It’s been a year since I started taking distance running seriously, and lately, I’ve been getting the itch to take on a big challenge. Last month, I had a few weeks of downtime to think about what I wanted that challenge to be, and I seriously contemplated running an ultra marathon in August.
When it comes to running, I’m naturally a slow-twitcher all the way. Any “speed” I’ve been able to develop this past year has been the result of lots of hard, anaerobic hill running. On top of that, I’m turning 27 this fall, so I’m already fighting the fast-twitch clock. Stamina, on the other hand, seems to come a lot easier. So in terms of where I would be the most competitive, ultra running would make the most sense in the long term.
But at the end of the day, my heart is still in road running. I grew up watching my dad run in the very competitive Massachusetts road racing scene, and I’m still inspired by those memories. My dad is also still ridiculously fit and fast at 53 years old, and nothing fires me up more than toeing the line of races with him right there. And there are so many little things I love about road running – the level of competition, the feeling of my shoes bouncing off the springy pavement, the level of speed that’s just not attainable on the trails.
So after a lot of thought, I’ve made the decision to run the Philadelphia Marathon this November. There will be a handful of world-class runners and loads of elite regional runners on the starting line, so the race will give me the opportunity to see just how fast I can get using my current training methods and plant-based diet. This blog will document my training, nutrition, and more over the next six months.
April 10th-May 1st
I was in the shape of my life in mid-March. After really upping my training for the Sarasota Music Half Marathon in early February, I got in a few weeks of much-needed rest and felt incredible as I started a new training block. During just the fourth week of that block, I did an 11-mile run on a dirt trail at 6:06 pace without my heart rate ever reaching the lactate threshold zone.
But a few days later, a doctor found a potential heart murmur during a routine physical and advised me not to run until I underwent an echo cardiogram, which couldn’t be scheduled until April 8th. I listened to his advice, but still continued to stretch and do plyometrics as I waited to get the test. During one of my plyo sessions on a rainy day, I slipped, came down hard on my right ankle, and soon found myself walking around on crutches. I thought I might be sidelined for 6-8 weeks,
Despite all that, I was running again by April 10th. The murmur turned out to be nothing, and my ankle healed up incredibly quick. Probably the best quality of the plant-based diet is its anti-inflammatory effects on the body. During my injury period, I loaded up on curry powder, sage, and heaps of vegetables, and sure enough, my ankle rapidly recovered.
It felt great to be running again, but after just a few days of moderate efforts, it was clear I had lost a LOT of fitness in the two-and-a-half weeks I was on the sidelines. The reality of distance running is that there’s very little you can do besides running to get faster. Every day I wasn’t able to run, I stretched, did loads of core work, and kept moving (by walking and crutches walking). But in terms of running-specific fitness, all of that probably equated to a few 20-minute jogs. So during my first two weeks back, I felt slow, sore, and bogged down.
As I found myself getting back into the swing of things, I mostly focused on logging easy miles on the grass and trails. I knew my connective tissue couldn’t handle my usual volume on the roads, but I wanted to make sure my arteries didn’t get too clogged up as I waited for my body to adapt to higher mileage. I found about a mile stretch of soccer and lacrosse fields in Wrentham, so I’ve been doing a lot of miles in the grass out there.
Last week, I ended up pulling my training back so I could be fresh for a cross-country run this weekend. The run was a little erratic (I literally had to stop three times due to a wrong turn and foot traffic), but after looking at the Strava data, I’m really happy with the effort. On the portions of the run where there was open space, I was hitting between 5:05-5:30 pace, even on the grass. The only times that pace slowed were during a few moderate hills (after which I was able to keep cruising) and in the foot traffic (there was one stretch where I was running something like 6:30 pace trying to avoid walkers). And of course, having to come to a complete stop is a huge rhythm buster.
In terms of food, I’ve been adding in more fat to my diet since I’ve been home from Florida. Because I’m not training for any immediate races, I figured it would be a good time to ramp up my hormonal production, even at the expense of a few extra pounds. It’s not healthy to stay at “racing weight” year round, so I basically made the decision to get the weight gain out of the way with before I began ramping up my training.
In addition to my fatty staples – sunflower butter, cashews, and moderate amounts of cacao – I’ve been a bit more lenient in eating foods with added oils like Clif Bars. As a runner, I believe there are very, very few situations where ANY vegetable oils are beneficial, but they’re absolutely everywhere, and avoiding them sometimes seems like a full-time job. It felt good to relax for a few weeks and just be normal. On top of that, I ate some fatty things like chia seed pudding and cashew milk ice cream.
Aside from the extra fat, my diet has been pretty much the same: Loads of carbs through cereals, fruit, brown rice, and quinoa, and loads of vegetables and spices. Check out my staple recovery meal, which I eat at least four times per week.
A New Approach to Training
After three weeks of training, my fitness is probably around 90% of where it was in mid-March. That’s a pretty good place to start, considering I’m looking to focus more on the long-term moving forward.
The big change I’m making is to both slow down and run more on my easy days. I’ve been reading a lot about the training of elite Japanese marathoners, who log loads of miles around 8:00 pace. Running that slow has the enormous benefit of allowing them to run more, and I want that type of “time volume” in my training.
What drives me crazy about running is that there are only so many hours a week you can train before your body stops benefiting. When I was filming Wing Chun Blast, I was able to train around the clock because Wing Chun has such a large mental component. After an hour of Chi Sau, I could go home and study film for another three hours. Running is much more physical, so I’ve been limited to the training my body can handle. I like the idea of spending more time on the roads, developing the “skill” of running, even if that means slowing down my overall pace.
I’m also going to continue to do a lot of training on the grass to develop leg strength in some much needed areas. A good rule of thumb in distance running is to focus on where you’re weak, and for me, that means running on soft surfaces. Over the next month or so, I’m going to continue logging miles on the grass to develop my leg muscles that still have a lot of room for improvement.
With the grass/roads terrain mix, I’m hoping to bump up my mileage in the 65-75-per-week zone in the next six weeks or so. In Florida this winter, I was able to get in a few 12-14-hour cardio weeks between running and cycling, so I don’t see the increase as being too much.
And for speed, I’ll still be hitting a few miles every week at aerobic threshold and lactate threshold with some strides and hill sprints sprinkled in. The more I compete, the more I realize that fast, relaxed running is the key to consistently getting the most out yourself on race day. So before I start hammering intervals, I’ll be looking to improve my comfortable pace through smooth, but quick running.
As far as diet goes, the only oil I’ll be eating is what’s added to Clif Bars. Aside from that, it’s going to be loads of carbohydrates and minimal fat/protein intake. If I had to guess, I’d say my macros will be somewhere around 70-75% carbohydrates, 12-15% fat, and 12-15% protein.
Goals for the Summer and Philly
Through my training, I hope to hit two peaks between now and November. The first will be on July 17th for a local half marathon, where I’m shooting to break 1:13. The second will obviously be November 20th for the full marathon.
According to a few pace conversion tools, a realistic marathon time for me will be somewhere around 2:38-2:50. But calculators and past performances of other runners aren’t going to define how I plan on racing come late November. How I perform in Philly is 100% up to me. And I’m not placing any limits on how fast I plan to run.