In this episode Coach Angie discusses the importance of working on your weak areas in marathon training so that you can become a stronger version of yourself. Plus we speak with an Australian runner who is mobilizing the running community to support those affected by the divesting bushfires.
The episode was inspired by something I read recently by Coach Jason Koop titled “Work on Your Ultrarunning Weaknesses This Winter.” The gist of it was that it’s important to work on your weak areas in the off season.
The Off Season
The “off season” may not necessarily happen for you during the winter months but it’s important to step back from hard training for a period of time each year (especially if you’re a hard-driving Type A runner).
This year my “off season” was during the months of July and August. I didn’t stop running but I gave myself permission to just run for fun and include some other exercise activities into my schedule (more strength training, rowing). Then I had the drive and energy to come back in September and hit it hard in preparation for my fall running goals.
We often don’t think about our weak areas until we’re in the thick of training and something is rearing its ugly head. Being proactive about getting stronger is basically about prevention. It’s far better to stay healthy than have to fight back from injury.
What Are Weak Areas?
There are numerous examples of what could be a weak area and this will vary from runner to runner.
- Rest-you skip rest days, race several times per year, and schedule each day full of workouts.
- Strength Training-you rarely if ever strength train and find that you don’t have the strength or stamina that you want.
- Maybe you’re very hard on yourself if you don’t perform how you want and look to running for the majority of your identity.
- Injury- you’ve had niggles or injuries popping up (or seem to get injured a lot).
- Mental Strength- You psych yourself out before starting challenging runs or workouts, find that you “have” to walk at a certain point in long runs no matter your pace or effort level, or have a mental block at races.
- Nutrition- Maybe you’re having trouble dialing in your nutrition. You train hard but seem to undo some of your efforts by uncontrolled eating or not eating enough. These are just a few examples and there are even more areas I could mention.
Pacing-you struggle with pacing your runs (you start out strong and dwindle down by the second half).
Deep down each of us probably know what our weak areas currently are. And it’s likely that if you don’t currently know the process of training for your goal race will reveal them. The good news is that you’re not alone.
Here are some common weak areas . . .
If you’re a Type A person, have a busy life, and put a lot of pressure on yourself it’s likely that you’re not very good at resting. In modern life rest has been made to look like a weaknesses while overwork and stress have become badges of honor.
People often complain about how busy they are and how little they sleep at night. Long term overwork and stress will do you physical, mental, and emotional harm in the long term. It’s important to reframe how you view rest to make it work for you.
Start to look at rest as preventative medicine. This means you rest before you feel like you need to. If you wait until you’re exhausted it’s often hard to make up for lost ground. Reframe the concept of rest as enjoying the fruit of your labor.
One Rest Day Per Week
A good first step if you know that rest is something you need to work on is to schedule one rest day from training every week. Try to make that day as low key as you can to rest your body and mind. I consistently take one day off every week. Each runner’s rest day may be designed a bit differently but if you’re doing it right you should feel rejuvenated and ready to go the next day.
Improving Sleep Quality
If you recognize that you need to improve the quality and quantity of your sleep you may want to invest in a sleep tracker. This will give you some good data on how much you’re sleeping and any basic patterns that you have. There are various watches and devices (Coros Apex, Whoop, Oura Ring, etc) that will track the amount of sleep and types of sleep stages that you’re going through. Looking at this along with your resting heart rate (increases can indicate lack of recovery) and heart rate variability (HRV) will determine if your body is resetting and adapting to your training.
There are many things that you can do to improve your sleep. These include keeping your sleeping environment dark (consider blackout curtains and a sleep mask), cool, quiet (or use a white noise/sound machine), stop using screens at least an hour before bedtime to block the amount of blue light, dim your environment or wear blue blocking glasses 2-3 hours before bed, avoid working out at least 1-2 hours before you want to go to sleep, avoid caffeine 8 hours before bedtime if you’re sensitive to caffeine, and try to get into a regular sleep schedule.
The fact is that none of us have perfectly balanced bodies. Even professional athletes have to regularly work on their strength. Most of us tend to be too sedentary in daily life and even if you’re a runner a large amount of sitting isn’t good for you. Posture and muscle strength tends to suffer the more we sit.
Signs that you need to work on your strength including dealing with niggles or injuries, fading toward the end of a workout or race, and dealing with chronic discomfort like back pain. The solution to improving your strength may include working with a PT for those with current injuries, working with a strength coach if you’re not sure what to do, or being more consistent about implementing a regular strength training program.
A couple years ago I paid for several sessions with a strength coach so that we could develop a routine to address my weaknesses and so that they could watch my form. If you’re just starting out with weight training it’s important to begin with good form habits before you begin loading on the weight.
Build it into Your Routine
When it comes to strength you don’t need to set aside a huge chunk of time every day to improve. You may need to schedule in a 30-40 minute strength session once a week along with smaller chunks of strength work 1-2 times per week.
You can incorporate strength work in smaller burst that fit into your day. This will depend on your activity level and type of job. It may include things like getting up every hour from your desk for some movement (walking, push ups, plank, squats, hand stands, a few yoga movements) or pairing core work with watching TV or listening to an audiobook. You can even do exercises while you brush your teeth (I do one leg exercises like hip abduction movements every night).
This is an area where a lot of us struggle. I’ve mentioned before that I’m very disciplined in the area of exercise but tend to easily fall apart when it comes to nutrition. One of the consistent messages you’ll hear about improving your running performance has to do with nutrition.
Many runners are under-fueling their bodies and not taking in the needed amount of macros to maintain and build muscle and keep the bones healthy. This can be from disordered eating, a desire to lose weight, or simply from being so busy that they forget to prioritize eating.
Natalie, my nutrition coach, says that most women she works with are afraid to eat more. They sometimes view food as the enemy rather than a way to give them strength and energy to achieve their goals.
Some runners use their training as an excuse to party it up in the food department and eat whatever they want. Then they’re frustrated that they’re not making improvements in their speed or body composition goals. It can be a tough balance because food should be enjoyable.
A lot of activities are based around food and drink and it can be easy to get caught up in tons of “special” food moments. When you add up celebrating people’s birthdays, post-race indulgences, eating out, and holidays it’s no wonder why people struggle with making progress in this area.
Nutrition can be an area where seeking help and accountability is important. If you recognize signs of disordered eating in your life you owe it to yourself to reach out for help. It can be a scary process of realizing you need to change but the dividends are rewarding.
A perfect time to dial in your nutrition and fueling is in the off season so that when you start your training plan you have a proven system in place. You’re only going to get the best out of yourself if you’re truly honoring your body and giving it the nutrition that it needs.
We all have areas where we lack confidence and we’re often the hardest on ourselves. We may struggle with fixed mindsets (or untrue thought loops) that we accept as true. Some of these mindsets have been part of our lives for years and they can be tough to change. It takes true intentionality to challenge negative thoughts and substitute more helpful ones in their place.
Focusing on gratitude is a key way to change your mindset. It’s a lot tougher for negative thoughts to intrude when you’re listing things you’re thankful for.
Written and verbal affirmations are also powerful. These should be personal to your situation and goals. Examples could be “I am strong, I am confident, I am a marathoner.” It’s not easy to work through a lack of confidence but you’ll notice that success builds upon success.
When you keep promises to yourself you build a stronger positive identity. Another aspect of building mental strength for running is deciding to enjoy the process of training. We often focus so much on the destination (finish line) but we often learn the most on the journey.
If you’re looking to running to find self acceptance then at some point you’ll be let down. You can’t PR every race and there will always be someone who is faster or running farther. Basing a large percentage of your identity on running can let you down. If you struggled mentally during your last training cycle or race the off season can be a great time to read good books and listen to podcasts on mindset.
If you deal with negative thoughts and feelings that resist your efforts to change consider working with a trained therapist, sports psychologist, or counselor. Sometimes we need a coach for our mind. Good books to consider that will help you build mental strength include “Peak Performance” by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness, “Mind Gym” by Gary Mack, and “Let Your Mind Run” by Deena Kastor,
The best results come to those who are consistent over time. This is true in whatever field you’re trying to succeed in. If you’re not a Type A runner then consistency with your training is probably something that you struggle with.
Consistency doesn’t mean that you’ll race year round or push yourself to the max every single day. However, it does mean that you develop strategies and habits to stay healthy and in shape year round. This will involve maintaining a solid running base year round and not going from zero to sixty between the off season and your training cycle.
A large percentage of running injuries happen when people jump into training without a solid running base. If you go from haphazardly running a few times a month into a marathon training plan chances are it won’t go well.
If you struggle with staying in a routine and staying motivated (where you’re prone to yo-yo training) it’s important to find a community to support you and give you accountability to stick with your goals. Consistency can also be developed by changing your mindset. If you start to see yourself as a runner then you’ll identify with the actions of being a runner. If you identify as a fit and healthy person then you’ll want to take the actions that will keep you fit and healthy.
Sometimes we struggle with lack of consistency through no fault of our own. Maybe you went through a period of injury and have to start back from scratch. Maybe you’ve had a serious illness or surgery that required off time. Maybe you’re pregnant or just had a baby and are facing the process of rebuilding your running base. In these instances consistency will require that you start back slowly and gradually.
In your mind you may be someone who runs a certain pace, can comfortably go a certain distance, or has particular race finish times. But if your body is not in the same place where it used to be then you have to honestly address what your weaknesses are and make a plan that starts where you are. It can be frustrating to feel like you’ve lost ground but being kind to yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally is the best path to getting back to where you want to be.
Even the most amazing runner has things they need to work on to be at the top of their game. Here are three steps to help you take action.
- Acknowledge your weak areas (and we all have them). Denial doesn’t do us any favors and won’t be productive to creating the change we want to see. People aren’t going to judge you for having weak areas because everyone has them. If you find that someone is judgmental their judgment is saying more about them than it is about you. Judgment is a mirror, not a window. Usually we’re the hardest on ourselves. Acknowledging your weak areas starts by listing any areas you’ve struggled in during the last year.
- Recognize when you can’t go it alone. My first tendency is to try and fix things myself. But it’s okay and positive to ask for help. We can’t know everything or be able to fix all our weaknesses alone. Maybe you’ve tried to change and address your weak area before but haven’t made the progress you wanted. Maybe you started out strong and then gave up when you hit a wall with the issue. Whether you’re struggling with injury, your mental strength, knowing how to appropriately push yourself, or your eating habits there are people who have been down the same road before. It’s important to reach out and let others help you find solutions. It’s not a weakness to need accountability and advice.
- Develop a Plan. Once you’ve identified your weak area(s), figured out what you need to do to find solutions, and sought help if you need it you’ll need an intentional plan. It’s good to have a big goal or long-term perspective but we need to break it down into practical application. This practical application will consist of things that you do on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis.
For Example . . .
Maybe you’ve dealt with chronic injuries or gait problems. You’ve identified that the problem is a lack of strength and that you need a rehab plan to rebuild your body stronger than ever. For a couple of years I dealt with high hamstring issues, especially during the later miles of a marathon. It got so bad at one point that it was painful to sit for any length of time.
I finally recognized that my glutes were weak and that was why my hamstrings were taking over and dealing with increased strain. I started doing regular glute strengthening exercises, avoided over-stretching my hamstrings, and eventually the issue subsided.
Now I’m religious about doing lower body strength work and my hamstrings are much happier. I recommend that you not skip leg (or glute) day because runners are notorious for having weak glutes and this can cause problems down your kinetic chain.
If you recognize that you don’t know what to do to rehab your problem area it’s probably time to reach out for help. If you know what injury/issue you constantly deal with then you could use something like The Resilient Runner program developed by PT Ben Shatto. If you’re not sure what the underlying issue is then you’ll want to find a qualified sports medicine professional to help you diagnose the problem. If you’re not sure who to see get recommendations from other runner friends or your local running store. You don’t necessarily want to see someone who doesn’t have experience with runners because their solution may be “just stop running.” Be an advocate for yourself if you’re dealing with an injury and don’t be afraid to see a second opinion.
We’d encourage you to take inventory at the beginning of this year and identify any areas you want to work on. It could be including more intentional rest, building better strength, dialing in your nutrition, developing a stronger mindset, or being more consistent.
It’s not easy to change but if you acknowledge your weak areas, build a support system, and are intentional you’ll become a stronger person (in both running and life).
Also Mentioned in This Episode
The Relief Run -Run or walk a half marathon or 5k anytime/anywhere over the 17th – 19th of January. 100% of your $50 registration fee will go to the Australian Red Cross: Disaster Relief and Recovery Fund.
MetPro.co, a concierge nutrition coaching company. Angie has lost 32 pounds working with a MetPro nutrition coach. To see if MetPro is the solution you’ve been looking for, take their Metabolic Assessment and schedule a complimentary consultation with one of their experts go to MetPro.co/mta