Runner's Footprints

Runner's Footprints

Thursday, April 2, 2015

How to Race Faster and Stronger Consistently

10 Strategies to Your Next PR or BQ

2013 Running with an Angel Marathon - 2nd FOA
You toe the starting line to your first marathon and you feel nervous, excited, anxious, and eager with a heart already palpitating erratically before the race has even began. As your 26.2 mile jaunt proceeds, emotions go for a roller coaster ride with each progressive mile. Once you cross the finish line to your first marathon, it could be one of the most overwhelming feelings of elation and self-accomplishment that flushes your body. Ask any first-time marathoner, after your first: you either love it or you hate it. Some say: never again! Others say: I want more. I was one of those individuals that wanted more. 

Now having completed over 120 marathons, 88 have been under 4 hours [sub-4] and 65 have been Boston Qualifiers. I enjoy testing myself to see how often and how fast can I race marathons. There were some I've ran with my dad, paced friends, or was an official pacer typically in the 3:30 or 3:35 group because I knew this was a key group for females wanting to BQ. I wanted to do what I could to help them BQ. As you develop yourself as a runner, you will quickly learn there are several types of runners and several niches of running. Over the past 17 years I've been running, running has grown tremendously in popularity. And why not? It's one of the very few sports you can pick up at any age with any background and truly succeed at any age. Why? Because we have the ability to push ourselves to find out inner strengths and weaknesses at any stage of life. In those 17 years, I've raced everything from the 400m to the 50 mile. I am not good at all distances, but I WILL always give it my all for every distance, hence it appears that I may be good at any distance. Every runner has a particular distance they are really good at and then there are others that challenge us more than others, which is why I sincerely respect every distance. For example, it takes an unreal tenacity to be able to race a 400m, 800m, 1500m, etc well. This doesn't discount much longer distances as I will mention later that it simply takes a different skill set to race different distances. In high school, I was really good and undefeated for four years in my school for the 1600m and 3200m. I was not naturally good as some might think. As a teen, I disciplined myself to train day after day, twice a day, made sure I ate right, slept enough all around balancing multiple advanced placement classes always placing in the Top 2% academically of my school with over 2,000 students. I didn't go to UCLA on an athletic scholarship. I went to UCLA on an academic scholarship because academics always came before athletics. But what happens when you keep winning? What happens when you allow yourself to get comfortable? You might lose sight on how to grow. During my Freshman year after a few dual meets, the HS Varsity football coach "forced" me into the 800m and 400m. I begged no! Because... I was afraid of losing. "We need the points, Nadia.... Your kick sucks and you need to learn how to hurt." Period. See as a Freshman I was already undefeated for my school on Varsity, but I couldn't grab the top girls from other schools. "I'm just not fast enough," I would justify to myself. (Later you will learn that this justification is really us just creating "excuses" for ourselves). I would put in the track work and hard. But that wasn't it. When an opponent beats you in the last few meters or the last few seconds, you have to learn to ask yourself: how bad do YOU really want it? I learned early on it was bad enough. 

I toed the line for the 400m then 800m. My teammates cheering: "You got this, Nadia! You got the win!" It's been like that my entire life. Expectations from my parents and expectations from the public, peers, friends, etc that I have the win. I was always winning races; I was always winning math, dance, painting, and academic contests so what did people expect of me? To win. That is a tremendous amount of pressure and perhaps the reason why I've achieved so much so early and continue to do so. So did I win that day? Nope. I lost every 400m and 800m that Freshman track season. As a matter of fact, I didn't come in 2nd, 3rd, 4th. In the 400m, I would get smoked. But something happened by losing. I learned how to fail and I learned how to get hungry. Really hungry. I would toe that 400m every time with my head high and focused. I knew I would get smoked but I also knew that I would not give in until I crossed that finish line. Because what was my primary job? To learn how to be better today than I was yesterday. THAT is a principle many competitive athletes learn and are able to translate into their lives. Gun went off for the 400m…. I pushed so hard. My thighs screamed for mercy. My lungs wanted to explode! I may have not won the 400m ever, but I gained the ability and tenacity to not give in. Sophomore track season came around and the tenacity paid off. Now, in addition to being undefeated in my school for the 1600m and 3200m, I was breaking multiple 30 year-old school speed records for the 3200m, 2-mile, & 3-mile and I was the winning League Championships earning multiple slots into CIF. Now I had the kick. Now I knew how to hurt. When you race hard from the start, the person who ends up winning the race or earning a personal record is determined in the last third of any race distance. How bad do you want it? How much pain and sacrifice are you willing to endure for your goals?

As a runner, I knew the best way to improve as a runner was to learn how to race all distances. Learn how to be humbled because EVERY race distance is a challenge when you push yourself the moment the gun goes off. There's a pain you feel when you race a 5K or 10K. There's a pain you feel when you race a marathon or ultra. They're all different. When you push yourself, they all take different talent, strategy, and above all respect. 

2012 & 2013 Hoover Dam Marathon - 1st FOA
Whether it be your first marathon or 100th marathon, some runners have the big question: how can I run faster? Once you get a taste of a PR or improving, you know exactly where that question comes from. You get this feeling of I just proved to myself I am better than yesterday and that helps our psyche look forward to pushing for tomorrow. Equally as important is learning how to lose or not reach that PR or BQ. We can't win every time. We learn how to win by learning how to lose. We learn how to achieve by learning how to fail. The simple answer is if you want to run faster especially consistently, you not only need to train faster, but you also would benefit tremendously by following a lifestyle that places you entirely in balance. Look at the elites. Every minute of their day is targeted to be great at their distance. They follow the lifestyle in every way.These strategies can help anyone. Over the years, I have compiled a comprehensive list of strategies that I have learned through experience, research, coaching, and observing other runners' training methods. Below are 10 strategies of my bunch that I'll share (not a complete list but some of the important ones), which I follow in order to run marathon after marathon in a strong effort. It has become a lifestyle I've adapted to and a lifestyle I love. As a full-time career woman, I aim to follow as much as I can. You can too. Elites may have the luxury to follow these full time. However, that should not discourage competitive/recreational athletes to also benefit from it. None are a secret; none are relatively new; but collectively they could just be the answer to carry you to your next breakthrough. 



1. Find Your Personal Purpose
Before embarking on anything that will test you like you have never been tested, you need to ask yourself: why am I doing this? What is my motivation? What will it mean to me as I pursue my goals and, more importantly, what will it mean once I achieve it? You need to search and reflect deep inside why is it that you do what you do. If you can only find a superficial answer, you will find that you may lack motivation. However, once you find that deep powerful purpose then nothing else matters. You don't even need to share the purpose because it is only meaningful to you, but it is so powerful that it will drive you everyday. Every single day, remind yourself of this deep reason why you do what you do. You are not here to simply exist. You are here to be extraordinary. Everyone has the ability to find their inner extraordinary and they should. Living a life pursuing this purpose means you are driving towards your passion. When you reflect on your purpose, you will never run out of the drive to succeed. Your motivation becomes endless. I found my purpose when I was very little prior to ever becoming an athlete. That purpose has been redefined several times at different stages of my life as I have matured but it has given me the insatiable hunger to always drive and motivate myself to be better today than I was yesterday. 

2. To Race Fast, Train Fast.
I'm a huge advocate of quality over quantity. Pressed for time? Reduce the "junk" miles and make every mile you run count. Make every training session have a purpose. Speed work is the key: tempo runs, intervals, timed repeats, fartleks, hill repeats, etc. They will wake up your fast-twitch muscles necessary to take you to that next level. Every distance runner will benefit from pushing themselves at different distances. Now what's the perfect combo? Depending on your goals and level of commitment, a coach can safely guide you. Do too much, too soon, too fast, and you will get an overuse injury so be careful. Listening to your body is key.

3. Hydrate and Eat Wholesomely
One of the most crucial elements in my life is to aim to nourish my body with the most wholesome micro and macro nutrients. Many endurance athletes have allowed themselves to justify that if I workout or race for this long then I can eat whatever I want. Essentially, yes in terms of the energy question, calorie out equals calorie in for weight not to fluctuate. However, what many have missed is why not make every calorie in be a nutritious one that will actually benefit your body other than just hit a craving. Hunger is physiological. Cravings are psychological. You may perform already at a great level with a particular malnourished diet, but imagine what your body can do if you were to give it every macro and micro nutrient it needs for vital health. If we demand more of our body, we should give more to it in the foods we eat. My philosophy is EVERYTHING you eat will either help you or hurt. You make the choice. In other words, food can either be your medicine or it can be your poison. My daily eating regimen is NOT perfect; however, I try to eat wholesomely at least 5-6 days/week. It has come to a point where I am very happy when I juice a bucket full of vegetables and fruits to start my day. This will probably be the most difficult point to incorporate into endurance athletes because let's face it, we are ALWAYS hungry. The great thing about how the body works is the more you feed it power superfoods, the more satiated it is, the less cravings you have, and the more energetic you feel. Change is very hard. But the rewards are insurmountable in a higher quality of life. How bad do you want it?

4. Find the Right Mileage for You. 
Runners come in all shapes and sizes. In an optimal world, we would love to train like the elites and/or those who do not work full time and aim for 100 mile+ weeks, but in reality many of us do not run for a living instead as a hobby. Additionally, as the participation of marathoning continues to increase in popularity, the average runner does not have the body frame as many elites do. I don't. So my suggestion is find the weekly mileage that is right for your body type. If you are smaller framed, your body will be able to withstand higher mileage, but if you are larger framed, higher mileage may increase your risk of injury substantially. So find the right balance of mileage and cross training that works for you. 

Photo: Crossfit Ganbatte
5. Indulge in Cross Training
If you eliminate junk miles, you will find that there is much more room to fill your training with other activities. Indulge and enjoy it! Other forms of exercises strengthen and emphasize other muscle groups, which will support your primary muscles. Back in high school, there were only a couple top track female athletes who were allowed to train with the Varsity Football team in the weight room. Imagine that! As a teen girl you can imagine how the eyes can just wander over the eye candy. But that's why it was only permitted for a couple of the top females because we were in there for business. We lifted. And we lifted heavy. Cross train right and it will benefit your primary sport of choice. If you strengthen your body as a whole, you become a stronger runner. Bike, swim, weight lift, hike, ski, rock climb, take a fitness class are just a few options that you can have fun with. I am a competitive runner and triathlete but I see myself more as an outdoor enthusiast. I have found my greatest joy is when I can just keep moving. 

6. Periodize Your Training
Any professional runner and other competitive athletes in any sport train in seasons. The body can be active all year long; however, in order to improve, you must train in macro and micro-cycles. Macro-cycles would be your season. Optimally, you would like to peak if well trained 2-3 times per year to avoid any complication with long-term, overuse injury. Micro-cycles would be typically your months. You build for a number of weeks and then incorporate active rest weeks at the end of a micro-cycle. The concise science explanation behind this is that your body builds and improves during rest, which is why sleep is so essential. Chemical factors are released during rest and sleep so allow the body to flourish in them. Finding the most effective combo takes extensive experimentation and research or hire a coach that best fits your needs.

2013 HRC 5K - 1st FOA
7. Use Races as Training [Sparingly]
If you are racing frequently without a strategic plan on which races you are focusing on, you are losing a great opportunity to tap into using training races to your advantage. In high school and college, in order to become a better test taker, you would practice with test after test. Similarly, to become a better racer, you need to practice with races. If you are not strategic about how you race, you are increasing your risk of injury and defeating the purpose of attempting to reap the benefits from the hard training season. Aim to peak 1-2 periods per year at the end of your season, maybe three periods at most. For the past six years, I substantially picked up my training that allowed my body to race about 25-35 races per year from the 5K to the Ironman. I am very strategic on how I train, how I race, and my mental frame of mind when I toe the line. It took over a decade to build up to this safely to allow my body to withstand it and of course for my career to develop so I can financially afford it. Talent is nothing without hard work. I worked and sacrificed a great deal early in my life so I can afford now luxuries and/or take time off for myself. Finding what works for you and how to improve strategically takes practice. Therefore, to start 3-4 races per year should be your A-races. You race too many races too hard, too often, too soon and you're asking for trouble. Know what your body can withstand and learn how to build gradually. 

8. Taper Intelligently
If you target 3-4 races per year to be your A-races, you must effectively taper in order to maximally race those races at an all out effort. Physiologically, the body stores nutrients and regenerates tissues during rest much more efficiently than when you are taxing it. Anyone who says the taper doesn't work for them is simply not doing it right. Ask any experienced coach: the taper IS essential for top performance. There are a variety of ways to taper effectively depending on the race distance. 

Horseshoe Lake 8955' elevation
9. Rest, then Rest Some More
Complete rest, active rest, and sleep are all essential to allow your body to improve. Regardless if you have found yourself to be functional with minimal rest and sleep, functionality and peak performance are not the same thing. Getting enough sleep is where I personally lack the most as I attempt to accomplish my daily responsibilities, but I do aim to make it a priority when I can. That is why the taper is so important. During the taper week, I am training almost nothing and making it a point to go to sleep much earlier. I watch ZERO hours of TV at home. When I aim to do something, I want to do it well so I eliminate the junk. What's more important: reaching your goals or knowing what's going on the latest, hottest TV series? Only TV I watch is at a sports bar with friends or when I go to the movies. Real time social interaction is far superior than TV mesmerization. Studies have show how brain activity is firing and how engaged it is when you interact with people, when you are learning vs when you are watching TV. When I'm alone, I'm either reading, writing, or training. When I'm at work, I'm at work. When I'm with people, I'm with people. Put the phone down when you're with people. It sends the message that person is not entertaining or worthy enough of your full attention. We are already on our smart phones enough when we're alone so don't be on it when you're with people. You'd be surprised how much you really gain if you make it a rule of no TV at home or no social media when you are around real people. And NO having the TV on while on your laptop doesn't count either. Allow your mind to be fully engaged into the activity in front of you. Turn off the tube, pick up a book, have dinner with someone while looking/interacting with the person(s) the entire time, cuddle, meditate (which our society does not do enough of), and/or hit the sheets early. Your potential can be much higher if done right. 

10. Mentally Train
After as many possible things are done to aim for improvement and/or peak performance, it can all be lost on race day if you have not trained your mind. You can be in the best shape of your life or the most fit athlete when you toe the line, but if your mental game is not on point, you end up giving in the last third of a race at any distance and end up conceptualizing an "excuse" as to why you didn't hit your mark. I've seen it done thousands of times over the past decade and it needs to stop. We need to suck it up, accept our mistakes in order to move on and improve. Harsh? Someone needs to say it. My dad was harsh with these words and the HS Varsity Football coach was harsh with me back then. Ever hear how football coaches talk to their athletes to toughen them up and be tough competitors? They aren't saying: "oh it's ok you can play just for fun hun and jog it out." Not sure the NFL would have the same lure if that were the case. A game or a race is a test. It's a test and celebration of ourselves. I learned how to cope with failure and win by hearing this. As I mentioned before, we can't win every time. We can't PR every time. To truly learn how to be a champion within yourself you have to learn how to fail. Reflect and accept your mistakes. That makes a champion every single time. Don't create an excuse before, during, or after because it serves you no purpose. Instead, allow that reflection to fuel you for your next attempt that way the journey truly becomes your reward. The win, PR, or BQ then just becomes the icing on the cake. Create a race day routine, strategy, and execute. Execution is the final key to achieve the desired goal. Part of execution is having faith. This is listed as tip 10 but it could be the most important. My biggest skill is probably my mental game and it came from learning to lose. Watch me race any endurance distance during the last third of the race or if I ever pass you in the last few miles, I am fully engaged and focused to reach my goal: to finish stronger than I started. That is a successful race regardless of placement or time. I am willing to endure more pain than the person next to me. That begins with acceptance in the mind. When most give in, I push harder not because I'm faster or better, but because I have convinced myself I want it the most. It might not be true but by believing it at that moment, I can endure an insurmountable amount of physical pain. I am in pain, my thighs scream, my lungs want to explode, I cramp, but the ability of my mind allows me to temporarily endure extreme pain. If you have faith in yourself and a higher sense of spirituality (this has nothing to do with religion), you can be unstoppable. The power of the mind, as my father has always taught me, is by far the most powerful tool you can ever utilize to become your own champion every single day. 


2014 Ridgecrest 50K - 3rd FOA 


*****



Over my years of experience as a competitive athlete, coach and motivational speaker, I've learned that we can always improve. We can always have the fire to be better than we were yesterday.... in our sport, in our relationships, in our career, in our life. It takes failing, it takes hitting rock bottom to realize and learn how to pick yourself up and become your own champion of life. My book will elaborate more in depth on the above and share the untold truths, secrets, and struggles of my journey on how I have reached what I have in the time I have. By doing so it will show you how YOU can tap into your inner extraordinary self. The possibilities to your personal achievements are endless at any age. Believe it.




Interested in customized training plans, coaching or guest motivational speaker, email me at NadiaCRuiz@yahoo.com for more info on how to learn to love the journey and truly achieve your biggest dreams.

6 comments:

  1. Great article Nadia. I'd like to meet you one day. Sincerely Davis Garcia.

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  2. Nadia, you're such an inspiration and role model to me! I love the blog and can't wait for the book!

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  3. Nadia, you're such an inspiration and role model to me! I love the blog and can't wait for the book!

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  4. I've been following you, since I started running competitively. My goal (as of right now) is to BQ.Post LA Marathon, I've been in a slump and not very motivated to run. Your post forced me to remember why I started running in the first place.

    Thank you.

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  5. I like your number 1, personal purpose. It doesn't have to be about winning, running is a personal sport and goals in running should be personal. That being said and after reading this, I'm pretty pumped to push myself in some cross training this evening (but I'm going to have to have the TV on to watch the Dodgers play) and then (after a healthy meal to fuel my body and a good nights sleep) hit the road early in the morning for some quality running!

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