How Not to Hit a Wall in Your Next Marathon

All runners – and, heck, even many non-runners – know of “The Wall,” that infamous barrier that looms 20-plus miles down the road in a marathon. Legend has it that “The Wall,” as its name implies, is an obstacle of such proportion that it can reduce even the swiftest among us to a dead stop. But here’s the catch: This wall doesn’t really exist.

There are, however, a number of things that runners do, or fail to do, that lead to them to run out of gas late in a marathon. Here are four of them – and how to avoid them:

1. They go out too fast.

runner 2Perhaps one of the most misunderstood principles among runners is that the speed (or pace) they can sustain declines by about 15 to 20 percent as the race distance doubles. Put another way, if a runner can run a 5K race at a particular pace, his or her 10K pace will be 15 to 20 percent slower. The same runner will slow down a similar amount going from a 10K to a half-marathon, and then again from a half-marathon to a marathon, and so on. Without understanding this rule of thumb, most runners don’t know how much they should slow down in a marathon as compared to shorter races. As a result, they inevitably go out too fast in the first half of the race.

Coach Joe’s Tip: An easy way to understand your true marathon pace is to run a 5K race and then use a race result prediction tool to calculate what your goal pace should be for the marathon. After figuring out that pace, practice it during training and then run it from start to finish on race day.

2. They haven’t trained enough at the right pace.

Understanding your target marathon pace early on is important because it gives you time to practice running that pace. Doing so forms the muscle memory needed to repeat that action over and over again. On race day, you want your goal pace to feel natural, rather than foreign. Keep in mind that varying your running pace by just 15 to 20 seconds a mile requires big changes to your step rate (or cadence), stride length and gait – patterns you don’t want your body to default to during the race.

Coach Joe’s Tip: Spend time practicing your target marathon pace in training. Each week, aim to complete one progressively longer run (increasing the distance by 2 miles every other week until you get to 18 miles) and one shorter run (4 to 6 miles) at your marathon goal pace. Try to also run 18 consecutive miles at that pace at least twice while training for the race.
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5 Factors That Make or Break a Workout

Runners experience many ups and downs as they go through the days and weeks of their training routines. Some days feel great. Other days? Well, not so much. If you ever find yourself scratching your head wondering why your last run felt so horrible, ask yourself these five questions to shed light on the possible reasons:

1. What did you do in your workout yesterday?

Runner1Much of what dictates your energy levels during runs is related to where your body is in the recovery process from previous workouts. The first question I ask myself when I’m feeling particularly crummy is, “What did I do yesterday?” An especially long run or taxing speed workout can require at least 24 hours of recovery time. Depending on a runner’s level of fitness, this amount of time can stretch out to 48 hours or even longer. It’s important for runners to keep track of their workouts and to try to keep some space between the longest and hardest ones. When not fully recovered, most runners have difficulty achieving their workout goals.

Coach Joe’s Tip: Try to spread long runs and speed workouts across the week, placing two to three days between your hardest speed or “quality” workouts. Completing two intense, quality workouts in a week is a good goal for most runners.

2. What did you eat yesterday?

The energy you put into your body in the form of food also affects your energy level. The food you eat before your workouts gives you energy to fuel them, while what you eat after workouts provides you the tools you need to recover. If runners don’t eat enough carbohydrates the day and morning before workouts, they’ll be low on fuel. Without fuel, there’s no energy. And, if they don’t eat enough protein after their workouts, they’ll hamper the body’s ability to recover properly.

Coach Joe’s Tip: Runners should plan their eating to support their workout needs. Aim to eat complex carbohydrates (including bread, rice and pasta) the night before a long workout. Eat or drink at least 15 grams of protein – about the amount in a container of yogurt – in the first hour after a workout to give your body a better chance to recover.
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Training — Why Did I Bonk Early in My Race? Three Factors Revisited

running-advice-bugMarathon runners know that they can “hit the wall” or “bonk” in a long race. The “Bonk” as we call it normally happens when either our muscles or the brain runs out of energy. But sometimes the bonk comes hard and early in a race. If by mile four or five, you’re out of gas then something else is amiss. Today I handle one of my athlete’s questions to illustrate what kinds of factors can cause the early or “Pre-mature Bonk”. First, the question:

“My half marathon yesterday sucked. I finished in 2:07 and I was going for a PR of 1:58. I had to stop and walk a few times. Then I would get bursts of energy just like you described. . . .But I was completely tanked. I didn’t have any digestive problems at all, just a total lack of energy. . . .I felt so depleted. I finally pushed through at the “1/4 mile to go!” marker but nearly dropped after stepping on the finish mat. Oh, and did I tell you it was 85 degrees yesterday?”

Post-race Fatigue at WMA 2011

There’s a couple of things that I want you to think about here in regards to why you might have bonked so hard and early in your race, keeping in mind here that we’re talking about a half-marathon so your bonk comes even earlier than your longest workouts. Here are three things that I want you to focus on:

First, is the impact of your training itself on your energy level. The fatigue you’re describing can be a symptom of what you’re doing in your workouts leading up to the race. The amount of recovery (or lack of recovery) is a big factor in how you feel during any particular workout. So if you think about your muscles as having a fuel tank, those tanks may not be getting refilled after your workouts and leading up to the half-marathon. One of the key differences between an “A” race and all the others (meaning one that you’re really training for rather than one that is just on the schedule along the way) is the taper period that comes before the race. This is a period of weeks that comes right before the race in which the body gets a chance to fully recover. What you’re describing below sounds typical of what happens when you run a race without a taper (or rather without recovery from your workouts right before it.) This isn’t actually a bad thing. It puts a level of stress on the body that ends up being helpful to your training in the long run, but it doesn’t feel great.
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Training — Five Tips for Running Through Fatigue

running-advice-bugI was pacing one of my coaching clients yesterday and about six miles into our run, when the pace was starting to get to him, I rattled off the latest mile split. We were still on pace and he exclaimed, “wow, I thought I was dying.” After the run, I was explaining to him some things about fatigue that I thought I would share with the wider world out there.

Fatigue is one of the most important sensations that runners need to become aware of and train to handle. Think for a moment about what’s happening when you start feeling fatigue. Your body starts to get tired, your muscles start giving you the signal that they are unhappy and then your brain gets involved and thinks, “I’m dying here.” This is perhaps the most critical point for long-distance runners. In that moment, you will do one of two things: keep running at the same pace or slow down. Most runners will slow down as a response to this sensation. But what’s important here is that in that moment you are being given a signal from your body and you have a choice in how you deal with it. Your reaction to the stimuli is what’s essential here.

The tricky thing here is that most of the time, you don’t actually need to slow down, but it will feel a lot better if you do. If you have been training at your target pace and you’re in the ballpark, these sensations of fatigue in the late miles of a run are totally normal. But most of the time the body has the capacity to keep going, it just doesn’t feel the same. Similar to doing a whole bunch of push-ups, as your arms gets tired, each push-up gets increasingly more painful. This is the same type of sensation that you’re feeling when running.

As fatigue gets more intense, you will be challenged more and more to respond by slowing down. But the fact is that through proper training, you can run through this fatigue, keep on pace, and essentially “choose” to deal with this stimuli by treating it an indicator of what’s going on in your body, rather than a signal that means you have to slow down.

Here are five things that you can do to prepare for fatigue, allowing you to recognize the signals and deal with it:

1. Find yourself a pacer — Perhaps the first thing that can be done to practice running through fatigue is to have someone else pay attention to — and keep — the pace. As you’re getting more and more tired, if you only have to hang on to the shoulder of your pacer, you can just keep grinding it out, gritting your teeth, and sticking to the pace. The pace is going to feel progressively harder, but if you’ve got a good pacer, they will do the work of keeping an eye on the clock and you just have to keep up. I use this method extensively with my clients, pacing them precisely through their workouts and telling them to “just stay on my shoulder” and “I’ll worry about the pace.” The important thing is then to debrief and think about how the pacing felt and to start to overcome the mental barriers and resist the urge that the body is giving you to slow down.
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Training — Where did our marathon training go wrong?

running-advice-bugBrian writes in with a pretty common question that I’d like to explore a bit today:

“My brother Greg and I just ran the Baystate Marathon in Lowell, MA. 5 weeks out, we both ran a 20 miler. 3 weeks out we both raced a hilly course of about 11 miles + plus some extra miles for a total of 16 miles. We were scheduled to run a 20 miler that three weeks out (Hal Higdon).

We both were running strong and on pace for a 3:20 marathon. At mile 17, we both had leg problems. I had a lockup with the outside of my right thigh (IT band?). My brother Greg had heavy legs. We struggled to finish at 4:00. We both had 2 easy, but faster miles in the beginning of the race at a 7:30 pace. Very frustrating. Where did we go wrong in our training?”

When I get questions like this, I would usually think about four different lines of inquiry to get to the bottom of the problem. You give me some good clues above, but we’d probably need a little more information to get definite with the answer. Here’s a bit of what I see in your question and the things that I’d look at.

The first thing I would normally look at is the pacing of your long runs and their relationship to the pacing in your race. What often happens is that runners will do an 18 or 20 miler at say 8:30 pace and then run the first half of their marathon at a faster pace — say 8:00 minutes per mile. Running faster in the race than in your training is a sure-fire way to have your legs give out on on you at mile 17 in a marathon. Your pace in your goal-paced runs should be the same pace that you plan to run in the marathon. This helps build the repetition in the muscles to reproduce that pace consistently on race day.
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Training — Tips for Dealing with Fatigue in Marathon Runners

Coach Joe English

Coach Joe English

One of my athletes wrote to me yesterday asking for some quick tips on things that might help with fatigue. Because I manage her training schedule, I can rule out over-training in this case. I thought that I would share with you readers some of the tips that I give when people are looking for ways to cope with fatigue that is impacting their marathon training.

Before we jump into issues that cause fatigue and things that you can do to improve the situation, let’s start by saying that some level of fatigue is normal in marathon runners. Fatigue is part of the process of recovery from intense workouts. However, fatigue should not be so severe that it prevents the runner from achieving good quality workouts. If fatigue is so bad that the runner is skimping on runs or not able to run at their normal paces, then there is an issue that needs to be addressed.

Here are a few things to think about and watch for in your daily routine that will cause fatigue or can combat it:
1) Over-training — make sure that you are getting adequate recovery between your workouts, especially between intense quality (or speed) workouts. The amount of recovery varies and depends on your level of fitness.
2) Sleep — make sure that you are getting adequate amounts of sleep. Sleep is a critical time for the body to repair itself and recover. A lack of sleep can dramatically impact your recovery.
3) Nutrition — ensure that you are eating enough carbohydrate in your daily diet to fuel your workouts and getting enough protein after-ward to help your recovery. Runners should aim to consume 15 grams of carbohydrate within the first hour of the end of their workout to help with recovery. For more on eating for recovery, click here to read my tips on the best foods for recovery.
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Training — What causes muscle cramps in runners?

Coach Joe English

Coach Joe English

Marathon runner Jen writes in with a great question that comes up all of the time. It has to do with cramps in her calves when running and what causes them. Here’s Jen’s question:

This past October I changed my running schedule quite a bit. Instead of doing the same runs at the same comfortable pace all the time I decided to make the change and start pushing harder. The video about “quality vs. quantity” really hit me. I HATE to run fast, but that’s what’s going to make me faster…duh.

So I just started running faster, just pushing to where it was hard the whole time, on all of my runs at first. This is when my calf started letting me know it was there. Then on one of my long runs during the first of January it cramped up so bad I thought I was going to have to have my husband come pick me up…but of course I ran faster just to get home. Then cried because I’ve never hurt like that before! . . . .[Now] the only run that hurts me is the long run. It doesn’t cramp when I sprint or run an 8-10 mile tempo pace, but when I go out slow for that 15-17 mile run…Wham right about mile 10…. I do the chomps, I drink water, etc…none of that has changed from the last 3 years.”

Great question Jen. Let’s start by looking at what a cramp is and what causes a cramp before we jump into the solution space. Too often the standard answer that you’ll get is to drink more fluid, but that may miss some of the causes of cramping that may be causing the problem in your particular case.

How do muscles work?
Muscles work by contracting and relaxing. Any particular muscle can only move in one direction and it only moves by contracting. The muscle is connected across a joint to another part of the body and when it contracts (or shortens itself), it pulls across that joint and moves the part of the body towards it. When the body part is going to move back the other direction, a muscle in opposition to the first muscle contracts and pulls the body part back in place. In this manner — through opposite muscles contracting and relaxing — parts of our body are moved back and forth.
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Training — Why am I struggling late in my training season?

Coach Joe English

Coach Joe English

A reader named Jessica writes in with a great question that sounds all too familiar:

I am two months away from my first marathon – and I feel like I am becoming a worse runner. My runs are becoming more difficult, even in the beginning. The first 4 miles feels like torture. Its ruining my confidence. Is there anything I can do to loosen up my legs prior to a long run?

The first thing to keep in mind Jessica is that late in the season runners often begin to struggle. This is due to the fact that your training is cumulative in nature. You’ve likely been training consistently for a number of weeks or months and your body hasn’t had a chance to recover from those workouts completely. This is the nature of training: we place the body under stress and the body reacts to that stress by growing and adapting to the physical load being placed upon it. However, it takes awhile for this adaptation to happen. So while the workouts are complete, the process of adapting to them goes on long afterward. In this time, you are continuing to train and this is the source of much of the fatigue.

The second thing to keep in mind is that it can take as much as two to three weeks or more to see the benefit of any one particular run. As your long run distances have been increasing, again, you’ve continued to train and your body is racing to recover and adapt to the workouts. It’s in this recovery and adaptation period that you’re feeling fatigued and tired, which makes you feel like your going backwards in your training, rather than forward.

Another thing that you mention is the fact that it seems to be taking longer to warm-up at the start of runs. Again, this is normal as the season progresses. It isn’t uncommon to take 10 miles to really loosen up when your long runs get really long. This is in part due to the fatigue that we’ve already talked about, but it is also part of the adaptation itself. You’re training yourself to go longer, so the body takes a bit long to get all of its processes spun up during a long workout.
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Training: How much is too much of a good thing? Over-training and Plateauing with runners

A reader named Nilla wrote in to ask a question that is symptomatic of many runners. After a period of time their workouts may appear to stop having a positive impact or they just might start to struggle doing the same workouts that they’ve been doing for a long time. This can be frustrating and difficult to understand. Coach Dean tackles the issue of overtraining and plateauing in this article.

Here’s Nilla’s question:

I have been running for 8 years now. I’ve run comfortably at an 8:30 mile pace and have consistently run 35-40 miles per week. I have participated in several races including a couple of half marathons. But for the past 5 months, running has been very difficult for me. It is a struggle just to get in an easy run. The first mile is okay but the remaining miles are awful. My legs get tired, my lungs hurt and overall I feel terrible. By the end of an easy 6 miler, my body is spent! My enjoyment in running is dwindling because of this and I have tried to determine what is the cause. Nothing has changed that I can tell. I have tried starting my runs off slower to save energy and taken more days off during the week but it hasn’t helped. I’m a 5 ft. 9, 30 year old female who eats healthy, gets lots of sleep but is I am still at a loss! Can you please give me some advice?

This is a common question, so first, let me reassure you that you’re not alone. Every athlete goes through these spells at one time or another. Usually these issues boil down to either over-training or what we call plateauing.

Before we jump into those issues however, it’s important to rule out any other physiological causes. Stress, for instance, is one cause that is ofter overlooked. Also Low grade infections or other disease processes may be having an impact on your performance. Allergies can also foster these same symptoms. For women, I strongly recommend evaluation for iron deficiencies.

In addition to these more typical issues, the on-set of more serious diseases could be draining you of your energy. So, a first step is to get to a doctor and eliminate any physical causes or illnesses.
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