Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Tangent - A momentous run?

Occasionally you go out for a run and come back different. No, not occasionally; a tiny handful of times. I remember the first time I went running, just a mile, and getting home, collapsing on the floor, panting like an overheated dog, thinking I would die, but wanting to do it again. Or the first time I ran for an hour and felt like a god that could run forever, loving the sense of freedom. Then there was the time that, having discovered faster cadence, I ‘got it’. I no longer felt I was running with my shoes tied together! My first real trail run, heading down hill with reckless abandonment, feeling like I was flying, and falling in love with the sensation. Each time I can remember where I was, and how I felt different, a metamorphosis into something new.

Today might have been another to add to the list. I’ve been running in the Vibram FiveFingers (VFF) shoes for a few months now. Each time I run in them, it’s like the ground has been transformed into a raw, brutal force. Each footfall is sensitive and exposed, and it’s like I’m naked in a winter storm; way too vulnerable. But through the discomfort, there is a sense of ‘righteousness’. Like the increase in cadence, there is this sense that while it’s uncomfortably different, it’s also ‘correct’ at a fundamental level.

Today, for the first time, I swapped from my Nike Frees to VFF and it felt good. The ground felt more cushioned with the VFF than the Nikes, my feet where happier, my body more connected. There is a sense of being so much more aware of the ground. Our feet are very sensitive and it takes time for the mind to adjust to processing the new feelings and adapting to use the information correctly. But when it happens, it is so, so sweet.

I don’t know if today was a one off event. With my skin condition, running barefoot is likely to be impossible, and even the VFFs may not work for long. But either way, I will remember today, because I am changed.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Running Tip #20 - Tapering

Tapering is the reduction in training before a competition. Tapering can produce significant gains in performance, and is part of most training plans. However, there are various approaches that can be taken based on the variables on intensity, volume and frequency.

The Experiment of One

The studies of tapering indicate a high level of individual variability [2]. This variation is as wide as 8.9% improvement to 2.3% reduction in measured performance. This may be variation from individual to individual, but it seems to me that it may also depend on the specifics of the overall training plan. Consider two marathon runners; one is building up their weekly long run as 14, 16, 18, 20, while the other has been doing 20 miles runs for several months. It seems reasonable that the two runners would require different tapers. The runner who has been quickly building up their long run distance is likely to have more muscle damage as the body will have had little time to adjust to the distance. What does this mean to you? It means you may have to experiment with differing tapers, or at least consider different approaches.

General Observations on Tapering

There is some debate over how much of the benefit of tapering is a short term boost due to the extra rest, and how much is a result of a better approach to training. It has been suggested that the ideal taper might also be an ideal training plan.

Tapering is a balance between recovery and detraining. Too much stress on the body will reduce race performance, but too little stress will result in detraining. Detraining can occur in the time period of many tapers, therefore it is critical that training stress is correctly applied.

Psychological effects of tapering

Tapering has some strange and unexpected effects. You would think that lowering your training would leave you feeling great, with boundless energy and enthusiasm. For most people, the opposite is true. We feel sluggish, lethargic and slow. New aches and pains suddenly appear and we can feel like a simple walk is hard work. This can lead to fear that our fitness has disappeared, or that we have a strange new illness. In reality, I suspect this is just the fact that our bodies are used to a higher level of training stress and the lower levels feel strange. It may also be higher levels of glycogen in the muscles which make our legs feel heavy. Whatever the explanation, for most of us tapering is not the nirvana we would like.

Short Race Tapers

For a short race (5K) it seems that drastically reducing training volume, while keeping intensity high can produce great gains. Based on [1], a 7 day taper that reduces mileage by 85% and has a decreasing number of hard intervals (7 the first day, 6 the next, etc) produces good results. However, this type of taper tends to cause muscle soreness, which makes it less than ideal for longer races.

General Tapering

The consensus of 27 studies for tapering is listed below [2]. These guidelines are not specific to a given distance and I found no studies looking at marathon distance or greater.

  • Do not decrease training intensity (intensity seems to be key).
  • Reduce mileage by 20-60.
  • Taper for 8-14 days. Some athletes will do well on other durations, but some will do worse than no taper.
  • Reduce mileage exponentiall.
  • Keep training frequency the same may be better than reducing frequency.

Fellrnr's Personal Approach to Marathon Taper

The following is my personal advice based on anecdotal and personal experience. This approach works well for a marathon where you are focusing significant resources into an optimal performance. Obviously, running the marathon distance (or greater) does not require a taper, but performance is optimized by doing one.

  • Taper for two weeks.
  • Cut out any easy paced/recovery/junk runs (if you are doing any).
  • Have the last long run at the beginning of the taper. No run past this point should have the purpose of improving endurance.
  • Avoid hard downhill running in the taper.
  • Do medium length runs at marathon pace (Running at marathon pace improves your sense of pace and become comfortable at this speed).
  • Do 'easy intervals' - for instance, mile repeats at tempo pace with full recovery. The idea is to be fast enough to keep prevent detraining, but easy enough to avoid any muscle soreness. You could do harder intervals if you are confident they will not cause soreness.

Fellrnr's Personal Ultra Tapering

Like many ultrarunners, I do far more races in a year than typical marathon runners. This race load means that a longer taper is impractical. Therefore, for a short ultra (up to 50 miles), I take the day before the race off completely and convert that week's hill training to a flat run. For longer races, I'll reduce my Monday and Wednesday runs to one hour rather than three, avoid hills and take Friday off. (I normally only run Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.)

Other thoughts on tapering

  • Don't be stupid. Correct tapering can help you recover from your hard training and do your best. It is not an alternative to hard training, and any attempt to compensate for poor preparation in the taper period will only make matters worse.
  • Avoid injury. Don't do hard intervals or start doing an alternative workout to 'make up' for the reduction in tapering. Be careful to avoid injury through 'accidental exercise', such as chasing the dog, lifting furniture, etc.
  • Stay off your feet as much as possible the week before the race. This can be tough if you are travelling for a race and want to sightsee.
  • Reduce caffeine intake if you are a regular user. This is true if you are intending to use caffeine in the race or not. Reduced caffeine will make you tired and cranky, but it's worth it. (I find reduced caffeine also makes me hungry - YMMV)
  • Limit stress as much as possible. The taper period tends to involve a lot of stress due to the change in training pattern and because of the looming race. Stress is catabolic (breaks down the body), and needs to be avoided as much as possible.
  • Ensure you get plenty of sleep, especially the week before the race. The night before the race is not critical, but the few nights before that are important.
  • Avoid infection by washing your hands and being careful around sick people.
  • Spend time visualizing the race. Visualize your preparation, race start, the mid miles, the late miles, how to use aid stations, how the finish will feel, etc.
  • Make lists of things you need to take with you or you need to do on the night before the race and on race day. This will make sure you are prepared and help deal with the stress. Use the same list for every race, building and changing it based on experience.
  • Reduce your calorie intake to balance the reduced training load. Tapering is not the time to gain weight.
  • For the bulk of the taper period, reduce carbohydrate intake and favor protein and fat. Protein and fat are critical for healing and repair. Protein should be taken several times a day; protein drinks and skimmed milk are good choices. Fats must be low in saturated fats and high in essential fatty acids. Fish oil, fatty fish, nuts, flax or flax oil are good choices.
  • For the last few days, favor carbohydrate and/or fat depending on what you learned from your long runs. (You did learn this, didn't you!) I find that fat is better for me than carbohydrate for ultras.
  • Store 'creative energy'. Any race should involve suffering, and that suffering requires fortitude. Spending time in visualization, meditation, prayer, yoga, or similar activities will help create the needed mental strength.
  • Use 'the stick' to massage muscles and verify that there are no sore spots or problems. A massage can also help. The massage should be more gentle as the taper progresses.
  • Be very careful with stretching. Stretching may help, but it can also cause damage.
  • If you feel crappy in the taper period, you're not alone. Most runners hate the taper period, often feeling guilty, lethargic, stiff and generally out of sorts. This is normal; just accept that you'll be okay on the day.

[1]The effects of taper on performance in distance runners

[2]Effects of Tapering on Performance: A Meta-Analysis

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Race Report - Hinson Lake 24 hour

Hinson Lake 24 hour (HL24) race is unusual in that it is how far you can go in the time, rather than how long it takes you to go a distance. This fact means that for different people, HL24 is a different race. Not just a different character, in the way most races are for the leaders and back-of-the-packer runners, but a completely different race. Some of the different races I saw run at HL24 include…

Marathon preparation race
For some, HL24 is the perfect marathon tune up race. You can set whatever distance you like, but 18-24 miles would be typical. HL24 provides the real race feel, which is hard to replicate in training, combined with outstanding aid. The course has a near perfect trail for the distance, being soft, wide dirt with a few boardwalks, and almost flat. While this might be one of the few places you hear “I’m only doing 20 today”, no one think any less of someone doing that distance. The loop course makes it easy to bail early if things go badly, which is sometimes a possibility with a marathon preparation race. To add sugar, the low entry fee also makes HL24 a very cost effective marathon preparation race.

Fixed distance
For another group of runners, HL24 represents the chance to cover a specific distance without any time limits cutting in, and under easier conditions than most races. Common distances I heard people doing were standard marathon (26.2 miles), 50 miles and 100K (62 miles). Some were aiming for 100 miles, but at that distance, the time limit does become a factor. I saw one couple push on through the night to make 100K, visibly battling exhaustion together; I thought it was very romantic.

How far can you go?
If you want to know “how far can I go?” HL24 is an ideal place to find out. Eventually the reasons to stop become greater than the reasons to keep going, and movement ceases. Different people will stop for different reasons, but they can all push the boundaries of their mental and physical capabilities. ("Mental fortitude is more important than physical endurance”, but that’s another blog entry!) Some people will go until they can’t go any more and stop. Others will take breaks to increase their distance, some for a few minutes, some lying down to sleep for a few hours. This makes HL24 a great place for a first time ultra runner. There is no fixed distance that has to be conquered, no possibility of ‘failure’. My friend Vince did his first ultra at HL24 this year and covered an outstanding 100K. In his own words “This was a fun race, kind of the gateway drug to Ultras. There were people of all ages (7 to 72) and abilities, each with different goals. Everyone was encouraging and friendly and there was no pressure.”

Fun with friends
The loop nature of HL24 means that you get so see nearly everyone at some point. The front runners and the slowest all share the trail as they go around the loop. This makes HL24 a supremely sociable race. In other ultras you can be on your own for hours at a time, but not HL24. Seeing other runners, checking on their progress, giving and receiving encouragement is a great part of the race. For some, the social side is an important aspect. Friends you make in the middle of the night while you are both suffering through an endurance event are not like other friends; the bond is different, and I won’t even attempt to explain further ;}

Racing 24 hours
For a few, there is the prospect of pushing the boundaries of the 24 hour limit and cranking out lots of miles. This was my approach to HL24, and I went in with a goal of doing 111 miles. I felt that this was a rather ambitious goal, but I wanted to shoot high. On the ride to the start of the race with Vince, I joked about 131 miles being 5 marathons back to back. That joke came back to haunt me in the small hours of Sunday morning.

I started off too fast and running each lap with no walking breaks, but that was intentional. I know that I need to burn off some of the initial enthusiasm before settling into a routine. After these first few laps of youthful exuberance, I used the pattern of walking from the aid station to the end of the dam, which takes about ~2 minutes. That gave me opportunity to eat and drink on each lap, while giving my legs a chance to bounce back. I managed to hold that pattern for most of the rest of the race and it worked well.

The day passed uneventfully, cranking away steady miles, listening to some tunes and trying to stay relaxed. I had one blister form on my heel, which got bad, then burst of its own accord, so I ignored it. My feet did swell up, which caused pressure on the top of the foot, even though I kept loosening my shoe laces. There was a lot of pain from the top of my feet, which I convinced myself was ‘just’ crushed tendons and not stress fractures (turns out I was right). I’d modified my shoes a few weeks before the race, cutting off the heel so it is the same height as the forefoot. This modification worked well in my training runs, but I’d not gone this kind of distance in these ‘new’ shoes before. It all worked well, but made the pain in the feet a little more worrying.

I hit the 100 mile mark at about 2 am, which was a milestone for me, as this was the furthest I’d run. The frightening thing for me at this point is that I’d done 100 miles, but I have a lot of the race left. The idea of keeping up the pace for 6 more hours was between daunting and overwhelming, especially in the dark.

Everything was going as well as you would expect (think ‘horror movie’) until 5:30 am when I hit mile 115 and I was informed that I could possibly break the course record of 127 miles. In my weakened state, madness set in and I asked the timers to work out what pace I’d need to hit the 131 miles. Remember Vince and me joking about that earlier? On the next lap the timers told me that 10 min/mile pace would get me to 131 miles. How hard can it be? I just need to pick up the pace for another 2.5 hours having just done 115 miles! I was able to speed things up a little just by skipping the walking break. That meant no food or fluids, but hey, it’s just another 15 miles or so, right? Skipping the walking break was not quite enough and I also had to speed up the running somewhat. The faster pace triggered some nausea, which forced me to slow up slightly and take some fluids. I was then running at the boundary of nausea; just fast enough to feel bad, but not so fast that food moved in the wrong direction.

At about mile 125 I misread the timer and became confused, thinking I’d nearly run out of time and would not make the course record without speeding things up further. I found the “don’t care if I die” pace for another lap before I realized that I actually had more time than expected. To my great surprise, I had not died, and nothing vital had fallen off the body or broken, so I hung onto the speed. I completed the lap that gave me the 131 miles at about 8:30 pace. I knew I only had a few minutes left on the clock, and I was given a banana to drop on the trail to mark the part of the final lap I completed, so I picked up the pace as hard as I could. Those few minutes lasted far longer than I expected. In the end I managed to complete the last lap at sub 8 min/mile pace, which made it my fastest lap of the day. I finished the race with a new course record of 132.24 miles.

Random Musings
One of the songs I was recommended before the race by my running buddy Theoden was “Remember the Name”, with the lyrics:

This is ten percent luck, twenty percent skill
Fifteen percent concentrated power of will
Five percent pleasure, fifty percent pain

This echoed in my mind during the race. The ratio described seemed to sum up the race; even the 5% pleasure, 50% pain was about the right ratio ;}

Timed races are different. You have a given amount of time to go as whatever distance you can. That means that going faster means going further. 10% more speed means 10% more distance as well; it gets exponentially harder. With a distance race, there is a sense that that if you can run faster, the pain will be over sooner, but not with a timed race.

For those with an interest in the statistics, my marathon split times were 4:08, 4:30, 5:00, 5:40, 4:47.

I can highly recommend HL24 to any endurance runner. Ultra runners will find a very sociable, well run race. Any marathon runner will find a new challenge and opportunity. For an entry fee of $24, how can you not do it?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Running Tip #19 - Fixing iPod remote headphones

Like many others, I enjoy listening to music, podcasts and books while I run. When I saw Apple had produced iPods with a remote control on the headphones, it seemed like a good idea. Having tried it them out, the remote control is awesome when it’s working. Being able to pause, change volume, skip songs, play the same song endlessly, change playlists without fiddling with the player is really nice. The problem is that it's nice “when it’s working”. If the remote control gets a drop of sweat or rain on it, it goes mad, randomly changing volume and song.

I hope that Apple will bring out some new headphones with a waterproof remote, but until then, I’ve come up with a cheap fix. This will not make them completely waterproof, but it makes them usable in most conditions.

The fix is just to wrap the remote section of the headphones is plastic wrap (saran wrap or similar), then tie it off with cable ties. Take a look at the pictures below to see how this works.

I have not tried this fix with the more expensive remote+headphones that are sold by Apple. Those headphones use a system that requires a good seal with the ear to produce the bass tones, and I find that they do not work when running. All you hear is your footsteps!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Running Tip #18 - Injury prevention using 'The Stick'

The stick is a simple device for massaging muscles; just a stick with rollers to reduce friction and two handles. I use the stick for three reasons:

1 - After each workout, using the stick over all the muscles in the legs seems to help improve recovery.
2 - If I have overdone things, the stick will help with healing. It can be used on a muscle knot to help relax the area and improve healing.
3 -The best thing about the stick is as a diagnostic tool. I use the stick to check for tender areas and knots in the muscles. This can help detect problems well before they become apparent. Don't wait for problems to become obvious while you are running. Early detection can prevent a minor issue becoming a major one.

It's important to have the muscle you are working on relaxed. Make sure that the muscle is 'floppy', almost like dead meat.

- For the calf, make sure the heel is supported (bed, sofa, etc) and the foot completely relaxed with the knee bent.
- For the front of the lower leg (Tibialis anterior), support the ball of the foot so the calf is under tension
- For the quad, support the heel of the foot and keep the leg straight.
- For the hamstring, bend your knee and put the top of your foot on a support, facing away from the support.

Note: The stick will not help with DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness). It's hard to explain the difference between DOMS and other muscle issues. If a muscle is tender and painful to any pressure across most of the muscle equally, it maybe DOMS. I'll blog on DOMS in the future, but it's an involved subject.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Running Tip #17 - Individuality & the experiment of one

"Everyone is different." This statement has implications for running, as each person may differ in their response to training, diet or other factors. The advice I give in this blog, as well as much of the other advice, is generic and assumes that people are the same. However, you are an experiment of one, a unique individual and you need to remember this. It means that you may need to train, eat, sleep, race differently to others. For instance, I find that a high fat meal the night before a race works much better for me than a high carbohydrate meal (pasta).

What does this mean to you? Be prepared to experiment and to go against established advice.

[1]Individual differences in response to regular physical activity

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Running Tip #16 - The Golden Rule of Racing

The golden rule is very simple; "never do something in a race you have not practiced in training".

This advice is so simple, it is easy to miss.

  1. Train in the shoes you will race in. Don't race in new shoes.
  2. Practice drinking like you will in a race. If you are getting paper cups that you are going to drink on the run, practice on a long run. It is tough to drink and run!
  3. If you are intending to eat on the race, this requires practice at race pace. Even getting a gel out of a pocket and open at race pace can be difficult. With gels, practice if you are going to take with fluid, swallow fast, or take a bit at a time while mixing with saliva (my approach).
  4. For races that are in the dark, practice running with a light
  5. If you will be running overnight, practice running overnight.
  6. Use your long runs to perfect your pre-race routine. You need to know how you body will react to different types of breakfast or fluids.
  7. Include the night before in your long run in your training. What you eat the night before can have a big impact on your run the following morning. The general advice is to eat pasta or similar, but I find that a high fat meal the night before is far better for me. Try different meals in training, not racing.
  8. Terrain - train for hilly races on hilly courses. Train for trail runs on trails.

Some things are hard to practice:

  1. Hanging around before the race starts in the cold. Think about what to wear to keep warm at the start that you can discard.
  2. Spring races where it may be warmer than your training. Overdressing to build heat adaptation can help a little.
  3. Altitude can be replicated via technology, but it is very expensive. Trying to get to the race location a few days early can help, but is often impractical
  4. Tapering is one of the hardest things to practice. Your only choice is to learn from each race.
  5. Don't be stupid. Sadly, this is often only apparent in hindsight. Make a note of your mistakes in your pre-race checklist, so hopefully you don't make them twice.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Running Tip #15 -Hydration 101


The advice given to runners on hydration has changed over time and looks set to continue to change. There are competing forces at work - sports drink manufacturers, event organizers (often sponsored by the manufacturers) and scientists (some also sponsored by the manufacturers). One thing is clear about hydration - it is important. Incorrect hydration can lead to impaired performance, and in extreme cases, death.

A condition related to dehydration is Hyponatremia, which is where the sodium (salt) level in the blood becomes too dilute. This is a dangerous condition that has killed a number of runners. More on this later.

This blog entry is a follow on to 'Practical Hydration' which should be read first.

Effects of dehydration

Everyone knows that dehydration is bad. But how bad? Current research indicates that some level of dehydration (up to 3%) does not impact performance, or impacts performance much less than expected [7]. (Dehydration of 5% does impact performance [11].) This may be due to the fact that carbohydrate (glycogen) is stored with water, in the ratio of about 1g glycogen to 2.5g water [8]. This means that 2000 calories of glycogen depletion that are likely to occur in marathon distance runs would result in about 4lb weight loss with no reduction in hydration (2000Kcal/4=500g glycogen + 1250g water = 1750g). In practice moving from a high carbohydrate to high fat diet can see 6lb weight loss, believed to be glycogen + water depletion [8].

Salt loss through sweat

The amount of salt that is lost through sweating varies a lot. It varies from individual to individual, and for an individual it will vary depending on fitness and heat acclimation [9]. This means that you may have to experiment with your salt intake, both during and after exercise. Anecdotal tip: If your skin is crusty with salt after a run, you are probably someone who sweats out a lot of salt.

More on Hyponatremia

Hyponatremia is where the sodium (salt) levels becomes too dilute. Initial symptoms tend to be a gain in weight and a general swelling and 'puffiness', most noticeable in the hands. More severe symptoms are caused by a swelling of the brain (cerebral edema) including nausea, vomiting, headache and malaise [10].

The cause of Hyponatremia is poorly understood, but believed to be related to excessive water intake [1]. (I believe that this is excessive fluid intake in the absence of sufficient electrolytes.) Hyponatremia can be common in endurance athletes. In a 1997 Ironman triathlon, almost 4% of competitors received attention for Hyponatremia [4]. In a study of the 2002 Boston Marathon, 13% of finishers had some level of Hyponatremia, and 0.6% had critical Hyponatremia [2]. The study revealed that the risk factors for Hyponatremia include a slow finish time (>4 hour) and consumption of >6 pints (3 liters) of water during the race; BAA suggests a 'slight build' is also a risk factor[12]. Healthy kidneys can excrete about 2 pints (1 liter) of fluid per hour, but this may be reduced by exertion or illness [3]. So drinking >6 pints in 4 hours could easily exceed the kidneys capacity to cope.

The recent rise in Hyponatremia may be due to earlier advice to athletes to "drink as much as possible" [13], combined with a general concern about salt intake.

HypERnatremia - the opposite of HypOnatremia

Generally, Hypernatremia (too much sodium in the blood) seems to be a result of dehydration rather than excessive salt intake [17]. It should be noted that taking electrolyte capsules bypasses the body's taste. This sense of taste seems to reflect our body's internal sensors; our desire for salty foods reflects our salt requirements.

Salt and High Blood Pressure

If you have high blood pressure, you may need to be careful with your salt intake. There is evidence that increased salt intake can increase blood pressure [4]. If you have high blood pressure, discuss these issues with your doctor. If your doctor is not an athlete, I would highly recommend changing to one that is. If you don't know what your blood pressure is, get it checked. (As an aside, if you have low blood pressure, which I do, increasing your salt intake can really help.)

Caffeine and Alcohol

The scientific evidence shows that caffeine is generally not a diuretic [5, 14, 15]. Previous studies have shown that if you don't normally take caffeine and then get a large dose, there is some diuretic effect. However normal intakes of caffeine by non-users and use by regular users is not a diuretic [16]. (If you urinate more because you drink a 20oz Latte, it is because of the 20oz of fluid, not the caffeine.)

Alcohol is another story; drinking anything stronger than 2% will cause dehydration. Because alcohol takes 36 hours to clear the body, it should be avoided for 48 hours before you wish to avoid impaired performance [5].

Muscle Cramps

The common wisdom that muscle cramps are caused by lack of electrolytes or dehydration does not appear to be supported by science [6].

Blisters and black toe nails

Dehydration reduces body weight, which can reduce the size of your feet. This in turn changes the fit of your shoes, causing blisters. Hyponatremia can cause swelling, which increases the size of your feet and can cause blisters. Both conditions can also increase the chance of black toe nails.

[1]Exercise-Associated Hyponatremia

[2]Hyponatremia among Runners in the Boston Marathon

[3]Water Intoxication

[4]Micronutrient Information Center - Sodium

[5]Caffeine dehydration : Caffeine and alcohol - just how dehydrating are they?

[6]Muscle Cramps : No link between hydration and cramps

[7]Hydration - fluid intake advice and tips

[8]The Relation Of Glycogen To Water Storage In The Liver

[9]Cracking the Code on Hydration


[11]Dehydration reduces cardiac output and increases systemic and cutaneous vascular resistance during exercise,%20J%20Appl%20Physiol%2079,%201487-96,%201995.pdf


[13]USATF Announces Major Changes in Hydration Guidelines for Long Distance Runners

[14]Metabolic and exercise endurance effects of coffee and caffeine ingestion

[15]Effects of caffeine ingestion on body fluid balance and thermoregulation during exercise

[16]Caffeine ingestion and fluid balance: a review.;jsessionid=KNhWhGQSZnXhY11p2f7qnnmn1Q7z376shvhsK7hTWDLVGQhWpGGJ!811725889!181195628!8091!-1

[17]Sodium Status of Collapsed Marathon Runners

Further reading (free registration required)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Running Tip #14 - Practical Hydration


There will be two entries for hydration - this is the short story, and the next entry will include lots more information. Hydration is a more complex topic than you might expect, is it is about water and electrolytes, mainly salt.

Fellrnr's Hydration Guidelines

When you are thirsty, drink. If you are not thirsty, don't drink.

If salty things (potato chips, etc) appeal, eat salty things or drink with electrolytes. If salty things (or the thought of salty things) are nauseating, drink water.

Don't drink to make the suffering of a race less - if you're not thirsty, drinking won't help your misery. Don't drink a fixed amount; let your thirst guide you. But if you're thirsty, don't skip drinking to make up time; unless you are very close to the finish, you'll end up slower.

For extra information on your hydration, weigh yourself before and after you run; the difference between the two numbers will be changes in hydration. If your weight has dropped 0-2%, you're probably hydrating okay. If your weight has dropped much more than 2%, you may need more fluids. If your weight has gone up, you probably need more salt.

Further suggestions, based on anecdotal evidence and personal experience: If your hands swell up, or you find your skin becoming puffy, you probably need more salt. If you find that after running, you are thirsty, but everything you drink seems to go straight through you without quenching your thirst, you probably need more salt.

Don't start your run thirsty - it is better to hydrate before you start than to try to 'catch up' on the run. However, drinking lots of water before a run without plenty of electrolytes is a bad thing. This practice can flush out electrolytes, creating a problem ahead of time.

What to drink?

Drinking water without consuming salt is not a good idea. For shorter runs, salty snacks after the run may be sufficient. For longer runs, you need to consume salt during the run. I drink water with 1/4 tsp of salt per quart as a cheap solution. Many people use a sports drink or electrolyte capsules on longer runs. I dislike electrolyte capsules, partly because I struggle to swallow them, but also because they bypass the sense of taste. Our taste for salty things reflects our sodium balance.

I am not going to cover sports drinks or the addition of fuel (carbohydrates, protein, even fat) to your drinks; that is a larger topic and does not have any direct bearing on hydration. The only caveat is to make sure your drink does not make you nauseous, as that will have some obvious impact on hydration! A drink that does not taste good will also discourage drinking, which can lead to dehydration; make sure you like the flavor.

I'm also intentionally ignoring electrolytes other than salt (sodium); they are important, but generally not critical in the short term. As mentioned earlier, I often add a pinch of 'no salt' (potassium chloride) to my drink to give me a bit of potassium. Eating a nutritious diet is important to get a variety of micronutrients. (Bananas have a lot of potassium, but potatoes have more.) Magnesium requires a blog entry of its own.

The Fellrnr Drinks

Pre-run - 24-32 oz of fluid with 1/4 tsp salt about an hour before the run. This gives my body a chance to keep or flush out the fluids and electrolytes. (I also take a pinch of potassium salt ('No Salt') and a magnesium supplement before the run.)

For training runs where I don't need extra calories, I drink add 1/4 tsp salt, plus a pinch of 'no salt' to each quart of water. This tastes a little odd, like very soft water.

For races, or training runs where I want extra calories, I use Gatorade with the same extra 1/4 tsp salt, plus a pinch of 'no salt' to each quart. This makes the Gatorade taste very strong - try it before you run with it.

Reminder - As always, I suggest you do your own research and make your own decisions, taking what I write as one source of input.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Running Tip #13 - Magnesium, my favorite micronutrient


I take magnesium for three reasons - migraines, endurance and bone health. Magnesium is vital to life, being part of every cell. It is even a critical part of energy supply, being needed for ATP usage. I believe it is a critical micronutrient for runners.


Only 32% of the US population gets their RDA of magnesium, and only 27% in NC [7]. Magnesium levels in the blood fall after a marathon, which suggests that runners are more at risk for magnesium deficiency than sedentary people. There is even some suggestion that magnesium deficiency is related to the death of a marathon runner due to mitral valve prolapse. [5]


There is some evidence for magnesium supplementation for improving athletic performance. "That means that athletes wouldn't be able to work or train as long as they would if they had better magnesium levels" [4]. There is evidence that magnesium deficiency can result in a significant reduction in exercise performance [9]. There is increased loss of magnesium in athletes [8] through sweat and urine. It seems a reasonable assumption to this author that the increased sweating that occurs in an NC summer would exacerbate this loss.

Bone Health

Magnesium is a critical component of bones, making up about 1% of the structure. Lower levels of magnesium produce, more brittle bones with larger bone crystals [1]. Inadequate magnesium results in lower blood calcium levels, resistance to hormone that control bone density and reduction of vitamin D effect; all result in reduced bone density [1]. There is some evidence that magnesium supplementation on its own will help bone density [10]. One study showed this in healthy older white subject, but not in black subjects [11]. Magnesium is also believed to be critical to calcium absorption [15]. (If you have concerns over bone density, don't forget to make sure you are getting enough Vitamin D.)


There is evidence for magnesium supplementation helping prevent migraines [2,3]. Personally I have seen a reduction in my migraines, and an improvement in my low light vision. If you suffer from migraines, I would strongly recommend reading the reference articles.


There is some very tenuous evidence that magnesium can help with muscle cramps [12]. This is not a problem I suffer from, so I have no personal perspective.

Other Impacts of Deficiency

There are studies that have linked magnesium deficiency with asthma, emphysema, Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Depression, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure in women, and several other problems. [1, 16]

Increasing Intake

Magnesium, is absorbed at about 30-40% efficiency [13]. Good sources of magnesium in food include nuts, cereals, coffee, green leafy vegetables and especially chocolate [13]. Cheap supplements use magnesium oxide, which is very hard to absorb; I use magnesium orotate, though chelated forms are also supposed to work well. Avoid taking Magnesium sulfate as it is used to treat constipation [14]. Vitamin C can help absorption of minerals. Therefore I take magnesium with Vitamin C on an empty stomach. (Bathing in Epson Salts can also raise magnesium levels in the blood.)


My research indicates that magnesium is generally a safe supplement at RDA type levels. Excess magnesium is filtered by the kidneys, so overdose is normally only an issue for people with kidney issues. Magnesium supplements can cause diarrhea, but this seems to be linked to the type of supplement. As with all my advice, verify it independently. If you have any doubts, consult your physician.

My Usage

I buy my Magnesium Orotate from Lucky Vitamin as they seem to have the best price I have found - I generally take one tablet (500mg) with Vitamin C on rising, and another post run.

References - Magnesium

[1] Linus Pauling Institute - Magnesium
[6]Magnesium deficiency (medicine)
[7] USDA intake figures for NC
[13] Magnesium in biology
[14] Epsom Salts
[16]University of Maryland Medical Center - Magnesium

References - Magnesium and bones

[10]Magnesium supplementation and osteoporosis
[11]Magnesium intake from food and supplements is associated with bone mineral density in healthy older white subjects.
[15] Magnesium: A Key to Calcium Absorption

References - Magnesium and Migraines

[2] Magnesium Treatment for Migraines An Inexpensive but Equivocal Treatment
[3]Are Migraine Headaches a Symptom of a Magnesium Deficiency?

References - Magnesium and endurance

[4] Lack Energy? Maybe It's Your Magnesium Level
[5] The dangers of magnesium deficiency in endurance athletes
[8]Micronutrients (magnesium, zinc, and copper): are mineral supplements needed for athletes?
[9] Iron, zinc and magnesium nutrition and athletic performance.

References - Magnesium and cramps
[12] Exertional Heat Cramps: Recovery and Return to Play

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Running Tip #12 - Running in the Dark

In the winter, it can be hard to find a time to run in the few daylight hours that are available. You may also find yourself in a race that takes place in darkness. Either way, running in darkness brings its own challenges, both practical and psychological.

Practical issues - Lighting

One option for running in the dark is to stick to well lit paths. If you do this near cars, be sure you have plenty of reflective gear; runners nearly always do worse than cars when the two collide. I would also recommend a flashing yellow/red LED light attached to the back of your shorts. Something like this Nathan is cheap and works well -

If you are running away from street lights, then carrying your own light source becomes important. (You can run by the light of the moon sometimes, but I do not rely on it.) The most common approaches are headlights or hand held flashlights. The advantage of a hand held flashlight is the light source is lower than your eyes, so bumps in the path cast shadows you can see; this makes it far easier to see the shape of the path. The downside of hand held lights is that having something in your hand is a pain.

A nice solution to this is the Petzl Tactikka XP Adapt ( This light clips to the waist of your shorts, providing a waist level light that is hands free. The other thing I like about this Petzl light is that it has a diffuser to create a nice even light that works really well. This is my preferred light for most night running. For early mornings it is doubly nice, as when the sun comes up, it is very unobtrusive. It is not recommended for use with lithium batteries, but I have done so without a problem. It does work with rechargeable batteries, but when the power runs out, it runs out fast! I have found that the light works well with compression shorts - I'm not sure how you would get on with something baggy.

For trail running in the dark, where I also want to see much further than the Tactikka, I have the Petzl MYO RXP, which is their first regulated headlight ( A regulated light stays at the same brightness until the battery in nearly flat, then drops very quickly. The RXP is much, much brighter than the Tactikka and without the diffuser in place, it will illuminate the trail for a good distance. This makes navigation much easier and reduces the sense of confinement you can get when running for a long time at night.

The combination of the Tactikka and the RXP works well for me. I wish there were a brighter version of the Tactikka, as the RXP tends to overwhelm its output.

Amongst my many other headlights, I have the Petzl MYO XP Belt, which has the batteries in a separate box that attaches on your belt (hence the name). It is a good idea for keeping the load on your head down, but the wire is very thick and inflexible, which annoys me. The wire has also broken on my battery pack, which is disappointing. It is a great light for extreme cold, as you can keep the batteries warm, but other than that, I would not recommend it.

As you may have gathered, I like the Petzl range of lights. I've had other brands, but none work quite as well for me. The flip down diffuser that Petzl includes on many of their lights is invaluable. They are not waterproof, but I've never had a problem wearing one in heavy rain. Carrying one upside down around my wrist once caused some temporary problems though. I'd love to try the Petzl Ultra, but at $430, it is out of my price range.

The only other safety tips for night running on remote trails is to carry a bear bell to help keep the creatures away and a cell phone to call for help, just in case.

Psychological Issues

There are a number of psychological issues with running in the dark. The biggest challenge for me running in the evening is that when the sun goes down, I want to go to bed. The feeling of sleepiness, particularly if you have been running for many hours can be overwhelming. I have overcome this, partly with practice, and partly with a different mindset. When I look at my watch and discover it is a particular time, I work to detach myself from the meaning of that time. If it is 10pm, I don't think 'I should be going to bed'. I work to imagine I am in a different country on a different time zone, and generally, it helps. Even on MMT, when I was racing for 34 hours, I did not suffer from sleepiness.

Another problem with running at night can be a sense of isolation. Your world can become a small circle of light, with no other points of reference. Running with others, or running near roads can reduce this sense of isolation. I find that the time just around sunset is the worst for me, as it combines with a sense that I should be tucked up in bed, not out running.

The darkness can lead to an irrational fear. Being scared of the dark is quite natural, especially if you are exhausted. I was told by an outdoor survival expert that the key is to have a 'predator mindset' not a 'prey mindset'. You have to believe you are the biggest, baddest thing out there. I found this advice really worked for me. Note: this deals with irrational fear, but some fears are rational and need to be dealt with differently. If there are reasons to be afraid of wildlife or people, you need to be equipped to deal with them or take other precautions. Pepper Spray (I usually carry some), bear bells, cell phones and most importantly, running with a friend can all help alleviate risk.

My remaining psychological issue is that I run much slower in the dark than the light. I always feel like I am running much faster than I actually am. Looking at my watch that displays pace helps compensate a little, but not completely.