I just took a quick trip to LA to visit my little sister who flies airplanes for a living. It’s amazing to me because she has trouble locating herself anywhere on the planet and until just recently, she didn’t know the sequence of the months. Her chronological challenge made for hours of family fun asking her which month comes after July. Anomalies aside, she is smart as hell and owns one of the best personalities on earth.
In between lounging at the spa, paddle boarding in the harbor, playing beach volleyball and driving around in her Maserati, she mentioned that she is training for a half-marathon and asked me some questions about training. I get this question a lot… I shared some thoughts with my sister and realized that others may benefit too.
So you want to cross the finish line to your first half or full marathon? Here are 7 secrets that go beyond the mechanics of training and will help you succeed. These tips have been developed, refined and tested under fire and they they have carried me to the finish line of all of my runs; 5k through 50k. Here you go:
1. Sign up and pay for an event, then tell everyone!
Confirm your commitment by putting your money where your mouth is. Taking the time to find an event, signing up and paying the fee is like signing a contract with yourself. It is your declaration that you are going to train and finish! By paying for the event and telling your friends, you have just risked the two things that many people find most valuable; Money and pride. Nobody wants to lose money and even more, nobody wants to admit to failure. Social pressure can be a pain in the ass, but using it to your advantage can get you to the finish line. This is the most important step. That’s why it is #1.
2. Get yourself a program and follow it.
Is Peter Drucker a runner? Not sure. Anyway, it helps to measure your progress and follow a plan. This is easily done by using one of the free running apps like Endomondo or Nike + running app is a great way to track your progress. When you have a running plan in place, all you have to do is follow it. You only need to make this decision once, not every time you lace up your running shoes.
3. Oxygen is your fuel. Get it.
This is a stand alone command and seems a bit obvious but think about it;
Oxygen is needed to burn the fuel (sugars and fatty acids) in our cells to produce energy. Oxygen is transported by red blood cells to the entire body to be used to produce energy.
Oxygen is required for fuel and energy. I bet when you think of the fuel needed to run a marathon, you thought of calories, food, Gu (gross!) or Gatorade. Of course you need calories, but you need oxygen more because without H2O, there is no fuel or energy. The two ways we get oxygen is by breathing and drinking. Man, it seems so fundamental! But I can’t tell you how often these get overlooked. So here’s your reminder to breathe and hydrate:
JUST BREATHE BABY.
Breathing is your first source of oxygen. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind:
Breath from your diaphragm and choose an appropriate pace. Remind yourself that you signed up for a long distance run. Your goal is to finish, not to win. A good rule of thumb is to run at a pace that allows you to have a conversation. If you are having trouble talking because you’re out of breath, think about slowing down and getting more oxygen.
Walk up steep hills. You don’t gain any speed by running up steep hills. you may lose a few seconds but you will be saving energy for the long haul and you can easily get these back on the downhill. This was burned into my running habits during the TransRockies Run; a three day stage race held in the Colorado Rockies at 9,000 feet above sea level.
It was on on one of these mountains that I noticed that the guys running up the hill as I power-hiked up never really got more than 50 feet in front of me. Now I always power-hike steep hills and blow by the uphill runners on the back side.
Hyperventilate like a free diver, breathe like the ‘Ice Man’.
Wim Hof, aka the Ice ‘Man’, is the most interesting man you have never heard of. He uses a breathing technique that includes controlled hyperventilation to enrich his blood with oxygen. Then he does amazing things and breaks records like running a marathon above the Arctic Circle in sub-zero temperatures wearing shorts.
Involuntary Hyperventilation happens when your body breathes out more CO2 than it is producing; usually triggered by extreme stress. Contrary to popular belief, the desire to take a breath comes from too much CO2 (waste) in your blood, not the lack of oxygen (fuel). This is important to understand as it will affect the way you think about breathing. Free divers simulate hyperventilation by inhaling/exhaling a bunch of short breaths to remove CO2 from their blood. This reduces the reflex to take a breath and helps them stay underwater longer. This method is controversial as it can cause underwater blackouts but the above-water benefits are interesting to explore.
I use controlled hyperventilation and deep exhales during long runs when I feel short of breath (usually after a hill climb) and before a race. My technique is simple, I take ten short breaths followed by a deep exhale and repeat this four or five times then resume normal breathing. It usually takes around 30 seconds. That’s it. The idea is to force the removal of CO2 and intake O2, not to literally hyperventilate.
Drinking water is your secondary source of oxygen. H2O, the chemical formula for water, tells us that water is 1/3 oxygen. So, every time you take a cool drink of clear water, you are taking in oxygen. Ever wonder how a fish breaths oxygen? They get if from water.
The lack of proper hydration is the number one cause of suffering during a run. Believe me, I’ve been there. Including the time I was running laps up Iron Mountain in San Diego during a July heat wave and starting pissing blood on lap two. The cause?? Lack of hydration and by this time, there wasn’t enough water to keep me going; it was too late. Game over.
Hydration starts 24-48 hours before your run. If you are dehydrated during your run, it’s too late; game over.
Once you toe the starting line for your training run or the main event, you need to be hydrated. This can prevent cramping and keep your fuel burning. A good way to tell that you are properly hydrated is to look in the toilet. If your urine is clear to slightly yellow, chances are you are property hydrated.
4. Keep your gut happy.
You need calories for sure but eating before a run can cause you gut pain that will make your run miserable. It’s best to give your stomach two hours to digest a large meal. If you must, small snacks are ok, but it helps to keep these limited to the easily digested foods like bananas.
Still, there are times during your run when you can feel a bit nauseous. To fix this, Chew peppermint gum. This does two things for me: it keeps my throat clear up phlegm and settles my stomach on long runs. I put this to the test during the Wasatch 100 Ultra. I was working in the Brighton aid station when around 11 PM, the race director asked around for a pace a runner for the last 25 miles of the run. I eagerly volunteered. My runner was a badass among badasses. He was completing the final 25 miles of the grand slam of ultra running; 400 miles in 10 weeks over some very rugged and hilly terrain. He staggered into the aid station and promptly took a nap. About a half an hour later, we ran into the Wasatch wilderness with our headlamps; it was 1 AM. He was already having problems with nausea and was taking ginger chews at the aid stations but they weren’t helping. After about 10 miles, I offered him some peppermint chewing gum. It worked!
Feeling strong starts with your core. It is very difficult to power through a training run if you feel like vomiting. Keep your gut happy.
5. Stretch after your training runs every time without fail.
This will help you recover faster in between runs. It takes a couple minutes and the recovery acceleration is priceless. Stretching afterwards is the key. Remember when you were a kid and you mom signed you up for basketball and the volunteer coach had everybody stretch before you were warmed up? Well, think of it this way if you put a rubber band in the freezer, what would happen when you pulled it out and gave it a good stretch? Yep, it would snap. Our muscles act in a similar way. Stretching before a run is a bad idea. Stretching after run can increase blood flow, reduce the potential for injury. There are mixed views on stretching, but from my experience, stretching after a run has significantly increased my recovery time. I think the reason for this is the increased blood flow. Since blood removes wastes and distributes oxygen, stretching can help keep your muscles healthy after a run.
6. Run uphill as a part of your training.
Trail runs are ideal but if you don’t have access to trails or are intimidated by their technical difficulty, find a decent (not steep) hill and make it a part of your training regimen. Not only are hills actually speed work in disguise, but they help you work on your form.
True story, I was training for my first marathon and after about a month and some shiny new Brooks running shoes, I was getting IT band issues on the outside of my right knee. This was unacceptable to me because I had followed the first and most important step to finishing a marathon. I found an event, paid the money and told everyone! So, I did some research that told me what the issue was (IT band) and that the only cure was to stop running. Nope, that’s not an option. At the same time, I was reading Born To Run and it described the complexity of our foot and why it is so important to our running health. I found this fascinating, as well as the entire book, so I kept searching for a solution. What I found was this video by Eric Orton.
In short, stop heal-striking. Instead, land on your fore-foot. I followed this advice and started to concentrate at lifting my knees while running and traded in my shoes for a minimalist style shoe. The result was a spectacular success! My IT band issues went away immediately and have never returned. In fact, I have never had an issue that has prevented me from completing a training run or a race in five years! Another piece of advice I heard from Eric was that you can’t run with poor form while running uphill. Think about it, and try it. It is impossible to heal strike while running uphill without falling down. You are forced to land on your forefoot when running uphill. This uphill approach is what lead me to the sublime bliss of trail running! Thanks Christopher and Eric!
7. Enjoy the moment.
Be present and choose to have fun! Running a marathon is a very difficult journey. You will need to be mentally strong. I have found that the greatest benefit of running is mental health. Not only do you get the quick hit of endorphins, but you get the sustained satisfaction and self confidence that you are becoming stronger. Running is a strong anti-depressant. Your marathon training will be hard and you will think about quitting. To keep you going, choose to stay positive and remind yourself that this is just a moment. The pain is confirmation that you are becoming stronger.
Here are some tools that I use to help me ignore the pain and enjoy the moment:
Listen to music or a podcast. I love to listen to music when running. I swap music with a podcast, then I take time to listen to my environment sans headphones and repeat. I have a running playlist on Spotify and for non-music, I highly recommend the Tim Ferriss podcasts. Tim’s podcasts are the main impetus for starting this blog. To deliver my moments, I use a wireless solution like the Yak Hat.
Strike up a friendly conversation. Connecting with people and sharing your story while running a marathon is a great way to pleasantly pass time and log the difficult miles. One of my favorite conversations was with a guy running the St. George marathon with one leg and a blade. He put just about everything in perspective for me by his example. I enjoyed a nice conversation with him and he made the marathon seem easier to finish.
Bonus Hacks (2)
But wait, there’s more!
- Time vs. Distance. Think about running for 45 minutes instead of 5 miles. Tracking the time you run versus distance can be a mental trick to reduce the intimidation of training. Yes, I realize that for some, racking up the miles is it strong form of motivation. There is no right or wrong here, it’s just a matter of preference, a hack.Counting time instead of distance also gets you away from the crushing defeat of tracking your pace. Running at a strong pace makes you feel, well, strong! But some days aren’t as strong as others and you just need to get through the run. Ignoring pace, can help you stay in the moment (see step 7), at whatever pace you are running while keeping you on track with your running goals.
- If you have kids, run with them! Your kids need your time. This is important. So, if you have kids, invite them to go running with you. They probably don’t want to run but I have had many pleasant runs with my kids while they were riding their bikes or longboards. I’m always amazed at how inspired they are from watching me train and finish running events. I think they actually believe that I’m going to win! It motivates me and it’s a lot of fun. Your kids get quality time with you, you are inspiring them to be active, and you are training for your marathon. It’s a win-win-win.
There are many, more tactics that you will discover that will be all your own. This is your journey so go discover! Once you are finished, you will be in rare company; enjoying the satisfaction of a marathoner.
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