New Years Resolutions: Welcome to Running. Part 1

Dr. Hartenburg and his cousin at the start of a 33 mile run in the Grand Canyon

Resolution season is in full swing and the weather is unseasonably warm for January which means I have seen more people on the running trails than I usually see this time of year. My Saturday morning run was the inspiration for this series of blog posts.

This winter reminds me of the fall and winter of 2012.

That year, Dr. Anna and myself signed up for the Red Rock Canyon half marathon in Las Vegas. One of the most scenic, yet challenging half marathons in the country (so scenic, in fact, that we ended up getting married at Red Rock Canyon the following year). We signed up for the race in October and dedicated ourselves to training during the winter regardless of the cold weather that was sure to come. Good news was that the cold miserable weather never came! It was a gloriously mild winter that year and allowed us to train through December, January, and February. So far, this winter has been much the same and as a result we are seeing far more people along old plank trail and the numerous forest preserves in the area out running. We love seeing this, after all, our slogan is live life, be active, be well.

As we all know, New Years resolutions have a tendency to drop off. This post aims to prevent some of that drop off for the 7-8 people that click our links and read these articles.

Caveat: this series will not be an exhaustive review of the scientific literature, nor will it be an attempt to provide you with a running program. This will merely be an anecdotal account of methods I have used to keep myself motivated to run beyond the point where the endorphin rush of the new year has worn off and I have lost all motivation. This post is not for the intermediate or advanced runners. This is for the person who just hit the road and trail for the first time and wants to avoid the staleness and boredom that often comes with running.

I have not been blessed with the body of a runner. I am 5’10 and 200 pounds, with legs that are meant to pick things up and move them and a torso that is built more in the shape of a 55 gallon drum than an elite runner. I am also unwilling to compromise the strength that I have built during the years in favor of running a 3:15 marathon. I have come to terms with this. Over the years I have learned how to adapt my training methodologies to reflect this lack of genetic running potential. Experience has taught me that because an elite runner can put in “x” amount of miles each week in preparation for a 5K, 10K, half, or full marathon, that doesn’t mean that I am able to do the same.

I first started running when I was 21 years old (that was when I started running beyond that of a means of being in shape and started signing up for the occasional race). I was in college, eating a poor diet, enjoying my Friday and Saturday nights on the town, and had found myself a whopping 250 pounds with 26% body fat (I’ll never forget those numbers). This doesn’t bode well when your primary sport is rugby which requires fantastic endurance and stamina to last through an 80 minute game and a 12-14 game season. I had to get in shape. That was the first time I jumped into a marathon. In hindsight, knowing what I know now, there are far better ways to get into shape for rugby, but running is what people typically default to due to its accessibility and ease of entrance (all you need are shoes and some motivation, right?). I’ll keep the rest of the history short. In the 14 years that have passed since I first endeavored into the sport I have learned that it has always been one of the biggest bang for your buck means of aerobic and anaerobic fitness out there, and despite forays into other means and methodologies of training, I have always found myself coming back to running at least 2-3 days per week and this past fall completed my first ultra distance run of 33 miles in the grand canyon with about 12,000 feet of vertical gain.

First, some of you may be thinking “wait a second, didn’t you tell me running was bad?” I don’t consider running to be bad, if you are running correctly and addressing good biomechanics and approaching it like an athletic endeavor rather than just pounding out miles. Running is very accessible, which leads to problems in that we think we can just head out to the road and trail and start running without regards to form. After all, we all learned how to run at an early age right? How hard can it be to pick it up as adults? Keep your eyes pealed to our events calendar as I will be doing a running form workshop at some point this year. “Wait a second, isn’t excessive running bad for you?” What is excessive? Excessive is very subjective. What is excessive for me might be a warm up for Scott Jurek. What makes running dangerous is lack of recovery. Yes, recovery is also subjective, but it’s where most people’s issues with running stem from. For example, if your schedule is so hectic that the only chance you get in a day to run is at 4 in the morning, and you are sacrificing sleep to get in your 4-5 days of running per week, then it is very possible that those runs are doing more harm than good. If you’re regularly burning through an additional 1000 calories a day from running and you’re not eating enough to sustain that amount of training (usually in order to lose weight), you will find yourself in a world of hurt. If this describes you, come talk to me in the office and I will give you a little more guidance on how to approach this in a safe manner.

Now, how can you keep running fresh and fun so that you don’t wind up another New Years resolution statistic? One word: progression. Being a beginner and embracing the mindset of a beginner is where the magic happens. This early stage is when you will see the most rapid improvements and begin to lay the foundation (good or bad) for future training. When you start off the right way and begin to see progress in your abilities and fitness, you will start to catch the bug that so many others have caught. Where to begin?

One method that I have been utilizing for the past 6 months is the MAF method. MAF stands for maximum aerobic function, and was developed by Dr. Phil Maffetone. This method is relatively simple, however for a more detailed accounting of this method head to this link and read more for yourself.

Buy a heart rate monitor (I use the Polar H7 monitor) and start wearing it on your runs. Gauge your heart rate during the run. The MAF method recommends taking the number 180 and subtracting your age (146 for me). That is your max training heart rate. If you are brand new to training, subtract an additional 5 (141 in my case). If you are a crafty veteran of the running world and have been constantly training upwards of 5 years you add 5 to the number (151 for me). This number is your magic number. Let’s say you go for a run, 5 minutes into the run you look at your HR watch and see the number is far exceeding your magic number. Slow your run down to a walk until the HR recovers. Do not allow your HR to exceed the prescribed number even if that means walking more than you would like to. By doing this, you will be increasing the amount of work capacity you can perform at a given heart rate. This was incredibly frustrating for my ego when I first started following this method. At the time I was capable of running a low 6 minute mile pace for 1-2 miles and able to hold a low 7 minute pace for 5 miles, but I never paid attention to heart rate. When I first put the HR monitor on I was unable to maintain even a ten minute mile pace at distances greater than 8-10 miles without my heart rate exceeding my magic number. My first 15 mile run at a heart rate of 151 BPM was at an 11 minute per mile pace because I had to stop and walk so often. Last week I ran 10 miles at the same heart rate and was able to maintain an 8:35 minute per mile pace. That is progression, and progression is what keeps me motivated. (Don’t you want to see how many metrics you can improve in?)

Now, when I conduct tempo runs and I’m pushing my pace back into the 6 minute per mile range I am able to maintain that pace for far longer at a lower heart rate which will lend itself to faster times and greater work capacity. Not to mention, I am training my body to utilize fat as an energy source rather than being completely reliant upon carbohydrates, and increased aerobic capacity lends itself to improved recovery in between runs which is important for a 34-35 year old male who is trying to stay at the top of his game.

While the MAF method isn’t perfect, and not meant for everyone, it is a fantastic starting point for those of you who are jumping into the running world as a means of getting fit. Just because I am focused on aerobic at the moment doesn’t mean I have turned my back on the high intensity world I have become so accustomed to. High intensity is everywhere these days and is a fantastic training domain for a lot of people, but because this is America and we are a nation of polar extremes in fitness and nutrition, many people including myself have abandoned aerobic training for high intensity and/or have gone all in on aerobic and forgot to balance intensity. More on that in the next article in the series.

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