Why > Goals

What are your goals for the next race?

Achieving a goal can be wonderful and rewarding. But, it only lasts a moment. Three months after a race, 'finishing' will not contribute to your level of happiness in any way. You can list it on your resume/CV or hang the medal on your wall, but those are merely notations and symbols of a moment in the past. A goal is a marker at the end of a journey. It signifies having experienced the journey, but it's the journey we need to focus on.

How do you define failure? Does it have anything to do with your goals?

I define failure as a missed learning opportunity. It has nothing to do with where I placed in a race or my finishing time. I may stand on the podium after a race but will have failed if I didn't learn something from the journey.

Your primary goal should be to finish…really?

If the goals you set include 'things' such as a podium placing, prize money, being in the top 20, or finishing, then maybe you’re focus is misplaced.

"Blasphemy! Did he just say that the time-honored primary goal of finishing is the wrong approach?"

When you focus on finishing, your attention is on ending what you're doing...getting it done, over, completed, finished. You then imagine that you'll look back on the totality of the race, say “I accomplished that", and it will make you happy. You're putting your happiness at the end, as an expected outcome of achieving a goal. See how that plays out? Struggle...attain goal...become happy. It doesn’t work that way because it’s the experience, not the achievement as such, that brings lasting fulfillment and growth.

Why do you go on a training run? Is it to finish your run?

I go on training runs to perform a series of work efforts; there just happens to be a beginning and and end to the run. Races should be viewed in the same way. 

I've had one DNF (did not finish). I stopped around mile 44 of a 62-mile race (100k) because I went off course and my goal of finishing in a certain time was unattainable. I wasn't upset or demoralized, and my body was in good shape; I could have continued and still finished in a very good time. But, I had only set one goal, and it became unattainable; I was done for the day. I don't regret that decision. What I regret is my approach to the race. I should have been focused on the experience and the work planned throughout the event, not my time (a 'thing').

That DNF was my greatest success, not failure, because I captured a learning opportunity that shapes everything I do in running and in life. When I take on a challenge now, big or small, I ask myself two questions.

  1. Am I in it for the full experience and not the endpoint?
  2. How will this bring me joy?

Once I know that I am in it for the experience as a whole, and for the sum of its parts, then running the last mile is just as important as running the first mile. The race doesn’t have a start and end with that mindset. Regardless of what goes on internally (e.g., mental doldrums) or externally (e.g., bad weather or going off course), the desire to experience the complete event will always keep me going. By coming back to appreciating why I’m in it, I can always find joy in the moment and a reason to continue the experience.

Running brings me joy.

It's a joy that's intrinsic to moving my body; I am joyous even running on the treadmill. I just love the feeling that running gives my body and mind. As a runner, I want to be faster and stronger. But, my motivation is always focused on doing my best and becoming better as quickly and efficiently as I can. I don’t attach numbers to those motivations; they are about the growth process, not the outcome. You may have heard of ‘process goals’ vs ‘outcome goals’. I don’t care for that thinking and find it an overreaching and academic attempt at being clever. Just let go of goals and be in the moment, in the process.

Should you stop setting goals?

No. Goals are good. They are important for building frameworks of action and for establishing the relevance of the details within your process. But, try to view goals as the things that materialize along your journey rather than what you are there to accomplish. They are achieved or not depending on how well the process is going and should never be taken personally. Reaching or not reaching goals is just feedback you can use to develop a deeper understanding of the process. They should never define your experience. Be prepared to adjust your goals during the race rather than giving up or being demoralized if you see a goal slipping away. And always come back to the true answer to why you are running when times get tough.

Is your motivation to finish your next/first ultra or is it to experience the event while you give it your best effort all along the course? Happiness comes while we are struggling to be our best. Focus on the experience, and you might be a little sad to finish.

 

 

 

Sleep is part of training

This is the first installment in a series of blog posts on how to get the most out of your training. To become your best, it’s necessary to fully appreciate the complementarity and importance of all the facets that go into training. The training driver diagram is a good place to start.

While a tremendous amount of attention goes into crafting the progression and details of workouts in most training programs, there is generally insufficient attention applied to the other factors that are essential to becoming your best. The first priority of any ultra-runner’s training plan must be consistency in running. If you’re consistent with your running, working on the non-running components of your training will provide more return on investment than the specifics of what you do when you run. In other words, a good night of sleep will help you to be a better runner than whether you work on hills or speed today.

How much sleep do you need? There is substantial variability among people though it’s recommended that most adults get 7-9 hours minimum. Children and teens need more. Athletes in training are also likely to need more sleep.

While you sleep, many restorative processes occur. One interesting discovery is that you wash out the fluid surrounding your brain cells while you sleep. Of particular importance is that sleep helps to flush the molecules thought to contribute to cognitive impairment and dementia (such as beta-amyloid). Here’s a brief story on the subject: 

At the top of the priority list for your non-running training is putting in a full night, every night, of high quality sleep. By planning and preparing, you can make a substantial improvement in your sleep quality. But, you must put in the effort! You cannot expect good sleep to happen on its own. Put as much effort into ensuring a quality night of sleep as you put into planning and following your running workouts. 

Best practices for a quality night of sleep:

1. Have a routine.

  • During the hour (or two) before bedtime, shift your activities to ones that are enjoyable and calming such as fun reading, watching television, listening to music, taking a shower/bath. Avoid work, checking email, organizing your finances, etc. during this critical time before bed. 
  • Smartphones have ‘do not disturb’ settings that you can use, along with your own willpower and discipline, to block texts, emails, or social media (if it doesn’t relax you) in the hour before bedtime.
  • Dim the lights at least an hour before bedtime, get into comfortable clothes/sleeping clothes. Your body’s primary sleep hormone, melatonin, is impaired by bright light.
  • You can also use settings and apps on electronics to reduce the amount of blue light emitted in the hour before bedtime. Our bodies have adapted to recognize that bedtime comes with the setting sun, which has less blue light (thus, red-orange sunsets). Blue light tends to keep us awake.

2. Avoid strenuous exercise. Some people can sleep well immediately after a hard workout but most do not. Know what’s best for you.

3. Watch your diet. 

  • Food may affect your quality of sleep. Keep a record of anything you eat in the hours before bed along with how well you slept that night; experiment when you are not close to a race. Over time, you may learn foods to avoid or foods that help. For example, spicy, citrus, and fatty foods are known to disrupt sleep in some people. Carbohydrate-rich foods can make people drowsy.
  • Caffeine has an average half-life of roughly five hours. This means that you’ll still have 25% of the caffeine in your system at bedtime that you had 10 hours earlier. People metabolize caffeine at different rates, but try to stop consuming caffeine as early in the day as you can, before noon if possible.
  • Avoid alcohol, at least in the days or week before a race when good sleep is especially important.
  • Stay hydrated. You want to be properly hydrated for good restorative and reparative sleep but not to the point that you're waking up regularly to visit the loo.

4. Wake up at the same time every day. Your internal biological clock is reset every day when you wake up and light enters your eyes. There is an area of the brain that gets ‘it’s morning’ signals as the signals from that light pass through the brain (to an area called the suprachiasmatic nucleus). If we were in an isolation room without any cues to time, our biological days would get longer, and our sleep time would drift. So, getting good sleep means going to bed at the same time and waking up at the same time every day.

5. Take naps, but don’t nap too much. Napping too much during the daytime can impair sleep at night. But, short naps of 20-30 minutes can be restorative. You will not make up for lost sleep by napping during the day or by sleeping extra on the weekends. Doing so will help a little, but it’s not a substitute for good sleep every night.

6. Think deliberately. Practice a form of mindfulness or meditation every time you go to bed. It may be reviewing the good things about your day, your goals for tomorrow, checking in with how your body feels, visualizing moving clouds or ocean waves, or even counting sheep. Whatever it is, do it every night. When your mind drifts away from your focus, especially if any invading thoughts are negative, gently bring your thoughts back in line.

7. Control your sleep environment. Best sleep tends to come in environments with the following features:

  • 60-67 degrees F
  • Dark. Use black-out curtains and make sure lights are off. 
  • Quiet or consistent sound. Use a background noise maker, earplugs, or other means of ensuring unexpected noises do not disrupt your slumber. I use an app on my phone called ‘white noise’ by tmsoft.com and I prefer the ‘brown noise’ setting.

Traveling:

Whether you travel for work or only for races, you will find yourself wanting to get a good night of rest when you’re on the road. For this reason, it is well worth paying the money for a room unless you know that you always get good sleep at campsites. Getting your best pre-race sleep begins weeks before the event, at home. That’s because it’s important to be used to the environment and routine that you’ll experience the night before a race. While it isn’t realistic to spend weeks in the hotel room or campsite before your race, there are things you can do to prepare for it. 

1. Think about how your typical evening pre-bed routine can be applied when you are traveling. Mimic your routine as closely as possible.

2. Make sure that your diet is consistent with what works for you, including your hydration levels. It’s tempting to over-hydrate or over-eat the night before a long event but you also don’t want to spend the night voiding those fluids or experiencing new GI symptoms instead of sleeping.

3. Go to bed at the same time. You can try getting to bed earlier but certainly not later. Unfortunately, many longer races begin so early that you have to wake up long before the time you are used to. Don’t change your sleeping habits in the days before the race in an effort to mimic the race start time or otherwise fool your body into a new schedule. If you could completely shift your sleep schedule a month in advance, it might help a tiny bit but the effect would be small if noticeable, and it’s not practical anyway. Note: you cannot ‘get used to’ sleep deprivation; don’t practice getting minimal sleep, you’ll only hurt yourself.

4. Set the environment of your hotel room to match what you are used to.

  • Request a room on the top floor, not overlooking a noisy road or pool, and away from elevators/ice/vending - tell them that you want their quietest room. If you aren’t pleased with your room location, ask to check out different rooms and change if you want.
  • Set the temperature to be the same as at home as soon as you check in.
  • Prepare your kit for the next day well before you begin your bedtime routine. That’s not a part of your routine at home so don’t disrupt your routine the night before a race (unless you run first thing in the morning, in which case it might be part of your routine).
  • Dim the lights early (hotel rooms generally don’t have dimmers, but you can leave on only the bathroom light or set just one light in a corner, etc.).
  • Bring earplugs, eyeshades, and your ‘white noise’ phone app. Make sure you aren’t trying to use any of these for the first time the night of a race; get used to them at home if you might need them while traveling. Bring your own pillow if it makes a difference for you; both comfort and smell can influence your sleep quality, and your pillow is what you smell the most when you sleep.
  • Follow your mindfulness practice once you close your eyes.

If you have chronically disturbed sleep, are fatigued even when seeming to get a full night of sleep, or you're told you snore a lot, consider contacting a sleep clinic in your area and undergoing a sleep study. Conditions such as sleep apnea can be managed, with enormous improvements in health and energy, but only after they are diagnosed.

Learn more about good sleep hygiene and how sleep impacts your overall health.

Low tech = high quality running

The sports world is dominated by a gear mindset. Heart rate monitors, GPS watches, power meters, smart phone apps…

What technology do you use to track, monitor, document, and assess your workouts?

How important is gear in your progress and how much joy has it brought you. I will wager that the true answer is “not much”.

What if I could offer you a robust, flexible, and fluid system based on millions of years of development and built by the most rigorous design collective ever known? Sound good? Well, you’ve already got it. You were born with it.

We have sensors distributed throughout the body that are exquisitely sensitive, adaptable, integrated, and constantly recalibrated. Providing input and data to these sensors is a neural, humoral, and hormonal signaling system so expansive and intertwined that we are only beginning to comprehend its complexity. We network all of this into the most complicated computing system ever devised - our brains (and spinal cords). We evaluate millions of datum points collectively and in the context of our emotions, motivations, goals, and other executive-level circumstances to formulate perceptions of our immediate situation considering our past and our desired future. We subtly balance the importance and value of each bit of data in the context of everything else going on in our lives, from how much quality sleep we got last night to the degree of our motivations for the task at hand. And, we employ this system with iterative, instantaneous, and precise calibrations and recalibrations on the fly (on the run!).

Holding a watch, app, or other device up to this standard and against what nature has provided us is absurd. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that some piece of hardware on your wrist is somehow smarter or can provide you with better outcomes.

If we lived our lives as humans have, our predecessors did, and all other animals do…in the wild and constantly in tune with the natural world for survival…then paying attention to our perceptions would be synonymous with life. However, our synthetic surroundings, comforts, and technologies have served to dissociate us from the need to pay close attention to ourselves. It takes practice to regain the natural skills required to be in tune with ourselves.

Devices, apps, watches, etc. are best, in my opinion, for people on the ends of the spectrum of runners, for those relatively new to the sport and for those approaching their potential. They can be useful as tools to help us develop a conscious awareness of physiologic parameters in the context of our perceptions. When used as a tool to help bridge the divide between our dissociated state and a greater connection to our perceptions, then these devices can be useful. Everyone in the middle 70-ish % might be better off, progress quicker, and enjoy running more by forgetting the technology on most runs.

My take-home message to you: leave all the gadgets at home and pay close attention to how you feel. Do this on more runs than not. Dedicate yourself to becoming a better student of your own body. I promise that a new world of connection will open to you and that you will become a faster, stronger, and happier runner.

Let go of thresholds

Aerobic threshold, anaerobic threshold, lactate threshold… The running community is mired in threshold-thinking. This mode of thinking is flawed, misleading, and distracting. Ultimately, it holds back many runners and keeps them from training well.

The terminology is flawed.
The intensity or pace labeled by these terms does not demarcate anything special with regard to physiology of training for endurance performance. There are thresholds in physiology, true thresholds, but the ones noted above here used commonly in the running world are not thresholds. Rather, they are vague ranges of intensity that have little pragmatic utility beyond a rudimentary estimation of intensities that correlate with graded effort levels. Indeed, there are underlying bioenergetics and neuromuscular recruitment patterns associated with these ranges of intensity, which are of interest to a scientist like me. But, they do more harm than good when used in the settings of training prescriptions.

The terminology is misleading.
For all running speeds, the active muscle cells are making lactate and consuming energy while using oxygen (aerobic). And, we’re always getting some energy through pathways that do not use oxygen (anaerobic). The implications associated with aerobic/anaerobic/lactate threshold terms is that there's a pivotal shift in the use of oxygen or the production of lactate. There is a tiny thread of truth to that implication but it is so nuanced and so far from meaningful utility for the athlete that these inaccurate terms tend to confuse the conversation more than clarify it.

The terminology is distracting.
Few athletes measure or monitor oxygen consumption, carbon dioxide production, or lactate in training. Moreover, few athletes really care about any of these, per se. Lactate has little or nothing to do with performance in an ultra-marathon. How our bodies use metabolic substrates (carbohydrates and fats primarily; protein to a small extent) in conjunction with oxygen is not our direct focus in training. Instead, we should focus on performance measures and train accordingly. Let millions of years of evolution do what they are supposed to do - adapt to the stresses we place. Put performance oriented stresses on your body and allow the bioenergetics to adapt as they will, as your evolutionary wisdom will do. 

This terminology has a long history and has contributed to the development of ‘energy systems’ training. The ‘energy systems’ fad of training is just that, a fad or phase. It is natural human behavior to ride waves of conceptual novelty. The ‘energy systems’ fad is a wave moving through the running community. Like all such fads, there are important and accurate undercurrents, but a focus on ‘energy systems’ is superficial and overly narrow. There are myriad factors in the formula to calculate endurance performance. ‘Energy systems' are a small set of the variables. This does not mean that training focused on energy systems is necessarily insufficient. Rather, proper training design, no matter what it’s stated focus, necessarily incorporates many of the other myriad factors in the formula. Without stating them explicitly, well-designed training plans are multifactorial. It is the verbal emphasis on energy systems that is insufficient because it insufficiently describes the totality of the training.

I encourage all ultra-marathon runners to remove the ‘threshold’ labels from their vocabulary and stop using the words aerobic, anaerobic, and lactate/lactic acid, too. You’ll find that you are then forced to think deeply about what it is that you are really talking about. It will become apparent that the old terms did not capture your intent because they don’t accurately reflect either the underlying physiology or the relevant factors on which you are focused.