Monday, April 27, 2015

Psychological Ramblings: "Hurt" vs. "Injured" in Endurance Athletes

I'm sitting here going on week #3 of grapefruit-sized ankle and talking to a friend on the phone. "But are you just hurt, or are you injured?" she asked.

There is an important distinction between these two concepts - in how we deal with them from both a practical and mental standpoint. Let's start by trying to define what it means to be "hurt" versus "injured".

"Hurt" certainly involves pain. Being hurt may shut down more cautious or novice athletes, but with experience (or in those of us who have been missing that self-protective screw from the get-go) - you can train through being hurt. Many people are hurting more often than they are not. I've heard it said many times that no one standing on an Ironman start line (or insert highly-demanding athletic endeavor of choice) has every part of their body feeling 100%. Does that mean everyone's injured? No. Being hurt isn't necessarily dangerous. I'd argue, in fact, that learning to play through hurt has its advantages. It helps you to, within a hopefully-still-physiologically-safe space, build resilience and pain tolerance. If you can to get back on your bike after taking the skin off your knees in a spill, or run on those sore quads even though you know it's not going to be super pleasant, you'll probably (a) feel proud of yourself for sucking it up, (b) teach your brain that it's ok to hurt sometimes, (c) learn to distinguish between pain it's ok to train through (and pain it's not, see below), and (d) develop the all-important grit to keep going when the going gets tough, something you'll be able to call upon in a race situation when that inevitable moment where your mind screams "STOP!!!" comes. Learning to hurt and deal with it is part of the experience of becoming a successful athlete.

But what happens when you cross the line? Worse, what happens when you lose the ability to see - or accept - the difference between hurt and injured?

"Injured" takes you out of commission. Maybe you pushed through something you shouldn't have, or maybe there was some sudden trauma outside of your control. Being injured is, and should be, psychologically much more devastating. Mentally coping with an injury requires a different kind of toughness - the fortitude to make yourself back the heck off and figure out where to go from here. It sucks. But life goes on, and there's no reason that learning to deal with more serious failures of your body can't make you a stronger person, much as learning to hurt can make you stronger.

A lot of it comes down to risk tolerance.

If you play hurt, you're probably incurring not much risk. You may even be developing grit - necessary for success in most tough things. If you play injured, you're dumb (or you're in truly exceptional circumstances, e.g. this is the Olympics, you are planning to retire afterwards, and you have processed and accepted the potential disability that may come of your actions). Perhaps, then, the distinction between hurt and injured could be best reflected by a spectrum of the amount of danger/risk incurred by plowing on in that state. See this handy scale I made:

In all seriousness though, embrace the process. We will hurt, and most of us will get injured at some point. Take the time to learn where that line is for you, and learn how you cope (or don't) when you cross it. And if you pick a half Ironman for your "A" race where there are bears on the course, please ride fast in the other direction.

Wishing you puppies and rainbows, grit, and a bear-free season,


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

7 Things I Learned from Watching Netflix Documentaries

1. Master your craft, and people will put up with pretty much any craziness from you. (Jiro Dreams of Sushi)

Whether you love sushi or not, it's worth watching this movie just for the beautiful cinematography. If, like me, you're fascinated by others' relentless journeys for perfection, you will also love this movie. When I'm rich and famous, I'm going to Japan and eating here. If I make my reservation now, I should be able to get a table by the time that happens. "Taste octopus that has been massaged for 45 minutes first" is now on my bucket list.

2. Don't put all of your money into a giant house. (The Queen of Versailles)

It is absurd this house these crazy rich people started to build. Then they lost all their money. Whoops. Don't do that, because it's really hard to find someone with that much money to drop on a half-finished 90,000 sq ft miniature city-state. What follows makes for an interesting study in the psychology of the ridiculously wealthy; specifically, what happens when one goes from riches to rags.

3. Dutch people have figured out social support. (Happy)

I've spent enough time working, visiting, and volunteering in nursing homes, from low-level assisted living to locked dementia units. I do not want to be in one. I plan on asking someone to clock me over the head with a frying pan when that's about to happen, assuming I haven't been chased down by a bear while cycling or consumed by a shark during an open water swim by then. But now, I think a better solution might be to move to Denmark. They have their shit figured out. Co-housing communities give people a built-in extended family to look out for them, whether it's single moms struggling financially or elders who need care and company. I'm pretty sure I could live out my life happily demented there. In fact, I might go there now.

4. My (theoretical) kid is not becoming an elite ballet dancer. (First Position)

So much pressure. So many kids beating themselves up, physically and mentally. I identify with and respect the dedication, and I'm all for going after your dream (also, these kids are damn impressive dancers). And I don't want to write a diatribe on the negatives of single-sport specialization at a young age. I just hope that any offspring I manage to spawn will spend a bunch of time trying a lot of different things and having fun. When your prefrontal cortex is fully developed, then you can go hell's bells down the rabbit hole after whatever single-minded pursuit your heart desires. Although by that age, you're probably too old to be a professional ballerina. Sorry.

5. Studying to be a master sommelier is pretty badass. (Somm)

Watching these cats buckle down for days, weeks, and months on end of straight studying, with their ginormous stacks of flashcards, and group venting/stressing sessions was very reminiscent of studying for my boards in medical school. Except having to do it while slightly drunk. Which may have made it a little more fun, but significantly more difficult. Respect. Wine is hard, and like the 600 flashcards worth of microbes and antibiotics I memorized several years ago, you'll probably need to re-learn all new things in 6 months since there was a drought/those microbes are now all resistant to those antibiotics. If I ever find myself at a restaurant that employs a master sommelier, I will tip generously.

6. We all survived. (Mortified Nation)

I loved this movie. I laughed quite a bit and I also cried a few times. Go watch it. In short, people read their adolescent journals, and much hilarity ensues, along with a lot of raw emotion and some scary/sad things. People go through all sorts of crap growing up; for some of us it's standard teenage angst, other people get hit with real life a bit sooner. But you know what? We all survived.
Warning, it will REALLY make you want to go back and read your diary/journal/whatever from your younger years.

7. Being the best at anything involves the same basic principles. (Generation Iron)

No, this is not surprising. But when it becomes evident by watching a movie about bodybuilders, and you see such obvious parallels between this unique, muscle-bound population and endurance athletes, it makes you think. Also, I'm going to stop knocking body builders. Apparently they're not all on steroids, they're stressed and scraping by in an underpaid, under-appreciated sport, scrambling for sponsor support, eating/sleeping/breathing the details, and then it all comes down to how you do on a single day, which may determine whether you can feed your family for the next year or have to abandon your sport. Sound familiar, professional runners/cyclists/triathletes?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Fast Times & Busted Tendons: Credit Union Cherry Blossom 10 Miler Race Report

After a surprisingly good Pittsburgh EQT 10 miler back in the fall (post-3 months of nothing but epic-long-swim training), I was in the market for another go at the distance. It's just long enough for my liking, but short enough to still be able to hammer the whole time. Most importantly, I wanted to see what I could do with a little run training under my belt. That EQT time turned out to be just good enough to allow me to bypass the lottery for DC's iconic Cherry Blossom race, so I snapped up the seeded entry slot and hopped a bus to DC (note to self: sitting on a Megabus for 7 hours the day before your race is really not the best pre-race activity. Even if it only costs $20.)

The backdrop was beautiful, the weather was perfect, and the course was flat and fast as promised. This is a HUGE race, so I was glad for the seeded start - being in a corral right behind the pro men made it easier to get out at the beginning, although I still ended up going an extra ~0.2 miles weaving around people in the first 3 miles (making up for a slightly shortened race course in the process). Over the past 2 months, I've still only done a small handful of progression and specific-endurance interval runs, trying to simultaneously not screw with my triathlon early-season prep training, so I ran by feel rather than obsessing over specific pace goals. I was surprisingly happy to see myself cruising through the first half of the race in the 5:40s-50s; ideally, I had estimated myself in shape for a finish time of anywhere from 59 - 63 minutes. Sub-60 was that stretch goal where I would finally feel like a legit runner again, and I was more than on target. Sub-62 was used as the "elite" entry standard for Pittsburgh's 10 miler last year, so this was really the range I wanted to be in, and I happily had some buffer room now.

Yeah, proofs. 
Aaaand then things went downhill. The posterior tib and fibula pain that my ortho had looked at just 2 days prior was coming on with a scream and a shout. I contemplated pulling off. But I'm a stubborn idiot, and since two doctors (if you count me) had looked at my MRI and ruled out any bone injury, I continued to talk myself through one mile at a time, watching my pace fall off and feeling frustrated at this lower-leg revolt. Who needs tendons, right? More than anything looking back at this day, I'm not super proud of how I handled myself mentally at this point. I should've made a firm decision when that pain hit that I was either going to stay in the game, stay focused, run my butt off even if I puked from pain at the end, and be prepared to deal with the consequences of that decision, or to just stop.
Instead I ended up in a frustrating mental middle road, where I repeatedly talked myself into and out of running, recognized that I was not fully mentally in it and got mad at myself for that too, wondered why I was doing this to myself vs. wanting that sub-60 finishing time (which I still estimated I could hit even after pain forcing me down to 6:30s the last couple miles), tried to refocus on the very pretty scenery, and just waited for that finish line to come. Which it did, in 59:17 (48th/11,067) and a whole slew of mixed emotions.

I'm so happy with what I accomplished here. Nearly 6 minutes faster than at the EQT (high responder to a little run training right here). Finally self-validation of the "fast runner" that I still am in my head. I needed to know that I could do that still, despite everything. And I'm finally starting to truly believe that I'll be able to continue on this path.

Disappointment at how I handled myself mentally the latter half of the race.

Worry about my peroneal tendons, which were already swelling as I hobbled to the Metro, but also acceptance. I made a conscious decision to keep running on them. My ortho/colleague/surrogate older brother and I both made the best medical decision given the information we had on Friday - which was for me to run - so there's no reason to waste mental resources questioning that. I'm rocking some crutches right now, but that's no one's fault, and the body heals.

Gratitude. It's Ankylosing Spondylitis Awareness month (sign up for Walk Your AS Off!), and I thought about that a lot too while I was struggling - how I would've given anything to be running just a handful of years ago, even through a ton of pain, and it was kind of ridiculous that I was pissed at having to drop off a sub-6 minute mile pace now. Perspective is hard to keep, and it's easy to get greedy.

Similarly, battling ego - how much faster and harder could I have run in those last four miles without that ankle pain? It's hard for me not to wonder that. But there'll be time in the years to come to find that out. Thanks Tim, if you're reading this, for calling me out on this (and for kindly referring to it as "being a perfectionist" rather than ego).

I would love to go back to this race again. I didn't spend enough time being present and enjoying the beauty of the day - we were so lucky to have race day coincide with the actual cherry blossom peak. And I made some wonderful new friends - I stayed the night before with a friend of my little brother's; Michelle and her housemates were above and beyond nice to someone they'd never even met before (nothing like post-race dog therapy, offers of frozen kale for my swelling ankle, and good life conversations to remind you there are good people in the world).

Post-race Washington Monument love.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

ROKA SIM Pro Shorts Review

New gear is fun. Especially when you can pay for it in haiku form (thank you, Triathlete Magazine!). Long story short, I am the proud owner of a snazzy pair of ROKA's new-ish SIM Pro shorts. Essentially, they're "wetsuit" shorts meant to help mimic the feel/body position you get with a full wetsuit, without the full wetsuit.

According to Roka's description, the Pro shorts are built like the Maverick wetsuit (which I can't comment on, as I'm still floating around rivers and lakes in the same little QR wetsuit I got for my first-ever tri. An ex-bf even tried to leave it at Musselman last year when I wasn't looking, but they mailed it back to me. It's the wetsuit that won't quit.) But anyways, Pro shorts have the same fancy-shmancy "RS2 technology" (buoyancy and rotation-enabling) and "Yamamoto SCS coating" which creates a "nano coated surface". Nano-what? Whatever. Just envision those water particles sliding off the surface of your neoprene-coated thighs.

I took them for a test-run in the pool first. This is one of the major advantages I can see to these - if you want to practice wetsuit-position prior to an early season race but can't get out in open water, these are pool-safe and you won't overheat in them.

First impression: they're not as floatation-y as I was expecting (not necessarily a bad thing) - compared to a pull buoy, for example, they certainly don't just pop my butt and legs up in the water. If you're expecting to use them in place of a pull buoy, know that you'll still have to kick (at least a little) to maintain proper body position. Which is ideal, again, for mimicking wetsuit use (hopefully you kick a little bit when swimming in a wetsuit). As for rotation, yes, it's a little easier to feel - I know that I over-rotate to my right as my funky left hip drops, and it was slightly easier to sense that and re-tauten my body with floaty shorts on. Cool beans.

Am I faster in them? Not really. In a 500m time trial in the pool, I was ~3 seconds faster (total) with the shorts than without. But if they reduce (a) the energy I would normally be expending to keep my butt up, and (b) drag (see: nano-surface), why wouldn't I be faster? Two reasons:

1. When I flip turn, they take on water, pulling me backwards a bit on my push off the wall. I don't think this is a flaw with the shorts, but rather with how much I (don't) quite fill them out. I'm a tiny person and in the tiniest size (women's xs), but I've still got some room to spare. Size down if this is a concern for you. My guess is it'll be less of an issue in open water, since I don't normally do somersaults to go around buoys.

2. It's easy to get lazy on the kick. Which is partially the purpose, right? But when I normally pool-swim a time trial, I get a decent proportion of my total propulsion from my kick, because my catch still kind of sucks, which is an issue that wonder-shorts can't solve. So leaving me more energy to catch with a dropped elbow isn't really going to speed me up. Mental note to do another 500m test with shorts+super kicking.

Neither of those points negate the potential value I see in using Roka Sims as a training tool. They're a great reminder of what it feels like to swim with some neoprene on your lower body, and would thus be a welcome addition to open-water skills sessions in the pool in particular. They're good for swim days when your legs are just shot. They're good for pull sessions when you don't want to go the full-on buoy route. I've worn them a handful of times in the pool now, and rinsed them with non-pool water afterwards - they still look like new, so durability isn't an issue so far.

I'm gunning to use them in an actual open-water training session (but I'd be gunning to get out in open water butt-naked at this point, after a long fall and winter of staring at the black line) - but I'm pretty sure the water here in western PA is still hypothermia-inducing. Look for an updated open-water test-run report when the icebergs melt!