Category Archives: maximum heart rate

Marathon struggles: Maybe it is in my head

I’ve recovered from the Chicago disaster to once again be excited about running another marathon. During my training for the Austin Marathon, I’ve given a lot of thought as to why I can’t put a good marathon together, even though I’ve run seven of them.

Today is reason No. 1.

Maybe it is in my head. And this is not to say I have phantom injuries. When my legs stopped working at the 2010 Chicago Marathon, that spasming in my inner quads was real. As it was at the 2008 White Rock Marathon, and for the middle miles of the 2009 White Rock Marathon.

But the fact that I can do a 16- or 17-mile long run at 7:30 pace and still have gas left in the tank, and the fact that I have never been able to replicate this kind of energy in a marathon means something. And maybe that something is in between my ears.
There, I said it. I have a mental problem. Blink. Sigh. Sigh again.

What kind of mental problem? I’m not sure. Perhaps I panic. That was definitely the case at the 2009 Portland Marathon, where my 55-mile training weeks led to a measly 4:03 marathon. Things werent going right the first few miles and I just wigged out, started overdosing on water, which led me to the porta-potties every 15 minutes, and next thing you know, I’m doing 11-minute miles. But I wasnt cramping. And I wasnt tired. I was just scared to run. Finally, at Mile 24, I got mad and I got pissed and finished the marathon with two sub 8-minute miles.

See, when I panic, or get nervous, my breathing gets rapid, my heart beat rises, and my stride just gets out of whack. I’m tense and feel like every step is a struggle. And then, with my legs going every whichaway, I’m just a mess – physically and mentally, and I never seem to regroup. And this only happens during races, or in tempo runs with other runners. I guess that’s what it feels like to be so damn competitive.

But when I’m relaxed, like I am on all of my other runs, I can pick a pace and stick to it. My stride feels better. My breathing. My heart rate. It all feels good. And the times I’ve had good 5ks or good tempo runs, its because I Iet the pack take off, relaxed, and then picked up the pace.

I guess they call that negative splitting.

And so I’m learning how to run relaxed now. How to listen to my body (instead of other runners talking). I’m waiting for the magic. What, you say? I’m talking about the magic. The second wind. When things get easier in a run, when your muscles are all loosened up and your body stops hating you for getting out of bed at 4:30 in the morning.

I’m paying attention and I’m noticing that about 27 minutes into a run, the struggling stops, my breathing syncs up to my stride, I stop huffing and puffing and my legs no longer slap the pavement as much as they glide over it. And then things get easier.

This is real, folks. And I never noticed until I started noticing. See, we have this 8-mile run on Wednesdays, we call it the U-Loop, from Barton Springs to the University of Texas and back. The first four miles is mostly uphill. And for the first three of those miles, I cant get my breathing right, cant get my stride right, and an 8:15 pace is kind of difficult. And then, at about 3.25 miles in – while we are on the steepest hill of the course – the magic happens. And I’m floating. And my pace dips to 8:00/m, then 7:45, then 7:30 and when we take a water break at Jester Hall on the UT Campus, I’m floating along doing 7:15s. And I’m barely breathing. And I’m feeling like I could run that pace forever. I’m feeling so good that I want to skip the water stop, but then I’d be running by myself. And who wants to do that on a cold, dark, Austin morning? Not me.

Anyways, I noticed this was happening every Wednesday. First few miles I’m in the tank, then things get real easy. On the Monday before Christmas, we started doing marathon paced runs. Up and down Exposition Blvd. Two miles easy, then six at MGP. I really think I can hold 7:20 to 7:30 for a marathon, but when its time to start MGP, I’m struggling. My breathing is bad. Stride is off. And I get that “here I go again” feeling.

I’m about to panic, about to change my stride or run harder to keep the pace I’m “supposed” to be able to run. Then I look at my watch and notice we’ve only been running for about 24 minutes. And I remember that my body probably isnt warmed up properly yet – and I wait and I relax and I let my body run 7:45 pace and then, at 27 or so minutes, bang. I go from 7:45 to 7:30 to 7:20 to 7:10s and it feels pretty good. I’m barely breathing. I do the last mile in 6:55. (Yeah, I know I’m not gonna run 6:55 pace in a marathon, but I figure I’m alright as long as I didnt turn the run into a temp run – which would have been 6:45 or better.)

Now I havent figured out yet how this will help me late in a marathon. But knowing what I know now, I know that I have never waited for the magic to happen in a 26.2-mile race. I’m always in a rush and when I’m not running the pace I think I should be running, or when things are not as easy as I think they should be, I press harder and harder, using more and more energy and by Mile 14 I know its not gonna be a good race, and by Mile 17, I’m done.

What this all means to me now: Take it easy the first few miles. Preserve your energy. Let your body do what its gonna do. Wait until the end to fight.

Seems simple enough.

Next post on my marathon struggles will center around my nutrition


How I’m getting faster: Using the right initials

Lots of people who’ve read this blog and saw my times from 2007 have asked how I’m getting so fast. I ususally answer modestly that I’ve just been feeling good. I answered that way because, 1) modesty is a good thing, and 2) I really didn’t know….didn’t know how running a 10-minute mile in 2007 is like running an 8-minute mile now…..didn’t know how I could shave 1 minute off my 5K time in a span of 11 months…..didn’t know why I am on pace to shave 100 minutes off my 2007 marathon time.

But I’m starting to figure things out.

Today, I’ll talk about one of the reasons: VO2Max vs. HRmax.


Really geeky runners like me know those initials stand for maxium speed (VO2Max) and maximum heart rate (HRmax).

Now, here is what that has to do with my fast times: I read a lot about running when I began in 2004, and on forums like RunnersWorld, lots of people wrote about running according to the percentage of your maximum heart rate, i.e., mitochondria running, slow running, etc. The premise was that if you ran slow enough, you would activate all these kinds of systems in your leg muscles that would carry you on Marathon Day. On the Cool Running forum, there are dozens of pages about this kind of training, the technical word of it called Maffetone low heart rate training. The key was to keep your heart rate under 80 percent of max. This was supposed to help you burn fat for fuel and preserve those precious carbs you’ll need at the end of your marathon.

And so off I went. I bought a heart rate monitor (In the days before I wore Garmin, I wore Polar and Nike heart rate monitors) and hit the roads. I knew my max heart rate max was 201 because that’s the number I’d seen pop up at the end of two 5Ks I’d run. That meant I had to keep my heart rate under 160 on the majority, if not all of my runs. Now, anybody who has run in Texas summers knows how hard it is to keep your heart rate down in the heat. One day in Sept. 2004, it took me 1 hour, 27 minutes to run 6 miles because I was trying to keep my heart rate around 75 percent of my max heart rate (HRmax). Folks, that is a pace of 14 minutes, 30 seconds a mile.

As I got stronger I became a little more efficient at the low heart rate run. By Jan. 2007, I did a 9 mile run averaging a pace of right at 9-minute mile all the while keeping my heart rate under 80 percent max.

By then, however, I had already peaked out on low heart rate training. Instead of mixing some tempo and interval runs into my training, I kept plodding along, watching the heart rate monitor as I ran, slowing down to keep my heart rate low, rarely testing my cardiovascular systems. In all of 2007, I had three runs _ I REPEAT _ three runs where the average pace was faster than an 8-minute mile, and just 11 runs all year where the pace was faster than 8:30.

Let me say that again: 3 runs the whole year were faster than an 8:00 pace, 11 faster than 8:30. Each of the three rsub 8-minute mile pace runs was a race. I ran a slow White Rock Lake Marathon time (5 plus hours) because all year long I practiced running slow. (Ok, that’s just one of the reasons it took me so long to run 26.2. I’ll write about the other ones as I get closer to marathon day 2008).

At the beginning of this year, with a waistline that was widening and race times that were getting worse, I decided to just run according to how I felt, not worry about heart rate. I decided I’d use the Tuesday morning group runs from Lukes Locker to push my cardiovascular systems, i.e., blow my lungs out. I didn’t know or realize then, but those were what the Sports Scientists call tempo or threshold runs. What are those? Its when you run at a certain percent of your maximum speed, VO2max, for 20 to 40 minutes. The pace is usually around your 10k pace or slower – it’s the pace you can maintain for an hour or so.

(Quck aside: The higher percentage of your VO2max you can maintain, the more efficient you become running at all speeds. your VO2max is typically your 5k pace in minutes per mile. There is no way normal people could run their 5K pace on every run, but if you could run at 90 percent of your VO2max on a run once a week, or even 70 to 80 percent of your VO2max two or three times a week, you’d see great improvement.)

What did that mean for me? On Jan. 1, 2008, I ran a 5K in 22:01, a pace of about 7:06 a mile. Running this fast gave me the confidence that I could at least run twice the distance if I added a minute or so to my pace. So on those Tuesday Lukes Locker run, I didn’t worry about heart rate, I just tried to run my best without racing and those first few runs I was able to average 8:20 miles over a six mile course. I was huffing and pufing near the end, but thank goodness I didn’t slow down when my heart rate got to 80 percent max, or on each of those runs I would have slowed wayyyyy down 1 mile into the run.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but those Tuesday runs were making me strong, and giving me endurance. Scientifically speaking, I was doing those runs at about 85 percent VO2max. The more I did them, the easier they became. By April, I could run six miles in a pace that was faster than 8 minutes a mile without racing. In May, I added Thursday hill runs into the mix keeping a good pace, not caring what the heart rate monitor said.

Each week, things kept getting easier and easier. Long runs, running in the heat, races, recovery runs. Today (Oct. 21) I ran a 7-mile tempo run with the last 6 miles in a pace of 7:11 (Hey, I need to take those numbers to Vegas!). The last 5k of the run was in 22:09 —– Remember, 10 months earlier it took all of Heaven and Earth and a lot of lung power for me to run a 5K in about the same time.

To be sure, I don’t run “fast” every day. I take it easy on long runs, and I sandwhich long run days with recovery runs or rest altogether.

Sometimes I sneak a peak at the heart rate monitor during one of these easy runs. On Oct. 1, I ran an “easy” 9-miler. I finished in 1:12:18. That pace is just a shade over 8 minutes a mile. My average heart rate for the run: 77 percent of max.

(On a Jan. 8 run, I ran 7 miles in pretty much the same pace, 8:04, and my heart worked sooo much harder: 87 percent of max)

The moral of this long (and boring) story: Running fast not only helps you race fast, it also makes your easy days easier.