Thursday, January 30, 2014

Nutrition: A Key Variable in My Comeback Equation

The Maffetone Method that I am following is not just about training at the proper intensity to develop my aerobic system and to teach my body to more efficiently burn fat for fuel. It is a more holistic approach that challenges the athlete to not only re-evaluate their training methods but also to look at nutrition and stress levels as other key variables that affect his/her overall health and fitness.  If I am going to give his method a fair try, I need to embrace the whole approach, not just some of it. If I am going to bother to do this thing, I might as well do it right.

I have known for a long time that nutrition was a weak link in my training. I have made occasional half-hearted attempts at improving my diet, switching to a primarily vegetarian diet for a while, but have not really made the type of serious changes needed. Over the past few years my weight had climbed 8 to 10 lbs over my previous optimal running weight of 120.  In the past six months, my weight had gone up an additional 5 lbs, to peak at 134.8 two weeks ago, three days before my 52nd birthday.

Part of my problem was that, like many runners, I did not want to admit that I had to give up anything to achieve my goals. I wanted to be able to eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, run a bit, and magically be at an optimal weight. Well, obviously that does not cut it.

As I started the section on Diet and Nutrition, a sentence in the opening paragraph really grabbed me:

 In the first section, I discussed various ways to improve aerobic function , including increasing speed, burning more body fat for energy, and various approaches to training and racing for optimal endurance performance without injury. But unless you also pay attention to diet and nutrition, many of these positive changes will be negated.*

I knew that. I think we all know it at some level, but for some reason it really sunk in this time. Why would I want to work so hard, for so many hours, in training  just to sabotage it with poor eating habits? 

Maffetone recommends that athletes get their nutrition from high quality food sources. He recommends avoiding refined carbohydrates and the overload of sugar in the American diet. He talks about carbohydrate intolerance and how it affects athletes’ performance.  He recommends a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, quality protein sources, and good fats. He also recommends low glycemic carbs to avoid insulin reactions. Nothing new here, it is what most dieticians would recommend.

For me, though, this meant a major change to the way I was eating.  The first step was to eliminate refined sugar and carbohydrates. I had a serious addiction to bread, pasta, bagels, crackers, rice, etc. Even though some of those would be considered “healthy” by some standards, there was way, way too much refined carbohydrate in my diet. For right now, I am avoiding almost all starchy carbs and replacing them with other fruits and vegetables. I also have upped my protein intake considerably.  I made the decision to eat meat again. (I may change that at a later date, but for now it is what I am doing).

I also had a serious hidden addiction to sugar. I did not know I had an addiction to sugar. We didn’t even have sugar in the house (we use Splenda for everything), but when I looked closely, there it was. Seriously, people, they put it in EVERYTHING these days. You never realize how much sugar is in things until you start looking – and how hard it is to avoid it when trying to.

My diet is pretty stripped down for now. I am eating pretty much just vegetables, fruits, yogurts, some beans and legumes, eggs, meat, and cheese. I will eventually add in some low glycemic carbohydrates and whole grains, but for now I am leaving those out of my diet. I am keeping my carbs under 150 grams a day.

Based on my previous tries at this type of diet, I thought I would be hungry all the time. There was a key difference this time, though. I decided not to worry about fat or calories. Before I had always gone low carb, low calorie, and low fat, and ended up hungry and miserable. This time, I didn’t worry about fat or calories and just concentrated on the refined carbs and sugar.

I got off to a rocky start. At the end of my first full day of eating this way, I got a headache. It was a migraine and was the most excruciating one of these I had ever had in my life.  I couldn’t do anything but lie in bed and wish I was dead. After about an hour of that, I got nauseous. About a half hour later, I was throwing up. Exhausted and miserable, I finally went to sleep.

When I woke up the next morning, the headache was gone. I decided to keep going with the eating plan -- unless the headache came back. It did not. And, amazingly I was not feeling starved and deprived as I expected I would. In fact, over the next few days, I was feeling really good, not focused on food, and full of energy.  What was also amazing is that I was coming in consistently below my calorie goal each day without even trying.  I am now two weeks into this form of eating and have lost 3.8 pounds.

What is even more amazing to me is that I am not bonking on my runs (something that had happened when I tried lower carbohydrate approaches in the past). One of the things Maffetone says is that the slower running encourages the body to burn a higher percentage of fat and a lower percentage of glycogen for fuel. He also says that adjusting the diet helps with this. It appears to be working.

The big test will come this weekend in the 12 hour “race” I have entered this weekend, the Whispering Pines 12 Hour Run/Walk  I intend to keep my heart rate in my training zone for as long as I can keep going.  For fuel, I intend to use fruits and honey, along with no sugar electrolyte drinks.  I am anxious to see how it goes. I will report back.

Have any of you ever tried eliminating refined carbohydrates and sugar? How did it work for you?

* Maffetone, Philip (2010-09-22). The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing (p. 200). Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Rebuilding My Base With The Maffetone Method: Test 1

In the previous post, I promised to tell you a bit more about the Maffetone Method I am using to build my aerobic base and to tell you about the testing that is done with the method. I had hoped to get it up before this, but I decided to redo the test I did earlier in the week on a flatter course. The section of the bike trail that I had used had some hills that I had not remembered from my rides there. I wanted a flatter section (as flat as I am going to get around here), for a little better numbers.

The key to Maffetone’s Method is training your body under or at its maximum aerobic training heart rate. Your maximum aerobic training heart rate is the heart rate where you are getting the optimal benefits in terms of developing your aerobic and fat burning systems. This means ignoring pace and running in relation to the aerobic effort your body is producing as measured by your heart rate.

Maffetone, through his work with athletes over many years, developed a formula to estimate what an athlete’s maximum aerobic training heart rate would be. It involved both a constant as a starting point, and a way to personalize the formula based on the athlete’s individual health and circumstances.

Maffetone’s formula is easy to calculate and goes like this. First, subtract your age from 180, which is the constant in Maffetone’s formula. Then you adjust that number up or down (or not at all) based on the following (quoted from The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing):
  • If you have or are recovering from a major illness (heart disease, any operation or hospital stay, etc.) or are on any regular medication, subtract an additional 10.
  •  If you are injured, have regressed in training or competition, get more than two colds or bouts of flu per year, have allergies or asthma, or if you have been inconsistent or are just getting back into training, subtract an additional 5.  
  • If you have been training consistently (at least four times weekly) for up to two years without any of the problems just mentioned, keep the number (180-age) the same.
  • If you have been training for more than two years without any of the problems listed above, and have made progress in competition without injury, add 5.

For me, the numbers shook out like this:

180-52 = 128 - an additional 5 because I am “just getting back into training” = 123

That is my maximum aerobic training heart rate. It is a number I should not go over in training while building a base. My training range should be in the 113-123 range. That range will be optimum for both building an aerobic base and burning fat.  So far so good.

Well sort of.  Only those who have tried Maffetone’s method themselves can get a sense of how slowly one has to run to stay in that heart rate range (if they don’t already have a good aerobic base). Now back when I was first learning to run and running that slowly it was not that big a deal because I hadn’t ever done much faster. As a veteran runner, let me tell you it is excruciating to run this slowly.

There is good news, though. Aerobic fitness improves fairly quickly and steadily if a person trains regularly in this range. How quickly? Well there is a way to keep track of that in Maffetone’s Method.

Besides the formula, another key aspect of this type of training is the Maximum Aerobic Function (MAF)  tests that are done every three to four weeks on the plan. For these, after a long slow warm-up, a runner runs three to five miles at the maximum aerobic training heart rate, recording the paces. Then every three to four weeks, the athlete can retest to assess conditioning and hopefully to note progress.

So this week I did the test. Here are my first results that show my rather poor level of aerobic conditioning going into this:

Avg HR

This is quite a bit slower than the normal training pace I would be using if I had just kept running as I was, which was somewhere around 9:00-9:15. If you look at the paces above, you can see what an adjustment this is.

Truly, this is a reason why many who try Maffetone’s method don’t stay with it like they should. It is hard to run that slowly, psychologically. It requires patience a quality that is not my strong suit. I am hoping that the gains Maffetone promises will materialize. He predicts that as the months progress, I will see the progress as the paces at the same heart rate get faster and faster.

Besides the training paces, Maffetone also recommends changes in stress level and diet. I am working on those areas as well. I have switched to a lower carb diet, eliminating sugar and refined carbohydrates wherever possible. I am happy to report that after a week of eating that way, I feel terrific, have lost two pounds, and .3% body fat as measured by my scale. I will take that little success and run with it.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Rebuilding My Aerobic Base: The Maffetone Method

Well, after a few weeks of working on getting back to running, one thing has become remarkably clear. I am very, very out of shape.  In fact, I am probably in the worst shape I have been in since I started running 15 years ago. I had some good running under my belt in the early part of 2013, but since then I have been really sporadic. I have also gained a lot of weight. And, I am at an age where fitness just doesn’t come bouncing back like it did when I was younger.  

Now I could just push through a few more weeks of workout and be in "good enough" shape to get by, but that is not really what I want. It is only fun and motivating for me when I can be competitive. To do that, it is going to take more than a band-aid approach to repairing my fitness. What I need is to completely rebuild my aerobic base.

Rebuilding an aerobic base involves more than most runners think. It involves miles and miles of easy running gradually stretching out the distance. A truly strong aerobic develops slowly over months and years of running. Different experts have different ideas about how long is optimal. For example, Pfitzinger in an article in Running Times says the minimum is six to eight weeks, but that longer is optimal. He recommends 12 weeks, twice a year. Arthur Lydiard, whose training advice I have often relied on in the past, recommends at least three months.

So now that I have established that this is what I need for the next several months, I am turning to a method that I have not used for a long time, not since I first started running: the Maffetone Method. Phil Maffetone, in case you haven’t heard of him, is a very interesting individual, truly a modern Renaissance man, who among other things is an applied physiologist and endurance athlete coach. He has coached many famous athletes, especially triathletes, with his most famous being Mark Allen when he won his Ironman titles.   He has a holistic approach to fitness and athletic performance that involves a combination of appropriate diet, exercise, and stress management.

Maffetone is probably best known for his work with heart rate monitors as a tool to monitor exercise performance and enhance aerobic development. He advocates training slowly, at a heart rate that keeps a person in an optimal fat burning state and which encourages the optimal development of the slow twitch muscles and the heart and lungs for aerobic activity. At the same time, athletes are encouraged to change their diets to eliminate sugar and refined carbohydrates. If this sounds interesting to you, you should take a look at the brief explanation on his site: What is the Maffetone Method? 

If after you look around you want to explore it further (or try the approach), I strongly recommend that you get his book The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing. The reason I recommend this, when there is so much out there on the Web about his approach, is that there is an awful lot of misinformation out there. For example, you will read that if you use the method, you never get to run fast, which is not true. However, the one thing that is not exaggerated is how slow you do have to run initially as you are building the base. This is the aspect of the program that most people find most difficult.

I will be using his approach as I rebuild my base over the next six months. I have dragged out my heart rate monitor, which I did pack and bring with me in the trailer. (At one level, I knew what I needed to do, but was in a state of denial. I wanted to just come back quickly without all the tedious work involved.)   The Maffetone Method begins with calculating the aerobic heart rate and then conducting a test of aerobic fitness, which I did today and which I will be talking about in a post later in the week.

George Sheehan, who was also a follower of Maffetone’s principles and who wrote the introduction for one of Maffetone’s books, once said “We are each an experiment of one.” Well this is my experiment with the Maffetone Method in my quest to regain fitness and possibly even to reach new heights with my running -- Maffetone says it just might be possible, even at my age. I hope you will follow along over the next several months to watch how it unfolds.

(As an aside, Bandit loves the Maffetone Method. It seems that he needs to rebuild his aerobic base as well.)

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Great Deal on Scott Jurek's Eat and Run

Many of you know that I am a huge fan of Scott Jurek and his book Eat and Run.  I reviewed it in an earlier post (to read the review click here).  Well I have some great news. The Kindle version of his book is on sale at Amazon in the month of January for only $2.24!!

This is a great opportunity to pick up the book if you were thinking of reading it or to get a digital copy to supplement your hard cover. I know I am ordering another one so that I can keep my autographed copy safe.

To check out this great deal, click on the image below:

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

When Is A Goal Too Ambitious?

Some of you may have noticed the lack of a New Year’s resolution post or even a post related to my goals for the year. That is because I have been going through a difficult time in relation to goals. In an earlier post  I had discussed the idea that my major goal for the next year or so was going to be to qualify for the Western States 100. Then I learned that the qualifying standards had changed. This made me have to reconsider my plans for qualifying as well as my running plans for 2014.

Initially I had decided that my new goal would be to run a qualifier at the Hallucination 100 at Woodstock. For several reasons, that would be an optimal qualifier for me. However, I also decided at about the same time to move from MI, initially with the plan of going on the road, which quickly got changed to buying a house in FL. These will be good moves for me running-wise, I believe, in the long run. In the short run, however, they put me three months behind in my training. Now here it is January, and I am not yet even averaging 20 mpw  consistently and have not had a long run of over 10 miles in longer than I can remember – not exactly an optimal state for an ultrarunner trying to prepare for a first hundred miler.

This was the condition I found myself in as I sat down to think about goals for the new year. I was in a dilemma: do I push ahead with my goal of qualifying for WS at Woodstock or do I adjust it to reflect my current conditions?

This is a difficult question. We live in a society that rewards the lofty goal and that has a “don’t give up on your dreams” ethos. This is fueled by social media wherein these lofty goals are publicly applauded and where terms like “awesome” and “bad ass” can make a runner feel really good about setting such goals. In addition, these same sites reward completion over performance, If one can drag themselves across the finish line, regardless of how poorly executed, the adulation is forthcoming. There is the push to do more and more, often before people are ready. “You ran a half? You should do a marathon?” “You ran a marathon? You should do an ultra?” The increasing distances and new experiences become things to check off and stickers to put on the back of a car to be part of the crowd.

This is the type of thing that causes many runners to over-reach, to do too much too fast, and which ultimately leads to injury and burnout. Many of the people who get caught in this cycle do not become lifelong runners. On that side of the coin, there is the argument that “Woodstock is still 9 months away. You can be ready by then. Go for it!”  

On the other side of the coin there is the knowledge that a 100 mile run is not something to undertake lightly. If I was coaching an athlete in my position, I would probably advise against doing a 100 miler so quickly when the previous year’s running base had been so sketchy.  If this were the end of 2012, when I had just completed many 50ks and marathons in the previous year, the situation would be different, but that is not the runner I am today. Today I am a runner with neither the aerobic base nor the strength to tackle a run like that. I am also a full 12 lbs overweight. That is an issue that cannot be ignored. One hundred miles is a long way to carry an extra 12 lb weight. I mean doesn't it make sense that when one is tackling the biggest physical challenge of one's life that one should be in the best physical shape possible? 

There is also my desire to not just “do” 100 miles, but to do it well. Yes, I could possibly (not probably) “complete” the 100 miles with the 9 months of training I could put in starting at the place I am now, but it likely would not be pretty. It might make a good story, but it would probably not make a good race. Not only would I suffer more than I need to and put myself at increased risk of injury or failure, but I probably also would not produce a performance I would be proud of or even feel good about. What is the point of doing it if it is a miserable experience that I can’t feel good about later? At least for me the pats on the back from others don’t really mean much if I do not feel inside that I did something that is worthy of the attention.  

This leaves me in a position that is pretty uncomfortable. It is hard to admit that one is not ready to pursue a goal, or that the goal may be too lofty at the time. Still, if I want to be sensible about it, that is the truth of the matter for me right now.  

Adding to the discomfort is the fact that being in this position is my own fault. I allowed myself get to this position. I am solely responsible for not making the time to train, for not making better choices, both in relation to training and diet. There are all kinds of good reasons why I didn’t, but the fact is that if one is going to set a serious goal like running a 100 miler, one has to accept the other end of the stick – that one’s lifestyle must be committed to supporting that goal. This is not just true with running. It is true with anything – the bigger the goal, the bigger the commitment that must go with it.

This leaves me to figure out a set of new goals that will get me to the goal that I ultimately want to achieve – the Western States qualifier (which will now have to be another 100 mile race).  This is a key step for anyone who has a goal that is too ambitious for them at a particular time.  One must determine what is needed to get to a position to pursue that primary goal and set goals related to reaching that position.

I am still working on this for myself in relation to the WS, but a good intermediate step appears to be a 6 month base-building period, perhaps culminating in a 50 miler. During that time, I will work to build my mileage back up to a steady 45 mpw and lose at least 6 of the 12 lbs of extra weight I am carrying around. Then, in June I can revisit and re-evaluate. I am not ruling out a fall 100, but I am going to have to see a lot more progress between now and then to consider it.

Because I know I focus best with a race out there on the horizon, I am off to search for a suitable 50 miler to get excited about and a few 50ks for the base building period (not to race, just to have some fun and company while I am training).  I don’t like the idea of putting my real dream on hold, but deep in my heart, I know this is a smarter plan that will ultimately get me where I am going in a much better position to succeed.