Dec 30, 2014

Finding the Right Balance

During the holiday season it can be very difficult to find a "happy medium" with respect to eating, sleeping, and exercising. Many of us work so hard to stay in good shape that it's a shame to loose any fitness during the holiday season. After all, we know it's Christmas time, which for most means delicious food and drink. But our body doesn't know what time of year it is. Our body reacts to food, sleep, and exercise the same on December 25th and July 25th – precisely why most of us return to work in the New Year a few pounds heavier.

From an athletic standpoint, I looked forward to the holiday season as a time to sneak in nap or two and follow my training program as closely as possible – all the while trying not to indulge too much at the dinner table. Other than having to switch a few workouts around due to a limited pool schedule and some family commitments, I've done a fairly good job of this (so far). I've gotten as much or more sleep than I'm used to, but not necessarily at the same time (of day). And my eating schedule and diet have been much less structured than normal. Both of these factors have undoubtedly affected my ability to push myself during each workout. For example, I was scheduled to complete a 60 minute run workout on Christmas day of 5 times 5 minutes at 10k pace (with 3 minutes easy in between). The only time I could fit this in was at 8am after not getting to bed until 1am. I slept until 7am to get as much sleep as possible, but did not have time to eat a proper meal prior to my run. As a result, I did complete the run, but was only able to run my targeted speed for 1 of the 5 intervals. Initially, ‎I was disappointed with my effort. However, after taking some time to consider the external factors that adversely affected my workout, this feeling of disappointment quickly left my system. Perhaps my biggest mistake regarding this workout (and others over the holidays) was unrealistic expectations.

I've enjoyed some time off with my family and friends for Christmas. However, as someone who loves routine, I’ll really looking forward to getting back into a regular schedule in the New Year! Here’s to a happy and healthy 2015!

Dec 12, 2014

Switching Gears

I've had close to three weeks to recover from the Philly Marathon and I am happy to say I do not have any injuries, which is why it’s time to switch gears! I have been focusing on the marathon for the last 3 months. As a result, I had no choice but to place swimming and biking on the “back burning” for a while. During this time I continued to swim 2-3 times per week and cycle 1-2 times per week, but most of these workouts were used as active recovery.

I have “switched gear’ (literally and figuratively) and will be focusing on improving my power on the bike over the next few months. Now that the weather has turned cold, it is almost impossible to get outside for a decent bike workout. As a result, this (below) is where I’ll be sitting for 4-5 hours per week from now until April. I am fortunate to have a few training partners to join in the suffering, which will certainly make these workout easier.

In some ways it’s nice to get a break from running. On the other hand, it’s not easy to go from running 50-60 miles per week down to 25-30. This is why it’s great to have a specific program and a coach to help me stick to the program and keep focused. After all, I was a runner first, so I think it’s only natural to want to concentrate on running as opposed to the swim and the bike.

If you know anything about triathlon you've likely heard the quote “it’s all about the bike!” This pertains to pretty much any triathlete, assuming you are comfortable in the water and on the run. The vast majority of triathletes, whether they are competing in a Sprint, Olympic, Half Ironman, or Full Ironman, will spend more than 50% of their total race time on their bike. For example, when competing at Challenge St Andrews (half iron) this past summer, I spent 55% of the time on the bike. Lisa (spouse) was completing her first half Ironman with the goal if finishing, and she too spent more than half of her time (52%) on her bike. Is it any wonder that most training programs involve you spending at least 50% of your training time on the bike?

The main priority for me will be to do my best to improve my FTP (functional threshold power), which is essentially the maximum power you are capable of pushing for one hour. A power meter is necessary in order to obtain an accurate FTP. There are several different options, including the Stages Power meter, which is what I am currently using. I’ll explain more about training with power in future blog posts.

Nov 23, 2014

The Monkey Off My Back

Today was my 7th attempt at breaking 2:50 at the marathon distance and I am happy to report that I finally got “the monkey off my back” by finishing today’s Philadelphia Marathon in 2:49:19. I chose Philadelphia because it is supposed to be one of the flattest courses in the US, and usually has good weather. It ended up being hillier than I thought it would be, but it’s certainly one of the flattest marathons I’ve run. Also, despite a pesky head wind the last 6 miles the weather was very close to perfect – 5 degrees at the start, 9 degrees at the finish, and virtually no wind for the first 20 miles.

My plan was to go out at 6:25/mile and try to maintain that pace for the entire race. Unfortunately, likely due to all the high rise buildings in downtown Philly, the GPS readings on my Garmin 910 were off from the start. I ended up averaging 6:27/mile, even though my Garmin indicated my average was 6:24/mile. That may not sound like much of a difference, but 3 seconds per mile at the marathon distance is well over a minute (enough to ruin someone’s day if they are close to their goal time). These Garmin problems would normally stress me out, but for some reason they didn’t this time. Thankfully I had written each of my target mile splits on my arm so that I could check to see where I was in relation to my goal at each mile marker.

The day didn’t start the way I had hoped. I spent most of the final 30 minutes before the start of the race in the porta potty lineup. As a result, I didn’t get a chance to warm-up. I would have been more concerned if this was prior to a 5k or 10k, but I tried not to let it get my down. I also didn’t get to the front of my corral, which meant I had to be really aggressive in the first few miles to find my goal pace. I went through the half in 1:24:41, which I was very happy with considering the slow start I had. Once the first half was behind me, and there were fewer runners on the course (the runners in the half were finishing), I could really relax and settle into my pace. Miles 13-20 felt like they went by in a flash and my body showed surprisingly no more fatigue at mile 20 then at mile 13 –likely due to the abundance of miles I did in training at/below marathon pace. That all changed when we made the turnaround at the 20 mile mark. As mentioned, wind had picked up by mile 20, and the few hills this course has are unfortunately, in the final 5-6 miles. So, I took a deep breadth, confirmed at the 21-mile mark that I was still on target to break 2:50, dug deep, and went for it. Matt (my coach), cautioned me about dropping the pace too early if I felt really good. Consequently, I focused on maintaining my pace and kept telling myself that I would try to pick up the pace at the 24-mile mark and perhaps try for sub 2:49. I attempting exactly this, but my legs had other plans. Within a few seconds I came to the conclusion that I would do good to maintain my pace over the final two miles. These 13 minutes ended up being one of the toughest stretches of running I’ve ever experienced. My heart rate rose above 170 for the first time all day (to 180 in fact) and my quads started to sieve up. However, I was able to tough it out and get the job done. I’ve learned a lot from today’s race, but what sticks out in my mind in the hours after my race is that if I want something bad enough, I will get there (it just might take 5 years J).

Nov 9, 2014

The Hay is in the Barn

It’s just about taper time for the Philly Marathon (2 weeks), and as my good friend Daniel McNeil likes to say, ‘the Hay is in the Barn.” When a runner uses this expression it is referring to that point in training when you have basically run out of time to improve your speed and endurance.  At this point, it is time to switch over from training to tapering. I’ll be able to know a lot more clearly in a few hours whether the hay is truly “in the barn” or not. As I often do 2 weeks prior to any marathon, I got up at the same time I will on race day (3 hours before my run) and am treating today like a test run for race day. I’m doing everything the same as I will on race day, other than the fact that I’m not in Philadelphia and I’m not running the full 26.2 miles.  Today’s run is 2 hours and 15 minutes, with 2 times 45 minutes at my goal marathon pace; which will work out to about 14 miles at marathon pace, and a total of about 20 miles. I have never done any more than 12 miles at marathon pace in a training run, which is why today will be such a good test.

I’ve been running marathons for close to 10 years and have learned that there are varying philosophies regarding tapering. I have tapered effectively, and not so effectively. The difficult thing is, what works for you, may not work for your training partner. For example, if you are training for a marathon at age 25 with your training partner who is 55, chances are your training partner will require a longer taper. That said, the marathon taper is a delicate balance of maintaining fitness while promoting recovery. In the past, I have experimented with taper periods ranging from 2-3 weeks. With any effective taper, there should be a gradual reduction in volume and intensity. A friend of mine, Lauchie McKinnon, who has been running marathons for over 30 years (including a personal best of 2:39) has taught me the majority of what I know about running. He has always preached, “once you hit your taper, you cannot improve your chances of success, you can only hinder them.” There is lots you can do (more sleep, proper eating, less time on your feet, etc.), but there is nothing else that can be done to improve fitness.  The trick is to know when to hit the gas pedal and switch from training to tapering. Before meeting Lauchie, I made the mistake a few times of drastically decreasing my volume and intensity three weeks out and didn’t pay as much attention to my diet. In my mind, I wasn’t training as much or as hard so I didn’t need to eat as well. Consequently, I felt sluggish on race day and had gained 5-7 pounds. Gaining a little bit of weight (2-3 pounds) is normal, but 5-7 pounds is unnecessary, and will not help during the final 5-6 miles when are you really trying to dig deep and finish strong.

I am trying something a bit different this time around with respect to my taper. As mentioned in previous posts, I have shown minimal improvement at the marathon distance over the past few years. Consequently, I felt it was time for a change. I am following a training program developed by Matt Ison at Carmichael Training Systems. Based on the way I have progressed leading up this marathon, he feels that a 10-day taper is what will work best for me. Most of the research I have come across states that the body needs at least two weeks to gain fitness from any workout. In my case, Matt feels that a taper of 2-3 weeks will cause me to loose some of my speed. If I had been training specifically for this marathon for 4-5 months, the program would likely be a bit different. Because I’ve only been training specifically for Philly since late August, he feels as if my body is rapidly gaining fitness from each tempo run and long run, and will continue to do so up until I’m 10 days out from the marathon. Time will tell if this was the best option from me. As mentioned, I’ll know more after today’s long run, and even more once I am in the final miles of the marathon.

This is a graph I came across which is a great illustration of the taper process.

Oct 31, 2014

Misery Loves Company

Yesterday after a long day at work, I went home to do the dreaded “long run.” I find I have to mentally prepare myself for any long run, but doing one on a work day by myself requires even more mental preparation. Plus, it was my longest “long run” this year (20 miles) and half of it was at marathon pace or better. A run of that nature is typically less daunting when you have someone to run with. For whatever reason, the pain and suffering experienced when we are running at lactate threshold pace is much easier when we know there are others experiencing similar pain and discomfort – hence the title “misery loves company.” Ordinarily long runs in my schedule are reserved for the weekend, but the schedule I’m following has as long run every 4-5 days (for the 3 weeks leading up to taper), so unfortunately some have to be done during the week. I’m hoping that doing some of them while I’m not fully rested will help to make marathon pace on race day feel more comfortable (in the early stages anyway).

In addition to doing long runs more frequently, another aspect of my training that has changed this time around are the tempo runs I’ve been doing twice per week. In the past, with only 3-4 weeks to go until the marathon, I was thinking more about tapering and did not run any miles at faster than half marathon pace. These tempo runs consist of 5 times 6 minutes at a pace 30-40 seconds quicker than marathon pace (5:40-5:50 per mile). These are tough workouts, but manageable, and are intended to build power in my legs, improve cadence, and ultimately make marathon pace feel much easier on the body. I figured it was time to try something new seeing as I have come within a few minutes of breaking my goal marathon time six times – obviously something needed to change.

To get back on track – I guess the moral of this story is, for those runners who have never tackled a marathon before, or for those that want to run another, it’s much better to do your long runs with a friend, or even better, a group. From my experience, the other runs each week can be done alone, but the long run can be tough to do, week in week out, alone.  

Oct 23, 2014

Shipping Off to Boston

I am very much looking forward to running the Boston Marathon again in April. I’ve ran Boston a few times before, but this year is different because there were so many Cape Bretoners (some of which are close friends) who qualified for the first time and were planning to run. I know how exciting it is to run in Boston for the first time and I want to be able to share the experience with the first timers from Cape Breton. By my count there are 18 Cape Bretoners registered for Boston including eight first timers: Justin Lalanne, Herbie Sakalauskas, Joey Tetford, Lee Ann Astephen, Carol Dakai, Gary Ross, Denis Lanoe, Donna Burns, and Renee MacDonald. Also making the trek to Boston from Cape Breton are:  Lauchie McKinnon, Terry Morris, Peter Hanna, Jerome Gerrior, Tanya Brann-Barrett, Kenny Maxwell, Kathy Sparling, and Kim Scattolon. I’m not 100% sure, but I don’t think we’ve ever had stronger representation at Boston from Cape Breton.

People often ask me: What is it about the Boston Marathon that makes it so special? It has a lot to do with history – the Boston Marathon was first staged in 1897. It also has a lot to do with the fact that you need to qualify for it that makes it so popular/special.  However, for me, Boston is so special mainly because of Johnny Miles – who was born and raised in Cape Breton and won the prestigious race not once (1926), but twice (1929). Only 11 Canadians have ever won Boston and I am proud to say a Cape Bretoner is one of them.

If Mother Nature has the effect she’s had on Cape Breton in recent years, training for Boston will no doubt be challenging. Training for any marathon is a challenge, but training for a marathon through January, February, and March is even more of a test. Once I complete the Philadelphia Marathon in November, my focus will shift entirely to the Ironman. To maximize success at the Ironman distance, it is best to devote several months of training to it. As a result, biking and swimming will be as much of a priority as running. None the less, I’ll prepare as best I can for Boston, and enjoy the experience regardless of the outcome!

John MacKinnon and I after my first Boston Marathon in 2008.

Oct 22, 2014

Fiddlers Run a Good Test for Philly

This past Sunday I completed the half marathon distance at the Cape Breton Fiddlers Run (the Fiddlers). Since it began in 2005, the Fiddlers has always been my favorite race of the year. I have completed the half marathon distance and the marathon distance several times each. This year the decision was made for me – the committee, for a variety of reasons, opted not to offer the full marathon distance (a smart move if you ask me). Also, the half was a much better fit with my schedule, which is geared towards the Philadelphia Marathon on November 23rd.

Although my main goal right now is preparing for Ironman Lake Placid (July 26), I decided to take another crack at going sub-2:50 at the marathon distance. I have come within three minutes of breaking 2:50 six times – the closest being at the Fiddlers in 2010 (2:50:37). Based on my race this past Sunday, I feel that I am in good shape and hopefully on track to finally break 2:50. I had hoped to average 6:06/mile in the half on Sunday, and was right on track until the nine mile mark. A pesky head wind and some chest pain caused my pace to slow slightly, but overall I was happy with the effort (6:10/mile).

I have five weeks left until marathon day. The main priority will be to improve my ability to run marathon pace for an extended period of time. If all goes as planned, I’ll complete five-six long runs over the next four weeks with lots of miles at marathon pace. Being able to run for close to three hours is not going to be a problem. It’s being able to maintain my goal marathon pace (6:25/mile) for all 26.2 miles – something I have not yet done. In the past, I have been on target to break 2:50 each time when I arrive at the 20 mile mark – but my pace has slowed significantly over the final six plus miles (for a variety of reasons). As with any race, I cannot control the weather. All I can do is train hard and hope for the best come race day!  Stay tuned for updates on my training leading up Philadelphia.