(All supplements I mentioned in this post were not sponsored, and are not necessarily endorsed. Those were just the products that I used. Legal…legal…legal. Please proceed with caution. If possible, talk to your doctor or coach before using any of the products. I am, however, sponsored by Fleet Feet New Balance Racing Team.)
Before I started running marathons, the longest distance that I had ever raced was 10k. The 2018 Twin Cities Marathon was the day after my birthday. I thought to myself, what a great way to celebrate my birthday and check off this bucket list item. Little did I know, I opened the door to a lifelong journey.
I will get into my running background in another post. Today, I am here to do a post-mortem for Chicago Marathon 2021. There will be two separate posts. This one will be focusing on the training cycle, and the next one will be focusing on the race itself. After each training cycle, I would reflect on what went well and what didn’t, and adjust accordingly for the next season. But this is actually the first time for me to write everything down. I find it to be a great practice to reflect and learn, and set my mind up for the next goal.
2020 was a rough year for me in terms of running. With all the races and in-person group training canceled, I lost all motivation. At some point, I could barely run 1 mile without stopping. Thanks to the support from friends and my husband, Josh, I somehow managed to finish a virtual half marathon by myself, and a virtual Chicago Marathon with some friends during the pandemic. But needless to say, they were not pretty.
I went back to in-person training in mid-April this year. By then it had been well over a year since I attempted any speed work with a group. I struggled to keep up, and every part of my body hurt. I did not finish the workout and left feeling defeated.
The 18-week marathon training officially kicked off in June. The training plan that I was on had the highest mileage that I have ever attempted. I was running less than 15 miles per week going into this training cycle, which was probably not the smartest decision. More on this later.
I don’t always go into a training cycle knowing what my target time is. I generally start with a rough number and adjust it up or down based on how my body reacts to different stimuli. Going into this training season, I thought to myself, it would be great just to do it under 3:30 again (my previous PR was 3:26:01, set at Chicago Marathon 2019.). About 2 weeks into the training, I moved my goal down to 3:20. But I kept edging faster and faster during the long-run intervals. 4 weeks before the race, I said to myself, let’s give 3:15 a try. I ended up with a 3:15:38 on a 70+ degree race day, and I couldn’t be happier about it.
Things that worked out great for me this season:
Printed out the training plan and put it on the fridge. Every time I finished a workout, I crossed it off.
I always show up to Wednesday speed training and Saturday long runs with my running team (Fleet Feet New Balance Racing Team and Chicago Endurance Sports). But I never paid close attention to the rest of the training plan. I used to half-ass or completely skip the mid-week runs and cross-training during my previous training cycles. Having the training plan printed out helped! Seeing it on the fridge was enough for me to hold myself accountable. And crossing the training off was the best feeling in the world.
Started taking salt tabs before and during some hot runs
I had heard about salt tabs from a pacer in 2019. All I remembered was how it helps to keep your heart rate down. After my heart rate spiked over 200 during the very first long run of this training cycle, I got a bottle of Salt Stick. It helped tremendously during this brutally hot summer. I didn’t feel as drained after some tough workouts as in previous years. However, one thing I never paid attention to was when to take the tablet. On hot days, I would take one about 10-15 minutes before the run and carry about 3 extra ones in my handheld water bottle. I take the extra ones as needed, or whenever I remember them. This made planning for the race day nutrition plan a little challenging.
If there is a range of miles/time in the training plan, don’t always go for the lower numbers
Left to my own devices, I would likely only hit the lowest target number for each run. In my mind, I did the workout and that’s all that matters. Josh noticed this tendency after a couple of weeks, and he started challenging me to aim for the higher numbers. Those extra miles add up. In some of the weeks, the weekly difference between higher and lower amounts was 8-10 miles. I would like to think those extra miles on my feet helped to give me some extra strength when I needed it during the race.
But this also brings me back to not being fully prepared coming into this training cycle. With the steep increase in weekly miles, my feet, ankles, and Achilles tendons were not happy. There was a lot of icing, elevation, compression happening throughout the whole 18 weeks of training. I am grateful that I walked away from this race injury-free. But my body was close to the breaking point many times. And I am not sure I would be this lucky next time.
Additionally, for the last 3 weeks of the training plan (before tapering), my weekly mileage went over 50, which was the highest I have ever attempted. My body was constantly tired and some areas of my feet were swollen to the point that they were painful to walk on. It could be the combination of being at the end of a training cycle and learning to adapt to the high mileage, I just didn’t feel like my body had enough time to recover. Maybe 50 miles per week is my threshold? I hope not. Maybe I need to reevaluate my recovery plan to better prepare for the next season.
Went into each long run with a nutrition plan
I learned from Google about gels, chews, waffles…and all the other things that people use for fueling during long runs and races during my first marathon training in 2018 when I got to the point that all I could think about during each long run was “Ugh, what should I eat after the run?”.
I have tried a variety of products over the years. Gels are the ones that I feel most comfortable with and I have used gels in all my races (I used GU and Gatorade this time). But I never had a plan for the long runs or the races. I would just estimate the number of gels I need, and rip one out when I felt like I am fading. Thanks to Josh, who did some research about endurance sports fueling when he was being my race support on a bike during my virtual marathon last year, I learned that I should never get to the point where I can feel the boost of energy from the gel. If I ever get there, it means that I am fueling too late.
For this training cycle, I started making plans for the long runs and treating every long run as a practice for the race day. Every Friday night, Josh would help me calculate the number of calories I should consume for the upcoming long run based on my weight and the estimated total time for the run. From there, we would make a plan of how many gels I should bring.
I tried to use timestamps as the cue in the beginning, but I kept missing it. About 1/3 way into the training, I decided to change it up and use mile maker instead. It worked! We started with 1 gel every 6 miles, and slowly worked our way down to 1 per 4 miles. It is still on the mid to low end of recommended calories for my body, but that’s what I felt comfortable with. It took a lot of time for my body and mind to get used to the volume. I partially blame the hot and humid conditions this summer. It wasn’t until 4 weeks before the race when I finally got it right.
Stopped going out for junk food and drinks, and started having the same pasta meal every Friday night before the long runs
Married life helped. We are the boring adults now haha. But in all seriousness, I am super grateful to my supportive husband for embracing this boring bedtime at 10:30 on Friday nights routine. I don’t think I showed up to a single long run hangover this cycle (woohoo!).
I heard about the concept of carb-loading during my first marathon training. I thought it means that I should have a big pasta meal the night before the race. Over the years, I learned that carb-loading is much more complicated than having pasta for one meal. If you are interested in learning how to properly carb-load, Chris McClung from Running Rogue Podcast got into it a little bit in one of his recent episodes (starts around 6:00).
I have no desire to ever do a full pre-race carb-loading plan. I decided to keep my pre-long run and race pasta tradition because I am a creature of routine, and the idea of having pasta before races and long runs has become a comforting thing. During this training cycle, I decided to have pasta before every long run just so that my body could get used to it. In the span of 18 weeks, Josh’s beef pasta has significantly improved. Honestly, it’s probably his best dish now! I hope we can keep this dish on our dinner menu forever.
Stopped having ice baths
This is a weird myth that I stumbled upon during my very first marathon training cycle. I found it on the internet one day, and swear by it ever since. I used to buy bags of ice, dump them into the bathtub, and sit in it for 10 minutes after every single long run. It made me feel better right away, so I just assumed that it helped with recovery.
Again, Josh/Google came to the rescue. He educated me on how an ice bath shocks your muscles and makes you feel better in the moment but tends to prevent adaptations by reducing the transient post-exercise inflammation. Long story short, inflammation isn’t fun but might actually be doing something. It seems that an ice bath is probably not a good idea unless you have back-to-back races. During this training cycle, I stopped doing ice baths altogether. Instead, I took many warm baths and lots of naps.
I made a lot of positive changes this season, but there were also many things that didn’t go so well. Hopefully, I can learn my lessons and be better prepared for the next cycle. Here are some things that I would like to try for the next training training cycle:
Don’t go into a training cycle with barely any running
This is a recipe for injury. I would like to be running 20-30 miles a week leading up to the training cycle. I would imagine the weekly mileage for my next training cycle would be even higher, and I want my body to be prepared for it.
Aim for the highest mileage from the start of the training
I didn’t start doing this until maybe ⅓ of the way into this training cycle. Even then, I still aim for the lower numbers sometimes. Part of it was because my body just didn’t react well with the volume and intensity of the training. I had to take 3 running days off (at different times) during the cycle to let my body recover.
For the next training cycle, if my body allows (can recover from it), I would like to aim for the higher end every time. Hopefully having some pre-season running could help me get there.
Having a proper plan for aerobic cross-training, and strength training
Besides biking to and from the beach a couple of times, I didn’t do any aerobic exercise outside of running this season. I know it’s not ideal. My next training cycle will start in winter, so biking outdoor won’t be an option here in Chicago. I don’t know what I should do about this yet. Maybe joining a gym with a swimming pool?
I still did something for all the cross-training days. Since we have a home gym now thanks to the pandemic, Josh built two full-body strength training circuits for me with the equipment we have at home.
It takes me about 45 minutes to go through them. I did them twice a week for the first half of the season, then I got bored. It happens a lot for me when it comes to weights. I went back to Pelton strength classes. However, I stopped all strength training in the last 2 weeks because my body was just too tired to do anything outside of running. I would like to keep strength training in my next training cycle. I just need to figure out a better way to incorporate it without it getting in the way of my runs.
That’s it for my training post-mortem. Next up, race recap.