"The goal is to become the unique, awesome, never to be repeated human being that we were called to be." -Patricia Deegan

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Research Musings: Acidic Blood, The 80:20 Rule, and Heat Acclimation Tactics

Here are three I was reading up on lately.

(1) The Alkaline Forming Diet/Alkaline vs Acidic Food Claims

Admittedly, I didn't do too much research on this one, because I did research and blog it here at the end of 2012. But it reared its head again with some YouTube and Facebook posts, so I went out to check whether there had been any changes to the science on this one.
The pH of gastric acid (which includes hydrochloric acid): 1.5 - 3.5

Nope. As I wrote in 2012, your pH is tightly regulated by your body. The pH of your urine can vary, but this has nothing to do with the pH of your body. In fact, changes in your urine are totally normal, as the body does its normal job of filtering through your lungs, kidneys, and liver, and no matter how acidic or alkaline your food is, "it is not going to get near your bloodstream in anything like its original chemical form." If you skip out on so-called acidic foods, which include meat, dairy, and grains (a pretty big part of a human diet), you could miss out on important nutrients and essential fatty acids your body needs.

(2) The 80:20 Rule

In 2010, after a couple good race results, a few very wise elite runners gave me some advice - without my even asking :) There I was, enjoying my successes and feeling pretty happy and there they were saying, "Yeah, you've done all right, but if you really want to be the best you can be, you should be doing speed work."

Speed work?!? That's for 10k runners. Maybe even marathon runners. Not an ultra runner!

I started doing that dreadful speed stuff, adjusting my training programs accordingly. And the results, of course, have proven them right.

But how much speed work and when? Well, I definitely ascribe to the "hard day/easy day" philosophy. Never two hard days in a row, as that increases injury risk due to lack of recovery. In many ways, we get stronger during our recovery time. No recovery time, no improvements - injury awaits. This means I wouldn't run two really long runs back-to-back, either, as a long run (say 5-8 hours for me), edges into a "hard" day, even though it's not a speed day. I learned this one rather the hard way, trying to follow those crazy generic online programs that have us running 3 and 4 hour back-to-back sessions, week after week. My body couldn't take that kind of load. (But guess what? Dropping back the mileage to what my body could tolerate, I could still do all those races!)

I also don't do speed work when I'm building volume. Another running philosophy with merit, I think: Don't do two things at once. Building volume and speed at the same time doesn't allow for sufficient recovery - therefore putting us at increased injury risk. That song by The Byrds comes to mind:

To everything, turn turn turn
There is a season, turn turn turn
And a time for every purpose under heaven
A time to build up, A time to break down...
A time to gain, A time to lose...
Business loves the 80:20 Rule, too. Human nature to create even numbers & rules!

Recently, a runner asked me about the 80:20 Rule - being that one should do 80% of runs at less than 75% of max HR, leaving 20% of runs as speed work (tempo/interval).

I had to admit that I hadn't really heard of this. In my head, I had jumped long ago onto programs advocating closer to a 90:10 mix. But once I started looking, I found there was quite a body of stuff out there on this "80:20" concept. But it's looking to me that this "rule" has been applied to endurance athletes as a whole. That is, they are lumping together runners, swimmers, cyclists, and cross-country skiers. Seiler (and Seiler and Tonnessen) found that most "highly trained athletes" were doing about 2 speed sessions per week. However, those athletes are also doing 10-13 sessions per week. For elite male runners, typically doing 160km/week or more at a 4 min/k average, that would equate to 10-12 or more hours per week of total running. The time spent in two speed sessions might total 1.5 hours (say an interval session one day and a tempo another day). That yields something like 1.5/10-12hrs (or more), which is 12.5 - 15%. Even if we look at it on a mileage basis, we're talking about a max of 20km of speed out of 160km or more of total running, which is 12.5%.

Indeed, the authors above noted that the few elite runners they specifically questioned were doing 85% of their runs at easy pace.

So, the 80:20 "Rule" sounds like it's being applied erroneously to runners. Humans like nice, neat packages and catchy phrases. But when I do the maths for runners and read the data on runners in these studies, I'm reading 85:15 Rule or 87.5:12.5 Rule. But those ratios don't roll off the tongue so nicely ;)
But for runners, the 80:20 Rule could cause this ratio, too!

The authors note that running "imposes severe ballistic loading stress that is not present in cycling or swimming..." and that there is a "strong inverse relationship between tolerated training volume and degree of eccentric or ballistic stress of the sport." This seems to back up the reason why runners AREN'T doing 20% speed work.

And let's remember that this 80:20 Rule, which in reality appears to be an 85:15 or 87.5:12.5 Rule, applies to WELL TRAINED endurance athletes. So, before going off to race around the track a couple times each week, consider where you're at in your own running development. Are you at the "well trained" level yet? I truly believe that if I'd hit speed work much earlier than I did, the extra stresses on my body would have likely broken me - unless I'd really dropped some volume, at least.

(3) Heat Acclimation or Acclimatisation

I didn't want to get too caught up in terminology here, but whilst some writers seem to use either term to mean the same thing, I understand acclimatisation to mean our natural adjustment to our natural surroundings, whereas "acclimation" is a forced (i.e., "un"natural) way of trying to achieve acclimatisation. Thus, going outside on a hot day and running is a natural way of "acclimatising" yourself to heat, but piling on layers of clothes and getting into a sauna is an "acclimation" technique for acclimatising. Right. Moving on.

It's perhaps the wrong time of year in Australia to be talking about heat acclimatisation, but for those in the northern hemisphere, just coming out of a long winter, or those in the south who might be travelling to race, the topic would be timely. And it just happens this is the first time I've made time to blog it :)

Running in heat stresses us, as our bodies are already dealing with expelling the extra heat produced by exercise. A muscle at rest is 33-35 degrees C. When at rest, we lose heat in 4 ways - about 60% via radiation (heat just radiates out of us), 25% by evaporation (water in sweat/breath), and 15% via convection (air flowing over our skin carries away heat). There's a nominal amount that we lose by conduction (whatever we touch - like sitting on a cold bench or standing on cold ground).

When we exercise, the energy produced for the muscles produces a by-product - heat - that needs to get released from the body. Evaporation (sweat and breath) goes into the top position now for heat loss - perhaps 55% of our heat is lost this way. Convection (the breeze blowing on us) also goes up - say 35%. Radiation drops to about 10%. When the air temperature goes over 36 degrees C (remember the temperature of our resting muscles?), our bodies GAIN heat through convection and radiation. So evaporation really becomes our only way of countering this on the extreme heat days. And keep in mind that when the weather is very humid, evaporation is weaker because the water released as sweat on the skin doesn't evaporate as readily.
Easy to feel like a baking lizard on Australian summer runs!

I read a very encouraging study just before Australian summer (that is, back in Dec 2013) by Costa and colleagues who found runners showed signs of acclimation to heat within 2 exposures of 2 hours of easy running (just 60% of VO2max) at 30 degrees C. Acclimation was measured by two key changes:

(1) Cardiovascular. You can think of that as heart-blood changes. What it meant is that blood plasma volume increased. This "hypervolaemia" results in a greater stroke volume with each pump of the heart muscle. That means heart rate goes down. Lower heart rate is a good thing when running!

(2) Thermoregulatory. Temperature regulation. Sweat sensitivity increased, sweating started earlier, and sweat rate went up. (Keep in mind this means that earlier sweat rate means a heat acclimatised runner will need more fluids, not less.)

Even better, Wendt et al (2007) reported in their literature review that you only need to exercise above 50% of max (enough to sweat, essentially), that 90-100 minutes was enough to achieve change, and that you don't have to do all your training in heat, as long as you have more time. Every day for 10 days or every third day for a month yield the same physiological changes.

So, how to use this information to our advantage?
Could it just be this easy?

First, mentally, we can know that after a couple runs in hot weather, our bodies have made the major changes necessary to adapt already. There's a mental aspect that needs extra time, but I think we can augment the mental adaptation by knowing that we have physically adapted. Costa and co noted that the runners in their study did not adapt their comfort rating in the heat (finding heat more bearable), until they were exposed to more easy running and higher temperatures (35 degrees C). The authors felt "thermal comfort" took longer to develop due to changes necessary in the metabolic system (the work of the hypothalamus to connect the nervous system to the endocrine system). The hypothalamus controls things like thirst, body temperature, and circadian rhythms.

Second, when going to race somewhere hot from somewhere cold, we needn't fret excessively about spending weeks in saunas or running in layers upon layers of parkas. A couple 2hr sessions create change. However, we need to keep in mind that these adaptations will decay. Just like adaptations made when we go to altitude. Whilst short term changes to plasma volume may be gone in 72 hours, if you have acclimated over 10 days or more, you should have at least 7 days (but likely less than 14 days) before significant decay occurs. The fitter you are, the longer your acclimatisation benefits should last.

So, whilst you can "cram" before a hot race with a couple sessions of heat running, you probably can't do it a week beforehand, as the effects will decay. Either you need to acclimate longer or you need to get time in the heat at >50% VO2max right before race day. Of course, who does a 2hr taper run two days before race day? With this in mind, you might have to consider something like acclimating and then keeping up your blood thickening by doing a couple "easy" workouts in a sauna (dry-heat acclimatisation is better retained than humid-heat). Don't dehydrate yourself, though! Researchers also found that "euhydration [normal levels of hydration] is a prerequisite for optimal heal acclimation to occur." In fact, dehydration abolished the advantages of acclimatisation.

Third, you might use heat acclimation techniques to improve performance even at a cool weather race. The adaptations made by the body, including cooler core temperature, greater blood plasma, lower heart rate, and increased sweat sensitivity and sweat rate, will positively affect your race, no matter the ambient temperature.

Bikram Choudhury, the founder of the Bikram method
What about Bikram yoga as an acclimation technique? That's the hot yoga, conducted at 35-41 degrees C, involving 26 poses over a 90 minute class. I've not done one myself, as it sounds pretty yucky to me. :) There's not much research yet, but what I found suggested it won't do the trick. One study noted that HR was 57% of max during Bikram (56% of max during regular yoga). Thus, it's not really a surprise then that Tracy & Hart's 2013 study of young, healthy individuals put on an 8 week Bikram program (3 x 90 min sessions/wk) showed that Bikram did not induce cardiovascular or metabolic changes. As we learned above, exercise intensities for heat acclimation have been at 50-60% of VO2max. This is closer to 65-70% of max HR. Your "long slow distance" running pace. Abel and colleagues (2012) also found no changes in "resting hemodynamics, pulmonary function or aerobic fitness" in their study of novice versus long-standing Bikram practitioners.

But I'm sure there are other good reasons for sweating profusely in a crowded room with strangers.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

2014's Long Running Meditation #3: The Sri Chinmoy 12 Hour Race

Conditions were excellent for the Sri Chinmoy 24hr race. The problem was, I wasn't doing the 24hr race. Not anymore. After the big switcheroo, where I did my 24 in April, it was the 12 hour event I was geared up for. So why weren't the conditions so good for the 12hr event, run at the very same venue?

Well, to start, there's the small matter of it being a night race. Yup, it started at 10pm. Physically, considering circadian rhythms, we diurnal human beings are best suited to run mid/late afternoon. Starting at 10pm was a great boost for the 24hr racers on the track, as we brought fresh energy out there. But running through the night, despite the fact that I don't suffer sleep monsters at all, surely cannot result in my best performance.
Looking towards the start line with scoring team and aid station

Then, there's the matter of temperature. For the 24hr race, it was pretty good overall - no hotter than 18 degrees, with limited sun. By 10pm, temps were down to 10 degrees and continued dropping to a chilly 6 degrees. My crew was wearing all her mountaineering clothes! I didn't need to rug right up, but I still needed to wear arm warmers and gloves throughout. Fortunately, I kept moving well to avoid getting a chill. More clothes means more weight to lug around the track! The cold also meant more toilet stops as the blood retreated to my core to try to keep me alive.

Third, the crowds. I always knew that joining 34 half-spent runners on a 400 metre track was going to pose a challenge. There were 14 other 12hr runners, too. That meant that until anyone quit or had a little snooze in their tent, there could be 49 people on the track, mostly vying for lane one. The race became a bit of a video game, dodging around people and between talking people travelling side-by-side. By my rough calculations, veering out into lane 2 (sometimes lane 3) 15 times per lap could cost 5 metres. No biggie, though 5 metres x 333 laps = about 1.5km. So that kinda sucks.

Another unique challenge created by the start time was that I normally do an "alt" carb-loading program that requires a sprint the morning before the race, then fueling up on carbs, whilst limiting fats and fibre, of course. But I had 36 hours. That was a lot of eating. I'll just say that the result was too much bulk! Next time, I'd sprint at night to stick with the 24hr loading timeframe.
Food on top, mine (Perp, water). Food below, crew (including the Coke!)

Having all day of race day free presented a HUGE mental challenge. I had all day to chill. All day to hang out, not wanting to spend time on my feet in adventures. I'm not a tv person, so that left a whole lot of time for my monkey mind to play at me.

Boy, my right QL feels tight. Why are you doing this? This is stupid. It's going to be so hard. You can't do it. Should I take my beetroot juice yet? Ahhh, my neck. The pillows in hotels are terrible. My neck hurts. Where's my tennis ball? Is it too late to roll my QL? I'm thirsty. Should I drink more? But I don't want to have to pee a lot during the race. But I don't want to start dehydrated. How am I going to stay warm before the start? Did I pick the right shoes? I've never raced with my Compressport full socks before. What if I have to change socks during the race? There go the splits!

Given all this, why on earth would I actually sign up for this 12 hour race, then? Well, despite knowing that it wasn't quite exactly perfect conditions in some ways, there were so many positives that made up for it.

The Sri Chinmoy team put on an excellent event. They are a passionate, lovely, caring team of runners who cheer endlessly for everyone. They make us all feel like superstars. There was one volunteer who shouted, "Go Bernadette Go!" such that I felt it right to my bones! The vollies come right out onto the track with cups of hot soup, mashed potatoes, and such. They even take orders for hot drinks whilst you're running! Although I just stick to my Hammer Perpetuem (seriously, 6, 12, or 24 hours, with pears as well, that's my thing!), it's lovely to see the caring and attention to detail brought by the team.
Wonderful volunteer offering takeaway!

I was also looking forward to sharing the track with people running 24 hours, because it's just darn inspiring! I love the camaraderie of a track race. Though I'm a "no talker" during races, and in fact enjoy the opportunity to try to not think for hours at a time (a running meditation), I enjoy watching the spirit of the event unfold. Runners band together to encourage each other. Going past people, I'd get snippets of conversations where people were talking about their goals, their revised goals, and their challenges, and getting support from others who, in fact, were their competition! What other kind of race is like this?? Runners were heard on their phones walking, talking to partners and friends about their progress, saying goodnight to friends and family. 

"Don't you get bored at a track race?" people ask. If you're bored at one of these events, you're not paying attention.

So round and round I went, staying on target for the first four hours, running 12k/hr. Though from hour 2, I was struggling. The heart rate was fine, but I developed...dare I say...pre-menstrual cramps and low back ache. (That was like whispering, hee hee!) I then developed neuromuscular spasms down my right leg. Related or not, I'm not sure. I had to focus intently on maintaining my gait. At pace, my right leg started wanting to do the boogaloo. I worked really hard to try to stay on pace, but every time I brought it up to where it was supposed to be...Boogaloo! Leg doing its own thing! So I settled into a slower pace where I could manage to keep getting enough signals between my brain and leg at the right timing that I could run smoothly. I waged a mental battle against quitting. Just get to the marathon mark. Just get to the six hour mark. Your crew came all this way and gave up her weekend and is staying up all night for you.

Hours 4 and 5 saw 11.2k each, and then I yielded more to this "boogaloo struggle" and settled into a more workable speed that allowed for the faulty wiring. The pace dropped to 10.4k/hr. And that's essentially where I stayed from hours 7 through 12. There was no slowing. I could run that pace and keep system malfunctions at bay :)

The "A goal" for distance disappeared by hour 6. I held steady, though, and when the clock hit 11.5 hours, I decided what the B goal would be. I yelled out to my crew. "Push me! I want 133k!" Although the A goal was gone, and the Australian record to break was 131.3k, I wanted to know I had left the track having given it my best. I felt 5k in the last 30 minutes was achievable and went for it. And we did it! 

Given the cards I was dealt on the day, I have no regrets and feel I achieved the best I could. I may target another 12 hour in a year or so. But we'll see what other exciting challenges I find to compete with that idea :) 

It's been an incredible 4 months of racing for me. In this race, I managed to break the Canadian W45 6hr record  with 70.288km and the Canadian and Australian W45 100km records at 8hr 47min 54sec (all to be ratified). When the gun sounded, I set new Open Canadian and Australian 12 hour benchmarks with my 133.535km total.

Once the new records are ratified, I will hold the Open Canadian 6hr, 12hr, 24hr, and 100 Mile records and the Open Australian 12hr, 24hr, 100 Mile, and 200km records. Plus many age group records. It remains surreal what I have achieved. I don't rant on and on about my sponsors - at least I don't think I do - but I respect these products and their support and I want to extend my gratitude here for what has without a doubt helped me achieve what I couldn't have even dreamed two years ago. This is my version of a virtual handshake. Maybe even a hug where appropriate.

Hammer Nutrition - my favs include Perpetuem, Espresso, Chocolate, and Peanut Butter Gels, Endurolytes, and Recoverite.

NTP Health Products/Flora - my fav daily good fats anti-inflammatory dose is Udo's Oil on my cereal!

Compressport - holding my muscles together, my favs at different times for different reasons include the full socks, full legs, trail shorts, trail shirt, arm warmers...oh, heck, all of it! :)

RaceReady - pocket shorts rock. Where else do you carry your pear? And the breathability of the shirts is second to none. 
Night turns to day and we spin the other direction!

UpBeat - go vasodilating rocket fuel! A pre-race loading must.

Mainpeak - the family owned and operated outdoor store with amazing, quality gear for adventures and cool staff who know adventuring. My favs from them include Icebreaker gear (at the 12hr I was wearing Icebreaker gloves and undies!), Montane jackets and pants, my Leki poles. As I head into trail season in the northern hemisphere, I'll be cramming a lot of Mainpeak gear into the suitcase!

Langer Chiropractic - sports chiro Jon Tan has had a key role in keeping me in good form and as an athlete himself, he gets it. The sad part about going overseas for me every year is that I lose the skills
of people like Jon to keep me tuned up.

In addition to these supportive sponsors, I am grateful to my supportive running mates, who keep me honest, bring laughter and challenge to our adventures, crew for me, and help in myriads of other ways so that I can keep doing the training I do. My massage therapist is a demon in all the best ways and I truly miss him when I compete away from home, too. My family gives me great sarcastic encouragement, including my mum who recently asked me what it's like to be an alien. My partner, well, I just won't even try to find words there to do justice to my gratitude.
333 laps. Ultra runners like 'even' numbers ;)

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Pay it Forward

I'm going to write a more thorough blog post of my Sri Chinmoy 12 Hour race on 14-15 June, wherein I managed to break the CAN W45 6 hr record and the CAN and AUS W45 100k records, en route to 133.535km. That total represents new Open CAN and AUS 12 hour records.

For the moment...

If you have felt somehow motivated by this crazy running  of mine, please consider taking that energy and channelling it. If you feel the "push" of motivation from without, look for the "pull" of inspiration from within. I have had the incredible good fortune of good health, a great family, great friends, as much work as I want to earn money, and training opportunities to help me achieve my goals in running.

In the world right now, people are suffering. Homelessness, depression, dysentery, war, cancer, mitochondrial disease. Children are dying of starvation. Every time you blink.

Do something. Find the pull within yourself. A thing you are called to do. Get healthier. Walk. Run. Eat well. Pay your own good fortune forward. Put $10 in a charity tin. Buy a coffee for a stranger. Let someone else have that parking spot. Give. To yourself and others. The supply of good fortune is not a limited resource.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Feeling Pumped

I've got some more research reading on the go, but thought I'd devote this post to catching up on what I've been doing in terms of running since the Coburg 24hr race on 5-6 April.

The original plan, which I have commented on before, was to run 12 hours at Coburg and then run the Sri Chinmoy 24 Hour in mid-June. With my best crew away in June, I swapped the plan around. So the plan after Coburg was first to recover, then to see if the body was interested in coming along to a 12 hour party! :)
Running up "Childbirth Hill": Rule is you have to take a rock for the cairn

I messed up the beginning of recovery by over-hiking (very pretty place, Wilsons Promontory, Victoria). I had an aggravated right retinaculum (the band that's like a tensor bandage over our ankle that keeps all the foot tendons sucked down against the foot). It was likely aggravated because I seemed to have developed a subconscious habit of walking, running, and standing around with my toes flexed and pointed up, not relaxed on the surface of the world. (I have now met two others with this odd toe-flex habit). Going for walks after Coburg was helping to get the swelling out of my feet post-race. That's a good thing. BUT, then I went for a BIG hike. Like more than 3 hours. And as the podiatrist informed me later, my particular foot issue would have been aggravated by the gait pattern involved in walking. I would probably have been better to do short runs to get the swelling down! Go figure.

A week after the event, I went out for a 15 minute run. I wore my Garmin. Sounds pedantic, but I knew that if I didn't have a timepiece on me to keep me honest, I'd do too much (Hmmm, how did I get that idea??) It was trails, so that meant I covered 2k. Woohoo! From a one-day max of 238k to a 2k. It was like I'd eaten a mushroom and entered The Land of Running Extremes.

The next day I backed it up with 30 minutes. Then a mix of rest days and runs of about 7-8k. I had to ice the top of my foot at least four times per day. I had a rather large pea in my retinaculum. We all know that icing and other self-care work takes a lot more fortitude than running! My shoes were unlaced from the top row to avoid putting pressure on the joint when I flexed my foot.
The 57k run day. How did we decide everyone had to do a bridge pushup?!

Very disciplined with my recovery, I was running short and with few hills. I was icing, elevating, rolling, going to massage and the podiatrist, and getting needled. Then 3 weeks after Coburg, I went out for a nice 57k 8 hour trail run with 1650 metres of gain. Ummm, that might have to go into the "Addicted Runner's OOPS" basket! That brought the week to over 110k + elevation. A bit of a quick jump, which I was well aware of and the risks that came with it. I ramped up the self-care more and brought the distance back down below 100k for the following week. Consolidate + recover!

And then the following two weeks (we're now into the beginning of May), I ran 158k + 3100m and then 150k + 2330m. Amazed still that I can achieve weeks that are essentially double the mileage of a couple years ago.

I was also back at strength training, looking to try to bulk up a bit. It is an experiment - looking at the legs of a few of our greatest ultrarunners, including females, I saw some pretty big, ripped muscles. So I decided to conduct an experiment on myself.
When ultrarunning ends, powerlifting awaits.

The long hours running plus strength training plus the required self-care routine to manage all this (including yoga, as well) made running almost a full time job for those two weeks. I loved the running and didn't mind the self-care, but it was a LOT to manage. I started back at track, provided the body wasn't too wrecked to take on the speed work each week. I also added another new element to this block of training. Specific to my 12 hour goals, I started doing my long runs on Wednesday and Saturday so that I could do a "short" race on Sunday morning (usually backed up by a short easy trail run later in the day). By "short" race, I mean a road race of 10-15km. Though today's road race was 25k. It is now two weeks until the Sri Chinmoy 12hr, so that's my last long run or race. Wow. Writing it brings a mix of relief and wariness, as I know I will miss long easy trail runs for a few weeks.

Whilst I've had several timed goals to get off my chest this year (6/12/24hr), I admit that the best part of today's Masters Athletics 25k Road Running Championships was the short climbs up and over bridges spanning the river. I'm definitely ready for mountain running season in the northern hemisphere :) The second best part was the event itself, with great views along the Swan River and good competition and camaraderie. The third best part was that it was the final in the 50km Road Running Championships, where the combined 10k RRC, 15k RRC, and today's 25k get added together to give your 50k total. Securing wins in all three races, I also achieved a 50k PB of 3.36.08! Okay, maybe I won't get that in the 50k world rankings, given that it was over 3 events. Pesky details ;)
Masters 10k Road Running Champs (I received the Dot Browne trophy)

In terms of my fitness, my race today suggests I'm on par with my pre-race fitness for the other 2014 events. Strength wise, I have added a cm to my calves (I just happened to know those measurements from getting my Compressport calf guards.) I also have a lot more definition in my arms, abs, and legs, and can lift a lot more weight. Is this a good thing towards my ultra-endurance goals or have I gone overboard? We'll find out. And, lastly, in regards to niggles, my retinaculum has only a small (painfree) pea and my tight tib post has finally let go. If I do nothing stupid now, I should get to the start line with that body ready to party! All night long, since it's a night race.