The Anatomy of a Runner: be still my beating heart.

The second in a series of posts about what makes runners uniquely equipped to run. This discussion attempts to explain the physiological changes to the runner’s heart and address the endurance athlete’s normal anxieties as to whether these changes cause permanent damage.
The heart is located underneath the ribs, and between the lungs.

IMG_2996The heart’s four chambers function as a double-sided pump to circulate oxygen-rich blood to the body through a coordinated and normal rythym. It normally beats about 100,000 times in one day — about 35 million times in a year.

Blood enters the heart on the right – the right atrium to the right ventricle. Leaving the right ventricle, blood travels to the lungs to gather oxygen before entering the left atrium and finally to the left ventricle, which pumps the oxygen-rich blood through a maze of arteries to every cell in the body.

A normal resting heart rate (heart beats per minute while sitting or lying down) is around 60-100 beats per minute. Moderately active humans will likely have a resting heart rate similar to the rest of the population: 60-100 bpm. Professional Athletes and the very fit may have a resting heart beat as low as 40 bpm.

Heart Facts:

Miguel Indurain

1) The resting heart rate of five-time Tour de France winner Miguel Indurain was once recorded at 28 beats per minute.

2) A sudden increase in the athlete’s resting heart rate is a sure sign of working too hard: over-training, which will inevitably lead to injury, decreases in immune function, and increases the risk of disease.

3) When training is completely stopped the resting heart rate returns to your untrained heart rate within three to four weeks.

4) Factors that have little to do with your level of fitness will impact your heart rate, such as dehydration, heat, or pain. Medications, such as beta-blockers and some migraine medicines, caffeine, and stress will also affect heart-rate. Studies have shown that running by feel and doing the talk test is well correlated with target paces rather than relying on a heart rate monitoring device that can be frustratingly inaccurate in reporting data.

What happens to the body during exercise?


In strenuous exercise, just about every system in your body either focuses its efforts on helping the muscles do their work, or it shuts down.

For example, your heart beats faster during strenuous exercise so that it can pump more blood to the muscles, you breathe faster and deeper, and your stomach shuts down so it does not waste energy the muscles can’t use.  (In addition to the stomach, blood is also diverted from the kidneys and liver in favor of the skeletal muscles.)

If you are going to be exercising for more than a couple of minutes, your muscles need oxygen or they stop working. Just how much oxygen is used depends on how well your body gets blood to the muscles and how well the muscles extract oxygen from the blood.

During exercise, active muscles require as much as 20 times more oxygen instantaneously while the inactive muscles’ oxygen demands remain unchanged. Also, working muscles can take oxygen out of the blood three times better than resting muscles.

There is a limit, however, to how deeply you can breathe, the number of times you can breathe per minute, and the speed and frequency with which your heart muscle can contract and pump blood.

So the body’s response to exercise is: lung capacity increases (they become more efficient), heart chambers grow bigger, and heart muscles stronger. This means the blood carries more oxygen, and a greater volume of blood is pumped per beat (the stroke volume).

Runner’s Note: avoid non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAIDS) medications, such as ibuprofen and naproxen, prior to races. These drugs work by inhibiting the function of prostaglandins, compounds that plays a role in inflammation but also protects blood flow to the kidneys. Because blood flow is already decreased to the kidney during running, NSAIDS could further decrease blood flow, placing the kidneys at risk of potential injury. Tylenol or acetaminophen is a better choice since it relieves pain via a different mechanism.


The Athlete’s Heart

Key morphological and functional differences between the athlete’s heart and the failing heart.

A consequence of exercising more than an hour a day (or in excess of 5 hours per week) is Athlete’s Heart, a normal, physiological adaptation of the body to the stresses of physical conditioning and aerobic exercise.

IMG_3006Static training, such as strength training, is mostly anaerobic (the body does not rely on oxygen for performance), and only moderately taxes the heart.

Dynamic (aerobic) exercises, such as running, swimming, skiing, rowing, and cycling, rely on oxygen from the body and taxes the heart to produce the oxygen needed.

People diagnosed with athlete’s heart commonly display three signs that would indicate the condition: a slower than normal heartbeat (bradycardia) along with irregular rhythms, an enlarged heart (cardiomegaly), and the thickening of the muscular wall of the heart (Cardiac Hypertrophy), specifically the left ventricle (by approximately 15-20%), which pumps oxygenated blood to the aorta.

AHA Journals

Both static and dynamic exercises cause the thickening of the left ventricular wall, however weight-lifting or resistance training causes the muscle to thicken to increase blood pressure necessary for anaerobic exercise, but does not create a more efficient stroke volume or lower the pulse rate. Combining a form of aerobic exercise and resistance training will, of course, show the benefits of an enlarged heart and lower pulse rate.

Athlete’s heart is not dangerous for athletes – although a nonathlete with the same symptoms may be found to have a serious cardiovascular disease. Nor is athlete’s heart the cause of sudden cardiac death during or shortly after a workout, which has instead been linked to a genetic disorder (hypertrophic cardiomyopathy).

The athlete’s heart will return to its normal size and all symptoms disappear with detraining, usually within 3-6 months.

The Athlete’s Heartbeat Anomaly

Up to 69 percent of aerobically trained athletes demonstrate Phasic Sinus Arrhythmia, a pulse that speeds and slows with respiration (what feels like a skip between beats).

Skipped heartbeats are usually premature heartbeats – one beat quickly follows another, and the resulting pause in the rhythm of your normal heartbeat is assumed to be a “skipped” beat. This benign rhythm discrepancy becomes more common as you become more fit, and temporarily disappears when you increase your heart rate with exercise.

Phasic Sinus Arrhythmia usually doesn’t indicate a problem unless accompanied by chest pain, light-headedness or other symptoms.

(Click here for more information on the Athlete’s Heart.)

Athletes = Heart Problems?

A significant number of heart attacks or sudden death in marathon runners have been reported over the years and it’s probably safe to say the news is unsettling to runners everywhere.

Subsequent studies have shown that unlike an enlarged heart caused by stress, heart disease or high blood pressure, the physiological remodeling of the athlete’s heart is generally beneficial and does not progress to heart failure.

What we hear most are that athletes show right ventricular dysfunction and elevated levels of cardiac troponin – biomarkers typically found in left ventricular failure – immediately following a race or long training run. Symptoms generally disappear, however, within 1 week post race.

A study of 114 world-class endurance athletes who had undergone uninterrupted exercise training over a 4- to 17-year period and competed in two to five consecutive Olympic Games demonstrated that long-term, high-intensity exercise training does not lead to cardiac dysfunction, or adverse clinical events (although one study found substantial heart chamber enlargement persisted in 20% of retired and deconditioned former elite athletes after 5 years, which has opened the question as to whether certain individuals experience permanent physiological changes. It is generally considered that more research is needed to determine possible predisposing factors for these individuals.)

Twenty amateur long-distance runners between the ages of 18 and 60, who were going to run in the Quebec City Marathon were evaluated for heart damage post-marathon. In half of the runners, researchers observed that the marathon prompted a decrease in left and right ventricular function with some experiencing swelling and reduced blood flow in the heart. All symptoms were temporary.

Dr. Eric Larose, of the Institut universitaire de cardiologie et de pneumologie de Québec (IUCPQ) in Canada, says that the heart muscle changes they observed were more common in runners who had lower fitness levels and who trained less – reaffirming that being less prepared or undertrained for the marathon has the potential to cause more damage to the body than for those who have adequately prepared through proper training for the distance.

Click here for more information about sudden cardiac arrest in athletes and for the American Heart Association (AHA) 12 point sudden cardiac death screening guidelines.

Are you at risk? A 2019 study of young athletes suggests snoring and sleep apnea are linked to sudden cardiac arrest. Read more….


The first sentence in a 2006 comprehensive review on training (Midgley and McNaughton) reads, “The maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max) has been suggested to be the single most important physiological capacity in determining endurance running performance.”

Numerous training programs for distance runners (and other endurance sports) have become fixated on the VO2max concept, leaving us with the assumption that it must be directly tied to performance and fatigue. Some would say it is not.


VO2max is a measure of the maximum volume of oxygen that an athlete can use. It is measured in millilitres per kilogramme of body weight per minute (ml/kg/min), and has been used as a traditional measurement of endurance since the 1920s.

The amount of oxygen consumed to produce energy (and hence the rate at which you exhale carbon dioxide) increases as exercise continues. However, there is a maximum level of oxygen that can be consumed and even when exercise continues, oxygen consumption plateaus. At least this has been the thinking for many years.

Studies suggest this plateau phenomenon can only be identified in about 30% of tested subjects (Noakes 1998b; M. Doherty tell al 2002), and is seldom identified in children at all (Rowland 1993; Rowland and Cunningham 1992).

Nonetheless, some training programs focus almost exclusively on improving VO2max to improve performance even though studies show that VO2max does not change in elite runners and does not correlate with performance.

In one study by Smith and Donnell of untrained individuals, changes in VO2max over a 36 week training period substantially increased by 13.6%, but all of those gains were seen in the first 24 weeks of the study with no further increases during the final 12 weeks.

Paula Radcliffe’s VO2max was monitored from 1992 – 2003 (Jones 2006). Her training increased from 25-30 miles per week (with a VO2max of 72 at the time) to 120-160 miles per week, yet her VO2max did not change despite the change in volume and intensity of training.

Meanwhile, the study of a female Olympic level runner showed that while the athlete’s 3,000m time improved by 46 seconds, VO2max actually decreased from 72 ml/kg/min to 66 ml/kg/min (Jones, 1998).

Training Note: studies show VO2max values can improve with training but independently decrease with age. However, the degree of trainability affects VO2max widely; for example, conditioning may double VO2max in some individuals, and will never improve it at all in others (Bouchard, 1999). Also it has been shown that respiratory muscle training does not improve VO2max of triathletes and marathon runners (Amonette & Dupler 2002).

(On-line Calculators will determine VO2max using age, body mass, max and resting heart rates, or recent exercise times.)


Dr. Timothy Noakes is a highly decorated and respected South African scientist, professor, runner and author (notably Lore of Running now in its fourth edition).

Dr. Noakes has challenged paradigms in the discipline of exercise physiology, including VO2max, where he introduced the concept of a central governor (located in the brain) that prevents the muscles from working at their maximum level for extended periods to protect the body (and more specifically the heart) from permanent damage or death.

The central governor regulates power output so that the task, or exercise is completed in the quickest, most efficient manner while maintaining a reserve of physical and mental capacity. In other words, Noakes contends the central governor acts as a regulator for exercise rather than exercise being limited by a person’s VO2max.

The concept that the central governor would be located in the brain, or concluding that it is actually the brain that restricts endurance has been one of the more contentious of Noakes’ conclusions (a topic we’ll cover extensively when this series reaches the brain).

Stéphane Mifsud

But for the argument presented here, consider French free diver Stéphane Mifsud, who stayed underwater unaided for 11 minutes and 35 seconds in 2009 – a world record for breath-holding at the time, and one of several world records he holds. His lung capacity was measured at 10.5 litres, twice the capacity of most men.

He attributes his success in part to ignoring the overwhelming distress signals that force us to gasp long before we’re out of oxygen.

A quote from his website says, “Our minds have the power to destroy or push us beyond our limitations.”


Do the muscles fatigue and reduce their output because the body has reached its maximum potential to deliver oxygen? Does the heart force the muscles to reduce output because it senses a lack of blood flow (oxygen) and works to protect itself? Or, does the brain anticipate when the blood and oxygen supply to the heart is about to become inadequate and reduce the recruitment of the muscles causing exercise to diminish or cease (fatigue) before damage is incurred to the heart or skeletal muscles? Is our training dependent on the final answer to these questions?

To be a successful endurance athlete requires muscles with superior contractility that allows them to run very fast despite the limiting output of the heart.

Obviously oxygen is the universal currency of every athletic endeavor. Muscles require oxygen for the chemical reaction that converts food energy into motion, and the best athletes are those who use oxygen best.

If we agree that Noakes’ Central Governor Model is the accepted de facto model (in the absence of another indisputable approach), VO2max is not the only factor determining exercise performance.

Noakes suggests that VO2max is the result of two distinct physiological processes:

  1. the maximum pumping capacity of the heart, which determines the peak rates that blood and oxygen can be transported to the exercising muscles, and
  2. the athlete’s exercising muscles – where the best athletes are those whose muscles have superior contractility (the capacity of the muscle to contract or shorten forcefully).

The ability to process oxygen (VO2max) as a measurement of how fast you can run is not useful in isolation. How efficiently you put that oxygen to use is equally important.

Noakes offers a useful analogy: “supplying fuel at the same maximum rate to the engines of a Formula 1 racer and a family sedan would not eliminate the performance difference between the two. This would be due to limitations, not in the rate of fuel (oxygen) supply to the engine, but in other factors inherent in the engine (muscle) itself.”

Athletes with superior athletic ability have muscles with a superior capacity to generate force, which is essentially independent of the oxygen or fuel supply. Just as we suspected in our last discussion of the upper leg, it’s all about that bass.

Next up: Wooly Chaps and the Big Joint (the knee).

Running Facts:

High-intensity exercise may not lower blood pressure as effectively as moderate-intensity exercise. In one study, moderate exercise (jogging 2 miles a day) controlled high blood pressure so well that more than half the patients who had been taking drugs for the condition were able to discontinue their medication.

Studies show that yoga and tai chi, an ancient Chinese exercise involving slow, relaxing movements, may lower blood pressure almost as well as moderate-intensity aerobic exercises.

Experts recommend at least 30 minutes of exercise on most — if not all — days.

Benefits of aerobic exercise include cancer prevention (including colon, breast and prostate cancers), reduces the risks & symptoms associated with osteoporosis, diabetes, depression, cardiovascular disease, and helps improve cognitive function.

Everyone, especially people with high blood pressure, should breathe as normally as possible through exercise. Holding the breath increases blood pressure.

IMG_3015There is such a thing as a broken heart. Takotsubo cardiomyopathy (TC), or broken heart syndrome, revolves around the weakening of the muscular portion of the heart that’s triggered by emotional stress presenting with the same symptoms as a heart attack: chest pain, shortness of breath, and sweating – although the arteries are completely clean, no blockages.

Patients respond to supportive care and to the same types of medicines used for patients with weak hearts. Typically the heart function begins to improve and is back to normal within six weeks.

Experts say the best recovery for a broken heart also includes yoga, meditation, talking to and socializing with friends, and exercise.

Reader Alert!

Endurance athletes, especially those with a family history of heart disease and other coronary risk factors, should not consider themselves immune to either sudden death or to coronary heart disease and should seek medical advice immediately if they develop any symptoms suggestive of ischemic heart disease. Physicians should not assume that “physically fit” marathon runners cannot have serious, life-threatening cardiac disease.

This post is meant for informational purposes only.

References not previously linked within this post:

Athletic Heart Syndrome, Wikipedia

Central Governor Model: A review of Professor Noakes’ Revolutionary Model of Performance,

The Fallacy of Vo2max and %VO2max, Science of Running

The Heart of Trained Athletes, AHA Journals

Mitochondrial adaptations to physiological vs. pathological cardiac hypertrophy, Oxford Academic

Downhill Race Prep: alas, the taper.

The best part of retirement is that you can determine your own schedule. No alarm clock, there’s time for an afternoon nap, and entire days can be dedicated to reading a book, watching movies, or working in the garden, if that’s all you really want to do. It’s just lovely.

Hurricane Matthew started pouring rain on our house at 5:00am – although the radar didn’t realize it was raining here for hours.

The alarm was set for 5:30a on Saturday. We had studied the weather patterns and plotted a strategy to maneuver last Saturday’s 20-mile run around the backlash of Hurricane Matthew. The key was getting an early start. By the time I accepted that the run had been rained out it was 6:30a, we had already had our coffee, and I had already been wearing my running clothes for a solid hour.

The new strategy for adding miles to the beginning of the run included an 8-mile stretch on the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s a beautiful place to run – were it not for the hills. (Photo taken through my Jeep window while scouting the new route.)

The alarm was set for 5:30a on Sunday. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, it was a pleasant 40 degrees, the wind was steady at 15mph with gusts strong enough to blow me over, and my fall running gear is packed up in boxes somewhere at our new house.

Starting at Balsam Gap near US 74 (elevation 3370), I took a right towards Cherokee for about a mile, and then left toward Asheville for 2 miles before I abandoned this new route at the Rabb Knob Overlook, elevation 3725. (image courtesy

About 5 months ago we packed enough clothes to last the summer and moved back to Western North Carolina where we feel most at home. For me, this meant running in the place I feel most at home with all the things, good and bad, that go along with living in the mountains.

This year’s marathon training has been measured in feet rather than miles. It was a strategy that evolved because our little cabin (and temporary home) sits conveniently off the all familiar road leading up the mountain. Week after week my plan was to drive 20-30 minutes across town for a better (flatter) running route. Then the days would get busy and I’d drive to the end of our road, run up the mountain and back down again to save time.

My favorite long-run route takes me past the historic Balsam Mountain Inn (Courtesy

Three years ago, marathon training carried me 11,700 feet uphill. The marathon of 2014 included 1,438 feet of total elevation gain (with 1,439 ft of loss), and I still can’t believe I survived that race. This season’s total training exceeds 30,000 feet of total elevation so far.

The strategy of all of these uphill runs wasn’t meant to just build strength and (hopefully) speed, but to practice the downhill part of running. . . and adjust to its undeniable abuse. My left calf was sore for several weeks early in the season, one knee or the other hurts from time to time, and the top of my right foot has become sore – the latter two issues courtesy of the extreme camber of these old, mountain roads.

Fortunately, my marathon training program includes a 3-week taper that begins this week. The ever-dwindling mileage scheduled throughout the taper gives my poor body plenty of time to recover before the marathon, and while we’re waiting on recovery there will be plenty of time to organize my new home. . . alarm clock optional.



Marathon Training: Up and Down

My husband (very reluctantly) sent me a CNN article this week about Ultra Marathons, “Ultramarathons go above and beyond.” The author compared the 100-mile run to a relationship. “It’s great at first, and then you have your ups and downs. Near the end, you tend to hate everything about it. And when it’s over, you forget how bad it was and sign up for another.”

Marathons can leave us mere 26.2 mortals feeling the same way, and whether it was just a bad day or training error we almost always believe we can do better if given just one more chance. Here I am 33 days from one more chance.

I corrected the errors in my training program, and then wisely corrected them again.

My plan was to peak at 55 miles per week with three 20-mile runs before I redacted everything in my calendar four weeks ago. Now my calendar includes no more than 35-mile weeks, no more than 4 days of running each week, and one 20-mile run.

Having already completed a 16-mile run before the redactions, I found myself with oodles of time to reach that pinnacle 20-mile run. To fill in the blanks, I’ve run a second 16-mile run, two 18-mile runs, and the lone 20-miler is next weekend.


The benefit of downsizing from a 6-day running schedule to 4 is that there is energy to spare (runners don’t do well with spare energy). Enter intensity.

Weight-lifters add weight. Runners add hills.

I’ve traditionally been a fan of the theory that running flat surfaces builds running economy – and it’s been a conveniently comfortable theory to hold onto – but plenty of coaches recommend hill training to build strength and speed; a strategy reinforced for me when I ran with my friend in the Great Rift Valley of Kenya where the marathoners use the road leading up the mountain for their speed work.

So this season I’ve added hills. The mostly downhill long-run route has been reversed once a week for repeats up the mountain, and because my next marathon is predominantly downhill, half the repeats are run back down. (Total elevation gain over the 2.5 mile uphill climb is 457 feet.)

The following week I go to the track for level footing.


My long-run route challenges have been well documented by now, and I reluctantly write one further word. Adding miles to the pleasantly shady/quiet/blissful/if not steep first half of my run continues to be an issue, however, and this week I had the idea to run the same 2-mile stretch that was added to the last rather disdainful 18-mile run twice. Unfortunately, my little water bottle wouldn’t take me this far.

The new solution was to begin the normal route, add the 2-mile stretch along with a new 1-mile section, then back up the mountain where extra water and Gatorade was left in the Jeep. This unknowingly added an additional 450 feet of elevation for a total of 1,200 feet of elevation with several 6- 8% grade hills in the 18-mile run.

Those first few miles were really tough, although I felt strong through the rest of the run (and there were 2 successful potty breaks along the way if you must know). Still, it’s unclear if this route will remain in the portfolio of long-run routes. . .

The first 4-1/2 miles of last weekend’s 18-mile run.
The last 6 miles are flat, all sun and 35-45mph traffic (U.S. translation: 55-65mph traffic)

This season has reminded me of the importance of the one-stressor-at-a-time rule, something I had failed to incorporate into last season’s training. If not for the reduced mileage my body would never survive the hills, and if not for the extra rest days my legs would be toast.

It has been said many times that marathon training should be tougher than the race itself.  It’s great at first, and then you have your ups and downs. Near the end, you tend to hate everything about it. And when it’s over, you forget how bad it was and start the process all over again.


Scratch The Itch

3 weeks ago. . .

I missed a full week of training. I’ve never missed a full week of training. Things started with a migraine-style headache that led to nausea followed by several days of fever, chills, and lots of sleep. Day after day I promised my husband, and sometimes my Dad that I would visit the doctor. By Friday I was feeling better though, and I volunteered to take the early shift of meeting workers at our new house – giving me the opportunity to finally uncover the beautiful swan on the patio wall.

48 hours later. . .

The poison oak was evident along both arms, although my left arm took the brunt of the blow and was swollen twice its size replete with welts and blisters. I remembered from EMT training that poison is basically a chemical burn – I had a 2nd degree chemical burn on my left arm. It was the first day I was to get back to my training schedule, so I dutifully strapped my watch onto my right, less affected arm, and went for a run.

For all the miraculous benefits of modern medicine, I still consider it a last resort. I managed to control the urge to scratch the poison using topical creams, although that poison has taken its dear, sweet time to heal.

Meanwhile, the contractor finished installing the fence around our property, which includes a generous parcel of land up the hill behind the house that is all forest (and a good bit of our neighbor’s yard debris). We loaded the dogs into the Jeep that Saturday after my long run, and let them explore what will become their new territory. The boys were a little timid, so Dakota and I walked to the edge of the forest to show them there was nothing to fear.

24 hours later. . .

Dakota was miserable, and irritable.

. . . the itching began. It was everywhere – on her stomach, ears, head, feet. I couldn’t see a thing, but she was obviously miserable. I held a cool cloth on her stomach, rubbed her with ointment, and tried my best to have her swallow a small piece of Benadryl. She was in such misery I couldn’t bear it.

I held her in my arms while she nestled her head under my chin and we’d walk around the house until she fell asleep in total exhaustion. Sleep lasted about an hour and we’d start the process all over again. I didn’t know whether to cry or scream.

It was chiggers, and every one of those nasty, little devils must have jumped off her and onto me. She was all better the next morning while I had red itchy bites everywhere – down my back, on my stomach, both arms and legs, chiggers on top of poison, but mostly on my neck and face. Whatever control I had over itching the poison oak was lost on these damn chiggers. They are surely the worst demons on earth.

I have learned everything there is to learn about chiggers, tried every remedy (including turmeric, which turned my fingers orange), spent inordinate amounts of time at the pharmacy counter, and I’ve taken enough Benadryl to kill a horse. I jumped out of bed at midnight the first night, stripped all the linens off the bed, stuffed them in the washer to contain the miserable critters, sprayed the whole house with bug spray (which I’m told will kill those still lurking in the shadows), and took a shower believing I was being attacked all over again. I won’t admit how many times this process has been repeated in the days since.

By this time my face and throat feel more like sandpaper than skin from the remedies that best relieved the itch. My face is red, sensitive to the sun, swollen, splotchy, and hurts so bad that I haven’t been able to run for three more days. I can honestly say I would have never believed there would be a time I couldn’t run because my face hurts.

My husband has spent the past few days in Chicago babysitting our dog that became an only child (who is doing absolutely fabulous by the way), and I’ve been relieved he hasn’t been subjected to the sight I have become.

Today is the last day I could withdraw from the upcoming marathon, but I have decided to refuse to give in. Who could have known just how far it would go when I decided to cut back on my training this season?

My husband and I have decided that if I survive this marathon, it will be an incredibly eye-opening experiment as it relates to how much training is enough, but if nothing else, this experience has given me an entirely new appreciation for “an ounce of prevention.”

The Running Question of the Year

This has been the year for me to question the experts: How much is enough marathon training? I’ve done my research, made my choices, and accepted the consequences. But how do you know you’ve reached the proper conclusion without also testing the limits to the opposite extreme?

Experts seem to agree that roughly 150 minutes of aerobic exercise and two days of strength training each week is a healthy minimum requirement. It always depends on something, however. If you want to lose weight, more exercise may be needed. Do you want to win a gold medal? Absolutely, more exercise is needed.

I just want to finish a marathon in the fastest time possible based on my age, sex, and genetic endowment. How much running does that require? It has been the 2016 question of the year.

On the other side of the coin, a guiding rule is to limit exercise to roughly 10 hours, or 600 minutes each week – a limit I have tested often. Sometimes it goes pretty well.

Several years ago I was cycling up to 50 miles each week and running 30 miles. I ran my fastest marathon that year. Two years ago, I went back to school and spent two days each week hiking, climbing, swimming or paddling in addition to marathon training. That year I set a new personal best time at the 10k distance, and achieved a 2nd place age group award in the toughest marathon I’ve run yet.

So I’ve been thinking, maybe the better question is not how many miles to run, but how much time should we devote to our dominant sport?

We Know MORE, But It’s Still 26.2 Miles

In 2007 Jonathan Beverly sorted through the marathon training articles published in Running Times for the past 30 years to find “the essential, core principles by which to make all those four-page, four-month, four-point-font charts simple.” While the details within the most popular marathon training programs have changed over the years, four elements of marathon training remained constant from that first 1980 article to 2007: mileage, long runs, speed work and tapering.

To use this data to answer my question of the year, I dissected mileage.

The experts seem to agree that how much mileage depends mostly on your goals, which in turn are dependent on how much mileage you can handle without injury. If you aspire to a sub 3-hour marathon, most coaches have settled on an optimum training range of 60-70 miles per week. Depending on the course difficulty, my marathon times are usually between 4:00 and 4:30 hours. These same coaches indicate 30-40 miles each week is all that is required to get me to the finish line. Indeed this is the most mileage I have run when training for some of my best marathon finishes, and is barely half the mileage I ran when training for my worst.

What if I run those 30-40 miles in 4 days instead of 6, or 3 days instead of 5? What if I supplement running with other sports? Will I be more fit?

Because cycling burns more calories than almost any other sport, I dropped to just 105 pounds and down a full dress size when cycling was added to my training regimen. And during the 2014 Fall semester of paddling rafts, kayaks and canoes, I completely eliminated core strengthening exercises because paddling strengthened my core better than any exercise I had ever done. In the absence of these diversions of years past, I have filled 6 days of every week this year with only running.

My friend, Jono, is training for his first marathon using the Jeff Galloway run/walk/run program, which calls for 3 days of running per week. Currently, Jono’s 3 days of running totals roughly the same mileage as my 6 days of running. Jono had said to me, “You only need to run three times a week – it should be fun!” I couldn’t stop thinking about his advice.

In the interest of running experiments everywhere, I have subjected the remainder of this season’s marathon training to another experiment in hopes of finally answering the question of how much. I’ve taken my trusty calendar out, erased the remaining 10 weeks’ schedule, and re-written 30-40 miles of running into just 4 days – allowing blissful extra days each week for the cross-training of my choice.

Stay tuned. . . again.

The Long Run

My week begins on Monday, despite the compelling argument my husband has made on the subject. And it clearly seems I’m the odd man out among the masses, despite the fact that even Sunday was a day of rest after a long week of creating the universe in the beginning of time. Why would one begin the week with a day of rest?

For me, the week begins with the shortest run of the week, which was 7 miles this time last season, but just 3 miles this season. The long run was on Sunday last time, but our favorite long-run-day-restaurant isn’t open on Sunday, so this season’s long run has been moved to Saturday followed by lunch at Lulu’s on the patio.

This week there was also . . . an urgent run on the shoe store when I realized my old pair wouldn’t last one more week. . . a new water bottle with room for a snack because I got so hungry in the middle of the run last week that I thought I’d die, and. . .  a last minute update of my husband’s phone settings when I realized the Australian version of Siri he had been using might send me over the edge when we set the alarm for 5:30am.

I’d like to be one of those souls that can roll out of bed and go for a run, but a good amount of time is always devoted to morning coffee before my day can begin. The dogs wouldn’t get out of their beds on the long run day this week when we woke up in the dark to have our morning coffee.

My husband reads the news during morning coffee. I catch up on email, and research whatever topic is top of my list. Once I’ve gathered myself together, I eat breakfast, brush my teeth, put on my new shoes (despite my husband’s warning), and head out for the longest run of the week.

Most folks want to know what we runners think about for hours of running. Sometimes I solve the world’s problems, or my own. Sometimes I decorate houses, or write a post in my mind. But these random thoughts are typically sandwiched between long intervals of absolutely no thought whatsoever.

Sometimes I keep a count of the number of dogs that reach my ankles (5 this week), how many piles of poop in the road must have come from a bear (1), or how many dead animals I must jump over (4). I’m surprisingly conscious of what appears to be poison ivy along the edge of the road and doing my best not to let it touch me anywhere, although this was the week I was forced to jump into the middle of the ivy to avoid a last minute collision with a truck and the ivy drooping from a tree limb swiped me across the face.

Music usually occupies the silent, thoughtless moments, although this week I listened to the sounds of the creek until mile 9, which was also when I ate the peanut butter crackers I had stashed in my new water bottle even though I had smooshed them trying to find a comfortable way to hold this new bottle. And even though going to the bathroom one more time is the last thing I do before leaving the house, sometimes all I can think about is finding a good spot for an early potty break, which came along at mile 4 this week when I used a couple of large rocks to jump down the creek’s bank below road level and back up again.

The shoe strings of those new shoes were adjusted twice, the water in my little bottle was gone long before the run ended, and Lulu’s was closed due to air conditioning problems.

I’ve always said that life is a lot like training for a marathon, and you just never know what’s going to happen during that long run.

The Big Training Shuffle

Something wonderful happens when you start training for a race. Any race really, but especially the marathon. It’s a tough road to travel indefinitely, but a few months here and a few months there . . . there’s nothing like it.   

Every run has a purpose. There are short recovery runs and middle-distance runs at pace. Some runs are designed to improve the fast-twitch muscles that make us run ever faster while others train our bodies to go the distance. . . and I would stand on my head if it meant I would never miss a solitary run ever.

When there’s a hike on Wednesday, the first medium-long run is moved to Thursday, which moves the second short run to Friday (instead of a rest day which was moved to Monday) followed by housework, unless Kung Fu wasn’t on Tuesday, then it’s off to Kung Fu Friday afternoon followed by a nap. Saturday is the second medium-long run of the week, which at week 14 is 10 miles with the second 20-mile run on Sunday, except in this semester because our backpacking trip starts on Friday with 21 miles of hiking, which moved the second 20-mile run to earlier in the week so the taper can begin next Monday.
The Fartlek  (April 10, 2014)

Despite my valiant efforts, life happens and sometimes my running calendar suffers the blow.

Week 3 of this season’s marathon training coincided with Week 1 of this year’s relocation schedule. Every item under the roof of our lovely, old home was destined to be evaluated & eliminated, or packed & moved. Little time was left for running, and two runs were missed.

They say where you are in your training program determines whether runs should be made up, or skipped. I can honestly say I don’t ever remember making up a run, although a fair amount of thought goes into how to shuffle runs to different days, and which run(s) are forfeited when all else fails.

Hal Higdon defines 7 stages of the marathon cycle:

  1. Rest: an extended period of active rest after a marathon, 3-6 weeks, before training hard again.
  2. Endurance I: miles, and lots of them.
  3. Strength: to run fast, you need strong muscles. Run hills, interval training on the track but with reduced overall mileage.
  4. Speed: test yourself with shorter races during a time when you are not increasing mileage. Strength and Speed may overlap.
  5. Endurance II: the final mileage buildup – we know this as the 18-week marathon training program.
  6. Taper: you can’t achieve peak performance unless you are well rested.
  7. The marathon: run your fastest; then Periodize your training again.

Even though I am already in Stage 5 of this marathon cycle, there have been lots of hills and fast repeats at the track. Once each week I run up the mountain and back down for the benefit of building strength, and hopefully expanding aerobic capacity.

The goal has been to maintain a slow enough pace uphill to keep the effort aerobic vs anaerobic, and to maintain a steady, even pace going downhill. I have read it is important to learn how to guage and control the downhill pace to avoid muscle fatigue and be successful in a predominantly downhill race, such as my scheduled Peak To Creek Marathon this October.

Snapshots of this season’s hill training:

For the long run at the end of Week 2, I made the decision to run towards town first because it gets hot without the benefit of shade, and traffic picks up as the morning grows late. This left a roughly 5-mile climb up the mountain, which was not ideal except that it was quiet, shady, and the downhill finish was highly appealing.  
This out-and-back, 3-mile route follows a portion of the same road up the mountain as the 11-mile run from above.  The route has a total ascent of 290.38 ft and a maximum elevation of 2,592 ft. 


Once in awhile I’ll walk to the end of our road to begin the 3-mile route shown above, and walk back up our road again at the end of the run – roughly 6 miles total. I won’t lie, this is a tough workout.