Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Throwing Hammers and Other Things

One of the events in the Highland Games that I have not yet attempted is the hammer throw.  It differs from the hammer throw in track and field both in the weight of the hammer, the implement itself, and the technique used for throwing.

In track and field, the hammer head is attached to a D-ring handle via a flexible cable.  Women throw a 8.82 (4 kg) hammer and men throw a 16 lb (7.26 kg) hammer.  The thrower is able to turn his body as he builds up speed for the throw and move towards the toe board.

In Highland Games, the spherical hammer head is attached to a rattan, bamboo, plastic, or wooden handle. There are both heavy hammer and light hammer throws and the weights are 12 and 16 lbs for women, and 16 and 22 lbs for men.  The thrower must throw from a fixed position which is typically facing away from the toe board.

So, being without a hammer and needing to work on technique with lighter weights, I made one out of a 50" piece of PVC pipe, two 2.5 lb weights, and a lot of Gorilla tape.  Practice began this morning followed by a 2.5 mile run.

My home-made throwing hammer.  

Monday, December 26, 2011

Getting smoked by a seven year old.

When taking on new endeavors, humility is invaluable.  For example, when you decide to run for the first time in a few months and your seven year old freakishly athletic son wants to run with you, you have to know up front that he will, in fact, leap over puddles, turn in circles, run backwards, and periodically sprint while you struggle to maintain your 12 minute mile "jog".  And when you get home and collapse on the floor, he will go down to the basement to practice speed rope intervals for another half hour so he can set the world record at "First in Fitness" in March.  

Me and my Francis at the Warrior Dash.  Not only freakishly athletic, but a darn good-looking kid.  
Well, if I compared myself to Francis, or quite frankly, anyone who is not me, I'd probably get pretty discouraged about my running.  I talk about my shortcomings a lot when it comes to my strengths and abilities, but the truth is, I'm very happy with what I can do.  At a bodyweight of 130 lbs, I can deadlift 224 lbs, squat 174 lbs, and press 85 lbs overhead.  I can also throw heavy rocks a reasonable distance and hike up a mountain carrying a five year old on my back.  I'm proud of myself for always trying to get stronger, more skilled, and more fit.  It is a daily, weekly, monthly struggle to keep my focus and continue to work hard despite the challenges of unfortunate limb length ratios, hip dysplasia, and not having a coach.  I rely on the insight and advice of my friends, a reasonably powerful internal drive, and an ongoing effort to increase my body awareness. 

Body awareness is perhaps one of the most valuable tools for the self-trained individual.  Body awareness sounds like a simple concept, however, its not very simple at all.  Some of us are more gifted than others in being aware of sensations and being able to pinpoint what is causing them.  For example, when running alongside my exuberant child, I feel a pretty overwhelming sense of discomfort. I automatically assume I'm out of breath, but then realize I'm not.  So, then maybe my legs are cramping up, but that's not really the case either.  My stride is steady, my pace is consistent, I'm not breathing hard, and I can even talk to my son as I run up and down these monster hills in my neighborhood.  So, why does it feel so unpleasant?  Well, my legs are tired.  That's pretty much it.  They feel heavy, and a little crampy, but overall, not bad enough to quit.  So, I ran the whole hilly mile.

If I were twenty years old, I would probably go out the next day and run another mile, and do the same the next day.  I would increase my distance as I was able and would probably be able to run 10 miles within four months.  But, I'm not twenty, I'm thirty-nine.  And after running a single mile, I experienced some considerable fatigue and soreness.  My back, my knee, my hamstrings, and my calves were all pretty upset with me.  So, where to go from here?  


My favorite tool in the weight room and on the field.  Sometimes, we need a little external support.  A weightlifting belt can help support your spine.  Knee sleeves can hold your knees together during heavy squats.  But sometimes, just a little help is all that is required.  Tape can help to support tendons and ligaments that may otherwise shift enough to cause pain and inflammation.  Muscles do not exist in isolation, instead, they are part of a network of muscles large and small, connective tissue and bone. All these elements work together to produce movement and any break in the chain can result in pain or even worse, injury over time.  I tape my wrists when I lift overhead.  I tape just below my elbow whenever I do grip work.  When I run, I tape my calf just below my knee.  Why?  Because it eliminates the pain I get in my knee when first running after a long time off.   "Runner's knee", pain around the patella when running,  is often caused by misalignment of the bones, tendons, and/or patella so a little tape stabilization can help things stay where they're supposed to when beginning a running program.

Tape has cured me of more pain than Ibuprofen.
Foam Roller.

Foam rolling, or self-myofascial release, is an invaluable tool to the older athlete.   Self myofascial release is a technique that can greatly improve mobility, recovery, reduce pain, and restore muscle balance. This technique is commonly performed with a one’s bodyweight and a foam roller, but can also be performed with tennis balls and other round, relatively dense objects. The technique consists simply of positioning one’s body on top of the roller and rolling across it such that the targeted muscle is stimulated. It is thought that the activity of rolling one’s muscles on a foam roller or other device stimulates the proprioceptors in such a way as to cause the muscles to relax and lengthen.  Unfortunately, the more uncomfortable your muscles may feel on the foam roller, the more you probably need it.

Rolling the IT band is a uniquely painful experience.
Probably the most painful area to foam roll, at least for me (and is probably indicative of my knee pain) is the iliotibial band, or IT band.  The IT band is a thick band of connective tissue that stretches from the hip, where it attaches to the glute and tensor fascia lata, down to the knee where it attaches to the tibia.  It can get irritated from running, squatting, or any kind of excessive repetitions that involve knee and hip flexion.  When the IT band is irritated, life gets unpleasant.  Going up stairs and getting out of the car becomes painful.  Not only rolling out the IT band, but also the glutes, hamstrings, calves, shins, low back and even taking a lacrosse ball to the bottom of the feet can help eliminate a lot of the post-running aches and pains that tend to plague me.

Rest and Recovery.

Admittedly, my weakest link.  Sometimes, you just have to take it slow.  Too much too soon will catch up with you.  Unfortunately, you may be quite a few workouts over your limit before you begin to suffer the consequences.  Again, at my age, this is a much bigger problem than when I was younger.  Unfortunately, I tend to get a little cocky when I have a good workout and keep pushing.  For example, last week I PRed my squat and maxed out my power clean.  So, of course, when I decided to add some running into the mix, I thought that running a mile of hills was perfectly reasonable.  A more reasonable approach might have been 4 laps around a high school track with a minute of rest between efforts.  But instead, I sit here with sore calves and a right knee that is telling me some not very nice things.  

So, in conclusion, I need to bind myself with tape, live on my foam roller, and listen to my friends when they tell me I'm doing too much.  There is no need to do it all right now.  I have set my goals and remember that slow and steady wins the race.  It will take me six months, but if I'm patient and do the preventative maintenance up front, it should be no problem for me to be injury free and running ten miles by summer.  

I am now going to go down to the basement and squat in moderation.  

**Disclaimer:  If you experience pain while exercising that cannot be eliminated by correcting form or adding support, you need to stop and consult your doctor.  There are a lot of different reasons for pain and if you experience something new, acute, or that limits your activity level, you need to make sure you are not injured and/or causing further injury. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Building up miles

Probably the most challenging thing for me (aside from overcoming my fear of heights and death) in training for the tough mudder will be getting some miles under my belt.  Most running programs would not have a novice attempt a half marathon (which is about the same distance) unless he or she were already running 15-20 miles a week.

Running, although its one of our simplest activities, has a lot of demands that need to be met gradually.  All modes of exercise should be approached with moderation.  Our bodies will adapt to the stresses we apply to them, but it takes time.  Tendons and ligaments need to get stronger.  Neurological coordination needs to improve.  Muscles need to grow and reinforce themselves.  Just remember, the first guy to ever run a marathon died.  Too much too soon is rarely a good thing.  We must give ourselves some time to adapt to the demands we place on our bodies.  Although death from running is not my primary concern, overuse injuries certainly  are.  What's the point of training for this race only to be too crippled to do anything else due to chronic injuries?

Phillipides, the first marathon runner. 
Because this is a pretty challenging distance for me, I'm going to add the miles in slowly.  I'm also going to make sure that I am running efficiently.  My best friend growing up used to tell me I ran like a chicken.  Which is probably true because the track coaches in high school always looked somewhat horrified and/or amused when I would attempt to sprint or get through hurdles without wiping out the whole line during gym class.  For the record, I was not in track and field, I was in the marching band.
Despite looking silly, chickens are actually pretty good runners.
As an adult I finally had a coach give me some pointers and was able to change my running style to not only look less ridiculous, but to be more efficient and less likely to hurt myself.  Because all of our bodies are different, there is no single ideal running form, but there are some common characteristics to good running form:

  • A stable upper body, no excessive bouncing or twisting.
  • Arms moving efficiently in the direction of the movement.  Your upper body plays a large role in both speed and balance when you run.  
  • Feet striking under the hips, no excessive reaching.
  • Relatively "stiff" leg joints, no excessive flexion of the ankle, hips, and knees.

So, lets get back to distance.  I haven't run more than a mile or two since the Warrior Dash in August.  So that means I'd better get my running shoes back on.  I'm going to start adding in some nice easy distances 1-3 miles and just do what I can.  I'll probably mix these up in both constant steady state runs as well as some intervals where I may increase my speed for short distances and then recover by jogging or walking.  Using both of these approaches.  I hope to get up to six miles by the end up three months.  I am going to introduce these elements slowly because I am almost 40 and the last thing I need is to take myself out by developing shin splints or an irritated IT band.

In my next post, I'll begin to outline my specific training plan and how I'm going to incorporate Highland Games throwing, strength endurance, and running all into one program.  Yes, it can be done.  It simply requires an accurate assessment of one's own abilities and the insight to streamline one's training goals.  Well, that and the humility required to take advice from one's friends who may know a little bit more than you about some things.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

And now for a plan . . .

I have set some goals for myself for the next year that are going to be a bit challenging for me.  I plan to compete (or at least demo) in the Triad Highland Games at the end of April and then do the Tough Mudder race sometime over the Summer or early Fall.  In planning my training for both events, I've had to do some self-assessment which has proven rather humbling.  I'll admit it.  I'm kind of lazy and thrive mostly on bravado and stubbornness.  But, when it comes to actually having to perform at a high level, you can't fake it and bravado will only get you hurt.  You either have it or you don't.  Luckily, I'm not too far off the mark and have a good idea as to how to get the rest of the way there.

The Highland Games are a collection of events that mostly involve throwing heavy things, the most recognizable event being the caber toss.  (Picture a guy in a kilt tossing a log and you're mostly there.)  They also throw stones, hammers, and other weights for height and distance.  The weights that the women throw range from 12 lbs to 28 lbs.  As you can imagine, this is not easy.  It requires strength, power, speed, and most of all, skill.

I've never thrown a hammer or caber and I won't have very many opportunities to practice.  I can, however, continue to practice my other throws (leaving large craters in my lawn) for height and distance.  I have a considerable base of strength and power for my size so although getting stronger will certainly help, it is more important that I be able to translate that strength and power into my throws.  Squats, power cleans, and presses combined with consistent throwing practice should get me some respectable distances/heights.

And then, it will be time to focus on the Tough Mudder.

I'm thinking that hill is a lot steeper than it looks.  
Aside from a belief that death is not, in fact, imminent, the Tough Mudder requires that you not only be strong, but that you also have the ability to sustain long efforts of running in combination with full body strength efforts such as climbing and crawling.  You need to be able to push, pull, and move your own bodyweight up and over large objects and obstacles for a period of about 3-4 hours while running.

Not sure how trying not to drown fits into all this.  Not sure you can really train for that other than to reassure yourself that you are not about to die.
Training for an event such as this requires that you develop a good base of strength and then transition that into strength endurance as you increase your running distances.  Strength endurance is the ability to sustain strength efforts over a long period of time.  In other words, as you approach the competition, you must switch your strength focus from maximizing the amount of weight you can lift to increasing the number of times you perform a particular exercise.  For example, while I may max out my squat at 160 lbs for 3 repetitions when building strength, I would ideally squat less weight, lets say 100 lbs, for 12-15 repetitions when trying to increase strength endurance.  (This is a horribly oversimplified example and I would probably make my strength endurance training more event-specific.)

Did I mention I was scared of heights?  
So, what do I need to do?  (Aside from get my head examined?)  Well, I'll get started with the basics.  Squat, deadlift, power clean, press, bench press, pullups, pushups, prowler, and run.    Standing core work with a medicine ball or kettlebell will give me the core endurance I need to stay upright through twelve miles of running and obstacles.  And of course, I need to pay special attention to all of my aging joints, just to make sure they don't stage a revolt.  So, a few curls, shoulder rotations, and maybe some agility work to keep things sound.  As I get closer to the event, I'll incorporate some running specific postures such as lunges and contralateral work (this is a complicated word that means exercises that use your opposite arm and leg) into some muscle endurance workouts designed to mimic the challenges of the obstacles.  The goal being simply to be able to sustain my efforts and condition my heart and lungs to handle that sort of challenge.  This will all be organized into some semblance of a progressive training program.

All good training plans pay attention to the individual so as I develop my training plan, I'll be tweaking things here and there to make sure I continue to make progress.  I'll be developing my training plan in concert with those of my running partners, all of whom are going to need an individualized approach.

So, overall, looks like I may be able to transition from Highland Games to the Tough Mudder simply by stepping up my running efforts and maintaining my strength.  I may have to throw in some obstacle specific strength training as I get closer to the event and will definitely have to add in some muscle endurance training leading up to it.  And as for the anxiety about imminent death, meditation.  Lots and lots of meditation.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Turning 40 and the Tough Mudder

So, next year, I turn 40 and either senility has already set in or I am having a mid-life crisis because I have decided to train for the Tough Mudder.  That’s right.  I’m going to run 12 miles through mud, climb walls, crawl through mud, negotiate barbed wire, probably eat a little mud, get shocked by electrified wires, fall into a mud pit,  and who knows what else.  

This was me after the Warrior Dash.  I'm guessing I'll look a little bit muddier and a lot more tired (maybe a little bloody or splinted) at the end of the Tough Mudder.  

And guess what else?  I have convinced two of my friends to do it with me.  Stephanie has run a marathon, but has only recently started strength training with me.  Suzanne has also run a marathon, but also trains with a strength and conditioning coach five days a week, and recently completed the Mud Run, six miles of similar shenanigans.  I believe the furthest I have ever run is about 5 miles, however, I can do more pullups than either of them combined.  (This makes me feel better for being an endurance sissy).  So we have a gal with strength, but limited endurance (me), a gal with endurance but limited strength (Stephanie), and a gal with both endurance and strength (Suzanne). 

The races we are considering are in the summer and early fall which gives us about eight months to train, which should be plenty of time.  When training for a challenging event like this, time is your greatest asset.  Realistically, because we all have one or both of the elements of strength and endurance already in place, three to four months should be plenty of time for us to take on this challenge.  However, we are all also busy moms with a lot on our collective plates so 6-8 months might be a much more reasonable plan.  The more time you have to train, the more likely you will succeed in meeting your goal. 

So, all of us are going to have to work on our miles, especially me since at this point in time I can really only run about 2-3 without having to call for a ride home.  Being strong gives you quite a bit of built in endurance so for the first couple of weeks training, I’ll be mostly working on improving my cardiorespiratory endurance as well as running specific endurance with interval training.  However, I will very quickly have to start adding in some volume training as well so I can cover the required distances. I'll be keeping track of my training here, both my progress and any pitfalls I run into.

Oh, and did I mention I was also training for a Highland Games in the Spring?  My 40th year is going to be a very different one, that’s for sure.  

Back to throwing kettlebells over the swingset.