Since the Boston Marathon a lot of people have asked how I train, what I’ve been doing, and how I’ve continued to improve as a Marathoner in my mid-30s with a 1-year old son at home.
I’m no expert. But, I know what’s been working for me
The “secret” really, is finding your own balance. I’ve been a competitive runner, on and off, for two decades. Sometimes more seriously than others. Sometimes more successfully than others. For example, I’ve never tried harder to run fast than in college, a period of training I consider a total mess of trying too hard and running too much. As a Tufts Jumbo I wanted success so badly that I thought I could just run more, which mostly just led me to repeat injury. The cliche is true, train smarter, not hard. The things a Dad Strong runner would tell his 20 year old self.
So let’s break it down.
Running encompasses three systems:
- The Heart (Cardiovascular system)
- The Body (Muscular system)
- The Mind (Psychological system)
Warning: This is about to get geeky. Proceed only if interested in the nerdy details of marathoning
It may seem counterintuitive to start here, but really it all begins and ends here.
Why do you run? Understand this, design your training around this, and when you wander (which you will) return to this.
I run for the feeling.
The physical, emotional and social connection running provides defines how I love living. As I’ve detailed before, I was Raised a Runner by my father. I have invested in the endeavor and it has provided back to be in spades.
I am most successful when holding on loosely to a concrete goal.
What does that mean? I’ve found the most success when focusing my training and lifestyle towards a goal with a healthy dose of balance. Without a goal I tend to flounder, but obsessing too specific a goal without balance and I tend to become tight, over train and get injured.
Success looks something like this:
Goal - “I want to run a good marathon in 4 months.”
Training - 2 hour runs beginning 16 weeks out. Workouts once a week.
Balance - A beer with dinner, runs with friends and base mileage based on how I feel.
Running requires such commitment, such consistency, that you have to enjoy the process nearly as much as the outcome. Sure there will be highs and lows, but I need to enjoy the long runs, track sessions and base mileage enough on its own or else I burn out well before race day.
Find running routes you love and people who you want to spend 2+ hours enjoying them with and the rest will follow.
You need to love the lifestyle
The mental stress of constantly running high mileage, repeatedly rising out of bed at 5am and frequently pushing yourself past lactic threshold is too difficult if you’re constantly re-assessing. Once you commit you can’t look back, because a runner who “hopes to find time for a workout later in the week” isn’t a runner who’s improving.
You gotta be strong to run well.
For many years I didn’t fully appreciate this fact. I thought “strength” meant some pushups and sit-ups. Both of which I hated. Both of which I’d only do on occasion, which resulted in not much strength or improvement.
As a runner it’s not easy to embrace strength, for a couple of reasons.
#1. It’s not what you love
You love to run, that’s what you want to do, not lift.
#2. It takes time
You already spend all of your available workout time running. So when’s a runner to lift?
And #3. (The most annoying reason) because other people tell you that you should
If you’re like me you’ve had friends and acquaintances who aren’t runners espouse the benefits of weight training. And honestly, I felt they were full of shit. When a Cross Fit dude tells you how much lifting could help your running, or worse, tells you that you should run less and lift more, at best you want to blow him off, at worst you want to call him a bunch of names.
Straight up: I don’t take running advice from anyone that hasn’t run or trained runners. But, see that second category? Runners don’t always know what’s best for themselves. We over train, over race and generally justify absurd behavior daily. I’ve been lucky enough, by coincidence, to connect with a few training experts who’ve worked with runners, who understand the struggle but can see the horizon enough to offer perspective.
1. I’m not gonna run less, and
2. I’m not going to go to the gym
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way I can explain what’s worked for me.
Leading up to Boston 2014 I attended some bootcamp classes with my wife for fun. And to my surprise, they helped. My legs felt somewhat prepared for the punishing up and downhills.
So I worked with a trainer I know and told him, “Listen, you know I’m gonna run, but what would you have me do afterwards if I committed 15–20 minutes a couple days a week?”
With him I’ve built a routine intended to strengthen my hips, lengthen my stride and build posture to guard against fatigue and injury. Each workout involves 4 movements. Each set take 5 minutes. Done 3–4 times with varying weight and you have a 15–20 minute workout that blasts the correct muscles and sends you on your way.
15–20min one to two times a week = 30–40min, or 4–6 miles of running at 7min pace.
So, I will admit begrudgingly, lifting weights 1–2x week is more beneficial than 4–6 extra miles per week.
For the record–I don’t believe this means the “Endurance XFit” gurus are right. I think they’re full of it mumbo jumbo salesmen.
Stronger runners are faster runners
It’s a long discussion that involves decades of history, but honestly if you need convincing, go read about Seb and Peter Coe.
The routines the father designed are the reason we now refer to the son as Olympic Champion Sir Sebastian Coe. I’ve known this for over a decade, I just had to understand it for myself.
I’ve outlined the details of my lifting routine at the bottom of this post for those inclined to the specifics.
And finally, the heart. The beautiful Cardiopulmonary system that absorbs oxygen rapidly, rids your body of lactic acid and beats its stunning rhythmic beats at astonishing rates.
Forgive me, but I love my heart. It’s already given me more than I could have dreamed. I promise to care for it intensely, as I hope it will provide for me for many, many years and miles to come.
All that said, my marathon philosophy is simple:
You need to run as much as your body allows
Stupidly simple, but agonizingly complex to execute
Let’s break it down: [Run] + [As much as your body allows]
I try to run at 6–7 paces within any week or two
- Super Easy: this is your slow, slow pace, for me 8:30–7:30 pace. You don’t need a watch for this unless it helps you go slower.
- Easy: This is your typical base conversational pace, 7:30–6:30 for me.
- Up Tempo: These are snappy runs, your not talking a lot, but you could, 6:30–6 for me.
- Marathon pace: I hardly ever run at exact Marathon pace except on specific training runs.
- Tempo: this is your half marathon pace. You’re hardly talking and can’t hold it for much more than an hour, 5:10–5:20 for me.
- Interval: This running is done on a track, trail or measured road at specific intervals with specific rest. 4:40–5:10 for me.
- Sprint: Who am I kidding, I’m no sprinter, but all out knee driving form is good for every runner on occasion.
I won’t get into the exact workouts
Since there are any number of ways to workout with those paces I find success is mostly about finding a system of workouts you believe in and sticking with it over time.
+ [As much as your body allows]
A personalized, emotional, amount of miles that’s always in flux
If you’re a serious enough runner that you’ve ever tracked your mileage here’s the honest truth: you can’t withstand as much mileage as you think you can. That’s the reality I had to face in order to succeed on this journey of improvement I’ve been on for the past 3+ years.
The problem is mileage is sexy
The 10 miler. The 20 miler. The 70 mile week. The HUNDRED. You slip into the greedy runner mindset where more feels better and too much almost never seems enough — until you’re injured, frustrated and filled with regret, “Why oh why did I think I could do all that?!”
Here’s what did it for me: when I got serious about training again in 2012 my good friends were consistently running 80–90 miles a week, and a calm came over me, “I can’t do that.” I wasn’t physically capable of sustaining that mileage. I’m still unable. Which made me question, “What am I capable of?” From that day I’ve been building my mileage slowly, steadily, for over 3 years.
I’ve done this in a couple ways:
1. Focus on average run length
Take a day off, take two, but slowly, nearly imperceptibly, increase your average run length over time. In 2012 my “base runs,” non-workout or long runs, were about 4 miles. This was the length that allowed me to recover and feel good the next day. I’ve built that length to 7–9 miles over 3 years.
2. Take a day off every 7–14 days, depending on how you feel
Now this is difficult, because “how you feel” is highly subjective and distorted by layers of runner misperception. As a marathoner you need to find the difference between “tired” and “Fatigued.” There’s a line, it’s entirely personal, and you need to learn how to walk it.
3. Focus on the month, or better yet the season, not the week
In college I optimized for the week without tracking the month or season. I’d pack miles into a week, only to get hurt and follow with 2–3 weeks of low mileage pain and frustration.
A famous marathoner recently told me, “It’s amazing what the body can adapt to over time. I was running 150 miles a week in my prime!”
That’s 7,000 MILES A YEAR! But he built up to it over time. Incredible.
“Sandpaper not chisel”
I think of this as the “Sandpaper not chisel” method of training. I’ve actually thought of my marathoning as a block of wood that I’m sanding, bit by bit, month by month, year by year. The moment I feel myself tempted to “take a crack” at a big week or big month I try to settle down and remember, “bit by bit, layer by layer, get there in time.”
When you adopt this mindset marathon cycles begin feeling desperately short. All of a sudden 16 week “build ups” are actually over in a snap. The only way I’ve found success is by stacking these build ups, one on top of the next. A build up for Boston leads to, after a quick break, a build up for NYC, which builds to, after a quick break, a build up for Boston. You can only do so much in 16 or 20 weeks. Absurd as that sounds.
As a famous entrepreneur likes to say about his success, “I’m an overnight success, a decade in the making.” Such is the truth with marathoning.
Marathoner = MIND + BODY + HEART
That’s the equation.
Marathoning is as simple as balancing a motivated psyche, with a strong and injury free body, with the stress of a thriving cardiovascular system, over thousands of miles, year after year.
In other words, agonizingly simple, beautiful, gratifying, and heart breaking.
This is our plight as runners. We love it, hate it, and give thanks for our ability every cold, raining morning when the alarm goes off at 5am and it’s time to run.
For those interested in the crazy fine details:
Running — I’ve touched on this above, but I don’t follow a particular training philosophy. At best it could be called a patchwork of “The Greats.” Marathon workouts like 10–15 at marathon pace. 10 miles easy then 10 miles at marathon pace. 4 miles tempo, then 10 easy, then 4 miles tempo. Really it’s a combination of long hard runs to acclimate you to the feeling of running pace while fatigued.
Lifting — The details of my lifting routine look like this, 4 movements, 2 arms (a push and a pull) and 2 leg movements:
10 single leg pushups — 10 straight kettle bell squats (feet below knees)— 10 kettle bell rows — 10 side lunges with kettle bell. Beginning with just body weight, building kettle bell weight over time.
5 pull ups — 10 wide leg kettle bell squats (feet wider than knees) — 20 single arm kettle bell overhead presses (split stance, 10 each arm) — 20 single leg lunges, 10 each side holding a kettle bell(one leg in front, one behind, drop back knee down close to the ground)
Stretching — Ask anyone and I’m constantly stretching. It’s awkward, and not that formalized. Mostly I end each run making sure to stretch out my hips and hamstrings, which tends to leave me feeling better the next day.
I also roll out on a trigger point roller my lower back, hips and IT bands, as necessary, which is almost always while marathon training.
As always, thank you for your attention. If you have further questions or thoughts please feel free to email me at email@example.com