it is only five miles, there could be a lot of climbing which could take hours. I like packs because I need my hands free to get food and such. I like the storage space. And they typically hold more water. The drawback to a full pack is weight, but if you train with it, you get use to it. In fact, you should train with any system you choose.

Blister kit and medical kit: I’ve already talked about the need for these in my last post, so I’m not going to go through it again.

RoadID: You should have identifying information on your person when running regardless it being during a race or not. Even if you have your phone, the battery could die, it could get damaged, or password protected. A race number will help people who are a part of the race, but not someone else. RoadID is a Velcro band that goes around your wrist or ankle. It allows you to put emergency contact information and medical information on it.

Nice to have:

Garmin: Or any devise that tracks your distance, pace, and whatever else is nice to have while you are out there (or maybe you don’t really want to know). I like to know how far off I am from the next aid station and if I am hitting my goal times. My ability to estimate distance travelled diminishes the longer I am out there.

Stash jacket and arm sleeves: Clothes you can “easily” take off and put on while running or at least without the need to stop and remove your hydration pack and other things is a special treat. The stash jacket is an Altra product. I think this is a great jacket because it comes with its own belt and pocket. It also has a cut out for your hydration pack, which means you don’t have to take anything off to put it on. Sleeves are also an item I like. You can pull them up and push them down as needed when it’s cold.

Flip belt: this is a belt that is essentially a pocket all the way around. It has slits where you can put your keys, phone, gu, or whatever in and then flip the belt so nothing falls out. It’s a little added storage space.

Gaiters: Gaiters keep debris out of your shoes. I’m sure some runners would move these to the necessary list. They are great to have because it sucks to stop and take tiny rocks out of your shoes. They can be a hindrance if you need to take your shoes off for any reason.

Sun glasses: I don’t use them because they bounce. I’ve found my hat does just as well. Sun glasses would be nice in the wind to keep debris out of your eyes. You do need to spend a little money on these. They need to be scratch resistant, have UV protection, and be lightweight.

Compression clothing: Compression clothing is meant to assist blood flow and increase efficiency by decreasing unnecessary muscle movement. Increased blood flow makes sure the muscles stay filled with nutrients and oxygen which they need to continue to work. They can also help speed recovery time because of the increased blood flow. Many people who have shin splints use calf sleeves or the knee-high socks.

Enjoyment purposes: Camera, Go-pro, and Ipod or other music


Embrace the Suck

run 100

Over the last two years, twelve 100 mile races have popped up in Utah (or so close it might as well be in Utah). You can run a 100 mile race every month from February to October (with two in March, April, and September). Granted, Utah has some spectacular areas to run in from beautiful desert slot canyons to the high alpine trails.

Ultra running is an interesting sport. Even during a good race where everything goes as planned, there is usually some suffering and difficulty. Going 100 miles on foot within 24-36 hours is hard and race directors like to make it harder by throwing in mountains. But runners don’t shy away from the harder races, they just look at it as another challenge.

My most prized finishes are the ones where I suffered the most, which generally means my finish time was not the best, but I earned every step along the way. Finishing a difficult race, makes the next challenge feel more doable. When you have been out there with your quads shot and vomiting, you can draw on that experience and build yourself up to face other challenges.

Embrace the suck. Sure everyone who doesn’t run ultras thinks you’re crazy when you say, “I had an amazing weekend running 100 miles while nauseous, dizzy, disoriented, vomiting, and burned to a crisp,” but who cares?

I don’t think ultrarunners like to suffer. We are not masochists. I don’t sign up for a race wondering how much I will suffer. I sign up for the challenge, “What am I made of?” is the question in my mind. The suffering brings us to a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us, about others who suffer and have persevered. It’s about truly living life.

It’s just that, the sunrise never looked more beautiful than when I spent the night in the ninth circle of hell.

With the number of races popping up all over the place, I have to assume that more and more people are accepting the challenge of the 100-mile distance. I think this is a great thing because I don’t think there is a better way to teach respect and appreciation for what you have in your life.