2017 Boston Marathon Race Report: Part 2: The Race!

Hey again! In Part 1 I wrote about training for the 2017 Boston Marathon. Here’s Part 2, all about the actual race.

During my training I read as much about the Boston course as possible. For anyone who has never run the Boston Marathon, here’s my basic breakdown of the course, as learned through studying the course map, talking to friends, and reading race reports:

Boston Race Route

Just look at that elevation profile!

The first mile is almost entirely downhill, dropping rapidly for .6 miles, then rising slightly for .15 miles, and then dropping some more. The course continues distinctly downhill for miles 2-5, with some easy rolling hills that I can barely remember, flattening out from miles 6-15, with some more rolling hills that I also cannot remember. Just after mile 15, the course drops significantly for almost half a mile. It then flattens out briefly before the first of four bigger hills from miles 16-21. The first hill, starting right around mile 16, climbs steadily for over half a mile and traverses an overpass, so it’s long and quiet. The course then flattens out and rolls along for about a mile until the next distinct uphill at mile 17.5. Another small set of rollers emerges before a steep bump just after mile 19, and then another flat to rolling section before the infamous Heartbreak Hill, .6 miles of 4 percent grade at mile 20. Heartbreak has two climbing sections separated by a flat area. Once you’re at the top, the course drops slightly before a tiny bonus bump. Once over the bonus bump, the course drops significantly past Boston College, and remains downhill or slightly rolling through the finish line.

As you can guess, the key to running well on this course is preserving enough strength to get up the hills between miles 16-21 so that you feel strong enough to run hard on the final five-mile downhill stretch. If you hit the top of Heartbreak Hill feeling strong, then you can make up any time you lost on the climbs. If you pushed too hard earlier and you summit Heartbreak with thrashed quads, then the final miles will hurt.

Boston Marathon Shakeout Sun

Shakeout Sunday with Ilya and Bari, my fellow Brooklyn runners!

Knowing that the Newtown hills from miles 16-21 often claim a number of victims, I had made sure to run multiple long runs in Central Park, and added hill repeat days on Battle Pass Hill in Prospect Park. However, once I started to read other runners’ recaps of the 2016 Boston Marathon, I got a little scared. The warm weather during the 2016 race has become the stuff of legend in the running community. Ask anyone who ran that race how they felt out there, and they’ll just shake their heads. I lost count of the number of recaps that read something like this: “By mile 5, I knew it wasn’t going to be my day. So, I slowed down, drank as much water as I could, and enjoyed the fact that I was running the Boston Marathon.”

I also noticed another trend: athletes who readjusted their goal times prior to the race ended up having a decent day. In one particular recap, the runner had hoped to run 2:55 (around 6:41/mile), but decided to fight just for sub-3. He succeeded in his sub-3 goal, but not by much. He drank water and dumped water on his head at every aid station. I noticed this strategy in a number of other write-ups as well, along with the advice that in the warm weather, one should consume in-race nutrition earlier in the race. Noted.

Boston Marathon Shakeout Boylston

Shakin’ it out the wrong way up Boylston.

However, when I started to check the weather forecast about a week out from Marathon Monday, I felt good about my 2:53 plan. The weather was promising low 40s for the morning, with a high of low 60s. Perfect! That’s about what the NYC Marathon has been the last two years. Can’t argue with that.

Boston Marathon Finish Line Ilya

Just some cool guys hanging out at the finish line the day before the race! Thanks to Ilya and Bari for a great shakeout run and thank you, Bari, for the excellent photos.

Unfortunately, upon arriving in Boston on the Saturday before the race, temperatures had drifted into the high 70s, and promised Marathon Monday temperatures creeping into the 70s. I told myself not to worry about it, but to run my own race. It did not matter if 2:53 happened. Execution of a strong race plan and enjoying the experience became the most important aspects of my Marathon Monday.

On Marathon Monday I spent my pre-race time sitting near home plate in the baseball field at Hopkinton High School. The sun flew overhead, but I was not perspiring while sitting in the open. I chatted with my friend Ryan pre-race, and meditated on our collective attempt to run 2:50 at the 2016 NYC Marathon. We just could not pick up the pace after running a 1:26 first half., and I ran a four-minute positive split, never hitting the wall but slowing down in the final six-eight miles. After this past training cycle, with consistent 50-mile weeks and no time off for injury, I knew that I would be able to hold a more consistent pace through this course.

NYC Marathon Jim Ryan Mile 18

Ryan (second from right) and i cruising by Mile 18 of the 2016 NYC Marathon, simultaneously enjoying the atmosphere but not quite feelin’ the pace.

After a short wait of about an hour, the race organizers called the Wave 1 runners to the corrals, and we walked through Hopkinton down a small hill and to a second porta-pottie-filled parking lot. I strolled up to my starting corral, letting others walk and jog past me, reminding myself that I had over 26 miles to run. After about a half hour, which included the singing of the national anthem and a flyover by two F-16s, the starting pistol fired and Wave 1 Corral 3 lurched forward, halted, lurched again, and spilled across the starting line. Some runners sprinted. I focused only on starting my Garmin as I jogged across the timing mats.

Miles 1-5 (6:58, 6:49, 6:49, 6:40, 6:42)

Despite all my preparation, I was still surprised just how much the course dropped throughout those first five miles. Feeling the down slopes under my body, I focused on staying perpendicular to the hills, shortening my stride, and not worrying too much about my foot strike. Combined with the tightly-packed running crowds in the early miles, I did not push my pace much, and really let my body dictate how fast I warmed up. I sped up once at the end of mile 1 to get a sub-7 mile split on my watch. Otherwise, I followed my friend Mary’s advice: I “parked myself” on the double yellow line and ran down the middle of the road, and moved to the water stations on the left to hydrate (left-hand stations came after the right-hand stations, and were less crowded). I soaked in the crowds and enjoyed what felt like super easy running. Even though I was not thirsty or hot yet, I started drinking water and dumping water on my head at mile 2, grabbing at least three cups at each station. By mile 5 my shorts looked like I was swimming. My forehead, however, remained bone dry.

At some point during these miles, another runner yelled out, “Enjoy the miles while they’re easy.” I chuckled, and thought to myself, “I’m going to enjoy them even when they get tough.” And that’s the whole point of running these races, right? I did not take time off work to surround myself with thousands of strangers for hours on end just to enjoy the first five miles of the race. I came to enjoy the motion of moving my body at a fast pace for an extended period of time. Bring on the muscle soreness! Let’s have some fun.

Miles 6-15 (6:35, 6:34, 6:38, 6:37, 6:38, 6:39, 6:33, 6:38, 6:38, 6:40)

As the course flattened out, I started to find my rhythm. On a cooler day I would have pushed for 6:30-6:33 through this section, but I did not want to risk pushing too hard, too early. As the splits show, I was a model of consistent running. Honestly, not much to report. I felt strong, kept drinking and dumping water on my head at every water station, and grabbed extra water being handed out by kind spectators. At two different parts of the course, I grabbed entire water bottles, most of which went on my head. I also took a GU gel at the miles 7 and 13 water stations.

Boston Marathon 4

In the zone . . . somewhere on the course! Who is Fuller, and do we support him?!

Around mile 10 or 11 I ran into Steve, a fellow New York City runner who I’d e-mailed a few weeks earlier after reading some of his race recaps. Like me, he was running strong but cautious. Unlike me, he had the experience of running the 2016 Boston Marathon, so he knew firsthand just how quickly the heat could dash one’s chance at a strong race.

Miles 16-21 (6:29, 6:47, 6:49, 6:41, 6:53, 7:01)

After the steep downhill in mile 15, I approached the first of the four Newton hills. It loomed long, but not as steep as I had imagined. Although I felt my pace slow a bit as I ascended, my legs felt strong and steady. I saw my first group of walkers, and at least one runner at a medical tent looking disoriented. I reminded myself to stick to the hydration plan, made it to the top of the hill, and kept rolling along. The second Newton hill was steeper but shorter, and I felt good as I maintained an even effort to the top. I started to feel the first bit of fatigue in my legs, but not enough to slow me down.

November Project brought the ruckus to Mile 18. I heard the cheer station from about 30 seconds away, and moved to the left side of the street to grab as many high-fives as possible. However, right as I hit the main cheer station, I nearly collided with a guy running in a Robin costume, because why not? Robin looked like he was loving the NP crowd, so I felt a little bad knocking him out of the way to high-five my buddies.

Boston Marathon 2

Old school Batman!

After the NP cheer station, I honestly don’t remember the third Newton hill or the following section of the course. However, my mind came sharply into focus at the baseball of Heartbreak Hill. I looked up and thought, “This is it. Get up this guy and then you can let loose.” And up I traveled. My legs started to rebel a tiny bit, so I shortened my stride and repeated, “Get up this guy and you can let loose.” I crested the first bit, then started up the second. The crowds cheered loudly, but I focused only on each step, one at a time. The rebellion in my legs calmed. My body felt relaxed. My mind, clear. “Get up this guy and you can let loose.” One step after another.

Boston Marathon 1

Robin, unperturbed by me basically running him over at Mile 18.

Miles 22-26 (6:38, 6:35, 6:34, 6:33, 6:27)

When I summited Heartbreak Hill and the small bonus bump immediately following it, I pumped my fists and charged down the Boston College hill. My pace, which had dropped to 7:00/mile while climbing Heartbreak, briefly dipped into the low 6:20s as I high-fived every Boston College student I could see and shouted, “How ‘bout it, Eagles?!” I felt like the race was only just beginning, and smiled ear to ear down the hill. I really had to push myself to hold back. Although I knew that the remainder of the course was heavily downhill, I was not going to risk a late-stage, unanticipated bonk.

Miles 23 and 24 felt like the most intense and intimate miles of the race. Although no spectators jumped into the road like during some earlier points (which made me wonder if that was how the Tour de France riders might feel, surrounded by fans slapping their backs as they ascended 10 percent grades in the Alps), everyone seemed like they were continuously screaming and cheering. I really fed off their energy, even though I was conserving energy and no longer pumping my fists at every  “Yeah, NP!”

Jim Boston Mile 25.5

Nice job almost missing me, Melissa 🙂

Once I saw the Citgo sign looming ahead, I knew it was time to ice this thing. I ascended the short bump between miles 24 and 25, passed the mile 25 marker, passed the Citgo sign signaling one mile to go, and pushed my pace just a little bit more. The time on my watch suggested a PR was happening, but my brain was not able to compute exactly how fast I needed to finish to make it happen. Oh well, I thought: just run faster.

Boston Marathon Hereford

Right on Hereford!

And I did. As I dipped under Massachusetts Avenue while following the tangent line painted on Commonwealth, I got a huge cheer from my fiancé, Melissa, and our good friends Leah and Dana, who live right at that intersection overlooking the Marathon route. I raised my hands over my head and then focused on passing the two or three runners directly in front of me. I shouted, “Let’s go boys! Half a mile to go!” However, no one joined my cheers. Either I had too much energy left, or they were dying.

Boston Marathon Boylston

Left on Boylston! (Thanks, Winnie!)

Either way, I started to push a little harder when I took that final right on Hereford, left on Boylston. As noted in so many recaps, once you turn onto Boylston, that finish line seems so far away, despite being only 600 meters down the street. I planted myself on the tangent line and kept pushing, focusing only on passing the runners immediately in front of me. My hip flexors felt sore, but every other leg muscle felt up to the task. I pushed forward, the crowds screaming with every step, the sun bright between the buildings, reminding myself how many times I’d run a hard 400 meters in training. Then, as if the last two minutes had not happened, I crossed the finish line, stopped my watch, and saw 2:55:XX as my final time. Boom!

Boston Marathon Medal 3

If you had to base your opinion only on the shorts in this picture, which runner would you say likes to party?

As almost always happens after a marathon, every muscle in my legs seized up within a minute of crossing the finish line. I honestly believe that the hardest part of a marathon is the walk to pick up the medal and your gear bag! Fortunately, I ran into Ryan and my other friend Chris, who had just finished in times of 2:50:XX. Incredible! We congratulated each other, and then Chris and I walked to get our medals, goodie bags, and met up with Sarah, Chris’s incredible wife and Ironman destroyer. She was nice enough to take some great finisher photos of us once we exited Boylston and walked over to Commonwealth Ave.

Boston Marathon Medal

I’m smiling, but mostly dreading the half-mile walk back to where I’m staying.

Post-race reflections and next steps, in Part 3! (Coming Soon)

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2017 Boston Marathon Race Report: Part 1

Hey! It’s been a long time since I updated my blog, but here we go.

On Monday, April 17, 2017, I ran the Boston Marathon in a time of 2:55:56, 6:43/mile pace, 976 overall out of 26,411 finishers. My time gave me a 58-second marathon PR from my time at the 2016 New York City Marathon. It was a hot day, but I could not have executed my race plan any better. My 15-second negative split tells me that I ran about as well as I could have.

Because I haven’t written for so long, I wrote a lot! Therefore, I’ve decided to break it down into three separate blog entries: 1) a summary of my training throughout 2016 and my Boston-specific training; 2) a race recap; and 3) an analysis of my race, and what’s in store as I train for the Marine Corps Marathon on October 22, 2017.

Without further ado, Part 1: A Yearlong Training Review (2016-April 2017)

Honestly, 2016 was a difficult year in terms of training. An injury to my right hip flexor muscles and adductor kept me sidelined from approximately February through mid-April. In May, I ran the 2016 Brooklyn Half only 7 seconds off my half marathon PR. That race reassured me that I had not lost too much fitness, but showed just how much work I would have to put in if I wanted to improve. I also hated every step of it, and entered the “pain cave” for the first time in my running career. I then participated in the New York City Triathlon in July, which was an awesome experience but definitely took time away from running.

Brooklyn Half Pain

Brooklyn Half: not a good look, especially for a non-PR time!

NYC Tri 1

NYC Triathlon: Swim Time 2000ish/3300; Bike Time 700ish/3300; Run Time 58/3300. Guess we learned my strongest discipline.

Then, in August, just as I was building my mileage, I got a once-in-a-lifetime last-minute opportunity to attend Burning Man and play guitar in a Phish tribute band. Although this story deserves a post of its own, I ended up running the Burning Man 50k on approximately 25-30 miles per week of training, with one long run of 18 miles. Not my best race, and definitely not the best way to build up the miles leading into fall marathon training.

Burning Man 3

When you run an ultramarathon in the desert, you get water refills from this guy.

Burning Man Music

Bringing the music of Phish to the desert!

Upon return to New York, I ended up with bursitis in my right hip, which sidelined me for another two weeks. More importantly, I missed at least one 20-miler because of it before I went to the doctor. When I was finally able to run again, I squeezed in two 20-milers before the Marathon and ran a small half marathon PR in a tiny race in Brattleboro, VT, all the while nursing an ever-tightening left ankle. Despite mentioning said ankle to my doctor throughout the year, he told me to keep stretching it, but not to worry.

Catamount Half 1

Catamount Half Marathon: 1:19:56, 2nd overall to this guy, Jason, whose parents lived along the race route. Super nice guy!

That said, on November 6, 2016, I toed the line at the New York City Marathon having averaged 35 miles per week from June through November, with a peak week of 50 miles. Not terrible, but definitely not the volume necessary to build the aerobic capacity to make a big leap in my marathon abilities. Also, as you can probably guess, the lack of consistency across the year made it difficult to predict what would happen after the gun at 9:50 AM that morning. Suffice to say, I could not have asked for anything more when I crossed the finish line in Central Park with a 62-second marathon PR.

NYC Marathon 1

Chris, Jamil, Me, Myles, and Ryan: all sub-3, all within 2 minutes of each other!

When I analyzed my race, however, I was able to identify a pretty obvious issue. I ran the first half of the race in 1:26, approximately 6:33/mile. The second half clocked in at 1:30, or 6:52 mile. While New York is generally a positive split course, most strategies would favor a one- to two-minute positive split to account for the Queensborough Bridge and the Fifth Avenue hill. Such a strategy would require one to run an even effort throughout the marathon.

So, why did I finish with a four-minute positive split? In my opinion, there were two main reasons. First, I set way too ambitious a goal of running 2:50, so I went out faster than I should have. That led to me slowing down in the final eight miles of the race. Second, my training, which lacked both volume and consistency, failed to let me develop the muscle endurance required to keep turning over the legs in the late stages of the marathon. Based upon that, I decided that for Boston, I would increase my weekly training volume, and try to run at least six days per week, even if some of those runs were short. For the first time I ordered a custom training plan from NYRR’s Virtual Trainer program. The plan was set to start on December 27, which meant that I would use the time between mid-November and late December to build up a good mileage base.

However, after taking a week off after the NYC Marathon and running for two weeks, the tightness in my left ankle sidelined me for two more weeks. Then, once I regained my range of motion in my ankle, I got a bad cold, which sidelined me for another week. Then, on Christmas Eve I got the flu, which sidelined me for yet another two weeks. Boom boom boom! Once I finally recovered, December 27 had passed, and I had barely run since the end of November. Although I had tried to maintain fitness by cycling, I had not hit the pavement in over a month.

So, I officially kicked off my Boston 2017 training on January 3, running an easy 4 miles on the treadmill, with four strides at a 5:00/mile pace. Not particularly inspiring, but a start. From there I ran 11 miles my first, week, followed by 28, then 32, 39, 37, 42, and, finally, 52 miles in a single week, with a long run of 17. I followed that up with five more weeks at 50 plus miles, with a peak of 56 in my last week. I got in three 20-milers, with the last two containing some marathon pace miles. I ran 6-7 days per week, and noticed that I was recovering from runs much faster than in previous cycles. I used my “The Stick” to roll out my muscles every night, which really helped any lingering muscle soreness. Instead of incorporating numerous hard race efforts into my training, I treated races as my tempo runs. I really tried to stick to the 80/20 method of training, wherein you run approximately 80 percent of your miles at an easy to moderate pace, and 20 percent of your miles at a hard effort. I experienced no new injuries or discomfort, and felt myself getting stronger each day. I made sure to do my own core exercises at least two days per week, and noticed a difference in my overall strength.

So, when I toed the line on April 1 at the Boomer’s 4 miler in Central Park, the one true tune-up race I scheduled, I felt confident that I would be able to throw down a strong effort. My finish time of 22:54, which was good enough that day for 10th overall and first in my age group, had me executing a solid race plan and running a final mile of 5:19, faster than I’d run in a good while. A few days later, I equaled my PR on the 3.3-mile November Project NYC PR Day course.

Boomer 4M

Boomer 4-Miler: I swear I’m not angry at Mikey Branigan, the winner of the race! I’m just bad at pictures (and race bibs).

Those two races gave me one critical piece of information: My fitness was strong, but had not improved so much that I was going to run a massive PR in Boston. If anything, I might be able to run 2:53 or slightly under with the right weather conditions. Any attempt to push for faster than that, however, and I’d be back in positive split city.

Part 2, the actual race recap, to follow soon!

Sidelined: Two Weeks With No Running

Jim Valentines Day NP

Running hard at November Project NYC on February 12, 2016. Felt good afterward. But nagging, low-grade discomfort trumps risking long-term injury.

As I’ve posted before, in April of last year I developed a stress fracture in my right sacral ala. While I returned from that injury and ran a successful fall racing season, I had some residual discomfort in my right hip. During the fall, this discomfort would arise whenever I would complete a long run, but would otherwise dissipate with rest and recovery. Both my doctor and physical therapist suspected it was muscle tightness due to my time on crutches, and neither expressed much concern or thought I should not run. They suggested foam-rolling and stretching, which I did after most of my runs and on recovery days.

However, the discomfort amplified when I returned to training this past December. Whenever I would run for more than an hour or an hour and a half, my right leg would begin to feel as if it had run for over two hours, while my left leg felt as if I had not run at all. I reduced my weekly mileage to no avail, but also felt that the imbalance in soreness between my right and left legs, while annoying, did not rise to the level of an impending injury. So, I kept running. I upped my mileage to 50 miles per week, and then 60. I ran a number of NP_NYC PR days faster than ever. My aerobic fitness improved, and my aerobic pace decreased accordingly. All in all, a lot of good things!

But, the imbalance continued, and the discomfort, although low-grade, nagged me a bit more even when not running. I stretched more thoroughly and more often. I foam-rolled like a pro. I worked on this breathing technique that allegedly lessens the impact on each leg while running. Through hill work and leg speed drills, I increased my running cadence from around 175-180 steps per minute to 192 steps per minute, theoretically creating less pounding impact on the body. I rethought how I was tying my laces, which temporarily alleviated some, but not all, discomfort. I dutifully performed my squats and core-strengthening exercises (not just for abs, but for the hip flexors and IT band as well) in an effort to strengthen the muscles and decrease the likelihood of injury.

In other words, I felt as if I had done everything within my power to address this issue, short of hanging up my sneakers or seeing the doctor. Unfortunately (or, rather, fortunately), my body just kept telling me that I could not figure this issue out on my own, and after being sidelined for almost three months last year, I figured that I’d listen this time. So, I went to the doctor this morning.

The verdict? My right hip flexor, piriformis, and the top of my right IT band are tight and inflamed. This tightness and inflammation is causing the discomfort I’m experiencing both during and after running.

Why has this been happening? Not entirely sure, but it’s likely residual from the rehab I did after my stress fracture. For whatever reason, despite stretching and working to prevent injury, these muscles and fascia just don’t want to loosen up. Thus, even when I decreased my mileage and increased my other injury-prevention work, that tightness and inflammation did not improve. If anything, working and stretching those muscles in an aggressive manner probably made them worse.

The treatment? Two weeks of no running, but swimming and cycling are OK. One week of anti-inflammatory medication, and 3-4 weeks of physical therapy with lots of point pressure to target the inflamed areas. As my doc said, this PT is going to be painful, but worth it. After that, I’ll return to running on the treadmill, and build up my weekly mileage from there. My doc does not believe that the treatment will take me out of my spring marathon, the Inaugural Queens Marathon, so that’s good.

My feelings on the matter? I’m not that upset, actually. It’s frustrating to have to change my Queens Marathon training plan, but that’s the thing: I have to change the plan, not nix it entirely. I can still train. That’s huge.

It’s hard to stop running when your injury doesn’t actually prevent you from running. When I developed my stress fracture, I could not walk without pain. This time around, however, I would rate the discomfort as, at its worst, a 3 out of 10. Because the discomfort is generally pretty low, I’ve been running hundreds of miles a month and recovering well enough to keep going. In fact, I ran about 8 miles this morning with NP_NYC before going to my appointment, and felt OK overall afterward. But I get it: Having a low-grade, nagging sensation after running means that something’s not right, and if you’ve tried to fix the problem on your own to no avail, get it checked out by a professional, no matter how minor the issue seems to be.

In a sense, though, I’m excited. My left leg seems to absorb running without getting beat up at all. If this inflammation and tightness in my right hip is really just a residual issue from my stress fracture, and this round of drugs and physical therapy irons it out, then I can hopefully return to running on two healthy, tough legs that are adept at absorbing the impact of running. Running pain-free is always a plus.

And that’s the real thing I’m excited about: not being preoccupied about how my body will feel during a run. I love running. I really do. I like the physical workout and the challenge of a goal race. I like the fact that the clock provides an objective measure for my training and performance. I like the meditative nature of the act of running, and how the noise in my head ceases for the time I’m in motion. What I don’t like, however, is worrying about whether I’m doing permanent damage to my body while engaging in an activity I love so much. So, if I have to take a couple weeks off to move past a physical issue, which will allow my mind and body to run freer, then I’m happy to oblige. Life is good and I have no reason not to maintain a positive attitude.

Also, a shout-out to my doc, Chris Allison, RPA-C (registered physician assistant – certified), of Orthology (formerly NYSportsMed). Chris is a great guy who really cares about his patients. He’s one of the only docs I’ve ever had who actually listens to my complaint, understands the human element of medicine, and answers my questions no matter how trivial. If you are in the NYC area and develop any sports-related injuries, I would highly recommend Chris and his colleagues.

Happy running, everyone!

 

 

Spring Marathon Training Phase 2: Hills and Leg Speed

NOTE: This post is part 3 in a series about my spring marathon training. Click here to see Post 1, and here for Post 2.

Lydiard Hill Springing

These guys look really cool “springing” up that hill, right?

This post will introduce Phase 2 of my Arthur-Lydiard-inspired spring marathon training plan, hill work and leg speed, and describe the first of three critical workouts to be performed during this phase: hill “springing.”

In my previous post, I discussed the first phase of my training plan: aerobic base training. That post condensed tons of information into approximately 2,200 words of dense and somewhat difficult reading. If I could rewrite that post, I would split the information into three separate posts. So, before proceeding, I am going to summarize Phase 1, and why it’s necessary before embarking on the other phases of the training plan.

A Quick Review of Phase 1: Aerobic Base Training

Aerobic base training is the most important part of any training plan because aerobic fitness (the body’s ability to use oxygen efficiently to convert fat and glycogen into energy) is the number one factor in determining how well a runner will race on any given day. A runner develops aerobic fitness by training at an “aerobic pace,” loosely defined as running at a pace that leaves the runner “pleasantly tired,” or, in more mathematical terms, at a pace at or below approximately 75% of the runner’s maximum heart rate. During this phase, the runner should also perform strides (hard 100 meter efforts at the end of runs followed by extended recovery jogs), tempo runs below lactate threshold, and some easy fartleks. The runner should do at least three long runs per week (two runs about 1.5 hours, one run of 2+ hours) at an aerobic pace. A plan that incorporates only these types of runs—and leaves the anaerobic training for later—will allow a runner to develop a large aerobic base, which will facilitate anaerobic training later in the training cycle.

Importantly, the aerobic base training phase should last as long as possible. Why? Anaerobic development is limited: that is, a runner can only develop his anaerobic capacity so much. On the other hand, a runner’s capacity for aerobic development is virtually unlimited, and the more developed the aerobic system, the larger the capacity for anaerobic development. So, the longer the aerobic base training phase can last, the better.

Great! So, you’ve completed Phase 1 and built an aerobic base. What next?

Phase 2: Hills and Leg Speed—Preparing the Body for Anaerobic Development

Lydiard suggests a four-week training period focused on developing leg strength and speed. We’ll call this Phase 2: Hills and Leg Speed. The purpose of Phase 2 is twofold: 1) to develop muscle fibers in the legs and to improve leg speed; and 2) to prepare the body for the hard anaerobic workouts that will follow in Phases 3 and 4. Here’s how it shakes out.

This phase contains three critical workouts: 1) the 1-hour hill “springing” workout; 2) the leg speed workout; and 3) the 2+ hour long run performed at an aerobic pace. I’ll start by discussing the hill “springing” workout.

The Hill “Springing” Workout

You should perform the hill “springing” workout on a hill that is between 200-300 meters long and approximately 3-4% grade, with a flat area at the top and approximately 200-400 meters of flat area at the bottom. For you New Yorkers, Cat Hill in Central Park is perfect for this workout.

Here’s the workout in eight easy steps, and the reasoning behind each step:

  • Warm up for about 15 minutes with some easy running (I jog about a mile and a half from my apartment to Cat Hill)
    • Why? You warm up to prevent injury. The warmup loosens the muscles and prepares them for a hard effort.
  • Begin the workout by “springing” up the hill. If you don’t know what “springing” is (I didn’t before developing this training plan), check out the first minute and then 1:30 to the end of this video:

When “springing,” keep the hips forward. Because looking down tends to thrust the hips backward, keep your eyes focused straight ahead. Your upper body should remain relaxed. The slower your forward momentum, the more resistance you create for your legs.

Why “springing?” Because it helps to develop speed. “Springing” builds and stretches the leg’s muscles and tendons similar to how they stretch during racing, which adds flexibility and speed. It also develops strong and flexible ankles, allowing a runner to increase his stride length and leading to greater speed. In addition, by training oneself to run with the hips comfortably forward, a runner can bring his knees higher while running, allowing the feet to follow through higher and, therefore, creating a faster leg action.

It’s possible that you won’t be able to “spring” all the way up the hill. That’s fine. If you can’t get to the top, just jog the rest of the way.

  • Once at the top of the hill, jog easily for 3 minutes.
    • Why? Two main reasons. First, “springing” is an intense exercise, so a short rest between each repetition keeps the body from getting overloaded. Second, too much at once could potentially convert the workout into a hard anaerobic effort, which we distinctly do not want to do. And, as a bonus third reason, easy jogging within the repetitions aids in aerobic development, which, as we’ve discussed, is always a good idea.
  • After jogging at the top of the hill for three minutes, run down the hill with a fast, relaxed striding motion.
    • Why? Two main reasons. First, strides allow us to develop speed and strength. Second, downhill running allows us to practice running with a naturally elongated stride. As mentioned above, a longer stride leads to greater speed.
  • Repeat the hill reps described in steps 2-4 (springing up the hill, jogging at the top, and striding down) for about 15 minutes. For me, this equals about 3 circuits.
    • Why? Think of it like weightlifting with a cardio element: you’re pushing your body to get stronger while simultaneously strengthening your muscles and increasing your leg speed. In other words, you are accomplishing three critical tasks with one workout. Pretty neat!
  • After  about 15 minutes, perform a few wind sprints (running hard followed by jogging) at the base of hill. You choose how many, and for how long (for example, I have been doing 2 x 100m with short recovery jogs)
    • Why? The other point of this exercise is to prepare the body for the anaerobic workouts in phases 3 and 4. By performing wind sprints every 15 minutes, and by only performing a limited number of them, we train our bodies to respond to faster movements, but keep the volume low enough so as not to create a hard anaerobic workout.
  • After completing the wind sprints, repeat the whole circuit described in steps 2-6 (hill reps plus wind sprints) until you have been working out for approximately an hour.
    • NOTE: If you cannot complete an hour-long workout, do however much of the hour that you can.
  • Cool down for 15 minutes.

Ideally, you would perform this workout three days a week, every other day, during Phase 2. On the days in between you would perform a leg speed workout. On the seventh day you would run a 2+ hour run at an aerobic pace.

In my next post, I will discuss the other two workouts critical to Phase 2: the leg speed workout, and the 2+ hour long run at an aerobic pace.

Happy running, everyone!

 

Running Tips: Check Your Laces!

Taking a break from my spring marathon training posts, I wanted to share a quick insight I recently had about the importance of paying attention to how the lacing of your running shoes can hinder your ability to run well.

The background, part 1: Over a year ago I watched a video posted to social media that indicated the “correct” way to lace running shoes. The video indicated that a runner should lace his shoes by using the “heel lock” method: essentially, you use the top hole on the shoe (i.e., the hole that no one ever uses) to create an additional loop through which you then thread and tie the laces. Check out the video below or click here to see how this works:

According to the video, lacing one’s shoes in this manner would keep the shoelaces tighter, for longer, thus allowing the runner the freedom to run without worrying about his shoelaces coming untied.

Sounds great, right? I adopted the heel lock method immediately, without thinking much about it. My shoes often came untied when I simply double-knotted them, but no longer came untied when heel-locked.

The background, part 2: In April of 2015, I developed a stress fracture in my right sacral ala. After physical therapy and a slow return to running, I found that my right leg and hip would feel more sore both during and after a run, but never felt like an injury was developing or re-developing. My doctor and physical therapist both suggested that the tightness in my piriformis, quads, IT band, and hip flexors—which developed during the time off my feet—were to blame, and advised me to focus on mobility exercises and stretching. This generally alleviated the soreness throughout the fall, and I raced successfully.

sacral ala

I didn’t know I had a sacral ala until I got injured. Did you?

The issue: Upon returning to running in December after a two-week break following the NYRR NYC 60k, I found that the soreness in my right hip both during and after a run had increased two or three times what it was before the break. While that soreness subsided after a few weeks of running, it remained, in some form, until about two weeks ago. It affected my ability to recover after long runs, and generally made me uncomfortable about running hard.

The discovery: Every time I laced up my shoes using the heel lock method, the laces pinched on the top of the inside of my right ankle. I would loosen the laces, move the tongue of my shoe to cover the pinched area, and pull up my sock, but the pinching continued. A few miles into any run, I would feel the burn of the lace on that area of my ankle, and at the end of the run my right hip would feel as if I’d just run a marathon, while my left side would feel completely fine.

To treat this soreness, I would stretch almost every day. I would foam roll and roll out my piriformis with a lacrosse ball. Despite all of these mobility exercises, the soreness continued.

Then, about two weeks ago, I had a thought: Why not try a run without lacing my shoes using the heel lock method? Yeah, why not? So, I tied my left shoe with the heel lock method, but tied my right shoe with a simple double knot. I went out for a run and BOOM! While I experienced some additional soreness in my right hip, the feeling was much less pronounced than it had been. A few more runs with my shoes laced up in this new pattern, and the soreness in my left and right legs has essentially equalized. That is, the soreness had declined so as to feel like I usually feel after a run.

As I cannot remember whether I started tying my shoes with a heel lock before I got injured, I do not know whether wearing my shoes this way contributed to the injury. Ultimately, though, I’m glad I figured out what the problem is, and am happy to be running smoothly.

An additional note: While out running this morning, I caught up with my buddy, Mary Arnold, National Marketing Manager for Running Specialty Group, ultramarathoner, and all-around badass, and explained my issues and solution. She asked exactly where my soreness had been and, when I indicated my right hip, she nodded and explained that sometimes when a runner ties his shoes too tight, he inhibits the movement of the navicular bone—the bone located on the top inside of the ankle and, coincidentally, the area on which my laces were pinching—throwing off the leg’s running motion and resulting in extra pressure on the hip.

navicular bone

Figure of the foot showing the location of the navicular bone

She also provided this gem of running wisdom: “If you’re having soreness or pain that’s a 3-5 on the 10 scale, and it’s nagging and not going away, first check your equipment.” Thank you, Mary!

Thus, my tip for anyone else experiencing low-grade, nagging pain or uneven muscle soreness after a run: check your laces!

Happy running, everyone!

 

Spring Marathon Training Phase 1: Aerobic Base Training

This post is part 2 in a series concerning my spring marathon training plan. To read part 1, click here.

Previously, I wrote about why I decided to follow an Arthur Lydiard-style training plan influenced by the Maffetone Method while training for my spring marathon, the Inaugural Queens Marathon. Today, I will describe the first phase of that training plan—aerobic base training—and how it fits into the overall training scheme. As I’m not an exercise scientist or running coach, this post represents knowledge I’ve gained from reading various books, Internet articles, conversations with running coaches, and personal experience. I would strongly encourage you to read further on this subject if it interests you.

Aerobic Base Training

When coaches discuss a runner’s training for an endurance event, they often mention the runner’s “fitness.” For example, before heading out on a 10-mile group training run for the NYC Half Marathon a couple weeks ago, a well-known local running coach told the group, “Don’t worry if you can only run 5 miles today. You’ve got 12 weeks to get fit for the NYC Half.” Why would he emphasize the concept of “being fit?”

For runners, “being fit” means having a well-developed aerobic system (i.e., well-developed endurance capabilities). A runner’s aerobic fitness is the number one factor in determining how well that runner will race on any given day. So, what exactly is aerobic fitness, and how does a runner develop it?

Defining “Aerobic Fitness”

By way of background, the body produces energy through two different but linked systems: the aerobic system, and the anaerobic system. The aerobic system utilizes oxygen to break down fats and glycogen (stored sugars) in order to fuel our cells during exercise. It is the dominant energy system for efforts at or below about 85% of an athlete’s maximum heart rate (NOTE: Maximum heart rate can be roughly calculated by subtracting your age from 220). It utilizes a greater percentage of fat than glycogen and, generally, the less intense the effort, the larger percentage of fat the body will burn during a workout.

The anaerobic system gets activated when a person has become oxygen-deficient—that is, when the amount of oxygen he is consuming can no longer produce enough energy to sustain his effort. Oxygen deficiency typically arises when a person is training or racing at about 90% of his maximum heart rate. The anaerobic system operates without oxygen, and utilizes almost exclusively glycogen. As a result, the body cannot sustain anaerobic efforts for extended periods of time. Why? Because the body is capable of storing only 2,000-2,500 calories of glycogen at any given time, compared to over 40,000 calories of fat. As such, sustained hard efforts burn up glycogen quickly, and a runner will “hit the wall” or “bonk” once he has used up all of his glycogen stores. Further, because the ratio of sugar to fat utilized in energy production decreases as a runner’s heart rate increases (that is, the runner’s body utilizes more sugar), a runner will also deplete his glycogen stores after a hard, sustained aerobic effort. For example, first-time marathoners often “hit the wall” around miles 18-20 after around three hours of sustained aerobic effort.

Based upon the foregoing, we can conclude the following two things: First, “aerobic fitness” is the body’s ability to utilize oxygen to produce energy. And second, in any given endurance event (defined as any event 800 meters or longer), a runner’s aerobic fitness determines how long he can sustain a hard effort over a given distance. Therefore, training one’s body to utilize oxygen efficiently and to run faster at lower efforts (that is, lower heart rates) is critical to developing speed over long distances.

In other words, one’s aerobic fitness is the most important factor in determining one’s speed in any given event.

(NOTE: This does not mean that anaerobic development is unimportant or unnecessary: quite the contrary. In fact, anaerobic development is the second most important factor in determining how well a runner will perform in a given race. Further, a runner who fails to develop his anaerobic capacity will not perform his best (I will cover this in my post about Phase 3: Anaerobic Training). But for now, remember that aerobic fitness is the key to getting faster in any endurance sport, and learning how to properly train the aerobic system will help any runner improve his racing times.)

Why An Aerobic Base Period?

If you’ve ever researched marathon training plans, you’ve probably found plans spanning 12-20 weeks that look like this: for beginners, 3-4 runs per week at shorter distances, plus an ever-increasing long run on the weekend; for intermediate runners, 3-4 runs per week at slightly longer distances, some hills and speedwork, and a weekly long run; and for advanced runners, multiple days containing hills and speedwork, some easy workouts, some workouts at marathon or half marathon pace, plus a weekly long run with some miles at marathon pace. While these plans cater to runners of different abilities (and likely help people achieve their goals), they lack context: Why do runners of different abilities engage in different types of training?

The answer is simple: Advanced runners have built an aerobic base. By building an aerobic base—that is, developing the ability to utilize oxygen more efficiently to break down fat and glycogen to produce energy and, therefore, to sustain harder efforts at lower heart rates for a longer period of time—these advanced runners have greater access to anaerobic development. In other words, a runner’s anaerobic development is dependent on how well-developed his aerobic system is. Therefore, in order to maximize anaerobic development, one must have a well-developed aerobic system.

(NOTE: Another benefit of an aerobic base period is that a runner can increase speed while running at relatively slow paces with a low risk of injury. Harder running such as intervals and racing increases the runner’s risk of injury, so a long base period has the added benefit of developing speed and strength with a lower risk of injury. In other words, it prepares the musculature for harder efforts later in the training cycle).

How to Develop the Aerobic System

To train the aerobic system—that is (once again), to develop one’s ability to utilize oxygen more efficiently to break down fat and glycogen to produce energy and, therefore, to sustain harder efforts at lower heart rates for a longer period of time—a runner needs to train at an “aerobic pace,” which essentially means a pace below or well below “lactate threshold.” “Lactate threshold” is the pace at which the runner’s body begins to accumulate lactic acid—the byproduct of anaerobic energy production—at a rate faster than the body can break it down and expel it from its cells. The body can break down and use small amounts of lactic acid to produce additional energy. Unfortunately, once lactic acid builds up faster than the body can break it down, it disrupts the PH levels of the body’s cells, which causes destruction of the cells and, in turn, muscle fatigue and the feeling of hitting the wall.

What this means, then, is that hard efforts early on in the training cycle lead to the breakdown of the runner’s body, and can disrupt aerobic development. As such, an almost paradoxical relationship exists between fitness and racing: A runner must develop his aerobic fitness—the number one factor in determining how well he can race—only to destroy that fitness through anaerobic development (a necessary step in proper training) and racing.

An example from my own life: At my peak during my NYC Marathon training, I could run a mile at my Maffetone maximum aerobic heart rate (described below) of 1444 beats per minute in 6:55/Mile. After racing the Bronx 10-Mile, Staten Island Half, NYC Marathon, and NYRR NYC 60k in a seven-week period, my maximum aerobic pace dropped to 7:23/Mile as measured by the MAF test, a method for measuring one’s aerobic fitness. Only after two months of rest and near-exclusive aerobic training have I gotten my pace back to 7:00/Mile.

What this means, long-term, is that a runner who trains hard for a goal race will use up many of his aerobic gains in the lead-up to, and the actual, goal race. Thus, once the goal race is completed and the next goal is set, it will be necessary for the runner, if he wishes to continue his development, to start aerobic base training anew for the next race.

Aerobic Pace, as Defined by Lydiard and Maffetone

So, if a runner is supposed to train his aerobic system by running at an “aerobic pace,” how do we define that pace? Every coach seems to have his own definition.

Lydiard

Lydiard, for example, suggests that in order to develop a runner’s aerobic system, he should run at a pace that leaves him feeling “pleasantly tired” at the end of the run. While Lydiard never quantifies “pleasantly tired,” he indicates that a runner can determine that pace through trial and error by running on out-and-back courses and timing the run. If the second half takes longer than the first, then the runner’s initial pace was too fast. Ideally, then, an appropriate Lydiard-based aerobic pace is one at which a runner could run both halves of any particular run in the same amount of time, and end that run feeling “pleasantly tired.”

Based upon this, Lydiard recommends at least 3 long runs per week: 2 runs of about 1.5 hours each, and 1 run of 2+ hours, at the one’s “pleasantly tired” pace. He also recommends performing some tempo runs below lactate threshold, adding strides at the end of runs (for example, 4 x 100 meters of hard effort followed by extended recovery periods at the end of an otherwise steady state aerobic run), and adding as many additional miles at or below “pleasantly tired” pace.

So, an ideal Lydiard base-training week might look something like this:

  • Monday: 1.5 hour run at PT pace
  • Tuesday: Easy run with 4 x100 strides
  • Wednesday: 5-10k tempo run at harder-than-PT pace but below lactate threshold
  • Thursday: 1.5 hour run at PT pace
  • Friday: Easy run with 4 x 100 strides
  • Saturday: 2+ hour run at PT pace
  • Sunday: Easy run with 4 x 100 strides
  • Plus: As many other other runs as possible at or below the “pleasantly tired” aerobic pace

In his experience, Lydiard found that he and his athletes performed best when running approximately 100 miles per week at “pleasantly tired” pace plus as many miles at or below “pleasantly tired” pace as time would allow. He indicates that extra miles accumulated even with 15 minutes of jogging are beneficial. Of course, he instructs runners to run within their capacity, so a week of 20, 30, however many miles is acceptable as long as the runner does not push too hard.

Maffetone

According to Maffetone, one’s maximum aerobic pace is determined through his “180 Formula.” Take the number 180 and subtract your age from it. Then, adjust that number based upon a number of factors, including whether you’ve recently been injured, whether you get sick more than twice throughout the year, whether you’re new to running or a veteran, and whether you’ve seen improvement through using Maffetone’s formula. Then, when performing an aerobic run, keep your pace at or below your maximum heart rate, preferably in a range of your maximum aerobic heart and ten beats below (that is, your “maximum aerobic heart rate range”).

So, an ideal Maffetone week would look something like this: As many runs as possible within one’s maximum aerobic heart rate range.

Ultimately, both Lydiard and Maffetone indicate that running as close to one’s “pleasantly tired” pace or maximum aerobic heart rate most efficiently develops one’s aerobic system. While slower running will aid in development, such development will take more time. Further, both advocate for aerobic base periods that last as long as possible. Thus, if a runner has six months (26 weeks) to train for a particular race, the first 12 of those weeks should be dedicated to aerobic base training, and the following weeks dedicated to the additional phases of training (Hills/Leg Speed 4 weeks, Anaerobic Development 4 weeks, Sharpening 4 weeks, Freshening Up/Tapering 2 weeks).

Putting it All Together

Phew. That’s a lot, right? Here’s what I took from all this information, and how I applied it to my training.

First, while I trained for the NYC Marathon almost exclusively with the Maffetone Method, I felt that I might have outgrown it. I had built a solid aerobic base through the marathon training, and wanted to see if I could push harder. Second, almost every article I read and every coach I consulted indicated that incorporating more intense runs (below lactate threshold, of course) into a base-building phase would augment a runner’s aerobic development. As such, I decided to develop my base-building phase as described below:

First, I calculated my maximum aerobic heart rate and range as determined by Maffetone’s 180 Formula (144: 180 – 31 = 149, minus 5 because of my injury last year = 144 beats per minute, maximum aerobic heart rate range of 134-144 beats per minute). I also calculated my maximum heart rate using the popular 220 – age formula (220 – 31 = 189 beats per minute).

Second, I took the Lydiard skeleton and attempted to do at least three long runs a week, a tempo run, and as many other runs, bike sessions, and pool sessions as possible. When the schedule called for a run at an aerobic pace, I tried to keep my heart rate in my Maffetone range, in large part because Lydiard’s “pleasantly tired” metric mirrored how I felt after most Maffetone-style runs. When a run called for a harder effort below lactate threshold, I tried to keep my heart rate below 160 beats per minute, which equals about 85% of my roughly-calculated maximum heart rate. I also added strides at the end of many runs. You can see how I executed this plan from November 16, 2015 to January 24 here.

I did not follow the training advice perfectly. On two occasions I gave all-out efforts: first, in an unofficial 3.15-mile race (slightly longer than a 5k), and at November Project NYC PR day, a difficult 3.4-mile course. Outside of these 6.55 miles, the only hard efforts I did during this period were during strides at the end of runs, and the occasional tempo run. Thus, I feel good about this phase of my training. And, as I indicated above, I improved my maximum aerobic pace to 7:00/Mile from 7:23/Mile, which is a demonstrable gain in aerobic fitness.

In my next post, I will discuss Phase 2: Hills and Leg Speed.

Happy running, everyone!

 

Brooklyn Half Registration is Open!

BK Half Header

Registration for the Airbnb Brooklyn Half, set to take place on Saturday, May 21, 2016 at 7:00 a.m., opens today, January 28, 2016 at noon. In other words, registration just opened! Get over to nyrr.org and register quickly. Last year’s race sold out in about 7 hours. This year’s will likely sell out faster. I’m all registered and ready to rock!

I signed up for this race in 2014 and 2015, but was unable to run it either year. I’m hoping that this year will be different. I’ve heard only positive things about the course (a hilly run through Prospect Park followed by a net downhill run to Coney Island on Ocean Parkway), and the afterparty on the beach. Fingers crossed that life does not get in the way again!

Who else is running?

Happy running, everyone!