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.

Setting Goals, Assessing Weaknesses, and Moving Forward

Last week I posted about the importance of the off season. Today I want to personally share how I handled my off season, and what lessons I learned about myself as an athlete in my latest marathon cycle, and how I’ll plan to make changes in the future. It’s important to understand that our bodies will adapt and change to anything we toss at it – with time, consistency, and a solid combination of work and recovery. It’s always easier to be the coach than the athlete, and I’ve worn both hats for myself for the last few years. While I know my body and my strengths and weaknesses, it’s not without its challenges.

Frankfurt Marathon Training: In Spring I dealt with my first injury in 5 years. I have a heel spur in my left foot that became irritated, and plantar fasciitis stemmed from that heel. They were essentially one big issue. While I ordered special orthotics, put my foot through electrotherapy (not pleasant nor cheap!), and did everything I could, I was also asked to stop running at full body weight. So with Frankfurt, my goal marathon, waiting in the wings on October 29th, I knew the clock was ticking. I ran the entire month of June at 50-80% of my body weight on the Alter-G at Finish Line PT. The monthly membership there was beyond worth it. I was able to run – which I needed physically and mentally. In July, 15 weeks from marathon day, I was given the green light to run outside. I had 15 weeks to go from base mileage on an Alter-G, to chasing down a PR. There were times my foot still hurt leading up to Frankfurt, but at least I knew how to manage it. With a pretty short window of time, I decided to be conservative with mileage. My highest mileage week was maybe 45 miles. My longest run, 20-milers. I supplemented my training with 5-7 hours of weight training per week.

Frankfurt Marathon Reflections: Moving forward, I’d ideally have had a few more weeks of official training, and some time to build solid base mileage outside. That’s my hope for my fall 2018 goal. Also, if I’m honest about my weaknesses, I fell apart late on the course. The weather was tough, and that made me lose my head game. However, my body was capable of more than I accomplished out there – even in those conditions. Therefore, some longer long runs (21-23-milers), and some more negative-split/progressive long runs are what I’ll need to develop a stronger mental space for those late miles. I’ll also plan to increase weekly mileage a bit for next fall. I know I’m not a high mileage athlete, but I think I can add a bit more and still feel healthy and strong.

The Off Season: I’m incredibly disciplined as an athlete. Despite the fun foods I post on IG (and don’t get me wrong – I love all foods!), I also track everything I consume – the good, the bad – I track it all. I’m also disciplined with my training. I can eat a lot because most of the time I burn a lot. I’m training 2 hours per day, on average. That buys me a lot of extra calories. But during the last 4 weeks, I’ve allowed myself to relax. In fact, while in Mexico for a week’s vacation, I didn’t track a single calorie or activity. For the first time in a VERY long time, I gave myself a guilt-free, no rules, do what you want, vacation. I ordered guacamole with everything. I inhaled corn chips like it was my job. I ordered margaritas and buckets of beer without hesitation. It. Was. Fabulous. The month of November had minimal training (some lifting in the gym and minimal mileage), and I tried to really relax, reflect on my training, my accomplishments and my weaknesses, and how to better train and race in 2018.

Moving Forward: So after a training cycle that, despite the bumps along the way, still lead to a marathon PR, I have reflected, rested, and am ready to get back to work. I have no idea how much weight I’ve gained in the last 4 weeks. I refuse to weigh myself right now. I should be focused purely on the training and adapting. Race weight isn’t the focus at this time. But my mind is ready, and my body feels recovered from the marathon – and that’s what’s most important.

My goal race for early 2018 is the Saint and Sinners Half, in Nevada. I ran it last year, set a 6+ minute PR, and won. This year I am going back and hoping to break 1:20. That’s a blazing 6:05 minute mile average. I could NEVER do that on the average half marathon course. But this one is 1200 ft. net downhill, and I run downhill really well. You better believe I’ll be getting my quads and calves ready. I’ll then run Boston Marathon. No goals in time for that right now. I will simply see where my fitness is after the half. I may offer to pace a friend or team mate. I’m not putting any pressure on Boston. Last year I neglected the recovery necessary after the half, and I think that’s what began to cause my foot issues. I won’t make that mistake again. After Boston, I’ll plan for a little off season, and then gear up for a fall 2018 marathon. Right now I’m seriously considering Saint George Marathon. It’s known for its 2000+ net downhill, and being a beautiful course. Again, downhill races aren’t without their challenges. But I know how to train for that and I think that would be a great course for breaking 3 hours. But for now, my eye is on the Half in February. I have 12 weeks.

Advice for You: Above you can see how I’ve handled and structured my goals. As you look towards 2018, space out your goal races in a realistic manner. We cannot do everything. Give your body TIME. Rushing into something, especially a marathon, can be quite risky. Assess your strengths and weaknesses. What should you focus on this year? Put together an organized plan, hire a coach, or find a running club. A clear plan will reduce injury risk and help with motivation and consistency. Lastly, take and embrace the off season. You will come back better.

 

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.

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.

Training Specificity

img_6298-editWhen planning your running season, it’s tempting to choose a bunch of varying goals. I love when runners have an array of goals and events. The challenge is often spacing them out in a way that is safe and realistic. Most of us are running for personal glory or fun, not a qualifying time or prize at the finish line. However, it can become quite hard to plan a season when it involves broad goals.

I LOVE when runners come to me with a variety of goals: PRs in the 1 mile and Half Marathon within the year, for example. Are those two VERY different goals? Absolutely! Will they need different kinds of preparation? Yes. Is it impossible? No.

Here’s the thing: the better you want to get at one distance, the more you need to structure your training for that goal. Specificity and reason for training become crucial when targeting a goal. But when you have multiple goals, it’s often necessary to slightly release on the gas for that first goal in order to accommodate the other goals. Many times you will be successful at nailing multiple goals if they complement one another.

For example, say you really want to focus on the 5K this year and want to shave down some considerable time. Placing some 10K races or 1-mile races into the calendar can be of benefit to that 5K goal, all while having fun and going out to race. The bonus is that you may find you also PR in the 1-mile and 10K, because the speed training for a 5K will probably benefit those distances, too. But trying to PR a 5K in the same season you want to tackle a 100-miler – now that’s where things get tricky. For one thing, injury risk will usually go up when you start combining very high mileage and speed workouts into every week. Not that it can’t be done, but for many of us these waters are hard to navigate.

The important thing for most runners to keep in mind and think about is how to achieve their goals while staying healthy, and to list which races are the priority that season. If you stay healthy, perhaps some goals need to be held off for the following year. We need to remember to look at the big picture: races will be there. You can be too, if you don’t do something stupid and put yourself on the injured list.

This is often where a coach comes in handy. It also becomes necessary to be honest with yourself. You know how you recover. You also know if your body naturally prefers certain distances or types of training over others. You should use your years of experience to help access and navigate what’s best for you. Take a look at the entire calendar year, and be sure to budget time for rest and recovery before hopping into training for the next goal the minute to cross the finish line.