Marathon Training Tip #8: Mixing Things Up — Variety IS the Spice of Life

Mixing Things Up — Variety IS the Spice of Life

Regardless of our individual experience level, the first several weeks of marathon training is generally all about finding and running at a ‘comfortable pace’.

In the past, we’ve talked about Long Slow Distance (‘LSD’) Runs being run at a ‘conversational’ pace; and we’ve talked about weekday runs as ‘Pacing Runs’–which may be at the pace we comfortably run our LSD’s, or may be slightly faster or slower than LSD’s.

Throughout my coaching career, I’ve come across many runners who want to run every workout at the same pace, never deviating.  I’ve heard athletes say: “I really only run at one pace, so why do I need to run faster or slower on some days?”  Others say they’re going to run their race at a certain pace and need to practice by running all their training runs at that pace to build consistency.

Research shows that our bodies adapt when training.  Adaptation means that as fitness improves, further athletic improvement develops by modifying our workouts and changing the pace at which we train. Alternating easy days and hard days improves our fitness and strengthens our bodies (and our minds), – enabling the body to adjust to the positive stresses of marathon training.

There is no universal definition of a ‘hard’ or and ‘easy’ workout.  These are relative terms based upon our individual fitness levels and response to training.  A hard or easy workout is defined by how hard or easy the workout is for the individual.  Yet, the theories set forth below are the same regardless of how fast or slow we run.

If we train ‘hard’ all the time, the risk of injury increases due to the aggregate stress of training and, perhaps, overtraining without providing the necessary recovery time for our bodies to heal and to replenish spent glycogen and other energy stores.  To counter this risk, easy running days, rest days and cross training days are built into your training schedule allowing your body to recover from harder workouts.  Cross training days allow for aerobic activity, but no pounding on our joints and running muscles.  ‘Easy’ running days help build endurance while reducing some of the ‘pounding’ absorbed by our bodies on harder running days.  Rest days allow more recovery time.

On the other hand, if we run at only an ‘easy’ pace in training or on race day, we are always working the same muscles at the same level.  Running all training runs at an ‘easy’ pace makes us as susceptible to overuse injuries as running ‘hard’ all the time–as the lack of variation often overworks the same muscle groups with the same stress levels on each run.

Moreover, if we run at only a single ‘comfortable’ pace we are less likely to ever learn and know our capabilities.  We don’t magically get faster unless we run faster on some of our workouts—working our cardiovascular system and our muscles differently.

“Net-net” — it’s the same theory, whether running hard or easy—to maximize training effectiveness, “mix it up.”

So “mix it up’… a variety of workouts strengthens our bodies and our minds with the added benefits of reducing risk of injury and making us a little faster.  Even one or two variable workouts each week helps with performance on race day.  These workouts are not meant to leave you drained, but to add a little spice into training.  Think of it as adding a chili pepper into a meal for a change of pace.

Coach Brendan

“Good form will carry you through”®



Marathon Training Tip #7: Fueling Up

Fueling Up

Fatigue and some muscle soreness are common at this point in the season–often due to increased aggregate mileage and training.  But another frequent cause is inadequate nutrition, and several of you have asked how to ‘fuel up’ in order to minimize these effects.

Increases in weekly mileage as well as longer ‘long runs’ have our bodies craving additional fuel to support our increased activity (and consequent caloric burn).  This will continue throughout the season.  As fitness improves, our metabolism increases its ability to process additional nutrients.  As endurance runners, our nutritional needs are different from the general public and even from athletes in power sports (such as weight lifting).

For runners, the best source of “stored fuel” results from a balanced diet throughout the week–not just by ‘carbo-loading’ the night before a long run.  Maintaining a balanced source of carbohydrates, protein and fat, together with proper hydration (water and sports drinks for electrolyte replenishment) should be what every marathon runner strives to achieve.

Simply stated, the most efficient source of fuel in our bodies is glycogen.  Through a chemical process, our bodies synthesize carbohydrates into glycogen, which primes and “feeds” our muscles when exercising.

Glycogen is stored primarily in our muscles and in our liver.  Generally, we store enough glycogen to run about 20 miles.  But a marathon is longer than that distance–so as we train, our bodies begin to compensate by learning to store and burn our fuel more efficiently.  (This is the purpose of Long, Slow Distance Runs on the weekends as we discussed in Marathon Training Tip #2.)

For an endurance athlete, the dietary proportions should be approximately:

Carbohydrates:  55-65%

Protein: 20-30%

Fat: 15-25%

We can vary the percentages from week to week, but the highest source of caloric intake for endurance runners should come from carbohydrates.  Fat and protein are essential building blocks as well, but in lesser proportions.  Protein rebuilds muscles which are damaged while running and fat is a critical secondary source of fuel.

Several of you have asked how to manage hunger and fatigue on long runs– recognizing that no matter how well we eat during the week, we still have ‘fuel needs’ immediately before and during on our long runs—and afterwards as well.

It is best to consume some food about 1.5 – 2.0 hours before a long run.  Eating approximately 1.5 – 2.0 hours before a long run allows us to process our food and void before our long run.  A few hundred calories will be sufficient (good examples – a small container of yogurt, a half bagel with some peanut butter or honey, or some fruit).  Practice different foods and products to see what best suits you.

If you regularly drink coffee in the morning, it is ok to drink coffee before a training run but take note of how you process coffee and allow enough time to ‘reprocess’ any coffee before the run.

During a long run, many runners use gel paks or blocks (‘gummy-like’ cubes); or ‘sport beans’ (jelly bean-type products).  Most of these products are primarily carbohydrate replenishment.  The best time to use these products is before we expect our glycogen stores have been depleted.  If you are maintaining a well-balanced diet during the week, these products have little benefit until 60 to 90 minutes into your run.  However, different products affect our bodies differently.  Practice using a gel pak or blocks or beans on a short weekday training run to be sure the product does not upset your stomach.

In addition to fueling with gel paks or blocks, sports drinks are important during a long run as well.  Sports drinks contain electrolytes (sodium, potassium, zinc, magnesium, to name a few).  When running long distances, it is common for runners to sweat a great deal, which flushes many electrolytes from our system.  Many of you may have noticed a white residue on your face or body either during or after your run – this is salt (sodium) excreted during a run.  Too much salt loss can result in fatigue and illness.  Salt or electrolyte tablets can replenish a loss of sodium.  Most sports drinks contain sodium as a primary ingredient.

Finally, gel blocks and paks should be taken with water.  Do not mix these products with a sports drink at the same time.  Water is the most efficient supplement to disperse the carbohydrates and minerals in gel paks and blocks throughout our system.  Sports drinks are formulated to disperse their electrolytes and supplements efficiently.  However, combining a gel pak (or block) with a sports drink overloads the system and has an adverse effect on the distribution of nutrients through our bodies.  If you feel the need for both gel paks or blocks and a sports drink, alternate the two products throughout your run.

After a long run, there is a window of opportunity to replenish nutrients lost during a run.  Our bodies will process carbohydrates and protein best when consumed within 30 minutes of ending the long run.  Our bodies will continue to expedite the carbohydrate and protein reload for up to two hours after a long run, but the first 30 minutes are the most opportune time to replenish.

A favorite ‘post run’ recovery drink for many runners is chocolate milk—an excellent and healthful way to keep yourself ‘mooo-ving’ after your run.

Coach Brendan

“Good form will carry you through”®

Marathon Training Tip #6: Races and Training

Races and Training

The goal is set – completing the Bank of America Chicago Marathon on October 7, 2018.  Long run distances are increasing as is the aggregate weekly mileage, and it’s likely that we’re feeling more and more comfortable about our ability to run further; and for some of you, further and faster.  Distances which seemed daunting just a few weeks ago are less intimidating now.

We are still focused on our marathon training goal and our schedule.  But what about those other races our friends are running between now and marathon day – 5K’s, 10K’s, maybe even a half marathon like the Rock ‘n’ Roll Chicago Half Marathon or another half marathon later in the summer?  Should we be running those also?  If so, how do these races fit into our training?

Shorter races provide perspective on how fast we can run.  A 5K or 10K allows us to run faster than we do on our LSD runs on Saturday, and allow for recovery time before our next long run.  Longer distances of 10 miles or half marathons help measure our endurance and progress since May.  We can measure improvement based on finish time and recovery time from the race.

Ultimately, each training workout in your schedule and each race should contribute and have a purpose in the overall goal – crossing the finish line of the Bank of America Chicago Marathon on October 7, 2018.

Before toeing the line at another event, ask yourself two questions – (i) What are my motives for running the race? And (ii) How will the race result(s) affect my goal on Marathon Day?

Motivation for running a ‘mid-season’ race varies – to challenge myself, to measure my progress, to mix up my training workouts, to get the feel for running a race; and each is valid.

Race results (and recovery) may affect your individual training and marathon goal(s) as you ask yourself, “am I pleased with the progress I’ve made so far” (evidence that your training is working and that you’re moving towards your marathon goal); “was the initial goal too passive, or too aggressive;” “should I modify my training; or should I stay the course”?

These other races are good to run, and incorporating such events into the training schedule requires planning and modifications of the training schedule.  In some cases, the long run mileage on the schedule is the same or very close to a Sunday half marathon distance.  When this happens, simply switch the workouts for the Saturday and Sunday runs, making Saturday a rest day and Sunday the long run.

If there is a race of 10 miles or longer which you wish to run, and the training mileage is significantly different, please contact me to modify the training program, not just on race weekend, but in the week before and after the race.  Always check the schedule to see what workouts are scheduled the week before and the week after the race in order not to overload the system and to allow for adequate recovery before Marathon Day.

Shorter races such as a 5K or 10K are easier to work into the training schedule – but still require a look at what has preceded the race and what will follow.  Racing places a higher stress on the body and recovery from shorter, faster races are important

While some races can be good, too much of a good thing can lead to overtraining, injury or burnout.  Usually, a simple fix is available by switching a few workouts in the week before and after the race.

Remember that our “goal event” for the season is the Chicago Marathon on October 7.  Other races before than can be fun, can be a measuring stick for our progress and can fit into training, just don’t overdo it by planning too many races or running too many miles in training weeks around your races.

Racing and correlation to marathon finish time

There is another reason for racing, particularly for those who are training to hit a specific finish time target in the marathon.  For those of you running your first marathon, and especially those who have not run many races, an occasional race will allow you to get the feel of a race day environment.

For those who are experienced racers, your race times from various races can be used to see if your goal marathon finish time is a realistic one for your training. I have correlation charts which indicate what goal finish times should be for shorter races to target a specific marathon time.  It is not as simple as taking your half marathon time and doubling it for your marathon finish time.  For example, if your goal is to run a 4:00 marathon, the correlation is a half marathon finish time of 1:55 – 1:57.  There are other correlation times for shorter races as well.

If you are targeting a certain finish time (and I recommend this for only those who are experienced runners and who have run at least one other marathon previously), please contact me and we can look at your race times from 5K to half marathons to see if you are ‘in the ballpark’.

Coach Brendan

“Good form will carry you through”®



Marathon Training Tip #5: LESS IS MORE


LESS IS MORE–The Value Of ‘Cutback’ Weeks

During these first several weeks of training, most of us have been slowly and steadily increasing our mileage in terms of both the length of our long runs and our aggregate weekly mileage–and I’ve heard from many of you about the tremendous progress you’ve made, both physiologically and psychologically.  Congratulations!

For some, each of these weeks has brought about new records – covering more miles than you’ve ever run before.  For others, speed, strength and endurance are improving noticeably.  What once seemed a tedious pace is now your ‘conversational pace’; I even overheard one runner comment that she is now able to sing(!) while running at a pace that used to have her gasping for breath.

Even runners who are not running longer or faster than ‘ever before’ are beginning to notice progress in their performance–progress that is often measured by their wanting more weekly mileage, a faster pace and longer runs. (“We want more!  We want more!”)

Then we look at our training schedules (anticipating another new ‘best performance ever’ in the week ahead) and we discover our progress is suddenly diverted.  “Why am I running shorter distances next week instead of MORE?

It seems counterintuitive that we reduce aggregate mileage and the length of our long run just as measurable progress lies before us.

Reduced mileage weeks are called ‘cutback’ or ‘step down’ weeks in training.  These are planned points in training and a very important component of the training regimen—where ‘less’ actually becomes ‘more.’


For the last several weeks we have been building up our mileage, with a consequent toll on our bodies.  We have built a base, improved our fitness level and added stress to our bodies.  This is positive stress.  Our bodies are getting stronger from the additional time on our feet, from the longer distances covered each week AND from the ‘rest days’ along the way.  In fact, the greatest advancement comes from the rest and recovery following the increasing mileage.  Utilizing rest days and cutback weeks, we discover ‘Less is More,’ as our bodies begin to derive MORE benefit from LESS running.

Cutback weeks are like the walking intervals in a run-walk training schedule; or like the recovery intervals in a speed workout.  Cutback weeks allow for muscle recovery before we again increase the stress levels which will come with increased training in subsequent weeks.

Less running, more improvement.  Less is More. 

Cutback weeks are important and should be followed as scheduled.  Lower mileage – in terms of individual workouts and weekly mileage – sprinkled throughout the schedule promotes a stronger body, better adaptation for the next phase of training and sets the stage for improved performance with less likelihood for injury.  Following the cutback, we are better able to safely increase mileage again.  Without cutback weeks, athletes are more susceptible to injury or mental fatigue, sooner or later in training.

And there’s an added bonus of cutback weeks:  For many runners training for a marathon, it’s often common for ‘life to get in the way’ of training.  Illness, injury, work, social or family obligations – each can hinder training.  If workouts (especially long runs) are missed, it is not safe to continue the schedule as if all training runs were completed.  Strategically incorporated cutback weeks can help ease the transition back to your regular training schedule—and I encourage you to (please) contact me with any “getting back on schedule” questions you may have to assure there is not a risk of “over-compensating” for missed runs or overtraining.

Enjoy the cutback week.

Coach Brendan

“Good form will carry you through”®


Marathon Training Tip #4: Patience and Tolerance

Patience and Tolerance:

The last few long runs have coincided with a variety of conditions including rain, cold weather and heat in alternating runs.  As we move into summer, we will have much more experience with heat and we need to prepare for and acclimate to heat. For those who have done much of their winter and spring training on a treadmill, we also learned that running outdoors is a lot different than running on a treadmill.

The common thread in dealing with weather changes and the variation from treadmill running to outdoor running is practicing patience and tolerance.

Be patient during these “transition” weeks.  Yes, whether experienced marathoners or first-time endurance runners–we’re excited about starting our training.  And the adrenaline with a group in training is similar to the excitement on race day, as we stand in our starting corrals waiting with anticipation for the gun to go off.

In both these situations, patience is the key.  Do not start your training or your race too fast.  Remember to be patient.

Be kind to yourself in these early stages of training; and be tolerant of weather conditions.

Heat and Humidity

The transition from winter to spring to summer brings with it unpredictable weather changes.  We have a few days of nice cool spring days followed by days filled with humidity, rain and heat—especially here in Chicago where we can often shift from cold, rainy days to a steam bath overnight.

Our bodies are amazing machines, with built in thermostats.  Our bodies work to keep us warm when we run in cold weather, and cool when we run in warm weather.  Sweating is the very efficient way our bodies have of cooling us off and allowing us to exercise safely in warm weather.

However, on hot and/or humid days our bodies do not cool us as efficiently—causing us to overheat.  When we overheat, our core body temperature rises and our cardio-vascular system must work extra hard to cool ourselves off.  Our bodies do adjust to the warmer temperatures, but this takes time.  Usually 2 -3 weeks of time is needed for our bodies to gradually and fully adjust to increased temperatures and humid conditions.

During this transition phase, we need to slow the pace of our runs and monitor for signs of heat related illness.  From sunburn to heat exhaustion or worse, our bodies warn us of dangerous levels during training.  Listen to your body.  When feeling fatigued or light-headed, slow the pace of your runShorten your run if need be.  Getting-in an extra few miles is not worth the trade-off in becoming ill due to heat and humidity.  If a light-headed feeling persists, stop running and seek a cool, shaded area.

Increase fluid intake – we lose more water and minerals (electrolytes) while adjusting to the heat and humidity of summer.  Continue eating a balanced diet to maintain energy and electrolyte balance throughout training and in the days leading up to a long run.

Remember to apply sunscreen, but not too much.  Too much sunscreen can act as a deterrent to the evaporation process.  Apply sunscreen and reapply periodically as necessary.

And be patient.  Our bodies will adjust provided we help the process.

Transitioning to Outdoor Running from Treadmill Running

I heard a number of comments recently from runners who have performed most of their training runs on a treadmill.  Mostly, the comments questioned why running outdoors seemed so much more difficult and slower than treadmill running.

Some questioned the heat and humidity, others questioned their own physical conditioning.

While heat and humidity play a role in transitioning to the outdoors from the treadmill, there is a more fundamental difference between the two.  Running on a treadmill takes less effort for the athlete.  The belt moves at the pace set by the runner and the runner lifts his legs.  In contrast, when running outdoors, there is friction between the runner’s feet and the ground; the runner propels her body forward against the forces of gravity; and there are the natural elements of heat, humidity, wind and related features of nature.

Measuring one’s level of exertion–on average, a runner will be 15 – 30 seconds per mile slower outdoors compared to running on a treadmill—takes practice.  Like transitioning from cool weather to hot and humid weather, the transition from treadmill running to outdoor running requires patience and tolerance.  In time the transition will occur, and that improvement will be noticeable.

Bonus tip – drying wet shoes

Many of us have had the experience recently of running in wet (rainy) conditions.  When our shoes get wet, it is important to dry them thoroughly before running again (another reason for a back-up pair for rotation, by the way).  To dry your shoes, DO NOT THROW THEM IN THE WASHER OR THE DRYER.  Instead, remove the laces and the sole inserts and dry them separately.  Stuff newspaper into the toes of the shoes to absorb moisture.  Position the shoes against a wall, heels up (toes down); and replace wet/damp newspaper after 3-4 hours. This will expedite the drying process.


Coach Brendan

“Good form will carry you through”®



When “Life Gets In The Way” Of Training

Five months is a long time to commit to a training program and sometimes “Life gets in the way” for all of us.

Some of you have already looked ahead at the training schedule and compared it to your vacation, travel and work schedules to see if you’re likely to miss any training runs–particularly any of the weekend long runs.

Do you wonder if or how you need to make up for the missed runs?

Missed workouts fall into two categories.  First, we have the expected deviations from training – planned family vacations or a work commitment which affects training.  Second, we have the unexpected deviations – catching the flu, sustaining an injury or a last minute engagement.

Understand and plan for various circumstances along the way.  And remember that all is not lost if you miss a workout, or even several workouts.  Anticipating and adapting to training interruptions helps keep our focus on the goal–which is crossing the line on Marathon Day.

Let’s start with the ‘expected deviations’.  If you have vacation plans or a travel schedule which conflicts with some training runs, you can ALWAYS bring your running gear “on the road” and still ‘get in the miles’ (or minutes) your schedule calls for.  (Even without “mile markers” we can run the required miles by knowing our approximate running pace. If you run 10-minute miles and need to run 10 miles… simply run “out” for 50 minutes, then turn around and run back to the start!)

If that’s not possible, we should always make alternate plans.  We can review the time away from training and reconfigure the workouts around the conflicts (see below, beginning “A common mistake…”).

‘Unexpected deviations’ can usually be accommodated as well.  Of course, we must first examine the reason for the training deviation in order to determine how to get back on the training beam.

If you miss some training runs due to injury, especially an ‘overuse’ injury, increasing mileage or the intensity of the workouts too soon will likely cause a re-injury, often worse than the original one.  If you miss a workout due to family, work or social commitments you don’t always need to make up for the missed workout.  A shorter run during the middle of the week does not need to be made up.  Chalk this up to “life’s circumstances” and move on with your training.

A common mistake of runners is to try to make up for all missed runs.  Sometimes we double up on the mileage of the missed workouts and pile two or more workouts into a longer workout.  Sometimes we reconfigure the training week to eliminate ‘rest’ or ‘cross-training’ days with the result that we run too many consecutive days, mistakenly believing that the skipped runs in the past count as extra ‘rest days’ that need to be compensated for by adding several consecutive running days in order to ‘catch up with the training program.’

Not true.

It seems counter-intuitive, but once a workout is missed, it cannot be made up without consequences – usually negative consequences.  Don’t become so consumed with the mileage and the schedule that you jeopardize health, training or long-term performance—the truth is, that over 20 weeks and hundreds of training miles, missing a training run, even missing a few training runs is NOT going to affect your overall performance. [Go back and review Training Tip #1 on Quality over Quantity]

Safety comes first when training.  When workouts are missed, we will adjust training in a way to assist you in SAFELY returning to training.

(If you EVER need help ‘adjusting’ your training schedule to accommodate either expected or unexpected deviations, please write to me and I will be happy to assist.)

Coach Brendan

“Good form will carry you through”®



‘Long Slow Distance’ Runs  

Ask any marathoner about the most memorable part of their training experience, and the most common answer is likely to be “Those long runs on the weekends.”  Long runs are not only memorable – they are the ‘cornerstone’ of every marathon training program.

To successfully complete a marathon, we need to sustain ourselves over a long period of time (measured in hours) and distance (26.2 miles)—and doing this requires that our bodies have adequate energy sources of glycogen, fat and muscle.

The primary, and most efficient, energy source in our bodies is glycogen, produced by carbohydrates in our diet and stored in our muscles and in our liver.  The second most efficient energy source in our bodies is fat, another essential component of a well-balanced diet.

We have enough fat stored in our bodies (even those skinny elite marathon runners) to run hundreds of miles—honestly, “fat” is not a problem.

But we only have enough glycogen stored in our bodies to last 20-22 miles. Once we have depleted our bodies of glycogen, our performance suffers.  ‘Racing’ or running fast (a relative term) uses glycogen in short order to fuel our muscles.  This is our ‘flight or fight’ syndrome where we use our most efficient energy source quickly.  Once depleted of glycogen, we suffer muscle fatigue, soreness and cramping– commonly referred to as ‘hitting the wall’ in a marathon, and can also occur if we run too fast in our training runs.

But we don’t always have to suffer glycogen depletion and we won’t always ‘hit the wall.’  By learning how to consume more fat and less glycogen, we can stave off glycogen depletion.  We learn this during properly executed long runs.

Instead of running too hard (i.e., ‘fast’) during our long runs, we should be Running on LSD.  This LSD is not a hallucinogenic (even on those 20 mile runs when our minds wander), nor is it Lake Shore Drive along Chicago’s beautiful lakefront path.  Running on LSD means running Long, Slow Distance (“LSD”) runs.  LSD’s are also referred to as ‘fat burning runs’—when we burn fat and glycogen simultaneously rather than primarily glycogen.  This helps build our endurance levels in training.

While many of us often want to run faster, long runs are not the workouts to run hard and fast each week.  Our body uses glycogen, then fat, then muscle (protein) when participating in endurance events.  When we run our long runs too hard (i.e., too fast), our bodies use our glycogen stores in a higher ratio, resulting in earlier muscle fatigue.  Recovery is also affected since it takes time to replenish our glycogen stores after a hard workout.  A slower pace allows our bodies to burn a lesser proportion of glycogen and a higher proportion of fat with quicker recovery after the workout. 

A marathon requires endurance more than speed, regardless of our finishing time or goals.  In training, endurance is built first, speed comes later.

Endurance is developed over time–by gradually increasing the length of time we’re on our feet, and by learning how to burn fuel most efficiently throughout the many weeks of marathon training.  Long runs serve both purposes – building endurance and teaching our bodies how to burn fuel efficiently.

The correct pace of these long slow distance runs is approximately 70% of our 5K racing pace.  For those training for a first marathon or unsure of current ‘marathon pace’, a good measuring stick is the conversation test.  While running your long runs, you should be able to talk in complete sentences without gasping for breath while running.  If you are unable to maintain a conversation with your running partner, you are running the long run too fast.  Slow down – your body will thank you.

Coach Brendan

“Good form will carry you through”®