Boston Marathon Training Part 2: Staying Lean, Getting Sharp

Rice Field in Wrentham.

Unlike the vast majority of people with an interest in health and fitness, I don’t believe the human body is amazing. As humans, we are forced to ride the trajectories of both our biological and sociological evolution. And I believe our biology is lagging way behind.

While centuries of research have given us the blueprint to be healthy, our brains still tell us that french fries — full of oxidized chemicals and artery-clogging oils — are good for our survival. And whenever we get injured, our bodies flood injury sites with so many inflammatory markers that our muscles, joints, and even brains sometimes never recover. In a lot of ways, I believe being fit and healthy is as much about working against your body’s instincts as it is working with them.

Training for a spring marathon in the New England winter is largely about tricking your body to go against its natural instincts. But once you understand your own biology, getting fit is simply a matter of patience and mental toughness.

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About a week into my scheduled rest period following my first block of marathon training, I noticed my mid-section, normally lean enough that I can see my abs, seemed comparatively soft. I stepped on the scale for the first time since the fall and saw that I had put on a good four pounds. Ouch.

(As a quick aside, four pounds is not a lot of weight for anyone other than endurance athletes obsessed with shaving every second off of race times. I know enough about my body to know where I’m at my most efficient in terms of health and performance, and I try to stay within a pound or two of that number at all times.)

I was only seven or so days removed removed from the highest mileage month of my life, so how was it possible that my body actually thought to get bigger? The answers lie in the time of year. During cold periods, the body stores fat, thinking the cushion will help insulate vital organs. What’s more, people naturally tend to move less when indoors, which is where we spend the bulk of our time when it’s 15°F outside. So even while I was logging 70-mile weeks on the roads, my body was using sedentary recovery hours to slowly but surely pocket 1,800 or so grams of dietary fat over the course of two months.

Obviously, our body’s instincts are a few thousand years behind the times when it comes to winter fat storage. Thankfully, however, we can use that same biological flaw to trick our bodies into becoming lean running machines. In the winter, the process just takes more work.

Staying Lean in the Cold — Nutrient Timing and Sauna Sessions

One of the ways I keep fat off of my body is through fasted morning jogs, which I have blogged about extensively in past entries. By staying at a low heart rate and running without any new glycogen in my system, my body releases fat into the bloodstream for fuel to start the day.

In the winter, these runs have been more difficult to get in, largely because of the frigid temperatures and icy roads. But after seeing my body pack on weight, I realized I had to get these runs in, even if I was running minutes-per-mile slower than my average pace. The result has been many mornings of slipping and sliding while bundled in multiple layers.

Another trick to turn fat into fuel is to walk in the hour following a workout — without taking in any calories to recover. The way I usually fit this approach into my day is to grocery shop or do some physical household chore right after a longer run. I am usually starving by this point, but I know that the movement coupled with the caloric depletion will leave my body no choice but to tap into its fat stores for energy. What’s more, the wait to eat allows me to properly re-hydrate, making digestion easier when I actually do reach for a few Lara Bars.

And finally, the most important thing I have been doing to stay lean has also been the newest addition to my training — sauna sessions. I have been spending between 60-75 minutes per week in a 210°F dry sauna, reteaching my body to cool itself in warmer temperatures.

By training in the heat of summer, our bodies naturally become smaller and more efficient so we don’t overheat. The benefits of these reactions are endless — red blood cell improvement, heat shock protein production, a cleaner system from sweat and subsequent re-hydration. If you’ve ever wondered why many of your best races come in the fall, heat adaptation from summer training is your answer.

All of these benefits disappear in the winter, however, which makes training for a warmer spring marathon all the more difficult. In fact, many Boston Marathons have taken place the first truly warm day of the year, leading many fit runners to overheat.

Short of moving to a warmer climate, the best way to combat the seasonal issues of marathon training is to spend time sweating in a sauna. The extreme temperatures give your body the same incentives to stay lean that you’d normally get from summer training. (Indoor treadmill running can also help.)

For the past five weeks, I have been completing sauna sessions between 15-25 minutes — broken into two or three intervals — immediately following workouts. Where I go into the sauna alone, I usually leave a few minutes on the table so I don’t risk passing out. Still, these sessions have been jacking my heart rate, allowing me to sweat, and even loosening up my muscles for the next day’s training.

Thankfully, all of this discomfort is paying dividends — as of now, I am back to my ideal training weight, and I plan on staying here until mid April.

Training and Racing

While the sauna has been the most important new addition to my training, I have also added elliptical sessions to augment my mileage. To me, the elliptical feels very different from running, but it does provide some crossover benefits. I can’t think of a more affordable-to-use machine that allows you to get your heart rate up while you stand in an upright position.

Where I usually log about half of my miles on soft surfaces during the other three seasons, the snow can make winter trail and grass running next to impossible. My entire body struggled with the added stress of road mileage last winter, so I’m determined not to make the same mistakes this year. The elliptical has taken the place of some of my easier road miles, and I am (very slowly) learning how to run in the snow when possible.

After two months of increasing volume, I spent a good portion of January working on speed. But unlike the summer when I focused on typical longer speed workouts, I’m now using fast running in short, targeted bursts so I don’t peak too early in my training cycle. My favorite workout is a 4 x 2-minute session of hard running, which gives me enough time to focus on speed without building up the muscular fatigue that will negatively impact my volume.

I also have subtracted strength work from my routine. Even though I tend to recover faster with a few body weight sessions per week, the amount of stress strength work puts on my central nervous system after a tough run is difficult to handle consistently. I also already get in plenty of heavy lifting from my job, which requires me to pick up and move large boxes at least a few times per week. As much as I love strength work, I just don’t see it as a net positive at this point in my training.

Between running, the sauna, and the elliptical, I have settled into a routine of 10-11 hours of quality cardio per week. I am also making a conscious effort to move more when I’m not training.

I’ve only raced once this winter, taking first at the weekly Fresh Pond race in Cambridge. The series, which has been around for decades, is a big part of Massachusetts’ running history. Over the years, just about every Massachusetts runner, my dad included, has run the race at one time or another. There are no entry fees, medals, or even official records — just people to run with or against and numbered popsicle sticks for finishers.

Usually, the Fresh Pond series gives runners the option to run a 2.5-mile or 5-mile race, and I originally planned to run the latter. But where only about 35 runners showed up on the Saturday I raced, everyone agreed to run the shorter of the two distances.

The usual loop around Fresh Pond was under construction, so we ran an out-and-back with the instructed turnaround point being “the only bench in the park” (which actually was very easy to find). The course was icy in spots, and there was plenty of foot traffic to navigate through, but I managed hit 5:15 splits while staying pretty comfortable. My stride felt smooth, which was encouraging considering the amount of time I have spent working on form. I’m curious to see what I could run for a 10k right now, because even without speed work, I feel like I’m on another level than I was in October.

I encourage every runner to make the Fresh Pond series a bucket list race. The races and the people who organize them are what make this sport so great.

Moving Forward

Training is officially in high gear for Boston. I have less than eight weeks to really sharpen up before my taper, and that means I will be spending as much time as possible running 5:45-6:15 miles in training. My aerobic base is there, and my speed is very close. Now, everything becomes about specificity.

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