Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The clouds roll in

This morning’s run started off well. It was my normal midweek 15 miler, which (despite starting before the crack of dawn) I’ve actually grown to like. I always bring my Ipod along, thinking by mile five or so I’ll be in need of some musical relief, and I almost never end up using it. The sun comes up, the miles tick by, and I get into the runner’s groove.

Today started off no differently. I even brought my camera to try to capture some of the scenery from these early morning jaunts (see below.) While everyone else was sleeping, I was enjoying myself, having my own kind of fun out on the town. (Runners have a different definition of fun.) To add to the good vibes, these runs have gotten faster and today's first few miles followed the trend.

Points if you can guess what city I live in. A slap on the wrist if you can't.
But then, about halfway through, it took a turn for the worst. I hit a small molehill and my pace suffered like it was mountain. A few miles later, quite literally, the clouds rolled in. Often times, I don’t mind running in the rain, but today, five miles from home and unprepared, wasn’t one of them. I made it through the rest of the run, but it wasn’t fun. I got home drenched to the bone, exhausted, and far from invigorated from my early morning effort.

But that’s the thing about running. Often people compare running marathons to life; there are hills and valleys, good patches and bad. Sometimes you’re struggling and sometimes you’re high on life (or endorphins.) Training is no different. Some runs are great, some are terrible, some are a mix of both. But even on the worst mental days, be comforted by the fact that your heart and muscles are still getting the benefits. Training through the rough patches is excellent training for when they inevitably come up in a race. And even if you end up wet, exhausted, and just glad to be done, you can be comforted that there will be better days. And if you’re lucky, you’ll have the pictures to prove it.

Dream big,

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Run for the hills

When I first ran Charlottesville, reviews for the race warned me: “Do NOT run this race as your first marathon! The hills will kill you!” I ignored them, finished my first marathon despite crawling up a few hills, and now enough time has passed that I’ve sufficiently repressed the pain and am taking it on again. More prepared this time, and curious as to how I will do as a veteran.

But the hills still scare me. Even after I was happy about my last marathon pace workout doubts started setting in: maybe that route wasn’t hilly enough, maybe I was going too easy on myself. Much like the optimistic New Year’s resolution makers, at the beginning of every training season I tell myself I will be better at the little extras: I’ll run my hill repeats and do my strength work. But as the season gets going, it’s easy to slip into the rhythm, just check off workouts, and lose the perspective and desire to do the extras.

But after another disappointing tempo run last week, which I realized was the last tempo run of this training season (!!), I realized how close the hills of Charlottesville are. So for my long run Sunday, I tweeked my usual route to try to include more hills (often that meant just running up and down the same hill multiple times.) The workout was slow and beat me up sufficiently. My Garmin tracked the elevation, and the chart is below. Looking at it compared to Charlottesville, I see the “hilly” run wasn’t hilly enough.

I’ve tried to line up my route with Charlottesville’s and manipulate the scale so they are comparable. I highly suggest you do something similar in your own training. Even if you don’t have a GPS watch, you should make note of where the hills are in the race and approximately how long they are (200 meters? half a mile? two miles?) If you can get a sense of the steepness, all the better. Then try to replicate the same in your workouts. If there is a hill towards the end of the race, make sure there’s one at the end of your workout. In addition to building strength and power, it’s incredibly important for mental preparation. 

A few things I noted from my comparison:
(1) The hills in the middle of my route are barely blips, I need to find something more significant.
(2) The more significant hills (arrows) I ran over Sunday killed me but are eerily similar to the worst hills at Charlottesville. The hill at mile 24 was already terrifying. Knowing how I ran up a similar hill the other day, I’m sufficiently worried. (One more plea to check elevation charts: The race website claims four flat miles at the end. Not exactly the truth.)
(3) I need to get to work! Only six weeks left! Yikes this is going to be rough.

(The asterisks are not real hills. When I run over bridges my Garmin gets confused and thinks I instantaneously dropped down to the road below and then rocketed back up to the bridge. Technology is great, but not perfect.)

Dream big,

Friday, February 17, 2012

Science Friday: For the Love of Chocolate

With Valentine’s Day come and gone (and all my Valentine’s Day chocolates already eaten) it's time to reflect on the health benefits of chocolate. I drink chocolate milk after tough workouts, as it's touted as the best recovery drink because of its optimal ratio of carbs to protein. Also, it’s delicious. Now there is reason to believe it helps with endurance in addition to recovery.

A group led by Moh H. Malek has shown that a flavanol in chocolate, epicatechin, can improve exercise performance. Mice were treated with either water or epicatechin for 15 days and exercised (on a treadmill) or not during those 15 days. It should be noted that while they included analysis comparing exercise to no exercise groups, the exercise paradigm used wasn’t intended to provide any training stimulus. Rather, they were trying to determine if epicatechin worked better when combined with exercise, which they refer to as a metabolic stimulus, something that has been reported to boost the efficacy of a drug. They are essentially trying to determine an appropriate treatment regimen if epicatechin was used as a drug to replicate the benefits of exercise. (See here for how I feel about “exercise drugs.”)

As someone who both regularly exercises and indulges in chocolate, I was most interested in comparing the exercise + water and exercise + epicatechin groups. For exercised mice, epicatechin increased time spent running on a treadmill and increased the time before the EDL muscle (of the front of the leg) fatigued. Muscle capillarity, which increases oxygenation of the tissue, and mitochondrial proteins were also increased in the exercise + epicatechin compared to the exercise + water group. For our purposes, it seems that exercise in combination with epicatechin is better than just exercise alone. Bring on the chocolate!

Epicatechin got a lot of press a few years ago, when Dr. Norman Hollenberg published findings from the Kuna tribe living off the coast of Panama. The Kuna are known to drink a lot of cocoa (40 cups a week!) They also have decreased risk of stroke, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, four of the major causes of death in the Western world. Hollenberg argued that epicatechin should be considered a vitamin, essential for healthy living. This all sounds great to me, I have no trouble getting my daily epicatechin value. The catch: flavanols like epicatechin have been removed from most cocoa products because they taste too bitter. Some people suggested it might be necessary to get the nutritional value of epicatechin from a pill. Excuse me? A pill for chocolate? Where’s the fun in that?

The good news is that all this talk about the benefits of chocolate has led to the emergence of dark chocolate as the real star. You’ve probably heard the heart healthy benefits of dark chocolate. And in fact, dark chocolate products have epicatechin present. So while I prefer my chocolate milky, I suppose I can deal with this compromise.

Notes: Hollenberg works for Mars (the company that makes M&Ms, Twix, etc.), so there is potential bias there. But in a nod to good nutrition, Mars announced a few months ago (and is getting more press today) that they are pulling the plug on all chocolate products over 250 calories. Which means I won’t be getting any more of these. Finally, epicatechin is also in tea, a beverage for which I may just be close to the 40 cups/week limit.

Dream big,

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Race to Register

This morning, along with 30,000 other runners, I registered for the Broad Street 10 miler. The website wouldn’t load, I lost the information I entered more than once, I got stuck on pages that told me the service was unavailable or illegal. But, in a fury of determination and annoyance, I hit the refresh and back buttons approximately 3,293,812 times, which seemed to be obsessive enough to get me in before the race sold out. In less than six hours.

Last year, the same race sold out in four days. The 2012 Chicago Marathon recently sold out its 45,000 spots in six days, compared to 31 days a year ago, and 35 weeks a decade ago. In the fall of 2010, registration for the 2011 edition of the Boston Marathon (25,000 spots) sold out in 8 hours. I registered for that race and can tell you the feeling was much the same as this morning – locked screens, entry forms being erased, moments of panic. The prediction for that race was that it would close in two weeks, but it took eight hours.

What’s the deal? One obvious reason is more people are running than ever before. Participation in long distance events continues to increase. In 2002, 325,000 people finished marathons; in 2010, 503,000 people did. But another reason is the Tickle Me Elmo Effect: when we know everyone else wants something, we trample each other to get it. When you add in runners—a group of people who by their very nature are prone to wanting to beat others to a finish line—and tell them there’s a chance they will miss an opportunity if they stall, they will jump on it. With the popularity of Twitter and Facebook, it has only gotten worse. Without fail a few days before a popular race I see multiple tweets about the likelihood that the race will close, which only makes me want to run it more. Honestly, when the Chicago Marathon was filling up in record time I thought, oh man, I might miss that opportunity! But I don’t even want to run Chicago this year.

Clearly, we can’t go on like this. If a race goes from selling out in weeks, to days, to hours, what can we expect for next year’s version? Minutes? Seconds? I’m pretty sure websites can’t handle that. And if they could, where does that leave the people that can’t get to their computer at exactly the minute registration opens? We can’t be rearranging work obligations, meetings, etc. to sign up for a race. Although I wouldn’t put it past some of us runners...

The Boston Marathon tackled the situation by decreasing the qualification time by 5 minutes and making registration a rolling admission. The new process debuted for this year’s race and seemed to go smoothly. I like the solution of setting harder standards—this is the quintessential race you have to qualify for. Make it harder and people will rise to the occasion. The thing I don’t like is the rolling admission. Rolling admission means you can finally get your Boston Qualifier (BQ) and still not get in, because you qualified with a 3:25 and people with a 3:15 get to sign up three days before you. (This doesn’t sound too much better than a frozen computer screen.) To me, that makes the BQ standard slightly meaningless. If the standard is a 3:35 and you beat that, you have just as much right to be there as a 3:15 runner.

But what about races that don’t have qualification standards? Should they adopt them? I don’t think so. I love Boston because it stands out in that regard, but I love all other marathons because anyone willing can sign up and tackle the distance. Hugely popular races like the NYC Marathon and the Cherry Blossom 10 Miler have lottery systems.  You sign up within a certain time frame (generally a few weeks), and they literally pick your number randomly. (The Broad Street 10 miler is giving away a few more spots in this way over the next few days.) For NYC you have about a 1 in 10 chance. There are ways around this—raising money for a charity, running a certain qualifying time, having run every NYC for 15 consecutive years, or getting rejected three years in a row (though they recently made even these standards harder because it encompassed too many people!) A race like the NYC Marathon is a once in a lifetime experience, and I encourage you sign up for the lottery and try your luck. But it’s unsatisfying. As runners, we make our own luck; we work hard, we see results. Lotteries and games of chance aren’t appealing.

What’s left? It’s unfeasible to make races larger. Most races are capped because of the nature of the course, start and finish areas, and the length of time roads can be closed and police can be present. For example, the Boston Marathon is significantly smaller than NYC or Chicago, in large part because the road the race starts on is incredibly narrow. Squeezing 25,000 people through, even in three waves that take over an hour, is difficult enough.

Honestly, I don’t have a solution. If you have any thoughts, leave a comment below, or contact a local race director – they are desperate for new ideas. In the meantime, it might be useful for everyone to calm down a bit and try not to freak yourself and others out. Of course, I’m being hypocritical saying that, as I’ll admit to writing multiple emails to friends and family yesterday saying to register early. And when the next race comes around, I’ll be right there with you, overloading the website.

Dream big,

Friday, February 10, 2012

Science Friday: Miracle Cures

A new study identifies a hormone that may reproduce some of the effects of exercise.
Bruce Spiegelman’s group at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute found a hormone that is secreted from muscle cells following exercise and acts on fat cells, turning them from white adipose tissue cells (the bad kind of fat cell that stores fat) to brown adipose tissue cells (the good kind that burns fat.)

They identified this hormone by looking at the effects of PGC1-alpha, a protein produced during exercise that is known to increase mitochondria and regulate switching between muscle fiber types. Mice genetically engineered to express PGC1-alpha in muscles had increased conversion of white adipose tissue to brown adipose tissue, similar to mice that exercised. They sought to identify what could be responding to PGC1 in fat cells, reasoning there must be a factor that muscles were releasing that affected fat cells. After narrowing their search, they checked their candidates in humans who underwent a ten-week exercise program and found increases in the mRNA (the stuff that makes proteins) of these proteins. One protein in particular, FNDC5, had significant effects on the expression of genes that regulate brown fat. Cells treated with FNDC5 had increased mitochondria and oxygen consumption (a measure of energy expenditure.) Importantly, they found that FNDC5 is cut and part of it is released outside the cell. The secreted part is what they called irisin, and since it travels from muscle cells to fat cells, it’s characterized as a hormone. They named their newly identified hormone after the Greek messenger goddess Iris (personally, I would have gone with Pheidippides for a Greek messenger.) They found elevated levels of irisin in the blood of mice and humans following endurance exercise (they defined this as 10 weeks of 20-35 minutes of biking 4-5 times a week.) Finally, mice injected with FNDC5 had increased irisin and browning of white adipose tissue. In obese mice, there was also a decrease in body weight, an increase in oxygen consumption, and reduced insulin after fasting. 

The paper ends with the obligatory plug for how this finding could lead to better therapeutics for people who struggle with diabetes or obesity. But, I have to say, I’m not convinced. Too often we hear talk about some miracle drug that will burn fat while you lay on the couch watching reruns of Real Housewives. Photoshopped images try to convince us that this miracle drug leads to dropped pounds, lost inches, and happier lives. And while I absolutely hope we can find a way to cure America’s obesity problem, I don’t think giving people this hormone or any other drug will ever replace the benefits of exercise. Even if irisin does promote fat conversion and increase energy expenditure, there is a whole host of other things exercise does that one hormone won’t be able to mimic. I predict that even if we do discover the miracle weight loss drug, it will only be a matter of time before we realize some benefit of exercise we missed and start trying to design new drugs. In John J. Ratey’s book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, he describes a whole slew of neurological and psychological disorders and details how exercise helps alleviate symptoms in all of them. A few chapters in, it becomes a bit repetitive (ADHD, cured by exercise! Alzheimer’s disease, cured by exercise! Depression, cured by exercise!) but it is filled with studies proving what us runners already know: running is the ultimate miracle cure. Dropped pounds, lost inches, happier lives. Why are we searching for drugs when we already have good old-fashioned exercise?

Dream big,

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Marathon Pace Workouts

One of the disconcerting things about training for a marathon is the disparity between the pace you hope to run in the actual race and the pace you run the vast majority of your workouts. Training books and experts will tell you that most of your long runs and easy runs should be 1-2 minutes slower than race pace. Also, long runs are usually capped at 20 miles. The obvious question: “How the heck am I supposed to run both FARTHER and FASTER on race day?!!” Fear not, and trust the experts know what they are talking about. You’ll burnout trying to run all your workouts fast. (If running a first marathon don’t worry about pace at all. Since you’re breaking into new territory in terms of mileage, just run your long runs at a moderate pace you can sustain.)

There are two things that help with race pace fears: a heavy dose of faith in your training and doing a few workouts with most of the miles at marathon pace, called Marathon Pace (MP) workouts. In a marathon buildup, I aim for 3-4 marathon pace workouts. I’ll start with a 15 miler with 8 MP miles (defined as the pace I hope to run for the race), then 3-4 weeks later, I’ll do 18 miles with 10 MP. In the past I’ve gone up to 18 with 12 MP; this season I’m going to try to get one 20 miler with 14 MP. It’s best to do a longer warm up and run the MP miles at the end, when your legs are a bit more tired. For example, on the 18 miler with 10 MP, I did 6 miles easy, then 10 at marathon pace, followed by 2 mile cool down. (Never neglect a cool down! It’s not good to stop abruptly after a fast pace.) In my eyes, these are the most important workouts of the training season; they are more specific to the marathon distance than other shorter speed workouts (like tempo runs and track workouts.)

Marathon pace workouts also help promote faith in your training. Because they are only done every few weeks, there is time in between when the benefits of your training are taking effect. Even though you’re cruising through your long runs at a slower pace, when a marathon pace workout comes around, you’re able to see that you are actually able to sustain a faster pace. Second, they get longer as the season progresses, but if things are going well, they will also get faster, again proving your training is working.

This morning, I had my 18 miler with 12 MP. I was dreading it. Like I said, these are the workouts to nail, and I had been disappointed with the others I had done this training season. A few weeks prior I had done an 18 miler with 10 MP at 6:53 pace. After that run I was happy that I was seeing progress (a few weeks before had been even slower over 8 MP miles.) But I was aiming for the 6:40 range and so was simultaneously disappointed. To get myself going for today’s workout (and not stress myself out), I decided to aim for 6:50 for the first 5 miles, and then try to get down in the 6:40s for the last 7. Having recently run a tempo run (which was only 6 miles of fast running) in the 6:30 range, this still seemed overly optimistic. But breaking it up a bit (rather than trying to run all 12 MP miles at 6:40) made it seem more doable.

I managed a 6:48 for the first 5 and a 6:38 the second 7. (Average for all 12 = 6:42.) Even better than I had hoped! Last season I did the same workout on the same course with Fiancee biking at my side. I managed only a 6:52. Today I did better even though I was alone. Like I said, these runs are a great barometer you can compare from workout to workout and season to season. Despite worrying about the last couple I’ve done, I can see now I’ve made progress both over this season and since last year. Come marathon day, this will help give me confidence that it’s possible to go the extra miles at this pace. (Or faster...??)

Tonight I’m rewarding myself with the whole Superbowl spread. As an Eagles fan, I’m rooting for both these teams to lose. Hey, a girl can dream.... 

Dream big,

Friday, February 3, 2012

Science Friday

Growing up, my parents had NPR playing constantly, so much so that I was conditioned, in a very Pavlovian way, to associate the chime the station plays before the 6 o’clock news with dinner being placed on the table. Now that I’m grown and have quit complaining about it, I’ve decided to unashamedly steal one of their segments as inspiration for this blog.  Apologies to NPR and Science Friday. Any problems can be addressed to my parents or the NPR Brainwashing Authorities.

By day, I’m an (aspiring) scientist and I hope to dedicate a least part of this space to the intersection between science and running. There are a lot of myths about running I’d like to address and I’ll try my best to keep up on some of the better controlled studies being published. 

After hearing I run marathons, people love to tell me how it might kill me. (Also, how I won’t have knees when I’m older, but that's a topic for another post.) The fear of deaths during marathons is similar to the fear of flying. It's far more dangerous to get in car and drive every day, just as it's far more destructive to your health to sit on the couch all day. But neither of those every day things get media coverage.

Every year, over half a million people run marathons. Sadly, a small number of people suffer heart attacks and die doing it. It is not a sport to be taken lightly, and the waivers you sign and endless warnings are a constant reminder. Famous cases (Ryan Shay, a competitor at the 2008 Olympic trials) and those closer to home (Sean McCarthy, who ran track with me in high school and died in a race I also ran) prove to us that no one is immune. But as a new study shows, the risk is actually quite small, especially compared to other sports. 

The study, conducted by Dr. Baggish's group at Massachusetts General Hospital and published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine, looked at statistics from a decade of marathons and half marathons (from January 2000 to May 2010.) Of 10.9 million participants in both half marathons and full marathons, 59 of them suffered a cardiac arrest (19 in halfs, 40 in fulls.) The average age of the cardiac arrest sufferers was 42 and 51 (86%) of them were male. (Men made up 61% of the marathon population and 48% of the half population.) Of these 59, 42 of them died. The death rate was 3-5 times higher in marathons and was higher in men. Survivors tended to be older, have more running experience, and have received CPR. The leading cause of death was hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (thickening of the heart muscle), a largely genetic disease known to strike young athletes, which may explain why older people fared better. As for the rest of the cases (many of whom instead had ischemic heart disease), this study goes against the theory that heart attacks during marathons result from a plaque dislodging from the artery walls. Instead they found the problem might be an imbalance of oxygen supply and demand. They mention that this could mean pre-race testing may be useful and others have noted that not speeding up dramatically at the end might help. Non-heart related problems, such as hyponatremia (the loss of too much sodium) and heat stroke, were rare. Interestingly, the fatality rate (of the cardiac arrest patients) was 71% while the fatality rate for "out of hospital cardiac arrests" is 92%. Because of the ever present spectators (willing to offer CPR!) and the medical staff on the course,  the marathon course is actually a pretty good place to have a heart attack. The only place safer is in the hospital itself! (I've heard this before, but didn't know the numbers to back it up.) 

Compared to other sports, the authors conclude the risk of death during long distance running races is low. Their data estimates 1 death in 259,000 participants, while they mention rates for collegiate athletes (1 death in 43,770), triathletes (1:52,630), and healthy middle-aged joggers (1:7,620) being much higher. So what does this all mean? Overall, the risk of death is incredibly low, but of course, you still need to be safe out there, especially if you have a family history. 

Full disclosure/potential bias: Both I and the principle investigator of this study are marathoners. He beats me though, with 30 marathons under his belt and a PR of 2:49

Dream big, 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Humbling numbers

An early warning to you faithful readers: I enjoy statistics, useless numerical facts, and lists and rankings of all kinds. Recently compiled a list of the best marathon times of 2011. Jackpot! They ranked all the times worldwide for men who ran under 3:30 (150,000) and women under 4:00 (65,000). People can double-dip (i.e. be listed for multiple times from multiple races.) In terms of American performances on the world stage, they are quite humbling.

On the men's side, Ryan Hall seems to be right up there with the Africans, with the 7th best time (his 2:04 from Boston.) He also holds the second spot for American men, with his Chicago time, but it drops to 69th behind a whole mess of East Africans. The next American after him is Meb at 120. Youch. Those Kenyas and Ethiopians are incredible. (Remember, these are 2011 times and don't include the Olympic Trials. That said, the 2:09s run by the top three men would have put them near Meb's 120th place.)

On the women's side, Desi tops the American list in 12th. Kara is 46th and Amy Hastings is next at 103. I think the American women are in better shape than the men in terms of being able to make the podium and place high in big races, but this number crunching certainly doesn't help my argument. (The women's times for the trials would have put them in the 50s.) Liliya Shobukova (from Russia) earned both the first and fourth spot. Look out for her in London, she is certainly a favorite.  

Celebrating being number 2.... thousand. 
Enough with the celebrities! Yours truly came in twice, at 2111 and 2705. Yikes, that sounds terrible! But, I'll kindly remind you there were 65,000 times listed and my first marathon time wouldn't have even made the list. So I've come a long way, but still have a long way to go. Finally, the last stat to keep with the theme of this blog: making the American 2012 Olympic trials standard (<2:46) would have put you in the top 1133 women. 

For you fellow number lovers out there: The rankings.

Dream big,