Tag Archives: reflections

n=1

The fundamental motivation driving most scientific research is simple: to discover the truth. To accomplish this goal, researchers attempt to find reliable patterns that explain why something is the way it is. But as hard as we might try, it is exceedingly difficult to boil down reality to simple rules and laws. More often, we might discover an effect that holds some of the time, under some conditions, depending on a multitude of frequently unpredictable or unidentifiable factors. In our quest for answers we therefore aim to control for the irrelevant variability across our sample in order to reveal meaningful differences related to our variable of interest. Although this variability can be the frustrating source of a finding that hovers just above the (arbitrarily) coveted .05 alpha, it can also be magnificently informative.

Recently, there have been growing efforts to integrate scientific understanding of human physiology, biomechanics and metabolism into the realm of athletic performance. While I entirely support and encourage every runner to self-educate from well-conducted scientific research, it can be dangerous to accept every claim without a certain level of skepticism. Peruse the countless running blogs, forums, magazines and books and you will find self-proclaimed experts confidently backing their particular running shoe, diet, training plan, pre-race routine, blah, blah, blah as the healthiest or most effective. Why, then, is much of the running community stuck battling frequent injury, fatigue and discouragement? As much as we try to generalize into tight, clean categories, the fact remains that immense variation exists between runners in terms of ideal nutrition, biomechanics and training. When was the last time you heard a claim along the lines of “The majority of people report increased (insert effect Y here) from (insert cause X here)”? Many will readily infer a universal, causal relationship between X and Y while overlooking that in a subset of individuals X did not increase Y. Again, variability can be informative. Assuming that such claims are based on properly designed and conducted studies (watch out – this is not always a valid assumption!) a likely explanation for such differences is that individuals have distinct responses to X. We like to assume that if it works for you it will certainly work for me, while forgetting the not-so-insignificant detail that we are different people. My best advice to become a stronger, happier runner is to value your own experience above that of others. In fact, you might want to stop reading this blog right now. The most informed expert about what will benefit you … is you.

Over the recent past I have approached my lifestyle as an experiment with n=1 and made the fascinating discovery that what works for my optimal health and happiness is often drastically different from what the media, coaches and even doctors traditionally advise. This exploratory period was sparked largely by a 6-month journey through Asia and Africa during which I ate, slept and exercised erratically. Upon returning to the U.S. I appeared thin, weak and scraggly. Paradoxically, I clocked each of my 7 post-travel marathons faster than my 3 pre-travel marathons, with an average 20 minute post-travel improvement (p < .0001; yes I am just that nerdy that I ran the stats). How had months of exposure to intense physical stressors and a clean break from running, all while abandoning conventional health advice left me with greater strength and endurance than ever before? It turns out I may not in fact be a freak of nature; rather, a wealth of research has demonstrated that mild to moderate stressors such as physical activity, caloric restriction or intermittent fasting, social or environmental stress are associated with diverse benefits including improved cardiovascular health and cognitive function, increased hippocampal neurogenesis and longevity (Lyons et al., 2010, Mattson & Wan 2005, Minois 2000Parihar et al., 2011) .

While I by no means advocate abusing or shocking your system into super-human running condition, there seems to be a delicate balance between positive and negative stressors that varies from person to person. Using a mindful approach of starting from the conventional center and slowly testing my limits, I am continuously discovering my individual zone of comfort, health and strength. In future posts I hope to share observations from my personal experiments with injury prevention and treatment, nutrition, footwear (and lack of) and training tactics. To any runner looking to these posts or any other resources for advice, I strongly suggest you take them with a grain of salt and then conduct your own experiment of one.

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Fallacy of fast

Among the more uninspiring comments from passersby I often hear while running are those regarding my speed such as “slow down!”, “nice clip!” or “pick up the pace!”. For instance, just this week one particularly obnoxious and self-amused kid informed me that I wasn’t going fast enough … fast enough for what? To impress him? To thoroughly exhaust myself? Clearly not, but it was certainly the ideal speed for the comfortable, restorative 10-miler needed to revive myself at the end of a long day in lab. From where has our modern running culture developed its current precoccupation with speed? Runners are constantly bombarded with messages that we need the latest and greatest timing device to monitor our pace, fancy shoes guaranteed to make us sprint with ease or a professionally designed training plan to achieve a race PR. But how did we form this misconception that speed, above all else, is the ultimate measure of running excellence? What about achieving proper form, improving endurance or simply maintaining a passion for the pure pleasure of running? While these might be priorities for some, they’ve clearly taken the back seat to the belief that fast is good, faster is better, and speed is the only way to establish yourself as a skilled and serious runner.

Sure, many are introduced to running as a competitive sport, by participating in track or cross-country teams or local road races. Understandably, in these contexts speed = victory, so yes, faster is better. However, I’ve encountered recreational runner after runner with no racing experience or racing intentions who remain convinced that their speed is a direct measure of their merit as a runner.

Many runners, competitive or not, set a target pace as their primary running goal. Training fast is certainly an important step toward racing fast, and setting a personal goal and working diligently to achieve it can be rewarding and fulfilling. However, taken to the extreme as many runners do, could this preoccupation actually be detrimental – mentally, physically or both? In my early years as a track and cross-country athlete and during my transition to marathoning, I too set time goals, monitored my pace on every run and even bought one of those ridiculous GPS watches that gave my wrist a fantastic strength workout. Not surprisingly, my perception of my running ability soared and plummeted with every insignificant variation in my speed, and pushing hard every run drained my muscles and motivation. Now, even while training, I adhere to the general principal that my body, not a watch or generic one-size-fits-all training plan, will tell me how fast to run. By allowing myself to take it easy when feeling worn out or weak or let loose simply because I have the urge, I’m able to run further and longer, remain healthy and avoid injury. And most importantly – run after run, fast or slow, I’m guaranteed that simple thrill of being carried along by my own two feet.

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Home is where the feet land

We can easily become attached to the many different places we encounter throughout life … the town we grew up in, homes we’ve lived in or cities we’ve visited. We construct associations with each place which develop into powerful memories that can transport us back to our favorite restaurant, our daily drive, a friendly neighbor or the view from our window. This sense of attachment can be so deep that even once we’ve moved on to the next town or era of our life, we feel a part of us actual remains in those memories.

I tend to consider myself somewhat of a nomad (or maybe I just wish I could be more of one?), having lived in 16 places across 9 towns, 3 states and 4 countries, and done my share of traveling (although not nearly enough!) through North America, Asia, Africa and Europe. With each new experience I’ve both left a small piece of myself and incorporated elements of these places into not only my memories, but my perception of who I am. As runners, this bond we create between self and location is all the more intimate. Setting out to explore on foot with no distractions other than our own thoughts and breath, we have the potential to see deeply into the soul of a city, discover its hidden corners and unveil its secrets. At the same time, these adventures can serve as powerfully informative about ourselves. As foot strikes soil along these internal journeys, with nothing lying between our minds and the earth, we inevitably associate those personal lessons with the ground beneath us.

Thinking back on each period of my life, I’m transported along my favorite running routes and into the mental landcapes I’ve enjoyed while exploring them … the tranquility of the Berkeley fire-trails, the thrill of venturing out into New England blizzards and best of all, the intoxicating long runs through San Francisco’s hills, parks and waterfront. This past week I moved yet again. As I said goodbye to my last apartment, I felt no sadness leaving behind it or its neighborhood, as I was moving forward to a fun new vibrant part of the city. My only sense of loss was for those roads and trails which I had spent countless hours exploring and learning to love over the first year and a half as a graduate student in San Diego. Today I returned from my first “long” run in my new home … through Balboa park, along the waterfront to Point Loma, and back. That emptiness of leaving those beloved trails behind disappeared as I felt a fresh appreciation for the infinite novel terrain before me and the new relationship I’ve begun to develop.

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Yet another running blog

Note: This post was transferred from a now extinct prior blog entitled “run think smile”. Hence, the reference to these words in the blog title.

While I’ve been contemplating resuming my blogging days for a while now, the prospect of actually writing is surprisingly daunting. I suppose a logical starting place is who I am and why this blog, starting with the title.

I initially set out to write about my experiences as a runner, but soon realized these rants would inevitably lead to tangential commentaries on human cognition and endorphin-driven euphoria. For you runner readers these connections may be obvious. For those who consider running the ultimate expression of sadomasochism, let me elaborate. These three elements – running, thinking and smiling – are inextricably, reciprocally, related. I do my best thinking while running, and have composed countless essays, designed new research paradigms and analyses while on the road. And while running sustains my brain, my brain also sustains my running addiction. Each run takes me on a new, unpredictable mental journey that entertains me for miles on end and keeps me eager to return for more the next day. Running can be the most powerful antidepressant, evidenced by the cheese-ball smile I often discover plastered to my face mid-run.

I’ve been running for over 14 years now, starting with high school track. Over the years the distances have grown longer and the sport has evolved from a simple past-time to a way of life. Those times when sickness, travel or the simple craziness of life has kept me off the roads, it’s felt like life has been put on hold. My energy levels, mental clarity and mood plummet.

While this all may sound a bit extremist, it’s a well-documented natural response to something humans and animal were “born” to do (excuse the McDougall reference). A part of my Neuroscience graduate program is a hypothetical research proposal outside of my primary research focus. While I spend most of my time grappling the mysteries of human memory retrieval, I’ve devoted this side project to understanding the neurobiological effects of running. Much more on this to come later I’m sure, but briefly, running does more than keep you healthy and feeling good. It actually releases similar neurotransmitters and activates similar neural circuits that go haywire in response to chronic drug use … hence the euphoria and addictive nature of running. It causes a host of other fantastic neurobiological changes, including increasing levels of proteins and transcription factors that promote neuronal growth, survival and function (for example, BDNF, delta-FosB and LTP are all increased by running). Remarkably, running also increases the birth and maturation of new brain cells in the hippocampus, an area critical to learning and memory.

I’ve always been a strong believer that we have a fantastic ability to self-treat, if only we listen closely to our body. It’s not all that surprising then that people continually return to running to keep our bodies and minds happy and healthy.

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