Tuesday, January 24, 2012

"Stairway to Heaven" or "Step By Step"

About two years ago my cousin, inspired by fellow volunteer firefighters, decided to participate in a stair climb event and asked me to help him train for it.  At the time I was getting a bit burned out with my own training and was probably over trained.  So, I decided to shake up my regimen and planned to participate as well.  The event was held at the Hilton hotel in Springfield, Illinois.  Most participants climbed the 33 floors one time.  We did the Ultimate Climb however--as many trips as possible in 60 minutes, descending on the elevator.  My cousin climbed in full firefighter gear.

As it was a fund raiser for the American Lung Association, it was appropriately the most lung-searing workout I had ever done.  But, it was great!  I had no idea what to expect before the event.  I hoped to make at least six trips, completing one under four minutes.  I achieved both goals and was the sixth fastest climber of the day--I made nine trips, five others did ten or more.  Later last year I participated in another stair climb event a bit closer to home.  It was a two-hour event in which we climbed to the Hannibal lighthouse as many times as possible, descending the hill via the street which was about a half-mile jog.  I earned second overall in that event (it wasn't a very big turnout.)  I am now training for the Hilton climb this year.  I suppose now, in addition to being a runner and a cyclist, I should call myself a stair climber.

I am sharing this story to portray stair climbing, either training or racing, as an alternate mode of cross training.  For me, it helped me out of a rut by changing my focus from increasing my running and cycling speed to a different type of training. To be fair, it was just one part of that much needed change in focus.  Think of the potential benefits.  First, it will certainly improve hill running ability.  Second, it is very similar to hill climbing on a bike out of the saddle.  Third, considering the generally short duration and high intensity of stair repeats, VO2max will have to improve.  Of course, leg strength, power, and muscular endurance should improve as well.  For me, it also breaks up the monotony of running 5k and 10k races.

I have experimented with a few different methods of climbing.  Initially, I timed myself with different methods to determine which was the fastest at my usual stair climb training grounds, the Hannibal lighthouse steps.  I tried taking one, two, or three steps which all resulted in similar times.  I then saw an interview with Terry Purcell, one of the top stair climbers in the US, and took some of his advice.  I also incorporated what I had seen some good hill runners do in a hill race in which I had participated in Scotland.

So, here's what I do:

1.  Always take two steps at a time (unless I am very tired and absolutely have to go one at a time.)
2.  Alternate between three different styles, depending on how I feel:
     a. Run up, leaning forward, pumping the arms.
     b. Run up, pulling the hand rail hand-over-hand like a rope.
     c. Walk up, pushing down on my thigh with my hand with each stride  (like fell runners).

Intrigued?  Join me in Springfield next month!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

If the Shoe Fits...

Everybody has been talking about running shoes recently, it seems.  Upon a quick review, it appears the latest discussion began about the time the book Born to Run was published and started the most recent barefoot running fad.  A lot of people are experimenting, shoe manufacturers and runners alike.  If you've been running any length of time you're probably familiar with a lot of what has been published on the topic, so I won't repeat it here.  I'll just share my experience as a case study for your consideration.

When I began running regularly about 12 years ago, I think I just ran in whatever sport shoes I happened to have at the time.  I was heavier then, around 225 pounds, and had a lot of shin pain and ended up in a pair of Brooks Beasts after doing a lot of research on the 'net.  I also tried some custom foot orthotics during this time:  initially a pair of diabetic-style orthotics (They were free!) then a pair of semi-rigid orthotics fitted by a sports medicine doc.  I still had shin pain so severe that I was concerned about stress fractures.  I later changed jobs to another PT clinic where a fellow therapist did a little work on my feet and ankles.  Afterward, I removed the orthotics and never used them again.  I also changed shoes, switching to a New Balance stability shoe that felt like a hand going into a glove the first time I put them on.  It was like Harry Potter being chosen by his wand.  I ran in that same series of New Balance through last year with minimal problems and much success.

Prior to 2010-2011, I always changed running shoes when I started to get consistent pain or discomfort during or after running.  However, I changed my running pattern during the previous couple of years to more of a Chi or natural running pattern depending on your point of view.  After nearly a year in the same running shoe--and lots of miles--I still didn't have any pain.  So, I kept running in them.  This led me to think maybe a stability shoe is unnecessary, because the stability components of this particular pair have to be broken down providing little to no control of my foot.  The latest incarnation of the barefoot fad had begun about which I had read a lot and I was intrigued.  After running another 6 months or so in the same shoes, I took the plunge and bought a pair of Vibram FiveFingers.  I figured if I didn't like them for running, I could always use them for indoor rowing (I do, and they're perfect for it.)

There was certainly a break-in period with the VFFs--not for the shoes, for me.  I thought I had to land on my forefoot with them and did so.  This overworked my calf muscles, but they got stronger as I gradually increased my mileage.  My feet and ankles were a bit sore too in many of the small joints within them.  I overcame these challenges with time and realizing that I could safely land on my midfoot.  I gradually worked up to running 8 miles on the road in them.  Since then, I have also purchased a pair of New Balance Minimus 20s for cross training and a pair of Merrell Trail Gloves for running off road.  I may use them both on the road at times too.  At this point, I still descend slowly with the VFFs because I generally do so with a heel strike--ow-eee.  So, I think I might like one of the other shoes for hilly road runs.

Based on my experience, my personal advice is to go slowly with any minimalist shoe.  It might actually be better to work on your gait pattern first, then switch shoes.

My professional advice is to first ask yourself why you might want to run in a minimalist shoe.  If you decide it's a good idea, see above.

FYI: the research doesn't necessarily support our standard running shoe advice of pairing a running shoe with the runner's foot type.  This is the advice you'll get most of the time at a typical running store or from the manufacturer.  However, it's probably an acceptable place to start.  Then, you go with what works.  If you're bucking the standard shoe advice and you have no pain, your performance is good, and the shoes are comfortable, stick with them.  If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Monday, January 9, 2012

How to Excel in 2012

Yes, folks, it's that time of year again: time to formulate your new year resolutions.  What do you want to accomplish in 2012?  Some of the most common resolutions are related to exercising more, eating better, and quitting smoking--three of the most effective lifestyle changes to improve your health.  Assuming you have similar resolutions, here are a few tips.  However, I think many of the tips can be generalized and applied to achieving any goal.

1.  Steven Covey says to begin with the end in mind.  You need to know where you're going.  So, set defined and specific goals, both short-term and long-term.

Some examples:
Lose weight = good
Lose 50 pounds in 2012 = better
Lose 50 pounds in 2012, starting with 4 pounds in January = best

2.  Goals without a plan are pointless.  You need a method to achieve your goals, and you may need some professional assistance.  If you don't have previous experience with exercise or if you don't know how to eat healthy, consult an exercise professional or a nutritionist.  There is a load of information out there, but not all of it is helpful.  A professional can help you get through it a bit quicker.  If you're going to begin an exercise program or nutrition plan based on your own research, please consider the source of the information.  The healthiest change many people can make is to quit smoking.  This book is a helpful guide in that endeavor; it provides a daily plan to maintain focus.

3.  Don't try to change everything at once, e.g. throw out all the junk food and replace it with fruit and vegetables, empty your wet bar, throw away your cigarettes, buy a roomful of fitness equipment, exercise twice a day every day, etc.  This is a sure path to failure.  It's too much too soon.  Start with one or two changes, develop good habits, then change something else.  Make small changes that you can live with.  For instance, drink more water every day or eat at least one serving of fruit or vegetables at every meal or start exercising for 15 minutes three days each week.  When you can do this consistently for two or three weeks, then change something else.  Incrementally progressive habit change will lead to a new lifestyle which is exactly what the typical American needs.

4. Now for the hard part: consistency, discipline, staying motivated and focused.  Some people can manage great things independently, but many need help, someone to hold them accountable.  Join a training group or a club or an organization like Weight Watchers.  Go to group exercise classes or get a personal trainer or just a training partner.

Find an activity you like.  Initially, you may want to try a variety of activities to see what is available and what you might enjoy.  If you hate cycling, do something else.  If you love the water, go for a swim.  If you hate the activity you won't do it.

5.  Remember why you set your goals.  Are you trying to stay healthy for your children?  To set a good example for them?  Do you want a "beach body?"  Do you have a special event this year?  Would you like to stop taking medications for blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol?  Is there some special activity on your "bucket list" you want to be able to do?  Whatever it is, you need to KNOW what that is.  You don't necessarily need to share it with anyone, but you have to have a reason for these changes.  When it gets hard, you can reflect on your "why" to help you stay focused.

Specific goals + a solid plan + incremental change + consistency + focus = SUCCESS in 2012.  Now, get to work!  You can do it!

Friday, January 6, 2012

2011: The Year I Learned How To Run

I began running regularly for fitness about 11 years or so ago.  Prior to that, I had only run sporadically.  I started like everyone else, trying to run just one mile.....without dying.  I soon set a goal to run a local 5k charity race and started training using Hal Higdon's programs.  Over time, I was able to match my paces from six or seven years previous when I ran several 5k races.  I continued to train and continued to get even faster and run farther, working up to half marathons.  At some point, several years into the endeavor, I finally realized: I don't just run, I am a runner.

Also, several years into this running thing, I became associated with a few groups of runners: the Bridge the Gap to Health training program and the Heartland Road Runners and Walkers Club.  With these groups I learned to appreciate the camaraderie of group running, especially on those really long runs.  I also heard and overheard a lot about running form--some good and some bad.  Regardless, I changed my form: short, quick steps, landing on a flat foot, clawing forward with my toes.  Right or wrong, it worked; my performance improved further.

Then, 2011 arrived, during which all my professional credentials came up for renewal which meant I had to fulfill all of my continuing education requirements.  Since I would be paying, I was able to learn about anything I wanted.  So, I chose to attend Running Injuries and The Running Course - The Next Step.  On my own, I read about Chi RunningThe Pose Method, barefoot running, and natural running.  I'm also in the process of completing Jack Daniels' Running Formula.  No; not that Jack Daniel's.  And, a friend recommended this site.  So, I've read a lot about running this year and my approach has changed drastically since that first running course in the spring of 2011.

Great, right?  Well, I'm sure you're waiting for the "take-home point" so, let me summarize running form for you.  If you read all of these books and most of the other popular literature related to running, you'll find several commonalities.  It is not definitive, because it is just too damn difficult to do the research to prove it all--impractical if not impossible.  However, the available research can easily be interpreted to support what many writers are saying about running.

In no particular order....
1. Good, tall posture
2. Forward lean, from the ankles
3. Foot strike with the foot basically flat
4. Relatively high step rate (and therefore a relatively short stride length)

There it is.  So, I've tweaked my form a bit further.  I had already been working on #3 and #4 and I think I'm okay on #1.  When I practiced the forward lean....wow!  I noticed a huge difference.  The Chi Runners talk about using the forward lean as the "gas pedal."  Good analogy--the more you lean, the faster you go.  I had been struggling a bit last fall with speed, not achieving the paces I expected.  The first speed workout I did utilizing the forward lean, I nailed all my paces.  It works great up hills too.  Very cool, and simple.

So, that's how I learned to run in 2011.