6 Benefits of Using a Running Coach

Before I began training for last year’s Wrightsville Beach Marathon, I had decided that I wanted to hire a coach. Having never used a running coach before, I had some reservations early on about the idea. A few of those were valid. For example, I wondered if having a coach would actually be worth it for me since I am very self-motivated and usually don’t have a problem staying accountable to my training plans. But otherwise, most of my reservations were stupidly focused on the outside perceptions of me hiring a coach. More than anything, I guess I’m saying that I felt like I wasn’t “fast enough” to have a coach.

Ultimately, my more rational side talked me out of the petty concerns. My desire to improve as a runner and achieve the goals that had long been out of reach pushed aside the short list of reservations. I enlisted Sarah as my coach for a four month marathon training cycle.

The end result was that I shattered my goals and my expectations at the Wrightsville Beach Marathon (I wrote what is probably too much detail about the race in my recap, so I’ll leave it at that). Better still, I feel like those four months of hard work and attentive coaching brought my running to a new level that I continue to benefit from and build on.

WBM3

I can’t say broadly that every runner out there should use a running coach. I think it entirely depends on each individual’s goals, training preferences and, of course, budget. But, in hopes of helping anyone reading who is considering hiring a coach, these are the ways that I found coaching beneficial to me:

  1. A new and individualized approach to training. It’s true that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. I know this because, prior to enlisting the help of a coach, this is exactly what I was doing. Training season after training season I used the same or similar plans and tactics and, although I improved, I did so only marginally and nowhere close to as much as was necessary to tackle my goals. I had a hunch that I needed to overhaul my strategy in order to see big results. But I was terrified to try anything beyond my tried and true training plans for fear of training incorrectly or over training and getting injured. Before the season began, Sarah gathered as much information as she possibly could about me and my running history. Then she took all of that into account and designed a training plan specifically for me. There was a lot about the plan that was new, but also some parts that were familiar. It was clear that there was careful consideration into how best to balance those two things so that my body would stay healthy and make the greatest gains in marathon fitness.
  2. They introduce you to new, effective workouts. While working with Sarah, I gained knowledge of and experience with a wealth of new workouts that I have continued to incorporate into my training at various distances. As just one example, it had honestly never occurred to me to incorporate fast finish long runs into my training. Now it is my favorite training run to use because it gives me a great sense for where my combined endurance and speed are in the midst of training for longer distances and it trains my body to finish strong even when it is fatigued.
  3. You have an accountability partner. I know I just got done saying that I don’t have a problem sticking to my training plans on my own. It’s true. In fact, it’s so true that I am prone to being too much of a slave to my schedule and my desire to go above and beyond. I am the type of person that always wants to do the maximum amount of miles on my plan, at the fastest pace that makes sense, regardless of whether I am tired. But this just isn’t a smart or sustainable way to run. Since I would report to my coach weekly on my training runs, she could keep me accountable for holding back my easy runs to a pace that was actually easy and my mileage within the ranges prescribed in the plan. Whenever I told Sarah that I was feeling sick or run-down, she would tell me to take the day off. For some reason it is a lot easier to listen to someone else telling me to slow down or stop than it is to listen to myself. Whether you are the type of person who needs extra motivation to get out and get your training runs done, or you are like me and sometimes just need someone to tell you to back off, a coach can be a tremendously helpful accountability partner.
  4. Your training plan is more adaptable. Whenever I have to divert from my intended training plan due to sickness, injury, or travel, I tend to get caught up in the best way to rearrange my workouts. I know that I should never try to make up mileage that I’ve missed by adding it to my load in later weeks. But beyond that, I’m usually lost. What workouts are the key ones to try and incorporate later in the plan? How much time do I need to ease back into the plan if I’ve taken a bunch of time off? I had to divert from my training for Wrightsville Beach twice – for a terrible cold and for a nagging IT band issue. It was nice to have Sarah there to instruct me to take as much time off as I needed and to explain how the plan could so easily be restructured to put me back on track. Having the reassurance that my entire training cycle wasn’t in the process of crashing and burning allowed me to focus on the most important task at hand – properly resting and recovering so I could run again.
  5. They walk you through the race day game plan. I went into my goal marathon feeling empowered and confident in what I was supposed to do in order to put myself in a position to run my goal time. This was, in part, thanks to a very long conversation that I had with my coach the week before the race where we discussed everything from target pace for each section of the course to when and where to fuel. I had a much better strategy internalized that I ever had for a race before and it translated into a perfect execution of a strong, negative split marathon.
  6. Your own personal cheerleader. My family and friends are so supportive of my training and racing so I have never felt like I am taking on my goals all alone. But there is something unique about the way that a coach’s feeling of accomplishment is intertwined so closely with the successes of the athletes that they coach. I remember texting my coach after my first successful fast finish 20 miler and feeling like her excited response was so incredibly genuine and motivating. We were both feeling good because we could tell that my hard work, guided by her instruction, had me on the right track toward finally reaching my goal.

Based on my experience, I would certainly recommend hiring a coach to any runner who is committed to working toward any form of running goal – faster paces, longer distances, or whatever else you have your sights set on. I acknowledge that coaching may not be what every runner wants or needs, and that the benefits each runner experiences from coaching are likely to be different than mine. If you decide to invest in coaching, I recommend really taking the time to think about what you want the most out of coaching and what motivates you, and then attempt to find a coach whose background and demeanor match that.

The 2015 Wrightsville Beach Marathon

It has been a little over two weeks since I ran the Quintiles Wrightsville Beach Marathon. And it has taken me nearly all of that time to really collect my thoughts and feelings about the race.

I had some big goals for this race, goals that I wasn’t entirely sure were within my reach going in but goals that I had nonetheless put a whole lot of myself into over the past four months or more. My primary objective was to run my first Boston qualifying time. But in order to do that thoroughly and go for a time that was sure to get me into Boston, I had trained aspiring to a 3:30 marathon (8:00 per mile pace).

My training went well for the most part – I hit weekly mileage numbers I had never seen before, peaking at about 60 miles per week, and surprised myself by toughing out more challenging workouts than I previously thought I was capable of. Working with a coach for the first time had me trying new things and really pushing myself. (I will put together a review of my coaching experience in another post really soon.)

About 5 weeks out from the race I was disappointed when some IT band tightness took me a bit off track. I tried to address the problem immediately by treating the weak/overused areas, stepping back my mileage, and temporarily eliminating all speed work from my routine. I worked with my coach to rearrange the remaining weeks of my training schedule and I still hit most of my key workouts. But the fact that my IT band had so recently been in less than perfect shape wasn’t helping out my confidence going into the race.

Jeremy and I made the very familiar trip to Wilmington together, got to stay with old friends, and had an awesome time and all the carbs with my Bull City Track Club friends at dinner the night before the race.

I woke up bright and early on race morning to perfect weather. There had been some rain in the forecast but it held off and it was in the 50’s and clear at the start. I found a few friends from the team to stand with and talk out my nervous energy between bathroom trips until it was time to join the crowd at the starting line.

The marathon and half marathon start together and there isn’t much of a corral system in place. But since it is a smaller race, I have never thought this was a huge problem aside from some minor weaving around other runners during the first half mile or so.

I was so incredibly lucky that my BCTC friend, Emily, had offered to pace me for the first 11 miles of the race. She was supposed to be running the full marathon but had to lay off training to recover from IT band and knee issues. She knew finishing the full marathon wasn’t an option, but she still decided to use her bib to run with me and keep me company to the point where the half marathoners split off from the full. Her support made such a tremendous difference in how my race went and I couldn’t be more grateful to her.

We started quasi-conservatively in the spirit of my race day game plan. We ran the first 3 or so miles at about an 8:10 average pace and then started to pick things up to my 8:00 goal pace somewhere around mile 4. The 3:30 pacer was in our sights most of the time, but we let him stay slightly ahead since he seemed to be going a little ahead of pace. We people watched and talked and, just like that, 10 miles had gone by and it was almost time for Emily and I to part ways. Having the first 11 miles pass without a whole lot of thought or anxiety was huge.

With Emily gone, I was alone but still had the 3:30 pacer in sight. So I put in my headphones and made a move to catch the pacer and the small pack of about five runners sticking with him. I typically haven’t decided to follow pacers during races but really wanted to keep some people nearby for a while longer, which may be because I am in the habit of doing my runs around people now instead of all alone.

WBM2

I ended up hanging with that same group of runners and the pacer from mile 11 until around mile 19. Throughout that time, I went through a few mild phases of ‘I feel… meh’ for no particular reason, just minor discomforts and occasional doubt I could hold my pace for the distance that was left. But I always seemed to quickly bounce back to ‘I feel frickin’ awesome’. I was grateful for the pacer, he was going a bit faster than the target pace most of the time but was sure to check with everyone who was in the group to make sure we were comfortable with it. We hit mile 17 with my watch showing about 7:56 average pace.

I worried a bit starting at mile 19, heading back into a more dull residential area for the second time (aka land of multi-million dollar houses, golf courses and almost no one out cheering). It was around this part of the course that I had tanked my pace last year. I told myself that if I could get out of the neighborhood without losing speed I would be golden. It was a struggle to do that for miles 19-23 because our pace group completely split apart and I was mostly on my own. But I managed to hang on and keep my pace consistent – my watch lingered around 7:56 average.

At about mile 23 it suddenly became easier to hold the pace, and I even felt like I was picking it up a bit. I caught up to and passed the only other female who had been tagging along with the 3:30 pace group with me (who I had pegged as probably being in my age group as well).

Once I got out of the residential zone at around mile 24, I was worn out but felt a huge amount of relief. I saw Jeremy right after the 24 mile mark which gave me the finishing energy I needed. From there, I pretty much went tunnel vision. I was so focused on the finish that I actually picked up speed and miles 25 and 26 were my fastest of the race (7:39 and 7:36).

WBM1

I don’t think I fully believed or realized that I was running the amazing race I was running until I got to the last half mile or so. So I was on emotional overload crossing the finish line. Seeing my teammates and Jeremy and giving them all sweaty hugs brought out a whole lot of happy crying.

I finished in 3:27:51. A PR of just over 9 minutes and I came in more than 7 minutes ahead of my Boston qualifying time. I also found out later that I placed 2nd in my age group, and got a very cool commemorative growler as a prize.

WBM3

There are so many things I am proud about from this race, but a few things that top the list:

  • I didn’t really hit the wall or have any miles that stood out as “bad”. I almost expected to get to a point where I had nothing more to give and I lost my grip to my goal pace, only because that has happened to be in every other marathon. But this time when I had periods of discomfort I was able to deal with it and lean into that discomfort, ultimately staying consistent. I think this is a result of taking a new approach to my training – reaching higher mileage overall, and toughening up mentally from my speed workouts and incorporating goal pace miles into the end of my long runs.
  • I negative split the race and my last two miles were my fastest of the day. Proof that taking the first few miles conservatively, at a pace slightly slower than your goal, really can work in your favor (as opposed to my old practice of running off the start like a bat out of hell). Negative splitting has been something I have been able to achieve in a few of my most recent races, like the Richmond Half, and I love being able to finish strong and fast – or at least not completely broken.

I am proud of myself but definitely can’t take all the credit for a successful race. My coach, Sarah, was absolutely amazing. Jeremy was unfailingly supportive and understanding through yet another season of marathon training. And my Bull City Track Club teammates that ran with me day after day made it the most fun and fulfilling marathon training experience I’ve ever had, hands down.

What was your most recent race? How did it go?

Allowing myself to go all in for my goals

For those who followed this blog for the last year or year and a half, you may remember that I had some pretty monumental goals for my last two marathons in fall of 2013 and spring of 2014.

After taking a long absence from the marathon since my first in 2011, I gained substantial speed and strength at the half marathon distance. I had a very timid idea that I might be fast enough to run a Boston qualifying time in my second marathon. So I went for it. Mostly. I put my goals out there in the open for all to see, I trained for 16 solid weeks, and I gave each workout everything I had.

I missed my goal of sub 3:35 at the Richmond Marathon, but not by much. Eager to capitalize on the fitness I had gained and shave off the 4 or 5 minutes needed to reach my 3:35 goal, I ran another marathon in spring of 2014. I finished with a 3:37 PR, inching slightly closer to my goal but still falling short and ultimately leaving my body and mental fortitude rather tired and broken.   Marathon 2

It was clearly time for a break from the marathon. So I took a break. But a strong desire for a BQ that is mere minutes away doesn’t just dissolve during a break. And I knew pretty quickly that my next attempt would be spring of 2015, keeping the stresses of training as far from the stresses of planning for our October 2015 wedding as possible. So I will be returning to the Wrightsville Beach Marathon again in March to give my BQ goal another shot.

When I say that I ‘mostly’ went for my goals in my 2013 and 2014 marathons, I am not disparaging the effort put into my training, or even my results. I am qualifying that I set about achieving my goals without changing my usual training strategy and not in the mindset that I deserved to take above and beyond measures to make my goals a reality.

I had considered the idea of getting some level of coaching multiple times in the past but talked myself out of it. I reasoned that I wasn’t a fast enough runner to legitimize having a coach and that it was too financially frivolous for me to spend money on it.

I rarely invested time and money in treating myself to sports massages or other preventative care during training. Expense was a factor but I also was under the delusional impression that any damage done by training could be undone by a few minutes with a foam roller.

I occasionally felt guilty for the amount of time and energy I put into training, even though I was only running 4 days a week at the time.

This time around it has become clear to me that if I want to achieve my goals, and I want to achieve them soon, my attitude about those goals would have to change. Instead of timidly thinking that I could maybe run a marathon in under 3 hours and 35 minutes, I should probably start telling myself that I am capable of doing it, and that after all of the heart I have put into running I deserve to do it.

I realized that I couldn’t go about training the exact same way, and expect different results. I would need to run more mileage, but do so very strategically. When I realized that I had no idea of the best way to safely do that, I finally decided to find a coach. Instead of feeling guilty about the cost or feeling silly because I think I’m not ‘fast enough’ to have a coach, I remind myself that I want my goal, coaching will help me get there, and that’s really all that matters.

I am still coming around to biting the bullet and spending money and time on all the preventative care that marathon training requires. But, particularly recently, I have come to respect the needs my body has as I put it through this type of stress and accepted that a long sports massage is sometimes not indulgent but necessary.

I have stayed home in my sweatpants just about every weekday (including Friday) night since early December. My friends and fiance still love me even though I have dropped off the social map. And I don’t feel the guilt or regret as if I have missed out on absolutely everything.

None of this long-winded post is meant to suggest that anyone who doesn’t invest in coaching or stay home like a recluse every night isn’t going to or shouldn’t reach their running goals. Not at all.

I am only trying to encourage anyone who fears their goals or who hesitates to take the extra steps to get there because they worry they’ll ultimately regret it. If there is a goal that you really want and you are willing to put in all the work to achieve it, then you deserve that goal and you deserve to go ‘all in’ to make it a reality.

Do you have a big goal you are working towards right now – running or otherwise? Tell me about it!

The 2014 Wrightsville Beach Marathon. With a Surprise Ending.

Marathon weekend and the days since them have been a whirlwind. It has taken me a long time to sit down to write this post because I wasn’t sure how to even begin reenacting the weekend well enough to do it justice. But it is well past time to share so I am going to try my best to formulate my scattered thoughts into a coherent post.

Pre-race

We got to Wilmington on Saturday right on schedule and dropped by the expo. Packet pick-up and the expo were simple and to-the-point, which I appreciate because giant expos just make me anxious. We stayed at our friends, Ian and Shelby’s, apartment with another couple of friends, Jared and Sarah. Ian and I were running the marathon and Sarah was running the half.

Race 3

Spoiler alert: We all finished.

Shelby is basically the world’s greatest hostess/mom and made us a carb-loaded spaghetti dinner that was perfect. We played a ridiculous board game that had me basically out of breath from laughter for several hours and then went to bed somewhat early.

The runners (plus Shelby who was hard at work cooking hard-boiled eggs, making smoothies, and packing a 20 lb backpack full of supplies) woke up around 4:45, did our pre-race rituals and got dropped off at the starting area in plenty of time to hit the bathroom line and get situated before the 6:45 AM start time.

The starting line

There were only two corrals for the race and I was in corral 1, so I maneuvered my way closer to the front of the crowd. I had enough room to do some dynamic stretches for about 10 minutes and then the announcer began counting down to the start. And we were off.

Mile 1

Once I found a comfortable spot in the pack I tried to settle into the correct pace – somewhere in the 8:08 min/mile range. I dropped back from the 3:30 pacer and the mass of people that seemed to be right on top of him (is it necessary to be THAT close, people?!). I felt prepared and mentally ready but my legs felt a bit rubbery – that feeling where your muscles are almost itchy, which I can only assume is caused by adrenaline.

Mile 4.5

I saw Shelby and passed my arm sleeves off to her. The temperature (I was wearing shorts and a tank top) was comfortable even though it was barely past sunrise. The rain was holding out even though it was overcast and a downpour was forecasted for the afternoon. The course for the marathon was essentially two loops of the half marathon and I would run past that exact spot three times total before finishing the race. It is great for spectators because they can see their friends/family several times without having to try and switch locations and can still make it to the finish line to see them there as well. But, no doubt, a double loop is harder mentally for the runners. It wasn’t something I worried much over, though, because I often do long training runs by repeating as many as 5 loops around my neighborhood (yes, I know that sounds crazy).

Mile 5.5

I ate something even though I didn’t really have the appetite for it. I was already beginning to worry that my stomach wouldn’t hold up well for the whole race. I alternated between eating Honey Stinger Waffles and sets of three Shot Blocks and tried to eat every 5 to 6 miles, but it was really hard to make myself eat most of the time.

Mile 11

I was worried by how tired I already felt and by the way my stomach was acting given that I wasn’t even half way done. This part of the course was 5 miles through a really upscale residential area. There were some ridiculously expensive houses to look at and occasional clusters of good crowd support but it did seem to drag on. Once I knew I was getting close to leaving the neighborhood and heading back toward the beach, I was really relieved. I had been hovering between an 8:07 and 8:08 min/mile pace and, while the pace felt comfortable to me, my body was just feeling off.

Mile 13

It became obvious that the reason my body felt off was almost completely because of my stomach. There would be seconds when it would be almost unbearable and then it would calm down for a mile only to sneak up on me again. Finally, I stopped at an empty port-a-potty. The stop caused my average pace to drop from 8:08 to 8:12 but I am so glad I did it because I felt about 1,000 times better after the fact. I even picked up a few seconds in the couple miles after that because I felt so good. I ran back over the Wrightsville Beach Bridge for the last time (mile 15) at about an 8:10 average pace and was surprised by how good I felt.

Mile 16.5

I passed by Sarah, who was just a few miles from finishing the half marathon course and then almost immediately passed by our cheerleaders Jeremy, Juneau, Jared, and Shelby. Seeing my friends and family gives me such a boost of energy, even when I am feeling tired.

Mile 18-21

I started feeling pretty worn down again at mile 18, but I had the memory in my head of hitting the wall at mile 19 of Richmond. I knew I felt better than I did when I hit that wall and I just kept telling myself that I had to get past mile 20 going strong. If I could get past mile 20, I knew I could win the mental battle for the last 6 miles. It worked, and before I knew it I was at mile 21 and the race became 100% mental.

Mile 21-24.5

I was back in the boring residential part of the course, it was down to just the marathon runners and the field had spread out. It was hard. My body was undoubtedly exhausted and, even though I felt like I was running the exact same speed based on my effort, my average pace was ticking slower and slower on my watch it seemed. I thought about walking SO MANY TIMES. But it turns out I had been right several miles earlier. The mental battle is something I can win once I get past the 20 mile mark. I’m just that stubborn. I wanted to walk but I knew I would regret walking, or even reducing my effort, with only 5 miles to go when all was said and done. So I didn’t. But it was so, so hard.

Mile 24.5

I ran by my cheering section again. All I could do was pull an ear bud out and say to Jeremy as I ran past, “I hurt SO BAD.” And he yelled after me that he knew, but I was SO CLOSE. After this I stopped thinking about anything at all. I didn’t see mile markers (though I think they existed) and I ran past aid stations because I didn’t trust myself to be able to keep down a cup of water or to run and drink without tripping over my own feet.

The finish line

When I saw the finish line I don’t remember seeing runners around me or the clock. I ran in as hard as I could to the line. I had absolutely nothing left when I got there. My chip time turned out to be 3:37:08 – a new PR.

I was still in full tunnel vision and couldn’t focus on more than one single thing at a time. I walked to the volunteer with the medals, then the one with the water bottles, then with the space blankets.

When I was finally out of this maze of tasks I saw Juneau at the end of the corral (she always sticks out first in a crowd with her white coat). Jeremy was standing beside her and I noticed he was wearing a tie. He wasn’t wearing a tie when I saw him two miles ago.

I hadn’t even processed my thoughts when I got to him. He asked me if I was okay and if I needed a moment. When I said I was fine he said he had something to ask me, pulled out a ring box, got down on one knee and said, “Anna, I love you so much. The last 5 years have been amazing and I want to have that forever. Will you marry me?”

Race

There were a couple of seconds where I couldn’t catch my breath. I wasn’t literally crying (likely because there was no more salt water left in my body) but I have severe cry-face in several of the photos. I don’t know how to describe what I felt at all. Just, wow.

And, of course, I said yes.

Race 2

Race 4

Ignore what must be Honey Stinger Waffle or pretzel crumbs in my finger nail.

My brain still hasn’t caught up to all of the excitement. But I am so grateful and happy for the chance to have run this race and most of all for what happened at the finish line. I am engaged to my perfect person! The moment fit us perfectly. Running has become such a huge part of my life and this was the same race where he and I ran our first half marathons together 4 years ago. The whole day could not possibly be more memorable or special to me. All I can really say is that I feel like one ridiculously lucky girl.

What day is it?

Wow, this week has been a complete daze. The time change has really messed with me and I am more tired than usual. At the same time, there has been too many things going on for me to be a lazy mess like I would like to be.

I don’t have much in the way of coherent thoughts to share but I do have one big one…

It’s marathon week!

WB Marathon

It kind of crept up on me and it feels like just 2 weeks ago that I was running the Richmond Marathon. But I’m certainly excited – I absolutely love Wilmington/Wrightsville Beach and this race so it should be a great weekend.

I am compulsively stalking the weather which, as it stands right now, is making me a little uncomfortable. It looks like it may be another damp, rainy marathon for me.

70% chance of rain? No, thank you.

70% chance of rain? No, thank you.

I hope to be back for another post once I get some time and get a grip on what time of day it is and/or what day of the week it even is.

Has the time change been causing you problems? Have you ever run any races in the rain – if so what are your tips?