Friday, February 27, 2009

Use Protection!

No, I'm not talking about that kind of protection! I'm talking about this kind of protection:Summer is fast-approaching, so it seems an apt time to discuss two equally important sun related issues:

  • Protecting skin and eyes from the sun's harmful rays
  • Getting enough sun exposure for vitamin D synthesis (important in calcium absorption)

If you live north of Atlanta, you won't be obtaining any vitamin D from the sun during the winter because the sun never reaches the height in the sky necessary for its ultraviolet B rays to penetrate the Earth's atmosphere. This means you need to increase your vitamin D intake from other sources to maintain good calcium absorption. Sun exposure for roughly 10 minutes per day is the preferred means of getting enough vitamin D if you're in the right climate and latitude to take advantage of ultraviolet B rays. Much more than that during UV index peaks is putting yourself at considerable risk for sun damage. Runners should schedule their training and sun screen application with these facts in mind.

When choosing a sunscreen for running, it's better to opt for those labeled of the "sports" or "spray" varieties, which usually feel a tad less greasy and are made more specifically for your activity, often claiming to be both water- and sweat-proof. Ensure the sunscreen protects from both UVA and UVB rays, reaching more thoroughly across the UV spectrum.

Apply the sunscreen at least 30 minutes before going out on your run, and if you plan to be out on a run for longer than 2 hours, you might consider bringing some with you or planting a bottle along your route to reapply it. Use SPF 15 or higher, even on a cloudy day.

I must admit, however, I am not the most diligent when it comes to sunscreen application before running. I aim to improve and make it more of a habit, though, as it's just as important as the measures I take to prevent injuries, stretch, and practice other preventative measures to optimize my running and health.

Runners, we run many a race for causes such as skin cancer, so I think it is, in a sense, our duty to be better examples and "practice what we preach."

No, we can't stop there. Protecting yourself from the sun includes your eyes, which, if left exposed, can develop cataracts, pterygium (tissue growth on the white of the eye that can block vision), skin cancer surrounding the eyes, and/or degeneration of the macula (the part of the retina near the center, where visual perception is greatest).

Personally, I have a pair of Smith Factor polarized sunglasses that include yellow, clear, dark brown, light brown, and black interchangeable lenses. Adidas, Nike, and Oakley are some other brand options as well if you're looking around for a good, sturdy pair. Sunglasses, depending on which ones you get, can be kind of pricey, so make sure you look for the best deal and weigh its fit, feel, lightness, sturdiness, features, and appearance into your decision before buying. Of course, also make sure they block 99 - 100% of UV radiation.

Forrest Gump may not have worn sunscreen or sunglasses, but Lolo Jones certainly does! 'Atta girl.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

"The One Where Phoebe Runs"

As I watched Phoebe (AKA Lisa Kudrow) running - or rather, flailing - wildly through Central Park on a Friends re-run (which, might I add, just might be the greatest sitcom ever!), I began to think about running form. Is a "good" running form imperative to get from point A to point B in the most timely manner?

Often I see people outside, perhaps along the street, cruising along in a relaxed jog. Some have strides very different from mine, and I note that others seem to move rather inefficiently (i.e. expending unnecessary energy). However, talking to one of my friends who has a self-proclaimed "awkward" gait, I wonder how applicable the typical don't-swing-your-arms-over-your-midline advice can be in a sport where individuals' strides are anything but universal. When asking my said friend to elaborate on her evaluation of herself, she explained that despite her many futile attempts to emulate the pristine stride we see in televised, elite races, her body simply wouldn't respond. Because of how she was built, it was physically impossible to run in such a fashion.

This thought brings back part of a previous blog, referencing the role of DNA and genetic endowment in one's running potential. Is it possible to force the commonly-prescribed running form on someone who doesn't have the means to do so? Is this setting people up for failure, discouraging those who don't fit the "runner's mold?"

Jeff Galloway offers some very good advice on improving running form, yet not at the expense of your natural stride. Some of his tips include a good posture (without a forward/backward lean), staying close to the ground without excessive bounce, and focusing on stride frequency rather than stride length. Looking ahead is also important and can help promote a good posture. Eliminating tension in the shoulders, hands, and even face allows you to have a more relaxed stride. Galloway also gives a drill you can perform 1-2 times/week to isolate and improve stride frequency and foot turnover:

"As runners become faster, their stride length decreases. Therefore, the way to get faster is to increase the turnover of feet and legs. Even those who lack a fast bone in their bodies will benefit from turnover drills because the teach the body to find a more efficient motion.

The Drill

After a slow 1-mile warm-up, select a level and traffic-free stretch of road, trail or track. Without picking up your speed, count the number of times either your left foot or your right comes down in 30 seconds. Jog or walk for a minute or so and then run back, counting again for 30 seconds, with the goal of increasing the count by one or two. Repeat this four to six times, with the same projected increase each time but without a significant increase in effort."

Aside from speed, another reason one should aim to improve their running form, whether they be competitive, recreational, fast or slow, is to lessen the occurrence and frequency of poor-form-related injuries. With the exception of engrained biomechanics, consciously checking yourself to correct controllable factors in your form can make you both a more economical and less injury-prone athlete.

Running Planet has a list of ten pointers to help anyone achieve a more efficient and smooth stride:
  • Foot Strike Under Your Center of Gravity

  • Flat-Footed Touchdown (i.e. landing on neither your toes nor your heal)

  • High Cadence ("Try to attain a stride rate of 90 strides/minute at all running velocities.")

  • Dorsi-Flexed Foot (i.e. raising your toes. This "puts your foot in the proper position for a flat-footed touchdown, pre-stretching your calf to maximize energy return, and are also encourages a “triple response” in which your knee and hip flex into proper running stride position.")

  • Low Ground Contact Time (Strength training and plyometrics will decrease ground contact time by developing stronger, more powerful muscles)

  • High Heel Kick (Running Planet cautions, "You don’t need to artificially pull your heel high. Just stay very loose and relaxed. Let the natural motion and momentum of your stride pull your heel high.")

  • Backward Arm Drive (Forward arm drive may promote over-striding and unnecessarily wastes energy.)

  • Bent Knees ("A common mistake many runners make, especially when trying to increase their speed is to reach out with a straight leg. A straight leg will cause the braking effect as well as drastically increasing the amount of impact stress on your knees and hips. Keep your knees soft and slightly bent.")

  • Slight Forward Lean (Don't lean at your hips, but instead, your entire body. The lean should be very slight.)

  • Run Easy (i.e. maintain a relaxed, smooth position that is comfortable and natural.)

If nothing else, I hope you take at least this from everything above:

Rachel Green: It's just the way you run is a little...
[waves her arms like crazy]
Phoebe Buffay: Oh, yeah. Well, I wasn't embarrassed running next to Miss "Ch Ch Ch"
[imitating Rachel]

In other words, for your sake and everyone else with eyes, please do not run like Phoebe. However, do not be too rigid and self-conscious of your running form like Rachel (AKA Jennifer Aniston), because if you relax and make a habit of more efficient techniques to the best of your ability, your body will likely begin to fall into a natural and comfortable stride.

Something to ponder on your next run.

Friday, February 20, 2009

From Nude to Nike

A large number of people tuned in this summer to watch the 2008 Beijing Olympics, cheering on many of the poster-names of the games, like Michael Phelps (in his "pre-bong" days) or Shawn Johnson. If you are a runner, you most likely witnessed or heard about the marathon or other track events.

When you think of the runners who pioneered in Olympic competitions of ancient Greece, beyond knowing they often ran without shoes or clothes, do you truly know the origins of the sport? I think everyone should be familiar with their roots, and as a runner, that includes those runners that came before us - in this case, roughly 2,785 years ago.

Nowadays we run for recreation, competition, stress-relief, health, and a multitude of other reasons. Ancient runners, specifically those in Greece, used running for needs obsolete in modern times, such as the common battle, the transmission of messages, honor, and the physical fitness demanded by the militant mindset of city-states such as Sparta.

The Greeks did not believe in a pleasant after-life, so many ran for honor in the Olympic games, as the victor of one or more events was permitted to establish a statue of himself in the middle of his city, which included his name, event(s) he won, and a short quote. With this honor, they could live on forever in the memories of others.

Earliest records suggest the Olympics began in 776 B.C. and continued until about 393 A.D. As far as athletic nudity goes, this tradition was introduced in 720 B.C. for unclear reasons, although it is believed this practice elaborated on celebrating the achievements of the human body. Perhaps they were also more aero-dynamic?

Athletes had to be young, free men who spoke Greek. Before competing, they were required to take an oath before a statue of Zeus stating they had been in training for 10 months, a time during which they were supervised by the judge of the Games in Olympia. Only a limited number of women were allowed to compete in the races if they were a virgin, ran barefoot, and wore specific dress. In addition, the Heraea Games were the first sanctioned event for women athletes in honor of the goddess Hera. Can I get a "Hoor-ah!" for the ladies?!

Originally, the Olympics only included the stadion, which was a short sprint estimated to have been between 192 meters - the distance Hercules (Herakles), the mythical founder of the Games, was believed to have been able to cover in one breath. Later around 724 B.C., an approximately 400-meter race called the diaulos emerged, followed by an estimated 5-kilometer dolichos four years later. The last foot race to be introduced was hoplitodromos, which imitated the speed and stamina needed for warface, as the athletes ran a single or double diaulos (400 or 800 meters) toting armor, a shield, and either greaves (armor that protects the shin) or a helmet that totaled a weight of 50-60 pounds.

As if the hoplitodromos wasn't punishment in and of itself, those who started early were disqualified and underwent a corporal punishment - a cushioned term for the more honest and descriptive way of saying "beating." Runners were not allowed to push, knock down, or hold other runners, as well as being prohibited from bribery or performing magic spells. Those who cheated in the games had their names etched into the Bases of Zanes (pictured at left) onto which statues of Zeus were built. These structures which were financed by the cheaters' fines and discouraged others from breaking such rules.

Although the marathon is included in today's Olympics, the Games of ancient Greece did not include any event of this sort. The marathon originated from an event in which Pheidippides ran 260 kilometers from Athens to Sparta in 2 days to request Sparta's assistance because the Persians had reached Marathon (490 B.C.). Sounds like the guy had it easy! In modern-day marathons, we run that distance in half the time.

Despite the large time disparity, these early runners and traditions have greatly shaped modern running. So next time you're running, imagine you're retreating in battle, or even carrying an imperative message to your destination. It might just make you run a little faster.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

What You Can Learn From a Girl in a Snow Storm

Few individuals can say they've run outside in a snow storm. As of yesterday, I can now raise my hand as one of the few, and proud, who have done so.

Yes, some may argue, doing so was probably on the stupid side of the crazy spectrum, but I'm a runner. We're all a little crazy, no?

For most of the run, I honestly couldn't see a thing with my eyes barely able to register my surroundings amid the heavy snowfall and fat snowflakes splashing onto my face. It was almost like God's dandruff was pouring all over the Earth. Dude, just take a shower next time!

I went on an out-and-back route, so on the way back, the only thing I was following was the slight definition of my previously-made footsteps in the snow.

As I ran, the most prominent thought I remember having was something along the lines of, "Why am I doing this?" Of course there was the very viable option of a treadmill. Or even cross-training on the stationary bike. But instead, I chose to brave the wind and quickly-accumulating snow. As I sit here now, I still wonder what my motivation was.

Where does self-motivation come from? What an interesting question.

Psychology 101 describes several different motivation theories, including the Instinct theory, Drive Reduction theory, Arousal theory, Psychoanalytic theory, and Humanistic theory. It seems I can attribute my adventurous, blizzard-like run to the Arousal theory, which Psychology 101 defines as, "Similar to Hull's Drive Reduction Theory, Arousal theory states that we are driven to maintain a certain level of arousal in order to feel comfortable. Arousal refers to a state of emotional, intellectual, and physical activity. It...doesn't rely on only a reduction of tension, but a balanced amount. It also does better to explain why people climb mountains, go to school, or watch sad movies."

Perhaps another source of motivation in the case of running stems from the Humanistic Theory. Psychology 101 explains this theory as the following:

"Although discussed last, humanistic theory is perhaps the most well-known theory of motivation. According to this theory, humans are driven to achieve their maximum potential and will always do so unless obstacles are placed in their way. These obstacles include hunger, thirst, financial problems, safety issues, or anything else that takes our focus away from maximum psychological growth.

The best way to describe this theory is to utilize the famous pyramid developed by Abraham Maslow (1970) called the Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow believed that humans have specific needs that must be met and that if lower level needs go unmet, we can not possible strive for higher level needs. The Hierarchy of Needs shows that at the lower level, we must focus on basic issues such as food, sleep, and safety. Without food, without sleep, how could we possible focus on the higher level needs such as respect, education, and recognition?
Throughout our lives, we work toward achieving the top of the pyramid, self actualization, or the realization of all of our potential. As we move up the pyramid, however, things get in the way which slow us down and often knock us backward. Imagine working toward the respect and recognition of your colleagues and suddenly finding yourself out of work and homeless. Suddenly, you are forced backward and can no longer focus your attention on your work due to the need for finding food and shelter for you and your family.

According to Maslow, nobody has ever reached the peak of his pyramid. We all may strive for it and some may even get close, but no one has achieved full self-actualization. Self-actualization means a complete understanding of who you are, a sense of completeness, of being the best person you could possibly be. To have achieved this goal is to stop living, for what is there to strive for if you have learned everything about yourself, if you have experienced all that you can, and if there is no way left for you to grow emotionally, intellectually, or spiritually."

I suppose, according to the Humanistic theory, those religious about running may be finding the motivation to run due to our "need for self-actualization." Perhaps this is where I find the motivation to run 6 days a week and devote a significant portion of my time, effort, and spirit towards a sport I feel is a part of the cliche, yet true, aspect of "living life to its fullest."

This is certainly something to think about. It is a curious phenomenon that we scramble to reach the top of this Hierarchy of Needs pyramid when its summit cannot be reached.

So next time you don't want to get out of bed to go on that run, and you want so dearly to smack the alarm clock that taunts you with its screech, think about what motivates you. Life will throw us all a number of snowstorms, and we must run through them.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

What Does Your Deoxyribonucleic Acid Say About You?

Whether you're a sprinter or a long-distance runner, researchers from the Australian Institute of Sport, the University of Sydney, and the Australian National University now claim they can determine if you're likely to be successful - or unsuccessful - in your sport. Genetic labs like Atlas Sports Genetics in Boulder, Colorado now offer such testing, aimed primarily at children 8 years old and younger, for the price of $149.

The genetic variation they search for is that of the ACTN3 gene, otherwise known as the "speed gene." This gene is thought to determine an individual's natural predisposition for endurance, speed, or a combination of both sports. ACTN3 causes the production of a protein, alpha-actinin-3, that regulates a greater function of fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are very engaged in speed and power sports.

Atlas Sports Genetics even claims, "In fact, one study found that every Olympic sprint athlete tested had at least one copy of the normal R577 version of the ACTN3 gene (Therefore produced the muscle alpha-actin-3 protein)."

There also haven't been any findings that suggest the absence of this protein adversely affects health, despite its possible athletic implications.

However, despite the many correlations between certain genetic traits associated with athletic ability among elites, the exception of a two-time-Olympian Spanish long jumper, who lacks the ACTN3 gene, attests to the reality that genes cannot entirely promote or deter athletic success.

Unfortunately, although genes cannot pigeon-hole a child into certain sports, parents and guardians can. Those who order the ACTN3 test are sent a kit in which they swab the inside of their child's cheek and send the sample back to the lab. An article in the New York Times reports, "The analysis takes two to three weeks, and the results arrive in the form of a certificate announcing Your Genetic Advantage, whether it is in sprint, power and strength sports; endurance sports; or activity sports (for those with one copy of each variant, and perhaps a combination of strengths). A packet of educational information suggests sports that are most appropriate and what paths to follow so the child reaches his or her potential."

Beyond indicating whether one's muscles are more suited for speed or endurance, I see nothing special that this test offers. If anything, it might prevent little Johnny from pursuing his passion for football because he lacks the R577X variant in both copies of his DNA, making his muscles more suited for endurance rather than speed/power sports. Parents might interpret test results in a rigid manner and push a child into the sports that, although their tot's DNA indicates they have potential in, the child may have no desire to compete.

I think Dr. Carl Foster, quoted in the New York Times, said it best. To determine if a child will be good at sprint and power sports, “Just line them up with their classmates for a race and see which ones are the fastest."

Would I pay $149, after I have discovered my passion for long-distance running, to potentially find out that my genes do not share the same love for my sport of choice? Certainly not. I don't care what my genes say I am predisposed to, because I'd like to think my mind and hard work can overpower the presence, or lack thereof, of this little protein. I will reach the highest fitness I possibly can, even if I will never become an elite marathoner. Like the Spanish Olympian, I believe I can surpass any genetic obstacles and make my own success.