Saturday, December 21, 2013

Zen Meditation and Running

I came to Zen meditation in my search for a way to improve productivity and forestall depression at a difficult time in my life. It helped me tremendously in both those regards, and it had another effect that I hadn't anticipated: Zen practice helped my running.

How can this be? Zen is not just about sitting and meditating; seated meditation is the core practice, but the lessons learned during meditation extend to all aspects of life. In short, it's about being present and giving yourself fully to what you're doing at every moment. With Zen you learn to control your mind (consciously thinking, rather than letting thoughts simply occur wildly) and enjoy every moment. When it comes to running, Zen practice has improved my breathing, my mental strength and my joy.


When we sit in meditation, we breathe, and the focus is on the breath. This is because we are always breathing, and by focusing on our breath we necessarily focus on the present moment; we clear our minds of past and future worries.

Obviously, breath is vital to running. We bring energy to our cells and dispel waste through our breath. Despite its importance, runners seem to rarely focus on their breath, let alone consciously modulate it.

Zen teaches you to notice your breath throughout your life, which also includes running. And when you focus on your breath during running, you can modulate your perceived effort, heart rate and outlook. I've written about this with regard to my PR marathon performance in October.

Mental Strength

Meditation is not easy. When you first sit—even if you're an experienced practitioner—it can be difficult to quiet the mental chatter. It takes continual effort to maintain focus—it's a workout for your mind. With practice, it becomes easier, and the improved mental strength from meditation extends to other aspects of life: running, for example.

When I tell people I run long distances, often the first thing they say is how they could never do that because they get too bored when they run. I think this type of boredom comes from distracting yourself from the act at hand (running) by thinking of all the things you could or should be doing instead. No wonder running would seem boring if you teach yourself to disconnect when you're doing it!

Zen meditation helps in this regard because engaging with the present moment is at the core of Zen practice. If you practice Zen as a runner, you may find that you no longer need music to keep you occupied, and that you can focus more on the phenomenon of your body clipping through space. Oh, and you'll likely find that you enjoy it more, which brings me to my next point.


Why do we run? Especially in the 80's and 90's, but even today to a large extent, people ran to control their weight. But it's clear today that "chronic cardio" is not the most effective form of exercise for weight management—it may even be extremely hazardous. Still, distance running is growing in popularity. There are many reasons for this; for example, completing a marathon is a tremendous feat, and it's a bucket list item for many. But I think the people who continue to run (and progress to longer and longer distances) do it because the activity is joyous. There's the mythical "runner's high" that we often talk about, beautiful scenery, the company of other runners, the opportunity for self-experimentation, and the joy that accompanies outdoing your previous best.

I've found that Zen meditation has enhanced the joy I get out of every activity in my life, because it helped me find joy in what for many people is the missing link: the joy of the physical act of running—besides all that other stuff. Sure, trees and trails are beautiful and it's fun to buy new gadgets, but if you can extract joy from the motion of your own body, everything else becomes far secondary. (With the added benefit that you don't need all those kajiggers to be a happy runner.)

Don't Take My Word for It

Feel free to try Zen for yourself. Here is an introduction to Zen, which answers questions like, "Isn't Zen a religion, and if I already have a religion, can I practice?" You should also check out the Victoria Zen Center (Zenwest), which offers a wonderful, free online course in Zen practice. Fair warning, though: As I mentioned before, it isn't easy. Moreover, you'll likely only see effects with consistent practice, so I recommend committing to daily Zen practice for a month or so before judging whether it's for you or not.

You may also be interested in the book Running with the Mind of Meditation, which offers an introduction to meditation from a runner's perspective and offers numerous mind exercises to improve your running experience.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Marine Corps Marathon

On the way to the starting line on October 27, we drove past two cars that had been in an accident. Everyone seemed fine, but they probably wouldn't make it to the marathon. At that point, part of me wished that we'd get in an accident so I wouldn't have to run the marathon either...

We parked in Crystal City, hopped on the shuttle to the Runners Village and before I knew it I was at the starting line. No turning back now. Not long after the largest flag ever to be carried by a parachuter landed in front of me, I was off.

The first mile was dubious. My right calf had been tight, and my whole week of running prior to the marathon had been a train wreck. Perhaps running 54 miles the week before that (and only the second week after my previous marathon) was a bit too much. In any case, I slathered my leg in magnesium, swallowed loads of collagen, grounded myself as much as possible, ingested plenty of yucca root and turmeric and wore a new pair of 2XU calf compression sleeves that I bought at the expo. I wasn't sure if I'd actually be able to finish the marathon—I was really worried—but I figured I'd do everything I could to set myself up for success given the circumstances. My leg felt a lot better by Sunday morning, but I still wasn't at 100 percent, and that became painfully evident in the first minutes of the race. I took it slow—not that I had a choice; the field was massive and it seemed everyone started too far up for what they actually planned on running.

Soon my calf loosened up and I was okay to go. I buzzed forward, part of me unrealistically hoping to get a 3:35 PR, so I attempted to stay on pace for that. I did pretty well, hitting the half at 1:50:21, and I kept speeding up all the way to the 35K mark. But then I started getting reeeeeeally tired. I fought the urge to take a walking break, knowing that would further kill my time, so I trudged on.

After mile 20 things got pretty bleak. My last marathon had been such a breeze that maybe I forgot how tough running a marathon could be. Nonetheless, I was determined that I would run the whole way and somehow make it through. In the end, I did take a 30-second walking break around mile 25, but that allowed me to gather the energy and courage to make it through the final stretch. The Marines hilariously put a steep hill at 26.1, and finishing felt like an incredible achievement.

My final time was 3:51:21. Not a PR, but that's still over 20 minutes faster than my pre-October PR, and considering I'd run another marathon just three weeks before, I was pretty satisfied. Moreover, I knew I gave the race my fullest effort, and I had nothing to be ashamed of.

The marathon itself was one of the best. The course was beautiful, gliding through countless sights and neighborhoods of DC and northeast Virginia. There were just enough hills to keep it interesting but not so many that they were grueling. The best part, though, was the patriotism that pervaded the day, and the inspirational other runners. Marines manned all the aid stations, marathoners ran for their fallen loved ones, a number of people ran with American flags, and there were many people running on Team Hoyt—runners who pushed handicapped loved ones in wheelchairs or strollers through the entire course.

Afterwards I was exhausted. I had planned to meet my family at the meet-up area, but I couldn't make it that far (it was positioned devilishly far from the finish line), so I plopped down next to a stand giving away watermelon. The next day I could barely walk—it had been a long time since I experienced that!—and it took a few days for me to be able to walk normally. Now, almost a week later, I still have some lingering tension in my right calf. I tried going for a run yesterday but only made it a mile... I'm going to nurture this calf a bit more to make sure I get it back up to snuff before I start pounding on it again.

My next marathon will be the Tecumseh Trail Marathon in Indiana on December 7. I'm looking forward to the smallest marathon I've ever run, as well as my first trail race! Should be a blast.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Perfect Day at the Lakefront Marathon and Tips for Performance Improvement

To follow up my half-marathon PR last week, I shattered my previous marathon PR today at the Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon. Oh, and I finally got to check off an official Wisconsin marathon on my list, since Green Bay in 2012 got canceled on me. Today was the consummation of my most intensive training cycle to date, and it proved the effectiveness of some lifestyle strategies I've picked up along the way.

Even I was surprised by my performance today. If a marathon could ever be called "easy," it'd be the one I ran today. I put in a solid effort (though there was a hint of "I don't belong way up here" along the way), but I kept smiling and never had to breathe hard. More surprisingly, I never even took a walking break. My form never slipped. I didn't even feel like I was tired until after mile 23, and by then I was already unstoppable. I didn't cramp up like I had out of the blue in other marathons. It was, by many measures, perfect. The only problem was that my dad missed seeing me because I zoomed through the course too fast.

On race day I woke up around 4:30 and had a Bulletproof Coffee, along with half a pancake, a bunch of salt and a Raw Revolution bar. An hour before the race started, I took a Vespa CV-25. Later I took a Vespa Ultra-Concentrate around mile 12 and most of a Clif Mojo bar shortly afterward (it was hard as a rock and tasted like garbage so I didn't feel like finishing it). Then I had half a gel around mile 20. Throughout the race I drank 20 ounces of water, which I had in a handheld water bottle. I didn't eat anything else, and I didn't stop at any aid stations (though I did grab a cup of water once, from which I took a gulp without stopping). I felt great the entire time, except for a brief bout of stomach cramping around mile 22.

To give numbers, I finished today in 3 hours and 45 minutes. That's 28 minutes faster than my previous PR, 59 minutes faster than my previous marathon in April, and 1 hour and 18 minutes, faster than my first marathon. And here I had been wondering if I'd ever manage to break 4 hours...

Obviously such an improvement in performance begs the question: How'd I get here?

It's been a long journey. Over the past year, I've adjusted to eating a high-fat diet, so my body is now used to metabolizing fat as fuel during endurance exercise. But that didn't help me much in my April marathon, because there was something else: I'd gotten injured in November and again in January, and I didn't run sufficiently for several months. My training needed help.

I turned to Zach Bitter for coaching, and it's been fantastic. He's had me running more miles than ever before—I got up to 54 miles during my peak week—and he smartly incorporates speed workouts, long runs, easy runs and recovery runs. My training has been intense on paper, but I've looked forward to hitting the trails or pavement each day—it's continued to be hugely enjoyable. Not only that, but this is the first training cycle that I haven't gotten injured in. Not even a little bit. No need for ice, no need for ibuprofen—it's been wonderful.

With my training sorted out, I incorporated some other secrets that I'll share with you:
  • Nightly ZMA supplementation. The magnesium helps with recovery (and sleep!) and the zinc shores up my testosterone level (important for performance in all aspects of life). It also gives me really fun dreams. 
  • Magnesium oil self-massage after tough workouts. Same idea as epsom salt baths, but way better. For more information, see this post on Ben Greenfield's site.
  • Lots of Omega-3 fatty acids. Grass-fed butter, high-quality meat, fish oil capsules, actual fish and chia seeds are all great sources of omega-3's. 
  • Breathing practice. Normally when running I take 4 steps with each inhalation and 4 steps with each exhalation. I typically only breathe through my nose (it took a lot of practice to achieve this). I've found I can modulate perceived effort through my breath: If I breath slower and through my nose, my heart rate slows and the run feels easier. When I want to really fly, I take fewer steps per breath and/or begin exhaling (and later inhaling) through my mouth. I first started thinking about my breath after reading this post on No Meat Athlete.
  • Fasted training runs. I do several of my runs each week in a fasted state—long runs too. This way, when I actually fuel up before a run, it's like I'm overclocking my body. It's incredible.
  • Mobility work. A few months ago I purchased Kelly Starrett's book Becoming a Supple Leopard, and I've been incorporating mobility work in my daily routine. I've been sitting on the ground as much as possible and using a standing desk to work every now and then. 
  • Meditation. I started learning about Zen (the Victoria Zen Center offers a free online introductory course) and practicing seated Zen meditation every day (as well as working to be more present in all I do), and I believe this mental strengthening has contributed to me as a runner. For a complementary, but different, form of meditation, I've also been reading the acclaimed Running with the Mind of Meditation and incorporating some of these exercises into my running. Most recently I've started doing Vishen Lakhiani's brilliant 6-phase meditation each morning.
  • Grounding. If you haven't read much about grounding (also called "earthing"), it probably sounds ridiculous, but I'm convinced it works. The most irrefutable proof, in my opinion, is its ability to erase jet lag in minutes. Grounding is a natural anti-inflammatory, and it's also an indispensable part of my life as an athlete. I sleep grounded every night, and I take care to spend as much time grounded throughout the day as possible. Read more about grounding here.
  • Other supplements I take regularly (some I take every day, some I cycle every now and then):
I'm really excited about how things are going, and I can't wait for my next marathon... in Washington, D.C., in three weeks: the Marine Corps Marathon!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

New HM PR and the upcoming marathon

Now that my training for the Lakefront Marathon on October 6 has wound down, I can say that it's been an amazing past few months. I managed to recoup all the speed I lost to injuries over the past year and a half, and I racked up several weeks in the upper-40-miles-per-week range, peaking at 54, with no sign of injury anywhere! This past weekend I ran a PR half marathon (1:42:28) at the Brewers Mini Marathon, which was an exhilarating experience. 

I'm a few days out from my seventh marathon, and I'm extremely excited. I've got enough marathons under my belt to know what to expect logistics-wise, allowing me to focus entirely on my performance. Moreover, I can confidently say I'm better trained for this marathon than I ever have been before, and I'm excited to see how it pays off. My real goal is to break 4 hours for the first time—despite my relatively fast half marathon times, this has always been a problem—and I have a double-secret stretch goal of breaking 3:45. Based on several of those race calculator kajiggers, this should be no problem, but marathons can be a bit unpredictable.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Training Update

After Rock 'n' Roll Madrid, I took some time off from running, mostly because I felt I'd been asking too much from my body with back-to-back-to-back marathons over the past two years. I didn't move a muscle for a week or two, and then I joined a gym and practiced weight training with John Romaniello and Adam Bornstein's Engineering the Alpha program. With two Fall marathons planned, it was soon time to pick up running again. I took advantage of all the free time I had after finishing my master's program requirements and did two-a-day workouts, running in the morning and lifting in the afternoons. (I have since learned that I'd probably have been better off lifting in the morning and running in the afternoons, but oh well. And besides, my arch-nemesis worked at the gyms in the mornings, so I'd have to wait till he left at 2:30 to go.)

Anyway, I've been running strong since. I've been working with Zach Bitter, who's been a great help so far. Not sure what sort of witchcraft he's been pulling, but I've been running more weekly miles than ever with no signs of injury. Last week I ran a half marathon in 1:49, which is faster than I've been able to run in quite some time. (And we haven't even gotten into speedwork yet!)

A smarter, less rigid training program is certainly part of the equation, but I'm sure my recent dialing in of my nutrition has had a lot to do with it also. I've been eating a high-fat diet for some time now, and this summer I began consciously carb and calorie cycling, meaning I eat more calories (and a higher percentage of carbs) on days I work out and less on days I don't. I've also begun supplementing with magnesium (topical and in the form of ZMA tablets) and CoQ10 in addition to my usuals, as well as taking extra care to get as many high-quality ingredients in my body as I can.

The Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon is the first weekend in October, so it's coming up quick and I'm really excited about it. I can feel a PR coming on. Not to mention it'll be my first point-to-point marathon, which is also exciting. After that I'll be running the Washington, DC, Marine Corps Marathon on October 27. I've got no races planned after that, but I do have the vague idea that I want to do an ultramarathon in 2014.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Rock 'n' Roll Madrid Maratón

I originally signed up for this marathon back in September or October thinking it'd be a PR marathon. I'd have a year to train well, and it'd be the first time I ran a marathon in the city I was living in at the time (meaning I would be acclimated to the weather).

Surprise! Ankle injury in the Fall that running the Goofy Challenge certainly didn't help. I felt fine a week after the marathon-and-a-half and began a new training program, but I apparently did too much too soon and injured myself again. This time it was the dreaded Achilles. Eventually, with daily eccentric stretching and some massage therapy, I got back into running shape, and I was more or less back on track. Fast forward to what was supposed to be my peak week, where instead of doing a 20-mile run I decided to do a 125-mile coastal walk on the Isle of Anglesey in Wales, in which I am pretty sure I gave myself a stress fracture. My left foot was about twice the size of my other one for a day... the swelling went down and the pain went away, but I didn't dare run more than a mile or two at a time. A week before the marathon, I attempted a 10-mile run but only made it 5 before my calves started getting dangerously tight. I didn't want to hurt them, so I walked the other 5 miles.

A reasonable Tim would have just foregone the marathon in favor of not risking serious damage, but luckily I'm kind of an idiot and can be very reckless. So this morning I KT taped my ankles for stability, donned my calf sleeves and lined up for my sixth marathon. It wouldn't be a PR, but hopefully I would finish. But even that was a bit iffy. This marathon had been the key stress point in my life for the past four months.

I was feeling good about the run, except for one thing: the forecast. It was supposed to rain. Light rain, whatever that means. I don't have any running shoes here besides my Original Luna sandals, which are pretty horrible in the rain (I didn't mention that I possibly sprained a toe earlier this semester by running in the rain in the slippery devils). So I put KT tape on the bottom of my forefoot and the top of the sandal where my forefoot rests to create some friction in case of rain. Hopefully it'd work. I also tightened my sandals a bit. As it turned out, it didn't rain at all. There were some threatening drizzles around mile 20, but it didn't get worse, luckily.

The run started out great. I was feeling energetic and fluid, and I finished the first half in about 1:57. The bad news started around mile 15... strong fatigue. Shortly after, cramps. My thighs and calves were contracting in ways that made it impossible to do more than walk briskly. I took a short break to try and massage, stretch and actively release the tension, but that was largely fruitless. I swallowed an extra salt pill and went on my way, seriously contemplating dropping out. What was I thinking doing this without much training and after all those injuries, anyway?

I brooded for a few kilometers, trying to run every now and then but not making it over 40 seconds before succumbing to walking. After maybe a half hour, though, something miraculous happened: The cramping stopped. I was still dead tired, and my calves still felt precarious, but I could basically run with a modified form (more of a flat foot strike rather than my usual forefoot strike) here and there. But it was a struggle. Even so, I was delighted to be facing my own mostly-mental babiness rather than the physical limitations that have been so frustrating for the past few months.

It was a brutal finish, but it wasn't my worst marathon. I ended up around 4:45, just under an 11-minute mile, and I'll take it. I'm looking forward to taking some time off running to let my body recuperate, and then I'll start a nice, slow training program for my next marathons in October.

Shout out to my roommate Brigette for coming out to see me as I passed near our apartment and then cheering at kilometer 42 with our friend Vi. And of course my friends Emily and Niki, who ran this as their first marathon, beating me by 10 or 15 minutes.

Somehow I don't feel that sore. I remember my first couple of marathons had pretty brutal aftermath. I feel a bit uncomfortable maybe, but my feet and legs feel mostly normal. The only thing is I got a cut between my big toe and pointer toe on my left foot because I had tightened my sandal. Oh, and the stomacheache from all the crazy food I consumed today: beer, donuts, chocolate, chocolate, sandwiches, McFlurries, bacon cheeseburger...

Interesting things... Spaniards seem more serious about marathons. I don't think they sign up until they're better prepared as runners, meaning the average marathoner here is faster. They're also, in typical Spaniard fashion, a little pushy. There were aid people on roller blades giving out spray (I think for muscle pain relief?) and Vaseline. I thought the blades were cute and quirky at first but I quickly realized that these people are not skilled rollerbladers and got in the way A LOT. I saw two people running tied together, a man being pushed in a wheelchair along the course (with a bib on the wheelchair), and who knows what else.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

WDW Goofy Challenge (a.k.a. Florida again)

After a successful San Francisco Marathon, my mom, my brother and I decided to do the Walt Disney World Goofy Challenge in January: We'd pay more than the price of each event individually in order to run them both. If that didn't make us crazy, then surely running 40 miles in two days did. Even so, despite the logistical nightmare that was Disney, the WDW Marathon Weekend had all the makings of tradition to see our family friends.

This fall I made some changes to my training. I was running in Luna sandals instead of shoes. I decided to train in minutes instead of miles to focus on heart rate training (and also because my GPS is very sketchy in Madrid, where I now live, and because I prefer to run aimlessly in Casa de Campo than along a route with known mile markers). I also effectively eliminated speedwork—I had plans to do weekly tempo runs and monthly 5K trials, but somehow that only lasted a month. I also managed to swap out some of my shorter runs for yoga sessions, which may or may not have been a wise decision. Lastly, my new Madrileño lifestyle included more walking than I'd been used to (at least an hour on an average day), and much more traveling—I was gone many weekends, on which I skipped my long runs. I'm sure all that stuff impacted my training.

In order to focus fully on the Goofy Challenge, I decided not to run a marathon in October (I originally planned to run the Bilbao Night Marathon; instead I ran the half marathon at that event). Despite this precaution, I ended up getting injured in early November. After standing for a few minutes after a decent 10K, I found myself barely able to walk because of my right ankle. This was scary, because the 10K went perfectly fine and there was no pain to speak of (I finished in under 50 minutes). Later I remembered having felt some premonitions of pain in my right Achilles earlier that weekend walking around Barcelona, but I still have no idea what really caused it, or what it was. I decided the closest diagnosis was an impinged nerve, and I tried to do exercises to loosen it up. I had to give up running for a few weeks, so I tried to do yoga or walk for periods of time equivalent to my prescribed runs. I wasn't sure if I'd be able to do the marathons in January, and that was a major stress factor (pretty much the only one in my life).

Eventually the pain went away enough for me to do a few long runs; in all of November I'm sure I ran less than 30 miles, and I maybe doubled that in December. I don't know how far I ran in my peak training runs for the Goofy, but it was only a 1.5-hour run on a Saturday and a 2.5-hour run on a Sunday, two weeks before the marathon. Luckily my ankle didn't complain about that, so I decided to taper down and hope for the best.

Because I knew I was severely undertrained, I focused on my nutrition and looked for any other edge I could get for myself. A few months ago I shifted from mostly-vegan to an Upgraded Paleo (Dave Asprey's Bulletproof Executive Diet) with a high intake of healthy fats and low carbs. I liked the scientific support for this diet and how it meshed with the athletic outlook of Dr. Maffetone (heart rate training). The other edge I was looking for came in the form of electrically grounding myself: I had heard about earthing from Dave Asprey's podcast, and I tried to walk barefoot outside as much as possible (though it isn't exactly easy in the glass-laden and poop-covered streets and parks of Madrid). I was able to order an earthing bed mat when I got home to Milwaukee on New Year's Eve, and I've been sleeping grounded every night since then.

I made one minor mistake in the week before the marathon: I ran barefoot on the treadmill. I'm not sure why—it wasn't even that cold outside. Regardless, though, it was a horrible idea... my feet were blistered and tender for a few days, and I hoped they'd be fine by the time the marathon came. (They were so-so.)

Race day came soon enough. The half marathon went just fine: I ran it at a nice, slow, comfortable pace and never really felt tired. It was about 10:15 miles. I ran in the grass sometimes to lessen the impact on my feet; I'm not sure it actually helped, but it surely did hurt: It increased the friction between my feet and the surface of the sandals, making the bottoms of my feet really tender... something that would prove extremely painful during the marathon the next day. My ankle threatened a bit during the run, and I decided to KT Tape it up later that day as a precaution for the next day's marathon. As soon as I put the tape on, there was no pain at all, so (again) I'm sure it was vital to me finishing. Somehow I felt pretty wiped out after running the half; I hadn't felt so tired after running just 13 miles in a very long time! I should also note how remarkably boring the course was: We ran through the Magic Kingdom and Epcot, but it was 10+ miles of running along freeways and through parking lots. Not so magical...

The full marathon was very miserable. I didn't feel like running: My feet weren't the best and my legs were tired. I had horrible expectations for the run, but it actually went okay for the first 8 miles or so. The highlight was probably stopping for a picture with Lilo and Stitch. The course was pretty cool this year; we ran through all four parks, took a lap on the Exotic Speedway and toured the ESPN Wide World of Sports facilities. If I didn't want to die it would have been a lot of fun. I was floundering, running each mile slower than the last, and the heat was climbing. Before I knew it, I was nauseous and apocalyptic and it was in the 80s. I put myself on a walk 5 minutes–run 5 minutes regimen that carried me to mile 23 or 24, at which time I had to change it to "run 1 minute." It helped a lot when I heard these two women, also struggling, go by me and one of them said, "Okay, ready? Just one minute. You can do anything for just one minute." That's so true.

I finished the full in 5 hours and 40-something minutes, making it my slowest marathon yet. But for good reason, I think! Of course it's extremely disappointing making a new record slow, but if I'm able to examine the points that led up to that race performance, then it was worthwhile. As it stands, though, I don't think I'll be doing the Goofy Challenge again any time soon.

My next marathon plans are the Rock n Roll Madrid Marathon on April 28, and the Marine Corps Marathon in D.C. in October. Not sure if I'll do one this summer; it depends when I get back to the States.

What went wrong:

  • Not running sufficient long runs
  • Ankle injury

Goals for next training season:

  • Speedwork
  • Switch back to miles from minutes (find variety of routes mapped online)
  • Stability and power exercises for cross training
  • Self-motivational tactics for on-the-run
  • Learn more about mid-race eating and drinking

The road to BQ and all 50 states continues... slowly but surely.