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!)