Thursday, December 31, 2009


Tonight at midnight, 2010 comes marching in. This year will be a busy one, with many changes and challenges, but as in past years I know that I can rely on running to keep me sane. I have been grasping around for a goal now that I’ve proven to myself that I am still capable of going the distance in the marathon, but I’m having trouble finding something sufficiently interesting and challenging. There was a time this past year that I became enamored with ultrarunning and thought that I’d like to take on the challenge of a 50 mile race, but the memory of the last six miles of the Philadelphia Marathon are too fresh for me to even contemplate a feat of that magnitude. Plus, ultras require an investment of time that I just don’t have. I was able to squeeze my marathon training in despite a work schedule that had me in the air for 40,000 miles this year, but I doubt I could pull off the kind of training required for an ultra without sacrificing more sleep than I’m physically prepared to part with. I think I’ll plan on a couple of ½ marathons this spring and decide mid-year whether I want to train for Philadelphia again in the hopes of getting into Boston for the following April. We’ll see.

I tend to divide my New Years resolutions into different categories. Physically, I plan on maintaining fitness, continuing weight training and adhering to the schedule noted above. Diet-wise I would like to try to cut refined sugar completely from my diet and try to eat locally, join a CSA and limit my consumption of refined foods. Staying healthy is very important when you’re an older Dad and have to keep up with two energetic young boys. I also resolve to take the boys out into nature as often as possible, including more camping trips and hiking excursions. I think we’ll all benefit from the experiences.

I don’t see too much happening on the job front this coming year. Hopefully everything in that area will remain status quo. I have some big personal events that will happen this year, including a marriage and the purchase of a house and a car. Not resolutions, exactly, but anticipated events nonetheless. While I am not an overtly religious man, it is my sincere prayer that everyone in my family will remain happy and healthy, and it is that self-same wish that I extend to you, dear readers, as we venture forth into the new year.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Winter Arrives

Winter came a few days early this year, blanketing the Island in snow and forcing the world to momentarily pause and consider frivolous things like sleds and hot cocoa. I was out in the driveway at seven, shovel in hand, ready to make short work of the blowing and drifting snow while getting a full-body workout. J and D came out with me but swiftly retreated to the warmth of the living-room when they discovered that it was fairly challenging to walk through drifts that came up to their armpits. In their eyes it was better to wait until daddy created some serpentine paths through the driveway, rather then explore the wilderness of the back yard unaided.

While watching the snow pile up around the windows late Saturday I was resigned to skipping my Sunday run-the gym was probably closed and the roads looked a little dicey-but the town’s monster plow eventually made it down our street and as I was finishing shoveling out the car, a solitary runner trotted by in the snow. I finished the driveway and laced up my sneakers. I headed out for five blissful miles on quiet roads, unmolested by traffic other than the occasional truck with front-mounted plow. Running on snow is akin to running on sand, albeit a touch easier since the snow on the road was already fairly well compacted. The physical exertion was minor compared to the sheer joy of hopping around in the white stuff. I hope we get a lot more storms this season.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Runner's High-Part 2

After perusing the dark corners of the internet in between doing my actual work, I’ve concluded that there is a wealth of information about how running supposedly aids in alleviating depression. A number of studies done over the last few years provide compelling support for the proposition that aerobic exercise, and running in particular, can be as effective as pharmaceuticals in treating mild to moderate depression.

A study in the January 2005 issue of the Journal of Preventive Medicine suggested that a half-hour a day of exercise six days a week is roughly the amount needed to trigger the anti-depressive effect. The study compared two groups of depressed patients and found that the first group, which performed only 80 minutes of exercise a week, received little to no mental-health benefits. However, the second group which logged 3 hours per week of aerobic exercise had a substantial reduction in symptoms. The study concluded that "the response and remission rates in the (three-hours-per-week) group are comparable to other depression treatments, such as medication or cognitive behavioral therapy." It seems to me that runners, who often train far in excess of three hours per week, would obviously derive the full benefits, while the average 3x per week gym rat’s cardio work-out couldn’t deliver the goods.

What no one is really sure of is how it works. There is speculation that endorphins are released during exercise (“runners high”) and that they act as mood elevators. However, studies in the early 1980s cast doubt on the relationship. One study found that when an antagonist was introduced that blocked neuron receptors, the same changes in mood state occurred as when the person exercised with no blocker. So maybe endorphins have nothing to do with it.

Moving forward, a 2003 Georgia Tech study found that runner's high might be caused by the release of another naturally produced chemical, anandamide (a cannaboid) The authors suggest that the body produces this chemical to deal with prolonged stress and pain from strenuous exercise. However, no cognitive effects were observed when it was released so it’s doubtful it has any association with depression.

Just to confuse matters further, in 2008, German researchers using PET scans combined with recently available chemicals that reveal endorphins in the brain, were able to compare runners’ brains before and after a run and discovered that endorphins were indeed produced during the exercise and were attaching themselves to areas of the brain associated with emotions (limbic and prefrontal areas).
Scientists are now suggesting that endorphins work together with epinephrine, serotonin, dopamine and other chemicals to produce the physical and cognitive benefits associated with the runners high and the commensurate decrease in symptoms of depression.

What I was unable to find was a study that looked at what happens when someone using exercise as a depression treatment suddenly stops exercising. I also wonder whether the depression reduction effect turns into something approaching euphoria at the level of the ultra-marathon runner, and whether a sudden cessation of training in the aftermath of a big race has the potential to send the participant into a depression spiral, possibly triggering a suicide attempt. I’ll keep looking.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Runners High

Dean Karnazes, the Ultra Marathon Man has a blog on that he updates with, how shall I put it charitably, less frequency than yours truly. Frankly, I wonder where the man finds the time to write at all, since most of his waking hours are taken up with running excruciatingly long distances in various inhospitable parts of the world. Nevertheless, Dean does find time to write and his most recent entry on the suicide of his friend, another ultrarunner, seems to have touched a nerve in the running community. One paragraph that stuck out to me contained the assertion that “Endurance athletes can be prone to depression. We experience great emotional highs from doing what we love, but the post-event lows can sometimes be correspondingly devastating.”

I’ve been thinking about this for a few days. Apparently so have many other readers of, who have been moved to comment with their own stories of overcoming tremendous adversity through the act of running. I have absolutely no science to back this up, but there seem to be a disproportionate number of runners who defend the physical and psychological benefits of this sport with the type of zeal usually seen in Amway salesmen and Jehovah Witnesses. I count myself among them. If it weren’t for me discovering running some 20 years ago, I would probably be taking medication for depression and buying my clothes in the tall and fat store. I rarely, if ever, see this sort of gratitude to a sport expressed by people who ride stationary bikes or rock the elliptical at the gym. So what is it about running? Why does running seem to stimulate the brain and at the same time render one calm and focused? On the other hand, why can it, as in the case of Dean’s friend, exacerbate depression? I suspect the answer lies in brain chemistry-neurotransmitters. Hopefully over the next few days I can take a look at some science and let you all know what I come up with. Meanwhile, take a look at some of the comments appended to Dean’s blog. Very interesting.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Sugar Rant

As part of the work that I do managing high dollar value civil litigation, I often hire law firms to handle cases all across the country. This ensures that around holiday time, little gifts of very fattening foods from those lucky firms start to arrive in the mail on a daily basis. Today I received a box of fairly high-end chocolates embossed with the firm’s name on each piece. Yesterday it was a large box of cookies. One firm always sends a 5 pound box of peanuts. It doesn’t let up until a few days before Christmas. Although I usually put the stuff out for the rest of the office, I have co-workers who are doing the same thing, so there is often a buffet of fatty, sugary snacks located smack in the middle of the office. I like to eat. I admit it. However, the rest of the year I can control what goes into my mouth because I work in a building located in the middle of the New Jersey swamps; there isn’t a decent store anywhere nearby. Anything I want to eat I have to bring from home. Thanks to the gym in the building I don’t gain a huge amount of weight every year, but for the whole month of December I find myself walking around either hyper from too much sugar, or crashing from its absence. I feel like a Christmas cookie drug addict. Ok, I’m off to feed the habit. Bye.

Friday, December 4, 2009


I think I’m getting a cold. I'm a little achy, a little congested, a little tired. Either that, or I’ve suddenly lost the ability to run four miles without feeling like I need to sit down and rest for a while. My legs still feel like lead, and perhaps more ominously, my HR was in the upper 130s at an 8:34 pace with no incline. These are classic overtraining symptoms. I suspect that I haven’t been attentive to my recovery from the marathon, despite the four milers and elliptical work-outs I’ve tossed in this past week. Maybe I need a day of complete inactivity to deal with the cold and the tiredness. I suppose this is what Saturdays are for, though with the kids I’m never inactive for more than, oh, a minute or so.

I need to go chop down a Christmas tree. That doesn’t sound too strenuous. Perhaps a walk around the Dickens festival in Port Jefferson. But no running, really. Scout’s honor.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A Bit of a Stretch

I have always been suspicious of stretching. From my earliest days as a runner I couldn’t for the life of me see how stretching a muscle before or after a work-out could reduce the risk of injury. If anything, it seemed to me that pulling a muscle was something that happened to you, not something you’d willingly undertake as an injury preventive. After taking a few yoga classes, I came to see the benefits of stretching in increased flexibility and range of motion. Yet it still seemed to me that the amount of time necessary to engage in a yoga class or comprehensive stretching program was out of proportion to the limited benefits. I currently have no formal stretching routine. I also have never been injured, or should I say, I never sustained an injury that would have been prevented by stretching.

A week or so ago, the New York Times Well blog had a posting that reviewed recent scientific studies pertaining to stretching. The conclusion? Researchers now believe that stretching is not only a waste of time, but might actually be bad for you. Stretching, the studies conclude, may actually weaken muscles rather than strengthen them, and your flexibility and range of motion is likely genetically predetermined and cannot be expanded without tremendous effort.

“In a recent study conducted at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, athletes generated less force from their leg muscles after static stretching than they did after not stretching at all. Other studies have found that this stretching decreases muscle strength by as much as 30 percent. Also, stretching one leg’s muscles can reduce strength in the other leg as well, probably because the central nervous system rebels against the movements.”

Unfortunately, the study doesn’t distinguish between pre- and post- workout stretching, and many runners I know forgo the former but religiously engage in the latter. I feel somewhat validated in my non-stretching position, but I still wonder whether as I venture further into my 40s I should be worried more about flexibility than performance on the road. Thoughts?