... my journey from ballerina to triathlete

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Born to Run: Minimalism in Running?

First off, I want to apologize for the long lag times between posts. I am scheduled to move to the Big Island on March 29th, just 6 days away, and the logistics have finally caught up to me. I am scheduling plane tickets, car shipping, job interviews, and hotel rooms as well as finding a place for my cat, packing, sending boxes, getting my car fixed, working, trying to figure out how to take a bike on a plane, and staying on track with my triathlon training because my first triathlon is less than one month away! I am doing my very best to keep up with posts on here but I'm afraid I am a little overwhelmed.

I am, however, very motivated to write because a couple of exciting things have happened. First, I finally got my 15 mile bike ride finished without tires going flat, wheels freezing in place, or any other debacles that result in me carrying my bike several miles home. (In addition, I now carry bus fare with me on every ride to avoid the long walk home if something goes wrong! Still don't know how to change a flat...) It went smoothly, and since getting there had been a three week ordeal, it was followed quickly by a 20 mile ride. Twenty miles felt awesome; I rode to Hanauma Bay, a world-class snorkeling spot, the entrance to which is poised on top of a huge hill. Riding up and up and up to reach my turnaround point was challenging but totally worth it when I turned around and got to soak in the beautiful view of Honolulu, Diamond Head, the mountains, and the ocean. It seems that 16 miles is the point at which I start to feel fatigue on the bike, but nothing that stops me or even slows me down.

Accomplishment number two was a swim all the way from one end of Ala Moana Beach Park to the other, measured on my very first day of swim training to be just over a half mile. I remember walking along the water that first day feeling uncertain and completely intimidated; swimming the entire distance with confidence and little fatigue was extremely gratifying.

Number three is the most interesting. Having read the running cult classic Born To Run for a second time, I decided to experiment with the techniques talked about in the book. For those of you who haven't read it, it follows a group of ultrarunners who travel deep into the Mexican mountains to race with a near-mythical native tribe called the Tarahumara. The story covers many things from ultra races to diet, but the overarching theme is that we have brought upon ourselves many grievous running injuries by way of modern running shoes and the heel-to-toe strike technique of running.

The book (and a significant number of running "minimalists") posit that human beings were in fact evolved for long distance running, and that our thirst for convenience has led us astray into our current crisis of sloth and obesity. A major culprit, says the author, is our fancy schmancy ultra-cushioned, wedge-heeled running shoes. Putting the foot into an unnatural position and allowing us to clomp over anything in our path without a second thought has moulded our stride into something it was never meant to be, thus causing injuries and inhibiting our natural running ability.

Now, I know that this book has become the "trendy" thing in running -- sort of like Twilight, but for crazy people who run two hundred miles a week, so I take its content with a grain of salt, but I must admit that my curiosity was peaked. Could a struggling ballerina be helped by chucking her fancy Mizuno's and reverting to cheap sneakers?

Today on my run, I focused on landing on the balls of my feet rather than the heels, keeping my hips forward (as usual), and taking shorter, lighter strides. Lo and behold, my breathing came more naturally, my legs felt lighter, and best of all, my knee pain disappeared. It felt somewhat awkward, of course, bounding along like some sort of deranged deer, but I think that slowly incorporating these changes into my stride and replacing my shoes with flat ones may be a huge help for my knees and distance-running abilities. I'm not going to go so far as to start thinking about investing in those ridiculous looking FiveFinger toe hugger shoes, but I admit that the author of Born To Run and his minimalist movement may be onto something.

More to come as I continue my experimentations...

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Another Day Another Workout

My training for the sprint is back on track after messing with my nutrition intake. After focusing on eating protein with every meal, eating more grains, and even a little more fat for 4 days, my mile times on the bike and running went back down to normal and when I weighed myself at the gym I had lost another two pounds. The body is an amazing thing, and I feel lucky to be getting into close touch with mine, something that I think is easy to lose in our society. 

My fifteen mile bike, however, seems to be ever-evasive. On my second try (after my flat tire incident) I made it half a mile before coming to a stop at an intersection and suddenly finding myself unable to get started again. Embarrassed and confused, I carried my bike to the sidewalk under the glaring eyes of annoyed motorists only to find that the snobby I'm-better-than-you hipster bike tech who changed the tire and "worked on the back brake" put the back wheel on so crooked that as soon as I hit the brakes it got caught on the frame, never to move again.

For the second time in a row, I carried my bike home and to the bike shop, this time simmering with barely contained rage. I was ready for a fight with hipster better-than-you bike chick, but luckily for both of us I was greeted by a kind (and apparently more knowledgeable) guy who fixed the issue immediately, for free, and offered many apologies. Every bump on my 9 mile ride the next day made me nervous and I thought I heard scraping metal at every turn, but my tires survived and for the first time in over a week I got to actually ride the bike home rather than carrying it. Happy day.

In more exciting news, yesterday I registered for the Lavaman Keauhou Olympic length triathlon on November 24th, 2013 so my fate is sealed. I will be completing an Olympic length triathlon by the end of the year come hell or high water. The race only takes 400 participants and spots go quickly, so after having the registration date pushed back twice I was extremely nervous that I would miss the cut off and my triathlon dreams would be smashed. A couple of panicky hours after registration opened, however, I had my spot! It's official!

The triathlon itself sounds beautiful but difficult. I am definitely going to have to train on hills, more than I'm doing now. Then again, once I relocate to Hawi I will be surrounded by nothing but hills leaving me little choice but to train on them. I'm excited to pick out a training plan for a longer race and I can't believe that in just over a month my sprint triathlon goal will be history! It seemed like such a long journey when I began, and now I have a new destination to aim toward.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Fueling a Lifestyle Change - Nutrition Needs!

For the past week and a half, despite my high level of motivation and positive attitude, I have noticed my performance suffering and a higher level of fatigue than normal. Since I had just finished combatting a sleep shortage, I knew that simple lack of rest could not be the problem. I worried about not training enough, but I had been following the training plan almost perfectly and from past experience I know that missing one workout is never enough to cause a drop in performance. 

As I ran, struggling to control my breathing and bemoaning the fact that just two weeks earlier I had been running 3-5 miles comfortably, something clicked. I had also been having extreme food cravings. Not cravings for pizza, or candy, or ice cream, but for cereal, bread, and anything carby and chewy. The cravings seemed almost more focused around texture than taste, but the common denominator was that everything I ached for was full of starchy carbohydrates. 

Could my increasingly lame performance be due to nutrition issues?

As a former ballerina I am no stranger to dieting. I am familiar with nutritional tracking, breaking down the components of what I'm eating, and controlling what goes into my body, and yet somehow I have made it this far into my triathlon training without looking at my food intake. When I did, I realized that my usual diet of vegetables and fruits supplemented with 1-2 servings of carbohydrates, a smattering of fat here and there, and one serving of meat or other protein daily are probably vastly insufficient to fuel my new lifestyle. 

I pondered this for a few days, still feeling cravings so pervasive they seemed ever-present in my mind. After two weeks of craving french bread and brie cheese and Coconut Dreams cookies, I decided to give in before starting fresh on a better nutrition plan the next day so that they wouldn't haunt my subconscious any longer. Normally after binging on crap like that I feel sluggish and horrible, but instead I felt energized. This solidified my theory that my diet was missing something - most likely protein, fats, and starchy carbs. And so, I set about to fix the problem. The first resource I looked at, TriFuel, immediately confirmed what I had been thinking. Nutritionist Jaclyn Maurer had the following to say on the topic:

"Skimping on calories? This may cause your body to break down muscle protein, which can hinder performance.
A triathletes total calorie (or energy) needs vary due to changes in training load and intensity, but meeting daily calorie needs is essential to not only providing the energy needed to train and compete, but also to spare the breakdown of muscle protein."
So, I set about adding healthy, nutritionally dense versions of the things I'd been craving to my diet as well as just consuming more overall. At breakfast, I make sure to get some whole grains and perhaps more importantly, I have incorporated some type of protein -- egg  whites, yogurt, etc. I try to eat a small, healthy snack  between meals, and although I have cut down on starches in the past because of digestive issues, I am trying to slowly add them back into my diet past breakfast time. In each meal, I am focusing more on proteins and some starch in addition to my usual vegetables, and I am eating more peanut butter with my post-dinner apple. After a workout, I am religiously drinking either a protein shake or a delicious "banana milkshake" concoction made by blending chunks of frozen banana with milk and vanilla. 
Two days in, I am already seeing improvements! Last night I went out for a run and it felt easy again. I ran 5.25 miles and felt like I was floating on air! No more gasping for breath, no more heavy legs... it was an immense relief. My 9 mile bike this morning flew by and I was back down to my previous best pace of 4:28 miles. 
I have learned a lesson. Contrary to all of my ballerina training, I need to eat a lot. Fats and carbs are not to be rationed as carefully, and I need protein in every meal. Food is fuel, and my training demands that I fuel appropriately. Now I can start enjoying my carbs! Thanks, triathlon! 

Swimming Through the Tides of Change

In my years of working out, there has been one thing that has been my most consistent kryptonite: change.

The first time I dropped 20 lbs
Although I am hesitant to admit it, I tend to go through ups and downs in my exercise consistency. I can easily name the periods in my life when I was in optimal shape -- the spring and summer of my sophomore year of college, the winter and spring of my senior year of college, early 2010, summer of 2012 and, happily, now. In between, my fitness level has ranged from casually in shape to tragically pathetic.

I blame this partially on my eating habits growing up. We didn't eat junk food, but we didn't eat a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables either. Meals usually consisted of a lot of starchy foods and a meager veggie side, some of which, like corn, also count as a starch according to the eating methodology I learned when I decided I wanted to change my physique. Instead of gaining the infamous "freshman 15," I lost it. Deciding that I wanted to chase my goal of being a ballerina, (something that had never come to fruition before, largely because of my body type) motivated me to go the extra mile and get down to my lowest weight ever. I did this not by starving myself but by eating an extremely balanced diet and spending 2 hours per day at the gym in addition to my ballet schedule.

Back at 135 lbs
When I ended up back in school, my hectic schedule and free for all of a diet landed me back at about 135 pounds, a little heavy on my 5'4" frame.  This cycle repeated itself a few more times -- getting into great shape, trimming down, then dealing with some sort of change (sometimes a schedule change, oftentimes a move) and falling off the wagon, every year or so. At my bottom weight, I feel strong and energetic while at my top weight I feel lethargic and tired. I can only go so long before I realize I need to check myself. My workouts and eating habits followed an all-or-nothing pattern, and so I yo-yo'd, back and forth, back and forth.

So how does this all relate to my triathlon training?

I am about to make a major move. It is odd to think that I am moving across ocean but not changing states, but such is the case in Hawaii. I have gotten so comfortable with my training here: my 3.5 mile 35 minute runs from my house to Kapiolani park, my 9-12 mile rides through Kahala and up and over Diamond Head, and my swims at Ala Moana Park down four buoys and back. I am in a rhythm, in a pattern -- one that is about to be upset as I pack up my belongings and send them across the sea yet again, and I find myself worrying that as has become my tendency, I will allow the change to derail the progress I have made.

Will I be able to fit in my workouts while shipping my belongings, my cat, and my car? How difficult will it be to find new running and biking routes that make sense with my new location and cover the minutes outlined in my training plan? Where does one do ocean swim workouts on the Big Island? Am I going to get swept away by huge waves trying to swim in unprotected waters? I will be continuing my work as a copy editor and contributing writer, but without my colleagues at Hawaii Sport Magazine surrounding me will my running motivation stay strong?

My nervousness is mostly caused by knowledge of my past. I have been working on dismantling my all-or-nothing philosophy and replacing it with one based on the some-is-better-than-none concept with moderate success, but I know that it will take a new kind of focus and dedication to truly leave my former pattern behind.

As I sifted through these thoughts today, questioning myself, my strength, my knowledge, and practical questions like workout location near my new home, I brewed myself a cup of tea. As I brought the steaming cup to my lips, my eyes settled on the Yogi Tea message attached to the teabag.

And then I realized ...
I am stronger now. I am a constantly evolving person, and I now know enough about myself to know that I can figure out how to do this. I am moving to a beautiful place surrounded by nature with a view of the ocean where I know I will grow and continue to learn about how much my mind and body can strengthen, grow, and improve. I am in touch with my body, and I know that if I cannot complete an entire long workout, I have the willpower to do whatever I can as best I can. As long as I face this change with confidence, excitement, and strength, my plans will never be derailed -- I can only grow.

Me now - fit, full of energy, and HAPPY!

I look forward to my new surroundings, a new and beautiful place to train, and a new and vibrant group of athletes from whom I have much to learn. Time to start swimming!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Triathlon- 3, Crystal- 0: FLAT TIRE!

As usual, the triathlon has once again reminded me that I know nothing about anything and I am completely at its whim. After walking my bike 2 miles home in the blazing sun, I have to admit again that I am vastly underprepared and completely clueless when it comes to this training. Some days are just not meant to be.

I was scheduled my first 15 mile bike ride day before yesterday and I had actually been looking forward to it for several days. I had my route planned out and I was ready to go! It seems inevitable, however, that as soon as you make plans there is always something waiting in the wings to derail them and thus I was only moderately surprised when my manager called asking if I could work last minute. I said yes and, undeterred, immediately set about flip-flopping my workout days so that I could fit in a 9-mile bike before leaving.

As usual, I rode up the big hill by my house and had just started the glorious coast down the back side of it when I could feel something change. At first I couldn't place what it was -- the bike just felt different somehow. Less responsive, heavier... I couldn't determine what I was feeling. Then I heard a subtle "thwup, thwup, thwup" and got concerned. I pulled over, checked the tires, but didn't see anything so I continued down the hill. (Why, oh why did I continue down the hill???)

As soon as I changed lanes to make a turn, I knew I was screwed. Instead of the smooth sound of the tires on the road that I am accustomed to, I heard a raw metallic scraping.


Sad face :(
I stopped immediately and stood there in shock for about 5 minutes, realizing and re-realizing that yet again I was in over my head. I KNEW that bicyclists carry pumps and extra tubes. I KNEW that I should learn to change a flat on my bike. And, I knew that I had been lazy and stupid and naive and that because of all of that I would be hauling my ass and my disabled bike nearly two miles home in 84 degree weather and midday sun. I went through a process somewhat akin to the 7 stages of grief -- disbelief, bargaining, etc. before finally accepting that there was nothing to do but turn around, lift the front tires off the ground, and start the climb back up the hill and toward home. If only I had stopped at the top of the hill instead of taking that final coast... Ugh.

About three quarters of a mile into my trek home, a wonderfully nice runner (who also happened to be a triathlete!) stopped and showed me how to turn the bike on its back wheel like it was doing a wheelie and walk it that way, taking a significant amount of stress off of my biceps. Just when I thought my arms wouldn't be able to take anymore, a construction worker in his work truck pulled over and tried to help me refill the tire. When that didn't work, he put the bike in the truck bed (a truck pulling a PortaPotty, by the way) and hauled us both the last 8 blocks to the bike shop by my house.

Once my tire was fixed and I was home, my arms were so spent that they trembled uncontrollably if I tried to lift anything, even something so small as an apple or a bar of soap. Two days later, my biceps and triceps are still sore to the touch. Bikes -- even road bikes -- are heavy to carry for 40 minutes.

So, I learned yet another lesson: I really need to learn how to change a bike tire. I looked up a bike clinic and will be taking care of that as soon as possible. Second: always always ALWAYS have a pump and an extra tube, or at very least $2.50 to catch a bus home in case of disaster. I got lucky in that I was only a couple of miles from home. Something tells me that I will not be so lucky again.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Tracking a Tri

I have discovered that training for a triathlon adds a significant amount to your To-Do list each day; there is no way to avoid that. The key, I believe, is to figure out a system that allows you to actually enjoy your To-Do list rather than feeling smothered by it. What this entails will differ significantly from person to person, but take the time to figure it out. A new planner? A calendar on the wall? A computer program? An app for your phone?

For me, the best solution was to go old-school. In keeping with my list-making obsession, I created a template that I can copy over and over and over, copy down the workouts from the computer, and fill the rest out each day. I find that the process of handwriting everything keeps me feeling up to date on my training plans and the prospect of filling it out each day helps motivate me. It also creates a handy makeshift journal in which I have record of my progress, patterns I see, and details about each day's workouts that I might otherwise forget.

In addition to training details, I track my daily water intake, my non-triathlon To Do list, and what I have accomplished each day. I feel organized and it is gratifying to see all the things that I do each day on paper. As you can see, I also notate my next day's workout at the bottom so that I know what to expect and can mentally prepare myself without incessantly flipping back and forth between pages.

The small numbers in "#-#" format at the top left signify the week and day of the training schedule. For example, Tuesday, March 5th was the 4th day of my 12th week of training. This helps me stay synced with my online training guide and makes it easy to keep track of where I'm at with the online schedule.

If you like the general idea but don't feel like writing so much by hand, you could easily make a template on the computer, print out tons of of copies, and simply fill them in each day. If you want an online option, Beginner Triathlete also offers a training log with free site registration.

The bottom line is that whatever tracking method speaks to you, it's a great idea to log your workouts, water intake, and notes somewhere so that you can stay organized and look back later. Find the best option for yourself and enjoy logging all of the hard work you're putting in!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Ode to Michael Pate (Alternate Title: Recapturing Faltering Motivation)

I have reached week twelve, and I have learned the hard way that my faceless guide, Michael Pate, left nothing to chance when designing the training plan I have been following. Every workout has a purpose, every rest day is important, and any time workouts are scheduled shorter or lighter than usual, there is a strategic reason. I made the mistake of questioning his omnipotent logic when he had much easier workouts scheduled for week nine, and I have been paying for it ever since.

The drop came nearly three weeks ago; forty-five minute runs became 30-35 minutes, 600m swims dropped to 450m, and the bike mileage was laughable at 6-7 miles. In my arrogance and pride, I decided that I would ignore Michael Pate's training advice and push myself that week, clocking my usual mileage. Within four days I was so tired that I could hardly focus, much less train at an optimal level. I got disorganized, overwhelmed, and and profoundly fatigued.

Now, to be fair, life has been throwing me some curve balls. The first is a major lack of sleep. Because my significant other and I both hold service jobs, we are often unable to get to bed before 1am. Normally this doesn't cause problems but since I've been rising at the crack of dawn to run various races (the Great Aloha Run, the Moanalua Valley 10k) and to watch the first triathlon of the season in hopes of avoiding Transition Area gaffes in April, my late nights caught up to me with a vengeance. In addition, I had to fly interisland twice in the past two weeks, necessitating a wake up time of 5am and wreaking havoc on my body and mind. My sleep fell further and further behind until I just felt tired all the time. And, on top of all of this, my boyfriend launched his new business and we found out that we are going to be moving to a new island in a month.

There have been several symptoms telling me that I needed to do something to get myself back on track:
1. Feeling disorganized in a general way. For example, my car registration expired March 1st and the process of getting it taken care of became a long, drawn out ordeal simply because I hadn't done what was necessary to take care of it in a timely manner.
2. Feeling disorganized about my workouts. For the first week of this madness I tried to keep up with every workout scheduled, but airports and being on other islands got in the way. I kept trying to add those missed sessions into future days until the week got so overwhelming and confusing that I ended up slacking off.
3. Feeling overwhelmed. This affected everything! Getting my car fixed and registered seemed completely impossible, my workout schedule seemed to never end and got really confusing, and any little frustration in my relationship or my life felt like the end of the world.
4. Feeling disconnected. Gone was that beautiful feeling of connection with my body -- I felt zoned out but not physically tired, I had trouble sleeping, and I didn't feel like I was in tune with what my body and mind needed.
5. Eating badly. Because of the feeling of disconnection, I lost the great body-food connection I had going as well. I ate junk food, I ate too many starchy things, my digestion slowed down, and my body felt bloated and miserable. Gross.
6. Feeling sluggish. Some combination of all of the previous things created a horrible feeling of sluggishness and fatigue. I was always tired but never that great, pour-me-in-bed-and-let-me-melt-deliciously-into-the-mattress tired that allows for peaceful rest. I had little energy, my mood deteriorated, and I felt heavy.

Clearly, something needed to change.

As I sat on my floor, attempting to gather the energy to go on a 12 mile bike ride and swim 750m, the obvious suddenly became clear to me: I needed a rest. I had been so determined to keep up with the workouts despite a hectic schedule, lack of sleep, and life stresses, that I had pushed too far and exhausted myself. I asked myself the following question: "Is it more productive to do this workout and continue to be tired and functioning at a sub-par level, or is it more productive to give myself ONE DAY to recuperate and start fresh tomorrow."

I knew the answer, and so I took off my swimsuit and went to bed. I slept for four hours in the middle of the day and could have slept much longer if it weren't for the alarm I set. That, in and of itself, tells me that I made the correct decision. The next day, instead of trying to pile all of my missed workouts onto the following days and agonizing over each meter of swimming I hadn't been able to do, I took a deep breath and wiped the slate clean. I gazed down at my workout for the day (9 mile bike) and felt -- gasp -- excited!

Since doing this, I have felt normal again. I am once again feeling strong, motivated, and excited about my training. In addition to my renewed energy, I have hit a few milestones that I can be very proud of. Last week, in the midst of my overwhelmedness, I hit ONE HUNDRED MILES of running. In an apropos gesture, my Nike+ Running app glitched and didn't add up my total mileage, robbing my of the satisfaction of seeing my 100 miles on the screen. (Seriously, I swear the world was out to get me this past two weeks!) The day that I "reset" myself, the glitch fixed itself and now I can finally celebrate my 100 mile accomplishment.

Hawaii Sport Magazine relay team
I also ran the first annual Ekiden Relay in Honolulu yesterday, a race consisting of 5 legs of 5k's, and obliterated my previous best mile time, setting a new PR of 8:45.

There are a lot of things to celebrate, the biggest of which is that I figured out how to work through the challenges of the past two weeks without completely falling off the bandwagon and giving up. Although I don't like to make excuses, it made me realize that sometimes I need to give myself a break and recognize all of the hard work I am doing as well as the demands of every day life and how they both influence my body, my mind, and what is healthy for both of them. Based on these discoveries, I have learned the following lessons, which I believe are worth sharing with anyone training for an athletic event (or just trying to get through life):

1. Don't make excuses, but do recognize when you have reached your limit.
When I was contemplating the idea of taking a day off to sleep, I felt immensely guilty because I felt like I was making excuses, something I promised myself I wouldn't do. I realized, however, that "I found out I'm moving across an ocean, I started a new business this week, I traveled across an ocean twice in a 7-day period, I have been severely sleep deprived 6 out of the past 10 days, and I have to get my to-do list finished to avoid hundreds of dollars in fines" is nothing like the "I really want to sit on the couch and watch It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia reruns" excuses I used to grapple with. Sometimes you really do need a day to get a hold of yourself.

2. If you can sleep for four hours during the day, wake up only because of an alarm, and sleep a full 8 hours that night with no trouble, you are sleep deprived and you should allow yourself that extra rest.

3. Ask yourself: "Will I continue to be productive if I keep pushing, or am I running on empty?"
As long as you don't allow laziness or excuses to influence your answer, this question will give you the answer to whether or not you should take a day to recuperate.

4. Try really really hard not to miss a workout.
If you know you're going to have a busy day, try to move things around so that you can do the workout on an easier day. Sometimes, however, this just isn't possible. If you miss one workout, reschedule it for later in the week. If it is one thing (bike only, swim only, etc.) then add it to another day on which you are only scheduled one discipline. If it's a day when you have a two-discipline workout scheduled, divide it up and add it to other days. If you miss more than one day, just accept it and call it good. Don't keep trying to add what you missed to other days, and most important, don't agonize about it. If you've been training hard, honestly, and with no excuses, then missing one workout is not going to break your training. Overextending yourself, however, might. Remind yourself of all of your hard work and be ready to get back on it on your next workout.

5. Listen to your body and be kind to yourself.
Your body is doing pretty awesome and badass things for you right now. Be nice to it. Take a moment to mindfully relax and think about all that you have accomplished. Imagine your next workout and how good it will feel to be rested and energized.

His workouts are strategically planned to push you and then give you time to recuperate and prepare for the next push. Don't question his wisdom.