Staying upright in winter weather: running strategies

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

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You’re out running on a beautiful winter day. Gentle snow falling, a fresh blanket of snow over everything. You planned ahead and have your trail shoes, Yaktrax, screw shoes or whatever other device you decided necessary. Still, while beautiful to see, the fresh blanket of snow leaves your footing questionable at best. Now, what do you do?

Traction devices aren’t always enough. Worse yet, we don’t always get what we planned for and we can be caught without what would be best for the conditions we’re running in. So we need strategies for running when our footing isn’t the best. Here are a few strategies I’ve found useful after 20 Wisconsin winters.

As most people from wintery climates know from walking in the conditions, the key to staying upright is keeping your center of gravity over your feet. I’ve heard the philosophy of "walk like a penguin" several times over the last few years. The problem for runners is penguins don’t run real fast for a reason.

Still, we can carry over lessons from the penguins. The idea of keeping your center of gravity (more) directly over your feet still applies. Shortening your stride and keeping your feet more directly under you is the most important step you can take. This means you might not be able to run with that wide open, graceful stride you would like to. You need to become a shuffler. Just remember, it’s better than not running at all and you can use it to practice a quick turnover.

Once you get that short, quick stride down, you have running straight at a steady speed mostly taken care of. Next, you have to worry about changing speed and going around corners. When it comes to these things, the simple rule is nothing sudden. There are times when I come to nearly a complete stop to take turns. There are times when I begin slowing down several yards before I need to come to a stop. On downhills, I might start slowing 10-20 yards early or even more. Again, this is just what we have to do in some conditions. These things may break up our runs a bit but they are better than not running and they are better than falling and getting hurt.

There are times when you just know you’re going to slip. Those patches of glare ice where melting snow runs across the sidewalk or similar obstacles are just waiting for us out there. No matter what we do, we’re going to slip. In these cases, it can be better to take a controlled slide than try to run across and lose your footing. I remember one person I ran with a few times who said I would "surf the ice" to get across particularly bad patches. I would essentially get a wide stance, get my arms out for balance and just slide across the patch of ice. This was my strategy for getting across particularly bad patches and it has saved me from quite a few sure falls.

So what do you do if all the advice above doesn’t work and you do fall? I’ve run through 20 Wisconsin winters. Only once did I go through a whole winter without at least one fall, which means maybe all the above advice should be taken with a grain of salt and commenters will have advice that I should be following. Unfortunately, when we do fall, it happens so quickly that we usually respond instinctively. If you can temper your instincts in that split second you have, don’t try to catch yourself. This is often how people get hurt. The best strategy I’ve found is to just tuck and roll or tuck and slide.

Finally, the treadmill is not your enemy. If the conditions are bad and the treadmill is an option, don’t hesitate to use it. The good news for most of us is that slippery conditions typically only last a day or two. Roads and sidewalks will be cleared, we’ll be back to sure footing and you can head back outside without fear of falling.

What do you think? I know there are people reading this who have a lot of experience running through winter weather. What tips do you have to stay upright while running?

Staying upright in winter weather: traction devices

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

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After my winter running post last week, I saw a few interesting topics/questions come up on winter running so I’d like to delve a little deeper into a few topics. First, tools to help keep traction while running through the winter.

First things first, there are times when nothing will give you great traction. At these times, you may need to adjust your running. Take short, quick steps, keeping your feet closer to directly under your center of gravity. Slow down – a lot – and even stop to walk if necessary. Especially when changing direction. I will possibly write more about this later. That said, what we put on our feet can improve our chances of keeping our feet under us in bad conditions.

The second thing to note is that different methods work in different conditions. Snow and ice can both present problems and what works best for one may help for the other but what is best for one may not be best for the other. On that note, here are my suggestions for both snow and ice.

Snow

The main problem when running in snow is that most road running shoes don’t have enough tread to get down into the snow and get some grip. The best solution I’ve found for this is to get a pair of trail shoes that have an aggressive tread pattern. For those of you who like minimal shoes, look into cross country flats. These shoes are basically like snow tires for your car. The treads will get down into the snow and give you a better grip. Devices like Yaktrax (I’ll discuss them more later when discussing ice) might help because the coils and spikes will play the role of the tread that gets deeper into the snow but, in my experience, the tread of trail shoes or cross country flats works as well as anything.

If you’re running in good packing snow, you might find the snow clumping up in your treads and reducing your traction. Trail shoes and cross country flats are usually pretty good at shedding snow but there is some snow that is just too stubborn and you need some help. An old trick from high school and collegiate cross country teams is to spray the bottom of your shoes with non-stick cooking spray. Just as the spray will help keep your food from sticking to your pans when baking, it will help keep the snow from sticking to your shoes while running.

Ice

The main problem when running on ice is different. No amount of rubber is going to penetrate the smooth, hard surface. If the ice is pitted, the tread on trail shoes or cross country flats may help but it won’t be a cure all. If the ice is smooth, the trail shoes or cross country flats may be useless. So we need to look elsewhere. In short, we need to add sharp metal edges that will chip into the ice, giving us some traction.

There are several methods for doing this. I already mentioned Yaktrax, also pictured at the top. I question the value of the coils on smooth ice but the spikes in the picture above would work well. There are other similar products but Yaktrax are the most popular for runners and, with the strap that goes over the top of the foot, seems like the most sure to stay in place while running.

If you’re a minimalist runner, you might consider cross country spikes. With these, you get a nice combination of the tread to help with snow and, to some extent, on pitted ice plus metal spikes to help with ice. I’ve been using these with a lot of success over the past two winters and my only complaint is that I didn’t think of this sooner.

If you’re concerned about prices, there is another option that I used for years before trying cross country spikes. This would be the screw shoe. I know, this sounds absolutely crazy. Most shoes, though, have a pretty thick midsole that can allow you to use at least a 1/4 or 3/8 inch screw with no problem. Get the screws into the rubber soles of your shoes, don’t over tighten, and it takes a lot to have them fall out. Just be aware of how thick your soles are, especially if you’re a minimalist. If you’re using shoes with air or gel pockets, you also have to be cautious about placement so you don’t penetrate the pockets. Sheet metal screws work very well. The lip on the head is great for cutting into the ice to get traction.

In the end, all three of these options (Yaktrax or a similar product, cross country spikes or screw shoes) do the same thing. They get metal on the ice. If the metal can chip into the ice, you get improved traction. Not perfect traction. You still need to be careful. However, you can run with more confidence and fewer problems on ice with these than without.

Beware of cars!

One final piece of safety advice I want to mention. You can do things to help yourself keep traction but always think of others. If you’re running on roads that you have to share with cars, consider the traction they will have. What happens if a driver overreacts to your presence and oversteers or brakes too hard? What happens if someone is going too fast for the conditions and simply loses control? Do you have a safe escape route? How do people drive on the roads you run on? Do they drive slowly, safely and cautiously, especially in bad conditions? Or do they drive fast even in bad conditions? Keeping your feet under you is of limited benefit if you have a few tons of steel sliding out of control toward you at 50 miles per hour.

The power of positive self talk

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the mental aspect of running. As some of the runners I coach know, I’ve been exploring ideas of how I can introduce mental aspects into an online coaching setting. Here is a good idea of how that might be done.

In short, in the study discussed, pre-planned and well practiced positive self talk appears to have helped athletes push harder while feeling the effort was less difficult.

What can we take from this? Well, this study reminded me of mantras that every coach I’ve had has encouraged and I’ve recommended at various times to runners. In the past, I thought of good mantras being anything from positive self talk to reminders to run tall or keep a quick turnover. While the reminders obviously are helpful as they can keep us focused on good habits, I always believed in the positive self talk but never really could say how it worked. Now, we have some data that shows that it works by lowering your perceived exertion.

This also plays into the idea that performance is limited by, to use a Tim Noakes term, a "central governor" as opposed to pure physiological constraints. I still think the physiological constraints are important. If your "central governor" shuts you down at 90% of capacity (just a hypothetical number) increasing your overall capacity will also increase that 90% threshold. That said, for a little extra boost, if positive self talk allows you to push to 91% or 92% of capacity, then you can perform at an even higher level given the same fitness.

Elite Diet?

This article was originally posted by Ed at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

I am looking for an edge to make better improvements in my speed and endurance. I refuse to use caffeine or other stimulants (even if natural) to help give a boost. I wondered what diet the amazing Kenyan’s ate or even other elite runners. Some of what the Kenyan diet consists of seems to go against the grain of current dietary health trends in the US. I am going to explore other elite runner diet habits and begin to adapt some from each. I know I will have to find what I can afford, what other members of my family can tolerate as well as what will work for me. Should be a good challenge. Here is a good article about a typical elite Kenyan runner’s diet.

https://www.active.com/running/articles/eating-practices-of-the-best-endurance-athletes-in-the-world?page=1

Strength training for distance runners

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

I recently reposted something I wrote on strength training for distance runners some time ago while noting that my views have evolved quite a bit since that time. This is how life works in the world of running. Science finds new things, we try new things, our body of knowledge and experience continues to grow daily and our views evolve. I wanted to repost that because I wanted to retain my evolution of views, not hide from it. I believe that evolution of views is very important. Not only does it show that we never stop learning but it also sheds light on a possible path forward.

In this post, though, I’d like to start from scratch. I’d like to go back to the beginning, forget about that article for the time being, and review my current position on strength training. Needless to say, my position will likely continue to evolve. If it does significantly enough, I’ll post another follow-up in the future.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably a distance runner who, to some extent, is focused on performance. Whether you’re looking to qualify for the Olympic Trials, shooting for your Boston Qualifier, trying to improve upon a 90 minute 10K PR or anywhere else on the spectrum of performance, you are looking for ways to get faster. Or possibly, like me, your fastest times are behind you and you’re looking to maintain your performance level as much as possible. Regardless of the situation, you’re probably performance focused.

The best way to become a faster distance runner is to run more. So why should we be using time and energy we could be using to run for something else? This is an argument I used to make frequently. Earlier in my running life, I was an indestructible runner. Pretty much no matter what I did, I didn’t get hurt. More recently, form flaws and strength/mobility imbalances probably developed from years sitting at a desk with my hands at a keyboard leave me more vulnerable. I have been fortunate to not suffer injuries but I have had aches and pains that have affected my running. Why does this matter? Well, how many of us have desk jobs as part of our non-running lives? How many of us are the indestructible runner that I was a decade ago? In order, my best guess is that the answer to those two questions are the majority and a small minority. Most of us, if we simply run more, will eventually break down and suffer an injury.

So what do we do to prevent these injuries? We correct form flaws and strength imbalances by strength training, combined with other mobility-type exercises, form drills and all the other tools available to us.

I believe all performance-minded runners should follow a few basic guidelines for strength training:

  • First, do no harm
  • Focus on what you specifically need for your running
  • Don’t use more resistance than you’re ready for
  • Don’t go to the weight room before you’re ready

First, do no harm

This is actually a guideline that generally encompasses all other guidelines. You’re trying to prevent injury and improve your ability to perform here. If an exercise is causing problems, figure out why and correct the problem. Maybe you’re not doing the exercise right. If this is the case, get some instruction and correct the problem. Another common problem is that you’re not yet strong enough to do the exercise. If this is the case, find another exercise or modify the one you’re doing until you are ready to handle the original exercise in its original form. For example, if step-ups to a knee high bench aggravate your knees, try step-ups to a six inch high step. Then build from there as your strength improves. If lunges are your problem, don’t lunge as deeply until you build your strength.

Focus on what you specifically need for your running

There are certain exercises that are good for virtually all runners. Lunges and step-ups for the legs and planks for the core instantly come to mind but there are, of course, others. Other exercises might be necessary for specific individuals to correct strength or mobility imbalances or otherwise fight off individual injury concerns. For example, a runner who has weak hips causing ITB problems might need to do clam shells and/or lateral leg raises to strengthen the hips. On the other hand, will doing a bench press or shoulder press, unless you have some kind of shoulder problem that these will resolve, make you a better runner? These exercises are more likely just wasted time and energy that could go into more running if your focus is running as fast as possible.

Don’t use more resistance than you’re ready for

This is a problem that is widespread in strength training, whether it is a runner or a non-runner doing the training. We think if 10 pounds is good, 15 pounds must be better and 20 pounds better yet. That is not the case. It is better to lift less weight with good form than to lift more weight with bad form. When you go beyond your ability, you develop bad form which could lead to counterproductive work. You could learn bad habits and teach your body movements that will be counterproductive or you could end up not working the muscles and movements you’re targeting in the first place.

Corollary: Don’t do more reps than you’re ready for

Just as with resistance, more reps are not always better. 5 reps done with proper form is better than 10 reps with poor form.

Don’t go to the weight room before you’re ready

Two things happen when one enters the weight room. First, other people are there and it takes an incredibly strong will to pick up the 10 pound dumbbell you know you can handle well when others in there are picking up the 20 pound dumbbells. Second, even without that "peer pressure", you see all those weights and it’s tempting to see how much you can lift.

Even more important, though, related to the "Don’t use more resistance than you’re ready for" guideline. If you can’t handle your own body weight, you’re not ready for added resistance. Most runners can’t handle their own weight well when doing strength training and the last thing they should be doing is adding resistance on top of that.

I would go one step further here. The story may be different for professional runners, for whom every second counts and time and energy available to train exceeds the body’s capability to run. However, for most of us who are not professionals, going to a weight room is probably not necessary. If you can build yourself up to the point where you can handle your body weight well, you can invest in a few dumbbells and a few ankle weights of 5-10 pounds and give yourself a pretty comprehensive strength routine without leaving your living room. A runner’s specific circumstances may dictate otherwise but I believe that, for most non-elite runners, taking the time to travel to a weight room and train there is probably not as productive as doing what you can at home and using the saved time to run more.

In the end, most runners can benefit from strength training. It doesn’t have to be very strenuous or complex, it definitely doesn’t have to be very time consuming or require all kinds of special equipment. Most of us can do a few exercises with our body weight as resistance and will find ourselves fitter and more injury resistant if we do so. Proper strength training can allow us to run more while remaining healthy, which of course is the most important factor in becoming faster runners.

In the future, I’ll share some of the strength exercises I do. All of my strength training is done in my home. No special equipment is required and I can get through my whole routine in about 15-20 minutes if I get down to business and don’t waste time.

Fore foot or heel strike

This article was originally posted by Ed at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

Here is an interesting article with some research that has given me something to think about. The idea of changing your foot strike depending on your particular issues such as knee pain versus ankle or Achilles pain is interesting.

https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/16/pounding-pavement-by-heel-or-toe/?_r=0

How does mental fatigue affect our running and what can we do about it?

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

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Mental fatigue matters

I’m sure many of us have been there and know intuitively that mental fatigue can affect our running. I know I’ve experienced those rough runs where I just feel physically drained after a day of work that required a lot of concentration or a long study session when I was in school.

Well, now we see a study that backs this up. The interesting thing about this study is that it appears we perceive more physical fatigue, even though when bypassing the brain the body is able to perform just as well.

It’s interesting to see the idea of training the brain to handle mental fatigue. Why? Because, about 2 weeks ago, I was reading about a protocol to do just that. Basically, you perform a task that fatigues your brain, then you go out for a run.

I can’t help but wonder if this is one of the next new frontiers in training for endurance athletes. It is a very interesting idea. Fortunately, if you want to get ahead of the curve, I think there are ways we can do that without waiting for this new protocol to come out. Do you have some mentally challenging tasks you have to get done this weekend? Try doing some of them before your long run. Tough day at work? Maybe a run after work would be good not just to decompress but also to work on your ability to run through mental fatigue. I know I like my runs during my lunch break at work just to break up the work day. Maybe, in addition, I’m giving myself some extra training that I had only thought about in passing before.

Just a thought. What do you think?

Heatwave – be smart out there

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

I think many of us right now are dealing with a heatwave that has already been around for a while and is expected to hang around for a good part, if not all of, this coming week. I just sent the following to one of the runners I coach:

You can’t pound the heat into submission but it can pound you into submission if you’re not careful.

Be smart out there.

Will lifting weights help my running?

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

Note: This is something I wrote over a decade ago. My positions have evolved quite a bit since I originally wrote this. I’m going to write a follow-up that I hope to be able to post in the near future. However, as the articles section of this site will be going away eventually and I want to preserve the evolution of my thoughts, I’m going to maintain this as is.

This is a very popular question. Read running magazines and you will think the answer is obvious. Well, do a little more research and the answer becomes much more fuzzy.

The first research I suggest doing for any questions of training is to look at what the elite runners do. These are the people who have gotten the most out of their training. They have figured out what is worth their time and energy and what isn’t. So, what do the elite runners do? Well, very few elite runners who focus on events of 5k and up go anywhere near weight rooms. That doesn’t mean they don’t do strength training, though. The most popular form of strength training for elites is running hills. Repeats, circuits, easy and long runs over hills, fartleks, you name it. The bottom line is that they spend a lot of time running up and down. That’s not all they do, though. Core strengthening is something that almost all of them do. Abdominal training is done by many elites. Circuit training is also popular with some, as well as body weight exercises, like pushups, pullups, step-ups, one-leg squats or lunges, one-leg hops or toe raises. Some, although they are a distinct minority, especially as their goal distance becomes longer, also lift weights.

Another form of research that I like to look through would be scientific studies. So, what do they say? Well, not a whole lot for lifting weights for distance runners. Studies have shown that lifting weights is most likely beneficial for racing distances that take less than 10 minutes to complete. What about the longer distances? Well, things change sharply. In fact, I have seen only one study that showed lifting weights is beneficial for "well trained" athletes and I found that study to be questionable. That study also said it is beneficial for the 5k but findings were inconclusive once the race distance was over 20 minutes. I have yet to see one study that found weight training to be beneficial for anything longer than that. What about athletes who are not "well trained"? Well, studies have shown that adding weight lifting on top of their current training routine does help improve performance, which makes sense. You are increasing training load. Regardless of what that training is, increasing training load will increase fitness. But there’s a catch. Using that increased training load to do more running instead of lifting weights leads to much more significant performance improvements. In the end, almost all studies have found that lifting weights has no statistically significant positive effect on racing performance in events of longer than 10 minutes and some suggest that there may be a negative effect on performance. What about other forms of strength training? Well, studies have shown that running hills is one of the most beneficial forms of training that a runner can do. Circuit training, core training, and body weight exercises haven’t been studied enough to offer any quality assessments.

Of course, there is one variable that I have purposely left out so far. Many people believe lifting weights is good for injury prevention. While this sounds great, for the typical biomechanically sound runner, there is simply no evidence supporting these claims. In fact, in an unscientific study of one, my injury rates have been higher when lifting weights (under the supervision of trainers and strength and conditioning coaches) than when not lifting weights. On the other hand, if you have a biomechanical inefficiency, lifting weights may make sense to correct any imbalances.

In the end, there is not a whole lot of evidence supporting the use of weight training for performance benefit. This doesn’t mean it’s not worth a shot. Experiment, we are all studies of one. However, as I always say, why assume you are in the minority when chances are you are in the majority? If weight training isn’t working for you, move on and find something that would make better use of your limited training time and energy. If you have to decide between a few extra miles on the roads or hitting the weight room, by all means, run a few extra miles. That is where you are going to get the best performance benefit.

In closing, I would like to offer a link to a Peak Performance Online article about strength training. I have been using the exercises mentioned in this article since my college days and find them to be much more beneficial than anything I could do in the weight room.

Recovery aids

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

This spring, a runner I coach sent me this article and asked my opinion on it. Here’s how I answered (with a few edits and extra references).

I used to jump in the ice bath after every run. I used to ice anything that bothered me in the least and I’d take NSAIDs whenever something seemed wrong. I’d take antioxidants twice a day on my doctor’s advice.

Once I got out of college and didn’t have 50 gallon barrels and whirlpools with chest freezers full of ice right next to them and all the other resources of your typical collegiate training room, a lot of the “routine rehab” I did fell to the wayside. I just didn’t have the resources and facilities to make it easy and, after working an 8 hour day and spending 2+ hours a day running, didn’t have the time or energy to make it happen. You know what? I was just fine. I was running better than ever. So I looked at other things. I looked at icing every little thing that bothered me. I kept icing things that seemed like major problems but I didn’t ice everything that came along. Those little things cleared up just as quickly without ice as they did with.

Even earlier, I read a story of a runner who died from medical complications that were caused by his daily use of NSAIDs and I swore off using them as soon as I finished reading the story. Unfortunately, this was before every story was on the Internet and I can’t find it online but I do think this story points out some of the concerns.

Interestingly, alternating ice and heat was something I first heard about back in the early 90s. The idea was to reduce inflammation with the ice but increase blood flow with the heat. For probably over a decade, I have heard very little about it but it always seemed to work better for me than straight ice.

More recently, in the last 2-3 years give or take, there has been a lot of talk about whether these recovery aids really help us or lessen the training effect. In short, inflammation and muscle damage are the result of training stress and it’s the process of recovering from these things that stimulate our bodies to rebuild stronger. If we use all kinds of aids to lessen these things, are we affecting the stimulus and the response of our bodies? Here’s one example of this discussion.

Where I am now:

Personally, I’ve stopped taking antioxidant supplements. I try to get everything I need from my diet and there is reason to believe that mega doses may lessen the body’s response to training. Essentially, you’re sabotaging your training if this is the case. Besides, there are side effects to mega doses that are coming to light and aren’t very good.

As for ice and heat, I only do so when I have a problem that seems to be an impending injury. Then I alternate ice and heat on the problem spot. I haven’t done an ice bath since I graduated from college, although I can see the benefit of a post-race ice bath.

NSAIDs are out of the discussion for me. More hazard than they are worth.

One thing I am becoming interested in is hydrotherapy and compression in general. If you think about it, hydrotherapy is in many ways compression. Getting waist deep in water is essentially the most effective pair of compression pants you can find. Personally, I think simple low tech hydrotherapy of spending time with at least your legs submerged in water can make a big difference for runners. Whether the water is hot, cold or just right isn’t as important as the compression of the water on your legs. Whether I’m in a whirlpool with jets massaging my muscles or a swimming pool playing with my daughter doesn’t matter and I don’t have to tell you which one I can spend more time doing.

I’m also becoming more interested in compression socks for the same reason and because we don’t always have a pool available.

Now, I’m not sure if there will be a debate coming in the future about compression having the same drawbacks as ice baths but it’s an interesting technique and some of the concerns seem to be removed.

Finally, foam rolling and massage are widely accepted as very positive with, as of now, no negative side effects.

So what does this all mean in 5 sentences or less? I think ice baths are overrated, maybe useful after a race but overused in general training. Alternating ice and heat on a potential injury can be helpful but not on every little thing that comes up. NSAIDs are generally bad if used with any consistency. Massage and foam rolling seem to be very good and compression via socks or spending time submerged in water look promising. Hey, I got it all out in less than 5 sentences!