Better & Bolder, the Blog

Training: building the base for Future Me


I might be going at this running a half marathon thing ass-backwards. Wouldn’t be the first time.

I started running two years ago. Some of that time, I haven’t run or haven’t run much while I figured out how to help support my achilles and how to better my running form. Most of that time, though, my runs have been 3 - 6 miles, two to three times a week, and my longer runs have varied from 7 to 11 miles. This seems like a good base for strengthening my bones, learning form, making mistakes and learning from my mistakes. 

Still, I wonder if it’s soon for me to be training for a half-marathon this fall. 

I ran 11 miles this past Sunday, and that’s the longest run I’ve run since November 2013. Right after I raced the Duke City 10K, having run consistently from March to October in 2013,  I was pumped to continue training. I wanted to run a half-marathon. Instead of taking off a few months to run leisurely, I surged forward. I’m thinking that was just one of my mistakes. I ran 11 miles once that November, and then decided I was running it too slowly and pushed myself through a speedy 11 miles the next week. That’s when my achilles became too upset for me to continue. 

I didn’t think that I’d been overtraining. I thought I had a strong base. When someone suggested I was injured due to overtraining or adding too many miles too soon, I dismissed this. That’s because I knew that I hadn’t zipped from five mile runs to ten mile runs. I’d built gradually over months. But what if my body needed more than months? What if my body at my age needs years?

Sakyong Mipham is the author of Running with the Mind of Meditation. Mipham was told that the process of building a base for running would take two years. In that time, our bones become stronger, our tendons and muscles become “conditioned and tough.” I couldn’t find any research to back up Mipham’s two year claim. Two years, however, might be just the start of it.

Coach Bob Larsen spoke on Matt Johnson’s podcast Runner Academy in February 2014. He described how many athletes are still learning and gaining speed throughout their college competing years. Larsen coaches Meb Keflezighi, who is an Olympic runner and who at 38 years old won this year’s Boston Marathon. Meb didn’t really start winning big internationally until a few years after college. Larsen credits, in part, the high altitude training his athletes did, though he lavishes his athlete with praise for his work ethic plus his ability to be disciplined about not only his workouts but his diet, stretching, and recovery routines. It’s possible that Meb is still winning at an age when most elites are no longer racing in part because he had years of building that base. Larsen recalls reining Meb in to keep him from running too many miles each week. 

Meb, by the way, now does his cross-training on an Elliptigo. (Read more about Meb, his training and his Go workouts here.) Ultra distance runner Dean Karnazes also cross-trains with the Go. The Go, which is a stand up outdoors bike, has been a vital part of building my base of miles. My legs get stronger, I get steady state cardio conditioning, and my ankles aren’t stressed. I probably would benefit from doing more on the Go but it’s not as much fun for me as running. 

In 2013 I embraced the philosophy of Run Less, Run Faster, written by a team (Bill Pierce, Scott Murr, and Ray Moss) who believe we need just three quality runs a week: speed work, tempo runs (a run at a hard but not too hard pace), and a long run (usually run at a slower pace). Crucial to this program is cross-training twice a week. Those two workouts should be cardio-rich but don’t have to be weight-bearing (swimming, rowing, and biking are all okay). 

There are plenty of criticisms of this program. Many believe that to get better at running, a runner has to do a lot of running. It’s the law of specificity, one site claims. Others complain the three prescribed runs are too long, too fast, and too hard, which increases the risk of injury. 

I wonder if the Run Less program (also called FIRST) is best for those who’ve already built a strong base but injuries and age mean they just can’t pound out as many miles as they used to. I have a feeling that running two days in a row would be more stress than my body can handle. I also have a feeling that I need more than those three runs each week to reach my best. I make better progress when I’m out on the Go at least twice a week. Nia is great for strength, balance, and mobility. It isn’t enough intensity most days to make for good cross-training for when I’m training for a race. If I’m not trying to get into race shape, yes, for sure, it’s an excellent adjunct to running. 

Because some of my running miles are Go/cross-training miles, maybe building those running bones and strengthening those running muscles will take me longer than for someone who is running four or five times a week. I may not have the base I need after two years to train well for a half-marathon. I could run it, sure, but racing it —and more to the point, training to be as fast as I can — may tax my system too much. 

One reason we need time on our feet, and not just cross-training, is to build stronger bones. This site explains how bones adapt to exercise-induced stress to become stronger. 

RunnersConnect writes, “Bone, like most tissue in the body, can adapt and become stronger when it’s subjected to a stress. However, unlike muscles and tendons, which can adapt and strengthen in a period of days or weeks, it takes many months for bone to become stronger after it’s been put under an increased level of stress.” 

The problem is that while we’re doing the exercise that will make us stronger in the long run, we may become more susceptible to injury in the short-term. “In fact, there’s even a window of about a month where bone becomes weaker after an increase in training stress because of the way the body remodels bone. Your body first tears out some walls in the bone structure before it can put in new ones, much like remodeling your house.”

A recent study found that those who are new to running are susceptible to injury. Part of it is lack of training and knowledge. While some of their study participants (all of whom were given shoes and told to go run) started slowly, with no more than 3 miles a week, at least one leapt to 18 miles in that first week. Yikes.

I’m not sure everyone understands how taxing it can be to run. I’m not sure some days that I understand it, which is why I keep thinking I should be able to do this at the same time that I recognize: this is hard. This is hard for me. I get a little grumpy thinking it’s not hard for everyone.

At one point,  I had a romantic vision of running a half every year and traveling to do that. San Francisco! New Orleans! Wouldn’t that be fun? 

These past few months have ruined the romance for me. I’ve started to think I’d train for this half and then never again. 

As I’ve been researching and writing this post, I’ve begun to wonder if maybe it’s not that this distance is too long for me. Maybe I’m rushing my training. Maybe I just need a whole lot longer to adapt to longer miles.

It doesn’t seem as if I’m rushing. On paper, it looks just right. My body and my life, though, aren’t on paper. 

After 14 years in the fitness business, teaching Nia, I know a whole heckuva lot about fitness and my body. There’s even more that I don’t know yet. Running pushes me to learn much more because it’s that much more difficult for me. Running forces me to confront where I am slow and weak, and I f***ing hate learning that I’m weak and I f***ing love learning what to do about it. 

Besides building strong bones, we need strong muscles. I was grateful to read this article, “The Whole Body Fix” in Runner’s World about a half-marathoner, Katie McDonald Nietz, who was always fighting injuries. She learned that her glutes (her butt muscles) weren’t working as she ran. That meant other parts of her (hips, hamstrings, etc.) had to do the work that her butt was meant to do. That led to injuries. 

I have a story about myself, which goes like this: I put on muscle easily and quickly, but I also get tight and sore quickly. Because of this belief, I’ve backed off on strength-training. I know I’ll get super sore from even a small bit of it. 

Early on as a Nia teacher, I found that side kicks led to injury. So — and this is brilliant — I stopped doing them entirely. I figured they just weren’t for me. This was pretty silly thinking and also not very fair to my students. 

I regularly receive Rolfing treatments. Rolfing is a deep tissue massage, and I’ve been working with Valerie since I was in my 20s. I learn so much about my body and about movement working with her. A few months ago, she noticed that my adductors are strong (think pressing legs together) and my abductors were weak (think moving the leg away, you know, as in side kicks). 

Now I’m seeing that I’ve had a muscle imbalance for at least a decade. Instead of strengthening my abductors, I’ve backed off from anything that taxed them because I always got very sore. 

I’m now slowly adding in specific exercises (clam shells and walking with a band exercises) as well as using side kicks more often in Nia. However, I’m not doing the exercises daily. I’m not doing many repetitions. I’m okay with being sore but not with being super sore, which I think leads to other muscles over-working to compensate and that’s what leads to injury. 

Running those 11 miles this past Sunday felt pretty good, actually, and I was feeling confident — until I stopped running. My left ankle hurt so much that I was walking funny for the rest of the day. On Monday, my left ankle was much better but my right achilles was in more pain. I was fine dancing Nia, which is one of my criteria (I’m not allowed to be too sore to teach Nia or I have to back off running until I’m not too sore). It’s Tuesday and while I’m better, neither ankle feels entirely better. Recovery from a hard run can take 72 hours, so being sore may not mean I have to back off. I have an appointment for body work (ART, active release technique) on Wednesday, and I’m hoping that straightens me out and puts me back on track.

There are 12 weeks to the Duke City. Most race plans consider 12 weeks to be enough time to train, given that the runner has a sufficient base. 

Have I given myself enough years of running to add both speed work and distance? Do I have enough time to slowly strengthen my weaker muscles? Do I have enough time to do this while leaving myself generous amounts of recovery time? I don't know. I know that I can continue to train for the half knowing that I also can choose to race the 10K instead. I can plan to run a half next year. 

Lots of people run or run/walk a half. I know I could do that. I don’t want to do that. I want to race a half. I want to know that I’ve trained to be as fast and fierce at that distance as I can be. 

I’ve been worried the half marathon distance may be too hard on me; that may be the truth. Perhaps it’s just too hard on current me, not necessarily future me.  It’s somewhat comforting to me to think that the difficulties I’m encountering may be due to lack of a solid enough base. 

It’s comforting because that means, despite getting older, if I continue to put in the work and I am patient, next year I could be a stronger, more capable, more efficient runner. I’m still holding out hope for future me.


Training


Two years ago, after racing a 10K and feeling good about it, I started lengthening my long runs with a plan to run a half-marathon. Instead, my achilles pain worsened. Eventually I stopped running, then took off my shoes and started over, barefoot or wearing very minimal sandals for short runs. On short, barefoot runs, I moved more slowly. My form improved. 


I liked the sensations of slowing down. I sensed this not just in my body but as a way of being. I could walk more slowly and with greater ease. I stomped a bit less. I hurried a bit less.


Still, I wanted to go longer and faster on my runs. I put on minimalist shoes and ran more. 


I struggled last summer, again attempting to start training for a half-marathon but really just pushing myself around. I ran up the bridge, even though the achilles hates that. I didn’t do any exercises to strengthen where I’m weaker in my legs or to help my achilles. I started speed work and my calves seized up with the effort. I would take off for a week or two and then try to start back up. 


Emotionally, I was a bit of a wreck that summer, waiting to send my daughter off to college for a year, turning 50, and entering menopause.  I worked out hard but did not focus on recovery.  I refused to believe that I couldn’t run hills. I refused to acknowledge that I was not emotionally or physically ready to train hard. 


In September I finally trashed my achilles with a hard day walking around San Francisco followed by a fun but ultimately damaging six mile run the next day. 


It hurt to walk. Dancing Nia hurt. I’d crossed the line. I stopped running. I got support from a chiropractor who utilizes Active Release Technique (ART). 


I really wanted to be strong. I started whole body exercises that were fun and challenging, like bear crawls and push ups with one leg up. I practiced intervals. I lifted weights. I pushed myself with the same kind of energy I had used in the summer: an almost angry, fierce, fearful, needy energy. 


After hurting myself over-training in December, I realized a couple of things. I had to find a way to build strength without ending up injured. I was letting some muscles do too much work while others got a free ride, which led to those injuries. I also had to be consistent with the eccentric heel drops that strengthen the achilles. I had to avoid running uphill, which meant no more running up the bridge. 


I had to be way more patient. I had to believe I could get stronger and acknowledge that stronger meant less strong than I used to be when I was younger. I could be more balanced in my strength. I could become more efficient. But I wasn’t going to be as strong as before and it wasn’t going to be as easy. 


This is a sad time in a person’s life, really. It’s the point that we realize, yep, we peaked back there. Or, maybe we didn’t take advantage of that younger, stronger body. Hey, I was making babies and working full-time. I wasn’t running. I wasn’t at the gym. I wasn’t exploring my limits and getting fast and getting strong. No, I was getting by. 


So here I am, my new normal. Grinding into menopause usually means less sleep and a whole host of funky symptoms. It means lower VO2 max and bigger waistline. It means less strength, less muscle, less cardio power, less elasticity. 


I could just chill. I could do easy cardio, like walking, and rely on Nia for my strengthening, and that would be fine. It would be enough to keep me healthy.  If I can’t be as strong or fast as before, why bother, right? Why work so hard?  


My only answer is that now I finally have the time and patience to work this hard. It’s good to have a hobby. Figuring out how I can keep running, and how to run better, is my hobby.


I’m back to training for a half-marathon. I think it’s one of those things where I can’t give up until I complete it because at some point I made it my goal. 


Here’s the sweet point of it. It’s okay if I never race a half-marathon. It’s okay if I race it and don’t meet my time goal of breaking two hours (a somewhat ambitious goal). What is valuable is training to race a half-marathon. The planning and training is when I learn and grow. I’d love to meet my goals. The path to meeting the goal is where the treasure lies. 


I’m now 25 days in to my half-marathon training plan. There are 12 weeks from here to the race date. I’m committed to write 13 blog posts about training to race those 13 miles. Writing is one of the ways I clarify what I’m learning and dig deeper into how I’m growing. I always hope that some of you enjoy coming along for the ride.