Monday, December 29, 2014

On (re)Starting to Run

One of my first coaching "clients" if you will was (is) my mother. I've been writing cycling and progressive functional strength programs for her for a few years, and in turn I receive phone calls/emails/texts that go like: 

"I did that 8 x 20 sec on/10 sec off bike workout you gave me. Whoa that was hard. Then I had a few extra minutes, so I did it all again!"

"I've been working on my single leg RDLs every morning. I found a video on YouTube of Bret Contreras and he told me all the things I was doing wrong."

My mom is the best. And now that she's discovered Twitter, she's probably reading this. Hi mom.

So when one of her friends was looking for a framework to follow/advice on starting to run again after a 20-some-odd year break, I volunteered my services. Perhaps I've found my coaching niche. Plus with one of them running, they now have 2/3 of a triathlon relay team. If there are any swimming-inclined master's age group women in the Greater Philadelphia area who'd like to fill this void, hit them up.

For reference, here's said friend's situation:

A bit of quick info:
- I ran BC (before children) and not since, so it has been a long time!

- Back then I bought sneakers and just went out the door - Forest Gump style....just ran.
Now, I am a fair weather runner / biker so am inside on a treadmill. Started about a month ago. I am sure it is not a pretty sight but I am surprised and pleased with my progress.

- I am a tortoise. My style in any exercise goal is for Consistency, slow and steady. Basically maintain my speed / distance for a week and then increase it by just a tad the following week. Either a tad more distance or the same distance but a tad faster.

- This is for me, my personal challenge. Though if I gained confidence and opportunity arose it would be a silent thrill to do a race / event (again the "race" part would be my personal challenge race - not for the pack race)

- I do interlace the weight machines at the gym. Arms, abs, legs. I only know I feel better when I do them but perhaps my goal in 2015 will be to actually start to know what I am doing and why.

I ended up writing her a pretty lengthy response, because I can never shut up about running. 

And after I was done typingtypingtyping, I realized that what I had done (thankfully for both of us) was hone in on what I think are the KEY things to consider when starting a run program. There's so much information out there on exactly this, and one could easily spend hours reading (sometimes conflicting) advice and end up completely overwhelmed. Moreover, most of the points I brought up were things that seasoned runners would also do well to remind themselves of every now and then - myself included.

So maybe you're starting to run, re-starting to run, have been running for 20 or 40 years, or your mom's friend has just emailed you for running advice. Here it goes:

Consistency is key. So you've got that part right, and that's the one that most people struggle with! 
Some general thoughts: 
1. The biggest mistake (maybe not mistake so much as "less effective method in terms of making progress") your average runner makes is doing the same thing every time they run. Even if you're not training to maximize speed for a race per se, mixing things up keeps you less prone to injury and lets you train different systems (ie working on strength vs getting faster vs developing endurance), making you stronger overall for whenever you feel like just heading out the door Forrest Gump style (which I am all for. That's part of the beauty of running). Following from this, people tend to do all their runs in a medium-hard effort range, when they'd be much better off making their hards harder and their easys easier! Even the Kenyans do their easy runs 3-4 minutes per mile slower than race pace. So, for instance, instead of doing three 4 mile runs at 10:00 pace per week, doing the same total mileage broken up into one super easy 2 mile run, one longer 6 mile run where you progress the pace, and a 4 mile run with some hills or speed work. 
2. Treadmill thoughts - The biggest problem with the treadmill is that your feet are striking the surface the exact same way every time, which is why people sometimes complain about foot/knee/hip pain with a lot of treadmill-ing. When you're outside - even on asphalt, although ideally with some mixed surfaces, trails, grass, road - your footstrike varies more. It's subtle but it engages slightly different muscles and varies the stress on your body. So I try to make a point of at least varying the elevation on treadmill runs a little bit, being aware of form and cadence, and doing more strength training that works lateral movements (to balance out the constant forward stresses of running/biking). 
3. As far as form goes, people have a tendency to get slouchy on treadmills, which is (a) inefficient and (b) can result in you using the wrong muscles (you tilt forward too much, you start recruiting too much quads and not enough glutes, then your knees hurt, etc.). So check in with yourself every 10 minutes or so and think shoulders back, feet landing under your body (not out in front of you, e.g. overstriding), and pretend there's a string attached to the top of your head pulling you nice and tall. Count your strides (R foot striking the ground) for a minute - or 30 sec and multiply by 2 - most people are most efficient at 85-95 strides/min. Much slower than that and you're likely overstriding, and putting a lot of extra stress on hamstrings.
4. In terms of a beginner schedule - so much of what you can handle is individual, so I'm not a huge fan of the "canned" training plans you can find online. Some people are bulletproof and can run 6 days a week, ramp up mileage at a quicker pace, and not have any aches and pains. Most people are better off being a little more conservative. I like an "every other day" running schedule for most people starting out/returning to running, especially if they're cycling on intervening days like you are, and every 3-5 weeks taking a "step-back" week or 3-4 days, where you stick to lower volume/intensity recovery workouts, to give your body (and your brain, if needed) a chance to absorb all that training. 
For example, here's (attached) the schedule I wrote for a friend who's mostly a cyclist and wanted to run (also limited to treadmill workouts) for about 45 minutes 2-3 times per week (and runs a steady 12-13 min/mile, with 5k race pace being a 10 min/mile). Her goals were to increase run fitness on pretty low volume so she can run under 30 minutes for a 5k, and she's a strong cyclist so we were pretty aggressive with the hill work from the start. This is kind of the structure I follow for myself too - ideally, one tempo (steady state faster pace) or speed-work run per week, one hilly run, and the rest easy/aerobic-base-building runs for consistency. It's completely fine to be tortoise-y - the idea is just to push yourself out of your comfort zone a bit, which will lead to the steady progress you're seeking.
5. I have lots of thoughts on strength training too...It's hands down the best way to keep yourself running and cycling without aches and pains, and important for life in general too, and bone density. I also enjoy the looks I get deadlifting 125% bodyweight for reps. I've made many muscley, tattooed friends this way. The machines are an ok starting place, but moving more towards weighted movements that require you to stabilize your own body - lunges, squats, etc - will give you the biggest bang for your buck.
So, those 5 points (plus a few tangents. I had caffeine.) are what I would consider the key considerations for a runner looking to build a new program. Note that she beat me to the punch by providing a realistic self-evaluation, a reasonable internal timeline and external metrics for progress, and realistic goals - so we were already ahead of the game, as these are issues to address before you even think about hitting actual training advice.

And on that note, I'm going to go head out the door, Forrest Gump style. Hey, it's the off-season...

Monday, December 15, 2014

Latest Cycling Vid from the 'Fest: Nine Hammers

Any email that comes from David McQuillen and includes the line "Thanks sooooo much for the willingness to Suffer and then tell people about it" is a good one. I always get super excited to review the latest, greatest trainer video from The Sufferfest, and then I get on my bike and wonder what the heck I was thinking. But about an hour later, after I've peeled myself off the floor and consumed about 5000 calories worth of bacon, I'm happy I did that. Here's the scoop:

The Workout

Truth. And now you get nine opportunities to hit yourself with a hammer. Alternatively, you could go to Home Depot, buy a hammer, and put it to use on your quads while lounging on the couch for a similar effect. But I'd recommend getting on the trainer instead. Fewer bruises.

As you can see, you start with a warm up that's just long enough at 6 minutes (and includes some pick-ups to get your legs ready to hammer). I was feeling pretty damn good about myself at this point. Nice fresh legs after two low-volume training weeks. Self esteem high. This seemed like a perfect and very sensical way to kick off my next training cycle!

After sitting pretty through the minute and a half of recovery, you meet the first hammer.: 4:30 of threshold work. This interval (and #s 4 and 7, also threshold) pushes you juuuust enough. RPE hovers around 7-8/10, with some gap-bridging efforts thrown in to temporarily bump you up into the 8-9/10 range. So I'm getting uncomfortable, I'm working hard, but I'm not quite ready to call the medics, and I'm still upright on my rollers. Which is exactly what threshold work should be. It'll be great to re-ride this paired with TrainerRoad and see how well my "threshold" RPE judgements accord with their calculated power-output torture.

After a short recovery, it's time to kick things into VO2 gear. I'm rocketing downhill after this speedy dude (who has some pretty sick descending skills, and now I want to know where I can get a baby blue skinsuit - anyone??). Except I have to pedal, and he doesn't, which doesn't seem fair:

9-10/10 effort here. This is no joke. Cruise another recovery, and you've got another few VO2 @#$-kicking minutes. Recover, threshold. Recover, VO2. You get the idea. Misery, pain shakes, and Sufferlandrian glory awaiting you at the end! Of note, elements-of-style-type form cues are sprinkled throughout to keep you from (totally) falling apart. Much appreciated by this occasionally-sloppy rider. 

Sum: Great workout from Neal Henderson (no surprise there). I'll definitely be incorporating this one into training. It's (to my knowledge) the first Sufferfest video to explicitly target threshold and VO2 efforts. You'll be working your tail off, but you'll still stay within those boundaries - great if you're a cyclist or triathlete training for competition, as you'll be able to appropriately place it within your training cycle/season. If my addled brain did math right, it comes out to 30:30 of hammer-time (and yes, I sang MC Hammer in my head periodically throughout this ride). That's the perfect proportion of quality work within an hour on the trainer. If you've got some extra time, this would be a great one to follow up with Elements of Style - good practice for holding form when pre-fatigued (which you will be. Especially after those last two VO2's.)

The Footage

As always, great production - high quality, on-the-bike footage of some great routes. Ladies may especially appreciate the nice view of the behinds of the Garmin-Sharp riders. A giant donut makes an appearance shortly before the halfway point. Some nice people in automobiles along the side of the road laugh at you. I won't ruin the rest of the fun surprises...

If you haven't done any of the newer Sufferfest videos, they've added a countdown timer and interval progress bar at the top, for those who like to know exactly how much suffering they have left (see upper right corner):

The Details

The video will be on sale here December 18th. In the meantime, additional footage can be found here and hereVideos download directly to whatever device you own, and permanent ownership will cost you the equivalent of about 2 coffee shop trips. So no excuses. Enjoy!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Bounce Back Better: Brain-Training Resilience for the Track (and Life)

(cross-posted at Pittsburgh Post Gazette)

Michael Jordan has famously said “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Look at the people you know, and you’ll find that there’s a wide spectrum of how people respond to adversity. There are the MJ’s, who get cut from their high school basketball teams and months or years later have actually grown as a result of their failure. There are others who get knocked down and seemingly go into an endless tailspin. And then there’s the rest of us, most of whom fall somewhere in between.

What is it?

Resilience is one’s capacity to respond to adversity – to take bad circumstances and move beyond them, or perhaps even make something productive out of them. Resilience is not the ability to walk through life unscathed – we’re all human here, and $#^& happens. Instead, it’s how you react to those life stressors, big and small. Do you bounce back? How quickly and effectively?

Who’s Using It?

A few years back, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania operationalized a resiliency training program (the Penn Resiliency Program), a cognitive-behavioral training program administered in a group setting. The first wave of studies from some of these participants indicates that resiliency training can significantly reduce depressive symptoms (effects that are maintained through at least 1-year post-intervention). Moreover, the US Army believes in resiliency so much that they’ve sunk nearly $150 million dollars into psychological fitness training for their soldiers and master resiliency training for their drill sergeants (Comprehensive Soldier Fitness). In the sports world, Team USA Volleyball has published guidelines on training resilient athletes, and as elite-level performers seek to gain every possible advantage, Olympic hopefuls are increasingly hiring positive psychology specialists to train their minds.

Wiring Your Brain for Resilience

Alrighty, get ready for some crash-neurobiology. When you work on the mental skills that build resilience, you activate a specific set of regions in your brain. At first, maybe these neurons aren’t used to talking to each other, so the connections between them are weaker – they’re speaking through two paper cups tied together with a piece of string instead of an iPhone 6. So how do we train a neural circuit to make it more efficient? In short, the more frequently those neurons are firing, the stronger the neural pathway between them will become – neurons that fire together, wire together. The key here is repetition. Every time you’re practicing those resilience-building thoughts and behaviors, you’re forcing that circuit to fire, until eventually it becomes automatic – and so do those thoughts and actions.

What brain regions are involved in this circuit? As always, it's more complicated than just sticking resilient (and not-so-resilient) people in the scanner and seeing what lights up. But, a few studies have been done that point us toward candidate brain regions important for resilient brains - in a small study of fire-fighters (n=36), resilience was positively correlated with activity in the right amygdala, insula, and left orbitofrontal cortex when subjects listened to a stressful script (versus a relaxing script). These regions are commonly implicated in emotion regulation and interoception, suggesting that more resilient folks may be able to better recruit appropriate circuitry for emotion regulation. In a second study (n=11) where resilient special forces soldiers completed a monetary reward-anticipation task, soldiers showed less of a difference in nucleus accumbens and subgenual prefrontal cortex activity
(see right) when you look at high- vs no-reward conditions (compared to civilians) - so there may also be differences in how people higher in resilience process and respond to rewards (and presumably, failures).

A key part of creating resiliency is training your response to anxiety, fear, and self-doubt. Acknowledge it and then simultaneously bring up a positive feeling, gratitude, calm, happiness. Go to your happy place. By doing this repeatedly, you wire a positive emotion into a circuit that was previously bringing up distress and helplessness. This process of rehearsal and reconsolidation is a key part of how your brain encodes memories, and it occurs in a network of regions distributed across your prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. This technique works well for athletes who maybe having problems performing following a bad race, slump, or injury. When negative memories – your bike crash, the marathon you tanked – come to mind, hold onto that memory for a few minutes while you also bring in a positive experience – that race where you excelled, and all the great feelings that came with it. Essentially, you’re rewiring bad to good.

Build Optimism and Focus on Strengths. Remind yourself of what you’re great at. If you need an objective reminder of this, go fill out the Signature Strengths Questionnaire. Remembering the good things that are a fundamental part of you helps you separate the feelings from a failure from your overall identity.

De-Catastrophizing. Minimize catastrophic thinking by first identifying that “worst-case scenario” you’re afraid of. Then, think about the actual probability of that worst possible outcome playing out. Consider a broader range of possible outcomes, including the best-case scenario. The simple process of thinking about a great outcome can engender positive emotions and thoughts, and behaviors tend to stem from those thoughts! Finally, consider the most likely scenario as a possibility.

The ability to harness techniques such as these it what can separate resilient athletes who bounce back from setbacks from the less resilient, who have a harder time shaking off the bad. Building resilience allows you to regroup and go out to train and compete again.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Lessons From a 5k/5 mile Double Race

The Pittsburgh PNC YMCA Turkey Trot is one of Pittsburgh's biggest road races, with just shy of 8,000 participants this year. What started as a little 5k race 24 years ago became a 5k and a 5 miler, and for the first time this year - with start times for both races staggered by half an hour - the option to Double Gobble. That is, to race the 5k at 9am and the 5 miler at 9:30 (a prerequisite being the ability to finish the 5k in under 30 minutes).

Coming off a season where I trained for 4-6 hour long events, I had little faith in my ability to run away with the crown in either the 5k or 5 mile individually. My run at the EQT earlier this month confirmed that there is an embarrassingly small differential between my "running for multiple miles" race pace and my kick speed. But damned if I can't crank out some steady 6 minute miles for as long as I need to. Add in the opportunity to self-test some optimal pacing strategies for double racing & run with one of my fantastic YMCA colleagues, and I was sold on the double.


The obvious first question in this type of racing situation: how do you pace the 5k and 5 mile in order to end up with the lowest cumulative time? Do you:

(1) Go for a super fast 5k, end up with a couple extra minutes of recovery time, and see what you have left in the 5 mile. Nixed this one - the difference between 10 and 12 minutes of recovery was not likely to be large, especially compared to the potential impact of getting anaerobic for a longer period of time on your subsequent 5 mile pace.

(2) Run a relatively easy 5k (but ideally keeping yourself high enough in the placings amongst other double racers to not be out of contention), leaving yourself with a pretty full tank for the 5 mile. Slightly tempting, since I would actually like to see what kind of 5 mile time I could gut out. Psychologically, I was a little worried about the effect of "settling" into a slower than normal pace on a race day for my first 3.1 miles. Physiologically (and after consulting some exercise science folks with more knowledge here than me), I decided that staying totally aerobic during the 5k was probably not necessary - over these relatively short race distances with ~10 minutes in between, 90% of your recovery is going to come within the first 2-3 minutes, and as long as you didn't totally blow yourself up during the 5k, it'll all be the same in the 5 mile.

Which led to...
(3) Tempo pace the 5k (~6:30 pace), keep jogging to stay warm in between, and maintain if not kick things up a notch in the 5 mile pace-wise. The goal was place moreso than time here, which would also allow me to scope out where I was after the 5k and where I needed to be in the 5 mile, leaving enough flexibility to run faster in the 5 mile if necessary.

The underlying question here - which would require a lot of titrated split-tempo workouts or double races to really answer - is where that tipping point is - in other words, at what level of increased 5k pace does the relative detriment to your 5 mile outweigh the 5k time savings? (interested to hear other people's thoughts on this!)

The 5k
My YMCA colleague Tim & I had similar goal paces & podium ambitions, and met up en-route to the start line. It was a cold, not-quite 30 degree day and I knew that staying warm was going to be an issue in between races. I had jogged just a 10 minute warm-up with a few strides, and was already freezing up on the start line again. I set a 6:30-6:40 pace, which kept both of us working a bit but still conversational (minus my frozen-mouth word slurring). We worked together pretty seamlessly, dodging some of the sprint-then-slow contingent in the first mile, and crossed the finish line feeling pretty fresh still. We did go for a short kick after one woman blew by in the last 50 yards or so (reconfirming for me that I have no sprintiness in my legs, or as Tim aptly put it, "you can't pull a kick out of nowhere"), but felt confident that we were on track for a solid 5 miler. The 5k really felt like just a warm-up.

The in-between
Re-grouped briefly after we crossed the finish line, threw on sweats and jogged around a couple minutes, swish and spit some gatorade (no need to actually re-fuel over these distances - plenty of muscle glycogen and not worth the potential GI upset in the 5 mile, but you can always trick your brain into thinking you've got sugar coming in with a quick carb mouth-rinse), realized it was 9:27 and I needed to get past thousands of people to the front of the start line again, ditched sweats only 2 minutes after putting them on, said "excuse me" 50 or so times until I was at the front (being in a singlet and short-shorts when it's 28 degrees helps with this. No one wants to be in the way of a clearly crazy person), and hooked back up with my race buddy just in time for the gun.

The 5 mile
Tim started us off fantastically at 6:05 pace. We dropped off a little bit going uphill over the bridges, but still picked off a couple of guys and then stayed in pretty much the same place for the rest of the race. I saw only 2 women ahead of me, and neither of them had raced the 5k, so I was feeling pretty safe. Around mile 3.5 my lovely totally numb toes started causing me to trip over my feet a little bit, and after seeing no women near me at the turn-around, I happily cruised the last mile in. Mission accomplished, a satisfying run, and at the end of a long season of racing, not a day that I needed to go to the well. Crowd support was great along the last mile, and it was nice to soak some of that in - lots of friends and coworkers out there, and some fantastic spectators yelling for the top women.

In the end, I walked away with the Double Gobble win for the women and just 3 men ahead of me (total time 52 minutes - we had aimed for closer to 50, but with the cold conditions and a podium finish apiece, no complaints), as well as 3rd place overall for the women in the 5 mile. And a Double Gobble beer stein and a pine cone turkey (tag: "This turkey was made by a child who will directly benefit from your race." Way to pull at my heartstrings, YMCA). He's a little weighed down by my hardware here, and he's cinnamon-scented, just like real-life turkeys:

And, most importantly, I still had a great time. Highlights included magically finding my pacing partner 4 separate times among the 8000 other people there, utilizing the out-and-back loop to yell for my friends in turkey hats and neon orange tights, the Y's District Operations Director screaming for me at the 5 mile finish line, and our District VP saying "Go on wit your bad self" to me at the awards ceremony. I love my coworkers.

Goals for next year have been set: we definitely learned that we can take the 5k a good 30 seconds-1 minute faster and probably still feel fine for the 5 miler. With some more consistent run training this year, a faster kick (or any sort of kick) should be in order - maybe just fast enough to pull off a double race overall and 5 mile individual victory?

Monday, November 17, 2014

Get Inside Your Head: Harnessing Self-Talk for Performance

(cross-posted in Pittsburgh Post Gazette Wellness Blog)

What is self-talk? Let’s start with a definition: self-talk is simply what you say to yourself in your head (covert self-talk) – or out loud (overt self-talk). Through these statements, we interpret feelings and perceptions, motivate ourselves, regulate emotions, and give ourselves instructions and feedback.

               Over the past nearly 40 years, studies in sports psychology have shown that self-talk can improve performance in sports (and the rest of life) (e.g. Mahoney & Avener, 1977; Highlen & Bennett, 1983; Papaioannou et al., 2004; Van Raalte et al, 1994). Most importantly, valence matters – while negative statements may be of benefit for a subset of very specific circumstances, overwhelmingly, psychological science reveals that positive self-talk gives you a bump, particularly during times when cognitive resources are low: races, big games, and tough workouts. Moreover, successful athletes use more self-talk (and presumably, use it better) than unsuccessful athletes. Gymnasts who qualified for the Olympics used more self-talk in practice and competition than those who did not qualify (Mahoney & Avener, 1977).

               Meta-analyses indicate that the best type of self-talk is situation-dependent. “Instructional” self-talk is of greatest benefit for tasks that require motor control or are heavily based on technique; even more so when fine control is required (e.g. golf) versus gross motor control (e.g. cycling). On the other hand, “motivational” self-talk is most helpful for situations requiring endurance and/or strength – psyching yourself up and boosting confidence. For example, in a task requiring precision (throwing to hit a target), water polo players performed better when using instructional self-talk; but in a task requiring power (throwing for distance), players improved their performance most with motivational self-talk (Hatzigeorgiadis et al. 2004).

               So how does self-talk work? Possibly by affecting your attentional focus – positive or instructional self-statements block out the thoughts that would otherwise interfere with performance. Self-talk is also thought to influence perception – of your physical and mental state, of the environmental factors around you – as well as how your brain processes this information; these things together lead to better decision-making and thus better performance. Finally, motivational self-talk likely increases self-efficacy, or your belief in your own ability.

Paying attention to and monitoring your internal monologue may not come naturally to you, but think of it as a free performance-boost. Add these tricks to your mental toolbox:

·        Start by simply increasing your awareness and attention: what kind of self-statements are you using? What’s helpful and not-so-helpful? What kind of situation are you in when you’re using these statements?
·        Reframe negative self-talk: replace statements like “I’m so tired, I’m never going to finish”, with “I may not be feeling my best right now, but I’m still moving towards my goal”

·        Identify external factors that influence your self-talk: are there particular people, situations, weather or terrain conditions that trigger your internal monologue?

·        Write it down and read it out loud: Saying it out loud (overt self-talk) – research suggests that saying it out loud (overt self talk) may increase the efficacy of your self-statements, as it holds your performance up to public standards rather than just self-standards – whether or not anyone actually hears you!

·        Use cue words for specific situations: With repetition, the aim is to automatically trigger the behaviors you want. They can also help you break down more complex tasks into manageable chunks.

·        Practice your self-talk and be consistent!

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Pittsburgh EQT 10 Miler!

You know that feeling that you're just not quite done yet? When there's still a little fire, a little hunger for another race before you're done your season - well, that led to me deciding (a whopping 2 days in advance) to sign myself up for the EQT 10 miler. Despite the fact that running has been bumpy the last 2 years, including an ankle surgery, a long rehab, a handful of spondylitis joint flare-ups, and working around messy biomechanics post-op, topping me out at 0 to 20 miles of running per week, 2 track sessions total since December 2012, and zero tempo runs. Those things don't exactly scream "ready to road race!"

So I framed this as an experimental test of how well I can run after a lot of biking, a few half ironmans, and most recently, spending the majority of my time training to swim 10 miles down a river.

The answer is - better than I thought. I rolled a 1:05 flat over 10 miles, hanging on the heels of the 6:30 pacer (a super nice kid who put up with me chatting a bit during miles 6-8, and inquiring about how difficult it was to run holding that sign, and whether he thought it was affecting his biomechanics. Nerdy, I know.)

Embedded image permalink

Strangely, instead of the slow descent into suffering that comes during a 4-6 hour race, I felt totally fine up until mile 8, turned the corner into the Strip district, and then my throat said "hells no, too much cold air and post-nasal drip!", and the whole breathing thing (which is kind of important for running) went downhill. Even with slogging the last 10 minutes in instead of the nice finishing kick I would've liked; objectively, being able to hold a 6:30 pace is not bad when you're working off a steady diet of distance swimming, cycling, and the occasional aquajog. It's always easy to say "but think what I could've done if I had been able to train my run at any point in the last 22 months!", but I like to think I've done some growing up as an athlete in the last couple years - and that includes being thankful and finding the joy in just running for the sake of running again, and being prepared to accept whatever the outcome is when I put myself on a start line.

Other thoughts:
(a) By Pittsburgh standards, the course was pretty level - a few short hills, no 30% inclines - and a nice tour of the north side, south side, and strip district. Running back and forth across the bridges never gets old. Although I still can't identify which bridge I'm on most of the time. Which is slightly embarrassing given that I've lived here for 4+ years now...

(b) Running 10 miles takes a lot less time than swimming 10 miles, so there's that.

(c) There are people...and trees...and external things to focus on. This makes the mental game a lot easier than nothing but bubbles and underwater for 5 hours.

(d) It's a lot easier to run when you don't bike 25 or 56 miles first. Yes, this thought actually went through my head as a novel idea. Hey, it's been a while since I've road raced. Triathlon seriously skews your perception of how hard running is.

(e) My post-race babble is getting slightly more intelligible. A few years back after the turkey trot, I said to the volunteer at the food table, "Thank you for your banana-handing." Let's face it, you can only go up from there.

Of course, having had a little taste now, I'd love to bust out a fast half marathon this winter or spring. But we'll see. One day at a time...special thank you to Dr. Brad at De Novo Chiropractic for ART-ing away everything that I break, Meghan at the Y for figuring out how to strength-train away my post-op glute dysfunction, and my Sunday morning spin class who didn't bat an eye when I said "so I just rolled over from the finish line of the 10 miler, but we're going to have a great class anyway!"

Friday, November 7, 2014

Indoor Cycling WOTW: Descending Climbs and Ascending Sprints

Happy daylight savings time! Which means it's actually sort of light out when I leave the pool in the morning, and very dark out by 5pm...and more of my cyclists migrate inside. We threw the hammer down Tuesday night with this 1-2 punch of hills and sprints:

Warm-up: 15 minutes easy riding, building resistance, with 3x30'' spin-ups.

Descending Climbs: all intervals on 1/2 time recovery at baseline/flat road gear
2:00 (seated) on an aggressive gear (8/10 RPE), last :30 out of the saddle HARD!
1:45 as above
1:30 as above
1:15 (seated) as above, last :15 out of the saddle HARD!
1:00 as above
:45 as above
:30 as above
:15 as above, all out of the saddle HARD

Ascending Sprints: all intervals on 1/2 time recovery at baseline/flat road gear
:15 seated sprint, 1/2 the interval recovery, continue below

Cool-down: 5-10 minutes easy spin

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Psychology of Pushing Your Boundaries & Performance Breakthroughs

 This is a story about a good friend of mine, who I've had the pleasure of watching go from didn't-own-a-bike to dedicated commuter to officially finishing her first century ride. In the years over which this awesomeness happened, I claim full responsibility for: convincing her to purchase a bike, convincing her to switch to clipless pedals, and convincing her that she could, in fact, ride 100 miles. Which she successfully did this September up in scenic New England:

After an appropriate amount of recovery time, we had a little "what-now" pow-wow, and she went back to the gym to start some off-season lifting and indoor cycling.

Which resulted in an interesting discovery:
"So, I've been getting back to the gym for reals now in my post-century daze. And it's feeling mostly good. I seem to have really leveled up, at least in terms of what I can do/push myself to do on the bike. I feel like I'm pushing myself to work at a higher level than I had previously thought I could. The only way I can figure is that by asking myself to do something really really hard, like the century, I have expanded my spectrum in terms of what I know I can push my body through, so what I used to think was really pushing, now I know I can go just a bit harder."
Read: our minds play into our performance WAY more than most of us ever realize. This goes back to the role of perspective-shifting in sports psychology - what you think you are capable of plays a big part in what you actually go out and do. This can be a positive as well as a negative - most people know it's best to go into a race situation with confidence in yourself and your training; if you expect to perform poorly, you probably will. What we're thinking about here, however, is different from the effects of harnessing positive thinking on race day. It's what occurs when you have - consciously or subconsciously (this is an area of debate in exercise science) - certain self-imposed expectations about what your body can do.

There are limits here, of course. If I wake up tomorrow and decide that I should go out and run a 1:05 half marathon when my PR is 1:25 and I haven't done any breakthrough workouts lately, I'm probably going to crash and burn. Thinking your way to performance breakthroughs isn't the same as having a magic "faster" or "longer" button. But it's worth sitting down and really thinking about your perceptions of what your limits are - and how you can push them. Your mind needs to learn that your body is capable of doing things that your brain wasn't sure you could do - as my friend learned after her century - and this is what leads to the subsequent bump in physical ability.

So do you have to go out and do some crazy long/hard workout or event to teach your mind that you can do more? Not necessarily.

Work a little bit of uncertainty into your training. Uncertainty is uncomfortable for most of us - endurance athletes in particular tend towards the type-A, control-loving end of the spectrum, at least when it comes to their training. And it's a surefire way to force you out of any expectations you have set for yourself. The simplest example would be to run (bike. swim, etc.) a hard interval session without your trusty garmin every now and then to prevent yourself from making decisions under fatigue based on the clock  (i.e. that moment when I check my watch at the 800m mark of a mile repeat, see 2:50, and my brain says "hells no this is too fast for you, slow down!). If you're a coach, even better - have a session every now and then where you don't tell your athletes how many intervals they're going to be doing in total.

Give it a try. We could all use a mental "reset" every now and then, and sometimes it takes a leap into new, slightly frightening territory to get there. You might find that you're capable of more than you thought.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Indoor Cycling: Late-Season Intensity Cranking Ride...

As the temperature drops and the days get shorter, my cyclists are retreating inside to finish out their race season training. We dropped the hammer with this 1 hour cycling class this Tuesday. Enjoy!

15 minute warmup, building power, quick cadence drills

10 x 90 second intervals (recovery 90 seconds easy spin between each), broken down as:

   #1-4: Seated sprint, cadence 95-110
   #5-6: Hill climb, standing
   #7-8: Seated sprint, cadence 95-100
   #9: First 45 seconds - seated sprint, into a standing climb (attack) for second 45 seconds, hold effort level out of the saddle
   #10: First 45 seconds - standing climb (attack), straight into seated sprint to the finish for the last 45 seconds

Cooldown: 15 minutes easy-medium spin with some rolling hills

Friday, October 3, 2014

Latest Wellness N'At Blog Post: The Neurobiology of Keeping Your Cool, Explained

Originally published here.

Getting Along With Your Vagus Nerve: The Neurobiology of Keeping Your Cool, Explained

brain heartKeeping your cool. Grace under pressure. These familiar idioms describe states that most of us hope to achieve when faced with a stressful situation. So why do some people seem to possess the ability to stay calm and in control, no matter what is happening around them?
Part of the answer may lie in yourvagus nerve. The vagus nerve is one of the twelve cranial nerves (number 10), and the largest. It exits your brain via the medulla oblongata, runs down your neck, and into your chest and abdomen. Along the way, branches of the vagus nerve innervate your heart, lungs, digestive tract, and other abdominal organs.
                Among its many jobs, the vagus nerve helps control your heart rate, breathing, and digestion. When you're resting, it maintains a state of homeostasis. When you're stressed, it helps turn off your body's alarm system, signaling to your brain that it's ok to return to a normal heart rate and breathing pattern. How well your vagus nerve modulates these important functions is often referred to as your level of "vagal tone".
It may seem obvious, then, that we should care about how well our vagus nerves are functioning, given their role in keeping our hearts and lungs running smoothly. However, thanks to a growing body of research on stress and cardiovascular function, we now know that the importance of vagal tone to your overall health and well-being extends even further. People with higher resting vagal tone have been shown to have increased resilience to a variety of stressors and score higher on measures of positive emotions and psychosocial well-being – essentially, a healthy vagus nerve may "buffer" you against social and psychological stressors (1,2,3).
On the other hand, low vagal tone is associated with a prolonged stress response at the basic physiological level – when your body goes into "fight or flight" mode, it takes longer for your vagus nerve to counteract that stress-induced stimulus that shot your heart rate up in the first place – leaving you predisposed to cardiovascular problems both immediately (arrhythmias) and in the future (low vagal tone predicts mortality after heart attacks as well as heart failure) (4,5,6). On the psychological side, chronic stress, anxiety, and low mood are among the factors that have been associated with lower vagal tone (7,8,9).
The good and bad news? Vagal tone is not static – it fluctuates with your physical and mental stress levels. When we push ourselves too hard – an overload of 80 hour work weeks, the overtrained athlete, an onslaught of emotional stressors – vagal tone drops. On the flip side, there's well-researched evidence that you can do things to increase your vagal tone:
Breathe Deeply
Yes, it may be that simple. Deep, slow breathing from your abdomen stimulates the vagus nerve, putting you back into a state of "rest, relax and digest" rather than "fight or flight". An emphasis on deep breathing may be the reason why practices such as meditation and yoga are associated with better vagal tone. This is a technique that can be used in times of acute stress – you've just had a bad meeting at work, so you stop and take a few slow, deep breaths to calm down that stress response—and has carryovers to long-term nervous system health as well.
Physical activity (with programs ranging from moderate aerobic exercise (10) to high intensity interval training (11)) has been shown to improve cardiac vagal tone. A good way of indexing this is with heart rate variability– a practical measure of autonomic nervous system function, as greater heart rate variability (HRV - a good thing!) is related to better vagal tone. Regular physical exercise improves HRV in healthy adults as well as individuals with cardiovascular disease. While we haven't figured out precisely how exercise increases HRV and enhances vagal tone, by creating this shift, the amount of work your heart has to do decreases – your resting heart rate and the amount of oxygen consumed by your heart muscle drop. As with the other health benefits of exercise, this is a "use it or lose it" phenomenon – vagal tone can decrease with exercise detraining.
The bottom line? Take a few deep breaths and take it out at the gym the next time your mental and physical alarm bells go off. Your body, your brain, and your heart will thank you for it!
$1.        El-Sheikh M., Harger J., Whitson S. M. (2001).Exposure to interparental conflict and children's adjustment and physical health: the moderating role of vagal tone.Child Dev.72, 1617–1636
$2.        Kok B. E., Fredrickson B. L. (2010).Upward spirals of the heart: autonomic flexibility, as indexed by vagal tone, reciprocally and prospectively predicts positive emotions and social connectedness.Biol. Psychol.85, 432–436
$3.        Souza G. G., Magalhaes L. N., Cruz T. A., Mendonca-De-Souza A. C., Duarte A. F., Fischer N. L., et al. (2013).Resting vagal control and resilience as predictors of cardiovascular allostasis in peacekeepers.Stress16, 377–383
$4.        Sabbah H. N., Ilsar I., Zaretsky A., Rastogi S., Wang M., Gupta R. C. (2011).Vagus nerve stimulation in experimental heart failure.Heart Fail. Rev.16, 171–178
$5.        La Rovere M. T., Bigger J. T., Jr., Marcus F. I., Mortara A., Schwartz P. J. (1998).Baroreflex sensitivity and heart-rate variability in prediction of total cardiac mortality after myocardial infarction. ATRAMI (Autonomic Tone and Reflexes After Myocardial Infarction) Investigators.Lancet351, 478–484
$6.        Volders P. G. (2010).Novel insights into the role of the sympathetic nervous system in cardiac arrhythmogenesis.Heart Rhythm7, 1900–1906
$7.        Rozanski A., Blumenthal J. A., Kaplan J. (1999).Impact of psychological factors on the pathogenesis of cardiovascular disease and implications for therapy.Circulation99, 2192–2217
$8.        Lucini D., Di Fede G., Parati G., Pagani M. (2005).Impact of chronic psychosocial stress on autonomic cardiovascular regulation in otherwise healthy subjects.Hypertension46, 1201–1206
$9.        Gorman J. M., Sloan R. P. (2000).Heart rate variability in depressive and anxiety disorders.Am. Heart J.140, 77–83
$10.     Sugawara, J. et al. (2001) Change in post-exercise vagal reactivation with exercise training and detraining in young men. European Journal of Applied Physiology  85 (3-4): 259-263.
$11.     Guirdaud T. et al. (2013) High-intensity interval exercise imrpoves vagal tone and decreases arrhythmias in chronic heart failure. Med Sci Sports Exercise 45(10): 1861-1867

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

How to Build for a 10 mile Swim

In 11 days I'll be on the start line for my first ultra-swim. It's been a while in the making, slowly building volume and open water swim experience over the past year after a looooong time out of the pool. Like, swim-team-in-middle-school time since I swam anywhere near this amount.

It's been a cool process. I built my athletic career largely around running and biking, and have been at them so long that it's easy to forget what it's like to go through the learning stages of developing as an athlete. Swimming is so technique driven that I was forced to constantly attend to and adjust what I was doing. And while I'm pretty sure that I could bike or run for pretty much forever if needed, swimming forever was a different story. The perspective shift even over the past 4 months has been incredible. 5000m was my "long" swim in March/April. In the fall/winter I considered over 3000m a long time to be in the pool. Last Friday, I swam 12,000m. And happily floated through a 3000 recovery the next day.

Here's what the Garmin swim watch extraordinaire says the last few months have looked like. It's not *quite* as dramatic a bump up in Aug/Sept as it seems from May/June, since I hadn't yet figured out how to enter my open water distance into my now-OCDish weekly total tracking via the magic watch:

I was fortunate to get out for some 5k-ish training swims at Moraine State Park a handful of times this summer, as well. Thanks to our chilly-ish summer, water temp never really got above 70 degrees, but it was clear skies all around:

The hay's in the barn now - time to taper and take on the Chattanooga River!

Monday, September 8, 2014

What can I do to protect my brain from stress?

Originally published here...

Last time we covered some of the functional and structural changes that take place in your brain when you're chronically stressed. While it's important to know what these changes are, most people are understandably more interested in what they can do to combat some of these negative effects.

There's a two-part answer to this question: you can (a) reduce your stress levels, (b) try to reverse the negative effects of stress, or ideally, (c) – a combination of both. There are a number of stress-reduction techniques that neuroscientists have studied, including guided relaxation and breathing techniques, mindfulness and meditation, biofeedback, and physical activity. I'd like to 
divide these into two categories: what can be thought of as "direct brain training" (mindfulness, guided imagery, attention training, etc.), and physiological training methods that have downstream effects on your brain (e.g. exercise, biofeedback). Let's start with the former:

The science of training your brain
Maybe you've heard of or read about mindfulness lately – once perceived by many as a "fringe" or largely "alternative" therapy that perhaps conjures images of Zen masters, mindfulness has recently hit the mainstream – largely thanks to a growing body of research to back up its benefits for both physical and mental health.

Mindfulness is defined as conscious awareness of moment-to-moment internal and external experience – paying attention to sensations and thoughts as they arise (with both focused attention and open monitoring), and acknowledging these thoughts and sensations in an accepting, non-judgmental way. It can be something you already have innately, at least to some degree ("dispositional" or "trait" mindfulness), and it can also be trained through various mental exercises.
Mindful traits (measured with a pen and pencil questionnaire, such as the Mindful Attention and Awareness Scale) as well as mindfulness-based interventions (such as the clinically validated Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction 8-week program) have been associated with increased measures of overall well-being and decreased incidence of depression, anxiety, mood disorders, and psychopathology (1,2). Additionally, mindfulness is linked to better outcomes in a number of clinical conditions, including chronic pain, HIV, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and fibromyalgia (3,4). Despite an increasing number of studies reporting positive associations between mindfulness and physical and mental well-being, the neurobiological processes that underlie the health benefits of increased mindfulness are just beginning to be understood.

When you look at the brain's response to mindfulness, you see the flip side of the same coin as stress – parallel but roughly opposite structural and functional changes in the brain are associated with mindfulness. Whereas stress can increase the volume of stress-responsive regions (e.g. the amygdala), mindfulness is associated with decreased volume in these regions and increased volume or thickness in prefrontal regions important for decision making, attention, and interoception. Similarly, functional brain imaging studies indicate that more mindful individuals show decreased activation in the amygdala in response to stressors, and increased activation in prefrontal regions. Essentially, mindfulness training appears to increase your brain's ability to do what neuroscientists refer to as "top-down regulation" – engaging higher-order cognitive areas in the front of your brain to successfully inhibit the "fight-or-flight"-type response of your more primitive, stress-reactive brain regions. You can think of this as mindfulness re-wiring your brain to dampen your stress response – thus giving you a nice buffer against the negative consequences of stress. The more you practice being mindful, the stronger these brain effects are – when shown a distracting stimulus, experienced meditators show increased activity in brain regions involved in response inhibition and attention, and decreased activity in the amygdala (5) relative to novices. But this doesn't mean you need to wait years for the benefits of training your brain – some changes occur in a matter of days and weeks, as shown by studies of brief Integrative Body-Mind Training (IBMT) and 3-day condensed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) courses (6).

Want to see your level of trait mindfulness? Test with the Mindful Attention and Awareness Scale:
Interested in trying out mindfulness training? Guided 10 – 45 minute mp3's from UC San Diego's MBSR program are available for free here:

1. Hofmann SG, Sawyer AT, Witt AA, Oh D. The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. J Consult Clin Psychol. 2010;78(2):169–83.
2. Baer RA. Mindfulness training as a clinical intervention: A conceptual and empirical review. Clin Psychol Sci Pract. 2003;10(2):125–43.
3. Brown KW, Ryan RM, Creswell JD. Mindfulness: Theoretical foundations and evidence for its salutary effects. Psychol Inq. 2007;18(4):211–37.
4. Smith JE, Richardson J, Hoffman C, Pilkington K. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction as supportive therapy in cancer care: systematic review. J Adv Nurs. 2005;52(3):315–27.
5. Brefczynski-Lewis JA, Lutz A, Schaefer HS, Levinson DB, Davidson RJ. Neural correlates of attentional expertise in long-term meditation practitioners. Proc Natl Acad Sci. 2007 Jul 3;104(27):11483–8.
6. Tang Y-Y, Ma Y, Wang J, Fan Y, Feng S, Lu Q, et al. Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation. Proc Natl Acad Sci. 2007 Oct 23;104(43):17152–6. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Basics: What is Stress Doing to My Brain?

Over the coming months, I'm going to be writing a series on the basics of health neuroscience for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette Wellness section, found here. First post is up!

The Basics: What is Stress Doing to My Brain?
We all know that stress is bad for us. Stress-related chronic diseases impact an enormous amount of people; it is estimated that 70% of deaths in the United States each year are from chronic diseases (1), and two-thirds of Americans now believe that their stress has a moderate or strong impact on their physical health  (2). We now know that chronic stress also affects the physical structure as well as the function of your brain.

Stress affects the size and thickness of a few different regions of your brain – the one we'll focus on here is the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure located deep within your brain. 
adrienne brain
(Amygdala in cross-section)

During acute stressors, the amygdala helps orchestrate the brain’s rapid fight or flight response (3). This response can be adaptive in some settings, but repeated, excessive, or prolonged stress responses are thought to place people at risk for stress-related diseases (4,5). The amygdala has been shown to be a key player in mental and emotional health, with abnormal amygdala function identified in depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, phobias, and panic disorders (6–8). Higher levels of perceived stress in a large sample of community adults have been associated with increased size of the amygdala (9). Moreover, some recent work suggests that reductions in perceived stress are associated with reduced amygdala density (10).

Under stress, specific functional neural changes have been observed in amygdala to prefrontal cortex (a higher order "thinking" area) circuitry, with the amygdala activating stress pathways that result in impaired prefrontal functions such as attention and working memory (3). Essentially, stress is changing how different brain regions "talk" to each other. This occurs even when your brain is at rest – it is reflected in baseline patterns of brain activity, where changes in neural functional connectivity have been shown between the amygdala and frontal brain regions in people with stress-related disorders (11–13).
The good news is that your brain is remarkably plastic – that is, it continues to change, structurally and functionally, in response to your environment and actions. So…next up: what you can do to protect your brain against the effects of chronic stress.

1.            Kung H-C, Hoyert DL, Xu J, Murphy SL. Deaths: final data for 2005. Natl Vital Stat Rep Cent Dis Control Prev Natl Cent Health Stat Natl Vital Stat Syst. 2008 Apr 24;56(10):1–120.
2.            The Impact of Stress: 2012 [Internet]. [cited 2013 Oct 30]. Available from:
3.            Arnsten AFT. Stress signalling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2009;10(6):410–22.
4.            Gianaros PJ, Sheu LK, Matthews KA, Jennings JR, Manuck SB, Hariri AR. Individual Differences in Stressor-Evoked Blood Pressure Reactivity Vary with Activation, Volume, and Functional Connectivity of the Amygdala. J Neurosci. 2008 Jan 23;28(4):990–9.
5.            McEwen BS. Seminars in Medicine of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center: Protective and damaging effects of stress mediators. N Engl J Med. 1998;
6.            Siegle GJ, Thompson W, Carter CS, Steinhauer SR, Thase ME. Increased Amygdala and Decreased Dorsolateral Prefrontal BOLD Responses in Unipolar Depression: Related and Independent Features. Biol Psychiatry. 2007 Jan;61(2):198–209.
7.            Kiehl KA, Smith AM, Hare RD, Mendrek A, Forster BB, Brink J, et al. Limbic abnormalities in affective processing by criminal psychopaths as revealed by functional magnetic resonance imaging. Biol Psychiatry. 2001 Nov 1;50(9):677–84.
8.            Mervaala E, Föhr J, Könönen M, Valkonen-Korhonen M, Vainio P, Partanen K, et al. Quantitative MRI of the hippocampus and amygdala in severe depression. Psychol Med. 2000 Jan;30(1):117–25.
9.            Taren AA, Creswell JD, Gianaros PJ. Dispositional Mindfulness Co-Varies with Smaller Amygdala and Caudate Volumes in Community Adults. PLoS ONE. 2013 May 22;8(5):e64574.
10.         Hölzel BK, Carmody J, Evans KC, Hoge EA, Dusek JA, Morgan L, et al. Stress reduction correlates with structural changes in the amygdala. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2010 Mar;5(1):11–7.
11.         Etkin A, Prater KE, Schatzberg AF, Menon V, Greicius MD. DIsrupted amygdalar subregion functional connectivity and evidence of a compensatory network in generalized anxiety disorder. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2009 Dec 1;66(12):1361–72.
12.         Lanius RA, Bluhm RL, Coupland NJ, Hegadoren KM, Rowe B, Théberge J, et al. Default mode network connectivity as a predictor of post-traumatic stress disorder symptom severity in acutely traumatized subjects. Acta Psychiatr Scand. 2010;121(1):33–40.

13.         Bluhm RL, Williamson PC, Osuch EA, Frewen PA, Stevens TK, Boksman K, et al. Alterations in default network connectivity in posttraumatic stress disorder related to early-life trauma. J Psychiatry Neurosci JPN. 2009 May;34(3):187–94.