"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Monday, April 14, 2014

Ravages of training, ravages of time

Aging runners always seem to say "I don't have the speed I used to have, but I can still run forever. I should move up in distance." For every Carlos Lopes for whom this works, there's a million who fail miserably. There is an inevitable decline with age, but it's not as great as one would expect; neurons fire more slowly, which is why maximal heart rate drops and reflexes slow, but this accounts for a 10% decrease from age 20 to age 50, whereas most people experience a much sharper decline. What causes this and can it be changed?

If you look at successful masters runners, there's some trends to note. The early records are set by people who take up the sport late. They get slowly supplanted by those who started early and then took a break of twenty years or more (while keeping in shape some other way). Finally, those who were specialists at one distance, were extremely talented and trained lightly, chip away at the records.

An example of this was the race for the first 4 minute mile by a man over 40. In 1991, Wilson Waigwa was the leading candidate, as he'd run a PR of 4:06 at age 36; he'd been a star at 5K in college and was chasing, I think, Bill Stewart's 4:11 over-40 mile - Stewart raced a lot on the roads for decades when he set the record. Waigwa didn't break 4, but it was expected the record would fall quickly, as John Walker and Steve Scott, both who had run more than 100 sub-4s (Scott as late as age 37 - I think), were turning 40. Walker had spent his career injured and couldn't put together enough uninjured days to be competitive. Scott had overtrained and over-raced for decades and didn't have anything left. The other greats of the time were out: Coe wasn't interested, Ovett's career was ended by overuse injuries, Cram was like Walker in always being hurt. The barrier finally fell three years after Waigwa, when Eamonn Coghlan did it; Coghlan had just turned 40, had the fastest PR, had raced the least and trained the lightest.

I went to a masters track race last summer and saw one of my old nemeses. His running form had fallen apart since the last time I'd seen him; he'd had a major injury two years earlier and never totally recovered. I thought, "I could take him now!" and then recalled that I couldn't run a mile at any pace just then.

The wear and tear of training causes its own slowing. As one gains experience, one gets more efficient, but this also tends to mean making smaller motions, which cause the body to tighten so that it can't make the larger motions needed for top speeds. Working muscles causes small tears, which when healing can cause growth, but also get cross-linked to decrease the risk of further injury and this shortens and tightens the musculature, which leads to decreased performance.

When I was 24, I was clocked by radar running 26 miles per hour. To get an idea of how fast that is, Usain Bolt's world record 100m was at 23 mph - but he maintained it for 20 times as long and not with a flying start (and I was going downhill). In 2007, I thought I could probably run 19-21 mph, but only hit 17, though it felt faster. It felt as if I had chains attached at various places, holding me down. I tried to train to run more explosively, but kept getting hurt and by 2010, I was down to 15 mph (no four minute mile for me, unless I could maintain that pace for minutes).

The question is: can that be reversed? Could flexibility, mobility, strength, plyometric and other training bring back the old speed? Or does such training just accelerate the slowing due to training insult? Unfortunately for me, my Achilles tendons have calcified to the point that I'll never have the necessary elasticity - a genetic problem most don't need to worry about.

I think there's good news.I've undone a bunch of problems and I think what I've learned can help others avoid the pitfalls. And with that tease, this post has become long enough.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Retirement plans

A month or so ago, I thought I'd be able to train once the weather improved, but today was only the second time I've been able to run 3 miles this year without a major asthma attack, so there's not going to be any racing for me. I'm signed up for the Run for the Apples 5 Mile on October 18 and the Great Pumpkin Chase 10K on Oct. 25, but I probably won't do either.

I've tossed around the idea of one last run before retirement, but the general response has been, "Well, as long as it's what I've already planned, ends before 7 AM so I can spend the day with the kids and isn't more than 5 minutes away from my home." I still get friends asking me to join them to do 15-30 trail miles after months of my screaming at them that I can't do that any more. No one listens or cares, so I'm just not going to try any more.

The question for me has always been what to do in retirement, as I've never run for health or for social reasons, but to train to race (and when I've tried, I just don't bother after a few days). I think I can tolerate running for an hour five days per week - once I'm well enough to be able to run without an asthma attack - with two harder days including speed work.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

What it's like to be mildly autistic

It's World Autism Awareness Day and, though I don't often talk about it, I thought I'd write a little about what it's like for me to be on the autism spectrum. Most people don't know I'm autistic, though the thought that I'm a little "off" is common. While I'm classified as having a mild case, that's a matter of depth and my problem is one of breadth; of 140 markers looked for in an assessment, I showed 130, when most people with autism present with 10-20. It affects everything.

First, an anecdote

During the first week of my first job, my boss told me we'd need strips of aluminum for an experiment, so he led me from the lab to the machine shop, pulled out a sheet of aluminum, placed it on top of a machine, pulled a razor blade from a box and cut a perfect 1 inch strip. Then he told me to make 200 of them and get back to him. George was twice my size; I didn't know if I could cut that thickness of metal with a razor and I knew I couldn't cut that straight, but I had his strip to use as a straight-edge and I found that, if I used all my strength, I could cut a strip. After two, the blade was dull - and I could see there wouldn't be enough blades to finish the job. By 10 strips, my hands and arms ached and my back was starting to get sore. After 20, the phone rang and George wanted to know how much longer I'd be. I had no choice - I just barreled along, cutting as fast as I could, slicing up my clothes and my hands with the dull blades, sweat pouring from me - and ran out of aluminum after 150, so I figured that was enough. After the experiment, I went back to the shop to clean up and saw that the machine I'd been cutting on was designed to cut sheet metal. George had cut one strip by hand because it was faster to do one that way then to set up the machine, but he thought it was obvious I'd use the machine. After all, I knew what it was for; I'd used one before. It just never occurred to me - I never really saw it. To George, I'd spent 30 minutes doing a 5 minute job and was useless the rest of the day.

That's what it's like. There's always something incredibly obvious to everyone else that I don't see. And I never know what that thing might be, so I'm constantly on the lookout for clues as to what I'm missing. No one can guess what I'm going to miss and you can't explain every detail of everything; there are things that are just "common knowledge" that don't get explained.

Because there's the constant fear of missing something, I stick to what I know, being comforted by routines that have worked in the past. If leaving for somewhere at 6:47 gets me where I need to be, that's what I do each time, even if it means sitting in my car for an hour because I'm early - each time.

Besides being confusing and scary, it's also lonely. I'm an extreme introvert as well as autistic, so I like being alone 23 1/2 hours a day, but that's not conducive to forming relationships. I speak an average of ten words per day - really! - but those who know me would be surprised at that, because of the almost endless torrent of words once I do start talking. People find me aloof, but it's because I don't really get smiling, or small talk, and I don't look at people when I'm talking. It never occurs to me to initiate things, so I can go a very long time without contacting people - for example, I was dating a woman in college and didn't see her over the summer and just expected things would not have changed when I saw her in the fall (it was a big surprise to me that I hadn't talked to her in 3 months; needless to say, she was not happy with me).

Each person on the autism spectrum is different, but that gives you at least an idea of what it's like for me.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

10,000 Hours of Running

Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that one has to do something for 10,000 hours to truly master it. I've run for more than 10,000 hours and I know a half dozen others who have as well. We as a group tend not to be swayed by the latest crazes in the sport and while usually not coaching formally, are willing to give advice to others when asked. Of this group, I'm the youngest (though one hit 10,000 hours before age 40) and the only one who's been a student of the sport - the others have largely found what worked for them early in their careers and not strayed from their usual pattern (one has simply run 10 miles per day, every day, with weekly 20 milers, for 30 years). I'm one of the less successful of the group as well, if one measures by race times; one holds multiple national records and the others have better PR's (except the one woman of the group).

One person recently pointed out an article about a coach from the 1950's. I didn't mention that the author of the article searched things I'd written for that article. I just gave the same "that's interesting" response that comes from conversations about "new" training methods or "new" diet ideas that have been around forever. There's no point in my saying I know all about it and it's meaningless - they're excited about something they've discovered and I (patronizingly and condescendingly) let them have that excitement.

The one thing that comes from all this experience is learning that you don't really know anything until what you think you know stops working. Getting a coach that's run a 2:20 marathon doesn't mean that they know how you should train to run 2:20; it just means that they were talented enough to do that once. It's the person who's on the downhill slope, whose best times are behind them, who's changed training methods repeatedly in hopes of, at first, getting the last few seconds off their PR, then of running once again close to what they've done before, then struggling to just not look horrible as they struggle to finish at all, that one wants as a coach. They've learned; they know.

There's so many people who've been running for only a few years and have had some success that are trying to get paid as coaches! They know only one way, usually, to train. Or they tried one thing before they found what worked for them. Most people will follow a standard progression: nothing works, something starts to work a little, more gets added and improvement is rapid, huge amounts of effort are put forth for a small improvement, slow decline, rapid decline, retirement. It doesn't matter, really, how they trained for most of that time, but they are all positive they know for certain the ONE TRUE WAY.

And we old-timers just shake our heads and try to get out the door for one more run.

Sunday, March 16, 2014


I've been irritable and edgy lately and have been defending things I don't really believe, so I'm issuing a blanket apology to everyone I've dealt with lately. It's probably the most challenging time of my life right now and I'm not dealing with it particularly well.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The most dangerous bad idea in running

From a comment in my last post, I feel I have to address this once again.

Any coach who says "Lose weight and you'll run faster" should be shunned. They should be banned from the sport. It is not only wrongheaded, it's evil. That idea has killed people.

Fallacy 1: But the elite marathoners are all so skinny - it must be right

The three women and three men who made the US Olympic marathon team in 2012 were
Desiree Davila 5'2" 100 pounds
Shalane Flanagan 5'5" 113 lbs.
Kara Goucher 5'7" 120 lbs.
Ryan Hall 5'10 130 lbs.
Meb Keflezighi 5'7" 127 lbs.
Abdi Abdirahman 5'11" 130 lbs.

They're all quite thin. Would they be faster if they weighed less? No. And neither would you. The type and amount of training that elite marathoners do results in the low weights; it's a by-product and not a goal. 5000 meter runners weigh more than marathoners, but are no less fit. Losing weight in itself has no effect on running performance!

Once again, to be clear: Losing weight doesn't improve performance, but improved performance may result in lost weight. Your body adapts to training and one adaptation, to become more efficient, may be to lose weight. Intentionally trying to lose weight to run faster is completely backward. It doesn't work. It has never worked. There is not one single case where someone has done nothing but lose weight and then become faster.

Fallacy 2: But VO2max is based on weight

VO2max, one predictor of running performance, is measured in milliliters of oxygen consumed per minute per kilogram of body mass. Mathematically, at the same amount of oxygen consumed per minute, the less you weigh, the higher (better) your VO2max will be. Besides being but one predictor, and a questionable one at any distance far from 5000 meters, VO2max's dependence upon body mass is complicated. Losing weight doesn't improve VO2max in a predictable manner; the linear relationship predicted only holds over a very small range and that range becomes vanishingly small in some athletes.

Fallacy 3: But I ran faster when I weighed less

My fastest marathon happened when I weighed 30 pounds less than I do now. If I lost that 30 pounds now, I would not be able to function; I doubt I could even get out of bed without assistance. My weight has gone up and down and my performances varied with that weight - for a while. Even when that happened, however, my weight went up AFTER my performances started to slip and my weight would go down AFTER my race times improved for a brief time. Losing weight didn't make me faster; getting faster caused me to lose weight.

Monday, March 10, 2014

In Defense of Sugar

As I see it, I have two choices: either delete the links to friends of mine that I think are giving bad advice about diet or spend thousands of hours debating a subject I don't want to debate. It's a no-win situation.

In 1975, Bill Rodgers won the Boston Marathon while subsisting entirely on junk food. How much better would he have done with a better diet? In my opinion, nothing would have changed; diet is at best a neutral factor - nothing you eat will make you faster, but deficiencies will harm you. If you eat garbage, you have to eat a lot of it to get all the nutrients you need, but if you also burn off all those extra calories (say, by training to run a world-class marathon), there's no difference between "eating clean" and eating what most people would consider a bad diet. Rodgers DID change his diet a few years later, when he was no longer racing as well and was desperate to make any change that might help. It made no difference.

I ran my best races in the 1980's on a diet of pizza and Coke (plus enough healthy food to cover the bases). Today, I eat essentially as the USDA recommends. But certainly no one with any knowledge would eat sugar today, right? Pam Smith just set a world record for running 100 miles; in the last 10 hours she consumed nothing but orange soda (her everyday diet appears to be quite healthy, by almost anyone's standards).[quoted here]

The World Health Organization has recently recommended that people cut down the amount of sugar in their diets from a maximum of 10% of calories to 5%. Almost no one's read the report (here), but have read press reports that came from it that "sugar is bad." On Facebook, where I've seen many comments from otherwise educated people (many physicians among them), the comments tend to be: "sugar is poison," "sugar will kill you," "sugar causes Alzheimer's," "I stopped eating sugar and my [name of a problem, any problem] went away." Excess sugar in the diet is a real problem, but sugar itself is not. The very people who are commenting about how terrible sugar is consume it when exercising. The ubiquitous gels that people gulp, along with sports drinks, are largely maltodextrin, a trisaccharide sugar that doesn't have to be listed as a sugar because it's been declared a starch (as tomatoes have been declared a vegetable), though all its properties are those of a simple sugar, with a glycemic index of 150 (table sugar is only 100).

Zach Bitter, who also set a world record at 100 miles at the same race as Smith, has become the most outspoken advocate for a very high fat, low carbohydrate ketogenic diet. It obviously works for him. What gets overlooked is that he trains hard - and a lot - and it is this, not his diet, that got him his world record. I believe that with the same training and a different diet, he would've had the same result. It also should be pointed out what he eats during races (taken from his blog in December, plus the Vespa website):

  • Vespa Ultra Concentrate (4)
    • Honey
    • Royal jelly (240mg)
    • Citric acid
    • Bee propolis (120mg)
    • Wasp extract (175mg)
    • Ascorbic acid
  • Vespa Junior (4)
    • Filtered water
    • Orange juice
    • Honey
    • Royal jelly (170mg)
    • Bee propolis (90mg)
    • Wasp extract (70mg)
  • Banana chips
  • Potato chips
  • Mountain Dew
  • Gatorade
  • M&M’s

    That's nearly 100% carbohydrates and about 95% of that is sugar.

The recommendation from the WHO is to reduce added sugar. It is not the sugar that's the problem, however. The problem is that added sugar reduces the relative amounts of other nutrients. 170 calories from 12 oz. of Bitter's Mountain Dew or Smith's orange soda is 170 calories that lacks vitamins, minerals, amino acids and anything else one might need. A person eating a 2000 calorie diet cannot have that soda without going over 5% of their daily calories. That same person, also running 10 miles or more per day, can.