Friday, August 31, 2012

The Wall

Today, my dad and I built an obstacle course training wall.  This has been a theoretical project for some time now, but since the Tough Mudder is in eight weeks and its high time I learn to climb a wall, I decided to get my dad involved in the project because, well, I don't have to explain, it just gets done.  That's a great thing about dads in general, but especially about mine.

So, I looked at a couple of plans, but the nagging thought in the back of my mind was my neighbor Brett who is one of our team members and is six foot something significant and probably weighs at least 220 lbs.  Anything I built would have to be able to withstand the possibility of him running at it full speed and hurling himself over it.  So, we needed a substantial base and a good amount of weight.

This should withstand Brett or Brett-like individuals.
We went with this design, that we pretty much figured out in the aisles of Home Depot.  These are the materials:

6 - 8 ft. 4x6 (two cut in half, two cut in half with 45 degree cuts on each end)
10 - 8 ft 2x10
4 - 8 ft. 2x6
1 - 8 ft 2x4

We dug some trenches and filled them with crushed stone to give it a solid base.  We also left the top two boards off the top until we learn to climb over this height somewhat proficiently.  This was a 7 hour project total including the clearing, digging, and root removal.  I would not recommend doing this without a dad or similar person who has both engineering confidence and old man strength.  

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

My feet hurt

I'm quite new to distance running.  I don't exactly like it yet, but I'm getting there.  I actually said, "let's do a short run, like five or six miles" other day.  If anyone had used "short run" and "five or six miles" in the same sentence to me a few months ago, I would have died laughing.  And yet, here I am.

Love these shoes.
I mentioned a few posts ago how I was taking the barefoot approach to running and felt it was better for my hips.  I really like my Merrell trail glove shoes and feel much more comfortable running in them than my traditional running shoes.  Alas, I am a beginner runner and a distance runner all at the same time and after a 10 mile road run (for which my shoes are NOT prescribed) my feet are really starting to hurt.  And then I ran 9.5 miles of trail on Monday, complete with roots, rocks, hills, etc.

Now, I do have a decent knowledge of the human body, and despite my general aversion to running, I do have a fundamental understanding of running injuries.  Therefore, I am a bit paranoid about developing plantar fasciitis, irritating my achilles tendon, or doing anything horribly irreparable to my feet, ankles, knees, or hips in these last 8 weeks of training.

I got these, only in purple.
I went to my chiropractor yesterday and told him my right foot was killing me and he adjusted it back to minor discomfort (yes, chiropractors are magic).  He also told me that although he is a barefoot enthusiast himself, he found that he needed some more padding and structure in his shoes for longer distances.  Since he fixed my shoulder and hip pain therefore allowing me to engage in such silliness as throwing 28 lb weights overhead to compete in the Highland Games, I listen to pretty much everything he recommends.

And so, I bought new shoes.  I really like the Merrell brand and so I upgraded to a barefoot shoe that is made just for me "beginner or long distance runner", the Merrell Bare Access Arc.  I'm both, so it is twice as good.  I'll get them sometime in the next week and we'll see how these work out.  I am optimistic, but in the meantime, I'll take my chiro's advice and keep rolling my feet out on a golf ball or maybe a frozen water bottle.


I wore these shoes for my first obstacle course conditioning session and am quite amazed.  I had no pain during or after the workout.  Even better, the chronic pain I've had for the past two weeks is mostly gone.  This is awesome because I thought I might have crippled myself with enthusiasm and hubris.

Addendum #2:

A second two hour conditioning workout and a bit of road running and the pain is still gone.  Love these shoes!

Friday, August 10, 2012

11 Weeks Out

All right Team GeriAtrocities!  The Tough Mudder is in eleven weeks and its time to finish up our base training and get more specific.  Two posts ago, I talked about the obstacles and what the general fitness needs are going to be.  I now want to get even more specific about what we'll be doing over the next several weeks to get ready to take on this challenge.  This is a significant challenge and the bulk of our base training needs to be in place by eight weeks out.  At eight weeks out, we can only work with what is already in place, we can't significantly increase strength or endurance.  Our main goal will be to hone skills and mitigate weaknesses.

No mud yet, must have just started.  
Distance Running:  The race is eleven miles and even though we will only run three of those miles continously, we need to be able to run the total distance.  Some of us already can, some of us are struggling to get there.  Our bodies need to know what eleven miles feels like and have the endurance, stamina, tendon strength, and conditioning to go the distance.  Yes, there will be obstacles, but the above qualities are best trained through low and slow, long steady distance.  There is no substitute for getting those miles in and it will make your race much easier.  If you are only now starting to run, work up your distance on a long run for the next six weeks.  After that, we will be adding more distance to our obstacle training and dropping back our distance training to attack those first three miles.  The cumulative weekly distance will probably remain somewhat similar.

Speed Intervals:  Speed training will help you move faster more efficiently and with less chance of injury.  It also trains the energy systems that will help us to put in the lactate threshold and anaerobic strength efforts of climbing over obstacles before transitioning back into a run.  Why is this necessary?  Its necessary for a couple of reasons.  The transition between obstacle and back to running is where many participants get gassed.  Training to overcome this predominant fatigue trap will make your race easier.  The second reason is that a large number of Tough Mudders who don't complete the race don't do so due to hypothermia.  Being able to come out of the water and continue running will be important for restoring and maintaining body temperature.

Get out and keep going.
The speed training that I am going to suggest will help all of us both in the obstacle transitions as well as running with better form for longer periods of time.  It will help you maintain good form after fatigue sets in and your good form and efficiency will do a lot for preventing injuries on the course.  At this time, I would recommend introducing some speed intervals.  I would do them no more than once a week and they should be of high quality.  The main goal is to introduce some short bursts of speed with good form and near maximum effort followed by a 3-4 minute period of running or jogging. You will then recover for an equal amount of time before attempting the next one.  Recovery must be complete so if it takes 10 minutes, it takes 10 minutes.  If you do these right, you shouldn't be able to do more than thirty to forty-five minutes of these including both work and rest intervals.

The intervals I'm currently utilizing for myself are a 50-100 m sprint or hill run followed by a 3-4 minute run at my usual running pace.  I take a five minute rest period and then repeat two to four more times.  I warm up with some running drills and short sprints first and then cool off by laying on the grass and questioning my motivation for doing such a horrible thing to myself.

Avoid hypothermia, it will keep you from finishing.
Strength:  We can all develop a good amount of strength in the gym, but we should be transitioning that strength now to obstacle specific strength.  We need to be able to move our own body weight vertically and horizontally through space.  Bear crawls, lunges, pushups, pullups, dips, body rows, press-ups, should all be included in your repertoire. We'll start introducing more obstacle specific movements such as rope climbs and pulls, monkey bars, wall climbs, and belly crawling as we get into race specific conditioning.  If you want to maintain any of your barbell lifts, drop the volume and intensity back such that it doesn't interfere with your running and recovery.

It is important to note here:  You will not get any stronger during this time.  This race requires strength endurance and to try and increase overall strength will be counterproductive.  Dial back your limit strength training to optimize your efforts.

Crawling on your belly is not easy.  Especially if you're in
the almost 40 and over crowd and you haven't done this
since you were in diapers.  
Obstacle Specific Conditioning:  This will be the fun part.  We're going to take an approach that will evolve as we get closer to the race.  Our race day conditioning is going to consist of mixing obstacle specific strength work with running in an interval format.  The format will be to begin with a mile run and then work at a station for either the required number of reps or a set period of time.  The stations will have similar demands to the obstacles on the course, but many of them will require a bit more effort to complete.  We will start by treating each block of running and skill work as a separate independent block.  We run, we recover, and then we work on one of our strength stations.  We recover, run again, recover, and go to the next station and so on.  During this time we will be learning to climb ropes efficiently, climb walls, belly crawl, monkey bars, and all that fun stuff.  The main focus during this period will be good running form and becoming familiar with the different challenges.

As we become proficient at these challenges we will begin to blend the skill blocks with the running blocks that follow them.  We will complete an obstacle and immediately run (or jog or walk) the next distance.  We will have a short rest period before attacking the next obstacle.  During this time, we will be increasing the number of obstacles and running distances.

Water, again.  
Finally, during the last 3-4 weeks, we will work on blending the blocks together with minimal rest and maximal proficiency.  The focus will be speed.  By the laying the foundation of familiarity, proficiency, and good form, we should be able to execute each obstacle and subsequent running period with some amount of grace and agility.  Speed is not for the purpose of winning the race as much as completing the challenge in a reasonable time.  Too much time on the course may leave one too exhausted to complete it.

There is really no point to risking injury while training.  A reckless approach won't prepare you any better, just increase your chances of hurting yourself.  By taking things more slowly and focusing on skill development before speed, we get stronger and improve our ability to tackle these obstacles while learning how to do them well.

How to put it all together:  My most prevalent philosophical training practice is that the individual must improve what he or she needs to improve and not do what everyone else is doing.  So, before taking a look at this plan, realize that you may have some deficiencies in your base strength or endurance and you need to address those first before anything else.  So, for the next three weeks, if running is your Achilles heel, you need to run more than anything else.  It's really too late to get appreciably stronger, but by practicing body weight strength moves, you can wake up a lot of your previously developed strength potential with lots of practice.

I'm thinking this may have to be a practice obstacle.
Beginning August 28th, we're going to start our weekend warrior training with the obstacle course conditioning.  We'll be doing this one day a week, but you'll still have 3-4 other days to continue making improvements in the other qualities.  I would recommend a long distance running day, a speed training day, and a strength day focused mainly on obstacle specific and bodyweight movements.  These four workouts will cover the distance training, speed training, strength endurance training, and energy system training that you need to get through this race.  If you can handle more workouts without impacting recovery, consider adding in another short run.

About a month out from the race, we will want everything we do to be race specific.  Distance, conditioning, and obstacle specific strength work three days a week should be all we need to work on at this point.  One week out, we'll do our most challenging training of the cycle followed by a week of lighter workouts focusing mostly on recovery.  And then, on October 27th, we'll see what we're made of.

*I need to credit Dave Van Skike, former pro mountain bike racer, current Highland Games thrower and lifter of very heavy things, with helping me develop this final training plan.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Shoes and Stones

I was camping in the mountains with my family a few weeks ago.  We were staying next to a lovely river that was full of crawfish and good for tubing so we spent a lot of time in the water.  I mainly served as kid-catcher as they came down river in their inner tubes so they wouldn't end up in the next town, so I decided I'd make good use of my time.  I did this by testing out my newish running shoes for their ability to keep me from falling down and not get weighed down with mud and water at the Tough Mudder.  This happened to me at the Warrior Dash and it was both annoying and  made running really hard.  For that reason, I decided to go with a more minimalist shoe for this Tough Mudder training and found a Vibram style shoe by Merrell that didn't have toes.  I don't like the toes, mainly cause the toes provide more surface area for stinky feet germs.  But, I digress.  I bought these shoes back in the Spring because if you're going to learn to run long distances, you should do it in the shoe you intend to run the long distances in.  Shoe type can alter your gait and in the case of a typical running shoe vs a minimalist shoe, this is very true.

These are my shoes.  
There's been a big movement in the running world to get back to running naturally and not using overly cushioned running shoes.  The general consensus is that overly padded running shoes allow you to acquire poor running form and run in a heel to toe fashion instead of utilizing an intitial mid-foot/ball-of-foot strike.  We aren't supposed to initiate our running stride on our heel and if you don't believe me, go jog through some gravel barefoot.  Your heel does not want to be the first man down.  It doesn't have a lot of kinesthetic awareness and it also has a big bone in the middle of it that can't move out of the way.  The front part of your foot is more flexible and can react and adjust to terrain much more easily.  Apparently, heel to toe running leads to a lot of runner injuries, especially in the knee.  I really don't know if there are any formal studies on this, but I've had success with it in my own practice and so I'm going with it.  Additionally, a significant number of people have reported fewer injuries when they change their stride to a more natural mid-foot strike.  They typically train this by running hills and/or running barefoot or in a minimalist shoe.  If you are not running on natural terrain, however, I would recommend that you find a shoe that is specifically for road running.  Trails may be more challenging, but they are much more forgiving on the joints (also purely speculation based entirely on personal  experience.)

If you want to read more about barefoot running, start with this article for some of the pros and cons:

Humans may have been built to run barefoot, “but we did not evolve to run barefoot with bad form.”

One of the crawfish we caught in the river.
I'm not going to defend my decision with anything other than my experience with track and field.  Watch the track runners at the Olympics and look at their shoes.  No one wears cushioned running shoes.  They have spikes and racing flats.  That's right, flats.  A sprint spike has spikes in the front to help dig into the track and no heel padding at all.  That's because track and field athletes run on the front part of their foot.  So, that's pretty much all the convincing I need. Cushiony running shoes may be okay if your joints hurt, but they can encourage bad running form.  I found that when running on asphalt, my cushiony shoes made my feet feel better, but made my hips hurt.  I have been mainly running in my minimalist shoes on trails and although my calves are certainly taking a beating, it feels pretty good.  As an aside, the bottoms of my feet are sore after running, but rolling them out on a lacrosse ball makes everything better.

And back to my shoes plus river; they worked great.  I did find that not falling was entirely dependent on my ability to place my feet in such a manner that they didn't slip out from under me.  And yes, I fell often and with great fanfare. I was also made violently aware by a pair of boulders a little too far apart that I can do the splits.  However, being wet did not make the shoes any heavier and they didn't produce any drag in the water.  They did let in some gravel and sand, but it washes right out so it won't be a problem as there will be no shortage of water to fall in on race day.  

Roundish stones, a shoe, and crawfish nets.
As it turns out, there are other advantages to falling down in the river a lot.  Mountain rivers are very clear and I could see the bottom of the river.  And guess what I found?  That's right, round stones.  I have been trying to find roundish stones for a while to practice throwing for the highland games.  The ones I've found that are heavy enough in my yard have sharp angles and are squarish or rectangularish.  Not really good for throwing.  But, here in the river, I found some good ones.  This was kind of irrelevant to the shoe/Tough Mudder subject, but an added bonus of being in a river.

So, in conclusion:

  1. Barefoot shoes can be good if they are appropriate for your terrain and you learn to run in them properly.
  2. If you are running a race that involves mud and water, a minimalist shoe may make running easier.
  3. Track and field athletes don't run with cushions on their heels.
  4. I am still tragically uncoordinated.  

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Doubt and Fear

When training for something you've never done before its easy to get overwhelmed.  People say all the time "you never know what you're capable of until you try it" and that can be inspiring.  At the same time, there are powerful emotions that keep us from attempting new and challenging things outside of comfort zones.  As a mostly general fitness type with a strength bias, it wasn't that far out of my grasp to run a 5K, do a Warrior Dash, or even compete in a weightlifting meet.  But, in the grand scheme of things, they aren't that hard.  I can jog a 5K any day of the week and it won't hurt me nor has it ever occurred to me to run it as fast as possible.  At a weightlifting meet, I'm in control of my attempts and if I don't feel like lifting a certain amount, I don't have to.  My approach has been to train as much as I can, and perform as well as I can on game day.

I did okay at the Highlander, but it wasn't without disasters.
But, lately that's not been the case.  When I registered for the Falls Fest Highlander last October, the events and weights were predetermined.  The six events required a combination of strength and skill; some requiring more strength and some requiring more skill.  Most importantly, if I couldn't lift or throw the pre-determined weight, I couldn't compete.  This made me focus my efforts much more on the competition and tailor my training to make sure I could at least make an attempt at each event.  For the first time, I felt pressured to hit certain goals in my training rather than just waiting to see where I was.  I began to keep a stricter training schedule and set goals that were out of my current reach.  I was actually nervous that I would fail to compete well or have the stamina to last the whole day.  Luckily, my hard work paid off and I did reasonably well.

I took a lesson from my son in training for the
Highland Games:  Just keep practicing.  
I had the same experience with the Highland Games only I needed a lot more skill to succeed at these.  I did nothing but lift and throw for several months and towards the end, I threw almost every day, just trying to eke out a few more improvements in technique and hope to get a good throw in on all the events.  It didn't matter how I felt on game day, the weights were set and there was no changing them.  Again, hard work paid off and I did all right.

But now, with the Tough Mudder, I am facing a pretty big challenge.  Not having ever been a runner, training the ability to do the mileage has been the toughest challenge of all.  I've worked up to running 7.5 miles, which is more than I've ever run in my life, but I have to almost double that in the next three months.  The strength challenges of the Mudder probably wouldn't be all that terrible in isolation, its mostly bodyweight strength, but the stamina it takes to repeatedly move your body up and over obstacles is staggering and so running will be playing a secondary role in that as well.

While doing a long trail run the other day, I was stumbling my way up a hill covered with rocks and roots focusing primarily on breathing evenly and stepping as carefully as possible.  I was marginally aware of the fatigue in my calves, the sense of being out of breath, and the sweat running in my eyes.  I tried to imagine climbing in and out of chest deep trenches filled with mud and all I could think was, "I'm too tired.  I can't do it."

Are the mountains in front of you an obstacle?
Or just part of the trail?
I'm at the point in training for this thing where doubt and fear come into play full force.  The Tough Mudder website says that the course is 11 miles with 25 obstacles.  It also says that it should take about 2.5 hours to complete.  Well, it currently takes me almost 2 hours to run 7.5 miles.  I realized this last Monday after looking at the time and the mileage of my last run.  I sat down on the curb next to my car and had to think about things long and hard.

Of course, Doubt and Fear were the first ones to rear their ugly heads.  "This is farther than you've ever gone and look at how beat up you are.  You can't even get in the car without hurting.  Your knees are a mess.  You can't run 11 miles much less run 11 miles with obstacles.  You only have 3 months left to train.  Just quit now.  It will be easier that way."

Doubt and fear are very convincing.  I struggled with them a lot when I was training horses and competing in equestrian competitions.  Because I was usually not afraid, I was always being given the horses who needed "gentling".  However, when a 1200 lb animal nonchalantly tries to kill you on a regular basis, you tend to get a little nervous.

I'm thinking no one was super excited about building this
fence, it simply had to be done.  
So, having always experienced chest pain and general discomfort while running, I never really tried to be a runner.  I didn't like it.  Made me feel weak and horrible.  I ran an annual 5K for a stretch of 5 years in my early 20's, but it wasn't until I had all three of my children that I got back to running.  And found I hated it as much as ever.  However, if you're training for a Warrior Dash, you have to run and so I got back to it, knowing full well that 3 miles is not that far and I can run 3 miles and I don't have to do it more than once or twice a year.

However, with this Tough Mudder training, we're way out beyond the boundaries of what I know I can do.  In order to complete this race and still have the strength and stamina to do the obstacles, I need to be able to run 15 miles at a reasonable pace and be able to mix some strength work in during my other runs.  And I just don't know if I can do it.

The good news is this:  Doubt and Fear have the loudest voices, but once they are done yammering, Logic takes over.  And Logic tells me this:

1.  There is nothing wrong with your body.
2.  Three months ago, you couldn't run 7.5 miles, next month you'll be running 10.
3.  You are strong and getting stronger.

and most importantly

4.  This is going to be hard.  Its supposed to be.  But, its not impossible.  You just need to work hard and that is what you do best.

Two hundred years ago, a man cut down trees, hand cut
them into boards, and built this house, all with just an axe.
Surely I can run 15 miles.  
I like Logic way better than Doubt and Fear, but I do think that Doubt and Fear have their place.  They force you to plan and find the true source of your motivation.  Look around you at the many people you know who are doing things that you don't think that you can do.  The truth is, unless it requires a great deal of coordination, knowledge of quantum physics, or superhuman strength, its probably not out of your reach.

Every day, people get up off the couch and decide for the first time to train for a marathon, hike the Appalachian Trail, or lose hundreds of pounds.  And they succeed.  Not because they are special and amazing in some genetically pre-determined way, but because people are awesome and we have far more potential than we're even slightly aware of.