Reader Question: What is a Marathon?

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A Quora member recently asked this deceptively simple question, “what is a marathon?”. Just what constitutes “a marathon” is a source of confusion for many runners new to the sport as well as for people not involved in the sport. Below is my attempt to explain the issues and hopefully resolve the confusion. Enjoy! 

Within the sport of Track & Field (Athletics for all you non-Americans) a marathon is a foot race of the standard distance of 26 miles, 385 yards. The story behind the odd distance has to do with the 1908 Olympic marathon finish line placement, which made the course come out to that distance. The then governing body of the sport later adopted this distance for all marathons and it has been so since. Had the Games not been moved to London for 1908, the marathon distance probably would have eventually been standardized at 40k or 25 miles, or possibly left as it was for each race to determine.

But the confusion over ‘what is a marathon’ also stems from the fact that the word marathon, like many words, has more than one definition. We runners and track fans cringe when someone says they ran a “5k marathon”; no, you ran a 5k, not a marathon. However, one of the definitions of ‘marathon’, that long predates the adoption of the official marathon distance in Track & Field, is simply “any long distance running race”. Of course there are other uses of the word ‘marathon’ which are used for any event that requires prolonged endurance of one kind or another, such as a dance marathon, a sales marathon, or even a ‘marathon meeting’ (one that drags on for hours, or seems to).

One could therefore argue that technically, as purely a matter of grammar, a “5k marathon” is not incorrect. But of course since it is a running event, it is incorrect in that context. Personally, while I find it cringe worthy, I try to understand that the person saying it may be a new runner, so any correction should be gentle and constructive rather than of the “OMG, how dumb are you?” variety. We can’t expect people outside of – or brand new to – any field of endeavor to know its nomenclature and culture.

From what I have witnessed, actual race directors using terms like “10k marathon” to describe a race is more common in some parts of the world than others. I could be wrong, but this seems to be a fairly common practice in some Asian countries. In the US, you really only see it used by people putting on a race if they are having a charity fundraiser “5k Marathon”. Most serious runners know to stay away from these events, since they are probably not being conducted by someone who knows much about running as a sport, so there are often numerous problems (e.g., improperly marked and/or measured course, untrained volunteers, no traffic control, incorrect results, etc.)

I’m not sure if my answer directly relates to the reason the question was asked, but the subject comes up often enough that I hope my response is instructive to others who may be confused about the use of the word marathon.

 

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Reader Question: Should you wear an ankle brace while running?

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What have you found to be the best compression like sock for protecting your ankle while running a short or long distance? I recently used a Protec Athletics 3D flat sleeve. However, it felt fairly tight and I wasn’t sure if it was doing its job on a simple walk for about 5 to 6 miles.

First of all, is is important to know why are you wearing an ankle sleeve in the first place. Is this due to a previous or current injury? Was it recommended by a doctor or physical therapist?

Protec is a respected brand in that category, so I’m not sure if – assuming you do need the support – that a different sleeve would be better; perhaps a different type of brace could be in order if you truly need external stability, but if that’s the case you really should see a physician such as a podiatrist, or a physical therapist. If it is just too tight you could try a larger size, of course, but the idea is for it to be tight to provide some stability.

If none of the above, I assume you are using it to try to prevent ankle sprains or perhaps someone suggested runners use these so you should too . FYI, this is not common among (uninjured) runners. As a general rule, I suggest people not use any sort of brace or support that isn’t necessary, since that could ultimately result in weakening the support structures (ligaments, tendons, muscles) that naturally stabilize your joint. This would of course just weaken the joint more and more over time and cause you to become dependent on the brace.

You might benefit much more by doing regular strength and stability exercises for your ankles (2 or 3 times per week is enough). Again, this is general advice and not meant to replace anything your medical professional has recommended.

The basic ankle strengthening exercises include heel raises (aka calf raises), tracing the alphabet with your big toe while holding your foot off the ground (you can also do circles in both directions, and sweep the foot side to side = inversion/eversion), and balancing on one foot.

Most people begin heel raises with just their body weight and using both feet at the same time – standing with the front of the feet on a step and slowly lowering the heel and then raising up on the ‘tip-toes’. You can progress by first adding more sets; once you can easily do 15 – 20 reps, then do one set in a ‘duck-footed’ stance, one with toes straight ahead (neutral), and a final set with toes pointed in (pigeon-toed). Further progression involves using only one foot at a time, and ultimately adding weight (e.g. holding a dumbbell).

With the alphabet/circles/sweeps, once those become easy you can consider wrapping a light cuff weight (maybe 1 – 2 lbs) around your foot while you do them. Doing the alphabet pretty much ensures you are moving your ankle in all possible planes and directions, but you might need to take a break before finishing all the letters. With circles or sweeps, most folks do about 10 in each direction.

Standing on one foot is pretty self-explanatory; once you can do so comfortably without losing your balance for 30 seconds x 3 sets, you can progress in different ways. One way is simply to close your eyes, which makes balance much harder. Or you can stand on a softer surface like a pillow (there are commercial balance pads available, too, at different difficulty levels – the softer the pad, the harder it is to balance); mini-trampolines work well, too. You can also ‘perturb’ your balance by moving your arms and other leg around, or by having a friend stand behind you and randomly give you little pushes in different spots, or have them toss a ball back and forth with you, sometimes tossing higher, lower, or more to the left or right.

Good luck!

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Reader Question: How can I stop ankle tightness when running?

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A reader on Quora asks: How can I stop ankle tightness when running? When I run my ankles get so tight or numb, not sure what the issue is but it makes me slap my feet on the ground. It prevents me from going long distance; any suggestions or ideas on how to fix this?  (Also, shoe suggestions/sizing.) 

 

I’m having trouble picturing what you mean; is it your achilles tendon (heel cord) that is tight, or is it the inside, or outside, of your ankle, or all around? The fact that you say they get numb is a bit concerning and makes me think that you should consult a medical expert. That could be a sign of something more serious, like a nerve impingement or a circulatory problem. As is often the case on Quora, there isn’t enough room for you to give all the details, such as how long you have been running, how much you run, how much you weigh, your previous injuries, your age and your gender. I also don’t know what kind of surface(s) you are running on, e.g. concrete sidewalks, technical/uneven off road trails, nice smooth soft dirt paths, slanted road shoulders; what other training or sports you participate in, or what kind of shoes your are running in. It could be as simple as you are trying to ramp up your mileage too fast and not allowing your ankles time to adapt. With so little to go on, there is no way to know unless you get it checked out; there are just too many variables to assess. 

They aren’t always easy to find, but your best bet would be to locate a physical therapist who is an expert in running biomechanics. In addition to a thorough medical history and an examination of the related musculoskeletal system, he or she will probably video record you from different angles running on a treadmill to look for clues (bring your running clothes and shoes to the appointment) and conduct a functional movement screen. With a good idea of any muscle imbalances in strength and flexibility (keep in mind it could be caused by an issue further up the kinetic chain, such as hip/glute weakness) and your running mechanics, the PT can design a plan to correct the problem, which will usually include exercises for strength and flexibility and potentially some other interventions.

If the PT does think it could be something other than a simple musculoskeletal issue they would refer you to a physician. Of course if you want peace of mind you could start with the physician and then go to a PT if you get an all clear. 

As far as footwear, research shows that different types of running shoes really don’t affect injury rates; that is, in studies where one group gets running shoes based on an assessment of their ‘pronation factor’ and another is assigned shoe type randomly, the injury rates are about the same. For years, running shoes have been classified as ‘stability’ ‘motion control’ or ‘neutral’, but with this newer information many shoe companies are moving away from those categories. 

What has been found to affect injury rate is the comfort and fit of the shoe to the person, which means you should go to a running shop and try on several models and run in them at the store (most now have a treadmill you can run on; many years ago the shop I worked in allowed you to run up and down the sidewalk). You will want about a “thumbnail’s width” of room between your longest toe and the end of the shoe, and the width should feel good – the shoe should be about the same width as your foot rather than your foot spilling over the sides or sliding right to left, and it should be snug but not overly tight in the heel. There are different ways to lace shoes to improve the fit, and you can ask the folks at the running shop about that. 

Another thing you will notice is that some shoes are easy to flex, others are quite stiff, and most are somewhere in-between. Also, some have a lot of cushioning, some a moderate amount, and some practically none. There are more running shoes on the market now than ever before, and it seems new shoe companies pop up every month. The variety is generally a good thing, but it can be overwhelming having so many choices. You will have to decide which feels the best by trying them, and again a running shop will take the time to help you narrow your choices. 

Once you have your new shoes, it is still possible that they won’t feel as good after a few miles of “real” running as they did on the treadmill in the store, so see if they have an exchange policy in case that happens. Give them a fair trial, but if you feel like they aren’t working for you then you’ll want to try something else. It is just kind of a trial and error system. Once you find the type of shoe that works for you it becomes much easier from then on to find the right shoes. 

One other thought; you didn’t say what kind of shoes you are running in now, but if you are using something like basketball or tennis shoes, that might explain some of the problem with the foot slapping you describe. Otherwise, I think the PT and a gait analysis will help figure out and fix the ‘hitch in your giddyup’. 

So, in summary it could be one or a combination of (1) a more serious medical issue, (2) doing too much,too soon, (3) weakness/tightness in the feet and/or ankles and/or lower leg muscles, (4) weakness/tightness further up the kinetic chain (quads, hamstrings, abductors, adductors, internal & external rotators, hips, glutes, “core” muscles, etc), (5) the surface/slant you run on, (6) improper footwear.

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Reader Question: Are there any etiquette rules for running a 5k?

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Are there any etiquette rules for running a 5k?

This is a great question, and shows that you are a caring person in my opinion; otherwise you’d just go all ‘bull in a china shop’. 😉

“Common sense” goes a long way, but some runners who are inexperienced at participating in races might not think about certain points of etiquette. Given the popularity of ‘couch to 5K’ training programs (i.e. training programs that encourage sedentary or non-runners to take up the challenge of getting ready for their first 5K (3.1 mile) ‘fun run’ race, there are many first timers at most 5Ks. 

I will approach this answer from the standpoint of a first time, or fairly new, runner. Most of this will generally apply to whatever distance race you run, by the way.

Getting there.  Get to the race at least an hour before the start, and even a bit earlier if you are picking up your race packet (your number) on race day. This keeps the stress level down for you, and for the volunteers who have to scramble to get everyone checked in as race time approaches. Understand that most of the time races do start almost right at the stated time, with or without you. Don’t show up at 8:45 for a 9am start, in other words. You need time to get your number, pin it on, use the world famous port-o-potties (there will be a long line), snug up and double tie your shoelaces, and find your spot in the starting area.

Bib number. Pin your race number to the FRONT of your shirt (or shorts) so that it is clearly visible to race staff. It’s not the Olympics, so you don’t get a front and a back number. Also, some races still use the tear-off tag on the bottom of the number for recording finish place and time, so DON’T REMOVE THE TAG from the bib number, and do not put a safety pin through the tear-off tag itself. If they are using this system, be ready to give the volunteer at the finish line your tear-off tag quickly so that they can get to the next person behind you and keep the finish area from getting clogged up. (Most larger races now use timing chips, but small fun runs often use the tear-off tag or another low-tech system.) If your race uses a timing chip, make sure you follow the instructions for using it – some are built right into the number, but some have to be attached to your shoe laces.

Lining up. Be sure you have a decent understanding of how fast you will run, and line up in the starting corral accordingly. For example, if you have been running blazing fast times in your workouts and think you might finish in the top 10, then line up on the front row with the other speedsters. But if you have been doing a run/walk program and are not yet quite able to run the full distance, line up towards the back of the pack at the starting area. If you are somewhere in-between, then of course line up somewhere in the middle. (Gigantic races will usually seed you, so you line up where they tell you to; most smaller runs count on the runners to understand where they should start.) The smaller the race, the less critical this issue is, but you still don’t want to be up front if you aren’t ready to get swept up in a really fast start. It’s dangerous for you and the other runners if you get tripped up and fall. The start of a 5K can be pretty chaotic for a minute or two with all the kids that don’t know any better sprinting out ahead of everyone and then slowing down, and the real front runners dodging them and each other; you don’t want to be in that mess if you aren’t ready for it.

During the race. Just have fun and run your own race if it’s your first one. In a 5K there may or may not be a water station on the course (usually there is one at the half way point). If there is one, and you think you need water, how you approach it depends on where you are in the race; if you are up with the speedier overall or age-groupers, most won’t get water at all but those that do will not slow down to do so. They will just grab the cup, pinch the top to make a spout, and then pour most of it down the front of their shirt (not on purpose). If you are with the mellower paced crowd, you can usually just pick up a cup, thank the volunteers, drink it and put the cup in the trash can if there is one. (You’ll see a lot of littered cups on the ground, which the volunteers will pick up. This practice is pretty accepted in road races, but not in trail races, fyi. On the trail, you hang on to your trash until you find a trash can.)

Anyway, the main point of etiquette here is not to impede another runner at the water station (or anywhere else on the course), either by cutting them off or by suddenly stopping in front of them. Plan how you are going to approach the water station (and any walking breaks) and pay attention to what other runners around you are doing – if they are grabbing the cup while running, then you will need to do the same; you can walk if you need to after you get clear of the water station and aren’t in a place where you will be blocking anyone’s progress by walking. It’s like switching lanes while driving; make sure the person behind you isn’t going to rear-end you if you move over and/or stop suddenly. Again, if you are doing a run/walk thing, there shouldn’t be much chaos around the water station. If you are worried about it, and think you’ll be out there long enough to need some water, you can always just carry a bottle with you. Also, if you wear headphones, keep the volume low (or keep one earbud out) so that you can hear other runners. In my opinion, especially in a first race, it’s best not to use them at all. You don’t need the extra distraction.

At the finish line. Pretty much already covered above. If they are using a chip system, you might have to stop and give back the chip. Most use disposable chips now, though, which is the simplest of all. You just cross the finish line, do a cartwheel (if you want) and go get some post race bagels and bananas. Follow the instructions from the volunteers at the finish and all will go smoothly. Usually you can find out what scoring system they are using before you even start the race. In any case, just don’t hang around right at the finish line so there is room for others to cross the line.

That was kind of long, but in summary (1) get there early, (2) pin number to the front and, if used, make sure you have the timing chip, (3) line up in the right spot, (4) pay attention and don’t stop suddenly or cut off other runners, and (5) follow the instructions at the finish line. Also, be sure to thank the volunteers. Pretty simple, really.

Have a great race!

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From Orthopedic Shoes to Track Spikes: Part I – The Weird Kid

Fig 2. Matt, age 12. From newspaper article after winning national coloring contest.

 

 

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Today’s post contains the first part of the story of how an awkward, uncoordinated, sedentary, overweight, slowest kid in his class became a collegiate cross country and track athlete, and beyond. The moral of the story is, “if this kid can do it, you can do it”, or perhaps, “don’t let fear and a lack of talent keep you from trying things”.

In the near future I will write more about running science, but first I hope sharing my story provides some motivation, especially for those contemplating taking that first step out the door.

 

Orthopedic Shoes, Coloring Contests, and Ding Dongs

In my early grade school years, I was put into just what every child wants; clunky, stiff “Thomas heel” orthopedic shoes (fig. 1). The intention was to correct my flat feet and duck-walk gait. I don’t know if it was the shoes, my poor coordination, or both, but I sprained my ankles frequently, so I usually had a slight limp. I was later fitted for some super cool over-sized plastic framed glasses, which perpetually slid down my nose. Metal-framed glasses were in vogue at the time, but my mother knew I would just break those (by 6th grade she relented). Debonair I was not.

 

Fig 1. These are similar to the Thomas heel orthopedic shoes I wore. (Photo courtesy M.J. Markell Shoe Co., Yonkers, NY).
Fig 1. Thomas heel orthopedic shoes. I wore these from preschool through 3rd grade. (Photo courtesy M.J. Markell Shoe Co., Yonkers, NY).

 

The regular hobbies of my youth included reading, drawing, arts & crafts, fishing, and competing in the Sunday Cappy Dick newspaper cartoon coloring contest (fig. 2). I also watched a lot of TV and ate a lot of Ho Hos, Ding Dongs, Nutty Buddies, and other treats. The combination of too much sedentary play time and too many dates with Little Debbie resulted in my becoming quite fat early in life, and sometimes enduring taunts of “fatso” from other kids. I suffered the indignity of wearing euphemistically labeled “husky” sized clothing, and I tended to outgrow them quickly. My older brother sometimes got the bum deal of having to wear my JC Penney “hand-me-ups”, which fit in the waist but not in the length. This did come in handy for him during rain storms. You’re welcome, big brother.

 

It should come as no surprise that the husky, klutzy kid with the orthopedic shoes and thick glasses was picked last for every schoolyard game, usually kickball, tag, or shuttle relay races. Illustrative of my social awkwardness, I didn’t even realize that I had been picked last; since no one ever called my name I just dejectedly concluded that they didn’t want me to play at all. Somehow, the default nature of the last one left going to the team with the last pick had eluded me. Eventually, I became upset enough at this perceived slight that I just put myself on one of the teams. About half the time that team would, of course, tell me to go to the other team. It took me a while to put the clues together.

 

Fig 2. Matt, age 12. From newspaper article after winning national coloring contest.
Fig 2. Husky Matt, age 12. From newspaper article after winning a national coloring contest.

 

The Relay Race, Softball, and an Amazing Discovery

The relay races were especially difficult in the orthopedic shoes, which were ridged, heavy, and made the distinctive clopping sound of a herd of Clydesdales. One day, perhaps because the orthopedic shoes were muddy, or perhaps because I begged mercilessly, my mother let me wear a pair of my brother’s gum-soled suede leather chukkas to school. They were a little too big, but oh so comfortable and flexible. I rarely got into trouble at school (I saved my little hellion routine for home), so I was mortified when the teacher scolded me for putting my feet on the wall. She had no idea I was simply marveling at the lack of orthopedic-ness of the shoes, which seemed magical to me. Later at recess, it was relay race time and I was anxious to see what I could do in these magic shoes. Before that day, my relay leg always went one of three ways; my team was behind and I got us further behind, my team was even and I got us behind, or my team was ahead and I got us behind, all while my teammates loudly scolded me for being so slow. This day would be different. When my teammate slapped my hand both teams were dead even, and I took off running as hard as I could. For the first time ever, I ran side-by-side with the other kid all the way to the next exchange, all the while my amazed teammates cheering wildly. That was the first time I felt the rush of running fast, and of being competitive in something physical. A seed was planted, but it would be a few years before it sprouted. 

 

Before my fourth grade year, my father decided that Green Acres was the place to be, so we moved from the suburbs of Louisville to a small farm in a neighboring county. The rural public school was 25 miles and a world apart from the suburban parochial school I had attended, and it took me a while to adjust. One of the adjustments was the realization that these kids had never heard of kickball or relay races, and instead spent recess playing an exotic game called “softball”. That first year I either went to the playground equipment or just sat and watched the others play the game, since I didn’t know what was going on. But the next year I decided to try it, and while I never learned to hit very well, I did learn to catch the ball (and then toss it to some other close-by kid who actually knew where to throw it next). By the middle school years I was playing softball well enough to not be picked last. By that time I was long rid of orthopedic shoes, and was instead wearing “tennis shoes” to school like almost every other boy.  My glasses were still sliding down my nose, though.

Having discovered during middle school that I could enjoy doing something sport-like, and also that girls did not, in fact, have cooties, led to the conclusion that it was time for me to lose the extra weight and get in shape. In the next post, I discuss how I did that, and the unlikely journey to becoming a competitive runner.

 

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