Your Morning Coffee and Your Workout

Americans love their coffee, guzzling down about 400 million cups every day. In fact, coffee earned the nickname “Joe” during WWII because Joe was such a common name among the American solders, who drank it heavily. But there are a number of conflicting opinions regarding the physiological effects of coffee and whether or not it’s even safe to drink. The theories multiply in the athletic context, with some people arguing that athletes shouldn’t even touch the stuff. But what does the research reveal? Is coffee healthy for the average person? How much is considered a safe amount? What effects can it have on athletes and exercisers?

What’s in Your Morning Cup

The star player in any discussion on coffee is, of course, caffeine. Famously, caffeine is a stimulant which means that it increases heart rate and blood flow, widening the blood vessels and giving you that extra boost.

But this process can backfire, leading to the dreaded crash. Once the effects of caffeine wear off, the body is shocked back to reality. Not only do the blood vessels contract, which can leave you exhausted and result in a headache, but the sudden absence of caffeine could lead to other deficiencies. Since coffee has little-to-no nutritional value, once the jolt of caffeine is gone, there’s very little fuel to keep you moving unless you’ve had a decent meal. But caffeine is also an appetite suppressant, so you may be subconsciously keep your portions smaller. In fairness, though, this type of painful crash is unlikely to happen if you’ve only had a small amount of coffee or if you’re to it.

Similar symptoms can also accompany caffeine withdrawal, if you go cold turkey.

But there’s a lot more going on in your mug than that. Coffee contains hundreds of active compounds, many of them are not fully understood, which effect several biological systems. For example a study conducted at the Harvard School of Public Health found that coffee may be beneficial for the prevention of type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s Disease, liver cancer, cirrhosis and heart disease.

For The Athlete

Regardless of your sport, most athletes are looking for some kind of competitive edge. Since caffeine is a familiar and reliable stimulant, many supplements contain it. Instead of investing in these products, though, most athletes just turn to coffee. Especially for runners who like to head out first thing in the morning, that cup of coffee might be an essential part of your routine.

The research supports the use of coffee as a performance enhancer, particularly for endurance activities lasting longer than 20 minutes. Over the course of about 74 quality studies, an average improvement of around 12 percent was experienced from coffee consumption.

It was once thought that coffee, since it’s a diuretic, didn’t count toward fluid consumption and could cause dehydration. This is no longer considered true, however. Coffee, and many other caffeinated drinks, do count towards your fluid intake.


How Much Is Too Much

As noted above, too much caffeine can have painful side effects. But what’s the limit? It’s difficult to pin down a number that fits everybody, since the caffeine works differently on different individuals. Your age, health conditions, medication and the amount of coffee you normally drink will all effect your tolerance levels.

It may take some trial-and-error to find how much coffee works for you. Start with just a small cup and see how you feel. You might even try going for a run after waiting about 30 minutes. This will allow you to test the way that coffee interacts with your workout, for the good or the bad.


Running a Ragnar Relay

I participated in my first Ragnar race last year and this weekend cheered my mates into the finish line of Ragnar Del Sol in Arizona. While I don’t envy their sleepless night, I felt a little twinge of sadness from not participating in the friendship-making opportunity presented with Ragnar.

Last April, I arose at 4 a.m. to drive to the finish line near Coronado in San Diego to park my car. Our driver then whisked us all away in a van to Huntington Beach for the start. My van had a team of five, but we also had another five people in a separate van. We would all run three legs each for a total of 203 miles down the California coast and into the desert. It lasted from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. the following day; we ran through the night and in 90+ degree temperatures during the day, followed by a sudden drop of 50+ degrees when the sun slipped away.

My first leg of the Ragnar relay consisted of a five miler starting at Angel Stadium in Anaheim in 90 degrees with terrible humidity. My face turned a bright shade of red and I felt as though it were on fire. I ran/jogged through crowded streets and wove around traffic. Because Ragnar doesn’t close the streets down to traffic like typical races (which makes sense because it lasts all day), I had to stop at the stop lights and stop signs–so my five miles took considerably longer.

My next leg didn’t occur until 12 hours later, which meant a significant amount of downtime with little to do. I brought a book, but it was just too hot and miserable to really enjoy it. But at 1 a.m., I started my second leg of 6.8 miles with freezing temperatures and zero light. I didn’t encounter too many other Ragnar relay participants, so I mostly ran alone with nothing but a few flashing lights to guide me. I traversed through a golf course that offered nothing but total darkness and then I heard a click–a sound I am all too familiar–the sound of sprinklers turning on. Yes, I ran through the sprinklers with not even the light of a moon to guide me. I then turned and ended up running on a trail up a mountain.


My third leg was my shortest with just 4.4 miles, but it included Torrey Pines hill, famous in San Diego for its significant and fast rise in elevation. I ran as hard as my tired body would let me.

I did make new friends and received my medal. Despite no sleep, I recommend at least trying one Ragnar–it’s pretty mind-boggling the amount of logistics involved.

At the finish

A Happy Athlete Is A Better Athlete

Affirmations and visualizations aren’t anywhere near a new addition to the athletes toolbox. Untold numbers of athletes, regardless of their sport, have likely been told to “visualize the win” at one point or another. You reject thoughts like “I can’t do this” that will drain your energy and try to constantly encourage yourself.

And while these methods continue to be used because they seem to work, a new study adds weight to this practice. What are the findings? And how can you use this to improve your performance?

The Study

Building on the body of evidence that already links personality traits and cardiovascular health with longevity, researchers at the Florida State University College of Medicine set out to understand this link more fully. Specifically, the scientists wanted to shed light on the relationship between personality traits and cardiovascular fitness.

The study observed 642 people, ranging in age from 31 to 96 and assessed each for neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness. Based on the measurements of these five traits, a profile was completed for each person to determine how resilient their personality was.

The subjects’ energy expenditures were then measured at rest and during normal and maximal walking. On comparing the results, it was reveled that those with more resilient personalities not only moved more quickly but their also had greater aerobic capacity and used less energy.

These findings suggest strongly that a positive personality can go a long way in, not just improving physical fitness now, but also at increasing longevity and health down the road.

What You Can Do

But what if that’s just not who you are? Simply put, try to think more positively. Numerous studies have indicated that, in all areas of life, those who are more positive experience less stress and therefore are free of the many negative side effects anxiety.

In regards to your sport, though, those old affirmations seem to be powerful tools. Encourage yourself and build your confidence in what you’re capable of. A major step towards strengthening your self-confidence is goal-setting.

An achievable goal with help you to challenge yourself and give you a reason to be proud of yourself once it’s reached. Keep building on your goals, making them gradually bigger and more difficult. Tracking your improvement, whether it be your mile time, weight or any other measurement, will also give you visible proof of what you can accomplish.

Note that the researchers talk about the importance of a “resilient” personality. This means you, emotionally, have the ability to quickly recover from hardship.

If you do fail to reach a goal or perform as well as you had hoped in an event, the way that you handle that disappointment can also have a big impact on your future growth. Instead of thinking about how that negative experience proves that you can’t do something, focus on the frustration you felt and use it as a motivator to improve.

Have you experienced the benefits of keeping a positive viewpoint? Please share your experience in the comments.


Why I Need a Running Coach

I want to love running again

Although I love to run and my heart and mind crave that ability to let go and break out a sweat, I have really struggled to run over the past couple of years. I’ve watched my finish times drop by 30 minutes in a half marathon and the entire race feels like a struggle, whereas I used to be able to run hard for all 13.1 miles and had more energy at the finish line than I did at the start. What happened?

A number of life’s stresses and illnesses got in the way that caused a rippling effect onto my fitness. I found myself with a lack of energy and had trouble getting out of bed in the morning. I lost my desire to stay in shape, which caused a depression. This only led to getting even more out of shape. Reading my friends’ Facebook posts about their PRs, medals and shaving minutes off their daily runs made me jealous beyond belief. I almost had to shut down social media. I even set my profile to private because I’m so embarrassed by my finish times.

I vow to change this.

To get me out of my rut, I decided I need a running coach. I am currently in the process of choosing one. Here are a few deciding factors for me in locating the best running coach:

Running with a group. Many coaches offer one-on-one training, but I know I will train harder doing tempo runs in groups. I will push myself to keep up with their speed and raise my heart rate as high as possible. I also need other people to keep me motivated. If we’re all training for a particular race together, I feel like I will stay true to my training schedule and properly do my weekly runs rather than sleep in and hit my snooze button. In a sense, I should be looking for a running group with a coach, rather than just a running coach.

Budget-friendly. You can spend upwards of thousands on private coaching and training. If you check my bank accounts, you will not find thousands of extra dollars. Any extra income I make is spent on traveling to races (as evidenced by previous blog posts.) Therefore, I need someone who can fit my budget–and most inexpensive options offer the group training module, which I am looking for… win/win.

Someone encouraging. Because of the challenging time I’ve had watching my fitness fall into oblivion, I really need someone who will provide a friendly voice and not discourage me when I try, but don’t see results so quickly.

Happy training!


Water and the Athlete

Any athlete, in any sport, is doubtless familiar with the need to stay hydrated. This makes sense when you consider that the human body is, altogether, about 60 percent water. Looking at it even closer, water makes up 80 percent of blood, 90 percent of the lungs and 70 percent of your brain.

But water does more than just contribute to the make-up of things. What is the active role of water in the athlete’s body? And how much water do you really need to drink?

A Complex Role

Water is literally vital to every system of the body, even the actions that we are unaware of. For example, the liver and kidneys produce large amounts of waste as they filter the blood. Water is used to remove that waste from the organs before they are damaged and flush it from the body.

Water also plays a key role in lubricating your joints. This is especially important to areas like the knees and ankles that frequently carry large amounts of weight and suffer shock from jumping or running.

Since water is a major component in blood, it can also be said that water is responsible for getting nutrients and oxygen to your muscles during activity. After those important substances have been delivered, water then removes toxins and waste products from the muscle.

Finally, as an athlete, you are well aware of sweat and the important part it plays in maintaining your temperature. That sweat is composed mostly of water and, whether you know it or not, is being produced in small amounts all day, ever day to balance your temperature. This means that water is constantly leaving your body through the skin. In fact, the average person sweats out about four cups of water per hour of high-intensity exercise.

Consider, as well, that you exhale about a cup of water vapor everyday when you’re breathing normally. This number doesn’t account for an increased breathing rate during exercise. Combine that with the six cups of water that you lose to urine and bowel movements every day, and that all means that even when you aren’t especially active you’re losing at least seven cups of water every day.

Enough and Too Much

Those figures show that you need to replace at least seven cups of water in your body everyday. That number jumps up to about 10 to 12 cups if you’re exercising, depending on your actively level, the weather and just how much you personally tend to sweat.

While many experts admit that the classic “eight cups a day” rule is more of an estimate than a hard-and-fast rule based on science, for the average person it tends to be enough. However, you need to adjust your water intake for your personal needs.

Try weighing yourself before and after your workout to see how much water you lost. Drink two cups of water for every lost pound.

Resist the urge to just gulp down as much water as you can, though. Overhydration will decrease your sodium levels to a point that is dangerously low. This condition, if it happens quickly, can cause seizures, confusion or even coma.

Do you have tips for staying hydrated? Please share them in the comments!



Running a Marathon in Australia

In 2008, I participated in one of my favorite country’s largest races: The Gold Coast Airport Marathon. Held along the coast of Australia north of Sydney, this marathon and half marathon sees more than 20,000 runners each year. Taking place at the beginning of July, wintertime temperatures greet the marathoners. I list a few reasons why you should consider doing this race and start saving your money now.

Time of year: The year I participated, the race fell on the 4th of July. While I felt a little guilty spending the most American of holidays outside of America, it did make for an easier ability to take PTO time as I had that extra paid day off. It generally falls along that same holiday week when a number of Americans go on vacation anyway. 

The season: Because Australia’s seasons are reversed, I got to leave the heat of the summer and run in the cold of the winter. This meant rain and some not-so-pleasant racing conditions, but I’ll take that over 100 degree temperatures.

The course: As one of the flattest courses I’ve run, this could make for a nice PR if you are someone who dislikes hills. While you don’t really have any downhills to make up some time, you also don’t have to hill train–just build up the hamstrings and you’ll be just fine.

The part of the country: With views of the ocean, you can experience a post-race relaxation at the beach…or you can head out to nearby Surfer’s Paradise for a chance to participate in any number of adventures. From skydiving, surfing (if the weather permits), to taking a motorcycle up the coast to a colorful night life–this notable area of Australia allows for all sorts of pre- and post-race memories, as long as your legs don’t feel so wonky. Most tourists come for the Sydney Opera House, but doing this race forces you to experience different scenery of Oz.

The culture: Known for their lackadaisical attitude and friendliness, the “no worries” approach to life is found throughout the culture. Americans will enjoy the spirit found among the Aussies during their time Down Under. It’s not a race you simply check off as another marathon, you’ll take away so much more.

My memories of this race will stay with me forever. While all are not happy–I hit a wall at kilometer 25, which is still a long way to go until the finish, I try to forget the pain and just remember the beauty of the course.



Could Beets Improve Your Endurance?

Endurance athletes are always looking for an extra boost, for something to help them go just a little bit further. It seems like, even in a market bloated by dozens of products claiming to do just that, it might be as simple as eating your vegetables. Of particular interest is the humble beet which has been heavily researched since 2009 for it’s potential use as an performance enhancer for endurance athletes.


The Studies

In the past few years, beet juice has been the target of several studies that have all revealed an exciting application for what is a usually under-appreciated vegetable. It all started with a 2008 study that found that a single daily glass of beet juice significantly reduced blood pressure. The athletic connection was made by Exeter University in 2009 when eight men were given either beet juice or a placebo of blackcurrent cordial before completing a series of exercise tests, including cycling. The group was able to perform for an extra 92 seconds and started with a lower resting blood pressure when they were given the beet juice.

This was a small study, though, and the results would have to be replicated on a larger scale to really understand what was happening. So, in 2011, Exeter conducted another study with club-level cyclists completing 2.5 mile and 10 mile time-trials. This time, the subjects were always given beet juice but the control was a juice that had the nitrates removed. The subjects were 11 seconds faster over 2.5 miles and 45 seconds faster over 10 miles when they were given the ordinary nitrate-containing juice.

This study not only proved the effectiveness of beet juice in a competition but also helped to isolate the active ingredient: nitrates.


How It Works

Nitrates are generally labeled as a bad thing, having been linked to cancer. But the nitrates found in beets, and many vegetables, come bundled with other compounds that protect us from the negative effects while allowing us to enjoy the positives. Additionally, many researchers now discount the initial studies that accused nitrates of being toxic in the first place, saying that their findings were inaccurate.

More research is needed to fully understand the mechanism at work here but the key seems to be what nitrates become: nitric oxide. This gas not only regulates blood pressure but does so by relaxing and smoothing the walls of your blood vessels, allowing blood to flow more freely.

For an endurance athlete, this means more oxygen fueling your muscles and less waste slowing them down, with less work for your heart.


Does it Have to be Beet Juice?

Although these benefits sound great, it still means that you have to drink beet juice, an unpleasant prospect for many people. However, as we’ve discussed, the active ingredient here is the nitrates which are present in many vegetables. In the studies, beet juice is repeatedly used for the sake of consistency and because it’s nitrate values are stable. Also, beet juice is absorbed quickly and is easy for an athlete to drink immediately before an event.

However, studies do show similar effects from baked beets and beet-enriched breads. While beets have received most of the attention, a diet high in nitrate-rich vegetables has also been shown to lower blood pressure. Other nitrate-rich vegetables include rhubarb, arugula, Swiss chard, spinach and broccoli.

Have you gotten a boost from beet juice? Please share your experience with us in the comments.




Running Races on Holidays

It’s no secret I run to eat. I love food and should be concerned much more about calories. I’m secretly envious of those that follow the perfect paleo diets or my friends who’ve lost tens of pounds following Atkins and eating eggs and bacon all the time. I even admire those who complete juicing cleanses and drink lemon water with cayenne pepper. (I lived near Los Angeles for a while and this was very popular among the trendy SoCal residents.)

I don’t have such willpower. I tell myself one day I’ll do a detox and see what happens to my body. Maybe I’ll become such a faster runner as all the toxins will flush themselves right out. But that day hasn’t come yet.

This is why I adore races that take place on holidays because I get to burn the calories off and then a few hours later eat them back. Because yesterday was the Superbowl, which is basically considered a U.S. holiday, I list my favorite races to do on holidays.

Superbowl Sunday 10K: I don’t mind getting up early on the weekends if it means I’m heading to a race. While most people sleep in (which I do if I’m not racing), I enjoy having my workout done before 10am. Such was yesterday when I participated in the annual Superbowl Sunday race. Runners come dressed up in their jerseys and the post-race spread is sports-themed. I can then retire to the couch for the rest of the day and eat submarine sandwiches and cheer on the teams…or just watch the commercials.

Turkey Trot: As the greatest day in the country for food, I appreciate the ability to burn off approximately 700 calories in a 10K before the Thanksgiving dinner. I also love the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and typically, depending on how fast I run, I can get back in time to see the Broadway teasers. I also love running with Tom the Turkey and the special feeling this day brings.

Skirt Chaser for Valentine’s Day: While I am single, Valentine’s Day means nothing to me.  In fact, I call it Single Awareness Day and while I usually feel complete apathy toward Hallmark, I very much dislike them on this day….except for my salivation over all the candy. I love conversation hearts, gummy hearts and pink M&Ms.  Luckily, I participate in a race to burn it off. The Skirt Chaser generally falls around Valentine’s Day in my town. For those  unaware, the Skirt Chaser is a 5K event that allows women a three-minute head start. Men always catch up, at least to me, but I don’t mind.