Guest Post: Cross Training For Improved Marathon Times

This is a guest post from my friend and fellow Tralee Tri Club member Den McCarthy, on how cross-training and Strength and Conditioning has helped his marathon times. Check out Den’s blog There Will Be Hills.

Firstly, thank you Randall for the opportunity to give my take on marathon running and how cross training with the Tralee Triathlon club has impacted on my times. Now, this is an ongoing process that, I hope will yield a big success, at the Berlin Marathon in September 2016.

So, who am I?
And what qualifies me to give this advice?

To answer the second question first, nothing! I am a very ordinary runner. It really is a case of what works for me and what doesn’t. I will give you some background to my running and what I have learned and changed over the course of my 8 Marathons.

So, two and a half years ago, at the age of 47, I had quite a change in my personal life and was urged by my younger brother, Brendan, to get back into running. Back in the 80’s, during the great running boom, I took part in many 10k races with my dad. But this fell by the wayside after college, with work and family taking priority. My current job entails spending quite a bit of time on the road so I always had the excuse that I didn’t have the time to train.

In June 2013, I was fortunate to read about Born To Run, (right here in Tralee) and after meeting Marcus Howlett, I signed up for the training program for the Rose 10k in August of that year. A wise move, as it opened the door to a wide circle of friends, who were all quite new to this running lark.

Never in my wildest dreams did I ever consider running a full marathon, but, shortly after finishing my first 10k, I took the plunge. Part of me wanted to rediscover my youth – and get back to near my times for the 10k runs from yesteryear – and another part wanted to finish a marathon with my brother. Now, Brendan was a veteran of a number of marathons at this stage, with times around 3 hours 30 minutes. There was my target!
He told me that it would take me five or six marathons to discover how to run them correctly and added that I would learn a great deal about myself when I complete my first one. How right he was!
I threw myself into the training, with gusto, and discovered a strength in my legs from all those years ago. Muscle memory is a great thing. I completed my first marathon in March 2014 with a time of 4 hours 10 minutes – shattered, after hitting the wall and over hydrating.   What a wonderful feeling though – to finish a 26.2 mile run. I was hungry for more.
I signed up for Dublin in October 2014 but after a summer blighted with injury and tendonitis, I discovered I was running all wrong!! After one visit to the Tralee Physiotherapy Clinic, my problems were sorted. All I had to do was retrain myself on how to run, by reducing my stride and increasing my cadence. I broke four hours in Dublin but blistered very badly. Through the winter, I continued working on my running form and did my second marathon in Tralee in 3 hours 47 minutes. This time, I had the benefit of getting my feet taped.

Den 1
Crossing the line at the 2014 Tralee International Marathon

In July 2015, while running a marathon in Courtmacsherry, as part in the Keith Whyte Waterfront Ultra Marathon, I was fortunate to fall into step with a seasoned runner. His advice was on Long Slow Runs, with the emphasis on ‘Slow’. All my previous long runs were pretty much at marathon pace. This resulted in my feet being constantly in need of repair and also, I was tired when it came to marathon day.
With the Berlin Marathon coming at the end of September, I was on a different training plan to my friends in Born To Run, so I did quite a bit of solo running. On the advice of a friend, I added walking barefooted on the beach, some cycling and hillwalking to my training regime.

This brings me to Berlin 2015 – my sixth marathon. Had I learned enough?
To summarise, I messed up with nutrition and hydration in my first two – and hit the wall.
Dublin taught me not to put Vaseline on my feet, if you are not used to using it.
Tralee II, with a new running form, had me singing the praises of chiropody felt and also that sweet potato is excellent for nutrition.
Courtmacsherry gave me the benefit of slowing down and that rest is important.

3 hours 31 minutes is the answer. A day when everything worked. Nutrition, hydration and a flat course. I was so well rested, I thought I was under trained. Of course Brendan finished eight minutes ahead of me. Berlin really rocked, but the target of finishing with him is still to be achieved.

Den 2
Berlin 2015

Now this brings me to the whole reason for this post. As I had briefly considered doing the Tralee 100k Ultra in August 2016, I knew that my feet would never hold up to the long and frequent training runs, the decision was made to join the Tralee Triathlon club. I needed to build up my strength and endurance. Cross training seemed to be the way to go. The Tri club would give me access to threes disciplines, (because one is never enough), but also strength and conditioning classes, nutrition advice and a fantastic support structure.

The 100km went by the wayside when I got accepted to run Berlin again. But, I was curious to know just how much triathlon training would help. My first task was to learn how to swim. With a dislike of water, it was really just a matter of throwing myself in at the deep end, or should I say, sink or swim.
The Tri club have organised top quality coaches to cover each discipline and John Edwards of Wild Water Adventures has got us to a point where we are nearly ready for the Open Water swims. All we need is the weather to hurry up and get warm. I know there will be many challenges ahead but swimming has already made me aware of a different level of fitness.

In October 2015, I signed up for the first block of Strength and Conditioning at Nisus Fitness, with an aim of building muscle and losing fat. What an eye opener!! That broken up feeling every Friday and Saturday came against my running times, but I was looking at the bigger picture. The first inkling of the benefits of S&C came in the Run The Gauntlet Half Marathon in November when I had the confidence to go all out, downhill, over the last few miles, safe in the knowledge that my knees were not going to explode. At the end of this block, I got a big surprise, while gaining some muscle, I also gained fat. The reason for this, when explained, made a lot of sense. With all the extra stress that I was putting my body under, I was undoing much of the good work because I was not getting my recovery shakes and protein in during the 20 minute window after a workout. I was also not getting enough quality sleep. On the second S&C block, I have reversed the trend as I am now more focussed on getting my proteins and shakes and rest.

On the cycling front, I had my trusty Mountain bike initially, before swapping it for a Road bike. With cycling Coach Cian Hogan and a wealth of guidance and help from the Tri club, I was finally learning how to ride a bike! The Club spins and Time Trials have been very beneficial. Like the swimming, I have much to learn.

On the running front, top athletes, Maria O Keeffe McCarthy and Milosz Wojcik provide the coaching. I attended some of the speed sessions with Maria but not enough of the Hill/Trail sessions with Milosz, as I still struggle to get up and over any hill of consequence, during a race. In truth, I neglected my running since January, in preference to the swimming and bike. I have only run 150km this year, which is way down on the 380km for the same time period in 2014.

(I promise, I am nearly finished this tale).

Last Saturday, I ran my third Tralee International Marathon. My head was moidered beforehand, with phantom pains and fears of being under prepared. How was all this cross training going to play out? My plan was to beat last years time and aim to get close to 3 hours 40 minutes.

On a perfect day for running (as described by Randall), I tucked in with the 3.30 pacers Chris and Francy and felt strong throughout. I began to drift back a little when we hit the 32/ 33 Km mark (20 miles). I was able to maintain a fairly constant pace to the finish, unlike my two previous Tralee marathons, finishing in 3 hours 34 minutes. Only 3 minutes outside my Berlin time. The two routes are like chalk and cheese. I would happily put this down as my best marathon performance to date.

Den 3
Tralee International Marathon 2016

Does cross training work? ABSOLUTELY!!
And especially, when combined with the correct rest and nutrition.

I may ask Randall for another post, when I complete Berlin in September. By then I hope to be a fully paid up triathlete and have the benefit of summer training and some more marathons.

Thanks for your patience in getting all the way to the end.
Den McCarthy
Ok, I will come clean, finishing a marathon with Brendan would be great…….
……… but I really do want to beat him now. J


2 thoughts on “Guest Post: Cross Training For Improved Marathon Times

  1. Den have you signed up for a triathlon yet?! And phantom pains… I can sympathize! Usually the morning of a race (or the day before) something starts hurting and I wonder if it is going to plague me… and it never does! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Den McCarthy

    Hi Kyra,
    While I have never swam in open water yet, I have signed up for Ironman Dublin 70.3 on August 14th. I am hoping to do some sprint distances before then but the first big challenge will be getting into sea 🙂
    I am always really calm before a run, but yes, these aches are annoying. I ask myself, am I getting too old for this game. But I’m too busy to let it worry me.

    Liked by 1 person

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