Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas shoveling ambition

Like any other Minnesotan, I endured the "Christmas blizzard of '09."

My car required 20 minutes of shoveling to dig it out from the snowy abyss that was the parking lot at my apartment Christmas Eve morning. The drive to my parent's house in St. Cloud that day was a three-hour adventure complete with ice, snow and bad drivers on Highway 169. And Christmas morning at my parent's house, I woke up to -- surprise, surprise -- another round of snow, as the storm from the night before forced my step dad to take a snow blower to our driveway for the third straight day.

Needless to say, Mother Nature certainly added a bit of gloom to the holiday season. But after staying inside Christmas morning and avoiding the snow, like many Minnesotans probably did that day, I decided to make the most out of the weather. I put on my winter clothes, grabbed a shovel, reached into my inner 4th grader and took a few hours out of the holiday to build a snow fort.

I'm still not sure what exactly motivated me to do so. Maybe I wanted to negate the onslaught of Christmas cookies my mom had made with a little exercise. Maybe I wanted to tap into the nostalgia of my days as a Boy Scout, where we once built a snow fort big enough to sleep six comfortably during a winter camping trip. Or maybe, just maybe, I came to conclude that there was nothing new I could derive from watching "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" for the umpteenth time on TNT.

Whatever the case, I decided that I'd had enough with being inside and attacked the snow with vigor. It started as a mound at first, gradually building up to a hill large enough to require a ladder to apply additional "substance" to. After burrowing into the hill with my trusty shovel, I managed to hallow out a fort area with about a 5 ft. ceiling and enough space to sleep two comfortably.

By the time I had another family holiday function to attend to, the fort was completed, my shoveling muscles were aching and my appetite for Christmas dinner had been created. I had also exerted enough energy in the building process to burn roughly 1,500 calories according to the exercise calorie counter on my blog (take THAT, holiday eating habits!).

But most importantly, my worries about the bad traffic, weather and other stresses of the holiday season had been set aside for a few hours in favor of some innocent wintertime fun.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A little indulgence never hurt anyone

I'm definitely what you would call a breakfast person.

Starting the day off with a good meal is about as regular for me as showering and brushing my teeth. My cupboards are perpetually stocked with pancake mix and my fridge is never lacking in the provisions to make a good omelet.

The benefits of a good breakfast are endless. It jump starts your metabolism, gives you energy for the day and has been proven as a workable method of weight control. Growing up, my mom was always adamant about making sure my brothers and I had a big bowl of cereal before heading to school and woke us up early just to make sure. Mom was right: breakfast IS the most important meal of the day.

I usually try to make breakfast my largest meal of the day, but recently, my weight loss goals for Grandma's Marathon next summer have gotten in the way that. I started committing the unforgivable sin of looking at the calorie content on the sides of boxes. I had no idea the cholesterol in a good omelet was so high, nor did I know a frisbee-sized pancake had so many carbs. For me, finding out the nutritional value -- or lack thereof -- of pancakes was a lot like finding out there's no real Santa Claus: you might have felt more grown up for knowing it, but you didn't really WANT to know it.

Because of this discovery, my breakfast habits have been considerably scaled back: something along the lines of a small bowl of Raisin Bran, a toasted bagel, a banana or a granola bar. Heck, I even tried make an egg-whites-only omelet last week, which resulted in a gag reflex and a quick disposal of its contents into my garbage can. Good cereals like Peanut Butter Crunch have been eradicated from my grocery purchases and my trusty box of pancake mix is currently collecting dust in my cupboard.

Well, at least it WAS collecting dust.

I say "was" because yesterday morning, after a trying day and little sleep the night before, I decided I needed more than a wimpy granola bar to start my day off right. I broke out the skillet, threw dietary inhibitions to the wayside and indulged in a breakfast that can only be described as amazing: chocolate chip pancakes with a side of sausage made from bear meat. I even used real maple syrup for good measure and washed it all down with a tall glass of orange juice.

Was this a healthy breakfast? Not if you're trying to lose 20 pounds. But was it an enjoyable breakfast that made the whole day more bearable for me? Very much so. My day wasn't anything significantly different from the previous day, mostly work and a workout at the Y, but my outlook on the day improved immensely thanks to that momentary indulgence

And that's where the line gets drawn when it comes to dieting, at least it does for me. It's good to have a goal and the discipline needed to achieve that goal, but if you can't give yourself a break once in awhile, life can start to feel pretty overwhelming.

Blog updates: I've added a few things to the blog rail on the right. Rather than posting updates on Eric and Christie Nelson's bike trip, both their blog and their GPS location can be accessed by clicking on the appropriate link. I also added a Grandma's Marathon training log, which will chronicle which week of training I'm in and how many miles I've ran so far.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Nostalgia can be a painful thing

Everyone who's been around long enough has an activity they miss being able to do on a regular basis.

For me, that activity is rowing.

For the majority of my four years of college, I identified myself as a rower almost as much as I did a student. It may have only been a club sport, but to me, crew was life. The practices were challenging, the regattas were competitive and the friendships forged will last a lifetime. My favorite memories of college weren't made in a classroom or a bar; they were made in a boat.

It's been hard to let go of in the post-graduate life, but thanks to the indoor rowing machine at the YMCA -- also known as an "erg" to the crew-initiated -- at least part of the sport doesn't have to be phased out completely. Not that erging is the part of rowing I'd like to maintain. Most of the people who participate in crew look at an erg with the same level of contempt as a dog owner has with picking up the waste of their pet on a morning walk: it's not something you enjoy doing, but it's part of the experience.

However, since the erg is pretty much the closest thing there is to actual rowing in Mankato, it has to suffice for me to get my crew fix. I normally try to put in about 10-20 minutes on the machine at medium intensity a couple times a week. Nothing too crazy; just enough to remind my body what rowing feels like.

But yesterday, my ambition combined with my sense of nostalgia to take it a step further. I decided to try one of the staple workouts from the old crew days: the 5,000-meter time trial. It's more of a long-distance workout than a sprint, but it still requires a pretty strenuous pace to get a decent time. Being the nerd that I am, I remembered my personal best time in college and wanted to see how close I could come to matching it. At the very least, I figured it'd be a good way to finish up a workout at the Y.

The time trial started out just fine. My form started coming back to me early on and I busted through the first 2,000 meters or so without too much trouble.

However, right around the 2,500-meter mark, I hit the proverbial wall that every workout junkie can relate to. Your muscles burn, your breathing becomes exasperated and your mindset all of the sudden shifts from "This is feeling great" to "What the hell am I doing here? I'm not in shape for this." Rather than trying trying to drop my split during this crucial point of the time trial, I spent most of the next 2,000 meters wondering if I was going to throw up if I tried to pick up the pace.

Thankfully, I made it through the time trial without suffering the embarrassment of losing my lunch in the YMCA Life Center. The time I finished with may have been paltry compared to what I was doing in college, but considering I felt like absolute death by the end of the workout, the time really wasn't all that important.

The important thing was what I learned from the experience: that nostalgia can sometimes be painful to both the mind and the body. Maybe next time, I'll try to get my crew fix by simply wearing an old rowing t-shirt instead. It might not be as rewarding as a good workout on the erg, but at least I don't want to throw up after putting on a t-shirt.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Achilles annoyances

A pain-free existence is often a difficult goal to attain for the physically active.

It seems like every time you think you've dealt with every conceivable injury an activity can bring, a new ailment arises that expands your sports medical horizons and tries your patience.

That's exactly where I find myself at this point, as a sore Achilles tendon has stalled my marathon training and put a damper on other physical activities as well. The injury isn't serious enough to render me immobile, but the pain is noticeable enough to convince me that now is as good of a time as any to take some time off from the ol' running trail. I've never injured my Achilles before, so I figure it's best to air on the side of caution.

Admittedly, I know very little about Achilles tendon injuries. Aside from knowing that it was named after the Greek dude Brad Pitt portrayed in "Troy" and that it takes a long time to heal if it ruptures, I have about as much knowledge of the Achilles tendon as Homer Simpson has of quantum physics. A licensed doctor or someone who has gone through the recovery from a complete Achilles rupture would probably have a lot more information on the topic than myself.

However, my experiences with the injury have inhibited me to read up on it through a few online sources. Here are a few things I found most interesting (or, at the very least, surprising) to me about Achilles tendon injuries:

The inury can be caused by a lot of the same stuff that causes other sports injuries: Overuse, bumping up the intensity of your routine too quickly, improper footwear, poor running form, etc. This can make it difficult to diagnose the injury correctly, but for the most part, any Achilles problem is going to have the pain centered around the tendon. A sore Achilles (or Achilles tendonosis, the technical term) is considered to be a pretty common injury for middle distance or long distance runners and, according to this Web site, can be assessed in four stages (with me being somewhere between stages 2 and 3):
  • Stage 1. No pain during exercise, but there is some discomfort in the morning when first getting out of bed. The stiffness and creaking go away after a few minutes and are fine the rest of the day. Lightly pinching the Achilles tendon with the forefinger and thumb in the morning or after exercise will probably indicate soreness.
  • Stage 2. Pain during exercise or running, but performance is not affected. The stiffness and creaking continue to appear when first getting out of bed and continue to disappear shortly afterward. Lightly pinching the Achilles tendon with the forefinger and thumb in the morning or after exercise will indicate soreness.
  • Stage 3. Pain during exercise or running that is detrimental to performance. The stiffness and creaking continue to appear when first getting out of bed, but may continue for some time and reappear at other points during the day. Lightly pinching the Achilles tendon with the forefinger and thumb in the morning or after exercise will indicate soreness.
  • Stage 4. Hurts too much to exercise or run. The stiffness and creaking continue to appear when first getting out of bed, but may continue for most of the day. Lightly pinching the Achilles tendon with the forefinger and thumb at almost any time of day will indicate soreness
Treatment for a sore Achilles is actually pretty similar to an ankle injury. It basically requires rest, icing, compression, anti-swelling medication (i.e. Ibeprofen) and elevation for the first 2-3 days after the soreness initially develops. After that, you're supposed to work your way back with light activity, stretching, strengthening, balance work and, most importantly, exercise. According to this Web site, the best way to strengthen damaged tissue (in this case, the tendon) after an injury is to be active. However, the site also stresses to never push it to the point where the tendon starts to hurt.

The recovery time isn't easy to gauge compared to other injuries.
Some Web sites recommend 1-2 weeks of rest to let the Achilles heal. Others recommend longer. What it really boils down to is how it feels for you. Start with light activitiy and gradually build yourself up from there. Ice it for 10-20 minutes after physical activity, but be ready to scale back on your activity if it's sore the next day. Like any other injury, it's important to be patient.

Ways to prevent future injuries are pretty basic.
Essentially, exercise regularly to keep the tendon from becoming strained from increased activity, maintain a good diet (especially calcium) to prevent muscles from getting tight and causing unwanted strain on the tendon, and choose carefully when picking out footwear. The right pair of running shoes can go a long way in helping your foot strike the ground properly and cut down on wear and tear. A good stretching routine (most sites recommend the wall stretch) once the soreness subsides is also a good way to prevent injury.

You can tape an Achilles tendon much in the same way you can tape an ankle to prevent injury. However, the Web site I found for this recommends having a sports medicine professional do it, because it's considerably more complex than regular ankle taping.

Well, that's pretty much all I've got on everyone's favorite tendon. The only solace I can take with the injury is that at least it happened with six months to go until the actual marathon. Because if the injury was bad enough take down a Greek warrior, I'd imagine I wouldn't fair too well around Mile 15.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Running in a winter wonderland

Well, it had to happen eventually.

Every true-blooded Minnesotan knew this warm weather business wouldn't last forever. Winter had to come eventually and after yesterday's perpetual snowfall, in the words of Johnny Mathis: It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Not that I'm complaining about it. I'm a fan of all seasons weather-wise and winter happens to be the time of year when I partake in a hobby more befitting of my co-worker's Bass Connection blog: Spear fishing. I hope to have my house set up on the lake sometime in the near future and plan on heading to the family cabin after Christmas to 'jab some pike.'

But as far as health & fitness is concerned, winter can be the most challenging time of year to maintain a good workout program. The cold weather and icy roads and trails are enough to make almost anyone want to move their workouts to indoor settings. And even then, you have to bear the cold weather somewhat just to get in your car and drive to the gym, not to mention suffer the monotony of running on a treadmill or biking on a stationary. This is how exercise routines go into hibernation and how holiday pounds begin to add up.

If you're anything like me, running on a treadmill kind of feels like a rat running in a wheel. You might get a good workout in, but what's the fun in doing it if you can't see the distance you're running?

Consequently, I'm in the crowd that likes to brace the elements and do the majority of my running outside whenever I can.

However, when running outside in cold weather, there's a few precautions you should probably take to keep the run safe and enjoyable. Here are a few tips based on my own experience and and articles I found online:

  • Set a goal for yourself: Try to shoot for a set number of miles each week, have a weight loss goal, or sign up for a race that you have to train for. That will keep you motivated and working out with a purpose.
  • Think layers: Starting from closest to your body, you'll want to have a layer to wick moisture away from your body (think spandex or polyester), a layer to insulate (fleece or wool work pretty well for this) and a layer to block the wind if necessary.
  • Dress for 15-20 degrees warmer than what it is: If you're planning on going for a lengthy run, your body will warm up over the course of the run. Once you're warm, if you're wearing too many layers, you can overheat during the run and exhaust yourself.
  • Protect your hands and your head: The majority of your body heat escapes from the top of your head, so on days where the temperature gets really frigid, where a good winter hat that will trap the heat and keep you warm. As far as hands go, find a nice thin pair of polyester gloves that will wick the moisture away and keep them from getting frostbitten. If it's even colder still, wear a face mask to help keep your breathing warm and protect your face.
  • Baby steps: Winter is not the time to be taking long, loping strides while out running. That's how ankle sprains and other injuries resulting from slipping on ice occur. Keep your strides short and your feet close to ground. You never know when hit a patch of glare ice on the trail. If the trail gets really icy, you can try using these on your shoes. I've also heard of runners popping a few smaller screws into the bottoms of their shoes to make them into pseudo-track spikes.
  • Avoid routes with heavy traffic: More than any other time of year, motorists have a hard time reacting and adjusting to runners on the road during the winter time. Keep it safe and stick to trails and roads where you know you won't have to worry about cars having to avoid you.
  • Keep hydrated: An obvious point at all times of the year, but even more important in the winter time, as cold weather has a drying effect on the air that can increase the risk of dehydration.
  • Get used to running without music: If your iPod is anything like mine, in cold weather, it makes it through your warm up and that's about it. So rather than having the system shock of having it die on you midway through a run, just leave it at home.
  • Most of all, keep it fun: Go out with a group of friends, run through a neighborhood with a bunch of holiday decorations to look at or bring your pet with on a run. Whatever you do, just make sure you keep having fun with it. Because there's nothing more damaging to holiday cheer than a bad run in cold weather.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Mankato Marathon meeting recap

When it comes to hosting a big event like an inaugural marathon, it's never too early to start planning. However, in the opinion of Mankato Marathon race director Mark Bongers, it's never too early to start getting input from those planning to participate in said marathon either.

That was the premise Bongers had in holding the marathon runner's forum Tuesday night at the Verizon Wireless Center. While the marathon is still in the formative stages of planning, Bongers was looking to get an idea of what runners would like to see in the race based off of positive racing experiences they've had in the past.

"In my experience, events like these come together much nicer if you get input early on instead of trying to adjust later," Bongers told the 30 or so runners who attended the forum, myself included.

The forum was organized into 6 different topics: Pre-race (i.e. events before race day), warm-up, the race course itself, the finish line, post-race and any other micellaneous concerns. Each topic had its own assigned table, where a group of marathon runners could discuss it and jot down notes. Every five minutes or so, groups were rotated to different topics.

A lot of topics were brought up throughout the meeting, but here is what came up in discussion most often:

-General race courses for the marathon, half marathon and 10K races. Bongers said that the courses are still awaiting approval by the city police and the marathon course is awaiting USA Track & Field certification to make it a Boston Marathon qualifier. However, the courses should be finalized by the end of December and course maps should be available on their Web site soon after. Here is what Bongers had in mind for the routes of each race, with each race starting at 8 a.m. in the Blakeslee Stadium parking area up at MSU and ending at the Verizon Wireless Center:
  • Half Marathon: From Stadium road, take a right onto Monks Ave, follow until County Road 90, take a right onto the South Bend bike trail, follow the trail until it connects with the Red Jacket Trail, follow the Red Jacket Trail back to the YMCA, Take a left on Riverfront Drive, run through Sibley Park and cut back towards the Verizon Center via the bike trail along the Minnesota River and Front Street.
  • Full Marathon: Same start as the half marathon, but take a left on County Road 90. From there, follow County Road 90 across Highway 22, take a left on County Road 83, follow County Road 83 until it turns into South Victory Drive, take a left onto Balcerzak Drive, take a left onto Monks Ave and once out to County Road 90, follow the half marathon course to the finish line.
  • 10K: This was the course Bongers was least descriptive about, though as it stands, he would like it to follow Stadium Road down to Stoltzman, which would then cut down to Riverfront and make its way over to the Verizon center from there.
-Medical staff and aid stations on the course: How many do they plan on having and where are they planning on getting volunteers from? Bongers said marathon organizers planned on contacting Immanuel St. Joseph on the matter and would make volunteer applications available on the marathon's Web site as soon as possible. As far as having medical staff stationed throughout the course, Bongers does not forsee that being an issue, as the Red Jacket and South Bend trails are both fairly wide open and offer a variety of entryways via other roads and trails.

-Getting local businesses involved in sponsorship. At present, Hyvee is only business to sponsor the race. Suggestions were made about having businesses sponsor water stations on the course or advertising their business through having coupons and other perks in runner's gift packages.

-Making the marathon marketable in the face of bigger races like Grandma's Marathon and the Twin Cities Marathon, which is being the held the weekend before the Mankato race. To this, Bongers said that there was basically no convenient weekend to hold the marathon. Other, more established marathons in the midwest are being ran throughout the year, and a schedule conflict was unavoidable (though one runner jokingly suggested that the marathon be ran in December). As far as marketability, Bongers has established a Facebook page for the marathon and hopes to get the word out with local businesses and the race's Web site after it's completed.

-Pricing. Although pricing for the marathon is not final yet, Bongers assured runners that it would be finalized and on the Web site by January, with pricing structures planning to offer early bird discounts to those who register early.

-Goal for number of participants. Bongers said he was shooting for 1,500 total participants in the 3 races, but was hoping to make to course accomodating should that number be larger. Concern was brought up as to whether or not the Red Jacket Trail would be wide enough to fit that many runners, but Bongers said organizers were planning on talking to the city about closing the trail for that morning to cut out any additional traffic on the normally-busy trail.