Saturday, December 28, 2013

What Happened to the Off Season?

I used to herald the coming of the off season as if it were the coming of Jesus Christ himself. The off season was a solace, a time for peace, love, and food. Yet there has become a movement amongst athletes to eliminate the off season.

I'm quite sure that this movement began, like most other strange fads, at the professional level. Yes, at some point, trickle down means that the aero helmet became relatively affordable, carbon race wheels are within reach, and a new triathlon bike runs that gamut from less than $1,000 all the way to $10,000. Yet we've also seen a movement towards the elite practices of elite athletes. This is by no means entirely bad, but it is certainly not all good. Age groupers get hurt trying to emulate the distances of the top professionals' practices. And increasingly, they have eliminated the off season. I now feel slightly guilty, and more than a little judged when I tell my fellow athletes that I'm taking the last two weeks of December and the first two weeks of January off, or whatever the period is.
Call of Duty counts as a sport, right?
None of this is the fault of the reader. Rather it's known in communication studies as the dominate culture. The dominate culture, which in this context means the top professional triathletes, imparts a sense of almost unworthiness, so that we feel that we must aspire to be them. We feel that we must train, eat, and sleep like the dominate culture because we aspire to be them.

Not all of this is a bad thing. As a result, people are more willing to push their personal limits. They tend to eat healthier, sleep more, and train harder. Yet for Joe Average, it also means that he feels an inadequacy. This constant pursuit of the professional lifestyle, whether he knows it or not, means that he is willing to do things that aren't really consistent with the lifestyle that he lives. After all, the term professional athlete means that triathlon is their job. It's not just a weekend event, every time they toe the line, they're earning sponsorship dollars and appearance fees. They also spend a significant amount of time at the computer, trying to get their name out there and be noticed. However, they are able to train four, five, even six hours a day because their professional obligation is to train.

This need for top end performance means that these triathletes spend a lot of time trying to figure out ways to get a leg up on the competition. And now, instead of spending almost a month completely off, a lot of athletes spend only a week or two, here and there. In between, they race cyclocross or do Xterra (off road triathlons). Now, because they are the dominate culture, what do you suppose happens? Suddenly, Joe Average feels that to be the best that he can be, he shouldn't take time off. In fact, what I've seen many people do is skip the entire off season, all in the name of top end performance.

Of course, this ends up being costly. Joe Average is no great athlete like Craig Alexander. He doesn't have the fiery passion of Mirinda Carfrae. So Joe Average burns out. He gets tired of constantly being tired because he isn't used to a massive training load week after week. He doesn't have a coach in his ear telling him exactly what work outs to get take easily or the ones that really count. And he doesn't see the value in the off season.
You can find me in the corner, crying.
While I'm in the off season, I don't stop training. Sure, I'm not swimming eight thousand yards, biking 120 miles, and running 6 miles. Instead, I like to take some time to engage in activities that I usually wouldn't (see my article The Benefit of Off Season Cross Training). And that's what the off season should really be about.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

What the Minimalists Don't Tell You

Look, I'm a minimal runner. I firmly believe that it is the best way, in terms of biomechanics and efficiency, to run. And I've converted my fair share of runners to minimal shoes. However, I never under any circumstances do so without fair disclosure. So here it is:

Humans are meant to run in the same manner that minimalists do. We evolved without shoes. We learned to put scraps of leather on our feet for protective purposes. Here's the cache: We ran on soft surfaces. Tarmac roads were first implemented in the US in 1909. For thousands of years, humans ran on primarily dirt and grass. Suddenly in the space of 100 years, we go from lithely pacing across fields back to the barn to pounding pavement with Bill Bowerman's waffle-soled Nikes after work. See the problem here?

The problem is that while we are innately designed to run on grass and dirt, our Parks and Recreation departments tell us that we should have nice, paved paths running through the city. We're sold over cushioned, overly supportive shoes that impart the notion that it's perfectly okay to run on hard cement and tarmac. Just today, I received a promotional email from Under Armour with this picture:
Really, Mike?
The problem is that we're constantly bombarded by media, pundits, and for-profit companies telling us that we can, we should, and we must run on our local streets. Until fairly recently, when people began looking for a new, crazy challenge, trail running was a sport that was only undertaken by those with questionable sanity.

Turns out these possibly insane runners were actually the smart ones. Running on those soft surfaces with little between you and the ground does a couple things: It forces you to land on your forefoot instead of your heel and it also reduces the amount of pounding your body takes. See, it isn't so much that form is the problem when it comes to minimalist runners. I've already discussed form in several other posts and won't be touching on Mr. Phelps form today (or lack thereof). The issue here is that no matter how you run, your body has to absorb a significantly higher amount of impact when you run on concrete or tarmac because those are significantly higher harder surfaces. Grass and dirt don't impart nearly the force on your bones that hard surfaces do.

The issue is that we have two conflicting pictures, and one is winning out. On one hand, we're told that minimalism is the way to go. It promotes proper form and lessens the chance of injury. On the other, we're sold the idea by contractors and developers that we should have paved "trails" everywhere. Let's add them together: Hard surface + very little cushion = higher chance of injury overall because no matter how you run, hard surfaces mean that something has to absorb the impact, and because it's not the tarmac, the impact is imparted on your body. Not so difficult to grasp.

Here's what I'm getting at: Running on concrete should not happen. Alberto Salazar, one of the most prolific coaches of all time, has his athletes running 90% of their volume on soft surfaces. It needs to be said, and I hate saying it, but if you're going to run on concrete for an extended amount of time, you need a cushioned shoe. It doesn't have to be a high drop, ultra supportive one, it can be Newton or Hoka One One. The best solution is to not run on tarmac or concrete, it's to run on some real trail, not the one Parks and Rec sold you. Run soft, run light, run on.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Running Like A Sprinter

"You learn to run like a sprinter, you'll be a great distance runner." -Alberto Salazar

Think back to when you were a child, the golden days. No responsibilities, no worries. No boss breathing down your neck about deadlines, no college professor assigning massive research papers. Just finger painting, snack time, and recess. Oh nostalgia...the things you do to me.

Once again, my undiagnosed ADHD has gotten the better of me, the point I was try to get at was at recess there were inevitably games. Whether you were a Tetherball gal or a Four Square guy, recess was a time to let loose. And while I was never particularly talented, but my game of choice was always football. I never played competitively, never got any farther than the field behind Centennial Elementary, but I loved it.

You recall that my last post focused on running with proper form. From the likes of Mirinda Carfrae and Craig Alexander, we can discern some of the subtle nuances of foot strike, posture, and even arm position that make them some of the sport's best runners.

You know who can also be some of the best runners? Small children. Kids that run around playing recess games, sprinting as far down the field as they can. Because they don't really focus on all the small things, they run, often unencumbered by those clunky things we call shoes, the way that humans were meant to run. Why is this? Because they're running the way that they find comfortable, the way we were meant to.

Running with a barefoot style, and sprinting in particular, is the execution of the best form that we can possibly achieve. Because we're trying to get from point A to point B as fast as possible, we're forced into the most efficient form possible. And while young kids usually execute the subtleties such as proper arm swing, the one thing they're really good at (and unknowingly, I might add) is execution of a generally good form, usually better than the majority of older athletes I've encountered.

Take a look at a big marathon like Chicago or Boston sometime. Watch the lead pack, because that's invariably what the television shows, and then go on to Youtube and watch the Olympic final of the 400 meter sprint. You'll notice that runners in both scenarios have a very similar gait. Remarkable, isn't it?

Now granted, the stride length of the marathoner is shorter. That is because they aren't in a full tilt sprint. If that lead pack stays together all the way to the last 200 meters though, you'd see the stride length become greater and the tempo increase as well as they tried to get to the line first.

I don't know about you, but when I ran track in high school, we were generally split (as runners) into two groups, the sprinters and the distance runners. Knowing what I do now, I wish that hadn't been the case. We can both learn things from the other group of athletes. At the end of the day, we were all runners, weren't we?

Monday, December 9, 2013

Dear Motorist

Recently, MyID released a video on Youtube, titled "Dear Motorist." It is a plea from cyclists of all backgrounds and riding styles, you can view it here. I thought that perhaps I too could write a note to a motorist, and I would encourage my readers to do the same, and share it at

Dear Motorist,

I'm a student, a son, a brother, a friend. I hope to one day be a father. And I'm a cyclist. I'm known by many as a cyclist, that is perhaps the defining characteristics that people that know me associate me with. But like you, I own a car. When I turned sixteen my father and I scoured the classified ads for a car until we found a great Toyota Camry. Sure, the upholstery was a little beat up, it had almost 140,000 miles on it, but I loved that car. One of the things my drivers' ed teacher told us always stuck with me, when you're operating a motor vehicle, you are operating a weapon. And like a gun, you can injure someone in a freak accident.

I very much hope that you are never in the position of the injurer. As a cyclist, as a person, I recognize that it takes two to tango. An accident is often not caused by only one person. In fact, having served on a Bike and Pedestrian board in my hometown, I was able to ascertain that in over 50% of accidents involving a bike and a motor vehicle, both parties were at fault. This is my pledge to you, that I will do everything humanely possible to avoid putting you in that position.

Three feet. Three feet is the margin that should exist between motorist and cyclist. And while I don't always get it, I wish that you would realize that it is extraordinarily terrifying when the margin is sometimes less than six inches. I've been hit, run off the road, brake checked, and slid across the pavement as a direct result of the actions of a motorist. My greatest wish is that you would not use this as a reason to avoid but rather a reason to ride. Because the more motorists we make aware, not of the terrors, but of the joy and freedom that comes with riding a bike. The more we educate, the more we empower, the less we will have to fear the motorist. The less we fear the motorist, the more we can get out and enjoy the road. Together.

Your friend,

The Cyclist

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Benefit of Proper Run Form

For those of you that have followed this blog for a while, you know I’m a big advocate for Newton Running Co. and their shoes. Why? Because they are the perfect long distance, on-road shoe. They don’t absorb shock, but they transfer it to the shoe via their proprietary action/reaction technology. And while I enjoy my minimal shoes as much as anyone, if I know that my route will take me on pavement for an extended period of time, I’ll reach for my Newtons first.

One of the benefits of living in Colorado is that I live within an hour of Boulder, the home of Newton. Every so often, they’ll hold what’s called a form clinic. It’s an opportunity for newcomers to try their shoes, and converts like me to tweak our form with some of the best runners in the world.

I had the privilege of joining the form clinic group last month with some friends, very good runners in their own right. One of the things that was emphasized in the hour-long clinic was having proper posture. This means holding the head straight, ears directly over the collarbone, and standing tall with a slight forward lean.

Let’s break those two points down, beginning with the head. Having a neutral head that is in a good position is imperative for fast, efficient running. One of the telltale signs of fatigue is the head beginning to rock. And every movement of the head is something that the body has to compensate for, which wastes energy. Over the course of a 5k it may not be a big deal, but if the body is already in an energy deficit by the time the run is reached in a triathlon, every calorie that can be conserved is essential. 

There’s a very simple way to judge what your optimal head position is. Newton calls it the tripod. Standing tall, head held high, place the index finger of your right hand right under your chin. Then allow your middle finger and thumb to rest on the collarbone, forming a triangular shape with those three fingers. Occasionally during warm up, I’ll form the tripod just to check my head position and make sure it’s optimal.

As far as I'm concerned, their second point at the clinic is sort of redundant. If you utilize proper form by striking directly under or just slightly in front of your center of mass, you should already be leaning slightly forward. A good example of this form is Mirinda Carfrae, Ironman World Champion and record holder on the Kona course.

Another good example of proper form is Newton Athlete Craig "Crowie" Alexander, who is a 3x Ironman World Champion and Kona record holder with an impressive 8:03:56, running a 2:44 marathon en route to his win. 
Note that Crowie's right foot has not yet landed (for lack of a better term) which is why it appears to be landing slightly in front of the optimal position. However, it should be noted that the optimal position of a foot strike is not directly under the center of mass, but slightly in front of it.

I was surprised to learn this because for the longest time, I'd been told by many minimal runners that the ideal position was directly under the center of mass because the knee is a hinge joint, designed to move in only two directions (up and down). However, when we look at Mirinda Carfrae's form directly before take off, as seen in the first picture, the knee is never fully straightened. If it were completely straight, there would be additional strain on the ligaments behind the knee. Therefore, to achieve as long of flight time as possible, the foot strike should be slightly in front of the center of mass or slightly behind it to generate as much propulsive power as possible.

Additionally, landing directly under the center of mass puts more strain on the quadriceps by creating more a squat, compact form. Forcing the quadriceps into a squat after the strain of a 112mi bike leg means that they are again working, defeating the purpose of a triathlon-specific bike, which minimizes the strain on hamstrings and calves so that they are fresh for the run. The extra energy required to push oneself out of the squatting position is often the difference between winning and losing. Pete Jacobs even went in for a run form comparison after 2011 and came to the conclusion that it was his striking in front of the center of mass that was the margin between his second place and Andreas Raelert's third ,a margin of two minutes, four seconds, despite the fact that he came off the bike nearly five minutes. With the proper form, and the execution of subtle nuances, Jacobs made up the five and put an additional two minutes into Raelert, a strong runner in his own right.

One final point: Alberto Salazar, perhaps the running guru and coach of Nike's distance athletes, is well known for saying that perhaps 90% of his runner's miles come on soft surfaces. He's also known for the saying, “You show me someone with bad form, and I’ll show you someone who’s going to have a lot of injuries and a short career.” The point here is that 1) you should be spending more time on trails, grass, a track, even a treadmill and 2) if you're spending time on the pavement and run with bad form, you're compounding the risk of injury. It's like doubling the size of the window, the window to injury. Correcting your form will open doors to faster, safer running.