Category Archives: Endurance

Kaihōgyō, the marathon monks

On the outskirts of Japan’s ancient capital, Kyoto stands a sacred mountain. It is here, on Mount Hiei that the marathon monks live, pray and defy death. These Japanese Monks are from the Tendai sect of Buddhism, a sect brought to Japan by the Monk Saicho in 806 from China. Their quest is to serve the enlightened Buddha through many duties but they are best known for their physical endurance in running, a form of extreme asceticism. The school is based north of Kyoto, at Mount Hiei, which overlooks the ancient Capital City.

The selection process for the Kaihōgyō is after the first 100 days of Marathons, the Gyoja (trainee Monk) will petition the senior Monks to complete the remaining 900 days. In the first 100 days, withdrawal from the challenge is possible, but from day 101 onwards the Monk is no longer allowed to withdraw, he must either complete the course or take his own life. The mountain has many unmarked graves from those who have failed in their quest, although none date from the 20th/21st century.

An Olympic marathon is 42 kilometres. On each of the next 100 days, Fujinami will cover twice that distance. Unlike a professional athlete though, the forty four year old must traverse treacherous mountain trails, often in complete darkness. There are no high-tech supplements to keep him going, just a daily rice ball and a bowl of noodles.

The ultimate achievement is the completion of the 1,000-day challenge, which would rank among the most demanding physical and mental challenges in the world. Only 46 men have completed the 1,000-day challenge since 1585.

The purpose of the marathon is not to walk per se. We visit places of worship and we go there on foot. Then we go to another object of worship. It is like a pilgrimage. In Australia the Aborigines have the same sort of practice that they will wander and they can “walkabout”.

They walk it seems but if you’re next to them, they are really moving fast. I’ve known there’s been marathon runners who try to train with them, they can’t last than more than a week. They blow out then they poop out. They just have no energy left. They can’t follow the course. They can keep up with them, the pace, but they can’t do it continuously. A week is the maximum.

Lack of recovery

Failure to recover properly can result in chronic dehydration, accumulating muscle damage, systemic inflammation, depressed immune function, and changes in hormone levels.

In the short term insufficient recovery causes muscle soreness, fatigue, and poor performance. If a runner neglects recovery continuously more damaging effects occur like loss of muscle tissue due to excessive muscle fiber breakdown, diminished immunological capacity and, worst of all, permanent damages to joints and other structural damage.

Runner’s knee is considered to be an overuse injury, as are many other types of common running injuries. As the term suggests, overuse injuries involve the gradual breakdown of body tissues resulting from repetitive motion over long periods of time. These injuries are quite different from acute injuries such as ankle sprains.

Beginning runners (like me) suffer the most overuse injuries per hour of training because their bones, muscles, and connective tissues are not yet well adapted to the new lifestyle.

Abrupt changes to training pace or style, like suddenly increasing duration, frequency, or intensity of workouts, can make those problems flare up. The solution for that is to instead ramp up conservatively as the body adapts.

An easy way to measure your recovery status is to take your pulse at rest one day that you are fully recovered and rested, and then again first thing in the morning of every running day. A pulse rate that is much above your reference number suggests that your body is still working on recovering from the most recent workout.

The human body has remarkable capacity to adapt, with proper training, resting, and nourishment. But you must keep an eye on the signs it gives you to know when to push forward and when to let it relax and recover.

Easy, light, smooth, fast

Christopher McDougal’s book “Born to Run” has done amazing things for my training. The four points “easy, light, smooth, and fast” have simplified what I am paying attention to on each run. I highly recommend this book for all runners, and anyone who likes a great true drama story. The book is about a group of Mexican ultrarunners called the Tarahumara.

The points:

  • Easy – If it’s not easy, you’re working too hard. Slow down, take smaller steps, and simplify.
  • Light – Be light on your feet. Your joints aren’t made to POUND into the ground.
  • Smooth – Make your movements smooth and efficient. Excessive bouncing wastes energy. You want to move forward, not up.
  • Fast – Fast will happen naturally when you master easy, light, and smooth.

I got it easy already, becoming light and smooth now. I believe that by the time I reach California I will also be fast. We will see.

How to speed up recovery

Do you know what to do after exercise to speed your recovery from a workout? Your post exercise routine can have a big impact on your fitness gains and sports performance but most people don’t have an after exercise recovery plan.

Most people exercise for the benefits they get from their workout: improved sports performance, better endurance, less body fat, added and even just feeling better. In order to maintain an exercise routine it’s important to recover fully after exercise. Recovery is an essential part of any workout routine. It allows you to train more often and train harder so you get more out of your training.

The biggest challenge or running long distances every day is not the running itself. I would even say that running is the easy part! The challenge is to recover enough in just 14-18 hours between one run and the next so to not cause damage and injury.

Recovery after exercise is essential to muscle and tissue repair and strength building. This is even more critical after an intense running practice. Normally a muscle needs anywhere from 24 to 48 hours to repair and rebuild, and working it again too soon simply leads to tissue breakdown instead of building up.

These are the ways I found most effective, for me, to speed up recovery:

Recovery time

Sounds obvious but isn’t. If you spend 8-10 hours on your feet, running and walking, you must spend the next 14-16 hours of the day doing other things like relaxing laying down, lightly stretching, massaging, and of course sleeping. What I don’t recommend is sitting down. Interestingly if I sit down for more than a few minutes I feel my legs stiffening and my feet hurt more. Anything else is fine, just not sitting down.

Massage

Massage feels good and improves circulation while allowing you to fully relax. You can also try self-massage and Foam Roller Exercises for easing tight muscles and avoid the heavy sports massage price tag.

When I had some muscle and tendon pain on my left leg, right in the 3rd week of training, I had that taken care of with some deep tissue massage and one additional day of rest. Amazing results for something that would slow down my training for quite a while!

Cool Down

Cooling down simply means slowing down (not stopping completely) after exercise. Continuing to move around at a very low intensity for 5 to 10 minutes after a workout helps remove lactic acid from your muscles and may reduce muscles stiffness. So I try to just walk and more about a few mintes before getting into a car or stopping for a meal.

Taking a brief cold bath after a run may limit the tissue swelling that follows muscle damage. Most runners also swear by ice baths for the same reason.

Keep your body warm after your run. If your clothes are cold and wet from sweat or precipitation, change into warm clothes as soon as possible.

Stretch

If you only do one thing after a tough workout, consider gentle stretching. This is a simple and fast way to help your muscles recover. I also stretch a bit every 8 miles or so, and during the last ¼ of the run I stretch every 2 miles or so. I feel that it makes it a lot easier overall. Notice that I wrote “gentle” stretching. A lot of people try to push their stretching to a point that they get injured by stretching rather than the exercise!

Stretch the rest of your body, especially your calves, quadriceps and hamstrings, for 10 to 20 minutes at the trailhead while you’re still warm. Stretch the rest of your body, especially your calves, quadriceps and hamstrings, for 10 to 20 minutes at the end of the run while you’re still warm.

Eat Properly

After depleting your energy stores with exercise, you need to refuel if you expect your body to recover, repair tissues, get stronger and be ready for the next challenge. This is even more important if you are performing endurance exercise day after day or trying to build muscle. Ideally, you should try to eat within 60 minutes of the end of your workout and make sure you include some high-quality protein and complex carbohydrate.

There is also some recent evidence suggesting that consuming modest amounts of protein during long runs may lessen muscle damage and improve recovery.

Eating properly has a major impact. When you finish a run you have plenty of damaged muscle fibers in your legs, low glycogen level, and you may be dehydrated. Good nutrition is what will correct those physiological imbalances. You must take protein to repair and build muscles, liquids to rehydrate, and slow processing fibers as well.

Replace Fluids

You lose a lot of fluid during exercise and ideally, you should be replacing it during exercise, but filling up after exercise is an easy way to boost your recovery. Water supports every metabolic function and nutrient transfer in the body and having plenty of water will improve every bodily function. Adequate fluid replacement is even more important for endurance athletes who lose large amounts of water during hours of sweating.

I like to drink beer and if you do drink any alcoholic beverage make sure that you drink some water first, and keep the amount of alcohol reasonable. Some cold beers after a long run feel great and have a “pain killer” effect, but make you feel lousy the next morning, so exercise some discretion.

Active Recovery

Easy, gentle movement improves circulation which helps promote nutrient and waste product transport throughout the body. In theory, this helps the muscles repair and refuel faster.

Ice Bath

Some athletes swear by ice baths, ice massage or contrast water therapy (alternating hot and cold showers) to recover faster, reduce muscle soreness and prevent injury. The theory behind this method is that by repeatedly constricting and dilating blood vessels helps remove (or flush out) waste products in the tissues. Limited research has found some benefits of contrast water therapy at reducing delayed onset muscle soreness.

How to use contrast water therapy: While taking your post-exercise shower, alternate 2 minutes of hot water with 30 seconds of cold water. Repeat four times with a minute of moderate temperatures between each hot-cold spray. If you happen to have a spa with hot and cold tubs available, you can take a plunge in each for the same time.

Sleep

Get Lots of Sleep. Optimal sleep is essential for anyone who exercises regularly. During sleep, your body produces Growth Hormone (GH) which is largely responsible for tissue growth and repair. I used to sleep an average of 6-7 hours per night, and since I began training I have been sleeping 9-11 hours, sometimes more. That is one of the “side effect” of growth hormone release.

Elevate

It helps relax your legs if you can keep them elevated for a while. Usually I do it for 30 minutes or more. A couch, the bed and some pillows, a lounge chair, those and many other places are appropriate to invert your body or at least keep your legs up for a while.

Pain is a language

Pain is a feeling triggered in the nervous system. Pain may be sharp or dull. It may come and go, or it may be constant. You may feel pain in one area of your body, such as your back, abdomen or chest or you may feel pain all over, such as when your muscles ache from the flu. Pain is part of the body’s defense system, producing a reflexive retraction from the painful stimulus, and tendencies to protect the affected body part while it heals, and avoid that harmful situation in the future. It is an important part of animal life, vital to healthy survival. Without pain, you might seriously hurt yourself without knowing it, or you might not realize you have a medical problem that needs treatment. Once you take care of the problem, pain usually goes away.

There is no such thing as one kind of pain. Pain is not something that either is there or it isn’t. Pain is a language, a full spectrum of physiological information, full of nuances and details. When we resist pain and don’t try to “listen” to it, we miss the many layers and insights being expressed. Pain is one of the voices of your body. Pain defines the current limits and edges of strain and injury. Some painful sensations tell us to stop, while some others are saying that muscles are being worked in ways they weren’t used to, and that is great, so proceed carefully.

The body has many levels of awareness and self-consciousness. Sharp pain usually means the brain is trying to protect some injured part of the body to prevent further damage. Att the same time, dull or gradual pain usually means a part of the body has been exercised and will grow and develop, but in our “pain-free culture” we tend to avoid that good kind of pain as well. It is only when you learn to embrace the pain and appreciate it for what it really means you will grow and improve.

During the last century or so we seem to have confused comfort with happiness, while quite the opposite is true. Running teaches you that there is a difference between being tired after working hard and feeling lousy. Product marketing and advertising all talk about “making it easier” or more convenient. A life driven by consumption is dull, predictable, and boring. Challenging you body to the point of exhaustion makes it more aware and heighten the senses. Everything becomes more alive and more intense.

Self-preservation

The human body is capable of extraordinary endurance, but it has mechanisms to prevent self-destruction. Blacking out is one example of such self-preservation.

It’s essential to never try to run through more than a moderate pain in a muscle, bone, or joint. Toughness and determination are good qualities, but disrespecting pain altogether will lead to serious injuries that may take a long time to fix.

Dizziness, light-headedness, confusion and blurred vision are symptoms of heat illness and severe dehydration. It’s your body telling you (not asking anymore) to stop and recover.

Persistent fatigue, declining performance, lasting muscle soreness, and low motivation are signs of overtraining, and the only right thing to do in those circumstances is to take a break. It may be a day or may be more than that.

It’s now well understood that you don’t slow down because your muscles have reached their limit, but because your subconscious mind believe that you should slow down because it is worried that your muscles will be damaged soon. Anything that makes your mind believe that limit is not near will allow you to go longer. Self suggestion, reevaluation of the circumstances, new mental models can change that. I like to remember at the beginning of every run about how good I feel at the end of every run, regardless of how bad I felt in the beginning or during it.

Training strategy

Some runners may mistakenly believe they can simply scale up a marathon training program but this is not the best way to devise a training strategy. Instead the athlete should plan on increasing his weekly mileage as much as possible without making himself susceptible to overuse injuries.

Most people would assume that the normal progression would be 5K’s, 10K’s, 10 milers, marathons, and then a 50 miler. I think that is appropriate in most cases. However, I don’t think you necessarily have to run a marathon before you run an ultra. In fact, most runners won’t attempt an ultra after having finished a marathon or two. The thought of going almost twice as far, hurting twice as much, and training twice as hard, is just an unbearable thought.

You don’t hurt twice as much. In fact, ultras are easier than marathons. Marathons are much more intense and most people run the entire distance. In ultras, only the very elite are able to run 50 miles non-stop. Some elite runners (who run all the way) are beaten by other runners who mix in walking with their running.

Additionally the runner should also carefully evaluate the terrain and profile of the course and should be sure to incorporate similar hills and running surfaces into the training to ensure he is prepared for the race. Ultra marathons can usually keep high intensity speed workouts to a minimum during the training process because these workouts are not likely to be beneficial during the ultra marathon.

The key to success is time on your feet. You need to adapt to spending long periods of time on your feet and moving forward. Longer runs (>4 hrs.) can be broken up with walking breaks. In fact, learning to walk and then run again is a key to success in ultra-marathons.

New research shows that pacing in running races is controlled primarily by the subconscious brain. Throughout each race, your brain calculates the fastest pace you can sustain without endangering your life and uses feelings of fatigue and reduced electrical output to your muscles to ensure that you run no faster. The more experience you have as a runner, the more reliable these calculations become.

“Stopping briefly for walk breaks in both training and racing is the key to being able to move forward at all times,” says Buffalo Chips ultrarunner Becky Johnson, who finished her first 50-miler in 2003.

Another thing I do, this one without any scientific basis but just my intuition, is to sing. I think music is the best pacer you can have and when singing out loud while running and walking I exercise my breathing better, expand my aerobic capacity.

A 30 mile run is by no means easy no matter how you look at it. Even if you walk most of it, it is still a really long walk. You can’t control what happens after 20 miles or so. That is when most of the pain and suffering happens. It takes a lot of discipline and determination to finish the last part.

You can, however, control the pace of the first 20 miles to make the last 10 much easier. The most important is to resist the urge to start faster than the ideal pace. Now I make sure I keep a speed during the first 20 miles that is very comfortable and at points even feels really easy, because I know that if I push it hard in the beginning it will feel like hell at the end. I also make sure I keep drinking fluids and eat small portions along the entire way.

Making it possible

I will leave Miami towards Los Angeles through a route that will avoid the Interstate Highways and cross the country at the shortest distances possible, while passing through New Orleans and Houston, and not coming too close to the Mexican border, so I will be passing North of El Paso. That is a 2700 mile route.

The plan is to run an average of 30 miles a day and when necessary take a day off or make a much shorter distance. I will focus on recovery, take ice baths nearly every day, have massages as often as possible, and monitor myself carefully for signs of building injuries.

During days off I should just leisurely walk about 10-15 miles to prevent my legs from seizing.

Heat is the runner’s enemy. Running generates tremendous internal heat and forces the body to work extra hard to keep the muscles cool. When outside temperatures rise, the stress on the body is multiplied. So I decided to run during Winter. Starting date is set for December 3rd.

Researchers from the US Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine performed statistical analysis to determine the effect of air temperature on running performance. The results showed a clear trend towards faster times under colder temperatures. According to that analysis the ideal temperature for running is just 41 degrees!