Monday, October 24, 2016

My 5 Favorite Track Workouts

Are you looking to take step 2 as a runner?

Once you've been running for a little while and have achieved your initial goals, you'll probably want to improve a little bit. That may mean adding some distance to your long runs, but for most people, it also means you'd like to get faster. There are many things you can do to improve your speed. But one of the best is speedwork.

I do most of my speedwork at the track. It takes the guesswork out of things. You know exactly how far you've gone. And track running means interval training.



The basic science behind interval training is simple: You force your heart rate up close to or even beyond your aerobic threshold. Then you bring it back down, which forces additional blood through your heart and strengthens it.

First off, no matter what workout you're doing, you need an adequate warmup. One lap really isn't enough. I run a full mile -- four laps -- at an easy pace before starting the workout. Maybe that's a bit much for you, but to achieve Level 4 Suck, you have to be able to give your run a full effort from the very first step.

When we discuss effort here, keep in mind the green-yellow-red scale: Green = you can have a conversation. Yellow = you can blurt out a few words. Red = you can't talk.

Are you ready? Here are my favorite interval workouts.

400 Repeats: These are meant to be run pretty hard. Go for 1 lap, with a half-lap of recovery. (Note: It takes a little paying attention to make sure you keep your starting and stopping points straight.) I do anywhere between 8 and 12 of these repeats. Effort level: Yellow bordering on Red. Significantly above 5k pace. You're not sprinting, but it should feel hard from the get-go. If you need to walk for some of the recovery half-lap, that's fine.

800 Repeats: 800s are probably the number-one staple for 5k and 10k training, and they're pretty good for longer distances, too. You do 2 full laps around the track with 1 lap of recovery. I try to work at least 6 of these repeats into my run. Effort level: Yellow. Slightly faster than 5k pace, with a slow jog during the recovery laps. If you're doing it right, your breathing will be just about back to a regular cadence by the time you start the next repeat. If you need to walk for a small part of the recovery lap, OK, but keep it to a minimum.

Mile Repeats: This is the one workout I'll do on the street. I have a good mile loop mapped out in my neighborhood, with an easy landmark halfway through. As with the 800s, warm up for a mile. If you're on the track, you'll do 4 laps, with 2 laps recovery. If you can get through 3 of these, you're doing pretty well. Effort level: Yellow, around 5k pace. It's OK if you go slightly faster, but not too much. You're doing a few of these, so you don't want to collapse after the first one. With a half-mile to recover, you shouldn't have to walk any.

Ladders: Ladders challenge you at various distances and speeds. You can work out a pattern that you prefer, but I'll do something like 400-600-800-1000-800-600-400. Recovery intervals are always half the distance of the previous hard part (except after the 1000 -- just recover for 1 lap). Effort level: The shorter the repeat, the higher your effort level should be. So you'll be close to Red on the 400s, but comfortably in Yellow on the 1000. You can play around with the distances, or even do something like 2x400, 2x800, 1x1600 (mile), 2x800, 2x400.

Straights and Curves: This is Level 4 Suck. It's deceptively simple: Jog or even walk the curves, sprint balls-out on the straights. Effort level: Red. If you can make it through 2 miles of this, you're doing really well. It's a killer.


After a tough interval workout, you should cool down for at least two laps at a nice, easy pace. You've built up a lot of lactic acid in your muscles that you'll want to clear. And once you're totally done running, don't forget the stretching. I do toe touches, a butterfly stretch and figure-4 stretches.


What's your favorite interval workout? Leave a comment or touch base on Facebook or Twitter!

Sunday, October 16, 2016

3 Tips for Beginning Weightlifters

Let’s just start with the disclaimer: I am not an expert and I am definitely not your coach or trainer. The advice I’m giving here is meant to be general. If you’re unsure of anything having to do with weight training -- or any fitness regimen -- talk to a pro and make sure you’re doing things correctly.

OK, with that out of the way, I want to talk you into lifting weights.

Regardless of where you are on your fitness journey, what your interests are and what your goals are, strength training is an essential component. Lean muscle will make you a better runner, biker, basketball player or whatever. It will help with the yardwork and lifting the kids and so many other things. And come on -- lean muscle just looks good.

But starting out weightlifting can be confusing and intimidating. Believe me, I've been there -- not that long ago. As I said, I'm no expert, but I've gotten to the point where I'm comfortable anywhere in the gym. So here are 3 basic tips to help you take the first step.

   
Start Out With Light Weight

If you’re trying a lift for the very first time, err well to the side of safety. Don’t worry about getting the maximum benefit right away, and whatever you do, don’t worry about what other people are thinking -- they couldn’t care less. It’s much more important to learn the proper form for a lift and how that actually feels when you’re doing it, so that you can replicate that when you stack on more weight.

But even more elementary: You want to be sure you can get your full set done. If you fail the first time you try a lift, what are the odds you’ll try it again next time? If that means putting two 25-pound plates on the bar, so be it. You’ll move up pretty quickly.

If it’s really too easy, you can add weight. But if it’s too hard, you can get hurt.


Don’t Be Afraid of the Big 3

Bench Press
Deadlift Rack/Platform
Squat Rack

For the longest time, I was intimidated by the “Big 3” lifts: chest press, barbell squats and deadlifts. These are the lifts you think of when you think, “I pick things up and put them down.” They’re the ones you see the muscleheads doing, with lots of plates on the bar. And it’s easy to figure, “Hey, that’s just not for Regular Guys.”

First of all, every one of those guys had to try it for the first time, too. And if you’re listening to my advice, you’re starting out with a low weight. You’ll be fine.

The Big 3 lifts recruit the most major muscle groups of any strength training you can do. If you’re doing these three on a regular basis, you will work pretty much every muscle in your body. And that includes your core. If you do these three lifts, you will get stronger, no matter what else you’re working on.

Click on the links above for specifics about your form. Doing these movements correctly will give you the most benefit and put you at the lowest risk for getting hurt.

One big caveat here: You may be limited by an injury or simply from a lack of joint mobility. Even though I already said it in my disclaimer, I do want to emphasize this: If you're unsure of anything, enlist the help of a pro, and talk to your doctor if you need to.


Dumbbells Are OK

A good way to work up to the Big 3 is by using dumbbells to start. Though you can go heavy with dumbbells, you don’t have to. They offer some more flexibility with certain lifts. And you don’t have to worry about getting pinned under a barbell.

In some cases, dumbbells can even be better. With a barbell, your dominant hand or leg can do more of the work, and you might not even realize it. With dumbbells, each side is working independently, forcing you to do equal work.
  •  For chest press and deadlift, you don’t really have to do anything besides replace the barbell with dumbbells. Form remains the same.
  • Obviously, you can’t rest two dumbbells on your shoulders to do squats. Grab one and do a goblet squat, where you hold the dumbbell to your chest as if it were a goblet or chalice. Proceed with the squat.
  • And of course, you can use dumbbells for pretty much all the accessory lifts, such as curls, rows and vertical shoulder press.


Some Little Tips:
  • Use collars, even on deadlifts. You never want the plates to slide off the bar.
  • Wipe down the bench when you’re done. Don’t be gross.
  •  A standard barbell weighs 45 pounds before you add any plates.
  • Watch other guys in the gym, particularly ones who look like they’ve been doing this for a while.
  • Machines are good for pulls, such as rows, tricep pulldowns and lat pulldowns.. It’s OK to use them, too. 


Got any more great tips to help people get more comfortable lifting weights? Sound off in the comments below, on Facebook or on Twitter.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

5 Dumb Little Tricks to Help With Pacing and Running Form


Do you feel like your running form is all over the place? Can you never seem to keep a consistent pace from run to run? Are you totally frustrated by either (or both) of those?

I'm not a running coach -- and I'm certainly not your running coach. But I have some neat little tricks that work for me, and maybe they'll work for you, too.
Turn Off the Tech
I have a really old smartphone. I could probably get money from an antiques dealer for it. And one of its problems is that it craps out completely when I use a GPS run-tracking app. So at some point I decided I would just have to use the stopwatch function, and log my runs after the fact. 

But something odd happened: Instead of depending on the voice from my phone to tell me how fast I was running, I got much better at understanding my own pace. I learned to pay attention to how hard I'm breathing, how much bounce is in my step, whether I'm engaging my glutes. When things feel the way I want them to for a particular run, I am usually within a few seconds per mile of where I want to be.

Focus on Your Breathing
They were running so hard their shoes flew off!
I mentioned that I learned to pay attention to my breathing when I turned off the tech. The "talk test" is my best barometer of how fast I'm going. I generally categorize it into Green, Yellow and Red.
  • Green: Can talk in full sentences without strain. Easy run pace.
  • Yellow: Can blurt out a sentence, but can't carry a conversation. 5K pace.
  • Red: Can barely get a word or two out.
    End-of-race pace.

Watch for Your Feet
If you've read anything about running form, you've almost certainly heard advice to avoid overstriding. It's good advice -- the farther out from your body's center of gravity, the more pressure there will be on your knees. You want a stride that will allow you to strike the ground with your calf perpendicular to the pavement. 

I have a real dumb trick for this, but it works: If I'm looking straight ahead and catch my feet in my peripheral vision, I'm overstriding. That's a good reminder to dial back.

You may be wondering how you can go faster if you don't lengthen your stride. The answer is hip mobility. The better you can rotate your hip joint, the longer you can stride without getting ahead of your body's weight. And you've probably heard me say it before: That means squats. Real squats. With a barbell. And heavy plates on it. Squats are the single best developer of hip mobility that I can think of.

  
Check Your Shadow
If you've been running for a while, you probably have a decent idea of how you look when you're doing things properly. If the sun is to one side or the other of you, you can glance at your shadow and get a sense of whether your form is how it's supposed to look.

Just be sure it's safe to look away from dead ahead. Don't do this in traffic, in a crowded race or on a technical trail.
Run With Your Dog
OK, I know this isn't an option for a lot of you. But I know that if Lily has to break into a canter, and not just trot, I'm into race pace. Sometimes that's what I want. But if I want to go easy, I try to keep her in a trot.

One caveat: If you don't stop your watch every time, you have to factor in poop, pee and sniff stops into your pace mentally. I'll often lose 30 seconds a mile this way.


What Are Your Tricks?
Everybody has some little trick for keeping things in order. I've shared my faves -- how about you? Sound off on Facebook, on Twitter or in the comments below!

Monday, August 29, 2016

The 4 Stages of Suck


Sometimes working out is fun. Sometimes it's tough. And sometimes it just flat-out sucks.

But how do you deal with the suck? What do you do when your legs and arms are dying and your lungs are burning? I think that it comes down to your mindset.

And thus, the 4 Stages of Suck

Definitely not a quitter.
Stage 1: Quitting

If you're just starting out on your fitness journey, you're going to hit a wall -- and probably pretty quickly. I would be that most people who've tried to set up a fitness routine have given up at least once. And it's usually because of unrealistic expectations.


Stage 2: Survival

Once you've gotten the basic hang of exercise and maybe set up a weekly routine, you'll probably get to the point where, when things really start to suck, you can at least slog through. Your form may suffer and your performance may slack off as the workout goes on, but you'll at least get it done.


Stage 3: Fighting Through
The New Jersey Marathon was a fight!

Regular Guys who've been working out for a while know that just getting something done isn't the same as doing it well. If you want to get the full benefit from a tough workout, you need to try to keep up your performance the whole time. And yeah. it really sucks to push that last interval when your body is screaming for you to slow down, but that's when the improvement comes.


Stage 4: Embracing the Suck

You may never experience this one. Or you might feel it once in a while, but not every time. Regular Guys aren't going to get to the point where this is the norm in a hard workout. But the big jumps will happen when you welcome the suck. You're looking for it. You want it. And you push your workouts to ensure you get it.

I want to add something about Stage 4: Be careful! It's easy to get overtrained or injured when you're actively seeking the suck.

What stage of suck are you at? Sound off on Twitter, on Facebook or in the comments below!

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Am I Still a Regular Guy?

If you’ve been keeping up with my admittedly sporadic blog and Facebook posts over the past three or four months, you probably know that 2016 has been a breakthrough year for me. I’ve set major PRs in the marathon, half-marathon and, most recently, the 5K.

You may have seen this pic on Facebook recently.

You probably also know that when I’m not on the road, the trail or the track, I’m kind of a gym rat. I’m not afraid of free weights and especially not the “Big 3”: deadlifts, squats and bench press. I believe these have helped me both with general fitness and specifically with running.


I’ve come a long way since I started the blog back in December 2014. But it's also planted an existential question in my mind: Am I still a Regular Guy?

The whole point of being a Regular Guy is Keeping Fit and Living Your Life. It's about finding the balance between your real priorities and being healthy enough to engage fully in those priorities. Being able to keep up with your kids, keeping your heart strong so you can enjoy grandkids someday, having the physical dexterity and endurance to handle the housework and yardwork that comes with life. That sort of thing.

Here I am getting the yard ready for a party. Tough guy!

So what does it mean that I:
I'll admit: I don't know. I am by no means an elite athlete, that's for sure. I'm certainly not the fittest, buffest, most ripped dude at the gym. And I honestly do try not to be that guy at parties, on social media or anywhere else. 

And yet, here I am wondering. I'm definitely past the point of just trying to lose (or keep off) that beer belly. I'm definitely past the point where I go to a race with the goal of finishing and having fun. I'm at the point where I'm wondering just how good I can get. How much I can lift. How svelte I can look. How fast I can run (especially that one). 

But this isn't just about me and how I view myself. My goal is to have a Conversation about Keeping Fit and Living Your Life. To foster a discussion and a community where we Regular Guys can talk about our health and fitness without devolving into uber-competitive, crazy complicated, ultra-technical, totally unrealistic ridiculousness. It's only worth keeping up this blog and the social-media accounts if it's relevant to you guys.

I guess my challenge is this: Can I relay ideas that hit home for everyone -- or at least most of us -- while pushing myself further and further in my own fitness journey? Or will I just get too caught up in the minutiae of what I'm doing to have a basic, simple conversation? 

And not for nothing, but can I do it without being a jerk? This whole piece has an obvious undercurrent of "yeah, I'm in better shape than you are." Just because I'm at a certain point on my journey doesn't make it any better or worse than where you are on yours. We all have our own lives and our own priorities, and no matter how good the information and ideas in this blog are, you're not going to read it if you think the author's an asshole. After all, there are things in life that you're way better at than I am, too.

So my pledge to all you Regular Guys: I will do my best to keep doing what drew you to this blog in the first place. I'll work to relate my experiences and my reading to what works in your lives. And I'll try to remain humble while I do it. 

Because at heart, I really am a Regular Guy, too.


Me and some of my best tailgating buddies. (courtesy Lou Matino)

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

A Walk to Believe: 5K for Eric LeGrand


Folks have a lot of reasons for running 5Ks. It's a challenge to get off the couch. It's a way to test your fitness without the grueling aspect of a marathon. It's just flat-out fun to be part of a race. But the best reason to run a 5K is for a cause that's near and dear to your heart.

As you probably know, I am a Rutgers alum and a die-hard fan of the Scarlet Knights football team. I've been with them through some down, down times. There was a winless season. There was a year we lost to the worst team in the country and then a lower-level team in successive weeks. There've been at least two heartbreaking losses with major bowl games on the line. But the most gut-wrenching day for every Loyal Son and Daughter I know was on October 16th, 2010.

That Saturday, Rutgers took on Army at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. It was a close game in which Rutgers mounted a late comeback. On an RU kickoff late in the game, Eric LeGrand raced down the field and made a jarring hit on Army returner Malcolm Brown. A hit so jarring, in fact, that it left Eric paralyzed.

But since that day, Eric has been a source of inspiration not just for Rutgers, but for the entire country. He refuses to let his injury keep him from his goals. He's been working hard at rehab for more than five years now. He's part of the radio announcer team at home football games. He graduated in 2014 and addressed his fellow classmates. He's written two books and is a constant presence on campus. He's won the Jimmy V Award for perseverance at the Espys, and he's the only Rutgers football player to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated. And just this month, during his commencement speech at Rutgers, President Obama said that Eric inspires him.

Eric is such a special and important part of the Rutgers community that it's only right that we do what we can for the cause most important to him. And so that's why I'll be running the 5K on June 5th at A Walk to Believe: One Step Closer for Eric LeGrand.

This year's event is the sixth annual walk, and the second year that it's been a USATF-certified 5K. Last year, runners and walkers raised $82,000 for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation to benefit spinal cord research. In 2016, Eric has challenged us to clear $100,000 -- and we can do it with your help.

The course begins and ends at High Point Solutions Stadium on the Rutgers campus. It wends around the school's golf course and affords some pretty views -- and it's flat and fast. There are festivities before and after the race, and there are always past and present football stars who are more than happy to take a photo with you. And you'll surely get a chance to meet and talk to Eric himself.

You can sponsor my run by contacting me through Twitter or Facebook, or you can donate directly at AWalkToBelieve.org. And if you can come out on June 5th, please sign up. It's a great race and a great day.

So come on out and and RUn to bELieve!


Monday, May 9, 2016

Marathon Is Over... Now What? 6 Strategies to Keep Up My Momentum


So you might have heard: I had a successful 2016 New Jersey Marathon.

Training for the race, thinking about the race, writing about the race, boring all my friends and loved ones with my obsession over the race -- that's dominated my life for the past four months. And now it's done. So now what?


Time to Evaluate

I haven't really had enough time to evaluate my long-term goals. But the first choice I have to make is pretty simple: How much of my fitness regimen do I want to direct toward running?

Last year, I wrote about the benefits of being a generalist as opposed to a sport-specific specialist. Unless you have very defined goals, I think you're better off trying to mix up your fitness regimen to work on all aspects of your fitness -- strength, flexibility, mobility, speed, endurance, etc. After all, the rest of your life doesn't specialize, does it?

There is no question in my mind that, before this training cycle, I was in better overall shape. I know for sure that my upper body was stronger, and I definitely had better muscle definition. So I absolutely want to regain some of that.

At the same time, I've made positive strides (pun intended) in my running, and I don't want to regress. I do plan to run another marathon in 2017, and I'd like to maintain my running-specific and aerobic fitness levels, rather than have to start building from close to scratch next time around.

So I think the answer is the same one I had in January: and. Now comes the tough question: How do I ramp up my routine and I find the time and energy to accomplish everything I want to? And what about, you know, life?


6 Strategies to Keep Up My Momentum

Scheduling: Training for a marathon makes scheduling easy: You just follow your training plan. But a big key to keeping consistent in your fitness regimen is to have a routine. Now that I'm not on a specific training plan, I'm going to have to create my own schedule, to be sure that I accomplish what I want every week.

Maintain Successful Strategies: I wrote in a recent Facebook post that I'd like to stick with my new level of alcohol intake, without being a stick in the mud. That's going to mean leaving the beer to the weekends and limiting nights out to two or three drinks. Also, I need to do my best to get to bed on time, to maximize sleep, and to focus on my diet -- stuff I did well the past four months.

Keep the Mindset: After my first marathon in 2014, I got off a regimented schedule. And that led me to ease off the throttle a bit. I ran a fall half-marathon with sporadic training and an early spring half with basically no training. I also had about nine months where I didn't belong to a gym. What happened? I allowed myself to feel that three or four days a week with any exercise -- even just a 20-minute bodyweight session -- was OK. I gained weight, lost endurance and lost muscle definition. Last June, I started to fix things,being sure to do some kind of workout at least five days a week. And now: My goal is to bring purpose to every workout session, just like in marathon training.

Diversify: My wife has been bugging me to try yoga for a while. I think now is the time, concentrating on hip mobility, core stability and glute activation. I also want to work on plyometrics; the simplest plyos for runners is jumping rope. And I plan to keep weekly interval training on the schedule to work on getting faster.

Take Advantage of Vacation: I tend to concentrate my vacation days in the summer. Those days are a great time to ramp up on exercise, when you don't have the time pressure of commuting and work.

Keep Learning: I am certainly no noob on the roads, at the track or in the gym. But I'm no expert, either. I have lots to learn about pacing for various running workouts. And there is seriously no end to the number of strength exercises I could and should be doing -- not the least of which is the deadlift. I won't get better than I am now if I just keep doing the same old stuff.


Walking the Walk

If I can hit all these marks, I believe I'll be in much better shape to embark on another marathon-training cycle in the beginning of 2017, and I'll improve on my time. Now comes the hard part: Putting the plan into action.

And really, that's what being a Regular Guy is all about: Getting stuff done. Figuring out your fitness priorities and doing what it takes to reach your goals.

It kind of feels like New Year's Resolution time. So let's get to it!

What do you do after you've reached a big goal or milestone? What are your next steps? How do you avoid settling for good enough? Sound off in the comments below, on Facebook or on Twitter.

Monday, May 2, 2016

6 Smart Things I Did to Set a Marathon PR

So my second marathon is in the books.

And despite some really awful conditions on Sunday at the New Jersey Marathon, I set a huge PR. Sure, you would expect to see some improvement the second time around -- that's the case for just about anything in life, right? But I went from 4:18:32 to 3:54:47 -- that's 23:45 faster!


So what did I do differently?

If you've been keeping up with my marathon-related posts the last few months, you know that I got much more serious about my training regimen and my taper. I'm not going to re-hash all that here. What I want to talk about is race day and the couple of days beforehand.


Rest

On Friday, I more or less spent the entire day on the couch. I didn't do work, and I limited my chores. (My lawn looks like a jungle, by the way.) 

On Saturday, we had some errands to run, but while we were out, I realized I wasn't giving my legs proper rest. So I waited in the car while my wife (bless her) ran into the grocery store to buy the last-minute items we needed.

Later Saturday, at the race expo, we took one spin around the various booths. Tried a few samples of products, but we didn't hang around long.

Me and my friend Dan on expo day (courtesy Christine McDevitt)
And even when we arrived at the start area (Monmouth Park) on Sunday morning, I sat on the floor for as long as I could before heading to the corrals.

Every last bit of rest you can put into your legs helps when you're running 26.2. Conserving all those little expenditures of energy can really add up.


Eating

I've been talking for a while about carb loading -- because I'd been doing it for close to three weeks. The last few days before a race are key, though. I had rice with almost every meal. I consumed very little fat, as I wanted to save those calories for carbs. And dinner both Friday and Saturday was pasta.

The morning of the race, I ate a bagel with strawberry preserves (not cream cheese or butter), and a low-fat concoction of whey protein, water, chocolate syrup and iced coffee. My glycogen tanks were as full as they possibly could be.


Pacing 

I'd read extensively on pacing strategy for a marathon. It's a much different beast than a half. In my recent half-marathon, I set a strong PR with some serious negative splits (running faster in the second half than the first). Ask 100 experts, and 99 of them will tell you that the key to a fast time is to start slowly and finish fast. But one article I read blew that idea out of the water. The thing is, most people just can't hold a faster pace in the waning miles of a full marathon -- it's just too far, and it just takes too much out of you.

That jibed with my experience the first time around -- not just me, but the people who finished in around the same time I did. Your body can store only so much glycogen, and your slow-twitch muscles can hold out only so long. 

OK, so I didn't want to go out too fast and risk an early bonk, but I figured my best bet for a solid time was to acknowledge that I'd probably slow down at the end no matter what. So I decided to start at a reasonable pace instead of holding way back. That paid off, as I did the first half in 1:56:11, and the second half in 1:58:36.

I will bet that had I gone out slower in the first half, my second half wouldn't have been any better. 


Fueling

As I wrote a few weeks ago, I felt that one of my downfalls in 2014 was the lack of a good fueling strategy. Even a fully carb-loaded runner won't have enough glycogen for 26.2 miles. There's only one way to fight this: Ingest some carbs during the race. (I know that some people advocate "fat adaptation," but it's a difficult strategy that requires months of preparation, and research is mixed whether burning fat for energy actually leads to optimal performance.)

I decided that I would take a GU energy gel roughly every five miles, around aid stations so I could drink some water to help with digestion. GU delivers 100 calories of a carefully engineered balance of glucose and fructose, which ensures that your body will absorb as much of it as possible. And between GUs, I determined that I'd grab Gatorade at rest stations to get a little more carbs and some electrolytes.

I didn't stick exactly to my plan -- I started on the GUs a little earlier than 5 miles, and wound up ingesting one more than I'd planned on. But the overall strategy worked: Take the carbs before you feel like you need them, because by that time, it's too late.


Flexibility

It's impossible to execute a race plan exactly as you've drawn it up. There are just too many variables. As I mentioned, I started on my GU regimen a bit early, and I kept taking them every 4.5 miles instead of 5 -- which helped me keep my energy up. 

It was wet and miserable all day long. (courtesy Jacqueline Richter)
Another area where I needed to be flexible was in my gear. The temperature was around 50 at the start and pretty much stayed there all day. The wind was strong enough to make it feel a little cooler. And there was the rain. So I started out with my rain jacket, gloves and a water-wicking baseball cap. By mile 3 or so, I realized the rain jacket was going to be too hot, and leaving it unzipped would be really annoying. So when I reached my group of supporters for the first time, I dropped the jacket and gloves with them. I also left my wool ski cap, which I had just in case but determined I wouldn't need.

And though I'd planned to stay with the 4-hour pace group for a while, I realized early on that the two pacers with that group weren't running even enough splits, and so I decided to get out ahead of them and not look back. By mile 3, one of my main goals was not to see those people again -- and I didn't.


The Little Things
  • For races where it might be cold, I buy a used coat at Goodwill and wear it to the starting line, and then drop it right before the start. I also wore an old pair of pajama pants. A woman standing near me had a tank top on and was freezing. Since I had my rain jacket on, I gave her my old coat, and I think that helped her.
  • I always carry a hand towel to wipe away sweat -- those freebie golf towels you get a pep rallies and the such. But I figured I'd have sweat plus rain to wipe away, so I carried two of them. Let me tell you how nice it was to pull out a dry towel around mile 20.
  • I always walk through aid stations (when I get a drink), but I took one extra walk break. The New Jersey Marathon course goes through the old, abandoned Asbury Park Casino. I made the most of the respite from the rain to take my hat off and shake it out, really towel myself off, and get myself organized for the final six miles. I'm certain that this helped me focus in the home stretch.
  • When I hit a rough patch, I used mental tricks. I kept thinking of all the people who sponsored my run and how I couldn't let them down. I paced myself behind someone for 3 or 4 miles. I tried talking to people to get my mind off my fatigue. It all helps a little, and lot of little things add up.

It All Added Up to a Great Finish

Check out that awesome support team! (courtesy Christine McDevitt)
I can't claim any responsibility for the great support group I had all over the course, but seeing my wife, my family and one of my good friends between miles 24 and 25 was one helluva pick-me-up. I thought I might have to stop to walk some. But instead, I actually had a kick for about the last mile and a third. I was freakin' moving! I don't recall seeing a 40k timing mat, so I don't know my split in that last 2k, but I'd bet I was around my half-marathon pace. And there is no better feeling in a marathon than passing people in the home stretch and barreling through the finish line. It was awesome!



Have a story of your own to share? Sound off in the comments below, on Twitter or on Facebook

Friday, April 29, 2016

Taper Madness: The End of Marathon Training

Do you know what a taper is?

If you've ever participated in an endurance event, you surely do. But if you haven't, you may not be aware of how training changes in the last few weeks leading up to a race. It's kinda crazy.

The simple idea behind a taper is that in the two to three weeks before your race, you gradually dial down the intensity and duration of your workouts. So for runners, that means scaling back on the distance, and cutting out speedwork and heavy lifting. It seems counter-intuitive -- why wouldn't you keep working hard right up to the race? But studies have shown that a taper can improve your performance by as much as 3 percent. My goal is to finish under 4 hours, so 3 percent translates to more than 7 minutes.


What Actually Happens to Your Body?

As you probably realize, marathon training pushes your body well beyond what even reasonably fit people are comfortable with. My peak week, right before the taper, included 46 miles of running -- about 7 hours' worth of exercise. (And that doesn't even count warmups, cooldowns, walks to and from work or any other activity.) Really, you're on a razor's edge: You're maximizing your endurance and fitness just short of the point of overtraining or injury.

Lily has been resting up, too!
So by gradually dialing back on mileage, you really accomplish three big things:

  • Replenish your energy stores, particularly your glycogen. Glycogen is the blood sugar your body prefers for energy.
  • Gives your muscles a chance for recovery. In other words, get some rest!
  • Allows you to heal up all those little twinges and dings and aches you've been nursing.

So How Do You Go About Tapering?

Experts say the taper begins "immediately upon completing your last long training run, which is usually between 20 and 23 miles." That's generally three weeks out from the race, as it was in my case, when I went just shy of 22.

You won't find me lifting!
Dial back the mileage. The idea is to start allowing your body more rest, but you don't want to give back all of your gains. So you can't just stop running altogether. Instead, you gradually decrease to the point where, in the week just before the race, you're running just enough to keep your muscles limber. My last Sunday run was 8 miles.

No strength training. The taper is a time for your muscles to repair. In three weeks, you're not going to lose significant strength. But you can do some damage if you keep trying to lift heavy. You want those muscle fibers to repair, not to get torn again. Plus, much as with dialing back mileage, cutting out resistance training will help build glycogen stores. Even non-aerobic training uses energy.

Dietary changes. This is when the carb loading really starts. To avoid the dreaded 20-mile "bonk," you want to go into the race with as much glycogen in your system as you can hold. In week one of the taper, you also try to ramp up on protein, to aid in muscle repair. But after that, you start building up your carbs. In order not to overload on calories, that means a big reduction in fat -- as little as 10 percent of your calorie intake. I've been eating so much fruit, rice, potatoes, pasta, bread and other carbs that I'm ready to cry. After the race, I may just grab a spoon and a jar of pesto. I've also cut even further back on alcohol and limited myself to one cup of coffee a day, since both are diuretics.


But Really, It's Mental

The hardest part of tapering for me is the mental game. I'd just spent the past three months or so working as hard as I possibly could to prepare for the rigor of 26.2 miles. And all of a sudden, you're supposed to take it easy. No, having an extra half-hour because you only ran 3 miles doesn't mean you should add in a HIIT routine. Yes, it's OK to stretch out on the couch. No, there's no benefit to adding in a few extra miles. And go ahead and eat, eat, eat -- just make sure it's carby.

When you've been driving this hard for this long, the idea of letting up is enough to drive you nuts.


Have you ever tapered for a big event? What successes and failures did you encounter? Sound off in the comments, on Facebook or on Twitter!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

6 Last-Minute Marathon Mistakes I Won't Repeat

It's nervous time.

I have less than three weeks before I run the New Jersey Marathon, and I'd bet I've done more thinking and researching and reading and mulling in the past few days than I did over the last few months.

I've put in the hard work. I've run more than 400 miles already in this training cycle. I've been consistent with speedwork and strength training. I've cut way, way back on alcohol and been vigilant about my nutrition. And now that I've entered the taper phase -- where you cut mileage to rest up and restore depleted energy stores -- I don't want to mess everything up.

Two years ago, I ran out of gas at about mile 23. Part of that was the conditions: There was a hellacious headwind for the last six miles of the race. But part of it was attributable to mistakes I made -- mistakes I don't plan to repeat.


Nutrition
Mmmm...carbs!
To be honest, two years ago I didn't really focus that much on nutrition at any point during my training. Yes, I understood that carb-loading happens in the week before the race, not just the night before, but beyond that I really didn't pay a ton of attention to what I was eating.

This week, I've ramped up on protein and carbs, and tried to cut back on fat to compensate. The protein will help repair the muscles I've broken down over the past few months, and especially the past week with a long run of 22 miles. The carbs will restore my energy stores.

Next week, I'll shift to more carbs. And then during race week, it'll be almost all carbs.


Alcohol
None of this during race week!
Looking back on my old blog, I can see that I drank too much beer in the weeks leading up to the marathon. I had two the night before my final long run leading up to the taper. I kinda went to town at a party two weeks out from the race. And even the Friday before the marathon, I had a couple after attending the race expo. Not smart:

  • Alcohol impacts your sleep and messes with other systems at a critical point. I need my body to be all systems go.
  • It's a diuretic. The glycogen your body produces via carbs requires more water to carry it in your bloodstream. You want to remain as hydrated as possible, and not just in the couple days leading up to the race.
  • Who needs the empty calories? It probably didn't add much, but every bit of weight I can avoid carrying is a plus.
I'm also going to try to cut back on caffeine, which is also a diuretic.


Working Too Hard During the Taper
Two years ago, there were a few runs that were just outright fast -- way beyond race pace. And again looking back at the blog, I was still doing heavy strength training close to race day. Both of these are bad ideas. The taper is a time to rebuild the muscles that you've been taxing for months. The stress of speedwork and weight-lifting tears muscle fibers. Normally, that's a good thing -- that's how you build muscle. But do it too close to your race and your body won't have time to recover fully.

Yesterday was my first taper run, on the treadmill. As badly as I wanted to speed up and get it over with, I stuck with a nice, easy pace -- :30/mile slower than my recent half-marathon. And I've had to keep telling myself that less is more. No need to do heavy lifting. No need to add mileage. Keep your pace in check. 

I'm doing just enough to keep my fitness levels up over the next few weeks. 


Too Much Fun at the Expo
Bought one of these at the expo.
In the few days leading up to a marathon, you want to spend as little time on your feet as you can. So why in God's green earth did I spend two hours at the race expo the Friday before the marathon? I circled the place three or four times. I checked out every booth. I even sat in the massage chair -- a huge error. You don't want anything breaking down muscle fibers right before your run.

I've learned my lesson on this one. Get your race packet, do one loop to see if there's anything worth checking out, and go home. 


My Fueling Strategy Sucked
More precisely, I didn't really have a fueling strategy. 

In my training runs two years ago, I found that my body generally had sufficient glycogen to carry me through about a half-marathon. In fact, in the half-marathon I ran that year, I did not even use GU. I had some Gatorade thing that I took at mile 3, and that was it. It was fine for that distance.

That does not work in a marathon. I waited until about the halfway point to ingest my first GU packet. (GU is a specially formulated gel designed to deliver quick-digesting carbs to your system mid-run.) I felt fine, so why would that be a problem, right? The problem is that there's a lag between the time your liver runs out of glycogen and you burn it all out of your bloodstream -- the point where you bonk. And once it's gone, you'll never catch back up. It takes 10 or 15 minutes for the stuff to get back into your bloodstream, and really, there isn't enough in one packet to make a difference at that point. (And more than that at a time won't digest properly.)

So during long training runs this time around, I've been taking a GU every five miles, regardless of how I feel. And I haven't totally bonked on a training run yet (aside from the 17-miler right after I was done being sick). 


I Left Time in the Bank
Even though I bonked at mile 23 two years ago, I think I ran an overly cautious race. I hit midway at 2:05, which was a full 9 minutes slower than the half-marathon I'd run, and left me zero chance of breaking 4:00. I don't think the bonk would have come sooner had I been a bit more aggressive. And I probably should have used the tailwind to my advantage instead of just trying to play it safe worrying about the headwind coming back.

And I'm also hoping that, if I do all of these other things right, I won't feel the need to be too conservative. I can go out at a pace that would put me within striking distance of my "A" goal, with the knowledge that I should have more in the tank than I did in 2014. 

I'm hoping that when I get to the final 5K, I have enough in me to make a real push at a great time. And if not, at least to be ahead of where I was last time around.
  

Don't Get Me Wrong
My medal and a photo my dad framed
I'm proud of what I was able to accomplish in 2014. In a little more than a year since I got serious about my health and fitness, I went from couch to 26.2, and I did it in under the median finishing time for marathon runners that year. 

But I've improved my running significantly since then, and I want to see this thing through. That means doing whatever I can to get the next two and a half weeks right, race weekend right and my race plan right.


What's been your biggest fitness bugaboo? You know, that one thing that seems to trip you up despite all your hard work. Sound off in the comments below, on Facebook or on Twitter!

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Training for a Second Marathon: Lessons Learned

26.2 miles.

I am getting down to brass tacks in my training for the New Jersey Marathon on May 1st. I have one 20-mile run in the books, and after a "step-back" week this week, one more long run before I enter the taper phase. I am looking forward to it.

On yesterday's 5-mile run, I got to thinking about what's been different this time around. What did I learn from my first marathon, and how have I improved in the two years since?

Headed for the finish line in 2014 (courtesy Christine McDevitt)

I've been more serious about alcohol.
Two years ago, I wrote about my training experiences on a blog I called Beer or Gatorade. The basic gist was that training was all about making the right choices. And for the most part, I did, with a few exceptions. This time around, I've taken that particular choice out of the equation. I've cut down to a hard limit of 5 drinks a week, and I'm averaging about 4. There have been two big benefits:
  • I'm carrying less weight than I ever have for a race. Honestly, this was my primary consideration.
  • No worries about hangovers getting in the way of training.

I've been more mindful of overtraining.
About eight weeks out from the marathon two years ago, I had a bad long run. Rather than chalk it up to a bad day, I decided that I wasn't pushing myself hard enough to be prepared. I added a fifth running day a week and bumped the mileage on most of my runs. The result: I wound up skipping a workout during the last week before the taper, and I bonked during that final long training run. Physically, it probably wasn't the end of the world. Mentally, it left me with a ton of doubt right up to race day.

This time around, I've been much more cognizant of the difference between "I don't wanna" and true fatigue. I've reworked my schedule (more on that below) and allowed myself extra rest days when I really need them. I won't say I'm fresh as a daisy, but I feel ready to make that final push.


I'm less of a slave to the program.
I set out following Hal Higdon's Intermediate 1 program. It has you running 5 days a week, with 1 day for cross-training and no speedwork. It took me about three weeks to realize that this wasn't going to work for me.
  • I need a second rest day each week. It's as much of a mental break as it is a physical one.
  • I don't agree with his idea that speedwork is best left to other times of the year. Most training programs incorporate it.
  • Stubbornly sticking to high reps/light weight for strength training ignores your fast-twitch muscle fibers. I need to set aside time simply for lifting, not just a little auxiliary work at the end of runs.
The one thing I really like about the plan is back-to-back weekend runs, so that the long run simulates the feeling of fatigue at the end of the race. So that I've kept. But I eliminated the third midweek run and moved my cross-training to that day. Here's how my week works:
  • Monday: Repeats (usually 800 meters or miles)
  • Tuesday: "Longish" run (peaking around 8-9 miles)
  • Wednesday: Cross-training and lifting
  • Thursday: Rest
  • Friday: "Longish" run
  • Saturday: Long run (peaking at 20-21 miles)
  • Sunday: Rest

I'm more thoughtful about nutrition.
Yeah, I ate carby dinners before most of my long runs two years ago. But beyond that, I took the approach that "a hot enough furnace will burn anything." I'm not going to claim that I'm totally hardcore about lean proteins and perfect macro ratios, but I consider my nutrition, and what it's doing for me, all week long -- not just the night before a big workout.
  

My strength training has been more purposeful.
Two years ago, I did incorporate some strength training. But I wasn't very comfortable with a lot of it, and so I limited myself to:
  • The exercises I knew, regardless of benefit to running.
  • Machines over free weights.
In the past year or so, I've forced myself to learn more about lifting -- specifically, how best to benefit the kinetic chain to maximize my running performance. Yes, that includes a solid dose of core work, as any coach would recommend. But it also means squats. Real squats. With a barbell and heavy weight. This has boosted my hip strength and mobility more than anything else I've ever done. And I've come to believe that your hips are the real drivers of your running ability.
  

I've fixed my running form.
Two years ago, I would've scoffed at the notion of an "ideal" running form. Many, many knowledgeable people argue that your best form is your natural form. But I've changed my tune on that. 

What I do believe is that you can't just all of a sudden switch up your mechanics completely and expect some kind of magic to happen. And that's where the strength training really comes into play

I'm going to relate my own experience, but I'm pretty sure it's not unique to me. I've found that by paying attention to my foot strike -- and landing mid-foot, instead of on my heel -- I ensure that my weight is over my feet when I push off. What that does is engages my quads and glutes -- the big muscles in my legs. But none of that would do me any good if I hadn't increased my hip mobility and strength. I'd be engaging weaker muscles with lesser range of motion.

But I have worked on that, and the proof is in the pace. I recently PR'd in the half-marathon by 8 minutes.

I've tried to compartmentalize.
Let me admit flat out: It's hard for me to focus on stuff other than running and fitness right now. But I have made a real effort to put that part of my life into a box, and try not to open that box when other boxes need attention. 

That means focusing on work, family, my wife, my responsibilities around the house, and so on. A few weeks ago, it meant waking up at 2 a.m. to drive my son to the airport. It meant going outside at 4 a.m. in the rain to shoo a raccoon off my roof.

Look, marathon training takes over your life. It just does. But I've at least tried to keep in mind that I'm running to live, not living to run. In other words, Keeping Fit and Living My Life.

  
I walk.
I work in New York and am in the office 2 or 3 days a week, most weeks -- frequently on days when I've run in the morning. A short, brisk, after-lunch walk around Soho really helps me:
  • It makes my legs feel better. I don't know if I'm clearing lactic acid or simply loosening up my muscles.
  • The natural vitamin D from the sun is good for me.
  • With all the hubbub about sitting for extended periods, getting up and moving kind of resets the system.
  • It clears my head a bit.
Two years ago, I felt that after I'd run, I'd done my bit for the day and didn't worry about additional exercise. Now I'm a strong proponent of a good walk.
  

It's really been a lot of small changes instead of any one big thing.
To anyone who's watched me through both of my marathon-training cycles, there's probably nothing they can point to as significantly different this time around. It's all about small improvements. But if each of those changes has gained me 5 or 6 seconds a mile, that adds up to about 45 seconds faster. And that's where I am.

And really, that's kind of a metaphor for life, isn't it? You always have a lot more success, long term, making small, incremental adjustments rather than one huge change.

Thoughts? Questions? Insults? Sound off in the comments below, on Facebook or on Twitter!


Monday, March 21, 2016

Stuff...Stuff I Need: Essential and Non-Essential Fitness Gear

Go into any running shop or sporting goods store, and you'll see all manner of fitness gear. Water bottles, water belts, hydration packs, fitness trackers, GPS watches, armbands for your phone, extra pockets for your keys... Not to mention all sorts of shirts, shorts, pants and shoes. It's enough to make your head spin.


As I've said before, sometimes when I'm running, I feel like a prop clown with all the stuff I'm carrying. But compared to some other runners I've seen, I'm actually pretty low-maintenance. So I thought maybe it'd be helpful to give you an idea of the gear I use and what I leave behind.

The bottom line is that I want to be comfortable, not distracted from what I'm trying to do.


Stuff I Need

  • Running Shoes: You can't run consistently without a good, supportive, properly fitted pair of shoes. They're not a guarantee against injury, but running without them is a guarantee you will get hurt.
  • Armband: I put my phone in an armband. Some people use a belt clip, but that's personal preference. The key is not to have to carry it in your hand.
  • Moisture-Wicking Clothes: I sweat. A lot. You want to get that moisture away from your body. Your innermost layer should always be something that wicks away water. But it doesn't have to be expensive. I buy much of my workout gear at Old Navy.
  • Hand Towel: No matter how cold it is outside, I sweat. I need to wipe it from my brow. I use freebie golf towels I get at pep rallies and the such.
  • Fuel: For cardio workouts (generally runs) more than an hour, I carry GU energy gels. You're going to burn through your glycogen stores. Getting some fast carbs in you is essential.
  • Pockets: Not really gear, per se, but be sure you have places to put the crap you're carrying. You don't want to have to hold things.


Stuff I Don't Need

  • GPS Watch: Lots of people I know rely on them, but I simply map out my run and try to pay attention to my effort. It takes a little getting used to, but I am much better at pacing as a result. I just set the stopwatch on my phone and go.
  • Fancy Water Carriers: I've recently started using a hydration backpack on long runs, but I definitely don't need it. Nor do I need a belt with water bottles. I can easily plan a route that takes me past my house or, if I go to a nearby park or trail, past my car. Again, the key is not to carry it in your hand. Less of a big deal at the gym, obviously.
  • Expensive Cold-Weather Gear: When it's cold, I wear a regular wool cap. I dress in layers, and my outermost layer is an old sweatshirt that has been through the wars with me. I do have a pair of running gloves, but they were less than $15. I buy long running pants at Old Navy -- I wait for sales and get them for $15. I have a balaclava for when it's really cold -- that was $10 at Costco.
  • Headphones: This is a matter of personal preference, but I can tell you that you don't need music to exercise. And if you're running outside, I really recommend against it -- both experience's and safety's sake.
  • Orthotics: My orthopedist told me flat-out that there's actually no science backing the use of orthotics in your shoes. If it feels better to you, go for it, but it's just preference.
  • Sports Bra: I'm a guy. But I'm told by Regular Gals that a proper sports bra is essential.


Stuff I Sometimes Need

  • Poop Bags: If you've been reading the blog for a while, you know I often run with my dog. If you do the same, be a good neighbor and clean up when she poops.
  • Recovery Drink: If my workout isn't in my own neighborhood, I bring a recovery drink with me. For cardio, it's a carb-protein mix (such as chocolate milk). For resistance training, I use when protein.
  • ID: If you're working out solo -- especially if you're on a run or a bike ride -- have an easy way for people to identify you in case of emergency. I carry an expired driver's license.


What Stuff Do You Need?

What workout gear have you found to be absolutely essential? What have you found you can do without? What do you wish you had, or with they would invent? Comment below, on Facebook or on Twitter!


A Quick Note

I linked to some retailer and product pages in this post. I have gotten no payment, product or any other consideration for those links -- it's stuff I use and recommend. (Of course, I do plan to tag those companies on Twitter!)

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Lessons From a Raccoon: Life Doesn't Stop for Your Fitness Training


My personal Facebook friends may have seen that Sunday night (actually around 4 a.m. Monday), we had a raccoon clambering around on our roof. I'd run 17.5 miles on Sunday, but instead of a good night's sleep, I was standing in the cold, dark rain trying to persuade a wild animal that my house isn't worth its time and energy.

And last night, even though my powers of persuasion seemed to have worked, I didn't sleep well either. Any little bump in the night got me going. My daughter got up to go to the bathroom around 3:00, and the dog jumped out of bed around 4:00.

Both of those things, especially the latter, kept me awake. So I wound up not doing my run this morning. I'm hoping to sneak something in after work. But there are a few things you can learn from this:
  • You can do only what you can do. One of the big reason elite athletes are elite athletes is that it's their job. Regular Guys have to fit calamities into their everyday lives, and sometimes that means you're going to miss a workout. It's OK.
  • Look for ways to adapt. Since we set the clocks ahead this weekend, I have an extra hour of daylight this evening. Perhaps I'll be able to get something done then.
  • Focus on the long term. One missed workout isn't going to be the difference between fitness and obesity, or in your ability to hit your goal in a race, or whatever.
  • Something is better than nothing. I'd initially planned 800-meter repeats today. I'm still pretty tired. I might just do a regular old run. That's better than no workout at all.
  • Rest is so important. You don't realize just how important until you're really in a hole like I am. 
  • Focus on what's important. Keeping your family safe, happy and healthy is always priority one. Staying fit is a means to that end, not the goal in and of itself.
How do you keep up when life throws you a curveball? Comment below, on Facebook or on Twitter.
Photo credit: *~Dawn~* via Foter.com / CC BY

Monday, March 7, 2016

You Have It in You: My Awesome Half-Marathon

Yesterday was a big test for me: the 40th annual E. Murray Todd Half-Marathon.

I've vowed to run this race every year, no matter what. It's run by our county's parks department and is no frills, but it's a beautiful course, and it's extremely well organized.


It Was an Awesome Experience!
I've improved my pace significantly in the past 12 months, and I wanted to see what I could do this year. I was gunning for a PR -- to beat 1:56:36. But my goal, which I didn't really tell anyone about, was to go faster than 1:50.

That was ambitious, especially since illness had interrupted my training two weeks earlier. I was very, very nervous. I worried I'd start too fast and wind up walking, or that I wouldn't be able to hold my goal pace for 13.1 miles.

Here I am just before mile 2. (courtesy Jackie Richter)
At 10 miles, I wanted to hit 1:25, which would give me 25 minutes over the final 5k to hit my goal. I hit that at 1:24:27. I knew the PR was sewn up. That last stretch has one downhill and then about 2.5 miles of flat terrain through a park. So the question was: What do I have in me?

Around mile 9. Needed to lose the hat. (courtesy Jackie Richter)
Well, it turned out I had another gear. As other runners were flagging, I was speeding up. I ran the final 5K in 24:07 -- which would be my PR in the 5K by almost a full minute. Apparently I was moving so fast at the finish that I caught my wife by surprise and she didn't get a picture. Final time: 1:48:23. A full 8 minutes faster than my PR!

OK, so I'm bragging a little bit. But that's not really my point . Yes, I'm proud of my accomplishment. The important message, however, is in what I learned about myself.


What I Really Learned: You Are Awesome, Too!
Despite running faster than a PR pace for 10 miles, I was able to sustain a serious finishing kick. Did I want to slow down? Heck yeah. Was I worried I was going to bonk? Definitely.

But I never did. I had it in me.

And you do, too. One of the unspoken truths about being a Regular Guy is that you're actually an Extraordinary Guy. You're capable of amazing things.
  • Don't sell yourself short. So many people tell me they could never do what I do in a pair of running shoes. Yes you can! I'm living proof that anyone can do this.
  • Set lofty goals. Regardless of whether it's running, lifting, biking or whatever, set the bar high. You'll never find out what you're capable of if you don't.
  • Keep learning. A big part of my improvement has come from making changes to my training based on what I've read. I don't have all the answers, or even that many of them. But the more I learn, the better I get.
  • Work hard. Being a Regular Guy means keeping fit and living your life. But your exercise time is You Time. Make the most of it. Push yourself beyond comfortable. You owe that to yourself.
  • Stay consistent. Consistency is a big key to improvement. Create a routine in your life and you don't have to rely on "motivation."

Defining Your Awesome
The winner of the race finished in about 1:11 -- 37 minutes before me. My friend Dan finished about 14 minutes ahead of me -- a PR for him, too. But that doesn't diminish how proud I am of my accomplishment.

And whatever your endeavor, what other people do isn't a reflection on you. What matters is whether you're reaching new heights for you, and how that makes you feel about yourself. When you accomplish something that you would never have thought possible, it's just tremendous.

So what is your awesome? Let's hear it in the comments, on Facebook or on Twitter!


Monday, February 29, 2016

Mechanics, Interval Training, Squats and Rest Days

I try not to brag too much on the blog, so I don't talk too much about specific improvements I'm making. First of all, who besides me really cares? And second of all, what looks like a breakthrough to me is just another day at the office for someone else. Everything is relative.

But I'm going to set that aside for a second. Two years ago, I ran the New Jersey Marathon in 4:18 in difficult conditions. I might have done 10 minutes or so better without the major headwind in the last 6 miles. About two months before that, I ran the E. Murray Todd Half Marathon in 1:56, which is just below a 9-minute pace.

I am running both of those races again this spring, and so far my pace in training runs has been significantly faster -- 8:30/mile or faster on longer runs. And it feels very comfortable. I'm pretty sure I can hold that pace for 13.1, and even if I slow down for 26.2, I'll be well ahead of where I was two years ago.

So what gives? How have I gotten better? 

I can speak only for myself. Others have had success with their own programs, but a few elements have helped me, and I want to share them.


Mechanics
After last year's New Jersey Marathon, where I was a volunteer and a spectator, I wrote about running form. It's not universal, but there's a clear pattern in any race: Faster runners tend to use good mechanics, and the slower the finishing times are, the more likely the runners are to have weird form. I try to focus on a few things:
Weight over my feet!
  • Mid-Foot Strike: I don't believe this is make or break for everyone, but I've found that I'm much better about keeping my weight above my feet if I focus on landing on my mid-foot instead of my heel. Otherwise, I tend to overstride and lose efficiency.
  • Arm Swing: I don't allow my arms to come across my body. A little bit of twist, in conjunction with hip rotation, is OK, but more than that is a waste of energy.
  • Quads and Glutes: I pay attention to which leg muscles are doing the hard work. If I feel like I'm asking too much of my calves. I try to lean forward a bit and "loosen up" to allow my quads and glutes -- the big guns -- to move my legs.

Interval Training 
Two years ago, I was hit-or-miss with interval training. Without making it a regular part of your program, and doing it at least once a week, you're not going to get a lot of benefit from it. This time around, Monday is interval day, period. I don't have a complicated program -- I do three basic lengths, with half those lengths recovery.
  • 400-meter repeats faster than 5k pace, with 200-meter recovery.
  • 800-meter repeats around 5k pace, with 400-meter recovery. This is a bedrock of marathon training.
  • Mile repeats at 10k pace with 800-meter recovery. 
  • One I haven't done in a while: Straights and curves. Go hard on the straights of the track, ease up around the curves. Good for explosive speed, not so much for endurance speed.
Intervals help build cardiovascular strength by forcing a lot of blood through your heart. The real work actually gets done in the recovery phase, when your heart is trying to slow down and the blood is rushing through.


Squats
courtesy Hookgrip.com
As I mentioned, one of the keys in my running mechanics is trying to be sure the big muscles -- the quads and glutes -- are doing the work. But that's only going to pay off so much if those muscles aren't up to the task.

Enter squats. Not bodyweight squats, or kettlebell squats, or dumbbell squats. Real squats with a barbell. The first time I tried them, over the summer, I found out just how much room I have for improvement. And I've made a point of working them into my marathon training.

The key, I've found, is making sure you're doing them right. Don't let your lower back do the work. Make your quads and glutes push you up. And don't cheat -- get your thighs at least parallel to the ground. If that means less weight, so be it.


Rest Days
When I started out in this training cycle, I adopted Hal Higdon's Intermediate 1 marathon plan. It involves running five days a week, with one day for cross training and one full rest day.

My running partner needs a break, too!
It took me only about four weeks to realize that six days on, one day off doesn't work for me. It simply doesn't give my body the time it needs to recover. And recovery is the key to getting faster or stronger. Exercise tears muscle fibers; they repair themselves at rest. If all you do is tear and never repair, you're going to plateau.

So I've gone to running four days a week, with one day for cross. I'll still get plenty of miles done, and I'll have more time to rest up, heal up and push forward.


But What If You're Not Training for a Marathon?
Most Regular Guys aren't looking to run 26.2 miles, and probably never will. That's not a black mark -- in fact, my fitness regimen was much better rounded before I went into race training. But these tips aren't actually just for runners.

  • Mechanics matter in any exercise. The better your form, the more you benefit and the less likely you are to get hurt.
  • HIIT is a great way to work some strength into an efficient cardio routine.
  • Squats are one of the most effective full-body exercises you can do, no matter your goals.
  • The principles behind rest days apply to any fitness routine.
So if you're a fan of the Regular Guy mantra of Keep It Simple, Stupid, this is as good a road map as any.


What Do You Think?
What are the basic principles that you apply to your exercise regimen? How much attention do you pay to mechanics? How many rest days a week do you take? Let's hear it! Sound off on Facebook, on Twitter or in the comments below.