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Flexibility For The Long Run

If you've been running long enough you can probably think of a time when everything was clicking - when you were in a flow - when your training, sleep, diet, and recovery were all in sync and you saw the results in a race or a season.  Some of us long to return to those times or to find that sustainable balance in our lives for the first time.  Sometimes we forget that as we age and our lives change our bodies, work, and life schedules don't always agree with our running ambitions.

Trying to decompress after rolling out of the bed of my truck before the start of the 2015 Mt. Hood 50.
Photo by Paul Nelson
In many cases it is not so much the running that is the challenge per se, but rather finding that balance - creating and recreating a lifestyle - that is sustainable and allows our bodies and minds to align in such a way that we find purpose and meaning in what we do as runners and more importantly as people.

A few years ago my running was going pretty well.  I was fit, healthy, and confident.  I was progressing in my training and found a groove when I raced.  It appeared as though things would continue.  Work was going well. Sleep was consistent and my diet was where it should be.  I was surrounded by people who inspired me and I found purpose in trying to reciprocate through the work that I did.  Over the course of about nine months I won every race I ran and broke some course records along the way.

Finishing the 2013 Mt. Hood 50 in Record Time.  Photo by Katie Hendrickson
When things are going well we tend to try and ride the wave as long as we can.  Naturally, I signed up for more races.  Little by little my health deteriorated.  Pain and tightness appeared in my abdomen, groin, and lower back.  It wasn't debilitating at first so I continued to work my way through it.  I continued to win races and set course records, but after each effort it took longer to get back and the gnawing pain persisted.  Eventually, after not being able to shake it and feeling completely broken at the 2013 USATF 50K Trail Championships, I saw some physical therapists, chiropractors, and osteopaths.  Depending on who I talked to it was either a hernia, a herniated disk, or issues with my SI joint.  However, nothing I did - including six weeks off - did anything to resolve the issue.

I started the next year aerobically weaker than I had been in years and tried to rebuild.  I jumped into races I had done before to test my fitness, but eventually the pain and tightness returned. Again, I took some time off, cross trained (swim and bike), and went to more doctors but didn't see any long term improvements. So I started to look at my life to determine what I might be doing that was causing such pain.

Compared to other ultra runners, I didn't really run much - I just trained with the high school team I coached and then jumped in races on the rare occasion that we didn't have a cross country or track meet.  After the birth of my second child my mileage was considerably lowered. The only thing I could determine was causing the tightness and pain was my work.  I had to sit in front of a computer a lot and I spent most weekends on a school bus with my knees to my ears for up to 12 hours.

I did my best to make the most of the situation - I got rid of my chair and started sitting on a physioball.  I got rid of my desk and replaced it with a work bench so that I could stand not only while I was teaching, but also while I was working on the computer.  I regularly rotated and replaced my shoes and ran on soft surfaces as often as possible.  These efforts helped, but didn't fix the problem.  I still spent way too much time on a school bus - and just in case you haven't been on one for a while, they are still designed for grade schoolers.  After a week of feeling pretty good training I'd get on the bus and usually come back in knots.  The better the athletes did, the longer the season lasted and the further away the meets got so I ended up spending more and more time on a bus, with irregular sleep and diet, and ironically not running very much.

So, I did what any rational person would do - I quit my job and moved across the country to Flagstaff, Arizona where I could continue to coach but where I could train and race without having to sit on a school bus every weekend.  I was sure that would fix everything.

Unfortunately, that was not the case.  After a few months of training at altitude for some races I had only dreamed of, I found myself hurt once again.  So hurt that I couldn't even do the races I had signed up for.  So hurt that I couldn't push through the debilitating pain.  So hurt that I could hardly walk for a couple of months. So hurt I quit sleeping in my comfy bed and began sleeping on the floor because I thought that perhaps the memory foam on my mattress was causing the pain.

I saw multiple chiropractors and physical therapists yet couldn't find lasting relief.  I performed the recommended exercises, stretches, and treatments and took two months off from running to no avail. In desperation, at the recommendation of my friend, Alicia Shay, I finally saw a massage therapist, Monica Coplea, at Hypo2 Sports in Flagstaff, Arizona.  Unlike many of the other visits I had had, Monica began by examining my movements.  Rather than digging right in and kneading out the knots, she asked if I did yoga.  I told her that I had, but hadn't for a while because I had been spending most of my time running.  She explained that there is so much debate about whether stretching is good to do that many people are missing the point.  It is especially important to distance running where everything tends to compress and shorten. Then she recommended I begin doing a few simple yoga poses - child's pose and cat/cow.  I was in disbelief that something so simple would fix the most agonizing, debilitating pain I had ever experienced, but I was desperate so I gave it a shot.

It didn't happen over night, but I began experiencing some relief.  Eventually, I was able to walk normally again without a limp.  The numbness and spasms diminished.  Then after a bit I was able to go for short runs.  Then longer runs. Then consecutive runs.  Why hadn't I been doing yoga all along?

I've always known the value of flexibility and, as a high school coach, led my athletes in dynamic flexibility routines before key workouts and races for years.  Sometimes, we even did some yoga to finish off a practice, but most of the time we'd just begin by running easy and finish with some strides or strength training and then get into our cars and head home.

This experience, however, reminded me of the need to continually work on my flexibility - what Coach Michael Smith calls "suppleness."  He considers suppleness so important that he lists it as one of the five essential elements to success along with strength, speed, stamina, and skill.

It has been nearly nine months since my last forced break from running and I'm finally beginning to feel like my old self again.  It has been a long road, but it has taught me to appreciate the ability to run and made me more conscientious about doing the little things.  Now, before I do anything else, I start each day in child's pose and then a few rounds of cat/cow.  I do the same thing before I go to bed each night and if the need arises I do it more throughout the day.  Sometimes, if I'm feeling particularly tight I do more and work other areas through a complete yoga routine, but these few poses seem to do the trick for me.

Since this experience I've recommended yoga to the athletes I coach.  Some embrace it while others are like I was and think that 1) they don't have time to do an entire routine and 2) they'll get more bang for their buck by simply putting in more miles.  For some the notion is so foreign that they are afraid of it altogether.

The purpose of this piece is not to describe yoga's roots or even explain how to do it, but simply describe some of its many benefits through first hand accounts.  The fact of the matter is that there are so many different types of yoga that there are already multiple books and articles written about it. Since I began writing this piece months ago several articles have come out about yoga and its benefits, most notably, Joe Uhan's article, Performance Flexibility: Yoga, which I highly recommend. Joe is a friend and expert in his field and he published his article about the same time I planned to publish what I had written.  I was going to scrap this article altogether, but I still thought there might be a place to share the experiences of some of the athletes with whom I've worked and how yoga has helped them run and recover better. The athletes I coach who do yoga regularly - even if it means reducing overall weekly mileage - tend to recover more quickly between workouts, long runs, and races and perform at a higher level than those who only run.

Manu Vilaseca in her element
Manu Vilaseca, for example, is a busy business owner in Rio de Jainero but makes the time to regularly fit yoga into her routine.  What started as an attempt to simply improve her flexibility has become a regular part of her training that she feels extends beyond running to enhance other elements of her life.

Child's Pose
"I see so many positive aspects of yoga and it's something that will always be a part of my life. I see improvements in my concentration, balance, breathing, strength and I feel it has helped me make an internal change. I feel more calm and serene. I don't feel anxious anymore. I focus on living in the present moment.  During races this helps me a lot. It makes me more concentrated on what I'm doing, and in Ultra Running you really have to be present."

Manu regularly finds herself atop the podium through South America's burgeoning trail scene and has made her way into the Ultra Trail World Tour Top Ten by placing well in some of the most competitive European races as well.  How does she do it?  Well, she certainly doesn't do it by training all day.  She has a full-time job.  She does the essential things and she considers yoga to be as essential to her overall well being as any other aspect of her training.

One of the many podium finishes for Manu Vilaseca
"Yoga has helped incredibly in my sleep, and sleeping well is super important in an athlete's life. The more rested you are, the better you can handle your workout and your entire day.  It helps a person's entire life."

"I think that if everyone practiced yoga, we would live in a much better world. Yoga goes beyond the mat. Yoga is something we have to take to our everyday life - being kind, helpful, and good to one another. We should leave aside things like ego. It's important to practice meditation, focusing on our breathing and slowing down the frequency of thoughts in our mind; paying attention to the silence and space between things. It's something that really transforms our lives."

Manu does yoga at least three times a week.  In addition to running and yoga she sees a physiotherapist weekly and works closely with her nutritionist to assure she is consuming what she needs from day to day and on race day.  She also cross trains regularly - cycling, swimming, and core. When it comes to running she does what she needs to do to be ready, but doesn't obsess about mileage.  She does what she can and takes confidence knowing that she goes into her key events rested and ready to race - a mindset that comes in part through yoga.

Eric Reyes, of Canada (by way of Mexico), wanted to attempt some longer races, but wasn't sure he could handle the volume necessary to adequately prepare for them.

"When I started running I would get injured often and it made me think that it was too late for me to start a new sport and that my good days were gone. When I would stretch after a run and use a foam roller it didn’t hit the spot and sometimes it made the injuries feel worse. I became worried about increasing my mileage during my training because of the fear of injury. I began to wonder if I had to just get used to my knee, lower back, and hip pain, which developed from hiking during my youth."

Eric and I started working together in 2014 and when he expressed his concerns we started by implementing yoga and then gradually added a bit more volume through cycling.  Since adding yoga to his routine, Eric has improved his ability to handle higher training volumes and consequently improved his finishing times and places at all distances.  Eric recently placed third at Sinister 7 - his first 100 mile race which also served as the the Canadian 100 Mile Championships.

Despite the rapid improvement in his performance, Eric explains a conundrum that many males faces - the way it is perceived by others.  "Where I am from yoga is seen as a feminine activity practiced mostly by women. I have even found that some male runners in Canada laugh about the fact that I post my yoga workouts on Strava. I have discovered that yoga is very challenging and it takes a lot of strength. Jacob recommended I incorporate yoga into my training routine and I immediately felt the release of tension in my body and it felt SO GOOD!"

"Yoga helped open up new opportunities for me, from relaxing my mind to helping me reach that spot I thought was gone forever. Yoga has helped me prevent stiffness and has relaxed my body for the next training week. Yoga has been teaching me how to relax and to let go of anxiety. It has helped me focus and assisted me in visualizing my races, which has helped calm me down before a race and to let go of my ego and machismo. Yoga has allowed me to explore the humble part of my self and to be thankful for my health."

Here are a couple of Eric's favorite yoga poses:


Tree Pose
Manu, Eric, and I are only a couple of examples of runners who have full-time jobs yet still want to train and compete at the highest levels.  Each of us has benefited greatly by incorporating yoga into our daily routines.

If you are looking for a way to be more consistent and injury resistant I recommend you look into incorporating some yoga into your training.  There are so many options out there from yoga studios to online videos, DVDs, books, and articles.  You decide what works best for you.  Based on my experience, some yoga is better than no yoga.  Becoming mentally and physically flexible is key in ultrarunning and in life.


Teaming with Tommy Rivers to Tackle Trans Rockies Run

The Trans Rockies Run has appealed to me ever since I heard of it years ago.

Racing from point to point through the mountains with camping breaks in between allows one to get to know competitors from all over the world.

Personal photo of Tent City from 2014 Trans Rockies Run

Getting to run through the Rocky Mountains with my best friend and brother, Tommy Rivers, will be the realization of a long-time dream.

Running together at the Trail Factor 50K.  Photo by Paul Nelson
We are grateful to our friend, fellow trail runner, and photographer, Paul Nelson, for documenting our journey. Aside from the physical challenge, sharing the experience with others will be a very rewarding experience.

Here is a little trailer of things to come:

Flagstaff Extreme BIG PINE 54K

After a week of recovery from the Trail Factor 50K, my brother, Tommy Rivers, was already looking for another race to do.  He was stoked about his hard fought fitness and simply excited to be running again.  Fortunately, we live in Flagstaff and there are plenty of races to choose from. The one that most appealed to him was a new Aravaipa Running loop course that would run around a park that he rides, walks, or runs through en route to his physical therapy courses most days. Unfortunately, it didn't look like I was going to be able to join him for this one because I was supposed to be in Oregon for some work the day after the race.  As the race approached, my good senses came to me and I decided it would be a great idea to do the 54K with him and then jump in my truck and drive all the way to Oregon.  Why not?

Starting out conservatively while the lead women took it out.

As with the Trail Factor 50K, shortly after signing up, a local elite and quite frankly the best climber I've ever encountered - Art Degraw - signed up.  The good news is that the course wouldn't have too much climbing so we figured we could use our road running backgrounds to our advantage and sustain a solid pace over the four loop course.

Working our way into it.
We started out pretty comfortably and gradually picked up the pace.  By mile four we were running sub-6:00 pace into the first aid station.  This was pretty quick for so early in the race, especially at 7,000ft, but we were feeling good and Art was doing his best to make us work.  Art, Tommy, and I arrived at the first aid station at mile four together and began the long climb back up toward the Start/Finish area.

Covered with blood.
Art began to pull away a bit on the climb, but I figured we would be fine and we'd simply catch him again on the other side of the hill.  When we crested the hill my brother called out to me.  When I turned around he was covered with blood.  I wasn't sure if he had bitten into a wild animal or if a wild animal had bitten into him, but there was a lot of blood and it just kept oozing out of his face and dripping all over his body.   He tried to wipe it off with his singlet, but it didn't take long to saturate the singlet.  Then he tried wiping it off with his hat.  Again, all that did was fill his hat with blood. Then he tried to wipe it off with his hands, but that just smeared it across his face and body.  Rather than an ultramarathoner, he looked a lot more like a Spartan.

Despite our shared desire to go one-two we had to adjust our goal to simply finish together.  As a practicing germaphobe, my brother was concerned that the aid station volunteers and fellow competitors would be uncomfortable being near someone covered in blood.  The good news is that other than a rugged outdoor lifestyle he's lived a relatively risk free life, so he's clean.  The hard part is trying to explain that to people as you approach them covered in blood.

As we approached each aid station I'd run ahead and direct our kids what to get him.  I'd fill my bottles and he'd let his daughter and my son get cups of liquids to hand to him at the aid stations so that others didn't have to worry about it.  He only had one mishap and that was when Brian Tinder went out to greet and comfort him.  Tinder handed him some grub and Tommy slapped him on the back.  After the fact we all just laughed at the Wilson-like hand print on Tinder's back.  I figure he's mooned us each enough in races and training runs that a little blood on his back is the least he could do.

Trying not to get any blood on anyone, but Tinder's back soon became the site of an inadvertent pat and hand print.

We continued to run together, but the bleeding didn't subside.  On the last loop, my brother took another spill on some rocks and tore up his hands and knees.  We were both exhausted because we'd been running for an hour more than we had planned on running and we still had another hour to go. I knew he was in pain when he didn't even try to get up.  He just laid there.  After a few minutes he asked me to help him up and dust him off.  Then he realized that he had been laying in a pile of horse manure.  As the quintessential germaphobe he was having a harder time with it than I, and I was the one wiping it off his bloody back.  Muscle was sticking out of one gash in his hand and his knee got pretty bruised up.

Running into the aid station to get things ready for the arrival of my brother.
We reached the final aid station and our kids ran out to meet us and asked if they could join us.  We all started down the trail together and eventually our daughters turned back together and my son asked if he could run the last four miles with us.  We agreed.  With about 5K to go the sky opened up and soaked us.  My son was in jeans and a t-shirt so he promptly removed his wet shirt and we continued to run the last two miles in.

Getting down to crew level.

Our daughters coming back from running with us.
When we reached the finish we were greeted by the rest of our family and our kids who helped us quite a bit at the aid stations finished with us.

Finishing as a family.
Due to the mishap and prolonged race, our family missed meals and naps, and had to endure extremes in weather.  Unlike most races in which we usually stick around to visit with others, we decided to get out of the way and go clean up.  We were certainly grateful to the volunteers and race directors as well as friends, family, and competitors who helped us get through the day, but figured our kids needed naps and the volunteers had dealt with enough blood for one day.

As usual, Aravaipa Running put on another great event. Art Degraw ran another amazing race solo. Hopefully, next year we'll be able to hang a little longer. Thanks to the fast early start, we still ended up finishing 2nd and 3rd.  And according to the results, I technically finished ahead of my brother. Although it probably makes me look weak that I can only beat him when he is in critical condition, I'll take it.

As it turns out, the Flagstaff Extreme BIG PINE 54K will be the last time my brother and I will race together until we join forces to tackle the six day Trans Rockies Run team event in August.  Despite the struggles and challenges we encountered in the 54K, and all of the others we've encountered in the 20 years of running we've shared, there is still no place I'd rather be than running alongside my best friend.

We'll be working and training hard this summer so that when we meet again we'll be ready to race side-by-side for six days through the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.  This has been a dream of ours since the race began nine years ago, and finally we're both healthy and able to do it together.

Between now and then I'll be enjoying the Pacific Crest Trail at the Mt. Hood 50 while my brother, Tommy Rivers, will be crewing, pacing, supporting, and promoting Iron Cowboy James Lawrence as he tackles 50 Ironman Triathlons in 50 days in all 50 states.