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 Lowest End of Healthy

I am the type of runner that gains weight while marathon training.  Out of the 5 marathons I’ve run in the last two years, I gained weight for 3 of them.  Not a lot, but 4 to 5 pounds.  Once I started really trying to figure out how to get better at the marathon, the issue of weight came up.

I have always been a healthy weight, both before going plant-based and before running, but I was usually at the higher end of normal.  Initially, I started running to lose some weight for vanity, but once I starting running to become a better runner, the way I looked in the mirror became secondary.  I just wanted to become faster.

So for my third marathon, Boston 2015, I lost 12 pounds and PRed by 12 minutes.

I’m not saying that losing a pound and a minute go hand in hand. I put in a lot of training and got much fitter for that PR, but it is clear that carrying less weight makes running easier.  At a certain point, however, if you lose too much weight too fast, you will become weaker, slower, and more injury-prone.  Elite runner Sarah Crouch and running journalist Mario Fraioli warn about the dangers of calorie restriction that they’ve seen first-hand in the running world.  That is not the type weight loss that I am talking about.  To race at your best means to be have the lowest healthy amount of body fat while also being at your strongest and fittest.

I think a lot of typical running articles shy away from a deeper discussion of weight in relation to racing.  Sure, there’s no shortage of weight loss articles for people who need to lose weight for health reasons, but when it comes to marathon training, the big message seems to be fuel.  Going for a run?  Make sure you fuel up!  Just back from a run?  Fuel up with a 4:1 carb to protein ratio within 30 minutes or else!  Running for more than an hour?  Bring snacks!  Fully grown adult runners are essentially being treated like toddlers. And a lot of us are gaining weight.

As a beginning runner, I hungrily and happily listened to that message and packed on the pounds despite how much I ran.  It was not until I tracked what I ate every day on MyFitnessPal, did I realize how much I was over-feeding myself.  And no, I was not the type of person who justified eating an entire pan of brownies because I ran long that day.  I gained weight because I ate too much healthy food.  My mid-day smoothie habit, for example, full of nutrient-rich plant foods like greens, chia seeds, a banana, some oats, walnuts, almond milk and berries weighed in at nearly 700 calories!  Once I could get an accurate picture of my intake, I made changes and adjusted my portion sizes.  I set the app to lose between a half pound to a pound a week and was able to get to my goal weight on race day.  I’m not going to say it was easy, but running isn’t always easy either.

Food is deeply personal and powerful.  Many people’s lives are destroyed because they eat too much and others because they eat too little.  Some runners who meticulously log every mile, workout, and heartbeat, would think it frighteningly neurotic to track their calorie intake. I think that is a mistake. Calorie and nutrient intake is a critical component of racing and training well so it should be obvious that logging what we eat is yet another data point on the path to a PR. I am not suggesting that every runner record every bite that they swallow for the rest of their lives, but it can be very enlightening to track for a few weeks to see if you can pinpoint ways to improve your habits.  I do not track my intake daily anymore, mostly because I’ve learned what foods and portions work for me.  But when I’m getting ready to start a training cycle, food tracking is a great way get back into the habits that keep me lean.

So what is your ideal race weight? Matt Fitzgerald has a calculator but it requires that you know your body fat percentage.  You can estimate it with some cheap calipers, but the accuracy is not great. I chose to get my body composition analyzed in a BodPod at my local university for $35.  The results in 2015 showed that I was moving in the right direction and was not getting too skinny.  I went back a year later two months before Boston 2016 and was happy to see that although I was about the same weight, I had lost 2.4% body fat and gained 2.5 pounds of muscle.  Even though I ended up adding a couple more pounds by race day, I ran the course more than 15 minutes faster in 2016.

My next challenge is to figure out how to maintain closer to race weight when I’m not racing to avoid the 6-10 pound swing I’m experiencing.  Leaning up for this year’s Boston was harder than the first time and I suspect it will get harder each time.  Some of that will be due to simply getting older of course, but I’m also starting to think about the effects of a slowing metabolism from the weight loss itself.  This article about former contestants from The Biggest Loser regaining all their weight and more is a very interesting look at how hard your body fights to regain weight loss.  I suspect that the very unhealthy way these reality-show contestants lost their weight has a compounding effect, but there may be some good lessons to learn for everyone.

Body weight is an important part of being your fittest and your fastest.  Training and experience will trump being light weight every time, of course, and that only comes with time and hard work.  But I don’t see the long wait as a negative.  It means that I have the capability to continue to improve for a long time, even if my weight isn’t at its lowest.