Wednesday, 26 July 2017 19:44

Arctic running under the midnight sun is bigger than any trainer's ego

A few years ago, while I was training for a marathon, a friend snidely theorised that if runners were forced to take an oath of confidentiality, no one would ever voluntarily endure the gruelling ordeal of training for such events. It was a thinly veiled – not to mention rude – attempt at shutting me up. But I actually agree. Especially when it comes to charity runs, which we convince ourselves are wholly altruistic pursuits, there's often deep vanity involved. Talk of training tactics, refuelling rituals, routes and recovery can quickly become intolerably braggy— especially for poor bystanders who would only run if being chased. The physical benefits of running become an insignificant sideshow when pitted against what running does for our egos.

After a weekend in Tromso, though, I’ve changed my mind. I've realised that even if discussing the Midnight Sun Run were a sure fire way of ending up in the gallows, hundreds of hobby and not-so-hobby athletes from all over the world would still flock to northern Norway every midsummer. Complete discretion would seem a trivial price to pay for taking part in this unique celebration of rugged nature and team spirit, not to mention for bearing witness to the most baffling peculiarities astronomy can offer.

More than 200 miles north of the arctic circle, Tromso is primarily known as a destination for globetrotters eager to get a glimpse of the Northern lights, but during the summer months, when the sun never sets, the fjords and surrounding mountains are almost constantly bathed in a misty glow, transforming the area into a luscious haven for anyone with even the remotest penchant for nature.

The city itself is not beautiful. A harbour forms the centrepiece. It’s dotted with restaurants, bars, cafes and a few shops that sell select tourist tat, but it's down-to-earth and functional, sporting far fewer clichéd tourist traps than other Scandinavian destinations. When you walk into a shop or restaurant, you tend to be greeted first in Norwegian and assumed to be a local, or at least a fellow countryman – even on what is easily one of the busiest weekends of the year for visitors from abroad.

On the one hand, it’s endearing. It gives you the impression that you really are exploring a community and not just chipping away at the superficial veneer of a culture. On the other hand, it's a little gloomy. It's a reminder of just how isolated and otherworldly Tromso is: plunged in near darkness for almost six months of the year (the Morketiden, or “murky times”, as they call it) depression is much more prevalent than in southern Europe.

The glum and often twisted works of playwright Henrik Ibsen spring to mind. Edvard Munch’s harrowing The Scream, which I’d seen in Oslo a few days earlier, a masterpiece that’s thought to depict the anxious disposition of modern man. I can imagine what might have inspired Mr Munch to put his paintbrush to work.

Around the clock sunshine might seem like a delightful prospect in the depths of black-out December and January, but that too seems to have its downsides. It's hard to sleep when day glides into night and back again seamlessly. When I left after three days, I felt oddly sleep-deprived and a little confused; a bit hungover, even though I’d avoided those lethal northern spirits.

Tromso is the third most populous city north of the Arctic Circle but the whole municipality still only has a population of just over 70,000 - or about half the size of Cambridge. Beyond the immediate centre, it's mostly residential with people emanating self-sufficiency and a no-nonsense approach to living. There’s no big tourist hub or shopping mall. In fact, from one of the mountains overlooking the city – reached by cable car or muddy trek for the brave – the most striking thing that you will see is an eclectic patchwork of modern and traditional architecture. Rust red traditional wooden houses are interspersed with obscure modern constructs, severe shapes and angles of steel and glass. It’s as if the city were the cutting floor of a super-sized episode of Grand Designs, all set against an arresting backdrop of snow-covered peaks, even at the height of the arctic summer.

***

As an avid runner, a lover of the outdoors and someone who jumps at an excuse to escape London's temperamental summer weather, the Midnight Sun Marathon has been on my bucket list for years. I'd initially intended to tackle the full 26 miles but my hip and knee had other plans and after taking a tumble and twisting my knee badly while training in May, I transferred my registration to the 10-kilometre category.

It's often said that for a fiercely stubborn runner – and let’s face it, many of us are – the pain of pulling out of a race is less tolerable than forfeiting a spot completely. So having paid for flights, an Airbnb that wasn't cheap, as well as covering all the costs associated with a one-day pitstop in the capital - I wasn't about to let this one pass me by.

Slightly nervous, adrenaline-fuelled and armed with a heavy-duty knee bandage, I therefore joined my fellow runners for the 7pm starting gun on 17 June - the longest day of the year - and prayed to the running gods that my joints would forgive me for the pounding I was about to inflict upon them.

If I've already piqued your interest and you fancy giving this one a go, take my advice and don't be fooled by Tromso’s arctic coordinates.

When I landed that morning at the tiny domestic airport a seven-minute drive from the city centre, it was distinctly chillier than it had been in Oslo, but due to the warming effect of the Gulf Stream, the weather in Tromso is often much milder than in places on a similar latitude.

As we made our way north out of the city and swerved down to the road that traces the water front, it wasn't long before I wished I'd opted for lighter gear.

The sun still stood high in the sky, beating down on the entrancingly calm Norwegian Sea. In their shorts and vest tops, it wasn't hard to pick the locals out of the fast-paced field. It might've initially felt like a mild winter's day to me, but this was the height of summer for them, and they were probably being spurred by the thought of a cold beer and barbecue on the terrace post-cool down.

I've taken part in dozens of organised road races – strikingly scenic ones too – and I'm usually averse to routes that double back on themselves, aware of just how quickly I get bored, but this one masters the challenge with aplomb.

Just over a mile in, the gently undulating road gives way to the sweeping vista of an azure sea, set against a string of mountains so striking I couldn't help myself from doing two things I never do. Firstly, mid-race, with the clock ticking and dozens of gazelle-like Scandinavians hustling by, I stopped to take a photograph. And secondly, I got a little emotional. When you find yourself in a place that really does feel like the end of the world, you can’t help but reflect on how vast, striking and rich our planet is, and how irrelevant and fleeting our existence.

The rest of the race passed in somewhat of a blur. The sunshine showed as much staying power as the crowds of ruddy-cheeked locals cheering from the sidelines, many brandishing cowbells and whistles. The views didn't grow old and neither did the camaraderie among the runners, despite a palpable sense of healthy competition.

In the end, after eight weeks of virtually no training at all, I crossed the finish line about five minutes faster than expected. Perhaps it was the breathtaking scenery that drove me, or the effect of the arctic air on someone accustomed to slogging through the London smog. Either way, I felt ecstatic, and amazed at how awe-inspiring something as mundane as running along a tarmac road can be.

Scandinavian efficiency dominated the finishing set up too: in addition to the customary water and energy drinks, volunteers distributed chopped bananas and punnets of blueberries. Hugs and kisses were exchanged and hands were shaken as the sun stayed pinned to the sky.

Later, hundreds more runners embarked on the half- and full-marathon distances while I traipsed off to one of a handful of fish restaurants dotted across the town.

At midnight, as we trundled home, the sky was still as bright as it would be on a British winter's noon. It wasn't quite the blood red spectacle that some of the sports nut Twitter feeds and websites had suggested, but I suppose that unpredictability is yet another thing that makes this type of raw, rugged nature so enchanting.

Prone to falling into a comatose sleep after runs like this, I struggled to sleep that night. Pathetically, I constructed a blackout curtain out of towels and spare blankets as the sun reversed its course and started inching higher in the sky again.

I replayed the race in my head over and over: the people, the sea, the mountains, the light, the fresh air. Perhaps next year I’ll manage the whole 26 miles. But you must admit, it would be a bit of a shame to have to sign that confidentiality oath.


How To Run, Even In The Hot Summer

Running outdoors may be a better workout scientifically, but trying to go for that five-mile jog during the summer can be brutal. Quartz reports that running in the heat makes your body work much harder as it attempts to keep cool while also keeping your blood moving to the muscles. And it’s easier to get dehydrated and overheated, which means painful heat cramps or even heat stroke. But that doesn’t mean you have to take your favorite workout inside - it's entirely possible to safely exercise outdoors.

Karen Smith, dietician with Barnard Medical Center and five-time marathoner, told Quartz that it’s important to pick the right kind of workout wear. “Cotton is just going to soak up the sweat and be heavy,” she said. In addition to wearing lighter clothing, Smith told the publication that moisture-wicking socks can help prevent blisters.

As you’ll likely opt for tank tops over long sleeves, it’s important to apply sunscreen before every jog (and really, just every time you leave the house).

To prep your body, Runner’s World says that lowering body temperature an hour before you run slows how fast your temperature will increase, which means you could run more efficiently. According to the magazine, some studies suggest that precooling can improve performance by about three percent. To try it at home, sip on cool beverages, sit in an air-conditioned room or buy an ice vest.

The rising temps means that your fluid consumption should also increase, and Runner’s World recommends drinking at least eight ounces of water every hour before you run. Even though running with a water bottle can be clunky, Smith tells Quartz it's best to bring plenty of fluids on your trek.

“Every runner should have at least a 24-ounce water bottle that they refill throughout the day,” Smith said. Runner’s water bottles that fit around your hand or light backpacks can be purchased at sports stores and are easier to carry on a jog.

If possible, run when the weather is coolest, like early morning or evening, and finding a path along the water can help keep things cool too, according to Runner’s World. If there is no natural water in your area, trading the street for grass can also be more comfortable as asphalt retains heat.

Sometimes, there are just going to be days when it’s best just to skip those laps around the block. As Quartz writes, high humidity can make you feel even more sluggish, and it’s best not to run once the dew point reaches 75°F. The website explains that the body will be overly taxed as it draws in blood for oxygen, but then it also has to pull it to the edges in order to keep us cool.

As with any time of the year, having realistic expectations about what you can do is key. You may not run your best time or log as many miles in the summer, but you’ll still get some much needed cardio.


How Rich Roll went from obese alcoholic to ultra athlete

Rich Roll’s life has been a complex journey from early athletic potential through alcoholism, desperation, recovery, and self-forgiveness to, finally, health, ultra-athletics, and redemption.

An inspiring advocate for a whole-food, plant-based diet, via his hugely influential weekly podcast, Roll was listed by Men’s Fitness magazine as one of the 25 fittest people on the planet in 2009.

Remarkably, five years earlier, age 39, he was overweight and likely to have a heart attack.

In his autobiography, Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself, Roll describes a life of ferocious extremes. “Balance and I have gone on quite a journey,” he notes wryly.

“I have always struggled to find balance in my life and used to flog myself for falling short. I have now realised that I am hard-wired this way. I no longer feel the need to move my fulcrum point to meet social expectations. When I go for something, I go all in, no-holds barred, but I have made my peace with that.”

In the 1980s, he was a talented swimmer who had a choice of top US colleges. But he battled internal demons, and descended into alcoholism and drug abuse. This spiralled into a disastrous wedding, drink-driving, estrangement from his family, and a floundering career as a lawyer.

He checked into rehab for 100 days and stopped drinking. With as much gusto as he once applied to his partying, he now pursued the American dream as an entertainment lawyer,working 80-hour weeks. Although wealthier, he was also overweight, unhealthy, and unhappy.

One of the most arresting images in his memoir is of Rich Roll, aged 40, mind and body numbed by TV and fast food, attempting to climb the stairs and pausing halfway up to catch his breath.

It was a seminal moment for him. With encouragement from his wife, Julie, he started a seven-day cleanse and became vegan.

His energy levels sky-rocketed, and he began running and cycling. Two years later, he came 11th in an ultra-marathon. He would go on to complete five ironmen in seven days in Hawaii, at age 44. It was an almost incomprehensible feat of endurance.

He is a passionate advocate for a diet based on plants. “We are facing an insane health crisis in the US,” he says.

“A huge percentage of Americans are overweight or obese and it is predicted that 50% of the next generation will be diabetic or pre-diabetic. Heart disease is the greatest cause of mortality in the US, and soon will be worldwide, as more countries take on our fast-food culture.”

“The scale of the problem gives me a sense of urgency and purpose,” he says. “If you are challenging existing paradigms, you can’t then be upset if the mainstream does not accept you. It is human psychology. When people believe something is right, they will find ways to confirm that belief.

“The more successful you are, the easier it is to pigeon hole you as an outlier, that, perhaps, I have some strange genetic advantage or some weird enzyme that makes me different. But I don’t believe that. I know that a plant-based, wholefood diet gives me optimal results, in terms of athletic performance and sense of well-being. If that ever changed, then I would re-evaluate my choices.”

Rich Roll is not the only serious athlete to adopt a vegan lifestyle — for example, Carl Lewis was vegan — but he probably is the most vociferous. He is adamant that his change of diet was key to his transformation. Nonetheless, on his podcast he is rarely confrontational or dogmatic.

“Technology changes media,” he notes.

“The old gatekeepers of traditional media are gone and we have access to new ideas and information. We may not agree with all of them, but, at least, there is an opportunity for new concepts to be articulated. An emotional connection is, for me, the most important element in a podcast. It is when you have empathy and respect for another point of view that it works best.”

Roll is optimistic about the future. However, Donald Trump’s election to the US presidency indicates that the roots of conservative America run deep. “We are in a cultural and political crisis, at the moment,” Roll says.

“Trump is the manifestation of a large swathe of people, who are feeling incredibly disenfranchised and would rather blow up the whole system than be lied to again. But at least it is out in the open now.

"The challenge is to create systems that tend to the people that feel this way, to provide jobs from new technologies. It is a cue to clean our own houses, to take personal responsibility, and work to build communities.”

For Roll, this new stage of his life has brought him a degree of contentment. “Life is messy and non-linear,” he says.

“When I wrote Finding Ultra, nobody really knew me outside the insular world of ultra-athletics. The book was a slow-burner and the podcast just evolved from there. “It has been a physical, but, more importantly, a spiritual journey. In our fast-paced culture, it is so easy to fall away from the natural conditions under which we evolved.

“Running was about reconnecting with my environment, and with myself, physically and spiritually. It is about trying to live as natural a life as possible, and in accordance with the rhythms that are natural to us as a species.”

Rich Roll will hold a retreat based on his plant-based, whole-food lifestyle at Ballyvolane House, in Cork, from July 24-31.


Just don’t do it: Compression tights fail to curb runners’ muscle fatigue

Jetting off for a jog in snug-fitting compression tights won’t help a runner go farther or faster, according to a new study that’s not doing any favors for its sponsor, Nike.

The sports gear giant — which offers compression tights in every color of the rainbow — funded the study, which was conducted by sports medicine researchers at Ohio State University. It was meant to test a long-standing theory that compression tights tamp down on muscle vibrations during exercise and, in turn, reduce fatigue.

Researchers had 20 participants run on a treadmill for 30 minutes on two different days, sporting compression tights during one session and roomier running clothes in the other. The treadmill was equipped with sensors that could measure the force of each step hitting the ground and the force pushing the foot back up, and track how that changed over time. Researchers tested participants’ leg strength and jump height before and after each run to get an idea of how much wear and tear the workout exerted on their muscles.

The result? The compression tights were a bust.

They didn’t cut down on muscle fatigue or help runners keep up a fast pace for a longer stretch of time. (The researchers do say it’s possible the tights might help in ways that can’t be measured.) The results were presented Thursday at the American College of Sports Medicine’s annual meeting.

It’s relatively rare to see an industry-sponsored study turn up negative results — and even more uncommon for those results to be published and trumpeted in a press release.

Nutrition research, in particular, has been plagued by the problem of industry-sponsored studies turning up results favorable to industry.

There was the study that hyped canola oil as a way to cut down on belly fat — sponsored by the Canola Council of Canada. The paper that claimed spaghetti could help people stay skinny — sponsored by the pasta professionals over at Barilla. And how about the research finding that chocolate can boost your attention span — sponsored by Hershey. The list goes on.

Nutrition scientist Marion Nestle has looked at dozens of those industry-funded studies. Nearly all have reported results favorable to their sponsors, she said.

Publication bias — the increased likelihood that a paper will be published if the results are positive — affects scientific studies across the board, but it seems to be a particularly thorny problem for industry-sponsored research.

“Overall, the vast majority of studies that are published are ‘positive,’ but industry funded ones are even more likely to be positive,” said Lisa Bero, a health outcomes researcher who has studied the issue at the University of Sydney.

But the Nike-sponsored research doesn’t fall into that bucket. The company seems to have stuck to its motto: Just do it. And then, just publish it. Even if the research runs the risk of harming sales.


Why Athletes Need to Follow the Principles of the Power Stack

Power and the ability to sprint over and over again win games. This leads to a very important question: How do you improve these abilities?

While it may seem as simple as just throwing in some jump training and conditioning, it is not that simple. Power and repeat sprint ability are at the top of what's called the power stack. The law of the power stack is that you can only improve power and repeat sprint ability if you build them on a foundation of other important qualities.

It takes time to turn your body into a performance machine. In the fast-paced world of athletics, it is easy to give in to the pressure to skip levels. However, you have to respect the law of the power stack. You have to go in order. If you try to skip levels, you may succeed in the short term. However, you can also get hurt or hit a huge plateau far below where you want to be. Take the time, go in order and build each level of the performance stack. Reach your full athletic potential!

Level 1: Health
Effective training is built on a foundation of good health. As an athlete, if you don't have your health, you have nothing. If you have any injuries or other health problems, work with a trusted healthcare professional to deal with these issues first.

Also, make sure you are doing all the simple things you already know you should be doing to stay healthy and recover as fast as possible. These include proper sleep, rest, stress management, soft tissue work, washing your hands, brushing and flossing your teeth, etc.

Level 2: Movement Quality
Physical Therapist Gray Cook explained this in his Performance Pyramid. The idea is that performance is built on a foundation of movement quality. If you don't move well, you will never be able to actualize your potential and you will likely end up hurt. Basic movement competencies and proper exercise technique are the next level in the power stack. Also, at this level you want to work on your landing, jumping, stopping, starting, sprinting and cutting mechanics.

Level 3: Work Capacity
Once you are healthy and move well, it is time to build up your work capacity. This is your ability to handle work. Imagine for example that you have been sitting in a desk all school year and then you suddenly get an intense manual summer job. The first week is brutal because you don't have any work capacity. However, after a few weeks, you build this up and can handle the work.

If you don't have very good work capacity, you won't be able to handle the volume of training need to build things like strength, speed and power. I like to start offseason programs with a base-building phase of a higher volume work. Performing many sets of loaded carries builds work capacity.

Note: At times athletes need to gain muscle or lose body fat. If you need body composition changes, this is where you do it.

Level 4: Relative Strength
This is your foundation for power, and if it is a small foundation (i.e., you are not that strong), you won't get very powerful. You can also get hurt, as the best power exercises require a lot of strength to do safely and effectively. In addition, the stronger you are in relation to your body weight and size, the easier and safer it is for you to move your body around.

Level 5: Power
Once you are strong, you now have the foundation to get what you really need—power. Power is the ability to produce a lot of force in a very short amount of time. It is the combination of strength and speed. Power lets you out-sprint or out-jump your opponent.

If you play a collision sport, power is what allows you to knock your opponent off his/her feet. It helps you rapidly start, stop and cut. Power wins games. Once you have a base of strength, you can start to emphasize more power exercises such as: jumping, plyos, sprints, agility and explosive weight room movements.

Level 6: Repeat Sprint Ability
The final level of the physical performance pyramid is repeat sprint ability. This is being able to use your newly gained explosive power and speed over and over until the game is done and won. In the final phase of offseason training, the focus shifts to repeating fast, explosive movements with relatively short rest intervals. Preseason practices and scrimmages also play an important role here.


Weird Science: Is running backwards better for you?

You might have heard of this exercise trick. Running backwards is certainly not a new fitness idea, though it has yet to catch on as a trend. Studies have been conducted to test the effectiveness of running backwards and, apparently, when it comes to an actual comparison, running backwards actually has plenty of benefits when stacked up against normal “forward” running.

In his book Backwards Running, Dr Robert K Stevenson believes the sport would do well to remain a regular practice for any athlete interested in building stamina, strengthening leg muscles, improving balance, and adding variety to their workout.

The benefits of running backwards

Backward runners use their muscles differently to those who engage in forward strides. Studies have found that backward runners don’t generate the same kind of pent-up energy that requires a “push forward”. Instead, to complete each backward step, the runner will have to use more leg muscles than in forward motion, and this would cause an increased energy burn of about 30 percent when travelling at the same pace as when running forward.

Compared to forward running, it is definitely more strenuous, which could mean it is more effective in building fitness. A study done in 2014 found that even among walkers, those who participated in backward walking resulted in greater improvements to their physical performance than a comparable amount of forward walking.

Studies have also shown that backward running results in less strain on the knees. Thus, some athletes sometimes engage in the practice to rehabilitate from injuries to that joint.

The downside to running backwards

However, it is obvious that there is a downside to this weird and wonderful sport! Anyone engaging in running backwards would be blind to the objects they are running “towards”. One would be more prone to tripping over objects, or stumbling into things. Your coordination will definitely suffer a bit of a blow if you decide to take up this practice. It is, therefore, important to develop the right technique and to find the proper training ground.