Thursday, January 17, 2013

Cross Training for Ultra Runners and Trail Runners

I think most runners understand the importance of specificity training; that is training for the sport you hope to compete in. That said, if you stick to running 100% of the time you run (no pun intended) the risk of developing an injury stemming from not exercising the supporting muscles you need to run. So what types of activities will give you the most bang for your training dollar? Let's take a look at the muscles you use when you run and what cross training activities will support those muscles.

Hamstrings: The long muscles that run up the back of your legs. The supporting muscles are the quadriceps which are the big muscles on the front of your legs. Many long distance road runners develop the "runners shuffle" which depends heavily on the hamstrings and uses very little quad muscle. To employ the quads try the following activities after an easy run: high knee skips, if you haven't done these before start off by walking the high knees then work up to skipping. Stand with one leg straight (don't lock your knees) and bend the other leg up as far as your knee will go without straining the knee. Then drive the bent leg down and do the same on the opposite leg.Try and make the transition between legs as smooth and quick as possible. Do about 30 seconds of these to start, working up to a minute. The added bonus is this exercise also stretches the hamstrings a bit.
More specific quad muscles building exercises include cycling (or indoor spinning), weight press (try to do this one leg at a time, since you run with one leg hitting the ground at a time it doesn't make alot of sense to work both legs at the same time), one-legged squats (with or without weights) and stair climbing.

Calves: The muscles that run along the back of your lower legs. The supporting body part is your ankles. In my experience the calf muscles are very under trained muscles. My old running shoes' heel thickness left me with weak calves, and this is why I think alot of people give up on transitioning to minimalist running shoes, the calf pain when you go from a 15 mm heel drop to a 4 mm heel drop can be pretty darn significant and a major turn off. But, if a runner sticks with it, that is transitioning to more minimalist shoes over time, say using them for easy runs at first, then adding another run in every other week, they will find not only their calves but their ankles will become significantly stronger. When I ran my first trail Ultra last year I knew I would need more sole support than my VFFs so I switched over to a New Balance Trail shoe with a heel drop of more than 10 mm. While this shoe got me through my ultra pain free the following weeks of running were as if I had never made the transition to minimalist shoes. It took about 6 weeks for my calves to stop protesting every time I would wear minimalist shoes. SO, aside from transitioning to minimalist shoes, what can the average runner do to strengthen those muscles? Try calf raises after a easy run or speed workout. Keep the reps to 3 to start and work up from there. Some runners at the elite level do 100 of these after an easy run-I tend to do about 20-30. Stand at the edge of a stair and lower your heels so they are below your forefoot. Then using your forefoot lift your legs to a pointed foot, then lower again. Do this slowly for maximum benefits, I like to count to four as I raise and lower my legs. You can use weights once you feel these are easy. If you need to hold onto something do so with a light touch, you'll decrease the benefits if you are using your arm to haul you up.

Upper Arms: They help balance us as we run and studies have also shown that if you pump your arms as you run uphill it will help you achieve a faster leg turnover, helping you run faster. However if you are pumping your arms as you run on a flat surface you may be wasting energy. When running on a flat surface keep your arms bent at a 90 degree angle, with your wrists and shoulders loose. Try not to let your arms swing in front of your body, they should stay to your side with a slight swing, otherwise they are making you less aerodynamic. To help improve your upper arm running posture try standing in place with a light weight in each hand (or a soup can), then mimic the motion of swinging your arms as you raise and lower each leg. Try not to over extend your arms back as you might cause neck strain by carrying the weights. Do this exercise very slowly-imagine a slow motion clip in a movie-and do this for at least 30 seconds and build to a full minute.

Other activities that help build your overall running fitness: The following activities, depending on the season where you are, all are recommended by runners for runners. Please remember there is NO one-size fits all exercise for everyone:

  • Cross country skiing: works the legs, hips, IT band, heart, waist and arms.
  • Snowshoeing: works the IT band, legs, heart and waist.
  • Swimming: works the heart, upper body and hips.
  • Water jogging: works the heart, quads and biceps.
  • Cycling: works the legs (especially the quads) and heart.
  • Walking: works the legs, hips and heart.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Shoe Review! New Balance 1010

Okay, before I start the review I have to say I do not normally get two pairs of new running shoes a year much less in a month! But...when I tired these New Balance 1010 running/trail shoes on I knew they "must be mine!" That... and I do love new running shoes :-)
After testing out my last shoe and realizing that running shoe was strictly a road racing shoe I saw the need to buy new trail running shoes since my last ones have gone WAY beyond the call of duty-and their recommended mileage! My husband even noted those old trail shoes appeared to be wearing through the soles-oh my! That was just the excuse I needed to drop by a sports store and try on running shoes.
A word about the sport store. The guy who was assigned to the shoe area clearly had next to no real knowledge of current running shoe trends. As soon as he said the words "if your feet pronate (roll inward-which our feet are supposed to do to a certain degree) you need motion control" I rolled my eyes and realized there was no help there. I tried on just about every brand the store sells and was really pleased to see some of the more hard to find brands in stock. It's a slow process finding the "right" shoe and I did more than a couple of laps around the shoe department testing the feel of each shoe.
So I finally settled on the New Balance 1010 for a few reasons; the traction appears excellent for a Vibram sole, the toe box was spacious so I could see it handling swollen feet after 40 kms, the response from the shoe was very good when I hopped from side to side, stopped suddenly and changed direction, and the overall weight of the shoe was on the light side of standard trail running shoes.
My first run in the New Balance 1010 went okay, not as great as I had hoped, the whole time it felt like I had on alot of shoe, even though these shoes are pretty lightweight, but then again the run was only on roads. The second time I made sure to run along some local trails and was very impressed with the responsiveness of these shoes. Seriously, it was really noticeable how much better traction I had over previous shoes. After a couple of runs I don't notice the clunckiness I felt during the first run so I chalk that experience up to me simply adjusting to a new shoe. I'm now training in these shoes for my first of two 50 km trail races this year.
The New Balance 1010's get 5 out of 5 stars from me, for comfort, response, traction and stylish but not overbearing color-no neon here!

Monday, January 7, 2013

Race Report! Run for Marilou

This past weekend my brother and I were able to borrow my mom's SUV (thanks Mom!) and we headed out to Tantallon to run the second annual Run for Marilou at the Bike and Bean Cafe and Trail. If you haven't visited the Bike and Bean I would highly recommend it as a wonderful cafe to spend an hour or two reading and cosying up to a cup of coffee on a weekend morning. Just outside this former train station is a beautiful tree-lined trail, part of the old railway that used to exist here.
We managed to find a parking spot and after dropping off our food donation (the entry fee), we were set to go. My brother was wearing his trusty VFFs, which I eyed dubiously as we stepped into ankle deep snow. He assured me he was fine. After a minute or two the group was off and running. Both Josh and I had spent next to no time running on snow packed trail this year so we both found our footing a bit challenging in the ATV tire tracks. Still we hung with the lead group for the first quarter then dropped back a bit. Josh was his usual self at a race, telling jokes with anyone and everyone. He had everyone around us cracking up as he made fun of garmins, running apps and the dogs that were passing us. We couldn't have asked for a more beautiful day with the sun shining, the temperature just above zero and a very flat trail route. Josh managed just fine in his VFFs, one of the other runners even let him know where he could find a pair of wool toe socks for them :-)
We finished our first race of 2013 in a rather slow 1:10. At least this gives me a benchmark to improve upon until my next 10k trail race!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Why is running so important to me?

 For the first couple of years that I ran the answer was pretty easy. Be a positive active role model for my daughter and get my unhealthy 230+ pound frame down into the healthy BMI range.For the past year or so though I know-in the back of my mind-that those reasons have changed.
My daughter loves to be active, she swims, she dances, she plays soccer and takes gymnastics. If I ask her to go for a walk she'll usually say yes. Our favorite activity this summer was taking our puppy to the soccer field and running around like crazy people. She told me a few months ago she's happy I'm not a "fat Mommy" like some of her friend's moms. I kind of feel like the mission has been accomplished as far as that's concerned.
So why am I still running? Why didn't I switch to some other activity that would keep me fit but take less time? Why do I run 6 days a week instead of the recommended minimum of 3?
Because, that little voice creeps in, you want to find your limits. I want to know just how far I can run, how hard I can push myself, because each time I think I've found my so-called limit I manage to accomplish it and know that I could go even further, a bit harder.
I guess you could call me a goal-oriented person. If I don't have a goal in my life it seems like I'm standing still, in neutral, going nowhere. When I was younger, when my life was about gaining an education to get a good career, those were my goals. Find something I love to do and make money doing it. Well it took a decade or so but I found the career that I truly love and get paid fairly to do it each day. Mission accomplished. But when I looked down at myself I found a physically weak person. Back in 2007 I knew that if I needed to, I couldn't run a block. I thought about those runners finishing the annual Ironman championships in Hawaii, seeing how they pushed themselves, their bodies, to their absolute limits and I wanted to know what that felt like. Thinking about how much better I would feel about my physical self was the seed that got me to lace up my 3 year old cross trainers and shuffle down that block over 5 years ago.
So here I am. I've finished a whack of 5 ks-I stopped counting a long time ago, 10 ks, half marathons and all distances in between. I thought the ultimate challenge was the marathon but after finishing it I knew I could not only do it again but go further than 42 km. I still run marathons, I enjoy the distance, but my new ultimate goal is 80 km, or 50 miles. I also know that is only a stepping stone to a 100 km attempt some time in my future. Barring injuries or drastic life changes I know I'll keep running and pushing to find my limits.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Eat and Run Book Review

This Christmas I received Scott Jurek's Eat & Run novel. I was so excited to read it as I'm a big fan of Scott Jurek and was curious to see what kind of vegan recipes he included and what he might say about the Born to Run phenomenon.
Scott chronicled his life and his running career in his book in an easy, conversational way. At the conclusion of alot of chapters he gives a great recipe or two to try. His family challenges early in life, like most of us, shaped who he would become later on, as a person, a runner and a cook. I found myself laughing aloud and smirking in agreement alot while I read the book. He wrote about his support crew, the highs and lows of races he's run, his motivation for running and to keep running, his love for his Mom and the amazing strength she had. He has had alot of challenges and through it all he persevered, sometimes with the help of others, sometimes through alot of introspection. I remembered back a few years ago a blog post of his that made it sound as if he was giving up running. I know alot of people responded to that blog with words of encouragement, I was one of them. I wondered at the time what was going on for him personally that would lead him to consider quitting the sport, and in his book he discussed that period and how he overcame it.  He spoke about the whole Born to Run celebrity, minimalist running and finding inner peace (although I don't think he exactly calls it that) while running really really long distances. By the end of the book Scott seems to have found a nice balance of running, living life and being an ambassador for our beloved sport.
Thanks Mr. Jurek for writing a great novel, I'll be sure to whip up that guac recipe asap!!