So it begins.
I finally got the greenlight to take the Aircast off and see how the foot responds to unsupported walking and a moderate dose of running. The second metatarsal on my right foot has been broken since March 6th and I have been in the cast almost as long. That's roughly five months of not running and being largely immobilized from the knee down on my right side.
The break was a good one, and when I say good one, I mean a terrible one. On the list of bone breaks you don't want, it ranks as number three, which is good enough for a podium finish! Compound and spiral fractures are your worst examples, but a comminuted break with displacement is a solid attempt at a worst case scenario. I am nothing if not a hard tryer.
This past week's x-rays show a healing bone with a decent sized callous formed around the original fracture. It's what the doctors called a "delayed union" when the weeks were ticking away and has been the bane of my goddamn existence this season.
Then this happened:
I went out for a run after my last doctor appointment and decided to see where I was, and it turns out I'm not as bad off as I could have been or probably should have been with the layoff and the injury I had. A sub 5-km pace is not something I am going to complain much about after losing almost half a year of training.
It's not the race ready pace I needed this year to find a top five or even a podium finish in my races, but it keeps me in the mix for my age group and is a minor miracle that I am just going to be grateful for at this point. Then I got this text from a friend:
"Your athletic prowess makes me want to quit running. Clearly I'm a shitty runner or whatever I'm doing is totally wrong. "
Which is not something you necessarily want to hear from a friend, but at the same time helps make you feel better about your lot in life as you work the details out for what is going to have to be an epic comeback if there ever was one. Because this journey that is supposed to come to a close in August? It started in December of 2014. Imagine how disappointing it would have been to lose 75 pounds of body weight, regain my running fitness, and improve my cycling abilities only to have it all end six months out from the race I had spent three years trying to get into. Just an epic fail if there ever was one.
But now? I might just make it to the starting line and, if all goes well, the finish line, too. There are certainly no guarantees in life, but still--here I stand at the precipice of a comeback. That, in and of itself, will be a satisfactory conclusion to this multi year plan, closing off the duathlon chapter of my athletic career in what can only be described as the best possible outcome given the challenges along the way.
So. Many. Challenges.
Regardless, I'm close. Which brings us back to my friend's message after he saw my Strava feed. It was never my goal to make anyone feel bad about their abilities, but he had fair and reasonable questions about how I was able to hold some speed after all the setbacks. The only thing I could tell him was "cross training" and lots of it.
I don't keep secrets about my training or diet or supplements or anything; it's all out there for the asking if you really want to know. But does that adequately explain how I did it? Not really, no. I can tell you right now that it really was a matter of a few key things:
1. Cross training.
2. Higher intensities than what I would have normally done in running workouts.
3. A mission.
If you choose to read the linked essays in that top three, there might be some contradictory information, but not much. For the most part? That's how I train around injuries and achieve goals years into the future; I would go as far as to say that it's the only reason I have lasted this long.
I don't consider myself a particularly gifted athlete in any sport, to be honest, but I do know how to problem solve better than almost any person I know. Yes, that sounds arrogant but ask anyone who has ever brought a problem to me and he or she will tell you that I know how to find solutions. It's probably the only reason people keep me around, now that I think about it.
Sports are complex problems. Injuries like broken bones are simple ones. When you realize that best practices can often be applied across several domains, it makes desired outcomes much more achievable. In my case, I needed to maintain my fitness enough that I could still race in August after breaking my foot in March; the complicating factor being time and specificity. Cross training, intensity, and a mission would be the best practices to achieving what I wanted in the first place. Guess what?
They still are.
I am four months into my broken metatarsal and my next set of x-rays is this Wednesday.
To be honest, the foot still feels broken. To be more honest, I haven't exactly given it much of a chance to recover. I own that. I suppose I could have used my broken foot as an excuse to take some time off. I suppose it might have even healed faster or at least be further along if I did.
Then again, it hasn't exactly been a dull four months. Powerlifting training and competitions, learning inline skating, cycling, boxing clinics, self-defense seminars, and a steady series of amazing books have all kept me fit in body and mind despite the lack of running.
When you are facing challenges in your life, it helps to remember that the end of one thing does not mean the end of all things. I can't run, no, and I miss it immensely. Yet I'm grateful for what that has given me.
The term "injury prevention" is misleading at best and idiotic at worst, and I'm guilty of using it. No more. I've realized that injuries are inevitable and, when you describe an intervention as preventative, you're setting yourself and the intervention up for failure.
If you are doing anything even approaching your genetic limits, injuries are not only likely but should be factored into your programming. There should be a series of plans that accommodate continued success in the macro despite setbacks in the micro.
Take something like resistance training for endurance athletes. Often hailed as excellent for injury prevention, with runners being the most injured subset of athlete in the world, you can find article after article on the topic of adding weights to a running program to bulletproof the runner. On a per hour basis in comparison of injury rates in other sports, it is not even close, so runners glom into the idea of prevention in hopes of not curtailing their respective training or competition season.
So we prescribe weightlifting to help prevent injuries, which is not exactly what we are doing; we are actually trying to make the runner more durable through strengthening, which is different. It does not prevent anything. We are just hoping we can make a robust enough organism that it can stave off potential injury long enough to complete a given task.
Guess what? It does not change a thing. Runners still get injured, even following a well designed resistance training program in conjunction with their running program.
We are, at best, mitigating injuries that have not happened yet. See, the advantage to being strong is that you can take a little more abuse than weaker athletes, but you are also more useful even after you do get injured. Strength produces stability and after an injury occurs, there is still enough stability left to have utility. In the words of powerlifter Mark Bell, "Strength is never a weakness." This statement is even truer when you are injured but still have the strength around the damaged area to function normally, or relatively so given your impediment.
Further to the point of using strength to create durability, remember this: weakness is just an injury that has not happened yet.
Even if we accept that there is no true thing as "injury prevention," we still acknowledge that weakness in any form does not a successful athlete make. Correct weakness, reduce injury risk; improve strength, increase durability. Starting to see a pattern here?
But don't fall into the mental trap of thinking it is prevention–there is no such thing. Prevention is a silly concept that will leave you living in a bubble or doing nothing at all for fear of getting hurt. Injury mitigation is the goal.
For instance, here is a video of me squatting. It's a single set of five repetitions with 185 pounds, which is 20 pounds over my body weight for those of you keeping score at home. I'm walking around on a broken second metatarsal in my right foot in this clip and, as you will no doubt notice, I'm without my Aircast. It's not needed in this moment because I have enough general strength in and around my foot to create enough stability to squat.
I concede that the weight I'm using and the rate of speed in which I'm lifting it is not all that impressive. That being said, I am still lifting despite a completely fractured bone in my foot. Even if I'm struggling a little to get it done, I am getting it done. This is the value of strength training.
Just because I can't run does not mean I can't train my running muscles. My previous baseline of strength is allowing me to continue with productive training; where durability failed me, stability has taken over. Even if you can't really prevent injuries, you keep strength training so you can keep training. My goal with resistance training is to make sure no injury ever completely stops me from training in some capacity; it may be inevitable that I'll get injured, but I don't have to come to a complete stop when it happens because of the strength I have built.
I can be inevitable, too.
This is a little late, but here it is. Some of you might have seen the live workout video I did on Facebook, substituting a speed bag session for a run session. If you haven't and want to, it was posted April 21st, 2017–you don't need to see it to understand what follows, but it's there if you're interested.
What it basically came down to was giving my lower body a bit of a rest, especially with my currently broken metatarsal, but still getting an aerobic workout in. I decided to use my speed bag because (a) it's a good workout and (b) it's awesomely fun. Those are generally the only criteria I look for in a session, so off I went to do a type of workout I genuinely enjoy. It's great to have that kind of freedom, or at least you would think it is.
The original workout was supposed to be a 40 minute zone two run with bookend warmup and cooldown periods. What it ended up being was this:
That, my friends, is not a zone two workout.
The great thing is that Polar makes it easy to see just how far off the mark you are by color coding your heart rate analysis. Starting on the left, you can see that I'm supposed to be maintaining a heart rate in the grey (zone one) and blue (zone two) until the 10 minute mark, at which point I enter the green band (zone three) until my cooldown begins. If you're paying attention at this point, you can see just how badly I whiffed those targets. I mean, it wasn't even close.
Off to the right of the screen, you can see a percentage breakdown of how much time was spent in what zone. Again, my program was looking for 30 total minutes in zone three and I clocked...3:12. Yikes. Zone four ended up getting 28 minutes worth of my effort and there was even a smattering of zone five for a short stretch. I came in hot and stayed that way until the bitter end.
Why is this a bad thing? For a single workout, it's not really. I mean, the higher your intensity, the more you risk injury; however, with a relatively low impact and low amplitude exercise (like the speed bag), you're fairly safe. Where things become problematic, though, is when you look at that session in the context of my overall training program. That's where the cracks start to show.
For instance, even though I gave my lower body a relatively easy day of standing in place, the cardiac load I generated by ignoring the zones I was supposed to be in was actually quite high. As a result, my heart rate variability score dropped a full point the next day. My legs were "rested" but my nervous system was put on notice. This is why planning and programming are so important. I overtrained acutely for what? Nothing obvious, that's for sure.
When the program you are committed to tells you one thing, I'm not sure why you would think it's a good idea to do another. In other words, before you throw yourself off track tell yourself this:
Because as good as that session might have felt in the moment, it didn't do anything to get me closer to my goals. If anything, it set me back.
What started out as a pretty good idea turned stupid. I couldn't maintain discipline in that moment and abide by the heart rate zones prescribed in the program I chose and trust to help me achieve the desired outcomes I have set for my athletic endeavours. Instead, I ignored the session guidelines and went all in because I was having fun. Really? Ugh.
All that was missing was somebody saying that you can't juggle axes for cardio and me turning to them and saying, "Hold my beer." Dumbass.
I needed to stay "in the zone" and stay in my zones. I didn't. More the fool was I.
Has there been any long term impact on my recovery now that there is some time and distance? Not that I can see or feel, which is great; I don't think I could handle another injury while I deal with this broken foot. But that doesn't really excuse the behavior.
There are two key lessons here and the first is that you have to respect your planning or what's the point? You might as well just roll dice or use a deck of cards to tell you how to train. It makes no sense to have a program or a plan, then veer wildly off of it for the sake of your endorphins. That's not training–that's "entertrainment" and nobody great ever got there by "entertraining" themselves to the podium.
The second lesson? That there is such a thing as too much freedom.
I'm going to give you a number to work with in your training and here it is: 20%.
20% is the limit and the goal. 20% is how much of your training should intimidate you. Anything more than that, you are going to get injured, sick or burnt out; anything less, you are not training hard enough. So 20%.
How you do the math from there is up to you, but monitoring your heart rate is a solid choice. I'm not going to try to convince you of the merits of heart rate training as a guiding light in your fitness pursuits, but I do think that you ignore it or choose other methods at your own peril. Heart rate is a solid measure of intensity and recovery, especially when applied to total training minutes over the course of a cycle.
A good heart rate monitor (I use Polar products), a good heart rate variability app (I use both Polar's in-system analysis and the HRV4T app on my iPhone), and a sense of what all the numbers mean can go a long way toward your success. There might be a learning curve to start, but come on--what doesn't have a learning curve? There's a reasons why #fullcontactlearning and #dobetter are two of my most used hashtags.
The benefit of 20% is that most of the science supports the idea that it's a good ceiling on hard efforts. As far back as Arthur Lydiard and as recently as Matt Fitzgerald, running coaches have been extolling the virtues of limiting intensity in training for the best possible outcomes.
It doesn't just apply to running, either; you can apply this unilaterally in your training. Personally, I apply it to my strength training, my martial arts sessions, cycling, inline skating, and whatever other sport I'm using for training or cross training or competitive purposes. To be honest, my most intense efforts probably come in closer to 15%, but it goes as high as 20% at times. Regardless, it works. Get in that range and you might be surprised at the results, particularly if you haven't been paying attention up to this point.
If you don't know what percentage of your training is high and low intensity or even what those things mean, you have some research ahead of you. It will be time well-spent, though; a little full contact learning will ensure you do better.
Whatever you are trying to improve about yourself, add the prefix "un-" to your issue and go about problem-solving that instead. For instance, if you are weak, don't set a goal to get stronger--set a goal to "unweak" yourself. You can unfat yourself, unslow yourself, undumb yourself or whatever; just change your perspective on the topic by creating an "ungoal" instead of a goal.
Do you have a goal or a mission? Because there is a difference. I've written about it before and it basically comes down to missions being more important than goals in all the ways that matter.
Goals come and go, but missions are far less transient in nature. When goals fail, they can easily be replaced by new goals; when missions fail, it is difficult, if not impossible, to salvage the situation. Achieving a goal leaves an indelible impression upon who you are, but achieving a mission leaves an impression on your life.
Goals have desired outcomes that may or may not be reached. Missions have consequences, win or lose.
And that's part of why so few take on missions, but everybody has goals. It's that consequence element; it causes pause. We all recognize when something is far more difficult or even dangerous than your standard issue goal and, with that realization, there needs to be a shift in how we approach it. So how should we approach it?
Let's find out.
There is a moment in nearly every competition where I ask myself why I am there and what is to be gained. My answers run the gamut from "because" to deeply philosophical internal debates, but mostly it just comes down to a commitment to perform my best. Endurance events are funny, though, because the why will only take you so far and the what is usually minimal gain from maximum investment; once you come up against those realizations, it helps to focus on how and just get it done so you can start recovering. This is especially important with a busy competition calendar.
My last race involved no running at all, or at least that was the plan. It was a 24 hour mountain bike race and one that I was ostensibly looking forward to all year, as I wasn't particularly happy with my performance the last time I attempted it. The problem was that this was largely an ego-based choice and it did nothing to help me with my higher stakes races that would take place in the weeks to follow. So I was trying to take a measured approach thanks to the valuable lesson learned at my last stage race, again involving mountain biking but with the added rub of a 50km ultra marathon that came after the ride, all preceding what I would have called an A-race duathlon event.
At least I thought I learned a valuable lesson.
That didn't stop me from having a spiritual crisis up on the mountain in between laps, as I wrestled with whether my 24 hour race was worth risking the rest of my season on or not. It should have been an easy answer ("No.") and that should have been that. But with the rain pouring, the mud thickening, my bike failing, and my injuries mounting, I found myself debating the matter in my mind and finding no definitive answer.
Yeah, I kinda suck at this--as athlete's blogs go, mine isn't that great. It comes across more as a coaching and life advice blog, but leaves out all of the cool stuff I see other athletes putting out there. Things like race reports, product reviews, merchandising, branding, and all that other happy horseshit people appreciate seeing when they subscribe to a site.
I'm on it, I swear. The problem is that it's hard for me to get motivated to write and, when I finally do, it's usually a direct response to something I've read or witnessed and feel a need to address. I create rebuttals to arguments I'm not even having, mostly because I can't stand misinformation, even if it's free of malice and just a product of someone not seeing the big picture.
For me, it comes from a place of feeling responsible for my audience and wanting to provide some framework for tangible self improvement--I don't get off on writing or performing for my own sake, so unless I feel like there is someone out there benefiting from my output, I tend just to leave things alone. That makes for inconsistent delivery, but I like to think it's worth it for you when it finally comes.
So when I see a post that is clearly wrongheaded getting any type of traction on social media, I tend to build responses that I hope will get people back on track or, at the very least, get them exercising some divergent thinking on the topic at hand so as to make a better choice about the whole idea (or globally, for that matter). Hence, my #dobetter hashtag that some of you--a small, dedicated group to be sure--might have seen.
I don't like fluff or content for the sake of content, but I also know that it's a challenge to build any type of interest or following if you're not willing to at least ape some of the conventions that exist in social media. And, quite frankly, I don't have the talent to cobble together a video of me running through some woods or on a mountain trail with tinny dance music that I composed myself thumping along to my footfalls. That's not in my wheelhouse.
But what I do have are a very particular set of skills.
We have to start this essay with a formal position; to wit:
"Running isn't meditation."
That will immediately rub some people the wrong way because they have said it to themselves, believed it, or espoused it to non-runners as a means of justifying time spent in the act of running. Having it challenged this way probably doesn't feel good. But running is most definitely not meditation. Meditation is meditation.
Meditation, just like running, is a skill, not a byproduct. You either practice it and get better at it for whatever reason you may have, or you ignore it (at your peril, which--admittedly--is a sliding scale of risk) and keep doing what you're doing. There is certainly something to be said for the idea of moving meditation, but it just isn't the same thing. Even in combatives training, like boxing and grappling, there are people who make the mistake of thinking one is the other and vice versa. Just today, I read the following quote on social media from a wrestling gym:
"I truly feel you are working at the highest level of 'meditation' when you are going live in a sparring session."
Far be it from me to tell someone how they feel, but this person is wrong. Or, at least, their labels are. Flow? Maybe. Meditation? No. You're just doing yourself a disservice by confusing the two and, honestly, holding back your own development. Not just as an athlete, either, but as a person.
Everyone can suffer. Ask 10 ultra runners what their respective strength is as a competitor and 11 of them will say "suffering." Feeling like death during an ultra is nothing new and neither is the idea that you just have to suck it up and suffer through it to avoid a DNF. It becomes this badge of honor that suffering is not only necessary, but what gets you to the finish line. But that's not what wins races, in my opinion; especially hard fought races where it feels like the Grim Reaper is around every switchback grinning at you beneath his cowl.
Pictured: "Just a little farther..."
Lest you think I throw myself recklessly into training and competition, ignoring warnings of impending injury, illness or failure, rest assured I don't. If you read the companion to this piece, I Ain't Got Time to Bleed, then I could see how you could come away from that thinking I am dangerously deluded about my abilities.
But risk is part of the process and how you manage risk is going to be, in large part, a contributor to your results. Note I said "manage" risk, not avoid it. Risk avoidance is a viable means of dealing with your fears, but hardly one that is sustainable in any meaningful way. Your life won't quite have that "arrive in your grave battered and bruised" romance to it if you are sequestered away in a soft room and living in a bubble.
Now, I don't want this to turn into a lecture on risk and its inherency in achieving anything worthwhile. This is about how you feel, how you feel about how you feel, and the idea that how you feel is a lie. Risk management ties in nicely with that philosophy, but it's not the salient message; in fact, if you understand how you feel, risk management becomes less a product of environmental cues and more one of honest self-evaluation.
Which brings us to understanding our feelings and the manipulations that occur therein.
I've played a lot of sports. The benefit of that is how it informs my current training. For instance, I have read as much John Broz information as he lets get out there and I have read every Matt Fitzgerald book he has authored. The former is a legendary coach in Oly and powerlifting circles, while the latter is a well-respected writer and contributor in triathlon, nutritional, and running literature.
In other words, they have almost nothing in common with each other beyond the broad stroke heading of "sports."
But what they do have in common is an overarching message of the importance of mental strength in sport, and it has produced a belief system in my training that I rely on regularly as a means of understanding hardship. See, the average trainee is going to have some tough workouts, but physical capacity isn't always the issue; things start to come apart at the seams when the mind turns against the athlete. Those "dark periods" are when it all threatens to come to an end if you don't learn to cope with it properly, and that's where Matt and John have helped me immensely.
It all comes down to how you feel. But not so fast, because how you feel is more complicated than you might think.
I took part of my title from a quote by Mark Rippetoe. In it, he states that “Strong people are harder to kill than weak people and more useful in general.” I love that quote. It makes me feel like Rip', as he is known in strength circles, is the kind of person who doesn't pay many compliments, but if he ever said "nice job" after seeing you do a lift, it would feel like you won gold in the Olympics. You could take that to the Wheaties board of directors and be on the box the next week.
It's with that quote in mind that we're going to get into a little something I like to call Stop Living a Lie. It's going to sound like I am berating you, but I'm not--I truly want what's best for you. The problem is that "what's best for you" might not exactly align with "what makes you happy"; unfortunately, I am not in the Happy Business so I can't tell you things that are going to achieve that. I'm in the Full Contact Business and so are you if self-improvement is what you are after. That means there is bound to be a little hurt along the way, but, hey, change ain't easy.
So if these next few paragraphs sting a little bit, feel free to fill one of these out after, but let's move on with making you a better athlete in the interim.
Runners are, by default, odd human beings in the most pleasant of ways. This is a subgroup who views running as one of the toughest sports in the world, yet the moment you add a ball and goalposts, it suddenly isn't running anymore; it just isn't "pure" when you do that. You know why? Because running is unencumbered by silly trappings, that's why. You don't see runners relying on a bunch of gear to make running more interesting, do you?
Well, here we are in the third month of what is going to be a busy year for me. All of my A-races and B-races are registered and all told, there are a couple of hundred racing kilometers in my immediate future--a 50km ultra and 100km MTB race (back-to-back), then three high stakes duathlons that are going to be squeezed into just under nine weeks of race-recover-race hell that, let's be honest, would be difficult to pull off if I was an elite level duathlete. (Full disclosure: I'm not.) Lots of training ahead across four disciplines and not a lot of time to do it.
So, of course, I spent this past weekend coaching at a Brazilian jiu jitsu tournament.
Yup, I was off to scenic Blackfalds, Alberta, to take in the sweaty ambiance of a crowded gym and the sounds of exertion farts, confused grunts, and tapping hands trying to avoid joint dislocations or unconsciousness.
My life. The glamour. Don't hate me for it.
I have a confession of sorts to make. I am not a full time runner. Full contact, yes--I have had every injury you can get and still lace up my shoes every weekend for my LSD. Full time? Well, not yet.
I know, I know...the blog even has runner in the title, but it's true. How can this be? The truth is, I am much better at cycling than I am at running. Actually, it's not even close--I can out mountain bike my best run performances with ease in most cases when viewed in a macro sense. As if that wasn't bad enough, I love duathlons. Point of fact, there is a good chance that duathlons are my favorite thing to compete in next to fight sports and, as the years progress, it seems that they might take the number one position in relatively short order.
So for those of you keeping score at home, my top 10 list looks like this:
3. Mountain biking.
4. Everything else sports combatives.
5. Everything else cycling.
7-10. Whatever makes me better at the top six.
That list looks a little odd for a blog called Full Contact Runner, I know.
Let me explain.
One thing we could do with less of in running is the hubris that comes from a statement that tries to make running seem super badass compared to other sports. It plays on most runner's insecurities about, well, being runners and not playing "real" sports, which is ridiculous, but no less ridiculous than trying to build yourself up by making running the be all and end all of sporting endeavors. It's a clever little turn of phrase, but it definitely appeals to a specific type of runner with some specific insecurities.
The moment someone opens his or her mouth and the words "foot strike" come out, just tell whoever it is to get to the part where they try to sell you something. It's inevitable, so do away with the preamble and get right to it. Why waste time? There are miles to be run.
Whatever it is, you probably don't need it. If there was one thing in the running industry that has been wildly overstated in value, it is foot strike; what used to be of passing interest to coaches and the odd eccentric is now a magical unicorn that every single runner seems obsessed with to the point of fetishism. We have almost become proud of needing to change our foot strike beyond the point of considering if we even need to in the first place.
You don't. Really and truly. I do not even know you, but I am 99% certain your foot strike is just fine assuming you aren't overstriding. Your ankles? Well, that's a different story.