Keeping the Enjoyment In Your Running

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We all know that running is hard, and it’s part of what we love about it.  We love the feeling of conquering a hard workout, or of exceeding expectations in a race. This is part of what keeps us hooked and coming back for more.  We talk a lot about how to push through, how to go beyond our limits, and how to manage the pain. While this is an important element in achieving our goals, I want to talk about another important factor, which is making sure that we don’t lose the enjoyment in our running!

I’ve noticed a lot of distraught runners at the races I’ve attended recently.  I am used to seeing it after the race is over, but I have noticed it a lot more in the faces of many runners before they even get to the starting line. They are overwhelmed with nerves, letting these nerves drain much of the fun from the event, not to mention leaving them low on energy and inevitably struggling to perform at their best once the gun goes off.  Chasing goals should be fun and exciting. Yes, we expect these goals to be difficult and challenging - which is why we set them in the first place, but they shouldn’t be overwhelming. It’s important not to lose perspective of why we run. There are many reasons that we took up running in the first place; to improve our health, to socialize and be part of a community, or as an outlet for stress.  No matter what our “why” is - we must keep in mind that running should be adding to our lives, not taking away from it.

So what can we do to keep a more balanced perspective and get the most enjoyment from our running?

1. It is important to remember that to run is a choice.  We choose to run because we love it. We choose to set running goals that we hope to achieve along the way. We choose to enter races and set goals for those as well.  However, we can also choose to stop running, or to change directions with our running at anytime.  Remember that you’re not on a runaway train, you can choose to get off (or back on) at any time. 

2. It is important to remember that a few nerves on race day is normal and totally appropriate.  You probably won’t have your best performance if you’re completely apathetic or uninspired to race, however, getting too buzzed in the days and hours leading up to the race is not a good thing.  So if you feel this nervous energy creeping and starting to get out of control stop and take some deep breaths.  It’s amazing how just 3 deep breaths (4 seconds in on the inhale and 4 seconds out on the exhale) can make a huge difference in how you feel. 

3. It is important to remember to congratulate yourself when you achieve your goal. You worked hard, you put it on the line and you did it. That isn’t easy. Give yourself a little time to think about all you have accomplished before you plan out what’s next. 

4. It is important to remember that if you didn’t achieve your goal, the world isn’t ending. No one achieves their goals every time around, and there’s always something to be learned and carried through to the next time.  We are not robots and no matter how hard we try we don’t always hit the mark. And that is ok. I’m guessing you don’t think any less of Eliud Kipchoge even though he didn’t break 2 in the marathon yet, right? Of course not. Regardless of how we finish we all still need some down time to recharge our bodies and minds.

5. It is important to remember that you need to train in cycles.  What goes up has to come down.  When you put lots of time and effort into achieving a goal you also need to plan for some down time after the event.  Whether or not you achieved your goal, you still need some regrouping time to process what worked and what didn’t, and decide what’s the best next step.

6. It is important to remember that when deciding what to target next you don’t forget to think about how much time and energy you will have to commit to reach this next goal. Think about how this will effect your family, work and other life commitments. Sometimes the next big goal requires many more training hours, and over-committing can take the enjoyment out of the process. Your new goal needs to be realistic based on all of these factors. If now is not the time, put it on the shelf and come back to it when it makes more sense. 

On a personal note I have spent over 20 years of my life as a professional runner. As an elite athlete I spent almost all of my day training, recovering and visualizing upcoming races.  Running was my job and races were my performance reviews. I love that I have been able to do this as my profession, however, it wasn’t always easy. I too struggled with taking my goals too seriously and losing some of the enjoyment in the process.

I used to think that it was this all consuming lifestyle that set me up to place too much importance on my running, but I was wrong. Over time I realized that as runners, regardless of whether we are chasing a goal of being in the Olympics or finishing our local 5k, we are more the same than different.  At all levels we have a tendency to hold on to our running a little too tightly, and that squeezes some of the joy out of it.  Most of us choose to do our sport because we love it, but many times we are just one step away from losing that delicate balance.  Over the years I have observed that most athletes that have longevity in their sport have the ability to dance along this fine line, and I think this should be the goal for us all.

Get out there and ENJOY your run today!

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A Look Into Modern Recovery Technology

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I’ve been a lifelong athlete, participating in many different sports before training as a professional runner for over 20 years and still counting.  I’m guessing that I’ve experienced just about every type of muscle soreness, and I’ve learned to ride the fine line of when to push through and when to pull back.  What I have discovered through the years is that how fast I can recover from training dictates the number of miles and the level of intensity that I can handle the next time I head out the door.  The more work that I can manage without going over the proverbial line, the faster I gain fitness. However, this isn’t unique to me. It’s the same for you too.  Whether your goal is to finish your first race or to qualify for the Olympic team, how fast you recover from the hard training is the key to reaching your peak performance. 

In regard to the world of recovery therapies, I think it’s safe to say that I’ve pretty much tried it all.  I’ve learned what is essential to my training, like my NormaTec. When I was training full time as an elite athlete, I would fit in the various modalities wherever it seemed to work best in my training week.  On Monday I would schedule a chiropractic adjustment or acupuncture, on Tuesdays and Fridays I would take ice baths following my hard workout sessions, on Wednesday I’d get a massage, I’d fit in some extra stretching or a yoga class on an easy Saturday, and take an Epsom salt bath following a hard Sunday long run.  I know it sounds like a lot, but this is how I filled my days. My goal was to work hard and recover as fast as possible. Scientific research has shown us that how quickly we can recover from our training makes a huge difference, but it’s also important not to overload our already fatigued bodies with too much therapy.  We need plenty of recovery time from many forms of therapy, and getting the timing right around our workouts can be challenging. It gets worked out partly through the help of others in the know and partly through trial & error and self-experimentation. 

As athletes we know that we need to recover from our previous high intensity session before getting back out there for the next one or else the chance of getting injured looms over our shoulders.  But to better understand exactly how this all works, let’s talk about what happens when we exercise.  Since we’ve all experienced muscle soreness from a hard run or a new gym routine, we know that performing high intensity exercise causes damage to our skeletal muscles.  When greater than normal resistance is placed on a muscle, small microscopic tears occur in the tissue. These tiny tears cause the pain and soreness that we experience after exercise (delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS), but they also make our muscles grow bigger and stronger as they heal.  Eccentric contractions are especially hard on our muscles since they provide a resisting or braking force to decelerate the lengthening movement.  This especially occurs when we’re running downhill or with high loading during eccentric contractions in resistance training.  Until the damaged muscles are repaired, we are unable to generate peak muscle force.  The muscle damage we incur also impairs our ability to transport blood glucose into the muscle cells, making it more difficult to replenish glycogen stores in order to be fully fueled for the next training session.

What can we do to speed up the recovery process?  We can fine tune the details of our nutrition, hydration, and get regular soft tissue therapy.  We have long known the benefits of sports massage, cryotherapy, acupuncture and the like. These are all great modalities and very effective in speeding up the healing process. With our modern times come even greater innovations to help you heal faster and get back out on the playing field faster than ever.  One of these newer devices is called the NormaTec Recovery System. It was created to enhance blood flow and speed recovery by using dynamic compression.  It uses air pressure massage to relieve muscle aches and to increase circulation to the treated areas.  NormaTec has compression devices for legs, hips and arms.  

I first used the NormaTec legs back in 2007.  I was curious about how those big puffy leg sleeves would help with recovery.  I quickly learned that it was an easy way to flush out my legs whenever they were feeling sluggish.  I used them on and off for a few years until my husband and I moved to the UK.  I didn’t have my usual network of therapy people set up and the NormaTec legs quickly became my new best friend. NormaTec is safe to use as many times per day and for as long as you wish – some athletes even take naps in the boots since there is a continuous time setting.  NormaTec uses compression to encourage the blood flow, decreasing waste in the tissue and the lymph system.  This aids in muscle repair without the residual soreness, so it’s safe to use pre or post workout.  My favorite times to use it are later in the day after a long run or after post travel to get things moving after being sedentary for long stretches of time.  

The compression cycle uses three techniques; pulsing, distal release and gradients.  Here’s a breakdown of how it all works. 

Pulsing:

NormaTec uses a pulsing technique instead of static compression to move fluid and metabolites out of the limbs after intense training.  The pulsing technique mimics the natural muscle pumps of the arms and legs, helping clear out metabolites post exercise. The alternating contraction and relaxation pulse compression system has been shown to lessen pain sensitivity and increase range of motion.

Gradients:

Veins and lymphatic vessels have one-way valves that prevent fluid back-flow.  Similarly, NormaTec Pulse Technology uses hold pressures to keep fluids from being forced in the wrong direction.

Distal Release:

Extended static pressure can be harmful to your body’s normal circulatory flow.  The pulse technology releases the hold pressures once they’re no longer needed to prevent fluid back-flow.

Now you know the science behind how the NormaTec Recovery System works.  The best part is how easy they are to use.  All you have to do is put them on, choose your settings and just relax.  Whether you have a full inbox, need to make some phone calls or are simply taking a short break you can speed along your recovery at the same time. Utilizing NormaTec as part of your recovery routine is an easy way to keep you on track to reach your full athletic potential!

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The Physiology of Positive Thinking

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“The moment you change your perception is the moment you rewrite the chemistry of your body.” ~Dr. Bruce Lipton

For as long as I can remember we have been taught the importance of positive thinking.  My automatic response to this has always been somewhat skeptical.  How can something be that simple?  There has to be more to it, right?  However, after reading the The Biology of Belief,  by Dr. Bruce Lipton, I see that maybe it is that straightforward.  I know from experience that thinking positive thoughts does lead to a better outcome than getting stuck in a loop of negativity.  This is true whether we look at it through the lens of running or life in general.  It’s something I talk about often when I’m speaking to a group of runners, the idea that positive thoughts can change your race outcome, and your race experience as a whole.  We’ve all been on both sides of this equation.  We’ve pushed ourselves to our best performances with positive self talk and succumbed to mediocrity (or worse) by listening to that negative voice in the back of our heads.  Since we know that “thinking positive” works,  I want to answer the next question: why does it work?  How do these positive thoughts manifest in our physiology?

Our minds move information throughout our nervous systems.  Every thought we have stimulates the release of neurotransmitters.  Neurotransmitters are the body’s chemical messengers, which transmit messages between neurons and from neurons to muscles.  They’re also in charge of many biological processes, including the release of hormones.  When we do something new, our neurons form new connections with other neurons.  When we have repetitive thoughts, positive or negative, we are strengthening those neural pathways that we’ve have previously created.   

The article  “How Your Thoughts Program Your Cells” explains the details on a cellular level:

“There are thousands upon thousands of receptors on each cell in our body. Each receptor is specific to one peptide, or protein. When we have feelings of anger, sadness, guilt, excitement, happiness or nervousness, each separate emotion releases its own flurry of neuropeptides. Those peptides surge through the body and connect with those receptors which change the structure of each cell as a whole.  Where this gets interesting is when the cells actually divide. If a cell has been exposed to a certain peptide more than others, the new cell that is produced through its division will have more of the receptor that matches with that specific peptide. Likewise, the cell will also have less receptors for peptides that its mother/sister cell was not exposed to as often.” *

We see here that even on a cellular level our bodies make it much easier to stick with the status quo and stay in their comfort zones, rather than work harder to form new pathways.  This also explains how we become so comfortable with our habits, and how difficult it can be to change.  Our brains will always take the path of least resistance, so if those negative pathways are well established it will be quite comfortable continuing to use them, when no change is initiated.  The good news is that we have the ability to change this wiring, it just takes a conscious effort.  We can make positivity our default personality.  Throughout our entire lives, our brains have the ability to reorganize themselves by forming new neural connections.

How do positive and negative thoughts effect our actions?

The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain that is in charge of executive functions.  This includes planning, decision-making, problem-solving, and self-control.  The prefrontal cortex is where positive thoughts are developed. When you think a positive thought there is brain growth in this part of the brain through the reinforcement and generation of new synapses.  Positive thinking improves your ability to pay attention, to focus, and solve problems faster.  Positivity also changes our perception to focus more on the “we” instead of the “me.” On the contrary, negative thoughts will draw energy away from the the prefrontal cortex.**  When this happens the brain isn’t able to perform at optimal capacity.  When we are stressed or operating out of feelings of fear, we have difficulty taking in and processing new material, and are not able to think creatively.  Negative thoughts also slow down brain coordination, making it difficult to process thoughts and find solutions.  This clearly does not set us up well to make good race, or life, decisions.

On a practical level, what can you do?  

  1. Begin to pay closer attention to you inner chatter.  Think of yourself as an outside observer of these thoughts.  You may notice that you have negative thoughts that you hadn’t been previously aware of (I sure did!).

  2. Improve your feedback loops.  Keep it simple.  Replace a negative thought with a positive one such as “I can,” “I will,” and “I’m strong” (and get rid of “I can’t,” “I suck,” etc).  Don’t attach the thought to a specific outcome,  focus on staying positive in the moment.

  3. Stick with it.  You can rewire your brain, it just takes a little time to develop new patterns of neural activity and actually change your neural structure.

  4. Be resilient.  One definition of resilience is “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties.”  This doesn’t mean denying the difficulties that you are facing; it means embracing them while maintaining a sense of positivity.

You have the ability to change at any point in life - all you have to do is make the choice.  We all have approximately 50,000 thoughts a day, and what we do with them is completely up to us.  Make the commitment to change your thinking, to stick with it, and to be positive and resilient person.  You may be surprised to see where this leads you, both in running and in life.


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My Go-To Immune Boosters for Traveling

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Below is my list of go-to immune boosters that I always pack for travel. I love to travel but the time zone changes, lack of sleep, dehydration and challenging food choices are hard on the immune system. This is what I use to keep my immune system as strong as possible. The list may seem long, but if you keep them grouped together you can just grab them when you pack - it’s really easy! 

My Go-To Immune Boosters for Traveling:

Zinc Lozenges - Zinc helps boost your immune response and studies have shown that it can decrease the duration of a cold.  It’s most effective if you take it at the first sign that you’re coming down with a cold.   

Elderberry Extract - Elderberries are the fruit of an elderberry shrub and are a rich source of antioxidants. Elderberry extract is known to have antiviral and immune stimulating properties.

Echinacea - Echinacea is an herb that’s considered effective as both an antimicrobial and an immune system booster.  It’s a plant that contains phenols, which have antioxidant properties. Echinacea is known to reduce the duration of a colds and flus.  

Oregano Oil - Oregano oil has antioxidant, antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral effects. It contains a powerful blend of antimicrobial compounds ( carvacrol and thymol) that can destroy many food borne pathogens.


A note on oregano oil:  I find this one useful for both respiratory infections and preventing food borne illness.  It’s especially helpful when traveling in foreign countries when you have to eat things you’re not entirely comfortable with (think those times when you have to eat something to avoid offending your host.)  I’ve taken a couple drops after many questionable meals and so far I have avoided getting sick!  I like to take the oil itself, which is VERY strong.  Just 1 or 2 drops goes a long way!

Probiotics - Traveling (especially overseas) exposes you to a wide variety of microbes that you are not conditioned to.  Lack of sleep and dealing with your circadian rhythms being out of whack often leaves your immune system below par when you arrive at your destination.  A good probiotic can help get you back on track much faster.  Look for a probiotic that has multiple  Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium  strains, and possibly Streptococcus thermophilus as well.  Make sure you purchase one that doesn’t need refrigeration, as this will be nearly impossible while traveling.

Vitamin C - Vitamin C is a well known immune booster. It’s a major antioxidant, and helps to prevent and reduce the duration of colds and flus.  It’s easy to travel with Vitamin C packets that dissolve in water but I also like to bring a liposomal Vitamin C supplement, which gives you a higher rate of absorption.

Astaxanthin -  Astaxanthin is a carotenoid that is derived from haematococcus microalgae. It’s a very potent anti-inflammatory.  It also protects your skin against UV induced cell damage, basically acting as an internal sunscreen.  It also helps protect you from radiation exposure related to flying.  Astaxanthin may not be as commonly known as some other antioxidants but it’s definitely one of my favorites!

Eucalyptus Oil - Eucalyptus Oil can work as both a decongestant and an antiviral oil to fight colds.  It’s rich in an oxide called 1,8-cineol, which has been studied as a treatment for sinusitis.  Eucalyptus oil also stimulates immunity and provides antioxidant protection.

Peppermint Oil- Inhaling peppermint oil helps with head aches (it also contains 1,8-cineol), upset stomach and nausea.  Peppermint is uplifting and energizing which is beneficial for mental and physical fatigue. 


Quick Tips for Eating Organic on a Budget

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Eating organic while sticking to a budget can be a huge challenge.  Here are my top tips on where to spend and where to save.  

But first, since eating organic can be expensive, why is it worth making the effort?  

Why You Should Eat Organic:

  • Eating organic food lowers your exposure to pesticides.  Organic farmers are restricted by regulations to using natural pesticides and fertilizers, while conventional farmers use many chemical pesticides.  The pesticide residue on produce cannot be “washed off” before consumption.

  • The use of genetic engineering, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), antibiotics and growth hormones is prohibited in organic products. 

  • Organic farming is good for the planet.  It builds healthy soil, helps conserve water and keeps our water clean since it doesn’t contribute polluted (pesticides, toxic fertilizes, animal waste) runoff to the water supply.  An organic agriculture system can actually reduce carbon dioxide output and help slow climate change.

  • Organic foods have a better nutrient content.  Organic produce contains more antioxidants and has a higher content of some minerals than it’s conventionally grown counterpart.  Animal products that are grass fed and pasture raised have more Omega 3- fatty acids (the “good fats”) and more CLA (conjugated linoleic acid).

Where to Spend and Where to Save:

  • Utilize the “Clean 15” and “Dirty Dozen” Lists.  Each year the Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes a list of the Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen as part of it’s Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce. The Clean 15 is a list of the 15 fruits and vegetables that are least likely to be contaminated with pesticides, while the Dirty Dozen is a list of the 12 that are expected to have the most pesticide residue.  Plan to buy organic on all produce that is included in the Dirty Dozen and consider saving your money and go conventional with the Clean 15. 

The 2018 Clean 15: The Dirty Dozen:

1. Avocados 1. Strawberries

2. Sweet Corn 2. Spinach

3. Pineapples 3. Nectarines

4. Cabbages 4. Apples

5. Onions 5. Grapes

6. Sweet Peas, Frozen 6. Peaches

7. Papayas 7. Cherries

8. Asparagus 8. Pears

9. Mangoes 9. Tomatoes

10. Eggplants 10. Celery

11. Honeydews 11. Potatoes

12. Kiwis 12. Sweet Bell Peppers

13. Cantaloupes

14. Cauliflower

15. Broccoli

For more info: https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/

  • If a food has a protective layer (ie most nuts, bananas, avocados, etc) then consider buying conventional.  The part that you eat will be protected from much of the pesticide contamination.

  • Buy frozen organic fruits and vegetables; they normally cost less than they do when fresh.

  • Attend your local farmers market and buy direct from local farms.

  • Buy organic meat when it’s on sale and freeze it for later.  It should last for 3-4 months in the freezer.

Organic foods are now available in about 3 out of every 4 conventional grocery stores in the US, making it easier than ever before to go organic!

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Positive Doping Tests From Tainted Meat...A Wake Up Call?

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The use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDS) has been a hot topic in track and field in recent years.  There has been a constant stream of positive drug tests, many involving Olympic medalists and world champions.  However, mixed in among those who were caught cheating the system there have also been positive doping tests due to athletes ingesting meat tainted with synthetic hormones.  Last year US 800m star Ajee Wilson tested positive for the banned substance zeranol on the day she set a US indoor record.  It was later ruled that tainted beef caused the positive test and Wilson was not suspended.  It did cost her the American indoor record, in addition to loads of undue stress to prove her innocence and thousands of dollars in legal fees.  More recently, Jarrion Lawson, the world silver medalist in the long jump, has been provisionally suspended after testing positive for epitrenbolone, a metabolite of the banned anabolic steroid trenbolone.  The outcome of his case is still pending.  Both zeranol and trenbolone are synthetic hormones approved by the FDA for use in beef cattle. What does it mean for our health that these substances are showing up in trace amounts in athlete doping tests?  Why aren’t these positive tests setting off more alarm bells?

The purpose of this article isn’t to debate doping in track and field.  My objective here is to discuss what’s in our meat and why we should be more concerned.  Positive doping tests caused by ingesting meat tainted with synthetic hormones simply shouldn’t be occurring. So, exactly what is in the majority of the meat that we consume?

In the US there are six hormones that are FDA approved for use in beef production. Three are natural steroids and three are chemically similar synthetic hormones, the latter including trenbolone acetate and zeranol.  Calves implanted with these hormones typically result in a 10-20 % increase in daily growth rate compared to non-implanted calves.  The increased feed efficiency also decreases production costs. This is obviously cost beneficial for farmers, but what is the cost to our health?  These same substances are banned from use on cattle in the European Union (EU).  The EU also boycotts the U.S.'s hormone-grown beef.  Despite continued pressure from the US the EU continues to ban US meat stating that their most recent reviews “reaffirmed public health concerns about the large scale use of hormones administered to cattle for growth promoting purposes.” (1)

Popular British chef Jamie Oliver summed it up well when he stated to the Times of London:  “We don't have hormones in our meat; that's banned. But not over there. We don't have hundreds of poisons and pesticides that have been proven to be carcinogenic. They do.’"

Admittedly the amount of these hormones that you consume from the beef is very small.  However, for a young child who has very low natural hormone levels a small amount can have a very big effect.  One major concern is that these hormones may be causing earlier puberty in children.  It is interesting to note that in Europe, the average age of puberty is 15-17 years old, while in the US it is between 8-10 years old.  It’s my opinion that we don’t yet know the full extent of the effects that consuming meat raised on hormones will have on our health.

In case you’re not buying into my argument so far there are several of other reasons to consider swapping out conventionally raised beef for grass fed organic.   

1. The use of antibiotics to promote growth in conventional meat production. The continuous use of low dose antibiotics that permits bacteria to survive and become increasingly drug resistant. In the U.S. (according to CDC data) every year at least 2 million Americans acquire drug-resistant infections, and 23,000 die as a result. Many others die from conditions that were complicated by antibiotic-resistant infections. (2) It’s only predicted to get  dramatically worse in coming years if we don’t make some changes.

2. The living conditions of the animals in CAFO’s (Confined Animal Feeding Operations). Thousands of animals live in tight quarters where they often can’t move at all.  They often live in their own feces and never see the light of day.  Disease spreads easily in these incredibly close quarters, thereby increasing the need for antibiotics.

3. The nutrition content of grass fed beef is superior to that of conventional beef.  Grass fed beef:                

- Contains 2x as much CLA (Conjugated linoleic acid)

 - Contains up to 5x as much Omega-3 fatty acids

 - Contains a higher proportion of stearic acid (saturated fat), which does not raise blood cholesterol levels.

- Lower risk of antibiotic-resistant bacteria

We are all responsible for our own health.  It’s up to us to ask questions and make informed decisions about what we eat. Sometimes we need a wake up call and I believe that athletes testing positive for ingesting meat treated with synthetic steroids should serve as one. It certainly serves as one for me!

 

 

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(1)https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R40449.pdf, Congressional Research Service

(2) https://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2018/06/26/antibiotic-resistance-cafo-meat.aspx

 

 

Plastics: The Oceans & Beyond

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July 8th marked the end of the adidas Runners month long Run for the Oceans campaign.  Run for the Oceans was a joint venture between adidas and Parley to raise awareness for Marine Plastic Pollution.  Over 900,000 runners worldwide ran over 7 million miles in support of this cause.  Adidas pledged to match $1 for every kilometer run for the first one million kilometers to support the Parley Ocean School youth education initiatives.  Last year adidas partnered with Parley, and has been utilizing Parley Ocean Plastic, a proprietary textile made from recycled plastic retrieved from our oceans, in a line of high performance foot wear.  The Primeknit upper on these sneakers is comprised of 95% Parley Ocean Plastic, so each pair prevents approximately 11 plastic bottles from potentially entering the oceans!

Just how polluted are the earth’s oceans?  Every square mile of ocean has about 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in it.  When we see this depicted in pictures (see below) it catches our attention and concern, but it’s easy to push those images to the back of our minds as we go about our daily lives.  This is especially true for the majority of people who don’t live in close proximity to our coastlines.  However,  plastic pollution does have an effect on our everyday lives, no matter where we live. It effects both the environment we live in and our individual health. Below, I’ll connect the dots on how plastics can make their way from the ocean into our physical bodies. 

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The world’s oceans contain five offshore plastic accumulation zones.  The largest lies in the Pacific between California and Hawaii, and is called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  It covers an area of over 600,000 square miles and contains at least 78,000 tons of plastic trash.  The majority of the mass (92%) of the garbage patch is particles measuring larger than .5 cm, but over time these plastics will deteriorate into microplastics.  Microplastics are tiny particles that measure 5mm or less.  Microplastics have been discovered floating in the water surface layers, but also as far down as the ocean floor.  When the particles are this small they can be mistaken for food and ingested by marine animals.  Also, UV light and the salt in seawater cause these tiny particles of plastic to emit toxic chemicals like PCBs(polychlorinated biphenyls).  When these are ingested by marine species it can cause endocrine disruption.  Additionally, these chemicals can bioaccumulate in organisms as they move up the food chain, eventually showing up in the fish that we consume.  Microplastic particles have also been found in sea salt that is being sold for human consumption. 

Many chemicals in plastics are known to be endocrine disruptors, but what exactly does this mean?  Our endocrine system is crucial in growth and development, metabolism, regulating mood, reproductive processes and sexual function. Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that may interfere with the body's endocrine system. Some of these disruptors may block the effects of a hormone from certain receptors, while others directly stimulate or inhibit the endocrine system and cause overproduction or underproduction of hormones.  When our system is thrown off balance it can cause detrimental reproductive, developmental, neurological, and immune effects.  According to the Lancet (a peer-reviewed Medical Journal), to date there have been no studies of the effects of microplastic consumption by humans.  However, it’s logical to assume that it is a major concern for our health.  In the U.S., 94 percent of tap water samples were found to contain plastic, and so far plastic pollution is showing no sign of slowing down (see figure below).

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Having been part of the adidas family for 20 years now, I will admit my interest in this campaign is biased.  That said, I’m proud to work with a brand that combines sustainability and high performance.  This is the type of creative collaboration that we need to face the environmental challenges of the future.  Plastics pollution is an immediate and future threat to our environment and to our health, and the importance of spreading awareness on this matter transcends brand loyalty.

At the end of the day we’re all interconnected.

Here’s What You Can Do to Help:

  1. Bring reusable bags when shopping

  2. Bring your own mug to coffee shops

  3. Bring your own reusable bottle when exercising

  4. Skip the disposable straw

  5. Sort your recycling

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3 Tips for 3 Weeks to go to the Boston Marathon!

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1. Don’t try to make up for lost time!  Things don’t always go perfect in our marathon build ups.  Now is the time to take honest assessment of your fitness and adjust your time goal if needed.  Your fitness will still improve in these last few weeks, but don’t add extra volume or intensity to make up for some hiccups that may have occurred along the way.  Stepping on that starting line in Hopkinson feeling fresh and excited is more important than squeezing in some extra training and risking feeling fatigued and sluggish!

2. Make sure you have your race day nutrition dialed in!  You should plan ahead what you will eat in the morning and what you need to bring with you to the start.  If you drink coffee or tea think ahead about where you will get it that early in the morning.  At the athletes village the race will provide Poland Spring water, Gatorade Endurance Formula, Clif bars, Rainier apples, bagels and bananas.  Out on the course there will be Gatorade Endurance lemon lime flavor starting at mile two.  Clif Shot Energy Gels (flavors mocha, citrus, vanilla and razz) will be available at miles 11.8, 17 and 21.5.  There’s still time in your training to familiarize yourself with what will be available to you out on the course on race day.

3.  Practice “holding back” in training!  Pick one or two workouts and start a little bit slower than the pace that feels comfortable.  This is especially important for Boston first timers! There is lots of excitement on the starting line and lots of downhill (see the course map below from the B.A.A. Participant Guide) in the first half of the course.  You may need to hold back and be careful to not get carried away in the beginning stages of the race.  Keep in mind that you need to conserve some energy for the Newton Hills - and that you want to enjoy the last stretch down Boylston Street to the finish line!

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Coffee: Friend or Foe?

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Many of us look forward to our morning cup of coffee, the latte that gets us through the midday slump, or that shot of espresso to get ready for the evening workout.  I’ve noticed a lot of conflicting information recently about the health benefits and risks of drinking coffee.  So, what are the health benefits?  California coffee shops may soon be forced to warn customers about a possible cancer risk linked to their consumption of coffee.  What does this mean?  Do the health benefits of drinking coffee outweigh the potential health risks?  Does the caffeine in coffee improve our athletic performance?  Here’s my breakdown.

Coffee is one of the five highest foods in antioxidants.  Scientists have identified approximately 1,000 antioxidants in unprocessed coffee beans.  Many people don’t realize that coffee contains even higher levels of antioxidants than both green and black tea.  For the many people who follow a standard “Western” diet coffee may be their largest source of antioxidants!  These powerful antioxidants gives coffee it’s anti-aging benefits. Coffee has been shown to increase blood flow to the brain, supporting cognitive function.  Caffeine and coffee can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s, even in seniors who already have some form of mild dementia.  Recent studies have also shown that drinking coffee may reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and reduce the risk of liver disease by up to 70%. 

If coffee has all of these health benefits how is it possible that the state of California is deliberating whether to list coffee as a carcinogen under its Prop 65 statute?  A lawsuit first filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court in 2010 by the nonprofit Council for Education and Research on Toxics targets several companies that make or sell coffee.  The suit alleges that the defendants "failed to provide clear and reasonable warning" that drinking coffee could expose people to acrylamide.  Acrylamide is a chemical that is created when coffee beans are roasted.  The US government currently does not classify acrylamide as a carcinogen when it’s in food. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) label it as being Group 2B, which means that it’s “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”  There have been studies done on mice and rats that indicate that acrylamide may increase cancer risk, but they were done using doses 1,000 to 100,000 times higher than the usual amounts that humans take in from dietary sources.  Studies done on humans have found "no statistically significant association between dietary acrylamide intake and various cancers," according to a 2014 research review.  What I find most interesting is the documented amounts in coffee compared to some other foods.  For example, a serving of Starbucks Columbia coffee (dry powder before brewing) tested at 163 ppb of acrylamide.  After brewing this amount dropped to 7 ppb.  In contrast a serving of Kettle Chips (lightly salted) contains 1,265 ppb, and a serving of Health Valley oat bran graham crackers contains 1,540 ppb.  So, even if down the road acrylamide is linked to an increase risk in cancer in humans coffee may not be the biggest culprit in terms of food sources.  It is also worth noting that dark roasts tend to have lower levels than light roasts, and arabica beans have lower levels than robusta beans.

In terms of athletic performance, does coffee really give us an extra boost?  We have our pre race coffee or shot of espresso to get amped up on race day.  Studies have shown that coffee increases alertness and improves mental and physical performance. Caffeine stimulates the brain and can improve psychomotor performance and increase our sensations of well-being and energy.  This gives us that focused, dialed in feeling that we crave before a hard workout or competition.  Multiple studies have also shown that caffeine can improve exercise performance by an average of 12%.  Taking a moderately high dose of caffeine before exercise can also increase the “afterburn effect,”  meaning that your metabolism stays elevated post exercise. This is especially effective after high intensity workouts.

There is a risk of becoming too dependent on the caffeine boost from coffee.  Too much caffeine can overstimulate the body and wear down the adrenal glands.  If you have struggled with chronic fatigue, adrenal or thyroid issues be aware that coffee can exacerbate these problems.  An easy way to check to see if you’re becoming too dependent on your caffeine fix is to skip it for a day or two and see how you feel.  If you simply miss your coffee and feel a little let down by it’s temporary replacement (i.e. herbal tea, etc) then most likely you are fine.  If skipping your coffee leads to headaches, irritability and trouble concentrating then you may need lower your caffeine consumption and give your body a break.  It’s normal to use caffeine to power through an occasional busy stretch;  however, when it becomes the thing that gets you through the day it’s time to reevaluate your diet and lifestyle.

There are a couple of additional factors to be aware of when we’re choosing our coffee beverages.  The first is to be careful with what we’re putting into our coffee.  Sugar and many creamers are not beneficial to our health.  Creamers may contain artificial sweeteners, artificial flavors, and partially hydrogenated oils, among other things.  If you prefer creamier coffee consider adding grass fed butter and MCT oil.  MCT oils may increase blood ketone levels, increase energy and reduced blood glucose levels.  This “Bulletproof” style coffee is a much healthier alternative than adding sugar and creamers.  The second thing to be aware of is that coffee is a heavily pesticide contaminated crop, so it’s important to always choose organic. Organic coffee contains no chemicals or synthetic fertilizers.

I think that for most of us the health benefits of coffee outweigh the risks, especially considering the sky high amount of antioxidants that coffee provides us. We each have an individual tolerance to caffeine so I think that using logic is important in determining how much is good for us. Simply observing how something makes us feel is always a good indicator.  If caffeine gives us a nervous and anxious feeling it’s probably best to skip it.  Otherwise, we may as well reap the health benefits and enjoy that little bit of extra focus.  After reviewing all of the health benefits of coffee I’ll definitely still be having my daily espresso!

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OTC Pain Relievers...Is there a Better Alternative?

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Do you find yourself reaching for that bottle of Advil or Aleve when you’re feeling tired and sore?  I’ve observed that this a habit for many people.  As athletes we don’t want to miss any training,  and this mindset makes it very easy to slide into the routine of taking OTC (over the counter) pain relievers.  This temporary relief allows us to get out the door and get our workouts in.  I’ve also noticed that as we age it’s even more common to become reliant on OTC pain relievers.  They make it possible for us to keep doing the activities that we’ve always enjoyed doing.  However, is it ok to take OTC pain relievers every day?  What are the risks and long term effects?  Are there better ways to manage inflammation?

The two main types of OTC pain relievers are NSAIDs (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs) and acetaminophen.  NSAIDs include ibuprofen (Advil), aspirin and naproxen (Aleve).  They work by blocking the body’s production of chemicals known as prostaglandins that cause inflammation and pain.  Common side effects for all NSAIDs are cardiovascular problems, GI bleeding, kidney problems, and hypertension.  Serious side effects include gastrointestinal ulcers and bleeding but fortunately these seem to be limited to high doses taken for longer periods of time.  However, taking these medications long term can be tempting since we can buy them right off the shelf - no prescription needed.

Acetaminophen (Tylenol, Paracetamol) is often used to ease pain and reduce fever, but it does not reduce inflammation.  Acetaminophen can be toxic to your liver, even at recommended doses.  Research has shown that taking just slightly more than the recommended dose over a longer time period is far more risky than one large overdose.  Another concern to be aware of is that acetaminophen has been linked to increased risk of kidney damage when taken with alcohol.  (So NEVER take it as a cure for a hangover!)

Most of us have taken the occasional OTC pain killer to manage an acute situation.  Sometimes we need quick relief from an intense pain such as a headache, toothache or menstrual cramps.  Other times we may be dealing with a sports injury that we’re trying to manage.  When this occurs right before a big race or event that we’ve put a lot of time and effort into we want to get though it if at all possible. I had this experience at the 2008 Olympics.  My plantar fascia flared up as soon as I hit the ground in Beijing. In addition to lots of manual therapy I was taking lots of anti-inflammatory meds so that I could manage the pain and compete in the 5000m prelims and final.  However, once I stepped off the track after the 5000m final I was done with the pain relievers.  Similarly, if we’re experiencing acute pain once we have it under control it’s time to get off of the pain relievers and get to the root of the problem. Taking OTC pain relievers as a band aid isn’t a good long term solution.  While no one wants to be sidelined from doing what they love, we need to think about our overall health and wellness first.  

Here is a list of natural options that can help manage inflammation:

Turmeric:

Turmeric has been used for thousands of years in other cultures as a spice and medicinal herb and the west has now caught on!  The dried root of the Curcuma longa plant is ground into the distinctive yellow turmeric powder.  The main active substance in turmeric is curcumin.  Curcumin is a very strong antioxidant and has powerful anti-inflammatory effects.  Many studies have shown that turmeric benefits equal that of many pharmaceutical medications.  Several have even found that using curcumin is more beneficial than some prescription drugs without the toxic side effects.  Research suggests that turmeric may be helpful in treating inflammatory bowel diseases, joint pain relief, rheumatoid arthritis,  and reduced joint swelling among others.  One thing to note is that turmeric doesn’t absorb easily into the bloodstream, but if taken with black pepper the absorption rate increases by about 2000%.  If you take it in supplement form, look for one formulated with black pepper (piperine).

Ginger:

Ginger and turmeric belong to the same botanical family, Zingiberacea.  Ginger contains gingerol, a compound with potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that has been linked to many health benefits.  A University of Miami study concluded that ginger extract could one day be a substitute to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).  Research also shows that ginger affects some inflammatory processes at a cellular level.  It's also well known for being a digestive aid.  It’s easy to add some fresh ginger into your diet!  

Cinnamon:

Cinnamon is another spice that’s easy to work into your daily routine.  It’s delicious in many teas, breakfast foods, and healthy snacks.  Cinnamon contains many compounds with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that can reduce the likelihood of cellular damage and chronic disease.  It’s also known to be great blood sugar stabilizer in addition to it’s antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial properties.  In the US there are two types of cinnamon that are commonly found - cassia and ceylon.  Ceylon may cost a bit more but is the better option for your health.  

Astaxanthin:

Astaxanthin is one of the strongest carotenoids and antioxidants found in nature.  It's derived from Haematococcus microalgae, and is the pigment that gives krill, algae, and salmon their bright red-orange color.  It has antioxidant properties that help protect against many types of chronic disease.  It’s ability to fight free radicals has been shown to be 6,000 times higher than vitamin C!  Astaxanthin fights chronic inflammation and may even improve your workout endurance.  An additional benefit is that it helps protect your skin from UV sun damage.  One big difference that sets it apart from other carotenoids is that it can handle multiple free radicals simultaneously.  While you can get astaxanthin from some seafood such as salmon and lobster, it may be easier to take in supplement form.

Check out my Pumpkin Tumeric Recovery Smoothie & Mango Tumeric Smoothie which both contain tumeric, ginger and cinnamon!

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Is Life (and Running) All About the Process?

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“Life (and running) is not all about time but about our experiences along the way”  ~Jen Rhines

My husband, Coach Terrence Mahon, saw this quote pop up on a running calendar last fall and asked me: did you actually say that???  In fact I did.  If I remember correctly someone from Adidas Running promotions asked me for a quote to use on some autograph cards.  When I said this as a twenty-some year old athlete I absolutely meant it.

I had recently spent my first summer traveling on the European Track Circuit.  I had met lots of new people, including some that became friends and training partners for the next 15 years.  I had opportunities to travel and race in many countries; I could go on for hours about our adventures.  As a goal driven and detail oriented person (I was an engineering major in college…) who focused on absolutes, I realized that there was a lot more to being a professional runner than just clicking off the splits in practice. The times and places that I ran in the races that season were important, but so were all of these new experiences.  I learned a lot!  The training, racing and traveling were all part of a plan developed by myself and my coach to give me my best chance at making my first Olympic Team the following year.  There were many skills I needed to develop, both physically and mentally.  One year later I did accomplish my childhood dream - I made the US Olympic Team.  However, it wasn’t just because I had so many new experiences the previous summer; I had a process that was designed to achieve and end.  And that final result matters.

When I reread this quote in the present it reminds me of something that I hear people say quite frequently:  “that they learned so much in the process.”  This is true, experiences can be a great learning tool, but it’s important to not forget about the end result. One definition of “process” is: a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular endIt’s easy to use the saying “it’s all about the process” as an excuse for falling short of the end goal.  We may rationalize that the end result doesn’t matter since we learned so much along the way.  In my eyes that end result needs to remain our primary focus.  We don’t always achieve what we set out to; falling short happens to all of us.  Sometimes someone else is simply better, other times we haven’t mastered all the skills that are required of us for a particular task.  It doesn’t mean we are bad people, or total failures, it just means the process needs to be reviewed and revised.  On social media we often gloss over our failures by focusing on the positives, and even when we do mention the negatives we get a barrage of well wishers telling us it’s ok.  While this support is well intended - it’s not ok if we don’t reflect on where we went wrong or where we went off course.  The sooner we are honest with ourselves and acknowledge our shortcomings the sooner we can move forward.  This new awareness will open new doors we simply weren’t seeing in the past. 

Preparing for that next big endeavor is a great feeling. I always enjoyed the end of the season review with my coach.  I found it exciting to go over what worked and what didn’t, and what needed to be tweaked to work better.  After this review and refinement of the process I always felt refreshed and ready to tackle the next season, even knowing that many challenges and unknowns were lying ahead.  Sometimes analyzing and discussing our short comings isn’t an easy thing to do.  This can be tough to do on your own; it takes a rare individual who can step back and take an unemotional assessment of their strengths and weaknesses.  I suggest having a trusted coach or friend help with this analysis.

We know when we don’t achieve a goal that we need to review and make some changes to our system. This also holds true after a big achievement.  The Sydney Olympics were an amazing experience for me; it was huge accomplishment to be part of the US team.  However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing.  I was eliminated AND lapped in the prelim of my event, the 10,000m.  I was relegated to watching the final from the stands…this is not ideally where you want to be as an athlete competing at the Olympic Games. There were many things that I could have done differently both at the games and in my preparation.  After several years of these reviewing and refining cycles I did qualify for an Olympic final. Walking out onto the track and being announced in the 2008 Olympic 5000m final was a career capping moment. If over the years I had focused solely on celebrating my experiences and skipped over the critical review process, I would have never had this moment.

I still find this fine tuning process exciting today.  I’m not chasing the same goals that I was 20 years ago, but the reviewing and revising process is the same.  I feel that same buzz when I start a new training cycle or begin a new venture. Our environment is constantly changing - we can repeat the exact same things twice and not get the same results. In addition to our own learning curve we have to be ready to respond to these external challenges.  In running, both the times we run and our experiences along the way are important.  In all of our life pursuits we should continue to create new experiences for ourselves, while always keeping an eye on the big purpose.

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6 Exercises for Lower Leg Strength

In my recent post on how to manage slowing down with age I mentioned that older athletes tend to lose their lower leg strength.  This will gradually alter our stride.  We often overuse our quads and hip flexors to compensate for this lack of lower leg strength.  We push off the ground at a less optimal angle and get less power out of each step.  This inefficiency requires us to put forth more effort to run the same speeds than in the past.  

Below is a breakdown of my Beginner Lower Leg Strength Circuit.  It consists of 6 exercises.  Begin with 2 sets of 6-8 reps and build up to 3 sets of 10-12 reps.  Do them 3 times a week if the circuit is difficult, and 2 times a week for maintenance.  It will only take about 8-10 minutes.  It’s worth the small time investment to keep your lower legs strong and keep that power in your stride!

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ANKLE DORSIFLEXION:  Wrap or tie a band around something stable and then loop it around your foot just above the arch.  Keep your back straight and dorsiflex the ankle, keeping even tension in the band on the way up and back down to the starting position.  This exercise can be done seated on the floor or in a chair, and with both a straight and bent leg (straight leg version shown in the video).  Increase the band thickness as you get stronger.

ANKLE INVERSION:  Wrap or tie a band around something stable and then loop it around your foot just above the arch.  Keep your back straight and invert the ankle, keeping even tension in the band on the way in and back to the starting position.  This exercise can be done seated on the floor or in a chair, and with both a straight and bent leg (straight leg version shown in the video).  Increase the band thickness as you get stronger.

SQUATS WITH ANKLE INVERSION:  Place a band around both ankles and place your feet shoulder width apart.  Invert your ankles to raise your medial arches up and hold this position while doing a body weight squat.  Focus on pushing your big toe into the ground while maintaining the high arch position.  Only go down as deep into the squat as you can while keeping the ankles inverted and arches raised. Avoid arching your back while doing the squat and keep your knees in line with the middle of your feet. 

SPLIT SQUAT WITH ANKLE INVERSION:  Wrap or tie a band around a piece of stable equipment and loop the other end of the band around your leg just below the knee.  Stand in a split squat position with the band around the working leg and step away to create enough tension on the band so that you have to work against it pulling your leg in.  Next, invert the ankle on the front leg to keep the arch raise up while keeping the big toe down.  Begin to do a split squat in this position, holding the ankle in inversion and keeping the knee of the front leg steady and in line with the foot.  If this is difficult start without a band and work up to the added challenge.

ECCENTRIC HEEL DROPS:  Find a step or stair to use where you can gently hold on to something in front of you.  Start on your toes with your calves fully extended.  Slowly lower down to where your feet are neutral.  The count for this exercise is 3 seconds down, 1 second back up. To increase the difficulty go down using just one foot and then return back up to the starting position using both feet. Once you have mastered both the double leg and single leg down exercises you can then advance on to just using a single leg for the entire exercise. 

EXPLOSIVE HEEL RAISES:  Find a step or stair to use where you can gently hold on to something in front of you.  Start with your feet dorsiflexed and calves in a fully stretched position.  Explode up on to your toes.  This may not feel "explosive" at first; just do the movement as quickly as possible and look for improvement over time. Once you have mastered the double leg heel raises you can then advance on to just using a single leg for the entire exercise. 

Aging & Slowing Down - Is it Really Inevitable???

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It’s a commonly accepted concept in the running world that as you age, you lose your speed.  It’s the natural progression for someone who has been a distance runner for many years. Most elite runners move up in distance over time, as they build aerobic strength and begin to “lose” their speed.  I have heard many runners bemoan their age and complain about being “old and slow.”  Many times this negative thought process begins as early as an athlete’s 30th birthday!

I have never bought into this paradigm.  I ran all of my personal best times when I was in my thirties.  I moved up to the marathon distance and back down to the 5k for my last Olympic appearance. I made a US National Team after I turned 40.  I’m certainly not the only masters athlete continuing compete at a high level, the likes of Meb Keflezighi, Jo Pavey and Bernard Lagat all represented their countries in the 2016 Olympics.  Is there something that makes us unique or special?  I don’t think so.  I think the key is to not accept this idea of a guaranteed slow down.  It’s imperative to continue to do speed work, strength training, and be open to fine tuning the details as your body changes over time.  We may not be able to run personal bests year after year as we get older, but we can manage just how much we slow down.  It’s not a predetermined fate.

Physiologically speaking, what are the main reasons we slow down with age?  Our bodies produce less testosterone, human growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor.  If we don’t train it, we lose muscle, beginning as early as in our thirties.  Maintaining muscle mass plays a role in metabolism and hormone function.  If we don’t maintain muscle mass this can encourage a vicious cycle of producing less of these hormones, therefore reducing our ability to maintain muscle.  Additionally, past studies have shown that older athletes lose lower leg strength.  This can alter your stride, causing you to use more hip flexion and push off the ground at a less optimal angle.  While these factors may present challenges, they are not insurmountable with good nutrition and strength work.   

I think a more interesting question is:  how does our change in mentality affect us?  Do we get slower because we accept it as a fact?  Does our pain tolerance decrease?  Even as a young elite athlete that first race of the season (aka “rust buster”) was always tough for me.  It felt like my body had quickly forgot how to push through the pain, no matter what mindset I had when I stepped on the starting line.  But, as the season progressed, each race I became a little more calloused to the pain and things seem to get “easier”.  If we avoid this process all together and chalk up the difficulty to being old, we will plateau somewhere at a lesser fitness level.  This is a choice; it is not something that is defined by our age.

When you haven’t run specific speeds in a long time it feels REALLY hard when we go back and run them.  This definitely isn’t a psychological boost, and it may not provide us with that  endorphin high that we crave.  It can encourage us to avoid these types of efforts and reside in what is our new comfort zone.  In my own running, I’ve always been able to run 34-35 sec 200m repeats with short rest and be really comfortable, like I could run them all day.  Last fall I gave this a go and found out that I could only run 37-38 sec for 200s.  But rather than accept this as the new normal, (saying to myself, oh well, a 37 is what a 35 used to be…) I’ve continued to do them consistently and now I’m back to being able to run 34-35s relatively easily.  It’s important for us to not confuse the process of getting in shape with age related decline.

I realized recently that despite running some good races last year this is the first time that I can’t remember my fastest times in practice.  I’m pretty sure this is because they didn’t stand out as “exciting” to me.  Even if the times I ran aren't flashy, I don’t want to start drifting away from pushing myself as hard as I did in the past.  I’ve decided to challenge myself to running my fastest 200m, 400m and mile in practice, at least twice a year.  This way I can keep track of exactly where I’m at.  I’d encourage everyone to do the same.  The purpose of this isn’t to compare yourself to anyone else, it’s to compare you to you.  And it’s fun to start seeing the times drop again!

A word of caution: if you haven’t done speed work in a long time, don’t go straight to your local track and run an all out 200m or 400m!  Begin by adding some pick ups into your runs and doing some easy strides afterwords.  You’ll know when you’re ready to test yourself.  Always do a proper warm up before doing speed work.  This should include some easy running followed by warm up drills and strides.  The main difference I notice as an older athlete is that I don’t recover as quickly from hard training sessions.  We can still run those big workouts, we just need extra recovery between these types of sessions.  Be sure to plan this into your training.

I’m starting with the 200m this week, I’ll let you know how it goes!

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Feeling the Winter Blues? Check Your Vitamin D!

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It's that time of year again when it's cold and gray outside.  Our daylight hours are limited and the excitement of the holidays has worn off.  Everyday reality is setting in and maybe the winter blues are too.  It may already be difficult for you to stick to that new year's resolution…if you’re struggling to stay positive and motivated you may want to check your vitamin D levels.  In addition to a lack of sunlight, vitamin D deficiency has been linked to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Vitamin D plays a major role in disease prevention and maintaining optimal health.  It has long been known to be important for bone health, but it serves many other functions. Vitamin D has been linked to the prevention of cancer, immunity to the cold, and the reduction of depression.  It supports cardiovascular health and proper immune function, making you much less likely to get the flu when you have optimal levels!  

Your body can make its own vitamin D when you expose your skin to sunlight.  The UVB rays react with your skin and produce vitamin D3, which is sent to your liver and converted to calcidiol, also known as 25(OH)D.  Generally, 20-30 minutes of mid day sun exposure is sufficient for light skinned people, if you have darker skin you may need to double the time.  Interestingly, once your body has produced enough vitamin D through sun exposure, those same UVB rays will begin to prevent excess vitamin D production.  This means there’s no need to worry about getting too much vitamin D from sunlight.

This is a great natural system, however, if you live the US (or other northern latitudes) it’s very difficult and likely impossible to meet your Vitamin D needs from sunlight during the winter months. 

Below is a map of the US for the month of January showing the potential for Vitamin D Synthesis ***

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During this time just about everyone in the US is in need of vitamin D supplementation.  One caveat with taking vitamin D orally is that it is possible to take too much.  However, this is unlikely as you would have to take large amounts very frequently.  As an oral supplement vitamin D3 is preferred over D2 as researchers have found that vitamin D3 is twice as effective as vitamin D2 in raising levels in the body.  Recent research indicates that taking 4000 IU  - 8000 IU per day will put you at an optimal level.  When you take vitamin D orally it is sent to your liver where it is converted to calcidiol, or 25(OH)D, the same as when your body creates it from sunlight. Since vitamin D is fat soluble it’s beneficial to take your vitamin D supplement with a healthy fat for better absorption.  The only way to know for sure the proper supplementation amount for you is to get a blood test for 25(OH)D before you begin supplementing and check it after 6-8 weeks.  An optimal level for 25(OH)D is 50-60 ng/mL.  

In addition to playing a part in your emotional health maintaining optimal Vitamin D levels will support and enhance your athletic performance.  Studies have shown that athletes with optimal serum vitamin D concentrations bounced back better after intense exercise.  I have been keeping track of my vitamin D levels since 2012.  As athletes, we know that being able to get out there and feel good in our training also plays a part in our sense of well being!

 

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***Taken from Dr. Joseph Mercola's Vitamin D Resource Page http://www.mercola.com/article/vitamin-d-resources.htm

Three Thoughts for 2018

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Change is constant.   One of the biggest mistakes that I see athletes make is trying to replicate  EXACTLY what they did in the past that led to success.  You are never in the exact same physical, mental and emotional state for two separate periods of time; which makes it impossible to repeat the exact same training and get the exact same result.  You learn from experience the types of training that you respond to, be it speed work, high mileage, low mileage, etc. It’s important to assess what has changed over time and analyze what needs to be tweaked. This often means working on the things that you’re not good at.  An outside perspective can be really helpful; a coach or friend can offer a wealth of information!

Nothing stays the same beyond the current moment.  Being adaptable is something that I always preach to runners about their training and racing, but of course it is applicable to all aspects of life.  We have access to so much new information that if we’re open to change we can use it to enhance our lives.  It’s ok to let go of old paradigms and let something new in the door.  There’s no reason to assign fear to change, it’s simply different, and sometimes not comfortable. That’s what it is supposed to be.

 

Uncomfortable is where growth happens.  Telling someone that they need to be comfortable being uncomfortable is an easy thing to say but a much harder thing to do.  We all have our habits and routines that we are comfortable with.  This is also true as an athlete; you know how to capitalize on your strengths and minimize your weaknesses.  But to go beyond where you’ve been before you need to challenge what you normally shy away from.  That thing that you know you should do but makes you feel slightly queasy, that’s the one.  This is also what keeps your competitors on their toes.  They know how you operate, what defines the edge of your comfort zone.  Pushing these boundaries gives you more tools to pull out of the box; it makes you a tougher opponent. So go ahead, jump into the unknown, this terrifying leap will be followed by a huge sense of accomplishment.

 

Acknowledge your mistakes.  The sooner you are honest with yourself and acknowledge where you went wrong the sooner you can move forward.  This is something that has taken me a while to learn.  As a young athlete I would stubbornly block out mistakes I made that I didn’t want to own up to.  Fortunately, I’ve always surrounded myself with well meaning coaches and teammates that don’t shy away from confrontation.  Nothing changes until you own up to what went off track.  Until then you will continue to do the same thing that produces the same result.  Making mistakes doesn't make you a bad person; no one is perfect. Instead of being stubborn and making this an hours, days or week long process (yes I’ve done this, many times), own up to it, analyze what needs to change, and move on.  As an older athlete I can now catch myself in this pattern and minimize the drama. Being in denial is simply wasting time. Having this new awareness will open new doors you simply weren’t seeing in the past and propel you closer to your goals.

 

Happy New Year!

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NYC Marathon - Race Week & Race Day Nutrition

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As the New York City Marathon is fast approaching I’ve been getting many questions about what to eat during race week.  I think a lot of people get nervous (which is absolutely normal!) as race day nears and start to over analyze what to eat leading up to the big day.  Here are my thoughts on race week and race day nutrition.

Race Week:

In the week leading up to the marathon you simply want to eat how you normally eat.  Since you are tapering and running fewer miles your body will naturally top up its carb stores.  Remember from my previous blogs that when you eat more carbs than you need it will be stored as fat.  Carbs also retain water and you don’t want that heavy and sluggish feeling heading into the race. When you are 3 days out from the race it’s wise to make an effort to avoid foods that may bother your stomach.  This is individual to you - it may be spicy food, garlicky food, gluten, dairy, etc.  On the day before the race eat several small meals.  Also make sure to eat dinner early; you want to be able to go to bed early and get some sleep the night before running 26.2 miles!  

Race Day:

On race morning keep it simple.  Have something that you normally eat before running like a bagel, oatmeal, banana or energy bar.  Pack snacks in the bag that you are bringing to the start.

Now, let’s talk about how many calories you actually need to get through this marathon.  Your body stores approximately 1600 - 2000 calories (400g - 500g of glycogen) in your muscles and liver.  You’ll burn around 100 calories per mile (this doesn’t change much whether you’re running 6 min or 10 min miles, but a person carrying more weight will burn more calories), requiring around 2600 calories for 26 miles.  The number of calories that you’ll need to take in during the race will vary with the amount of fat vs carbs that you are burning for energy, your weight and your metabolic rate.  Below are my suggestions on how to utilize what’s out on the course to create your best fueling strategy.

Here’s what will be available out on the course in NYC:

Water (At every mile starting at mile 3)

Gatorade Endurance Formula Lemon/Lime (At every mile starting at mile 3, except mile 17)

Per 6 oz:

45 Calories

11g Carbs

PowerGel (Mile 18)

Flavors: Vanilla (No Caffeine), Strawberry Banana (25mg Caffeine), Berry Blast (25 mg Caffeine), Tangerine (50 mg Caffeine)

110 Calories each

27g Carbs each

Hydration Goal:  50 oz water

Over the course of the race plan to take in 50 oz of water.  Both Gatorade and water count as part of the 50 oz.  Hydration is critical for your performance as a 2-3 % loss in water weight can have major effects on body function.  Another thing to be aware of is hyponatremia, a condition that occurs when blood sodium drops too low.  This is why it’s important to take in electrolytes both before and during the race.  Common symptoms are sloshing in the stomach, worsening/severe headache, nausea, feeling puffy or bloated in hands & feet, and wheezy breathing.  If you  experience these symptoms stop drinking until you need to stop and use the bathroom.

Calorie Goal:  approximately 500 

These calories can be in the form of sports drinks, gels, energy blocks, energy bars and even real food.  In general it will take approximately 20 minutes from the time you consume these calories to go through your stomach and on to the working muscles for fuel. This time will be longer for the more complex bars and foods - such as bananas, oranges and the like.  To meet this calorie goal plan to mix and match with sports drinks and gels in the combination that is easiest for you to digest.  People like myself with a high metabolic rate may need more calories, other may require less.  

Caffeine: Do you take or skip the caffeine?  Studies have shown that caffeine can encourage your body to use fat for fuel.  You can also get a mental boost from taking in some caffeine during the race.  This boost can be particularly helpful later in the race when you’re feeling both mentally and physically fatigued.  I have found that it’s a personal preference - some people feel revitalized from the caffeine while others don’t.  It's best to experiment with this before the race. 

I hope that you have found this break down helpful.  Good luck on race day - I’ll see you out there!

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Protein Part 1 - the Basics

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Recently I have been noticing lots of info out there about too much protein being a bad thing, and I wanted to sort through it all so I have it straight. Personally, I have noticed that as my training load has decreased over the past few 3-4 years, my protein cravings have decreased as well.  I think my days of finishing off a 20 oz steak are over (yes, it really happened, and quite frequently).  As with many things, I think if you listen to your body it will give you a good idea of what it needs.  Putting that all aside, here is my breakdown on what you should know about protein.

First of all, what is protein?  It is a macronutrient that provides the building blocks for all living tissue in the body.  In humans, there are 20 amino acids that are created to build proteins(and many more that don’t form proteins).  Of these amino acids 10 are considered non-essential because our bodies are capable of producing them.  Another 9 of these are considered essential since our bodies cannot produce them itself; we must obtain them from food.  There is also one that is deemed semi-essential since it needs to be consumed only under certain circumstances.  It is important to note that the essential amino acids are not more important than the non-essential amino acids; the terms are simply differentiating that you must obtain the essentials from your diet.

So that brings us to the next question, what are amino acids? Amino acids are organic compounds which contain at least one amino group (-NH2) and a carboxy (-COOH) group. They are the basis of all life processes and essential for all metabolic activities.

You’ve also probably heard of something called BCAAs.  Three of these essential amino acids, leucine, isoleucine and valine are considered branched-chained amino acids (BCAA) because they have a branched molecular structure.  They differ from other amino acids because they’re broken down primarily in muscle, instead of in the liver.  Research has shown that BCAAs can help improve exercise performance.

Ok, so now that we have the basics sorted out how much protein do we need on a daily basis?  And how does this differ when adding in physical activity?  What are the risks of too much or too little protein? 

Many experts recommend consuming 0.7 - 1.0 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass.  To calculate this specifically you will need to know your body fat percentage.  If you don’t know it, you can make an approximate calculation.

Suggested Protein Intake Example Calculation:

For a 130 lb person with 25% body fat:

130 - (.25 X130) = 97.5 lbs lean body mass

At .7g per lb lean body mass: 97.5 X .7 = 68.25g protein

At 1.0 g per lb lean body mass: 97.5 X 1.0 = 97.5g protein

So for this person the range for daily protein intake would be 68 - 98 grams, depending on age and activity level.  Our protein needs increase as we age, and athletes also require more protein than a sedentary people.  If your goal is to build muscle you will want to stay near the top of your intake range.  If you’re looking to maintain your current body composition then your protein intake will be somewhere in the middle.  If your goal is too lose muscle mass you will want to stick to the bottom (or possibly just below) of your calculated range.  However, we are each an experiment of one, so it may take some trial and error to determine what the right protein intake is for you. Some athletes will require much more than 1g protein per pound of lean body mass to build and/or maintain muscle mass.  But even for athletes it’s important to match protein intake with activity level, because there are risks associated with protein intake that’s too high.

What are these risks of too much protein consumption?  Here is a list of a few of them.

1. Extra protein gets converted to glucose.  Your body can’t store large amounts of protein so it converts excess protein to glucose (via gluconeogenesis) and if you don’t need the extra glucose it is converted into fat.

2. Consuming excess protein stimulates mTOR (mammalian target of rapamycin).  mTOR is a nutrient signaling pathway that plays an important role in the aging process and in cancer cell growth.  When mTor is stimulated it promotes growth, of both normal and abnormal cells. It also limits the destruction of damaged cells. BCAAs, leucine, in particular, will activate mTOR.  You need this pathway activated to build muscle; but you want to be cautious with taking in more than you need. 

3. Consuming too much protein can stress the kidneys. Your body must remove more nitrogen waste products from your blood, which stresses your kidneys. This can result in chronic dehydration.

4. Long term excess protein consumption can accelerate oxidation, glycation, and leptin and insulin resistance.  Basically this means accelerating cellular functions therefore accelerating the aging process.

What are the risks of too little protein consumption? Here is a list of a few of them.

1.  Extended low protein intake can slow metabolism, leading to lethargy, fatigue and weight gain.

2.  If the foods you eat don’t provide enough amino acids,  your body breaks down protein rich tissues (your muscles) to access them. This muscle wasting is called sarcopenia.

3. Low protein intake may impair your immune system, leaving you susceptible to a greater number and/or more severe infections.

Now that you have an idea of how much protein you need, here is my breakdown on protein supplements:

In general, protein quality is determined by the amount and types of amino acids that it contains; animal proteins are more complete than plant based proteins.  Bioavailability is the percentage of absorbed protein that can actually be used by your body. This does not explain the amount of protein, but how much of the available protein can be synthesized by your body.

Bioavailability of Common Protein Supplements - Descending Order:

Whey Isolate

Whey Concentrate

Egg White 

Casein 

Rice

Soy 

Pea

Proteins Powders:

Animal Based Proteins:

All Whey: Contains all essential among acids, enhances immune system, high in leucine (promotes muscle growth and recovery after endurance and resistance training)

Whey Isolate- Fast absorbing, lactose free, higher protein content than concentrate

Whey Concentrate- low lactose level

Whey Hydrolysates- partially broken down by exposing the protein to heat, acid or enzymes that break apart the bonds linking amino acids (basically “pre-digested”), absorbs even faster than isolates or concentrates, can taste bitter

Denatured Whey- has been processed at a high temperature

Undenatured Whey- has been processed in such a way that harmful organisms are destroyed, but the heat sensitive amino acids that make it bioactive are not harmed

Egg White: Contain all essential amino acids, second only to whey protein as a source of leucine

Casein: Contain all essential amino acids, absorbs more slowly than whey providing more steady release of amino acids

Plant Based Proteins:

Rice: Contains all of the essential amino acids, but is too low in lysine to be considered a complete protein

Soy: Can have heart health and hormone balancing benefits, but can also be highly allergic.  Soy can help protect against cancer by filling estrogen receptor sites (which prevents more dangerous estrogens from doing so, reducing cancer risk)  

Pea: Amino acid profile is similar to whey, but with lower bioavailability, popular with vegans

Hemp: Contains all essential amino acids, but with lower bioavailability than animal proteins

Side Note: Whey Protein vs Collagen?

I frequently get asked which is better, whey or collagen protein?  The answer is they serve different purposes.  Collagen supplies amino acids that are required by the body to build connective tissue and regulate cell growth.  As we age our collagen making ability decreases, so supplementing with collagen becomes increasingly important.  It supports skin, muscle, cartilage, ligaments, hair and helps stimulate bone growth.  Collagen is also high in glycine, an anti-inflammatory amino acid, and low in cysteine.  Whey protein is great for building lean muscle mass and losing fat, as it’s loaded with BCAAs.  It also contains larger amounts of cysteine, which helps boost levels of glutathione (cellular antioxidant) but you need to use caution when having it in high doses consistently.  

How much and what type of protein can be confusing, so I hope I clarified some of these questions!  Including too much protein in your diet is a common mistake, especially for people who are transitioning to eating fewer carbs.  When you’re cutting carbs from your diet you need to put an emphasis on adding healthy fats, otherwise it’s easy to fill the gap with unneeded protein. My take away for athletes - have your protein shake after training when you need to build and repair muscle; but skip the extra protein on your easier days.  If you are in the habit of having a post workout shake, you can simply skip the protein and focus on the other ingredients like fruits, vegetables, green and red powders and other superfoods.  I think that I have covered the basic run down to get people started here, but as I was writing this I realized how much more detail I'd like to cover!  So, I decided to break into two parts - stay tuned for Protein Part 2!

 

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The (Latest) Skinny on Fats

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Is it me or is there so much conflicting info floating around out there on fats recently, right?  What we really want to know is, which ones are actually good for us, which ones do I need to avoid, and how do I know the difference? So I took it upon myself to get up to speed on the latest research and after many hours of getting it all sorted out -  here’s what you need to know!

Below I have listed each type of fat:  saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Under each I explain what they are, why you need them, the best dietary sources, and I comment on a few points about each that seem to have the most confusion.

Saturated Fats:

What are they:  

On saturated fats all potential bonding sites on the carbon atoms of the fatty acid chain are occupied by hydrogen, therefore “saturated.”  They’re temperature stable (resistant to oxidative damage when exposed to heat), which makes them a good choice for cooking.

Why you need them:  

They contribute to critical metabolic functions and protect against oxidative damage.  They also enhance the immune system and play a vital role in bone health. Our cell membranes are composed partially of saturated fat.

What may need clarification: 

1. We’ve been told for years to avoid saturated fats like the plague, so why are they ok now?  Here’s the deal. The idea that saturated fats should be avoided at all costs can be traced back to Ancel Keys, PH.D. and the Seven Countries Study he conducted from 1958 - 1970.  Keys had set out to prove the diet-heart hypothesis: that high saturated fat consumption causes high cholesterol in the blood which causes heart disease.  However, when publishing his research he only analyzed the information from 7 counties, although he had data from 22.  He excluded the countries that did not fit his hypothesis. This flawed research is what years of dietary fat guidelines have been based on. 

2. Studies have shown that saturated fats raise protective HDL cholesterol.  They also raise LDL, however, there are 2 types of LDL cholesterol; small, dense LDL and large, “fluffy” LDL.  Small, dense LDL does contribute to the build up of plaque in the arteries, but saturated fat increases the large, fluffy benign LDL.

3. Finally, when saturated fats are consumed in the presence of excessive carbohydrates unhealthy fat storage will increase…however, when consumed on a low carb diet they are a clean burning fuel. 

Best Sources:  Grass fed meats, Grass fed butter, Coconut oil, tallow, lard

 

Monounsaturated Fats:

What are they:  

These fats contain a single double bond on the fatty acid chain. They’re less temperature stable than saturated fats so should not be used for high temperature cooking.

Why you need them:  

They’re good for cardiovascular and immune function, and to protect against heart disease.

What may need clarification:  

Not much:) Monounsaturated fats are widely accepted to be healthy and are known for being a staple of the “Mediterranean" diet.

Best Sources: Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Olives, Avocados, Macadamia nuts

 

Polyunsaturated Fats:

What are they:  

These fats contain more than one double bond in their fatty acid chain.  They remain in liquid form at room temperature and below.  They are easily susceptible to damage from light and heat and are definitely not suitable for cooking. They are often referred to as PUFAS, an abbreviation for Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids.

Polyunsaturated fats are broken into 2 categories of Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs)

Omega-6 and Omega-3.  They are labeled essential because your body cannot manufacture them internally; they must be obtained from your diet. Omega-6 PUFAS are named for the hydrogen double bond at the 6th carbon in the fatty acid chain, and likewise omega-3 PUFAS are named for the hydrogen double bond at the 3rd carbon in the fatty acid chain.

Omega-6: 

Why you need them: 

You need them for proper brain function; they also stimulate skin and hair growth, maintain bone health and help regulate metabolism

Best Sources: Flax, hemp, chia, pumpkin & sunflower seeds, pine nuts, pistachios

Omega 3

Why you need them: 

You need them for proper brain, skin, cardiovascular and immune function.

Best Sources: Oily cold water fish (wild, not farmed), pasture raised eggs, pasture raised animal meats, leafy greens

What may need clarification: 

1. Omega-6/Omega 3 Ratio:  

An ideal ratio is 1:1, but 4:1 is an adequate healthy ratio to aim for in your diet.  A typical American has a ratio of 20:1 or higher!  This is because the SAD (Standard American Diet) obtains the majority of it’s PUFAs from industrial oils, and those oils are included in many processed foods and snacks. This includes canola, safflower, soy, corn, and peanut oil.  What makes them especially unhealthy?  These refined oils are processed with a petroleum solvent to extract the oil, heated some more, treated with more chemicals to improve color, and deodorized to remove the smell from all these chemical processes.  They go rancid and oxidize easily, causing inflammation when you ingest them. This is why even “organic” vegetable oils are not a good choice…they may not be genetically engineered or contaminated with glyphosate but they still go through this industrial process.

2. Omega 3s: Plant Based vs Animal Based Sources

There is a major difference in the omega-3 that you get from plant vs animal sources.  Marine based omega-3 primarily contains DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA(eicosapentaenoic acid), while plant based omega-3 contain ALA(alphalinolenic acid). DHA and EPA are crucial for health and particularly brain health. ALA is a precursor to EPA and DHA, but an enzyme is needed to convert it and typically your body can only convert a very small amount.  This is why plant based omega-3s can’t be substituted for animal based omega-3s.

 

I hope this breakdown resolves some of the confusion about the different types of fats.  If you’re still a little bit stuck on the idea that saturated fats are good for you, think about this for a moment.  The general state of health for most Americans has been declining for the past 40+ years.  Many of the foods that the “experts” have been telling us to eat in place of saturated fat and cholesterol contain unstable polyunsaturated fats from seed oils…but where has that gotten us? (and yes, sugar plays a huge role too but that's a whole separate blog topic...)  If we as a country are unhealthier than ever before, it makes logical sense to me that we’ve been doing something wrong and it’s time to change our way of thinking…and eating!

 

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4 Tips for the Final Stretch to the NYC Marathon!

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Hey all NYC marathoners out there!  We’re coming up to that time of the season where you may be rounding into great form…or you may be struggling with your training and finding yourself treading through a rough patch.  Summer is over, work is back in full swing and the kids are back at school.  You were so excited to start marathon training that you’ve put in lots of work, and lets be honest, you’re feeling the fatigue of all the miles you’ve logged over the past few months.  Here are my 4 tips to rejuvenate for the final stretch to the NYC Marathon Starting Line!

 

1.  Check your sleep habits.  Most of us underestimate the effect that a lack of sleep has on our health.  Ideally, we should all get 8 - 8.5 hours each night.  While this may not always be realistic,  try your best since every little bit counts and will help your body recovery better.  Aim to eat dinner at least 3 hours before bedtime. Turn off the electronics at least an hour before you go to bed.  If you absolutely must be on your computer at least install a program like f.lux or similar, which was designed to reduce eye strain during night-time use and reduce disruption of sleep patterns.

2. Take a day off!  If you’re feeling fatigued, do it now.  An off day doesn’t have to be planned, training is always adjustable.  If you’re having one of those impossible days, go ahead and give yourself a break.  Or plan an extra off day sometime during the last 2 weeks of your training and schedule something fun that you normally don’t have time to fit in during that time.   Extra sleep is always good too:)

3.  Book a massage/bodywork appointment. Bodywork can do wonders for sore and fatigued muscles. I know you’re busy, but just book it and add it to your schedule.  Also schedule now for a tune up the week of the marathon, as it gets closer you’re favorite therapist will be booked!

4. Take an honest assessment of your current fitness.  If you’ve been struggling to hit your goal training paces this is a good time to readjust your goal marathon time.  Having a new, realistic race plan will take away the stress of feeling like you are behind in training and always playing catch up. If you’ve been running faster than anticipated in the workouts you can adjust your marathon pace to something a little quicker than originally planned.  However, it’s always best to start out a little conservative at the marathon distance!

 

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When an Asset Becomes a Liability...

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If you have spent as many years as I have as a long distance runner you would understand that whenever I hear anyone talk about checking their iron levels, I immediately assume it means that they are checking to see if their iron scores are too low.  Low iron is a common concern for runners since we lose it through sweat, from foot strike hemolysis and also through the GI tract.  If you are a female then you will also lose even more iron through monthly menstruation, which makes iron deficiency an even more common problem for women than men. Proper iron levels are important for running since our red blood cells contain hemoglobin, an iron containing protein, which transports oxygen to the muscles. If we don't have enough iron and hemoglobin then we will be getting less oxygen to those working muscles. The warning signs for low iron are an increase feeling of fatigue during more intense training, decreased recovery times and basically feeling miserable when trying to log your normal weekly mileage.

I’ve always considered myself to be one of the “lucky” ones because I’ve had consistently healthy serum ferritin scores (ferritin is a protein within your cells that stores iron and releases it when your body needs it), even when training at 8000 feet of altitude!  Side Note… Altitude exposure increases your body’s need for iron to support the accelerated production of red blood cells.  This will draw on your iron stores so it’s important that they’re at a healthy level prior to altitude training. It was nice never having to worry about bumping up my supplementation or intake of iron rich foods during heavy training stints. However, I had a bit of a shock after some blood work I had done in early 2016.  The blood draw was taken about 2 weeks after I had been very sick so I had some odd results.  I had some very high inflammation markers and a serum ferritin score of 225 (Whoa! this was by far my highest ever).  I figured this was due to the illness but I set up a Skype consult with a naturopath just in case.  I learned that during illness the body takes circulating iron out the bloodstream and puts it in storage (ferritin).  This is because bacteria and viruses need iron to survive just as we do, so the body tries to make it unavailable by moving it out of circulation.

The naturopath told me I should probably stop taking my iron supplement and asked me at what age did my mother go through menopause (Wait….What!?!).  Keep in mind that at the time I was training every day with the BAA elite ladies who have an average age of about 24, so thoughts about menopause did not occupy my headspace!  However, it did encourage me to do some more reading about iron levels…

Outside of people who have the genetic disease, hemochromatosis, I found out that most adult men and postmenopausal women tend to be at a high risk, as they don’t have a form of monthly blood loss.  The next question I’m guessing you’re asking is why is having excess iron so bad if we need it to survive? Well, among other things high iron levels can permanently damage your organs, tissue and joints, and increase your risk of cancer and heart disease.  This excerpt from Dr. Joe Mercola’s recent book, Fat for Fuel: A Revolutionary Diet to Combat Cancer, Boost Brain Power, and Increase Your Energy summarizes the effect of excess iron:

Through a process called the Fenton reaction, excess iron acts as a catalyst and transforms the relatively harmless hydrogen peroxide to hydroxyl free radical (OH-). Without question, this is one of the most dangerous reactions that occur within your body because the hydroxyl free radical decimates mitochondrial DNA, proteins, and membranes. It also contributes to increased inflammation throughout your body, which is a precursor to all manner of chronic diseases.

Since we certainly don’t want this, what can we do to lower our iron?  

  • Donate blood 
  • Get a prescription for therapeutic phlebotomy 

Things to avoid or minimize that can increase iron absorption:

  • Alcohol consumption
  • Red meat 
  • Sugar
  • Cooking in iron pans
  • Processed foods that are “fortified” with iron
  • Vitamin C Supplements

Things to consider adding that can block iron absorption:

  • Black Tea
  • Coffee
  • Calcium Supplement

I realize now that as I both get older and log fewer miles, I will need to monitor my iron levels for the opposite reason that I did during my entire running career.  I encourage athletes to get blood work done 2-4 times a year, and in terms of checking iron levels it’s important to include the serum ferritin test, which measures the amount of ferritin in your blood.  What I always considered an asset could become a liability if I’m not careful.  The naturopath that I consulted with last year was thinking ahead and realizing what I would need to be cognizant of in the future.  Prior to my whacky blood work I had never thought about iron levels from the perspective that too much could be a bad thing. This reminds me of the importance of occasionally taking a step back, out of our own microcosms, and look at things from a broader perspective. 

 

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Note: For more information on this subject I’d suggest reading Dr. Joe Mercola’s latest book, Fat for Fuel: A Revolutionary Diet to Combat Cancer, Boost Brain Power, and Increase Your Energy,  Chapter 4, specifically, is titled The Surprising Effects of Iron on Mitochondrial Health.

Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.