It’s Not the Legs or the Lungs; It’s the Brain

Running hurts.  That is the main reason most people don’t do it.  Sure, if you start slowly, incrementally increase your pace and distance, and choose to only run when it’s sunny and cool, you can avoid all but minor discomfort.  But if you want to achieve something meaningful, you are going to have to push beyond what’s comfortable.

So you train your legs and lungs with a steady diet of easy runs, long runs, and speedwork.  And you throw in a decent strength training session a couple times a week.  But how do you strength train your brain?  You can be in the best shape of your life physically, but if you neglect to actively work on your mental fitness, you cannot reach your full potential, both as an athlete and as a human being.

At the ZAP running retreat I attended last weekend, Sarah Crouch led a powerful class on mental strength and what it takes to push past your perceived limits.  Sarah is a 2:32 marathoner sponsored by Reebok who was the second female American finisher in the 2016 Boston Marathon.  She knows what it means to be mentally strong.

Each athlete has a different mental outlook and most fall somewhere on a spectrum of acceptance and avoidance.  Accepters understand on the starting line that pain is coming and they will find ways to push themselves through it.  Avoiders tell themselves that everything is great, they are strong and capable and all will go well.  Neither style, Sarah said, is better than the other and most of us have elements of both.  Knowing which side of the scale you spend more time on is very helpful in finding effective techniques to override the brain’s pleas to slow down.

For me, I have elements of both, but probably lean towards avoidance.  I always toe the line feeling like a badass ready to conquer the world.  I use positive mantras to keep myself even and on pace.  When things feel tough, I repeat things in my head like “calm,” “deep breath,” “you are light.”  Near the end of a race, I lock on a runner in front of me and pretend he or she is my prey that I am reeling in.

But I don’t always feel like this. Negative thoughts creep in that seem perfectly reasonable at the time.  “You can just stop, you know.”  Or, “No one cares how fast you run this.  It’s okay to slow down.”  Or, “you are going as fast as you can and you are still not going to get your goal.  Give up, already!”  The tough part is that all of these statements may actually be true and logical.  But they are sabotage to my race or workout.

So to combat these thoughts, I have given them an identity and her name is Nancy.  (It’s like the opposite of Beyonce’s stage alter ego, Sascha Fierce.)  I know that negative Nancy and all of her baggage are coming with me on the run (acceptance!).  She will show up at the worst time and gently tell me that everything is okay and it’s perfectly reasonable and smart to slow down.  She’ll remind me that I can get a ride back to the start at anytime or that I could even pretend to fall and end up in the medical tent.  Nancy is sweet and kind to me and she means well.  But she is pure evil.  When she comes, I can say hello and then shut the door in her face.

There are as many exercises for your brain as there are for your legs and I plan to continue working on them and writing about them.  We learned several more in Sarah’s session that I will definitely practice as I continue to get stronger.

At the end of class, Sarah asked about our goals and I got called on.  My A goal, as many of you know, if the stars are aligned and the weather is good and everything is perfect, is a 2:59:59 marathon.  Sarah looked at me, knowing my strengths and my progress over the last two years, said, “that should be your B goal.” My jaw dropped and I think I forgot to breathe for a moment.  To have someone of her caliber believe in me like that is something I will always hold with me.

Which means I have a new mantra:  “B goal.”

What about you?  Any mental strength tips that get you through the tough times?  Let me know!

The Mind is the Athlete: Lessons from ZAP Camp

It’s written on the back of all their coffee mugs:  the mind is the athlete.  And right now, my mind is racing trying to absorb everything that I learned this weekend at ZAP Running camp.  Strangely, I think most of what inspired me this weekend has very little to do with actual running.

ZAP is an elite training center near Blowing Rock, NC, less than a two-hour drive up the Blue Ridge mountains from where I live in Asheville.  The coaching program I follow, Runners Connect, offers a 3-day running retreat twice a year and I signed up this spring along with a couple dozen other runners I had never met.  We lived dormitory-style, sharing meals, runs, coaching sessions, and pieces of our lives.

I arrived Thursday afternoon and met the coaches and my roommate, Laurie.  We unpacked and got ready for our first run in Moses Cone Park, a beautiful trail system that includes a flat mile loop around Bass Lake.  We were told to run whatever pace and distance we wanted to and then meet up for a ride back to camp.  I fell into step with a group of three other women going the same length as I was and we circled the lake and headed up the trail called The Maze.

Bass Lake loop at Moses Cone

Now when I say “trail,”  I actually mean smooth packed gravel road wide and gentle enough for a car to drive with ease and closed to cyclists.  These are not the rocky and rooty single-track trails that I am used to back home.  We could run 4 wide and the only obstacles we had to avoid were those left by the horses that share the paths.

Dinner each night was created by Chef Michael who clearly knows how to fuel elite runners.  Choices like roasted beets, homegrown tomatoes, veggie paella, roasted parsnips and carrots, beans and rice, and enormous salads filled my plate every night.  Bowls of fresh fruit were always available and there was always something sweet for dessert.

After dinner, we introduced ourselves around the campfire and got to know each other a bit.  There were runners from all over the country as well as two Canadians.  Everyone there had different training goals and backgrounds but we were all there because we are passionate about running.

The next morning we headed back to Moses Cone for our run of the day.  I had a ten miler on the schedule with the middle 6 being close to marathon pace, so after a warm up on some of the hills, I stuck to lake laps on my own with my headphones on.  I was surprised at the effort I needed to give in order to crank out those fast miles.  Granted, we were at 1000 feet higher elevation than I’m used to, but still, I was expecting it to be easier.  I’m happy that I hit my splits, but I knew that the 18-mile fast-finish on the books for the next day was going to be challenging.  But that was the whole point.

Bass Lake silliness
Bass Lake silliness

After our runs, the afternoons were filled with strength and stretch classes, visualization techniques, video gait analyses, nutrition for runners talks, individual coaching sessions, and mental strength training classes.  I could write a separate post on each one of these topics and I probably will.  There were moments of inspiration in every single one of these sessions.  I was not expecting to learn so many real, tangible techniques that I can use in my running every day, especially on race day.

Coach Sarah Crouch demonstrating strength exercises
Coach Sarah Crouch demonstrating strength exercises


Class begins
Class begins

Saturday’s long run was back at Moses Cone and I joined the group that headed up to the fire tower.  I knew that the climbing would make the three fast finish miles harder, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see the 360 degree view at the top.  I ran mainly with a woman named Andrea and we talked non-stop for two hours about our lives.

This is one of the magic moments in running.  It is not very often that you can have a deep conversation with someone for that length of time.  Even though we had just met, we shared personal details of our lives with each other and by the time we had reached the top of the fire tower, we were friends.

Top of the fire tower
New friends looking down from the fire tower
New friends looking down from the fire tower

Back at the lake for my fast miles, I struggled to hit my times and didn’t, but I wouldn’t change a thing.

On our last evening, with our classes done and runs completed, we piled in the vans after dinner for ice cream and beer in downtown Blowing Rock.  Jeff Gaudette, the owner of Runners Connect, said that this was the first time everyone in the group had come into town together.  Our group had really connected in a way that not every one does.

The ZAP Gun Show
The ZAP Gun Show

In the morning, we hugged and went our separate ways, wishing each other well on our upcoming races.  I have no doubt that many of us will see each other again.

Over the next days and weeks I will unpack some of the truly meaningful experiences I had at ZAP.  I am inspired and motivated in a way that I haven’t felt since I got my first PR.  Lately, I have been hitting a mental point where I’m struggling to get to the next level in my training.  Now a have a few more tools that will help get me there.



From a Weedy Bowl of Mud to an Edible Feature

This is one of those times I wish I had a “before” shot.  The front garden bed of our house has pretty much always been a mess.  It’s a sunken clay bowl where nothing but weeds wants to grow.  Every time I walked from the front door to the car and back, I’d either try to pretend nothing was wrong or shake my head and sigh.

Not anymore.

But first a little history.  Our house is a 1918 Georgian revival that we purchased in 2007 from a domestic-violence shelter non-profit.  While the bones of the house were amazing, everything else needed to be addressed to turn it back into a single-family home.  There were massive fire alarm boxes and interior security flood lights.  The ugly dropped ceilings covering the cracked plaster had shoe-sized holes from when kids on the top bunks would kick through them. The steel front door could only be opened by an indoor buzzer.  There was a wooden fire escape climbing up to the second story on the back of the house.  And there’s a handicapped-friendly ramped sidewalk that extends from the front porch to the driveway.

Over the past nine years, we have slowly changed almost everything.  We replaced prison-like steel front door the first week.  The inside emergency lights and rickety wooden fire escape came down.  The ceilings are now smooth.  But we’ve kept the concrete ramp to the front door because we like it.  It makes life so much easier to come in and out, especially with furniture or groceries.  But the useless pressure-treated handrail that flanked the ramp remained an eyesore.  There is no drop off that it protected people from, it just was there to cage in that ramp and make the home feel like a hospital.  But with such a long list of more important things to update, the ugly handrail stayed.

Until last week.

I had decided to tackle the weeds in the front yard and work on the slope so water would drain away from the house better.  We had installed a french drain years ago, but we had never really dressed it up or sloped it properly.  The only things that were happy growing there were dandelions and overly invasive English ivy. Once I started pulling weeds and moving rocks around, Paul came out and took down that awful handrail.  Good plants that had all but given up trying to grow in the heavy clay soil were yanked out and I started fresh.  Once I started creating an aesthetically pleasing rock garden, I had an idea:  HERBS!  How nice would it be to walk past a rocky herb garden everyday?  I could snip a sprig of parsley or basil for dinner right out my front door!

Once I had cleared out a nice section, I thought it looked like a perfect spot for some kind of ground cover.  Strawberrries!  We have a small strawberry patch in the backyard, but by the time we got down there to pick them, the birds or the bugs usually had their way with them.  If they are right outside the front door, we are much more likely to harvest them as soon as they are ready.  I dug out a few from the back yard and planted a new patch in the front.

When the kids came home from school, we painted rocks to look like strawberries and placed them by the transplants.  So cute!


I still have a long way to go to turning this area into a thriving herb garden, but so far, I’m really happy with how it’s turning out.  And the kids are already planning fairy rock houses and rock towers and bridges.

Now when I walk into the house, instead of sighing, I smile.


The Volume Building Begins

There are 86 days until my goal race, The Richmond Marathon.  I’ve kept my mileage in the 50-mile-per-week range over the summer and this will be the first week I’ll hit the 60s since training for Boston.  And I’m looking forward to it.

Everyone’s optimal mileage is different.  Some people race marathons well running fewer than 50 miles per week.  Elites run upwards of 120 miles per week.  For the last two marathons, I peaked just over 80 and I think that’s my sweet spot.  I’ll spend the next month in the 60s, then 3-4 weeks in the 70s before hitting 80 for one or two weeks.

The majority of those miles are very slow.  I run my easy runs 2-3 minutes slower than marathon pace.  I truly believe this is what has kept me almost injury-free since I began running (knock on wood).  Building the endurance engine happens at any pace, but injury and overuse tends to happen at high speed, so it makes sense to go slow on easy days.  I also believe the time on your feet, rather than the amount of miles you run makes a big difference, which is another benefit of slow running.  You are simply out there much longer to run the same distance so your body spends more time building up your aerobic system.

Some people get away with running less mileage because they cross-train more, but again it’s the time spent exercising that matters.  I cross-train, but mostly strength training and plyometrics (fancy word for jumping exercises).  Many of my running friends bike or play another sport that serves the same aerobic purpose as my slow running does for me.  I’ll swim for 30 minutes once or twice a month, but that’s about it.  I just want to run.

Yesterday, I had a tempo run where I was supposed to hit marathon pace for 5 miles.  It was not happening.  There were lots of reasons why: it was hot; it was humid; I didn’t have enough sleep; I didn’t eat enough before the run; I had a stressful day at work; and I am still recovering from blood donation last week (that’s the major one).  I got within 8-15 seconds of goal pace for four miles and then stopped.  I breathed a bit then told myself I would try again and just get through that last mile.  After a quarter mile, I peeked at my watch and I was over 30 seconds off and decided just to slow down and call that mile part of my cool down.  I’m still pleased that I got in some good miles, but the speed (and all those red blood cells!) is going to take a while to come back.

This weekend’s long run is 18 miles, all easy pace.  It’s been months since I’ve run that distance and I’m looking forward to stretching myself again and getting into the meat of marathon training.  The nice part of the Long, Slow, Distance run is that there is no pressure other than to keep moving forward.  No times to hit, no self-judgment, just keep going.  I know not all of my long runs coming up will be so gentle (some will be incredibly hard), so I’m going to simply enjoy it.

Have a great weekend!


The 411 on 4:1 Ratios for Recovery

Most runners know that you should probably eat something after a run.  I usually want food even before a shower (much to my family’s disgust) and head to the kitchen as soon as I come through the door.

If a run is more than 60 minutes long, your body is primed for recovery as soon as you stop.  What you eat in the next 30 minutes to two hours is far more likely to replenish your muscles’ glycogen stores and repair micro muscle damage instead of being stored as fat.

So what’s the best choice?  There are plenty of sports nutrition companies out there ready to fill that need and take your money.  Some are great whole food choices (Picky Bars, Lara Bars) and some are full of unpronounceable ingredients. But is it really necessary or important to eat a $2 bar or blend a multi-ingredient kale smoothie with a scoop of expensive protein power to get the best recovery?

Nope.  This might sound shocking, but you can just eat real food.   It’s true.

What kind of food?  The science says the best way to replenish your glycogen and begin the muscle repair process is to fuel yourself with carbs and a small amount of protein.  Some claim the ratio should be 4 grams of carbs to 1 gram of protein, others say it’s 3:1, and others are somewhere in between.  In fact, the exact ratio might not matter so much as long as you are getting some of each.

Here are some great combos of whole foods (plants only, of course!) that are great for recovery after shorter runs:

  • A medium apple with 2 tablespoons of natural peanut butter:  270 calories, 24g carbs, 8g protein, ratio of 3
  • 25 almonds and 4 unsulfured dried apricots:  216 calories, 24.6g carbs, 5.7g protein, ratio of 4.34
  • 4 tablespoons hummus, 12 baby carrots: 203 calories, 22.8g carbs, 5.2g protein, ratio of 4.3
  • 1/2 cup chickpeas: 134 calories, 22.5g carbs, 7.5g protein, ratio of 3
  • 1/2 cup jasmine rice, 2/3 cup green peas (add some soy sauce for salt and flavor): 210 calories, 24.5g carbs, 8g protein, ratio of 3.06
  • 1 medjool date and 1 ounce (1/4 cup) of cashews:  226 calories, 26.5g carbs, 5.7g protein, ratio of 4.6
  • banana with 2 tablespoons almond butter:  290 calories, 29g carbs, 8.3g protein, ratio of 3.49
  • 2.5 cups kale and 1/2 a white onion, sauteed in veggie broth, with 1/2 cup white beans:  201 calories, 39g carbs, 11.8 protein, ratio of 3.3 (love this for lots of volume without too many calories!)

If you can time your run to end right before a meal, your meal will be your recovery fuel.  This is a great tool in avoiding too much snacking if you are trying to get or stay lean for racing.  Here are some easy and simple light meals (or large snacks for longer runs) that work well:

  • Medium sweet potato with 2 tablespoons almond butter:  320 calories, 39g carbs, 9g protein, ratio of 4.33
  • 1/2 cup (measured dry) oatmeal, 1/4 cup walnuts, 2 tablespoons (about 12) dried tart cherries: 420 calories, 47g carbs, 11g protein, ratio 4.2
  • 2 slices whole wheat bread (I like Dave’s Killer Bread), 2 tablespoons all-natural peanut butter, and 1 tablespoon all-fruit jelly:  475 calories, 61g carbs, 18g protein, ratio 3.38
  • 2 oz (measured dry) whole wheat pasta, 1/4 cup tomato sauce, 1 cup broccoli, 2/3 cup green peas:  381 calories, 68g carbs, 15.6g protein, ratio of 4.3
  • 1/4 (measured dry) cup quinoa, 1/2 cup pinto beans, 1 cup broccoli, 2/3 cup green peas: 378 calories, 69.4g carbs, 21.3g protein, ratio 3.25

I could go on forever!  If you don’t want to be bothered by grams and ratios, the easy shortcut to remember is “nuts with fruit” and “beans and greens.”  (Broccoli, peas, and kale and other green veggies have a huge percentage of protein per gram.) It doesn’t need to be complicated or exact.  In fact, the simpler it is, the better, both for your body and for convenience.

Does that mean that I never use packaged bars?  Sometimes I do.  But I don’t like relying on them, especially when it’s just as easy to eat real whole food.

What whole food combos do you like for recovery?



Copycat GU Gels

Well, that didn’t take long.  I really didn’t want to make a gel out of maltodextrin.  Without really knowing much about it, maltodextrin just seems like a weird laboratory concoction that companies must use because it’s cheap or shelf-stable or something.  It can’t possibly be good for you and it’s about as far from a whole food as it gets.

So why did I change my mind?  Science.


What in the world is maltodextrin anyway?  It’s a powder that is created from a starch (usually corn, but any starch can be used, like wheat or tapioca) by adding some acids and enzymes.  It is technically a complex carbohydrate, but it acts even faster than simple sugar in the body.  When you are exercising hard, you want the fastest fuel available (in other words, something with a super-high glycemic index) to get glucose to your muscles and maltodextrin is it.

For a really in-depth analysis of carbohydrates specifically for running, check out The Science of Energy Gels. I love this site!  Jonathan Savage has broken down exactly what the most popular and obscure gels are made of and what they do in the body.  One of the many eye-opening things I’ve learned is that the difference between complex and simple carbohydrates only refers to how heavy the molecule is, not how fast the carb hits the bloodstream.  Small molecules are simple and big molecules are complex.  But as Savage writes, “This division into simple and complex is unfortunately crap (biochemistry term meaning ‘not useful’).”  So simple carbs like fructose have a low glycemic index and are slow to digest while maltodextrin digests quickly.  And it’s even faster than pure glucose.

But speed of digestion is only part of the story.  Ever wondered why every commercial gel pack instructs you to drink water with it?  That’s because in order to process the carbohydrate, your body needs a certain amount of water and each type of carb requires a different amount.  Maltodextrin requires six times less water than glucose and frutose!

This is the part that convinced me to try it.

Why does the amount of water matter?  Obviously you are going to be drinking fluids during a marathon, so is this really even an issue?  YES!  A gel with 20 grams of maltodextrin (and nothing else) requires 2.2 ounces of water to become isotonic (fancy word for becoming the same concentration as your blood and therefore absorbable) and a gel made with fructose or glucose needs a whopping 12.8 ounces!  If you take 2 gels an hour, you’ll need to fill your stomach with 2 and a half pints of water, just to absorb the gel. If not, it will just sit in your stomach, probably causing all sorts of gastro issues.  Not to mention that means you need to stop 6 times an hour at water stations and drink the entire 4 ounce cup without spilling.  Yeah, right.

So why do I add fructose at all?  Since there are different pathways in the body to metabolize fructose, adding a little to either maltodextrin or glucose allows you to absorb more calories of carb per hour than either carb alone.  More calories per hour means more energy!  I’m willing to trade drinking a little extra water for more calories.

So where do you get maltodextrin?  You can buy an 8-pound tub on Amazon, which would make about 181 gels for $23.  I chose to go to my local homebrew supply store and buy 8 ounces for $1.50, just to be sure I liked it.  It works out to be about the same per pound, so I’ll support local.

Enough science!  Here’s the recipe for chocolate. Sub a teaspoon of lemon or lime juice for the vanilla and cocoa for a citrus flavor.  For peanut butter, swap the cocoa for 2 teaspoons of peanut butter powder like PB Fit.

Serves 1 gel

Copycat Chocolate GU Gel

5 minTotal Time

Save RecipeSave Recipe


  • 20g (about 3 tablespoons) maltodextrin
  • 375mg (1/32 teaspoon) salt
  • 350mg (1/32 teaspoon) Morton's Lite Salt (optional, but good for potassium. Omit or sub salt if you don't care about it)
  • 1/4 teaspoon cocoa
  • 7.5g (about 1.5 teaspoons) agave
  • 1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 teaspoons water (you may prefer more or less, so add slowly!)


  1. If you have a digital scale, it is much easier and more accurate to weigh the maltodextrin and agave rather than measure. Mix all the dry ingredients first then add the wet, going very slowly with the water. Maltodextrin becomes a liquid very easily (that's the point!), so add more or less water depending on your preference. Seal in a custom made FoodSaver bag or fill a gel flask.
Cuisine: Endurance Gel |


This gel requires about 10 ounces of water to become isotonic (absorbable). Use less agave if you want to drink less water. Calories: 99, Carbohydrate: 25.2g, Sodium: 233.5mg, Potassium 87.5




Yes, Runners Can (And Should!) Donate Blood

Growing up, my dad donated blood regularly.  It made a big impression on me and I have donated blood several times over the years.  Dad also ran 3 miles two or three times a week when I was a kid, something else that has obviously made an impact.  Now that I run and train for marathons, I have often wondered if I should be donating at all.

2016-08-11 15.50.34

The answer is yes.  Done at the right time in a training cycle, donating blood is not only not harmful, but it is awesome!

Here’s why:

  1.   You are helping save lives (duh).  Sure, you work really hard in training to make more red blood cells and increase blood volume so oxygen and nutrients can get to your muscles faster and blood donation is the opposite of that.  But holding on to all that precious blood when you can make more in a couple of weeks just because you are worried about your VO2 max levels dropping seems a little silly when compared to actually saving up to three lives.  In three weeks or so after donation, you should be back up to speed, so  simply time your donation well ahead of racing.
  2.   You get your iron levels checked for free.  As someone who has struggled with anemia, it’s great to get a free test in between doctor’s visits.  At today’s donation, I was happy to have a level of 13.6, the highest it’s been since I’ve been tracking it.
  3.   You get to practice mental toughness.  A big part of racing well is to be able to shut down the central governor of your brain telling you not to do things that hurt.  Blood donation is not particularly painful, but the finger prick for anemia and the needle insertion for the donation are certainly not pleasant.  It gives you a nice sense of badassery to be able to tell yourself, “yes, it’s a little painful, but I can and will do this.”
  4.  Blood donors are badasses.  Fewer than one in ten people donate blood.  If you do, go ahead and consider yourself elite.
  5.   You get to freak people out with your low heart rate.  My resting heart rate ranges from 42-55 beats per minute, well under the normal level of 60-100.  Most trained runners have similarly low RHRs and it’s fun to see the look on the technician’s face when they check.
  6.  They give you free cookies.

I plan to take the next several days easy.  I have no hard workouts scheduled for 5 days and depending on how I’m feeling, I might even take that workout easier than assigned next week.

And I might just have a few more cookies.




Margarita Endurance Gel with Caffeine

Now that I’m back into marathon training, it’s time to start looking at fueling again.  I love making my own gels because they are cheap, easy, and fun to make, and I’m always trying to research what’s been proven to work best and see if I need to make any changes.

In hard racing below the ultra distance, carbs are king, but the type and ratios of carbohydrate are important.  Some people I know swear by UCAN, a powder that you mix with water that is marketed as a “Super Starch.” (I’m imagining a potato flying around with a little potato cape.)  The idea is that starch does not spike blood sugar and therefore insulin like sugar does, so in theory, it gives you sustained energy without crashes.  But at over $2 a serving for only 80 calories, the only thing super about UCAN is its marketing.  Bodybuilders have been eating the cornstarch-like waxy maize for years which appears to be about the same thing.  Even modified food starch thickeners for fruit pies like Clear Jel might be a cheaper option.  I’m tempted to experiment with with some alternatives.

As I was reading more about starch and carbohydrates, I found an incredibly detailed website by a Charlotte-based runner called  The author, Jonathan Savage, has put together scientifically-backed site that is really helpful in figuring out what to eat when and what the science says.  Some of it is so scientific that is goes beyond what a normal human really should eat in a day (multiple whey shakes a day, for example), but I respect his thoroughness and citations of studies.  If you are at all interested in the nerdy details, I recommend you head over there and let me know what you think.

In my 16-mile easy long run yesterday, I only brought one of my lemon gels with me and I took it at mile 8.  I didn’t feel hungry or low on energy at that point since I was going slow, but I took it just to practice eating gels again.  Afterwards, I asked my coach about it and she recommended that I take one every 45 minutes or 5 miles, whichever comes faster.  Typically, I don’t take anything under 10-12 miles, but it’s time to get back into the habit.

Which means back to the kitchen.

Basic caffeinated gel ingredients

My gels contain a 2:1 ratio of glucose to fructose, which is the best way to absorb more carbohydrate for energy during racing.  But I haven’t experimented adding caffeine yet, so here goes.  Savage cites evidence that caffeine from coffee might not be absorbed very well to be helpful for running, so I decided to make a lime gel with a crushed caffeine pill instead.  With the addition of salt for sodium, it’s like a margarita in your pocket! (I’ll save the real margarita for after the race.)

One issue that glucose and fructose have is that  they need to be diluted with quite a lot water to make them about the same concentration as your blood in order for them to used properly by the body.   Maltodextrin, on the other hand, requires about 6 times less water to become isotonic (fancy word for diluted enough to be like your blood), which is why most commercial gels rely on the corn-based product for carbohydrate.  This is a real advantage during a race, especially a cooler one where you are not drinking as much water.  I’m still not quite convinced to try it since it seems even more removed from a whole food than corn syrup, but we’ll see.  It’s fairly cheap to buy maltodexdrin in bulk, so I might do that in the future.

So for now, I’ll stick with what works.  I know it might seem a bit strange to have cocktail-flavored gels on a run (or maybe that’s just my repressed inner alcoholic), but I really like them.

Pass the chips and salsa!

Serves 2

Margarita Endurance Gel with Caffeine

5 minTotal Time

Save RecipeSave Recipe


  • 2 tablespoons pure corn syrup (choose a brand without high fructose corn syrup)
  • 1 tablespoon agave
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons lime juice
  • half of a 200mg caffeine pill (I used Vivarin, but any brand will do), crushed into powder


  1. Mix all ingredients well and split into 2 gel packs (I make my own with a Food Saver) or pour into a gel flask.


Each gel has 92 calories, 23.5g of carbs, and 50mg of caffeine






The Newton, Part 2. So Much Better!

I feel like I should say that I was nervous before the Newton last night, but I wasn’t.  This is a benchmark track workout, designed to see how much speed has been developed over the hot summer training.  Of course I wanted to see improvement because I really want to become faster, but even more than speed, I want consistency.  Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how fast I can run 200 meters because I don’t race 200 meters.  My goal is to stay strong over long distances and working on my speed on the short stuff helps with that.  But speedwork is just frosting.  The cake is the development of the aerobic system with lots of longer, slower efforts.  Instead of being nervous about being too slow, I just wanted to focus on keeping steady.  Especially as I got more and more tired.

(If you don’t know what the Newton is, check out my post from May for the scoop.  Basically it is twenty 200 meter sprints with descending rest periods between each set of five.)

Here’s a recap of last night’s workout with my times per 200 meters in seconds as compared to my effort in May:

Set 1, 60 second recoveries:  40, 39, 39, 39, 40 (May: 40, 44, 41, 41, 41 ) I did not want to be much faster than May, but instead stay right at 40 seconds the whole workout.  Coming to the finish line, our group’s timer, Mark, was yelling out the seconds on his stopwatch.  During at least three of those intervals, I actually slowed right before crossing the line to keep myself even.  I was definitely burned last Spring by going out too hard and then struggling for the last two sets, so I wanted be sure I was steady.  It felt easy at this point, as it should.

Set 2, 45 second recoveries:  40, 40, 41, 40, 40 (May: 42, 41, 41, 40, 41)  Almost perfect.  I still felt really good at this point.  The sun had come out and with the 80% humidity, everyone was drenched.  I was sharing a lane with Wes who is faster than I am (thanks for the picture of us, Mandy!), so it was nice to have a rabbit to chase.  Could I keep this up?

Set 3, 30 second recoveries:  41, 41, 42, 41, 41 (May: 41, 43, 43, 44, 43)  Apparently, I couldn’t keep up the pace and I had lost my 40s.  I was still mentally okay with that because I wasn’t slowing drastically and was staying under control.  At this point in May I was thinking about quitting and that thought never even entered my head this time.  Sure it was harder to keep going still being out of breath from the last interval, but I never reached a degree of panic.  Mentally, I was so much stronger at this point.

Set 4, 15 second recoveries: 41, 41, 42, 42, 45, 44?, 42 (May: 43, 46, 47, 46, 45) Notice anything unusual? During this set, you barely have any time to catch your breath before lining up again.  I pay zero attention to which lap we are on, because we have a timer for that who, by the way, is racing diagonally across the infield to beat us to the finish line.  Not only are the timers staring at a stopwatch, shouting seconds to their group, they have to keep track of which interval and set we are on with how many seconds of rest.  Meanwhile, the fastest group is lapping the mid-pack (us) and we are lapping the last group, so three groups are attempting to line up and start at the exact same point on the track. (Cue the circus music.)  So when we got to what should have been our last 200, my lane partner Wes said, “last one.”  But someone else said no.  I breathlessly yelled to Mark, “how many more?!”  He held up three fingers and yelled, “Go!”  As I raced around the curve, my resolve to keep my speed up sank a bit thinking that we had three more to go.  If I knew it was my last one, I would have fired off everything I had to kick it to the end.  But I didn’t.  We lined up again and my sweaty fingers slipped on my lap button, so I’m not sure exactly what my time was, but it was slow.  Wes was not in front of me and was done (smart guy!).  With one more 200 to go, I gave it just about everything and crossed the line in 42 seconds.  I didn’t even realize we had run an extra two until after I had gotten home and looked at my splits. Not bad for running two more!

To appease my ego, I’m throwing out the 45 and 44 from the last set and keeping the 42.  Perhaps if I had gone a touch slower in the first set, I could have hung on to the 40s a bit longer, but overall, I’m very happy with the results.  It was a steamy night and I wisely backed off my normal strength routine this week so my legs could be fresher for this.  It definitely made a difference.

To say that I actually like the Newton might be a bit of a stretch, but it is fun to have such an intense scene at the track with everyone being so focused and seeing the timers zipping across the infield. It’s also short, with only 2.5 miles of work, so the pain is over quickly.  Most people grumble about the Newton since it’s so far out of most people’s comfort zone, but I have a feeling that most people secretly like the specialness of it. I like that I can compare apples to apples and see how far I’ve come.

The difference in a few seconds per half lap around the track might not seem much to those who are unfamiliar with track running, but for me, it’s not the actual times that matter.  My ability to keep up those fast paces even when tired has improved which will help me in the marathon.

Because every good cake needs a little frosting.

When Strength Sabotages Speed

“Make the hard days hard and the easy days easy.”  This is pretty standard running advice that basically means you should avoid doing strength training on rest days so that you can get a full rest to recover your best.  The only problem with this advice is that it’s hard to go hard twice in one day!  If I do a tough Muscle Pump class in the morning, there’s no way that I can run hard at track the same evening.  I would love it if the schedules were reversed and I could go to morning track and then take a strength class in the afternoon or evening, but my gym doesn’t offer evening strength classes and to be honest, I don’t know if I’d have the motivation at the end of the day.  I certainly won’t do it on my own.

So what I’ve been doing is the Monday morning Muscle Pump before an easy run and then going to evening track on Tuesday.  I figured that more than 24 hours’ space between workouts would be sufficient, right?  Well, more often than not, I’d still feel sore during the warm up Tuesday night.  I’d get through the speed sessions, but it was a struggle.  But they are supposed to be hard, right?  Yes, but I wasn’t fully making the connection that my strength sessions were hurting my ability to do the speed sessions as well as I could.  But I didn’t want to give up the Monday class either.

Then last week a builder friend of mine told me he’d ordered too much sod for a new house and I could have it if I liked.  I had wanted to make some nice grass pathways between my garden beds for a while and I couldn’t pass up FREE, so with my husband’s help, we loaded up about a pallet of sod.  I figured loading and laying two truckfuls of sod was plenty of strength work for the day, so I skipped my class.

And then at track the next night, I felt like I was flying.  Sure, it was still a tough workout, but I did not have the dead legs and soreness that I usually have.  My last 1000 was 18 seconds faster than my first!

It sounds so obvious that I’d been going too hard in class, but it took skipping it for me to realize it.  Now that marathon training is on, I have to prioritize my key running sessions instead of my favorite gym class.

So I missed my Monday class yesterday and  just ran easy.  This morning, I went to the beginner strength class, which is easier and shorter and dropped my weights down by about half.  I know I still need to keep strength in the schedule, but going all-out every week is not helping me with my goal right now.

I’m hoping I made the right choice because tonight is the Newton, the timed 20x200m workout with decreasing rest that we did at the beginning of the summer.  Hopefully, I’ll see some improvement, but you never know.  No matter what happens tonight as far as pace, I want to see if the timing and lower effort of the strength class makes a difference.

If I still struggle tonight, I’ll see what I can do about finding another class that gets the job done without leaving me sore before key workouts.  It’s awesome to be strong, but I need to remember I’m not training to be a bodybuilder, but a better, faster runner.