Monday, March 30, 2009

Runner's High: With Friends

You guys have already heard me grouse (twice) about how the training gods jealously foiled my first date with my new bike. And I wasn't the only one (although TriGreyhound did manage to get out on his new ride this weekend).

Of course, other Wichita triathletes were equally bedfuddled by the nasty weather--we all had long bikes and/or runs planned. So one resident tri buddy (who coaches for the Wichita YMCA) organized a spinning soiree in one of the Y's (small, poorly-ventilated) aerobics studios.

And let me tell ya--that was a blast.

Last night, when I was spinning to my own music and watching the NCAA men's tournament, I had trouble keeping my heart rate above 130; today, 145 felt effortless. I got to meet and talk with a bunch of relative newbies I'd never met. One of the athletes I coach was there and we ran and swam together after a couple hours of trainer time.

Working out in a group (even for an introvert like me) is just better. Solo workouts are great too; but they can't match the ease and intensity of swimming, biking, and running with friends.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

By Request



By the way, this weekend brought 3 inches of ice, another 4 (or so) inches of snow, 50 MPH wind gusts, and snow drifts a foot deep. Also, today our power went out (we think a combination of ice and snow) for several hours, leaving us with no heat or running water. But I still managed to get a two-and-a-half hour ride in on the trainer. So it turned out okay.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Kansas: A Pictorial Tragi-comedy

Yes, the gods have smiled on me, and I have made a very important addition to my family.
But the gods are fickle. Where they blessed me with this weather for riding last week:
Today, they handed me and my new love this:
Shit, Kansas. Seriously, WTF?!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Beginners' Guide: Stretching

If you're new to the sport and wondering if you need to stretch on a regular basis, allow me to enlighten you.

You do.

I know some elite athletes who advocate a no-stretching training plan. I've heard about studies that reveal that top runners have compromised flexibility in some areas. So when you win Ironman Wisconsin (after completing Ironman Louisville the previous weekend) or can call yourself a "top runner," you may discontinue stretching.

Until then, this is very, very important.

The tough part is knowing what stretches to do. Besides the stretches you learned in grammar school gym class, that is. Here are some areas of particular concern to most of us swim/bike/run specialists.

Backs of the legs. There are three hamstrings--one that's more towards the outside of your leg, two more towards the inside, so try to work in stretches at multiple angles.

IT Bands
The IT band isn't actually a muscle; it's a long band of fascia that connects the tensor fascia latae to the knee. It gets really tight in runners and cyclists, so what does that tell you about how it must be in triathletes? It's hard to stretch, so you may also consider rolling it out on a foam roller.

Hip Flexors
This one will get particularly bad if you spend a lot of time seated (i.e. at a desk, driving). Tight hip flexors can throw off your whole posture. They'll make kicking in the pool more difficult, and can contribute to the problem of overstriding when you run.

Deep Hip Rotators/Glutes
These muscles (the piriformis, in particular) took me out for 4 weeks last season, giving me only 2 weeks to prepare for my first race of the year (took me out again in the fall, spoiling my marathon training). Tight hip rotators and glutes can cause low back pain; a tight piriformis can lead to sciatic pain.

Calves (Gastrocnemius/Soleus)
Tight calves are very common among triathletes. This can cause a problem when you get off the bike (which uses quite a bit of calf engagement, if you're doing it right) and start running. Tight calves can also aggravate your achilles tendon. To stretch the gastrocnemius, perform a calf stretch with the knee straight; to get more into your soleus, bend the knee slightly.

Anterior Shoulders
Most Americans are very overdeveloped in the anterior muscles, again because we spend so much time sitting and hunched forward. This problem is exacerbated in triathletes because we primarily swim freestyle. It's extra important for us to stretch these out, though, because it improves our posture (particularly crucial for running) and prevents overuse injuries.


Ever get tightness or pain in between your shoulder blades? It's probably these muscles.

Erector Spinae
Spinal extension muscles. I've got a "Stop Slouching" article coming soon that specifically addresses these. Triathletes have a fairly unique problem, because we have to shorten these muscles to look up and forward when cycling. There's really no way around that, so it's vital that we stretch these muscles on a regular basis.

Those are the basic stretches that I would recommend. Alternatively, you could join a good yoga class that emphasizes flexibility (if you're trying anything with the words Vinyasa or Power in the title, you're probably barking up the wrong tree). I advise stretching for around 20 minutes a day, but I know that's not gonna happen for most of you. Let's just say pick 2-3 stretches to do after each workout, planning to get through all of them every couple days. If you'd like a second opinion you can check out this guy's stretching routine.

Just try it for a while. You can always give it up, if you want, once you turn pro.

Note: I'm working on photos/video of my favorite stretches. I would prefer to present that at this point, but it's just so damn time-consuming! It'll show up when I can grab the time (and a camera monkey) to film it.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Runner's High: PR

10.21 miles.


Average pace? 9:18/mile.

I have never gone that far that fast. Ever.

And the split for my last mile was 8:38.

This is how I feel about that:

I've said it before--this is going to be a breakthrough year for my running.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Know What I Mean?

"In sport, a good opponent can bring out the best in a man; the existence of a close rival focuses attention on technique, piles on the pressure, and the constant threat of being beaten keeps ambition burning. In an ideal world, a man would choose his rival, selecting him as carefully as he would a friend but, in reality, circumstance makes the decision for him."

- from The Crossing by Kathy Watson

Saturday, March 14, 2009

As it Stands

Today is my first day completely off work in months. Literally months.

I've been a little overworked, to say the least. I'm getting used to it, but every now and then the stress will creep up on me. Like this week, when I'm in my last week of build before recovering, when I was really on the edge. Let's just say, it's a good thing that nothing went badly on Thursday, or I may have quit my job right then and there.

During this time, yoga has been hugely helpful to me in my recovery. Like amazingly so.

Anyway, today is great, because I don't have to go to work at all. I went to breakfast with my family, went shopping, went to a bike store to drool, and headed out for a 2-hour bike ride. The ride ended abruptly with a busted tire. I could have borrowed my dad's front wheel (I don't have any spare tires, currently, excepting my CX tires), but I decided instead to take the flat as a sign that I should stay home, mellow out, and enjoy my day off. I can't decide whether to be bummed out or not, because the weather is so great today. It's not too hot, not too cold, and there is absolutely no wind. Do you have any idea how rare it is to have a day like that here? It's shocking (especially since yesterday we had 20-degree temps and freezing rain)!

But I have decided simply to sit on my deck and read a book instead of biking or running on this glorious day. Tomorrow is going to be a big day, training-wise (and I do have to work), so today's rest will probably enable me to get through the 10-mile run, 1800-yard steady swim, bike class, and yoga class without pooping out. And it's not like this missed 2-hour ride is going to totally throw off my training. But you get into a groove, you know, and hate to miss workouts.

I joined a local masters swim group this week. There are only half a dozen people who regularly attend, so I'll get lots of individual attention (but not much competition, speed-wise). Also trying a new running group for the first time tomorrow--ten miles with the Derby running club. And there will be some very exciting developments on the bike front this week, as well.

So that's where I stand.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Dumbass Chronicles: Plank

If you've never done a plank, I will eat the bike shorts I wore for tonight's spin class.

This is the kind of bad ass exercise that we all want to be able to hold for at least 5 minutes. I know some coaches who swear you don't have core strength unless you can hold plank for a minute solid. I've had people in the gym say to me, "Wow! You've been doing that through three of my sets!" Holding plank for what seems like an eternity gives us a great burn. We feel it throughout the gut ("high" abs, "low" abs, "deep" abs, etc.), and it completely exhausts us. Must be a pretty good exercise, right?

Here's the thing, though: it doesn't work.

You know the idea of specificity, right? Basically, it means that if you want to get better at doing what you do (i.e. swimming, biking, running), you have to do what you do. In the case of weight lifting, it means strengthening movements and muscle engagements that you would use when you're swimming, biking, and running (hence "sport-specific" training). The reason it makes sense to most of us to hold the plank for ten minutes at a time is that that's what you're doing when you're swimming, biking, and running--holding your abs tight for sometimes hours at a time. Right?

Not really. Try this: Put one hand on your upper back just below your shoulder blade (lats) and one hand on your lower back just above your hips (QL). Now try walking around holding perfect posture and actively engaging your core. Feel those muscles flexing with each step? When you take a step, your muscles engage on the opposite side to stabilize your body. Now put a hand on either side of your spine about halfway between your shoulder blades and hips and walk around. Feel that? You should feel each side of the muscles along your spine contracting as you take steps.

Those muscles--the QL, the lats, the multifidus--are all parts of your core. But they weren't engaged the whole time, right?

What I'm getting at is that you don't hold the muscles of your core tight the whole time you're running, biking, or even swimming. Those muscles are constantly flexing and releasing to stabilize your body; they are anchoring against whatever's available--bike seat and pedals, ground, even the rest of your body--to provide you with stability and power. The key point is that they're constantly engaging and releasing. Not engaging and holding. Hence the limited specificity of holding plank for a full song on your iPod.

Does that mean that plank isn't useful? Not at all! Plank does get really good engagement through your core musculature, from the superficial abdominals and back muscles to the deep abdominals, spinal stabilizers, and legs. However, the key to using plank in your training is the initial firing of those muscles simultaneously. In short, you want to make those muscles better at working together, firing in concert with each other. So the most important part of plank isn't the last 30 seconds; it's the first 2.

My suggestion is that you hold plank for no more than 20 seconds at a time. The way I'm currently doing plank (when I do plank) is in a Tabata format: 20 seconds on, 10 off. Repeat that 8-10 times, and you should be sufficiently fried.

By the way, as long as I'm on the topic, I'll post a guide to proper form and a few alternatives to plank. I'll try to get that up within the next two weeks.

AKUTHOTA, V., A. FERREIRO, T. MOORE, and M. FREDERICSON. Core stability exercise principles. Current Sports Medicine Reports,Vol. 7, No. 1, p. 39-44, 2008.
Fredericson, Michael and Tammara Moore. Core stabilisation training for middle- and long-distance runners. New Studies in Athletics, Vol. 20, No. 1, p. 25-37, 2005.
McGill, Stuart. Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance. Wabuno Publishers, 2004.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Opening Half

What is that gorgeous building? That, my friends, is the venue for my second pre-70.3 tune-up race.

I've got the first half (give or take a month) of my season planned out, now. Three races: Emporia Spring Migration, Boathouse International Triathlon, and Lawrence Ironman 70.3.

It's on, kids.

Friday, March 6, 2009

"Runner's High": Gracie

Gracie is not technically our dog. She belongs to the neighbors ("neighbors" in rural Kansas means anyone residing within 3 miles of your house). But she might as well be ours. She came to our house to hang out with Blazer (R.I.P), our golden retriever. We fed her and loved her and put blankets out for her in the winter. She doesn't come around much anymore, because Blazer is no more. But every now and then, she'll hear me running past and come out, tongue lolling, panting like crazy and run home with me. She whines and wags her tail, pushes her head into my hand for a rub. She's not the best pacer, but she is a great listener. And she's done everything from 2 miles to 10 miles and has never pooped out or slowed me down.
Most importantly, when it's Friday afternoon and I'm coming down from a long work week, she makes my run bearable. She puts a smile on my face and a spring in my step. And if I slow down, she stops and looks back at me as if to say, "What do you think you're doing? C'mon!"
Thanks, Gracie, for being my run buddy.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Barefoot Wednesdays

I was looking through old posts, and I don't think I ever blogged about my barefoot running phase.

You know, that phase where I was all over this site and all into the idea of shoeless running. That phase when I tried to do a barefoot track workout at noon in a Southern California spring and blistered my feet so badly that I could barely walk for a week. Yeah. That phase.

The phase ended shortly after I incapacitated myself with my own stupidity. But I've always kept barefoot running in the back of my mind.

Two things happened this week that brought it once more to the forefront. First off, there was an article in Triathlete about running in minimalist shoes. Second, I went to an all-day clinic on Functional Movement Screenings, and the presenter (who, as many professional fitness clinicians are, was an asshole) made a few remarks about how humans weren't designed to run on mattresses (incidentally, he didn't look like he had done any running in the recent past).

That reminded me of how good running barefoot felt (when I wasn't rubbing all the skin off the bottoms of my feet, of course). And the biology seems to me very sound, although I suppose it really depends on your point of view. If you believe that humans were meant to run, then of course you think we should all be able to run barefoot; natural selection didn't take Nike Shox into consideration. On the other hand, if you believe that most people weren't meant to run, that it takes a specific kind of genetics and biomechanics to make a good runner, then why the heck are you on this site anyway?

All that to say that I've instituted Barefoot Wednesday. I had been doing my track workouts on Wednesdays, but I've moved those to Thursday so I don't have to do them alone (because they suck). Which leaves me with two cycling classes on Mondays, recovery on Tuesdays, and a serious yen for running on Wednesdays! Enter barefoot running.

I begin with an easy (shod) mile. Then I find a grassy knoll, remove my shoes, and proceed to alternate running and walking in the grass (5 x 1 minute running + 2 minutes walking). My feet are tender. They weren't too happy about all the dry, prickly, dead grasses stabbing between their toes. I even have a couple of cuts on my feet from some really sharp grass.

But you know what? Without shoes, I land perfectly on my midfoot. I don't overstride. I get better extension after my toe off. And it feels awesome; I feel like a good runner.

So I'm going to keep running barefoot. I'm going to work up to where I can run a 5k barefoot. And then maybe I'll switch to a very minimal training shoe (either one of the special "minimalist" offerings coming into the market or a lightweight trainer/racer). Or maybe you'll see me running barefoot at my next sprint tri, ahead of the rest of the pack because I didn't have to change my shoes in T2.

Also, I once ran into Barefoot Ken Bob at a race. It was the CSULB Reverse Tri. Saw him, noticed the lack of shoes and blackened toes and humongous beard. Sort of put it together from there.