How to Peak for Your Race

Many athletes invest in me to help them raise their game to the next level.  In the grand view, this mostly involves a change to running form, structured speed work, run-specific ST, embracing recovery periods, and help with selecting a race calendar.  On the smaller scale (the peak phase in particular) it involves the little tricks of the trade, which are discussed in all of the following chapters of this book.  Some of those tricks are directed toward reaching a peak level of fitness.

Because of its favorable weather (cool temperatures and low humidity), the fall is typically referred to as “running season” and therefore labeled as “race season.”  Upon entering the fall race season, runners should obviously begin to shift their focus more to their peak races and those related goals.  This focus applies to both physical training and mental training.  About two to three months prior to the peak race, there is likely an increase in the number of key (high-intensity) workouts on the schedule while the run mileage begins to peak.  Additionally, intensity and specificity of training will both begin to climb at this point for most runners.  If a runner is following the general principles of periodization, then this escalation needs to be embraced, so as a coach I’m more stringent on getting rid of the excuse making during peak season.  There needs to be a sharper mentality during peak season to match the sharpness of the training. 

Any imagery/visualization sessions (if they’re being done) should now be more specific to the peak event.  For instance, instead of imagining in general terms that “I’m going to feel good and run well,” hone it down to “I’m going to feel ________ on that hill at mile ______” (the first blank is typically a unique/specific word for the individual, called a cue word, and the second blank is usually the toughest part of the course).  Through individualized pre-race e-mails, I give my athletes specific race strategies to help them tackle whichever race they’re doing.  Additionally, I offer insight into proper imagery, which is related to using perceived exertion during races versus being governed strictly by the time on the watch.  This mental strategy is also very much rooted in what are called process goals (more on that later).

During the peak phase, closer attention can be paid to diet (used as a noun, not a verb).  If there are more rest days scheduled during peak season in order to recover from key workouts and/or rest for the next day’s key workout, and if the RV is gradually reduced from peak mileage to maintenance mileage, then diet should account for these changes; control the caloric intake on rest days.  Moreover, the pre-race and in-race fueling strategies should be solidified.  These relevant questions should be answered several weeks in advance, as race day is not the time for questions or experimentation. 

Whenever the summer Olympics are in full swing, I challenged my athletes to see how long they can train like an Olympian and take care of all the “off-the-field” elements of their training, such as diet, hydration, massage, and sleep.  If someone is taking running seriously enough to where there is value placed on performance, then more thought can be given to how one’s diet can boost performance, such as adjusting diet for the days with shorter runs or no running at all.  To feel like an Olympian, carry a winning mentality through the entirety of race season and take your diet to a healthier place.  Train hard when it’s time to train; rest hard when it’s time to rest.  You’re not an Olympian, but you can treat yourself like one when peaking.

Train hard!



Strength Training for a Marathon?

If you're a runner following any type of training program you most likely have strength training (ST) days built into your weekly routine.  At some point you may begin to wonder how much is enough, or too much, or even if/when you should cut ST out of the program as you get closer to your big race.  Let us begin…

First, the principles of Periodization (the guiding hallmark of most training programs) state that the ST volume can be high when you have several months until your peak race, and that you should generally reduce the ST volume in the preceding weeks of your big event (you can use the term "taper" here, though I don't personally use that word in coaching).  So, if we use the Marine Corps Marathon as an example (late Oct), you would pile on the ST and cross-training (XT) in the winter and spring, slightly reduce the volume and intensity of ST and XT in the summer as you increase your run volume/intensity, and then around Oct 1st you would consider drastically reducing your ST workouts so that you are better rested for your key run workouts.  That's the short answer, and a general answer that applies to most non-elite runners (myself included).

One special consideration is whether you have a muscular weakness or imbalance that you're trying to correct through ST or physical therapy.  If so, it's best to follow the therapist's recommendations.  In that case, you may need to follow through with the ST closer to race day, although certainly nothing too intense at that point. 

Another major consideration is your schedule: How much time in the day/week do you have for training/exercise?  If push comes to shove, then 90% of the time you're better off doing a run workout versus ST.  This is one of the main services of DC Running Coach, the time management and mental approach to training.  Ideally, you could do as many ST workouts in the week that your schedule and body can handle, but when things pop up that disrupt your weekly routine then always keep running the priority.

Finally, if you're running a fall marathon you can keep working hard in ST and XT (though ST should get more priority than other XT) until about 4 weeks out.  Keep the ST run-specific.  A good personal trainer or coach should be able to show you what the run-specific strengthening exercises are, as well as how many sets/reps to do for these functional exercises.  If you're into Crossfit and group ST classes, consider pushing them aside in the summer/fall in lieu of more run-specific training.  Get back to the non-specific ST after you've recovered from the marathon.  This is another principle of Periodization, specificity of training.

This blog could go on an on, as I'm a staunch supporter of ST for all runners!  If you have questions/comments, drop me a line and we can chat about your goals and training.  

Here is a related blog about core training, Pilates and yoga and another blog about off-season training.

Train hard!



Train Like an Olympian!

With the Olympics around the corner, this is a good time to tune-in and watch the events on TV or online, even if it's not the track & field events.  I think you'll find it motivating.  The background stories of some of the athletes are motivating, but simply watching the best athletes in the world compete can also be very inspirational.  Push yourself this summer and make it the best training of your life!  Here is your task: How long can you train like an Olympian?  Meaning, how dedicated can you "Eat Right, Get Lots of Sleep, Drink Plenty of Fluids, and Go Like Hell"? (This is an old quote by Mark Allen that is plastered on the front of the DC Running Coach T-shirts).  

Be tough on yourself this summer.  Watch your diet, get sleep, don't skip workouts.  See what it's like to feel like a pro.  It's a different experience; a unique experience that can be very rewarding.  I don't care how fast you go.  I just want you to be dedicated to a fit, healthy, active, and rewarding lifestyle.  Watch the Trials and the Games and get inspired!  It doesn't mean you have to go above and beyond your current training program, it's just a reminder to be 100% dedicated to the program you are following.

Not everyone can go to the Olympics, but everyone can have the mentality of an Olympian!

Train hard!



How to Do the Nation's Tri & Marine Corps Marathon "Double"

There will most likely be dozens of DC area triathletes competing in both the Nation's Triathlon and the Marine Corp Marathon (MCM).  Generally speaking, if we follow the principles of periodization and also accept the fact that weather in the Mid-Atlantic region can dictate our training to an extent, the early fall is a great time to hit your peak for triathlon (races stop around Oct 1st).  Similarly, a late fall marathon is in the heart of running weather ("marathon season"), so you can certainly have a great performance at both races if you happen to be in this category. 

The first consideration for training would be to significantly cut down swimming and cycling for the 7 weeks between the two races, and use the base you have already built all year to ramp up your final approach to a marathon with a run-run-run approach.  Of course, this assumes you were doing marathon distance run training throughout the bulk of the year.  If you are a beginning runner, pulling off this "double" may be more difficult, so again, it's imperative that you have been building your run volume all summer or at least putting all of your time into run training (including strength training) in those final 7 weeks.  In reducing the swim-bike volume, or getting rid of it altogether for 7 weeks, there must be acceptance that this is perfectly alright, and that you will not "lose fitness", which is a fear of many non-elite triathletes have.  Professional triathletes can be concerned about losing fitness after a layoff in training because for them every second counts.  You and I don't quite compete at that level, so it's okay to take a break in training (swim-bike in this case).  Besides, the truth is that even the pros take significant breaks like this during the year; it's known as "training smarter, not harder".

I take the time to explain that last point, because it's critical to your mental approach to training exclusively for the marathon for 7 weeks following the Nation's Tri.  If you are signed up for more triathlons in Sept/Oct, then sure, you can keep swimming and cycling, but that also depends on how competitive you're attempting to be in triathlon, as well as what your marathon goals are.  Generally speaking, if you're a beginning runner and it's your first marathon and/or you don't expect to break 4 hours at MCM, I would recommend focusing exclusively on MCM after the Nation's Tri.  You'll be able to train hard for MCM without worrying about "losing triathlon fitness" knowing your next tri isn't for another 4-6 months.

The final consideration is the question, "Doesn't swimming and cycling help my overall fitness to prepare for MCM?"  Yes, it does, but it depends on who you are and how long you've been in the sport.  Swimming and cycling will have a significant impact in improving fitness for a beginning runner, but at that same time, shouldn't that beginning runner be maximizing running and run-specific strength training in the final weeks?  I agree that we shouldn't be running 5-7 days per week unless we've gotten to that point over many, many years, but consider resting the body more in those final 7 weeks as opposed to adding in more swim-bike workouts on your non-running days.  If you are an experienced runner (let's say a Boston qualifier for conversation), then those swim-bike workouts are no longer significantly improving your run performance (you're too fit), so all signs once again point to maximizing your MCM training.

Finally, it's Olympic fever time, so train like an Olympian at some point in the year.  That means maximizing your training and honing in on one event.  I don't encourage this mentality year-round, but therein is the beauty of periodization; it does allow you to focus on one event without being mentally burnt out or physically over-trained.  Gearing up for MCM following the Nation's Tri is a great example.

*Other considerations for planning your race and training schedule throughout the year are addressed in another blog by Mike found HERE.

Train hard (and smart)!



Learn Midfoot Strike in 20 minutes!

I've written 2 other blogs on the topics of running form and shoes, so this blog is dedicated to giving runners confidence that they can learn how to run with proper midfoot strike in as little as 20 minutes.  Whether or not it sticks on successive runs has mixed results.  However, I've been coaching running form for many years and have found that I can usually get heel strikers into a midfoot strike (that sticks) in ~20 minutes, with the average time taking about 35 minutes (yes, I have started checking my watch to note the time it takes for them to get my stamp of approval).

Not every runner gets it down pat in the first Running 101 session, but typically by the end of 60 minutes, 9 out of 10 runners are "cured" of their heel striking.  I say that the success of future runs is mixed because it depends on the runner's willingness to temporarily reduce his/her run volume in order to have higher quality run sessions and accelerate the learning curve.  You cannot, in my opinion, carry the new running form into a high-volume running routine without regressing into old habits or increasing the likelihood for new injuries.

I admit that the more athletic runners in the crowd will have quicker success and are more apt to get the midfoot strike to stick.  And by "athletic" I mean having good hand-eye coordination and/or some background in another team/ball sport.  This finding is true because in remedying someone's mechanics, there has to be a degree of "treatment acceptability," for which athletes typically have past experience learning new skills (mechanics) and/or picking up on cue words more quickly.

The key to teaching someone how to run (or new mechanics) does not exist in the type of shoes themselves; rather, it exists in what has already been stated, the actual mechanics of the movement.  Shoes, as inanimate objects, don't teach mechanics.  Flexible hips, strong glutes, strong hamstrings, and having the right cue words in your ears (instead of your music playlist) will be the key variables in getting you off your heels and onto your midfoot.   

Without going into great detail, here are the 7 key points I make in teaching someone how to run:

1) Notice that similarly to my other blogs, I don't use the terms "forefoot" or "balls of your feet."  These two phrases are getting many runners into trouble and keeping physical therapists in business.  In terms of injuries, running forefoot can be just as bad as running on your heels.  Unless you are a true sprinter (100m - 400m dash), like Usain Bolt, I don't recommend running on the balls of the feet (or the toes), which is a different beast/sport altogether and a whole separate conversation.

2) I have remained hesitant to fully embrace the minimalist shoe movement, especially as I've refined the way I teach run mechanics.  Minimalist shoes are not evil; they're just not for everyone, especially beginners, heel strikers, or those over age 40.  As the book Tread Lightly points out, I agree that minimalist shoes aren't necessary; however, these shoes should also not be viewed as the silver bullet for causing injuries.  My advice is to pick a shoe that fits your foot, yet is not at either end of the spectrum (i.e., minimalist on one end and motion control shoes on the other end)

3) Related to #2, a smart approach to run volume/intensity goes much further in preventing injuries than does the style of shoe, assuming the runner has a decent midfoot strike.  Some runners contacting me for Running101 sessions are doing so after injuries resulting from running in minimalist shoes and/or attempting to run "forefoot."

4) There is such a thing as running too slowly.  Most of the heel strikers I meet are beginning runners and/or running way too sloooooooow.  We typically have better run mechanics the faster we run, so I encourage people to run slightly faster and cut down on the duration of the run.  I teach people how to sprint first (for the purposes of that 101 session), then I teach them how to jog.  On a related note, I convince some people not to run a marathon or half-marathon until they learn to run properly.  Throw rotten tomatoes at me if you like, but it's a short-term loss (not getting that finisher's medal) for a long-term gain (running injury-free and faster for years to come).  The popularity of marathons and half-marathons are indirectly responsible for the growing number of injuries among runners, as the number of runners has increased in general.

5) Related to #4, if I can get a runner to view sprinting and jogging as similar general mechanics (i.e., hip and hamstring function), albeit with a relatively shorter stride on the easy distance jogs, then I'm close to getting them to a midfoot strike because I've likely successfully broken their old, bad habit(s).

6) Heel striking is the same as walking, which is why running too slowly is not good for anyone (no matter how slow you think you are).  In other words, it's (largely, not exclusively) the mechanics of the lower leg in the final moments of the stride that will cause runners to end up on their heels.  Heel striking is permissible if it's a subtle (key word) heel strike, and there are other factors that go into the executive decision as to whether it needs to be changed (e.g., body weight, age, volume, injury history).  But again, either way, it's about the mechanics, not the shoes.

7) Finally, faster cadence is not the answer!  Cadence and foot strike may be correlated, but we all know from our science and statistics classes that correlations are not cause-effect.  Go down to the National Mall and watch hundreds of heel strikers with a cadence at 90+ RPMs (or 180 if you're counting both feet).  I would even argue that the faster cadence often promotes heel striking, and I make this point explicit in my 101 sessions.  If I can get someone into a midfoot strike, but with a relatively (key word) slower turnover, then that's okay because correcting cadence takes much less work than correcting foot strike.

As I stated before, it may take more than one run for the new midfoot strike to stick, but the initial goal/change can be accomplished in just 20 minutes (in ideal cases), without having to change someone's current run shoes.  I have several different ways of explaining the mechanics.  It's just like teaching in a classroom, you have to offer more than one way to explain the same idea, because different students will grasp ideas in different ways.  In deciding whether or not your foot strike needs to be changed, that's where I, as a coach, can enter the picture, in that I coach individuals, and I know when to allow for individual differences as to what should or should not be changed. 

If you're interested in learning how to change your run form (foot strike, posture, arm swing, etc), then simply drop me a line.

Train hard!



Comparing Workouts

Occasionally in a runner’s program, I’ll schedule a workout he/she has done previously within the 3-month phase, or in the prior phase.  I know the conditions and weather aren’t always the same, but it’s an attempt to get a glimpse of how much a runner has improved on paper and/or how much easier the same workout felt the second time around, which is all the more reason to keep score at home, at least for the speed workouts and long runs.  It’s uplifting to compare some of the same workouts from the previous phase or year.  As stated in the opening chapter of my book, race day should not be the only way that success is measured. 

There needs to be a healthy balance as to how often the data is analyzed and how often workouts are compared.  I don’t encourage runners to compare their workouts week to week, and the reason is very simply rooted in that the physiology of training doesn’t allow for significant changes week to week.  Too many runners are “disappointed” in themselves when comparing their performances week to week.  Such feelings are not warranted.  Look for improvements over a greater timescale, as in three months apart or even year-to-year.   

On a shorter timescale, expect improvements no sooner than about every 6 weeks, which is in line with the physiology of the training.  Improvements seen within a one-month time span are usually attributable to significantly different weather or to “learning effects,” meaning the improvements are due to runner having a better understanding of how to do the workout, not necessarily improved fitness.  Garmin runners usually have a tougher time resisting weekly comparisons.  If you get caught in the trap of constantly seeking improvement, then it can lead you to feeling unsuccessful, unnecessarily. 

Train hard!



Planning Your Race Calendar

Planning your races for the year may not be as hard as it seems, but I'm bias as a coach and this is one of the main services I offer: The mental approach to training and racing…the thinking before the actual doing.  Before you even lay out which workouts you're going to do, you have to know how many weeks or months you have to work with before some meaningful event.  Planning the races (and often the specific race distances) in particular months of the year is the first step to ensuring your training plan isn't a hodge-podge of workouts as you attempt to juggle run training, strength training, cross-training, road races at various distances, travel, and life.

Here then are the basic considerations to help you make sense of it all:

1) Weather.  First things first, I write this blog to anyone living in the Mid-Atlantic region, who must contend with the different seasons.  If you live in San Diego, for example, or somewhere else with 365 perfect days to train, this Blog may not be for you. :)  If we accept that we typically only have about a 3-week window for which to be in "peak condition" then you may want that time to coincide with the most optimal weather, the fall.  This combination of peak weather and peak workouts creates a powerful combination.  And to be totally candid, this is why premiere races in the earlier months of the year put us Mid-Atlantic athletes at a disadvantage.  Your most important race can certainly be in July or August, but in terms of being in peak condition during that time, don't count on it, as endurance athletes it's tough to truly maximize the training in the muggy summer weather.  Therefore, the best season to hit your own personal peak is in the fall.  It doesn't mean you can't be fit and race well (or even win your age-group) in the hot summer months, it just means on an individual basis, you should expect to be in top shape in the fall.  Having said that, use late July and August as "training months" (with short-distance racing) and save your peak races for the Sept – Nov.

Also, because the winter weather is not conducive to ideal outdoor training, don't expect to peak (in the truest sense of the word) in April or May.  Again, it doesn't mean we can't train hard and become really fit in the winter, but that is also a time typically reserved for more recovery, strength training, and technical correction, which implies that peak training can't be guaranteed. 

2) First triathlon?  Because most first-timers struggle with either learning how to swim (period) or getting open-water experience prior to their first race, your first triathlon should not be in April or May.  Use April and May as a time to get 2 more months of swim practice in the pool, plus its two more months to potentially get out in a lake, pond, or ocean prior to the race.  The same rationale holds true for cycling.  Use April and May to gain more experience doing long rides outdoors.  As much as they kick our butt, spin classes don't offer the same lessons in positioning, pacing, and stress as the real thing.  Running takes less of a hit in the winter months, so the rationale here for the first timers is more related to swimming (primarily) and cycling (secondary).  I talk many first-timers out of early spring races and they are better off for it.

3) Century rides.  Related to #2 above, if you're preparing for your first century ride, give yourself as much time as possible to make this an enjoyable experience and wait until the summer or fall.  The summer weather isn't as big of a factor in choosing to do a century ride.  There are plenty of rest stops and the ability to cruise at your own pace.

4) Marathons.  Once again, this is related to the weather.  Can you run an early spring marathon, or even one in the winter?  Yes, you can, and you can do quite well.  However, if you are looking to run your best marathon, or get a Boston qualifying time, the winter weather in the Mid-Atlantic region poses an obstacle (even if small), where not all of your key workouts can be done without any hiccups from frequent scheduling issues.  I convince the athletes I coach to register for a half-marathon in March rather than the full marathon, like the DC Rock-n-Roll Half.  You'll have much more peace of mind knowing your training is adequate for 13 miles (which is very manageable in the winter) rather than 26, for which the winter weather can often have the average runner feeling behind the 8-ball during training.

If we follow the rationale in item #1 above that the early fall is a great time to hit your peak for triathlon (races stop around Oct 1st), then a late fall marathon makes perfect sense, in which you would significantly cut down swimming and cycling for 6 – 8 weeks and use the base you have already built all year to ramp up your final approach to a marathon with a run-run-run approach.  Of course, this assumes you were doing marathon distance run training throughout the bulk of the year.

5) Road races.  This is an easy answer, run them as often as you like, generally without seeing them as a conflict.  If you want to run faster then you have to race faster!  Without going into an entirely separate blog, all the light bulbs you want to go off about race-day pacing, intensity, stride, breathing, etc will all come as a result of your open road races (2-miler – 10k).  Do not use these races as "training runs", rather, race them full tilt!  Treat them as a race, no special pacing limitations! 

6) Longer means faster!  Some endurance athletes have the misconception that training for the longer distances has a negative effect on speed.  I strongly disagree.  Show me one runner who did not become significantly faster at the short distances after training for a marathon (excluding injury from long-distance training as the problem variable), and I'll pay your next race registration!  Everyone gets faster at the shorter distances while training for the longer ones.  This would even hold true for most pros, but admittedly, this is where the misconception originates, and there is some truth to it with those special athletes.  When you are in the top-1% in the world at whatever you do, specificity of training is at a premium.  Diverging from the norm in this regard could hurt your performance, as there is now little room for error as you near perfection in any realm of human performance.  For us mortal athletes, we have nowhere to go but up, and we have lots of room for improvement no matter what we do.  Hey, we could have a bad week of training and still gain fitness simply because our starting point is relatively low compared to the pros.  So, if a pro runner is a specialist in the 5k, then yes, workouts that are too long, too frequently may conflict with the gains they are seeking in power/speed, but let's remember that pro athletes are the exception to the rule.  I am yet to meet an age-grouper who did not decimate their old PRs in short distance after they made the jump to the longer races.  The physiological adaptations from longer-distance endurance training are incredible!

*Finally, remember that there is an exception to every rule and you can bend the rules of the seasons/distances as they suit your needs.  These are just the general guidelines factoring in the human element.

Train hard and race hard!



Thoughts on New Year's Resolutions

As you have no doubt sat down to have a conversation with yourself recently and engaged in a little soul searching, here are 3 Tips from me to help you understand the New Year's resolution business in a better way:

1) Don't fret the crowded gyms.  Over the years, I notice the trend for drop-off rates at gyms, as I assume yours will be overly crowded in 2 weeks due to sales on membership rates and Resolutions.  Research is consistent in that 50% of all people that sign up for a membership at the New Year will drop out before June, but I will go so far as to say most of that will occur before Feb.  Convince yousefl that you have a leg up on everyone, in that we you a proper approach to exercise motivation and training, and will still be standing in June.  In the meantime, be patient with the masses.

2) Pride.  As the year draws to a close, be sure to soak up what you accomplished.   Instead of thinking immediately about race results, begin by thinking about your training.  I guarantee there were more battles won and obstacles overcome in your training than in your racing.  Remind yourself of some milestone(s) you hit this year, incredibly tough conditions brought on by Mother Nature that you overcame, or an inspired run you had when it was the last thing you wanted to do that day.  And yes, then think about the moments of elation you felt at certain finish lines.  A great way to boost your pride is to know there were certain goals or training accomplishments you achieved this year that maybe nobody else achieved.  Sound impossible?  Not really.  Think hard enough and I bet there are some unique things you did this year that should make you feel proud of yourself.  Inspire yourself!

3) Goals. Related to #2, what did you learn last year?  What worked well for you month after month that you should make a staple of your routine?  What is broken and needs fixing?  Write your goals down.  Most of these should be process goals...specific, measurable, and with due dates, all of which enable you to say definitively "yes or no, I did/didn't achieve the goal."  Goal setting can be as simple or complicated as you want to make it.  Either way, you must write your goals down.  Looking back at last year's process goals will help you form goals for the new year.

Train hard!