An Open Letter to the Running Shoe Companies (Only Half in Jest)

The recent migration of middle-distance Olympian Nick Symmonds from Nike to Brooks and the saga of where Olympic distance runner Kara Goucher would wind up after leaving Nike (She chose upstart women’s clothing manufacturer Oiselle http://www.outsideonline.com/fitness/bodywork/in-stride/Kara-Goucher-Leaves-Nike.html?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=tweet) has gotten me thinking about marketing in the running industry. Here’s the thing: I’m all for companies such as Nike, New Balance, Adidas, Brooks, Oiselle, etc. supporting the livelihoods of professional runners even though when you look closely at the business model it doesn’t appear to make any sense. As a sport, running is like soccer in the United States during the 1970s and early 1980s: everyone was doing it, but nobody was watching it. Running faces a similar problem. Where I live in the capital region of upstate New York on any given weekend starting during early spring, there are multiple races in which to test one’s mettle. The Hudson Mohawk Road Runners Club’s fall half-marathon was closed out in half a day (I missed the sign up because I was running…grrrrrr.). There are numerous clubs and many, many, group runs during the week. Only the most cynical or unobservant could possibly conclude that the sport of running is not amazingly vibrant and healthy at the participant level. At the professional level – the level that needs fans and followers – the rhetoric that surrounds the sport is one of crisis. The typical professional runner makes $16,000 a year. There is a labyrinthine bureaucracy supervising competition that makes it difficult for professionals to innovate. Ever notice that a professional runner’s shorts and singlet are almost completely free of advertising? Professionals such as Nick Symmonds would like that to change. What the elite branch of the sport needs is a league that fans could follow and that would have runners representing cities in a series of competitions that would lead up to some type of title match. Author and announcer Toni Reavis has written several times about this proposal, as well as other ways of growing a fanbase. I’m going to tackle some of these issues in subsequent posts (Why, for example, does every athlete sponsored by Nike or Adidas, etc., always wear the same design and color of uniform? It’s bizarre and it makes running even more difficult to follow for the inexperienced fan).

Today, however, I have a proposal that might actually undermine efforts to support professional runners – sorry. It’s more of an appeal to the pragmatic business acumen of the major running shoe companies, although there is really no legitimate reason why my proposal and continued support of professionals should not comfortably co-exist. OK, here it goes: I race more often than Galen Rupp and a lot more often than a professional marathoner such as Ryan Hall. Obviously, the quality is not the same (duh), but this is more about contact. The runners that you are trying to sell shoes to probably don’t even see the elites when they are featured in the same race. Regular, everyday, runners at races have little idea of what shoes the elites are wearing, and have even less information about how those shoes perform. Let me rectify that. I race frequently and would race even more frequently with your support. I often get into conversations at races with fellow runners about shoes, training, etc., and find that I can be quite the brand ambassador without really intending to. Even though Hoka One One has just signed a major sponsorship deal with Leo Manzano earlier this week, I think that I would also be a good fit. I can’t stop endorsing the Bondi 2 – it has allowed me to up my mileage without getting injured. I can go on a long run and then do it all again the next day. This is quite a revelation for the masters runner. I would be happy to talk up Hoka One One at the various races I attend. When I run races, I am not so far out in front that other runners can’t see my shoes or what I am wearing. You’ll get maximum brand exposure, because I spend more time on the course. I am fast enough, however, for some to wonder if “It must be the shoes.” (See what I did there, Nike?) I think this sponsorship deal would be fairly straightforward. I need some free shoes, kit, my entry fees, and travel expenses (Travel, at this point is not going to be too expensive. I am still completely local – I even run to some of my local races. I do, however, have aspirations of traveling to the National Cross Championships someday.). What you get in return is brand exposure that runners at local races will actually see and an enthusiastic advocate of your products. True, Hoka One One is going to have to get a racing flat out pronto, but since Leo joined that is something that is being fast tracked. (I have to admit that I am very excited about the prospect of Hoka One One making spikes. Hoka foam under the spike plate sounds wonderful…) OK, running shoe companies, if you are interested in my proposal, contact me on my blog and I will get right back to you.

Yes, I wore tights -- it was cold.

Yes, I wore tights — it was cold.

After having made the claim that my status as an average masters runner makes me a good candidate for a new model of sponsorship, I went out last weekend and blew my amateur status. I finished second in a local road race and was happy to discover a fifty-dollar Visa gift card in my award bag – sweet. I went out and treated the family to ice cream and there was actually some money left over (I live in New York…).

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Leg Cramps: The Final Word (Really?!)

I recently noticed that when people find my blog through an internet search, it is almost invariably for three reasons: they are searching for cramp remedies, they have heard some bad stuff about running and ibuprofen, or they want to get the 411 on kinesiology tape.  When I started writing this blog, I promised to return to various topics and offer some updates based on my being an experiment of one.

It may look like I am experiencing leg cramps...

It may look like I am experiencing leg cramps…

I’ll start with the issue of leg cramps. As I pointed out exactly a year ago, experts don’t agree on the causes of leg cramps. A fairly comprehensive piece by Gina Kolata in The New York Times, “A Long-Running Mystery, the Common Cramp,” (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/14/health/nutrition/14BEST.html?_r=0) gave a good rundown of the main suspects, including dehydration, sodium deficiency, and, finally, muscle fatigue. These are the big three, but I pointed out that regardless of the cause we needed some effective preventative, as well as ameliorative measures. I decided that I would experiment with ingesting mustard before races. The theory supporting mustard consumption is that that cramps can be caused by a deficiency in acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter that stimulates muscles to work and mustard contains acetic acid, which helps the body produce more acetylcholine. It is possibly the vinegar common in both pickle juice (a traditional anti-cramp remedy) and mustard that stimulates the necessary neurotransmitter. You may remember that I started having several tablespoons of mustard before races and that I ingested packets of mustard when I subsequently cramped during races. I wasn’t all that impressed with the results. I ran a series of longer races during the winter where I cramped during the later miles, ate some mustard from a packet, and continued to cramp. There also didn’t seem to be a whole lot of correspondence between dehydration and cramping. When I ran the New Year’s Day half-marathon – The Hudson Mohawk Road Runners Club’s very popular “Hang-Over Half,” I was fully hydrated and made sure that I hit every water stop and slowed down enough to actually drink. Nonetheless, I experienced painful calf cramps beginning around nine miles.  Nothing was really helping and cramping during races was becoming increasingly frustrating.

I now return to this topic, because I think I have an answer.  It’s probably not the one anyone will want to hear. I don’t think there is any magic elixir of pickle and mustard juice that can be consumed, nor do I believe that hydration levels need to be obsessed over. Instead, I think that leg cramps are due to muscle fatigue and that increasing muscle strength and endurance over time is the surefire way to combat this problem. The magic is more running. It might be that simple.  In my own experience, it was telling that my first major problem with cramps occurred when I raced my first half marathon. The HMRRC course is flat and fast and I managed to run most of my splits up to eight miles faster than any previous races at those distances. So, I was running PR pace for everything and going longer than I had ever before raced.  In retrospect, it is fairly obvious that my legs were not used to both racing long and faster: my legs got very tired and I started to cramp. This also explains several weeks later when I cramped even earlier during a 10K race. The distance wasn’t a problem, but – even with the cramping – I took more than a minute off of my PR. I was running everything faster and it is now clear that my overall muscle fitness had not caught up with my new racing pace. Since increasing my long runs at the beginning of this fall, I have had fewer problems with leg cramps. At this year’s Hudson Mohawk Half Marathon, I only experienced calf cramps during the final four hundred meters. Likewise, at my first time running the 15K Stockad-athon several weeks ago, I only started cramping during the final half mile. In both of these races, cramps occurred when I tried picking up the pace at the end. The good news, however, is that despite faster running – the first half of the Stockad-athon is very fast – my leg muscles appear to by acclimatizing to increased speed and distance. I am convinced that much of this leg strengthening is due to the miles that I have put in over the years, as well as the recent increase in my long runs.  The solution, then, appears to be a long-term one – more running – rather than any type of quick fix.

One of the questions that emerge from this revelation is “what about well-trained, professional athletes, who experience debilitating cramping episodes?” In these cases, I would suspect that athletes doing a whole lot of mileage and speed work might be going into races with tired legs susceptible to muscle fatigue despite doing all the things necessary to build muscle strength and endurance. Thus, if you experience an isolated incident of cramping during a race, it might just mean that you did not taper adequately for a race and your leg muscles were still stressed from previous hard workouts. I think the key to avoiding leg cramps is to have the necessary muscle strength and endurance for your chosen race distance.  This, of course, is not as straightforward as it sounds, because we are always striving to go faster and longer and it is difficult to be prepared for every distance and speed, especially if you have never before tackled a specific distance. My final piece of advice: don’t get freaked out if you experience leg cramps while pushing the limits of your speed and endurance. It merely means you are pushing your limits; but, luckily, with additional training you can successfully push back those limits. Cramps, therefore, might be a sign that you are on the way to getting faster, a painful indicator; but, ultimately, a positive sign of improvement.

The Mustard Report and other Topics to Anticipate

Some of my favorites, now obsolete

Some of my favorites, now obsolete

I had many ideas for this blog entry and it was difficult to seize upon one topic.  I was initially excited to try to jump on a recent trend of the last several weeks and name my top five running shoes of all time.  It appears that around the holidays, or maybe this is entirely coincidence, various bloggers decide to make lists of their favorite running shoes.  I started thinking about this and realized that my attitude towards running shoes has changed a lot as I have gotten older.  When I was in high school, I remember being excited about perusing the pages of Runner’s World for the latest shoe releases and religiously (and it was a religion) reading the annual “shoe issue.”  Back then, the idea of buying and wearing the same running shoe model twice was unthinkable.  Now, however, if I find something I like, I dread the inevitable update.  I recently had to scour eBay for a pair of Nike Lunaracers when I realized that Nike was again updating.  Why must they mess with a great pair of shoes?  Nike tried this with the Lunaracers once before and there was so much outcry that they had to re-release them in their original form.  You are now probably aware that the Lunaracers would make my top five list, although I seldom race in it – too heavy and cushy.  It’s a great shoe to rotate into the mix when I feel like I need some additional cushioning on a long run or when my legs feel beat.  Running shoes are definitely on the agenda for some future blog entries.  I have some specific ideas about what makes a good shoe.  I am also increasingly alarmed about the cost of running shoes and I am willing to call companies out when I see shoes that try to justify outlandish prices based on ridiculous technology.

Topics also on the horizon include the efficacy of compression sleeves.  Do they work, or not?  Short answer: I don’t know.  I have, however, become completely dependent on CEP compression calf sleeves.  I have convinced myself that they provided critical support when I was recovering from a tibia stress fracture and I continue to run in them, even when experts tell me that they are only useful during recovery after a run, because they “feel” like they are allowing me to go further, faster.  This, of course, could just be due to the fact that I am getting in better shape, although I do seem to be less sore after my long runs. Who knows? I’ll do some research and report.

Next, I am planning on writing about pre race meals.  Earlier this summer, when I finally went under 20 minutes for a 5K for the first time since high school, I managed to eat at Gene’s Fish Fry about two hours before the race.  I consumed a fried fish sandwich (of course), French fries, and a large strawberry milkshake.  I was not optimistic that this qualified as a responsible pre race meal.  I ended up taking twenty seconds off my PR.  Was it Gene’s, or would I have gotten under 19 minutes if I had not eaten like an idiot?  I know much has been written on what to eat before a race, but I am interested in people’s specific pre race meal routines. I hope that in the near future we can get a useful and entertaining discussion underway regarding what to eat (and what not to eat…).

This brief mention of food brings me back to what I intended to discuss in today’s blog entry.  Remember, that I earlier promised to report on the mustard gambit as a way of preventing leg cramps.  After having agreed to use myself as a guinea pig, I didn’t actually plan to race again for over a month.  This past Sunday was the first race in the Hudson Mohawk Road Runners Club Winter Series.  I had the choice of 3 miles or 15 K.  I went with 3 miles and that was probably a drawback in figuring out if mustard helps to prevent leg cramps. I have only once had cramps in a 5K race and these occurred at the very end in extremely hot and humid conditions.  Cramps are usually not a problem for me in shorter races.  Remember that one of the theories is that leg cramps can be caused by a deficiency in acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter that stimulates muscles to work.  Mustard contains acetic acid, which stimulates the body to produce more acetylcholine.

A spoon full of mustard keeps the leg cramps at bay...

A spoon full of mustard keeps the leg cramps at bay…

On Sunday, I woke up about three hours before the race and had a can of coconut water to help hydrate and then about an hour later consumed a banana, a slice of toasted cinnamon-raisin bread spread with Nutella (I couldn’t find the peanut butter, which led to a full-scale refrigerator cleaning later in the afternoon, including replacement of the fridge light!), several cups of coffee, and (wait for it) a spoon of mustard.  I was planning to have a packet of mustard shortly before I ran, but I completely forgot – great scientific method.  It was a good race.  My main issue was being slightly underdressed.  I need to remember that the thermometer on our back porch does not account for the wind on the SUNY-Albany campus where the races are held.  I was wearing a short-sleeved shirt during the race and I really could have gone with long sleeves.  I noticed about a mile into it that I was cold.  Ideally, you shouldn’t notice clothing problems during a race.  I also did a little bit of racing during the last mile, back and forth with a fellow runner, and managed to kick it into the downhill finish in 19:40 and 11th place overall.  I took 15 seconds off last year’s time – always a good sign – but finished just out of the bread.  The top two in each age group are awarded coupons for a free loaf of bread at a local bakery – awesome, but I finished third.

Anyway, I didn’t experience any leg cramps, but I didn’t really expect to.  My next opportunity to try out the mustard (that just sounds weird) will be on January 13, 2013.  I have the option to run a 10K, so I will have the mustard for breakfast and right before I race and then see what happens.  The last time I experienced leg cramps was about four miles into a 10K, so this should provide a good test.  I have to admit, however, that other variables have also been in flux.  I didn’t run in the various Thanksgiving turkey trots because I was concentrating on increasing my mileage.  Some steady training may also be increasing my leg strength and endurance, making me more resistant to cramps, perhaps.  After Sunday’s race, I will again be going for more than a month without racing and I have taken Running Times’  latest recommendation to run your easy runs easier to heart.  I am using the next month to do more mileage less intensely.  Again, this could have an effect on my cramp resistance.

Stay tuned for my upcoming report on mustard therapy, pre race meals, compression socks, and running shoes.  I also plan to write a blog entry on running goals for the upcoming year.  Putting them out in public might provide some additional impetus to realize them.