Running Streaks, and why I hate them

Before you decide to be a “streaker,” pause for a hot second and ask yourself WHY? This time of year, running streaks are very popular. It makes sense. It’s getting colder, its often dark, peak goals are in the past, and runners are looking for motivation or accountability to be active. Toss in social media, and most runners will decide to commit to a streak without a second thought.

Here’s the problem: there are times when you should absolutely, 100% take a complete rest day. In fact, it’s irresponsible and plain stupid to not. Streaks, by definition, mean no rest or off days for said duration. Sure, some streaks only require a mile a day, and others more. Yes, you could go take that mile or 5K super easy. But why, if your body is saying “PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, NO!!!,” do we blindly stick to the streak? I’ve heard of runners plagued by the flu lace up their shoes and drag their carcass on a run because they didn’t want to break their streak. Runners taping up an injured quad to get in their miles. Take a step back with me. Doesn’t that sound absolutely insane?

The whole “no rest days” thing is not something a coach would EVER support. I don’t understand why runners think that it makes them badass or dedicated to train everyday. Again, it makes you stupid. Because REST is when we rebuild from the training. Rest is just (if not more!) important than some of the runs. Rest greatly reduces injury risk. I don’t know if many streakers or “no rest day” folks out there who don’t wind up injured. And you guessed it – they are injured because of their looney training choices.

I see plenty of other reckless goals out there: a marathon a month. A half marathon in every state in a calendar year. The goal of clocking 2000 miles in the year. Can some runners do those things? Absolutely. But should they, or should you? The risk is really high. Wouldn’t it perhaps be more reasonable to plan to run 4 marathons a year, and think long term? For the record, 4 marathons is still a lot for most marathoners. It’s fine to attempt something. We don’t surpass our goals or expectations without risk. But measured risk over reckless risk. Remember that just because somebody else can do something, it doesn’t mean you can. We are all incredibly unique. Focus on yourself, not your running buddy.

In NYC, I deal with a ton of runners who partake the NYRR’s 9+1 program. Essentially, you run 9 races and volunteer at one event in a calendar year, in exchange for a guaranteed spot in the NYC Marathon. I understand the reasons behind the system, but as a coach, I despise the 9+1 concept. I’ve encountered dozens of runners who should not be lacing up for a run anytime soon, dragging their bodies through a required race. The injuries that could have been avoided are compromised because of that damn race on their calendar. It’s a struggle to guide an athlete towards their goals, but to toss in an navigate 9 races in the mix. Sure, some are easy. Others, not so much. The amount of times I have “highly advised” a runner to sit out a 10K or the 18-mile tune-up race for their own benefit, but they “need” to do it for their marathon spot – far more frequent than I care to admit.

It’s important to understand that running can be a life-long journey. It can be a journey with few injuries or burnout. But it can also be a short and tumultuous journey if taken fast and furious. This isn’t to say you should not do the 9+1 or to decide to go for a running streak. But don’t lose sight of the big picture. Is running everyday in December worth potentially having no spring race season? Listen to your body, and be ready to toss the streak if your body tells you to.

The Reason for the Off Season

The off season. Most runners are really bad at this. It’s incredibly tempting to cross that goal finish line fired up and ready to dive into the next goal. Even if legs feel great within a day or two of that goal race, it’s important to relax and PAUSE. I completely understand that post-marathon high. I clearly remember days after my first marathon, signing up for two spring marathons with all the enthusiasm in the world. We feel invincible, fired up and inspired. PAUSE. Injury risk is incredibly high within the days/weeks following that goal marathon. Even if you FEEL good, trust that there are things that are broken down and rebuilding. Remember that just like the hard work and the taper, a reverse taper is necessary. The best marathoners in the world take an off season. None of us are the exception. How long or dramatic of an off season an athlete needs will vary. But when in doubt, be conservative.

During your off season, use that post-run high to push you towards recovering and rehabbing any aches and pains. Spend the time to lay out your goals for the following 12 months in a realistic way. Honestly look back over your strengths, weaknesses, and what should perhaps be the focus of your future training. We all have natural talents that translate to running. We also will all have natural weaknesses. The more you know yourself, the better you can train in the future.

Looking towards 2018, I’d advise a few tips for planning:

  • Be aware of any travel you have planned. Out of town weddings, vacations where training may be compromised, etc – honestly factor those things into your calendar for next year. For example, I try to plan vacations where training conditions aren’t completely compromised during marathon training. Certain climates and locations are more or less supportive of training. Can you have gym access? Factor that in now. Or plan that vacation to the islands or with day trips for AFTER that goal race and during your off season.
  • Make sure you budget some recovery into your calendar. Runners want to do everything, and this can be dangerous. Do NOT plan races in back-to-back weekends. Pick and choose. Otherwise injury risk and burnout will at some point occur.
  • Choose races you WANT to do! The options are overwhelming. Think about you and why you want to run a specific race. Is it a fast course? Ideal weather? Scenic? Bucket list destination race? Friends and family want you to do it with them? Do what’s important to YOU, but be realistic. For example, as great as NYC Marathon is, it’s rarely that PR course. So if you want to knock your marathon time down or fight for that BQ, there are FAR better options out there. But if you love that course, then compare previous accomplishments to that course and that course alone.

When you slowly exit your off season (coach is doing that this week after 3 weeks completely off from running – okay, I went for 2 very easy 4-milers in that time), build back carefully. For example, don’t dive into a track workout on your first run back. Ease into things with a week (or weeks!) of easy-effort running. Then you can begin to think about adding intensity. Your body won’t lose everything during the off season. It will bounce back quicker than you think. But stay patient and conservative. Think big picture. And finally, while easing back into those miles, focus on FUN! Embrace a little structure-free running.

How to Successfully Train and Race Injury-free

Running is often a sport or activity associated with injuries. And for good reason – the percent of runners in physical therapy, on the injured list, or running through pain is alarmingly high. While doing anything repetitive and strenuous isn’t without injury risk, I’d argue that many injuries can be prevented. It’s always my first priority to keep my runners healthy, as an injured runner simply can’t achieve their goals. I’d also say that I am asked more about injuries than anything else with my runners at Mile High Run Club, and I see literally hundreds of runners each week. Preventing injury can be tough because it takes self control, a clear plan, and a good sense of your own body and what signals to listen to.

Too much too soon and overtraining are the big contributors to injuries and aches and pains that can be avoided. For many of us, too much too soon is a big one. In an ideal world, while building mileage after an off season, injury-related hiatus, or picking up running for the first time, you need to ease your body into the demands of running. Our brains often adapt faster than legs or lungs, and so there is often a tendency to go from 0-60. Runners should build base mileage for 3-6 weeks before adding the stress of speed or long runs. Honestly, many of us build minimal base mileage. Sometimes because we are simply super enthusiastic to be running, or a race was tossed onto the calendar with perhaps not enough time to sufficiently build base, train intensely, taper and race. The first thing we typically toss is the base mileage.

Try to keep in mind that physical adaptions take time. Our cells and fibers are stressed and broken down during activity, and then adapt, grow and improve. Without building mitochondria, improving bone density, lung capacity, and introducing the basic stress of base mileage (easy running), injury risk goes way up because our bodies aren’t ready to handle high mileage, speed workout, and long runs. The adaptions from stress don’t occur when we are running, but instead when we are resting. So skipping rest days in the name of progress is actually counter productive. So if you are coming back into running at virtually no miles, build carefully and with purpose. Everyone will be different, but you may simply start by running 4 30-minute runs throughout the week, mostly nonconsecutive days. On those rest days, be sure to hydrate, sleep, and maybe focus on foam rolling and stretching. Where we all start is going to vary based on experience, fitness, and if injury was the cause of the running hiatus. But easing into running should simply be that and nothing more.

The last time I was injured (November 2012), I was forced to take 8 weeks off entirely from running, and then cleared to ease back into the swing of things very carefully – with no speed runs until at least 1 month of easy base-mileage building. I remember how excited I was to be cleared to run. But I also remember how incredibly humbling an easy 30-minute run felt. When I was cleared to get back to speed runs, I was incredibly slow and I was working very hard for numbers that used to represent my easy runs. It can very frustrating. There can be the temptation to then go a little crazy and hit training hard every day. But perspective and a clear plan can help us keep our heads about us.

Overtraining can also lead to injuries. I tend to see these injuries in a few different types of runners: extremely competitive and talented athletes running 70-125 miles per week, and those who perhaps are running 30-60 mile weeks, but also do a ton of other activities – crossfit, fitness or dance classes, or runners who simply take their “recovery run” days too fast, actually not giving their body the runs that should feel super easy. Now, this also isn’t me saying runners should only run. In fact, I’m a coach who is a firm believer in supplemental and supportive training. But the training should complement your training schedule and not compromise it. We are all different. For example, I have found personally that minimal mileage but time lifting heavy in the gym has kept me feeling stronger and more efficient as a runner than ever, and I have luckily not been injured since 2012. Other runners may find weekly yoga helps their tight hamstrings, or that boxing helps their core and upper body strength.

At the end of the day, there should be purpose behind training days and days off. Know the purpose. If there really isn’t one, why are you doing it? Sometimes “because I want to,” or “for fun” is a totally fine reason. Just be honest about where you are in your running journey and how to protect your health. If you are injured, there go all those goals and races.

Running Injuries, Goals and the Gym

Berlin Marathon. Low mileage, lot's of time in the gym. Pretty good PR - 3:03:30.

Berlin Marathon. Low mileage, lot’s of time in the gym. Pretty good PR – 3:03:30.

It’s that fun time of year when there are literally dozens of races every weekend – from small 5Ks and 10Ks to some very large half marathons and marathons. The running community is filled with taper nerves, stories of recent race experiences, and reflections and goals for the new year. It’s a pretty awesome time to be a running coach and to watch the weeks and months of careful planning and training begin to pay off with some really incredible race finishes, personal records, and lessons learned.

I find that the journey can vary quite a bit per person. We are all different, and we adapt to training, goals and work load differently. I couldn’t help but notice while I was out for an 8-miler today how many runners I passed with medical tape, braces or bands on their body. It made me a little sad, angry, ad motivated to blog about it. In the non-running community, most people still assume running is bad for our knees. In fact, I cannot count the amount of times an acquaintance or total stranger says something negative about running and joints when they hear I run and coach runners. In fact, quite the opposite is true.

This isn’t to say that repetitive wear and tear doesn’t have consequences – cyclists, swimmers, dancers, tennis players – each sport has it’s own chronic injuries due to the muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints used repetitively. However, when done the right way, we actually usually stay far healthier and active when we use our body instead of sitting on our butts. Can running mess up knees? Sure. That will vary per athlete, their genetics, history, form, training practices, and overall strength. I come from the philosophy where most injuries are preventable, and most runners you see taped up simply didn’t train well. Usually they took on too much too soon (mileage or stress), or are incredibly imbalanced and could benefit from some serious strength training, cross training, stretching – or all of the above. Most injuries are preventable. Some obviously are not, and require immediate medical attention, and the diagnosis and advice should not be ignored.

Here’s the funny thing – most injured runners will willingly admit how much they are in pain, or how much their potential has been compromised, but yet they won’t take the necessary time off to rehab and recover. As a coach, I cannot help someone who isn’t willing to take the help. That may be the toughest part of my job. Knowing what needs to happen, but having an athlete unable to accept the work load, recovery, etc – to get there.

And so after witnessing all of those taped up runners today, I thought about myself and my running. I haven’t been injured (thankfully!) since 2012. I was forced to take 8 weeks off from running back then, and it was the worst two months ever. I swore to myself I would do what I could to avoid the injured list in the future. And so I finally began to take my own coaching advice. I also began to really listen and learn from my body. Dare I say, I began to train smart. Even when clocking 100-mile weeks while Ultra Marathon training in 2014, I quickly learned I needed to eliminate all speed work and simply focus on mileage. And when I shifted back to shorter and speedier goals, I cut mileage way down, and spent just as much time weight training as I did running.

In fact, that’s what struck me today. While training in 2016, my mileage was lower than most years in the past, ranging from 35-60 miles per week – including when marathon training. I’d cap my runs to 5X per week – no more, and 2 total rest days. I also spent a ton of time lifting heavy in the gym – upper and lower body – 2-3X per week for each. And for me, that combination lead to two of my three fastest marathons ever, within a 6-month span, and minimal aches and pains and no injuries.

And not only did the above combination work for me, I made myself be incredibly smart and conservative when hopping into any other races. Did I miss out on some incredible race opportunities this year in NYC? Absolutely. Did I have regrets or FOMO? Sure. And peer pressure is a bitch. But somehow I stuck to my guns, and my goals were clear. And so I didn’t add anything potentially harmful to the big goals.

Not every runner can spend hours in a gym. Or many simply don’t want to or refuse to prioritize their time. I get it. If you are very busy and love to run, you want to spend your free hour running – not in the weight room or on an elliptical. You want to be outside in the open air. I can totally relate. However, if you start to think about the longevity of your running career, and the specificity of your goals, you may start to view your training and choices a little differently.

So when you hit your off season, whenever that might be, I encourage you to take a hard look at your running and training history, and how your body has responded. Are you healthy? What hurts and why? Were your time goals achieved? How do you mentally feel? Listen, learn, and adapt.

Building Base for a Better Race

Models: Pipko and Jasmina, Assisted by Jesse Rosenthal and Andrea HeapIt’s the time of year when runners signing up and tackling Autumn half marathons and marathons are thinking about their training and goals. It’s an exciting time. The impossible could become possible. Minds and bodies are fresh. You are likely pumped and ready to dive into training!

There are a few important things to consider before you get to “official” training – the 16-20 weeks pre-race.

  • For 3-6 weeks, carefully and methodically build base mileage. The miles should be taken at a comfortable, conversational pace. There are no “long runs” yet, and you are not clocking speedy track workouts or hill repeats. That will come with time. Base mileage is necessary for priming and preparing the body for the demands and stress of those intense workouts. Skipping base mileage will raise injury risk.
  • If you are planning to lose any weight between now and your Autumn race, tackle those pesky pounds now – not while in the trenches of training. While it could be tempting to try to drop weight when mileage is high and peaked, that’s also when your body will need and use every calorie you consume. Skimping on calories and nutrition during hard training can raise injury risk, lower your immune system, and leave your training feeling slow and sluggish.
  • If you are looking to add strength training, cross training, or any other forms of physical activities to aid your race goals, get that started during base mileage. That way you aren’t tossing the new stress of weight training and track workouts to your body at the same time.
  • Get a physical. It’s optimal to check your health and lab work at this time. This way if you feel ill during training, you know what you started with and have a comparison.
  • Take a vacation. You’ll go into training rested. it’s a challenge to train well while on a vacation. Try to also eliminate any huge stresses you foresee occurring during training.

Remember that while big goals are awesome and hugely motivating, it’s risky to put all your eggs in one basket. Be sure to have an A, B, and C goal for that big day. That way if things unravel, you can keep your focus on the course. It’s never too early to think about those goals, how attainable they may be, and how you’ll get there!

The Runner and the Gym

img_6834-editIf you are avid runner, there’s a good chance that all you do is run – little or no time is spent stretching, weight training, or cross training. And let’s face it – when you are short on time, it’s common to only get done what feels necessary – for many of us that means those miles towards race training. The old school thought was that runners simply needed to run in order to improve. Some coaches and runners still practice that method, but many of us are fans of runners doing other things too. In this blog I am going to give you the rundown on why I as a coach and athlete am a fan in runners weight training, stretching and cross training. I am going to ask you to be open-minded and to remember that no two bodies are the same.

  • In order to improve as a runner, you must run. There is no real substitute for running, and so you will spend most of your training time pounding the pavement.
  • Runners often develop extremely strong bodies, but rarely balanced. This imbalance is often what leads to injury.
  • Running tends to tighten the human body’s hips, muscles, and sometimes compromises range of motion. Even if you don’t notice your range of motion changing, a tight hip may slightly change your stride, causing potential pain or problems anywhere in the body from your hip to your toes. We are rarely designed to be 100% even on both sides, and very few of us are ambidextrous. We usually favor one side of our bodies. When doing something extremely repetitive like running, those imperfections often come out.
  • Our arms counter our legs as we run, and can be a huge source of power and strength on the race course. Totally ignoring your upper body means your arms won’t be as strong as they could be, or in balance with our heavy, strong legs. Weight training and strengthening your body from the waist and up will give you the strength and power you’ll need for PRs.
  • Our arms and legs swing from our core. Ignoring your core (front and back) means you won’t have a strong anchor. With a strong core, your entire body will feel like a harmonious running machine. You’ll be less likely to sink into your hips, collapse your shoulders, and fall apart on the race course.
  • Weight training should work in harmony with your training. Lift heavy, 2-3 times per week, ideally on your hard run days, a few hours after your hard run. Be sure to refuel with a protein-dense snack after your workout.
  • Weight training your legs will give you power, and ideally balance your body. That forward motion with running doesn’t tax or legs evenly. Becoming strong all the way around will prevent injuries due to imbalance in strength.
  • Cross training is a great way to get in some active recovery. Swap in some time cross training (swim, bike, row, stair climb, elliptical) for an easy run day. Some time away from the pavement, while flushing out your legs is a great way to prevent minor aches and pains from getting worse.
  • Every runner is different. Some runners can simply go out and run, and never experience pain, injuries or weakness. Many of us, however, benefit from not only running, but instead focusing on total body strength and wellness.

Think of the big picture – not just this season. In a prefect world, you want to stay injury-free for decades of running.

Ultra Update

The weeks and months leading up to a big race are sometimes the most exciting months you can experience. It’s like waiting for potential college acceptance letters to arrive in the mail, or the anticipation of a birthday party or Christmas for a child. However, unlike those exciting events, the weeks leading up to a goal race include lots of training, hard work, and focus. There is no sitting back and waiting for the big day. Instead, you are actively pursuing your goals.

Two years ago, when I was training for the Back on My Feet 20 in 24, fear of the unknown drove me to train. Having never attempted a 24-hour race before, the unknown can light a fire of fear under one’s ass. You expect race day to hurt, to be hard, and to be something you are hopefully prepared for – thanks to your training. This time around, I know my weaknesses in this kind of race. Perhaps I should be even more scared this time around because now I know how badly I can fall apart, but I am strangely confident in what needs to be done between now and July 19th. I know I need to put in a lot of work, and instead of fearing the pain and fatigue, I welcome it. I welcome the challenge of staying focused and of playing with hydration and fueling. Instead of being driven by fear, and I am driven by redemption.

Two years ago I was training like a reckless runner. Slamming my legs on the track once per week, powering through tempo runs once per week, clocking 50-mile weekends, and peaking at 80+ mile weeks. My body was stressed too hard too frequently. Aches and pains became an issue, especially in my left ankle. I would ice it or rest it for a day, and then take it for a spin on the track. For my body, it was simply too much. This time around, I am not on the track and am not running many tempo runs. My fastest miles have been on par with my slowest at the Philly Marathon. I have realized and learned from my own experiences that if I want my mileage to comfortably hit 80-100 mile weeks, I simply cannot be running any of those miles hard. The lesson here is that if we learn from our mistakes, those mistakes are worth making.

While I still have eight weeks before the big day to make progress, there’s obviously the chance that between now and then some aches and pains could creep back in. However, as of the day this blog goes up, I feel pretty darn good. No ankle pain, no heel pain, and the IT band that sometimes acts up seems to loosen and relax a few miles into my runs. It has taken me a long time, but I am finally looking at the challenge of an Ultra like an Ultra runner – not a mid-distance or marathon runner. I am hoping that mental shift and change in training is what will make the difference.

I encourage you to try new race distances and new challenges, but to also realize that every distance and challenge presents its own unique problems, requirements, and adaptions in your physical and mental training. This can be exciting, fun and fresh. It also requires some caution, trial and error.

Stretch It Out

I was recently requested by a friend of mine who is new to running to write a blog about stretching. Since I am here to help, I am happy to write a blog that will hopefully help and clarify your stretching needs and questions.

Runners often lose flexibility. This is because the activity doesn’t require a huge range of motion, and as your muscles, ligaments and tendons adapt and strengthen for running, they shorten and tighten. Interestingly enough, being super flexible can actually be problematic for runners, since loose and flexible body parts can lead to injury. Think about it, there isn’t the tightness/strength that tightness provides. Being too tight isn’t good either, as rang of motion can become limited and can lead to injuries too.

The happy medium? Stretch, but don’t go overboard. Forcing flexibility is never good, and is especially bad for runners. I have clients to swear by incorporating pilates and yoga into their weekly training – which is awesome. However, if you are in a yoga class five days a week AND running, you may need to be careful.

For those of us who are not avid yogis or dancers, here’s my advice for maintaining flexibility and keeping those legs mobile.

Always warm up before your run. If your run is easy, the run itself is enough of a warmup. If you are doing speed work, get those legs moving slowly for 5-10 minutes first. You do NOT need to stretch pre-workout. Some coaches/trainers believe stretching pre-workout is actually dangerous. Just food for thought.

Post-workout, cool down with a jog if you were running hard. Again, if you were running easy miles, a cool down is not necessary. Get in the habit of stretching as soon as you finish your run, as muscles will cool and tighten quickly.

Target stretching these major muscle groups: quads, hamstrings, IT band and calf muscles/Achilles. If you need advice as to HOW to stretch, I suggest looking online, or I can answer that for you.

Don’t over-stretch. It shouldn’t be excruciatingly painful. Hold stretches for about 30 seconds, and do not forget to breathe!

While stretching, this is a good time to get some protein into your body. Refueling ASAP will help those muscles recover quickly, and can help ward off soreness. I’m a fan of chocolate milk or Greek yogurt. (See my previous post on Refueling!)

**** If you find you have pain in one spot (one hip, for example), you may need to pay attention to your running form, and potentially see a PT. Sore pain, which occurs after working hard and building muscle is a very different kind of pain compared to a tight IT band, hip pain, etc.