Lyme disease: It got me and it's coming for you next!

As of 2017, Lyme disease prevalence is on the rise. And in the summer of 2017, thanks to being bitten by a tick infected with the Lyme bacteria (Borrelia burgdorferi), the disease was prevailing in my bloodstream. And organs. And muscles. And a bunch of other places that you don’t want bacteria hanging out. This article reviews the infectious process, diagnosis, and recovery that I experienced just a few short months ago.

First, here’s a couple not-so-fun facts: According to the Centers for Disease Control, Lyme is the most common vectorborne illness in the United States. In 2016, about 300,000 people were diagnosed with Lyme disease in the US and that number is expected to rise.

If you want to be frightened, watch the rapid progression of the reported Lyme cases move westward from the east coast as you click through the annual maps on the CDC website (https://www.cdc.gov/Lyme/stats/). When I wandered the woods for hours as a child, my parents and I didn’t have to worry about Lyme. We rarely even saw ticks. In the early 2000s, there weren’t many reported cases of Lyme disease in this (western PA and northern WV) region. But by 2015, the same region of the map is heavily covered in cases. I always wanted to be a dot on a CDC map!

My clouded confusion begins

I find ticks on myself every year - after mowing, after weed trimming, after running. I’ve always made it a point to pluck them off ASAP. One must have gone under the radar. If my recollection of the earliest symptoms is accurate, there was initially a period of at least 2-3 weeks in late May to early June where my blood pressure wouldn’t regulate very well, especially if I was feeling the least bit stressed. (Perfect timing for having recently started a business!) This was always worse in the morning. Hopefully few of my patients noticed me awkwardly grabbing the furniture and equipment, but I began to feel a need to cling to nearby objects just in case I would start to crash. My blood pressure would fluctuate noticeably even while simply standing still, which means I was becoming lightheaded several times a day (though I never had true syncope (loss of consciousness)). Being a longtime endurance athlete, my heart rate and blood pressure are low anyhow, so I’m accustomed to occasional positional blood pressure fluctuations. But this seemed more annoying because it was multiple times a day and sometimes took longer to return to baseline. This symptom was sometimes intense but sometimes just a hint. It also had less to do with my hydration level like it normally would after a hotter or harder workout. Overall, it was minor compared to the other symptoms that would follow...

So tiny. So evil. 

So tiny. So evil. 

More infectious

I began to demonstrate significant symptoms of Lyme disease in the middle of June. But, of course, I didn’t know it was Lyme at the time and did not make a connection. That’s because these symptoms, like fatigue, are still not specific to the disease, just consistent with many viral or bacterial infections.

With a new baby around, I was sleeping less. He had a runny nose and recently started daycare so it would be reasonable to expect that I had just picked up an ordinary bug. Plus, I had just come off a harder run training block to prepare for an ultramarathon, so I thought initially that my body was just a tad more susceptible. This is one reason why some athletes will mistake Lyme symptoms for overtraining.

One Sunday evening, I developed a fever. This was accompanied with the worst night sweats I’ve ever experienced. The fever and sweats continued for the next three days, gradually worsening toward evening, which is common to any ongoing infection. The level of fatigue and demotivation was impressive, beyond typical flu levels in intensity and duration. With my 40-mile race looming, my wife gently (forcefully!) nudged me into an ER visit despite gradual daily improvement in the fever because I was also having a new and simultaneous lower abdominal pain (which I eventually realized was a referred pain from my thigh adductor tendons, but that’s another story). No surprise that they told me I had an infection. And elevated creatine kinase levels in my blood tests. Drink lots of water!

I thought I recovered through this initial phase by the following weekend because the fever seemed to have mostly resolved and the night sweats had slacked off. That was the weekend I ran the gorgeous Highlands Sky ultramarathon, albeit at a much slower pace than I would normally because it was obvious I wasn’t at 100% health yet. It seemed strange that I became very sore partway through the run even though I was running easier than I ever normally compete and I had rested much of the week. Then my quadriceps stayed sore at points deeper in the muscles for many more days after running than they typically would. This is unfortunately still very similar to overtraining symptoms.

running slower in the race let me take a couple of nice photos

running slower in the race let me take a couple of nice photos

Recovery?

After resting for a week, as I always do after a long race, I tried to return to my typical training with some easy running. That went well enough and the muscle soreness had resolved. Then I had a bright idea to take back a couple of Strava KOMs/course records on a local trail (because I hadn’t actually raced hard in the ultra) and I expected that it should be safe to push a little effort.

I really was finally feeling good. Good enough to push. I ran the two hill climb intervals very hard that day and took the Strava segment crowns back. Great. Whoopee. No one cares except for the guy who lost the KOM. But it became apparent after that hard effort that my heart rate was not dropping back to typical levels as rapidly as it typically would.

Cardiovascular consequences

As July began, I noticed my heart rate was still not coming back down to my normal resting levels immediately after running or when waking up in the morning. And I would sometimes feel my heart beating with ridiculous force at rest and while exercising. So I made it a point to avoid pushing the effort, thinking I just wasn’t yet recovered from the combined race, baby stress, business stress, and illness. That was partly correct. Again, I had the same fever and night sweats and fatigue. I stopped running and just started slowly hiking every couple days for only brief periods because I would feel my blood pressure swing wildly with effort.

The heart rate issues would appear to resolve with a day of rest, so I was able to resume running slowly again by the end of the week though it was still abnormally tiring. I’m sure a small part of that was related to our high July heat and humidity, but a 12-minute mile had never felt that hard before.

As each run passed, I caught onto the trend that my normal cardiac function was off drastically enough that my Garmin Fenix 3 repeatedly detected that my “performance condition” was constantly in negative figures. It’s crazy that the watch could detect such a difference with great consistency. This might normally happen for a day or two after a hard effort but not for every run over multiple weeks consecutively.

Another not-so-fun fact: there’s a little something called Lyme pericarditis, which is an inflammation of the pericardial sac that surrounds the heart. And the Lyme bacteria can invade the nerves that supply the heart, leading to issues like atrioventricular block. Suffice it to say, the nerves don’t function normally after that and can contribute to those blood pressure swings.

Respiratory weirdness

It was a strange and alarming experience when I realized that I couldn’t quite take a full deep inspiration or achieve full expiration at rest or with exercise. It felt like my stomach was constantly trying to occupy the space where my lungs must normally reside. A “belly breath” wasn’t happening, which stinks because that’s always been a reliable technique to help me relax or to flush out the sensation of going anaerobic while running. I first noticed this inability to breathe into my stomach during the ultramarathon and was glad to be going easier then because I don’t think I could have eaten and absorbed food in a normal manner otherwise.

Neurologic, muscular, and joint happenings

For weeks I had this ongoing sense of muscle tightness along my thoracic spine and it took very little effort to strain my low back one day with yard work. Much like the earlier run soreness, that strain caused a deep, sore muscle pain that lingered for a couple days longer than I would typically experience.

It was also odd that I would feel a little uncoordinated during my runs. Not-so-fun fact #1358: Along with the nerves of the heart, it’s not unusual that the bacteria invade other parts of the peripheral nervous system and can eventually make their way into the central nervous system, neither of which are going to help coordination. You can even lose your vision.

I felt weak. My attempt at returning to basic strength training in mid-July was rewarded with both wrist joints hurting and even more spine region tightness and pain. On other days my ankle joints took turns aching and at another point one of my knees became painful. It was strange that the various joint pains would come only for part of a single day and then quickly decide to move onto some other place to piss off. They were nothing like an acute pain I might traditionally feel for a day or two after overdoing any form of exercise. That makes me wonder if it wasn’t more of an infectious arthritis, which is also common to Lyme disease. Oh cool. What a not-so-fun fact.

By the middle of July sleep was not counteracting the fatigue. I was taking a nap nearly every day and I usually consider naps a giant waste of time. I don’t even nap with the flu.

Okay, I’ll get it checked out

With my wife’s encouragement, I went to an appointment with a general physician who began to do blood work like checking for low testosterone or thyroid dysfunction. Oh yeah, and they thought it would be good to check for a multitude of sexually transmitted diseases though there weren’t any questions asked on that front. Unfortunately, despite asking about the possibility of Lyme disease, no Lyme tests were performed. The physician didn’t feel it necessary because I had no recollection of a tick being attached to me for a lengthy period or having the classic bullseye rash. (So much for making a potential diagnosis based upon the patient’s subjective reports.)

Now that doesn’t mean I didn’t have a tick attach to me at any point recently, because I most certainly do recall having one attached to me at the end of a recent long run. I promptly removed it. I’m a little skeptical of the CDC reported 36-hour time frames necessary to transmit the bacteria from a tick into the host but perhaps I had an immature tick on my scalp and had no idea it was there. Or perhaps the attached tick regurgitated when I went to remove it.

It was around this time that I noticed the back of my head itching and having a rash for over a week, but maybe that was some kind of psychosomatic thing. Who knows. I don’t care because it stopped.

How many ticks can you count in this photo waiting to jump onto the passing warm blooded mammal?

How many ticks can you count in this photo waiting to jump onto the passing warm blooded mammal?

It just keeps getting better

To add to the symptom list, I developed a new problem: anxiety. Like take-your-breath away-because-your-chest-is-being-smashed-and-throat-squished anxiety. This was also worse in the morning. It lasted several days with varying intensities. Super favorite not-so-fun fact: It’s apparently not uncommon for people with Lyme disease to develop anxiety. I resisted the physician’s offer for medication because I’m too much of an arrogant “tough guy” and was hopeful we would be treating the real cause soon.

So while waiting on blood test results I began experimenting with a powerful drug. No, not the illicit kind, nothing prescribed, and not the over the counter kind either. I’m talking about the endogenously manufactured endorphin: adrenaline. You gotta try that stuff. This was really more of an experiment of exercise intensity but what I realized is that running hard into zone 5 could mimic the sensation of chest tightness and labored breathing that I might have in a competition but also what anxiety could produce. So I could actually make a run feel sorta “normal,” even though it clearly wasn’t. And the longer I would sustain a hard interval, the longer I would feel the weird blood pressure swings when the run ended. It did seem to reduce the anxiety intensity afterward though. I’m just smart enough to know I couldn’t and shouldn’t do this to myself during every run but it was an interesting observation. Perhaps one that I wouldn’t recommend if you suspect overtraining or Lyme disease. But it’s science!

My reward for seeking care

The physician calls me to let me know one of the blood tests came back with a positive finding. Apparently they think I have syphilis, because of a positive RPR test. The RPR (rapid plasma reagin) test is a non-specific test that looks for antibodies in the blood. This leads to a cascade of events. First off, now I’m a public health hazard so the medical clinic is required to report me to the Pennsylvania Health Department, without contacting me first, mind you. Kind of annoying. Then a health department nurse calls to counsel me on how avoid transmission of my STD. Fortunately, the nurse had time to chat. She understood, with some encouragement, that there’s a handful of other microscopic creatures, besides syphilis, that cause a positive RPR test, one of which is Lyme bacteria. She contacted the medical clinic and suggested that they test me for Lyme. By the way, I had no other syphilis signs or symptoms and my wife just gave birth to a perfectly healthy child less than three months ago. Congenital syphilis causes a huge number of birth defects and death in newborns. And I guess we’ll ignore our simultaneously healthy four year old because I’ve been playing the field for years now?

Increasingly irritated, I went back to the clinic that day, gave more blood and, wouldn’t you know it, the Lyme tests turned up positive a few days later. The CDC encourages testing for Lyme be done in two tiers. If the first tier tests (EIA or ELISA) are positive then a Western blot test should be confirmatory. The first tier tests could also be positive with syphilis.

Die Borrelia burgdorferi, die!

I spoke with the physician on the phone and (being a smartass) told her I’ve had more ticks on me so far this year than total sexual partners in my lifetime so statistically the Lyme disease wins. She prescribed doxycycline two times per day. As much as I hated to take an antibiotic, within a couple days the chronic fatigue began lifting and I felt noticeably better. Having been ill for so long, it was at this point that I realized how I had really been functioning almost as another person inside the same shell. Weird. Then I grew wings and flew away to Mars.

A few weeks later

I had finished up the antibiotic and fortunately none of the Lyme symptoms returned. For a couple weeks I did still have remnants of burns on my hands and fingers from taking doxycyline. For a person that tries to be outside nearly everyday of their life, increased sensitivity to sun exposure is an unfortunate side effect of this antibiotic. Did you catch that not-so-fun fact? Although, it was usually the sun exposure from mowing my yard during a two to three hour span that would lead to the burns. Is that a good reason to skip mowing? I could go run in the shade of the woods and not have issues.

An additional side effect of the medication was that part of my hands and fingers had a very frequent paresthesia (abnormal sensation). This occurred on both hands at all of the dorsal index and middle finger joints as well as the muscular part between the index finger and thumb. Those areas were extremely sensitive to hot water and were frequently reddened, almost as if I had a chemical burn. All of these side effects appeared around two weeks after starting the antibiotic and gradually worsened.

Noooooooo

Soon after I was feeling normal again, I encountered one of the smallest ticks I’ve ever seen. It had attached to my son’s back and I noticed it within an hour of him simply helping his mother in the garden for a few minutes. Even scarier when you know you have Lyme disease and you see your kid being bitten. It’s during this juvenile or nymph stage when ticks start to carry the Lyme bacteria. At about one-third adult size, they are much harder to spot and therefore more capable of infecting us. It’s amazing how quickly a tick can attach, too. In late summer I went for an hour run and by the time I made it back home there was an adult tick already attached to my lower leg.

Here’s a fun fact: Chickens and possums eat ticks. Now I just need an army of chickens and possums to trail run with me.

There's gotta be a tick in here Somewhere. 

There's gotta be a tick in here Somewhere. 

Remember kids

Lyme disease is a major disruptor of athletic performance and healthy living. It can make you quite miserable and can be mistaken for overtraining and other illnesses. You need to be aware of Lyme’s increasing occurrence and recognize that it may manifest in a number of the body’s structures and cause many different symptoms. It took much perseverance on my part to have the problem appropriately addressed medically. I’m sure the diagnostics have improved, and for that I am thankful because I had a relatively quick diagnosis compared to some people who might go for years feeling awful and ultimately have less chance of proper treatment.

Stay safe out there!

Disclaimer: Several ticks have been harmed since the original writing of this article.

Here’s a nice running-related article on protecting yourself from Lyme disease: http://trailrunnermag.com/training/injuries-and-treatment/dont-get-ticked.html

 

University of Virginia Running Medicine Conference 2018 Takeaways

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Despite the best attempts of March’s winter weather to block travel, I made my way to Charlottesville, VA a few days ago for the Running Medicine conference they have every spring. UVA consistently does a great job of recruiting well known, excellent speakers for this event.

Here was this year’s agenda for the Friday lectures:

  • Knee Osteoarthritis: A Case Approach - Robert Wilder, MD, FACSM and Eric Magrum, DPT, OCS, FAAOMPT

  • Clinical Decision Making for Footwear - Jay Dicharry, MPT, SCS

  • An Update on Hydration Guidelines - David Hryvniak, MD

  • Post-Operative Guidelines: Return to Running after Knee Surgery - Bryan Heiderscheidt, PhD, PT (Keynote)

  • Gait Retraining: Finding the Right Balance - Bryan Heiderscheidt, PhD, PT (Keynote)

  • Regenerative Therapies for Osteoarthritis of the Knee & Hip - Fran O’Connor MD, MPH, FACSM

  • Nutrition: Controversies and Guidelines - Patti Deuster , PhD, MPH, FACSM

And the Saturday labs:

  • Systematic Video Gait Analysis - Bryan Heiderscheidt, PhD, PT

  • Rebuilding the Foot - Jay Dicharry, MPT, SCS

  • Dynamic Pre- and Post-Run Exercise - Anne Dunn, MS, CPT & Jason Dunn, MEd

  • Running Shoes 2018: Where are we now? - Mark Lorenzoni

Nobody messes with yoda

Nobody messes with yoda

CPR for foot muscles with Jay Dicharry

CPR for foot muscles with Jay Dicharry

There was so much great information presented, I could write for hours, but let’s just go with a few highlights.

  1. Runners with known symptomatic knee osteoarthritis may benefit from a 3-4 month trial of one of the following: glucosamine/chondroitin, omega-3 fatty acids, fish oil, krill oil, or avocado/soybean unsaponifiables (ASU). There is a not an abundance of research to support each of these interventions but they do appear useful in some cases and have a low risk. It is not advised to start taking all of them simultaneously.

  2. Once again, running does not cause osteoarthritis when performed at reasonable low to moderate mileage and intensity. There may be a potential relationship of higher mileage (>65 miles/week) and high intensities to developing knee OA. Overall though, runners tend to maintain a higher quality of life for more years without limiting knee pain than their non-running counterparts. That’s why running is actually believed to lead to protective cartilage changes, if anything. Let’s crush this myth.

  3. Those darn medially posted motion control and stability running shoes (the ones with the harder inner sole material) can contribute to extra load at the medial (inner) knee joint, which is the side where most people with knee osteoarthritis acquire their degenerative issues. In other words, they probably aren’t going to help existing inner knee pain and may even exacerbate it.

  4. Speaking of medially posted shoes, the location of the post continues to make no sense. The midfoot (navicular bone) drops maximally into pronation after the heel has lifted from the ground. How is the harder material that is no longer touching the ground going to stop this movement? It can’t. It won’t. Time to move on from your poor science, shoe industry. Let me take a moment to remind everyone that pronation is not necessarily an evil problem that even needs corrected with a shoe in the first place. But that’s not what sells shoes now is it? And one more thing, just because the inner foot arch appears to collapse while standing doesn’t mean that it does that same thing while running. Nor does it move any significantly extra amount beyond the amount every other foot type moves.

  5. There are a couple new things coming along in shoe design. You will see a new trend of placing greater densities of foam across the forefoot region of a running shoe while the heel will have a slightly lower density. We need a stable surface to push off. Also, there are now straight lasted cushioned shoe models. The general shape of the shoe is based on the last and can be curved, semi-curved, or straight. Straight lasts were previously found only in the motion control and stability shoes, which, as I just mentioned, tend to further overload the the medial compartment of the knee. That overload is less likely in a cushioned model that doesn’t have the ridiculously hard inner heel material.

  6. Following ACL reconstruction, runners and other athletes are returning to running before they have best function of their quadriceps muscle. These deficits, which are neurological in nature, are lingering for huge amounts of time, easily one year and even two years after surgery. While an athlete may demonstrate full strength of the quadriceps in a muscle test, and even good jumping technique, their ability to rapidly activate the quad muscle remains at a deficit, which leads to running gait changes, abnormal loading of knee joint, and potentially ongoing pain. Typical ACL protocols bring running back at 12 to 16 weeks post-surgery. Is that too early or are we just not appropriately getting the quad back online?

  7. Though they are far from perfected and minimally researched, regenerative medicine methods such as platelet rich plasma injections and stem cell therapies are showing promise in helping athletes recover from long-standing tendon and joint injury. They aren’t going to create a brand new tissue for you but are probably a worthy treatment option to try prior to surgeries like joint replacement. Research will tell us more in the next few years.

  8. Carbohydrate periodization may be beneficial in some runners to enhance fat oxidation and decrease carbohydrate dependence. With this method, which is actually how I personally train, you perform slower runs without any carbohydrate supplementation and maybe even do some of your shorter easy runs in a fasted state. That works great for early morning runs before breakfast. Your faster or harder runs would still have more carbohydrate intake prior and/or during.

  9. There are three running gait factors that consistently show the best relationships to injury in the research: overstriding forward of the body’s center of mass, excessive bounce (vertical oscillation), and excessive compliance (body instability) at mid-stance of the running stride.

  10. The gluteus medius muscle actually generates more force to stabilize the pelvis during mid-stance than the gluteus maximus when running on a flat surface at endurance speeds. Which is why it’s so important to get it functioning appropriately in endurance runners. The gluteus medius is notoriously weak and underactive in endurance athletes and that is reinforced by the repetition of moving in a single direction. You need to learn what it feels like to keep the pelvis level and stable while running and if you can’t do that, please come see me. I always prefer to teach people how to use their hip muscles in standing because the Jane Fonda leg raises lying on your side are typically performed incorrectly, and the leg raises don’t transfer into the actual way we use these muscles.

  11. Any coach or clinician that thinks they are accurately measuring joint angles on a two dimensional video or image is doing their client or patient a disservice. The angle values they are measuring are likely incorrect, especially if they aren’t using body markers.

group run

group run

16 surefire ways to get and stay injured from running

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Nobody wants to be injured. Let’s review a few ways in the coming days that runners typically hurt themselves and maybe you won’t have to join that club.

  1. Chasing after specific mileages. Yes, for performance gains, you should have objective and defined goals. Certainly those can be related to mileage. But there’s more to healthy and successful running than miles per week. When a runner focuses too heavily on a certain mileage each week it doesn’t take into account many factors: the intensity of those miles, the terrain, the weather, the lack of sleep because you stayed up later than usual on a couple nights, the extra shift you picked up at work, your nutrition, and so on. You must account for all of the various types of stresses you have in order to stay healthy. Don’t be blinded by the numbers. Don’t get greedy. Improvement is a long and gradual process, and there is no equation or sum total of miles that leads to running nirvana. You can’t level up like it’s a video game after collecting mileage coins.

  2. Being unwilling to diverge from your cookie-cutter workout plan. How many times have you heard “listen to your body?” If you are sick or noticing the start of a slight niggle of an injury, don’t try to stubborn your way through while hoping the luck gods take pity on you. Weigh your options. Do you have more to gain or lose by completing three more of the Runner’s World website-prescribed 400 meter repeats on an aching calf? How much fitness would you really gain from that day of junk miles? When you are thrown a curveball it doesn’t mean you can’t get in a workout. It doesn’t mean your race in two weeks is now an impossibility. If you remain willing and ready to modify your plan at any time, it isn’t so traumatic to do so. You can become an exercise ninja, ready and able to adapt at any instant. That might mean cross training. It might mean rescheduling a hard day for a couple days later. It might mean taking a full rest day. It might mean completely ditching the plan you found doing a Google search.

  3. Doing the same thing over and over. Doing the same thing over and over. Doing the same thing over and over. Doing the same thing over and over. Isn’t that annoying? Guess what? Your body thinks it’s pretty annoying when you run the same pace and distances all the time on the same roads and same sidewalks. Is it that uncomfortable to do something different? Unlikely. But that protective part of your brain will tell you it is a problem to deviate. I don’t personally understand this - I hate running the exact same routes and intensities all the time - but I’m a weird trail runner and road runners don’t associate with us weirdos. The pavement pounders seem more reluctant to purposely and drastically switch things up. Yes, there is some good that comes from a consistent training stimulus because the frequent loads actually helps prevent injury. But that’s better off being an AEROBIC effort in most amateur runners, which means you have to run slowly. No, slower than that. (Thank you not-so-accurate online pace calculator for messing this up.) EVEN slower. More like trotting at times. Especially since we have these things called hills. What most runners do is train a bit too hard, too often, so it becomes a different stimulus. They sit just on the edge of discomfort, drifting past a high aerobic effort and into tempo pace, which is ANAEROBIC metabolism. That’s not something you should do for several runs in a week. You’ll get faster doing that, for a little while, but it’s not sustainable and eventually leads to every runner’s fear: a performance plateau. I’m giving you permission to not make every run hurt.

  4. Ignoring overall athleticism and strengthening. I’m going to keep harping on this one until at least the year 2025. If you have no variability in your movement, you are asking for trouble to occur at some point. If you aren’t strength training and doing something to improve and explore the way your body moves as an overall athlete, running itself will not keep you healthy for very long. It might take a few years, but the problems will come. The muscles and nervous system demand frequent challenge, or they gradually begin to lose optimal function. You won’t detect it at first, but it’s no great mystery of physiology that we start to lose strength beyond the age of 30. Running doesn’t keep anyone strong or powerful. (Though it’s certainly better than doing nothing.) Performing strength work even once per week is a potent stimulus if you work hard.

  5. Discounting the role of your routine posture and activities. I bet you thought about sitting up taller when you read the word POSTURE. Our daily lifestyle has more to do with getting injured than most people realize. One of the most common and detrimental issues I see in the clinic is that frequent sitting tightens the hip flexors on the front of the body. This keeps you from using the big gluteus maximus muscles that should produce a ton of force to propel a runner forward. So people begin to use the quads and hip flexors even more, the pendulum of the running stride shifts forward from its ideal location, and the cycle continues. It’s not as simple of a fix as just doing a couple hip strengthening items twice a week. The low back, neck, and thoracic regions are also areas that adapt negatively, thus shifting your body into an overall poor alignment. Mobility is lost. Strength is lost. Overall movement changes and there are eventual consequences.

  6. Using the workout plan of a runner who is of a higher ability level. You know, because if they got better with this plan then surely you will get better and run just like them in a couple months. Nevermind that they have different genetics, better running technique, and 13 more years of running experience. Plus, they have full hip and ankle joint movement and muscle control that you lost 8 years ago thanks to your desk job. Yes, clearly all of the details are all the same. I always wonder how many people try to mimic the workouts of elite endurance athletes when they end up on a website somewhere. Just because the pro marathoner does back-to-back long runs doesn’t mean you should for your first marathon.

  7. Listening to people who have no actual expertise but are ready to use you as their own personal guinea pig and offer plenty of untested advice for your training or injury recovery. I know this is often done in innocence, but that doesn’t make it any less concerning. Perhaps a more advanced athlete invites you to run with them and you decide to follow their workout or are too embarrassed to put forth any effort less than they are performing. The other athlete can mean no harm but may not really analyze the many possible scenarios that will impact your individual health. Them: “This is what my coach had me do.” You: “Oh my god, you have a coach, you must know what you are talking about.” People often do the same thing when they are injured. Them: “When I had plantar fasciitis the personal trainer told me to just do this stretch to my foot every day and not run and then it seemed like it got better in a couple months.” You: “I guess I should do that stretch everyday and not run.” Wait, you are taking secondhand advice about treating an injury from a personal trainer? I hope they have additional credentials!

  8. Not having fun. If it’s not fun, you’ll eventually burn out, which is the ultimate injury. Training variation can keep things fresh and interesting. Strength and plyometric training will help your running, so don’t shy away from it if you enjoy that type of exercise. If you are the competitive road racing type, maybe you need to train for an adventure race, triathlon, mountain bike race, or trail running race. Try Crossfit (but don’t get hurt) or play rec league soccer. Or even leave running altogether for a few months, not that I ever would encourage someone to do such a thing. Sometimes people do appreciate their running more and can actually improve performance and decrease injuries when they have been away from running for awhile. If you aren’t having fun, what is the point? To make yourself routinely miserable? Find something you actually enjoy and keeps you healthy. 

  9. Thinking an injury is gone just because an initial pain has subsided. Your nervous system is super smart. It can decrease the amount certain muscles work when moving and use an alternative strategy if doing so leads to less pain. It can shift the demand to other muscles to still get the movement done with the same total force output. Most people won’t have any awareness of this change in muscle activity. The initial area of injury may never flare up again, but many times when another pain arrives, the real problem isn’t where the newest pain is occurring. For example, low back or gluteus maximus pain leading to an Achilles tendon pain months to years later. This inhibition of muscle activity is clearly not ideal if those muscles were working just fine prior to the initial injury. Traditionally people (clinicians included) mistakenly try to rehab the area of current pain when they ought to be emphasizing something else. Prior injury matters.

  10. Not taking any easy days. Running is supposed to be hard! Running is supposed to hurt! I’m going to do high intensity intervals every time I run! And that’s four days every week right now but I’m going to work my way up to five days! What...the...heck? Why? Can we talk about how much I’m not impressed by Instagram photos of people “crushing it” multiple times each week? I get that there’s a satisfaction in showing off your hard work. But no one with any real longevity in endurance sport trains this way (because it’s unsustainable). Anaerobic efforts, like intervals and tempo work, are super helpful to improve fitness, technique, and speed - but are not necessary for every workout. Easy, slow distance miles just don’t give the sexy social impression that interval work creates. If you want to run for only five, maybe ten years, then go ahead, do crazy intervals for every run. To summarize a phrase from fellow PT Christopher Johnson: runners run at 80% effort 80% of the time which leads to an injury occurrence of up to 80%. Strive to stay in the 20%! Use a heart rate monitor, power meter, or monitor your breathing to truly keep tabs on your intensity. Pace is a poor measure of intensity for many runners but that’s what people rely on because it’s simple.

  11. Not recognizing the importance of recovery time and being proactive in your recovery techniques. Yes, I know you are busy. But do you want to run a handful of years or do you want to run for decades? Each day you should have a goal, and that goal doesn’t always have to be increasing speed, fitness, or strength. Recovery time can be broken into active and passive methods. Easy running days should be active recovery days, meaning they aren’t intended to gain you fitness but they are intended to make you feel loosened up and healthy. It’s still exercise. You should be able to finish an easy aerobic run and say “I could easily do that again.” On the passive side, learn a couple techniques to directly work on your muscle, tendon, and fascial tissues. Get yourself a lacrosse ball and a massage stick and use them at least three times a week on your major leg muscle groups to break up those funky tender and hard spots you have inevitably created in your legs. If you aren’t familiar with any muscle self-treatment techniques, check out “The Roll Model” by Jill Miller or “Becoming a Supple Leopard” by Kelly Starrett for ideas. Recovery time requires planning, just like the workouts. We create the muscle fiber adaptations to training gradually, while you aren’t training, so if you don’t allow enough time for that, when are the adaptations supposed to happen?

  12. Not being proactive about your recovery from an injury. Instead of actually completing what’s required to recover from an injury, some athletes prefer to do nothing. It’s the wait-and-see approach. Our bodies want to heal, so rest typically decreases pain in the short-term. But it doesn’t address the root of the problem for recurring and long-lasting overuse injuries. Unfortunately, this is a common practice among injured athletes, who routinely take a couple days of rest before trying to resume their typical training without any modification. If the pain just started a couple days prior and is getting better quickly because you did your due diligence, that’s one thing. But it’s an entirely different scenario when you’ve had persistent pain for a couple weeks, a month, maybe longer. Clearly rest isn’t the solution at that point. Some people avoid proper treatment because they are afraid of getting worse or delaying what little progress they’ve made if they attempt something new (like seeing a PT, massage therapist, or chiro). Or maybe a negative experience treating a prior injury leads to reluctance in discovering the best ways to treat a current injury. Some are fearful that nothing can be done to help their injury and they would be wasting their time to try other tactics. More often than not, doing nothing doesn’t get you very far. While adequate rest is oftentimes an integral part of the recovery process, it should never be considered the sole means to addressing an injury.

  13. Relying on medications to control symptoms. Medications, whether it be pills or injections, are not a viable long-term solution to a mechanical overuse injury problem. As athletes, when we get injured, we naturally look for the quickest solution that would allow us to return to training without pain. And because you are working hard in training, there’s little energy or time left to devote to active injury recovery techniques. While NSAIDs and corticosteroid injections have their place in orthopedic medicine, they rarely, if ever, provide a long-term relief of symptoms or resolution of an overuse injury. And let’s not forget the well documented side effects that these medications have when used with frequency.

  14. Trying to conform too rigidly to a supposedly ideal running technique. We all move differently. There are certainly some good components to things like Chi Running and the Pose Method but on some level you gotta do you to accomplish the task at hand. We were built for movement variation, so why not take advantage of that? You improve and become efficient at the things you work on most, meaning you will get faster if you work on speed specifically. Or you will gain endurance from emphasizing more long aerobic efforts. But there are also running form changes that come with mixing up your speed. Mindless running at the same pace, in a straight line, and on flat terrain doesn’t exactly encourage you to learn what is efficient for a given demand. Good runners are efficient at a variety of running paces. They know exactly how much effort to put into their movement to achieve a specific result. You don’t want the same muscles producing the same force in the same range of mobility with every practice run. Your nervous system, which is ultimately responsible for how your muscles work, will become efficient at running that one pace only. And if your most efficient form can only be performed at one pace, don’t expect that you will have the movement skills to stay uninjured and efficient if there is as need to run at other speeds (faster or slower). This problem becomes obvious in those who say, “I can run 10:00/mile pace but as soon as I go faster I start having pain at my _________.” Performing 5-10 second long strides/striders during or after a run can be helpful in teaching you how to propel your body forward quickly and efficiently but without the fatigue or technique breakdown that occurs with long intervals. They are especially helpful if you have little to no speedwork experience. And it’s okay to sustain a slower, trotting pace at times too. Also, don’t obsess over how your foot is contacting the ground (heel vs. midfoot vs. forefoot). Current research indicates that the location of where your foot contacts the ground relative to your center of mass matters more. We should be able to use any of those types of foot contacts depending on the situation (uphill, downhill, flat, loose rocks, etc.) The more varied your overall training, the more capable you will be of tolerating technique changes and running with your own best stride.

15. Believing you can rely solely on rest once you have signs of injury. Yes, there are times for rest, but they should be kept brief for tendon and muscle overuse injuries.

Runner: I’ll just rest for a week and that will take care of it.

Me: No, it won’t.

Runner: But rest took care of it when I had this injury a couple years ago.

Me: Did it? Apparently it didn’t or it wouldn’t have happened AGAIN. The real problem was never addressed. This thing has just been biding its time, always remaining a weak link, probably in conjunction with other problems of strength and mobility outside the area where you actually have the pain. The moment you have a training error, like running faster or further, it’s the first thing to break.

Runner: Oh. Well, I’ll just rest until the end of the week and then do my long run on Saturday.

Me: Did you hear anything I just said? *Pounds head on table.*

Our bodies adapt most favorably post-injury with controlled, specific stresses on the injured tissue. The best stress to place on a healing tissue isn’t more running either. If running was the cure then it wouldn’t continue to provoke long-term pain. Running places very high loads, thousands of times on the legs, hips, and torso. This requires a certain amount of muscle strength be in place to perform running safely. Strength that many runners don’t actually have when they start a running program. People too often try to gain fitness running but they don’t have the basic strength-based fitness necessary to run safely in the first place. So while you are resting the pain away, the strength isn’t increasing, is it?

 

16. Not trusting in the process of proper training by becoming impatient. We want it now, at broadband speeds, not dial up! So many runners do all their runs at a high intensity, assuming that strategy is the fastest way to improve. And many newer runners of all ages do find quick success as they make rapid cardiorespiratory gains. But three years into their careers, they start breaking down because the muscles, tendons, joints, and bones just can’t adapt with the rate of improvement the way cardiorespiratory fitness can. People that are hurt frequently aren’t able to train consistently so they stay injured and don’t reach a very high performance level, at least not for very long.

Instead, you should trust the training process and limit high intensity workouts to once or twice a week. You should work hard enough on the hard days to promote gains and then let recovery do its job. The performance gains you should expect from a single hard workout will be very small, if not imperceptible. In reality, much of succeeding is slowly and methodically putting in your time and simply remaining consistent at lower intensities. You have to think long-term. Like at least six months. There are no shortcuts to success.

If you like to run fast, you can do it frequently if you keep the durations VERY short with striders, which are great to perfect and maintain your form as often as every run. Most amateurs could improve their running technique anyway, so this will be time well spent. Then transition that better technique into your longer but less frequent (1-2x/week) intervals and tempo runs.

Some questions to think about:

  • Are your intensities and volumes during hard days and longest runs sustainable across a several month span of time?

  • Can you feel just  about fully recovered from any workout in two days or less?

  • Can you add an extra easy run or cross training day during the week and not feel destroyed after it?

  • Could you have done one more hard interval at that same pace?

  • Could you repeat that entire easy run all over again as soon as you completed it and still feel good?

If you are answering no, you might want to back off your need for crushing it a smidge. You can only go to the well so often in a short period of time. If you want to improve while staying uninjured, over the long haul your goals should be consistently good technique, sustainable and repeatable hard efforts, frequent but brief exposure to fast running, and frequently being active at lower aerobic levels.

 

Calf pain in runners: 9 causes and considerations From footwear to form

One of the most common complaints runners have is calf pain, particularly while running. It might initially come in bouts during just a couple runs, but sometimes it will stick around for weeks and months if left unaddressed. Rest usually improves this discomfort at first, but isn’t typically sufficient for long-term, consistent relief if the person continues to run and doesn’t make any other changes. They’ll complain that their calf muscles feel “tight.” And it’s common for both calf muscle groups to start to feel this way around the same time.

Some runners take the “I give up” approach and assume it’s a necessary part of getting older or running too many miles, so they begin to modify their training around it by planning an additional rest day or cross training instead. They take the “a little running is better than no running” approach, which I think is very reasonable for a true injury, but when something can be improved, why not address it the right way?

For the sake of this article let’s assume we are covering muscle-specific pain in the calf that isn’t too bothersome much outside of running. These are more likely to be muscle overuse syndromes or biomechanical overload syndromes. This cause of pain can be treated while you continue to run, if done correctly.

But there are plenty of other things that can cause calf pain and you will need a medical professional, not an internet article, to rule those out.

Possible (and Potentially Serious) Medical Issues to Rule Out

  • Blood clots/deep vein thrombosis
  • Nerve mobility deficits or irritability of the lumbar, sciatic, and tibial nerves
  • Calf muscle tear/rupture
  • Popliteal artery entrapment

What can you do?

Seek professional medical guidance if you have had a traumatic injury (often accompanied by a sudden “pop” or a feeling of being kicked in the calf). We are also very concerned if there is a more persistent or severe onset of pain, or additional symptoms like sensation changes (pins, needles, tingling, burning), fever, swelling, and redness of the calf. It’s important to consider your overall history because factors such as being older, having a history of a particular problem, recent immobilization, comorbidities, and certain medications can all have a role. These issues are very different than a mild discomfort, tightness, or fatigue that occurs only while running. It isn’t to say that some of these problems can’t be treated conservatively but you will have the best chance at success with proper diagnosis. We need to keep in mind too, if you have attempted treatment that doesn’t seem to be helping.

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Other considerations:

Calf Strength and Endurance Deficits

Logic would tell you that running demands a ton of work from the leg muscles. At some routine level of activity, the muscles adapt to that work and you keep on going from week to week without issues, just as happily as ever. Now what happens if you chronically demand so much from those muscles that they can’t adapt to what you are trying to have them do? They slowly start to...change…like your best friend from junior high school. At first it was cute but two months later you were just annoyed. The muscles don’t have to be painful, at first. Maybe they just feel more tired and tight. But when you keep running on them and don’t make any other changes they become more consistently problematic.

The muscle and fascial connective tissue isn’t able to adapt to your demands in a positive manner when demand outpaces normal repair over a long period of time. Why couldn’t the muscles withstand the demand? Most likely there wasn’t enough strength or endurance (or both) in the muscle group. Given enough time of chronic repetitive stress on under-prepared tissue, the quality of the soft tissue changes.

Running really requires something called “strength endurance” from muscles like the calf. You might even better call it “strength and power endurance,” but I don’t want the top of your head to blow off right now so forget I said that. The point is that the muscles of the calf have to withstand high forces (strength), very rapidly (power), and with high frequency (endurance).

The calf-strength variations that will show up when tested during a single leg calf/heel raise are often interesting. A runner might have tons of gastrocnemius strength during a straight-knee calf raise, but when the calf raise is re-tested while the knee is flexed, they can’t reach the top end of the calf raise anymore. Often this means they have decreased soleus strength, which is a real problem since, while running, we spend a large portion of the running stride with the knee slightly bent. Or maybe they can’t perform the same amount of reps on one side when compared to the other in either position.

Even worse is when the person can’t perform any type of single leg calf raises without relying on their long toe flexing muscles that come from deep in the calf region. My heart hurts when I see this. These people tend to grip with their toes during calf raises and just can’t get their brain to shut those muscles off while completing the raise because the bigger, outer calf muscles are just that weak. It’s not a surprise that people will run with those toe muscles engaged heavily too.

What can you do?

Build the strength of the calf muscles using calf raises, with the knee slightly bent and straight, without gripping with the toes, and with just a single leg at a time. Full ankle range of motion is key. Causing calf muscle fatigue is the goal. That might take five reps or 20. Don’t hammer it to death because you’ll probably become sore for two days. Early strengthening with bodyweight is good but after 2-3 weeks of 3-4x/week, runners should be able to add extra resistance, even beginning with something like 10 pounds. The calf needs to be strong, but...

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Other Strength Deficits

I am stating the obvious here, but it takes more than the calf muscles to propel a runner. Lacking hip or thigh strength could lead to a trickle-down of abnormal demand into the calf muscles. The calf could actually be super strong but just have to endure too much stress every time you go running because something else stinks at its job. End result: too much work being done by the calf muscles that leads to stress-induced discomfort.

What can you do?

Ensure you have full strength of the hip and thigh muscles (eg. gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, hamstrings, quadriceps). Strengthening exercises for these areas is beyond the scope of this article, but the point is you need to look outside the area of symptoms if you want to actually fix the problem. Remember to emphasize single-leg strengthening to ensure symmetry. If you can only do eight single leg bridges on one side and 20 on the other then you’ve got some extra work to do on the weaker side.

Neuromuscular control

Your awareness of and ability to modify the way your body moves at any given instant is a good indicator of overall athleticism. Remember, our muscles only know how to function based on what they are told by the nervous system, particularly the spinal cord. If your nervous system can’t figure out how much force to generate from the various muscles at any one moment then your movement isn’t refined. Picture a gymnast on a balance beam. It doesn’t take much error to result in falling off the beam. They really have to own their movements with precision and certainty. Kinda, sorta knowing where their feet are isn’t going to cut it. Or imagine an infant learning to crawl. They are constantly on the edge of failure until their nervous system figures out the best way to coordinate muscle contractions to keep their body stable. Your calf muscles must contract with correct amounts of other muscle contractions in that leg with every footstrike.

What can you do?

Working on drills to improve your balance and proprioception is key. As previously mentioned, single-leg work is a necessity. And I don’t mean sit on a machine to do knee extensions, calf raises or leg presses one leg at a time. When you use machines, there’s no real demand that requires the nervous system to learn how to stabilize your body. Single leg balance that progresses into single leg deadlifts, single leg squats, single leg hops, single leg box jumps, single leg calf raises, the options are many. The point is to emphasize standing on one leg while you move the rest of your body.

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Foot, Ankle Structure

An individual with a more flexible foot or ankle type that allows an inward collapse of the heel bone or inner foot arch could be placing more demand on their calf. These people are generically labeled as “flat-footed.” Though the more superficial calf muscles are mainly producing force for the forward/backward sagittal plane, there are additional forces that this outer calf and much deeper calf must withstand in the side-to-side or frontal plane. And then we must consider that the deeper calf muscles, like the posterior tibialis, that help to control the side-to-side ankle and foot motion, are also notorious for being part of the cause of pain.

What can you do?

Build the strength of the muscles that assist in stabilizing the ankle and foot that also come from the lower leg, like the peroneus longus, peroneus brevis, anterior tibialis, and posterior tibialis. One way of doing this is with resistance bands. This is also why I love single leg strengthening exercises like single leg Russian deadlifts that also require a person to balance and stabilize like a circus elephant on top a ball. As discussed below, you should perform routine soft-tissue maintenance on all of the calf muscles, superficial and deep.

Maintenance Habits

Here’s a big one. So you run for hours at a time or try to run really fast, essentially beating down the calf muscle fibers and their surrounding fascia and tendons, but then you don’t do anything good for those tissues? Resting is supposed to fix it all? It probably would if you weren’t trying to run most days of the week.

What can you do?

Buy and use a massage stick, foam roller, or lacrosse ball to routinely massage the muscles of the legs. Be sure to emphasize routine soft tissue maintenance for every major muscle group. The technique doesn’t matter as much as just doing something positive regularly for the muscles to keep them more supple and loose. Before the pain rules your life. Once the pain is consistently present, I can use techniques to get it to go away quickly and then you need to take over with a maintenance program.

Calf Muscle Length

In many instances, you can think of calf muscle length as an indicator of something besides true structural muscle fiber, fascia, or tendon length. The chronic abuse of running very often leads your nervous system into thinking a higher level of nerve-dependent activity is needed in the calf when it really isn’t. That keeps the fibers holding a greater tension at all times, which makes the calf muscle appear shorter than it really is structurally. So there’s a big difference between your nervous system telling a muscle to behave as if it is tight and a muscle that truly, structurally is short and tight. Weird, I know.

What can you do?

Calf stretching with the runner’s stretch or dropping your heel off a step is typically what runners choose to do if their calves feel tight. But if you want a change in actual muscle structure and length, be prepared for it to take multiple weeks of frequent and prolonged stretching. Like three 60-second stretches at least three days per week. A deep full squat will more likely max out the ankle joint motion and soleus muscle length while a straight leg heel drop on a step is meant to be a gastrocnemius stretch. But I would rather rely on the other soft tissue techniques mentioned above as maintenance, like self-massage, myofascial release, or dry needling to make the muscles relax, which automatically improves their length in many people. Remember, the goal probably doesn’t need to be improving the muscle fiber lengths, it’s convincing your nervous system to let the darn muscle relax.

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Running Technique

Certain techniques tend to stress certain tissues more over time - that is neither bad nor good. If there were ever a predictable running method to stress the calf muscles, it would be a forefoot initial contact style, particularly if the runner doesn’t allow the heel to reach the ground after making contact. With about 2.5x to 3x your bodyweight coming through the limb while running, there are huge lengthening or eccentric forces coming through the calf tissue when the forefoot touches the ground before any other part of the foot. This could be the case with midfoot striking too. Depending on the runner’s individual style though, midfoot contact can decrease calf stress. Heel striking itself doesn’t necessarily tend to load the calf the same way a forefoot contact might, but rest assured those people have their own set of problems at the knees, thighs, and hips. Overstriding, which commonly accompanies heel striking, can be more stressful though.

What can you do?

By choosing to use a forefoot contact you should know the calf area is at risk for injury and perform your due diligence with the maintenance just mentioned to keep the calf muscles loose, relaxed, and happy! You may not immediately need to modify your technique to a heel or midfoot strike but could do so temporarily to maintain running fitness until the calf muscle status has been improved. Overstriding needs addressed in any instance. This is where we often need to address hip strength and control, hip flexor length, and other possible issues throughout the entire leg.

Paces, Distances, Training Program Design

What type of running have you been doing lately? Fast, slow, mixed speed, uphill, downhill, shorter distance, longer distance? Are these methods what you have always done or has your training changed recently to incorporate more speedwork, racing, or hills?

What can you do?

If you changed your distance, terrain, or speeds, and the changes contributed to the symptoms, temporarily remove or decrease those stressors for a week or two. Uphills and running faster are the most potent instigators of calf pain. Know the threshold of when the pain would begin while running and then try to stay just beneath that point for a couple weeks while the strengthening and other soft tissue treatment take hold. Be sure to have a full recovery day without sports or running that doesn’t stress the calf muscles.

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Footwear

So you thought the zero drop or minimal shoes were great choice? Well, they are, but not if all this other stuff is off and you suddenly change the shoes too. They cause at least a 10% increase in calf load compared to a traditional shoe. Add that onto your already lackluster muscle tissue quality and we have a recipe for trouble. This is also an issue for runners when they switch suddenly from their base training shoes into their racing flats or spikes for competition.

What can you do?

Work your way into minimal or zero drop shoes gradually if you haven’t used them before. Two or three runs per week of 5-10 minutes is plenty in the first month. Run your warm up with them and then switch into your old training shoes. Gradually add faster workouts with spikes and flats into your training instead of just competing in those shoes. Spend more time barefoot at home and be sure to do the maintenance piece mentioned above to get the muscle tone to decrease. Here’s a nice article on transitioning to minimal footwear.


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7 Takeaways from the Healthy Running WV Conference

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Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the Healthy Running WV Conference held in Ranson, WV on November 3rd and 4th. There were about 50 attendees from a variety of backgrounds: running coach, MD, PT, DPM, and general runners. I doubt many of them left without having their preconceptions of training, nutrition, or health challenged. And that’s because the two primary presenters, Drs. Mark Cucuzzella and Phil Maffetone, are well known for challenging the status quo. Although both have a long history in exercise performance, lately they are more interested in public health. And for good reason. I wanted to share just a little taste of the information presented.

  1. Attempting to peak for endurance events can be unnecessary, injury causing, and downright unhealthy. Dr. Maffetone suggested that we may really only need 2-4 weeks of speedwork in the final preparation for a competition, and we can perform quite well with no speedwork at all if the aerobic metabolism has been well trained over time. This is quite a bit shorter than the 6-8 weeks recommended by coaches like Arthur Lydiard.

  2. Runners unnecessarily run too fast most of the time. I tell runners this all the time (some believe me, some don’t), but let’s revisit it. Exercise does not have to be uncomfortable to result in health and fitness gains. Dr. Maffetone recounted working with multiple elite and Olympic level athletes that had measurably deficient levels of aerobic fitness who continued to make significant performance gains when he took away their anaerobic training and ultimately trained them at slower speeds.

  3. Food quality is more important to overall health than a specific caloric intake. For everyone, athlete or not, poor quality carbohydrates do an extremely bad job of creating satiety. So guess what? You eat more of them. I’ve hammered my fair share of Oreos and still didn’t feel satisfied. The carbs lead to a dramatic insulin response that can change in magnitude over time. High-quality proteins and fats do a great job of making us feel full sooner and longer after a meal without the dramatic insulin spike. Unprocessed vegetables can even provide a worthy source of carbohydrate. This is not new information to me or many others, but it’s worth repeating for those that are unaware of how prepackaged food, which emphasizes carbs, have made so many things easier to prepare but far less nutritionally valuable.

  4. There are performance and health benefits to emphasizing greater protein and fat macronutrient intake over carbohydrate. Commonly accepted information encourages 60-70% daily carbohydrate intake for endurance athletes. We could get away with 30-40% or even less. Routinely de-emphasizing carbohydrate reliance in training forces the body to rely more on stored fat, which is pretty awesome if you want to run in a marathon or ultramarathon. Then you won’t require as much additional fueling during these longer events, delaying or ultimately preventing the dreaded bonk. Dr. Cucuzzella, who recently maintains a low carb intake, but has run for decades, has the physiology lab data to prove his increase of peak fat burning efficiency from 1.18 grams/minute to 1.9 grams/minute in just a year. These same kinds of beneficial metabolic changes were suspected many years ago by Dr. Tim Noakes in his famous text “Lore of Running.” I’m anxious to see where the research is on this in another 5-10 years.

  5. Sprinting hard at the end of a long event, like a marathon, is more likely to trigger a cardiac event (heart attack) in someone predisposed to having such a cardiac issue. Don’t know if you are at risk? Talk to your physician about finding out your coronary artery calcium score.

  6. A simple glucometer can be an excellent, affordable self-monitoring tool for detecting carbohydrate intolerance and the early onset of insulin resistance that leads to type 2 diabetes. Cucuzzella and Maffetone suggest that people don’t just wake up one day with type 2 diabetes. The changes occur over time because of poor nutritional quality. By the way, a few years back we called type 2 diabetes “adult onset” to differentiate it from the type 1 diabetes that people can have at birth. Unfortunately, that has become a misnomer because young children have begun to acquire type 2 diabetes as the American diet has emphasized low-quality processed carbohydrates since the 1980s.

  7. Insulin resistance is a common factor to a variety of diseases. There is growing evidence that issues such as cardiovascular disease follow long term metabolic changes associated with a high carbohydrate diet. Older research focused on cholesterol but the tide is shifting.

If you are interested in attending a future Healthy Running Conference, check out www.healthyrunning.org for more information. 

You can read more about each of this particular conference's primary presenters at the following sites:

  • Mark: https://www.drmarksdesk.com
  • Phil: https://www.philmaffetone.com

Brain Training For Capturing Your Next PR

Do you ever wonder why some athletes are so consistent in their performance while others are all over the map? If factors like nutrition, training, and physiological capacity are similar between two people, especially at elite levels, there must be a hidden difference or two in why one person consistently outperforms another.

A huge piece of that difference is psychological. One athlete might catastrophize when things don’t go as planned. Prior experience may lead that athlete to experience negative emotions, increased stress, and increased self-doubt. Once a moment of negativity is allowed to creep in, it leads to a steady performance decline. But somehow, another athlete faced with the same issues might continue to excel despite encountering a hiccup. Just how can they do that? Are we born with these skills or is it the result of dedicated practice?

Brain-Body Connection

There is no denying a connection between your psychological state and physiological outcomes. All you need is to feel a little stressed and you can watch your heart rate and blood pressure rise. What if you could reverse engineer this brain-body connection and use it to work for you instead of against you?

Through dedicated practice, focusing consistently on a single task and being aware of that present moment, you encourage control of your emotions and enhance your self-awareness. Perhaps you can decrease the more intense physiological responses that accompany stress. Even though endurance sports, like running, are fatiguing and sometimes uncomfortable, the brain can be diverted to a single focus of operation: to get the primary task done.

I have a theory that the most successful athletes (e.g. happy, consistent) use their sport as a form of meditation. Some have suggested that we naturally seek out altered states of consciousness and exercise is just another gateway to this state. Perhaps this ability to refine and control thought is a key to enjoying exercise instead of dreading it. Sure, there are people that still look at meditation as being a 1970s hippie phenomenon, so they automatically won’t like the idea. But consider it just another skill within a toolbox of physical and mental skills. No psychedelic drugs necessary. By exercising in this semi-meditative state, the brain learns to function and focus in a precise way during that activity.

What is Mindfulness Meditation?

Practitioners of mindfulness meditation emphasize remaining observational and non-reactive to what you might sense during meditation (see footnote below). One result of remaining mindful is improved decision making simply because you have greater knowledge. You then respond to your findings without excess reaction, without judgment. It’s similar to someone telling you, “don’t overthink it.” Who doesn’t want or benefit from improved decision making?

A search of the NCBI database reveals that using mindfulness techniques during exercise is a relatively new research area. Mindfulness concepts are commonly utilized in research on yoga and martial arts. It is also more common to see meditative techniques used in addition to exercise for treatment purposes (e.g., chronic pain, depression, etc.). Mindfulness and meditation are becoming more popular topics, so you can expect more research will begin to pop up.

Using a Body Scan to Control Pain

Endurance sports involve cyclical movements (e.g., steps while running, pedal strokes while cycling, etc.)  that provide ongoing feedback from the body. That feedback is useful, if you are listening. You might refer to this listening as a “body scan.” It’s a technique used in mindfulness-based meditation and has been studied for treatment of depression, anxiety, stress, obsessive-compulsive disorder, insomnia, various cancers, chronic diseases, and chronic pain.

Athlete or not, one of the biggest goals of a body scan is to increase your awareness of your body’s signals, top to bottom. During constant activity, the best athletes are able to continuously monitor and adjust their status at any given moment, much as a person would in mindfulness meditation. The athlete is monitoring the important factors as they encounter them, responding with only the absolute necessary changes so that, over time, physical and mental energy are conserved.

While scanning, I frequently discover that I will shrug my shoulders when running harder or becoming fatigued, so I immediately know to drop my shoulders. Or I notice my breathing becomes too rapid and shallow, which reminds me to take a cleansing breath. No surprise, there’s always an immediate improvement in mood, performance, and comfort.

Within an event or training day, one key is to continuously perform the body scan to the point that any small problem is detected and corrected before it becomes a big problem. Maybe some people would consider this a waste of mental energy, and maybe it would be for the unacquainted. Instead, with practice, I would expect it to decrease mental fatigue because it’s far easier to address a small problem intermittently than to become stuck obsessing over a more catastrophic and constant state of stress that causes a flood of negativity.

Other Mindfulness Techniques

Bringing your attention to the present, with something like basic step counting, can push out negative thoughts. You might initially just count four steps before your focus diminishes but with practice it could be 50 steps or 100 steps. Count steps until the next maple tree comes along or the next aid station.

Some athletes are better able to apply meditative techniques if they have a mantra to rely on. Much like step counting, the job of the mantra is to hold your attention. It is a word or phrase that you return to when you find your attention has drifted. It can be something like “long and strong” or “I can, I will.” And still others are able to focus on their breathing count and pattern with great success.

The cyclical nature of an endurance sport also lends itself well to this internal or mindfulness approach because you can become completely lost in the total movement, the breathing pattern, or even the individual footsteps. I’m so stuck in this mode from running that I struggle with counting repetitions while strength training. I become so internally focused on the technique and how the movement feels with each rep (the way I would with running) that I don’t care about the number.

Regardless of your choice, focusing on any of these patterns requires attention to factors other than your fatigue-induced discomfort. They all provide a rhythmic pattern, a consistent place to focus after a distraction, a point of fixation.

Being Stubborn Isn’t Enough

This isn’t simply about being stubborn. Stubborn can get most people only so far. When you finally break at your point of maximal stubbornness, there must be some other tactic to fall back on to hold yourself together mentally.

An experienced ultramarathoner isn’t going to rely on being stubborn through an entire race, though it may appear that way on the surface. They are likely getting to the point that simply feeling their breathing or arm and leg movements can provide a point of focus as the distance gradually ticks away. It’s more about executing at that very moment while turning off emotional and judgmental tendencies.

Application to Training and Competition

In training, try to maintain a body scan or an intrinsic technique focus during short, hard intervals of 30-60 seconds. The goal can be to move quickly and feel discomfort while focusing only on one or two technique trouble areas. You can make the intervals increasingly longer (eg. 5-10 minutes) as you have more success sustaining a focus during the shorter lengths.

Use your miserable days as a primer. Gross weather? Feeling generally crappy? Don’t bail. I hate to spoil this for you but 99.9% of competition days are not going to go as planned. To truly be prepared, you need to experience less than ideal conditions in advance. The rough days are an opportunity to see if you can bring yourself together mentally and maybe even surprise yourself.

Started out a race too hard? Don’t panic. Accept the situation and move on, responding only to your requirements at that very moment. You can’t change the past so stop getting caught up in it. Feeling inefficient? Focus on a component of movement, like arm swing, that you can control. Continuously thinking “this hurts” or “I’m getting slower” is harmful to performance and enjoyment. Once those initial thoughts begin, you will almost certainly begin to slow down and have even more negative thoughts.

You aren’t going to wish an opponent into slowing down and you aren’t going to wish yourself into going faster. Focus on factors that you can control and you just might go faster. But that’s not going to happen without maintaining an internal locus of control - meaning you become solely responsible for and controlling of the outcome.

In longer events, like a marathon, it is wise to not only avoid deep analysis and judgment of your overall condition but to address the basics of what you can at that very moment and reassess after a mile or a few minutes later. Just because you are beginning to feel miserable one minute does not mean you are destined to feel that way 10 minutes later.

According to the book “Running With the Mind of Meditation: Lessons for Training Body and Mind” by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche: “Ignoring the pain takes enormous mental effort. The first step is to acknowledge the pain. The pain is one thing, and the mind reacting to the pain is another, so the second step is not to overreact. Becoming startled by the pain only exacerbates the pain, like throwing gasoline on a fire: our reaction to the pain makes it even worse. Therefore we acknowledge the pain, but we avoid having the immediate reactionary response.”

Your preferred method of mindfulness may also change with the intensity or duration of exercise. Through most of an endurance competition I’m doing a body scan. Late in a competition I might begin to use a mantra, often rhythmically with the movement. I also like to create a mental picture of how I am moving as a whole, as if I’m watching myself in a mirror.

Find What Works For You

If you have never tried any of these mindfulness techniques before, don’t expect it to be easy and automatic the first time. There is no wrong way to do it; try a few methods and see what sticks.

Some people have the perception that meditating while exercising would require you to completely shut off the outside world. But you have the choice to turn off and to turn on those inputs. If you have to be on high alert for a moment to make sure you don’t miss a turn of the trail in the woods, then stay on high alert. Go back to whatever technique you like once you make the turn. You don’t become a zombie while doing a body scan.

The bonus of these techniques is that you can transfer this behavioral control to other sports and aspects of life like school or work. After developing the mental skills necessary to get through a tough training or competition day, taking that college exam or giving that presentation to your boss might not seem so tough.

It’s worth looking at the various mental skills you can develop while exercising so it isn’t all just a frustrating slog. Certainly, exercise can provide a fantastic time to step away from our stress and problems. And not every moment of exercise needs to be a test of will or focus. Just don’t be afraid to consider the importance of mental skills training if you are seeking performance gains.

Main points:

  • A body scan, mantras, step counting, and breath counting can all be useful methods to improve performance.
  • A body scan can be used to continually monitor movement and discomfort levels. It allows you to attend to small running technique flaws or areas of excess muscle tension before they become large and painful problems that will undoubtedly be mentally fatiguing and detract from performance and enjoyment.
  • Practice the mental focus in training with hard and short efforts initially and then progress to longer and harder efforts.
  • Bringing your attention to the present, with step counting, breath counting, or a mantra can push out negative thoughts.
  • Realize no competition is going to proceed 100% as planned. Use your most unpleasant training days as an opportunity for preparing your mental state.

Please share this article with your running friends! To receive updates as each blog comes out, complete the form below. And if you have any questions, please email me at derek@mountainridgept.com.

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Sources:

1 According to a 2010 article from Birrer and Morgan: “Mindfulness techniques emphasize the non-judging awareness and acceptance of present cognitive, affective and sensory experiences, including external stimuli and internal processes. Stimuli that enter awareness are observed but not judged, and internal experiences (thoughts, feelings and sensations occurring through internal or external stimulation) are instead accepted as natural, transient facets of human existence.”

http://www.atrailrunnersblog.com/2017/06/stealing-fire-ultrarunning-and-pursuit.html

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26406766

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1600-0838.2010.01188.x/full

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/aphw.12063/full

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/22/meditation-in-action-running-mindfulness_n_3625110.html

http://www.runnersworld.com/meditation/why-you-should-try-meditating-while-running-and-how-to-do-it

 

20 Cold weather running tips and tricks

The warm weather of spring will be here before you know it...or not. I don’t love the cold, but I’ve learned to appreciate the unique challenges of snow, wind, rain, ice, and that abominable snowman from Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (hot cocoa!). Here are some thoughts on surviving this less pleasant time of year.

First off, it’s about mindset. If you keep telling yourself it’s going to suck to be in the cold, no surprise, it will suck. Have the attitude that you are adaptable and that the conditions are fun or unique in order to shift your perspective. If you have the guts to commit to consistent exercise, you have the guts to tolerate the cold for a bit.

If you struggle with the initial shock of cold when heading outside, try getting your core temperature up indoors first with 2-10 minutes of indoor biking, treadmill running, push-ups, air squats, running in place, butt kicks, or high knees.

It’s never as cold as you think it’s going to be - as long as you are consistently moving. Pretend you are dressing for a temperature that is 10-15 degrees warmer than the actual thermometer reading.

However, if you would happen to become injured by the aforementioned abominable snowman and had to stop moving, how long do you think you would stay warm? Probably not as long as you think. This is where it is smart to carry an emergency item or two, especially if you plan to be far from civilization, home, and other people. We’ve all heard about dressing in layers, but I like to dress with the intention to pack away the outer layer. A tightly packable, waterproof jacket is a great addition, especially on those damp 40-degree days. It’s there if you need it but not a hindrance if you never use it. In a pinch, a simple kitchen trash bag with a hole ripped in the bottom for your head can be used as a rain, cold, and wind barrier. Cheap, simple, and effective, but don’t expect it to be breathable. Space blankets are a great compact option. On long, adventurous trail runs, my ultimate choice would be a bivy sack, especially for going out into a more risky environment that would be less accessible in an emergency. Of course, this is overkill for running roads in a city. Consider that even if you had to stop moving for 60 minutes while waiting for help, a bivy sack or space blanket would be a welcome and potentially lifesaving item that weighs very little. Though it’s a little larger and heavier, the bivy is more ideal than a space blanket because you can actually get inside of it.

It’s not just the temperature that you have to consider. Wind and water will make the temperature feel at least an extra 5-10 degrees cooler. But if the sun is out, it can easily feel an extra 5-10 degrees warmer. The hardest conditions to dress for are when it is raining at 35 to 48 degrees. That’s perfect hypothermia weather. There’s a definite need for a breathable, waterproof jacket in that instance if you plan to stay out for 30 minutes or more.

Wool is an awesome material to layer, especially for socks. Many people love wool for the heat retention it maintains while wet, which can easily happen if you sink a foot in a puddle of slush. The Smartwool socks I’ve had have been amazingly durable and are my favorites so far. Anything but cotton, please!

In full-on cold muck, around 34-48 degrees, consider a waterproof/windproof sock, like this one from Sugoi. I’ve used these intermittently over the past five years. They definitely weren’t manufactured as a hiking and running product as they do slip around in the shoes a little. And they have external seams that might annoy some people. But they are flexible and my feet would only get a bit damp from sweat. (Keep in mind the dampness from sweat can cause chilling though.) They are useless if you dunk your foot deeper than ankle depth.

Check out some running gaiters if the snow is getting deep or if it’s slushy and muddy. Even a thin gaiter can keep debris from accumulating in your shoe. And if the weather is really poor, you might have a hard time untying the shoe to get that debris out in the middle of a run. Prevent it in the first place.

A single, thin layer can go a long way toward improving comfort. You don’t always have to use heavy, thick layers to get the job done. And the nice thing about a single layer is that it is still very breathable. This is why I hang onto a 15 year-old, super worn pair of tights that my wife would like to throw away. They are perfect for the 30-40 degree days. I’ve found that some areas are more sensitive to cold than others. My shins don’t need much coverage so one layer there is often plenty. My hands are super sensitive though and I’ll need to layer up a liner gloves and possibly mittens.

Carry a Buff or other similar multi-purpose garment. Options are nice. This can cover and protect your neck, face, ears, and head in one fell swoop, in any combination.

Cover your hands in a thick moisturizing and protective barrier like Bag Balm, beeswax, Aquaphor, or petroleum jelly. I have pretty poor blood flow in my hands and this, at the very least, buys me some additional time before my hands start to ache and lose blood supply. And it seems like the act of massaging these products onto the skin is helpful to increase blood flow even before going outside. If it was super cold out, I would put this same protective barrier on my face as well. I’ll carry a little tube of this stuff on a long run for reapplication and chaffing problems.

Sheet metal screws tightened into the bottom of your shoes make for cheap, light, and effective studs on slick surfaces. Just three to five of them can go a long way towards enhancing your stability if they are thoughtfully placed.

Cross train on snowshoes, cross country skis, or just go for a hike. Nobody feels their most fit when exercising in the cold. The clothing is restrictive, breathing is difficult, everything feels stiff, and the footing is horrible. These other activities are more than acceptable to provide an aerobic workout. As a bonus, they break up monotony and train your body in ways you might not normally. Were you going to PR today anyway?

Keep in mind any food you take will become more firm, perhaps more… chewy as it gets colder. Which means you will probably have a desire to drink more while eating. If you tuck the food close to your body prior to eating, it won’t be so darn hard to chew.

Similarly, if you use a hydration pack, tuck the tubing into your jacket so that it doesn’t freeze up. Depending on the size of pack, you may be able to place it under an outer layer of clothing. Drink small amounts from the pack often to keep the water moving. The real hard-assess of winter running mix a little vodka or whiskey into their water to help prevent freezing. It doesn’t take much to lower the freezing point.

Warm liquids are amazing in the middle of a long, cold bout. My dad always brought a small thermos of hot cocoa for me when I was a little kid hunting in the cold. I promise you, in the middle of a cold long run there is nothing better than hot tea or chicken broth. I haven’t found a thermos that works better than a Zojirushi

Carry back up charcoal hand warmers. Just don’t expect them to heat up quickly. For that, there are more instant hand warmers. Or make your own out of these inexpensive flexible heating pads.

Make loops that include public buildings where you could warm up for a few minutes if necessary.

Don’t tie your car or house key to your shoe in wintery conditions. Your hands might be too cold to untie the knot or the knot might just be completely frozen. There is no worse feeling than standing outside a locked warm car or house when you are super cold.

That's disappointing

That's disappointing

Find someone to hold you accountable to getting your run done. A consistent training partner can be a great motivator who won’t let you slack off and make excuses. Training groups can provide that same motivation. Plus it’s safer for everybody involved.

Bonus: Make a game out of it. A Hash House Harrier run is the best example of this game atmosphere. You will be so busy wondering where you are on the random course and where you are supposed to be going that you just might forget about the cold.

Bonus: Cellphone batteries die very quickly when exposed to the cold. Keep your phone closer to your body to keep it warm. If it does die, getting it warm next to your body may breathe some life back into it again.

Let me know if you have questions: derek@mountainridgept.com

Tips for assessing last season and planning next season, part two

In the last article we reviewed suggestions to analyze past workout data. Now for an overview of preseason planning.  

Establish training and competition baselines for comparison.

  • Maybe very recent or older, like a couple years ago, as long as you have the old data for support.
  • Considerations include baseline times for a specific distance, maximum distance, highest average power values, best pacing execution, or just about any factor you would like to see improve.

Find the events you would like to attend.

  • Seek out something new. You never know when you might find an event that you like more than your usual races.

Analyze the specific demands of your planned events.

  • Course layout
  • Distance
  • Elevation gradients and totals
  • Average temperature and typical weather

Set primary performance goals. Don’t be afraid to set lofty goals as long as they are achievable. These can vary drastically, likely being the most specific for an experienced athlete. For example, it could range from:

  • “I would like to finish a marathon.”
  • “I would like to finish the San Francisco Rock ‘N Roll Half-Marathon with a time of 1:40:00.”
  • “I want to run the Boston Marathon in 3:15:00 with the pace never dropping below 7:30 minute/mile or going faster than 7:00 at any time.”

Set midpoint performance goals to determine if progress is being made. For example:

  • Perform a weekly total activity duration of 8 hours and a single longest effort of 2 hours after 8 weeks of training.
  • Perform 7:00 minute/mile pace for 8 miles in a threshold/tempo workout.
  • Achieve a single day of long distance of 17 miles after 8 weeks of training.

Set the component or technique goals that must be met to achieve the primary and midpoint performance goals. Without executing these component steps, you can’t expect to reach the performance goals. For example (these values are theoretical):

  • Consume and tolerate 12 ounces of fluid per hour while at race pace.
  • Consume and tolerate 200 calories per hour while at race pace.
  • Maintain an average of >170 foot strikes per minute for at least 2 hours.
  • Maintain a run power between 200-250 watts for at least 2 hours.  

Go slower to get faster.

  • I’m a fan of higher volumes of low intensity work with only occasional high intensity work. It’s probably not an accident that professional athletes in any sport lasting for long durations have adopted this strategy. You can’t train hard every day. This is especially the case with older athletes because they just don’t recover as fast as their younger counterparts.
  • As you get closer to an “A” event, emphasize increasing the higher intensity work while decreasing overall duration and distance.

If you are planning to do a lot of competing to “race into shape,” you must come to terms with the fact that not every event can be a PR event.

  • You will need to give up some hard workouts to do the competitions instead. Define which events are the real priority and just let the others go as hard training days.

Allowing a longer build period is generally a safer option because it allows for greater physiological and more gradual structural changes.

  • Our connective tissues adapt much slower than our fitness. That’s why we often end up with physical injuries instead of metabolic problems.
  • Shorter races require less progression time.
  • Longer races require greater progression time.

Plan for strength training.

  • This overlaps with performing those exercises that the evil PT gave you. I doubt every muscle in your body is at its optimal strength level.

Plan for other cross training.

  • Your cardiovascular system doesn’t know what activity you are doing. Your tendons, muscles, and nervous system need to adapt and learn the pattern and load of running to be efficient and prevent injury but performing other types of exercise, like swimming and rowing, will not detract from those abilities.

Involve your friends and family.

  • Where would your family like to go for a trip or vacation?
  • What events are your friends doing? This might get you a new training partner, which is great if you are occasionally struggling to leave the house in the winter. But it might backfire if you are the one always providing the real motivation.

Consider other equipment to more objectively measure performance.

  • I get the idea of simplification. Maybe you can and should get by with a basic watch if that has always worked for you. But if you get injured often or can’t seem to break through plateaus, then the extra data from a power meter, GPS watch, or phone app isn’t going to be harmful and may actually help you see where the mistakes are happening. You can always collect the data without looking at it immediately, and analyze it later.

If you have an injury that keeps recurring, get professional assistance to take care of it in the off-season, not a week before your “A” race.

  • Most injuries should be objectively improving within a month when properly treated. If they aren’t, there better be a darn good explanation or else I would find another professional to look things over.
  • Don’t expect miracles though. Sure, I can often provide somebody help (a.k.a. less pain) in just a couple visits but that doesn’t mean the problem is gone. You have to be reasonable with the rate of improvement and do your homework regularly.

Plan for rest and recovery. If you don’t plan it, you won’t take it.

  • Plan for periods of recovery from individual workouts within each week, from blocks of workouts over a series of weeks, and after the entire training cycle that brought you to a big competition.

Tips for assessing last season and planning next season, Part one

Whatcha’ gonna do with all that data? Use it to plan next season, of course.

We log workout data, and some of it never sees the light of day again. Whether you like the old school pencil and paper method or the website technology of Strava, Garmin Connect, Mapmyrun, or others, it’s worth reviewing from time to time. I favor the digital side. Mostly because it makes the math easier and I can make some pretty sweet maps and graphs afterward. There are few things I appreciate more than maps and graphs.

My 2016 running heat map

My 2016 running heat map

So why are you really tracking all of this information? Most would say to allow the ability to see when they are improving. Bingo. But there are a few more reasons to keep track of and analyze the information regularly.

  • Increase the chances of short term and long term success
  • Compare real objective measures to what you *think* is going on
  • Improve your time management
  • Determine where injury or overtraining may have occurred (a breaking point)
  • Determine whether you met your full true physiological potential (or if you were just slacking off)
  • Make it easier for a coach to analyze (currently or on down the road)
  • Remind yourself of events and workouts you never want to do again
  • Remind yourself of events and workouts you would love to do again
  • Determine overall strengths and weaknesses
  • Prevent burnout
  • Define reasonable future goals
  • Recognize any past goals met
  • Discover what aspects of training and competing are really important to you

I started keeping a training log when I was around 15 years old.. Too bad they didn’t have these new-fangled wrist-worn GPS devices back then. There was more guesswork at distances and paces, especially because I was just making courses up. And sometime in college I tried logging everything into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, but that felt too cumbersome. Somehow, there are people still doing this! I salute your ability to tolerate the pain delivered from the software equivalent of a Ford Model T.

A spreadsheet isn’t specialized in its design, but it has the potential to be more informative than a paper logbook. Now the GPS watch companies produce some pretty decent metrics and there is additional software like Golden Cheetah and websites like Training Peaks that gobble up and produce more information than anyone can ever want or use. I love it.

At the least, take a look back at these basic measures:

  • Total yearly time
  • Total yearly distance
  • Average daily, weekly, monthly, yearly mileage
  • Average daily, weekly, monthly, yearly pace/speed
  • Competitive performance times, distances, paces

If there is one thing I can emphasize, it is that you should pay attention to trends, not single workouts, weeks, or even single months. Success is not built upon these brief intervals of time, nor is failure. Most injuries are not the result of what happens in a short period of time either.

Monitor the trends of speed, mileage, and duration for each week, month, and year. Following these trends, you can determine if there is consistent improvement or recognize unexpected losses before it is obvious in your performance.

Average speed across 2016. Trend line peak coincides with June event where I wanted a best performance. 

Average speed across 2016. Trend line peak coincides with June event where I wanted a best performance. 

Solely considering mileage, sure, you can progress each week greater than the generally recommended 10%, but should you do it for several weeks in a row? Most people are not going to withstand those increases. If you don’t look at the long-term trends, then you may just very well forget that you progressed 30% in volume for two weeks in a row just a month ago.

The same would apply to the quantity of high intensity work. Progressing too rapidly in the volume of intense exercise can be a problem, even if total amount of time or distance stayed the same from one week to another. Progressing too rapidly will eventually cause a problem one way or another.

Were you injured this year? Compare the time frame where you were injured to the time frame just prior to injury. Was there a fluctuation in intensity or in mileage volume? Maybe it’s something you can’t quite put your finger on.

That’s when you realize that miles, pace, and distance do not tell a full story. This is where more advanced measures become helpful. These advanced measures are likely to be most beneficial to an athlete that is trying to make a large amount of progress or achieve their peak fitness:

Fatigue points

  • In terms of time, where did you begin to bonk or have a drop of pacing? Where did you think “this stinks” or begin to mentally struggle with the work being done?
  • These points are commonly where technique breaks down. It’s good to have a specific goal for when these moments arrive. For instance, if you know your cadence starts to slow, let’s say to 165, then focus entirely on keeping it higher, like 175.
  • Mimic these moments in training in order to determine the resolution that allows you to avoid injury and performance decline. You will probably never fully avoid these points but with training you can keep shifting them further away to prolong the time before trouble strikes. Of course, this is dependent on other factors that would need to be duplicated, like speed and distance. With that in mind, this clearly isn’t something you would try to work on everyday.

Acute:Chronic Workload Ratio

  • Calculated as the most recent weekly mileage or duration divided by weekly mileage or duration total during the last 4-8 weeks. This is a newer consideration, yet so simple. It was introduced in the 2015 research with a study on rugby players. They found that having a high ratio of 1.5 or greater was a associated with onset of injury. Interestingly enough, a ratio of 0.85 to 1.35 was found to be protective to injury acquisition. Even though the research was done on rugby players, it’s easy to calculate, so I would suggest applying it to your training if you can measure volume. The result is similar to a 10% weekly progression.
Pressing my luck with an acute:chronic workload ratio of 1.7 for a little while there. 

Pressing my luck with an acute:chronic workload ratio of 1.7 for a little while there. 

Average daily, weekly, monthly, yearly heart rate

  • Yes, I know heart rate isn’t the most fabulous measure. But if you are using only the basic metrics, this is a good place to start because devices are now measuring heart rate at the wrist and the chest straps are way more comfortable now than 5 years ago. Trends in heart rate can demonstrate overtraining habits or improvements in performance. For instance, if I am ramping up my base miles I can compare performance on a certain loop at the same pace/time and might see a lower average heart rate for the same speed.
Average heart rate was at its lowest while heading into June as well. 

Average heart rate was at its lowest while heading into June as well. 

Elevation gain/loss

  • Someone unfamiliar with the impact of elevation might mistakenly call an average pace of 10 minutes/mile “slow.” They aren’t accounting for the fact that the average mile climbed was 200 feet. This is the main reason I do not believe in online running pace calculators for training or competing on hilly terrain. This is why power will be a much better measure of effort and stress. So...

Power

  • A newcomer to the running world. Just give it a couple years and many of you will have power data on your fancy GPS watches.
  • Although the current power meters for running don’t directly measure the force produced by your body, it’s still more accurate than guessing based upon how you feel.

With software like Golden Cheetah or Training Peaks, you could dive even deeper with these calculated measures:

Critical velocity

  • Critical velocity is the pace that you could theoretically sustain for an indefinite amount of time. Training at or above critical velocity is one way to focus on becoming faster.

Training stress scores

  • Training stress is a measure calculated by considering heart rate (as a measure of intensity) and time.
  • Acute or short-term training stress (stress over the last 7 days) vs.
  • Chronic or long-term training stress (stress over the past 42 days)
  • Training stress balance is about managing the balance between the two in order to provoke higher competitive performances
Training stress graph for 2016

Training stress graph for 2016

Next post I'll go over more planning tips. Please let me know if you have any questions at derek@mountainridgept.com. 

Seeking improvement? Make friends with vulnerability.

Have you ever wanted to improve at something? Shooting a basketball, playing a guitar, public speaking - the task doesn’t necessarily matter. If you’ve ever thought “I could do this better than I am right now,” then you clearly wanted to improve. But did you actually take the steps necessary to create that improvement?

The problem is that there is a lot that goes into any improvement: seeking guidance, planning, good old-fashioned work, patience, practice, discomfort, commitment, nasty emotions, vulnerability. Improvement arrives only with overcoming these obstacles.

By trying to become better at anything, you open yourself up to the judgment of others and to self-ridicule. After all, we are often our own worst enemy.

I understand that for patients to seek treatment for an injury they are sticking themselves out there, making themselves vulnerable to some stranger’s judgment. But once that ball is rolling, it’s unusual to see someone regret the momentum.

Fear of failure is undoubtedly most of the reason we fear vulnerability. And there are also those who have a fear of success. Perhaps it’s just fear of change. Change leads to other obstacles, more demand, and the cycle never stops.

In any circumstance, it’s easier to maintain the status quo. You are less likely to attract attention or to be exposed to your peers. Maintain at all costs, we think, simply because it’s comfortable.

Improvements in performance (and often in life) are made when you venture outside the zone where you are comfortable. Without the discomfort of the unknown, there is no learning, nothing gained, probably no real experience you will recall at a later time when faced with challenge.

It can be oddly addictive to enter the unknown provided that some good experience comes of it. If you succeed, the psychological reward is substantial and probably reinforcing enough to have you sustain your behavior.

Of course, if you fail (whatever that means) then your attempt to go beyond your perceived limitation is punished. Maybe that has already happened with enough potency or frequency that you don’t seek the unknown any longer.

I suppose this risk versus reward balance is why some people jump out of airplanes. Now that’s definitely a place of vulnerability. A significant adrenaline rush counteracted by the potential for an ultimate failure.

But I’m not asking anyone to jump out of an airplane. I’m suggesting that if you want to truly improve at a task that you must venture into it without thinking too much about the concept of failing.

Because, really, what is the result if you “fail”? Nobody dies. The consequences are rarely as inflated as we make them out to be. You could take comfort in knowing that you can often return to the status quo. Or should you?

There is a difference between feeling vulnerable and truly being vulnerable. Failing makes people feel vulnerable but really it is just a step in a process to making gains. Left unchecked, emotion won’t lead to development, but that is what most of us use to make our decisions. It’s perfectly okay to feel vulnerable but letting it be a barrier to forward progress is where most people succumb, so they never realize improvements.

Success is a potent ingredient in the formula to overcoming any fear and vulnerability. Really you are the one providing your personal definition of success. Perfection does not exist, therefore success cannot be perfection. Success is a belief that you can achieve something greater. The reality is no one else is analyzing the daily minutiae of your life. If they are then they must be really bored, or perhaps jealous.

You don’t ever know exactly what is going to happen, even by taking the comfortable solutions and sticking to the norm. Why not try something different? Make yourself vulnerable.

A new method to predict marathon race times with wanderings and wonderings about base versus interval training

Prediction of running performance is nothing short of an intriguing concept. Everybody wants to know what they are capable of achieving, according to internet math, even if they don’t actually pull it off in real life. Predictive measures have been used to obtain expected race times for multiple decades, and I would like to think they are more accurate now than in the 1970s. There is nothing like a true performance at a specific distance to guide your training and racing. But for a beginner or someone that has done just a handful of events, a race predictor can be really helpful to determine appropriate pacing.

I recently came across an article on a new marathon time prediction method that can be found here. The calculator is found here. It is based on research by the same author, available at this page. The researchers used my favorite statistical method, regression analysis, to create a prediction model for amateur runners, based on amateur data. This differs from previous predictors which were largely created from the performances of elite runners.

Runner’s World recently updated their predictor to this same format because it tends to generate a slower time than other predictions would develop. Why is that important? To keep you from blowing up badly, particularly if you are mid-pack or slower runner.

The nice thing about this specific calculator is the fact that it considers your average weekly mileage in the equation. This lets you see where training can play a role. You can really ask yourself if that extra 10 miles per week is worth it when the gain is just one minute over the course of an entire marathon.

For some, of course, the answer is “yes.” But for others that extra 10 miles each week can result in frustrating injuries that could keep them from training and racing altogether. And maybe during that 10 miles you would rather be playing with one of your kids. There is also research to indicate a lessening health benefit of higher mileages (http://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196(16)00068-9/fulltext). The predictor provides a nice method to weigh the diminishing levels of improved performance with the benefits of health and sanity.

This had me thinking, it would be interesting to see how training type plays a role in the goal performance for a given individual. In other words, do you gain more improvement from a focus on long, base runs, or on high-intensity interval work? The average marathon training program is going to include both, because they work different metabolic systems, but I would be curious to know which is more critical for a given person. Sometimes it is obvious, sometimes not.

Let’s say you want to run a 3:30 marathon on 25 miles per week but the predictor expects you to do a 3:35. Is there a certain type, frequency, or amount of anaerobic training that could make up the difference while keeping the mileage that low? Maybe that’s not reasonable and it really comes down to making sure you get in increased mileage to gain that five minutes.

It will undoubtedly vary depending on training history and genetics. The Crossfit nation would try to make us believe that it’s all about the interval training. I would argue that lack of familiarity with longer distances weighs more heavily in a new runner than any amount of anaerobic ability gained with high-intensity intervals. Once you have some base training and long racing experience, then feel free to focus on both or just on harder intervals. I venture a guess that intervals and tempo efforts gain fitness for many people simply because they haven’t stressed themselves in that specific manner. That fitness won’t help much if you mentally crack at mile 23 because it’s all new territory.

To think you can do a marathon well and only do long runs of six or eight miles seems like a recipe for disaster in the uninitiated, though. For a 5K or 10K race, I suspect that many amateurs could rely heavily on interval training two to three times each week for multiple weeks in a row and never once do continual easy or moderate paced runs. Yes, it would still be useful to at least occasionally cycle through weeks of longer, slower base training to stress the aerobic physiology. It is not common to fluctuate training this dramatically, though. Yeah, the mileages would be all over the place. I may have to use myself as a test subject. Maybe it’s a little different way to consider “polarized training.” If nothing else, it is a definite change of pace.

The variation of training stimulus could keep injury rates lower yet continue to change fitness. I recall reading a research article many years ago indicating performance gains in elite level endurance athletes because they essentially doubled their base aerobic training time. These are athletes that are already at the top of their game but they swung the training pendulum one direction and changed their program so dramatically that it helped get them through a plateau. This can clearly work both directions.

My only concern is to be cautious of injuries. Hyper-volume training is surely a recipe for overuse injuries. Too much interval work could be a problem too, especially if you were trying to keep overall weekly mileage high, if your interval running technique was drastically different than your normal slow technique, or if your muscles and tendons were just not up to either task because of strength deficits (a.k.a. start strength training in any case).

Send questions and comments to derek@mountainridgept.com. 

Dirt Monster 5 Mile Trail Run Race Report

Another weekend, another race. Glad I registered for this one. As the year is coming to a close and the weather becomes frequently less enjoyable, I was lucky to have a race weekend where there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

My friend Kellyn and I arrived just a little later than I would prefer, about 35 minutes before the start. The Google maps application and I were not getting along.

The entire park was covered in heavy frost. It was a little cold out, around 39*, but using the add 20* rule resulted in a temperature of 59*, which means it’s still shorts weather. Plus the sunshine made it seem a little warmer.

After standing in the packet pickup line for 10 minutes shivering I knew I wouldn’t have much time for warming up. And I knew I would want a good warmup because the start of the course, according to the elevation profile, was an upward pitch for a couple hundred yards with a short descent immediately followed by a 0.5-mile climb.

Anyone who is doing a shorter event and planning to go hard should run at their race pace for at least a couple total minutes in their warm up. If exposed to a hard effort beforehand, your body will know better what to do with the byproducts of anaerobic effort during the race. Anyone who has ever pushed hard knows that feeling of shock accompanying the first hard effort, especially if you didn’t ease into it. You don’t want that feeling in the race if you can move it to the warm up.

I did manage to get in a mile of slow running but I never quite got to my typical fast and hard part of the warm up. Some warm up is better than none!

Before I knew it, we were off and into the woods. I suspected the trails would be more tame, and they were. The first five positions were largely decided in the first mile of the race thanks to all of the climbing. Question being, what order would we come in? First place, Matt Lipsey, had taken off fast to the point that I had lost sight of him before completing the first mile. Hey Matt, I just did a 50K two weeks ago. Can’t you have some pity? Yeah, right.

So I’m back battling it out with high schooler Dalton Kalbaugh and 20-something Mike Tait. I hadn’t gone this anaerobic since September but I felt like I was climbing better than they were. The youngin’ would drift away from me for short periods and then I would climb back to him. Old man climbing base I call it. Took the Strava Goat Path course record as a result. Perhaps my greatest victory of the day.

The course was awesome. Wish I had known it in advance. Sun shining, leaves falling, absolutely tons of volunteers, and plenty of course markings. It was not usually very technical  but the wet leaves would add an extra slippery element. Most of the course was 3-foot wide plain dirt trail and gravel service road. We hit a couple narrow, rooty, and rocky sections that I loved. I wanted more of that, especially uphill.

Little did I consider that the high schooler could descend like, well, a high schooler. I should have guessed. The final half mile of the course averages an elevation loss and I’m too old and scared to descend trails super fast anymore. Oh well. Save the knee menisci for another day of battling for a win. My ego took a gut punch 4 miles ago. It turned out to be a great training day.

The post-race gathering was well attended. Still chilly, the chili and fixins were a welcome find. Somebody brought a tiny keg of a homebrew and about five craft brews. Everybody received long-sleeved poly shirts with their registration. I don’t think any race can do better than this for $20. Proceeds went to the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation of Western Pennsylvania.

Results: http://smileymiles.com/2016/RES16%20DIRT%20MONSTER%205%20MILE%20TRAIL%20OA.htm

The latest research on compression garment effectiveness

The main reasons to wear compression garments, like compression socks, would be to: 1) improve athletic performance or 2) improve recovery. Is compression wear worth the hype in either of these cases?

Performance:

A 2016 review on the effects of multiple types of compression garments (Engel et al.) examined 32 studies performed between 1987 and 2015. In eight of the studies they found no significant improvement in race completion time with compression for any distance from 400 meters to marathon. In seven studies, they did find a small improvement in time to exhaustion while wearing compression. Four studies reported improved running economy values. Sixteen of the studies were associated with improvements in psychological variables.

Despite being financially supported by a garment manufacturer, a 2015 study by Areces et al. found no benefit of compression socks in post-marathon exercise performance or race times.

In a 2015 literature review of four studies by Stanek, compression socks were reported to have no effect on several physiological measures like heart rate, perceived exertion, and lactate levels. Although one of the four studies noted an improvement in maximal running speed.

Recovery:

Performance improvements are often based on perception of effectiveness. In a 2016 study by Brophy-Williams et al. the participants were asked about their perceptions on the usefulness of compression socks in enhancing exercise recovery. This article is ahead of print, but according to the abstract (yes, I know that’s bad science) the participants performed better if they believed the compression was going to be helpful in recovery. Thank you placebo effect.

The 2016 Engel review of 32 studies found nine articles reporting large positive changes in exercise or post-exercise muscle soreness.  

A 2013 meta-analysis by Hill et al. revealed some benefit in reducing the pain of delayed onset muscle soreness. They also found that muscle strength and muscle power measures recovered more quickly with compression usage.

A 2016 meta-analysis by Marqués-Jiménez et al. identified several studies indicating multiple biochemical markers were improved following exercise if compression garments were worn. In five studies, muscle swelling was also improved. Another eight studies indicated improvements in exercise recovery in muscle strength and five studies in muscle power.

Anecdotally, I don’t find compression to change anything about my personal running performance. Maybe I would notice a change if I used it more often. But I definitely do like the way compression feels for a day or so after a hard workout or race. I really love the way compression feels at super high levels with a compressive device - above 80 mm Hg, which isn’t what these studies and reviews analyzed. Even if compression garments aren’t changing recovery on a physiological level, they are all capable of decreasing the sensation of soreness.

It appears that the most recent research evidence supports the use of compression in decreasing the intensity of delayed onset muscle soreness. The helpfulness of these garments may be event greater in an individual that must spend more time on their legs during the post-exercise period of soreness. Let’s say in a multi-day event or going back to work on Monday.

Could you make arguments for using compression using the latest literature? Sure. Would I use it in every race or workout? Nope. The reality is that if you think it helps you, then keep using it.

Sources:

http://journals.humankinetics.com/doi/pdf/10.1123/jsr.2015-0048

http://journals.humankinetics.com/doi/abs/10.1123/ijspp.2016-0162

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/301581402_Is_There_Evidence_that_Runners_can_Benefit_from_Wearing_Compression_Clothing

http://www.jospt.org/doi/full/10.2519/jospt.2015.5863

http://starkandwatson.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Compression-and-Excercised-Induced-Muscle-Damage.pdf

https://www.clinicalkey.com/#!/content/playContent/1-s2.0-S0031938415301566?returnurl=http:%2F%2Flinkinghub.elsevier.com%2Fretrieve%2Fpii%2FS0031938415301566%3Fshowall%3Dtrue&referrer=http:%2F%2Fwww.sciencedirect.com%2Fscience%2Farticle%2Fpii%2FS0031938415301566

How to keep muscle cramps from ruining your workouts and competitions

A CASE STUDY

The scene: It’s a hot, 75 degree Saturday in June, humidity 85%, birds singing. Maybe the most hot and humid day so far this month.

The athlete: Is 6 miles into what is expected to be a 15-mile long run. Last night they enjoyed a couple beers with dinner after completing a 4-mile easy run. Work was pretty hectic, so they drank coffee all day to keep focused. They didn’t consume much water or other fluids.

The cramp: Comes quickly into one calf during the long run, rendering the leg nearly useless and painful, despite the individual believing they weren’t putting out much effort. This has happened before. The runner stretches the muscle for 10 seconds, decreasing the pain and begins to run again. Four minutes later it happens again so they repeat the process until 8 miles, when they finally quit the run out of frustration.

Talk about a wasted training day. Did this runner do something wrong in their preparation for this run? Yes. No. Maybe. Perhaps I’m trying to trick you a little because the truth is we don’t have enough information about the entire situation. What is their maintenance routine like outside of running? Do they strength train? Have they eaten during the initial part of the run?

SO MUCH TO THINK ABOUT

You should see that there are a variety of factors to consider regarding the onset of muscle cramps. Here are some you’ve heard of and maybe some you haven’t:

  • Prior training experience regarding intensities and durations
  • History of muscle cramping
  • Current hydration status, particularly related to level of sweat loss
  • Electrolyte levels of magnesium, calcium, sodium, and potassium in the blood and muscles
  • Muscle tone, which is controlled by the nervous system and reinforced by day-to-day use patterns (and also changed with routine soft-tissue maintenance)
  • Central nervous system status, as in higher anxiety and stress levels
  • Peripheral nervous system status
  • Stimulant intake, such as caffeine, which impacts nervous system function
  • Recent physical activity and fatigue levels
  • Environmental conditions regarding temperature, humidity, and terrain
  • Muscular demands at that moment, as in the force of muscle contraction required
  • Direct muscle trauma

There is likely an interplay of these factors and you therefore need to consider them all in muscle cramp prevention. How are you going to do that? Partly with good regular maintenance and training habits. Partly with a little trial-and-error testing.

Muscle cramps have been a thorn in the side of many athletes for decades, and what fixes them in one athlete may not work for another. Some athletes just seem more prone to cramping while others have minimal issues. I would be surprised if the crowd that is prone to cramping didn’t have at least one or two of these areas to address though.

Available research indicates three main theories exist in the cause of exercise-induced muscle cramping:

  1. “Skeletal muscle overload and fatigue from overuse or insufficient conditioning can prompt muscle cramping locally in the overworked muscle fibers.” (Bergeron, 2008)
  2. “Extensive sweating and a consequent significant whole-body exchangeable sodium deficit can lead to more widespread muscle cramping, even when there is minimal or no muscle overload and fatigue.” (Bergeron, 2008)
  3. “Either neural activity in the spinal cord or in the peripheral could be the cause of the cramps.” (Nakagawa, 2013)

WHAT WE'VE GOT HERE IS A FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE

Lately, the neurological cause has been winning research arguments, so it would make sense to try the solutions that have the most bearing in that area. I frequently tell athletes that the muscles only know what they are told by the nervous system. Without a motor nerve supply, muscles are useless masses of floppy meat. Which means that if the communication between the motor nerves and the muscles goes wrong, you will have a failure of the muscle’s normal function.

This nerve-muscle communication is as much about sending signals to a muscle as much as it is about stopping those signals. It is possible that, with repetitive use and fatigue, the signal from the motor nerve to the muscle isn’t stopped as efficiently as it should be and then the muscle insists on maintaining a contracted state, otherwise known as a cramp.

If cramps occur intermittently for you during exercise, the most likely scenario is one or a combination of these factors:

  1. Poor self-maintenance habits of the muscles
  2. Poor nutritional choices
  3. Subpar preparation of the muscles and nervous system for the task at hand
  4. Neglecting to account for environmental demands

YOUR HOMEWORK

Prevent the cramp with proper preparation and regular maintenance:

  • First and foremost, if you always cramp in the same muscles, I would not be surprised to find that the resting tension in that muscle was elevated compared to muscles where you don’t ever cramp. Cramping muscles are likely to be more tender to firm pressure. Plus, you may be able to tell that those muscles are physically more taut than your other muscles. Your focus needs to be on getting that resting activity to decrease at all times. For that, you are going to routinely and specifically massage that muscle 1-2 minutes every other day with a massage stick, lacrosse ball, or your hands. It should be uncomfortable to work on the irritable tissue. And it’s going to take a month or two of consistent work to keep that muscle more relaxed. If you want it quicker, then my suggestion is to have dry needling to “reset” the nerve-muscle communication.
  • Strength train the muscles that routinely cramp to increase their fatigue resistance while simultaneously strengthening any other muscles that can assist with the same motion. For example, the calf muscles are effective pushing muscles so be sure to address any strength loss in the other rearward pushing muscles like the gluteus maximus and hamstrings.
  • Consider the psychological aspect. Cramping has a lot to do with nervous system function. You aren’t going to make the situation any better by increasing anxiety and stress levels. Athletes that struggle with this need to practice techniques that can lower their stress through deep breathing, meditation, yoga, or sports psychology. It’s no surprise that you could train for weeks without cramps but on race day the anxiety increases at your main event, contributing to the mystery cramps.
  • Expose yourself consistently to any triggering environmental stimuli, like higher heat and increased humidity.
  • If you are expecting to be in a competition that requires minimal or significant terrain changes then try to duplicate those changes or lack of changes in your training.
  • Progress gradually and consistently in durations and intensities of prolonged exercise.
  • It’s easy to suggest staying hydrated. Typical advice. Just keep your urine on the clearer side consistently. Not just the day of or day before longer exercise bouts. Don’t overhydrate because that can carry health consequences as well.
  • Consistently eat a well-rounded diet. If you start restricting specific foods that carry important nutrients, then you need to ensure you are obtaining a suitable replacement. For instance, by restricting meat you may cut out a large magnesium source. Do your research on what micronutrient requirements frequent exercisers have and adjust accordingly.

Prevent the cramp during activity:

  • Vary the range of motion and demand on the muscle as much as you can before you have any sense of cramping. For instance, to change the motion and demands of the calf while running switch from your usual forefoot strike to a heel strike for 20-30 seconds every 1-2 miles. Research indicates that the muscle fibers must achieve a shortened state in order to cramp (Bertolasi, 1993). For instance, if you are constantly running on your forefoot, the calf muscle fibers don’t get a chance to elongate, keeping them in a shorter, and riskier, position at all times.
  • Eat something containing carbohydrates during the exercise. It stands to reason that if muscle fatigue is delayed by eating to supplement energy stores, then you may not cramp as soon or maybe even at all if a few calories are always coming in (Jung, 2005). Nerves must have a supply of energy to function, too. They like glucose. It never ceases to amaze me how many people think they can go harder and faster in an event than they do in training with fewer or worse yet, no calories. Multiple systems change function without normal blood sugar levels.
  • Stick to a reasonable plan. Just because you feel good physically and mentally from resting a couple extra days prior to competition doesn’t mean you should suddenly decide to pursue higher intensities than you have trained for. Even if you don’t cramp, you will probably bonk in a long event, or blow up in a short event.

If the cramp happens:

  • Attempt to stretch the muscle. Do not stretch it rapidly and do not stretch it as hard as you can. A gentle but prolonged stretch is the best option at this point. Hold the stretch for at least 30 seconds. Now is not the time to bounce to the end point of the stretch because you have special structures in place to cause muscle contraction when that bounce hits its end point.
  • Massage the muscle with firm pressure. Even a single, prolonged pressure of 30-60 seconds to the muscle may break its cycle of cramping.   
  • Eat. Didn’t I just go over this?
  • Try my personal favorite solution, dill pickle juice, as the muscle threatens to cramp. It’s not the salt that is effective but the noxious stimuli from the vinegar. A new sports drink named Hot Shot relies on a similar mechanism but it has more of a spicy flavor. Either way, the potent oral stimulation effects nervous system input.
  • Try a couple electrolyte tablets or maybe a sports drink containing electrolytes. This isn’t supported by research, but a placebo effect is still a possible effect. But will you still have the placebo effect now that I’ve told you it shouldn’t work? Please let me know how that goes. I personally stopped using them.
  • Overall, you must adjust according to the variety of factors at hand. If you know you are under-hydrated, aren’t eating enough, haven’t maintained your frequently cramping muscles, undertrained, stressed out, and it’s really humid outside, then your best option is to slow down a little, learn a lesson, and work on the flaws before your next event.

There are instances where cramping with great frequency can be a sign of diseases and serious neurological issues so do not hesitate to contact a medical professional if muscle cramping is occurring outside the realm of exercise. Even a history of sciatic nerve problems can predispose a person to cramping during exercise.

Take care of the muscles and the nervous system with planning and preparation and they will take care of you.

Please let me know if you have any questions at derek@mountainridgept.com. And definitely let me know if you find some of these ideas helpful in muscle cramp management by liking the Mountain Ridge Physical Therapy Facebook page. Or buy me some dill pickles. 

For those who would like to geek out on some related material:

  1. http://journals.lww.com/acsm-csmr/Abstract/2008/07001/Muscle_Cramps_during_Exercise_Is_It_Fatigue_or.9.aspx
  2. http://link.springer.com/article/10.2165/00007256-199621060-00003#page-1
  3. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/299960193_Neural_Mechanisms_of_Muscle_Cramp
  4. http://home.trainingpeaks.com/blog/article/controlling-neuromuscular-performance-to-prevent-muscle-cramps?utm_source=tpr&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=07-16-anl

Tips for achieving a perfect shoe fit, Part 2

Here are a few more tips to consider when looking for your next pair of athletic or running shoes.

  1. Always take a potential new shoe for a several-minute test run. You wouldn’t marry someone without dating, would you? Walking mechanics are not running mechanics. Jogging in place doesn’t count. Use the shoe like you plan to use it.
  2. Try to fit your new shoes at the end of the day to account for swelling. It’s even better if you have already gone for a run. Just find some clean socks first.
  3. Feel around the inside of the shoe for areas of prominent stitching or materials that could become blister-producing sites.
  4. Check for manufacturing flaws. The shoes should be symmetric in construction of their uppers and soles.
  5. A wide and appropriately tall toe box can be a lifesaver. Everyone thinks of the foot as having a single arch but we actually have three arches. One of those arches runs through the forefoot at the ends of the metatarsal bones. Scrunch those metatarsals together in a narrow shoe and that arch doesn’t function appropriately for stability, shock absorption, or propulsion. You also run the risk of compressing the nerves that are between the metatarsals.
  6. There hasn’t been any convincing research to indicate that the various types of shoes (cushioning, stability, motion control) can decrease injury risk. Which is why you need to emphasize finding a shoe that feels good more than any other goal.
  7. Realize that shoes are not an appropriate fix for lost motion of the ankle and big toe. If you keep acquiring the same injuries regardless of shoe choice, the problem isn’t the shoes. You need to have a trained expert in movement analyze your strength and motion. Let’s say your lower leg muscle group has shortened over a series of years and you switched to a zero drop shoe because it was trendy. That might be a little dangerous if you don’t allow for a several-month-long adaptation period. It would be safer to transition from a shoe with a thicker heel height to less heel height and then to zero drop.
  8. The heel cup should not allow the heel to slide side to side or up and down once the shoe is laced snugly.
  9. Don’t forget about the footwear you use during the rest of the day. Your body will adapt to the positions it stays in the most. Which means using a thick heeled shoe during the day only to switch to a zero drop shoe for a 45-minute workout is a sudden and severe change.
  10. Use multiple types of shoes in training. This helps vary the demands placed on your body and may even help prevent overuse injuries that come from repeatedly working in the same range of motion.
  11. More cushioning is not always better. Shoe manufacturers love creating trends because trends equal money. Now that we have passed the minimalism trend, it’s onward to maximalism. Here’s the thing with those super cushiony shoes: more cushioning means you will hit the ground harder. Our bodies are always trying to seek a sense of stability and in order to obtain it, your foot will try to plow right through a thicker layer of foam. And the more foam, the lazier your gait can become. Muscles, tendons, and proper technique should provide most of the impact absorption.

Sunday Q and A: Marathon Leg Pain

Question of the week:

Last year during marathon training, when I ran more than 15 miles, my legs would begin to have a lot of pain. Is there anything I can try to help lessen my leg pain when running high miles?

As far as the leg pain goes, I’m going to answer this question specifically about training and the muscles themselves. Hopefully it’s not the joints causing pain and I especially hope it’s not generated from nerve structures. Without seeing an individual’s running technique or knowing anything about their training history, some things I expect to help would include:

1. Strength training the quads, hamstrings, calves, and gluteals. A period of higher reps with light to moderate resistance and a period of lower reps against a high resistance are both useful. Performing higher reps against a moderate resistance to the point of failure can be very helpful in improving the resilience of a beginner or intermediate marathoner’s muscles. Hammer the quads with lunges, the hamstrings with dead lifts, and the calves with bent and straight knee calf raises. Performing enough reps to cause failure can promote great changes.

2. Self-massage the quads, hamstrings, calves and gluteals. A supple muscle is better at absorbing loads. This also helps relax the more irritable areas in the muscle that some people call “knots” or trigger points. In my personal experience, it prevents cramping that is associated with fatigue. Rolling with a foam roller, tennis ball, lacrosse ball and a massage stick are all common and useful depending on the location.

3. Address any running technique issues. Over-striding, for instance, can kill your quads early. It is also common for newer runners to lack the understanding of how their bodies should absorb impact. A few (4-8) strides of 25-50 yards in your bare feet one to two times weekly can help most runners gain a little insight into proper force absorption. Grass and turf are nice for this. You shouldn’t sound like a herd of cattle when your foot hits the ground. Speedwork can improve running technique as well, so….

4. Increase your speedwork. For a beginning marathoner, one speed workout per week is sufficient. Part of the leg discomfort may simply be from the byproducts of rapid glycogen breakdown in the muscle. The best way to become used to cleaning up those byproducts is to train at a higher speed on a frequent basis. That means you should purposely make the muscles hurt in short, hard runs so they find the pace of a longer run easier to sustain.

5. Continue to emphasize longer runs every one to two weeks. If you have a three-month training block before the marathon, that’s at least six critical long runs, maybe even up to twelve. There is a huge and important adaptation time that must be considered when you are planning to run longer distances.

6. Don’t go out too hard. Better to start slow and prevent your body from quickly depleting the stored glycogen sugars. If you feel well at mile 12 and you are going 15 miles, then by all means pick it up a bit at that point. Make note of what you felt like throughout and adjust the pace accordingly in the next run. Long runs are all about aerobic base training, not speed or pace records, so there’s no shame in going super slow and even walking frequently to keep the stress lower.

7. Eat during the long runs. If you only have a few years of running experience, it is unlikely that you are burning your energy stores at the most efficient rate no matter your pace. So your best option is to eat during the longer training runs to insure a constant supply of energy. Even consuming 50 calories an hour can help tremendously, though you should experiment with taking in more, as long as your stomach tolerates it. Most people can consume at least 100 calories in an hour without distress if they are moving at a pace that is hard but sustainable for at least 90 minutes. Some do better with liquid calories, some with solids. Some people can only eat unprocessed foods while others can eat sugary gels until the cows come home. Experiment in training, not on race day. And start eating early in the run, by 30 minutes.

Let me know if you have any training and injury questions at derek@mountainridgept.com. 

Are you bonking?

Anyone who exercises for an extended period is at the mercy of their stored energy and blood sugar levels. Glucose is the basic sugar circulating in the bloodstream and it is well controlled within a specific range for a healthy person. Stored sugar, glycogen, from your liver and muscles, can be used to keep the blood glucose regulated.

If your blood sugar decreases to lower levels during prolonged activity and can’t be stabilized, your brain will prioritize itself over anything else because glucose is its primary fuel source. This means working muscles are not exactly high on the list. You are in the process of bonking, otherwise known as non-diabetic hypoglycemia or exercise-induced hypoglycemia.

Risk of bonking increases with the following:

  1. Longer duration of exercise
  2. Higher exercise intensity
  3. Exercise in a hot environment
  4. Insufficient calorie intake during the day of exercise
  5. Chronically insufficient calorie intake over a period of days
  6. Insufficient recovery time from a prior bout of exercise or multiple days of exercise as it takes nearly a day to restore glycogen after it has been used (in ideal conditions)
  7. Another recent episode of bonking
  8. Dehydration
  9. Limited prior exposure to depleting exercise
  10. Athlete inexperience

Athletes are not always aware of the signs and symptoms of bonking until they become more dramatic. Some symptoms of the blood sugar drop are mental and others are physical. The initial cues can be subtle but the symptoms can progress to more severe levels rapidly. Many marathoners know this as the feeling of “hitting a wall” around mile 18 to 20.

When bonking, pace per mile might initially change by something small, like 15 or 20 seconds. But if the effort continues and no calories are consumed, you could easily slow by 1-5 minutes per mile or even more.

I’ve known many hard-working, well-trained marathoners that train months for an “A” race, doing tons of distance and maybe even trained up to 23-26 miles. They feel strong but depleted at the end of those long training runs but they train more slowly than they race. So by running faster in the actual race they burn through their energy stores sooner and completely crash despite decreasing mileage for several days in advance of the marathon. That’s tons of training wasted because they refused to learn to eat a little something in the marathon.

Bonking happens around the same point for most people because we all store similar amounts of glycogen that are used up at similar rates. It’s possible that years of training could allow someone to burn a greater percentage of fat for energy, but harder efforts always require higher glycogen dependence. And having run for just a couple years isn’t long enough to perfect a fat burning metabolism.

The signs and symptoms of declining blood sugar, in a general classification order of increasing severity:

Your job is to detect symptoms as soon as possible in order to keep your state from declining further. Ignoring the symptoms and hoping for the best is never going to end well. If you have signs and symptoms consistent with the green items, there’s a good chance you can pull things back together if you take appropriate action, though it won’t be a day of personal best performances.

A few experienced and lucky athletes might be able to come back quickly from the yellow zone but nobody is bouncing back from the red zone. Only the more stubborn people will even push themselves far into the yellow zone. It’s a super dangerous, slippery slope. Don’t do it. You can’t win against physiology.

Many people don’t have the motivation to put themselves deep into the pain cave, so they just automatically slow down in order to feel better when they feel uncomfortable and have persistent negative thoughts. Kudos to you for not being a ridiculously stubborn fool like some of us!

Simply slowing down may be sufficient to finish out the workout or competition. If you don’t want to slow down, then you need to eat something containing carbohydrates as soon as possible. Ideally this would be something with simple and complex carbohydrates. There are receptors in your mouth that detect sugars and just the act of eating can immediately reduce the brain’s stronghold on protecting you… from you.

But there’s a good chance that you need to slow down AND eat something, depending on how long you are planning to exercise. If you are bonking after 90 minutes and planned to be active for 3-4 hours then it’s going to be unreasonable to sustain the same effort without eating many more calories.  

Three truths about bonking:

  1. You have to learn to eat during prolonged activity, even though you often won’t feel like eating, or the bonk will occur.
  2. If you don’t eat and your intention is to maintain both a high intensity and a prolonged duration of greater than 2 hours, the bonk will occur.
  3. Bonking is completely preventable.

Thanks for reading! Please let me know if you have any questions at derek@mountainridgept.com.


 

Sunday Q and A

I recently had the pleasure of meeting with a few parents and students on the Mountaineer Middle School cross country team as they were getting ready to start their season. I wanted to touch upon a couple questions that were asked because I imagine multiple people, of any age, can gain value from the answers.

Question #1

One runner asked if there was anything he can do to change the fact that his legs become tired far before his breathing or heart feel fatigued during a race. This typically occurs for him halfway through, but then about 75% of the way in, he is able to overcome the leg fatigue to finish strong. This was especially problematic for him on flat courses.

First off, I expect this to occur to some extent, especially in a younger, less-trained, or less-experienced group of runners. It’s common to feel good and be excited, so you barrel off the line. It happens to everyone from ultra-marathoners all the way down to 400-meter runners. Let’s say we apply an old coaching philosophy: run the first one-third with your head (smarts), the second one-third with the legs (fitness), and the final one-third with your heart (desire).

Sounds like this young man has the final portion down but there’s a good chance his first one-third is faster than ideal. Young runners are notorious for going out too hard, which makes the later stages of the race more uncomfortable. One problem is that in a cross country race these kids almost always have to do this because the area available to run shrinks down to a narrow path where real estate is at a premium.

So let’s just leave the “going out too hard” concept alone for now, because it’s not a road race where you can easily pass people. This student has to go a little harder than ideal in order to be competitive in a 3K race. In order to get through that middle one-third, there will be discomfort, but it’s the point where the person with the most fitness will excel because he can recover on the move from the slightly too quick first third. Plus, there is research at the 5K distance to show that starting out 3-6% faster than average total race pace results in faster overall times. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17149992)

I suggested that this young man focus on his cadence just prior to the point where he feels the leg fatigue. As we fatigue, our cadence tends to slow down. There’s a good chance he ran the first one-quarter to one-half mile with a quicker cadence but then settles into a longer, more loping stride. At the same time, the pace drops a bit. To take some of the stress off of the painful quadriceps and calf muscles you can decrease your stride length and increase your turnover.

One good thing is that cross country around this region generally means terrain changes. Hill climbs are the perfect time to increase cadence. This is easily achieved by pumping the arms more quickly. The legs and arms will always be in sync. If you think about increasing speed of arm movement, the legs must follow. The steeper the incline, the shorter your stride should become. A single leg turnover of 96 per minute going up super steep hills wouldn’t be crazy. A gradual incline might demand something in the range of 88-94 foot strikes per minute.

Even on a flat course you can make the conscious choice to fluctuate your cadence. It’s a nice distraction, if nothing else. Hopefully it is done in a preventative manner prior to the leg muscles feeling highly fatigued, but better late than never. A flat cadence could be more like 84-90 per minute. On downhills it could easily drop into the upper 70s.

One key to all of this is to experiment and train with the cadence fluctuations. It’s not going to come naturally in a race if you’ve never done it before. Instead, it’s just another burden to add stress and you might just forget to do it. Plus you are more likely to waste energy if it’s extremely new. Your nervous system has to practice the quicker turnover in order to make it efficient.

The more recent GPS training watches, like the Garmin Forerunner series, have a cadence measure. It’s worth paying attention to this number while running. And if you upload the data onto the Garmin Connect website or other training sites, you can see where the cadence tended to slow down or speed up during training or racing. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the turnover slow just as the point of heavy leg muscle fatigue approached.

Here’s a fun little experiment. Go find your favorite hill for repeats. Something at least 100 yards long and hopefully more gradual. Run it hard once with your normal turnover rate. Run it again while trying to maintain the same pace but while really trying to stretch your stride out extra long with a slow turnover. Do it a third time while focusing on a super quick turnover, again maintaining the same pace. Now there’s going to be some fatigue by that point, no doubt, but can you feel the difference in the demands that it places on your body?

 

Question #2

One parent wanted to know if their child needed to drink a sports drink before their cross country meets. Not that I have a perfect diet, but I’m not a big fan of mainstream sports drinks in the first place because they are often loaded with tons of processed simple sugars.

In shorter races like the 3K or 5K, the runner is primarily relying on stored energy, glycogen, within the muscle fibers. For a short event there should be plenty of that stored glycogen available unless you haven’t eaten for several hours or maybe you exercised really hard in the 1-2 days prior.

Some sports drink sugars, like fructose, are known to cause stomach upset if consumed before, during, or after exercise. That’s not very conducive to performance (or a pleasant child, for that matter.)

A snack or lunch two to three hours prior to the event should be sufficient for topping off the calories needed to get through these shorter events. Drinking water after that point is plenty sufficient.

I’ve seen parents “grasping at straws” when their child has succeeded in the main season and is headed to a big event, like a state meet. Instead of sticking to the same nutritional plan that the runner had used all season, the well-meaning parent has their child drink some new mysterious sports drink 15 minutes before their race. Maybe the runner tolerates it. Maybe they don’t and fail miserably. That’s the equivalent of playing with fire in my mind. Go with what has worked in the past.

The one instance where I can think a sports drink might be appropriate is if the runner had missed their lunch or breakfast for some reason. And that should not be happening. Plus, the runner has hopefully tried the same sports drink on an earlier occasion. It might be smarter to have the individual carry an emergency “real food” snack. That’s a good idea anyway because you should avoid becoming hungry on race day.


Do you have any questions about training, racing, recovery, or injuries? If you do, shoot me an email at derek@mountainridgept.com and you might get to see the answer in a future blog post.

Three common overuse injury mistakes you are making and how to avoid them

Using the “wait and see” method:

There are two ways to go wrong with the “wait and see” method. In the first, an athlete, believing “rest” is the critical factor in injury recovery, takes a large amount of time off after the initial onset of pain. When they do finally return to activity, having had no pain for a day or two, they often start out with way too much intensity or time. If you haven’t run in 2 weeks, then the first run back should not be a 5-mile excursion. In fact, it should be quite brief. And of course, instead of running an easy 10-minute mile pace, your legs are fresh, so 7- or 8-minute miles seem suddenly more comfortable than ever.

Few people ever follow this advice because there is a misconception that rest fixes all. (Same assumption goes for surgery fixing everything, but that’s another story.) And then the athlete can’t figure out why the injury came back a couple weeks later. Of course that recurrence is followed by yet another solid block of rest and the cycle of inconsistency continues. The body WANTS to heal. I find that to be pretty amazing. The key is providing consistent exercise loading to not only maintain fitness but to improve tissue integrity.

Don’t get me wrong. Rest is extremely important in recovery from training and from injury. But it should all be administered in appropriate doses. If you know, deep down, that rest is powerful then you should be doing a better job of resting prior to any symptom onset, not waiting until something hurts. Rest should never be considered as the primary method to address injury.

In the second scenario, the athlete ignores their initial injury symptoms and continues to exercise, waiting for the injury to spontaneously resolve. This can stack too much stress onto an already injured area. It’s often easy to do with running, because so many muscle and tendon injuries actually feel better once the tissues have warmed up a bit. That’s why overuse injuries are so deceiving. If the pain is gone while exercising, you must be doing okay, right? Well, no, it’s not that easy.

If we were to classify the onset of pain from overuse injury, there’s typically a progression:

  1. Pain only after exercise.
  2. Pain during exercise, though not at a high enough level to stop.
  3. Pain during exercise that does limit time or performance.
  4. Pain so severe you absolutely cannot exercise.

Athletes often become stuck at the second phase. Sometimes for months at a time. When they approach the third phase, they suddenly become desperate and finally begin addressing the things they knew were problems in the first place. Don’t be “that guy.”

Consider yourself only as good as your last successful, pain free run. Best not to worry about progressing when injured if you want a long career. Best to worry about preventing regression and working on your known problem areas, like hip strength or ankle range of motion. If you don’t know where your problem areas are, seek guidance from a movement expert.

Relying on pills and injections:

Everybody loves a “quick fix.” Some like it because it requires no real effort or time to take a pill. Others like it because it might reliably take pain away and they are unaware of any other treatment option. For some people, they feel they don’t have time for proper injury treatment. In any case, once the pain decreases you expect to go on about your training as soon as possible without any other care.

But think about this for a moment. If a mechanical stress led to your painful tissue damage, then there’s good reason to focus on a mechanical solution when there is one available. Medicines aren’t typically designed to alter mechanical stress. Let’s say the medication did stop the pain. Just because the pain stopped doesn’t mean the underlying problem went away.

Unfortunately, rarely is the proper solution a quick one. Pills and injections are not a reasonable long-term solution. Just like appropriate doses of rest, NSAIDs and corticosteroid injections certainly have a place in treatment. But they are not a valid long-term option for relief of overuse damage.  

Blaming the shoes:

I am guessing the shoe industry is at fault for this perception. It’s not about the shoes. Overuse injuries are likely to be caused by a variety of factors but most frequently by training errors. This means your intensity was too high, distance too long, or the rest was insufficient. (This is the third time I have mentioned rest!)

Even the biomechanical flaws that I might address in the clinic take a back seat to poor program design. We are highly adaptable. Each running technique is known to stress specific tissues.

What might be considered horrible running technique can be safely performed if you progressed slowly enough and were strong in all the right muscles, tendons, and ligaments.

Summary:

Like the cause of the injury, resolution should be a multifactorial approach. The trick is going to be exercising within the tolerances that the injured area allows while also working on any related deficits. Back the distance and pace down.

It’s unreasonable to believe that you don’t have mechanical deficits somewhere that contribute to the injury. Training errors in speed and time just make those flaws more prominent. You must look outside the area of injury. The body relies on an integration of systems for movement so if just one system fails at its job then you have a problem. And that problem probably isn’t where your pain is occurring. Is your balance perfect? Movement awareness stellar? Posture perfect? Strength out of this world? Have the joint motion of a 10 year old? Unlikely. Bring home those new shoes and get to work on the right things.

 

Strength Training for Runners, Part 5: Exercises

To finish up this series of posts on strength training, let’s cover a few examples of exercises that you can incorporate into your routine. Most of the videos focus on the lower body and trunk, though you should certainly work the upper body. With several of the lower body exercises, you can integrate in an upper body component to add an additional challenge. The Mountain Ridge Physical Therapy YouTube page contains several variations of these exercises, from basic to advanced versions. 

Quadriceps

Lunges, Bulgarian split squats, Squats, Step ups, Step downs, Plyometrics

Hamstrings

Squats, Hamstring curl with swiss ball, Hamstrings heel slide, Deadlift, Single leg deadlift, Plyometrics

Lateral gluteals

Side lying leg lift, Single leg pelvic drops, Airplane, Clamshell

Gluteus maximus

Lunges, Squats, Step ups, Single leg bridges, Double leg bridges, Glute thrusts, Plyometrics

Gastrocnemius/soleus

Calf raises, Plyometrics

Hip rotators

Single leg hip rotation

Abdominals

Front plank, Side plank, Anti-rotation walkout

Low and mid back extensors

Prone trunk extensions (Superman), Thoracic rotations, Front planks, Side planks

 

Please let me know if you have any questions at derek@mountainridgept.com. If you enjoy reading these articles and applying the information to your training, please “like” the Mountain Ridge Physical Therapy Facebook page.