Thursday, January 10, 2008

Vince's Top Ten Running Mistakes - Redux

It's that time of the year...  A new Spring Marathon Clinic...

After some thought I realized the best advice I could give to new runners was not to repeat the mistakes I have painstakingly and painfully made.

Here it is then...

Vince’s Top Ten Running Mistakes Over the Years

And when I say Vince’s Top Ten running mistakes, I absolutely positively mean that literally. 

These are the top ten mistakes I have made while training for Half Marathons, Marathons and Ultra Marathons.

1. Pacing, Pacing and Pacing

The top three mistakes that I made as a new endurance runner all had to do with Pacing. I will explain…


A Training Program for an endurance runner is made up of at least three different components, Endurance, Speed and Strength (hills and intervals), and Stamina (race pace). All three training components in a training regimen require specific and very different pacing in order to be successful. The pacing for each component requires a runner to aim for a very specific Heart Rate Target Zone.

The first mistake that I made and that many other new runners, and even the more experienced runners make, is that they do not go slow enough. In fact, this is by far the most common mistake endurance runners make, both old and new, and you don’t have to take my word for it. 

Even the experts, like Rob Sleamaker and Ray Browning, authors of SERIOUS Training for Endurance Athletes, agree on this one – “Many athletes have the tendency to train at medium to high intensity all the time, never allowing their bodies to rest, recover and catch up from the rigorous training they do on others days. …the natural tendency for the hardheaded overachiever is to think if some is good, then farther and faster must be better.”

The paradox for endurance runners is this - in order to build the all important endurance component of your training program - “Before you can run fast, first you must run slow”. And slow literally means slow, generally no more than 65% of your maximum heart rate and preferably 55-60% and certainly NEVER over 70%. If your maximum heart rate is 200, that means your heart rate during your endurance runs should be no more than 120-130 beats per minute and you should never get over 140! For some people this pace will feel like walking!

(Don’t know your maximum heart rate? A rough rule of thumb is 220 minus your age, but that is only a ball park figure. And I am getting ahead of myself)

The rule of thumb in regards to pace - without a heart rate monitor - is that you should be able to carry on a conversation and speak full sentences without needing to pause to catch your breath. If you can’t carry on a conversation you are going too fast!

In terms of training volume, the endurance component takes up to 80%, that’s right, 80% of the running that you do. In this program, the Sunday endurance run serves several purposes, one is to get your body used to the idea of the time and distance required to cover a half or full marathon. The other is to bring about the actual physiological changes in your body and your metabolism that will transform you into an endurance athlete. 

When you run at 65% of your maximum heart rate or lower for an extended period of time, a series of extraordinary changes will take place in your body. Your cells will increase the actual number of mitochondria (your cellular power generators) present within the cells by as much as 100%, effectively doubling their ability to burn fuel. At 60% effort your body will increase the number of capillaries in your cardiovascular system by as much as 40%. This will allow you greater delivery of oxygen to your muscles and an increased capacity to get rid of waste products produced while you are running. One of the best ways to spot a long time endurance athlete is to check their vascularity (veins, baby, veins!). At 60% effort your body will increase its ability to consume oxygen (Max VO2). At 60% effort your body will burn 5% glycogen and 95% body fat as a fuel source. As you increase your effort, your body rapidly switches from burning body fat to burning glycogen. As an endurance athlete you want to increase your bodies ability to utilize fat as a source of fuel because of simple arithmetic. Most of us only have the ability to carry less than two hours of fuel for running in the form of glycogen - stored in our blood and in our livers. If our bodies are utilizing our body fat as we run, within reason you can run indefinitely! 

Once you are running past 70% effort you have effectively negated all these aspects of your endurance training.

The other consequence of going too fast during endurance runs is the old domino theory. The rule of thumb is that for endurance athletes it takes approximately one day to recover from every mile run at race pace. In our program we follow every endurance run with a recovery day. That day is followed by a strength or hill workout. If you run too fast during an endurance run, particularly when your weekly mileage is getting up there, you will not be recovered in time to get the maximum benefits from the other components of your training program. Just like falling dominoes, going too fast on an endurance run negates the benefits of the endurance run, which prolongs your recovery, which negates the benefits of the other training runs during the week…

So by running too fast during the endurance run, you effectively become a slower runner! Remember, “Before you can run fast, first you must run slow”

I used to do my endurance runs at 70-75% effort and beyond. Before I got a heart rate monitor I had no way of knowing exactly what my level of effort was. In addition, I was close to forty AND I was overweight. The consequence of this approach to my training was that I trained for two marathons where I did not even reach the start line because of injuries brought about by overtraining. I did not start and finish my first marathon until someone gave me a heart rate monitor for Christmas.

As you run more half and full marathons you will begin to look at the results. Did you make your goal time? Did you finish with a negative split (the second half of the race slightly faster than the first half)? Did you feel strong all the way through the race? Bonking, or hitting the wall three quarters of the way through a race is usually indicative of two things – going out too fast in the beginning and not properly pacing yourself, or your endurance training was inadequate to prepare you for the full distance of the race.


Typically hill and interval training only make up 10% (imagine that!) of an endurance athletes training volume. But what a ten percent it is. Once again, for new endurance athletes, knowing the level of effort or the pacing they should be at can be a problem. Hill workouts and intervals are short one, two and three minute spurts of hard effort that are followed by a period of recovery and then we repeat the process until nauseous (just kidding, but not really). The idea is to stress your body and recover and then stress it again. Over time you should become progressively stronger and faster. The rule of thumb in terms of effort is that you should not be able to speak without have to pause to catch your breath – gasp- between – gasp – words. If you can carry on a pleasant conversation during hill training you are not running hard enough.

Typically, by the end of a hill or speed work out, you should be seeing 90-95% of your maximum heart rate. 

During tempo runs training, which is a sustained effort for 30-35 minutes just below your lactate threshold (where your body switches from aerobic to anaerobic) your heart will be somewhere between 78 – 85% of your maximum.

Many beginning endurance runners find it difficult to give their best efforts during hill and speed workouts because they are often struggling to fully recover from going too fast during their endurance runs.

The only way to get stronger and faster during speed and hill workouts is to push the limits of your ability. That stress will cause your body to get stronger during the recovery and rest phase of your training. Stress and recovery, stress and recovery. Each week you get a little bit faster and a little bit stronger. 

This is the component of your training where faster is better, but it must be controlled speed.

I was never able to get the full benefits out of my hill training until I started going slower in my endurance runs. Before that, I was often too tired and I would need two or even three days to recover instead of just a single day.

The advantage of having a heart rate monitor is that on those days where I don’t feel a hundred percent my monitor will tell me that I have a little bit more to give…


Learning to run at race pace. Boy is that a mouthful! After nine marathons I am still struggling to learn to find a pace that I can carry through an entire 10K, Half Marathon, Marathon and Ultra Marathon. How fast is fast enough? Less important if you are running to finish, but crucial if you are trying to make a time.

This is the great thing about endurance running. Half Marathons and beyond are about the careful management of scarce physical resources.

Ideally, you want to cross the finish line with nothing left in your gas tank. The flip side of that is that you don’t want to be stuck by the side of the road a mile from the finish line sucking on fumes!

Research in the USA showed that 65% of the runners said that they would run the marathon faster than they really did, and worse, 15% of the first time marathoners and 8% of the second time marathoners made a mistake of more than one hour. On the other hand, experienced runners can predict their marathon time to within a few minutes. One of the best places to go to find out what pace is realistic for you –

Out of nine marathons I have run three negative splits and bonked three times, the other three marathon, two of them I was in combat boots and a kilt and in the third I was recovering from a broken ankle.

Although I bonked in my last marathon I have run three personal bests in a row.


Feel the love of the pack. Being a Pace Group Leader is a lot more difficult that it looks. No, really! Help your Pace Group Leader make the runs an enjoyable experience for everyone.

You should NEVER be in front of a Pace Group Leader. It’s simply bad manners. And it throws off the pace of the entire group and the Pace Group Leader. If you feel really strong one day, be disciplined. Save it for your next speed workout.

Other training runs are different. During hill and speed workouts, get outside your comfort zone. These are training days when you can - “Lets the dogs out to run!” Feel the need for speed? Run hard. Then run harder!

When running with a Pace Group it’s important to remember that you are there to reap the benefits and rewards of running with a group. Just like there is no “I” in Team, there should be no individual goals in a Sunday Endurance run. Sunday morning is like going to church. Be on your best behavior. There will days when you feel awful where you will be grateful for the support and love of the pack.

Nor should you be crowding the front of the pack or the sidewalk. 

Don’t forget to remember that we share our running routes with others. Be a good citizen. Be polite and others will be polite to us.

Keep an eye out for dogs, bicycles, obstacles and especially older pedestrians. Suddenly have a pack of sweaty, crazed lumbering runners appear out of nowhere can be frightening experience.

It took me a couple of clinics and being a Pace Group Leader myself before I realized just how difficult it is to maintain a steady pace.


Simple, straightforward, and easy to do. Any run longer than 10K and you should have a water belt. This is not rocket science.

In hot weather, running without water can be dangerous. And yet every clinic I see people without water on long runs who tell me that they “never” run with water. You can’t always count on water fountains, and unlike the race, there will not be volunteers handing out Dixie cups along the training runs.

Confession – See #6


Once are approaching the two hour mark in your training runs your body is reaching the end of its glycogen reserves. 

And even when your body is mostly burning body fat as fuel it needs glycogen to metabolize body fat. Think of glycogen as the pilot light that allows your body’s furnace to burn fat. It is absolutely critical to maintain your glycogen levels and crucial to your success in your training runs and your races.

I know most Gels and many electrolytes taste terrible. Use your training to find the most palatable ones you can stomach. Try cutting up Power Bars into mouth size bites.

It will take time for your body to get used to Gels, so do it in training and not in your race. You need to start “gel-ing” before the first hour is up and every forty minutes after that. You can also mix gels with water and take a small mouthful at every walk break.

Confession – I did my first 32K run without a water bottle, no Gels and no electrolytes. And I did it in 3:02. I ran the last 10K with water in a cup from Starbucks. Neil Wakeline took pity on me and bought me a power bar and a Gatorade at a gas station. I never did THAT again! Plus, it took me almost two weeks to recover from what SHOULD have been a training run.


You will feel much, much better and certainly stronger if you eat 400-500 calories of complex carbs before a long run. I notice better training results if I eat two hours before every run.

Training is the time to find the foods that agree with you before a run and is preparation for your meal before your race.

Because of the volume of training in doing a half and a full marathon, it is not a bad idea to keep track of your protein consumption.

Food is just as important as rest for recovery.

Confession – I have run 32K without breakfast and after having had two and a half bottles of red wine the night before. Not recommended.


The best way to maintain your running form and technique in the latter stages of a race is to have an upper body and a core that is as fit as your legs and your lungs and your heart.

Strengthening your core can help alleviate some injuries, and lessen your chances of getting injured.

Cross training is also a way to use different muscles and not burn yourself out with too many miles of exclusively running.

But you can go overboard. In one marathon clinic I became obsessed with hill training. I did the Grouse Grind every Saturday before the long run on Sunday. Yes, this was a prelude to one of the marathons where I bonked.

And four weeks before your race, concentrate on running and taper off your cross training. (Yes, I have made the mistake of cross training right up until the week of a marathon….)


Recover, recover, recover. Rest, rest, rest! 

Resting and recovering are training days. You must allow your body to recover from the stress of training. You are not being lazy by taking a day off. Your body is rebuilding itself, getting stronger and faster. That means that rest days are for resting, not junk miles and certainly not other vigorous forms of cross-training.

Rough rule of thumb. You may need an additional recovery day in your training schedule for every decade you are over forty.

If you are feeling run down, do not be afraid to take a day off.

Do not think you can run through an injury.

Do not be afraid to drop down a pace group or two if you are injured or tired. Your body is trying to tell you something. Listen to it. YOU WILL NOT LOSE ANY TRAINING BENEFITS BY DOING AN ENDURANCE RUN A HALF AN HOUR SLOWER OR EVEN AN HOUR SLOWER THAN YOU WOULD USUALLY!


Don’t miss the forest because all you can see are the trees. 

We are incredibly blessed to be able to run and to be able to run in Vancouver.

I really do consider my Sunday morning runs as going to Church. It is about as devout as I am ever going to get.

In your running and racing, try not to get obsessed with time. Goals are laudable and important to have. But don’t let them take over your life or overshadow your other achievements.

My first marathon was in Vancouver in the Spring of 2002. My goal was to beat four hours because I'd heard that Oprah Winfrey had run HER first marathon in four hours. I was gutted when I staggered across the finish in 4:06:09. (don’t get me started on the line-ups for the Porta Potties or the lady who took five freakin’ minutes to do her business!)

I thought I'd been beaten by Oprah, and foolishly, I allowed the thrill of finishing my first marathon to be diminished by missing my time goal by a mere six minutes and nine seconds.

About three weeks later a friend of mine had rightly had enough and said, “Vince, you just ran a marathon.” Like I said earlier, I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer and it was only then that it dawned on me that finishing a marathon at all was not a bad achievement in and of itself.

I didn't realize JUST how foolish I’d been until nearly a year later, when bitterly whining to a running buddy, who filled me in correctly, that Oprah had actually run her marathon in 4:29:20, which is still quite a feat.


I have to add this final comment. Technically, it doesn’t fall under the category of making a mistake, but I think you’re crazy if you don’t do it.

Training for a half or full marathon is going to consume at least 16 weeks of your life, untold hours of time, and you are going to spend several hundreds of dollars on runners, spandex, lycra and other technical gear, gels, water bottles, entry fees and other assorted goodies that you can not ever imagine running a race without. If you become a lifestyle runner and do this year in and year out you will spend thousands and thousands of dollars on your obsession.

BUY A HEART RATE MONITOR! It will be the single best investment you ever make in your running endeavors.



Anonymous Frenchie Lamourfou said...

Looking forward to May when you drag me over the finish line :-).

Your the best Vince not matter what people say!!!!!!!

10:50:00 AM  
Blogger Ovens2Betsy said...

Fabulous advice Vince! Just ran the Goofy Challenge and I broke your No. 1 cardinal rule (went WAY too fast in the half. Although I finished the full, my legs were dog-tired starting at mile 8). Live and learn.

7:53:00 PM  

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