The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Fitness

Walk of No Shame

It’s just one of those rules. Coaches, runners, and pretty much everyone else involved in the sport have traditionally emphasized that walking isn’t an option there. But new research and training methods indicate that walking may not be a sign of weakness, but a tool for becoming an even stronger runner.

While walking can be frowned upon, incorporating it into your runs and races can prevent the onset of fatigue. Recent studies published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research show that passive-resting activities like walking can reduce heart rates in as few as 25 seconds. Even better, they can lead to better performance in ensuing legs of your run, allowing you to gain more ground than if you’d pounded along the whole time with no breaks.

Jeff Galloway, a former Olympian who now coaches runners, came up with the run-walk-run formula in 1974, when he saw an opportunity to help non-runners benefit from the sport. What began as a way to help newbies complete their first laps around a track morphed into a training program where 98 percent of its runners complete races at faster times and without injuries. Galloway credits walking with promoting the cognitive and physical control needed to make every run successful.

“Run-walk-run methods conserve energy and erase fatigue,” Galloway. “When you insert walk breaks, from the beginning of your run to its end, you never have to be out of commission.” The advice is supported by a study in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, which shows that walking helps runners conserve the energy they need to complete a successful workout.

To know when and for how long to take a break, you need to know what pace you’re shooting for in your workout or race. Galloway says that if your goal is an eight-minute mile, you’ll run for four-minute intervals and walk for thirty-second ones. A nine-minute mile would require running for four minutes and walking for one.

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Deciphering Lyme Disease

Though antibiotics can often clear up symptoms of Lyme disease within a few weeks, some patients experience severe symptoms like nervous system abnormalities, heart rhythm irregularities, and arthritis weeks or even months after infection. At this point, scientists don’t yet completely understand the exact cause of the longer-term symptoms, and they aren’t easy to treat.

But new research out of Johns Hopkins and Stanford University could lay the groundwork to help determine which Lyme disease patients develop post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS), a little-understood and controversial disease.

To investigate, researchers at Hopkins set out to identify the biological “signatures” of particular immune system molecules called mediators; the idea was to determine which parts of the immune response are mobilized in reaction to the disease, particularly in the beginning, when patient symptoms are most acute.

After studying the levels of 65 different molecules, the team’s analysis found two different groups of Lyme disease patients in the early stages of infection: “mediator-high” and “mediator low.” Those in the high-mediator group exhibited more severe symptoms, higher rates of antibody production, and higher liver enzymes before treatment.

They also showed higher levels of three particular mediators, which returned to normal after treatment. Researchers found that patients in the mediator-low group seemed to have been unable to mount a strong immune response to the disease.

The levels of particular mediators and their receptors may be important biomarkers for Lyme disease that could be linked to individual symptoms.

“With this signature in hand we can begin to ask in larger numbers of patients if all or part of this signature stays elevated in some and if these can be related to PTLDS,” says Mark Soloski, senior author of the report and a professor of medicine at Hopkins.

“These biomarkers have the potential to provide insight into disease process but also may be of value in predicting who may develop PTLDS as well as suggest pathways that can be targeted for therapy.”

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Active Cities: Austin

Austin’s location in the Hill Country has turned it into the outdoor sports capital of Texas.

Run

Town Lake: The city’s signature running loop—you could argue that it’s the best run in Texas—parallels the shoreline of downtown’s Town Lake. The route takes you on a shaded and crushed-gravel track on the south side (the north side is mostly paved concrete). Multiple bridge crossings allow runners to plan 5k, 10k, or 10-mile jaunts.

Swim

Barton Springs: This spring-fed, three-acre pool is an Austin institution and a welcome escape from the summer heat. For lap swimmers, head to the lanes on the other side of the Colorado River at Deep Eddy Pool, a bracing freshwater-spring swimming hole that’s also Texas’s oldest pool.

Float

Texas Rowing Center: Toward the west end of Lady Bird Lake, close to downtown, the Texas Rowing Center offers kayaks, SUPs, and canoes to rent. The boats are a great way to explore the tree-shaded shoreline. Experienced rowers can rent a scull and get in a workout on the same water used by the University of Texas crew team.

Explore

Barton Creek Greenbelt: Park at Barton Springs and tackle this seven-mile network of mountain biking and hiking trails. Stick to the main trail for an easy ride through the hills southwest of downtown. You’ll find highly technical trails with big drops just off the main trail. Mellow Johnny’s bike shop can provide details and full-suspension mountain-bike rentals for $50 per day.

Fuel Up

Whole Foods: The grocery chain’s flagship store, just west of downtown, has top-notch service and a dazzling array of food choices (it’s one of the biggest Whole Foods locations in the country). Employees will even deliver to your hotel for free. 

Gear Up

Texas Running Company: Located on the north side of Town Lake, just three blocks from the famed Lake Trail loop on N. Lamar, this massive shrine to all things running dominates the local running scene. Tuesday and Thursday night group runs attract runners of all abilities.  

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Why Babies Are the Next Big Performance-Enhancing Drug

This month, Liza Howard ran the Umstead 100-mile race in North Carolina in just over 15 hours, setting a new course record for women.

She did it just six months after giving birth. And she stopped three times during the race to breast pump.

“It was my best race performance,” Howard said. “I was surprised.”

While most new mothers are simply struggling to keep their eyes open all day, Howard and a select group of athletes come back stronger than ever. Numerous anecdotes exist on recent moms turning in top race performances. Ten months after giving birth, Paula Radcliffe won the 2007 New York City Marathon. Seven months after having her son, Kara Goucher ran a personal best at the 2011 Boston Marathon.

Some mother-athletes say they feel fitter than ever after giving birth. Goucher said her legs felt stronger post-pregnancy because she’d become accustomed to running with extra weight. She also found her breathing was more controlled, and wonders if that could be a result of increased blood volume during pregnancy.f

“I just felt really good aerobically,” Goucher said.

Howard speculates that the forced distance running break she took during pregnancy actually helped her post-partum. Due to her training and racing volume, she often feels small twinges or muscle aches in normal years, but this time around she felt rested.

“I was not over-trained,” Howard said.

But despite anecdotal evidence from women such as Howard and Goucher, no real research has been conducted that can point to any physical advantages for female athletes after pregnancy. James Pivarnik, a professor of kinesiology at Michigan State University, has studied the exercise responses of women during pregnancy.

“You won’t find any studies because there aren’t any,” Pivarnik said. “Only a lot of very amazing anecdotes.”

For those select women who do set athletic records quickly after giving birth, Pivarnik can only speculate about whether pregnancy could have provided some physical edge. He’s studied blood volume before and after pregnancy and doesn’t believe the increase would last long enough after giving birth to give female athletes much of an edge. But the extra strain of carrying a baby during pregnancy might lead to strength gains after birth.  

“There’s also the feeling of ‘If I can deliver a baby, I can do anything,’ or other psychological reasons,” Pivarnik said.

And while Goucher, Radcliffe, Howard, and other elites make headlines with post-partum race performances, Pivarnik said that they are decidedly rare. Far more women struggle to bounce back athletically, Pivarnik said, but those individuals don’t make the news.

For Howard, her recent success at Umstead 100 came as a total surprise. She thought she’d aim for a time of around 18 to 20 hours, but ended up finishing in 15 hours and seven minutes. Howard’s 100-mile triumph comes after a moderately active pregnancy. She kept running short distances up until she was six months pregnant, and then switched to hiking on a treadmill due to lower back pain.

After the October birth, however, Howard didn’t waste any time strapping her running shoes back on. Her doctor instructed her to do absolutely no power walking for four weeks. So instead, Howard joined a 100-mile relay race and jogged her 25-mile leg. Her husband met her with the baby at the halfway point so she could stop and nurse.

“It was a slow jog, but it was jogging,” Howard said. “I felt no pressure or expectations. It was awesome.”

By January, Howard felt ready to race the Bandera 100K. She was so tired from being up all night with her baby, she took a 15 minute nap mid-race at an aid station. Even with the snooze break, Howard claimed second place for women.

During Umstead, Howard stopped and used her breast pump for 10 minutes three separate times during the race. Though the breaks could be seen as a disadvantage, Howard figures it wasn’t a bad thing for a run that long, as it forced her to stop running and sit down for a bit. 

Howard isn’t sure if the benefits of pregnancy outweigh the challenges of giving birth and coming back to athletic form. She’s still heavier than she was before the baby, and she often struggles with getting enough sleep.

But she feels more durable now than she did before giving birth. In addition, since she’s usually caring for a baby and her six-year-old, racing seems more like a break than it ever did before.

“When you have little kids, alone time is precious,” Howard said. “The fact that my race was pleasurable and enjoyable made such a difference.”

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Why a Downhill Runner Will Always Win Boston

As accomplished and legendary a U.S. marathoner as has ever competed, Frank Shorter (Olympic marathon gold medalist in 1972) never won Boston. In fact, he never even cracked the top three. On the other hand, the equally legendary Bill Rodgers won the Boston and New York City marathons four times but finished a disappointing 40th in the 1976 Montreal Olympic marathon. And since 2002, either a Kenyan or Ethiopian has won Boston—with Kenyan Geoffrey Mutai setting the course record of 2:03:02 in 2011. 

Some people make the grade in Boston—literally; others don’t.

“Bill Rodgers was made to run Boston because he’s a downhill runner,” says Shorter, 66. “And what Mutai has shown is that he, biomechanically, moves in a way that allows him to run downhill really well.”

Biomechanically, downhilling involves greater ground reaction forces and therefore induces more stress on the tissues of the leg; it also requires less metabolic energy. Meaning, “the energy required to support any speed is substantially reduced when running downhill,” says Peter Weyand, associate professor at Southern Methodist University’s Department of Applied Physiology and Wellness. Basically, figuring out a downhill pace that feels best for you is the best way to avoid wear and tear, and hence, fatigue.

Physiologically, the bigger you are, the harder you hit the ground. “Since the force at any running speed and incline is set by the body’s weight, gaining or losing weight will increase or decrease the forces on the ground and therefore also experienced by the tissues of the feet, joints and legs,” explains Weyand. “So, if all other factors are equal, being lighter would tend to lessen the pounding a runner sustains at any downhill running speed.”

One of the Boston’s biggest challenges is that its downhill sections come late in the race (the net drop from its start in Hopkinton to the finish is 400 feet), when the legs are more susceptible to stress-induced damage from all the prior miles. Weyand therefore hypothesizes that “the better downhill runners are more willing or able to absorb the pounding—or both.”

More willing and able because they train that way. “My training is very up and down all the time,” says Mutai, who feels it helps to have strong upper legs but whose training probably isn’t all that different from his Kenyan and Ethiopian peers. “So running on hills is normal for me.”

As it was for Rodgers, whose high school coach told him to lean forward and use his momentum when going downhill. “It’s also a time many runners assume is a recovery period—after an uphill—so strategically it can be a decisive move many runners do not want to follow,” says Rodgers, 66, who has always viewed racing as psychological as much as physical. “Breaking way is the name of the game if you’re competing, and in road racing, hills play a crucial role.”

Still, it’s not all psychological. As Weyand says, “The physics cannot be fooled—the ground forces involved are set by a runner’s body weight and speed. The faster one runs, the great the ground forces. The steeper the downhill, the greater the forces are at any speed.” 

Which is why Boston is so physically taxing. “Boston left my legs more sore than any other marathon course,” says Rodgers, who doesn’t see any particular body type as being better suited to hills than any other.

“There are so many grades and hills, but I saw them as key opportunities,” says Mutai, who won’t be running Boston this year. “Think of them in a positive light. As a chance to shift gears, and a time to run away from your competition.” 

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