Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Taper Interlude: The Alter-G

Giant steps are what you take/Walking on the moon/I hope my legs don't break/Walking on the moon/We could walk forever/Walking on the moon....
--The Police "Walking on the Moon"

On Tuesday I took a break from taper angst (so no more pity parties this training cycle, I promise!) and took a little ride on....the Alter-G! Dan came with me and took pictures.

Does this giant bag filled with air make my butt look big?
I won a session on the anti-gravity treadmill because I "like" Boulder Center for Sports Medicine (also home to my amazing doctor) on Facebook. About a month ago they acquired one of these devices, which allow you to run at less than your body weight, good for both training and rehabilitation from injuries, and they are trying to get the word out that it's there. For $65 an hour (the amount of time I won!), you too can ride the Alter-G.

The Alter-G (also made famous in a story in Runner's World a while back that showed a pregnant Paul Radcliffe training on one in her house) works by sealing the runner's lower half in a giant bag. The treadmill then calibrates, taking in the runner's weight. When you start your workout, and tell it you want to go at, say, 85% of your weight, the bag then inflates with just enough air to lift you up and make it feel to your astonished lower body like you just lost that much flab.

Dan and I arrived and were greeted by Adam, a young-looking guy wearing bike shorts and a Western States 100 race shirt (typical of Boulder, and BCSM in particular!). We chatted about Houston as he led us back to the area where BCSM does bike fittings and some rehab activities. There in a corner stood the Alter-G.

My plan was to do the 40-minute easy run dictated by my training schedule and then come back next week for a 20-minute recovery run post-Houston Marathon. Adam asked me about my goals for the race, then told me my marathon pace of 8:34/mile was going to feel easy on the Alter-G. Exciting!

But first....the shorts. Ah, they were lovely, the special Alter-G shorts.

They're sort of like a reverse tutu. Putting them on was like putting a second pair of compression shorts over the first (they had told me to wear tight biking or yoga shorts; compression shorts were all I had, but they worked just fine).

Then I had to be zipped into the Alter-G.

That's Adam helping me zip in. Not sure I could do this on my own....
Once I was in, he showed me how to use the screen, which was a little far away for me (I'm 5'7") but fortunately very responsive. Buttons allowed me to adjust my speed up in increments of .1 mph or 1 mph. I could adjust the incline as well, though Adam warned me that steep inclines on the Alter-G can do funny things to your gait (I never set this above 1% during this session).

And of course the fun part: I could toggle my weight between 100% (that is, my actual weight) and as low as I wanted. I generally stuck at 85%, which is what they recommend for people using the Alter-G for training rather than rehab, but I did at one point go as low as 70%. The Alter-G didn't display what I weighed in at, but I know right now I'm around 128 pounds. So running at 85% made for an instant 19 pound weight loss, putting me at about 109 pounds. Seventy percent? That's 90 pounds. It's doubtful either of those weights is something I'll see unless I get very very sick. But it sure felt fun to float along like that!

Yes, that's me running a 6:31 pace! Easy at 109 pounds (but with my 128-pounder's muscles)!
For the entire 40 minutes I never ran slower than an 8:41 pace and spent most of my time at marathon pace. At Adam's suggestion, to make things more interesting, I alternated between my full weight and 85% for one-minute intervals for a good part of the run. And a couple of times I ratcheted it up to a 6-something minute-per-mile pace, just because it was so much fun.

I could have made it even more fun. They offered me a mask that would have furnished me with some oxygen-rich sea-level air, but I declined that. I wanted to save some advantages (however slight) for my actual race!

There were a couple of things to keep in mind: Adam warned me to avoid the loping moon-walker gait that's easy to slip into when you feel gravity losing its hold. So I tried to keep my stride short, my steps light and my knees low. I also think it's easy to get carried away--my quads were a little sore after the workout. It's probably not a good idea to push the pace (even in an anti-gravity environment) quite that much during taper week.

It was HOT inside that bag. My lovely Alter-G shorts were soaked when I finished and sweat was pouring down my calves.
 But I have to say...that may have been the fastest 40 minutes I've ever run, at least in the sense of how fast the time seemed to go. I had a big silly grin on my face the whole time, despite having no music and no TV (Adam said eventually there will be a TV there for entertainment). And I can see what a boon this machine could be to injured runners who need their fix but whose stress fractures or strained joints can't quite take full impact yet. I also thought a lot about how great this would be for pregnant women. Run at your pre-pregnancy eight months!

Blissed out!
I was also quite comfortable the whole time. You do have to hold your arms a little high to avoid hitting the bag with each stroke, and it felt weird having that apparatus around my hips at first (it was sort of like being Ursula the Sea Witch, with a large bag instead of tentacles in place of legs). But I quickly got used to it. The only time I felt out of control was at the end, when Adam demo'd the backwards running feature. I actually had to hang on to the front for a bit until he suggested I lengthen my stride. But even then I felt out of control.

Final verdict? I heartily recommend the Alter-G, especially if you're injured (insurance will cover it for some people, they tell me!) or pregnant and can afford a few hours here and there on it. And anyone who gets the chance should try it just for the fun of running so light. I'm glad I did.

Now....there's this little matter of a race on Sunday...I better go finish packing....:^)