Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Taper: Fueling Body & Mind (Part II)

Death By Burger. 
Woodstock Inn Brewery. 
Woodstock, NH
Photo by Gianina Lindsey.
"You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength."  ~Marcus Aurelius

In the final weeks before a race of marathon distance or greater there are a number of important nutritional and mental priorities and practices to consider.  

Dialing In Your Nutrition
Performance nutrition is the concept of using food to compliment physical preparation and enhance athletic outcomes.  There are three nutritional priorities and practices to consider during the taper;

#1: Adequate Hydration
Water is the most important nutrient in the body.  It is the medium in which many chemical reactions occur, particularly those involved in energy production.  It is also largely the medium in which other nutrients and waste products are transported in the body.  During a taper your locomotion muscles (ie. sport-specific lower extremity muscles) are busy repairing and fortifying from the months of high volume work you've done.  Intracellular fluid compartments (comprising 65% of your total body water) are where this work gets done.  Maintaining adequate hydration assures that these important processes are optimally executed.  Practice:  drink enough water daily that your urine is a pale yellow color right up to race day.  

#2: Sufficient Protein Intake
The most obvious benefit of sufficient protein intake for endurance athletes is in the repair of skeletal muscle broken down repeatedly during high volume training.  But the diverse function of proteins in the body represents a number of very important considerations for the tapering endurance athlete including antibody formation (which keep you healthy), enzymes (which keep chemical reactions humming along), messengers (like hormones that help different tissues talk to each other), and transportation/storage (which assist in the movement of atoms and small molecules within the cell and throughout the body).  Practice:  make sure to include protein sources at each of your three daily primary meals.

#3:  Carbohydrate "Un-Loading"
It might come as a surprise to many endurance athletes that carbohydrates are third on this list (rather than #1).  As has been discussed before, stored carbohydrates (as liver & muscle glycogen) are an important fuel source that opens up the potential to optimize stored body fat during multiple hours of physical activity.  While the pre-race pasta-focused "carbo load" has become a ritual for endurance athletes, the time to top off glycogen stores is during the last few weeks before a race, not the last few hours.  But most endurance athletes get more than adequate amounts of carbohydrates in their diets.  Practice:  shift focus to healthy carbohydrates including whole grains, low-fat dairy, fresh fruit, and fresh vegetables.  Limit simple sugars such as sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup containing foods.  

Sharpening Your Mental Blade
All the physical preparation in the world is worthless without the right mental approach on race day.  In the weeks leading up to an event the additional time you are afforded is the perfect opportunity to sharpen your mental approach.  Here are the three key elements to do this;

#1:  Visualize Success
All mind-body endurance athletes believe the concept of "the body achieves what the mind believes", but theory without practice is like a ship without a sail.  If you can repeatedly create a conscious image of your desired performance outcome then you will program your subconscious to direct your physical body to execute it.  Practice:  once a day create a vivid mental picture of you attaining your performance goal.  Include as many positive emotional elements as possible.  

#2:  Tune Out Distractions
Multiple hour endurance events almost always have at least one significant challenge that has the potential to derail a desired outcome (ie. weather, blisters, bonking).  Your ability to handle these unexpected circumstances is directly related to your capacity to focus.  But like many things, this focus in times of despair is a function of how effectively it is trained.  By concentrating on the effort in the moment during each training unit you can condition yourself to recognize and eliminate distracting thoughts giving you much more potential on race day to "solve the problem".  Practice:  during each taper training unit practice focus by remaining in the moment and continually taking stock of how your body feels.  Any time you are distracted by non-productive thinking; acknowledge it and then re-direct back to focusing on what you are doing at the moment.  

#3:  Stay Positive
The act of tapering can be mentally challenging for biochemical reasons previously discussed.  Either way, feelings of doubt have the potential to creep into the consciousness of every tapering endurance athlete.  This doubt can be expressed as a negative internal (and sometimes external) dialog.  Effort follows attitude and attitude is within your scope of influence.  While eliminating negative dialog is very difficult, it is always possible to identify it and strive to reduce it.  Practice:  refrain from negative internal and external dialog.  Use power thoughts like "I am physically and mentally prepared to give everything I have to this effort.".

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Taper: Staring Into The Abyss (Part I)

Heather Cote prepares for
her "Apex" run in the
Pemi Wilderness
Photo: Heather Cote
"Although our intellect always longs for clarity and certainty, our nature often finds uncertainty fascinating." -Carl von Clausewitz

If there's one thing that terrifies an endurance athlete more than anything else it's the dreaded taper.  In endurance sports of marathon distance or greater, tapering is the practice of reducing training volume in the weeks leading up to an event in an effort to optimize performance on race day.  And while endurance athletes intuitively understand the importance of it, that does not preclude them from fearing it.  In Part I of this review on tapering let's look at the purpose, the particulars, and the potential reason's why it's so difficult.  

The Purpose
In my previous entry, "Keep Easy Days Easy", the concept of form was introduced.  By way of review, today's form is the difference between yesterday's fitness and yesterday's fatigue.  Remember that both fitness and fatigue are cumulative.  The purpose of tapering is to reduce accumulated fatigue while maintaining fitness in an effort to bring form close to zero.  The exact ratio of fitness and carried fatigued is athlete-specific with some measure of trial and error done during early season "B" events.

The Particulars
There are a number of important specifics of the taper including the length, the volume, and the specific workouts.  Let's look at each individually.

The Length
The length of a taper is based on the duration (or length) of the event.  My general rule is four (4) weeks for events of marathon distance or greater.  That is to say, the training volume is gradually reduced for four weeks following the apex training unit.  The apex training unit is the last long event-specific training unit of the specific-preparation block.  For instance, in marathon training this would mean the last long run of the training cycle (ie. 20-22 miles).  

The Volume
With a taper of up to 27 days it's critical that the volume is reduced gradually.  Remember, the purpose is to shred the fatigue accumulated over the previous two weeks of training while maintaining the fitness gained in the previous three months.  A reduction of weekly training volume of 15-20% works for most athletes.  However, it's important to keep a daily eye on both form and subjective "post-activity" comments from the athlete to assure that fatigue is being adequately reduced.

The Specific Workouts
While reducing fatigue is priority #1, the maintenance of sport-specific fitness is a close #2.  My typical marathon or ultramarathon training plan has two "workouts" a week.  These generally include an up tempo training unit and a long run.  During the taper both of these training units remain on the schedule but their volume is systematically reduced.  The most effective way to reduce fatigue and maintain fitness during a taper is to reduce training unit duration while maintaining training unit intensity.  An example would be the following;

Apex Week
Tuesday Tempo: 30 minutes @ 1/2 marathon pace

Taper (1)
Tuesday Tempo: 20 minutes @ 1/2 marathon pace

This also holds true for the long run.  The total distance is reduced but the athlete is still expected to run a prescribed number of miles during that training unit at marathon goal pace.  

Then why is it so difficult?
While the reduced training volume during a taper is physically easier on the athlete, many report it being psychologically more difficult.  And the reason may surprise you.  

The effects of moderate aerobic exercise on improving mood state, sleep quality, and sense of well-being are well established in the scientific literature.  Yet the underlying causation of these effects has been open for debate.  The "runners high" is the rainbow-colored unicorn of the running world.  In other words, it's the most desirable outcome of running that few experience and none can consciously elicit.  But scientists are getting closer to understanding why the phenomena occurs and one theory suggests it's related to cannabinoids.

Yes indeed these are the same chemical constituent components found in marijuana but these cannabinoids are endogenous meaning that we produce them in the brain.  These endocannabinoids are produced as a result of moderate-high intensity physical activity (like running) and bind to opioid receptors in the brain.  When these opioid receptors are activated they cause two important effects; they blunt pain and act in the "reward" centers of the brain making running feel more "pleasurable".  
It's entirely plausible then that following months of training a runner might adapt to a certain level of circulating endocannabinoids and the resulting stimulation of the reward centers of the brain.  During a taper when training volume is drastically reduced (by either duration or more importantly intensity) a withdrawal may occur and result in the subjective feelings of restlessness, altered mood state, and disordered sleep patterns.  

One way to potentially mitigate these subjective feelings is to slowly reduce circulating levels of endocannabinoids by gradually reducing overall training volume but maintaining training intensity (ie. as in the Tuesday Tempo example above).  

A well designed taper will reduce fatigue, while maintaining fitness, and mitigate the psychological effects of the reduced training load.  

In Part II we will discuss the nutritional and mental priorities and practices during a taper.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Stage Racing: Race, Recover, Repeat

Physical recovery is a
key component to
stage racing success.
"No rest is worth anything expect the rest that is earned."  -Unknown

Stage racing is an increasingly common format of racing in which an athlete performs multiple races over a given period of time (weeks, days, hours).  While physical preparation and appropriate tapering is paramount, what you do (or don't do) between races may be the key to your ultimate success.  

Recovery Is Key
Your "in race" race plan will include a number of elements including gear, pacing, and nutrition.  But what happens the moment the stage is over may determine your readiness to race up to your training when it's time for the next stage.  This format of racing places a premium on recovery.  And recovery has four basic elements in stage racing.

1.) Nutritional
The initial priority after a stage is nutritional.  The objectives are to re-hydrate, replenish glycogen, and facilitate skeletal muscle repair.  Re-hydration is most effectively accomplished with an isotonic electrolyte containing beverage.  An example would be a diluted formula of HEED (ie. half a scoop per 20-24 ounces water).  Re-hydration rates are directly proportional to the environmental conditions, intensity, and duration of the stage.  It's important to note that water alone is not the preferred fluid and may contribute to significant electrolyte imbalances later in the event.

Take Home:  Re-hydrate with a diluted energy drink as soon as a stage is completed.

Once the re-hydration priority is satisfied the next objective is to replenish glycogen stores and to facilitate skeletal muscle repair.  While carbohydrate is the primary fuel source for shorter (ie. less than 30 minutes) more intense efforts (ie. greater than 85% peak capacity), glycogen stores may limit performance in longer (ie. greater than 2 hour) races if adequate carbohydrates aren't available.  Longer races are generally performed at a lower intensity than shorter races.  The fuel sources for these efforts are endogenous/exogenous carbohydrates and stored fats.  Biochemists have concluded that "fats burn in a carbohydrate flame" therefore in order to take advantage of the incredible stored fat energy reserves we must have carbohydrates available to metabolize.  These carbohydrates will be made available from your glycogen stores and your "in race" carbohydrate replenishment.  

Additionally, both shorter high intensity and longer low intensity stage racing results in the breakdown of skeletal muscle.  The degree to which activity-specific skeletal muscle tissue recovers may determine it's ability to contract with optimal force in subsequent stages.  While the restoration of skeletal muscle tissue is both individualized and time dependent, one of the essential components is adequate protein availability.  Optimizing both glycogen replenishment and skeletal muscle repair can be performed nutritionally at the same time.  Within an hour of the stage, consume a 3:1 (carbohydrate to protein) recovery beverage.  Ideally you're aiming for 1 gram of protein per 4 kgs body weight with three times as much carbohydrate.  This is eventually followed by a balanced, safe, and clean meal.  

Take Home:  Drink a "recovery beverage" within an hour of finishing a stage.  It should include both carbohydrate and protein.  Chocolate milk is a great example of an appropriately balanced recovery beverage.

2.)  Medical
Medical priorities are the next thing to address.  While significant issues resulting from physical trauma are obvious, skin integrity can often be the cause of sub-optimal performance including DNF's.  All athletes should get out of race attire and into clean dry clothes as soon as possible.  Runners should assess feet first and then identify any additional chaffing issues.  Cyclists should be concerned about skin integrity in the saddle area.  There are many commercially available products but Caldesene Protecting Powder is a great way to treat most minor skin irritations.  

Take Home:  Get into clean dry clothes fast and take care of your skin.

3.)  Logistical
Once your medical concerns are addressed, work to lay out and arrange your clothing, gear, and nutritional needs for the following stage.  This needs to be done before you focus on resting.

Take Home:  Do work before you do rest.

4.)  Physical
Once your nutritional, medical, and logistical needs are addressed it's time to relax.  As soon as you can, get off your feet and elevate them slightly.  This is also a great time to do some very gentle total body stretching.  While restful sleep is incredibly rejuvenating, unfamiliar and considerably less comfortable sleeping arrangements may make that very challenging.  Even if you're not sleeping soundly remember that resting is still incredibly important.

Take Home:  You don't have to be sleeping to be resting.

Stage racing can be incredibly rewarding and also incredibly taxing.  Include the above four basic recovery elements in your post-stage race and you will place yourself in the best possible position to perform to the level of your training in the next stage.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Keep Easy Days Easy

Erika Cote attacks "The Wall" at
the Mt. Washington Hillclimb.
Photo by Joe Viger Photography.
"Once you have commitment, you need the discipline and hard work to get you there."  ~Haile Gebrselassie
In Training Peaks vernacular, form (aka. training stress balance) is the sum of the following equation;

Yesterday's Fitness - Yesterday's Fatigue

Both fitness and fatigue are cumulative and are represented as weighted averages over the most recent and relative training cycle.  Athletes are generally in a position to perform at their peak capacity when their form is at or above zero.  The optimal form for an endurance athlete is individualized however and a qualified endurance coach with access to the above data can determine exactly the combination of training stress and recovery an athlete needs.  

Hard Work
Most endurance athletes are intrinsically and exceptionally motivated individuals who understand that hard work leads to performance improvement.  It's not difficult to get an endurance athlete to push themselves.  But the above equation suggests that there is a balance between the training stress that leads to fitness and the training stress that results in fatigue.  

Types of Recovery
Training programs with protracted and excessively high training volumes lead to undesirable and performance limiting levels of fatigue.  In best case scenarios, the athlete does not perform up to the level of their preparation.  In worst case scenarios, the athlete becomes sick or injured.  Understanding the benefit and practical application of recovery becomes instrumental to performance success.

Recovery is administered in one of two ways; absolute and relative.  Absolute recovery is a day off from training.  Generally speaking, most endurance athletes benefit from at least one absolute recovery day per microcycle (ie. week).  Relative recovery is either a cross training unit (something other than the primary activity) or a lower volume primary training unit (ie. "active recovery").  Properly prescribed "active recovery" training units utilize the athlete's primary sport (ie. running for runners or cycling for cyclists) and are at a sufficiently low intensity to provide the athlete valuable neuromuscular stimulation without resulting in unduly high levels of fatigue.

The Common Mistake
The most common mistake endurance athletes make is performing their "active recovery" training units at too high of an intensity.  This failure to execute the training plan doesn't lead to fitness gains, it leads to fatigue.  And excessive fatigue tips the training stress balance (ie. form) toward negative numbers and outcomes.  

Discipline yourself to take easy days easy.  In the end, they will ultimately lead to greater performance gains when it matters the most.