Saturday, 27 October 2012

Feminist Theory and Sports Injuries. Huh?

Those that know me may be amused to hear that I never really thought of myself as feminist until recently. Looking back at what I've achieved, yeah, I find it a bit funny, too.

I feel very fortunate that my first feminist influence was my high school English teacher: a stylish, vivacious, feisty and educated woman who perfectly embodied everything that a person could be. She seemed to know exactly who she was. She was passionate about her literature and that inspired passion in her students, even the most unlikely ones.

Perhaps my next feminist influence was my boxing coach, who was a man, and a former Army officer. How odd! Yet he told me that I would achieve great things not despite the fact that I was a woman, but because of it. And I'm pretty sure he's right.

Difference is a wonderful thing. I am not the same as a man. I am not the same as another woman, either. I'm precisely, exactly like me. I've always felt that way; only recently did I learn that this is a feminist attitude.

And, now that I understand feminist texts, now that I'm finally studying some cultural theories and considering the world with new eyes, I'm starting to get it.

What I didn't expect, however, that this would be relevant for my running identity. But today, on Jezebel, I read 'One Mistake Won’t Ruin Your Life. Remember That.' The article challenges a dominant narrative fed to women (but not men) throughout their lives: that a single mistake can undo everything and you will never recover from it. Hugo Schwyzer highlights how this narrative is seeping out in stories about Amanda Todd; that she should not be used as an example to reinforce this myth.

But in the course of the article, he also made a very unexpected link to injuries in female athletes (although it was focused on college team sports):
The heartbreaking tragedy of Amanda Todd fits all too well into the larger cultural narrative that demands perfection from girls. Her "error" serves as a very public stand-in for all the other possible mistakes young women can make that will, we tell them, mess up their lives. The perfectionism that drives young female athletes to ignore warning signs of injury much more consistently than their male counterparts (a growing phenomenon documented in Michael Sokolove's Warrior Girls) reflects a belief that admitting fragility or exhaustion is a mistake that can both ruin a soccer career and reflect badly on their future chances of success. The "Supergirl crisis" is far from over-hyped, made worse by a culture where male underachievement just exacerbates the pressure ambitious and anxious girls already feel. The end result is a cruel double-bind: "you can be anything you want to be," we tell our daughters, "but you're so fragile that a single mistake can wipe out everything you've worked for." That's a recipe for exhaustion.
I've left the links included because I think the books look fascinating—I've added them to my wish list.

I have been aware of that demand for perfection; even when there is no apparent external pressure, I've felt it. I followed the path of greatest resistance simply so I had something to fight for. But at some point, in my mid-20s I think, I changed; I no longer seek the resistance, but I still feel it.

As always, please share your thoughts.

Friday, 26 October 2012

So I'm Not the Only One

Taken from p. 4 of Ride On magazine's October–November 2012 issue:

So that pretty much agrees with what I had to say about the thirst mechanism in my post on nutrition and hydration. It's nice to see common sense making a comeback in the field of sports nutrition.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Ship's Stern and Dave's Creek, Binna Burra

A few days ago, I posted about communities built on sharing outdoor adventures, constructed as stories. I thought I'd encourage you check out EveryTrail by giving you a tantalising taste of our adventure on Thursday. The full story is on the EveryTrail site: Ship's Stern and Dave's Creek, Binna Burra

I sent Ruth a link to someone else's trip (possibly this one) and she loaded it into her GPS so she could practice following a track on it; this is a skill she'll need for the Great North Walk 100 Mile Run in a few weeks. We both tracked the run as we went. Our route is slightly different from the one we were following, because we visited different lookouts and occasionally decided (deliberately) to take a different fork for a better view.

As you can see from below, another advantage of this community is being able to plug your trips straight into your website or blog.

EveryTrail - Find other trips in Lamington National Park and beyond

In case you're interested, I also created a Garmin Adventure: Ship's Stern and Dave's Creek, Binna Burra | Garmin Adventures. It has a few more photos in it (mostly because I did this one first, and had lost momentum by the time I got to EveryTrail). It looks really pretty, but it's definitely less accessible.

If you have any problems with the map above, please leave a comment to let me know what browser and operating system you're using.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Injury, Weight Loss and Pure Speculation

Nearly every female runner I know who has tried to maintain a low body weight has ended up with overuse injuries—myself included.

I have a very strong body. My bone mineral density is high for a woman of my age despite the fact that I have been on inhaled corticosteroids for my asthma (but not so high as to make my bones brittle).  On minimal training, I can go out and run incredibly long distances. My body doesn't fall apart; I don't take time off due to injury. I've only had one major injury in the last five years, and that was when I came off my 50 cc scooter at over 50 km/h and skidded across the road with my foot trapped under the bike. I fractured my fifth metatarsal. It healed up perfectly and hasn't been a problem since.

But I wasn't always so strong. When I was competing in triathlon, training 22 hours per week, I used to supplement my diet by drinking a meal replacement shake between breakfast and lunch, and another between lunch and dinner… and sometimes a third one before bed. I couldn't eat enough to keep the weight on, and if my weight fell below 60 kg I got injured, every time. Knee inflammation. Muscle tears. Overuse injuries. Shin splints, even when my form seemed excellent. If I had drawn a chart plotting my days spent injured against my weight, you would've seen the most amazing thing happening around 60 kg: on one side, many days injured, on the other, very few.

My case is not the only one, and it's not a scenario that's exclusive to ultra running. It's well documented—look up Female Athlete Triad (with the unfortunate acronym FAT). Yet despite the many studies conclusively showing that there is such a thing as being too light, the unhealthy myth of 'lighter is faster' persists in our sport. It's a myth that is perpetuated at races where relatively chubby runners like me rarely place highly. (Note: I said relatively. I don't think I'm chubby, but I am much larger than most of the podium finishers.) Perhaps lighter is faster, but I'm almost certain that longevity carries a little more weight. Have a look at runners that keep performing moderately well for a very long time in the sport. We're not skinny, but we're still here.

Does low weight cause injury? I'm not sure. Low body weight generally means you're burning a lot more energy than you're ingesting. So it's also plausible that you're going through more essential nutrients than you're consuming. This may directly upset your body's functioning, such as low iron reducing the oxygen carrying capacity of your blood. It may also have a less direct effect. For example, if there's not enough calcium in the muscles to sustain contraction, it starts leaching out of your bones. Hello, stress fractures. But it's also possible that low body weight or low body fat are not the cause of an increased risk of injury but rather that they are both effects of some other underlying cause. A diagnosable example of this could be coeliac disease; who knows what other diseases are yet to be discovered?

Influenza and a few long races had left me alarmingly thin by the time I fronted up to Caboolture in July. My appearance drew comments: I was described as looking great, really fit, no fat on me, stronger and faster than ever, and so on. To me, I was way too skinny. I felt I was putting myself at great risk by racing when my weight was below 61 kg and dangerously close to that 60 kg mark. I held together, though, and afterwards I was at great pains to put the weight back on before I raced again.

I'm not going to try to convince everyone that we need to get heavier, that light women won't run faster and win more races. We can only do what we think is right for ourselves. But I urge you to be really honest with yourself. Ask yourself why you have to be a certain weight to run fast. Where did you get the number from… was it a Facebook quiz? Did you model yourself off someone else? And finally: do you track your weight and your injuries? Do you notice a correlation?

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Climb Every Mountain

I love climbing mountains and fording streams. (If you like The Sound of Music, then this reference won't be lost on you.) I love to explore new places with a map and compass and some good friends, and I love reliving the adventure by poring over the log from my GPS.

A couple of weeks ago, I upgraded to the latest version of Garmin Basecamp and promptly ignored the new feature they'd added in called Garmin Adventures. Some time later, I paid it some attention. It's fun. You load one or more tracks and waypoints into an Adventure, write a description of the course, and add any photos, videos or annotations that seem appropriate. It's all neatly kept together as a story you can 'play', and it's nicer to view than a simple folder of the relevant files.

Then, if you choose to, you can publish it on Garmin's website for others to view or download. So it's like Garmin Connect but with a focus on exploration instead of training.

Here are three tracks that I've created and shared publicly:

But there's a catch: while anyone can view it online, you need to install Basecamp if you want to download the adventure. I really like Basecamp; it's free and it's a great piece of software for managing all the maps and data associated with a GPS. It even lets you output data to KMZ for use in Google Earth. But I don't want to force everyone else to use it to see my adventure in detail. I also don't expect that everyone who wants to run on a trail has a dedicated GPS, and those that do may use a brand other than Garmin with its own software.

On the other hand, EveryTrail is a free, online community which also makes it really simple to upload adventures with text, photos and videos. The key difference is that any member can download a file in an appropriate format for their GPS. You can save your favourite tracks, and add comments. You can easily share trips on Facebook or Twitter or embed content in your blog. Don't have a dedicated device? It doesn't matter, because can download the free EveryTrail app for iOS or Android, and load up your tracks on your phone. You can also download mobile travel guides.

I've added a widget to the right hand side of this blog, which links to my profile and my recent adventures on EveryTrail. I'd heartily encourage everyone to join up. I've been using EveryTrail to find run routes for ages; but Garmin Adventures prompted me to finally start contributing to the community.

There's one more great GPS site I'd like to share with you: GPS Visualizer. Here you can convert between multiple GPS file types and show tracks using different mapping sources…and it does so much more. But it's also a partner site of EveryTrail, so when you create a file on GPS Visualizer (perhaps to add to a Google Map) you can publish it on EveryTrail just by clicking a link. How easy is that?

So now there's no excuse to not climb every mountain, ford every stream and run EveryTrail :D

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Nutrition and Hydration, or Just Plain Eating and Drinking

It's probably fair to say that ultra runners have a bit of an obsession with nutrition and hydration, to the extent that many of us have forgotten how we used to just call it eating and drinking. I needed Steve Brydon to remind me of those old-fashioned terms, even though I'm not all that fussy about my food.

When prompted to think about it, I realised that I tend to eat very wholesome foods when hiking and running. My favourites are mixed nuts, liquorice, oat-based slices, beef jerky and dairy foods. That last category is a bit of a contentious issue, but milk, custard and cheese seem to settle my stomach and boost my energy levels. I'm don't think I'll ever get enthused about Bill Thompson's staple, though: a tub of cream. I also like a good Snickers bar and a few chocolate coated coffee beans.

A universal rule for me has been to consume solid foods in longer events. The exception has been in very cold conditions, where my need for calories seems to take priority and I get sudden cravings for energy gels. I have recently discovered that drinking a hot herbal tea aimed at improving circulation seems to help me overcome the cold and give me a kick, despite its negligible calorie count. My favourite is Circulation Spice from tlicious, but similar blends also work.

I also enjoy a hot cup of freshly plunged coffee with sweetened condensed milk—loaded with calories and caffeine. Of course, the majority of my running is not done in the middle of the night, and I like the odd Coca Cola as well. But I've come to the conclusion that most of the time, sugar is a far more effective way for me to combat the sleep monsters than caffeine, so long as I am careful to keep consuming it so I don't come down from the high. For this reason, I've replaced most of my event Coke consumption with lemonade or red Fanta and I honestly can't tell the difference.

I don't drink much electrolyte drink, because most of them are horrendous, disgusting, evil beverages. However, I find the Peach Tea GU Electrolyte Brew Tablets delicious and will happily down a few bottles of it during an ultra event, just for variety. Aside from that, it's plain water for me, with an occasional salt tablet if I really need it—and the only salt tablets I use are Succeed S! Caps.

Now, you may have noticed that I implied I don't use many salt tablets. This is true: at the Glasshouse Trail 100 mile last month, I only took about five tablets. I didn't need any more than that, and I wasn't eating excessively salty food. I put this down to my heat training, which numerous studies have shown reduces the amount of salt lost through sweating. (Here's one example, but if you want more, just search for them.)

And, of course, I drink water. (When it's exceptionally hot, I also pour it over myself, which seems to work more quickly than sweating. More on that here.) I have never consumed large volumes of water nor have I forced it in when I'm not thirsty; I refuse to believe that human beings could 'evolve' to a state where our thirst mechanism works too late to be effective. That makes no sense.

But these days I drink more water than I used to, because I have a better strategy: I guzzle. For years, I drank in small sips. Then I started copying my boyfriend in his morning habit of drinking a pint of water. It gave me a great kickstart, so I started drinking larger volumes but less frequently when running, with great success.

I tested this out at spring camp and ran 15 km of trails with no water, and then another 15 km straight after on only three slurps of about 300 – 250 mL each. It seems to clear my stomach far more rapidly and I feel better hydrated. So why was I sipping for so many years? I suspect I was trying to relieve my dry mouth, so now I've taken to rinsing and spitting when I'm not actually thirsty. I also cover my face when conditions are dry, which helps prevent my mouth drying out and reduces the fluid lost through breathing. (It also seems to help control my asthma, by giving me moist air to breathe and preventing so much dust and pollen from getting in.)

Of course, this is all anecdotal—one woman's personal experience. It may not work for others. It may not actually work for me, even though it seems to. If you've seen any research on the matters I've mentioned above, please do share them in the comments, and enjoy your food and drink…or is that nutrition and hydration?

Monday, 15 October 2012

Tam's T-bar Trail Bars

These are my T-bar Trail Bars because I made them using a Tupperware T-bar Set for a day on the T-bar (Toowoomba) trails with Tamsin and Ruth. They're easy, tasty and loaded with natural energy. And did I mention they're tasty?

1 cup quick oats
1 cup dry roasted nuts and seeds
1 1/2 cups mixed dried fruit
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup golden syrup
1/2 cup peanut butter
1 tbsp molasses
15g butter
pinch salt
2-3 squares Nestlé Plaistowe dark chocolate

For the nuts, I use the Lucky Smart Snax nut mixes. I also like to use chopped dates, so it works out to about 1/2 cup dates, 1/2 cup mixed dried fruit, 1/2 cup berries from in with the nuts. These ingredients and the chocolate are usually available in the baking section of the supermarket. Try to get organic peanut butter with only one ingredient listed (100% peanuts).

1. Place oats, nuts, seeds and dried fruit in a large mixing bowl.
2. In a small saucepan, mix honey, golden syrup, peanut butter, molasses, butter and salt in a small on low heat and slowly bring to the boil.
3. Stir the liquid through the oat mix until it's all thoroughly coated and clumping together.
4. Scoop into T-bar mould and press down with the plunger. (If you don't have one of these, just squish it down into a pan or container that you don't mind scratching.)
5. Refrigerate until cool. Allow at least an hour for this step.
6. Use the back of a knife to separate the bars from edge of the mould, then turn the bars out onto the lid. (If using the tray, tip the bar out and cut, or do it in the reverse order.)
7. Melt chocolate until smooth and drizzle over the bars with a spatula. (2 squares will give a nice drizzle; 3 squares will give a thin coating.)

You can melt the chocolate in the microwave, covered on medium heat, 30 seconds at a time and stirring well in between. When it's close to melted, adjust in 10 second increments.

Ups and Downs

It's been quite the year of running for me, not that you'd know it from the blog. 

After Alpine, I sorted out my health and decided to do the Coburg 24 Hour race. Then Pop (my paternal grandfather) fell ill and my brother came home from Singapore to see him on the weekend of Coburg. That put me in Victoria on the right weekend, but several hours outside of Melbourne, so I missed out, although I got to watch a bit of it after dropping my brother back at the airport.

I caught a cold or the flu in June, just in time for the Oxfam Trailwalker, which I did with Mallani, Ruth and Sara. We were the second female team home in 19 hours 45 minutes or so. It was probably a fair bit slower than what we were capable of, but these things happen. I had a nasty cough—my asthma always plays up after having the flu (which is why I suspect flu, not a cold, was the culprit)—and by the end of the race I had lost my voice. I had an asthma attack on the way home, but the next day I did a few gentle reps up the Kokoda Track in Mt Coot-tha. I was pretty fit.

I went on to try the Sri Chinmoy 24 hour race at Blacktown (west of Sydney) the following weekend, but that nasty cough wouldn't leave me and as the sun went down my peak flow plummeted with it. By 8:00 pm I was wearing nearly all of my clothing and still feeling cold; having only covered 80 km in 10 hours I decided it was best to go have a hot shower and a sleep. The temperatures went negative that night, so I think it was an excellent decision; the following week, my doctor agreed with me. 

A longer course of Prednisone sorted out my asthma and got me back to a decent level of respiratory health ready for my New Zealand ski trip in July. I didn't sign up for anything until after this, lest I break a leg on the slopes. I am a klutz, after all. When I came back, I signed up for the Caboolture 48 hour race and then panicked at the thought of it. But I calmed myself with the thought of having run in the wilderness for 46 hours before; I fronted up and ran 272.822 km to become the women's national champion and third place overall.

Five weeks later I went to Matt Cooper's Ultra Made Spring Training Camp at Fitzroy Falls, with Ruth. It actually snowed on us as we drove in, which was a bit crazy, and the whole weekend was cold. The people were amazing, though, and I made many new friends. Coops has a great philosophy on running and life and how to experience 'Present Energy'. The camp focused on the mental, emotional and spiritual levels of running rather than the physical. I noticed during the camp that my hip flexors were still very fatigued from Caboolture, but this didn't stop me from running up a hill with 480 m vertical in 4 km of track; nor did it prevent me from running up 5 km of a big hill 15 km into a run on the Monday.

Glasshouse rolled up two weeks after camp. It didn't sink in until much later that this was only seven weeks after Caboolture. So my hip flexors were still sore. But the whole run was a comedy of errors for me. I had been too optimistic in my planning, so lights were in the wrong drop bags; it was colder than expected, so I dropped my morning thermals in the wrong bag; my shoes were too loose at the start (toe jam) and too tight later (foot cramps and bruising) and my spares were a long way away at the 107 km checkpoint. My tight hip flexors ended up upsetting my lower back badly (perhaps the sacroiliac joint) and I ended up quite swollen in the region. Despite that, I ran a 2 hour 20 minute 100 mile PB of 26 hours and 4 minutes and I didn't get sick, lost or run over by a 4WD.

Now I'm seriously enjoying relaxing, studying and fixing my back up with some Bikram yoga. The focus is all on Alpine next year, where I am going to run 32 – 36 hours, but preferably the former.

I've been sharing lots of my knowledge with friends recently, and I've realised that I should share some of this knowledge with the world instead, so that's what I'll be blogging in the near future. Here's an outline of some things I've learnt, which I may post about in the coming weeks:
  1. Iron deficiency can apparently lead to stomach upsets in races. Both Mallani and I have been less sick during races since sorting this out.
  2. I can run up most hills, so long as I keep it light and relaxed. 
  3. I can get by on much less food and water than I think I need.
  4. I don't need to sip water; if I am thirsty I can drink, and if my mouth is dry I can rinse and spit.
  5. Power naps work a treat in long races.
  6. Not all foot care routines are equal, nor are all foot fungus creams.
  7. I make the best trail bars.