Running Mistakes: Lessons From My First Marathon

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Running Mistakes – Everyone makes them training for their first marathon. From not knowing how to fuel, to wearing improper running shoes, a poor stride, or not tapering, nobody gets everything “perfect”.

The biggest issues I had in training for my first marathon were my expectations. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I didn’t know how hard it is to BQ. I didn’t realize how much harder the trails are than road races. I didn’t know how to structure the mileage of my run and what burnout is. I didn’t know how to fuel, how to fix my stride, and how to breathe. And I made a few other funny mistakes along the way.

Running mistakes I made in the training and races leading up to my first marathon:

  • Underestimating the marathon and expecting a BQ (without knowing how hard that truly is!):

After running 7 half-marathons, I PR’d (at the time) a half-marathon with a time of 1:42. Off the high of running a PR, I decide that it was now time to tackle the full marathon.

Running Mistakes article - Coach Ian Cruz running the Santa Cruz Half Marathon

Santa Cruz Half Marathon (2017)

My goal? Run a Boston-Qualifying time, and then run the Boston Marathon, or just be one-and-done. At 26, my BQ time was a 3:05, considerably faster than my half-marathon PR of a 1:42. Now, while I don’t think expecting a BQ for your first marathon is an unrealistic goal for many (or even for myself had I planned it correctly), I clearly did not realize how difficult a BQ really is.

First mistake? Underestimating how much harder the second half of a marathon (and particularly the last 10K are) is compared to the first half. You’re running twice the distance but it’s not twice the effort, that last half will drain you. So you can’t just multiple your half PR time by 2 and just think you’ll shave off 20 minutes from that with training.

On top of that, I scheduled the race for 3 months ahead which can be a short time frame if you’ve never run anything more than a half before. I’m also not your typical runner in that I cross train with boxing training, coaching, and strength training, which take up a considerable amount of time as well. I could be spending up to 20 hours/week with non-running fitness commitments.

Running a marathon is a whole different beast than a half-marathon. Half-marathons I would do without any specific training, or any consideration of running injuries, form, fueling, or anything sport-specific. Marathons require a lot of planning, preparation, and strategy, and my idea that I would either BQ or be one-and-done is quite laughable. What ended up happening was I cramped up everywhere, ran a horrible time (4:40ish I think), and got frustrated and signed up for another marathon that very night. I’ve been hooked ever since…

To this day, I still haven’t run a BQ. I’ve sped up my half-marathon PR to a 1:36 and run a 3:42 for the full-marathon, nowhere near a Boston Qualifying time. I write about being lower-mileage training (never above 30 miles/week) and not ever solely focusing on my marathon time so, for the time being, I’m quite happy with my PRs. But when the day comes that I do want to chase a BQ, I’ll know better what to expect and how to plan for it. I’ll definitely be cutting out other forms of training and logging much more mileage.

  • Running half-marathons back-to-back after my PR, and expecting the following week to match/beat my PR

The day that I PR’d my half and decided to run a full-marathon, I had no idea how to train. Joining a running group is the best. But not knowing any better, I naturally just signed up for a bunch of other half-marathons. The following week I signed up for another half-marathon, hoping to even beat the 1:42 I ran the prior week.

Coach Ian Cruz at the Western Pacific Half Marathon

Western Pacific Half Marathon (2017)

It didn’t happen. I ended up running a 1:49, but my perceived effort was far greater than the last half. After the race, I went to bed and slept for 18 hours straight. I didn’t understand the relative toll that 1:42 took on my nervous system, given that I hadn’t had run a time like that prior. I had a sense of just feeling worn down even before the race began, not feeling that sense of adrenaline I did the week prior.

I learned that not every week will be the same. And you can’t expect progress to just be a linear fashion. That’s why training plans ladder up and down the distances. You won’t find a marathon plan that just adds two miles to your longest run every week. They usually stagger your longest run with recovery weeks before your next longest run.

  • Underestimating trail races and elevation

Shortly after that race, I tried running the Cinderella Half Marathon. This was my first trail half-marathon and I planned for it just like any other race. I even had to coach in Oakland shortly afterwards, and budgeted 2 hours to run the half. How wrong I was.

Coach Ian Cruz running the Cinderella Trail Half Marathon

Cinderella Trail Half Marathon (2017)

Trail races are filled with single-track portions, uneasy footing, and steep inclines and declines. By the end of the race, I was walking a lot of the hills and wondering how the hell it was taking so long. Trail races are a great addition to your training, and no road race will come close to the hills you get on a trail race. For example, my first marathon was supposedly hilly – the San Francisco Marathon, with its ~990 ft elevation gain. Most trail marathons are between 2,000-5,000 feet elevation gain. Being able to conquer the hills will make the hills of a road race easy.

  • “Fueling” with Gu packets and high-sugar electrolyte sources

I listened to some running podcasts and followed some very traditional running advice when I started training for my first marathon. Much of this is from outdated sources that use simplistic calculations to determine how much carbs you should take while running. For example, Runners World recommends anywhere from 100-250 calories of sugar every hour.

Many runners rely on sports drinks (Gatorade, Powerade) and gels (PowerBar Gel, GU) for their carbs. “Both are sugar by another name,” says Clark. “Sugar is what your body wants.” But feel free to eat it in whatever form works for you, whether that’s Gummi Bears, dried fruit, or Twizzlers. Clark, a veteran of nine marathons, eats mini Milky Ways on her long runs; Shulman, a runner and triathlete who routinely wins her age group, likes Fig Newtons.

Carbs on the Run, Sarah Brown Shea (Runner’s World)

This is absolutely terrible advice, and caused a lot of weight gain in the process. I certainly could not outrun my sugar consumption during my first marathon, which led me to gain 15lbs. In addition to Gu packets, most electrolyte sources have nothing but sugar in them as well. Eating quick sources of sugar are sure to lead to insulin resistance, a pre-cursor to pre-diabetes and type II diabetes. I prefer a slower burning source of carbs such as UCAN. I also prefer to space my fueling further than the intervals recommended above. I also like to supplement with Essential Amino Acids and no-sugar electrolyte sources like Biosteel.

  • Going to the wrong starting line of the Capitola half!

I once went to the wrong start line of a half-marathon, driving to the race expo address rather than the actual race! By the time I got there, the start line was actually taken down and I didn’t even get to run past the timing chip to start my time. I figured out where I was supposed to run, and caught up to the pack. But I probably expended too much energy trying to catch up and had a slow finish. My official time, without a start timing chip, was reflected as if I started in the first wave.

  • Overbreathing: Exercise Induced Bronchoconstriction

This was a scary experience, which I still don’t completely understand. I was running the Silicon Valley Half Marathon and at around mile 10 I saw the opportunity to pick up the pace. I decided at that point to shoot for a sub 1:40 half-marathon.

Coach Ian Cruz running the Silicon Valley Half Marathon

Silicon Valley Half Marathon (2018)

After making that decision, I started to run faster and, in doing so, I started to intentionally breathe more heavily, taking deep inhalations and exhalations as I sprinted. I had done this a few times on the treadmill and thought more oxygen = faster sprint. Immediately, I felt my lungs “lock up” and I couldn’t breathe. It was a scary moment, and I started to panic and slowed down my run until finally I felt a burst of air come through to my body and I could breathe again. I cruised through the rest of the race to finish at a 1:41. I had no idea what happened, and after the race wondered if I had an allergic reaction to pollen, but could never really put my finger on what happened.

I later learned in reading Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, James Nestor, that my overbreathing was a mistake.

“For a healthy body, overbreathing or inhaling pure oxygen would have no benefit, no effect on oxygen delivery to our tissues and organs, and could actually create a state of oxygen deficiency, leading to relative suffocation. In other words, the pure oxygen a quarterback might huff between plays, or that a jet-lagged traveler might shell out 50 dollars for at an airport “oxygen bar,” are of no benefit. Inhaling the gas might increase blood oxygen levels one or two percent, but that oxygen will never make it into our hungry cells. We’ll simply breathe it back out.*”

“Carbon dioxide also had a profound dilating effect on blood vessels, opening these pathways so they could carry more oxygen-rich blood to hungry cells. Breathing less allowed animals to produce more energy, more efficiently.

Meanwhile, heavy and panicked breaths would purge carbon dioxide. Just a few moments of heavy breathing above metabolic needs could cause reduced blood flow to muscles, tissues, and organs. We’d feel light-headed, cramp up, get a headache, or even black out. If these tissues were denied consistent blood flow for long enough, they’d break down.”

Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, James Nestor

In my over-breathing, and over-exhalations, I now believe I experienced exercise-induced bronchoconstriction. I’ve written about how I try to nasal breathe when I run now, and have thankfully have never had that scary experience again.

  • Missing a flight because of a half-marathon – The Hollywood Half Marathon

Another funny lesson – don’t try to jam your schedule after a race! I once ran the Hollywood half-marathon and scheduled a flight out to NYC immediately after the race. Post-race, give yourself some time to gather yourself and relax, maybe enjoy the post-race food and activities and take pictures.

After my race in Hollywood, I made my way to the airport to catch a flight. When I finally got to the gate, I was so hungry (lol) that I went right next to my gate to grab a burrito to-go. The server misheard my to-go request, and brought it out to me on a plate. I asked for him to grab a to-go box but before I knew it, I devoured it all. I left the restaurant only to hear that they gave away my seat to someone on standby. They put me on standby for the next flight out in a few hours. Luckily, I was able to get on the next one. But still a funny story to miss my flight over some post-race burrito craving.

About the Author:

Coach Ian is an ultra-marathon runner and a volunteer coach at the non-profit boxing organization, Dreamland Boxing, in San Jose, CA. He competed in boxing for both Dreamland and collegiately at UCLA. His goal is to empower all to be the best that they can be, in boxing and in life. You can find Coach Ian on InstagramFacebook, and YouTube.

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