Five things I learned about coming back from a serious illness

Me a few days before pneumonia had set in. I weighed 180 pounds in this photo. Now imagine that person with 18 fewer pounds on that frame. Coming back from the illness and the damage it caused was a long process.

A little over ten years ago, I had what was one of the most eye-opening sessions I’ve ever had in the gym. Following a weeks-long bout with pneumonia, I finally felt healthy enough to get back into the weight room and rebuild what I’d lost.

When I’d fallen ill, I was 180 pounds and in pretty decent shape. And then I dropped 18 pounds in a span of just 10 days. It would be several weeks later before I felt good enough to return to training.

I knew I’d be weak, and I was. But what was most stunning was how I looked. I was ridiculously skinny. And from the side, I looked like I was barely there, like a gust of wind could carry me off. It was almost like I was completely starting over, back in high school when I was a scrawny little twerp with more hair than muscles.

But I had a few things going for me, namely, a lot of knowledge built up over years of training. Still, it was a long road back. And I learned a few things along the way.

If you’re coming back from being sidelined because of injury or illness, then this one’s for you. Let’s start:

You’re going to be weaker. Don’t expect to move nearly as much weight as you did before. I remember doing bench press sets with 225 pounds before I fell ill. Coming back several weeks later, 165 pounds felt like I was trying to lift a Buick. So don’t push yourself past your new limits because of pride. Ease back into it.

Your conditioning is going to suck. Strength ebbs more slowly than conditioning. If you’re a runner, a cyclist or some other form of athlete that depends on a high level of conditioning, be prepared to feel almost like you’ve never ran/biked/swam before. Yes, it can be that bad. Once you accept that, you can get on with regaining your form.

It’s going to take some time. Maybe you squatted 500 pounds or ran a 20-minute 5K when things were good. But now that you’re two months removed from your training, please understand that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was that squat/deadlift/5K/marathon PR. Or whatever. It took a long time to build up to all of that, and rather unfairly, a short time to lose it. Rebuilding it will be an exercise in patience.

But eventually, muscle memory will take over. Too often we see our past athletic performance as purely exercises of strength and conditioning. It is all that, but it’s also skill. Lifts are skills. Running is a skill, at least if you’re doing it at a higher level. Your brain hasn’t forgotten these things, and once you get back to it, your cranial neurons are going to fire up and tell your body what to do. That’s going to help in your recovery process.

This is a great time to learn new things. Often, we get stuck in our routines when things are going well. When you’re not chasing PRs (because you’re a shadow of what you were), this lets you take a new look at training and methodologies. Things you may not have tried before might be worth looking at now since your ego is solidly held in check. You never know what secret sauce you’ll unlock to eventually make you better than you were before.

I won’t lie, there’s nothing fun about being in the middle of a comeback. But once you’re healthy enough to start down that long road, there is opportunity. You might become stronger. Faster. Able to go further. It’s hard to believe when your fitness is in its nadir, but there is always a chance that you might climb out of that valley to a higher peak than the one you fell from.

Bob Doucette

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Switching things up for a new season

My master for the next 12 weeks.

The start of September tells me a couple of things.

First, it’s not really fall. Not here, not now. I’m looking at sunny skies, high temps in the mid- to upper-90s, and no sign of that alleged crisp cool air of autumn anytime soon. So that means I’ll be sweating plenty on any given run for at least a few more weeks, if not longer.

Second, it’s the beginning of the fall race season. I don’t race much in the spring or summer, because frankly, I don’t do fast when it’s hot. I like it cool to cold. But getting ready for longer races takes time, so training for those distances (a half marathon in this case) takes a little time.

I was stung a bit by my underwhelming performance in the Rockies back in July. My pride took a hit from not being able to manage even one alpine summit. Just the nudge I needed to jump on that fall schedule and get cracking.

It’s nerdy, but I really got into making up my training schedule. Figuring out distances, where to schedule races, and when that blessed taper week rolls around just before my goal race. I made a grid of sorts, with each day’s workout planned to the exact mile, and even included a weight training schedule with specific exercises to be performed. I’m experimenting with speed workouts. Basically throwing myself into this thing, temperatures be damned, because I don’t want the year to end having accomplished nothing.

I know I shouldn’t let a leisure activity define me. No one cares if I summited zero peaks this summer or a hundred. They don’t care about how fast or far I run, or how much I lift. But it still drives me. I suppose the things I do in my free time just matter to me more, at least internally. Goals are useful if they make you better in some way, either by achieving them or at least trying.

And maybe that’s the real value. I’ve met awesome people in the running community and on the trail. Some real bosses at the gym. People who inspire me, who teach me, who push me to do better and be a little more.

The only negative of the fall for me is that as I run more, I have to lift less. Again, no one else really cares about this, but I’ve been a gym rat for decades now, and strength training is a familiar discipline to me, a companion that has been as faithful as any other. I’ll still lift over these next 12 weeks, just not as much. That puts strength gains on hold for a bit.

I picked this up. It was heavy. 10/10 recommend.

But I did get a last hurrah in. While I’m not where I want to be, I’ve been able to load up the bar pretty good lately. A couple of buddies at the gym were doing their deadlifts and pulling some decent weight. It lit a fire under me.

So a few days later, I did the same. I warmed up, loaded the bar and did my lifts. I pulled a moderately heavy weight just fine. Then loaded it with what was, to that point, the heaviest deadlift I’d ever done, 350 pounds. It popped right up. So I added 20 more pounds, just to see if I could. Sure enough, after an initial grind, I stood with the bar in my hands, the rep complete. It wasn’t too far from twice my body weight. I’m not going to brag on a 370-pound deadlift – it’s OK, but not great. But it’s a PR for me. And a win during a year that’s been mostly devoid of them. It gave me a pick-me-up just as the fall race season ramps up.

The truth is I love this stuff. I bitch about running miles when it’s blazing hot, or walking funny after leg day. I cuss myself in the middle of some epic Type 2 fun. But I’m not getting any younger. Time is slipping away. I can still do hard things, and maybe get a little better, and it’s best to make hay when the sun’s still shining. Maybe by the end of the year I’ll have a few more in the win column. I’ll just have to keep grinding and see.

Bob Doucette

An appreciation of running: Five ways running has helped me

Ten years ago, I could never have imagined me doing this. So glad I have.

This week gave us Global Running Day. Or International Running Day. Or National Running day. Well, one of those three. I’m pretty sure all three had a hashtag or something, but in any case, it was a day for runners everywhere to say how much they loved it, take a post-run selfie and stick it on the ‘Gram.

I joined the crowd by tweeting/IG’ing a few old race photos, then going out for four hot, humid and hilly miles. Call me a sucker for a trend.

I also read some folks’ thoughts on the day — they varied from “well, every day is a run day” to “they’re just making up a day to sell more shoes” to the more typical “running has changed my life!” messages.

For me, every day is not a run day, and I didn’t buy any shoes or gear. But it did get me thinking about the past nine years, a span in which I picked the habit back up and stuck with it. And I asked myself, “Well, what has running done for me?”

Something to be said for being fit and having fun.

Obviously, I benefited in terms of fitness. Before I started running again, I kept in shape by lifting weights and playing basketball several times a week. I still lift, and I love basketball. But the latter is not something I can do long-term for much longer. It can be rough on the body. So I started running and found different kinds of fitness. Running helped me lose weight, improved my aerobic capacity and showed me new ways to get in shape. Here’s another fun nuance: Learning different kinds of running — long distance, shorter distance, and sprinting — put more tools in my fitness toolbox. I’ll take that!

A whole other level of toughness is needed if you’re going to run for hours at a time. (Clint Green photo)

Running made me mentally tougher. Competing in sports — team sports, combat sports or whatnot — can build mental tenacity. But running does it in a different way. For most of us (the non-elite runners), the competition is with ourselves. Training for a marathon demands toughness. Want to run a 5K as fast as you can? That race will test your will in ways you won’t expect. In either case, the training and the racing tested my limits. Discomfort hangs over you. So does pain. And the nagging voice in the back of your head that tells you to quit. Overcome those things and you will emerge a tougher person.

Running gets me outside, regardless of conditions. And it’s mostly been good.

Running got me outside more. I’m not a treadmill runner. I’ll do it if I have to, but most of the time I’m outside running the streets or kicking up dirt on the trails. Being outside on foot helped me get to know my community better. It got me into the woods, over the hills and into new places I’d never have seen in a gym, on a court or sitting on the couch. I’ve seen, heard and smelled things that will stick with me for as long as I have memory — the sweet scents of spring flowers, the cry of a bald eagle, the swoop of an owl bearing down on its prey. And so much more.

Just a few of the people I grew to know through running. Good folks, y’all.

I met some awesome people through running. One of the smartest things I did when I moved to a new town was joining a trail running group. I also got involved in a run group through my local YMCA. They greatly expanded the number of people I consider friends. One guy is the dean of Tulsa-area trail running. Another is a dude who went on a road trip with me to go backpacking and climbing a couple of peaks. I have two running friends doing big though-hikes — one on the Appalachian Trail, another on the Pacific Crest Trail. This new group of friends got me involved in preserving our local trail running hot spot, which in turn allowed me to befriend folks from other outdoor circles. Without running, I’d know none of these people and would have been poorer for it.

Here is one of the places I can work through the challenges life throws at me.

Running helps quiet my mind. Look, man. Everyone’s got problems. I don’t know anyone who’s lived such a charmed life that they can say they’ve never dealt with some sort of hardship or hurt. But there are events of loss, pain, anger and sadness that can pile up and overwhelm you. Especially if they pile up all at once. That’s where running came along at just the right time. The meditative rhythm of footfalls, the time spent unplugged, the miles in which you could empty your mind, pray, or otherwise work things out — that’s the stuff that helped me deal with difficult times. My life ain’t any harder than most of yours. But it sure would feel harder if not for the miles and hours I spent pounding pavement and devouring trail.

So that’s what went through my head this week, all prompted by that goofy little hashtag. What about you? Holler at me. How has running helped you?

Bob Doucette

Summer is coming. Here are six tips on how to make hot weather running work for you

Summer is coming. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

Yesterday I went out for my weekly Wednesday 5-mile run. When I left the gym, it was sunny, breezy, and 90 degrees. May is sort of the unofficial start of the summer sweaty season for me, when hot showers go away and some really tough outdoor training begins. It will likely persist through mid-October where I live.

I’m not a hot-weather runner, and the last couple of miles of yesterday’s run were miserable. I’m not acclimated for the heat yet, and frankly, I wasn’t ready for it. My bad.

But hot weather training has its merits – it builds toughness and will pay off in terms of overall conditioning. Running in the heat taxes your heart and lungs in unpleasant ways, but if you do it right, it will pay off when the temperatures cool down.

That said, training in the heat does you no good if you end up getting sick or worse from heat exposure. So this Sun Belt guy has a few ideas on this subject.

So here are six tips for training in the heat:

Hydrate. A lot. Before you go to bed, drink some water. When you get up, drink some more. And throughout the day running up to your workout, be drinking more water. Bring some with you (hand-held water bottle, hip belt or hydration pack) or be sure your route has drinking fountains available. Don’t wait till you crash to stop for a water break. Heat-related illnesses and dehydration are no joke. Is a gallon a day excessive? Not if it’s summer and you’re outside training.

Shade your face. A ball cap will help you keep a little shade on your face and direct sun off your head. If it’s a moisture-wicking cap, it will help you stay cool.

If you can, pick routes with trees. I love trail running, and many of my trails are in wooded areas. You’ll lose some of the breeze in the woods, but the shade will help keep you cooler.

Pace yourself. Your body will not be able to maintain the same intensity at 98 degrees as it does at 78 degrees or 58 degrees. But you will still be working hard, and that’s what you’re going for — putting in some hard work. Which leads me to the next point…

Watch your heart rate. Whether it’s just listening to your body or wearing a heart-rate monitor, those beats-per-minute will be very telling in terms of how hard your body is working. In the winter, you burn more calories because your body is trying hard to keep your core temperature up. But in the summer, it’s fighting — and losing — the battle to keep you cool. If your pulse is pounding in your temples at 180 bpm or more, maybe it’s time to slow down and walk a couple of blocks. No shame in that.

And finally, and this might go without saying, pick a cooler time of day to run. This means running pre-dawn or after sunset during the summer, but those hours will be cooler and easier to manage.

This week, I did well on these except for the hydration part, and I paid for it. Guess I should follow my own advice! Enjoy your time out there.

Bob Doucette

Why I hike: Three reasons that are off the beaten path

Whether it’s a dramatic scene like this or something more ordinary close to home, the real reasons I hike run deep. As seen on Mount Sneffels, Colo. (Noel Finta photo)

There have likely been tens of thousands of articles, blog posts and other testimonials describing why people hike. I wrote one a few years back. All of them have similar reasons, from gaining peace and quiet, to exercise, to getting close to nature, and so on.

Less frequently reasons include achievement (some hikes are hard, and even risky) and promotion – you know, doin’ it for the ‘Gram.

Being transparent, I’ve gone on hikes to take photos. Any 14er or 13er hike I do comes with the goal of achieving a summit, so sure, accomplishing something difficult is sometimes implied. You could say these, and any number of reasons mentioned above apply to me as well.

But I got to thinking about it recently and I realized that some of the best outcomes for any hike – even those aimed at photography, summits or training for something bigger – come with benefits far more valuable. Often those are what keep me coming back.

One big reason I go: to think. It’s been said that time, slowed down to the pace of nature, gives people a chance to step away from our distractions and let our minds wander. I do some of my best thinking on a hike, particularly when I’m alone. It doesn’t matter if that day calls for double-digit miles or is something far shorter. Unloading my mental bucket on the trail allows me to ponder what needs to be pondered. Rumination does the body good, I believe.

Another reason: to intentionally notice the details. My life, just like many of yours, is a rushed and regimented thing pinned down by routines and schedules forged by family, employment and a sizable miscellany that requires my attention. When I’m on a hike and I’m not crashing down the trail for training purposes, I try my best to look around and see the terrain. Maybe it’s an emerald shade from the birth of spring. Or a splash of floral color bursting from a sea of green. Going over a creek crossing a couple weeks ago, I peered into the shallows and saw movement: tadpoles, darting between rocks, feeding, swimming and hopefully growing into the full-grown frogs they’re designed to become. Looking around has helped me spot lizards in the brush, armadillos rooting around in fallen leaves and a massive owl swooping through the trees toward some target unseen by me.

And it’s not just the sights, but the smells. And the sounds. The woods have a sweetness to them in the spring, and a different but no less pleasant aroma deep into the fall. On the auditory side, the chirps of marmots echoing across a huge, stony Rocky Mountain amphitheater on a crisp fall day remains one of the most indelible memories of what was already a remarkable day in the alpine for me. Had I been enveloped in some digital playlist or the din of conversation, I might have missed that haunting  cry.

One last reason I’ll mention: to heal. And I mean that in a comprehensive way. During the week, I exercise hard. A casual hike helps work out the soreness and hasten recovery. But also, healing comes from the non-physical wounds of life. We’ve all suffered loss – the death of a loved one, the ending of a friendship, a past trauma – that leaves us emotionally battered. A single hike is no cure-all, but as a habit, it can be medicinal. I speak from my own experience, and I know many, many others can do the same.

Looking over this list I notice one more thing. These three reasons, absent of the more popular motivations, are sufficient. If all I gained or experienced were an opportunity to think, to notice the details, and to heal, that would be enough to keep me going back. I’ve learned I don’t need a summit or some super-rad mileage count, or even an epic view. I don’t need a pic to blow up with likes on Instagram, and I don’t need some electronic doodad to congratulate me on the number of steps I took, calories I burned or vert I gained. There’s nothing wrong with any of that. But without the deeper experiences of a hike, it would feel more like long walk absent a soul.

Bob Doucette

Confessions of a backslidden trail runner

A scene from the last time I did a trail race. It’s been awhile. (Clint Green photo)

It’s no secret that I like to hit the trails whenever I can. Hiking has been a passion of mine for a while now, and when I moved to Tulsa I found an urban trail area that is built for not just hiking, but trail running.

It didn’t take long for me to dive deep into that. I’d been running some by that point, but trail running was a whole other animal, something that I took to within weeks. I bought trail shoes, joined a trail running group and spent whatever free time I had learning the park’s trail system. Hell, I ran a 25K trail race before I completed by first half marathon. I quickly – and proudly – identified as a trail runner.

Fast forward to the present day. Between those early days of excitement, when getting my dirt on was fresh and new, to now, I’ve put on some miles. Raced a bunch of races. Tripped over who knows how many rocks, roots and stumps while winding my way through the woods. Even repped a manufacturer of trail running shoes for a couple of years.

This brings up the need to confess something. I haven’t been in a trail race in nearly two years.

For that matter, I haven’t run on trails since last summer.

Scandalous, right?

It’s not like I haven’t been running. And it’s not like I haven’t been on the trails. I just haven’t run on the trails. It made me feel like a phony for a while, but then I got busy with other things and didn’t think about it much.

But this weekend, I’m breaking this unfortunate streak. I entered a 10K trail race close to home. I’ve run it before – the 10K and the 25K – and both races kicked my ass. And I’m sure it will again.

I also believe the trail running gods are seeing this as bit of revenge toward me for my lack of fealty. I’m not in great shape, and the weather forecast looks absolutely terrible: low 30s to start, with rain all morning. This, on a course known to hold a lot of water when it rains even the slightest. I predict a lot of slipping, shivering, falling and humiliation on my part. The trail gods’ judgment will be severe for this backslidden acolyte.

So be it. I’ve missed the trail running race scene. Road runners are great, as are their races. But the flavor of a trail race gathering is its own thing – admirable, fun, weird and always a party, even under the most miserable circumstances.

My goals are simple. First, finish the damn thing. And second, try not to finish last. So wish me luck. It’s been awhile since I’ve raced in the dirt. Hopefully I haven’t forgotten how.

Bob Doucette

Another look at training, performance and being ready to climb mountains

The high country can be fun if you’re physically ready for it.

I’m in a group on Facebook that deals with strength and fitness, and the administrator of that group asked me to post something there about what I do for conditioning in terms of being in what I call “mountain shape.”

This is an evolving thing for me, but over the years I’ve found some things that have worked well, and others not as much. Anyway, I figured I’d share that here, just in case some of you were looking at ideas for getting ready for hikes and climbs in the mountains, particularly when the altitude is high. Keep in mind, this is a post for a group that is focused on people focused on strength training, so it’s going to have a bias toward that and away from endurance athletics. That said, I think these ideas are fairly universal for people wanting to perform better at altitude. Have a read, and feel free to chime in with a few of your own ideas.

***

I’m a big fan of Ed Viesturs, the first American to summit all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks. He’s a beast on the hill. His primary ways of getting in shape: He runs 8 miles a pop, and he guides on Mount Rainier. That’s what got me into running.

BUT… as we all know, a lot of steady-state cardio can have negatives. Especially if you’re trying to build muscle. Steady state has its place. Lifting coach Tony Gentilcore wrote an entire post about its benefits in developing capillary density, aerobic capacity, etc. (he’s a legit lifter, too; can pull 600+ on the deadlift). But the body adapts to endless steady state cardio over time, and its benefits diminish. Meanwhile, lots of weekly mileage running can start to eat away muscle and sap strength. Metabolic changes can also occur, making it harder to maintain leanness over time. So what’s the middle ground? Some ideas:

You can get your run on without having to run tons of miles. Intervals, negative splits and sprints will get you in shape.

Intervals: You can do this in a number of ways. I like doing 8 repetitions of 400-meter runs. I push these hard, take a 90-second break, then do the next one a little faster. You can vary distances, too. 200-meter intervals at faster speeds can get a lot of work done. If you’re a real sadist, 800-meter intervals. If you can get to the point where you’re doing 8×800 or 10×800, you’re gonna be one tough mutha when it comes to stamina.

Sprints: 40- to 50-meter sprints are awesome. A hard sprint workout will not only get that conditioning benefit, but it will also enhance overall power and athleticism. That said, if you’re not used to doing sprints, ease into these at first. Someone who isn’t used to doing sprints, then shows up at the track and goes all out is asking for an injury. Do your homework, start conservatively, then work up to it. Sprinting is a skill. Check out this link for more.

Negative splits: A “split” is a term used to describe the time you run a specific length of a run. So on a 3-mile run, you could have three “splits” of a mile apiece. A negative split describes when a runner runs each split faster than the one before. This is a TOUGH workout. How I do it: I jog the first mile, easy pace. Second mile, I run at a goal “race pace.” Conversation at this pace would be difficult, as in short, infrequent sentences. On the last mile, I speed up again at a “suicide” pace. It’s not a sprint, but it’s fast enough that finishing that last mile at that speed is not guaranteed. You might want to ralph when it’s over. Great builder of VO max/mental toughness.

Take your fitness outside the gym to get in mountain shape. Go hike. Go climb. (Brady Lee photo)

As for conditioning specific to the mountains, I’d suggest three things. First, you gotta hike. Hike hills. Carry a loaded pack. Spend a few hours out there. Second, you gotta climb. If you’re going to tackle a mountain that’s not a walk-up, you need to put your body through the movements you’ll use on the peak. Find a local crag, go to a climbing gym, etc. It’s practice. Lastly, become friends with the stairmaster. Yeah, it’s an inside-the-gym machine, but it works all the muscles used in going uphill. Try increasing your speed as you go to mimic the increased aerobic demand of elevation gain.

Don’t forget to lift!

And as always, keep lifting. Your lifts should be based on the four basic movements: Squat, hip-hinge, press and pull. All of these are useful on the peaks, in building strength, and in everyday life.

How it looks for me: I lift Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. For conditioning, I do the stairmaster on Monday; short tempo run (steady state, race pace) Tuesday; longer run OR hill run OR negative split run on Wednesdays (this will be a high-demand conditioning day); stairmaster or HIIT on Thursday; medium-length tempo run Fridays. Saturday is an outdoors day. So I’ll go hike, climb, or do a long bike ride. I keep Saturdays open and fun, but fun with a purpose. Sundays I chill.

So there you have it. Again, if you’ve got your own ideas, let’s hear about it in the comments. And for more on this topic, check out this post.

Bob Doucette