Wow – it’s been so long since I shared an actual running update! I’ve been base-building for just about 4 weeks now, so I finally feel like I have enough to go on that I can write a more comprehensive report, even if (spoiler alert) I really haven’t made any fitness gains per se.
My Base Building Strategy
Instead of training for two goal races this year, as most runners do, I’m taking the entire year to build up to one goal race, the Chicago Marathon in October. This means that I’m forgoing any winter/spring formal training in order to spend the first half of the year building up my aerobic endurance and general fitness base. Training for the marathon will officially start in mid-June.
My focus for January is quite simple: get my body adapted to running again by logging 100% easy miles. I took a lot of time off this past fall (7 weeks altogether), so I’ve started out the year with very low mileage and a plan to increase it very conservatively this month. My plan called for a a few 4-milers during the week (and, by the end of the month, a couple 5 milers as well) and a weekend long run, which started out at 6 miles and will be up to 9 miles by next weekend/the end of the month. All of these miles are at a conversational, very easy effort. I also made it a goal to do bite-sized strength training workouts 6 days a week (we’re talking 5-10 minutes total each day) in an effort to get into the habit of regular strengthening.
The two guiding tenets of this month’s work were: 1) keeping all my runs at that conversational easy effort with my HR in the aerobic zone; 2) going GPS-free for 90% of my runs.
All that time off running definitely put me behind in terms of fitness, and that’s no fun, but I see the “starting over” process as a blank slate, an opportunity to re-train myself with better habits, namely: learning to truly run by effort, not pace. I think it will be more productive for me to listen to my body, work with where I’m at now, and progress naturally, instead of being a slave to my watch and forcing myself to run paces I feel like I “should” be running. Ditching the watch and having no clue how fast I’m running forces me to focus on other things mid-run: how I feel, how hard I’m breathing, how much effort I’m putting into the run. Once in a while I will track a run, to see how I’m progressing, and occasionally I will measure my elapsed time against the route I ran on my MapMyRun afterwards to get a rough idea of what my pace was, just out of curiosity (I record all my runs as manual workouts – timer only – so I can track my heart rate).
How it’s going:
Well, as I mentioned a couple weeks ago, I had some setbacks this month. My first week went great, logging 16 miles, but then the next week I got a cold and only logged 8. Determined to redeem my missed long run (which was not sickness-related, I just skipped it because it was like 8 degrees that weekend), I made up for it the following Monday, but due to a vacation we went on that same week, I only ended up logging 10 miles for that week. During that vacation and the sick time, I also missed a bunch of my strength training days, and there were a couple times during the month that I just flat-out forgot to do it, but otherwise I actually did well with my strength training. I really did make an effort to get a little bit in whenever I could, and I ended up doing it at least a few days each week.
I got home from vacation on Sunday, and I rallied this week: unless something happens, I’ll log 20 miles and an 8-mile long run to close out Week 4 of base-building. I’m planning on 22 for next week, and it’s only upwards from there for the month of February. It feels good to be back on track. I do regret that I couldn’t run more miles this month, but it is what it is, and I can only move forward, not back.
I have, however, so far achieved my goal of 100% easy running these first four weeks. In fact, I nailed it – I’ve focused on easy effort for every single run and succeeded. It’s taking some practice, and there are certainly still days when my legs and lungs do not agree on what constitutes an easy effort! But I’m getting better at it. I am gradually replacing my habit of listening to my watch with a new habit of listening to my body. I’m constantly paying attention to how easy my breathing feels as an indication of whether I’m running at an appropriate effort level, and I’m also staying aware of how tense and upright my upper body is on the run. I keep my effort level steady for the duration of my runs because I’ve learned to listen to my breathing cues to tell me when I’m starting to go too fast. When that happens, instead of telling myself “slow down!”, I use the mental cue of “relax“. I take a deep breath, let my shoulders drop, let my arms relax, try to adjust a little bit upright.
While there are so many benefits to slowing down and running by feel, these slower paces do mess with my head sometimes. I haven’t consistently run at these paces in ages. I have moments where I seriously doubt myself and have to fight the urge to do more and push harder. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of “I’m not improving/I’m never going to get fast again/I’ll never achieve my goals at this rate“. This is a relatively new way of training and approaching long-term goals for me, and that naturally comes with some uncertainty and discomfort. I have to remind myself over and over and over again to trust in the process and keep my eye on the prize.
My easy paces may be slower in part because I’ve gained some weight since I stopped running and training this fall. Actually, I think I started gaining weight all the way back this summer after my spring marathon. My clothes have gotten a little bit tighter this year and the tone I noticed in post-race pictures from the spring has disappeared. I don’t think a few extra pounds is having as much of an affect on my running as the fact that I’m out of shape, but I am not as lean as I once was, and the laws of physics dictate that with more weight I will move slower. Neither this nor my lack of fitness will disappear overnight, so I just have to keep being patient and disciplined.
Since running at a true easy pace, running feels good every single day. I have not yet struggled to get through a run, and I have not felt fatigued during or after any run I’ve completed, even my longer ones. I never dread running, and it demands pretty much no recovery: by the time I get home, rehydrate, shower and relax, it barely even feels like I’ve exercised at all. I think that’s a sign that I’m ready to start throwing in some harder efforts, and I will be starting that in February, once my mileage gets more consistent. I track my heart rate on all my runs and I’m happy to report that it has consistently been well within my aerobic zone – I would like to see it improve a bit since that seems a little high for my effort level, but I’m pleased with myself that I’ve done a good job keeping it consistent and steadily aerobic.
I know that going slower now is an investment in my running success down the road, so while it’s not always easy, I’m proud of myself for staying disciplined and doing the right thing each day. Each time it gets frustrating or boring, I remind myself that it will pay off later.
Looking Ahead: The Next 4 Weeks and February
I look forward to having nothing going on in my life the whole month of February (now there’s something I never thought I’d say!). I’m glad running is feeling good, but I really need more consistency. I can’t develop an aerobic base on 16 mpw, and in order to build my mileage, I need to be able to stick to a plan and develop a routine. I’m eager for that to start happening this month.
In February I will be adding a little bit of light speed work into my running once a week. This should spice things up and start the process of boosting my fitness. I wanted to start doing this at the 4 week mark (which is the end of this week), but since my mileage has been low and inconsistent this month, I’m pushing it back a week.
I’ll also start increasing my mileage next month: for the next 6 weeks I will be running 22-30 mile weeks, and in February I’ll start double-digit long runs, something I have not done since September. I hope this will help me start feeling more confident about my base and about completing the Canyonlands half marathon in mid-March.
Finally, on Tuesday I start my weekly “4-in-1 fitness” class (a combination of different styles of aerobics and sculpting), and I’m looking forward to adding some rigorous and consistent cross-training into my fitness routine. I’ll continue with my daily strength training, and I’m hoping that as I get used to it I can start taking on a little bit more each day.
Mentally, I need to improve at being patient with myself and my circumstances. Comparisons to the past constantly bedevil me as a runner, but they are just not helpful or productive. It doesn’t matter that I could run a marathon at an 8:30 pace in May. It’s not May anymore. Temporary or not, nobody enjoys being slower than they used to be, but I have to work with where I’m at now if I ever want to improve upon it. And I have to accept that it’s just going to take some time, and try not to freak out when many weeks – months even – go by without any noticeable and consistent improvement.