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Mixed Results

Posted by Matt Fitzgerald Apr 7, 2009


What is the first piece of advice that Boston Marathon veterans typically give to Boston Marathon newbies? "Be sure to train for the downhills. It's the downhills that will get you." Having had my first exposure to the Boston Marathon in 1983, as a spectator and support crew member, I have been aware of the insidious threat of Boston's sustained downhills for a long time. The best practical tip on preparing for this threat that I have received came from Rod DeHaven (who placed sixth in Boston in 2001), who told me that he prepared by propping up the back end of his basement treadmill and doing sustained runs of up to 17 miles on it.



Accumulating eccentric muscle damage resulting from lack of adequate preparation for downhill running has ruined three marathons that I have run in the past. I'll be damned if I let it happen yet again in Boston 13 days from now. So how have I prepared for its downhills? Until last Sunday I had done virtually nothing. That's because you really have to go out of your way to incorporate sustained downhill running into your training (it usually requires a special trip to just the right point-to-point route) and because my interpretation of the relevant science suggested to me that a single Boston-specific prep workout would do the trick.



I am refering to the research on the so-called repeated bout effect, which is the phenomenon by which a single workout that causes significant DOMS triggers physiological adaptations that greatly reduce the amount of muscle damage that is suffered if the same workout is repeated anytime within the next few weeks. Based on my understanding of this phenomenon I decided to save my "inoculation" for Boston's downhills for 15 days before the race. I would have done something more closely resembling DeHaven's 17-miler if overtraining and injury setbacks hadn't caused me to miss a couple of long runs, but as it was, I decided to perform a workout that did double duty as specific Boston prep and a final stimulus for greater fat burning and glycogen storage capacity.



I went to the fitness center in my apartment complex and propped the back end of a treadmill on a pair of 45-lb. dumbbells. I eased my way up to 6:49/mile and ran for 10 miles. I could feel my quads beginning to stiffen after covering just a quarter of that distance. After reaching 10 miles I removed the dumbbells and ran another 14 miles flat at 6:53/mile.



It was a pretty easy workout, really, but the point wasn't to induce pain during the session itself, but after. And boy did I get what I thought I wanted! The next morning I was almost as sore as I had been the morning after my last marathon. It was weird; energetically I felt as though I could run a solid set of 1K intervals at the track, but my quads were so thrashed that I had to hold onto the banister when walking downstairs. Jogging two miles that morning and another six in the afternoon brought temporary relief (isn't the analgesic effect of exercise a wonder?).



As expected, I woke up just as sore this morning. Probably a little too sore. If I could repeat this experiment I would break my specific Boston prep into at least three incremental sessions: say, 4 miles downhill, then 7, then 10. But I have no serious regrets, as the soreness has not forced me to alter anything I had planned to do in my training, and I am quite confident that I am a significantly more resilient downhill runner than I was just three days ago, thanks to the magic of the repeated bout effect.



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