Revolutions in Fitness

I came home from my time with the Northern Arizona Elite professional running team last summer convinced that every serious athlete should carve out a little time each day for what I will loosely classify as physical therapy. I’m talking about foam rolling, mobility exercises, and other activities that help put the musculoskeletal system in balance, keep it healthy, and improve functional movement capacity. Very few athletes do this stuff with any consistently, nor did I before my fake pro runner experience. But my whole purpose in going there was to do everything the real pros do, including daily physical therapy, and I believe it made a significant contribution to the improvement I experienced in those 13 weeks.

I get it: We’re all busy. None of us has enough time for everything. Physical therapy seems like more of a luxury than a necessity. Plus, it’s not the sort of thing you can manage entirely on your own. You need to be taught what to do, as each body has distinct needs. The temptation to skip PT in favor of flossing your teeth is great, but I think it’s a mistake.

I speak as someone who has made this mistake even after he knew better. After returning home to California last October, I started slacking on the PT work I’d done so religiously in Flagstaff. Then I transitioned back into triathlon training, and soon afterward my body fell apart. Realizing my dream of qualifying for the Ironman World Championship at Ironman Santa Rosa next May might depend on it, I visited Revolutions in Fitness, an athlete-oriented physical therapy outfit and Palo Alto, and put myself in the hands of PT Meghan Taff, who gave me some new exercises to mix in with the old.

The total time commitment required by these exercises is small. Some of them have been inserted into the twice-weekly strength workouts I was doing. These include some unloaded movements intended to reconnect my brain with my lower trapezius and rhomboid muscles, whose dormancy, according to Meghan, is negatively affecting my swim stroke. Others I do as mobilizers before workouts. Specifically, I do some foaming rolling to open up my chest and mobilize my thoracic spine and ankles before I swim and some band work to open up my hips before rides and runs. The rest I bang out at night while winding down before bed. This takes about six or seven minutes.

I’ve been on this new regimen for less than three weeks and already I am noticing a difference. For example, my calf muscles no longer cramp when I swim, as they used to nearly every time I got in the pool. I credit the ankle mobilizations Meghan taught me for this improvement. I’m telling you, folks, this stuff is worth the commitment!

The hardest part is getting started. That’s because, as mentioned, the specific exercises you do need to match your needs, and also because many of these exercises are rather esoteric and/or require special equipment. For example, I do a couple of foot-strengthening exercises that require the use of toe separators. So it’s best that you begin by making an appointment for a functional movement assessment with a good local PT like Meghan who really knows athletes. There are some decent quasi-do-it-yourself alternatives to this, however. One example is the Saucony Stride Lap app.

As chance would have it, a writer friend of mine contacted me the other day asking if I could contribute a good runner-specific New Year’s Resolution idea for an article she’s working on. Guess what I told her.

Ever since my book How Bad Do You Want It? was published in 2015 I’ve received a steady drip of emails from struggling high school runners, and occasionally also from their coaches and parents. Last week I got one from a runner who was frustrated by a seemingly inexplicable cessation of improvement. He couldn’t understand it. He had trained hard all summer, pushed himself daily in-season, set massive goals, taken every race very seriously, and so on.

From my perspective, this young man was answering his own question. Pushing hard all the time on every level is not a formula for sustainable improvement. Athletes are human beings, and no matter how passionate we might be about our sport, we need some kind of balance to avoid stagnation and burnout.

“Macro pacing” is my term for the practice of husbanding one’s emotional energy in ways that best serve the interests of the athlete as a human being. I think I’ve gotten pretty good at it over the years, having developed a reliable intuitive sense of when to go all-in on training and racing and when to step back and prioritize other things. Recognizing the need for this ebb and flow and not trying to resist it are big reasons, I believe, that I am still in love with endurance athletics more than 25 years into the journey.

Currently I’m at an interesting, transitional time in my macro pacing. Last year was my very best as an athlete. Never before have I invested more of myself in sport. The timing was good. Injuries kept me from doing a single race in 2013. In the latter half of 2014, my body started to come around. Through patient persistence, I was able to continue the upward trend throughout 2015 and 2016. That’s when I decided to basically give my life over to sport the following year, which I did by traveling across America in the spring, completing eight marathons in eight weeks, and spending the summer and early fall in Flagstaff, training with a team of professional runners.

Both were incredible experiences, and hard to let go of, but I was wise enough to know that it would be foolish of me to try to keep the momentum going. Another injury ensured that 2018 was a fallow year, but I haven’t really minded being injured because I needed to chill anyway.

Not forever, though. For many years I have wanted to get back into triathlon, and specifically to race another Ironman. In late June, endeavoring to turn my inability to run into an opportunity, I started swimming and biking. Not long afterward, I signed up for Ironman Santa Rosa 2019, which takes place in May, and went public with my intention of trying to qualify for the Ironman World Championship.

Since then, folks following my training log on Final Surge have probably been scratching their heads, thinking, ‘If this guy wants to make it to Kona, he’d better start getting serious.’

I get it. My swim training has been minimal. I’ve been doing all of my cycling on a road bike with no power meter. And, until fairly recently, all of my run training wasn’t running at all but steep uphill treadmill walking. But despite appearances, I know what I’m doing, and that’s pacing myself. Macro pacing.

There’s a reason I signed up for a qualifier that was 10 months away at the time. I had a few major hurdles to clear before it made sense to go all-in with this new quest. My plan was to take a patient, measured approach to the initial phase of my preparation, until I was past those barriers, and then hit the gas. My swim training has been minimalist because I wanted to rediscover the technique I found and lost back in 2003 before I started logging a lot of yardage, as with swimming I believe in the old adage, “Practice makes permanent.” I didn’t buy a triathlon bike or a power meter because I had to identify and address the cause of a chronic cycling-related right knee issue before it made sense to spend the required money. And I walked uphill on the treadmill instead of running because I needed to give my tendonitis-afflicted left hip abductor an opportunity to fully purge itself of inflammation and damage before I could confidently begin to rebuild my running fitness.

I’ll be honest: my Kona quest hasn’t been much fun so far. I hate swimming when I’m not swimming well, I’d much rather have a slick tri bike to ride, and walking on a treadmill is really boring compared to running outdoors. But this early phase of my quest would have been even less fun if I had forced myself to do more despite the various hurdles I’ve faced.

And now things are looking up. Recently I experienced a surprise breakthrough in my swimming, which was the ironic result of a minor shoulder injury that forced me to limit my pool workouts to kick sets for a couple of weeks. Somehow this practice brought about the improved freestyle body position that I’d been previously unable to achieve by other means, and just like that I’m taking two fewer strokes per 25 yards. A combination of taping and wearing a stabilizing brace has enabled me to complete a couple of 100-mile bike rides with manageable levels of knee pain. While I don’t consider this a permanent solution, it’s buying me the time I need to find that solution, which I expect to find in the bike fitting I get at Revolutions in Fitness in Palo Alto less than two weeks from now. And at last I’m running again—16 pain-free miles last weekend!

Very soon now, a mental shift will occur in me. I’ll be all-in for Ironman, enthusiastic, a little obsessed, and enjoying the process, and I’ll have macro pacing to thank for it.

Interest in learning more about pacing? Check out my book, On Pace: Discover How to Run Every Race at Your Real Limit, which guides runners step by step toward pacing mastery. Click here for a free sample chapter of On Pace, and here to purchase a copy.

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