Archive for November, 2008

Back-to-back sessions and super-compensation

November 30, 2008

Training involves alternating hard work with recuperation. Hard work damages the body; the subsequent recuperation not only repairs the damage but actually make the body stronger than it was before – so called ‘super-compensation’. Many training programs recommend two or three hard sessions a week separated by easy days. This seems a sensible way to produce the required super-compensation, but is it the most efficient? Efficient training requires a big enough stimulus from the hard sessions to mobilise the super-compensation response, and then a long enough recovery to allow the super-compensation to occur.

Older athletes face a double whammy. Our muscles can tolerate only moderate training stress, and recovery of damaged tissues takes longer – this is easily illustrated by observing a superficial bruise – a trivial knock that once might have produced a small bruise that disappeared in a few days now produces a large purple blotch that takes several weeks to resolve. So we oldies are less able to tolerate hard shocks but nonetheless need to spend longer recuperating.

Pondering the unfairness of this double whammy led me to wonder what it is that induces super-compensation. Possibly it is the stimulation of hormones such as growth hormone and anabolic steroids. It is well know that old folk produce less growth hormone and anabolic steroids than youngsters; maybe that is due at least in part to subjecting our bodies to less stress. If it is the magnitude of the initial stress that determines the amount of super-compensation, maybe what we need to do is to find a safe way of producing a bigger stress in the first place.

The principle of interval training is that we can accumulate a fairly large total stress in one training session by allowing a degree of recovery between repetitions. A recovery period of a few minutes allows replenishment of oxygen and at least partial clearance of lactic acid, but is too short to allow replenishment of fuel stores (which takes a few hours) or synthesis of new muscle proteins (which might take as much as a day).

So maybe the safest way to accumulate enough stress to produce maximal super-compensation is to spread out the repetitions over a period of 24 hours or more. This of course is similar to the principle of crash training, which has become quite popular among serious athletes in recent years. Training hard for several consecutive days and then allowing adequate recuperation can produce greater benefits than an equivalent amount of work done on alternating hard and easy days – provided one avoids breakdown during the few intense days.

Yesterday, in a tentative test of the recovery of my calf muscle, I did 2x1Km at a pace that induced a heart rate around 140 – which for me is in the upper aerobic zone. That was almost certainly too small a stress to induce maximal super-compensation. So today, I decided that rather than having an easy day before stepping up the intensity in a subsequent session, I would do a slightly harder session and then have two fairly easy recuperation days. I did 3x1Km in the upper aerobic zone. Of course a total of 5x1Km in the upper aerobic zone can scarcely be described as a heavy total training load – but as a rather cronky old-timer, I need to take things cautiously.

Yesterday I ran on a soggy woodland path. I estimated that the uneven boggy surface increased the work load by about 5% and slowed me down by about 10-15 sec per Km. So today I ran on the riverside path which has a much firmer surface. The times for the three 1Km repetitions were 4:27; 4:27; 4:27; (pleasing evidence that my pace judgment is still fairly consistent) and mean heart rate recordings were 140, 142, 143. Thus heart rate was only marginally higher than yesterday but pace was 17 sec faster.

So far so good. I will see how a program based on back-to-back interval sessions works out – though a least for the time being, the sessions will be of very modest intensity.

Ewan, thanks for your comment on the dangers of allowing the muscles to cool too much between repetitions at this time of the year. I warm up thoroughly (about 20-30 minutes of jogging with some easy paced stride-outs) and I jog fairly briskly between the repetitions.

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A quandary

November 29, 2008

This week has been a difficult week. I have been working very long hours and getting an average of about 5 hours sleep per night. There has been no time for running. However last night I had 8 hours sleep and after sorting out a few jobs this morning, by mid-afternoon I was ready to run. My injured calf muscle appeared to have fully recovered and I was eager to get going, but I faced a quandary. Do I need to re-build my aerobic base with another few months of easy paced running, or can I return to the moderate intensity sessions I was planning when I injured my calf?

In the summer I had built a reasonably solid base (averaging around 35 miles of low intensity running per week) and in September I had run a half marathon in 101 minutes (at mean heart rate 138). I decided to increase intensity in October with the intention of improving my pace over shorter distances. At first things went well. In 6x1Km repetition sessions I was able to maintain a pace of 4:15 to 4:20 min/Km at heart rate 140. Then I tore my calf muscle. In the past 6 weeks I have done very little training. So to confirm that my calf has recovered and to settle the question of whether or not I need to rebuild my aerobic base, I set out to do 2x1Km at heart rate around 140 today.

I returned to my usual woodland 1Km circular path, though I anticipated the surface would be muddy after a wet week. We are definitely at the scraggy end of the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.’ Virtually all the leaves are now off the trees; the atmosphere is damp and misty; the ground is boggy. It was clear that I would need to be vigilant to maintain my footing, and that the uneven soggy surface would add at least 5% to the energy requirement. After a good warm up, I covered the first 1Km lap in 4:46 with a mean heart rate of 137, and the second in 4:42 with a heart rate of 142. After allowing 10-15 sec per Km for the soggy surface, these times indicate that my pace at HR 140 has slowed from 4:15-4:20 per Km in mid October, to around 4:30 now. It is always disappointing to lose hard-earned fitness, but I am pleased the loss is no greater. I am inclined to think that it will be better to persist with my earlier plan of focusing on moderate intensity sessions to improve my pace over shorter distances. If over the next few weeks my calf remains trouble free, I will set myself a target for a timed 10 K in February or March.

Then after the equinox, when it is again feasible to do off-road long runs in day-light on weekdays, I will return to base building in preparation for a half-marathon in September. Sadly, I do not see myself being able to get home from work early enough and regularly enough to allow me to prepare adequately for a full marathon until after retirement.

Running in the twilight

November 23, 2008

In the past few days a northerly air-stream has brought the temperature down, and the dawn light this morning revealed a slight dusting of snow in the roof tops – a rare occurrence in the English Midlands in recent years. The ground temperature was still too high to allow the snow to settle. Midmorning, there was another flurry of soggy snow flakes but then sun came out and the temperature rose a degree or two. I was busy doing various odd and ends about the house, and daylight was fading rapidly by the time I got ready to go for a run. I decided that it would be best to follow the fairly open path beside the River Trent to make the most of the last glimmer of sunset reflected off light cloud above and the water beside me, rather than risk tripping over tree roots in the evening gloom on my more usual woodland route.

The open river bank path exposed me to the wind which had swung to the west and strengthened. Any gain in temperature due to the replacement of Arctic air from the north with Atlantic air from the west was negated by the increased wind chill factor. I was wearing light-weight shorts but also a long sleeve top and gloves, so with the wind at my left shoulder on the long reach of the river as it flows northeast from Clifton village to Wilford, I felt comfortable but invigorated. It was tempting to increase the pace, but bearing in mind my recent muscle problems, I restrained myself to a gently fluctuating pace ranging from about 6min per Km to 5 min per Km (for a 100 metre or so at a time). There was no trace of discomfort from my right calf.

As I passed a clump of trees just before reaching the point where Fairham Brook joins the Trent, I was subjected to scrutiny by a predatory owl. He swooped down silently from behind me, but clearly recognized I was far too big a morsel for supper, and wheeled away over the river. At Fairham Brook I turned for home. Now the chilly wind was on my right cheek and I realised that I was starting to wheeze. I have not yet adopted the habit of using my salbutamol inhaler regularly when I run, but it was the exacerbation of my asthma by cold air last winter that led to the need for anti-asthma medication for the first time in my life. So today’s run was a valuable reminder that this winter I should use my inhaler before running whenever the temperature is low.

My distance today was only a little over 6Km and peak pace was no faster than my estimate of my current marathon pace, but it was a good session. There was no trace of pain in my calf; I learned a little more about managing my asthma. I celebrate the fact that as I approach the twilight years of late middle age, I can still enjoy running in the countryside. But I have a wistful awareness that the carefree days when I could run, play football or climb mountains without concern for my body are now well behind me. In those long-gone days I had many mild problems – congenitally twisted toes; inflammatory arthritis; mild asthma – but those problems were a trivial nuisance that never amounted to anything disabling. I am certainly glad that I never let concern for these minor infirmities become a reason to wrap myself in cotton wool. Even now I think that I am likely to remain healthiest by maintaining a fairly demanding training schedule. I just need to learn the difference between the incidental twinges that are part of growing old and a significant muscle tear such as I suffered a few weeks ago.

Are there bears in the woods?

November 16, 2008

Today’s run was another easy 5K though autumn woods. There was virtually no cloud in the sky. At midday, the sun was quite low in the southern sky and its rays slanted brightly through the trees. For someone who spent his childhood nearer to the equator, and in the southern hemisphere, finding the sun low in the southern sky still seems a bit odd. It is now less than six weeks to the solstice; that great turning point in the year when the days stop shrinking and begin to elongate, pointing towards the eventual return of the wonderful long summer evenings that are one of the greatest treats for an Australian living in England.

After about 3 Km I was startled by a snapping branch off the path to my left. It summonsed an instant recall of a time a few years ago when I think I was stalked by a clumsy bear in the Canadian wilderness. On that occasion, a few rustling and snapping sounds emerging from the forest to the left over a space of a minute or so indicated that some sizeable creature was moving approximately parallel to my path. I headed very purposefully back towards camp trying to look as formidable as is possible for a 63Kg guy standing barely 170 cm tall, with my heart in my mouth. I think my heart still bears metaphorical teeth marks, so today it skipped a beat even though at midday the only wild thing likely in this patch of woodland would be a squirrel. The crackles continued and it was clear that the source was roughly bear-sized but even clumsier than its Canadian counterpart. So today I was sharing the solitude of the woods with another human being. It brought home to me how lucky I am to have a patch of nearby woodland frequented by few apart from occasional dog-walkers.

Running again

November 15, 2008

It was great to go for an easy paced 5 Km run today. Though a wintery sun struggled to penetrate the clouds and fine droplets of rain hung in the air, a variegated pattern of russet, brown and gold carpeted the woodland floor. In places the vivid brown of beech leaves dominated, elsewhere it was the dull brown of oak or the brilliant gold of maple. Under the stand of larch, a shower of fresh yellow needles added to the deep pile that has accumulated over the years creating my favourite running surface.

In light of my recent calf troubles, I ran with small steps, focusing on lifting my foot from the ground rather than actively pushing off to initiate each airborne phase. There was a scarcely perceptible ache in my right calf, concentrated in the vicinity of the muscle tissue damaged by the vicious nocturnal cramp I had suffered recently, in the week following a mild tear of my right soleus muscle arising for an injudicious increase training intensity a month ago. It appears that my lingering troubles are more closely related to the nocturnal cramp than the original injury. It is difficult to know whether the two events were even related. The primary precipitant for the nocturnal cramp was apparently dehydration, and the cramp affected both legs simultaneously. However, it is possible that irritability of the previously injured muscle contributed to greater damage on the right. Whatever the cause, it is clear that I must take things easily in the next few weeks, but I am happy to be running again.

Patience on the road to recovery

November 9, 2008

In a comment on my most recent blog Jason suggested that my current goal should not be described as ‘speeding recovery’ but ‘ensuring proper recovery’. His choice of words implies the importance of the crucial but daunting virtue of patience.

Mostly I have been patient, but every so often I am tempted to test the limits. It is now a little over three weeks since I suffered a minor tear of my calf muscle. The injury was almost certainly a consequence of increasing intensity of training too quickly. I had introduced some interval training after a period of base building. The first two sessions went well, but then in the third session, in which I planned 6x1km at my estimated 5K pace, I pushed myself a little faster the target pace that I had set myself and had suffered a tear of soleus on the 4th repetition.

After icing for two days and a further day of rest, I had very gradually introduced light exercise, starting with body-weight calf raises while bearing weight equally on two legs; then moving onto calf raises while standing on one leg and gradually building up the number. Apart from a mild setback when I suffered nocturnal cramp after getting dehydrated during a very long flight from Shanghai to London, things progressed well. After two and a half weeks, I had progressed to 3×20 ‘one leg’ calf raises with no trace of discomfort. I then re-introduced running technique sessions that involved running with very short strides covering only a few metres at a time, concentrating on technique. The calf felt good and I was itching to increase the distance a bit. So today, as it was now over three weeks since the injury, I set out to jog a few Km in the local woods.

The day had dawned with a blue sky and brilliant sunlight on the autumn leaves. The dark clouds started to roll in as I set out from home, but it was still an inspiring morning to be out and about. After jogging about 2 Km there was no trace of discomfort in the calf, so I decided to increase pace a little up to what I would estimate is my current marathon pace – around 5 minutes per Km. After a Km, I slowed to a jog for another Km, and as my calf still felt fine, I increased pace up to estimated marathon pace again. However this was a mistake – as I negotiated a boggy patch of woodland I felt a slight but ominous jab in the calf – a few inches about the site of the initial injury but in the vicinity of the site which had been most painful following the ferocious nocturnal cramp I had suffered two weeks ago. I stopped immediately and walked home. Fortunately I had decided to stick to the one Km loop path near to home so I only had to walk a short distance. Now, a few hours later, there is a definite persisting pain at the site damaged by the nocturnal cramp. So my calf is still very vulnerable and I need to remind myself that patience continues to be the prime virtue.

How can I speed the recovery of my calf muscle?

November 1, 2008

As far as I can see, after a few days of RICE, the best way to recover from a muscle injury is to engage the injured muscle in light exercise to ensure that the healing process lays down fibrous tissue predominantly along the direction of muscle contraction, rather than producing a higgledy-piggledy tangle of fibrous tissue, which might require subsequent pruning to allow efficient muscle contraction. The challenge is adjusting the level of exercise so as to promote the desired formation of aligned fibrous tissue without repeatedly tearing the muscle at its point of weakness.

I have not run since tearing my right soleus muscle two weeks ago. Most days I have done either a core strength workout (various forms of crunch, press-ups, dips etc) or light leg strengthening exercises. In the past, in my occasional leg strengthening sessions I have focussed mainly on body-weight exercises while standing on one leg (squats, calf-raises, hip swings etc) but since injuring my right soleus I have mainly done the corresponding exercises while standing on both legs, wherever possible. This places only a light load on the injured leg. Until a few days ago, things appeared to be going well.

At the beginning of this week, I traveled to Shanghai for a meeting. The return flight to London on Wednesday involved one hour of sitting in my seat before take-off, and then twelve and a half hours in the air, followed by a train journey back to Nottingham. Despite drinking only two small glasses of red wine and fairly large amounts of water and orange juice during the flight, I think I became quite dehydrated during the journey.

In the early hours of Thursday morning I awoke with excruciating cramp in my right calf, and a less severe cramp in the left peroneus longus – the muscle that runs down the side of the lower leg. Attempts to massage the cramp away were futile – the mild degree of stretching of muscle fibres during massage only encouraged an even fiercer cramping, so there was nothing I could do except passively planar flex my ankle to lower the tension in the calf and hopefully minimise tearing of muscle fibres, while waiting for the contraction to subside spontaneously. The next morning I had quite noticeable pain in my right calf – mainly in gastrocnemius, but also some discomfort in soleus. Three days later the discomfort persists, so I am not sure when I will get back to running again.