Thursday, February 12, 2015

Is the new course for the 2015 Twin Cities 1 Mile going to be slower?

Nick Willis leads the 2013 TC 1mi

This week, Twin Cities in Motion announced that the 2015 edition of the Twin Cities 1 Mile will be run on a new course heading north on Hennepin Avenue through downtown Minneapolis, instead of the historic course down Nicollet Mall.  The motivation for this change was construction of a new light rail line that crosses the Mall, with trains that run every few minutes—far too frequent to be able to get a full wave of runners across quickly.
The old course was flat and very fast, and with its very generous prize purse, the elite wave attracted several extremely fast milers.  Because of stormy weather, the race was canceled at the last minute in 2014, but in 2013, Nick Willis set a course record of 3:56.1 in 2013 for a cool $10,000 bonus, and five other runners broke four minutes. 

A new course, but the same record

In a recent interview with Minnesota running blog Down the Backstretch, TC 1 Mile race director Jeff Decker clarified that, even though the course has changed, Willis' 3:56 (and Sara Hall's 4:30.8, run in 2011) are still considered the "event records," so to earn the $10,000 record bonus, these are still the marks a runner would need to hit. 

Which brings us to the new course.  The new route up Hennepin Avenue has no turns to mention, but it does have a noticeable uphill in the first half mile or so.  Down the Backstretch provided a handy chart comparing the elevation profile of the old and the new course.  Can we use this to predict whether the course will be faster or slower, and what kind of performance would be necessary to break a course record?

In fact, we can, as long as we make a few simplifications.  If we can make an idealized model of each course, we can compare their relative "fastness."  As you can see in the chart above, the old course fluctuates a bit, but never gains nor loses more than ten feet.  Because of this, I'm comfortable treating the old course as if it were perfectly flat, i.e. no significant differences from an idealized "fast as possible" course.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Is less running better for you? An in-depth look at "Dose of jogging and long-term mortality"

About once a year or so, a new scientific study comes out which makes bold claims about the harmful effects of too much exercise.  These get a lot of media attention and feed a strange sort of schadenfreude among the sedentary populace.  Meanwhile, other research that doesn't carry such contrarian views is quickly brushed aside.

It's about that time again—this week, a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology made the case that infrequent, slow jogging is best for health: too much jogging, or jogging too fast, are detrimental to the point of being just as bad as sedentary life.  The news media, eager to grab onto a more attention-grabbing storyline, highlighted the article's claim that too much jogging is as bad as being sedentary.  Cue the satisfactory back-patting from the couch potatoes. 

The scientific paper in question was published by Peter Schnohr and other researchers at a number of hospitals in Denmark, as well as the University of Missouri-Kansas City.  Some other online commentators have brought up the authorship issue—one of the coauthors, James O'Keefe, is a cardiologist who strongly believes that endurance training is bad for your cardiovascular system and has authored or co-authored many of the attention-grabbing scientific papers in the past few years that argue high-volume endurance training is harmful—but here, we'll concern ourselves only with the data and its interpretation, not any accusations of bias.  If we're bringing up author bias, certainly you must include me (a proponent of and participant in high volume and high intensity training) in the discussion.  But instead of fretting about all of this, let's jump right in to looking at this article. 

The statistics of study design

By following a very large group of Danish citizens for a twelve-year period, the authors sought to investigate the effects of jogging (let's leave the "running vs. jogging" terminology debate for another day) on your risk of death from any cause.  Because it picked out a large group of healthy subjects, then followed them to observe who ended up dying before the study's conclusion, this study was a prospective study.  This design gives the study a lot more predictive power to discover associations between lifestyle and mortality (i.e. death rate), but at the cost of making the statistics harder.

The best analogy for us to understand a prospective study versus the alternative, a retrospective study, is to imagine trying to figure out what causes a running injury like IT band syndrome.  The most obvious way to investigate the causes of IT band syndrome would be to gather up a large group of runners who already have IT band syndrome, then make some measurements (like impact forces during running, or hip strength, for example) and compare these measurements to an equally-sized sample of healthy runners.  This design is retrospective, and though it's easier to find a large number of people with the condition we are interested in, you can probably see some of the problems with this.  Maybe we discover that the runners with IT band syndrome have a "hitch" in their stride when compared to the healthy runners.  Is this asymmetric stride the cause of their IT band syndrome, or is it a result of trying to avoid putting weight on the injured area? The retrospective study design is fraught with these types of problems.

A prospective study designed to investigate IT band syndrome would have to gather a large group of healthy runners, measure all of them, and then wait and see who goes on to develop IT band syndrome in a year (or any timeframe, really).  We can gather some very powerful information from this type of research, because the data grant us predictive power.  After doing our analysis, we might be able to say "runners with poor hip strength are twice as likely to get IT band syndrome," for example.  The only problem is that it's very hard to get good data in prospective studies because often, the condition you are trying to study is just not very common.  Let's say we follow 200 runners for a year, and half of them suffer an injury at some point during our study.  From other research on the frequency of running injuries, we would only expect about eight cases of IT band syndrome from our initial sample.  So, to draw useful information from prospective studies, you need to do at least one of three things:

1) Have a very large sample size
2)  Follow your study population for a very long time
3) Be comfortable inferring conclusions from small sample sizes

The same issues hold true for the Danish longevity study.  While it's measurably harder to do a retrospective study on mortality (good luck asking a dead man about his exercise habits), the prospective design is still the right choice.  To achieve usable results, however, the authors of this study had to take all three of the above steps.

Friday, January 30, 2015

52 more things I learned from a third year of weekly writing

This month marked three years since I started writing articles for investigating what the scientific literature has to say about a wide range of running-related topics, from injuries to training to peak performance on race day.  At the end of each year, I've made a list of one useful tip or interesting fact that I learned from each week's research.  Here are fifty-two more things I learned from reading scientific research this past year, one from each article.  If you want to see all of the material I've written, head on over to the blog section of RunnersConnect! Also feel free to check out the yearly lists from 2013 and from 2012.

1.  Celiac disease, which affects around one percent of the population, can cause a wide range of vague, non-specific symptoms that can interfere with your training, like joint pain, extreme fatigue, weight loss, gastrointestinal problems, and anemia.  Further, even once you've adopted a gluten-free diet, it can take a while for your body to return to normal.

2.  If you choose to eat a vegetarian or vegan diet, you're more likely to have iron-deficiency anemia, amenorrhea (if you are a woman), and insufficiently vitamin B12 levels.  Though it's very possible to have a complete diet as a vegetarian or vegan, you need to take extra care to ensure you get enough protein, vitamin D, and iron, and you should probably take a vitamin B12 supplement or eat foods that are fortified with it.

3.  Scientific findings can run contrary to your own experiences.  The research says it's okay to run when you have a cold, that the speed of your daily runs does not affect your injury risk, and that it's okay to do some running on an injured area, as long as you monitor your pain and stop before it's over 5/10 on the pain scale.  In my own training, I can't get away with any of this! There might be subtle reasons why the findings from one study don't apply to your own experiences.

4.  The faster you run, the greater the proportion of your energy that comes from carbohydrates.  This has some major implications when it comes to running out of fuel in the marathon.  The people most at-risk for "hitting the wall" before the finish of a marathon are very fit runners who can run at a high percentage of their VO2 max, and heavier, overweight runners—especially if their extra weight is not in their legs.

5.  When planning out a fueling strategy for a marathon, you should generally shoot for taking in 60 grams of carbs per hour of running.  If you have had major problems with hitting the wall, you may consider increasing your carb intake to 90 grams per hour.  However, if you've had gastrointestinal problems from trying to refuel, you might want to cut this down to 45 or 30 grams per hour. 

6.  Gels, sports drinks, and energy chews are all equally valid choices for refueling during a long race.  None of them offer a distinct physiological advantage, so feel free to choose whichever suits you best. 

7.  Electrolytes aren't all that important for endurance events.  There's no good evidence that you need to replace the salt you lose in your sweat—it appears that your body intentionally modulates the amount of salt you lose in your sweat to keep the concentration of electrolytes in your blood constant, so there's no need for salt tablets or super-salty sports drinks.

8.  There's no magic formula for carbo-loading.  All you need to do is increase your carbohydrate intake by 50-75% over the last few days leading up to a long race (over 90 minutes), and you don't need to do a "depletion period" prior to it to get the benefits of carbo-loading.

9.  In a marathon, elite Canadian runners consume between 16 and 26 fluid ounces of liquids per hour of running and about 50-75 grams of carbs per hour.  Elites use a combination of gels, solids, and sports drinks according to personal preferences.

10.  When runners collapse after finishing a race, it's usually (though not always) from a sudden drop in blood pressure that's triggered when you stop running.  After laying down for a few minutes and elevating their legs, they'll be fine.  When runners collapse during a race, however, it's much more likely that they're having a medical emergency like hyponatremia or sudden cardiac arrest. 

11.  Some research suggests that taking vitamin C before and after completing an ultramarathon can decrease your risk of getting sick.  Over half of the finishers of a 90km ultramarathon in one study came down with a cold in the weeks following the race!

12.  However, try not to load up on antioxidant supplements in general.  They can inhibit your body's adaptation to exercise: oxidative stress is a big part of improvement! Fruits and vegetables are probably okay, though.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Video: Testing the science behind Kenzen's Echo H2 Sensor

A few days ago I came across this Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign for a new wearable device called the Echo H2 Sensor which claims it can detect your glucose levels, hydration status, and lactate levels in real-time during exercise by analyzing your sweat.  I set out to do some research on whether there's any science behind their claims.

If you've got a question that you'd like answered in a future video or blog post, leave a comment here or on the video page, or drop me a line at the Contact Me page!

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Video: Modifying a pair of track spikes to prevent ball of foot pain

It's time to get back in the habit of uploading more content! In this video, I show how I use a Dremel rotary tool with a sanding bit to shave away the plastic spike holder under the ball of the foot on a pair of Saucony track spikes.  The ball of my foot carries a lot more of my weight than the rest of my forefoot, but this isn't usually a problem as long as I'm in a shoe with a soft midsole.  Track spikes, however, can cause some problems, particularly when there is a spike holder sticking out immediately below the ball of my foot.  This excessive pressure can cause a lot of irritation in my foot, so something I often have to do when I get a new pair of track spikes is grind away anything that sticks out in that area.  This short video demonstrates how I go about doing that.

If you've got a question that you'd like answered in a future video or blog post, leave a comment here or on the video page, or drop me a line at the Contact Me page!

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Mental Side: Setting useful goals

The final aspect of the "mental game" I'd like to address is goal-setting.  Any sports psychologist will tell you that setting the right goals are important to getting the right mental approach, but I'm hesitant to endorse this idea wholeheartedly. 

However, I do have to be a pragmatist.  Maybe in an ideal world you wouldn't have any goals other than "do your best," but that's just not realistic.  Runners have times they want to hit, places they want to finish, and championships they want to qualify for.  Even in workouts, you probably have goals or desires—you know you're supposed to be running 33.x for these 200s, but it'd be great if you could squeeze it into the 32s for the last few, right?

Goals and desires are inevitable, and in almost all cases, they're a huge part of what motivates a competitive runner to train.  Whether it's a five-minute mile that motivates you or a spot at the USA Track and Field Championships, goals are an inevitable part of running.

Instead of the "high but achievable goals" mantra of sports psychology, I have had better success with a different approach, namely, setting two parallel goals, a "floor" goal and a "ceiling" goal.

Floor and Ceiling Goals

The floor goal is a basic marker of what you are sure you can run, even if conditions end up being less than optimal.  It should be a time (or place) that all of your workouts have indicated is definitely within your grasp.  The floor goal functions as a reminder that not every race is going to be your greatest race ever, even though you'd often like it to be.  The floor goal should be challenging enough so that it'd take an honest effort to run, but low enough such that failing to hit your floor goal indicates a significant problem in your training approach or racing strategy.

The ceiling goal is the one most runners have when they dream up a target to aim for.  The ceiling goal asks, "If everything goes near-perfect and I have a great race, what do I legitimately think I could run?"Ceiling goals are helpful because they can provide pacing guidelines.  If your ceiling goal is to run a 9:00 3200m, you definitely shouldn't come through 800m any faster than 2:15 or so.  This, along with motivation, is the function of the ceiling goal.

To walk through a simple example, let's say you're a high school sophomore just starting out your track season.  As a freshman, you ran 5:20 in the mile, and this fall, you ran 17:30 for 5k XC.  In your first track meet, an intersquad time-trial, you run 4:54 and felt like you could have gone faster.  Two weeks later, you have your first real meet.  How should you structure your floor and ceiling goals?

The Mental Side: How to make a successful race plan

If you want to do well in a race (and who doesn't?), one of the most basic steps to accomplishing that is making a plan.  Coaches and sports psychology advocates love to talk about having a plan and setting goals for an upcoming race, but as you might expect, the details about how you should go about setting up this plan and what your goals should be, conceptually speaking, are debatable. 

The first real question to address is "should you have a race plan?" This might seem a silly question at first, but there is a good line of argument behind not having a plan: First, you don't have any idea what's going to unfold in a race.  It could get out fast, it could get out slow, the top runner might be out with injury, etc.   Making a plan that says "I want to be 5:10 at the mile at the state cross country meet" might be a good idea in theory, but what if the top runners are hesitant and first place at the mile is only 5:14? On the other hand, the race could get out very hard, with the back of the field being 5:06 or 5:08.  In both cases, your race plan leaves you high and dry, and undoubtedly causes you stress when you realize your race is not going according to plan anymore.  Not having a plan allows you (in theory) to react to the race as it develops.

The same event can unfold in vastly different ways.  In 2007, Rob Finnerty led a strung-out field through the mile in 4:41 at the Minnesota state cross country championships.  Two years later, eventual winner Aaron Bartnik (191) pulled away after a huge front pack came through in a relatively pedestrian 5:09 first mile. 
Too often, however, I've found that having no plan at all leaves you feeling adrift, unable to exert much control over your situation in the race.  The mental "energy cost" of making a decisive move in a race is much higher once fatigue has started to build up.  Most runners know how easy it is to put off starting your kick or let a competitor slip away in the final stages of a race, even though it's contrary to what you want to accomplish.  Making these sorts of decisions before the race, when possible, alleviates some of this decision fatigue.  Having a plan allows you to exercise some amount of control over what's going on in a race.

Deciding to have a race plan is easy.  Choosing how to construct it is a little more challenging.  Sports psychology resources will tell you that your goals and plans should be concrete—e.g. "be in 10th by halfway" instead of "run near the front."  I, however, advocate a different approach.

It might be nice to sketch out your vision for the perfect race on paper (indeed, I did this for most of my senior year of high school) but because of the aforementioned issues of uncertainty about the race, this can lead to panicking and unwarranted disappointment over factors that really are out of your control.  As Mike Tyson famously said, "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." Instead of being myopically focused on details, it is better to return to basics: What is the purpose of a race plan?

For me, the answer is simple. A race plan should keep you focused on the right concepts at the right points in the race. Paces, place, and tactics can be part of the periphery, but the core of a race plan should be a very short list of concepts, feelings, or mental states to focus on.