Archive for ‘Nutrition’

July 31, 2015

The Downeast Relay

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A couple of months ago I got an email from an old friend asking if I would be at all interested in doing an overnight, self-supported, 100+ mile  relay through the Maine wilderness.  To which I of course responded, Hell yeah! Accordingly, last week I packed up snacks, gels, gear for all possible weathers, my Garmin watch, a headlamp, and pretty much anything I owned with a reflector or flashing light.  Finally after many hours and several flight delays, I arrived in Bangor at 1:00 Friday morning, 21 hours before the start of the second annual Downeast Relay.

I had started this post by writing a pretty thorough race report, but I soon realized that what I really wanted to convey and remember about this race (aside from the sight of a bald eagle flying overhead or sunrise over a bog) were the things I learned out on the trail.  The Downeast Relay was a totally different beast than anything I have ever tackled before.  I didn’t fully appreciate just how different it would be until I got out there, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

The race is run on a rails-to-trails trail that meanders northeast along the coast, starting in Ellsworth, Maine and finishing 102.7 miles later in Eastport (the eastern-most city in the US).  Much of it is pretty remote, and the 16 relay legs were pretty much defined by where the trail intersects drivable road.  The race allows teams of 4-8 people, but it seemed that most (including us) had around 5.  We had divvied up the legs based on an algorithm built by a member of the support crew, and I had been assigned the Runner 4 position, which gave me legs 4, 8, 11, and 14, totaling 22.7 miles.  Having run a solid 20-miler last weekend, I felt confident that running a bit further in 4 pieces wouldn’t be any problem (though I was a bit nervous about the prospect of running off into the night without hope of cell phone reception or human contact until the next hand-off).  Although my stamina didn’t turn out to be an issue, I did fail to adequately factor in the additional muscle fatigue that trails take as compared to road miles, as well as the effects of not sleeping.  (I had actually also not appreciated how much there would be to do between running legs, which would render napping pretty much impossible.)

I am eternally grateful to my team and our indomitable Sherpa/shuttle bunny for all the organization they did before race day.  We had decided to use two vehicles to give everyone more space for gear, but that meant that in addition to our dedicated driver, one runner had to drive each leg and two others were needed for navigational duties.  The driving directions provided by the race organizers were great, but navigating the back roads of Maine in the dark still took considerable focus and attention.  Given the remoteness of the trail, the cars often had to traverse much greater distances than the runners in getting to the hand-offs, and on shorter legs there was little time to waste in getting to the next dropoff.  In some cases we actually leap-frogged cars to ensure that the next runners made it to their rendezvous points in time.  In addition to the driving, navigating, and cheering runners in and out, there was also the preparation of gear and nutrition for the next leg, so down time was minimal.

I’m no stranger to all-nighters—I was an architecture student at MIT, which rendered me nearly nocturnal for several years.  That said, none of my previous experience prepared me for running a race in the middle of the night.  I found that the mental fatigue took a greater toll than the physical tiredness.  By my third leg I was putting considerable effort into staying focused and on pace.   (It probably didn’t help that it was a boring, slightly uphill 7-mile stretch that went straight ahead with nothing to look at but seemingly identical pine trees.)  I have been an enthusiastic follower (read: uber-geek) of ultra-running for years, and even though my relay distance was nowhere near ultra levels, I feel like I got a tiny taste of the challenges of day-long events.

The other challenge of the relay that I had not really forseen was the physical effect of starting and stopping several times.  I’ve done lots of two-a-day workouts, but never with only an hour or two between.  I was running at or near my threshold pace, and the breaks between legs seemed to provide minimal recovery and maximal opportunity for stiffness to develop.  I was pretty liberal with the tiger tail before and after each leg and I’m convinced that’s the only thing that saved me in the end.  So, advice to newbie relayers (and myself for next year):

  1. Gear. I’m sure there is such a thing as overpacking, but if you don’t have major space constraints, bring everything you think you might need. There was rain in the forecast, not to mention 30-degree temperature swings from day to night, so I tried to assemble a variety of clothing that I could layer as needed.  In the end, I brought:

2 long-sleeve shirts

1 sleeveless shirt

1 short-sleeve shirt

1 bra

2 pairs shorts

4 pairs socks

2 pairs shoes

1 rain/wind jacket (convertible to vest)

I wore all of the shirts with the exception of the short-sleeved one and never changed shorts, but I was very happy to have fresh shoes and socks to change into as the race progressed.

  1. Organization. A few of the more experienced runners organized their gear in Ziploc bags clearly labelled for each leg.  I will definitely follow suit next year.  Anything that can eliminate thinking or stress or frantically digging around a dark car at 4 AM trying to find your gels is worth the effort.
  1. Nutrition. This was a tough one. Given that our race started at 10 PM, I wasn’t really sure how much, or even if I would feel like eating.  I brought Accelerade powder and a gallon of water, a bag of nuts, 4 gels (2 of them with 20 mg of caffeine), 2 bananas, a couple of protein bars, and a thermos of coffee.  I nibbled a few nuts at a time throughout the night, which I think was a good move since they packed a lot of fat and calories into minimal bulk.  I also kept up a steady stream of coffee, counterbalanced by a lot of water to stay hydrated.  The surprise was how much I was craving sugar by the end of the race, though—I’m fairly well fat-adapted and though I had brought some carb sources I hadn’t expected to dip into them too much.  It was probably the lack of sleep combined with a pace much closer to a 10K than a long run, but I found myself really wanting something sweet as the race wore on.  I ate a banana and a half and took a caffeinated gels on each of my last two legs.  There was also a bag of mini peppermint patties floating around the car, and I had one of those before each of the last two legs as well.  I felt like I was eating a lot—certainly much more than I would have in a marathon—but I also had a very light dinner before the race and totally missed breakfast on Saturday morning, so I still probably ran a caloric deficit.  I was one of the few on our team that did not have any gastro issues at any point, so either I got lucky or the fueling strategy worked out.
  1. Sleep. Before.  As much as possible.
  1. Training. Obviously run trails if you can to build up your stabilizers.  Perhaps more importantly, get used to the fatigue.  One member of our team said that he had done a few clustered workouts on a consecutive afternoon, evening, and morning, which I thought was a great idea.  It would also be useful for fine tuning a fueling strategy.

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I wish trail running in the middle of the night were a more readily available pursuit—I really had a much more direct experience of running and my own mind than I ever have before.  It was actually somewhat unsettling—I experienced time and space very differently out on the trails.  When I was running through the dark without discernible landmarks, I really lost all sense of time passing, from what time of night it was to how long I had been out there.  My perception of distance was incredibly accurate, though, and—maybe this was just the lack of sleep—but it seemed as though time were only evidenced out there as the byproduct of covering a distance at a given pace, and didn’t objectively exist outside of me.  It was both terrifying and freeing in the way that real encounters with ourselves usually are.

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May 1, 2015

Seven Years Running

April 22nd was my 7-year runniversary—i.e. the date I first started training “for real” and signed up for my first half marathon.  It’s been an amazing journey of 8,500+ miles, much sweat, and non-negligible amounts of blood and tears thrown in.  Seven years ago I was fresh out of grad school and just starting my professional life as a starry-eyed model-builder in Frank Gehry’s office in Los Angeles.  I’m now a licensed architect and a partner in a small firm in New York specializing in exterior wall design.   In many ways, running has shaped my adulthood—it has been the constant through the stresses and growing pains of my career, personal life, and multiple cross-country moves.  It’s been the backbone of more than a few friendships.  And every year on April 22nd I have celebrated all of that by going for a run that’s just for me.  There’s no workout structure allowed, no treadmill, and I try to go somewhere scenic as my schedule allows.  This year I had to postpone a few days, as I was resting the mysterious toe-squeak injury, but on Friday I ran home from work the long way—around lower Manhattan, through Battery Park (in full bloom), and over my beloved Brooklyn Bridge.  It was glorious.  (And I mean glorious in running terms, which is to say, beautiful, but with severe chafing of my collar bones by my backpack straps. And I almost got hit by a bike, and then a car that was running a red light. But let’s focus on the positive.)

Since then, this week has been really up and down. I feel like I’m really walking the knife edge of overtraining, and a slight breeze may push me over the edge.  Last night I was so tired I was on the verge of tears, and then this morning I banged out a six mile tempo run at 7:40 pace like it was nothing.  The root of the problem is that I can’t find a triathlon training plan designed for someone with a good level of fitness, lots of running experience, and zero swimming and biking skills.  Because I’ll be rolling straight from NYC Tri training in July to NYC Marathon training, I want to maintain my running base as much as possible, while putting in a lot of hard work to bring my swim and bike up to snuff.  That has so far resulted in me doing almost every workout hard, and doing two-a-days four or five days a week.  I realize that this plan is unsustainable.  This week I backed off one each of my swim and bike workouts to an easy pace, and definitely felt better.  Still, I need to find a good training balance that doesn’t leave me a quivering, irritable mess by the weekend.

In what may be a fortuitous turn of events, the Runners’ World training log I’ve been using for 7 years is going to cease to exist next week, so I’ve had to migrate all my data over to Training Peaks.  I have the premium free trial tools right now, so I’m taking advantage of all the fitness and training assessment data to sort things out.  I have the Harriman Sprint Tri in two weeks (agh!), and then I’ll be focusing on the Olympic distance in July.  Goal #1 is to make it to the starting line (and the finish line) healthy and fit.  In the coming weeks I’m going to be paying extra attention to nutrition and sleep, and am resolving to try (harder) not to let life interfere too much with either.

December 22, 2014

Taking the Stress Out of Stress Fractures

Beyond the Pounding Model

If I can take any comfort in this injury, it’s that there are concrete steps I can take to support the healing process.  Unlike a lot of the tweaky soft tissue injuries I’ve had in the past, this is a clear diagnosis with a clear progression of recovery.  I take some satisfaction in knowing what processes should be occurring when, and how I can possibly help them along.

As soon as I began to suspect that I had a stress fracture, I started researching the condition, its causes, and the healing process.  It’s actually quite interesting, and not as simple as the repeated pounding model that most of us imagine it to be.  Stress fractures are certainly correlated with repetitive stress, however, studies have shown that the mechanism is far more complex.  Repetitive loading causes a slight distortion in the bone, which in turn leads to decreased blood flow and oxygen to the area, particularly during long workouts.  Muscle fatigue can magnify these effects as the soft tissues become less able to resist the stresses applied.

The lack of oxygen seems to then trigger the bone’s rebuilding cycle to begin.  The normal cycle of tissue breakdown and rebuilding ultimately results in stronger bones, however the early stages of the process actually significantly weaken the structure.  As microscopic damage occurs, osteoclast cells are sent to the area to absorb the compromised bone.  In fact, osteoclasts actually cut tunnels within the existing bone structure along the lines of stress.  (How cool is that?)  Once the damaged tissue is cleared away, osteoblast cells come in and begin to deposit new bone within the matrix.  It takes 10-20 days for the newly placed bone to mature, however, and it is during this time that the injured area is most vulnerable.  If the cycle progresses normally, in about three weeks the bone is stronger and effectively reinforced along the direction of stress.  If too much stress is placed on the bone during the remodeling process, however, the repair process will be interrupted, and/or damage will outpace the body’s ability to repair it.   The microscopic fissures begin to merge, and a crack forms in the bone.

At this point, the injury becomes painful and activity must be reduced.  As the bone begins to heal, a soft bone callus forms around the injured area.  While the initial fracture is often not visible on x-rays, the bone callus will appear as a ghosted area.  After about a month, the callus will begin to harden and the injury is markedly less painful.  The bone is still not at full strength, however, and returning to full activity at this point can result in a recurrence of the fracture.  The callus can also put pressure on adjacent bones and tissues causing a change in gait and/or pain and numbness in the area.  After 8 weeks, if all goes well, the bone should be returning to full strength and normal activities can be slowly resumed.

Nutrition for Healing

For the stress fracture to heal, further stress on the bone must be limited.  And while the time frame needed for the new bone to mature cannot effectively be accelerated, the rebuilding process can be supported by supplying the required minerals and nutrients, along with plenty of rest.  It’s worth noting here that NSAIDs block one of the inflammatory markers that stimulate osteoblasts, and taking them will slow the healing process.  Curcumin and ginger reduce inflammation without disrupting the development of new bone, however.  Studies have also shown that supplementing with additional vitamins and minerals can aid healing and reduce complications:

Vitamin C & E  – anti-oxidant properties help counteract the release of free radicals that occurs during a fracture

Vitamin D – aids in the absorption of calcium

Magnesium – also needed for calcium absorption, and often deficient in runners as it can be lost through sweat

Calcium – bone is nearly 70% calcium phosphate, so adequate supplies are critical to fracture healing

In addition to the supplements above, I’ve also been adding a tablespoon of gelatin to my coffee every morning.  There’s a batch of bone broth going in the crock pot, and I’m keeping my protein intake a bit higher than I normally would when I’m not running as well.  (Despite runners’ tendency to not want to gain weight while they are sidelined, this is NOT the time to restrict calories.)  Getting adequate rest and sleep is, of course, critically important, and that is made slightly easier by the fact that I’m not running at 6 AM every morning.

It’s hard sitting still with my foot up, it’s hard to resist the urge to put the regular pedals back on my bike and work up a good sweat, and it’s really hard to not run.  I’m getting in some good strength training and am starting to see results in the pool as well.  There is certainly a silver lining to be appreciated, but no matter what, getting injured sucks.  I’m trying to remind myself that after a year of hard training I really do need some rest.  My foot may be the most acute issue, but I will certainly benefit from a little down time and switching up the routine.  I’m probably not losing as much fitness as I imagine, and even if I am, I’ll get it back.  I did it once already, and it’s easier to regain fitness than to build it up from scratch.  If all else fails, I’m thinking of developing a bone broth-based cocktail.

~ModC