Magic Sleeves and Training Tips for a Marathon

At the Boston Marathon on April 19, I broke the basic rule that you should never try something new on marathon day and wore arm sleeves for the first time. They were black, just like those sported by Kara Goucher, my new sports crush, when she came third at the 2008 New York Marathon. Runners asked me what I did to shave 16 minutes from my record on the distance that day. It could be a coincidence. Or maybe those sleeves were magic.

  (Fashion tip for the amateur: dress like a champion if you can’t run like them. Author of Goucher’s photo: Stewart Dawson.)

As for the training, I created my own plan out of two sources: the “smart coach” tool on Runner’s World magazine’s Web site and New York coach Bob Glover’s “The Competitive Runner’s Handbook.”

The advantage of the Runner’s World online tool, besides the fact that it’s free, is that it lets you tailor your plan based on the amount of miles you are running (I was at “36-40 miles” weekly in January), what your current race time is (I entered 3h15, which was close enough to the 3h18m45 at my latest marathon: Boston 2008), how you want to train (I chose “very hard”) and for how long (14 weeks.) The tool computes your choices and gives you a schedule that includes the speed at which you’re supposed to run. The last entry listed a marathon at a pace of 6 min 59 a mile, or a total of 3h03m17, which I thought out of reach at the time but proved to be pretty close to my 3h01m43 finish. I would recommend the tool for runners of all levels, especially marathon first-timers who don’t know yet what they’re worth on the distance. It works for half-marathons and 10Ks too.

I mixed that program with a sample scheduling from Glover’s book, which is my running bible. Glover adds suggestions of races — 10km, 5km and half-marathons — strategically placed to contribute to the training.

I ran five times a week, no more, except for two weeks when I ran six times. During my two weekly rest days, I rode for at least an hour on my stationary bike. I followed all runs and rides by 10 push-ups (I’m still pathetic at it after 3 months but getting better), core exercise and stretching. Many runners train their legs and forget that the rest of the body needs to be strong to support them. Overall, my mileage increased from about 40 miles in mid-January to a peak of about 55 miles during in March. I ran one 22-miler and four long runs of about 19-20 miles. It’s a low mileage compared with some runners of similar levels, but I found over the years that cross-training reduces my chances of getting injured. The key is finding what works for your body.

One or two of my five runs were “easy” runs of 8 miles to 9 miles on Tuesdays and/or Thursdays, on the treadmill at the gym for most of the winter. The pace of those runs started around 8 minutes 15 seconds a mile in mid-January and peaked around 7 min 45 early April.

Every week included at least a speedwork session or a tempo run, and often both. Speedwork is my bête noire, especially on treadmill. I used to create my own: I would run very fast for one or two minutes and then slow for a minute and go back to fast again. But I realized that by tailoring them on-the-go, I wasn’t pushing myself hard enough. This year, I decided to stick strictly by the Runner’s World speedwork guideline. The sessions consisted of at least three repeats of one mile, at paces that started around 6 min 30 a mile in January and increased to 6 min 10 at the end of March. I jogged for half a mile in between. I also included half-miles, with shorter rest periods. I was running so hard on the treadmill machines that on several occasion people came to me at the end and asked me what exactly I was up to.

The novelty this year was that three of my five runs were with a local club, the Delco Road Runners Club. In groups, I behave like a dog: when I see someone ahead of me, I chase. That made me push harder even on days when I was tired. It also made me do silly things — as dogs do — such as running tempo runs (the Wednesday run with the club is a fast 5.5 miles), the day after hard speedwork sessions, when I should have been recovering with an easy run.
I wrote here about how running with this club helped me improve my personal best on a half-marathon by 7 min 15 in Manhattan on Jan. 28. Any race during the training must be a means to reach a marathon goal, not an end in itself. I used that race and another half-marathon in Wilmington in March as gauges of my fitness. Wilmington was ideally timed, three weeks ahead of Boston. It has an ideal course: with a first part downhill and a big hill in the second part, it’s like a mini Boston. Wilmington was my dress rehearsal.

My long runs were on a very hilly course. Those hills almost got me in trouble in February, when I started to develop bursitis — an inflammation of the bursa — on my right hip. My sports doctor told me that I should ease on hill training.
“But, doctor, I’m training for Boston!” I said.
Training on hills is a basic requirement for that marathon: there’s no way around it. I continued to run my long runs on them anyway and eventually the inflammation went away: my body got used to the ups and downs.

Rest is an important part of training, but most runners don’t want to hear it. Last year, I was forced to stop running for 1 1/2 months after falling very ill in early June from a bacteria. Throughout the illness, which lasted about five months in total, I continued to exercise a minimum amount, starting with walking, abs and core exercise. When I got better, I focused on cycling, because it was a better way to regain strength and rebuild lost muscle than running. My running log shows 0 mile in June, 22 miles in July and 89 miles in August. When I moved to decent distances in October and November, I felt stronger than ever. There’s a lesson here: in the seven months preceding the beginning of training for what turned out my best marathon, I ran 649 miles in total. That’s an average of 23 miles a week, shorter than a marathon.

This year, I felt lucky I could even run at all and I enjoyed the hard training, rain or shine (or snow). Forced rest, running partners, warm arms and a bit of happiness. That was my recipe for a good marathon.

(Is this a face of “happiness?” Giving everything I had, and more, at the finish.)

One comment

  1. Cecile,
    Your training regimen leading up to the Boston marathon was beautiful! It is amazing that you only ran 23 miles per week for 7 months last year when you were not feeling well. I get inspired every time I read your blogs that I can overcome my own injuries. And maybe I will even try those black sleeves in my next race !


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