Monday, January 16, 2017

The Basics

I started this journey in October and have accumulated more than 50 sessions of strength and mobility. The first thing I am learning is that it is going to take a long time to get the basics right. My mobility and flexibility are terrible right now (the difference is flexibility is passive, mobility requires strength through a range of motion). For example, I cannot squat down without lifting my heels off the ground, which means I cannot do an ass to grass squat without compromising form. So, I have to get the basics done first. This is very disheartening because it takes a long time for connective tissue to adapt -- many months. But, it only strengthens my resolve to do this right. The last thing I need is a back injury from squatting with bad form.

Interestingly, my bench press is better than my squat right now. I would assume that has a lot to do with mobility related issues in my legs, likely also contributing to my overuse injuries running.  As I work on mobility, I think I'll dial back the strength component and work in lower weight so I can work on form and a complete range of motion. For a day-to-day structure, I that covers all the different movements, I really like Coach Dos' book Men's Health Power Training.

Here are a few mobility things I like to do:

Friday, January 13, 2017

A New Way: High Intensity and Strength

I have only been blogging intermittently lately because I am somewhat lost. This has been coming for a while now, maybe as much as two years in the making. Some combination of burn out, higher/changing priorities, "settling", and injury has led me to start to consistently wonder if I want to keep training this way. In short, I've optimized almost exclusively to nearly just one way of training (one way of "health") for five years now. It worked. In fact, I'd argue that I've seen results as good as anyone in my community of runners. My results have been good within my age group, a few with high placement, and most importantly, they have been consistent and improving.

So why change? First of all, I am injured. I've been dealing with a nagging groin injury since training for Colorado Marathon last Spring. It has reached a "chronic" state and needs a lot of therapy. It is also "chronic" in the sense that it continues to underscore the lack of balance in my body and my training. If you want to believe that I am just injured and bummed out and that's all that there is to this story, then go ahead and move on with your day and stop reading now, but there is way more to this.

As I eluded to in my intro, I have been fighting this mentality for a while now. In my self-reflecting moments, I have suspected for a while that change was needed. Being injured has allowed me to step away and gain some clarity. I started this journey as a way toward health and became pretty good at it -- addicted to chasing the next race, the next workout, the self-congratulations that came with success. I am finally seeing this as not healthy, but more of an obsession: too much repetitive motion without cross training, too much of a time commitment, too much juggling of regular life and racing.

A few years back a friend told me about Tim Ferris' book the 4 Hour Body. In the book, Ferris details CrossFit Endurance as a way to perform in running (yes, even ultra running!). The book promises to run minimal mileage and get maximal results. I was highly skeptical and still am. I do think that typical long, slow distance (LSD) "80/20" training is the way to go for maximum performance. However, I think I've detailed all the reasons why I don't think that is sustainable for a working/family person. That type of training maybe more suited long-term for someone younger and someone who trains like a full time athlete -- with time to cross train, with professional looking after them to stay healthy and recover properly. It may also be more appropriate for someone less obsessive and with the foresight to take time off during the year. Another fitness expert I trust very much, Ben Greenfield, has written some great content on the how to get fit and gain endurance and compared the two philosophies. The short story is that there is more to endurance than big volume and LSD and more than way to achieve many of the physiological adaptions.

Is this post an announcement that I am going to be doing CrossFit Endurance? Not quite. I thought about going to pure CrossFit Endurance and I was presented with several problems. As I mentioned early, I don't buy into the idea that you can run so little and be a good runner. Another problem, I don't have access to a CrossFit gym and don't want to pay to gain access. Finally, most importantly, the more I read about it, the more worried I became that I'd be trading one obsession for another and possibly induce new problems. Nonetheless, there is a sound philosophy behind the concept: prioritize strength training and intensity training to strengthen the body and "hack" fitness. Broadening the picture, there are other ways to "hack" fitness as well, like sauna training, fasting, slow/low carb dieting. Honestly, I think low-carb has had as much to do with my success the past 3 years as training. I believe that to my core.

What am I getting at? I have about 3 months to the Boston Marathon. I want to get healthy and run that race. And, I have other races that I'd like to run in 2017. I need a new way to go about things. This is honestly a new journey that I plan to take slow, literally a day at a time. Strength and mobility will be my biggest priorities. I am losing both and want to improve that before heading into the Summer. Strength will primarily be typical Olympic movements with high weight and low reps. (This is one area where I find CrossFit scary, using Olympic lifts to exhaustion.)  Next, I will be easing my way back into running as my things improve. But, my tolerance for pain/discomfort are going to be close to zero. No more compromising just to get another workout in. Finally, I will use CrossFit and High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) to help bridge the fitness gap. For now, my plan is to approach training like the following*:

Monday: Strength + 30-45 mins of easy running
Tuesday: Strength + 30 mins HIIT run workout
Wednesday: Strength + 45-60 mins HIIT run workout
Thursday: Strength + 30-45 mins of easy running
Friday: Injury prevention** or rest
Saturday: 60-120 mins running likely with structure/specificity
Sunday: 60-90 mins of running easy

* Mobility is something I will work on daily, so I didn't highlight it
**Injury prevention would be other types of cross training or other movements not covered on my strength days

The one thing I am learning on this is that I have a lot to learn. I've done strength training all my life and thought I knew what I was talking about. It turns out I was wrong! I need to work a lot on technique and mobility to get good at these things and not injure myself. Olympic style lifts require good technique and should not be taken lightly. It is going to be a long road, but I've got time. The goal is to be a stronger, more complete athlete and I don't plan to rush it.

I want to reiterate that I have no timeline on this. My primary goals are to get injury free, strong, and with improved range of motion. As things progress, I will adapt. Honestly, my current weekly workouts look more like CrossFit because I am doing so little running and using HIIT to keep active. I hope to adapt to the above in the next 3-4 weeks as my injury heals and then go almost week-to-week from there. If the results are good enough, I may stay with this all year. I don't know. Boston will not be an A-race, which isn't a problem because I never hoped it would be. It is more of a celebration of the long road to get here. Here is a peek at my last two weeks in Training Peaks.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Responding to LCHF Criticism

I read an article today by Carmichael Training System on the use of Ketosis for athletes and felt compelled to respond. The article is not entirely off base, but I think that the decision to consider any diet is an individual one. The athletes that come to CTS aren't necessarily indicative of the general population. Diets are lighting rod conversations and I am not trying to suggest this diet is superior for everyone, just presenting an opposing view based on experience.

Before responding to the points in their article, a quick bit about me. I am a former football player turned adventure junky (runner). There is nothing spectacular about me as a runner. My best mile time is basically 6:00 flat. I weigh about 195 pounds at a relatively lean 13% body fat, hardly an endurance build. I am a relatively large, aging athlete with a family history of high blood pressure and type-2 diabetes. Yet, I am a self-coached athlete that has managed to go sub-24 hours at Western States and qualified for Boston (3:09:55). Having tried to train and race for both health and performance and both using high-carbs and high-fat, I think I have an educated opinion on this topic. I have read the research and walked the walk. That said, I don't believe this diet for everyone. Individual factors -- age, body composition, etc... -- may sway someone to consider this diet or leave it.

After years of experimenting with many diets, including Atkins, I converted to LCHF in February of 2014. I was coming off knee surgery and unsure of what to expect once I returned to racing. Somewhat unexpectedly, my racing took off and I have had an incredible run of races the past three years, without changing much about the way I train. I have found that I need far less fuel on the run and that I recover much better from races on LCHF. What's more, I am not obsessed with eating during ultras and my energy levels are more consistent, though I still have highs and lows. Perhaps the best thing for me is that my blood pressure has dropped significantly (20 pts) and my blood markers are impeccable (particularly my triglycerides and HDL).

I have to say I disagree with this point. This might true if you look at lab results of indicators that we use to approximate performance, but in the field I don't know that this is true. My best races have all come since I converted to LCHF, everything from marathons to 100 mile races. I attribute this success to eating less during training and races: not being consumed mentally by a nutrition plan, no GI distress, more constant energy, less muscle wasting. Low carb by itself did not improve my V02 max, but it sure makes racing ultras simpler.

A good friend of mine -- a much more typical endurance (build) runner -- ran the Leadville 100 two years in a row. The first year he suffered horribly from a rotten gut and nausea. A year later, without training appreciably different, he ran two hours faster and finished 4th overall (18:43). He attributes nearly all this success to a paleo/LCHF diet which freed him from having to eat so much. Athletes such as Zach Bitter, Tim Olson, Jeff Browning, and Jason Schlarb have all used similar approaches with great success.  (Jason Schlarb's post-RRR interview in 2013 was the "aha" moment for me.)

Chris Carmichael was listing this as a positive, and I agree. This really gets at the heart of what I was saying above. Jason Koop, whom I respect very much, thinks the gut can be trained. I agree with this to an extent. Athletes have limited opportunities to train the GI system for a race that is likely more than double the length of their training runs. And, each day and each race offers something different whether it be altitude, heat, etc... There is no limit to the amount of "specifity" to train your gut for: taking a gel on a big climb, having certain products after 12 hours without real food, etc... I ran the Leadville 100 as my first 100 as a high carb athlete, eating an impressive 10,000+ Kcals (nearly 400/hr). Overall my experience was positive, but I definitely had issues with diarrhea in the second half. Converting to LCHF, I now eat more like 5000 Kcals in a race and my gut thanks me. My nutrition plan is quite simple and I can typically carry 5-6 hours of my preferred products with me at a given time.

Also, at a certain point, you have to ask if this is the right idea. Endurance sports are demanding and there are lots of questions marks about long term health on the heart as well as just the physical wear and tear. So we are all paying a bit of an unknown price. That said, is eating these products all day to train and race the best thing?  The Boston Marathon race director has heart disease.

This shouldn't be the case if done properly. I eat the same, or more even, on LCHF. Each gram of fat has more than twice as many calories as gram of carbohydrates. Eating half the volume would yield an equivalent amount of calories in one's diet. Perhaps the issue is that the athlete finds the diet too limiting (more on that later) and just eats too little involuntarily. It can be a chore to eat enough fat to keep your macronutrient ratio at 75+%. I regularly eat oils to keep my ratio high enough. The majority of the weight loss should come initially from water as the athlete's muscles dump glycogen (and the associated water) and later from fat burn. One difficulty here is the body composition of the athlete -- leaner athletes may struggle to convert their fat stores to energy.

One last thing, there is a difference between nutritional ketosis and fasting/starving ketosis. Unless you a purposely fasting, athletes should be trying to stay in nutritional ketosis. As for me, I was only in ketosis for a few months and switched to LCHF instead, allowing myself "strategic" carbs. I get plenty of benefits from the higher fat burning overall improved gut.

This point I very much agree with. Ketosis is black and white and therefore very difficult to maintain in our western culture. That is the reason I consider myself "LCHF" and not in ketosis. A typical training day for me consists of fewer than 75g of carbs -- often strategically planned around hard or long workouts -- and I occasionally cheat. However, the closer I say to ketosis recommendations, the better I feel. More importantly, when I am keeping strictly with the diet, my blood suggests my body is in superior health.

While I understand the author's point, I disagree. While exercising, the body is more tolerant of carbohydrates without bumping you out of ketosis and it actually makes you more flexible. And, you could easily take the opposite side of this point of view -- what if you need carbohydrates and get lost?  What if your crew gets lost and the aid stations don't have high-carb products you've trained your gut with to avoid GI distress? As a low carb athlete, I regularly go hours without eating with zero fear of a "bonk". When I ate carbs regularly, I was obsessed with my next feeding interval and hitting that 300-400 Kcal/hr mark.

My experience with LCHF has been very positive and I encourage all athletes, particularly larger ones or those with family history of diabetes, to try it out. People in the LCHF community often say each of us is an experiment of one. There are likely aspects of this diet that can help anyone. The points in the CTS article are all worth considering, but I hope I have given a point of view from someone that has used the approach successfully.