Monday, October 22, 2012

We All "Bonk" Sometimes

I love racing.  I love the training, the taper, the pre-race prep, the race day jitters, the crowds, the atmosphere, and most of all the starting line excitement and nervousness.  Racing is a way for us to gauge where we are as runners.  It's also an opportunity to meet new people, run with friends, see a city you have never seen, travel, and the list goes on and on.  I know I could quote any number of reasons to race and there all good. However, when we really get down to it, most runners, you know who you are, have that little voice deep inside, that competitive gremlin that talks us into things we may not want to do, but it pushes us.  It's what pushes us when we are training to catch that person up ahead and pass them.  It's what pushes us during a race and helps us kick at the end because there's no way that guy that's been shadowing us all day is going to beat us!

Because I enjoy racing so much and have not had much opportunity in the last couple of years, I embarked on an adventure last weekend.  I headed South to Jacksonville  Florida to partake in the 9th Annual Marine Corp 1/2 Marathon.  This is a race I have run several times so I am very familiar with the course, the crowd, etc.  It's a great 1/2 if you are looking for one that is basically flat with a few hills.  It definitely has PR possibilities if that's on your mind.  Usually the weather is pretty good this time of year with highs in the 70's or low 80's. The only concern might be the occasional pop-up rain shower.  The temp can fluctuate so make sure you check a week ahead so you know how to prepare. This years race was no different, the weather was set to be good, 7am start in the upper 60's which should mean by race end, the temp might be in the low 70's.

My plan was to head down Friday morning and get into town around 3pm so I could just hang out and rest the remainder of the day. Unfortunately,  Thursday night I worked till 11pm which put a wrench in my plan to get out of bed as quickly as possible Friday morning, load the car and head out.  It's a 7 hour drive to Jacksonville from Birmingham so getting an early start makes all the difference.  Due to my late evening, I actually got on the road around 8:30am Central which should have put me in Jacksonville about 4:30 Eastern.  An hour and a half late would not be a problem because I would still miss the rush hour traffic.  The trip was pretty smooth down US Hwy 231 and on to I-10 East with light traffic for the majority of the trip. Everything was great until I was about 18 miles West of Jacksonville where a multi-vehicle accident had occurred and caused the closing of all East bound lanes on I-10.  Frustrated is one word you could use to describe my feelings at that point, but what choice was there but to go with the flow, follow the diverting traffic to surface roads and keep moving.  The traffic and diversion caused about a 2 hour delay in my arrival so in total in stead of 7 hrs in the car I was there for about 9.

So let's recap a bit on my race prep: On my feet for 12hrs in the ER until 11pm Thursday, slept about 5-1/2 hrs, stuck in car 9 hours traveling. What about fueling during this time you ask?  I ate Rice Crispy's with fat free milk and some crackers and peanut butter Thursday at work, Special K protein plus cereal Friday morning before the trip and a 6" Subway Turkey sandwich with diet coke in route.  Not quite enough calories or fluid to give the body the stores it needs for a 1/2 Marathon I'm thinking.  Once I arrived at my best friend Brian Fullford's house, I did get a protein smoothie and some low fat chili, prepared by his wonderful wife Kerry, for dinner which was great. Unfortunately, I still failed to take in enough fluid.  I got to bed about 10:30pm but of course who sleeps their best in a strange bed.  I'm guessing I got about 4-5 hours sleep before getting up at 5:30am to get ready.

Up and ready to go, I felt I needed to take in some calories and fluids before leaving for the race. My race day breakfast choice is a couple pieces of toast with peanut butter.  Thought this should give me good sustained energy when paired with a couple of gels during the run. I drank about 16 oz of Powerade® Zero to wash the toast down and then headed out.  We got to the staging area and did a quick race prep before moving to the start line.  I truly had in mind a good race.  I honestly felt I was ready, set to possibly finish in about 1:45.  I told myself anything under 2hrs would be good,  but I really thought I could do much better maybe even PR. What the hell was I thinking?  I could not have been more wrong.

When the gun went off, I could barely contain my excitement.  I was ready to go.  I had been sitting in the car for 9 hours,  a little sleep deprived with adrenalin pumping through my veins. I needed to let loose.  As you can imagine this was a bad combination and as expected, I started out to fast.  Not terrible, but I got caught up in the crowd and started out pushing to much.  Thankfully, I checked the new toy on my wrist, the Nike+® Sportwatch, and realized I was off pace and needed to slow down.  Props to Nike® for this watch. This was my first venture into the GPS watch world and my first real run with the watch. I am happy to say it performed fantastic.  I love being able to see all the standard data: pace, cadence, dist, calories burned, etc. at anytime.  I did take it out for a quick 3 mile run a few days earlier, but this was the first real test and it did not disappoint.  Ok, back to the race.  I settled into a comfortable pace of 8:30/mile and just watched the miles click off.  I felt strong and in control over the bridges, down Riverside, past Metropolitan Park and around Boone Park.  I maintained my pace, I refueled at about 50 min and took on fluids as needed.  Everything seemed to be going as planned.  I rounded Boone Park and began my way back up Riverside.  I crossed mile 8 and thought ok, 5 to go so just put your head down and get it done.  About half way between miles 8 & 9 I began feeling a little off.  Doing what we do, I pushed through my uneasiness and hit mile 9.  Now I was feeling pretty bad, legs achy and getting stiff, breathing labored, generally not comfortable at all.  I struggle to mile 10 and then the wheels came completely off.  I told myself nothing but a 5K left, you have done this a thousand times, you can do it again.  Unfortunately, my legs did not agree and subsequently turned into 2 X4 planks.  I could not get them to bend, I could not hold any pace, it was all I could do to move.  I finally gave up and stopped to walk.  I could not believe it, I was doing so good.  I had fueled properly during the race.  I was taking in fluids, what was wrong.  Why was I bonking now?  I walked for a couple hundred yards and started to run again.  Pushing as hard as I could I got to mile 11 and stopped again.  Alternating running and walking mile 12 finally came into view. My legs just would not move and I felt terrible. I just wanted to finish.  I was not about to quit, but I knew at this point 1:45 was long gone and I probably had no chance of getting in under 2 either.

Not 30 yards after crossing mile marker 12, I saw something I could not believe.  I saw a friendly face coming towards me, a savior and life line to the finish line.  Much to my surprise, my friend Brian Fullford had come looking for me and was ready to drag me to the finish if necessary.  Brian became my cheerleader and coach and without his help I would not have made it that last 1.1 miles.  I told him I was done and it was all I could do to just walk.  He push me and got me running again even though I could not hold it.  We ran a few hundred yards and then walked a bit.  We got to about 3/4 of a mile from the finish and he said "ok, lets get to the finish".  It took everything I had but I started running again and pushed on to the finish line. Amazingly with Brian's help I crossed the line in under 2 hours.  How I was able to hold on to that part of the goal, I will never know but I am thankful none the less.  I can never say thank you enough to Brian for his help and it is a testament to the power of friendship.

Being the type person I am, I waited 3 whole days after the race to go for a run.  I thought I'd had plenty of time to recover so a little time outside would be good for me.  Once again I was wrong and after I had abused my body the way I had with so little time in between, I had one of the toughest 6 mile runs I have ever had.  I was glad I got out, but realized I need more rest time in the future after bonking hard.  I waited another 3 days before running again and this time I had a great run. I was able to push my pace and just felt great.  While I don't recommend it, more than likely we will all "bonk" at some point in our running career.  Yes, in most cases it is preventable but we all have times when we just don't do what we should preparing. If it happens to you, I offer one piece of advice from someone who has been there: Make sure you always take a friend to the race, they may save you too.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Run with Strangers!

Monday is not usually one of my regular run days due to a varying schedule, but this Monday I found myself without any prior commitments and was faced with a truly difficult decision. Should I continue sitting on my butt and watch a little more TV or should I get up and take advantage of this rare opportunity with a run. Now I'm here to tell you I am a professional at sitting and soaking up some television waves.  Since I was not able to watch much of anything for 2-1/2 years, I find myself watching mindlessly just because I can these days. Ha!  That being said, I am also not one to pass up the chance to get outside when possible so I grabbed my running gear and headed out.

I had a meeting at 2:00pm that afternoon, so I thought a late afternoon run might be a good idea for a change.  Earlier that day I was cruising some of my usual websites and on one, a local running shop named Fleet Feet Sports Birmingham, saw a posting for one of their weekly runs called "Monday Runday". This is weekly event sponsored by Tin Roof, a local restaurant/bar, where runners of all levels gather and go out for a run of either 2, 4, or 6 miles.  I thought this might be a great opportunity to get a run in and meet some new people since I rarely get to run with anyone.

The run was to start at 6:00pm so after my meeting, I headed downtown to locate Tin Roof having not been there previously.  I was happy to find it was located in a part of town known as Lakeview which is littered with restaurants, bars, and parks.  It's an older part of town on the Southside with some really good atmosphere.  It's also relatively flat with sidewalks everywhere which makes it a really good running neighborhood. I parked the car, changed clothes and took off on a warm up jog down to the meeting point.

I was excited to see a wide variety of runners gathered for the run.  Everything from beginners doing a "Couch to 5K" to some of the local professionals where all outside Tin Roof ready to go.  After a quick introduction and welcome everyone in the group indicated what distance they planned to go and we took off.  I was hoping to get at least 6 miles in so I located a couple of guys who indicated that distance too and linked up with them.  The guys I met were Tom and Russell and we started out with a relatively relaxed pace of around 8:35 which is my normal training pace.  We talked a minute about what we wanted to run and decided this was a good pace for all.  Those that know me know I am not a speed demon by any means.  I am lucky to hold a decent pace in the mid 8's these days since I have not done any speed work in a long time so I was happy to settle in and just cruise for a bit.

Birmingham is not a flat city.  It's built in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains so no matter how flat the area is when you start, you know sooner or later the hills will get you.  This run was no different and at about mile 2 we started to climb some of the rolling hills in downtown.  Since I am a relatively small, light runner, I'm usually pretty good at going up and down hills.  I pushed a little on the climb but really let go on the down hill.  I didn't  feel like I had pushed the pace much but took a look over my shoulder and noticed the guys were about 25 yards behind me.  They caught up to me at the bottom of the hill and said look at your pace. I was shocked to see we were now running a 7:30 pace.  I could not believe it.  I was running faster than I had in a long time and I was not dying.  I could breath, my legs were not screaming, my heart was not pounding out of my chest.  What was going on and who had invaded my body? I had no clue but I was not about to question it so I just embraced the pace and held on for dear life.

The miles seemed to melt away.  We continued to keep the pace around 7:30 and to my surprise I was able to keep up.  The hills definitely helped but even on the flat sections I was holding my own.  Of course I know the weather had a great deal to do with my performance.  I am a cold weather runner and during the run, the temp was in the low 60's upper 50's and it was perfect.  The weather contributed to my ability to breath while pushing but I am still surprised my legs did not give out.  As we crossed mile 6 we decided to go on for another mile.  We continued on for another 1.25 miles to wrap up with a total of 7.25 and an average pace of 7:55.  It was a great feeling to finish after running hard and still not feeling totally spent.  I know we sped up and slowed down from time to time which explains the average pace.  But for me to hold a sub 8 average pace for 7 miles is an accomplishment in itself and one I thought was in the past.  I was thrilled and more importantly now knew I was capable of more than I thought.

After a post run beer I headed home.  On my way I thought about the run and all of the specifics.  I know we runners tend to over analyze ourselves and our runs and I am no different.  I went over every mile and came to a couple of conclusions:  One, the weather was a major player in this run;  Two, no matter what the weather had been, had it not been for the group, I would never have discovered what I could do.  Running with others is key to improving your running.  It pushes you, it allows you to gauge yourself, and it shows you what you can do.  I know it is not an option for everyone but I would recommend at least one group run per week or every other week.  Check out your local running club or running stores.  I guarantee there are plenty of opportunities to meet up with groups everyday almost anywhere you live.  Running is typically a "loner" sport but it can be a very social sport.  Get out and run with strangers because they won't be strangers long. I went to this run knowing no one and left with two new friends.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Is it Fall Yet?

Friday was my first off day since last Sunday.  I know most of you are thinking "Awe, poor thing, had to work a whole 4 days in a row" and yes I would normally agree with you. However,  12 hr shifts in the ER will take it out of you a little quicker than your typical desk job.  Changing careers later in life has taught this "old dog" a few things for sure.  Anyway, as I was saying, I was off yesterday and got up at my usual 6:00am.  Sat down with a cup of coffee, how I love a coffee machine with a timer, and turned on the news.  As fate would have it, the weather came on about the same time I sat down.  Living in the South you really don't expect the temps to improve until late October and I had not seen a full weather report for the past 4 days.  To my surprise, the current temp was listed as 60, even lower in a few areas, and my heart began to flutter.  Was it real, had Fall already arrived without my knowing?  Who cares, its cool, the humidity is low, get out of that chair and let's go!

I had planned to run sometime in the day, but originally thought it might be later since I did not get home until midnight from work.  Of course everything changed when I saw those temps and knew I had to take advantage of this gift before it was gone.  Running on tired legs is never much fun, but sometimes it takes pushing a bit to make advances and with my next race looming on October 6th, Marine Corp 1/2 Marathon in Jacksonville Florida, I need to make some advances.  So I swallowed the last few drops of coffee in my cup and got myself ready to head out the door.

Fortunately or unfortunately, I live in a neighborhood that is not really runner friendly.  Rolling hills, dogs, narrow roads, no sidewalks, etc. make it a difficult place to just step out and run so I usually go to one of the areas of town where I can hit the trails or run a road route with little traffic and sidewalks.  I jumped in the car and headed on my way, not really sure where I wanted to run.  I felt lead to the trails, which seems to happen more often than not, where I could enjoy the early morning sunshine and a little shade from the trees.  So I pointed my car in the direction of some of the closest trails and made my way to the starting point.  When I stepped out of the car, the cool air welcomed me and filled my lungs letting me know I had unquestionably made the right choice in time and location for my run.

I've been running long enough to know I should start out slow and increase my tempo as the miles build. Of course, when the weather is so perfect, I usually start out much to fast and then try to hang on.    This run was no different and I took off hard and checked my split at the end of the first mile and realized I was about 25 seconds faster than I should.  I thought about slowing down, but took a deep breath of that amazing coolness surrounding me and said what the heck and just kept pushing.  The miles just seemed to melt away.  When I crossed mile marker #2 I felt like I was just getting warmed up good.  By mile #3 my breathing had completely settled down and I was in a rhythm that hopefully could sustain me throughout the rest of the run.  With miles #4 and #5 came the revelation that all runners have about this time of year: This is why I run in those 90 plus degree days of Summer.  We all suffer in the oppressive heat and humidity just so we can reap the benefits during the Fall racing season.

With no set distance in mind when I started, I settled upon the number 7.  I had not run in about five days and my last run was about 5 miles so this would extend that just a bit.   Legs still feeling good and breathing easier than I could have hoped, I slid passed mile 6 and on into 7.  I hit the stop on my watch and checked my average pace and time.  I was surprised to see I had completed my 7 miles with an average pace of 8:37 per mile and total time of 58:59 and I could not have been happier.  Not only had I gotten my run in, I had improved on my pace and time from the last run.  All that was left was a little Powerade® Zero and about 15 minutes of stretching and I was ready for the day.  I know running is not for everyone and not everyone that runs enjoys the same type of weather.  That being said, I am and will always be a professed cool weather runner.  I hate running in the Summer heat and humidity.  Give me 45 degrees and cloudy any day over 95 and sunny.  So I say Hello Fall and thank you for coming.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Some days it just hurts

So today I decided to go for a run late in the afternoon.  Yes, it was still 85 degrees and the humidity was about 90%.  I know it was probably not the best decision, but I really just needed to get out and move for a bit.  This was the 2nd day in a row for me to run and with my schedule these days, it's a rare event.  Maybe it was because I was tired, maybe it was due to the heat and humidity, who knows what but todays run was vastly different than yesterday.

Yesterday, I decided to go for my usual trail run using the Adidas Vigor shoes I have discussed in previous posts.  I did run early in the day, around 7:30 am, and the weather was really nice.  Yes, it was warm because it is Alabama in August, but it was not unbearable.  I ran 7 miles with a decent average pace and felt really good at the end of the run.  Today, I spent the majority of the day studying for board exams and then around 6:30 pm decided I would go for a run.  I initially thought I would hit the trails, but instead decided to go run a road course just down from the hospital where I work.  A road run meant I would strap on the Brooks Ravenna that I bought probably 8 months ago and have only run in a couple of times.
Brooks Ravenna 3
I love the Ravenna, but for whatever reason, the shoes, the weather, etc. today's run was less that satisfying.  I ran 5 miles and it was honestly 5 of the hardest miles I have run in a long time.  My pace was terrible and I could not wait to get done.  I never felt like my breathing settled down and I felt like I was pushing the whole time even though my average pace shows the exact opposite.  All of that being said, I am still happy I was able to go out and run whether it was my best run or not. One thing I've learned, especially as an older athlete, is that no matter what, every run cannot be great, fantastic, your best run ever, or a PR.  There are going to be days, if you run long enough, where you start out feeling good, but for whatever reason, the run just does not go your way and you struggle through the entire time. 

Today was that day for me so I guess what I am trying to say is that it's ok to have a bad run, because even at it's worst, a bad run is better than no run.  It makes you appreciate those fantastic runs. However, being who I am, what I always seem to do when I have a bad run, is go back out the next day and see if its better.  May not be the best idea since the reason for the sub par run maybe that your body needs rest.  I think its probably just me trying to prove to myself that it was just a blip on the radar and all is right with the world! However,  good or bad we all have to remember that some days it just hurts to run.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Loosen Up Already!

Yikes, it's been awhile since my last post and I apologize for the long delay.  To borrow a line from a favorite book, "Life, the Universe, and Everything" has contributed to the long pause but thankfully I am back and to make things even better, today was my first run in over 2-1/2 months!  It was not pretty, but it was simply wonderful to finally get back out and at least begin the long road to getting in shape again.

The last time I ran was also the last race in which I competed, Xterra Trail Run 1/2 Marathon, this past May. It was that post race experience that highlighted a topic I thought needed to be discussed and my long layoff and restart certainly helped me confirm that as my topic for today's post.  You've heard it all your life: "You better stretch or you might pull a muscle". But even though we have all heard this age old advice, very and I mean very few actually take this advice to heart.  I am always astounded when I see someone start and finish a run, no matter if it is short or long, and jump straight in the car and take off.

It's a cool, crisp Fall morning, don't know about ya'll but I can't wait, and you decide to go for a run. So like every other time you strap on your running shoes, head outside, and do your usual two-minute drill. You jump around for a bit, bend over and touch your toes to stretch your hamstrings, maybe even do a quick quad stretch, and then off you go.  Sound familiar?  I hope not, but it's probably standard for a lot of runners.  Truthfully, that's just wrong. It does not matter who told you, but stretching cold muscles is something you should never ever do. Even though you may have jumped up and down for 30 seconds or run around the parking lot once does not mean your muscles are warm.  Imagine putting a rubber band in the freezer for a few hours and then trying to stretch it out.  What will happen?  As you might guess, it will break into multiple pieces.  This is similar to what your muscles go through when you don't warm up properly and attempt to stretch them cold.  It creates numerous micro tears in the muscle, breaking it down and making it weaker.  And believe it or not, doing static stretches, where you hold a stretch for several seconds, before a workout may also weaken your muscles and decrease your overall performance.  Rule #1, always always always warm up before you do any type of stretching. The best type of warm up is one that gets your heart pumping so it is moving blood to your muscles. If I am going to stretch at the beginning of a workout, then I go ahead and start my run and then about 10 minutes in, stop and stretch.  This will get the muscles sufficiently warm and perfused with blood to supply them with needed oxygen.

More often than not, I prefer stretching at the end of my workout.  My muscles are warm from the workout and if I ran a lot of hills, intervals, or just really pushed hard during the run, my muscles are tired and tight and need the relief offered by a good stretch. Of course there are a number of opinions on which stretch is best, I honestly don't care which one you do, just make sure you do them.  It will improve your strength and flexibility.  Below are a few of my favorites:

Good standard hamstring stretch.  To make it even harder, reach for your toes with both hands.
This is hamstring/glute stretch.  Make sure you push your knee with your elbow to create added tension.
This is a great groin stretch.  Again, push down on your knees with your elbows to give and added dimension to the stretch
Ok, this one may not be very familiar to everyone, but it is a fantastic stretch.  I believe it is called the "Pigeon" stretch, but I credit the one and only P90X creator Tony Horton for introducing this stretch to me.  This is probably my favorite stretch.  It stretches everything including hips, quads, hams, glutes, etc. 
Not sure what this one is called, but it's a great hamstring stretch too.
Stretching can be and frankly should be a key part of your exercise regimen.  In addition to flexibility, stretching can improve overall range of motion of your joints.  Always keep stretching gentle, don't bounce.  If you feel pain, you've stretched too far.  Hold a stretch for about 30 seconds, then switch sides and repeat.  If you have a problem area or the stretch is particularly helpful in eliminating some discomfort, you may want to repeat the stretch.  Again, Rule #1 always warm up before stretching, even better, go ahead and get your run in and then stretch.  I don't want to sound like I am preaching, but if you make stretching a regular part of your workout, it will not only improve performance, it may also help prevent injuries and prolong your athletic career.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

"Happy Trails to You"

Ok, I was inspired to write today after my wonderful run in the woods this morning.  No, it was not the best run of my life, but it's Spring and the weather was beautiful. I was outside...........enjoying all that nature has to offer.  To me, it does not get much better than that. Of course I know not everyone is as enthusiastic as I am about hitting the trails, but maybe just maybe you will, at the very least, find your interest peeked after reading this article.  I too was a skeptic about the idea of running in the woods, on gravel, through the dirt and mud, streams, puddles, creeks, etc. that usually occupy most park trails.  If you choose to run trails in the Fall or Winter, then you can add snow and ice to the list of obstacles you must traverse to get through a run.  However, after my first venture into the world of trail running, I rediscovered something I truly loved; Nature.  Yes, believe it or not, we get to experience one of the greatest gifts of life our planet offers at its very best anytime we want and best of all, it's totally and completely free! Lace up a pair of running shoes and take off on your own little adventure. I can't tell you how many times I've been on the trails and seen such amazing things like rabbits, deer, red tailed hawks, geese, foxes, owls, raccoons, and of course the occasional runner (HA!) All this for the price of a Powerade® Zero (my personal favorite) or Gatorade® and a little snack.

Let me preface all of this by stating up front that trailing running is not the easiest running you will ever do. Will you run the same pace you run on the road, no.  Will you run as far as you run on the road, no again. What trail running will do for you is help strengthen your core, ankles, calfs, quads, and hamstrings while improving your cardiovascular health and at the same time help protect your knees and ankles with a softer base to help absorb the impact. I don't know about everyone else but as I age, I need to protect my joints and muscles as much as possible so I can keep doing the things I love. Stretching everyday is another great way to maintain strength and flexibility as we age, but that's another issue. Anyway, it just makes sense to take advantage of something that is available everywhere, will improve your overall health and strength, and cost nothing.  The other great benefit I have found from doing some consistent trail training is that I can generally run further, faster, and with less effort out on the road.  That alone should be incentive enough for most runners.  Improve your times with nothing more than a change of venue for your training runs.  Now that's powerful stuff.

Adidas Vigor TR 2
Now that I have you thinking a bit, let's look at what you will need to enjoy your run.  As for clothing, you can wear the same thing you wear on any other run.  What you really need to focus on
is your footwear. I cannot say this enough; Trail Shoes Trail Shoes Trail Shoes. I have run trails in both regular road shoes and trail specific shoes and there is no comparison with regards to comfort and stability on the trails.  Plus, who wants to run through a muddy creek in their favorite running shoes.  Trails shoes are made specifically to perform in adverse conditions. I have run in several different manufacturers shoes, but I must say my current favorite is the Adidas Vigor.  I purchased this pair recently and went for my first run in them about a week ago.  I was surprised to find how well the tread gripped the varying material on the trails and how stable they felt.  I also found them well cushioned and left my feet feeling relaxed after a long run.  As for socks, I highly recommend getting some crew running socks like the Balega Trail Buster II.
Balega Trail Buster II
A crew sock will help keep the dirt and rocks out of your shoe making stops to clean your shoes out a lot less frequent.   Of course there are a ton of different shoes and socks available, so please do some research and find what works best for you.  That's really about it, all of your other running gear works just the same on the trails. So make a plan, set a date and get outside and go for a run.  In the words of the singing cowboy Roy Rogers "Happy Trails to You, until We Meet Again"!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

To Gel or Not to Gel

Well Spring has sprung and if you are like me, you knew several weeks ago Spring was coming early to the deep South when the pollen was out in force long before the official start of the season.  At any rate, the moderate temps and good weather of Spring are here and it seems to put a call out to everyone that it's time to get outside again and shake off the haze of winter.  As we hit the roads and trails again, one issue seems to always bubble up to the surface and plague runners and multi-sport athletes at all levels.  The problem is knowing when they should use an energy gel and when they should leave them at home.  We all can benefit from gels as long as they are used in the proper manner. To use them properly we need to understand them better, which in turn, will change the way we look at gels.   

On the most basic level energy gels are sports drinks without the water, think of dehydrated Gatorade® or Powerade®. A gel, is a concentrated carbohydrate source that can serve as relief from "Oh my gosh, I think I'm gonna die" in the middle of a long run, they can give you a boost at the end of a race, they can be a compliment to your endurance nutrition or a pre-recovery start for your fueling requirements after a long race or training day. I am a believer in gels from my own personal experience, but gels are not for everyone and they do not all work the same.  They all provide the same basic nutrition which is complex carbohydrates and little if any protein or fat.  They are around 110 calories but different manufactures derive their carbs from different sources.  GU gets its energy from maltodextrin and fructose while Clif derives theirs from brown rice syrup and PowerGel or PowerBar gel uses glucose, fructose, and sodium as it sources.  All of these are usually easy to digest and quickly absorbed to provide you with that extra boost of energy.  If you are a regular user of gels, then you have probably tried all of the different ones from HammerGel to GU.  

The one thing I do not recommend is trying a gel for the first time at a race.  When you are nervous or hot and sweaty, if you put something new on your stomach it might not react well.  I recommend trying them on a training day first before attempting to use them in a race.  Learn which ones seem to work better for you and how your body reacts.  I personally like GU and HammerGel, they seem to give me the kick I need on those rough days and boost my performance during races. 

As for how best to use them, most manufacturers agree that you should take one about 15 minutes before the start of a long run or endurance activity and then again every 30-45 minutes during your activity.  They need to be consumed with 240 ml (or about 8 oz) of liquid, preferably water since these are basically dehydrated minerals and electrolytes. If you are planning to run for around 45 minutes to and hour, unless you have missed your regular meals that day or you have been eating poorly, a gel probably will not be necessary.  You should have enough carbs stored as glycogen in your liver and glucose in your blood to sustain you through a workout that length.  On the other hand if you are planning to go beyond and hour, then you need to think seriously about adding a gel or some type of nutrition to your routine to replace those lost nutrients.  Some of us might think well I have plenty of fat to burn so I dont need to add more calories in just because I am working out longer.  Unfortunately fat is metabolized so slowly, it is a poor source of energy and the last thing the body will use.  The body will burn the glucose in your blood first and then the liver will convert glycogen to glucose and release it into the blood to help maintain your energy level. When those glucose and glycogen levels fall, so does your energy level and performance. That is the reason it is so important to replenish your carbohydrate stores when you are pushing your body to perform for long periods of time.

While I am no expert, hopefully this helps explain the basic chemistry that takes place in your body when you exercise.  I know we all want to perform our best every time we go out for a run, swim, or long bike ride.  I firmly believe you are best at understanding your own body and it's needs.  You know how you feel and what affects you better than anyone.  With all of the sources of quick energy and "Nutrition" available today, you have to do a little research to find what works best for you.