The March to Becoming a Marathoner

March is a big month in the training journey towards the 2015 Scotiabank Ottawa Marathon. The Sunday runs get really serious pretty quickly now, hill training starts, and by the end of the month you’ll run 29km on a single day.

If you’ve been putting in the training, then this will be the month that you start feeling like this whole marathon thing might just be possible. The Sunday runs (ranging from 19km all the way up to 29km on the Running Room marathon training program) will both excite and maybe terrify you.

For first-time marathoners, the last Sunday of March likely features the longest training run you’ve ever run by a long shot. If you’ve trained for and run a 30km race before, it’ll be a familiar few weeks of challenging Sunday runs that remind you why you do this.

Pro tips for getting through March

hills
Probably the worst part of marathon training. But also an important part.

I figured some advice would be welcome for those taking on the marathon for the first time. My pro-tips as a seven time marathoner on how to approach March:

  • Slow down on Sunday: these are long training runs and there are no medals for racing them. Take it easy, run them at the conversation pace and enjoy. That includes Around the Bay 30km if you’ve incorporated that race into your training. Take it easy, and remember the real goal is the marathon in May.
  • Figure out your nutrition and routines: these fairly long runs are a chance to experiment with carb-loading, breakfast choices and also with what gels or drinks do and don’t work for you. Better to get a good idea now so you’ll have things figured out for the super long runs in April, and for race day too.
  • Don’t skip the hills: repeats aren’t fun to do, but if you skip out on the Wednesday hill repeats, you won’t build the leg strength and cardio that you’ll need on race day. Who knows? Maybe you’ll actually enjoy the challenge.
  • Get any pains checked out: make friends with a physio if you are feeling any pain or dealing with an injury. Long runs put more stress on your legs and body so if you are already dealing with an injury, all this running in March isn’t going to magically make it better. Go get it checked out now.
  • Stay positive and don’t get discouraged: you’re pushing your body and mind this first time up the training ladder to 29km. It’s supposed to be hard and you will likely be asking yourself how you could possibly go another 13km at the end of your first 29km run. Trust me. By the end of April, you’ll know you can do it.

Just keep on running

The single best thing you can do in March is the same thing you’ll do on race day in May and the same thing you’ve been doing since January: Just keep on running. Look at the training schedule each week, and each day and run it. When you are tired and you don’t want to run, go for a run. When you are 25km into your first ever 29km run and your legs feel dead, just keep putting one foot in front of the other and finish it off.

These 31 days of March are such a great part of the marathon training journey. You’re going to learn a lot about yourself this month both as a runner and as a person. Enjoy!

Keep Your Shoe Tongue From Sliding

One of the biggest annoyances in my life right now are running shoe tongues that slide to the side. Seriously.

I’ve tried everything to get them to stay where they belong, and suffered through bruising and pain when they slide off to the side mid-run and put pressure on the tendons of my foot.

Then I came across this video on YouTube that shows an alternative way to tie your laces through the little loop on the tongue that actually keeps the tongue centred on my foot.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D93DPfDROak&w=1280&h=720]

Slowing Down on Sundays

One of the things I’ve always found difficult is moderating my pace and effort on Sunday long runs.

The cornerstone of the Running Room marathon training program is the Long Slow Distance run on Sundays – the much talked about LSD. I’ve got the long distance part of that down. The slow part is where I often slip up.

Less stress, fewer injuries

Running Room founder John Stanton says the Long Slow Distance run adapts the runner’s fitness to exercising for an extended period of time. By keeping things slow on Sundays, and increasing mileage no more than about 10% each week, the stress on the runner’s body is decreased, along with the chance of injury.

Slower run
Sunday pace of 5:35/km on a continuous run is good. Average heart rate of 134bpm is also good.

I’ve always run a bit too fast on Sundays right from when I started running half marathons. I found it more enjoyable to push myself a bit over the longer distances and mentally, I figured it made more sense to run these a bit closer to marathon race pace than the Running Room program suggests.

Slowing down, on purpose

This year I’m trying something a bit different. I’m slowing down a bit on Sunday and keeping my heart rate in the recommended endurance range thanks to the addition of the Mio heart rate monitor that I can comfortably wear even on the longer runs. That means no huffing and puffing and a comfortable pace that isn’t stressing my body over the longer distances.

I’ve been marginally successful in keeping to that plan so far. A couple of Sundays I’ve found myself running a bit too fast still, but overall my Sunday pace is down.

Review: Mio Link Heart Rate Wristband

If you hate the chest strap that came with your running watch, but love the idea of tracking your heart rate during your runs, then take a look at the Mio Link optical heart rate monitor.

Mio Link HRMWhen I first heard about the Mio heart rate monitors (HRM), I was very sceptical. Early wrist worn, optical HRM’s were prone to dropouts during workouts and didn’t provide the same accuracy as the chest-strap monitors.

How it works

Mio promises that their Continuous Technology will accurately read your heart rate at speeds up to 15mph. The key is noise-reduction technology that filters out the disturbances caused by motion. Reviews suggested that the Mio lived up to the marketing hype, so I picked one up.

All of Mio’s HRMs use optical technology consisting of two green LEDs and an optical sensor. It’s literally a camera mounted on your wrist that images your skin and watches for the blood pulsing through your tissues to measure your heart rate.

The Mio Link consists of a small sensor that tucks into a silicone wrist strap. It’s smaller than a watch, and fits nicely on the wrist thanks to the stretch in the band and a nicely designed clasp system.

Fully integrated with the fitness watch you already have

With ANT+ and Bluetooth Smart (4.0) technology, the Mio Link is able to connect to your smartphone (Mio offers apps for iOS and Android) or to your existing GPS watch. There’s a complete list of compatible devices on the Mio website, but for Garmin owners, if you have a Forerunner watch that supports a chest-strap HRM, you are good to go.

I use a Garmin Forerunner 620, and the Mio Link connects up instantly and replaces the chest strap HRM. Heart rate data is shown in real-time on the watch, and shows up in the data files. It’s no different than wearing the Garmin chest strap, except that you don’t have to wear the chest strap.

My experience

Personally, I wear my Mio Link above my Garmin Forerunner 620, a little further up my forearm (see image below). I could wear it on the opposite arm, but during walks, Mio says that it’s possible that the ANT+ signal could be lost as the technology doesn’t penetrate the body all that well.

hrm-data
Accurate heart rate data, with no drop outs.

That’s not a Mio issue, but a limitation of ANT+ in general. Wearing the Link on the same arm as my Garmin means I don’t have to worry about any dropouts. It’s so comfortable and light that I don’t notice it at all.

I’ve run about a dozen times with the Mio Link and it’s been rock-solid and perfect on every run. No dropouts and the heart rate data looks accurate from start to finish, no matter what pace I ran at. The screenshot from my Garmin log backs up that claim (see image right).

The only issue I ran into was when Ginny joined me for her run one night and we didn’t get the pairing right between our two Garmins and two Mio Links. My Link ended up connecting with both my Garmin 620 and her Garmin 210.

A Twitter exchange with Mio cleared up how the pairing process works and we haven’t had any issues since, even while running on side-by-side treadmills. We just link up our Garmin and the Mio at separate times to make sure the watch detects the proper HRM.

Additional details

The Link is a really simple device. It features just a single button to turn it off and on and a five-colour LED light on the wrist strap that tells you at a glance which heart rate zone you are in. Those zones are customizable via the Mio app on your smartphone. It’s water resistant to 30m and sweat is obviously not a problem.

Mio Link HRMThere’s no onboard memory or storage on the Link – it tracks heart rate and sends it to the app via Bluetooth Smart, your fitness watch via ANT+, or both if that’s what you want to do.

For marathoners and ultra-marathoners, the 7-10 hours of battery life for continuous heart rate monitoring means your watch will likely give up before the Mio does. Charging is via USB using a custom charger that the Link magnetically snaps onto.

You can choose one of two different strap sizes. I opted for the regular sized band, but I think I could have gotten away with the small one as well. If I wear it on my wrist where I would normally wear a watch, I’m near the last notches on the band. Mio provides a sizing band you can print out if you aren’t sure which one to get.

The verdict

If you hate your chest strap HRM, the Mio Link provides a drop-in replacement that will likely work with your existing fitness watch. You’ll get accurate heart rate data, without dropouts, even during your hardest runs.

At under $100CDN, it’s an affordable way to add the value of heart rate monitoring to your training.

Learn more about the Mio Link and the full range of Mio heart rate monitors at their website.

Disclosure: as with most of the things I review, I purchased the Mio Link for myself at MEC ($95+tax, shipping is free). In fact, I liked it so much that I bought a second Link for my wife to use during her runs. Freedom from chest straps!

The Fine Line Between Hardcore and Dumb

It’s been ridiculously cold in Toronto this week. So cold that the simple act of running outdoors this morning was just plain dangerous.

IMG_3197
The indoor option.

When the air temperature hits -25ºC and a stiff wind from the north brings windchills in the -35 to -40 range, gearing up and venturing out for a run is one of the last things a smart runner should be doing.

At those temperatures, you risk frostbite on exposed skin and far worse in the event that something happens to you that renders you unable to run.

There are other options when conditions turn dangerous. You can hit the treadmill, or an indoor track. Or you can postpone your run for a day or two until conditions are more favourable.

Badges of honour

Many runners see heading out in any and all weather conditions to be a badge of honour. I’ve been there, done that and earned the merit badges for running in the rain, the snow and the wind. Some days it’s awful to run and we do it anyways. But not when it’s dangerous.

When the temperatures dip below -20ºC, going out for a run isn’t a sign that you are hardcore, or committed, it’s a sign that you aren’t thinking straight.

Collect, Log and Analyze Running Data Without Gadgets

Do you run with a GPS watch? Do you track your workouts? How about a heart rate monitor? Cadence sensor? Fitbit?

While some runners write all this stuff off as meaningless gadgetry, smart runners know that collecting and analzing data can help improve performance.

You can’t analyze if you don’t collect

If you aren’t collecting data about your workouts, then you aren’t able to track your progress over time and you won’t be able to measure whether you are improving.

That’s not to suggest that every runner should rush out to get one of every sensor known to man. But at the very least, every runner should be doing some basic data capture and tracking.

notebookThat might be as simple as a pen, a paper runner’s log, and a watch. You can learn a lot about performance over time with the most basic of tools.

The pen and paper combined with a watch can be used to track date, distance, time and (with a bit of math) your pace. You can also note how you felt, the weather and anything else that’s worth capturing like what you ate prior to the run.

Going beyond basic metrics

I’ve been logging all my runs, including the distance and time plus some notes since I started running in 2008. That’s 966 runs, totalling 9,221 kilometres. Looking back at the data, I can see that I’m a faster runner now than I was in 2008. The notes with the runs and my race reports provide reminders of lessons learned and good runs.

Recently, I’ve noticed a dramatic difference in my running since I started collecting and paying attention to both cadence and heart rate data. Prior to that, I only looked at pace and distance when measuring performance over time.

Cadence

Adding cadence tracking in the summer showed me that I run with a reasonable turnover, but that there was room for improvement. For the pen and paper trackers, cadence is another metric you can fairly easily measure without the need for an electronic gadget.

Grab the watch and count your steps over 20 seconds, then multiply by three. You can do this a few times throughout the run, but make sure you take into account the pace you were running at when you measured.

Heart Rate

Adding a heart rate monitor showed me that I often ran too fast, especially on Sunday where a slower run that helped build endurance would have meant higher quality training. As with cadence, you can also measure your heart rate from time to time on the run without a fancy heart rate monitor.

pulsecheckTo calculate your heart rate you’ll probably need to stop running for a minute or two. Find your pulse on your neck or wrist and count it for 20 seconds, then multiply by three to get a general sense of your effort when running.

It’s not super accurate since your heart rate will naturally slow fairly quickly as soon as you stop running, but it’s better than measuring effort solely by feel.

Log, learn and improve

Whether you opt for the sensors, gadgets and gizmos, or go old school with a watch and a notebook, it’s important to do more than just measure. Without some analysis, the data is just numbers in a book or on a screen.

Looking at the data over time lets you find trends that reveal where you’re doing well, where you have work to do, and best of all, where you’re improving.

When your only measure of improvement is your pace or race results, it’s really difficult to see incremental improvements in things like efficiency or endurance.

Bring able to quantify improvement (or lack of improvement) in areas other than pace or distance means that your training focus can be on something other than just speed. That, in turn, means that you won’t be heading out on every run trying to beat some previous personal best.

The net result? Higher quality training that will pay off on race day.

The Running Form Video That Could Change How You Run for the Better

This is the one YouTube video that really made the difference for me in terms of changing my running form.

The things that hit home for me? Increasing my stride rate (cadence), doing the marching drills to practice landing under my body, and running light (like on eggshells).

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wRkeBVMQSgg&w=1280&h=720]

Indoor Running at Monarch Park Stadium in Toronto

If you hate running outside, but also loathe the treadmill, an indoor track might offer a third option (depending on where you live).

I’m fortunate to have two different indoor track options within about a 10 minute drive of my house. One is at Variety Village where I treadmill run. It’s a rubberized 200m track in what they call the Fieldhouse. Unfortunately, the 200m size makes for a lot of corner vs. straightaway, so it’s not ideal for speed work and longer runs get pretty boring pretty fast. That said, for the odd 5km when all the treadmills are in use, it’s a decent setup.

The other is probably the best indoor track option available to Torontonians living in the east end—Monarch Park Stadium. Between November and April, the entire field and the track that encircles it gets a giant air-supported dome overhead with a comfortable climate for running.

Outside was frightful, inside was delightful

01-logo-monarch-011I had a 13km on the schedule today and the weather outside was terrible. It’s been snowing off and on since Monday here in Toronto and we have about 35-40cm piled up now. The sidewalk plows aren’t keeping pace and that means some tough footing anywhere outside.

As a result, the indoor track at Monarch was a great option today. I paid my $10 for a day pass and hit the blue Beynon track surface for a run. The track at Monarch has an unusual configuration because of the dome and the fields that are the main reason for the facility. Rather than having the usual rounded corners on each end, Monarch Park is more of a rectangle with rounded corners.

The turns are a bit tight, but because the corners are short, it means there’s a lot of straight running instead of turns. That’s a bit easier on the legs since it’s also a one-way track (counter-clockwise). One lap measures 370m if you stick to lane 3 and follow the red painted lines that round off the right-angled corners a bit.

35 laps, but time passed quickly

My 13km run today was 35 laps which is a bit boring, but with a couple of Ultimate Frisbee games and kids’ soccer practices to watch and a few other runners to follow, it wasn’t too bad. I also kept peeking out the windows every now and then to remind myself of the alternative.

IMG_3138
The track at Monarch Park Stadium in the winter.

I don’t mind the treadmill, even for runs as long as 15km. But having a fairly long indoor track around as an alternative is nice. If you live in Toronto, check out Monarch Park Stadium next time the weather is terrible, or even if you just want to do some indoor running on something other than a treadmill.

Monarch Park Stadium Facts

  • 370m in lane three, following the red lines through the corners.
  • Covered between November and April for climate-controlled sports.
  • Clubhouse with bathrooms, change rooms and lockers.
  • Full sized soccer/football field which is split into three smaller fields, and separated from the running track by full-height mesh screens.

Facility Fees

The facility, including the track is open from 6:30am until midnight on weekdays, and 7:30am to “last rental” on weekends. Saturday closing sometimes varies, so check the their website for a link to the latest calendar or call if you plan to run late (after 8:00 P.M.).

An adult day pass for a single visit is $10, or you can get a 10-day pass good for 10 visits for $90. If you plan on making the track part of your weekly training routine over the winter and spring, the seasonal pass makes a lot of sense at just $42.50/month.

The Stadium is within walking distance of Coxwell Subway Station on Line 2 (Bloor-Danforth) or via the 22 Coxwell bus that runs up Coxwell from Queen St. There’s a decent amount of free parking in the lot at the stadium if you are driving, and also a fair bit of street parking in the immediate neighbourhood. View on Google Maps.

It’s always best to check the website before you head over to make sure there isn’t a special event happening that restricts the use of the track.

Be warned that the track is also closed every Monday and Wednesday between 4:00 P.M. and 6:00 P.M. for what they call Exclusive Hours which actually means the track is rented exclusively by some group and the public can’t run. It’s confusing the way that is noted on the website, and on the calendar of closures and events. It’s probably best to call before you head out just to be sure.

Indoor running options in your area

If you aren’t in the east end of Toronto and have a suggestion for a similar facility in your area, let me and other readers know in the comments! I know Ottawa has The Dome @ Louis-Riel and Edmonton has a 200m track at the University of Alberta’s Universiade Pavilion (aka the Butterdome). Residents of Vancouver can use a 200m track at the Richmond Oval.

Please do share yours!

A Running Form Makeover

I decided that it was time to really look at my running form to see if I could find some efficiencies and also figure out whether how I ran was the cause of my shin and ankle troubles.

I’ve been running for seven years now but I never paid much attention to how I run. I’ve always just gone out and run the way I felt comfortable. That worked fine for a long time, but as I’ve added more speed, I’ve had a few more issues with injury than before. It was time to see what I could do about it.

Slow-motion video reveals all

I started out by shooting some video from the side and back (in slow motion) so I could see exactly what was happening with my feet and legs. That video revealed that I was heel striking a bit, and rolling and twisting in through the stride. No wonder I have shin and ankle pain on the inside!

It surprised me just how much I was rolling in, and also how high my toe was at the front of my stride. I knew what I was doing wasn’t great, but I also didn’t really know what to do about it.

Mio Link HRMI ended up watching a ton of videos on YouTube that I found out about on Reddit, of all places. Along with the videos, I did some reading about how I could improve my running and make my stride more efficient. For me it came down to a few things:

  1. Increase my cadence: running with a higher turnover would keep my feet under me vs. reaching forward and heel-striking.
  2. Activate the glutes: I’ve always run with my lower legs which hurts me in marathons as they fatigue more quickly. Getting my glutes firing properly would help a ton.
  3. Slow down and train smarter: I’m a bit of a “one pace” runner sometimes and that reduces the quality of my training. Running in the proper heart rate zones and slowing down on Sundays would improve the quality of my runs.

Getting to work

I’m a data nut, so one of the first things I did was to get the foot-pod for my Garmin to make my treadmill runs better. Without the foot pod, I tended to run at a 5:00/km pace on the treadmill because that’s pretty much the only pace that the Garmin was accurate at indoors. Getting the foot pod meant that I could accurately track my runs at a range of speeds and put in higher quality miles.

I also picked up a Mio Link wristband optical heart rate monitor. I hate the chest strap monitor that came with my Garmin and, as a result, I rarely wore it. Having a comfortable and accurate HRM on my wrist that still integrated with my watch meant I could run in the proper heart rate zones for each run.

Pace, Heart Rate and CadenceThe Garmin foot pod also provides good cadence data, and accurate real-time pace. The cadence data enabled me to figure out how to run at a higher cadence with instant feedback.

Progress, measured

It took a few runs, but it really started clicking. The proof is in the data, of course. My average cadence over a run is up from 178-180 to 188-190. Running with the shorter, quicker turnover feels quite natural now to the point where I need to really think about it to fall back into my old stride.

My shin pain is gone, and I can feel the difference in impact through my ankles and lower legs. I can also feel muscle soreness in the back of my calves, and also up through my butt. The former is a sure sign that I’m bringing the glutes into the picture now. I still have some work to do, but I’m on the right track here, for sure.

With higher quality training, a better stride, and less pressure on my shins and ankles, I’ve gone from being apprehensive about training for Ottawa to being excited. It’s going to be an interesting few months and I’m hoping the net result is a good day in Ottawa in May.

The Benefits of Joining a Running Group

One of the best things you can do to make your running more enjoyable is to join a group or club.

Running has often been described as a solitary sport. It’s true that out on the marathon course, it’s really you against the distance and it can be fairly lonely, even with thousands of other runners out there with you.

IMG_4331
Do these people look like they are having fun?

The long Sunday runs that come with marathon training can often be lonely as well which is why I tend to run with a running group at my local Running Room store. 32km is daunting enough so having a few people with you along the way can be a real help when the running gets tough.

Some benefits of group running include:

  • Fun: nothing beats a little friendly banter or a bit of trash talking. Some of the best fun I’ve had over the last few years has been out on a Sunday morning run with some long-time running buds.
  • Encouragement: our group is made up of a good mix of runners, both veterans and some rookies too. The multiple-marathoners are always happy to provide that much needed encouragement to the first-timers. Everyone was a newbie at some point and it’s good for the new runners to see that others just like them were able to train for and complete a marathon.
  • Safety: having another runner or three around is always handy in the event that you find yourself injured or otherwise unable to continue. No runner left behind is something we practice in our group. If someone needs to drop out or slow up the pace, at least one other runner will drop back or we’ll make sure the runner gets back to the store.
  • Accountability: if you no show, or don’t get your weekly runs in, you can bet that someone in our group will ask you about it. A good run group helps keep you going because you know if you don’t, you’ll hear about it.
  • Motivation: when the run includes a brunch or coffee afterwards with the group, you’ll be more motivated to come out at 8:30 A.M. on a Sunday morning to get the run in. I look forward to the after-run socializing as much as I do the run sometimes.

Where to find a group

If you have one, your local Running Room store is a great place to find a run crew. There are free weekly runs on Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings and I’ve never been to a Running Room that didn’t welcome new runners into the group. You’ve got running in common, so there’s no need to fear not having anything to talk about.

The-Running-Room-sign-at-7th-and-Cambie-in-VancouverYou can also check online for a local run club or crew. In Toronto there are a number of groups including the Parkdale Roadrunners and the Running Rats. Ask around at your local running store, or check the announcements board to see if there are any clubs in your area. Most of them will have social events that go along with the running if you are looking for more than just a weekly training run.

Local races are also a good place to look for clubs. These small events are often organized by running clubs in different areas and joining in and running a few of the events will allow you to meet some new runners and find out when and where they meet.

Group runs are more enjoyable runs

Find a group to run with and I guarantee that your long runs and training will be more enjoyable. The friends I’ve met running are some of the best friends I have and there’s no way I’d have accomplished the things I have over the last bunch of years if it wasn’t for them.