Friday, March 25, 2011

Semper Gumby*

*a play on the official Marine Corps motto Semper Fidelis, usually abbreviated Semper Fi, which means "always faithful". "Semper Gumby" refers to the cartoon character Gumby and means "always flexible." (Wikipedia 2011)

In my last post, I revealed that I have not been stretching after I run.  Am I the only runner in the world who doesn't know how important it is to stretch right after you run?  I have pretty much never done this, so it's no wonder I have such freaking tight muscles.  I started doing this after running the last couple of days and felt like even more of an idiot because it actually works!  Live and learn.

My tight areas are probably common to most runners: calves, IT band, hips, butt, lower back.  So these are the stretches I use after every run now.  It takes about 10 minutes to do all of this.

I mostly focus on stretching out my soleus, but I like to stretch out the muscles and tendons of my toes and foot too.  For the soleus stretch, Spidey demonstrates how you do your regular calf stretch but, rather than keeping the stretched leg (left) straight, bend the knee of the leg you're stretching (Spidey's left leg) in order to hit the soleus.  For more detailed instructions go here.  To stretch the muscles/tendons in the bottom of my foot, I use the stretch pictured on the right.  I press my toes up against a wall or pole like our biker chick is doing, and then I bend that right knee, moving it toward and away from the pole/wall to get a good stretch on the bottom of my foot.  I hold each stretch for 10-20 seconds and do each stretch 2-3 times on each leg.

IT Band
Hopefully, everyone already knows that you can't actually stretch your IT band.  You can possibly deform it, but that takes a lot of work.  So, what you're actually after when you do an IT band stretch is stretching out or lengthening the muscles that control the tension in the IT band like one or more of your quads, tensor fascia latae, gluteals, etc.  The first of the two stretches I do for the IT band is complicated to explain, but I'll try.  It is sort of pictured on the left, except that you don't use a band.  You start lying on your back with one leg, let's say the right, outstretched straight on the ground and pull your left knee up toward your chest.  You then position the left knee slightly right of center line (so toward the right leg) and then start to straighten the left leg to get into roughly the position the fine gentleman is demonstrating except that you're holding your leg with your hands rather than a band.  I usually put my left hand on the outside of my left quad and hold my lower leg with my right hand.   You're pulling the straight leg toward your torso and to the right the whole time.  You will feel tension along the entire outside of the leg if you're doing it right and it will be uncomfortable.  I hold this one for 10 seconds, release by bending the left leg, then stretch for 10 seconds, release and then bite my lip and stretch it for 20 seconds.  This is the stretch that is supposed to keep my IT band sliding smoothly over my quad muscles, so I give it extra special attention.  I also do the old standby stretch pictured on the right.  I feel that more in my glutes and lower back as I twist to touch the opposite foot.

Hip flexors
This is the only stretch I do for the hip flexors.  It works.  It hurts.  Enough said.  Sometimes, I will alternate a nice hamstring stretch by simply sitting back on my back foot and leaning forward to touch my toe like the young fawn on the right.  For both of these, I hold the stretch for at least 10 seconds, release and go into the other stretch, repeating this cycle 3 times.  I'm not sure if that's the best way to do this, but I like it.

The big bad gluteals
These bad boys are giving me problems lately for some inexplicable reason.  So, they are also getting special treatment.  There are really a number of stretches that you can do for the glutes.  My favorite is the sitting glute stretch shown on the left, but I also sometimes do the lying glute stretch shown on the right.  You can modify this one to attack other areas like the piriformis as well.  I have done and still do the one below, but I swear I just don't feel it as much in my glutes.  With each of these, I tend to like to just hold and continue to hold for 20-30 seconds each leg, pushing or pulling more as I feel the muscles release.

Twisting side stretch
One stretch that seems to get at a lot of key muscles is the twisting side stretch demonstrated by the foxy lady on the left.  A few things to keep in mind with this one: you're actually sort of lunging with your front foot (left in this case), pushing your right hip with your hand out to the right, and reaching your right arm toward the left as far as you can go.  Rather than just a simple side bend, this is more of a twist.  You should feel this in the lower back and glutes and even down the outside of your leg.  Try twisting more or less and lunging more or less to see what other fun muscles you can engage in the stretch.  I hold this one for 20-30 seconds and then do some 5 second pulses to finish it off.

Extra credit
If you can find a partner willing to torture you, you can do the stretch on the right for extra credit.  Look how much fun they're having!  I won't often get to do this one right after I run unless the Genius is handy or I can convince a girlie to lend me a shoulder.  The key here is for the helper to push the lower part of your bent leg (rather than the knee of your bent leg) toward your torso.  Dr. Lau was happy to hear that the Genius and I were doing this stretch for each other, but he was concerned that it might become a competition.  I, of course, win every time.

So, that's about it for stretching.  I covered my rolling routine last summer in this post.  According to Dr. Lau, I need to roll daily and can do this in the evening if I want to rather than right after running.  One major difference is in how I use the little massage ball.  Instead of sitting upright to roll my glutes and hips, I lay down, placing the ball under the muscle I'm trying to roll and wiggle or work back and forth on hot spots until they loosen up.  You don't want to mash down on those spots and kill them, you just slowly work them free.  A couple of new areas that I roll out with the grid are the peroneus longus muscle on the lower leg and my latissimus dorsi muscles in my back. I hope this helps you, and please remember to stretch after every run!!!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


As predicted in my last post, things started happening to me.  They weren't good things.  No sooner did I press the "publish post" button on that blog post than my butt started aching and my illitobial (IT) band started tightening up again.  Bummer, right?

I conferred with Coach Tom after a painful run last Wednesday where I did the walk of shame home from about 2 miles out.  That is clearly one of the more demoralizing experiences for a runner.  You go out intending to run out and back and only get out.  I was cold, in pain and very disappointed when I arrived home.  It was hard to stay sad, though, when greeted by my two excited, slobbering dogs when I opened the door.

I rolled the crud out of my butt muscles on Wednesday night and gave her a shot again the next morning, deciding to run a short loop around my neighborhood.  After a mile, I knew it was a no-go.  So, I contacted Dr. Lau to try to get some advice about what I should work on, and Coach Tom decided to have me cross train for a couple of days.

I was cleared to run on Saturday but I didn't bother to ask what that run should consist of.  I thought, while running along feeling great, why not pick up the pace and get in that tempo workout that was scheduled on Friday so I don't miss a workout for the week?  I felt great throughout the 7.5 miles run at just under 7:00/mile pace and sent a note to Coach Tom telling him what I had done.  He was not exactly thrilled with my judgment stating that, in the future, when I have a problem that keeps me from running for a couple of days, I should come back with a 20-30 minute easy effort and start from there.  I felt the wisdom of that approach the next day when, during an easy run, I felt my IT band start to tie up again at the end of 5 miles.  And, it got sore on Monday after 4.5 miles.  I sent Coach Tom a message and quickly got a phone call where his first words were, "How pissed are you?"

Coach Tom explained that I have to be a lot smarter with my training and start thinking like a professional athlete.  He explained that I am making a huge investment in this running thing and, if I want to continue to improve, I have to be more disciplined.  He reminded me that I am never going to be lazy with my training.  My challenge is to be more conservative, and if there is the slightest chance that something might hurt me, then I should opt out.  Certainly, I should contact him if I have questions rather than relying on my own judgment.  This is why I have a coach.  I can't be trusted to make decisions for myself when it comes to my training.  I will always tend toward the "more is better" end of the scale.  While I have spent 6 years training pretty hard and remained almost completely injury free, my body is clearly going through some sort of adjustment period right now and I have to respect that.  I guess I'm just not used to thinking of myself as breakable.  I'm not fragile, God damn it!

The good news is that Dr. Lau was able to explain what's going on with me right now, and it's just your basic IT band shizzle.  I will be butchering the physiological explanation he gave, but essentially what I feel is the IT band becoming locked up or adhering to my quad muscle.  This is partly due to tightness in my gluteal muscles and some of my back muscles.  He also confirmed that this is a different problem than the one I dealt with earlier this winter.  The pain along the outside of my left leg is from the IT band tightening up and pulling because it can't slide freely over the quad muscle.

Dr. Lau unstuck my IT band, adjusted some other body parts, and said I'm good to go run.  No real damage done.  We also went over all of the things I should be doing to prevent this from recurring since I felt like I was doing a lot of stuff but didn't know whether it was helping or hurting me.  The main thing I was missing was stretching right after I run.  I like to lump all of my "maintenance work" into a chunk of time reserved in the evening.  Dr. Lau explained that, with stretching, doing it at the end of the day was sort of worthless.  If I don't do it while my muscles are warm, the muscles just harden in place (my words, not his).

I typically finish my run and then sit in my car or at a desk or do something that is probably the opposite of stretching.  I need to stretch my IT band and glutes while my muscles are still warm within minutes of running to have the greatest effect.  I need to keep that IT band sliding over the muscle rather than sticking to it.  Dr. Lau said that stretching does this and that rolling won't help much with that issue.  I remember reading a quote from Meb Keflezighi a few months ago related to stretching right after running.  He felt it was the key to staying injury free.  He suggested cutting your run 5 minutes short in order to get it in.  He's a smart athlete!  And, he's a professional!

I also showed Dr. Lau the various core and other strength training exercises that I do.  He helped me work on doing them properly or not at all so I don't exacerbate my hip and lower back tightness.  This requires modifying the yoga workouts I do to eliminate "boat".  Apparently, that move strengthens abs but also tightens up hip flexors, and we runners don't need tighter hip flexors.  I was doing many of the other core strength moves like pointers, bridges, and even one-legged downward facing dog in a way that tightened up my lower back and wasn't targeting the right core muscles.  This stuff is going to take some serious work!

While I need to think like a professional athlete, I am not one and working to get all of this right is exhausting.  I am learning, though, and will be a stronger, faster runner as a result.  Luckily, I have professionals like Coach Tom and Dr. Lau to help me out!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Things are going to start happening to me now

I have come to terms with the fact that I'm not going to be a professional runner in this lifetime.  I think I missed the window for that opportunity by a couple of decades.  Instead, I've tried to do the next best thing: integrate my running with my work and vice versa.  A great example of this is the interest that my employer, The Nature Conservancy, has taken in profiling me as both a scientist and a runner.  At first, I was surprised by this combination, and was unclear about how these two seemingly unrelated aspects of my life could be integrated.  However, they found a top notch multimedia firm that revealed that connection and brought it to life on film.  I posted some pictures from the video shoot they did a few weeks back and am pleased to present the video product of that effort here.  
While some of my colleagues are concerned that this profile sets unreasonable expectations for personal fitness in the organization, I am excited by the thought that my passion for running and science might somehow compel people to care more about protecting nature.  I think many runners make that connection on a daily basis, using running routes that go through parks and natural areas whenever possible.  The majority of the rest of the public is not getting out there to see how awesome these resources are and they need to be shown.

Of course, I've also managed to incorporate running into my military career, representing the Air Force and United States as a marathoner in national and international competitions.  This is something that makes me a little giddy when I think about it.  The experiences are ones that I truly cherish and feel incredibly lucky to continue to have.

So, it's good to be me.  Most of the time.  These last few months of being sidelined by injury have reminded me how hard this running gig can be, both physically and emotionally.  While I still think I'm headed in the right direction, the road is bumpy.  Those bumps remind me just how emotionally invested I am in this hobby.  

Last week, I ran every day for a total of 61 miles.  I had a track workout on Tuesday, a lactate threshold workout on Friday and a long run on Saturday.  That was a really big week for me, and I was worried the entire time about making it through in one piece.  I was conscious of every little niggle I felt and worried that it was the genesis of my next injury.  My aches and pains have rotated around my body during this comeback starting with really bad soreness in my calf muscles for the first few weeks, followed by a wicked ache in my right glute muscle and now my IT band and outer shin muscles are sore.  I realize that these are the pains that come with my body adjusting to running again after a 3-month lay off, but they are really nerve wracking!  They also take a huge commitment of time.  I can't slack off with stretching or strength training for even a day.  Dr. Lau has also been an amazing partner in my treatment, and I feel really lucky to have him as a resource.  

My workouts have gone really well so far.  Last week, I did my first track workout of 7 x 1000m @ 6:00/mile pace with 1 minute rest.  I love 6:00 pace.  It is a benchmark pace for me and allows me to gage my fitness.  Right now, it's my 10k pace.  When I'm really fit, it will be my lactate threshold or even half marathon pace.  I was happy that, in my first workout back, I felt comfortable holding that pace throughout the workout.  Last Friday, I incorporated some short, 100m repeats into my tempo run and was pleasantly surprised with my turnover.  I was really worried that my first bout of fast running would feel like I was in some sort of cartoon, trying to run fast but not being able to control my legs.  I was whipping along at sub-5:00 pace without a problem and felt very comfortable and smooth.

This week, I'm incorporating double days into my schedule and bumping my mileage over 70.  I did my very first Michigan workout late last night in the pouring rain.  The Genius was kind enough to accompany me so I didn't have to run it by myself, and it would have been miserable by myself.  It was hard for him to slow to my paces, but I appreciated having someone to follow so I could zone out and forget about my shoes sloshing with every step and my legs tightening up at the end of each fast lap.  We treated ourselves to some Willie's burgers and fries after the workout.  I think we earned it.       

Sunday, March 6, 2011

My Boring Routine

The whole fam damily.
I am looking forward to getting back to my boring routine after two weeks spent traveling for work.  I wouldn't call my work strenuous.  However, there's just something about being away from home, sitting for 8-10 hours per day, eating out every meal and trying to fit workouts into an unfamiliar schedule that I find exhausting.  While I did get to see my family this last week while working in Seattle, I am happy to be home again staring at a few weeks of normality ahead.

I saw Dr. Lau last Monday, the first visit in over a month, and he found some good stuff to work on in my glutes and back.  My body is holding up fine with the increased mileage, but it is still trying to stabilize itself by tightening up my left side.  I have felt this off and on as tightness in my left IT band without any associated pain.  It is something I haven't worried much about because it feels like my body adjusting to the increased mileage more than an outright rebellion for the pounding it's taking.  I say this because the tightness has come on late in each run since I started back.

For example, when I ran 5 miles for the first time, it came on at about 4-4.5 miles into the run.  The next time I ran 5 miles, I didn't feel it.  When I ran 7 miles, it came on at 6-6.5 miles and then not again.  Yesterday, I ran the Lake Natoma Loop (11.7 miles) and it came on at 9-10 miles.  The longest run I had done before then was 9 miles, so this seemed to follow the same pattern.  I think I am doing everything right to keep this in check, but I also plan to see Dr. Lau regularly as I continue increasing mileage and intensity over the next few months.

This is the nerve-wracking balancing act that we crazy runners face.  When we train hard, our bodies get sore.  But, when is the soreness normal and when is it a prelude to an injury?  That's what each of us has to divine for ourselves.  We'd clearly never train if we backed off every time we became sore.  I have my little high-wire shoes and a bright pink tutu on right now and am working hard to stay firmly planted on that wire.

This week I ran 52 miles in 6 days of running.  I had one workout of 9 miles with 30 minutes at about 6:52 pace, and that felt easy.  My next "workout" was a tempo effort on Friday where I ran 8 miles total with 4 miles at 6:19 pace.  It was humbling to run my marathon pace from Chicago for the first time since October and have it feel "comfortably hard".  Rather than mourn my lost fitness, I decided to record this as a baseline condition that I can use to compare my progress over the next few weeks--a trick I learned during my brain training extravaganza last year.

Next week, I have a real track workout on Tuesday: 7 x 1000m repeats!  I also have a tempo run again on Friday followed by a long run on Saturday.  This will also be my first 7-day running week.  Bring on the boring!