Tuesday, August 19, 2014

13 Things Smart Runners Do

In the midst of the Heartbreak Hill Half, as I plodded up another hill and did my best to keep the wheels from falling off, I got to thinking that running three races in 26 hours may not have been the smartest thing I’ve ever done.

That, in turn, got me thinking about something else: What exactly do smart runners do?

In the hours and days after the race, I came up with a list. Revisiting it weeks later, I see that everything’s still relevant. So here’s my (unscientific, as usual) take on the 13 things that smart runners do.

Wear the right shoes. Finding running shoes is a bit of an exercise in trial and error. Don’t be afraid to run a few laps around the store to test out shoes. (Heck, a good running store won’t let you leave if you haven’t run around in them.) This is especially true if, say, you’re wearing lightweight or minimalist shoes for the first time. Finally, check your shoe size periodically.

Cross train. To butcher The Shining, all run and no cross-train make Brian a dull and potentially injury-prone boy. Too much running will wear out your joints, while failing to strengthen your core will leave vulnerable parts of your body that you don’t realize are important to running until they hurt with every step you take. Make time for cross training now and your body will thank you later.

Check the weather, but don't obsess over it. Certain workouts are worth postponing if it’s too hot, humid or cold. Eventually, though, you have to suck it up, stop making excuses and get out there. If it means running for distance instead of time, or taking a bit longer to (literally, in this case) warm up, so be it.

Fuel properly. This matters less during the race than you think. (If you’re running for less than two hours, you realistically don’t need to refuel during the race, though it usually can’t hurt.) It matters more the morning of the race, the night before and the days before, as you take in good carbs and lean proteins that you know for a fact won’t upset your stomach and leave you in the PortaPotty line five minutes before gun time.

Hydrate properly, too. This, on the other hand, does matter during the race. Don’t let weather fool you -- even on cool, calm days, you’re sweating up a storm. The water stops are there for a reason. Get some electrolytes while you’re there, too. Oh, and don’t forget to drink up the day before the race.

Wear sunscreen. Here’s where you should check the weather. If the sun peeks out of the clouds during mile 3 of your marathon, and you didn’t bother to slather on sunscreen because it was cloudy at gun time, you’ll be sorry. Always wear sunscreen if it’s already sunny, too. (My advice: Get the stuff for kids, since it has a high SPF and is formulated to withstand sweat.)

Wear a hat. I wear a hat in the summer to keep my head from burning. More importantly, I wear a hat in the spring, fall and winter to retain heat. (I occasionally look ridiculous wearing a hat and gloves with short sleeves and shorts. I don’t care.) The bulk of the body heat you lose escapes through the top of your head. Keep it in and you’ll stay warm. (My advice, again: Invest in a couple good hats that will keep you warm without overheating your head and wash them frequently so they don’t stink.)

Study the course map. You’ll race better if you know where to turn, where to get water, when to expect a hill and when to begin your finishing kick (provided you have any gas left).

Devise a smart race strategy. If you know a race has more hills in its second half, start slow. If water stops aren’t plentiful, consider bringing some water along. If you aren’t in the best shape, don’t get disappointed if you don’t PR. If the race is far away, give yourself plenty of time to get loose beforehand (i.e. don’t jump out of the car and dash to the starting line). Above all, make sure you know where and when you’re getting your post-race grub.

Know when to say when. A friend had been looking forward to the Heartbreak Hill Half for weeks, but she woke up with a migraine on race day and opted to sit it out. As much as it sucks to skip a race, sometimes it’s not worth pushing it.

Learn from failure as well as success. My positive race memories have, over time, managed to blur together. My bad trips, though -- clinging to a telephone in my first marathon, bonking in my worst marathon, fading fast during a 10-mile race in 100-degree heat -- remain firmly in my mind. It’s not that I’m a helpless pessimist but, rather, that I’ve learned lessons from these experiences and (so far) haven’t repeated my mistakes.

Put Band-Aids on your nipples. See above r/e not repeating past mistakes.

Respect the road. You share the road with fellow pedestrians, bicyclists, skateboarders, cars, SUVs and trucks. Pay attention to them all. When in doubt, stop -- it’s much better to add 15 seconds to your run than to get cursed out by a biker or hit by a car.

I could probably think of more, but I started writing this two months ago, so it’s time to call it quits. Anyone have anything to add?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

On Road Races That Aren't

Generally, I’m a running purist. I prefer running outdoors, I view my watch as a necessary evil and I choose races based on distance and location more so than who’s running or who’s sponsoring the post-race beer tent.

I increasingly find myself in a minority. Twitter explodes whenever there’s a race at Disney, and it seems clear that, for those runners, it’s less of a “race” and more of an experience, complete with mid-race pauses to pose for pictures. I also increasingly see friends signing up for Tough Mudder, Spartan, Electric Light and Color Runs, none of which describe themselves as races per se.

I’m honestly torn. The cantankerous side of me, the Statler or Waldorf (take your pick), sees it as a bit of a soulless way to take money from people who genuinely want to get into shape but aren’t motivated the same way that some of us are to train for and participate in no-frills road races, trail runs or triathlons with small crowds, little race support and no live band at the post-race party. (And take money they do: Those races are expensive. Buyer beware, too.) If I pay to run, I plan to run hard.

The optimistic side of me sees it as a refreshing way for people who genuinely want to get into shape but aren’t motivated the same way that some of us are to train for and participate in no-frills road races, trail runs or triathlons with small crowds, little race support and no live band at the post-race party to, you know, get in shape. The novelty of running doesn’t work for some people, but crawling through the mud, getting pelted with colorful powder or partying with an 80s cover band does.

I can’t say I’ll never run a Disney race. My wife and I vacation there often (she’s celiac, and it’s one of the few places she can eat without fear of a hospital visit), and one of our trips will inevitably coincide with one of the growing number of races in the Run Disney empire. (I also let my wife stay home when I race, since, let’s face it, the only thing more boring than running a road race is watching one, especially when your husband is a skinny white guy with dark hair wearing black shorts in a sea of thousands of skinny white guys with dark hair wearing black shorts, and a Disney race is arguably the only one that would entice my wife to tag along.) But will I actively seek out a Disney race? No.

I can’t say I’ll never run a novelty race, either. Right now, I have specific running goals. Sliding ass over teakettle down a muddy hill will ruin those plans. As I get older, and the odds of a road race PR drop to nil, who knows? But right now? No.

Heck, aside from some dollar-store garland handed to me a couple minutes before a Christmastime race a couple years ago, I’ve never even run in costume. I show up, get my bib, sit in my car, tighten my shoes, toe the line, run my ass off, finish, take my medal, grab free food and drink, stop for coffee, and head home.

That’s the way I’ve run, for the most part, since high school. (I appreciated iced coffee less back then. So, so stupid.) It works pretty well for me -- and, judging from the folks I encounter at races, it works pretty well for a lot of people.

It doesn’t work well for everyone. In fact, for some, it doesn’t work at all. If sparkly bottoms or a picture with Mickey or a military-style obstacle course or rolling around in the mud motivate people to run, I see no reason to stop them. Sure, I think it’s silly, but I suppose that doing a road race just for the running part and not the social part seems silly to a lot of people, too.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Beating the Blah: 6 Ways to Conquer a Running Rut

There comes a point in every marathon training cycle when I stop, think and ask myself, “What the hell am I doing?” It usually happens when I reschedule key workouts because of weekend plans and/or insufficient sleep and find myself doing a long run on, say, a Tuesday morning two days behind schedule.

This time around, it happened this week. I’ve been doing pretty well, it turns out, hitting my pace goals in track work and exceeding them in my tempo runs. Running itself hadn’t worn me out. Everything else had -- the jobs, the yardwork, the ever-full summer social calendar. On Wednesday, collapsed in a heap on the couch, my wife turned to me and said, “You look half dead.”

The next morning, I dragged myself out of bed for a tempo run. I extended the warmup by half a mile, figuring I’d need it. Then, a funny thing happened: I hit my pace goal for the first three miles. When I missed it for the fourth mile, I came back stronger for the fifth and sixth, finishing 10 and 18 seconds faster than my goal. One run undid a week malaise.

Running ruts aren’t uncommon. The constant pounding of the pavement takes a mental, physical and emotional toll. Proper training takes months; anything lasting that long inevitably provides highs and lows, and running is no exception. Plus, no matter how much we hate to admit it, running can be boring.

Conquering a rut -- “breaking the blah,” as I (cleverly) decided to call this post -- can happen in one of several ways. I highlighted having a kickass tempo run because that’s what just happened to me, but five other things will do the trick:

Cross-training. When I travel for business, I leave the running shoes at home and bring my bathing suit instead. I’m a terrible swimmer, mind you, but I enjoy it, so it gives me something to look forward to amid the long days, forced networking events and long nights that turn running into a chore. I return home recharged and ready to get back to running. If you’re in a rut, try biking, swimming or even walking.

Running “naked.” I run without a watch on my first few runs after marathon recovery. By not worrying about distance, pace or time, I enjoy myself more. If all the numbers associated with running leave you feeling overwhelmed, leave the watch at home for an easy run.

Resting. Never underestimate the value of a good nap. My test of whether I’m too tired: If I lie down and start to drift to sleep within 15 minutes, I skip the run. Yes, there’s value in running when you’re tired, as it prepares you for those final miles of the marathon, but there’s a difference between “a little tired” and “passing out on the couch tired.”

Racing. My ruts either fall smack dab in the middle of training or, conversely, when I’m not training for anything. With no goal in sight, I begin to wonder if it’s all worth it. Nothing changes my mind more quickly than signing up for a race. (Hint: To give yourself no choice but to commit, run with a friend or a team. Better yet -- volunteer to organize post-race brunch.)

Pausing. If nothing else works, maybe it is, in fact, time for a break. I’ve never reached this point, so unfortunately I can’t tell you how long your break should be or what you should do to pump yourself up in the meantime. But running pros take breaks, so there can’t be any harm in doing it.

We love running, and the last place we want to be is stuck in a moment that we can’t get out of. If you get yourself together, though, you won’t be able to lace up those shoes again.