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.)

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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