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.

Continue reading

a bump in the road – bruised knee

This past week was a Jess-is-going-crazy-in-the-head kind of week.  Some (my husband, in particular) might argue that all weeks are aptly described that way.  But we won’t dwell on that because it’s all relative and I like my kind of crazy most of the time (and so does he, I think!).  This last week though was not the fun kind of crazy.  It was the worried, creating awful scenarios in your mind when you have no control, on the edge of depressed kind of crazy.  The kind of crazy that really makes you crazy, I guess.

You see, Boston training was going awesome and then last Sunday after my recovery run I went for a ride on the ElliptiGo for the first time.  My good friend Jeff just started working for them and I was really excited to try it out.  A piece of equipment designed to prolong the years of a runner, to help the injured runner stay in shape while running without impact outside on the trails.  Sound like the perfect cross training for a marathoner, right?  I mean, how cool is that!?  I will tell you – very honestly – that I think it is INCREDIBLY cool and loads of fun.  I will also tell you – very honestly – that I am a klutz of the uber-degree, and that if anyone is capable of achieving the irony of injuring herself on a piece of equipment that was partially created to help people who are rehabbing from injury, it would be yours truly.

Jeff gave us detailed instructions and showed us all the bells and whistles (it is really very simple!) and made sure we were comfortable before going for a ride on the trail.  It was a new feeling for me and took a tiny bit of getting used to at first.  We practiced in the parking lot for a little while and the first time I went to stop and get off of it I fell and crashed into the asphalt, banging my kneecap right into the pavement.  I feel like it happened in slow-motion I was barely moving!  It hurt, but not too bad and I really didn’t think much of it at all.  I seemed to quickly get the hang of it after that and we went out onto the trail for a ride and had a blast.

A few hours later I was at home and noticed that my knee felt sore and stiff at the point of impact.  There was no swelling or discoloration at all, but it just didn’t feel right.  I began icing it and put some arnica on it and emailed Dr. Wong to ask for his advice.  The next morning I decided not to run and went to see Dr. Wong.  He thoroughly examined my knee and leg, did some Active Release Therapy and Graston (ow) and told me that it was a bruise to the knee cap and I should be ok to continue with my training.  He advised me to ice it frequently and to warm it up a bit before running.  I was relieved that it wasn’t more serious.

On Tuesday morning I went for a 13 mile run with my friend Meghan and it HURT.  The whole way.  It didn’t get worse as I ran but it didn’t loosen up either.  On Wednesday I went to the gym to run on the treadmill – 12 painful miles, every single step.  I was worried.  I emailed Dr. Wong and he again assured me it was okay to run through the pain I was feeling, that it was normal to feel stiff and sore … which was a relief but also didn’t make the pain go away of course.

Thursday morning I woke up to run and got on the treadmill and the pain persisted.  After 3.5 miles I stopped.  I was done hurting.

I started to reassess everything in my head and made a decision that I would not be running for a few days.

I don’t run through this kind of pain.  I never even have pain like this!  Running is supposed to feel good and make me happy, instead it is hurting and I feel anxious, helpless and sad.  I noticed I was getting a blister on my left foot too, which probably meant I was altering my stride because of the pain — which could lead to other problems of course.  Something just was NOT right.  I knew I was risking losing fitness for Boston by taking time off from running.  But I also knew that I would rather risk losing fitness than risk hurting myself in a more serious way and not be able to run Boston at all.  That was not something I was willing to risk.

That afternoon I got a second opinion just to be safe and was assured once again that my kneecap is bruised and that it is not more serious than that.  Rest would work wonders.  My body will heal itself if I give it a chance to do that.

I decided I would take recovery as seriously as I take all other aspects of my training – I have been icing diligently and resting my knee as much as humanly possible for a mom of three young kids.

Reminding myself to trust in the healing process, to follow my heart and listen to my body.

I have not been running.

Saturday morning was tough because I was coaching and couldn’t be out on the trail running with our runners and coaches.  Sunday was tough because I was not running the half marathon I had signed up for, which I had planned to run at Boston goal pace as part of a 22 miler.  That was a bummer of a choice, but it was without a doubt the right one.

trail side in blue jeans

Yesterday morning I got up and went to the gym and found some pieces of equipment that I could get a workout on without hurting my knee at all.  It felt so good to move and not hurt, and gave me confidence that I am doing the right thing and that everything is not only going to be okay but it is going to be awesome.  It wasn’t running, but it really lifted my spirits.

Yesterday afternoon I couldn’t believe how much better my knee was feeling.  I was tempted to run on it but decided not to.  I went back to the gym again this morning and did the elliptical for an hour with my amazing friend Dora who is tapering for her 50 miler.  We chatted and laughed and it was really a great way to spend a Monday morning.

i get by with a little help from my friends

Later this morning I went to Abby’s running club before school.  She and I were on the trail together and we walked/ran about 2 miles.  I was curious and nervous about how my knee would feel.  It felt absolutely fine.  I came home and iced it after that and was all smiles, practically floating.  Grateful.  So glad that I didn’t continue to push through my pain last week.  I am going back to the doctor twice this week and am planning to be very careful, to keep icing it and to really continue to listen to my body.

The big picture is always the most important thing to me and I do not want to be in pain in Boston, or really, ever.   Not injury pain.  I am okay with feeling the pain and discomfort of exhaustion or being out of breath or having muscle soreness from a hard workout or pushing my limits to fatigue … but injury pain that persists – noooo way.

Oftentimes doing the hard thing is the right thing.  One day at a time, we make choices.  My choice today is to do all I can to get to Boston feeling healthy and happy, even if that means not running when my heart wants to run so badly.  I’ve got three weeks.  My head’s up, and I’m so excited to celebrate in Boston.

Boston Training 2014

“If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.”
– Anthony Robbins

At the end of each training cycle I think it’s important to take a step back to look at what worked well for you and to think about and learn what was possibly missing from your approach so that you can do things differently and find ways to improve and to enhance your experience as well as your performance. Looking at your choices and execution is really helpful, and in my opinion essential for growth on a lot of levels.  Don’t just look for what went wrong or what was missing – try to see what was good as well as what could have been better or different.  This will help you get stronger, it will challenge you and it will change you and aid you in becoming more focused and determined.

My last marathon training cycle was awesome.  Last spring while training for Boston and my first 50 miler, I learned that my body, mind and spirit really LOVED high mileage running.  I was not only able to handle it remaining injury-free but I was also feeling very balanced and happy while doing it and was improving my race times in all the distances I attempted and was running faster paces with equal or less effort on my training runs.  This led me to experiment with some higher mileage in the fall when training for Richmond.  I maintained my foam rolling, strength and core routines and stuck to running 6 days a week but increased my mileage and peaked at over 100 miles that cycle.  This approach worked well for me and I felt very strong on race day, running a 7+ minute PR over my Boston time.
nearing the finish of Richmond 2013
When I started thinking closely about what I wanted to change this cycle as I crafted my training plan for Boston 2014, there were a few key themes I wanted to focus on:
1. QUALITY over quantity
2. Mental toughness and stamina
3. Take the running shoes off more
I am halfway through my 6th week of Boston training and so far, I can tell you without a silver of doubt that this is working for me and I am having one of my favorite training cycles ever even though it is freezing cold and icy outside all the time!
Here’s a closer look at what I am talking about:
Quality over quantity.  I am not running a single double day this entire cycle, which is a big change for me over the last year.  My mileage will peak at right around 75-80 miles, which is 25% less than what I peaked at last cycle.  As a result of running LESS, I am finding that I have MORE to give on the days when the purpose of my run is to push hard or practice my goal paces.  My weeks are designed with either a hill workout or tempo run on Monday, a track workout or intervals on Wednesday and a long run on Saturday that sometimes includes pace work.  With easy runs, recovery runs or rest in between those hard days, my legs are fresh and my spirit is determined.  When I was running 80, 90 or 100 mile weeks last cycle I was only able to get one quality workout in the week in addition to my long run. Reducing my quantity is giving me the opportunity to get another key workout safely into my week.  I am really, really loving this and I feel confident at this point that it will help me have a strong race in Boston.
taking the hard work indoors with Maddie – do what you gotta do!
Mental toughness and stamina.  Also known as building courage and grit.  I realized something kind of major about myself when I raced Richmond and that is that I have a tendency to settle for “good enough” at a certain point in the marathon, usually right around mile 20/22ish.  When I start getting really uncomfortable I either put my gears in neutral and hang on, or I downshift to cruise into the finish because I want to cross the line feeling GOOD.  Well, this is something I’ve decided I want to change.  I want to know what it feels like to completely put it all out on the line. To risk falling flat on my face.  To risk losing the good because I am going for the GREAT.  To see what I am truly made of.  This basically boils down to the need to FACE MY FEARS and see them for what they really are – “false evidence appearing real.”  To trust in the process and grow from the discomfort.  
so true!
This cycle I am practicing acknowledging my fears and insecurities and getting stronger than them.  I do this on my runs – especially on the tough runs – and when I am swimming or in yoga class.  Which brings me to my next point…
Take the running shoes off more!  This one was eating at me towards the end of my Richmond training.  My training partner and good friend Maddie is a triathlete and last year she was injured for many months with a torn hip labrum.  This meant no running for her for a while, but because of her swimming and biking she was able to stay fit and happy while she was not able to run (she is running again now and we are training for Boston together – she didn’t miss a beat!).  I thought about what I would do if I had been in her shoes and it worried me because I knew I would be in a bad spot.  I do Pilates and am disciplined with my strength workouts, but they don’t give me the endorphin release, the fitness or the meditative stillness that running does.  If for any reason I had to stop running, I am sure I would become more sedentary and as a result of that, depressed.  So after Richmond, I got myself in the swimming pool with the goal of swimming once a week.  I found it to be really difficult but also a great workout and lots of fun.  I haven’t missed a weekly swim since then, and am now joining a Masters swim class at my gym every Tuesday morning.  I signed up for my first triathlons in the second half of 2014 (both in my home town, one is a sprint and one is an Olympic distance) and this is motivating me to stick to my swim workouts, too.
a new gear
I am going to a spin class every now and then also and love it, but spinning fatigues my legs and the classes are harder to fit into my schedule while Boston is my priority.  Another goal for me was to take at least one yoga class a week.  I have stuck to this goal as well and can really feel a difference in my body.  Yoga is building strength and flexibility and is also a great place for me to turn inward, to reflect, let things go and to grow.  I am so thankful to have it back in my life on a regular basis.
These small changes and areas of new focus seem to be bringing big changes into my life and into my running.  I’m taking it one day at a time and am enjoying it so much.  Do you take a look at your training after each cycle and make changes?  What kinds of things have you found work for you?

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?