Thursday, December 29, 2011

It's Not the Shoes, Mars (but Get the Right Ones Anyway)

Does anyone remember that commercial with Spike Lee and Michael Jordan? For those who never saw it, here it is:

I've always loved that commercial. And I don't even wear Nike shoes. And I've also never believed that anything is all about the shoes. I won't buy the latest and greatest even if they ARE good (I'm mostly against fads or the "stuff" - besides, the "stuff" usually comes with a hefty price). I sometimes find myself coveting the cool shoes, clothes, bikes, and other hardware touted at Ironman and race expos, but in the end, my frugality usually wins out - even when I have extra cash to spend (like, for instance, after Christmas).

Thus, with Christmas gift cash in hand, my first order of business before the new year was to find a new favorite running shoe - one I can rely on for at LEAST two years. Note that I am forced to do this once every two years for this reason: my foot is in the 10% of all running feet - a very high arch with an efficient and neutral gait. I've heard it called the "clunk foot" because it's stiff and doesn't absorb shock - it transfers that job to other parts of my body. Thus, I require mostly cushioning in a running shoe. Two down sides of having my feet is (1) that I get injured easily from overtraining (the lack-of-shock-absorbtion thing), and (2) all my favorite running shoes end up on the discontinued rack (I have to stockpile my favorite shoes to last two - duh! - years). The up side is... I don't need a lot of stability and therefore, my shoes tend to be lighter, faster, and cheaper.

Back to the Christmas cash in hand. I made an appointment with shoe guru (shoe-ru?), Jody Herzog at Fleet Feet Sports in Northfield, Ohio (he has two locations, the other in Pepper Pike). To me, stores like Fleet Feet are proof of the value of a local running specialty store. Everyone who walks in the door needing shoes will get individual attention because Jody and his staff specialize (and delight) in finding the perfect fit. They pride themselves on their knowledge and take the time necessary to get it right so their customers are happy and continue running. After five stress fractures, no one knows better than me that the right running shoe is just as important as the right bike fit (something else that should be done by a local specialist and certainly not online or at a big bulk store).

One of my favorite things about Jody is that he is a shoe geek through and through. He goes to shoe conferences (yes, there IS such a thing). He talks to other shoe geeks. He tests ("runs in") many of the shoes he sells. And he draws pictures of shoe cross sections just to show me how they work (I am not making this up). It's his passion. His knowledge of shoes was uncanny - once he knew my foot type, all I had to do was give him the brand and the year, and Jody could name the exact model of shoe I ran in.

I jokingly tried to stump him: "You know, my first pair running shoes was probably made before you were born: the Brooks Silver Streaks."

Jody's answer? "I saw a picture of those once."

As soon as I walked through the door, we were off on the search to find me the definitive running shoe. An introduction to my feet and my gait started with looking at the shoes I currently run in - the first incarnation of the Asics Speedstar (which I had desperately stockpiled away for over two years). I told Jody my other favorite shoe-that-is-no-longer was the Scott Makani II. He asked me what I liked about my shoes. He took measurements. He watched me walk. Then he went in "the back" and came out with this:

These were shoes that met the requirements. Now the job was to find the ONE.

The process immediately began differently than any shoe fitting I had in the past. Jody took a right shoe out of one box and a left shoe out of another. He explained a little about each shoe and I put them both on:

The idea is ingenious: two different shoes give you an instant comparison. I jogged around the store. I've been a runner long enough to know very quickly what I like and don't like about a shoe, and we started narrowing it down - after all, they're all cushioned, lightweight, neutral trainers. There's usually a tiny something I don't like that eliminates a shoe. Jody was more than willing to run in back to grab a different size or a different shoe that he had left behind based on my preferences (to my surprise, the Nike Pegasus ended up on my foot and it wasn't bad). Unsurprisingly, I narrowed it down to the Asics Gel Excel33 (the black ones in the photo above). Asics has almost always had a shoe in their line that feels "right" to me. Call it familiarity.

But then something new happened. Jody had already asked me if I understood the "drop" of a shoe - he explained "drop" refers to the height delta between heel and toe. Classic running shoes have a drop of 10-14 mm. But all the rage in running shoes these days is the "zero drop" or "minimalist" shoe (read more in this article from Running Times) with a drop of 0-4 mm. You may be familiar with the Vibram Five Fingers which popularized "barefoot" running. The new minimalist running shoes from the big brands have a little more in the way of cushioning - which is good because I have no desire to run barefoot. In fact, barefoot running seems like a very bad idea for someone who has "clunk foot" syndrome.

The Brooks Pure Connect
(my husband says they're the most
"girlie colored" shoes I've ever had)
Jody slipped into the mix one of the slightly-more-cushioned zero-drop shoes: the Brooks Pure Connect (yeah, ok, I wish it had a "slicker" name, but it's part of the Brooks Pure Project). As soon as I put it on, it was like that scene in the first Harry Potter movie when Harry's wand "chooses" him (you know, when Harry is surrounded by wind and a halo of light?). I didn't have to take a single step. I knew right away, this WAS the shoe. It has a thing called a "nav band" that immediately cradled the high arch of my foot.

I took a little jog around the store. Yep, this shoe would, indeed, keep me running on my forefoot - the mark of all the shoes I've loved over the years. I love having help from a shoe to keep me honest in my stride and I knew I would not be able to slack off to a heel strike in this one.

And with that... I was done. I had found my new favorite shoe. The only problem was that it wasn't a winter shoe - the upper is pretty much all mesh (it looks like someone went to town with a hole-punch on it). Fortunately Fleet Feet also carries the other shoes in the Pure Project line and I was able to pick up the Brooks Pure Crit - the trail version of the shoe - to get me through the winter. It has better traction and a wider sole but it remains to be seen whether even that can keep ME from falling this winter.

Jody (right) and Ed, one of Fleet Feet's
fit specialists, at the Northfield location.
I left the store very pleased - and couldn't wait to try my shoes in a hard 8-miler on the treadmill that very night. The zero drop will take a little time getting used to because I have to strengthen the muscles that have been given a break all these years from the sofa-like shoes I've been running in. But my first run in them was awesome. Afterwards, I was immediately aware of something I hadn't noticed - the tongue of my new shoes is a non-entity - it's something I've always found uncomfortable in most running shoes.

In the end, I also want to say that there really is nothing like having a local specialist to help with finding the right equipment for your sport. I can't urge my followers enough to support your local specialty stores - these are the people who are passionate about the business and they will rarely let you down. Both Jody at Fleet Feet and Sherman McKee at Bike Authority in Broadview Heights have been instrumental in my success at triathlon over the years and I was their customer long before I became one of their team members.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

In the Wake of Conflicting Reports: Training for the Ironman Run

This is how bad I look like when I'm
feeling GOOD in the Ironman run.
As a self-coached triathlete, I am never more confused and frustrated than when I read two opposing training articles by so-called "experts" both claiming to have the definitive method of accomplishing the same goal.

Case in point: how to run your fastest Ironman marathon. The two articles are the following:
Before I look at these two articles that appear in direct conflict with one another, I will say this: YES, I understand that everyone is different and responds to different types of training, and YES, I understand that Coach Troy's article is mostly tips on what HE did that worked for HIM, as opposed to a blanket statement "this is what you should do" to PR in the marathon. And YES, it is entirely possible that they're both right.

However, when trying to put together a training cycle that would hopefully include an Ironman (and Ironman marathon) PR, these are the types of articles I read and give more weight to, i.e., articles by respected coaches and athletes. And in this particular case, I'm left with more questions than answers and a lot more confusion. Despite having coached myself as a runner and triathlete for 20 years - mostly because of lack of funds to afford a coach and bad experiences with actual paid coaches - I have not uncovered or constructed the perfect training plan to maximize what I believe is my potential (on and off the bike).

I have spent the last two years training mostly by tips from Joe Friel and my own personal experience. The things that seem to work for running off the bike (from these tips and from experience) is to have superior bike fitness and to be conservative on the bike leg. That makes perfect sense, and the problems with the above two articles is not necessarily a disagreement on this tenet of triathlon.

But while Fitzgerald rams home the importance of superior bike fitness:
"Riding too hard can affect subsequent run performance, but fitness trumps pacing. The less fit you are, the less your run will benefit from holding back on the bike. You could go 95, 90 or 85 percent on the bike and be shot for the marathon in any case. And the fitter you are, the less pacing matters. Craig Alexander would not run a 2:35 marathon in Hawaii instead of a 2:45 if he rode the bike leg in 4:55 instead of 4:37."
 Jacobson merely mentions the importance of taking it easy in the bike leg on race day:
"In triathlon, you need to have good riding legs in order to run well. This means committing to building your muscular and aerobic endurance in training with several long rides, as well as your strength and power with interval work. On race day, the bike will either make or break your overall race result. Riding just 2-5% too hard on the bike, a difference of just a few minutes on your bike split can mean the difference between running well in the marathon or walking the last 10K to the finish line."
A little disagreement, but the importance of bike fitness and the bike leg is duly noted.

Now come the big disagreements - in how these two authors suggest we train for and execute the Ironman run. Fitzgerald's recommendations seem to be based on analysis of statistics and coaching experience (I hope), and Coach Troy's appear to be mostly based on his own personal experience and background. For clarity, I've put together a seasonally-colored table of their points of agreement (green) and disagreement (red) - and the gray areas (gray.. duh!).

Perform only three independent runs per week. The most important of these is the weekend long run.Build base with frequency: run often but not necessarily far each workout. Frequency is the key. If you can run 5-6 days per week, do it.
Complete at least four runs of 18 miles or more, and feel free to go as long as 26.2 miles in training to cement a solid reserve of running endurance. Don't run too long - for me, a 2-hour run was my longest on my way to my Ironman marathon PR. I did a couple 1:45-hour runs too, but that was it.
Do frequent transition runs: short runs frequently off the bike in training is more beneficial than doing occasional longer runs off the bike - it’s the transition from cycling to running that you are trying to train.Do bricks (bike-run) 1-2 times a week, if not more (typical: 1.5 hour bike followed by a 30-40 minute run)
Resist the temptation to do any more running during the rest of the week than is required to support your progress in long runs, as it will only increase your risk of injury and burnout and take away from your cycling. During build weeks (5-10 weeks from race day), do one or two double runs each week, make these short 30-40 minute aerobic paced runs with one in the morning and one in the evening. But don't over run: there are points of diminishing returns (especially for masters athletes).
No mention of racing. Race often - there's no better way to build race fitness than to actually race. Race early in the season and then give yourself plenty of time to focus on your Ironman prep.
Don't waste energy on speed work. I am not suggesting that you avoid fast running altogether, but I am suggesting that you strictly limit it. Add some speed, but not too much - enough quality to boost V02max and economy, but not too much to cause down time and injury.
Many Ironman marathons are ruined by nutritional issues, and 9 times out of 10 it's consuming too much rather than too little - the body can absorb a lot more fluid and carbohydrate during cycling than running, so competitors take in as much nutrition as their bodies can handle on the bike, then hop off and start running only to be hit with nausea, bloating and worse. Nutrition comes first: I've had severe cramping problems, so I've corrected those by super dosing with electrolyte supplements. I sat up a ton on the bike in AZ, took my time to eat and drink and was cramp free all day.
The Ironman marathon is run at a relatively low intensity - about 60 percent of VO2max. Pace on the run: I really didn't know what I had in store for me on race day, so I went out on the run conservatively. Once I felt good, I worked to establish a rhythm on the run, focusing on my foot strike cadence and breathing rhythm.
Elite triathletes actually ride the Ironman bike leg at something closer to 98 percent of their maximum capacity (meaning they would ride only five to 10 minutes faster in a pure 112-mile time trial). I rode very conservatively for the first loop with a low heart rate and my cadence in my 'sweet spot' of around 85 rpms.

So, what am I supposed to do now?

I have decided to consult my first, best expert - my rocket-scientist (i.e., aerospace engineer) husband Jim - who has lived through 20 years of marathon, Ironman, and pre-event melt-downs (and successes) and probably has more insight on what works and what doesn't just from listening to me talk, watching me train and race both smart and stupid, and analyzing the results. His goals for me (yes, he does have them in order to maintain sanity in the household) have usually involved keeping me injury-free (after five stress fractures, two bike crashes and numerous other falls and fall-outs) and helping me figure out out what is going on with my nutrition (my Ironman bugaboo).

Here are Jim's recommendations and reasons why I am likely to follow them:
  • "It seems that running more often is what makes you have a better run." This always sounded like a no-brainer until I read the Fitzgerald article. When I backed off on my running frequency (the thing I am arguably best at), I stopped having fast run legs in triathlon. This was especially noticeable in my half-Ironman races where I ran 1:26 in 2008 and have barely broken 1:35 since. It can't possibly only be aging (which was what I had been attributing it to).
  • "If you want to be fast, you should add speedwork." Again, a no-brainer, but this is an additional burden (both mentally and physically) in Ironman training because of the increased speed sessions and hard days on the bike. Getting mentally "up" for hard sessions every day seems like it would lead to burnout, but my plan is to look at possibly doing bike and run hard sessions all in one day. However, both authors above agree that running speed work doesn't have to be nearly as extensive as my marathon training used to be in order to work.
  • "Get massages." This may be the one thing that keeps my quads from losing their spring after all the hard bike miles. I tend to skimp on stuff like this because of cost, but when I get deep-tissue massages more often, I have much better muscle recovery and less physical breakdown and soreness.
Now that I have my running plan, the next assessment will be my approach to solving my nutrition issues in Ironman. But before that, I will be visiting my friend Jody Herzog, the self-proclaimed shoe geek at Fleet Feet Sports, to tackle the following question: "Is the New Balance 890 really going to be my new favorite running shoe? And if not, what will it be?"

Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

It All Starts Here

Scene from "The Goonies"
The title is a quote from one of my favorite scenes in "The Goonies" - it's when the young Sean Astin realizes the only way out for him and his friends is to follow the pirate treasure map. It's not so much a statement of excitement as it is a statement of resignation. Basically, it was the beginning of the adventure and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

Today, I feel the same way about my 2012 season. Once again, I find myself registered for Ironman St. George. I have resigned myself to the training necessary for racing an Ironman the first week of May. I did it (and survived) last year, but I can't say I'm looking forward to an adventure. Instead, I'm looking at a long, dark, and cold winter of power-building and epic-long sessions on the CompuTrainer, long runs in well-below-freezing temperatures, wind from the Alberta clippers, ice and snow, treacherous driving to the pool, and wet hair in the cold after swimming. I'm looking at dry, chapped skin from the cold and the chlorine, numb fingers and toes, constant shivering, even more lines on my face, and heaven-knows-how-many new scars from slipping on ice.

My husband Jim has to live through my constant over-analysis of CompuTrainer stats, complaining that I'm always cold and numb and my skin is always dry, and wondering if the next time he sees me I'll be covered with blood - from slipping on the aforementioned ice.

When I cross that finish line on May 5 in Utah, will I (we) be able to say that it was all worth it? (I mean, that's the big question, isn't it? Knowing the hard work paid off?)

As I get older, I am reminded of a former cycling buddy who, on the worst (cold, rainy) days, would ask: "Jeanne, are we having fun?" If we agreed the answer was "No" (not frequently), we would pack it in and go have a beer (or breakfast). Training has to be more than just the sense of accomplishment, but I do  enjoy that daily "high." I also enjoy the hard training as it gives me internal rewards - feeling stronger or tougher for having done it. Racing has never been a need, but it can be the icing on the cake.

Racing Ironman, however, requires a huge commitment. It doesn't just give me a reason to do what I love. It involves a serious financial commitment - currently over $600/race plus travel expenses - well before the training commences. And I don't think I could do Ironman without goals because I can't say I enjoy the training enough to just do it for fun. So here I am, looking at the beginning of my training cycle for Ironman St. George.

There has to be a starting point, so I chose to start with a comparison. As I'm coming from my "off-season," I decided to do my first long-ish ride on the RacerMate St. George Real Course video and compare it to the first one I did in training for IMSG 2011. This year, I rode for 3 hours and covered 49 miles of the course. Last year, my first course ride was in mid-January - I rode for 3.5 hours and covered 54 miles. Thus begins the CompuTrainer over-analysis:

On the IM St. George course, this plot shows that on Saturday (red line)
I reached the same point (49 mi) faster than my first ride in January
I also plotted my power and heart rate vs. miles on the SG course, just to see how that compared:

Power (watts) vs. miles on IM St. George course.
My power on Saturday (red line) was similar to Jan 15, but in some
places was consistently higher (good, right?).
Heartrate (BPM) vs miles on IM St. George course.
My heart rate on Saturday (red line) was of similar shape but was
consistently higher for most of the ride (not good). I hope that the point where it
looks like I died was when I got off the bike to replenish my water bottles.
I'm not exactly sure that the differences are of any significance - I guess my higher heart rate has me a bit concerned that I'm in worse shape, but I am encouraged that it is earlier in the training cycle, and I rode slightly faster and was able to hold that higher heart rate for so long. (It may also have something to do with the fact that I currently have a raging sinus infection.)

Overall, I feel like I'm in decent shape at the start of my Ironman training, but only time will tell if I can stay healthy and motivated through winter of 2012, and come out fighting in May. I hope it's the beginning of a long and rewarding season - oops, I mean "adventure."