The Off-Season Approach for Runners

Now that December is here you might begin to see the term "off-season training" pop up in your readings.  The main point of this blog is that if your December, January, and February training resemble the same training you did during the other months of the year, then you're not truly embracing an off-season.  I'm very consistent in stating that there are only a few elements of professional athletes' training that we should attempt to mimic.  One of those elements is that pro athletes not only train hard, but they rest hard.  In other words, following your peak fall race season, take 2 - 5 weeks to decompress and rest the body and mind.  Take a break from a runner's mentality and then when you get back into a routine, make sure the routine is different!

The month of November (or December) begins the off-season for most endurance athletes in the Mid-Atlantic region, as peak race season/ weather comes to an end.  It is mandatory that you find something to do in the off-season in addition to running, and put an emphasis on other forms of cross-training (XT).  We can all benefit by being more athletic.  Improved muscular strength improves athleticism, which is why I am a firm believer in strength training (ST), but I also want everyone's hand-eye coordination to be in tip-top shape!  Sports and activities that force you to be aware of where your body and limbs are in space (kinesthetic sense) naturally improve your athleticism, which allows you to take on more advanced (and fun!) exercises for ST.  If you value your running performance and want to aid it via ST, then you should want to improve your athleticism!

Unless you have a peak race in the winter, December is not a heavy run month.  Do we run in December?  Yes.  But do should we put more emotional stock in other elements of our training and phases of our lives?  Yes.  ST, XT, new activities, fun activities, increasing coordination and balance, changing your diet, and experimentation are the focus of the off-season (Dec - Feb, generally speaking).  For example, increase your frequency of ST to 4-5x per week to correct any muscle weaknesses and imbalances that you have, as well as to improve body composition.

Depending on what the other months of your year looked like in terms of rest, vacations, and injury, the winter may not be your off-season phase.  Perhaps you already had an off-season (break from running) forced upon you due to injury.  Whatever the case may be, at some point in the year endurance athletes need to rest the body, mentally recharge, and make key changes. Enter next race season a different athlete, not just a runner who ran extra miles. 

Train hard (after you rest hard)!



Holiday Deal for DCRC!

Begin your training with the DC Running Coach holiday sale!

2 months of coaching + 2 sessions of personal training* and/or Running 101* for $300 ($400 value).  

Purchase through 12/31, value expires 6/1/13. Valid for new athletes only.

Purchasing as a holiday gift is a great idea!

Simply contact Mike and mention this blog/ deal!

Happy Holidays!
*contact for session locations.



I was always hesitant to be labeled a “marathoner” or a “triathlete,” My rationale is the same rationale I use when setting up training programs for runners, whom I actually prefer to call “athletes” instead.  I’ve run marathons, but I’m not a marathoner.  I’m not a triathlete; I’m “someone who competes in triathlons.”  What’s the difference and what does this have to do with a training program?  What does this have to do with the mental approach to training and racing?

Social psychology tells us that labels can have a positive influence on behavioral change, as noted by the terms self-concept, self-identity, self-schemata, etc.  If someone is frequently describe by co-workers as “driven,” “passionate,” or “energetic,” then he/she will eventually develop a self-concept of being a productive worker, which is wonderful.  If you have a friend trying to get off the couch and start exercising, you can always remind him/her after each spin class that he/she is “turning into a pretty good cyclist.”  Labeling your friend as a cyclist over and over will help him/her define him/herself as an active person, which is very important in shaping new behaviors.  But it can sometimes be a double-edged sword.  The person in the first example might become a work-aholic, the work consumes him/her to the point of stress, or your friend may feel irritable if he/she doesn’t exercise or can’t find any alternatives to cycling.

As it relates to “marathoners,” they sometimes feel that the year wasn't too productive or that they accomplished much unless they are training for the marathon distance, or worse, unless they set a PR in each successive marathon.  I see it often, where anything other than a marathon PR is accompanied by not feeling successful and all the subsequent damage control therein.  I don’t see this issue in runners training for shorter distances, or those who are yet to run a marathon.  The self-identity as a marathoner can dictate everything about the mental approach to training and racing, which indirectly affects mood via the interpretation of progress.  For instance, the weekend long run becomes the magic bean of the program and much emotional stock lies within that run each week.  A marathoner insists he must run a marathon each year (or season) instead of possibly taking a year off from marathons in order to correct muscular imbalances and build speed at other distances.  This is where I, as a coach, enter the picture.

The main service I offer is the mental approach to training and racing.  This means that the exact type of workout the athlete does is always secondary to the reason he/she does it in the first place.  For instance, the question may be posed, “Coach, what speed workouts would I be doing this winter to prepare for a spring marathon?”  My rhetorical question in response, “Does the marathon conflict with any other training or racing goals?”  If the athletes’ answers are sensible, then we build the training to prepare for the marathon, and sure, goals are set easily enough.  I use this anecdote because I find that when people/runners/athletes label themselves as marathoners they are more likely to lose sight of other short-term process goals. 

Marathoners become a breed of runner that can put too much emotional stock into one race, putting all their emotional eggs into one basket.  It consumes them and their training.  To some people, this behavior actually seems positive because it’s interpreted as being motivated, but what gets lost in the shuffle are the important short-term goals, like rest days, running form, strength training and PT.  Therefore, the obstacles that arise are the unwillingness to take rest days, an inability to refrain from signing up for longer races at the wrong time, passing on an off-season that prioritizes ST, and an inability to correct running form because of constant high-mileage training.  Comparing a winter training program preceding a spring marathon vs. a spring half-marathon can be like comparing apples to oranges because preparing for the marathon can get in the way of other important goals.

I attempt to shift my clientele, specifically the beginners, away from “running as exercise,” and into feeling like a runner.  From there, I want them to feel like an athlete.  The latter leaves opens more doors to new/different elements of training and is less likely to trap the individual into a smaller role/identity (entrapment theory).  I teach athletes to recognize short-distance racing as important for myriad reasons.  Again (cover your ears), this can mean not running a marathon one particular year.  Hearing that phrase stings if you’re a marathoner.  If you’re an athlete, then you have other goals in which to focus and you’re okay.  Professional runners are a different breed whose bodily limits have a higher threshold compared to the runners I coach.  Therefore, the training programs I develop, and more importantly, the mental approach to the training, needs to reflect this difference.

In sum, think of yourself as an athlete and the doors of perception will be opened to many more aspects of training and racing.  I can often easily identify marathoners from their first email or phone call to me.  I know exactly why they feel unsuccessful and I already know (before I even ask) that they haven’t run a 5k in six or seven years.  Tweak your self-identity in this small yet meaningful way and your progress might sky rocket, your running form might change (due to lower volume training), and you’ll feel more successful more frequently.

Train hard (at all distances)!



Hope, Luck & Confidence

In conversations with many runners (either those who I coach or those outside my own client base) who are getting ready for big events, I hear a few words routinely pop up, such as nervous, worried, hope, lucky and maybe.  As a coach, when I hear these words I know the runner is either under-prepared, not well-schooled in proper goal setting and/or not interpreting a small dose of nervousness as a positive sign. 

The word that I want to hear more often is confident.  I define confidence as “the lack of uncertainty.”  It’s the feeling of getting to the start line and knowing exactly what will happen after the starting gun (or when the first whistle blows in other sports).  If the goals are clear, there’s no room for worry or anxiety, and if the runner has trained properly, then the goals should be clear with no need for luck. 

We all know that goals should be specific, objective and measurable, but what is often overlooked is how the athletes will reach these numerical goals.  In other words, qualifying for Boston and/or setting a PR are fabulous goals (performance goals); however, runners too often leave it at that.  They don’t have the process goals laid out.  To take a step in the right direction, a runner should hone in on the required pace per mile, but even that focal point is shy of the real beef of what gives athletes confidence, namely, process goals.  Specifically, how do you run an 8:00/mile (for example)?  How do you run sub-3:10:00?  The numbers themselves don’t really give the actual focal points for when one is out there on the course, in-the-moment.

The process goals are breathing patterns, stride length, posture, fueling strategies, frequent reminders to not get caught up in a random pack of runners, and so on.  Hopefully, these are all the things receiving attention during weekly workouts (at least the key workouts).  Focusing on these process goals is why I often persuade the runners I coach to do less training with the Garmin technology.  Focusing too much on pace during training can leave a runner empty handed on race day, when present-moment variables enter the equation.  This is not a rant on being anti-tech, but that last point is very much related to confidence on race day.  When someone is able to hone in on the process of running certain intensities, then the brain has an easier job, thereby increasing confidence.  As more training and racing take place, it becomes easier to hit the goal intensity (and therefore goal paces), which allows the process goals to be kept simple because the mind is operating on auto-pilot.  When the goals are simple, then there is a quieter mind, which is preferred.  In this sense, although the mind is at work during races, it is very simple work (ideally), so this is why I say running is only 10% mental (if goal setting is done correctly).  When goals are incorrectly set, then there is much more mental energy required to make adjustments mid-race.

Thinking during a race is sometimes beneficial, and other times it is counter-productive, and this is the heart of the debate as to whether “running is 90% mental.”  It depends on what the thoughts are.  Typically, we don’t want the mind working too much when competing, as the mind can get in the way of letting the body function in a state of automaticity, which is usually the goal for the coach/athlete.  Like driving a car, racing should be done on autopilot.  We don’t have to think too much about the actual process of driving a car because of its simplicity.  To actually think about the act of driving a car while driving would be dangerous since it would break the state of automaticity.  This is what is meant by paralysis by analysis.  In other words, naturally occurring movements would be interrupted. For this reason, overly cautious drivers can be hazardous on the road due to too much mental activity.  Candid conversations I’ve had with driver’s education instructors only confirms the truth in this statement.  They state, “the kids who think too much are the worst drivers.”   

When a task is perceived to be easy, then the brain has less work to do, the perception of pressure is diminished, and there is less tension in the muscles and therefore no pre-mature muscle fatigue.  In turn, the brain remains quiet because there is no additional, unnecessary feedback coming from the body.  This is why running should not be 90% mental.
K.I.S.S. is an acronym that is used frequently by coaches and sport psychologists.  It stands for Keep It Simple and Stupid, and is a reminder for athletes to avoid paralysis by analysis and helps to reduce anxiety.  What is anxiety?  It’s uncertainty about what will happen next.  Too much brain activity and too much self-talk only compound this problem.  When an athlete has too many goals or if the goals are not clear, then there is too much left-brain activity, lots of processing, and very little room to “Just Do It.”  Great athletes don’t engage in much analytical thinking when they compete.  If an athlete is engaging in analytical thinking then perhaps the goals may not be specific enough, not simple enough, or the focus is on the outcome instead of the process.  Confident athletes are masters of proper goal setting.  From this logic it can be reasoned that simple process goals alleviate much doubt and nervousness, but perhaps not all nervousness. 

A small dose of nervousness is good, and I would even distinguish it from anxiety or worry.  Being slightly nervous shows that you value your performance and that your leisure time activity isn’t a waste of your time and energy.  The people who aren’t nervous before a marathon might be those whose goal is simply to finish the race alongside their coworkers, or those who are extremely confident in their goals, the latter of which explains the perceived “arrogance” of so many professional athletes.  Nervousness is a sign that the body is alert and therefore prepared, versus not having a care in the world about the outcome.  “Butterflies in the stomach” are fine; it’s just a matter of getting them to fly in formation.  There are relatively few athletes in the world who are not nervous before an event, and you can spot them every so often because they might paint their shoes gold before the race to show that there’s not a doubt in their minds that they’ll win the gold medal.  (American sprinter Michael Johnson donned a custom-designed pair of golden-colored racing spikes during the 1996 Summer Olympics on his way to winning the gold medal in the 200m and 400m.  Confidence to the max!)  Anytime you have a good race despite a dose of nervousness beforehand, file that away for future reference.  All is not as bleak as it seems with a dose of nervousness (it can be good energy).
What I offer to the reader is that if you know you have too much nervousness before a race, if you’re hoping you hit your goal time, or looking to catch a lucky break, or think maybe you’ll have a good race, then it’s time to restructure how your goals are phrased on paper and in your brain.  Make sure you are focusing on specific tasks in your control.  When a college basketball player makes the sign of the cross before he takes his foul shots, the announcer Dick Vitale will exclaim, “No confidence, baby!”  So don’t look for divine intervention on race day and don’t hope to get lucky.  Control your own destiny and plan to know exactly what will unfold when the starting gun fires.

Train hard!



You Have the Right to Remain Selfish

If you believe in reaching a peak level of fitness at some point in the year, then you have to act like it.  There is a time and a place to be selfish.  I’m aware that the term selfish has a negative connotation.  Research shows that as long as there isn’t any guilt attached to a seemingly selfish behavior, then we are happier as a result of that behavior, and as long as our selfish behavior doesn’t detract from anyone else’s happiness. 
What does this mean for running?  If you believe in reaching a peak level of fitness at some point in the year, then you have to act like it—by being selfish.  This implies that at a certain point in the year, namely, peak season, a runner may have to put him/herself first when it comes to altering the weekly schedule and prioritizing aspects of his/her life, especially in terms of key workouts and meal selection.  During other times of the year, when key races are far away on the calendar, there is much more room for leniency with workouts and meals.  Because of the ceiling effect, it becomes harder for experienced runners to hit a PR, so these runners need to be firing on all cylinders in order to peak.  All aspects of the training must be in tip-top shape.  If we accept that advanced/experienced athletes can only be in peak condition for about three weeks, then that’s a relatively small window.  Therefore, athletes should take steps to ensure that the build-up to the A-race, or peak race, is not sabotaged.  True beginners need not pay as close attention to this premise.

In practical terms, being selfish might mean deviating from the usual workout done with a training group, such as a runner skipping a group long run if she is instead scheduled for a shorter, faster run.  Or a runner may need to do a scheduled run when he would otherwise choose a social activity detrimental to training that day.  Learning how to say “no” becomes a skill, like saying “no” to some activities if/when they conflict with morning workout plans, or saying “yes” to social activities if a recovery day was needed anyway.  When people talk about “keeping the balance” among running, work, and leisure, I can’t help but remark that following a periodized training program naturally builds this balance into the equation.  Of course, this all assumes a runner is following a training program to begin with, no matter how structured or unstructured it may be.  If there’s no general plan being followed, then this section probably won’t resonate. 

During the tapering period, a runner should be less concerned with what everyone else is doing and be more concerned with how he is feeling day-to-day.  It’s okay to skip a group workout if it conflicts with a personal schedule or energy levels.  If a runner has sacrificed much of his time, energy, and money in the past year in hopes of achieving some meaningful running goal, then he shouldn’t let it be sabotaged in the final lead-up to the race.  Be confident in telling training partners that you need a day of rest, or that you want to run on your own in order to hit the target pace for a workout.  We claim that exercise and health are strongly correlated with positive self-esteem, so let’s put that self-esteem into action!  Have enough self-esteem that your friends and family will still be there for you as you engage if some “selfish acts” in the few weeks before an A-race. 

Make some “me time” for yourself.  As much as running does add a social element into many people’s lives, running is very much an individual endeavor.  During peak season, stick to your workouts on your specified days of the week and eat your chosen foods/drinks at your chosen time of day, especially in choosing the specific meal the night before the main event.  Your body will thank you for it on race day, and you’ll be able to thank yourself.  Selectively during the year, treat yourself like an athlete.

Those are some of the practical tips as it relates to “taking running seriously.”  Many runners go overboard with this mentality and it becomes socially maladaptive, but all I’m encouraging runners to do is to put their race goals in the proper context.  If someone isn’t training like an athlete and/or doesn’t have a peak-race slated, then there’s no need to develop this approach.  Otherwise, a runner should take a month out of the year to do it all his/her own way.  After the peak race, there is usually a recovery period where the opposite approach takes places and there’s much more time for to catch up on aspects of one’s personal and professional life.

As peak season nears, ask yourself what kind of social support you have (or could create) to help you reach your goals.  I certainly enjoy being a part of a runner’s support crew, but consider how friends, co-workers, and family can pitch-in.  Are they aware of your goals?  Do they need to be?  Support goes a long way with goal setting.  There may come a time during race season when you need to be a bit selfish.  Don’t wait until the week of a big event to consider how your routine may significantly affect family and friends, or vice versa.  Talk to your support crew early; give them an advanced heads-up on your plans (if needed).  This does not mean you’ll ignore your loved ones and neglect your pets that week; rather, it’s just the subtleties that need consideration.  These steps are part of what it means to be good to ourselves, which we, as humans, need to do.  Otherwise, you have to take a month out of the year to do it your way.

Train hard!



Just Say No!

I developed an anecdote during a recent 10k race. I'll give away the punch line now: How do you know if the person running next to you during a race is someone you want to pace with? 

When the starting gun went off for a recent 10k, I was in 4th place, enjoying the view of lakes and trees in the opening minutes.  I could hear a guy coming up behind me, but he wasn't right behind me, he was about 30 meters back.  I heard him because his breathing sounded like he was kicking to the finish in a track race.  I thought, "This guy won't last through the 2-mile mark."  He decided to settle in next to me, and as I tried looking past him to catch another view of the lake, he asked if I was trying to stick with 5:45 pace.  "Sure," I said. "Great," he replied, "run with me, I need someone to help push me."  Now you may be thinking, "that's great, running with someone helps your race performance!"  Wrong.  What is the one uber-important disclaimer to put on that tactic? Anyone, anyone? Let's read on and find out. 

Because he was breathing like we were on Mt. Everest, I knew he was in over his head at 5:45/mile.  Who cares what his stride looked like or the fact we were shoulder to shoulder, his breathing was out of control.  So, I looked at him and said, "nah, I'm okay, go ahead".  He went ahead just before the 1-mile mark, then slowed a bit as I passed him on a gradual incline.  As we crested the hill, we hit the Mile 1 mark at 5:45 exactly.  It was a rolling mile and I don't believe in Garmins, so how did I do that?  Stride, breathing, discipline.  Just Say No to peer pressure.  Experience helps a great deal; I know what 5:45 feels like.  Effort.  Intensity.  Perceived Exertion.  These are all more important than pace and/or "running with someone". 

As we crested the Mile 1 mark, we had a looooong downhill, my favorite.  I passed him easily, which told me that we had two different running styles and strengths, so that was another clue I knew not to pace with him.  I didn't say 'no' 3 minutes into the race because I thought he was a faster runner.  I said 'no' because I knew he was too slow, even though he went ahead of me.  After that downhill, I never saw (or heard) him again and beat him by 3-4 minutes, all of which I could predict from 10 seconds of data collection at the half-mile mark. 

Once I passed the other guy ahead of me at mile 3, I knew he would fade because I watched his stride as I came up behind him.  His cadence was just too slow to be running at that pace.  I came in 2nd place to a great runner, who I actually beat in a 10k two months ago.  I let him go right off the gate, and he pulled away further each mile, no way I would beat him today.  The effort required would have sunk me.

The moral of the story: Be very selective in deciding who you're going to run next to in a race.  And be very selective when you do it.  It's safe to say that trying to "run with someone" (a stranger) from the opening mile is a recipe for disaster.  Either you're too fast, or they're too fast.  Monitor your own breathing and stride and be disciplined.  If you know it's too much effort, back off.  If you find yourself pulling ahead of your group or doing lots of passing, then check your body.  Much of the time it means you're doing great, keep it steady.  Get in tune, which is aided by consistent track work.  The goal of track workouts is to hit the same...pace...every...lap!  iPod runners may have to read this story again :)

Train hard (and don't follow strangers)!



Don't Judge a Book by Its Cover

During an interview with Competitor Magazine I was asked for “the biggest mistakes runners make.”  One of my answers was the same point of this blog, the misinterpretation of race results.  Are we supposed to become faster with each race we run?  Should every race be a PR?  Are we supposed to PR at every distance during the same time of year?  How do we know when to shoot for a PR and when to have other goals in mind?   

First, the short answer: You are not supposed to set a PR every race, so let’s have a round of applause for that peace of mind.  For a beginner it is easier to hit PRs with each successive race because the room for improvement seems almost endless.  However, for experienced runners and/or as fitness increases, the window for opportunity becomes increasingly smaller, which is known as the ceiling effect.  Race day conditions and the runner’s state of being that day also need to be factored prior to solidifying race goals.  Unfortunately, not all runners engage in this foresight, so damage control becomes the name of their mental game, without realizing that the goals weren't accurate to begin with.  How do we prevent the need for damage control?  The answer is by setting appropriate goals for each race (and perhaps better race selection in general).   

Our human psyche is very good at making ourselves feel better after a subpar performance (whether it was actually subpar or whether it was perceived that way).  It’s what some researchers call cognitive ease or the psychological immune system.  It goes like this: You finish a race, see your results, think you could have done better and feel more unsuccessful than you should, but then the psychological defense mechanisms (rationalization, cognitive dissonance) turn on to make you feel better.  In other words, after the race, some runners will begin to factor in the heat, humidity, hills, wind, etc., so that they feel better about the finish time.  However, what if they were able to make all of those calculations and predictions before the race began? 

The main point is that foresight is a more powerful tool than hindsight.  Hindsight is always 20/20, but again, it deals with rationalization and damage control.  What if there wasn’t any damage at all?  Meaning, what if your goals were properly adjusted ahead of time (and mid-race as well) so that you felt successful as soon as you crossed the finish line?  Goal setting done properly is a wonderful tool for avoiding damage control.  Factor in as many variables as possible before setting concrete goals.

The Technology & Psychology blog relates to this one.  When training is going well, yes, it is much easier to rip one PR after another.  But as a runner becomes faster and keeps improving, there’s a greater need to more closely weigh the conditions, both internal and external.  If you’re not improving every race, then relax, it may simply mean that you’re getting closer to your full potential; this is not something to fear.  If one race isn’t a PR, it’s okay; it’s just one race.  Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Train hard!



It's Only Water

I don't harbor any negative thoughts about rainy weather.  This is usually the time of year when everyone is wishing for a break from the 90-degree heat and humidity, so make the most of the rain.  With or without the preceding conditions, you'd be foolish not to run outside in the rain.  On paper, it could be your best week of summer training!  

Rainy days can often be perfect running conditions for this time of year, knowing that it could be worse.  A heat wave, an earthquake, a hurricane, and a week of rain equates to all the more reason never to let the weather dictate your training routine (only tweaks to the pacing/intensity).  If you always view Mother Nature as your compadre on a year-round basis, then there's never a reason to let Her dictate your mood. 

So, I looking forward to workouts in the rain with the DCRC crew.  

Contrary to Jimmy Buffett's advice, we can try to reason with the hurricane season and can run at this pace for a long time.

Pack a hat and then stuff your shoes with paper towels when your done,



Love Thy Neighbor-hood

There are some runners whose training runs are always enjoyable, always fun.  Other runners are often stressed (mentally) during their training runs, and this can happen for a myriad of reasons.  This is not a blog about proper goal setting, although covering that topic would explain how to alleviate mental stress caused by training.  The point of this blog is to offer a simpler tip in how to mellow out and relax mentally, regardless of whether it's a speed workout or a distance run.  The track and popular trails can force us into "speed mode" and "training mode" because everyone around us is visibly training for something, which I think is generally wonderful and can help motivate us.  However, consider how often you run through your neighborhood.  A jog around the block usually mean just that, just go run around your neighborhood and enjoy the weather, waive to people, and mentally let go a bit. 

You can't think about race-day during all of your training runs; I don't encourage it.  Even though our training generally builds throughout the year and we should shift focus as we approach peak season, we need to know how to separate the two—that is—separating peak training from simply enjoying physical activity.  When I tell someone a run was enjoyable for me because I found a new neighborhood, or a new street in the neighborhood, I'm being very literal.  I'm talking about an actual neighborhood housing development where there's a 99% chance I'll be the only one out there running.  That's much different feeling than the other crowded training spots in the DC Metro area.  It's the reason I love my occasional midnight runs, I'm the only one in the whole city running around, the city belongs to me at that moment and it's much easier to focus on my own pace, etc.  You can get that same feeling running around your neighborhood and its surrounding streets.

If you live in a residential neighborhood, try doing a speed workout there.  What's the difference?  Well, if your neighborhood runs are typically short and easy, then perhaps that same mental approach will carry over to your speed workout and you'll work your butt off, hit the high-intensity pace, and yet not have it feel like a workout because "it's just a run around the block".  Similarly, this is the reason I sometimes decide not to get all decked out in my training gear for a run, I just go run, like the guy next door would do for his 15-min run around the block to "exercise". 

I'm always exploring new routes in/around DC, discovering many pockets of this area that are physically challenging and mental monotony-breakers.  But to stay on the main point, a run through a neighborhood should be relaxing, even if it's a blistering 5k-pace workout.  I love 5k's that go through residential streets, they always make me feel like I'm a kid again, and mentally they are good races.  It's part of the reason the Bulldog 5k is my favorite race.  If you haven't run your own neighborhood for a long and/or hard workout then give it a shot, you may like the results.  And if you're like me and live in an apartment complex without an actual neighborhood of your own, go find a 'hood that belongs to someone else and make it your own for a day :)

Train hard (and wave to the folks doing yard work)!



Peak Season and Race Selection

Fall is peak season.  Fall is race season.  Race as much as you want.  There are a few exceptions to this rule, but for the most part it's time to push yourself more frequently, as done in racing.  There needs to be a consistent mental approach to your race selection, based primarily on how you've structured your training and what you've selected as your peak race.  From September through November I usually say "go for it" 9 times out of 10.  All of your Rocky IV training runs through the snow back in February were motivated by peak race season, so it's time to soak it up.

One key element to your fall race selection (and race selection in general) is to not use a race as a "training run".  Treat races as more meaningful and push harder, like you're supposed to, or scratch the race and train on your own that day or with your regular group.  Make the habit of race day having special meaning and a time to test your limits.  For example, a Half marathon leading into your peak/planned marathon is an awesome race to boost fitness if you race it, and I'd expect you to race/run hard that day.  When runners say they're "just going to run it as a training run," it rarely happens…race mode kicks in and because the mental approach and preparation was lacking in the preceding days and/or on race morning, a non-focused race is completed and it gets reported to me as an "unsuccessful training run".  So if you're considering a race as a training run, try again.  Race it hard or do a regular weekend run. This does not mean you have to PR every race, but the specific intensity of that particular race distance should not be lacking.

The closer we get to peak season, the fitter we are and the harder we can race, in turn, the more fit we become from racing hard.  It's a vicious cycle that ideally/ theoretically leads to confidence.  I agree with Mark Allen in that races should be a special day and the whole idea of race day is to race ("Go Like Hell")!  A true peak performance only comes at the end of a full training cycle.  Allen once told Chris McCormack, whom he helped coach to his first Ironman World Championship, "Chris, the reason you're not winning that race is because you're trying to be in peak shape 52 weeks a year, and that just can't happen."  Allen said, "In short, it is just not possible to have high race frequency and peak racing performances." This is why tapering is important in addition to embracing off-season goals and a phase of de-conditioning.  Does this contradict the fact I promote fall as race season and want everyone to race as much as possible in October?  No.  The difference is in the length of these races, how we define "frequent," the length of your peak race, and how fit you are.  So, there is such a thing as racing too much if it conflicts with training (usually in the true summer months).

So, fall is around the corner.  Make sure your race schedule makes sense to you, or at least make sure you are signed up for enough races.  Talk to your run coach and ask which races are right for you.

Train (and race) hard!



My Life as an Athlete (or part of it)

I've played every sport under the sun (except skiing, fencing, and jai alai) and I've been fortunate to reach at least a fairly competitive level at all of them, whether a team-sport or individual-sport.  I've had a full athletic career no matter how you cut it, so I don't feel compelled to have to keep testing my limits or reveling in pain, but it's a tough routine to break.  

Let me explain:

Today was the first time in my 9 years of multi-sport that I didn't race the Lums Pond triathlon/duathlon in my hometown of Bear, DE.  It was a bit of a struggle to resist registration, as I wasn't quite sure exactly when the streak would end, although I knew it would end some day.  I rationalized the many reasons I should register, mainly that I'd be the top seed on paper in the duathlon and it's always been my goal to finally win on my home turf instead of finishing 2nd/3rd.  But I stuck to my guns and "retired" once again from multi-sport racing following my finish at Ironman St. George in early May.  That race in itself is worth 2 blogs, I'll spare you the details.  I can honestly say, I don't really miss it, although missing the Lums Pond race this weekend stung a little...it looks like the course was cut short today due to rain, so I take solace in knowing I didn't miss the "real thing".

I remember years ago asking a former pro-athlete and colleague, "What do you miss the most?"  His answer, "That feeling of being reallyreally fit and strong, you know?"  I do know, now.  So what am I doing now with my training and athletic goals?  I'm simply practicing what I preach and enjoying the process of getting fitter again, without registering in advance for any races, nor holding myself to any time-goals when I do race.  I was in the best shape of my life on May 7th (objectively and subjectively).  I've lost a great deal of swim- and bike fitness since then, especially given the long layoff after the Ironman, having sprained my ankle for the first time of my life 10 days before the race on a leisurely jog around the block (like I said, a brutal race experience, with the ankle hardly being the worst part of the trip).  

Although I am not a professional athlete by any stretch of the imagination, people do think I've achieved a high level of success in running and triathlon, and I can agree for the most part.  What some people assume, however, is that things "always came easily/ naturally" for me or that I "never had to overcome beginner's obstacles".  That isn't true.  I remember joining the track team my first year in college to get faster (the football coach said I was too slow; he was right) and the sprint coach looked at me on the first day and said as he walked away, "okay, how about 3 miles on the track?"  I was left to run 3 miles alone and I cramped everywhere, needed walk breaks, the whole nine yards.  I couldn't imagine how people finished marathons, since 3 miles was the farthest I had run at that time. 

So, I'm feeling humbled again in training as I go through obstacles and barriers just like everyone else.  I've had a few nagging running injuries in the past when I jumped full-throttle into running and triathlon during grad school.  Then I had a nice stretch of about 5 years without any real pains or injuries, never needing to miss a workout or a race, and never DNF'ed.  Then, in January, I found out I had a herniated disc (stemming of a few years working for Coca-Cola during college), which started a downward spiral of premature cramping in all kinds of places during my bike workouts.  Then the sprained ankle came and sabotaged the run fitness and PR's I had built pre-Ironman.  Despite all this, 2011 has been another eye-opening year.  I've learned more about myself, more about training principles I can apply as a coach, and done more soul searching to determine exactly what in the heck I want to do for the rest of this year and beyond.  

Here's my answer so far...

As I back out of triathlon on the personal level, I will also no longer be coaching triathlon after this year, so DC Running Coach will only focus on running (go figure).  I'll be teaching racquetball this year for the first time since grad school, so that is a welcome blast from the past.  I'll be ready to launch the 2nd year of the National Road Racing League in a few months, and I'm still teaching the college sport psychology course in the fall.  I have plenty of variety to keep me occupied and entertained.  But what about training and racing?  Minus a Kona spot (and the Lums victory), I've crossed off every major goal I set out to do with running and multi-sport, but I've never really focused just on running, my best event.  

October is the heart of running season, but it will always smell like football-weather to me.  The last few rugby games I played post-college were fun, but I've hung up my hooligan-ry.  Pick-up basketball was always my first love and I definitely see that happening this winter.  On the other hand, I'm curious to know how fast I can go in a 5k or marathon if I take my own best coaching advice and really train like a runner.  No more high-speed collisions on the field, no more 5-hour bike rides, no more sharing lanes at the pool.  Sounds like a plan.

Thanks for reading.



To recovery run, or not to recovery run?

I think recovery jogs can be a great tool; however, I don’t think every runner should do extra “recovery mileage” because it’s not always necessary, especially if the runner has improper running form.  The goal of recovery jogs and “maintenance runs” is to promote greater adaptations in the body so that fuel will be processed more efficiently and so that the muscular-skeletal system becomes stronger.  However, this is not the only event occurring in the body on these runs; we wish it were that simple. 

Recovery runs assume the body can handle the additional stress of said runs.  Why can many pros run more than 100 miles in a given week?  One major difference between them and mortal runners is running form.  The reason pros can run all these additional miles, regardless of pace, has much to do with the fact that few of their runs cause extra stress on the body.  Assuming they stick to good data points spelled out in their program, they can run as much as they want without destroying themselves.  Sure, it helps that the pro runners have usually been running many years and typically carry a low body weight, but it also helps that they hit the ground with zero additional stress (out of the ordinary) with each foot strike.  If you don’t have proper foot strike, there is nothing recovery-like about a recovery run.  Rather, you’re still putting more stress on the body.  That is the difference running form makes in building a training program.  How many miles per week can you run?  It depends on your running form.  Better runners can run more miles.  It has nothing to do with motivation; rather, it has everything to do with posture and foot strike.  As it relates to proper foot strike, running too slowly on a recovery run will do more harm than good because form breaks down when the pace is too slow.  For that reason, I don’t put much stock on pace during midweek runs, as long as it’s not slower than a regular jog pace and the foot strike is kept ideal. 

Additionally, most runners are not doing enough weekly miles to have to incorporate recovery runs/miles.  When someone runs 80 or more miles per week, then yes, it’s a no-brainer that many of those miles will be done at a very relaxed pace.  That is where recovery runs would enter the picture.  However, if a runner only (I use that term loosely) runs 30 - 40 miles per week (or three to five times per week), then how slow does he/she really want to go?  It’s better to run a bit faster (or at least at one’s “normal” jogging pace) to gain some fitness/benefits from each run.  Let’s be honest, for most runners, there is nothing recovery-like about a 5-mile run if it comes the day after an 18-miler.  I’d rather see an athlete stay off his/her feet in that instance to let the body recover for an extra day. 

In a similar vein, doing cool-down laps after a track workout isn’t necessary and is somewhat overrated.  Those who attend my track workouts know I rarely encourage such laps, and I’m yet to have a runner become injured as a result.  I emphasize this point more in the summer when there’s more heat and humidity.  In those instances, doing extra running really isn’t necessary; the body may already be overheated.  Therefore, depending on who the athlete is, there are times I’d rather not have the additional stress on the body.  The walk to the car/subway can be the cool-down.  Put the energy into the workout.  I wouldn’t want to have a runner tell me he didn’t do the full reps in the workout, yet did a mile cool-down.  There are many other activities that give the same benefits as cool-down laps, such as icing, massage, and leg swings.  In closing, under ideal conditions, I would encourage cool-down laps, but I’ve talked to enough elite athletes to sense that cool-down laps are an individualized choice, not a necessity. 

Train hard (and train right!)