Closing the Gaps

Yesterday was the first day of spring. Mud season. The snow is melting fast, and the Colorado River is rising, first sign at the coming runoff. I slopped through the mud on my trail run, laughing much of the time at the slipping and sliding as my Montrails sunk into the ooze.

But today I switched gears shoes for a brisk, timed five mile run on the asphalt in my hot new Nike road shoes. The Bolder Boulder 10K is only 70 days away. It's time to close the gaps between what I'd likely run the race if it were today versus what I hope to run it in on Memorial Day, between my present per mile time and target race pace, and my present weight and anticipated race day weight.

Nowadays I only run one race per year so the Bolder Boulder's special. I'm very happy running trails most of the year, but the Bolder Boulder is so much fun -- the hoopla, the bands, the crowd, the exhibits and free goodies, the stadium finish, the elite runners -- that it calls my name. And it's a good opportunity to calibrate my running fitness from year to year. For me, it's a rite of spring.

It's not like I'm doing a crash training program because I run year around, but trail runs put much different stresses on the body than a relatively flat road race at a steady pace. This year was snowy, making my trail accessible only on snow shoes for much of the winter, so I was forced to run more on the roads, but slowly because they were snow-packed and icy. However, the past two years I have also done much more strength training than just running. I've added more muscle weight to my upper body, which is of marginal value to a pure runner, like those you see on the cover of Runner's World (actually I think they use just one skinny male body and one slim female body, then Photoshop on different smiling heads).

In preparation for the Bolder Boulder, my tried and true strategy has been to drop my per mile time by dropping a few pounds (mainly less beer per week, more veggies), go for longer runs on the weekends, and simply run more miles (steady pace and intervals). Each year as I age, it gets a little harder to pick up the pace, but I think it will still work.

I always have a target finish time and pretend it makes a difference, though it really doesn't. It's good to have a goal. Puts a little drama in your life. Makes you work harder and hurt a little. Losing a few pounds and watching what, and how much, you eat is good for your health. I'll strap on the heart rate monitor a couple times a week and see what my cruise range is.

Each year I have to figure out and practice a sustainable pace. Today at daybreak was chilly. I ran the first mile too fast, even though I felt really good. If you run too fast too soon, your time falls off later in the race because the lactic acid builds too fast; you may gain 15 seconds in the first mile, but you lose 30 seconds in each of the last two miles fast. I was a sprinter in high school and never have been great a pacing because my instinct is to go fast and over stride. The excitement you feel when your wave goes off in the Bolder Boulder makes you prone to start too fast, which I've done many times in past years.

70 days is plenty of time to close the gaps. Trying to close the gaps is half the fun. As the poet Robert Bronwing said, "Ah, a man's reach should exceed his grasp or what's a heaven for?" Come Memorial Day, a few pounds lighter, I'll float like a butterfly. With the discipline of a Zen Master, I'll start slower, even though I've got fast shoes. I hope.

The Discomfort Zone

Another new study shows that you can gain significant cardio benefits from intensity (interval) training in as little as ten to twenty minutes a few times a week. In this study, all it took was ten to twelve one minute sessions on a stationary bike, alternated with a seventy second recovery period.

In a fast-paced, time-conscious world like we live in, you have to wonder why aerobic exercise like running and biking still remain much more popular than intensity training. The reason is likely that, for short periods of time, it hurts.

Intervals push you into your anaerobic zone, where your heart approaches it's maximum rate. You enter a state that is not dissimilar to being in the high altitude death zone climbers experience as they near the summit of Mt. Everest, where they experience a condition known as hypoxia, which is dangerous when endured for a long period (hours) of time.

Most of us don't venture into that zone for an extended period of time, but even if only for a matter of seconds (like when you sprint a quarter mile around a track), it's very uncomfortable as you struggle for breath and lactic acid starts to burn in your muscles, like a self-defense mechanism for you to slow down, whether you want to or not. Being mostly pleasure seekers, we don't go looking for discomfort.

But, more and more, the scientific evidence shows repeatedly going into the discomfort zone for a minute or two is good for your heart and lungs, burning calories, and metabolic efficiency. Interval training is not inherently any more dangerous than long distance running if you don't have serious heart disease (and even then it can be good for you - discuss it with your doctor). Here are some good examples from

The best way to approach interval training is to go slow and gradually build up both the intensity (a heart rate monitor is nice, but you don't need one - you know when you are running out of breath and your heart is pounding) and duration (one minute intervals are a good place to begin). Whether you are going to sprint quarter miles or pump an elliptical, make each repetition slightly harder than the first. On the last few, see if you can spend most of the time in the top end of your discomfort zone because that's where you derive the benefits.

As this TOJ has rhapsodized many times, in the case of running there are other benefits that often puts it at the top of my exercise choices because of the runners high (a real phenomenon) and joy of being outdoors. Plus endurance running, where you go five, ten or more miles, presents its own kinds of pain to conquer in the leg muscles, joints, and feet. And if you race, the discomfort is guaranteed.

Intensity training offers only indirect benefits in any specific sport. Whether road running, trail running, bike racing, or cross county skiing, you have to spend most of your time training the specific muscles used in that sport. There is absolutely no substitute because optimum performance relies on specificity training. Lance Armstrong is a great bike racer, but a mediocre marathoner. Michael Jordan was a great basketball player, but mediocre baseball player. Neither spent the time training in their second sports as they did in the ones they dominated.

A TOJ is interested in good health more than athletic goals. Intensity training is short, sweet, and good for you, and afterwards you can enjoy a beer.

The Big Sky

March in Colorado. Tonight it will snow again, though as I write this it is raining. The days are growing longer and warmer, but winter won't leave yet, and it can snow into May.

Yesterday I ran up a trail early in the morning on eight inches of crusty snow, packed in a corduroy pattern by a snowmobile. It was 24 degrees F, perfect running weather. I was on the same trail where I had my coldest run at -3 degrees F on January 9. Today I lifted weights and did some jumps and calisthenics at home. It was a good, tiring workout, but I missed being outside.

Earlier in the week Gina Kolata had an article in the New York Times about whether its better to train inside or outside. The focus was really on whether you can get the same benefits from exercise on apparatus like treadmills and bike machines as you can running or biking outside. The MD's and PhD's cited in the article said you don't get the same benefit because inside there is no wind resistance to overcome, but there are health benefits. A recent study found that people run 11.5% faster on a treadmill inside. One of the experts suggested raising the incline of the treadmill 1 degree to compensate. They also observed that the machine perfect surfaces don't engage as many muscles in the legs to maintain balance. However, the experts did agree that if it's very cold (under 20 degrees F) or icy then no doubt inside is safer. Plus inside is usually more convenient.

There's no surprise that a workout on a machine has cardiovascular benefits. One of my favorite exercise physiology books (whose strength training obsessed exercise recommendations I disagree with) by Doug McGuff, M.D., and John Little, entitled Body by Science, says, "Your heart and lungs cannot tell whether you're working your muscles for thirty seconds on a stationary bike or working them intensely on a leg press. The heart and lungs know only about energy requirements, which they dutifully attempt to meet." Nor, I might add, can they tell if you are inside or outside. A workout is a workout.

But, most times, a TOJ prefers outside, where his/her body responds dynamically to heat, cold, rain, snow, wind, and varied terrain. Indoor workouts are monotonous by comparison. The air is still, tepid, stale, smelly, and, if a public gym, germy. Outside you get the chance to see critters - eagles, fox, elk, deer, bear and lions - and the beauty of terrain.

In a few months, I'll get to take my weights and exercise mat back outside onto the deck, to sweat in the heat, under a blazing sun and the big sky. That's heaven for a heathen TOJ. Outside is the place of awe and wonder.