Forgetting perhaps that I also run, my brother sent me a link to one of those clickbait Active.com articles the other day entitled, “15 Reasons Running is Better Than Cycling.” A listicle, even! His message said simply, “Uh oh …”
Without hesitation, I messaged back that at least cyclists don’t spend half the year injured, and he responded with, “Unless they crash.”
Fortunately, this blog isn’t about bicycle crashes—but unfortunately, it is about spending half the year with a running injury. Second year in a row, I might add. Different injury.
I think the thing that’s most infuriating about running injuries is that they seem to creep up without a lot of warning. There’s no shotgun blast as your achilles tendon rolls up into a ball in your calf or sudden sharp pain as your ligaments pull loose from the ankle bones. No, you just wake up one morning going, “What exactly is that little ache?”
This time, however, I feel like I can sort of pinpoint when it all went down.
I was running up a mountain a couple of weeks after doing Ragnar Wasatch Back. My calves felt tight, and I hadn’t done much running after Ragnar. But, I thought, that would constitute a normal taper before a race. Oddly, I remember feeling a tingling sensation and even a little numbness in the bottoms of my feet.
I can’t say for certain, but not long after that, I started waking up with a dull ache toward the rear of my arches. It took me probably a month and a half to self-diagnose plantar fasciitis, but here I am, five months later, still waking up with a slightly less extreme version of that dull ache every morning.
Now, granted, it’s 100% my fault that I’m still dealing with it. I should’ve quit running right away. But instead, I went and did my favorite event, the Grand Teton Relay, just a month later. Then I ran up the very same mountain as part of the Hidden Peak Challenge. And then, even after taking it mostly easy, I went and ran the stupid Turkey Trot at Thanksgiving.
Finally, I’ve decided to take a little time off running. And I’m convinced that, if I play my cards right, I can actually make this time off count for something. For starters, I came across a video from famed Canuck triathlete Kirsten Sweetland about making the offseason count:
And then I came across this fascinating podcast from a running researcher who says you basically can’t improve your running stride just by thinking about it—and that if you want to improve your running economy, you either have to do that by running tons of miles or through gym work.
So yeah, needless to say, I’m spending plenty of time in my home gym, and I’m riding the mountain bike every chance I get. I keep telling myself that if I end up racing the bike next year instead of running, that that’s okay.
I still remember the first time I got iliotibial band syndrome. I was maybe a mile into my first triathlon when I got this dull, aching, stabbing pain in the side of my knee — pure agony. But I’d just completely destroyed the bike course, so I wasn’t about to DNF midway through the run. So instead I gutted my way through two of the most awful miles of my life.
I remember telling my aunt about it and having her respond, “So why don’t you just hit the weights and rehab your knee?” I thought, “Good point — I come from a strength training background, so I can figure this out.” I hit the weights, and it seemed to go away. Of course, I went to another triathlon and had the lousy run of my illustrious endurance career. But small victories count for something, right?
Later, I realized that if I just run uphill — up a steep hill that left my glutes miserably sore the next day — it would stave off that miserable injury. At first, I didn’t really understand the mechanisms at work. I just knew that it did the job.
Turns out that it’s all about what’s called your “posterior chain” — or the muscles that run up your backside. Yes, your bum. And also your lower back, hamstrings, even gastrocs, etc. etc. When you spend all day sat down in a chair like I do, those muscles get awfully weak. Your tensor fascia latae and your psoas, meanwhile, get really short and tight.
When you pick up running or cycling hoping to counteract the effects of all of that sitting, people with shorter strides often strengthen their quads without doing much about their buns. It just makes sense that your body’s going to reach for its strengths and avoid its weaknesses when you put it in a physically demanding situation. Trouble is, stronger quads don’t really fix your problem — they exacerbate it. And all of that movement in your knee and your hip tends to bring out the pain from your iliotibial band.
So what do you do if you find yourself with a nasty case of ITBS? For one, start including a regular uphill run at least once a week. And don’t just run a moderate slope — go find something steep and challenging and then do hill repeats on it. You’ll know you succeeded if the outsides of your bum are really sore the next day.
You might also try adding a couple of strength moves to your regular routine. Everyone recommends clamshells, etc., but I’m a fan of stuff that’s actually running-applicable, like these two: (I figure Running Times is out of print now, so I’m probably safe to post this.) Personally, I’ve had more success with the second one, the runner touch, than with the first. But maybe you’ll be different from me.
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.
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, I’d set a rule for myself that I’d never do the same race twice. And then one September, I discovered the Widow Maker, and I instantly fell in love — with its mercurial weather, its relentlessly unforgiving and often puzzling gradients, its capricious traction, its pristine alpine air, and most of all with the adventure of ascending a 3,100-foot mountain in 70 minutes or less. So I scratched my rule and replaced it with a commitment to come back to the Widow Maker for as long as the race exists.
Well, life changes, and in 2014, I had an obligation to my daughter that far outweighed any rashly made promises I’d made in the blind heat of racing passion. When i realized I wouldn’t be able to make it to my favorite race, I looked around on the calendar for something else.
As it turned out, there was one other hill climb that used the same course — with a slight variation. I’d still get to climb to monolithic Hidden Peak, 11,000 feet above sea level, but first, I’d have to climb from the valley to the ski hill, a climb of 3,300 feet in 9.5 miles. If you’re doing your math, you know that means this would turn out to be about 6,400 feet in 15 miles.
I figured I’d take it casually and simply participate instead of racing it. When the race started, I moseyed along, casually chatting with the racers around me.
“Hey man,” one of them said, clearly annoyed my garrulousness, “you’re not going hard enough if you can talk.”
What can I say? Exertion makes me talkative. Chocolate makes me talkative. Being within a five-minute radius of another human being makes me talkative! But I didn’t want to throw off his groove, so I quieted down. When he decided to attack the pack as we hit the climb, I went with him. And when he saw I was on his wheel, he turned and said, “You wanna work together?”
“Yeah,” I said, “I’m game.”
It came time for me to take my pull, so I got out of the saddle and went to the front. But when I turned around to see who we’d dropped … he was nowhere to be seen. Whoops.
So instead, I soldiered on ahead by myself, and every time I got out of the saddle, I caught and/or dropped someone else. Working my way up the climb, I found rider after rider who’d gone out too hard or whatever, and one by one, they dropped behind me.
As I rounded Taylor’s Flat, with about a mile to go, I eased up, knowing I’d need to save some juice for the mountain bike climb. And at that point, a couple of guys got away from me. But when I came to the transition, I told my wife I was having a journal day. I grabbed my mountain bike and my Camelbak, and I was off.
As I rounded the initial switchbacks, I caught up to some girl who I’d seen ahead on the road climb, and she commented that she probably wouldn’t be able to keep up with me. I told her I’d never done that particular race before and I hadn’t even ridden much longer than an hour all year, so I probably wasn’t much of a threat.
Just moments later, we got to a steep climb, and as I gripped my handlebars, they twisted slightly with the torque. Handlebars, in case you’re not aware, are not supposed to do that. I quietly hoped I was just hallucinating, but as I came to the big switchback that signals the start of Peruvian Gulch, they twisted again. “Oh no,” I thought. “I knew I should’ve packed a multitool.”
My handlebars started wiggling out of place, and my magical fitness quickly faded. Racers started catching and dropping me just as I’d done only a half hour before. I’d been pedaling uphill almost nonstop for two hours when my bars finally came completely free of the stem, and when that happened, I had no choice but to walk. The heat of the day was starting to microwave the trail beneath me as the peak loomed tauntingly above. I threw my bike over my shoulder as I fumbled through loose rock on a steep switchback.
Behind me, another racer approached, and this time he looked oddly familiar.
“I think I’ve seen you in a YouTube video,” I told him. “Isn’t your name Brett Hawke or something?”
“You really have seen me in a YouTube video, haven’t you?”
We exchanged a few pleasantries, but ultimately, I learned he didn’t have a multitool either, so the conversation ended pretty quickly.
After a few more passersby, an older gentleman came riding up the switchback beneath me.
“You got a multitool on ya?” I plied.
“A multitool — do you have one?”
After about the third time, I thought he was just having obnoxious fun at my expense, but then he reached into his jersey pocket and then handed me a fairly robust multitool. “I don’t want to have to slow down to give it to you,” he said snarkily.
“Thanks!” I called as he pedaled off. “I’ll give it to you at the top.”
Despite the odd exchange, I was elated. I tightened the hex bolts on my stem, threw a leg over my seat and got back to pedaling what was left of my sorry carcass up the mountain. I easily cleaned the last few switchbacks, crossed the finish line and tracked down my good Samaritan. Minutes later, my wife and sister got off the tram and found me crumpled over my bike.
I’d produced one of the worst race results I’ve ever had for the Ultra, but on the flip side, I’d had a great ride on the road hill climb, enough for a 6th place in my age group. I’d flirted with my limits and perhaps even pushed them a little.
When the date for the Widow Maker rolled around, I was with my daughter, where I needed to be. But little did I know that, hundreds of miles away, it was snowing on Hidden Peak, and there was a race organizer telling a group of mountain bikers to head back to their cars.
I’m mostly writing this for my benefit. If you happen to read it and find it beneficial too, well, that’s a bonus.
You might’ve read a few comments from well-known endurance coaches or athletes about how if you want to really preserve your fitness over the long term, you need to keep pushing it all year round.
The logic goes something like this: It takes only two weeks to give a goodbye kiss to all of that cardiorespiratory endurance you spent all summer building up, so if you take too long of a stop, you could be setting yourself up for failure next season. Oh, the insecurity!
Now, the caveat to all of this is that that has been my mindset for the last few years. My off-season has consisted of three days of R&R each September. And in all fairness, I’ve had decent fitness going into the early season. So who am I to say it doesn’t work?
Enter: Bernard Lagat. The most decorated American middle distance (and possibly distance) runner in history, Bernard owns six or seven American records indoors and out as well as the second-fastest time EVER (emphasis on EVER) in the 1500-meter. Bernard has been to four Olympics and brought home medals twice. He’s also the only guy I know of who has scored gold in both the 1500 and the 5000 at the same World Championship.
So what does he have to do with the subject at hand? Well, as this fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal explains, Bernard takes quite the off-season every year — five weeks, in fact! Find me a 30-year-old triathlete who’s willing to skip out of five weeks of aerobic exercise at any point during the year. Go ahead, find one.
Bernard, it should also be mentioned, is also one of the older guys in this business. While most track athletes bow out in their early 30s, Bernard is about to turn 40 and is going strong. The guy went under 13 minutes in the 5000m last year, and he just set a new American record for the road 5k to boot!
Of course, your heart may adapt to the repeated snot-kicking you give it by overdoing your workouts … by developing scar tissue, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (an enlarged heart) and irregular heart rhythms like atrial fibrillation or the much-scarier ventrical tachycardia.
(Before anyone freaks out, bear in mind that the evidence shows running 15 to 20 miles per week at 8.5 minutes per mile — for a total of just under 3 hours — will reduce your mortality risk, your likelihood of dying, the most. So, unless you can walk a 8.5-minute mile, don’t stop running just yet.)
The thing is, every time I read about the cardiac changes that occur as a result of repeated bouts of endurance training, the studies also suggest that some of those changes can be undone if you simply take a little time off. Scar tissue is a different subject, but you can avoid that with a simple behavioral modification: never run a marathon. Whew, that was easy.
Okay, granted, I’m not a cardiologist, and I don’t even play one on the internet (i.e. follow my advice at your own risk). But like I said in the beginning, this is more for me than it is for you anyway. So, self, the moral of this story is: Follow Bernard’s example and take an off-season once in a while, even just for a week or two. Doing so may help you reduce your risk of heart issues in the long term and help prolong your amateur endurance hobby.
I keep writing blog posts and then deleting them. You, evidently, are an intimidating audience, whoever you are. (On that note, I used to check my blog stats and think, “How do I get these higher?” Now, I look at them and think, “That’s odd—who’s been reading my blog?”)
Spring is here. The grass is brown, the snow is melting, the dirt roads are mushy and muddy, and the fun’s beginning. Can’t wait to climb some serious hills and mountains this year. My tentative schedule is looking something like this:
• Targhee Hill Climb sometime in June (running race—that’s a change)
• Snowbird Hill Climb August 3rd
• Powder Mountain Hill Climb August 24th
• Widowmaker Mt Bike Hill Climb September … 14th, I think(?)
No triathlons in there. Maybe that’ll change. We’ll see.
With all of these hill climb races, I keep thinking back to my first year in cycling. I went mountain biking with a friend in April that year on some dirt road and when I wasn’t able to drop him, I started to wonder if I’d wandered into the wrong sport. (Side note: it is interesting that cycling tends to bring out the narcissism in us, isn’t it? How completely arrogant and/or contemptuous of me to assume I’d be dropping people in my first season.)
Incidentally, that month, I had to cut back on my cycling time as I entered my last two semesters of college classes, started freelancing, kept my part-time job, worked for the college newspaper and just outright bit off way more than I could chew. So I cut back on cycling and switched to a high-intensity interval regimen.
In July, my schedule relaxed a little (not much) and I bought a road bike and started riding with the local club. Right away, I was out-climbing the main guys. On one climb, I led the fastest guy in the group to just under the top, nearly dropping him, and then watched him barely crest in front of me.
No, I hadn’t taken EPO. On the contrary, I’d found a training system that worked for me. Where did I find it? From watching videos of cyclists online—one cyclist in particular: Marco Pantani.
Now, to be clear, I know Pantani was a doper, a louse, a scoundrel, a liar and a generally unenviable guy. But, to be completely honest, I still find it entertaining to watch him climb.
So it is that I’ve found myself watching YouTube vids like this one lately. And it’s not because I’m a huge doping fan or something. I just remember what it felt like to ride like that—on smaller climbs anyway.
That’s one of my goals this year: to get my uphill attack back.
Trouble is, I’m learning, I’d have to do something similar to what I did in college—cut back on riding in general—to pull it off.
I was following the Gatorade Sports Science Institute Exchange on Twitter just a few weeks or months ago (the hashtag was #GSSIXP if you want to check it out) when they mentioned some interesting stuff. For starters, strength gains don’t come with concurrent endurance training. They just don’t mix.
So that means that at some point, I have to let the endurance and fill-in-the-blanks rides go and focus on the hard stuff. For how long? Hard to say. Can I do that and not drop my aerobic fitness? That’s hard to say too.
In that first season of cycling, I found I could hardly keep up on the flats due to lousy aerobic conditioning. I eventually built it up, but I was never quite up to snuff on the flats, even though I could play with the big boys on the hills. I’m sure the group didn’t appreciate having a leach sucking off their draft the whole way and then dropping them on the climbs!
But there’s another reason this is a tricky balance: I’m racing hill climbs, not short power climbs. There’s a significant aerobic component to an hour-long hill climb (as compared to our 10-minute climbs here in the Upper Valley). I can’t just let go of my aerobic fitness and expect to race well.
Regardless, I’d like to get my attack back. I’m as light as ever (floating around 130 pounds), and I think if I can build up some power to match that weight, I’ll be in a position to do put up some good results, y’know?