Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Post-marathon running

Editor's note: this post was brought to you by the gentle Twitter insistence of Jumped the Pond and A Hop, Skip and A Jump Over the Pond. Thanks for the idea, ladies!

So it's been exactly 105 days since I ran 26.2 miles. When you think about it like that, it actually wasn't very long ago. But it does feel like it was a lifetime ago, so I'm actually really glad that Anne and Ashley wanted to know what it's like to continue running after running a marathon.

To be honest, it's not much different. It's still the mental battle of getting out of a warm bed, into wick-away clothes that are never 100% comfortable nor smell 100% fresh, and forcing yourself to get out there and put one foot infront of the other. And breathing is still hard, and you still get cramps, and you still get blisters. But the one thing that has changed is my knowledge of what I can do, how far I can push myself. Crossing the 26.2 mile threshold makes you realize that the 3 mile lap "maintenance run" (what I like to call my daily distance) is NOTHING. It's a warm up. And there is NO EXCUSE for not doing it – even if it's hard.

Sometimes when I run, and I'm cranky and don't want to be doing it, I think about the marathon. I think about mile 20 when I really started to feel the distance. I visualize this one turn in the road where I simultaneously started to get sore but felt better because I actually knew where I was in Dublin, and therefore knew I could get to the end if for no other reason than I knew the route. And I think about how tired I was and how I pushed through and how I just need to PUSH THROUGH to FINISH 3 G-D'D MILES ALREADY. And I do. Basically, finishing a marathon has given me mental strength and given my brain a very accurate whip with which to smack my whining self when I err on the side of sloth.

Which I have, because since the marathon I haven't really run much at all. Post-marathon, I had a week off in Prague to recuperate. When I got back to London, I had to jump straight back into work for a few intense weeks and averaged only 2 runs per week throughout November/December. I also haven't really run farther than 4 miles. I need to break it open and do a 10k and then a 10 miler, but something is holding me back (besides my sloth); it's almost as if I achieved this wonderful accomplishment and I don't want to ruin it by trying to replicate it. But that is ridiculous, because every run is different; as a runner, every day you show up with whatever is going on in your body, your brain, and it's up to you to run it out on the track, make the run what you want it to be. So really, I just need to do it. There is no point in putting it off.

Beyond all of this zen thinking about running, though, I did pick up a few practical running pointers that worked for me. Hopefully they will be useful for all of you runners out there.

1. Arms at 90°
This is an interesting one because it is a subtle change that makes all the difference. I run like a boxer, arms up, pumping, but held close to the chest. I read an article about running form, which is basically minimizing extraneous movement that causes fatigue while maximizing essential movement. One of the easiest fixes is to maintain arms at 90° angles (rather than my 45° chicken angles) – it makes your arm pumping more efficient and therefore aids in your speed and cuts down on fatigue. It also helps you hold your back up straight and encourages you to drop your shoulders. It really works, and I think gives a side benefit of toning your triceps.

2. Shoulders down
Linked to above, but really important on its own. I have a tendency to hunch – while I'm knitting, while I'm typing, while I'm running when I get tired. And when I hunch, I get bad upper back/neck pains. But remembering to just lower the shoulders helps reset my whole upper body (I usually reset shoulders and take a deep breath, it's a yoga thing) and sort of center myself for continuing. It's a useful tactic for when you get out of breath (top of a hill) or lose your rhythm.

3. Breathe into cramps
Again, another yoga thing. But really, if you get a cramp, it helps to focus on where the pain is, and for a few breaths aim at breathing in and sending the air to the cramp. Cramps are just muscles that somehow have a little kink in them, and breathing into them is like gently working a knot out of thread. Also, I think this visualisation technique takes your mind off of the pain and surprise surprise 2 minutes later it's gone.

4. Continue yoga/aerobics/stretching
All of this talk of yoga brings me to the point that if you do any other sports (swimming, cycling, yoga, aerobics, whatever), you should continue it while running. I used Hal Higdon's training schedule, and he builds in cross-training days which a really key for strengthening your body beyond running. You don't realize how much strength your body needs in its core, its arms, and overall for successful running beyond just leg power. The more of a routine you maintain that you enjoy, the better your running will be. It will also prevent injury.

5. Cut your toenails
Seriously, I don't know how the second toenail on each foot fell off, but it did, and I can only imagine it was compression from my big toe and the nails being too long. But now I have little stubblies and I want them to grow back so I can get a pedicure. First world problems, I know, but seriously if you don't want to have your toenails turn purple and then fall off, keep them trimmed low.

6. You will gain weight
Marathon training keeps you running, and running keeps you eating, and even if you eat like a machine and never indulge in anything fattening, you will still gain weight. A friend of mine went up a trouser size; I felt like I was just a bit bigger overall. It's just a fact that you will build up muscle and muscle weighs more than fat. You'll also drink more water, eat more salt to replace minerals and fluids, and it all makes you bigger. I lost weight after the marathon, and got a lot of compliments on looking skinny about a month after the race - go figure.

7. Learn to use your butt
Hands down, your butt is the most important muscle when running. It powers you up hills, keeps you stable, and I like to think of it as your engine. So don't try to make it smaller – maximise its value! Seriously, when I go up a hill, I visualise my butt driving me up the hill rather than my legs pulling me. It's a subtle change but it means that I beat The Irishman up every hill no matter what. I actually speed up when I go up hills, rather than slow down, and it makes a big difference.

8. Stick to the training plan – all of it
One of the things I really regret about my marathon training was that I was a bit cocky in the beginning and skipped a few 2 and 3 mile runs. I figured, hey, I already run those distances, it won't matter. But it does, because the point is to gradually build up distance each week from a baseline running ability. So if you skip 2 miles here, 3 miles there and then your weekend long run distances increase, you will get injured like I did. In my next race, I will NOT be skipping ANY little distance runs. No sirree!

9. It's quantity not quality
Probably the only time someone will tell you this. But it's true. It's all about logging the distance. Even if it's the hardest run ever and you're going at a snail's pace. Even if you're lethargic and walk after every mile. EVEN IF YOU HAVE A HANGOVER. You have to log the miles, so you know what 8 miles versus 18 feels like, and you build up the confidence in your own ability.

10. Have fun
Seriously, I loved running the marathon. I loved the old ladies shouting my name, the kids giving me jelly babies, all of the drunk people in Halloween costumes cheering for me. I felt like I was running for all of them, because all of them were supporting me. It made every early Saturday training run worth it. Crossing the finish line was the anticlimax because it was the 4.5 hours of running to cheers of encouragement that really mattered the most.

Anyway, that's just my feelings on running. Everyone who runs a marathon experiences something uniquely different, so I can only encourage you to try it. I've had so many people tell me "OMG I could NEVER do that" but really, you can. Seriously. It's the ultimate battle of mind over matter, and if you're focused and confident enough, your mind will totally win and the matter will follow – for 26.2 miles.


  1. Glad enjoyed it, hope it helps your running at least a little bit!

  2. Yes, thank you for this post! As I was running on Saturday I was totally thinking about keeping my shoulders relaxed. Great advice all around!

  3. THanks Anne! Good luck with all of your running you've been doing lately - it sounds like you're really making amazing progress! Hope you continue to enjoy it. x