Saturday, August 30, 2008

"Stop Slouching!": Lumbo Pelvic Stretches

This has been a long time coming. About a month ago, Jamie asked me about stretches for the IT band. And since I've been having so much trouble with my SI joint, I thought that this would be a good time to introduce some stretches for the lumbo-pelvic region (lower back and hips). These stretches will help relive or prevent low back pain, knee problems, and the general discomfort that comes along with tight muscles.

Cross one leg over the other above the knee. Draw both knees toward the chest with the hands on the lower leg. You should feel the stretch along the side of the leg from the knee to the hip. To increase the intensity of the stretch, move the hands closer to the ankles. This will increase the torque in the knee, which will give you a deeper stretch, but which also might aggravate your knee. This stretch is great for the IT band, but also stretches the hip rotators, especially the piriformis and the quadratus femoris.

Cross the right ankle over the opposite knee. Bend the left knee at about 90 degrees and grab onto the back of the thigh, reaching through the figure four of your legs to do it. If you're too inflexible to grab on to the back of your thigh, hold onto the ends of a belt, yoga strap, or rolled up towel wrapped around the back of your thigh. To increase the intensity of the stretch, pull your legs in to a deeper tuck (closer to your chest) and push your right knee away from your body (deeper external rotation at the hip). You should feel the stretch on the outside of your thigh into your butt. If you feel it on the front of your hips or in your groin, stretch the hip flexors and adductors, then try this one again. This stretch is for the gluteus maximus and the deep hip rotators.

This stretch is similar to the one above, but will allow a deeper stretch for the external hip rotators. Also? You might wanna warm up before you try this one. Follow the link for full instructions (better than I can do). Instead, here are some reminders: bend the forward leg if you need to, but work towards keeping that lower leg perpendicular to your body. Be sure that your hips are level; the extended hip will be prone to dropping. If you're very tight, you might want to support your hips with a folded towel or two. If this pose isn't a possibility for you at all, do this instead: sit with one leg extended in front of you and cross the opposite ankle over the knee. To increase the intensity of Pigeon, lower your upper body closer to the ground (without letting your hip drop).

A variation of the above stretches. Works on balance while stretching those tight hip rotators. Ankle over the opposite knee, stick your butt back, and lean forward towards both legs. Try to keep the back flat (i.e. not hunched).

If you are a triathlete and you think you don't need to do this stretch, you are 100% wrong. Between running, biking, and swimming, your hip flexors will become very very tight if not stretched out regularly. And that can throw your hips into imbalance. Which will throw your back out of whack. Which will eventually hurt you. So do this stretch.

Take a big step forward. Make sure your foot is far enough ahead of you that your knee won't stick out past your toes. Drop the back knee almost to the ground and scoop the hips up and forward (posteriorly tilt the pelvis). It should feel lie you're stretching your hip flexor muscles over the front of your hip bone. This stretch can be done with your rear foot on a table or chair to deepen the stretch and involve the quad more. You can also drop the back knee if your legs get tired from the balancing and lunging.

There are five muscles that aid in hip flexion. Two of the attach at the spine and hips. The other three attach at the hips and knees. If they get tight, they can pull your back, hips, and knees out of alignment. You can see how that would be very very bad for the main running structures of the body, right? So stretch out the hip flexors!

Technically speaking, you can't stretch the IT band; it's fascia, which means in order to loosen it up, you have to use a foam roller or get a massage. But you can stretch the muscle at its head (the tensor fascia lata, a hip flexor), and that's what this stretch targets. The stretch also gets at the glute medius.

Standing, cross the right leg over the left so that the feet are directly next to each other. Drop the right (front leg) hip and bend the right knee. Stick the left (back leg) hip out to the side. Try to keep the hips squared to the front; that should give you the most effective stretch. If it doesn't, slowly rotate your pelvis until you find the best stretch.

And so that is all that I have for you. This is by no means an exhaustive guide to lumbo-pelvic stretches. All the muscles in your body are integrated--they work together. And for that reason, if I really wanted to create a comprehensive stretching routine for lumbo-pelvic health, I would incorporate the whole body. In particular, I would also include stretches for the abdominals, the quadratus lumborem, the hamstrings, the quadriceps, and the calves. All integrated, I tell you. So remember that while these stretches are important, they're only part of a well-balanced stretching routine. In other words, make sure you stretch your whole body.

On that note, I've said it before and I'll say it again: try yoga! Find a good beginning yoga class or use a yoga video. It will prevent injuries (um, when done properly, as with everything) and contribute to overall health. And if you're in the Wichita area, let me know. Because I have the perfect yoga class for you.

I have this almost uncontrollable urge to end this post like this

(R.I.P. Don LeFontaine). But I hope this time has not been a waste for either of us.

Friday, August 29, 2008

"Runner's High": Conquest

"And that's where it stands right now. We have to carry the conquest forward. And carrying it forward is either going to destroy the world or turn it into a paradise--into the paradise it was meant to be under human rule."
We are overcomers. Athletes, I mean. We overcome things. We overcome time and distance and genetics and exhaustion and the ever-present, niggling thought (which comes at us through voices both external and internal): "You can't do this."

We are overcomers.

Here's my question: At what point does overcoming switch to conquest?

The issue is that I've been reading this book. And having read this book, I've begun to look at my life in the context of conquest. Of reclamation. Of forced submission. Because the author argues (in this book) that the drive to conquer is a huge problem for the human race. Humans seem to have this need to force nature to submit. We take oil the earth. We move trees, grasses, animals, hell, even mountains out of the way to make room for our expansion. We spread out farther and farther, extending our reach into the wilds. And the mentality behind this--whether explicit or implicit--is that this world is a battlefield. The earth is trying to resist our expansion, this is our battlefield, and we have to win.

The problem is, if we win we also lose. Because this isn't our battlefield; it's our home. So if we end up conquering the world, we've destroyed our only means of survival.

Or so the author's argument goes. I leave it to you to decide (but I do suggest that you read this book).

What does this have to do with endurance?

Conquest, my friends; conquest. If I decide that I'm going to go on a 10-mile run and my body, at around mile 8, says, "Hell no! Leave me alone! Let's go have ice cream!" and I make it keep going, I've conquered my body, yes?

The problem is, I don't see most endurance athletes fitting into this paradigm. Sure there are a few assholes out there, but for the most part, the endurance athletes I know love life, love the earth, and are remarkably in tune with their bodies, their minds, their spirits, their communities, and their world.

So I'm hesitant to label our endurance training process as conquest; I think it's more a process of overcoming. In fact, I think the two are not at all the same. Because endurance training--difficult as it is--does not treat the body as a battlefield. It treats it as a home. It recognizes that this home is capable of some pretty remarkable things. It is extremely concerned with the health of this home. It is a constant pursuit of making this home better (rather than what we want it to be). It involves overcoming the obstacles, the imperfections, the problems that face the athlete in order to become more whole, more in tune with the body, more naturally healthy. It looks at strengths and weaknesses, uses the one for all its worth and shores up the other. It works in concert with the body, not against it.

But there is a fine line between the concepts I've introduced here, you understand. Can you see how easily the overcoming can turn into a conquest? When you begin to feel your body work against you. When you begin to push beyond the limits of health to eke out a few less seconds, a few more miles. When you feel your body deteriorating, but keep going anyway. When you look in the mirror, say, "This will not do," and vow to be more disciplined so that you may cut part of your body away. When you no longer see your body as a partner--as more than a partner, as a concrete part of yourself.

Well, then you're no longer an overcomer.

You're only a conqueror.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Recipe File: Powerballs!

So far, the only long ride on which I have eaten these was in a car (but it was four days long, so it required its own kind of stamina). However, I imagine that they would be very effective for Bento boxing (as in brown bagging, not fighting Bentos). In addition, this recipe is simple enough that even the most recipe challenged (I'm looking at you, Speedy) should be able to make them. If you try the recipe and fail miserably, please share your experience in the comments so that I may make fun of you.

Power Balls

4 cups rolled oats
1 cup honey
1 cup sunflower seeds
1 cup chocolate chips
2/3 cup powdered milk
2-3 tbsp butter, softened
2 cups peanut butter (warmed for ease of mixing)

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Dump ingredients together and mix with hands. Roll into balls (size is up to you; mine are about a tablespoon, but I have a friend who makes them big enough to be a quarter cup). Bake for 5-6 minutes.

See how ridiculously simple that is? Also? Those ingredients are totally up for replacement. Try them with almond butter. Try them with nuts and dried fruit instead of chocolate chips. Mix another grain in there. Add some protein powder. The possibilities are practically endless.

By the way, if you're expecting pictures to come with these recipe posts, dream on. If I make anything good enough to share, there's no way there's ever going to be enough left over for a picture. Maybe I'll start taking pictures of empty, slightly-dirty plates. "See? This is where this delicious food used to be!"

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Found It!

My grit, I mean. It was hanging out in yesterday's (second) cycling class, just waiting for me to find it.

The morning class was big and exciting, and I worked my little ass off; I pushed way more resistance than I normally would. Probably because out of the three events I wanted to race this weekend, I did not do a single one. One was canceled. One was sold out. And the back-up to the back-up plan . . . well, let's just say that having my alarm set to go off at 6:00 p.m. was not terribly helpful.

And so there I was. Teaching my second set of cycling students on the day (all two of them). Halfway done. And I found myself looking down at the resistance knob, thinking about how easy it would be to turn it down before the truly hard part came. I had the perfect opportunity. No one would have known that I was taking it easy (except me). I had already killed myself in the 8:15 class. And really, isn't one hour of leg-crampingly difficult cycling enough for me?

But it was not enough. I turned the resistance up and murdered that mofo. I hit it hard, maybe right on the edge of too hard.

And I was pleased. I had found my grit. All was right with the world.

Then, on the very last track, my grit stood up, shook off some cobwebs, and frickin' asserted itself. "Don't bother looking for me," it said. "I am right here!" And so, with almost no conscious thought or decision making on my part, I found myself turning the resistance knob up. And up. And up. Until I felt I could barely move my legs. But I did move my legs. In fact, I turned them over about as fast as they could go.

Today, my legs are sore. No, really. SORE.

But I don't care. I've got my grit back.

Now if I could just find a race . . .

Saturday, August 23, 2008

"Runner's High": Feeling Low

Sometimes you start too early.

Sometimes you finish too late.

Sometimes you allow yourself to become burnt out in almost every aspect of your life.

Sometimes your heart calls you far, far away with so loud and distracting a voice that you can't concentrate on anything around you.

Sometimes you get hurt. Injured. Taken out.

Sometimes life derails your plans, then pushes you down and takes your milk money for good measure.

Know what? Sometimes everything sucks. You don't finish races (or don't get to start them, because they're canceled or sold out). You can't work out because of some stupid, bullshit, recurring injury. You get confused about why you even bother. You wonder whether you really love swimming, biking, running, or any combination of physical activities. You think maybe it's just become habit (or it's your job).

Sometimes the next step forward is too difficult to think about, too much to bear, too big to take.

I'm not sure I'm ready for inspiration, yet. Because sometimes you need to walk it out, go inside, figure out whether or not you really have the grit to finish a long run. A 5k. An Ironman. Whatever it may be.

The grit's in there, though. Just need to find it.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Have You?

Have you watched it yet?

What?! Why not?!

Go right now. No, really; right now.

You have no excuse for not seeing Emma Snowsill be awesome.

Quick updates:

I just got back from driving from Boston to Phoenix in four days, and my SI joint is acting up. Hope (hope!) it's just tight muscles (again), not something stupid (like a bulging disc). But holy sacroiliac, Batman; my ass hurts.

There were supposed to be two races this weekend. One was cancelled; one is sold out. So I was planning to race twice this weekend. And instead I won't be racing at all. Not that my ass wants to, probably. Le sigh.

I'm starting to feel restless and burned out. Working 80 hours a week at a gym will do that. And driving across the country to help one of your best friends set out on a new adventure doesn't help. I'm starting to look around, think, "Hmm, wonder if I could live there?" So any suggestions for where I should be living next?

Look for the next "Runner's High" article later this weekend. We've got some catching up to do!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Brief Intermission

Thanks to a series of 15-hour workdays (as well as a handful of gym members who claim that they are leaving the gym because of something that I allegedly did or--in some cases--didn't do), I have had no time to write at work and no energy to write at home. Besides which, I am entirely too busy watching Olympians being awesome to complete the latest installment in my "Stop Slouching!" series (which will be about weak hamstrings, by the way).

Also, I am flying to Boston tomorrow to help my friend drive to Arizona, where she has a job teaching 4th graders. So I will be in a car and therefore unable to update for the next week.

In the meantime, I invite you to join me by splurging (bowl of ice cream, anyone?) and pulling up a seat in front of the TV to watch the following events:

Women's 10,000 m final - Friday at 9:45 a.m. (all times are Central Time)
Women's marathon - Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
Men's 10,000 m final - Sunday at 9:45 a.m.
Women's triathlon - Sunday at 9:00 p.m.
Men's triathlon - Monday at 9:00 p.m.

And I will be back to regale you with tales of weak hamstrings on Tuesday. Please try to stay out of trouble while I'm gone ;-).


Friday, August 8, 2008

"Runner's High": Is There a Limit?

I've sort of written about this before. But it's come up again, as I'm currently reading Off the Deep End, a tale of a 45-year-old man's quest to qualify for the 2008 Olympics (sound familiar)?

One chapter he writes focuses on the physiology of the act. Looking at the average age of Olympic swimmers, society scoffs at the thought that a man (or woman) in his (or her) 40s is capable of the Herculean feats, the incomprehensible times posted by the world's fastest.

The point he makes is that beyond talent, desire, training, motivation, and opportunity, older athletes must be able to overcome the brainwashing effect of society's (especially western society's) collective beliefs regarding age and aging.

And I have one friend who is intent on qualifying for the Boston Marathon. For her, it's not really a matter of if so much as it is when. Right now she runs around a 10:30/mile marathon pace. To qualify for Boston, she'll have to run for like 8:20. Boston may be somewhat elite, but with enough hard work, she plans to achieve it.

Both these situations are strongly resonant for me.

Because I've been wondering just how fast I can run. I don't run fast, now. Maybe I'll never run fast, taken as an absolute measurement ('cause let's face it: right now a sub-9:00 mile is fast for me).

But I have somehow been conditioned to think that my genetics hold me back. My legs are too short. My lungs aren't strong enough. My muscle fibers are all wrong.

In my mind, I've set a limit for myself, and am convinced that I am physiologically incapable of running any faster than, say, a 24:00 minute 5k.

But what if I'm wrong?

It comes down to a question of limits. Once upon a time, running a mile in under 4 minutes was impossible. Once upon a time, swimming a 200 m fly in under 2 minutes was impossible. Once upon a time, qualifying for the Olympic swim team past the age of 40 was impossible. And the inherent socialization of "4 minutes, 4 laps of a track, perfect"; "200 meters, 2 minutes, perfect" was a barrier that had to be overcome before those things could be done. Not only did talent and training and genetics and opportunity and conditions and motivation all have to come together for the athletes who busted through those barriers; they also had to contend with an inculcated sense of the impossible, that what they wanted to do--or what they suspected they could do--was beyond the realm of human possibility.

Those things have all been done. Which leaves me wondering:

Are there any limits? Or is it all in my head?

On a somewhat related note, I've decided that my best chance for qualifying for the Olympics someday is to take up Olympic weightlifting.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Story Time

Eventually, Wednesdays will (I hope!) become recipe days. Or at the very least, FOOOOOD days. Because (honestly) most of my recipes just involve rooting around in the refrigerator, throwing anything good I find in a pot, and pouring it over brown rice or whole-wheat pasta.

Anyways. This week I have something MUCH more interesting to relate. So pull up a floor pillow and I will magically read you the book AND show you the pictures at the same time (seriously, didn't you always wonder how your kindergarten teacher could do that?) . . .

(By the way, the little squatty guy represents where I got hit by the car.)

Monday morning. I'm running east on Central at about 7:40 a.m. (you know, before the UNGODLY heat set in). I hadn't brought my sunglasses, so I had my hat pulled low over my eyes to keep the sun out of my face. In other words, I can't see much more than five feet in front of me. I'm crossing a driveway (and there are like a dozen driveways there) when I notice that there is a car RIGHT NEXT TO MY FREAKIN' LEGS. My first thought is "What a jackass, stopping so close to me like that!" 

But then I realize that he isn't stopping. I'm still running, trying to get past the front bumper of his car, and start banging on the hood and saying, "HEY! I'M HERE! STOP!" But still doesn't see me (um, or hear me, wtf). I look through the windshield, and he has his head turned right and his attention focused that-a-way. 

He does NOT see me. 

And all this time, the car's still moving forward, and I'm still trying to get past him. Finally, his car nudges my legs out from under me, I go tumbling over the hood, and land on my right hand. Still doesn't stop. I see him turn left into one of those driveways on the south side of Central (I was on the north sidewalk), and I'm still standing there, giving the now-empty road this look like, "What the fuck, jackass?!" 

A lady pulled into one of the driveways--she'd seen the whole thing--and asked if I was okay. And I was. But I was MAD. It's a good thing he didn't stop, because I was not in the mood to say anything very nice, and I don't think that would have made the situation any better (even though it was totally well-deserved). But as it was, I didn't have to worry about it, so I just ran the rest of the way back to the gym.

Later that day, I went to the police department to file a report. And they said that he had called in his side of the report also, so I guess he wasn't a jackass after all. I figure he probably turned around and came back, but by that time I was already gone. I have his phone number (the police gave it to me). Now I just need to figure out what the hell to say to someone who ran over me with his car.

I have a little bruise on my index finger, a big bruise on my elbow, and the right side of my neck and shoulder is really tight (I landed on my right arm when I dove over the hood of his car)--knotted up all over. I was sort of freaked out once my neck tightened up like that (didn't happen until yesterday morning), but it's starting to fade away now (helped along by my awesome masseuse), so I think that it's all superficial. I don't have health insurance right now, so I'll have to call the guy who hit me and figure out that whole mess so I can go get the ol' neck looked at.

Also I have a blister on the little toe of my right foot. But that is unrelated :-)

And that, boys and girls, is the story of the second time I've been hit by a car. Both times I've been remarkably lucky. Let's hope that there's no "third time's a charm" principle at work here.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

"Stop Slouching!": Pronation

I never used to pay attention to articles about pronation. Why? Because I didn't think I overpronate (but those are my feet up there). In fact, I tend to walk on the blades of my feet. Which made me think that I supinate. But there's more to pronation than just the way your ankles tilt, or whether your toes turn in or out (mine turn in). Additionally, I have some clients who are guilty of absolutely criminal pronation. So I've had to do a lot of research to figure out pronation, why it's bad, and what (if anything) we can do to correct it. I'm pretty excited about writing this article, and I hope it's helpful.

You probably recognize pronation, even if you don't realize it. Pronation, which is also sometimes called being flat-footed (although they're two separate phenomena, if you ask me), refers to the inward, medial rotation of the foot at the ankle. The main symptom is an arch that collapses as you put weight on your foot. Here's a video to watch (and I'm sorry if you don't like feet).

Note how the arch collapses and the ankle rolls in. Gross, yeah? To see if you overpronate, check to see if the arch is collapsed (or possibly non-existent), if the inside edge of your foot bulges when you're standing relaxed, or if your ankles noticeably roll in as you put weight on them.

Neutral Foot Position

Pronation/overpronation and supination/underpronation are both caused by an ankle that cannot retain neutral position. So in order to correct any functional over- or underpronation, you have to learn how your foot is supposed to sit, and how that's supposed to feel. I've found two practical ways to do this--one with a trainer or coach (or partner or training buddy), the other alone.

Here's the first, taken from a great article by Justin Price on ptonthenet about overpronation:
There are two small indentations at the base of the ankle just below the ankle joint. Place your thumb on the dimple on the inside of the ankle and your forefinger on the dimple on the outside (see Figure 4). Ask your client to roll her foot and ankle inward (overpronate). You will feel pressure on your thumb. Ask her to roll outward (oversupinate), and you will feel pressure on your forefinger. This pressure is the talus bone moving in the ankle. Coach your client to pronate and supinate until you feel even pressure of the talus bone on both your thumb and forefinger. This is the anatomical neutral position for the foot and ankle. Most people will have to supinate to get to neutral from their dysfunctional overpronated position.
This method is useful because it's more absolute, more technical. So if you're the typical Type A triathlete, this is the method for you, although you'll need another person's assistance to work it out.

The second method is much more intuitive, and I've derived it from yoga. Stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Make sure your weight is evenly distributed through the three main points of contact between your feet and the floor (heel, joint of the big toe, joint of the little toe, i.e. first and fifth metatarsal). Once you're in a proper Mountain Pose (and if you don't know how to do this, shame on you! go to yoga!), lift your toes. You should feel your arches lift. Now lower your toes, but don't let your arches fall. If you're like me, you'll feel the muscles in your lower legs--really, like all of them--engage, and just standing like that will be exhausting. At this point, you should feel like the muscles underneath the plantar fascia on your feet are engaged, the weight is evenly distributed betwen the three points of the foot, and you have three natural arches (forming a triangle on each of your feet).

How to Fix it
You might notice that I strongly advocate the practice of yoga for strengthening the arches. It's a great place to start.

But what if you lack the time and money to attend yet another class every week (preferably multiple times a week)? After all, not everyone works at a gym!

Try these simple exercises to strengthen your foot muscles, relax your flantar fascia, and become a better person.

Golf Ball Roll
Exactly what it sounds like. You've used a foam roller before? Same idea here. You're using the golf ball to perform self myofascial release (your own personal deep-tissue massage!) on the plantar fascia in your foot. Roll the golf ball under each foot for 30-60 seconds, stopping on any painful places. As you do this, perform an active stretch of the muscles underneath the fascia by pulling your toes up towards your shins.

Big Toe Pushdowns
Stand with your foot in neutral position (see above). Push down through your big toe without allowing the ankle to roll in or the arch to collapse. Start by holding that for 5 seconds, 10 times on each side (or do both sides at once). As you get stronger, hold the toe down for longer stretches and fewer repetitions. You'll start to feel that muscle (flexor hallicus) contract under the arch of the foot. As it gets stronger, you'll be able to consciously engage that muscle whenever you're doing a weight bearing exercise.

Calf Stretch w/ Tibialis Anterior Activation
You've probably done this stretch plenty before, but this time you're going to do it with a neutral foot position, while pulling your toes up. One foot forward, one foot back. Press the heel of the back foot into the floor behind you. But don't let your ankle roll in, mkay? That kind of defeats the point. Pull the toes of the back foot up toward your shin. And hold. Feels nice, right? The other trainers and I always joke about how we love being stretched out. Until someone tries to stretch our calves. At which point we want to kill somebody. Hold for 30 seconds on each side, repeat 3-5 times.

Pronation and Yoga
Yoga is always practiced barefoot. The book I've been reading recently (Yoga Anatomy) connects the three natural arches of the foot to the muscle lock Uddiyanabandha, in which you pull your deep abdominals in and up. So I recommend doing some yoga practice to help your feet. Not only is it a great option for increasing flexibility and preventing injury, it's going to improve your biomechanics. And I speak absolutely 100% from experience. Do it; it helps; and it's a lot more fun to take a yoga class than to add a 1-hour stretching workout to your weekly routine (on top of swimming, biking, running, nutrition, weights . . .)

In addition, practice a mild Uddiyanabandha when you're running, walking, going up stairs, even when you're cycling. If nothing else, making the connection between arch and abs forces you to bring your mind back to what your feet are doing. And you can't go wrong with being more mindful in your running and cycling.

Why it Matters

Ankles, hips, and knees are all intimately related. If one of those joints is out of line, the others are going to suffer. That means that when you overpronate (or underpronate, for that matter), your hips and knees are going to feel the effects as well.

Pronation can also affect your performance in the bike, although the effects tend to take longer to appear. I attribute my achilles tendinitis to the excessive overpronation of my right foot. With each pedal stroke--every time I put weight on my right foot--the arch rolls in, which takes my ankle out of alignment, putting excessive strain on my achilles tendon. Note that this problem can also be caused by having bike shoes that don't fit properly, or by excessive amounts of rock in your shoe/cleat/pedal fit (especially with Speedplay).

Also? Plantar fasciitis. Bunions. Shin splints. IT band pain. Are those not enough reasons for you to do something about this problem?

A couple weeks ago at my local run shop, I asked the proprietor if there are exercises you can do to correct overpronation. He said no; in his mind, the only option is motion-control shoes and, if those don't work, orthotics. Based on the research I've done, I strongly disagree, with one caveat. In my mind, there are two kinds of pronation: structural (i.e. bones, tendons, ligaments) and functional (i.e. muscles and laziness). Some people are born with flat feet, and they will always need corrective aids to avoid overpronation. Most of us, however, are overpronators by circumstance. Our feet have evolved to move us (barefoot) over uneven ground. Instead, we stick our feet in shoes and push them around pavement. No wonder they don't know what the hell they're doing.

My biggest recommendation to you overpronators (and, consequently, to myself) is to get outside and play barefoot. Teach those muscles under your plantar fascia how to function again! Do some barefoot trail running. Run around the lawn barefoot with your kids. Heck, maybe even try a barefoot marathon. The yoga is great and will work wonders, but using your feet the way they were meant to be used is even better.

Or don't. Keep wearing your big, ridiculous, motion-control shoes. The rest of us are going to laugh at you, though, as we run by wearing our light, sexy, don't-need-no-support racing flats.

Note: big props to my sources on this article.

Kaminoff, Leslie. Yoga Anatomy. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2007.

Price, Justin. "Corrective Exercise - Part 1: The Foot, Ankle and Knee." PTonthenet, 19 May 2008.

Yeah, it's MLA style. So what? What else would you expect from an English major?

Beginners' Guide: The Cost of Setting Out

If you're considering getting involved with triathlon, you've already figured out that this sport ain't cheap. In fact, short of polo (which requires a horse as well as a bunch of goofy-looking clothes), it might be the most expensive sport ever created. Although if you can think of more expensive sports, let's please discuss (read: make fun of) them at length in the comments!

And at this point in the year, you've probably already weighed the costs and benefits. But just in case you're still on the edge ("I don't know if I can afford this . . . or if I want to!") or thinking about getting more serious ("I really liked doing that race; maybe I'm ready to invest a little more deeply in this thing.") I'm providing this Beginner's Guide to choosing, purchasing, and paying for gear.

For the absolute first-timer n00b: The Bare Necessities
Believe it or not, you need very little to get started. 


For swimming, get a pair of goggles. You can get them anywhere, any kind (I have one pair bought at a big box store on vacation that actually worked tolerably well), but keep in mind that you get what you pay for. My recommendation? Speedo Vanquisher. That's what I use, and I love them. The link takes you to the mirrored version ("Vanquisher Plus," fancy pants Speedo), which I like because they transition better to outdoor (i.e. race day) usage. A pair of those will set you back $15 at your local swim shop (I got mine at for $10.50 + shipping).

Swim cap? Eh . . . if you have long, floppy hair that won't stay in a ponytail, you'll probably need one. If you can handle practicing with your hair in your face, just wait until race day, when they'll probably give you one for free. After a few races, you'll have so many swim caps you won't know what to do with them all!

For swimwear (remember we're looking at the absolute bare necessities), here's what I suggest: Fellas, use an old pair of bike shorts. They're going to stretch out with the chlorine (and, if you're outside, they'll fade in the sun), so do not use your $100 Descente comp shorts (you know who you are, cyclists). If you'd like, you can drop the extra $20 for a jammer-style suit (looks like bike shorts without the padding). Or be super trendy and buy a speedo! Women, if you don't have a training swimsuit your cheapest option is a grab bag suit, which you'll probably be able to find for $20-$30. If you have a local swim shop, they might have that option, also. If you're picky about color, pay the extra $5 to pick your style. And I strongly recommend that you buy a 100% polyester suit; otherwise, you might be buying a new one every other month (I know I have!), as they stretch out considerably as the lycra disintegrates from exposure to chlorine.


Bike. Ah, the bike. The huge money sink-hole of our sport (but we love it, you know). For the absolute beginner, I recommend that you use your old 10-speed, your $50 big box bike, or borrow one. Unless you are doing a half ironman distance (or longer) for your first race, just use what you have. I can't tell you how many times I've gotten e-mails from cycling or tri mailing lists to the effect of
hey i bought a bike when i started training 5 months ago but i can't do it anymore will sell my bike cheap 1400 obo
These people, for the most part, bought bikes before they were sure they'd be able to commit to the sport long-term and end up selling their gear at a loss. A good bike is expensive (and buying a cheap bike is even more expensive), so save yourself some hassle and do a few races before you make such a big investment. Ideally, check around with people you know and ask if anyone has a bike you can borrow. I borrowed a bike for my second and third races, before I was ready to invest in my own (the first race I did on an old $20 ten-speed from Goodwill).

Bike shorts, I would argue, are an absolute necessity. Believe me, you do not want to be on a bike seat for any longer than 10 minutes without them (although I have dozens of insane people who take spinning classes in street clothes). You can probably find a pair for $20, but pay an extra $15-$30 ($50 is probably about right) to for more padding and nicer fit.

You absolutely positively need a helmet. It is not an option, when racing or at any other time. Figure $30.


For the run, all you really need is shoes, but make sure that you get high quality shoes. Go to a running or triathlon specific store that employs knowledgeable, athletic associates. Have them watch you walk and run and then listen to their recommendations. Do not go to Dicks Sporting Goods, Sports Authority, or some other big box athletic store. Unless you've been running for years and know exactly what (kind of) shoe you need (i.e. motion control), get some advice; it's worth the extra cost. My shoes (I currently trade back and forth between a pair of Brooks Adrenaline and Mizuno Waveriders) cost around $100 (although I get a discount for being a member of the local tri club). You can run in your bike shorts on bottom and a sports bra (or nothing at all, if you're a fella) on top.

And for the first race, that's really all you need. Comes in at under $200.

Stepping it up
But what if you've had your first race, and maybe your second and third, and are ready to invest a little more in all the sweet, sweet tri gear? Where do you start? What gets you the most bang for your buck? And how much is it going to cost? Here's where I'll get a little more into my personal experience and let you know what worked for me. So here's a list of gear (what you need), cost (how many spare organs you'll need to sell), and explanation (why it's worth the arm and leg), in order of importance (that is, this is the order in which I wish I'd bought these items).

USAT membership - $35
Suddenly all of your races just got $10 cheaper! If you're going to do 4 or more races in one year, the USAT membership is worth it.

Bicycle - $500-$1500 (for a beginner set-up)

In almost every triathlon you do, you spend more time biking than doing anything else, so improvements in bike performance are going to give you the greatest improvements in race times. Here's my recommendation: buy a road bike, not a beginner-level tri/time trial bike. If you get a beginner-level tri bike and get really into the sport, I guarantee you're going to want to upgrade that bike later. If you buy a road bike, you'll (probably) eventually end up with two bikes: one for tri racing, and another for weekend rides, local tours/centuries, or commuting. I bought a Fuji Ace on ebay two years ago, and I love it. I'm upgrading to a Cervelo P2C, but you better believe I'm holding on to my $300 road bike (even though it weighs 1.5 metric tons).

Cycling shoes - $60-$120
This is what I bought. Very easy to get in and out of these in transition. Cycling shoes are going to make a big difference in your bike performance, as well. Besides which, if you go to spinning classes, suddenly you look like a "serious" athlete.

Cycling tools - $50+

I recommend buying a multi-tool, a small pump for your frame, and tire levers. That price doesn't include extra tubes and tires. Also, you should learn at this point how to change your own tires (but I can't put a price on that).

Body Glide - $7
Body Glide is a lube that is very (very very very) popular with endurance athletes. Yeah, you can use vaseline, but this feels better.

Race belt - $5
A race belt holds your race number on, so that you don't have to pin it onto your jersey/shorts. Does it make a huge difference in race times? No, not really. It's more for convenience than anything else. This way, you don't have to worry about pinning your number on or putting on a shirt in transition. And it's not like it's a huge investment, anyway.

Heart rate monitor - $80-$200
You might already have a heart rate monitor, but this is a good point to upgrade to a model with more bells and whistles. Is it necessary for your training/racing? Absolutely not; there's plenty of evidence that a scale of perceived exertion is every bit as useful as heart rate monitoring. But it is sort of a cultural thing within the sport. Triathletes just love having numbers to look at and play with, and a heart rate monitor provides those (for a much more economical price than a power meter).

Tri-specific clothing - $80-$150
Tri shorts have a thinner chamois for quicker drying. Tri tops tend to be lighter and more breathable than most cycling jerseys. But--as with the HR monitor--we're moving into matters of style and culture, rather than pure performance boosters.

Wetsuit - $200-$500
By the time you buy a wetsuit (unless you live near the ocean or in a very cold climate), you've arrived. I would consider a wetsuit a transitional purchase; if you're going to drop a couple hundred dollars here, you're probably experienced enough to do your own research.

So that's kind of the quick-and-dirty guide to what it'll cost to get started in the sport. For your first race, assuming you're starting completely from scratch (i.e. most people already have goggles, running shoes, and maybe even bike shorts), figure about $200 for equipment, $50 for race entry, and $10 for training aids like gels and sports drink. After that initial foray into triathlon, your gear upgrades can be much more spread out (i.e. I bought a bike two years ago and a wetsuit last year), so you don't have to worry as much about up-front costs.

In the long run, though, how much will this sport cost you? Here's a rough approximation of what I've spent on triathlon in the last three years (and this is with minimal research, so I'm probably low-balling it):

Gear: $2,010
Races/travel: $1,230

Memberships, maintenance, and miscellaneous: $350

And looking at those numbers . . . those are pretty big. Have I really spent almost $4,000 on my hobby? Yes, over the past 3 years. I absolutely have. 

And I can say with no hesitation whatsoever that it's totally worth it.

Fellow veterans, do you agree? Newbies (and tentative explorers), what do you think?

Friday, August 1, 2008

"Runner's High": Beyond Human

First off, watch this:

Michael Phelps beat the world record by a full body length. He took almost 2 seconds off of it. 2 seconds is huge in the world of swimming.

What I really want to talk about, though, is his turns. Look at him come off that wall. Look at the streamlining. Look at the undulation of his body. Take a look at the whole unit. He doesn't look human. But he doesn't look like anything else, either. He doesn't look like a dolphin (or a butterfly), and that's surely the closest thing to which you could compare him. So he's not quite animal.

I think the only thing you can say is that he's beyond human.

And I think we athletes have all experienced this, or can at least all aspire to do so. Have you ever been running and felt like you were flying? Have you ever been cycling and forgot you were even on a bike? Have you ever been swimming and felt almost like you had dissolved into the water? Have you ever forgotten yourself in that moment?

See, I may not be able to do it with as much panache as Michael Phelps. I know I can't (I'm not tall enough). In fact, watching me swim, bike, and run, no one will ever mistake me for anything more than human (except maybe , as some of you have noted, in transition).

But in my mind . . .

In my mind is another matter.

Guess What

Looks different, doesn't it?

Tell me what you think. Let me know if you see any problems, or if I need to add anything else.

And good luck to everyone who is racing this weekend!