Checking In 12/3/2021

With a “stepback” week in the M-3 plan, I stopped work-break runs after hitting my November mileage goals, and my right hamstring (which had been bothering me on and off the last month) feels a good deal better. I didn’t feel any difficulty on 3 mile runs in hilly terrain this week, and the only remaining run is a 5 miler on Saturday. Get through that 5-miler without any aggravation, and I should hopefully feel 100% or close to it going into next week after a couple of easy days.

I’m spending more time on the spin bike after work, not just for a Garmin badge but also because traffic coming home during rush hour has gotten pretty bad in recent weeks. So going to the nearby gym for an hour or so provides ample opportunity for rush hour traffic to clear up and make that commute easier (not to mention strength train on days I need to do so). Plus, I’m near a Whole Foods and other places to eat, which allows me to grab dinner a bit more easily afterward. When I was still commuting to the southwest end of town for the gym I’d get home around 8pm, but this allows me to finish up a bit sooner.

I also am experimenting this month with reintroducing some basic yoga, in lieu of the stretching routine I had been doing after workouts. The routine was fine, but another Garmin badge (one I usually ignore) gave me the idea to try yoga instead for a while. I’ve certainly done yoga before, usually in a classroom context (e.g. life in Seattle with dancers and other artists), so I have a fairly decent idea of bsaic poses and what to do. It’s just never fit what I needed in recent years.

But Garmin has a basic 10 minute yoga routine called the Shoulder Relaxer that I find do-able. So I made a point to do this each evening at the gym after the spin bike and my leg swings. I’m doing an old Steve Pavlina style 30 day trial, where I decide to do it everyday for 30 days and if at the end I don’t like it I can dump it. But I have to do it everyday for 30 days first.

The biggest challenge hasn’t been the poses, which for me are not hard at all, but remembering the routine and how to do them. The Garmin program will name the poses and count down time but won’t show you what to do, plus for some of the poses they use different names than I remember for those poses. I went in before yesterday and added basic descriptions to show up on my watch during the routine, and that certainly helped some.

I’m only into my 3rd day of doing this for the whole month, but so far so good. I’ll do the yoga routine after whatever else I’m doing at my last session at the gym that day, whether it’s spin bike work or my strength training.

This also means I have to go the gym every day this month, which I had already been doing for a while until recently (I’ve made a point to take some days off from the gym, especially if I ran that day). I won’t go to the gym just to do a 10 minute yoga routine, so I have to couple it with something else. It just means I get to do a little extra cross training, if nothing else. An extra spin bike session while reading isn’t exactly hard on me.

Though it’s cooled off and I can run after work once again, I may also run more in the mornings before work. I’ve been leaving home early and going to coffee a lot in the mornings, so getting up early isn’t a problem. Running in the dark while it’s cold might be, though, and since I’m training for a late spring marathon I don’t need the acclimation to cold for that.

Still, a drive across town and a 6-7 AM easy or moderate run on the outskirts in higher altitude before work might be less stressful than going to a park right after work and risking a later evening on an evening run in possibly-smoggier conditions.

We’ll see. I’ve avoided the need to make a decision so far because all my midweek runs are 3-4 miles, which were do-able during lunch. Now, the scheduled midweek runs are getting longer, and I can’t do those during a lunch break, so it’s time to find out how the morning runs feel.

Discussing the 1-1-2 Marathon Training Template and Who It’s Good For

Many marathon coaches and writers have similar, converging ideas. It’s impossible for every training plan to be unique, and it’s not that anyone’s necessarily stealing from anyone else. With so many minds, coaches, runners… many are eventually going to find similar approaches and follow very similar schedules.

I just ran into one such case, where Hal Higdon recently created a new marathon training schedule (Marathon 3), and its three day weekly structure is very similar to the FIRST Marathon training approach.

Another example is that, even though fundamentally they employ different approaches, IronFit and Hal Higdon in their marathon plans each gravitate to what I call a 3 and 2 schedule, where the week starts with three consecutive workouts, and after a day off the week concludes with back to back workouts ending with the long run, followed by a day off.

Those are examples of plans I’ve covered. However, many many other plans I have read and analyzed but not discussed here follow a four day a week approach I will call a 1-1-2 template. In large part, I haven’t discussed them because each of them follow the template in very similar fashion.

The 1-1-2 Template:

Whether it begins Monday, or Tuesday (with Monday off), the first workout of the week is a shorter/medium distance run, or a speed interval workout (400 meter repeats, 800m repeats, or similar).

After the following day is taken off, the 2nd workout on Wednesday/Thursday is a medium distance run, often a tempo or marathon pace run.

After that workout’s following day is taken off, a Friday/Saturday easy run of short/medium distance is followed the day after by the long run. Some may do the whole long run easy, some may insert a marathon pace segment in the run or at the end of the run. But that ends the week’s training.

Tom Holland, Dr. Jim, Jeff Gaudette’s Runners Connect, are some quick examples of writers/coaches who follow this basic template. They can vary in what strength training or cross training they ask you to do between workouts, as well as exactly what kind of workouts you do on the running days.

As a quick hit to the Who’s It Good For concept, and recognizing these plans are different between one another, I still think some general groups may or may not want to consider a plan with this structure:

Who Does This Not Work For?

Run streakers. Obviously you would not be running every day in these plans, and typically these plans ask for so much volume or intensity in the midweek workouts that running short/easy on the rest days is counterproductive. You may as well pick a plan not following this template.

High volume runners. The reasonable ceiling for weekly mileage on plans like these is about 50 miles per week, and that’s presuming you log double digit mileage on the weekday workouts as well as consistently get near that 20 mile mark on the long run.

You could double workout on the training days, but the main workouts are typically somewhat tough, and that could inhibit recovery.

Like the run streakers, you probably want a plan with more frequent, consecutive midweek runs.

Runners who don’t like speed or tempo work. On all these plans I’ve always seen some volume of at least marathon-pace work or tempo running, if not full speed interval workouts. If you’d rather not do any speedwork, Hal Higdon’s Intermediate plans are typically devoid of any speed or tempo running outside of marathon pace runs. If you just want to run easy, you probably need more frequent run workouts than 4 days a week anyway.

Who Does This Work For?

Runners who need breaks. There is a built in day off after three of the four key workouts. If you’ve burned out or worn down from plans with back to back to back runs, a plan like this could help you immensely, possibly more than FIRST or Higdon’s Marathon 3 (since they tend to ask for a lot of extra cross training outside of the workouts).

Runners who have other interests outside of training. The extra days off also give you more space for the rest of your life than most plans do. Some people need the days off to recover between workouts more than others, and plans like this are more accommodating than the other plans I’ve discussed before, while still providing suffient training volume and intensity to get you ready for the marathon.

Runners who struggle with tempo work. The thing with tempo workouts in this format compared to other day-off-rich training plans is that the day off before AND after the midweek speed/tempo sessions better allows you to load up for and recover from these workouts. Some people have a real hard time with executing tempo workouts, and much of that is having to do a workout the day before and/or after, leaving little time for recovery.

This schedule typically assures you have rest time before and after the tempo workouts, maximizing your energy on the workout itself and facilitating your recovery afterward before you tackle the back to back workouts to end the week.

The large number of 1-1-2 plans would be a redundant exercise to cover. But hopefully the above can help you determine if these styles of plans are worth pursuing, or if you’re better off moving along whenever you see them.

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Hal Higdon’s Marathon 3 training plan: Who’s It Good For?

You’ll notice I’ve never written a What’s It Good For feature on the somewhat famous Hal Higdon marathon training plans.

Part of that is they’re by and large recognized as a reliable starter-plan for runners unfamiliar with serious training for a race, or just seeking a straight-forward training plan. It’s often one of the first plans most aspiring runners find and turn to when they want to train for a race. It’s a more old school, traditional approach to run training, fairly straight forward and reliable.

So the audience for these plans is pretty clear. Why write a whole What’s It Good For piece on Higdon’s plans when many reading have already (most likely) gone to and possibly followed his plans before reading? There’s little confusion about whether or not these plans work for someone, and someone reading is typically looking for a different approach.

Now, that said, I’ve come back to Higdon’s work time and again. His writing helped me get back into running years ago and helped me build my ability to run for distance. In fact, for all the What’s It Good Fors I’ve written, if someone on the street asked me for advice on running regularly or doing races for the first time, I’d most likely send them to Hal’s website as a starting point. His basic advice and plans consistently work.

So while figuring out my intended training for the 2022 Vancouver Marathon, I also looked up Hal’s old marathon plans. Incidentally, I wanted more intel on how he’d schedule strength training (because obviously I want to continue strength training through Van training), and his incumbent marathon plans didn’t specifically discuss strength training.

I ran a search to see if I could find reference thereto on his website, and it led me to a plan of his I hadn’t found before: Marathon 3. This is a newer hybrid plan for recreational “gap” runners: Not quite a traditional intermediate marathoner, not really a novice.

The Marathon 3 program fits conveniently between Novice 2 and Intermediate 1, but its main feature (and appeal) is that it offers only three days of running and an extra dose of cross training for those of us who need a bit more rest between our running workouts.

Hal Higdon.

That said, I think more advanced runners may find value in the plan as well, especially if they’ve been burned out or injured on higher volume plans.

Marathon 3 (which I’ll also call M-3) looks decidedly different in schedule-pattern from Higdon’s other plans, which traditionally follow a 3 and 2 weekly cycle: Three early week workouts, rest, then a two workout block of a moderate effort run followed immediately by the long run and a rest/cross day. This one has no scheduled back to back runs.

So you know what? I think Higdon’s Marathon 3 is not only different enough from his other training plans to warrant a write-up, but the fact that it was a bit out of digital sight and I had to find it by accident tells me it’s worth linking and showing to readers.

Plus, you’ll get some insight into my thoughts on Higdon’s principles, and when/how they work well.

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Gaining fitness (and weight)

This week, for the first time in months, I’ve run frequently with no ill effects and feeling completely normal. My body finally got enough rest to heal all the way up.

I decided this week to train for Vancouver 2022 with Hal Higdon’s Marathon 3 plan, though this week I’ve mixed in extra work break jogs on the off days to try and hit a couple of Garmin badges for November. Thus I’ve actually run every day since Tuesday, and other than feeling a bit weary this morning I feel good.

I have also, despite a relatively modest diet and despite a lot of this and cross training, gained some weight. I’m back over 180 pounds again. However, I’m also feeling quite a bit stronger in general, especially on runs, so the strength training appears to be paying off. After my near-daily lifting prior to this week, I’ve scaled back to 2-3 days of lifting each week with days off from lifting after each of those workouts. I also chased each of those lifting workouts with 20-45 minutes of cross training on either the elliptical or the spin bike. And that doesn’t include any of the walking I do on breaks at work if I’m not running.

My main objective right now is to restore comfort with run training volume, so once I’m seriously training three days a week that feels easier to handle. I think the last few months, injury or not, it felt like a struggle to stay above water with some of my workouts. They didn’t used to feel that way, and now it’s no longer feeling that way. Sure, some of that was probably the extreme Vegas heat and that’s definitely gone now.

I think the difference maker this time is my strength training. It was fine earlier this year, but not as specific and challenging as it needed to be for what I’m trying to do. Refining it from the standard 4 set blocks I had done on machines and dumbbells to the progressions and 12-8 four setters I do now has pushed my limits forward. If the hamstring and groin problems had a silver lining, it was compelling me to focus on these and get strength training more specifically in line with my goals.

The overhead squat I adopted from Dan John’s writing has been a clear difference maker. In the weeks I’ve been doing it I’ve gone from struggling with just a couple small plates on a 25 lb Smith bar, to now being able to capably handle reps at 40-50 lbs with a 2 rep max at 80 lbs. The overhead’s had a positive impact on the maxes for all my other key exercises. Having previously maxed at about 120 lbs on the leg press machine, I suddenly was able to progress to bodyweight, and now I’m maxing 3 reps at 220 lbs. My lat pulldown had maxed at about 80 lbs and now I’m pulling reps at 110 lbs.

Most of all, I feel a clear improvement in overall strength when running. While aerobically I’m still struggling with the higher altitude and hills I’m usually running with, I’m not feeling like I need to regularly slow down or stop anymore (though granted some of that had to do with my ongoing injury issues).

Even today, after back to back to back running days, I don’t feel sore at all and am totally ready to run more miles. I’m only taking a couple of brief work break runs today, and tomorrow the plan is to run about 10K.

So, though I got away from this point, maybe the extra weight is not a problem right now. I’m not going out of my way to overeat or undereat, that weird thing we all should know how to do called auto-regulating. It may be contributing to the strength I’ve found I gained, as muscles rebuild and glycogen stores top off. This is where my body needs to be at right now, and as I progress if the weight needs to come down, it’ll come down. While I’ll continue tracking it daily, I’m not going to worry about my weight right now… especially with the food-rich holiday season approaching. I’m training through it anyway! So I’ll have a use for all the extra food.

More to come as training progresses through the coming weeks.


Accidentally figuring out Vancouver 2022 Training

Instead of the intervals I had previously planned to do, I spent this week weight training, walking through my work breaks, and waiting for my hamstrings to feel more normal.

A week off did the hamstrings good, and in the interim I researched through different training plans ahead of Vancouver 2022. This time around, I am looking to not improvise or handwrite any plans and am looking to follow more of a specific plan.

Though I had hoped to trickle in the easy interval approach, I can see the curve to get in condition for that probably isn’t going to work right now. But I also want to start running and training soon, and want to set myself up for being in good marathon condition.

Go figure I accidentally find what might be the right marathon plan for what I need right now, early this morning over coffee.

I’ve worked with Hal Higdon‘s traditional training plans in the past while developing my running abilities, and they’d done me good for what I needed. I dabbled after that in other different training approaches and kind of left Higdon’s specific plans behind, but I’ve always come back to his basic principles, and I had in fact considered one of his marathon plans for Vancouver before exploring other templates.

While looking over his intermediate marathon plan, which is okay but is a little light on tempo, speed and pace work… I didn’t see any mention about how he’d fit in strength training, and went googling to see where he discusses it.

The results ended up showing me a marathon training plan of his I hadn’t seen: Marathon 3.

Marathon 3 is a recently written training plan of his that more closely resembles the FIRST template, where you run 3 times a week and then cross train on other days. Higdon though does have you run easy for most of his run workouts, rather than FIRST’s approach of making you go hard each time. Also, back to my original point, Higdon mentions that you should strength train on the Monday and Wednesday off days in the plan.

M-3 also has you run longer and easy on most of the midweek runs, plus run a lot of tune up races, which I like. And the quality midweek workout cycles between different workouts (tempo runs, pace runs, easy runs). Also, the plan is 24 weeks long, longer than Higdon’s other plans and most others. You also cap off the week with a long cross training workout, instead of the medium distance run followed immediately by a long run.

Incidentally, for the plan’s 24 week timing to work, I would have to start the plan this week. So I considered it a sign and penciled the plan into my schedule. And it turns out the schedule fits mine particularly well. So, that’s what I’m going with going forward.

Since it’s a long plan, what’s great is that if M-3 isn’t working for some reason in the first few weeks, other plans are shorter and I can just switch to the start of one of those if I need to.

However, I went with it because the schedule leaves days between runs, which I may need at this point given my struggles with more frequent running and with random injury problems.

I made a couple of mild modifications, extending the length of the midweek cross training workout since I’m already comfortable with going 45+ minutes, and adding a strength training workout to the Friday rest day so that I strength train Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I would avoid strength training weekends.

Conveniently I had just finished a 5 day strength training cycle, which is the best time to recalibrate my swolework plan.

I have to consolidate to three strength workouts, so I have to axe some exercises that I don’t need right now. The bicep curls and tricep extensions are gone, as are the hamstring curls.

I was doing the Overhead Squats twice per 5 day cycle so I’m only doing them once per week now, on Mondays with the leg presses. I’m front loading leg-based exercises to the Monday workout since the next run after that is easy and that gives me at least a couple days before I have to run fast or long.

The 3rd workout in the 3 day cycle are exercises I don’t need as badly, since there will be some weeks where I probably can only strength train twice. While the lat pulldown can be important, my lats are a bit overactive which indicates I don’t need to strength train these as frequently. Face Pulls are valuable for posture but I don’t need a ton of heavy sets of these, plus the equipment needed is often taken at the gym. I’m already doing decline bench presses in the 2nd workout, so the incline bench presses are not as necessary. Thus I do these exercises as the 3rd day workout, and some weeks I won’t have a 3rd strength training day.

Starting tomorrow the plan is to run 3 miles easy, with 3 steady miles Thursday and then see how 6 miles feels Saturday. I would strength train today, Wednesday, and Friday. I’d ride the spin bike Wednesday and Sunday.

If all goes well, then we’re well on our way with a training plan.

Progressive Machine Strength Training: Modifying the Rapid Fire Sets

So since introducing the Rapid Fire Sets I’ve modified the approach in a way that suits my training and has benefitted me quite a bit. I should probably talk about it, and note that what I do now is not really true to the name anymore. I still think Rapid Fire Sets are valuable, but what I do now while similar is rather different.

First of all, this approach is exclusively used with strength machines at the gym, where the weight is set using a metal pin. You could probably use this with a Tonal or similar machine, if you have one.

But I don’t use this approach with free weights of any kind, as switching between them at the gym is too complicated and at times prohibitive. For exercises requiring free weights, I still continue to follow a standard four set block, with the first and last set 12 reps at a light weight, and the 2nd and 3rd middle sets 8 reps at twice the weight.

Given that, here is the (as of now unnamed) approach I follow for any given machine exercise.

  • I start with a light weight. On most machines I’ll start at the lightest weight possible. In many cases I’ll start several pounds higher as the lightest weight is so effortless that it’s not an exercise. (As I get stronger I imagine I’ll do the latter with every machine)
  • I do 8 reps at that weight.
  • I pause/rest 30 seconds, during which I increase the weight by 10-20 pounds, depending on how the weight is divided on the machine. In my case, some stacks are in 10 pound blocks, some are in 20 pound blocks. Whatever the next step up in weight is, that’s what I increase the weight to.
  • Then I do 8 reps at the new weight. Then I stop for 30 seconds, and increase again by one step. Repeat.
  • Once I’m at a weight that’s too heavy to finish 8 reps, or I finish an 8 rep set and know I probably don’t have enough to do the next weight up… I stop increasing. I rest another 30 seconds.
  • I divide the highest weight I lifted in half. I set the pin to that weight. Most machines have some way to let you do half increments, so if the half-weight is not an even number I use that to set the correct weight.
  • I then do 12 reps at the half-weight. After that, I am done with this exercise, and move on.

I now do this on machines for all my 20 minute workouts. I still restrict my strength workouts to 20 minutes, and find this way I can do two machine exercises, plus at least one regular 4-set block of a free weight exercise. I don’t always do 2-and-1… I might do all free weight exercises, or just one machine exercise. It depends on what I plan to work on that day.

Sometimes there’s enough time left over to do 2-4 sets of something else, and often I’ll do seated cable rows at a single light weight, hanging raises, or Russian twists, as these exercises work on muscle groups I incidentally want to improve. Which ones I do depends on feel. I’ve also mixed in odd exercises like farmer’s walks or goblet squats.

Since starting this approach I’ve found that if I leave a machine exercise for last, I often run out of time before I reach a weight too heavy to continue. I don’t go over-time: I just end the workout after the last set I’m able to complete before the clock reaches 20:00. So now, if I find maxing out an exercise important, I make sure to not do that one last. And I typically default to the old wisdom of “do the most important thing first”. Likewise, if I want to take it easy on a machine exercise, I’ll often schedule that one last, knowing the clock may run out before I can max it out.

Because I can only do about three exercises per workout, this allows me to spread my full routine across multiple workouts, without burning me out or leaving me too sore to continue in subsequent days. I’ve done a couple of 5-day splits and been able to strength train 4-6 times a week without problems. In the last month or so I’ve done this, I’ve made a ton of progress.

So while I have yet to codify this process (it is a bit complicated to clearly describe for others), I’ve found this progressive approach to strength training effective and repeatable.

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All of a sudden…

Out of nowhere, my right hamstring started bothering me while out walking. I had planned on running easy intervals the next couple weeks to test out the approach, but I quickly dialed all my running plans back once it started bothering me.

It’s still bothering me a bit this morning, and this time around I’m not sure if anything in particular triggered it let alone what. I had run a brief easy interval session Monday with no problems. I had only rode the spin bike and strength trained otherwise during the last week, with no ill effects. I walked as much as usual with no problems.

At this point, the one set of training I’ve done full speed ahead is my strength training, and the only work below the waist I’ve done consistently in the last week has been the overhead squats. Even then, only four sets of 3 reps, with no soreness or distress afterward. Everything else works upper body or core, no ill effects from that aside from residual mild soreness here and there.

Now granted, yesterday I had other random pain come and go in my knee, my hip socket, while walking. So who knows… the weather isn’t really changing in Vegas, but maybe atmospheric pressure or the pull of the moon or something was screwing with my biology yesterday. I’ll be more concerned if I’m still hurting in a few days.

Still, I want to resume regular running, and none of this is stopping me from easy running. I had wanted to do the easy intervals to get away from slower easy running and try to do some faster runner at a lesser volume. If my body’s not reday for that, then I need to listen and just run easy until maybe it is. There’s going to be gaps and breaks throughout the rest of this year anyway, so it’s not like I can’t pivot or rest if I need to stop or outgrow running easy.

On the flip side, strength training is actually going quite well. I’ve substantially improved numbers on pretty much every exercise I do, and am making progress on the new overhead squat. Again, I only do 20 minutes every day, not a second more, and I’m not doing much lower body training beyond ab/oblique work and the overheads, so this probably isn’t cutting into my running capacity.

At the same time, I gained some weight back. Some of this is the combination of the added strength training emphasizing muscle mass, the water retention that comes with that and resulting inflammation, plus the diminished aerobic work over time since the spin bike simply doesn’t burn the calories running does, during or after training. I’ll be more worried if I resume running and the weight stays.

I’m going to run easy today, and if there’s no issue see if I can do some short repeats tomorrow.