Friday, April 29, 2016


After every marathon, whether race day goes well or poorly, I end up in a slump. I excitedly stuff my face with every baked creation imaginable and that’s fun… for like a week. Then I start to feel like a waste of space. I feel so much more accomplished, centered, and fulfilled when I’m running.

I know that I need that time off—physically and mentally—so I take it, treating myself to indulgences I don’t get mid-season (staying up late, sleeping in, eating multiple doughnuts in a sitting…) and reminding myself this is just part of the racing cycle. And post-race blues are totally normal.

Still, I suspected the post-Trials blues would hit me harder than previous races. Not because the race went poorly (I enjoyed the hell out of a non-PR for the first time ever) but because it was such an epic goal/life moment and now it’s over. And because the race was in February, the spring season was kind of a bust; I was taking my post-marathon break while my teammates were peaking. I told myself I’d come back in time for summer 5Ks, but that meant I’d be staring at a longer race-less abyss than usual.

So I anticipated post-Trials emotions might be a drop off a cliff: the most exciting race, immediately followed by the most depressing off-season.

But oddly, it didn’t hit me right away. I made it through the first few weeks with both hands in the cookie jar and both eyes on 2020. Mouth full of junk food, I would declare to anyone that listened that I was taking a nice long break and that was totally cool with me.

Instead, the drop off the mountain was more like a slow roll down to the side. I kept eating crap, staying up late, skipping runs for no good reason, and beginning to feel like 2020 is one hell of a long way away. And suddenly I was stuck at the bottom of the abyss with no way out. Would I ever be able to get back into the shape I was in? It seemed more unlikely with every day of laziness but I just couldn’t get myself to get back to it. Some of the other Trials competitors were racing already. I was making my couch dent more permanent.

A lot less overheated and exhausted than this
moment, but equally as ready to get back out there.
[Photo by Melissa Barnes.]
I’d get back to it briefly, but then hit a minor snag: a cold that took forever to kick, a crazy couple of weeks of work. But I think I know the major issue. I seem to have forgotten the kind of runner I am; I should know better by now.

First of all, I’ve often said that the only thing that motivates me is a marathon. That’s what got me back into running in 2005 and, oh hey, eleven years and a serious running obsession later, it’s still 100% true. I have no marathon in sight. (After some summer 5Ks, I’m going to focus on half marathons and ten milers in the fall.) I know working on speed is a good strategy for the long term, blah blah blah. It doesn’t get me going. (Also, I hate 5Ks.) I know this, but thought I’d conquer it somehow. Instead, I’m struggling, completely unmotivated without 26.2.

I thought a 4th of July 5K might get me motivated.
But sorry, I'm not feeling it. 
I also know I’m a morning runner. But I’m coaching Girls On The Run twice a week and I do my own runs after our afternoon sessions. At first I figured it’d be nice to keep up the same routine the rest of the week: start work earlier and run later in the day. It doesn’t work. There’s a reason I’m a morning runner; I don’t do it otherwise, something inevitably comes up. I know this about myself, but I chose to ignore it and ended up with a lot of skipped runs.

And here’s another thing I should know, but seem to have forgotten: running when you’re out of shape sucks. Non-running friends ask me all the time how I can stand running when it’s so terrible. I try to tell them it gets better, that you have to push past those first few weeks of agony, that it takes time but it’s worth it. They don’t believe me. Instead they think I’m so running obsessed that every day is sunshine and rainbows and zero suckiness. But it’s not. Post-layoff, I’m in their sneakers; it feels like running will never be as fast or as effortless again and my motivation takes another pounding. But as I say, repeatedly and desperately to those unconvinced non-runners, “It gets better.” Right? Why have I forgotten this too?

This slump has taken longer to get out of than all the others. So my prediction was right, the post-Trials free-fall slow unraveling was a doozy. But despite anticipating that, I didn’t set myself up to overcome it very well—I lined up races that don’t motivate me, picked times of the day I’m least likely to go, and forgot that the first weeks back will always be a (temporary) struggle.

I'm trying to fix those mistakes. I’ve run more this week than any other since the Trials, and I’m trying not to beat myself up that the motivation isn’t there just yet. (Don’t compare yourself to other runners, don’t compare yourself to other runners, don’t compare yourself to other runners...)

But still, I worry I’ve dug myself too big a hole. Summer is around the corner; I’ve got to find a way to claw out.

Dream big,

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Caffeine and Running

This post was originally featured on Salty Running.

Caffeine is everywhere these days. It comes in gum, gels, and jellybeans, and even in sprayable cans, powdered form, and, briefly (pun intended), in underwear. And certainly, for many, it comes in the form of a morning cup of joe.

Runners especially seem to cling to the caffeine. After all, training can be exhausting, often taking place in the wee hours of the morning or after a long day at work. We need a jolt to get out the door … and maybe a caffeinated gel to get through the final miles … and maybe another cup to revive us enough to tackle the rest of our jam-packed days ... and then maybe an afternoon latte to stagger through to 5:00.

But there’s a lot of talk about caffeine and whether it’s good or bad for us, especially as runners. Does it give us a boost or give us the trots? Does it dehydrate or replenish? If we drink that morning coffee day after day (along with the afternoon mug) will it still give our run a boost? Below is a summary of what we know about our daily cuppa.

Not exactly unbiased:
 Caffeine contributed to the writing of this post. 
The Good

Caffeine is a known performance enhancer, so much so that it used to be banned by WADA. Caffeine helps reduce perception of effort (it feels easier to nail a fast pace), increases muscle contraction, and ups the circulation of free fatty acids during high intensity workouts, sparing those precious carbohydrate stores. And of course, it perks us up during exhausting training weeks. Many of us couldn’t get through the daily grind without our morning grind. In fact, one reason it’s no longer banned is its ubiquity in our culture; 85% of Americans consume caffeine daily.

The Bad

Sadly, there’s bad news brewing too. If taken before or during exercise, caffeine can reduce blood flow to the heart. This is troubling because the heart is pumping harder during exercise, so it needs more blood, not less. Some speculate this may be a cause of sudden death in marathons, although no death has been specifically linked to caffeine yet. Based on the possibility, the International Marathon Medical Directors Association warns runners not to consume more than 200 total milligrams of caffeine before and during a race. Those most susceptible are people who don’t regularly consume caffeine, have heart disease, or take it in high doses (like those found in energy drinks). If you have heart trouble, please don’t use this post as a reason to start chugging energy drinks. Talk to your doctor first and be cognizant of the caffeine levels in your drinks and gels… and how quickly they can add up.

The (Could Be) Ugly: Bathroom Issues

This could fit in the good or bad categories, depending on your situation. Some runners love a cup of coffee before a run; it gets things moving so there’s no need for a bathroom stop later. Others find it works a little too well in that area and end up with the trots. If you’ve been experiencing bathroom issues on your runs lately, you might consider examining your caffeine consumption and see if adjusting it helps.

One oft-cited con of caffeine is that it makes you pee more often, potentially dehydrating you. Fortunately, this has been debunked in recent years; there appears to be no difference in fluid balance (i.e. urine volume) after drinking water or caffeinated beverages, particularly if you’re a regular caffeine user.

How Much?

To get a helpful performance boost, the recommendation from most studies is 3-6 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. For a 130-pound woman, that’s about 180-350 milligrams of caffeine, or around 12 ounces of strong coffee or three 8-ounce cups of tea. (Note: the high end of this is much more than the International Marathon Medical Directors Association recommends.) More than that doesn’t seem to provide any additional benefit.

Obviously, it’s important to know your body. If you have heart problems, are on certain medications, or are pregnant, you may need to limit your intake. Furthermore, people metabolize caffeine at different rates. A genetic test can tell you if you metabolize caffeine quickly (you get a jolt quickly, but it fades quickly too) or slowly (it takes longer to work, but lasts longer too). But based on your own experience, you probably already know this without knowing your genes. If caffeine takes a while to kick in, you might want to try drinking it an hour or so before the race, while if it hits you quickly, you might try taking a gel just before the start and supplement during.

Do You Need to Give it Up Before a Big Race to Get a Boost?

Some coffee addicts have success tapering caffeine leading up to the race. Since your body is habituated to its daily dose, lowering your tolerance may allow a cup of coffee or caffeinated gel to give you a bigger boost on race day. But some think it’s not worth the misery of withdrawal symptoms when you’re already cranky from tapering. The science is mixed; there seems to be no consensus whether your tolerance matters for performance benefits.

Anecdotal evidence is mixed too. I tried cutting back on tea (my main caffeine delivery system) before my last race, but didn’t sense much difference. But my friend Laura (aka Salty's Barley), an avid coffee girl, has had great success. If you want to try it, she recommends slowly easing off it starting one to two weeks before the race. To counter the withdrawal, she starts by drinking half-caf and then progresses to decaf.

My caffeine delivery system: A cup of tea for T. 
Coffee for Recovery: Is it the New Chocolate Milk?

Consuming carbohydrates along with some protein, like in chocolate milk, after a long workout is crucial to replenishing fuel stores and promoting recovery. But research also shows that combining caffeine with the carbs could give an additional boost. One study found that a post-workout combination of carbs and caffeine led to increased glycogen stores (the energy supply we use up during long runs) a few hours later compared to post-workout carbs alone. Another study found the combo may help runners bounce back after a long workout; people given both carbs and caffeine performed better on a sprinting test a few hours later. (Some caveats: both studies were small and used a LOT of caffeine, equivalent to about 5 cups of coffee.)

Though the research doesn’t seem as robust as for chocolate milk, it is comforting, especially when you're slamming a coffee post-run on the way to work. Who knew that was helping you recover?

In Summary

Overall, the studies provide some good news for coffee lovers to contemplate as they sip their morning mug. But for those new to caffeine, start slowly (perhaps with tea or a gel with 25 milligrams) and if you are at risk for heart trouble, consult your doctor first.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Visualize Your Way to Success

This post was originally featured on Salty Running.

I ran the Olympic Trials marathon course dozens of times before I ever made it to LA. The repetitive loops, the water stop navigation, the turns through the University of Southern California, the elation of the finish. I ran it all in my mind—never having taken a step on the streets. On race day, my mind was as prepared to handle the grueling 26.2 miles as my legs.

Visualization is a powerful tool for athletes. When we visualize performing an action, it activates the same brain areas we use when we actually perform that action. Visualizing a race primes your mental muscle the way speedy intervals condition your legs and lungs. By mentally rehearsing running relaxed and smooth in a goal race, you get your brain used to that state of things, so you’re ready to run relaxed and smooth on race day.

Want to use visualization to help nail your next goal race? Here are a few ways to add it to your running game.

Dedicate some time to it. I find it fits in well during the taper; I replace some of the time normally spent running with a few minutes of visualization. Find a quiet place, get comfortable, and try to relax.

Rehearse the entire race. I start with the moments leading up to the race: getting to the starting area, not freaking out over the length of the Port-a-Potty lines, staying calm and relaxed on my warm up. Then I go through the whole race, mile by mile or section by section, trying to be as detailed as possible. Watch the course video beforehand if one is available. If not, study the course map and picture yourself running along it, following the twists and turns. Include major hills, terrain changes, water stops, and cheer zones. And yes, picture that finish and the joy you’ll feel knowing you gave it your all.

Stay positive but realistic. It won’t be all sunshine and rainbows for the entire race. Picture certain things going wrong (it’s hot, it’s raining, you have to go to the bathroom) and how to handle them. I imagine having a slower than expected mile and calmly moving past it to focus on running well for the next mile. The key is to anticipate the inevitable pain and possible mishaps, and then practice accepting them and not letting them derail your entire race.

Rehearse the mental techniques you’ll rely on during the race. Whether it is a certain mantra or inspirational people to think about, practice the things you’ll tell yourself to keep you going. I try to anticipate where it might be tough (the later miles of the marathon, a hilly stretch, a section with little crowd support) and picture myself staying strong regardless. For example, a mental preparation for Heartbreak Hill might be: You’re going to feel like you can’t make it and will want to give up. But remember this is what you’ve trained for, all those hill repeats are about to pay off. Stay tough, get up and over this, then it’s all downhill and onto the crazy cheers of Beacon Street.

Repeat. Do this a couple times before the race; I generally do it every morning of race week. It should become ingrained in your mind, like the miles are ingrained in your legs. On race day, you might find you’re more relaxed: you know what to expect and how to handle it. Then just go through the routine you’ve practiced, stay strong in those tough spots, and celebrate your finish.

Dream big,