Friday, October 16, 2015

There's an App for that!

One of my favorite readers, Heather, asked a very good question about the slogging of marathon training. Instead of responding in a comment, I decided to write a post instead. Here's her question:

"how much fatigue and slogging is an acceptable level for you? Or do you not feel sloggy that often, but simply a bit tired? I have a really hard time determining if I should push through sloggy dead legged phases, or back off before I overreach/overtrain. You've written about being a fan of large amounts of running data, do you use that data to determine if you're recovering properly? Is there an app for that?"

There IS an app for that! I use it every day, and it's called ithlete. This is an app that, coupled with a bluetooth heart rate monitor, measures your heart rate variability (HRV). I've posted briefly about it before, but I wanted to spend a bit more time with it since I have really begun to rely on it as a training tool. I have also been reading more and more research about what an impressive measure HRV is for a number of different things in addition to training.

First off, there are a lot of apps that measure HRV. At one point, I was trying to evaluate a few of them simultaneously which required taking my HRV using 3-4 different apps every morning and that was really not tenable. I quickly zeroed in on ithlete because of the ease of use, the user interface and mostly because of the fact that it interprets the data in a way that I can use. Having an HRV number was really not very helpful for me. Let me show you what I mean.

You'll want to click on the image so you can get a closer look, but what you see here is my HRV data for the past 9 months or so. The green, yellow and red dots connected by the light blue line at the top of the chart are the daily HRV values. You can see I took a break in August. The black bars are showing my training intensity. I enter that data for my workouts basically scoring them from easiest (1) to hardest (9). The red dots in the middle of the chart are my resting heart rate values. I mentioned in a previous post how my resting HR had gone down over the past year and this really shows that drop nicely. Here's a closer look at my HRV for this marathon cycle.

You might notice a pattern in this chart of a drop in HRV (usually shown as a red or yellow dot) after a hard workout (tall black bar) followed by a rebound back to the pre-workout value. This is what you want to see. Also notice that there are a lot of other things I could add to this chart (sleep, fatigue, soreness, etc.). These are qualitative ratings you input every time you take your HRV. The idea is that you can look for correlations between HRV and these factors. It can get kind of messy, so I usually just use training load. One really interesting thing to note, for those of you who use resting heart rate as an indicator of fatigue and overtraining is that it is really not very sensitive. My HRV is scooting all over the place in response to training, sleep, and life stress but my RHR is staying pretty darn steady. It makes me wonder if RHR is really a good measure for telling you when you've gone over the edge, but it can't really help you know when you're getting close to the edge. This may be peculiar to me, but worth a few thoughts.

These charts shown above are screenshots from their website but are also included in the app. 

What I find the most useful for day-to-day decision making is this chart, which is only available on their website and you have to have a "pro" subscription ($5/month) to get access.
It plots your daily recovery and activation to give you an idea how recovered you are and how much energy you have. It plots these data on the chart based on your values from the last 30 days. It also gives recommendations for training that day. I almost never act on the low activation recommendation. I find it correlates strongly with a low RHR and I think my RHR is falling due to training and not necessarily because I am burning out. I do act on the high activation data. I have found that higher activation levels occur when I am stressed out. If that is coupled with a low recovery, I generally take an extra recovery day. With the higher volume training I am doing right now, I find I am needing more recovery between workouts in general (3 days rather than 2). The timeline chart actually shows that really nicely with the interval of tall and short bars. 

One thing I would like you to take away from this post is that recovery is your best friend. It isn't a necessary evil. You should love your recovery days. Marathoner Kim Jones, drove this point home for me during a podcast interview on Runner's Connect. Kim Jones obviously had a lot of talent, but she also was super smart about her training. She said she loved her recovery days and when Benji Durdan, her coach, told her to take another recovery day instead of doing a hard workout she really looked forward to it. She said she knew that those days were the days that allowed her body to absorb the training and that's why she loved them. She said she just didn't understand why athletes were so against taking recovery days, so much so that they might even hide how they were feeling from their coach out of fear that they might have to skip a workout. Your body can only absorb so much work.

So, back to Heather's question: I use the daily HRV readings to help make decisions about my training and adjust on the fly. I have a general (slightly ambitious) schedule, but I made a pact with myself when I wrote it that I would be a good self coach and move stuff around based on how I felt and what the HRV data said. I am prioritizing high volume right now, so I am just embracing the tired leg feeling I have most days. My workouts are at slower paces than I would typically run and I am at peace with that too. I am not tapering for races but am instead using them as opportunities to get used to running on tired legs. 

When would I back off? If I saw that my HRV values were remaining low for multiple days without recovering or the overall average was dropping precipitously, I would take some down time. The blue line in the middle chart is the average HRV value and while it is slightly lower than a couple of months ago, it's going up and down just fine for now. I am still 7 weeks out from CIM, so it will be interesting to see what happens to it. 

Obviously, you don't need this app and the website to help you figure out when to back off, but I like having a little corroboration when I am feeling tired in training. I find that some days I will have a sloggy running day with a high HRV value or a good run with a relatively low HRV value. It's really more about the trend over time and being able to manage training so you don't push yourself over the edge. I find having this data really helps me. The other useful application is in trying out new training tools like supplements or adding more sleep to your routine, etc. You can see whether your recovery is enhanced by these new things after you start using them. I'm doing that right now with some new supplements that were recommended by a former coach (and elite masters runner). I am excited to see whether I am able to fit in more training while keeping my HRV steady over the next 7 weeks.    

One last thought: I have found that life stress, lack of sleep and strength training can have pretty large effects on my HRV values, even more so than my running. So, I would have to back off of my running training if one of those factors caused my HRV to plummet.

Thanks for the comment, Heather! I hope I answered your questions:)  

Monday, October 12, 2015

Deep fried frog legs

In case you're not following me on Strava (note the convenient link on the right of this post), here's what I've been up to.

Lots of miles. Lots of slow miles, actually and about 2 fast/long workouts per week. My body is still adjusting to the volume. I do get a glimmer now and again that the miles are sinking in and I am becoming stronger.

It is really amazing how training is such a huge leap of faith. We train through some pretty brutal workouts, niggling injuries, life drama, and utter fatigue; all with the hope that the stress we put our bodies through will eventually lead us to achieve our goals whether they be running a fast time, running a longer distance than ever before or just challenging ourselves to stay fit and focused on good health. One of my goals is to challenge my body in a new way through higher mileage and (so far) my body seems to tolerate it fine. I had lost my confidence in being able to run high mileage but I think I just needed to slow everything down to tolerate the volume. I call my slow easy runs "mitochondriacal runs" to remind myself that slow running serves an important purpose too. I *heart* mitochondria! New t-shirt logo?

Lately, I have been feeling less fatigued in my runs and, even though my running is not very fast, I know it will be soon enough. In the past, my fitness gains have come in giant steps. I am waiting to grow my frog legs and take that giant leap forward. I don't know when it will happen, but I will look back on all of this work and remind myself that it was good old fashioned slogging and hard work that got me there, with a side of trust in the process.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

All the Miles

I recently discovered I have the same disconnect as the poor runner in this meme regarding my vision of myself as a "high mileage" runner versus what I actually have been doing for the last 5 years. Forcing myself to be honest and actually look at my running log over that time period made me realize I have been anything but a consistently high mileage runner. I've done a bunch of workouts and had some high mileage weeks (and a couple of good races), but there's been nothing consistent about it. Thinking of myself in these terms has led to inconsistency in my running due to my repeated attempt to jump back into my *usual* high mileage regimen while also maintaining a hard workout schedule.

Lesson: don't let where you think you should be get in the way of where you need to be.

I needed to hit the reset button and allow my body to adapt to consistent running again. I think there is probably a window of opportunity that we have when we are forced to take a break from our usual training where we can jump back into training at our typical volume and intensity, but I have a feeling the timeframe is not 5 years. I actually haven't seen much good information on this subject because most is focused on the very short term, like taking a few months down versus years. Nonetheless, I decided I needed to view this more as starting from scratch and listen to how my body responded to training. That's always the best bet, but it is super tough when you have visions of yourself as Lolo Jones in your head.

I mentioned in my last post that I have been indulging in podcasts during my runs and have now listened to probably 30-40. The information becomes a bit garbled when listening to that many in a short time period in that I am not really able to attribute what piece of sage advice came from which coach or athlete. Aside from realizing that there are a million different ways to train to improve performance, I have been able to pick out the common themes from the many episodes I've listened to. Here are a few:

1. Volume is king. Nearly every single coach and athlete has said this is the bread and butter for improvement. Some say you can get away with aerobic XTing some of the workouts, but for the most part you just have to run more. People are afraid of adding volume because they think they will get injured. I am starting to change my view of this. I believe people get injured from increased volume because they are also maintaining or increasing their intensity along with it. Some can do this but most cannot. This is why I am trying a stepwise approach to increasing my volume. I am trying to let my body adapt to the higher volume first, whilst maintaining some basic speed and speed endurance workouts before I ramp up my intensity. A couple of interesting things have happened over the past month or more of doing this. My average resting heart rate has decreased by 5-10 bpm. That is huge!!! Plus, I'm able to run faster at a lower HR. That is adaptation in action!      

Lesson: Everything builds from that strong aerobic base.

2. It takes at least 2 years of consistent training at a high level to start to see the benefits of that training. I know this to be true from my own experience but it was interesting to listen to athletes and coaches discuss this. Only a couple actually recognized this as a "rule", McMillan being the most vocal. His rule that you have to train the athlete, so they can train to be able to train to achieve their goals is an outgrowth of this. This was one of the epic moments of podcast listening for me. It's when I realized I really just need to build a base of training so I could train to achieve my goals. Brilliant.

Lesson: Patience is a virtue. Give yourself a 2 year goal and be viciously consistent about training.

3. Strength training is secondary to running, but it can provide another adaptation to help you become a better runner. So many of the athletes/coaches I listened to, most notably Steve Spence, attributed their best performances to times when they had both running and strength training programs dialed. I believe there is a huge amount of trial and error associated with getting this right. I am still working it out myself and always believe it is good to try new things as long as you're willing to fail and let the thing go if it's not working. Oh, and a HUGE mind blower for me from one of the Magness podcasts was the realization that one of the primary benefits of lifting heavy is the increase in a little hormone called testosterone. Yep, lifting heavy is a natural way to increase your T!

Lesson: Play around with strength training and find what works for you. Bonus lesson: planks are not the best core work for runners!

Finally, to stick with my long term goals, I decided to opt out of the Chicago Marathon in favor of extending my base training. I am currently planning to run CIM as a goal marathon race. You may have also noticed that I added my strava log to the sidebar in my blog so you can keep up with what I am doing. I just started logging my workouts in Strava this week, so you won't find a lot of history, but I will keep that updated daily. So check back on my blog to see how my running is going or give me a follow on Strava!            

Here are links to the podcasts I listen to. Check them out in iTunes:

Runners Connect. Be sure to listen to the interviews with Greg Lehman (mind blown), Deena Kastor, Steve Spence, Steve Magness and Stan Beecham.

Runner Academy. Be sure to listen to the interviews with Ian Sharman, Deena Kastor, Alex Hutchinson, Tim Noakes, and Matt Fitzgerald on 80/20 running.

The Science of Running. This one is fairly new and is more of a conversation between 2 run coach geeks, but it has some nuggets in there including episode 3 on strength training and 4 on training/life balance.

Thursday, July 16, 2015


Somehow, this blog got away from me these past few months. Sorry for that (if there are any of you out there still following along). I have changed a lot of things about my training these past few months and they all seem to be paying off. Before I get into that, I will offer a quick update on my last few months of running and my future race plans.

March--injury averted: I was really happy with my decision to abandon ship at the Napa Valley Marathon. This may have been one of the smartest decisions I've made in my running career. I spent the month working on the niggles that plagued me during the race and successfully ended the month with pain free running without having to take time off.

April--we can rebuild her: I ran as much as I could this month despite lots of work commitments. Working as an ecologist in California, spring is my busiest time of year. I ran a couple of 'races' (a 10 miler and a 12k) just to keep the wheels greased.

RnR SD. The calm before the storm.
You can get these ridiculously cute shorts here
May--racing fun: I had been focused on 10k training and a fast 10k on Memorial Day when I saw that the Masters 1/2 Marathon Championship race was being held in San Diego. I made a quick call to my Mom asking if she wanted to go, and the decision was made. My brother and sister-in-law joined too. This wasn't my best race as far as time, but it was a lot of fun. I love Rock-n-Roll events and was happy to get the chance to run this one.

June--mo miles: Marathon base building was THE focus. My goal for this month was to get my mileage consistently in the 70-80 mpw range. I was successful.    

Race plans

I have decided to run the Chicago Marathon in October as my goal marathon race. This is where I qualified for the 2012 Olympic Trials. I really enjoy the city and the course and am hoping for a fast finish under the 2:43 qualifying mark.

I also have a few other races lined up between now and then:

18 July: Eppie's Great Race 5.82 mile run (filling in for a friend; tempo workout within an 18 miler)
26 July: SF Half Marathon (2nd Half). Not the fastest course, but a good check in on my fitness.
22 August: The Giants 1/2 Marathon. Looking for a check in 8 weeks out from my goal race.  


After my abandoned marathon race in March, I thought long and hard about how my training had gone and how my lifestyle affected my running. This is something I do after every major race, but in this case, I needed a lot more soul searching. When I started working with Coach Jack Daniels, I was a bit of a mess. I had become injured in a build up to a marathon and was just coming out of it. I remained a mess as health issues took me down in 2014, but throughout the time I worked with him, he took a conservative approach to building back my mileage adding about 10 miles per week every 6 months. I started with 40-50 mpw in Nov 2013 and ended up at ~70 mpw by March 2015. This was so important for me. I remained injury free that entire time and now have a great base that I am building upon.

For this next marathon, I decided to try my hand at self coaching again with the help of a book called "The Science of Running" by Steve Magness. I am pretty sure very few people knew who he was (except those geeks like me who have followed his blog and writing for years) until the whole Salazar doping scandal emerged. I highly recommend reading this book as there are a lot of really great insights in it and a good summary of the latest science and research related to training.

I am loosely following his marathon training plan right now with modifications to fit my mileage limits and the areas I need to focus on. I am just finishing the base phase of training (roughly 6-7 weeks) with my main focus on getting in a solid base of mileage. I have prioritized building volume over all else in this phase and will be ending the phase at 92 miles this week. This is higher than I've been in a long, long time and I feel good. When I have felt tired during the build up, I have abandoned intensity in favor of just getting the miles in. I have been listening to a ton of podcasts (Runner's Connect, Runner Academy) and the common thread among all of the athletes and coaches I've listened to is that volume is king. The more the better, as long as your body can handle it.          

Rethinking all the other stuff long as your body can handle it. When I dropped out of the Napa Marathon because I was worried about becoming injured, I initially thought this was because I wasn't doing the rehab work that I should have been. I now believe that I was overtrained from doing too much "extra stuff" in addition to running. This is a pattern I have seen in athletes I coach and now myself. I was constrained in how much running I could do, as I mentioned before, so I had time to add in extra stuff like strength classes and other cross training. The thing is, we only have one body. Injuries occur because tissue gets stressed beyond its capacity to repair itself and I was stressing that tissue in everything I was doing, not just in running. Sure, you use muscles differently in other activities and some are even low impact, but they all stress your body and require repair. I loved the group training I was doing, but when I took a hard look at it, maybe 30-40% was supportive of my running and the rest was just extra energy spent that should have been spent running.

After Napa, I stopped doing all added cross training and non-running-specific strength work. This decision was somewhat influenced by the Magness book, but mostly I wanted to see how I felt just running. The results have been good so far. Magness writes that a little goes a long way in that you don't have to do a ton of strength work to get a big benefit. Strength work takes many different forms for runners, from weight training to hill running. I have steered my strength program to the more running specific side with hill sprints, plyometrics and some limited weighted and body weight work focused on the core. I like the way Magness applies strength training based on what phase of running you are in: with heavier weights and hill sprints during the base phase followed by a focus on explosive strength exercises like plyos during the pre-competition phase and then tapering off in the competition phase. Core work is important throughout the training phases, but not a lot of that is needed. I do about 20-30 minutes per week now and sometimes none when I'm feeling pretty tired.

I strongly believe this refocusing of all my energy back to running has been the key to handling the higher mileage without injury (knock on wood).

Rethinking thinking

After the Napa Marathon, I also entered a low point mentally. The training leading up to the marathon was tough for me. I was spending a lot of mental energy worrying about how my workouts would go and ultimately did not enjoy them. In fact, I wasn't really enjoying my running in general. When I was being honest with myself, I had to admit this had been going on for a while. I knew I needed to turn this around.

I was placing pretty high expectations on my workouts since I had a specific time goal and was forcing myself to hit paces that I probably wasn't ready for. I had to ask myself some tough questions. Why am I trying to qualify for the 2016 Trials? Is it that important? For one, I am already an Olympic Marathon Trials Qualifier and will be for the rest of my life. This came to me when I recalled a conversation I had with a colleague at The Nature Conservancy back in 2009 or so. She qualified and ran in the 2008 Trials and I asked her if she was training to qualify for 2012. She looked at me sideways and said, "why would I do that? I have already achieved the goal of running in the Trials." Excellent point.

The reason I want to shoot for that goal is because it is lofty and slightly out of my reach. This is how I achieved the OTQ in 2012. I started working toward it before I even broke 3 hours for the marathon and barely had 3 years of running under my belt. I like the challenge of having a lofty goal and will do everything I can to get fit enough to run it. Having such a lofty goal also means sacrifice. I need to spend a lot of time and energy focused on running and especially on recovery. So, I am trying to arrange my work and life this summer to allow for this. I see Chicago as my first attempt at the time but I will keep trying if I fall short. I would love to PR in the marathon at least and can definitely see myself doing that.    

I am enjoying my running much more now and have worked hard to run workouts at an effort level that is commensurate with my fitness level. Trying to shoehorn my workouts into paces that I think I should be running just harshes my world. I want to have fun running and let the fitness come as I build mileage, confidence and mitochondria.

My journey to Chicago is underway. I promise to bring you regular updates along the way. And, as always, thanks for reading!

Monday, March 2, 2015

Knowing when to fold 'em

I dropped out of a marathon yesterday. It wasn't an easy decision and took me six miles to make. Of all distances to DNF (did not finish), I think the marathon is the toughest decision of all. So much work goes into preparing for 26.2 miles and to not get to test your fitness after months of hard work is very disappointing.

I have dropped out of exactly three races in my career including yesterday's Napa Valley Marathon. I have also finished races that I probably should have dropped out of or not even started. The decision to stay or go is always a personal one and has to be one that you can live with.

When I first started running, finishing every race was my main goal and I powered through lots of bad days to earn the finisher's medal. For better or worse, I became a competitive runner with a concomitant change in my perspective on racing. My lofty goals required a much more measured approach to these decisions about when to stay or go in a race. It wasn't until I became really, really injured that I understood the gravity of this decision when damaged body parts were on the line.

Right after I qualified for the Olympic Trials at the Chicago Marathon in 2010, I was high as a kite and scheduled to run the Athens Marathon as part of the US Military Marathon Team only three weeks after Chicago. I had always been able to parlay my marathon fitness into multiple marathons without doing damage in the past and expected this to be no different. Two weeks post-Chicago, I was on a training run and started to feel a stabbing pain in my outer knee that was absolutely debilitating. I could not run. I kept trying, but this problem would not resolve. I decided that I would not miss the opportunity to run in Greece and represent the US in a World Championship race, and went ahead and ran Athens.

The Athens course is brutal. Lots of uphill, but worse, the last 10k is all downhill. My knee was hurting from the first step and eventually went numb as I pounded downhill to the finish in the ancient Panathenaikos Stadium. My performance led the US team to a Gold medal and I absolutely cherish every bit of that experience. However, I had no way of knowing the cost of running that race injured. I paid for it with over 6 months of no running due to this injury. In some ways, I think that prolonged injury also set me up for a cycle of similar and serious injuries over the next several years as I came back (probably too quickly) to running only to get sidelined over and over.
I got to meet Joanie in Athens!

Gold Medal Team USA!

So, back to yesterday's race. I went into the race with nothing seriously wrong with my body. I made it through the heaviest training I had done in over 5 years and was actually patting myself on the back for keeping all the niggles that had popped up at bay. For over a year, I have had a constant and very active exchange of power going on between my left foot/leg and my right hamstring/glute. Sometimes, they both hurt, but most often one or the other is getting my attention. I have successfully trained through this with a combo of massage, rolling and targeted strength training. When it is really getting my attention, I am much more diligent about my treatment regimen. In this training cycle I was very aggressive early on in treating the imbalance and actually had both problems resolve completely. So, what did I do? I stopped doing my rehab. Yes, I know. This was stupid and contradicts what I tell the athletes that I coach. I am human too.

My left foot was getting my attention more and more the last couple of weeks. I didn't pay much attention given that I was starting my taper and thought I'd have plenty of time to work it out before the marathon. That didn't really happen. I just hobbled around when I woke up and forgot about it as it loosened up throughout the day.

So, yesterday, I was feeling good at the start. Everything had really gone very well aside from some unnecessary negative energy during race week that I couldn't seem to brush off. From the gun, I felt fine running with the lead women's pack: a couple of runners whom I really respect and was excited to race. I think it was around the two or three mile mark when my right leg started to feel weird. It was a soreness that ran from the glute down the outside to the lower leg. I thought this was just a stupid muscle tweak that is pretty typical early in a race. I thought it would go away. Instead, I started to lose power in that leg. I couldn't seem to push off. It became more and more work to keep up the pace and I started to drop back from the pack. I figured I would give this thing a few more miles and just see how it played out. It did not resolve and instead got worse. At this point, I started running through the decision tree of pros/cons and if/then scenarios. I had set goals for myself to make it to the starting line of this race and accomplished that. I had also set a goal to make it to the finish. How badly did I want that? Not enough to risk injury that would possibly sideline me for months and ruin any additional shot at qualifying for the Olympic Trials. Not worth the cost.

Maybe even harder, was thinking of disappointing an entire group of runners that I had convinced to run the marathon and train with me as their coach, many of them running their first. While I could have "gutted it out" and made them proud of my courage through adversity, I decided I would rather show strength in character and make what for me was a harder decision to let this one go in favor of a bigger goal. I think this latter perspective is one that gets less play in a world where "no guts, no glory" reigns supreme. I want my athletes to push themselves while having respect for their bodies. Learning when to push hard and when to pull back requires maturity and wisdom. I can't ask this of my athletes if I am unwilling to set the example myself.

As I hobbled out of bed this morning and felt like I had been hit by a Mack truck despite only having run 9 of the 26.2 miles yesterday, I knew my decision was the right one. I'll get back into my rehab regimen and be back on the roads in a few days. I haven't quite figured out what is next on my dance card but will certainly post about it as soon as I have a plan.

Congratulations to all of the RunAwayFast and P2O Hot Pilates runners who completed the Napa Marathon yesterday. It was an amazing thrill to watch you accomplish your goals. I am so proud of all of you and grateful for having had the opportunity to train with you.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Training update PLUS new gadgets and tools for training

Since I have fallen behind in updating all of you, I am giving you one monster update with lots of exciting new information on some of the things I'm trying out right now to help with my training and recovery. I'm not even going to try to be brief because I am pretty excited about how I am feeling and don't want to skimp on the details. So, grab a beer, cup of joe or some kombucha and enjoy the ride!

Jed Smith 30k 1st female!
1. Training update. The most important news is that I am still on track to run the Napa Marathon on 1 March. This is huge for me given the fits and starts I've had training for marathons and not running them over the last 12 months. The heavy lifting of my marathon training is now behind me, and I have a taper ahead. I have done the biggest workouts of my life in this training cycle (think 10 mile tempo runs within 22 milers and 15+ miles at marathon pace) and they have gone well for the most part. I have raced twice this cycle. The first was a half marathon at the beginning of February where I had a disappointing performance. I was really hoping for a good race, but my body was not cooperating. I had that feeling of breathing easily while my legs were stuck in thick mud. The following weekend, I ran a local 30k quasi-trail race as a workout and that went really well. I started out around 7:00-7:30 pace for the first couple of miles, cruised the middle 14 miles at ~6:20-6:30 pace and cooled down the last 1-2 miles. I won the women's race, set a 30k PR and the course record by 4 minutes.  

The best part of this training cycle is that I feel great. I recovered from my surgery in December and am finally back to excellent health. Though I have had a bad race and a couple of off workouts, for the most part I feel amazing. I actually feel somewhat undertrained to be honest. I don't have the typical total body fatigue that I generally associate with marathon training. My mileage peaked at 80 mpw about 2 weeks ago and I've averaged around 70 for the last 12 weeks. I have also been doing around 3-6 hours of strength and core training each week. I should be tired, but I am not. I have been smart about taking rest when I need it--sometimes delaying workouts when I am feeling really off or even skipping them (did that twice this cycle).

On a fashion note: If you see me flying around in cute running shorts and brightly colored tops (as in the picture above), I am most likely wearing clothes from a company called Janji. I appreciate this company because they have found a way to combine two things I really love: running and environmental protection. They make super cute, high quality running clothes and give back to society by funding individual projects that provide clean water to people around the world. Their colorful clothing and beautiful designs represent the various countries where they are funding projects. I love the idea that some of the money I spend on running clothes (and it is a lot!) doesn't just go to making big companies richer but that it goes to a cause that I can really stand behind.        

2. EnduroPacks. This product or rather supplement regimen may be part of the reason I am feeling so good. I read about it on another runner's blog and began looking into it. I was bothered by the fact that the only reviews of the product I could find were all reviews from people who had been given the product free to try in exchange for a review. All of the reviews were so good, that I was very skeptical. As a coach I am always searching for new products to recommend to my athletes but not until I have tested them myself. So, I ordered a 60 day supply and have been following the regimen the last 2 months. This isn't a single supplement but an actual regimen you have to use every day. It includes taking a liquid multi-vitamin, which is actually really tasty. There's an electrolyte spray that you put in your water during workouts, though I do it after. There's an amino acid patch that you put on your skin right after your workout and finally glutamine capsules that you take every night before bed. This is a  commitment, to be sure, but I have been really good about following it. Most of the reviews I read mentioned the quicker recovery time that they experienced when they started on the regimen. As I said, I have been feeling amazing and obviously recovering really well from some very tough workouts including a lot of extra strength and mobility work. I feel strongly enough about this product that I will continue to take it after Napa despite the somewhat hefty price tag. If it is contributing to how good I feel, it is absolutely worth the cost and extra effort.      

3. Fitbit Surge. I love my Garmin 620 for tracking my running workouts, but I wanted something that would track my non-running activities: enter, the Fitbit Surge. This device has an optical HR monitor that tracks your HR at your wrist so no chest strap is required! I have worn both a chest strap and the Surge and the readings are almost identical. I wear the Surge all day and night to track everything I do, including running, strength work, hot pilates, hot yoga, and even my sleep habits. There are so many things I like about having this information. I have become acutely aware of just how few calories I burn in a day. This was a bit of a surprise to me. I had always used standard activity trackers to estimate calorie burn, but I am finding they are way off. For example, I am consistently finding that I burn about 60-70 calories per mile when I run depending on my HR. I used to think it was 80-90. That's an overestimate of 400 calories burned for a 20 mile run. I was most disappointed with how few calories I burn in strength training classes. In an hour of hot pilates, I burn 175 calories. I burn 400 calories in 90 minutes of bikram yoga. I burn about 150 calories in a kettlebells class. I wanted to believe that this was an underestimate at first because these values were so low. However, it actually makes sense given how low my HR is in these classes. Anytime I lay down, regardless of what I am doing, my HR plunges below 90 and stays there. The point of taking these classes is to gain strength and not necessarily to burn calories of course, so it is somewhat of a geeky novelty to know the numbers. I wanted to believe that the numbers were artificially low for some reason, but the next paragraph explains why I don't think that's true any longer.

The fitbit app and website make it really easy to track my food intake and the device measures my calorie burn via the HR monitor coupled with some equation that includes my height, weight and age. While calorie tracking is wholly inaccurate, I have found that I am able to maintain my weight by taking in roughly the same amount of calories as the Fitbit says I am burning each day. It's kind of crazy how well it works.

One last note about the Fitbit: it has GPS and I have found it to be very accurate, so I often wear it instead of my Garmin on my non-workout running days. A feature that I wasn't sure I would like is text and phone call notifications. I actually really do like it. If my phone is nearby, the watch shows incoming calls and will display text messages. I can also control the music on my iphone from the watch when I have it with me.

4. Racing Weight. Long time readers know that this is a subject I have blogged about before. Getting down to my ideal racing weight is always a struggle for me and I have the disadvantage of being larger than the average quasi-elite endurance athlete, as I outweigh most of the elite men's field at any given marathon. I had my body fat tested today. I like to calibrate my home scale which uses bioimpedance and, while inaccurate, is precise enough for me to track trends over time. I went to a place called Weightless here in Sacramento because they have a BodPod. I've done hydrostatic testing before, but why get dunked in a tank of water and feel like you're drowning when you can sit in an egg and stay comfortable and dry? The accuracy of the two are comparable and the price was too ($50). My body fat is 10%. While that seems low for a lady, it's actually pretty normal for me just before a marathon. What it tells me is that I have done a good job reducing my body fat but that it's about as low as I can go. I only have 13 lbs of it, after all. I have definitely gained muscle mass with the strength training I'm doing and, while I probably have more upper body muscle than I really need, muscle is what counts for a marathoner. It stores glycogen and will carry me to the finish line. Fat is just dead weight. So, I am very happy with my body composition going into this race. I am slightly heavier but as lean as I was heading into my PR marathon in 2010.

I have worked really hard these last couple of months to achieve this leanness. I always run slightly lean, but I know from my home scale that I have lost about 2% body fat over that time period. In case anyone cares, I have a Tanita Ironman Innerscan scale (model BC-554) at home. It read 14% body fat this morning, so that shows the difference in accuracy. Again, for me it does a nice job of showing change over time and that's what matters. While I am doing more strength training than I have in the past, I find leanness begins and ends in the kitchen, or so they say. I cut out all alcohol over two months ago. I have tried to limit my sweets, though that is a constant struggle for me. I pretty much eat the same thing for breakfast and lunch, every single day and then I have been trying out some different options for dinner to try to keep it healthy. In tracking my food intake, I find that I consume about 60-65% of my daily calories in carbs. My protein intake is around 15% and my fat intake around 20-25%.

I subscribed to something called the Fresh20 which is a meal planning website that posts a dinner plan each week. It includes 5 meals that feed a family of 4, a grocery shopping list of the 20 fresh (get it?) ingredients that you'll use in those recipes and then fairly simple instructions on how to prepare each meal. We have liked almost every meal we've made and I really like that we rarely throw food out now because we are planning everything in advance. I realized that one of the main reasons I wasn't eating a healthy dinner was due to a failure to plan. With this, I have everything planned for me. I just buy the ingredients on Sunday and then do a little prep each night. The meals generally take 30 minutes to prepare, with a few taking less and more. This has absolutely improved my eating habits and I think I paid $24 for a year's subscription. Cheap.

5. Heart Rate Variability (HRV). HRV monitoring is a relatively new training tool I've added to my arsenal, so I still consider it to be in the testing phase. However, it has already proven to be really useful to my training. HRV is designed to assess the effects of stress on your body. It is measured as the time gap between your heart beats that varies during respiration. In general, high HRV levels mean you are in good health and have a high level of fitness while decreased levels indicate higher levels of stress, fatigue and burnout. This is a simple thing to measure from a users' perspective. I slip on a bluetooth HR strap (Polar) first thing after I get up in the morning and open up an app that takes my HRV reading from 1 to 3 minutes. Simple. The app then interprets the data and gives me a reading. A single reading is not that useful because you need a baseline so that your readings can be compared to one another over time. The key to getting good data is to be consistent: take a daily reading at the exact same time (not clock time but as soon as you wake).

I have been taking my HRV reading using 3 different apps: a major pain but for the sake of Science! I have found ithlete to be the best. There are two reasons I like this app/web-based program. First, it is the easiest to use. The app always recognizes my HR strap within seconds of opening it and only needs a 60-second reading. The other apps (Sweetbeats and EliteHRV) require a 3 minute reading. Sweetbeats never reads my HR strap on the first try, which is a pain. The other reason I like ithlete is for the user interface, especially the web-based tools. They have created a chart that uses Z-scoring to plot a value that incorporates your activation levels (think of it as energy levels) and recovery levels over time. The more readings you have, the better your baseline and the more useful the information will be. They have shaded quadrants on this chart that indicate where you are in terms of readiness to train.

There are so many cool things to say about this that I may devote an entire post to it once I have more readings and have played with it for a while. The usefulness of it is only as good as the amount of information you put in. You can use the chart to help guide your training in terms of knowing what days you are best suited to the most difficult workouts. You can use the information to help figure out what types of training (strength, yoga, intervals, endurance runs) tend to require more or less recovery. But, perhaps the most useful aspect is in better understanding how other aspects of your life such as stress from work and personal relationships or even stress reduction via meditation or relaxation change your recovery/activation profile. I see this as the biggest issue facing non-pro athletes: they often think they can partition their stress into bins of work/family/training. But, stress is stress to the body. We like to think of exercise as being good for us but it is absolutely a stress on the body. The good part comes when we allow enough rest to recovery and let the body adapt and get stronger. If we can't get that rest and relaxation because we are stressing our systems in all aspects of our lives, then we have to rethink our approach to training and living in order to achieve our athletic goals.

My HRV chart from the ithlete Pro website
This chart shows my HRV readings for about 2 weeks. There are a cluster of readings up in the left hand quadrant of the chart indicating that I was stressed out and had lower recovery. This was around the time I ran that half marathon. I was also preparing for a really important presentation and was not getting enough sleep. So, the HRV readings during that time just confirmed what my body told me during the race. Since then, my readings have all been in the normal to exceptional range and my workouts have been stellar. I have been sleeping a lot more, cutting back on the heavy strength training and meditating. This is not a free app, but I have found it worth the price so far. I believe the iPhone app cost me $10 and I pay a $5/month fee to use the website (first few weeks were free).                

6. Meditation. Back in 2010, I was really struggling with the mental side of my running and found some wonderful tools on the interwebs to help me. I downloaded a few mp3 tracks of what I was calling hypnosis but now know is actually guided meditation. I posted about the first exciting experience I had using guided mediation in my marathon training here. That was truly extraordinary. Meditation has made its way back into my life through the wonderful studio I am part of called P2O Hot Pilates. They offer a guided meditation class each week and then daily open meditation times first thing in the morning a few days per week. After taking my first class with Nick Anicich, I knew this practice would help me in my running. I started one-on-one coaching with Nick a few weeks ago and it is definitely helping my running. I am learning to focus on my breathing, refocus my thoughts quickly when monkey brain sets in and generally lessen the stress of my life so I can recover. The added bonus is that this practice is spilling over into other parts of my life too. I am such a novice at this point, but I know I will get better at it with time, just like so many other things.

7. Carb depletion and loading. So, my coach Jack Daniels recommended I try a carbohydrate depletion and loading regime for Napa. I know other marathoners who swear by this approach to carb loading and have had some fantastic performances after employing it. To be honest, it freaks me out. Here's how it goes. You do a carb depleting workout on the Sunday before your marathon and then start eating 90% of your daily calories as fat and protein on Monday. You do this through Wednesday and then on Thursday switch to eating 90% carbs through Saturday. The idea is that your body becomes highly glycogen depleted by Wednesday and then supercompensates the next 3 days when you add carbs back to the diet. Because glycogen depletion is one of the main reasons marathoners slow at the end of the race, I am told this particular regimen is only effective at this distance. There are risks to doing this including bloating, feeling like complete dog poop by Wedensday and increased potential for sickness in the week before the marathon. Jack's final words on this were, "at least you can blame me if it doesn't work." I will need every advantage possible in this race, so I am going for it. I will try to keep track of what I eat and how I feel so I can report back to all of you.      

Okay, I believe that is enough for now. Thanks for reading and please feel free to comment or ask questions!      

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Top 10 lessons in 10 years of running

In all the craziness of this past year, I forgot that 2014 marks my 10 year running anniversary. I started running in August 2004 and ran my first marathon that December. I walked through every aid station and had the time of my life in that marathon. I remember celebrating every mile over 20 because it was the farthest I had run in my entire life. I qualified for the Boston Marathon in that first marathon and was told that this indicated I might have some talent. I'm glad I have continued to run and push the limits of my training to see how fast and strong I can become.

I have learned a ton over the last 10 years and have chronicled about half of that in this blog. I decided to try to summarize some of the top lessons in this post in countdown fashion.

Lesson 10. Know your weaknesses. 

Acknowledge them, but don't beat yourself up about them. These may be cravings that keep you from making your goal weight for your big race or mental weaknesses that crop up every time you do a tempo workout. I have found that it helps to face these things and figure out ways to deal with them. One thing I like to do is remind myself of the bigger goal. Say I am craving that bag of
Lindt candies sitting out on the counter (this would be a real craving, btw). When I reach a point in my work where I want a distraction and can't stop thinking about the candies, I will make myself wait 10 minutes and during that 10 minutes review my racing weight goal. I don't tell myself how horrible a person I am or how fat I will be if I eat those wonderful chocolates, I just try to delay the action and remember why I care about not eating the chocolate. It isn't fool proof, but it mostly works, especially if I do this often. For that dreaded tempo workout, I often have trouble just getting out the door. Once I'm rolling, it doesn't seem to be a problem. So, I try to find ways to get myself out running without thinking about the tough workout I have planned. I often make a running date with someone for an early morning run and run the warm up with them. Since I'm already out there, it is easier to just roll into the workout.      

Lesson 9. Chunk it up.

I decided early on in my marathoning career (at the age of 38!) that I wanted to try to qualify for the
CIM '04. Walking thru
the aid stations!
Olympic Trials (OT). I was a 3:20 marathoner at the time. Rather than be overwhelmed by the massive gulf between my then marathon PR and what I needed to run (a difference of more than 30 minutes!) I decided to chunk it up. That is what I call breaking it down into smaller, bite sized chunks: something I can fit in my mouth and digest. I first set a goal to run a 5k race at the goal marathon pace I needed to get the OT qualifier (6:22 pace at the time). Then, I ran a 10k at that pace, and a 10 miler and half marathon. This took about 5 years. Over that period of time, the standard changed from 2:48 to 2:46, so I had to adjust my pace goals for my races, but I was finally able to take a shot at running an entire marathon at that goal pace. It took me two tries once I was ready to run that pace, but I finally did it in 2010. I use this same approach in workouts and races. It's a simple way of making a big hairy goal doable.

Lesson 8. Run with people (and dogs) that you like.

My running crew
This one might actually be more of a life lesson, but somehow it really sunk in for me once I became a runner. I spend a lot of time running, and I like to run with people for most of it. Well, to be truthful, I really like to run with my dogs, and I treat them like people, so that counts too. I run with a variety of people but they all have one thing in common: I feel good when I run with them. We may not run the same pace all the time, but I try to be respectful of their paces when they need a recovery day and then (politely) excuse myself when I need to run a faster workout. I have made some terrific friends through running, but I have also had to let a few go because they didn't make me feel so good. Of course, I met the Genius through running, and will be forever grateful for that.  

Lesson 7. Be a good sport.

US wins gold in World Mil. Marathon Championships!
Athens, 2010.
This refers back to Lesson 8, actually. I refuse to run with people that are disrespectful to me or make me feel badly. I think my tolerance for acceptable behavior has narrowed as I have gotten older. I value my time too much to turn something that I love like running into a negative emotional cistern. The "one steppers" and runners that can't run a workout without trying to "beat" everyone are just not acceptable training partners to me any longer. Instead, I look forward to spending time with my running partners. I also love the camaraderie that running offers through team membership and competition. I have competed as a member of the Impala Racing Team for the past 6 years and was a member of the US Air Force Military Marathon Team for a few years at the end of my military career. What on the surface seems like an individual effort or accomplishment becomes so much more meaningful when it is run as part of a team.  

Lesson 6. It's okay to be slightly undertrained but don't overtrain.

If you want to accomplish big things in your running, you need to push your physical and mental limits. I had the good fortune of being able to train and race hard for 6 years straight without a running injury. I had wonderful coaching during those first 6 years to attribute some of that to, but I also think I was lucky. When I had my first brush with injury, I was pushing my limits. I was clearly overtrained and needed to back off. My coach was sending me messages in bold type with exclamation points telling me to stop!!!!!! I remember telling her that I wanted to know my limits. I felt like I wouldn't know how far I could push myself until I had gone too far. Luckily, that injury only took me out of action for a month or so and I was able to cross train like a maniac to stay fit. I ran my OT qualifier 6 months later. While injury was an important thing for me to experience as a runner and as a coach, it has continued to be a partner in my running since that first injury.

One of my coaches used to tell me that it is better to go into a marathon slightly undertrained than overtrained, and I don't think I really understood that until I overcooked myself a few times. Recovery from overtraining takes FOREVER! Even if you have a good race, if you trained really, really hard and went into the race slightly overtrained, you can take 6 months or more to recover from the damage of that training cycle. This is okay I think when you're trying to do something big like qualify for an important race or run a big PR. However, you need to understand the sacrifice you're making when you cross that line. I do everything I can to try to keep the athletes I coach from overtraining. I know from experience now that you are much better off being able to train consistently over a longer period of time than throwing everything you have into one training cycle and going for broke. Overtraining doesn't just occur as a result of too much running, either. It is affected by so many other aspects of our lives including life stress, lack of sleep and even excessive strength and cross training. You only have one body and all of these things add stress to it. The key to becoming a stronger and faster runner is to cycle stress and recovery in a way that is anabolic rather than catabolic over time. You can easily become overtrained off of a relatively low volume of running if the other stresses in your life are too great and your body cannot recover.        

Lesson 5. Know your body.

One of the first important lessons I learned about my running body was that I needed more iron than the average bear. I ran for 3 years, slowly depleting my iron stores until one day, my body just
I heart iron
wouldn't move any longer. I was lucky to have a coach at the time who recognized my symptoms and suggested I get my iron stores tested. They were non-existent. What I have learned about my body since then is that, if I don't take iron daily in the liquid form with a vitamin C chaser, I can't keep up with the iron I lose in training and everyday life. That was important to know. I have also spent a lot of time trying to figure out what helps me recover most quickly; what fueling concoction keeps me going in races and workouts; what shoes work best; how I feel under different taper regimens; and on and on. I have found that the best way to quickly figure things out is to pay attention and take good notes. I keep track of a lot of "stuff" in my running log: how I feel in my workouts, what supplements I took; how much strength training I did; what hurt that day; what I thought about the workout; what shoes I wore and how many miles they had on them; etc. Maybe this is too much stuff for most people, but I find it immensely useful when something goes awry and I need answers. I keep a Google spreadsheet with formulas and fancy calculators, but I also like writing in a training journal. I like to say that the spreadsheet is for my left brain and the journal feeds my right. Even with all of this information, I know when I need to cut it out. I know when a pain is no longer something I should run through and when a cold has become more than just a nuisance. These are things you learn about your body over time. There is no substitute for experience.                      

Lesson 4. Build a team of body workers.

Doc Ball's handy work.
I have learned a lot about my body and why it does the bad things that it does from a group of awesome practitioners that have helped fix me over the years. During my first 6 running years, I had some little niggles here and there and found a few good local practitioners to keep me on the roads. In 2010, I became seriously broken and I cycled through the local practitioners until, eventually, none of them could help me. I then wandered to the Arizona desert and found Dr. John Ball. I spent over a week in his care and came out running pain free. What Dr. Ball wasn't able to do was keep me from making stupid mistakes with my training. I spent the better part of 2010-2012 injured on and off, making the same training mistakes over and over. I have been back to see Dr. Ball twice more with similar positive outcomes, but he is in Arizona and I am in California. I am not a professional athlete and can't afford the trip to Arizona, so I have worked to develop a team of local practitioners that help keep me on the road. I have learned something really valuable from each person I have worked with over the years. On my last trip to see Dr. Ball he gave me hip mobility exercises and glute strengthening exercises to keep me out of trouble and they have worked! I also roll my legs with a lacrosse ball and this tool regularly and get a massage from Jen Walker at CMT Sports Therapy every 2-3 weeks. When I start to feel something a bit more serious crop up, I have learned to rest it and get it worked on right away.        

Lesson 3. Believe in yourself.

So much of our running success is mental rather than physical. We are learning more every single day about the complexities of mind and body and how to maximize our training to benefit both. In some ways, it was so much simpler back when I was new to running. I was constantly improving and learning new things to apply to my training. It seemed like everything I did helped me PR in the next race. I PR'd for years in every distance, well, until I didn't. I not only became injured, chronically, but I found both my physical and mental limits. While injury is a physical manifestation of overtraining, I think the mental aspect is the hardest part to take. You're this runner person who thrives on thrashing your body with these ridiculously hard workouts and are used to watching it bounce back, ready for more. Then one day, your body says no. Not gonna let you do that again. I'm gonna hurt. I'm gonna
hurt for a few weeks. In fact, if you try to do that again, I 'm gonna hurt a lot worse, maybe not even let you walk. The emotional roller coaster ride is obnoxious as hell and you start to lose faith in your ability to run fast ever again. I have watched runners succumb to this and never recover. But there are also many great examples of runners who continued to believe in their ability to come back and end up running even faster and stronger. It is that fundamental belief in yourself that keeps you going when you face the worst. I have experienced the worst health issues of my life in the last year and have begun to train for and had to stop training for 4 marathons in that time because of it. Giving up is always such an easy answer, and I really wanted to at the worst of times. But, I have this megaphone in my ear telling me that I can run faster than I ever have if everything comes together and I believe that. I think back to that 3:20 marathoner who wanted to run in the Olympic Trials. I made that happen. I worked hard and I believed. I can do the same now and so can you.  

Lesson 2. Get a coach.

I have been fortunate to have some wonderful coaches over the years. I tried the self coaching thing for a very short time and realized that I am prone to running myself into the ground without the guidance of a neutral third party to point out how silly some of my ideas are. I like having a plan to follow and someone to bounce ideas off of. I do believe I have learned enough at this point to know that I need to first and foremost listen to my body and take a conservative approach to my training. However, I will always have that drive to want to do more and a good coach tempers that. I am currently coached by Jack Daniels through the Run S.M.A.R.T Project and feel very lucky to have his guidance. I have not been injured in over a year though I have had some serious health issues, as I mentioned in Lesson 3 and have written about profusely for about a year. Despite those health issues, I have been able to keep training and am so excited to finally get to finish a marathon training plan and race in March at the Napa Valley Marathon! To be honest, at this point, I don't much care what the time outcome of that race is. For me, getting in a quality block of marathon training and running a strong race are my goals. That doesn't mean I'm not going to go for it and try to qualify for the Olympic Trials if I feel as though my training justifies that, but for now, I feel grateful to be training consistently and feeling good.          

Lesson 1. Don't give up on your dreams.

If you made it to this final lesson, I hope you can see that they all tie back to this one. Sometimes the pathway to my dreams seems to be paved with excuses and the faces of a few ugly people who want me to fail. However, when I can see my dream and really believe in myself, those things are simply small pebbles in the path and I can easily step over them (or crush their faces under my feet!). The foundation of the path includes the hard training that I have put in over the years and everything I have learned about myself. It includes the hardships I have faced and overcome as well as the stories of others who have accomplished amazing things in their lives. It includes my huge support system--those people (and animals) that help me on a daily basis to keep moving forward, one chunk at a time. If I choose to focus on the larger goals and the positive, then the dream remains alive.

Keep the dream alive people!!!