Thursday, March 29, 2012

5 Steps To Make You A Better Runner Right Now

There are a lot of articles out there claiming to give you a fast track toward becoming a faster or better runner.  Whether the advice is to "do these 5 exercises" or "run this specific workout", they all make an assumption that everyone is equal.  And obviously, we are not.  Now, since the target audience of such publications is typically a wide range of people, I understand that they have to generalize.  I've made arguments before against taking a given workout from an article and just throwing it right into your plan - most of these publications don't make any disclaimers about where your fitness should be prior to implementing a given workout.  Anyways, my point is that there are a lot of articles out there touting specific workouts to be "better" but what I'm talking about are actions you can take, rather than the workouts themselves.  I truly believe that there are millions of combinations of workouts anyone can do to get faster - its the actions you take surrounding those workouts that create the blueprint for being faster.

1) Don't "taper" for your long runs or key workouts - I'm sure most people, myself included, like to glance ahead and see what kind of crazy workout is in store for them down the road.  With that in mind, most will prepare their efforts based on ensuring your optimal conditions going into that workout (ie feeling rested).  As a result, you knock the workout out of the park - success!  Well, not quite.  See, the purpose of training is to create stress and while recovery is an important part in getting stronger, you shouldn't place special importance on being well rested going into particular workouts.  Many workouts, including some of the more challenging ones, are specifically designed for you run them in a fatigued state.  The success of your training lies in the entire package of workouts you do, not one single workout.  So while adding additional rest in place of perhaps a recovery jog the day before might make you crush that key workout, you'll be creating less stress (ie doing less work) over the course of the week, month, or training cycle.  And while quality is certainly more important than quantity, many people see training success in terms of hitting their long run or key workout.  Doing so can create a false sense of confidence going into a race, because you hit a particular workout.  My point is that you need to approach training one workout at a time - they are ALL important and no single workout is necessarily indicative of performance, save for maybe one race simulation type of workout during a particular training cycle.  If you want to create slightly less stress, you can cross train or try to increase the recovery period between workouts, such as running one workout in the morning and the other the next day in the evening, giving you up to 36 hours of recovery between each.  Doing so maximizes your recovery period, while still maintaining consistency.

2) All easy runs should include sets of strides at the end - For those not familiar with strides, they are a series of short sprints (but not all out) that help to develop neuromuscular coordination and efficiency at high speed.  These are executed by running for 20-30s on a flat or slightly downhill section at a speed that you would consider as fast as you can go with perfect form.  You want to concentrate on keeping your form perfect by having a compact stride, shoulders relaxed, but a strong powerful effort.  When you are done with one rep, you can slowly jog or walk back to the start.  Remember, these are not done for conditioning, so you want to be fully recovered before starting the next one.  By practicing strides, you improve your technique, increase muscle firing in the neural pathways (ie recruiting more muscle fibers), and strengthen your musculoskeletal system.  As an added bonus - if you run your regular workout, followed by 4-6 x 20-30s strides, you'll likely be adding an additional mile to your run.  If you are looking for easy ways to increase your volume, this is a great way to start.

3) Conduct strength and mobility exercises before/after every workout - I know this sounds like a tall order, but we're talking a matter of 5-10 max minutes on each end and the benefits far outweigh the cost of not doing anything.  I've talked plenty about mobility work before, and also about strength work.  Well, pre and post run, these two combine to form a strategy for injury proofing your body.  While anyone can still make stupid training mistakes, building general strength and continually working on mobility ensures your muscles remain in balance along with the appropriate level of elasticity to properly function.  In other words, they give you extra insurance in case you do make training mistakes.  So what do we mean?  For strength work the first step I'd recommend is the lunge matrix.

It is simple and takes only a few minutes to do.  Now, you certainly don't need to start doing as many reps as is done in the video, but eventually building up.  I do a version of these before EVERY run.  It targets all the different planes of motion and prepares your body for the workout at hand, while simultaneously building strength.

On the mobility side of things, I've also mentioned before about Active Isolated Stretching.  I do these with daily, whether I run or not, but also as part of my warm up and cool down.  It just feels good and I believe helps to warm up when done before workouts and to help speed recovery by promoting blood flow when done after.

4) Run at paces based on your current fitness level - This may sound repetitive, because I've said it before, but I'm going to say it again. You can't just magically pull up a goal time or pace out of thin air and decide you are going to train for it.  Well, you could - but I wouldn't advise it.  First, you'd likely be hurt before you reached the race.  Secondly, because you'll likely get burned out from the stress running at paces above your ability will cause.  And third, you likely won't be targeting the proper aerobic systems when you are training, which if you are training for a marathon, is very important.  None of these options are ideal.  So if you are a 4:00 marathoner looking to run 3:30, you can't just go from running  miles at 9:00 to 8:00.  You need to train yourself appropriately at your 4:00 baseline fitness and over time, you can make improvements.  Now I say this not to imply that someone who currently runs a 4:00 marathon can't train for their next marathon to break 3:30.  It really depends on your background, running history, health, etc.  People do it.  But if you want to do it safely and realistically, then you need to be able to prove your fitness in order to attempt that goal pace.  You do this by training and then incorporating testing protocols to determine if your fitness has improved.  And it is through these tests (or races) that you "earn" the right to train at faster paces.  Want to train and run faster?  Prove it first, then adjust your paces accordingly.

5) Don't be afraid to hurt- Common running advice out there might lead you to believe that all running should be roses and daisies and you should stop running at any signs of pain.  Well let me let you in on a little secret - running hard hurtsNow mind you, my definition of hurt might be different than yours, which is where I think people go wrong.  If you run consistently, you are going to get muscle tightness.  That's part of the game.  And sore muscles do not mean you need to stop running until they feel loose again.  You WANT some tightness there to provide the elastic recoil as part of your natural running gait.  Acute pain that impacts your running gait is not the kind of pain we are talking about.  In general, I mean muscle tightness, which is normal.  But my point here is that, if you want to run faster, you have to run faster (at paces relative to your fitness - see #4 above).  And running faster hurts.  But that's the only way you are going to race faster.  You need to get familiar with that feeling, otherwise you'll back off every time you get to that point.  Learn to deal with the hurt and pain of going hard, and you will become much better at running.

So there you have it, 5 things you can do today to get faster.  Got any other thoughts?  I'd love to hear them!

Monday, March 26, 2012

Learn A Bit More About Me

My friend Jess (who just managed to BQ and crush her previous PR at the RnR USA race a week ago) recently interviewed me for a post on her blog.  If you aren't already following her, you should - seriously inspirational!  Take a read and learn a bit more about yours truly.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

That Last Turn Home

It started out with excitement no matter where we went.  Going outside?  Yippee!  For a run?  Super excited.  Then it became, "Oh, we're only going for a walk".  And "Oh, but that was only a short run".  Ok, so maybe those weren't the exact words Tucker might have been saying in his mind, but I can assure you his body language tells all.  And I think he's become a bit of a spoiled runner dog, what with marathon training and all.  He's become a little mileage maniac!

All runs start the same - extreme exuberance as we start out in a near sprint before I slowly hold him back from dragging me down the road.  His form starts with pushing off his front 2 paws, before slowing to what would appear to onlookers as a fast trot.  Usually, each paw moves individually.  Except in the case of squirrels...dreaded squirrels.  So once we are out on the trails and running as usual, he finally falls into his standard pace, which varies between being slightly behind me (usually on hills), to just even at my side, to pulling the way in front.  When we are running, all is good in the world for both of us.

I might be happy, but I ain't goin nowhere
Given my increase in total volume from marathon training, my regular easy runs had increased from a typical run of 4-5 miles to upwards of 7.  So it had been interesting to see how Tucker had been able to handle it.  Given it was winter, I think it was pretty easy for him.  With a few warmer days thrown in, I've noticed a significant drop off in his ability to run, so we usually will cut the run short if he is dragging.  And now that I'm recovering from the marathon, we haven't run at all yet since the race.  So he is back to being a depressed dog when we "only" go out for a walk, even if some of the walks are 2 miles.

But once I started my taper, I started noticing a trend.  Once we made that final turn toward home and it was clear that the run was ending (clearly prematurely for Tucker's taste), he would stop like a rock and not want to go one step closer toward home.  And now I've started noticing it on my walks too now that it's nice out.  I need to find an alternative route to see if he still reacts the same way.  Gotta keep experimenting to see if I can outsmart him!

Friday, March 9, 2012


As you probably read in my race report, I was a bit self critical at the idea that I let an unexpected section of course get to me mentally and ultimately led me to give up free time on the course.  But don't get me wrong, I am super happy at the time I ran.  Afterall, it was 9 minutes faster than any previous marathon and I never actually hit a wall at any point in the race.  However, it doesn't mean I'm satisfied.  I mean, as competitive athletes, satisfaction after a performance might be short term (ie I'm satisfied that I ran the best race I could), but in the long term, I'm not satisfied.  I'm never satisfied...its what has me coming back to train harder each and every time. 

In other words - I still have a lot more work to do. 

I know I am faster.  I know I will be faster.  And I know that my commitment to hard work will lead me in that direction.  But all that said, I also need to take a few steps back and grab a cup full of some perspective on where I was, and where I am, and where I know I'll be.

It wasn't long ago that I was sweating my foot off in a boot in the middle of the summer, inspired by other runners around me.  And then, I was able to shed the boot and walk around like "normal" people.  Not much longer, I had the blessing of my doctor to run.  For one minute.  That one minute was glorious though.  And one became two, which became ten and before I knew it, I was getting back to training again.  But it is so easy in this world of instant gratification to take for granted the things we have.  Take running, for example.  Not everyone is able to run (let alone run fast) and not everyone understands how much enjoyment running can bring - whether it is an appreciation of nature of the thrill of making your heart beat a little faster.

Running isn't a right - it is a privilege.  And on Sunday, I had the privilege of being able to toe the line and run a marathon.  It's easy to forget that fact, when you are sitting there kicking yourself because you walked an extra 30 seconds and could have finished 17 seconds faster to dip under 3:20.  Who cares?  I ran a freaking marathon while the rest of the world was probably still sleeping!

I just think that we all need a few reminders every now and again to pinch ourselves, because without the perspective of appreciating all that we are able to do, it is too easy to get caught up in the minutia of a matter of seconds.

So get out there this weekend, look around you, and ENJOY what you're doing whatever it is, whether it is walking for 10 minutes or running for 10 hours.  We do this because we find enjoyment in it.  And if it isn't fun, why do it?

Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Race Report: B&A Trail Marathon

When I first started planning for this marathon training cycle, I knew I had a weight lifted off my shoulder, given the BQ time had moved to 3:05 and I am just not in that ballpark yet to train at those paces.  I still have some work to do to prove my fitness before stepping into that territory.  So after last year’s race where I raced on the edge and succumbed to dehydration and working too hard running into the wind for so many miles, I wanted to run this marathon more conservatively.  Now based on my times in other distances up from 5k up to the half marathon, I am capable of running around a 3:08 according to my (marathon adjusted) vDot.  So my conservative goal was to pace for a 3:12 and see how I felt at Mile 20 and speed up if I still felt good.  That was my plan anyways going into the race, assuming good running conditions.  Now as I found out at my last marathon, the wind can really wreak havoc on your pacing strategy, so while the temperatures forecast for race day were perfect (low 38 high 45), I kept an active eye on the wind forecast, which called for relatively light winds at the start (5-10 mph, gusts to 15), but shifting to much windier as the day went on (10-15 mph, gusts to 30).  So with that in mind, I knew I’d just have to manage my effort accordingly if the winds picked up and run my race based on what the day brought.

The B&A Trail Marathon is run primarily on the B&A Trail (duh), which is a paved former railroad trail that runs approximately 12 miles long, while the remaining miles are done on neighborhood roads.  It goes south 6.5 miles out and back, and then north 6 miles out and back.  Some might consider it somewhat boring, but it was a new place to run, so it didn't bother me.  I wouldn’t classify the course as pancake flat by any means, but there are lots of flat sections, 1 solid hill, a number of shorter steep pitches, and some longer false flats.  It was honestly a pretty good mix of surfaces, so you never get stuck using the same muscles over and over again.

Being that Severna Park is only about 1:15 away, I chose to drive the morning of rather than try to get a cheap hotel.  I woke up at 4:40, ate my pre-race breakfast, and was out the door by just after 5.  I arrived at Severna Park HS by 6:15, checked in to get my race bib, took care of business, and went back to my car to get set up.  After about 10 minutes of warm up doing dynamic stretches, I went out for a short 10 minute jog, followed by 2 30s race pace strides.  By the time I was done, I had just broken a sweat and felt loose. 

Miles 1-5
My pacing strategy had me averaging 7:30 for the early miles.  Since both the marathon and the half marathon start at the same time, I seeded myself a ways back so I wouldn’t get caught up in the mad rush at the start.  So while I still found myself running in the low 7s for the first ¼ mile, I also noted that the road was downhill, and just made sure to find clear space and slowly easy back on the pace.  The miles were clicking away, as the first half of the race was full with so many runners (1000 total).  I’d come to find out later in the race, that the great majority of them would be turning off at the halfway mark to finish their 13.1 (only 329 marathoners vs 671 half marathoners).  So during this time, I made sure to soak in the fun of the spectators at each trail intersection, and the very chatty Navy cadets (we were only a few miles from Annapolis - home of the Naval Academy), who seemed to outnumber those running my pace 2 to 1.  It was welcome change from keeping to myself, which I knew I’d need to do much later on.

Mile splits: 7:28/7:32/7:37/7:33/7:23        avg pace: 7:30/mile

Miles 6-13
My plan here was to start picking up the effort toward goal pace, which was anywhere in the 7:15-7:20 range, erring on the side of 7:20 through 13 miles.  Once you hit 5.5 miles, you move off the trail and onto the road for the next 1.5 miles.  I also knew there was a steep downhill to the turnaround at Mile 7, followed by having to climb up it, so I factored that into my pacing to allow for me to head downhill a bit faster while in control, and just run strong by effort on the way back up to even out.  I’d estimate based on the elevation profile from my watch that the hill was about .6 miles long.  It was fairly steep, but since it comes so early in the race, running it on fresh legs wasn’t much of a challenge at all.  After cresting the hill, I went back to being in full control, chugging along with a now smaller gaggle of runners.  It appeared that many less prepared runners weren’t able to make it up the hill as well (or they just went out too hard too early), because by the time I was back on the trail, I appeared to be running with far less people.  Once you head back on the trail you also pass back through the most congested section of the course – an aid station at Mile 5.5 on the way out and 7 on the way back that hits runners coming through in both directions, with volunteers on both sides.  Unfortunately, many people took the opportunity to walk/stand in the middle of the trail and I had to forcefully move people out of the way to make my way through.  No issues though, so I pressed on.  As I began the route back to the halfway mark, I noticed that the wind was starting to pick up.  I was running with 2 other half marathoners and I just kind of stuck off to their side, trying to draft as much as I could.  The wind was something between a crosswind and a headwind, so I couldn’t get all of it to hide, but it was effective at cutting out some of it.  We finally made it through the turnoff, where I was left for my own, but my legs were still feeling fantastic, like I barely had used much effort at all.

Mile Splits: 7:16/7:16/7:26/7:21/7:17/7:16/7:21/7:21        Avg pace: 7:19

Miles 13-20
Now that time was moving right along, I knew this would be the part where I had to focus, because everything was going to slow down and get lonely quick.  I could see a runner or two up in the distance, but I had nobody around me to help shield the wind, which continued to get stronger and become more of a headwind.  At one point, a gust nearly blew my hat off and I had to catch it before it blew back.  I was out there on my own and had to make a conscious decision to forget the pace goals and just run by feel.  I didn’t want to get to Mile 18 or 20 with nothing left, like I did at Shamrock, while trying to hit a specific pace number.  If I could just manage the effort, I knew I’d be able to come much closer to running the whole race.  The first couple of miles were on flat trail.  I closed in on the two runners I saw up ahead at mile 14, ready to grab a ClifShot for my 3rd gel on the day.  While I got the gel out of my pocket, a few steps later, one of my other gels managed to pop out and fall.  And while I packed an extra emergency gel, my gut reaction was to stop to go back and pack it up, so I did.  I can’t say my body really enjoyed that change, but within about 30s of running, I was back in my rhythm.  So while the winds picked up as the miles ticked by, so did the elevation.  Nothing significant, like the hill at Mile 7, but it just seemed like a general uphill climb, with a couple of relief spots in between.  As I later found out in my elevation file (see above graphic), it was largely uphill through Mile 16, where we crossed a highway.  So in order to get to the bridge over the highway, there was a last bit of a steep hill, which was followed by relative downhill toward the turnaround just before Mile 20.

Mile Splits: 7:26/7:31/7:24/7:24/7:27/7:33/7:30                   Avg pace 7:28/mile

Miles 21-Finish
After hitting the turnaround, I found myself still running pretty well from a mental and physical standpoint and excited to only have a 10k left.  However, the short downhill after Mile 20, led to the next 3 miles being primarily uphill to head back and the toughest (or so I thought at the time) to get through.  The long uphill started getting to me and my pace started to slow a bit.  Nothing too drastic, but I kept the effort steady.  It was during the short, steep kick up in pitch to go back over the overpass bridge, that my body made its first sign of getting tired – my calf started to twinge.  Knowing that I was at Mile 22, I was encouraged that I “only” had just over 4 miles to go, so I slowed up just enough to keep it at bay for the time being.  And then, I got mentally sideswiped – after crossing the bridge and looking forward to the general downhill toward the finish, the volunteers were directing us to the right, to some other trail connector along the highway.  So that meant a short, but steep drop down to get there (and in my head thinking how was I going to get up this if my calf just cramped on something less steep) and then about a ¼ mile out and back that was gradually uphill out and down on the way back.  So here I was, having looked so closely at the course for months, and I never saw this section.  After looking at the official hand-drawn map I posted above (hey, it was a low key race), I can see a light scribble of the out and back, but only because I now know I had run it.  I think if I looked at it again, I still wouldn’t have noticed it.  So anyways, I slogged my way up the hill, which left me very close to wanting to walk.  After approaching the next aid station, I decided to take a 30 step walk break, while I took in some Gatorade on the course.  Given my dehydration experience at Shamrock, I knew the calf cramp I was starting to feel was likely the result of cramping from the added dehydration effects from the wind.  So I chugged down 2 cups of Gatorade and slowly continued on my way.  At this point, I had 3 miles to go, but I could only go as fast as my body would let me.  I didn’t want to put myself in the situation of pushing to the point of full blown cramps, where I’d be on the side of the road trying to stretch and not moving forward.  That sucks and I’ve done it before   So I decided to take another short walk break of 30 steps at the next mile to prevent the tightness from getting worse again.  Seeing my pace quickly slow and being pissed about the extra out and back section, my mind short of shut down on me and it made me more frustrated.  I took one more walk break, which in hindsight was stupid and unnecessary, and shortly after, I finally saw in the distance the turn off from the trail, which meant only the last .2 (uphill of course) to the finish.  I used whatever I could (mostly my arms, because they are SORE) to propel myself up that hill without cramping and finally cruised through to the finish.  
Mile Splits: 7:48/7:49/7:58/8:31/8:30/8:48/2:39 (8:10 pace)           Avg pace: 8:14

Post Race
I was proud to have PRd by a large margin (9 minutes!), but when I saw that clock as I crossed the finish line, I again became frustrated.  That stupid last walk I took likely cost me from dipping under 3:20.  I realize it is pointless and only a matter of 17 seconds, but it is always frustrating to leave free time out on the course.  Of course, that’s why there’s always the next one!  And hey, it is what it is and I still PR’d by 9 minutes.  And THAT is something I am proud of.  I ran a relatively conservative race and executed it largely as I had planned, save for the slowdown in the last 3 miles.  I am convinced that if it weren't for that mental breakdown, I wouldn't have stopped to walk at all.  Physically, I felt alright – obviously sore, but probably less terrible than any previous marathon.  I figured there might be a shot at winning an AG award, since I didn’t recall seeing too many people ahead of me that looked my age, so I stuck around for the awards.  So sure enough, when they came to Males 30-34, they called me up for 3rd place!

So a marathon PR of 9 minutes and AG award all in one day – can’t ask for much more!

Final stats:
Time: 3:20:16    
Avg pace: 7:38/mile
OA Place: 36/329
AG Place: 3/16

Lessons Learned
- This was the 1st time I’ve worn my HRM, but never looked at it during a marathon.  I made sure that my screens wouldn’t display it.  After racing the same way at the half marathon a month ago, I’m convinced that after you’ve trained long enough with one, that it becomes self-limiting in race situations.  Seeing a specific HR and associating that with a given effort gives your mind an excuse to shut your body down before you have a chance to let your body show it’s wrong.  In both races, I pushed harder than I would have if I displayed my HR.  And I truly believe that if you can keep the mind at bay, your body will do whatever you ask of it within reason (central governor theory anyone?).  So going forward, I plan to continue to race with HR for recording purposes, but not for use in the actual race.

- My nutrition was spot on for this race.  I had about 600-700 cals total for breakfast 2.5 hours before.  I felt slightly hungry in the middle of the race, which is great, because it likely meant no unexpected bathroom trips!  I took gels at Miles 6, 10, 14, and 18.  I had planned to take another at 22, but also gave myself the option of Gatorade if I was sick of the gels or had cramping issues, since it has higher sodium content and might help.  So combined I took in about 500 cals during the race or about 150 cals/hr. 

- For anyone considering a cheap ($50!), alternative to some of the larger races in the Spring in the DC area (or from elsewhere - people were from all over the US representing), I’d rate this as a solid one to do.  Despite the lonely 2nd half of the course and my issues with the “unknown” out and back section, it was extremely well run, started on time, had great volunteers at the aid stations, and even had results posted the same day!  There were also tons of Marathon Maniacs racing, likely checking off MD in their 50 states quest, or just enjoying a cheap, lower key marathon.  I'd do this race again.

So that's all for now.  I'm sure to have many more thoughts to come, but I just wanted to get this already too long race report out there.

Time for some R&R for the next couple of weeks!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Re-Post: All Quiet

I made this post the week of my marathon race last year and after putting what I was considering as a new post together in my head (not realizing I had already written most of it a year ago), I decided search my posts to see if I had already done something similar.  And then I realized that the post I envisioned in my head, but nearly identical, and that I should just re-post it.  I mean, why say the same thing twice, when you've already put the time in to say it right.  So here goes from the archives:

All Quiet

Normally during a taper period, most people tend to go stir crazy not knowing what to do with their extra time.  While I certainly have extra time on my hands, I feel like I am in this sort of state of reflection that has me staying quiet.  Sure, I get the urge to want to head out the door and crank out a hard tempo run every now and then, but I'm mostly spending this time reflecting on this marathon's journey.

Compared to previous ones, this one has actually been relatively quiet.  By quiet, I mean not having to complain or deal with massive amounts of rehab just to get to the starting line.  I've sure had my nicks along the way, but who doesn't?  I've been able to manage them through regular, almost daily, stretching and strengthening routines that have become a staple of my training.

This reflection also has me looking back and what a wide ride of emotions training for a marathon can be.  Constantly checking the weather, noticing every little creak and crack my body makes to determine if it might be the onset of a new issue, comparing my long run of this week to the long run of last week, scoping out the race course, eating well to safely get down to racing many things going on and so much to look at.  Of course this isn't anything new, it's just an observation that I finally have a chance to sit back and make.

I guess at the end of the day, what really has me satisfied, and is probably the biggest reason why things are so quiet, is the fact that I know I have done everything I can do to be ready on race day.  From a training standpoint, there is really nothing left for me to prove.  I approached this training cycle differently than any other - I took it 1 day at a looking ahead.  My goal, each and every day, was to focus on completing the workout at hand, and I knew that all the other stuff would take care of itself.  So here I am sitting in the final few days before the race, extremely proud of my training.

However, on the racing front, I still have LOTS to prove...but I can only keep counting the days until I finally get a chance to do so....


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