Non-running workouts for breakthrough performance: Part One

Like most runners, I have my share of idiosyncrasies.  One of my biggest hangups is stretching – I am obsessive about stretching before I run.  This obsession stems from my long-held belief that stretching before a run helps reduce injury risk.  Slowly but surely, I’m discovering that this long-held belief is false, or at least partially false.

My stretching obsession is only one aspect of my overall training program.  Over the years, I’ve sought running breakthroughs by adding non-running workouts to my training program.  Here is a history of the tweaks I made to my training program.

  • 2001:  Changed my pre-run stretching routine to active isolated stretching
  • 2003:  Started stretching after my runs
  • 2008:  Started pilates
  • 2010:  Started yoga
  • 2011:  Considering drills to improve my neuromuscular coordination

As I learn more about performance and running, I’m wondering if my non-running workouts are having the right impact.  Do the strength and flexibility aspects of my program make sense for my goals?  Or, am I working against myself?  How can adding additional drills help?  If I have a limited amount of time, what flexibility and strength workouts are most appropriate?

In exploring these topics, I discovered a vast and rich set of information on how non-running workouts can affect running performance.  There is more information than I can fit in a single blog post.

Therefore, I am trying something new for this blog – a multi-part series of posts.  The goals of the series are:

  • To help runners understand the non-running activities (e.g., stretching, strength-building) that can contribute to a running breakthrough
  • To provide general guidance on when to perform which activities

I expect to answer questions such as:

  • How can yoga help improve running performance?
  • What is the difference between dynamic and static stretching?  Is either type of stretching a good warm-up routine?
  • What are plyometrics; how can they improve running performance?
  • What drills are best at improving running performance?
  • What non-running activities are best for injury prevention?

I have an initial idea of topics and structure for the series, but I would like to adjust it based on your feedback and suggestions.  I’d love to hear what interests you in this area.  Let me know what you would like to see covered in the series by adding a comment.


Two Sides of the Boston Marathon

My friend Eric is in Olathe, Kansas this weekend.  He’s running the Oz marathon, making Kansas the 48th state in which he has run a marathon.  Following Kansas, Eric will have three states remaining in his quest to run a marathon in each state plus Washington D.C.  This weekend, however, Eric has even more at stake – he’s attempting to qualify for the Boston Marathon.

More than 1,200 miles away in Boston, almost 20,000 runners will be preparing to run the Boston Marathon.  They’ll be carbohydrate loading, incessantly checking the weather, affixing names and race numbers to shirts, double and triple checking race bags, and tossing and turning in bed.  The Boston Marathon is two days away – April 18th.  My friend Eric intends to be in the field next year, once he earns his “BQ” (Boston Qualifier) in Olathe.

Eric’s story is familiar to distance running fanatics like me.  You start running, discover that you enjoy it, get the marathon bug, and then become almost obsessive about qualifying for Boston.  You have a “near miss” race in which you fail to qualify.  Eric’s was North Carolina in 2001, mine was Philadelphia in 1999.  The emotional pain of failing to qualify in 1999 is still vivid for me.  Eric’s excellent account of his 2001 race provides insight into the mind of someone trying to qualify for Boston.

What makes qualifying for Boston so special?  The main reason, I suspect, is the sense of accomplishment derived from achieving a qualifying time.  Being part of that exclusive club – that group of runners who qualified for and raced Boston – is enough to motivate most runners.

Beyond the sense of accomplishment, the overall Boston Marathon experience is special.  I raced Boston in 2001, and it ranks as one of my top five racing experiences.  Here are some reasons why:

  • Unique course.  Starting in the rural New England town of Hopkinton and passing through the outer suburbs, the Wellesley College cheering section, the Newton hills, and finishing in downtown Boston at Copley Square.
  • Lethal elevation profile.  A long stretch of downhill at the start, flat in the middle and rolling at the end.
  • Knowledgeable and supportive spectators lining the course.  Boston is the only race I’ve run (including New York City) where cheering spectators lined the entire course.
  • Wellesley College.  Wellesley College is an all-girls school that supports runners with a throng of students that create a “scream tunnel.”  The race passes Wellesley College at the midpoint (mile 13), and the scream tunnel lives up to its name.  It kept my spirits high.
  • The Newton Hills.  The rolling hills that start around mile 18, culminating with “Heartbreak Hill.”  I remember feeling good on the Newton hills – I was prepared for them.
  • Downtown, Fenway Park, the Citgo sign.  I remember starting to fade as the race hit downtown Boston.  The famous Citgo sign was a welcome signal that the race was almost over, although the hill that I encountered as I passed the sign seemed like a mountain.

Everyone has their own memories of each marathon they run.  For me, those memories of Boston stand out as the most vivid even 10 years later.

Finally, the Boston Marathon’s history makes it special.  It is the world’s oldest marathon.  The first race was in 1897, one year after the marathon debut in the 1896 Olympic Games.  The race is run on Patriot’s Day, the third Monday in April, a Massachusetts holiday that commemorates the battles of Lexington and Concord.  Some specific races will also go down in the history books, including:

  • 1936.  “Heartbreak Hill” got its name
  • 1967.  Kathrine Switzer became the first female to “officially” run the Boston Marathon
  • 1980.  Rosie Ruiz tried to win the women’s race by taking the subway
  • 1982.  Dick Beardsley and Alberto Salazar dueled over the last 9 miles and finished within 2 seconds of one another (Salazar won)

This year’s race has the potential to be historic, with an elite field that is deep and talented.  Among the intriguing questions are:

  • Will an American win?  No American has won since 1985 (women) and 1983 (men).  Recently, Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes have dominated the elite race.  Kara Goucher, Desiree Davila, Blake Russell, and Kim Smith represent US women’s hopes, while Ryan Hall represents US men’s hopes.
  • How close will the race be?  The past few years have seen close, exciting finishes, including 2006 which saw the closest ever 1-2-3 finish for women.
  • Will weather have an impact?  The weather is unpredictable; recent Boston Marathons have experienced conditions ranging from searing heat to nor’easters.  The current forecast for Monday is not bad, but wind could be a factor.

Universal Sports will cover the Boston Marathon live, and various web sites will provide live race commentary, including the official race home, Runners World, and Marathon Guide.

I’m excited about this weekend; I get to see the two sides of Boston – the struggle to qualify and the race itself.  As I write this entry, my friend Eric is in the final hours before he attempts a Boston Qualifier time – I’m wishing Eric the best of luck.  On the other side of the weekend, I’m eager to see the race unfold on Patriot’s Day.

Have you run the Boston Marathon?  Tried to qualify?  Do you have a prediction for who will win?  Post a comment and let me know your thoughts.

New Beginnings

Like most everyone, my family and I have been battered by this winter.  Snow, ice, rain, freezing temperatures, wind have wreaked havoc on our lives.  We’ve had to fix holes in the roof and holes in the driveway.  The winter also affected my running – from being forced inside to the treadmill (and bicycle trainer) to freezing hands and drinks, the weather has been rough all around.  My town got snow in April.

My outlook on life has also been battered this winter, by more than just the weather.  Lately, I’ve been faced with new challenges in all aspects of my life – disappointments at work, uncertainties about the future, the chaos of raising two young children (and a crazy dog), home maintenance responsibilities, and more have contributed to a sense of being overwhelmed.  Just this week I experienced more chaos – an unforeseen event caused me to re-plan much of this week.  I started thinking it was more than I could handle.

Then I stepped outside for my Friday long run.

Walking the tenth of a mile down our driveway, I saw the start of a beautiful sunrise over my right shoulder.  Deep red, purple, pink, and traces of orange highlighted the dawn sky.  The chill had lifted, and I was able to wear shorts without freezing.  Early in my run, I was struck by the sounds – the scrunch of my feet on the gravel trail, the birds chirping, the streams rushing with water from the snow and rain, the rustle of a deer in the woods as I passed.

I started reflecting on other recent observations – the snow in our yard has melted, the chipmunks and squirrels are back to torment our dog Quincy, the forsythia bushes are starting to bloom, the days are getting longer, and baseball is on the radio.

Then it hit me – spring has arrived!

My spirit immediately uplifted.  I considered the winter and the challenges I’ve faced, both from weather and from life.  I realized that I can choose how to view the onslaught of life challenges.  I could keep viewing them as burdens.  Or, I could view them as signs of a full life, a life that is made more complicated and crazy by the people I love, and that those people are what make life so special.

Spring is a time for new beginnings.  It’s about to unleash its full power, with flowers and trees in full bloom, longer days, and warmer temperatures.  I resolved to adjust my outlook on life, to view the chaos for what’s great about it, and to soak in everything life has to offer.  I’m using the start of spring to shake the winter blues.  There will always be challenges, but with a positive outlook I know I can handle them.

In the next week or so, I encourage you to take a moment to reflect on the arrival of spring.  Can you see the signs of spring?  What does the arrival of spring means for you?

Inspired?  Post a comment, pass it on.

3 questions for a breakthrough training session

Running breakthroughs do not happen by accident or coincidence.  You make them happen, one quality training session at a time.  Each great training session gets you one step closer to that breakthrough performance.

Lately I’ve been trying to get more focused during my training sessions.  I’m focusing on the physical (how my body feels) as well as psychological (my motivations, fears, anxieties) aspects of my running experience.  In doing so, I am discovering that how I answer three specific questions greatly influences the quality of a training session.  By asking and honestly answering these three questions, you could improve the quality of your training sessions.

Question #1:  What am I feeling right now?

This question aims to set your focus.  A lot of thoughts cross your mind during a training session.  This question returns your focus to your body – how it’s performing, what it feels like.  It helps you tune out the distractions.

I typically answer this question with a physical assessment of how my body feels.  The answer is usually a feeling (pain, fatigue, weakness, etc.) somewhere in my body (quadriceps, back, hips, etc.).  Sometimes I end up concluding that I’m feeling good or strong, perhaps better than I expected.

Question #2:  What is preventing me from making this workout better?

This question aims to diagnose what might be holding you back.  You should dig beneath the surface for true root causes.  On the surface, this question often results in a physical answer.  For example, you might sense that fatigue is holding you back– your legs are tired.  By digging beneath the surface you might discover a psychological answer to the question.  Perhaps fatigue is not the true root cause; perhaps you are not motivated to move your legs faster.  You will gain tremendous insight into how to improve your training by honestly answering this question.

I have been surprised at how often I arrive at a psychological answer to this question.  A common answer for me is fear.  I fear failure (trying hard but not hitting my goals), hitting a wall, or injury.  This discovery has been enlightening, and now I’m better prepared to address what is holding me back.

Question #3:  What would happen if I gave more effort?

This question aims to motivate action.  Once again, this question may be more psychological than physical.  By considering the best and the worst that could happen if you give more effort, you may be more compelled to act.  You will often discover that the worst case scenario is not so bad.

For me, this question usually leads to a choice – either I give extra effort and trade fears for better results or I don’t give extra effort and end up with decent results.  Decent results are not bad, they’re just not breakthrough.

One Full Example

My training session a few days ago is a great example of how these three questions can create a breakthrough effort.

The training session primarily consisted of two 35-40 minute hard efforts separated by some rest.  I am currently building up my endurance, and this workout represented an increase in effort and distance in my weekly schedule.  Since this was an increase in effort and distance, I fully expected that it wouldn’t go well, especially the second effort.

My first hard effort was solid, which I expected (I had done the first hard effort in previous weeks).  As I started the second hard effort, I asked myself the three questions.  Here is how it went:

  • #1.  What am I feeling right now?  Fatigued, very heavy legs
  • #2.  What is preventing me from making this workout better?  My expectations … I was acting according to my expectations.  I was reducing my effort to match my negative expectations.
  • #3.  What would happen if I gave more effort?  In the worst case scenario I could completely tire out, making the last 10-15 minutes of hard effort difficult and painful.  In the best case scenario, I could sustain my effort and be more tired but have a better workout.

For this training session, I gave more effort.  I was able to sustain and even increase my intensity during the second hard effort.  The result was a better training session.

To me, the discovery that my expectations were holding me back was amazing.  Letting go of my negative expectations increased the quality of my training session.

Based on the results that I’m seeing, I encourage you to try asking yourself these questions.  If asking all three questions seems overwhelming, start small.  Ask and honestly answer one question.  Eventually you may find yourself asking two questions, and then all three.  No matter how many questions you answer, increasing focus in these areas should improve the quality of your training sessions.

Please let me know what you discover.  Are you gaining insights into your performance?  Can you increase the quality of your training sessions?  Do you have other questions that help improve your performance during a training session?  Post a comment and let me know.

Why I love the Spring Classics

March Madness is one of America’s most beloved traditions.  How did your picks go this year?  Mine were a disaster – only one of my Final Four picks was correct.

While March Madness is captivating from both a sports and a cultural perspective, I’m even more fascinated by professional cycling’s Spring Classics.

The Spring Classics are a series of one-day bicycle races in northeastern France, northern Belgium, and the Netherlands.  Today’s race is the Ronde van Vlaanderen, or the Tour of Flanders.  Next week is Paris-Roubaix, also known as the Hell of the North.  The Spring Classics are noted for their distance (usually over 200 km), steep hills, unpredictable weather, and famed pave (cobblestones) that cyclists must overcome to win.  Cycling fans in Europe are like March Madness fans in the US – over 800,000 people are expected to line the roads for today’s Tour of Flanders.

The Spring Classics inspire me during my runs.  Watching cyclists gut it out over another hill or through the muddy, treacherous cobblestones helps me withstand the fatigue, hills, wet and slop, or other conditions that I experience while running.

You have to test your limits to break through and perform well.

Besides inspiration, understanding bicycle race tactics has influenced my running and race strategy.  A key question in a Spring Classic is when to attack?  Given the duration and difficulty of the course, attacking prematurely can be trouble for a cyclist.  But waiting too long may also prove costly, as it gives others more opportunity to attack and win.  In a Spring Classic, the “real race” doesn’t often start until two thirds of the race is finished.

Considering when the “real race” begins is a valuable tactic for me in running.  It helps me conserve my energy until the right time.  When I get the starting point of the “real race” right, I almost always run well.

Unfortunately for professional cycling fans in the US, coverage of the Spring Classics is sparse.  Versus will air a two-hour Tour of Flanders special today at 4 pm eastern.  To get live updates, I read the live reports from Cyclingnews.

Tune in to a Spring Classic cycling race if you get the chance – you might find breakthrough inspiration or information.

Please post a comment to let me know what you think.  Do you watch cycling?  Where do you find inspiration for your running?

Wanted: a next generation training log

I’m thinking of a new iPad app called “My Training Log.”  Would you buy it for $0.99?

There has to be useful information somewhere in here

My current training log is a testament to old technology.  It’s a bunch of handwritten text scribbled on old never-used college notebooks.  Each day I dutifully log my workout.  Some days I actually look at what I’ve written.

Yet my training log might be more advanced than many runners, who don’t log their training at all.

Most “experts” advise runners to keep a training log, and many articles have been written about why you should keep one and what you should put in it.  Hundreds of training log applications are available online; some are free and some cost money.

My training log needs an upgrade.  This post outlines my ideal next generation training log.

If you don’t use a training log, this post should give you some reasons to consider starting one.  If you use a training log, I’m hoping you can help me find a new one.

What I want my training log to accomplish

My training log exists to help me gain insight that I can use to improve my running performance and experience.  I log data into it; I want to get information out of it.  My training log should help answer these questions:

  • Short term.  How is my performance trending?  Am I improving?  Am I on track to achieve my short term goals?  What specific areas should I work on (hills, speed, endurance, etc.)?
  • Long term.  How does my performance compare against prior years?  How does my training performance compare to when I ran my PR?  How did I taper for past races (especially when I raced well)?
  • Injuries.  Where and when did an injury start?  How is the pain trending?
  • Emotions.  How am I feeling?  Am I motivated and positive, or should I examine my emotional state more deeply?
  • Nutrition.  Am I eating enough during workouts, or do I need to increase my consumption?
  • Miscellaneous.  When did I start using a pair of shoes?  Is it time for me to change my shoes?  Was I appropriately dressed for the weather (especially valuable when seasons change)?

Keeping a training log takes some work, but I believe the benefits outweigh the effort.

How I use my training log

Logging data in my current training log is simple.  I write down the following data when I finish a workout:

  • Calendar.  Day of week, date, time of day (if it’s not typical)
  • Workout.  Which workout I did (I have a standard set of workouts that I rotate through).
  • Split times.  For each workout, I track various split times for comparison purposes.
  • Heart rates.  Average and maximum heart rates (when I wear a HR monitor)
  • Nutrition.  What I ate before and during a workout.
  • Weather.  When it’s notable (cold, hot, rainy).
  • How I felt.  Both physical (e.g., pain, fatigue, “cold hands”) and emotional (e.g., great, disappointed) feelings
  • Pain.  Where and when (onset, duration), severity
  • Overall assessment.  Good, ok, poor
  • Diagnosis.  A quick take on why the workout was good, ok, or poor.

Creating a training log entry takes about 3-5 minutes.  I try to log my workout as soon as possible after I return; otherwise I forget some of the data.

What’s wrong?

My current training log is paper-based, so I can’t get much useful information from it.  I would need to leaf through the pages in a stack of old training logs to spot trends.  It’s too much work.  I can review old training logs to find specifics that I remember, but the logs do not help me easily spot trends.

How would a “next generation” training log work?

A training log that helps me achieve breakthrough performance would have these features:

  • Electronic.  No brainer – paper is ineffective.  It could be online, but I haven’t figured out a reason why being online is a “must have.”
  • Easier data entry.  A library of workouts that I could choose from; each workout would have preset splits so I only have to log my times.  Pre-set fields for weather, nutrition, shoes, other data that I like to capture.
  • Easier search.  The ability to retrieve all instances of a specific workout to review my performance over time.  Use “tagging” to help me identify trends.  For example, I might tag runs where I feel fatigue.  I could then retrieve all the workouts where I felt fatigue.  If 7 of my last 10 workouts were tagged with “fatigue,” that would be valuable information.
  • Trends and alerts.  Perhaps it has a dashboard that logs miles per week, miles per month, or even total miles I’ve logged on a pair of shoes.  It could have pre-set “alerts” that I can use as appropriate.
  • “Sharable” data.  For sharing data with someone (e.g., a coach)

That’s my list of “must have” features for my next generation training log.  I haven’t evaluated many existing online products; my next generation training log may already be available.  I’m starting my search, and I’ll keep you posted on what I find.

Meantime, I’d love to hear from you.  Have you found software with the features described above?  What is it?  If you don’t use a training log, why not?  What kind of training log do you use?  How do you use it?  What do you like about it?  What would you change?  What other features would a “next generation” training log have?

Post a comment and let me know.