"Never be limited by other people's limited imaginations. If you adopt their attitudes, then the possibility won't exist because you'll have already shut it out." -Mae Jemison, astronaut

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Walking the Plank?

I was browsing through my assortment of brekkie reading material (running mags, for the most part!) and came across an article on core training for runners. The argument was made that a lot of our common core exercises such as the plank or push-ups on a wobble board are probably doing nothing to help us improve performance.
Use a kettlebell & have abs like this? Oh, wait, first I need to shed the fat hiding my abs!

Well, this is interesting! If I don't have to do planks anymore, I'll be a happier girl! I read on.... studies have shown that core stability exercises given to active runners result in some improvements in muscle endurance (yes, I can hold the plank position longer), but no improvement to my running strength and power. Oh. That's deflating. It's not actually improving my performance. So why on earth am I doing it?

Why? Because I was told. Because we all "know" that you're supposed to do core exercises. So, can I really give them up?

Naturally, I needed to go to the source of some of the references to read the papers for myself. One of the first things I learned is that this notion of doing core stability exercises basically came from the rehab physio's bench. After an injury (or maybe even when coming back from an off season), developing some basic muscle endurance through the core may be "prescribed." Now it's just ended up prescribed to all of us. A bit like saying that because Billy's vision improved when he got glasses, we should all wear glasses. And never bother to check our vision again, but just keep wearing those same glasses forever.

Healthy, active runners are not the same as injured runners. Gee, that makes sense.

I checked out an interesting review by Willardson (2007; Core Stability Training for Healthy Athletes: A Different Paradigm for Fitness Professionals, Strength and Conditioning Journal, 29(6) 42-49). Improving strength and power comes from low intensity and high velocity movements of the muscles. When on a very unstable surface like a wobble board, there is a "stiffening strategy" that actually opposes the intended direction of movement. So you are just activating opposing muscles to the ones you're trying to power! Like putting the brakes on with the accelerator at the same time. This review of the literature included core exercises done with a lot of stability (e.g., a squat in a machine), with moderate instability (e.g., a squat with free weights), and with a lot of instability (e.g., a squat on a wobble-board).

When looking at the functional connectivity of the core (a huge group of muscles through the lumbar spine and pelvis, such as the internal obliques close in and the hip flexors like the psoas further out), these muscles work dynamically - never one in isolation. Which is why the case for using a wobble board instead of a static plank came up in the first place. But this literature I looked at is suggesting that we've gone from one ineffective thing (static planks) to another (throwing kettlebells around on wobble boards). As healthy runners, we might get better at our static planks or wobble-board kettlebells, but it's not helping our running performance.

But, before sending the kettlebell out to walk the plank... a theory was put out there in Willardson's review.... "ground-based free weight movements might be better for the development of core strength and power due to the force, velocity, and core stabilizing requirements that are similar to the demands of sports skills."

Our bodies move in three planes
The author of the running mag article I read that started this exploration provided a few examples of what he thought were appropriate exercises. One, for example, is along the lines of standing with one leg in front of the other, arms straight out and locked as if clutching an imaginary club, and swinging rapidly from side to side. That would seem to tick all the boxes...good ground stability, "free weight" movement (yes, you can do it with weight in hand), and velocity.

But still, we're runners, not baseball players, so is the core really an area that needs to be "powered up"? Will this kind of dynamic exercise improve my running performance? Given the limited time for training, am I better to be doing eccentric calf work and going for massage?

I'm not sure. Neither are the researchers, from what I read. But the core really is at the core...it's the dynamic connection between our arms/shoulders and our legs. When I lift a foot in running, the core and pelvis rotate in response and stabilise me so I don't tip over. When I land, the core helps absorb the energy and prepares for its release with the next step. There must, therefore, be some amount of strength and power in that area that is so central to the running machine. And I would think it even more critical when said running is done on unstable, twisty surfaces (technical trails) and/or at fast speeds. So I'm thinking I'll give up my static planks (which really were disappearing in favour of push-ups, anyway) and look at some of this dynamic movement stuff, keeping my feet firmly on the ground! But I might save money on the kettlebell and just use a bottle of beetroot juice ;)

With those thoughts in mind, I guess it was okay that I missed the planks this past week, but spent the time with the sports chiro and massage therapist. I had a few great results in training for Coast 2 Kosci. On Tuesday, I headed down to the track for the "long" events on offer. There was a mile event and a 10k. Well, on a track I prefer to say 10,000 metres. It sounds longer that way. Because it feels like it! Rather than run the 5k there and back, I opted to drive over and save my legs in attempting a PB.

The 2011 10k Masters State Champs, where I set my last PB. Really, it's me!
Going hard in the mile, I set an ambitious PB goal (6 minutes). I could tell in the first lap that it was not sustainable. But pushed on to see what would happen. I ended up 1 second behind my PB. Whilst I say, "That's okay, I'm not a sprinter" I know I'll keep pushing for something closer to 6 minutes!

Then, the 10k. The fellow next to me says how he took it easy in the mile in order to save himself for the 10k. Geez, that might have been a good idea.... I had my PB from the State Champs of 2011 written on my scrap of paper: 43.58. I set another ambitious goal: 42 minutes. That's 50 seconds per 200 metres for 25 laps. Straightforward.

Starting out, I tried to tuck in behind three blokes for protection from the wind. Laps one and two saw me lose 7 seconds right there, as their pace wasn't the pace I had to be doing. So I had to go out on my own. It took a few more laps, but then I got into my rhythm and just stuck to the plan. Even found a little energy to "kick" at the end (my version of a kick!), finishing in 42:12! A very big PB!
I love it when my world gets this simple.

Friday night saw me headed down to Nannup (I love Nannup, ever since the folk fest getaway weekend) for a 12 hour rogaine. I had managed to get a state champion rogainer to join me in a teaching session. The goal was to go "moderately hard." I feel like I've hit the limits of my navigation skills on rogaines and needed an expert to show me how to improve my map reading. So the rule was that I would get to stop us as needed to say "I don't get it - show me how this feature looks like this on the map."

We had a good start to our team - a serious navigator and a serious runner (the serious navigator also happens to be a pretty serious runner, too!). All we needed was a serious Muay Thai kickboxing expert (doesn't every team need one?). Fortunately, we found her! But the poor thing had never done "endurance" exercise like we ultra runners think of it. That is, she hadn't run/hiked more than 3 hours before. But she's a little powerhouse with a focus that would shatter glass. And she can fix a blister or change clothes faster than anyone I've seen, too!
Ready for the race briefing

So, with a plan to have a navigation lesson, whilst keeping a young rogaining novice alive, we set out at 10 AM Saturday with a hot day of bushwhacking ahead of us. And at 10 PM, after 51km, we finished as 1st place mixed team!

But after the track, a hill session, tempo work, and the 50k 12hr rogaine, it was all I could do to muster up a 6 minute pace for a 10k "recovery" run on Sunday! And hooray for the Monday rest day!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Simple Answers Wanted: Apply Within

Running is so complicated!
Is polenta high GI or low GI?

Do I drink exactly at my sweat rate per hour during an ultra? Or do I drink exactly "to thirst"?

Do I always eat 4 calories per kg of body weight during a race?

Are Hokas the shoes that will prevent running injuries? Or is it Inov-8s?

The longer I'm in this running gig, the more I'm learning that simple answers are rarely useful ones. But the desire of the black-and-white mindset! After all, many of us would say life is busy and complicated enough. If someone could give me the formula.... "Eat 140 cals/hr of Perpetuem, drink 524 ml/hr of water and wear x-talon 212s. Tape your left pinky toe with Rocktape, use an UltrAspire pack, drink 117 ml of Coke at the 57 km mark. Wear Compressport calf guards and yell "Yeee haw" at the start line. Then you'll win."

And never have nausea. And never be injured. And always want to run, every day, even the long, hard sessions, even after a really crap long day at work when it's 40 degrees and you have no one to run with.

On my Sunday run, I noticed my hands were swelling up a bit. This happens occasionally. When I race, I take off my rings, just in case. I was trying to remember...was that due to dehydration, overhydration, low electrolytes, too many electrolytes, a full moon??

Sunday's luscious but hot 4hr hill run - summer's coming!
Researching it to refresh my memory, I learned this: swollen hands are a reliable indicator of NOTHING.

However, two years ago, I took it as a reliable indicator of something. I just can't remember what. It would have been the first thing I googled.

Now, as a more discerning googler, I can find evidence arguing that swollen hands is caused by dehydration, overhydration, heat, and increased blood flow to the extremities. If I searched long enough, I'd probably also find it is caused by a full moon.

Having only reached page 29 of Tim Noakes' 400+ page "Waterlogged," I realise already that I started the book wanting to find "the answer" to hydration. He is, thus far, very verbosely setting the stage for his main argument - that runners should be drinking to thirst alone. They should not drink a prescribed amount or drink "before" they are thirsty, in order to ward off the dreaded monster of Dehydration.

I wonder how heavy the can is?
Though his initial arguments are sound to me, I am already thinking that the supposed answer in this book... Drink to Thirst... is too simple. I agree with the opening arguments - humans are incredibly well adapted biologically/physiologically to survive. Bipedalism is smart. By standing up, we expose 60% less surface area to the sun than 4-legged creatures.We don't have much hair (which would help protect against the sun's radiation), but that's more than offset by the fact that we have more sweat glands than any other mammal. We have biological controls like the hormone AVP/ADH that act to keep our sodium and fluid balances just right. Chemicals are released that tell the kidneys to retain or expel water. The brain will protect itself from death by slowing us down if we try to cook it by running ourselves into heatstroke. In fact, if we don't slow down enough, it will basically give us temporary paralysis to shut us down. Very smart brain, wants to survive.

So far, I'll give him two points:

(1) Humans are biologically adapted to survive. We have a physiology and hormones that promote our ability to cool ourselves during exercise and to maintain a balance of water and electrolytes to survive during endurance exercise (That said, we're also bloody inefficient, in that 75% of the energy produced by our muscles when we run is wasted as heat, not propulsion - we're like incandescent light bulbs!).

(2) The kidneys have a limited capacity to process/excrete fluid. The maximum is likely around 600 ml/hr in smaller athletes like me with an upper limit of less than 1000 ml/hr for the biggest of athletes. (Of course, some fluid is lost to evaporation/sweat, as well, but this intimates a maximum a person could drink before becoming overfull of fluids. And interestingly, one of the first signs of excess drinking in test subjects was diarrhoea).

But can everyone simply run with such a simple formula? Drink to thirst?

He's got 370 more pages to convince me. At the size of this book, I might become Booklogged before I get to the finish line.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Warp Speed

Einstein said we can't travel faster than the speed of light. And trying to travel anything close to those speeds is suicide, anyway...just ask any bug after its hit your windscreen.... Oh, no, you can't.

Complicated. Even with all those helpful arrows ;)
But I've been writing this blog post in one form or another for nearly two weeks and I'm sure I'm in a time-space discontinuum. As you approach light speed, everything around you is supposed to slow down. That's not the way my world looks!

Maybe it's warp speed. I've created my own gravitational field and am expanding space behind me whilst pulling the future in. All the while, effectively standing still, according to the Trekkies. Actually, that sounds not unlike a description of quicksand, too! I think I need a retreat (that's where I stop and the rest of the universe keeps going).

So...the major updates ...

I passed my citizenship test last week! Quick, who can identify the colours of the Torres Straight Islander flag, adopted nationally in 1995? Or what the colours mean?

The last step for citizenship is that I go down in 4 weeks to pledge my loyalty to Oz and Aussies and promise to obey the laws. I am allowed to bring a "holy book" to swear on, so I'm just deciding between AURA's September Ultramag and the Endurance Athlete's Guide to Success :)

A couple middle-aged springboks sighted on trail savannah
Other good news - I took my speedwork deprived Bib foot (along with rest of speedwork deprived body) down to the track. Downed my beetroot juice and some caffeine. Ran the 5k to get there at a bit of a "tempo" pace, being late (oops). Arrived as they were doing the 60 metre event (I skip that one). Hit the 3000 metre and set a 24 second PB! Rested for the 5 minutes it takes them to run the 400 metre event and then ran the 1500 race with a 12 second PB! Total surprise. (Though, in all honesty, I always felt my previous 3k PB was an underestimate of what I should be able to do). Ran the 5k home with my headlamp at LSD pace.

But the bad news. I set a push-up PW! Okay, not quite a worst, as I think I could only do 5 or 8 when I started back in 2011. But I've gone from a best of 29 at one go (nose to phone) down to 17! Not unexpected, having taken over a month off. Exercise is very fair that way - do the work, get the results. Back to work I go.

Sunday's 32k +1000mtr solo run after a 5k bitumen race (won $25!)
I haven't quite hammered out my Coast to Kosci training program yet, but I have done a few things. Booked accommodation. Booked myself into a 12hr rogaine at the end of October. Booked myself to go do the Stirling Ridge Top 46k Walk/Run/Scramble the following weekend. Printed off a photo collage of Ellie Greenwood, Julia Fatton, and Lizzy Hawker and put it front and centre on my desk. Seriously. Written on the sheet it says, "BE THIS GOOD."

The brain does not know the difference between reality and dream. I can, therefore, use that to my advantage ;) Fortunately, none of those ladies are entered in C2K, either. That might confuse things.

My final bit of big news. I ate an orange Hammer gel today. Trust me, I didn't want to. But I had a few "odd" flavours around and have been needing to use them up. But I've told myself a story that I only like chocolate and espresso. Well, I was wrong! The orange goes up there with my other favourites. Totally mild like the orange-vanilla Perpetuem. Nice. I wonder what other flavours are in the fuel bowl?!?

I'm off to bed so maybe I can actually read a few pages of Waterlogged before my batteries go flat. Then we can have a nice sciency blog post.