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.

 

 

How Young is too Young?

kids-racing

Is there a minimum age limit for running marathons? Many races require runners to be eighteen years or older. If they don’t, they require their parents to sign a liability waiver. I have to admit, I’ve had some reservations about having kids out on the course for that distance because their bones are still growing.

There is a bit of a debate about this issue. In 2001, the International Marathon Medical Directors Association said, “It is in the overall best interests of children to make participation in a full marathon an adult activity, reserved only for those 18 years old and older.”

Their position is based on concerns for overuse injuries, psychological burn out, increased eating disorders in young athletes, and their lower tolerance for heat stress.  Here is the thing with that endurance running, like what you find in a marathon, is no more damaging to a child than the intense training adolescent athletes go through for basketball, baseball, American football, football (aka Soccer), and every other high school sport.

Some things to keep in mind when deciding if you child should run a marathon or even participate in intense athletics at a young age:

  1. Kid’s bodies don’t do as well in hot or cold weather as adults do. They also don’t notice when they are not doing so great because of the temperature.
  2. Their bones are growing faster than their muscles and tendons, which means they can get soft tissue injuries easier than an adult.
  3. Due to their shorter stride, kids hit the ground more often when they run, which can increase the risk of stress fractures.

You don’t want them to get injured when they are young and have that injury follow them through the rest of their lives. This happens with many people who played competitive sports in high school and even in college.

Don’t get me wrong, I think sports programs are wonderful for children, adolescents and young adults. There are so many benefits to the child such as social skills, healthy life style, following rules, being a leader, adapting to a changing environment, quickly assessing situations, and here is the big one working hard for what you want.

For children and young adults it’s very important to make sure you and their coaches follow the golden rules of run training: first, never increase miles by more than 10% a week; and second, every fourth week decrease miles by 20% to allow time to rebuild. It’s critical that they learn to listen to their own body and rest it when it needs rest. If they learn this skill early in their running or sports, it will benefit them throughout their active lives.

If you are going to allow your child to participate in marathons make sure it is their choice and that they can stop when they are no longer interested in running that distance. This one is always a balance because you don’t want them to walk away from a commitment just because it’s not fun anymore. Make sure they have all the information and know what training will look like and what the race will look like.

How Does Age Affect Running?

old-runner

Most runners assume they will get slower the older they get and that’s true to some extent, but not as much as most believe. A study conducted of 200,000 runners for a 15k distance (about nine miles) showed that for every year over forty, you slow down by about one second per mile, and the gap between women’s and men’s times shrinks by five percent. Sorry guys your speed drops off faster than the gals.

The longer the distance the more drastic the decline appears to be. Researchers looked at the New York Marathon, which showed a 4-6 percent decrease in times. However, there are a few issues with this race. It’s not the same participants year to year and it didn’t account for untrained runners. If there were more untrained runners running the second race considered in the study, it would obviously skew the numbers.

Alright, so what if you’re a highly trained runner? It appears that highly trained runners do not have the same decrease in their running, slightly less than the one second per mile seen in the large study of 200,000 runners.

Here are a few positive things about running and aging: Maximum heart rate, muscular strength, and oxygen update decrease at a much slower rate in trained runners. Plus, running economy remains the same as you age at least until age sixty. My guess there is if you’re able to maintain muscular strength leading to maintaining your form while running, you are not likely to see a decline in your economy past age sixty. Sixty is the new forty, right?

Don’t lose hope! There are a few things you can do to stop the slow descent. The decreases runners experience as they age are mostly explained by a drop in oxygen update, upper and lower body strength, flexibility, and muscular (explosive) power.

With that information, we can shape our training to compensate for the age decline. Strength training is easy to implement into your training program. You don’t even need a gym member ship. You can use your own body weight and get some light weights to use at home. Explosive power can be increased by doing plyometrics 2-3 days a week. You have to start out slow with plyometrics because there is a higher risk of injury with them. Plyometric training includes a lot of jumping exercises.

Increasing lung capacity can help off-set the decline in oxygen update. Oxygen uptake is the amount and rate of oxygen that is taken in and used by your muscles. Lung capacity is how deeply and quickly you can breathe. You can increase your lung capacity in a few different ways. First, train on a regular basis. Training increases the number of capillaries in your lungs and allows more oxygen to be absorbed with each breath.  Second, breathing exercises such as those used in yoga. Yoga is also going to help with your flexibility.

You don’t have to do yoga to increase your lung capacity and flexibility. You can do both on your one at home through stretching and foam rolling and for lung capacity inhale as much air as you can and then a little more (straighten your back, expand your lungs until you can see them in a mirror and your stomach sucks in), hold the breath for a second, and then exhale until it’s all out, and then exhale a little more.

Another benefit of aging is you begin to appreciate what your body is able to do. You also understand the value of your health.

Apps to Keep you Moving

runner-apps

Sometimes running can get boring, at least that’s what I hear, or you lose your motivation. Phone apps are a great way to take care of both situations. Here are a few apps you should check out:

Lesser known motivational/tracking apps

  1. Runner’s world go provides tracking tools, expert knowledge, and motivation. For iphone, it’s free, and has in app purchases.
  2. Runkeeper has training plans created by expert coaches, social networking, motivation awards, audio cues for pace, distance, and time. Iphone and android. Free.
  3. Endomondo tracks a lot of different activities (table tennis included). It gives in run audio pep talks from your friends who also use the app. Free for apple and android.
  4. Couch to 5k great for new runners, provides three 30 minute workouts per week, tracks your time and distance, has a virtual coach to give you verbal cues. $2.99 for apple and android.
  5. Ismoothrun tracks distance and time, but also steps, weather, and the name of the street you started on. You can also migrate workout data between training logs. $4.99 for apple only.
  6. Pacejam is an app that helps with pacing. You set the pace you want to maintain and it adjusts the music speed depending on if you are running too slow or too fast. Free on apple and android.
  7. PaceDJ scans the music on your phone, breaks down all the songs by beats per minute and creates a playlist to match your preferred pace. If you don’t know your pace, the app can measure it as you go and help you choose one. Free on apple and android.

 

Other well-known tracking apps: garmin mobile connect, strava, nike+, and mapmyrun

Fun apps

  1. Runtastic is a story running app. You can download different stories for $1 a piece. Each one is 30-45 minutes long. There are some free stories. It’s free to download, it’s for apple, android, and windows phone.
  2. Charity miles tracks your distance and donates 25 cents per mile to a preselected charity.
  3. Zombies, Run! Gives you missions to run in a zombie apocalypse situation. Your running is vital to your survival. Yyou collect gear and supplies, and you build a base. $4.99 for both apple and android.
  4. For those days or times where you are resting or injured there is Temple run and Subway Surfer.

 

Other interesting apps related to running:

  1. Myfitnesspal tracks calories, breaks down your diet into fat, protein, carbohydrates, sugar and more when you log the food you’ve eaten. You can set weight loss goals or maintenance goals. Free for iphone and android.
  2. Outsider tracks your runs and gives you detailed weather reports. It has a run weather index which tells you how your run will be based on the weather. Free and only on apple.
  3. Localeikki recommends local running routes and gives you details about the surface, traffic volume, and restroom facilities. Free and only on apple.

Use any method to keep yourself running, we all hit ruff spots.

Plains vs. Mountains

mountain sunrise

Vs.

sunrise-over-the-great-plains

Is the ultrarunning experience different when you run a flat race compared to a mountainous race?

Obviously, every course and every race is going to be a unique experience; even if you run the same race year after year there are just too many variables for it to be the exact same race.

But mentally and physically, there are differences when you are running a mountain race as compared to a flat race. Most 100 mile races and even 50k and 50 milers are in the mountains. It’s just easier to plot a course when you have hundreds of miles of trail to choose from and you don’t have to deal with streetlights, cars, and all the complications a city would create. I’m not saying putting together a trail race is easy. It definitely has its own challenges, but I would rather have those issues than the city issues.

Some mental challenges are similar and others are different. Similar: comprehending the distance you are running; mental exhaustion; working through aches and pains; working through the amount you have left to go (such as when you’re at mile 25 and you realize you have an entire marathon or three left to go. This becomes more of a challenge at mile 50 and 75 because you are more tired). Different: in a flat race the lack of variation can become tedious, especially if there isn’t much vegetation; you get bored more easily. With a flat race, you think it is going to be easier. It’s not. When you get out there and it’s just as difficult, or more, discouragement sets in and can cause you to slow down. The entire race is runnable, so you become frustrated when you have to walk due to heavy legs, sore feet, or whatever.

Some physical challenges are the same and others are different: Similar: you’re going to hurt, eventually, you’re going to have to eat when you don’t want to, and you’re going to be physically exhausted. Weather conditions can very and you need to be prepared for those. Stomach issues still need to be anticipated. Different: during a flat race, you are using the same muscles in the same way the entire time. In a mountain race, you incorporate different muscles as you climb and descend. This can lead to more aches and pains. The entire race is runnable, without mountains, there aren’t automatic hike sections, thus making you push harder or not take rest walks early in the race, which leads to being more tired than you would be if you had walked a bit at regular intervals. If you think the race is going to be easier, you may not stay up on your fuel, hydration, and electrolytes. This will lead to all kinds of problems making a schedule and sticking to it is going to prevent this.

As you can see, the physical challenges are linked to the mental challenges. Training is the sure fire way to find these challenges/differences and learn how you can deal with them. Every runner is going to deal with them in different ways. Training properly, will alleviate many of the physical issues which will then reduce the mental challenges as well.

Lucky Pick

hurt-roots

I threw my name into the lottery for the Hawai’i’s “Hawai’i Ultra Running Training Teams 100 mile trail run” AKA The HURT. They draw 125 names. The race is in January and in Hawai’i it’s about 70 degrees Fahrenheit in January. There is 24500 feet of cumulative elevation gain. It’s five 20 mile loops in the middle of the island of Oahu. There are four river crossings for each loop.  Yep, you got it, my name was pulled! I’m so very excited for this race. It will be one of the most challenging, possibly the most challenging, race I’ve done.

I’ve had to come up with some creative ways to get the training I need for the HURT. In Utah, where I live, it is winter in January, January is one of the coldest months, ice and heavy snow cover the ground, temperatures below freezing, so cold I run in the neighborhoods with narrow streets just to keep warm.

So how am I going to train to run in 70 degrees when it’s 20 degrees where I am? Well, I’m going to dress in my winter clothes and do have of my long runs on the treadmill in doors. Sounds like fun huh? Not at all, but it’s what you do if you want to finish the HURT.

With all that snow and ice, running the mountains will be pretty much impossible. Driving up into the canyons with six feet of snow is not my idea of a good time, nor is potentially sliding off the side of a mountain. So How am I going to train for the climbing? I’m going to learn to love running stairs (or hate it, either way, it’ll get done). My office building has six flights of stairs. If anyone needs me between the hours of five am and seven am, that’s where you can find me.

I plan to continue with my strength training routine, including core and balance; however, I’ll be switching things up to make sure I maintain the strength in my climbing and more importantly, my descending muscles and tendons. Most people believe that climbing is harder than descending and mentally it is more difficult, but descending is harder on your body because of the impact. If you don’t practice descending, you’ll end up with ITBand issues, shin splints, and blown quads before the end of the race. That’s rough if you still have a lot of descending to do, in fact, it can cost you a finish.

Finally, do you see that picture up there? That’s the trail. How in the hell do you train to run on that?  Agility training my friends. I have a friend who is a soccer player, soccer players have fast feet, lightning fast, moving in and out of everyone else’s feet trying to steal the ball. I asked him to create an agility training routine on the ladder. I have three months to get my little feet to move just as quickly as a soccer player’s. And I have a lot of work to do. I thought I had fairly quick feet since I spend so much time jumping around on single track trails avoiding roots, rocks, mud, and whatever else happens to be out there, but no. When he showed me, I knew right away how much I suck.

The great thing about knowing I suck is I know how to fix it and I’m willing to put in the work. I’m going to finish the HURT 100, if I break both my ankles so be it.

If anyone else has run the HURT, i’m open to suggestions for training or preparation.

Making the Leap into the Ultra-World: Crew and Pacers

making the leap 4

Crew and pacers are unique to the ultra-world and not everyone uses them even for the one hundred mile distance. I recommend that first time 50 and 100 mile runners have a crew. First time 100 mile runners should have pacers as well. Once you have some experience figuring out how you run your races best, you can do whatever. So what do they do? Your crew and pacers can make or break your race.

Crew: Your crew is your support team. They wait for you at each aid station and help you with anything you need as you come in. Wait, isn’t that what the aid station is there for? Yes, but they have all the other runners to attend to as well, and you may need more than just a refill on water. Some aid stations will have volunteers who do more than just fill your hydration pack and guide you toward the food, but you can’t count on it.

You have to plan for the “unexpected” in a 100 mile race. Your crew is there to handle those issues and the planned issues beyond the refill. Your crew will help you change clothes, restock your supplies of food, salt tablets, and anything you carry in your hydration pack. They make sure your headlamp is working and that you have extra batteries. They take care of blisters and massage your muscles as needed during the race. They wait at the aid station for hot food and broth to be prepared while you take care of other things.

Your crew provides you with information and updates. Since they are hanging out at aid stations they hear about trail conditions and weather patterns. They also hear about placement, if you’re interested in where you are in the race or another particular runner.

An essential thing your crew provides is encouragement and tough love. It is so refreshing to come in from a difficult, physically or mentally, section of the course and see friendly faces waiting to help you in every way. They tell you things like, “You look strong,” “You’re doing great,” “Your on target for your goal finish time,” and other beautiful things. They also get tough. If you are whining and complaining they tell you to suck it up. If you feel like dropping out, they push your ass back out there. One runner recounted a story to me about a time where he wanted to drop at mile 80 of a 100. His wife was his crew. He told her he was quitting and he headed to the car. She beat him to the car and drove off calling, “See you at the next aid station.” Now that’s love.

Finally, your crew makes decisions when you cannot. They constantly evaluate your physical and mental status when you come in and go out of aid stations. When you are exhausted physically and mentally you don’t always make the best decisions about what you need. But as a prepared ultra-runner, you’ve had this conversation with your crew about important decisions such as when to drop and what to do with body functioning issues. So, even when you are falling asleep on your feet and hallucinating, they have your back. If you can’t think straight because your electrolytes are out of balance, they are there to recognize that and balance you out.

Pacers do many of the same things as crew, only they do it on the run. They are going to make decisions for you and evaluate how you are doing physically and mentally as you shuffle/crawl along down the trail. It’s important that you choose pacers who run under the conditions of the race. Their training should mimic your own in most way other than distance (unless they are training for the own 100). They need to be able to deal with crazy weather and technical trails during the day and night. They need to have their own gear to do this. They need to be able to keep pace with you.

Most 100 mile races allow pacers after mile 50. Some of the more difficult ones allow them at 40. Pacers make sure you stay on the right trail as you become more tired. They provide you company during the night. They are also added safety from larger animals that see lone runners as dinner.

Choosing: Take care who you ask to crew or pace for you. Many runners immediately pull in loved ones and close friends, but these are not always the best choices. It can get ugly out there and your crew has to be able to send you back out when you are not in the best condition and when you are hurting (a lot). Parents, siblings, and children cannot always do that and asking them to do it, is not very nice. Having experienced crew is ideal, but not always possible. You may have to learn/teach as you go. You need people who will stay positive even when you are grumpy, short, and negative.

What they can’t do: Crew cannot provide aid outside of aid stations. Pacers cannot carry (mule) things for you. They can hold your gloves or pack while you use the bathroom, but that’s about it.

Important: your crew or pacers violation of rules or unruly behavior can get YOU disqualified.

For more information on crew and pacers see my page titled Ultra Crew.