Note: This is part 2 of a four-part series on running a marathon by frequent guest and friend of the show, Stephen Stephano. In this series he will detail his real-life experiences in running ten marathons, and he will give a four-step process on how to run one yourself.
Last week I detailed my activities during the summer period, which included some running and lots of cross training like cycling, swimming, soccer, and basketball. If your goal is to run a long distance race, starting with a general fitness/cross-training program where you’re active 4 to 5 times a week is a great way to start. It gets your legs used to being in motion and it helps you improve your cardiovascular fitness without overly stressing or breaking down certain bones or muscle groups. At the end of the basketball and soccer seasons in mid-August, I took a brief respite from training, using this period to prepare and get focused on the fall running season. Ahead was a period of progressive running training I refer to as “The Peak.”
Imagine that you are trying to climb a mountain. The first goal toward reaching the summit is making it to base camp, which is usually at some high plateau at the base of the much taller peak. Depending on the location, just getting to base camp can be an accomplishment. For Mount Everest, which is 29,000 feet high, base camp is at 17,000 feet, which is still higher than any point in the United States outside of Alaska. For many people, just having a good base of fitness is enough for them to feel good about themselves, look good, and have the energy to tackle their daily routines.
But for elite athletes, that’s not enough. The supremely talented and the ultra-dedicated among us have a desire, a will to work very hard – even work when nobody else will – in order to succeed. You can name any great athlete from any era – tris Speaker, Jim Brown, Lebron James, for example – they all have this desire wired into their DNA. I’m not going to lie, if you want to succeed in distance running, you have to have some of this desire and mental toughness because it is a very physically demanding activity. The peak is where you find out what you are made of. My last two trips through The Peak in fall 2018 and spring 2019 ended in injury. This time, however, I’m determined to not suffer the same fate.
My first article on the buildup really only focused on general fitness, but to succeed in the peak, you need to be cognizant of other non-fitness related items. First you need to know when to start the climb. Most high school and college cross country and track coaches have their athletes begin specific training around 75 to 90 days prior to their biggest competition. This is often the state or national championships. I tend to think this is a proper approach for all but the very best of distance runners. The best train all year, but many of them are paid professionals that don’t have to deal with the reality of a full-time job on top of training. For us in the real world, the 75 to 90 day window is a lengthy enough time to get into the best possible shape, but also short enough to protect you from injury and mental fatigue. For me, my goal race is November 16, so the peak began on September 1.
Next, if you’re going to climb a mountain, you’re going to need the proper equipment. The single best thing you can do for yourself at the start of the peak phase is to purchase a good pair of running shoes. You can get away with sneakers and cross training shoes during the buildup, but for the workouts ahead, you’re going to need footwear specific to running. There are many different manufacturers and types of shoes, some of which can be designed to the shape of your feet. I have never met a running shoe store employee that wasn’t a runner themselves, and they can provide great insight and experience. Some of the stores in our area to check out include Fleet Feet and Second Sole. In addition to shoes, they can also make recommendations on what attire and accessories are best suited to distance running. You may find that your normal t-shirts and underwear are fine for 3 and 4 mile runs, but once the distance hits double digits, you may find that the mixture of friction, sweat and salt can lead to some mighty bad rashes in places you don’t want (there are products for these problems as well).
One other thing to consider is diet. You can get into decent shape just on exercise alone, but if you eat a lot of sugar, processed food, and fast food, your peak training can be undone by what you’re eating. Distance running, especially marathon running, requires that you fill your body with proper fuel. Some pro athletes use high-end supplements and powders as a means of enhancing performance. You can look into these if you want, but in general, just eating better (coupled perhaps with multi-vitamins) is sufficient for most runners.
If you’re used to eating lots of fruits and vegetables, that is great, and you’ll want to continue to do so. But you’ll also want to make sure that you eat an adequate amount of protein and carbohydrates. Protein helps aid muscle growth and recovery following workouts. Lean meats like chicken, fish, and turkey are great options. Red meat like beef and pork are less desirable but still ok in moderation. Carbohydrates, too often vilified, are hugely vital to providing you with the energy you need to complete long distance efforts. I cannot stress that point enough. If you’re on a low carb diet, you’re likely going to struggle with low energy and poor recovery, particularly after long runs.
Having good eating habits early in The Peak is crucial because as your mileage increases, you burn more calories, and you’ll find that you are hungrier more often. This is your brain telling you that you need to eat more to re-supply your body with nutrients. You should not fight this. But you need to make sure that your snacking includes decent food items and not just junk. By all means, have that occasional cookie or brownie or ice cream cone, but just try not to go overboard.
Up to this point, this section has been mostly instructional and I hope I’ve been able to impart some of my knowledge and experience to you. I’ll now pivot to talking about my peak training this year.
My projected start date for peak training was September 1st. However, right at the start I picked up a knock in my right leg during a 6-mile run, so I had to back off. That first week consisted of 3 bike rides and just 2 runs. By September 8th, my leg felt strong enough to start a full running outside of still riding the bike on Sundays. That first week I covered 23 miles in 4 workouts. The next week, September 15th through September 21st, I covered 26 miles in 5 workouts. The third week, September 22nd through 28th, is where I really started moving, doing an 8-mile run on Tuesday followed by a 4×1600 interval workout at 6:15 mile pace on Wednesday. Speed intervals, also known as high intensity interval training (HIIT) is a training tactic that athletes use to awaken fast twitch muscle fibers and improve speed and leg turnover.
The following Sunday (September 29th), I ran 9 miles, covering the distance in 1:06:14. The next day I caught a cold and had to back off for much of the week. Training when you are sick is almost never a good idea because you feel like crap and putting yourself through heavy exertion while sick can hinder your body’s ability to fight off the infection and keep you sicker longer. Your best bet is to rest, or at the very least lower the intensity and duration of your training until you feel better. The rest of that week I only did 2 more runs, and short ones at that. Feeling much better by Saturday, October 5th, I had an outstanding run, 10 miles in 1:12:14, or 7:13/mile. This was a fantastic run through the Metroparks, and it sort of galvanized me. I was also aided by cooler weather, so October was a gold mine of training. Four days after the 10-miler I ran a hard tempo run, finishing 5 miles in 32:37, or 6:31/mile. Two days after that I dropped an 11-mile run in 1:21:56. Everything was going according to plan.
On October 14th I went for my second HIIT session on Norwalk’s beautiful north coast inland trail. The goal was to run 8×800 meters in 3 minutes each. However, on the penultimate interval, I felt pulling in my right iliotibial band, the same part of my leg that I hurt at the end of August. I immediately ended the workout and proceeded to rest, ice, and recuperate for much of the next 2-3 days. I returned to running on the 18th, not really knowing what to expect. That day I did 6 miles pain free. A major bullet dodged, I made the decision to not do any more HIIT sessions before race day, instead getting my speedwork solely through hard tempo running. It is good to stick to a plan, but invariably there are going to be times where you have to deviate from the plan in order to stay healthy. That’s one thing I’ve learned the hard way in recent years. It takes a lot of experience to know the difference between normal discomfort during running and true pain indicative of an injury, but a general rule of thumb is that if you feel something painful that is out of the ordinary, stop. Rest up, ice, and re-evaluate after a few days. Consulting a physician or an orthopedic is never a bad idea if you need advice.
I slowly got back on track, running 7 miles on October 20, then running a modest 33:10 for 5 miles on the 21st. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, I had my best workout of 2019. On the towpath trail, I was supposed to turn around after 5 miles but was feeling great and decided to continue up to the 6.5 mile mark instead. Everything clicked the whole way back, and I finished 13.1 miles in a fairly brisk time of 1:32:54, or 7:05/mi. I can’t really explain why that day went so well, but the near perfect weather probably played a role. Generally speaking, distance running is easiest at temperatures between 45 and 60 degrees, with the humidity below 50%. On hot days, the heat and humidity causes your core temperature and heart rate to skyrocket, causing you to sweat and breathe very hard. On cold days, you’re bogged down with heavy clothes, making it more difficult to move, and breathing cold air can irritate and dry out your lungs. It’s no surprise that most marathons in this part of the country are held either in spring (April/May), or fall (late September through mid-November).
Everything was now falling into place. My weekly mileage had increased from roughly 25 miles in early-mid September to about 40 miles in late October. On Oct 29th, I did 5.5 miles in 35:51, or 6:30/mile. Three days later on November 1st, I did my longest run of 2019, a 15-mile trek in which I literally encircled the city of Norwalk, finishing in 1:49:40. With just 15 days remaining until race day, I knew this would be my longest run prior to the marathon. After a pair of middling runs on November 3rd and 4th, I hit the trail for a timed 10k on November 6th. The run was a banger as I finished in 40:18, just 47 seconds off my personal best for 10k.
To sum it up, the peak phase definitely had its highs and lows. I dodged injury twice and illness once, and managed to stay on an upward trajectory all the way through to today. So how does my current form compare with past years? In the past I’ve done 16-18 mile runs prior to the marathon. I never got up to that level this year, which is somewhat of a concern going into race day. However, my pace has been extremely good, on par with training I’ve done in years past. This is going to be interesting to consider when planning my race-day strategy. But one thing is certain, with just 10 days remaining, the focus begins to shift away from gaining fitness and more toward gaining my legs back and making it to the starting line healthy. This is the period known as the Taper, and I move into it now. We’ll discuss that next time, in what should be a much shorter part 3.