28 April 2013

15000 feet uphill on a treadmill

Sitting in the airport lounge at Chicago O’Hare on my way back to Europe – I will have a couple of days of vacation in Paris before I fly back over the Atlantic for a meeting in Washington D.C. on Thursday and Friday. There will thus be a couple of more days of treadmill training before I am back on the real trails. I have despite an extremely hectic schedule been able to run for an hour every morning here – one of the advantages of going to the US is that I am waking up at 5 am every morning really ready to run – back home I am certainly not that motivated to leave the bed and prefer to run late in the evenings.

I have during the past four days climbed more than 15000 feet (4572 meters), today I managed 4000 feet (1219 meters), on the treadmill. I have no idea whether this really can be counted as corresponding to the same elevation on a real mountain? However, I am really happy with my pulse, which was steady between 140 to 150, pace and legs during these hour long runs each morning. I think these exercises gave more than if I had been running in the park along the lake outside my hotel. They can however certainly not replace real trail running. Even though I put the treadmill on the maximum slope, 15, it feels like quite flat and as the ground is not uneven there are no forces required to stabilize the body as on a real trail, and, most importantly on most treadmills you cannot run downhill.

There have been plenty of studies performed on the biomechanics and so called “energy cost of running” and “ground reaction forces “ of both uphill and downhill running. These have in general shown that at steep angles it is as straining for the body to run downhill as it is to run uphill (see for instance Gottschall & Kram 2005; Yokozawa 2007; Snyder & Farley 2011). In preparing for mountain races with alternating ascent and descent phases, it has been suggested that training on downhill running speed can improve performance the most as the downhill running speeds appear much lower than what is metabolically feasible, probably due to safety reasons and lack of coordination (Minetti et al. J Appl Physiol 2002; 93: 1039-1046).

Another more recent study by Townshend and co-workers found that running speed showed larger individual variation on downhill sections, whereas speed on the level sections was systematically influenced by the preceding gradient (Townshend et al. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010; 42: 160-169). Runners who varied their pace more as a function of gradient showed a more consistent level of oxygen consumption. These results suggest that optimizing time on the level sections after hills offers the greatest potential to minimize overall time when running over undulating terrain. To train this on a treadmill would be very difficult – on the other hand I think saving a couple of seconds on the level terrain after a steep uphill will not be relevant at such a long race as TDG – there you will be able to save more time on the long technical downhill sections.  

27 April 2013

Madness? Brain changes during ultramarathon endurance running

The most common question I get when I tell people I run mountain ultramarathons and that I am now  training for TDG is, not surprisingly, ”Are you crazy?” My short and rapid answer is, not surprisingly either, “No, of course not”.

Thinking about it more carefully though I think there is a certain amount of madness necessary for putting your body to such a strain as you do during both the actual race and all training before it. As Daniel Probst, a previous TDG finisher so eloquently put it ”For the Tor Des Geants you should have lost all signs of sanity. Your friends should be calling you crazy, you run 100 mile races back to back for fun and you enjoy the buzz of being awake for thirty or more hours at a time. You think walking for hours is just part of running, and you strike up conversations with imaginary creatures… If you get to the point where this describes you then you are ready for Tor des Geants.” I completely agree that you cannot overestimate the importance of mental preparations. But how should you do to prepare yourself mentally?

Coming back to the question regarding madness I read a very interesting article earlier this winter by Freund and colleagues in BMC Medicine 2012; 10: 170 regarding the effects of extreme running on grey matter brain volume. In this study, 10 participants of the 4487 km long ultramarathon TransEurope-FootRace 2009 were followed by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans before, twice during, and about 8 months after the race. The average global grey matter brain volume decreased by 6% during the 2 months of racing and returned to normal after 8 months. This transient decrease is really large and should be compared with the normal age related decrease of about 0.1 to 0.2% annually or to the accelerated decrease in Alzheimer’s disease patients of about 2% annually. The decrease was not associated with brain lesions, nor could it be explained by edema. Possible explanations could be be loss of proteins, the runners also lost a lot of body weight, or hypercortisolism. The runners were all extremely well prepared for the race and had a training volume of 106.3 km per week (SD 35.3 km/week, range 50 km to 200 km/week) the year before the race.

The arrow points to a small periventricular lesion. The lesion shows no difference during the time course. However, the thickness of the subcutaneous fat layer (see red circle) shows a marked decrease from (A-C) and recovery at (D). (A) Timepoint 1 before the TransEurope-FootRace 2009 (TEFR09) in April 2009; (B) timepoint 2 during the race at 2,326 km; (C) timepoint 3 during the race at 4,005 km; (D) timepoint 4 at follow-up 8 months after the race. Picture from Freund et al. BMC Medicine 2012, 10:170

Albeit the small number of subjects in this “field experiment”, it is very interesting as it might give clues to the effect of extreme fatigue with energy deficits and could help refine research on the matter of mind over muscle into the mechanisms determining exercise tolerance. The next steps would be to further study whether the brain volume decrease is associated with functional reorganization of brain network activity and mental effects. The brains of the runners in this extreme race might have adapted to the demands of the race, in line with previous hypothesis discussed for instance in the paper by Paulus and colleagues in Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2009; 33(7): 1080 a couple of years ago. As I have said before on this blog, in order to be good at running you should run, but expect that this will lead to a change not only of your muscles, but also brain.


24 April 2013

Long way from the trail

I am currently on a business trip to Chicago and writing this from the hotel room. The hotel treadmill feels a very long way from the trails back in Sweden. The snow is there finally starting to melt even though a lot was still lingering at Hågadalen, a wonderful nature reserve just outside Uppsala, when I was running there last week.
Snow lingering outside Uppsala in late April

I like running in swampy and wet conditions, it is tough and you get a good pulse elevation even though you are running long and slow distances. It is also not straining on your feet and legs as hard technical trails. In order to prepare for the later, which will be the predominant conditions at TDG, I have started to exercise in extremely steep hill terrain. But, for the coming days I will regretfully have to settle for the treadmill.
Snow melting on sunny fields at Hågadalen

11 April 2013

Iscrizione completata

The training progresses thankfully better than my blogging even though I really long for the spring now. It is still freezing temperatures all nights here in Uppsala and still impossible to run most trails without shoes with sufficient spikes. Time is passing too quickly it feels and it is now less than 150 days until Tor des Géants. I just got confirmation of my inscription to the race as both my medical certificate and disclaimer of liability were accepted. My race number is 489!