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

Patapsco Valley 50K Race Report

As the weather cools off each year, my desire for a longer trail event grows. It’s a remnant of running cross country every fall. The Patapsco Valley 50K provided a perfect opportunity to race on new trails and enjoy some nice fall scenery. Although I favor more technical trails and longer climbs, the timing and location was hard to beat.

We arrived to the venue at Patapsco Valley State Park near Baltimore, MD a little prematurely, at 5:30 a.m. Although the prime parking spot did make the walk from the finish line to the car afterward much shorter. Packets included a sweet long-sleeve Brooks shirt and a toboggan. For those of unfamiliar with that term, it’s a winter beanie hat.

The wind was picking up as daylight approached. Although it was around 50 degrees, the wind made it so much more chilly. The start was at 7:00, slightly before sunrise, so we all began with headlamps. It was a novel touch but perhaps a little silly because the lights were no longer necessary within 25 minutes of the start.

I could tell from the elevation profiles and old race reports that the course began with a climb. What I didn't expect is how steep it was, which skyrocketed my effort way too early. My plan was to stay near the front, but I couldn't believe how hard these guys were going in the first mile. Especially for this climb being loose rock that was also covered in leaves.

The trails at the top of the climb were smooth but so leaf covered that I lost the path a couple times since the daylight hadn’t shown up yet. The thick cloud cover wasn’t helping.

As the first three to four miles passed, I tried, half-heartedly, to back off a bit, but it still wasn't slow enough to recover and it wasn’t fast enough to stay higher in the rankings. That intensity might have been fine for a mile or two, but the guys showing up this year were clearly maintaining a pace faster than the average in the prior two years. It was around this time that I somehow stopped my GPS recording for a couple minutes. Data lost to the wind. 

After working my way into a small group with two others, we stayed within view of each other for at least 10 miles. At one point we crossed a small field as the rain spit and a huge gust of wind blew a large, 4-inch diameter, 8-foot long tree branch down to the ground just five yards to my left. Up until that point I had been distracted from the danger of the winds. Adrenaline spike.

Nonetheless, I pushed on, because at that point we are in the middle of the woods and there are no other options. It was strange how much the trail conditions would fluctuate. You could go one or two miles on twisty, super smooth singletrack and then be suddenly bombarded with nasty rock-strewn river edges and crossings for a half-mile. Despite a little recent rain, the trails were largely dry.

My favorite section of the course was along what I assume was the Patapsco River. Perhaps it was the Ilchester Trail, but I am not certain. It was bizarre. It was as if someone had taken a paved, single lane road along the river, flooded it, rolled in a bunch of boulders, threw in a couple mud slides, and cut several trees down across it. The edge dropped straight off into the river yet there was pavement here at one time. Kind of post-apocalyptic.

I felt like I was flying through the technical sections after mile 10 until I rolled my left ankle a bit. Not quite as bad as in my recent trail 10k but I definitely had to hold back for a couple minutes.

And to make things worse, I began to have occasional calf cramps around mile 13. The crazy speed up until this point was way too fast for me and started to cause negative effects even sooner than I would have hoped. I particularly use the balls of my feet on the technical areas so my calves were getting hammered. With two guys behind me, my first thought was “don't change your technique or they will know something is wrong.”

The cramps would improve for 20-30 minutes right after a little pickle juice that I had packed but I eventually ran out by mile 22. No surprise the two guys passed me around that time, the three-hour mark. That and I was prematurely getting a bit of bonky tunnel vision. Again, the result of starting too hard in the first 10 miles.

It also didn’t help that I inadvertently blew right past the mile 20 aid station, not realizing it was grouped together with the drop bags at the start/finish area.

After climbing the initial climb yet again, all I could think about was cola. I knew it could save me. I wanted nothing more than cola for about 5-6 miles. We had run this same section in the dark and early daylight so it seemed familiar, but I actually think that made it worse. The problem was that I was no longer running 7:45-8:30 pace, instead it was a 10:00-11:00 pace. This makes the miles go by much slower. Math can shove it.

At a lonely water cooler in the woods around mile 24, I tried to take a few swigs, only to squirt water up my nose and cause a cycle of coughing that ultimately cramped my pelvic floor muscles. Who cramps their pelvic floor muscles? Apparently I have not done enough kegels lately. I have never experienced this before, nor would I like to experience it again. So if you are going to drink fluid in a long run, don’t get it up your nose.

The aid station around mile 27 came about 45 minutes later than I had hoped, but three cups of cola and two ginger ales helped tremendously to resolve the bonk once I arrived. I don’t recommend running in a state of bonk for 5 miles. I had been trying to eat energy chews but the temperatures were so cold that they were like gnawing on cold taffy and I had run out of water. Also, that is not recommended, but on the bright side my stomach felt great because I was hydrated.

I ended up walking more than I would have ever planned. Of course my body had to throw out another weird cramp of my outer lower leg muscles before we could call it a day. This time it was my extensor hallucis longus and peroneus longus muscles. So my right foot wanted to twist outward and my big toe wouldn’t come down. Can I just take a nap or something? Much to my disappointment, the leg muscles were not trustworthy enough to bomb the final miles of the course despite the overall elevation loss.

All of this foolishness was obviously happening because of the early hard pushing. I was prepared to run in the 4:20 range but who would have ever guessed that the winning time (3:57) this year was going to be over 32 minutes faster than last year! There is no doubt that by chasing for so long I buried myself further than I have in a long time. Therein lies the problem of trying to keep up with these young guns that train an extra 30-40 miles more per week than I do!

On a good day (running smarter) this course has the potential to be a very fast 50K. The only silver-lining was that I did have a 50K PR by 5 minutes. I muffled my whimpering at the finish line with a nice bowl of warm chili and a Poor Righteous IPA from local brewery Jailbreak. Happy I didn’t knock out yet another tooth like I heard one of the other runners did.

Overall, I would definitely recommend the race to any mid-Atlantic region trail and ultra runner. Part of Blair Witch Project was filmed at the park, which makes it automatically creepy, yet perfect for your Halloween time. Perhaps I will check it out again in another year or two to go after a faster 50K PR.


 

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.

Tips for achieving a perfect shoe fit, Part 1

Have you felt the stress that arises when a shoe company stops making your favorite shoe? Like car manufacturers, shoe companies have a tendency to constantly tweak things, even when they don’t need to be tweaked. In an effort to look a little cooler, or supposedly function better, shoe construction is altered from one year to the next, forcing you to chase an ever-changing ideal. Here are a few points to consider when looking for your next pair.

  1. First and foremost, the goal is to find a shoe that is comfortable. Nigg et al. suggested in a 2015 article that we would do best to select a shoe that does not interfere with the way that our foot prefers to move most naturally.

  2. Begin to break in a new pair when one pair is about halfway worn out. I like to use the newer shoe for longer runs and the older shoe for shorter runs or nasty weather. Most shoes are going to be very worn out by 400-500 miles. However, permanent changes in the cushioning material are evident within just 200 miles. Newer or injury-prone runners may not be able to use a shoe as long as an experienced runner or one that is less injury prone.

  3. Try a ton of different models and brands when deciding on new shoes. The concept of using inner arch height as the indicator of whether you need a cushioned, stability, or motion control shoe is very controversial in the research. Sure, if you traditionally run in a certain shoe type and have no problems, then keep on with the same pattern. If whatever shoe you use seems to never be comfortable, feels too stiff, not stiff enough, too flat, or too high, then check out the other options that are available.

  4. “Pronation” is not a bad thing. Everyone’s foot should pronate for the purpose of shock absorption. Individuals having lower inner arch heights pronate similar amounts to individuals with higher inner arch heights. Do not feel obligated to “stop” pronation with foot orthotics or stiffer shoes. That concept went out in the 1990s. Let your foot do the job that it was designed to do.

  5. Remove the footbed liner of the shoe and place your foot on the liner. Ensure that your foot is fully surrounded within the perimeter of the liner.

  6. Before you put the shoe on, try this “break test.” With two hands at each end of the shoe, compress the heel and toe of the shoe toward each other. The shoe should flex in the region of the forefoot. The forefoot will often have a cut in the sole that aligns closely to the joint at the base of your big toe and ball of the forefoot, which allows the joints to extend easily at that point. You want that big toe joint to align with the hinge point.

  7. Still with the shoe off, with two hands, one on each end of the shoe, twist the shoe like you are trying to wring water out of a rag. There should be some motion allowed here. A shoe that barely twists at the front is not going to move well with your forefoot. At the same time, you want some, but not a ton of motion at the midfoot.

  8. Sit the shoes side by side on a flat surface and compare how they rest on the surface. Check them from behind and from the front. They should be mirror images of each other. If one seems to be tilted differently than another, find a different pair. The heel cup should be centered over the sole.

  9. Check the fit with your usual foot orthotic devices in place. Do keep in mind that most foot orthotic devices have an additive effective to the stiffness of the shoe. In other words, a stiff orthotic within a motion control shoe is heading toward overkill. You could use the motion control shoe independently or you may develop a similar stiffness from pairing the foot orthotic with a stability or cushioning shoe.

  10. Over-the-counter orthotic inserts are not a necessity. I’m a big fan of letting the foot do the work it was designed to do, if at all possible. A lower arch height is not an absolute indicator that you need a foot orthotic. Imagine that foot structure is on a bell curve of normal where those on the tail ends of the curve have a foot shape that would benefit from the additional help of a foot orthotic. And inserts may raise the heel more than the forefoot, adding another layer of material that will contribute to changing calf muscle demand and altering ankle position. That shoe with an original 8 mm drop ends up becoming a 12 mm drop with that “arch support.”

  11. Fit your shoes to allow for space of the longest toe and longest foot. Some folks have such a difference of foot length that they should actually buy two different sized shoes. Aim for 1/2-inch between the end of the toe and the end of the toe box.

  12. Wear your typical socks during the fit session. (These better not be cotton or we really need to have a talk).

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

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. 

Morgantown Half-Marathon Race Report

Just finished up the Morgantown Half-Marathon this morning. Last year I ran the marathon at this event, but in an effort to save my legs for a longer October trail running event, I opted for the half-marathon this time around.

The entire event, which raises money for Operation Welcome Home, kicks off with an 8K on Saturday that shares some of the same roads as the Half-Marathon and Marathon, which are on Sunday. I opted to use the 8K as a warm-up run and pace a couple other local runners since it’s part of our local Morgantown Area Grand Prix running race series.

We had an earlier start (7:00) for the half than the prior day’s 8K (8:00), but it didn’t feel like much difference. It had rained during the night and remained humid and overcast. I wasn’t sad at that point for being in the half instead of the full. Plus, my legs felt like they were filled with lead at the start line despite a solid warm-up. 

The start line announcements were brief, which is nice to keep everyone from becoming more anxious. Of course, all the events must start with a couple “LET’S GO MOUNTAINEERS” chants. It’s the perfect way to get those sleepyheads roused.

Stride for stride

Stride for stride

The 8K and half-marathon courses are about as flat and rolling as you can achieve in Morgantown without going onto the rail trail. So glad we don’t do that because it would be crowded and boring. This makes the courses challenging but quite achievable, even for those folks who primarily train on flat terrain. Total elevation gain in the half is 745 feet. The marathon course has a bit more climbing at 1775 feet of gain.

All courses start out on a quick mile with a little elevation drop on a four-lane road (yay, we get our own lane!) But that sense of ease from going downhill seems to encourage a few folks to go a little too fast off the front. Not the best course to start out too hard because THERE WILL BE CLIMBING, though it will be distributed nicely.

No big hills. They are just frequent. 

No big hills. They are just frequent. 

The course design lends itself well to distraction. For one, the rolling aspect forces you to mix up your technique, pace, and effort frequently. Practice your hill intervals until you say “oh, I didn’t even notice there was a hill there.”

A majority of the course lies inside of a couple nice neighborhoods near the WVU Coliseum. That allows many of the residents to wander groggily a few feet out of their homes to offer support. I was surprised at the number of random spectators along this course and so many were willing to offer encouragement. Pretty awesome to have that consistently throughout.

Another great thing: community supported unofficial aid stations. I remember a few of these on the marathon course last year. Nothing like a bunch of little kids having a great time handing out Swedish Fish and gummy bears. The high humidity made it even more critical to take on water so these stations were very welcome. Thank you!

Almost home

Almost home

The course is a circuitous version an out-and-back with a lollipop loop at the midpoint. The support from other racers on my way back to the Coliseum was perhaps the best I’ve ever encountered in a road race. I tried to wave at several runners as a thank you because speaking clearly wasn’t much of an option as I tried to focus on negative splits. I began my build just a little too late, though, and ended stuck in no-man's land, running alone until the finish line.

With cash prizes in the half this year I expected that a couple of really fast runners would show up. And that was exactly the case. The top three guys were all under the 1:16:00 mark. I won’t be running that fast anytime soon!

I found the course length to be spot on to my GPS value at completion, which almost never happens for me. Plenty of well-earned Panera Bread bagels and pizza were waiting at the finish along with a post-race IPA.

My Strava file

Results for the half and marathon

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.


 

Coopers Rock Stump Jump 10K Trail Race Report and 6 Trail Running Tips

This Labor Day weekend I was looking forward to a little trail time at Coopers Rock State Forest. Last year I didn’t have a great performance at this race, ultimately blowing up in the last mile. For such a small event (61 racers this year), the fellow competition can be pretty stiff. I just remember it hurt more than the average 10K. In 2015, my speedy high school cross country running neighbor exclaimed “that’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done” afterward.

No doubt, the course is difficult, primarily because of the elevation changes. At nearly 800 feet of gain, no one is going to set a new 10K PR. Additionally, the easiest section, Roadside Trail, is along the first mile and then it becomes more technical from that point.

Tough elevation profile

Tough elevation profile

I expected that the switch to an early morning race time (9:00 a.m.) from last year’s afternoon time would be beneficial for performance. And it was. Sweat volumes were down 43% (exact figure gathered in a very scientific manner). The weather for running is fantastic in the forest now that September has rolled around and the humidity is dropping a bit. Fall can be the best time to run. Go outside!

Through my typical warm-up running I couldn’t seem to make my legs feel very powerful. This is entirely my fault for pushing them a little too hard earlier this week with weight training. They were not recovered and the soreness made that obvious. Not an “A” race but a slight bummer, nonetheless.

After the start, it didn’t take long for one racer to go hard off the front. Since he looked young, I opted to let him go alone at that quick pace, hoping he would explode on the brutal climb at mile 4 known as “The Wall” or “Vomit.”

I lost sight of him by mile 1 and promptly rolled my left ankle off the side of a small rock. It popped and hurt a little but wasn’t the worst roll ever, so I kept running. Maintaining a higher turnover cadence minimized the damage, thank goodness. Yes, I hurt myself on the easiest section of the course.

Tip #1: Look at the exact spot where you want your feet to land. Don’t look at anything you don’t want to touch. If you look directly at that slippery root or rock, you are probably going to step on it. That can be both good or bad. Set your gaze just beyond the bigger obstacles.

My splits were more consistent this year than last because I conserved in the first mile, so I tried to focus on an even effort now that I was alone in no man’s land. The legs were just not getting it done and never did come to life.

The descent that begins after mile 2 is lengthy, as it lasts until mile 4. It’s not super technical but it is long enough that it will take a toll on the leg muscles. But it is fun and there are a couple of logs and streams to hop. Think I jumped a stump in there too.

Tip #2: A course like this does not lend itself to obtaining even mile splits. You have to be good at reading your effort level or learn how to use a heart rate monitor to control your effort. With technical trails, you are likely to run at least 1-1.5 minutes slower per mile than a road 10K. And that’s just on the flatter or rolling sections. Hill climb miles will take an extra 2-3 minutes per mile, if not more.

At mile 4 the real climbing begins. Now that the descent has deadened your quads and so many miles have passed, we head up The Wall, where I always remember being unable to ride on a mountain bike as a teenager. That’s because it’s between 15 and 20% grade for the first tenth of a mile. But the whole climb is nearly a quarter of a mile long.

Tip #3: Nearly everyone walks on the steepest climbs of trail running. Anytime you choose to walk, walk with a dedicated, driven purpose. The walking is still going to allow a little recovery from running, even if you push your pace. So many folks hunch over, give up, and can’t even take a deep breath when they decide to walk.

There’s a moment of rest to be had while descending Rhododendron Trail, but it’s short-lived as the final 1.5 miles of the course account for at least 400 feet of the course’s elevation gain. This is where I was really suffering last year. I had conserved better this year and could actually push the effort a little bit.

Tip #4: Save a little something extra for a course that is known to have a large climb near the finish. You will always be more tired at that point than you think you should be.

Tip #5: Wait, you didn’t know there was a climb at the finish? Doing a little research can go a long way. Just ask around the group. Someone will be familiar with the area and course. I knew there was a long climb last year but I didn’t realize it would be so persistent and unforgiving.

About a half-mile from the finish the course drops into an awesome area known as Rock City where sandstone boulders are a gigantic 20-30 feet tall and large enough to contain a trail network. It’s a favorite for runners and hikers, as well as the average passerby.

A couple greenbriar snags later, at the finish, I was thrilled to cut a big chunk of time off of my attempt from last year. I would have been more happy to run this as a 20K since my old man legs haven’t done any speedwork lately.

Standing at the finish line, I saw many racers completing the event with blood on their legs, on their arms, and even on their faces. These trails are no joke.

Tip #6: You can catch a toe on anything that sticks up in the trail, at any time. Many accidents happen when you tire a little, let your guard down, and aren’t picking up your feet as high. But even with excellent vigilance and balance, falls are common to trail running.

Big thank you to Mark and Eleanore Jones who always do such a great job of directing these endurance events at Coopers Rock. As runners themselves, they get it done right. What a great way to support the Coopers Rock Foundation.

The 2016 results are over on iplayoutside.com at http://iplayoutside.com/Events/2016/09/16190r.html

The 2015 results are at http://www.webscorer.com/race?raceid=50270

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.

 

Ragnar Trail Appalachians Relay Report

This weekend, I had the pleasure of participating in the local Ragnar Appalachians trail running relay. It was only a few days ago that I even planned to attend when my friend Kellyn asked me if I would be interested in running as part of an eight-person team representing Team RWB across the mid-Atlantic region. Being a trail running nerd, it doesn’t take much peer pressure for me to consider entering a trail event.

Nearby Big Bear Lake Campground in Hazelton, WV had hosted this event for the last couple years so I knew a little about the format. I had no prior expectations to attend, however, because the minimum team size is four people. I always expected that a team would need to consist of hardcore trail lovers, who are a little tougher to come by. Or maybe I would consider it one day if they added a duo or solo category.

Camperville

Camperville

Nonetheless, I gave in to the siren’s call of the trails, over-packed my camping and running gear, bought a bunch of salty snacks, and headed out Friday morning. We carpooled, which is encouraged because of the limited on-site parking.

The well-organized and spacious camping area was along the airstrip at Big Bear Lake. This was also the site where all three loops of the course started and finished. Loops were identified by the colors red, green, and yellow; each with their own distances. According to the ideal eight person format, every team member was expected to run a loop of each color, which would equal 24 total loops completed and 14.6 miles per person. The “ultra” teams of four people run more.

There was not a specific start time. Teams were started in a staggered format, every half-hour beginning in the late morning. Some teams didn’t start until the late afternoon. This concept was a first for me as any relay or overnight event that I’ve attended used a mass start, which is more intense. I can see where this would appeal to a more novice runner because there is far less stress without a hundred people bumping elbows at once trying to enter a narrowed piece of singletrack trail.

Log hopping dude

Log hopping dude

Quickly after arriving I realized that many of the people doing this event are not traditional trail runners. Actually, I can’t recall this much participant diversity in any other event since starting my endurance sport journey over 22 years ago. If there was ever an event for the “everyman,” this must be it. For now.

I had the impression that most teams contained a couple people that weren’t necessarily training to run but were usually active. There were recreational road runners that had never run trails before, serious road and trail runners, triathletes, and obstacle course racers. Some wore costumes. One guy ran in nothing more than a Maryland flag speedo. Eclectic bunch, wouldn’t you say? Sorry I didn’t get the speedo pics you wanted. Better that way, trust me.

Easy

Easy

The humidity was high on Friday, especially with fresh rainfall that morning. At least one of the beauties of the woods is that the tree canopy will keep the temperatures a touch lower. A touch. Like five degrees. But the ravines tend to hold humidity and lack wind so you are still going to sweat plenty here in August. So do your darndest to hydrate consistently. Running at a decent clip will keep you a little cooler but if there’s hiking involved, then you tend to feel hotter.

About two hours after our first runner started, we learned that we would have only seven total racers as the eighth person wasn’t willing to make the trip. Some other teams had this issue, too. It’s hard to get eight reliable and solid commitments. It didn’t take much convincing for me to pick up an extra lap on the course to cover a portion of their mileage. As a result, I combined a “red” loop and “green” loop back-to-back in the heat of the day.

Easy singletrack

Easy singletrack

Now, about the trails. Being from the area, I’ve mountain biked and run these trails for many years. They are absolutely great and I wish I lived closer to them. If you live in a flatter area, then the climbs are going to be challenging, no doubt. If you compare it to the other nearby trail areas, such as Coopers Rock State Forest, the climbs actually seem easier because they are shorter, more gradual, and less rocky. These trails definitely have roots, logs, and rocks. So if your definition of a trail is a rail trail or service road, prepare to have your mind blown. Most are narrow singletrack, which people either love or hate.

Yes. That's a trail. 

Yes. That's a trail. 

To a beginner, there will be brief times that the technical features will require you to walk, perhaps rating it a 5/5 difficulty at those moments. Otherwise, I’m sure many beginners could consider the courses a 3/5 or 4/5 in difficulty overall. An experienced trail runner can run nearly 100% of these trails and would think of them as a 2/5 or 3/5 most of the time. They always seem more technical to me on a mountain bike than while running.

In a single loop, none of the climbs absolutely require walking but as multiple loop fatigue sets in by midnight, just about everyone is going to walk a section now and then, especially in the darkness. The smaller rocks started to have a mud coating, making it harder to recognize the prominences, day or night.

The plan

The plan

As much as I wanted to run super hard, I tended to hold back at times. There really wasn’t a method to assess where your team was “placing” as the event went on. Clearly, competition, as I know it, is de-emphasized. A slight bummer for my uber-competitive self but I knew that was coming at the outset and just wanted to trail run.

I was really looking forward to the night running because I don’t get to do that as much as I would like on these real trails. Unfortunately, I was still a bit dehydrated from my earlier two hot loops and had to fend off some mild stomach cramping during that loop. The spinning, lit disco ball in the pines trail section was a nice touch. I heard a lot of people stopped there for a while and hung out.

The Pines

The Pines

I would encourage runners to bring the brightest headlamps that they can find for the night portion. It is safer, especially for a beginner. I use a Petzl Nao and never wished for more light but had several comments from the dim light carriers on how bright it was. And always carry a second light source.

After finishing the night loop, I took a 1:30 AM garden hose shower that felt much colder than the one I had earlier, when it was 85 degrees. A brief snack and then I was off to snooze for about four hours in “Hotel Cassell,” the biggest tent east of the Mississippi River.

Hotel Cassell

Hotel Cassell

The random disco ball is just one of the indications of a festival vibe. Many camp areas looked like Pinterest exploded as night began to fall. Glow in the dark, Christmas lights, and flags were common. After all, you need a decorative theme when you have team names like Bros and Bras, Pour Life Decisions, Team Sloth, and Compassionate Strangers.

It was great how all three of the courses came together in the final 1/4 mile on a gravel road where several of the participants were camping. There was a ton of encouragement from those fellow runners every time I came through.

I really appreciated that this was a family-friendly event even though I didn’t bring my family. The music was turned down as darkness fell - in case you needed to get some sleep. Nobody was annoyingly drunk. There weren’t any crazy, obnoxious people vying for attention and I’m pretty sensitive to that sort of behavior.

Pinterest balloons

Pinterest balloons

The format of the event is intriguing and presents an extra challenge if you are accustomed to single run events. It’s about dosing your efforts appropriately. Which also relates back to hydration and nutrition. Lots of people can run their first loop without excess stress. Add in the fatigue from a lap or two with darkness and then you have more of a challenge for most everyone.

I especially liked the fact that the relay runs from Friday into Saturday. That way there’s time to recover on Sunday before returning to the daily grind where your coworkers will continue to wonder what the heck is mentally wrong with you.

One thing I noticed was the point on Saturday morning when many of the participants seemed to identify with the total experience of the event. There suddenly becomes a sense of community once a little struggling begins. You begin to sympathize with the other runners that rolled an ankle, fell down, bonked, or survived the night’s lack of sleep.

This is always a hard task for any company or product, but getting people to feel a sense of unity can be very powerful. I would say that Ragnar accomplishes this and follows in the footsteps of businesses like Ironman. Impressive for a relatively new organizer. I don’t think it coincidental that the amount of Ragnar branded clothing floating around suddenly increased the next morning.

The finisher medals are pretty cool in that they link together to form a message but individually they each function as a multitool. Better in theory than in practicality but hang it on your fridge and have a conversation piece that most finisher medals don’t offer.  

If you don’t like trails, the Ragnar folks also organize a road relay version of their events that require driving and unfortunately, roads. Gross. Trails and camping in one spot are where it’s at, people.

Overall, I accomplished big things this weekend at the Ragnar relay:

  • Ate over one-half jar of Nutella.
  • Ran about 20 miles on very awesome east coast trails.
  • Moderate soreness in really weird places.
  • Slight nipple chaffing.

Do you have what it takes?

Team RWB Mid-Atlantic

Team RWB Mid-Atlantic

Medal test

Medal test

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.

 

Kanawha Trace 25K Race Report

Earlier this week, I was struggling to decide what race to do this weekend. There were several quality trail running events in the area, including: Lost Turkey Trail 50K and 50 Miler, Appalachian Front Trail 50K, Run with the Deer Flies 25K, and this race, the Kanawha Trace 50K, 25K, and 10K.

My wife and I argued throughout the week on how to appropriately pronounce “Kanawha” because she claims the “wh” is silent and I refuse to admit this is possible. What do you think? If you think the “wh” is silent then I don’t want to hear from you. Otherwise, please get in touch.

On Friday, I finally committed to entering the 25K at the Kanawha Trace. I knew I wouldn’t be able to push a 50K and be happy with the result. In the end, I’m glad that I decided to do the 25K. For a while now I’ve wanted to get into one of the southern WV trail races that WV Mountain Trail Runners has a hand in, so I was expecting a well-run event.

I wasn’t interested in staying overnight nearby so the 9:30 start time of the 25K allowed me to drive in on the same day. The 50K group had already started at 7:30. Packet pick-up was at the Arrowhead Boy Scout Camp. Even having signed up late the night before, the crew had my packet prepped. They’re on the ball. The race shirts were great quality and a nice shade of royal blue. No weird colors here!

The logistics were a little confusing, since I’m not from the area, in that there was a shuttle bus ride to the official start line about 4 miles down the road from the camp, so you still need to account for that extra time required. And mentally prepare yourself for a slightly muggy school bus ride. Being late July in these Appalachian hills, thunderstorms and humidity rule.

The start is in a residential area of Barboursville, WV and requires just over one mile of paved road running before getting to the real trails. When I finally arrived at those trails, I received a big punch in the face. The course immediately begins climbing over 300 feet in about three-fourths of a mile. The hillsides are steep in that region and require frequent switchbacks to the keep the task even somewhat reasonable.

Having started with the 10K runners, I had to make it a point to run my own controlled race and not get caught up in competing with the high school boys doing less than half of my distance. Even still, I watched several of them fade back to me in the first three miles because there is just so much climbing early on. And they probably aren’t accustomed to racing distances beyond their 5K cross country meets. I remember those days. The days before I was old and #dadstrong.

It was much easier to keep track of the people in each event because of the varied race number colors. The 10K folks had yellow while the 25K’ers had orange. The 50K racers had white numbers but the only time I encountered them they were heading the opposite direction from me. These colors coincided with the flagging and signs used along the course, minimizing possible confusion. Smart.

Apparently it had rained the night prior because much of the course was wet. At the bottom of one early descent, I watched a 10K racer bite it right in front of me when he stepped onto a chunk of wet, filmy sandstone. I nearly stepped on him. He didn’t stay down too long, but that had to hurt.

Just as I was arriving at the second aid station at mile five, I downed the banana I had been carrying, which the crew managed to catch in this photo. Intense, right?! Well, anyway, check out that sweet piece of singletrack. 

Mile 5 marks the split of the 25K and 10K races. Shortly thereafter I descended a steep and slick ravine on paths that resembled game trails. The trail was nothing less than challenging and ultimately resulted in my butt hitting the muddy ground. As I reached the next valley and wooden bridge crossing, I came upon two beagle dogs in the trail. They were apparently scared of me and started running away on the singletrack. They ran in front of me for what seemed like a mile, serving as an unexpected pace crew and welcome distraction. Thanks beagle dog crew! Hopefully they went back home, wherever that may be.  

It wasn’t too long after that where I encountered a less helpful dog. It was a sizable mutt somewhere along a gravel road. I thought I was going to have to defend myself as it was lunging, snarling, and displaying its white teeth. Crazily yelling at it must have worked. Good riddance.

There was rarely a time in this course that I felt like I was running in a valley or along a ridgeline for long - the terrain was frequently fluctuating. This race has a little of every possible scenario: long steep climbs and descents, short steep climbs and descents, long gradual climbs and descents, gravel road, paved road, wooden bridges, singletrack, off-camber, game paths, clay mud, sandy mud, doubletrack, switchbacks, freshly mown grass paths, gas line right-of-way, rock drops, giant rock overhangs, cliffs, large loose rocks, timber roads, several log jumps, and a couple of local residents’ yards.

I went off course slightly in two different locations but for the most part I found it to be very well marked. The color coding was super helpful and the signage at intersections plentiful.

As fatigue set in, I began catching myself wanting to hike on some of the climbs where I would normally trot slowly, so I knew I needed to bring in some calories soon. But I also realized I had only packed a banana and a gel, underestimating the toll of these crazy climbs. It became clear why the total elevation gain of the 50K and 25K are only 1000 feet different: there’s a ton of climbing in the beginning of the 25K course. Taking the gel too early would be just as disastrous as taking it too late.

It was during mile 9 that I ran under a really neat rock overhang where I was imagining a family of American Indians several hundred years ago seeking shelter from a summer thunderstorm. And eating. Mostly because that’s what I wanted to do. Good thing there’s an aid station at mile 10.

Taking my sweet time at the 10-mile aid station in favor of surviving what had clearly become a toughman challenge, I took a gel with several cups of water and put a cup of ice in my hat. That mix made me feel like running again for a couple miles but I was definitely feeling heavy fatigue by the time mile 13 came around. Thankful that the climbs at this point were brief as I rolled along a ridge, the focus became holding my technique together and trying to use the terrain advantage to negative split. I knew there should be a big descent not long before the finish.

As I finished that descent and the end of mile 15 approached, I must have let my guard down a little. There was a brief climb and a quick descent toward the Mud River where I stepped onto a large, wet, cambered rock, only to fall hard onto my right wrist and leg. Unlike the first fall, that one hurt and took some of my skin with it. I don’t usually fall in trail races and now this was number two for the day. Clearly it’s a bit of a technical course and the recent rain had made it more treacherous.

The low blood sugar bonk had kicked in by the time the last mile came along. My form had degraded as a result but I knew from the elevation profile that there were no more climbs or descents. Please, no more! Stubbornly focused on keeping my core stable and arms from flailing, I could finally make out the pond at the Boy Scout camp through the trees.

In the end it was 16 miles in 2:19:01 to win the 25K race and barely set a new course record. The new record was my ultimate goal, so I was very happy with that result. Plus, my wife won the women’s 10K! Congratulations to her! Maybe she will start saying the "wh" in Kanawha.

The volunteers greeted me at the line with this wild, wood finisher medal and custom crock.

As usual, the WVMTR folks put on a great event. Check it out next year if you can. I’m sure most of them will never read this but events like this are successful because of the volunteers and race directors. Thank you!

 

The art and science of exercising in the summer heat

Your body is finicky about its temperature, which means it will carry out whatever processes are necessary to stay within the best working range. And that includes slowing you down when you go outside to exercise.

In a hot environment, at rest and with activity, blood is diverted to the skin for cooling purposes via increased sweat production. The sweat on the surface of the skin leads to a loss of heat via convection and evaporation (hooray for science). It’s a pretty awesome and effective system - as long as you aren’t working at really high effort levels or in a really hot and humid environment.

Sustained exercise causes a shift of a portion of our blood volume to the working muscles. And the bigger the muscle used, the bigger the blood supply required to keep it going. Harder efforts will inevitably use more energy at a quicker rate and therefore increase your core temperature to even higher levels than easy efforts. That’s where the sweating mechanism gets a little more inefficient as you are generating more heat than you can get rid of. High humidity also affects the cooling mechanism because the evaporative efficiency of sweating is reduced.

And then we add a third concern: dehydration. Dehydration decreases overall blood volume which magnifies the blood distribution problem further. This means there’s less blood volume for cooling and less blood volume for working muscles. This does not mean you need to go overboard with drinking water, as you could end up in a dangerous state of hyponatremia where you have actually diluted your body’s electrolytes. This ultimately wreaks havoc on your brain function and can lead to death. Some level of dehydration is expected during hard exercise in hot conditions, you just don’t want it to get out of control. Drink to quench your thirst and do not try to drink excess amounts to “stay ahead” of water losses.

Unfortunately, when it’s hot, the body uses more of its stored carbohydrate, glycogen, for energy. This may not be much of a factor for a 30-minute run, but if you intend on racing a marathon you must consider it a factor because you are hoping for your glycogen stores to last as long as possible.

You might think you can compensate for that increased glycogen loss by eating more during longer runs, but there are still a couple problems. One problem is that when the core blood volume is reduced to maintain cooling and supply working muscle, there isn’t much blood left for the internal organs, particularly the intestines and stomach. The other problem is that any carbohydrate you take in while exercising in the heat is used at a slower rate.

With the loss of blood volume to the digestive organs, your stomach might feel like it has a brick in it after deciding (too late) to eat that first gel at mile 10 when you realize you are suddenly feeling woozy. Is it the heat? Are you dehydrated? Was it the pre-race pasta dinner? It’s just poor planning and underestimating Mother Nature.

Those gels are meant to be consumed with large amounts of water: 6-10 ounces. Guess how much water is in one of those little aid station Dixie cups? Probably 1-2 ounces. Gels are a very concentrated source of calories, so the proper amount of water needs to be included to dilute them or it will often upset your stomach.

Once the woozy bonking has started, it’s usually too late to get those calories in quickly and maintain your pace, at least for a few minutes. So back off the pace, eat, and then reassess. You can keep the workout from being a complete disaster by making that choice to slow down for a mile and getting in some extra calories and fluids when you first notice a decline in performance and mental state. A slower than expected race finish is better than a DNF, and slowing down on a training day is better than needing your significant other to come pick you up in the car. Nobody needs to see your Road ID bracelet today.

Prevention is the optimal solution for feeling well and having a decent race or training day when the heat is brutal.

Most of us are capable of absorbing around a liter of water per hour but for prevention all you would need to do is drink 16-20 ounces of fluid per hour. I’m saying “fluid” because you may like energy drinks, but realize those don’t always work well in the heat for the same reason the gels can be a problem; too many calories and not enough pure water can slow the rate that fluids are absorbed in an already stressed digestive system.

You should also consume a small amount of calories early and often. Maybe you normally take in 100 calories per hour starting at 45 minutes in a 2- or 3-hour event. Well, you might start at 25-30 minutes instead and try to do it in smaller quantities and at more regular intervals. You might see if you can get in 110-130 calories in an hour instead. And preferably use something you have eaten in hot weather and at a high effort before. There’s nothing worse than experimenting on the day of a competition. Don’t blame me if you haven’t tried these things out before race day.

If you can pull it off, it is wise to use ice and cold water to help regulate your body temperature before and during exercise. During my most recent long run, which lasted 2.5 hours in the middle of a humid 90-degree day, I sat or stood in four creeks for 1-2 minutes each. I’m sure some purist runners would have a problem with mid-run stops, but I consider it a way to ensure success and consistency in pacing for the remainder of the run. You can also chew on ice, use wet sponges or clothing, and place ice within your hat and clothing. If nothing else, the cold is a nice distraction.

Proper pacing or effort dosing is critical in prevention. Expect the worst if you plan to start out at your PR pace on a humid 85-degree day. The calculator at this link can help guide pace adjustments. It’s probably not going to be a PR kind of day but finishing strong would be nice wouldn’t it? It’s also not the kind of day to do speedwork or long, hard pushes in a competition.

A huge part of prevention is regularly having heat exposure during exercise leading up to a particular event. This is the reason why you will experience a disaster day if you always train early in the cool mornings or only exercise indoors at a 65-degree gym. Your body is exceptionally good at adapting to the stressors consistently placed upon it. Try to have the heat exposure for at least two weeks prior to a hot competition or big training day.

Some other thoughts:

  • Plan ahead by checking the weather forecast before you head outside.
  • Try to exercise in shaded areas to avoid direct sun exposure that will heat you more.
  • Figure out ahead of time if you are going to develop blisters from wet socks and shoes by going for multiple brief runs with the shoes and socks wet. Shoes that are well broken-in are less likely to be a problem.
  • Wear light-colored clothing.

Clearly, exercising in a hot environment requires your body adjust to not one but many stressors: your working muscles, increased need for temperature regulation, and increased demand on glycogen energy stores. Training or competing in the heat doesn’t have to be dangerous if you are otherwise healthy, well prepared, and plan appropriately.

Seek medical attention if you have any of the signs and symptoms of heat illness:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Pale, ashen, or flushed skin
  • Loss of sweating
  • Confusion
  • Loss of or changes in consciousness
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Sudden onset of weakness
  • Visual disturbances
  • Chills
  • Severe muscle cramping
  • Severe stomach cramping

Stay safe out there. Share this article with all of your exercise buddies. If you have any training questions contact me at derek@mountainridgept.com.

 

Strength Training for Runners, Part 3: How?

So hopefully I’m persuading a few runners to try adding strength training to their regimen. Let’s go over some general strength training tips and the primary objectives to consider for the various muscle groups.

Strength training tips and objectives

1. Your primary goal is to place a stress on the body that it isn’t accustomed to and that, in some ways, exceeds the stress that running places on the body. This demand is what leads to positive adaptations.

  • Efficient running is stressful for the muscles, tendons, bones, joints, and other tissues in the body.
  • Inefficient running is even more stressful on many of these structures, which means you want to either get rid of the inefficiency (ideal) or make your body more tolerant of it (not ideal).

2. The progression should go as follows: mobility → skill → stability → endurance → strength → power

  • This means you need to master the basic movement pattern with a full range of motion far before you attempt to move heavy amounts of weight or move explosively.
  • Running requires tons of repetitions of a powerful movement yet many people don’t have the basic mobility and strength down to safely use that power.

3. Circuit train, especially if you aren’t accustomed to strength training yet.

  • Runners love to stay moving, so your earliest forays into strengthening can emphasize circuit training of the entire body. Circuit training allows you to move right from one exercise into another, bringing the heart rate up and providing a similar feel to the constant work of running that we crave.
  • Circuit training is more reasonable from a time-management perspective.
  • If you are new to strength work, alternate upper body, lower body, and core exercises to let each muscle region recover effectively in between exercises.
  • More experienced athletes can stack a single set of two or three similar exercises together to increase the muscle demand. For example, lunges followed by single leg squats and then on to step-ups.
  • You can add plyometric and agility drills throughout the strength session to keep the heart rate up and integrate running with speed, which is discussed next.

4. Integrate strengthening into your run workouts to improve your awareness of how to use those muscles while running.

  • Going back to circuit training, here’s one of my favorite winter activities when the weather is horrible and I must run inside:
    • Treadmill run 5 minutes
    • Hip strengthening and stability 1-2 minutes
    • Core strengthening and stability 1-2 minutes
    • Leg strengthening 1-2 minutes
    • Wash, rinse, and repeat for 45 to 90 minutes total
  • Perform a couple of bodyweight resisted exercises like leg raises or planks during your warm up to emphasize core and hip stability, strengthening, posture correction, and muscle awareness.

5. The abdominals (and actually some hip muscles) are primarily stabilizers when you run so learn to use them in that way.

  • Instead of crunches or sit-ups, use variations of planks and bridges.
  • Emphasize single leg activities with the pelvis held in a level position. I reviewed the pelvic position last week with the Trendelenburg's sign.

6. Work one side of the body at a time.

  • Symmetry in muscle strength is a key point. Working both sides of the body at the same time is less challenging and less productive because you will inevitably use a more dominant side without even realizing it.

7. Work multiple muscle groups simultaneously by emphasizing “closed chain” movements.

  • Closed chain implies the end of the leg or arm will be in contact with the ground or fixed object. Examples include squats, lunges, push-ups, step-ups, power cleans, planks, pull-ups, and most plyometrics like jumping and hopping.
  • Closed chain movements mimic running and normal daily activity. Open chain exercises, like leg extensions, do not often duplicate our day-to-day movement.

8. Think about performing exercises by the plane of movement that you move each joint through and then do a little work for each plane.

  • Squats and lunges emphasize a forward/backward plane at the knees and hips.
  • Single leg hip rotations emphasize a horizontal plane at the hips.
  • Pelvic drops emphasize a side-to-side plane at the hips and trunk.

9. When an exercise has become too easy, add an element to decrease stability and see if that doesn’t increase the difficulty.

  • For example, a standard front plank is easily advanced by lifting one leg, one arm, or both at the same time. The idea is to increase the wobble factor.
  • Some equipment options to increase instability include swiss balls, BOSU balls, and wobble boards.
  • Many standing exercises can be performed on a single leg to challenge the stability but you need to be proficient with their double-legged versions first.

10. Avoid using machines, emphasize free weights.

  • The limited range of motion keeps you from working in the positions that you actually need to gain usable strength.
  • Machines do not challenge the stabilizing muscles and nervous system components that can be beneficial for injury prevention and optimal performance.
  • Free weights are more likely to mimic the tasks that we perform in daily life because we commonly lift and move heavy objects.

11. Reduce strength training loads primarily in the week before your “A” races but not before “B” or “C” races.

  • Strengthening is part of the constant stimulus that you are trying to adapt to, so you don’t want to recover excessively before your low priority events. Train on through.
  • While training just before a low priority event you can decrease the number of repetitions in a set by 3-5 but keep the weight the same.
  • Before an “A” race, decrease both the sets, resistance, and repetitions if you have been working with resistances that cause failure at higher repetitions (i.e., do only 1-2 sets of 15-30 repetitions instead of 2-3 sets of 15-40 repetitions). If you have been gearing up with really high loads and performing more powerful, explosive moves, then back the sets down and the resistance only slightly (ie. do 2-5 sets of 3-8 repetitions instead of 5-6 sets of 3-8 repetitions).

12. Once your priority event has passed, back off of the rapid power and agility movements and encourage basic strength and strength endurance again for 2-4 weeks.

13. Perform strength training on shorter or less intense running days, especially if you have never strength trained before.

  • We don’t need too much of a good thing. Too much exercise stimuli in a day or series of days is a recipe for injury.
  • I often still use running as a brief warm-up before strengthening and, as mentioned, incorporate running drills throughout the strength workout.
  • Strength days are a great time to do other cross training on a bike, elliptical, rower, rock wall, or anything that allows you to experiment and break up the monotony of running.

14. A general initial strengthening structure could consider spending:

  • 50% of the time on the large primary movement muscle groups that undergo heavy use in running to improve overall movement strength and strength endurance.
    • These muscles, like the quadriceps, gluteus maximus, and hamstrings, can be pushed harder with higher resistances.
  • 25% of your time focusing on the muscle groups that are not dominant and become neglected in the running motion to prevent injury.
    • These muscles, like the deep gluteals, usually require very little resistance because they are not large or power producing.
  • 25% of the time integrating plyometric drills to increase power output, speed, and agility.

15. Allow at least 6-8 weeks of working at least 1x/week for noticeable performance changes.

In next week's blog I'll go over more application specifics and exercises. 

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

Strength Training for Runners, Part 2: Why?

Why strength and plyometric train?

Why not strength and plyometric train? That’s a better question. My personal excuse is that it’s not as fun as running, partly because it’s not done outside and nowhere near the woods. I’d rather move me, not a dumbbell. Although I’m sure some would say by moving myself I am indeed moving a dumbbell. *Sigh*

For myself and many other runners, strengthening is a necessity if you want to run long, hard, or into old age. I will gladly give up 3-6 junk miles every week to take the time for this type of cross training. Strength training gets me to a point that makes the other runs more enjoyable. How does it improve my running enjoyment? Largely because I stay less injured overall, my back doesn’t hurt during long runs anymore, I recover quicker, and my legs never get that completely destroyed feeling in long races that they once did.

I would argue that running itself is a series of plyometrics. (The Merriam-Webster definition of a plyometric activity is “exercise involving repeated rapid stretching and contracting of muscles”). Plyometrics are just high speed strengthening.

Here are a few reasons runners should consider strength training:

1. Strength training improves performance. Every runner can benefit from strength training. Competitive trail runners, marathoners, and speed demons who compete at any distance could reap very significant gains. At the same time, the less competitive folks running just for fun could benefit too.

The mechanisms of improved performance can be attributed to any one or a combination of the following factors:

  • Increased hip and core stability
  • Increased force production of the muscle fibers (aka strength)
  • Increased fatigue resistance of the larger leg muscle groups (aka endurance)
  • Increased endurance of the core, hip, and leg muscle groups while producing greater force (aka strength endurance)

Increased hip and core stability

Having a strong core and hips takes unnecessary trunk motions out of the equation. You can then move the arms and legs more quickly and with greater force without disrupting the stable base. I noticed this in the 2016 women’s 10,000 meter U.S. Olympic trials. Molly Huddle maintains a very stable trunk posture. As a result, there is less energy wasted during the early and middle part of the run and that energy can be put to use in the closing laps. And at that point many of the competitors are flailing anyway.

 

Increased force production

As far as the prime movers of the legs go, if you want to move faster while running, your options are to:

  • increase turnover while maintaining the same muscle force output,
  • increase force from the muscles while maintaining the same turnover, or
  • increase both muscle force and rate of turnover.

Strength (and plyometric) training is a great way to teach your larger leg muscles to generate that force in an efficient manner. Many of the changes that we would refer to as increased strength are actually the result of the nervous system’s ability to refine how the muscle fibers fire. It’s definitely not all about making the muscles bigger. By increasing the ease and efficiency of force production, you can become faster.

Increased fatigue resistance of the larger leg muscle groups and increased endurance of the core, hip, and leg muscle groups while producing greater force

Greater total muscle strength can lead to greater strength endurance capacity. Strength endurance is concerned with the ability to generate a certain force for a prolonged period. In other words, after strength training for a few weeks I can make a muscle produce the same or greater force for a longer period of time before it begins to fail. This is a huge benefit if you have reached the limits of what your fast-twitch muscle fibers are willing to perform with standard running interval training techniques.

Racing and hard efforts can rely heavily on the fast-twitch muscle fibers, and slow endurance training does very little to train these muscle fibers because slow training is primarily using slow-twitch muscle fibers. You can only perform so much high intensity interval work while running so strength training is another way to stimulate these muscle fibers. By regularly training the fast-twitch muscle fibers, you can improve movement economy and improve fatigue tolerance. Better fast-twitch muscle fiber use will help you when bridging a gap in a race, moving at faster speeds, and climbing hills.

2. Strength training can help you prevent injury. There is research citing decreased injury incidence in athletes with consistent strength training routines (http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/early/2013/10/07/bjsports-2013-092538.abstract). Stretching, on the other hand, has no consistent research support in injury prevention. For one, as mentioned, proper strength training helps to increase hip and core stability so that the legs and arms are moving on a stable base. My theory would be that it’s mostly the strength, stability, and muscular endurance of the hips and core that help to keep a runner away from injury though it's certainly important to train the rest of the leg as well. This is where many runners have the wrong idea of what strengthening should really be about. The primary objective is to take the unnecessary motion out of the system in order to reduce the injury causing “slop.”

3. Strength training can help you recover from injury. Often, strengthening of specific muscles is a vital component of any patient’s injury recovery in my clinic. In the case of both injured and uninjured tissues, the intention is to rely on these primary concepts:

  • Improved structural integrity of muscle, tendon, ligament, and bone, and
  • Improved strength and neurological activity in weak muscles

4. Strength training changes your perspective on higher training intensities. If you can perform enough repetitions with a high resistance that you reach a point of true muscle failure, you begin to understand what it’s like to really push that extra bit of effort from yourself. That can make a finish line sprint or track workout feel a little easier, for the muscles at least.

5. Strength training helps decrease age-related strength loss. Aging causes a loss of the fast-twitch types of muscles fibers and their associated nerves. Frequently demanding work from those muscle fibers slows the rate of loss. Nobody wants to lose the strength necessary to do daily tasks but I assure you that it will happen if you let it. I didn’t think about this until I started approaching 40 years of age (and the girls stopped whistling at me.)

6. Increasing strength makes you a generally healthier individual and a well-rounded athlete. There’s nothing better than being able to confidently lift a 50-pound bag of potting soil from the ground without fear of hurting your back. And being able to randomly and confidently play a pickup game of {insert any sport here} is pretty awesome too.

7. Variety and changes in your training program prevent burnout and staleness. The same old, same old becomes dull and demotivating for most people. There is so much variety possible with strength and plyometric training that it can really freshen up your outlook.

8. Strength training can boost you through a performance plateau. The repetition associated with some endurance training programs will inevitably lead to a plateau in many athletes. In order to bust through the plateau you need a new type of training stimulus. Resistance training can be that stimulus if delivered correctly over a 4-8 week period of time, especially if you add the plyometrics and change up your running interval program.

Please let me know if you have any questions by emailing me at derek@mountainridgept.com.

 

Strength Training for Runners, Part 1: Myths

Middle and long distance runners have a long history of neglecting proper strength training, partly because they don’t enjoy it as much as running and partly because of the myths surrounding the concept. Those myths need to be broken.

Myth #1: Strength training will make my muscles bigger and then I'll be heavier.

You will not automatically gain weight and become huge because you start strength training. In the strength training world this increase of muscle size is referred to as “hypertrophy.” Many runners don’t want to gain size because that’s extra weight to carry in every step. The reality is your body will best adapt to the stresses you place on it most often. If you run once per week but lift weights on 3-4 days then yes, you might bulk up. But if you run 3-4 days each week and strength train during just one day then you aren’t going to add muscle mass. Age, sex, and genetics each play a role in gaining muscle size as well. And the type of strengthening stimulus matters. Larger muscle size tends to come from an emphasis on multiple sets of an exercise using a weight that is 50-75% of your one repetition maximum.


Myth #2: Strength training requires weight equipment.

Fortunately, resistance training does not always require equipment. It is possible to use your bodyweight to provide a decent stimulus for many of your muscle groups. For instance, it is critical to emphasize hip strength and core stability in any runner’s program. This type of strengthening requires nothing more than challenging positions that start with a basic plank. Advancements of difficulty can be made by isolating the muscles you are trying to work, working only one side of the body at a time, or adding stability challenges (i.e. balance).


Myth #3: Strength training requires special machines.

It definitely does not require special machines. In fact, I am a huge proponent of avoiding machines altogether. Machines are inferior to free weights in so many ways. They do not challenge the parts of your nervous system that monitor your body’s stability and positional awareness. Machines also restrict your range of movements. Freeweights can moved through any available range. And for those that like to workout at home, free weights can be cheaper and take up less space than machines.


Myth #4: Strength training means I have to workout inside a gym.

Strength work doesn’t always have to involve an indoor gym. For running, steep hill repeats with an intentionally slow, bounding cadence can engage a large number of fast-twitch muscle fibers in the hips and legs. It’s those fast-twitch muscle fibers that can improve your sprint speed, surge speed, and overall pace in races like a 5K. The scenario is the same with plyometric training as you don’t need equipment or a special location to bust out a few quick jumps or hops.


Myth #5: Strength training will slow me down.

If done correctly, strength work will not slow you down and actually has the potential to make you faster. In one recent study, even when very heavy amounts of weight were used (3-4 sets of 4-10 repetitions to failure), female runners maintained their race speeds after 11 weeks of training. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4783109/) In application, I would never expect a competitive or recreational runner to train with that heavy of a resistance for such a tremendous amount of time. However, it is good to know that even after several weeks of heavy weight training these women sustained their speed. I would expect runners of any ability level to spend their time performing supplemental work to gain hip and core stability and fatigue resistance of their primary movers (hamstrings, quadriceps, calf group).


Myth #6: I won’t gain anything from strength training only one or two days a week.

As little as one day per week is sufficient to have a positive impact on strength and strength endurance. Some athletes think that strength training has to occur at a high frequency to result in a change. That’s simply not true. Working hard on your weakest areas just one to two days each week can have a tremendous impact. If those muscles were minimally challenged beforehand, then any stimulus greater than their normal level of activity is going to cause a positive change. Even if you prevented just one injury, it would be worth the extra effort of as little as 30 minutes each week. 


Next week I’ll dive into the benefits of adding strength training to your running program. In the meantime, if you have any questions, email me at derek@mountainridgept.com.

Knee pain at the iliotibial band: What can you do about it?

Description: Iliotibial band syndrome, or ITBS, is one of the more common injuries affecting runners. And why is that? Probably because the same faulty motor patterns and muscle weaknesses tend to run rampant amongst many runners. ITBS tends to come on gradually, causing a lateral knee pain, though some runners are able to bring on the pain in a single run of greater distance or intensity than their typical. It is often another story of too much, too fast.

Anatomy: The muscles that attach to the ITB are from the hip and thigh region: gluteus maximus, vastus lateralis and tensor fascia latae. The far end of the ITB splits into several sections, which indicates it has a role in the function of many areas. Most commonly athletes will complain of pain where the ITB interacts closely with the lateral femoral condyle.

Cause: The primary function of the ITB is to stabilize the knee during walking and running gait. When some of the hip muscles are weak, the ITB can be relied upon too heavily for knee stability, thus stressing its lower attachment excessively.

Signs and symptoms: The far end of the ITB can flare up like a tendonitis does when initially becoming inflamed. There can be inflammation at the bursa that sits beneath the ITB as well. As a result, you might notice swelling and tenderness to touch at the outer knee where the ITB crosses. There can be a snapping or popping sensation at the lateral knee. The pain tends to take on a sharp and stabbing quality when there is demand placed on the leg but the general area may be achy after use. 

A common finding in many instances of ITB syndrome is hip muscle weakness, particularly of the gluteus medius and gluteus maximus muscles. There may be a decreased ability of the nervous system to activate and control those hip muscles while running, even if they are strong in testing.

This demonstrates poor engagement of the right hip abductors

This demonstrates poor engagement of the right hip abductors

An indicator of poor gluteus medius activation is an excessive dropping of the opposite side of the pelvis when the affected leg is in stance. One way you can check this is to stand in front of a mirror, hands on your hips, and then shifting yourself onto one leg. For instance, if you move onto the left leg and the right side of the pelvis clearly drops then you have a positive Trendelenburg's sign. Check both sides as it is common to have an asymmetry. In the video below I demonstrate both the active position and inactive position. The same excess of pelvic motion can occur in walking and running. 

Solutions: As with many of these injuries, there is no magic pill and no quick fix. Consistent but brief supplemental work is the reliable solution.

1. Some physicians may promote injecting the bursa region that lies between the femur and the end of the ITB. Corticosteroid injection should be a last resort as recurrence is very likely if the mechanical control of the hip and knee are not addressed. I have had patients where injection was used as a first line treatment. Guess what? The pain came back. At least this is a lower risk area to inject with corticosteroid as the risk of ITB rupture is minimal compared to an area like the Achilles tendon or posterior tibialis tendon. The side of the quadriceps is probably more likely to rupture. Remember, injections do not address the mechanical reasons the injury occurred in the first place.

2. The very first and simplest issue to address is the presence of any weak muscles at the lateral side and back of the hip. These muscles need to be activated easily and consistently by the nervous system. So many people have weak muscles around their hips, trunk, and pelvis so don't assume you are an exception. It is a daily occurrence for me to see these issues in the clinic. 

Athletes need a baseline level of strength and the ability to effectively recruit these muscles while running to prevent the pelvis and hips from destabilizing. Poor strength or activation may allow the thigh to collapse inward or rotate inward along with an unleveling of the pelvis. It’s also important to consider the endurance of these muscles because the strength will undoubtedly be decreased a few miles into a run or fatiguing workout.

As a side note, I have seen so many patients that were correctly told to perform exercises like a side lying straight leg raise only to discover they are doing it in a manner that works the wrong muscles because no one checked their technique. Their form was incorrect and doing these exercises incorrectly can actually contribute to the problem. Not only are the wrong muscles used (eg. tensor fascia latae), they are creating a dominance in areas that further inhibit the function of the correct muscles (eg. gluteus maximus).

Here's the routine that I do on a weekly basis. 

3. As the awareness, endurance, and strength are all starting to increase, it is necessary to challenge the nervous system’s ability to stabilize the hips and pelvis. Single leg balancing activities are a great program component to do this. The individual must recognize where the pelvis achieves a stable position in order for this to be effective. This can progress to single leg hopping and jumping activities while keeping the pelvis stable.

4. There has been some controversy over whether athletes should foam roll their ITB, which I discussed previously here. Don’t bother trying to stretch your ITB unless you like to waste time and potentially worsen the problem. Most ITB stretches simply stretch the hip muscles that are already weak, which is absolutely counterproductive. And the ITB’s connective tissue is extraordinarily strong so you aren’t going to stretch it.

image courtesy 220triathlon.com

image courtesy 220triathlon.com

5. Running technique changes can be effective to normalize demands on the hip muscles and move in a less painful range of motion. The knee needs to maintain a high level of bend during swing. If you have a tendency to overstride far forward of the body’s center of mass then you will place greater demand on the gluteus medius muscle as soon as the foot makes contact, setting yourself up for failure. You may only need to increase your cadence 4-6 steps per minute and think of nothing else. There’s more information on cadence changes in my shin splint article here. The relationship of the ITB to the femur bone beneath it also changes as the knee is bent and straightened so changing the technique can change that relationship. In some runners there can be a benefit to running quickly for 20-30 seconds and then walking to vary the mechanical position of the ITB to the femur.

Poor right hip abductor engagement

Poor right hip abductor engagement

6. If you have been unable to exercise secondary to ITB pain, make sure you take full recovery days between the days that you do start to exercise. These off days are great to emphasize the strengthening, balance, maintenance, and so on. For running that first time back, short and consistent is the name of the game. Better to run one mile each on three or four days than three to four miles at once. Depending on the number of days you have taken off, a mile isn’t an unreasonable distance to start at and that may also require a walk/run program. 

Please let me know if you have any questions at derek@mountainridgept.com. 

Highlands Sky 40 Mile Trail Run: Best Race for Anyone with Achy Feet

Super tame section of Canaan singletrack

Super tame section of Canaan singletrack

The neverending boulder fields, rock-strewn trails, endless bogs, and cold stream crossings will provide your feet with the nice, soothing care that they deserve. I wish I lived closer to the course so I could run it after work on days when my feet are a little achy.

Seriously though, this is a brutal course, at least through the beginning miles. For those of you unfamiliar with the event, the point-to-point course traverses the Canaan Valley and Dolly Sods areas in the Monongahela National Forest.

Despite doing my homework by asking prior competitors about the terrain, stalking Strava segments, and searching YouTube, I could have known so much more about the course. There is no substitute for experience and having never done the event it’s hard to know what to expect. But that’s also part of what makes the challenge more exciting.

Pre-race

The pre-race dinner at Canaan Valley Resort was great. There was a nice variety of carb-heavy food and local craft beer from Mountain State Brewing. Several high quality door prizes were given away. I won coffee from Sweet Bloom Coffee Roasters and as of this morning I've decided it's the best coffee I've ever made at home. 

Most racers stay at the resort but I ended up staying at the Timberline Ski Resort, which I would see around mile 35 in the following day’s run. I awoke at 4:00 AM and began the typical race morning preparation with the special hotel rendition of my classic breakfast sandwich: 1 everything bagel, 4 slices of bacon, and 1 egg. After a banana for dessert I was on my way out the door.

Bacon makes you faster not fatter

Bacon makes you faster not fatter

Start

My wife and I drove down to the starting area in Laneville, WV, arriving around 5:30 AM. It was a little chilly for standing (because I’m a wuss), but perfect for running. The forecast was calling for very nice sunny and slightly warmer weather. Wish I could duplicate that for every race. I’d heard rumors that the top competitors started out hard and fast to avoid a bottleneck at the trailhead. That was definitely true, as I was running around 7 minutes per mile on the paved road until we hit the trail around mile two and there were runners in front of me going even faster.

Almost go time

Almost go time

We then began the long ascent from Laneville, WV up the mountain toward the Dolly Sods area. We made our way through multiple mountain stream crossings and large, unforgiving patches of stinging nettles. A pack of five guys formed in front of me going up that 6-mile climb, and the current leader was well off of the front. The pack of five eventually became a pack of three, as two dropped off behind me. I had to make the decision early to let them run away from me as I was pushing my heart rate well into heart rate zone 5 and I don’t even do that in the early miles of a road marathon!

Frolic in the ferns

After getting to aid station #2 one runner caught me and I dug deep to stay near to him as we descended into another large ravine. It’s not always the climbs that are hard on your legs. If it hadn’t hurt me so much I would have liked that descent more because it was laden with ferns.

Entering Dolly Sods

I did eventually catch that group and was able to stay in front of them for the entirety of the race. But in my efforts, I mistakenly pushed myself a bit too much, too early. The upper portion of the mountain became quite steep in places, enough to require use of the arms and hands to climb. I quickly learned that these were some of the most true and unforgiving mountain trails that I have ever raced. I came into the halfway point in second place, wondering how rough I was really going to feel by mile 30, knowing the early course had taken a toll. As an aside, I’m voting aid station #4 the best on the course for their high level of enthusiasm!

Multitasking food, shoes, and socks with fantastic volunteers

Multitasking food, shoes, and socks with fantastic volunteers

Friend Daniel Hanks shaving his legs at the halfway point

Friend Daniel Hanks shaving his legs at the halfway point

Road Across the Sky

Running the stretch of gravel road known as the Road Across the Sky, I could gradually feel my efforts catching up to me. It was difficult to run under 9 minutes per mile on a section where I should have been able to do 8 minutes easily. As a result, two runners caught me.

By the time mile 30 was approaching, I was definitely depleted more than I expected. Nothing like making a beginner mistake. I began hiking uphill sections where I would normally run.  

Those couple miles up to mile 33 were not fun, as the terrain was exposed to full sun and at over 5 hours into the event I was becoming emotionally and physically drained and that allowed yet another runner to catch me. Very demotivating. He was doing what I usually strive to do: negative split!

I felt like my nutritional intake was lagging behind and that contributed to my suffering. Speaking of nutrition, here’s what I ate and drank during the race:

  • 4 Gu gels
  • 1 peanut butter and jelly sandwich
  • 2.5 bananas, 2.5 liters of water
  • 3 oz. pickle juice, 3 dill pickle spears
  • 6 Oreo cookies
  • handful of plain M & Ms
  • handful of trail mix
  • 2 salted boiled potato slices
  • 12 oz. Coca Cola

Stupid knee

At mile 33 I started to have right lateral knee pain. I briefly forgot about it at aid station #7, but when I took off running again it reminded me of its presence less than 100 yards from the aid station. The intensity grew rapidly and substantially. I couldn’t even walk without pain and I was forced to limp. That was incredibly discouraging. I began to mentally prepare to walk the final 7 miles of the event, hoping to somehow hang on for a top 10 finish.

Butt Slide

But I actually didn’t have to walk that much as I began descending from the ridge. My inner Physical Therapist kicked in and told me to look for the fatigue-related running pattern changes. I noticed that I was disengaging my right quadriceps and allow my right knee to snap backward a little. The muscle just wanted to be lazy. And I know I have a history of landing with my right foot closer to centerline (i.e., crossing inward). I realized that if I just ran with the knee slightly more flexed and with a wider stance, the pain began to consistently subside.

All of my consistent strength training paid off because I had reliable quads on the steep downhill section affectionately known as “Butt Slide.” However, just out of the fear of pain returning I remained timid on the downhills and technical sections through mile 35. At one point the trail became less obvious I was wandering aimlessly for about a minute on that hillside. Trusting my directional instinct fortunately brought me back to the red flags on trail.

Road Race

I had recovered very well from the 2 miles of easier running. The flat gravel and paved road from that point on gave me hope that I could run quickly without tweaking my knee. As I approached the final aid station I could see one of the runners who had passed me on the Road Across the Sky. I downed 2 cups of Coca-Cola at aid station #8 and took off with a new motivation. It became a road race from mile 37 to 40. I managed to move up a place at the start of mile 38.

Finish

I ultimately finished up 4th overall, which makes me happy having never raced there before. That was definitely slower than where I wanted to be but the reasons were very clear to me. That course is a true challenge and quite beautiful. It would be great to run parts of it again while taking more time to stop and appreciate the surroundings. When trying to run hard there is so much time spent staring at the ground, hoping not to fall or twist an ankle. I will be back. 

Happy to be done and excited to have run the final 7 miles

Happy to be done and excited to have run the final 7 miles

Thanks

Special thanks to Dan Lehman, Adam Casseday and the rest of the WV Mountain Trail Runners crew for putting on such an awesome event, really caring about the racers, and giving out some cool prizes. And a big thanks to my wife for driving my tired butt home and crewing for me. And thanks to Pearl Izumi for the sponsorship this season.