Injured with -14 days to go

The pain in my leg got worse, and I simply couldn’t run through it anymore. In fact, I was left limping and crying on the side of the road as it got so bad I couldn’t even make it 2k home.

Luckily I have a really fantastic physio who saw me the next day. He (and I) feared a tibial stress fracture, but luckily he is pretty sure it isn’t that. However, the anterior tibialis muscle is torn. This is a painful and acute injury and there is no way I can run for at least a week. Whether it will heal in time for me to do the 48km Peak Skyrace on August 7th – who knows. Physio thinks I have a chance. The pain has subsided but I cannot run, tried to run across the road and the pain returned with a vengeance.

So yet another injury. I have had the  most successful running year of my life and the most injury prone year all at once. My birthday is in a week, which means it is a year since I started this blog. What do I want for my birthday? Not to be bloody injured! And to be able to run the race I’ve been dreaming of and training for.

 

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Not feeling it, something has to give

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I had a bad day yesterday. I’ve not been feeling amazing for a few weeks but have been able to push through. My legs have been feeling empty and sore, and my right leg has been cramping and causing me quite a bit of pain. Naturally I’ve been ignoring all this. Yesterday I couldn’t really ignore it any more. I had planned two 10 mile runs, one in the morning, one in the evening. It was a hot day, but the morning run should have been lovely. It wasn’t. I finished, but felt grim the whole way. My leg hurt and I was struggling for any kind of pace, and my heartrate was high. The evening run was a complete disaster and I got on the bus after three miles as I simply couldn’t push through any more. I walked the rest of the way home. I feel useless, slow, weak. My body has let me down, and I haven’t even been doing that much, a few 80  mile weeks shouldn’t break me.

The rational side of me thinks I know what is wrong. I’ve been eating very low carb for the past six weeks or so. I had been fairly low carb, but with grains in at least one meal. My partner decided to join me on the low carb train for weight loss, and because he does all the cooking in our house, carbs went out the window. We’ve been eating amazingly well, but I’ve probably not been providing my body with sufficient glycogen. I feel run down, muscles are sore, and I have a sty in my eye, always a sign that something isn’t right. I bottomed out yesterday and although every inch of me is screaming “go to the gym, go lift weights/go on the step machine/elliptical/treadmill at a high incline”, I know I shouldn’t. I need to rest. But the other part of me is telling myself what a lazy, slow, hopeless lazy beast I am. I don’t know what to do. I know that if I exercise I’ll feel better, but I will not be helping my recovery. Part of me just wants to run anyway, through the pain. I want to recover and be strong enough for my first ultra in just over two weeks. I had planned a 26 mile run this weekend. I don’t know if I’ll manage to do it. Perhaps if I get through today and allow myself this bit of rest, it will be a step forward for me.

Eating more carbs is a big issue and I’m a bit worried about it. I know that my diet isn’t fueling myself properly, but changing is really scary. Deep breath. Writing all this is hard too, but I hope to be able to read back over it in the future and know that everything turned out ok.

How do quantification and assessment impact performance? 

Last week I had the opportunity to go to Loughborough University and undergo some testing. Among other things, I had a body composition assessment and bone density scanning. I learned that I have very low body fat (11%). As I am in a normal BMI range (20), this means that I have a high lean body mass (basically it means I’m muscular). The low body fat can be a cause of amenorrhea as lower fat stores can cause lower levels of leptin and  other hormones that can trigger memsturation. This can cause a loss of bone density caused by low estrogen and, possibly, high cortisol. Luckily for me, my bone density was in the normal level. 

It was interesting. My body fat % is low for the general population but not particularly low for an athlete. What is unusual is that it is combined with a healthy BMI, meaning that I am maintaining my muscle mass, and this is what has probably protected my bones. I do weight train and do body weight exercises daily.  I’ve always coveted a body type that I don’t have: long, lean, dancer like. I’m strong, muscular, toned. My composition bears this out, but if I were to cut my calories sufficiently to lose more weight, I would be severely at risk of osteoporosis. This has actually helped me feel a bit better about my shape and composition. 

With all this in mind, I raced a tough trail half marathon at the weekend. I didn’t taper, was off an 80+ mile week and didn’t eat any carbohydrate in preparation. I felt grim for the first 10k, the lack of available muscle glycogen was very apparent and I couldn’t get any speed into my legs. I also cramped up and got numb feet. 

Allowing quite a few people to pass me was a bit disconcerting and I honestly wondered if I could finish. Then, suddenly, the cramping and numbness evaporated. The race turned uphill and we had to crest three sharp hills. Everyone around me was walking. I was able to run up them, and passed into the position of second woman. First was way ahead of me (she finished second overall) but I was able to pass a good few of the men also in that final 4 miles. 

My lesson: I can run glycogen depleted up to a certain speed only. It is around 4:45/km. anything faster than that and I need more fuel. I can climb, but I can’t run quickly. I need to eat carbs when I race, end of story. But I must be quite fat adapted as I can go forever at a slightly slower pace, and I can run up hills that defeated most others in the field. Result! 

I’m struggling a bit with some calf niggles in my right leg but I think it will be ok. This week I plan to run my final long run (c. 40k) before starting my taper towards the Peak Skyrace on August 7th. 

On podcasts

I wanted to do a post about my favourite podcasts, because they are such a big part of my training and life at the moment. I spend  between 12 and 15 hours a week running and cycling, and most of that time I listen to podcasts, unless I’m doing speedwork. They get me through my long runs, educate me, entertain me, and have become familiar friends in my life. I can’t imagine doing the type of training I do without them.

No 1 favourite: Talk Ultra.

Ian Corless does a brilliant job with this long playing podcast, dedicated to ultrarunning, but with a lot of content of interest all endurance athletes. The back catalogue is amazing, and I can’t think of a boring episode out of the entire set. “Speedgoat” Karl Meltzer, one of the most prolific 100 mile winners in the world, often co-presents, and over the years the race coverage, training advice, and general information imparted by this podcast is hugely impressive. Memorable episodes: Episode 24 – William Sichel. A fascinating interview with a 59 year old man who covers extraordinary distances (including the totally insane 3100 mile Sri Chinmoy race) 2and lives and trains on a remote Scottish island. Utterly compelling. Another notable episode is episode 95, the in depth interview with Scott and Jenny Jurek immediately after Scott’s record on the Appalachian trail.

Marathon Talk

Another brilliant running resource, Tom Williams and Martin Yelling’s weekly show that includes interviews, news, in depth training discussions, and lots more. Probably the best general running podcast around. Notable episodes: 225 and 226, in which Steve Way (GB marathon and ultra runner, 100k British record holder) discusses his training in great depth. 199 and 200, interview with snooker player and decent runner Ronnie O’Sullivan.

Trail Runner Nation and Ultrarunner podcast

I group these together as they are quite similar: American focused ultra running podcasts, that are always entertaining. Particular favourites include “Rob Krar’s Beard”, an interview with the fascinating Western States double champion. Tim Tollefson’s interview on Ultrarunner podcast about his disastrous Transgrancanaria in 2016 had me cringing while running.

Endurance Planet

Tawnee Prazak, triathlete and coach, hosts this show, which is heavily influenced by Phil Maffetone and his training philosophies (low carb, high fat diet, training under a set aerobic heartrate). Tawnee is very “California”, but she is well informed and entertaining. Even if you don’t accept all of her theories and ideas, she is worth a listen.

Runners Connect

Hosted by British marathon runner Tina Muir, this is a lovely podcast with a selection of guests aimed at distance runners. Tina has a nice manner and as an elite runner she has a good insight into training and life. I really liked her interview with nutrition expert Chris Kelly, whose own podcast Nourish Balance Thrive I also enjoy.

I am fascinated by the science of performance and nutrition, and sometimes despair at the vast number of quack-ish podcasts out there, especially in this area. However, there is one that is head and shoulders above the rest, consistently high quality and interesting, always evidence-driven and not pushing a specific dogma. Sigma Nutrition is utterly fantastic, and I have learned so much from Danny Lennon who hosts it. Sometimes very deeply scientific, sometimes more practical, Danny cuts through the crap spouted by so many online nutrition “gurus”, and I look forward to his podcast every week.

Special mention for: Magness & Marcus on coaching in which Steve Magness (of Science of Running fame) and Jon Marcus discuss track coaching in very frank terms.

 

 

Some bog surfing in the Peaks

I’m doing a 48 kilometer Skyrunning race in a few weeks time, and decided that it would probably be wise to recce the course in advance. I’m so glad I did! What I discovered is that a large proportion of the course is heavy bog, caused by the wet weather that has been the story for most of this year. Trails that are supposed to be dry and fairly runnable are thick, sucking mud, and at one point I ended up above my knees in a sinkhole of black mud. I’m quite worried about the race now, as it is nearly impossible to run over such terrain. It is going to be a long day’s slog unless things dry out significantly. I didn’t realise how bad it was going to be, and headed out with plenty of water, but no food, as I was only planning to do around 12 miles on various bits of the course.

Nearly 4 hours later….I made it back to the car, completely ravenous, having not eaten anything apart from two chia seed gels (33 Shake, amazing stuff), which luckily I had stuffed in my vest without actually planning to eat them.  My then two hour drive home took me well over 3 as the traffic was awful, and my phone died. My shoes had to be scrubbed in the sink as they were submerged in thick black goo, and I can’t get my feet clean at all, after two showers and plenty of soap.

It is going to be great fun!!!

What does “healthy” actually mean?

There seems to be a trend recently for online commentators and podcasters to claim that athletes are not healthy. A prime example of this sort of argument can be found here in a recent article: The Pool.

This worries me, for a few reasons. Firstly, because in a way there is a kernel of truth here, although it is obscured by a lot of rubbish. At the very sharp end of athletic training, especially in distance running or triathlon, there is some evidence that a few athletes are breaking down and suffering from health problems related to their training. Overtraining is a real thing, and can cause a whole list of unpleasant symptoms. The exact physiology behind overtraining is still not absolutely clear, but whether a suppressed immune system makes the body susceptible to viral infections, or the adrenal function becomes inefficient, an overtrained athlete knows that they are in trouble. Geoff Roes, a very successful ultrarunner, essentially had to terminate his competitive career due to the symptoms he was experiencing.

However, most runners are not overtrained, or even close to being overtrained. In order to get the benefit from training, it is necessary to put some form of stress on our bodies’ systems – that is how fitness works. It is normal to feel a bit of fatigue after a hard session. It is normal to have to push ourselves. My fear is that too much discussion of overtraining will inevitably lead to the basic functions of fitness becoming pathologised. You feel a bit of leg pain after a hard run: better back off, don’t want to be overtrained. The result: junk miles and no fitness benefit at all.

It is true that some elite athletes are at risk to some health issues as a result of their lifestyle. There have been a number of studies showing that elite long distance triathletes can be prone to heart issues after retiring, and Tim Noakes has argued that athletes can be predisposed to becoming insulin resistant. Both these examples rely on extreme conditions: the training of an elite Ironman triathlete who competes at the top of the sport for a number of years is far beyond the type of training attempted by even the most dedicated amateur or even a lot of professional single sport athletes. Notions of diet and nutrition have evolved greatly in recent years, and fewer athletes are relying on the huge quantities of simple sugars for fuel that was the cause of the problems that Prof. Noakes identified in the 2000s. 

Stress: cortisol, adrenal dysfunction, these are the new buzz words thrown around to warn athletes that they might not be healthy. There is no doubt that performance driven athletes exist in a high stress state. However to correlate this with the type of ill health that exists in the non athletic population is crazy. A fit runner with a good diet might have raised cortisol due to the stress of racing. But a fat businessman will probably have equal or higher stress responses on top of the myriad of problems caused by obesity. Furthermore, an athlete might display elevated cortisol and this might indeed suggest that their body is working in a stressed state, but to claim that this is as unhealthy as the pathologies experienced by the general population is a step beyond rationality.

I fear that popular articles claiming the ill health of athletes mainly have an underlying bias against athleticism, meaning that the author is implying that because he or she can’t perform at a high level, those who can must be “unhealthy”. It is of course vital that trainers and coaches understand the bodies, motivations, and limitations of their athletes. However, there must also be an understanding that the human body is essentially designed to move, and movement, even in large amounts, is something that promotes health. We are surrounded by people who are deeply unhealthy due to poor diets and sedentary lifestyles. Athletes are by definition highly focused on their bodies: we are aware when there is a problem and tend to look for solutions because our bodies are the tools of our lifestyles. The solution to societal ill health isn’t “stop working out/running/training”but the complete opposite: improve your diet, start exercising, do more exercise, stop eating stuff that isn’t food, and be more like a top athlete. Saying athletes are not healthy just provides an excuse for non athletes to continue to damage their health through poor diet and lack of movement – two things that we know for sure are the biggest causes of disease in the modern western world.

When the brain is faster than the body

I’ve been guilty of dodging the fast, short races for most of this year. I’ve concentrated on my Marathon and now ultra training, and dodged the 10ks that I would usually do. Mainly because fast does not come naturally to me and I have to work so hard for every extra second. Endurance is fine, I’ll run all day and can maintain a decent pace, but make me run fast and I crumble. To have any speed at all I need to be doing regular sessions, and my foot injury made sure these didn’t happen. 

A five mile flat road race was always going to test me. My brain assumed I could do what I did over 5k the week before London and maintain 4 minute kilometres. My body thought otherwise. My legs just wouldn’t turnover. I was slower than at the same race last year by a good 30 seconds (despite being far fitter). I won 1st V35 (and felt a bit of a fraud). I am a month away from my first ultra and the miles have been steady and abundant, but not quick. Need to get back on the track! I did manage an extra 5 miles on the trail after the race, which cheered me up a bit. 
I wore my new Altra Intuition 2.0 race flats only the second time and they were brilliant. 


My resolution now is to be kinder to myself. I want to accept my current limitations and not berate myself. I was slow because I had an injury and couldn’t do speed work. If I do some speed work, I’ll get faster. No point in beating myself up about it.  I’m terrible at self-love and now that I’m getting older, it is the one thing I want to learn. Before I’m 40, I want to learn to stop berating myself and appreciate what and who I am. It will be something that makes ultra running seem easy as I will be trying to overturn a lifetime of negative thinking. But I will not spend the next 40 years being unkind to myself. I’ll give my body what it needs and appreciate its strengths and not deplore its weaknesses. So, it’s down in writing now- must be true!