Strength Training: A Second Factor I Swear Fueled My Recent Marathon Success

When training for a marathon, it’s really important to do more than just run. 20131108-153516.jpg Sure running and running long should be a primary focus of any marathon training plan. However, something I’ve learned over the course of training for 4 marathons is that strength training is a vital aspect to running well, and fast, while also running long. Better yet, when done properly, it will also help your odds of remaining injury-free. Looking back on my marathon history, I attribute the introduction of strength training to my 20 minute drop in my finishing time from my first to my second Marine Corps Marathon. During my first shot at training, I did little-to-no strength training at all. Those who know me will attest to the fact that, at that time, I was just getting into working out in general – I didn’t really know what I was doing, except that I should just make sure I ran the required distances each week – I pulled the “couch-to-marathon” card, and thinking back to it, I understand how that was completely mental a little crazy to do. However, those close to me will also tell you that I don’t do anything half way, and my fiance now often uses the phrase “she’s a person who decides one day to ‘get in shape’ by tackling a marathon” to describe my personality. Hey, go big or go home, right?!

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some of the strength training sessions I like to use to switch things up are on DVDs like these

Anyway, between my first and second marathons, I had been introduced to the Tone It Up program and was reading more about running, racing, and getting fit. I started incorporating some light dumbbell and body-weight exercises a few times a week. Not only did I develop more muscle tone all over, but I ended up dropping a whole 20 minutes off my marathon time and ran the marathon feeling so much stronger! Here’s my reasoning as to why it would benefit any runner to incorporate some strength training into their exercise routine, at least a few times a week:

  1. it can help correct musculoskeletal imbalances that make you more prone to injury. Running only works specific muscles in the body, and even in the legs themselves; when done properly, strength training moves can train the other muscles that tend to be weaker in runners who only pound the  pavement.
  2. it enhances your speed AND endurance. Strength training in runners has been shown in scientific studies to lead to drops in race times, increases in pace, and being able to run longer (1). And we’re not just talking about strengthening your legs! Your upper body, abs, and back are key too!
  3. it helps you keep good form, even when you’re exhausted and in extreme pain discomfort in those last miles.  A strong core helps to: hold you upright to prevent slouching, and keep your torso straight rather than swinging from side to side with the movement of your arms. This improves your efficiency, and a toned tummy has been shown to reduce 5K times by 42 seconds (1). That’s quite a lot in a 3.1 mile race! A muscular upper body makes your arms primed to kick in and pump even more as the miles go on and your legs begin to tire. I swear, it’s incredible how much this helps! Research has shown that a sculpted upper body improves your pace by about 4% (1).
  4. you just FEEL stronger. As I gained muscle mass and tone, along with it came more confidence – in my running, in my body, and in life in general. Feeling stronger also provided me with greater mental fortitude to push through those inevitable physical and mental lows of any marathon. When you feel powerful, you become more powerful.

All four of these aspects came into play during my most recent Marine Corps Marathon a few weeks ago. I cut another 14 minutes off my best time, pushed through my hip pain and exhaustion with so many fewer “walking breaks,” and mentally (as well as physically) was able to propel forward even harder as the race went on – I even ran negative splits the whole way! Ever since that second marathon, I’ve committed more and more time to strength training. Right now, that takes the form of using a combination of free weights, body-weight exercises, and kettlebells, in addition to hot vinyasa yoga classes at Evolution Power Yoga. It’s now commonplace for me to do some type of toning almost every day of the week (I’ll focus on different body parts on different days to avoid fatigue and allow for recovery). I do it so often simply because I’ve grown to love it and the results it has given me. The key, as with any fitness routine, is to find a type you enjoy, stick with it, and switch it up whenever boredom strikes!

Happy muscle toning!

20131108-153700.jpg To catch up on the first part of my marathon recap and my plant-based fueling, click here — References: 1. Cassity, Jessica. “Love Your Run.” SELF. July 2013. 87-91.

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Natural, Plant-based Fueling: One Thing I Swear Fueled My Recent Marathon Success

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This past Sunday, I ran my fourth marathon (and fourth Marine Corps Marathon to be exact).
I also shaved over 14 minutes off my personal best, with a time of 3:46:28!
And, I only walked once at 3 miles from the finish (this is HUGE for me, as I’m someone who walked at least about 10 times in all my other prior marathons)!

Days later, I’m still absolutely elated! After coming off a pretty hefty PR (personal record) at the half marathon level in September, I knew my speed had improved over the past several months, but I was skeptical about how my marathon would go because I have been dealing with a nagging hip injury for the past few months now – some weeks I’d feel fine, only to be driven to limping for days the next. I was honestly kind of just hoping I would be able to finish! Boy, was I surprised!

My hips started bothering me around mile 8, and I instantly got worried. I also was already feeling the nasty blister on my ankle that I got the prior weekend from some new moccasins I wore and walk around in for hours. Luckily, the pain was definitely manageable and ended up waxing and waning until about mile 17, at which point it got consistent… and worse.

The way I run distance races is that I keep running until I absolutely must stop, because the inertia required to get me going again is always so much higher than to just keep running. That’s just how I am, and I’ve found that’s the strategy that works best for me. So I kept going, knowing walking was more than likely in my future, but as long as I could at least “Beat the Bridge” (at mile 20 – the point runners must reach by a certain time or else be cut off from the finish), I told myself I could pretty much guarantee a finish, even if that meant walking (or hey, even crawling!) across the finish line. So I did, and then I just kept pushing, playing mental games with myself and repeating my go-to mantra: “MIND OVER MATTER” until I stopped at 23.2 to shake out my hips. Then, as I kept looking at my watch and knew I had a great chance to actually PR if I could run the rest at about a 10min/mi pace, that was enough motivation to get me moving again. I had put so much of myself into my training and into the race that I knew I just had to give it a shot and keep running as hard as I could. Then, happening to see my loved ones at mile 25 (love you guys!!) cheering me on, gave me the bursts of energy I needed to plug even harder for that last mile and 385 yards. I crossed the finish in a run and with a smile.20131031-184932.jpg

After races, I always reflect on how my training and the race itself went and why. This past weekend, I learned I am so much tougher than I thought! However, I believe that a lot of that “toughness” is due to how I trained my body this time around. And most of all, I attribute my recent marathon success to a whole foods, plant-based fueling plan (see below) and an increase in my strength training (which I’ll cover in my next post!).

Back when I created my marathon training plan this summer, I decided to make nutrition and recovery a key focus.

I’ve been eating a plant-based diet for years now, and I’ve been slowly progressing from that typical college junk-food vegetarian to a mostly whole foods, natural, fairly vegan diet. However in the past, my recovery meals in particular, were my excuse to eat bonafide junk – like pretzels and pop tarts and candy – after a whey-filled Starbucks chocolate potein smoothie, and my fueling during runs still consisted of Powerade and SportBeans. I decided to change that this year by:
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  • switching my recovery smoothie to a homemade green smoothie, filled with Perfect Fit Protein (a sprouted, raw, organic, non-GMO, vegan brown rice protein)
  • changing up my post-long run “treats” to healthier versions because I still wanted to treat myself since I don’t eat much processed food during the week. My personal favorites: So Delicious Coconut Milk Ice Cream and organic sprouted sweet potato chips.
  • really honing in on my weekday nutrition as well – more fruits and veggies so that they made up the bulk of my day’s calories – to create a diet full of nutritious goodness, alkalinity, and anti-inflammatory foods.20131031-185350.jpg20131101-090037.jpg
  • altering my running fuel to consist of medjool dates and plain old water (and coconut water as needed). Perfectly natural and free of artificial flavors and colors.

By making these dietary shifts, I noted some small, but very noticeable changes throughout my training:

  1. my stomach was less rambunctious during my runs
  2. I didn’t get as fatigued after my longer workouts
  3. my digestion was better
  4. I recovered faster. I was able to work out much harder and longer this time than ever before. And despite that hip issue, I was never completely sidelined due to an injury.
  5. my energy levels never bonked during my long runs. I actually never even “hit the wall” during this marathon, which always happened in my ones prior.

Sure, maybe these things can be attributed to some other aspect of my training or my lifestyle this time around, but I really think my change in nutrition played a big part:

When you fill your body with health-promoting, inflammation-busting food packed with vitamins and minerals, that’s what your body has to use to build itself back up after a hard workout, a long run, or even an illness or injury. You’re giving it the building blocks it needs, rather than making it sort through all the processed, chemicalized junk found in the Standard American Diet. Your body doesn’t even recognize that stuff.

I can tell you this much, after Sunday, this girl is going to keep running on plants in the future!

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me and my wonderful sister – she’s always there supporting me!

I’ll also keep lifting those weights, but I’ll get to that next week 🙂

Thanks for reading!!

Do you spend time after a race to reflect on your race and training? What things have you found in your training that work well for you? What will you do differently next time? Leave a comment below..I’d love to hear your stories!

Run Strong: My Top 7 Stretches for Runners

You may or may not know that I’m currently knee-deep into training for my fourth marathon. However, before I started, I spent time reflecting on my previous training and races and set not only time goals for myself, but also goals to improve my running in general. Reflection and goal-setting is something I wholeheartedly believe in, for everyone, not just runners. It’s crucial to take stock of your goals and your life every now and then so that you know where you’re headed (and can appreciate how far you’ve come!).

I decided that one of main focuses this time would be recovery: making sure I rest and give my body what it needs to rejuvenate and build fitness between runs. With recovery, comes stretching/flexibility, which I’ll admit, I often blew off, muttering that it was just a waste of time. However, the more I read about flexibility for runners, the more I felt I needed to add stretching into my post-run routine. In order to make myself do it, I made stretching after each run a goal because I will never let a goal go unmet without a fight.

Stretching and flexibility are very important, not just for runners, but for everyone. While there is conflicting evidence as to whether stretching is helpful for injury prevention, there are many other benefits reaped when you incorporate stretching into your life, at least a few times a week. For example, stretching:

  • increases your range of motion (1): the pounding and motion of running definitely strengthens your legs, but it also makes your muscles short and tight. Stretching will lengthen those muscles, allowing for increased mobility; this can make your stride feel so much better (and easier) and enhance your performance.
  • speeds recovery: stretching has been touted to help hasten recovery from injuries; the act of stretching enhances blood flow to the muscle(s) being stretched, which helps bring good, healing nutrients and oxygen in and take waste away faster (2)
  • improves mood: stretching feels good! When I stopped making stretching a chore, it became almost like giving myself a kind of massage… so relaxing!
  • puts you in touch with your body’s cues and areas of tension: so rarely do we practice self-care, and by taking time to stretch, you learn to listen to how your body feels and assess where you’re carrying excess tension. Than you can address it, feel better, and hopefully catch it before it has a chance to turn into an injury, like a pulled muscle or strained back!

Below are my top 7 go-to stretches for after my run. Remember to move into each position until you feel a slight stretching sensation and that you should not feel any sharp or stabbing pains. This should feel good, not painful! Hold each stretch for at least 20-30 seconds and breathe deeply into the stretch, focusing on relaxing each area.20130820-104516.jpg

  1. Downward Dog: stretches the hamstrings (notoriously tight on runners and can lead to low back pain or pulled muscles and negatively affect your legs’ range of motion and therefore your stride), and calves. Push your tailbone high into the air for best results. Having bent knees in this pose will put a greater stretch on your hamstrings, and “walking out” my legs really helps my calves loosen up.
  2. Runner’s lunge + a quad stretch: stretches your quadriceps on your back leg and your hamstrings on your front leg. Raising your arm (on the same side as your back leg) overhead stretches out that same side hip flexor and psoas muscle, often problem areas for runners. Twist to grasp the ankle of your back leg and pull gently toward your bottom to stretch the quad of the back leg. Lean back with your torso as well as into the lunge for a greater stretch, as tolerated.
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  3. One-legged Pigeon Pose: known in yoga as a “hip opener,” this pose stretches the hip area, piriformis (infamously causing that sore spot across your glute), and iliotibial (IT) band. Be sure to keep your hips square, the thigh in line with your torso and your the foot flexed to protect your knee. Ideally, your calf should be perpendicular to your body. Fold forward only as far as you feel comfortable. You can also do this stretch on your back (shown below right) with one ankle over the opposite knee and pulling your legs toward your chest.
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  4. Seated twist: stretches the hip, IT band, and
    low back. As a bonus, as a twist, this stretch is also a great detoxifier and cleanser of your system. Inhale as you straighten your back, exhale and twist further. Gentle pressure on your bent leg will let you twist even more.
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  5. 20130820-104643.jpgDeep side lunge: stretches your adductors (the inner thigh muscles) and the groin. This pose (along with the previous 4) finishes out stretching the major muscles of the hip/pelvis/leg/low back area.
  6. Trapezius + scalene stretch: these muscles tend to get tight and tender from just everyday life, especially if you sit at a computer desk all day and slouch. I also tend to carry a lot of my stress here, and sore spots in these muscles really hinder my breathing while running (the scalenes attach to your uppermost rib(s)). Extend one arm at your side and use the opposite hand to gently pull the head down toward your shoulder (photo, below left).20130820-104656.jpg20130820-104710.jpg
  7. Chest stretch: the upper body is often neglected in runners, so this stretch (and #6) addresses the upper body. This stretch is good for increasing mobility in your chest wall/ribcage, which could help make breathing deeper easier. Squeeze your shoulder blades together (photo, above right).

I hope you find these stretches helpful, whether post-workout or even as a great, gentle way to wake up your body in the morning.

This post is the first of a “Run Strong” series I’ll be writing every now and then on this blog! During each post, I’ll focus on a different topic to help improve your running! What topics would you like to see covered? Leave a comment and let me know your thoughts!

Have you made stretching a habit or do you tend to blow it off like I used to? What other stretches do you find particularly helpful?

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Resources:
1. Lipman, Frank. “Why Is It Important to Stretch?” 13 Aug 2013. <http://www.drfranklipman.com/why-is-it-important-to-stretch/&gt;.
2. Williamson, Justin. “Why Stretching is Important.” 13 Aug 2013. <http://www.healthguidance.org/entry/15615/1/Why-Stretching-Is-Important.html&gt;.