Wednesday 21 April 2010

Sweating the Details, Redux: Warming up and Cooling Down; and, P-K at the National HM Championships

By this stage of my racing career, my immediate pre and post-race routine has become so entrenched that I'm rarely inclined to give it much critical reflection; yet, it is one of the details over which my athletes fuss, and about which they pose questions, more than perhaps any other (although the warm-up much more than the cool down*). My own pre-race and workout warm-up/down routine has actually changed very little over the years, although the changes I have introduced have been important ones. These adjustments have been in response to both hard science and experience.

Beginning with the warm-up, the first consideration ought to be the race distance one is about to tackle, followed closely by the weather conditions to be faced.

As a general rule, the longer the distance to be raced, the shorter and more passive the warm-up; and, the warmer the air temperature, the shorter and less vigorous the warm-up. In normal or cooler temperatures, sprinters will frequently spend up to 90 minutes going through an elaborate, multi-phased routine consisting of light jogging, stretching, bouncing, and practice starting, in which clothing and footwear are changed. Marathoners, in contrast, might do as little as 10-15mins of very light jogging, or even just walking, before pulling the race trigger. This is due to the simple fact that, the shorter duration of the race, the more quickly following the starter's gun the athlete will have to launch into full-out, competitive mode. The longer the race, on the other hand, the more it is possible to use the early stages themselves as part of the warm-up. (This, BTW, is what makes shorter races so nerve-wracking; while longer races are simply daunting, due to the anticipation of prolonged physical discomfort and attendant psychological stress.)

Since this is a blog about distance running, I will begin by skipping ahead to the 1500m, which sits at the short end the "distance" event spectrum, and proceed across the event range all the way to the half and full marathon.

As with all running events, the warm-up commences with light jogging, which serves to gently increase the heart rate, coaxing circulation into the deeper fibres of the muscle. Middle distance runners need only do 15mins of jogging (30-60 secs/km slower than typical easy run pace), and generally need not concern themselves with increasing the pace of jogging over the course of the warm-up. The nitty-gritty of the 1500m runner's typical warm-up is the race-pace running he/she must do following jogging and the light, dynamic flexibility exercises, that today's distance runners typically use to carefully introduce full range of running motion (for an great discussion, with references, on why dynamic "range of motion" style warm-up exercises are to be preferred to old-fashioned static stretching, see, once again, Alex Hutchinson's great first resort for all of your running-science queries, Sweatscience.) Following the light flexibility phase, middle distance runners are best to spend 20mins or so performing a series of what serious runners refer to as "strides" (shortened at some hazy point in the past from "stride-outs" or "striders"), which are simply faster bouts of running of 100-150m with very flexible, but generally quite leisurely, recovery times. The first few of these is best done in flats, in order to carefully prepare the calves for faster running, and the final few done in racing shoes (usually spikes), in order to adjust to the lighter weight and feel of them. The warm-up for 1500m racing should be complete with about 10 minutes to go till gun time, leaving time for a final trip to the washroom, and for the heart rate to settle.

The warm-up for races longer than the 1500m but shorter than the Half Marathon should begin with the same 15-20mins of easy jogging; but, the total duration and intensity of the warm-up for longer distance races will depend on the air temperature at race time. A too vigorous warm-up in hot conditions can impair performance (in fact, studies have shown that it may be advantageous to cool core body temperature before competing in hot weather-- e.g. through the use of "ice vest" technology). Under average conditions, however, the warm-up for a long distance racing should commence about 45mins from start time (50mins for those with nervous bladders!). Another difference between the warm-up for long distance running and for middle distance running is that it may be advantageous for longer distance racers to increase the pace of their warm-up jog in the final 5mins, until it reaches the effort (if not the pace) of a typical tempo run. I'm aware of no research that confirms this, but there is much anecdotal evidence to suggest that some faster, sustained running during the warm-up prepares athletes to race longer distances better than, say, the conventional approach of combining very slow jogging and strides at faster than race pace (think, for instance, of how we often feel much better in the middle or at the end of our workouts than at the beginning). In fact, doing very slow jogging followed by very fast strides may actually encourage athletes to start too quickly, by making actual race pace feel initially much easier than it will very shortly become. In general, however, it is best to include a few strides in the warm-up for longer distance races, albeit at a slower pace than for 1500 racing. For longer races, the benefit of strides is more for gentle yet dynamic and movement-specific pre-race flexibility work (although some of the same dynamic flexibility moves referred to above are recommended, although are perhaps a little less important, for longer distance racers.) As with 1500m racing, the warm-up for longer distance races should also be complete around 10 minutes prior to gun time.

Finally, for the half-marathon and marathon, the warm-up need consist of only 10mins of very easy jogging (just enough to promote a little circulation to the working muscles, and to work out any stiffness), commencing perhaps 30mins from race time-- just enough to allow for that last washroom break, and a switch to into racing gear. As mentioned, the early stages of these very long races can be safely used to complete the warm-up process. In my best longer races, I have often experienced the feeling of "coming alive" after 15-20mins of racing, after which the pace becomes noticeably more comfortable. I generally prefer this in longer races to the feeling of already being fully warmed-up and running very easily in the early kms, only to find the pace suddenly harder once the initial rush fades.

And, speaking of rushes, a word about caffeine as part of the pre-race prep for distance running: Caffeine, in both drug form and the more familiar coffee form, is a proven (and legal) performance enhancer for long distance running. There is, however, a wide range of individual tolerance to caffeine stimulation, as well as gut-tolerance for coffee, among runners. Some more highly-strung runners, as well as those who use bronchodilators for asthma, may find caffeine to be a little too stimulating, causing heart palpitations and feelings of acute anxiety before or during a race. As with any new addition to your pre-race routine, caffeine supplementation should be experimented with in training situations before being used pre-race.

As for the post-race or workout cool-down, it is far simpler than the warm-up, and far more pleasant, regardless of the outcome of the race itself (nothing beats the release of all that pre-race anxiety!). The precise physiological benefits of the cool-down are not known (its function has typically been understood in terms of "flushing" or "lactate removal", but no such process has ever been isolated scientifically). That cooling down thoroughly (15-25mins at pace 15-30 seconds slower than typical easy day pace) makes running the day after hard efforts feel better has, however, widespread anecdotal support. And there are proven physiological benefits from the long cool-down, or post race easy run, for the runner preparing to race a half or full marathon. Races of 5 to 15k create a degree of rapid depletion of the glycogen stores, leaving the body in a state similar to that of the latter stages of a longer easy run. A cool down of 25mins or more can thus coax the body to operate more efficiently in a depleted state, provoking the kind of beneficial longer term adaptations that marathoners and half- marathoners seek.

*Veteran or on-line members may notice that I often refer to warm-ups and warm-downs, rather than warm-ups and cool-downs. This is a habit that became reinforced through trying to save a few keystrokes when writing programs. Saying "warm-down" rather than "cool-down" enabled me to write things like "15mins warm-up/down"; thus, the phrase "warm-down" became my chosen variant at all times (except for in this posting!)

P-K at The National HM Championships:

The National HM championships in Montreal last Sunday produced some very strong candidates for the April POM. Leading the list is Emily Tallen, who rose from the ashes of two consecutive marathon disappointments to win her first Senior National title in a negative-split personal best of 1:15:42 on the typically sluggish Montreal course. Emily drilled the field (the Canadian part, anyway-- the race was won my New Zealand international Mary Davies, now of Ottawa)with a near personal best 10k performance over the final half of the race (and with an approximately 17:30 final 5kms, in particular). With the victory, Emily is now selected to represent Canada at the World HM championships in China this October (pending proof of fitness closer to the actual race date). Her next outing will be at the Vancouver Sun Run in two weeks, where she will be joined by me, Dylan W., and our next nominee, Rejean Chiasson.

Coming into the race feeling less than fully confident in his physical readiness (he suffered a drop in his iron stores in late February and had been uncharacteristically tired in his training since then, despite supplementation), Rejean nevertheless produced a second consecutive personal best performance over this distance, knocking another 20 seconds from his performance on the much faster Niagara Falls course last fall, in finishing as 3rd Canadian and 5th place overall. One wonders what kind of performance lurks within if he was able run this well feeling less than his normal, robust self. Perhaps we shall see when he lines it up in Vancouver next month.

Finally, 37 year old P-K rookie, but veteran road-man, Christian Mercier of Trois Rivieres QC, produced a third personal best at a third different distance in as many starts with his superbly paced 1:08:33, an 80 second revision of his old mark. Chris started his 2010 acing season off with a 90 second best over 15k, which he then followed up with a more modest 10 second amending of his 5k best, running 47:59 and 15:17 respectively. His new HM best was made all the more impressive by the fact that he collided with another competitor and fell hard in the final 50m of the race (perhaps less impressive in another respect, however, as the collision was probably his own fault; but, that is another story!).The fall probably cost Chris the final prize money spot in the Canadian division, but it certainly cost him some time, his wrist watch (smashed), and his pride (momentarily shattered). Chris will take to the streets next in Ottawa for the Nordion 10k, held as part of the International Race Weekend there on May 27th. Weather permitting, a fourth consecutive P.B. seems all but assured.

Wednesday 7 April 2010

P-K POM for March; Endurance Summit

The relatively dry winter and early spring seems to have set P-K athletes off to a quick start as they hit the roads for the 2010 racing season (with fast track times to follow in April and May, we hope).

Kicking things off was top P-K man Dylan Wykes, with two solid results in two outings: A brave, front-running 2nd place to Alberta- based Kenyan ace Willy Komsop at Harry's 8k in Stanley Park, the same athlete who turned Dylan away in the final few minutes of last year's Vancouver Sun Run (expect a west coast rematch in a month); and another hard fought runner-up effort at the end of the month, this time versus Canadian 1500m Olympian Taylor Milne of Guelph Speed River at the Around the Bay 5k, to close out the month. Running a close 3rd was national team member Rob Watson (steeplechase), also of the Speed River/Guelph group. These were reassuringly strong results for Dylan, who struggled for part of the winter with an achilles tendon strain. Next up for him is a trip out to California, where he will attempt to substantially revise the 10k personal best he set on the track out there one year ago.

Meanwhile, in Quebec, new member (but seasoned road racer)Christian Mercier was carving up personal bests over 15k and 5k respectively with new marks of 47:56 (old P.B. 49:20) and 15:17 (old mark 15:23). Chris will be trying to make it three-for-three when he hits the streets of Montreal in 10 days to contest the National Half Marathon Championships.

In the same race in which Chris re-wrote his 5k best, master (but rookie runner) and new member Rick Minichiello scorched a 15:27, to become the fastest over-40 runner in Canada so far this year (a mark that will surely stand up as one of the top few marks at the close of 2010-- unless he himself manages to better it a few times, which, odds are, he will). (I don't plan to make it easy for him, but I predict that Rick will be the first of the masters athletes I have coached to beat me head-to-head. And note to any men's 40-49 teams who have designs on beating P-K at the X-C nationals in the fall: Forget it!)

Finally, last year's P-K POY winner Mike Gill opened his season with a new personal best over 5k-- a hard-fought 15:45--, running a full 8 minutes (yes, minutes) better than the 220lb version of himself recorded on the same course exactly one year ago*. It's been a remarkable ride for Mike, but it's only getting started, as he had been slowed by a string of minor problems in the few weeks preceding the race. Expect him to flirt with low 15s over the course of the season, and perhaps sub-15 on the track in June or July.

*The race was actually April 1; but, it having been April fool's day, I'm counting it in March.

This is a fine clutch of performances to start the racing season, but Performance of the Month honours for March have to go to Rick Minichiello for a time so good that his old personal best is not even worth mentioning (actually, since he only started running in 2008, after a career as an elite cyclist, he didn't even have one!). Congrats, Rick. You are now in the running for P-K Performance of the Year for 2010, which is selected at the end of the season from all the POM winners. Its owner receives a small (but very nice) Mizuno prize package, courtesy of Mizuno Canada and

Finally for the this installment, I'd like to remind everyone that it is not too late to register for the Endurance Summit, a one day conference on running and racing to be held in conjunction with the Queen's University's 100 year alumni and World University Cross Country Championship festivities taking place in Kingston this weekend (April 10). For registration details follow this link: Endurance Summit

I will be participating on a panel along with national team athletes Dylan Wykes and Reid Coolsaet, and 1976 Olympian Thelma Wright. The topic will be "Making the transition from age-group athlete to senior elite".

Hope to see many of you there, or at the X-C race itself, which promises to be thrilling!