improving as a runner

My journey as a runner has been just that – A JOURNEY.

The first race I ever signed up for was a marathon, almost exactly 12 years ago.  I was 24 years old and spent the summer of 2000 training for my first marathon and had never even run a 5k before.  A high school friend recommended a book to me called How to Train for and Run Your Best Marathon by Gordon Bakoulis Bloch.  I read it cover to cover several times and plotted out my training in my calendar.  The program was based on running minutes, not counting miles.  This worked extremely well for me as a new runner and to this day I highly recommend it as a great way for a new runner to start training.

I will never forget my first training run.  It was 20 minutes long and I literally felt like I was dying.  I was in Florida visiting my family and it was sunny, HOT and humid.  I had recently quit smoking (a habit I desperately wanted – no, needed – to break) and I was terribly out of shape.  My family was worried about me.  WHAT was I trying to do, training for a marathon!?  We look back on it now and laugh.  They all felt sorry for me and were concerned that I was attempting to do something WAY outside my limits.  They were right.  I was.

But I didn’t give up and week after week I was able to run farther and faster.

That summer, I became a runner.

After 6 months of training, race day came and I crossed the finish line of my first marathon in Philadelphia in 5:21:20.  The marathon was TOUGH.  My running buddy got injured around Mile 14 and we walked the next 12 miles together.  It was bitterly cold and pretty miserable, but I was so proud when I crossed that finish line.  So grateful to have discovered my love for the sport of running.

Philly, 2000.  I am a marathoner!

My goal for that race was to FINISH it, and finish it I DID.  It didn’t go as planned, but in my heart I knew I would run more marathons, and I believed that I was capable of a faster time.

My approach to training stayed pretty much the same over the next several years.  As a result, so did my race times.  I ran one pace, ALL the time (usually around a 10 minute mile, maybe slightly faster on occasion).  My pace for a 5k race was not very different from my pace for a 10 miler.  My marathon times were almost all over 5 hours, with the exception of two that were both 4:35s.  I consistently over trained and under hydrated, had no idea how to fuel properly or how to recover, found myself walking because of cramping and IT Band pain, felt mentally broken and basically doubted myself as a runner on a regular basis.  Sounds fun, right?

Despite all of that though, I LOVED to run and I was determined to figure out how to do it better.

In the spring of 2010, as part of my quest to learn all I could about how to be a better runner, I became a RRCA Certified Running Coach.  This was a defining moment for me.  It opened my eyes to all the things I had been doing wrong (which as it turns out, was basically everything).  I left that class feeling excited and hopeful about all the changes I could make, because I believed they would lead to better, faster, stronger and more joyful running.  And then, about a month later, I found out I was pregnant with my third child.  These changes would have to wait.

Last summer, a few months after Baby Gus was born, I began applying what I had learned.  It has been almost exactly one year since I returned to running with this new approach, and I have seen really wonderful results because of it.

I get asked frequently about how I’ve been able to make such dramatic improvements to all of my race times in just one year.  I think one thing that’s important to note is that I didn’t just change one or two or even three things.  It was a like a running-OVERHAUL for me.  I was doing so many things wrong, or not doing certain things at all – so that when I finally started switching things up there was just so much room for improvement.  I don’t expect to make such huge jumps in my race times in one training cycle moving forward (though that would be nice!).  Now that I am doing (most) things properly, the changes that I can make are really smaller tweaks and adjustments that will hopefully bring about faster times.  Not one hour faster or even 20 minutes faster in one cycle, realistically, but I do still believe I can become a faster and stronger runner over the next few years if I continue to train smart and push myself in the right ways.

So, what are the new features of my training that I believe have made me a faster runner?  In no particular order, here they are …

* I spend time on the foam roller daily.  Every single evening, whether I ran that day or not, I hop on my foam roller and use my Tiger Tail Stick.  Self massage and myofascial release is critical for me.  I usually roll out my quads, hamstrings, calves, feet and IT bands for about 20 minutes every night.  I will spend more time on extra sore or tight areas as needed.

* I visit my chiropractor regularly.  I consider Dr. Wong at United Wellness Center one of my training buddies, even though we have never gone for a run together.  He cares about my running, and has as much interest in helping me feel prepared for my next race as he does about my running longevity.  He is always thinking of the big picture and reminds me not to sacrifice it for a run in the short term.  I trust him and value his expertise tremendously.

* I listen to my body.  If I need an unplanned rest day, I take it.  If I’m feeling extra tight, or if I have very heavy legs and I need to run fewer miles in a week than I was hoping I would, so be it.  It’s not always easy to do this, because mentally I could use a run every day, but I resist the urge when my body is telling me otherwise.

* Every run has a purpose.  And the pace is not the same for all runs!  I stick to my paces now, whereas before all my runs and races were done at one pace.  Long run pace is different from tempo run pace which is different from the pace I run on an “easy” days.  I use the McMillan Pace Calculator to determine my training paces, based on my goals and my most recent race times.  I try to honor my paces each time I lace up for a run.

* Speed work happens once (or twice) a week.  Before last year, I had never done a lick of speed work.  Tempo runs, intervals at the track and other forms of speed work are a regular part of my training regime now.  There is no doubt about it — you have to run faster if you want to run faster!

* Higher miles.  I conservatively and carefully built my base mileage and then hit mileage that was higher than I had ever run before a few weeks before my target race.  Having more miles under my belt really helped me become more physically fit and also feel mentally prepared for my races.

* Strength training and Pilates.  I go to the gym twice a week to do strength training.  A lot of squats and lunges, hamstring curls, bench dips, mountain climbers and upper body work.  I also make Pilates a regular part of my routine, even if it’s just 10 minutes a day.  It has made a HUGE difference for me.  I used to suffer from lower back pain and an out of whack SI joint that also caused IT pain.  Having a strong core and working on strengthening muscles other than the ones I use specifically for running has been a game changer for me.

* Nutrition and hydration.  I really had these things all wrong until last year.  I drink nuun to hydrate before and after my runs and races (I drink water while I am running).  I can honestly say that over the course of the past year I have not dealt with dehydration on a run.  It used to happen to me all the time.  Also, I made it my mission to figure out what worked for me as far as fueling properly before, during and after my runs.  I now know what works for me and have not “bonked” at all in my races this year.  I pretty much hit the wall in every marathon I ran prior to 2011, because I wasn’t eating or hydrating right.  It makes a major difference in how you perform – and I truly believe there is no reason for us to experience the wall if we make it a priority to figure out the right plan for us and then STICK with it.  It’s easy to dismiss the need for water/food on a run when you are feeling good, but you will pay for it later.

* I joined a training group.  Last summer I started training with the =PR= Distance Training Program in Reston.  It was the best decision I could have made!  The coaching staff is knowledgeable, supportive and encouraging.  I made lifelong friends who make getting up early on a cold rainy day, doable – and most of the time even FUN.  We meet as a group for our long run every Saturday morning and also go to the track once a week for speed work.  In addition to that, my buddies and I train a few other days a week early in the morning.  These guys have kept me motivated and have reminded me of why I love to run.  They push me when I’m not feeling it, they reel me in when I’m going to fast for the purpose of the run.  Sharing the experience with them is something I cherish – there is no doubt that there is strength in numbers.  I am forever grateful to my training partners.

* I went outside my comfort zone. A lot.  When I started training, I made a deal with myself: I was going to believe in myself.  And I wasn’t going to give up when the going got tough, which I knew it would repeatedly.  I used to wimp out when the weather was bad, or give up when I had a bad day.  This past year I ran no matter what – in the rain, in the freezing cold, in the heat and humidity.  When it was icy out, I did 20 miles on the treadmill.  I stopped making excuses, because I knew that if I was going to see the benefits of my training I had to survive on those rough days.  I had to change my mindset if I was going to get stronger and if I was going to push through self doubt and negative thinking.

Improving as a runner takes guts.  It takes being smart.  It takes dedication and heart and passion and grit.  It is not easy.  But it is, without a doubt, WORTH IT.

18 thoughts on “improving as a runner

  1. So excited to read this post. I have recently made the decision to push harder and longer to be a better runner. I want to do it the correct way and I think I am on the right path. All this information is great. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Your story relates to me as a runner so much! Its so inspiring to know that an ametuer runner like me could improve and be great like you! I tend to not take care of my body when I'm not on the road/treadmill, so your post helped remind me just how important that is! Thanks so much! 🙂

  3. Thanks guys! I'm so glad that you like this post 🙂 Jocelyn, that roller is called a “rumble roller” and I got it at our local running store. I don't use it all the time – just for extremely stubborn spots. And I always roll out with the regular foam roller for a bit before using that one, so that my muscles have a chance to loosen up a little before I stick that to 'em! it is really serious business, that rumble roller!

  4. This is an amazingly inspiring and motivational post. Your dedication and hard work is certainly paying off in big ways!

    Earlier today, my friend suggested I get certified to be a running coach. I balked, claiming I did not have the experience or speed to become a coach, but I love hearing your perspective on going through the certification process to learn more about the sport of running and then applying that to your own training.

    Now, I'm thinking about doing the same!

  5. I agree with so many of those points, especially the point that every run has a purpose. On my recovery runs, I'm easily over 10 min per mile, but on speed work days, I make sure I'm pushing myself. I also ran without a watch for a while and really went off of feel – that helped me get in touch with what my body was telling me. I also raced without a watch for a while and that helped me dial into the feeling of racing rather than going off a watch.

  6. Great post, Jess! It's fun to hear your story- you've made such fantastic progress! Thanks for sharing what has worked for you. I've changed many of the same things over the past year or two, although I definitely need to use my stick and get a foam roller- I'm a huge slacker in that area!

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