Tag Archives: running science

I fell into a burning ring of fire

Something occurred to me last week as I ran endless circles around the track – I have never attempted a complete Yasso 800s workout.  So this week I set out to test my speed against Bart Yasso’s famous marathon predictor.  That’s right, you can predict your marathon finish time based on how long it takes you to run a mere 800 metres.  Say you want to run a three hour and thirty-three minute marathon.  Each 800 metre interval (two laps around the track) should take you three minutes and thirty-three seconds.  Follow the 800 metre interval with a rest jog of three minutes and thirty-three seconds.  Repeat until collapse (Ten Times).  If you can complete your ten 800 metre intervals and ten rest intervals at 3.33 you have reason to be optimistic that — with proper training, optimal race conditions, blah blah blah — your marathon goal time is potentially achievable.  Disclaimer: like any marathon predictor, this is not a guideline not a guarantee.  

The man I go to for all my pacing needs, McMillan, advocates a mix of marathon predictor workouts throughout training: fast finish long runs, long distance races, and Yasso 800s.  Even though I have an endurance over speed bias, I find that most predictor runs over-estimate my race day abilities.  This, in part, is due to my conservative tendency to hold back in races Just In Case.  McMillan’s experience “is that Yasso 800s predicts about five minutes too fast for most marathoners”.   My Yasso 800 performance is probably going to be consistent with that five-minute trend.  I was well under goal pace in my intervals, but there is absolutely no way I’m running based on my Yasso 800 time – I don’t want to risk a magnificent flameout in the final third of the race.  Although I will have those Marines to revive me.

I hesitate to say this (for fear the Running Gods will smite me 21 miles into the Marine Corps Marathon), but the Yasso 800 workout was easier than advertised.  I read that it was a crazy hard test of fitness (and maybe I avoided it all these years for that very reason), but frankly some of my other speed workouts felt a whole lot harder.  Like those devilish pyramids.  I did have a great pack of runners to keep me going, so maybe they made a tough workout feel easier.  I’m always faster in a group.  Still, I’m undecided about the 800s.  I’ll take the confidence boost it gave me, but I’m placing more stock in my tune-up races. 

As noted, I am a McMillan fan, so I will sign-off with his wise closing remarks.  For those of you looking to see into the future, I encourage you to read his entire article on Marathon Predictor Workouts:

All predictors are estimates.  We just cannot control how you will feel on the day, what the weather will be like, how your competition will pan out and numerous other factors.  However, I’ve found that the predictor workouts offer marathoners with helpful information that can aid in race planning.  Prepare the best you can, have faith in yourself, respect the distance, use these predictor workouts to establish a smart race plan and hope for the best on race day.

Title Reference:  Johnny Cash – Ring of Fire.  From the album Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash.  1963.

It’s the good advice that you just can’t take

I have a shameful secret.  I am too lazy to stretch.  Lame, but true.   And I need, oh boy do I need, to elongate my muscles and other stretchable internal hardware.  I could play a a couple of chords on my tightly tuned hamstrings.  That said, unless I go to an organized class in which I can mindlessly obey a fitness professional I do not stretch.  Don’t misunderstand, even though I have no natural flexibility, I really do enjoy stretching.  I yearn for the days when my fingers didn’t dangle helplessly inches above my eagerly waiting toes.  After 10 years of yoga I’ve even learned to love the downward dog (attention yogis – that is not a “rest” pose).  After 10 years of yoga I still can’t do a proper upward dog.  My back simply won’t bend in that direction.  Left to my own devices I’ll always “do it later”.  Predictably, later never comes.  Knowing I’m unlikely to change my slothful ways I’ve invented Mental Stretching (TM). 

Borrowing heavily from sport psychology visualization techniques, mental stretching is all about using your brain to train your body.   The art of mental stretching is deceptively simple (in that it sounds easy, but takes a surprising amount of neural resources).  First you imagine the intended outcome.  So I, for example, imagine myself limber and bendy.  I think about how it feels to stretch, making the image as vivid and as real as possible from the comfort of my sofa.  Thinking about all the sensory experiences and really feeling the question “how does it feel” adds to the realism.  [Tester notes:  Wipeout on TV in the background diminishes the perceptual experience.]  In some visualization studies physical changes corresponding to mental practice have been found.   You read that right, actual muscular change!  I figure with daily mental stretching I’ll be standing on my wrists before the Marine Corps Marathon. 

Secretly I’m worried that I’m too lazy to mentally stretch.


Title Reference: Alanis Morissette – Ironic.  From the album Jagged Little Pill.  1995.

Miles to go before I sleep

To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub (Shakespeare as Hamlet said that, not me – and I’m not suicidal, I just like the quote).  I worry my lack of sleep is negatively impacting my training (not to mention my thinking).  The Runner’s World “Sleep Rule” states that a runner needs one extra minute of sleep per night for every mile ran per week.  That means if you, like me, run about 30 miles a week you need an extra 30 minutes a night of sleep.  30 minutes in addition to my basic sleep requirements, egads!  Not only do I not get the extra siesta time needed to compensate for my training, I don’t even get the minimal amount of sleep my body needs for regular life.  I am accumulating a sleep debt at a rate of one to two hours a night.  My legs are no longer responding to direct commands from my brain.  I think they are too tired to listen.

We all know that a night’s slumber is restorative, yet in a busy schedule sleep is often one of the first things we sacrifice.  For a runner, sleep is when we recover from our workouts.  The possible consequences of sleep deprivation are scary.  Banks and Dinges (2007) succinctly sum up the body of research, “laboratory studies of experimental restricted sleep in healthy adults suggest some mechanisms by which sleep duration may influence obesity, morbidity, and mortality”.  Although the mechanisms under which sleep promotes health are not fully understood, adverse effects of deprivation are well-documented.  Your endocrine, metabolic, immune, and cardiovascular systems may all be compromised if you deprive yourself of rest.  For example, when you snooze the pituitary gland releases the all-natural HGH (human growth hormone), infamous for its banned performance-enhancing effects, which builds and repairs our muscle and bone tissue.  No sleep, no growth hormone.  The sleep-deprived also have increased odds of a “cardiovascular event”.  Cardiovascular event is code for a 41.1K heart attack.  I don’t want to be alarmist, but sleep doesn’t get the props it deserves.  Banks and Dinges do note that people differ markedly in their responses to sleep debt, so some fortunate runners can get away with counting fewer sheep. 

Inadequate physiological recovery means that an athlete will not be able to perform to their maximum capacity, they won’t recover as fully or as quickly, and they become more susceptible to chronic training fatigue, overtraining syndrome, and injury.  Inadequate psychological recovery means that you may not have the will to run or you may not have much fun when you do put on those trainers.  So it seems obvious, get a good night’s sleep!  But what does that mean?  Most people fixate on the time spent horizontal in bed, but there is more to a healthy sleep than the hours of rest.  Charles Samuels (2008) nicely summarizes the key elements of our sleep-state that effect athletic performance and post-exercise recovery:

1.  Sleep Requirement:  The total sleep time is critical, but the required duration varies substantially among individuals.  A lucky few are ready to run after a few hours, others can barely function on less than ten.  On vacation, away from the demands of life, I naturally sleep the traditional eight-hours a night.  That’s an indicator that my magic number is eight, plus the extra 35 minutes needed to compensate for training.  That’s one out of three.
2.  Sleep Quality:  You may be sleeping for a long time, but are those forty winks high quality?  Non-restorative sleep is characterized by sleep fragmented with periods of arousal without full-awakening or light sleep with recurrent awakening.  I am a classic light-sleeper, awakened by even a light breeze.  That’s two out of three.
3.  Sleep Timing:  We all have a preferred sleep cycle determined by both genetics and the environment.  Often we can not match our circadian-driven sleep schedule to the demands of our lives.  For instance, Night Owls like me are often forced to wake earlier than optimal for jobs and long runs, but have difficulty compensating by going to bed earlier than our cycle allows.  As a result we miss critical periods of REM and slow-wave sleep.  That’s three out of three.

Seems I have cause for concern.  Although the night calls, my training goal for August is all about the eight-hour lie-down.  Carbo-loading is out, sleep-loading is in.


Reference: Samuels, C. (2008). Sleep, recovery, and performance: The new frontier in high performance athletics. Neurologic Clinics, 26, 169–180.

Reference: Banks, S. & Dinges D.F. (2007). Behavioral and physiological consequences of sleep restriction. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 3(5), 519-528.

Title Reference: Robert Frost – Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. 1923.

This %*#! is bananas

I still remember the first time I swore.  I was in the sixth grade.  I shocked myself at the slip of my tongue, worried about the repercussions of uttering a foul word in the school yard.  Fortunately my minor misdeed went unnoticed by my teachers and my permanent record remained unblemished (until I brought my older cousin’s ‘boys in swimwear’ calendar to school in grade eight).  I don’t think I swore for another three years.  I just don’t have a potty-mouth.  Husband tends to giggle when I swear, the words sound so unnatural.  Cussing remains a linguistic taboo and even the most prolific of swearers will show restraint at the office or around small children.  To this day my own swearing is restricted to late-night toe stubbings, bumping my ill-named “funny bone” on my desk, and computer malfunctions.  Why do the expletives flow when I’m in pain or deeply frustrated? 
Stephens and colleagues (2009) studied the relation between swearing and the experience of pain.  Many assume that swearing as a response to pain is maladaptive.  By encouraging catastrophising and drawing focus to negative thoughts and ideas, swearing is thought to decrease pain tolerance and increase pain awareness.  The presumed result?  More pain.  However, this hypothesis had never been empirically tested.  The researchers questioned the dogma, wondering why a curse-filled response to pain was so prolific if swearing only serves to exacerbate the negative sensations.  Anecdotally, many people feel a release of pain with a well-timed curse.  I will admit to a less than ladylike thought or two during a particularly tough slog.  I call it the “angry run” and I get some sort of weird boost of power when I’m completely PO’d.  It may be a psychological placebo, but dark thoughts do sometime help me get to the metaphorical finish line.  I’ve heard more than a few runners curse hills, the wall, the runners around them, and the air they are breathing, so this is not an unheard of reaction to a challenging run.  Would we be better off thinking about rainbows and lollipops or should we let the swear words fly?  As Stephens et al. asked, will a good blasphemy minimize our (aches and) pains?

Pain, in their study, was measured by submerging the unclenched nondominant hand in freezing water for as long as possible.  During submersion, participants either repeatedly uttered a cuss word or a neutral word of their choice.  As it turns out, people can handle more pain for a longer duration when swearing.   Both pain tolerance increased and pain perception decreased, opposite to what one would predict under a “swearing is maladaptive” hypothesis.  Profanities, it seems, are hypoalgesic – they serve to lessen the experience of pain.  Furthermore, fear of pain typically predicts pain, except when one is swearing.  This hypoalgesic effect may, in part, stem from a reduction in the aspect of the pain experience that is caused or exacerbated by the fear of pain.  Think about the pain you fear.  Now imagine ameliorating that pain simply by cursing a little mantra.  F-bombing The Wall comes to mind.  Telling the DOMS to go to H-E-Double-hockey-sticks.  That sort of thing.  
Is it true that women can handle more pain?  In this study men were able to tolerate the cold water for longer, although both men and women showed similar increases in tolerance under conditions of swearing.   Interestingly though, swearing offers the gals more relief from their perceived pain.  Perhaps because men swear more often than women the words become less potent and therefore less effective at reducing perceived pain.  Over-use it and lose it!  Although females report more pain catastrophising than men, only catastrophising males showed a diminished hypoalgesic effect.  Once a man starts exaggerating and fixating on the pain no amount of swearing can help him, but even the most embellishing of women can still benefit from a linguistic release.  Uttering a profanity may help some of the people some of the time, but it isn’t a cure-all.
Why does swearing make you feel better?  Theories abound, mostly emphasizing the emotional networks in the brain.  The limbic system, in response to a threat, will initiate a fight-or-flight response.  The classic fear response is characterized by an increased heart rate, a state of readiness, and pain inhibition.   Swearing, by eliciting an alarm reaction, may initiate that same fight or flight response.  The authors speculate that aggression, rather than fear, may underlie the alarm response generated by swearing.  Swearing, they propose, “may serve to raise levels of aggression, downplaying feebleness in favour of a more pain-tolerant machismo”.   If you need a little “pain-tolerant machismo” during your next tough run try the R-rated blue streak.


Reference:  Stephens, R., Atkins, J., & Kingston, A.  (2009).  Swearing as a response to pain.  NeuroReport, 20, 1056-1060.

Title Reference:  Gwen Stefani – Hollaback Girl.  From the album Love. Angel. Music. Baby.  2005.

Let’s get physical

Aging boomers are flocking to buy the latest mind teasers and crossword puzzles in hopes of delaying the inevitable cognitive decline.  With an unsettling family history of Alzheimer’s disease I’m willing to try anything.  The jury is still out on the benefits of popular brain games, but the evidence linking physical activity to preserved and even restored cognition is impressive.  As Kramer and Erickson (2007) highlight in their review, as a “successful aging” product exercise is ideal in that it is cheap, low tech, and readily available.   Perhaps you don’t need to teach grandpa how to use your Nintendo DS or trick grandma into swallowing a ginko pill, just take them out for an after dinner walk.  My plan to run 100 marathons before I turn 100 may not be so crazy after all.  Exercise, it does a body mind good.

Is exercise really a magic bullet?  Kramer and Erickson uncovered a slew of observational studies reporting a reduction in the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia in physically active individuals.  Randomized control trials, the gold standard in intervention research, also clearly show that exercise benefits cognition.  That’s the good news.  The bad news? There is no one-size fits all formula.  Three to five times a week for thirty minutes is a solid prescription, but as the warning goes – results may vary.  The nature of the activity, the frequency, intensity, and duration, your age, and those pesky genetic factors all play a role.  Even specific aspects of cognition benefit differentially with exercise.  That means that you may see improvement with some types of cognitive tasks, but not others.  Executive functioning abilities (which includes skills such as planning, organizing, decision-making, inhibition, task-switching and working memory) reap great reward when an individual breaks a sweat.  Lucky for us, if one were to pick a cognitive process to improve executive functioning skills would be at the top of most lists. 

Not as clear is the direct impact of fitness on brain structure and function.  Gray matter volumes and neuronal activation have both been shown to change after time spent in a exercise training program.  The brain changes presumably parallel reported improvements in cognitive performance, but more research is necessary before drawing causal conclusions.  Still, it is exciting to think that by going for a run we may be modifying our brains for the better.  Picture very footstep as new or strengthened neural connection.  That’ll get you moving.  Animal research supports this notion of exercise-induced neural plasticity.  With ample wheel time lab rats (actual rats, not the scientists) show gains in performance on memory tasks and growth in the brain regions underlying memory function.  These results are heartening, as memory is a primary area of concern for many aging adults.  Where did I put those keys?  Did I lock the door?  It’s already a concern for this not-old-but-not-as-young-as-she’d-like-to-be adult.  So what we all need is a people-sized rat wheel.  I suppose that would be a treadmill.

So, is exercise a magic bullet?  A little bit yes, but there is more to the story.  Exercise improves cognitive function through several routes.  As noted, positive changes in brain structure and function can lead to cognitive improvements.  Moreover, fit people have a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, obesity, and diabetes, all of which are risk factors for age-related neurological disorders.  Eliminate the disease and reduce the risk of disease-related dementias.  Complicating matters, exercise interacts with other critical factors, such as diet (exercises may be more apt to eat a more healthful diet), socialization (another reason to run with a club), and hormone levels (exercise and estrogen are closely tied).  Most of us do not exercise in isolation from a host of lifestyle choices that may also be important in postponing (or accelerating, depending on the lifestyle choices) cognitive decline. 

Although there is no panacea or fountain of youth, running may take you on the long road to age-related cognitive decline.  This is one instance when you want to avoid shortcuts.  No pain no gain no brain?


Reference:  Kramer, A.F. & Erickson, K.I. (2007).  Capitalizing on cortical plasticity: Influence of physical activity on cognition and brain function.  Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11, 342-348.

Title Reference:  Olivia Newton John – Physical.  From the album physical. 1981.

Hot fun in the summertime

Back in the devil-may-care days of applying “suntan” lotion (and baby oil for the truly dedicated), not sunscreen, I spent hours upon hours at the alter of those magnificent rays.  One particularly memorable day I opted to lounge about on a reflective black roof, to maximize the tanning potential, and swiftly fell asleep beneath the sunny beams.  Hours later I awoke, climbed down, and feeling a bit parched decided to go to the corner store for an ice cream cone and a soda pop (I know, how very tales from Mayberry).  I walked a few staggering steps and promptly fell to the ground, consciousness fading.  I ended the day in a hospital, packed in ice, and suffering from the most agonizing of cramps.  Apparently the body returning to a balanced electrolyte state is rather painful.  Excruciatingly painful, to be accurate.  The blisters that lined the back of my body were gruesome in both appearance and quantity.  That was my only tango with heat stroke.  Stupidly, it was not my last dance with a heat related illness. 
Some people are especially prone to heat illness.  Often those people are very young, very old, or very ill.  I am none of the above, yet my body is incapable of properly regulating temperature.  Like the wee little children, I am inefficient at sweating (I’m a low volume sweater, which is handy in nerve-wracking social situations, but not so great for keeping my body chilled) and I have a high metabolic rate (which is awesome for cookie eating, but does generate significant heat).  So I am very hot, in that I produce lot of heat, but I have a lazy cooling system.  This is a particular problem during exercise, when muscle-generated heat can accumulate faster than it is dissipated.  More metabolic heat + inefficient cooling mechanisms + heat generated with running + environmental heat = summertime disaster.  When it comes to running, I survive the summer.  Barely.  I do not enjoy, embrace, or energize.  I survive.  
My lack of heat acclimatization is just another sign that I am less evolved than most.  Daniel Leiberman proposes that the unique human ability to run long distances (compared to our relative lameness at sprinting) is a key to our long-term survival and thrival (I made that last word up; don’t blame Leiberman for my bad rhyme).  Evolutionary adaptations that allowed us to run in the heat meant our ancestors could hunt when the yummy game lazed about during the elevated midday temperatures.  Clever human ancesters developed mechanisms to rid us of the heat generated by running, allowing us to run longer and farther than others in the wild kingdom.  We are noticeably hairless (some more so than others), we sweat (some more so than others), and we breathe through our mouths when we run (like when a dog pants, except we can do this when running fast and they can not).   Most other animals would develop hyperthermia (heat stroke) after about 10 to 15 kilometers of running, but we go for miles more.  Hell, we voluntarily run marathons and when that’s not enough we run ultramarathons.  Few other animals run the same long distance over and over again to see if they can do it faster.  Or to see if they can do it in Boston some day. 
Without doubt, I would have starved in Pleistocene period, my battle of the fittest eventually lost to a more heat-resistant family line.  Although not everyone suffers as I do in the summer, most runners face an increased risk of exertion-onset heat illness in the heat, especially when combined with humid, weather.  The sunshine is glorious, particularly after a long winter’s rest, but the potential for the heat to hurt should not be underestimated.  More than a run being a slog, a soaring mercury can cause a run to be downright dangerous – if you aren’t careful. 

A weather wise runner is familiar with the types and signs of heat illness.  I’ve provided a very brief overview of the heat illness triad for you, but nothing replaces consultation with a medical professional or at the very least weblog who’s author has medical credentials (assuming those MDs weren’t procured online).  

  1. Heat cramps, not surprisingly given the name, are painful muscle contractions, cramps, and spasms.  Cramping typically occurs in the calves or hamstring muscles, but also in the arms and abdominal muscles. 
  2. Heat exhaustion arises when the body’s cooling mechanisms (e.g. sweating) are unable to keep up with the increasing core temperature.  Common signs of heat exhaustion include nausea, vomiting, dizziness, fainting, weakness, headache, pale and moist skin, weakened pulse, and disorientation. 
  3. Heat stroke, the most severe and worrisome form of heat illness, occurs when the body’s heat-regulating system, overwhelmed by excessive heat, completely fails.  It is a life-threatening emergency and requires immediate medical attention.  When the body’s cooling systems fails, the core temperature rises quickly.  Signs of heat stroke include a core body temperature above 40.5°C/105°F, hot and dry skin, lack of sweating, a very fast pulse, and mental status changes (e.g. confusion, disorientation, delirium).  The mental status changes clearly differentiate heat stroke from heat exhaustion.  Athletes who have exertional heat stroke, however, continue to sweat despite the rise in core temperature.

The more you know friends, the more you know.


Title Reference:  Sly and the Family Stone – Hot Fun in the Summertime.   Single released 1969.

She’s as skinny as a stick of macaroni

Elite endurance runners seem have one obvious physical characteristic in common.  They are lean mean running machines.   It makes sense – the lighter you are the less mass you must carry along for the 42.2 kilometre ride.  That translates to a lower energy expenditure in moving your body through space and potentially reduced impact on all your joints and ligaments.  According to an article posted in Runner’s World Magazine (which I have summarized here), the average runner will gain 3.3 pounds per decade (that’s about 3/4 inch in waist girth) even with mileage in the neighbourhood of 40 miles (60 klicks) per week.  As the years go by we start slowing because of our aging bodies and because of our expanding waistlines.  Fortunately, “fitness can trump fatness” and beyond BMI, activity level predicts longevity.  If your primary focus is on the health benefits of running you not need worry too much about those few extra pounds.

That extra six-pack may not shorten your life, but will it lengthen your run?  Popular opinion asserts a gain in weight means an increase in run time.  Many runners lament about the burden of carrying those stubborn extra ten pounds.  Some races even offer Clydesdale and Filly divisions for so-called heftier runners (usually 200 pounds+ for men and 150+ pounds for women), in addition to the typical age-graded categories.  Science supports this contention.  As a general rule, thinner is faster, so long as you lose bad weight (e.g. excess fat), not good weight (e.g. lean muscle mass or water).  It probably goes without saying, but as a public service message should be said anyway – less is not always more.  A BMI <18.5 and your risk becoming weaker and slower, not stronger and speedier (I will save you from my long-winded rant about this arbitrary BMI cut-off).  If you do have pounds to spare though, dropping a bit of weight – allegedly, even in the absence of additional training – should result in quicker race times. 

How much faster?  A healthy runner will race about 2 seconds per mile faster for every pound lost.  As your weight decreases your V02 max increases, allowing you to run farther and faster before oxygen debt (the point at which the demands outpace your ability to use oxygen to produce energy).  Not to mention that running feels easier, so you can train harder by increasing pace and distance which will also lead to faster race times.  At first glance two seconds doesn’t sound like much, but those seconds can really add up over a distance.

This table from Runner’s World provides an estimate of race time improvement with a drop in excess pounds and the associated changes in maximal aerobic capacity.  Caution: the following numbers may increase desire for weight loss.

2 lbs
12.4 s
25 s
52 s
5 lbs
31 s
10 lbs
20 lbs


Interested in how fast you would be if you were 25 years old and skinny (skinny = 110/142 pounds for females/males)?  Check out the Flyer Handicap Calculator.  It takes your current race times and using an algorithm computes your age/weight equivalency performance.  If I was 25 again (that sounds like a movie) I would finish a marathon a whopping 12 minutes sooner!  Egads, to be young(er) again.  With this nifty calculator you can compare yourself to running comrades of different ages/weights/genders.  All things equal, you may be surprised by who is  fastest.  Hours of fun.  And regret.

Sadly, I can’t turn back that age clock.  My 12 minutes speedier 25 year old self is a long gone.  But few of us would shed tears bidding adieu to a bonus pound or two.

Title Reference:  Larry Williams – Bony Moronie.  Released as a single.  1957.  Cover versions released by  Dr. Feelgood (1974), John Lennon (1975), and The Who (1994), to name a few.