My journey to a healthy half!

Hey friends! So as you might know I am currently training for my 3rd half marathon. And while this certainly does not qualify me as an expert on the sport, I have definitely experienced a lot of ups and downs and I’ve learned A LOT during my training for these three big races. In addition to running 13.1 miles almost 3 times, I’ve been running for over 20 years!

Here’s a brief history to set the stage!

My family moved to Michigan when I was entering middle school. I knew no one but historically I made friends pretty quickly as an extroverted little girl. My dad was in the navy so we had moved around a few times by this point. I’m not really sure what drew me to running but I promptly joined the cross country team as a brand new 6th grader. My best friends still tell the story of how I ran right up to them and said “Can I run with you?” and we’ve been friends ever since! So my running career began with making what would become my best very best friends for 20+ years now (Hey, Carl!). That doesn’t happen often!

Throughout my middle and high school running career, I did okay and even had moments of being a top runner for my team. But I was plagued by injuries. I didn’t understand running for enjoyment, to be quite honest. I did it because sports were something my family did. And running was something I did well. I didn’t hate it enough not to do it but I didn’t like it. I had crippling anxiety before every race. I sucked at basketball, unlike my sister. I sucked at softball, unlike my sister. BUT I could run! During track my mile PR was 6:03 and my 3200 PR came in just under 14 minutes-it was one time and I’m not sure it’ll ever happen again so I’ll hang on to that forever, obviously! Unfortunately, shin splints hit me hard, and then stress fractures basically ended my career. It was never in the cards to be recruited or run in college, other then for my own enjoyment. But remember I never really ran for my own enjoyment so I can probably count on 2 hands the number of times I ran in college.

Fast forward to post undergrad AND post graduate school and my best buds and I decided we all wanted to run a half marathon together! At this point we had all moved all over the country and were desperate for a reunion. We decided on the Nike Women’s Half Marathon that was in DC that year (2012). Now the only “training” program I was familiar with was PAAVO. This is what I ran all throughout high school. It was pretty intense from what I can remember. There was no cross training, except for me because I got injured often. You could find me in our training room on the bike, A LOT. PAAVO was essentially a mixture of speed runs, slow days, and interval training. So basically running, running faster, and running a little bit slower. But ALL running. My body is not built for this type of training. So when I needed to figure out how to prepare for my first 13.1 I turned to trusty old Google. The name Hal Higdon caught my eye. There were training programs broken down for novice runners, intermediate and more seasoned runners.

Here is the the training program I have roughly followed for each of my races: Novice Half Marathon Training Program.

I say “roughly” followed because during each training period I have used my own discretion as to how closely I have followed the programs.

Let’s take a closer look at each training period to see what I did well and what I didn’t do so well!

Half Marathon #1

One of the key parts to training for a race is gradually increasing your long runs. Hal Higdon programs generally increase the long run by 1 mile every week, along with increasing your mid-week runs as well. During each training program I did make sure to increase my long runs as the training program suggests. However, this first time I really did not understand the necessity of cross training or weight lifting. I didn’t understand the importance of strengthening the other parts of my body to support my running. I did some body weight exercises throughout the week but it was infrequent and not consistent and I truly didn’t do enough to prepare my core, my arms, and keep my endurance up between runs. Because of this I suffered from some IT Band issues, bursitis in my right hip, and tendinitis in my right foot. I ultimately ran a pretty good race and finished in 2 hours and 15 minutes. I was pretty satisfied with this for being my first big race. AND at the end of the Nike Women’s races you are presented with a Tiffany’s bracelet handed to you by a handsome fireman…you really can’t beat that, can you?!

Half Marathon #2

After this first half, I kind of hung up my racing shoes for a while. I ran occasionally but I decided to take a week off after the race, and a week quickly turned into 2 weeks, and then 2 months, until finally I had lost a lot of my aerobic fitness and was too overwhelmed to start again. During this time I had 2 children and running was nothing more than just a random occurrence. In July 2017 I decided to take my health a little more seriously and incorporated working out as a regular part of my everyday routine. This was mostly at home workouts and weightlifting and it was wonderful! I loved the changes I was seeing in myself, my energy level, as well as the benefits of getting and feeling stronger. I also decided to run a 5k for a local nonprofit my husband and I have supported for several years. That race lit a fire under me again. Fast forward to February 2018 and a friend asked if I wanted to do another race with her. I said yes and had a goal to finish in under 30 minutes. I met that goal and knew that I wanted to start running again. After that I set a goal to do 1 race per month for the rest of the year and I’m proud to say I smashed that goal! It included many 5k’s, 1 10k, and my second half-marathon.

Throughout 2018 I actually placed first in my age bracket for almost all of the smaller races. I was feeling so strong and so proud of my efforts! However when it came time to begin training for my 2nd half, the Oak City Half Marathon here in Raleigh, I was on a high from all of that new found speed and wanted to keep it going. I focused A LOT on speed and didn’t pay as much attention to form, or even more importantly stretching and recovery. Soon, anytime I was running over 4 miles my left IT band really started acting up. It almost felt like if I kept running something was going to pop. So it was scary and also incredibly frustrating. Stopping to stretch was somewhat effective but only temporary. I tried stretching more and rolling out my legs but I was still so worried about my Pace Per Mile (PPM) decreasing. It seems so silly to admit to this now! Fortunately my sister is an amazing athletic training and was able to work some magic to help me keep running. She performed dry needling and while it wasn’t my favorite thing in the world-it was effective, even if just temporarily. Race day came and I was feeling really good and really hopeful! The problem is that running downhill was the most painful and irritated my injury the most. So while the City of Oaks Half boasted to be a “fast course”, that was actually bad news for me as it meant loooots of downhill slopes. After mile 3 all I remember is wincing through the entire race. I finished in 2 hours and 4 minutes which I was pleased with! And I was proud of myself-but I was discouraged by how much pain I was in. I knew that going forward, if I wanted to keep running I would need to think very carefully about the best way to train for my body to enjoy myself and be as pain-free as possible.

Half-Marathon #3

So here we are! My next 13.1 mile race is just about a week away and I’m feeling really good. I’ve had a couple minor incidents of pain during my training but I just did my long, 10 mile run and didn’t have any worrisome pain or tweaks that could derail my hopes for a good race! The changes I’ve made are small but SO significant. For starters, I decreased my run days to 2, sometimes 3 days/week instead of at least 3 days/week. This wasn’t something I planned but I missed a run day early in my training and noticed that I was having much less pain so I decided that should I run a 3rd day it will be a shorter speed run. It has worked out beautifully! Prior trainings have left me feeling worn out and injured once reaching the 6 or 7 mile long run. In addition to decreasing my run days I have slowed waaaaaay down. This has been really hard for me to be honest. I was used to running 8-8:30 minute miles and I’ve slowed that down to anywhere between 9-10 minute miles. BUT I’m still running. I’m ENJOYING my runs. I don’t have to stop every couple of miles to stretch out because my IT Band is screaming at me. I don’t need to go get needles stuck in my leg to release the inflammation. As someone who genuinely used to dislike running (but ran track and XC all 4 years of high school, HA!), it is insane to me that it is now my release. It makes me feel so good. The runner’s high is a real thing, y’all!

This time around I’ve also been very consistent with weightlifting and strengthening my legs and my core and I think this has been a HUGE contributor to a more successful training period. My calves are strong and this helps to prevent shin splints and stress fractures. My quads are stronger and help to avoid more IT Band issues. It has all worked together to keep me healthy, and hitting the pavement week after week. Lastly, rolling and stretching are essential. Running is a hard sport to maintain. It is hard on your body. I talked to a division 1 strength coach who said that the worst injuries at this level are seen in runners. And I believe it as someone who has had MANY injuries. So stretching back out and rolling out those tough spots gets things back to normal and sort of says “I’m sorry for being so tough on you but here you go, body…feel better!”

So to wrap it all up!

  • As with most things, LISTEN TO YOUR BODY. If you can run 3-4+ days/week without significant pain/injury then GO for it. This wasn’t/isn’t an option for me so I’m doing the most I can and the best I can, while still reaching my goals!

  • Cross training and strength training, CONSISTENTLY, are very important.

  • Increase your long run by about a mile (or as close to as possible) every week.

  • ROLL, STRETCH & REPEAT.

  • Your diet is very important! Carbs are your best friend! (*As with everything, please seek advice from your doctor/a medical professional about specific guidelines and needs based on your body and goals!)

  • Speed isn’t everything! It’s fun to go fast but it’s even better to run pain free.

  • ROLL, STRETCH & REPEAT!

    Some other helpful things: a great running playlist; wireless headphones, a watch or app that will track your progress/time, a good pair of shoes, for longer runs you might want to try gel packs or gummies for an energy boost (you’ll need this every 60 minutes of running), sunglasses (try goodr!), a hat, and good sunscreen!

Alix Yokabitus