Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Running on the Dreadmill: Don't Think Twice, It's Alright

Most runners hate treadmills. They prefer to be outdoors, breathing in fresh air, enjoying the scenery and not enduring the monotony of staring at a tiny little screen (or themselves in a mirror) for the duration of a workout. 

I don’t like treadmills. I also don’t like running on an icy track, as taking a digger would mean hobbling home in in below-freezing temperatures. Nor do I like running in extreme heat, which often happens when I travel for business (see: Las Vegas in late August). 

The treadmill, then, is a necessary evil. Given the choice, of course, I’d pound the pavement or head to the track, but I’m not going to postpone a workout simply because I need to hit the gym. 

When I do need to run on the treadmill, here’s how I pass the time. 

Workouts with easy math. I usually do speed work on the treadmill -- it’s not really that much more monotonous than running on a track, it goes by quickly and I don’t have to feel guilty about not adjusting the incline. “Easy math” means intervals that require little to no rational thought. Repeat miles, 800s or 400s -- all easy fractions of a mile -- at the same pace? Yes. A 1200, 1000, 800, 600 and 400, all at a different pace? No thanks. (This does mean I have to juggle the training schedule sometimes, but, like I said, it’s better than skipping the workout altogether.) 

A slow warmup. On land, my warmups tends to fall around 9:00/mile or faster. I go a bit slower on the treadmill (10:00/mile), largely because of the aforementioned easy math (10 is easier to add to other numbers than 9) but also because it forces me to actually take it easy when I warm up. 

Music. I pick an album or playlist that’s at least as long as my workout. That way I’m not fumbling with my iPod (third generation, baby!) when I’m trying to cruise through an 800. I avoid TV; since I do track workouts, and I have to frequently bump the speed up and down, I find TV too distracting. 

Water. Most gyms are hot and dry, so I bring more water with me than I probably need. (After all, if I have to pee, the bathroom is right there -- and not behind a tree.) 

Towel. Unless you want to use rough paper towels to wipe your face, you should bring an old, ratty towel with you. In a pinch, an old, ratty T-shirt will do. 

Incline. On the rare occasion when I’m just running on the treadmill for the sake of running, I bump the incline up a couple percentage points. This adds some necessary resistance. 

Walk. After my cooldown, I walk for at least a minute. If I jump off the treadmill right away, I feel loopy, as though my body should still be moving. Walking (at 3 miles an hour or so) makes this weird feeling go away. 

The next time you find yourself faced with the horrible burden of running on a treadmill, don’t think twice. It’s alright. 

(I know the Dylan version better than Joan Baez. Sorry.)

If nothing else, you should be marveling at the ability to run several miles without actually moving. That’s pretty freaking cool.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Running in the Dark: A Cautionary Tale

In the tips for running in the dark I recently provided, I suggested that, for me, the purpose of the head lamp is less to light your way and more to alert oncoming cars, bicyclists and pedestrians that you are coming. Given this philosophy, I make sure my nighttime runs occur on well-lit roads with which I am very familiar. I know where to find the cracks in the sideways, the hidden driveways and the high curbs. (I’d say “sudden turns,” but I also avoid those on nighttime runs, for obvious reasons.) 

This has served me well in my years in suburbia. I’ve probably finished more than 100 runs in the dark without incident. (Sure, I’ve run through my fair share of puddles, but, really, what’s the fun in avoiding puddles?)

My streak ended on Monday. 

Now, don’t freak out. I’m fine. ‘Tis but a scratch. 

The point is this: I have no idea why I fell. I’m pretty sure I just lost my balance -- I actually made it two steps before I hit the ground, which I’m sure looked hilarious -- but it was after 6 p.m. and my headlamp was pointed straight ahead, not at the ground. 

This happened on an out-and-back route I’ve done dozens of times. It’s great for running at night; there’s only one turn and one street crossing, the turnaround is in a parking lot, and I’m always on a sidewalk with a curb and a shoulder. And I still fell.

I’m sharing this story not because I want sympathy -- had I really been hurt, I wouldn’t have snapped a picture -- but because it serves as a cautionary tale. No matter how well you prepare yourself for a run, accidents happen. Take them in stride, brush (or rinse) yourself off, count your blessings and move on.

Oh, and be careful the next time you approach that mystical spot that, for no apparent reason, made you fall.

Monday, January 13, 2014

What I Do When I'm Not Running, Exercise Edition

The Polar Vortex, which brought a negative windchill to New England, left me little choice but to stay inside for a spell. On the coldest afternoon, as I did a did some compensatory leg work while waiting for lunch to cook, I thought it might be helpful to share the exercises I do when I’m not running.

I don’t do all of these on every non-running day, mind you. I do leg work most often, followed by core work and arm exercises. My part-time job involves a lot of repetitive heavy lifting, so my arms and core get a good workout once or twice a week as it is. (Side note: Any job that pays you to lift things up and put them down is pretty sweet.) You, then, may want to do the arm and core work more often than I do.

Necessary caveat: I'm not a licensed trainer, though I did learn these exercises from various coaches or trusted friends over the past 18+ years. If you have any concerns about doing any of these exercises -- especially the ones with weights -- talk to your coach or physician.

Leg exercises:
  • Squats and lunges. Pretty standard. I do sets of 16 to 20.
  • Heel raises. My variation on this, thanks to my wife, is to do two sets of six in each of the five ballet pointe positions. (This is a great post-run stretch, too.)
  • Toe tough while lifting opposite leg behind me. Basically, as you touch your left toe, you lift your right leg behind you so that, as you touch your left toe, your right leg is parallel to the ground. (Note: If you have pets, make sure they aren't nearby. Otherwise, they will get kicked in the face.) I do sets of 12, only because I just started doing these.
  • Lift knee toward chest, then push leg behind. Keep your back straight as you lift your knee toward your chest, then thrust it behind you. This works your hips. I do two sets of 20.
  • Leg sweep. Find a step. Stand on it. Kick your leg out in front of you. I do sets of 16 with each leg. Then, kick them to the side. Again, sets of 16.
Core exercises:
  • Planks. Make sure your forearm (between your shoulder and elbow) is perpendicular to the floor. If you're feeling lucky, you can lift your leg off the floor for 3-4 seconds. (I do this in sets of 12. I have trouble staying upright much longer than that.)
  • Crunches. I bring my left knee toward my chest while raising and twisting my abs to touch my right elbow to my left knee, then repeat. I go back and forth like that for a set of 25.
  • Leg lifts from the floor. This one is hard: Lie on the floor, legs perpendicular to the ground, and use your abs to lift your lower body off the floor, all while keeping your legs in position. I do sets of 16 and am sure my form is off.
  • Side-to-side stretches. If you do yoga, you know this one well. I do it with my feet shoulder-length apart. Put your hands on your hips. Bend at your left hip, with your right arm in the air, and go as far down the side of your body as you can. Hold for 4-5 seconds. Then do it on the other hip. I'll do sets of 20 if I hold for 4 seconds and 16 if I hold for 5 seconds. (If you're so inclined, this is the exercise done on The Sims whenever you turn on the fitness channel.)
I use 20-pound weights for all the arm exercises except the "running" one, for which I use 5-pound weights. If you've never lifted weights before, start with something smaller. You can always buy a set of smaller dumbbells if you need to. For these exercises, you probably won't need anything much bigger than 20 pounds. In a pinch, handles jugs of cat litter will do.
  • Curls. To save your back, do one set with your left foot in front of your right foot, then reverse that for the other set. It gives you better balance without impacting the arm workout.
  • Military press. Rest the weights on your shoulders, palms facing forward, and lift your arms toward the sky. For more of a challenge, start with your palms facing backward and twist your arms so that your palms are facing forward when your arms are almost fully extended. (As with any arm exercise, don't hold them fully extended with a weight in your hand.)
  • Tricep extensions. Weight in (one) hand, put your arm at your side. Use your other hand to stabilize your arm (use your thumb and forefinger to "cup" your arm between your bicep and elbow.) Straighten your arm as though you're doing The Robot. (Note: This may require a smaller weight, as it works a muscle that most of us don't usually use.)
  • Wrist curls. Stabilize your arm just past your wrist and mimic the curl motion using only your wrist.
  • Shrugs. Let your arms hand at your side, weights in hand. Shrug your shoulders. Keep your arms straight.
  • Arm twists. Same position as shrugs, only this time you're going to twist your arms 180 degrees backward and forward.
  • Mimic arm running motion. Grab small weights and pretend you're running. You can either "run" in place or stand with one foot in front of the other.
  • Push ups. As variations on the theme, I'll do two sets, one with one arm in front of the other and then reversed, or one set of regular push-ups and a second with my hands meeting to form a triangle between my thumbs and forefingers.
  • Pull-ups. There's a pull-up bar in my basement. I never use it. It's still in the box. I should set it up.
When you do the arm exercises, remember: You’re a runner, not that bodybuilder from the video. Upper-body bulk does you no good. Sinewy arms do. Aim for sets of 16 to 20 reps. The last few should burn. (But they shouldn’t hurt. If they do, stop.)

As with any workout, be sure to stretch when you’re done and refuel with good carbs, protein and lean fat. I opt for Greek yogurt and a banana, since (even altogether) this is a quick workout that doesn’t burn a ton of calories.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Running in the Cold: Hey, You, Cover Up!

A while back I wrote a post about running in the dark and promised to follow it up with one about running in the cold. Now seems like the good time, what with the Polar Vortex threatening to envelop us all and derail our spring marathon training plans.

Above all, don't be a hero. If it's really freaking cold, just stay inside. You can always run another day. (How cold "really freaking cold" happens to be is going to be a matter of opinion, geography, mental stability and what your spouse/partner tells you. For me, it's somewhere around 0 degrees Fahrenheit.)

Cover your head. Nothing frustrates me more than seeing people (runners or otherwise) out and about on cold days without a hat. I pretty mush wear one whenever the temperature dips below 50 degrees -- I have big ears, plus I get cold very easily -- and I tell myself that's a big part of the reason I typically make it through the winter without getting sick. It's worth investing in a good hat that will keep you warm without trapping so much heat that you need to doff the hat because it's wet, sweaty and gross.

Cover your hands, too. This goes without saying, really. If it's really cold, go with two pairs of gloves. Most of the time, I wear cheap grocery store bargain bin gloves -- that way, I don't feel guilty when I rub snot on them -- but when it gets below 20 degrees I need to break out the big guns.

Try not to overdress on your long runs. You're gonna start sweating as you run, and then your sweat will freeze, and then you'll get cold. The conventional wisdom says to dress for a temperature that are 15 to 20 degrees warmer than it actually is. If it's 30 degrees, for example, dress as though it's 50. Yes, you'll be cold for the first mile or so, but that will change quickly. Don't forget about win,d too.

On your short runs, though, who cares? If you're not going to be outside for more than, say, 45 minutes, you're probably OK overdressing a bit -- especially if that extra layer is the difference between making it out the door and staying on the couch.

Generally speaking, for shorter runs, I generally wear two layers if it's in the 40s and 30s, three layers if it's in the 20s and teens, and four layers if it's in single digits. (Again, I get cold easily.) The layer closest to my chest is a moisture wicking one, but after that I'm not afraid to wear cotton. (I know this is uncouth, but I have a soft spot in my heart for cotton hoodies.) For long runs, I play it a bit differently and also stick to wicking shirts, since I sweat a lot more.

Stay thirsty, my friends. You still need to hydrate. It's definitely tougher -- on one long run a couple years ago, the water inside the bottle I was carrying up and froze on me -- but it needs to be done. Bonus: If it's cold out, there's probably also snow, and if it's clean, you can eat it! Score!

Pace yourself. Don't make your first cold-weather run a 20-miler at marathon pace. It's been a while since you first ran in the cold. Overdress a bit, run around the neighborhood and remember what it's like before you start doing serious workouts in the cold.

Maintain perspective. If you're training for the Hyannis Marathon, the Lake Effect Half Marathon or even a St. Patrick's Day 5K, then yes, you'll need to stop making excuses and start running in the cold. If your target race is somewhere warm, or in the spring, then you don't really need to acclimate to below-freezing temperatures. My marathon is in May, so while I know I have cold weather runs in my future, I also won't feel too guilty about rescheduling key workouts to days when the conditions are better.

I'll still feel guilty, of course, because running in the cold makes you tough, and I like to think that I am tough.