Tuesday 29 September 2009

P-K Profile #4-- Bob McGraw

This week, I offer another in my series of profiles of group athletes (it's been a while since the last one!), this one of local member Dr. Bob McGraw, who's been on something of a tear over the past year, making life miserable for his competitors in the 50-55 age bracket.

It feels as though Bob's been close to the group for a number of years (in part because his kids have run in the junior group since primary school), but it's only been in the past 18 months that he's been a regular feature at local workouts. An emergency meds doc, father of three, and travel enthusiast, Bob hasn't always had the time to train as consistently as he'd like, although he's managed to keep a hand in it all his life. A multi-sport competitor in the early years of the sport in Vancouver and Kingston, Bob would eventually begin to pare his athletic life down to running as the demands of his personal and professional life grew. After a couple of injury-related false starts with the group several years ago, Bob finally found his groove in the winter of 2008, and has been doing some of his best running since turning 50 in that year.

On the road, track and trail, Bob is the picture of calm, power and economy. I never saw him compete as a younger athlete; but, with some 70s era hair and a vintage mesh singlet, I imagine he'd have looked like one of the great European athletes of that era-- short, barrel chested, and light of foot! At 50, his stride is still smooth, light, and compact. (As I do with many of my talented masters athletes, I often wonder what Bob might have done in his teens and 20s had he elected to train seriously.)

Bob's recent run of racing success began with his 1:19:30 age-class victory at the Niagara Half Marathon, his first race of this length in years, and continued a month later at the National Masters Cross Country Championships, where he was the oldest member of our winning men's 40-49 team. A complete cycle of winter training, including some frigid tempo and fartlek sessions around our regular neighborhood circuit and a stack of very solid interval sessions on the indoor track a the Royal Military College, left him poised to rewrite his masters bests this spring and summer. Work, travel, and suboptimal weather conditions kept Bob from hitting his time goals in the first half of the racing season, but he started the second half with a bang, running a huge masters personal best of 17:00 at the Army Run 5k a little more than a week ago, winning the category by 40-odd seconds. Since he was involved in a fall at the start of this race, and since he elected to maintain a moderately high training volume going into it (his seasonal goal races being the provincial and national X-C championships), we can no doubt expect him to repeat, or even improve on, the quality of this performance before the year is out (fellow Canadian 50-55 competitors, consider yourselves warned!). And, having seemingly found the sweet spot in his work and family routine, I expect Bob will continue to be a top performer among the 50-somethings for as long as he'd care to.

Monday 21 September 2009

The Devil in the Details

Why do some athletes who seem to have everything going for them-- a knowledgeable coach, a solid program, and plenty of apparent natural ability-- nevertheless seem to consistently under-perform, and generally fail to develop their long term potential? And why do others, sometimes using the same coach and program, and with the same, or even sometimes less, apparent basic ability, go on to enjoy long and successful careers? Could it simply be a matter of luck?; the unseen and genetically determined "trainability" of some athletes and not others?; or, perhaps, could be it be some athletes' genetically determined proneness to injury and illness (another type of basic luck)? The truth is, there is no way to know for certain the factors that explain success and failure in athletes who appear to be equally endowed. Such is the complexity of the training process-- which is also, we can't forget, a "living" process, given the complex imbrication of our training with our everyday, non-running routines. Nevertheless, while a fully scientific answer to this question may elude us, a look inside the daily lives of a very large numbers of athletes-- such as I've been afforded in the course of a 30-year involvement in the sport-- offers certain hints. If fact, my experience strongly suggests that some athletes, for whom all other things seem roughly equal, enjoy dramatically different degrees of long term success because of the way that they manage the seemingly minor details of the training process-- what we might refer to as the supports of the training process, as distinct from the actual business of completing runs and workouts.

That the devil of repeated failure seemed to reside more often in the details of an athlete's quotidian routine became apparent to me as I began to look more closely for an explanation of my own periodic failures and set-backs. And my conclusion was gradually confirmed through subsequent observations of the daily habits of the many other athletes with whom I would come into contact over the years, whether as a friend, competitor or coach.

Using my years of detailed training logs, I was able to discover that there was invariably a moment, usually in the form of a single poor decision, such as an ill-timed or too intense workout session, or late night out, that triggered a series of events (often involving further poor decisions) leading to the periodic collapse of my training or racing. When I was younger, some of these initial episodes of bad judgment had simply to do with lack of knowledge or experience (I was, after all, largely self-coached). Later in my career, however, these bad decisions, when they occurred-- and they occurred less frequently the older I got-- had less to do the not knowing than with my occasional impatience, complacency, corner-cutting, or ill-advised risk-taking. I had, in particular, a marked tendency to force my return to hard training following a bout of illness (particularly common when my children were small). To this day, the vast majority (something like 90%) of all the injuries I've suffered have been sustained within a week of a lay-off caused by viral illness. After something like the 3rd or 4th repetition of this pattern, I began to discern it as, in fact, a pattern; nevertheless, I still occasionally took undue risks following minor illnesses, although, of course, usually without incident. It was the fact that I didn't always get hurt following a cold that lead me to take the risks I did, and the more time that elapsed between my last illness/injury episode, the more I would be willing to take the risk of doing a hard session during or immediately after a viral infection. Of course, every time an injury did occur, and I was forced into the pool or onto the elliptical again, I would realize that I had made the same mistake yet again, and I would remind myself of how stupid it was to risk losing 10 or more future workouts-- to say nothing of the tedium of obligatory cross-training and rehab-- in order to save just one workout this week. All the higher level sophistication and general determination in the world would amount to nothing, I would eventually conclude, without proper attention to the details. Like Achilles with his heal, I surmised, we were no stronger than our weakest link-- which was more likely to reside in some apparently trivial detail than one of our basic training principles.

As it would happen, I would sustain relatively few injuries or other set-backs in my career, and would enjoy long stretches of successful racing right into my 40s. And, the older I got, the more I realized that my long term success had more to do with my ability to recognize and attend to the smaller details of my program than with, say, "good genetics", or some other form of happy chance. In spite of my occasional tendency to take risks around illnesses, I began to realize that I must have been getting most of the details in my training and general preparation right most of the time, and probably more often than many of my equally talented and similarly hard-training, but more oft-injured, competitors. Sure enough, as I got to know some of my competitors as good friends, and saw first hand the many small lapses in good judgment they frequently made-- from pushing through workouts while obviously (to me, anyway) in the early stages of injury, to refusing to re-schedule or abandon workouts when obviously over-tired, to neglecting their strength routines-- I began to realize that, in many cases, their apparent "bad luck" had a much more specific cause: poor day-to-day judgment and lack of attention to the detailed supports of their training processes. And, on the other side of the coin, I began to notice that athletes who were doing better than I was were most often the ones who had developed, and were successfully adhering to, even more sophisticated support systems. Eventually, and finally, my entry into coaching would convince me that the devil of repeated failure was most often in the details of an athlete's training process.

Becoming a coach has entailed developing a familiarity with the personalities and daily habits of people normally reserved for psychologists and immediate family members! In addition to leading to some deep and abiding friendships, it has been an indelible lesson in the importance in athletic success of managing one's day-to-day affairs and controlling one's occasionally counter-productive impulses. Everyone I have ever coached has professed a keen desire to succeed; yet, some have proven much better at attending to the small threads in the fabric of their training programs, which, if allowed to come loose, will lead to the unraveling of the entire cloth. It is these athletes who have tended to enjoy the most long term success. Proper attention to most of the details in question-- from getting good sleep on a consistent basis, to managing illness, to maintaining a minimal core strength routine, to communicating with me immediately about possible injury problems (and following my advice), to simply following the training program as written-- is well within the realm of the practical for the average athlete, no matter how time-pressed. In fact, my busiest athletes are frequently the most diligent in the management of their daily support routines. Those who don't manage these crucial details effectively, I have come to understand, simply do not, deep down, believe they are as important as they are to their over-all success. Some who have not always been good at managing such details have, over time, and as a result of bitter experience, learned to become better at the job (much as I myself did). For others, on the other hand, a tendency to want to "get on with it" and never mind the fuss, is an ingrained trait of personality. In these instances, consistent success and long term talent development remain frustrating up-hill battles. This kind of athlete is, in fact, the most likely to abandon the sport prematurely, blaming "bad luck", in some form or other, for their failure to thrive.

When it comes to negligence in the maintenance of proper training-support routines, special comment must be reserved for the teenage athlete. Proper attention to details like rest and nutrition requires ability to understand the link between present actions and future consequences; this is an ability that most teenagers lack, simply because they are teenagers. Nonetheless, some young runners take lack of attention to detail and generally bad day-to-day judgment to new heights. Teenage runners generally want to succeed as much as adult runners-- perhaps more-- and their decision to pursue this most difficult of sports marks them as a special breed within their age cohort; nevertheless, the same kid who will complete every run and workout without fail, will also, without warning, decide to stay up half the night partying the week before his most important race of the season, and while already suffering from a cold! The teenage athlete is also remarkably difficult to sell on the merits of proper nutrition, strength training, and even simple injury rehab, such as icing or stretching. They are also sometimes reluctant to obey basic workout instructions, preferring, lack of experience notwithstanding, to do things their own way. And, amazingly, some asthmatic teenagers will repeatedly forget to bring their inhalers along to workouts and races, even when the simple, side-effect-free, administering of said medication means the difference between success and failure. In short, teenage athletes are often remarkable in their ability to confront the bigger challenge of being runners-- the regular completion of workouts and runs; but, just as often, they are reluctant to register the importance of getting the details right. Unfortunately for them, this makes them an excellent negative example for all of us.

In the end, I'm convinced that most unsuccessful runners of any age or basic ability level (from potential elite to age class recreational) are undone by a failure to do what they know, or ought reasonably to know (because the have probably been told!), is correct than by unknown variables, such as their basic genetic inheritance. Failed runners often speak of injury-proneness, or the basic, genetically-determined inability to handle the required training loads, in accounting for their troubles. And there are, of course, rare examples of otherwise genetically blessed athletes whose bodies are in some other way irreparably flawed, causing them to break down under the burden of even modest training. Upon closer examination, however, many more unsuccessful runners have failed because of their own repeated lack of attention to the important details that sustain any training effort, and because of a repeated inability or unwillingness to learn from their mistakes. In my experience, most runners are actually capable of training much longer, harder, and more consistently than they ever have; yet, many cannot progress because of a repeated failure to attend to the seeming minutiae that so often make the difference between success on the one hand and injury or poor race performance on the other. I conclude, then, with my list of the most common neglected areas of detail among runners, young, old, elite and average. These are mostly simple and easy to manage variables that most reasonably experienced runners know are important but nevertheless often neglect:

1. The treatment and proper rehab of common injuries, including the timing of return from injury.

2. The management of effort levels on a daily basis (i.e. failure to reign-in the very common "harder is always better" impulse).

3. The maintenance of a simple strength program to shore-up known areas of weakness.

4. Attention to basic nutrition (a fast improving area, it must be said).

5. Attention to sleep requirements and sleep problems (sometimes more complicated, admittedly).

6. Deciding when and how much to race (many runners enter races for the wrong reasons, at the wrong times, and generally race too often).

7. The choice of pacing strategies in races (many people insist on exemplifying Einstein's definition of insanity when it comes to their choice of racing tactics-- to wit: Repeat the same failed strategy over and over again with the expectation of different results).

Monday 14 September 2009

The Retail Running Clinic: Boon or bane?

Is it possible that a phenomenon-- the shoe store running clinic-- that introduces thousands of people to running might also be bad for the sport? And, is it "elitist" for a lifetime competitive runner like me to even entertain such a notion? A recent inquiry from a potential on-line client-- and current participant in a well known store-based marathon training clinic-- gave me occasion to revisit my views on this favourite discussion topic among running veterans and other aficionados.

When we attend an event such as the Ottawa Race Weekend, or any of the half a dozen Canada Running Series events, and see throngs of runners sporting those now familiar tokens of store clinic participation (the "back-flap" jacket and "ammo belt"-style water carrier) and dutifully stopping for the 60 second walk break that is the orthodoxy within the store clinic-based running movement, it is hard to argue that this phenomenon has been anything but beneficial for the sport of road racing, even, perhaps, at the elite level. "Ammo-belts", jackets and all, these throngs of new runners represent a significant stream of revenue for road race organizers (to say nothing of the stores that sell these accessories!), part of which sometimes goes to prize money purses for race winners. The mass entry of store clinic runners onto the road race scene has also been accompanied by steep spike in road race entry fees over the past 20 years-- a rate far above inflation, for sure-- meaning that each of these new runners has been worth 2 or even 3 "old-school" runners in terms of dollars generated. In many ways, events like the Ottawa Race Weekend and the Canada Running Series owe their very existence, in their current form, to the rise of the running store clinic. In fact, some of the bigger stores have developed close, even symbiotic, relationships with bigger events, such as Ottawa, with the clinics preparing runners for specific races and the stores buying premium floor space at pre-race commercial expos. So, with road races now bigger and richer than ever, in significant part because of the union of commerce and sport embodied by the shoe store running clinic, what could long-time supporters of competitive running possibly have against this new running boom?

For one thing, many long time runners resent what they perceive as a mass-market colonization of their once pristine sub-cultural preserve. Like members of any other formerly grass-roots sub-culture, long time, serious runners tend to dislike any form of commercial exploitation of an activity they see as having deeper, perhaps even spiritual, significance for them, and they are apt to direct this dislike at the most obvious manifestations of the trend-- in this case, the store clinic runner, with all of the associated trappings. In fact, many long-time, serious runners would be perfectly happy to see their sport return to its roots as a "hard-core" and therefore relatively fringe activity, pursued exclusively for its own sake by a well-trained minority of pure-hearted enthusiasts, even this meant that races became smaller, poorer, and perhaps less well organized. I see this reaction as, at least in part, expressive of a longing for a return to the purely "sportive" dimension of running-- as opposed, that is, to its purely hygienic, "life-style" and consumer-driven aspect. As a long time and very "hard-core" runner myself, I can well understand this reaction; it is a form of "elitism", to be sure, but one with some redeemable characteristics. Ultimately, however, I don't see it as a legitimate basis on which to be critical of the store clinic phenomenon.

My own critique of the store clinic "learn to run" and "marathon training" phenomenon has always been based on my belief that running should indeed be a "hard-core", sport-based, competitive activity; but, that it can and should also be a mass-based activity. My critique centres on my belief that store clinics actually sell their clients short as athletes,, and that they do so for the most crass of motives-- separating them from their money.

My argument here is, first of all, a structural one, meaning that I think the store clinic approach operates the way that it does because not because of the bad motives of the people who operate it (many people who have run store clinics are, quite often, serious, competitive runners themselves); instead, this model operates the way that it does because of context within which it is situated. The store clinic program can only exist as an adjunct to the retail enterprise itself, whose primary business is, of course, the sale of running gear.

In order for stores to devote time and attention to their clinics, their clinics must pay for themselves in the form of fees and sales of product that would otherwise not be sold. In order for stores to attract clinic patrons, they must "sell" running much the same way as they sell their other products. To do so, they must stress the ease of access to the sport, and they must offer a simple, tangible goal (race completion, weight loss) in return for the fee paid. They must also, of course, convince would-be runners that the sport is synonymous with a higher than strictly necessary degree of consumption-- of products and equipment, that is. Store clinics must also continually re-enroll runners in their clinics, in order to keep them coming back to the store, and to avoid having to look for fresh clientele every 3 months. Even more insidiously, store clinics must set their actual training schedules around the routines of store operation. It is therefore not uncommon for stores to host Sunday long runs to coincide with the opening hours of their stores, or to set the number and types of harder sessions based on the availability of staff. (In one popular marathon training schedule, fully half of the athlete's weekly volume is to be completed in just one run, and there are 3 faster running sessions-- including repeat hills, which are of dubious value in a marathon building phase in any case, particularly for beginners-- scheduled on consecutive days.) And in order to get around the problem of staffing clinics, some stores will actually appoint graduates of their own clinics-- those with very little experience as athletes, let alone as coaches-- to run the show.

In the end, while running store clinics serve to introduce thousands of new runners to the sport, and all but gift-wrap them for race organizers, they tend to leave them permanently stranded between the status of beginner and bona fide runner. No one could ever expect every new runner to one day become a serious, life long runner; but, store clinics do not, and indeed cannot, offer this a next option to their clientele. It is simply not in their interest to do so. But worse, store clinics, in pursuit of their particular business model, often systematically misinform new athletes about racing and training. The most infamous example here is undoubtedly the "walk-jog" theory of marathon completion. The "walk-jog" theory of marathon running, according to which it is more effective to take 60 second walk breaks for every 10 minutes of running, is a pathology that grows directly out of the store clinic's need to promise all participants a quick and tangible reward, the Holy Grail of which is marathon completion. The introduction of walk breaks, quite simply, allows under-prepared runners get from start to finish in one piece; yet, it is billed by proponents as a faster, perhaps even the fastest way for the average runner to complete a marathon or shorter race distance-- and this, even though it is well known that the best, and even just the very good, marathoners do not take walk breaks. The crucial distinction here is, of course, that between "the average" runner (i.e. the store clinic participant) and "the good" runners (i.e. those whose ability effectively puts them into a completely different sport). The store clinic insistence on the "walk-jog" approach permanently consigns all participants to the status of talentless "other", whose main concern is to complete races without getting injured, or particularly stressed.

Thus, in pursuit of its particular kind of commercial interest, the typical store clinic approach, while it may indeed put bodies into races, actually erodes the sport of running as such on the most basic of levels-- by mass-promoting the notion that an a vigorous and competitive approach to running is too difficult and dangerous for the "average" person. While it may serve to promote greater public health (actually, a somewhat dubious claim, since the typical clinic member and race entrant is, on the basis of being middle to upper income alone, already in better health than the average person), store-based "learn to run" and "marathon training" clinics systematically discourage thousands of people-- many of them women, who, for sociological reasons, were often discouraged from taking up competitive sport as girls-- the opportunity to experience the joy and fulfillment of a vigorous, competitive approach to running. Meanwhile, in running clubs and informal running groups across North America, people are proving that serious, competitive running can be for everyone, and for life. Interestingly, much of my information on the running clinic phenomenon has come from refugees from the clinics themselves-- from people who have looked for, and found, an exciting alternative to the endless routine of "walk-run" and "marathon completion" for its own sake, an alternative that the clinics would not, and could not, offer.

Monday 7 September 2009

Surviving the Aging Body's "Tectonic Shifts"

Somewhat like the planet on which we live, the substructures our bodies are constantly shifting and changing, in spite of the day-to-day surface appearance of stability and fixity. And, as with the plant, these shifts can have fairly sudden and dramatic consequences. The aging/maturing process is sometimes punctuated by a coalescence of changes in our body's basic balance of strengths, tensions and angles which can temporarily overwhelm its capacity to adapt, resulting in the fairly sudden onset of pain and dysfunction. I suspect this is true of all aging/maturing bodies; but, in the trained body, these "tectonic shifts" are bound to be a little more complicated, both because they are influenced by the training process itself, which is actually designed to promote such shifts in some form, and because of the degree of disruption they can cause for their owner. When runners experience these shifts, they can feel like victims of a body snatching; a fairly predictable and reliable vessel can feel suddenly transformed into something wholly unfamiliar. In fact, runners in the throes of such transformations will often report feeling like they are "in someone else's body". Sometimes, of course, this can be a positive experience, such as when our bodies suddenly become better able to do what we want them to. More often, though, such sudden shifts are for the worse, rendering us suddenly unable to do what we have always been able to.

In my own athletic life, I have gone through several rearrangements of my bodily "geography", with the most sudden and disruptive of which occurring after the age of 35.

In the early phase of my athletic life, most of my bodily changes were of the slow and adaptive kind, although I do recall moments of sudden awareness that my body could do things it could not only months before. My first major disruptive shift, however, occurred when I was 16, and resulted in my first real injury-- a bout of the dreaded Ilio-Tibial Band Syndrome. I had just undergone a period of fairly rapid growth, which I'd managed to train through without incident. Then, after a couple of weeks of feeling tight in the quadriceps, I experienced a sudden and very sharp pain on the lateral side of my left knee. Baffled, I struggled through a couple of painful 15 minute jogs before giving up and allowing the condition to run its course. Three weeks later, and with little or no therapy besides icing, I was able to return to my normal running schedule. I did not feel so much as a twinge in this area until more than 30 years later.

My next physical "earthquake" occurred in my 27th year. A decade of higher running volume associated with my shift from the middle to the longer distances had left me with a body somewhat weaker and tighter in what were later to become popularly known as the "core" muscles-- those that stabilize the low back and pelvis. In an era before Pilates, Yoga and instability boards, most runner's strength work consisted of some basic upper-body lifts and some sit-ups or crunches, if that, and only the odd middle distance runner did any lower body work at all. As a result, those of us on high mileage programs tended to be at greater risk for low back, hamstring and other related problems, particularly as we aged. Thus I was to develop a sudden and very stubborn injury to my left hip-- a complex and undiagnosed dysfunctionality that caused diffuse pain and tightness in the entire area. After struggling with this problem for the better part of 4 months, during which I was slowing groping toward the kind of solution that I would, years later, discover to be the most effective approach to this kind of ailment, I was eventually able to resume a full schedule of racing and training. In the end, however, I felt as though I had not so much cured the problem as developed a new balance of strengths and tensions-- a new basic "geography" in my body that subtly allowed me to bear the load of my training elsewhere. I may not have looked much different to the outside observer, but I felt suddenly and permanently different inside.

My internal plates where to undergo one last major shift-- this time under the weight of my marathon preparations-- some 10 years later. Once again, a gradual tightness in the low back and hips erupted into sharp pain in the low back and upper hamstrings one early winter day while doing intervals on the gently sloping section of Toronto's famed Beltline Trail. I was still able to run, although my stride became much shorter and tighter for a few weeks after that, and, in fact, would never return to its full length and fluidity again, even though I would go on to record a few decent results, including a 1:04:42 Half Marathon and a 2:17 marathon, in the months that followed. A year after this shift, I would be deep in the throes of the back problems that would effectively end my open running career. In the 3 years between my marathon and my entry into the masters ranks, I would work hard on my core strength and stability, such that I would eventually become able to run (not to mention sleep and put my socks on!) without constant pain and discomfort; but, my body would never be the same as it had been. Once again, the lay of my bodily land had changed and I had merely learned to adapt and adjust.

In the 9-10 years since this last shift, I have live through several smaller "aftershocks", including another bout or ITBS and, just this past year, a very chronic and painful hip/hamstring/knee problem, similar to the one that afflicted me 20 years ago. I have attacked these problems with all of the new modalities I have learned about since developing my back problem-- especially eccentric loading of the affected area, which seems to mimic "active release therapy" in its effects. While I think I have now worked through this latest problem effectively, again, I do not feel as though as I have so much "cured" it as learned to move subtly differently in order to carry my running load in a more sustainable way, given the realities of my aging body. I thus now appear to be now moving into yet another period of relative "tectonic stability"-- I am now a little more like the Canadian Shield than, say, the San Andreas Fault!; but, I fully expect more, and probably more frequent, quakes as I continue running through my 40s and 50s.

What is my advice for negotiating and surviving these shifts? First of all, in certain instances, it's not possible to work through them. The onset of serious osteo-arthritis, for instance, can spell the end of our running days (although reliable research now indicates that instances of this problem are actually less common in serious runners than in the general population). Such conditions are relatively rare, however, and all too often, runners, and older runners in particular, will simply give up in the face of a seemingly intractable problem (how many times have you had a conversation with an ex-runner that began with the phrase "I used to run, but...[insert chronic injury problem]). My experience as an athlete and coach have taught me that even the most stubborn problems can be overcomes with persistence, patience, and ingenuity. As one of my favourite sports therapists (Greg Lehman, MSc, DC)once put it, "the body is not stupid, it is smart", by which he meant that, given the opportunity and sufficient time, it will solve most problems on its own, and all the better if we can figure out best how to help it along. We may end up with slightly different body at the end of the process than we had a the beginning, but our bodies can usually adapt to their own aging process as well as to the demands we make of them-- albeit within limits, of course.

At the age of 46, I'm thankful that I did not give up in the face of any of my body's big realignments. It would have been very easy to do so at the time, and many of my friends and competitors did just that, leaving the sport years before they would have preferred, and depriving themselves of much subsequent joy and fulfillment-- to say nothing of some fantastic physical, psychological and emotional side benefits. With each of these challenges, I have had the feeling that "this may be it", that I might never be able to run as well again, or without pain. Each time, however, I have fought back until, gradually, my body has regained its equilibrium and begun to move again in something approaching its old familiar way.

Finally, an omission from last week's post: Below is a link to Dylan Wykes new site, which will offer, among other things, more of the great blogging for which he is becoming known!

D. Wykes Page