Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Your First Marathon and Beyond

     Some highlights from my book - http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00VOKYOM0

Introduction

Completing a marathon is serious business requiring serious preparation.  The best approach is to become a student of the sport by seeking guidance from many sources.  The goal of “Your First Marathon and Beyond” isn’t necessarily to mirror my strategy, but to provide the tools necessary for you to develop your own plan of attack that will work best for you without making it over-complicated.
Although I’ve competed at a high level in four different demanding sports and served for five years in the United States Marine Corps I never embraced running like I should have.  It wasn’t until middle-age that I began running for the sake of running by joining the marathon team of an organization that serves injured Veterans and families.
I went from non-runner to marathon in 6 months; a strategy that I’d encourage you to avoid.  Spending time in the bathtub in the fetal position does not define good training.  They say that smart people learn from their mistakes and geniuses learn from the mistakes of others so reading “Your First Marathon and Beyond” will automatically put you in the “genius” category. 
It subsequently took me five marathons to work out the bugs and internalize all aspects of proper preparation and Race Day performance.  Through the following chapters we’ll discuss every piece of the puzzle to profoundly accelerate the learning process as it applies to the new marathon runner with a heavy emphasis on keeping it simple. 
Outstanding advice is available from the world-class athletes who have competed at the highest levels and I highly recommend that you seek them out.  What you’ll find here are the finer points of initiating your entrance into the marathon world that are often overlooked by those with enormous natural talent, phenomenal accomplishments and who probably never were where the rest of us are.
The final three chapters are previously written pieces that will hopefully capture the essence of why some of us run.  Your reasons will vary, but I thought it a good way to get in the spirit as we get to work, dramatically improve our health and enjoy all of the rewards of marathon training and competition.



Shoe Selection

Unless you get lucky, finding the best shoe for you will be a journey; and possibly a long one.  Have no fear, though, since you’re far from alone.
My strongest recommendation is to visit your local running store and ask that they do the best job possible identifying your perfect running shoe.  The primary variables are to what degree you pronate or supinate (or remain neutral), level of desired cushion and how you run.  You want a shoe that helps to keep your foot in the proper biomechanical position which, in turn, works its way up to every joint helping to keep them, too, in proper position (including the spine).    
You might consider visiting a podiatrist to identify your foot type who might also make some great recommendations.  Family physicians specializing in sports medicine will often have tremendous experience with marathon runners and are almost always athletes themselves as are some of the remarkable chiropractors who treat and consult with runners.
Through it all, though, you are ultimately responsible so take what you learn from an expert as your starting point.  It’s a great idea to visit review sites on the internet to stay current, increase your knowledge and simply to see what others have to say about a particular shoe that you might be interested in. 
The factor that takes the complication out of the equation is to not stress over shoe selection and understand that it might take a while to get it right.  Getting close is good enough for now.  Over time you’ll continue to learn more about your needs and what shoe best addresses them.
For example, I’m a 14 4E 200 pound forefoot/midfoot striker who likes a lot of cushion (even though my heel barely touches the ground).  Took me about 6 years to figure that out and identify the two shoes that hit the nail on the head with a heavily cushioned neutral shoe that comes in extra-wide widths.
For now just do your best and go out and run.  Agonizing over anything is inconsistent with anything having anything to do with running so certainly don’t start now.  And there’s always that chance that you’ll get it right with the first try.  Just be keenly aware that for a proper running shoe fit you may have to go a size up or even 2 sizes up in some cases.



Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes

Proper technique is also a personal endeavor, but there are some universal principles to discuss.  Observing the most successful runners and studying many a gait analysis reveals a mid-foot strike with a slight forward lean as the most common approach.  Keep your head up, everything straight and upright (pointing forward with your hips) and land as softly as possible with every step.
Keep your feet underneath without over-striding.  Try to run uphill as effortlessly as possible without pushing too hard.  Pushing uphill early on will likely rear its ugly head in the later miles.  And then try to just glide downhill, as well, maintaining good form throughout.
The above is a general guide.  Some of the best runners land on their heel which throws everything just presented out of the window.  Rule #1 is that we’re all individuals with different biomechanics.  The best way to identify your perfect stride is to not worry about it, relax as much as possible and let it fall into place (while maintaining the basics of good technique). 
The rules of landing softly and keeping everything straight and smooth are universal.  From there the rest is up to you.  As with anything else I would encourage you to view a number of videos on running technique.  Take anything you see with a grain of salt, use what applies to you and discard the rest.  You’ll find, too, that some advice is just plain wrong so keep that in mind as well.
To summarize - be so relaxed that even your eyeballs are relaxed (with the help of sunglasses on sunny days).  From there everything else will follow to include “falling into” your natural stride (while being mindful of the basics).  Hips pointing forward, pumping the arms back and forth on a straight and consistent plane and periodically reassessing your level of relaxation (especially in the shoulders) and adjusting accordingly will ensure proper alignment of all of your structures starting with the bottom of your feet and working up to the top of your head.
Additionally, I try to maintain a very slight activation of the center of balance of my body which is in the lower abdomen.  That sort of keeps the body functioning as one single well-balanced unit vs. a bunch of limbs flying through space; if that makes sense.



The Plan

We now enter the arena of the most commonly asked question - What program should I select?  Since this guide focuses on the new marathoner I’d simply recommend seeking out the guidance of sites like HalHigdon.com, coolrunning.com, etc.  These suggest novice/beginner plans founded on decades of experience and are a tremendous resource. 
Don’t spend too much time in front of the computer.  Pick a plan that jumps out and get started.  You’ll be infinitely more productive by going out to run vs. agonizing over a plan.  The goal of a plan is to provide structure and guidance, but none are written in stone.
There’s almost no way to go wrong if you select one of these programs and follow it to the best of your ability making adjustments and taking extra days off as needed.  Outside of that strategy, though, there are a few ways to go wrong:
Mistake #1 is to have not built a good foundation of fitness prior to starting your marathon training program.  If running in a fall marathon, for example, you will want to spend the entire winter and spring months running at least 3 to 8 miles 3 or 4 times per week. 
I would strongly suggest that if you’re not doing that you’re not ready to begin marathon training.  The primary goal is to complete the race, but you don’t want to needlessly suffer.  Pre-plan training is critical with safety and good health being at the very top of the list.  Taking time off is necessary, but marathon training is more of a consistent year round endeavor than not.
Mistake #2 is to feel the need to make up missed days.  If/when you miss a run just let it go, move on and get back on track.  Listen to your body as it will tell you when you need extra rest (to include when sick, injured or feel an injury brewing).
I spend the winter months just going out to run 3 or 4 days/week (with our local club’s Sunday races through the snow and ice being a highlight of the year).  I use that time to build up to my spring plan which is to continue the theme of “just going out to run” including periodic trail runs and speed training at the track.
After trying several plans (all of which were great learning experiences) I’ve gravitated towards the one from marathon superstar Pete Pfitzinger that tops out with a 55 mile week.  It and his more aggressive plans are outlined in his outstanding book “Advanced Marathoning” which I’d enthusiastically recommend to anyone. 
I chose his abbreviated 12 week plan and stretched it out over 15 weeks by adding rest days.  Being in my 50’s and not an overly accomplished runner requires more rest than some.  Not only is it important to ensure proper recover, but to also alternate hard days with easy ones (which helps to ensure proper recovery). 
Everyone’s different so ultimately only you can develop the “perfect” plan (often with the help of others of course) and adding a week or 2 (or more) to any program is often not a bad idea for any mortal to consider. 
Pete Pfitzinger’s plans really jumped out and grabbed my attention although I still like the Hal Higdon programs as a great choice for the beginner (even though some consider them to be too conservative).  Another approach is presented in the Hanson plans that top out at 16 miles as the longest run, but offers very little rest during the week.  It’s almost like one long 18 week run teaching you how to run on constantly tired legs.  Another, the FIRST Program, suggests 3 varied runs per week plus 2 hard cross training sessions. 
And yet another, which I like a lot, is to build up to 8 miles on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday or Saturday and 16 on Sunday.  Tuesday and Thursday would be a tempo run with 4 faster miles in the middle (or towards the end).  Friday or Saturday is also an 8-miler with a faster 1 or 2 minutes at or near the end of each mile (or even 8 100-meter “slow sprints” spread throughout). 
And then you would ideally do about 10 or more 16 mile Sundays in a row before tapering to 8 miles the Sunday before the race.  The last week might conclude with 6 miles on Tuesday, 4 on Thursday and 2 on Friday and pretty sure that this will be my plan the next time strictly based on its simplicity.
Some programs use running while tired as a strategy to simulate the later miles.  I generally favor recovery and variety, but many do have great success using 6 days/week programs.  Again, it’s all about personal preference, individual needs and whether you’re normal or a superhuman.
It’s often a great idea to mix up the type of terrain to include dirt paths, trails and hills.  This will add strength and promote overall health and balance, but be mindful to try to work on pacing regardless of conditions or environment.  Anything not “marathon training” specific in moderation is likely beneficial, but do concentrate the majority of your training on terrain similar to the race course. 
Trails and hills promote strength, but may also slow you down and make it difficult to maintain a steady pace necessary for proper marathon training.  Just strike a balance, be aware of your goals and try to replicate race conditions to the best of your ability throughout the training cycle.
Some might be critical of speed training and they do make a point.  You really want to hone in on pace training during your marathon training cycle, but I’m still a big fan of speed training.  I’ll continue to encourage variety to promote overall health and athleticism.  Speed training develops speed and strength in a way that offers many benefits to profoundly complement your foundational workouts and you can still maintain a pace on your recovery laps. 
In my opinion, the most important factor regardless of program is to be aware of your marathon pacing during your training.  A particular run might be slower than pace, tempo, faster than pace, speed or trail, but still maintain some sort of pace that will simulate your upcoming 26.2 mile race.
I’ll end most runs with a few drills of running sideways while alternating crossing the legs in front and in back and jumping knee thrusts plus a few toe raises off of a curb.
Some plans leave no room for cross training, but I’m a big fan of bike riding once or twice a week for 30 to 60 minutes.  Like strength training, cross training balances the musculoskeletal system and it can be almost any athletic activity or training modality.
The last word on plan selection is that it’s an evolution from marathon to marathon where you’ll make changes until you’ve arrived at perfection.  Then, once there, you’ll continue to learn and evolve to new levels.




Family, Work and Other Commitments

Most potential issues with balancing the marathon lifestyle are often addressed by running early in the morning.  Running your shorter distances later in the day is often necessary, but completing the long Sunday run early in the morning will minimize the chance of it cutting into family (and other) time with the added benefit of simulating the early morning start of most marathons.
Almost everyone is impressed and is pulling for you, but they still don’t really get it and probably don’t care all that much.  My own family gets a little concerned from time to time, but I have caught my wife secretly bragging to others about her marathon running husband.  She continues to deny that she said anything, but I have witnesses.
Part of the problem with the beginning marathon runner and family members is that training is difficult and they tend to harp on the early challenges a bit while overlooking the successes (that increase over time).  Understand that you’re better able to manage the challenges with experience so just continue onward and don’t look back.
The reward of the marathon lifestyle is a healthy lifestyle.  You’re leading by example spreading good habits and good health to others.
It still can be a challenge to balance all commitments, but it wouldn’t be a marathon if it was easy.  Just do your best, make family and work a higher priority than training by periodically rearranging your training schedule and just do your thing without too much fanfare and minimizing conflict as much as possible. 
Through it all consider taking a periodic day off if you’re simply too tired to the point of it affecting other areas of your life.  You might also consider getting to bed earlier, reviewing your diet or even reassessing your training plan. 
The only thing that’s written into stone is your family and professional commitments.  Ideally, marathon training will enhance family and work as you effectively move forward being awesome in all areas with each complementing the others.



Strength Training

Strength training is critical, often overlooked and a lot easier than you might think.  The goal is to complement running and it doesn’t take much to balance out the musculoskeletal system (with benefits that are infinite with minimal investment).
My areas of greatest concern were with the connective tissues in front of my hips that felt as though they were fraying away from the bone starting around mile 15 or so.  The pain was unbearable and completely eliminated with strength training.
Some will point you to weight training.  While they’re not wrong, I personally find that weight training takes away too much of the energy that I need for running.  All I need are a chin up bar, adjustable dumbbells, a few kettlebells, an elastic resistance band and a stability ball.
My recommendation is to pick a plan designed for runners whether it’s mine or one that you find online or in a magazine and evolve with it as you hone in on your own needs.  I strongly believe in treating the entire body as every part is connected.  So, for example, if you have patellar tendonitis you would still pursue a full body routine and not just quad/hamstring exercises.
Without further ado, my own evolution (which will certainly continue to evolve) has me at this current point.  Anything that doesn’t readily make sense can be found in any number of YouTube videos with most variations of each not being incorrect:
  1. Crunches
  2. Kettlebell Squat and Press
  3. Push Ups on Fist
  4. Pull Ups
  5. Resistance Band Knee Thrust
  6. Dumbbell Rowing
  7. Planks
  8. Single Leg Deadlift
  9. Jack Knife
10. Lower Body Twist
11. Bird Dog
12. Stability Ball Hip Extension
I box for 5+ minutes to warm-up and then go right into one complete set of strength training.  Sometimes it’s all at full intensity and often it isn’t.  Again, the main focus is running.  Strength training is just a complement to eliminate any weakness/imbalance.
A strength training session is performed 1 to 3 times per week depending on how I feel and may or may not be on a “running” day.  The options are endless and it’s always a great idea to include variety (for all the obvious reasons).  I use the above exercises as my foundation and periodically alternate them with something new that I’ll find online or in a magazine.  I view strength training as a form of cross training, but more specific cross training is also encouraged to further balance out the leg muscles and connective tissues and provide an occasional break from and/or complement to running.
It is essential to perform all strength training slowly and deliberately with impeccable form and control.  I’ll also typically end with sets of straight and bent single leg toe raises, both leg toe raises, walking on your toes and jumping/alternating lunges.
I’ll generally start the session with some basic active stretching and then conclude with some gentle stretch/hold “static” stretching.  Each run is also initiated with some active stretching (smoothly swinging the legs in both directions, forward and sideways jumping jacks, etc.) and ends with static.
Active stretching warms you up preparing you for activity while static stretching requires a fully warmed up muscle for the desired effect of permanent tissue elongation.  Static stretching must be gentle and completely free of pain.  Your body responds to pain by contracting which will actually produce a result opposite of what you’re trying to achieve. 
In my opinion, the premier expert on stretching is karate world champion Bill Wallace and viewing his 3 part “How to Advanced Stretching” series will introduce you to the concepts that any athlete would greatly benefit from.  You can then, if you like, do further research for some more “running” specific stretches that you might make part of a consistent routine.
I’ll also occasionally break out the foam roller.  Without getting too into it I’d suggest finding a few online videos to learn more about foam rolling.  The main precautions are to avoid the low back, focus on excellent form and go slow.  Some will warn against rolling on the side of the leg between the knee and hip for a few different reasons, but I’d put my faith in those who are known entities like videos from “running” magazines and sports medicine physicians who specialize with runners.



Nutrition, Fueling and Hydration

Nutrition is yet another area to not overcomplicate.  A good plan is simply to follow the basics of including all of the food groups, eating a great daily breakfast and keeping a lid on overdoing the junk food. 
My only rule beyond that is in trying to keep it light after dinner.  Some of the biggest “weight gain violations” come from eating too closely to bedtime.  Extra pounds are more weight to lug around for 26 miles, but don’t get too hung up on diet.  Just be sensible and strategic in your choices and meal times and do your best to include “superfoods” like avocados and sweet potatoes. 
I generally have a small bowl of oatmeal and a banana before the long Sunday run and try to give it at least an hour to digest. 
You must hydrate during the long runs and I do so with a backpack.  There are many great choices and almost no bad ones.  Some get by with a hydration belt, but I need as much water as I can get.
You must also use some sort of electrolyte formula during your long runs and most will experiment with different fuels (whether in gel form or powder mixed with water).
Water is also important for your shorter runs and definitely for the mid-distance runs like those over 6 miles.  I’ll usually add an electrolyte of some sort for runs 8 miles and above, but fueling normally isn’t necessary except for the official Sunday long run and, of course, the marathon.
It’s important, too, to eat properly after each long run to restore your body and aid in recovery.  Proper foods are just the usual non-processed items that you’re already aware of - nothing exotic. 
The week of the marathon is nothing overly out of the ordinary.  I just follow the common advice of pouring on the vegetables and pasta.  Many will get more scientific than that, but my preference is simplicity so I just stuff my face with a wide variety of those foods.
Race Day diet and fueling also need not be complicated, but is enormously important to get it right.  It’s important (as with any advice) to remember that you’re an individual with individual needs that are often different from those of others.  Also, don’t try anything new on Race Day.
My personal Race Day plan is a finely honed strategy discovered through much error & error.  I eat a good breakfast 3 hours before the start with a small amount of oatmeal, banana, peanut butter sandwich and a muffin with a good amount of water.  I’ll normally bring this with me to the hotel already prepared since I eat it at 5AM and it can be hit or miss to rely on the hotel restaurant (usually miss).    
Leave enough time for digestion so your system can concentrate on running during the race and not on digesting breakfast.
The start area is littered with porta-potties so do make use of them including right before the race begins (and do you best prior to leaving the hotel or home).
I’ve been making a homemade gel of UCAN (as discussed on the UCAN website) and put it into a few soft flasks.  Other companies have similar products or you may prefer (or include) any one of a number of gels.  I just find that UCAN and products like it do a great job at keeping the muscles fed in the critical later miles.
I’d typically begin with a packet’s worth of UCAN (mixed with water) 30-45 minutes before the start and then another packet at mile 10 and then another at mile 17 (slowly ingested over the course of 5+ minutes).  I complement this with a Salt Stick tablet every 3 miles (for electrolyte intake).  Combining this fueling and electrolyte strategy is my most recent best effort to maintain stable blood sugar while warding off the common phenomena of debilitating depletion.
Note that everyone’s different and that one’s needs and education evolve over time.  With that, I’ve been experimenting with Tailwind Nutrition powder which is a combined carbohydrate/electrolyte.  So far so good, but there’s endless options and your perfect formula and delivery will only come from educating yourself to the best of your ability and always being open to change.  Do use every weekend long run to refine your Race Day fueling strategy which now has me trying a scoop of Tailwind per 4 miles mixed directly into my hydration pack.
On Race Day I’ll likely do a scoop before the start and then 8 scoops in my pack.  I’ll also grab some water at every stop and carry an extra scoop or two in a plastic bag just in case.
Most will find that there’s enough water on the course and would prefer to not be weighed down, but if you’re large and sweaty, drink more than most and/or it’s hot out you might consider your hydration pack or belt to complement what’s offered by race personnel.  You’ll likely have a choice of water or Gatorade.  I generally stick with water due to the use of Salt Stick tablets or Tailwind and, being large and sweaty, do currently use my hydration pack during a marathon.
I’ll mention medications here and just say that any drug that suppresses the pain mechanisms should be avoided (except for after a run or race if you feel the need to calm down some inflammation).  You’ll need to know if something is causing pain and address its source by adjusting in some way or seeking medical care.



Health

I experienced a very violent and traumatic hip injury in 1990 and had the good fortune of the care of a world-class surgeon, but still experienced constant mild pain ever since.  That pain disappeared once I adopted the “running” lifestyle.  Also, the common onset of high cholesterol appeared at mid-life which suddenly became normal with the introduction of regular running. 
My editor, mentor, fellow Marine, veteran marathoner and ultra-marathon racer was on a variety of health-related medications which are all now a thing of the past once entering into the world of serious running. 
The benefits to your health of running probably aren’t fully known or understood, but are very real.  It’s an obvious result, but can’t be overstated.  There’s simply no down side.  Just be sensible, don’t run when injured, properly care for injuries if/when they happen and enjoy all of it.
Many studies reveal that there’s an electrical impulse in a healthy joint that is caused by activity implying that activity creates this impulse that keeps the joint healthy.  Correspondingly, the vast majority of joint replacements are performed on patients who aren’t active.  Companies even develop products that try to replicate these impulses, with varying degrees of success, but nothing compares with the real thing.
That probably covers it other than to say to proceed with common sense, sensible goals and strategies and constant learning/listening to your body.  Build slowly into anything, get all the rest you need and live long & prosper.



Race Day

We already discussed Race Day nutrition and will now suggest some strategies.  I’ll avoid the obvious, but it’s not a bad idea to lay everything out the night before.  Try to know the course, even if only from the online course map, and exactly where the start is (along with any pre-start logistics). 
If it’s cold you might want to bring along some inexpensive sweats to discard once the race starts.  You’ll heat up pretty quickly so shorts and your race shirt should do the trick even if it’s pretty cold out.
The other piece of remarkably critical gear (also important on your long runs) is nipple protection if you’re a male.  I use a cut out piece of mole skin from any pharmacy and it just gets horrible if not used.  Some companies make specific products and some will use Band-Aids.  Just use something or you risk a catastrophe. 
The only other item that I use and usually only on Race Day is some sort of anti-chafing balm between the legs and on the sides.  I don’t find this to be critical, but it can’t hurt and does help a little; and often more so with others.
Just 2 more things and then I’ll see you at the Finish Line:
If you’re so inclined you might like to join a pace group and then stick with them from start to finish if possible.  Don’t be overly aggressive in predicting your time and they’re usually in 15 minute increments.  5 hours is a great time for your first marathon so maybe use that as a median and go up or down from there in your prediction and pace group selection.
The second thing is to start slow and stay that way.  No matter how good you feel you must maintain your self-control.  26 miles is a long distance, but made much longer if you go out too fast and push too hard.  Also, starting slow gives you a great opportunity to properly warm up as you develop into a nice stride.
Constantly think of relaxation, energy conservation and impeccable form maintained throughout and landing softly.  This, after all, is a marathon.  You will be running a lot more slowly if you have nothing left for the later miles.  And if (maybe when) you “hit the wall” just stay relaxed and composed and that Finish Line will eventually appear.  The energy lift from the crowd in the final stretch will be unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.

I wish you the very best of luck as you complete your first marathon.  You’ve done the work and are among the elite.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The World Needs Wrestling Now More Than Ever - PhillyBurbs.com August 15, 2013


     For some reason the International Olympic Committee put wrestling on their drop-list for 2020 to eliminate wrestling from the Olympics after 2016.  Wrestling is a core Olympic sport not only because of the tradition that dates back to the Ancient Greeks, but also because the core values that create a world-class wrestler in the first place are perfectly consistent with the original intent of the Olympics.
     Maybe a personal example can illustrate how my experience extrapolated over thousands (or more) of others has an impact that reaches much farther than the IOC currently realizes.
     I finally got around to wrestling in 11th grade.  Coming from a huge wrestling area in Pennsylvania with remarkable athletes, coaches, parents and some very engaged teachers, starting at age 16 was kind of late.  A win completely escaped that entire first year.  A few teammates would encourage the summer tournament scene where much of the competition was the best there was.  There was something intrinsic about the pursuit even though “throwing me to the wolves” like that was pretty funny at times.
     There were some minor successes the following year in high school and I really felt the need to continue.  I didn’t yet know why, but would soon discover that wrestling initiated a chain of events similar to the path of countless others. 
     I had the honor of being able to continue after high school, but couldn’t quite close the gap between my motivation and (lack of) skill.  Being exposed to the inner workings of greatness, though, had a magical effect.  I noticed that the top wrestlers shared the same exact characteristics of humility, intelligence and integrity.  There was simply a culture of ethics that created a champion on the mat as well as off; a culture that’s hard to replicate elsewhere that highlights how persistent people begin their success right where others end in failure.
     Having seen the results of good values had me searching for how to acquire them for myself.  The next logical step was Marine Corps Officer Candidate School where it all came together.
     Specifically, leadership (as learned from the best) can be defined by the following:
     Set an Example
     Keep Your Word
     Have the Courage to Stand Up for What’s Right
     Be on Time
     Do the Job Without Being Told
     Be Friendly and Respectful
     Treat Everyone Equally
     Be Enthusiastic and Let Others Do What They Do Best
     Be Neat and Clean
     Share Unpleasant Tasks
     Put the Needs of Others Before Your Own
     Privately Correct Others When They’re Wrong
     Help Someone Who’s in Trouble
     Weigh the Facts With Good Judgment
     Corruption, greed and depravity do seem to be the norm of today, but maybe that’s because not enough have seen the results of good ethics, solid values and total honesty firsthand.  The Olympic values of unity, sportsmanship and human decency that transcend politics, race, nationality and economics are at risk; I think, but that doesn’t mean that everyone needs to participate in their demise.
     Probably not much one can do about the whims of a governing body, but wrestlers at every level can continue to demonstrate the character that defines them.
     Maybe wrestling should drop the Olympics and maintain its own clarity of purpose making it impervious to anyone’s drop-list.  We might just find that the Olympics needs wrestling more than wrestling needs the Olympics.
     The most important thing of all, though, is to support local youth and school programs to build leadership from the ground up so that debacles like this will eventually resolve themselves or not even happen in the first place.
     The world clearly needs wrestling now more than ever and the challenge ahead is likely the greatest opportunity of all.  Some say that wrestling’s a throw-back, but it’s truly the ultimate throw-forward to what we all need to restore.

     

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Wrestling


     One of the most difficult, important and overlooked skills to work on is how to remain relaxed while maintaining 100% intensity.  It’s counterintuitive since many equate high intensity with a menacing grimace, but being tight and intense slows you down and tires you out; fast.
     Being relaxed in mind and body allows you to focus everything to the task at hand.  Speed equals power and being relaxed is the best condition for speed.
     The best conditioned athlete will tire quickly if too tight.  Usually this starts with getting stressed out before a match (and they’re often stressed out about knowing that they’ll be getting tired during their match).  It becomes a viscous cycle of mental tightness followed by physical tightness and then fatigue.
     The problem with being relaxed and intense at the same time is that it doesn’t come naturally.  It’s an acquired skill that requires practice.  A wrestler must train this way and maintain an awareness of it while drilling and wrestling in practice until it becomes second nature.  Tight wrestlers telegraph their moves while relaxed ones can be very explosive and “deadly”.  Some kids get it quickly while others take years, but it’s a constant goal either way. 
     Some of the keys to this crucial foundational skill is to maintain good position (with particular attention paid to the feet, in my opinion, with both pointed in the direction of your opponent - and not the back foot pointing off to the side like many do - and being really light and springy able to instantly move in any direction), breath in a controlled manner, constant motion and staying focused.  A great example is boxer Alexis Arguello.  The biomechanics get a little complex, but the feet are a good place to start. 
     It’s always important to warm up and stretch and take a step back to shake it off when you start to tighten up.  One of the best, if not the best, ways to gain confidence is to know that you can go full tilt without getting tired. 
     In my opinion, too, it’s important to think of moves not in terms of arms and legs, but to focus movement on the core of the body.  One’s center of balance is the lower stomach area so that should be your “axis of movement” from where power originates.  This connects the body as one very powerful well-grounded unit rather than a bundle of independent limbs.
     Don’t give up if it becomes frustrating.  Again, it’s counterintuitive and might not make sense at first.  You’ll know they’re “there” when they’re able to maintain this skill while under extreme pressure from an overpowering opponent as they stay in proper position, move to the side a bit and then explode into a well executed technique.  It’ll all come naturally as they won’t have to transition from “tight” to “movement” as they’ll already be ready to rumble in good position both physically and mentally. 
     Also, don’t overlook the extreme importance of running.  The best training for wrestling is wrestling, but a simple running program 3 or 4 days per week is essential (especially in the off-season).   I personally like a speed workout at the track, a distance with a faster middle, maybe a trail run and a distance with hills. 
     And strength training is critical.  I tend to keep it extremely simple with basic bodyweight and kettlebell exercises 2 or 3 times per week.  Definitely mix it up and evolve by adding or replacing exercises over time.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Guide to Taking Volleyball Pictures

    I'll regularly update this post to make sure that I'm not missing anything:
   1. You'll need a DSLR. There's no way around that. The key is the lens (or lenses) so getting the least expensive Canon or Nikon body would be perfectly fine.  My camera's from Canon so the following is Canon-oriented, but the principles are the same.
   2. Speaking of lenses:
        a.  The correct zoom lens will be expensive since you'll need a 2.8 aperture. I'm a "Canon" person, but Nikon has the same or similar focal lengths. The ultimate Canon zoom is the 70-200 2.8 IS II. Image stabilization becomes less important as the shutter speed speeds-up so I can also recommend the non-IS 70-200 (for half the price).  Many still say that the newest Canon with image stabilization is worth it, though.  It has the latest-and-greatest optics and the IS might come in handy for "event" shooting where slower shutter speeds are the norm.  You'll want to turn the IS off, however, for sports since faster shutter speeds negate the need for image stabilization and tend to slow down the focus anyway.
            On a related note, Tamron has a pretty nice 70-200 2.8 zoom and the one from Sigma always gets a lot of great reviews.
        b.  The good news is that I prefer prime lenses (or fixed focal length lenses) for indoor sports. Prime lenses are much smaller, have a larger maximum aperture (in many cases) and are less expensive.  Also, prime lenses seem to produce "better" image quality with nicer contrast and a smoother out-of-focus area for better isolation of the player.  And there's no zooming with prime lenses which some say allow for better concentration on the action.     
            1. The prime lenses to consider are the 85 1.8 or 100 2.0 (used on the side of the court) and 200 2.8 (straight on through the net from the other side and up in the stands).  The 100 2.0 seems a little better built than the 85 1.8, but that and the focal length are probably splitting hairs.  And for some interesting close up wide-angle shots a 50mm or 35mm lens can be great.
         c.  A lens hood can help in two ways.  Even though there's no sunlight indoors to protect from there still may be some stray light hitting the lens and degrading the image that a lens hood can block.  And a lens hood can help protect the lens and camera from taking a direct hit from a stray ball.
   3. My camera is the Canon 70D. The next step up might be the 7DII with the corresponding additional features (that you might not need) and the Canon Rebels are no slouch. The Canon Rebels, 70D and 7D have a crop-sensor (vs. a full-frame sensor of some "higher-end" cameras). In a nutshell, full-frames have a larger sensor that generally produce nicer images especially at higher ISO settings. Crop-sensor cameras have a smaller sensor that make the image look 1.6x larger. I might be wording that incorrectly, but it's pretty much like a 1.6x effect. So an 85mm lens behaves like a 136mm and a 200 seems like a 320mm lens.  So there's a trade-off between the perceived reach of a crop-sensor and the greater depth of field and better low-light performance of full-frame (although today's crop-sensor cameras are more than capable).  Crop-sensors are generally preferred for sports (noting the advanced focus systems of the 70D and 7D) and all-around use while full-frame generally preferred for landscape and portrait photography (mostly for depth of field and better high ISO performance when needed).  And, of course, there's the professional sports cameras which I know nothing about.
       In my opinion, though, the magical image quality that we seek is more about the lens (and you, of course) and less about the camera.  Also, the advantages of the 1.6x effect of a crop-sensor might be more important to many than a larger sensor offered by a full-frame camera.  There's constant trade-offs and multiple variables so my best advice for an ideal starting point would be the latest model Canon Rebel and an 85mm lens.  If you have a full-frame camera you might like to consider the remarkable Canon 135 2.0 lens (whose focal length on full-frame will be similar to the 85 on a crop-sensor).
   4. Put your camera on the Manual setting. If you're like me this was initially scary, but it's a good thing.
       a. For volleyball you'll need a shutter speed of 1/400 or faster (faster is better). You'll find yourself teetering back and forth between 1/400, 1/500, 1/640 and 1/800 depending on light.
           Note that if shooting in RAW a faster shutter speed that leads to a little underexposure can be corrected in post processing by lightening things up a bit. 
       b. Put your aperture on the largest setting (smallest number). An 85 1.8 lens will have 1.8 as its largest aperture. You can experiment with maybe putting it on 2.0, in this case. Sometimes the image quality improves a bit as the aperture decreases (number increases), but a larger aperture lets in more light thereby allowing you to have a faster shutter speed. PLEASE NOTE, though, that a larger aperture creates a thinner Depth Of Field making the front-to-back focus area thinner. So it's more challenging to have your subject (the player) in focus.
           The solution is to put your camera's focus selector on a single center point of focus and keep that dot on the player that you're capturing.  A GREAT tip if shooting through the net is to put your focus selector on a single point at the bottom of the frame.  A center point will occasionally try to focus on the net itself whereas a point at the bottom will be under (and not affected by) the net.  Just keep that single bottom point on the player's leg or legs.  Some, however, might still prefer to shoot through the net with the focusing dot in the middle/through the net.
           Just to illustrate the point, an opposite "Depth Of Field" example would be a landscape picture where you might prefer that everything is in focus.  Your aperture setting might, in that case, be between 8 and 11 (or even higher).
          Another good thing about a low aperture number is that, when properly done, the player/ball will be in focus with a nicely blurred background.  It's the same concept as used in professional portrait photography.
          And one thing to note is that the Depth Of Field seems to increase a little as the distance between the camera and subject increases.     
          Also, I've been getting better results using the newly discovered AF-ON back-button-focusing button to focus (rather than using the shutter button pressed halfway down to focus).
       c. The 3rd and final variable is ISO which is the sensitivity of your sensor. A higher number makes your camera more sensitive to light.  A sunny day outside might call for an ISO of 100 while a dark gym with brutal lighting conditions might call for 6400. "Graininess" increases as the number goes up, but most cameras these days do well up to 6400 and some do well even higher than that. 6400 is a little high with my camera (noticable decrease in quality from 3200 to 6400), but much of that is made up for by my good lenses. So, a gym with really bad lighting conditions (kinda like ours) might call for the largest aperture opening, 1/400 shutter speed and an ISO setting of 6400. Different positions in the gym might allow you to speed the shutter up a little as the light changes a bit with different locations and subjects. Again, faster is better (generally up to 1/800) to freeze the action to the best of your ability.
       d. Have no fear if you're new to photography - your camera's viewfinder will have a little metering system in it readily showing where the shutter speed, aperture and ISO are all in balance. You may periodically go a little brighter or darker from the middle (where everything's theoretically in balance), but it's a pretty accurate guideline. You'll find, too, that there's many variations of the 3 variables that'll create "metering" balance, but you'll learn from experience and learn other variations for other types of photography (to include other shooting modes like Av, Tv and P, for example).
        Also note, too, that a darker jersey tends to make the metering balance drop while a lighter jersey tends to make it increase.  So a  dark jersey might require a slightly larger aperture and/or slower speed (or higher ISO) and a lighter jersey a smaller aperture and/or faster speed (or lower ISO).
       e. Also, for moving objects (like volleyball players) set your AF mode to "AI SERVO" and your Metering mode to "Center-weighted average".  Note that your camera won't beep (when in focus) on AI SERVO like it does on ONE SHOT.
   5. My favorite topic is White Balance (when shooting JPEG in rough conditions). If shooting JPEG you will need to do a custom white balance (to properly calibrate the colors coming out of your camera to the conditions in the gym). It's REALLY easy and a great thing. The pre-set white balance settings on your camera are often accurate, but can be "hurt'in" in gyms with challenging lighting.  My favorite traditional white balance card is the 20-incher from Lastolite that folds out (or the 12 inch version for travel).  The expodisc is also worth considering. There's some great resources online for how to do a custom white balance and it's EASY. 
        I now shoot in RAW using Lightroom 5 to process afterwards on the computer. This way you can keep your camera's white balance setting on Auto and adjust it later on.  Not a bad idea to get it right in the camera for less adjusting later on, but not entirely necessary with RAW.  Most feel that the less to mess with during the shoot the better.
        Learning how to post-process was a bit of a horror (for me anyway). Your camera will come with a RAW software package, but I went with everyone's recommendation and got Lightroom.  The Adobe tutorials by Julieanne Kost got me over the hump and I just got a GREAT series from George Jardine .  Julieanne has her own web page with all of her tutorials. Again, it was tough for a newbie like me, but a good thing once I got past the mental block.
        RAW tends to slow the camera down making Continuous shooting more of a challenge.  That's one of the reasons why many pros stick with JPEG.  RAW, though, is particularly useful for indoor sports especially when the lighting is bad.  You can even underexpose to get a lower ISO and/or greater depth-of-field and add some exposure in post-processing.  
   6.  If you're new it's, in my opinion, a great idea to get a training DVD that's specific for your camera.  A good one will eliminate a few years of trial-and-error in just a few hours.  After that you'll do well to whip through your owner's manual.  You'll generally benefit more from your owner's manual after viewing the DVD (or DVD's).  My photography life began with the Canon T1i DVD from Michael the Mentor which went over my camera as well as the basics of photography.  I viewed it a few times in multiple short sessions.
   7.  The final step is taking pictures.  Experience will be your best teacher.  Try to know the game to improve your reaction time.  Maybe pick one player at a time so you're not all over the place and even sort of pre-focus on where you think the shot might be.  Watch your background, too, to make sure it's not a distraction from the subject. 
        Try to capture the player's face and it's important to have the ball in the shot.  Your autofocus can easily trigger on the net, a wall or another player, but a single autofocus point (usually the middle one) hopefully minimizes that.
        Also, don't look at the picture in the camera after you take a picture.  It's a distraction that takes away from the concentration you'll need to get good pictures.  Many like Continuous "rapid-fire" shooting, but I like to settle-in and try to make each shot count.
        Volleyball's a very hard sport to shoot so do plan on taking a lot of shots.  Last season I'd take 400+ to get 30 good ones (which some say is pretty good).  This season I'm going to try to concentrate more intently with the goal of just a handful of awesome shots per event.  I'm really just looking for that one stunning picture, but I'm sure to evolve, change my mind and figure something else out.
        Processing the RAW shots is less daunting than it might seem.  You don't necessarily have to individually process all the pictures.  Assuming that the lighting remains somewhat consistent (even though locations and subjects don't) you might only have to process a single picture and then sync the rest to just that one.  I'll generally eliminate all the non-keepers (which I've found easier to do in the camera), process one picture, sync, crop where needed and then do a quick fine-tuning of each picture if necessary.   
        And finally, consider leaving the camera at home once in awhile to just relax and enjoy the game.  It's hard work out there and you've earned it.
        Good luck and thanks.

        Cory
        corsteiner@aol.com
        www.flickr.com/photos/corysteiner/