Sunday, 24 July 2011

Stuff I thought would make me faster

I am about to read Shermer's The Believing Brain, a book about how we come to believe in things, and how often we get fooled in the process. I thought I'd list some of those things which had me fooled, and how I've since stopped believing in them. I am happy to say my mindset is skeptical, but optimistic. I take equal pleasure discovering something is true or outright false.
       I should point out that nothing on this list is completely wrong. If any claim was totally false then we would be foolish to believe it for any length of time. You would be hard pressed to find anyone advising you to drink 5 gallons of water per diem, run with rocks in your shoes, or chug a beer before racing (then again...). In contrast, these items were convincing because they appealed to some kind of rational way of thinking. Sometimes they were even based on solid scientific research. Science likes averages (as it should), but it's possible for an average value, like an average family of 1.8 children, not to represent a single actual family. If vitamins did not work for me, I cannot claim they will not work for anyone.
Here is a list of what I believed would make me a faster runner.

1. Superfoods (Greens+, creatine, multivitamins, protein powders, energy bars, caffeine)
  • Greens+: A former coach of mine encouraged everyone to eat Greens+ with their meals (at least on our running team, maybe his friends too). At first I obediently bought a canister for $60 at my local GNC store. The stuff tasted weird, like a vegetable and fruit smoothie (there were a couple flavors to choose from), but seemed OK if not incredibly expensive. Since I also regularly ate fruit and vegetables at the time, I genuinely wondered why I drank the stuff. Was there something 'special' in it? Looking at the label, the top three ingredients (and totaling over 50% by weight) were soy, spirulina, and apple fiber. The soy and apple fiber could be obtained from $0.50 worth of tofu and an apple. Spirulina sounds cool, but it's just another source of protein, which you can get from eating more tofu (or eggs, or milk, or beans, or quinoa, or chicken, etc). The rest of the ingredients quickly go downhill from there, appearing in tiny quantities or having no nutritional value (bee pollen). But to this coaches' credit he was giving advice to university athletes, many of whom probably ate more poutine and burgers between workouts than would care to admit. Assuming you were not eating vegetables at all, a canister of dehydrated herbs is a step up from nothing. Ironically eating 'superfoods' could supply you the excuse to continue eating unhealthy. And don't we already know some of the cheapest stuff has the most vitamins? Oranges, beans (not baked), whole wheat stuff, vegetables, sunlight, et al. Is this not common knowledge by now? 
  • Protein bars energy bars and power gels: again these fall into the category of eating something very simple in a really expensive form. I once bought a box of 12 protein bars for $40 because I heard you needed to recover within 45 min after exercise. I was using a gift card so I felt less violated, but for the next month I was eating one after every hard workout believing that protein was necessary to recover. Then I did some more reading (a little knowledge is a dangerous thing). First of all you don't burn protein during a workout; athletes need something like a few percent more protein than sedentary persons. Unless you are trying to pack on muscle while only eating white rice you are probably getting your daily protein needs by accident (on average people unintentionally eat twice the protein they actually need). It's true you need to eat something after a workout (because you are hungry, duh): try whole wheat bread and water. Cheap!
  • Multivitamins: An obsession for me for about four months. And here's where the controversy really starts. I had read Linus Pauling's Vitamin C and the Common Cold. Back in the 80s he really, truly believed that people should be taking six grams, not just the recommended 160 milligrams, of vitamin C. He had previously won a Nobel Prize in chemistry (in unrelated work), and it seemed like trustworthy science if not a little outdated (book came out in the 1980s). But his downfall came from reading too many studies. With so much data to choose from, he discovered, now and then, studies that showed megadoses of Vitamin C were good for you. If you play the slots long enough you will win a few prizes. At least none of the studies showed side effects, save for diarrhea. I had bought into it along with similar claims for vitamin B, D, and all the rest with similar flawed reasoning. I took the MegaMen multis for a few months during the race season, going as far as tracking my intake with a spreadsheet. I ate more vitamins, and pushed myself harder because of it. Then it happened: on the final race weekend I caught a cold! Not just any cold, a monster cold which grew into a mild case of bronchitis and a one-month coughing fit. After that I called it quits, returning to common sense, eating fruit, and more sensible training. 7systems is great if you're stranded on an island with nothing but hardtack. 
  • Caffeine, once it's labeled a neutraceutical (a marketing portmanteau if I ever heard one), sounded so very appealing. At one time a banned substance, it has since been lifted probably because it doesn't really live up to the hype. I tried taking in a coffee or two before a few races and the results seemed to be positive, sort of. It was another case of  the placebo effect, always easy to rationalize after the fact. Once I started this habit, I was not thinking about how silly it would be if I started a race without access to coffee. Oh no, I wouldn't be as fast! (negative placebo effect. Bah). I also noticed my stomach didn't feel so great some of the time; coffee has a way with messing around in there. Having to pee constantly is a great way to dehydrate yourself on a hot day. I gave up on this one because there was no way a self-created long-term dependency like that would turn out well. These days I drink tea because it tastes gentler, it's easier to brew on the road and stays where it's supposed to.

2. Lighter shoes: (Vibrams, flats, barefoot) and shoe mileage

  • Shoe weight: Shoes are a huge topic for every runner, on every continent, of every calibre since the 1970s. To take a step back, it's a tragedy that running shoes have grown so clumsy, expensive and over-sold with "over pronation protection" and the like. Few runners benefit from pseudo-science, and the real tragedy is that shoe companies were probably thinking they did everyone a favor by messing with your foot strike. Buying over/under-pronation shoes before being properly examined by a specialist is a waste of money (hint: it's not the person who's selling you your shoes). So now as a backlash barefoot running is all the rage (or it was in 2010; I'm seeing this fade already). I really appreciate Libermans' study on barefoot runners and footstrike patterns, but it's a good case of science proving only what it is supposed to. That is, barefoot running works very well on dirt roads and grass. The study cannot be extended to running in a city, hence on concrete. Even in grass and dirt, cleats do better than barefoot going uphill or 'cross country'. Barefoot on a hard smooth surface is fine until you step on a stray stone. Taking off your shoes and declaring yourself a better runner is foolish mostly because you are the same clumsy runner only now without shoes. And of course this is exactly what I tried for two months before suffering a bone fracture in my third metatarsal. I went barefoot everywhere for a while; I took off shoes in the middle of long runs, ran barefoot in the park, and bought myself a pair of vibrams for good measure. But my timing was awful doing all this while increasing my mileage (and running too fast on easy runs, which is another topic). Everything was going wrong, and I thought I'd fix it by doing something brand new and risky. Duh! After my broken foot, which came after running a tempo run (clearly it was only a matter of time before this would happen), I decided to put away the vibrams, buy some light shoes that were also comfy, and try running more comfortable, and doing the occasional barefoot strides on grass (it feels nice). So far so good.
  • Shoe mileage: it doesn't exist. Some/all shoe sales people will self-identify their expertise in the optimal mileage a shoe can take. It's usually explained that 600-800 miles will do in the cushioning. But this number is made up, obviously. I have never seen a reputable book, study, article mention shoes mileage. Rule of thumb: take advice from sales people if it doesn't improve their sales (recommend me a spike length any day). I was once told by such a person that shoes have an expiry date of a two years. I believed in this stuff for a time, leading me to throw out a couple of perfectly good shoes because I 'knew' they were worn out, i.e. past that 600 mile 'limit'. Shoes do not expire (maybe after 10 years, or in a room filled with ozone. don't try that one). Contrary to my own expectations, shoes I haven't worn in years have in fact returned to some of their old 'bounce'. And a comfy shoe tends to stay that way for a very long time. I now throw shoes out when they fall to pieces. If they feel fine, they're fine. That's a pretty good system until I start getting them for free. 
3. Endless strength drills: (i.e. situps, pushups, and elaborate weight regimens) After reading Bompa's Periodization Training in Sports, I followed his recipe, which included many hours at the gym. Bompa is a professor at York University, was involved in training Olympic rowing athletes, and was one of the pioneers in multi-year periodization (I may be wrong about that. Who 'invents' such things anyway?). The downside to his training regiment is its hell-bent need to implement weights. Another case of the scientist reporting only what he observes. If you spend all of your time at the gym, then what you write about is strength-focused workouts. The idea was to lift big: The heavier you lift (i.e. 100% Max lifts), the more reps you can do with lesser amounts, working all the way down to the thousands of 'reps' you do when racing. The plans seemed clear and attractive (and even included weight plans for marathoners). and I had no reason to disagree with him (my current strength regimen was unfocused), so I dove right into it. I'm not saying that strength training is a bad idea, but suddenly I was entirely focused on the idea that weight training was a pre-requisite for running, which it isn't. I've read a few books now by a few running experts (not that many, but a few). The one thing they consistently disagree about is weights. It seems to come down to personal preference, like what makes the perfect chili recipe. Some say hillwork is enough (Brad Hudson), some advocate graded treadmills and circuits (Jack Daniels), Bompa seems to think weights are better than hills, and some recommend a spoonful of cinnamon (Jamie Oliver, for chili that is). Nowadays I hedge my bets and do some dead lifts one day and hills another, or just two sets of hills. I like the hills, and the cinnamon in chili.

4. Endless intervals: When I spent my first summer on after the track and field summer running alone, I was convinced during the season I didn't do enough intervals, and doing more would be The Answer. We did in fact run a 16x400m repeat near the start of the year and a couple of 7x1kms, but generally the focus was speed, like running 3x1500, then 3x500m. We never did 'epic' workouts (though I thought them 'practical') like 10x1km or 20x400m, 40x200, etc.  I reasoned not running these were the reason I burned out in the last few kms of a 10 cross race. Would changing this make the difference? I tried some on my own, like 5x2km with 90 sec rest. The result? They worked pretty good for a few weeks, had some good results in the early season, but when the Big Race day came, I was feeling bum tired, as per usual. I realized intervals are great in last few weeks before an important event, but if you try repeating them for months on end (unless you are professional with years of base in you), it's overkill.

5. Endless mileage: It seems like I'm attacking training from every end. I diss weights (which really translates to dissing sprinting), then I diss intervals. How can I criticize mileage too? Easy. Every time you learn you're not doing enough of something, then it must mean that's the ONLY thing holding you back. But it isn't, I later learn, as always. Last summer, realizing no-one wins marathons (or half's) on 60-70 miles a week, I was obsessed with mileage. And not just running more, which I can't explain, is somehow different. No, it wasn't just more running I was after. When you do Mileage, you count your miles like Scrooge counts his money; you want more of it, and you will greedily hold on to what you have. This often means sacrificing your good health and common sense. Mileage becomes an end, not a means. Sometimes I would imagine myself running 15 miles a day (sad way to daydream, I know). Then I did the math: that's 12 x 7 = 84 miles per week. Woot! That's my goal! So I give it a try, but wait, what if I take a day off because my legs are sore? Oh no, I'm down to 77 miles. And there's that tempo day that took some out of me, I'd better take a half day off. Oh no, now I'm down to 70 miles, back to where I started... You see now it goes. Nowadays I imagine increasing mileage like climbing an endless mountain. There is no peak, but the better climbers gets higher just by being better in the hundreds of ways that do so, but not because it's a race to the top. You get better by selectively pushing to be better at the right time and place, be it run more, faster, or better timed rest, which all together somehow makes you run more in the end. Mileage itself is not the answer for endless improvement.

6. The "perfect" running schedule: This was an embarrassing one. I thought that somewhere out there was the perfect, made for me, running plan. Every beginners' running book has one, and so do some of of the "advanced" popular ones like Jack Daniels, Brad Hudson, Pete Pfitzinger. Runner's world has a programmable one with 'preferred' mileage goals. But none of them were quite "satisfying" for me, as if none of them knew me or how I trained or whatnot. Then it struck me: these people don't know me. Duh. There's no such thing as an ideal training schedule, not only because your personal preferences are ignored (perhaps you do best with two medium length runs instead of one big Sunday one, who knows?) but because everyone's preferences are ignored. Some try to compensate for this. Daniel's plan sets a plan with 2 or 3 "Quality" days, with your own choice as to where to put them, but the days' workouts are very, very specific, i.e. 400/800/1600/800/400 pyramids, which don't leave much room for improvising, and n x 200m strides (what if (n + 3) x 60m was more appropriate for you?).  Anyhow, there's nothing wrong with specific workouts and race plans to get you started, IF you are currently running below your potential. For those running at their current limits, not to include LOTS of personal input can be disastrous. Now what I do is listen to others, but I make sure I (almost) always have the final say. If I think tomorrow would be a much better day to train than today, it will be done thusly. Some call this 'running by feel'. I prefer to consider this a graduation from the rigors of grade-school algebra and finally employing my own (learned) intuition.

7. Gizmos: GPS, Online maps, fuel belts: As a science-type person I'm supposed to love gadgets and gizmos. But I don't. Or at least I don't anymore. There's something vaguely unsatisfying about running a precise, prescribed pace ever day. Three weeks out from a 10k, a 35 minute tempo at 3:20 on a flat course might be an ideal use for a Garmin 305, but what if it's over hilly terrain where the 3:20 pace could fall to pieces? Ugh; guess you'll have to rely on intuition and breathing rhythms. And what if you feel crummy that day? Do you run though the pain, keeping eye on your watch instead of heeding to your body's signals? Depends, but if you've never practiced the latter why will today be different? You can tell that I was one of those people. I still own a Garmin, and it will have its uses on marathon tempo days, but otherwise it has a lot less practical function than I thought.

8. A higher pain threshold: No pain, no gain, right? I was under the mistaken impression that runners run faster because they can push harder. But look at it this way: if you always push hard, and never relax, when will you ever feel an injury coming at you? Simply put, you're better off learning how to run comfortably, then you will never know the difference between 'good' pain and 'bad' pain. Good pain is accelerating with 400 meters to go while your lungs are burning and legs are filled with battery acid; bad pain is pushing through that fracture on your easy runs until you get a broken bone. Bad pain is also feeling 'the burn' halfway through a tempo run. You see, toughness really has a limited role. Say your are doing a 10k: If only 400 meters out of 10,000 are truly painful, then what should the other 9,600 meters feel like? Probably just your garden variety psychological pain, from my own experience. Lydiard said his athletes rarely train 'hard', just often (at least so I hear from Keith Livingstone). That's more my motto these days.

9. Ice baths and anti-inflammatories: I am a chemist of sorts (physical/thermodynamic/atmospheric; none of that wishy-washy drug design stuff :). Perhaps in my relative lack of familiarity of certain medication and need to constantly run faster, I bought into that idea that post-run inflammation is bad, and that drugs or ice which counter inflammation is good. If you ever have the misfortune of reading Salazar's Guide to Road Running, you will come across this advice in Chapter 9: If you feel you have some routine (?) bodily soreness, "take Tylenol until your ears start ringing". Is this advisable? I finally thought about it one day, and asked myself "maybe inflammation is a good thing?". Is it, you know, maybe a means by which your body heals itself? Reading any medical website about the process of healing a broken bone or torn ligament, there's always three stages: 1. Reactive, where the damaged tissues are enveloped in local swelling and increased blood flow 2. Reparative, where a tough callus forms where new bone will eventually be and 3. Remodeling, where new bone is finally laid down. All injuries heal more or less in this way, only on a microscopic levels (new muscles!). Who in their right mind would deliberately skip step 1, see as it's ultimately necessary for stronger bone, muscle and tendons?  An alternate recommendation, the one that avoids the anti-inflammatories, I finally heard from Alex Hutchinson, who said quite simply that maybe we're getting too good at fighting recovery. Ice baths feel good after a long day on your feet, but imagine if you started to rely on them. Are you pushing yourself so hard today that only an ice bath will get you through tomorrow? I was indeed one of those persons, until I took away the crutch and forced myself to pay more attention to long-term recovery (next week, month, etc). The flip side is when facing a muti-race week or weekend, where long-term recovery takes a back seat to the short-term variety. Do what needs doing, legally speaking. Such times come maybe twice a year, if you're lucky, and elsewhere follow the long-term recovery approach.

 10. Losing Weight: Mark Wetmore, famed coach of the Colorado Buffaloes, said "Weight is underrated. You should look like a skeleton with a condom pulled over your face". Other than the gross image that conjures, I felt encouraged to lose some weight and run faster. I am not "overweight" in any sense, but I am not as lean as the elites. I wondered how anyone who's already working their butt off could take the risk of self-limiting calories? Now to be sure it sounds attractive to be as light as possible, and less weight means less stuff to cary over the finish line. The dedicated athlete will do anything he can to have an edge. Matt Fitzgerald in his exercise/food book Racing Weight goes into the specifics about measuring your caloric intake and calorie output, including an online program which can manage such details for you. Lots of information is out there on how to calculate how many calories are in that bagel, banana, 3/16ths 70% dark cocoa chocolate bar, etc. Some of them are probably very accurate, and an honest person might learn a thing or two about what they eat. But therein lies the problem: all this calculation is subsidiary to the question: do I eat until I am still hungry or until I am full? The calorie counting method as a method of losing weight ultimately depends on what you decide to eat. The best part of Fitzgerald's book is the nutritional information, since eating calories with more "other" stuff (vitamins, fibre, omega fats, bits of protein) is better than a donut. But you already knew that, right? So what's with the idea of limiting calories? It's silly to tamper with your body, especially in the middle of training when the envelope is being pushed enough directions as it is. I hear about people who claim calorie-counting does them good (what gets measured gets managed), but I honestly can say it never worked for me. Before I started training regularly I weighed 165 lbs. After running on a daily basis I weighed 145 lbs (took about ten months). Did I restrict my calories? No. Did I run in order to lose weight? No. It's simple. Really simple. So embarrassingly simple that the perverse act of constantly tracking your weight never actually changes your weight. Your body does that for you. If you don't exercise, you gain more weight than when you do exercise. That's all there is. You cannot be obese and run 10 miles every day (If you do still eat tons, feeling that full on a run should make your stomach turn. Consequently you might eat less next time). If you discover how to run 20 miles a day you will get your skeletal look by default. An ideal calorie counter will only tell you what you already know: that right now you are feeling hungry or full. Some people gain weight steadily while not exercising, and others do not. That's genetics, and mine is somewhere in between (mesomorph, I believe is what they call it). But we're talking about when you are training regularly, and regular training has nothing to do with genetics.

That's all for now. I hope to add more dubious advice in the future (is the advice I give itself dubious? I'll leave that to others to decide). In the end we are all simple, believing creatures, at least according to Shermer. Sometimes learning requires unlearning. This is one of those times.

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