Saturday, April 25, 2009

A Bony Issue

Are you a habitual loser? Do you constantly find yourself losing things and desperately searching every nook and cranny of your surroundings? On several occasions, I've lost a contact in the process of putting it in my eye, scrambling nearly blindly on the ground to find the transparent little bugger. Perhaps you've lost your keys, or even the T.V. remote, on numerous occasions. Next time this happens, remember that things could be much worse. You could lose your bone mass.

Main Entry: os·te·o·po·ro·sis
Pronunciation: \ˌäs--ō-pə-ˈ-səs\
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): plural os·te·o·po·ro·ses
: a condition that affects especially older women and is characterized by decrease in bone mass with decreased density and enlargement of bone spaces producing porosity and fragility

According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, osteoporosis affects more than 200 million individuals across the globe. Many know that running, which is high-impact, can help increase bone-density as the bones respond to the great stress under which they are placed. However, one important study (in the British Journal of Medicine), performed on 52 female runners who ran a great range of weekly distances, found the women who ran the most to have the lowest bone density. While it is true that osteoporosis is often associated with older women, this research done on female distance runners has proven that this problem is not solely a condition of old age. Being one who truly puts the "long" in long-distance running, this certainly caught my attention.

What was the reason for this result, seemingly counter to the very physiological principles of increased work load and response? It was found that many of the women who had higher training volumes were not eating adequately to fuel the expected bone response to such mileage. Of course, a lower bone-density makes much more likely the possibility of stress fractures and/or osteoporosis, even when safely bumping up training at the 10% per week rule-of-thumb. Thus, maintaining a balanced diet that provides enough energy to sustain physical activity, with adequate calories to promote the building of muscle and bone, is of great importance.

Another possible reason for these findings is the fact that estrogen, a hormone that has a great impact on bone health, is typically lower in female athletes who participate in vigorous exercise like running.

Additionally, if you are guilty of commonly skipping other upper-body resistance exercise (like weight lifting), bone-density in these areas will be unaffected by concentrated efforts in the predominantly lower-body sport of running. Therefore, even though a runner may harbor doubts as to whether or not weight lifting and other such workouts will help cut a 5k time, said exercises would certainly be in the best interests of bone health.

Weight lifting isn't just for meat-heads, as everyone who wants to show some love to their bones should give it a try. You don't have to bench-press 100+ lbs. to achieve better bone density or become a better runner; rather, 2-3 sessions of moderate weight lifting per week will suffice.

And lastly, I will remind all my fellow runners to eat up and fuel well! It's not one's outer "bony" that matters - it's the inner "bony" that counts.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Join the Arm-y

If you've ever watched the Olympic sprinters perform, it's likely you noticed their pumping, domo-arigato-Mr.-Roboto-like arms. Of course, this contrasts starkly with their marathoner counterparts, who swing their arms in a much more loose, relaxed manner. But what do the arms really do for a runner? For a sport that relies so greatly on the lower body, less attention is given to the mechanics of the upper body.

What Role Do Arms Play in Running?

Certainly, arm movement is a factor in how an individual runs. If you don't believe me, I suggest you step outside, tuck your arms behind your back, try to run (potentially at the expense of looking rather insane to the neighbors), and then profess any remaining skepticism. Many associate "pumping arms" with stronger, faster running (like in the case of a sprinter). However, contrary to popular belief, the arms really play little role in forward movement because they are not propulsive mechanisms. Rather, they serve to counter-balance the legs, moving conversely with the opposite leg, as well as each other. They react to our movement to maintain equilibrium. This explains the intense arm movement of a sprinter, who is generating an immense propulsion with their legs that must be balanced with an equally aggressive arm swing.

The arms are also perceptual appendages in that they constantly, and instinctively, gauge our perception of falling. When someone begins to fall, their reaction is to outstretch their arms to brace themselves for the ensuing impact with the ground.

For Running, What is the Proper Arm Movement?

To those guilty of frequently monitoring their running form, you can rest assured that you needn't consciously think about your arms (unless, of course, you're a baby-stroller-pusher). Their tension, swing, and angle will all adjust themselves in accordance with your leg cadence and running speed. Therefore, the notion of a "proper" arm movement does not exist, just as there is no one-size-fits-all "proper" running form. Because everyone has different body mechanics and thus runs with very individual forms, various arm movements will result to complement one's unique style.

Although a universal, proper arm movement is non-existent, remember to relax your hands and shoulders, which are common points of unnecessary tension. Even while racing, when the last thing you want to do is relax, avoid tensing up these areas, including your face. An added bonus might be a more attractive racing picture, because honestly, no one wants to buy a concrete memory of themselves with an awkward facial expression.
Whether your a Styx fan or not, pumping one's arms in a robotic fashion is unnecessary unless the running event calls for it. Let the arms be free to do their own thing, but don't allow them too much leeway lest they produce tension in other areas of the upper body. As long as you don't run with arms flailing overhead like you're on a roller coaster ride (see below), you should be okay.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Dress To Impress!

*Ch-ch...BOOM!* And they're off to the races! No, really. Flowers are blooming, birds are chirping, the sun is shining gloriously - and so begins racing season. You've likely seen several goofy, decked-out runners at a race, donning costumes of many varieties. Perhaps you've even been one of said nuts. If you're looking to try something new and spice things up a bit, I've compiled a list of the most and least encumbering costumes for your viewing pleasure. However, I must warn you that when wearing such clothes, a PR is not a likely event. One is, however, bound to receive a number of amused smiles and entertained looks.

Also, many of the silly costumes you see in races, high-profile marathons in particular, are worn for charity fundraising. Money can be raised for various causes online using sites such as Just Giving. Of course, if you really are planning to run a race in costume, it is only appropriate that you practice with it on beforehand. I recommend you do this on more remote or lesser-traveled trails, as embarrassment might ensue on public sidewalks with numerous, ogling cars passing by.

Most Encumbering Costumes (That, Although Amusing, I Wouldn't Necessarily Recommend Wearing)

We all know peanut butter is a staple in many runners' diets. But it is a new day and age when one can proudly wear the essence of peanut butter in costume form. However, this is an inflatable costume, and could understandably cause difficulty in races of greater distances.*

*Please note that Breadcrumb Runner is not in any way responsible for damage inflicted by fellow, potentially peanut-butter-crazed, competitors. I thoroughly caution you in donning such a delicious suit, and if you choose to do so...well, your life is in your own hands.

This Pacman costume (at right) brings new meaning to the phrase "devouring the competition." Every time the pictured individual passed someone in his/her less-than-inconspicuous outfit, he or she must have been hearing a mixture of triumphant, pitched "beeps" that constitute Pacman's theme music. I imagine the task of running 26.2 miles in this costume was much more difficult than maneuvering the yellow pixels that are Pacman with a game controller.

DUH-DUN...DUH-DUN...DUH-DUN, DUN, DUN, DUN DUN DUN DUN DUN! With this extremely intimidating, Jaws-esque costume, you will strike fear in the hearts of every fellow racer you spurt by.

Now it's time for another...inflatable costume! I can't imagine what joy running 26.2 long, sweaty miles in what is essentially an oppressive blow-up suit, but surely dressing in one of the Kool-Aid man would make it a more enjoyable experience. However, if running a race with this ruddy, ballooning piece of material, it is mandatory that one reciprocates each confused expression with a boisterous, "OHHH YEAHHH." Make Kool-Aid man proud.

Less Encumbering Costumes (That, if You're Just Crazy Enough, Are Viable Options)

First up for our less encumbering bunch of outfits is that of an upside down clown. Be careful to not scare the spectator kiddies! And, if you're lucky, you just might impress a couple people from a distance who miss the illusion aspect of it or have been slacking on regular eye appointments.
Although the movie was, shall I say, quite skull-numbingly dull, one could rock a marathon in this Napoleon Dynamite costume. Be careful to not cover up the give-away tag-line "Vote For Pedro" with your bib number, though! And look. This outfit comes complete with the coolest pair of massive, astronaut-like, Napoleon-Dynamite-style moon boots! What more could one ask for?

Or, you can be clever like this individual on the left by throwing together a number of old, simple clothing items in an odd manner. The result, when paired with a box of chocolates (for mid-race fuel, of course) and a beard (they make fake ones, ladies), is a make-shift Forrest Gump costume!

What is there to lose? Many fellow racers are typically absorbed in the mental aspect of their own race, and spectators of the non-running variety already think we're crazy. Racing in costume can be for charity, or merely a fun, sociable experience. In the end, it doesn't matter what potentially strange or humiliating clothes you donned. Beneath all the material is a runner, and beneath the athletic exterior is an individual who wishes to push their limits and pound the pavement to probe the heights of human ability.

Friday, April 10, 2009

An Artificial Paranoia?

Perhaps you've heard, among the whispers of health nuts and the nutritionally-conscious, of the so-called taboo surrounding artificial sweeteners. As runners, we are typically more aware of what we put into our bodies to achieve optimum performance, and thus this question looms large in the minds of many. Are artificial sweeteners, such as Splenda or aspartame, really so bad?

No, says the American Council on Science and Health, an organization known for debunking such myths. Several of the studies that have aroused this artificial sweetener scare should be looked at with skepticism and caution, as many are funded by rival organizations to companies like Splenda. For example, one study conducted at Duke University that found Splenda both destroyed good intestinal bacteria and caused weight gain was funded by the Sugar Association (who knew such a group existed?).

This experiment was performed on rats, and later dismissed by the FDA and Splenda, as it did not follow the FDA's standards for Good Laboratory Practices and used questionable methodology. There was also a margin of error these scientists did not account for, such as the fluctuation of the rats' weight over the course of the day. Also, it is interesting to note that the rats given the largest doses of Splenda per day (1,000 mg/kg) gained weight less rapidly than those who consumed lesser amounts, including the control rats who were given no Splenda. According to the paper's author, "At the lowest Splenda dose level of 100 mg/kg, rats showed a significant increase in body weight gain relative to controls; the changes at 300 mg/kg, 500 mg/kg, and 1000 mg/kg did not differ significantly from controls." The data these researchers present is not clear, and it is apparent the such conclusions they make against Splenda are largely ungrounded.
Of course, when consuming artificial sweeteners, one must be aware of the concept of moderation, as anything in such great quantities can have ill effects in one way or another. Even soy, a long-touted super-food, can be detrimental when consumed in large amounts. The FDA has established guidelines for acceptable daily intake (ADI) for each sweetener, which is calculated to be 100 times less than the smallest amount that might cause health concerns. According to Mayo Clinic, for aspartame (AKA NutraSweet or Equal), this amount is 50 mg/kg of body weight, approximately comparable to 18 to 19 cans of diet soda for an 150-pound individual. The ADI for saccharin (AKA Sweet'N Low or Sugar Twin) is 5 mg/kg, or 9-12 packets of sugar for this same individual. For acesulfame-K (AKA Sunett or Sweet One), the ADI is 15 mg/kg (30-32 cans of diet lemon-lime soda), and for sucralose (AKA Splenda), the ADI is 5 mg/kg (6 cans of diet cola).

However, it is doubtful consuming large amounts is entirely realistic, considering the fact that artificial sweeteners are much sweeter than sugar and thus much less is required to achieve the same taste. Aspartame is 180 times as sweet as table sugar, and Splenda 600 times sweeter, to name a couple.

In response to the widespread artificial sweetener backlash from critics, Truvia, a so-called "natural" sweetener, was launched. The "natural" label, interestingly enough, seems to have a more positive psychological influence on people than the term "artificial" placed on Splenda and aspartame. However, this title has no bearing on the truth of the matter, as a natural product is not automatically safer or superior to its artificial counterpart. Here lies a misconception that even the most nutty of self-proclaimed health-nuts are not necessarily aware of.

With that said, who's to say the consumption of an artificial sugar is any worse than table sugar (which, might I add, goes through an "unnatural" refining process)? Artificial sweeteners have been studied thoroughly in search of carcinogenic properties, but the National Cancer Institute, who has performed studies on the matter, assures there is no scientific evidence that any of the artificial sweeteners approved in the U.S. (aspartame, acesulfame-K, neotame, saccharin, and sucralose) cause cancer. In addition, dentists advocate chewing sugar-free (i.e. artificially-sweetened) gum, as it does not result in the cavities that chewing sugared gum can bring about. Most of these sugar substitutes are also good alternatives for diabetics because they alone don't raise blood sugar levels.

To consume or not consume artificial sweeteners is a rather prominent question in the sphere of dietary health - something that has been receiving an ever-increasing amount of attention as numbers of overweight and obese individuals continue to grow exponentially. This debate may be long-lasting until conclusive evidence can put to rest various rival hypotheses, but until that day comes, I will wait in eager anticipation on the sidelines, sipping an ice-cold Diet Coke.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Homeostasis Is Not Your "Homie"

Wouldn't it be nice if every inch forward one made in their training could be progressively stored away in a time capsule, tucked away but easily accessed at any time? Fitness is elusive, becoming ever-increasingly difficult to maintain or improve upon. Even a small setback or injury can send you tumbling down the cliff it once took so much to ascend. If you've ever teetered on an upside-down bosu ball (pictured at right), you'll understand what I mean when I say fitness is like the balancing act one must perform to stay atop what is essentially half a big, blue, inflated circle of plastic. Despite our attempts to chase down optimal fitness, is it so difficult to stay on that peak of athleticism. The further you advance in running, it becomes exponentially harder to climb higher up this mountain of physical stamina. Why? Thanks to a little built-in survival mechanism called homeostasis.

Alas, such dreams of a fitness time capsule will never be realized. Due to homeostasis, our bodies naturally resist both internal and external change to remain in a state of equilibrium. This same factor affects many other aspects of human life, including difficulty with weight loss, sweating (i.e. body's attempt at staying at a constant core temperature), blood glucose levels, osmosis in cell membranes to balance the concentration of sodium and other minerals, hunger after exercise to encourage you to replenish the energy deficit, and the release of lactic acid during strenuous exercise. Sadly for us runners, this biologically well-intentioned tendency is what makes improvement ever more difficult after the first several leaps and bounds between a novice and well-trained runner.

The concept of homeostasis has many applications. Surely you've marveled at the Kenyan and Ethiopian runners who dominate many competitive running events on a global scale. One particular study, in comparing similarly-trained East African versus Caucasian runners, found results indicating the East African runners were more fatigue-resistant because cellular homeostasis in these athletes was more efficient than that of the Caucasian runners.
Interestingly, discussion of homeostasis leads us now to the concept of quality vs. quantity miles. Scientific studies have shown that without increased intensity of exercise (i.e. harder or faster-paced running than the body is accustomed to), even remaining at the same training volume (i.e. number of miles per week) can result in fitness loss. Without increased intensity and workload, the body will not be forced to change, and improvement cannot be expected to occur. If you're amidst a training plateau and are struggling to make headway, reevaluate your current training intensity and compare it with your goals. Improvement isn't magnetized; it won't be attracted to you unless you reach out, firmly grasp it, and hold on tightly.

It's difficult to be best buds with that little homeostatic program we all have coded into us. My time capsule theory can remain nothing more than wishful thinking, and we all must continue our uphill battles on Mt. Fitness. But whether you're at the gently sloping base or higher up on the steep mountainside, you can fight fire with fire by utilizing that other underestimated, innate mechanism we have been given: human willpower. Willpower and determination can slowly chip away at the resistance homeostasis provides.

Perhaps you'll never reach the summit - but it never hurt to try. So strap on your hiking boots, ladies and gents, because it's time to find our true potential. If a mountain goat can do it, so can you.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Res(pec)t Your Body

Of course, no elite distance runner reaches the olympic marathon trials by laying around on the couch all day. However, rest does play a very underestimated role in improvement, especially as your training volume and intensity increase. If you don't already, incorporating one day of rest (or at least very low-impact exercise) per week would be a good idea. Not only would it aid in recovery and hence, performance, but it would also reduce the risk of injury and overtraining.

In our sport, approximately sixty-five percent of runners are injured annually as the prevalence of injuries is about 1 per 100 workouts ('Incidence and Severity of Injury Following Aerobic Training Programs Emphasising Running, Racewalking, or Step Aerobics,' Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, vol. 25(5), p. S81, 1993). It is estimated that runners are forced to sit out of 5-10% of their workouts as a result of an injury, which is a rather large amount of time spent out of commission.

Anybody who wants to miss out on 5-10% of their workouts, raise your hand at the keyboard. Anyone? Anyone? It's true that no dedicated athlete wants to sit out on the sidelines, counting down the seconds until they can rejoin the sport they once knew and loved. But rest days and recovery, which should become more numerous as you pass the age of forty, can help keep your body healthy. When you run every consecutive day, you risk being forced to discontinue activity for an even greater period of time than you would have spent cumulatively over your rest days. And rest days aren't just for the recreational runner - even the Kenyan elites take them!

Sometimes, even if one is not "scheduled" to rest on any given day, a day off to recover from the demands of exercise and life in general can be very beneficial. According to the Runner's World website, you can gauge when to rest based on your pulse. First you must know what your "average" pulse is. Then you can find your pulse before getting out of bed in the morning, and if it's 20% higher than normal, your body is telling you it needs a break.

One must also make the important distinction between a "rest" versus an "easy" day. A rest day entails little to no exercise, stretching, upper body weight lifting, and/or low-impact activities such as swimming, walking, or yoga. For runners especially, it is important to give the legs time to recover from the training demanded of them the other 6 days of the week. Easy days, on the other hand, are days in which a runner does a lower intensity, less demanding workout, typically following a day of a hard training session such as speedwork. In essence, an easy day allows the body to repair muscle tissue on the microscopic level, whereas rest days give the muscles a chance to more fully repair themselves from larger-scale damage.

There is no need to worry about losing fitness over the course of one, two, or even three days off. The world will not stop turning, fall off its axis, and drift off into outer space. Although, much more than that - which injuries usually require to completely heal - will unfortunately be detrimental to your performance. For every week of no exercise, it takes approximately two weeks of training to make up for lost fitness.

Injury prevention is key. But when the ten-percent-increase-per-week rule and proper athletic footwear fail, giving way to an injury despite all proactive measures, rest is crucial. Sometimes we runners can be rather stupid - yes, including myself - by trying to train through an injury or skimp on complete injury recovery time for fear of losing the the fitness for which we give our blood, sweat, and tears. Interestingly, 50% of injuries are of the recurring variety; that is, those that were not properly taken care of and fully healed. The voice inside us, that source of great success, can also become the source of great harm if left uncontrolled. I highly disagree with the phrase, "No pain, no gain," when it comes to injuries. Instead, refrain from pain.

The moral of the story? R-E-S-P-E-C-T your body, and it will do so in return.