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The Things I'm Doing To Become A Better, Stronger, Faster Runner
I attempted a speedwork session this morning.
The plan was to follow an old workout Coach Cane used to give me when I was training for the Hamptons Marathon:
- 1 mile warm-up
- 1 mile at 5K pace (or sub-8:00, whatever we’re working with here)
- .3 mile recovery jog
- 1 mile at 5K pace
- .3 mile recovery jog
- 1 mile at 5K pace
- .3 mile recovery jog
- 1 mile cool-down
I realize that many of you will refer to this as “mile repeats” or “3 x 1 mile repeats” or some other fancy way of writing out what I just did in bullet points. But to me, writing it this way makes the most sense, and for a long time I had no idea what a “3 x 800” or whatever was.
So I wanted to throw in some speed to today’s run. Apparently, however, today was not my day.
I did my warm-up. Great. Wonderful. Easy.
As I headed up to the Reservoir — and spotted Mary Wittenberg of New York Road Runners fame — I started to pick it up for the first mile. I didn’t want to look down at my watch too much, because I want to get used to running by feel and not letting the Garmin do all the work.
At one point, I looked down because I felt good, like I was running hard, and was psyched to see a 7:37 show up as my current pace. I knew I needed to reel it in a bit if I was going to maintain a strong pace for three miles, but I kept pushing as best I could.
And then I slowed down, I guess too much, because my first mile clocked in at 8:02.
I regrouped, jogged for .3 miles, and then picked it up again. This repeat kicked my butt. Even though I was throwing myself into the run, pushing hard and working as best I could, I couldn’t seem to break the 8:20 pace. I did, according to my splits, but I didn’t go sub-8:00 as I would have liked.
I vowed to go all out on the third repeat, and I happily ran this one — a mile and a half, actually, because I felt solid — at a 7:47 pace. Still not quite as fast as I’d like on a third repeat, but at least it was better than the second one.
As I cooled down for a few miles to hit 7 miles total for the day, I did a mental replay of my run. It wasn’t my best. I did a Chisel class at the gym last night — plus I’m coming off a stellar 15-miler from the weekend — and my legs felt a bit fatigued. And maybe it just wasn’t my day. So I shook it off, acknowledged that it “wasn’t my best run, but also wasn’t my worst,” and moved on.
While I jogged home, I realized, “Holy crap, I have changed.”
I used to beat myself up when I didn’t have a perfect run. Whether it was because my stomach hurt (all good today! yay!) or my pace felt “too hard,” I would obsess over the details and let it bring me down for a least a significant part of my morning. Until I ate my trail mix, roughly, at which point all things are always wonderful again.
After that disheartening-but-I’m-way-over-it-now Las Vegas Half Marathon, I wrote a post that was therapeutic for me. I’d had a tough race. I trained hard for the half, I wanted to PR, and it didn’t come together for me out on the course that night. Now I can look back and say, “OK, it didn’t work out. It will eventually. It’s OK, Crazy Ali.”
But at the time I beat myself up, and I got a comment on that post regarding my immaturity as a runner.
At first, the comment stung. I was already a little sensitive because I was in the process of mentally kicking my own butt, but I was starting to feel better after writing it all out and reflecting for a bit. When I first read that comment — “this alone makes me realize the immaturity as a runner” — I was sad. Ouch, man. But then I thought about it some more, and I realized that I really am an immature runner — and that’s OK! I haven’t been doing the distance running thing for long and I still have so much to learn. I’m trying to gain as much knowledge as I can so that I can be a better runner, and I’m slowly starting to figure out which things work for me and which things don’t.
Today, I felt proud that I finished that last repeat without giving up, and that I reflected on the run, realized the reasons it may have been tough for me, and moved on. That, to me, is a sign that I’m maturing as a runner. Finally.
Now, any advice I may have comes from a place of experience, not of actual knowledge. I’m no running coach, I have no degrees to show off in order for you to trust me (unless you count a print journalism major and Spanish minor — hola, amigas, bueno!) and I’m certainly no superstar athlete.
But! I have made some changes to my running habits over the past few months, and I think they’re helping. So now I will share those things with you, because maybe you’ll find them interesting or helpful or silly or pathetic. I don’t know. Here you go:
I tweaked my form ever so slightly. When I first started running longer distances, I noticed that my shoulders and neck were always sore the next day. A-ha! Signs of a shrugged-shoulder runner. I spent time trying to relax my arms as I ran, but I always felt awkward, like I was swinging them too much, and was exerting too much effort in my upper body. After watching the New York City Marathon in November, I developed a minor obsession with Buzunesh Deba, who came in second that day.
I think Buzu is the coolest, and I love catching her training in Central Park on the weekends. I noticed that she runs with her arms up very high, and I think that looks cool, so I tried it one day. And interestingly, it felt good! It felt comfortable. Now I don’t know if, for me, this is good form or bad form or lazy form or awesome form, but I know that lately I’ve been holding my arms slightly higher as I run, and I like it.
I stopped taking pictures on my runs. I look back on my old posts and I am confused. I ran 11 miles and I have 23 photos to show for it? How does that even make sense. How was I running if I was working on my professional running photography career? Ah right, I would run, see something cool, and stop to take a picture of it. And I think that’s fine for some people, and that’s fine on recovery days. But these days, when I’m out for a run, I’m out for a run. No more playtime. Focus.
I stopped running with my phone in my hand. I will never forget the email I got from Coach Cane after he saw — and was surely horrified by — my Brooklyn Half Marathon race photos.
I will never forget that email because I have it saved in my “Coach Cane” folder. Here is what it said: You gotta lose the phone. If you want music, wear a shuffle. Carrying anything in your hand throws off your stride. I can tell a runner with “ipod arms” a mile away. One arm moves, one stays tucked and nearly motionless.
Now he’s the professional you can trust taking advice from. Since that race, I’ve stopped doing serious races with anything in my hands. I still carry my phone on me during long training runs, because if I’m going to get attacked on the West Side Highway I’d at least like to call my mom to say “what up” before I’m thrown into the Hudson River. (I’m sorry, Mom, for that super-sick thought. Don’t worry. I’m all good and safe and stuff.) But I don’t carry it in my hands, particularly in the winter. Instead, I make sure my clothing has pockets where I can stash it, that way my arms and hands are free for swinging. And waving to tourists. And shoving people out of my way.
I stopped being so batshit crazy and beating myself up after every run. I wrote about this already. But to me, the mental game has proven to be just as much of a battle as the physical one. I’m learning to tone down the brain madness and not obsess over my runs and races. It’s never the end of the world (unless the above Hudson River scenario happens in which case that would, in fact, be the end of my world).
I cooled it with the Monday doubles at the gym. I used to love hitting up the gym on Monday nights for a grueling Chisel class (mmmmm weight lifting!) followed by Melinda’s always-intense spin class. It was 90 minutes of sweating and I loved it. But when I realized that Coach Cane scheduled speed sessions for Tuesday mornings, I quickly realized that my Monday night plan had to change. If I want to spin, that’s fine, but I can’t get angry when I’m not fast on Tuesday mornings, because it will be no one’s fault but my own. And Melinda’s.
Now I run with them so I can try and keep up. I have way too much pride to let a running buddy speed ahead and leave me in her dust. Yeah it’s scary at first to agree to run with a 3:03 marathoner, but I know that doing so will make me stronger — even if I’m sprinting and she’s on a “recovery run.”
That’s all for now. I’m working on my mental game, pushing my speed and ditching the constant photo-taking. If I’m gunning for a 3:59 marathon this year, it’s not going to happen with a giant iPhone in my hand.
AND BECAUSE SHARING IS SPECIAL: I’d love to hear any tips and tricks you have for becoming a better runner. I know that none of us are experts (though if you are, for the love of running, chime in!), but I always like hearing things that work for other people and seeing if they’ll work for me, too. Let’s all get faster together, shall we?