Thursday, December 12, 2013

Top 3 Tips for Off-Season Run Training

With all of the major triathlons finished for the year, now is the perfect time to put in a run focused block. The shorter, colder days are less amenable to biking making for a natural transition into running. Too many triathletes place the bulk of their training emphasis on the bike and obtaining killer bike splits leading to under-performance on the run.  An 8-12 week block of run specific training during the winter months can lead to improvements that will last throughout the rest of the year.

There are three components to a run specific block that will enhance your running: practicing running at a higher cadence, running faster and competing in running races.

High cadence

It is easy to ignore the fundamentals of running; working on run form is not nearly as much fun as running itself. Certainly, run form is like a fingerprint; everyone has their own unique style that cannot be undone (I, for example, run like a duck, no matter how hard I have tried not to run like a duck). But, there are certain isms of running that apply to everyone that should be blended into the natural gait.

Most importantly, running at a high cadence of 90 (i.e. 180 for both legs) or above is the key to more efficient and faster running.

You can obtain your cadence by counting each time your right foot hits the ground over a 15 second period and multiplying that by 4 (if you double that number you will have your whole gait cycle).  If that number is below 90 (or 180), your cadence is too low.

Triathletes notoriously run at a low cadence, hence the moniker of the “Kona shuffle”. If there is one thing you master this winter, it should be running at a higher cadence and getting comfortable at a higher cadence at any speed or distance.

Running at a higher cadence will prevent over-striding, a form error that can cause all sorts of injuries from the foot (e.g. planter fasciitis) to the shin (shin splints) up to the hip (e.g. bursitis) and lower back (e.g. sacral iliac joint pain).  Over-striding occurs when the foot lands in front of the body’s center of gravity. Shortening the stride so you land with the foot underneath the body will result in a faster turnover and more efficient gait. In terms forefoot, mid foot and heel striking, well, that is a conversation for another day. The bottom line is this: landing underneath the body with a fast turnover is more important than where you land on your foot.

This quick skip drill will help you with high cadence running.

Increased intensity

The winter months are the perfect time to work on higher intensity running. With the training load presumably lower, your legs should be fresher and better able to handle faster running. As we get older, top end speed (i.e. VO2 max) is usually the first thing to wane.  Working on your VO2 max will have benefits for all running distances. You can do these types of workouts on the track, treadmill, or on the road.

Once per week, incorporate run intervals from 15 seconds up to 3 minutes long at a 5k up to a fast 1 mile pace.  Now, don’t just go out there on your first day and go bonkers with speed; that is a sure-fire way to get injured. In fact, it reminds me of a group track workout I did many years ago. We did a set of fast 200’s at speeds none of us had seen in years. We all relished in how fast we were running, giving each other high 5’s. Well, it was all fun and games until someone got hurt, which inevitably we all did. The next day, we were all too sore to walk.

Begin with very short interval segments and then gradually work your way up to longer segments. For example, start off with an aerobic run with 8-10x15 seconds at 5K pace building down to a mile pace for last several reps with 45 seconds rest. Over time, you should be able to do 8-10x2 minutes with 1 minute rest at these faster paces.  Indeed, that workout of 200’s was actually a really good one and an excellent way to build speed; however, it is not the type of workout to jump into without good preparation.


Training is just that: training. Nothing puts you to the test like a race. The winter months are rife with running races of every distance. Choose a few and test yourself. Pick distances that are out of your comfort zone (hello 5k) and take your running to a new level.

Running races allow you to practice pacing strategies, test out new nutritional products, and are a great way to have fun. Many of the athletes I coach choose a half or full marathon as an “A” race and use other distances as lower level races to gauge fitness. Going into the triathlon season with the experience of running in races will allow you to push harder on race day.

Bonus tip: Run more

    Add an extra one or two runs each week for increased fitness and resilience.

Friday, November 1, 2013

How Should I Approach the End of the Season?

Get loose this off season!
The end of the season is an interesting time and is approached by athletes in many different ways. No matter what, though, it is a time to rest and relax. At least a little bit. With so many races spread throughout the entire year, it is very easy to become a 12-month racer, and delay the end of the season to the next year or even the year after that. Since everybody’s physiology and psychology are different, I do not take any single approach to my athletes' end of the season routine. The only commonality is that everyone takes some type of downtime to recharge the batteries before it is time to ramp up the training for the next season.

In my years of coaching, I have found that there are 3 distinct categories of end of season attitudes. Which one are you?

  1. "I am so glad the season is finally over! I am taking 2 months off.” This seems to be the rarest category of racer, but, they do exist. They cross the line at their last race and then they hang up their athletic equipment for a while. Once the holiday imbibing catches up and the waistlines start to expand, they don their running shoes and get back to training. 
  2.   “Phew. That was a long season. I need a little time off and then I need a real decrease in training.” This is most common category of athlete – the person who may need a total break from training for 7-14 days and then wants to get back into a regimen that includes less frequency and intensity. This is a very healthy perspective on the end of the season.  Where can I obtain this sane outlook for myself? 
  3.  “When’s my next hard workout coach? I’m forging through until my Ironman 10 months from now.” Ok, ok. I confess. I fall into this category. C’mon, don’t tell me you are surprised! The Twin Cities marathon was incredibly disappointing, but, perhaps due to my slow down at the end, I was not sore. Usually, I am crippled for a week after a marathon, but not so this time. My legs recovered at warp speed, so I relished the idea of running the California International Marathon in December. My body is much smarter than my brain though, and it shut me down loud and clear. I got sick and was relegated to weeks of forced rest – the very kind of rest I impose on my athletes but was rue to take myself (bad Coach).   Everybody needs some down time at the end of the season. That amount of time is very individual though; there simply isn’t a formula to know how much time someone will need before they start feeling peppy and motivated and ready to take on their next set of goals.
After the initial time off (whether it is 2 weeks or two months), I devise workouts that have drills to work on form and shorter intervals to maintain some fitness but not incur fatigue. The total number of training hours is drastically reduced. I view the end of the season as a time work on weaknesses and hone the skill set needed to excel the following season.

Create some end of season objectives that make the transition from heavy training into restorative training easier. Determine your race schedule and goals for the next season. Is your bike fit maximizing your power? Find an expert to help with you with your swim stroke. Make sure you haven’t developed any bad run habits that might lead to a future injury. And, speaking of injury, the end of the season is the time to get into the gym and get stronger.  I am not suggesting a regimen of Olympic lifts, but I do recommend sorting out muscle imbalances that are typical in endurance athletes.

The bottom line is this: you cannot cheat recovery, so tackle it with the same vigor you do with training.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Kona Chronicles: Part 5

And they're off!
Ironman is not a spectator sport. I know I am stating the obvious, but, wow, it just isn't. Like many sports events, it is the palpable excitement of being there that draws people in, even when such an event is better watched on TV. The most action was in the first 90 minutes where we saw three separate swim starts (pro men, pro women, age groupers), the swim itself, and then the droves of people precariously rounding the Hot Corner (the junction of Palani Rd and Kuakini Hwy) and back again. The riders zoomed by so quickly it was somewhat of a game to pick out who they were.

And, then, that's it. The athletes were gone into the abyss and there was nothing to do but wait for some information to trickle in. Even though we were right there, we could've been anywhere.

Beautiful morning to spectate

After a run to the Energy Lab and back we had nothing but time. The wireless networks were bogged down with everyone trying to get updates, rendering us ignorant of what was transpiring just a few miles away. I had to text other people located elsewhere for information about how my athletes were doing and to find out how the pro race was unfolding. The Athlete Tracker was almost impossible to bring up due to the overwhelming overload. Every now and again, one of us could pull it up and that person would whoop like a lottery winner.
Damn funny!

All of that internet searching caused my phone to bleed battery life. It would drop 10% in the blink of an eye. All around me, people were cursing at their phones and iPads. As my battery was about to breathe its last breath, I stopped into a shop, gave my sad face, and asked if I could plug my phone in. It was a common sight at the restaurants to see people with their phones charging. Next time, I will have an alternative battery plan.

The crowd on Alii Drive

We stood along Alii Drive waiting for the athletes to come through. Among both the pros and the age groupers, the pattern was similar, some people looked so smooth and happy while others wore the pain of the day on their faces. Some people ran tall, other were stooped over. It was easy to pick out whose quads were trashed, whose hamstrings were cramping, and who managed their ride well enough to run with relative ease.

Of all the runners that ran past, none looked better than Mirinda Carfrae. She makes running look effortless; she is strong and solid and runs with confidence. It was a sight to behold.

My athletes fared well. Two had Ironman PR's, one said "I raced to my level of fitness" and another had to face the Ironman demons. Overall, it was a successful day.

Lessons of the day:
1. Spectating an Ironman is hard. I always knew that, but now I really know.
2. Reapply sunscreen on a regular basis.
3. It is easy to forget to eat and drink.
4. The photographers are really good at what they do. I missed just about every photo op; the athletes go by too fast.
This is the only action photo I managed to capture.
5. Pick your spot on the course wisely and stay there.
6. Bring phone battery back ups and sell them for large sums of money to desperate spectators.

All in all, a fun and successful day. I hope to do it again next year!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Kona Chronicles: Part 4

Since I arrived on the island, the best word to describe how I have felt is reminiscent. Every place I visited, every person I bumped into, every nook and cranny that I passed created an overwhelming sense of nostalgia with a funny or sad or exciting story attached. Nothing made me miss racing here, though, until yesterday at 2pm. When I walked by the finish line, I felt a catch in my throat, and I envisioned myself running under the gantry in the tired and elated state of an Ironman finisher. The feeling left as quickly as it arrived and I came to my senses as sweat trickled down my body in the unbearable heat and humidity of the afternoon.

Yesterday morning we skipped the Kona pier and headed north to Hapuna Beach. The vast nothingness that surrounds the beach is stunning in an ugly sort of way.

We ran along a connector road and met up with another that took us to the quaint town of Puako. The madness of Kailua was nary a thought in our minds as we ambled down the road admiring the houses, foliage and unique smells.
Brandon and I laughing at a joke during a run.
Nothing like a running selfie!
After our run, we cooled off with a swim at Hapuna Beach. The cove is huge with crystal clear water. Unlike Kailua Bay, there were few fish to view, just endless sand and the bubbles created by my hands entering the water.
It is hard to imagine the desert directly behind this beach.
The Big Island, particularly the Kona side, is infamous for vog, a form of air pollution that results when sulfur dioxide and other gases and particles emitted from the erupting volcano react with oxygen and moisture in the presence of sunlight. In the past, I rarely noticed the vog. This year, the vog has been wreaking havoc and causing my asthma to flare up and blocking my sinuses. The result is that I have been wheezing and coughing changing my voice from its normal timbre to that of a husky, pack a day smoker.

Yesterday afternoon I finally took some time to do nothing. I lay on a couch in a friend's condo and stared at the ocean. I guess that qualifies as relaxing.

Today is race day. I am psyched to see how everything unfolds. More later...

Friday, October 11, 2013

Kona Chronicles: Part 3

Kona is a vortex; or, perhaps, it's vacation in general. My awake hours account for about 18 hours of each day in which I have been spending 90 minutes exercising and 2 hours working. I have not seen a TV, read a newspaper, browsed the internet, done housework, taken care of the dog or cooked a meal. Clearly, I am not busy. Yet, the time here flies like I am. It is truly vexing. Perhaps it is the fact that every task seems to take twice as long as it should. The beauty of not racing is that I don't care. I have no particular schedule to follow. It doesn't matter if I skip a meal or spend too much time in the sun or walk too far.

The house at which I am staying is a coffee farm. I was half hoping that coffee beans would be in abundance, overflowing in every cabinet. Alas, much to my chagrin, that was not to be, as all of the beans were given away in the last harvest.
Coffee trees and farm animals.
Yesterday, I swam the course and then did a short run with Team JZ. Everyone seems to be relaxed, which is a good sign. Pre-race nerves are natural, but a relaxed nervous is imperative to a good race.

Happy faces before the run.
Somehow, breakfast materialized into brunch, as we did not eat until 11. And, right there, is a perfect example of the "vortex". We swam at 7, ran at 8:30, and then what the heck did we do until 11? I do know that I was terribly disappointed to arrive at Huggo's, a restaurant that serves potent coffee that I can only assume is laced with speed based on the reaction that I had the previous day, and find that they were closed. I was looking forward to another cup of their coffee that got me so amped up 6 hours later I was still talking at warp speed.

Instead, we made the requisite trip to Lava Java, the most in vogue spot on the Island during race week, a perfectly good reason not to go there. I was pleasantly surprised by the haste at which they took my order and served my food considering the length of the line.

The Lava Java coffee was good, but not Huggo's good.

We did manage to spend some time off of Alii Drive and away from the race mania. A trip to the cliffs and the beach were the afternoon activities. We did some video taping for our Race Ready Coaching website at the cliffs. The backdrop was perfect. My hair was not. The humidity and salt air have combined to create a chemical reaction that doubled (tripled?) the circumference of my hair. We kept patting it down and then tried various hair ties. Eventually we gave up and just let it do its own thing.

Yup, I am in a two piece. And, my hair is a planet.
The color of the water at the cliffs is something you see in movies. The contrast of the blue water and the black lava is stunning.
Seriously, doesn't it look like someone dropped in blue dye?

People do actually jump off the cliffs. I am not a thrill seeker, so I just watched in awe laced with a little fear.

This guy jumped from a low level. Another guy was doing back flips off the top.
We spent a pleasant evening with a group of friends who gathered to celebrate Teresa's birthday.
I despise leg photos, so here is mine.

Nothing to say here.
I fell into bed, exhausted and confident that I would sleep all the way to 4:30. Nope. I was wide awake at 3:30.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Kona Chronicles: Part 2

The view from the house
Today I woke up at an entirely more civilized hour: 4am. Somehow that has a more humane ring than 3am, the time at which I awoke yesterday. I love the solitude of the morning, though, and today, there is a hush in the house, where the only sound is the whir of my ceiling fan.

The house at which I am staying is a coffee farm located at 1800 feet above sea level. It is probably 10-15 degrees cooler than Kailua and the views from above the town are magnificent. The house is nestled into the hillside, with an access road so steep it could qualify as a high level ski run should global warming ever cause a blizzard here. Sleeping, for the few hours I have managed to do so, is a different experience here, with perfect temperatures, utter darkness unmarred by streetlamps or other houses, and complete quiet.

When people come to Hawaii, they leave with souvenirs of coffee or chocolate covered macadamia nuts or ugly shirts that seem to fit in on the Island but never look right anywhere else. My special memento of the Big Island, one that stays with me long after the tan fades and I've slept off the jet lag, is a cold sore. In my dozen trips here, in spite of all my efforts and use of various lip tinctures, I start to feel the telltale tingle in my lip that signals it is going to erupt. This trip is no different and within 20 hours of my arrival on the Island, I started to feel sensitivity in my angry lower lip. That now precludes me from eating anything remotely spicy, lest it touch my lip causing me to scream and disrupt the other diners.

Yesterday was a busy day. I went to the pier to swim with Jen T, Jen C and Scott, three of the four athletes I coach who are competing here. It was so nice to see them and listen to them swap stories of qualifying and I could just feel their general excitement about the race.
Jen T and Me after the morning swim

The buzz at the pier was so familiar, even though so many of the faces were not. I had not swum in open water in three years, so yesterday's swim was particularly exhilarating. The clarity of the ocean meant that I felt like I was swimming in an aquarium. I was absolutely giddy with delight as I moved through the swim course, craning my neck to make sure I didn't collide with anyone. I even stopped to talk to one of the paddlers manning the course to share my enthusiasm.
I don't think Scott will mind that I stole this photo off his Facebook page. Or, will he?

One of the best parts of yesterday was running into old friends and acquaintances I had not seen in so many years. We have all added age to our faces, but we greeted each other with gusto and with genuine interest in what transpired over the last many years.

C'mon, you know I have to put up at least one sunset shot!
My trip here has been purposeful, fun, and in so many ways cathartic. As I sat on a friend's patio, admiring the sea view, the island whispered in my ear, "What took you so long?"

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Kona Chronicles: Part 1

I arrived in darkness. I sit here typing, overlooking the vast expanse of Kona sprawled out below, also in darkness. There is a certain sameness about it; the yellow lights, the impossible stillness, the fact that I cannot sleep past 3am every time I come here. The Big Island, with all of its changes, just seems so unchanged.

The biggest change since my last visit in 2006 is me. I have changed. My life has changed. I am no longer the nervous triathlete looking for another shot at glory at the Hawaii Ironman. I gave up on Ironman in 2008, realizing that the distance and my physiology simply didn't cohere. And, then, in 2010 I gave up triathlon altogether, realizing that my rib injuries were no longer compatible with riding a bike.

As tough as those realizations were, it opened up a world of challenges and opportunities that have given me purpose and a new definition of self. Indeed, the interview question I was asked most often? Where do you see yourself in 5 years. I was always befuddled by this question because the  answer seemed to simple, surely I would still be competing in triathlon and doing science.

Life is not that straightforward, though, and while 5 years is a long time, it is also the blink of an eye. Plans change quickly and we must adapt to the situations presented to us. Coming to Kona, in the role of coach, friend, spectator, observer, mentor, seeker of the beach, will certainly help me in my own formulation of my next 5 years.

I toil with mixed emotions about merely being here, yet I am excited at the new opportunities that abound around me. And, now, I must seek out a famous cup of Kona coffee and make new memories.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Twin Cities Marathon: Race Report

This is me at IM Arizona after getting a flat while winning the race.
Sport is difficult; it requires time, patience, a strong mind, and a sense of humor. The greatest challenge in sport comes from the fickleness that accompanies it, the fact that in a mere moment things can drastically change from good to bad. A triathlete can go from winning a race to getting stuck on the side of the road with a flat tire. A football team winning by 3 touchdowns at the half can still lose the game. Endurance sports are notorious harbingers of havoc. Post-race, stories are rampant with accounts of races gone awry.

As a seasoned marathon veteran, I know how marathons can unfold; and so, 20 years after my first marathon (Chicago, 1993), I still have a very healthy respect for the distance. I am acutely aware as one’s time goals get faster, you must race harder, take more risks, and thus, the potential for failure is even greater. Since I am not afraid to fail, I often go down in flames.

Coming in to this race, my biggest concern was my Achilles/calves.  I was lucky enough to have a quick recovery from the tear I incurred in August. With some concerted treatment and several weeks of Alter G running, four weeks after the initial injury, I was back on track. Regular treatment, stretching, and strengthening actually helped my calves so much I felt they were healthier than they had been all summer. I also wore compression socks 24/7, which often meant walking around looking like a poser when I wore shorts on the hot days. Or, perhaps, I am on the precipice of a fashion trend that will someday become main stream.

My race day plan was to hold 6:05 pace, which I successfully ran through mile 21. Everything felt comfortable – my breathing was relaxed, my form felt good – I was biding my time until mile 20 where I planned to get aggressive and tackle the hilly, last 10k with vigor.

I went through 20 miles at 2:02, a solid 2:40 pace. I was feeling encouraged that the race was unfolding according to plan. And then, BAM. Just like that, I got the dizzies. It hit me so hard and so fast, I was shocked. I started to push the Salt Stick tablets and drink more water, but the dizzies got worse. I found myself staggering along the course, weaving from one side of the road to the next. I was whimpering as I ran up the hills, and all I wanted to do was lie down on the pavement and nap it out. At mile 24 I was uncertain that I would actually make it to the finish line. The dizziness was overwhelming and the desire to stop was getting stronger with every passing step. It was very difficult to see my goals disintegrate minute by minute and to get passed and passed and passed by my competitors.
Running with the dizzies -- I am not too happy!
Why didn’t I stop? One simple reason. I am going to Kona to watch four of the athletes I coach embark on a brutal 140.6 mile journey through unforgiving terrain in a spectacle known as the Ironman World Championships. I came to the conclusion that I needed to set an example for them – finish what you start even when your goals go out the window. My inspiration came from their hard work and the desire to send them a message: Be strong even when you are feeling weak.

When I crossed the finish line, I immediately collapsed. The absolute worst thing you can do when you have the dizzies is to stop moving. So, naturally, when I stopped moving, I could no longer stand. It made for quite a dramatic finish and a trip to the medical tent for the first time in 5 years.
Courtesy of

In honor of upcoming Hawaii Ironman, this is me after finishing Kona in 1999 with the dizzies.
A running medical tent is very different from a triathlon medical tent. The biggest distinction? They are incredibly stingy with IV drips in the running med tents. When I came in, barely coherent, the first they did was start pushing water or food or Power Ade. Then, they decided I needed broth. I think there must’ve been a contest among the doctors to see who could off load the most broth, because they were handing it out to everyone unfortunate enough to be in there. It was disgusting. It was thick and lukewarm and I had to drink this sludge through a straw. They really need a Top Chef to work on the recipe. Surely, there must be a way to make bullion tastier. When I realized it was this broth or nothing, I gagged it down and an hour later I was on my merry way.

In hindsight, I believe the dizzies came on from the spacing of the aid stations during the first 20 miles of the race. The aid stations were every 2.5 miles, not nearly enough, even on a cool day. I just need more liquid. Plain and simple. I’m not sure which marathon I will run next, but one thing is certain. I will be carrying a water bottle with me.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Do Professional Runners/Triathletes Matter?

Last week the Competitor Group announced their plan to drop their elite athlete program at all of their races, including the wildly popular Rock n’ Roll run series. They felt that the cost of continuing this program outweighed the benefit of bringing in top level athletes to their races. This news was very disappointing to me on a number of levels.

I believe that professionals offer a type of credibility to a race. The pointy end of the field is the focus of media attention and the times that are set by pros often inspire those finishing behind them – a barometer of what the human body is capable of doing.

The value of the professional athlete, whether at a running or triathlon event, has always been debatable. There are people who just don’t care what is happening in front of them at any given race while others staunchly follow the frontrunners and look forward to seeing how they perform. But, to those who don’t care about the pros, I hope my discourse will change your mind and help you understand why pros are relevant to our beloved sports of running and triathlon.

Ultimately, the decision to have a group of professionals race is in the hands of the race director and/or race owners and this decision comes down to financial viability. Is it cost effective to bring in pros and offer prize money? How does this group of people enhance a given race and on a more global level, how does it enhance the sport?

While I strongly believe that professional runners and triathletes are an integral part of racing, I have long felt that race organizers and sponsors under-utilize these athletes who come to their races. Professional athletes often show up and race and do nothing more; they feel that it is solely their job to race fast. But the onus is also on the event organizers who often don’t ask much more from their professional athletes.

On behalf of races, I have sat on pro panels or attended press conferences and on behalf of sponsors, I have stood at booths and signed autographs. I still see this type of construct used in the running and triathlon community and I feel that it is somewhat antiquated.

The problem is that only a small fraction of the racers know these events are happening and even fewer show up. I once sat on a panel at the LA marathon; of the 20,000 registrants there were less than 100 people in the audience.

I have answered excellent questions raised by nervous athletes, but I never felt like this process really made a difference.

One of my best experiences at the 2008 triathlon Olympic trials in Tuscaloosa was giving a presentation to a local middle school. They welcomed me with signs and banners and they listened attentively to my stories about racing. My pink and black bike caught their eye. I was the first “celebrity” to ever talk at their school. That day I felt like I made difference.

Community talks are the types of things that sponsors, race organizers and athletes must be willing to do. It is a way to make the athlete relevant, increase exposure for the race, and give the community a glimpse into a world that is completely foreign to them and perhaps may inspire a little kid to take up sports.

Beyond the grassroots approach, the media has always been a large part of triathlon and running. What put triathlon on the map? Images of Julie Moss, a professional triathlete, crawling to the Ironman finish line. And, in June, when Bernard Koech of Kenya ran 58:41 at Rock n Roll San Diego, most of the major media outlets picked up the story. It was big news to have a time that fast run on American soil. I did not read, however, about the finisher who came in at 2 hours.

The point is, the general public likes to read about amazing feats, and the Competitor Group gained a lot of publicity for that insanely fast run which they would not have received just by the recreational runners. I wonder how many people read that result and decided to sign up for RnR San Diego to set a half marathon PR? Traditional advertising alone cannot bring the same attention to an event than the remarkable feats of the professional athletes who are breaking records and testing the limitations of the human body.

The level of competition at the front of the race trickles down to the very last finisher. I have been the direct beneficiary of the elite athlete program set up by CGI at their Rock n Roll series. I have never received an appearance fee or a travel stipend. What I have received is a high level of competition which has pushed me to set a personal best in all three of the RnR races I competed in over the last few years. When the athletes at the front race fast, they are being chased by every person behind them, thus improving times across the board. I have never yet met an athlete who has been disappointed over setting a personal best.

What about the relationship between professional athletes and sponsors? Sponsors create and test their products on the top athletes and they expect the athletes to show up at races using their goods. Innovations in bikes, running shoes, clothing, wheels, components, wetsuits, helmets and most other gear are all made with SPEED in mind with the bottom line of getting their athletes to the finish line first (preferably with their athlete beating other fast professional athletes). Prototypes are given to the top athletes for training and racing. Who doesn’t look longingly at all of the fancy bikes ridden by the top triathletes? The products that are used by the professionals are almost always put on the market to be snatched up by amateur racers. If race organizers start deciding that professional athletes are superfluous, then sponsors do not get the recognition they need and want, and suddenly the symbiotic relationship between the athlete-race organizer-sponsor-amateur is broken.

I firmly believe that professional athletes offer value and credibility to running and triathlon. It is up to the athletes, race organizers and sponsors to come together to redefine and refine the athlete role in an effort to make the athletes more relevant. The effects of the decision by CGI to drop their elite athlete will reach further than the few hundred professional athletes that frequent their events. Is anyone else worried that WTC is scratching their heads and wondering if they should do the same?

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Fitness Conundrum

It is a very fine line between ultimate fitness and injury. Whenever an athlete boasts that they are in the best shape of their life, inevitably they get injured shortly thereafter. I call it the fitness conundrum. In the triathlon world, athletes like Emma Snowsill, Lisa Norden, Paula Findlay and Terenzo Bozzone sustained serious injuries immediately after a seriously awesome performance. At the 2008 Olympics, Deena Kastor broke her foot during the marathon. Before every Olympics and World Championships, hordes of athletes pull out due to injury.

I am now one of those athletes. This summer, I was arguably in the best running shape of my life. My half marathon times improved immensely, I saw times on the track I never imagined I would see again, I floated through my weekly long runs. I was on fire. And then, bam, just like that, I got injured.

The America’s Finest City half marathon two weeks ago was my best race this season. I did not set a PR, but given the course terrain, my overall placing, and the ability of the women who finished behind me, I felt like it was a stellar race. I went out reasonably hard and instead of surviving the last 5k which is predominantly uphill, I charged through that section, picking off women who underestimated the difficulty of this part of the race and went out too fast. I spied a woman up the road and I hunkered down to try to catch her.

As we neared the finish chute, the road pitched downward and we both accelerated. At that moment, I felt a painful twinge in my calf. Fortunately, the finish line was right there, so I did not have far to go on my lame leg. I was thoroughly hobbled and traded my normal warm down run for a chair and a bag of ice.

It was determined that I had a very tight soleus and I had an overly swollen calf to prove it. Over the next few days, my calf seemed to improve. I did my running on the Alter G anti-gravity treadmill, got some deep massage, ultrasound and electrical stimulation. I stretched, sported compression socks, and did my best to facilitate healing.

On Friday morning, I ran 1.5 miles and walked back to gym, knowing what I knew all along. I had torn something. I had two thoughts, as I glumly trudged through that mile and a half. First, if I have an issue that does not resolve within two or three days, it is a big problem not a small one. Two, the initial injury was just so dramatic it had to be more than a seized up muscle.
The good people over at Spine West fit me in that day for a diagnostic ultrasound. I cannot say enough about how accommodating that practice has been to me over the years.

Diagnostic ultrasound is truly an amazing advancement in sports medicine diagnostics. It often negates the need for an MRI and can be performed right in the doctor’s office. An additional bonus is that the results are immediate and in my instance, a direct comparison could be made between my right and left leg.

The ultrasound revealed a small tear in my left medial Achilles tendon. It took a little while to find it, mostly due to the fact that they had to wade through my cracked and wrinkly feet. I’m not kidding! The doctor was appalled by the state of my feet (who isn’t) and could not hold back a remark.
The tear presented itself as a black circle, essentially empty space, where the tendon usually is knitted together. Fortunately, the rest of the tendon is intact and pliable.

The black hole is the tear. This is from Dr. Google. Mine is much smaller.

My initial thought was, “now I am really a runner!” because truly, this is a real runners injury. Over the years I have had injuries that have prevented me from running, but none were actually due to running itself.

The positives are that I do not need to wear a boot, I can still run, albeit on the Alter G and I still might be able to do Twin Cities marathon on October 6.

Ok, mine is not ruptured, and I have 5 weeks not 24 hours...
I have decided that if I am fully healed, I will run the marathon, mostly as an experiment. As a scientist, I want to determine how much fitness I can maintain by running on the Alter G and using the elliptical (as a bonus I get to watch lots of shows on my iPad; today I watch four episodes of Episodes). I do have the luxury of signing up for another race later in the year. However, the people I coach often do not have the ability to choose another race; they have to stick with the plan. You simply cannot decide to sign up for a different Ironman 6 weeks later due to an injury conflict. The outcome of my tiny experiment will give me invaluable information that I can use to help others dealing with an injury. I realize that not everyone has access to an Alter G, but they are becoming more commonly available.

In terms of solving the fitness conundrum? It is definitely a perplexing problem. I hit the gym hard to maintain muscle balance, I was very well rested for this race, I kept my weekly mileage lower this year to accommodate the fact that I was running faster, I never trained through any leg pain, I had no flashing lights to warn me that the system was about to shut down. I suppose if there was a clear cut answer, somebody would have already found it.

Monday, August 19, 2013

AFC Half Marathon 2013: Pacing the Hills

When you race, you have to adapt to the course. Racing a hilly course requires a different skill set than a flat course. That is why it is imperative to know the terrain upon which you will be racing by studying course profiles carefully and/or viewing the course in person.  Some courses take time to master and it is only through repeatedly racing on such a course that one can truly understand the nuances of the terrain or the environment. The Ironman in Hawaii, for example, is such a course; mastery on that course often comes at the price of flaming out in the first outing. Nothing beats firsthand experience on a given course, but a lot can be done by perusing course maps and elevation profiles and coming up with a cogent plan on how to handle the hills.

The America’s Finest City half marathon in San Diego is a persnickety course. The course has some very steep down hills in the first 4 miles (with some deceptively steep up hills, too), it is flat in the middle, and contains a long, 2.7 mile uphill grind to the finish.
The downhill never makes up for the uphill!
This type of course beckons for a quick first 10k, banking time, if you will; a strategy that is the antithesis of the way I usually like to run a half marathon – a controlled start, building the pace throughout, and finishing fast.

The question on such a course, is this: how fast is too fast in the first 10k? When I first ran this race in 2011 I called upon my proclivity for numbers and I pored over the results from previous years looking at the first 10k vs. the last 11k (even as I write this, I realize how geeky I sound).

Everybody was much faster on the first 10k, of course, but those who had the smallest gap finished highest. When I ran in 2011, I hit the 10k in 36:12 in 8th place. I ended up passing 3 women who were over a minute faster than me at the 10k point. It was a good lesson in choosing an appropriate pace over the fast first half.

This year, having hit some half marathon PR’s, I decided to use this race as a 10k and 10 mile experiment and play around with pacing. I wanted to hit the first 10k hard (goal: 35:30-35:45), hold through 10 miles (goal: 57:30) and see what would happen over the last 5k. These numbers seemed reasonably hard and would give my legs the experience of running a little faster than normal for 10 miles thereby really fatiguing them, and then push through a difficult 5k on tired legs. It seemed like a perfect marathon simulation.

I am not by nature fast off the gun, so I was immediately dropped by those around me. At 800 meters, I gained some ground on a pack of 8, and pushed very hard up a steep incline to grab onto the back of that pack. I ran with this pack through 5k, which we hit in 17:28, much faster than I planned. I backed off and ran about 25 meters behind the pack and went through 10k in 35:24.

I ran through 10 miles in 57:28, still feeling strong. When I hit the hills at mile 10, I was still moving well and managed to catch 2 women and I almost ran down another who finished a mere 5 seconds in front of me. I again finished in 5th place and took the Masters honors in a time of 1:16.42, which crushed my 2011 time of 1:18.29.
The GAP is the grade adjust pace, i.e. the pace if it was flat for that mile. Pretty cool feature on Strava!

Pacing is a topic I have written about quite a bit this year. I have used running as the example, but the principles are the same for cycling. I have generally written about perfect pacing as being steady throughout a race, or even better, negative splitting.

This type of pacing does not always work well for courses that are unbalanced in terms of the terrain. The best way to manage bumpy terrain is to use the downhill sections to your advantage, mete out the efforts on the up hills so as not to burn all of the matches climbing, and settle into a rhythm on the flats.

The key is to find a predetermined running pace or wattage zone and stick to it, no matter how good you feel or what your competition is up to. Going into a race with a well thought out plan that is dictated both by ability and terrain will help ensure that you race to your potential.

Race note: The only way to get to the start line is by bus. Seven minutes before the gun went off everyone was assembled at the start line, anxious and excited. There was some commotion because the last bus was still making its way to the start area. The bus pulled up with 3 minutes to go and a lone racer stepped off the bus to a rousing applause from the crowd and comments such as “We held the race just for you,” “Nice of you to show up,” “Way to plan ahead.” It was quite funny and the guy was obviously embarrassed!

Monday, July 22, 2013

Denver Double Road Race: Race Report

I never thought that running a 10k and 5k on the same day at altitude separated by an hour was a good idea. But, in the spirit of team cohesion and never one to shy away from an interesting challenge, I signed up for the Denver Double Road Race with trepidation; I’m no fool, these events are hard individually.

Running races at altitude presents several challenges. First, there is the obvious lack of oxygen up here. Second, my ribs are still not 100% which compounds the problem of less oxygen. My rib cage just is not quite up to the task of working that hard. Of course, I do not help matters by going as hard as I can for as long as I can and then hanging on for dear life until the finish line with my abdomen and sternum burning.

I just cannot seem to shed my desire to be competitive and go fast and run hard. It makes no sense to me to sign up for a race and then trot through it; so, I do these races knowing that there are limitations to what I can do and there will be some level of discomfort. I make this choice because it is better than sitting on the couch and looking up the results later.

With no experience in racing this type of format, I really did not know how to approach it. In the end, I ran the 10k like it was the only event and hoped that I could run the 5k at least as fast as my 10k average. Here are my three 5k splits: 18:06, 18:54 (ouch, I blew up big time) and 18:13. The second 5k of my 10k was atrocious, attributable to breathing difficulties stemming from poor pacing the first two miles and the aforementioned rib issues. I am constantly amazed at how easy the first two miles feel and how shitty the last two miles feel in a 10k. I constantly preach about good pacing, but I still have yet to master pacing in a 10k.

After the 10k, the race organizers set up a recovery area replete with chiropractors, massage therapists and foam rollers. There was a lot of food on offer – gels, bars, donuts. Yes, there were donuts. And, yes, people scarfed them down. I overheard numerous conversations that went like this: “Did you see the donuts?  I’m going to get one or three and eat them for my recovery.” I wonder how they fared in the 5k?

After the 10k, I jogged a mile easy and then ate a Power Gel, drank some water, took some Salt Stick capsules (sorry, have to shill for the sponsors; I only have a few left) and sat on the floor dreading the 5k.

My warm up for the 5k consisted of 5 minutes of easy jogging, a single stride of 10 seconds and a trip to the Porta-Potty. Lining up at the start line felt like deja-vu. It was hard imagine running the course one more time.

The first half mile felt like crap. Then, my legs loosened up and I actually started to feel good. I started thinking to myself that this wasn’t so bad and got lulled into a false sense of security.

There was a hill before the 2 mile marker. It wasn't too big, but suddenly it felt like Everest. My hip flexors ached and my breathing was shallow. The last mile I just hung on and tried to slow down as little as possible.

All in all, the Double was “fun”. Perhaps next time I would skip the 17 mile run two days before; but then again, I probably won’t.

When it is all said and done, it is possible to run fast when your legs are dreadfully tired.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Are you mentally tough?

What is mental toughness? This concept is bandied about in the sports world, often used recklessly. Is it mentally tough to forge through a race injured, bleeding or puking? Or, is it mentally tough to train while sick or when the weather is shitty? Perhaps this is merely bad decision making, something I have fallen prey to in the name of “mental toughness”. I think that the construct of mental toughness is overused philosophically and underused in practice. Mostly, this is because mental toughness is generally misinterpreted rendering true mental toughness hard to find.

Mental toughness is the ability to toe the line at a race, and no matter which athletes show up, not letting them affect you or ruin your game plan.

Mental toughness is racing to your potential whether you are 1st or 31st or last.

Mental toughness is looking at your workouts for the week with a small amount of fear and a large amount of excitement at the challenge set forth.

Mental toughness is putting aside the chaos of life for a designated amount of time each day to properly execute your training.

Mental toughness is doing the little things that make a big difference.

Mental toughness is finding that last ounce of energy to keep going until the finish line when your body wants to quit.

Mental toughness is going back for more even if you’ve been disappointed or embarrassed.

Mental toughness is taking adversity and turning it into an advantage.

Mental toughness is not being a lemming and just doing whatever everyone else is doing.

Mental toughness is having self-confidence and not self-doubt.

Mental toughness is savoring the small victories and knowing they will lead to larger ones down the road.

Mental toughness is having trust in yourself, your coach, and your advisers to lead you down the right path.

Mental toughness is learning how to focus.

Mental toughness is not giving up because it is too hard.

Mental toughness is not any one thing. It is an amalgamation of so many different things, and that is why it is hard to truly define it and achieve it. But, mastering at least some of these aspects of mental toughness will undoubtedly make you a better athlete.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

USA Half Marathon Race Report: More on Pacing

When people asked me which race I was doing yesterday in Duluth, the full or half marathon, competitors and non-competitor alike gave me a look when I told them I was running just the half. It can only be described as a look of reproach. A look that meant, ‘oh, poor you, you must not be tough enough for the whole shebang”. At first I thought I was imagining it, but after a dozen instances, I determined that “the look” was unmistakable. To those that inquired further, I explained that I was running the USA Half Marathon Champs; only then did the look of contempt turn to respect.

One of the things I notice with endurance athletes is that when it comes to racing, longer is often viewed as better. People think that going longer will make you tougher, fitter, more esteemed and an overall better athlete. I challenge this way of thinking. While I certainly am a fan of the longer events, I have done countless Ironmans and marathons (I have yet to delve into the ultra-realm), shorter races offer huge advantages in terms of speed, recovery, longevity, and the ability to learn things that can be applied to the longer races.

Here is an example. I am planning on running the Twin Cities Marathon in October. My first goal is to qualify for the 2016 Marathon Olympic Trials, which will require me to run under 2:43.00. My secondary goal is to break 2:40.

Running a marathon at that pace requires not only endurance, but a certain amount of speed and perfect pacing. Historically, I can run within 2:30-3 minutes of my open half marathon time in a marathon. In order to run sub-2:40, that translates to a 1:16.59 open half marathon. When I started the season, my half marathon PB was 1:18.22, much too slow to run under 2:40.

Three weeks ago, I lowered that time to 1:16.45, and yesterday at the USA Half Marathon Championships, I shaved off another 36 seconds running a 1:16.09 (good enough for 24th overall and 2nd masters), putting me in a much better position to achieve a sub 2:40 time.

You may be wondering how I was able to drop 36 seconds so quickly after setting a PR just three weeks earlier. The answer is in pacing and starting the race with a specific strategy.

I carefully analyzed my mile splits from San Diego and determined that my first 4 miles were too erratic and slow compared to the rest of the race. I knew I needed to run those miles faster and come closer to 36 flat for the first 10k in Duluth. You can see from the table below, at the Half champs I ran the first 5k much quicker than in San Diego. The middle miles were at a similar pacing, but then I brought the last 5k home faster.
Miles RnR San Diego Half Champs
1 5:41 5:45
2 5:56 5:48
3 5:49 5:46
4 6:03 5:52
5 5:46 5:50
6 5:49 5:44
7 5:47 5:54
8 5:46 5:51
9 5:55 5:45
10 5:46 5:47
11 5:50 5:43
12 5:33 5:40
13 5:43 5:38
5k 18:16 17:56
10k 36:30 36:12
10 miles 58:49 58:19
Last 5k 17:56 17:50
Closing out my races strong has been an issue for me both in the half and full marathon. I just couldn’t quite hold my pace all the way to the finish line resulting in a noticeable fade in pace. This can be a goal killer in a marathon where the pace can drop off precipitously (at the LA marathon in March my pace slowed 30 seconds/mile on the last 8k!). In the last two half marathons I made closing out the race fast a top priority, even if meant sacrificing some speed in the middle of the race. As you can see from the table, in both races, my last 5k was the fastest of the race.

This in depth and tedious analysis shows that racing shorter distances, whether for running or triathlon, is an important tool for honing pacing and strategies for longer races. I view shorter races as a dress rehearsal for longer races and extrapolate the lessons learned from the shorter races to the longer ones. Screwing up a race plan in a short race has few repercussions; screw up a race plan in a long race and you are, well, screwed. The more practice you have at executing a race plan, the less likely you are to make mistakes.

I did not touch on the nutritional aspects or maintaining bike watts, as those are their own posts. But, the same lessons do apply. Shorter races are a perfect time to hone your nutrition and figure out what works when your body is under extreme duress and what makes you puke. And, learning how to dial in proper wattage in a short race will be beneficial in executing a good bike ride during a long race.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Rock n' Roll San Diego Race Report

One of the biggest obstacles athletes face is that they want to make improvements right now. I try to gently explain that there are incremental steps that have to be taken in the pursuit of a goal, and bypassing the laws of athletic improvement will result in injury, over-training, and/or disappointment. It is unrealistic, for example, to break 40 minutes in a 10k in a matter of a few months if you are consistently running 43 minutes. A more physiologically reasonable approach is dropping time in smaller chunks. Adaptations have to occur through training and racing, and this process cannot be rushed. But, most athletes are impatient, and they are disillusioned when they don’t reach milestones in a set time period.

When I started exclusively running two years ago, my half marathon PR was 1:19.48. My goal, obviously, was to get faster. And, slowly but surely I did. I ran 1:19.20, 1:19.02, 1:18.28, 1:18.42, 1:18.22, and 1:18.28 between February, 2011 and April, 2013. That is 6 half marathons within a 60 second window! A sub-1:18 performance loomed, but I just could not get there. A combination of the rib injury, course choice and other unmeasurable factors kept me in that very tight range. I knew under the right circumstances, though, I would pop off a race that would get me through that elusive barrier. At times I was frustrated, but evidently my body just wasn’t ready to make the jump to the next level.

Running 37:13 at the Bolder Boulder 10k was the perfect set-up for another assault on the sub-1:18 half marathon 6 days later at Rock n’ Roll San Diego. I calculated, based on that time, I could take the half marathon out in 36:30 for the first 10k. It sounds ambitious to run the first 10k of a half marathon 45 seconds faster than an open 10k, but the Bolder Boulder is a point to point race unlike any other. Most point to point courses are designed with a net downhill to give runners a chance to hit a fast time; the Bolder Boulder course, on the other hand, was created by a sadistic SOB who devised a route with a net uphill. Add to that the altitude, and you have yourself a very tough, slow 10k.

The new Rock n’ Roll San Diego course was built on the premise of using a net downhill course to increase the possibility of attaining a fast time. The first 11 miles of this point to point course were flat to rolling. The last 2 miles were screaming fast with a nice descent to the finish. Indeed, this course was so well planned the male winner ran the third fastest half marathon ever! Mother Nature can make or break any race, and on Sunday she provided extraordinary conditions with cool temperatures, overcast skies, and very light wind.

Despite feeling sluggish during my warm up (I couldn’t even hit 6 minute pace on my strides), when the gun fired, I felt surprisingly light on my feet. I ran through the first mile in a comfortable 5:48 and sure enough, I went through 10k in exactly 36:30. I ran strong over the next few miles and took advantage of the fast ending by running the last 5k in 17:56, my fastest 5k of the race. When I hit the line in 1:16.45, I was thrilled that I finally broke through an elusive barrier. It made the frustration of getting so close so many times go away in instant, and of course, I immediately started calculations on how to get under 1:16.

Pre-race with Bob Babbitt and the rest of the Elvi
I  always feel like the lessons I learn from being an athlete are directly applicable to my role as a coach and adviser. Now that the racing season is underway, there will be times when I get a call from a despondent athlete who missed a goal. I can assure them, through the experience of personal accomplishments coming on the heels of adversity, that they are on the right track and that the improvements will come through consistently working hard, racing smart, believing in themselves, and not giving up.