Fact or Fiction: “Don’t try anything new before a race.”

20131118-081252.jpgIn my case, I’m going to go with: fiction. At least, it was for me last Sunday.

Marshall was my 25th marathon, so one would think I have my pre-race routine on autopilot. This is not the case. Everyone knows not to try anything new before a race. It’s the one rule you don’t want to break because it’s one of the few variables you can control. There are so many uncontrollable variables in distance running, but you can control your routine and choices. The problem is, I don’t always know what works for me. Pacing, race week tapering, hydration…there is always something that I’m not getting quite right. Maybe there isn’t a right answer, but this time I decided to focus on the entire week leading up to the race to see what I could fine tune.

It was a good time to experiment because I didn’t have a lot to lose. I took time off during training because of my tibia and was thankful to just be running, so I had no expectations. I had a lot to gain if I could be more comfortable and efficient on race day, making the Marshall University Marathon an ideal situation for experimentation. If I could control some of the temperamental variables (my stomach), I could eliminate some of the issues that slow me down on race day regardless of my training (multiple bathroom stops, tired legs, etc). So in the midst of my “taper”, I broke one of the most basic rules of distance running and tried new things.

Pacing

During any given training cycle, I have a training plan and key paces for each workout. I know what my goal marathon pace is at the start of a cycle and I use 5K, 10K, and half-marathon pace in my key workouts to train for it. Those paces are easy to determine because I have tangible times that I’ve run to use for reference.  If my training plan says “Lactate threshold run: 8 mi w/4mi @ 15K to half-marathon pace”, I know the ideal pace range to aim for. But tell me to run 5 recovery miles, and the inconsistency begins. Sometimes its a 7:50, other days it’s an 8:45. I realize that recovery miles should be run at a comfortable pace, and “comfortable” can vary daily. Regardless, if my training plan says “recovery” it should translate to “slow”. I need to get my legs moving, but I need to learn to make a conscious effort to keep the pace easy. In the week leading up to the race, I started to look at those runs more closely. When the schedule said to run hard, I ran hard. When it designated recovery miles, I kept it painfully easy. By race day, my legs felt fresh and ready.

I hate holding back when I feel good, but holding back is a large part of what you are training your body to do come race day. It’s necessary to train yourself to recognize the importance of saving your legs for a key workout (or, in the marathon, for the later miles). In a race, you usually feel good in the first few miles and want to speed up, but holding back will help maintain your energy through to the finish line. This principle holds true when following a training plan and is something I need to pay more attention to. I spend so much time trying to hit the paces on my key workouts but spend zero time worried about my recovery runs. It’s my hope that focusing more on holding back will help with injury prevention in the future.

Race Week Cross Training

Since 2013 was full of injuries that led to being reliant on cross training, I had to be careful not to overdo it with other activities in the midst of my taper. Tapering often leads to phantom pains and taper tantrums, and also anxiety that you aren’t doing enough to prepare for the race. I’ve come to enjoy cycling and feared I would do too much on my bike and wear my legs out. I got on my bike once earlier in the week and kept the pace moderate, but opted mainly for swimming as the week went on. In the pool, I did two workouts: one normal 3300 meter workout earlier in the week, and a workout on Thursday using a pull buoy to give my legs a rest. I get my swim workouts from the book Swim Workouts in a Binder, which I bought about five years ago and love. The workouts vary from categories like muscular endurance, anaerobic endurance, force, etc. I chose a workout in the “force” category, which focuses on pulling (the actual arm movement) – so no kicking. I did some easy swimming without the buoy that day, but nothing fast, intense, or long. Throughout the week, I also made sure to get on my yoga mat as often as possible – almost daily – even if it were only for an hour of light practice and stretching.

Food

It’s no secret that I have GI issues when I run. Every race report I write usually includes a review of the porta-potty situation. But if you read my Marshall review, there is not one mention of bathrooms. I actually have no idea if there were bathrooms on the course. I’m sure there were plenty, but this was one of the first times that I didn’t even think to look. My stomach, which is notoriously terrible, felt great.

I track my daily food consumption with My Fitness Pal. In light of my stress fractures in 2013, it’s helped me tremendously in monitoring my recent calcium consumption. Knowing my sensitive stomach, I turned my attention to the amount of fiber in my diet. I went back and looked at my diet before the last few marathons I ran and noticed that though my fiber consumption was the same as every other day, it was well over the daily recommended levels. I eat a lot of vegetables and whole grains, so this was not surprising. About three days out, I cut fiber out of my diet almost altogether. In instances where I eat brown rice or whole wheat, I chose white. I was afraid that cutting the whole grains out would reduce my energy levels, so I also focused on my protein consumption and chose foods higher in protein. Messing with my diet could have been the riskiest thing I’ve done yet, but it ended up being my best decision. I was smart about my choices and chose bland, boring foods, but I was eating things that I never really ate before running. Maybe I just had a lucky day, but my stomach was fine from start to finish. I realize this issue could have been addressed many marathons ago, but I never thought my diet and fiber intake was the problem. I always thought that since I ate healthy, my diet wasn’t the issue I was just destined to have GI issues.

Race Day Hydration and Nutrition

Before a race, I am conscious of my hydration in the days leading up to the event. During a race, I often feel like since I hydrated well before, I don’t need to drink much while I’m running. I barely drink anything during the 26.2 miles, but I often have tired legs in the last six miles. I knew my training was sub-par since I had to take time off during key weeks, so I turned my focus on hydration during the race. There were water stops every 1.5 miles on this course, so I took something at each stop this time. Usually water, but sometimes a little Gatorade. At some stops, I would only take a small mouthful and toss the rest, but I made sure I took something. There is a point where you can drink too much (hyponatremia) but I wasn’t overdoing it with my water consumption and was supplementing with GU and Gatorade.

I don’t often take Gatorade during a race because I used to think the sugar upsets my stomach. My stomach felt completely fine the whole time, and so I decided Gatorade would be safe. Between that and the GU, I usually feel a slightly nauseous by mile 20, but this was not the case last Sunday. I felt good, and my stomach felt completely fine. I also used a new GU flavor (the salted caramel pictured above), but my stomach usually reacts to all of their flavors the same way so I wasn’t overly concerned with that. I didn’t try a whole new brand, just a new flavor.

Last Sunday, I was lucky and had a great day. I’m not sure I can ever top that race or get any faster, but keeping track of what worked for me is clearly in my best interest. 19 states down, 31 to go!

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