Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Make Some Memories

Bonus points to anybody who can figure out the artist and song that was the inspiration for the title of this post...

It's great to go out for a run to pull data. I've written two posts about it in this space. It's refreshing to be able to keep track of your training, and be able to see how you improve through the process.

But those aren't the runs you remember.

No, the runs that stick in your head are the ones where something happened. Where you broke through a wall, or where you caught a glimpse of yourself reflecting off the glass of a still lake. That's what stays with you. Those are the moments you pull out of your well in order to get the motivation to head back out the door.

With that in mind, here's a couple of my favorite runs:

When: May 25, 2008
Where: Boston, MA
What: Boston's Run to Remember Half Marathon
This was PUNISHING. I had signed up for this race with the intention of training seriously for it. Well, a week before the race, and I had put myself in semi-decent cardiovascular shape, but my running was still garbage.

Time to man up, I thought. So I did a few hill workouts, and even ran with a backpack full of gear through near 95 degree heat. Looking back, this is probably not within the top 5 smartest ideas I've had...but I was 22. (So young and full of piss and vinegar.)

Sunday came, and off I went. I held pace to run a 1:45 until mile 7, when the cramping finally kicked in. I tried gels, Gatorade, water, stretching. No dice. I'd stretch my quad, and my hamstring seized. A stretched my hamstring, and the quad went. On this went until the finish line. But I made it, and I ran through the line. That's all I could ask for.

Why I remember it: For two reasons: the misery that I was in, yet I still pushed myself to finish. If I can do it on less than a week of training, I can finish anything. That, and to remind myself that you need to put the work effort in to be able to compete seriously.

When: February 2, 2011
Where: Portland, ME
What: 60 Minute Training Run
As you can tell, this was a quite recent event for me. It was the start of my training for Rev3 Quassy, and it was the first "longish" run that I had to pull off.

Mother Nature, it seemed, would have other plans, and it snowed. And it snowed. And it snowed. It was full on blizzard time here in Maine. School? Closed. Work? Don't think about it. So I did what every rational man would do in this situation.

Time to run.

I like running through snowstorms. There's a few different reasons for this. The first, obviously, is the fact that snow is a bit softer to run on than pavement. This makes the landings a little less jarring, and forces good form on you. The second is that nobody is out on the roads as well, so you have plenty room to run on the roads.

Lastly, it makes for an epic ice beard:
Why I remember it: There's nothing more gorgeous than a city gone completely silent, outside of the sound of your feet on the ground directly underneath you, and the occasional gust of wind. Plus, if you can run through a blizzard...you can run through ANYTHING.

When: March 27, 2011
Where: Glen, NH to North Conway, NH
What: Transition Run
First, a note: this wasn't the run that it was supposed to be.

This was supposed to be a stand-alone run, 90 minutes, cruising along here in Portland. But life being what it is, I had done a whole lot of nothing in terms of training for the week. And I was run down. Soul drained. Nothing left in the tank.

So my lovely wife, being the smart one that she is, proposed that we go to New Hampshire for the weekend. Celebrate with the family for a bit. Just get away.

Well, fine. We'll go.

Smart lady.

We started the day off skiing at Attitash Mountain in Glen, NH. Hero snow. Gorgeous day. Blue skies. Warm temps. Groomers, bumps, Volkswagens, even in the park: good times to be had all over the place. We skied till about 1:45, and then I strapped on the ole Kinvaras, switched out the snow pants, and threw on the Brooks Nightlife Jacket.

Time to run.

I started off with a quick cadence, trying to fight my way uphill, before settling into a groove. No watch, no heart rate monitor, no pace read out. This was a run about testing your mind. Current Ironman World Champion Chris McCormack just wrote about how this can gauge how close to peak you are: the better you gauge time and effort without a watch, the closer you are.

I meandered my way up Route 302, then tacked onto Route 16A to get away from some traffic. It rolled a fair bit, roughly equivalent to the course I'll be seeing in Connecticut in 8 weeks.

I got down to the end of Route 16A, where I should've made my turn to head to my finish, when instead this sight greeted me:

I ran an extra bit down to the scenic vista, just to make sure I painted that picture on the canvas that is my brain, before turning and wrapping that run on up with a hellacious climb.

I figured it'd take me about 70 minutes in all. It took me 65. Not bad for an internal clock, eh?

Why I remember it: It's the prettiest run I've ever been on. I can't describe the euphoria that hit home when I rounded that corner, but I still get goosebumps thinking about it.

So what are your favorites? Or, if you have none, time to get out there and start making them.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Swimming Revelation

Full disclosure time: I'm not a swimmer.

Well, let's explain this one a little bit. I was never a competitive swimmer. I didn't race. I never competed against other teams. I wasn't a YMCA kid. High school? The most athletic thing I did then was letter in marching band. (It was a varsity sport. Won New England championships. Stop rolling on the floor laughing.)

But, on the other hand, I learned how to swim at the Y when I was 4. My parents had an above ground pool when I was growing up. I'd be in that thing every day from Memorial Day until Labor Day, churning out a few laps across (all 24 feet of it). We'd also wind up racing each other, trying to go back and forth. It's how I learned to flip-turn, just so I could keep my advantage on my brother (who has infinitely more natural athletic talent than I, the bastard).

So to summarize: I wouldn't call myself an expert on competitive swimming. But I've got two decades worth of experience in the water. And about four months of experience in actual, honest-to-God lap training.

As I've started to come into my own stroke, and seeing lap times drop (down from 9:16 500s all the way to 7:28), there have been four major keys to my swimming that I'd thought I'd share. Your results can, and probably will vary, but we'd at least be able to have the discussion about it.

The Water is Your Friend: One of the many things that has been difficult to recognize is the relationship that you need to have with the water. Yes, we float, but we also sink a little bit (especially when you're *cough*153 lb. *cough*). We don't have gills, either, so there's an inherent fear of the water built in.

The thing is, you need to work WITH the water in order to be able to move through it well. Thrashing about is not going to make you a better swimmer. You need to appreciate that it's resistance is also the propulsive force. This is why they call the hand entry the catch, and the actual "stroke" the pull: you're grabbing the water, and pulling it behind you. In that effect, it's more like the old rope climb in gym class than you might initially recognize.

You also need to be unafraid to put the head underwater and stare at the pool bottom. As you move through your stroke, you will have a little bubble to the side to breathe out of. So go ahead, and stare down at the lane marker. It'll be OK. You will breathe air.

Slow = Smooth = Fast: I had previously put this at the end of a blog posting talking about my own swimming technique. This is one of those completely counter-intuitive items, but if you think about it, along with the previous key, it makes a lot more sense.

The smoother you are in the water, the more you can focus on how much water you catch, and then pull through. In order to be smooth, you need to potentially slow your stroke rate down a touch. The more water you move per stroke, the faster you go. So as my stroke rate has decreased, I've seen dramatic improvement in my swimming time.

Two quick drills: get into the pool, and count how many strokes it takes for you to get down and back. Then try to take 10 less strokes, and then try to take 10 more strokes than that base number. Record your times, and see what works for you.

Also, one-arm drills will improve your stroke turn-over so that you are always either catching, or pulling. This limits the amount of space between strokes, allowing for you to continually be gliding through the water (remember, we're not fighting the water, we're working with it).

Streamlining: This is by far the toughest, at least for me. My kick is ALL over the place, making it completely inefficient. We want to keep you in a single, smooth plane to limit the amount of resistance created by the water. Again, gliding through it.

So, with that head down in the water, we want your hand to not cross over and create too much angle. We want your kick to flow directly behind you, rather than your body moving all over the place. Think of being like a torpedo in the water: straight. True. Focused on the end of the pool. This will hurt the back and abs like hell the first couple of times...but it hurts so good.

Nothing Replaces Hard Work: What, you thought you were going to get faster just with that? PLEASE. Get in the water. Now.

You're still here?

2000 yards. Right now.

Have fun!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Tracking Your Training, Part II--Analyzing

Back here on an earlier post on Crashing the Boards, we talked about items that will collect data and how you can use them to help along with your training.

Well, now that you've had the time to go and buy something, and start to fiddle with it a little bit (the advantage of me not doing this post on time, I suppose), what on Earth do you do with all of the information that you've collected?

There are numerous options to track your training with. All of them follow the same module, though: we want to be able to store the data in a safe spot, so that you will be able to go back and take a look at it and see what did and did not work over the course of your training. There are three major types of storage options which we will review below. I've used all three, and I will rank them from my least favorite to most favorite.

These are typically spiral-bound books that include either a training program with them, or other tips and tricks to keeping your information down. There are generally spots for you to write in your heart-rate, pace, weight, what you ate, etc.

I find that this type of training log is most effective for the person who is having a lot of trouble keeping to a schedule. Seeing that Monday-Sunday laid out, with blank pages, is intimidating. You don't want to have to write in that you didn't do something on a particular day. It is extremely valuable as a motivating force.

On the flip side, though, these logs tend to give you very little space to actually analyze what you have done. You usually have no more room than an inch or so to cram in all of your information. This is truly ineffective for those who are looking to be able to write out what they thought based off of the data pulled.

Therefore, I recommend this product to people who are having a tough time staying motivated in their workout routines, as well as those who are looking to pace themselves ONLY off of the numbers they generate, rather than a mix of raw data and intuition. Not necessarily a bad thing, just not my preferred method.

The class leader, by far, in this category is TrainingPeaks, with their free and pay-to-play options. The free data source is excellent to pull all of the information of your device (such as the Timex Global Trainer or Garmin Forerunner 310XT), and compile it into a workout schedule for you.

TrainingPeaks is also excellent for you to analyze data, what with their utilization of WKO+ and TSS. Without going into too much detail, these metrics will tell you how sore you will feel off of a given workout, as well as giving you your maximum threshold (e.g. the pace that you can hold for one hour), which is what you would then try to base all of your other workouts off of.

This option is also enticing for coaches, and their athletes alike, as the data can be uploaded by an athlete, and then reviewed by a coach. A coach may then upload a week of training, and have the athlete upload the data based off of that training into TrainingPeaks. Another intimidating factor, eh?

Coach: "So, why isn't your stuff up on TrainingPeaks?"
Athlete: "Oh, uh...I forgot to turn on my Garmin?"

The problem with TrainingPeaks, of course, is that it can be information overload--you have SO many metrics available to you, and so many different ways of toying with them, that you can wind up getting lost in the numbers and lose your focus instead on the training itself. So if numbers are intimidating to you, this may not be the best place to go. However, if you are being coached, are a coach, or love playing around with data, this is by far your best option.

Yes, I'm serious.

Stop laughing.

No, really.

This is how I track my training.

Now that you've gotten your ab workout for the week, let's talk about why I use a cheap $5 notebook instead of some of the fancier toys to look at things.

A notebook is a blank canvas. Divide it up how you want. Write as much, or as little, as you want. Get context for specific situations. Star workouts that you loved. Put big black letters of NEVER AGAIN! if you hated something. It really gives you options.

But really, it makes you think.

You have all of this data sitting in front of you: elevation. Pace. Top speed. Average heart rate. Transition times. Power. Cadence. So many metrics. The thing is, you are going to have to put these numbers into context with your workout, and have to think about why certain things came up, rather than a computer telling it to you.

To me, this forces you to be intuitive about your body: know when it is feeling good off of a specific pace, rather than being told that you are supposed to be holding X pace at Y interval. This helps develop a better mind-body connection, which in turn, should help reduce the rate of injury overall. You are only as good as your mind can go with.

In other words, your training is a blank canvas at the start of the year, and by thinking, and by training hard, you will paint something that you can call your own. Review that work. Think about it. And try to get better.

After all, isn't that what we're doing this for?

Programming Note: Upcoming blog posts will talk about my own swim focus, and another running gait post. If you have topics that you'd like me to cover, e-mail me.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Team Tri-Harder Update

Shameless admission: I'm having a very hard time right now.

A year ago, I was dropping my second class from my schedule because I had torn a ligament in my thumb. A year ago on March 25th, I was having a surgery on my hand. And a year ago, I had the floor drop out from underneath me, as the diagnosis hit home.

As you can probably tell from the logo above, that diagnosis wasn't mine. But I still feel that punch to the chest. It hasn't left. It probably won't. It never dulls. Instead, it becomes a piece of you. Another scar. Another ache.

That is what brought me to form Team Tri Harder for Cancer Research, and to fundraise for LIVESTRONG. This is what has brought me here, today, to say:

I need your help in this fight. I need your help to make it so that nobody else has to carry this same pain with them, and to make sure that cancer becomes the next polio, or smallpox: something that used to define us, but is eradicated from impacting us in the same way.

I'd also like to thank the early donors: Ton Chookhare, "Irish" Matt Young, Mary Anne Giordano, Marion Van Loon, and Rose and Sam Thompson. I'd also like to thank fellow team member Tara Vetrone for joining. (She's also raising money for her bid to race in Maine's Tri for a Cure...so help there, too!)

So please, do what you can. Either sign-up to race and fundraise, or please donate. The links are below.

Live every moment.

PROGRAMMING NOTE: Part II of Tracking Your Training coming this week. Also going to have a note on swimming stroke, based on my experience in the water this week.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Tracking Your Training, Part I-Gadgets and Gizmos

Let's begin with the premise that you've decided to undertake some type of training. Is it running? Great. Triathlon? Awesome. Just trying to keep yourself in some kind of athletic shape? That works too.

You go a couple of weeks through your training, but something seems missing. You're starting to notice some kind of results, but you don't have any true measure of what they are. Sure, the scale numbers might be coming down (or taunting you, if they're not), but you haven't any idea if what you're doing is really, truly, working.

You don't know what's going on with your body.

So what are you to do?

This post, along with the next one, is going to look into the broad categories of products that are designed to help you track your training results. Today's Part I will talk about products that help generate data, whereas Part II will talk about products that help you to analyze that data. In all, everything described here is designed to help you generate metrics that will help you figure out what it is your body is doing during the course of workout, and watch the results of that training throughout your program.

The Old Reliable: Pedometers
Price Range: $18-$60

Pros: Relatively inexpensive, pedometers are a good way to track the distance of your running or walking workouts. There are two kinds of pedometers: the Timex Simple Pedometers are based upon the movement of the hip joint, which is why they must be attached to the waistband of your bottoms; the Nike+ system instead relies on a footpod, with a sensor that will click each time it detects an impact, such as a footstrike. These devices are also relatively simple to use and set-up.

Cons: Unfortunately, pedometers can be awfully tricky to calibrate correctly. No matter the type, they are going to be based upon the stride length that you input into them. It is necessary to determine how long of a stride you take, and then it will be dependent on you using that stride length consistently in order to get an accurate measurement. Also, these devices are one-dimensional: they only give you one metric for training, and they also can only be used for one sport.

Who it's for: People just getting into running or walking activity, who are interested in simply knowing how far they went on a particular day.

The Track Star: Sport Watch
Product Example: Timex Ironman 50-Lap Full
Price Range: $20-$90

Pros: Being able to time your workouts are great. Knowing that you just cranked out a good workout for 30, 45, 60, 90, 120 minutes...you get the idea. There's also the ability to provide what are called "splits:" say on a particular session, you are going to run 4 laps at the track. You can hit the split button on each lap, and then be able to review later how you did. Did you go faster in the second-half? Slow down somewhere? It provides great feedback for you to review, to know which part of your workout you may need to improve upon. Particularly with Timex watches, these tend to be intuitive, simple devices that make reviewing your workout simple.

Cons: Unfortunately, time alone does not tell you how hard you went during the course of your workout. Only you will be able to do so. Could you have dug a little deeper? Psychologically, perhaps not, but physiologically? You may have been able to. The next range of devices may provide that for you. Also, if you are looking to compare splits, you may need to pre-measure your distance to track specific improvements.

Who it's for: The former track star, looking to improve upon those split times. Or, alternatively, the athlete looking to know how long they were out there for, and not much else.

The Cardiologists Best Friend: Heart-Rate Monitor
Product Example: Polar RS100
Price Range: $65-$250

Pros: Without getting into an entire rambling about how good heart-rate is for training purposes, just know this: it is the most effective measure of telling how hard your body is working on a particular day. Not all workouts are created equally. A slog through sloppy conditions may not cover the same distance in the same amount of time, but be a tougher overall workout, than other days. It can also help guide your nutrition strategy, as you will know where your body was burning fuel from, depending on how high the heart-rate was. Most monitors also typically give you the same features as traditional stopwatches, too, with lap-splits, countdown timers, and regular watch functions included. They may also include footpods to act like pedometers as described above. These also are incredibly accurate, so long as you pick the right device.

Cons: And that's the rub, isn't it? Forget about any device that does not measure the heart-rate off of a chest-strap. The strap is noticeable for the first few runs, but in my experience, it simply becomes another piece of your regular training routine at one point or another. Also, cheaper devices may not have coded transmitters, meaning if you are standing next to another user, you may wind up drawing off of their data. Look to spend at least $100 for a good monitor, and above $200 to combine a monitor with a footpod to get distance numbers.

Who it's for: The savvy athlete looking to generate simple, easily interpretable data without maxing out his or her credit card.

The Standard of the World: GPS Devices
Product Example: Garmin Forerunner 310XT
Price Range: $200-$400

Pros: The tagline above is stolen from Cadillac's ad campaign, and for good reason: these devices have all of the data available above at your fingertips. Want to know how far you went? Check. Want the device to tell you how fast you went over the course of the workout? Check. If you bought it with heart-rate, you get that measurement too. Elevation. Time in specific workout zones. If there is a data metric available, here it is.

Cons: You can wind up with number overload. So many different measurements, so little time! And which ones to choose from? (Note: each device will allow you to review ALL of the numbers when you upload them...it's just the numbers you will actually see during the course of your workout that may be difficult to choose.) They can be very tricky to navigate, so the technologically challenged may wish to avoid...or have somebody set them up for you. Also note: unless you are spending money on the top of the line models, these tend NOT to be fully waterproof. Sweat/moderate rain OK, trip to the local hot-tub...not so much. I also find people tend to wind up becoming too attached to the numbers, and not knowing what it's like to pace yourself on feel, which can result in increased injury risk. (That's a topic for another day.)

Who it's for: The athlete who wants to know everything about their improvement in a single package.

Now, get out there and generate some numbers! We'll talk about how to analyze them next time.