Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Cross Country Experiment: Race #2

"What am I doing here?"

These were my initial thoughts as I strode up in my Oiselle gear to the registration tent past a forest of school buses and High School team tents at Imperial Park in Sugar Land, TX. Not that this is an unusual sight, not in the least as I have been attending XC meets as support for some time, but me being in a singlet and spikes-that is unusual. And it occured very quickly that the Fort Bend Cougar Classic field may not be as saturated by my peers and masters athletes as my last open cross country race was! Whoops! 

Backing up a tad, I am focusing mostly on Cross Country events this Fall after spending a lot of time at meets and deciding to do something totally different than my typicall road race/half marathon/'hope to be healthy to run a marathon cycle' I started my little experiment on the dirt and grass. So here I was coming off a surprisingly fun and positive first experience to a slightly different enviornment and crowd, but still minimal expectations, which was kind of nice.

Back to the race-After seeing a handful of girls not representing a school the self-conscious feeling went away a little bit, I rationalized 'experience was experience' and the course itself would be a good lead-up to the USATF Club Cross Championships in a few mos. Running Times did cover recently the growing popularity of XC racing for 30-somethings like me and above. That and I was not going easy on any youngsters, that was for sure! 

Instead of racing the Open division at the Rice Invite due to being out of town, I was conncted with the RD by my coach who was hosting an open race on 9/24. Why not? I greatly enjoyed the freeing format of disregarding the clock, running through the trees and just trying to cross the finish line first and was wanting to do it again. It hurts like crazy, but in an unexplainable way is the best one feels all week at the same time. 

Okay, on to the actual race. The field was quite large as it had both males and females toeing the line. It also was at 4:40 PM-in Houston, so it was a pretty hot one- but if I have to deal then everyone else has to as well. I finished off my Honey Stinger Waffle and drank a serving of EFS and then immediately hit my warmup. I hit some traffice getting to the race site, so there was little time to get comfortable.

The course was two one-mile loops that contained a water crossing, a hay bale jump, a mud hole-type thing, and two steep downhills followed by an immediate uphill. I knew there would be obstacles and just framed it as an adventure. I wore my Oiselle Team singlet and a pair of Lori shorts along with my new Saucony spikes (that handled the course beautifully).

After the lead ATV was refueled, delaying the start a few minutes, we were off in typical XC chaotic fashion. I had learned from my runners I work with and from last time how to work the first few seconds of the race. HINT: people fall off quickly. 200 yards in and there was a sharp turn where I found myself in third place. Hmmm.... kind of a familiar situation. Within the first half mile or so we had gone through the two steep embankments and were coming up on the water crossing...and I noticed the two women who were not affiliated with a school starting to hesitate at the obstacles. Oxygen debt or not, I went for it and surged past girl number two and soon after the first one. 

It's amazing what it does psychologically to surge and overtake in a race; I went from "ok, maybe third place is good for today, I'm kind of tired..." to "um, excuse me-go after them!!" It's that one decision we make a lot of the time to just push ahead that makes all the difference. I lead for the rest of the first mile and started to feel the heat on the second. This is where I managed the obstacles and just worked on trying to increase the lead. It was just me and my lactatenfused self and the young men and I think I remember passing a few of them in the finish chute that appeared much quicker than I anticipated, even in such a short race. 

I gave it one last surge through the finish, and yet again didn't get a look at the clock and immediately went on oxygen patrol and had to be reminded by the volunteers to keep moving-sorry guys! I was happy to run aggressively again and get another First Female in my second-ever 2 mile XC race. Ithink my sponsor got some decent face time as well-my singlet became a bit of a  conversation piece in a sea of uniforms. It pays to be different sometimes :) 

Although the competition will be MUCH steeper at the USATF events, it is a nice confidence boost to get some positive results from the work I am putting in most mornings. I still have a ways to go, but very happy to be enjoying and challenging myself again.
The pic does not do the mud factor justice:) 

Big-Picture wise, I've made a few observations running cross-country as an adult: 

  • First, it can be really, really, cheap to do. I have paid a total of 15 dollars for entry to both races I've done this season. While not required and individual preference, I picked up some Saucony Carrera spikes from Running Warehouse for under $30 on sale. If you're a swag-hound, just know shirts and other goodies are typically a-la-carte (but fund the host team or organization typically).
  • The energy at meets. While road races can be electrifying at times, there seems to be a great vibe going on off the pavement. Maybe I just need it more to push through the pain, but hearing people yell my name sure is helpful! It's also expected that it's a very hard sport and 'hurting' a bit is a norm and everyone seems to embrace it and give their best effort. 
  • I am really competitive. Not that it is any big secret, but the simplicity, and dare I say, 'purity' of the XC race experience has really reconnected me with my competitve side. As I've gotten older, I've been able to compartmentalize it pretty well, but I've always known that I do better "running to win" vs. anything else and this discipline seems to cater to my racing style. On my best days, I could care less how I am feeling if I feel I am in control of my race. And it doesn't take a big prize either, just the feeling of chase and challenge to be the last one standing is enough for me! 
  • I am also happy that there are a number of events popping up here and there that are open for anyone. Of course USATF Club Cross, but also the U. of Arkansas' Chile Pepper Festival (on the calendar next year, Coach!) and a few locals Hopefully my crazy self's successful experiment will draw others to this type of running too :)

So running cross country may not be for everyone, and I may be a seriously late bloomer (I bowed out of the sport to play soccer in HS), but for those who like a litte adventure and don't mind getting a little dirty going all-out in nature, I suggest giving it a try! Few things in life hurt so good! 

Stay the course, even with mud and hay bales!


Sunday, September 20, 2015

A New Normal: Reflections From a (relatively) Injury-Free Year

September 1st has come and gone, and to most of us it came and went with barely a notice. For me though, it brought a significant victory. I thought about not writing about this and just letting it fade, but then I realized that if I shared something about it, perhaps someone who is struggling will see this and just maybe have something to take away from it. Now that I'm committed to typing this thing out, let's begin....

Flashback to just over a year ago: 9/1/2014  was my most recent stress injury diagnosis-something that many of you know already has plagued me for multiple seasons and I would get one it seemed like every 7-9 months. This one, while it was just stress edema in the bone vs an actual fracture (yay me, progress!!), lead me to find myself yet again questioning the logic of continuing running (or at least training); and this last time these thoughts and feelings were more intense than before. Bless those who had to be around me during this period!

Back to present day and obviously I did not quit-and running in my life is alive and well-but I had a long talk with myself about how things NEED to change....none of this being conditionally all-in and thinking I've "changed" of "I'm back to normal"  for a few weeks then falling off, but real, sustained improvements. Improvements in how I approach things from a recovery standpoint, a training standpoint, and of course, from a mental standpoint.

Enough was enough. A string of disappointing experiences, false starts, humiliation, underperforming and fear had finally gotten me to the place I needed to be if I still wanted to stay in the sport. "Body, you win, let's do this your way". 

Of course I could write a novel on these past 12 months,but I'll keep it as brief and to-the-point as my long-winded self can be. It's been a grind, but I think there are a lot of good takeaways from September to September and a few changes that were surprisingly effective.  Some of the most significant observations/lessons are below and I'll start with the concrete before going more abstract/psychological...

  • Proper (for me) shoe rotation. This is a must. My previous method is simply one daily neutral trainer and a speed shoe. Many of you can get away with this, but I seem to do better with multiple pairs; and by multiple pairs I mean very rarely wear the same shoe two days in a row. Why? Although neutral cushioned shoes are my mainstay, each pair is slightly different in construction, firmness, and sole type and are more appropriate for certain speeds, distances, and surfaces. While usually not dramatic, rotating works slightly different muscle groups each day and movement patterns are never "locked" into place which increases overuse injury risk. Yes, it can be fairly expensive, but find a good sale, plus they last considerably longer which offsets some of the initial cost. And let's face it, wearing different shoes all the time is kind of fun! 
    I like running shoes. A lot. 
  • Physical Therapy/Dilligent Core Work. Never underestimate the power of the hip muscles! I used the "swingset" analogy in a previous post as the stride comes straight from the core and hips. Want to run more miles? Do more corework and strengthen your frame. This Spring I had a relatively minor blip that I could run through and using Sterling Ridge Sports Medicine's exercise protocol the areas I have been missing going into my previous core routine are covered. I have always been a fan of strength work, but found out that for some of it I was essentially "barking up the wrong tree" and missing some key muscle groups. Getting a professional sometimes really, really helps. 
  • Eating to train. After struggling with body image issues over the years, I found myself doing a little too much "calorie math": you know, those days where you may just run 4 or 5 miles and think to yourself "well, I don't really need to eat this because I only did _____", and so on did me no favors. While I am still a very clean eater and make good decisions, I am much more mindful of getting ENOUGH vs 'just enough' in my daily nutrition. I'm not a nutritionist, but I seem to believe that whatever was not burned up the previous day will eventually get torched anyway. What does this mean? More noodles and pizza more often, and throw in steak every now and then with my smoothies and oatmeal. Don't go crazy with junk food and if you're following your training, your body will shape into how hard you're working.  Less overthinking and analyzing, more running! 
  • Keeping things warm and moving- aka Blood Flow!  Dr. Derrick Raymer at Athletic Republic  in The Woodlands has been very helpful in presenting an alternative to the RICE method. Sore? Heat the area up and gently move the joint to restore blood flow. I've become a big fan of Epsom Salt baths and they are less challenging to do vs. ice baths. The more fresh blood you get running through your muscles, the faster your recovery. 
  • It's a RECOVERY RUN, stupid!!...and other keys to actually adapting to your training...On my training schedule, my non-workout days are listed anywhere from 7:30-9:30 pace depending on the day. If I'm not feeling it or think I may need to run the low end of the pace range or slower, I do it. Coach says what really counts is hitting the workout paces, so that is the focal point of my training weeks. Everything else in between is getting me ready for the next challenge. Most days I am able to hit the paces anyway without a problem, but a mentality of "run to run another day" seems to work for me and makes for some pretty good workouts (because that's where the toughness really comes from anyway!).
  • Being intentional and eliminating the "I'll do it later", or "It's not that important" mentality. I made time for the little things. Do it enough and it becomes habit, but sometimes I still need a little extra push- If I'm running late one morning, I type 'core!' into my phone to go off after work. I see prehab and recovery as basically currency to keep training. I can't go into debt and stay healthy. Besides nobody really ever gained anything but extra stress by procrastinating. 
  • Re-working the goals/"what am I? conundrum" . Here's where it gets a little personal. Initially, I had to almost completely separate from this "ghost of unmet potential" during the injury years. Whererever I am today in training (and life, actually), I am. I do most things well enough today, then tomorrow feeds off of that. Until recently, I honestly wasn't sure what kind of runner I was anymore-was I a 5k girl? Do I really want to do another marathon? What am I even strong at anymore? Does it even really matter?  At first it was hard to set goals, but wait, actually it was just hard to set outcome goals. By freeing myself from any hard outcome for a while, I was able to be completely process focused and just look to improve; almost like I had just started the sport again. Once I got over the disappointment of letting something go, suddenly the possibilities seemed plentiful and I started to get excited again. Rigid goals are one of the top mental errors runners make, and I am no exception to this. Now that I've had enough time to just get healthy and fit, I can start playing around with what's next. 
  • "I run and am serious about it, but there's a whole lot more to me". I know Running Times has hit on this in a past article about injuries: the threat of backing off and what it does to performance can be perceived as a threat to our identities and self-worth. Yes, we may have to adjust our goals, but in the grand scheme, it is probably for the better. Making sure that I regularly "zoom out" and see the big picture and everything else in my life has been really helpful. If I have a bad run one day, then I had a bad run. If I win a race, it's awesome, but doesn't automatically qualify me for liking myself more or thinking of myself as a better person. Was I engaged in what my friends were saying? Did I do my best to help my client today? Do I accept how I look, imperfections and all? Those are just as important if not more to my self-concept. Running, of course is a personal thing; we spend a lot of time doing it, but taking a joyful and grateful approach no matter what is key. Beating myself up for missing an interval or fading on a long run does no good and really means nothing in the grand scheme. I showed up and its very likely I get to show up tomorrow. 
  • Learn, learn, learn! I started really trying to learn not only more about me as an athlete and what I need vs. someone else. Picking up a physiology fact here and there and really understanding training nuances has been really helpful. On the mental game side, I look at each workout for a positive and perhaps something I would do differently to be more efficient, etc. This is a great way to get rid of some of the excess emotion sometimes caused by training and leads to better training and race decisions. You can't do someone else's training or run someone elses' race. 
  • Patience Process! If I take it a step at a time, things are less overwhelming. That is my biggest takeaway and piece of advice I tell other runners all the time. I like to use the term 'process' over 'patience' because it is more of an active term, and let's face it, we want control of what happens versus just waiting for it to happen. I have a long way to go still, but I think I'm starting to approach this sport like a grown-up-albeit an immature one:) 
These are just a few things that I could coherently put on here that I am still working on getting locked down. As my colleague Dr. Rob Bell states in his Mental Toughness book, "we gain control by giving up control". I don't think any one of these above things is weighted above anything else, the whole is just the sum of its different parts.  Right now I am having a lot of fun and getting to experience new things (like Cross Country!) and just seeing over the seasons and years how good I can get. You know, just because! It's a gift to be able to do this everyday.

Stay the course. 

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

"Gimme Fuel, Gimme Fire..."

Well looky here-I'm posting twice in one week. Lucky reader! Ok totally kidding on that one...

Today's post was spearheaded by this article on a touchy subject that really shouldn't be so; what we put in our bodies and getting enough matters. A lot. It was also prompted by some curiosity into my routine by the folks at upstart stands for Eat the Bear~hard core and fairly creative name, right?

It's been quite some time since I last posted about fueling and much has changed in my routine since then across the board, and changing sponsors is just the beginning of it. I find for that timing, consistency, mindset, and quality and per the article from NPR how much need to be implemented and trusted by the athlete in question.  Disclaimer: information stated here is purely my (mostly) educated opinion, and that I am not a nutritional expert or dietician, and neither do I assert that what I believe works for me will work for you~so basically-take this info, modify it or ask a professional about it....or simply leave it. :) And last time I checked to this day I've never eaten a bear, sadly. 

Still curious? Okay, lets begin. 

Petro at ETB was kind enough to ask some questions so I can just address on the fly instead of making up bullet points myself, but before I get into the what type of fuel goes in, it would help to know what type of car I'm driving and what it's used for-

For those who have not met me in person or whatnot, I debunk the "runner build" stereotype. This used to make me self conscious, now I'm almost a fan of it. I've read some pretty lame books thinking they were great because of their covers.... but  I digress. I consider myself muscular and fairly powerful and am seemingly on the upswing in my training. I am not made physiologically (or mentally) just like anyone else, so therefore my nutrition and workout regime is highly personalized and changes along with where I am in the season and health-wise (or at least I feel like it is!). I fortunately work for myself and have a fair amount of recovery and training time (notice the order of those two terms).

Training as of today took a bit of a shift. For the past few months, I have worked on base mostly with some fartlek and averaging 40 to just over 50 miles per week. Most of it aerobic, but August brought in a little oval action. Today, I started to work on speed after signs were apparent my body was ready. Races this Fall will consist of several cross country races (who say's its just for kids!) and maybe a shorter road race or two. In order to race well, I have to train consistently, and to train consistently, I need to focus on fueling for my workload and overall need and recover like it's more important than the workout. Yessir.

Now to address some of the aforementioned questions:

1. What is my typical fitness routine? The meat of it is daily runs of 5-14 miles 6 days per week with a rest day, either taken right before or right after long run day, which is Saturday or Sunday. Tuesday is track workout day, where I work on specific pacing and becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable. The next two days are easy to moderate, so the energy system worked the day before (LT, anaerobic, etc) gets to regenerate. Friday is often a run paced a certain percentage of my race working on focus and strength. I lift weights twice per week, targeting all the major muscle groups but core is the main focus. This session usually only lasts 30-45 mins and seems to get the job done. I also do PT exercises and at least 5-10 mins of core every day, foam rolling is done in the evenings and the lacrosse ball makes an appearance usually after harder workouts. Almost no exceptions unless my muscles tell me they just need a break. Before a key workout or race, I like to do some mental training beforehand: visualizing, choreographed breathing, and set process goals. Most days per week I write in a training journal for perspective. Lastly, sleep is part of training. I may not be Ms. Excitement nowadays, but I am happier and perform better in running and at work, etc. when this takes precedence.

A sample week looks like this:

M: Easy 5-6 miles, core/drills, weights, mileage often done on soft surface
T: AM: Track or Fartlek workout, ex. today's 3 sets of 2 x 200/1 min recovery + 1 x 400 1 lap recovery. Look easy? It's not! Paces range from 5:20-6:30 depending on relative distance. PM: 3-4 miles easy on Alter-G treadmill at Sterling Ridge Sports Medicine or soft surface.
W: 5-mile recovery run at 8:30-9:30 pace, soft surface
TH: 5-6 miles at 7:30-8:30 pace & weights
F: 6 miles at 7:30 out, 7:15 back.
S: Long run of 10-14 miles
Sun: REST! :)

Along with the workouts I typically take an epsom salt bath the evening of and keep my feet up as much as I can in addition to foam rolling and mobility exercises. As for stretching I find dynamic is the way to go for my respective sport if done correctly.

2. What fuels my workouts? 

A few things. I am loyal to Honey Stinger products for most baseline fueling, not just because I am sponsored by them but their stuff contains mostly organic ingredients and tastes awesome! I will also note that while you'll see gluten-free products throughout, I switched to mostly GF as a personal choice after an experiment and ended up liking how I feel. This may not be necessary or for everyone.

Sample pre-workout fueling looks something like this:

Pre track workout (usually 6-7 miles total but intense effort): Honey Stinger Blueberry Buzz energy bar, Coffee with cream, 20 oz bottle of water (usually slammed right when I wake up and while making the coffee), 30 mins before I hit the track I consume one serving of Electolyte Fuel System EFS by First Endurance. I sweat a lot, A lot a lot and EFS has the highest electrolyte concentration I can find. Given that I live in the Houston area, hydrating is always on my mind. During the workout I like to alternate 1-2 servings of EFS with plain water to change it up.

Pre long run: More fuel is needed so I make it a point to increase my carb intake some the day before. I find lunch makes as big an impact as dinner if not more because it's had more time to digest and assimilate. Examples include sandwiches on gluten free-bagels (or any type of sandwich), anything with rice (sushi is a favorite), and an extra piece of fruit is helpful. Dinner I like some gluten-free pasta and sauce or pesto with chicken or salmon and a bottle of a sports drink if going 14 or more. I drink water almost constantly during the day and like to alternate it with a low-sugar electrolyte beverage, such as NUUN.

Morning of the run (and it is early) I have all my stuff already set up and it doesn't change too much, except I increase the amount sometimes. Go-to's are just like track (coffee, water upon waking) a Honey Stinger energy bar, and a piece of fruit. If I have been feeling more tired lately, I'll throw in a HS energy gel into the mix as well. I fix another serving of EFS and sip on the way to the route/meeting spot.

During the run hydration makes or breaks a run, especially in a fairly extreme environment like The Woodlands, TX. I hydrate early and often, taking 3-4 big sips from a bottle I have on hand every 5-10 mins (that works for me, some like longer intervals between drinking) and an energy gel with water (not sports drink to avoid the "lava lamp" effect) every 30-45 mins. If runs are longer and more fuel is needed (I aim for about 200-300 calories per hour while I'm out) I will take gels either in tandem or more frequently. One thing that I have heard nutritionists say and I am beginning to believe myself is that American amateur athletes (in such a weight-obsessed culture-another subject for another day) chronically underfuel. I believe fueling properly for you and your fitness level, type of workout, helps with the recovery process. If you don't have such a big deficeit then you feel better at your next workout may just be less "rungry" and make poor choices after the run.

3. What supplements constitute the regimen?

I try to keep it simple yet I end up being the butt of all my friends jokes on trips with how many things I pack!

Daily-multivitamin for active women, probiotic AM and PM, antioxidant complex, iron in the midday, 1200mg of calcium at night with 2000-400 IU vitamin D. *some may not need as much calcium as yours truly. Get enough stress fractures, you never skip it! 2000+mg of Omega 3's from fish oil.


Preworkout: I take an adaptogen after breakfast made by Gaia naturals 'Adrenal Health'. Running mileage and intense workouts coupled with daily stress can compound and make it hard for the body to respond. When I don't take this 2 times per day, I can tell. I take another dose in the afternoon. I take Beta Alanine to help with lactic acid buffering when training really kicks up. Like I need to go buy more, like now!

Recovery! In my opinion, the most important of them all, and guess what? It doesn't have to be made so complicated! There are several on the market, but the rule of thumb is a good 200-300 calories of 3:1  or 4:1 carb to protein (what I like as a distance runner) within 30 mins of activity Sports drinks or mixes, such as GenElite or UCAN recovery (another recent experiment I am still undecided about) contain amino acids that are easier to process and absorb right away to start the repair process of the metabolic and muscular systems(or something like that, anyhow).

 Right after getting fluids back in (Priority #1!), have a mix or bar available containing protein and I like to look for about 30 or more grams of carbs (and 8-10 or more grams of protien). A high quality protein powder that agrees with any dietary restrictions is a good start. When available, I will also go for some powdered greens to mix in water-that or order an omelette with extra spinach and such right after.

Timing of supplementation and refueling is the most important according to those who know more than me and the protocol I follow is 1. Start re hydrating. Like right when you hit "stop' on your watch. Then don't quit until about an hour before bedtime. 2. Get protein in within 30 mins. Powder, chocolate milk, yogurt, smoothies, etc. Within 45-1 hour I then like to get a good-sized breakfast in. Go-to's for me are GF pancakes with vanilla protein powder and an egg or two, omelet with toast and jam, Oatmeal with chocolate milk or eggs on the side. BIG smoothie with greens, berries, protein, and some sort of juice. Yeah.

Oh, and if I'm not around a restaurant or near home, I stash a bagel with peanut or almond butter with me or have some sort of powder available. A little extra EFS in the summer never seems to hurt either!

4. Drills and stretching routines to prep for workouts

This is where probably the biggest changes have been made for good.

Before most runs and I make it mandatory before workouts and races to do dynamic and muscle activation. According to my coach and I now believe him, doing these drills AFTER runs seems to have some magic to them as well because I am leaving an imprint on my brain and body (aka the neuromuscular system for nerds like me) that this is the correct way we move, not the tired and hot shuffle or poor posture that can result from fatigue.

Since June, almost every day I have gone through this routine at least once per workout from Running Times (as opposed to jogger's world).

But what about including_____? Have you ever tried________? Maybe, but my best piece of advice in a world full of wonderful routines, exercised, and viewpoints is to form your own by selecting exercises that A. you like, B. fit your schedule and are actually willing to do them and C. are relevant to your goals. In my case it's increased stability, which creates better durability, and then faster turnover. And seriously, am I not the only one who appreciates but gets annoyed by rapid fire suggestions of what to do and what's the next hottest thing in fitness and running? Sigh. Ok rant over.

Besides the drills, I get on the ground and hit parts of Jay Johnson's pedestal routine and mix in some stability ball work-hamstring curls, "stir the pot" exercise, basic crunches, and planks. My physio routine includes hip hiking on a step, single leg bridging, leg raises at an angle, clams, and bird dog/hydrant exercises. Short on time? What I do is set a timer to cook my breakfast in the microwave or toaster and hit some reps during idle time.

Our legs basically hang from our core, so picture your body as a two-seated swing set-you want to just swing naturally from a structure you trust. I like to pair an image to really drive home what I'm doing.

Speaking of images, I always seem to train and race best when I visualize what I am about to do, doing it well, AND navigating adversity and challenges. Fuel the mind like you fuel the body, and you've got one well-running and efficient machine.

Summing up, hope this long post has some bits of info one can use, but make it your own. Find products you trust, time your meals, find a small group of individuals and sources of which you trust info from and get to work. What may look and seem like a lot at first can become just like clockwork. They say, after all that the best athletes have learned to "live like a clock".

What fuels you?

Stay the course.