Don’t Neglect Downhill Training

Jannine Myers

Many of you ladies are currently training for various events: the Monster Mash half marathon, the Shouhashi half marathon, and the Naha full marathon. Some of you will begin training for the Okinawa marathon in a couple of months, and possibly other local races in the early new year. A lot of the races in Okinawa are quite hilly, and while some of you may be making sure to add hills into your training runs, I suspect most of your hill training is focused on “up”hill running. Training to run downhill however, is just as important yet often overlooked.

Downhill running is generally not the focus in a training plan, simply because most runners take it for granted that gravity will pull them down the hill and no exertion is required. But some of you may have discovered that downhill running, while seemingly easy, can also cause considerable pain in the thigh muscles. Have you ever suffered from burning quads after running too fast down a hill, or a set of hills? Or even from running downhill, period? I can attest to experiencing such pain after running the San Francisco marathon a few years ago, and again when I ran the Tarawera Ultramarathon in 2010. I also remember my right IT band taking quite a beating when I ran the Okinawa marathon earlier this year. All of these courses included several uphill sections, but also some relatively steep downhill sections.

So what causes the muscles to feel so much more painful after running downhill, versus running uphill or on flat ground? Basically, downhill running forces a wider stride, causing the affected muscles to lengthen, or contract eccentrically. When the muscles are stretched beyond what they can typically tolerate, small microscopic tears can result; these tears are the cause of inflammation and subsequently, what is known as “delayed onset muscle soreness,” or what you might better recognize as the pain you sometimes feel after a hard workout. In addition to the muscles lengthening, some runners also tend to run faster downhill, but a faster pace on a downhill slope also means greater impact and more stress on the muscles.

Why then, should we train on downhill slopes if the end result is pain? Well, just as our bodies have the ability to adapt to gradual progressions in running intensity and/or distance, so too can our bodies adapt to training progressions in downhill running. The more we “practice” our downhill runs, the less resistant we become to muscle damage, and, the more likely we are to increase our overall speed.

Here’s a few downhill training tips that I gathered from a couple of sites:

From the May 2009 issue of Runners World Magazine – an article by Jason Karp, PhD.

  • Start small – add downhills to your routine a little at a time…..Start with a short, gradual slope, with a two-to three-percent grade, and move on to steeper and longer descents as you get more comfortable. Treat downhill workouts as hard sessions, and follow them with two or three days of easy running. And be sure to back off of downhills in the two weeks or so before a target race, he adds.

From the September 2009 issue of Running Times Magazine – an article by Brian Metzler

  • Bobby McGee, a Boulder, Colorado, coach who has trained numerous world-class athletes, recommends developing good core strength, as well as specific training to strengthen the quads, hamstrings and lower leg muscles. He suggests doing a variety of drills such as mild lunges, negative or reverse squats, light plyometric work (in which you absorb eccentric shock), hopping and bounding, so your muscles get used to the eccentric contractions.
  • Work on your form – as a surface slopes downward, you need to adjust your body position with a forward lean to keep you from hard heel striking, McGee says. “Think about trying to quickly cycle your legs under your pelvis…..the duration of each footstrike should be very short and very light. With higher turnover and shorter, more frequent steps, you’re absorbing less shock per footstrike.”
  • For downhill marathons (or half marathons), consider running in a shoe that has ample forefoot cushioning, more padding than your normal marathon flats and definitely not a minimalist racing flat.

Finally, here’s a good video clip that demonstrates good uphill and downhill running form:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eu2qocvfCzE

 

Reaping the Rewards of Years of Running

Jannine Myers

As I gathered the information for this post, my intent was to write about running and it’s potential to ward off osteoporosis in aging female runners, but you will see however, from the questions and answers posted below, that I went off on a completely different tangent! Please keep reading, as I’m certain you will find my interview with 73 year old Tricia Moss, both enjoyable and inspiring.

When I was last home in New Zealand, visiting my family (and running a horrendous mountain-climbing ultramarathon with some crazy like-minded friends), my father told me about his friend Tricia. He and my mother got to know Tricia through mutual friends, all of whom meet most weekends to walk along one of the popular hiking routes that wind through the beautiful Waitakere Ranges near my parent’s home. Tricia loves to spend her mornings walking, but not too long ago she was running half marathons, and as my father was keen to boast about, she was still winning age-group awards in her early 70s. Tricia and I have never met, but we have struck up an online friendship, and like many other women around the world who seem to easily bond through a common love of running, so too have we.

In one of our recent email conversations, Tricia mentioned that her doctor was impressed with her good health and in particular, her strong bones, which he attributed to her many years of running. Excited by Tricia’s news, I immediately began to research the correlation between running and the prevention of osteoporosis. I also sought further information from Tricia on her running background, as I wanted to try and determine how much running a female needed to do to maintain good bone density throughout the latter years of her life. But as I began to read through Tricia’s answers, I grew less interested in the osteoporosis/running concept, and far more interested in Tricia’s life as a late-bloomer runner. Her words gave me a glimpse into a life that I believe many of you will be touched by, not because of Tricia’s talent as a runner, but because of the choice she made (in her 40s), to turn her life around and say goodbye once and for all to the couch potato that had kept her from leading a healthy life.

Me: When did you start running and for what reason?
Tricia: I started running when I was about 46 – I had gained a little weight, which I dieted off fairly easily but I was left with typical New Zealand thighs and was told the only thing to get the thighs back in shape was to run! Gosh, I had never even raised a sweat in all my 46 years. Anyway, I started very slowly, running about 4ks, and every time I got home I told my husband that I would die of a heart attack if I kept it up. He was very good and said not to be so daft and just get on with it. I was amazed that after a month or so I could run all the way without gasping for breath! And one of my girl’s boyfriends at the time suggested I endeavour to increase my run, so from there on in I was hooked.

Me: Were you ever active in any other type of sport?
Tricia: I had, until this time, never been a sporty person. My parents were older and more academic – although when my girls were around 10 and 12 they asked for a horse each. We got one horse, and this involved Rod (husband) and I in some fairly physical activity.

Me: Can you provide a brief history of the races you’ve done, and which races you have won awards for?
Tricia: I am a little hazy about the early days. I know that this really began when I changed my job and met a lady (who is now a very dear friend) who was a runner – she asked me to join her and her friends to run the pipeline (the pipeline is one of the beautiful trail routes in the Waitakere Ranges). The first run I did with them was very nerve-wracking, as I thought they would be so much faster than me. But when we had finished I was so pleased that I had managed to keep up with them, and happy that I now had other people to judge myself against. As I began to run more and more 10ks, recreationally, I saw a 10k race advertised and thought I would give it a go. It all went well – I can’t remember my time but this gave me a lot of confidence to continue and so I entered a half marathon. My girls were appalled as they thought I couldn’t do it, but I surprised them and myself by completing it quite easily (would you believe they turned up at the finish line with my slippers – how embarrassing, ha ha!). So then I really got into the stride and as I turned 50 I began winning my age group – I couldn’t help bragging about this with my relations who considered me a couch potato. I remember clearly the first prize I won – I had left the race as soon as I had finished and the next day at work my friend ran to my desk with a package telling me I had won my age group – we laughed and laughed when we opened it – it was an IRON!!

I think I began to get too confident, as after winning  three half marathons in a row I entered the half marathon at Huntly and convinced my husband and kids to drive down with me. Well as you know, Huntly is very flat and I ran my heart out – time I finished was about 1:47 hrs (nowadays, this time in 50plus would be nothing but then it was quite fast) – we sat around after the race with me being absolutely sure I had won – – – well, surprise surprise I never came near – my husband had tried to tell me that other ladies in my age group had come through before me, but I was adamant that I had won – this did me the world of good. I later found out that the Rotorua Marathon runners used this event as a forerunner to their races. On the drive back I was just so sick and felt so bad that I said I would never do another half marathon – and I didn’t. I just ran for fun. Until I retired and I needed something to keep me running, so I entered the Auckland Half Marathon in the 65plus age and I came in second. My daughter also ran this race with me and we had such a lovely lovely day. We then ran about another four or so, with me coming in 2nd in one race and 1st in another. Then I found out that a 70-plus category was added, so my daughter decided (now having 3 kids) to run it with me. Wow, what fun we had and I actually won this one and made it my swan song.


Me: You mentioned in a previous email that you are now walking 10k every day – when did you transition from running to walking and why?
Tricia: The above leads into my walking – I ran the 70plus race in 2hrs 27mins, which was 3mins less than I had thought I would. After the race I did not run for about a week and when I went out for a run I found my legs had just about seized up!!! Anyway I got them back on track and went on running about 13 ks a day but realised I was getting just so slow, so decided to ‘retire’ and take up walking. I had been walking for about two weeks, when one day a runner (real runner) stopped me and asked why I was walking – I told him I was now quite slow. He was so funny, as he said not to be so silly – and my problem was that I was running with marathon runners (which I was every so often) and that I should stop that and run alone at my own pace, no matter how slow. I did that for about another two years, but I now find that some days I run part of my route, but mostly walk. I do push myself though to keep up a brisk pace and walk about 11ks every day, except Sunday.

Me: What advice, if any, would you give to many of the young woman out there who want to get out and run, but lack the motivation to do so, or they feel that they have no time?
Tricia: My advice to all young women is to get out there and just jog. One, my own experience has shown that my health is so much better than my peers – even my bones have proved (after having a bone scan), that they are as strong as that of a 25 year old – all due the doctor said, to my running. Also – I feel women have very litte ‘my time’ – they can make this part of their day ‘their own time’ with no one continually asking them for help -eg husbands kids etc ha!ha!

Also, I must say I got a bit of a kick out of a situation – I had taken a big fall and cracked the top of my arm where it sits in the shoulder socket. The doctor said he was amazed as most women my age would have had to have a steel plate put in as their bones would have shattered, whereas mine was just a little crack. Then he wrote on the medical form – ATHLETE – can you imagine how my head just swelled – I drove all the way from Ponsonby to Titirangi with a huge smile on my face.

Add-on: the following email excerpt is from a conversation that Tricia and I had earlier this year, when I asked her if she was done racing:


Ran my last half when I was 70 and promised my husband that that would be that – but found that it was like giving up an addiction and although I do not compete at all, I am back to ‘slow jogging’ ha!ha! My granddaughter and my daughter have convinced me to do the Round the Bays fun run in March, so I am back in full training – how funny is that, training for an 8.4 k run! Had to laugh the other day as I was going full pelt – I swear I was ha!ha! Two people stopped to ask me what was I training for – it was so embarrassing saying I was training to run 8.4ks. 

After the 8.4k race:

Hi Jannine – as you were kind enough to ask me to update you on my ‘Round the Bays’ run – – – well it all went very well – – – my granddaughter (age 11) was amazing – we (me and my daughter) gave her so many instructions about watching her feet so she did not trip over – not to go too fast – watch out for the other runners etc etc – well the gun went off and so did Mollie – we did not see her again and here she was running with about 50,000+ runners. I told my daughter not to wait for me but to get to the finish line as soon as she could so Mollie was not there worrying about where we were! Well luckily it was a good day weatherwise, but a slight headwind – the start was ‘very dangerous’ with young men doing their utmost to beat everyone, but of course causing great havoc as they jumped and lolloped around everyone. I just got into my normal jogging speed and tried never to break my slow jog ha!ha! Anyway I was so happy when I saw the finish line and just ahead of me saw my daughter, she was only about 10 metres ahead of me!!! Wow I thought – my time clocked at 1hr 3mins, so not bad for me I thought. 

No, not bad at all Tricia! In fact, amazing says it better!

What is there left to say after reading this ladies? Certainly no more room for excuses – Tricia was in her mid forties when she started running, she had no previous sports experience, and she was a full-time working mother. She proved to both herself and those who knew her that dedication and perseverance pays off, and the rewards are evident in the quality of life she has enjoyed, and continues to enjoy. Thank you so much for allowing me to share your story Tricia – I want to be just like you when I grow up :)

The Stretching Debate

Jannine Myers

A few years ago I attended a conference hosted by former US Olympic marathon runner, Jeff Galloway, and one of the questions he was asked by an attendee, was if he considered pre-run stretching a necessary component of training. I was surprised to hear him say that he didn’t think stretching was in any way beneficial as part of the warm-up routine. I have never been one to stretch myself (simply because I’m too lazy), but I had always been led to believe that stretching before a run would help to reduce injury as well as potentially improve performance.

Fast-forward another year or so, and once again, the topic of pre-workout stretching was brought to my attention. This time it came about because I found myself sitting in the office of my family practitioner complaining of recurring pain in my right calf muscle. The doctor who consulted me was a former Reconnaissance Marine, and besides the grim diagnosis he gave me, he also insisted that his ability to stay injury-free throughout his entire Marine Corps career, was most likely due to the fact that he religiously stretched before every workout.

So what to believe? Like so many other training recommendations, the idea of stretching prior to exercising is very much open to debate. But I’m willing to bet many of you lean towards, or are already firmly grounded in the “must stretch” camp. If that’s you, then please read on and consider the results of a recent study which was highlighted by New York Times writer, Gretchen Reynolds, in her book The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can: Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live longer:

For a study published in late 2010, scientists at the Florida State University, in Tallahasse, recruited ten competitive male collegiate athletes and asked them not to stretch during their warm-ups……The researchers brought the volunteers into the university’s exercise physiology laboratory for a series of fitness tests, including measurements of their flexibility, then had them return for two additional sessions. During both, the men ran on a treadmill for an hour. In one session, they prepared for the run by simply sitting quietly for sixteen minutes. In the other, they stretched first, following a scripted sixteen-minute static-stretching routine. Static stretching involves stretching a muscle to its maximum length and holding it for twenty or thirty seconds. After stretching, the men felt more flexible.
But their performance declined, significantly. During the hour-long run, they covered less distance than when they had just sat quietly. They also consumed more calories and oxygen during the run, suggesting that their strides had become less economical, that the running was physiologically harder.

In one of her NY Times articles (October 31, 2008), Reynolds also cited Duane Knudson, Ph.D., currently a professor of biomechanics at Texas State University, but then a professor of kinesiology at California State University, Chico. In response to his observation of athletes warming up on campus, Knudsen said, ” They’re stretching, they’re touching their toes……..it’s discouraging.” Many of the athletes are still holding on to old-school presumptions that stretching routines prepare the muscles for a workout. But, Knudsen claims, it actually weakens them.

Nope, I’m not nearly as flexible as this granny, but would it do me any good anyway?

In another experiment, according to Reynolds, elite collegiate distance runners were measured for flexibility and not surprisingly, none were very supple (runners are generally not very flexible). What was surprising however, was that when the runners’ flexibility scores were compared to their best 10k road race times, the fastest were those who had the tightest and least flexible muscles. The study concluded that the faster runners (those with the tightest hamstrings), had the best running economy. Reynolds explains:

Probably, the researchers concluded, tighter leg muscles allow ” for greater elastic energy storage and use”  during each stride. Think of a rubber band. If it’s overstretched and limp, it doesn’t snap back when pullled and released. So, too, with your hamstrings; if they’re loose, they don’t efficiently lengthen, shorten, and snap back into place with each stride.
Furthermore, stretching prior to exercise may not reduce the risk of injury.
In the largest study to date of everyday athletes who stretched, almost fourteen hundred recreational runners aged thirteen to sixty-plus were assigned randomly to two groups. The first group did not stretch before their runs, while otherwise maintaining their normal workout and warm-up regimens. The second group did stretch. Both groups followed their routines for three months. At the end of that time, quite a few of the runners had missed training days due to injury, a predictable result, since running is one of the most injury-plagued sports on the planet. But there was no difference in the final pain tally between the two groups. The same percentage of those who stretched injured themselves as those who didn’t.
Final remarks: I did not write this post with the intent of convincing you to give up your stretching routine, as quite honestly I have no idea how valid the conclusions of any of these studies are. And I will probably never find out, at least with regards to my own performance, because I’m pretty sure I’ll continue to favor my lazy tendency to skip any type of pre-run stretching. But I do like to keep an open mind about all things that I read, and it’s for that reason alone that I shared these findings with you, since I’m sure many of you also enjoy reading about things which go against the grain of typically accepted thinking.
Also, please keep in mind that none of the studies referred to above, suggest that stretching should play NO part in an athlete’s overall training regimen. They only suggest that stretching BEFORE a workout may actually be counter-productive; that’s not to say however that stretching should not be done at other times.
I’ll leave you to come to your own conclusions!

Fueling the Machine

Anna Boom

Fueling the Machine! Yes, you are the Machine!


I like to read about many aspects of running and fitness, just as I hope you do (thanks in advance for reading :)). It can be very difficult with the mass of different theories out there. Should we stretch or not stretch? What type of shoes should we wear or not wear any at all? When a theory comes out, I almost always apply to myself. I love experimenting and what better lab than my own body.
My latest experiment was on whether or not eating before a run helps or hinders your run.
I decided to try this out on my 05:30 morning workout of 4 mile repeats. I woke up, had a cup of straight black coffee, and headed out the door. After my warmup of a mile and some dynamic stretching, I was feeling great. There was nothing digesting in my stomach and there was no competition for bloodflow between my intestines and my muscles.
My first mile was fast and done. On the second mile, I was still going strong, thinking this may be a way to share with all of you on how to avoid that feeling of running on a full, bloated stomach. The third mile started fine and suddenly, I felt like I hit the wall. I struggled to finish out the mile. I was so hungry that my stomach was growling. And I still had another mile repeat to complete.
When the workout was over, my appetite had subsided. I grabbed some easy carbs of whole wheat pita with peanut butter for the oil and small bit of protein (plus being American, I loooooove peanut butter!! :).
Here is the important part of my experiment-the rest of the day, I was hungry and found myself continually looking for food. I had put myself into an energy debt, which sent a signal to my brain that I needed fuel all day long. I ended up eating more calories that day than I would have if I had just eaten some breakfast.
The adage , “breakfast is the most important meal of the day”, may hold some truth for you too. Try this for yourself one day and see if you find the same results. Just remember to prep and have handy, healthy snacks ready in case you too find yourself as hungry as I did.
Enjoy a fueled run!