Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Marathon Training: Seeing The Forest For The Trees

A well designed plan, executed
with consistency and purpose,
places an athlete in the best
position for success.
"To see the big picture, get out of the dark valleys, climb to the sunny summits."  ~Mehmet Murat Ildan

In the midst of a 16-20 week marathon training plan it's easy for an athlete to lose sight of the big picture.  Every day seems to be precisely orchestrated with minute details of distance, time, and pace.  Coupled with that are the endless emotional highs and lows of training hits and misses.  While it's true that athletes need to commit their full attention to making the most of every training opportunity, it is helpful to understand that a larger picture with a longer view does exist.  

The Daily Grind (aka. The Trees)
Endurance athletes are asked to focus on what's directly in front of them, taking on today's training challenge with full attention and commitment.  It is only then that the athlete optimizes the time spent.  Every training unit has a prescribed intensity and duration.  This is known as training volume.  Training stress is the daily accumulated volume of exercise (both endurance and strength training).  It's important to note that it includes training units that are successfully completed and those that are not.  

The Big Picture (aka. The Forest)
Endurance coaches are keenly interested in both the objective execution and subjective analysis of individual training units.  Both the objectivity (data) and subjectivity (feelings) help the coach to understand how the athlete is tolerating the training stress.  It can never be predicted, with any acceptable degree of certainty, how an athlete will handle a larger training cycle at the outset.  The flexibility to adjust a training plan from day to day, week to week, and month to month is the hallmark of effective athlete-coach communication and engagement.  

Ultimately the athlete-coach relationship results in the improvement of sport-specific fitness.  Fitness is the result of accumulated training stress over a period of months.  A properly designed plan will gradually place increasing training stress on an athlete to stimulate sport-specific accommodation.  Fatigue is a by-product of training stress and represents the impact of the last few weeks of training.  The difference between fitness and fatigue is referred to as form and describes an athlete's readiness to perform optimally.  During periods of advancing training stress, it's expected that an athlete will carry more fatigue than fitness.  This is represented by prolonged periods of negative form values and subjective reports of tiredness from an athlete.  Both are monitored closely by an endurance coach.

With one eye on the present, effective endurance coaches look ahead to the apex of training and the subsequent taper to assure that the athlete has reached adequate levels of fitness and then successfully shed fatigue while mitigating losses in fitness to arrive at race day in optimal form.  The specifics of the apex and taper help the athlete and coach set reasonable performance goals.  

While much planning, preparation, and focus is rightfully given to race day, endurance coaches must also see and plan beyond the event.  This includes immediate and remote recovery practices (nutritional and physical) as well as training logistics (time away from running and off-seasons).  Taken together, this overall training plan results in both readiness to perform in the short-term and long term sustainability of performance.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Indoor Training: The Unintended Consequences

Indoor-based training has become
increasingly popular for endurance

athletes who live in areas where
winter weather is a challenge.
"Keep your face always toward the sunshine - and shadows will fall behind you." ~Walt Whitman

Indoor-based training has become an increasingly popular option for endurance athletes during winter months.  This includes social media-based technology platforms like Zwift for cyclists and the treadmill for runners.  These options provide endurance athletes with safe, predictable, and comfortable environments in which to carry out winter training workouts.  This may be particularly important for athletes with targeted events in the spring for whom quality training units are critical.  There may, however, be unintended consequences to these predominantly indoor-based training plans that have the potential to impact health and athletic performance.  The lack of significant exposure to the sun during the winter months may negatively effect levels of Vitamin D.  These seasonal variations in Vitamin D levels have the potential to impact bones, immune system, and mood.

Vitamin D
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble substance which is naturally present in very few foods, added to others, and available as a dietary supplement.  It is commonly produced when UVB light (from sunshine) comes into contact with exposed skin, is absorbed, and triggers Vitamin D synthesis.  Within the body Vitamin D is converted to calcitriol, a hormone, which directs cells to produce certain proteins.  These proteins then in turn play important roles in the bones, immune system, and potentially within the brain.

Insufficiency vs. Deficiency
It is fairly well established that residents in areas with harsh winter conditions demonstrate annual variations in Vitamin D levels as a result of less available daylight and less time spent outdoors.  That is to say that Vitamin D levels tend to be lower in the winter months when compared to spring, summer, and fall.  Although clinical Vitamin D deficiency is uncommon in endurance athletes in these geographical areas, sub-clinical relative insufficiency may be present.  And because the optimal function of bone, immune system, and the brain is particularly important for these athletes, the maintenance of adequate Vitamin D levels year round may be essential to both optimal health and athletic performance.  

Indoor training reduces the time spent outdoors.  In a modern life spent predominantly inside, this location of training potentially impacts the production of Vitamin D through less exposure to natural sunlight.  The impact of seasonal variations in exposure to this UVB light has consequences to the endurance athlete in three principle areas.

The Bones
Vitamin D is essential for building and maintaining healthy bones.  Calcium, the principle constituent of bone, is absorbed when Vitamin D is present.  Running has the potential to both positively impact bone density and negatively impact the risk of stress-related processes.  First, it may help strengthen running-specific bones such as those about the hip.  These are particularly vulnerable to fall-related fractures in older adults.  Optimizing bone density about the hip earlier in life through both adequate Vitamin D levels and bone building impact activities such as running, may reduce the likelihood of fractures later in adulthood.  However, in vulnerable athletes who participate in certain training practices, running may increase the likelihood of stress-related bony pathologies such as stress reactions and fractures.  Once these pathologies are diagnosed, adequate levels of available calcium along with modifications in training practices help the athlete to recover.

The Immune System
A properly functioning immune system helps endurance athletes stay healthy.  When health is maintained, training remains consistent.  And consistent training leads to fitness improvements.  T-cells are an important part of our immune defense.  Vitamin D (via calcitriol) signals the formation of these cells and strengthens our immunity.  Endurance athletes are subject to the same seasonal illnesses as non-athletes.  However, a combination of heavy endurance training (which may reduce immune function) and indoor gym-based exercise (which subjects athletes to large crowds) may significantly increase the likelihood of exercise-limiting illnesses.  Therefore, adequate levels of Vitamin D may assure that sufficient levels of T-cells are available to fight these illnesses.   

The Brain
Most endurance athletes during winter months travel to work in the dark, work inside all day, and then travel home in the dark resulting in very little time spent exposed to natural outdoor light.  Seasonal affective disorder is a mood disorder that is common during winter months and characterized by symptoms such as low energy levels, trouble concentrating, fatigue, increased desire for isolation, sleep disturbances, and carbohydrate cravings which may lead to weight gain.  While the exact causes are unknown, scientists suspect the mood disorder may be linked indirectly to less exposure to sunlight in the fall and early winter.  Vitamin D (via calcitriol) is involved in the synthesis of serotonin and dopamine in the brain.  Both of these substances are linked to depression.  

It is possible to balance the desire for quality training units and the investment in indoor training technology with the well established health benefits of Vitamin D.  There are two possible ways that endurance athletes who wish to primarily train indoors may take advantage.  The first is to dedicate as much time as possible in the winter to being outside on the weekends between the hours of 11:30 am - 1:30 pm during which UVB reaches peak levels.  The more skin exposed during these times the greater the amount of Vitamin D production.  Lastly, it would seem prudent to supplement with 600 IU's of Vitamin D3 daily during the winter months to optimize the benefits.  


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Doubt, Faith, & Tenacity

Tim Van Orden embodies doubt,
faith, and tenacity on Upper
Walking Boss at the Loon Mountain
Race, Lincoln, NH. 
Photo by
Joe Viger Photography.
Nothing is possible without three essential elements; a great ball of doubt, a deep root of faith, and a fierce tenacity of purpose.  ~Zen wisdom

It is always the case that your present situation is framed by your beliefs.  In athletics, as in life, there is an unending ebb and flow of triumph and defeat.  Having the proper mental constitution allows us to enjoy the pleasant without holding on when it changes (it will) and to embrace the unpleasant without fear that it will always be that way (it won't).  

Doubt: The Beginning 
Contrary to most theoretical teachings, doubt is not the opposite of faith but a part of it.  To doubt is to question.  To question is to search for answers.  And when those answers lead to understanding, we attain a higher level of existence.  Questioning constructs our beliefs.  These beliefs, when witnessed firsthand, create faith.  Rather than seeing doubt as a negative, accept that is part of the search for knowledge.  With knowledge there is growth and with growth there is development.

Faith: The Compass
A precise path to success does not exist.  While short term training plans map out our physical actions for weeks and months in advance, unforeseen obstacles await.  Because of this reality, a compass is a necessity.  Faith is that compass.  When things don't go as planned, and we are forced to divert from our original route, our faith helps us to navigate around these obstacles and return us to our success bearing.  We trust this compass because of the time spent collecting knowledge.  

Tenacity: The Way
Goal attainment is a result of a commitment to unwavering forward progress in the face of challenges great and small.  It is not prosperity that defines us, rather it is adversity.  While action has the potential to lead to change, consistent action guarantees change.  With faith as our guide, we resolve that no matter what the obstacle, the way is always in the process.  We grip tightly.