Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Indoor Track

Drexel University is busy replacing their current gym, and the new facility is coming along nicely. With the upper floor already open, I was able to enjoy my first visit to an indoor track yesterday, a claimed 1/10th mile oval that hovers above the new basketball court.

Indoor tracks present us with a great alternative to treadmills. The one I tried was softer than any outdoor track I've ever run on, and the time seemed to fly by (when compared to time on a treadmill, which, for me, goes entirely to slow). The track was three lanes wide, which means it will no doubt be quite crowded at certain times.

Even though the suface would be perfect for a person to run on completely barefoot, this would not be accepted nor appropriate, so I went running in my Treks, which I had worn to school. They were not the best choice! My regular, thin soled KSOs would have handled the problems I faced much better. The short track requires that you lean excessively as your speed increases, and I found that some of my laps, which stayed between 23 and 34 seconds, put a lot of stress on my legs as well as the soles of my shoes. The Treks were just a bit too high and their tread a bit too rough for comfort.

This morning, my right calf was a bit sore; it was the outer leg in this case, so it was subjected to much higher stress levels than my left. It's amazing that a simple run indoors can still make me sore! Since the track travels in different directions on alternating days, I will have to make sure I use it with this in mind to keep both legs strong and healthy. I'm also not quite sure if the length is correct; even though I stayed in the outer lane nearly the entire time, my laps seemed a bit too quick to be true, so I'm not sure how I should work this into my milegae plans: according to the track, I ran 2.5 miles in 12 minutes, 10 seconds; while I can do this on my best day, I am nearly positive that this is not the distance I ran yesterday. Still, I am looking forward to getting my runs in on the track instead of the treadmill when the weather is bad.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Barefooting 101 (info is useful even when running in shoes)

So as a promoter of barefoot/minimalistic running, I guess my blog can't really be complete unless I have at least one post about how to run without your shoes. Without getting too in-depth (you can always search the topic for more info), here's some advice that will get you started.

1. Leg speed/turnover: Here's the key that makes everything work, and it is related to many of the following bits of advice. When running with overprotective shoes, it is easy to get lulled into taking long, slow strides; your heart rate may go down, you cover more ground with each step, and all that cushion under your heel feels so soft. The problem with this is that all the shock created by your landing has a direct pathway to travel through your joints and into your back; you might not notice it at first, but over time, this can create lots of pain and discomfort. Take away the shoes, though, and your insticts will quickly take over: without slowing down, you will take more short steps per minute, allowing a different landing that will prevent much of this shock from making it to your joints. You may see as many as 10 to 20 more steps per minute once you start running with less under foot.

2. Foot Strike: As your leg speed increases, you will want to make sure that the balls of your feet are the first part to touch down. This will most likely come naturally. Your instincts may be to stay in this position until take-off, like a sprinter, but this will place high stress on the calf muscles of untrained runners. For this reason, I would suggest only running short distances once or twice a week while getting used to this style of running, and keeping your average pace below tempo for the first few runs. By running slower, you can relax and learn to lightly touch your heel down after contact, giving your muscles a slight rest before takeoff. Soon, if you like, you can increase your speed, and eventually you may not want to touch your heels on all but the slowest jogs.
The mid-foot strike provides the cushion that even the softest shoes cannot replicate when a heel-strike is used. The arch compresses, dissipating shock, which would have to take a tight turn before traveling up your leg; when the heel hits first, the shock has a straight shot through your body. By using the arch, you can strengthen this important structure of human architecture; many people notice higher arches a few months after running barefoot, which are even more effient at abrobing impact. Even if you are running in regular shoes, this strike could save your knees, hips, and back from damage later in life.

3. Take it Easy: This, above all, can save you from yourself during the early days of your running. It is very tempting, after a good first run, to go out for another, longer run on the second day and maybe even the third. Please, do not be swayed! It is important to give your body enough time to realize it is sore and repair itself. At best, overuse this early in your program could leave your calf muscles too sore to run for a few days; at worst, you could cause fractures to the bones in your foot.
Fractures, even though this is a safer way to run? Yes. Just as you will soon find that your lower leg muscles, designed to support your weight while running, may be weak and in need of growth, you will also find that the bones in your foot are not as dense as they should be for natural running. Since bones increase their density on an as-needed basis, this problem will fix itself with stimulation, but it takes time. For the first few weeks, you will probably feel a bit of dull pain in the balls of your feet; pay attention to this and do not try to push the process. I ran twice with Vibrams in my first week, with three runs in between done in regular shoes. The next week, I began to increase my mileage, but kept the 2-out-of-5 run ratio going for the first month; I really believe this was the safest way to convert to barefooting.
Calf soreness is the other major warning for you to consider. A sore muscle is in need of time and nutrients to repair itself. Though some lingering soreness will go away after you begin a run, major soreness that gets worse when running is a sign of overuse. Take it easy, and remember that you will have the rest of your life to run once the process is complete. There was a time when I, after running minimally for a month and a half, over did it and ran five 1 k, all-out intervals; I was not able to run for 6 days afterward, limping around during that time. Had I tried to run anyway, I could have caused serious tears in my muscles; as it was, the tears were minor, and though I was sore for a while, I was able to make a full recovery marked by a personal best 2 weeks later in a short course duathlon.

I hope I didn't scare anyone off! It's not as bad as it sounds; if you're already a runner or athlete, you have the determination to become a barefooter. In the process, you will learn more about your body's capabilities than you thought existed. You'll become fitter, stronger, and feel more connected with your run than ever before, and hopefully remain injury free for years to come. As someone who no longer has sore hips, knees, arches, and toes, I stand by these 3 points as the key to my success. Have fun!

Training tools for 2010

I wanted to switch gears for a minute and talk about some gadgets...

The first great new tool I recieved for the New Year was a Garmin 310XT, courtesy of my supportive girlfriend, Jamie, as a holiday present. The thing is great, and perfect for someone who both runs and bikes (it's also fully waterproof, but loses GPS & HR signal under water). I can not only track my HR, speed, cadence (running and biking), pace, elevation, and position; I can play it all back in my house and see exactly where I was when I was doing everything I did. If I get a power meter for the bike, I will have access to nearly every pertinent piece of data from my training. Very cool!
The other major tool I now have, again thanks to Jamie for getting me a great birthday present, is an Ironman Body Composition Monitor. It takes the bathroom scale to the next level, and gives me an honest look into what's really going on inside my body. My first step on it was today (shipping took a while, so it was a few days late for the celebration), and it gave me some good news as well as some things to work on. The good news is, I said I was getting younger this year, and apparently, I was right: my metabolic age is 17! Here's the rest of my results:
Weight: 166.8
Body Fat: 13.5% (expected; I ate a little too good over the holidays and took a long break after the marathon, and my tummy is soft for the first time in my memory)
Water: 59.2% (I knew I'd be a bit dehydrated, but I really have to start drinking more! Just shows that thirst really is not a good sign if you don't know how to process it)
Physical rating: 5 (out of ten; this should change greatly, I hope, over the next few months)
Bone Weight: 7.2
Visceral Fat: 3 (out of 59); means I have almost no bad fat around my abdominal organs. Yippie!

Needless to say, I'm real excited about all the training tools I have for 2010. This monitor and my 310 will really help me keep an eye on my body and fitness as the season progresses, and starting out in a relative state of relaxation has given me lots to shoot for. I have 16 weeks to build some muscle, lose some fat, and get ready for spring! I'll post any new updates along with future blogs.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Fun Run

It's the middle of winter. Deep freeze has set in across two-thirds of the U.S. People don't want to get out of bed in the mornings, let along go outside. So why bother running?

We all have our own reasons. Today, I knew I needed to get a run in; school started on Monday, and I've put off running for the past two days to take care of business elsewhere. Still, I could have talked myself out of it, had I ignored all the signs that I instead chose to accept.

The dog, for one, has been bouncing off the walls. He doesn't care that I've been busy; all he knows is that he hasn't gotten to stretch his running legs in over half a week. Did I need another reason to get out there? Well, the temperature climbed today to 1 degree above freezing, and the wind was not nearly as bad as it has been. Finally, my new diet (I'm giving the Mediterranean Diet a try) has provided me with enough clean energy that, if I chose to go another day without a run, I'd be bouncing along with the dog throughout the house.

Things can change quicly, though, once you're outdoors. The dog had to stop almost instantly to do his business, and just when we started to move again, he had to go again. By this time, the cold began creeping in, and the wind, it seems, had not been told it was supposed to lay low. I nearly turned back then, but I didn't. I nearly decided to cut the run short, but I didn't do that, either. The farther I ran, the more fun I was having.

Having a boxer as your running partner isn't always the greatest. When it's hot out, they overheat. When you want to go long, they decide to lay down. But as stubborn as they can be, when they're having a good time, they're golden. They look up at you and wink right before they race you to the next corner. They smile when they pant, making everyone you pass smile back. And when they know you're having fun, they are on top of the world. That's one of the reasons I kept going today.

A partner that can keep things interesting makes things easier, but when we start thinking of running for fun, they aren't necessary to keep us motivated. I think that was one of the biggest reasons I started enjoying running after I started trying the minimalist approach. Suddenly, I wanted to try more things. I wanted to jump on the big rocks and logs lining the trail. I wanted to run through the grass, climb the trees, and go up and down the mountains. The funny thing is, I've always known this would happen; it just never clicked. I might walk up my stairs in my shoes, but I sprint up them when I'm barefoot. I might run through the grass when shod, but I bound and bounce around when I'm unshod. The feeling of gripping things, the security of balance, and the sensation of the ground are unparalelled when you take away the thick, heavy rubber that we have have been running with for so many years, and it ignites something in our minds, it wakens the child inside us. That's when running becomes fun again. Leaving the van behind for the sports car can change everything (and you don't get speeding tickets on foot).

Today, I didn't run barefoot; it's hard enough to get away with that in Philadelphia, and with the cold ground, I wouldn't last too long out there. I ran in the Vibram Treks, the kangaroo-leather off-road model feeling good and placing my foot a few extra milimeters from the cold ground. Even with the extra thickness, though, there's no denying the barefoot feeling these shoes can provide: there's no added thickness in the heel, keeping you mindfull of your balance and foot strike, the toes are still separated and extremely flexible, and the sole, designed to give protection from abrasion, still allows excellent feedback from the ground- you have to be aware of your foot placement, and you will feel the rocks.

Me and Kaleb (that's the name he had when he was rescued from the puppy mill) ran over 4 miles today. He keep changing the pace, just as I expected; though we averaged a comfy 8.3 minute mile, we often dipped into the 5's, and once he dug deep and had me sprinting in the 4's for nearly a block. We zig-zagged around, jumped up and down a few flights of stairs, and generally had a blast before returning home. Not only can he run like a champ, Kaleb also rests like one: he's out cold right now, recovering for his next adventure. Hopefully, I won't keep him waiting too long...

Saturday, January 2, 2010

the Disencumbered Athlete

It starts out fun: running, biking, swimming, working out. You make huge leaps and notice improvements daily. Then, we get greedy. We buy better shoes, lighter tires, slicker wetsuits, tastier shakes. That's when the trouble starts.

I entered the world of "multisport" a tad over two years ago, when a friend invited me to try my hand at a triathlon with her in Long Branch, NJ. I already had decent fitness on a bike, having bought a road bike the summer before as a way to save gas by commuting to work, so I simply needed to make sure I could run and swim well enough to finish. Oh, there was a small goal I had to accomplish, too: our coworkers made it clear that if Heather beat me, I'd never live it down.

Training for your first race can be easy, if you're ignorant; lucky for me, I was. A few times on my 8-10 mile ride home from work (which led over one of the tallest of the small northwestern NJ mountains of Sussex County) in the month preceding the September race, I'd dismount my bike, swap my cleats for the Nike Air-somethings I picked up at Marshalls, shoulder the bike, and run for about a mile or two on a back country road, my riding gear stashed in my pack. Oh, and I stopped once at the YMCA and bought a one-day pass to practice my swim.

I almost dropped out of that race, late September in 2007. I exited the water dead last, my cheap surfer's wetsuit dripping freezing water as I walked from the ocean that I thought would claim my life. My friends, noticing my frustration, talked me into getting on the bike and making the most of it anyway. Then I passed someone. And someone else. Suddenly, I realized that the swim, which was cut short due to the current, wasn't long enough to damage my time very badly. By the end of the bike leg, I was passing groups of riders, and felt like a man on a mission. In the end, my overall time was enough for 4th place. It may have been an unofficial, fun-style event, but 4th in a race of over 400 was enough to get me hooked.

After that race, I began to take training more seriously. I rode and ran throughout the winter. I got a membership at the gym to use their pool. I upgraded my bike. And, to help me run better, I bought my first pair of 'real' running shoes, complete with dual-density medial posts to help my horrible running form.
Things were going great. I placed often in my age group at various local events. I entered a few cycling races and didn't do too bad. Then, in late 2008, after moving to Philadelphia, I heard about the National Duathlon Championships, which was a qualifier for the World event, held in the US in 2009. I was determined to enter and do well, so I began the most intense training plan I had ever undertaken.
I wasn't concerned about my skills on the bike; I could hold over 24mph on a 40k course, so I would have more time to devote to my running; I'd have to turn myself from a 6:20ish paced 5k'er to a sub-6 paced 10k'er. The more I ran, the faster I got, but the more I hurt.
The pain started little; callouses started to form between my toes, which eventually started making my toes swell and ache. The aching became worse; I began to limp when I wasn't running. By the time the race came, my best form had come and gone; I wasn't able to run seriously for most of the month of April, and my foot even hurt on the bike. When race day came, though, I gave it all I had, and qualified for Team USA by the skin of my teeth (via a roll-down spot).
My dreams came true, but I was dreading my next step: I'd have to face my fears and check out my foot. Before seeing a doctor, I went to my friend, the owner of custom bicycle shop and very knowledgable about the world of multisport racing. He said he had good news: plantar fasciitus. Easily cured by the use of proper shoes and lots of barefoot therapy, involving stretching and working out sans shoes. I took his advice one step further.

After moving to Philly for school the previous fall, I got a part time job at a sports store, and had been selling shoes for quite a while. I also had the opportunity to test plenty of shoes while I was there, but I couldn't find what I was looking for: I wanted a modern shoe with a flat sole. You see, as a kid, I ran fine in Chucks. I didn't heel strike until I really started trying to raise my mileage, but for some reason, I couldn't stop, even though I really believed this was where my problems stemed from. I tried cross-country shoes, but the pair I had were too narrow. In my store, there were two other shoes left to try: the Newtons and the Vibrams, and both had been intriguing me since I started at the store. With working out barefoot a new part of my plan anyway, I took the plunge and bought a pair of KSOs. And just like that, I saw the light.
Really! I had always imagined they'd be great for the track, and knew if I had them I'd try them on the road, but at that time, I hadn't heard of anyone actually using them for this. Our store might have sold 6 pairs since I started there, but I think it had been much less than that. Still, I believed in them, and I knew inherently that I should start out easy. By the end of my second week, though, I was using them on every other run, and running up to 5 miles at a good pace in them, rubbing my calves intensely afterward. I didn't care if the soreness ever left my muscles, though- the battle was already won for me. 6 months of foot pain was a distant memory by the end of that second week; it would only rear its ugly head again if I spent many hours in a shoe.
Around that same week, people started coming into my store asking about the "toe shoes". I heard stories of a book, and of television interviews, and of people all over changing the way they thought of running shoes. And then they'd notice I was wearing them. The funny thing was, I wanted to share my enthusiasm for the shoes that freed my foot, but thought I'd have a hard time doing it; instead, I soon found that our customers couldn't get enough of my own success story. But that was only the beginning...

By the end of summer, I was running sub-5:30 miles in short course duathlons, though I still wasn't ready to race without my flats; the Vibrams were only for training. When the World Championships rolled around, though, I was seriously doubting my shoe choice; I really thought it would be a mistake to pull out the flats when my Vibrams were what made me so fast. Still, I ran in my Sauconys. I averaged 6:05s for the first 10k; not my best, but not bad considering the rain. My bike time, too, was respectable; I averaged over 24 despite the downpours, tight turns, and slick roads. It came down to the final run, and I was feeling fast. I took off into the course expecting to pull 5:30s, but instead I was brought to a standstill with a hip pain I couldn't deal with. The worst part was that I knew what caused it. I took off my shoes, and I felt good enough to run. Even though the rock-strewn road made good times impossible, I finished the race- with my shoes held high. I swore I was done with them, and I am.

Don't get me wrong; I don't hate shoes, and I'm always looking for something good to come out. Maybe one day I'll get a free pair of Newtons to try, or maybe one of the companies will offer that modern shoe with a flat sole I've been looking for. But why wait? I ran my first marathon this year- in KSO Treks. I crossed the line in Philly with a 3:36; not the time I had hoped for, but not bad, either. I'll work on that this year, with better eating habits (I lost 10 minutes during my two portapotty stops!) and more experience. And the duathlons? This year, I'll be leaving five toeprints on the way out of transition. I might even try some fancy new platform pedal on the bike. I've been disencumbered, and I feel great.

If you've read this far, you have an idea where I'm coming from. I'll blog about running. I'll blog about barefooting, proper form, and the choices I make. I'll blog about biking. I'll blog about eating, drinking, racing, training. I'll blog about jogging with the dog, through the town, or in the woods. I might even blog about the weather. Respond to anything, ask a question. But if you haven't done so in years, throw off your shoes and run for a bit. How good does that feel? Fun? It should be. I may not be the first to say this, but it bears repeating: the fun is where it's at.