Burning Runner: A Year’s Worth Of Lessons Learned

Week 13: T.J.’s tackled his fair share of training and nutritional challenges in the last 12 months.

Written by: T.J. Murphy

This coming Sunday I’ll be running the Dodge Rock ‘n’ Roll Los Angeles Half Marathon. It coincides with the approximate one-year anniversary of my reentry into being a runner. Twelve months ago I was still limping around with off-again/on-again back problems, my weight broke the 200-lb barrier and running 13 consecutive miles was beyond me.

Looking back over the year I can tell you it was far from a perfect ride. I was consistent with my training from November of 2009 through spring of this year, but in June I stumbled, missed workouts, races and lost fitness. I fell into the black hole of runner guilt—that mixture of self-loathing with fear that everything I’d worked for was immediately lost. In knowing runners and being one for many years, this is a common trap, one that can fully derail a program.

I’m not sure how much fitness I did or didn’t lose, but in mid-July, when I committed myself to losing excess weight while preparing for a half marathon in early December, perhaps the smartest thing I did all year was give myself a reality check. While I didn’t check off any running goals in June and July, it wasn’t like I missed the Olympics. No, I simply missed a couple of local 10Ks.  I recalled that being a runner is always going to have challenges, and no matter how good you are that’s part of the deal. The worst thing one can do is to let the frustration and self-recrimination trick you into trading in your running shoes for a 12-pack and more TV time.

In the end, my June downslide had a positive effect. It pressured me into looking at my overall running program and searching for deficiencies. The two I decided to target were diet and core-body strength. The frustration of June became the psychological fuel of July.

A few key lessons I picked up:

  1. When it comes to establishing a healthy diet, be suspicious of beliefs like, “I’d kill myself if I couldn’t drink coffee,” or “Life is not living without Doritos.” I followed the advice of several endurance-sports diet gurus who showed me that by getting organized and ahead in the game of shopping for and preparing good, healthy food, and making that your primary source of calories, the desire for junk food melts away.
  2. Pay attention to how you feel after you eat something. Compare how you feel immediately after between an angel breakfast (say oatmeal with fruit and almonds) and a devil breakfast (coffee and a cream Danish) and how your energy and mood levels swing in the hours after. I personally found that the good, healthy meals can become addictive in their own right when you pay attention to these responses.
  3. Core-body work isn’t about rock-hard abs—it’s about injury prevention and running efficiency. Like overhauling my diet, my personal experience with embracing a core-body strength program is that it has taken the pressure off of my knees when I run. I’ve read this advice for years but never gave it a serious try. I can mark this down as a regret. Proper strength work has other advantages as well: improving recovery and running efficiency.

I was thinking about all this recently because at the tail end of three weeks of traveling for work I missed a couple of days. I could feel the gravitational pull of self-hatred that can plague the runner when he or she gets off schedule. The antidote?  Let it go, pull on the running shoes and enjoy the sport.

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T.J. Murphy is a contributing editor to Competitor and the Editorial Director of Triathlete and Inside Triathlon magazines. Previous installments of his Burning Runner column can be read here. He can be reached by e-mail at burningrunner@gmail.com.

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