Fartlek - a Swedish innovation June 18 2015, 0 Comments

A normal training programme for a running event will include distance work to build stamina and shorter faster elements such as intervals to build strength and speed. In the 1930s Gösta Holmér, the Swedish national cross country coach, put these together into the Fartlek, near-literally speed-play in Swedish.  This is how it works.

In the course of a normal run, you insert periods of increased speed, for instance a faster two-minutes within each kilometre, with longer normal running spells in between to allow for recovery.  The advantage of this is that it does not require dedicated times or places for speed training.  It can take place almost anywhere, on roads or trails, and features occurring on the run can be put to use - lamp posts can be counted to set distances for the fast and slower stretches, or hills can be used for shorter, flat-out uphill work.  All of this will add spice to a normal run, and has been shown to be extremely effective in building both speed and stamina.

Sweden gave the world ABBA and the car safety belt, and punches above its weight in international sports competitions.  Distance runners can thank it for the Fartlek, an innovation used to this day by many serious runners.

Where to run? May 26 2015, 0 Comments

When running, I tend to either have a set route, or to simply wander until I feel like coming home.  For those who want to break their routine, but don't trust themselves not to be too far from home when they finally decide to head back, there are designated runs where the route and distance are clearly defined.

Interestingly, when I searched for these in the Zürich area, I found them listed under the Tiefbau- und Entsorgungsdepartement, the department which regulates civil (literally, 'underground') building and waste disposal, and there was a plethora of offerings.

Finnenbahn are tracks, often through the forest with a sawdust/wood bark suface which is spongy to run on.  Excellent for peace and quiet and offering the possibility of running completely barefoot without the risk of sharp stones or shards of glass.  Many of these are lit at night when the time of year requires it.

Waldlaufstrecke provide longer distances on standard tracks, again through the forests which are so readily accessible from towns and cities in Switzerland.

Vitaparcours trails have exercise stations along their length at which you can work on strength or flexibility training.  They are generally shorter, but you can do them more than once if you want to prolong the experience.

Most of the above options offer access to free showering and changing facilities, and you can find them for the Zürich area here.  For other parts of Switzerland, a google search will find them pretty quickly.

If you want more complete immersion in your running, a friend drew my attention to the growing trend for running camps in the USA, where participants can go away for a weekend or a week of running coaching and practice - details here.  Of course, you can also do this in Switzerland where we have unparalleled nature and terrains for running, details of one of these here.

What sort of barefoot shoe would we recommend for these?  For summer, the Terra offers good contact with the ground, and a sole which curls up to protect the toes and heels against knocks and scuffs.  If you're going really high up where it can be chilly, an Apex or Hero might be better for the additional warmth brought by a thermoprene upper.  Wherever you go, and whatever you wear, we wish you a good summer of running!

What sort of runner are you? April 30 2015, 0 Comments

Reflecting on the running community, it seems that it has a big a diversity as the general population.  As with the general community, runners tend to fall into groups of 'types', with some spillage from one type to another.  So what sort of runner are you?

The Competitor.  The competitor always has a goal and a plan on how to get there, from the 5k charity run right through to the ultra-marathon runner who will do a continuous 200km.  A goal helps.  Whether it is as part of a 20kg weight-loss programme, or the gruelling lead up to that long, tough race, it helps to get you out of bed on those cold, wet mornings and to attack your day.

The Good Mood Generator.  Stress hormones and adrenaline can build up during the working day, and running helps to burn them off.  It provides a haven away from the office environment, along with the ability to use the muscles we inherited as part of our evolutionary development and which see too little use in the office.  That feeling at the end of the run in which the tensions accumulated during the day are all gone is well worth the effort.

The Problem Solver.  Running bears many similarities to meditation, regular breathing, a repetitive rhythm, and a chance for the mind to freewheel.  Often, when faced with a knotty issue which seems to have no solution, running allows the subconscious to kick in and untangle it.

The Social Runner.  Running in a group provides social contact and, if wanted, an element of competition to provide a little push.  It is a very wholesome kind of socialising too - no preservatives, no additives, no smoke, and a great way to make contact with like-minded people when moving to a new home.

The Escapist.  Often running on their own, the escapist can be found following trails through field and forest to engage in a little solitude in a healing environment.

The Explorer.  Characterised by the fact that many times they really don't know where they are going, the explorer runs in cities, on hills or in woods - anywhere, so long as it opens up new horizons and widens their knowledge of the place where they are.  They need a good mental compass to make sure that they can find their way to where they want to finish, and the length of the run often depends on the interest of the environment.

The Commuter.  Often with a backpack containing a towel and the days clothes, the commuter runs at the beginning and/or end of the day.  They arrive at work awake, oxygenated and invigorated and ready for the challenge, and at work relaxed after a clear break from the stresses of the day.

So which one(s) are you?


Adapting to barefoot-style running April 14 2015, 0 Comments

Changing back to a barefoot running style should be gradual. I say 'back' because, if you watch children running they land on the forefoot - and don't they love to run!

Landing on the forefoot means that the foot and the calves absorb the impact as the heel is lowered to the floor, and this requires strength.  The muscles and tendons involved in this movement need to be strengthened, and building muscle takes time - ask any body builder.  Overdoing it can result in stiffness, soreness and inflammation, and many people who have switched to barefoot shoes have experienced this.  So what can you do to avoid it?

Start slowly - keep running in the old shoes, and intersperse this with shorter distances in your barefoot shoes.  Take rest days - the body works by a system of repair-and-improve.  Every time you run, you create an oxygen debt in your muscles to which the body responds by building more lung capacity to capture oxygen, and more capillaries in the muscles to distribute it and take away carbon dioxide.  Working the muscles produces micro-tears in their structure, prompting a repair mechanism which builds back the tissue better than before.  All of this takes time, and rest days in between exercises allow it to happen.  Gradually increase the distance you do in your barefoot shoes, and if you start to experience stiffness in your calves, hold at that distance or drop back a little to allow them to catch up.  Gradually replace the time spent in your normal running shoes with time in your barefoot ones.

A useful tip is to roll out your muscles and tendons. You can buy a hard-foam roller to do this, but I use a rolling pin.  If I am feeling stiffness, I roll out the muscles in my calves, shins and upper legs for a few minutes before running and again after stretching at the end of the run.  This helps to move the lactic acid through and works with the stretching to lengthen and relax the muscles.  This has also helped in my case with achey knees, where I spent a little more time rolling the iliotibial band above and outside the knee as tightness here can affect the knee.

It does take time, but the rewards are great - success comes in the form of strong, fit legs and feet and light, trouble-free running with all of the pleasure that that can bring.

In pursuit of pain-free running March 24 2015, 0 Comments

This reduces the impact landing on the heels, which is the most common area for pain with plantar fasciitis.  The Terras would help with this, as they have that barefoot feel about them that makes heel-planting counter-intuitive.

A nice pair of lungs March 20 2015, 0 Comments

In a previous blog I mentioned whooping for air after doing some intervals, and that got me to thinking about the whole area of lung capacity and stamina.

Our capacity to take in oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide depends on our lungs and our circulatory system.  Our lungs have a total capacity of normally about six litres for men and four for women, and at rest we use about 10% of this to breathe, the in- and out-flow being called the tidal volume.  The 'vital capacity' of the lungs is the maximum volume that we can breathe out after a full inhalation, and this is about 4.8 litres for a man, and 3.2 for a woman.  This is less than the full capacity of the lungs, as it is not possible to completely evacuate them.  Nevertheless, it is considerably more than we use in everyday life, which means that a lot of the air in our lungs is not exchanged with normal breathing.  Deep breathing, either induced by exercise or through deliberate techniques such as are found in yoga, is an excellent way to flush stale air out of the lungs and replace it with fresh.

When we make ourselves pant with exercise, we are creating an oxygen debt in our bodies, and this, in turn, is tells the body that it needs to increase it's capacity for absorbing and distributing oxygen, our aerobic capacity.  We grow more alveoli in our lungs, increasing the capacity to take in air, and new capillaries in our muscles better to distribute the oxygen to them and carry away carbon dioxide.  If we overdo it and cannot supply enough oxygen for a sustained period, the body switches to less efficient anaerobic respiration, producing lactic acid as a by product, which makes us feel stiff and sore afterwards.

So the occasional whooping for air is a good thing.  It clears out the stale air in our lungs, and contributes to making us fitter.

Barefoot or cushioning? February 24 2015, 0 Comments

Last week, a friend sent me an article from the International New York Times describing the arrival of maximalist, highly cushioned shoes. You might be surprised that such a topic would appear on this website, as we are at the other end of the running philosophy spectrum. I was initially a little reluctant to read it because I was sure that I wouldn't like what I saw. In psychology, this is known as 'confirmational bias' - an acceptance of anything that confirms one's existing beliefs, and rejection of anything which contradicts them.  However, I did read it, and in the interests of open-mindedness (the opposite of confirmational bias...), here is what I found and think.

Born to runOn the basis  of the story of a prominent long-distance runner whose plantar fasciitis, a painful inflammation of the feet, was resolved by using maximalist shoes, they seem to work.  Plantar fasciitis was exactly the issue that plagued Christopher McDougal, author of the best-selling Born to Run, and his cure was to change to barefoot running, so it seems that different approaches can come to the same resolution. The article emphasised that, even with the cushioning, correct running style on the forefoot is important. This uses foot pronation and the gradual lowering of the heel to absorb impact, wonderfully demonstrated by professor Daniel Lieberman at Harvard. 

I guess that each individual has to find his or her solution to their running needs, and this can be different for different people.  For my part, switching to barefoot running (with barefoot shoes) has been life-changing, and I shall stick with it.  And, even in this article, I found a salve for my confirmational bias - the long-distance runner who uses the maximalist shoes still runs shorter distances barefoot to keep his feet strong.  He drily concludes that people who spend more time improving their bodies as opposed to shopping for shoes are the ones who are going to run better.

ZEMgear Heroes at home in the snow February 11 2015, 0 Comments

Last weekend I went away with a running group for a Winterfest.  One of us lays a trail using blobs of coloured flour - you can see from the picture that on Saturday it was blue.  When the trail is laid, the rest of us follow it, navigating such deliberate obstacles as places where the trail disappears so that we have to fan out and find it, and others where it doubles back on itself.

You can also see that we ran on a lot of snow and ice, which makes for hard work when it is either broken up or deep.  I was wearing Apexes on Friday evening and Sunday morning, and Heroes on Saturday.  My feet were toasty warm through all three runs, and, even in deep snow, I never had the discomfort of snow getting into the ZEMs.


The reason for this harks back to the orignial ZEMgear designs which were for playing beach volleyball.   They are fully elasticated, fitting snugly to the feet and ankles (I can testify that on beaches no sand gets in).  Likewise, the winter versions don't let in the snow and the Thermoprene material ensures that feet stay warm while running.

They were all good runs, Saturday's longer than expected as we got lost, eventually clocking over 20km and instilling even more confidence in me that snow and ice are no obstacles for a good pair of barefoot shoes!

Long and slow, or short and sharp? February 05 2015, 0 Comments

Up until recently, the most common refrain that I heard about distance running was that you should do some long, slow running for stamina, and some faster work to build speed.  The extension of this was based on heart rate, with 80% of training time at 60-70% of the maximum heart rate (often called the 'fat burn' rate), and the remaining at 80% or more.

An extension of this, and a theme that I am hearing more and more, is that short, sharp bursts of activity and rest are actually much better for getting fit.  Recommended times vary, but distinct improvements in fitness have been recorded with less than 5 minutes a day.  The interval training involves 20 seconds or so at absolute top speed, followed by a rest period of 10 to 40 seconds.  I have tried this myself at a track near here, and with a heart monitor, and here is the result.

I did about a 6k warm-up, so the relevant bit for the intervals was the spiky bit at the end.  I did five, about 100 metres, followed by 300 slow, and you will see there are five peaks towards the end with a gradually ascending maximum.  Two observations on this.  Firstly, by the end of the last interval I was whooping for air, so my lungs definitely got a clearout.  Secondly, sprinting like this, you use the full travel of your stride, bringing the knees right up at front, and extending back hard for the thrust.  This addresses a concern that I have about always running long and slow, in that the muscles are not used through the full length of their travel and I don't believe this is best for them.

Later that week, I ran with my usual group, and I have to say found it easier, and clocked a better speed than before.  So the interval training stays from now on.


The sock conundrum January 22 2015, 0 Comments

Despite a gradual improvement in fitness from running, by the end of last year I was having a nagging recurrence of slight inflammation in my Achilles tendons - not enough to stop running, but enough to make them uncomfortable for a couple of days.  I run with a group, and we stand around and socialise after the run, and I felt that the cold around my ankles aggravated the inflammation.

A two-week break at Christmas gave them time to recover, and I took a couple of other measures.  To quiet down my immune system and inflammatory response, I changed my diet to increase my intake of antioxidants and omega-3 oils with more fruit, vegetables and fish.  This was less an issue when I wore Heroes, because they reach higher up the ankles, but more so when I wore Apexes as there was a gap between them and my running pants.

I browsed toe-socks to address this, but then Claudia pointed out that we had a solution in our own inventory in the form of the HG ankle supports, and this proved to be very successful.  They are elasticated, offering some support, and more importantly in this case, keeping the ankles and tendons warm.  They work really well with the ZEMgear shoes, as they are effectively toeless socks.

It worked.  The achilles tendons are now quiet, and I am running freely and enjoyably through the winter chill.

Running the Caballo Blanco Ultramarathon - article in the Laramie Boomerang May 27 2014, 0 Comments

If running is in your blood, this should strike a cord...


It's official - running is good for your brain... April 10 2014, 0 Comments

Recent news of a study which tracked its subjects over 25 years shows a correlation between aerobic exercise in your 20s and cognitive skills some 20 years later.  People who were able to run for longer in the first part of the test demonstrated better in thinking and memory tests up to 25 years later. Moreover, if their fitness was maintained, shown by smaller differences in performance at the end and beginning of the tests, people demonstrated better executive function skills (eg. working memory, reasoning, task flexibility and problem solving).

So there it is - if you want to be cleverer, get your ZEMs on and get running!

More about this study HERE.