Category Archives: Running

A Training Plan Need Not Be So Structured

man sitting on bench

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Ideally when deciding to run a goal race, you find or write a training plan (with or without a coach), and then you follow it.

But maybe no training plan out there is an ideal fit and you don’t have a coach. Maybe you had a plan and found out much too late that the plan is not working for you (and because none of us can rewind time, you can’t start over!).

Of course, it is entirely possible for a runner to train for a race without following a hard-set defined training plan. It might not adequately prepare you for the race, and therein lies the risk.

But then again there’s always a non-zero chance that following a given training plan doesn’t quite prepare you for a goal race either. Any approach to training comes with its set of risks. What would be the fun and accomplishment in training for a race if any recipe or approach made doing it foolproof or easy?

Still, if you want to run a race and you have at least a couple months to generally train, you could prepare for that race without a specified written training plan. It’s as simple as a consistent habit of multiple workouts per week, with as many of them as reasonably possible being specific endurance workouts: Workouts that specifically work on things you need to do in the actual race.

It helps if you’re already running regularly and in some degree of condition to race, but even if not you could adequately train with a general, consistent schedule provided you have enough time before the race.

Again, training for a race involves executing with these acute factors:

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Quick Anti-Illness Tips When Training

Along the lines of my avoiding illness post, I want to offer some additional tips for runners who are seriously training for a goal race during an illness epidemic (such as the current novel coronavirus situation):

Avoid doing endurance workouts in a gym or other crowded place

Going back to previous points about how crowded indoor spaces are full of airborne bacteria and viruses, the gym is full of other people, and the one thing you want to generally avoid is being around other people.

One key component of aerobic endurance workouts is the increased volume of your breathing, meaning you are taking in more of the air around you. Do so in an indoor environment during an epidemic, and you’re increasing your exposure to the illness of the day.

So, as uncomfortably cold or otherwise less than ideal it may be, you should do all of your workouts outdoors if possible. However, if you have a treadmill or other cross training equipment indoors at home or in a space that’s infrequently occupied, like a friend or family member’s house or at a fitness room that no one ever uses… you can also use that.

The key criterion here is the presence and proximity of other people. Avoid enclosed spaces where you have to share oxygen with other people during an epidemic.

Don’t go inside right after an outdoor workout

Following a workout, you’re in a compromised state where you’re taking in a larger volume of oxygen than normal. If you live with other people, this as above increases your potential exposure to airborne illnesses.

Instead of going right inside, go through an extended cool-down outdoors. Take an extended walk around the block or elsewhere. Perhaps bring your recovery fuel with you and ingest it outside. Spend some time getting to a state where you’re closer to normal before you go back inside.

It’s helpful if you drive to a separate outdoor location for workouts alone and can drive alone for some time before you return home or to your otherwise crowded destination. This gives you valuable cool-down time to normalize.

A sound outdoor cool-down typically takes at least 5-10 minutes, but take however long you need to in order to return to a more relaxed normal state.

If you don’t work out in daylight, try to get some sunlight

As Alexander J.A. Cortes has said time and again, bacteria and viruses are photo sensitive and heat sensitive. Sunlight basically (for lack of the scientifically accurate terminology) neutralizes and kills both.

The vast majority of people during a winter flu season spend all their time indoors, offering zero opportunity for the sun to kill the very bacteria and viruses they’re trying to get rid of.

However, if you are (as mentioned above) working out in the outdoors, and you’re not doing so at night or at the crack of dawn, you are exposing yourself to sunlight and helping yourself already.

Barring that, make a point to get outside before, during or after work/school and at least walk in the sunlight for a little while, at least 20-30 minutes if not more. Of course, you don’t want to stay out so much you risk sunburn. But even sun on your exterior winter clothes can contribute to eliminating the presence of an illness.

If you home has humidity, get a de-humidifier

Germs thrive in the presence of humidity. Bacteria and viruses incidentally struggle to spread in desert environments due to not just (the aforementioned) abundant sunlight but also the very dry air.

However, many environments have some degree of humidity. Those in midwestern America and near ocean environments probably have a lot of humidity in their indoor and outdoor air.

Such people should consider investing in a dehumidifier, commonly used in summer to make sleep conditions more bearable in hotter months. Used during a winter epidemic, the elimination of indoor humidity can interfere with airborne illnesses’ ability to stay airborne and spread.

Couple with the use of an indoor electric air filter, and you do yourself a lot of good during an epidemic.

Spend an hour outside before or after work

Those who live in a big city and do a lot of their commute on foot may already do this, if it requires enough commute-walking.

However, especially if most of your commute is on a bus or train, you still want to bank some extra time walking or sitting outside before or after work.

This goes back to the benefits of open air and sunlight during an epidemic. You help clear your lungs while also help reduce the presence of airborne illness on and around you.

If you need to do strength workouts at the gym, do your floor work elsewhere

Some workouts need to be done in a public gym. For many, these workouts include standard strength training.

Thankfully, these workouts don’t require as much oxygen as your endurance workouts. Just make sure to still do your endurance workouts outside or in a secluded indoor location. And of course as always (and this is especially important during epidemics), wipe down your equipment before and after use.

However, save your floor work like self myofascial release (SMR, foam rolling), stretching and other calisthenic exercises (push ups, etc) for elsewhere. The floor is full of germs, and there’s not really any way to wipe that area down. If at all possible try to do some of those exercises on a bench, but I know many of these exercises must be done prone or supine on the floor.

Do these in a separate session before/afterward at home or in a secluded indoor area. It sucks to have to break a workout into separate parts like that, but getting sick sucks a lot more.

Do home workouts in a room alone with the window open

When I say secluded indoor area, the vast majority of the time I think this should be in your own enclosed room with no other traffic, where the only germs on the floor are your own. Obviously, make sure you have the needed floor space to do a workout (and having been there, I know many rooms don’t offer a lot of space).

If you live with others, you will want to open the window no matter how cold it might be. This will help circulate some of that diluted (cleaner) outdoor air into your room, and help circulate any possible contaminated indoor air out of the building.

Living alone of course makes this a lot easier. Opening the window is probably more optional if you live alone, depending on whether anyone has visited or how often you get visitors. And you probably have more space, likely enough to do a workout.

After unavoidable situations around other people, do a flush and clean as soon as possible

Whenever you do have to spend time around other people, you should try to do any of the following once you leave that environment and are alone or home:

  • Wash your hands with soap. If the winter conditions are chapping your hands, apply whatever lotion or solution you have that helps with that afterward. But do wash your hands.
  • Take rubbing alcohol, antibacterial cleaner/wipes or any other sort of suitable cleaner and wipe down any surfaces and equipment that was exposed to other people, including any surfaces on which you sat anything exposed to other people.
  • If home, remove/change your external clothes before sitting or laying on anything. Pretend you just fell on poison oak or landed on someone with bad ringworm or something. Anything exposed, get it in the hamper ASAP and get some clean clothes on.
  • If you’re home for the day or evening, consider taking a shower or bath right then and there. No need to take 3-5 showers in a day, obviously, but a 2nd shower or bath might be a good idea.
  • If it’s with you, use your neti pot with distilled water and a nasal-acceptable saline solution. If you don’t have these things, get them, learn to use them and start using them.
  • Drink at least 8oz of some hot liquid, whether it’s herbal liquid, some soup, or just boiled hot water with lemon or something similar in it. Consider bringing an electric kettle to work, some filtered water and whatever tea etc to allow for doing this away from home.

This sounds like overkill, but consider that the average person gets sick one or more times every winter. Doing the average effort is probably just going to get you sick. You’re trying not to get sick because you’re training. You should put in an above-average effort to safeguard yourself.

This isn’t a totally extreme approach (like wearing a HAZMAT suit and fumigating in an airlock). But it’s the least that’s substantially effective.

If you don’t feel well on a key workout day, do the distance without the intensity

I think it’s important to continue training at your normal frequency and volume however much you can during an epidemic. The circulation from your training is a prime weapon in warding off and filtering out illness.

However, some intense workouts may not be helpful if your body’s defenses have been partially compromised and you feel yourself battling an oncoming illness. While you should not totally give into it and take a break from training, you also may be doing more damage than good if you push through hard reps with a compromised immune system.

Instead, as you would if your muscles were sore or you were battling a minor injury, you should keep the scheduled distance while omitting the high intensity. If you know, for example, that a 12x400m workout with 400m recovery would require 8 miles of running (1 mile warmup, the 3 miles of reps plus the 3 miles of cool-down intervals, and a 1 mile cool-down run)… you could just run 8 easy miles that day instead. It’s not nearly as hard on your body but you still get the aerobic benefit of running the 8 miles, most of the neuro-muscular benefit from running the 8 miles (just without the intensity of the reps), and all of the respiratory circulation from doing the workout.

I found from experience that when I felt an illness coming on and just skipped workouts, I got sick as expected and stayed sick for a bit. Whenever I felt an illness coming on and made sure to keep training regularly, it either went away without making me totally sick, or I got sick but minimally so and then quickly recovered.

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Eating is (literally) stressful

abundance agriculture bananas batch

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

One observation from my Garmin watch is that my stress score goes up after meals. No matter what I eat, how healthy the food I’m eating, my stress levels go up after the meal and stay elevated for at least a couple hours or longer, depending of course on activity and whatever else I’m doing. This is even true if I eat before bed: My stress levels can remain high for up to 2 hours after I drift off to sleep, following a relatively late meal.

My body only shows as resting (meaning a low stress score) in the morning if I have yet to eat breakfast. Despite any hunger pangs, it’s less stressful for me (according to heart rate variability) to be hungry than it is for me to digest a meal after eating. I find I record more restful periods when I intermittent-fast, aka skip breakfast and eat my first meal in the afternoon. Even with the added stimulus of coffee, my stress levels remain in a low resting state.

Garmin’s stress score is a function of heart rate variability, which can indicate activation or rest of your body’s sympathetic nervous system, which activates the body for activity. When the sympathetic nervous system is regularly activated, that indicates your body is under stress. A heart rate that does not vary much is indicative of the sympathetic nervous system being activated.

What does this have to do with eating? The sympathetic nervous system is a component of the autonomic nervous system, which passively operates our organs and hormonal glands. When you eat food, the autonomic/sympathetic nervous system begins diverting blood from other organs to the stomach and other relevant digestive organs to digest your ingested food. This activation of your sympathetic nervous system will continue until your food has been suitably digested and absorbed.

Even if you are laying down and doing absolutely nothing, your sympathetic nervous system during digestion is at work and therefore your heart rate variability at rest is likely small enough to indicate a level of stress to your Garmin. That doesn’t seem fair, but welcome to human biology.

If you live a relatively low-stress existence, eat only 2-3 meals a day, and you’re in good health, this is likely not a big deal. Your heart rate will eventually return to normal variability in a couple hours, and your resting time will read to your tracker as being at rest.

Of course, the vast majority of humanity doesn’t fall into the very thin demographic I just outlined. Most of us deal with some substantial degree of regular stress. Many of us have different meal habits, and many snack or eat enough meals a day that their bodies are digesting food not just throughout the entire day but even after going to sleep. And, of course, most people are not in optimal health.

This never minds people who endurance train, and are already subjecting their bodies to substantial stress through their training. The irony is that, depending on their eating habits, their fueling after workouts may in fact be contributing to their overall (already high) stress levels.

Science incidentally hasn’t laid a hand on this subject in over a decade, so we don’t have a ton of data on why this needs to be a stress reaction let alone if we can change the body’s sympathetic nervous reaction to eating food. So we have to accept that this is reality and work within that.

This incidentally is an underlying reason why intermittent fasting and the old “eat dinner like a pauper” rule* works so well. Fasting by skipping breakfast leads to generally lower stress levels, which improves overall hormonal function. Eating light limits the stress affect on your sleep time, which can improve the quality of that sleep.

Of course, this should not be taken as license to starve yourself and not eat at all. At some points during the day you do need to eventually take in quality nutrition and “take the sack” (so to speak) on the resulting sympathetic stress, because your body needs that nutrition.

This merely points out how the timing of that nutrition can affect your overall sympathetic stress, which in turn can affect your overall health.

Though this was never an intent of the rule, this is one benefit to making sure to eat quality protein/carbs as soon after a hard workout as possible, e.g. the 30 minute and 2 hour windows. Your body undergoes a similar sympathetic stress response after a workout, though the stress ripple effect can last longer than your meals (often, for example, a long run leaves you in a high stress state for the entire rest of the day, even if you spend all day laying down).

Eating as soon as possible and triggering that sympathetic nervous reaction can effectively piggy-back off the other sympathetic nervous reaction recovering from the workout itself. Eating much later could effectively re-start the sympathetic stress reaction, whereas eating right after one has began saves you the trouble of an extra stress reaction, or an extended period of elevated sympathetic stress. You can get back to a normal resting state more quickly, and spend more time in that low-stress rested state than if you had eaten later and had two separate stress-creating episodes for your sympathetic nervous system.

This lends credence to the following ideas:

  • Unless you work out in the morning, or you have health-related reasons not to do so, it’s probably best to intermittent fast by skipping breakfast, nothing but coffee and water.
  • Probably only eat breakfast if doing a morning workout, and probably following that workout.
  • It’s important to consume nutrition within 30 minutes of finishing tougher workouts, and to eat a meal within two hours of finishing those workouts.
  • Regardless of the size of dinner, you want to buffer a couple of hours between the end of dinner and bedtime, to allow digestion and its stress reaction to finish as early in the sleep cycle as possible.
  • Avoid snacking, as it restarts the sympathetic nervous stress reaction. Eat full meals and only full meals, 2-4 times a day.
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My best marathon training cycle

Right now, training and weight wise, I’m not where I want to be. I’m executing most of my scheduled weekly workouts, and made dietary improvements over even my best running days in Chicago. But I’m not creating the results I had during my better training cycle just a couple years ago.

Once again, I looked to the past for answers. Despite hiccups derailing my 2018 Chicago Marathon effort (which I finished with substantial difficulty), that summer had probably been my best marathon training cycle and (until the hiccups struck halfway through) I had run the race fairly well, feeling physically capable of finishing strong… if not for the whole being unable to breathe properly thing.

It was ultimately some stupid decision-making with nutrition that derailed me. I decided to use a thicker protein-based recovery drink for fuel, despite not having trained much with it. My stomach and epiglottis likely flipped me the bird because of its relative nutritional thickness.

Never mind the problems with using thicker nutrition as race fuel. I made the cardinal mistake of doing something in a race that I had not worked on in training. So, it was not the training that derailed the race. In fact, given my condition at mile 13, and even how good my bones and muscles felt in the later miles despite my plight… the training beforehand had been sound. So, what I did during the cycle is worth reviewing.


I took a look at that cycle and noticed several key factors. Sure, I built up to a pretty solid 40-50 weekly mile volume and was running without injury. I was able to hit goal paces in key workouts leading up to the race. But there were some other not as obvious factors that helped me enter that race prepared.

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The Marathon Training Mistake People Make In Organized 20 Mile Runs

CARAready2run

Logo for the Chicago Area Runner’s Association’s annual Ready To Run 20 Miler, held about 3-4 weeks before the annual Chicago Marathon.

In many major cities with major marathons, organizations will hold an official pay-to-play 20 mile run 3-4 weeks before the marathon, to coincide with most participants’ final planned long run before their taper. The official events mark out a course and provide aid stations every 3K or so, much like an actual race.

 

Though these events are technically held and run like an official race, the clear idea is that participants will do this as their longest training run before the marathon, since most training plans typically ask for runners to peak with a 20 mile long run a few weeks before the race. The idea is not just so runners can do their long run with a like minded group of runners, but that they get support along the way with water and electrolyte sugar fluid every 3K or so, as well as the usual commemorative gear like a bib number and race shirt.

While I totally support the staging and usage of official 20 miler runs for marathon preparation (provided your training plan calls for said 20 mile run), there is a significant mistake most runners make when doing the 20 miler.

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The Overload Principle: The training value of runners training tired

Human nature leads us to take it easy when we’re sore or tired. Obviously, we don’t feel good, so our nature tells us to rest until we feel better.

Many training plans for runners will ask you to run a high volume of miles, even though often times you are tired from the prior workouts. Many novice runners will make the mistake of skipping or curtailing the easier workouts because they are tired. They don’t realize their being tired is part of the training stimulus for those workouts!

In fitness training we have a concept called the Overload Principle. The principle is that your training stimulus has got to exceed your current capabilities to elicit optimal adaptions from that training.

For a beginning runner who doesn’t run much, the simple act of running in itself kicks in the overload principle. A beginner’s current capability is they aren’t yet comfortable running a lot. So running in itself already exceeds their current capabilities. A simple run will for them elicit those optimal adaptions.

Separately, consider strength training through weight lifting with heavy, challenging weights. Done with a suitable intensity (i.e. sufficient weight, capable but challenging form), lifting weights can exceed anyone’s current capabilities as long as the weight and/or exercise itself is more challenging that the trainee is generally used to. Even if a trainee gets comfortable with a given weight/exercise, adding weight or progressing the exercise into a more challenging form can once again exceed the trainee’s capabilities and elicit those optimal adaptions.

However, if the trainee were to maintain the current intensity as they got comfortable with it, the exercise while still beneficial would produce lesser adaptions and results. This is often why people hit a plateau when training.

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Cross Training With the ARC Trainer

ARCTrainerI’ve talked about the ARC Trainer’s benefit in runner cross training before. But how do you effectively use it?

The machines are infrequently used for a reason. Most people aren’t just not comfortable with the machines… they don’t really know how to integrate it with their fitness goals and training plans.

I pointed out a key valuable use in my previous linked post: To cross train as part of runner training. But most are not totally sure how to best utilize the machine and its many settings.

I’m going to share 10 tips on how to get acquainted and effectively utilize the ARC Trainer in cross training for your fitness or goal race… possibly even for other fitness goals as you wish:

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