Sunday, September 21, 2014

Making Sense of Sponsorship

For this post I thought I would address a question I am frequently asked by other athletes and their coaches/loved ones: how to go about gaining sponsorship. While I am by no means a marketing expert-I am not even a professional athlete- however, I have been fortunate over the past 5 years or so of being supported by several companies and have learned quite a bit along the way. Although the process is different for the true elite athletes out there, I hope to unpack a little on how this process often unfolds and what an aspiring sponsorship candidate can do to increase their chances of gaining support for their training and racing.

I began running for a local running store in Houston beginning in the Fall of 2009 which was followed by a large running shoe brand shortly afterward. Shortly after that, I added a nutrition sponsor to the fold. Being in my mid-20s and fresh out of graduate school at the time, running shoes and gear was a stretch to purchase and I found this quite helpful. After my specific program was cut last year, I was a "free agent" and honestly enjoyed being able to wear what I wanted and probably bought way too many pairs of shoes. Honestly, I was beginning to feel pressure to perform, stay healthy, and stay visible out in the community in order to keep my spot on the team. It wore on me some not having any new PR's. On the positive side of this experience, I made lasting friendships and got to do and see some amazing things.

In retrospect, with no fault on behalf of the company, I had the hardest time finding the right shoe that would accommodate my diamond-shaped feet and allow for my natural stride without "fighting" the materials. It was probably a blessing to be let go after the initial sting and ego hit after being dropped.  I could now find out what I really liked and what worked for me. The same goes with nutrition sponsorship. For the for the fall and spring of this year, I didn't think I wanted to be bound to the rules that come with running for a corporation.

I was starting to spend a lot on nutrition and had gravitated toward Honey Stinger; there was nothing in the ingredients that I could not pronounce and well, the stuff tasted really good! After inquiring and submitting my credentials, I squeaked in with them as the window closed for the year.

That changed after doing some homework and changing my "brand" (to put it very loosely as there are many more deserving athletes to do this) from just a racer to more of a community member of the sport/sport scientist with some racing thrown in. Obviously, not just any company would work and this is where Oiselle came into the fold. They have an amateur division developed for women driven both on and off the race course and have day jobs like me!

Oiselle actually wasn't a sudden thing as I had been communicating with the team manager and updating on races and projects for a few months before being accepted into the Volee (French for 'flyer') program this summer. So far, this is the happiest I've ever been with a sponsored running team. They have very nice gear, but their message is even better in empowering female athletes of all levels to push their limits. I also get to interact with teammates online and have the opportunity to connect with them in person at various times of the year-very much a 'team feel'.

Long-winded explanation aside, here are some things I have found that make one a worthy candidate for representing a company (or companies, as is the new trend a la Kara Goucher, Nick Symmonds, and others) :

1. Believe in what you wear/eat/post on twitter, etc. Myself and likely others have taken the first thing that comes along simply to have sponsored athlete status. Know what you're looking for and getting yourself into. It's pretty hard to pitch something that you don't really like or does not work as well as something else. If  it doesn't end up working out, might as well discuss with the program coordinator and move on-this is something I wish I would have done in the past. For example, my last nutrition sponsor had a LOT of artificial ingredients and colors, and I had trouble mentioning what I used in the company of my nutritionist and chiropractic colleagues. I think this is the most important part of having a lasting relationship with the companies you represent.  

2. Maintain a resume of your goals, past and current performances, and of course PR's. Along with those, be sure and list other activities in the athletic community. They aren't necessarily looking for you to volunteer at every race you're not running in or race every weekend, however, a well-rounded background is helpful. A good question to frame this around is "why would I be a good representative of this brand (or store, or club,...) "?  Most importantly-be honest, but don't sell yourself short or over think your qualifications. I never ran a step in a collegiate runner, however, don't feel that different from those that did as far as opportunity at the non-pro level goes.

3. Social media and blogging. Like the Brad Paisley song, I often feel like "I'm so much cooler online". But...there is no quicker way to get a message out. And for those who like to brag a little, this is great for that too! Talk about what you like and use every now and then on social media; but you don't have to be a cheese ball (yeah, just don't...). A good time to do this is around big workouts/personal accomplishments or races.

4. Deadlines and qualifications. Do your homework on what the company is looking for in an athlete representative and when and where to apply. If you can't find any links, simply emailing customer service for info on who to talk to often works. Note that some programs require faster times, more races, more community work than others and the length of sponsorship may differ.  Also know who the contact person is. A little internet research may be required, but it is fairly simple when you learn where to look. Away from the computer screen, ask others who have gone through the app. process what they found useful or important. Lastly, know the rules-"cheating" on your company is never a good idea!

Lastly, if for some reason you do not get an immediate response or spot, don't get discouraged. Continue to keep working and putting yourself out there!

There you have it: Sponsorship 101 by Adrienne. Something I once thought was unobtainable really can be just as simple as building relationships among the running community. So ask questions, train hard, be consistent and a good citizen of endurance sport! More questions? Feel free to ask.

Stay the course.

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.