Sunday, November 20, 2011

Blowing Up For A Cause: Hydrocephalus 5k Race Report

A flying start to the first annual Hydrocephalus 5k!  I'm the guy with the inappropriately fancy Oakleys toward the right.

As readers of this blog likely know, nearly five years ago, my younger brother Jaron died suddenly of hydrocephalus, which is a buildup of spinal fluid in the brain.  Two weeks ago, I learned of a 5k in town run by the Hydrocephalus Association, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to fighting the disorder.  In only two short weeks, thanks to the great generosity of nearly three dozen friends, family members, and Team Z teammates, I was able to raise over $2,700 for the cause; in fact, despite the short notice, I actually became the 4th-highest fundraiser for the event.   For that, I'm greatly indebted.

Today was the race, a largely flat out-and-back along West Potomac Park and Hains Point.  My resolve was to run as hard as I could for the cause, which I hoped would translate into something under 18:30, a time that my 38:25 10k last weekend suggested was a possibility.  The day was beautiful, and I felt pretty good, but when I pulled my GPS watch out of the bag at the race site, I found that it was dead.  So, I borrowed a plain ol' stopwatch-style watch -- a women's watch, nonetheless! -- and did battle as best I could.  A time of 18:30 would require about a 5:57/mile pace.

Ready! Set!  False start by bald dude.
We're off.
Already going too fast!
The entire race field started on a 5:30 pace.  Some lasted longer than others.
Well, to make a short story short, I raced as hard as I could, which turned out to be too hard.  Without the GPS to hold me back, I made the rookie mistake of cruising right behind the lead pack of guys until I could get a split at the first mile.  It felt quick, and my lungs began to burn a bit, but it didn't feel quite suicidal, and I was in the mood to suffer.  And suffer I did: I hit the first mile mark at 5:34 -- 23 seconds faster than the pace I hoped for -- and, by the 2.5k turnaround, I was on my own in a world of pain.  The top two guys were disappearing into the distance, and I was just trying to make it home as best I could.  The last mile or so was very slow, probably not much quicker than a 6:20, and I finished in 18:44 (6:02/mi).  The time was 12 seconds off my PR, but it was good for an Age Group victory in Men 30-39, and 3rd place overall in the race.  Ironically, in the only other 5k I've raced in my adult life, I also finished 3rd overall with an AG victory.  I suppose I'm consistent, if nothing else.

Winning.  The second place guy was afraid to come close enough to get his award.  

In all, it was a pretty satisfying tune-up for Ironman Cozumel next weekend.  I didn't get quite the time I wanted, but given my pacing mistake, I have no doubt that I'm fit enough to go as fast as I wanted to go if my execution had been a little better.  The top two guys finished in the mid-17's, so I was never going to beat them anyway.  And heck, it's fun every now and then to just go out and blow yourself to pieces to see what happens.  Of course, you quickly remember what happens: you can't breathe, want to die, and find yourself staring at the sky 10' past the finish line.  But that's why we all find this stuff so much fun, right?

Me with Noelle and Franklin post-race

Onward to Mexico!  I'll try to keep my opening mile of the Ironman marathon no faster than 5:40...

Friday, November 18, 2011

Ten Last-Minute Ironman Tips

This pic has nothing to do with IM.  But doesn't it make you feel better about it anyway?
Ironman Cozumel is ten days from now, so each day between now and then I'll be circulating a concrete Ironman prep or racing tip to my teammates on Team Z.  Since some of these might be of broader interest for anyone staring down a daunting endurance event, I'll also post them here in realtime.  They're primarily directed toward first-time Ironman racers, but many of them are things that even burned-out, cynical old vets would do well to remember.

    1. Butterflies. It's great to have butterflies!  If you're not nervous heading into a race, it shows that you're not focused on it or your head isn't in the right place.  The best pros will tell you that they're nervous heading into every race they do.  Embrace it!  It shows that you're invested, excited, and ready to go, and your best performance is only possible when you're a little on edge.  How many things in life make us feel this way?  Not enough. So enjoy it while it lasts -- it'll be over before you know it, and you only get a first time once.  
    2. Pre-Race Sleeplessness.  Don't worry about your sleep the night of the race.  Many, many athletes -- even some of the best -- are simply too highly wound to get a full night's sleep the night of the race.  You may find yourself tossing sleeplessly at 11:00 pm, getting increasingly stressed out about your breakfast wake-up drawing ever closer, and worried that your lack of sleep could undermine months of hard work.  And, of course, the more you worry about it, the harder sleep becomes.  The last thing you want to worry about on race morning is whether your lack of sleep has set you back before the gun even goes off.  Here's the good news: the amount and quality of your sleep the night of the race isn't critical.  Some pros hardly sleep at all.  Instead, what matters most is your sleep two nights before the race.  So, if your race is Sunday morning, make sure that you hit the sack early on Friday, and don't be the first one awake on Saturday morning.  Once Saturday night rolls around, get what sleep you can, but don't fret it -- your work is done, and you'll be good to go even if you just wind up watching a movie or reading a book.  Don't take it from me: The source of this one is Paula Newby-Fraser, 8-time winner of Ironman Hawaii, and the triathlete that many would name as the greatest of all time
    3. We Aren't Calorie Camels.  When we taper for a race, the volume of exercise decreases substantially... but our appetites don't.  It's easy to justify overeating, or filling up on pizza, ice cream, and pasta (i.e., foods with a lot of calories but little nutritional value), on the theory that we're preparing for the big race.  But the simple fact is that we can't store infinite calories like a camel for a week or two before an event, and what we eat a week out has no bearing on our race day performance.  The fact remains that, at most, we have 1500-2000 calories of glycogen available to us when we're "topped off," and anything beyond that gets stored as fat.  We can easily top-off our tanks simply by shifting our normal caloric intake -- that is, our basic calorie needs assuming no heavy training -- a little in favor of carbs for a couple of days before the race.  Thus, instead of eating mainly salads and lean meats, we can start focusing more on things like pasta and sweet potatoes.  But we don't need three plates of pasta or five pounds of potatoes.  There's nothing wrong with cutting loose on the dietary front for a little bit -- just wait until after you cross the finish line to do it.  When you get to the line light and lean, your body will thank you for it.
    4. Throwing Up Isn't a Disaster. The statistics are that something like 70% of Ironman athletes experience G.I. distress at some point during the race. That's simply because it's very hard to get everything right: Drink and eat too little, and you could run out of gas. Drink and eat too much, and you can get a little bloated and unsettled. The result is that a substantial number of people wind up heaving or throwing up on the side of the road at some point during the day. I've certainly been there myself. Today's tip is simply that, although it might be alarming to get physically ill during the race, it is not the end of the world if it happens. In fact, if you find yourself getting sick to your stomach, throwing up might be the best thing you could do -- you'll probably feel much better in very short order. Getting sick isn't a sign that you're falling apart physically or that there's anything wrong with your fitness, and it doesn't mean your race is in jeopardy. Instead, it simply means that your system is disagreeing with your nutritional game plan at the moment, and suggesting you try a different approach. So just think of it as hitting your system reset button, and start to rebuild: drink a little bit afterward, and when your stomach settles, eat a bit, and go from there. For the next little while, discard the race plan and just eat and drink according to what your system tells you it wants, no matter how strange its messages might be. It's perfectly possible to have a great race despite being in bad shape for a few minutes, so don't get rattled if you go through it. It just makes for an even more epic race report!
    5. Rev It Up with V8 Juice.  Over the course of a long Ironman, one of the challenges is to keep race nutrition palatable; there's only so long one can drink flavored sugar water (Gatorade) between hits from flavored sugar packets (gels) before your system says, "enough!"  And, in hotter races, you'll probably find that you're craving something savory to counterbalance all of the sweetness, at least temporarily.  There is, fortunately, a wonderful thing that accomplishes just these goals: a small can or bottle of V8 juice.  Here are the ingredients: water and and tomato paste, and juices of celery, beets, parsley, lettuce, watercress, spinach, plus salt and seasoning. You get great things like Vitamin A, C, E, B6, potassium, calcium, magnesium, all without any fat, protein, or anything that might upset your stomach.  You also get a 420 mg of sodium per 8-ounce serving.  Best of all, when it gets warm, it tastes perhaps even better than it does cold -- think tomato soup.  There aren't many calories in it  (50 per serving), but you may find that, once or twice during an Ironman, drinking a bottle of it will reset your palate and suddenly make all of that race nutrition appealing again.  In Cozumel 2009, this stuff basically saved my life.  So, consider getting a bottle or two (it's available everywhere, including Cozumel), and sticking it in your bike and run special needs bags.  You might not need it, but then again, you may find find that it's exactly what you're in the mood for.  Of course, needless to say, don't drink it for the very first time on race day -- there aren't any strange ingredients, but you should at least try a couple of bottles in the days before the race, something that will help to top off your electrolytes in any event.
    6. Meditate on Your Inspirations.  Ask anyone who's been around Ironman for a significant period of time, or who has raced a number of them, and he'll tell you that almost every athlete in every Ironman goes through a very bleak period at some point during the day.  These events are unique in their ability to run you through the whole gamut of human emotion: anticipation, hope, despair, exuberance, depression, love, frustration, and gratitude.  This means it is very likely that, at some point, you'll be suffering mentally and physically, with the finish line hours away, and you'll wonder what possessed you to do such a crazy event.  This phase will pass; indeed, you may be surprised to find that, 15 minutes later, you're tearing up with joy and pride in what you're accomplishing.  In the meantime, the trick is to realize that your brain is messing with you.  To prepare yourself for this, in the week leading up to the event, set some time aside to reflect on the specific, and very personal, reasons why you've dedicated months or years in order to race Ironman.  We all have them; no one does something like this unless there's a drive behind it.  Perhaps you, or someone close to you, experienced a personal tragedy that compelled you to live life to its fullest.  Maybe, at some point in your life, someone told you that you'd never amount to anything.  Maybe you told yourself such a thing, and you're proving yourself wrong.   Maybe you're racing for a deeply personal cause, or because you realize how fortunate we are to have the chance to do something so remarkable.  Maybe, to paraphrase Pre, you don't want to sacrifice the gift.  Whatever your reason, spend some time in the days leading up to the race actively reminding yourself why you're there.  And then, when the tough moments in the race come, recall those reasons vividly and intensely.  Picture the reasons, hear them, and feel them.  You may find suddenly that you're ten miles down the road and flying.
    7. Before you walk, try speeding up.  It sounds crazy, but it can help.  12 hours into an Ironman, muscular fatigue can reduce many people's run to little more than a plod.  If you normally run to 9:30/mi in Z2, you could easily find yourself running 11:30/mi, a pace you haven't practiced, and for which your muscles haven't become efficient.  It may well include too much vertical bounce, which recruits quads tired from the bike, and not enough horizontal thrust, which recruits relatively fresh flutes and hamstrings.  Therefore, it could be the case that you're not too tired to run, but that you're just too tired to run in that unpracticed, inefficient manner.  So before you're forced to walk, try accelerating for a minute -- break from the plod, and dive yourself horizontally with a quick cadence.  It could be that you have more in your tank than you thought.
    8. "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are."  -Theodore Roosevelt.  Sometimes our best performances come just after things look their most bleak.  I set a 40-minute Ironman run PR in Wales, on the hilliest run course I've ever encountered, after a bike ride that broke me so badly that I literally got off the bike for two minutes at mile 90 to try to rally enough to make it up the climb I was facing.  Last weekend, in Arizona, Kendra ran a seemingly impossible 3:21 and qualified for Kona, but only after (i) hitting her hand so hard in the swim that it appeared to be broken, and (ii) losing 20 minutes on the bike due to two flat tires.  Finally, in Rev3 South Carolina, pro Meredith Kessler finished third after breaking her seat on the bike and riding out of the saddle for the last 18 miles.  There are countless other examples out there of this phenomenon.  In each instance, it would have been very easy to throw in the towel mentally, and no one would have questioned that decision.  But doing so would have been an incredible tragedy because all three races will be looked back upon as tremendous personal victories; indeed, the triumph over adversity is a big part of what's meaningful in this sport and lifestyle.  So follow Teddy Roosevelt's advice: do what you can, with what you have, where you are.  Take it a step at a time, and let the future take care of itself.  Your best day may lie just ahead. 
    9. "Everybody's got plans... until they get hit."  -Mike Tyson.  It's great to have a race plan; it brings assurance and gives you something to execute.  Just remember that Ironman is, in some sense, an adventure with an incomplete map, and each one brings a different twist.  This is, I think, a good thing: a big part of what makes these races fun is that you learn something new about yourself each time.  So don't be alarmed if you find that your race plan -- whether it be pace, nutrition, or something else -- isn't going quite the way you expected.  On one level, it means you have to do some thinking, but on another, you can view the setback as a liberation, and as permission to live the adventure a little bit.  You might figure some things out that ultimately make you a stronger athlete.  Maybe you suddenly start craving something wacky like Oreos on the run -- something that you'd normally never consider eating.  Maybe you try one, and find that you feel a lot better afterward.  You've just learned that your body is smarter than any plan, and that's the real tip of the day: Listen to yourself, and listen closely.  Don't ignore the experience you've accrued, and by all means, go with the plan until you have reason not to.  But the plan is not a set of commandments, so don't be afraid to roll with the punches and listen to yourself.
    10. Have fun!  It's not a cliche, but instead is a large part of the secret of going fast. Here's an article by Ken Mierke from a couple of years ago that explains why. (Reprinted with permission.)


      © 2005 by Ken Mierke

      "Somewhere behind the athlete you've become and the hours of practice and the coaches who have pushed you is a little girl who fell in love with the game and never looked for her." - U.S Olympic soccer star Mia Hamm

      I once coached an athlete through qualifying for the Navy SEALS. He was a serious triathlete, a regional champion, but his real goal was always the SEALS. After years of training for this goal, we sat down for a strategy session right before he left to take his big test. As we were leaving, I said to him, "Have fun." He was furious with me. He had worked so hard to prepare for this test, and he thought that my telling him to have fun meant I thought that he wasn't taking it seriously. Serious and fun are not opposites ? in fact, they can and should go together. Learning to bring these together on race day will lead to peak performance.

      Every athlete has had workouts and races during which producing and sustaining high heart rates was so challenging and exciting that the pain and effort almost went unnoticed. Other times, eight two-minute hill repeats can seem intolerable. Often, the difference between these two experiences is the mindset, or psychological mode, in which an athlete begins a workout or race. Few athletes understand what a powerful force this can be in training and racing. Even fewer realize that psychological mode is something that can and should be manipulated.

      Every athlete has an optimal level of psychological arousal for peak performance. If psychological arousal is too low, the athlete will be under-motivated and won't perform maximally. If arousal is too high, the athlete will suffer from anxiety, which can impair race performance. Instead of forcing yourself to gear down psychologically to avoid becoming too anxious before a race or workout, you can learn to activate a different part of your psyche that thrives on higher arousal, to maximize performance.

      Achievement mode

      Racing and very hard workouts tend to activate what we refer to as achievement mode. While in the achievement mode, athletes want to succeed: to climb faster, pass their rivals, win the race, set a new
      personal best. Unfortunately, this is not the ideal mode for racing or for hard workouts. When in the achievement mode, athletes find high arousal produces anxiety and low arousal produces feelings of peace. Of course, racing and hard workouts are extremely high arousal situations, both physically and psychologically. Maintaining high physical and emotional intensity while in this mode triggers frustration and increased perceptions of both exertion and pain, even while the athlete is performing well.

      As an exercise physiologist and coach, I realize the importance of structure in training, goal setting, and using numbers to control an athlete's training. I also realize that these numbers can take on a larger-than-life role in the athlete's mind and become more detrimental than beneficial. I remember one cyclist I coached who set a 45-second personal record in a 40K time trial in his first podium appearance, but was infuriated because he could not hold the heart rate he had planned to. Annual training plans, heart rate zones, periodization, and all the structured, goal-oriented, number-oriented tools, which are useful for preparing an athlete for peak performance, are intrinsically related to the achievement mode. These things have their time and place, but on race day the preparation is done and it is time to shift modes and go race.

      Hedonic mode

      The second psychological mode is the hedonic (pleasure-seeking) mode. In this mode, athletes swim, bike, and run to the point of exhaustion simply for the joy it brings. When in this mode, athletes find high arousal to produce feelings of challenge and excitement, while they find low arousal to be boring. This is the ideal state of mind for racing and high-intensity training, but it is not an attitude that comes naturally at these times. The pressure of performing well tends to shift serious athletes into the achievement mode at the times they most need the benefits of the hedonic mode. While we all enjoy racing and hard training, we also have goals. We train hard and race to make progress to ACHIEVE. Success is not measured by pleasure, but by results. Learning to shift into the hedonic mode at appropriate times, even though it will not be natural at those times, is critical to producing your best performances when you need to. The achievement mode is appropriate for workouts that demand discipline or must remain low intensity. Longer rides and runs with strictly controlled low intensity demand the discipline and patience provided by this mode. An athlete in the hedonic mode would find these workouts endlessly boring. Ever attacked a hill during a long base phase workout that was supposed to be kept aerobic? We all have. This is the hedonic mode kicking in. Specific work on pedal-stroke technique and other important workouts that demand concentration, but require minimal intensity may also benefit from this mode. The low intensity and arousal are not stimulating to the athlete engaged in the hedonic mode.

      Focus on Feelings, not on Numbers

      While heart rate, wattage, and miles per hour can be critical in training, sometimes used almost exclusively to govern workout intensity, I prefer to have athletes rely more on perceived exertion during races. Heart rate and wattage can be useful gauges, but overemphasis on the numbers tends to shift athletes out of the ideal psychological mode for racing. I like to teach my athletes to become intimately acquainted with how their body feels at the intensity level which will be required in their racing and to seek to reproduce those feelings on race day. Using heart rate, wattage, and even laboratory test results improves training efficiency. During this training the athlete needs to remain tuned in to perceived exertion, even as he trains by numbers, to learn to accurately and consistently perceive intensity on race day. Prepare by the numbers; race by feel.

      Enjoy the moment

      Did you ever watch Michael Jordan score 50 points in a basketball game and see the huge smile on his face? Was he smiling because he scored 50 points or did he score 50 points because he was smiling? British psychologist Dr. Michael Apter's research says the answer to both questions is yes. Great athletes in every sport are at their best under intense pressure. They fall into the hedonic mode instead of the achievement mode and the high arousal brings out their best. Great athletic performances are expressions of the joy of the sport. If you lose touch with that because of the will to achieve, your performance will suffer.

      Don't "Psyche Up"

      We do not like the idea of our athletes getting "psyched up" for races. This method of increasing arousal shifts them into the achievement mode and generally does not produce great performances. Athletes who have trained hard and long for an event will naturally be aroused come race day. The investment in training ensures this. Artificially increasing this is neither necessary nor beneficial.

      Race Day is "Payoff"

      I like to remind athletes that they invest an enormous amount in preparing for races. They train hard and with discipline. They avoid late-night partying. They eat a healthy diet. I like to have my athletes perceive race day as the payoff, something to be looked forward to, not as the final exam to be dreaded. This kind of attitude shifts the athlete toward the hedonic mode, which brings out their best on race day. Many great performances have resulted from an athlete thinking that he has stored many hours of hard training in his legs and race day he just "lets it out."

      Understanding how, when, and why to shift to the appropriate psychological mode for different workouts and races enables an athlete to enjoy discipline and control when appropriate and to relish the challenge, effort, and pain associated with high-intensity workouts and races when that is required.

        Tuesday, November 15, 2011

        Diggin' Deep

        Crowie digs it.  Lieto broke his shovel.
        A couple of weeks ago, someone on the Team Z listserv wrote to the group to ask a deceptively simple question: She found that, toward the end of difficult track sessions, spins, or races, she had a hard time pushing herself to the breaking point, and she asked if anyone had suggestions about how to go about it.  People wrote back with concrete, helpful proposals, such as just trying to keep pushing until the next telephone pole, and then the next one, etc.  Others talked about Central Governor theory, and some suggested reading books on sports psychology.

        All of this flashed through my mind this past Sunday as I ran my first competitive 10k for several years, and was reminded of how diabolically painful they can be.  In fact, if run to the limit of one’s ability, I think it’s inevitable that the pain will asymptotically approach the complete meltdown point.  My race went about as well as I could have hoped: I went 38:25 (6:11/mi), which is a 5-minute PR, and my execution was basically perfect, with 5k splits of 19:12 and 19:13 for the two halves.  But here’s the thing: I felt close to death for almost the whole race.  I suffered a massive side-stitch in mile 2, and by the turnaround just past mile 3, I was seriously questioning whether I could hold the pace for another half mile, much less another 3.1 miles.  My lungs were on fire, my legs felt shot, my stomach was rebelling, and I wondered whether the best plan might be to shut it down, be happy with a solid 5k, and just admit that it wasn’t my day.  Each quarter mile felt like it might be my last on earth, and I found myself reflecting on the question, “Why the hell am I doing this?  Why don’t I just dial the pace back and be happy with the PR that's pretty much inevitable no matter what happens in the second half?”  Indeed, I realized that, the harder I ran, the more likely it was that I’d find myself on the side of the road before I hit the finish line.  I’d certainly been down that road enough times.

        Meanwhile, as I was bargaining with myself, I kept clicking off the miles and drawing closer to the finish line.  Just as I was concluding that I couldn’t possibly hold the pace any longer, I blew past the marker for Mile 5, which meant that I was close enough to the finish line that its gravitational pull could guide me the rest of the way.  The result was, statistically speaking, the strongest road race I’ve ever run.  And I accomplished it while feeling distinctly awful for every step of the last four miles.  (Of course, a couple of hours after the race, I reflected that I could have gone faster.)

        Two years ago, I almost certainly wouldn’t have run that time.  Indeed, last summer, I tried to break 40 minutes in a 10k and wound up abandoning the race halfway through.  Fitness is certainly part of the difference, but I think a much bigger part of it is the mental side.  My run at Ironman Wales was a brutal struggle for every single mile, but somehow it turned into a 40-minute PR.  So, too, at the Eugene Marathon, where I started getting tired at about the 18-mile mark, but fought through the final 10k in a way I’d never managed before.

        This is all to say that my teammate’s question to the listserv – i.e., how does one fight through the pain? – is exactly the question to ask, because I think it’s one of the biggest factors that separates the very best athletes from the merely gifted.  In fact, regardless of one’s innate talent, I think mental toughness and resolve is ultimately the factor that determines whether a particular athlete will continue to get faster or plateau at a given performance level.  If you listen to interviews of the top endurance athletes, or read iconic books like Once a Runner, it become obvious that there is no talismanic secret to minimizing the suffering.  They don’t minimize it; if anything, the race winners probably hurt more than anyone else in the field.  The difference is that they accept the pain and even welcome it, because they know that the absence of that pain means that they haven’t given their best effort, and to them, that knowledge would be more painful and lasting than the discomfort that they endure during the race.

        There’s no question that, for some people, the mental side comes easier than for others.  In the last couple of years, I’ve experienced both sides of the equation, and while I think I’m finally getting it figured out, on some level I suspect that the mental game is one that’s never won.  There is always the possibility that the next race or training session will be the one where you sell yourself short, and preventing that from happening requires constant vigilance.

        One thing that I’ve found this year is that mental performance on race day is the product of countless small decisions made throughout the year.  I’ve spent months trying to get my weight down to race level, and that experience has been uncomfortable, to say the least.  But every time I’ve gone to bed hungry or passed up a Snickers bar, I’ve made sure to mentally record that small victory in an explicit way, and it's gotten to the point that, on some level, feeling hungry sometimes feels like a victory for willpower.  Similarly, there have been many track and trainer sessions this year that have called for 8-10 hard efforts, and I’ve felt utterly exhausted halfway through the first one.  As often as not, though, I've found that if I can make it through the first one, the second will be easier, or at least no harder, and I'll be able to complete the workout.  In fact, most of my very best workouts this year have come in precisely the conditions that have given me the most reason not to attempt them, or to cut them short.  Each of those small victories adds up, and soon one’s mental mindset begins to change in subtle but important ways.  If you force yourself to run a fast 400 meters at the end of a track workout, when you can barely stand up at the start of it, you’ll soon find yourself halfway through a tough 800 meter run where you wonder if you can finish it out, but the voice inside will say, “I can endure anything for 400 meters.”  And, if you can keep yourself pushing through an 800 come hell or high water, you’ve cracked the secret to the business end of a 1600.  A tough 1600 is all you need to finish strong in a 5k, which will allow you to finally snare that 10k time that’s seemed so elusive.

        Ultimately, we find ourselves in a marathon or Ironman.  It’s no small thing even to participate in events of that magnitude, and many people are justifiably happy and satisfied to do so.  If one sticks with endurance sports over the long term, though, one likely will want to do more than finish – getting faster becomes the goal.  It is when one decides to try to race -- and I mean race, not just participate in -- longer distance events that one realizes that they're really just a series of the battles that one has fought at the shorter distance.  An Ironman marathon is nothing more or less than 26.2 1-mile efforts.  Regardless of the distance, we can only run a step at a time.  

        I think it's no coincidence that, to a man, the very best Ironman athletes started out their careers by fighting to the top of the short-course world.  Similarly, the best American marathoner in history, Ryan Hall, was a 5k guy in college.  Racing those shorter distances, and enduring the pain that success requires, gave them leg speed, but it also equipped them with the mental tools necessary to tackle the longer distances successfully.  A friend of mine said remarked recently that it's harder to go 5% faster than 50% longer, and I think that's true.  I think that many people are driven to compete in longer events because they don't require that one confront pain in the same way that short-course racing does.  Ironman is very uncomfortable, but at no point does one suffer remotely as much as someone does on the business end of an Olympic distance 10k.  That's one reason I feel strongly that, in the long run, athletes do themselves somewhat of a disservice by rushing to ultra-distance events like Ironman: they never learn to go fast, and thereby don't reach their potentials as athletes, at least in terms of speed.  They never learn to demand the most out of themselves, because they're never forced to to learn that they can fight through pain and discomfort and surprise themselves.  In fact, Iron-distance training is, on some level, actively counterproductive because the conventional wisdom is that, if you feel acute pain, you're going too hard and should back off immediately.  That attitude, though perhaps correct as a matter of Iron-distance pacing, is inimical to success at shorter distances, and once it gets ingrained, it can be very hard to dispel because it essentially teaches you that it's okay to quit on yourself when the going gets tough.

        I'm only now learning these lessons, because I started out my endurance career by emphasizing distance: my first year in triathlon comprised two half-IM's and an IM.  To this day, I've finished more IM's than olys, and more halves than sprints.  And I'm realizing that this is probably a large part of why I plateau'd speed-wise over the last few years: going long and slowly teaches you to be good at going long and slowly.  It does not teach you how to push your limits.  The good news is that it's always possible to change what you're doing to target those limiters, to learn to dig deep.  But it requires a conscious attempt to do so -- simply doing the same thing that one has always done won't suddenly yield different results.  I've gone about it this year by actively seeking out workouts that will push my boundaries speed-wise: Yasso 800s (10x800) on short rest, 1600m and 3200m repeats, and Computrainer intervals that make me basically fall off of the trainer after the last rep.  It hurts like hell, but I can tell you that it pays off on race day, because it teaches you that pain is just pain, signifying little.  The inner dialog evolves from, "I'm in pain, I need to slow down" -- which is what you're taught at Ironman distance, to avoid blowing up -- to "I'm in pain.  Ok.  So what?"

        For me, that mental shift has made all of the difference, such that I now actively fight against the voice in my head that tells me it's okay to back off when it hurts.  I ran the MCM this year only as a training run; I planned to run 20 miles at a reasonable pace, and then see how I felt before deciding whether to run the last 10k or shut it down and walk.  As mile 20 approached, I was getting tired and my legs were getting heavy, so I looked forward to that threshold, when I'd have permission to stop.  But when I got there, I realized that the very fact that I wanted to stop meant that I owed it to myself not to.  There aren't many chances to practice fighting through the 20-mile fatigue, and I realized that I had an opportunity to prove something to myself.  So, I picked it up for the last 6 miles, dropping the 3:25 pace group and finishing in 3:23 -- a nice little negative split.  That exercise made it all the easier to fight through the pain in the last half of the 10k this past weekend.

        In short, mental toughness comes easier to some than others.  But I'm convinced that we can all learn it if we adopt the attitude that pain is, on some level, a sign that we're breaking through a barrier, either physical or mental.  Success on that front feeds on itself, and soon becomes instinctive: you become someone for whom quitting isn't an option, and you welcome the pain because you know that, if you make it through to the other side of it, a PR will often await you.  That PR is something that no one can take away, because you earned it through grit and determination.  So start small, and surprise yourself with what you can do.  

        Thursday, November 3, 2011

        If You Don't Want to Buy One, Don't Try One: Recovery Pump Review


        While my race performance at Rev3 South Carolina was a bit of a mixed bag, one thing that was unambiguously great about the experience was that, at the expo, I had the chance to try out new product called the Recovery Pump.  Experienced triathletes (and athletes in any sport) recognize that proper recovery from workouts and races is nearly as important as the workouts and races themselves, because it's only during the recovery phase that one actually gets stronger as the body overcompensates for the stress that it's experienced.   With three sports to account for, triathletes as a rule train too much and recover too little, thereby often experiencing overuse injuries and performance levels that plateau for long periods.

        While triathletes are loathe to take time off of training, they're much more willing to consider methods that accelerate the recovery process.  The traditional method is, of course, the dreaded ice bath, whereby one fills a bathtub with icy water and sits in it for 15 or 20 minutes.  The theory is that the cold reduces inflammation and also draws blood to the chilled areas, which aids recovery by flushing out lactic acid and other pernicious byproducts of hard training.  Although many athletes swear by ice baths, the downsides are obvious: they're very painful, and also inconvenient.  You need a bathtub, a large quantity of ice, 20-30 minutes to spare, and you can't take them anywhere.  Ice baths after cold winter runs are a particularly unwelcome proposition.

        The second traditional rapid-recovery strategy is the massage.  Especially popular immediately post-race, massages can work wonders, but for most athletes, they're reserved for rare occasions due to the cost (often as much as $80/hour before tip) and time-consuming nature of the visit itself.

        The final established rapid-recovery strategy has involved the use of compression garments, such as tights and calf sleeves.  The best of these garments use graded compression, i.e., they squeeze most strongly at the foot, less around the mid-leg, and least around the quad, such that blood is forced up out of the leg and inflammation is reduced.  Compression tights are great, and certainly warrant a place in every athlete's wardrobe.

        The Recovery Pump is a new, FDA-approved, prescription-only product that essentially combines most of the benefits of all three strategies listed above, while minimizing the inconveniences.  In essence, the pump system is a pair of inflatable boots that cover from the tip of the toes to the base of the glutes, and an adjustable air compressor that progressively inflates the boots from the bottom up, releases the air, and repeats the process.  In Recovery Pump's lingo, it's an SIPC, or "Sequential Intermittent Pneumatic Compression" device.  

        Each boot is connected by pneumatic tubes (they look like white wires, but are hollow) to the very small compressor box to the right of the picture.  Each boot contains four chambers: one around the foot and ankle, the next around the soleus and calf muscles, the third around the knee and lower quads, and the fourth around the quads and lower glutes.  The lower-most chamber inflates first, followed by the calf, knee, and quad chambers.  The inflation is held for a few seconds, and then all four chambers deflate simultaneously with a minor "whoosh," and there's a palpable feeling of blood rushing down your legs into your feet.  Then they inflate sequentially once more, and the process repeats itself.  Both the intensity of the compression, and the "deflated" time between compression sequences, can be adjusted easily using dials on the compressor.

        You might think that pneumatic -- or "air pressure" -- compression wouldn't feel like much.  But you'd be very wrong.  The closest analogy I can draw is to the strength of a blood pressure cuff: imagine four cuffs that, together, cover your whole leg, and that automatically inflate and release.  I can't imagine many people wanting stronger compression than you get on the highest compression setting.

        The end result of the compression and deflation sequence is that blood is pushed progressively out of your beaten-up legs, and then rushes back in, and out, and in again.  This is exactly what compression garments attempt to do, but their compression is clearly weaker than the Recovery Pump, and it's obviously not cyclical.

        The most obvious thing to say about the Recovery Pump is that it feels absolutely, positively wonderful.  At the Rev3 expo tent, people would park themselves in the boots and essentially decide to stay there indefinitely.  In the two weeks I've had the boots, I've done some very serious workouts, and it's gotten to the point where, afterward, my main objective is to shower and get some food as quickly as possible so that I can collapse onto my couch with the boots and bliss out.  They are utterly relaxing in the way that a gentle massage is, and my legs feel just terrific after I use them.

        Feeling great is one thing, but an obvious question is, do they facilitate recovery?  Here's how the Recovery Pump folks explain the benefits:  "When the athlete stops exercising, venous return decreases significantly, slowing the evacuation of Lactic Acid, Carbon Dioxide, other Metabolic Waste and water.  The challenge is to continue the process of clearing these elements after exercise has stopped so as to NOT allow the accumulation of these waste to sit in the muscle for long periods of time.  By clearing these elements quickly, better O2 perfusion occurs as does the delivery of plasma through capillary action of blood flow.  Plasma and O2 are the lifeblood of healthy cells.  The more cells get, the healthier they are.  The accumulation of Lactic Acid, Carbon Dioxide, water and other metabolic waste blocks the perfusion of new 'food' to the cells.  Lactic Acid clears relatively quickly (in a matter of a couple of hours or less), but many of the elements in Metabolic Waste can take a much longer time, so long that soreness can increase or even onset up to 48 hours later. Thus, clearing these elements quickly and efficiently through improved and energized venous return is essential for healthy cell prolferation and activity."

        Now, I'm just a lawyer, so I don't pretend to understand any of that.  But here's what I can say, after having these for two weeks: you'll have to pry them off of my cold, dead legs.  Since I've had them, I've done my best to destroy myself through training, putting in two weeks of ~25 hours of quality training, including a 127-mile ride, 4-hour trainer ride, 20-mile run, 3:23 marathon, 1.5 hours/day on the Elliptigo, 2x/week Computrainer workouts, 3x/week swims, 3x/week yoga sessions, and 2x/week hard track workouts.  And yet, after all of that, I can honestly say that I've never felt stronger.  Three days after the Marine Corps Marathon, I had the best track practice I've ever had, and I followed it up today with the strongest Computrainer session I've had this year.  You can bet I'm wearing the boots while I'm typing this.  Thus, although my evidence is purely anecdotal, I have every reason to think that regular use of the boots has helped me handle a training load that otherwise I might not have.  N.B. also was eager to take a turn in them after her 139-mile bike adventure, and generally fights me for them whenever possible, which I take to be an endorsement.

        Aside from "feels great" and "seems to work," the final thing I'll mention about the boots is that they're convenient.  One significant drawback of ice baths is that they're time-consuming, but using the Recovery Pump really doesn't take much time out of the day -- you can catch up on Jon Stewart, surf the web, pay bills, write blog posts, or even nap while you're using them.  And, significantly, the system is highly portable.  Although the boots look (and are) large when they're fully inflated, here they are deflated:

        Beyond the boots, the entire system comprises the comrpessor box, pneumatic tubes, and a power cable.  Here's a picture of the compressor box next to a paperback book:

        Recovery Pump compressor and book for comparison.
        As you can see from the picture below, everything together is a surprisingly compact package:

        Compressor, boots, and cables.
        This, to me, is one of the great benefits of the system: it easily fits into a suitcase or duffel bag, so I'll bring it with me to use in the days before and after races, like Ironman Cozumel later this month.

        Having sung the praises of the system, I should mention two drawbacks.  The first is relatively minor: the boots are warm.  There's no air circulation in them, and for hygenic reasons (your legs can sweat a bit), the instructions direct users to wear long paints, such as track pants, and socks when using the system.  Thus, when I take them off, I find that my legs are often a little bit sweaty, and if you use them in a hot room, it can be minorly uncomfortable at times.  I've rarely had a problem with it.

        The bigger drawback is the price.  The list price of the system is $1395, although they're currently available at the introductory rate of $1195.  (Using coupon code A11018, or purchasing one using the link on the right side of this blog, will get you a $25 discount, free ground shipping, and a complementary tote bag.)  No two ways about it, the system is expensive.  I'd submit, though, that among expensive triathlon-related things, the return on investment is very high, although perhaps not quite on the level of the Computrainer, which I've been addicted to for six years.  Put it this way: for the price of two Zipp wheels, you could get two Reynolds or Hed wheels that are likely just as fast, and a Recovery Pump as well.  You also could get a Recovery Pump using the money you'd save by selecting Ultegra instead of Dura-Ace components on a bike.  Based on on my experience so far, I would certainly make either of those trade-offs in order to get one of these things.  (For perspective, it's worth noting that the only marketplace competitor for Recovery Pump, the Normatec MVP, retails for $4,850.)  It's also worth noting that, if the recovery benefits help to avoid injuries that require medical treatment or physical therapy, it could be less expensive than it looks.

        In any case, there is some good news on the price front.  Because the Recovery Pump system is a prescription-only, FDA-approved medical device, you can purchase one pre-tax using a Health Savings Account or equivalent.  If you're wondering what to do with your expiring funds before year-end, I couldn't think of anything more worthwhile.  [Edit: Since I wrote this review, the device has ceased to require a prescription.]

        In short, as is obvious, I'm kind of in love with these things.  Check 'em out!