— Ernesto Burden (@ernestoburden) November 27, 2013
I am taking a running break between seasons. I am glad to finally have given myself “permission” to do this. If you haven’t had one in a while, it’s worth exploring.
It’s been a little more than three weeks and I’ve only run a couple of times. The first two easy runs, a week and a few days ago, felt fine. But then the nagging right knee IT band pain that I’d been feeling since mile 36 of the Stone Cat vanished — miracle — and was replaced by a sharp left knee soreness – drat. Add to that the fact that the neuroma…well, I won’t bother reiterating the Litany of Injuries. If you are a runner or have running friends, especially in the over-forty camp, you know this litany well. We stubbornly run with and through all sorts of injuries, and often start the next training plan not entirely recovered from the last one.
I’d promised myself two weeks solid no running following the Stone Cat, not just because of that race but because prior to that had been multiple marathon distance long training runs, a 50K, and months of training, a hard-run marathon PR this spring at Boston, and before that – five or six seasons with no more than a couple days break in between each.
I needed to give myself permission to really rest, recover and heal, mentally and physically. And even though I knew some of the elites take even a month off after big races, and even though I’d read this piece by Coach Greg McMillan explaining why one ought to break between seasons, there were always things that prevented me from taking real downtime.
Here they are, and how I’ve tried to resolve them:
Worry 1: Losing fitness in the off season. Solution: Cross training. For me that’s been some cardio like spinning, but even more, it’s been weights. I’ve really been loving getting strong again. I’m going to trust that if I get healthy and rested, I’ll get the aerobic fitness back when the time comes.
Worry 2: Gaining weight. What happens when you go from burning 6-10,000 calories a week running to not doing that? Solution: For me I went back to eating the low-carb, high fat, whole-food diet that’s served me well in the past and actually have lost about five pounds. Despite weight lifting and adding some muscle. This diet may not be for everyone, but in general, I think it works. If you don’t want to diet, I’d say don’t worry about a few pounds and take a break anyway.
Worry 3: Running is my stress relief and my alone time. Solution: For me this has turned out not to be as big of an issue as I thought it would be. Knowing it’s there to go back to when the time comes makes me happy, and in the meantime, it’s been pretty darn stress relieving not having to lace up and hit the road in the dark, cold mornings or nights.
Final Tip: Stay relentlessly optimistic. Recovery from many tough seasons, or sidelined by injury? Either way, consciously write that period into your training plan, use it to build toward future goals, and find a way to get your head around it 100%. Maybe write a blog post.about it…
So there you have it. I’m not starting again until my legs feel really good. That could be another few days – or weeks. It may be that I don’t even do a full 18-week training cycle for the Boston Marathon and trim it to a 16- or 12-week plan, but start it at 100%. I’m sick of limping into a new training plan with injuries lingering from the last one. If McMillan is to be believed, recovering properly will help build strength and speed and more than compensate for the loss of fitness during the down time. I’ll let you know how it goes!
At bedtime ‘Bel says, smiling with dreamy content, “I have to practice saying baa. I’m a sheep in the Christmas pageant.” And I think to myself, sometimes life is just like a lovely story in which a dad is tucking the sweetest darn kid into bed.
Well, the Stone Cat 50 Miler is behind me and I’m eight days into a solid stretch of recovery. No running for two weeks, just cycling and core workouts. Then light running and cross training for a while until it’s time to start training for Boston. It’ll be an exciting, rare halcyon stretch of physical sloth; to my mind that’s the perfect time to start to lose the 10 or 15 pounds I’ve wanted to drop for a couple of years. Counterintuitive? The trick is, I have a hard time losing weight and training hard at the same time. Hard training demands lots of fuel, especially when it’s a hard training schedule combined with a busy work schedule and a big rambunctious family! I’ve got no headspace for dieting under those conditions.
I ate what I wanted the day after the 50 miler, and then Monday morning dropped into a fairly strict high-fat, low-carb eating style. I say *strict* but what does that mean when you can have bacon and eggs with cheese and guacamole with an awesome salad on the side for breakfast? This is pretty easy for me, I love the food choices, and I feel light and sharp once I’m in the groove, and it’s a familiar enough diet now so I can get into the groove pretty quickly.
Anyhow, I mentioned “experiment,” and I don’t mean whether I can lose 10 pounds with an Atkins type diet. I know that’ll work. What I want to find out is whether I can perform just as well or better on a low carb diet, including during long runs and races, as I did on carbs.
The idea is that once you are adapted to burning fat versus carbohydrates, you have far deeper fuel stores to call upon during endurance training. Bonking in a marathon happens when your muscles run out of glycogen (sugar) and brain and muscles have to transition to burning fat for energy. This transition is pretty unpleasant if your brain and body are used to burning carbs primarily. Most people have enough glycogen to run about 20 miles. They often bonk at 21, last miles of the marathon are horrible. I’ve had this happen a few times, avoided it most times. Conceptually, this won’t happen if you are fat adapted.
I’ve practiced — over several seasons running — long runs without taking in any sugar (Gu, sports drinks, etc.) or any fuel at all, just water. The goal was to train myself to be more efficient at burning fat, and it’s definitely helped take the sting out of the last miles of the marathon. But I’ve never tried a whole training cycle on a high-fat low-carb diet – essentially training in ketosis.
Why try it? A few reasons:
- I’m ever more convinced sugar and unrestricted carbs are at the heart of our national obesity crisis
- Research shows a high-fat low-carb diet is heart healthy (Dr Aseem Malhotra, writing in the British Medical Journal says, “saturated fat from non-processed food is not harmful and probably beneficial”
- I enjoy the consistent energy levels and sated feeling a high-fat diet provides, no hungry horrors where you end up wolfing down whole bags of chips when you really just wanted a handful
- I think if I can get 10-15 pounds lighter I’ll be able to shave some serious time off last April’s 2:58:43 marathon
- I think I can shave even more time off if don’t have to worry about bonking!
And why do I think it might work? Well, I got interested in this years ago by trying and succeeding with the Atkins diet. Which led me to Weston Price. And leading on to the running end of things, I’m going to refer you to the work of Prof. Tim Noakes, who wrote the Lore of Running and has in recent years become an ardent low-carb advocate, and The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance by Jeff Volek is a dietitian-scientist, and Steve Phinney, a physician-scientist. And of course, as mentioned in a recent blog post, Vinnie Tortorich‘s book Fitness Confidential and his Angriest Trainer podcast have provided highly entertaining reinforcement of the concept (I wrote about these a few weeks ago).
Results so far? Feeling good, energized and four pounds lighter than I was a few weeks ago.
Benchmark races will be:
- Boston Prep 16 Miler, Jan. 26
- Boston Marathon, April 21, 2014
- Pineland Farms 50 Miler, May 25
Goals will be to beat benchmark times on the first two courses and come in around 8 hours on the 50 miler, which will me a sub 1:51 on the Boston Prep course and sub-2:58:43 on the Boston course. I’ll let you know how things proceed!
First 50 mile run. First real trail race of any distance; Stone Cat. First time back at that total raw, scraped-out, edge-space of the soul since my very first marathon. Finished the 50 miles in 8:52:55.
Beautiful weather, perfect conditions – shorts and T-shirt from the 6:15 start. Comforting to meet up with my Ultra Midlife Crisis RTB teammate Andy N., an ultra veteran, and to see fellow Daily Mile friend Dave F. in the gym at the start!
I’d underestimated how much toll twisting single track trails, leaf-covered rocks and roots, would take on a road runner. These aren’t super technical for trail runners, pretty easy probably, but they were extremely challenging for me – especially the first hour plus in the dark running single track by headlamp!
Here’s how I know I didn’t train enough on technical trail for this race – I rolled my ankle four times and fell three times in the first 12 miles (taped the heck out of my ankle at the 12.5 aid station). Sprained the palm of my hand/thumb on the first fall, and it swelled up and got rock hard. Felt (not) good catching another five or so falls with it. I am a total klutz on trails!!! All due respect and huge props to you real trail runners! I was so covered with dirt I didn’t even realize it was bruised all colors of the rainbow…
My quads were fried by the end of the first six miles. I didn’t take that as a good sign. My buddy Andy ran with me the first two laps; he’s a veteran ultra runner and was looking for 8 hours, and we finished each of the first two laps in exactly two hours. But the third was a different story. I was starting to slow – especially on the technical sections, where I was moving so gingerly to avoid more falls that I might as well have been walking, even when I was running. By agreement, Andy left to chase his goal time and I settled into a new goal – just finishing.
The end of lap 3 start of 4 was a dark time. My right quad and knee locked up on a descent. I wanted to drop then, had to hold trees to get down subsequent hills; muscles were shot. By mile 36 I just couldn’t imagine running another 14 miles, since I was unable to ascend or descend without holding onto the foliage. But then I thought to myself, let it go. Desire for a good race time, whatever that is, pride, everything. If you’ve got to hobble the rest of this dang race, a half marathon’s worth of hobbling over rocks and roots, so be it.
Even with that in mind, it was really hard to be at the aid station at the end of the third loop and know my car was 800 meters away in the parking lot. Who’d care if I quit? I ate a cheeseburger and chugged some Mountain Dew instead of dropping and went back out for the last 12.5 miles.
Speaking of eating; a quick recap of my overall fueling strategy. I had about 8 gels with me and a Camelback with water and Nuun (electrolyte drink). The course was in 12.5 mile loops and there was an aide station with all sorts of food and supportive volunteers at the start, 4 miles later, and 4 miles after that. The race volunteers were beacons of hope and relief in the wilderness, enthusiastic, concerned and always ready to help; amazing sense of community. Throughout the race I ate PBJ sanwiches, bananas, bacon, a cheeseburger, cookies, potato chips, and chicken broth (which was super salty and really helped get me moving again every time), and drank lots of water, Gatorade and later in the race, Mountain Dew, which I chugged four mini-cups at a time. Tried to eat a Gu with caffeine between each aid station. Total calories burned on the run? About 7,835.
Anyhow, sometime a few miles into the fourth loop, my legs got better, I was able to get my groove back and God talked to me, a lot. I mean that sincerely in a way I’m not quite ready to write about. But epiphanies, man. I’d been praying on the drive in, not about the race specifically, but lot’s of things. And a lot of what had been in those prayers resolved itself at the end of this race. Those last 10 miles, alone in the woods, were hard – but very very beautiful – and well worth the price of the pain of the first 40. We bury our truths deep, but you can get at ‘em pretty easy from miles 40-50. Grateful for that.
Baystate Marathon & Half Marathon - 3:29:23 – I had an amazing, inspiring time volunteering on behalf of our running club, Athletic Alliance, and leading the 3:30 pace group for the Baystate Marathon. Being a part of so many cool people’s great accomplishments, PRs and BQs, was an honor, and I cannot think of a better way to get my last long training run for the Stonecat 50 in the books than this one! Was my first time running as an official pacer – and I loved it. I would love to do this again.
Carrying the 3:30 sign for 26.2 miles was not half the hassle I thought it would be, and sharing stories and helping people to reveal their strength as we ran was so rewarding. Beautiful weather, beautiful day. Great job, team 3:30!
There are a million diet books out there, and I’ve read or skimmed many of them. I’m a guy who’s wrestled with weight since I was a kid. My first grade yearbook sports the witty inscription, penned by a classmate, “Hey Burd, hope you don’t get mistaken for a walking beefalo.” That one still hurts.
Besides reading diet books, I’ve tried a bunch of them. I’ve starved myself cutting and counting calories; I hate this. I had a huge appetite as a kid and I love food! Calorie counting sucks. Back in my early twenties, along with the calories, I cut 99% of the fat out of my diet; this worked for a while but left me so physically weak, and with such strange cravings, that I found myself in the kitchen at 9 o’clock one night drinking a tablespoon of olive oil. There’s an odd “binge” for you.
The most effective diet I’ve ever tried was Atkins. I did this in my early thirties, after our eldest son David was born. I’d been as light as 160 pounds about six years before, and as heavy as 220 pounds way back in my junior year in college (I was 180 by senior year, starving myself on an ultra low-fat regimen). Now I noticed that junior-year weight coming back. My wife and I were in New Jersey for a friend’s wedding and our hotel room was beastly hot and I was sweating through my clothes. I was trying not to soak my dress shirt, so I took that off and laid it on the bed. The baby was crying and Kristen was still trying to get ready so I took the baby in my arms and paced the room to sooth him. That’s when I noticed the guy in the huge mirror on one wall pacing and carrying the baby was pretty darn fat, rolls of fat over his waistband and jiggling chest fat. I got on the scale when we got home and I discovered that sometime between hitting 160 during my roaming-writer travels in my mid-20s and my new-dad days almost a decade later, I’d swollen back up to 212 pounds.
Eventually I started Atkins; which is an extremely low carb, high fat and protein diet. It goes through periods of popularity and controversy. But it worked. (And it’s related to the food advice in the book I’ll tell you about below.) I went back to about 185, and I got pretty lax about the diet, but tried to keep with the spirit of it, or something – maybe Atkins meets Volumetrics meets the Mediterranean Diet meets winging it – and there I stayed for about six years, sometimes as high as 190 sometimes as low as 182. Life was busy, the jobs got more complicated, more kids came along.
ENTER MARATHON RUNNING
I wasn’t doing much exercise, just lifting a little bit and running two or three times a week, two or three miles a run, hiking when time permitted. Then in 2007, I learned something new about myself. I love to run long distances. Even when I don’t enjoy running, even when it hurts, I love it. It fixes something in my body and in my head – energizes me and calms me down at the same time. I ran my first half marathon in fall of 2007 and my first marathon in spring of 2008, finishing in just under 3 hours and 20 minutes. I’ve been running marathons ever since (and whittled than time down to 2:58:43, I’m pleased to note). And on 40-60 miles of running a week, that steady-state 185 dropped to a steady 168.
But I’m still not what you’d call lean by any stretch of the imagination. I get closer to lean right before big race, but otherwise I have a physique that I imagine is just what people used to think of as … regular. I’ve been hoping for two years or more to get down another 10 pounds for a race. Then I might be getting near lean. It hasn’t happened yet.
CALORIES IN, CALORIES OUT? NOPE
And that’s because calories in, calories out only works to a point, and after that point, it’s useless.
I burn a lot of calories; last week about 7,100 of them with 56 miles of running. And I don’t eat any more than I used to before I started running. In fact, I think I’m more disciplined about eating now than I was before I was serious about running. I’m careful because I know that every extra pound I wear is one I have to carry across 26.2 miles in a marathon. Ugh.
I eat strategically (and have read a lot about low carb lifestyles and running, though acted on only a little of it), consider what I need to fuel for a training run or recover from one. I don’t eat much sugar – except before or during a race – and skip desserts 95% of the time. So why didn’t that weight loss that started when I first began running marathons continue? Why do elite marathoners who run more than 100 miles a week still diet strictly to maintain their super-lean physiques?
Because exercise isn’t the only factor in weight loss.
SO WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH THE BOOK?
All of which brings me to why I personally connected with Vinnie Tortorich’s book, Fitness Confidential, when a friend gave it to Kristen for her birthday. Based on the book, I found his podcast and have been listening since. He’s got a highly entertaining tone (not safe for listening with the kids), and based on my own experience and reading, I think he’s right about some key stuff.
Vinnie’s a trainer in LA and an ultra endurance athlete, and has worked with celebrities and bigwigs, and he writes about gyms (the good, bad and ugly on membership plans and scams), diet fads, quack trainers, exercise equipment fads (mostly bad – stick with the jump rope, he says), and what you should really be eating.
What you eat is the key to weight loss, not exercise, he says, and the formula is pretty simple. Don’t eat sugar or grains, and you’ll lose weight and feel better.
It’s not Faulkner, but it’s a fun, provoking read, and co-written with pro writer Dean Lorey, who’s written for Arrested Development among other things. The podcast, Angriest Trainer, co-hosted with voice over actor Anna Vocino, riffs on the same themes. It’s pretty funny sometimes, and Vinnie and Anna work well together. They’re easy company to hang out with on a run or a commute.
Here are some of our points of agreement, boiled down into my own gross generalizations:
- Calories in calories out doesn’t work as a formula. Some calories make you fat (carbs), some don’t (fat and protein).
- Sugar is really, really bad for people. It’s a good part of the reason people are so much heavier than they were decades ago (check out my blog post on this incredible increase in obesity rates).
- The food pyramid doesn’t work; too much emphasis on grains. We don’t need that much bread and pasta and cereal. Perhaps we don’t need any.
- If you go to throw something away and the trashcan is full when you’re done, don’t just close the lid and walk away hoping someone else will get it. Take the trash out.
- He’s got a great chapter on why people do stuff like marathons, ultra marathons, ultra cycling events, climbing Everest, etc. It’s a good read. I know I often have to work to explain to folks who inquire I do these nutty things, and why I think there’s so much sanity in them. Vinnie’s take is dead on.
- Gym memberships are only useful if you are going to use them. You have to know why you want to exercise. It can’t just be to lose weight, because as Vinnie so accurately puts it, “sweat does not equal fat loss.”
If I may digress for a moment, I paced a good friend through the end of his marathon recently. The course was a double loop, half marathoners did one loop, full marathoners did two. We were clipping along fast enough so that we lapped the slowest half marathoners en route to the finish and had to work our way through a pretty large pack of runners as we ran the last three miles. And there were a number of very heavy folks running. I’m not criticizing, I can relate – and bless ‘em for getting out there – just noting out that these folks are runners serious enough to train to run a 13.1 miles, and were likely putting in some miles each week. But many were still very, very heavy. Running can take off weight pretty well, but only up to a point, and even then only if you are willing to commit to some decent, regular mileage.
Diet is more important than calories burned in a workout. And because I know this, I’ve decided on my next food-lifestyle personal fitness experiment. As soon as I’ve run the Stonecat in two weeks on Nov. 2 – my first 50 mile running race – I’m going to give Vinnie’s no sugar, no grains a shot. I don’t want to change my diet too much right before such a big race, but afterward I’ll be taking a several week break from running to recover from the past couple of seasons, and that will be the perfect time to embark on a low carb lifestyle. I think I’ll be better for it, and have this book to thank for triggering the idea, reminding me of some things I already knew, and teaching me some that I didn’t!
I’ll let you know how it goes. With any luck, come next April I’ll be standing at the starting line of the Boston Marathon at 152 pounds instead of 162, the lightest I’ve been since fifth or sixth grade, and fueled (mostly) by a no sugar, no grain diet.
Looking forward to next week when I’ll be pacing the 3:30 group at the 2013 Baystate Marathon (http://www.baystatemarathon.com/)! It’s going to be an honor and a pleasure to be a part of the day for those runners who will achieve their BQs and PRs (Boston Qualifying times and Personal Records). I got my first BQ at Baystate and it’s a favorite course of mine, so I’m especially excited to be a pacing volunteer this year; which benefits my running club – Athletic Alliance. It will also be great to do my last long training run for the Stonecat 50 on Nov. 2 in such good company!
For those who will be in this group, my general pacing technique is to run even splits or a slight negative split, with some variation based on elevation or wind (ease off a little uphill or into wind, pick it up a little on the downhills and when the wind is pushing you).
Another note, for those who run by the Garmin, as I do. It’s important to run slightly faster by your Garmin than your exact goal pace – because the Garmin inevitably ends up .2 of a mile, give or take a bit, farther than 26.2 miles. So if your goal is 3:30, we want to be at about 7:58s, which gives you one minute of cushion at the end. Except wait a minute – tack on another .2 miles and if you still want to finish around 3:29, you’ve got to be running 7:55s – at least by your Garmin. Anyway, don’t worry about the math if you don’t want to. I promise to worry for all of us. And we’ll get there in under 3:30.
Any questions or requests, feel free to post them here.
See you next Sunday! I’ll be the guy in the blaze orange running shirt with 3:30 in big letters and miles splits on my back.
Oh, how quickly we adapt to new tech. Or perhaps how quickly new technology weakens us! I’ve had the iPhone 5S for about a week now, and just a moment ago was piqued by having to type my security code into my iPad. “What?” the unbidden (and apparently very lazy) voice in my head asks, “No fingerprint scanner? I’ve got to type in… numbers?”
I could easily see how biometric security tech like this leads to an all out consumer rejection of passwords a little ways down the road. (The same way little kids who have interacted with mommy and daddy’s touchscreen smartphones since they were born don’t grok non-multi-touch-screens. “What, I can’t pinch and zoom the images on the television?”)
The only problem? What happens when somebody does the biometric equivalent of stealing your password? Much harder to just swap your thumb