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.