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!

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