Finding the Proper Balance Between Running, Calories and Adaptability

On its surface, the thinking makes total sense. Cutting calories helps you lose weight; exercise helps you lose weight; one of the best ways to exercise is running. So, if you’re cutting calories and exercising by running, you should be at least twice as effective, right?


In this battle, your enemy is one that is typically an ally: Adaptation. The human body is undoubtedly a miracle, filled with all kinds of ways — some known, others still a mystery — that we naturally defend ourselves by unconsciously making physiological changes to combat threats. One good example is the way our bodies increase blood flow to the skin when it’s cold outside — warming us up by opening blood vessels where needed. One bad example are allergies: conditions caused by the immune system overreacting to harmless substances in the environment that are mistakenly perceived as a threat.

On a similar (if not nearly as frightening as allergies can be) note, when you run long distances, your body adapts to a perceived physical stress. Unfortunately, you can’t explain to your body the difference between running 10 miles a day for training vs. running the same distance because you’re being chased by a T-Rex. So, your body adapts to the repetitive nature of the activity, allowing you to burn fewer calories and hold on to more of them so they can be converted into additional energy if needed.

“If your goal is to be leaner, then greater endurance isn’t really to your benefit,” Lou Schuler, author of the book “The New Rules of Lifting for Women,” tells USA Today.

University of Minnesota physician/former president of the American College of Sports Medicine Dr. William Roberts says that the key is to basically make it so that the randomness of your workout outsmarts your body’s ability to adapt. “If I’m looking at a gym and looking at what can I get the most bang for my buck from, it’s whatever I can use that moves and works the most muscle groups at the same time,” he says, admitting that even though he’s a runner, strength training must be added to the upper body — which long-distance running neglects. “If you can build strength and build muscle mass, you’re going to burn more calories, even if you’re idling.”

According to the 2015-2020 edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, active men should consume up to 3000 calories a day, while women should be around 2400 — of course, such guidelines need to be adjusted for height, activity level and other factors. Those calories are processed through metabolism, and turned into the energy we all need.

“When we talk about calorie burning, we are including calories burned for basal metabolic rate—those calories we need just to maintain our temperature and breathing, etc.—plus the extra calories burned in physical activity,” sports medicine specialist/orthopedic surgeon Natasha Trentacosta, M.D., tells Runner’s World. “The extra activities we do in life burn calories beyond the requirement for basal metabolic rate, and to burn these calories, your body first looks toward readily-available sources, and then subsequently stored energy sources.”

If your calories are in deficit, your body turns to glucose in the liver and muscles. “Eventually, longer duration exercise will deplete the readily available glucose and the glycogens stores, requiring the body to get energy from fat or even muscle protein,” Trentacosta explains. “Your body literally breaks down muscle to provide energy for your run, decreasing your overall lean muscle mass.”

This last resort of the body would typically be used as an adaptation to starvation. But — once again —you can’t have a conversation with your body to explain that you aren’t starving, you’re simply trying to lose weight to fit into that bridesmaid’s dress for your cousin’s wedding. If you trigger starvation mode, your thyroid is likely to suffer — and your body will warn you of this, but rather than a “check engine” light in a car, you’ll just feel really terrible.

The body will also suffer in terms of its ability to recover, and you’ll likely begin to feel the effects of the insufficient vitamin and mineral intake triggered by lack of food — hello, weaker, more breakable bones!

It’s not often that you’re told in modern-day life to ignore common sense and work to overcome your body’s god-given tendency to adapt. For many athletes, the key to achieving the body you want is a smart, varied workout regimen complimented by the fuels necessary to make it happen. Rather than going to extremes, go for a gameplan, and then execute it. Because ultimately, your body’s most powerful muscle is always the brain.


Ultra-Running in the age of coronavirus: What to do now?

Right now, everyone has a lot on their minds, and there are few who would argue that any public event is more important than the recommendations we shelter at home, keep a 6-foot distance from others, and take seriously all hygienic precautions in an attempt to flatten the coronavirus curve. But for professional athletes like ultra-runners, accustomed to daily workouts encompassing substantial miles on foot, cancellations and self-quarantine are as challenging as any slippery hillside or uphill climb.

Virtually every major sporting event for the next 30 days has been cancelled, many with barely a few days of advance warning, impacting athletes who may have been training for months. This can’t help but feel like a massive disappointment for such folks, who may be able to commiserate with those around them who’ve had birthday parties, guitar lessons and work mixers similarly cancelled, but it isn’t quite the same. We’re all hoping and praying that the COVID-19 threat goes away as quickly as possible with as little impact as possible — but while birthday parties and guitar lessons can easily resume, if an elite athlete sits in a house for a month or longer largely inactive, resumption is not so easily achieved.

There is also the issue of separation. Many athletes train with one or several coaches and mentors, people who they speak with day in and day out, and who come to know them as well as any member of their blood family. Now, common sense dictates that they must stay apart to preserve their health — but every fiber of their athleticism yearns for their wisdom, camaraderie and support. On top of that is the loss of community — runners are typically a tight-knit group, seeing each other regularly at events — and to suddenly have that infrastructure taken away can be difficult.

These days, we all have to remember: You are not defined by which event you are training for.

“Races don’t determine what kind of athlete you are or who you are for that matter,” coach and trail athlete Anna Mae Flynn of Marble, Colorado recently told Trail Runner. “Health and safety are always the number one priority.” 

On the other hand, perhaps athletes are better equipped for this crisis than others. In addition to the health advantages of being physically fit, athletes have been trained to encounter adversity, conquer it and move on. They know that there will be bad days, but all that means is a good day must be right around the corner. They know to support others around them, and to work as a team — whether they are part of a running group in training, or a family of five co-habitating in the same house for multiple weeks.

Also, like so much in life, perspective is everything. While the pessimist may feel defeated by the prospect of weeks indoors, the optimist could see the same situation as an opportunity. If you have a good treadmill/bike/workout room at home, there has never been a better time to become closely acquainted. How many sit-ups will it take to finally achieve the 6-pack you’ve always wanted? How much base building can you do while not training for a specific race?

“Even though there are bigger issues in the world, caring about races is a great thing,” coach David Roche tells Trail Runner. “But also think about why you race in the first place. I like athletes to frame events as a means to structure the day-to-day process they love, rather than the end goal.” 

Another thing to keep in mind: modern technology is your friend. Numerous organizations online are offering fitness classes, training sessions and pretty much anything else you can imagine via video conferencing. FaceTime with your coach, group-chat with your running buddies — once you get beyond the inevitable glitches and the one guy who can’t seem to get the mic to work on his laptop, it’s amazing how much goodness you can still get from human interaction, even if the humans aren’t in the same room with you.

Along those same optimistic lines, there is perhaps no sport better-equipped to weather the coronavirus storm than competitive running. If the goal is to avoid proximity with others, there are few options as effective as heading out into the woods and running alone. Be smart, stay up on the latest precautions, and when all this is finished you may just find that it’s made you stronger — both mentally and physically.  


2020 Barkley — Will Anyone Ever Finish The Race Again?

In the world of ultra-marathoning, no race is more fabled, feared or filthy as the Barkley. Inspired by the frantic escape of a notorious murderer, limited to a select group of participants and defiantly averse to support or celebration, Gary “Lazarus Lake” Cantrell’s annual event is unlike anything else. No one has successfully finished the race since 2017 — and it’s safe to say no one would be surprised if the 2020 installment once again breaks the hearts of everyone involved.

Typically completed within a 60-hour period in late March or early April of each year, details of Barkley are proudly, defiantly hard to come by. Good luck getting much information from the “official website,” which seems to have last been updated around the same time “Moonlight” upset “La La Land” at the Oscars. Instead, for details on the race that “eats its young,” most folks seem to look to Keith Dunn, a loyal Barkley supporter who (unofficially?) seems to post the most reliable information about Barkley.

On February 28, Dunn tweeted: “Seems there are a lot of people hanging around a yellow gate the last couple days. #BM100,” seemingly signaling that race time was closing in. But in true Barkley spirit, he then said about a week later: “I’ve already tweeted the final results for this year. There will be no finishers.” So, don’t get your hopes up.

Which means, of course, that the racing community is indeed getting its hopes up. “It’s almost time for the one (!!!!) sporting event I follow,” tweeted Canadian race fan Rachel Schwarz (@rachelschwarz). “Every year I’m glued to twitter for a few days of hitting the refresh button and seeing if anyone escapes the jaws of the Barkley Marathon alive.”

Promising that they’ll be watching, Pieter Meere (@PieterMeere) replied: “My wife and I have taken a few extra days off for the #BM100. Yes, both last weekends,” adding: “We do expect a lot of finishers, mild conditions, singing in the woods, gnomes helping runners in need. What could possibly go wrong in Frozen Head?”

The response, of course, is that plenty can go wrong. Limited to 40 runners, entry details are typically top secret but include some combination of an essay, a $1.60 entry fee and additional requirements. After receiving a “letter of condolence” telling the athletes they’ve made the cut, the person least likely to finish one lap of the race is deemed the “human sacrifice,” and when Cantrell lights a cigarette, the race begins. Although certain variables are subject to change, the race currently consists of a 20-mile unmarked loop — no aid stations, two water points, runners going back and forth on the loop, night and day.

Out of more than 1,000 starts, the 100-mile race has been completed within the 60-mile cutoff by only 15 runners. In 2017, Vancouver’s Gary Robbins finished six seconds after the 60-hour cut-off time — although a wrong-turn likely would have disqualified him anyway. Could this be the year he finally conquers Barkley?

“Gary [Robbins] has to finish this year and Courtney [Dauwalter] will be the first female finisher next year,” predicts a fan named Jonah (@jeunomatic). “She will team up with Jared Campbell for the first 2 loops. Campbell’s comeback year will see him beat Maune’s record by some 30 mins. You heard it here first.”

Campbell is best known as the only person to ever finish Barkley three times — a 2019 attempt at a fourth finish fell short. Brett Maune, meanwhile, holds the course record with 52:03:08, which he set in 2012.  As a third straight year threatens to end Barkley without a finisher, such performances seem increasingly impossible. Nevertheless, there appears to be hope — albeit, from the most unlikely source.

“Apparently laz has gone on record as saying there will be a finisher this year,” tweeted Dunn last week. “I’m on record as saying there won’t be. History suggests I am right.”

At this point, anything further is speculation — and seems to reflect more on the glass half full/glass half empty nature of the commenter than any sort of actual, tangible insider information.

“There will be 2 Finishers and the first woman,” tweeted a fan named empariyon (@Andreas42628876). “I feel it, yes … there is a spirit 2020.”

“I’m with you Keith,” replied Greg Doran. “But something always tells me Laz is not to be denied.”

Perhaps (most likely?) jokingly, Dunn suggested something that may threaten to become a reality if Barkleys keep going down without any finishers — albeit, most likely over the founder’s dead body. “I mean,” he tweeted. “laz could make the course easier . . .”


Tie-Dyed Lake Sonoma 50 promises sweat, smiles

The beloved Lake Sonoma 50 is once again getting ready for the sport’s spotlight, and the official race site has selected one ominous word to define itself: relentless.

In and of itself, a relentless race is an intimidating concept. But what truly defines the allure of Lake Sonoma over comparable races is the other word chosen to define this 2020 installment: tie-dye?

Yup, this year’s Lake Sonoma 50 is Woodstock-themed, and participants are encouraged to wear the bright, Technicolor-twisted colors that defined the free-love generation.  

“Join us this year with a Woodstock tie-dye theme!” the Sonoma site urges. “The race is held on the trails at Lake Sonoma, about 10 miles northwest of Healdsburg, California. The course is an out-and-back circumnavigation of the Warm Springs Arm of Lake Sonoma. It is 86% single-track trail and 9% dirt fire roads, with the first 2.4 miles on pavement. The trail is relentlessly rolling, with three significant climbs.”

There’s something ironic about the thought of sweating, cramping, physically-stretched-to-their-limits ultra-runners clad in the freewheeling uniform of a generation known for laying down in grass fields and “turn on, tune in, drop(ping) out” while psychedelic substances took them on a mental trip rather than a physical one. But that’s part of the charm of Lake Sonoma, which began in 2008 and has been run every year since — with the exception of 2011, when flooding proved even more relentless than the race itself.

This year’s race is set for April 11th, and according to UltraSignup there are some impressive athletes who will be strapping on their running shoes. Needham, Massachusetts native and Boston Bulldogs Running Club founder Patrick Caron will be bringing his talents to Sonoma after a half-decade of impressive finishes in international races. 2018 Speedgoat winner David Sinclair is listed as a participant, as is Circle the Bay veteran Jared Bassett and the endlessly-positive Scott Trummer.

On the women’s side, Ashley Nordell is a force to be reckoned with (favorite quote: Steve Prefontaine’s “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice a gift”), as is 2016 Western States winner (and apparent PAW Patrol enthusiast) Kaci Lickteig. Ultra-running vet and Vermont native Aliza Lapierre is also slated to run, as is Janessa Taylor and Canadian runner/podcaster Nicola Gildersleeve.

Such familiar names will be competing not only against each other, but also against the course records set by Jim Walmsley in 2018 (5:51:16 for Men’s) and Stephanie Howe Violett in 2015 (7:08:23 for Women’s). Last year’s male winner Jared Hazen (who finished with a 6:08:29 time) is not currently slated to return, but 2019 female winner Anna Mae Flynn (7:25:15) will return to defend her title and hopefully close the gap even further between herself and the women’s course record.

What can these athletes expect? The Lake Sonoma 50 boasts 10,500 feet of elevation gain, offset by an equal amount of loss. Although the course has few rocks and roots, since the trail is infrequently used there are sure to be lots of leaves and sticks. Then there are the dozen creek crossings — not kind to runners who aren’t accustomed to wet, cold feet.

But as relentless as the 2020 Lake Sonoma 50 will be, the counterbalance should make it all worthwhile. “Rule 1: No Littering. Rule 2: Be Nice. Rule 3: Have Fun!” reads the race’s official rules. “Violation of rules 1 and 2 will get you disqualified. If you are observed violating rule 3, we may withhold your post-race beer.”

Although the race requires serious training and flexibility of both body and mind, there is an even bigger picture that remains in focus via Sonoma’s chosen charity: The Children of Vineyard Workers Scholarship Fund. All net proceeds from the run benefit the fund, established nearly 20 years ago by Ken and Diane Wilson to ensure that financial hardships don’t stop the offspring of the wine industry’s workers from achieving their goals in higher education. In the years since, the fund has distributed more than a half-million dollars in scholarships.

So, a good cause, a great event, and a fun-loving atmosphere that will feature tie-dyed runners and a penalty on anyone who isn’t having fun. Although the Lake Sonoma 50 is designed to be relentless, it might be the toughest race of its kind that will showcase equal parts sweat and smiles.