Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Race Report: Crystal City Twilighter 5k

Saturday night was my second attempt at the 5k in three weeks. I hoped it would be a repeat of two years ago: disappointed by a less than stellar Firecracker 5K, I came back for revenge and—bolstered by the presence of my teammates—set a PR on the darkening Crystal City streets.

Given how slow my 5k PR is compared to my longer distance PRs, it shouldn’t be difficult to break. I’m not in prime shape now, but my PR was set at this same midsummer, off-peak race. I wasn’t in prime shape then either, so I couldn’t use that as an excuse. Coach had said a 5:55 first mile would feel comfortable. I wasn’t quite confident that comfortable would be the appropriate adjective, but it sounded reasonable and was PR pace, so I was game.

Warming up with the GRC ladies.

I hit the one mile marker at exactly 5:55, and it did feel comfortable. Running a second mile at 5:55 would certainly not be as easy (or comfortable), but I felt good and I had teammates both at my side and just ahead to gage off of. As we hit the turn-around, I felt like I could be slowing, but I seemed to be improving, or at least maintaining, my place in the field. I figured I was running close to 6:00 mile pace, which would still be good enough for a PR. But as I passed the two mile marker, I realized I had slowed much more than that. Crap, crap, crap. I had to get it back in the last mile. I couldn’t pull a Classic Teal and give up. And it didn’t seem like I was. The effort felt different than the Firecracker race; I didn’t feel like I was unraveling, it felt like a PR effort. Maybe I hadn’t reclaimed 5:55 pace, but I was churning along, not throwing in the towel. K caught up to me, and having her there gave me a needed push.

I didn’t have a great sense of where the finish line was (the course was new), but I thought I could identify one of the intersections close enough to start pushing. The problem was I was mistaken, started picking it up, and realized too late we had not yet passed the aforementioned intersection. Oh well, at least I tricked myself into running faster for longer. Like last time, I struggled to see the finish line in the dark until we were pretty close. I kicked as best as possible, but had no clue what the time was; the clock was blinking nonsensical numbers. I didn’t know how I’d done until I had walked away, caught my breath, and finally peaked at my watch.

18:56. What? Five seconds slower than my PR. I was pissed. The effort felt like I earned a better time than that. I knew that I had slowed in the second mile but it didn’t dawn on me that instead of making up for it, I had actually continued to slip.

This morning I looked up the official results, which shows me six seconds slower than my watch time. (It also shows equivalent gun and chip times, even though I started a couple seconds back.) I thought I finished closer to K, but apparently not. Officially I didn’t even break 19 minutes. This just keeps getting worse and worse. 

Officially or not, my time was slower than 2012 when I had just joined the team. Have I not improved in two years? (Actually—although I currently feel like wallowing in this recent failure—the reality is I have improved at every distance except the 5k. Sadly, the only other distance where my improvement was almost negligible was the marathon, which, of course, is the one that matters most to me.)

The truth is I don’t really care about 5ks. I care about what this means for my other races and bigger goals. To hit my September goal, I need to run the same pace as Saturday for 13.1 miles—i.e. ten miles further. To hit my October goal, I need to run faster for longer (10 miles). To hit my December goal, I need the confidence gained from nailing the other two. I know it is the beginning of the season and real training hasn’t begun, but is the real training enough to give me an extra 10 miles at that pace? Enough to get me to go ten miles at a pace I can currently (maybe) hold for only two?

Let’s hope so.

Dream big (even when results tell you otherwise),

Friday, July 18, 2014

Science Friday: Oxidative Stress is Hot Stuff

In last week’s post, I discussed hot weather training and how its benefits persist even in cold weather; since your body has to work harder in the heat, you are forcing it to toughen up. This translates to improvements that last even when the stimulus is gone. (The same way training at altitude pays off at sea level.)

This week, I came across a study that discusses one of the ways this may occur, i.e. one of the ways heat forces lasting improvements. Here, subjects biked for an hour in different temperatures: 45° (cold), 68° (room temperature), or 91° (called “warm,” but this warm-weather wuss would call that “hot”). Afterwards, the subjects were kept in their temperature-controlled rooms for three hours. (It’s unclear what they were doing for those three hours. They were given dry clothes, something to drink, and got to lay down, which sounds like a perfect recipe for a post-workout nap, but they were periodically poked and prodded by the researchers, so maybe not.) Blood samples obtained over the three hours were examined for markers of oxidative stress. When oxygen is broken down by mitochondria to produce energy (as happens normally and to an increased extent during exercise), reactive oxygen species are also produced in the process. Oxidative stress occurs with the overproduction of these species, which are thought to damage DNA and accelerate aging and disease. (This is why people tout antioxidants, which sop up these species.) In the study, the subjects that exercised and recovered in the warm room had the highest levels of oxidative stress.

But oxidative stress is not necessarily a bad thing. Like weight lifting or running, it causes a stress to your muscles that forces them to rebuild stronger. In this case, oxidative stress encourages cells to make their own antioxidants and increase mitochondria, which make all that wonderful energy. This increase in oxidative stress in the heat may be one of the explanations for the benefits discussed last week. Just like heat demands us to deal with less blood pumping to our muscles, it also forces us to deal with reactive oxygen species. The muscles clean up the mess and patch us back up, better than ever.

I wished the experiment had also examined differences between exercising and recovering in the heat. (A way to test this would have involved everyone first exercising in the heat, followed by half the subjects recovering at room temperature and the other half recovering in a hot room.) Recently, there have been warnings against going overboard on recovery aids. In some regards, the soreness, inflammation, and—in this case—oxidative species caused by a run are a good thing. Ice baths, ibuprofen, or perhaps even cooling off in a comfortable room may cut your body too much slack. The researchers didn’t test that here, but it’s an interesting idea.

Antioxidant supplements have come under fire recently for a similar reason. As I described in a post about vitamin C, taking antioxidant supplements (which contain a much higher dose than found naturally in fruits and vegetables) may block our bodies’ adaptations to exercise. (An interesting take on why fruits and vegetables are better than synthesized pills is here.) Again, it’s a case of overdosing on recovery; trying to force your body to bounce back, when the best improvements are made by letting your body recover naturally, with whole foods, time, and perhaps even a post-run nap in a warm spot.

Dream big,

Friday, July 11, 2014

Science Friday: Embrace the Heat

It’s mid-July. It’s hot. It’s humid. It’s horrible.

Running in the heat is miserable, as I’ve experienced in a few races and every time summer rolls around. As you heat up, your heart starts beating faster to pump more blood to the skin, where the heat can be released. Sweat rate increases to help cool the skin through evaporation. (The reason humidity is such a nuisance is that the air is so saturated with moisture, the moisture on your skin doesn’t have anywhere to go and the cooling effect of sweat is lost.) Running performance plummets because your heart is working harder than usual, but the oxygen-rich blood is being shipped to the skin, not to your muscles. In addition, sweating can lead to dehydration and electrolyte loss.

Every summer we are reminded what to do to exercise safely: run in the shade, early in the morning, in technical clothes (Dri-fit, etc.); drink water and/or electrolyte beverages before, after, and possibly during runs; and accept slower times or even a workout cut short. We are comforted that after a few weeks (about two), things will get better. Our bodies will adapt by sweating sooner, more aggressively, and forfeiting less salt (yes, being super sweaty is a good thing). The heat won’t annihilate our workouts as much; we’ll be able to go faster with less effort and lower heart rates. We’ll be acclimated.

Yes, a couple weeks in the heat means it’s less terrible to be in the heat. But this news is not preventing me from daydreaming of moving to Antarctica. What does hot weather training have to offer, besides a pile of drenched clothes and a sports bra tan line?

A 2010 study by Santiago Lorenzo and colleagues details an unexpected reward. In the study, competitive cyclists were split into two groups. At the start, both groups endured a number of physiological tests in both cool (55°) and warm (100°) conditions. One group then spent ten sessions riding at an easy pace in a hot room (104°, aka too hot to try this at home) while the other group did the same workouts in a cool room (55°, aka ideal exercising weather). After the ten sessions, both groups were again tested in cool and warm conditions.

A summary of the results is shown in the graph below. As you’d expect, when tested in the heat (black bars) the experimental group that practiced in the heat improved across the board: increased VO2max (the maximal amount of oxygen that can be taken in and used), lactate threshold (the point above which lactate accumulates in the blood; approximately tempo run pace), Qcmax (the maximal cardiac output, how much blood the heart is pumping), and time trial performance. They were acclimated after the ten sessions. The control group that practiced in the cool room was not acclimated to the heat, and the group's scores hovered around zero; they didn’t improve much from the start to the end of the study. Not surprisingly, their time trial performance worsened in the heat.

What was surprising to the researchers were the results from the tests in the cool conditions (white bars). Even under these conditions, the group that practiced in the heat did much better compared to the group that practiced at ideal temperatures. Again, both physiological measures and performance improved in the heat-acclimated group while the cool-training group remained the same. Heat training led to improvements no matter the conditions.

As Steve Magness mentions in his new book The Science of Running, heat training is analogous to altitude training. The stresses our bodies have to deal with in the heat (less blood flow and oxygen to the muscles, similar to training at high altitude) force a number of adaptations, including increased blood volume. In the summer, you get an “altitude-like effect” without having to move to Flagstaff or Mammoth Lakes. (And it might even discourage dreams of Antarctica.) When the weather cools, your body will be stronger and tougher from its heat training.

So embrace the heat (safely). Come September, you might have a shiny new PR because of it.

Dream big and don’t sweat the sweating,

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Race Report: 2014 Firecracker 5K

In response to last week’s query, I’ve discovered I can run two miles around six minute pace. I cannot, however, run three.

But before we get into last week’s race, let’s talk 5Ks.

In last month’s Runner’s World, Lauren Fleshman outlines “why the 5K is freaking awesome.” She makes some excellent points; compared to marathons, they are cheap, easy to get to, cause less chafing, retain more toenails, and while they are not quite quick and painless, the painful part is quick.

But here’s the problem with 5Ks: I hate them.

I don’t mean I hate them like I hate kale, mushrooms, and kale-smothered mushrooms. I will run them (I will not eat the aforementioned dish), although not often, and usually in the off-season or beginning of the season, calling them “just for fun.” Fun shmun.

There are a number of reasons I don’t like them: they are tempo-run-esque in their requirement to go relatively fast for a relatively long time, they don’t require a marathon-like commitment (so I’m able to run them when I’m out of shape, but then inevitably berate myself when I run poorly), and they pretty much suck from the gun to the finish line.

But, truthfully, the reason I don’t like them might be an egotistical one: I’m just not good at them—the same reason I don’t particularly like playing softball or anything that involves hand-eye coordination. I start well, at what seems to be a pace I should hold given my longer distance PRs, but slow in the second mile, and completely fall apart in the third. In the end, I always surprise myself with a big kick, which actually annoys me and makes me wish I could spread out my effort more evenly in the final mile. Which brings us back to last week’s Firecracker 5K.

The mile markers were a bit off, which caused me a great deal of mid-race panic when I came through the first “mile” thirty seconds over pace. Am I really running that slowly? This *feels* fast. Wow, I must be crazy out of shape. But I couldn’t speed up, and my Garmin continued to tell me I was running under my goal pace, as it had for the entire first mile. Okay, so maybe that mile marker was wrong.

The second mile marker confirmed my suspicions, as I came through that “mile” thirty seconds under pace. Right, so we’re back on track. (The possibility remained that the second mile could have been much too short, but I didn’t dwell on that idea.) The race was salvaged; I was apparently running well. (Two miles at goal Army Ten Miler pace, check.) But right on cue, in the third mile, I unraveled. My Garmin no longer provided comfort; I was slowing, badly. At about 2.5 miles, I tried motivating myself by attempting to catch the closest woman, Lululemon Skirt, not far ahead. As I was unsuccessfully trying to gain on Lululemon Skirt, Pacers Chick—who had been swapping places with me for the entire race—passed me. Crap. C’mon, Teal, it’s not that much further, stop giving up. But my legs wouldn’t go...

...Until we made the final turn to the finish, when I summoned a kick and passed both Lululemon Skirt and Pacers Chick. I was way off my goal time (closer to the pace I ran for a half marathon only a few months ago, yikes), but the final kick renewed my spirits slightly. My legs had something left. I could have gone faster. But then my spirits sank again: I should have run the third mile faster. Why can’t I run these things well?

It all seems mental; I just can’t wrap my marathon mind around the brevity of a 5K. Also, I’m out of shape. But the best argument Fleshman makes about 5Ks is this: if one goes poorly, you can run another a week later.

So—just like two years ago—I’ll run the Twilighter 5K in a few weeks. I may hate it, but it will be over quickly, and my toenails should remain intact. For now.

Dream big,

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Plan of Attack

The only way to get over a bad race is to move on to a new one. After allowing myself a few too many days off, a few too many chocolate bars, and a few too many pouts about Boston, I had to decide what’s next. I needed the kind of race that would give me the best odds of running well: a fast and flat course, good competition, and ideal weather. Of course, when choosing a marathon there are other “life factors” as well—things that have nothing to do with running—friends’ weddings, travel logistics, my desire to spend all of December eating Christmas cookies.

With these factors in mind, it came down to either Chicago or the California International Marathon (CIM). Both are fast (CIM is actually net downhill, and not in the paradoxical way Boston is), both will have plenty of runners around my pace, both avoid any major life events (although CIM, in early December, cuts an entire week off my Christmas cookie enterprise). Chicago, of course, can be cruelly hot. CIM is a little harder logistically: it’s in Sacramento, which is not exactly the easiest place to get to. It’s also later in the season than usual, meaning a shorter turn around for a spring race and a much longer buildup, which can be an overindulgence that leads to burnout.

In the end, CIM won, based entirely on weather probabilities. But I have to be careful; with the race still six months away, I can’t start training yet. Instead I plan on spending some time *not* marathon training. I don’t mean sleeping in and eating cupcakes (that is what the post-marathon slouch weeks are for), I mean concentrating on weaknesses and things that usually get put aside when long runs and high mileage take over. My plan is to spend the summer keeping my mileage low while focusing on shorter races (5ks, egad!), cross training (back to the much maligned bike, ugh), strength training and flexibility (Namaste).

I'm planning to work on flexibility to get back to my
more gymnastic roots. As of now I can barely touch my toes.
But after I mentally agreed to this strategy—and used it to further justify that CIM was the best choice (I’ll get some speed back! I’ll be stronger and fitter when marathon training begins!)—I continued to mostly sleep in and eat those cupcakes. I planned out the rest of the races leading up to CIM, which includes the Army Ten Miler. On the entry form, I had to fill in my expected finish time. I wanted to write 60, because that’s what I want to run, gosh darn it. But even typing that ambitious (completely outlandish?) pace gave me pause. 

Really, Teal? 60? Can you run two miles at that pace right now? 

Probably not, but I’m going to use all this time to get stronger and faster… Right?? 

I suppose I should probably start…

And with that, my competitive pilot light reignited. It's time to run some shorter races, get a strength routine going, and learn to do Sun Salutations. Up first is the Firecracker 5k this Friday, which may serve as another reality check to get that flame burning a little brighter. I have almost two months before serious CIM training starts, hopefully I can get stronger, leaner, faster. And then the real fun will begin.

Dream big,