The Achilles Tendon and Downhill Running

For runner’s, the Achilles tendon tends to be a pretty troublesome body part. Of course, we need it – it’s incredibly important to our balance and suspension – but it is also notoriously easy to injure. In fact, an estimated 52 percent of runners will hurt their Achilles tendon at some point in their career.

Out of fear of this, many runners tailor their training to avoid putting undo stress on their Achilles tendon. One of the most frequently touted techniques used to protect this tendon is to limit downhill running – something that can be very challenging for long-distance runners. Clearly, if you participate in marathons or other endurance events, you can’t totally avoid ups and downs in your course. And changes in grades also tend to focus on different muscles, which need to be trained.

So, runners are presented with a challenge: How do you train for downhill running without destroying your Achilles? As it turns out, the solution is pretty simple.


Don’t Overthink It

A recent study looked at this issue to try to see just how much the Achilles tendon can take. As it turns out, the tendon is much more adaptable and resilient then people give it credit for.

For the study, the researchers recruited 20 trained female runners who could all complete a 5K in under 24 minutes. The subjects were than asked to run three different running trials that were flat, inclined and declined, with 48 hours between runs. Before and after each trial, the researchers examined the thickness and stretch of each woman’s Achilles tendon – with the understanding that exercise typically makes the tissue thinner and more pliant. Other techniques were used to monitor the runners’ stride and strike-force.

While it is true that downhill running put a huge amount of stress of the Achilles tendon, it’s also true that there were no signs of damage to the tendon. These findings suggest that downhill running does not actually increase your risk of injury.

Even though this is great news for runners, the study’s authors did include a word of caution: Gradually transition to downhill running so that your tendons can adapt to the greater impact forces. One of the authors, Iain Hunter, went on to say that “The main cause of any running injury is a sudden change in training.”


In Application

Ultimately, then, it is safe – and important – for endurance runners to train for downhill runs. But this training needs to be done gradually, slowly increasing the severity of the decline and the time you spend running downhill.

Obviously, this is easier if you have access to a treadmill that will allow you to control and measure how steep the decline is. Otherwise, it might be tricky to find naturally occurring hills that can work for this type of training.

Be sure to listen to your body, as well, and pay attention for warning signs that you could be pushing yourself too hard. If your ankles feel stiff or swollen after the exercise, give them amble rest time. Stop your run immediately, though, if that pain sets in while you’re exercising.




Run in the Spring

267037_10151041768466017_1085636360_oMore than 2,000 miles of the U.S. remains under freeze watch and it may feel too bitter to even hit the gym, let alone go run outdoors. However, let’s look at the good news: the official start of Spring 2015 begins in less than one month. Although this may not make those temperatures rise today, soon Mother Nature will melt the ice and you’ll see the trails underneath the current blankets of pure whiteness. Here are a few spring options to add to your running calendar:

1. The Color Run–One of the spring traditions throughout the world is Holi, a celebration of love and color that involves the famous throwing of color dust. The Color Run honors that festival with 5K events all over the U.S and the world. Their website shows loads of upcoming events. Participants wear white shirts and then run through a sea of color dust to end the race looking like they were painted. It’s easy to find a similar event located near you with so many upcoming on their racing calendar.

2. Although typical city marathons/half marathons offer crowds, bands and cheerleaders along the route, I suggest trying out a trail race to the mix. You’ll experience nature, quiet solitude, and a much harder challenge than your standard running on asphalt. Plus, you can leave your watch at home. Usually you run at a slower pace with the constant change in elevation. But you’ll also have stronger quads to appreciate.

3. Test out relay races. Companies such as Ragnar offer relays of 6-12 people who run various legs of a course measuring 200-300 miles in distance. You start in the morning and run for one to two days over night, sleeping whenever possible. You do have long breaks in between legs, so you can spend the time making friends with your fellow runners and relax. It’s great for running and camaraderie.

Happy not-quite-yet spring!

Rethinking U.S. Dietary Guidelines

For a while now, many different organizations and independent health experts have been pushing for a shift in the U.S. dietary guidelines. And for good reason: Obesity and all of it’s associated conditions – including heart disease and diabetes – are still steadily increasing despite all sorts of health initiatives. In fact, according to the CDC, obesity rates in American doubled for adults and tripled for children between 1980 and 2008. Those dates are particularly fascinating because it was during the 1980s that we really saw a push to adopt a low fat dietary approach. Obviously, something needs to change.

Beyond statistical evidence, though, there is an ever-growing collection of scientific information that runs counter to everything we thought we knew about nutrition. One particularly fascinating editorial, published in 2014 in the journal Open Heart focused it’s attention on the 1977 dietary guidelines. It was in that year that Americans were told to decrease their intake of saturated fats and cholesterol while increasing their daily allotment of carbohydrates. The author, Dr James DiNicolantonio, points out that those initial recommendations were based on the incredibly flawed findings of the Seven Countries Study – the authors of which had access to information from 22 countries but chose to only use the data from seven. Later review of the complete information contradicted the recommendations, but was largely ignored since the damage had been done.

The current evidence actually suggests exactly the opposite: That saturated fat does not increase your risk of heart disease but refined carbohydrates do.

Building on this idea, DiNicolantonio worked with a team of researchers to publish a study in a more recent edition of Open Heart that looked more carefully at the historical research that took place before the low-fat craze really got started.



Looking Back

To further build the case against the above-mentioned dietary guidelines, the team went back and performed a meta-analysis of six studies including information from 2467 adult men. The studies used were all took place before 1983 and focused on the relationship between dietary saturated fat, cholesterol and the development of heart disease.

In all of the studies, a reduced-fat diet was not shown to reduce mortality rates any more than the control groups. Basically, decreasing saturated fat intake did very little for the health of the subjects in these studies.

And yet, the recommendations were made anyway.

The team concluded that the available research leading up to the release of the dietary guidelines “did not support the introduction of dietary fat recommendations in order to reduce” the risk of heart disease. They even went so far as to say “Dietary advice not merely needs review; it should not have been introduced.”


A Word of Caution

So, as we learn more and more it seems like the dietary guidelines we were all raised with are not only wrong but potentially dangerous. It should be plainly stated, though, that that does not mean that saturated fat is not without it’s dangers.

First, obesity and heart disease are complex conditions and should not even be blamed on one factor. The increased knowledge of epigentics have even lead some experts to suggest that the culture of the 1950s – which included plenty of tobacco and alcohol, while encouraging women to gain very little weight during pregnancy – may still be effecting our genetic expression.

Second, dietary fat is very calorie-dense. While it may not be as bad for your heart as we once thought, in excess it is most certainly not great for your waistline if its leading you into caloric excess.






Compression Socks Work for Recovery

imagesI finished my first race of 2015, traveling out of state for it. I realized I forgot my compression socks at home and for the first race in years, ran without them. I’m quite sore  and discovered this new study today that makes me even more upset I left my socks at home.


In this month’s peer-reviewed publication, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers found wearing compression socks for 48 hours after running a marathon improved performance on a treadmill test two weeks later.

Research participants ran on a treadmill until they reached exhaustion two weeks before running a marathon and again two weeks after the race. A total of 33 runners finished the study. (The study started with 49, but those 16 dropped out it is assumed because they didn’t want to run that hard before a race when they were in tapering mode.)

Two groups were used: 1. The test group wore a well-known company’s compression sock. 2. The control group wore compression socks that were tight enough to not fall down.

Comparing everyone’s pre- and post-marathon test, the runners who wore compression socks for 48 hours after the race improved by 52.4 seconds +/- 103.3 seconds (that shows a 2.6 percent improvement). The control group’s time decreased by 61.7 seconds +/- 129.6 seconds (a 3.4 percent decline).


According to the study, “Researchers concluded that this indicated that members of the compression sock group had fully recovered from their marathons while members of the control group had not.”


One potential downfall of the study is that the control group may have known they were in the control group based on the feel of the compression socks. This may have affected how hard they ran during the treadmill study.


The Controversy Over Herbal Supplements

Herbal supplements are a massive industry. In 2013, a Canadian study reported 65,000 different dietary supplements on the market with about 150 million regular consumers. That means that nearly half of the American people routinely invest in supplements, accounting for $6 billion spent on the products in 2013.

All of this is done based on a certain degree of trust – confidence that those bottles contain exactly what the label says. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

Truthfully, though, “tainted” supplements are really nothing new. For those who watch the industry, it’s not uncommon for the FDA to find prescription drugs in “herbal” products or to learn that those supplements contain close-to-none of the key ingredient.

But when this happens in major retailers like Target, GNC, Walmart and Walgreens – places many people are likely to purchase supplements – it’s going to make big news. And that’s exactly what happened last week when researchers at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York tested herbal products from these national chains.

Their findings were startling and upsetting to many. However, the research is not without its critics, including a few unexpected organizations. To get a clear picture of the issue, then, we need to look at both sides of the controversy.


The Initial Research

At the request of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, researchers collected multiple bottles of six different herbal supplements from Target, GNC, Walmart and Walgreens. The specific products that they looked at included St. John’s Wort, ginseng, echinacea, ginkgo biloba, garlic and saw palmetto – focusing on the store-brand of each.

The supplements were then put through DNA testing to determine whether or not they contained what the label claimed, in the amounts that were listed. A frightening amount of supplements failed miserably, not only lacking the key ingredient but containing substances that were not listed. A few products – including Spring Valley St. John’s Wort and Herbal Plus Ginseng – were nothing but cheap fillers like beans, rice, wheat, garlic and even ground-up houseplants.

Understandably, there as been a massive and fast public outrage over the findings. Not only is this complete fraud, but it could also be a serious danger to people with food allergies.

For the most part, the stores have responded well to the findings – only Target has refused to comment until they are able to review the research.


The Other Side

Many organizations, though, have criticized the DNA testing used in the trials as unreliable, “bad” science. Primarily, this is because the DNA of plants can be damaged or altogether removed during processing. And DNA testing won’t find extracts of a specific herb if that was used instead of the actual portions of the plant.

What’s interesting is that we would naturally expect trade organizations to be critical of the research – and they have been, even launching their own studies. But when independent watchdog groups that test and review supplements have negative things to say about the science, it is truly surprising.

Perhaps the biggest shock is that the director of US Pharmacopeia (USP), a group that sets quality standards and testing protocols for drugs, vitamins and supplements, joined the critics – stating that DNA testing is a useful scientific tool but that it has its limits.

Another independent testing lab,, told CBS News that the use of DNA testing was inappropriate in this application.


The Bottom Line For You

There is definitely something wrong with the supplement industry, which is largely unregulated by the Federal government, and this study gives further proof that the industry is in need of reform. But the science behind it is undoubtedly faulty and should be backed up by more reliable testing techniques. These techniques are out there and should have been used in the first place.

To protect yourself, then, do your own research. If you do decide to continue to invest in supplements, look for a USP or similar stamp which shows that they product has been independently tested.




Mud Runs: A First-Person Perspective

cropped-cross-country_1.jpgSpring is right around the corner–for some anyway, depending on where you are in the country. This means races draw near and you can start looking forward to filling up your weekends with hard-core marathons and those races offering a bit of silliness–such as mud runs.

Not too long ago, I decided to participate in my first event at the original mud run spot—Camp Pendleton near Oceanside, Calif. just north of San Diego. I arrived early in the morning at the military base and watched as thousands taped up their shoes to keep them from falling off. I was unaware that they would, so I too grabbed some tape and wrapped my shoes several

We then took off for a 10K course that had me falling into mud pits, scaling walls (of which I needed the assistance of the military men just to get up—not that I’m complaining), crawling through mud under electric wiring, getting drenched from a firefighter’s hose, running through dirt up and down hills, and jumping into mud pits as if I were five years old.

I ended the race covered in mud. I even had mud on my teeth. Luckily, the race finished with outdoor showers we could all walk through, but I can’t say it got rid of all the mud. I brought a change of clothes, but still had mud all over my body. My shoes were ruined, my socks shrank from all the water and my car was covered in mud after I arrived home, despite sitting on a towel.

If you’re going to be participating in a mud run sometime, I highly suggest going to a thrifty clothing store such as the Salvation Army or Goodwill and purchasing an old T-shirt and shorts and then throwing them in the trash after you’re done. Don’t ruin your good running clothes!

Be prepared to get diiirrrrttttyyy…Really dirty!

Do Foam Rollers Help Runners?

It might not seem like it, but the warmer days of spring are quickly approaching and – with them – the start of training season. We’ve talked a lot in past posts about managing and reducing the amount of pain that athletes deal with during training and now we’re going to cover a technique that has been rapidly gaining popularity over the last few years: foam rolling.

Proponents of foam rolling – more clinically called self-myofascial release – claim that it can reduce soreness after a workout as well as improve athletic performance. So, do foam rollers really help runners and other athletes?


What Exactly Is It?

First, though, let’s make sure that we’re clear about what foam rolling is. Fortunately, it’s pretty straightforward; Foam rolling involves rolling a foam cylinder over various parts of your body. The idea is to use the pressure of your body weight against the roller to work out any knots in the muscles or connective tissue that surrounds them (fascia). In theory, this could increase flexibility and help to prepare your muscles for activity.

But, doesn’t static stretching do that? To an extent, yes. The issue with static stretching before a workout, when your muscles are cold, is that it can actually reduce your strength and power once the activity begins. Exercise physiologist Mike Ross from the Gottlieb Center for Fitness compares the muscles to shoe laces with a knot in them. If you pull on the laces – stretching – the knot will only get tighter. Foam rolling, however, allows you to kneed the knots out of your muscles.


Does It Work?

On paper, this makes sense. But how does it hold up in practice?

First, we’ll focus on the claims of reduced pain and soreness. It seems, at least in early studies, that there’s some promise here. A 2014 study published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that foam rolling did successfully relieve pain and soreness when performed at the end of a workout. Interestingly, this study also reported that the subjects performed better on subsequent workouts.

Does this mean, then, that foam rolling can help improve athletic performance? Probably not. Another study published around the same time in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research switched things up and had participants foam roll before their workouts. There was no effect – positive or negative – on their workout performance. However, this study did find that the subjects experienced less fatigue after foam rolling.

Taking the two studies together, it seems like foam rolling can increase recovery rates and help you make more significant improvements during workouts. While it might be disappointing that foam rolling has no immediate performance-enhancing benefits, remember that static stretching decreases performance. Through that lens, foam rolling has a clear advantage.

A third study confirmed that foam rolling does not decrease performance while also showing that the practice can increase range-of-motion.


The Bottom Line

Foam rolling, then, has some pretty sturdy science behind it. A few minutes before and after your workouts can help to speed up recovery times while simultaneously decreasing pain and fatigue. In a future post, we’ll cover specific foam rolling exercises that you can incorporate into your routine.




Staying Mentally Tough

I want to love running again

Yesterday millions of Americans watched the unbelievable ending to the Super Bowl game. I was raised in Seattle and remain a die-hard Seahawks fan, making the outcome quite disappointing (if that’s not an understatement). This inspired me to think of the next blog post. How do you bounce back from a disappointment? When you are running and have a bad race (as we all have at one point or another), how do you turn around and do it again? I researched what mentally strong people do that keeps them successful and coming back for more even when dealt with failure.

If you have a bad run/race here are a few tips on how to become a person with mental toughness and bounce back:

1. Control what you can. I know I’m guilty of blaming bad weather, a challenging course, etc. But every race will have it’s own unique set of difficulties that I cannot control. All a runner can do is train to the best of your ability and arrive on race day as prepared as possible.

2. Accept responsibility. If you make a mistake, you go out too fast at the start, didn’t hydrate properly, etc., own it. Learn from it and don’t do it again.

3. Stop the insanity. You’ve probably heard the definition of insanity, right? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result? If you continue to have bad races, something is wrong. You need to reevaluate. Do you need to hire a coach? Do you need to change your nutrition plan? Do you need to run with a pacer so you stay consistent in your racing speed?

4. Never complain. This is one of the hardest to live by, but words are powerful. If you constantly whine about your circumstances, they will not get better. If you speak positively, you create an environment that opens the pathway to success. The same goes for the company you keep. If you surround yourself with negative influences, you will find it harder to dig your way out.

5. Harbor resentment. It’s easy for a losing team to get angry and think “woulda, coulda, shoulda,”, but the ones that shrug it off and move ahead will have a more successful game next time. You have to remove it from your mind. The best way to go about doing this is find a new race and immediately sign up. This puts you thinking forward.