Saturday, October 29, 2016

Gadgets, gizmos, and gimmicks

These days, it seems like everyone is looking for a quick fix, or the next get rich quick scheme. This is true not only with finances, but with fitness as well. Step into a running store, or read the articles about the latest and greatest must-have gadgets, and you will see all manners of products, foods, and services guaranteed to make you fitter, faster, and better. The real question is though: how much do they work, if at all?

Old school runners love to raise the argument that back in the 1970s, when road racing was becoming popular, nobody had GPS watches, compression sleeves, foam rollers, and most runners drank flat Coca Cola instead of Gatorade. While it is true that many professionals were able to post extremely impressive times without the technology available to us now, it would be remiss to think that none of the advances made in the last 40 years are beneficial. With that in mind, let's take a look at some popular ways runners try to obtain an edge. I will rank them from least gimmicky to most gimmicky.

1) Yoga. What originally was seen as a low-intensity excuse for exercise by people who don't eat meat and hug trees has become a very popular choice for athletes from all sports looking to increase their flexibility and strength. Yoga will not cure all of your ailments, but I firmly believe that it will benefit almost anyone who wants to try it. The mix of stretching, strengthening, and body awareness can help prevent injury, increase range of motion, and even increase power as well.

2) GPS Watches. As mentioned above, nobody in the 70s, or even the 90s, had these, and they still managed to run well. A GPS watch is most assuredly not a prerequisite to being a runner. That being said, they are wonderfully helpful devices that can let you take your workouts off the track and provide fantastic feedback on your pace. I do think most runners these days over-rely on them, however. I agree with Jay Johnson's belief that learning to run by feel is one of the most important things a runner can learn, and constantly using a GPS to monitor your pace can disrupt that ability. GPS watches have their place, but I think many people can benefit from keeping them at home at least some of the time.

3) Ice baths. The science is divided on this one, with most people agreeing that at worst, they don't hurt. The benefits may or may be all in your heard, but I for one swear by ice baths after a tough workout or race. Whether or not there is an objective, observable difference, they feel good and I always am less sore the day after taking one.

4) Heart Rate Monitors. Like GPS, HR monitors also provide great feedback and enable your training to automatically follow your fitness. They are great for beginners or runners coming back from a hiatus who may not know what their paces should be. Like GPS, though, I believe runners place too much emphasis on heart rate and not just running. Also, for experienced runners, heart rate training is redundant, as one can just as easily run by effort, not pace, and get the same results.

5) Compression apparel. Elite athletes like Paula Radliffe and Meb Keflezighi swear by compression socks during marathons. The studies on what I like to call calf panties generally indicate that while they can improve recovery, there is no noticeable affect on performance. That being said, I don't think there is any downside to wearing them if you like them. They may look silly, but if they help you run well, go for it.

6) Minimalist footwear. Luckily, this fad seems to have died down. I am all for running a few miles or some strides barefoot on soft grass a few times a week, and do agree that humans were meant to run barefoot, but we were not meant to run on pavement, asphalt, or for 26.2 miles at a time. Running shoes are a great invention. I do urge all runners to experiment with different types of shoes to see if a more minimal shoe works, because I think that many heavy, clunky shoes can actually get in the way of your natural gait and cause you to run in a manner that promotes injury. But I cannot encourage anybody to run in Vibram Five Fingers or to run a road race barefoot. Some people can be successful doing that, but they are few and far between. It's better to do some form drills and strides to adopt a softer footstrike and maybe transition to a shoe with a lower heel-to-toe drop that still offers cushioning.

7) Any diet whose name follows the "The 'X' Diet" convention. This includes Atkins, Paleo, Gluten-Free, and see-food. If you have a true food allergy, then of course you should follow a diet that excludes that allergen (dairy, gluten, nuts). But to exclude an entire category of food based on some fashionable, pseudo-scientific advice from a blog you read online (this one included) is silly. All the hemp seed, beet juice, kale chip, acai berry smoothies in the world won't make you a better runner. Your best bet is to try to avoid most processed foods and eat lots of plants. Anything else you do is irrelevant.

8) Social Media. Don't get me wrong. The internet is a wonderful tool and social media is great for sharing information. But too many people get hung up on what other people are doing, or alternatively, get too hung up on posting selfies with their run stats. Look people, we're all athletes trying to be our best. There will always be someone better, and always be lots of people slower. Do what works best for you, and don't try to impress anyone else with your workout stats. It doesn't matter how many course records you have on Strava if you are injured on race day. Likewise, the victory goes to the fastest runner, not the one with the most likes on Instagram. Running is a simple endeavor; don't over-complicate it or turn it into a popularity contest. Just run, baby!

Now excuse me while I make myself some chia seed oatmeal and charge my GPS so I can post my workout on Strava tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Trusting the training

One of the most important things I tell my athletes that I coach is to "trust your training." It's easy to get caught up in the day-to-day grind and feel like you're not improving fast enough. But, as the saying goes, "good things come to those who wait." Patience is one of the most important characteristics an athlete can have, as results do not occur overnight, and only through consistent, focused training can one achieve their goals.

I personally had the opportunity to take my own advice recently. I started out my racing season in April with a 5K that I ran in 17:10; a great result given my lack of racing, training, and workouts in the past year, but a far cry from where I wanted to be. I used that to calculate my workout paces, and worked very hard over summer to try to get into marathon shape this fall.

I have participated in six other 5Ks since that season opener, and have barely improved in that time. In fact, all of my 5Ks have been slower, except for one: the Bergen 5K in August, where I eked out a 17:06. Even after that, my workouts didn't really feel like they were improving, and I felt that I had stagnated and was not making any progress.

Then, in September, we got a break from the hot and humid weather, and suddenly my paces in workouts dropped to levels I hadn't seen in years. I went from feeling like I was out of shape and struggling to run marathon pace for tempo runs to easily running the pace I raced a 10K in back in May. My long runs no longer left me feeling destroyed after and I even started to feel good in the days following my workouts.

Looking back through my training logs, the last time I was running these paces for workouts was prior to my 2:39 personal best at Grandma's Marathon in 2013. So, despite my lack of confidence over the summer, all that work did pay off. I let myself get discouraged because I wasn't seeing immediate results, even though I should have known that the weather over the summer was playing a big part of it. In fact, during the Bergen 5K, conditions were some of the worst I have ever raced in.

The moral of story is that you really do have to trust your training, be patient, and not get discouraged by poor race results, Each day, each mile that you run, is one more coin in the bank. Improving at distance running is a process that takes months or even years. Bide your time, put in the work, and you will see results!

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Why you should throw away your GPS (at least some of the time)

I am a data nerd. Because of that, I love my GPS and all the wonderful information it provides me. On every single run, I can know my distance, pace, elevation, mile splits, fastest pace, slowest pace, and more. It is a wealth of information and I love having that readily available for me to dissect and devour. But a few weeks ago, disaster struck. I lost my charging cord for my GPS, and so had to go several days without it.

The first day, I was so anxious that I almost didn't even run. After all, if I don't post my run on Strava, did it really happen? I thought about just bringing my old-school Timex Ironman watch, but the battery on that was dead too. What was I to do? I sucked it up, put on my big boy shorts, and ran a loop that I know is 6.3 miles long. And you know what? It was one of the most enjoyable runs I've had in a very long time!

It made me realize that having a GPS, or even a regular watch, is inviting yourself to be distracted almost constantly. For me, I have a tendency to check my GPS every few minutes to verify I'm not running too slow or too fast, or see how far I've gone, or just for the heck of it. This interrupts my train of thought and makes me enslaved to this device.

As a runner, I like the runs where I just zone out and let my mind wander. Running is very therapeutic for me because it lets me take some time to think about whatever is on my mind. It's my "me" time where I can just be alone with my thoughts. Having my GPS alert me every mile takes me out of my revelry and disrupts my train of thought, making the runs seem longer and less enjoyable. Running without a watch removes the temptation to see how far I've gone, and so the run goes by quicker.

Running without a watch or GPS also allows me to run entirely on feel, and not care about the pace. As a runner and a coach, I really don't care how fast or how slow an easy run is. In fact, I believe it is nearly impossible to run too slow on an easy day. Yes, if you typically run 8:00 pace on your easy runs, and go 12:00 pace one day, that is too slow, but for me, I'd rather see someone run a bit slower and recover better than go too quick and not be as recovered. Leaving your GPS at home allows you to not even worry about your pace, and just go at whatever speed feels good that day. Maybe you're feeling good and doing 7:30 pace, or perhaps you are fatigued and can only do 9:00 miles that day. Who cares? What's important is that you run whatever pace feels comfortable and listen to your body.

Now, this only applies to easy runs. I still live and die by my GPS for long runs, tempo runs, marathon pace runs, and any run where I don't have a predetermined loop in mind. After all, I can't just go out and run for time! That would be insanity! GPS watches are invaluable training tools that let you monitor your pace in real time, which is crucial for doing workouts off the track. But for your day to day easy runs, where pace doesn't matter and the times are made up, try leaving the watch at home and see how it goes. You just may find out that it makes your running more enjoyable!