Making the most of the off season – a talk with Dr. Aleck Wong

‘Tis the season! This phrase is heard ringing throughout our lives day-in and day-out this time of year. And while everyone is bustling about with the busy-ness of juggling life and preparing for the holidays, runners and endurance athletes are also typically finding themselves in the midst of another kind of season – the off season. I think of it more as a “reboot season” – unplugging for a bit and starting back up again after sufficient rest. It’s a crucial time for a runner, truly. A rich opportunity to let go of the rigors of training and racing in order to reap the benefits of and learn from the prior cycle or to address issues that have lingered from it. It’s a time to recharge our batteries on all levels – physical, mental and emotional.

This season can be welcomed and embraced by any level of runner, but it also oftentimes leaves us feeling a little bit lost and anxious to get back to the rhythms of training and racing. I have been wondering lately – what is the BEST way to approach this in-between time, to prime our bodies and minds for goals we have ahead of us?

How do we make the most of our time off from training? As a coach and an athlete myself, I have a lot of ideas and opinions about this. But I wanted to ask someone whose expertise and opinions I have always valued, to get a little more insight into it and to pass that wisdom along to you.

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between recovery & training

There were almost 7 weeks between the Boston Marathon and the North Face 50 Miler.

It was important to me to recover properly from Boston for lots of reasons, one of them of course being that I wanted to be in shape – physically and mentally – to run my 50 mile race and remain injury free and NOT burned out.  I ran a strong but conservative race in Boston, executing it exactly as I hoped I would and really having such an amazing experience there.  Up until I crossed the finish line of Boston, I was so focused on that race and didn’t want to put any thoughts of 50 miles in my head until that goal was accomplished.

Boston Finisher!

I took the first two weeks after Boston very, very mellow – not running at all for the first 8 days.  A soul-cleansing and heart-opening trip to the mountains of Whistler, Canada for the lululemon Ambassador Summit (an experience which I really really REALLY need to write about – it impacted me so deeply) came exactly one week after Boston and really gave me such a renewed perspective and fresh outlook on so many things in my life, including my approach to running.

first run after Boston – a trail run in Whistler!

When I got home, it was time to shift my focus to 50 miles.  I felt recovered from my marathon.  My body was healed and I was itching to run fast and hard, but I knew the priority needed to be on maintaining my fitness and on teaching myself to control my pace (as in RUN SLOWER) so that I could accomplish my goal of running 50 miles without getting injured.

I love setting goals and going HARD after them, but the BIG PICTURE is always the most important thing to me.

Running is a huge part of who I am – it makes me feel healthy and strong and alive and connected to myself.  It gives me energy and strength and opens me up to my joy and to all of my life’s possibilities.  If I run myself into the ground, pushing as hard as I can all the time, it will defeat the whole purpose of me doing it in the first place.  I need to be in tune with my body and to learn when it’s okay to push and when it’s just plain foolish.

Training for 50 miles after my fastest ever marathon, even when I ran it conservatively, was NOT the time to push my pace.

Every day when I went out to run while training for the 50 miler, I had to remind myself to switch gears.  My running buddies helped me with this A LOT, ever so politely telling me to put on the brakes and slow it down when I would get carried away with myself and lost in the moment (this may or may not have happened frequently, especially in the beginning).  The trails have a way of doing that to me – the beauty around me takes me in and I just sort of forget I am even working.  Trail running feels almost like a different sport to me.

so much beauty

At times I felt so antsy, missing and even yearning for that feeling of depleting myself to fill myself back up again … and I often caught myself feeling anxious to be on the other side of my 50 mile race because I was so ready to train hard again, so excited about the fall marathon training season.  But I knew I needed to reign those feelings in because I didn’t want to squander the moment I was in, and because I knew that the time would come when the time would come.  And if I was smart, I would be SO much more than ready when it rolled around.  Setting myself up for good things.

So here I am, almost 3 weeks since my first ultra and about a month to go before it’s time to start training for my fall marathon (Richmond).  Somewhere between recovery and training.  It isn’t a bad place to be, this in-between place.  It’s a pretty sweet spot, actually.  Most days, I run easy and chat with my friends as the miles fly by and I enjoy catching up with them and savoring the simple act of moving and feeling alive, doing something I love so much.  Other days, I choose to push myself and run some faster miles.  I love those days because I have really really missed them and they remind me of what I am made of deep inside.  I haven’t yet done any official speed workouts, no real tempos or track intervals, but I can feel the speed returning to my legs and my determination and heart swelling up inside of me.  Nothing is really structured at all and it’s a liberating and hopeful feeling.

For these next few weeks I will stay in this in-between place, running because it is what I do and it is who I am.

Spring Training & Racing

Ahhh, Spring!  I am so happy you have arrived.  Except for the allergy part, you are for sure one of my favorites.

me & Gus sniffing the flowers of a neighborhood Dogwood tree

After spending the entire winter focusing on my marathon goal of running my fastest 26.2 and qualifying for Boston for the first time, it has been nothing short of wonderful to take these last two weeks nice and easy, both physically and mentally.

I’m so happy that I ran a strong race on March 17th.  That I accomplished my goal and ran an 8 minute PR (3:34:46) and that I got that coveted BQ time.  I’m even happier about the fact that after I crossed the finish line that day, I knew – without a sliver of a doubt – that I could do better.  My last mile was my fastest in a 7:32 and I had more in me.  I am sure of this: my next marathon can and will be faster.  This excites me.

a strong finish

It excites me because one year ago, my PR was a 4:35:09 – almost an hour slower than my current best.  It excites me because a year ago I never would have even dreamed that a BQ time was possible for someone like me.  And now I have inspired myself — inspired myself to DREAM BIGGER, to work harder.  I want to know the depth of what I am capable of.  So I am not stopping here.

But I believe with all of my heart that the journey towards a goal like this requires periods of rest and a change in focus.  If I continue to push myself towards a faster marathon constantly, chances are more than likely that I will burn out.  That I will get injured or I will lose my passion for my dream.  that would be tragic in my opinion.  It would defeat the whole purpose of what I do.

I believe that the beauty of a dream is in its pursuit, and I want to keep that alive.  The finish line is a wonderful thing to cross (oh, how I LOVE it!), but for me it is often only the beginning or more of a magical milestone along the way.  The journey is my joy.

These past two weeks since my marathon have been an essential part of this journey.  My body has thanked me for easing off on the mileage and the muscle-burning zips around the track.  Mentally and emotionally I have been a lot more relaxed.  I’ve been running, but every time I’ve laced up my shoes it has been with one goal in mind – just do what I love to do.  No pressure on how many miles I run or how fast I run them.  It’s been blissful.

But let’s face it – I’m a Type A gal who likes to have a plan.  I thrive when I am working towards goals.  They keep me moving, they keep me from getting stagnant and set in my ways, both literally and figuratively.  I’m not running another marathon until this fall (MCM) and I’m happy to have a couple of months to free myself from the intensity of marathon training.  I’ve got other goals in mind for my Spring races.  Just thinking about them gets me excited.

I have three races I’m running between now and the start of my fall marathon training: a 10 Miler in April, a 5k in May and a half marathon in June.  I’m going to use these next couple of months to work on getting faster at these shorter distances.  To learn how to push through the discomfort of making my legs move fast without a break, my muscles burning and my chest tightening.  To gain confidence and increase my mental toughness.  To get stronger.

Right now I have some general time goals for each distance.  As my training progresses I may change them a little, depending on how things are going.  Overall I have two goals that will NOT change though – have fun and enjoy myself, and do my very best.  That never changes.

Here are my time goals for each distance:
5k – break 21:00 (sub-6:45 pace)
10 Miler – break 1:15 (sub-7:30 pace)
Half Marathon – break 1:40 (7:30ish pace)

I’ve created a training plan for myself that has me conservatively building my long run mileage up to about 16 miles, with peak weekly mileage around 50 miles a couple of weeks before the half marathon on June 2.  My long run pace will be somewhere between an 8:10-9:00 mile and when I do Race Pace miles (in some, but not all of those long runs) I am going to target my half marathon race pace of a 7:30.  I’m also going to do a Tempo run at least once a week (likely on Monday mornings) and the tempo pace I’m targeting will be somewhere between 7:00-7:15.  In addition to all of this, I know I’ll be pushing the boys in the running stroller a lot more, which will be more speed work for me (because pushing an extra 100+ pounds on a run is speed work in disguise, in my opinion!!).

I’m excited about what my spring training and racing has in store for me.  I can wait to toe the line at these races and do my very best.  I’m also hoping that the next couple of months will set me up for a strong marathon training season this summer/fall.  No specific goals have been set for MCM, but I will tell you that I’m dreaming about it.  If I’m able to race these spring races as strongly as I believe I can, there will be some exciting marathon goals coming this summer!

What are you Spring training and race plans?  If you ran a spring marathon, what are you doing between training cycles?  Do you take a few months off completely?  Train for shorter distances like I am?  Set the distance bar higher and go for an ultra after already being trained for a marathon?  I would love to hear about it :o)

Happy Spring, everyone! 

i’ve reached my limit

After a long, late night of road tripping to my in-laws’ house in VA Beach and an early morning start today (4:30AM, courtesy of Sweet Baby Gus), I am really really tired as I write this. 

I’ve been feeling seriously off these past few days, and it is time to press the RESET button.  I need to clear my head, open my heart and go for a run.  I need to get out of this funk.

Here’s the thing: over the last 3 weeks I have run 3 times.  A strong 8 miler, a fun 17.5 miles in Richmond and then a new 5K PR on Saturday.  That’s it.  Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t exactly been idle – I’ve been keeping up with my strength training routine at the gym twice a week, doing Pilates and chasing after my baby who is getting very difficult to keep up with … hardly sitting around.  But I haven’t been running.

see this guy? he is a monkey. allllways getting into stuff!

After MCM, I realized it was time to take my recovery very seriously.  My new marathon training cycle starts up on December 4th and I want to enter into it feeling strong, fresh and ready to tackle the task at hand.  I have big goals for my spring marathon and I don’t want to hinder my ability to accomplish them by doing too much in between.  So I told myself that these weeks between training cycles would be laid back…

Three weeks of “laid back” is enough for me.  It’s my limit.  I’m done with the whole “no planned runs” thing.  I can’t take it anymore.

With that said, it doesn’t mean I’m going to start my training plan a couple weeks early.  Or that I will stop my other cross training activities (nope, those will remain. Always). It just means that this Type A person is actually much more laid back and relaxed about life when she has structure.  I have been feeling on edge, grumpy, moody, “off” – whatever you want to call it – for too many days now.  It is time to give some structure to my running routine or else surely I will go insane.  Self doubt is trying to creep in and I just don’t have room for that.

And as luck would have it, I am now spending the next 4 days in one of my very favorite places to run during my very favorite time of year to run.  And when I’m not running I will be surrounded by the people I love the most in this world.  I think this is the perfect time to press RESET.

What do you do in between marathon training cycles?  Do you structure your recovery time with runs, cross training and other activities?  While giving your body the necessary break from training, how do you keep from going crazy and doubting your fitness?  Or…is it just me?