Baby, it’s cold outside

It’s late fall and my home region has been slammed with an unseasonably cold chill. Combine that with the shorter days and running can seem like the least appealing idea ever.

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This is a selfie.

Now, I say “chill” but I feel the need to qualify that. I’m from California. We don scarves the second the thermometer dips below 55 degrees Fahrenheit. We dread frost on roofs and windshields like it’s the harbinger of death and destruction. If anything but a sunny 72 degrees persists for longer than three days, we become cranky and listless.

So the fact that the temperature has held steady just above freezing and just up to the low 40s has thrown us Californians into a bit of a hissy fit. It’s also forced me to get a little creative with my running wardrobe. Biggest lesson learned: even with the low temperatures, my predisposition to overheating means no additional layers are required. I burn up just thinking about zip-up track jackets and running pants. I appeased my boyfriend by wearing small cotton goves during one 36-degree run and wanted to diiiiie because I was so hot. Give me a headband, compression socks and shorts in any weather!*

For darkness, I went a little unconventional. I did buy a headlamp

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, which has red and white light settings, is decently bright and easy to swivel to illuminate whatever range of distance I want, and is reasonably priced. Even when my forehead gets super sweaty or I put it on over my bangs, this bad boy stays put. It’s also compact enough that I can wrap the strap around my wrist or stuff it in my little wrist wallet thing. Being able to see has made a world of difference to my pace (and ankles) to my pace while running at night.

Besides wanting to see in the dark, I also want to be seen. Unfortunately, although a lot of activewear is designed now with reflective trimmings and whatnot, I didn’t want to go out and buy a lot of new clothes. I did the next best thing I could think of, which was go to a sports store and see what kind of reflective tape or wrist bands were available. Overall, I went to one general sporting goods store and two cycling stores but didn’t really find what I was looking for (at least not for the price I was looking for), which was essentially this:

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My next stop was a craft store, where I found 9″ x 9″ sheets of reflective/sparkly sticky paper. At about 1/10 the price of the reflective cycling tape, I didn’t feel guilty about cutting up the sheets into different shapes or losing them on my runs if they peeled off (other than the obvious littering aspect).

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See and be seen!

If anyone else has better suggestions for running at night or in the cold without getting run over or overheating, I would love to hear them!

*I don’t understand my tendency to overheat. I have long limbs and not-so-great circulation, which normally means that I am always, always cold. It’s not unusual for my fingernails and toenails to turn blue from cold in the winter. Likewise, I can tolerate heat or hot weather almost without limit. So what gives?

Crossfit part 1

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My friend Aljay has some major balls guts. Earlier this year, he ditched his 9-to-5 an opened a killer crossfit gym, which has expanded via mostly word of mouth into a gym with dozens of members who attend the regular crossfit and yoga classes. Unfortunately, the gym is too far out of my way to attend as a member; however, I’ve been able to try out yoga for the first time and join in on some crossfit action during the gym’s free monthly Fit Mob events, both of which are open to members of the public.

Going to the first Fit Mob event, I had some reservations. Everyone who was attending had to declare their fitness level on a spreadsheet prior to the event, and although most people claimed to be crossfit “beginners” I was still somewhat skeptical that I’d be able to keep up with them. I was also nervous about the crossfit from a general fear of injuring myself.

Aljay used our self-identified fitness levels to organize us into three- or four-person teams. After everyone did a short 200m run and some cross-the-floors (as we called in ballet and colorguard–I don’t know what they call them in crossfit) to warm up, we found our teammates and did a 16-minute set of circuit training where we did each of 8 stations for 1 minute each, twice through. The bootcamp classes at my gym are also organized in this circuit format so I felt confident that I wouldn’t feel lost. Unlike my gym classes, though, these exercises were much more basic and easy to remember: simple squats, push-ups, pulls-ups, and my favorite, rest!

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Doing all the burpees!

At my gym, it’s not uncommon for me to waste a good portion of the set trying to get into the proper position for that prescribed station or modify an exercise to work for me. However, those exercises tend to be more complicated because they’re compound rather than isolated motions, so there’s kind of a trade-off I suppose. Basically, during the Fit Mob, I reaffirmed my preference for circuit training!

The next component of this Fit Mob was a friendly tournament of sorts. Teams were organized into brackets and the winners of each round would advance to the next, etc. During the first found, two people did wall sits while the third did 10 burpees as fast as they could. Then they would rotate and a new person would do burpees while the person who just finished them did the wall sit. Two teams competed to see how many burpees they could complete in 5 minutes.

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Winning strategy: the whole team pulls together!

The next round involved carrying a shit ton of equipment back and forth across the gym. My friend Matt lighted on the ingenious strategy to put all of the weights on the barbell (like 150 pounds or something ridiculous) and carry the bar across as a team. Round three was similar, except it was using the sled thing (not crossfit terminology) to load up increasing weight loads and push/pull the sled thing back and forth across the gym floor.

The whole experience was capped off with some Psycho Donuts, which, if you don’t know what they are, are like not-so-little bites of heaven.

All in all, I had a great time. I confirmed what zillions of people have told me: that I would really enjoy the camaraderie aspect of crossfit and that I would have a lot of fun doing it. I also confirmed that I have a greater-than-normal tendency to get injured during crossfit: I hurt my right wrist during the burpee round. Apparently you can’t just slam the weight of your entire body onto your dainty lady wrists without risking injury. I should’ve listened to Matt and just belly-flopped instead of trying to actually catch myself. But that’s the risk with crossfit or any timed fitness regimen–especially if you’re a beginner, you potentially sacrifice good form for time. Next time I visit SJBB, I could try to hold back and disappoint my teammates by slowing myself down. A better option might be to practice good form on my own time so that it’s second nature.

Would I recommend Fit Mob events to a friend? Yep. Did I enjoy myself? Heartily. Can’t wait for the next one!

 

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Shin splints: prevention, treatment, and recovery

To many runners, shin splints are the bell toll of death for their training plans. This is partly because full-blown shin splints can be pretty fucking painful during both exercise and rest and because a firm diagnosis often goes hand in hand with prescribed rest–the last thing a runner wants to hear.

I’ve been lucky enough to experience shin splints not once but three times. For this most recent doozy, I combed the available research out there and did my best to treat them without having to seek medical attention–just so I could write this post! Not really. Before I list out all of my attempts (some pathetic) at thwarting and subduing my shin splints, let’s talk for a second about what they are.

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My extensive medical knowledge, earned from a steady diet of “House” and “E.R.”, combined with my ability to read Wikipedia articles tell me that shin splints, or medial tibial stress syndrome as we TV-doctors call it, is a common overuse injury among runners that is characterized by pain along the shin bone. There is more than one type of shin splints, depending on where the pain is focused, according to this, but essentially it boils down to this: as your shin and calf muscles become fatigued during a run, they are less able to absorb the shock of each step, leading the connective tissues between the one of the shin muscles and tibia (one of the lower leg bones) to become damaged and the periosteum (the membrane that surrounds the shin bone) to become inflamed. Muscle tightness in the calf can also contribute to the condition. I personally have been battling posterior shin splints and have never experienced its anterior counterpart, although I imagine the strategies for dealing with either would be similar…

Shin splints have many, many possible causes or sources but are ultimately, as I said, an overuse injury. In layman’s terms this translates to “too much, too soon.” Let’s talk about some other things that can lead to shin splints!

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  • Shitty shoes: Traditional running shoes are often heavier in the heel, which can cause the wearer to run with a heel-strike stride, where their heel hits the ground first and then the foot rolls forward to push off with the toes. This form contributes to shin splints because the foot/leg does not absorb the shock of impact as well.
  • Shitty form: If you suffer from excessive pronation, an inward roll of the foot during walking or running (the leftmost example in the diagram, which I got here), have flat feet, run with your toes pointed outward, or lean too far forward or backward while running, you might be susceptible to shin splints.
  • Shitty running surfaces: A few years ago, an article in the New York Times seemingly debunked the myth that running exclusively on soft surfaces will prevent or minimize the risk of injuries like shin splints. There was a lot of backlash against this theory but the consensus was that it’s best to run on varied surfaces/terrain during race training, including the types of surfaces/terrain you’ll be running on during the race.

Now that I have got you thoroughly freaked out, let’s talk prevention. I’d like to make a key distinction here that prevention is NOT treatment, so although some of the strategies for prevention might still work for shin splints in-the-making, if you feel like you might already have shin splints, skip on ahead.

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Stage 0: Prevention

  1. Build up your shin muscles: If shin splints can be caused by fatigue, stave off fatigue by making you muscles stronger. Try to build your shin and calf muscles up evenly to prevent weird muscle imbalances from creating other problems.
    • For shins, try: toe taps (like you’re impatient), tracing the alphabet with your toe, heel walking (#9), and the exercise with the light dumbbell shown here
    • For calf muscles: while standing bend down and touch your toes (this is a calf and hamstring stretch), standing calf raises with or without weight, running on sand
  2. Check your form:
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    Supination!
    • Make sure your feet aren’t rolling inward as you run and that your toes are not pointed out. If possible, try running on a treadmill that faces a mirror or arrange to have yourself filmed or photographed while you run. That sounds totally ridiculous but it wasn’t until I saw the hi-res photos of the first race I did that I realized I actually supinate or roll my feet outward a little. I blame marching band.
    • Since heel-strikers are more prone to this injury, may I suggest barefoot-style running? It’s certainly different and might take a little getting used to, but I credit a large part of my commitment to continue running to this minimus toe-strike form.
  3. Check your shoes:
    • This is a traditional, knee-jerk piece of advice from doctors and running enthusiasts alike. Running is unique to many sports in that it requires little equipment–but the most important piece of running equipment to invest in is the shoes. But don’t just go out and buy the most expensive pair you can find. Some stores specialize in fitting shoes to a runner’s feet and running style, and are certainly worth checking out if you aren’t sure what shoe is “you”.
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    • Running shoes wear out, sometimes after a couple hundred miles and sometimes after more. I’ve put probably about 200 miles on my shoes, running on a variety of surfaces, and the tread wear is beginning to show. Granted, this is likely because these shoes are trail running shoes and are not meant to stand up to the wear and tear of pavement.
  4. Try compression equipment, like compression or recovery socks. Both work by lending some additional support to the shin and calf muscles so that less stress is placed on the shin’s connective tissues.
  5. Check yourself before you wreck yourself
    • It’s perfectly acceptable, in my opinion, to start slow. Many running apps these days have plans that take “from the couch” to the distance of your choice over a few months. Building up your distance gradually will help avoid overuse injuries like shin splints.
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High-tech!
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Low-tech…

Stage 1: So You Think You Might Have Shin Splints

  1. Do everything I just said in the prevention stage.
  2. Ice: If your shin bones are throbbing a bit after a run, ice is your new best friend. I recommend icing for 20 minutes on and 20 minutes off, repeating for about 2 hours total if possible. Complete this process after your run and keep your feet elevated. I just discovered these wraps, which I haven’t tried but look amazing. They’re filled with gel which can be frozen (a step up from my gel ice packs or Ziploc bags of dishsoap that I usually use) or heated for heat therapy treatments.  I recommend icing even on days that you don’t run if your shins are still inflamed. Once the inflammation is gone, usually after about 48-72 hours of icing, switch to heat and apply a heating pad to the injured area.
  3. Use a foam roller or your two hands to massage the bejeezus out of your calf and shin muscles.
  4. Anti-inflammatories
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    • For occasional use, try an NSAID like ibuprofen. Beware, though, you can’t be popping NSAIDs like they’re candy or you’ll risk liver damage. Also, if you have a predisposition toward nausea while exercising like moi, then you probably want to avoid medications such as these, which claim nausea as a side effect.
    • My mom bought me an anti-inflammatory topical cream called Topricin to use on my shins, which you’re meant to apply 3-4 times a day. I wasn’t too good about keeping up with it, so I’m not sure if its ineffectiveness was just the product’s fault or my own.
    • Not all anti-inflammatories have medicinal sources. Try adding foodslike blueberries, salmon and other fish, green tea, leafy greens, nuts, sweet potatoes, papaya, olive oil, and kelp and herbs and spices like tumeric, cinnamon and ginger to your diet, which are natural anti-inflammatories.

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      KT tape: the two pieces running perpendicular to your shin should be about 6 inches apart. Try to “frame the pain” with these pieces.
  5. Kinesiology therapeutic (KT) tape can help reduce pain from shin splints by taking some of the pressure off of the shin bone. Put one piece of tape vertically along the shin bone of the affected leg and then put one horizontal piece each above and below where the pain is located along the shin. I’ve taped a few times, and would recommend that you make sure that your legs are clean and dry to prevent the tape from falling off during the run. Also, in my picture, the horizontal pieces are probably a bit far apart, but I reasoned that my entire shin hurt, so why not frame the entire shin? During the three or four runs I did with tape, I had mixed results, mostly because the tape kept falling off. I had one “successful” run where the pain was practically unnoticeable, but it returned instantly after removing the tape afterward.

Stage 2: So Your Shins Hurt a Lot and You’re Kind of Starting to Freak Out

If your shins hurt even while you’re not running or the bones themselves feel tender to the touch, GO SEE A DOCTOR.

I probably should have taken my own advice when I reached this point a few months ago, but I already knew from a previous check-up that my doctor didn’t know anything about sports injuries (her running knowledge had a very 1970’s flair to it, and she didn’t know anything about forefoot-strike running styles) and I was too scared to be told to stop running because I’d had a race coming up that I couldn’t afford to not train for. The biggest reason why shin splints spell utter doom for runners is that really the only cure for shin splints is REST.

If you don’t rest, you risk your shin splints, a temporary injury, developing into stress fractures, which can be a permanent injury. Stress fractures are exactly what they sound like: microscopic fractures in your shin bone due to repeated stress or impact. Often the pain is localized, rather than a dull throbbing, and persists long after the activity is over. My shins used to hurt even when lying on my side in bed if one leg was putting weight on the other.

There is not a very sophisticated way to diagnose stress fractures. You can either:

  1. Go to the doctor for an X-ray, rest for about 6 weeks, and then return for a follow-up X-ray. If your shins show signs of healing, you probably had stress fractures. I opted out of this because I feel like it’s a throwback to the 17th century witch trials where you throw a woman in the water and if she sinks, she isn’t a witch. Great, and now she’s dead. Say I didn’t have stress fractures and I just rested six weeks for no reason? Well, at least you’d also get rid of your shin splints too…
  2. Get a bone scan: You’ll be injected with a radioactive tracer that will light up on the scan to highlight areas where your body is making repairs to the bone. Unfortunately, this test is very expensive, and isn’t very good at distinguishing between stress fractures and other types of soft tissue injuries.
  3. Get an MRI: the magnets and radio waves of a magnetic resonance imaging machine will produce images of internal structures. Again, it’s pretty expensive, but is better at diagnosing stress fractures even in their early stages.

Resting from shin splints might be torturous and you might feel restless and antsy, but it’s better to stay off your legs (or crosstrain) for a few weeks rather than not being able to run ever again.

Stage X: Recovery

I’m starting my recovery phase now. I’ve rested for about five weeks since the half marathon in early October, only doing short (1-2 mi) jogs to assess how things are going and crosstraining to keep up my aerobic-ness. I waited until I didn’t feel any unusual shin pain during the shorter runs before attempting longer ones last week, starting with a few 3 milers. They were okay, but I feel like I’ve reset myself by about three months, which is a little discouraging.

I’m sticking with it, though. Yesterday I did 5 miles, but definitely starting feeling some twinges near the end. Forcing myself to go shorter and slower than I know I’m capable of will be challenging, but my fear of my shin splints returning trumps almost everything else!

If I could’ve done anything differently during my rest period, it would have been to maintain my good stretching habits. I tended to do some long stretches after my runs that kept me loose, but those sort of fell by the wayside once I stopped running.

In summation, shin splints really suck, so you should do everything you can to avoid them. If you’ve already got them, there are some ways to treat them, but rest is the only surefire cure. They’re not just going to spontaneously go away, unfortunately.

For even more reading on shin spints, here are some additional resources:

Shin Splint Treatment: How Improving Your Calf Strength Can Fix Your Shin Splints

Suffering from Shin Splints? Try This

WikiHow: How to Get Rid of Shin Splints

Foods that Reduce Inflammation

Five Foods that Reduce Inflammation

Nutrition for Shin Splints

 


 

 

Getting real part 2

I grew up with a friend who came from a musical household and was practically born holding a violin and bow. As we got older, he took lessons and performed in local recitals before deciding to major in music in college. Even before graduation, he was auditioning and fielding offers for entry positions in symphonies and orchestras across the country.

It inspired me to learn violin too. I figured it wouldn’t be that hard to learn and it wouldn’t be long before I could audition for a local community orchestra–I’d attended many orchestral performances throughout the years, so I knew how a violin should sound, and I already knew how to read music, which is probably one of the bigger hurdles to learning an instrument. But to my disappointment, even playing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” sounded scratchy and terrible, like a third grader’s playing. Why was this happening? Why couldn’t I play Beethoven yet? Why wasn’t I as good as my friend already?

If you think these questions are totally ridiculous, it’s because they are. This story is made up (except for the part about my awful violin playing, which is true), but illustrates a key point: I compare myself to other people constantly, even though we may not only have different goals but also a different foundation, which leads to unrealistic expectations about performance.

That is, we may be doing the same thing (e.g. strength training, running) but we may have started from different points (e.g. 5 pound or 10 pound dumbbells, a 12 min/mi pace or an 8 min/mi pace) and ultimately have different goals (e.g. run a 5k or run an ultramarathon). It’s silly to make comparisons between these scenarios, and yet I still do it all the time. And I doubt I’m the only one. It makes almost no sense.

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Why, yes, I do maintain an excel spreadsheet to track my pace.

I have a lot of friends who lift and/or run, which is great because that’s a huge, readily available mine of information or even just conversation. Many of them are proud of their accomplishments–and rightly so–and post updates or pictures about their workout regimen. Mostly I am in awe of my friends’ superpowers, but a small, small part of me is envious. Will I ever be able to run a 7-minute mile or a marathon? Will I ever be able to deadlift my own weight? Why can’t I be like “that”?

Then I remember that I am a unique person with challenges and successes that apply only to me. I can’t run a 7-minute mile yet, but I started at almost a 12-minute pace about six months ago and am down to about a 9-minute pace–that’s a result! See that trendline in the graph? It’s going down–that’s me getting faster! I have had results, but mine might take longer to achieve than they might for other people, either because I started with puny, useless muscles, no stamina, and old-man joints, because I eat like a 15-year-old boy (i.e. crap), or because my workday can be up to 13 hours a day with a commute. These aren’t excuses, but they’re reasons for why I shouldn’t make myself feel like shit for not being able to run a marathon in 20 minutes or having six pack abs, 6% body fat, and bulging biceps.

I also need to remind myself constantly that these things (i.e. muscles and body fat percentage) are not my goals but physical manifestations of my goals, and they should not be what I’m aiming for. Mentally, I feel like I’m getting closer to my personal goal of approaching fitness as a lifestyle and not something that promotes self-evaluation, but I know I won’t be there until I can look at fitspiration pics without wanting to hang up the towel in self-defeat because I don’t look like a fitness goddess.

About 90% of the time, I am okay with how I look and feel about myself. The other 10%, however, is scarily intense hatred of every part of my body and fitness aptitude. It’s more than having a “fat day” and there’s not much that treats it. More often than not the fitspiration pictures that are meant to, go figure, inspire fitness just exacerbate or even trigger the problem because I am subconsciously jealous/incredulous of the results other people are able to get. How do I fight my instinct to compete with this image of the ideal or avoid just waving the white flag and accepting my life as a lazy loser?  At the same time, motivation based on physical appearance scares me the way that hanging around smokers might be unpleasant for someone who has just quit. What if I slip back into my old ways of habitual self-evaluation/hatred?

I think the key thing to remember here, again, is to be realistic about foundation, goals, and results. I may think that fitspiration or progress pics are making jabs at my inadequacy, but I clearly don’t have the same level of investment as the people in the photos, so why should I expect the same results? Do I even want to have to make the sacrifices they must make to perform the way they do? Do I want to cut out carbs and sugar? Do I want to go to the gym for hours a day? Not really. I can only do what I can do, and focusing on making fitness a sustainable part of my life is all I can do for now.

I feel like this is a recurring theme that I keep coming back to, but I suppose it still requires a lot of reinforcement. I’m going to punch that 10% in the face once and for all!

 

 

I’m a runner now?

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I enjoy pointing at my bib.
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First-ever race: 2 miles!

Long ago in prehistoric times (that is, May), my boyfriend and I were talking about running and the point at which you know you’ve become a real runner.

He told me that when running seems like your preferred method of mobility, then you know you’re a runner. At the time, I didn’t really understand what he met. I was still in the phase of beginning to run where everything hurt, my only contributions to running conversations were breathy grunts, and no Springsteen songs applied to me whatsoever.

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Hanging loose…

I knew I’d reached some milestone when I overheard my boyfriend telling my family how objectively impressed he’d been with my performance during our most recent run. It had been about a month since we’d last run together, and we decided to kill ourselves with a nice, long 8-mile trail run around a very scenic lake. What had been mostly grunts on my part the month before had become an actual conversation. At the time it didn’t seem like much but impressing my boyfriend at all with my running was a feat in and of itself. (Some context: the Boyfriend sounds like an asshole but is actually a natural runner who is not only very, very encouraging but also a good resource for running knowledge, whereas I am a magnet for injury and brokenness.)

Then the other day, when we were walking through the IKEA parking lot of all places, a month after running the half marathon and having only completed a few test-jogs to assess my shin status, it struck me: the urge to run. I wanted to get to the IKEA entrance; walking wasn’t fast enough. I started feeling this urge everywhere. At work, walking leisurely from the printer back to my office was taking too long. Picking up packages in other buildings seemed to warrant a nice jog. Without even really meaning for it to happen, running became my preferred mode of transport. When I wasn’t doing it, I was thinking about it.

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New running buddies!
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Fitness Face-off!

Perhaps I was just missing it, having taken a break from regular running to rid myself once and for all from shin splints, or perhaps it has finally hit just how great running has been for my life.

And it has been great–really, really great! Allow me to elaborate.

 

  1. Running gets me out of the house. I run past pretty things during pretty sunrises and pretty nature-y places.
  2. Running has helped me discover common ground with a ton of people. I’ve resumed friendships with people I’d lost touch with or with whom I hadn’t had much in common, I’ve made conversation with new acquaintances, and I’ve strengthened existing friendships–all because of running.
  3. I’ve found some awesome running partners–even if we don’t actually running together.
  4. Some of the best conversations I’ve had with my boyfriend have been during runs–once I could actually hold up my end!
  5. Running has helped me think of food in a healthier way–as fuel. I still eat how I want but I’m careful to get the right kind and an adequate amount of energy to fuel my run. (What I eat after the run is sometimes another story…)

I can’t run forever and I can’t run fast but I can run. I’ve never been a runner because I could never surrender all of the blood, sweat, and tears that it takes to become one. I’m not there yet, but thanks to so many friends and my family, I’m one minimus stride closer.

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Color Run!

 

I’m only half crazy — tips for surviving your first half marathon

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I did it! I finished my first half marathon!

And there was much rejoicing. I learned a lot from this half, not only during the race but afterward–when I researched why everything that went wrong during the race went wrong.

But before we get into what was not so great about the race, let’s talk about what went well:

  1. Shins. Surprisingly, my shins were not a problem during the race and for about two days after. I have no explanation, other than that perhaps my self-prescribed two-week rest might have actually had a positive effect!
  2. Lungs. No asthma attacks or overexertion. I didn’t even really feel tired–although that might have been because I slowed way the hell down for the last 5 or so miles. Honestly, despite all of the discomfort, the race felt like it went by in kind of a blur!
  3. Muscles. Aside from the joint stiffness and some calf tightness, I wasn’t too sore on race day or the few days following.
  4. The groove. For the first half of the race, equivalent to the 10k I had done about two months earlier, I had a nice groove going. I wish I could’ve kept it up, but I’m trying not to beat myself up too much about what-might-have-beens. It really is an accomplishment simply that I crossed the finish line. High school me would be shockedproud.

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    When you gotta go, you gotta go.

And here’s what went wrong:

  1. I cut my arrival pretty close to race time, giving me a limited chance to beat down the line of other racers to use the restroom before the start. I very unpatriotically pooped during the national anthem.
  2. As I had expected, I started to feel kind of low after about 6 miles, so I busted out the gels. Having tried them once about halfway through my 10-mile training run, I thought it was a pretty simple process–pop in one or two and let the energy flow. However, something funny happens to your stomach when you run. As your body exerts itself, the blood from your core is diverted to your muscles, which can make it pretty tricky for your body to digest stuff, especially a shit ton of simple sugars. You’re also supposed to take your gels with water, but I, being the awesometastic planner that I am, took two at mile 6 with nothing and another two at mile 8ish with Gatorade–a BIG no-no. Correspondingly, my stomach sort of freaked out and slammed me with what I can safely say was the worst nausea I’ve ever felt, a close second being the morning I defended my thesis. I’m talking, like, keep-absolutely-still-its-vision-is-based-on-movement* kind of nausea, which can make running a race just a tad unpleasant. It probably didn’t help that I’d popped two ibuprofen in a last-ditch effort to not have to race with shin splints.

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    The Blister.
  3. About five days before the race I did a short 2-mile run as fast as I could. I wore my new running shoes without socks, which, as it had the first time I’d done that about a month before, created a mild water blister. While gross, it wasn’t much of a problem come race day. However, come mile 9, The Blister returned, and I only learned after the race that it had actually morphed Godzilla-like into a nasty blood blister the size of a half dollar. Needless to say, it might’ve affected my gait, which led to some substantial inflammation in my hip and knee joints. ALL THE JOINTS. I felt myself slowing waaaaay down around then, but I got it back a bit near the end and finished (I think) somewhere around a 10:00/mi pace.
  4. Stitches! Why? Why do they haunt me? Actually in this case, I think it was gait-related due to The Blister of evil.

Ruminating over all of the things that went right and wrong, I came up with this list of things to keep in mind while preparing for your first half marathon:

  • While you’re training, have a goal in mind: Know what kind of runner you are and what you want from running. A lot of running advice seems to be geared more toward more experienced runners who are actually racing. Casual or recreational runners like myself are not overly concerned with performance–it’s enough for us to simply finish the race or beat an achievable time. My goal was to finish at 2:15, which corresponds to a rough pace of 10:15/mi. I chose this pace after doing a couple of 5+ mi runs because it seemed like something I could sustain for 13.1 miles without totally killing myself. Training for more than a few months would have probably increased the speed a bit just by virtue of getting into better aerobic shape. But goal #1 was to finish! (Goal #2 was to not throw up, no joke.)
  • The start: It’s going to be appealing to sprint at the start, and passing people up is kind of an endorphin rush, but be careful. A lot of runners advise you to hold back at the start and focus on the pacing that you trained for. I think this is more true for runners who are focused on performance, but it’s still an important thing to consider, not just on race day but when you’re training. For example, when I was training, I aimed for building distance and was not in good enough shape to distinguish between a “race pace” and an “easy run” pace. I ran the pace that I thought I could sustain for whatever distance I was aiming for, which translated into running faster during short distances. I carried this approach into race day, letting the adrenaline give me an extra kick instead of consciously trying to hold back. Just trying to pass people kept my pace up for the first half of the race. Once I started catching up to people going my same pace, I still felt pretty comfortable. Even though I was pushing myself harder than I had during training, I realized I could handle it aerobically and muscularly (but digestively and blisterly are another story). I don’t know that I would have realized this potential if I had forced myself to go slow and steady in the beginning. As for the risk of burning out, I think it was minimal for me, as I was still running a pace I felt like I could sustain. In the future when my running priorities are different and I can actually focus on pacing, I might be stricter about the starting pace.
  • Find the balance between pushing yourself and avoiding injury: The hardest thing to remember going into this was this was my race. I was doing it for me, not for anyone else, because I wanted to prove to myself that I could. I think for the most part, I was successful at staying positive. I had two warring thoughts to motivate me. The first was that all I had to do was finish the race, and I didn’t need to beat myself up about crossing the finish line in two minutes or fulfilling some grand but unrealistic expectations about my performance. The second was that I’d trained for months and that this might be the only half marathon I ever get to do, so I should still go for it. I think I managed to find the line between these approaches and pushed myself just hard enough. I have no regrets for this race in terms of performance, though perhaps later races will involve more mental “pushing.”

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    This is a proof because I’m too cheap to $30 on a digital picture.
  • The wall: Before this race, I had only run 8 miles continuously, and that had been about a month and a half before race day. I honestly think that beyond mile 8, when I’d been running for about 1 hour and 20 minutes, I started to approach my own personal wall, past which I’d never had to push my body before. That was the distance when things starting falling apart and when nausea and stitches seemed to be my only companions. As corny as it sounds, I credit my boyfriend for getting me through the last five miles. Being the awesometastic nerd that he is, he plotted out points on the course where he thought he might be able to meet up with me and constructed an algorithm to predict, based on my pace, when to hit each point. Looking forward to running past him for the high five kept up my drive.
  • Practice, practice, practice: Training runs are about more than just acclimating your body to distance running. They’re also about practicing what you’ll need to do during the race itself, whether that is following a hydration strategy or mentally keeping yourself going. The mistake that I had made going into this race was not thinking through a hydration or energy-replenishment strategy. At all. I thought I could just do the whole “listen to my body” thing and drink when I was thirsty, have a shot block gel thing when I felt drained, poop in a Porta Potty if the urge struck me. I think this might have been more effective if I had practiced different strategies during my long distance runs before the race and picked one that works for me. For example, being pretty tall I burn more calories earlier–do I need to pop a gel at 45 minutes into the race instead of 60 minutes? What if it takes more than the requisite 15 minutes to kick in? Here and here are some tips to structuring your energy and electrolyte intake to avoid nausea (that I found after the race, of course). This is definitely a concept that deserves its own post once I figure out my own strategy.

Here are my race results according to the race website:

And according to my RunKeeper:

  • Total Distance Run: 13.58 mi
  • Time to Run 13.1 mi: 2:15:08 (Pace 10:18/mi)

For my next half marathon in April, I have many plans:

  1. Stick to having one speed or interval day a week in my running routine to try to get my pace up.
  2. Take a few weeks off to rest my shins and then gradually reintroduce running into my life again
  3. Plan out my hydration and energy replenishment strategies better and practice them.
  4. If necessary, find an energy booster that doesn’t make me feel like death. I’ve heard about algae tablets???
  5. Crosstrain when I cannot run! NO excuses for skipping my long runs!

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    I only look half crazy here…

I’ve learned so much during this entire process of preparing to run the longest distance of my life–so far. Now on to the next running adventure!

*Two solid “Jurassic Park” references. You’re welcome.

**The discrepancy between paces is due to the distance recorded versus the distance actually run. The chip is calculating when the runner crossed the 5k “finish line” but the race organizers measure the course based on the shortest possible distance. Inevitably, every runner will pick up a little extra distance here and there, for example, when take a turn too wide. Their time stays the same but their chip will record a shorter distance than their personal GPS, so by the virtue of fractions (pace = time/distance), a shorter distance (i.e. smaller denominator) gives a longer/slower pace. That’s why my GPS (RunKeeper) shows a faster pace than the chip recorded.

 

Why “strong is the new skinny” is the most loathsome fitness catchphrase in history

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Good thing this not-at-all-skinny girl is telling me to be strong.

All right, all right, I get it. Alliteration is catchy. And I appreciate on some level what this phrase intends to communicate: that you don’t have to adhere to society’s definition of beauty and attractiveness (i.e. being cookie-cutter-size-0, 6-is-the-new-12 thin) and that you should be motivated to achieve a goal beyond the superficiality of appearance. Not only that, but the phrase opens up opportunities to empower women who up until now didn’t feel like they could love their bodies because they didn’t conform to the “skinny” beauty ideal.  I understand the intention. “Strong is the new skinny” is a very good idea.

But what is the reality?

The “Strong is the new skinny” ideology claims that, like the points in the “Whose Line is it Anyway?” show, physical ideals based on appearance don’t matter–they’re gone, they’re out the window because this is 2013 and aren’t we so lucky to be beyond all of that superficial nonsense?…but then its followers post pictures of their fit bodies to earn “likes” and encouragement and approval from others, and that, to me, just seems a little contradictory to the whole “appearances don’t matter” thing.

I mean, am I just missing the point, or are we simply trading His Lordship Sir Mix-a-Lot’s preferred 36-24-36 (only if she 5’3”) for a lady who’s built of muscle? This phrase embodies (pun intended) a new regime, except instead of being empowered to embrace their physical strength, women must now tick off yet another item–moderately (but not too big!!!) toned muscles–from the laundry list to qualify them as attractive. It’s not enough for us to just be a thin Victoria’s Secret supermodel with long flowing locks of blonde hair and all of your body fat concentrated in your chestal region. As a society, we’ve moved on from that–except that we haven’t rendered that paradigm redundant. We’ve just added muscles to it.

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And that’s a lot of fucking pressure.

Does “Strong is the new skinny” not also create an atmosphere where attaining muscles (a physical proxy for strength but not necessarily an indicator of it) is not only more attractive but is a more noble goal than simply trying to shed a few excess pounds? “Strong is the new skinny” has produced an environment where women not only evaluate other women based on what they look like but on their workout regimen. Oh, you only do cardio? You have to lift heavy if you want to see results. No, I’m not trying to lose weight; I’m trying to tone up.

Granted, you get the other side of it as well, with women wrinkling their noses at those lifting weights and demurring on strength-training altogether, as they don’t want to “get big.”

In this environment, it’s difficult to voice the goal of simple weight loss. After all, as everyone reminds me every five fucking seconds, muscle burns more Calories than fat, so if you want to burn a shit ton of Calories even just sitting around, you’d better lift heavy and build up your muscles. Now, I love that women are “allowed” to occupy the weight lifting section of the gym now, but that does not give gym-goers carte blanche to snub people who still rock the cardio, which is still an excellent way to lose weight.

This is probably too far into the post to make this distinction but I feel that it’s warranted. I am not decrying the fitness movement or what appears to me to be a recent resurgence of people taking an active interest in their fitness. I am just tired of the type of “encouragement” that seems to say one thing (e.g. it’s “okay” to have muscles now, ladies) but is actually saying another (e.g. you must now be skinny with muscles to be considered attractive).

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I promised I wouldn’t go off on this tangent but sometimes I see stuff like the images here and can’t help but get a little peeved. There’s nothing wrong with being skinny–or stocky or tall or short.  It’s possible to exercise or diet to change certain aspects of your body, sure, but railing on naturally (or maybe manually) skinny girls just because they’re skinny is just a teeeensy bit hypocritical, no?

Moral of the story: be honest with yourself and others about your fitness goals. It’s okay to be trying to lose weight to get healthy, it’s okay to want to become a bodybuilder, and it’s okay to be lifting weights to lose weight/fat.  It is not okay to make others feel like shit for their fitness goal. “Strong is the new skinny” has the potential to be empowering and yet it has become yet another vehicle through which women can judge and hate on other women, and I cannot tolerate it. So when you decide to blindly follow a mantra, think about what it’s saying and what that actually means.

I leave you now with a less rage-inducing barftastic quote:

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Panic! on the pavement

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Oh my god, I just realized it’s September 7th, which means that yesterday marked the one-month countdown to my first half marathon. This realization sort of makes me want to barf.

Okay, not really. My mindset right now (I think) is pretty healthy about 85% of the time. Actually, 85% is the statistic I use for everything, so it’s probably not valid. Anyway, I do feel pretty good for the most part. As my training has progressed, I’ve realized that I essentially stopped “training” a few weeks ago, and now I just run to run. That is, I stopped allowing the 13.1 to loom in the back of my mind as this Big Scary Thing during all of my runs. So I lost that source of motivation, but honestly I think it’s for the better.

Not really training means that I will mentally approach this race as I would any other 13.1-mile run–for better or worse. I’m hoping this attitude will alleviate some of the race day anxiety that I experienced during the 10k I did about a month ago and this 5k I did with a running group at work (then, I was so nervous that all that extra adrenaline pushed me to run what was likely the fastest mile of my life, but then it fizzled out halfway through the 5k).

But it also means that I will have few qualms about taking it easy, which means I’ll never really know how fast I’m capable of running the thing. It’s sort of a trade-off–without pushing myself, I won’t be testing my true limits; yet I’ll also be less likely to burn out in mile 8–but it’s a trade-off that aligns more closely with my primary race goal, which is simply to finish. I can “push it” later.

Presently, my systems are still all configuring. There have been numerous obstacles and learning experiences so far and I don’t doubt that I will encounter new ones as I continue trying to become a runner.

  1. First it was my knees, and I solved that with some handy dandy knee stretches and targeted strength training.
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  2. Then it was my breathing, and I finally sucked it up and admitted to myself that my breathing woes were not likely to be just be down to fitness. After a visit from the doctor, I came home with a exercise-induced asthma diagnosis and an albuterol inhaler, and I miraculously stopped hating every step of my runs. I owe the majority of my aerobic improvement (but also some jitteriness) to that little red albuterol wonder. Being able to breathe like a normal person was–sorry to make you throw up in your mouth a little bit–an awakening. The first run was a little like “Holy shit, is this what normal people breathe like?! I am the CHAMPION!”
  3. My ankles also started acting up, so I had to add some ankle stretches.
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  4. My toenails were falling off (sorry for the inevitable visual). And also my feet were getting so sweaty during my runs that by mile 4 I was forming blisters (again, sorry). I ignored both issues for a long time because I suspected the culprit was my running shoes, which as I’ve said before, I love more than any other shoes I’ve ever owned (aside from the aforementioned ruby slippers of 1989). But sometimes, love just ain’t enough, and I went out for a new slightly larger pair. I ended up getting these bad boys on sale (for $35, whaaaaat) in a half size up from my usual as well as a few pairs of socks. They’re trail running shoes, like my last pair, and they have more ventilation and zero drop (the angle between the heel height and the mid-foot). They are so light, it literally feels like I’m not wearing shoes. Literally.
  5. The new woe is the shins. The shins….What can you do? I must triumph!

But! All is not kampf! I went on this week’s distance run with The Boyfriend yesterday, which ended up being 8.5 miles of trail running instead of the requisite 10 because we were pressed for time, and we were able to converse the whole time–something that would not have been possible two months ago. I owe it all to you, albuterol!

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**All cartoons in this post are from Allie Brosh’s “Hyperbole and a Half Blog.” She is a comical genius. I can only borrow.

Mythbust: Should you run when you’re sick?

This is the first of the Mythbust series!

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Myth: You shouldn’t run when you’re sick.

Experts’ advice: It’s okay to run with a head cold, but not with a chest cold or fever.

My advice: Follow the experts’ advice–if you absolutely have to run.

Last week, despite numerous precautions–including boycotting my pathogen-infected boyfriend–I got sick. In the past, I’ve been pretty lucky to bounce back to relative health within a day or two, and this cold was no exception.

However, being well enough to go to work and function like a human being is not the same as being well enough to run. Now that I am actually training for this race that’s looming in a mere 29 days, though, I freak out about missing too many runs. So I took to the Interwebs to see what the experts say about running while you’re sick.

Turns out, most of the hardcore runners and running-themed websites say it’s okay–as long as your symptoms are above the neck, such as nasal congestion, sore throat, or sneezing. Some people even feel better after running. This advice does not extend to fevers, which according to my extensive medical knowledge from watching marathons of “House” while unemployed, is your body trying to fight the damn thing off. Let it.

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Running when you’re sick also risks the minor cold turning into something worse, which is pretty much what happened to me. I allowed myself 2 rest days and then embarked on a “short” 3-mile run. I kind of wanted to die. It wasn’t the discomfort of the eternally runny nose or stuffy head, but rather just a general run-down malaise that made me want to take a nap right there on the trail. I kept at it, though, even doing a somewhat simplified, run/walk version of that week’s distance run, and the run-down feeling didn’t really go away. Then I did another stupid thing and flew across the country in a plane cesspool of plague while my immune system was still rebounding. By the time the next running day rolled around, I had a new running buddy: chest mucus. The cold had moved down into my chest, as colds are wont to do near the end–I’m sure you’re all familiar with the dreaded lingering cough of horrible–and the rattle in my chest as I did my first run with the Boyfriend’s mom, who I’d just met, aggravated my already asthmatic lungs. Ugh.

Dr. Roommate (or rather, my college roommate who is in the process of becoming a doctor) had this to say to my woe-is-me text message plea for advice:

“Sit in a hot shower. Sleep with your head under blankets. Wear [a] scarf over [your] face when [you’re] outside. Basically, keep [your] head/chest warm and moist. DO NOT RUN.”

I mostly followed these tips, in addition to accidentally swallowing a ton of saltwater from the Atlantic (which is saltier than the Pacific–fun fact), and The Cough is finally gone. Just in time for a 10-mile distance day.

The most important lesson I learned during this debacle is that, in the long run, it won’t make a huge difference to race day if you take a little time off to rebuild your energy stores and get well. Quality miles are still more important than how many you’re running. But use that time off wisely: hydrate, hydrate, stretch, and did I mention hydrate?