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Monthly Archives - September 2019

Running Metrics: Are they right for trail runners?

by Larry Carroll

In some ways, running feels like the most primal of instincts. Watch any child and you’ll see the evidence: Just moments after we learn to walk, we’ll try to run. In no time, a child learns that moving your legs faster will get you where you want to go faster – and immediately begins testing the limits to see how fast they can go.

In other ways, running has never been more cutting-edge than now. With the rise of GPS, heart monitors, smartphones and endless apps to document and analyze every aspect of your run, there is a limitless amount of information at your fingertips. The question then presents itself: How much is useful, and at what point does it become overwhelming?

Heart rate, cadence, average pace per mile, vertical ratio, ground contact time and other such metrics are becoming increasingly popular, as are the Apple Watches, Lumo Runs, smart shoes, LifeBeams, and other devices used to capture such information. But do they deserve their popularity?

For starters, let’s take a look at the heart rate (HR). Among many runners, it is considered the best indicator of running effort because the faster and harder you push, the more it will increase. Devices typically track both average heart rate and maximum heart rate (the formula for which is 220 minus your age). Then there are the HR zones, popularized by Garmin, which give you zones like “Warm-Up” or “Very Fast Running” based on your perceived maximum HR. 

But the heart rate is particularly tricky. It takes a long time to register, so if your metric is telling you it is too low or too high, it’s very difficult to make an adjustment on the fly. By the time your heart rate’s lag time has caught up to your body, you might already be in need of a recalibration. 

There’s also the matter of practicality in the body. Rather than concerning itself with the rate your heart is beating, the body cares about its rate of cardiac output – measured by heart rate times stroke volume, which can vary depending on hydration, stress and other factors. In short, heart rate is a partial measurement of an overall picture – and examined by itself, is somewhat akin to measuring a car’s performance by only looking at the tire pressure.

Ultimately, the best data is what your body sends you during your workout via sweat, pain, breathing, cramping, and other manifestations. If you’re adept at interpreting them, you’ll be able to discern all the information you need about effort level, motivation and how your workout measures up against past efforts.

Sometimes, athletes can actually prevent themselves from a breakthrough if they are too obsessed with their numbers, playing to a machine rather than their best effort. Although monitors are machines, they are observing human bodies, which most certainly are not. So although monitors may judge you based on where they think your heart rate or calorie burn can be, that doesn’t mean that the target presented to a runner can effectively measure effort. 

For trail runners, in particular, the answer may lie in what has commonly come to be called “Mindful running.” The phrase refers to the process of listening to your body and using that information to fuel your training. 

Over at GQ, “Mindful Running” is referred to as meditation on the move, exploring the whole-body benefits of freeing yourself from electronics, timers, and demands for a personal best. At Trail Runner , meanwhile, a rating system is used to measure your effort level in various categories:

Breathing – Determine in advance how difficult your run will be, then attempt to focus on steady, rhythmic breathing to align your effort level with the amount of exertion you’re targeting.

Muscular Effort – In short, it’s all about improving efficiency by training yourself to run faster without significantly increasing your perceived effort. If your legs keep moving smoothly and your exertion rate is low, you’re on the right track.

trail runners

Mental Effort – Yes, it’s true. You run with your mind, and if you’re making true progress you won’t need to grapple with it constantly to push yourself.

Enjoyment Level – Is your recovery easy? Did your run feel like a chore? Such questions are easy to answer, and as it turns out, essential in reading the messages being sent by your body in regards to your training regimen. Ignore them at your own peril.

Ranking each of the above categories from 1 (very easy) to 10 (maximum effort), you can begin to analyze the data your body is sending you every day, and proceed accordingly – no electronics necessary, as fun as some of those toys might be. 

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trail running bones

Loading with calcium – does it help your trail running bones?

By Larry Carroll

We’ve been on the receiving end of the same message since we were little children, sitting in front of the TV during Saturday morning cartoons being promised that a glass of white liquid does a body good. Calcium, we were told, helps your bones.

trail running bones

Now we’re grown-ups and, as athletes, depend on our bones in increasingly more punishing ways. All those countless miles of running, pounding step after step, aching feet and splintered shins. And so, the question has evolved: Does extra calcium help fortify and repair our trail running bones?

It’s certainly not going out on a limb to say that bones are of vital importance not only to an athlete but to any human being with the goal of simply being upright. As such, the structural framework of the human body has to be looked after – and although it might not seem that way, your bones are a constantly evolving mechanism. 

With each passing day, your body removes calcium from some areas of the bone and places it elsewhere. Think about Captain Kirk in “Star Trek,” ordering that emergency power is rerouted to the deflector shields – at a time of crisis, your body can deal with stresses by rerouting the calcium, but it may leave other areas at risk.

trail running bones

This becomes a particularly dangerous scenario for runners, whose repeated foot strikes see the same parts of the bone being punished time and time again. If enough time is allowed for recovery, the body will adapt to these stresses and cells will adequately resorb. If you aren’t giving yourself enough time to recover – or if your calcium intake isn’t enough to make up the difference – that’s when your body finds itself facing the stress fracture equivalent of a Klingon starship attack. 

Planning your intake accordingly, however, can be trickier than you’d think. One factor to consider is age: According to Runner’s World, adults need about 1000 mg of calcium per day, a typical high school runner requires about 1300, and older adults need about 1200 mg ( Fueling the Runner: Bone Health ). If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, that number needs to go even higher.

Then there is the poster child for calcium itself: Milk. As the years go by, it seems less and less likely that your average American is enjoying a glass of cow’s milk with their meal, as it is increasingly viewed as a children’s beverage and supplanted by the far-trendier and infinite alternatives: soy milk, almond milk, coconut milk and on and on. 

To avoid weakened bones and an increased risk of fractures, you need to look beyond milk and into alternative sources that you can sneak, Trojan-horse style, into your meals. 

Stocking yourself up with calcium (and its partner in crime, vitamin D) in healthy doses can be achieved through yogurts, cheeses (start with mozzarella and muenster) and other dairy staples. If you’re trying to avoid dairy, look to certain fortified cereals, soy products, tofu and spinach, and fish such as sardines and salmon. 

trail running bones

Another great idea is working seeds – tiny, nutritional superfoods – into your dishes. Poppy, celery, sesame and chia seeds all boast an impressive calcium punch and can be sprinkled onto something like yogurt or an acai bowl without your tastebuds noticing much of a difference. The same goes for beans and lentils, potentially prepared in a variety of delicious ways as a stealthy side dish for your typical meal. If you’re feeling really adventurous, try winged beans – which contain 24% of the recommended daily intake for calcium.

Edamame is a rich calcium source that is so easy to prepare and snack on like it’s popcorn, while tofu could provide 86% of your RDI is just half a cup and is so famously malleable that it could be substituted for meat in many dishes. 

Whenever possible, both runners and non-athletes alike should strive to get their calcium from food, not supplemental tablets. In fact, researchers at the University School of Medicine in St. Louis ( Dietary Calcium Is Better Than Supplements At Protecting Bone Health ) found not only that 34 million Americans were at increased risk for osteoporosis, but also that only about 35% of the calcium in supplements ends up being absorbed by the body.

If you do have a calcium deficiency developing, be on the lookout for frequent muscle cramps, poor clotting, and dreaded stress fractures. But the good news is that if you can get your calcium intake to its proper level, you can look forward to some wonderful side effects – including healthier hair and nails, a better-regulated heartbeat, and more. So, if you want to be a better runner – and one that might turn a head or two on the trail – reach for that yogurt!

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Running on the treadmill vs. running outside: Which is more effective?

By Larry Carroll

In theory, it makes perfect sense: Treadmills are made to mimic the open road, your feet don’t have eyeballs, so running on one should be just as good as sprinting along with the real thing. In practice, however, it isn’t always so clear cut. With technology improving in each passing year, to the extent where a treadmill from a decade ago would be laughed out of today’s gym, the question is one both timeless and continuously asked: How effective is running on a treadmill vs. running outside?

To address the question, it may be best to make a list of pros and cons. Naturally, every runner will decide on their own which factors extract the best results from them, and which others are unimportant. Much like running shoes themselves, one size does not fit all. Read on and see which points strike a chord with you – then lace up and act accordingly.

The Road

Pro: Being Outside – For many runners, nothing beats being outdoors, exploring your neighborhood and having run-ins with nature and neighbors in their natural habitat. As complicated as competitive running can sometimes get, there is something beautifully basic about the concept of a runner, a pair of sneakers, and a road stretching off into the horizon. How far will you run? Where will you go? At moments like this, you are truly free.

Con: Being Outside – When you get right down to it, how free are you, really? If the weather doesn’t cooperate, you’re turning around early. If you have a bad encounter with a car, a bike, an animal or an uncooperative surface, you might be limping home – or worse. 

Pro: The Unpredictability of the Course – When it comes time to race for real, the only thing you can predict is that your track won’t be one smooth, looping surface. In real life, you’ll have to deal with rocks and curbs, slopes and sudden drop-offs and in a word: Unpredictability. Whether you realize it or not, training outdoors is not only good for your body but also good for honing the instincts you may need to someday rely on at a moment’s notice.

Con: The Unpredictability of the Course – On a treadmill, you can worry less about a sudden potential injury and focus instead on measuring your metrics. You are in complete control of the pace, intervals, recovery time and incline. On the road, you have to hand some element of your workout over to chance. Control freaks, beware.

The Treadmill

Pro: Better Long Term – Have you ever seen an older runner, struggling to simply walk around, and then considered all the hard miles they’ve put on those muscles and joints? When it comes to race day, they had no choice; still, it’s hard not to think about how much better off they’d be if a higher percentage of their practice runs had been on a treadmill. According to one study (Aerobic requirements of overground versus treadmill running), the amount of oxygen your body uses during physical activity is the same whether you’re on a treadmill or outside; according to another (Biomechanics Expert Debunks Treadmill-Running Myths), if you’re running at a pace of at least 7:09 and set your treadmill to a one percent grade, it accurately re-creates an outside run. In short: What’s going on inside your body is identical under those conditions, but the cushioned belt is much easier on you.

Con: Monotony – Too many runners, being on a treadmill is the human equivalent of being trapped on a gerbil wheel. Run and run all you want, but you’re not getting anywhere – and when you’re talking about multiple hours per week, treadmill running can get old real fast. That’s why it’s essential to distract yourself – be it music, television, a podcast, etc. That can create a problem, however, if you then try to run a race without those distractions at the ready. 

Pro: Technology – Yes, there is something beautifully basic about being on the road. But not everyone wants to be basic, and some would rather play with a fancy new toy. If you can afford it, something like the NordicTrack Commercial x32i Incline Trainer/Treadmill will scratch that itch quite nicely. You can incline to 40% (giving you up to 5 times the calorie burn!) or decline to 6%; interactivity speeds up and slows down the machine; a 32” screen keeps you entertained, while a Bluetooth chest strap monitors your heart; there are even fans to keep you cool. Just be sure you don’t get so spoiled that you’ll never be able to run without it.

Con: The Tendency to Overdo It – Even among people who’ve run outside for years, there’s a temptation to get on a treadmill and immediately press all the buttons you can to get up to immediate speed. It’s crucial to remember that each and every treadmill session should begin with appropriate stretching, then a brisk walk, followed by a few minutes of jogging before you ramp-up to full speed. The same goes for the cool-down period – which is a natural when running outside and you need to walk back home, but not so natural when you’re in the middle of your garage and the couch is just one room away. 

Ultimately, the tug-of-war between outdoor and treadmill running is one that can only be decided by the runner. Like most things in life, however, the answer may exist in perfect balance between the two extremes.

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Quinoa vs. Brown Rice: Which is better for carb recovery?

By Larry Carroll

Much like ultra-marathoning itself, in life everybody has their own races to run. For some, a healthier overall lifestyle filled with important vitamins and nutrients is the goal. For others, quick recovery is the key target. Such self-exploration is at the core of one controversial word tossed around in dietary circles all the time: carbs.

If you’re regularly burning hundreds of calories a day with multiple hours of training, your body will crave carbs, you have the most to gain from them, and you are the least likely to gain body fat. If your lifestyle is less active, however, you’ll want to prioritize other health concerns.

Which brings us to two of the top carbohydrate sources in the modern diet: The classic bowl of rice, and the trendy serving of quinoa. What are the benefits and drawbacks of both? Which one is the true powerhouse? Read on for those details, then plan your diet accordingly.

A Brief History of Rice

Rice is the seed of a grass species, and as a cereal grain is one of the most popular foods in the world; in fact, it has been estimated that rice provides more than one-fifth of the calories consumed worldwide by humans. While it is especially popular in Asia, there are many varieties of rice, and its flavors and nutritional value vary widely throughout the world.

One thing to consider when you’re consuming rice is the difference between long-grain (whose grains tend to remain intact after cooking), medium-grain (which tends to get sticky, such as in risotto or sushi) and short-grain (think rice pudding). After that, it becomes all about preparation: If your rice is rinsed, it may remove excess starch, but also nutrients; if your rice is soaked, it could improve texture and activate enzymes. Boiling, steaming, frying or using a rice cooker can also have a major impact on rice’s taste, texture and ultimate health benefit.

When considering rice as a factor in your diet, you should also consider other variables. Are you consuming white, brown, red, black, or some other variety? What is the nutrient quality of the soil that the rice has ben grown in? How processed has the rice been between its trip from farm to table? The good thing about rice is that it is so easy to find – but you’ll want to make sure you’re consuming a variety consistent with your nutritional needs.

A Brief History of Quinoa

In some ways, quinoa is a master of disguise. It has a texture reminiscent of rice, is often presented as an alternative to rice at restaurants, and can typically be found alongside rice on supermarket shelves. Both are considered ancient ingredients, are easily cultivated, and have been fueling diets for millennia.

That, however, is where the similarities end. While rice is a grain, quinoa is the seed of the goosefoot plant. Rice is believed to have first been domesticated in China’s Yangtze River basin around 12,000 years ago. Quinoa originated in the Andean region of northwestern South America nearly 7,000 years ago – and subsequently spent several thousand years as a food for livestock, before humans consumed it. 

But instead of rice, we should think of quinoa as a closer relative to spinach, beets and leafy vegetables. What makes it exceptional, however, is the fact that quinoa is a complete protein, containing all nine of the essential amino acids – a true rarity compared to plants. It also has very high levels of minerals and fiber, meaning a serving of quinoa checks off multiple boxes on anyone’s healthy living checklist.  

Rice vs. Quinoa

For the sake of comparison, it is best to examine white and brown rice since they are by far the most prevalent in terms of consumption. And right off the bat, you can pretty much eliminate white — because as delicious as it may be in so many dishes, it has limited nutritional value and does little more for your body than increase your blood sugar level. During processing, white rice commonly has its husk, bran and germ removed, then is artificially enriched. 

Brown rice is a much healthier option, and offers such benefits as high levels of fiber and the potential to lower blood pressure. By retaining its bran and germ throughout processing, it retains minerals like phosphorous, manganese and magnesium. 

Comparing quinoa to brown rice head-on, both have their advantages. Quinoa has nearly twice as much protein, wins hands down in amino acids, and has three to four times more micronutrients (iron, phosphorus, calcium, etc.) than brown rice. Rice, meanwhile, has slightly fewer calories, and like quinoa is gluten-free. 

But when it comes to athletic benefits, the most important criteria may be carbohydrate replacement. When participating in an endurance sport, you need to fuel your body via carbs, which contain glucose – essential for muscles and the liver but stored in limited amounts. It is believed that once your exercise exceeds 75 minutes, your body’s glycogen begins facing depletion – in laymen’s terms, this is when you hit the wall. 

The USADA calls carbohydrates “The Master Fuel” and offers a formula to calculate the recommended grams of carbohydrates needed per pound of body weight. The formula breaks down to your weight in kilograms, multiplied by five per hour of activity.  

Although they aren’t far apart, brown rice has slightly more carbs. Indeed, a cup of quinoa offers 39 grams of carbs compared to a whopping 45 for rice. So, for the ultra-athlete seeking to simply replace carbs as quickly as possible, reach for the rice.

Obviously, sitting down and eating a bowl of rice isn’t always the most practical notion within an hour or two of participating in an event, however. And quite often, you’d be better off choosing quinoa since it wins in all those other categories, offers those amino acids, and has just slightly less carbs. 

Either way, the first time you’re able to set aside the Gu and PowerBars and have a true meal, it’s a great idea to include either brown rice or quinoa. And since both can be prepared in a myriad of ways, you’ll never get sick of the taste or consistency – and when you’re talking about healthy foods, that isn’t always the case.

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