Thursday, April 24, 2014

Conquering the Hills

"Like the marathon, life can sometimes be difficult, challenging, and present obstacles, however if you believe in your dreams and never ever give up, things will turn out for the best."
-Meb Keflezighi
Olympic Silver Medalist (2004), NYC Marathon Champion (2009), Boston Marathon Champion (2014)

Monday afternoon I watched Meb Keflezighi run the final 2.5 miles of the Boston Marathon.  On a day that was emotional for so many it was like a story book ending for an American to win the marathon for the first time in over 3 decades.  Emotions aside, watching the way Meb powered through those final miles with two runners narrowly behind him was inspiring, and made me want to be out there racing again.

This time last year I was studying for my last biochem quiz of the year (thank goodness!) and nervously anticipating my first half marathon.  Since I was in the middle of a busy semester and still new to distance running I was incredibly nervous I hadn't trained properly.  

I use the Nike+ app to track my distance and paces when I run.  The first screen shot I took a year ago today, and the bottom one I took this morning.   Clearly I've upped my training frequency and mileage.  Even though my average pace hasn't gone down much I've gotten a lot faster on my shorter runs.  Despite my sparse training in my first half marathon attempt there was one aspect of the Nashville I was ready for even though I hadn't thought about it much- the hills.

Since I began running outdoors in Miami, when I moved to the Northeast I had no idea how to approach running uphill.  For the first several months I used to walk everytime I got to a hill, which didn't help me get better at all.  It wasn't until I started training in Central Park that I was forced to learn to run the hills- partly because there are so many of them and partly because I was training with Nike Run Club and they made us do hill workouts.  As much as hill workouts suck they have tremendous benefits, especially when you are combining them with strength training.  

In honor of my two cousins that will be running this years Nashville Half Marathon--Go Kendall and Kinsley!!-- I thought today would be the perfect day to talk about tips for running hills and incorporating hills into your training.  These are all things that people have suggested to me over the years and I've found to helpful, but you have to find what works best for you. 

Tips for Running Hills
  • Treat hills like speed work- pace yourself as you start the climb and then once you get a little over half way up the hill steadily start to increase your speed
  • Use short strides- this helps reduce the effort you're exerting so that you're able to make it to the top of the hill
  • Focus on your breath- your heart rate starts to increase quickly when you're running uphill and you tend to start going anaerobic; focusing on your breath will make sure you're getting the oxygen you need
  • Focus on your form- a lot of people have a tendency to look down at their feet while they're running uphill which reduces the amount of oxygen you're getting and forces the hamstrings to work harder instead of utilizing the entire core.  Maintain your tall posture and eyes forward.
  • Mentally break it up- try not to let the size of the hill daunt you; instead look for signs or landmarks throughout the hill and focus on getting to those points and then the next one, sometimes I count backwards from 60 over and over to distract myself.
Tips for Preparing for Hills while Training:
  • Hill Repeats: Pick a hill that is a decent size and set a time for yourself (10, 20, 30... minutes); practice running up the hill as fast as you can and then run back to your starting position at a recovery pace--count how many times you're able to run in the hill in your designated time.  Strawberry fields in Central Park has a great hill for this, New Yorkers.
  • Practice makes perfect: ideally you should include some hilly terrain in your runs at least 3 times a week; if you're training for a particularly hilly course try to mimic the course terrain at least once a week
  • Get creative: if you live in a particularly flat area (like Miami...) find ways to incorporate climbs into your training like running stadium steps or overpasses.  If all else fails incorporate a treadmill hill workout into your routine once a week.
  • Focus on power and core: Don't forget your strength training- the more power you have in your quads, hamstrings, and glutes the better you'll be able to power yourself up those hills.  Incorporate lunges, squats, box jumps, and planks into your strength workouts.
My favorite sign from Nashville

Good luck to Kendall and Kinsley!!!  Here's hoping your race is more of a run than a swim this year!


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

One Year Later: Boston Strong

Therefore, since we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.  And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us
-Hebrews 12:1


Like many, I won't forget where I was on Marathon Monday 2013.  April 15th, 2013 I was sitting in Clinical Nutrition.  I started receiving texts from friends asking if the marathon I was training for was today and if I was OK.  Confused, I finally opened my computer and started reading about the bombing of the Boston Marathon.  4 hours 9 minutes and 34 seconds after the first runner crossed the starting line at the Boston Marathon, a bomb exploded near the finish line followed shortly by a second.

Marathon Monday is held the third Monday every April, Patriots' Day.  The Boston Marathon is the world's oldest annual marathon, and has been run every year since 1897.  Due to the high standards for qualifying, running the Boston Marathon is a lofty aspiration for even serious marathoners.  This year, males 18-34 years old needed to run a 3:05 marathon (5:46/mile), and females 18-34 years old needed to run a 3:35 marathon (6:43/mile) in order to qualify.  

I quickly responded to texts, telling my friends I wasn't in Boston, my race wasn't for a couple more weeks.  I thought about how hard everyone had worked to get to Boston, the miles of training.  Many runners have to run several marathons before they reach a qualifying time.  There are several runners who run the race for charity, raising thousands of dollars to support those in need.  I thought about how excited all of the runners had been, each of them with their own story and running for their own reasons.  

A day that celebrates triumph had been reduced to tragedy.  However, amidst the heartbreaking images of destruction were images of strength and kindness.  We watched a 76 year old man who was knocked to the ground by the blows pulled himself up.  Strangers ran towards the bombs to help move victims to safety.  People began bringing clothes, food, and water from their homes out to the runners who were forced to stop before they reached the finish line.  One man brought out the drawers from his dresser, offering whatever he could.  Runners gave their hard earned medals to the families of other runners.  Citizens of Boston opened up there homes and offered rides to people in need.    

I've been fortunate that my training has served me well during both my half marathons.  I've never hit "the wall" or been in pain during either of my runs.  The worst part for me is always right after.  Once I cross the finish line, the adrenaline goes away, I stop moving, and my body temperature drops quickly- if you know me, you know how often I am cold.  I couldn't imagine what it must have felt like to be within a mile of the finish line, cold, scared, and confused.  A small act of kindness- offering a sweatshirt or some orange juice- but on that day they were heroes to the runners in need.     

Boston has forever changed how a race.  I still get nervous about how I will perform, and I still want to get faster.  However, on race day I run without a watch and I rarely pay attention to the clocks.  I put in my work and focus on pace while I'm training.  But when it comes to race day I am overcome with an amazing sense of gratitude, and I use each mile to soak it all up.  I am even more grateful for my ability to run after seeing what so many have gone through- relearning how to walk, coping with pain, and dealing with the drastic changes in their own lives.  

I am eternally grateful for the spectators and volunteers.  Many of the victims that were injured severely were not running the race, rather they were there to support runners whether they were loved ones or strangers.  Spectators make the marathon experience.  They are there no matter what the conditions- rain, wind, snow, you name it.  As I ran my first half marathon I couldn't help think of the 8 year old boy  that died Marathon Monday, and his sister, who lost her leg.  In Nashville, there were children all along the course- holding signs boasting how amazing their parents were for running, singing cheers, and high-fiving runners- despite the pouring rain.  I take note of all the volunteers from baggage check to water stations to medal distribution, and thank everyone I make contact with.     

In the spirit of Boston I encourage everyone to take the time to be grateful for what they are capable of doing.  Next time your alarm goes off, instead of being unhappy about getting up for an early workout count it as a blessing.  Also in the spirit of Boston, don't forget how far a small act of kindness goes.  On Marathon Monday we learned love and kindness are stronger than hate and violence.  A smile to a stranger, offering your seat to someone on the subway, holding the door- these are the simplest ways to pay to tribute to those we lost, because even if you're not running 26.2 miles, we could all use a little encouragement.

Good luck to those running the Boston Marathon on Monday- you are all rockstars!!


Sunday, April 13, 2014

Motivation Monday: Defining Your Workouts with Intensity

"If it doesn't challenge you, it won't change you."

Exciting news!  This weekend I became a certified spin instructor!  I attended an 8 hour class where we learned all about how to properly fit someone on a bike, the science behind cycling, the physiology and mechanics behind cycling, proper riding technique, class design, and how to coach throughout a ride.  In typical nerd fashion, I enjoyed every minute of it even though it was a ton of information packed into a relatively short amount of time.  

If you've ever taken a spin class before you know one of the major challenges is figuring out if you're at the right intensity.  Exercise intensity refers to how much energy you are using.  Obviously, the benefit of exercising at higher intensities is you burn more calories.  In spin you increase the intensity of your workout by either pedaling faster or increasing the resistance on the bike.  The job of the instructor is to describe to you the pedal speed, the intensity you should be working at, and how that feels so you know how to adjust the resistance in order to meet that intensity level.    

Intensity is something everyone should be thinking about during their workout and when establishing workout goals.  Just like in cycling you can change the intensity of your workout by increasing your speed, increasing the weights, changing the incline, etc.  You can use several different methods to define intensity, but one of the easiest ways is to think of it is on a scale of four different levels.
  • Easy: light; warmup and recovery (you can easily talk)- about 5-6/10 
  • Moderate: Challenging, but comfortable; training pace (you can talk but may have to pause between words to catch your breath)- ~7-8/10
  • Hard: Challenging, uncomfortable; racing pace (difficulty speaking, nearing breathless)- ~9/10
  • Anaerobic: Not max, but breathless
Hint- if you're smiling like this you're probably not at a hard/anaerobic intensity
Continuously evaluating your effort throughout your workouts is something that is challenging to remember when you're not in a group fitness class or if your instructor is not cueing you correctly.  However, simply stopping to ask yourself- how hard am I working?  Could I be working harder right now?- will allow you to reap a much greater benefit from your workout.  Before you begin your workout take a moment to think about what intensity you will be working at.  Establish a baseline by thinking about how you feel during your warmup.  Keep in mind higher intensities are harder to work at for an extended time.  Ideally your workout will involve working at all intensities for some period of time.  You can decide how hard you want your workout to be that day and how long you want to stay at those high intensities.

The fun part about monitoring your intensity during your workouts is, as you continue to train, you will notice that your ability to work at different intensities will improve.  The speed you struggled to hold for 1 minute intervals will become the speed you run at during your recovery intervals.

Finally, here are some of my favorite fitness mantra/motivational quotes.  Try saying them to yourself when you're working at those higher intensities to help pull yourself through.  Happy Monday!

I Refuse to Lose.

Strive for progress, not perfection.

You are never too old to set another goal or dream a new dream.

Be better than you were yesterday.

Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.

It never gets easier, just better.

It's hard to beat a person that never gives up. (Babe Ruth)

Strong.  Focused.  Determined.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Power of Pull-Ups + A Strength Workout

"Transformation is not a future event, it is a present day activity."
-Jillian Michaels

In 2012 New York Times released an article called Why Women Can't Do Pull-Ups.  The article detailed a study of 17 women who could not do pull-ups.  They were put on a strength training program designed to increase strength especially in the muscles involved in the pull-up as well an aerobic training program to decrease body fat.  At the end of the training program, despite considerable increases in strength and decreases in body fat, only 4 of the 17 women could do pull-ups.   The researchers credited the ability of men to put on more muscle and lose more fat in order to explain the discrepancy in ability, and concluded that women should not be expected to do pull-ups.

Many women were outraged at the article and quickly began posting images of themselves doing pull-ups.  Ever since then it has been one of my goals to be able to do a complete set of 12-15 pull-ups.  Apart from looking like a badass in the gym, the pull-up is a fundamental exercise and has several benefits including:
  • Looking like a total badass in the gym
  • Convenience (no equipment minus a bar)
  • Targets several muscle groups at once- leading to an increased release of growth hormone and increased muscle gains
  • Easy to increase intensity
  • Several variations
  • Increase your heart rate- i.e. increased fat loss
  • Looking like a total badass in the gym
Muscles Worked During the Pull-Up
Major Muscles Worked: Back
  • Latissimus dorsi
  • Teres major
  • Rhomboid major
  • Rhomboid minor
Minor Muscles Worked: Forearms and Biceps
  • Brachioradialis 
  • Biceps bracii
  • Brachialis
Progressions to Pull-Ups

Since pull-ups are a difficult exercise it is important to incorporate exercises that strengthen the muscles mentioned above before attempting your pull-up goal.  Below are series of exercises you can use to progress to pull-ups as well as a sample total body workout incorporating pull-up progressions.
  • Assisted Pull-Ups: These can be done either with a partner to support your ankles or using an assisted pull-up machine at the gym.  The assisted pull-up machine uses weight to support your body as you pull yourself up.  Therefore, the more weight you have selected, the more  help you are getting thus the easier it is.  
  • Dead hang: For this all you do is grab the bar with your arms extended and hang.  This will help build grip strength and core body tension.
  • Flexed arm hang: Similar to the dead hang, but this time you are holding yourself at the top with your chin over the bar.  Once you can hold this position for 10+ seconds you are ready to move on to negative pull-ups.
  • Negative pull-ups: Starting from the flexed arm hang position, practice lowering yourself down slowly to the dead hang position.  This is the easiest part of the pull-up, but will help you to build the strength needed for the pull-up.
  • Body row: Using a bar that is suspended around hip height (smith machine is great for this) practice squeezing your shoulder blades together and pulling your chest up to the bar.  This uses the same muscles as the pull-up, but reduces the load on your muscles since you are not lifting all of your body weight.

Total Body Workout:
This is a workout I've been doing more recently.  After each exercise I do 3 assisted pull-ups (using 40 lbs of assistance) so by the end of the workout I've done over 70 assisted pull-ups.  You can modify the workout by increasing/decreasing the reps or the weight in order to make it fit your abilities.

1.) 15 Squats (loaded- 35 Ibs Kettlebell)
2.) 16 Walking Lunges (loaded- 10 lbs. medicine ball)
3.) 15 Tricep Pull-downs (35 lbs)
4.) 15 (Each Arm) Alternating Shoulder Presses (20 lbs)
5.) 12 Push-Ups (Bodyweight)
6.) 12 (Each Arm) Dumbbell Rows w/Bench (25 lbs)

Repeat circuit 4 times- don't forget to do the assisted pull-ups between each exercise.  I usually do sprints between each set. 

Good luck with your pull-ups!


Friday, April 4, 2014

10 Life Lessons from "Tuesdays with Morrie"

"The truth is, once you learn how to die, you learn how to live."
-Morrie Schwartz

I've been nursing a slight injury ever since the half so I've cut back some on my workouts, which hasn't left me feeling very inspired to blog lately.  It has, however, given me some extra to do some reading- plus I just renewed my NYC public library card (which left me feeling slightly dumbfounded I've been up here that long--where has the time gone??--and made me remember how awesome the NYC public library is--if you live in NYC and don't have a library card you're messing up).

Anyways, I recently read the book Tuesdays with Morrie.  I'll admit it wasn't the best book I've ever read, but it was a quick read and had several good lessons.  The book is written by a man who discovers his favorite professor has been diagnosed with ALS- amyotrophic lateral sclerosis also known as Lou Gehrig's disease- a motor neuron disease where the body slowly loses all motor function until the individual is paralyzed within their own body.  It is a devastating disease ultimately leading to a slow and painful death.  Tuesdays with Morrie details the life advice Morrie wants to pass on as he reflects on the life he lived knowing he is going to die soon and unable to do many of the things he enjoyed most leading up to his death, like dancing.  

Here are 10 of my favorite quotes and life lessons from Tuesdays with Morrie.  
  1. "Devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning." This theme reoccurs throughout the novel.  Morrie, who worked as a professor after spending years researching mental health, lives a simple life and devotes himself to others.  While he was researching mental health he devoted himself to his patients, and he was able to connect with patients that had previously not been able to connect with anyone.  He continues this as a professor, and many of his previous students loved him so much they visited him often long after they graduated.  It is clear this sense of connection to others is one of the reasons he is able to accept his unfortunate condition so readily.  Despite the fact he is in pain, he is surrounded at all times by people that love him, and this continues to make him happy until his final moments.  According to Morrie, offering something you have--a skill, your time, your love, your compassion--is the way in which you gain the respect of others.  
  2. "I believe in being fully present.  That means you should be with the person you're with.  When I'm talking to you now, Mitch, I try to keep focused only on what is going on between us.  I am not thinking about something we said last week.  I am not thinking about what's coming up this Friday.  I am not thinking about doing another Koppel show, or about what medications I'm taking.  I am talking to you.  I am thinking about you.  Be present.  In our current age of technology this one especially stuck with me.  It is rare to have a conversation with someone without them stopping to check their phone or update their Facebook status.  However, our connectedness via technology has taken away from our ability to connect on a more personal level.  The same is true for when you are working on a project or goal.  Be present with your task and devote all your energy to that task while you are working.
  3.            *I am guilty of all these things, and trying to get better.
  4. "You have to find what's good and true and beautiful in your life as it is now.  Looking back makes you competitive.  And, age is not a competitive issue."  This was Morrie's response when the author asked him about the fear of growing older.  He talked about how he was made up of parts of himself from every age.  So whatever age he was, he still had the best parts of his previous years with him, and therefore every age was his best age.  I loved this response, especially coming from a man in Morrie's current condition.
  5. "Learn to detach.  Detachment doesn't mean you doon't let the experience penetrate you.  On the contrary, you let it penetrate you fully.  That's how you are able to leave it."  Essentially Morrie is suggesting that you have to let yourself fully experience your emotions so that you are able to detach yourself and move on from them, whether it be the loss of a loved one or the fear and pain one suffers during an illness.  "By allowing yourself to dive in, all the way, over your head even, you experience them fully and completely.  You know what the pain is.   You know what love is.  You know what grief is.  And only then can you say 'All right.  I have experienced that emotion.  I recognize that emotion.  Now I need to detach from that emotion for a moment.'"  If you need to cry, allow yourself to cry, so you can then move on to either fixing or learning to live with your current situation.  Do not waste your time wallowing in self pity. 
  6. "When you're in bed, you're dead."  Essentially this means embrace life every day, which is kind of cliche, but I loved the way Morrie expressed it.  There are several days when the alarm clock goes off and you want to hit the snooze button rather than get up and face the day--whether it be an early workout or prepping for that big meeting--but instead of dreading it, get up, embrace the day, and be happy.
  7.  "If you're trying to show off for people at the top, forget it.  They will look down on you anyhow.  And if you're trying to show off for people at the bottom, forget it.  They will only envy you.  Status will get you nowhere.  Only an open heart will allow you to float equally between everyone."  This is essentially an expansion of the first point, devoting yourself to others and offering what you can.  When you find that thing that you can give to the world, it will not only make you happy, but it is something no one can take away from you.  Trying to establish yourself with status will only isolate you from others, and all things can be taken away.
  8. "The fact is, there is no foundation, no secure ground, upon which people may stand today if it isn't the family.  It's become quite clear to me as I've been sick.  If you don't have the support and love and caring and concern that you get from a family, you don't have much at all.  Love is so supremely important.  As our great poet Auden said, 'love each other or perish.'"  Although Morrie has no shortage of visitors, it is his family that is there consistently.  They are the ones that are there at night when the nurses and visitors go home, and they are the ones that surround him in his final moments.  They are also the ones that have given his life the most meaning.  Morrie calls it his 'spiritual security,' the ability to know that someone will always be watching him. 
  9. "There are a few rules I know to be true about love and marriage: if you don't respect the other person you're gonna have a lot of trouble.  If you don't know how to compromise, you're gonna have a lot of trouble.  And if you don't have a common set of values in life, you're gonna have a lot of trouble.  Your values must be alike."  Morrie clearly believes love conquers all, and for good reason.  His wife sticks by his side throughout his illness, and in the end she has their children to comfort her when Morrie passes.  It is also clear Morrie was careful in his selection of his wife, and they were able to build a happy home together while establishing their own careers and leave their own individual mark on the world.  
  10. "Death ends a life, not a relationship."  Death is a natural part of life that we spend the majority of our life denying or trying to outrun.  What separates humans from other living things is our ability to establish relationships with one another.  "As long as we can love each other, and remember the feeling of love we had, we can die without ever really going away.  All the love you created is still there.  All the memories are still there.  You live on-in the hearts of everyone you have touched and nurtured while you were here."  This again expands on Morrie's point from quote #1, when you devote yourself to others you give your life meaning that even death cannot take away.  While you can't take your worldly possessions with you, these relationships can allow you to live on.  In the same way, when grieving a loved one you can gain some peace by remembering a piece of them lives on inside of you.    
  11. "Learn how to die, and you learn how to live." Do not fear death.  Embrace that one day life is going to end so you can fully embrace the wisdom of Morrie and be able to fully appreciate the beauty in the people and nature surrounding you.