Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Know Your Body

I've been getting back into running shape the last year now that my seemingly quarterly running injuries have stopped. For some background info, I ran the half-mile and mile in college and my body remembers how fast it used to run. This body memory is great when you are in shape and you can fine-tune your pace to such a degree that you can run a 200 meter repeat in 28 seconds, then 27.5, then 27. I am still amazed not only how fast I once ran, but how I could exquisitely calibrate my stride and pace to within a half second over 200 meters. It boggles me. But anyway, the memory of the training runs (not the 200 meter repeats, but the 6-8 mile runs) is still within my legs 20 years later. When I went out for a run for like the last 10 years, invariably I would run at the pace that I ran at when I was young, thin and in shape. But, unfortunately, I was old, 20-40 pounds heavier, and out of shape.

What did this get me? Never really getting in shape because I would get injured every 4 months or so. But last year I went to the Seattle Running Company and got a stride analysis done. Scott Jurek (who has won many Western States 100 mile races) put me on a treadmill, put pressure sensitive inserts into my shoes and videotaped me from above, the side and the front. It turns out that not only was my running memory making me go faster than I should, I was also incredibly overstriding (by about 25%!). The overstriding made each footstrike hit the ground with much more force than a normal stride. Scott said that my footstrike pressure was amongst the highest he's ever seen. Obviously this was why I was getting injured so often. By trying to run fast and with a very long stride my tendons/muscles were obviously saying "STOP, STOP! OR WE'LL BREAK!", which they often did.

The long stride was also a result of my track days. The half mile and mile is midway between the sprint and long-distance running - the natural stride for that pace is a long and loping stride and landing on the midfoot. But it isn't the right pace for distances longer than that. When you look at marathoners, their stride is almost a shuffle - the feet barely skimming the pavement in short albeit very quick steps.

So what did I do? Under Scott's advice, I concentrated on making short steps and going faster not by lengthening my stride, but by increasing turnover. It worked! I've been running the past year without getting injured! Ya-hoo! I've also made sure that I don't run two days in a row and bike on the other days.

But I've hit a plateau. I want to run faster in my 5K races and quick training runs, but there is a catch-22. If I run too much faster, my joints and legs really feel it. So what can I change? Well, my body weight! By losing twenty pounds (from 175 to 155) my joints and muscles should really be more resilient - and besides, by physics I will be able to run faster just by losing that weight. And here's the problem. When I went on a weight-loss program a few years ago I scrupulously counted my calories, weight-trained and cross-trained (well, until I got hurt :-). The weird thing was according to the calories I was eating and the calories I was expending - I should have been losing tons of weight, even more than the 188 pounds to 170 that I got. At the time I thought it was just faulty calorie counting on my part. But later I found better calorie counters and started weighing my food and not eating out so that I could really figure out how much I was eating - and I was rarely above 2000 calories for a day. For a normal male, eating 2000 calories a day would mean losing a few pounds a month. For me, it was either staying the same or increasing! Hmmm, seems like there is something odd with my body, I thought.

Then a few months ago I found about a metabolism analyzer that works by comparing the oxygen breathed in and the C02 breathed out while you are at rest and breathing into the apparatus. The BodyGem is manufactured by Healthetech and it measures your resting metabolic rate - how many calories your body would consume if you sat and watched TV all day. Many health clubs administer it as well as HealthSouth. I booked an appointment at HealthSouth and took the test. The problem with the test is that it takes a really firm seal of the device over your mouth and nose to get accuracy - the first two ten minute tests failed. So we switched to another device (a mask rather than the tube and nose plugs I used before). This one worked and the technician couldn't believe the result - it said that I needed 1440 calories a day. She had been doing this enough that she can usually peg by age, sex, and body type what the ballpark would be - for me she would have guessed 2200 calories a day. I told her that was why I was coming in - either my calorie counting has to really, really improve OR my metabolism is weird.

I took the test again and got exactly the same number, 1440 calories a day. This time the technician believed me, especially when I told her my experience - but I told her before taking the test and I'm sure she thought "Yeah, whatever, that's what they all say, we'll see..." Oddly, I felt a huge relief - I was doing everything right, it was just that I don't need as many calories as most men (like say 2/3 as many).

With this information now I am really losing weight, from 172 in mid October to 163 now (with a big Thanksgiving weekend that was not counted at all and I ate a lot). I should hit 155 by February. If I don't exercise, my calories for a day to lose weight are 1350 - and that is really tough to do. So I find that I am exercising a lot more just so I can eat more - which works out great, because I'm expending calories and getting fit and while I'm exercising, that is also time I'm not getting hungry and eating. I basically eat anything I want, no Atkins foolishness for me, I just make sure that I count it. In fact this week I did something that I thought of this summer but wasn't in shape to do it. I biked to work on Monday as usual, but brought a change of clothes and lunch for today (I don't work on Tuesdays). On Monday night I ran home from downtown Seattle to Ballard (about 7 miles). Then this morning I ran in and will bike home. All told that is about 1100 calories expended for the day!

So what's the point in this post? It's in the title - Know Your Body and don't be afraid to get informed advice from people who know! If I hadn't seen the stride specialist or had my metabolism measured, I would be a lot more out of shape, fatter and slower than I am now and will be in the future.

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