Monday, November 17, 2014

Into The Off-Season ...

A week after running the Savannah RnR Marathon I find myself in an uncomfortable position - the off season. When I was a younger and less experienced triathlete I didn't think that an off-season was necessary. It didn't make sense to me at the time that taking a specific chunk of time off at the end of a year and resting the body could make you faster next year. I learned my lesson the hard way and after 3 years of not taking any real break I was burned out and completely unmotivated to continue training. In the long run this turned out to be a good thing because it forced me into an off-season and I actually had my best season of racing coming off of it! Funny how that works!

Now, I can totally appreciate and understand the importance of taking time off. First of all, it's allowing me to fully recover from the marathon. The only thing I did last week was ride my bike once for 40 minutes! I'm pretty sure most endurance athletes would be horrified if they only did one 40-minute easy workout over the duration of 7 days. BUT, I know it was good for me and I know that not working out for 6 days will not affect my racing one iota next year. Second, taking some time to relax is going to allow me to do a few other things I usually don't do, like fully indulge in the festivities of my dad's 60th birthday next weekend. Third, by the time I'm done with this break, I will be bursting at the seams with motivation to start training again. To tell you the truth I already want to start training again, but I'm forcing myself to take 2 more full weeks off, where the only working out I do is whatever I feel like doing, certainly nothing overly strenuous. Then in December I plan to start a big focus on (surprise, surprise), the bike!

In case you still don't think an off-season is for you, this article by Jeff Smith of TOPS Athletics (with a few quotes from me in the nutrition section) sums up the benefits nicely and just might may help you change your mind.

After months and months of hard training and racing, the body and the mind of the triathlete need more than just a week of rest and recovery. When following the principles of annual periodization, just as every training week has a rest day, and every training cycle, or block, has a rest week, every year should have an “off-season” for the body to recharge. This is the time to focus on rest & recovery, treating those nagging overuse injuries, developing muscular strength and a balanced body to enhance performance and prevent injury, and optimal whole foods nutrition to restore energy levels and achieve optimal body composition.

Most pro triathletes will incorporate a 12-week off-season mesocycle into their annual training plan. The first two weeks of this off-season period are literally spent resting. Two weeks is adequate time to reestablish normal hormonal homeostasis after a season of hard training & competition. Two weeks is enough time to make the triathlete begin to miss the structure of their training and begin to feel that mental charge to want to begin training again, but it’s not long enough to suffer any quantifiable loss in fitness. This is an excellent opportunity to focus on reconnecting with family, friends, reading, sleeping in, or simply walking the dog.

It’s no secret that triathletes are some of the most driven & focused individuals you’ll ever meet. It’s quite common for the competitive triathlete to train & compete through nagging aches & pains, which are often symptoms of the development of overuse injuries. If you are one of the ones who “trained through the pain”, then during the off-season, you MUST address these symptoms to determine the underlying cause and correct the issues. This includes anything from plantar fasciitis to patellofemoral pain syndrome (runner’s knee) to IT Band friction syndrome to hip pain to lower back pain to rotator cuff tendonitis (swimmer’s shoulder). Have a Sports Med professional, ie Athletic Trainer or Physical Therapist, conduct an Initial Evaluation to diagnose the root cause of the issues and develop a treatment plan to resolve these issues before beginning your pre-season training cycle. If you ignore these signs & symptoms, it’s not a matter of if, but when you will develop a debilitating, chronic overuse injury or sustain a serious, acute, season ending injury.

Developing and maintaining optimal muscular strength is a critical component of enhancing performance and preventing injury in the triathlete. This does not mean heavy barbell squats like an NFL running back or heavy barbell bench presses like WWF wrestler. It means following an appropriate, sport-specific, Strength & Conditioning program for off-season triathletes designed by a professional, ie Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS). Laws of physics dictate that Power = Force x Velocity, but in the case of the triathlete, Power:Weight ratio is critical for optimal performance. This said, the competitive triathlete must maintain a lean & efficient physique while maximizing the mechanical strength of their skeletal muscle in order to maximize power output. This is achieved through the appropriate selection of sport-specific exercises, loads, rep & set schemes, rest periods, and weekly frequency. The professional Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialists will work as critical members of your coaching team with your Endurance Coaches and your Athletic Trainers or Physical Therapists to help keep you on the continuum of care during the off-season from injury treatment & rehabilitation to corrective exercise & strengthening to “return to play” status.

Considering the fact that many competitive triathletes have families & careers, between their personal & professional lives and the time demands imposed by training, optimal nutrition is often neglected. The off-season is the window of opportunity to step away from the gels and carb/electrolyte sports beverages and chews and focus on clean, whole foods nutrition. This is the perfect time for the triathlete to focus on body composition goals targeted towards that optimal Power:Weight ratio. “Many athletes talk about ‘getting to race weight’ during the season. The truth is, the bulk of weight loss should be accomplished during the off season when the athlete’s body is not under the same rigorous training/racing demands as in-season.” As mentioned above, the first 2 weeks of rest in the off-season allow the body ample time to return to normal hormonal balance, but optimal whole foods nutrition & hydration is key to this process. The appropriate quantities & ratios of macronutrients (carbs, fats, & proteins) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, & water) are also critical to support the body’s efforts in reducing inflammation and repairing damaged tissues resulting from overuse injuries. Adequate caloric & nutrient intake will also restore the body to optimal energy levels. “Endurance athletes benefit from foods that (1) improve the state of the cardiovascular system to enhance blood flow to working muscles, (2) that provide antioxidants and phytochemicals to speed recovery between workouts, and (3) are high in nutrient density such that they are satisfying without contributing excess calories & fat to the diet that could prevent an athlete from reaching an optimal body fat percent and racing weight.” Undergoing a Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) test and a Nutrient Analysis is a good place to start in developing an off-season whole foods nutrition plan.

For the competitive triathlete, the off-season is as critical of a period of time as your peak training blocks during your in-season training. It’s the time for your mind & body to rest & recharge, for you to treat the causes of those nagging aches & pains that you pushed through during training & competition, the time to focus on muscular strength & balance, and your opportunity to restore your body’s hormonal & immune system balance through optimal whole foods nutrition. So, as we approach the end of the competitive season, make sure to discuss your off-season goals and plans with your endurance coach to set yourself up for success in next season’s training & competition!

Jeff Smith, MS, CSCS, EIM1

Monday, November 10, 2014

Savannah Rock 'N' Roll Marathon 2014

I feel like I'm on top of the world right now after achieving my goal of running the 2014 Savannah Rock 'n' Roll Marathon in under 3 hours and on top of that surprisingly winning the race!  There's nothing more satisfying than setting a challenging goal for yourself, putting in the hard work & dedication to propel yourself towards that goal, and then ultimately attaining it!  

I started my 18-week Without Limits training plan for Savannah RnR back in July.  It started w/ a 5-week build where I focused solely on increasing my mileage from 50 miles/week to 65 miles/week.  I did 1 day of speed work during this block; other than that all my miles were slow.  When I say slow I mean slow - July in Wilmington is very hot and humid and it was not uncommon for me to average 9:00-9:30 pace on some of my easy runs.  After I had built up my base mileage, my training was periodized into a series of 3 weeks at 65 miles/week:1 week recovery.  I also started incorporating a second day of speed work, usually some intervals during my long run.  With 2 months to go, I upped the length of my long runs which had previously ranged from 14-17 miles.  I did an 18, two 20s, and a 22-miler.  The weather cooled down and my times were naturally getting quicker.  I ran a marathon-pace 1/2 marathon and finished that in 1:29 on tired legs.  My confidence at this point was high - I was not injured, I was hitting my mileage, and nailing all of my speed work.  Three weeks out of the race, thing started to unravel a little bit.  I got a weird GI thing right before Beach2Battleship where I ran a 1:31 half.  I had a few speed workouts after that where I just didn't feel good and it was hard to hit my times.  I felt tired and tried to focus on recovery and getting back to 100% for the last 2 weeks.  During the taper I just felt weird, which I know is normal, but it made me question whether or not I'd actually be able to do it.  

Despite feeling unsure about how the shaky last 3 weeks of training were going to affect my race, I knew I had one other trump card up my sleeve and that was my nutrition.  After getting back from my trip to Colorado in August to support Sharon at the Leadville 100, I made the decision to fine tune my diet to make sure I was at race weight by Savannah.  For the most part I eat a very healthy diet, but there are plenty of unhealthy vegan foods that sometimes creep in there:  vegan ice cream, homemade vegan chocolate chip cookies, dark chocolate, vegan banana bread, tortilla chips, sweetened coffee drinks, etc.  I cut these things out and ate an entirely whole-foods plant-based diet for 2 months prior to the race.  I literally pruned all of the processed foods out of my diet.  I ate fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts, & seeds.  The results were amazing and well worth the effort!  When I ran Quintiles Wrightsville Beach Marathon back in March I weighed about 126-127 lbs.  My weight for this race was 119.  I also significantly reduced my body fat from about 15-16% to 11.5%, which is the leanest I've ever been.  It felt good going into this race at race weight :)

On Friday morning Ashely picked me up & we got on the road to Savannah - girls weekend!!!  We did the expo and picked up some drinks and pizza from Mellow Mushroom (vegan mega veggie, no cheese) and ate dinner at the luxurious La Quinta Midtown hotel.  I felt really bad for Ashley when we realized we had forgotten a bottle opener and her attempts to open her Corona were futile :(

Four a.m. on Saturday morning came around real quick!  We caught the 4:45 shuttle from the hotel and arrived at the race start almost 2 hours early.  We chilled out in Panera where Ashely was able to get some java that tasted better than the coffee water at the hotel.  I did a small dynamic warm up and before you know it, it was time to start!  I made my way to Corral #1 and stayed in the back.  I really didn't want to be tempted to start out too fast. 

The gun went off and the first mile was kinda crowded.  Half marathoners and full marathoners started together so it was impossible to tell who was doing what.  I wanted to run an easy first couple of miles and let my body settle into marathon pace.  I looked at my watch and it said I was running 7:30 pace.  I was not happy about that b/c I didn't feel like I would be comfortable running much faster than that, which probably wasn't a good sign.  But, I ignored this and hoped that I would ease into it.  Well, when I passed the first mile there was a digital clock and it read 6:40!  Holy crap, I had just run the first of 26 miles in 6:40!  Not good.  I forced myself to slow down over the next few miles and my watch eventually became accurate.  

I didn't feel great for the first 5-8 miles of the race.  Maybe it was b/c it was early and cold and I needed time to warm up.  Maybe it was because I was nervous.  I kept worrying about what I would do if I didn't feel good in the first half of the race.  If the first 13 felt hard, how on earth would I run a second 13!?  Because of this I was very anxious to get to the 13 mile mark.

At 11 miles the course split:  half-marathoners went straight and the rest of us fools went left.  Right after the split I passed a woman and I noticed that there was a cyclist next to me who had been riding around me for a while.  I wondered what place I was in and thought I must be in a decent place if this rider is keeping tabs on me.  Miles 12 & 13 were on flat black pavement - I love running on that surface.  And there were huge loud speakers blaring Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal."  I felt a surge of energy and all of a sudden I was 10 times more relaxed than I had been for the first half of the race.  I ran a pair of 6:40 miles and was ok with that.  A few people had started shouting out "2nd female" and it hit me that I was in second place!

Miles 14-16 were probably my favorite part of the course!  We ran though Savannah University and it was so much fun!  All the students were out cheering us on, blasting music, dancing, and having a good time.  The atmosphere was just awesome and I couldn't help but smile as I ran through there.  Around mile 15 there was an out and back section and I saw the lead female.  She looked really strong and was pretty far ahead of me.  I thought, "there's no way I'm going to catch up to her."  But at the same time I have done many triathlons where I haven't caught a competitor until the final finishing chute and I know that in long races like this anything can happen.  However, I just told myself to stick with my plan, run my race, and shoot for my sub-3.  At mile 16 I still felt great and said to myself, "I can't believe there's only 10 miles left!"  I was confident that I could get to the finish in under 3 hours.  Around this time the course veered onto Savannah University's track, which was my favorite part of the part of the course that was on the campus!  There was loud music and cheer leaders lining the sides of the track.  It totally made you feel like a rock star as you ran around!!  It also reminded me of the many days I spent in Greensboro at A&T's track.  I felt really strong and happy to be in the moment.  

It's amazing in a marathon how you can go from feeling bad to good to great to terrible to good to terrible.  I'd say I hit a pretty good wall at mile 19.  All of a sudden, running got hard.  I didn't feel as smooth and it was taking some real effort to keep on pace.  Around 20 miles two guys passed me.  All I could hear in my head was Tom Clifford's voice from our talk the previous night saying, "DON'T GET CAUGHT RUNNING THE RACE ALONE!"  I was so tired and my legs were really starting to fatigue and all I wanted to do was walk.  But, I took Cliff Dog's advice and latched on to the fellas.  They were running about 6:40/6:45 pace and it hurt to keep up, but I was afraid if I didn't I would blow it.  I tried to feed off of their energy and just put one foot in front of the other to keep up.  I wanted to quit, but I didn't let myself.

Then, around mile 22 we turned a corner and I saw the best sight ever:  the first place female runner!!!  I couldn't believe it!  I was gaining on her, rapidly!  All of a sudden I went from feeling like trash to feeling like a million bucks!  I passed her and she cheered me on saying "You are running strong, go for it, you deserve it!"  I was incredulous and running on pure adrenaline thinking, "Holy shit, I might actually win this entire thing!!!"  I even started getting a little choked up, but everyone knows you can't cry and run 6:50s at the same time, so I took a few deep breaths and carried on.  At this point I was running inbound towards the finish, but there were still many marathoners running outbound and we were passing each other.  I got so many cheers:  "First woman!" "Go girl!" "Looking strong!" "You're kicking ass!"  It was so awesome!  Thank you to everyone who helped cheer me on - it pumped me up and gave me strength to get to the end, which I needed b/c things got very difficult again.

Mile 24 was on the highway and there was a little headwind.  Thankfully a guy caught up to me and I tucked in behind him.  When I said sorry about doing this he was like, "It's ok, draft away!"  I was so thankful to again fall into someone else's footsteps and let them carry me closer and closer to the finish line.  

With about 1.5 miles left, the marathon joined back up with the half marathon course.  This was one of the hardest parts of the race for me because I was so tired and these final miles felt like a continuous gradual uphill.  But again, my spirits were lifted by the energy of the half marathoners, who were cheering wildly as I passed them.  I knew if I could just stay under 7:00 pace that I would finish under 3 hours and this was getting really exciting!!!  With 1 mile to go, I knew I had the win and I knew I was going to break 3 hours (unless my legs gave out, which was not outside the realm of possibility).  Once you get to the point where you have one more mile, you know you can get there.

The last quarter mile of the race was the best.  TONS of spectators were lining the streets and the finishing chute was incredible.  People were packed 20 deep, crowding the sides of the streets as I ran down the final yards of the race.  I heard the announcer announcing that the first female was finishing & was in disbelief to hear my name being called!  The crowd was cheering and it was a moment I'll never forget.  I think I had the biggest grin on my face and raised my arms in the air making a #1 sign on both hands.  I saw them hold up the finishing tape and got to feel myself run through it - so very cool!  My official chip time was 2:59:02 (6:50/mi).  Immediately I was handed an American flag and asked to hold it up so all the reporters and camera people could take pictures!  I'm not ashamed to say I shed a few tears of pure joy :)

It was a real whirlwind after that!  The announcer grabbed me and had me walk back out onto the course where I did an interview.  Then a bunch of tv cameras & reporters interviewed me, asking about my training, the race, my expectations, was I surprised to win, etc etc!  I took a ton more pictures, and was ushered to the VIP tent where I waited for the awards ceremony.  They called us all up on this huge stage and presented the top finishers w/ awards.  It was pretty amazing and I felt like a real celeb, lol!  

After the awards, Phillip Phillips came on stage and put on a great concert.  His voice sounded great live and Ashley & I hung out for a while before cleaning up & continuing to celebrate!  She was an awesome sherpa for the race - thank you SO much for coming on the trip w/ me, waking up at 4 am, bringing your clappers and cow bells, cheering me on during the race, and having tons of fun the entire time, you rock and we need to do this again!

Congrats to all finishers & thanks to all volunteers!  I'm still in shock that I got a 10 minute marathon PR, ran sub 3 hours, and emerged the female champion of the 2014 Savannah Marathon!  And I think I'll continue to be in shock for a while.  I couldn't be happier about the weekend and with how the race turned out.  I feel like I'm just a girl and I'm on fire ;)