Have a Healthy New Year

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.”

Touché.

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 just have to make sure I don’t crash. 🙂

Don’t Call it a Running Injury

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.

If anyone at Running Times or Runner's World objects to me posting this, please just contact me and I'll be happy to take it down.
Still, if anyone at Running Times or Runner’s World objects to me posting this, please just contact me and I’ll be happy to take it down.
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.

Taken

A friend of mine posted something on Facebook today about running and how uncomfortable it was. It got me thinking …

Okay, I just stuck this in here because I didn't want you to get bored with the nonstop text. Keep reading.
Okay, I just stuck this in here because I didn’t want you to get bored with the nonstop text. Keep reading.

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.

Wherein I attempt to share useful advice

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:

Graphic summarizing how to get over an achilles tendon injury.
Holy simple, right?

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.

Want to Get Skinnier? Get Faster

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.Graph answering the question, "Are you or aren't you a fat burner?"

Furthermore, the rate of fat burn seems to correlate with VO2max. What is VO2max? It’s a measurement of how much oxygen you have per liter of blood, and it’s a performance predictor for endurance sport success. How do you increase your VO2max? With a lot of endurance training and with occasional high-intensity intervals. In fact, according to one article from Alex Hutchinson’s Runner’s World blog, the best intervals for improving VO2max are around 3–5 minutes.

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.)

About your rear end …

Yes, this whole post is about your rear end — your bum. Not that there’s anything wrong with your bum, personally … I mean … this is already awkward … so let’s just get on with it.

So you’ve probably read all of this stuff about “sitting disease” or how “sitting is the next smoking” or “sitting will kill you even if you exercise” — good ol’ doom and gloom headlines. Well, they’re probably true. And what’s worse, you’ll miss out on a lot of life because you’re too busy suffering a long, slow, miserable death in front of a screen.

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.

BvaXi9CIcAAbibA.jpg-largeMost 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.

I’d been doing this little routine for years when I came across a Runner’s World article that claims that on a 7% incline, “muscle activity in the men’s glutes was 83% greater than when they ran on the flat.” The author’s conclusion was that you need to go strengthen your gluteals so you can run uphill better. MY conclusion was I’d magically stumbled upon the cure for a bad butt: running uphill!

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.

The Final Stretch (Ragnar Part 4)

This’ll make a lot more sense if you read this, this and this first.

I told someone I went to Las Vegas in November, and she immediately asked, “Did you go ride the roller coaster? Or go up in the Space Needle?” No and no. I hadn’t done any of the usual stuff in Vegas. Basically, I’d shown up, run, slept, and gone home.

The Creep Van
The Creep Van — just so you know I’m not making this stuff up.

That’s not to say I completely missed out on the Vegas experience. There were plenty of adult-themed Ragnar teams with adult-themed cartoons and jokes scrawled across their adult-themed vans. You can just imagine the cartoon that accompanied the statement “You’ve been flashed by …” Then there was the “Creep Van,” with “we have candy!” and “free puppies!” written on its windows. Just walking around the parking lot at the main transition was enough to leave you feeling guilty for all of the unrestrained laughter. (Scan the Ragnar team list for additional risqué team names — but don’t say I didn’t warn you!)

Then there were the costumes. When you’re running in the middle of the night, everyone looks the same: headlamp, tail-light, reflective vest, darkness. But when the sun comes back out and things warm up, out come the tutus, masks, neon spandex, clever t-shirts, etc. The college-age girl I met in the last blog post? The next time I saw her, she was dressed as a kitty cat in a bikini. Some people were more subtle about it, wearing only Dr. Seuss-style knee-length socks or a Forrest Gump outfit to compliment their beards.

Then there were the NeverNudes. Jon had told me about this hilarious YouTube video he’d seen of Team NeverNudes, a group that races in cutoff jean shorts and frequently takes the top spot for the entire race, earning themselves an additional medal. One of their runners, he said, had even run his first mile in 4:30 — blisteringly fast for a 200-mile relay!

So I was feeling pretty out of place at this exchange zone until I happened to bump into the Real Housewives of Teton County, a group of women who’d also run the Grand Teton Relay and live just over the mountain from me. That tells you how crazy it was: I was looking to Idahoans — of all people! — for normalcy.

After rubbing shoulders with these other teams at one of the larger exchanges, we headed back to the hotel for some more much-needed shut-eye. After an hour or two, I’d had enough, so I headed for the hotel lobby, grabbed some grub and sat down with a great article in USA Today about Sir Winston Churchill. In walked … another Ragnar team. Guess we weren’t the only ones with the brilliant idea to get a hotel room.

Duck!
Duck!

We met back with the other team for our final exchange on a road right next to the Las Vegas airport. Every few minutes, we’d get buzzed by a massive commercial jet landing across the road from us.

By the time our Van 1 runner arrived, it was already warming up, so Paul asked us to meet him halfway through his leg with some water. I found a spot in the shade where I started high-fiving runners as they ran past, including some really fast teenager who was blowing past all of these older runners.

Waiting at the next exchange, I started chatting with a pregnant gal who was wearing a t-shirt that indicated she was from Panguitch, and she filled me in on the fast teenager. “She’s a state champion cross-country runner,” she said. “I’m her coach, and this girl is her sister.”

Jordan trying to flag us down a quicker ride home ...
Jordan trying to flag us down a quicker ride home.

Jordan took his handoff and we moved on to the next exchange. Whereas I’d run my previous two legs in 40- to 50-degree weather, I’d be running my last one in 80-degree heat. Fortunately, my last leg would be a pancake-flat 2.7 miles — a drag race.

Jordan handed off to me in a small city park, and I took off. And almost right away, I caught and passed a guy in cutoff jeans … one of the notorious NeverNudes! The Death Trap passed me just a few moments later, but then a funny thing happened: I caught up to my van … and then passed it while they were stuck at a stop sign. Then I caught and passed them again at a stoplight.

I’ve learned what makes running so irresistible for so many running addicts: it’s that feeling when your entire body becomes engaged in the forward motion of running, when every swing of your arm, every bob of your head is involved in driving your body forward. When that happens, running ceases to be something you merely do, a verb; instead, it becomes something you are — a state of being.

Absorbed in the motion, I  got a song stuck in my head, something I’d heard when I’d used the restroom at the Casino before the start: You Found Me, by The Fray, which turned out to be the perfect running anthem for that last leg. Just then, I turned a corner and caught sight of a runner ahead — I was coming up behind the pregnant cross country coach and closing fast. I was too out of breath to say anything as I went by, so instead, I tapped her shoulder, gave her a thumbs-up and kept going.

The final stretch was a city park replete with little rolling hills and sharp turns. I saw Jon and tried to pick up the pace, but I was already flooring it. I finished my leg (which turned out to be more like 2.9 miles) in around 20 minutes, and I was completely out of breath for at least a few minutes before I climbed in the Death Trap. Once again, I’d nearly beaten the van!

Waiting at the next exchange, I bumped into the cross country coach.

“Hey, I still respect your coaching abilities,” I said, trying to get a laugh out of her, “even though I passed you.”

“Well, in her condition …” one of her teammates clearly wasn’t getting the joke.

“I know,” I reassured. “I’m just giving her a hard time. I’m just lucky she didn’t sick one of her high school runners on me!”

Fortunately, the coach got it.

Fun times … and not a slot machine in sight!
Fun times … and not a slot machine in sight!

The Sarahs ran their last legs, and then we all met up together at the Red Rocks Casino for the finish. We’d crossed the line in 29 hours, taking 76th place overall. But once it was all done, we were all done too. We went to some Chinese restaurant and then piled into the vans and called it a race. The next day, I was back in Idaho, and two days later, I was back at the office.

That’s when I finally looked up the NeverNudes’ video, I saw a familiar face. As it turned out, I know the guy who ran the 4:30 opening mile. It was Nick Symmonds, two-time Olympian, silver medalist at the 2013 World Championship, and all-around nice guy.

“Hmmm,” I thought, “maybe we could get him on our team next year …”