Learning to Run Faster

treadmill002Depending on who you talk to, the consensus in relation to treadmill running is that it’s not quite the same as running outdoors. To a certain extent, I’ll buy that position. On a nice day, I prefer to put my sneakers on and go for a run on one of the routes I’ve mapped out around my neighborhood. That said, the treadmill has quite a few benefits that are too often overlooked by those that turn their nose up at a good treadmill session. They’re safe, especially in high-traffic urban areas; they act as a perfect pacer for high-intensity interval training; and they fill in more than adequately when the weather just won’t cooperate.

I have used the treadmill for all of these reasons. But I also use them for a couple of other reasons. Namely, to work on my speed and my form.

A couple of caveats – I don’t use the treadmill for long runs and I usually vary the speed even for short efforts.

Again, I’ve read differing opinions on the value of treadmills from a form management perspective. I suspect that in the majority of cases, any change in form is down to pure luck rather than an specific intent. For me though, it’s a conscious effort. The gym I visit has the treadmills located on the second floor, in front of a row of windows overlooking the street below. While this provides the obvious distraction while churning endlessly, I have taken to studying my form through the reflection in the window. I regularly observe arm position and movement, kick height, foot rotation, strike position, and a few other general factors during speed intervals and recovery stints. During every run my body is sending messages, telling me how it’s doing and providing early warning signs for problems. I find it very useful to have a visual companion to these messages, another frame of reference to help isolate and change potential problem areas early.

The other case for using a treadmill has become far more relevant over the last year or so. I’ve read a lot about muscle memory across a number of contexts, and really wondered how this phenomenon could be applied to running. I had reached a performance plateau where I wasn’t getting any benefit from outdoor runs in terms of an increase in average speed. Each run would be the same as the last, with only slight variations in the average and total time for the route. I thought about muscle memory and decided to spend a couple of weeks running on the treadmill at a pace 15-20 seconds per mile faster than my current average pace. Following the half dozen or so sessions, I ran the outdoor route again. And this time there was a noticeable difference in average pace and total time. I’ve run the same route a couple of times since then and have managed to maintain my new average pace. I realize this is not exactly a scientific experiment, but it certainly opened my eyes to another use for treadmills.

Over the next couple of weeks I plan to alternate indoor treadmill sessions with my outdoor route to see if the advances I have made hold. In a month or so, if everything is still good, I will try to up my pace again and see how it goes.

A New Approach to Training

workout002I’ve spent a lot of time running over the last two years and I have covered more miles than I care to even think about. I consider myself somewhat lucky to have found and successfully adopted running at a time when I really needed something to help turn my life around. I have achieved most of the goals I initially set out for myself, had many good days along the way, and enjoyed most of the experiences. I am, to say the least, very fortunate for all that running has given back to me in return for the hours and miles I invested.

In retrospect, I think I did a fairly decent job of incorporating running into my life at the beginning and created a good balance between weight loss and building my strength and stamina up. During my first half marathon training program I mixed both strength building and running activities to a reasonable degree of success. I guess I was a bit over confident at that point, and figured if I could do a 4M race then I could probably run a half or full marathon. Although not far from the truth, how soon I should target to do so was probably an error in judgement. It seems as though my over-training for three half marathons and the full distance last year is the root cause of all my knee issues. I simply put too much stress and strain on my knee too quickly by spending 90% of my time running and only 10% on other activities.

And so, as appealing as retreating into a sedentary life of lounging around in decadent debauchery sounds, I have decided to re-work my entire non-race fitness program to create a better balance of activities and provide certain key areas of the body with sufficient time to recover following intense work outs. I started out makeover by listing out some fun activities that I wanted to include:

  • stretching
  • biking
  • swimming
  • strength
  • running
  • interval training
  • core
  • yoga

Any new training program would have to include each of these activities in some form, with no one activity taking up more than 40% of my time. Training for specific races or competition would require a more concentrated effort in one area, but for non-race training and general fitness maintenance, a good balance is more important for my ongoing health and ability to participate.

Knowing that this kind of dramatic change would be a challenge to implement on my own, I decided to get some help! Jess had worked out with a trainer prior to the wedding and was impressed by his approach. Post-wedding we’re still going to see him, and he keeps us honest in quite a few of the areas I mentioned. The outdoor workouts along the water are especially intense, combining core and interval training with some basic stretching and yoga.

It’s only been a few weeks, but I am starting to notice a difference in both how I look and how I feel. I am getting more definition in certain areas like my shoulders and abs, and my knee is hurting a lot less. To be fair, the running has really dropped off over the last couple of months in favor of time on the bike but it responds well to the interval sessions, so I’ll take that as a positive.

Look out for a few of my new workout sessions on the conditioning section of the site and some revised race training plans as I start to register and plan for them.

Marathon Training Update

marathon_update_001It’s been a few weeks since I mentioned my marathon training, so though this would be a good opportunity to provide a status check. I’m just starting the fifth week of my 18 week training plan. Over the course of the last four weeks I have been extremely happy with how my knee has responded to the rigors of daily activity. Despite the increased workload, I have not felt any discomfort. This may be partly down to the use of a knee strap while running and an ice pack afterward, but that’s a whole lot better than medicating with painkillers on a daily basis. I’ve also been rather impressed with my ability to get up at five o’clock in the morning and get a run in before heading off to work. Whether that continues as the days get shorter and the mornings darker, we’ll just have to wait and see. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays are pretty tough with such an early start and I need to be more disciplined about going to bed on time the night before and getting enough sleep.

These past few weeks have been a challenge in two areas; the heat and the distance. If you recall, I really only started running seriously late last year. Prior to this year, I had no experience running in the summer and I have to admit – I hate it. The heat and humidity do not agree with me one bit. Besides being extra smelly when I come back from a run, I find my energy levels depleting quite quickly on runs – even when I’m taking on board supplements and gels. For those reasons, I have not always been able to reach my distance goals on each run. My long run in week two should have been nine miles, but I hit the wall early and struggled to clock in at six. Some of my mid-week runs have been slightly shorter also, both because of the conditions and getting used to some new training routes around Prospect Park.

Even with the aforementioned issues, I like to look back over the opening weeks with some semblance of pride and regard them as moderately successful. I’ve come to realize that it’s not always possible to stay true to the plan, but so long as I’m training smart then I’m making good progress. Although I’m not setting the roads alight with my speed, that I can finish an 11 mile run in a reasonable time and maintain my physical condition makes me very happy. I’ll check in again just before the half way point and prior to the Yonkers Half Marathon with another update, but in the meantime you can get more regular activity-based updates on my twitter feed.

How Technology Helps Me Train on Vacation

tech_001According to Jess (who knows me pretty well), I can be pretty regimented at times. In particular, when following through on plans or directions. She’s not wrong either – I can be inflexible, diligently adhering to the plan without really taking the time to pause and assess whether my actions are for the best. Stubborn is a word that has been used once or twice around our place. It’s something that came up in the past and caused a bit of tension between us. It is also one of the reasons I ended up with an over-training injury earlier in the year. Not surprisingly, flexibility of schedule was the subject of a recent tweet by one of the individuals I most respect in the running community:

When real life interferes, sometimes you can juggle schedules and maintain momentum; other times you need to sigh and skip the workout.
– @higdonmarathon

As we approached summer, many questions circulated my brain relating to maintaining my training while enjoying weekends and vacations at the beach and lake. I would like to think that I have learned my lesson, and am not blindly prioritizing training activities ahead of all else. But the unfamiliar was definitely causing me some stress as discussions about various trips loomed. This summer has given me lots of opportunities to test out my adaptability, and put into practice some of the promises I made to Jess last year. Whereas in the past I might have been hesitant to take days and weekends away from my home base, potentially disrupting my ever so well crafted training plan, these days I can be more flexible thanks to technology and a little forward planning.

Ever since I started running over a year and a half ago, I have been using an app called Runkeeper to track my activities and view historical reports. I like it because it’s easy to use both on the web and phone. Recently, I started to make use of the routes function. Initially, I used this to map my routes for the various training runs in my plan. However, I quickly realized that it also gave me the ability to pre-plan routes for those times when I’m away from home. So far this summer I have been able to create routes near our upstate weekend retreat and along the Jersey shore where we recently spent some time with friends. We’re planning further trips through the end of August, and to maintain my plan I have mapped out appropriate routes in and around Virginia Beach and Fire Island, NY.

Using the tools and technology at my disposal, I am able to travel and take advantage of the summer while holding myself to my training plan. The biggest issue is then simply a case of finding the right time to head out for a run. As I’m an early riser, I am able to take advantage of the cooler temperatures in the morning and complete my run before anyone else is awake and moving about.

Pace Charts

pace_chart_001Science is a great thing – it can help us learn, develop, and plan for a better future. When it comes to running, science is no different. Most top runners these days incorporate some scientific elements into their training programs. Runner’s World published this pace chart to help racer’s easily determine their per mile times for the most popular race distances. That’s great if you’re used to running a certain pace, but in my case I know that as a typical 8:15-8:30 race runner, it’s really not possible for me to enter a race and consistently hit 7:45 or 8:00 over a long distance. How then, do I get from where I am now to where I want to be. Recently, I came across something that uses a bit of scientific jiggery pokery to do just that and could potentially be a very useful training reference.

The McMillan Training Calculator, found on Greg McMillan’s web site, uses some simple calculations to determine optimum interval times for various distances and pace times for different types of runs, based entirely on the athlete’s predicted finish time for a specific race. Sound complicated? It’s really not … I tried it and it was actually pretty accurate.

I chose the 10K distance as my benchmark for the analysis. I entered my time of 51:36 from this years Scotland Run and provided the other qualifying information such as age, experience, gender, etc. The results were surprisingly accurate when you allow for the inevitable individual variations between athletes – my predicted race time for the mile was under by 5 seconds, for the 4 mile distance it was under by 20 seconds, and my predicted race time for the half-marathon was over by 30 seconds. Interestingly, the calculator predicted a marathon finish time of 4:02:06 based on my current level. That’s only two minutes over my goal time and, given the error rate based on my other distances, very encouraging.

But I don’t want to keep running at the same pace all the time. Part of the enjoyment of competing in races is going out there and trying to improve on my personal best times. So with that in mind, I changed the time on the calculator to 48 minutes – a personal goal for the 10K distance. The new predicted race times 6:37 for the mile, 32 minutes for the 4 mile, and 3:45 for the marathon. All of which are within range of my personal targets and therefore not unrealistic.

But the best part of the calculator is not the predicted finish times, it’s the pace times that it recommends for training runs – the times I need to be achieving on a daily and weekly basis, so that my body is used to running at that speed. Like the predictions before, the pace times for my current level were all plus or minus 2% of my current training level. After I ran the calculator for my goal time, I was able to see what my pace times need to be in order to condition my body to achieve that goal – and frankly those pace times are not that scary. I’m already running within range for my endurance workouts: the long, recovery, and easy runs. It’s the stamina and speed runs where I need to lift my pace. My body has become too used to running within a very narrow range of paces, and if I’m going to meet my goals over the coming months I need to start pushing myself more on the speed and tempo runs. Right now I’m hitting 3:45 on half-mile speed intervals, that needs to come down by 15 seconds to around 3:30. On my tempo runs I’m averaging 8:20 per mile, but need to take that down to around 7:50. It’s going to be a challenge, but if it brings with it the kind of results that McMillan’s calculator predicts then it will all be worth it!

* When I used the calculator I had to enter my current time for the distance. However, I could not get the application to work when entering just the goal time, it asked for both current and goal times. Even then, I saw no difference in the results. My suggestion … run it twice and save/print the results to get a comparison of where you are now (use current time) to where you need to be to achieve your goal time. When I used that approach everything worked fine.

If you have better luck using the current and goal time comparison, why not use the comments to let me know.

Marathon Training Plan

26_predictions_001I have just finished creating my marathon training plan. I’ve spent some time looking around online and discovered that there are a large number of outlets that actually charge for this service. I’m not going to mention the fee-based services here, but a simple web search will reveal them if you’re interested. I can’t say I’m that surprised that someone has figured out how to monetize training plans, but the reality is that most of the information needed to create an effective plan is available online, and for free. With a little work, any runner can build their own customized plan and save themselves a few dollars. After all, most of these outlets are just reselling a set of canned plans that are tweaked slightly based on the individual parameters that a customers provides. The reality is that nobody knows the athlete better than the athlete themselves! I took the time to create my own plan for the half-marathon and it worked pretty well … so I’m going to do the same thing for the marathon, and fingers crossed I’ll see similar results.

In addition to using the same sources as before, I am incorporating some additional wisdom gathered from fellow runners, online resources and my own experience over the last few months into what I hope will be a well-rounded marathon training plan.

Having never run a marathon, I am vaguely aware of the amount of work required to bring my stamina and endurance to the level required to sustain me for four or more hours of running. I need to be careful not to over train and risk injury, while ensuring I do enough to meet my bodies needs. I am looking at an 18 week plan, with five days of running per week and gradually incrementing long runs on a Sunday (the only day of the week my schedule can support 2+ hour runs). I am planning on incorporating two rest days into the schedule, probably Monday and Friday, to allow myself sufficient recovery time between activities but also to accommodate some cross training such as cycling or swimming to use alternative muscle sets. In addition, I plan on including some variation in the running in the form of tempo runs and speed work. The speed work will combine Yasso 800s, Fartleks, and hill repeats. Essentially, this is the same half-marathon plan with some minor adjustments for the increased distance, workload, and time span.

As the marathon takes place on a Sunday, all my long runs are scheduled for Sunday mornings. I believe consistency is key in preparation, and helps reduce the risk of injury. However, I deviate from that model in weeks two and six because I am taking part in organized races.

Entries highlighted in red are organized races – more information for those can be found on the race information page.

Marathon Predictions

yasso800While researching marathon training plans (which I will address in a later post) I came across a few interesting articles that discuss different techniques for predicting one’s marathon finish time. I have to admit I was somewhat skeptical, but as I delved further into the topic and those behind them I began to see that there’s actually some basis of truth and science to these predictive techniques.

Yasso 800s
The first method to predict one’s finish time is the Yasso 800. Named for Bart Yasso, an accomplished runner, athlete, and senior contributor at Runner’s World, the Yasso 800 claims to predict the athlete’s marathon finish times based on his or her 800 meter time. It’s a really simple gauge and here’s how it works:

If you want to run a 3:30 marathon, train to run a bunch of 800s in 3:30 each. Between the 800s, jog for the same number of minutes it took you to run your repeats.

Of course, this is not a one of session. The idea is to run these Yasso 800s every couple of weeks during the course of the training, and to increase one’s speed from one session to the next. For my own marathon training plan, I am including 4 dedicated sessions as part of my speed work, beginning with 4 repeats and working up to 8 repeats. The last session will be two weeks before the marathon, to avoid placing unnecessary stress on my legs in the final build up. My goal for the marathon is four hours, but for the Yasso 800s I am hoping to be able to average out at 3:40 by the time I get to the final set of repeats.

Here’s a link to the full article from Runner’s World. You can also find the article reprinted, along with other helpful and interesting information on Bart’s personal website.

Miracle Mile
I also read some articles by and about Jeff Galloway’s training methods, and in particular his miracle mile. Personally, I’m not a fan of Galloway’s conservative methods but that just may be because I find them to be oriented towards beginners. There’s nothing wrong with the run/walk method, I have used it on occasion but I would not rely on it as the foundation of a training program at this stage in my development. Anyway, back to the miracle mile. Essentially, what Galloway is saying is to:

Choose a mile within the course of a run, and time that segment specifically. The mile should be run at about 80-90% capacity. Take the time and then adjust it to reveal the predicted maximum mile pace for a typical race. The adjustment factors are 5K (+33 seconds), 10K (x 1.15), half-marathon (x 1.2), and marathon (x 1.3).

Over time and through training, the athlete should improve his or her mile time so it’s advisable to recalculate every couple of months. I don’t know how much confidence I have in the miracle mile method – I’ve tried a couple of calculations off the top of my head, and the predictions come back slower than those from the Yasso 800s. Maybe I’m just being too optimistic and over-rating my own abilities, but I’ll come back to this topic when I have some concrete examples and we’ll see just how well the two pan out.

Use the comments to let me know if you have any experience of either method and how accurate they were for you.

Group Running … Analysis

nbr_001With all this extra time on my hand, I have been able to revisit a topic I wrote about a couple of months ago. As I mentioned at the time, I have been considering joining a running group to provide myself a little more support and hopefully benefit from the knowledge and experience of other runners. Admittedly, I’m not sure how well I’ll adapt to group running but I figure I’ll give it a try and see how things work out. If I like it and I fit into the group culture then that’s just another positive environment for me to be in and a place where I can potentially learn enough to take my running to the next level.

I have to be realistic and don’t want to waste anyone’s time while evaluating my options. Therefore, I have come up with a short set of criteria to help me determine which of the available groups works well for me.

  • Location – This is a very important criteria. I don’t want to have to run 4/5 miles just to get to a meeting point. It would be great if I could find a group within a 10/15 minute jog from my home, ideally with Prospect Park as the base.
  • Schedule – Extremely important given that one of the things I’m looking for is support and motivation, especially on long runs. With school scheduled to start in September, and classes running on alternate Saturdays, my long runs will all be on Sundays. Ideally, the club or group will have their long runs on Sunday morning with a few other runs during the week.
  • Group Size / Runner Level – Although part of the reason for joining is to have the group motivate and push me, I don’t want to be paddy last! I would like to know that the group has runners across all standards, so I can find fellow athletes to learn from and give something back too.
  • Cool Logo / Shirts – The least important of the criteria but it matters enough to warrant a mention. The vest color and logo should be interesting and cool, and something that grabs people’s attention at races or when you’re out there on the street!

Most of this infomration I was able find on the various groups websites, but for some I had to reach out to the primary contact email address and wait for a reply. After collecting all the information, this is how it shakes out in reverse order:

  1. BRRC – The group meets on Prospect Park West which is comfortable distance from my home. However, their schedule doesn’t really work for me. Midweek runs are Tuesday and Thursday evening’s (I prefer morning) and weekend runs vary in distance. They have a lot of runners around my level, which is a plus. Unfortunately, green is not my color.
  2. PPTC – This group meets at Grand Army Plaza, about a mile from home so it’s relatively convenient. Unfortunately, their long runs are on Saturday morning and the only other group runs are a short loop of the park on Sunday and a large group run on Wednesday evening. The club has a wide range of skill levels, so I could definitely blend in well. However, I don’t look good in red.
  3. SBRC – Their location works great for me! They meet at Carroll Park, which is about 5 minutes from my house. However, the schedule is not so good. The morning group runs are at 6:45AM and my morning cutoff (when I have to be back home) is 7:15AM. Based on their web site, the group size tends to be small and they have a limited number of “slower” runners like myself. Constantly being among the slowest would definitely be a de-motivator for me. The logo and shirts are cool though.
  4. NBR – Of the four groups North Brooklyn Runners seems to be the best fit. They run most days, but the two that most interest me are the short to medium run on Wednesday morning @ 6AM that meets at Grand Army Plaza and the long run @ 7AM on Sunday that meets at McCarren Park. Although this is well outside my home zone, I could take the G train a few stops and then jog to the meeting point. This group seems to have a lot of members, ranging in skill levels. They also have an excellent website and an awesome shirt/logo.

Now I just have to head out and join them for a couple of runs to see if my research pans out. I’ll follow up on this post once I’ve found a good home.

Note: The ranking of clubs above is not meant to be empirical and is based solely on my own personal analysis and needs. Each club is unique in it’s own right and offers support to runners of all ages and levels. No one club is better than any of the others, but one may be better suited to an individual runners depending on a wide range of factors such those I mentioned above. If you are looking for a group, please take the time to research and meet the groups yourself, so you can find a comfortable place to run.

Joining A Group

RunningGroupI have been running for a little over a year now and have always tried to take good care of myself. Without a coach or team to provide advice, I have essentially been flying solo for all this time. That’s my choice, but clearly I am missing out by not being around more experienced runners. Sarah, a friend of Jess’, has been running for a long time and occasionally shares some words of wisdom when she hears that I’m struggling with something. I take this advice seriously, as she clearly knows what’s she’s doing but it made me re-think my solo approach.

With the move to Brooklyn all done, I checked the road runners website and noticed that there were a few clubs in the area that provide good resources for novices and intermediates.

I’ll take some time to review the specifics of each and might venture to run with them once or twice. My schedule is going to play a significant role in determining what I can do, as I start back to school in September. This means that I can really only plan on doing my long runs on Sunday mornings as I’ll be attending classes every other Saturday. Anyway, I’ll see what these groups offer in terms of resources and what their runs schedules are like. If I’m lucky I’ll something that works for me. More to follow on this particular topic soon …

Half-Marathon Training: Week Eleven

nyc_half_w11It’s really hard to believe how fast the time has gone by, but here I am in the second to last week of the training plan. So far, I have managed to stick pretty well to the program, only skipping out on two sessions – although I have moved some sessions around to accommodate my schedule and various niggles and strains. Speaking of … following tonight’s resistance training I felt a little tightness in my right quad. Depending on how I feel in the morning, I may switch my moderate paced 5 mile run from Wednesday to Tuesday, and do my speed work on Wednesday evening. Otherwise, the sessions are consist with prior weeks. Thursday is another resistance training day involving stationary bike, weights, and swimming. Saturday is my final long run, a 12 mile trek consisting of two full loops of Central Park. And Sunday is another easy 4 mile run to help warm down and loosen the muscles going in the final stretch.

I have to admit that I have thoroughly enjoyed the last 11 weeks. I have more energy throughout the day and feel a lot better about myself. I also have a lot more confidence in my ability to complete a long run – far more than I did when I first set out on this journey. Even now, the thought of running a marathon is less daunting than it might have been three months ago when the idea first took root. The two most important things I have learned over these 11 weeks are preparation and balance. Preparing properly, building up over time to the race distance and keeping to an appropriate pace will help me get the results I want without risking injury. Jess has also taught me the importance of balancing my running with other activities. She has been very patient throughout the program, and I hope that I have become a little more flexible now than in the beginning.