Friday, October 26, 2012

Science Friday: Team Training

As you know, a few months ago I decided I needed to change things up and start training with a team. That team has helped in all the expected ways (faster workouts, inspiring role models, great camaraderie) and a few unanticipated others (first hand ferritin knowledge, wedding planning advice). But this week I came across another reason why working out with a team is better than going it alone.

In an article published in 2009 (and referenced in this week’s NYTimes blog about laughter), a group in England investigated the pain threshold in rowers who worked out either in teams of six or by themselves. They used pain threshold as a corollary for endorphin levels; the higher the pain threshold, the higher the expected endorphin release. (Endorphins are the molecules responsible for exercise's euphoric and pain suppressing effects, aka "runner's high.") Collegiate rowers each performed two tests on a stationary rowing machine: one rowing alone and one in the presence of teammates. The length of time and the power output were the same for both tests, so the other teammates weren't actually helping the work load decrease. To measure their pain thresholds, the rowers' ability to tolerate a blood pressure cuff being inflated on their arm was measured before and after the workout. As expected, they tolerated pain better after the workout than before. Gotta love those endorphins.

What’s interesting was that the rowers also tolerated pain better when they worked out with a group. Besides having teammates that hold you accountable and push you to work harder to keep up with them, teammates also make you feel less pain. It seems that the loneliness of the long distance runner rower is a more painful path. The authors speculate that "synchronized physical activity" helps boost levels of pain relieving molecules and this may promote bonding among group members. Anyone who has survived a hard track workout with a group already knows it bonds you. And now it seems your pain tolerance is the better for it too!

Note: Don't worry! I did survive the Army Ten Miler this past weekend and you'll hear the whole story if you tune in next week. I just couldn't resist a Science Friday this week.

Dream big and with friends,

Friday, October 19, 2012

Back in the saddle

I'm back in the saddle again, pulling on my racing flats. This weekend is the Army 10 Miler, here in DC. I wouldn’t say I’m dreading it, but I’m not looking forward to it with my usual mix of nerves and excitement. I’m not really looking forward to it at all. Ever since the Philly Half I’ve been unsure of how I will do and how I feel about racing Army.

At practice this week, I got a boost of encouragement from my teammates. When I told them about the ferritin issue they were immediately more insightful than Google and my doctor combined. They had been there, done that, bought the iron supplement. They all assured me that was certainly the root of the problem and I’d be back to normal in no time. (Or 8-12 weeks, which is how long the pills take to have an effect.) Some were impressed I had been able to run as much as I have and am not curled up in a ball somewhere. (I won’t say I haven’t considered that.)

So mentally I’m doing much better. I know the cause of the trouble and I’m taking action. I’m excited to see how things will go once I’m at normal levels. (And I wonder how long this has been an issue?) But, I’m also racing on Sunday and things haven’t exactly turned around yet. (See above for timeline of drug action.)

Because I don’t learn from my mistakes, I’m once again shooting for 6:10 pace. (Granted this race is shorter than Philly.) What’s that saying? “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” (I’m pretty sure that’s called thesis research.) Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice...

But there’s also the old standard: if at first you don’t succeed... So regardless of the likelihood of blowing up, I’m going after it and hoping my improved mental attitude will turn things around. Also, I’m running with my girl L, who would normally kick my butt, but is struggling with her own issues of late. We’re just going to go out, see what happens, and have some fun. Hopefully it’s not a repeat of Philly.

Sad it’s Friday and this post has zero to do with science? Never fear! If you live in the DC area, come check out a live version this Tuesday, Oct. 23 at 7 pm at the MLK Library. I’ll be discussing the effect exercise has on the brain as part of a monthly Hot Topics in Health Science series. I’d love to see you!

Dream big,

Friday, October 12, 2012

Science Friday: Diagnosis and Discoveries about Iron

This week I finally got the results of a blood test to determine if low iron was the culprit of my running funk. At first glance it seemed like everything was fine. My doctor told me I had normal iron and hemoglobin levels, but could be maybe, possibly, considered borderline anemic because of low ferritin. She suggested an iron supplement but then proceeded to tell me she thinks I am just running too much. Ah yes, well if I wasn't running, I wouldn't be in here complaining about how my running is going poorly. True, but irrelevant for a die hard runner.

After leaving her office I immediately Googled ferritin (ahh, Google, every doctor’s nightmare.) I remembered an article I had read a while ago about Stephanie Rothstein having iron issues. I discovered that her issue (eventually attributed to celiac disease) had been low ferritin as well. According to the article, normal levels are 20 nanograms/milliliter, but runners actually need more, in the range of 30-40. Rothstein’s was 4 ng/mL. Mine was 6 ng/mL.

Why did Rothstein's doctor suspect that was an issue while mine seemed doubtful? More Googling (and some more sophisticated scientific "Googling") ensued. Why do runners have iron issues? What the heck is ferritin? Could low ferritin be my problem?

Runners need iron to produce hemoglobin, which is the molecule that carries oxygen to your muscles. Without it, your muscles can’t function as well, so you can’t run as fast, you feel more tired, etc. The problem is runners lose a lot of iron. To start with, iron is hard to absorb.We only absorb 15% of the iron we eat; the best (and most easily absorbed iron) is from animal sources like red meat. If you choose not to eat a lot of red meat, like me, that can start the problem. (Good plant sources of iron include beans, nuts, bran, and spinach.) Absorption is inhibited by calcium, coffee, tea, and anti-inflammatories, all of which runners, as a whole, consume a lot. We lose iron through sweat (which can be worse in hot, humid conditions) and through GI stress. We also lose iron through foot strike hemolysis, when blood cells burst from the force of impact with the ground. Women are more likely to have iron deficiency anemia because of blood lost through menstruation.

Ferritin stores iron; most of the iron in our body is bound to ferritin. Less ferritin in your blood means less stored iron. According to some data, low ferritin levels is the best indicator of iron deficiency. However, by definition, anemia is diagnosed by low hemoglobin levels, which is why I am technically not anemic and why my doctor is less than concerned. But then I found this from an article by Coach Jeff Hess in Track and Field News:

Anemia, clinical iron deficiency, is not rare among runners, but even more common than iron deficiency is "iron depletion" due to low ferritin stores... It is common among distance runners to have acceptable hemoglobin and hematocrit counts even when ferritin levels are severely depleted. For less active people, low ferritin levels are much less significant and don't often draw the attention of medical professionals.

So your average doctor might not think anything of it, while a sports medicine specialist might notice the red flag. The symptoms of iron depletion are similar to iron deficiency and include abnormal exhaustion, slow recovery, declining performances, heavy legs, loss of motivation, etc. This was sounding all too familiar and the statistics gave me some validation: one doctor suggested that if ferritin dips below 20 ng/mL, performance begins to suffer. Worse yet, injury rates double when ferritin is less than 20 ng/mL and triple when less than 12 ng/mL.

One study had some good news. Iron deficient female runners were split into two groups: one given an iron supplement and the other a placebo. While the placebo runners continued to experience a drop in their performance, the iron supplemented runners improved. But the catch is it usually takes 2-3 months for iron to right itself; you can’t pop a pill or eat a big steak and feel better in the morning.

Warning: Excess iron is also not a good thing and can have far worse consequences. Before taking a supplement based on suspicions, get a blood test (make sure you specify ferritin to be checked as it isn't always reported) and discuss it with your doctor. A study found that among male marathoners, <2% had iron depletion, but 15%  had signs of excess iron. (On the other hand, 28% of female marathoners had iron depletion, <5% had signs of excess.) In addition, iron supplements are notoriously hard on your digestive system so ask your doctor for suggestions that may work for you. (My doctor suggested Vitron-C.) 

At first I thought I was grasping at straws but, as the evidence piled up, this seems like a common issue, especially among women runners. I had been thinking it was all in my head, that I just needed to stop being a wuss and toughen up. It may be a placebo effect (except I haven't even taken the pill yet!) but having a possible explanation and a plan of attack makes me feel better already.

Special Announcement: Do you enjoy Science Fridays? Do you live in the DC area? If so, come hear me talk about exercise and the brain on Tuesday, October 23 at 7:00 pm at the MLK Library. I’ll be discussing how running cures diseases, slows the aging process, and makes you feel all around spectacular—things you surely already know, but I can give you the hard facts for the next time your coworker says running is bad for your knees. More information about the series Hot Topics In Health Science here.

Dream big,

P.S. Shout out to the Flexatarian Filly for suggesting this months ago. It planted a seed, and I finally listened. Thanks!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Race Report: RnR Philadelphia Half

I lost my mojo.

It happened a few weeks ago; after a couple crappy workouts, I just didn’t feel like myself. My confidence was gone, taking my competitive fire with it. I thought the Philadelphia Rock and Roll Half Marathon would rekindle the fire. I love racing, especially big city races with thousands of people, where you feel like the whole city has shut down to welcome the runners. The fans are cheering, the adrenaline is pumping, the excitement from other runners is contagious. 

I ignored my shaky confidence and stuck with my original plan: a big PR. I planned to run with one of my teammates, B; our goal was 6:10 pace. It seemed ambitious, but I hoped that after a few miles I would settle in and the miles would tick off. With someone at my side, it would be infinitely easier.

Most of this post is going to be full of complaining, so let me take a moment to appreciate the best part of the race—I was seeded in the elite corral for the first time in my life. (The perks of having a coach who can vouch for you.) My number started with an F, which stands for Female, or Freaking Fast, I’m not sure which. I’m also pretty sure I didn’t deserve that, but I soaked up the moment anyway. We got to hang out in the elite tent, do strides off the starting line, and were inches from famous runners (Ritz!) It was awesome.

Mile 5. The crazy screaming spectators in the
background are my family. Love them.
Until the gun went off, when things went downhill fast. I stayed with B for as long as possible, trying to settle into a 6:10 rhythm. She got into it much faster, but I was struggling. The pace felt too fast. I was scared of what was to come. I couldn’t keep this up. Honestly, I worried I was going to drop out. Anytime you try to PR or really push your limits, there will be moments of doubt, of panic, of thinking “My God, this hurts, I'll never make it. I'll have to drop out.” You don’t beat your best past self painlessly. Every PR will come with some moments of fear and agony. But usually not so early in the race. I tried again and again to find a rhythm, but it wasn't coming. Around 4.5 miles, B forged on ahead, and I was on my own. Now guilt was added to the many emotions swirling through my head. We had agreed to run together and now I left her on her own too. I tried to stay near her, in reach, but she kept slipping further ahead. The temptation to drop out grew. My inner monologue was not pretty: it warned me the sooner I drop out the better, because once we leave the city the course goes out and back and I didn't want to be stranded miles away. 

As we headed out along the river, I tried to silence the negativity, focusing on maintaining and just not slowing down any more. I pushed and pushed and thought for sure I must not be slowing, but the splits kept telling me the ugly truth. People were cruising past and I was jealous—why couldn't I have their energy, their drive, what was wrong with me? My Freaking Fast seed number seemed completely inappropriate as I kept falling further and further back. I just wanted to make it to the bridge, the turn around point. Maybe heading back towards the city would bolster my spirits. My splits continued to slow; soon I was going at marathon pace. Marathon pace?! In a race half as long! I had given up on a big PR miles ago, but now any PR seemed impossible. I had lost hope for this race, I just wanted it to end.

Mile 12. With L, just trying to finish.
Finally we hit the bridge and headed back. I picked it up slightly, then saw my coach, and another teammate, L, who was having her own terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day and had called it at 11 miles. She decided to run in with me, to carry me to the finish, and it helped enormously. Together we slogged through the final miles. My family cheered their heads off, much to the surprise of L who hadn't yet met my overly enthusiastic support crew. The sun was beating down on us now, and the finish would not come. Finally (finally!) we were there. I was just glad it was over.

In the end, it was a PR, by 24 seconds. I owe all of those seconds to L for dragging me through the final miles. I know you should always be happy with a PR, but I’m not. I know I worked harder than that and expected it to pay off in a much bigger way. I ran my old PR in the middle of marathon training, while holding back for the real race a few weeks later. (And I was even disappointed then.) I intended to destroy that PR. I thought I had more in me, but on this day, I just... didn't.

I took the next few days off, trying to figure out if I (a) was exhausted, overtrained, and burnt out, (b) have some kind of nutrient deficiency (iron, vitamin D?), or (c) was just mentally zonked. I didn't want to go running, but I didn't enjoy not running either. The rest of the season was looming but I couldn't muster any excitement for it. I was in a funk. After a few days of being a non-running grump, I realized I can’t feel sorry for myself forever. And so I went for an easy jog, and then next day a longer one, and then back to track practice, and slowly, slowly I’m coming around. Stay tuned.

In other sad news (that affects far more people), the University of Richmond recently cut their men’s track team (and men’s soccer team) to add men’s lacrosse. (FYI: the men’s track team had no scholarships.) You can read more about the reasoning here, sign a petition here, or vent your anger leave your own opinion in the comments below.

Dream big,