Fitness Debriefing After Vancouver 2019

VancouverMedalSitting down and beaten up from the longest run is a great time to take stock of where I’m at with fitness and what I ought to do for next time, even if next time isn’t going to get here for a little while.

I worked hard to prepare for and run Vancouver, and while I improved my endurance and strength in a variety of ways, there’s a number of things that even before the race I knew I wanted and needed to improve.

There’s a lot of goals I have regarding how fast I want to run races, how fast I know I’m capable of running races, and there remains a substantial gap between what I can do and what I want to be able to do… a gap I believe I can substantially close starting even before the beginning of my next training cycle….

It’s time to focus on building strength

I’ve had a casual dating relationship with strength training over the last couple years, and I think it’s time to go steady. Is it fitness polyamory if I keep my relationship with running, though? Since I’m still in Vancouver as I write this, am I committing any Canadian metaphor crimes with this paragraph?

All my running, form work and training has developed some basic fundamental strength, but the marathon has a way of slapping you in the face with all your weaknesses.

I’m certain that, while the heat, course and previous training concerns were factors, a subtle lack of strength was itself a key factor in why I tired. As you tire during a long run, your weaknesses exacerbate and further break down your ability to run strong or fast.

Even shortly before the marathon, doing a bit of strength training, I could see I wanted to improve core and upper body conditioning, as well as my dynamic range of motion in my lower body.

I’ll build bodywork strength training into my training this summer, and more on that in a bit.

The recent flu hurt my training, and it didn’t

Catching this season’s surprise 2nd strain of the flu prevented me from piling on key peak-period mileage let alone getting in another confidence-boosting 20 miler. I was able to bust out a strong 17 after recovering, but I knew the flu had prevented me from fully stretching out.

Likewise, the flu forced me to dramatically reduce my volume for a couple weeks, which gave my lower body time to absorb previous training that probably helped eke out more value from what peak training I could get in afterward. And of course the added recovery reduced any wear and tear that my subsequent taper had to heal up.

As too many others say, it’s better to get to the starting line undertrained than overtrained. While the flu meant I got to the line undertrained, the extra recovery helped make this race a bit less painful… even if being undertrained made running the last half more difficult.

My stomach stopped digesting around the halfway mark

Much like Chicago, my stomach was able to churn through its contents for about the first half of the race. After that, it stayed filled with liquid, meaning very little liquid consumed from there would get quickly digested.

Eating a bit of solid food, while a bit cumbersome, was a bit helpful in giving my stomach something different and less sugary to work with. But my stomach digestion slowed considerably at the halfway mark, and after the half banana I was given it was all but done digesting once I reached Stanley Park.

This is good to know for future planning. My hydration pack bladder, filled to a bit below 2 liters, was nearly tapped out after the race. I managed to sip out about 1.5 liters over the course of the entire race, having occasionally pulled 3-7 small gulps throughout the race. That’s about 380 calories of glucose solution.

The coconut Larabar was 230 calories. I ate half of it at the top of UBC, shortly after my stomach sloshed to indicate it had slowed down. I ate parts of the remaining half periodically through the middle portion of the run.

So that’s 610 calories consumed during the race, 126g (504 calories) of which were carbohydrate. This does not include the two bananas and butter croissant I had very early that morning. And at no point did I bonk, so I know for the pace I ran that was probably enough fuel.

However, I was also intentionally taking it easy. If I were to race a future marathon, my body would burn a higher ratio of glycogen. Thus I either need to have more glycogen available (whether I consume more, or I develop the ability to store more in my muscles)… or I need to lose weight so that my body burns fewer calories.

One of these measures is more feasible.

I want and need to lose some weight.

I’m at a decent weight overall. And I don’t want to lose muscle, especially as I get older and age related muscle loss becomes an issue you need to work against for your health.

But I can afford to lose some cushion, currently at 17-18% body fat. Some of this could be water weight from eating processed food here and there. But some of that fat can afford to go. I let it build up during the winter for a variety of reasons (not to mention the extra padding for the cold), but it can afford to go.

It’s entirely possible to shed fat without damaging your fitness and health. And my diet has gradually improved to a point where now, if I decided to completely clean it up, eating totally clean wouldn’t be too difficult compared to what I do now.

I’m not looking to get ripped or shredded. But shedding 10 pounds of fat plus unnecessary water weight would certainly make running a lot easier. Without any other fitness improvement, you can drop 3 seconds per mile off your current times for every pound you lose. And carrying less weight makes running long a lot easier on your body.

The key is to maintain muscle, strength and health while losing the weight. Cleaning up my diet and running a slight calorie deficit over time while getting enough protein and carbohydrates to rebuild between workouts will make this easier.

The hydration pack was the best investment

I finally bought a 2 liter hydration pack a short while back for long runs, knowing I wanted to use one for the Vancouver Marathon. Since Vancouver uses low-calorie Nuun as their energy drink instead of Gatorade, I wanted to carry my own Gatorade, and a hydration pack is the only viable way to carry enough.

It worked so well and so easily that I can call the pack my best running investment in a while. I’m not into ranking things like that, but it’s up there with my Roll Recovery massager and my Topo Athletic shoes. It put me in total control of my marathon race fueling instead of being at the mercy of aid stations. Even with my stomach slowing in the middle miles, that made a huge difference.

My glutes saved my quads

I talk ad nauseum about the glutes being your running powerhouse. And nowhere are they more important than in a hilly marathon.

Downhill running for most destroys people’s quads, since most people over-rely on their quads and hamstrings to provide running power. The damage done on extended downhill running often takes a couple weeks to fully heal.

However, I have long since trained my body to power running through the glutes. And my practice on Cricket Hill for the Lakefront 10 combined with my other Vancouver training helped hone my downhill running so that my running was in control and my glutes were the muscles absorbing the impact of the descent.

This was exactly how the descent to Camosun and the descent out of UBC felt. I don’t know how everyone else felt, but my quads felt totally normal (… well, for a very long run, at least) after both big downhills. They only felt stiff the day after, only a slight bit sore as is typical following a long run or tough race.

As I type this two days later, when delayed onset muscle soreness should hit, it’s my inner thighs and glutes that feel particularly sore, more than the quads and hamstrings. I’ve been able to walk at length, even run across some crosswalks and climb up the hotel stairs without terribly much trouble. It certainly helps that I’ve been eating well and that I slept a lot following the race. But my form set me up for success in recovery.

Never walking was not only a personal mission. It was the key.

With my fitness merely enough to get me through the race rather than to crush it, my only other goal aside from finishing a race I could not last year was to make sure I did not walk any part of the course at any point. No matter how slowly I had to go to make sure I could, I made sure to run every inch.

It harkened back to my first days of serious running years ago, when I latched onto the basic Hal Higdon advice to, “Put one foot in front of the other and run. It sounds simple, and it is. Just make sure to cover the distance required.”

But it also was my key to limiting the misery and maximizing the experience of running Vancouver. Unless you are following a prescribed Galloway-style run and walk plan, walking in a marathon when you can capably continue to run can actually be a poison pill.

It’s like in the card game Hearts when someone is finally forced to play the first heart card, aka hearts is broken. You open a Pandora’s Box once you slow to that first walk and establish psychologically to yourself that walking is an option. Even when you resume running, as soon as you feel any temptation to slow to a walk you will again. And it will only extend your misery, as walking is of course much slower than running at any speed.

It helps that I learned from day one to run slow as a default. No matter how tired I am, I typically can at least trot-jog and keep moving faster than even a power walk. Because of this, no matter how tired I was in the final 10K, I could certainly continue running at some sort of speed.

Having the goal to keep running no matter what helped keep me focused on the process, and turns out it got me to the finish line a good deal quicker than if I caved into the temptation to slow to a walk. There’s a lot more pride in how I ran this race than I would have had if I decided to run/walk out of exhaustion instead.

Having the next 36 hours off was important.

After I ran Chicago last fall, I was roped into attending a post-race party that afternoon. Plus, I went right back to work the next day. Granted, my commute is fairly easy and at my job I sit at a desk all day, so the latter wasn’t unduly demanding on me physically.

But I feel so much better than last time in part because after this race, I had a meal, went back to the hotel and slept. I woke up late that night to eat and then went back to sleep. I had the whole next day free to do as I wanted or needed at my pace.

With no obligation to do anything for the next few days, I was free to listen to my body in the short run and allow as much immediate recovery as I could get. If I had to immediately fly home and/or go back to work, I’d probably feel a lot more beat up today.

Whether or not my boss would like it, I think taking off the day after the Chicago Marathon this fall would be a good idea. Sure, I live close by and would have ready access to all my normal food etc. But having the subsequent Monday off to continue recovery and make sure everything is all right would be a huge recovery-speeding boost.

My marathon heart rate is about 10 beats below what they tell you.

Given a peak heart rate of 186, my heart rate apparently should be in the mid-150’s. I’ve certainly trained at that level, and there were a few early points on Sunday where it sat around there.

But as the race progressed and I escaped the big hills, I let it drift down to the 140’s, and I felt more comfortable overall running at that level.

Looking back at all my training, I compare my speed and tempo training heart rates to coach recommended heart rates. I always find my heart rate is about 5-10 beats lower. I know my peak heart rate is correct because I’ve seen myself reach it on my tracker. So this indicates that my training heart rates for key tempos are probably lower than the recommendations.

Thus, if I’m running marathons at a 144 heart rate instead of the advised 154 and that feels right to me, then maybe that’s where I need to train and race marathons.

I left enough to finish with a final surge.

I always like to run hard for the finish line at races. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to do it here. But as the finish line got within reach at Vancouver, I definitely felt like the legs had enough for the big finish and I picked it up to a hard run for the final 100 meters or so.

Some would argue that if you can do that, you didn’t run the race hard enough. I say bollocks. I do have to walk back to the hotel and continue on with my life once I’m done, after all. I don’t have a problem with giving 98-99%, and making sure you can walk away, unless critics plan on personally carrying me everywhere for the next four days.

But seriously, this means I gave the right amount of effort in this race. I didn’t overuse my energy and run out of gas. I didn’t bonk. I got to the gas station without having to push or tow the car there.

My Fitbit didn’t flip out

During my last two long runs, my two year old Fitbit Blaze began wildly flickering halfway through and would not relax unless I stopped it and reset the tracker. Along with being slow to recharge, I began to worry that the tracker may be dying. Worse so, I feared it would die in the middle of the marathon.

Alas, the problem did not resurface in the final two weeks of training. And with more consistent charging it did eventually charge back to full power. The tracker had no problems on my final Vancouver runs before the race. I ran the race at close to full power and the tracker had no problems.

I’m not about to throw away a tool that still works. At some point I’ll need to replace this old Fitbit. That point isn’t here yet.

A Sushi and banana carb load was much better than pasta and bread

I admit that last year at Vancouver I didn’t have much of a plan for pre-race fueling, didn’t eat as clean as I should have, and probably botched a good deal of it being in a hotel space and away from my kitchen.

This year, I was willing to spend a bit more and make sure I ate good food that would recharge me and best get me ready to run on Sunday.

Last year’s feeble attempt at carb loading wasn’t close to enough. But I didn’t want to gorge on pasta or bread. So, along with sticking to bananas, I found a favorite substitute: Sushi rolls.

I went out and ate a lot of sushi in the two days before the marathon. Vancouver has a lot of cheaper, high quality sushi options that allowed me to eat 3-5 rolls at a time for around $20-25 Canadian (currently $15-18 USD). The sizable quantity of white rice with the cuts of protein and omega-3 rich raw fish were a winning combination.

Even with a lot of walking around Vancouver and a longer Stanley Park run 3 days before, my muscles had enough glycogen to run the whole marathon and not bonk.

Though sushi is not as great an option in other locales, it’s good to see that white rice is a strong carb option if I were to do a marathon in another city. And of course back at home my carb options are much more diverse and consistent with my normal diet. Meanwhile, if I’m out west, sushi rolls and bananas are perfect in the final days before a race.

The Canadian Gatorade hit the spot

My plan was to carry 2 liters of Gatorade in a hydration pack, but obviously you can’t carry liquid onto a plane. So I had to buy Gatorade in Canada, which worked out fine. I bought 3.5L for $4 Canadian.

I of course tested the Canadian Gatorade and the hydration pack while running in Stanley Park. I drank some the day before the marathon. This was mostly to see if the different manufacturing messed with my stomach, or to adjust in case it did. But there were no hitches.

Things I want in my next training cycle:

So, after a month to ease back into a regular schedule as well as heat-acclimate to the forthcoming summer, I begin training for another marathon as I’ll be running the Chicago Marathon again in mid-October.

Here are the key items I want to do in training:

Consistently super-long weekend runs. I run long, but rarely do I top the 2 hour mark on long runs. I think it’s time to make a routine of longer weekend runs to acclimate my body and make these longer runs less daunting. Consistently approaching or exceeding 3 hours on a long run will help make maintaining pace in the marathon more do-able and make longer runs like a marathon less physiologically daunting. Mile 25 won’t feel as bad if it just feels like a slightly longer version of what I already typically do.

9 day training “weeks”. Writers like the hansons have briefly discussed this, and it’s a concept more clearly spelled out by Meb in his book Meb For Mortals. Basically, most of us train on a 7 day weekly schedule, but many older runners may get more out of a 9 day “week”, where there’s fewer “weeks” and the end of a training “week” may vary, but you can build in more recovery time between key workouts.

Provided your schedule isn’t rigid, this can actually help keep your long and key workouts more consistent by reducing the likelihood of fatigue or other issues delaying or derailing key workouts.

Since I’ve worked to make my life running-friendly, and since I’m capable of doing long postwork runs, this is asbolutely do-able, and may be better for me than trying to cram 2-3 key workouts or a truckload of miles with no real recovery into a 7 day week.

An example “week”:

Day 1 (Mon): Regular run + strength training post-work.
Day 2 (Tue): Easy run post-work.
Day 3 (Wed): 400m speed reps at the track post-work.
Day 4 (Thu): Regular morning run. Strength training post-work.
Day 5 (Fri): Easy run post-work.
Day 6 (Sat): Tempo run whenever it’s most suitable.
Day 7 (Sun): Regular run + strength training whenever suitable.
Day 8 (Mon): Easy run post-work.
Day 9 (Tue): Long run post-work.

And then you cycle back to Day 1 the following Wednesday.

Perhaps the longest long runs can be on weekend days, with weekday long runs being on the shorter side to practically allow getting home, eating and sleeping at a reasonable hour.

Perhaps the hardest speed workouts or the lengthiest tempo runs can be weekend ones, while the weekday occurences can be shorter.

The regular runs on Saturday or Sunday can be a bit longer if desired. Any of the easy run days can be days off as needed.

But what this does is put two easier days between every key workout, which lessens the likelihood of fatigue pushing back or cancelling a planned tempo or speed workout.

Too often I find myself pushing off a speed or tempo workout due to various concerns. I think this would allow me to get them all in, and better develop my long distance racing ability.

Built in scheduled strength training. You saw strength training in the above example. I didn’t use to schedule strength training, but as mentioned I’m probably going to this time. It’ll be simple: Full 15-30 minute workouts will occur after returning from my runs.

Other days can be strength workout or skill drill opportunities, as habit forming will be important as always. But they won’t be too long or detailed on non-key-strength days.

A more optimal diet. I’d currently say my average diet is about 60-80% of what I want it to be. I’ve still reached for processed food on many occasions as needed. I want to see going forward if I can close the gap and eliminate the need for that over long stretches, if not entirely. This is the key to losing the weight I mentioned above, and improving my long distance running fitness.

At work I’ve found a good combination of apples, peanut butter, wild tuna and bananas to not only get me through the workday but also fuel prep for my postwork runs home from work. I’ve taken a liking to afternoon herbal tea, and after dabbling with the Kenyan approach of drinking it with milk I may do that more often, especially on key workout days.

Though I’ve intermittent-fasted a lot and skipped breakfast, I’ve also found that poaching eggs in the morning for a breakfast works for me as well. I think I’ll do that regularly instead of eating them in the evening as I’ve often done.

When I can quickly eat nutritious food after returning home, preparing and cooking a healthy dinner of baked chicken and boiled potatoes becomes a lot easier to do. The period after a postwork run is where I can experiment with new choices. I’ve had oatmeal on various occasions, and something like that could work well here.

On tough days where extra calories are needed, it’s not a big deal to carry the hydration pack and drink Gatorade during long workouts if the rest of my diet is that clean.

Of course, I’m not giving up morning coffee. It’s free at work anyway!


So, there’s a lot to look forward to after I get back home. Even though regular running won’t resume for a few weeks (I do have to ease back into it once I resume running!), I have plenty of things to work on with diet and recovery. I also can get back to my consistent home cooking. I can resume some light, easy bodyweight fitness stuff as soon as this weekend, which will help further spur recovery.

I’m also looking forward to my air purifier and ionizer. Though I feel good, I also haven’t slept as much overall in Vancouver. I’ve noticed the difference with my sleep in the Vancouver hotel room, and having my fresher air almost certainly will help.

It’s almost time to get back to work, in a lot of ways.

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