Thursday, September 4, 2014

More Adventures in Performance Testing: VO2 Max

2014 has turned into a year of data collection and tinkering: with my stride, my training, my strength routine, etc. etc. So far, these gradual changes seem to be paying off as I have finally completed a full season and posted some solid results and outcomes in the races I have participated in. Of course racing is great, but if I want to continue, I have to continue to be smart about my approach and staying within the lines while simultaneously pushing them ever so much. That is how we improve, after all. The push-pull balance that is training lies in a number of factors: efficiency/biomechanics (test for those-check!), strength, stability, recovery, PSYCHOLOGY, and the list goes on. Yeah, there's a whole lotta things that go into successful running. 

Today I'll share yesterday's experience with my second-ever lab test per Coach Doug's request: VO2 Max: performed by Alyson at the Memorial Hermann Ironman Sports Medicine Institute. VO2 is a simple, yet often misunderstood concept, so before I go any further, here are the definitions as provided by my output report, courtesy of IMSI:

Def.  VO2 is the peak oxygen usage of an individual at maximum exercise and is measured in milliliters of oxygen.
What it means: 
  -Excellent indicator of aerobic fitness
  - Higher VO2 max means individual can handle higher exercise intensities & volume
  -Higher VO2 can recover from anaerobic work more efficiently

  -VO2 Max can be increased by workout intensities at specific sub-max VO2 %

Word on the street in some circles is that a high VO2 can equal bragging rights. Maybe, but at least in my experience, a high performing engine is only as good as the transmission, suspension, and other moving parts. But I digress. 

The testing experience (a submaximal incline test) itself actually had me a bit nervous before hitting the treadmill. I knew it wasn't a very long test, but there would be a point that would be rather uncomfortable and I would have to wear a mask with tubing coming out either end. I had the option of doing a track-based test, however, with the heat indices and humidity in Houston I elected for a more controlled environment. 

After getting the 'Top Gun-esque' mask securely attached to my head, I began with walking. Yep, walking-to get resting and low-effort data. Before long I was running a little over my most recent 5k pace and actually felt next to nothing for several minutes. In dealing with situations that are unfamiliar and unpredictable, I like to find something in the environment to focus on. I was only able to see from nose-level up so I went back to focusing on the one tree between the Marriott and a parking garage. That was all I fixed my attention on as I let my body do its thing without my mind getting in the way as every two minutes the incline was increased. 

I felt kinda like this, except for much slower and on a revolving belt instead of an F-14.

The strangest part was how quickly I went from comfortable to jello-like. I knew I had hit max when my form started breaking down and I started feeling out of control-kinda weird! When the "straw" that I was breathing through began to feel clogged, I went ahead and surrendered by grabbing the bar in front of me. The whole time I had no idea how I was doing and just wanted to get somewhere north of 45 (avg-high avg.) for my max. 

After the spacey feeling wore off, the awesome staff let me use an empty treadmill to get the rest of my miles for the day in easy while the results were compiled. Then the "moment" of truth arrived with a pleasant surprise: a number greater than 55ml/o2 and ranked in a very high percentile. 

While this is a very encouraging find and I'm sure Coach is sharpening his saw blade ready to unleash some controlled fury on me, like I said earlier, this number is only as good as many other factors. Of course, the goal this year is to keep restoring the car so that the engine can be opened up at the right time. One gear at a time. 

These tests are recommended for anyone who wants to train hard but smart and top coaches and colleges regularly use them to assess athlete's abilities and progress (i.e. where to set training paces, goal times, etc.). I'm curious to see what this does for my training this season. 

Bottom line is this: I walked away with some hard data of what I am still capable of and that's pretty sweet. God has blessed me with a gift that I am learning to use wisely. Thanks for the push Coach Doug and for Ironman Sports Medicine for the quality experience. 

Stay the course. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

'Running Without Judgment' and Other Applications from Coach Joe Vigil

Weekend before last, I attended the Houston Running and Marathon Seminar here in The Woodlands, put on by Team Green Running. While I expected per the usual to learn a thing or two/geek out with fellow runners/catch up with Coach Doug, I was utterly blown away by keynote speaker Dr. Joe Vigil. Like I wanted to squirm around in my seat I was so pumped up from what I was hearing. That doesn’t happen much!

For those unfamiliar, Coach Vigil boasts two Olympic marathon medalists-you may know them as Meb and Deena Kastor-and countless NCAA D2 championships during his storied time at Colorado’s Adams State University. Currently he works with top middle distance runner Brenda Martinez. 

Credentials aside, this guy is an INCREDIBLE speaker. His training methods and results speak for themselves, however, his philosophy on what running does for a person and commitment to his athletes and values system really shone through. I could crank out an entire post recapping his stuff that I learned, but I risk watering own or messing up his central message. There are some things that I took away to immediately apply with my runners I work with and also in my own training. A lot what Vigil discussed I found I already believed or agreed with upon hearing it.

Here are some principles that I took away that were helpful, practical, or just plain fascinating:

1.       The principle of “deep training”. I always thought I knew the gist of what that meant. I was wrong. So often we go out on a run and really don’t think about what we’re really doing.  I’m a fan of using association to really dial in to what your body is doing in space and feel out paces, but it was brought to my awareness that how the more we focus, especially on long runs and workouts, the more muscle fiber recruitment and myelination of nerve cells form. In short, if we don’t think about how tired we are and just focus on our body’s actions and how much force to apply per stride, etc. It becomes easier to access. Unfortunately, carrying on a conversation and thinking about what we will eat and drink afterward (while still important!) really doesn’t apply! Embrace the suck. Or is it really the suck?

2.       Vigil also mentioned that there really isn’t much of a place for emotion in racing. I believe you want to feel the ‘right’ things before and especially after the race, but your emotional reserves should be mostly fixated on the task at hand. For me, it’s a balancing act, finding just the right ‘blend’.

3.       Belief and confidence. Vigil spoke highly of the use of sport psychology and sport psychology professionals (yea!), and confidence is really the bedrock of all improvement.

4.       Speaking of improvement, my last takeaway was that our long-term focus shouldn’t necessarily be on any outcome, but a lasting commitment to improvement. Simple stuff, but love it. Makes me want to go out and do things.

5.       Lastly, the discipline of running makes us better people: not just athletes, but professionals, friends, family members, and students. It’s up to us how seriously we access this in our own training and racing lives-elite or recreational.

So no back to thesis stated in the title and like last post indicated, I’m really trying not to overthink anything in my training and just try to stay in the moment as much as possible. Saturday that moment came in a great start to a 12-miler (the longest I think in at least 6 months) and getting very hot and uncomfortable towards the end. The mindset was think about what I’m doing when I feel good, and really think about what I’m doing when not feeling so good: form, relaxing my shoulders, reminding myself that it gets easier and continuing on.

Perhaps a better application of just getting out there and executing the workout would be this morning. I had a steady-state run at a not crazy fast but challenging enough pace to cause me to pay attention. Given my issues with acclimating to the heat and humidity this summer, I could have approached this tentatively, but instead of focusing on something that takes away my energy best used in the run, I simply ran to stay on pace, and more importantly just focus on the immediate moment. Not the next mile, not how much is left; basically get lost in what I’m doing for about 20 mins. You know what? I was close to getting that down. It was warm, there were a lot of workers at the park, but I simply told myself to “run on” and not worry about anything; not where I was at, how much left, etc.

Each time I do one of these workouts, I feel a little stronger and the pace becomes easier to just access and sit in. Plus, the less I really have to think, the better. It’s already a busy fall season and I’m a week into it at the office-so if I go out and give a degree of effort and not have to think much of it-that’s fine by me! Slowly, by doing these, the belief that I will improve becomes more galvanized, and that is the most important part.
Hope you enjoyed my ramblings, observations, and that I have done Coach Vigil justice. 

Thanks to Team Green Running for putting on the event.

Stay the course. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Me. And My Fitness: A Look at the Bigger Picture

I received my next 6 weeks or so training schedule from Coach Doug the other day. Now that tri season has come to a close for me I have been looking forward to being a single-sport athlete focusing on the discipline I love so much: running. I would be lying if I said this cycle did not come without any apprehension, but I as I have been getting fairly consistent miles in week in, week out-my expectations, goals, and purpose keep floating around in the vast space that is my cranium.

While I won't bore you with specifics of what's included in this part of the training plan, the email that came with the attached spreadsheet read "it's going to get difficult quick, so pay attention to how you're feeling". After another wave of initial apprehension, the apprehension turned into something more like confidence. The biggest difference in this cycle is that it is realistic for where I am at. While the distances for long runs will definitely stretch me, especially at first; the paces for tempo and interval days are set appropriately for the here and now of my( current) fitness level. Imagine that?!

 A year ago I would have probably asked for faster paces or more miles sooner; feeling that those are not challenging enough or nowhere near I'm capable of doing. If I was at the helm again designing the plan I likely would have rushed to return to my elusive top form. I would have felt sorry for myself for not running faster or being given a faster schedule. One thing that I have made a point or working on this year is to look at training as a process. Fast times and top fitness demand consistency, doing the right amount of things at the right time, and probably the most difficult of all: patience. As Chris Lear writes in his book "Sub-4:00" on Alan Webb and his first year at Michigan, "fitness takes patience".

So what does this have to do with the 'Me' in as the title indicates? For so many years, my fitness level and race times were part of my identity. I got more of my self-worth than I would like to admit with how fast I covered a distance, how many miles I ran in a given week-plus what my average pace was on each run made it easier to be at ease with who I was at the time. Well guess what? It is a very frustrating and often empty pursuit chasing the almighty clock and everything that goes with it. One of the biggest changes in my approach is that I am pensively* learning to look beyond the clock , the endless comparisons, and how my day goes being based on my run or if I am healthy or not. How fit and fast I am can increase my overall confidence level, but drive it? Sounds like risky business.

Was the schedule "beneath" my potential? Of course-but that's the point. I know what I am capable of, but in order to experience that potential-I have to work this step first to get to the next one with what I've got right now. Looking beyond my own little orb of self-influence, I have a lot to be grateful and to work with. What it takes is patience. Of course I want my 50-mile weeks and low-6 tempo runs now, but I don't need them in order to enjoy the sport and feel like an athlete. As much as running enhances my life-my fitness level does not need to determine what I think of Me.

And as a much wiser sport psychologist once wrote "you can have anything you want as long as you don't need it". A realistic, yet still  fairly progressive training and racing plan is a step. I'm here, I'm in, I'm committed. May I remember those three phrases on those days I do get frustrated and struggle. Progress is never a straight line. Realistic goals make that crazy curvilinear line a little straighter.

A quick closing note:

I hope anyone who reads this takes what they want and leaves what they don't. The purpose of this post is to help keep me accountable as I enter a physically and mentally challenging phase and hopefully provide a different perspective on what running and racing can bring to us. In no way is what I think or believe better than any one else's philosophy, we all have different reasons for our training. This doesn't mean that I won't be my competitive, driven self; just a slightly smarter, more patient version of it! Hopefully my best running experiences are ahead of me.

Stay the course.