Friday, December 28, 2012

TRX...What the Heck is That?

I suppose we might as well start off with ruling out what TRX is not: it is NOT a torture device, even though sometimes participants of the TRX Strength Training for Endurance Athletes will claim it so.

Believe it or not, this isn't torture. Image courtesy of TRX.
As you can tell from the photo above, the heart of the TRX system are the two straps that come down from an anchor point. In our Maine Running Academy classes, we've installed a metal pipe to serve as the anchor for the TRX system. The straps then can be elongated or shortened, based upon the exercise. The straps are easy to adjust to the proper point, as they have markings denoting where specifically the straps should be set to. For the majority of the classes, the straps are set to the mid-length setting.

TRX is a body-weight based workout. There's never any additional weight added. Instead, it is controlling your own body-weight through the range of motion in the particular exercise. Again, referring to the photo above, the participants are rowing themselves upwards. The only weight involved is their own.

However, there are rules to TRX:

  • Keep the core engaged: you must keep yourself in alignment at all times.
  • No sagging straps: the straps need to be taut from the anchor point at all times. This means that you're keeping control of the range of motion at all times.
  • Don't let the straps drag: The straps, outside of your hands/feet being on or in the handles, should never be dragging along your body.
One of the great parts about TRX is the versatility of the system: there are over 300 different exercises that can be performed through the use of those two straps. It's nearly impossible to get bored, as you can always mix it up. The other great thing is that you can generally change the difficulty of a particular exercise based upon how far away from the anchor point you are, or how wide you space your feet out beneath you. This makes it a great option for beginners and TRX veterans alike.

So, what should you expect if you decide to enroll in TRX Strength Training for Endurance Athletes?

Classes usually start off with some warm-up stretches and lunges to get the body going. Then, expect the unexpected. Although a lot of similar exercises are used each week, there are often new variations to them, or are placed in different spots during the course of the workout that changes their intensity. Atomic push-ups midway through the workout are one thing; doing them as the last thing before the cooldown is an entirely different scenario.

Keep in mind that Kelsey (instructor) structures the TRX Strength Training for Endurance Athletes class for those who are either coming from a running/walking or multisport background. If you're looking for a class looking to simply bodybuild, this isn't it. Instead, the focus is on functional and core strength: giving you power and stability in ranges of motion similar to the stresses of your sport/activity, training your body to better handle that stress.

Overall, having been involved in this cycle of TRX, I highly recommend it. After every class, I feel some type of benefit; whether it's establishing the neuromuscular connection of a particular range of motion to the activity that I want to be doing, or the simple power that comes from strength training. It's been a revelation to my training, and is sure to continue to be one of my season's staples.

This current session of TRX lasts until January 11, 2013. Drop-in spots are available for $12. Contact Denise Goode for more details.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Shoe Comparison Test: Brooks PureCadence 2 vs. Saucony Mirage 3

This is the first time that we here at Maine Running Company have put up a comparison test, and for good reason: this process is an entirely subjective one. This comparison test is not going to say that one shoe is better than another. Instead, this comparison test will instead let you know how I, your faithful reviewer, felt in these two shoes that compete in the same category. This will just let you know what I prefer out of the category, versus the winner being a better shoe. You could line-up 20 people with my feet, tell them to go run in these two shoes, and I'm sure you'd get varying responses as to the winner.

That being said, I think it's useful to compare two shoes in this manner, as after all, it is this same kind of head-to-head process that leads to someone choosing one pair of shoes versus another. We don't always get the experience of testing things out for countless miles before deciding on a pair. (Well, with our Personal Fit Guarantee here at Maine Running Company, if you have a problem with a pair of shoes, you can always bring them back.)

So, what exactly are we talking about here?

Brooks PureCadence 2 (image courtesy of Brooks Sports)

Saucony Mirage 3 (image courtesy of Saucony)
The Tech Babble
The Mirage and the PureCadence live in the realm of "natural" running shoes. By that, we mean that the shoe features a lower heel-toe offset than your traditional models. In this case, the Mirage and PureCadence both feature a heel-toe offset of 4 millimeters. This is a 66% reduction in offset versus your traditional shoe, so the first word of caution: if you're going to think about switching into either one of these shoes and you've been using more traditional models, you're going to have a relatively extensive transition period. 

However, if you're like me, and have had extensive problems in traditional models, it might be worth exploring changing your body positioning in a running shoe. The one thing that changing your heel-toe offset will not do is change your running style. You can still very much heel-strike in a shoe like this, and I'm a prime example. The point, however, is that this body positioning suits me better than having more elevation of the heel.

Both of these shoes are also the respective "stability" models in their product lines. You'll note the use of quotations around the term stability, and that's because they don't feature traditional medial posting. To break each shoe down further, we'll separate the rest of the Tech Babble section.

Brooks solves the problem of not having a medial post by changing the durometer (firmness) of the midsole. They tuned the lateral side to be a bit softer than the medial side, rather than going with a standard midsole durometer and then adding a stiffer section to the medial side. It solves the same problem of pronation rate adjustment with a slightly different answer.

Typically, Brooks uses two cushioning systems in their shoes: a primary one of their proprietary blend of EVA called BioMoGo; a secondary cushioning system called DNA that provides a different level of impact absorption and firmness based on the stress put on it. For the Pure line of shoes, Brooks blends DNA into the midsole foam itself, rather than it being separate. The result? A much lighter weight shoe versus one with traditional tooling.

Additional features on the Pure Cadence include full-ground contact under the midfoot, allowing the shoe to lose the traditional shank you'd find in the midfoot, as well as a band over the midfoot section to really keep the foot engaged with the platform. The lacing system is asymmetrical on the shoe as well, with the idea that it creates equal engagement with the medial and lateral sides of the foot. 

In a men's size 9, the Cadence weighs in at 9.3 ounces. Of course, in my size 13, we'll need to take that with the entire shaker of salt.

Saucony, on the other hand, goes about their stability by implementing a plastic bridge in the middle part of the foot. It's arguably more traditional than the method that Brooks implements with the Cadence, but it has the same effect regardless. 

The Mirage utilizes both Saucony's blend of EVA along with a ProGrid insert. ProGrid acts much like the strings of a tennis racquet: it bends down to receive you, before springing you off of it with more energy return than a more passive system. Saucony also added some deeper flex grooves in the forefoot of this iteration of the Mirage, which should have two results: increased flexibility, but also further compression of the materials giving a slightly softer ride characteristic.

The upper on the Mirage adopts some of the features from it's neutral brother, the Kinvara: a FlexFilm upper that eliminates seams on the forefoot and gives a more accommodating fit; full ground contact under the midfoot eliminating the need for plastic there as well. This also reduces weight on this iteration of the Mirage down to 8.7 ounces in a men's 9. Unlike the Cadence, the lacing system is more traditional.

The Run: How Do They Stack Up?
Well, I love both of these shoes. But for very different reasons. And it's for those reasons that results in the final evaluations here:

2nd Place: Saucony Mirage 3
If the Mirage were competing against any other shoe in the category, I think it'd have won. It's a really great option in the category. 

The initial try-on is unassuming: you put your foot into it, and notice that the upper just shapes well to your foot. Big credit to the Saucony crew, here, as I'd been so disappointed with the fit in the forefoot on the previous version of the Mirage that I'd given up on it entirely. FlexFilm works to give your foot an excellent combination of support and freedom.

The arch is a touch higher in this version of the Mirage. Saucony's switching to producing their own insoles, and with it comes a slightly higher arch and deeper heel. It gives a slightly softer initial try-on feel as well.

As you start putting your first foot in front of the other, an initial fear hits: is this going to be enough shoe to run in? It feels firm, much firmer than the Cadence. For someone who is making a transition into the category, this might be a bit jarring. But after a couple of minutes, that fear starts to fade away.

The shoe really feels great after that warm-up and as you get into the meat of your run. The responsiveness gives way to some fantastic energy return. It feels very, very easy to pick one foot up and get into your next stride. The shoe, foot, and leg all seem to respond as one.

I think that this would make a fantastic racing shoe for somebody in this category. I went out for a few runs in this shoe, and just felt faster in the Mirage. It was easy to put tempo in and just go. But, there's a price to be paid: it's that responsiveness. I love that feeling, but I think that it might be best reserved for those faster workouts. It's on the borderline of being just enough and not quite enough. And, in my opinion, the purpose of training is being able to get to the start line. And for me, I thought I'd better be able to do that in the Cadence.

1st Place: Brooks PureCadence 2
I didn't want to like these. I'd had so much success in the Mirage before that I didn't want something to shake that idea to the core. I didn't want to change things up.

Well, credit to you, Brooks: you converted me over.

The initial try-on process reveals a luxurious step-in: the whole upper feels like a premium experience. (At $120 a pair, I'd hope so.) The band over the foot keeps you in contact with the insole, which has a nice, high arch to it. The whole shoe is really a testament how Brooks has taken a stand on the natural running model; to call this shoe minimal (and the Mirage, for that matter) is doing it a complete disservice. They feel substantial while being light, versus the Mirage, which just felt light.

As you start your run, you feel the cushioning start to come alive: the shoe gives a good cushioning property to it without feeling squirmy underfoot. Then, as you start picking up the pace, the shoe starts to firm up a little bit to match up. This is a result of that blending of BioMoGo and DNA: as you put more force on the shoe, it actually firms up a little bit to match. 

I did multiple runs in the shoe of varying distances and paces, and the shoe was completely up to task for all of them. Not a single blister, either. The shoe really just responded well to anything you threw at it. It's because of that versatility that the PureCadence emerged the winner.

In reality, I'll find myself racing more in the Mirage, but training every day in the Cadence. Not a bad problem to have.

To be the judge yourself, head on in to one of our store's to see if one of these shoes is for you. (Note: the Mirage 3 does not launch until February 1st).

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Gear Review: New Balance 870v2

So very, very many shoes; so little, little time.

Such is the life of a specialty running retailer, and you won't find me complaining about it. I've got seven times the number of pairs of shoes as compared to my wife. And that's after I donated about 40 pairs to charity over the past few months.

You could say that I have a problem. And I'd probably be inclined to agree with you.

But the lament that I've been having as of late has been with my everyday training shoe. You see, I've had absolutely terrible luck finding that "meat and potatoes" pair of trainers. You know, the pair that you log the majority of your runs in. The "I need to go and get my run in" pair.

I'd found that pair last year in the Saucony Mirage: 4 millimeter offset, little bit of structure to the midfoot on it. I put nearly 880 miles on my pair. I did everything in it: trained in it, raced in it. It was my go-to shoe. And then the unimaginable happened:

My shoe got updated, and it didn't fit my foot anymore.

I'm sure that if I were looking out at an audience right now, I'd be seeing a lot of nods and "me too!" looks across people's faces. It's just a truth that shoes get updated, and a lot of the time they stay the same. But sometimes they change just enough that you can't wear the shoe anymore. This was one of those times. (My issue was in the forefoot cut, for the three of you that were wondering.)

All this year, I've been tearing through shoes left and right. I've gone through no fewer than six pairs of shoes this year, all through training and racing. The majority of these were more lighter-weight, low-offset shoes; although they featured the same body positioning as the Mirage, they offered a bit less cushioning. I went this route due to forefoot fit: these were the only shoes that I'd found that had the fit I was looking for.

But I was lacking on the cushioning front, and it was showing: as compared to my prior pair, I was only seeing 300 miles, maximum, from these pairs. I also didn't want to go to a traditional-offset, as that has had pretty disastrous results on my body previously. I felt stuck.

Until New Balance unleashed the 870v2 on the world. Split the difference on offset at 8 millimeters, and what looked to be a more accommodating fit. OK, so let's see how these'll stack up.

New Balance 870v2 in Blue/Yellow/Black. Image courtesy of New Balance.

The Tech Babble
New Balance relatively recently underwent a massive overhaul of their entire running shoe line. Gone is the big, boxy, made-in-Maine and looks like it was designed for your elderly relatives running shoe. Instead comes a more performance-oriented brand that still retains a proud American manufacturing identity.

With that change also came a changing in how New Balance numbered shoes: the first digit or two digits would tell you what "level" of shoe you were in, whereas the last two digits would tell you the level of support. In this instance, 8 is your mid-level running shoe number (the minimum number you will see in a pair of shoes at Maine Running Company that is not a track or cross-country spike), and the 70 refers to the fact that this shoe is in the "light stability/blend" category.

This means that this shoe features a very mild medial post, located directly under the midfoot. New Balance softens the feel of the medial posting by breaking it up with some regular density foam. This allows New Balance to smooth out the feel of the posting; rather than jutting up into the foot, it instead feels more like you are transitioning on top of it.

New Balance's primary cushioning system is their blend of foam, known as REVLite. REVlite is so named due to it being approximately 30% lighter versus traditional EVA (the material that shoe foam is comprised of). How do you achieve that? EVA can be manipulated structurally, and allowing for more space between each matrix of the foam will allow for more air molecules to be trapped when the foam cools during the baking process. More air there means more area for the shoe to compress; more area for the shoe to compress leads to a more cushioned ride.

Unlike other manufacturers, New Balance's secondary cushioning system isn't comprised of a semi-solid (think: Gel). Instead, New Balance depends on a second version of foam called Abzorb. As the name implies, it's sole purpose is to absorb impact shock and disperse it away from the foot.

The other big change for the 870v2 is the 8 millimeter offset. This splits the difference between your traditionally offset shoes (set at 12 millimeters) and your "natural running" styles, which are typically 4 millimeters or less in offset. This doesn't mean it's giving up anything on the cushioning front; rather, there's still about as much foam underfoot here as you'd find in any traditionally offset model.

The 870v2 weighs in at 9.8 ounces for a mens' size 9. Of course, I have to take that with a whole shaker worth of salt with my size 13 boats. Comparable shoes include the Asics GT-2000, Brooks Ravenna, and Saucony Guide.

The Run: How's It Feel?
In short: it's so, so, so close to being exactly what I wanted.

Let's get the bad part out of the way: the shoe just doesn't fit me just as well as I'd like for it to. Much like the way Saucony has mangled my poor Mirage, the cut of the forefoot is just ever so slightly too narrow. I need it to be, oh, maybe two millimeters wider in the forefoot. It's just enough of a press inwards that it's mildly annoying on most runs and downright close to irritating on a long run.

Leaving my personal fit issues aside, though, and this shoe really starts to come alive.

Putting it on, the first thing you notice is how, well, unlike New Balance the shoe fits. "Hey...this actually wraps around my foot!" Rather than being a box that sits over your foot, the paneling and fingering actually holds onto your foot. The shoe is also a bit shallower; it really snugs and holds onto the foot. The forefoot of the shoe than widens out to help promote forefoot splay. If you have slightly shorter toes than I, than you'll never have the issue that I talked about above. Which means, well, for a lot of people, this shoe will feel impressive out of the box.

You stand up, and again, the first thing you think of is checking the box and the logoing on the shoe to make sure that yes, you are in fact wearing a pair of New Balance. Some of the traditional hallmarks are there: slightly firmer initial feel, a middle-of-the-road arch height, and a small ridge right around where the navicular bone is in your foot. (Think about a quarter of the way up your arch.) I don't mind it; others feel it in-store and that's the end of the shoe for them.

Heading out the door for your run, the shoe starts to wake up a little bit: hey, we're running here! The shoe doesn't really enjoy warm-up pace, but when you start finding your stride after 10-15 minutes the shoe finds itself, too. It strikes a very middle-of-the-road feel: great cushioning to beat out the majority of your miles, but just light enough that you don't mind putting some speed in, either. And it's that good balance position that I think will make this a great marathon shoe for somebody: you can trust it for the long miles, but also know that you're not carrying around a traditional, heavy trainer, either.

I don't really notice the offset much in this particular shoe; I don't know if that's a function of the offset being set correctly, or me just not paying attention to it. But I can say that my legs felt good at the end of runs with these.

Overall, forefoot fit issue notwithstanding, I think New Balance really has a hit on its' hands. It has a nice, lightweight feel while also giving you enough shoe to run in on a daily basis. It's, pardon the pun, a well-balanced shoe. I think it'd make a great daily trainer, or a long-course race day shoe for someone who prefers an even more isolated ride out of their daily trainer.

Price: $109.99
Available: Now

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Maine Running Academy Core Class: What to Expect

When you think of a fitness class that is labelled "core strength," the thought that pops in this author's mind is a lot of crunches, a whole lot of plank stands, and not a whole heck of a lot else. Perhaps you're tossing in some additional props, like a Swiss ball, but more or less the approach is: well, your core is your midsection, and the purpose of this class is to blast them to death.

The thing is, as a runner/walker/triathlete/athlete/whatever-else-you-wish-to-call-yourself-lete, the requirements are different. We're not necessarily looking for core strength for a general purpose; rather, we need core strength in order to be able to provide the correct balance for running, or to be able to stay in our aerobars while cycling through the wind. No, our core strength needs to be functional, and needs to be more dynamic.

This is what the focus of the Maine Running Academy Core Strength for Runners class is; rather than approaching core strength from a unitask approach, it is instead focused on the ranges of motion required for running. If you boil running down to it's simplest form, it really is no more than a series of one-legged balance drills, repeated 90 times a minute per side, for however long you are out running for. If you don't have the proper strength or flexibility in order to be able to hold one-legged balance drills for an extended period of time, how can one expect to be able to run injury-free if you're out there for hours at a time?

I had the pleasure of sampling a Core Strength class, and can report back that it is both harder and easier than one would expect.

Here's what the Core Strength class is NOT: just a focus on crunches.

It features whole bunch of exercises, going from head-to-toe. There are exercises focused on nueromuscular recruitment, as well as exercises that do indeed focus solely on strength. There are also dynamic range of motion exercises that, while engaging your core, also look to stretch areas that are typically poorly recruited by runners.

The 45 minute session starts off with your legs, progresses to the total body, before then doing some isolation core strength exercises. It definitely gets a good sweat going, but at the same time it's not suffering. It's more like: hey, so that's what this feels like when it's properly engaged. OK, that makes sense now when someone says to do X while I'm running!

I could definitely tell some of my weaknesses, but also some of my strengths from the training that I've been doing. This will allow me to further incorporate some of the exercises into my repertoire consistently, whereas others I am already performing or have the strength and recruitment down correctly.

In all, I'd call the Core Strength class one of the more beneficial sessions of the Maine Running Academy, regardless if you're a runner. This is a total body conditioning class that will build functional strength to allow you to keep doing whatever activity it is that you love to do.

Registration for Core Strength for Runners is available here. There is also a daily drop-in fee option, payable in cash to the instructor at the time of the workout. Schedules can be found on the Maine Running Academy webpage.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Gear Review: Garmin Forerunner 910XT

*Editorial Note: We apologize for the lack of updates over the course of the summer! We've been extremely busy in-store and also with the many new features over on the Maine Running Facebook page. However, now that we've settled into the groove, we should be seeing more regular posting around these parts, including continuing the Maine Athlete Feature series, the Medical Professional Series, gear reviews, and much much more!*

As an athlete, I use and abuse watches.

No, seriously: I've beaten the beejezus out of every watch I've ever owned. Whether it's a Timex band that I've managed to sweat through and corroded the rubber, or destroying the face of another watch, or popping the buttons off of something get the picture. If it can survive me, it can probably survive anything.

That also said, I loathe devices that serve only one purpose. A running watch that can only be used for running? Sorry, not going to work for me. A bike computer? Nope, sorry, needs to be able to keep track of multiple things. No, the device I want needs to be able to serve every purpose. It needs to be one-stop shopping for all of my racing and training exploits.

Enter: the Garmin Forerunner 910XT.

Garmin Forerunner 910XT in multisport mode: Image courtesy of Garmin.
The Tech Babble
To really get into what the 910 is all about, you really need to re-trace your history of GPS-enabled athletic devices.

The original device was a co-branded unit from Timex and Garmin: Timex made the watch unit for everything, and then there was a separate arm unit that received the GPS signal that was made by Garmin. This pairing wasn't incredibly resilient nor user-friendly. However, each learned from one another: Garmin on the watch side of things, Timex on the GPS side.

Garmin wound up releasing a multitude of devices: the Garmin Forerunner 201 and 301, for those keeping track at home. They looked, well, like bricks. Nor were they incredibly durable or user-friendly. Water resistant? Nope. But they allowed you to track your training, and in the case of the 300 series, it allowed multiple sport modes.

Garmin then further updated the watches with the 205, 305, and later the run specific 405. The 305 is of most importance to the story, as it was truly their multisport watch. However, it still was not truly water resistant. Although you will still see some triathletes toe the swim line with the 305 with success, it really isn't designed for it. The 405, meanwhile, introduced the touch-bezel to the equation. (That sound you heard was many runners groaning in frustration with their 405s.)

The 305, however, became the 310: the first fully swimmable Garmin. This meant more than a moderate rain would still be fine. It still retained the brick-like looks of the 305, but it was finally becoming a little lighter, and a little easier to use still. But it didn't sync well with a lot of other devices that many athletes use, despite speaking the ANT+ language (think: Bluetooth for athletic stuff). And the font face looked directly out of a 1993 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera. (How do I know, you ask? I owned one.)

This brings us all the way forward to the modern 910, pictured above. It is not nearly as large as some of the earlier devices, despite the rather large face on the watch. It is much lighter than previous iterations in this product line as well. It fits on numerous wrist sizes, and you can even switch that band out for a smaller one, if you prefer.

This is a watch that can and will do just about everything. I'm relatively positive that if you pushed the correct button combination on the 910, you'd be able to have it cook you dinner.

Now, with that in mind, let's delve into what it's actually designed to do:

There are four distinct training modes available to you: swimming, biking, running, and multisport mode. The first three are self-explanatory, and we'll delve into those in a bit. The multisport mode, on the other hand, is a little bit more complex. Multisport mode allows you to transition from different other modes just by pushing the lap button. So, say you're racing a triathlon: you can have it set to seamlessly move from swim mode, to bike mode, to run mode, and also have it factor in transitions.

Now that we've looked at multisport mode, let's break down what the swim mode, bike mode, and run mode can do for you.

In an improvement on the 310, the 910 allows you to use the watch while doing indoor swims. It has a completely separate mode for it. So when you power the watch on, and go to select swimming, it will ask you: open-water swim (activates the GPS), or pool swim. If you select pool swim, it will then ask you what type of pool you are swimming in: 25-yards, 25 meters, or 50 meters. (For those wondering: the Riverton Pool in Portland is a 25 meter pool. Almost all of the YMCAs that are local are 25 yard pools.)

Setting the correct distance is important, as the watch can actually count laps and keep track of distance for you. It even recognizes what swim stroke you are swimming: freestyle, backstroke, butterfly, and breaststroke are all recognized. The 910 will also calculate an efficiency score for you based on the number of strokes you took, distance per stroke, and the time it took for you to complete a lap. It can really help you hone in on what an ideal stroke rate is for you personally, as it's different for each person.

A note about this swim mode, though: the distance is based on the watch travelling through the water in a swim stroke. It will NOT calculate distance for kick sets. So if you have a set of drills that you're doing, or a set of kicking ahead of you, you'll want to just run off the pace clock rather than using the watch.

With open-water swim mode, it will calculate distance based off of the GPS. You lose the swim efficiency scores, as well as the recognition of swim stroke. Previous iterations of swim GPS files were very, very patchy at best. This, however, really smooths the file out. As an example, here's my swim from Rev3 Old Orchard Beach:

Yeah, I know: I can't sight worth crap. But hey, I swam fast (for me!)
As with any of the modes, the screens are fully customizable: you can see whatever details you'd like. I personally opt for total swim time, total swim distance, and pace as the three data fields when in an open-water swim. Why? Well, I'm not going to stop and look at it while swimming. So having fewer data fields that give me the quick hits when I'm sighting or when I'm exiting the water is better than having more information available. Just need the facts and keep on plugging!

Bike Mode
Here's where the 910 makes another vast leap over it's predecessor: the ease in which you can add accessories to it. Say, for example, you have a cadence sensor on your bike. Well, if it speaks ANT+, it will sync up with the 910. Same thing with powermeters, or magnets, get the idea.

I tend to opt for four data fields when training: time, speed, distance, and heart-rate. One of the new features for the 910 is the ability to customize numerous screens. The way I use this is feature is when I have an interval session on the bike. Rather than changing the normal screen that I have set described above, there's up to four other screens that I can scroll through and customize. So my second bike screen has lap time, lap distance, and instant speed. This gives me the numbers I need to work through interval sessions and the corresponding recovery period. Then when I get done with the intervals, I can toggle back to the regular screen that I prefer.

Run Mode
If you've ever used a GPS-based device before, nothing here will shock you. The biggest thing that you'll notice, again, is the ability to toggle between numerous screens of data, and customize them all.

One of the other run features that I like on this particular unit is the auto-lap feature. You can set this to auto-lap whenever you see fit. Doing walk-run intervals? Great! You can use a time feature to do so, and for it to capture each pace. Want to know your mile splits later on? You can do, that, too. As an example, I had mine set to auto-split every mile for the Trail to Ale 10K.

Positive split, anyone? Still a new 10K PR...
The one gripe that I have about the watch has to be the instant pace feature. Unfortunately, it is extremely jumpy. It's not nearly as smoothed out as previous watches that I have used, including the older Garmin 305 and the Nike SportWatch. It's worst if you are under tree cover. It'll wind up recording the correct overall pace, etc. but the instant pace that you see on the watch does not seem to ever match up unless you have a direct link to the eyes in the sky.

This is one of the main reasons that I found the lap average pace function to be so critical; it tends to paint a better picture of the effort than does instant pace. However, it's nice from time to time to check to make sure that you're hitting the targets that you are looking for. It has steadily improved with each software update, and a new firmware was released just recently, that would suggest that Garmin is continually working to improve the instant pace function.

Uploading Data: Garmin Connect, and Exporting Elsewhere
This is another improvement over previous Garmin devices: how it syncs up with your computer.

There is a wireless USB stick that plugs into your computer. If your device is powered on when you walk on by the computer...instant upload! Automatically signs into Garmin Connect, which is where all of the above file information came from.

When you go to look at your data post-activity, here's what you'll see:

Brief overview; click to expand the size of the image.
You'll be able to see your splits, route breakdown, etc. Very cool.

Now, what if you use other software? As an example, I'm an avid user of TrainingPeaks. Well, they've come up with an auto-upload feature for the 910 as well, that takes your files and imports them into TrainingPeaks for you. No more exporting from Garmin Connect into TrainingPeaks; instead, it goes from the device into TrainingPeaks and away you go.

Pretty darn seamless.

A Note on GPS Accuracy
Some of you may notice that the Garmin file for Trail to Ale denotes a total slightly less than 6.2 miles. This is well within the range of "normal" variance for GPS devices. As another example, my Garmin file for the Boston Marathon says I ran 26.5 miles. All of my Garmin files for the Rev3 events I did read longer than 70.3 miles. What gives?

For certified courses, the key for them is that the course must be measured to at least the distance. So, they actually all tend to be just slightly longer than the measure. Couple that with the about .03 mile variance that can happen with any GPS device...and well, you're bound to have some inaccuracies somewhere.

But as a training tool, I find a Garmin file extremely valuable, to see how the body is adapting to the training load that you are subjecting it to. You can find out just how well you're handling your training, and be able to avoid common undertraining or overtraining issues.

The Verdict
This is, by far, the most intuitive GPS device I've used. It gives you a wealth of data that is unparalleled, but at the same time is incredibly simple to use. I can't imagine anything else standing up to it. So if you're looking for a one-stop device for your running or multisport needs, this is it.

$399.99 without heart-rate, $449.99 with heart-rate monitor
Available: Now

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Triathlon Race Morning Gear Checklist

With so many races right around the corner, we thought it helpful to have this guide of what you'll need to remember on race morning.

This list is written in mind of the many events that have overnight bike check-in, meaning that you'll have racked your bike in transition the day before the race. This list also assumes that packet pick-up occurred well before the race.

Swim Equipment
Tri-Slide or Body Glide
Wetsuit (if wearing one)
Watch (if wearing one)
Ear plugs (optional)
Sunscreen (usually will go on after body marking)

Bike Equipment
Bike Pump (your tires will lose pressure overnight!)
Flat Repair Kit
Water bottles
Nutritional needs
Bike Shoes
Socks (optional)
Calf Sleeves (optional)

Run Equipment
Running Shoes
Speed Laces (optional)
Race Number Belt
Race Number
Socks (optional, or if you didn't put them on in T1)
Run Nutritional Needs

Other Potential Gear
Small Towel (wipe your feet following a run from the swim to transition)
Box of bike tools (just in case you need to do some last minute adjustments)
Bottle of water for pre-race
Small snack before the race

Hope this helps! Have fun!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Shoe Review: Altra Instinct / Intuition

There are few times in the running industry where you can honestly call something "revolutionary." Typically, this is a marketing term that would suggest that an idea is new, but is instead a new interpretation of an existing model. As an example, think of when your favorite shoe has gotten updated in the past, and it was changed rather significantly from the model before. Although your favorite model has changed in how it feels to you, the shoe has not changed in terms of the level of support that it is offering the foot.

The Altra Instinct, however, is a completely different animal.

A Foreword: The Terms "Natural Running" Versus "Minimalism"
Some may view this part of the discussion as a bit nit-picky, but I think it is best because it illustrates where, generally, the footwear industry is heading.

There is a difference between the amount of cushioning that a shoe offers and the body positioning that the shoe is trying to put you into. The term "minimal," according to Webster's dictionary, means "constituting a minimum; barely adequate or the least possible." In the context of shoes, minimalism would be a term that best describes cushioning properties; cushioning is the thing providing insulation from the impacts of running. If you're trying on a minimalistic model, it would have "barely adequate or the least possible" amount of cushioning available in a shoe.

But then there are shoes that are trying to put you into a flatter body positioning, but still feature cushioning. This is where Saucony's Kinvara and like models, Brooks' PureProject, and New Balance's Minimus line all lie. These feature lower heel-to-toe offsets (the difference between the midsole height in the heel and forefoot), but still a substantial amount of cushioning. And in some instances, models will still feature pronation control. This is where most of my current models lie; lower heel-toe offsets, good cushioning, minor midfoot stability. Why? Because even with good running form, my biomechanics are still not perfect and need help from the shoe to reduce stress on the body.

How does this apply to Altra's Instinct and Intuition? It features a zero drop platform; your heel and forefoot are the same height on the interior of the shoe. However, it also features 12 millimeters of cushioning throughout the shoe. To put that in context, a "traditional" offset shoe would feature this same amount of cushioning in the forefoot.

To call this shoe "minimal" would be doing it a disservice, as there is still plenty of cushioning there. It is attempting instead to give you the best of two worlds: the body positioning of being barefoot, as we were meant to run; the cushioning to protect one's foot against a surface that we were not meant to run on.

The Tech Babble
Altra's story is almost a picturesque version of the American dream: come up with an idea, attempt to market it, go on your own, and be (so far) pretty darn successful.

The founders of Altra came from a specialty running store in Utah called Runner's Corner. Throughout the course of fittings over the years, as well as a personal experience, they discovered that running technique was just as important as the footwear on people's feet. Furthermore, they found that it was easier to achieve good form in shoes that featured a lower heel-toe offset than shoes with a traditional ramp to them. (Keep in mind, though, that it is the mind that has to tell the feet where to land, rather than the shoes telling you how to land.)

As it were, they worked with a local cobbler who, if they determined that a particular runner would benefit from a different body positioning, lower the heel-toe offset of the shoe that the customer had just purchased. And they saw results: better running technique resulted in fewer injuries.

Similarly to how Newton attempted to market their idea to the major footwear manufacturer's, the founders at Altra wanted to have the major manufacturers start producing shoes with lower heel-toe offsets. But the reception to the idea was lukewarm at best. This was well before Born to Run began the natural running movement, which in turn has brought us the Kinvara's, PureProject's, and Minimus' of the world.

So, Altra opted to go it alone. There are two key distinctions of Altra footwear beyond the Zero Drop philosophy. The first is Gender Specific fit. This is why this review is titled the Instinct and Intuition; the men's and women's models are named differently due to their different lasts. Men generally have a more rectangular shape to their feet, whereas women are narrower in the heel and wider in the forefoot. Altra has taken this fit into account in the upper. Also, the women's models feature a slightly softer, more flexible foam as compared to the men's versions.

The second distinctive characteristic of Altra footwear is the foot shape fit to the upper. The first thing one notices when looking at a pair of Altra's is the width of the forefoot. "Wow, these look wide! There's no way I could run in that, my foot will be sliding all around!" The idea, though, is that when you are barefoot, your toes want to spread out laterally upon impact. Think of the foot as a tripod: the metatarsals as two prongs of the tripod, and the heel as your third. The wider the base of that tripod, the more natural stability that tripod has. And the more natural stability the foot has, the less we need to add stability to correct biomechanical deficiencies.

Relative to the Instinct and Intuition, one other key feature are the Support and Strengthen insoles. The Support insole features a slight arch and a touch of foam to provide the feel of some extra cushioning. The Strengthen insole, meanwhile, is flat and paper-thin, providing a barefoot-esque experience on the interior of the shoe.

The Instinct weighs in at 8.8 ounces in a men's size 9. Of course, I have to take this with the entire shaker of salt in my "float across the Atlantic in these things" size 13s.

Altra Instinct (Men's; women's model is the Intuition). Image Courtesy of Altra Footwear

The Run
The short version: definitely one of the most interesting shoes I've run in this year.

The first thing you notice when you lace on a pair of Altra's is the fit: there's so little to notice! You pop into them and immediately go: "OK, so here's the arch. Like it. The midfoot wraps well, cool. But where's the rest of the shoe? They feel like slippers!" It's enough of a distinction that Altra actually prints a piece about fit on the interior of the box, and how they are supposed to feel this roomy. As a note: go up a 1/2 size relative to your normal running shoe size.

This results in plenty of forefoot splay out on the run. You can feel the foot desiring to spread out upon impact, giving you natural stability. It's close enough that I would probably be OK doing plenty of miles in the Instinct, rather than the stability model. Your results can and will vary, based on your biomechanical needs.

There's also a surprising amount of cushioning available here. It never feels soft or squirmy underfoot, but neither does it feel jarring. It's soft enough to protect against big impacts, but it's not like you're losing feedback of what's happening underfoot, either. Those who are used to ultra-cushioned models may have a harder time adapting downward, but those who have preferred a responsive ride before will find this easy to get into.

The biggest adjustment, of course, is the heel-toe offset. You have to remember that, if you're coming from a traditional shoe, that the back end of your leg is being allowed to extend an extra half-inch. This is significant! This is why transition time is so important; you need to allow the body to adapt to such a thing. In actuality, I'm not there yet, either. Even though I tend to run in 4 millimeter offsets, the extra 4 millimeter stretch in the back end is enough that I can't use the Instincts on a daily basis as of yet. It's the middle of racing season, after all, and I need time in the off-season to make the transition more seamless. One can work on fitness and endurance, or one can work on technique and transition, but both at the same time tends to tax the body beyond what it is capable of tolerating.

Instead, however, fellow MRC employee Jon Clement has made the transition to the Instinct:

Ever since I started running in the Altra Instinct nothing else feels the same. It is easily the flattest and most "natural" shoe I've ever run in. The toe box of this shoe is very wide, but the ideology around that makes sense. Giving the toes enough room to splay without running out of platform under the foot is a great concept. Having your form down is key to survive a long run in this shoe.
And I think that's the key: this is a shoe that wants to help you achieve good form, so long as you're willing to listen to the feedback that your body will give you. Of course, some of us may not ever be able to transition to Zero Drop footwear as an all-the-time shoe. But whether as a technique training tool or as a daily mile trainer, it's a shoe that most runners would have some kind of benefit from.

Available: Now
Where: MRC Portland and Brunswick
Price: $99.99