Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Salt deficiency causes cramps -- myth, or fiction?

My goal for last Sunday’s Honolulu Century Ride was to practice my fuel plan for December’s Honolulu Marathon, something I have written about in previous posts. The inspiration came from Matt Fitzgerald; the part about using the bike is mine:
  • You cannot count on the sports drink at an event to have the nutrients you trained with.
  • Carry your own fuel and just take on water at the aide stations.
  • Consuming an entire gel at once can cause stomach upset due to the need for water to digest the carbs.
  • Reduce the carb impact by diluting gel with about 50% water and sipping smaller quantities more frequently, at a rate that equals one gel every 30 - 45 minutes.
  • Using a Fuelbelt 7 oz flask, empty three GU gels into the flask and add water until almost full. Shake well.
Fitzgerald says that he carries two flasks in a marathon and finishes the second one around the twenty mile mark. Well, that’s fine for him because he runs fast. I am looking at over six hours on the run, so I need to work out how to carry more. In the meantime I decided to practice a six hour event using a typical twenty-something ounce water bottle, the kind we normally use on the bike. To mimic the aide stations I would carry a second bottle of plain water and refill at the century ride aide stations, which happen roughly every twelve miles, or one hour apart at a comfortable cruise.

My ride plan was to average 16 MPH. This seemed doable based on several recent forty mile bike rides. I knew it was optimistic for the entire 100 miles, but I like to set high goals and stretch a bit, which is fine as long as I remember that when I fail to achieve them. There are a lot of hills on the route, especially now that it goes along Kahekili Highway, so to average 16 I would need to stay above that as much as possible.

Let’s take a moment and translate this into effort. For a 10K run I would try to stay about 10 beats lower than LTHR, which works out to be mid zone 3. In a triathlon, the first fifteen minutes always end up in the high 4s or low 5s, until my cardiovascular network re-routes the blood flow. I try to hold a perceived effort equivalent of mid zone 3 until my heart rate (HR) comes down to match. And, yes, it takes me a lot more than fifteen minutes to run a 10K. I am slow. For longer distances I aim for mid zone 2 (roughly 70% HRmax), and allow that to rise into 3 on hills. So, for this experiment I wanted to cruise in the mid 2s as much as possible and go as high as 4 on the long hard climbs, particularly Heartbreak Hill; no zone 5. This is harder than I usually ride.

I chose start our riding with Pattie as none of her usual ride group were doing the ride. She did great, made it all the way to Kaiser High School before peeling off to return home. (As it turned out she had a much longer day. I’ll let her tell that story.) At that point I was less than a mile from Heartbreak Hill. I knew I had to get my HR up before I reached the base of the climb or my body would go into shock at the sudden increase in effort. My average HR from the start of Lunalilo Home Road until the high school was 109, barely into zone 1, almost exactly 60% HRmax, what we use in spin class as our recovery rate. I managed to get up to 135 ( low 3Z) at the start of the climb and maxed out at 148 (mid 4Z) at the top. Perfect, and for the first time ever I passed more riders than passed me, by a lot. I was feeling really good. I was really shocked to see how slow everyone else was on the decent -- call me a mad man but I find time wherever I can, and I was flying down that hill.

For this ride I chose not to stop my timer at the aide stations, making more like a race. Remember, I was practicing for the marathon, not to mention future triathlons. I did stop at Sandy Beach because my water bottle was half gone and there was no more Waimanalo aide station. Unfortunately the water station was a thousand miles from the bike parking area and the water tasted like garden hose. Nothing to do but make the best of it.

On the way to Kailua I could not decide how to compensate for the slow initial pace. Should I push the pace to try and get back to my goal of 16, or start now to stay at 16? Should I try to maintain my gel consumption rate, or slow down? I decided to go as fast as traffic would allow, and slow down on gel consumption to match my time, until things evened out. There was no way I could measure my consumption accurately, anyway. I had marks on my bottle that represented a 6 oz flask, and my plan was to consume one flask (3 GU gels) every two hours. With luck, by the time I reached Swanzy Beach Park, the halfway point, my gel mix would be half gone, midway between the second and third tick marks.

Just in case the day got hot I brought along three SaltStick pills. Each one provides  215 g of sodium and  63g of potassium. The weather was cloudy but hot and humid, so in Kailua at the 25 mile point I took one, and planned to take one more at the halfway point.

By the time I got to Swanzy I had been on the road four hours. This is spite of going like a bat out of hell at every opportunity. The thing is, I felt great. Plenty of energy, no stomach distress or other negative signs. I was passing people all along the route, often hitting 18-20 MPH.

At that point I called my fuel experiment a success, even though it was not entirely over. I was feeling disappointed at being an hour behind plan and to keep reminding myself that was not important. My only complaints were that the wet roads had made me and my bike filthy, and I was starting to crave solid food. I know I was not low in calorie intake, it was just boredom. Gels are great, for awhile, but after four hours my body was craving a big juicy hamburger. I went to pee, just in case, and there was not much to deliver. I made a note to drink more water.

Around Valley of the Temples on a long slow climb my left hamstring decided it had done enough. One of those cramp onset events that does not quite take you down but forces you to back off and stretch as best you can. It was then that I remembered not taking my second salt pill back at Swanzy, so I took it and as much water as I thought I could tolerate. I had not bothered to stop at Waihee, so now my water supply was getting a tad low. A bit further up the road a couple of friends came along so I tried to stay with them. My hamstring had other plans. I throttled back and cruised to Kailua. 

It was there that I decided to break my fast, only to discover all they had left was bananas. It could have been worse, the potassium was potentially a good thing and easy on my stomach, so I had a handful along with a big slug of blue Gatorade and felt much better. 

With a full bottle of Gatorade on the bike I headed east. Just before the really steep climb out of Enchanted Lakes -- Keolu Drive -- my left hamstring gave up again. I kept going, but I knew I was running out of road, that in a hundred yards I would have to turn right and climb the steepest hill of the ride. I pulled over and spent several minutes stretching out the leg, still on the bike. As I started up the hill a rider ahead went down hard and I could tell that he had the same problem. He got right back up on his bike, went about ten feet and crashed again. Just then I rode past, slowly, and told him I had the same thing. I stopped for a bit more water and a walk around stretch at the park across from Sea Life Park, and again at the aide station in Hawaii Kai. Made it back to Kapiolani Park without any more drama, Eight hours instead of six, but I did not care at that point.

In the aftermath I decided to check my nutrition numbers, thinking that GU gels did not pack enough sodium. I had to do a lot of adjusting to get the values in the same units, which ended up with one cup as the standard amount.

I got these numbers from ProActive Nutrition

Sports Drink 8oz bottle (1 cup)

Brand - Calories - Sodium (g) - Potassium (g)
Cytomax 80 120 15
Gatorade 50 110 30
Gatorade Endurance 50 200 90

The one brand of sports drink that came in really low in sodium was Heed. Gatorade Endurance was on the high end. I asked at the Kailua aide station what we were getting as was told “Gatorade.” So it could have been either one.

A reasonable rate of consumption is one bottle per hour, with a bike bottle running 20-24 oz. That’s three servings of the above amounts.

For my fuel I used GU Mandarin Orange. The numbers for calories, sodium and potassium:

1 gel 100 60 35

3 gels per flask = 300 180 105

Intake rate 1 flask every 2 hours = 150 90 52 per hour

Had I been drinking Gatorade at the normal rate I would have been taking in 150 330 90 per hour.

Conclusion thus far: low sodium intake. But wait. I took three salt pills, the first one in Kailua. The numbers for those:

SaltStick -- 0 215 63

Zero calories but plenty of sodium and potassium. But what about the consumption rate? One pill per hour would just about equal Gatorade, but I only had three with me for the day.

So I started reading up on sodium and cramps. What I found is that despite a ton of conventional wisdom and advice from people I respect that low sodium is a major cause of cramps, the experts disagree. Yes, low sodium can cause cramps, but the entire body is affected and only after other severe symptoms have appeared. This is nothing like what athletes experience when they get a calf or hamstring cramp. The bare, honest truth is that nobody knows what causes exercise induced cramps. (see references below) 

The best guess as to what causes cramps is fatigue, and in light of that the best way to prevent cramps is to workout at the level that causes them, to allow the muscles to learn to operate at the required level of intensity for the required length of time. We usually think of training as being about getting stronger, but there is more to it than that. Our body needs to learn to endure.

This makes sense given my situation. I have done plenty of long runs and bike rides in recent months, but nothing lasting more than a three hours, and those bike rides were not at the intensity I was holding Sunday in the first four hours. So, on that basis I did very well. What I need to do is adjust my ride plan from now until the marathon to add some longer rides. Thank goodness I do not have to survive on gels for those!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Century Ride: Marathon nutrition plan practice

Let's be real: I am a slow runner. I have been improving, but there is no getting around the fact that on December 14th I will be out on the Honolulu Marathon course for a very long time. Currently my goal is 6:30. I'm not talking pace here, that's six hours thirty minutes, a 15:00 pace. Nutrition is always an issue in endurance sports, and unless I intend to crawl down Kalakaua Ave towards the finish line I need to plan and execute carefully. The best plan in the world is useless without testing. I have been testing tolerance on my long runs, but they have not been long enough to test calorie replacement. The upcoming Honolulu Century Ride provides just the opportunity I need to test my plan.

For a little over a year my run nutrition strategy has been to take in water only at the aid stations and carry a flask or two of diluted gels in a Fuelbelt. I got the idea from Matt Fitzgerald. I put three GU 1.1 oz. gels in one 7 oz. bottle and add roughly an equal amount of water. This allows me to consume less than a full gel at a time while supplying some of the water that my stomach will require to digest the gel. More than anything it is the lack of water that causes the stomach to rebel against eating even easy to digest carbs during exercise.

GU Energy Labs recommends consuming one whole gel every 30-45 minutes. I find that the impact of a full gel is a little hard to tolerate while running, but taking half and saving the rest for later creates a massively sticky mess. As for the rate of consumption, after many trials I have found that I can just tolerate one gel every 45 minutes; more than that and I get nauseous. But, to be fair, most of that testing was done in races where I was also drinking sports drink instead of water. In any case, be it physical or mental, I have found that I do best sipping diluted gel from a Fuelbelt flask and just taking on water at the aid stations.

Salt is another issue. I have done a couple races where salt loss became significant, so when conditions warrant it I carry some SaltStick pills in a little pouch on my belt. I prefer this to using gels that include a lot of electrolytes as I can tailor my salt intake to conditions.

The current trend in hydration is to drink when you feel thirsty rather than at a set rate or timetable. Too much fluid intake can have a negative impact on performance just as much as too little. When it comes to nutrition, though, I believe that I cannot wait until I feel hungry. I need a timetable.

Last Saturday I ran nine miles late in the morning, in heat equal to or higher than I expect on race day. I used this opportunity to practice my fuel intake pace. I took a small sip of my watery GU every ten minutes, and drank water at all the usual spots along Kalanianaole Hwy. (Aloha gas station to Hawaii Kai canoe house and back.) I was fine until around the six mile point, at which my stomach began to complain. I consumed two bottles in 2:30. Way too much. But on the bright side I had plenty of energy all the way to the end, no sign of leg cramps, and the stomach upset was mild. I was not puking, but had I kept consuming at that rate bad things were likely to happen.

With my setup, an intake of one gel every 30 minutes means finishing one bottle every 90 minutes. If a sip every 10 minutes was too much, every 15 should be about right.

I still have not decided if I will run as planned on the Saturday before the century ride, then do 50 miles on Sunday. My original plan had me at 45, but I was supposed to do 50 last Sunday which I skipped to be at the Na Wahine Festival with Pattie. That, or do a short recovery run on Saturday and ride the whole 100 miles on Sunday. I am leaning towards the 100 as this will be a better test of my marathon nutrition plan.

A comfortable pace, mostly zones 1 and 2, will have me complete the ride in 6 hours. That's 360 minutes. Divide by 90, that's 4 flasks. I actually own four Fuelbelt bottles but I do not have a convenient way to carry them on the bike. (Note to self: make a plan for marathon.)  I guess I could put all that in one regular water bottle, and carry one plain water to simulate the marathon aid stations.

Sounds like a plan.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

My Na Wahine swim jinx

Queen Surf and I are not on speaking terms today.  Seems every time I get in the water for a competition, Queen Surf is rocking and rolling and today was no different.  No one can tell me that it's the time year either.  When I did Tin Man triathlons in July, same god awful conditions.  The year I tore my rotator cuff in a training accident and did I not swim, Queen Surf was like a pond and you could almost walk the whole course.  It's me......I'm jinxed and I apologize to all the other competitors.

Looking at the conditions before the race it didn't look that bad.  Once we got in and started swimming to the buoy those 5 to 8 foot swells predicted by Guy Hagi came rolling in with waves breaking in the channel.  Of course! The Pattie curse.

I do not like to swim in rough water or in deep water and spend a lot of time convincing myself I will not drown or be eaten by something.  Today was everything I hate but I thought I can do this and instead of hanging back started with the pack.  This resulted in getting kicked in the face which left me a little disoriented.  As I got my bearings I got slapped by a couple of waves which left me struggling.  Put my head down and started my crawl toward the buoy.  Then my silly left foot cramped up.  Kept trying to flex my foot and resolved the only way to get out was to finish the swim. The goal was to control the panic before the stress asthma kicked in.   Today was probably the worst swim of my life.  I managed to add eight whole minutes to my swim.  Only plus was I got out on my own and no stress asthma.

I spent the whole walk.....not run to the transition area questioning my sanity.  Next year I am sacrificing a chicken so I can have nice flat conditions.  Yikes!  You see, I'm still compromised.  I'm thinking of abusing myself in the same way next year.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

When is giving up the sensible choice?

I have a problem with running on the track. I never go anywhere. I walk down a flight of stairs from where I park, and after that I am never more than a hundred yards from my car. I see it whenever I look up there. Pleasant, unassuming, not calling any attention to itself. Waiting for me like a well heeled dog.

Sometimes I go up and down the straight part of the track, sometimes I do full laps. The beauty of this arrangement is that I can custom fit the workout duration to my situation. The bad part is that I can custom fit the workout duration to how I feel. Lately, the result has been to cut it short.

Most of my runs are on the road, and these are always out-and-back or, occasionally, a big loop. If I should break down out there I have a long walk back to the start, but that never happens to me. My shoes never go flat from a glass shard. I never spin off on a wet manhole cover and end up covered with road rash. I never even cramp up. The worst thing that has happened on a run lately is when my heart rate monitor strap acted up. The great thing about running out-and-back routes is, I cannot cut it short. At least not anywhere near the end.

This morning my plan was to do a set of run drills, then finish with a four lap run, alternating one lap recovery with one at tempo. I would already be mostly warmed up, so I had it as cruise - tempo - recovery - tempo, followed by just enough recovery. Four laps, plus a bit at the end.

The drills went really well. So well that I repeated some. Balance is still an issue so I spent extra time on the marching drills, and with cadence still an major issue I did extra Fast Feet and A-Skip drills.  The result of all this extra time was that by the time I was ready to run the parking lot was filling up. Officially I am supposed to be out of there by 7:30, but when it comes to parking I am a squatter and I do not want to have my car towed or clamped. So it is 7:00 and I'm thinking I need to go. But I wanted to run.

I started out nice and easy, and felt so good I decided to kick it up on the first lap. Make it warm-up-and-tempo and lap one, then a lap of recovery, then a tempo. Done in three laps. By the halfway point of the first lap my HR was way up in zone 4; way too high, and my respiration agreed. I had gone out too fast. I'll take that as I sign of being stronger. So I slowed down, walked a bit, but finished at a tempo pace so that I could record myself with my GoPro. Yes, I had the remote. I did the second lap better but still had to back way off mid way around.

At the end of the second lap my mind was going crazy with excuses to stop. The parking. The traffic -- I'll be late to work. I've done enough. I don't want to end up injured. Yada yada yada. I did the third lap, but again nothing like what I planned. I felt fine and yet I was not running well. Too fast, recover, too fast. That was it. I was out of there by 7:15.

I just checked my Garmin. Splits for those laps were 3:20, 3:57, 4:24. You can see I was slowing down, but then I was not running or walking for any set distance or time, nothing like my plan.

A week from this Saturday I have a time trial. LTHR test. The last two I've done, on the same track, I cut short. I know I got plenty of data, but the plan calls for a fifteen minute warm up into high zone 3 then running all out for thirty minutes. The TT HR data is taken from the last twenty minutes. This method was developed back in the day of simple, non-recording heart rate monitors; every lap the runner would call out the value to an assistant taking notes on a clipboard, so twenty minutes gave just enough data points to be useful. My Garmin records data at one sample per second, and I can plot the results on Garmin Connect or Training Peaks. I can see that my HR during the test is very flat, and it isn't going to change if I run another ten minutes. My pace might slow down but my HR will be flat, and that is what matters.

But wait. The deal was fourty-five minutes, the last thirty all out. Isn't cutting it short just whimping out? Even if I have my data, shouldn't I use the occasion to practice mental tenacity? So what my legs ache? So what my mouth is dry? I really should finish the deal.

Should I? I already had what I came for. I will not be running my marathon anywhere near this pace or intensity. Doing so now presents a significant risk of injury. I am all about minimizing the risk of injury, but not to the point where it compromises my success.

Today, I am determined to finish my next TT, even if I know I have good data. I know my mind will go crazy with excuses to quit early, like I know I will be able to look up and see my car, silently taunting me. Yes, I can go whenever I feel like it. The question is, will I?

Monday, September 8, 2014

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Marathoners can learn a lot from triathletes

In this short piece author Mackenzie Lobby describes what is essentially my marathon training plan. Look for the heading "Cross Training." Also note that in the opening section on twofers the second run of the day is short and at low intensity. Again, injury prevention is paramount. Last but not least, planning. If all you do is go out and run every day you won't get very far. Literally.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Not much running drills

I have set aside Wednesday morning for running drill practice. When I did this I made a note on today's entry on my Training Peaks calendar to assess the usefulness of these drills. Today was my third time, and in the middle of my workout I had one of those "ah-ha" moments. Even though I only spend forty-five minutes to an hour at it once a week, in that time all running related muscle groups get worked at intensities much higher than if I were just out running. The purpose of these sessions is not endurance, but power and flexibility. Similar to running intervals, but different in the way each drill focuses on one aspect of the stride. Just the fact that "running" is set aside allows me to become aware of things I cannot concentrate on while running, and to move muscle groups in ways that are useful yet impossible while running. I am definitely going to continue these sessions.

In my opinion my worst drill is Marching, which is why for today's session I put it first. I can do the first version reasonably well, but the second one still eludes me. I am good for two or three steps, then I lose my balance and fall over. It would be much easier if the motion were continuous, as it is when running. The on-line videos I have found are continuous, just slow. In Bobby McGee's version, with each step you come to a complete stop while standing on one foot with the other knee lifted so that the thigh is parallel to the ground and the shin is relaxed and hanging straight down. My landing foot tends to wander left-right, a fact easily concealed during continuous running. In this drill, every step must be spot-on or the tree is felled. Perhaps my calves are not strong enough to do the heel lift correctly, as that is what introduces instability. I am making heel lifts a regular part of my walking around at work. No heel lifts, no coffee. Too bad I can't put a swimming pool between my desk and the bathroom.

Swimmers make it a habit to plan a workout set before they hit the water. I like doing that because I can correlate my Garmin Swim data with the activity. I ran my FR610 during this morning's workout, just to see the HR data. I do not expect to correlate anything, but I take the entire set of drills that I have and construct a set that focused on my weaknesses. Here was this morning's set:

WU one lap zone 1


    High knee, STOP. follow through
    High knee, STOP, pop onto ball of foot, follow through

Endurance Skipping
    No scraping
    Quick action, pop

Quick Feet
    Fast, small steps, “push down push down push down”
    Almost not forward motion
    Small, economic arm action

Ankle Springs
    No power, move by springing on ball of feet, lean forward
    Try to touch heel down at end, heel-toe-heel-toe

Half High Knees
    Start like Fast Feet but slower cadence
    Transition to lifting knees high
    Avoid kicking to rear, focus on lifting in front
    Finish with transition to strides

Walking Butt Flick
    Knee back, kick butt with heel without bending forward

Leg Swings (hip flexors)
    Free leg moves in exaggerated running motion. Emphasize back swing, do not bend over.

Hamstring Kick-Outs
    Kick forward, crunch over, touch toe with opposite fingertips

Carioca drill
    Start with bar stool dance
    Bend forward slightly
    Arms straight out, palms in
    Turn at hips/pelvis, shoulders turn a bit too
    Do not cross legs

FINISH one lap tempo/all out

I did the warm-up lap in 4:38 and the finish lap in 3:08. Neither was at a steady pace, starting slow and gradually speeding up. For the drill section my average HR was 119, so lots of recovery in there, and the max was 140. I am certain I did some drills at a much higher intensity, they were just not long enough to hit the red zone. Max HR on the finish lap was 153, right at my lactic threshold.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The comfort zone challenge

The other day I was talking with one of the swim coaches at the Oahu Club about my late-in-life foray into triathlon and he paid me a nice compliment. He said he admired people who are willing to go outside their comfort zone and take on something as challenging as multisport. We have all heard comments like that, yet for some reason this time the words hit me.

For years I commuted to work every day on my bike. On Sunday I would drive by the office to drop off a week's worth of clean clothes and pick up the laundry. My route was ten miles one way, easy to do in less than an hour, not much slower than in a car during rush hour traffic. The only reason I stopped was to attend after work activities such as swim practice -- I just can't bring myself to entrust my bike to a lock at the beach. Then there is yoga, and drum lessons, and the British Car Club meetings. As much as I loved my bike I just could not fit in everything I wanted to do without the flexibility a car offers. I do miss it.

A week never passed that someone did not seem amazed that I rode my bike to work every day. It was so far. What about all those cars? What about the rain? What about in winter when it is dark? People treated me like superman, yet to me it was nothing more than a pleasant alternative to sitting in a car.

Obviously our comfort zones did not overlap very much. That is, in the Venn diagram sense.

Now consider the car thing. I have no qualms about tearing apart my Lotus engine. Modern engines are a bit more intimidating due to all the electrical bits, but mechanically they pose no new challenges. Why is it, then, that so many people have no desire to take on a similar challenge?

I am by no means the only person who commutes to work or restores old cars. My point is that some people do such things, while most do not. Why the difference? Why are some of us more willing to step outside our comfort zone while others hold back?

I was a Spoke baby -- my mother treated "Baby and Child Care" as though it was the bible of child raising. As a boy I loved taking things apart. Why? My father was an airplane mechanic, so fixing things seemed perfectly natural to me. Watches, cameras, the Electrolux vacuum cleaner, the washing machine, all got taken apart and put back together. For the most part my parents never discouraged me. There was only one time that my parents got genuinely angry with me, which was in high school when I took apart a guitar amp that belonged to one of the guys in my rock band. They were afraid it was expensive and that I could not put it together. Not only did I reassemble it, I fixed whatever it was that was broken. My dad was a great mechanic, but his comfort zone did not include vacuum tube electronics.

It seems reasonable to me that children are by their nature inquisitive, and that the reluctance to take on something new is the result of overly protective parents. Bounds are good, and part of parenting is setting bounds. The trick is to prevent disasters while giving a child plenty of slack, enough to allow themselves to get into some trouble. I think my parents were very good at that, which is why I am so willing to step outside my comfort zone.