Monday, July 29, 2013

The Low Hanging Fruit

What is the low hanging fruit you may ask?  Well in running, something I have been observing lately is that often times as runners we focus a lot of time and energy into a certain aspect of our training with a very small returns. Often times if we step back and take a look at the whole overall picture, there are things that we can change in ourselves that can make a large benefit in our overall time in a race. I guess you could call this also call this article, "Train Smarter, not harder" or "The Lazy Runner's Training Guide".

Anyway, to bring myself forward to why this is relevant today, I was having a discussion with a friend recently over instant messenger.  I was explaining to him that in general, I am a lazy person.  If I can find an easy to way get faster, I'll go down that road first before trying the harder solution. My good friend once told me that an easy way I could get faster was to drop 20 pounds. Free speed he called it. This article is a collection of ideas that myself and some of my other running friends came up with. These are controllable variables that can affect your speed in a given race.
  • Train smarter - What I mean by this is to train in a way that includes a variety of different training runs that is geared towards building your muscles in an even balanced manner.  Do some work at race pace.  Do some long slow work.  Do some faster intervals. Use walk breaks in your runs (Galloway). This will be different for each person but find out what it means to you to train and race smarter. 
  • Training consistency - This also tags along with the train smarter. Are you consistent in following your training plan, even if that training plan is as simple as running three times a week.  Or do you have the tendency to skip workouts often. How consistent are you in completing your workouts (and just as important, completing your workouts as written)?
  • Training volume/Training Stress - This is a place where someone has to be careful.  You have to balance family life along with the threat of injury. But, for some people, they will become faster by just increasing the amount of training stress from week to week. Training stress can be defined as the amount of volume or intensity of training that your body can take and convert into more fitness.  For many of us, we equate training stress with just adding more volume, aka running more miles per week.  While that is often times very beneficial, you can also add training stress by adding things like speedwork or intervals to your training. Often times quality can be better than sheer quantity.  
  • Cross training - This dovetails in with both training smarter, training stress and avoiding injury. There are times we can include more cross training into our workout regime because it doesn't add much if any training stress to our bodies.  Not to mention cross training can help build up the other muscles in the body and help avoid injuries.
  • Avoiding injury - Often times it can be something as simple as not doing activities that might be high risk or add strain to our bodies. It can be preventative as seeing a doctor when you think you might have the onset of an injury.  Injuries are often a sure way to decrease your time in a race if not keep your from racing or training completely.  
  • Weight to Power ratio - For most of us that means losing weight. This is a careful subject that usually pretty taboo to talk with all but maybe the closest for friends.  But it can also sometimes be one of the biggest changes you can make to yourself to increase your speed.  Sure, losing weight isn't easy, but there are some studies out there that show significant performance increases as you lose weight.  Here is an interesting calculator that gives some rough ideas of performance increases as you lose weight.  Also if you are interested more in this subject, I highly suggest checking out Matt Fitzgerald's book, Racing Weight. Also it's always good to consult your doctor before taking on any sort of weight loss program.
  • Proper Hydration - Have you figured out your hydration?  Are you drinking enough water?  This becomes a bigger issue as the longer your race becomes.  Also as heat enters into the equation, hydration can make a huge difference on your speed. Without enough hydration you can cramp, overheat and it impacts recovery. Some studies show that a 2% loss in hydration will result into about a 6% decrease in performance over a 10k distance.  Make sure you are drinking enough water (as well as getting enough electrolytes).
  • Proper Nutrition - Are you fueling enough before a race to be as topped off on glycogen as you can? Are you ingesting foods that sit well with you and don't give you stomach cramps?  Are you eating enough calories during a long race?  Are you eating too much? Again, this may not be a huge deal when you are talking about a 5k, 10k or even half marathon.  But over a half and you are getting into the territory of running out of glycogen and bonking during longer runs. Also it's important to eat following workouts so that your body has the fuel it needs to build the rebuild your muscles.  
  • Proper Rest - Are you obtaining enough rest that you are giving your body the time and energy to absorb the training you are doing?  Are you taking recovery weeks in the middle of your training to allow your muscles to build back up?  
  • Pain tolerance - For a lot of us that are new to running, our minds don't like to feel pain. Now I'm not talking about the sharp pain in your knees that you may be feeling.  I'm talking about the dull hard pain of a fast intense workout. This is something that you can train your mind to handle better. Often times it is done by just doing more workouts at that uncomfortable level. Get to the point where it feels hard and understand that you won't die by sitting at that effort level. Do those workouts often. Then in a half marathon when you are running the last mile to the finish and you experience that feeling again, understand that you've felt it before, this is nothing new and you can hang onto that feeling. Coach Scott Gurst talks about it as finding comfort in discomfort (both mentally and physically). When you feel discomfort, that's when you are getting stronger.
  • Mental Blocks - Mental blocks I believe are a huge obstacle of many amateur runners. How many of us have looked at our training schedule and said, "Wow, that's a lot of mileage, I'm not sure how I'll be able to do that".  Or we have looked at another "faster" runner and said, "She's so much faster than me, I'll never be able to run that fast".  These are all mental blocks that are self-defeating. Get rid of that negativity. If you think positively, you will have positive results. One of the first things you can do is stop thinking of yourself as fast or slow.
  • Visualizations - There have been sports psychologists that have studied Olympic athletes to figure out what makes them all successful.  One of the biggest common factors that they all share is that the majority of them all practice some sort of visualization. It isn't just visualization of them crossing the finish line as a winner, it's more specific than that. They visualize how they should feel at different parts of the race. They are prepared at mile 20 when it gets hard as to how it feels because they have felt that feeling before and have visualized it before the race. They not only practiced positive visualizations, they have also practiced visualizing when something goes wrong and what they are going to do about it.  If they cramp up at mile 13, they might think through exactly what they would do (slow down, stretch out the muscle, drink more water). Next time you are prepping for a race, think about doing some visualizations
  • Pacing/Race Execution - Did you go out too fast? Did you take your walk breaks at the correct time?  Did you run a flat race (pace-wise) or at least one with negative splits? 
  • Running Form - This one is tricky, but there are times that I've gone out and watched other runners. Just by looking at them you can tell maybe they have a strange placement of their hips.  Or they are swinging their arms too much and thus wasting extra energy. The best idea here is to have a running coach look at your form and see where you can be more efficient. Sometimes if that isn't possible, have someone record your running and just look at yourself. Some high end elite runners have cars with mirrors attached to the back of them driving in front of the runner so that they can watch their form while running.
  • Cadence - This goes along with form but how is your cadence? Often times the rule of thumb that I have heard is that you should have run at around 180 steps per minute. While there isn't a huge amount of studies to show that to be 100% correct, there are many studies that show that increasing your cadence can reduce the amount of force upon your body and thus reduce the chance of injury and will increase the amount of training stress your body can take.
  • Equipment - This is as simple as making sure you get fit with the right shoes at a running store. Sometimes it means trying a different type of shoe such as a minimalist shoe or a pair of Hokas. It could also be something as simple as switching from a water belt to a handhold water bottle (waste belts press on my stomach and make me feel ill).  
  • Caffeine - Seriously, I do this.  Three weeks before a race I stop drinking caffeine. The morning of the race I down some caffeine gus and away I go.  Be careful as this can wreck your digestive process (as I've learned sitting on a port-o-potty at mile 20 of a marathon).  
  • Training at Altitude/Racing at lower altitude - Not really an option for most of us but one that I take advantage when I run a race at sea level. In an ideal world you want to live high at altitude and train low. That's not really an option for many of us unfortunately. 
  • Blood doping/Performance enhancing drugs - I put this on here as a joke, but also a window into why some professional athletes go down this road.  Let's say you have done everything on the list above and still you can't get the times you'd like to see, there is always drugs as well as blood doping to give you that little bit of edge to win.

What are some lessons here to be learned here?  This is in many ways a theoretical discussion. Sure, it doesn't hurt to look at the above list and see if you can fix some of "low hanging fruit" in your own training. Overall it will probably help and you will get faster. But, faster/slower, that doesn't really matter.  There are so many variables from race to race (even on the same course), year to year, person to person that the best thing you can do is to go out and race the best possible race you can on that day.

What's your low hanging running fruit?