Friday, November 16, 2012

Science Friday: Days to Your Life

I don’t run to add days to my life, I run to add life to my days.

That quote is catchy and memorable because the first part is expected; we know that running and being active makes you live longer. The point of the quote is that it goes beyond that.

But today let’s focus on that first part. How many days are we talking about, really? Research recently published in PLOS Medicine attempted to quantify that number. The authors pooled findings from a couple of large studies (such as the Women’s Health Study and the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study) and accumulated data on close to 650,000 people. The studies included reports from a ten-year follow up and so the authors were able to correlate amounts of exercise with how long people lived. A quick perspective to understand the numbers on the graph below: physical activity was quantified as metabolic equivalents (METs); 7.5 MET-hr/wk is roughly equal to 150 minutes of brisk walking per week, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity (such as running.) 7.5 MET-hr/wk is about the recommendation doctors and public health advocates encourage for a healthy lifestyle.

In the graph, you can see that as "leisure time physical activity" (i.e. exercising in your free time, such as running or walking) increases, years of life increase as well. As you can tell from the sharp increase to the left of the graph, just getting off the couch for an hour or so each week helps a lot. (Activities such as brisk walking for 75 minutes/week increased life expectancy by 1.8 years.) People getting the recommended amount of exercise (150 minutes of walking or 75 minutes of running) increase their life expectancy by 3.4 years. Incredibly, although the effect lessens, it keeps going up with more activity. (No, marathoning likely won't kill you.)

The study goes on to talk about the relationship between BMI, physical activity, and longevity. This is the relatively new concept of being “fit and fat.” Annoyingly, some people can’t seem to lose weight despite a rigorous and routine exercise program. Are these people better off health wise than those much hated skinny people who never have to exercise? So far, the research says yes: even if you don’t lose weight, exercise has other (perhaps less superficially obvious) benefits to your health. So fit and fat people are better off than those inactive, normal weight people (the lean and lazy? skinny and slacking? slim and slothful?)

This study provides more evidence. Overweight people (BMI between 25 and 29.9) who were active lived 4.7 years longer than inactive, normal weight people (BMI between 18 and 24.9.) Even active obese people (BMI between 30-34.9) lived 3.1 years longer than those lean and lazy people. However, this effect disappeared when people had BMIs greater than 35 (severely obese category.) It seems that at that point, the health risks of being overweight outweigh (no pun intended!) the benefits of working out.

In summary, it tells us what we already knew: running can add days to our lives. Now we know just how many: approximately 1,241 (3.4 years) for 75 minutes of running per week. But the life added to our days? That’s harder to quantify.

Dream big,

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Quarters, Cramps, and Cross Country

This season’s focus has been on Clubs Cross Country, which is a 6k race, i.e. way too short for me. As the season has progressed, the workouts and races have gotten more and more out of my comfort zone. As you’ll see below, my stomach and mind have been protesting.

A few weeks ago, we did a quarters workout. Doing a billion quarter repeats is the classic toughening workout. Run one lap fast, jog for a short rest, run another lap fast, short rest. Repeat, repeat, repeat. At some point, take a longer rest (between “sets”) and then get back to cranking out 400s. In high school, I remember doing ten quarters on the second day of practice, to weed out any slackers not willing to put in the work. But looking back on it, that workout seems way too hard for day two of high school track (at least on my team), so maybe my mind has warped it. In the book Once a Runner the protagonist does (spoiler alert!) 60 quarters, which leads to all sorts of post-workout unpleasantries, not to mention complete wonderment and awe from all the readers.

Our workout called for 16 quarters (not 60, but still.) We got one minute between each, and after four, we got four minutes until the next set. Needless to say, this was not in my wheelhouse. As per usual, I lined up towards the back, but this backfired when we decided to go one by one down the line for pacing duties; being at the back had me pacing one of the faster quarters. Whoops. So for the first ten quarters, I worried if I’d be able to lead this group at a pace that is the fastest I’ve run 400s since I was 16. When my turn came, I managed it alright, and just like that the pressure was off and I was back to my place at the end of the line. On the very next quarter, I died. Cramped up and fell completely back. I’m not sure if it was because I had just been hanging on for dear life until I did my duty, but after that I bombed. We got another long break before the last set, which helped quell my cramps and I was back with the pack on the 13th, but then again cramped and fell way back on the 14th. With my stomach revolting, my legs refused to go any faster (and my stomach, not my legs, would be sore for 2 days after.) Coach said it was fine to call it at 14; after all, it was a pretty good showing for someone who’s better known for a marathoner’s shuffle.

I was really bummed/embarrassed/frustrated I didn’t finish the workout, but I had at least kept up with them for a significant portion. A few days later, we had a “cross country” workout on a grass field. I had only been to one of these so far, and it was pretty low key. But Clubs is looming, so this one was kicking it up a notch. The loop is about 2k, and we had to do three repeats of the loop, getting faster with each repeat. I think I got dropped halfway through the first, and almost immediately on the second and third. It was not pretty. I realize these girls are some freaking rock stars, but it’s frustrating to get gapped so early. Am I just throwing in the towel? Shouldn't I be able to push myself to stay with them longer? It was a frustrating day.

Back at the track the next Wednesday, I actually did hang with them for the entirety of a workout. (That’s not completely true, I got dropped at the end of the one of the earlier intervals, but then recovered and stayed with them for the rest. Hey, let me have my small victories.) I took it as an encouraging sign, because (to me, at least) it was a tough workout, and I needed to have one of those moments where it totally sucks and you think you’ll never make it but then you hang on and surprise yourself. 

Sunday was the Veteran’s Day 10k. I’ve been looking forward to it since Philly; I knew Army 10 was too close to get over whatever was ailing me, but the Vets Day 10k seemed far enough in the distance that I’d be back to business. Since the beginning of the season, Coach has said I can run a 37 minute 10k, which sounds great (PR!) to me, so now was the time to go for it. The goal was 6 minute pace, as in “do not go out with the other girls” (who are way too fast) but start easy with the hope that I’d have something left to kick it in at the end. This meant running alone, but whatever, remember the old days when I always raced alone? I latched onto two people in the first mile or so, and was feeling good, right on pace. Then one of them sped up, and one dropped back, and I was alone again. No worries, I’m cruising along on pace and everything is peachy. Might even get a 5k PR out of this.

Feeling good around 5k.
In reality, although the first mile was on pace, the next two were a few seconds slow, and there’s not much time to fix that in a 10k. After the turn around, one of my teammates struggling with a hamstring issue (but determined not to drop out!) decided to run back with me. Company again! I certainly felt like her presence was willing me to go faster, but when our splits came, it wasn’t the case. With two miles to go, I knew this was the time to pick it up and find that other gear, but instead my stomach twisted up again and I relived the cramps I felt in the 400 workout. Except I had two miles to go, not half a lap. My teammate was trying to push me to go, but I couldn’t pick it up. Even with the finish in sight, I had no kick. I finished in just over 38 minutes. (A PR, yes, but way off my goal.)

It’s been a frustrating few weeks (as evidenced by the frequency of that word in this post.) Certainly there are excuses to be made (work’s been rough, sleep’s been little, stomach’s been cramping) but I hate making those excuses. I have another 10k coming up on Thanksgiving (my first ever Turkey Trot!), and although it’s a much tougher course I’m hoping for some sort of redemption. Even if it’s not faster, I’d like to at least make it through a race without dying in the latter miles. Get back to the old negative splitting Teals of yesteryear. Of course, it’s much harder to do that as my expectations keep growing...

Dream big,

Friday, November 2, 2012

Race Report: Army 10 Miler

The race began with a bit more stress than I would have liked. It was a mess to get to the start (for a seemingly organized person I often come eerily close to missing the starts of races) and when they started the wheelchair race, I learned I have a small heart attack when I hear cannons go off. But after another cannon (and another heart palpitation) we were off.

I felt pretty good for the first few miles, with the exception of the cobblestone on the bridge. (No wonder the London Olympians complained!) We had a ton of support, GRCers, Coach, Fiance; everyone was out cheering us on. Despite being the same pace as the early miles of Philly, it seemed significantly more maintainable. But a little before mile 4, reality sank in and I started to slow. L asked how I was feeling, I think it came out as “eh.” I felt bad because I thought she must be slowing down to be nice and stay with me. But by the next mile marker, realizing we were off pace, she told me to go ahead without her. Apparently she was struggling too, and thinking I was the one holding back! We had a laugh about it and continued to stick it out together. Clearly it wouldn't be the day either of us imagined, but we’d see what we could do.

The next few miles I felt pretty good. We had lowered our expectations, and I was happy to know I wasn't holding L back and I’d have a teammate for a few more miles. And the miles were flying by. Captain Obvious Fact: The faster you run, the faster the miles tick away. (Of course it helps if you’re feeling good and not more and more like wanting to throw in the towel with every step.) But by mile 7.5, I needed a pick me up. I was struggling to get Gatorade at water stations. (Some had Gatorade cups before water cups, some after the water. Other stations had only water, which I didn't realize until I was past them and realized there were no other options. This may seem like a minor detail, but water stations can be stressful moments in a race.) I made sure to get some at the next stop to swish around in my mouth. (Nerd Fact: Studies have shown that even if you don’t swallow the Gatorade, the receptors in your mouth trigger your brain to think you have and you feel like you have more energy. It’s sort of a placebo effect.) But at the water stop, I lost L. And just like that she was gone. (No wonder professional runners use water stops to break away!)

I kept her in my sights as we headed over the bridge and just tried to maintain pace, because the bridge is LONG (close to 2 miles.) I saw her trip on one of the gratings and as I watched from behind I felt like a helpless mother, wanting to run towards her with my arms out to catch her (hadn't I already been running towards her for the last mile?) I wished I was still with her to see how she was doing, but she recovered her step and soldiered on. (In fact, despite a twisted ankle, she would go on to destroy her last mile.)

I had been warned mile 9 was a doozy, but somehow as soon as I hit it I was delusional and started thinking the finish line would be right around the corner. But the course keeps looping around a highway, up on ramps, down off ramps. You can’t see where you’re going, so a few times I sped up thinking the finish line must be close, only to make it around the loop and see no finish line, but runners clearly still marching ahead. Finally I heard the announcer, including his announcement that L was finishing after her blazing last mile, and knew I was close.

I finished way off my goal time, but it was an optimistic goal given the last few weeks. It was a PR, although the only other ten miler I ran was when I wasn't at my best either. (Hint, hint: Hey Brother, want a rematch?) Most importantly, I didn't feel as terrible as Philly, probably because I went in with different expectations and less pressure on myself.

Fiance realized later I also set a 10k PR en route. (I didn't even notice!) Clearly it’s been a while since I've run a 10k. The good news is I've got two 10ks this month, and I’m excited to reset that PR again!

Dream big,