Last week, I finally fulfilled my religious obligation as an endurance athlete by making my first pilgrimage to Boulder. I ran past the Frank Shorter statue, relived scenes from Running with the Buffaloes, and hung out with more than 200 other acolytes at TrainingPeaks’s annual Endurance Coaching Summit. There were plenty of great talks and interesting conversations; here are some of the highlights that stuck with me.
Remember that Women Coach, Too
I noticed something different about this conference on the very first morning, when I showed up for the pre-dawn group run. In my pace group—the faster of the two—there were about a dozen women and just one other man, which is pretty much the exact opposite of what you often see at these gatherings. One of the conference themes (and the title of a panel on the first day) was “women and the future of endurance sports,” and it was really encouraging to see the response.
Among the speakers on the panel, as it happens, was Outside editor Gloria Liu, a Boulder-based mountain bike racer and former Bicycling editor. She made an interesting point about how women are usually represented in media coverage of endurance sports: they’re either invincible pro athletes, or brave beginners overcoming some deficit—conquering fear, losing weight, etc. In reality, Liu pointed out, “most of us are neither beginners nor pros.” That’s worth remembering for coaches as well as journalists.
Track Your Period
On a similar note, physiologist Stacy Sims gave a talk on the unique challenges that make training and competing in endurance sports different for women than men. One key point: the “typical” menstrual cycle of 28 days turns out to be relatively rare. In the real world, cycles of up to 40 days are very common, and the resulting fluctuations in hormones can affect pretty much all body systems, including metabolism, thermoregulation, and muscle growth. The very first step, she suggests, is tracking your period so you at least know where you are in your cycle at any given point. She recommended an app called FitrWoman—which is the one used by the U.S. women’s soccer team.
Follow the Recovery Rules
Science journalist Christie Aschwanden literally wrote the book on the science of athletic recovery (it’s called Good to Go, and Outside reviewed it earlier this year). There’s an inherent tension in that topic, as she noted in her talk: “Studies produce results, but athletes want answers.” It’s not that science isn’t reliable, she added; but it’s not a magic wand that turns everything it touches into truth. It’s a process.
Of course, we still want simple takeaways, so Aschwanden summarized her three rules for recovery: sleep, manage stress, and develop a daily relaxation ritual. And then she added two more bonus rules: take rest days, and learn to read your body. It’s hard to argue with any of these rules, but the tricky part is actually sticking with them. If you don’t, don’t expect cryosaunas and CBD oil to make up for it.
Think Before You Drink
The title of hydration expert Andy Blow’s talk was “Drink to Thirst or Drink to a Plan?,” and his first question to the audience was: “What’s wrong with this title?” The answer, of course, was that the debate was framed as a binary choice, much like other rancorous sports science debates (carbs or fat? talent or training? barefoot or cushioned?).
Given that Blow is the founder of a company called Precision Hydration, I’ll admit I was expecting an argument in favor of drinking to a plan. Instead he argued for a continuum of approaches depending on the context (duration, temperature, intensity, availability of drinks) and the individual (experience, sweat rate, sodium loss, history). That’s very similar to the approach advocated by Australian Institute of Sport sports nutrition expert Louise Burke, who adds some further factors like body size, genetic predisposition to fluid intake, and ability to follow instructions. And to be honest, it’s pretty much where I come down too. If someone tells you they have all the answers to your hydration needs, and those answers don’t depend on the context or your individual characteristics, be skeptical.
Measure Your Drafting Power
Last year, I wrote a long piece trying to sort out what “running power” actually means and why it might or might not be useful to measure. My conclusion was basically that the quantity measured by running power meters doesn’t really correspond to what physicists and engineers would call power. Instead, it’s a measure of how quickly you’re burning energy that (unlike more obvious metrics like pace) remains accurate when you’re going up and down hills. One important exception, though: the shoe-mounted foot pods used by companies like Stryd couldn’t incorporate the often-substantial impact of wind.
In Boulder, I had a chance to chat with Stryd co-founder Kun Li and his colleague Evan Schwartz. They showed me their new model, which incorporates a proprietary sensor (they were a little cagey about its details) that measures wind in real time with every stride. That means that if you’ve determined you can maintain, say, 300 watts for a 10K, you won’t go too fast into a headwind (or, conversely, too slow in a tailwind).
That’s neat, but the detail that really caught my attention is that they can also pick up the effects of drafting, even on a calm day. Schwartz told me he had gone to the track with a friend and run some laps either tucked behind the friend or moving out into lane 2, and he could clearly see a difference of 1 to 2 percent in his power data at the points where he moved in or out. Ever since the Breaking2 race made drafting one of its key focuses, there’s been lots of debate about how much air resistance really matters in the real world. If Stryd can now detect these subtle differences, that seems like a potentially useful opportunity to test different drafting positions and configurations at different speeds to find out what (if anything) really matters to average runners.
My new book, Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell, is now available. For more, join me on Twitter and Facebook, and sign up for the Sweat Science email newsletter.