How to be a better runner #toughlove

Time and time again I will have athletes ask me about what running workouts they need to become a better, more successful runner. While I agree how you train from a running perspective is very important to your success, there are a few other factors that should be seen as important (or arguably more so) to your success.

First of all, let’s be clear. Running is not just running. Somehow, somewhere, along the way someone got the idea in their head that running is a simple sport because “all you need is shoes” and then spread that as the truth. #fakenews! What they neglected to acknowledge is that your body is literally your equipment when you run. Just like any other sport, if you don’t invest in good equipment or maintenance of that equipment, your performance is going suffer and eventually that equipment may completely fail you leaving you broken and disappointed. Sure, some people have more natural ability, but without cultivating that talent and a strong body to support it, loads of potential is going to be missed.

Building a sustainably successful runner

The average runner takes 160-170 steps per minute. For a 10 minute mile, that is about 1650 steps. Each step is essentially a tiny single leg hop forward in which a single leg takes the load of the entire body with a force of 3-5 times your bodyweight. Do that math for a second. Take your bodyweight and multiply that by 3 and then by 5. That is the force that just one of your legs needs to stabilize in an instant, while in motion. (And the faster you run, the more rapidly your body needs to respond to stabilize and propel you forward.)  Shoes can help with the impact, but if your body isn’t properly conditioned and efficient you are going to end up with not just some performance leakage, but some pretty angry body parts from being banged up, as well. Your body needs to be strong enough to stabilize with good posture and propel you forward and you also need to have enough flexibility and joint mobility for your body to go through a full range of motion. It is a complex chain of events that happen structurally and responsively when you run.

So to be a sustainably successful runner, you need to be considering more than your running workouts. Here are the top things that you should consider and be working on:

  • Posture/Form
  • Range of Motion (Flexibility and Mobility)
  • Strength
  • Muscle activation

The first two are going to have an influence on the bottom two and vice versa. If you do not have proper form or range of motion throughout your stride, you are not going to get proper muscle activation and the strength that comes from those muscles. If your muscles aren’t strong enough or are not activating, you are not going to be able to maintain proper form or propel through the range of motion needed for an efficient stride and to protect your body from injury. To add insult to injury, every time you go out for a run your body is looking for shortcuts which could reinforce muscle weakness and activation issues. Long duration aerobic/cardio also increases the stress hormone “cortisol” which causes the body to break down of muscle of fuel as well as increases fat accumulation leading to less strong, “skinny fat” runners. (Not a fan of the term “skinny fat” but it is appropriate in this case.) A runner needs to in many ways counteract the damage they are potentially doing with their running to help support their running. It’s an important cycle that shouldn’t be ignored.

Making the investment

I hear it over and again…

“I haven’t had time to focus on my strength work.”
“I haven’t had time for stretching or rolling.”
“I don’t understand mobility work so I’m not doing it.”
“Things have been crazy so I could only get my runs in this week.”

First of all, if you aren’t getting in all this “other” critical work, you are not training properly. Period. If all you are doing is running, you are figuratively–and quite possibly literally if you have glute activation issues–half a**ing it. Let me say that another way. IF YOU ARE ONLY RUNNING AND SKIPPING THE REST OF THE WORK, YOU ARE NOT TRAINING PROPERLY. #toughlove If you want to be a successful runner with a sustainable “career”–recreational or otherwise–you must put in ALL of the work.

Now I know some are probably thinking “I don’t want to gain weight with strength training” or “I don’t want to add to my recovery time with strength training” or some other nonsensical excuse. As long as you are not training and/or eating like a bodybuilder, you are not going to bulk up. (Just think about all the effort that they put into that!) The importance of diet during training is a topic for another day, but adding muscle is actually going to help you be more lean by boosting your metabolism and helping to burn more fat. As for the recovery time, well, that is why periodization is important and you should definitely take into consideration how you approach strength training based on your training cycles. During base and off-season you should be focusing more on strength and as you get into peak training your strength training should be less of a focus and less intense, but also not completely ignored. During non-peak training you are looking to increase strength and build that engine stronger. During peak training you are looking to maintain strength and remain injury free. Mobility and muscle activation work will not have significant recovery time and should be a focus year round.

Successful runners are self-disciplined

We all know those runners who never miss a workout. Those dedicated and disciplined runners who get up before dawn to run in inclimate conditions. I define discipline as doing things you don’t want to do with as much consistency and drive as you put into the things you want to do. It doesn’t take any discipline to do something you want to do every day. It takes discipline to make the decision and follow through on all that stuff you like to de-prioritize then pass off as a victim of a busy schedule or compromise for/at a social event. For example, it takes discipline to get your run in when the weather isn’t ideal or your schedule is cramped or you are just so dang tired from all the work you have put in. It also takes discipline to get off the couch after a long day or avoid it after a long run so you can get in some mobility work or roll. It takes discipline to get your butt to the gym and do all that stuff that hurts and you hate. It takes discipline to skip that other more enjoyable activity for the time you need to dedicate to the work that you don’t enjoy as much.

At the end of the day, you have to be disciplined in all aspects of your training, not just your running workouts. And trust me, no one can motivate you day after day for any length of time without your commitment and drive–your own discipline. In my opinion, YOU have to be the one to driving your success 98-99% of the time. Your coach and support network can be there to help motivate you that 1-2% of the time that you are unable to do it for yourself. This type of self-discipline can be a very good indicator of mental strength. If you can’t push yourself to do 10 minutes of mobility work a day, how do you expect to push through a tough run when you are actually physically in pain? Learning how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable is so valuable as a runner and just in life in general.

DO. Or do not. There is no try.

In the grand scheme of things, the things you need to be focusing on outside of your running shouldn’t add much time to your calendar if you integrate wisely with respect to your periodization. In my opinion these things do not get de-prioritized because of lack of time. Excuses are made because you don’t have the discipline or don’t think it is as valuable as whatever else you are spending your time doing. #toughlove

For muscle activation, mobility, flexibility, and self care like massage and foam rolling, you don’t need much to see benefit–you really just need a consistent practice. For strength/conditioning work, sure, a couple of hours a week would be ideal, but if you are doing absolutely nothing now 10-20 minutes a day or even every other day of bodyweight exercises could have benefit as a start. Some of this stuff is stuff you can do on the floor in front of your TV, on a break by your desk, or you can incorporate it into pre and post workout routines. The key is spending your time on things that will benefit you most. If you aren’t sure what that is most runners could use work on their glute and hip strength and associated mobility. The core is also super important and a no regrets place to focus on. Ankles, feet, and calves can also be a good place to start. Create a simple routine (or find one online) and be consistent with it for 3 weeks before changing it up. This gives your body enough time to adapt and build strength.

I think the most important and challenging aspect of being a runner is learning, accepting, and embracing the need to stop solely looking to your running workouts on the track, your long run, or your weekly mileage for success. Whether you want to be a sustainably successful runner or just want to PR that next race, you are selling yourself short if you are trying to get there by only running. To train smart, train STRONG.

Further reading

How’s your running body?

To make it to the next level, strength training is a must

Strength training for runners: How to do it right

 

 

Let’s talk nutrition

Recently I have had a few athletes mention to me that they are interested in losing a little weight while training. As a coach, my perspective is that athletes need to be cautious when trying to lose weight and train and my main concern is that you as an athlete are supporting your body for all the work you are putting in. Your focus should be health, not the scale in most cases.

Obligatory disclaimer:  I am not a doctor and none of this should be interpreted as prescribing a certain diet or supplements. You should always consult with your physician before beginning any supplementation or dietary regimen!

Okay, so now that we have gotten that out of the way…

The importance of calories

First and foremost, you need to be sure to be getting enough quality nutritional calories. You want to make sure that you are losing fat and not muscle which is what is going to happen if you cut your calories too much. One of the best ways to ensure you are getting the right amount of calories is to track your food. In my experience, this has been the most effective way for me to lean down. Using a platform like MyFitnessPal will also allow you to track you macros (protein, carbohydrates “carbs”, fat) and your micros (vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients). The amount of calories you need is personal to you and you can find many online calculators including in MyFitnessPal to help you determine what your baseline is and figure caloric expenditure for your different activities.

Macronutrients

Once you get the calorie thing figured out, you are going to want to focus on your macros. There are many schools of thought on macros. I’ve done the standard USDA recommendations, high protein/fat and low carb, high carb. In the end, I think somewhere between 55-65% carbs, 25-35% fat, and 15-25% protein is where you will likely want to be. Focus on more protein when you are doing more strength, stamina, and speed so you can repair and build muscle. Focus on a little more carbs when you are in your endurance phase. And of course, don’t forget the fiber to keep things moving! For all of your nutrition it is best to be getting these things in the least processed form–meaning REAL food. And for your carbs particularly, you should be focusing on complex carbs–quinoa, beans, lentils, oatmeal, brown rice–not simple and refined carbs. And for the record, alcoholic beverages do not constitute a quality carbohydrate. Don’t validate your post-run beer as your carb replenishment. You still need quality carbs.

Micronutrients

Okay, so now you know about macros. What about micros? Should you be supplementing? Well, that depends. I recommend tracking your typical diet for a few days then starting to make some changes to get your macros in the right zones. Then take a look at your micros. What are you deficient in on a rolling (few day) basis? Can you make some more slight adjustments to get you to where you need to be? If the answer is no–and it may be based on what food you are able to eat or have access to–then you may want to consider a supplement. If you do choose to supplement, you should be choosing quality supplements and discussing them with your doctor.

Minerals

For micros, I want you to be paying particular attention to your minerals–calcium, magnesium, and iron–especially the ladies. Women tend to be deficient in these and they are super important for runners. Guys, you need to be aware, too. For iron, I eat a medium rare steak or burger once a week. You can also get iron from other sources if you aren’t into that type of thing. It is really important that you are getting your iron from food and not a supplement so pay particular attention to this one and adjust your diet. For your calcium, if you are like me and can’t do dairy it can be a challenge. I do supplement with a quality, nutritionist prescribed supplement. Calcium is super important because as we add more stress to your bones they are going to be doing something called remodeling. Your body needs calcium to do that. If you are not getting enough calcium, you are putting yourself at risk for a stress reaction or fracture!

Calcium has a best frenemy–magnesium. I say frenemy because you need calcium and magnesium in balance with each other, BUT you shouldn’t take them at the same time because they impact the absorption of each other. It’s super important that you are paying attention to this balance because while calcium is in there helping to build some bones it is also likes to party a little bit and can cause inflammation unless you send in magnesium to calm it down and to tell it is drunk and to go home. One of my favorite ways to send in some magnesium is through epsom salt baths. It is absorbed through the skin AND you get a nice little relaxing treat. Be aware that magnesium also likes to party a little–in your bowels. Too much of magnesium could have you catching up on some reading, if you know what I mean.

Vitamins

Are you still with me? We just have a little more to go… vitamins! A through K to be exact. You should be getting most of these with a balanced diet. One that you may need to supplement with seasonally is D. D is calcium’s best friend and is needed for your bones. It also helps keep your immune system strong which is important because your immune system becomes depressed as you accumulate training load. (Remember that cold you got during or right after marathon training?) You get vitamin D from sun exposure–10 minutes of direct high sun on your full body a few times per week is what you need. Unfortunately for those of us in places that get cold during the winter, we may end up seasonally deficient. D is actually what is responsible Seasonal Affective Disorder or Winter blues.

B6 and B12 are also important vitamins for runners as they help with metabolism, energy, and play a role in hemoglobin / red blood cell production. RBCs/hemoglobin are the little guys responsible for oxygen delivery from the lungs to your body’s tissues so they are super important! B6 is available in a variety of foods, but B12 is found mostly in meat and eggs. It also found in seaweed and some fermented foods. If you are a vegetarian or don’t eat much meat you should be looking to fortified foods (cereals) for your B12 intake.

Natural anti-inflammatories

Lastly, I will say that anything you can eat to help reduce inflammation is going to be great for your runner’s body. I do a quality Omega 3-6-9 supplement and try to eat plenty of ginger. Turmeric can also be good for inflammation and it is recommended to take it with black pepper to help with absorption.

The scale

It would be remiss to not point out that the pounds on your scale do not tell the whole story. Lean mass (muscle, organs, blood, bones, skin), body fat, and hydration play a role in what your scale reads and are all important considerations. I’ll use myself as an example.

When I ran my marathon in 2015, I weighed 128 pounds and was about 24-25% body fat according to my body fat scale. This is about 97 pounds of lean body mass. Last summer while I was training, my weight was 135 pounds and again I was about 24-25% body fat. My lean mass was 102 pounds. This means I put on about 5 pounds of lean mass which we can assume was mostly muscle. My weight now is about 145 pounds and I am about 28-29% body fat. That puts my lean mass at 104 pounds. As an aside, on any given day my weight fluctuates between 143-145 based on when I weigh which accounts for fluctuations in hydration and glycogen stores. I always go with the higher number because that reflects good hydration and glycogen storage. So at 145 pounds, if I wanted to get back down to 24%-25% body fat and keep my 104 pounds lean mass, my target weight would be 138 pounds–10 pounds more than my marathon weight of 128 pounds. If I were just to take into account the scale and lose down to 128 pounds again, I would be giving up 7 pounds of hard earned muscle (lean mass)! And for those of you who are curious, I haven’t bought a whole new wardrobe since the marathon. I’ve sized up in some of my slim fit pants, but now if I get comments on my appearance they are about how fit and strong I look. #strongnotskinny

In review

  • Consult with your doctor before you any supplementation or dietary regimen
  • Focus on health not the weight
  • Make sure to account for the calorie expenditure of your activities
  • Make sure you are getting the right balance of macronutrients including fiber
  • Be sure to be getting quality nutrition including complex carbs
  • Make sure you are getting enough iron from real foods
  • You need to be getting enough calcium AND magnesium
  • Consider supplementing with vitamin D during the winter according to your sun exposure
  • Keep an eye on your B6 and B12. B12 is especially a consideration for vegetarians who need to eat fortified or fermented foods to get this vitamin.
  • Anti-inflammatory foods can be a good consideration for a runner’s diet
  • Don’t rely on the scale to tell the whole story

I’m a legit mutant. Where are my superpowers?

This post could also be titled, “How planning to run a marathon may have saved my life.” And by saving my life, I mean literally not figuratively. I debated whether to even share this publicly, but this IS a part of my journey–a part of the distance that I will need to travel.

Last week I got results from my pre-marathon blood screening back. Included in that was a test for a gene mutation which my mother carries and her doctors think directly contributed to her inexplicable stroke at 52. I tested positive for two copies. It’s confirmed — I’m a mutant. This type of mutation doesn’t give me super powers, though. I won’t be sporting a uni-tard and flying around the city fighting crime any time soon. There is no power with my mutation, but there IS great responsibility.

What I have is a MTHFR mutation. Without boring you with the science, what this basically means is that my body isn’t able properly perform an essential process called methylation which my body uses to clear all kinds of nasties including metals, histamines, and other toxins like chemicals. Wait, back up… Histamines? You mean those things that cause allergic reactions?! Yes, those things. Those little meanies that I have been fighting for the past several years. Additionally, this going unchecked can lead to all kinds of horribly scary conditions–heart attack, stroke (blood clots), Alzheimer’s, dementia, breast cancer, hypothyroidism and the list goes on–many of which my family members have been diagnosed with or passed from. Eek. It can also cause many of my symptoms some of which I have had most of my life, others that have made me really miserable for the past few years. Things like chronically low b12, chronic fatigue, reactions to gluten and dairy, reactions to chemicals like in cleaners and soaps, slow recovery and increased injury from intense exercise, brain fog, insomnia, IBS, high stress, premature greying, and the list continues but I won’t bore you.

So what does this mean? Well, in terms of lifestyle changes, not much for me. An organic, paleo diet is recommended.  I will have to watch out for foods with added folic acid (like big brand orange juice) as my body can’t process it. I will have to continue to be conscious of chemicals in my environment as my body has trouble clearing toxins from my system. (Quitting hair coloring and not wearing make-up most of the time was a smart decision!) Since my body has trouble ridding itself of heavy metals, I may need to do detoxes to help it out. I will likely need to practically eliminate any alcohol consumption. Sleep, sun, and moderate exercise are all encouraged. (Oh darn!) As are saunas and massages which help remove toxins and stimulate that methylation process. (Double darn!) All of this is stuff excluding the saunas and massages I am pretty much already doing so it’s not really that big of a lifestyle change. Additionally, based on my variation, I will likely be put on an active form of folate and B12 since my body can’t create those. Once my body receives those active forms my methylation should improve and my body will start to clear some of my built up nasties. Getting the dosage correct can be tricky so that may take a little time and there is chance I will feel pretty crappy during that time period as my body starts to try to clear years of built up toxins.

But what does this mean for my running? I can’t find much online, but everything I have found points to moderate exercise being okay but “intense exercise like marathon running” not being okay. I’m certainly not going to make any decisions based on Dr. Google, though! I will be discussing this with my doctors starting next week when I visit a hematologist to discuss proper supplementation. I’m hoping the fact that I don’t plan to BQ or even really push my pace in the race (I’m just aiming to finish) will mean it will be okay. Regardless of what happens, though, my health comes first.

So that’s it, in a nutshell. I’m relieved to have discovered what could be the cause of many of my health problems and that relief may be around the corner. I’m a little scared about the bigger things this mutation can cause. But mostly, I’m grateful. I’m grateful that because of this thing I love (running), I may be able to change my fate. I may be able to avoid some of the things that have plagued my family. I may be able to get relief from symptoms that I have been dealing with for most of my life. So let’s be very clear here: This isn’t a pity party, this is a moment of gratitude.

I will update this blog in regards to how this mutation affects my running and other adventures. As I said before, this is now a part of the distance I will need to travel. Challenge accepted.

For the love of running

Once upon a time

I ran a little cross country in the milers club in elementary school. I never really got into it seriously and I wasn’t particularly good at it. When my family moved to a different city in 5th grade, I didn’t pursue running or softball which I had played for many years. Instead my focus turned to dance and eventually digital arts. After high school, I didn’t do much stay active. By 2009, I was overweight and trying to slim down. I tried to run a few times in September of 2009, but quit because of chest pain. (Even though a cardiologist had told me I was fine to run with my slight arrhythmia.) I was finally able to drop the extra weight in 2010 with diet and moderate cardio.

Cross-Country in First Grade
That’s me with in the red shorts with the goofy stride. Form was obviously not my forte.
Weight Loss
Christmas 2009 and March 2013

In April of 2011 I moved to New York City. For the first few months of living in the city, I suffered from knee pain because of all the walking that had been added to my life. I was trim, but I wasn’t fit. As Summer started to turn to Fall that year, I started to toy with the idea of running again. My best friend was running and doing some pretty cool races and my knees seemed to have adapted to the walking. So on September 8th of 2011, I headed out for a run.

A vicious cycle

My first run was horrible. I wasn’t even fit enough to run a full block. I did almost 4 miles that day, though, in run/walk intervals. My best friend expressed her concern with my bold inaugural run and lack of proper shoes. So I bought a pair of Brooks Ghosts and started Couch to 5K. I also set a first goal race for December of that year. I won’t bore anyone with the details, but suffice it to say that I wasn’t ready for that race. It would take almost 16 months and three more races before I could run a full 5K. It was 16 months of a vicious cycle — slow progress and injury setback. It constantly felt like one step forward and two steps back. I could only run 2x a week, had to run super slow, had to wear a knee brace, and even that didn’t guarantee my knees wouldn’t act up. After the first 5K I was able to run the entire distance in March of 2013, I gave up running. My knees just didn’t seem to want to do it and I would be able to end on a high note. I was heartbroken, but resigned myself to the fact that being able to walk at 60 was more important than a hobby.

Jingle Bell Jog 2011
My first race in December 2011. I had to walk most of it, but ran through the finish. Obviously form was still not my forte.
Spring Fling 5K
After the first 5K I was able to run entirely. March 2013. I felt invincible. Until I tried to return to training and my knees disagreed.

A new love and old unite

Around the same time as that last 5K and me quitting running, I took up a new hobby–indoor rock climbing. For the next few months I was at the rock climbing gym several times a week. I was horrible at it, but I loved it. It was mental and physical and social and everything I wanted in a sport. But by mid-Summer, I was missing running. I decided to give it one last very conservative try. I restarted Couch to 5K on July 26th of 2013. I also signed up for a race at the end of September.

I was amazed at the difference this time around. Something had happened. My knees weren’t as angry. Eventually I was able to start running 3x a week albeit at very low mileage (<5mi/week). By September I felt good enough to sign up for a few more races. I wasn’t running fast, but I was running. And I started to put two-and-two together. My climbing had made me strong enough to run.

2013 Tunnel to Towers 5k
Feeling strong after the Tunnel to Towers race in September 2013. The race started in Brooklyn and ran through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to Lower Manhattan and ended at the World Trade Center.
2013 Get to the Point! 5K
At a neighborhood race a few weeks after the Tunnel to Towers race. It wasn’t long after this that I was able to run without my knee brace.

Finally, a runner

I continued to run through the end of the year, eventually ditching the knee brace. I picked up a Garmin watch and heart rate monitor in December (2013) and planned to do base training through the Winter. By Spring, I was running 3x week up to 2-3 miles at a time. My weekly mileage was still pretty low at 5-6 miles per week, but I wasn’t really training for anything either. So I signed up for a race–The Front Runner’s 5 mile Pride Run on June 28, 2014. The distance seemed out of reach, but I figured I could always run/walk to complete it.

I found a 10 week training plan and passionately focused on my new goal. I supplemented my running with rock climbing a few times a week and 20 minutes of yoga after every run. I had also incorporated some PT exercises for my knees. Again, I wasn’t running fast, but I was running. I was adding miles and staying healthy. I couldn’t believe it. I completed the race and for the first time, I felt like a REAL runner. After I got home from the race, I immediately signed up for a 10 mile race at the end of September.

2014 Bridge Run
Training for the 5 mile race with some bridge running.
2014 Front Runners 5M Pride Run
Before and after the 5 mile race. I ran well enough for the first 4 miles that I was able to really kick at the end.