Training update: 9 weeks until race day

Today marks 9 weeks until my goal marathon, the Fox Cities Marathon in Appleton, Wisconsin. Training is ramping up, and I even hired a coach(!) which I will talk about at a later date. Fox Cities will be my first marathon in nearly 3 years; the last one I did was the Detroit Free Press Marathon in October, 2010. I mildly trained for the Rock and Roll St Louis last year, but bailed on the full and raced the half instead, which was the first half marathon I’ve ever raced (and it was super fun, by the way).

I decided to register for the Fox Cities race because it seemed like a great time to run a marathon (late September), and I’ve heard wonderful things about the course and race. Now that I will be teaching an undergrad engineering class in the fall, I am a little less sure it will be a great time to run a marathon, but hopefully life doesn’t get too crazy.

Speaking of crazy: Remember how I won a rad contest through Gear Junkie for a Ragnar Relay entry and a bunch of sweet stuff from Salomon and Suunto? Well, I’m now less than one week out from the Ragnar Trail Relay in Tahoe, and I’m getting pretty excited. I found out early last week that the team assembled by Team Gear Junkie (which includes me) will be doing the relay as an ultra, which consists of 4 people instead of the “regular” 8. That means a total of 34 miles in a 24 hr period, which is the most I’ve done in … a long time. And it’s all on trails! Bangarang. Fortunately, I don’t feel completely underprepared; I’ve been training with higher mileage and on trails, so that’s a win. This weekend, I enjoyed some quality time on trails in Lost Valley. It was hot, humid, and full of awesome, and it made for great training. I felt surprisingly great, which was an extra bonus, although I do feel a little under the weather today.

Splendid singletrack.

The best post-run snack.

Other than the trail run, this week’s training has been a bit low-key, but I did get in a semi-quality track workout on one of the hot evenings (oh, right; it’s July in Missouri, and they are all hot). I leave Thursday for Tahoe, and I’ve been popping zinc for some added insurance that I don’t get sick before flying across the country and sleeping at altitude for the weekend. One of my MegaTough teammies, Margot (who flew to Missouri for my birthday to run 30 miles over the weekend with me), will be joining me in Tahoe, too, to hopefully add in one more run for the weekend on Sunday. Add that to a swim in a cool mountain lake, and I think it will be one of the most fantastic weekends of the year.

More summer training adventures

Training lately has been going well. I’ve had some quality training sessions on the track and off the track, in multiple states even. And, best of all, I’ve been feeling great.

I think that it’s all in the small details; I drink more water during the day (since moving desks to the office instead of being in the lab), I eat incredibly well thanks to my fantastic spouse, I run consistently 6 days a week, and I feel rested. I even took a nap three days in a row last week. Who does that? Well, professional runners, of course. I am by no means a pro, but I do feel exceptional when I am getting the right balance of intensity and recovery. Did I mention I eat incredibly well?

Backing up a few weeks, Baberaham and I traveled up north over the 4th of July weekend to spend some quality time on trails in the Keweenaw. We hit up the Tech Trails right away, and I hammered out 8 fantastic, fast, and flow-y miles on some of the best single track in the Midwest.

Then it was off to the shores of Eagle River, where we enjoyed one of many perfect sunsets on the sandy beach. We camped, drank whiskey, and caught up with friends we haven’t seen in years. Literally. It was fantastic.

On the 4th, we headed all the way up north to the northernmost town of Michigan, Copper Harbor. The IMBA Epic certified, Silver level Ride center that absolutely does not disappoint. I don’t think I could ever get enough of these trails; well, minus the biting flies, of course. But the flow and the climbs and the descents are just so fantastic, and the views are breathtaking. Seriously:

Photo by Hansi Johnson

After a day full of running (me) and riding (B), we went back to Eagle River for some smoked meats and campfire, but made the better decision to head back to town and stay with our friend, Tim, in “town.” We enjoyed a comfortable pull out couch and slept, a lot. Well, I did. B got up and biked more, and I took a rest day. It did get pretty hot, so I was glad I made the decision.

B made a fun, Game-of-Thrones-ian dinner at our friends’ house, and we we slept like rocks again at Tim’s. On our last full day in the Keweenaw, I got a big breakfast in my belly and headed out to tackle my favorite of workouts: Ripleys.

Mont Ripley is the ski hill in Hancock owned by the University (Michigan Tech), and it makes for a great summer/fall training ground. In college, my teammates and I would tackle the “long” route (mostly under the tutelage of our first coach, Gary) and the guts (under the tutelage of our second coach, Joe). The good thing about the long route, you usually only had to do one. The good thing about the guts, they were over in 3 minutes. Either way, though, they were pain, suffering, and shear VO2-max-inducing awesomesauce. It was hot again, and humid, and I haven’t been doing much in the world of hill work in Saint Louis, so I started out by aiming for getting through three guts. After 2, I decided to take a “break” and hike the long route to the chair lift at the top, so I could take some photos and get oxygen to my brain.

Check out more of these on my Instagram

We spent our last night at The Fitz, which is quite possibly my favorite place on Earth, and had a delicious meal with fantastic whiskey and amazing friends. I am ever grateful for having Mike and Marc in my life. I worked at The Fitz as an undergrad, when Mike and Marc were just out of high school and Mike’s parents owned the place. Now, these guys run the show, and it just keeps getting better and better. We had our one-final-amazing sunset on Lake Superior as we sat at the bar, Marc pouring us the perfect pours of Stagg and Ardbeg and Pulteney…

And when we woke up in our comfortable queen size bed with the sound of waves crashing against the beach outside, we packed up our things and rolled out of town. We were just as sad as the weather to be leaving, but it was time to head back to the real world. Fortunately, the Keweenaw will be there when we are ready to escape next time.

How to write your own training plan #marathon #training #racing #running

Everything that’s in this post is based on what I’ve learned over the last decade either by those who have coached me (i.e., collegiate endurance sports), what I’ve learned from teammates, what I’ve learned from graduate-level exercise science courses, and what I’ve read out of books. I was an assistant coach for my collegiate XC and track team during graduate school, and I followed the “training bible” of Jack Daniels, PhD, closely under the tutelage of the teams’ coaches. I do think that, over the years, I’ve learned quite a lot about endurance training and running in general, and yet my strategies for marathon and endurance-training are ever-evolving; that being said, after much exploring, I have honed in an ideology of training that really synchronizes with my physiology (and psychology) and I’ve clung to it. Every time I’ve trained for a marathon (all eight), I’ve done so by coaching myself.

Obviously, like I said, I was coached in college, but I didn’t run marathons competitively (or at all) in college. I had my first running coach when I was in middle school, with whom I maintained a strong coach/athlete relationship throughout my high school years, and also consistently had a running/endurance coach throughout my collegiate career (two coaches, actually). In graduate school, I no longer had any sort of official coach to guide my workouts each day, but I (thankfully) paid attention during my coached years and learned “the pattern,” and therefore was able to maintain more-or-less of the approach I was exposed to during my “developing” years: run more, run often, and mix it up with varying levels of intensity. And, because I was coached by numerous different coaches with different styles and approaches, I was able to identify what training methodologies worked for me, and what methods led to burnout.

Here’s the basics on how to set up and design your own training plan (or, how to pilfer it from somewhere else):

  1. Do your research. Not every plan will work for every person, that’s why there are so many books and plans and coaches out there (in other words: If one thing worked for everyone, wouldn’t everyone do it?). We all have different lives, different priorities, different physiology, and different goals. For example, if you are a veteran marathoner wanting to train for a faster marathon, and you have been consistently running bigger mile weeks without injury for the past few years (we’re talking 50-80miles), then you may be able to successfully execute a marathon training plan with 60+ miles per week in training (but what you do during those 60+ miles will influence how fast you race). On the other hand, if you’re new to the distance and have never run more than a 40-mile week in your life, jumping into a high mileage plan without making any adjustments should be avoided as it will likely set you up for injury. The most important thing is knowing yourself and your limits, knowing the basic concepts behind the plan, and fine-tuning them for yourself.
  2. Find the right plan(s) for you. Like I said in #1, there are hundreds of books out there providing insight on how to train for a marathon. Finding the right one for you is tricky. The first thing to do is ask yourself: “Does this plan fit into my life, or can I make it fit?” If you work 50 hours a week, have three small children, and a spouse that also works full time, training 20-25 hours a week may be something you’re looking to avoid. However, if you know you can manage the training time required to get in 80 mile weeks, then by all means, set yourself up for higher volume (that is, if your body is ready for it). But just remember, running more does not always mean running faster. There is a threshold at which you will become more and more fit the more time you put into training, but once you get there, your performance can plateau.
  3. Find the pattern and follow it.  Setting long-term goals is important when setting up your own training plan. Cookie-cutter training plans taken from running websites or books are helpful for beginners and those interested in exploring other training options than they’ve tried in the past, but they are generic and are rarely designed specifically for you. What cookie-cutter plans do provide, however, is a skeleton schedule that is already ironed out and easy (well, easy enough) to follow. For example, a plan from Hal Higdon’s website details specifics for daily mileage, with every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday aiming for an easy run or off day, every Tuesday aiming for a “strength” day, every Thursday aiming for a “tempo” day, and every Sunday being a longer run. That schedule skeleton establishes a pattern that is easy to remember, once you get through a few weeks of it, and the pattern eventually becomes routine. Sure, the strength and tempo days are usually different; you may need to find a hill to run up or a track to run on, but it is more or less a consistent pattern that takes the stress out of figuring out your daily workouts. In general, most plans follow this type of schedule; oscillating between low and high training days (low being rest/recovery and high being intensity/duration). We need the rest in order to excel at the intensity days. This is called microcycle periodization, where – within a short duration of time, say a week – your body is stressed at different levels and allowed to recover and make gains. Periodization also occurs at the meso- and macro-scale, too, where training adaptations are targeted to monthly or quarterly cycles, respectively. Mesocycles are typically designated as “preparation” and “competition” phases, but can also be designated as different phases (strength-building, speed-building, skill-building, etc.) depending on the goals of the plan.
  4. Build up slowly and, when in doubt, rest is (usually) best. Taking on a new training plan is a stress to your body in and of itself. There are times when the stress is good, where it builds fitness and strength. But if the new training plan deviates substantially to what you’re used to doing in training (e.g., dramatic increase in mileage), easing into it is a good idea. Avoid dramatic increases in mileage quickly; many physiologists and coaches recommend no more than 10% increases in total training volume per micro- or mesocycle when building up to a volume that you either haven’t seen in a while or have never seen in your life. There’s a balance between feeling sore and stiff because you just ran 20x400s at 5K pace for the first time in ever, and then there’s teetering on the edge of getting injured. Knowing this limit is also one of those magic questions that only you can likely answer. So be honest with yourself, don’t be arrogant and bullheaded. Regardless of who I was coached by, the most important thing I learned during my coached years was that there is strength in consistency, and that I had to absorb the rest days just as much as the big training days. And, what I continue to learn is that, when I was 20 years old, it was a lot easier to recover from a big training day than it is now that I am 30.
  5. Adapt or get left behind. What cookie-cutter plans lack is specificity, and a lack of specificity can leave veteran and advanced runners in the dust. In order to get faster, stronger, better, we need to adapt, and if we always run the same thing every week, we aren’t going to adapt. So, although out-of-the-book plans are … ok … for beginner/first-timers, as veteran runners, we need to put a little more thought into how we are going to adapt our training plans in order to adapt our bodies. This may mean we go on longer runs, or we incorporate more repeats on strength days, or faster repeats, or less rest between repeats; maybe we increase our consumption of hill repeats, or we incorporate two-a-day runs, or we add a few mornings of weight training or plyometrics. Some believe that, in order to make fitness gains, you should simply run more miles. Obviously, there are limits to this, and it takes some figuring out on your own behalf to know how far is far enough, and how far will lead to injuries and lost speed. In the simplest terms, designing a training plan is a game of balancing residuals: extra miles can lead to gains in fitness, but too many miles can lead to injury and fatigue. Getting to know how to optimally train is the magic question, right?
  6. Don’t be afraid of mixing it up. Swap cross-training (maybe a bike ride?) for one of your easy runs (with the 1.3hr bike time for 1-hr run trade); learn how to swim or aqua-jog and swap that out for a run to keep the heart rate up without building on accumulation of high impact from running; run on gravel or trails whenever possible instead of roads/sidewalks. Easy runs don’t have to be time, or mapped out (if you are “supposed to do six miles,” try just running for an hour instead of mapping out the miles and stressing about getting a nice round 6.0 on the GPS). Most importantly, RELAX. It’s not baking at altitude; you don’t need to follow everything by the half-teaspoon measurement. I feel like Ron Burgundy (I have many (leather/paper-bound) books), but the truth is, I love to learn about training and exercise science. Some books are better than others, but there’s always at least little gem or two that can be pulled from the pages of books written by “the experts.” But my favorite, and perhaps most adventurous, thing about having multiple books on different training methodologies? Designing my own in my little training/racing melting pot. True, some training methodologies are complete 180s of other training methodologies, and perhaps my library fits more under the “scientifically proven” category (again, I am a big fan of Jack Daniels). But, finding the connections between different strategies and racing theories is almost like a game to me, putting together my own story (or literature review, for the academic geeks out there) in order to make sense of it all. If that’s not for you, don’t worry… Most of the books out there reference other books in the long line of endurance training literature, so the authors, in a way, do that work for you.

What training plan(s) do you use? Do you design your own, or rely on a coach for guidance? In your opinion, what is the biggest unknown in the realm of endurance training strategies that you wish you had the answer to?

Staying on Track: Update

This week, I logged my first official track workout in a series of speed sessions, all by myself on the St Louis Uni track. It. was. fantastic. Technically, I wasn’t alone. I showed up to the track on Wednesday night, and it was a happenin’ place, with nearly 30 kids and their parents bustling around. Six-yr-olds practicing 4×100 relays. They were better at hand-offs than some college relay teams I know. It was cool to watch as I ran lap after lap.

The workout: hammer out 12x400s with 400 rest, shooting for my 5K race pace. Truth be told, I actually broke it down a bit faster. I tried reigning it in, but no matter how much I felt I slowed down, I ran faster. When I run a big block of repeats on the track, I try breaking it down into sets so A) I don’t lose track and B) I don’t get bored/overwhelmed. For Wednesday’s workout, I broke it down into groups of 4:

First set: 1:29, 1:26, 1:26, 1:23
Thoughts: Ok, these were a little fast (the last one 10sec faster than my goal pace) so try not to implode on the next set. Stay relaxed, you have real estate to slow down a little.

Second set: 1:23, 1:22, 1:24, 1:22
Thoughts: Seriously, slow down. The last set is going to be painful.

Third set: 1:20, 1:21, 1:21, 1:19
Thoughts: Ok, well then, don’t listen. The final 400, #12, was a “might-as-well-see-how-fast-you-can-go” with the last 100 a sprint, but I never felt … tired. It was great. Very confidence boosting.

Next up, I have a 5K in mid-June (All American 5K) and I may or may not jump into a 10K in Edwardsville the weekend before. Did I mention that I’m signed up for the Fox Cities Marathon in September?

Speaking of marathons, and 12×400 repeats on the track at 5K race pace, I recently updated my marathon training library with Luke Humphrey’s new book:

 photo IMG_20130601_090853_608_zpsdc0d2875.jpgThis book was super appealing to me for two reasons: I am a big Hansons Brooks fanatic, and the methodologies aren’t too crazy off-the-wall compared to what I’m familiar with. While the 18wk plan (advanced) that I’m following just started last week, and I missed a few 6-milers because of travel to NY, I am feeling confident and focusing on being consistent and running nearly every day. That being said, yesterday’s 6-miler turned into only 2, because 10minutes into my run, the tornado warning sirens went off.

To me, the interesting thing about the Hanson’s method for marathon training, compared to other plans out there that millions of people follow (Galloway, Higdon), is the lack of mega-long runs and incorporation of consistently maintained physiological stress during the week; If I follow the Hanson’s Advanced marathon training plan as it is written to a T, I won’t run anything longer than 16 miles.  When training for a marathon, a lot of runners find this blasphemous. But truthfully, when I look at my week of training midway through the plan, I get a little excited. It reminds me a lot of training in college, under a modified Jack Daniels plan, that incorporates speed, tempo (what we referred to as Lactate Threshold, or LT), and a longer run with consistency and speed. I won’t necessarily have high volume weeks because it’s not practical for me right now (the highest mileage week I have planned is 63 miles), but I will have high physiological stress and cumulative fatigue.

In the past, I’ve cobbled together my own plans in the past based on insight from highly successful coaches (including Pfitzinger’s, Daniels’s, etc.), which follow similar methodologies and likely guided the Hansons in developing their own marathon method. Jack Daniels, an expert exercise physiologist and running coach, literally wrote the book on endurance run training (and also shifted my endurance training mentality during my junior year of college, when our cross-country team welcomed a new coach who followed his methodologies to a T).  What I didn’t embrace before, but is clear after reading the well-written book by Humphrey and reflecting on things here and there that I overlooked in my marathon training over the past five years, is that Daniels’s running methods specifically instruct runners, regardless of their goal race distance, to not incorporate long runs >25-30% of their weekly volume. Even still, I admit that in the past, I ignored this advice in order to just get that “big long run” in on Sunday morning, even if my training during the week was inconsistent, because- well- that’s just what you do when training for a marathon. You gotta have a big, long run. Turns out, actually… you don’t. Oh, and just in case you didn’t know:
 photo daniels_zpsa51dcb1b.jpg

Of course, depending on my total weekly volume, the absolute duration  my long run is irrelevant (remember: it’s 25-30% of my weekly volume at most!); if I design a training plan with the highest volume week of say 100 miles, the longest run of the week would be more than 16 miles. But, 100 mile weeks for me right now are not practical, and I’d probably get injured.

My success and failures in marathoning thus far hinges on cumulative fatigue. Last year, I was ill-prepared for the St Louis Rock and Roll marathon and switched to the half… during the race… even though I ran several long, 3hr+ runs. But I lacked consistency, with typical weeks of training only consisting of 4 days of running per week, and I didn’t accumulate physiological stress to adapt and be faster for longer. The best marathon I’ve had I raced 5 weeks after my first Ironman triathlon, and the accumulation of training 20-30hr weeks with one stellar (albeit forced) taper during post-ironman recovery served as a fantastic tuning for a fast and – most importantly – fun marathon.

Stay tuned for a post about writing your own plan for your goal race while taking into consideration your physiology. It involves one of my favorite hobbies: Doing the research!

Staying on track

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I do well when I have a target in front of me. Two points to draw a line between; what does it take to get from where I am now to where I want to be? When I don’t have a race to train for, I kind of float around; train here, there, whenever I want- less so much more than more so. But when I set a target, a goal race, I can connect the dots between here and there, I can build my fitness and focus. True, I don’t always meet my goals, but I do find that without setting concrete goal, a deadline – if you will – I won’t even make that step. Maybe I’ll start to move in that direction, but it won’t take much to ping me off course.

Now that I’m getting back into the swing of training, which is to say, I’m actually running more than three times a week, it’s time to set some points in the distance to inch towards. So, I signed up for a marathon. The goal: to successfully run a speedy-ish race in less than 20 weeks. This will be my first marathon in nearly 3 years. That’s a lot of years.

But, I did this last year, see. And the year before. Last year, in May, I signed up for a marathon, and trained with stellar mediocrity throughout the summer. As the race date approached, I decided to split the difference based on my training effort and life effort and halved the distance, deciding that I’d just race a half marathon as I toed the line next to all these superfit and fast uber-athletes that toed the line with me. And, although my ego took a blow because there’s no way I could have maintained the pace I wanted to for the entire 26.2 miles (because I barely hung on to that pace for 13.1), I realized something: it was fun.

So much stinkin’ fun. Half marathons are fun. Racing for less than half the time and actually feeling good after crossing the line is a strange phenomenon. And it made me realize something: I want to feel good, have fun, and be fast. Is that possible? Can I do all three of those things?

I’m going to try it, at least. What have I got to lose? I’ve got the training plan ironed out, a track less than 2 miles from my door, and a fire burning in my belly. So long as I’m having fun, I think I’ll be able to stay the course.

Motivation

I am less than 9 weeks away from my first big race of the 2011 season. NINE weeks. That is not very long. To be technical about it, it’s only 60 days off. Eek. All sorts of thoughts are flooding my brain, and I’d rather not go too deep into them without wanting to crawl under my covers and stay there for the next two months.

Life has been busy, and I knew it would be. It’s not like grad school wasn’t busy, but being a post-doc in a new lab, getting up to speed with different projects and figuring things out, well- it takes its toll. And while I feel like every post I make as of late is a woe-is-me about how being an adult completely sucks (it doesn’t completely suck, by the way), that isn’t the topic of this post. Rather, my focus today is how I am trying to get through the slumps, no matter what they are, and finding that it is easier than it seems.

Slump #1: Sporadicity of weather and life (yes, I know I made that word up)

The craziness of life and the weather go hand in hand. How, you ask? Well, One day, its a gorgeous 65F and sunny, with a small breeze, and I am just itching to get outside. What will I do? Ride my bike? Go for a run? Why not both? No problem finding motivation to get outside on days like that. So I make sure I get what I need to get done before 5pm, I make sure I go to bed early so I can wake up and run or swim before work, and its all good. But when its 30F and sleeting, however… that’s a different story. Why should I get up early when I can just lay in bed a little longer? So I get to work a little later, and then I find that I don’t really want to wait at the bus stop in the pouring rain. Work late? I suggest to myself. Why not get all this work done *now* (at 8pm on a Monday evening) so that if the weather is nice later in the week, you won’t feel bad about leaving before sundown. Except, it doesn’t work like that. Just because I work late one day doesn’t mean I can just take off early later. No, you see, I have a really good habit of getting into a routine, no matter what it is. Which means, it could be good for my work productivity, or it could be good for my triathlon training. No matter what it is though (and its usually only one), once I get on a roll -say, doing histology for my projects –  well, its hard to get out of the groove. And that is not a terrible thing. Being determined is a strength, a great personality trait. But it can sometimes lead to bad lifestyle changes. Like, for example, skipping lunch because I want to get something done, but that something is going to take me 5-6 hrs to do, so I don’t actually eat lunch until 6pm (most others would call that dinner).  Anyway, these choices spiral a little out of control, and I sometimes lose sight of what I am actually trying to do. So, I have to take a step back to regain my focus.

One way I can encourage myself to make sure I find balance in work/life is by having things to look forward to. I joined a masters swim group, and I have made friends that I look forward to seeing each time I go. I bought a CycleOps JetFluid Pro trainer, and its so sleek and quiet and smooth that I want to ride my bike all the time, no matter what its like outside. With the new trainer, I have been doing some really fun indoor sessions, including some Sufferfest videos and some from my coach. I’ve also been tinkering with my bike fit, and I’m rocking a new Adamo saddle which makes me not want to get off my bike fifteen minutes after getting on. All in all, I am just really finding a connection with my bike, and I have my one-bedroom hardwood-floors and brand-new-bike trainer to thank for that.

Slump #2: MIA embarassment

I missed a week of Masters swim at the beginning of February because of my trip to Puerto Rico. That was two Saturdays (one of my favorite Masters days), one distance freestyle, and the other random don’t-think-just-swim-what-coach-says workouts that have been making me stronger and stronger in my weakest sport. Because of the vacation, I didn’t buy a month pass for Masters, which meant I didn’t feel obligated to go and get my money’s worth. As the month wore on, and I had eighteen years’ worth of work to catch up on (that is at least what it felt like once I returned from vacation), I found myself staying at work until late into the evening, going to bed later, and not finding the ignition to get up and get my butt off to swim at 430am. Then, I felt like it was too late. I haven’t swam in two whole weeks! I thought to myself. If I go now, everyone will wonder why I am so slow and why I have been skipping out. So instead of swallowing my pride, sucking it up, and just going back and proclaiming “I am a lazy piece, but I am back because I want to get better”- I just didn’t go. That was lame. So today, I bit it and threw down for a month pass, and since I am going to be on a tighter budget now, I really do have to get my money’s worth.

Slump #3: Wearing the big-girl pants

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a lot of pressure at my new job. To be honest, my boss is amazingly cool, laid back, and seriously smart. But, I think part of the pressure comes from within. I don’t want him to be ashamed for hiring me, to think he made a bad decision. I don’t want to let him down, nor do I want to be a bad reflection of my former boss. I want to be the best at what I do, but – of course – I have the humility to know that I won’t always do a perfect job. The job I have reminds me a lot of endurance sports;  I have such a passion to fully submerse myself into the knowledge, the literature, the research. I want to absorb it all and push the limits and do something amazing. It’s been challenging to both find the time and find the mental partitioning to do that with training, too. But I think that training has always been an integral part of my success as a researcher. It helps me find my center, it keeps me from spiraling out of control down a path. It keeps my brain focused and requires me to allocate time to specific tasks instead of going off on tangents for hours on end down a dead end. And I think I’m finding that groove, the style of structuring my day so that I can do my research and still relieve stress and find strength in endurance training.

So, here’s to getting out of the winter slump, no matter what it is (raises glass of milk).

What slumps have you been dealing with lately?

To be or not to be (coached): Is that the question?

I’ve been chatting with some friends recently, on twitter and in person, about the pros and cons of hiring a coach. For years I’ve been on my own, and I’ve been really psyched about it. I have a fairly solid background in developing and executing the right kind of training, or so at least I think. I also have a graduate degree in exercise science, and my education in physiology (and general interest in the matter) seems to help. Plus, my background in collegiate running has given me an exceptional gift: I was part of the building and assembly of training plans, I learned how to properly prepare for peaks, how to taper right, and how to execute a focused season (or not). And I did this twice a year, for four years in a row. It was like a religion. This, and my history of training marathons over the last few years, has really helped me to figure out what works, what doesn’t, and what is just a waste of time. Even still, the question continues to linger about whether or not a coach would help make life a little easier (and me a little faster).

Here’s where I’m coming from:

Collegiate running: I was on a team that was coached by two different coaches (not at the same time, of course) who had completely different theories about running. My first collegiate coach, who I had during my freshman and sophomore seasons, was a Yooper with a strategy to get his athletes fast. Trouble was, sometimes his strategy backfired, resulting in burnouts and out-of-phase peaks. I remember the day I peaked during my sophomore cross-country season. It’s like it was yesterday… out there on Lahti Road doing 800m hill repeats. I was the fastest on the day, and I even grabbed the Lahti Road record! But it was training, and the rest of my season was shit. And we were still two weeks out from the conference meet. Needless to say, I learned that peaking during a late season training session, not at an “A” race, is not that awesome.

My second coach, who came along after our first coach resigned, was more educated in endurance physiology, and he was a fan of Jack Daniels (the PhD, not the whiskey). His training philosophy brought me to a 5K PR, made me a stronger and more efficient runner, and taught me the benefits of going long even if the race was relatively short. He encouraged his athletes to read, to educate themselves on the running and training philosophies, so we could better understand where his 2-a-days and 3.5hr runs were coming from. Terms like “LT” and “VO2Max” made sense long after I took classes on the subject, because who really pays attention in exercise physiology at an engineering school anyway?

Anyway, once I graduated and moved on, I wanted to continue racing (after a brief break sabbatical, that is). From what I had learned from my former (2nd) coach’s training strategies, I developed my own training plans. Each week looked something like this:

  • One long day (Sunday)
  • One threshold day (usually Thursday)
  • 2-3 recovery days (Wed/Fri)
  • a race, max-effort, or general intensity day (Tues or Saturday)

I also used two-a-days, both to get me in shape fast and to boost my aerobic fitness (LT), and before I knew it I was deep into training for my first marathon. I trained through the winter in Montana, but I did it all indoors. I’d hit the treadmill 6 days a week, somedays twice, running anywhere between 30minutes easy to 22miles while watching America’s Next Top Model. Sundays were my long runs, Mondays were almost always full recovery (off), Tuesdays and Thursdays would be a nice hour run in the morning with harder stuff in the afternoon. Wednesday and Fridays were recovery days, and Saturdays were either easy or longer intervals. That was my week, every week, from December to March, treadmill mashing and iPod tuning. Until, of course, I ran 26.2 miles for the first time outside in Napa Valley, California. And I was very satisfied with my finish of 3:22.

From there, it was all in some direction over a hill towards who knows what. I move back to Michigan and got back to training with some of my former teammates. I trained mostly outdoors from then on, but I kept my training schedule roughly the same. I squeezed in a few more marathons while working my butt off at school, and eventually got into a good rhythm. And with that rhythm came more challenges, including my introduction to triathlon. Instead of running every day, I swapped out biking and swimming. The key run workouts (the long run, the track intervals) would stay, but biking would take the place of the recovery and easy days. Swimming- well, that was something I forced myself to do once or twice a week instead of a recovery run or bike. And it rarely was fun (ok, endless relays were pretty fun).

With the planning of my first Ironman distance triathlon, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing key running workouts, so my first training plan as a triathlete actually used a marathon-specific run plan. I based my training on a book by Pete Pfitzinger, which may not have helped my Ironman run but actually helped my post-IM marathon five weeks later (where I ran a marathon PR of 3:19). Anyway, I was a little more knowledgeable after season #1 of triathlon, thanks to trial-and-error, not to mention just having experience under my belt, and my second season in triathlon was more successful. I was more diligent about my training plan; I kept an electronic spreadsheet so I could update it and kept track of weekly training hours. I watched my season progress, and the ups and downs of my weekly hours fluctuate somewhat sinusoidally (thanks to my planned training cycles).

This season, though, I had more doubts about my training than ever. I was racing better, but I was also having a more difficult time planning my training. I know how to handle one sport, but how could I deal with three and still try to do well? I had a hard time answering questions like: When should I do my long runs and rides? When am I supposed to do my hard swim workouts? Do I swim hard on the same day as a hard track workout? Or do I swim hard on my run/bike off day? Or do I bike hard on my run recovery day? These were questions that I couldn’t answer yes or no to unless I just did it, but I was afraid and hesitant that I would make the wrong decision and make my season go south real fast. I also had problems with accountability. One poor decision that I made on my own was my post-A-race recovery; or lack thereof. I basically didn’t do anything for two weeks after Rev3 Full, and the three weeks leading up to my fall marathon were full of sitting around eating candy, drinking bourbon, processing words, and being stressed out. In hindsight, active recovery may have been more beneficial than the “recovery” I was doing- which was more or less just being sedentary.

I don’t even have enough fingers to count the number of times I questioned getting a coach. I asked friends who had coaches, and we talked about their relationships. I talked to friends that didn’t have coaches, and we discussed the pros and cons of hiring someone to tell me what I thought I already knew. I talked to friends that were coaches, and got some great, rewarding feedback there, too.  I feel like I am in a tricky situation, because I know enough about training to know what might be a good idea or a bad idea, and this makes it really difficult to wrap my head around the possibility of having a coach who could have different views and opinions about things than me.

There’s also something so rewarding in designing your own plan, laying down the tracks that can bring you to having a great performance. Knowing that I was able to race fast this season, on my own, by doing the work that I put in- the work that I developed- well, anyway, this idea tends to linger in my mind. Over the past several months, whenever I would consider getting a coach, I’d ask myself: Would a coach help, or would a coach tell me something I didn’t want to hear? And not to mention, can I even afford it?

Now, I understand that not everyone can design their own training plan, let alone stick to it. I definitely didn’t stick to mine like I probably should have. There are weeks in my training plan that are sparsely sprinkled with completed workouts. This season, the only accountability I had was myself, and that was better sometimes than others. But regardless, having a coach is not essential to the triathlete. There, I said it. Now all my friends who are coaches are going to stop talking to me.

But they shouldn’t, because there really does come a point when having a coach is beneficial. For example, beginners rarely know where to even begin, let alone figure out how they are going to fit in training in their already-busy schedule known as The Real World. Because, let’s be honest, who can hire a coach if you don’t have a job?

And even for the “experienced” athlete- there comes a point when someone who thinks they know everything (points at myself) might need some insight. There comes a point when ya gotta say: “OK, do I want to get faster with the help of someone else, or am I OK with rolling the dice?” I sat down and thought about it, I thought really hard. And seriously. I considered all aspects. How much will a coach cost, and how much can I afford? What will they offer me that I don’t already have at my fingertips, including a boyfriend that bikes, a kickass group of cycling buddies, and a running partner that runs the shit out of everything (ok, maybe that’s not what I meant)?

Most importantly, though, and this is the real deal: If I hire a coach, am I confident that I can put aside what I know think I know and trust what this other person tells me as true? Can I say: “Oh, I feel like I should be running for 5 hours if I want to do well in a HIM” and they tell me- “No, you’re flippin’ cheesefried nuts.” That’s the biggest step: getting over what you think you know. Of course, if we look hard enough, we can usually find what we’re looking for. It’s like those people that go to the doctor to get the diagnosis that they want to hear. Sure, some would call them hypochondriacs, but if the fifteenth doctor they see tells them they have a rare disease that no one else has ever heard of and will get them special attention, than its the fifteenth doctor they are going to trust.

Ok, maybe finding the right coach is not really that extreme. But hopefully, you get my point. It’s not just “hearing what you want to hear”, though. It’s also hearing what is right to you. Finding the right coach is finding the right pairing of personalities; it’s finding the person that you can relate with, and the person that is willing to work with you. And when you know, chances are you will really know. And hopefully for your wallet’s sake, that person isn’t Dave Scott at $600/month. Of course, I say that, because I am a measly grad student making $20K a year. I am sure there are triathletes out there that eat $600 for breakfast.

Greater than 14,000 meters

I love the track. I love the controlled environment, the splits, the mindless repetition. I love the feel of smooth surface beneath my feet, the quickness of my cadence, the level ground. I love the bold white finish line and counting down the turns. I am in my element out there.

But for some reason, this season, I’ve been avoiding it. I’ve gone out there a few times, like when 5×600 repeats were on my schedule, but when it came to doing anything longer, I resorted to the trails. Maybe it was because my standby training partner is in her element on the trails. I’m easily convinced to change, especially if it means I have someone to chase after. And its not like change is a bad thing. Running on trails is lower impact and more neurologically challenging than running in circles over and over.

But this week, I knew I needed to find my interval nirvana. And I had a craving for something big, something that would take a lot of determination to get through. I modified my training plan from 5x600s to 10km worth of repeats. Add in the rest intervals, and my total distance racked up to over 14,000meters. 14,300 to be exact. While not the most epic or difficult set of repeats known to (wo)man, it was the biggest set I’ve done all season. And I was reveling in it.

I invited a few friends, and we met at a newly redesigned high school track. Up here, where the tracks get plowed by snow removal trucks starting in March, there is no such thing as a rubberized track. Just a smooth, crackless, even asphalt oval. And I think its absolutely beautiful.

We settled into our 10K paces for the first part of the main set, 5x800s. I was a little fast on the first two, but pulled back on the reins to avoid disaster later. We caught up with each other on the rest interval between (easy jog 400) before taking off as soon as we crossed the start line again. The 800s flew by. I almost wished I had made the workout 10x everything… maybe next time.

The 400s made my mind focus, but I couldn’t keep track of how many we’d done. Run a 400, jog a 200, run a 400, jog a 200, and it took me a while to grasp that odds were on the start line, evens were starting at the 200m mark. But I was focusing in my form, how my feet felt when they hit the ground. Where my knees were, where my hands were. I was focusing on my breathing, and I was focusing on holding back. Don’t chase the boys, I thought, just run your paces.

Louisa spectating after her long run

Regrouping was the best part. The guys would walk until I caught up, and we’d jog until the start line, and then we’d funnel into a line as we took off. It didn’t need guiding, everyone knew what we needed to be doing.

I’d finish the same distance behind the boys each time, comfortable with my pace and trying hard not to kick it in on the windless home stretch. The back stretch was windy, though, and I started sticking with Jesse on the first turn to be protected from the wind.

The 200s breezed by. Run a 200, jog a 100. Less rest, and unintentionally faster paced. I upped the anty, worrying less about my 10K time and focusing more on my ability to stay in control of my form, fast on my feet, and light. My legs wanted to burn it up, but I held back until the last five.

Two and a half hrs and two bottles of Kola/BananaNuun, and I was headed home. That was faster than I thought it would be. I was expecting 3 hours, pain, crying, maybe puking, definitely whining. I heard none of that. I didn’t dole out any of it. It was a piece of cake (ok, maybe not exactly), and my legs weren’t even trashed afterward. I was actually itching for more.

I didn’t do more, of course. I simply went home and made a protein shake. Seven more days of quality. Intensity. Recovery.  Then it’s time to taper for Rev3 Cedar Point.

Who’s idea was this?

I am having a hard time dealing with the idea that students are back in town. Orientation starts this week. Freshmen are moving into the dorms. Undergrads are partying outside their houses with their music blaring and their drunk friends are squealing until the wee hours of the night, waking up their neighbors (…that would be me). Yeaaah, college!!!

I guess I’ve been there, done that. I think my time in grad school has made me even less tolerant of such behavior, and now I just want people to leave my Keweenaw in peace. Alas, I cannot be granted such wishes, so instead I resort to working so hard that regardless of how loud they party, I’m gonna sleep through it.

Last season, I learned how to train for an Ironman. I knew I could survive it, but my training pushed me to race smart and methodical. This season, I have learned how to train independently. Or I guess, am still learning. I’ve done my first solo century, I’ve traveled to every tri I’ve raced this season alone, and I’m becoming pretty good friends with myself. Maybe this has something to do with my anti-social behavior in regards to the kiddies returning to Tech? I’ll drag out a training partner every once in a while (ok, maybe more often than that), but I think my Long-Course Psyche is building up strong. If nothing else, I’m learning to be more prepared (eg. no one is out there at mile 50 when I bonk, so I better have enough food to keep me going).

I’m making choices now that I never thought I’d make before. And I’m not talking about what kind of chamois cream to smear or what flavor EFS to put in my bottle. I am talking about my lifestyle choices, where I would rather go to bed early to get up and ride my bike than stay up late and drink beer. Not that I don’t do that from time to time, either. I guess another thing I’ve learned in the whole process of becoming an endurance athlete is balance. Recovery. Recovering my body, as well as my mind. And I know one great way of recovering my mind: spending time outdoors in the Keweenaw.

. Wash, rinse, and repeat.”]Luckily, I’m learning that diligence pays off too, at least I hope it will. I’ve been working on my swim with a friend who rocks, and she pushes me to get the workout in instead of sandbagging it because I’m bored. Turns out, having someone else there in the pool makes the swim less boring (dare I say, even fun?!).

And I’m having less of a difficult time getting on the trainer now that I’ve found the show Dexter. Whoever said television rots your brain never experienced an easy recovery ride on the Mag.

And last but not least, I’m starting to enjoy the weekend work days all by my lonesome. Who’s idea was this?

I asked myself that question when I turned right in Lake Linden and headed up the Florida Hill at mile 103 on my long ride yesterday. Four miles to Laurium, four miles of hill. But in all honesty, that hill was easier than the previous twenty miles I spent battling the cross winds off Lake Superior from Gay to Trap Rock Valley. And it was calming, having the entire five foot shoulder to myself, hopping onto M203 and just cruising home. Sure, I had a headwind on the downhill where I should have been hitting 45mph. Sure, I wanted to call Babebraham when I got to McLain. But not because I wanted to get a ride 9 miles from home, but because I’d been out for 8hours and I thought he might be worried.

So who’s idea was this? I know I can’t take credit for the scenery, but I can take responsibility for my choices. And I am really grateful I’ve made this choice.

Lake Superior looks like a cloud from the top of a hill on 5 Mile Point Road

The Big Lake

Perfect roads + little traffic = awesome

Eagle Harbor from my room with a view