The Treadmill is a Harsh Mistress

Apologies to Robert Heinlein. The training schedule yesterday said Speed Workout: 7×800. Since I slackered the first speed workout on the schedule two weeks ago with the dual excuses of cold and darkness, I decided to find a more worthy substitute than the elliptical. Again confronted with cold and darkness, my usual outdoor “track” locations weren’t going to cut it. Even if I could see my splits in the dark, temps in the low 20s and 10+mph wind aren’t that conducive to speed. So I decided to hit the ‘mill. First, I set the incline to 1% and got a fan going. After a mile of warming up, slowly cranking up the speed towards 8:00 miles, I was ready. Target pace was a 5K 6:07. This being my first speed workout in a while, I backed it off of 6:07 a touch for the first lap. One brain cramp and 400m later, I was “done” with the first interval. I decided to do 3/10 mile cool downs in between, and then pulled off 5 800m intervals starting at 6:07 and stepping down one increment slower (6s or 7s or so) for each successive lap. My last interval was another shortened 400m due to (1) a developing hot spot on my left sole – thanks, ‘mill! and (2) had to pick up Cole from bb practice. Observations: it is mentally easier to not slack off once you have dialed in a pace for an interval on the ‘mill. When you’re out there on the track, it’s harder to keep a steady fast pace by yourself, even with a Garmin. On the ‘mill, you’d have to really admit defeat by shamefully pressing the “decrease pace” button. It’s like there’s someone cracking a whip behind you as you mentally shout “come on 5.7!” The downside of the ‘mill of course is that it’s really not the same as running on solid ground. Not a bad substitute for every once in a while, but I wouldn’t want it to be the usual. Also, too much friction as evidenced by the almost-blister I was working on. Total mileage: 6.

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Step, Step, Step, Breathe … Repeat

When I started running barefoot and in minimalist shoes a few years ago, other than the forefoot striking, the biggest thing I noticed about my form was that I was taking shorter steps and more of them. This is virtually impossible not to do when running barefoot – much like heel striking is just about impossible when barefoot.

As it turns out, many sources (Chi Running, Daniels’ Running Formula, Born to Run, 16 Weeks to a Faster Marathon to name a few) recommend that you run at about 180 steps per minute. You might also see this referred to as strides per minute or beats per minute (especially if you’re looking for iPod songs). The reasoning behind this is that fewer than 180 spm leads to overstriding and increased risk of injury. I’m not sure if there’s a downside to going much over 180 spm, other than decreased efficiency. At any rate (well, not just any rate) 180 is supposedly the Golden Mean.

Personally I find that it’s easier for me to keep my spm up when I’m running barefoot. When I’m minimally shod though it is slightly harder to keep from plodding along. One of the tools I use to give myself a checkup on this periodically is a clip metronome like this:

Clip metronome

I found this for around $15. I suppose you could clip it on something but I prefer to just hold it. That way you can turn it off and conceal it when others approach to cut down on that weirdo factor (as if forefoot striking or barefooting wasn’t giving you away already). You can of course adjust the volume and the beats per minute. I find that 185 is more comfortable for me sometimes, but mainly the purpose is to keep from falling below 180. Another way you can keep your pace up is by downloading songs to your iPod that have 180 bpm or close to it. Personally I can’t stand all the cords and sweat management issues that come with an iPod so I haven’t tried that. For true devotees, there’s also software that can digitally speed up your favorite tunes to the magical 180.

Although it will add another paragraph to this post, there are varying schools of thought about breathing and stride rate. Some would say one of the great advantages of walking upright is our ability to detach breathing from our stride, i.e., striking the ground doesn’t force us to breathe as it does with quadrupeds. Others say that you should breathe in a 3:1 ratio (3 steps, breathe in, 3 steps, breathe out, repeat). This works pretty good for most distance running, although you can definitely overthink it. I just think about it every once in a while on a run – am I running triplets? You’ll notice that you won’t be able to keep 3:1 up when you’re working harder – either on a hill or at a faster pace. I’m usually going 2:1 there, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there is some correlation between switching to 2:1 and the lactate threshold pace.

Whew! Running isn’t that hard. If you just remember left, then right, you’ll be fine, but running at 180 helps me to run well.

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

The Good: First barefoot run of the year yesterday; low 50s, 5 miles with my Red-Hot Smokin’ Wife (hereinafter the “RHSW”); mud squishing between my toes.

The Bad: Umm, it’s not spring. Crunchy scrub instead of grass. Cedar thorns in my baby-smooth feet that haven’t been exposed since November.

The Ugly: Stubbing my big toe while simultaneously trying to avoid 1) a swath of bird poop under an overpass; 2) plowing into the RHSW after attempt #1. Blood. Minor nail damage. Perhaps a ligament strain. I’ll live.

Training in the cold, with a cold.

My Sunday am run this week was solidly in the middle of a cold. I’m not a doctor, and I don’t play one on tv either. However, over time I’ve developed a few rules of thumb for deciding whether or not to head out the door with a cold. Fortunately, this only seems to happen once or twice a year. But it is that time of year!

I considered making a flowchart, but that would imply some superior knowledge or wit, or both. Here are my basic rules for exercising while sick. They basically boil down to “do I feel like it?” I think being honest with yourself and your body is always the best way of making these decisions.

1) Fever? Feverish? (low grade or just suspected). Stay in bed.

2) Productive cough? Bed.

3) Nausea/vomiting? Do you have to ask? I don’t know too many people who would ignore that one.

Those are the no-gos. I do consider a run with any of these:

1) Runny/snuffy nose. This can get pretty gross, but I feel better during and afterwards. No communal activities here though – you’re going to see those people at the gym again whether or not you know their names. You don’t want to be that guy/girl. Eww.

2) Headache. If it’s part of an overall thing – e.g. sinus-related, I find physical activity helps me here, so despite feeling lousy I’ll give it a try.

3) Fatigue. Again – listen to your body. If it’s because you’re not getting enough rest – do yourself a favor and get some. However, at the tail end of a cold or something minor, it’s easy to keep holding on to the “I’m sick” or “I’ve been sick” or “I was sick last week” as an excuse. If I’m pretty sure I’m over it, I try to get back out there.

Training while you’re sick isn’t much fun. If you’re not too sick I think it gives you a temporary boost. I felt good during my Sunday am run. That wore off later in the day, but I wouldn’t say it was a setback. The trick is not being so much of a slave to a training schedule that you wind up having to shut down for a while because you didn’t let your body fight off whatever you’re dealing with; and also not using it as so much of an excuse that you find you’ve gone two weeks without doing much of anything!