Muscle Memory

T’is amazing thing this ‘muscle memory’.

Take me for example:-

Longer ago than I care to profess, I used to be a very competitive swimmer. This was the case from a fresh 9 year old, right through my teens when I finally gave up to start socializing and find out what I’d been missing out on all these years training every day, usually twice a day.

Basically I’d gotten bored with that lifestyle and was curious about what everyone else was up to.

So over the next decade or more I rarely did anything more than a couple of laps in a pool perhaps whilst on holiday in Mexico or simply just dip to cool down. Swimming bored me and I really didn’t appreciate the worth of jumping into a pool – to do what; swim a couple of thousand meters for a warm up?!

However, just recently, having taken on more and more endurance events in my chosen field of running, I was enticed by the lure of Ironman coming to my hometown and felt excited and compelled to compete.

So there it was – I just needed that something to turn me back onto swimming again.

So quite literally over the last few weeks since signing up, I’ve taken to the local pool 3-4 times each week. Now admittedly I lacked any kind of endurance at all the first few dips, but by ‘n large, the technique was still there. I hadn’t swam more than 20 laps over the last decade, but here I was 5 or 6 sessions back into it and the laps / kms were rapidly beginning to grow. My return to the pool has been quite remarkable and my development rapid.

Why? Well aside from being insanely fit from the hundreds and hundreds of miles I run, my years and years spent doing lap after lap after lap formed a very definitive ‘memory’. The term ‘muscle memory’ is thrown around, but the reality is that the memory is within the brain. Once a move or motion has been repeated with good form (this point is vital as there is little point in remembering how to do something bad!) sufficiently  as I had probably covering a good 20-25+ kms each week for many a year, much of this training stays with you.

Bottom line, learn to do something well and repeat, repeat, repeat. A long-term layoff will result in atrophy as far as muscle and tendons are concerned, but it’ll be a lot quicker coming back than starting afresh.

As for Ironman, what the hell have I let myself in for?

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Stress Fractures – Understanding and Learning From our Mistakes

Most of us in the running fraternity have heard of this ‘voodoo’ term and many of us will probably know someone who’s suffered from one at some point, but what do we know about these and what does our experiences teach us?

Well, one good lesson is that these bone breaks do happen…and to the fittest of us. Everyone is susceptible to them, some more than others and there are a great many varying factors that finally contribute to the bone finally saying “enough is enough..in fact, too much”!

So these bone breaks tend to be different to ‘impact’ injuries where a blow to the area or perhaps a sudden twist, say on the football pitch or on the ski hill might cause. Impact breaks are typically a ‘cleaner’ break (although not always) and occur almost immediately upon receiving the killer blow.

Stress fractures among athletes and runners are something that usually develop over time. Some of the many factors are such as such as suddenly ramping up their training regime, perhaps occurring 5-6 weeks after starting training for a marathon for example. For many it’s because they will have poor running form or frailties in their running gait, such as pronating too much and not developing sufficient strength in their glutes and core to ‘smooth’ out their form. Running shoes that don’t properly support the individual (this is a whole other discussion regarding types of running style such as heel or midfoot / forefoot strikers and barefoot running) through needing additional arch support, denser sole, shoes being worn out, etc. Eventually, by placing too much pressure too quickly  onto areas where the muscles and tendons are weak or overused, the stress is placed directly upon the bones. Finally the bone can take no more stress and finally begins to fracture – Even by suggesting this typical scenario I am missing out a girth of other factors all relevant in the cause and the problem.

In my case, my recent stress fracture of the cuboid bone in the foot was probably due to all of the following (looking at ourselves honestly is not always the easiest thing to do and admit errors):

A long, long racing season, too many races (is there such a thing?) too much hard tempo training and speed work in the few weeks leading to the fracture (I was building for a half marathon for which I was about to start a week’s taper and then leading into the NYC marathon 4 weeks later), a change in training focus moving largely from long distance training for a couple of ultra marathons to working in more speedwork – this should have been a gradual re-introduction (I still think it was!).

At the time of the now infamous break, I believed I was in the form of my life as my training runs indicated some ‘guaranteed’ PR’s in the next races. I was recovering great and felt great – but perhaps I wasn’t after all!!

Devastated having originally been misdiagnosed, a bone scan eventually suggested a cuboid (foot bone) low risk stress fracture. Minimum 4-5 weeks in an aircast boot. Drove me nuts – frustration like you wouldn’t believe. I even went to New York still as hotel and flights were already booked and so watched the frontrunners come by in Central Park, but I am not good at spectating. It wasn’t long before  had to take off and leave everyone else to it.

Patience is very much the name of the game with stress fractures, especially those of the foot. Depending on the severity of the fracture you may need to spend some time being ‘non-weight bearing’ and then continue without crutches for a further several weeks afterwards without the crutches. During this time, you may be able to cross train by swimming, on a stationary bike or elliptical machine to maintain your cardio levels and overall fitness, but be guided by your doctor or specialist.

When finally given the green light to come out of the boot, DO NOT be tempted to rush back into things. The bone may have began to heal and re-model itself, but it is not anywhere strong enough to resume previous training levels. Not only will the ‘broken’ bone be weak and susceptible at this early stage, but weeks of inactivity will have left the surrounding bones, muscles and tendons also very weak. Everything will have to slowly become accustomed to walking and then re-introduce running – Being mindful that running induces forces some 4-6 times greater than simply standing alone.

I can tell you from experience, that coming back from this injury too soon and ramping up the volume and running distance is only a recipe for disaster. I tried to be gradual, but typically I found out the hard way that it was too much too soon when I re-injured the bone and surrounding bones. Even longer back in a cast!

Runners who’ve suffered this kind of injury should spend some time, perhaps with a good physio, reflecting what went wrong and what can be learned from the original injury. You may recognise the symptoms now and realise that you need to adjust your training slightly, perhaps allowing more recovery time. Perhaps you tried to resume training again too soon after a hard, long race such as a marathon and need to understand the damage truly done to your muscles that, when working correctly, would have otherwise soaked up the stress and prevented them being passed onto the bone.

Perhaps you now need to invest in different running shoes and / or orthotics to provide better support (again, there is a whole other debate about this and the benefit of  correcting and strengthening glute, hip & core muscles and then working to strengthen those old & unused foot muscles to do their job) and have your running gait analysed.

Perhaps it’s even a dietary issue or possibly even a medical issue, but whatever caused the original injury, if your serious about returning to running at the same level or even better, than you should investigate the root cause and cautiously rebuild yourself! Believe me, you do not want to find after a few weeks of slowly re-introducing yourself to low mileage running, that you are overdoing things and suddenly (sometimes without warning) bam! You’ve broken the foot again, possibly other bones and now you’ll be out for even longer – all from experience.

In the meantime, watch this video from a certain Mr Gary Robbins – renown Canadian ultra marathoner, gradually returning after a brief layoff with a stress fracture http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=ENSQI2muSck

Happy Recoveries Everyone!!

As an update to this piece, after following the doc’s orders and slowing beginning and running and keeping all mileage very, very low – I suffered another setback to the original injury, some 8 weeks after the original fracture and also managed to develop the very early stages of another stress fracture to my 2nd metatarsal as well.

Lesson to be learned I cannot emphasise enough the need to take any running very, very slowly when you eventually start to come back. If in any doubt as to how the area of injury is feeling – rest for a ew more days. It’s simply not worth it in the long run. It is quite usual to feel some different foot sensations going on when you begin running again. Only natural after you have been completely encased in the air-cast now that all the muscles, ligaments and even other bones have now become weaker due to the inactivity. Everything takes time to re-develop and if not allowed sufficient time, these weak elements could easily lead to more injury.

 

Understanding the need to taper and recover from races and training

As runners we’ve all heard about the need to taper or recover leading up to important races, but why do we hear so much about it?

Most of us will appreciate the need to ‘back off’ from our rigorous training at times or perhaps tak a day off from running altogether as our muscles and body just feel too fatigued to get out there and run some more, but why? You can often read that there is a benefit to running / training whilst on tired legs to mimic how you will feel in the latter stages of a race for example. This is often a form of raining that those preparing for an ultra marathon might do – say a 25/30 mile run on Saturday followed by another 15/20 on Sunday.

What many don’t fully appreciate is that it is while resting that our body repairs and heals itself. In other words, the adaptions that take place after a hard work out, such as a long run or speedwork, tempo runs, etc, these only take place while resting. When we are pushing ourselves to improve, be it to run longer or faster, we create many microscopic tears to our muscles. It is this damage that when healed and repaired, grows back stronger – allowing us to be stronger, faster or more adept at running further.

Now, if we continue to push ourselves hard every day, running or training on already damaged and fatigued muscles, it becomes very hard to train well. I wouldn’t encourage it, but anyone who’s tried to run hard and / or long every day will tell you that their training performance simply suffers as they struggle to maintain the quality. It is for these reasons, amongst others, that we need to back off and have ‘recovery days’, either cross training (perhaps biking or swimming for example) or possibly even have a day off after a hard session. Think how hard it is to complete your weekly long run in the build up to a marathon or half marathon if the day before you completed a multiple set of speed interval repeats. Your long run suffers, you may not complete it all as planned and such, you won’t get the benefits that you would have otherwise received.

So after weeks of building up to your race goal, doing all the ‘good’ things, such as hill repeats, tempo runs, speedwork, etc, your body will hopefully have made some pretty big adaptions, but chances are, is that there are still a lot of muscle tissue damage that needs to be fully repaired and glycogen stores replenished and topped up. To run at your optimum – often known as ‘peaking’, you’ll need to have all muscles rested, fully repaired and feeling fresh. This means reducing the volume of training you’ve been doing. Too often people will also reduce the number of quality sessions in this ‘tapering’ period, which will typically be somewhere between 2-3 weeks for a marathon and less for shorter distances.

The trouble with reducing the ‘quality’ sessions too much is that your body will begin to lose its leg turnover speed. So, you should reduce the number of speed repeats, or the length of the tempo runs, but keep some fast leg turnover work even into the last week – to a degree. However, as you reduce the mileage over the couple of weeks leading up to your big race, your legs should begin to feel ‘fresher’, even sprightly. Your energy levels should feel good as your start to burn off less glycogen and calories, fat, etc. This said, be mindful not to overeat and consider reducing your fat and calorific intake as your reduce your output. It is natural to put on a couple of pounds in the last week or so, but no point in undoing all that good work, eh? It’s hard dragging extra weight around a course!

Similarly, after your race, in particular a long distance event such as a half or full marathon. Your body will probably have run as hard and as longer as it ever has. No matter how you feel immediately after the race, you will have created some damage, hopefully only microscopic muscle tissue tears, but often bigger problems to tendons and cartilage. Running too much too soon after the race will greatly increase the risk of getting injured. Muscles will be fatigued and further stressing them, particularly in the first few days and week will often result in a breakdown. When fatigued muscles don’t work properly, the force and impact each stride has on your body will need to be soaked up, possibly by tendons or bone. Trust me, this IS how we get injured!

Ease back into running slowly. Nothing too long or too fast for a couple of weeks afterwards. Don’t get me wrong though. This period before and after our race where we’re reducing the amount of running we do is tough. For me it’s the worst and the hardest part of training for a race. I’m a runner, I want to run, but running and training smart will help you all in the long run. Something many of us all learn the hard way!

Marathon Training in Winter

Motivation can often be our biggest challenge to overcome, especially in winter when it’s cold, damp, icy, windy…even dare i say, slightly dangerous underfoot. So should this stop us from training and logging the miles during these ‘challenging’ months – Of course not!

More often than not, the winter months usually is a lull in the racing calendar, especially for the longer distances. Therefore, this is an excellent time to recover from injuries, overtraining symptoms, correct mechanical issues and strengthen the jinks in our armour. It is also a great time to build a solid mileage base from which your endurance will thank you later in the year.

I you have several months until your planned spring half or full marathon, you should now be logging the long, easy miles. There is less of a need at this stage to be focusing on speed work and high tempo runs, but steady ‘easy’ runs are the preferred ‘norm’. Of course, your planned upcoming race date will largely determine how your planned training should develop and over what period, but typically, you will all benefit from having a solid mileage base from which to start your marathon training programme in earnest.

So it’s cold! – Wrap up warm and wear layers. Consider wearing gloves and long running pants. Just because the sun’s not beating down on you and the temps are minus 5c, this doesn’t mean that we should be considering our hydration needs, especially on runs of over 45 mins or longer.

winter runner

If you live in a wintry environment, consider investing in some ‘yak trax’ http://www.yaktrax.com/ or some similar traction device that will allow you confidently run across snow and ice without fear of slipping and causing yourself damage. If things are too bad outside, consider using a treadmill. I log many a mile on the treadmill, especially when it’s raw ice around me or particularly when doing some repetitive speed training. Not all treadmill running has to be boring or painful, but it can certainly help keep you running when things get bad!

Of course, if you are lucky enough to live in a wintry environment, use this time as a great opportunity to cross train. Go snow shoe running once in a while or try your hand at cross country skiing. I know having done a fair bit of this myself this year that I’ve actually benefited from it – great cardio workout and works many of the same or similar muscles, but still gives the body a rest from all the impact!

Apart from anything else, who wants to miss the beauty that’s outside anyway?

There may be plenty of cross country skiing or snow shoe races close by. Like competition and the buzz it brings, try something different instead. Winter needn’t bring everything to a halt, unless you want it to!

Running Training and the Importance of Body Maintenance

Looks like it may well turn out to be a busy year for me after all. I still have concerns over the ‘fat pad’ impingement that is effecting me, although this has subdued sufficiently to allow me to train in earnest. I’m still scheduled to have an ultrasound scan in a few weeks time and possible guided cortisone shot if this is still deemed the best way to aid a quicker recovery and reduce the swollen ‘pad’ in question.

However, I am successfully logging the miles again and speedwork has been thrown down over the last few weeks. Fortunately the Zurich marathon is 3 months away and as long as there is no further breakdown from my body and the commitment to train in the cold, rain and ice where I live, then hopefully, I’ll be able to shoot with some confidence at my elusive sub 2 hr 40 marathon time.

So now it looks as if I may have finally been accepted into another of the ‘glamour’ races in New York and now the trick becomes careful planning of my schedules to not over race this year in between the two marathons (roughly six months apart), train smart and allow sufficient recovery, both during training and after each race.

Every good runners manual will recommend slowly increasing your mileage each week by no more than @ 10 percent. This is to ensure that we’re not suddenly placing increased stress on our bodies that it’s not ready to handle and breaks down, maybe a hamstring is pulled or your IT Band becomes aggravated or achilles tendon becomes inflamed amongst other complaints. All of which will slow you down, probably enforce a period of prolonged rest in the middle of your important training and leave you feeling very frustrated. Sure, you maybe feel good enough on your weekly long run to chuck in a couple of miles and may decide to keep running until you finally feel tired or sore. Yes, you may still feel great after this new long distance you’ve achieved. Trouble is, the potential damage of too great a training increase may not show itself until several days down the line when little ‘niggles’ begin to show themselves – often a cumulative effect.

It is also painfully important to get sufficient rest. The body improves physically by becoming more powerful and stronger and efficient not just from the actual training, but from the adaptions it takes from the training sessions. This means your body improves during the rest. Now, obviously, this is not the ‘green light’ to take days and days off from training to keep resting, but rest should be considered as part of your training.

You may be able to physically cope with a long run one day, perhaps a couple of other tempo run sessions and some speed and hill work each week. However, these are all considered hard sessions and depending on your running background (how many years you’ve been running, how many miles you’ve logged over time to build that endurance base – Consider many of the East Africans who often run several miles a day to and from school from a very young age!), your age and how fit you – these considerations are factors in how well you recover from these sessions and there will typically always be the need for two or three easier sessions per week or perhaps a 10 day training cycle. For most, a hard days training session such as a 20 miler or a long tempo run, which both take a toll on the body, will be sandwiched by easy running days before and after to allow recovery and be ready to train hard again.

There are of course some other great ways to assist the body and not ‘overtraining’, which can lead to injuries, becoming run down and ill, constantly tired and lethargic, etc. If you can, consider having a regular massage to relax the muscles and tissue and help flush out the toxins by speeding up the blood flow. Sleep is also very important. Once the mileage you log each week begins to increase, your body will demand that extra rest and you should aim to get a good eight hours shut eye whenever possible.

Other training methods can help just as much to maintain fitness, cardio-vascular capacity and lessen the tax on already tight and worked muscles. Consider cross training by biking or swimming, perhaps using an elliptical machine in the gym or even cross country ski if you’re in a wintry environment. These won’t substitute actually running, but for anyone with little niggling injuries or perhaps just need to take a few days off from training but still feel the need to keep up some body maintenance training, cross training should be considered.

We can also all benefit from some strength training. There will be great benefits to be had from working on your ‘core’ muscles to maintain good running form and posture. Consider one or two days a week of some light weight work and don’t merely focus on those legs.  If you’re aware of any body mechanical imbalances where you’ve been susceptible to injury, look for some advice on how to strengthen those area, focus on training those glutes and hips, etc.

Finally look to your diet. Just as important to any rest and training. A long or very hard session can lead to great body adaptions and therefore improvement. However, recovery can be greatly aided be replenishing lost nutrients within an all important window that lasts only around 30 minutes or so after you’ve finished your session. You should aim to take on a mix of both carbs and proteins (typically a suggested ratio of 4:1) during this window immediately after you finish training. Often a drink containing these ingredients will be easier to digest and will be absorbed into the body much quicker than solids, but both are important. This should then be followed by a more substantial meal, nothing excessive  in size, within the next 1-2 hours. You should also ensure that you are well hydrated at all times. Often after a long run of over an hour or more, you will become dehydrated to some degree and it is important to replenish as soon as possible and keep drinking throughout the day until your urine  becomes clear or at least only a pale yellow discolouration.

Overall it is important to eat healthily, get a good balance of foods, avoid too much bad fats (especially saturated fats) and if you are logging big miles each week, keep your carb diet to around 60% or so of your diet – try and keep to the ‘good’ carbs, those which are slow release such as nuts, pulses, beans, wholemeal grains, etc.

If, like me, you may well be attempting more than one long race per year ( a couple of marathons, possibly some half marathons and maybe even an ultramarathon), it’s also important to not jump straight back into training in the first few days straight after your last long race. Your muscles may actually feel good, but after having just ran a marathon, your tendons and even bones will be very susceptible to more damage as the muscles have just taken a beating and are grossly taxed, meaning something else has to take the strain. Gradually ease yourself back into some easy, slow, short running over the following week or so. The desire may be too much to handle in not running for a while, but consider some of the great names and athletes, such as Paula Radcliffe and Karen Goucher for example, who may take as much as a whole month off before resuming training again, depending on their schedules of course.

All in all, recovery is a very personal thing and is dependant on a multitude of factors, such as how well trained you are, how much you taxed yourself during the race ( a marathon will take much longer to recover from properly than say a 10k race), did you give it everything you had, did you ‘bonk (where your body has depleted its energy levels from it’s nutrient stores) and how quickly you get nutrients back into your body.

So, train hard, train smart and work for your goals.