Running in the heat (Part 1)

Here, I begin to answer a comment from this post, by Liliana Gutierrez Mariscal:

What makes running difficult for me?

Running in the heat

No matter what you do, it will be more difficult to run in the heat than in cool weather. But if you do take the time and trouble to run in the heat, it’ll really be worth your while.

I’ll devote another blog post to a very innovative idea that’s been put forth by a wealth of authors and scientists: the idea that we evolved into what we are now by chasing down four-legged animals in the heat of the african desert, (in other words, that we are desert endurance runners). But let’s not be tricked into thinking that achieving that level of expression will be an easy task.

Suppose we truly did evolve for the purpose of being runners, and more importantly, thanks to that activity. That being the case, we can make the argument that, running in hot weather in particular constitutes a very important part of the physical and physiological (and no doubt cognitive and emotional) expression of a human being.

Perhaps one of our most natural forms of expression (if not the most natural) is to run in the heat.

This argument comes from an evolutionary-systemic point of view. If you use a particular system for the very activity that it was developed to do in the first place (by first making it capable of operating at that level), then that system is very likely to manifest functions (or an efficiency of function) that it can’t express by performing any other activity.

Ultrarunning—the sport of putting the body through an irresponsible amount of miles—may tap into that level of expression. We already know that people sign up to run across the Sahara Desert, Death Valley, or to do back-to-back marathons in the desert summer as is the case with the Comrades Marathon.

But you don’t need to look that far for some idea that running was not created equal to other sports: Answer in the comments if you’d ever heard of a “golfer’s high,” or a “cyclist’s high.” It’s not that these cognitive states don’t happen in those sports. But the associations between running and favorable cognitive states are that much higher. They are so high, in fact (or so I argue), that people still sign up by the hundreds of thousands to run 26.2 miles despite the near-certainty that they will end the day with a significant injury.

Why do we still do it? As Christopher McDougall argues: it’s because we were born for it.

Those are the ultimate reasons for why you should run in the heat.

But I’ll give you a more proximate reason: you can make bigger gains in performance. I’m going to paraphrase a chapter-long argument in Tim Noakes’ book Waterlogged: The Serious Problem of Overhydration in Endurance Sports.

There are two important numbers in this story: 98.6° Fahrenheit and 104° Fahrenheit.

The first number, 98.6°, is of course, our normal core temperature. 104° is the temperature at which the body’s functioning becomes compromised. (This is a severe emergency).

What this means is that there are still, say, 2½ degrees of “give” between normal core temperature and the temperature at which things start getting too close to the danger zone (which starts at around 101º).

Take your typical runner stepping out into 100º heat for the first time: the body feels the heat and decides that no way is it going to let core temperature rise. It’s not accustomed to that environment—and more importantly, it doesn’t have a sweating system powerful enough to bring core temperature down, in case it needs to.

The cooling system of this average runner is fighting the environment heroically, struggling for every single tenth of a degree. That has a huge metabolic cost: the cooling systems go into overdrive, and the runner experiences fatigue in order to force a reduction in activity. Maintaining core temperature at a level that the body is comfortable with has become the most important thing—far more important than athletic performance.

But as that runner continues to train in the heat, the body begins to adapt over time: its sweating mechanism becomes more powerful, its able to more effectively circulate blood from the core to the skin—and furthermore, it knows that it’s still got those 2½ degrees of “give” between normal core temperature and the 101°, where its really beginning to skirt close to the danger zone. The runner experiences incrementally less and less fatigue; running becomes easier and easier.

As sweating system becomes more powerful, the body gives itself a little bit of rope. It’s getting used to that heat, so it lets core temperature rise a tenth of a degree, then another, and another. This isn’t a problem—it’s still in the safe zone.

What’s happening? It no longer has to fight the environment to cool those three-tenths of a degree.

In other words, the body developed a more powerful cooling system, and yet, because it developed that system, it no longer needs to use it that much!

Becoming accustomed to the heat lets you increase your level of performance in two ways: you can keep exercising at a higher core temperature, and with a more powerful sweating system. Suppose you increase your metabolic rate to tax the sweating system (which has now become more powerful) just as much as you used to tax it when you had only just started running in the heat: now you’ll be running at a much greater speed—and none of this has to do with your muscle power.

This brings us back to the argument that I was making earlier: by running in the heat, you can manifest physiological functions (heat tolerance) and psychological functions (lessened fatigue) that can’t be manifested under any other conditions.

The argument I make in this post is very similar to the argument I made in yesterday’s blog post. Just like having stronger muscles makes you a faster and safer runner at the same time, having a stronger sweating system does two things, instead of just one.

All this said, training in the heat means that we’re going to be playing with dangerous forces. Too much heat really will kill us. If we do choose to train that way, let’s do so with humility and care.

This will become a recurring topic. Soon, I’ll post a few exercises and training ideas that we can use to safely develop our heat tolerance. Also, I’ll post about the physiological aspects of the human body, that make us such good heat runners.

Remember, even though running in the heat might be really difficult, in a very deep way, it is what you do. If you gain that ability, you probably won’t regret it.

Happy running!

Ultrarunning and the ideal female body

I found this very interesting article, titled Beyond the Marathon: (De)Construction of Female Ultrarunning Bodies.

As with most scholarly works, it’s both dense and eloquent. In addition, it brings up several interesting points, including, (but not limited to) the following:

  • In a sport such as ultrarunning, the ideal performance body is often defined by an ideal body shape.
  • The authors, however, also hypothesize that ultrarunning may be more amenable than other sports (and other social situations) to allow women to self-determine, i.e. to create a (more) unique identity.

In other words, this article examines an interface between a biological system (the body), a physical system (the demands of the race) and a social system (the female ideal). 

In a future blog post I’ll discuss this article at length, paying special attention to its findings in relation to the mission of my blog.

But for now, I’m curious to know what you think about the article, or about how the biological-physical system and social systems interact in ultrarunning, running, or the sports culture. In other words:

  • How do you think that social dynamics (and identity politics) influence running, sports, and ultrarunning?
  • How do you think that physical systems of running, ultrarunning, and sports as a whole, influence the emergence of particular social dynamics?

UPDATE: For your convenience, here is the abstract: 

This article examines the ways in which high-performance female ultrarunning bodies are created and understood through the discourses of the normative running body, the ideal female body and pain. Using a Foucauldian framework, this paper shows how the ultrarunning body becomes a desired body beyond the marathon and how these same desires produce multiple and complex subjectivities for female ultrarunners. In-depth interviews were conducted with 8 high performance female ultrarunners. Findings suggest that ultrarunning is a sporting space which gives rise to more diverse subjectivities than previously found in distance running literature. Simultaneously, this discourse produces disciplined bodies through the mode of desire and “unquestioned” social norms, paralleling the constructs of extreme sports and (re)producing middle-classness.

 

 

Gravity: The dilemma of the “slow runner.”

Some of us just want to run slowly. We don’t really want to get fast—we just don’t care.

That’s okay. We’re all entitled to our own ways of running. But while we do that, we should recognize that there are some ways of running that observe the realities of the world (and some that don’t). Someone I met once said:

All models are wrong, and some are useful.

That goes for any and all of our ideas, including our body’s idea of what is the best way to run. No idea will ever be able to exactly model the world. But some are more useful than others—and the useful ones are useful because they account for such realities with a certain success.

We must stand in observation of the reality that, when we run, the most important force we will interact with is The Force of Gravity. The quality of our interactions with gravity will determine whether we become injured or not (among other things, like speed).

In systems thinking terms, we move and live within a particular physical system. Inside of that system, there are certain constant and variable forces which the body must be capable of interacting with. If it isn’t (yet) capable of interacting with those forces, and we push it to do so, we will compromise its integrity.

In that system, if we push off the ground, we will accelerate back to it at a rate of 9.78m/s² (32ft/s²). Which means two very important things: first, that the longer we are suspended in the air, the more we will accelerate. Second, in order to maintain bodily integrity, our muscles (but also our bones and connective tissue) must be strong enough to resist the stresses incurred by interacting with that magic number.

What this amounts to in athletic terms is that body must have (1) very strong muscles, capable of responding explosively in sustained activity, and (2), the ability to maintain the center of mass (the torso) relatively stable throughout the run. In other words, it must have the ability to make the torso rise and fall as little as possible. 

How does the body achieve this mechanically?

By moving the legs faster, i.e. increasing the stride rate (to somewhere around 180 steps per minute). If we can make our feet strike the ground 20 milliseconds (.02 seconds) faster than before, that would be .02 seconds less that we’d be accelerating towards the ground. Stronger and more powerful muscles (to move our legs faster) mean that we’re accelerating less towards the ground. But here’s the kicker:

It also means that they are more capable of withstanding the stress placed on them by gravity.

But wait: there’s more!

As Owen Anderson writes in Running Science, if we could make a 20 millisecond (ms) improvement between footfalls, that would constitute a time improvement of 756 seconds across the duration of a marathon—in other words, an improvement of 12 minutes and 36 seconds! As Anderson himself writes:

[That is] an almost infinitesimal change and therefore one that most runners can easily make.

In the interest of beating this point into the ground (pun intended), that’s 12 minutes and 36 seconds we’re not accelerating towards the ground. And remember the thing about acceleration: the first 20 milliseconds and the last 20 are not created equal.

If we’re running at 150 steps per minute, we might be in the air for 60% of the gait cycle. Doing the calculations for you, we’re accelerating towards the ground for 116 ms.

At the end of the first 20 ms of acceleration, we’d be going at a speed of .09 m/s second (.29 f/s).

At the end of the 116 ms of acceleration, we’d be going at .056 m/s, or 1.64 f/s.

But if we make a 20 ms improvement from 116 (in other words, 96), our maximum falling speed would be of 0.47 m/s, or 1.54 f/s.

Let’s reiterate: A 20 ms improvement from 116 ms means that the runner is going a tenth of a foot per second slower upon hitting the ground, and it’s only that way because of muscles that are stronger.

If take the time and energy to make our bodies more capable of interacting with gravity, we will inevitably end up being the faster version of ourselves.

Let’s internalize this, because it really does constitute the minimum passing grade of the “entry exam” for a runner:

Being strong enough to interact with gravity is the minimum power requirement for a human runner.

Although elite runners have muscles that are much more powerful than necessary to deal with the requisite 9.8 m/s², that number is where the laws of physics and the Earth’s mass have set the bar for human runners. That is our system. Those are its requirements. Let’s stand in observation of that fact.

There are two good ways that I know of, that can get us to meet those requirements. The first is by jumping rope as I’ve described, and the second one is an exercise in this video by Dr. Mark Cucuzella (at 6:09).

(By all means, look at the entire video—it’s very engaging and informative).

Now, go talk to gravity until you’ve gotten to know it like an old friend.

UPDATE: You can find a couple of good discussions on stride rate and running speed here and here.

Tight leg adductors: a common problem, its possible source, and some tips on how to address it.

Over on Facebook, R.B. asked me:

Recently, I’ve been unable to go running for more than 15 minutes without experiencing discomfort in my right knee (my dominant side). Even jumping causes some minor pain. It cracks a lot when I flex and extend it; so does the left side but not nearly as much as the right. From my preliminary research on the matter, I think I have “runner’s knee.” It may have to do with how hard I was training for a while (2x a day, running, weights, parkour, etc.) and then suddenly stopped the intensity for a couple of months this summer when I went to Brazil. Now that I’m jumping back into it, it’s been surprisingly difficult to find the right balance. Anyway, I guess my question is–do you have any suggestions (ie. exercises, readings, whatever) so I can get back to running while minimizing the likelihood of injury? I would greatly appreciate it

Before we begin, a standard disclaimer: I am NOT a physical therapist. I happen to know a lot about the body and I’ve solved this particular problem for myself and others. R.B., I would suggest that you consult a clinician, and take my advice with a grain of salt. That said, let’s go at it:

R.B was referring to a cracking on the inside of her dominant leg. This is most likely a malfunction of one of the muscles that connect the inside of the hip to the inside of the tibia on a spot called the pes anserinus, or “goose foot.”

Note that this is happening on her dominant side.

Let’s think systemically about this: Why is this happening? What problem is the body trying to solve?

Because the dominant leg is the one that supports the most weight, the body wants to bring it further in towards the center of gravity, i.e. towards the midline of the body. Imagine that you are supporting a wooden beam on two columns, but one is strong and one is weak. You’re going to want to put the strong column closer to the center, to support more weight. That’s exactly what the body is doing here:

It’s putting too much weight on the dominant leg because the non-dominant leg is too weak.

This is an example of a systems thinking concept: Shifting the Burden.  (In this case, the burden of supporting the body in an upright position is shifted from both legs onto the dominant leg). 

In order to manage that added burden, the body overuses the adductor muscles of the dominant leg, (which pull the leg towards the midline). And because the dominant leg doesn’t come out much (because it has to stay in to support the weight of the body), the abductor muscles, which pull the leg out, get very little work.

So, what happens is that you get adductor muscles which are too tight, and abductor muscles that are too weak.

Now, there are two answers to this question, and BOTH are important. The first answer is global: the system is developing a strategy of how to perform the function that R.B. is asking of it, and it’s putting too much weight on the dominant leg in order to perform that function. These kinds of sub-optimal strategies are what my favorite biomechanics bloggers, The Gait Guys, call a “compensation pattern.” As they like to say:

What you see in someone’s gait is not their problem, but rather their strategic compensation around the problem”

Let me reiterate that R.B.’s dominant leg had tight adductors because her non-dominant leg was carrying too little of her entire weight. In other words, the problem is that her non-dominant leg—particularly, the extensors and abductors on her non-dominant leg—are probably not strong enough. (In other words, the same analysis that we did within the same leg can be tentatively extrapolated to the entire body): If a set of muscles on one leg are too tight, the opposite set of muscles on the other leg will be too weak.
 
The second answer is local: It has to do with the adductors of the dominant leg. I’m going to post a video about how to train the adductors for this kind of problem in a few days, so for now let’s talk about ways in which we can solve the likely global (systemic) problem.
 

In order to see the most likely systemic problem, we have to cut across the whole body: if the muscles on the front outside of the dominant leg (abductors) are too weak, it is likely that the muscles on the rear outside of the non-dominant leg (primarily the extensors but also probably the abductors) are also too weak. Let me be clear that these are just the most likely culprits. It’s impossible to know specifically without looking at your particular case. The job of the muscles I mentioned is to hold up the leg—the very task that the non-dominant leg wasn’t doing well the first place.

R.B., I can’t give you a specific exercise for your non-dominant leg. That would be irresponsible on my part. But I can give you a general one:

The Gait guys have a cool abductor\extensor exercise that I think would be useful in your case (for your non-dominant leg). Here’s the link to the video.

What you could also do is this: during the same period (say 2-4 weeks) you are training the abductors of your dominant leg, also jump rope for a few minutes in the way I suggest. However, since you want to strengthen the extensors/abductors on your non-dominant leg, I would suggest that you emphasize jumping on your non-dominant foot. By that I mean that if you jump rope (with both feet) for a total of 6 minutes, jump 30 times on your non-dominant foot every minute.

You DON’T want your muscles to get too tired while doing this; you just want to get the non-dominant leg used to the motion of carrying your body alone.

Especiallyyou want the extensors/abductor muscles of your non-dominant leg to develop along with the abductors of your dominant leg. 

You should ensure that the relative strength of both relevant muscle groups stays constant, or you’ll create another compensation pattern.

Also the reason you want to jump rope during this period is to ensure that the strength is being incorporated into a motion pattern. It doesn’t matter how strong any of your muscle groups are if your body doesn’t know that they should be used as part of the holistic motion pattern. Getting them this motion pattern will allow you to eventually succeed on this task.

The best way to get the most bang for your buck out of this would be to jump rope after the training session for your dominant-side extensors/abductors. That way, they’ll be activated and slightly tired when you jump rope, so your body will be able to incorporate them into the motion much more easily.

Please put your questions in the comments; I’ll address them there.

Thanks for reading!

UPDATE: If something about running is difficult for you, or it’s difficult to get started running, there’s a comment thread going here.

Jumping rope to achieve good, basic running form

Difficulty: Beginner

Most running injuries come from mechanical stresses placed on the body by its own mass accelerating towards the ground thanks to the force of gravity. A simple way to reduce those mechanical stresses is to increase the body’s capability of interacting with that acceleration. And how do you train that?

Jumping rope (correctly). This exercise offers a pretty neat progression for people who want to move from heel-striking towards midfoot-striking, and for beginner runners who are trying to develop their bodies to reduce the likelihood of being hurt.

Purpose:

To increase coordination, interaction with gravity, proper running from, and tissue density to resist the mechanical stresses of running. Also, it teaches you to use more muscles to perform the same function, lessening the individual strain on each.

Components of proper form:

  • Flex your knees as your feet hit the ground.
  • Extend your legs as your feet leave the ground.
  • Let your back (especially your lower back) contract with every jump, and relax with every landing
  • Let your feet point on their own.
  • Use your thighs and butt to push off, not your calfs.
  • Swing the rope forward using your wrists, not your shoulders.
  • Look forward.

Basic progression:

  1. Increase single-under speed until you aren’t breathing hard any more.
  2. Train double-unders until you can do 20 continuously without stopping.

I’ll link a video describing these concepts at some point.

“Shifting the burden” in running.

Shifting the burden is a systems thinking notion that refers to a tendency to shift responsibility for the functioning of the system onto external factors. Take crutches as an example. When we use crutches, we shift the burden of keeping us in balance away from our inner ear, the calculations of our cerebellum (located at the base of the brain), and the resulting activity of the muscles that work to keep us upright. They no longer need to bear the burden of balance. Now the burden is on the crutches.

For now, let’s put aside the fact that some people need to use crutches to move around in the world. Instead, lets focus on what would happen if a fully able-bodied person begins to use crutches: they would begin to lose the back strength necessary to balance their own bodies.

There are many examples of this phenomenon. Most of us are aware that astronauts experience bone and muscle deterioration while in space, to such an extent that it becomes vital for them to maintain a rigorous exercise routine during missions. A much less extreme example of this is when we put our arm in a cast to heal a broken bone: after two months of immobility, that arm will be much thinner and weaker than the other.

In both cases, the burden of support was shifted away from the muscles and bones, and they grew correspondingly weaker.

“Shifting the burden” is relevant to running because as a society, we have largely shifted the burden of developing speed away from the body and onto the sports drinks and shoe industry.

But that industry helps a lot of people get started! There would be many people that wouldn’t be able to run marathons if not for big-heeled running shoes and energy gels!

That’s the problem. Big-heeled running shoes is a quick-fix. Imagine how much longer it would take to go through the trouble of making a comprehensive mechanical assesment of the body, and taking the time to develop all the correct muscular systems. Just put motion-control shoes on someone, and you can get them running now!

Let me share a little nugget of wisdom from The Fifth Discipline, one of the most important works of Systems Thinking. Peter Senge writes:

“An underlying problem generates symptoms that demand attention. But the underlying problem is difficult for people to address, either because it is obscure or costly to confront. So people “shift the burden” of their problems to other solutions—well-intentioned, easy solutions which seem extremely efficient. Unfortunately, the easier “solutions” only ameliorate the symptoms; they leave the underlying problem unaltered. The underlying problem grows worse, unnoticed because the symptoms apparently clear up, and the system loses whatever abilities it had to solve the underlying problem.”

Fixing the body’s biomechanics and making sure everything is in tip-top shape and ready to run a 5k or a marathon is both obscure and costly to confront (in time, energy, and vision, if not money). Once the underlying problem of shifting the burden (say, to running shoes with a big heel) has grown bad enough, we experience a breakdown in the system’s capabilities: injury.

“Shifting the burden” occurs all over, and not just in physical systems: people shift the burden of interacting socially away from their abilities and from managing their anxiety onto alcohol, for example. You add a little bit of alcohol, and the tongue loosens. But begin to depend on it too much, and eventually it’ll begin to negatively affect your social interactions—making the very problem that you were trying to solve grow even worse.

This discussion illustrates the reason why I use systems thinking to develop my training routines. As long as the thing that we’re trying to develop is some kind of system, the principle of “shifting the burden” will hold. In other words, it doesn’t matter what kind of system we’re talking about. If the burden of its performance gets shifted onto another system, it will become dependent on that other system.

By coming to the conversation armed with systems thinking, we can neatly sidestep the discussions of whether soft shoes are better than minimalist shoes (or whatever). If what we’re doing is an example of shifting the burden, the system is going to head towards dependency and an eventual inability to perform. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about the economic system, the psychological system, or the musculoskeletal system. No matter what the doctor tells you:

“Any long-term solution must strengthen the ability of the system to shoulder its own burdens” – Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A primer.

It’s a sad story for those maximalists pushing their Hoka Ones like happy candy: soft shoes with big heels are an excellent example of shifting the burden. For example, it has been argued that heeled shoes allow the leg to strike the body ahead of the center of mass (i.e. the torso). This shifts the burden of increasing the length of the stride away from the quads and the glutes on the pushoff (rear) leg and away from the flexors on the swing (front) leg.

Because now the stride can be longer despite weaker muscles, running will now incurring massive stress damage to the body. (For a longer discussion on this point, see this post.

We don’t have wait for the debate between minimalists and maximalists to settle in order to decide whether shoes with a big heel-toe drop is good for us or not. That’s not the point. All we have to ask is: are we shifting the burden of [blank] away from [blank]?

In future posts, I’ll write extensively about many of the ways in which we shift the burden, and how to shift it back to our biomechanics and physiology. For now, we can begin that general process by thinking about a quote from Bruce Lee:

“It’s not the daily increase but the daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.”

This isn’t just a cute tidbit of wisdom. As I’ve discussed before, the ways in which we think about things affect our biomechanics. The reason Bruce Lee’s speed and power was unequaled was probably because of the unequaled discipline and creativity with which he maintained an evolving understanding of such philosophical statements.

Like Bruce Lee, find those systems we shift the burden towards. Through trial and error, lets hack away at them.