Friday, July 22, 2016

Summer Reading List, Olympics Edition

It’s the time of year for summer reading lists… but, this year (in just two weeks!!) it's also time for the Olympics, so I've combine the two into an Olympics edition of the typical summer reading list. As an Olympics super fan, I’ve read many books about the Olympics over the years and have compiled some of my favorites below. Take your pick to read now to get excited, in between events, or afterward when you’re depressed over the long wait until Tokyo.

Best of the Best: Rome, 1960: The Summer Olympics that Stirred the World, by David Marraniss

This is my ultimate favorite Olympics book. It follows a remarkable cast of characters (Wilma Rudolph, barefoot Abede Bikila, young Cassius Clay before he was Muhammed Ali) as amateurism began to die and drama from drug scandals, politics, and equal right issues exploded, all while the world followed along on TV for the first time. When I read this, I wished there was a book like this for each Olympiad. But other similar books haven't measured up, proving 1960 was truly special.

For the Marathoner: Showdown at Shepherd’s Bush, by David Davis

This book tells the story of the 1908 Olympic Marathon—the first time the marathon (back then just roughly 25 miles) was the absurdly arbitrary 26.2-mile distance we know today. It follows the three favorites and a stunning, controversial finish that made the marathon the must watch sport of the time.

For the Biography Lover: Triumph, by Jeremy Schaap

While the book is about Jesse Owen’s life, the main focus is of course on the 1936 Games in Nazi Germany. You may know the rough story, but I enjoyed the extra details of Owens’s early life and particularly the in-depth story behind the ’36 Games. I watched the movie Race recently, but was left thinking (as always), “The book was better.”

For the Ancient Historian: The Naked Olympics, by Tony Perrottet

This book is about the original Olympics in ancient Greece, not the modern Games as we know them today. I always assumed our Games were nothing like the ancient version, but when reading this I was surprised at the many similarities: political fighting, professional athletes, cheating. (Although the latter was by performing magic, not taking drugs.) Of course there were also huge differences, with very few events (one of which was an extreme version of Ultimate Fighting), naked competitors, and an unreal amount of olive oil.

From the Non-Running World:

I love the Olympics not just for the track and field, but also for all the niche sports that get their quadrennial moment to shine. Here are my two favorite Olympics books that have nothing to do with running:

Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown

Another book about the 1936 Games, this time focusing on a rowing team out of the University of Washington struggling through the Depression. I knew nothing about rowing when I started the book, but the underdog story was captivating. 

The Three-Year Swim Club, by Julie Checkoway

This book starts in 1937 and tells the fascinating story of impoverished Japanese-American kids in Maui trying to make it to the 1940 Games. (Minor spoiler alert if you think that through…) Against all odds and a particularly tumultuous time for Japanese Hawaiians, they become world-renowned swimmers. While some parts seemed a little long-winded, the story is truly special.  

Have another favorite? Let me know in the comments below!

Dream big, 

Friday, July 8, 2016

The (Un)Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner

We leave DC today. While the last few weeks have been a whirlwind of figuring out what exactly goes into buying a home and excitement about having a whole house, there have also been jolting reminders of what I’m going to miss: all the friends I’ve made in my seven years here.  

Particularly, my running friends.

I’ve talked about my GRC teammates a lot: their help getting through workouts, their constant support, even the science behind increased pain tolerance when working out together. But of course there’s more, like the simple camaraderie of long runs.

Fast friends.
I’m painfully shy. Sometimes I try to pretend I’m not and dive headfirst into a new situation or conversation (fake it ‘til you make it, right?) but inside I’m screaming with awkwardness. (Often not just inside…) Usually, though, I can’t repress my shyness. I feel incredibly vulnerable when I share too much (and yes, this happens a lot when publishing posts), but somehow, on the run, that loosens. Endorphins (and whatever else causes the runner’s high) can act a bit like a stiff drink, evaporating the awkwardness. You quickly get to know someone if you run with them for a few hours. Do it week after week after week and you’ll cover a lot of ground, in more ways than one. (And that’s before the additional layer of friendship that comes with suffering through the agony of 2K repeats together.)

Before I joined GRC, I was worried about the team dynamic because I was so used to doing my own thing. But, I knew a team would make me faster and I thought it’d be nice to have some friends that shared my love of running. So, shy as ever, I dove in. The first long run I did with the girls occurred a few days into the London Olympics. They talked about the Olympics with the same excited obsession as me and I remember realizing, “These are my people.” That’s been confirmed a million times in the last four years, but most recently as we all gathered together to fan girl the track Trials, while scarfing chips and guac and brownies and casually dropping Friends references.

Part of me is in denial. Richmond isn’t far, so it’s no big deal, right? And obviously we’ll stay close. But there’s something special about doing long runs together, week after week after week, that can’t be achieved over text message. That's what I'll miss the most.

Dream big,

Thursday, June 30, 2016


A while back, I wrote a story for New Scientist about the neuroscience of habits: how they are formed in the brain and why they are so hard to break. The context matters a lot with habits; when we’re in the same environment, doing the same routine, it can be hard to change things. One of the best times to break a bad habit or start a new one is during a big upheaval: when you’re starting a new job, going on a trip, or moving. So I'm hoping to use the big move to change some bad habits. 

I take a similar approach with each new training season. Maybe it's not a major overhaul, but it’s a fresh start. If you’re currently gearing up for a fall marathon, with a crisp, clean training plan in hand, consider adding one new good habit (practicing race day fueling, getting more sleep) along with the miles and workouts. Dedicate yourself to it before you get too deep in the routine of extra long runs and carb feasts. I’ve found that if I can get through the first few weeks, my habit sticks around even through the monster weeks of hard training.

In the New Scientist article, I outlined a few tips for changing your habits. A big one is to schedule your new habit into your day. Figure out a time you’ll squeeze in that core work. Will you leave for your run earlier and do it after? Will you do planks while you watch TV? Another is to be specific. Don’t say, “I’ll be better about recovery.” Say, “I’ll foam roll every day.” Better yet, have a cue that will remind you of your specific habit at the scheduled time. Leave your foam roller with your running shoes, so you see it before and after your run. When I wanted to track my gratitude, I put my journal beside my bed so I would remember to write in it every night.

And if you miss a day, don’t give up on yourself and declare all hope lost until next season. Slip-ups happen on the way to forming new habits, but if you accept it and get back at it the next time, you’ll make progress. Finally, be patient. Breaking bad habits or starting new ones can take weeks. (One study found an average of around nine weeks, but there was a wide range.)

A current bad habit of mine is skipping my drills. After my last injury, my PT gave me a new set to do as a dynamic warm up and, while I did them all last season, my dedication has dropped lately. The problem is that—rather than do drills on the sidewalk—I like to do them in our apartment building’s backyard. But more often then not, I’m running late and I can’t take the extra step to go back there. (It requires going down a set of stairs, out the back door, doing the drills, and then—geez, the effort—back inside and down more stairs to end up out front to start my run. I mean, seriously guys, it’s a whole ordeal.)

Doing drills in my parents' driveway.
Oh, the luxuries of having a house. 
But soon, I’ll have my own yard. There’s no extra excursion required to do drills. (And I’m sure galloping around doing carioca drills will be a good way to meet the neighbors.) I’m using moving as motivation to get back into the habit of doing drills, but the start of the new season can be a good time for a change as well. Or perhaps watching the extremely dedicated competitors at the track trials this weekend will be a powerful motivator. Although one expert I interviewed just said simply, “The best time to start is now.”

Do you have any bad running habits you’d like to break? Or good ones you want to start?

Dream big,

Friday, June 17, 2016


We bought a house.

No, wait. I’m getting ahead of myself. We’re under contract on a house and hoping to close early next month. We haven’t exactly bought it yet.

Which brings me to this post's title: patience. Buying a house (our first) is a lesson in a lot of things: legal speak, perfecting your signature, not having a heart attack over the biggest purchase of your life. But mostly it’s reminding me that I need to work on my patience.

I'm not a very patient person. We order a pizza and I want it immediately. What do you mean they can’t bake and deliver it in 30 seconds??  I’m hungry now. We put an offer on a house that we love and I want to move in immediately. What do you mean we have to wait seven weeks? Who cares about paperwork and packing? I want to live there now.

And, obviously this applies to running, too. I want results immediately. That’s why off days/bad weather/disappointing races are so frustrating. I have to wait six months (or four years) for another opportunity? I want a PR now.

Patience is vital to running. You can’t force things too quickly—you’ll end up hurt or burnt out. One of the biggest keys to long-term running success is faith in the process, the slow accumulation of miles and workouts over years. In some races it comes together beautifully, sometimes not.

When it doesn’t, it can be tough to take. But as I’ve said before: training pays off even when races don’t go as planned. In the meantime, we need to be patient in two ways. First, mentally: trusting that our chance will come again, that one race is not the only race there ever will be, that our faster/stronger/tougher bodies are still there and will prove themselves another day.

And second, we need to be patient in our approach. If you’re looking ahead to a fall race, annoyed by a spring result, keep patience in mind. Don’t double your mileage, dedicate two more hours a day to lifting, and overhaul your entire training process (especially if race day was an anomaly in an otherwise great season). Focus on a tweak or two to make here or there: maybe more miles at goal pace, or foam rolling for a few minutes every day, or a renewed commitment to core work. Doing too much too soon is a consequence of impatience, and it only leads to injury. (And injury will require even more patience.)

It’s not easy, and every off-season I’m reminded of my struggles with patience. But I’ve found that focusing on a slight tweak each season helps remind me that I’m making progress. Maybe you’ll get stuck temporarily, feeling like you’ve hit a plateau, but with patience you’ll break through.

I came to DC for graduate school seven years ago and stayed longer than I thought I would. The house we (haven’t yet) bought is in Richmond, Virginia, where Husband and I met a decade ago. For the last few years, we’ve dreamed about moving back, “settling down” in suburbia, where we can afford a big house with a yard, where Target and Trader Joe’s are a quick drive away (and they have parking!!), where Husband's family is nearby. Now, finally, we’re making moves in that direction; we’ve found that suburban house and are currently just three weeks away from closing.

I suppose I can wait a few more weeks.

Mr. RunnerTeal and I met at the University of Richmond and then got married 
(and practiced our handoffs) there a few years later. Now, we're headed back.

Dream big,

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Passing Games

Here’s a situation played out daily on running paths around the country:

Woman is running along, la de dah, and gradually catching the man in front of her.
She reels him in, easy peasy, he’s clearly going slower than her current pace.
She passes him.
He starts sprinting until he’s passed her back.
Inevitably, because he sped up too much to make the pass, he slows.
Woman—now probably annoyed—reels him in again, because she’s been going the same pace all along and it is still faster than annoying guy.
And repeat.

I realize I’m stereotyping here, but I’ve heard many women complain of the same thing and I’ve never had the same experience when passing a woman (unless it’s a race, and all’s fair in love and racing). To their credit, the vast majority of men don’t give a crap if I pass. They often share a kind wave or smile.

But then there are the dudes that have to prove themselves.

Getting lapped in high school...  
A couple of weeks ago, a guy took it more seriously than usual. The scene played out as above: me jogging along, catching up to dude, passing him, he sprints, then slows, I pass again. Repeat. But this guy was so adamant about staying in front after the second pass he started running through red lights to ensure he stayed ahead. (I stopped, being that it was rush hour in DC and not exactly safe to be running through those intersections.) After the second red light dash, I was particularly annoyed: Let it go dude. I just want to enjoy my run without offending you every time I run by. But also, I don’t want to have to slow down just to save your ego.

Admittedly, I have certainly tagged behind guys (and girls) before to try to boost my motivation or pace. I generally try not to do it in such an annoying and obvious way (staying a good distance behind), but maybe that’s all these dudes are doing. But from the many stories I’ve heard and the sideways glances and angry headshakes I get when I pass, I get the impression that many of them just really hate being passed by a girl.

... and at the Trials. See, it's no big deal!
When not racing, do we really need to make
such a fuss over getting passed?
But the other day, the opposite thing happened. I got sucked up and passed. I don’t mind being passed by a guy (or girl) and this guy looked like he was cruising, so no biggie, he was gone.

He made it look easy, and it snapped me out of my jogging cruise control. I picked it up a hair and felt good. He was still way ahead; I had no intention of catching him.

But then he started slowing. And while I don’t mind when people go by, if you make a show of passing me and then start slowing, you’ve got a bull’s-eye on your back. (See above.)

Still, he had seemed a lot speedier than the normal dudes who try to prove their manliness. I never want to pass someone just to stick it to them, so I made sure I was still running comfortably and relaxed. I had picked it up since he passed me, but it felt effortless and smooth.

After a lot of stalling and sitting awkwardly on his butt, I passed him. But soon enough he passed me back.

And I felt like a huge hypocrite. Was I one of those dudes I hate, just trying to prove something? Speeding back to the front just to slow down? I didn’t feel that I had sped up too much to make the pass or slowed down after, but who knows. After he passed me the second time, he created another big gap. But slowly, over the next mile, I reeled him in again.

Before I could catch him, I hit my turn around spot and headed home. I was shocked to see the halfway split, how fast I had been going without killing myself. And I had enjoyed the distraction. Was there anything wrong with that? Maybe that’s all these macho guys are doing—using me to snap out of a funk or get some interval training.

And I realized another hidden benefit of these passing games that I hadn’t considered: they can also help you practice staying relaxed and taking note of your effort
 “You can’t force fast running, you relax and let it happen.” –Desi Linden
Sometimes I try too hard to lock into a pace. On dedicated workout days—tempos, track intervals, races—I often try to force it and end up missing the mark. But when I’m doing these unplanned workouts with strangers, I stay relaxed. There’s no real pressure, so no reason to overanalyze the pace or berate myself for a missed split.

Sure, we weren’t going race pace that day, but I still found a new gear that felt effortless, which was surprising given my recent slump. Maybe there’s more to this than I thought.

You’d think the macho dudes would be a bit more appreciative and less visibly annoyed…

Dream big,

Friday, April 29, 2016


After every marathon, whether race day goes well or poorly, I end up in a slump. I excitedly stuff my face with every baked creation imaginable and that’s fun… for like a week. Then I start to feel like a waste of space. I feel so much more accomplished, centered, and fulfilled when I’m running.

I know that I need that time off—physically and mentally—so I take it, treating myself to indulgences I don’t get mid-season (staying up late, sleeping in, eating multiple doughnuts in a sitting…) and reminding myself this is just part of the racing cycle. And post-race blues are totally normal.

Still, I suspected the post-Trials blues would hit me harder than previous races. Not because the race went poorly (I enjoyed the hell out of a non-PR for the first time ever) but because it was such an epic goal/life moment and now it’s over. And because the race was in February, the spring season was kind of a bust; I was taking my post-marathon break while my teammates were peaking. I told myself I’d come back in time for summer 5Ks, but that meant I’d be staring at a longer race-less abyss than usual.

So I anticipated post-Trials emotions might be a drop off a cliff: the most exciting race, immediately followed by the most depressing off-season.

But oddly, it didn’t hit me right away. I made it through the first few weeks with both hands in the cookie jar and both eyes on 2020. Mouth full of junk food, I would declare to anyone that listened that I was taking a nice long break and that was totally cool with me.

Instead, the drop off the mountain was more like a slow roll down to the side. I kept eating crap, staying up late, skipping runs for no good reason, and beginning to feel like 2020 is one hell of a long way away. And suddenly I was stuck at the bottom of the abyss with no way out. Would I ever be able to get back into the shape I was in? It seemed more unlikely with every day of laziness but I just couldn’t get myself to get back to it. Some of the other Trials competitors were racing already. I was making my couch dent more permanent.

A lot less overheated and exhausted than this
moment, but equally as ready to get back out there.
[Photo by Melissa Barnes.]
I’d get back to it briefly, but then hit a minor snag: a cold that took forever to kick, a crazy couple of weeks of work. But I think I know the major issue. I seem to have forgotten the kind of runner I am; I should know better by now.

First of all, I’ve often said that the only thing that motivates me is a marathon. That’s what got me back into running in 2005 and, oh hey, eleven years and a serious running obsession later, it’s still 100% true. I have no marathon in sight. (After some summer 5Ks, I’m going to focus on half marathons and ten milers in the fall.) I know working on speed is a good strategy for the long term, blah blah blah. It doesn’t get me going. (Also, I hate 5Ks.) I know this, but thought I’d conquer it somehow. Instead, I’m struggling, completely unmotivated without 26.2.

I thought a 4th of July 5K might get me motivated.
But sorry, I'm not feeling it. 
I also know I’m a morning runner. But I’m coaching Girls On The Run twice a week and I do my own runs after our afternoon sessions. At first I figured it’d be nice to keep up the same routine the rest of the week: start work earlier and run later in the day. It doesn’t work. There’s a reason I’m a morning runner; I don’t do it otherwise, something inevitably comes up. I know this about myself, but I chose to ignore it and ended up with a lot of skipped runs.

And here’s another thing I should know, but seem to have forgotten: running when you’re out of shape sucks. Non-running friends ask me all the time how I can stand running when it’s so terrible. I try to tell them it gets better, that you have to push past those first few weeks of agony, that it takes time but it’s worth it. They don’t believe me. Instead they think I’m so running obsessed that every day is sunshine and rainbows and zero suckiness. But it’s not. Post-layoff, I’m in their sneakers; it feels like running will never be as fast or as effortless again and my motivation takes another pounding. But as I say, repeatedly and desperately to those unconvinced non-runners, “It gets better.” Right? Why have I forgotten this too?

This slump has taken longer to get out of than all the others. So my prediction was right, the post-Trials free-fall slow unraveling was a doozy. But despite anticipating that, I didn’t set myself up to overcome it very well—I lined up races that don’t motivate me, picked times of the day I’m least likely to go, and forgot that the first weeks back will always be a (temporary) struggle.

I'm trying to fix those mistakes. I’ve run more this week than any other since the Trials, and I’m trying not to beat myself up that the motivation isn’t there just yet. (Don’t compare yourself to other runners, don’t compare yourself to other runners, don’t compare yourself to other runners...)

But still, I worry I’ve dug myself too big a hole. Summer is around the corner; I’ve got to find a way to claw out.

Dream big,

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Caffeine and Running

This post was originally featured on Salty Running.

Caffeine is everywhere these days. It comes in gum, gels, and jellybeans, and even in sprayable cans, powdered form, and, briefly (pun intended), in underwear. And certainly, for many, it comes in the form of a morning cup of joe.

Runners especially seem to cling to the caffeine. After all, training can be exhausting, often taking place in the wee hours of the morning or after a long day at work. We need a jolt to get out the door … and maybe a caffeinated gel to get through the final miles … and maybe another cup to revive us enough to tackle the rest of our jam-packed days ... and then maybe an afternoon latte to stagger through to 5:00.

But there’s a lot of talk about caffeine and whether it’s good or bad for us, especially as runners. Does it give us a boost or give us the trots? Does it dehydrate or replenish? If we drink that morning coffee day after day (along with the afternoon mug) will it still give our run a boost? Below is a summary of what we know about our daily cuppa.

Not exactly unbiased:
 Caffeine contributed to the writing of this post. 
The Good

Caffeine is a known performance enhancer, so much so that it used to be banned by WADA. Caffeine helps reduce perception of effort (it feels easier to nail a fast pace), increases muscle contraction, and ups the circulation of free fatty acids during high intensity workouts, sparing those precious carbohydrate stores. And of course, it perks us up during exhausting training weeks. Many of us couldn’t get through the daily grind without our morning grind. In fact, one reason it’s no longer banned is its ubiquity in our culture; 85% of Americans consume caffeine daily.

The Bad

Sadly, there’s bad news brewing too. If taken before or during exercise, caffeine can reduce blood flow to the heart. This is troubling because the heart is pumping harder during exercise, so it needs more blood, not less. Some speculate this may be a cause of sudden death in marathons, although no death has been specifically linked to caffeine yet. Based on the possibility, the International Marathon Medical Directors Association warns runners not to consume more than 200 total milligrams of caffeine before and during a race. Those most susceptible are people who don’t regularly consume caffeine, have heart disease, or take it in high doses (like those found in energy drinks). If you have heart trouble, please don’t use this post as a reason to start chugging energy drinks. Talk to your doctor first and be cognizant of the caffeine levels in your drinks and gels… and how quickly they can add up.

The (Could Be) Ugly: Bathroom Issues

This could fit in the good or bad categories, depending on your situation. Some runners love a cup of coffee before a run; it gets things moving so there’s no need for a bathroom stop later. Others find it works a little too well in that area and end up with the trots. If you’ve been experiencing bathroom issues on your runs lately, you might consider examining your caffeine consumption and see if adjusting it helps.

One oft-cited con of caffeine is that it makes you pee more often, potentially dehydrating you. Fortunately, this has been debunked in recent years; there appears to be no difference in fluid balance (i.e. urine volume) after drinking water or caffeinated beverages, particularly if you’re a regular caffeine user.

How Much?

To get a helpful performance boost, the recommendation from most studies is 3-6 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. For a 130-pound woman, that’s about 180-350 milligrams of caffeine, or around 12 ounces of strong coffee or three 8-ounce cups of tea. (Note: the high end of this is much more than the International Marathon Medical Directors Association recommends.) More than that doesn’t seem to provide any additional benefit.

Obviously, it’s important to know your body. If you have heart problems, are on certain medications, or are pregnant, you may need to limit your intake. Furthermore, people metabolize caffeine at different rates. A genetic test can tell you if you metabolize caffeine quickly (you get a jolt quickly, but it fades quickly too) or slowly (it takes longer to work, but lasts longer too). But based on your own experience, you probably already know this without knowing your genes. If caffeine takes a while to kick in, you might want to try drinking it an hour or so before the race, while if it hits you quickly, you might try taking a gel just before the start and supplement during.

Do You Need to Give it Up Before a Big Race to Get a Boost?

Some coffee addicts have success tapering caffeine leading up to the race. Since your body is habituated to its daily dose, lowering your tolerance may allow a cup of coffee or caffeinated gel to give you a bigger boost on race day. But some think it’s not worth the misery of withdrawal symptoms when you’re already cranky from tapering. The science is mixed; there seems to be no consensus whether your tolerance matters for performance benefits.

Anecdotal evidence is mixed too. I tried cutting back on tea (my main caffeine delivery system) before my last race, but didn’t sense much difference. But my friend Laura (aka Salty's Barley), an avid coffee girl, has had great success. If you want to try it, she recommends slowly easing off it starting one to two weeks before the race. To counter the withdrawal, she starts by drinking half-caf and then progresses to decaf.

My caffeine delivery system: A cup of tea for T. 
Coffee for Recovery: Is it the New Chocolate Milk?

Consuming carbohydrates along with some protein, like in chocolate milk, after a long workout is crucial to replenishing fuel stores and promoting recovery. But research also shows that combining caffeine with the carbs could give an additional boost. One study found that a post-workout combination of carbs and caffeine led to increased glycogen stores (the energy supply we use up during long runs) a few hours later compared to post-workout carbs alone. Another study found the combo may help runners bounce back after a long workout; people given both carbs and caffeine performed better on a sprinting test a few hours later. (Some caveats: both studies were small and used a LOT of caffeine, equivalent to about 5 cups of coffee.)

Though the research doesn’t seem as robust as for chocolate milk, it is comforting, especially when you're slamming a coffee post-run on the way to work. Who knew that was helping you recover?

In Summary

Overall, the studies provide some good news for coffee lovers to contemplate as they sip their morning mug. But for those new to caffeine, start slowly (perhaps with tea or a gel with 25 milligrams) and if you are at risk for heart trouble, consult your doctor first.