Friday, May 21, 2010

Economy of movement

I've taken to looking through the published articles archive of Dan Lieberman, a Harvard professor in human evolution. The first paper I looked at was one of his most recent: "Control and function of arm swing in human walking and running". It is the findings of a study that attempted to determine what role the arms play in running and walking - are they active (do they help propel), or are they passive (do they act as mass dampers, or to balance the movement of the legs for want of a less technical description)?

Turns out that they believe the arms are passive (read the article for a slightly more technical description), and are not used to help propel you. So all that excessive arm swinging is not going to help you run faster - you're better off letting your upper body move naturally. A while ago I experimented with different arm positions and swinging techniques, and discovered that if I kept my elbows bent at greater than 90 degrees and close to my chest, and didn't try to actively swing them, it felt more comfortable and efficient. So I'm sure Dan would be relieved to know I agree with his findings. Now he can sleep much easier.

I was a big arm swinger when I first started running

Are you a running windmill? How do you move your arms when hitting the street?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Runner's World - joining the party?

Just finished reading Christopher McDougall's latest post, and in it he mentions the blog of a new writer for Runner's World. He has an interesting take on barefoot running here. What I found amusing is he touches on the same theories I posed in my post last week about calf soreness after a run.

It seems they may finally have a knowledgeable and open-minded writer down there at Runner's World, one that doesn't tell us that barefooters have hard calloused feet! Kudos to you RW.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Ground Zero - Marathon complete!

Well first things first. I completed my first marathon yesterday, and I have a new found respect for everyone who has completed one in the past, fast or slow. I am quite satisfied with finishing, but it was not done without experiencing the "wall" that you hear so much about.

This was not entirely unexpected. My training has dropped off in the last month due to that little thing called life getting in the way, so I went into the run expecting to be a little underdone. My longest training run was 27km, so there was always going to be a large unknown going into a run that's 18km longer than my previous best (the great ocean road marathon is actually 45km).

The first 30km went quite smoothly. I had the usual ebbs and flows, but my fastest kilometres were actually around the 28km mark. I was feeling pretty good, quite strong, and wouldn't have blown out a candle. And then I saw it. At first it was indistinguishable, almost a mirage. But as it came closer and closer, I recognised it for  what it was - the wall. For me it arrived at the 33-35km mark. As Jack and I grumbled and moaned our way through the last few kilometres, it felt like an eternity. It took us an eternity.

But we got there! And just when we thought we were all done, we had to trek the last 3 km to the official finish line. That my friends was pain. Sweet, delicious, I've just completed a marathon pain.

For the record, Jack and I crossed the line together in 3 hours, 48 minutes and some random number of seconds. I really wasn't paying that much attention to notice. A guy I was chatting to during the run said it's the toughest course he's run on, and he had run quite a few in Oz, so I'm not sure what that time would equate to on a flat course, but regardless I'm bloody stoked to have finished at all, never mind in under 4 hours. Kind of makes a mockery of my apparent VO2max prediction time of 2:41!

Lessons learned:

  1. The vibrams were quite impressive. My feet were a little tender, but I don't reckon that is any different to anyone else who ran in shoes. Afterall, I did run 18km more than I had previously. And the bonus - no blisters! No calf pain, no hot spots, overall my legs feel fine, with one major exception. Which brings me to lesson number 2...
  2. Aerobically I felt great. I think that part of the equation is working out nicely. The limiting factor for me was my thighs, which died a slow painful death, and were the reason for hitting the wall. More core and leg work in the gym I think. I felt as though I could have run a much faster time if my legs had come to the party. Perhaps a result of a lack of conditioning? I saw one guy take a novel approach to the thigh problem - he ran backwards on the downhills! This was only 25km in when I passed him, so I hope he made it to the finish line ok.
  3. Bandaids on the nipples - A+, top marks, straight to the top of the class. I discovered a few more places for chafing however - under the arms. That's a new one
  4. The home made gel was a winner. Never felt lacking for energy. Brendan Brazier's Thrive Diet book, thank you, thank you thank you.
  5. The great ocean road is freakin spectacular. The views were fantastic, and were the highlight of the run up until the 30km mark. After that, I could have been running through a war zone and I wouldn't have noticed.
  6. It would have been lunacy to attempt a marathon in barefoot only 4 months after starting barefoot running, so I'm glad I chickened out on that plan. It will happen, but I need more time.
  7. The camaraderie between runners on a marathon is amazing. I have had brief chats with people before on short runs, but this was something else. I chatted to one guy for half an hour, and it got me through a stage where I was struggling and finding it a bit tedious. And whenever someone was in pain (sometimes me, sometimes others), passing runners would pass on words of encouragement. The spectators were fantastic in their support too. It definitely makes a difference!
So now onto other runs. The Run Melbourne half in July, and the full marathon in November are the next targets, and I aim to hit both barefoot. For now though, some rest for these weary thighs!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Overlooking the (not so) obvious

With the marathon coming up on Sunday, I nearly forgot one thing: how do I attach the timing chip to my leg if I run barefoot?

I am still undecided on whether to go barefoot or in the five fingers, but if I do go au naturale, how will I get the chip to stay on my foot / ankle / leg, and not bother me? Does anyone out there have a solution that they've had success with in the past?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The eccentricity of contraction

A little while ago I was wondering why your calves hurt when you first start running barefoot / minimalist, but then the problem disappears and (hopefully) never returns. I kicked around a few ideas of writing a post about it, but due to a crazy month of travel, study and randomness, I put it on the backburner. And wouldn't you know it, someone beat me to the punch.

Barefoot Josh theorises that it's due to poor running form initially, which you correct as you learn how to run properly, lessening the impact on your calves. While I am inclined to agree that this certainly helps, I think there is more to it, and I now have not only my own experiences to add weight to my theory, but a smattering of knowledge of muscular actions which I am going to throw in to the mix. Add salt to taste and serve hot.

At the start of this year in a moment of madness deep introspection I decided to run every day in 2010. While that new years resolution only lasted 6 weeks, I kicked off the year with several long runs after a fortnight of inactivity. Bless you christmas break.

What became immediately apparent was my calves were on fire. Not flickering like a candle, but raging bushfire action. The joy of living in a two storey house become the nightmare of whimpering up and down stairs with 2 very uncooperative legs. But this was not my first attempt at minimalist / barefoot running. Since July last year I had been getting about in the vibram five fingers, so I had already gone through the learning curve (aka the calves on fire syndrome) once.

So that's why I don't think it's exclusively a newbie trait. Having been there and done that has led me to think that it's more the result of the calves copping a workout that they're not used to. But why do they hurt THAT much? Well I think I now understand a little better courtesy of my certificate in fitness studies. Of course, this is all speculation and based on limited knowledge, but I'm putting my opinion out there so it can be shot down and stomped on in spectacular fashion by someone who actually knows what they're talking about.

So anyway, long story short, here's my theory. When running barefoot, you tend to use the calves to absorb some of the impact as you land. When the forefoot lands first, the calves tense up to slow the leg down as the heel strikes milliseconds later. When muscles contract but stretch at the same time, this is called an eccentric contraction, which is what happens to the calves as you land. When muscles contract and shorten, such as your bicep contracting during a bicep curl, it's a concentric contraction.

Now here's the kicker. All the experts in exercise physiology believe that eccentric contractions are what cause Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. It's also the type of muscle contraction that is believed to cause the largest hypertrophy (size) and strength gains. Some body builders base whole sessions around this type of training. And although the amount that the calves are contracting each time is quite small, it adds up when you do it thousands of times.

So my thought is that when starting out barefoot, the calves hurt like hell due to the eccentric contractions. I don't think this problem happens for shod runners, because the calves don't work eccentrically. They only perform concentric contractions, hence the difference in calf soreness. So us barefooters feel the pain initially, but improve strength rapidly, which is why hopefully after a week or so the condition eases and then disappears. Of course, any extended break you take is like having a break from the gym - back to the start my little hombre. Do not pass go, do not collect $200.

Now I'm being very hypothetical about all of this, and my scientific background extends only as far as the bunsen burners in year 8, so I am not be the most qualified to make this call. What do you think? Does this sound like hogwash? Do you have your own theory? I'm all ears...

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Beep Test - [Beep]ing Hard!

As part of my studies for a certificate 3 in fitness, yesterday our lecturers put us through our paces, performing all sorts of tests that we would expect to use on clients - flexibility, power, strength, etc. One of the tests we got to do was a beep test, which I was looking forward to, as it's something we hear about all the time with Aussie Rules draftees. Player x gets result y on the beep test, which is supposed to be exciting and we all go "ooh" or "aaah" in wonder at the endurance prowess of our club's next superstar. None of us generally have a clue what it means though!

Well now I do. And my score was 13.13. So this is where you're supposed to go "oooh" or "wow" or "is that all!". I would probably expect a "huh?" though. Well as it turns out, it's a good indicator of your VO2 Max, and mine is 60.7. Which I think is a load of horse[beep].

According to that, I should be able to complete a marathon in 2:41:46. Ha! I am aiming for 3:30, but will be happy if I can push that to about 3:15. And even more laughingly, I should be able to run a half marathon in 1:17. Double ha! My best time (6 months ago) was 1:41. I know I could beat that comfortably now, but by 24 minutes? What are you smoking?

So why the disparity? Am I mentally weak? Or mentally strong but physically weak? Has anyone else had their VO2 max tested, and does it measure up to their race times? According to this page, VO2 max is only an indicator of potential, which seems more realistic to me than claiming it as an accurate guide. So now I know I should in theory be able to run sub 3 hours. If nothing else, it's a goal to aim for. Now for more training. Barman, bring me another!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Run like a bird

After our hike in New Zealand, we were on the bus back to civilisation and there were some birds floating around along the lake shoreline. There wasn't really any purpose that I could see to their flying, it just seemed they were floating around because...they could.

It struck me that for humans, running is our equivalent. Or at least it can be if fitness is not an issue. I don't run for any particular purpose most of the time. Sure I have my training runs, where I do intervals or time trials, and yes I am building up to run a marathon, but the real reason for those long runs at whatever pace feels good is that it's my flying on the breeze. It feels good! It's what humans evolved to do, and it makes sense that it should feel fun and liberating.

Does it feel that way for everyone? Or are people out there enduring it rather than enjoying it? Is it a struggle, but you do it for fitness, or do you run because it makes you feel alive?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Gale force winds...

...blowing out of my mouth as I went for another tan time trial today. Managed to improve on my P.B, 14:32 today. It was a struggle early after some interval training yesterday, but I feel ok now. Nothing like an endorphin rush to dull the ache. Pretty shagged though.

Haven't had a chance to do much blogging since arriving back from the NZ hiking trip (which was awesome). Life getting in the way and all that. I did come up with some ideas for posts that I really want to write which I will eventually get around to. Lots of thinking time when you hike for 5 days...maybe too much!

Only 11 days till the great ocean road marathon, and I am still um-ing and ah-ing over whether to go barefoot or in the vibrams. I am pretty confident I can finish barefoot injury free, but the ego in me says run in the vibrams and get a faster time. The worry-wart says I need more than 4 1/2 months of barefooting to run a marathon, especially when I haven't done the distance before. He may be right.