A friend of mine posted something on Facebook today about running and how uncomfortable it was. It got me thinking …
There’s something really unique about running fast. There’s a certain threshold that you cross when you give everything you are over to it. Suddenly, every movement, every conscious ounce of your body is engaged in the deliberate action of running. Every muscle, every bone, every organ, and every drop of blood pumping through your arteries — it all comes together for one purpose.
You see this in professional runners when they go hard enough. You see Paula Radcliffe nodding her head like a donkey as she chases a marathon world record no one else has touched. You see the muscles in Genzebe Dibaba’s face tense up as she hurls herself toward the finish line. You watch Bernard Lagat’s eyes grow wide as he kicks out those long strides down the final stretch.
And in that moment, running is no longer something you’re doing; it’s what you are.
Of course, it feels terrible. But all at once it’s both delicately aesthetic, uniquely beautiful, and devastatingly intense. It’s a sublime and yet viscerally awful experience. Moments like those, you realize, have killed men and women — blowing the gaskets on their vascular cylinders, so to speak.
I don’t think any other sport is quite like that — not the same way, anyway. Not cycling, not swimming, not snowshoeing or football. So it makes sense that runners hampered by injury or age find themselves longing for another time, a time when the movement itself swallowed them whole — before spitting them out on the beach past the finish line.
In my world, exercise is this balance between doing enough to get a fitness boost but not so much that I end up injured or sick. When you’re talking about achieving that balance of doing enough without doing too much, you’ll inevitably come across the advice “listen to your body.”
What’s funny about “listen to your body” are the people who use this phrase to give themselves a pass to stay on the couch and eat donuts. “That’s what my body’s telling me to do,” they say with a wry smile.
When you start out with an exercise regimen, you have to push yourself out the door. It takes some serious mental calisthenics. Sometimes, it’s not fun, and it’s rarely easy. So you start out by ignoring the voices in your head.
But after a while, you start to realize that when you thought your body was saying “stop, stop, stop,” it was actually saying, “Whoa, haven’t done this in a while.” And after a little warmup, it starts saying, “Okay, this isn’t so bad.” And then one day, you’re sitting at your desk and work and your legs just scream at you, “Let’s GO already! I’m so sick of sitting still!!”
You get out there in nature and you notice how gorgeous the sky is, how fresh the air is, and how beautiful the birds and trees and mountains are. You get hooked on the feeling of exercise, and you want more.
And that’s part of the problem. Once you really start paying attention to what your body is telling you, you want to keep going all the time. You sign up for an Ironman Triathlon or an ultra marathon or a double century bicycle ride because, hey, your body seems to be asking for it. The workouts get longer, harder, and faster. And your body gets healthier and healthier …
And then one day, your body says, “Uh, not right now” or “Okay, that’s enough.” And instead of listening you say, “I got where I am by ignoring those voices — why should I start listening now?”
The next thing you know, you’re at the doctor’s office going, “Why hasn’t my calf stopped hurting in the last six months, Doc?”
You see, fatigue is an interesting fire to play with. You have to push the limits of your fatigue to see improvement. But if you push too much too soon, you’re well, playing with fire.
Take last week. I started the day by going snowshoe running for about an hour and a half. It beat me up pretty good, and I came back with sore legs. But I’d planned to crank out an hourlong bike ride later in the day. I needed to push the limits, or so I thought.
As I sat there staring at the wall while I put on my wool socks and neoprene shoe covers, I imagined the workout I was about to do, but there was no excitement about it. I donned my facemask and helmet, mounted my bike and started riding.
Now, I’ve read the studies that say going long makes your immune system weaker than going hard. But it shouldn’t have taken a study to help me realize I shouldn’t have been so greedy with my time. My body wasn’t feeling it, and I should’ve known that just from the way I was feeling.
Lo and behold, a few days later, I woke up with a head cold and a sore calf.
So needless to say, being injured has been an interesting (albeit unpleasant) experience. This bizarre cycle of losing tons of fitness through excessive resting and then re-injuring myself as soon as I try to start back up again — that has gotten very old very quickly.
I’ve run into three problems:
1. Diagnosis — I really don’t have the problem figured out completely. I wasn’t sure if I just strained a muscle (I was thinking soleus) or if I straight-up tore something (like a vertical tear in the achilles or something).
2. Re-injury prevention — Because I didn’t know what I did, I’m not clear on how I can avoid re-injuring myself. That’s the thing: for the first few weeks, I wasn’t sure if it was a result of running and cycling, running and swimming, just plain running, or even just plain cycling. I’m still not 100% certain how I did it in the first place, and that makes it pretty tough to avoid doing it again.
3. Rehab — It’s really easy for you to play armchair physiotherapist and say, “Duh—stop running, moron!” But newsflash: it’s an injury in a largely tendinous region of the body. That means it’s difficult to get a lot of blood flow in there, and when it’s hard to get blood flow, it’s hard to heal. So to some degree, I need aerobic exercise to keep a higher rate of blood flow. The other question is, do I put heat on it (like I would a muscle strain) or do I ice it (like I would a tendon injury)?
Fortunately, in the middle of all of this, the world’s finest exercise science and sports nutrition minds were convening a conference in Spain. And since it’s 2015, that meant I got to follow along via Twitter. Asker Jeukendrup had to make things one step simpler when he took all of the cool info I saw in 140-character tweets and summarized it like this:
Being the self-diagnosing hypochondriac that I am, and since I couldn’t get an appointment with a running doctor until December, I decided to start treating it like a tendon injury. I’m downing gelatin and vitamin c, and I’m trying to avoid impactful exercise.
So I had a recovery regimen to commit to. Then I read Born to Run (which, I should mention, was a brutal hatchet job on Ann Trason — but that’s a different story), and I started wondering about whether the new pair of Nike Pegasus shoes I got last Christmas are playing a role. Christopher McDougall, of course, hangs out with Jon Krakauer and therefore doesn’t have a lot of credibility in my book. But he’s not the only one out there who has suggested running shoes might play a role in the high rate of injury among North American runners.
The other day, I found myself in the mountains with a group of people leaving on a little nature hike. I’d talked them into doing it on the lower elevations of the Aspen Grove-Mt Timpanogos trail. After moseying along for the first mile with the group, I got an itch, poked my way to the front and took off on a little jog up the trail. When I got to the turnaround point, I didn’t feel like turning around—so I didn’t. I kept going.
It wasn’t until I’d gotten about three miles and 1,800 feet up the trail that I decided to call it a hike. By then, I could see the summit far above, with the clouds hovering, brooding over the snow-covered dampness of the mountain. So I bounded back down, fully expecting to have worsened my injury.
To my surprise, the next day my calf felt pretty good. I’d even felt some tightness while I was headed up, but that was all gone when I woke up the next morning. The familiar soreness in my gluteal and vastus muscles was back—and that just plain felt awesome.
But it got me wondering about trails. Maybe there’s still something I can do on trails. Maybe snowshoe season will be nicer to me than I expect. We’ll see.
I had about 10 days to go before my planned road 5k, so I moseyed on over to the track near my office and resolved to do something I’d never done before: Run a mile as fast as I could on the track. I was hoping for around a 5:30, but after a handful of 1:23-ish laps, I realized that was a little too ambitious. I crumbled in the last lap and finished up with what felt like a respectable 5:51.
Then came race day. I employed my normal positive split strategy and took off way too fast in the first mile. Then I melted in the third mile and brought it home with a 20:35 — good enough for an age group win.
And sometime after that is when my troubles began …
Back in 2009, I’d experienced some calf pain when I was training for Bone n’ Back. I stopped running, had a really lousy time, but got healed. Then, in 2012, I got it again when I was training for Robie Creek (which is part of the reason I backed out). Both times I left my leg alone for a couple of weeks and it got better. The end.
This time not so much.
I kept trying to squeeze in a run … and then I did my favorite running hill climb … and then I got recruited to do Grand Teton Relay … and then Rivalry Relay … and then Widow Maker … and then Snowbird …
In the middle of all of that, I was at a very important work event one afternoon when a coworker told me he wanted to go hike Table Rock that night, and my ears perked up. Besides, I told myself, he needs someone to help him avoid getting killed — someone who knows the trail.
So we started out way too late, and by the time we reached the summit, the sun was setting. We hadn’t yanked out our headlamps by the time we got back to the talus field beneath the rock, and somewhere in there, I nastily sprained my ankle. Voila — built-in rest time.
I stopped running completely for two or three weeks non-stop. Oh sure, I kept riding the bike, but my legs felt great. After a few weeks, I went out for a slow jog with my wife in the early morning, and my legs felt … fine, actually. A full week later, I went and jogged a mile with the legs still feeling good. So I came home that night and jogged another.
Then I woke up in the morning, and the pain was back.
So essentially, what this all means is that I moved to the base of a bunch of glorious, trail-filled mountain peaks … and the entire time I’ve been here, I’ve been too injured to actually enjoy them.
You know that commercial where the guy shows up in what he thinks is heaven and then eats a big chocolate chip cookie before he discovers that all of the milk cartons are empty and that it’s not really heaven? Yeah, welcome to my world.
At the same time, I see people who have it way worse than me, and I think how grateful I am that I’ve been able to enjoy the mountains as much as I have. I really have had some serious adventures, and for that, I am sincerely appreciative.
So here’s what I’m theorizing:
Plyometrics have always been a staple of my road 5k training. But I’m starting to realize that plyometrics and uphill training don’t mix. One makes the achilles tendon stiffer, and the other requires the achilles and gastrocnemius to have a little pliability. Ta-da — injury. (Learn from my example here, people.) And I’m sure the additional stress of changing careers and addresses didn’t help.
Now I’m thinking I need some time completely off of running, and I need it ASAP. I’m following the nutritional protocol for tendon injuries, even though I’m not sure I have one. After a few days off, I think I’ll be able to get back into cycling and swimming. But for now, it’s nothing at all …
At least, until I get to go hiking for work later this week …
You probably won’t think this study is as interesting as I do, but it’s really interesting — I think, anyway.
What’s the difference between well-trained athletes and recreational athletes? For one, well-trained folks have done a lot more cumulative exercise than us schmoes. They have more muscle as a percentage of their body composition. And they typically have less fat.
Here’s another difference: they burn more fat than we do — even at higher intensities. See, usually, the more intensely you workout, the less fat you burn. But as it turns out, even when they’re exercising at high intensities, well-trained athletes burn three times as much fat as recreationally trained athletes.
Improving your VO2max will make you a better athlete. And as it turns out, it will also make you a skinnier person. So if you want to get skinnier, focus on getting faster. And if you’re focused on getting faster, expect to get skinnier.
(Image borrowed from Asker Jeukendrup’s blog. Asker, if you want me to remove it, please just ask instead of filing a lawsuit or sending a cease-and-desist letter. Thanks.)
Years ago, a newspaper photographer snapped this photo of me making my way up the road to the summit of Rendezvous Mountain, the peak of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. They say a picture speaks a thousand words. Sometimes, it speaks in ways or languages that don’t make sense with mere words.
For me, this photo is a memory of an absolutely surreal moment. My daughter, the one who got stuck with more of my genetic material than any of my other kids, had kept me up for most of the night before. Finally, at about 7 a.m., my wife and I had what is still today the most awful argument of our marriage. We were exhausted and drained, emotionally, physically — every way imaginable.
Rendezvous Mountain had been on my bucket list for a lot of years. Sure, I’d done plenty of road bike hill climbs before, but I’d never done a mountain bike hill climb. I always wanted to give this one a shot. So when I looked up at the clock and realized there was still time to make the race, I looked back at my wife and said, “Can we go?”
For reasons beyond my comprehension, she said yes.
Now, a little background: I’d been having trouble with my position on the bike. Really, I’d just been swindled by some goofball on the internet who talked me into messing around with my clipless pedal setup. So I’d decided, “Forget it — I’m just going with platform pedals for this one.” If you’re not a cyclist, that probably doesn’t sound like a big deal. If you know anything about climbing steep gradients on a mountain bike, you understand that was a mistake of epic proportions.
But a few hours later, we arrived at the event. It was a hot day with a bright, blue sky. I paid my $20, collected my number and went to warm up … as if anyone needs to warm up when it’s already 90 degrees out. At some point in my warm up, my front tire skidded out from under me and I went down hard on my knee. It was bloodied and sore, but I’d just drug my wife and children on a two-hour drive and paid the $20 to enter the event, so I wasn’t about to abandon.
I lined up with the other racers — the smallest field I’ve ever seen at a cycling race. The race organizers told us to go, and I worked my way up the group. I caught one gal just as the trail got steep, and suddenly, my rear wheel slid out from underneath me. I was walking.
I threw my leg over the saddle, rode past some trees, and there was a wall of radiating dirt in front of me — the steepest quarter-mile pitch of fire road I’d ever set eyes on.
“It’s not possible to ride a bicycle up that,” I thought to myself … just as I watched the rest of the pack ride up it … and then disappear around a switchback.
I pushed and hiked just as another cyclist came up behind me — the only one left. He and I chatted for a minute. Because of work, he hadn’t ridden a bicycle more than once in the past few months, but his wife was in the race, so he felt obligated to do it — but just for fun.
I climbed back on and rode away from him. Eventually, I got to where I could see another rider up ahead of me. Again and again, I’d reach a hot, dusty switchback, lose traction, get off, and start hiking. I’d remount and go again. Switchback after switchback.
By the time I reached the photographer, I was in a state of utter delirium — microwaved from above by the sun and below from the reflection off the bright mountain soil. I managed to keep the pedals turning as the photog caught me in a moment of barefaced agony. Before I got out of sight, I was walking again.
Toward the summit, I finally remounted just in time to ride past my wife as my daughter ran out to see me — and then tripped and fell on her face. But instead of crying, she just stood up, stopped and stared, listening to my fragile breathing.
As I looked closely at her dirtied face, I thought of all of the jerk things I’d said to her mother. And I regretted them, soulfully — viscerally. This little girl deserved better, I told myself.
“I love you,” I said, looking deeply into her eyes as I rode past and meaning it more than I’d ever meant it before.
Moments later, I crossed the finish line. Jill Damman, the racer I’d been chasing, who was just ahead of me, and whose husband I’d ridden with at the beginning of the race, would go on to win the women’s division of LOTOJA just weeks later. The picture at the top of this post, which I requested from the photographer, would end up on the front page of the sports section in the Jackson Hole News & Guide. And although one rider finished behind me, I would be listed as the race’s “maglia nera” or “lantern rouge” — the last finisher — the only time I’ve ever had that distinction, ever.
But for me, when I look at that picture, I think of how deeply I’d scraped and clawed into my soul that day. I think of the version of me who was completely exposed on that mountain that day, the me who loves his wife and daughters so much that he’ll do anything to be better for them. And I think that maybe the person on that bicycle on that mountain telling his daughter he loves her — the person in that picture — was the real, genuine me.
I write this with some sense of chagrin, because I have a desk job too. And even though I take the stairs as often as I can, walk places when possible, and try not to spend all day sitting and staring at my computer, I still spend a lot of time on my derriere. And unless you have an on-your-feet job, you probably do too. Kinda stinks, right?
What’s so bad about sitting? Sitting has a negative effect on all kinds of stuff — cholesterol, fat storage, etc. etc. But I specifically want to talk about atrophy in your gluteal muscles. One of the consequences of being a sitter is that you end up with really weak gluteals (any time I write “glutes” spellcheck changes it to “flutes” – ha ha!). And if you’re also an athlete, that can cause all sorts of problems, not the least of which is the so-called “dead butt syndrome.” For me, I find that butt weakness is somehow connected with my recurring battle with iliotibial band syndrome.
There are actually three gluteal muscles, not just your gluteus maximus, and they all play a role in what’s popularly come to be known as your “core” — the muscles that control how the top half of your body interacts with the bottom half — abs, lower back, psoas, etc. So when they get weak, that weakness translates to other issues throughout your body.
So what do you do about gluteal weakness? How do you fix sitting disease? Well, since most of the articles about sitting say that exercise alone isn’t enough, I can’t guarantee this will prevent your premature death — sorry! But there are nonetheless ways to fix the ol’ gluteals.
Most people head straight for the gym, and if that’s your preferred route, here’s what you need to know about the sort of exercises that will make the biggest difference for your duff:
But I’ve found what I think is an even better way to train your gluteals. For years now, when I’ve felt ITBS coming on, I’d go find a really steep hill and run up. The next day, my ITBS would be worse, but the day after that, it’d be gone.
As it turns out, I’m not the only person who thinks this way. Even Arthur Lydiard — the famed kiwi running coach whose insights probably serve as the backbone for that half-marathon training plan you downloaded — believed that running uphill fixed most biomechanical issues.
“But running uphill is MISERABLE,” you say? Well, when you’re gasping on the ground holding your chest, dying a fast, painful death after running up a hill, just think how much better off you are than all of those people in front of their computers …
Okay, so I stink at the whole motivational thing. So what. Instead, just watch this video about uphill running and see for yourself that somewhere in the world there are people — aside from me — who run uphill for FUN. Who knows? Maybe you could be one of them someday.