What’s Worked: Reflections on Marathon Training

As I approach these last few weeks of marathon prep— namely, the taper stage— I’ve been reflecting a bit on how this bout of training has fared compared to others.

There were a lot of different strategies I incorporated this time around which made for a lot of new experiences. And while it’s still 17 days ‘til race day (*shudder*), I think it’s pretty safe to say that these strategies have worked.

As of right now, I feel healthy, strong, and mentally prepared to make Eugene an “A” race. Since I’ve had more than a few marathon-training mishaps in the past, I thought I’d write a bit about the things I’ve implemented this time that seemed to have made the biggest difference.

Following an actual training schedule.

I know, right? NUTS.

But honestly, other than roughly sketching my first marathon training around a Hal Higdon program, I’ve never really followed a “schedule.” Before, I would just try to gradually increase my mileage and my long-run distances. And somehow I kept winding up with injuries that forced me to take weeks off at a time. I didn’t go into my last two marathons 100% healthy. In fact, I was more concerned with my injuries flaring in those races than the actual running. Luckily, I was able to complete both races—but they didn’t have that climactic, “I gave it everything I have” feel that 26.2 is supposed to have.

So I changed my method. I bought the Advanced Marathoning book by Pete Pfitzinger and decided to let him take the reins. I made a few tweaks to the prescribed programs (long runs on Saturday instead of Sunday), but otherwise—it was all up to Pete. The schedule wasn’t too much more demanding in terms of mileage, but if definitely offered components that I’d never used before.

Suddenly, all of my runs had intention behind them.  There were paces I never, ever trained at—both fast and slow—and workouts I’d never done before. I liked it though. This new approach was refreshing and interesting—and it added some color to the “10 miles at an average pace” runs that had become too frequent in my schedule.

I now have a pretty good idea of how my 5k pace, half-marathon pace, and goal marathon pace all feel according to effort as opposed to solely by my watch. I feel more in tune with my exertion levels and when to push and when to hold back. I also have a much better gauge of my strengths and my weaknesses—which feels good both going into race day and future training. For instance, to work on: hills, tempos, and workouts in the middle of long runs. To capitalize on: race day brain/competitive nature, speed work, and finishing strong.

I love that this new schedule has given me new favorite workouts, too. Somehow I’ve developed an infatuation for 800 repeats as well as half-marathon pace shorter runs—both of which require hard, fast rap…which I also kind of love right now.

Rest Days

I think there has been one week this entire training cycle that I didn’t take a rest day. Otherwise, they have been as integral to each week as the long run. I’ve gone from avoiding and hating any rest days at all to welcoming them with open arms whenever they come.

I am certain that this change has made a critical difference in my body’s health, but perhaps more so—I’m convinced that they’ve done wonders for my brain. While I definitely still get a little restless on rest days—it’s the temporary holding back that gets me excited to get back out there the next day. My workouts or runs the day after rest days always feel so fresh and strong, and I’m having a hard time remembering back to the time when I disliked rest days.

Through this, I bluntly have to state that, IMO, any runner who doesn’t take at least one day OFF a week is fooling themselves. There is everything to be lost, and nothing to be gained, by not letting our bodies recover. I’ve learned this the hard way too many times, and it took me too long to realize that this habit was actually the thing holding me back.

In our sport, sometimes the greatest strength of all can come from when we go against our instincts to keep pushing. It’s a strange concept in a country riddled with laziness and lack of motivation— but something I’ve come to realize is that there can always be too much of a good thing.

Running-specific strength training

On a similar self-preservation topic, I think a key component of this training cycle has been the strengthening I’ve incorporated.

I’ve always been a regular “lifter”—but mostly in an arms-and-core-only kind of way. Part of it was that I didn’t like straying from routine, and the other part was that I never wanted my legs to be too sore to run.

Overuse injuries that were all stemming from muscular weaknesses kind of forced me to change my habits. I started going to the total-body strength class that I always talk about, and all of a sudden—the aches that always plagued me weren’t there anymore.

The class toasts every single muscle group—including my glutes, hammies, and quads, and it also incorporates a lot of plyometric work that improves balance and ankle strength. All of it is so very good for runners, and while I don’t love the weekly DOMs screaming in the back of my legs, I have also seen my recovery time and speed increase.

And fine, maybe—MAYBE—PSJJ has helped too. I still hate it. Day 101 today, woof.

What’s interesting to me about this whole strength-training concept is that I’ve actually decreased the amount of other cardio-cross training during this cycle. I spin or swim maybe once a week, and otherwise it’s just running and strength classes. I used to be a big believer in a more-is-better approach to cross-training, but I’m starting to think that for me—my body can handle running better than I previously thought, so long as I’m diligent about strength. Which is encouraging, because if there’s a choice of activities…I think you can guess that run > everything else.

Food

I love food. I’m very non-discriminatory when it comes to the food I love. As in, I love a big bowl of vegetables and quinoa as much as I love a piece of chocolate pie.

Really though, I’m all about diversification and all-encompassing love when it comes to my food choices. It’s part of what helps me feel balanced, and I like to think that it helps me become not too obsessed with what I put in my body.

However, the fact of the matter is, I have a digestive system that really does not appreciate being deprived of the things it really needs, therefore ample portions of fruits, vegetables, fats, and protein are essential to ensuring I’m not keeled over in abdominal pain every night.

And not to mention running. I’ve done a bit of experimenting this training cycle to see exactly what types of fuel (food) are best on my stomach for both comfort and performance. Instead of focusing on, “Okay, I know I need a lot of water and a lot of pasta before my long run…then I can have whatever the f I want afterwards,” I’ve started focusing more on the before-and-after fueling of every run. Through this, I’ve discovered that food is really magical. Good, whole, nutrient-dense food can make such a monumental difference in how we perform and how we recover, and it’s this special attention I’ve given to figuring out what works for me that’s yielded a greater understanding of what’s best.

A list of my current staples: sweet potatoes, kale, peanut butter, avocados, eggs, oatmeal, almond milk, apples, bananas, spinach, berries, quinoa, almonds, rice cakes, pasta, zucchini, carrots, bell peppers, chicken sausage, squash, Picky Bars, and black beans.

Of course, I stray from these staples often—there’s lots of chocolate and cookies to be found too—but around my long runs and around key workouts, these are what I’ll go for. A lot of it has to do with my bad digestion, admittedly, but I suppose it’s a blessing in disguise because it’s forced me to think about fueling as opposed to rewarding.

….

Along with all these things, I think that being keenly focused on a tangible, quantitative goal has really helped me through this training. Whenever I get the urge to fall back into an over-training or haphazard habit, I remind myself of the truth that nothing changes if nothing changes.

Do I want to get in an extra couple of miles, or do I want to qualify for Boston?

Whenever I put things in this perspective…the answer’s always the same.

I’m ready to see if the changes I’vee made, and the habits I’ve broken, will yield something great—something I’ve wanted for a long time.

More than anything, I’m happy to have had a solid training cycle that has helped me improve as a runner and has helped me rediscover so many new and wonderful things about the sport I love so much.

 

What works for you in marathon training? What doesn’t work? What changes have you made that make the biggest difference in your training?

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4 thoughts on “What’s Worked: Reflections on Marathon Training

  1. Lauren

    Man oh man. I am super excited to see you run an awesome, hardcore, HEALTHY marathon and BQ the heck out of it. I might be down there, actually, if I can find a place to stay! You’re going to rock it, Robyn!

    Reply
  2. Tasha @ Healthy Diva

    Although I am a fairly new reader to your lovely blog, it appears that you have done everything right to prepare for Eugene. I think that a training plan is crucial to anyone’s success at the marathon distance. I have always had a training plan, I don’t think I couldn’t not have one. Eating right, getting plenty of sleep and taking rest days is also important. Having the right gear and workout fuel is also key for me.

    Reply
    1. runbirdierun Post author

      Thanks Tasha! And I definitely agree with GEAR. Can make all the difference in the world.

      Reply

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