Sunday, March 29, 2009

Holy Stick!

It sits with its pearly-whites glistening in the sunlight, prepared at any moment to come to the rescue of a muscle in distress. With no costume or cape to identify this underestimated super hero as such, it is humble. Neither a resident of Gotham nor Metropolis, and bearing a name of neither Wayne nor Kent, it is not the idol of many popular comics, but rather that of runners' magazines. What is this faceless, heroic entity? Its name, often whispered among the running community, wields great power. It is called...The Stick.

Who knew something so uncreatively-dubbed "The Stick" could be such an amazing little apparatus? It's essentially a self-massage tool that helps work out knots in muscles that are bound, at some point, to become stiff, sore, or tight in the sport of running. The Stick is like a runner's secret weapon against the many grievances of our muscles. When your muscles are whining, just whip out the handy dandy Stick and they will surely pipe down.

"What wonderous piece of technology could solve such pesky muscular woes?" you may be asking. Essentially, The Stick is a rod with plastic rollers on it. Talk about complexity! But The Stick's inventor, that genius of an individual, is my hero. Thank you, whoever you are, for this rod loosely adorned with large bead-like spindles!

For your unique muscles, The Stick comes in many individualized varieties, including Big Stick (for weightlifters and football players), Power Stick, Flex Stick (for those with lean muscle mass), Stiff Stick (to "penetrate heavy muscle mass"), Original Body Stick, Computer Stick (designed for the upper limbs), Sprinter Stick, Travel Stick, and Marathon Stick. I personally have the Marathon Stick, designed for long-distance runners and those with lean muscle mass.

The website of The Stick gives several general tips for use:
  • Keep muscles relaxed during rollout
  • Use on skin or through light clothing
  • The Stick is waterproof and designed to bend without fear of breaking
  • It is not necessary to hurt the muscle in order to help the muscle
  • Most effective when used before, during and after periods of activity
  • For pin-point rollout, slide hands onto spindles
  • Excessive use may cause muscle soreness

Instructions for use are also offered, which essentially advise 20 progressively-deeper passes (roughly 30 seconds) over each healthy muscle group for a warm-up, and 20 additional passes over "trigger points" (i.e. "a bump or tender knot in the muscle). Their website also offers massage techniques for specific muscle groups, like the neck, shoulders, upper back, lower back, arms, and legs. Several techniques are also given in the pamphlet that comes with The Stick.

Essentially, the stick works like a rolling pin on the "dough" of the muscles, allowing you to bake up an epic performance and satisfy your knead for speed.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

That's How We Roll

When one hears the word "cross-training," several others may come to mind, like "swimming," "biking," or "elliptical." If you're injured and looking for alternatives to running, or even just bored with your exercise routine, try adding this word into your cross-training vocabulary: "rollerblading."

How Did Rollerblades Originate?

Despite the associates many people have with rollerskating and the disco-ful seventies, in-line skates were first produced by a Dutchman in the early 1700s who attached wooden spools to strips of wood and nailed them to his shoes. How did he devise this strange plan? Who knows. Nevertheless, after the prototype of this seemingly odd man followed a more modern version of rollerblades in 1863.

Physical Benefits of the Sport

Although the scene of someone trudging through snow in a pair of rollerblades adorned with icicles is not one you're apt to experience, rollerblading is a great spring, summer, and fall sport. Of course, the sport is less aerobically demanding than running, but it is more so than that of biking due to the lesser amount of time spent coasting. To receive a more equivalent aerobic workout to running, multiply the time you would plan to run by approximately one-point-five. Rollerblading is certainly no walk in the park, and can be made more difficult by blading uphill or in intervals alternating between a fast pace in the tuck position and a slower, recovery pace in an upright position.

On the other hand, despite its inferiority to running's aerobic potential, rollerblading has been shown to have more anaerobic benefits than either running or biking. It's a good method of developing one's glutes and hamstrings, as well as muscles of the hips and thighs that running largely doesn't employ.
Pros of Rollerblading
  • Low-impact (causing roughly 50% less impact to joints in comparison to running, according to a study conducted by the University of Massachusetts)
  • Great aerobic and anaerobic exercise
  • Alternative to running when cross-training or injured
  • Like running, it can be performed with Fido alongside
  • Enjoyable
  • Moving quickly through the air, acting as a natural "air conditioner"

Cons of Rollerblading

  • Seasonally- and weather-limited
  • Somewhat motion-restrictive gear

As wonderful as rollerblading is, precautions should be taken and proper equipment worn to ensure one's safety. I highly recommend the following, even though skating is fairly safe for decently balanced and coordinated individuals who do not model their technique after Chazz Michael Michaels (AKA Will Farrell) in Blades of Glory. And remember, such gear is obviously not intended to make a fashion statement! It may feel excessive or "dumb," but you'll feel much dumber if you're scraped up like a zested lemon because of an overly self-conscious attitude.

Rollerblading Equipment
  • Helmet
  • Knee, elbow, and/or wrist pads
  • Properly fitted skates (Note: Aim for a mid-priced pair, as cheap, poorly-fitted skates could cause discomfort, rubbing, and blisters, making the experience much less enjoyable. Also, look for skates that include plastic molding support for your ankle.)
  • An even, smooth surface for skating
  • 76-78 mm wheels on the rollerblades

Keep in mind, if rollerblading becomes a regular exercise habit, it is recommended that you rotate the wheels on your skates every so often, clean and lubricate the wheel bearings, and check and tighten the wheel nuts as needed.

If you're looking for a good way to cross-train and want to have some fun while you're at it, try rollerblading! There's no need to disco; it's the 21st century and time to rock and roll!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Running From A to ZzZzZz...

Many adults remember pulling all-nighters at sleepovers with their friends at some point in their childhoods. I can vividly recall New Year's Eve slumber parties, using every ounce of my energy to stay awake as I glanced, bleary-eyed, at the clock until the next morning approached. My mother would pick me up to take me home, and I'd sit with a fatigue-induced headache in the car until I could go home to fall practically unconscious on my bed. Now, looking back, it's a wonder why anyone would put themselves through such cruel and unusual punishment.

As runners, sleep is sometimes underestimated. The sport itself takes time out of our day, and we can find ourselves lacking any extra time at night to relax and wind-down from a chaotic schedule. However entertaining that late-night television show is, and however juvenile a "bed time" seems, one must know when to turn off the tube and retire. To avoid becoming a burnt-out, exhausted, irritable, zombie athlete, it's time to start prioritizing sleep and treating our stressed bodies with the respect they deserve.

Running and other types of exercise usually help an individual sleep more soundly at night. But if you've ever been through bouts of hard training, it's possible you have experienced insomnia, making all the discipline in the world useless in getting to sleep. Reading, relaxing, or even counting sheep can't lure you into slumber.

Possible reasons for this sleepless state could be running late at night, causing the exercise-induced heightened body temperature, metabolism, and awareness to interfere when it's time to hit the hay. It is recommended that those who experience such sleep disturbances avoid running within 6 hours of sleep. If this is unfeasible, however, the next to best thing would be relaxation methods, such as incorporating yoga and/or stretches into your routine before bed.

Why is Sleep So Important For Runners?

Sleep consists of 5 cycles, each lasting a duration of approximately 90 minutes. The first four cycles are distinguished by non-rapid-eye moment (non-REM), whereas the fifth cycle consists of rapid-eye movement. For athletes such as yourself, cycles 3 and 4 are the most important because it is the time during which a growth hormone (GH) is released by the pituitary gland at the brain's base. GH is a significant part of your training, as it is needed to repair the muscles and bones a runner demands so much of. Thus, when you skimp on sleep, training and recovery take longer and one may experience a plateau or reduction of their performance.

To quantify this, laboratory tests have found that for an individual accustomed to 8 hours of sleep, cutting this time to a mere 6 hours had an adverse effect on performance equivalent to that of an 0.05 blood-alcohol level. Who wants to run like they're closing in on the 0.08 BAC of being legally "drunk?"

How Much Sleep is Enough?

A good rule of thumb for runners in terms of sleep duration is this: 8 hours plus the number of miles run per week in minutes. For example, someone running 50 miles a week would aim for 8 hours, 50 minutes of sleep. Of course, some people may need more or less, as individual needs are always something to consider. Personally, however, I find this ballpark is a good range for more optimum training, especially when performance is peaking before a race.

Tips to Sleeping More Soundly

While some hit the pillow hard and can sleep like rocks, for others, sleep can be a difficult thing to attain. Here are some tips to help you fall asleep faster and have a better slumber:
  1. Don't go to bed with the TV or radio on.
  2. Use curtains or other apparatuses to block out external light.
  3. Keep the thermostat at a slightly cool temperature; that way, you can use sheets and blankets as means of temperature control.
  4. Try to not drink fluids within 2 hours of sleep.
  5. Either don't use a digital bedroom clock or turn its face away from you. Clock-watching will only accentuate the frustration of insomnia.
  6. Don't excessively mull over problems of your day.
  7. Avoid napping during the day.
  8. If you must get up in the middle of the night, don't turn on bright lights that could "reset" your internal clock.
  9. When sinus problems ail you, use an extra pillow to prop your head up and allow fluid to drain, hence easing respiration and congestion.
  10. Go to bed on neither an empty nor overly-full stomach.
  11. Wake up at a time you will be exposed to sunlight or turn on lights.
  12. Don't fall asleep on the couch or in a chair; go to bed.
  13. Develop a routine for your body by rising and retiring at similar times each day.

Athletes work their bodies so hard to achieve their goals, and it's essential to realize rest is just as an important part of reaching success. It doesn't matter what strategies you use to get to sleep, how many pillows you choose to use, or even if you sleep in your underwear - just as long as you sleep long and soundly enough.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Athlete's Hangover

Several days ago, I decided to do some weight lifting. I hadn't done it regularly for a while, but with visions of my future strong-self plastered on a Wheaties box, I stupidly did (way) too much, too fast. Today is going on the fourth day after this upper body workout, and I'm feeling pain and extreme tenderness in muscles I never even knew existed.

Perhaps you've been in a similar boat, at one time or another. Whether you could barely walk to the alarm clock the morning after those killer squats, or you couldn't reach over to that file on your desk without you entire arm screaming profanity at you, it's safe to say we've all experienced sore muscles. This condition is more technically referred to as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
Contrary to popular belief, lactic acid, which is buffered within 30-60 minutes after exercise, is not to blame for DOMS. This misconception originated from a flawed experiment conducted by physiologist Archibald Hill in 1929, who came to his mistaken conclusion through studies of isolated muscle fibers in frogs. Thus, the wrong accusation lactic acid has long been toting is "so last year."

I am also sad to inform you that cool-downs do not assist in reducing post-exercise soreness. A cool-down merely helps speed up the removal of lactic acid from the muscle. But since lactic acid has been found "not guilty" in the case of DOMS, cool-downs can no longer be looked to as a solution.

If Lactic Acid Isn't the Culprit, What Is?

DOMS, as one can infer from its name, is felt 24 to 48 hours following activity that, according to David O. Draper (director and professor of the sports medicine and athletic training graduate program at Brigham Young University), demands of the muscle "an eccentric or a lengthening contraction." From such said activity results the microscopic tears in muscle fibers and inflammation that causes the pain. Additional blood being carried to the stimulated muscles can also cause swelling and pressure, which is another potential cause of the "Ow!" factor.

However, the good news is, when the DOMS heals and the pain fades, your muscles have gotten stronger. DOMS is just a part of the phase of adaption to certain exercises, and with repetition, it will likely get less pronounced.

How Does One Relieve This Pain?!

Unfortunately, no method has been found to alleviate the pain of DOMS. But, popping some anti-inflammatory pills, massage, ice, rest, and heat can help ease those poor, aching muscles. Performing light activity can also help loosen up any tension. Stretching's effect on soreness has been long debated, and there is no conclusive evidence supporting either its usefulness or uselessness in curbing DOMS. But, many experts can agree, it can't hurt.

Indeed, DOMS is certainly not a pleasant feeling. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. But with regular cross-training, athletes can avoid this pain that can impede on everyday activities like brushing teeth, lifting a fork to eat, or even standing up from a chair. Beginning new exercise programs gradually rather than zealously can reduce the soreness that results as well.

With that said, my fellow athletes, exercise responsibly! No one likes a hangover.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Wind Will It Stop?!

As of today, there are just over 12 days left of March. Surviving the blustery, irritating month is, for most runners, an accomplishment within itself. The wind can create an annoying problem that turns a planned "easy" run into a seemingly endless marathon - an experience which I'm certain could turn even the happiest, most peppy cheerleader sour.
Why is March so Windy?

If one were to follow me on a mid-March run, you might witness some anger, futile yelling, and exasperated "URGH!"s. Despite the frustration wind can incite, trust me, it isn't karmic retribution, selective smiting on mother nature's part, or stroke of bad luck.

Meteorologically speaking, March is such a windy month because of extreme temperature and pressure contrasts. Also, the increasingly strong sunshine heats the Earth, causing this warm air to rise and cause atmospheric instability when it mixes with the colder air higher up. Therefore, when your rope of tolerance is shortening in the face of a relentless headwind, remember it is only a temporary weather phase for which there are scientific reasons.

The Effects of Wind Resistance

There are three factors that have an impact on the energy cost of running:
  1. Runner's surface area
  2. Air density
  3. Square of headwind velocity

Of course, the more surface area of the individual, the more wind will demand of them to maintain any given pace. However, this does not necessarily hold true with children, who are estimated to be 20% - 30% less economical per unit of body mass than their adult counterparts. A child's inferior running economy is caused by a larger proportion of surface area to body mass, shorter stride length, greater stride frequency, and other biomechanical characteristics.

Air density is more influential in running energy expenditure at sea level than it is at higher altitudes. Therefore, there is much less air resistance for runners to overcome at altitude. Only for faster moving cyclists and speed skaters does this become more of an obstacle.

Perhaps you're thinking, "I like running in the wind! A tailwind, that is." Unfortunately, even though this wind may help you on the latter half of an out-and-back route, the high energy cost in overcoming the headwinds you first experienced exceeds the reduction in oxygen uptake with the same wind at your back. *pop!* Sorry to burst your bubble!

How to Reduce the Wind's Effects on Running

If you've ever watched a televised, windy marathon, it's likely you are familiar with the term "drafting." Drafting is the act of using a competitor to divert gusts and their fatiguing effects. Although ineffective when running alone, its use in a race setting could give you an edge. When running with a friend or group on a weather appropriate day, you can practice this technique by taking turns as the "draftee(s)" and the "drafter(s)." I do not condone exploitation, but when you're sucking air mid-race against immense gales, using the front competitor as a partition will look awfully appealing. So draft away, I say!

On several occasions, I've seen runners along the sidewalk who, through their own fashion mistakes, were fighting a losing battle against the wind sporting a pair of parachute-like sweatpants. Unless it is your specific intent to use the wind resistance, there's no need to be one of them. Form-fitting gear has been shown in wind tunnel experiments to increase running performance. And, you long, flowing-haired runners, did you know trimming your beautiful locks could cut (pun intended) wind resistance effects by as much as 6 percent?

Using the Wind to Your Advantage

In competitive settings like races, the goal is often to achieve the lowest time possible, which means looking for ways to increase aerodynamism and reduce wind resistance effects. However, in training, when the goal is to achieve optimum fitness for the race, one can utilize the wind to increase their stamina, running form, and power. This is called "resistance running."

Trainers often use resistance running to improve the athlete's performance. To stimulate wind resistance effects, they can utilize running parachutes, which come in three sizes: small, medium, and large.

People often think that wind is something you have no control over. However, remaining level-headed, using strategies such as wearing form-fitting apparel to reduce drag, or utilizing wind resistance to your benefit are variables over which you do have control. So next time you consider aimlessly antagonizing mother nature, choose instead to accept the challenge. At your next race, you might just have your expectations "blown away."

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Runners Are Like a Box of Chocolates

If only I had a dime for every time some snarky individual yelled, "RUN, FORREST, RUN!" as I sped past them on the sidewalk. However, Forrest Gump's life-is-like-a-box-of-chocolates theory certainly has some truth to it - especially when it's applied to runners.

As of now, I am coining the spin-off phrase, "Runners are like a box chocolates." Why, you may be asking, would I ever compare a runner to a small, hardened block of sugar, cocoa butter, milk, and vanilla?

For the obvious answer, of course, we're sweet. But more importantly, runners bare a striking metaphorical resemblance to chocolates because, although they come in a wide number of flavors - whether you be of the coconut, covered strawberry, or truffle variety - you can fit them together in a personality "box." There is something that separates runners from the rest of the population; something that accounts for their willingness to wake up at crazy hours of the morning, fitting in runs around insanely packed schedules, and more than happily pounding out mile after mile before the rest of the world has gained consciousness after a long night's slumber.

William P. Morgan, professor of physical education and director of the sports psychology laboratory at the University of Wisconsin, conducted research on a group of women marathoners with less-than-amazing results. Nothing significant was shown to be separating them from the average individual. From studies such as this, some sports psychologists conclude there is little to no difference between the psyche of non-runners and that of runners. However, logic, combined perhaps with a bit of self-serving bias, leads me to believe otherwise.

It seems very reasonable to say most runners have Type A personalities. To name a few shining examples, elite men's marathoner Meb Keflezighi earned a 3.95 GPA in high school, not to mention prodigy Jordan Hasay, who has maintained a 4.53 GPA as of this year. Lisa Koll (pictured at right), a runner for Iowa State University, set an American collegiate 10,000 meter record of 32:11. She recently got her degree in biology after only 3 years, rounding out her college career with a 3.98 GPA. In an interview with Running Times Magazine, elite female runner Kara Goucher explained, "When I got my first B in 10th grade, I was very upset." Clearly, ambitious, determined, and motivated seems to be the dominant personality profile filling the upper ranks of our sport.

However, it has also been my experience that even recreational and fitness runners tend to be people who profess great self-motivation, drive, and intelligence. As with every generalization, there are surely exceptions, but it is my belief that a number of runners who may not fit this description still have "selective" Type A personalities - that is, this perfectionism is limited to the sphere of running and perhaps a handful of other areas in their lives. One also has to wonder if such a personality can be developed, per se, when a non-runner suddenly decides to adopt the runner's lifestyle and finds great solace in the sport.

Although the Type A personality can spur an individual to reach new heights of their abilities, it can also be the source of a talented athlete's demise. If you have a self-proclaimed mentality such as this, you may need to beware of your own inner drive to succeed. In Sweden, when comparing personalities of a group of runners previously injured by a tibial stress fracture and a group of runners who had never experienced this setback, researchers found the once injured runners scored higher than their non-injured counterparts on personality inventories gauging exercise dependency and Type A behavior. This is not to say that great ambition will result in injury, but it could if it is not matched by equally ambitious rest and recovery when necessary.

For a more mundane and less scientific approach to personality profiling, Runner's World of March 2007 included a "Runner's Personality Quiz," providing some self-analysis of its readers. The quiz identified four personality types: Warrior, Purist, Socializer, or Exerciser. Interestingly, whether the drive stems from competition, the love of running, social aspects, or physical benefits, all of these profiles describe the runner as a motivated individual.

One study, conducted by researcher-marathoners David C. Nieman and Darren M. George at the School of Health at Loma Linda University in California, contrasted 231 male runners from ages 18 to 40 with the 30-year-old male population as a whole. Using the results of the Cattell Sixteen Personality Factors Questionnaire they administered to their subjects, it was discovered that the group of runners were more intelligent, dominant, experimenting, self-sufficient, unconventional, detached/self-involved, and socially reserved. However, previous studies using this same questionnaire have been conducted and found conflicting results, making the interpretation of this amalgam difficult.

Clearly, sports psychologists are split on the issue of the runner's personality and whether or not it is, in some way, disparate from the non-running community's. Some believe it is not an innate "runner's trait," but rather, a commonality resulting from the endorphin release and overall mood boost all runners can attest to having experienced. Whether or not you buy into my runners-are-like-chocolates philosophy, there is surely some common ground that connects and ties us runners into such a supportive and friendly community, even if we share nothing more than the sport itself.

Thus, my runner friends, in the spirit of St. Patrick's Day, let's have a virtual "toast" to our amazing sport of running and everything it provides us. Eat, run, and be merry! *clink, clink, clink*

To Stretch or Not to Stretch? That is the Question.

If you were once involved in high school athletics, chances are you received the old school schpeel about static stretching (the task of maintaining a stretch for 10-20 seconds) and how it "prevents injury." Memories of a chorus of my teammates counting down from 10, stretching in unison while gathered in a circle, still echo in my mind. In fact, for some coaches, static stretching is the very pinnacle upon which a thorough warm-up rests. I, myself, truly detest taking time to stretch before workouts, which is likely why I often end up skipping it altogether. But with recent research searching for the science backing this claim, static stretching is no longer thought to be beneficial, but rather detrimental, to ensuing athletic performance. Fellow stretching-haters, rejoice! (insert Hallelujah chorus)
Perhaps I celebrated too soon. Although studies show static stretching pre-workout negatively affects actions such as jumping, sprinting, reaction time, balance, muscle strength (reducing it by as much as 30%), neuromuscular response, and strength endurance, researchers are now promoting the art of dynamic stretching, found to be exponentially more effective in a true warm-up.

What is Dynamic Stretching?

Dynamic stretching is the act of loosening the muscles and tendons, expanding the joints' ranges of motion, and increasing blood flow. There are a number of exercises that accomplish this task, some of which include straight-leg march, handwalks (informally known as inch-worms), forward lunges, backward lunges, arm circles, squats, heel walking, forward inverted hamstring, vertical power skip, and carioca.

Why is Static Stretching Detrimental to Performance?

Static Stretching, although it elongates the muscle, actually weakens it. It also causes a "neuromuscular inhibitory response," meaning the stretched muscle(s) become(s) less responsive, being counterproductive to the main purpose of a warm-up. This effect lasts for around 30 minutes post-stretching. One may perceive an increased readiness for athletic performance as they can stretch farther and farther as they hold the stretch, but in reality this is merely their increased mental tolerance for the discomfort.

Although the benefits of dynamic stretching put somewhat of a damper on my celebration, as I am impatient and will have trouble incorporating it into my training, I can certainly find happiness in laying to rest pre-workout static stretching.

Is There a Time and Place for Static Stretching?

Although static stretching prior to a training run or race is not recommended, there is something to be said about performing such exercises post-workout. One shoudn't entirely forego static stretching, as it may indeed help prevent injuries when performed after exercise. Of course, it also increases flexibility and range of motion.

In essence, if you haven't already, try incorporating dynamic stretching pre-workout and static stretching post-workout for optimal effects - even if you're a self-proclaimed stretching-hater such as myself.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

"Nobody Makes Me Bleed My Own Blood!" -White Goodman, Dodgeball

If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge an injury. Or, maybe not. Unfortunately, the movie Dodgeball's philosophy does not necessarily apply to us runners, for whom no amount of pointlessly dodging wrenches will lessen the chance of injury.

Those of you who have had or are currently dealing with a debilitating injury know how frustrating it is, waiting and cross-training with your fingers crossed, wishing you could will the body's seemingly never-ending healing time to speed up. If you've been running for very long, it is likely you've had experience with a number of injuries. As I was, you may be excited to hear of a treatment called platelet-rich plasma (PRP) therapy that could potentially revolutionize sports medicine.

What is Platelet-Rich Plasma Therapy?

PRP therapy essentially involves extracting the patients blood, placing it in a centrifuge to isolate the platelets (microscopic image shown at left) in a concentration 3 to 10 times that of normal blood, and injecting around 1 to 2 teaspoons of the substance into the injured area. Because of its high platelet concentration, it has the ability to spur the production of new bone cells or soft tissue. Also, the clotting that platelets are known for does not occur in areas like ligaments in tendons because these structures are not well-vascularized, or not accustomed to receiving blood otherwise.

Pros and Cons of PRP

The treatment is not appropriate in all cases, but it is a good non-surgical alternative to "problems that don't have a great solution," according to assistant professor of orthopedics at Stanford University Medical Center, Dr. Allan Mishra. In addition, the procedure costs $2,000 - a seemingly staggering amount, until one compares this figure to the typically $15,000 or more of surgery. It is also possible that, once the therapy has become more commonplace, insurance companies would cover PRP and make it a first course of treatment.

Also on the positive side, the non-surgical PRP is much less likely to cause infection, doesn't cause scarring, has a shorter recovery time than surgery, and takes a mere 20 minutes.

But, hold your horses ladies and gentlemen, because like everything, this procedure does have a down-side. Unfortunately, despite the great optimism with which the orthopedic community views the treatment, in an estimated 20% to 40% of cases, PRP is ineffective in treating the injury.

Although still in an experimental phase, as it's not yet fully available in clinical settings per patient request, it implies great prospects for athletes who find themselves hindered by stubborn, nagging injuries. Introduced in the 1970's, platelet-rich plasma therapy only recently began to receive media attention in light of new technological advances, as well as Pittsburgh Steelers players Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu finding great success with treatment two weeks prior to their Super Bowl game. Their stories truly illustrate the promises PRP makes for many athletes sidelined by an injury.

Ward, having a medial collateral knee ligament tear (which has a roughly 4-6 week healing time) treated with a combination of PRP, intense rehabilitation, and hyperbaric oxygen therapy, was able to make two catches in the big game. Ward's teammate Polamalu had a strained calf and was also treated with PRP. Polamalu was deemed well enough to play in the Super Bowl, in which he intercepted and returned the football for a 40-yard touchdown.

What Does This Mean For Runners?

Many runners have a hard time relating their own sport to that of football, but PRP's application promises a method of rehabilitation that reaches across the expanse of many sport-related injuries. This therapy is music to my ears after having endured my fair share of injuries, most notable of which was a metatarsal stress fracture that lingered for several months. I know that now, if someone gave me the opportunity to have PRP therapy and "bleed my own blood" (according to White Goodman from Dodgeball) in the midst of a nasty injury, I'd put my fear of needles aside for my love of running.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Fast Food...Literally

If you're as loyal to Runner's World magazine as I am, you've likely received the April 2009 issue and read the "Shrimp Scamper" mini-article, highlighting the amazing four-hour treadmill trek of a very athletic, four-inch shrimp.

Oddly enough, this experiment was conducted in 2006, but it just began receiving significant media attention when the video of the shrimp running on the treadmill was leaked to the World Wide Web. Researchers began by injecting a pathogenic bacterium called Vibrio campbellii into a shrimp with the intent of observing how it influenced the organism's performance. Of course, there was also a healthy control shrimp, which is the star of numerous YouTube videos, running to triumphant tunes like "The Final Countdown." A duct tape backpack was even fashioned to try slowing down the relentless crustacean runner, who kept at it for a great while despite the added weight. It was apparent that the sick shrimp's endurance was significantly reduced in comparison to the healthy shrimp.

From these results, Pacific University scientist David Scholnick concluded that infection impedes on the shrimp's "ability to migrate, find food, and avoid being eaten." The experiment also has a great coorelation to many prominent environmental issues of today and their potential implications.
Human-related activities and agricultural run-off have significantly increased the amount of bacteria found in ocean water, which, as the study illustrated, could decrease the shrimp and other sealife's survival capability. Thus, conservation of water and other resources and general should be a higher priority on everyone's list, for the sake of not only marine life and their habitat but the coming generations of humans as well.

With this in mind as I lathered up my hair with shampoo in the shower, I sped up, shaving about two minutes from my usual shower time. I may have even set a shower PR! I am taking blog space to encourage you fellow runners to take small measures to conserve in a sport where water is generously used (in hydration, showers, and washing dirty running clothes), shoes are frequently thrown out, and gas is often consumed (to/from races and/or trails).

To all skeptics, environmentally-friendly measures do not include the trots you may have left to the soil on a gastrointestinally-upsetting run. Even the slightest bit of energy towards this cause, if exerted by large numbers of runners, would add up into a much more positive result overall.

Although I still have wide room for improvement in my efforts to conserve, continuing to take action towards this cause may just put me on the road to becoming the Usain Bolt of showering. You may not want to "go green," but I encourage you to "go blue" in an attempt, however minute, to better the habitat of our wee shrimp friend and all future generations of runners.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Spring Backward!

Several days ago, I stepped outside in my typical winter running fashion: 3 long-sleeved top layers and a pair of shorts over Under Armor leggings. But something didn't feel right. Once my Garmin finished locating satellites and I set off on the trail, I realized I was incredibly over-dressed as I began to swelter beneath the numerous layers I had grown accustomed to toting. After I finished my run in temperatures that seemed to mimic a heat wave, I hopped into the car and read a whopping "60 degrees F" on the thermometer!

The transition from winter to spring is usually strange and unpredictable. Just last night, people nationwide set their clocks an hour forward for Daylight Savings Time, a precursor to spring. This morning, however, I woke up to a mixture of sleet and snow pattering at my window. Therefore, in the spirit of spring and the many oddities it brings, it seems an apt time to discuss the world's strangest races.

You've probably run a 5 or 10k before, and if you're a hardy soul, maybe even a marathon. Perhaps you saw some other runners dressed up in goofy costumes and thought it to be an odd experience. But you don't know the true meaning of "strange" until you compete in one of the following races.

Krispy Kreme Challenge

Many people seem to love Krispy Kreme donuts. But see how much they like them after running 2 miles to the local Krispy Kreme, eating 12 donuts, and running another 2 miles back to the start, all while struggling to not toss their "donuts" in less than an hour. This is a race that, as director Peyton Hassinger notes, attracts many types, whether it be "hungover college kids" or "moms with strollers."

Why do something so silly and nausea-inducing? The profits go to the North Carolina Children's Hospital, so it's for a good cause. It's popularity has sky-rocketed, as the number of race participants has grown from 12 in 2004 to 3,000 in 2008.

Fun Fact: The boxes used for the challenge, when stacked, would erect a "building" of cardboard over 16 stories tall.
World Naked Bike Ride

Biking is a great way to cross-train! So how about your birthday suit? Racers can show off their stars and stripes by biking naked through the capital of the United States in this race, which promotes alternative transportation and discourages everyone's dependence on oil. Patriotism at it's best, I say!

Unofficial Motto: "Less gas, more ass!"

High Heel Drag Race

While you're biking around D.C. indecently, you can head on over to the High Heel Drag Race, where you will witness more than 100 drag queens decked out with crazy hair, costumes, and attitudes. The race spans two blocks where participants walk, run, or sashay to the finish in stilettos or go-go-boots. The prize for this grueling feat? A silver slipper trophy.

Fun Fact: Admission is free!

The Cheddarhead

On New Year's Day, in Atlanta, Georgia, 200+ runners line up to compete in a race that is quite "multi-sport." The Atlanta Hash House Harriers have devised a race "course" in which one must down several beers, run several miles, bowl several frames, and finish with a large-scale polka dance party. If you're into drinking, running, hitting the bowling alley, and dancing, this race just might be for you! However, I'd only recommend entering if you're an extremely fast runner, as this event has attracted the attention of the Atlanta police on several occasions.

Fun Fact: The
Hash House Harriers claims itself to be "the world's most eccentric running club." The Atlanta Hash House Harriers is just one of many of 1,879 hash groups in 1,223 cities in 183 countries. They even have a "Hash Bible."

Geezer Pleezer

The purpose of this somewhat politically-incorrect race is to, essentially, chase down the elderly. It spans 4 miles, a distance over which participants aim to chase down everyone that's older than them. Of course, this wouldn't be fair if they all started at the same time, now would it? Instead, racers are staggered according to age. Head-starts are given in proportion to one's age, so the older you are, the larger head-start you receive. Regardless of age or gender, first one across the finish line wins. I find it rather ironic that such an age-segregated race would end with such an egalitarian finish, don't you?

Fun Fact: The top 10 finishers get chocolate.
Another Fun Fact: The 2009 winner was a 75-year-old male. As Tina Turner might comment, "What's age got to do, got to do with it?!"

Next time you're looking for a race, try an oddball. Instead of springing forward with the rest of the mainstream spring races, try springing backward to stand out from the pack. Who knows, you might be amazed how much "fun" it is trying to hold down a dozen donuts.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Say "Yes!" to Smoking!

...your competitors, that is. Unfortunately, racing with success is something that no amount of pre-race rituals, carb-loading, or lucky pairs of underwear will help you achieve. To reach your maximum potential and sense of accomplishment that ensues a hard race, preparation is key. Steve Prefontaine put it best when he said, "If you fail to prepare, prepare to fail." But even the most physically-prepared runners can overlook the single, most significant form of preparation in their training, which is that of the mind.

Most people have heard the saying "Running is 99% mental." Some of you may be skeptical, wondering, "Then why does it hurt so much?!" Scientifically speaking, that great sense of discomfort you feel when you're pushing yourself to the limit truly is a matter of the mind. A lot of it is all in your head, despite that familiar burn you feel emanating from leg muscles you never even knew existed.

In a sense, fatigue is a sensation the brain produces as part of a survival mechanism, as proposed by "The Central Governor Model" theory. This fatigue ensures one will not deplete their ATP (AKA "Adenosine Triphosphate" and used by the body for energy) supply, for if ATP were hypothetically used up entirely, the muscles would go into a permanent state of contraction (paralysis). Thus, the exhaustion one feels near the end of the race is a result of the brain involuntarily decreasing muscle fiber recruitment to prevent any possibility of ATP depletion.

Training, of course, increases the brain's physiological ability and electrical output to these muscles for more prolonged durations of time. However, this accounts for only a portion of the supposed 99% of the mental part of running. While this brain mechanism is subconscious, there are many things a runner can consciously do to optimize your times and achieve the PR's so many of us strive for on race day.

As cliche as it sounds, optimism is a significant aspect of a winner's mentality. You must feel confidence that your solid training foundation will serve you well. It is a good idea to incorporate speedwork into your training regimen that mimics race effort, which will increase your efficiency come race day. Aside from the infamous "off-days" we all have, positive thinking and envisioning success are truly underestimated, yet extraordinary, forces. Also, it sometimes helps to think of the race, regardless of the distance, in segments that seem more surmountable.

As much as I love running, it's certainly difficult to "bask" in the pain of a race, so I often find myself looking desperately for distractions. Among these include playing songs in my head (in rhythm with my stride), counting my steps, finding successive objects along the course to pass by and pull me along, and looking for my supporters at various places throughout the race. However, the tug-of-war between trying to dissociate oneself and monitoring your pace and physical conditions is a struggle in which one must find a balance.

Personally, I find it helps to use logic to maintain a level-head among the discomfort, nerves, and ornery little butterflies furiously flapping in my stomach so often induced by a race. For example, it always calms me to realize time will pass, regardless of whether or not I'm racing. I may feel pain in the midst of it, and though it may seem like an eternity, it will inevitably end."

In addition to logical and optimistic thinking, one must be a realist. A great coach once told me, "Embrace the pain." Yes, that's right. Fully allow yourself to feel the uncomfortable waves of fatigue, accepting and inviting them, for you must realize a race is not suppose to feel good.

And lastly, the sometimes inspirational, sometimes notoriously cheesy, running quotes can give a dragging psyche the boost it needs to pull through. Sometimes I'll take a short, yet meaningful phrase, and write it on my hand to be able to glance at later when I'm in the thick of physical and mental strife.

The moral of the story is that running certainly is 99% mental, hence to only physically prepare would be robbing oneself of an exceedingly important aspect of training. Training the brain is as essential as training the muscles and cardiovascular system. Once you've developed a mind and body of steel, try drinking a little too much water beforehand. I can tell you from personal experience, that will definitely give you a competitive edge.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Battle of the Sexes

From the moment any runner is born, typically their parents have already picked out gender-specific clothes, toys, and rooms for the young tot. These often serve as indicators to others as to whether the androginous, nearly-bald baby is male or female, because any confusion between the two could be interpreted as insulting to the mother and father, who are usually quite conscious of their baby's appearance at all times. What is my point? I received two X chromosomes, simultaneously rendering me female...and physically at a disadvantage to male runners whose potentially lightning-fast times I can only wistfully aspire to come close to achieving.

Don't get me wrong, I am all for feminism and proud to be female (Are you with me, ladies?!). But I'm starting to wonder if it is, in a sense, a running curse. Yes, I can get very fast and aim to set PR after PR. Yet, males at the same fitness as I can simply run at a faster pace. To you boys, indeed, I find myself a tad jealous of your capabilities, all the while trying to accept my standings amongst females to whom I am more comparable.

But my fellow gals, do not despair! There is a reason for this annoying, yet very scientific, disparity. One of the more obvious is that women have a higher percentage of body fat than men, and are sometimes shorter as well (thus taking shorter strides). Testosterone, the prominent sex hormone of males, increases both the production of hemoglobin (a protein that carries oxygen) and red blood cell concentration in the blood. Conversely, estrogen, the female sex hormone, does no such thing. Therefore, each liter of a female's blood contains about 130-140 grams of hemoglobin, dwarfed by the significantly higher 150-160 grams/liter of hemoglobin in the blood of a male. In essence, if you have an X and Y chromosome, your blood will produce roughly 11% more oxygen than that of us females.

Of course, being male does not guarantee you speed, strength, and endurance. These depend on a myriad of other factors, such as diet, training, and genetic endowment, to name a few.

Essentially, comparing the race times of boys and girls is like comparing apples to oranges. Although it is not an exact science, I found a rough
conversion calculator when looking at varying times of the two genders in track and field performances. If you're curious, I encourage you to compare some of you PR's with what the approximate equivalent would be of the other gender.
In conclusion, as a female, it kind of sucks to have been given the shorter end of the stick. If only biology had put both genders on a more even plane. But it didn't, so it is something one must come to terms with. As I mentioned earlier, however, that label of "male" does not necessarily guarantee one will be a great runner. So, in the words of Shania Twain, "Man! I feel like a woman!" Although I may be stuck behind with the view of you boys' butts on the track, I still take pride in myself and my running. Maybe, just maybe, you'll be seeing my rear end in the near future.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Chicken Noodle Soup For the Sole

I must tell you, several days ago, it was that time of the month...


With the mileage I put on my shoes, I was overdue for another shoe purchase to rotate into my collection of running footwear. Unfortunately, shoe-shopping is an activity I have long dreaded, as I have a great aversion to shoe salespeople. No offense if you are one, but honestly, I like to peruse and deliberate my weighty shoe decisions alone and uninterrupted. Thankfully, however, I was able to (as quickly as was humanly possible) find a third pair of the same running shoes that have served me well over the past months. These Nike Zoom Elite+ shoes have been ever-faithful to my feet, who are so grateful for the firm, yet comfortable, ride these shoes provide on every run.

I knew it was time to switch my running shoes because my handy dandy Runner's World Training Log told me so. But you know it's time to rotate your running shoes when they look like this:

These are the first known running shoes, dating back about 10,000 years ago. For the record, they're on display at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History at the University of Oregon.

Unfortunately, the owner of these shoes probably put a lot more mileage on them than today's podiatrists would recommend! This person obviously didn't have access to modern sports stores, where he or she might have been delighted to find a myriad of footwear options to comfort their presumably weary, calloused feet. And, if I were a guessing person, I'd venture to say he/she had neither the luxury of comfort nor the means of fashioning a sock-like apparatus to protect their feet against what appears to be a texture resembling that of sandpaper (sagebrush bark, to be exact). If only I had a time machine, perhaps I'd go back and hand the poor guy/girl a blister band-aid!

So let this be a quick reminder, runners, we're not living in the dark ages. Replace your shoes every 300-400 miles, because, unlike the faceless owner of the ancient "shoes" above, you have access to those wonderful sports outlet stores like Sport's Authority and Scheel's. Take care of your feet so as to avoid injury!

Personally, a blister (which, as I mentioned early, can be soothed by a blister band-aid) as a result of a new pair of shoes is a bullet I'd be willing to take to avoid an injury that could put me out of commission for weeks. This is probably the only time in my life I will be recommending this, but people, take the bullet! Next time you think about walking by the shoe section empty-handed (as I so often do), think of our 10,000-year-old fellow runner who would have (literally) loved to walk a mile in your shoes.