Running a Marathon in New Zealand

As I type this blog post, I am laying in a hotel room in New Zealand having just finished another marathon. I am in pain (which is slightly an understatement.) The race didn’t go well for me and I ended up with my worst marathon time by approximately an hour. Why? I didn’t train. I completed approximately two long runs to prepare my body for 26.2 miles—obviously not nearly enough. And being a non-athlete, this makes it doubly as difficult. But the race was in a particularly enchanting city with spectacular views of both land and sea. Here are a few of my favorite moments running in the Land Down Under.

Crossing the bridge. One of Auckland’s most famous landmarks is the harbor bridge and luckily for runners, race directors receive permission to shut down two lanes to make it a part of the course. The quads certainly work hard for this portion of the marathon as it climbs approximately one kilometer at a high grade. Fortunately, participants are rewarded for their efforts, as you descend the same distance and overlook the harbor parked full of sailboats and expensive-looking yachts.

Running along the coast. On the back half of the marathon, you run next to the coastline and watch boats circle the calm waters, feel the cool breeze on your sweaty body and pass quaint cafes and restaurants that line the waterfront. To me, I feel something comforting about the water and it’s particularly helpful during a marathon.

The proper people. Spectators clap and not yell. Instead, they rather decisively state, “Well done, mate,” in a reserved tone. The locals running in the marathon were very friendly and cheerful. When I felt so behind and started to cry dry tears, I could hear fellow runners with New Zealand accents come up next to me, tap me on the back and say, “Come on, you’ve got this. Just follow me.” I haven’t done many races where the other runners are just so encouraging. Usually by mile 24, everyone is in such a bad mood. But not New Zealand runners, their upbeat personalities shine through even in the toughest marathon moments.

Taking a ferry.The race started on an island (hence crossing the bridge.) We arose at 4 a.m. to make our way to the ferry boat to sit in quiet solitude with other marathoners and half marathoners for a quick jaunt by boat.

Taking a ferry to the start

The party animals. As I walked to the ferry boat at 4:30 a.m., the bars were still open and the streets were full of those just ending their evening (as mine was beginning.) Our first spectators were night owls coming in from a Saturday night of drinking and dancing. Usually early-morning spectators are spouses of runners wearing lots of warm clothes. This time it was nicely dressed men and women wearing their club outfits.

I recommend a race Down Under. I just wish I had a better finish time.

Blood Sugar and Exercise

We’ve all felt how our blood sugar can impact us: that infamous midday crash that leaves us dragging through the rest of the day. But our blood sugar levels are actually part of an incredibly complex biological system with wide reaching effects. In addition to its bearing on our daily lives, our blood sugar can both effect and be effected by our exercise program.


How Blood Sugar Works

The term blood sugar, or blood glucose, refers to a ratio of how much sugar is in – you guessed it – your blood. That glucose is taken from the food you eat and acts as the primary fuel source for just about everything that happens in your body down to the cellular level. By having some of it simply floating through your blood stream, it is readily available for the cells to absorb and use. Too much glucose, however, can damage the cells. A healthy blood glucose level is between 90 and 110 mg/dl.

Two hormones, both made and release by the pancreas, work to maintain this balance. Insulin is used when blood glucose levels are too high. Once its in the blood stream it tells the cells to absorb more glucose and has the liver store more for later use. This removes the sugar from the blood and lowers the blood glucose.

When there is too little sugar in the blood, glucagon is sent out. Glucagon lets the liver know that it’s time to release all of the store glucose into the blood stream.


Fitness and Blood Sugar

What’s the typical gas mileage like on your car? Now imagine that, instead of driving the way you normally you do, we expected your car to perform at double the speed? Or what if we hitched a half-ton trailer to it? Among other things that would happen to your car, your gas mileage would drop significantly.

Your muscles work the same way. When we place higher demands on them, our muscles demand more fuel more rapidly. Over-training, specifically strength training, can actually cause an increased sensitivity to insulin, causing your cells to absorb too much blood sugar too quickly. This can result in a post-training crash but can also affect you at other times.

When you eat a carbohydrate-rich food, those carbs quickly become glucose. In response to the rise in glucose, your body produces insulin. If you’re overly sensitive to insulin, though, this will cause your blood sugar to crash as a form of reactive hypoglycemia.

Studies suggest, however, that endurance training can have the opposite effect. Although the link isn’t fully understood, endurance training seems to balance insulin sensitivity. Additionally, during this type of exercise fat used more readily for fuel than carbohydrates so there is less of an impact on your blood sugar levels.


Finding Your Center

The study of any biological function will inevitably bring your back to the concept of homeostasis. This is the idea that our bodies are constantly self-regulating by means of competing forces to maintain a balance. Blood sugar is a prime example of this.

Since exercise can so easily throw off this delicate balance and our exercise performance can be negatively affected by it, how can we maintain health levels?

Diet is key. Make the shift to six small meals a day, consisting mainly of protein and complex carbohydrates. These foods, like whole grains and starchy vegetables, break down slowly and don’t cause an insulin spike or the resulting crash. Similarly, avoid simple sugars like soda and baked foods since this type of carbohydrate is broken down quickly and will cause your blood sugar to crash.

Has your exercise program been affected by your blood sugar? How have you overcome it? Please share your experience with us in the comments!





Perfect, Pain-free Running Form

“No pain, no gain” is one of the most persistent fitness bromides, chanted by countless exercisers as they push themselves through their workouts. Despite the prevalence of this phrase though, it’s actually a terrible over-simplification, with potentially dangerous effects.

The truth is that pain is your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong and shouldn’t just be ignored. If your car starts to make an unfamiliar sound, do you drive faster or do you stop to see what the problem is?

Out of all exercise modes, running can come with an extremely wide spectrum of aches and pains, some minor and some more severe. While the exact remedy for your particular pain will depend on your individual situation, a major step for most runners is to check their stride and running form. Although these changes generally help relieve most common pains, more severe and persistent problems should be discussed with your doctor.


How to Run

People rarely think about their running form; they just run. And since running comes so naturally to the human body, it can take a considerable amount of conscious effort to make any changes. It’s very possible, though, that your running technique is the cause of your pains, whether they’re in your feet or your neck.

Do you watch your feet when you run? Or are you looking for dropped change? Since your posture begins in your neck, it’s vital that you hold your head upright. This will help to straighten up your shoulders and align your spine, which will make all of your other movements more efficient.

Personally, I have difficulty with my shoulders. Especially towards the end of my run, when I’m starting to get tired, my shoulders start to tighten and creep up toward my ears. When this happens my chest narrows and reduces my breathing capacity and my balance is thrown off. If you struggle with this, periodically shake your shoulders loose and be conscious of keeping them level.

The arms play a surprisingly important role in running, since most of the work is done by your legs. The well-timed swinging of your arms works along with your legs to maintain your balance and move you forward. To optimize this relationship and stop yourself from wasting energy where it’s not needed, make sure that your arms swing forward and back, not side to side across your torso. For the same reason, refrain from clenching your fists since this will tighten up much of your upper body and limit movement while burning unnecessary calories and demanding blood which is really needed elsewhere.

You may not think of it as a particularly dynamic area but the reality is that much of the movement associated with running originates in your torso and hips. If you’ve ever worked with a running coach or any track professional, you’ve probably heard a lengthy lecture of “running tall.” This means that you should keep your body upright, maintaining the natural curve in your lumbar spine. This plays the dual role of opening up your chest for maximum lung capacity and ensuring that all of your joints are properly.


Along with an upright posture, though, many modern running styles now stress a slight lean starting from your ankles. This can be very difficult to master and will require some patience but many notice a significant improvement in their speed and overall enjoyment after grasping this technique. The lean is almost a controlled fall so that you’re allowing gravity to pull you forward.

Make sure that your hips are level throughout your exercise since misaligned hips will throw off everything that comes after them. If your hips are crooked, your knees and ankles will all be forced into unnatural angles to compensate. This will often require stretching before and after your run to loosen the muscles around your hips and allow them to operate normally.

Keep a slight bend in your knees so that they can absorb the impact of each step but keep your steps short. If your lower leg is landing in front of you, you’re hyperextending your knees and this could cause pain and significant injury.

Lastly, of course, we have to consider your feet. You should land on the middle of your foot and roll forward onto the balls of your feet for the push-off. Some shoes can make this difficult if they have heavy padding on the heel which can encourage a heel-strike. This strike pattern will cut your stride short and greatly increase the risk of injury to your ankles, knees and muscles of your lower leg. Likewise, landing on the balls of your feet won’t allow your foot to properly absorb the impact and will put too much pressure of the weaker bones of your foot, as well as on your calves.

We tend to take for granted that our bodies will naturally know how to run correctly but the truth is that we often make mistakes without realizing it that can cause constant and even debilitating pain. Fortunately, a few simple changes to our technique can make all the difference.

What has helped you to avoid injuries while running? Please share your tips with us in the comments.





Wake Up and Run

There are the natural “morning people” out there who can just leap out of bed in the morning and take on the day. For these few, a morning workout might seem like an obvious choice, for the rest of us, though, it’s a little more difficult. Generally, workouts get pushed off until the end of the day, after everything else that we needed to get done is accomplished. But is that really a better approach? Are there benefits to exercising first thing in the morning, before you do anything else?


A Good Start

A range of studies, exploring different aspects of exercise, have found several reasons why a morning run can help to set a healthy pattern for the rest of the day.

The first, and probably the most noticeable benefit of a morning workout is an improved mood and overall sense of well-being. If you’ve been exercising regularly for any length of time, it won’t shock you at all to learn that exercise can put you in a better mood. But, in this case, it has important applications. If you’re in a good mood and are thinking clearly, you’re more likely to make better decisions when it comes to your diet for the day. Also, when you notice that you’re feeling better, you’re more likely to continue doing what made you feel that way which, in this case, is morning exercise.

Connected to the mood-enhancing effects of a morning workout is a heightened state of mental alertness which will help you be more successful in whatever you’re doing the rest of the day. Although it may be a struggle to get out of bed and workout first thing in the morning, doing so will help you wake up quickly. Since the pressures of the day haven’t had a chance to weigh in on you yet, you’ll be able to give your workout your full attention. Additionally, by the time you do start your normal daily routine you will already be fully awake and feel accomplished.

Another subtle, but valuable, effect from morning exercise is a lasting boost to your metabolism. Numerous studies have found that, in addition to the calories burned for fuel during exercise, we continue to use increased amount of calories throughout the day following a workout. One study, in particular, showed that cyclists continued to burn an extra 190 calories over the 14 hours after a 45 minute, high intensity workout. These conclusions have been backed by other studies but it is important to note that low or moderate intensity workouts don’t show the same results.


Improved Sleep

It might seem odd at first but an early morning run may help you sleep better. A deep, restful sleep is largely dependant on regularity. In order for our body to properly set up the cycles that help us feel rested, we need to go to sleep and wake up at about the same time every day. Have a regularly scheduled workout can help you to set and maintain such a pattern

There’s also research to suggest that people who exercise in the morning will have less trouble falling asleep then those who exercise in the evening.

Apart from the psychological benefits of sleep, it plays a direct role in weight loss. Hormones that control your appetite and metabolism are regulated by your sleep patterns and maintaining a healthy sleep schedule will ensure that these hormones are released at proper levels.

Have you experienced benefits from working out first thing in the morning? Please share your experience in the comments!




The Antioxidant, Free Radical Myth

“Antioxidant” has become one of the most potent buzzwords in the supplement industry and marketers slap it on just about everything. The misunderstood substances have been attributed with a huge range of benefits from curing and preventing cancer to regrowing hair. Conversely, free radicals, which antioxidants neutralize, are portrayed as a sort of gang of rioters, wreaking havoc on your body from the inside out. But studies suggest that this is a gross oversimplification that could be potentially dangerous.

So what is the role of antioxidants, then? Are free radicals really these destructive thugs that need to be wiped out mercilessly? Should we supplement our dietary antioxidant intake?


Misunderstood Free Radicals

Our bodies, even at the smallest level, are constantly trying to maintain balance. When in balance, all healthy molecules have pairs of electrons. When a molecule is damaged and has a lonely, unpaired electron, it becomes a free radical and tries to replace its lost electron by stealing one from another molecule. Once this happens, it can damage cell walls and even the cellular DNA. This activity can cause cancer and several other diseases.

It is true that antioxidants stop this destructive chain of events, but this is only part of the story.

Free radicals aren’t all bad and, in small doses, are vital for energy production and a healthy immune system. Megadoses of antioxidants, then, that totally destroy the free radicals in your system can be counterproductive and harmful, according to several studies.


The Research

Primary study used to defend the reputation of free radicals was published in 2010. The researchers found that worms that had elevated levels of free radicals actually lived longer than normal worms. Interestingly, when the worms were then given antioxidants the effects were reversed and their lifespan returned to a normal length. More research is need, though, to understand how this relates to humans.

A series of ongoing studies carried on since the 1980s has explored the effects and potential benefits of antioxidants, primarily beta carotene, vitamin C and vitamin E. No study has yet been able to prove conclusively that any of these antioxidants have any benefits and its even doubted that vitamin E is an antioxidant at all. Not only could these studies show no benefits from these substances but increased levels of beta carotene and vitamin E was linked with a dangerously high risk of lung cancer and heart disease. Vitamin C supplements have also been shown to accelerate arterial plaque buildup in diabetics.


Should You Take Supplements?

Each of the above-noted studies was performed using a purified extract of the given substance and highlights a interesting fact: Purified supplements are no substitute for a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.

Consider, too, that the original tests that gave rise to the interest in antioxidants were executed in test tubes rather than in the human body. When the experiments were reproduced in a healthy human body, the researchers found that the antioxidants had no effect either because they were a form that is unusable to the body or because it was more of the substance than the body needed.

People with a deficiency of a given antioxidant, like vitamin C, are the exception. But you should only take supplements of any kind under the direction of your doctor.

As with all aspects of fitness, balance is vital. Since we still cannot fully explain the role that free radicals and antioxidants play in the body, the best course is to maintain a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables.



Running on the Great Wall of China

Running a marathon is hard no matter what the course–26.2 miles of extreme exertion. But as any marathoner knows, some races ask runners to complete the ridiculous. One such race is the Great Wall of China Marathon. Held each May, the course draws thousands of participants from all over the globe who complete the challenging miles one step at a time.

For those interested in such a challenge, here is a sprinkling of tidbits I learned by running it:

Not all of the course occurs on the Wall itself. The marathon includes two passes on the Great Wall, for a total of 8K. The first 5K is run up a hill to the entrance to the Wall and then the next 4K is on the Wall. Miles 21 and 22 are also on the Wall–the most challenging part of the course. Remember to build up your endurance to hang on for those two miles–you’ll need it.

Get ready to climb. For the 8K you’ll be completing on the Wall, it’ll involve climbing more than 5,600 steps, which is no small feat. I spent hours at the track climbing bleachers to train, but that did not one bit of good. The steps on the Wall vary in size from small to almost waist high. It’s a definite quad workout–strengthen those legs with weight lifting more for this race than any other.

Get over your fear of heights. Some of the steps are straight down and straight up. Many runners held onto the sides of the Wall for assistance due to fear of falling. It’s not a gradual descend like most staircases–it’s straight down–and on top of it, one climb is right next to a cliff with nothing on the side of you but a long way down.

All runners must partake of a mandatory climb two days before the race. Due to the challenging course, race directors felt obligated to insist racers try out the 4K Wall climb prior to the actual event. This lets you test out the stairs and decide if you’re up for the marathon or desire to switch to the half, which you can easily do on that day. My recommendation is to stretch after this climb. Most runners’ muscles ached from this mandatory climb, which meant on race day they were already sore before the race even started (including myself). Stretch, stretch, stretch and take your time on this mandatory climb. Bring a camera, stop for photos and enjoy the scenery for this 4K.

Crawl. Although it may feel embarrassing, it’ll help immensely. At mile 21 and 22, when your legs are full of lactic acid, using your arms for assistance up those stairs relieves the pressure from your legs. Your arms aren’t tired, so use them.

Carry a water bottle. The weather is hot and humid and it’s difficult to get water bottles onto the Wall to set up aid stations.

Enjoy the experience. When you’re not on the Wall, you’re running through the hillside of China and through tiny villages in which the Chinese people step out of their homes to celebrate you. I ran past a school in which children lined up to serenade each runner. Sweet young girls made dandelion bouquets to hand runners as they passed by; men driving in cars stopped to get out and take photos, so joyful to have strangers running through their land.

Although the Great Wall of China Marathon is one of the most challenging in the world, the scenery, support from the Chinese villagers and the ability to run on a part of the Wall normally closed to tourists, makes this a running experience unlike any other.