Over the past year, I’ve noticed that the singular post that has brought the most newbie runners to this humble blog of mine was this. I am not exactly sure why that particular post garnered such attention from the running community, since it was neither very well-written nor very educational, and I am somewhat embarrassed to re-read the very words that I’d written just a short year ago. I surmise that most of the readers who somehow landed on that post were searching for some advice, inspiration and/or guidance on the 20-mile training run. Poor, poor souls. I bet they didn’t know how clueless I was back then about marathon training in general or running 20 miles in particular. It was definitely a case of the blind leading the blind.
So now, since the experience is somewhat fresh from having conquered the distance in training this morning, I’m here to post an updated version of that post, an amendment if you will. I’m going to list some tips and suggestions to help guide you on your long runs, and afterwards I’ll provide examples of how it was put to action in my 20 mile run this morning (which I rocked by the way!). Hopefully, unlike the last time, this time we’ll all actually learn something in this endeavor.
The Laminator’s Guide to Rocking The 20-Miler
1. Prepare adequately. There’s a reason this is number 1. It cannot be emphasized enough. No one can just roll out of bed and run 20 miles without giving it much thought. Well, I guess there are those people…but those people aren’t reading this blog. So for the rest of us, we must eat properly, hydrate adequately, and sleep sufficiently to have a fighting chance of doing well on that 20-miler. Planning in advance everything you will need on training day to complete the journey not only helps you physically and mentally to prepare for the challenge ahead but also provides a psychological boost through positive visualization that you’ll have all you need to complete the distance.
For my run today, I’d been preparing for last two days. I made sure I was adequately hydrated and ordered a bigger plate than usual for dinner last night. I got about 8 hours of sleep the night before, and even got new bed linens to make sure the sleep was as comfortable as possible.
2. Map out an appropriate course to meet your interest and your training needs. Take the time to map out a trail that will be both new/interesting to you and will fit your goals. Don’t just run where you usually train, unless where you train is particularly fascinating to you. Instead, use this opportunity to explore a new part of town or an area that will provide a change of scenery. Believe me, when you’re struggling through the middle miles wondering when you’ll be done, it helps if you’re slightly intrigued by where you’re running and what you’re seeing.
For my run today, instead of running loops around
3. Pick a good weather day for your run. Okay, I know we don’t have much control over the weather gods, but at least you can choose to run during the most pleasant part of the day, or at least avoid running during the parts of the day when the weather is the most brutal, no?
We had absolutely perfect running weather in the city this morning. It was cloudy with a definite chill in the air when I woke this morning and it was overcast with temps in the low 50s when I started my run. I was actually a bit worried when starting at mile 5, a light drizzle began to develop. On the path where I was running, I was fully exposed to the wrath of the elements, and given my disdain for running long miles in the rain (see my latest race report for a recap if you’re wondering), I was contemplating aborting the mission to find cover if the rain got any heavier. Luckily for me, after another fifteen minutes, the light drizzle gave way to a beautiful sun which reflected off the
4. Run with good music or a good training buddy, if possible. This is mandatory for the dissociative types who like to distract themselves when out for the run, but optional for the reflective types who like to immerse themselves in their own thoughts and their surroundings. I’m a member of both camps depending on circumstance, so I can appreciate the sentiments of those who do and those who don’t. So for those who do, please do, and those who don’t, don’t. However, a word to the wise, please don’t use the 20-miler as your first experience switching camps. Try it out on a short training run first.
Today, I ran with some running podcasts as I had found myself somewhat behind in listening to all the new episodes. I was entertained by the latest episode of the Runner’s Round Table and inspired by Steve’s biographical account of Sir Roger Bannister on Phedippidations. I had always known that he was the first person to break the 4 minute barrier for the mile, but I had never known that he was a fellow doctor, just like me. How fascinating! I know I’ll never break any records in the running arena, but I’m hoping that I can use my medical knowledge to help me improve in my training, and ultimately my medical career will take off as a result of my running as well.
5. Make a hydration & nutrition plan prior to starting and stick to it. Before embarking on your run, you should have a pretty good idea of when you’re going to drink and eat and where you’ll find a fountain or a store for replenishing your supply. Don’t go out thinking you’ll just “find something” on the way. You really don’t want to think about that during the middle miles when you’re already struggling. Also, make a deal with yourself to drink from the very beginning, and not to wait until you’re feeling the effects of thirst. Research shows that by the time you feel thirsty, you’re already 15-25% dehydrated, which will make it that much more difficult to run well.
What I did today was make a plan with myself to bring my usual Gatorade/water mixture and drink a couple of sips every 2.5 miles. There were fountains everywhere along the course so I didn’t have to worry too much about running out of fluids. Because today was a cool and overcast day, I wasn’t so thirsty in the first half of the run. Yet, I still forced myself to execute the hydration strategy as planned. I think it worked rather well as I never felt dehydrated even in the final miles, where I usually bonk. As for gel, I took just one GU gel today, at mile 12.5. I had another one just in case I needed it at mile 18, but I decided against it when I was already flying around the bend in
6. After the first few miles, allow yourself to make some in-run adjustments. No matter how you prepare or what your intentions are, your run is never going to go exactly as planned. As such, it’s important to assess how you’re doing every few miles during the run and make adjustments as necessary. Don’t just burn down the road at a predetermined speed just because you have it in your mind before you began that you were going to run a particular pace or a particular time. Take inventory of the weather, your running efficiency, your heart rate, any unsuspecting injuries, and then decide if you should forge ahead or make some slight adjustments. Remember that it’s often not the guy who trains the hardest that wins the race, but the one who trains the smartest.
During the first few miles today, I ran very gingerly because I didn’t know how my body was going to feel running in the cold and whether my various injuries would flare up. However, after running cautiously for the next five miles or so, I stepped up the pace for two reasons. First, for the first time in a long time, I was feeling no pain while I was running. There was no twitch or cramp or spasm even as I ran up and down two bridges. That gave m the confidence to push my pace a bit. Second, although the rain had come and gone, I was still afraid that it might come back full force at any time, so I took it upon myself to run a bit above a relaxing long run pace to get home as quick as possible. After taking my gel and replenishing my liquids at mile 13, I got swept in a wave of endogenous endorphins, otherwise known as “runners’ high” as I couldn’t keep the pace slow enough for my body to feel satisfied, so again, the pace got cranked a bit quicker. When I arrived at the park at mile 18, I was back in familiar territory, with familiar sights and sounds all around me. The sun was shining brightly now, and I remember explicitly watching the sun shimmer colors on the blouse of a little girl who was having a picnic with her mom on the Great Lawn. “Ain’t life grand!” I thought to myself as I pumped myself up and sprinted next to her all the way to the finish, hoping along the way that she’d see me and be inspired to take up running. What a dork am I for having such thoughts in mile 18 of a 20 mile long run? Where was the achiness, the fatigue, the wanting to die so I wouldn’t have to take another step? I had none of that today, and eventually wound up running a negative split for the duration of the run. Figure that one out.
7. Break the long run into smaller and more manageable pieces. To anyone who knows anything about running, 20 miles is a far distance to run. If you tell someone you’re going to run 20 miles, you’re bound to elicit some sort of reaction, be it sympathy, jealousy, admiration, or ridicule. However, if you change that distance to 5 miles, most runners wouldn’t even bat an eye. My suggestion then is to use that inherent disconnect to your advantage. Instead of fixating on the distance of 20 miles, think of it as 4 x 5 miles. The game I play with myself is to imagine each 5-miler as quarters in a basketball game, so that psychologically, I’m thinking about running the first 5 miles just as a warmup; then another 5 miles to get to half-time; 5 more miles and I’m through the third quarter; and the last 5 brings me to the finish. While I’m on the road, I focus on running each segment as best I can, without worrying what happened in the segment before or what will happen in the segments to come. It has helped tremendously to break down the mystique of the 20-miler into something that is less daunting and totally do-able.
Today was the second time I’ve used the 4 x 5 mile method of deconstructing the long run and it was a blazing success. Because I approached each segment individually, I was able to work through the particular challenges of each segment and not worry about what was to come 5 or 10 miles later. It worked particularly well with my hydration plan, since I was planning to hydrate every 2.5 miles, which was half a segment. So even within each segment, I had something immediate to look forward to which helped to keep me focused.
8. Maintain a steady pace and pay attention to your heart rate. Successful pacing is one of the skills that seasoned marathoners spend decades to perfect. As such, one of the places where you will learn proper pacing is through your long training runs. The trick is to maintain as even a pace throughout your run as this is the most efficient means to travel from point A to point B. Sudden excursions up or down in pacing will add to your energy expenditure as it takes more energy to accelerate and decelerating than to run at a constant velocity. Monitoring one’s heart rate either with a monitor or by paying attention to the cadence of your breathing is also important to success on the road. Everyone operates on an aerobic threshold above which energy production cannot be maintained for very long. What this translates to is that if you find yourself huffing and puffing at mile 12, when you know you’ve got 8 more to tackle, you’ll either have to drop your pace and your expectations to a less strenuous level, or expect to face the consequences 2 or 3 miles down the line.
Despite achieving a negative split for my run, I was acutely aware of my heart rate and breathing cadence for most of the trip. Case in point, my average heart rate for the entire run was only 149 bpm, which is lower than any run I did this whole week. Although I was moving fast, at no point was I laboring or working hard to breathe. I was so relaxed throughout the long journey that I almost felt as if I was practicing yoga.
9. Try to smile when you see fellow runners approaching from the other direction. Yes, I know it’s hard, especially when you’re feeling like crap and wondering why they’re out there blocking half the road. Chances are however that these days, they’re probably out there for the same reasons that you are, just trying to survive one more run until their goal race comes around. All runners are cut from the same mold…we all have the same concerns, the same thoughts, the same aspirations…so why not show a little love and respect to someone who’s going through the same thing you are. And trust me, what goes around, comes around.
Yes, even I, got around to smiling and saying Hi to people on the road as I passed them by today. And you know what, a whole bunch smiled and said Hi back, which I never expected. There were also quite a few who carried such big grins on their faces as they were running that it felt as if they were holding back a big funny secret from the rest of the world. Fortunately for us, I think we’re in on it!
10. Push the last mile as if you were running the last mile of the marathon. People tend to drag themselves through the last mile of a long run with a “Just get it done” attitude that I find somewhat disconcerting. You’ll suffer through pages and pages of a novel hoping for a meaningful ending. You rate movies based on how the storyline unfolded in it’s conclusion. Heck, we judge the entirety of the regular season based on how well our sports team perform in the final game leading up to the playoff (In my case, the Mets, didn’t do so hot!) So, why should we approach running any differently? Instead, run the last mile with gusto, with pizzazz, knowing you did something amazing and worthwhile. Pump your hands in the air and let everyone know you just ran 20 miles and accomplished the lofty goal you set out for yourself at the beginning of the day.
True to form, I ran the last mile like a man possessed, averaging a tad under my tempo pace of 6:40 min/mi. When I finished, I smiled knowing I had just run the best 20-miler in my last attempt at this distance before the marathon. I celebrated by grabbing a jumbo sized Jamba Juice, some lunch, and sitting down to write this gargantuan post!
Thanks for reading, and happy weekend running to all!