Scores of scientific terms are used by the running community to describe energy systems, nutrition, performance metrics, etc. Though I’ve toed the line for multiple endurance races over the past decade, I didn’t know what most of the terms meant. And I was comfortable with my ignorance.
But I’ve grown more curious lately and as such, I’m going to write a series of posts focused on running / endurance training terms in hopes that I can gain a little knowledge through the process.
Let’s start with energy systems, a concept that shares excitement levels with the 2012 Nickelback show in Boise .
Thanks in advance for your patience.
what are energy systems?:
Our body uses the food we eat to create the energy we need to perform daily tasks. However, our body cannot create energy directly from food. The metabolic process first converts carbohydrates, protein, and fat into simple compounds like glucose, amino acids, and fatty acid. These compounds are deployed to cells throughout the body and it’s within the cells’ cytoplasm and mitochondria that adenosine triphosphate or ATP is produced. Once produced, ATP is then stored in the muscles until used. Capacity is limited so any movement that lasts longer than a few seconds requires new production of ATP.
There are three energy systems that create ATP using a three step process (Glycolysis, Kreb’s Cycle, Electron Transport Chain):
- ATP – PCR or Immediate System (anaerobic): Produces ATP with use of oxygen (anaerobic) quickly but over short duration (between 5 – 15 seconds)
- Creatine phosphate is broken down to make ATP
- Has ability to produce ATP with oxygen but because it doesn’t rely on oxygen it’s considered an anaerobic system
- Glycolytic or Lactic Acid System (anaerobic): Produces ATP / energy without use of oxygen (anaerobic) over short duration (between 1 – 2 minutes)
- This system uses the metabolic process Glycolysis. ~1 molecule of glucose can produce a net of 2 molecules of ATP
- Glycolysis occurs when energy demands exceed the required oxygen needed to break down glucose and glycogen into carbohydrates and water. Lactic acid is produced and utilized, instead of oxygen, to help metabolize the glucose and glycogen and covert it to energy
- Glycolysis occurs in the cytoplasm
- Oxidative System (aerobic): Produces ATP slower than anaerobic systems above but can create energy that lasts over a longer duration (greater than 2 min)
- Uses the Kreb’s Cycle and Eletron Transport Chain (aka ETC), to produce ~36+ molecules of ATP for 1 molecule of glucose (detail on Glycolysis, Kreb’s Cycle, and ETC to come in later post)
- Creates energy using carbs, fats, and proteins
- ETC and Kreb’s Cycle occurs in the mitochondria
The table below shows the energy used for each system.
why are energy systems important for runners?
Each energy system can be improved with training but each requires bespoke workouts / training loads to improve performance. An understanding of how the three energy systems work together can be valuable when crafting a training plan or assessing performance. For example, while not immediately intuitive, all out efforts, all the time doesn’t result in optimal performance. Instead, a runner should incorporate fast interval training to improve the glycolytic / anaerobic system and slow to medium jogs longer than 20 minutes to improve the oxidative / aerobic system.
Terms used by runners to gauge performance:
- Measures the point when the body starts to accumulate lactic acid in its tissues (typically occurs at ~80% of VO2 max)
- Measures strength of anaerobic system
- Max rate of oxygen uptake in the muscles
- Measures aerobic capacity or overall fitness, not great predictor of race performance
Thanks again for your time.
- What it takes to think deeply about complex problems
- Quality of life driven by quality of relationships (Harvard study)
- Tren Griffin’s review of John Doerr’s Execution is Everything
- NYT review of Free Solo climbing doc
- Why we slouch (Ribbonfarm)
- Bill Gates: What I learned in 2018
Running / physical training links
- Trail Running Magazine interview with Kilian Jornet
- Rich Roll’s podcast interview with David Goggins
- Steve Magness’s latest podcast on committing to own development
- Heart rate training with Dr. Phil Maffetone
- 2018 Western States Champion Courtney Dauwalter with Joe Rogan
- Excellent interview with BJJ Black Belt Ryan Hall (2014)
- Chicago schools don’t have a plan for teenagers who struggle to read
- Impact of school home visits in Detroit
- Does early education come too late? (Freakonomics)
- Chicago schools don’t have a plan for teenagers who struggle to read
- Parental Incentives and Early Childhood Achievement: A Field Experiment in Chicago Heights
- The 30 million word gap by age 3
I run a decent amount (~50-60 miles per week on average) but I’m awful with nutrition. Historically my poor eating hasn’t been a noticeable issue. But as I approach 37, I’m starting to feel more sluggish during training if I eat poorly or fail to hydrate adequately prior. Though this observation should be a catalyst for change on it’s own, I’m still finding it challenging to maintain a clean diet.
By writing out high level nutrition principles / guidelines to follow, my hope is that if I better understand why certain foods help my performance, then I’ll be more focused on committing to a healthy diet on a regular basis.
This will likely be an evolving document as I plan to use it as a tool to get smarter and become healthier.
- Stay balanced (nutrients, macros)
- But eat more veggies always
- Avoid synthetics if possible (and simple carbs even though that’s impossible given affinity for candy)
- Drink more water
- Listen to your body
- Don’t talk about it to anybody else (it’s really boring to everybody but you, just keep it to yourself)
- Drink healthy amounts of it
- Helps transportation of nutrients
- Helps keep your temperature balanced
- Helps keep muscles from fatigue
- Vitamin D:
- Good for bone health (1,000 – 5,000 IU per day)
- Helpful in red blood cell formation
- Check for deficiency first
- Focus on general principles first:
- Important to balance each type of main food group on a daily basis (Proteins, Fats, Carbohydrates)
- Important to balance each type of main food group on a daily basis (Proteins, Fats, Carbohydrates)
- Purpose: catalyst for muscle repair
- Healthy proteins include chicken, lean beef, peanut butter, egg whites
- Purpose: key energy source, can fuel aerobic metabolism
- Healthy fats include nuts, avocado, oil
- Purpose: key energy source
- Choose complex carbs over simple carbs
- Complex carbs include bananas, kale, whole wheat bread
Post run nutrition:
- Focus on hydration first, then eat as you have an appetite
My close buddy Matt surprised me with a YouTube documentary last weekend of a recent trail race we did together.
Though he’s a father of two, a full-time firefighter / paramedic, and is juggling many other more important personal tasks, he still found time to create a documentary. And this was the first video he’s ever edited.
There are friends and then there’s Matt. He’s been by my side through many important life events (including two trips to Leadville, 1 failed attempt in 2017 and this year). And even though I should be the one thanking him for taking time away from his family to help me with a selfish and personal goal, he spends 100 hours to learn how and then create a professional quality video that I can turn on and re-experience that day for the rest of my life.
Matt’s a special friend. I’m lucky to know him and I’m a better human because of him.
On August 18, we accomplished a 3 year goal, crossing the finish line at the Leadville 100 trail run (see finish below) in 29 hours and 47 minutes (cut off was 30 hours). To provide context, the Leadville 100 is a historic 100 mile footrace above 10K feet in the mountains of Leadville, Colorado (About Leadville). We toed the line in August 2017 as well but missed the cut-off time at the 50 mile mark.
The race is technically an individual effort. Only one buckle is awarded to each finisher. So why use we? Because during two attempts, I had my wife, mom, brother, some of my best friends, professional mentors, and other family there as my crew. And in this sport, your crew does not spectate. Each of them played critical roles on the team, staying up for days to help prep gear / food, crew aid stations, pace me, and provide whatever support is needed to help me find the finish by 10am Sunday.
At the 24 mile aid station, my mom refilled all my water (I carried 50oz), my wife fed me pb&js, and my brother replaced the gels in my kit. It was like a nascar pit stop. At mile 55, my close buddy Matt gave me a pair of dog tags he made for me to remember a fellow teammate and close buddies’ passing just days (who was also supposed to be out there with us that day). At the time, I didn’t feel like I could take another step but thinking about what my teammate would say to me at that moment combined with the gratitude I felt for Matt and his support helped fuel another gear I never thought I had. At mile 70, Jenny gave me a big hug with a warm smile. And my mom rubbed my back and told me how much she loved me. It was really late and they’ve both been up 24 hours but their love and genuine excitement (I’ve discussed how much this support means to me in a previous post) was contagious. At mile 80, my former colleague / mentor reminded me of the proud nature of the unit we served in together. Every so often he would calmly say, noticing a few athletes ahead of us, “fix bayonet scotty” which provided another boost of motivation. I wanted to compete in a way that made my former community and teammates proud. And my brother, in addition to pacing me 10 miles up a mountain 8 hours earlier, pushed me the final half marathon as our crew nervously waited by the finish. We were close to the cut-off and needed to move relatively fast to finish. For a moment around mile 91, I had to take a seat because I wasn’t sure how I would walk another 300 ft, much less 9 miles. I wasn’t done but I had to gather my thoughts and figure out how I was going to finish. My bro and I decided to cut the remaining miles into 300 feet run / walk intervals And this plan worked as it distracted me from what I had left and motivated me to run hard for short bursts so then I could walk. My bro’s confidence, calm demeanor and ability to problem solve 29 hours into the race were invaluable. I provide these anecdotes to highlight the value of my team. There is no way I would not have been able to dig deep enough to travel that distance over that terrain without their support.
So I’m sure you can imagine how I felt when my bro and I crested the final hill just a few hundred yards from the finish and noticed our crew running to us with arms in the air. After high fives and hugs we locked arms and, with celebratory tears in our eyes, slowly walked across the finish (see video of moment below).
It was a beautiful moment as it was a perfect blend of:
- the execution of a challenging goal that required years of training and multiple attempts
- the camaraderie of working in teams in adverse and stressful conditions
- the rare but genuine support of loved ones that sacrificed to be there on my behalf
In fact, I can confidently say it was and will always be one of the best moments in my life. One that will go in a box* that I can hopefully, every few years, pull off the shelf, and go back to cresting that final hill with my bro and then walking across the finish line again. Arm in arm with my crew.
Thanks to all involved, I love you. And to Buck Smith, always beside you brother.
Thanks so much for your time.
*Trey Anastasio reference (Wading in The Velvet Sea)
I just finished North by legendary trail runner Scott Jurek. The book is about Jurek’s quest to break the “fastest known time (FKT)” for the Appalachian Trail. The book was a refreshingly honest account of the physical and mental toll it took on Scott, his wife Jenny, and his crew and the resilience needed to move 2,190 miles in 46 days on foot. I recommend it to anyone interested in stories about mountain adventures (or adventures in general).
But this post isn’t a book summary. Instead, I wanted to share one of the more interesting take-aways (at least for me) from the book. One of the reasons I was excited to read North was because, in addition to the plot, I would learn about endurance from a philosophical standpoint (reference Shackleton’s Way). I expected to learn “why” he had pushed himself to extreme limits to be the best in his craft year after year for decades. And why this challenge. And why now. But this book does not provide those answers either because he doesn’t know or he can’t articulate these drivers. And maybe that into itself is the lesson.
Don’t need a “why” to be great:
This is interesting because if you google “finding your why” you’ll find dozens of articles that suggest that being able to articulate your why is a necessary driver of greatness. But one of the most skilled and decorated endurance athletes to ever live still to this day cannot explain what drives him. “You rarely ask why when you win.” he claimed. On the last page of the book he states, “She’ll (his daughter) probably want to know why (he raced to set FKT), but I doubt we’ll be able to tell her in a way that makes total sense.”
Correlation does not equal causation. We don’t live in a binary world so while understanding your “why” might be helpful, it’s not necessary for greatness.
Thanks so much for your time.
“The process will never let you down, even when everything else does. The process is a thing you can control: how you show up, the promises you’ve made.”
– Jonathan Franzen
Recently, I wrote about marathoner Des Linden and her insane focus on daily training / practice. She approaches each session as if it’s is the most important training day of her life. To borrow from Franzen, it’s the process of showing up for training day after week after month after year, combined with clear talent, that makes her an elite performer.
I don’t have her talent. I tend to linger in back third of most races. But I’ve learned in the past couple months that the adoption of a process for training could generate significant improvements. I learned this after a recent race setback that forced me to analyze historical training logs.
I noticed that what I thought I had done in training was different than what I actually did. In fact, the volume I completed in training was >30% lower what I was asked to do.
How was I not aware of the massive variance between expected and actual? Confirmation and recency bias played a part. I manufactured a story that I was doing the work and had cheap but logical justifications for not completing workouts. Those unfinished workouts add up over a year and I paid the price on race day. But the main driver for underperformance was lack of established daily and disciplined approach to training.
After an honest chat with my coach, I decided to sign back up for the race I failed to complete last year (Leadville Trail 100).
And I incorporated the following process for training:
- Show up for every workout with a focus on both quantity and quality
- Ensure gear prep, nutrition, other training logistics done the day before
- Log my workouts immediately after and often text my coach a quick summary
To be sure, I still have days I miss and workouts where my hearts not in it. Work and family can provide easy and legitimate excuses. But, due to my newly installed approach, those off days have become the exception. And as a result, training has become more fun and my splits have improved.
My race is in 3 weeks. But regardless of result, I’ve witnessed the benefits that a process provides and I’m more confident than ever in the upcoming challenge.
Thanks so much for your time.
I paced / crewed for a buddy a few weeks ago in a trail run on the Wyoming / Montana border called The Bighorn Trail 100. My buddy is a talented trail runner with an impressive coach (All American collegiate runner, top 5 Leadville 100 finisher) who travels with my buddy for each race. Given that it was just the three of us out there for the weekend I was able to spend some quality time with my buddy’s coach. Over those two days we spent hours talking about a range of topics from career to family to running. It was a memorable trip.
A few days after I returned to Chicago I received the following text from my buddy’s coach.
“Best of luck at Leadville. Be patient out there”
For some reason, and it took writing this post to figure it out, this advice had an immediate and profound impact on me. It wasn’t because of the words used but instead because of how perfectly tailored the advice was for me. It was the kind of advice you only receive from a seasoned veteran who knows exactly what it takes to get the job done.
Historically I’ve ignored the word patience as it’s largely overused by parents, teachers, and other disciplinarians. But the more I thought about it, both in the context of the upcoming race but also in other aspects of life, the more the word took on a new, inspirational meaning for me.
Patience (noun): the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering
The aforementioned google definition sends chills, right? Read it again if your answer is no. This is a word reserved for the masters of their craft like Jesus or Chesty Puller or Nelson Mandela or Des Linden; each of whom withstood setbacks and suffering in the pursuit of excellence. Patience.
Be patient out there. Now I understand coach, thank you.
Jim Walmsley is my favorite professional trail runner. Last week he won the “super bowl” of U.S. trail running, the Western States 100, by shattering a 5 year old record by more than 15 minutes.
This video is the first video I watched of him and I became an instant fan. In the two minute video, Jim tears down the mountain with almost inhuman agility and courage. In the voice over (while he’s barreling down a Arizona mountain), he talks about finding a way to make it in running as if the stakes are do or die. And now, after following him for 3+ years, his approach to racing is uniquely consistent: it’s always do or die.
- Quick context: Post brief career with Air Force ~2015, Jim settled into the trail running community of Flagstaff, AZ. He quickly became recognized as one of the sports biggest stars, notching wins across the world in the 50 mile distance. Jim is ridiculously talented but what makes him unique to this sport (which is historically for athletes focused on internal competition vs. external) is that he’s likeable but cocky. And he’s a shit talker. For example, he’s not afraid to claim in interviews leading up to multiple races that he’s going to crush the course record and he dares someone to try to keep up. Or that the only person that can beat Jim is Jim (and he might even talk in third person). The community is okay with the talk is fine if you can back it up. But after a lot of chatter about records and wins in 2016 and 2017, he failed to deliver which has frustrated some athletes and fans of the sport. That was until last Saturday. He executed brilliantly last Saturday and silenced the doubters. For now.
Starting around 10:45 in the linked video of his second failed attempt at Western States in 2017, he explains his approach in his own words. I appreciate the guts it takes Jim to call his shots and then fight to back it up. I like the accountability it puts on him to train hard and show up ready to do or die.
- “Babe Ruth either hit home runs or struck out, and everybody remembers the home runs he hit after calling his shots. Bad days are okay but at the same time when you go for it, and you go to crush it, it will work out occasionally and those are the races that people will remember. If you say you’re gonna go sub-14 hours, it doesn’t matter what the conditions are, go try to send it!”
After watching Jim, I realize that I’ve never approached race / test / presentation with do or die / all in mentality. I’ve traditionally taken the more self-deprecating public approach to big goals (e.g. “Uh, I’m going to give it my best, but don’t feel that great, so could easily see failing..”). I take this approach because I’m hedging so that at least in the eyes of friends and family, I can’t lose because I was never ready in the first place. I always leave myself an out. And I’m learning that that means I’m never really all in. Jim’s approach of “I’m going to dominate this race and everybody that enters it” immediately puts a target on his back, creates enemies, and opens him up to attack if he doesn’t execute. But if you asked Jim about his approach I think he’d say something along the lines of, “I want to be the target, I want to be hated, because I do my best when it’s do or die. And I’m trying to put together legendary performances.”
I think I should start calling my shots more.
“Some days it just flows and I feel like I’m born to do this, other days it feels like I’m trudging through hell. Every day I make the choice to show up and see what I’ve got, and to try and be better. My advice: keep showing up.“
“There’s a lot of days that I was like, I don’t know if I’m going to even get to start this race, like this is not going well. It should be going better. And then, there was a lot of days where you’d had that glimmer of hope, and you go, No, this is exactly on pace. This is the perfect – it’s going to plan absolutely 100 percent. And I decided to stop thinking about each day so much, and just keep showing up. Like, whatever the day gave me, just show up. That’s kind of how I attacked the race, too. Once I got over the fact that I wasn’t going to drop out, it was like, Just show up for one more mile. Show up for one more minute. And that was kind of my mantra throughout this entire build and through the entire race day on Monday.”
– Des Linden (Olympian and 2018 Boston Marathon Champ)
I love Des Linden’s heroic performance at the 2018 Boston Marathon and I love her “keep showing up” mantra. As I prepare for my 2nd attempt at a trail run this August in Colorado, I’ve found myself, especially during hard sets, repeat while coughing and spitting to try to clear up lungs and slow down my heart rate, “keep showing up, show up for just one more mile.”
Tunnel Hill 100: A Tribute to My Crew
November 11, 2017
- Results: 22:51 (first 100 complete, 2nd attempt); average pace: 13:42; 10:00 (50 mile split, 5th attempt, PR); average pace: 12:00
Dear Jenny, Miana, Al, and Jerry(my crew / pacer):
I’ve read articles and listened to podcasts about the importance of the crew / pacers for distance trail running but until Saturday, they were just sound bites.
Because of your help, I achieved a multi-year goal and a result that only two months ago, I didn’t believe was possible (completing my first 100 mile run). And most importantly, this experience will provide lessons that will be useful not only in running but also in life.
From Jenny’s endurance in the cold while 8 months pregnant, to Jerry’s constant focus on my nutrition and well being, to Al’s guidance on mental strategy for running through darkness, to Miana’s relentless approach to ensure I leave nothing on the trail, your world class support was nothing short of beautiful.
Words will fall short in my attempt to articulate my gratitude. So I’ll end it with Jerry’s words shortly after crossing the finish line. “We’re a family now.”
Yes we are.
Can’t wait to return the favor soon.
August 19, 2017
I attempted my first 100 mile ultramarathon at Leadville last weekend and missed the cut by 5 minutes at the 50 mile mark. The sub-optimal outcome was both unfortunate and embarrassing given I a) prepped for 2 years for this race, b) spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours away from family, and c) convinced my friends and family to spend their time and money to help crew / pace me for the race.
And I didn’t even make it halfway.
To provide context, I have always taken pride in my ability to outwork / gut others to achieve success. But as I reflect back on the race, with factors being altitude, nutrition, quads, mentals, I’m confident I missed the cut at 50 miles because I was unable to dig deep enough. Said another way, I didn’t have the guts last Saturday. I’m confident in this fact because if Maddie’s life was on the line, I would have found a way down that mountain under the halfway cut off no matter how blown my quads felt or how little oxygen I could breathe through my lungs.
In a different setting than the one last weekend, I would have been wounded by this failure and likely spend the following months ruminating on what happened and making excuses for why it was out of my control. But I’m truly at peace with the outcome and look back at the race as one of the top life memories in recent years.
The reason for the change in perspective toward this defeat vs. others is the immediate and constant flow of support from my family, pacers, crew, friends, and colleagues post-race. If I finished the race, I’m sure I would have received celebratory high fives, hugs, texts and social posts. But I’m also fairly certain they wouldn’t have given me the same fulfillment as they did last week. They wouldn’t have packed the same punch if they were celebratory.
All said, I learned through this experience that the result from a DNF doesn’t feel that much different than a big PR. (Note: I understand that if this same situation happened multiple times, the effect would be meaningless).
I’ll take it a step farther. Even with the DNF after 4,000 miles and two years of training, last weekend was one of the most fulfilling weekends in recent memory because it allowed me to connect on a meaningful level with buddies that I haven’t had quality time with in decades. Without this race bringing everybody together, it could have been years to decades longer before I connected with this group like that again.
In that sense, the race was most importantly a catalyst to unite my family / friends and provide me with a valuable perspective.
In addition to the camaraderie, the race gave me a newfound respect for the preparation required to conquer daunting challenges that Leadville (and races like it) pose. And I’m refreshed and ready to prepare for my next attempt. As long as I have my crew.
“We few, we chosen few, we band of brothers, for he who sheds blood with me shall be my brother” Shakespeare, Henry V (one of our favorite poems while in 1st Recon Battalion, USMC)