For new readers

To get an idea of what I'm trying to do and why I think it's possible, check out the following entries, they'll help get you up to speed.

Friday, November 27, 2009

tip #4 - running barefoot style

When Mario and I reached the car after the LONG day of our Mantario trail run, the first thing he did was take off his running shoes to slip on a more comfortable pair.  They looked pretty sweet and I asked him why he hadn't done the run in them.  His took one off and bent it in half to demonstrate how flexible the sole was.  "These shoes are good but they're like going barefoot - not suitable for such a run" he said in his characteristic eastern european accent.  In response, I pulled the mud-encrusted trail runners I had travelled the 40+ miles in the day before, bent them in half both ways, and said - "Oh really?"

I had worn a pair of inov-8 x-talons - aggressively treaded trail oriented shoes that weigh less than a pound for the pair (212 grams each).  They use technology that intends to mimic and support the mechanics of barefoot running - allowing for the arch and calf to play a much greater roles in cushioning and propulsion.

I first learned about barefoot running some 6 or 7 years ago after my brother touted it's benefits after reading some research about it (he always seems to be one step ahead of me with this stuff).  I briefly toyed around with the practice - going out once a week for a three mile run along sidewalks in San Diego.  My feet gained some slight callouses and my calves were sore for days after each jaunt, but i found it difficult to push the mileage much beyond what I could cover in half an hour.  When I moved to NZ in 2005, however, i gave it up as most of my running was on trails - I wasn't willing to go short enough distances at slow enough speeds to allow my feet, tender from 30 years of wearing shoes, to become tough enough to handle the terrain.

But after joining a team for the 2006 Primal Quest that was sponsored by Inov-8 shoes and getting a few pair, I discovered the next best thing - footwear that let me run like I was biomechanically meant without necessitating a high pain tolerance to sharp objects.  I've been running in Inov-8's, and only Inov-8's, ever since.  Old knee, hip, and lower back injuries that were aggravated (and probably caused) by running have gone away.  My ankles and feet are undeniably stronger and healthier.

While running in such 'invisible' footwear takes time to grow accustomed to - muscle memory needs to develop, gait needs to change - it will be worth the investment.  There's loads of research backing this up - some of it starting to make its way into mainstream media.  I'll list a few links below and then leave it up to you to make your own decisions.....

Runners World article    New York Times Article    SportSci article    Barefoot running website 

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Tricks #2 and #3 - simple recovery aids

The best recovery drink is also probably the cheapest!

It's pretty damn hard (if not impossible) to motivate for an intense workout if you're still feeling the effects of the last one.  Furthermore, it's usually counterproductive.  It's during the rest between efforts that the body rebuilds - repairing micro-tears in the muscle, increasing number of fast twitch muscle fibers, etc etc.  I won't go into all the physiological details here (one reason being that I don't know all of them...) - but suffice to say if you're working intensely every session, it's important that you're able to recover quickly.  As I've mentioned before, the fact that you have a whole day off (ideally) between workouts is a great start - but there are a few more things that need to be considered to make sure you're ready to go in 48 hours....

#2 Stretching.  If you google 'stretching in recovery' you'll have plenty to read on the subject.  Taking just the first link ( - for me anyway) and peeling your eyes away from the 'gallery of the day' on the right, you'll be able to read all about why it is important.  In case you can't be bothered - here's the gist:
After an intensive workout, muscles need to repair themselves and fibers that are entangled impede the recovery process. When you stretch a muscle, tension in the fiber increases, aligning the disorganized tissue in the same line -- like when you pull on a wrinkled shirt. In addition, it keeps the blood flowing and tendons flexible.
Studies have shown that performing stretching excercises reduces the risk of injury and soreness. It also reduces soreness felt the next day by decreasing the build-up of lactic acid in muscles. Stretching can also prevent cramps; some muscles, like calves, have a tendency to cramp up more than usual.
Committing to a stretching program is therefore pretty important.  I've got a 6 or 7 'move' sequence that I do every day that I workout, ideally soon afterwords when my muscles are already warm.  I use some principals of yoga (nose breathing, focus on the breath to deepen the posture and the idea of proper alignment) but these would be uneccessary for those unfamiliar with the practice.  I'll try to take some pictures of my routine to include in a later post.

#3 Recovery Meal:  Research shows that for about an hour after a hard workout (a bit longer as the duration of the workout starts to increase beyond an hour), your body is much more efficent at utilizing protien to repair muscles and carbs to replace used muscle glycogen, the preferred fuel source for high intensity aerobic activities.  So if you're going to be engaging in said activities every other day, it's wise to include a specific 'recovery meal' into your training schedule.  Now you can spend ALOT of money on nutritional supplements which are marketed as the perfectly formulated recovery food but the bottom line is that you don't need to.  If you're eating healthy enough to make sure you've got adequate stores of vitamins, minerals, and trace elements from your regular diet, then all you really need is the proper ratio of protien and carbs.  It just so happens that, at least according to (I'm just going for consistency here people!  I truly have no affiliation with the site (:   ), the number one recovery food is plain ol' chocolate milk.

Now I personally don't buy chocolate milk (my kids would drink too much of it and I try to stay away from overuse of corn based sweeteners), so I end up using regular 1% milk and dumping a few spoonfuls of regular sugar in to get the carbs up.  My son Keegan calls it sweet milk.  Although I don't have a glass after every workout (often I workout in the middle of the day while at school) I make sure to have one after my longer weekend workouts, even when a meal is soon to follow.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Tricks of the trade #1 - running cadence

In the next few blogs I'm going to endeavor to impart some wisdom for those interested.  I can't take credit for any of these 'tricks' - all I can do is vouch for their effectiveness on a personal level.  Some of these i've arrived at independently, but have since seen in print elsewhere.  i'll try to give credit and/or links to further information whenever i can.

Trick number 1:  Develop a high (90+) running cadence.  The ideal running cadence is one in which your right foot will strike the ground at least 90 times every minute.  This is a far higher turnover rate than most 'recreational' runners will find that they are using.  I first tried this out after reading Joe Friel's "triathlon training bible" right after i moved to New Zealand back in the fall of 2005.  I trained myself over about 6 weeks to have a 'default' cadence at about this level and have never looked back.  The theory behind this notion is sound and well explained in Friel's book for those who are interested - but in a nutshell the idea is that when running, the ability to change cadence is far more limited than the ability to change stride length.  When transitioning from a 'long run' pace to a sprint, for example, a typical athlete might double stride length while only increasing cadence by 10%.  A high base cadence allows for greater speed.  Something I don't recall Friel mentioning, however, that i feel plays an important role as well, is the idea of a minimum stride length.  It's natural for someone attempting to train the body to take more steps every minute to shorten each individual step.  But once steps get too short, they feel un-natural.  I found that just in adapting to a higher cadence my 'slow run' pace had increased by more than 30 seconds per mile - simply because i couldn't comfortably take short enough steps at the new cadence to run my old pace.

Since then, my 'warm-up pace' has dropped more than a minute per mile and running at 8 minutes per mile feels positively like a stroll (at least for the first 10 or 15 miles).  I've also noticed benefits during triathlon - the shuffle step that many athletes face for some time right after the bike ends up being a lot 'faster' when you have 90+ of them as opposed to lets say 75 every minute.  When I did my olympic tri this fall I was surprised at the end to find out that my pace for the run had been under 7 min/mile, despite the fact that my quads were cramping within the first two minutes.  The cramping lasted for the duration and served as a major limiter to my speed because it kept me from stretching out my stride - but this mattered less as i was able to maintain my accustomed high leg turnover rate.

As alluded to above, a further benefit of making the switch to a higher cadence (in addition to a faster 'base' pace) is an overall greater potential as a runner.  Just as there's a lower limit to stride length, there's a higher limit as well.  a runner who goes 75 steps per minute at max stride is simply not going to be as fast as one who's taking 20% more steps of the same length in that time.  90-95 seems to be the optimum cadence, however, as higher cadences are apparently physically harder to maintain for long distances and don't allow for effective adaptation by your body.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


Hill profile for bike portion of silverman triathlon

I guess my proving ground is starting to take shape - or at least i'm creating a financial incentive to enter the field.  I signed up yesterday for the Silverman Triathlon - an Iron distance race next november (early registration discount only lasted through the month) out in Las Vegas.  it's touted (by Dave Scott anyway - but hey, what does he know?  (:  ) as being the toughest race of this distance in the united states.  The race has over 12000 feet of elevation gain.  Although the course doesn't start and end in exactly the same place there is nearly as much 'down' as there is up (with the exception of a final 20 mile long climb on the bike) which means that all that elevation is gained over roughly 60 biking miles and 13 running ones.  So doing some quick estimates this gives an average elevation gain of 150 ft/mile or about a 3% grade for those 73 miles.  mind you there will be 'flat' sections of the course and consequently much steeper climbs, but it gives an idea of what i'm up against.

Dave has signed up as well - so there'll be at least one other 'grossly undertrained according to conventional wisdom' athlete out there to commiserate with.  My goal, which mind you is completely meaningless as i sit  in my office, typing this, a year away from the race, is to finish top 25%, which based on past year results puts me somewhere around 13 hours.  it's going to be brutal.  For now though i'm going to try not to think about it for at least 9 months or so - when i start training for it.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Arrowhead 135

I've just been informed via email that i'm now admitted (pending payment) to the Arrowhead 135 race this february.  The field was initially capped at 75 but due to overwhelming interest this year (last year only 59 lined up at the starting line) the DNR has been successfully lobbied to increase the limit.

The race is staged in International Falls, MN, which is regarded as the 'icebox of the nation' since it has the record for the coldest average temperature in the contiguous united states.  It's part of a series of three 135 mile ultra-marathons that includes the notorious bad-water ultra that has participants running from the depths of Death Valley to Whitney Portal (base of Mt. Whitney) in the heat of summer.  I guess the planners figured they had a hot weather race and needed something similarly grim at the other extreme and chose the location accordingly.

Because not very many people are crazy enough to run 135 miles along snow-mobile trails in the middle of winter, the race directors created two additional categories that allow for entrants to ski or bike if they don't want to run.  Decisions don't have to be made until race day, so some people even bring all the gear and then decide based on the conditions at the time.  I myself tried to complete the course on foot two years ago and made it just over half way (70 miles) to the only 'aid' station - a chalet at elephant lake where racers are allowed to come inside, warm up, and eat hot food provided by volunteers.  My feet were a horrible mess and i lost the will to continue after i was told i had been disqualified because i was running with my brother, who hadn't paid the entrance fee (long story) - which meant i was 'receiving assistance from a non-racer'.  For a long time i used the disqualification as my excuse for not finishing, and although it did probably contribute somewhat to my decision to drop, the over-riding reason was, truth be told, great amounts of pain (i mentioned in a previous post what a wimp i am when it comes to really bad blisters).

This year I'm biking.  A friend of a friend who's attempted the ride a number of times offered his bike up for a worthy soul to use (although not everyone does, most riders use pugsley bikes in an effort to 'float' over the snow) and apparently i qualified.  i'd been interested since my attempt on foot to bike it but was simply financially unable and unwilling to shell out several thousand dollars for what would amount (most likely) to one race - but with the generous offer, this problem has been solved.  Now all i have to do is figure out how to train, on three hours a week, for a race that will likely take 8 times that long (if i'm lucky).  Biking has always been my weak point, but i'm a bit burnt out on running at the moment so  excited to be diving in and taking on a new challenge.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Recovery and Kids

Me and my boys AJ and Keegan, this summer.

i've realized a couple of things rather slowly after my last few major 'efforts'.  Not only do the joys of having a family make it a bit tougher to train (well, not really on my schedule, but i suppose this is a common problem for many 'endurance' athletes) and make carving out enough time for longer adventures difficult, but they also affect recovery!  my whole focus leading up to events like the recent Mantario trail run (see previous post) is on the event itself - staying healthy and sticking to the training program that i'm hoping will prepare me for it.  I schedule things solely based on the logistical requirements of pulling off the adventure, and don't give much thought to the days that will inevitably follow it.  I'm now feeling that i need to amend this practice!

One thing that a limited training volume + extended effort seems to produce is rather acute DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness).  the morning immediately following the run both mario and I felt pretty good, considering.  Two mornings after i could barely walk, while mario fared much better.  To make matters even more painful, i was stationed at home with both boys for the day as my wife was working.  They had missed me over the weekend and so were amped up to wrestle, climb on me, and otherwise be the spirited devils that they are.  I'd gotten very little sleep the night before as my aches had kept me up until around 3 am when i'd finally taken some vitamin I (ibuprofen) - only to be woken at seven when the kids decided it was time to get up.  Hmmm.

I found myself thinking about my brother jealously - he'd just finished a 4 day adventure race on the west coast, his team taking second (nice job guys!!!).  he was undoubtedly extremely fatigued and sleep deprived as well, but i envied him a little in his ability to direct his own recovery, rather than have it directed for him by the blissfully unaware minds of two energetic little boys who want their dad's attention, all day long.  Of course the envy is temporary, as is the discomfort.

And as I struggle to keep my frustration in check when keegan digs his elbow into my thigh as he climbs into my lap for the 10th time in half an hour i think - maybe someday, if i keep fit enough, i'll be able to feel their pain and sense their envy as we recover from some epic journey that we've taken together.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Mantario trail (aka test #2)

Mario at about the 10 hour mark of our South to North run of the Mantario trail on Nov 7th. 

When we dropped off our bikes at the north trailhead at 10 pm and studied the trailhead sign I was feeling a bit smug.  It noted that the trail was "very challenging" and would require most experienced hikers nearly 26 hours to complete, necessitating an average pace of 2.5 km per hour.  They must be catering to some pretty out of shape folk, i thought - i could walk backwards faster than that.....

the trail was about 63+ km long.  we took a wrong turn for 1.5 km that required backtracking and made one other unintentional side-trip, finding ourselves at an oddly familiar sign after another 1.5 km or so, for a total distance of about 68 k (nearly 42 miles).    Since it took us 14 hours to complete the journey, that put our pace at just less than double my backwards speed.  i no longer feel smug.

The trail was brutal.  We ran at a good clip whenever we could. i figure we were probably actually 'running' about 60% of the total distance, give or take.  sometimes we'd run for several km at a time, but more often that not we'd encounter a beaver dam, swampy section, un-runnable climb or descent, or just get lost several times for every km covered.  

Mario was a champ - he physically pushed me enough so that i'd welcome the forced 'breaks' - or 'pace killers' as we called them.  As it began to get dark he became single minded in his determination to log as much distance before headlamps were necessary and drove me relentlessly on - running over the granite tops of the hills and through the forests that were untouched by the fading rays of sunset.  

We ran only very occasionally after this - the flat white LED white and difficult trail combined to demand focused attention to the ground immediately before the feet so that spotting the trail markers at the same time was all but impossible.  after getting lost several times we decided we'd be faster walking at a quick clip and focusing on our route.
All in all it was an amazing experience with a great partner and another bit of personal validation that my training is effective.  Now its time to go take a nap.

Monday, November 2, 2009


Me after a 10 mile run in Feb. of 2010 in Grand Forks, ND.
Temps were -20F, -40 wind chill
My training program is completely doable. But it's not easy. As i've mentioned elsewhere in the blog - it's one of these things where every workout has to count - and not just in a way that would make the American Heart Association happy. It's one thing to suffer and be uncomfortable when things are on the line - when you're three days into an adventure race, barely making cutoffs; at the bike turnaround in your first Ironman; when the sh*t has hit the fan on an expedition and you're out of food and still in the heart of a trackless wilderness. This is what you've trained for. You're confident in your ability to adapt. You're well versed enough in suffering to maintain some semblance of spirit and mental clarity while you exist at the edge of your perceived abilities (and this edge is a good deal closer to the true edge for you than it is for most). But if this confidence and knowledge of suffering are the only tools at your disposal your ambition will be kept in check by your actual physical potential.
Physical potential is a reality of life. I simply can't go out and run a 4 minute mile right now, and this fact is independent of my motivation level and my capacity to endure suffering. And while physical potential may have an actual limit, it clearly isn't static, nor is it's importance fixed. Depending on your chosen goal, it may be more or less relevant - in my thoughts it would be much more so for a 100 meter dash than for a 100 mile run. In the latter case - while physical ability is still clearly a major factor, mental components weigh in more heavily than in the former. So the bottom line is that if someone, as i do, aspires to "do anything" on 3 hours a week, it is a necessary endeavor to, through those three hours of weekly training, become as physically capable as possible. this requires WILL.

Only in rare cases these days am i amped up for a workout before i begin. I am currently in the middle of dealing with major issues at graduate school that threaten to derail 3 years worth of work. I sit and stare at a computer most of the day - by the time i leave to head to the gym my eyes are often bleary and i have a low level headache. I rarely remember to drink enough water during the day (although i'm trying harder!) and the thought of another session on a treadmill or stationary bike or worse yet, an indoor, 8 laps = 1 mile track, is hardly motivating. But i'm stubborn. I'm determined. I'm trying to keep up with my brother. It's also a release - something that I can control and work at - where the outcome rests much more heavily on things that i am in charge of. there's a comfort in this that i find to be central to my coping mechanisms. In this way many aspects of my life are supported by stubbornly pursuing arbitrary goals that require, at least 3 times a week, regular and consistently intense attention. I'm just lucky I guess.
I can imagine that this program would be hard to start from scratch. In many ways i have no doubt that it would be harder for many 'athletes' to keep it up than their present regemin - even those who are currently dedicating much more than 3 hours a week to fitness. In some ways working out more can become a crutch which must be unceremoniously removed for a truncated program with such lofty aspirations to work. Although i won't say it is impossible - i'm convinced that working as hard as i do for three hours a week would become increasingly difficult for say, six. Sure it'd be ok for the first week, but then problems would arise. Motivation. overtraining. injury. Rationalization rears it's head and arguments (not without merit) for going easier some of the time to remedy the above problems are created. Soon, the athlete is back to doing a more 'normal' six hour a week program, with more periodization and sessions at moderate efforts.
And while there's nothing wrong with getting fit and reaching your fitness goals on 6, 12, or even 20 hours a week, the whole point of this thing is to test the idea that it is also possible, given the right combination of 1) confidence, 2) knowledge of suffering and 3) will - to do it in just 3.