Reader Question: What is a Marathon?

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A Quora member recently asked this deceptively simple question, “what is a marathon?”. Just what constitutes “a marathon” is a source of confusion for many runners new to the sport as well as for people not involved in the sport. Below is my attempt to explain the issues and hopefully resolve the confusion. Enjoy! 

Within the sport of Track & Field (Athletics for all you non-Americans) a marathon is a foot race of the standard distance of 26 miles, 385 yards. The story behind the odd distance has to do with the 1908 Olympic marathon finish line placement, which made the course come out to that distance. The then governing body of the sport later adopted this distance for all marathons and it has been so since. Had the Games not been moved to London for 1908, the marathon distance probably would have eventually been standardized at 40k or 25 miles, or possibly left as it was for each race to determine.

But the confusion over ‘what is a marathon’ also stems from the fact that the word marathon, like many words, has more than one definition. We runners and track fans cringe when someone says they ran a “5k marathon”; no, you ran a 5k, not a marathon. However, one of the definitions of ‘marathon’, that long predates the adoption of the official marathon distance in Track & Field, is simply “any long distance running race”. Of course there are other uses of the word ‘marathon’ which are used for any event that requires prolonged endurance of one kind or another, such as a dance marathon, a sales marathon, or even a ‘marathon meeting’ (one that drags on for hours, or seems to).

One could therefore argue that technically, as purely a matter of grammar, a “5k marathon” is not incorrect. But of course since it is a running event, it is incorrect in that context. Personally, while I find it cringe worthy, I try to understand that the person saying it may be a new runner, so any correction should be gentle and constructive rather than of the “OMG, how dumb are you?” variety. We can’t expect people outside of – or brand new to – any field of endeavor to know its nomenclature and culture.

From what I have witnessed, actual race directors using terms like “10k marathon” to describe a race is more common in some parts of the world than others. I could be wrong, but this seems to be a fairly common practice in some Asian countries. In the US, you really only see it used by people putting on a race if they are having a charity fundraiser “5k Marathon”. Most serious runners know to stay away from these events, since they are probably not being conducted by someone who knows much about running as a sport, so there are often numerous problems (e.g., improperly marked and/or measured course, untrained volunteers, no traffic control, incorrect results, etc.)

I’m not sure if my answer directly relates to the reason the question was asked, but the subject comes up often enough that I hope my response is instructive to others who may be confused about the use of the word marathon.

 

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Reader Question: Should you wear an ankle brace while running?

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What have you found to be the best compression like sock for protecting your ankle while running a short or long distance? I recently used a Protec Athletics 3D flat sleeve. However, it felt fairly tight and I wasn’t sure if it was doing its job on a simple walk for about 5 to 6 miles.

First of all, is is important to know why are you wearing an ankle sleeve in the first place. Is this due to a previous or current injury? Was it recommended by a doctor or physical therapist?

Protec is a respected brand in that category, so I’m not sure if – assuming you do need the support – that a different sleeve would be better; perhaps a different type of brace could be in order if you truly need external stability, but if that’s the case you really should see a physician such as a podiatrist, or a physical therapist. If it is just too tight you could try a larger size, of course, but the idea is for it to be tight to provide some stability.

If none of the above, I assume you are using it to try to prevent ankle sprains or perhaps someone suggested runners use these so you should too . FYI, this is not common among (uninjured) runners. As a general rule, I suggest people not use any sort of brace or support that isn’t necessary, since that could ultimately result in weakening the support structures (ligaments, tendons, muscles) that naturally stabilize your joint. This would of course just weaken the joint more and more over time and cause you to become dependent on the brace.

You might benefit much more by doing regular strength and stability exercises for your ankles (2 or 3 times per week is enough). Again, this is general advice and not meant to replace anything your medical professional has recommended.

The basic ankle strengthening exercises include heel raises (aka calf raises), tracing the alphabet with your big toe while holding your foot off the ground (you can also do circles in both directions, and sweep the foot side to side = inversion/eversion), and balancing on one foot.

Most people begin heel raises with just their body weight and using both feet at the same time – standing with the front of the feet on a step and slowly lowering the heel and then raising up on the ‘tip-toes’. You can progress by first adding more sets; once you can easily do 15 – 20 reps, then do one set in a ‘duck-footed’ stance, one with toes straight ahead (neutral), and a final set with toes pointed in (pigeon-toed). Further progression involves using only one foot at a time, and ultimately adding weight (e.g. holding a dumbbell).

With the alphabet/circles/sweeps, once those become easy you can consider wrapping a light cuff weight (maybe 1 – 2 lbs) around your foot while you do them. Doing the alphabet pretty much ensures you are moving your ankle in all possible planes and directions, but you might need to take a break before finishing all the letters. With circles or sweeps, most folks do about 10 in each direction.

Standing on one foot is pretty self-explanatory; once you can do so comfortably without losing your balance for 30 seconds x 3 sets, you can progress in different ways. One way is simply to close your eyes, which makes balance much harder. Or you can stand on a softer surface like a pillow (there are commercial balance pads available, too, at different difficulty levels – the softer the pad, the harder it is to balance); mini-trampolines work well, too. You can also ‘perturb’ your balance by moving your arms and other leg around, or by having a friend stand behind you and randomly give you little pushes in different spots, or have them toss a ball back and forth with you, sometimes tossing higher, lower, or more to the left or right.

Good luck!

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Reader Question: Is it possible to run 13 miles in 30 minutes like Captain America did?

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I love superhero movies, but in order to enjoy them I have to suspend disbelief and stop being a scientist for a couple of hours, since most of what you see defies the laws of physics and well established physiological principles.

What the Ol’ Cap did was a physiological impossibility outside of the superhero movie universe. The runner would be going about world class 100m sprint speed (26 mph). That pace relies on energy primarily from phosphocreatine – essentially a “rocket fuel” with about 6 seconds “burn time” before it is depleted – plus energy liberated via anaerobic (without oxygen) processes. The longer the event, the more the ratio turns from anaerobic to aerobic energy sources. One simply can’t use aerobic metabolism to run 26 mph for virtually any length of time, let alone 30 minutes. 

There are interesting questions like this in exercise physiology meant to spur investigation and discussion of the limits of human performance. For decades people have tried to come up with the ‘absolute limit’ for a given event, and so far they have been eventually proved wrong. Long ago there was the sub-4 minute mile barrier, but as we got into, say, the 1930s it was becoming obvious to most people that it was humanly possible to run that fast and it was just a matter of time. (Roger Bannister ran under 4 in 1954 – after about a 10 year period of a few people getting close, like 4:01 – 4:02.)

Later there were calculations that no man could go faster than (I’m working from memory here so not an exact figure) ~ 3:50-something, until that was broken. The current world record, set in 1999, is held by Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj at 3:43.13. Of course we can say with certainty that no human will run a mile in 1 minute, or 2 minutes, or … well, we just don’t know for sure other than there is obviously a limit. El Guerrouj also holds the the 1500m WR of 3:26, which equates to about a mile of …. 3:43. So is the limit 3:43? Probably not; even though that record has stood for 17 years, it always seems someone could go 1/10 second faster, or at least 1/100. Is a sub 3:40 possible? I wouldn’t bet against it.

What is the fastest a human could run 13 miles? We don’t know (the world record for the half marathon – 13.11 miles – is 58:23) but it certainly isn’t anywhere close to 30 minutes. A 30 minute half marathon would be run at an average pace of 2:17 per mile, and equates to a 2:05 mile in quality.

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Reader Question: How do I train for my first ultra marathon?

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That’s another of an infinite number of training questions for which the answer is “it depends”.

What does it depend on? (1) It depends on your current level of fitness; (2) it depends on what the distance of the ultra will be, (3) it depends on what type of course it will be run on (flat road, flat trail, hilly road or trail, mountain, high elevation, etc).

By definition, an ultramarathon is any distance longer than a standard 26.2 mile marathon, but in practical terms 50K is usually considered the standard entry level distance. Training for a 50K (31 miles) is quite a different proposition from training for a 100 mile or longer ultra. I highly discourage anyone from jumping into a 100 mile or longer race as their first ultra. (Occasionally an overly enthusiastic but sedentary sort will decide a “couch to ultramarathon” plan is a good idea; it isn’t, in a drunken “hey, Bubba, watch me jump off the barn into the kiddie pool!” kind of way.)

I’m going to assume you are the smart sort and aren’t planning to run anything longer than a 50K as your first ultra (or jump off the barn), since that is most common and makes the most sense. It allows you get a feel for the logistics (hydration, eating, footwear and other gear) and the ethos and unspoken rules of the ultra community without spending two days in the woods fooling with broken headlamps, nausea, blisters, hallucinations, and other super fun things.

I’m also going to assume you have run a few marathons and/or have been regularly running at least 30 -40 miles per week for most weeks of the last few years (i.e., you are in good shape to start with, and could finish a marathon distance run right now or with minimal further training).

I will further assume you know that your best bet for a pleasant first 50K will be to find a race that is not on super technical trails (bad footing and such) and not run in the mountains at high elevation. (I’ve only run a handful of ultras, mostly 50Ks, with a fairly flat Florida trail result of 5:15, and a mountain race in New Mexico all above 9000 ft altitude, with a climb up to 11,300 ft, in well over 8 hours. The latter was much tougher than a 50 Mile run I did in Florida (but with a bit less sand in my shoes). It was a great adventure, but I had a handful of longer races – and lots of time running mountain trails – under my belt before I did that one. (I was ill and injured the previous year and dropped out half way while coughing my lungs out; had I gone on I could have had serious health problems on the climb to the peak – people do die in the mountains when they do dumb things.)

So check the ultra race listings and read the course descriptions and reviews to find a ‘first timer’ friendly race. Most are run on trails, but a few are on pavement. I suggest you’ll have a better time on the trails, as long as you can train on trails.

So let’s assume you are more or less ‘marathon fit, and you are going to do a relatively non-technical trail 50K. There’s not really much of a secret here; if you have had success with a marathon training program, your 50K training won’t look all that much different (still, hiring a coach makes things much easier – they think, you run). Again, this is assuming you picked a ‘beginner friendly’ type of 50K – training for a tougher 50K will diverge a lot more from marathon training.

I submit you could use a marathon plan to prep for the 50K and get to the finish line. But you will feel better and be more confident about putting in those extra ~ 5 miles if you modify the marathon plan to increase the length of a few of the long runs, and simply put in more “time on your feet” as they say.

There is debate among ultra runners as to the utility of many of the types of training runs used for marathon and shorter race training, such as “threshold” runs (to improve anaerobic threshold), “intervals” (to improve maximal endurance, i.e. VO2max), and “repetitions” (to improve raw speed). I come down on the side of including threshold (aka tempo) runs at least, even though you will likely never run anything faster than your usual “easy run” pace in the ultra. Being more fit translates to the easy pace being, literally, easier – less effort to run the same pace. Just as for marathon and shorter training, I recommend running a handful of strides after a couple of easy runs each week to keep a bit of speed in the legs and to improve running form.

Others disagree and have had a lot of success doing lots of miles and training as close as possible on the type of terrain they will race on. The truth is there are multiple ways to reach the same ultra goal, so a lot depends on what you are comfortable with and what gives you the most confidence that you can finish in a vertical posture.

A good book to consider is called Relentless Forward Progress. It discusses many of the topics I’ve covered, and a lot more, and includes a lot of advice and opinions from experienced ultra runners. It has sample training plans, too.

I’ve never been very keen on the marathon for myself, and found myself in agreement with many others that a 50K with friends in the woods felt much easier than any road marathon. Chose your race well, train properly, stay off the roof and you likely will have a great time.

Good luck!

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Reader Question: What can I do to improve my 100m dash time?

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What can I do to improve my 100m dash time?

I am about to finish my freshman year of high school, and I want to be winning varsity races by the time I’m a sophomore. My personal best this year for the 100m is 11.57, but I want to be running high tens by grade 10. My track coach currently is terrible and only made me slower. Any suggestions?

That’s a tough situation to be in; perhaps a talk with your coach about why you think the training isn’t working for you is in order. I can’t know the specifics, but often high schools take any sport that isn’t football or basketball (and maybe baseball) much less seriously – as if they are just conditioning for other sports or purely recreational. In those cases I’ve seen the track coach be appointed not because he or she is a great track coach, but because he or she is a good football or basketball coach. But that should not be an excuse for that coach, who supposedly understands something about exercise physiology, not to get up to speed on the techniques of coaching track & field events.

One of the main factors for sprint training that might be missed by some coaches is the proper work to rest ratio. For a 100/200m runner, you want a training session of multiple short, fast sprints followed by very long recovery periods in between, often a 1:12 to 1:20 work to rest ratio, based on time ( e.g. an 8- 10s sprint followed by a 2 – 3 min rest) during which you walk and recuperate (and maybe do a few flexibility moves) so you are ready to be able to give a full effort on the next and all subsequent sprints. As a distance runner it pains me to say this, but to be a good short sprinter you have to mostly avoid endurance training, which has the effect of teaching some of your fast twitch muscle fibers to behave more like slow twitch (a positive for a marathoner, but a negative for a sprinter or power athlete). Carl Lewis wrote about rebelling against his high school coach who wanted him and the other sprinters running lots of laps, because he knew this would not be good for his speed. I remember watching Carl on a TV show called Superstars in which the contestants were jocks from different sports; during the 800m race sure enough, sub-10 second 100m runner Carl was really struggling on the second lap. It is okay to run a few easy laps as part of your warm-up, though; you want your muscles warm before you start sprinting. The bulk of the warm-up should still be various drills and range of motion exercises that follow the jogging.

If the coach really isn’t going to help you much after trying your best to communicate, the alternative could be (with the coach’s permission) to hire a personal coach to write your workouts. In the offseason there should be no problem working directly with a personal coach. (Ask around, and also look on the internet; http://coachup.com is one resource). There are also various commercial ‘speed schools’ and performance training centers you could look into. The main thing you would focus on is building your strength and power in the offseason, so they would show you safe and proper form for weight training and plyometric drills. They would also at some point do more direct work to help you translate that power into a faster start out of the blocks and on into the rest of the phases of the sprint, using good running form.

Of course this is going to cost some money, so that will factor into your and your parents’ decisions. Still, it isn’t something that is easy to do properly on your own, and the chances of injury in a do-it-yourself program are pretty high. But as a learning tool, you might pick up a copy of a book called Explosive Running by Michael Yessis.

On a positive, 11.57 is a good time for a freshman, especially since you might not have received the best coaching, and physical maturity alone is going to help you improve on that. Be patient, train consistently, and the speed will come out. Make sure you have both short term goals (as you stated in your question) and longer term goals (in the back of your mind) to motivate you, such as where you want to be your senior year and if you want to run in college.

Good luck!

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Reader Question: Why are so many marathon runners overweight?

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A quora user asks:  Why are so many marathon runners overweight?

NOVA had a great documentary a few years ago which followed several ‘novice’ marathoners through their training programs. Marathon Challenge — NOVA | PBS

(It looks like you can also find the full documentary on Youtube.)

It’s been a while since I watched it, but I recall that only one of the participants lost any substantial weight, and that was because she was purposely trying to lose weight. That meant she was being careful to watch her caloric intake and was doing a lot of supplemental exercise that the other runners were not doing. Some of the runners were surprised they hadn’t lost much or any weight, but as Bruno said, losing weight is hard even for runners.

You have to run a lot for it to affect your weight; for example, world class marathoners will put in sometimes 120 – 160 miles per week of running, along with strength training, cross training, and flexibility work. At that level, it becomes difficult for most people to maintain a healthy weight, that is, not lose too much weight. Very few people can withstand that kind of training. Contrast that with what ‘mere mortals’ do; novice marathoners usually run from 3 to 5 times per week, averaging 25 – 40 miles per week, and may or may not do some cross training and other exercise. Intermediate marathoners might do 40 – 60 miles per week, and more advanced but still not elite marathoners might do 50 – 70 at most (all gross generalizations, but about average). Most then go back to their sedentary jobs in an air conditioned office. As exercise science and obesity expert Steven Blair, himself a fit but somewhat rotund gentleman, has said, we evolved using a lot of energy to survive, but in modern society we no longer have to work hard physically to obtain our food and shelter. Instead we try to “graft on” a bit of artificial (non survival related) physical activity which we call exercise to try to stay healthy. If you think about it, most runners are sedentary 22 – 23 hours per day. That was a luxury our ancestors could not afford.

It just takes A LOT of physical activity to lose weight, which is why it is important to reduce calories in an intelligent manner; one that doesn’t result in lower metabolic rate, which is difficult to do while training. I recommend the book Racing Weight by Matt Fitzgerald for runners who could benefit by losing a few pounds in a sensible manner. Dropping weight by cutting too many calories too quickly will only lead to reduced ability to train, and possible injury, which defeats the purpose.

Keep in mind also, that a lot of those ‘overweight’ marathoners you see have lost a substantial amount of weight as part of adopting a healthy lifestyle, for which running is only one part. Some will have leveled off and some are still losing weight, but nearly all are generally more healthy than the majority of “normal weight”  sedentary people. It is more important to concentrate on health and fitness than weight loss per se when setting goals to improve one’s health and well-being.

Another factor is that marathons have become both more popular and less “elite” over the last couple of decades. The latter means that many races have extended the cut-off time for completing the course to 6, 7, 8 or more hours, which gives a lot more people time to finish. A few decades back when only a few hearty souls, nearly all men, ran marathons the cut-off might have been 4 hours, which today is faster than more than half of all marathon participants run. (For perspective, the world record for men is under 2:03 and for women is about 2:15.) The great thing about running is how inclusive it has become, and that fact that the elites cheer for and support the back of the pack runners. It’s a wonderful thing.

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Reader Question: How can I stop ankle tightness when running?

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A reader on Quora asks: How can I stop ankle tightness when running? When I run my ankles get so tight or numb, not sure what the issue is but it makes me slap my feet on the ground. It prevents me from going long distance; any suggestions or ideas on how to fix this?  (Also, shoe suggestions/sizing.) 

 

I’m having trouble picturing what you mean; is it your achilles tendon (heel cord) that is tight, or is it the inside, or outside, of your ankle, or all around? The fact that you say they get numb is a bit concerning and makes me think that you should consult a medical expert. That could be a sign of something more serious, like a nerve impingement or a circulatory problem. As is often the case on Quora, there isn’t enough room for you to give all the details, such as how long you have been running, how much you run, how much you weigh, your previous injuries, your age and your gender. I also don’t know what kind of surface(s) you are running on, e.g. concrete sidewalks, technical/uneven off road trails, nice smooth soft dirt paths, slanted road shoulders; what other training or sports you participate in, or what kind of shoes your are running in. It could be as simple as you are trying to ramp up your mileage too fast and not allowing your ankles time to adapt. With so little to go on, there is no way to know unless you get it checked out; there are just too many variables to assess. 

They aren’t always easy to find, but your best bet would be to locate a physical therapist who is an expert in running biomechanics. In addition to a thorough medical history and an examination of the related musculoskeletal system, he or she will probably video record you from different angles running on a treadmill to look for clues (bring your running clothes and shoes to the appointment) and conduct a functional movement screen. With a good idea of any muscle imbalances in strength and flexibility (keep in mind it could be caused by an issue further up the kinetic chain, such as hip/glute weakness) and your running mechanics, the PT can design a plan to correct the problem, which will usually include exercises for strength and flexibility and potentially some other interventions.

If the PT does think it could be something other than a simple musculoskeletal issue they would refer you to a physician. Of course if you want peace of mind you could start with the physician and then go to a PT if you get an all clear. 

As far as footwear, research shows that different types of running shoes really don’t affect injury rates; that is, in studies where one group gets running shoes based on an assessment of their ‘pronation factor’ and another is assigned shoe type randomly, the injury rates are about the same. For years, running shoes have been classified as ‘stability’ ‘motion control’ or ‘neutral’, but with this newer information many shoe companies are moving away from those categories. 

What has been found to affect injury rate is the comfort and fit of the shoe to the person, which means you should go to a running shop and try on several models and run in them at the store (most now have a treadmill you can run on; many years ago the shop I worked in allowed you to run up and down the sidewalk). You will want about a “thumbnail’s width” of room between your longest toe and the end of the shoe, and the width should feel good – the shoe should be about the same width as your foot rather than your foot spilling over the sides or sliding right to left, and it should be snug but not overly tight in the heel. There are different ways to lace shoes to improve the fit, and you can ask the folks at the running shop about that. 

Another thing you will notice is that some shoes are easy to flex, others are quite stiff, and most are somewhere in-between. Also, some have a lot of cushioning, some a moderate amount, and some practically none. There are more running shoes on the market now than ever before, and it seems new shoe companies pop up every month. The variety is generally a good thing, but it can be overwhelming having so many choices. You will have to decide which feels the best by trying them, and again a running shop will take the time to help you narrow your choices. 

Once you have your new shoes, it is still possible that they won’t feel as good after a few miles of “real” running as they did on the treadmill in the store, so see if they have an exchange policy in case that happens. Give them a fair trial, but if you feel like they aren’t working for you then you’ll want to try something else. It is just kind of a trial and error system. Once you find the type of shoe that works for you it becomes much easier from then on to find the right shoes. 

One other thought; you didn’t say what kind of shoes you are running in now, but if you are using something like basketball or tennis shoes, that might explain some of the problem with the foot slapping you describe. Otherwise, I think the PT and a gait analysis will help figure out and fix the ‘hitch in your giddyup’. 

So, in summary it could be one or a combination of (1) a more serious medical issue, (2) doing too much,too soon, (3) weakness/tightness in the feet and/or ankles and/or lower leg muscles, (4) weakness/tightness further up the kinetic chain (quads, hamstrings, abductors, adductors, internal & external rotators, hips, glutes, “core” muscles, etc), (5) the surface/slant you run on, (6) improper footwear.

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Reader Question: Are there any etiquette rules for running a 5k?

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Are there any etiquette rules for running a 5k?

This is a great question, and shows that you are a caring person in my opinion; otherwise you’d just go all ‘bull in a china shop’. 😉

“Common sense” goes a long way, but some runners who are inexperienced at participating in races might not think about certain points of etiquette. Given the popularity of ‘couch to 5K’ training programs (i.e. training programs that encourage sedentary or non-runners to take up the challenge of getting ready for their first 5K (3.1 mile) ‘fun run’ race, there are many first timers at most 5Ks. 

I will approach this answer from the standpoint of a first time, or fairly new, runner. Most of this will generally apply to whatever distance race you run, by the way.

Getting there.  Get to the race at least an hour before the start, and even a bit earlier if you are picking up your race packet (your number) on race day. This keeps the stress level down for you, and for the volunteers who have to scramble to get everyone checked in as race time approaches. Understand that most of the time races do start almost right at the stated time, with or without you. Don’t show up at 8:45 for a 9am start, in other words. You need time to get your number, pin it on, use the world famous port-o-potties (there will be a long line), snug up and double tie your shoelaces, and find your spot in the starting area.

Bib number. Pin your race number to the FRONT of your shirt (or shorts) so that it is clearly visible to race staff. It’s not the Olympics, so you don’t get a front and a back number. Also, some races still use the tear-off tag on the bottom of the number for recording finish place and time, so DON’T REMOVE THE TAG from the bib number, and do not put a safety pin through the tear-off tag itself. If they are using this system, be ready to give the volunteer at the finish line your tear-off tag quickly so that they can get to the next person behind you and keep the finish area from getting clogged up. (Most larger races now use timing chips, but small fun runs often use the tear-off tag or another low-tech system.) If your race uses a timing chip, make sure you follow the instructions for using it – some are built right into the number, but some have to be attached to your shoe laces.

Lining up. Be sure you have a decent understanding of how fast you will run, and line up in the starting corral accordingly. For example, if you have been running blazing fast times in your workouts and think you might finish in the top 10, then line up on the front row with the other speedsters. But if you have been doing a run/walk program and are not yet quite able to run the full distance, line up towards the back of the pack at the starting area. If you are somewhere in-between, then of course line up somewhere in the middle. (Gigantic races will usually seed you, so you line up where they tell you to; most smaller runs count on the runners to understand where they should start.) The smaller the race, the less critical this issue is, but you still don’t want to be up front if you aren’t ready to get swept up in a really fast start. It’s dangerous for you and the other runners if you get tripped up and fall. The start of a 5K can be pretty chaotic for a minute or two with all the kids that don’t know any better sprinting out ahead of everyone and then slowing down, and the real front runners dodging them and each other; you don’t want to be in that mess if you aren’t ready for it.

During the race. Just have fun and run your own race if it’s your first one. In a 5K there may or may not be a water station on the course (usually there is one at the half way point). If there is one, and you think you need water, how you approach it depends on where you are in the race; if you are up with the speedier overall or age-groupers, most won’t get water at all but those that do will not slow down to do so. They will just grab the cup, pinch the top to make a spout, and then pour most of it down the front of their shirt (not on purpose). If you are with the mellower paced crowd, you can usually just pick up a cup, thank the volunteers, drink it and put the cup in the trash can if there is one. (You’ll see a lot of littered cups on the ground, which the volunteers will pick up. This practice is pretty accepted in road races, but not in trail races, fyi. On the trail, you hang on to your trash until you find a trash can.)

Anyway, the main point of etiquette here is not to impede another runner at the water station (or anywhere else on the course), either by cutting them off or by suddenly stopping in front of them. Plan how you are going to approach the water station (and any walking breaks) and pay attention to what other runners around you are doing – if they are grabbing the cup while running, then you will need to do the same; you can walk if you need to after you get clear of the water station and aren’t in a place where you will be blocking anyone’s progress by walking. It’s like switching lanes while driving; make sure the person behind you isn’t going to rear-end you if you move over and/or stop suddenly. Again, if you are doing a run/walk thing, there shouldn’t be much chaos around the water station. If you are worried about it, and think you’ll be out there long enough to need some water, you can always just carry a bottle with you. Also, if you wear headphones, keep the volume low (or keep one earbud out) so that you can hear other runners. In my opinion, especially in a first race, it’s best not to use them at all. You don’t need the extra distraction.

At the finish line. Pretty much already covered above. If they are using a chip system, you might have to stop and give back the chip. Most use disposable chips now, though, which is the simplest of all. You just cross the finish line, do a cartwheel (if you want) and go get some post race bagels and bananas. Follow the instructions from the volunteers at the finish and all will go smoothly. Usually you can find out what scoring system they are using before you even start the race. In any case, just don’t hang around right at the finish line so there is room for others to cross the line.

That was kind of long, but in summary (1) get there early, (2) pin number to the front and, if used, make sure you have the timing chip, (3) line up in the right spot, (4) pay attention and don’t stop suddenly or cut off other runners, and (5) follow the instructions at the finish line. Also, be sure to thank the volunteers. Pretty simple, really.

Have a great race!

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Reader Question: How could I improve my weight and endurance?

Comrades Wall South Africa 2010

 

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I’m a runner. How could I improve my weight and endurance?

I’m 34 years old and running 50 miles per week; I’m training for my next marathon and my weight is 52 kg (117 pounds approx ) and my Fat index is 4.3% (athletic measure option), 10.5% (normal measure option). [asked on Quora]

 

I’m not sure what you mean by “improve my weight”. Most of the time when people say that, they mean they want to lose weight, but at 117 lbs with low body fat, I don’t think that is what you are asking.

You don’t say how tall you are or what gender; I’m assuming you are male with a body fat percentage that low; if you are female then you have a whole other conversation about healthy body fat percentage you need to have with your doctor and perhaps a registered dietitian. 

 

Either way, you could benefit from getting a more accurate estimate of your body composition (I’m assuming you used bioelectrical impedance or a similar consumer grade device). You can have this done at most university exercise physiology labs for a small fee.

This would give you a better idea if you have any room to drop a little bit of weight to improve your performance; keep in mind that about 4% is essential body fat for a man. Go lower than that and you will be sick and hurt; even at 4 – 5% you might have problems, but it is an individual thing. Some thin runners perform better by gaining a bit of weight (eating more) because they have more energy to put into their training and recovery. If you find you are 10% or higher, you could consider bringing it down slightly (again, if male). With the wide estimate range you have now, I don’t recommend trying to lose any weight. A female with body fat in that range would almost assuredly perform better by eating more and increasing body fat.

Improving endurance is a matter of proper training. For most non-elite runners, 50 mpw is a good amount given all the other demands of life. If you can swing it, at some point in your training you can try some higher mileage weeks in which you reduce intensity. For example, go up to 60 – 70 miles every few weeks, but cut back on the tempo, reps, or intervals you would have done that week. That’s pretty general; best thing to do is find a good training plan that fits your current fitness level and the amount of time you have until the marathon. You improve endurance and speed-endurance (ability to hold a “fast” pace) with a proper combination of running volume and intensity – more miles plus tempo, interval, and rep work at the right pace, etc. 

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Reader Questions: “My first mile ever: 6:35; how does that compare to first timers? Any Potential?”

Comrades Wall South Africa 2010

 

 

 

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My first mile ever: 6:35; how does that rank or compare to first timers? Any Potential? 

I am a 15-year old boy who just started running 1 week ago because some of my friends run for fun, so I thought I should get into running too. I decided to look up “running tips” (etc.) Then I downloaded a running app, and decided to run my first full mile today .

 

I don’t have a specific reference for how that ranks, but subjectively it looks very good for an essentially untrained 15 year old. I’m saying “untrained” in terms of only participating in running formally for one week, since I don’t know what other activities you participate in. If you’ve been playing soccer as a midfielder, for example, then I expect you would be in pretty good condition to run a fast mile time.  That’s something to take into account, but in any case just consider this your baseline fitness level for running.

 

Not to sound like a Zen master, but potential is an interesting and elusive thing; you can never really know what your potential is, you can only do the best you can to maximize your chances of reaching it. I once gave a guest lecture in a sport psychology class at a Pac-12 school that had many athletes in it, and started by asking everyone to rank how close they thought they were to reaching their potential in their chosen endeavor (however they wanted to define that). Some of the athletes were already conference champions and NCAA All-Americans. As expected, many of the regular (non-athlete) students thought they were pretty close to reaching their potential, while many of the athletes – thinking about their sport – did not. There was more of an expectation in the athletes that they could continue to improve for years to come, and perhaps an awareness that once you think you have reached your potential, you stop trying.

 

You also won’t find too many of us old timers looking back and saying we reached our potential. We always think we could have run a lot faster, and usually lament “if I only knew then what I know now”. Especially true in my case, give the number and severity of the mistakes I made (read about them further down on the blog if interested). I think it would be a mistake to try to predict your potential mile time at this point; just set realistic short term goals and reset those as you surpass each one. For a long term goal at this point, the sky is the limit. It’s okay to dream big; you can refine those dreams as you go along (again, see my running story on the blog for examples).

 

Some young men in your position will go on to become champions, and some will not, but if you train you will get better. As always, if you are in the US I suspect your high school has a track team, and if so you should join it. It’s pretty late in the season, but hopefully the coach will let you join or at least train with the team. In the fall, join the cross country team. (In other countries, there are usually track (athletics) clubs you can join so that you can get coaching.)

 

I always encourage any young person just getting into running not to specialize right away; try a lot of different events (even if just in practice); run the 100m and 200m dashes to test your speed, run the 400m and 800m to see what kind of baseline speed-endurance you have, maybe even try some field events (under the coach’s supervision for safety).  Remember you can improve at nearly anything if you properly train, so once you find your best event(s) with the help of your coach, you can then start to specialize. The training for short sprints is vastly different than training for the 800 – 3200 or cross country, but it’s okay to mix it up for a while. Track is a team sport, so depending on your talents and the needs of the team, you could find yourself doing more than one event at meets eventually. A lot of distance runners will do two or all three distance runs (800, 1600, 3200) in a given meet, and some might even run on the 4 x 400 relay or do a field event (I knew a few back when I was in high school that even did the pole vault or high jump – they were just good enough to earn a few team points.)

 

If you are not interested at this point in joining the team, you will still get faster just from getting more fit. This is the really fun stage of running because the window for improvement is so large and often new runners are able to take large chunks off their personal bests (PB) for a long time. In the case of a 15 year old, you will be both physically maturing and getting fitter from training, which will have a synergistic effect. Just be prepared for that to eventually slow down; at first you might be getting 30 – 45 second PBs, but at some point you will reach a plateau, and that’s when the training has to get more serious and specific. It will eventually become hard just to take a second or two off your mile time, plus realize that improvement is not linear – some races will be slower than your PB, and that’s okay. No one runs a PB every race (at least not after the first few months).

 

I suggest you pick up a copy of the book Daniel’s Running Formula; it has very good explanations of what type of training one should be doing for each distance running event. Even if you join the team, it is helpful to understand the purpose of each type of workout your coach will have you doing.

 

Most of all, just have fun running with your friends.

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