Step Up Your Game with These Four Marathon Training Strategies

Step Up Your Game with These Four Marathon Training Strategies
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Q: How do you know someone is training for a marathon?
A: Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.

The runner who is training for a marathon will probably talk about their long run — because everyone knows that the long run is key to marathon training.

They might also talk about their weekly mileage, because let’s face it, saying something like, “I ran 45 miles this week” tends to impress.

{This is where the conversation partner might respond, “45 MILES? I don’t even like to drive that far!”}

When you’re training for your first marathon, worrying about the long run getting longer and the weekly miles piling up is enough. But when you move onto your second, third, fourth marathon and beyond, and begin chasing those alphabet-soup goals – PR, BQ – you’ll have to step up your game.

Here are four workouts — or rather, marathon training principles — that enable runners to take their training up a notch.

STEP UP YOUR GAME

1. Run the day after a long run

Back-to-back long runs are a staple in the training of ultra runners and those preparing for multiple-day races such as Disney Running’s Dopey Challenge. But you don’t have to be training for a 50K (or longer), or running a 5K-10K-13.1-26.2 on four consecutive days to take advantage of the benefits of running the day after your long run. Those include, but are not limited to:

  • Recovery. Moving (vs sitting on the couch all day) is said to cause increased blood flow to the extremities, which facilitates easier delivery of nutrients to the muscles, which aids in recovery. Boom.
  • Mental toughness. Chances are, the last thing you want to do the day after a 16- or 20-miler is get out and run some more. This is especially true for those who are not used to it. So, do it anyway. Prove to yourself that you can, and in the last four miles of that marathon, remember all those times when you did!
  • Endurance. Imagine your leg muscles as a piece of stretchy fabric. On your long run day, you stretch and release, stretch and release, and stretch and release this fabric for several hours, creating multiple tiny tears in it. But not to worry, it is a magical, self-repairing fabric – it just needs a few days of lighter stretching or rest and it’ll be good as new, even stronger. What happens if you run the day after your long run? You will still stretch and release your magical fabric, but because many of its fibers will still be torn, you will have to use additional ones for that particular job. By running on the day after a long run, you teach your brain to recruit muscle fibers that were not used in your long run. Specifically, it can now work on recruiting intermediate fast-twitch fibers, or Type IIa fibers, to pitch in and help do the work of slow-twitch or Type I muscle fibers during long-distance events. Those come in handy in the last miles of a marathon!

How to do it:
On the day after your long run, get out for anywhere between three and six super-easy paced recovery miles.

2. Run two-a-days

The benefits of two-a-days are similar to those of running after your long run: added endurance, mental strength, and not least – it’s a way to add more time on feet as you work on building your total mileage.

How to do it:
The first run, preferably in the morning and typically 40 to 60 minutes long (but could be longer, depending on total weekly mileage), is a structured progression or negative-split run. Put your legs through the paces, starting at an easy warmup pace for 15 minutes, then pick it up each 10-15 minutes, running the last block at a pace that feels hard. The second run, at least several hours later and preferably in the evening, is a super easy-pace short run. Just get out there and run on dead legs. Alternatively, run a fartlek in the morning and a shorter, easy recovery run in the evening. The first run is usually harder, but not as hard a workout as, say, mile repeats on the track or a tempo run.

3. Throw some intervals into your long run

Assuming that you are going out to run a distance that you have built up to already – i.e. if you have a 16-mile run on your schedule, this is not your first time in a training cycle running 16 miles – add some short fast-pace intervals in the beginning and towards the end of the run. Benefits include recruiting different and more muscle fibers, working on mental toughness, and emulating what the last few miles of a marathon feel like.

How to do it:
Break up your long run into four parts. The first is a two or three-mile warmup at an easy pace. The second part is four to five intervals of five minutes running at threshold pace (a pace you could sustain in training for 20-30 minutes, but hardly longer), with two-to-three minutes of easy pace in between. The third part is even-pace running at your typical long-run pace, and the fourth part is another block at four to five times threshold intervals with recovery. The last recovery interval can be longer, 10 to 15 minutes, and you’re done. Assuming you do this on runs of 16 miles or longer, you better believe that the second threshold intervals block will feel similar to miles 22 to 26 of your marathon!

Alternatively, instead of fast and short threshold intervals, add some two- to three-mile blocks at or slightly below race pace, with a mile recovery at easy pace in between. It’s a way to practice race pace in a safer way than doing it in 10-mile or longer chunks of your long run, which might challenge you too much and compromise recovery.

4. Never neglect the good old boring easy run.

There is nothing special or complicated about the easy run, yet many people neglect it and run all or most of their runs harder than they should. So it is worth saying this time and again: running easy will not slow you down! On the contrary, slowing down might just make you faster, because it will give you more adequate time to recover. This way, you can put in the hard work where it matters: the long run, the tempo run, the progression run, the hill repeats. In between these workouts, run slow and easy, keep that blood circulating round your legs, but don’t beat them up — you’ll need them later.

And that’s about it: four marathon training principles that can help you step up your game. Train with purpose, race with heart – and go get that PR!

Why Can’t I Run Faster?

Why Can’t I Run Faster?
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For runners, PR-chasing creatures that we are, getting faster is a common goal.

  • I want to get better at running. Therefore, I want to be able to run faster.
  • I finished my marathon in X:XX:XX. I want to finish the next one in less than that.
  • I want to run as fast as, or faster than my friend/ sibling/ spouse/ running partner.

So let’s talk about getting faster, and specifically, about the misconceptions surrounding it. Because what is the point of pursing a goal if you’re going about it the wrong way?

Run Faster

Here are the three most common myths about becoming a faster runner that I’ve come across over the years. They are holding many runners back, diverting their focus from things that could actually bring results. (We’ll talk about those, too.)

1. MYTH: My running form is bad.

I get these emails so often:

“Hello. I’m looking to hire a running coach. [Gives some background about his or her running history, talks about wanting to get faster, finish a certain race under a certain time, etc.] But I think my running form is really bad and I need a coach to see me run and tell me what I’m doing wrong.”

To which I wish I could reply:

“Hi! When you run, are you putting your left foot in front of the right? Are you then putting the right foot in front of the left? Do you then repeat that all the way to the finish line? If the answer is yes, you are doing it right.”

Saying that would be rude, of course. So I try to explain that “bad running form” often gets a bad rap — and why. We blame a lot more than we should on bad running form: injuries, inability to run faster, even hitting the wall in a marathon. But in the vast majority of cases, that’s an excuse. It’s a myth that has been so generously profitable for the running shoe industry, that many millions of marketing dollars go into keeping it ablaze.

The truth is, you are not a slower runner because you are heel-striking or pronating. You will not get faster as a result of simply changing your stride. But, your form will improve as a result of getting faster, as the body will naturally find the most efficient way of running from start to finish line. That’s how our brains are programmed to work.

This doesn’t apply for those competing at an elite level or professionally, of course. (I don’t think professional or elite runners would waste their time with this blog, anyway.) If you’re in this category, you have your team of experts who analyze your stride, and coaches who work with you on even the slightest tweaks in form. At the professional level, these things matter.

As for those of us who run for our health and race in the back, middle, or even relative front of the pack: we have a lot more to gain from just getting out there to train, consistently. And if running like Phoebe makes you feel happy and free: go for it every once in a while!


 

2. MYTH: I’m in the wrong running shoes.

Were you fitted for your shoes in a specialty running store? Did an employee see you run and recommend several options based on your stride and running volume? Did you you pick the pair that felt most comfortable? Then chances are, your shoes are not the reason you are not running as fast as you’d like to run.

The same goes for all of running gadgets and gear. A special sports bra with a built-in heart rate monitor or a $600 running watch will not make anyone run faster. Running shorts that leave you a bloody chafed mess at the end of a marathon are not the reason you slowed down and didn’t meet your goal. They were a contributing factor, but the truth is, somewhere out on that course, someone else was also a chafed bloody mess and they were able to push through the pain.

Running gear that fits your body and needs is a huge plus and we are blessed to be living at a time when so much is available to make our running comfortable. But not having the best of the best, or having something that you think is not the best for you, is not what is holding you back.

3. MYTH: I’m not running fast enough in my training.

This is a potentially dangerous way of thinking, as running too hard all the time would most certainly have the exact opposite effect of making you a faster runner. (Read more about slowing down to go fast here.)

Yes, if you are running at a 10 min/ mile pace in all of your training runs, chances are you will not be able to run a half marathon at an 8 min/ mile pace. But this doesn’t mean pushing yourself to run an 8:30 min/ mile in every single run. Before your body adapts to the faster pace, there is a good chance that it would break down with an injury or out of sheer fatigue. Worst case, you’d be looking at needing weeks or months to recover from overtraining syndrome.

So, you’ve read this far (thanks for sticking with me!), and you probably want to know: what, then, is the way to get faster? Well, here it is:

The Secret to Becoming a Faster Runner…

… is simple.

It is a combination of time, consistency, persistence, smart training and proper recovery. That is all!

There are no shortcuts – no gear or tweaks to your running form – that would make you faster. But with hard work, the right kind of work and over time, you will improve. In my training, I always follow these five principles:

Don’t run too hard all the time. Structure your training to incorporate easy days surrounding your hard-work days.

Don’t race too much, or train hard all year long. Take a few weeks or even a couple of months off after a big race. Stay active, but do things for fun. It’s important to have an offseason and de-train a little. You’ll come back refreshed, rested and ready to get after it and become even stronger – and faster – for the new season.

Be consistent. Don’t be one of those people who hang up their running shoes for three months after finishing a marathon, and only get back into “training” 16 weeks out of their next big race. If you’re training for marathons or ultra marathons, chances are you love running. So turn running into a lifestyle.

Be patient. Time is on your side, so give yourself time. Maybe you won’t go from a 4:20 marathon to a 3:40 marathon in one season. But can you can go from 4:20 to 3:50, to 3:35 (!) over the course of two years? Set realistic goals, smash them and celebrate your success!

Enjoy the process. None of the above would be doable unless you really love running. Running is hard, running fast is hard work. If running feels like a chore, or worse, you don’t enjoy it and look forward to lacing up those running shoes… then maybe it’s time to find another hobby.

Should I pause my Garmin, and other existential runner questions

Should I pause my Garmin, and other existential runner questions
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If you’re like most contemporary runners — equipped with our fancy GPS watches that track miles, pace, cadence, heart rate, calorie burn, sweat rate, outside temperature, altitude, humidity, wind factor, the S&P 500, and possibly Charlie Sheen’s mood swings — you have probably pondered the classic contemporary runner’s dilemma:

To pause, or not to pause my Garmin if I have to stop mid-run?

Red lights, water breaks, bathroom stops, fix-the-wedgie stops: they add up. The longer you’re out there running, chances are, the more time you’re spending at rest.

Take one of my recent long runs:

For an 18-mile run, an average pace of 9:22 is not bad for me. I was under instruction to run the first eight miles easy, then run miles 9 to 15 in the 8:30s, and scale back to a 10 min/ mile or slower for the last three – and looking at it mile by mile, I nailed it. (Definitely chose “slower” for the last three miles, too!)

But now, look at my “elapsed time” (detail on the Strava activity page) vs what is, in effect, my moving time:

Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 6.09.55 PM

The thing is, this route is an out-and-back that goes through a total of three red lights, including a very busy intersection (typical wait time: two to four minutes), and two road crossings where drivers don’t watch for runners dashing out of the park trail, so you better look twice before you do. And, in this case, I had one water stop and one bathroom stop. The result is a difference of nearly eight and a half minutes.

Does that change things?
Does that mean I nailed my paces, or not?

SHOULD I PAUSE MY GARMIN?

I actually asked my coach how he wants me to record my run times in my log – should I do moving time or total? – and he told me to do moving time for run and bike, and total for swim. I get it. Those are training runs (or rides), and they will be interrupted. You can’t beat yourself up for messing up the pace on Mile 15 because you had to wait at the red light for three minutes, and now it’s 11:30 instead of 8:30.

Yes, you did take a break; yes, your heart rate went down – and yes, in a race, no one will stop the clock for you. For training runs, though, my philosophy (and I’m glad that my coach agrees!) is that it’s the movement that matters. Give the prescribed effort when you can, and if circumstances are forcing you to pause – pause your GPS, too, so you can keep accurate track of real effort, vs rest.

Races, of course, are another story.

In a race, the clock doesn’t stop when you do

I have heard of situations when things like a passing train or, recently, a gas leak (talk about danger of “blowing up”!) have caused course marshals to stop participants for anywhere from seconds to minutes. Later, the times are adjusted for the affected athletes.

But in general – this seems so obvious, I feel silly saying it! – your net finish time is the time that it took you to get from the start to the finish. Do whatever you like in between – eat at each aid station, go porta-potty, take a nap – it is added to your net time. The timing chip don’t lie!

As someone who qualified for the Boston Marathon with what ended up a meager eight-second cushion… I can’t tell you how well I understand that this is a fact.

Which is why it boggles my mind to see some people reporting race finish times that are, in fact, the moving times on their Garmins or on Strava.

Seriously?

The actual race result – the net time – is out there on the Internet, for everyone to see. Who are these people fooling, besides themselves?

I, too, wish that moving time was the standard in race tracking. Wouldn’t it be great? You could take a five-minute break at an aid station, instead of rushing though and getting sticky electrolyte drink all over yourself. You could take a nap! Transition times would be scrapped from your total finish time in triathlon, and you could blow-dry your hair after the swim, and put on some lipstick before the run!

Wouldn’t that be nice?

Of course, that’s not how it works. For race results, moving time means zilch.

On training runs, sure: set up your Garmin on auto pause. Granted, if you run 10 miles at a 7:30 average pace, but take 5 minutes standing rest after each mile… well, that’s quite a different effort than running 10 miles at a 7:30 pace without stopping. If the goal was the latter, then you cheated yourself.

But for most runs, go ahead and let your timer stop at that red light or water fountain break. As long as you’re not doing it in the middle of what needs to be hard work and, in this way, consistently jeopardizing the work, you’ll be OK. And if you are doing that auto-pause a bit too much, too long, then don’t expect those training paces to manifest themselves in a race.

Do the work. See the real results. Don’t lie to yourself (and others) about your results. Few will be fooled.

Most importantly, though, have fun running and racing! Isn’t that why we do it, after all?