Thirsty (for knowledge) Thursday: How to Qualify for Boston

>> Thursday, March 19, 2015

OK, let's start with this: no, I have no interesting in training for a marathon right now, let alone trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I came across this Runner's World article about how to qualify for Boston, and I thought it offered up lots of good tips for ANY distance runner. There are some marathon-specific numbers in here, but there are also great tips for every runner to review.

Here are bits and pieces of Coach Jenny's 11 tips for runners to work toward their goal:

Start from where you are rather than where you want to be. This is my coaching mantra, because it’s so easy to get caught up in the excitement and propel yourself forward too quickly. And if your body isn’t ready, you’ll end up burnt out and quite possibly injured.

American 50K record holder Josh Cox said best when I asked him how he trained to break the 50K world record: “It takes years of training to race at your peak. The marathon itself takes years and years of training to perform your best. You’re not racing off the last six months of preparation. You’re racing on the foundation that was built over many years of training. It’s the cumulative effect that allows me to continue to perform stronger for longer.”

Review your training long and come up with a solid LONG-TERM plan for yourself. Don't forget about strength work (which Coach Jenny brings up a little later on).

Eat the elephant one bite at a time. Make gradual progressions in your training rather than big leaps. For instance, many runners believe running four to five extra-long runs of 24 to 26 miles will help them perform better in the marathon. However, most of them, in my experience, end up injured and unable to even toe the line on race day. It feels better mentally to log those miles, but physically you end up leaving your best stuff on the training path.

Coach Jenny has a few more specific training numbers for marathon runners based on this previous points, so make sure to check out the full article if you're a marathoner.

Run by effort rather than pace. This is the single greatest change a runner can make in the attempt to shed lots of time. Time gets in the way of progress, mentally and physically. Your body doesn’t know time; it knows effort. When you begin to train from within, you’ll be well on your way to setting personal record finishes. Let your time and pace be the outcome of the day’s performance and no more. This allows you to train based on the weather, your body, recovery times, nutrition, sleep, and other stresses that may affect performance. A tempo run isn’t a tempo run because you ran a certain pace; it’s a tempo run when you’re running near or at your redline threshold. Train by the purpose of the workout rather than a proposed pace, and you’ll rock every workout and recovery, every time.

That makes so much sense, but I've just never thought of it that way before. "Your body doesn’t know time; it knows effort." But that's hard to live by when you're shooting for a specific TIME.

Listen to your body and adjust based on life’s happenings. Any training plan is a process, never etched in stone. Things happen, and it’s important to listen to your body and ebb and flow with the drama that comes with marathon training. Got calf tightness? Cross-train at an easy to moderate effort instead of doing your scheduled run, and focus on flexibility. You’ll heal faster if you modify as you go.

Yes, yes, yes. Any runner who's been injured (so... ALL of them?) will tell you to be smart about this.

Mix it up. Cross-train with lower impact activities like cycling, swimming, elliptical training, and more. I have my athletes on all sorts of cross activities because it lessens the impact on the body, contributes to balancing the body, and keeps the program fresh as a daisy. Even elite athletes are getting in on cross-training in an effort to prevent injuries due to the higher impact forces that come with running. It is also vital to invest in a total body strengthening and flexibility program. This doesn’t mean pushing tons of weight on a bench press. It means strengthening the whole body, especially the core.

This is a major one that I've been doing for years (and I initially started doing strength work soley because I liked it). In fact, I got into triathlons because I was cross training so much to stay strong for running (and dealing with running injuries). And one of the biggest jumps I made in speed was during a year when I decided to really work on my core.

Learn from others. Hire a coach, join an advanced training group, and put yourself around other runners who’ve run Boston. A coach will customize your plan based on your body, your life, and your goal, and you’ll avoid the many pitfalls that can happen when you’re trying to improve with a template training plan. Training with an experienced group will inspire, educate, and motivate every workout. You’ll learn some of the greatest tricks from runners who’ve been there and done that.

On a related note, I still need to find the guts to join the Master's swim group at my Y…

Choose your races wisely. Not every one of them will result in your best performance. Go with smaller marathons, in cooler climates, with terrain that is similar to your terrain at home. Running a flat course like Chicago requires training on flat roads, as the muscle wear if you’re not used to flatlander landing forces can cause just as much cramping as a hilly course. I’ve had just as many athletes run faster on rolling courses as on flat ones, and the key is to train to the specificity of the terrain...

I kinda realized this in 2012 when I was shocked as I was racing the hilly New Prague Half Marathon. I was thrilled to be doing SOO well during the race, and I set a PR on a hilly, windy course. But then I realized I had trained on similar rolling hills along the river in Minneapolis and St. Paul, so it all made a little more sense.

Have a plan B. Although it may seem like a failure to drop out of a marathon versus muddle through a tough day, doing so will allow you to chalk it up as a dress rehearsal rather than a failed race and keep you on course. Sure, you won’t get the medal, but you’re not out there for the medal now - you’re on a journey to qualifying for the Boston Marathon, and everything revolves around making wise choices to keep you on course. There are many things that go into a magic marathon performance and all the stars need to be in alignment (weather, health, training, etc.). Don’t let an 80-degree fluke weather day set you off course. Pick a back up marathon three to four weeks after your plan A event.

Focus, grasshopper. Ask any elite runner how many marathons they run in a year and they’ll give you the peace sign (two). Improving performance requires the time to train hard, recover fully, and progress forward. Racing too often can hamper your performance. Focus on no more than two to three marathons per year. If you’re injury-prone, stick with two. Invest in shorter distance runs (5K to 10K) to hone your racing skills.

I'm injury-prone, which is why I strictly stick to 0 marathons per year.

Practice your racing strategy. Don’t leave your plan up to your buddy or a pacer - be in control of your destiny and learn pacing skills in your training (simulation runs). You’ll have a good idea of your estimated finishing time based on lead up races and training sessions. However, if you only go by this, it can leave you under- or overshooting it. It’s like trying to pick the winning lottery ticket number (it doesn’t work). Instead race by your body and by what’s happening on the given day. When you tune into your body, you will race your best no matter what the day brings.

Yes! "Simulation Runs!" I've been calling them "race pace runs" since I worked with Coach Jen a few years back, and she really taught me to work those into my training. Check out my tips on "race pace" runs HERE. Seriously, it's huge. I noted that PROPERLY working those runs into my training made me faster AND kept me from getting injured. That's like the running Holy Grail.

Think like MacGyver. There are lots of ways to shed time that have absolutely nothing to do with running harder. Race smarter by running tangents on the course, fueling yourself optimally, getting quality sleep, drafting off a taller runner in windy conditions, meditating at the start, and focusing on form. I shed 20 minutes off my best marathon time when I qualified for the Boston Marathon - some of that was training, but most of it was my inner MacGyver.

Keep these tips in mind as you're training and racing this year.

For more "Thirsty Thursday" posts that highlight workouts, body science, and all kinds of interesting information, CLICK HERE.


SteveQ 10:11 AM, March 19, 2015  

Alternative: wait until you age into easier standards and they lower the standards more. When I ran Boston, I needed to run 2:50; today I think it's 3:50 or 4:00.

Steve Stenzel 10:46 AM, March 19, 2015  

Ha SteveQ! But didn't they just make the standards harder for many age groups too?

SteveQ 10:09 AM, March 20, 2015  

You're right! My plan could backfire, I guess (and my standard is now 3:30, so it was one that got made harder).

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