Friday, June 29, 2012

Science Friday: Foot Strikes of Collegiate Runners and Wannabe Olympians

Once again, Daniel Lieberman’s* group has added more insight into the barefoot running argument.

His group recently published a study examining runners on Harvard’s cross-country team. They looked at foot strike, whether they landed first with the heel (rearfoot strike) or ball of the foot (forefoot strike), and correlated it with injury rates. (These runners all wore shoes, some more minimalist than others, but it obviously touches on the idea of running barefoot. Barefoot running forces you to run in a more forefoot strike style, because your heel doesn't like to land first when it's unprotected by a shoe. Shoes absorb the impact and let you run in a more rearfoot strike style.) Runners with a rearfoot strike had about 2.5 times more injuries than those with a forefoot strike. They also examined the type of injury and put different injuries into two broad categories: injuries that are more likely for a rearfoot striker and injuries that are more likely for a forefoot striker. Because the impact forces are distributed differently depending on which part of your foot hits first, rearfoot strikers are predicted to have more knee and hip injuries, while forefoot strikers are predicted to have more ankle injuries.The rearfoot striking Harvard runners did have more “rearfoot striking injuries,” but the forefoot striking runners didn’t have increased “forefoot striking injuries.” (So people that forefoot strike may not need to worry about increased ankle injuries based on their foot strike.)

One major caveat of this study is that it was done in collegiate athletes, an advanced group of runners. These athletes had been running for years, had low BMIs, and were young, factors that all affect injury. I worry that extrapolating this to your typical everyday runner may be extrapolating a little too much. Also, although this study will give something for barefoot running proponents to celebrate, they weren't actually studying footwear, but running style. Even Lieberman is cautious: “Running style is probably a more important determinant of injury than footwear (with the caveat that footwear probably influences running style.)” 

My humble (and unscientific) opinion: I don't run barefoot, but I am not anti-barefoot running. (Although I do think Vibrams are weird and a little creepy.) I do own a pair of minimalist shoes. (In the olden days we called them "racing flats.") I do think Lieberman’s main hypothesis, that we evolved running barefoot and therefore that's what our body is best at, is a good one. But I think it’s important to note that we’re not the same people we were when we were running across the plains chasing antelope. We are far more sedentary and weigh much more; being out of shape and carrying extra weight means extra pounding when we run.

I think the emphasis should be placed on good form and not on specific shoes. Collegiate athletes and professional runners have most likely been running for years, starting on a cross country team where drills and correct running technique were emphasized, where a coach watched them and gave them critiques to fix their bad habits before it was too late. I think before everyday runners read Born to Run and immediately jump on the barefoot bandwagon (side note opinion: Born to Run is not nearly as much a Barefoot Bible as people make it out to be) they should work on learning how to run correctly. Running barefoot and wearing minimalist shoes can be part of that process, but easing into it is key, especially if they are new to running or carrying a few extra pounds. Vibram is being sued by someone who got injured wearing their shoes, but Vibram will probably win that lawsuit because they specifically warn you to ease into their shoes over the course of an entire year.

In related news, Iain Hunter, a biomechanist, compiled photographs of the foot strikes of competitors from last week’s Olympic Trials 10k, see below. It’s a pretty even mix, including some heel strikers that you might not expect at that level. Hunter doesn't agree that people should worry about changing their form, but that the body figures out the most economical way for that individual to run. (Short description of Hunter and the photos here.)

*Potential Bias: Daniel Lieberman got a “gift” from Vibram.

Dream big,

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

First Day of Practice

Me on the first day of school.
The first day of practice makes me regress into
feeling this way, a shy 5 year old again. 
Last week was my first practice with my new team, the Georgetown Running Company Racing Team. I strapped on my backpack, packed my water bottle, and stood waiting to make some new friends. Cue flashbacks to the first day of school.

The forecast predicted one of the hottest days of the year so far. Coach wanted practice to be pretty moderate (it was the first day back for a few people) and with the heat eased it up a bit more. The paces didn’t seem unrealistic for me to hit, if it had been a perfect day. Not a 98-degree day.

I got to the track early. There were a few people already running laps and a group of runners seemingly gathering for a workout. I mustered my courage, walked up and asked if they were GRC. Nope. Back up to the parking lot. I found a square inch of shade and waited.

Two women greeted each other a little while later. Thin, young, track clothes. Jackpot. I walked up to them, again meekly asked “GRC?” and this time they said yes. And with that, it was fine; I was in.

We headed out on a trail for a little warmup, casually chitchatting, and it was nice to be running with people again. I realized that morning that aside from 1-2 runs or races with Brother and one run with FiancĂ©e on the bike, I haven’t done a workout with anyone in nine years. That seemed like enough time to have forgotten some unwritten rule. But it was going fine.

We got back to the track with time to kill before the 7:30 start. Another girl joined and they did some striders and stretching. Usually my track workouts are early morning affairs, when I’m habitually running late. The faster I run, the less late I’ll be for work and the less likely I’ll be kicked off the track when the American University team arrives. Striders and extended stretching before the workout aren’t something I usually have time for. I stood around, doing a few meager stretches to pretend I was doing something, but really just waiting for the inevitable. 

I was fortunate in a few ways. Like I said, the day was a hot one. But by 7:30 in the evening, it actually wasn’t as bad as expected and it wasn’t a humid mess like DC often is. But the workout was already set to be easier, fine by me. Only a few women came, which is far less intimidating. As an added bonus, they were all incredibly nice.

Here we go, 800 meter repeats. Line up and we’re off, single file around the track. Crap, it’s happening. The first couple go by and I’m doing ok, but the pace drops with each one. I feel like I can hold on, but I don’t remember the last time I did 800 repeats this fast. Each repeat a different woman takes the lead and the pacing responsibility. Sometimes we start too quickly and I feel like there’s no way I can make it, but then the pace relaxes and we hit each repeat pretty much dead on or faster. I shirk pacing responsibilities this time. For one thing, it takes me a few repeats to get the hang of the group thing. By the time I do, the repeats are getting faster, and I don’t feel capable of leading these women at that pace. I feel bad, I’m clearly not contributing. When Kara Goucher first started working with Shalane Flanagan she said she was “a leech at practice” and I couldn’t help feeling the same way. For now, pacing seems incredibly intimidating. Yes, I’ve paced myself at workouts for years, but the only person to pay for pacing mistakes was me.

On the last repeat, I’m falling off the back a little bit, but I hit the line in the right time, and I’m done. Coach pulls me aside, says he’s impressed with what he’s seen and that I’ll be mixing it up with them in no time. Crap, that means I’ll have to help pace.

In the morning, I’m back up for an easy run before work and before it gets blazing hot. Run, eat, sleep, run, eat, work, repeat. I feel like an athlete again.

Dream big,

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Diet Coke

Hello, my name is Teal and I'm a Diet Coke-aholic.

It started in college. I wasn't allowed soda as a child, except on special occasions. While I think this is a great rule (and one I'd like to establish with my own kids someday), it backfired slightly in college, the same way American laws about drinking backfire. Europeans grow up enjoying a glass of wine at dinner, and then don't go completely off the wall when they get to college. Americans, on the other hand, have been strictly forbidden all their lives and can't control themselves when alcohol is ubiquitous. Many go overboard and end up abusing it. When I realized I could have soda whenever I wanted, moderation went out the window. I hadn't really ever been a fan of diet drinks, but my friend drank Diet Coke constantly and always offered me one so I quickly developed the taste for diet over regular. (Later, post-freshmen 15, it would become more logical to grab a Diet.) My friend was like my dealer, and I was hooked. I found out later the same friend (a very religious person) has a prayer word for people. When she sees a particular object that reminds her of a particular person, she says a prayer for that person. Mine was a can of Diet Coke. Every can reminded her of me. It's safe to say our roles reversed. 

Even after college I was so hooked I would carry cases home from the grocery store. I know that doesn't sound particularly stunning, but I'm a girl with no upper body strength who lives in a city with no car, and so I'd have to walk a few blocks lugging my case of soda. Sometimes I'd try to carry two cases at once, precariously stacking them on top of each other, only to curse myself and my habit a few blocks later. I'd have to sacrifice other grocery items (like actual food) just so I could carry it all. I drank a soda with lunch, a soda with dinner, maybe one for an afternoon snack. I was comforted by the fact that a friend of mine went through a case of 12 a day (!!) and so I wasn't that bad. Right?

At one point, I decided I needed to be drinking more water, if not for my health, but for my running. I seriously didn't like the taste of water (people say it has no taste, but if that's true, why do some people prefer Evian and some Fiji?) and so I would get my fluid from juice and tea in the morning and Diet Coke the rest of the day. I finally figured you can't be a great runner if you don't drink water. To encourage myself, I bought a huge water bottle and slapped a 26.2 sticker on the side to remind myself why I should be drinking it. Then I proceeded to carry it around with me wherever I went. 

The marathon bottle helped enormously. I started actually drinking water throughout the day and realized if I drank water with a meal, I didn't need a soda. (Genius, right?) But it took one more event to really crack my habit. At the end of my first year of grad school, while studying for our comprehensive exams, I drank liters and liters of diet soda. (I don't like coffee, so the only way to stay awake was tea or soda.) Weeks of nothing but stress, studying, and soda left me feeling seriously ill. After the exam I went cold turkey. I can't remember how long I lasted (more than a month) but it broke my habit. I can go weeks without a soda, when before I couldn't go a full day. I give in to one now and then, particularly when they are free (why is free food so hard to resist?), but I haven't lugged a 12 pack home since. And when I recently got a new water bottle, I stuck another 26.2 sticker on it to keep me on the road to recovery. 

Dream big and drink water, 
Recovering Diet Coke-aholic

Friday, June 15, 2012

Science Friday: Inspired by Lance Armstrong

This week’s re-emergence of the never-ending case against Lance Armstrong made me want to do an EPO inspired post. Perfectly, an article came out just last week examining the effects of EPO in the brain. EPO is erythropoietin, a growth factor your body produces to increase red blood cell production. Endurance athletes take a recombinant (artificial) version because it greatly increases performance and endurance. In one study, a group of normal volunteers (not professional athletes) increased their time to exhaustion on a cycling test by 50% with EPO treatment. That's huge. Most of the actions are thought to be through increasing the blood's ability to transport oxygen. The recent findings from a group in Switzerland suggest that it can also have an effect on the brain. They used three groups of mice: (1) normal mice, (2) mice that have EPO only in the brain (not the blood), and (3) mice that were injected just once with EPO. They looked at things EPO normally affects in the blood, like blood volume and levels of hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen. Since one group of mice had EPO only in the brain, and another group only got EPO once and was examined soon afterwards (before there would have been an effect), they saw no effects of EPO in the blood. Interestingly, they found that mice with EPO still had increased VO2max and could exercise (run on a treadmill) for longer before becoming exhausted. Since this was independent of changes in the blood, the improvements must have been from EPO in the brain. Perhaps EPO improves endurance and reduces time to fatigue by acting on your brain, rather than just oxygenating your muscles. The paper mentioned another group that had found opposite results, that EPO has no role in the brain, and suggested the different doses used by the two groups matters. My question is which dose is similar to the ones used by professional athletes?

I did some more research on EPO to brush up on my doping knowledge. How is it that cyclists can get away with this for years or even decades? Why do some samples have to be thrown out? (Apparently just training at altitude makes your sample ineligible. A lot of people train at altitude for many reasons, do we have to start being suspicious?) An easy to read summary and more technical review were helpful, although rather disheartening. The drug cheats have always been ahead of the science, and probably will continue to be. EPO is incredibly hard to detect because your body makes its own, so it comes down to differentiating between the recombinant EPO and the normal EPO everyone has. Apparently our tests don't differentiate those two very well. Furthermore, you can keep the injection frequency pretty low and still experience enormous gains. (Which makes me wonder if it would have an effect on the brain, as suggested above.) The review includes a schematic about how a cyclist could have pulled it off without getting caught; it takes a lot of out of season injections. Fortunately, out of season testing is getting more routine. The newest (and perhaps most promising) ideas are “blood passports” and “athlete biological passports.” These are individual profiles of each athlete and contain all data gathered over time.  Because of enormous variation between athletes, particularly on the measures EPO tests examine (hemoglobin concentration and hematocrit, the percentage of red blood cells in the blood), it may be more useful to compare the athlete to himself/herself rather than others. Over time and after enough data is collected, outlying data points can be investigated further. This method still has a ways to go; studies so far have been mixed, with some getting false positives and others missing up to half of the volunteer dopers. You can understand how people manage to pull this off and get away with it, but it’s incredibly discouraging for people who want sports to be clean and honest. 

As for Lance: after reading some of his interviews, I’m doubting his innocence and beginning to think he's kind of a jerk. (Of course, he may have some excuses given the circumstances.) But I wanted to remember all the struggles he's overcome and the inspiration he’s been, so I'm finally reading his autobiography before his reputation is completely ruined. Can he fend off this most recent accusation, or is he to be added to the list of role models gone terribly wrong? (I’m looking at you Marion Jones.)

In case you're interested: A story about a marathoner accused of using EPO (who eventually confessed) is here.

Dream big and stay clean,

Friday, June 8, 2012

RandomAbs Wrap Up

Six weeks ago, a fellow Loopster LadyRunsAlot encouraged everyone to join her in an abs challenge. The challenge was six weeks of doing the randomabs workout 6-7 days/week, ending on June 8th. The fact that it ended on June 8th, my birthday, struck me. What a nice way to bookend the challenge! I'm constantly meaning to get my abs in shape; I always hope that having more time in the off season will give me the chance to make strength work a habit. So for the last 42 days I've found a few minutes a day for the designated ab workout. Here's what I've learned.

Lesson 1. The first cut is the deepest. This lesson is two-fold and parallels running. (1)The first few days are the most pain-inducing and (2) each day's first set is the hardest. My abs ached the first three days so much that it hurt to move, laugh, etc. but after that I was fine. Each day, the first set would seem overwhelming and I'd wonder how I could handle another set or two. But the next set was always easier. I'm not sure how that makes sense (shouldn't it be harder?) but the fact that it's reminiscent of running makes it understandable to me. Starting a running program is a rough process, but the soreness of the first days and weeks goes away. Even once you're in shape, though, a run can sometimes seem overwhelming and you wonder how you''ll make it the whole way. But amazingly, after a mile of two it gets easier. 

Lesson 2. Take a picture. I didn't. I don't know if my abs look any different then they did six weeks ago, and while that isn't the main point of this exercise, it would still be nice. I have gained some weight (the few pounds that fly off during 80 mile weeks have relodged themselves on my stomach) and so its hard for me to imagine there was any improvement. Since I didn't take a picture I'll never know. What I do know is that the exercises got easier (see Lesson 1), which is just as important.

I figured I'd better not show a picture of Mr. Perfect Form,
since the other challengers probably hate him by now.
Lesson 3. Get over it. I've always been embarrassed doing strength exercises or yoga moves in front of people. Maybe because my upper body is incredibly weak (more on that below), I'd rather do exercises in the privacy of my own home, with the window shades down, and no one around. I imagine laughing and pointing and I'd rather not risk the embarrassment. I knew there was no way I could do an ab workout everyday in private, so I had to get over it and tell Fiancee what was up. Not only did he not make fun of me, but he was incredibly supportive (as he always is) and now affectionately calls me Ab-by. In Florida this past week I was sharing a hotel room with a labmate, but 5 weeks into a 6 week challenge meant I had to do my exercises in front of her. And of course she didn't bat an eyelash about it. Again, this should come as no surprise, but to someone as self conscious as me, it was a lesson learned. 

Lesson 4. Use somebody. Embrace the goals of others in the quest of your own. Like I said, I wanted to get into an ab routine, but I didn't have any particular desire to do it everyday for six weeks, nor had I even heard of randomabs. But LadyRunsAlot came up with it, and it fit the bill. Sometimes latching onto something someone else is doing can help you accomplish your own goals, even ones you didn't know you had. (Also, telling others about it, as other Loopsters and I did, holds you accountable.)

Lesson 5. Everyday is key. Again this is true for running too. When I first got back into running marathons a few years ago I ran 4 or 5 days a week. When you give yourself days off, it's a lot easier to make excuses. Monday morning: "Ugh, I don't feel like getting out of bed. I'll move today's run to tomorrow." Next day, still exhausted. "Well I can skip today too and then I'll just run every day until Saturday and still make it 4 days for the week." But then the excuses snowball. If you can't get out of bed Monday and Tuesday, it's unlikely Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday will all be different. As I've graduated to higher mileage and more days of running per week, there's no room for compromises and no excuses. Monday morning, tired, don't want to run? Too bad, no off days in sight. No way to move things around. Got to get up for that run. In the past I've always tried to do core work every other day or every few days. But then I run out of time and move it to the next day and down the slippery slope I go. This challenge was every single day so there were no excuses and no compromises. It might not seem like it, but that made it easier.

Lesson  6. Stronger abs don't equal stronger arms. It doesn't translate. I thought maybe doing abs would make me better about doing other strength training but my arms still look like (and are as strong as) strands of spaghetti. (I'm tempted to say that I'm as weak as a six year old boy, except six year old boys are surprisingly strong.) Running Times had an article a while back about good goals to have (run every day for a year, run a 100 mile week) and one of them was to do 60 pushups at once. I don't have any particular desire to do 60 pushups at once, but I would like to have a stronger upper body and so I'm embracing Lesson #4. (Besides the benefit this will have on my running, my wedding is next spring and I already checked off the "get in shape box" on the knot's giant list of to-dos. I may not have flowers or save the dates picked out, but I've got this one covered. Except those puny arms, which conveniently are the only thing wedding dresses show.) And so here's the challenge: Pushups every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, until I can do 60. Running Times assures me this will only take a few months, but we will see. At the moment, I can do 15. And, despite what I learned in lesson #3, I'd be embarrassed for someone to witness those 15. The workout is simple: as many pushups as possible at once (with good form!), then take a break and do another 2 sets. I realize I'm breaking rule #5 here since I won't be doing everyday. But unlike your abs (which can handle everyday) your arms (and certainly not my spaghetti strings) can't, so I'll have to go MWF. But it HAS to be MWF. No moving Monday to Tuesday, etc. No excuses.

Who's with me?

Dream big, 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Something Old, Something New

This past weekend I went to Richmond, Virginia for my college reunion (yikes, getting old!) and then to Jacksonville, Florida for a work conference. Of course, I packed my running shoes.

Sunday morning I had my reunion with Richmond running routes. Richmond was where I trained for my first marathon and there were tons of places I wanted to run but only one measly run to see them all. Even though it has been years since I ran these roads, I still remembered the hills and the turns, if not the street names. I remembered the thoughts and dreams I had back then, of finishing my first marathon, of getting faster, of life after graduation. I wished I could have run for longer; it would have taken a solid 20 miler to hit all my spots, and I was bummed I didn't have that on the schedule (a real rarity to be wishing for 20 milers!) I was sad to turn around and head back. 

On Monday and Tuesday I flew down to Florida. The hotel was on the beach and so choosing where to run was easy: Monday I went south along the beach, Tuesday I went north. The sun was shining, but not too unbearably hot just yet, and the beach was peaceful and serene. A picture of the turnaround point from Monday's run is below.

Good morning.
Tuesday I left the camera in the hotel room. As is always the case when I don't have a camera, it was even prettier than Monday. I beat the sun up and so the sky was still a splash of pastel watercolors. The fact that I couldn't permanently capture the moment made it all the more special. It's a runner's privilege to see the world before the rest of it wakes up. And on that day only the sand, the waves, and I enjoyed the pinks and blues of the sky just before sunrise. On the way back, a pod of dolphins kept up the pace with me for a little while, jumping up and down through the waves as I ran parallel along the shore. They were just out for a morning stroll and I had a conference to get back to, so eventually I had to bid them farewell and leave them behind. Again, I wished I could have run for longer. 

It's not always easy to squeeze in runs during vacations, work conferences, or visits with friends, to find the time in busy days or the room in a packed suitcase for running gear. But I think the excitement and beauty of a new place or the memories of an old trail are great motivators. If that is the only day you'll get the opportunity to run in that place, it's hard to pass up. As always, you'll be glad you went. 

Today it was back to the boring trails of home. Because it's National Running Day, or because it's just a regular Wednesday, I had to go for a run. Halfway through it started sprinkling through the sunshine, and so I spent the remainder of the run craning my neck desperately looking for a rainbow. (Fortunately I managed not to run into anything or anyone while doing this.) There were no rainbows, let alone waves crashing or old memories. I missed my dolphin friends. It was just a typical everyday run with no bells and whistles.  But I was still glad I went.

Dream big, 

Friday, June 1, 2012

Science Friday: Exercise is Bad for You?

Warning: As someone with both a family history of heart disease and a runner, my inherent bias is all over this post.

When someone says running will ruin your knees (it’s won't, it can actually be good for them), that marathons will kill you (an incredibly rare phenomenon), or some other argument that running is bad for you, the comeback is that it’s at least better than sitting on the couch snacking all day. But a new study says that 1 out of 10 times exercise may increase the levels of certain factors that may put you at risk for disease.

The group took results from six different published studies which looked at the effects of exercise. Some of the studies looked specifically at healthy people, others at obese or high-risk people, but the mean BMI of each cohort was in the overweight or obese range (which makes me wonder about those healthy groups.) The subjects exercised for 4-6 months and the mean VO2 max increased in each study (showing exercise was having an effect.) Each study measured four risk factors: 

1. Fasting insulin (high levels indicate insulin resistance which can lead to diabetes)
2. HDL (the "good" kind of cholesterol, which should go up with exercise)
3. Triglycerides (fat molecules; high levels are linked to heart disease and stroke)
4. Resting systolic blood pressure (high blood pressure is indicative of hypertension)
(Recently an article was published claiming HDL might not be as great a predictor of heart disease as once thought. We’ll have to wait and see if that holds up, but it would make the changes in HDL in this study less significant.) Using the data from these previous studies, this group looked at whether the subjects got better or worse regarding the risk factors. In each of the studies and for each of the four risk factors, about 10% of the subjects got worse.

Yikes, that gives sedentary people another excuse not to exercise, which I don’t think they need. Obviously this isn’t great for my argument that exercise is better than sitting on the couch. But let me still try to make it.

Let's turn this around: we take 10 people at risk or overweight and get them to exercise. Nine of them improve (or stay the same) on measures we think have something to do with disease risk. One of them doesn’t. That seems like good odds to me. Furthermore, it doesn’t mean the one gets heart disease, just that the risk factors doctors associate with disease go in the wrong direction. But if the new HDL study holds up to more research, we might be barking up the wrong tree with these risk factors. It’s important to note the study doesn't actually look at disease or deaths from disease. Other studies (summary here) have done that, and exercise overwhelmingly helps. Finally, there is always variability. Just like some drugs don't work on everyone, exercise might not either.

I am curious to know if after more time exercising the relationship changes. It’s a whirlwind of soreness, pain, and changes to your body when you first start to get in shape. And despite what some people making excuses think, it does get better. I wonder if we follow these people for longer if that might be the case for these risk factors as well.

Like I said, this will make it harder to argue with the couch potatoes. But regardless, I don't exercise purely to help my heart. There are many other benefits, so I'll keep arguing and I'll keep running.

Other (semi-related) news this week: NYC is looking to ban large sugary drinks. This means any drinks over 16 fl oz. (which includes most drinks since America has redefined what "large" means.) I think this idea is superb. Even better, it doesn't include milkshakes.  

Dream big,