No Pain, More Gain

A chain of events today lead me to a discovery. To others the discovery may be insignificant, but for this TOJ it may help me raise my level of fitness and even run faster on the rare occasions I care about time, like in the Bolder-Boulder 10k in a few months.

My brother-in-law stopped by the day before his 60th birthday. This winter has been cold, so he's been logging miles on a treadmill. He said he had a "revelation" earlier in the week about running (he likes exercise, but is not running nut). He had been to the dentist and given a mild narcotic to lessen the pain. A couple hours later, he was at the gym for a workout. He jumped on the treadmill and punched in a 5K distance. He said he doesn't like to watch the time and distance on the display, rather just tries to maintain a good pace until the treadmill slows as he nears the full distance. When the treadmill stopped, he noticed he'd run it faster than normal. His revelation was that maybe when he ran, he wasn't dragging because of his heart and lungs; they were doing just fine. He was slowing down because of his reaction to the pain in his hips, knees and lower back, which always became more acute with each step during a run.

Coincidentally, just after he left, I went to surf some of my favorite exercise sites. One of them is,/ which does a nice job of tracking scientific articles on exercise and aging. The latest post was about a randomized double-blind study (the gold standard of research) in the Journal of Applied Physiology. The researchers studied a group of conditioned English cyclists. Half the cyclists were given acetaminophen (aka Tylenol), the other half a placebo before they did a 10 miles time trial. They reported that the cyclists who took the Tylenol had a higher power output, heart rate and blood lactate concentration, and, as a result, covered the distance an average of 30 seconds faster, a substantial difference in a short bike race.

However, I had never connected that the pain itself caused me to slow, rather than heart and lung limitations resulting in pain. The conclusion of the cyclist study is what really drew my attention: "This findings support the notion that exercise is regulated by pain perception, and increased pain tolerance can improve exercise capacity."

I have a physician friend who is a very good 59 year old 10K racer, usually finishing around 42 minutes. He routinely pops an anti-inflammatory before the race because he's had knee problems. Time and again, he's recommended I do the same both to run faster and speed
recovery afterwards. Obviously this is not a trade secret. Among competitive athletes, it is well known that similar effects occur with ibuprofen (like Advil and Motrin), which is known as Vitamin I.

We often think that our limits are set by heart rates and VO2 max and focus training on nudging those numbers up. However, it might be that many times, as my brother-in-law discovered, our hearts, lungs and other physical factors are not what is holding us back.

For a TOJ, unlike younger athletes, workouts start at a certain base level of pain and go up from there. On a 1 to 10 pain scale, a TOJ may start in the range of 2 - 4. As you age, any strenuous exercise will feel more painful due to natural physiological changes, wear and tear, and old injuries to nerves, musculature, tendons, ligaments, and bones. So pain is a companion at any serious exertion level. This study to confirms what my brother-in-law and others have discovered : if you can decrease or delay your pain, you may be able to increase your overall fitness and performance level (if you care) because you can work out at a higher rate of exertion.
Over the next few months, I'll see if what is true for trained cyclists is also true for TOJs. Would you please pass me the Tylenol?

Note: If you have a serious chronic injury, obviously you should not use any medication to mask the pain just so you can exercise because you will make the injury worse.

A 2x2 TOJ in the Tracks of a 4x4

It snowed 3" Friday night. Not much by Colorado standards, but enough to put me on an asphalt road instead of a mountain trail. See, last week it got too warm (even rained - global warming) and turned the foot of hardpack on the trail into a rotten, unreliable crust. With 3" of new cover down low and more up higher, the footing on the trail would be too dicey.

So, shortly after sunrise, I was on the county road that winds up through ranch land for a five mile run. Running on 3" of snow covered asphalt road is not bad. But even in 3" of fresh powder, you'll get some slippage, making you tire faster and slower. Remember: The White Dragon rules.

I started off slowly to warm up, running in the fresh powder along the side of the road. Towards the middle of the road was a single set of tire tracks from a vehicle that had come down the road earlier that morning. The snow was packed firm and some rock aggregate poked through it. After a quarter mile of warm up, I stepped into the truck track to pick up my pace a little.

Being an quasi-environmentalist, I have a love-hate relationship with big 4x4 pickups, ATVs and snowmobiles. I enjoy the quiet of being outside and inhaling cold, fresh air. When the machines are around, the air stinks of combustion and the engines loudly rumble and drone. Snowmobiles are the worst because their engines rev with a high pitched whine and, when the conditions are just right, leave a trail of blue exhaust that lingers for several minutes.

Yet many times I have found myself running, snowshoeing, and skiing in their tracks. The deeper the snow, the more irresistible it is to get into their tracks because they improve your footing and conserve your energy. And on a couple of occasions years ago when I was quasi-lost in heavy snow in the back country, I followed snowmobile tracks to get back to my car and civilization.

Yesterday I was grateful for the tracks. Only a couple of trucks came by during my run. One passed just before I turned around. I held my arm out and waved and saw the driver wave back as he sped by in a swirl of snow. He was in a big three quarter ton with dual rear wheels. He'd packed a nice wide swath.

Going back, the road is mostly downhill. Between the downhill and the truck tracks, I was able to open my stride up and get into a smooth groove. Off to my left, I spotted a black horse galloping effortlessly through deep snow across a hillside pasture. I think I know what he felt.

Rope Jumping: Floating Like A Butterfly

If you didn't learn how to jump rope when you were a kid, you had a deprived childhood. And if you don't do it once in a while now, you have a deprived adulthood as well. Jumping rope is one of this TOJ's favorite exercises because it has so many physical benefits and can be enjoyed by people of all ages, anywhere, anytime. And it's cheap and safe.

The physical benefits are as good as they get, whether you jump aerobically or anaerobically. It gives you a top cardio workout; involves the total body; stimulates strong bones because you are pushing directly against gravity; promotes timing and coordination; and it has about half the impact of running because you land on the ball of your foot instead of your heel so it's easier on you joints and spine.

The real reward of rope jumping does to the complex of muscles, tendons and ligaments in the foot, ankle and lower leg. The rapid mini-jumps required by rope jumping stimulate tremendous muscle elasticity and balance. The mini-shocks of landing strengthen the entire suspension and stabilization system that supports the rest of your body. All power from your body -- whether running, pumping iron, swinging a bat, throwing a ball -- originates from your feet. It's no coincidence it's a standard practice in a prize fighter's workout.

Rope jumping is an intense, vigorous activity, and ranks among the highest calorie burning exercises of them all. Consider that a 155 lb. person jumping a rope at a moderate rate (100+ jumps/min.) burns 844 calories per hour. A runner of the same size moving at at 10 min. per mile pace burns 704 calories per hour. You burn these calories jumping just an inch off the surface.

I workout with a jump rope at least once a week. Sometimes I just jump continuously for 20-25 minutes. I jump forwards and backwards on both feet, side to side with both feet (like skiing), alternating two jumps more heavily on the right foot then two more heavily on the left, and switching one foot forward and one foot back. I'll follow this with light upper body weight lifting or calisthenics.

Most times I do an interval workout using a heart rate monitor. I jump for two minutes, then rest for one minute. The interval is performed with equal weight on both feet. In the two minutes, I skip steadily faster over the first minute and a half, then as fast as I can for the last half minute. I aim to get my pulse up to at least 80% max (calculate 220 minus your age times .8) the last few seconds. During the one minute rest period, I expect my pulse to drop 30 or more beats, which is a good indication of a decent level of fitness and ability to recover; the more and faster it drops, the better. When your pulse no longer drops less than 30 beats during the one minute rest period and remains elevated is a sign you are fatigued and it's time to stop. You can get a great workout doing just 6 to 10 intervals, and that's perfect if you are pressed for time.

If you haven't jumped rope lately, ease into it. Just do a few minutes a day at a slow pace until you get the hang of it and strengthen your feet and ankles. A good warm up is to stretch your calf by keeping your foot flat on the floor and pushing your knee forward (works good leaning against a wall) and also putting your feet should width apart and springing very lightly with the balls of your feet never leaving the ground. Also rotate both your arms, forward and backwards 10x in a windmill motion, then just shake your hands with your wrists loose. You'll be ready to go.

Invest in a decent rope made of plastic/vinyl. As exercise gear goes, they're inexpensive. Avoid cotton rope (too light) or leather (wears away at the handle). Get the right size by standing on the middle of the rope with one foot and see if the handles just reach your armpits. A pair of cross training shoes, well padded in the forefoot, are nice to have too, though not absolutely necessary.
You can jump on any surface, but it's best to have a little flex like you get on a wooden deck or with a thin practice mat or carpet scrap on a hard surface, especially concrete.

I'm not sure why so many people stop rope jumping when they grow up. You wonder if it's because they associate it with kid's games and fun and a long time ago when they had incredible physical energy, before kids, jobs, and pot guts. Don't be fooled. You can do it at any age. Just pick up a rope and start jumping. It'll take a few weeks, but you'll discover the energy is still there.

I used to marvel watching Muhammad Ali in his prime. A large, powerful man, he moved with such grace and agility, round, after round. To prepare, he spent a lot of time rope jumping. That's how he was able to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.

The Spirit Is Willing, But the Feet Are Weak

Not too many people watch my YouTube videos, so when the one about running barefooted on the Oregon Coast drew a few hundred viewers, I knew a mini-mania was spreading like H1N1.

The mania started with Christopher McDougall's best selling book Born to Run, in which he argued running barefooted is more natural and easier on your feet and joints than in shoes. He'd had a chronic injury and found running barefooted offered a complete cure. McDougall's mentioned Barefoot Ken Bob, a pioneer and missionary for the barefoot running movement, and elevated him to minor celebrity status, which resulted in an interview in February's Runner's World. (An interesting aside: Runner's World, whose bread and butter is ads for running shoes, did not feature on the front cover the interview with Barefoot Ken Bob and a podiatrist who believes in wearing running shoes.)

McDougall didn't stop with just saying barefooted running is better, but implied that running shoes are actually bad for you. You'll can watch a video version of his frontal assault on running shoes on YouTube. The crux of his argument is that highly engineered shoes, with engineered materials and features like arch support and anti-pronation, place unnatural forces on ankles, knees and hips. Recently a rare and small study confirmed that running shoes do subject the joints and hips to some significant forces that could lead to wear and tear. Gretchen Reynolds wrote an article in the NY Times that discusses some other studies and the pros and cons of running barefooted.

But I don't think any of these studies found much that is surprising or very useful. A basic law of physics is that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. If you compress rubber with force, it will return a certain amount of force. However, when you're running that can be a pleasant sensation because it gives you feeling the shoes are providing a little spring, helping propel you forward. And I have no doubts that running shoes offer some real benefits, especially if you are running long distances on hard surfaces.

When I ran barefoot on Agate Beach in Newport, Oregon, it felt great. Oregon beaches are firm because they are a mix volcanic rock that has been ground through eons into fine, dense particles that when mixed with sand and water provide a forgiving surface on which to run. If you look at your prints, you see the sand itself supports your foot. You don't needs shoes! I look forward to running on that beach again. It does feel great to run barefooted and feel the earth under your feet.

But this TOJ won't be selling my running shoes on Ebay any time soon. In Colorado where I run on rocky mountain trails, my feet would be at high risk for cuts, puncture wounds, deep bone bruises, and frostbite. The human foot, like the rest of the body, is well designed, but it's not perfect. It doesn't perform equally well in all conditions, for people of all physiques and of all ages. I compared the thin soles on my feet to the thick pads on my dog's feet. Paws down, my dog, not me, is born to run barefooted.

Decades ago when I ran track in high school, the soles on track shoes consisted of a piece of thin, flexible leather with a few spikes screwed to it. It was very similar to running barefooted, and after working out on cinder tracks for an hour, your feet hurt like hell. Like all kids back then, if you were athletic, you spent lots of time in U.S. Keds made of a flimsy canvas top glued to a soft rubber sole. They were more comfortable than the track shoes, but not much.

It wasn't until I ran in my first pair of Nike running shoes, with the original black waffle sole, that I began to believe in human progress. The human diaspora out of Africa at the dawn of civilization placed us in environments that are quite hostile to hairless bipeds, whether on remote wilderness trails or city streets. We survived by being clever enough to invent clothes, shelter, and, yes, shoes. Many Native Americans, like the Apaches, where great runners, and they protected their feet with moccasins. Today theTarahumara Indians in Mexico, so admired by McDougall, protect their feet with huaraches. Feet are sensitive, which is why they are often an area of attack for torturers.

When it comes to running, just like any other exercise, we all need to discover what works best for us. For some, like McDougall and Barefoot Ken Bob, it might well be running barefooted. If it would help you, go for it! There are barefoot running clubs popping up everywhere if you need to get some expert advice. And the shoe manufacturers are coming up minimalist shoes that protect your feet while providing many of the advantages of running barefooted. Check them out. But be advised that if you run barefooted, you will run slower.

Ultimately, I think the barefoot mania will fade. I'm guessing a similar small percentage of the running community will migrate to barefooted running as, say, the small percentage of the general population that goes to nudist colonies. Like the Good Book says, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Especially your feet.