October 24, 2012

Marathon advice from the pros

I mentioned in my Niagara Falls Marathon Race Report that I was initially intimidated by getting to speak at the expo, since seeing Kathrine Switzer speak there four years ago. I’m certainly no K. Switzer! However, there was also a world-class athlete speaking this year: Olympian Reid Coolsaet.

Reid ran his first marathon in 2009, finishing in 2:17. Since then, he’s run the second-fastest marathon by a Canadian athlete (2:10:55), and through doing so, qualified for the 2012 London Olympics! It is so crazy to think that the elite athletes can run twice as fast – so when I’m laboring at the halfway point, they’re already crossing the finish line!

On Saturday while wrapping up the Q&A part of my talk, I spotted Reid in the audience (he was preparing to speak next). Talk about putting the pressure on! Someone in the audience asked me for my best tips to running injury-free, and my advice (which I still stand by) is that running less but cross-training more can really help to prevent injuries. Sure, running will work your cardio system and get your muscles ready to run long distance, but you can get a lot of the same benefits without the pounding – by cross-training for the same time period and then running only a few days a week. Most of the full marathon training plans I design max out at 30-35 miles per week, which is significantly less than the 50-55 miles per week plans that many people use.

Shortly after that answer, my Q&A was over, and Reid took the stage. He began his talk by saying that as an elite athlete, his training often has him running 135-150 miles per week! Despite me knowing that’s pretty typical of an elite athlete, my eyes widened a bit, and I found myself slinking down in my seat. The pro athlete had just said he runs five times what I recommended a few minutes before! Oops :-/

Before I could feel too pathetic, though, a tweet from the fantastic Coach Cane made me feel a lot better.

Coach Cane’s tweet reminded me of something I know very well, but had somehow managed to forget: everyone has very different goals for a race, and even different goals for their training. I’m not talking about the simple “some people just want to finish and some are shooting for a time goal.” I mean, people also have different prices they are willing to pay in order to reach their goals.

Some people, like Reid, are professional athletes and can spend (almost) every minute of every day focusing on achieving peak performance. For other people, time is a limiting factor: their jobs/families/friends/etc don’t allow them to train as much as they would like. But there is a big gap between a full-time pro athlete and someone who works 80 hours a week and tries to be a “weekend warrior” in order to train, and there is a lot of leeway in between. If you get out of work at 10pm and choose to skip your evening workout, as I did last night, it’s easy to feel that you “couldn’t” work out because you “didn’t have time.” But the truth is, you made the choice to skip your workout. Maybe you could have skipped checking your email, rushed through your evening bedtime routine, and also gone to sleep a few minutes later – all that would give you an extra 20 minutes, which is certainly enough time to do some kind of workout. No matter what you decide, I think one of the most important things you can do is be aware of these kinds of choices as you’re making them, ensuring that they’re in line with your long-term goals.

It’s also important to consider how hard you are willing to push yourself. Are you planning your workouts with purpose, giving every workout your all, and focusing completely on your goal for that particular workout? Or perhaps you decided to go to a one-size-fits-all group exercise class  – it isn’t quite what you need in order to improve your running, but it’s exactly what you need emotionally in order to destress after a lonely and stressful day. That’s cool, but those choices will impact your performance on race day, and you need to be aware of how much that means to you. Personally, I love running marathons (frequently!), so I have made the conscious decision not to turn my life upside down training, prepping, and stressing out over them – I like hitting up Flywheel a few times a week or going to a Zumba class and dancing my heart out. By running marathons so often, I’m also paying the price in that my times are probably a lot slower than they’d be if I took a different approach. But you know what? That’s fine with me – at the moment, I prefer running lots of marathons in a lot of fun places to running a few marathons only on “flat and fast” courses. (And for what it’s worth, I have never yet PRed on a flat course.) What you put into it is what you get out of it, but maybe the running goal isn’t the most important thing in your life.

Finally, when thinking about what approach to take, remember that everyone is faced with different circumstances. Even beyond the goals of a race or training regimen, the routine of a pro athlete is very different than that of the regular Joes who go out to run a marathon. One of the questions that Reid got asked was what type of fuel belt/gels/fluids he recommends on race day. He, of course, responded that he didn’t know – the elite athletes provide their personal fuel needs to the race organization, who lay them out on a table labeled with their name/number for them to grab. Carrying fuel with you on the run? That’s not something that the elite athletes have to worry about in a race – but it’s probably something that is very important for you to figure out.

TL;DR? We are all very, very different athletes – and that’s why races invite multiple speakers to provide multiple perspectives. Training techniques that work for your friend Susie Speedster might or might not help you get faster, and running marathons every weekend like I do may send you to PT rather than get you a PR. When you listen to running advice, add it to your mental list of things to try, and then experiment to see what works best for you. A lot of great people have great advice to give, but you need to tailor that to your life and your goals.

Just don’t forget to smile when you cross the finish line – that’s one racing tip that is universal 🙂


2 thoughts on “Marathon advice from the pros”

  1. I really like this post! I (like you) max out around 30-35 miles per week when I am training. I do this to avoid injury and because my body performs much better running only 3 days a week with a few days of cross training and strength training!

    It is SO important (again, like you said) to realize that everyone is different and performs differently. What works for me may not work for someone else!

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