The Impact of Marathon Training: An N=1 Experiment

I ran my first (and only!) marathon this past November at the age of 35. I spent five months training and, much to my surprise, even longer recovering.

Prior to the training, I was running around 20-25 miles a week, sprinting once a week, doing 2 hours of yoga a week and lifting (heavy) weights 3-4 times a week. I logged an average of 8-9 hours a week on fitness. My cardiovascular endurance was good, my strength was always improving and my bodyfat and weight were consistent (around 18% and 120 lbs, respectively). Once I started training for the race, I had to cut back on the weight training (1-2 times a week; upper body only) and I logged more like 50 miles on the trails.

The changes to my body started about halfway through the program. My weight dropped, hovering around 115. I had to add more calories and carbs (in the form of sweet potatoes) to my diet in order to maintain the energy needed for longer runs. Even though my weight was lower, my bodyfat increased (estimated at 20%) and my pants size went up. I was constantly feeling the effects of inflammation, both visually and in my respiratory and digestive systems. My strength decreased by around 30% and I struggled to do anything that was not a long, slow workout. I could not keep muscle on my frame. Even worse, I was plagued with injuries and illnesses due to overuse and the constant stress on the body.

I was dedicating over 20 hours a week to fitness and I was in worse shape than ever before.

4 months before the marathon

4 months before the marathon

Post marathon

Post marathon

8 months after the marathon

8 months after the marathon

During the race, I suffered an extremely painful IT band injury. As a result, I was unable to run for almost two months after the marathon. Instead, I happily hit the gym again, building back the muscle I had lost and rehabbing the injured leg. As I was able, I slowly added back my shorter runs and sprints, keeping my total mileage to under 25 a week.

It’s been a slow path back to where I was. Age certainly makes it harder to recover and build muscle, but I believe that my body was suffering from too much of the same thing for too long. Now that my routine is more balanced and my total time working out has decreased, I’m finally back. I feel strong again. I fit into my skinny jeans again (even though my weight is back up). I have time to relax again.

My body has definitely sent me the message that it likes to run but it doesn’t like to run distances more suitable to an Atlanta commute. This isn’t the case for every body; I have friends who can run marathons and feel no effects. I, apparently, am not one of them. I’m going to stick to half marathons and shorter from now on:)

I do not regret the marathon. It was an amazing, emotional and transformative experience. But one is enough for me. According to my n=1 experiment, I do better with more weight and fewer miles.

How about you? Any n=1 experiments you want to share?

Related: A Marathon Recap: I Won!



The Teachings of Tendonitis

human sesamoid bones

human sesamoid bones (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So the Peachtree Road Race went off without a hitch. The monsoon held off and the temperatures stayed blissfully mild. I made the decision to run in my Vibrams so that I wouldn’t risk ruining my Mizuno Waveriders in the mud and rain. The result? My Mizunos are safe and sound. Unfortunately, my foot is not.

The Vibrams really aren’t the problem. They were just the final straw. With the freer schedule I enjoy in the summer and the milder temperatures this year, I have been hitting the running trails. I know better than to increase my mileage too quickly. I just ignore my own advice.

And then I pay. I’m prone to tendonitis at the base of the big toe due to an anatomical deviation that affects about 10% of the population (one of my sesamoid bones is split) along with my high arches. It became a problem in 5th grade when I aggravated it by too much tininkling (no, not tinkling:) It’s a Polynesian dance that uses bamboo poles. I pushed through the pain and ended up on crutches.

Since that initial brush with sesamoidsis, I have been relatively trouble free. Whenever I have noticed the first twinges of pain, I have backed off and rested the foot until it heals.

But recently, I ignored that warning. I felt it start to ache a couple of weeks ago but I was enjoying running and yoga too much to back off. So now what started as a minor ache has now become a major pain.

Tendonitis is a tricky injury. As it is usually caused by repetitive motion rather than acute injury, it can sneak up on you. It is slow to heal since tendons do not receive much blood flow. It can be deceptive, with great pain signaling a relatively minor injury and a lack of pain not indicating that it is healed.

As I sit here now, with my foot immobilized and elevated, I share with you the teachings of tendonitis. Maybe you’ll listen better than I did.

Gotta Have Balance

Tendonitis occurs from repetitive motion. Runners, baseball players and tennis players are especially prone but it can happen from any activity. I once developed tendonitis in my thumb from too many pushups from doing Jillian Michaels’ 30 Day Shred every day. Oops. If you are involved in a sport that requires repeated movement patterns, make sure to mix it up. If you run, alternate hills and level ground. Add yoga to your routine to stretch the tendons and surrounding tissues. Tendonitis loves a static routine. So add in some surprises.

Maintain That Form

If your form is altered due to poor biomechanics, an injury or improper training, you are putting yourself more at risk for tendonitis because the joint is not working at its optimal level. It’s worth taking the time to check (or even better, have someone else check) your form to make sure that you are moving efficiently.

Listen to Your Pain

Yeah, this is the hard one for many athletes. Tendonitis hurts but the pain is not so bad (especially at first) that you cannot push through. Don’t. A little rest at the beginning of the injury will pay dividends later. If you play through the pain, the injury will only worsen. Learn to recognize the early pains of tendonitis and take their message seriously.

Take a Break

Just don’t do it.

Accept Aging

I like to pretend I’m still 20 but my body likes to remind me that it’s not. As we age, our tendons (and other tissues) become thicker and less flexible, making them more prone to injury. It’s appropriate to change your routine and the time allotted to rest as you age. Don’t worry, your body will remind you.

10 Things My Running Shoes Have Taught Me About Relationships

My minimalist barefoot-style  running shoes have taught me about running and, in turn, about relationships.  Here is what I have learned:

1)  It’s Better to Feel What is Around You

In regular running shoes, the thick outer sole prevents any contact between your foot and the ground; you are barely even aware of the different environments underfoot.  In Vibrams, the thick sole allows you to discern the difference between soil and sand, asphalt and rock.  It makes for a more  fulfilling run, as you connect with the earth underfoot.  Likewise, allowing yourself to feel in a relationship makes the experience richer and more vibrant.  Be aware of what is around you, tune in to yourself and your partner, expose the soul.

2) Shields Are an Illusion

I used to wear the shoes made to run trails that had a rigid sole and came up higher on the ankle.  I reasoned that these shoes would help to protect me from the dangers that lie along the trail in the form of roots, rocks, and other objects lying in wait ti twist an ankle or stub a toe.  These shoes never prevented any injuries, they simply looked impressive on the outside.  I was guilty of applying the “bigger shield” mentality to  my relationships; I thought if I built up a wall tough enough, it could keep the pain out.  Turns out it doesn’t work.

3) If Something Makes You Uncomfortable, Try Changing Your Approach

In Vibrams, you can’t just barrel through any terrain without thought.  Some surfaces hurt.  A lot. After a few disastrous attempts on a particular patch of earth that is covered in sweet gum balls, I learned to take a different approach through that spot.  I now  view it as a mini obstacle course, bouncing on my toes through the grenade strewn landscape.  I have found that this can  work in relationships, too.  When one approach doesn’t work, instead of giving up or persisting while frustration grows, try shifting to a new approach.

4) Go Slowly

When I first started using Vibrams, I was routinely running 6-12 miles at a stretch.  Luckily, I listened to advice and started out very slowly with the new shoes, running only about a quarter  mile first time out. I still had some discomfort and had to negotiate a learning curve, but I avoided the pain of too much, too soon.  My partner I  took a similar approach  to our relationship, moving slowly, adjusting to each stage and each other.  I think that approach has also helped us to avoid too many growing pains.

5) Flexibility Helps  to Prevent Injuries

Minimalist shoes cause your foot to flex  and bend around barriers.  The more flexible you are, the fewer injuries you will sustain.  In love, too, it helps to  be flexible rather than rigid in one’s ways.

6) A Little Insulation Can Make a World of Difference

My Vibrams had always been  my warm weather running shoes due to their utter lack of any sort of insulation. I made the mistake of taking them out on a relatively warm day last month and I couldn’t feel my toes for hours.  I finally purchased a pair of socks to wear under them for winter runs,and now my toes are happy even when the mercury drops.  In a relationship, the insulation comes in the form of the little things that remind you of the love, even in thr tough times: the notes, the texts, the touches.  They provide the warmth on an otherwise cold day.

7) Work With Your Nature

Barefoot running has taken off partly because of the research supporting a more natural running style.  It teaches you to accept the way you are, the way you move, and work with it, rather than fight against it.  In any successful partnership, the character of each person should be acknowledged and celebrated for what it is  rather than trying to mold it into something it is not.

8) Just Because Something is Unfamiliar, Doesn’t Mean You Won’t Love It

Those first few runs in five fingered shoes felt strange.  Very strange.  Stick with it, before you know  it it’s the regular shoes that feel alien.  A new relationship was like that for me also.  It was disconcerting to be in a familiar place with an unfamiliar person.  I’m glad I stuck it out through the strangeness, because now I love where I am.

9) Be Adaptable

One of my favorite aspects of Vibrams is their adaptability.  They work in water, on the beach, on the road, or in a mud run.  I try to be just as adaptable.

10) It’s Okay to Look Silly

Let’s face it, Vibrams are not the hottest looking shoe around.  In fact, they look downright silly.  And that is okay.  In a relationship, it is okay (in fact, great) to let your hair down and embrace the silly.  With or without the shoes.