Smart Marathon Training–Durability: Art Or Science?

Early spring trail conditions can be a little treacherous when welcomed warmer temperatures melt a winter's worth of snow. Photo: www.shutterstock.com

“If I accepted conventional wisdom about my limitations, I’d never have found out what I was truly capable of.”

There are two kinds of long-distance runners: the kind who admit to having been injured and the kind who don’t. I didn’t bother to deny anything; I ended up with my fair share of injuries. In fact, much of my knowledge of physiology is rooted in having to learn about a part of my body after hurting it. But all of these injuries were transitory. Everything healed sooner or later, especially after I’d analyzed why I’d gotten hurt in the first place and made the necessary adjustments to keep it from happening again.

And now, with over a quarter century of road racing behind me, including 150 marathons and ultramarathons, my bones are as solid and strong as ever. These days, no one predicts that my body will fall apart. I’ve been doing this for too long for anyone to dispute that it can safely be done.

Instead of predicting doom, people wanted to know, how did I manage to stay healthy and whole while doing all this running?

I wondered that myself.

The numbers seem daunting: Every marathon involves something on the order of 40,000 steps to complete, and every step puts up to four times my body weight of 155 pounds on each foot. The totals are frightening: My 150 marathons alone—not counting all of my training runs and other races— have required me to take about 6 million steps, inflicting a total of 3.72 trillion pounds of pressure on my feet, knees, hips, and back.

How could my body possibly take all of that pounding?

People insisted that I was superhuman. I liked to think so, but my wife would have disagreed, and she’d have been right. But I will grant myself this: I’m fairly unusual. You won’t meet too many people who have run as many long-distance races as I have, for as many years as I have. I’ve managed to do it all without having any great gifts as a runner. Even if I’d focused my training on getting as fast as possible, I never would have become an elite racer; I just never showed that spark of quickness that could have been fanned into great speed. And my consistency as a runner—my strongest characteristic as an athlete—isn’t record-setting, either. I’m not even among the top 10 most prolific marathoners alive today, and the world record for the most lifetime marathons run is more than 10 times what I’ve achieved.

But I have raced a lot, more than most of the serious runners out there and far more than any doctor would say should be humanly possible. Every orthopedist I’ve ever spoken to has warned me about how bad my running routine is for me and about how my body must surely be on the verge of collapse.

Once, for example, I went to see an orthopedist shortly after running several marathons and a 50-mile ultramarathon within a few weeks. I was experiencing hip pain, and even though common sense told me that I was probably just sore and tired, it was a new ache, and I thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get the ache checked out.

After the appointment, I wasn’t so sure of that.

The orthopedist examined me and pronounced my hip shot. “Your marathoning days are over,” he said. I explained that the problem felt more muscular than skeletal, but he insisted. Who was I to tell a doctor that he was wrong?

Here I was again: Your bones will turn to dust. After listening to this orthopedist long enough, I began to wonder how I’d actually managed to run a marathon at all because he made it seem so utterly impossible. But I had to keep in mind that the only runners most orthopedists meet are the ones who come to their clinics with battered bodies; the healthy ones never stop by to say hi. If an orthopedist sees only hurt runners, maybe he comes to believe that all running hurts.

I also considered how happy the doctors all seemed when they reviewed my overall health profile. They were quick to point out how all my numbers were in the normal range or better, sometimes much better. How did they think this came about? Magic and wishful thinking? If running were so bad for me, how had it managed to make me so healthy?

I decided to prove the doctor—and all doctors like him—wrong. My hip didn’t feel like it was about to collapse, and I wasn’t about to give up running without a fight. Yes, there are times when injuries and other limitations cannot be overcome by sheer determination. But as a rule of thumb, I’d rather assume that I can do something and be proved wrong than to not even try. If I accepted conventional wisdom about my limitations, I’d never have found out what I was truly capable of. So after resting up and then getting back into my fitness routine, I returned to marathoning and ran several more ultras as well.

This article was adapted from the new book Smart Marathon Training with the permission of VeloPress. This innovative program eliminates junk miles, paring down training to three essential runs per week and adding a dynamic strength and cross-training program to build overall fitness. Runners will train for their best performance in less time and avoid the injuries, overtraining, and burnout that come from running too much. Download a free sample and preview the book at velopress.com.

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About The Author:

Jeff Horowitz is a certified running and triathlon coach and a personal trainer who has run more than 150 marathons across six continents. Formerly an attorney, he quit law to pursue his passion for endurance sport and now works with DC Tri; The Nations Triathlon; the nonprofit summer camp ACHIEVE Kids Triathlon; and Team Hope, a charity fund-raising training group that benefits the Hope Connections Center, a cancer-patients service organization. Learn more about Jeff at smartmarathontraining.com.

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