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 / 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!