Fast on the trails

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December 11, 2015 by scratchtype1

I probably should run trails more often. It seems kind of amazing that I actually hadn’t run on any since last month when the pickup truck grazed my thumb tip. In that sense, at least, trail running is a lot safer as you don’t have to worry about cars.

Plus there might be some other good reasons to it. I’ve done a fair bit of reading since after my big race of the year, the half-marathon back on Nov 22. Overall, I feel great about that race, I did a lot for it (most miles ever) and a lot with it (raises almost $900 for the JDRF) and ran a PR. But there was a taste of disappointment to it too. Early in the year, I had felt there should be a good chance of PRing quite substantially. Instead I only PRed by 1 minute and 41 seconds.

Some of that might have been due some to having Lyme disease for some of the year and perhaps some lingering aftereffects from that. Some of that might be due to the thumb being broken 11 days before the race, my body had to devote some energy to healing a bone. Not a big bone, but still, it’s a little more energy being sapped from the body by stress.

Now fairly certain that because of Lyme I hit a point in September where I felt nearly burnt out by running. Maffetone-style running saved me psychologically then. I spent about 8 weeks or so running almost exclusively under 130 bpm. I learned to enjoy running again in that time. But whatever tiny zip I had to my legs before that pretty much disappeared during it. I could run forever, but I could hardly even sprint. To tell you how much that was so, I would sometimes try to run as hard as I could. I could do that for over a minute at a time and I still wouldn’t be breathing hard. I simply couldn’t run fast enough to make me breathe hard.

I’ve come to slowly understand that this indicates a neuromuscular deficit. My brain was simply incapable of coordinating enough muscle fiber recruitment to create a substantial enough aerobic deficit where I would need to breathe heavy.

The question then becomes: why is this so? Then there are the further questions: can things be done to teach my muscles how to run fast? What might be limiting me from having a longer stride?

One other aspect related to this is belief in the self. Now I don’t ever expect to have great sprint speed, I suspect I am largely slow-twitch fibers. But on the other hand, I also know that I am capable of decent strength. In the past a couple of times I have been able to deadlift more than 2x my own bodyweight and I’ve had a couple of periods in my life where I was able to do a one-arm chinup with my right arm. That’s one arm, not one hand. So I am capable of learning to recruit large amounts of muscle fiber, which is needed to be able to deadlift more than 2x one’s own bodyweight and do a one-arm chinup.

Notice the word learning. Strength is not just a measure of the muscles. It’s a measure of what your brain can do as well. The brain coordinates the actions of the muscle fibers involved.

And so it is with running. Every runner is learning while running. Every stride is an experiment where the muscles feed information into the nervous system and the brain evaluates it. (Of course this is an additional reason why I believe at least some barefoot running is a great idea because of the nervous system feedback that gets picked up by the bare soles).

But back to the trails. I went to enjoy the quiet of trail running this morning. Now of the strengths of trail running is that maybe it challenges our brains more than when we run the steady footing of roads. You run on trails, the surface is more variable. Hard-packed dirt there, squishy mud there, how do you dance through the rocks, do I dare go fast down this slope of leaves and jutting rocks, how fast can I spring up this rocky ascent, etc.

I had started the run off easy and carefully. In the second mile I picked it up a bit, then backed off some again at the start of the third mile. But as the third mile progressed, I became more daring some and tried flying down a stretch of downhill. Then late in that mile, a woman caught up to me from behind and then passed me. She wasn’t working very hard at it and it was daunting some to see her grow a gap between her and me.

But I also found myself getting pulled some. Today was a day I could do some fast running. So I began working on seeing if I could hang onto her pace. And I did. Even though it almost seemed scary for trail pace. I can’t say I’ve run all that many trails miles, but I know I’ve never run a sub 9 minute mile on a trail. But that’s what she was running and so I came to run it too.

But the other cool thing about it was it didn’t feel too stressful. I began to wonder if the recent ideas I’ve adopted into my training are taking some effect now. I mean, yesterday, I had closed with a hard sprint of about a minute and at its end was breathing harder than I had in some time because of trying to run fast. And on today’s run I had been having a sort of sensation that I was beginning to get more bounce in every stride, in every time my feet touched the earth. It’s now been almost a couple of weeks where I’ve been doing various dynamic movements and stretches to help loosen up my hips and hopefully increase the range of motion in the running stride. Maybe the almost chronically tight hip flexors are loosening up, allowing the glutes to fire more readily.

Finally I heard the beep of the Garmin and it showed that the woman had paced me to a mile on trails in 8:55. Of course, she did it so easy while I had to work harder some. I then turned around to get back to my car and was pleasantly surprised to find that my legs kept wanting to spring along. Of course, I didn’t run any more sub-9 miles, but I ran easy and yet fast for trails. Maybe today my brain and glutes finally put a bit of two and two together to give me a more powerful running stride. Of course I probably still have room to improve and I suspect it’ll be very important to be diligent about doing the exercises and drills to improve range of motion in my hips. The fact that I’ve had tight hips for maybe almost all my life means my body and brain has a well-grooved habit of what they should feel like. But they need to learn well that my hips can extend, that my glutes can propel my body along. So I need to train my hips and my brain. I need to learn.


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