I remember being in high school in the late-80s and finding a towel in our house from the Boston Marathon. I don’t know where or how it ended up in our house since nobody in our family was a runner, but that was the first time I thought that I may some day want to run this famous race. Growing up in the New England, where running is taken very seriously, the Boston Marathon receives a lot of press and I was always amazed that someone could actually run 26 miles non-stop. Although I was fairly athletic growing up, I only ran when practicing for other sports. It wasn’t until after I finished college and started working full-time that I felt I needed an outlet to keep fit and began running in 1994 and have been running ever since. I ran my first marathon in 1996 in San Antonio (now the San Antonio Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon) in 4:04:45 and it took me two more tries to finally break 4 hours. After breaking 4 hours in 1999, I started entertaining thoughts of trying to qualify for Boston, which at that time for someone in their 20s was running a 3:10 or better. My times steadily decreased until 2001 where I ran a 3:16:07 at the San Diego Marathon (now the Carlsbad Marathon). It was around this time I moved to Japan and although I kept running, there were very few marathons (or at least I wasn’t aware of many) to participate in like there is today. So from 2001 to 2009 I did not participate in any organized running event. Also, during this dark age my enthusiasm for running started to wane due to injuries and lack of motivation as the years passed by.
Then in June 2009 I read the book “Born to Run” and it really struck a cord with me. In addition, the running boom in Japan was beginning and big city marathons like the Tokyo Marathon began to flourish and my renewed interest in running began to peak again. I began investigating marathons in Japan and decided to begin training for the Lake Kawaguchi Marathon in November 2009 with hopes of qualifying for Boston. Well, I ended up running the Lake Kawaguchi Marathon in 3:42:04 and needed to run a 3:15 to qualify for Boston, so I had my work cut out for me.
I followed the Lake Kawaguchi Marathon up with eight more marathons over the ensuing two years and although I steadily made progress, I consistently fell short of a BQ time. As I was getting within spitting distance of achieving a Boston qualifying time, they adjusted the qualifying times to make it more challenging (see related post). In November 2011 I ran the New York Marathon in 3:15:44, missing a qualifying time by a mere 44 seconds. As disheartening as this was, it was also encouraging at the same time because I knew it was possible to get a qualifying time if I put in little more hard and smart training. Finally a week ago I finally achieved a qualifying time at the Tokyo Marathon, running a 3:13:15 and I’ve been on cloud nine since.
This was probably one of the hardest goals I’ve ever achieved. Since I’m not a naturally gifted runner, it took a lot of hard work, persistence, trial and error, understanding my body and smart training. I can honestly say, looking all the way back to my high school days, that it has been a 25 year dream of mine and hopefully I’ll be toeing the line at the 2013 Boston Marathon.
Since I learned a lot about running over the past years, I thought I’d put down the top 10 things that I believe help me progress as a runner. I want to caveat this by saying that this is what worked for me personally and may or may not work for you since everyone is different, this is just one of many paths that may lead to a BQ time.
Before I knew better, I used to run 5 to 7 times a week equating to about 50 to 65 miles. There were two things I found when I ran this much. First, I was highly susceptible to chronic injuries when I consistently ran more than 50 miles. Second, the quality of my speed work suffered because I was never recovered enough to put forth a strong effort. It wasn’t until early 2010 that I came across the Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training (FIRST) method of running less to run faster. The basic concept is that you should only run quality miles instead of quantity and make up the reduced mileage with some form of cross-training. They advise that you should only run three times a week (two speed sessions and a long run) and cross-train twice a week (3×2). Also, there are no back-to-back run days. I was skeptical at first, but once I followed their plan, I found it actually worked and my marathon times started to progressively improve as time went on. When I trained for recent the Tokyo Marathon, I only ran 3 times a week and the my mileage peaked at 47 miles, but probably averaged around 40 miles most weeks. However, these are all quality miles run at a fairly challenging pace, so it is far from easy.
2. Cross Training
In the past, I tended to skimp on the cross-training aspect of the FIRST training method and this may have prevented me from obtaining a BQ time sooner. But this last training cycle I decided to take this aspect of the training more seriously by cycling or riding the spin bike. Now I’m a believer that cross-training is not only a great supplement to your running, but will also improve your running times. I found that it helped in three ways. First, it made up for the reduced running mileage – so although I may have only run 40 miles that week, if I factor in the cycling I did, I aerobically can add another 10 miles a week to the training effect. Second, the cycling seemed to help with active recovery, because the blood flow through the legs after a hard running session seemed to refresh them sooner than if I just took the day off. And last, the cycling I did built up muscles in other parts of my legs, making my legs not only holistically stronger and less susceptible to injury.
3. Strength Training
Having a strong core no doubt is important, especially for the longer running races where your form tends to deteriorate toward the end of a race. For runners, the goal is not to bulk up, but to have a lean muscular body. After experimenting with numerous strength training programs, I found that kettlebell exercises worked well for me. I have been utilizing the KettleWorX program (basic and advanced) for almost a year now and feel I’ve found the ideal strength training program for me as a runner. The exercises are mildly intense and takes about 30 minutes three times a week.
This is an area I can certainly improve upon, but it is very important. I normally do three 20 to 30 minute sessions of yoga per week right after my KettleWorX workouts as well as a 10 minute stretching routine just before bed. Honestly, I do very little stretching before or after running since I normally don’t have time. This may come back to haunt me in the future, because I do think stretching is a very important part of injury prevention. But the limited yoga that I do each week does feel great and believe it has been a great complement to my running.
During this past training cycle I documented everything I ate for 13 weeks. It was a great experiment and I learned a lot in the process. Eating as clean as possible is essential in order to provide your body the energy to run hard as well as the nutrients to quickly recover. I would say about 80% of my diet was relatively clean whole foods, with lots of fruits and vegetables, and the other 20% was your more processed foods. Carbohydrates were essential during the intense training period, but I also found I also needed to keep the diet in balance with lean proteins and fats.
6. Race Weight
Everyone has an ideal race weight. At 5 foot 10 inches with a medium/large bone structure I found for me that I run pretty well in the 140 ~ 145 lbs weight range. During the last training cycle, I closely monitored my weight in order to comfortably stay within this range.
7. Rest and Recovery
Many runners seem to discount adequate rest and recovery, opting for more miles or running days. I know, because I was the same way before I became a more enlightened runner. This often leads to burnout, sub-par performances, and injury. I come to appreciate that rest and recovery is just as important as logging the miles. During this past training cycle I ensure I got 7 to 9 hours sleep every night and did not run on back to back days, allowing a full 48 hours of recovery between runs. Between run days I would either cycle or strength train, but these were non-impact workouts usually no longer than an hour, thus providing active recovery. So when I put together my training plans, I also put a lot of thought into the recovery aspect of the training.
8. Consistency and Injury Prevention
To improve as a runner, you need to be consistent in your training. This not only takes discipline, but also a focus on injury prevention. I have had no significant injuries during my last few training cycles, other than a few minor aches and pains. I provided a post earlier on how I prevent injuries, but basically there is no secret, I think it came down to becoming a mid-foot runner, not running on back-to-back days, cross-training, stretching, strength-training, adequate rest and recovery and good nutrition. But even taking all the right precautions, I believe injury prevention may also be dependent upon an individual and how experienced they are, where some people can run 100 mile weeks years on end without injury, where others have a hard time running 20 mile weeks without sustaining a chronic injury.
9. Morning Workouts
I like to do my workouts in the morning. Not only does it start the day off right, but it significantly improves your probability of keeping to your training plan without disruption. Click here for an earlier post on why I enjoy morning workouts.
10. Mental Toughness
The marathon is a long race and there are a lot of opportunities for the mind to wander and play tricks on you. If you are trying to run the race of your life, you really need to focus and override the negative thoughts that will inevitably present themselves during your training and particularly the last 25% of a marathon. If you are confident that you have done the hard work to run a particular time, then you’ll have to dig deep and override those negative thoughts that will creep in to derail all your hard work. To develop this mental toughness may take a few races to understand that your body is suppose to feel a certain way at the end of a marathon, but you have the fortitude to keep pushing because you know it is in you. I’ve struggled with this in the past – and still do – but I believe if you want to become a good marathon distance runner, this is an area you’ll need to overcome.
I hope you found this post helpful. Below I posted my Tokyo Marathon weekly training and diet updates in case you are interested in the specifics of how I trained and ate during the 13 week training cycle.
Tokyo Marathon Weekly Training and Diet Updates
- Plan – Training / Diet
- Week 1 – Training / Diet
- Week 2 – Training / Diet
- Week 3 – Training / Diet
- Week 4 – Training / Diet
- Week 5 – Training / Diet
- Week 6 – Training / Diet
- Week 7 – Training / Diet
- Week 8 – Training / Diet
- Week 9 – Training / Diet
- Week 10 – Training / Diet
- Week 11 – Training / Diet
- Week 12 – Training / Diet
- Week 13 – Training / Diet