Thursday, December 28, 2017

No Hibernation: How one trail athlete deals with winter

Icebearded after a snowy trail run; barefoot for annual Best family shoeless snow pic

Endurance athletes whose key races fall in the warmer part of the year meet the challenges of winter in several ways.  Some consider it an off season and slip into torpor (or maybe say they're focusing on strength training but really they're mostly hibernating, and that's ok).  Some embrace it as their favorite season and put in huge base training, either continuing with their primary sport or adopting the various and fantastic winter sports as cross training.  Some hate it and still put in huge base training.  (I think it was Frank Shorter --or maybe the ficticuous Bruce Denton ficticiously or factually quoting Shorter -- who said there's nothing else to do in winter but put in volume.)  I have a foot in each of these camps.  The disciplines that I train for now, trail running, mountain running and mountain biking, are May through October sports and I take my off season in November, so by December I'm restless and I grind the gears back into full training mode for winter.  As a road runner in my 20's I tolerated winter and used it as an opportunity to put in fast, solo long runs on the roads, but now in my 30's I've shifted to a trail focus and so winter is more of an obstacle.  Winter woods are beautiful but the trail dissapears under snow and ice.  The challenge becomes traction and strength but the skill element of negotiating the terrain is largely removed.  Only recently have I tried to embrace the challenges of winter. Here's my approach. (Disclaimer - your results may vary.)

General Philosophy
I use winter as a time to get ready for a long racing season that stretches from April through October.  This doesn't mean a block of unusually huge base training - I put in about the same volume of running in terms of hours as I do in Spring/Summer/Fall, but mileage is a bit less because snowy trails and lots of uphill treadmill are necessarily slow.  Winter sees less biking because I'm only going to ride 4-6 hard hours per week if I can be on bare dirt and technical trail.  

I'm taking a different approach to volume in 2018 in that I'm focusing on big volume (14+ hours) about 1 week per month, coinciding with vacation from either UMass or my high school gig - weeks when I have more time to train.  Other weeks will be more quality focused, with 3 hard workouts and less total volume (~10 hours), leaving more time for work and providing a different training stimulus. Down weeks (7-9 hours) come once per month or as needed, not just in winter but year-round.

What's really different about my winter vs. spring/summer/fall training is that I focus on developing a big uphill running base that will prepare me for near race-effort uphill workouts in spring, which in turn prepare me for summer racing. More on that below.  For now I'll break down my winter training into outdoor vs. indoor activities. 

Obviously the point is to stay outside, preferably in the woods, as much as possible. If I wanted to be an indoor athlete I'd be a swimmer or something. Or an indoor track hamster. Still, I'm not an "always outside" diehard like some of my friends and competitors.  I respect that philosophical position immensely, but if there's work that I can do inside that will prepare me better for the rigors of summer racing, I'll do it, especially if others find it unappealling. At the risk of self aggrandizing, I like to say that I'll do inside what you will not, so that next summer I will do in the mountains what you cannot.  Anyway, I stay outside about 5 days/week in winter.

Western Mass sometimes finds itself with bare trails in winter, but mostly we do have snow, at which point I run snowy trails about 3 days per week.  As a road runner I avoided snowy trails because a road runner needs a monotonous, long stride, but as a trail runner I see the benefit (physically and psychologically) of slogging through snowy trails.  It's not the same stride as summer trail running: with traction severely limited, pushing off hard with calves and achilles doesn't work, so you end up using your hips more. And, if there's enough snow, the technical aspect of running is mostly absent, save for hard/icy snow conditions.  I don't run in snowshoes.  I adhere to a "least restrictive foot environment" at all times: I wear the most minimal footwear that I can handle, and in winter that means studded trail shoes (right) or my regular trail running shoes, Inov8 XTalons, which I prefer over the studded Inov8's as my foot is more comfortable in this low-profile minimal shoe.  Shunning snowshoes, I can't run trails in a foot of snow, but 6" or less on the trails and I'm game.  I do a bit of road running: to and from trailheads and the treadmill, and the occasional all-road run when my legs need a break from battling snowy trails, when training partners request it, or when I rarely decide to attempt "fast" running.  I do some short/fast hill reps on a nearby paved hill; not as much as I should, but I'm committed to them this winter. Finally, I do a long run once per week year-round, and in winter these are 2- 2.5 hours on trails when possible, or 2 hours dirt roads when I need a break or am bullied into it. (In warmer months long runs are exclusively performed on hilly trails.)

Mountain biking
Like trail running, I've been slowly relaxing the requirements for what constitutes "rideable" trail conditions.  I don't have a fat bike.  I do see the utility in this tool, especially on packed snowmobile trails. But I have zero interest in road biking and a trail completely covered in packed snow is basically a road through the woods -- very little user input required in terms of bike handling.  That said, I'm trying to stay on trails as much as possible.  Just tonight I threw on some new studded tires (left) which while I write this are wheezing air as the Stan's sealant works overtime to plug the tiny holes the tire came blessed with from the factory. (I'll never again ride Schwalbe tires on dirt because they shred like pulled pork, but I was willing to try their studded winter tires as they have rave reviews).  Still, I can't ride through deep snow even with studs, and I'm limited to temps above 25 as my body can't (or my gear is insufficent to) keep my hands and feet warm at colder temps. 


Treadmill hillclimbs
My most important indoor training is on the treadmill. January through March, I use the treadmill 2-3x per week for uphill-only workouts. I continue these 1x per week throughout the year, but in warmer months my 2nd weekly uphill-focused workout (there are always at least 2) is on trails or sometimes our local paved "mountain" road climb.  I've posted about some of these bread 'n butter workouts before - Mt Toby Phoneline repeats, for example. These workouts are probably too hard on paper and really serve as confidence boosters and mental toughness building.  Anyway, my weekly treadmill climbs in winter come in 2 flavors:

1) 3-4 miles at 15% grade, at 45-60 min race effort.  In January these begin as 3-4 one-mile intervals and by March they're 3-4 miles continuous.
2) Longer climbs averaging 12%, at goal Mt. Washington Road Race pace + 45 seconds.  So, these are tempo runs.  The first half is moderate and the second half is run a bit faster and feels way harder.  I start these in January at about 3-4 miles and aim to get to 7.5 miles (full Mt Washington race distance) by March, by which point it's a 4600', 1 hr 10 min workout, race effort by the end.  The goal is simply to build uphill endurance and prepare for specific, race-effort workouts in April and May-usually 5 miles averaging 12% grade, at Mt. Washington race effort. 

Treadmill hillclimbs build many tools you need for running up mountains: mental toughness in that you're bored as hell and have to focus without convenient distractions (I don't listen to music or watch TV), huge fitness (you're at threshold effort or harder for up to an hour or more, impossible in a flat-ground workout), heat training (70 degree air temps in winter and lack of any air flow mean you're building up enormous endogenous heat), and of course uphill-specific neuromuscular development. I can't understand why some really serious mountain runners don't do these workouts. Unless you live next to a mountain with a 4000'+ climb, this is the only simulation for summer mountain racing. Even if you train by running up big mountains, the suffering you'll endure on the climb is attenuated by the prospect of running back down, while I can (and do) often end treadmill workouts in a puddle of despair.  I'd argue that anyone racing Mt. Washington without doing these workouts is direspectfully unprepared, even if you beat me. I digress. 

Bike trainer
Not much to say here. Because some (or much) of my winter biking isn't on trails, much of it is on my 1996 Specialized road bike on a trainer in my basement. It's outfitted with flat bars and mountain bike clipless pedals. I watch race videos or Phish concerts (haha yes laugh it up). Here I give in to the temptations of distraction and entertainment. 

Strength training

Michaela and I have slowly outfitted our basement into a legit weight room with a rubberized floor, olympic bar, pullup bar, etc. All we're missing is a suitably powerful sound system for cranking the type of music I need to make me angry while lifting heavy things -- stuff like Alice in Chains.  (I'm working on a solution to this problem.) In winter I lift weights twice per week, joined one of those days by Michaela and her brother.  In racing season I usually only lift once per week, so winter is the time for gains.  I focus on squats, single leg squats, deadlift, pullups, pushups, core, and a barefoot foot strengthening routine.  I'm a few pounds heavier than I was as a road runner but my weight is still on this side of helpful for trail running and mountain biking, disciplines which forgive (even reward) a bit of added strength. Lastly, perhaps once per week I hack my way through a yoga routine with Michaela, who is much more bendy and Yoga-y than me.  This is necessarily performed upstairs next to the wood stove, for added bendy-ness. 

Really though, in winter I'm just biding my time waiting for the snow to melt.  Happy winter training, however you embrace it!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Trabecular paper published; blog tab updated

Our paper in PLoS ONE describing my master's project research is now published, and I've updated the blog tab "trabecular bone project" with a summary.  Links below.

Best A, Holt B, Troy K, Hamill J (2017) Trabecular bone in the calcaneus of runners. PLoS ONE12(11): e0188200.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Paper recap- "Short Trail Running Race: Beyond the Classic Model for Endurance Running Performance."

Thanks to Kim Nedeau for sharing a spanking new paper with me that I likely wouldn't have seen otherwise.  I thought I'd share it here with a brief summary (though really it should go on my neglected/never started "mountain running science" blog page).  Nothing evolutionary here-- this is pure exercise physiology, and will likely only interest trail runners, but for this demographic it's a great read.

The research: Testing was conducted on 100+ competitive French trail runners before a 27k (16.8 mile) singletrack, technical mountainous trail race with 4,000+ feet of elevation gain.  (Only figure 1 in the paper lets the reader infer that this is an up and down race, not up only...I digress.)  The researchers asked whether the "big 3" factors that predict traditional endurance running performance apply to trail racing, which is quite different.  The 3 factors are:

1) VO2 max: the maximal amount of oxygen an athlete can take in and use to do muscular work.  Essentially, this is a measure of how big the engine is: how well the cardiovascular system can deliver oxygen to the muscles and the capacity of the muscles to use this to power contractions. 

2) Perecent VO2 max at Lactate Theshold: essentially, how much of your oxgyen delivery/usage capacity you're using while running at a pace requiring a slight anerobic energy contribution, which corresponds to about 60 min race effort  You may have a huge VO2 max, but a guy who can race a given distance at a lower relative percentage of VO2 max is more efficient than you and has reserve capacity.  I don't think this is too different than #3:

3) Running economy: the energy required to run a given distance. This is a measure of efficiency. This tends to matter more for longer races where total on-board fuel is an issue (races of 2 hour or more), but a more economical runner can better translate muscular work into forward motion, making her faster over shorter distances too. 

These 3 factors are strongly predictive of running ability in traditional running races-- road races, etc, run on level or mostly level ground, and on pavement/grass/anything homogenous.  That is, an athlete with superior numbers in these 3 tests will probably win (excluding, of course, the impossible-to-quantify factors of toughness and focus.) The researchers suspected that maximal muscular strengh in the legs might be a factor for trail racing, as this has been shown to improve running economy in level and inclined running, and it has predicted race performance in a 26 mile all-uphill mountain race.  (As an aside, that's the main reason I lift: to improve uphill running economy by building a "stiffer spring". Aside aside: this is why flexibility/muscle length in many muscle and tendon groups is inversely related to running economy. The best runners aren't great yogis.) 

The results: The traditional model (the big 3) DID NOT predict race performance in a 16.8 mile mountainous trail race.  Nor did maximal knee extensor strength. The model that best predicted performance was a combination of 3 variables:

1) VO2 max.
2) "Fatigue index". Runners performed 40 maximal reps on a knee extensor machine, which isolates the quadricep muscles.  Fatigue index is a ratio of torque produced during the last 5 reps divided by the first 5 reps. So, fatiguing less in this test means a better fatigue index. 
3) Running economy at a 10% incline.  

This is all very interesting.  Take aways:
--I'm not surprised that VO2-max was predictive of trail racing performance.  It predicts performance in every running discipline.  To race trails and mountains, work on getting a big aerobic engine with short and hard intervals.
--Fatigue index of the quadriceps makes sense too-- extreme uphill/downhill racing is very dependent on these muscles.  For a race with climbs and descents that are moderate in length (but not endless), the quads need to be conditioned for anaerobic energy production, which is what a 40-rep exercise is testing.  And as the authors infer, higher fatigue resistance means that muscle fiber recruitment needn't increase to permit continued force production. Because energy cost of running is dependent entirely upon volume of muscle activated, this is a big deal.  I am surprised, however, that a test isolating the quadriceps was so predictive, as mountain running requires really almost every muscle in the body and especially plantar flexors (calves etc) and hips muscles (all of the glutes, etc). 
--Running economy at 10% incline matters, but running economy on a flat surface was not correlated with trail racing performance. Another study found that flat and uphill running economy are not realted-- again, as I've been saying, don't train for flat running and expect to be good at uphill running, or vice versa. Even in a race that is only (at most) half climbing, running economy while climbing is a highly predictive factor in determining race performance. (Suck on that, downhill specialists!). The authors suggest that the observed fatigue resistance in the runners' quadriceps is resultant from their uphill training and also their cycling (which most performed as cross traning). Therefore they recommend that trail runners should perform uphill training and cycling to improve quadriceps fatigue resistance and therefore trail racing performance
--The authors were surprised that maximal force production wasn't a significant factor in race performance. But their test isolated the quadriceps, and as I just mentioned, the quads are only part of what it takes to run fast up and down mountainous terrain for 3 hours.  I don't think they looked at this, but I bet if they compared the running economy measures of their runners to the runners' quadriceps maximal strength tests, there'd be a strong correlation, as has been found in other studies.  So don't take this as evidence that you don't need to do strength training to be a mountain or trail runner, and to their credit, the authors remind us of this. Lift weights and/or do plyometrics to improve your uphill running economy and therefore to kick ass up mountains.

Anyway, this is the first paper I've seen that investigates factors determining trail/mountain running performance vs. level running, and it's nice to see some experimental articulation of how they're different. To wit: "The flatter the running surface (i.e., road) the higher the relevance of laboratory-based phyiological measures of relative VO2 max, %VO2 max and runnig economy".  

Ehrström, S., Tartaruga, M. P., Easthope, C. S., Brisswalter, J., Morin, J. B., & Vercruyssen, F. (2017). Short Trail Running Race: Beyond the Classic Model for Endurance Running Performance. Medicine and science in sports and exercise.

Link to abstract (full text is behind a paywall):
Message me if you'd like the full text.