Getting back to it

With “it” being marathon training.

I’m ready to dance with the capricious lady again, although it’s going to be an extended flirtation before we hit the dance floor. No fall marathon for me. Too soon. My next one will likely be Houston in January, six months from now. It’s flat, cool, has a great reputation, and is both easy and cheap to get to from NYC. I won’t even need to rent a car while there.

I’m now officially over 2009, with all its failures and disappointments. A winter and spring spent focused on just about everything but the marathon has been therapeutic. I suspect that having other new interests and friendships, running and otherwise, to pursue also provided a healthy break from three years of marathon obsession, along with some success and gratification that was absent from last year.

Accompanying this decision (and perhaps partly driving it) was another decision. Namely, to try a new coach and a new approach to training. In doing the interviews for Houston Hopefuls, a common theme that emerged was the advantage of working with someone local. Someone who can go to the track with you and note your splits, notice the dark circles under your eyes or slightly off-kilter stride, etc. Someone who is present and invested, if only because you know where they live.

I’ll be working with Sandra (Inoa) Khannouchi, who’s up in Ossining. I met Sandra when I was at the Healthy Kidney 10K press event in mid-May, interviewing her husband, Khalid, whom she coaches and manages. I ended up interviewing her as well, although at the time it hadn’t occurred to me to consider her as a possible coach. But while I was talking with her I did take note of the fact that she seemed to possess a combination of caution, confidence and optimism when it came to how she was training her star athlete to a post-surgery comeback. This made an impression on me, although perhaps only subconsciously at the time.

In the ensuing weeks, as I grappled with “what’s next?” — knowing that I didn’t feel completely at ease with the idea of spending the rest of the year pursuing good half marathon times, worrying that launching back into high mileage training might be a mistake, and hearing interesting insights from some accomplished masters runners — I started thinking that I needed to make a change.

Contacting Sandra to see if she coaches non-elites was Jonathan’s idea, actually. First I had to get over my sheepishness at approaching her: “Hi, I’m slow and old. Can you help?” It turns out that she does coach other runners, although now she’s cut way back for various reasons. Since the mid-90’s she’s coached her husband. At various times she’s coached other elites as well as recreational runners (mainly in Mexico City).

And now there’s me, a new challenge. Can she make me a faster runner even as I battle time’s rude imposition of entropy? We’ll both find out. She’s asked me to have faith in her training methods for at least 4-5 months, and I will. I have not hired her because she’s a “name” (although her resume doesn’t hurt her case) but more because I like her philosophy and because her workouts look like they’ll be effective — and, besides, she’s right there, less than half an hour away.

I spent quite awhile talking with her about goals, how her training works and how she works with runners. As for my own history, she didn’t want to know much about what came before. She is looking forward. For now, the plan is to train for a 10K, then a half, then a marathon. The theory being that I need to get faster at shorter distances before I can tackle getting faster at longer distances. This approach is being used by at least two of the women in my interview series, as well as a few of the Mini 10K elites I talked to recently.

Combined with that strategy is a focus on high quality workouts with what is for me low mileage. I’ve been running 40-50 miles average since January. The plan is to keep mileage in the 50mpw range for the foreseeable future, then work up to the mid-70s when we get into marathon training again in the fall. The training schedule is flexible, meaning if I struggle to finish a week, I just repeat it. If I’m beat up after a week, I take two days off. If a hard session is going badly, I defer it to another day. Races are highlights, but they’re not goals (other than the January marathon). The training is the goal. Getting faster is the goal. Avoiding setbacks is the goal.

My training posts will be deliberately vague about the high quality work, at Sandra’s request. Some of what I’ll be doing consists of standard workouts that anyone would recognize (12×400, anyone?). Others, however, are unusual — combinations of things that I have not seen. All of the workouts are hard, some very much so. About 40-50% of my miles will consist of hard, hard running. I haven’t tried this approach yet. Maybe it will work for me. I should know in a few months.

There are no “recovery weeks” although the days before a race will be lighter. I won’t be doing a ton of racing like I have lately, but there will be room for a few races for fun/club points, or to do as tempo efforts. And there will be a few important races to use as yardsticks to measure progress and assess readiness.

Other new things: The workouts are not on a 7 day schedule; sometimes I’ll go to the track on Tuesday, sometimes I’ll go on Saturday. Regular massages are now required, as are post-workout ice baths. There has been serious talk of altitude training — I’m still trying to wrap my mind around that one, but I’m remaining open to the idea and figure that at this point I can work just about anywhere where there’s an outlet and an Internet connection. There’s more. Cross training several times a week. Stretching routines. Race visualization. Getting in the car and driving somewhere so I can run on dirt rather than pavement. Listening to my body at all times and heeding its messages whether resting, running or racing. Yes. Okay. Good. I’ll try it all. I’ll do all of it.

And still more. The HRM is generally frowned upon, as its readings, even when correct, can affect judgment and obscure larger patterns (this I know already from last year — all the data in the world didn’t help me avoid overtraining and injury). Oddly enough, I’d stopped running with the HRM on most days anyway by early last month, since it was constantly acting up and, worse, often only served as a massive mindfuck before and during races. Now its primary purpose will be to keep me from running too hard on recovery runs. Other days, it stays at home.

Training with a watch is fine, but only to record, not to use as a prescriptive device. Racing with one is actively discouraged. If you look at pictures of Khalid racing, you’ll notice that he doesn’t wear a watch. When this fact was pointed out to me, it initially blew my mind. Then it seemed strangely logical. Why would you race with a watch unless you didn’t trust your own ability to race at the appropriate effort? If you need to constantly check how fast you’re going, maybe you’re not ready to race your race yet. Or maybe you are ready, but you’ll talk yourself out of racing your best because of what your stupid watch says.

Last year was disappointing from a racing perspective, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t productive. All that high mileage running Kevin had me doing gave me a good aerobic base to build on, lots of mitochondria at the ready, and a sturdy musculoskeletal structure. This is a great starting point. And now, from here, I am throwing out almost everything I’ve done for the past two+ years and am starting all over. All I know is that I’m a hard worker and I believe that I can do better than 3:19 for the marathon.

31 Responses

  1. Wow, this is really exciting. And kind of scary I bet. I guess you have worked with a coach before so maybe there is not so much letting go involved, but certainly it will be different. I love that I have had a group track workout every week and a coach to run things by but sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t be good to have someone dishing out daily specifics, especially for the marathon and longer triathlons. Most likely I couldn’t afford it, though, so I’ll have to keep making my own mistakes for a while!

  2. I’ll be interested to read how this goes πŸ™‚ I’m especially interested in a) the workouts, and also b) if you think the regular massages help. I was getting one every week for a while, and I eventually decided that they hurt more than helped — they were like a mini-workout that I then required more recovery from.

    • Yes, I think I used the words “an interesting experiment” when I decided to make the jump. And, like I said, the workout details will not be there — it’s just going to say “speed” or “fartlek”. I guess Sandra considers these more unusual workouts to be proprietary, or perhaps is concerned that other runners will just blindly follow my plan even though it wasn’t designed for them.

      I rarely get massages (although that’s going to change soon), so I’ve yet to see how I respond to them within the context of hard training.

      • Whoops..missed the point about the workouts being vague at her request. Darn!

  3. Wow, this truly is SO exciting! Julie, I think this is going to be your turning point, she sounds incredible! The mileage plan sounds really smart and will give you the energy to do those hard workouts. And the fact that she’ll be able to actually SEE you sometimes is going to be fantastic – how wonderful to have someone appraise your form. I will be reading voraciously as the next few months unfold.

  4. Congrats on making the big decision! I wish you the best of luck in your new training regime. I hope you meet all the goals you have envisioned for yourself.

  5. Wow…this sounds like a great plan. Hope it works for you. And I know a great place where you can do altitude training, have free lodging, and computer access for work. Want to stay longer when you are out here in October?

    • Thanks for the offer, but I think altitude training will be a 2011 activity. And I believe the way it works is that I follow her to the mountains…depending on the time of year, either Mexico City or Colorado Springs. I’ll cross that bridge (or, rather, climb that mountain) when I come to it.

      Besides, where you are is still not high enough, believe it or not! You wouldn’t want me sweating all over your guests anyway…

  6. This looks really good. I’m looking forward to following this, and the obfuscated workouts won’t matter, provided we have some general idea. Good Luck!

  7. I agree with Flo. It will work.

    And, RE the HRM: “Now its primary purpose will be to keep me from running too hard on recovery runs. Other days, it stays at home.” – kudos for that. I think it will help as well.

    If you come to Albuquerque, you have a place to stay. And a person to have coffee with (and maybe – just maybe – a person to do some running with. If I can keep up.)

    • Andrea, that’s a kind and generous offer. I may take you up on it if you’re not careful. Remember that we’re talking 4-5 weeks. Most people are sick of me after that many days. I know Khalid has trained in Albuquerque, so maybe I’ll follow them there. It’s quite a bit more appealing than going to Mexico.

      • ABQ may be about 5000′, but the foothills are 5500+, and my house is 6800′.

        Just sayin’. πŸ™‚ You’ll like my cat. I think.

  8. You’re right — that was a big one. Joe’s brevity for such a post is extreme πŸ˜‰

    I like the sound of it, and the goal of getting faster. Having her watch you training on occasion is huge. “Getting in the car and driving somewhere so I can run on dirt” — like that too.

    You’ll become the master of running by feel. Can’t wait for the Garminless race reports.

  9. Wow – nothing much else to say other than sounds good.

    Though, for years I didn’t wear a watch. Or if I wore it was just to get a vague idea of how long I’d been gone – I kind of miss being in that habit.

  10. This sounds fantastic. I’m so looking forward to reading about the next chapter. It sounds like a very different approach, which will be fun to learn as well as to do.

    As always, I hate to follow your stories with insipid ones of my own, but I lost my HRM strap in the move, and found that I’m much happier and my workouts are better (and I whine less, making those around me happy, too!)

    Slowing down is not a problem for me, ahem.

  11. Wow, watchless racing… how interesting. I can’t wait to hear how it goes. Don’t fuck up.

  12. Wow, this is a month for change, isn’t it? I admire your enthusiasm and your willingness to ditch your running past. Trust in your new coach and let her help you get faster. I agree with the others that it will work.

  13. Oh, and I noticed that this site is no longer about high mileage running. More changes…

  14. I echo everybody else who says great changes. Regarding the watch, I like to blindly pop the lap button and check the splits after the workout. At NYRR races, with clocks at every mile, it’s tough not to peek.

  15. This sounds like a truly fantastic opportunity. Best of luck to you. The training sounds like fun and right up your alley. Definitely looking forward to watching your progress.

  16. I am a fan of watchless racing. Also of HRM-less training. Therefore, I am a fan of this program.

  17. […] outside assistance might work. So I hired a coach, Sandra Inoa. She came to my attention through Julie, whom she coaches. It’ll be interesting to see how this turns […]

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