Train for effort, not perfection.
That’s my goal for this year’s marathon in Chicago. It reflects my current training philosophy. I used to be very by the book—whatever my training plan said to do on a given day, I would do it. If it said, “On Wednesday, you have to run five and a half miles at this pace,” I did that. I thought if I didn’t train within these specific parameters, I wouldn’t succeed. If I missed a workout, I was beside myself. I believed that one missed training session would be the reason I’d fail on race day.
Over the years I’ve learned that there’s no secret sauce, no one single way to train. I’ve learned to trust myself and the work I put in, and to have grace with whatever comes my way. I’ve learned that it’s okay to miss a workout, and that one day won’t destroy 18 weeks of training. Now, if I’m feeling physically and mentally zapped, I’d take a day off rather than force myself to do a scheduled workout and risk injury. In fact, I traveled a lot this summer and even took a full week off in August. I would remind myself that this year is about effort, not perfection.
I wasn’t always a runner. I played sports growing up, but running was usually a punishment for poor performance, so I stayed away from it. Then, during my junior year of college, in 2009, my sister convinced me to sign up for a half-marathon. In training for it and then experiencing race day, I was totally hooked on the longer distance. After finishing, I knew I wanted to someday run a full marathon.
I got more serious about the sport in 2013, and I started running around Chicago in three-to-five-mile clips. That fall, I watched people run by my house in the marathon and felt inspired. A year later, I was one of those very runners, and I’ve since run the race five more times. This year will be my seventh.
How I’m Training for this Year’s Marathon
Even though I’m more relaxed about my schedule nowadays, I find it beneficial to map out a plan ahead of time. It reminds me of the big picture while also breaking the training down into edible chunks so I don’t feel overwhelmed.
In a typical marathon-prep week, I train five days out of seven, and I only run two of those days: one shorter maintenance run during the week and a longer run on the weekend. In 2015 and 2016, I ran a lot more than this, ended up overtraining, and finished in my slowest time to date—4:03 in the 2016 race. I discovered afterward that I had a sprained LCL and MCL and had developed IT-band syndrome. There’s a difference between being uncomfortable and being in pain, and continuing to push myself through the latter cost me dearly.
Endurance and Stamina: Wednesdays and Sundays
My running days are usually Wednesdays and Sundays, and the distance of these runs increases weekly over the course of my training. The shorter Wednesday runs are between three and 10 miles for the most part, with a couple of 14- and 16-mile runs later in the program. Because the Chicago course has some hills, in addition to my regular runs, I do incline interval work on the treadmill every two weeks for 20 to 30 minutes, choosing one of three workouts:
1. Changing the incline every 30 to 60 seconds.
2. Selecting a moderate incline (4 to 6 percent) and sustaining that for the duration.
3. Combining incline (6 to 10 percent) and speed work, trying to achieve top speed with each increase, and resting a minute in between efforts.
For my long Sunday runs, I build to a max of 20 miles, preferably outdoors and in the morning. Chicago has a beautiful stillness to it before the city starts to stir, and I’ll either run along the lakefront path or a particular section of the marathon course. I love to listen to music on these long runs. Songs that are five or six minutes long help pass the time, and I’m a big fan of R&B, pop, hip-hop, and house music.
I do most of my cross-training at Studio Three, which is the fitness studio where I’m also an instructor. We specialize in group classes, with interval-style resistance training, cycling, and yoga. On their own, each of these disciplines has a big impact on one’s physical and mental wellbeing, and when combined in a weekly regimen the results are astronomical. Interval training builds strength and lean muscle mass, cycling boosts endurance, and yoga helps lengthen and heal the muscles. These elements are what every strong marathoner needs to cross the finish line.
Fridays are my most variable day. I always do a full-body strength workout, either at home with free weights and kettlebells or in an interval class at the studio that combines weights with the treadmill and rowing machine. That same day, I’ll also do speed work or yoga; which one I choose depends on my overall schedule and physical condition. If I feel depleted or fatigued, I’ll opt for yoga, but if I feel the need for speed, I’ll do some sprint work on the treadmill, bike, or rower.
Speed work is important because it helps create a faster baseline race pace over time. With that in mind, on Tuesdays I may take a cycling class that focuses on sprints. Speed work on the bike is the most fun because I tie it into the beat of my music, around 120 to 130 beats per minute.
Rest: Mondays and Saturdays
I have two scheduled rest days per week, which I believe is important for injury prevention. On Monday and Saturday, I usually do something active that’s very easy, like taking a walk just to get out of the house. I also try to catch up on sleep and take a two- or three-hour nap on Saturday.
How I Fuel My Training
Proper nutrition is important for performance, but it’s also necessary for recovery. I used to have a somewhat challenging relationship with food, so I take the approach of enjoying myself yet still being conscious of my intake. While all food is technically fuel, not all fuel burns the same, so I try to avoid processed foods, cook at home whenever possible, eat organic as much as I can, and watch my alcohol intake. Before a workout, I keep things pretty light—usually coffee, bananas, and/or eggs. Afterward, I have a shake, then later on I have a more substantial meal like pasta, salad, or a panini sandwich.
Hydration is somewhat of a struggle for me. I never really feel thirsty, so I have to remind myself all the time to drink water, especially on rest days. On race day, I make it a point to hydrate at every other station to prevent cramping, and along the way I’ll nibble on small pieces of fruit like bananas and oranges. At miles 18, 21, and 23, I’ll have a gel to help me pull through to the end.
Mentally Prepared to Run, and Enjoy, the Race
At this writing, I am in week 13 of my training schedule, which means I have five more weeks to go. Even though the overarching theme of this race is effort, not perfection, my goal is to run a sub 3:50—pain-free and with a smile on my face. (Remind me of this around mile 23!)
As this year’s training plan comes to a close, I think about everything that brought me to this point: my loved ones, my community, my hard work. On race day, I’ll remind myself to cherish the process and the accomplishment. After the starting gun, I’ll enjoy the crowd and the excitement and connect with the experience. Then, around mile 2, I’ll put on my music.
I’ll make an effort to look up and take in the neighborhoods and really see everything and everyone as I embrace the fatigue. If I begin to doubt myself, I’ll repeat the phrase, “Trust your training.” It’s simple yet impactful, and it helps stave off negative thoughts.
I’ll try to run my own race and resist the urge to catch up to someone else. And no matter what the weather, I’ll do my best to accept it. There’s nothing I can do to change nature.
Once the race is over, I’ll seek a new challenge, perhaps a different marathon somewhere else in the world. I don’t know if anything can compare to the amazing experience of completing seven hometown races—but I’m ready to find out.