Category Archives: Training

A marathon dress rehearsal run, and discussing in-race fueling options

Yesterday’s 6 mile run wasn’t so much about training, because at this point of the taper I’m pretty much as trained as I’m going to get.

The goal of the run was to practice marathon fueling. Never minding that the Vancouver Marathon uses low-calorie Nuun as their electrolyte hydration at aid stations (which isn’t effective like Gatorade because Nuun is low calorie and the calories in Gatorade are important to avoid late-rate bonking)… even if they used a better solution, race mixed drinks are typically mixed on-site, often poorly so and leaving your cup short on the actual electrolyte solution.

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If I haven’t effectively implied it, one of my primary race goals is to avoid hitting The Wall, the moment of 100% glycogen depletion when you bonk and just have nothing left in energy. I’m obviously not a marathon expert by any means, but anyone who says it’s unavoidable is wrong.

For those wondering why they hit the wall late in a race… pretty much every resource points to a lack of effective in-race fueling. Your body burns mostly carbs when running at any pace beyond a recovery jog, and the faster/harder you’re running the more proportionally you burn carbs. At my size I burn about 120 calories per mile run, and at over 26 miles, that’s over 3200 calories burned.

Despite my weight loss and fitness, I still carry a good portion of fat. But fat burns glacially in exercise compared to carbs. While you can train your body to proportionally burn more fat, your fat will never burn anywhere close to as fast as carbs will during a run. Carbs become glycogen, which is your body’s primary fuel during a run. No matter how much fat you have… as soon as you tap out your available glycogen, you bonk. You’re running on auxiliary power and your body acts like it. So I have to make sure I get enough carb fuel to offer a chance of avoiding the wall in the final miles.

(Yes, your pacing and general hydration are also factors, but those are far easier to control. And all of this never minds that no matter what I’m absolutely going to be very sore and tired in the later miles. I accept that.)

According to the Hansons’ fueling formulas, my lower body stores around 1200 calories of glycogen, and should burn about 1000-1200 calories of fat throughout the race. If I properly pace myself I need about 600-750 calories in pure carbs to finish the marathon without hitting the wall. I also should ideally do it frequently in smaller portions rather than every half hour or when I pass the aid stations.

Even if courses provide nutrition, your best bet is to carry this nutrition yourself and consume it regularly throughout the marathon (which adds the benefit of allowing you to pick nutrition that works best for you). Plus, I still need to be able to physically get myself to a food resource and then back to the hotel, so I’m better off overkilling a little bit on what I carry and consume since my effort doesn’t end at the finish line.

Since I’m not Eliud Kipchoge with custom engineered drink bottles waiting for me every 5K, and point to point van service for transport… I’ve needed to figure out what to carry with me. I only have so much space in a belt pack, and carrying a 32oz bottle of Gatorade will obviously slow me down more than it’s worth, as every extra pound you carry adds 3-5 seconds to your mile time. What I use has to work effectively, and be portable.

Over the last few months I’ve worked on in-race fueling on various runs. I’ve experimented with gels (one packet is 100 calories), chews (one 6-chew packet is 200 calories), honey (a full 6oz flask is 568 calories), and for a while made a go with the minimally viscuous raw agave in a gel flask (6oz = 485 calories).

The agave is portable and easily consumable, but its simple sugars only replenish certain glycogen stores (albeit important ones for the body, like in the liver) and aren’t fully utilized by the body to run. I still found myself fading or even bonking late in 2.5+ hour runs despite consuming it every 10-15 minutes in-run… whereas the more engineered electrolyte sugars of Gatorade and similar drinks did keep me going.

I have found Clif Shot Bloks useful, but there’s an obvious problem: Trying to chew and swallow something while actively running at a decent pace makes it a little hard to breathe, which in turn makes it hard to effectively run until you’ve swallowed (and hopefully washed down) a given blok.

And, as I’ve found out the hard way, you definitely need to chase anything you consume with water or the issue will become much more difficult. In a race that will already be very taxing, those little aggravations could more quickly exhaust my energy stores before the end of the race… which defeats the purpose of fueling in the first place.

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So anyway, I sampled the shot bloks once again yesterday while carrying 20oz of water. Perhaps active water use after consumption would help. Perhaps practice would help. They are the easiest and least messy of my fueling options, and if I can make them work it’s a better solution than gel, which is not only really messy and tastes like flavored motor oil but doesn’t feel good in digestion. I took one blok every 10 minutes and washed it down after swallowing.

The good news is despite attacking Cricket Hill (up and down) three times during the run, I felt energized after the run as compared to tired (as I often am when I take a similar run after work). The issue remains that, even with water, the moments between the blok entering my mouth and when it finally goes down remain difficult for my breathing and in turn my running. My heart rate did spike the first 3 times I fueled but stayed level the subsequent times… but my pace wasn’t great relative to my active heart rate, and I suspect repeating this process 8-24 times could slow me down and further complicate an already complicated marathon situation.

Now, I could just do it anyway, which I think is not a bad Plan A given this is already going to be a difficult race, and having usable fuel for the haul that works is better than not having such fuel. I think no matter what I’m going to bring Shot Bloks for the race, and if no better method presents itself I will just suck it up and pop one every 10-15 minutes until I cross the finish line.

I can also consider loading up a gel flask with agave and carrying it as well, saving the Shot Bloks for every 30-60 minutes or so, and just taking the agave on the regular. Both sources are palatable and digest reasonably well, and (though I will want to attempt using them together at home or in training to make sure nothing happens) I think having an adequate supply of both will cover my fueling bases.

The race has an interesting (possibly Canadian?) wrinkle, supplying bananas to runners at an aid station around mile 19. Aside from the concern of runners recreating a Mario Kart course with discarded banana peels, I think taking and eating one at the opportunity would also help. Bananas are my most common post-run carb-replenish fuel, so digestion is no problem.

And of course I plan to stick to a pre-race ritual: Eating a breakfast sandwich and chasing it with a shot of espresso a couple hours before the race. The nutrition from this must be important: Every time I’ve done this, I’ve raced well.

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Admittedly, a lot of the above is talk-it-through thought process on my part. I’ve given this a lot of thought, because being able to finish the race with dignity regardless of finishing time is a high priority for me, and I know fueling in-race is vital to that happening.

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Taper madness, no. Taper dilemma, perhaps.

My biggest dilemma with the marathon taper is not the so-called taper madness. In fact, with as much volume and intensity as I put into runs and life each week I’m honestly thrilled with any chance I get to rest. So when you tell me to cut volume, I’ll cut all the volume I need to without a second thought.

No, the biggest dilemma was *how* to taper, not necessarily cutting runs because of course you ideally should run the same number of times each week (barring injury, not running as usual atrophies your growth and throws your body off)… but in shortening those runs figuring out if I should do shorter runs closer to goal pace and ditch any long runs, or just do a slightly reduced volume at easy pace, still do a (not as) long run, and focus more on promoting recovery.

You run as you train, and I should probably do some volume of running at my goal pace if I expect to run capably at that pace on marathon day. You can get away with hardly running at your desired pace and then nailing it in a shorter race. But in a marathon I realize your body is going to revert to habit over the final miles as you tire. If you’re used to running 10:00 miles in your everyday runs, your body’s going to have a real hard time nailing that 8:30 goal pace when you’re in hour 3+ fighting yourself not to slide into your everyday habit of running at 10:00 (or slower).

Plus, the Hansons say that adaptions to any given training usually kick in after 10 days, and anything done closer to the marathon than that typically isn’t going to grow your ability or do anything other than put more wear on your body.

At the same time, you don’t want to lose aerobic training benefits by not doing any running beyond short 3-5 mile runs. You may not develop any further adaptions in time for the marathon by doing a long run a week before… but you can certainly *lose* aerobic endurance capacity by not putting any such work in during the last two weeks before a race.

I know, because I have: I’ve heavily cut volume at times for recovery reasons, then found myself struggling to complete easy mid/long-range runs I used to finish with little trouble. Comfortably running my goal pace doesn’t help me if after 10-15 miles I’m so gassed from suddenly running much farther than I had in the last two weeks that I can’t keep up.

I wavered back and forth on how to approach this past week (because either way the last week before the race is going to be all shorter easy runs anyway). But I eventually decided to err towards being more aggressive on my regular runs early in this week, while easing up later in the week and finishing with a couple of longer runs… not terribly long of course.

I took today off after a team speed workout yesterday, and that was probably good to have that sequence of events breaking up the week. Tomorrow I’ll run a more typical 6ish mile run, and then Saturday I’ll knock out a comfortable 10-11 miles before taking Sunday off and making the final week-long descent towards Vancouver. For these last two runs I’ll be willing to go brisk but shorten my stride and go with quick easy steps if it starts to get a little tough.

That’s probably the best way to approach a taper, or at least the first week of a two week taper. Shorten up and do a little bit more with tempo early on, hit a quality workout, and then soften up on pace demands while getting in a couple of longer runs to end the week.

Things I wish I had done in marathon training

I’m running the Vancouver Marathon in Canada in less than two weeks. At this point I’m into the taper, and at the point where adaptions from any further quality training wouldn’t be manifested until after the day of the race. So making any dramatic changes to my training plan, aside from skipping a run if I’m feeling unduly worn out or sore, would not benefit me further. Beyond tomorrow, I’m basically as trained for the marathon as I am going to get.

I recognized the importance of developing and sticking to a single training plan, and feel good about having trained consistently over the past 3-4 months. I took days off and reduced volume as needed, but otherwise stuck to my overall basic plan cycles as intended.

– 45-50 miles max per week, with average around 35-40.
– One longer than everything else long run at least every other week
– 1-2 quality workouts per week (speedwork, tempo run, or at least a training run harder/faster than the others)
– 2-5 other easy or recovery runs per week surrounding those, with easy runs replacing quality workouts when applicable.
– At least one rest day per week, with others taken when needed due to soreness, substantial fatigue or other life events.
– If I ran a race, that always replaced the long run, or the long run was moved to at least 4 days before or after the race.
– Consume at least 20g of lean protein and an accordant amount of clean carbs (like fruit) as soon as possible after any workout longer than 30 minutes.

That said, I still throughout my training have read up on various training methodologies and ideas. I made a point not to implement anything new that would dramatically shift my existing schedule or training focus. But there are things that, looking back now, I would have implemented or explored given the chance to go back and start over… which of course I can do when I run another marathon!

12 THINGS I WANT TO DO NEXT TRAINING CYCLE:

1. Better defining phases of training

Most experienced runners who have followed training plans or worked with coaches know a quality training plan generally follows a series of phases: Base building, speed development, strength building (aka being able to hold existing and newly developed speed over long-distance), and then specific final-touch training/prep for your race.

Most of the training plans I examined admittedly didn’t itemize these phases. The closest any came was the Hanson Method, which differentiated between focusing on speed work before switching to “strength” work (longer training segments closer to your goal pace). All of them assume the trainee is beginning from a basic, reduced volume of running. Even the Daniels plans, while the plans for shorter races did break out training by phases, only listed plans as a single 18+ week block or a single repeatable 4-5 week cycle.

When I laid out my final plan, I basically did so the same way. As a result I jack-of-all-traded training on speed, tempo, endurance… mixing everything in on the regular but never really giving any single element the due focus that would have yielded better improvement. My training runs stagnated whether or not I took extra time to rest, whether I did reduced or higher volume. Prior to the recent Lakefront 10, I didn’t feel fully prepared for my prior tune-up races and the results showed that.

I think part of the problem was I didn’t break the plan into focused phases, where I’d spend four weeks building a base, four weeks focusing only on speed and running economy workouts, four weeks holding a closer-to-goal tempo over miles, etc. Like in life, I find when I focus on a main task or goal, my results are better. While the consistent volume of my training was a plus, the sameness of a lot of my training may have been a problem.

So, next time I will make sure my training plan has a clear base phase, a clear phase of speed workouts, a clear phase of longer tempo work, and then a ramp towards the race.

2. Spend quality time every week at your goal race pace

Jonathan Savage offers the taper recommendation of doing all your runs at your goal pace. However weird that sounds to you (and while intriguing I’m not totally sure about that recommendation myself)… the idea, to get used to the feel of your pace, is a good reminder of the importance of regularly practicing your goal pace. You are the product of your habits, you play like you practice, ten thousand hours blah blah blah. You get where I’m going with this.

I worked a single tempo run of varying moderate-long lengths into my training, a Hanson concept, once a week over an extended period of training. The Hansons had the right idea, but I think it would have been more productive to do more goal-tempo running at shorter distances, more often. Going from several days of easy running with maybe one other hard workout… to having to run at a moderately fast tempo for 5+ uninterrupted miles is a little excessive and tough.

But I recall how Hal Higdon would recommend new runners train for a 5K: Start with three short-ish runs a week, take all the other days off. Make those short-ish runs a bit longer each week, until finally you’re running 3 miles at a time around week 7. Boom, you’re ready for the 5K. It’s how I got into running, and I found his plan easy to implement.

If I have a goal pace in mind and it’s do-able, it’s certainly easy to run it in shorter chunks several days a week, probably within other easy training runs. Running a bit faster for a couple miles in or at the end of a 6 mile run is not a big deal. Get used to it, then I can run it for 3 miles, then 4, etc. If I still want to do the long tempo run once a week or two, I can, but then at least I’m not doing it cold turkey every week. I’m just extending what I’ve already been practicing. Way easier to get accustomed to running at that pace.

3. Using the treadmill as a training gauge rather than a training tool

I hate the treadmill and have made no secret of this to anyone who knows me. It’s also practically not as effective a form of distance-run training as running outdoors. I will (and do) run all winter in sub zero temps before I’ll ever commit to running regularly on a treadmill.

But recently, while trying to internalize and hone my goal pace, as well as desired training paces, I discovered its obvious value: You can set the machine to that pace, and you’ll have no choice but to run at that pace.

Now, I’m not about to do a 4+ mile training run on a treadmill just because I want to make sure to run an 8:30 mile. But ahead of tempo training for that pace, I can certainly get on the treadmill and run some at the 8:30 pace (plus other related paces) to get a handle on how the cadence for that pace feels, if it’s feasible or too slow for me, etc., before I go out on the road and work to replicate that pace.

I’ve been doing this more over the last week or two after having figured this out, but now that I know I’ll make sure to use it early in training to help the rest of my training.

4. Strategically use compression gear

It’s a mother’s-love thing and a little funny to me. But I told my mother about my finish at last November’s Las Vegas Rock N Roll Half Marathon: I passed an older, struggling man dressed as Elvis just in sight of the finish line. I cheered him on with something like, “Keep it going, Elvis! You’re almost there!” As I turned to continue, both my calves seized up with cramps. Never minding this weird reverse-karma, I hobbled at pace and finished just fine.

I guess I could have hydrated a bit better but it was more amusing to me than anything. My mother responded to this by immediately mail-ordering me a pair of Zensah calf compression sleeves.

At first, I wore them a couple of times (including in a subsequent race) and found them constrictive. That’s what they’re for, right? So I said maybe I shouldn’t use them.

Except there were a lot of points where I struggled with sore, stiff calves, had to work on my feet all day before training that evening, and discovered wearing them was very helpful during those more-painful work/training days. They provided much needed support, helped circulate blood etc, and I found my calves would feel better after a day or three of use.

So now I do wear them somewhat regularly as needed. Thanks, Mom!

But next time, I can see wearing them on a more scheduled basis, such as the day or the Monday after a longer run, a race or other hard workout. They may not help me run faster, but they may help me accelerate recovery to those muscle fibers while also providing lower body support so I’m not overcompensating and risking injury elsewhere.

I also started doing the same with my compression pants and shorts. Aside from wearing them in workouts, I’ve also worn them to work under my work clothes. Sure, in part that was a product of wanting to layer against extreme cold, but after tough workouts I immediately saw a similar benefit in recovery. They can be of use beyond just workout days.

5. Worry less about hydration before a run, and worry more about it during the run

The key benefit I’ve seen from making a point to hydrate before going out on a training run is having the extra need to take a piss at multiple times during the run.

Yes, I get thirsty and dry during runs, and I’ve found that happens whether or not I hydrate before the run.

Not a lot to unpack there. I need to make sure to bring water or train near water, and of course if running a race that problem’s mostly solved. But unless I’m dry as the desert before going out, there’s no need to drink any extra water ahead of a training run. Whatever water I take in during the day is enough.

6. Use your big hills, whether or not your goal race has hills

On my longest runs I would go far south of my Wrigleyville home, as far south as Soldier Field… as I would want to run up the sledding hill before running back down the zig-zag ramp and heading back north. It was a good challenge in the middle of a 15+ mile run.

However, as I charged up and down Cricket Hill at the end of the recent Lakefront 10, I wished that I could have put in more hill work. I’ve had and taken my share of opportunities (which I needed since the early portion of Vancouver has some challenging hills), and my schedule did impose limits on how often I could access said hills for said hill work.

But given the opportunity to plan for it, you can definitely incorporate it. Next time I want to spend a lot more quality time with Cricket Hill, and to a lesser extent the slight uphill near Grant Monument in South Lincoln Park. Hills are an easy way to build lower body strength.

7. Implement downhill running workouts, early in training

The big thing though is that on top of your traditional uphill intervals… I wanted to take up Savage’s recommendation to do downhill intervals. Downhills really beat up your quads, but the quads heal substantially stronger and more durable after a few weeks.

Obviously it’s too late now to try this (and even if not you have to do so carefully + not too fast, as downhill running can be more dangerous). But it’s definitely worth a shot early in the next training cycle.

8. Keep cross training simple

During this training cycle I joined a gym and took advantage of two cross training cardio machines I like: The stationary bike and the rowing machine. The latter was a full-body substitute or rest day exercise, while the bike was often a cooldown bookend to my standard Northwestern-to-Loyola training runs.

I’m sure there was some slight training benefit, but I suspect the bike did little more than further aggravate the soreness and fatigue in my legs, while the rowing machine simply wore out muscles I could just as quickly and easily train with heavy weights (while also making my hands hurt). Plus, neither burned a substantial amount of calories, and part of the goal is to keep a calorie burn similar to training days. I would have accomplished just as much by walking another mile.

Hal Higdon always recommends walking as the primary form of cross training, and lately I put more time on running-days-off towards just taking a long walk. It’s relaxing and probably as effective. That said, there are still various hormonal and health benefits to basic weight training (I don’t push heavy weight or do a ton of reps), so I’ll continue to do that.

Next time around, if I need to cross train I’ll just take a long walk and do some light weight work a couple days a week.

9. A 20 miler is okay, as long as you get to and do several runs at 16

Almost every major training scribe slams the idea of a non-elite runner running more than 16 miles for their longest marathon run. The idea is that elites who swear by the 20 can finish it in 2.5 hours, which many cite as the longest period you should spend on a single training run (running longer isn’t believed to benefit your aerobic capacity but does damage your body, and may require you to miss training). For most to run 20 would take them 3-4 hours, which goes beyond that itemized threshold.

I did a lot of 15-16 mile runs leading up to the 20 I planned to do (anyway) about a couple weeks ago. I topped three hours on those runs, so I was already in theory beyond the aerobic-value threshold. But I found that I felt about the same after those runs as I did after other long runs, and was able to bounce back into regular training in the next day or two.

I ran 20 and though I hurt for various reasons (many totally within my control: I didn’t fuel and hydrate as effectively as I wanted to, and even bonked at mile 19), I got it done, was totally able to resume training normally two days later, and it was a valuable hurdle to clear.

Because here’s the thing with the 20: It’s not necessarily about physically prepping you for the marathon any more than a 16 would. It’s psychological, about stretching yourself to a long enough distance that the remaining miles don’t seem so daunting. If you physically get through 20, you can see yourself battling through another 6.2188 (just a hair over 10K). Some may like to argue that shouldn’t matter, and if you’re experienced at running the distance then it probably doesn’t. But to those who haven’t really run it, I say it does. It certainly did to me!

But a key to this, what I think made sure I passed the 20 with flying colors, is that I did a lot of longer runs in the weeks prior to attempting 20. If I did one 16 miler, and then tried to do 20, I probably would have broke… because my body wouldn’t have been accustomed to that kind of distance. I do wish I had done more than a couple, though: The 20 would have hurt a lot less.

So I think next time I’ll probably do a 20 again, and I’ll certainly make sure to get in several 16’s over a few fortnights leading up to it. And hopefully next time I hydrate and fuel well enough not to bonk at mile 19.

10. EAT CLEAN ALL THE TIME

My diet overall has been about 60-80% healthy, built around baked chicken, vegetables, rice and plain pasta, and I do all my cooking with unrefined coconut oil. I still have eaten my share of processed food, not necessarily as cheat meals but as protein-dense fill-ins for the self-prepared whole foods I should have eaten instead (Eastside Cafe sausage pizzas are allegedly a terrific source of protein, by the way).

During last year, running regularly, I got my weight down to about 160 from about 170 (I originally weighed as much as 193 but worked that down beforehand). Then suddenly in autumn it began creeping up again, and recently topped out at 170-172 again. I tinkered with elements of my diet, managed my calorie intake against my burn, and of course ran a lot, but I just couldn’t get my weight to trend back down. In fact it took effort just to keep it even.

I noticed that when I ate most processed food for dinner I either woke up strangely hungry or didn’t feel as rebuilt/rested/fulfilled as someone who ate 180 grams of protein should. I realized that maybe the metric load of processed nutrients might not be as useful to a busy, rebuilding body as more natural whole foods.

I ate more green vegetables, more home-cooked baked chicken, lighter snacks like popcorn, etc. Suddenly the weight began peeling off again, without any adverse effects. I suspect in the short run the loss of water weight from eliminating processed sodium is a factor, but I also suspect the more nutrient-dense food is having its effect.

So, aside from any celebratory meals after Vancouver, and a beer or two during random events, I’m probably going to stick to cleaner whole food at home and at work. I don’t think I can healthily peel much weight before Vancouver, but I can definitely shed a few more pounds before the next race.

11. Strategically use intermittent fasting to moderate body fat and calorie intake

I used to intermittent fast (the process of eating all your meals in an 8ish hour window, so that you go 16ish hours without eating… the easiest way to do this is to skip breakfast), and it worked well for me, especially with losing weight in a healthy way. But this was before I began running. When you need to make sure you’re well fed and not catabolically broken down in any way before a 6 mile run that will catabolically break you down even more, it’s more important to ensure you’re properly fed than to torch fat. So I religiously avoided it… until recently.

With the above mentioned weight problem, I decided to experiment with fasting in the morning on off days, and on a select basis before some lighter training sessions. Any other day (or even any day where I wake up unusually hungry), I just eat breakfast as normal. I found I have better energy overall, and this is something I’ll probably want to do on a touch and go basis going forward.

12. Know how to start ANY race, let alone the marathon

Everyone knows but few actually do it: You want to start races conservatively instead of going out hard. You want to start slower, build to your tempo, and then finish fast. I knew this, but only in my last race (the Lakefront 10) did I actually apply it to the letter.

In my previous races I struggled to keep a fast pace (often slowing badly down the stretch, especially in anything beyond the 8K distance). This last time, I went out very deliberately and let everyone who wanted to pass me. I eventually settled into a comfortable pace that turns out was a bit faster than I expected, and over the final 5 miles I ended up passing a lot of people while comfortably maintaining my improved pace en route to a smashing PR.

This was a vital happy accident, as the key to not crashing and burning in this upcoming marathon will be to go out slow and patient as everyone else around you gets too excited for their own good, so that I can find my pace on my own time and finish on my own terms. It was important for me to experience what it felt like to successfully do it right.

And of course it’s something I will want to do in order shorter races going forward, including tune up races. In the Lakefront I crossed the 10K marker in what would have been my PR at 10K. If I apply it effectively to every other race, I anticipate I’ll be able to smash other PR’s, even if I’m not training for those distances.

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Better luck next time, obviously. But for now, I need to focus on THIS time. I run Vancouver in 11 days!