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I've never run a good marathon. My first two were completed disasters. At the 1999 California International Marathon I made the classic rookie mistake of overestimating my abilities, running the first 14 miles at 2:43 pace when I was probably in 2:50 shape and then imploding. After tearing off my race number and leaving the course in a state of extreme self-disgust to make a pay phone call to my support crew (my brothers), I eventually resumed running (because my road crew did not answer) and crossed the finish line in 3:23.



My second marathon did not go much better. I ran the first half a little slower than I had in my maiden marathon and consequently bonked a little later, at around 18 miles, but still managed only a 3:11 when I was probably again in 2:50 shape. If bad pacing was the main cause of my first marathon collapse, failure to take in enough carbohydrate was probably the main cause of this second marathon collapse.



My best marathon to date was the 2001 Rock n' Roll San Diego Marathon, where I ran 2:46:42. But even in this race I came somewhat unravelled in the final few miles. I probably lost a full minute in the last mile.



Injuries kept me out of marathons for the next several years, but when I lined up for the 2007 California International Marathon I was nearly in the best shape of my life and fully capable of running sub-2:40--or so I thought. I wound up running a very disappointing 2:47:45. A fierce headwind and lack of preparation for the course's rolling hills accounted for perhaps half the gap between my expectations and reality, but only half. What accounted for the other half? Indeed, what accounted for the unexplained half of my unravelling in every marathon I had ever raced?



I have flirted with the hypothesis that the marathon just isn't my distance. Perhaps, for whatever reason, my body just wasn't designed to go that far at an aggressive pace. But I've run a couple of good half marathons, and I believe that anybody who can run a good half marathon ought to be able to run a good marathon.



I know that I have fueled myself properly in my last few marathons, so I can eliminate nutrition errors from the list of possible explanations. Which leaves only one possibility: I'm just not training right. Some vital ingredient is missing from my recipe for marathon preparation. Specifically, I need to modify my past training patterns in one or more specific ays that enable me to hold speed in those painful last miles. But how?



There are a few ideas I'm currently playing with. One is to do some overdistance runsas much as 50Kto make the marathon distance seem shorter. Perhaps my body needs a surplus of raw endurance that it's never had. Another idea is to make my hardest marathon-pace run harder than it has been in the past--perhaps 16 miles instead of 13 or 14. A third idea is to incorporate into my peak training a workout that's just a little shorter than a marathon and just a little slower than my goal marathon pace: maybe 24 miles at 6:20 pace (supposing my goal pace is 6:00). A lot of elite marathon runners do this type of workout, but I never have.



Aside from trying new types of peak workouts, I might also try a couple of other things. In the past I have really marginalized speed training in the peak phase of my marathon training. Next time I might maintain more balance in my training straight through the taper. Already I've started to experiment with doubles (two runs a day). Perhaps that alone could take me over the marathon wall. Finally, in past marathon ramp-ups I may have overeached a bit too much at times by trying to pack too many miles into my "easy" days. Next time I might maintain a bigger gap between my hard runs and my easy runs so that I don't wear myself down.



The marathon is a riddle, but that's half the fun of it. I'm excited to test some of these ideas and see what sorts of results they produce.



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Currently I'm working on an article for Runner's World entitled "Run Any Race in Four Weeks." This catchy title represents a clever way to hook readers into reading an article on nonlinear periodization. The way I pitched the article to the editors at Runner's World was this: The typical runner allows his base fitness level to fall far below peak level between major races. Volume is sharply reduced, the long run distance comes way down, and high-intensity workouts are all but phased out. Many elite runners, by contrast, maintain a high level of well-rounded fitness year-round by keeping their running volume fairly high and keeping a variety of different workout types in their regular training regimen. This allows them to peak very quickly and effectively for races with a short period of very challenging race-specific training. The typical runner should take a page from the elites and reap the benefits of nonlinear periodization.



Nonlinear periodization may be thought of as a philosophy of staying within shouting distance of the fitness level required to race well at any distance at all times. Training is consistent, balanced, and moderately challenging at most times. Training in this way enables the runner to take on a very high training load with minimal risk of injury or overtraining when it comes time to sharpen for a race and thus to peak at a very high level of performance.



Runners who fail to practice nonlinear periodization have to play catch-up through most of the training process. They have to devote a much longer period of time to focused preparation for a race. This is true even if they have not allowed their training volume to drop very low. Simply cutting back too much on high-intensity training will put them in a similar hole, because they will have to spend large amounts of time working to shore up weaknesses.



As I do so often these days, I relied on Brad Hudson as my expert source for this article. He is a major proponent of nonlinear periodization and practices it very effectively with Dathan Ritzenhein and his other runners. You can learn more about Brad Hudson's training methods on his website and in his forthcoming book, Run Faster, which I coauthored. And be sure to check out my article in the June issueof Runner's World!



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EZ Does It

Posted by Matt Fitzgerald Mar 11, 2008

The EZ Run Belt is the curious invention of Joe Sparks, a student and teacher of Nicholas Romanov's Pose method of running. This device is designed to aid runners in learning Pose running by preventing them from overstriding. Its design is very simple. It consists of little more than a belt and ankle cuffs. A pair of bungee chords is hooked to the back of these parts so that the chords run behind the hamstrings and calves, applying tension that tends to bend the knees unless the tension is resisted.


Joe Sparks recently sent me an EZ Run Belt to try, and try it I did. Now, it must be noted that I taught myself not to overstride a few years back by switching to minimalist running shoes (which discourage the heel-first footstrike that is characteristic of overstriding) and by using the proprioceptive cues I describe in my book Brain Training for Runners. So when I first began running with the EZ Run Belt I did not notice any change in my stride, although I felt the resistance, for sure.



But then I tried reverting to my old heel-first stride, and I was delighted to find that the bungee chords' tension forced me to begin retracting my swing leg in the moment preceding footstrike, as every runner should do but as only the fastest runners actually do. Most runners just passively allow their foot to drop to the ground and then they initiate backward thrust. Better runners activate their glutes and hamstrings and begin to open up their hips just before the foot lands, effectively beginning the thrust phase of the stride prior to impact. This not only prevents overstriding but it also reduces ground contact time and boosts efficiency.



It is possible to correct overstriding without learning to begin retracting the swing leg before footstrike, and I did just that when I changed my form a few years back. I made my switch from a heel-first to a midfoot landing by angling my whole body forward from the ankles, as Romanov also teaches. I've been lazier about forcing myself to begin the backward thrust before footstrike, however. So I was intrigued that the EZ Run Belt seemed to encourage this correction.



After testing the EZ Run Belt I still feel that switching to minimalist running shoes and using proprioception (that is, body awareness) are the two best means to correct overstriding. The use of proprioception is utterly indispensible. But I believe that the EZ Run Belt could complement proprioceptive efforts to correct overstriding by teaching the runner what it feels like to begin retracting the swing leg before footstrike. For this reason I would recommend using the EZ Run Belt in a slightly different way than Joe Sparks does.



Sparks recommends wearing the belt for one to five minutes at a time. I would instead encourage the runner to run for 30 seconds with the belt and then unhook the bungee chords from the ankle cuffs and immediately run 30 seconds normally, during which time the runner should concentrate on recreating the feel of running with the belt as fullyl as possible. This process would be repeated several times to encourage a translation of the EZ Run Belt's corrective effect to free running. Because, ultimately, if you can make yourself run right without technical aids, you cannot change your stride.



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The Maffetone Method

Posted by Matt Fitzgerald Mar 3, 2008


Phil Maffetone was an endurance sports coach who made his name by developing a training philosophy that was characterized by an extreme overemphasis on the importance of fat metabolism. He taught his athletes to do virtually all of their training at a very low intensity to maximize fat metabolism and stimulate physiological adaptations that increased the body's capacity for fat oxidation in subsequent workouts. Over time, Maffetone believed, the athlete would be able to swim, bike or run faster and faster at the same, low, fat-burning intensity. (I'm using the past tense not because Maffetone has passed on, but rather because he seems to have reinvented himself as a musician.)



There are a numerous problems with the Maffetone Method. The fact that the body's ability to increase its fat burning capacity is far more limited than Maffetone believed is the smallest of them. A much greater problem is that it's impossible to maximize performance in standard endurance sports events such as half-marathons and Olympic-distance triathlons without doing a fair amount of training at high intensities. Threshold workouts, VO2max intervals and even all-out sprints produce valuable fitness benefits that complement those resulting from slow and steady workouts, which simply cannot replicate these complementary benefits on their own.



Having said this much, I have very recently come to a place where I appreciate the value of exercising at a very low intensityspecifically, of running at a very slow pacemore than I did before. I did not come to this place voluntarily. My body seems to have been seriously disrupted by my recent relocation and return to outside-the-home work for the first time in seven years. I've been running very poorly ever since my return to San Diego. For a while I tried to get through it with the right mixture or patience and pushing, but recently I decided to try another tactic. I cut out all of the threshold runs, interval workouts, and even moderate-intensity base runs that were causing me such misery and replaced them with what I generally consider to be recovery runs, in which I run as slow as necessary to feel comfortable, even if my pace is utterly embarrasing to my ego.



I have found that, by essentially embracing necessity in this way, I am indeed able to "feel good" once again when running, and one should feel good when running most of the time, even when training very hard. I'm also able to spend just as much time running as before, and I've even begun to take advantage of the gentleness of my training by going longer than I had been planning to do before I took evasive action. Yesterday I did my first two-hour run in a while.



My rationale for taking this approach has little to do with fat metabolism and everything to do with the nervous and immune systems. I saw my poor running as a symptom that my body was under stress. I changed my training in a way that heeded my body's message to me yet without sacrificing my desire to maintain (or regain) a high level of fitness. I certainly have not yet reaped benefits that will allow me to once again run faster and comfortably, but I think I'm on my way. In any case, I'm now planning to continue running very slowly longer than is strictly necessary, as a little experiment to see how far the Maffetone Method can take me.



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