Monday, September 24, 2012

Race report: Equinox half marathon

The inaugural Equinox half marathon was a blast. Every fledgling race has growing pains, and this one certainly had a few kinks, but overall the organization was flawless even with the logistical nightmare that comes with a point to point course. The buses that transported us from the parking area left on time. The drive was long, 45 minutes, as the pickup was 10 miles from the finish area due to lack of parking at the finish site. But, the bus was comfortably warm, even bordering on cozy. I cranked my iPod and watched from the window as we drove the course in reverse.

The impetus for choosing this particular race was the downhill course profile. As one friend suggested, I could tuck and roll my way from the start to the finish. I love downhill running and as we drove up Poudre Canyon (pronounced Pooter, not as it looks, as I was politely corrected) I came to fully appreciate how much downhill this course offered. Unfortunately, the first half of the course is markedly steeper and faster than the second half, lulling me into a false sense of my capabilities on the day.

I won’t lie, when the gun went off, I went out like a caged tiger. Perhaps it was the excitement of racing again after a long layoff. Perhaps it was consistently faster workouts. Perhaps it was renewed confidence from putting to rest a long term injury. Perhaps it was just plain stupidity. Anyway you look at it, I had no business running the first 10k in 36:34. I haven’t run an open 10k that fast in quite some time, so my legs were not prepared for that kind of beating. I reasoned that eventually I would like to run an entire 13.1 miles at that pace and I had to start somewhere.

I paid the price big time. Not only was the back half of the course less drastically downhill, but the wind shifted from a nice tail wind to a menacing headwind. My legs ached, my lungs burned, I tried my best to hold it together despite the protestations from my body.

I embraced every moan and groan. It was a delight compared to the things I endured before I had surgery. This time, the discomfort was in my control. I could ease off the throttle and make the hurt stop if I so decided, which, of course, I didn’t.  I crossed the line in second with a time of 1:19.22. Diesel the Dog was so excited to see me when I crossed the line you would’ve thought I was gone on a 6 month expedition, not a 13.1 mile jaunt.

In terms of improving the race? More aid stations that are better equipped. Over the 4 aid stations on the course, I ended up with 2.5 sips of water. Each was filled with thimble full of water and the mouth of the cup was so wide that when I tipped the cup back to sip the drops of water more of it ended up on my face rather than in my mouth. At one aid station I tried to grab two cups, but the volunteer seemed startled by my presence she just dropped it on the ground. I was so dehydrated after the race that I didn’t pee until 4 hours after I finished and that was after pounding water, Izze , V8 (an IV drip in a can) and my favorite post-race recovery drink, coffee.

The course itself was a delight. Poudre Canyon is interesting, with a flowing river and magnificent rock formations. The damage from the fires earlier this year was evident all along the course, with huge patches of charred ground interspersed into areas that were untouched.

The most important aspect of this race was validating what I already knew from training: my rib is better. Despite the continued positive feedback I received on a consistent basis from training and daily living, I was not going to know for certain that the surgery worked until I pushed myself in a race. For the first time in 3 years, I raced without fear, unburdened by an injury that tried to own me. What a relief.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Getting back in shape, sort of

A three year injury that culminates in a surgical procedure wreaks a lot of havoc on the body. In light of that, I have been on a rampage to get back in shape. To be fair, prior to surgery I was not out of shape per se. I was, I suppose, out of condition or not sharp or well below 100%. That is where the confusion begins. Being in shape has so many different meanings. I was fit enough to run 80+ miles per week and swim a decent workout of 4000 meters, and I spent 6 days a week doing strength and rehab work in the gym; but my body was ailing and I never felt good. I was paradoxically in shape but not in shape.

During the injury phase of the last few years, I did my best to maintain strength and flexibility through physical therapy and gym work. I was limited in my capacity to really progress forward with certain movements, so mostly I was just trying to prevent other injuries and reduce the potential for muscle imbalance. Fortunately, I was able to keep my hips and glutes fairly strong enabling me to run the distances I was despite the rib injury.

In terms of running and swimming workouts, I probably executed 50% of my run workouts and 25% of my swim workouts. These are terrible percentages for a person accustomed to nailing 95% of workouts. The failed workouts were due to pain and the inability to breath; the workload on the ribcage required by a hard swim or run was too much most of the time. Since I had an injury that seemingly had no fix, I decided that I needed to try rather than cry, so I approached each workout with an optimism not quite befitting my situation.

Before surgery, I was in shape, by virtue of the fact that I could run a lot of miles and swim quite a few meters, but I was out of shape when measured against peak performance ability.

Now that I am feeling much better and my body is healthier post-surgery, I have been able to run and swim at a level I could only dream about a few short weeks ago. I am working on getting back in shape. And, by that, I mean, running and swimming at a higher level on a more consistent basis.

Initially, my workouts showed an almost instantaneous improvement – no doubt, my times were faster. Unfortunately, I did not have the muscle endurance to support this new found speed. Somewhere toward the back end of each workout I would blow up spectacularly. One workout in particular, I had to pick up pieces of my legs and lungs off the pavement. On Sundays, I dragged myself through the last few miles of my long runs. My quads burned, my glutes ached, and my back throbbed. Muscles that had been dormant suddenly awakened. In the pool, during VO2 max swims, I would push off the wall and my arms would just lock up rendering me unable to complete a stroke.

Each workout, though, I noticed I could get further along before the inevitable rigor mortis set in until this week when I finally completed entire workouts without shuffling or floating to the finish. My ability to take this step up in training comes in parallel with my improvement in the gym where I have finally been able to accomplish movements and exercises that were off limits when I was injured.

Getting back in shape has been a challenge offset by the fact it has been enjoyable. It feels good to feel good again.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The importance of strength training

Most triathletes adamantly hate strength training. They willingly spend five or six hours on the bike, but 30 minutes in the gym lifting weights is heresy. The literature on this topic has been mixed, with some researchers promoting strength training as a means to improving performance while others report that it does not.

I believe, though, that there is enough evidence both scientifically and anecdotally to make me a firm advocate of strength training as a means to injury prevention and performance improvement, particularly in master’s athletes who have years of unaddressed muscle imbalances and muscle weaknesses.

The problem with strength training compared to a swim, bike or run workout is this: delayed gratification. You go out for a bike workout, for example, and you know immediately whether you had a good day -- you hit your power goals or you didn't. Integrating gym workouts into your routine requires patience because the improvements are not immediately obvious, the workouts are often monotonous, and who wouldn't rather be outside on a gorgeous day? But, the benefits of strength training are numerous, and even for a time crunched athlete, it is worth shifting the schedule a little to fit in some gym work. I outline just a few of the important reasons below.

On average, the non-exercising population loses about 10% of muscle mass per decade. A proper exercise program can reduce this to 1%. According to Robin Galaskewicz, a kinesiologist who has helped me recover from my rib injury, Masters athletes in particular need to increase motion and strength in the pelvis and thoracic spine because aging and the accumulation of repetitive forward motion causes weaknesses and loss of flexibility.

Robin has told me that there is a significant impact in sparing muscle and maintaining flexibility. The rate of injury can be markedly reduced by developing stronger muscles, tendons, fascia, ligaments and bones which in turn can prevent injuries common to triathletes: shin splits, stress fractures, lower back pain, knee problems and hip injuries. Now, who doesn't want to reduce the risk of injury?

Also, stronger muscles increase power, improve exercise economy (the ability to swim, bike or run faster over a given distance due to reduced oxygen consumption), and increase basal metabolic rate contributing to improved body composition. Sounds good, right?

The various studies examining the association between strength training and endurance performance have generally looked at two types of workouts: explosive training (i.e. plyometrics) and resistance training (i.e multiple sets of an exercise with higher repetitions).

In 1999, Paavolainen showed that explosive training improved the 5K time in well-trained endurance athletes and they concluded that the improvement was due to increased running economy. Spurs in 2003 replicated this finding when looking at the effect of explosive training on 3k running performance.

Paton showed similar results with cycling in 2005; his results showed that explosive training increased sprint and endurance power in well-training cyclists due to enhanced exercise efficiency and increased VO2max.

Resistance training has also shown benefits to endurance athletes, particularly in those who are less well trained. Studies have not shown measurable increases in VO2max or lactate threshold in athletes who integrated a resistance training program into their training. However, resistance training has been linked to improved running and cycling economy and increased time to exhaustion, both for cycling and running.

How does this apply to you? Integrate a strength program that consists of a combination of explosive and resistance training. During the off season you should try to do strength workouts 3-4 days per week and during the season focus on a maintenance program 2 days per week.