Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Stress and Running

I heard an interesting remark on a podcast the other day.  The hosts were interviewing a triathlon coach about training camps, week-long retreats where you get together with other athletes and train under the guidance of professional coaches.  They are deliberately held in remote locations, says this coach, because part of the benefit is getting away from the normal stresses of your life.  He said that without the nine-to-five job to worry about, people are amazed at how much harder they can go.

The reason this happens is that stress takes it's toll on your body.  It wears you out, fatigues you, in the same way that running or biking does.  I'm in the middle of the semester, which is always that hardest time, and I'm definitely feeling those effects.  I'll come home late after a day where my only exercise was my 35 minute volleyball class, but I will feel completely drained.  Working out can be a great way to relieve stress, for sure, but sometimes you are already so physically worn out that a hard session of weightlifting seems counter-productive.

My point is to recognize that if you feel especially fatigued but your training volume hasn't gone up, the other factors in your life may be the cause.  One of the biggest advantages that professional endurance athletes have is that they don't have another job; training is their sole responsibility.  This opens them up to do so much more focused, productive exercise and make bigger sport-specific fitness gains.  The rest of us have to do the best with the time that we have and recognize that we can't do everything all of the time.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Great Podcast-IM Talk

These two goofy mugs are John Newsom and Bevan James Eyles, and they host the podcast "IM Talk".  It is two New Zealand triathletes talking for 90 minutes each week about iron-distance triathlon.

A couple of downsides; the audio quality isn't great, and their accents are really thick, so it can be hard to hear what they are saying.  Also, they aren't broadcasters, so they talk really fast and sometimes talk over each other.  So far this doesn't sound great, but after a couple of episodes I kind of got hooked.  The two are clearly best friends so they have a natural chemistry, and that conviviality really comes through.  James is the more serious one, and Bevan jokes around a lot, and together they make an entertaining team.

They are clearly very well connected in the triathlon community, so they have interviews with athletes and coaches, and fill you in on all of the latest news in the sport (Lance Armstrong had his professional triathlon debut recently, and their discussion on that was way interesting.)  Triathlon is a surprisingly dynamic sport right now, and it's been fun to hear about all of the exciting things that are happening in this little world.

If you are into multisport and you want to try a new podcast, go to their website or just subscribe on iTunes.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Swimming Basics-The Flutter Kick

The kick you use during the freestyle stroke is the flutter kick.  It is a fast scissoring motion with the knees mostly straight and the toes pointed.  We did kick drills in class today, and the teacher described the knee bend really well: "the kick comes from the hips, the knee bend is incidental as your leg snaps back."  It can be easy to keep the hips immobile, bend the knee, and push back on the water with your lower leg.  But this doesn't produce a lot of power.

Instead imagine starting from the hips, keeping the legs straight, and whipping your leg through the water.  This way, the knee bend feels like an afterthought, a consequence of the necessary hip motion.  One reason to limit the knee bend is that it hinders hydrodynamics; that protruding knee acts like a snow plow that pushes the water as you try to move forward.  But you want to push back, not forward!

A drill to practice this is doing 2x25 yards of kicking with the knee completely immobile.  This forces you to accentuate the hip motion and discover where the real power comes from.  You wont go very fast and it will probably feel clumsy, but it is a good exercise.  Then you follow it up with 2x25 yards of regular kicking, again focusing on the hip movement but allowing your knees to bend slightly at the end of the motion.

A warning about kick drills; if you've never done them before, they will be very challenging.  So start small, doing only 25 yards at a time, and doing only as many as you can do without being totally wasted.  They will get easier as your legs get stronger and your technique improves, so hang in there!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Long-Awaited Return To Running

Yesterday I signed up for the XTERRA Moab Sport Triathlon!  (My favorite part of the signup was the waiver you have to sign that included the following warning: "...BEWARE THAT DESPITE PRECAUTIONS THE RISKS RANGE FROM MINOR INJURY TO CATASTROPHIC INJURY OR DEATH... "  Thanks for the vote of confidence, race officials.)  It's an off-road, sprint-distance race through the desert and mountains of central Utah.  I wanted to do a race in the spring or early summer so I started shopping around for the local triathlons, and the more I read about this one the more I fell in love.  It is 750 meters around a small lake, 8 miles of biking on the world famous Steelbender trail weaving through narrow canyons, and 5k of trail running through red-rock desert (think '127 Hours' scenery.)

I considered just picking a local 5k for my first post-surgery race, but ironically a triathlon will actually be easier on my back: the cross training will be good on my weak disc, and even serious triathlon training wouldn't require me to run more often then every other day.  The challenge of my first full triathlon will also add a lot of excitement to my training, whereas if I was only doing a 5k I would get discouraged thinking "I did this when I was 14, why is this so hard now?"  Training for my swim leg of a relay triathlon helped me recover from surgery in 2010, and training for a full tri this spring should help me make the final step in returning to competitive running.

I've been swimming almost non-stop since my surgery two years ago, so I'm in good shape for the swim leg.  I've been biking about once a week for the last couple of months to develop some leg strength, but I need to do much more volume to be ready for the race.  The race website described the bike leg as "very technically challenging", so as the weather warms I need to get up into the mountains to get practice maneuvering through rough terrain.  Lucky for me BYU is literally in the shadows of the Wasatch mountains, so I won't have to go too far.

The biggest change to my training will definitely be running.  I've been doing my back exercises religiously since my last relapse, and I feel really strong these days.  My volleyball class upset my back a little at the beginning of the semester, but it doesn't hurt it anymore, which means it is getting stronger.  Volleyball includes a lot of running and jumping, albeit in short bursts, so in a lot of ways I think it was a good precursor to running proper.  I've gained some weight over the last few months, so to motivate myself to slim down I decided to start running as soon as I get below 130 lbs (I was 133.9 this morning.)  I'm on pretty strict rations right now, so that should only take a couple weeks.  The increased training volume from biking will also help.  Part of my weight gain has been muscle, because I've been doing a lot of strength training and swimming.  But right now that is partially hiding under a thin layer of fat, so I'm excited to see what is really under there once I burn off the extra.  I ran a little yesterday during my Nike Training Club workout, actually, and my form felt great, so I think I will be starting from a good place.

June 9th, here I come!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

New PR in the pool!

My last few swimming workouts felt clumsy, so I was a little worried that my swimming class wasn't helping my freestyle stroke much.  Today we ended the workout with 25 yard sprints, so I decided to combine my last two and time my current pace at the 50 free.  And the result was...

That was 8 Seconds faster than my previous best!  Still not blazing fast (especially compared to a real swimmer) but I'm definitely making progress.  If I knocked 8 seconds off of each lap of a 750 yard sprint triathlon swim leg, that puts me out of the water 2 Minutes sooner than before.

I still have a lot to learn in this class, but I'm excited by my progress and I think if I'm patient and work hard my freestyle could look really good by the end of April.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Why dodo birds can't fly

In 1598 Dutch sailors first discovered the dodo bird on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.  The bird was so unusual that it attracted a lot of attention; it was very large (3-4 feet tall and as heavy as 50 lbs) and had such small wings that it was unable to fly.  The sailors apparently weren't impressed by it's disposition, because  the word "dodo" comes from the Dutch word "dodoor" which means "sluggard."

The dodo's bizarre features were a result of an evolutionary process called island gigantism, where animals on an island grow much larger than their mainland counterparts.  The reason is that islands usually lack large predators, so in their absence the prey can grow larger and larger.  The dodo also probably lost the ability to fly because without any clear threat to evade, wings became unnecessary.

The Dutch also noticed that the birds had no fear of humans.  The sailors could walk right up to them and the dodo would just stand there with a dumb look on it's face.  The birds had never been introduced to humans or any other large predator, so they had no reason to see them as a threat.  Basically, life had been easy on this quiet, little island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and over thousands of years the dodo grew fat, slow, and flightless.

As you can imagine, they were an easy target for hungry sailors who had been too long at sea.  The sailors didn't even like taste of the meat, but they were big and simple to hunt.  By 1681, 83 years after their discovery, they were extinct.

The dodo's years of easy life had done them no favors; they were weak and vulnerable, and all it took was one new predator to completely wipe them out.  We are like the dodos, because when life is easy and carefree, we don't benefit.  What makes us strong is challenge, adversity, struggle, pain.  This is one reason I love endurance sports, because in addition to being fun, they make you stronger, faster, more patient, more wise.  They make you ready for the next big thing coming, unlike our long extinct friend, the dodo.