Running to Improve VS. Just Running

Running to Improve VS. Just Running

I can honestly say that I’ve considered myself a runner for about as long as I can remember.  As a young girl I would cheer for my dad on the sidelines whenever he raced and I ran my very first 5K around age 6 or 7.  Somehow I always felt like I was “part of the the club.”

In eighth grade I started consistently running but I had no time goals.  I did not race or run for any team.  I just ran because I liked running.  Two years later when my school started a cross country team it seemed only natural to join and suddenly a new world opened up to me.  Sure we would compete against other schools but it dawned on me that my main competition was myself.  Week after week it was me against the clock as I tried to chip a few more seconds off my personal record.  I spent most of my teen years trying to improve my times.  I desperately wanted to get my time down enough so that I could earn a college scholarship and once I had a running scholarship I wanted to keep it!

After college I re-entered the Just Running phase.  Let me first say that if you are in the “Just Running” phase there is nothing wrong with that.  I spent the majority of my 20’s in this phase.  Seriously.  I ran a few easy miles a few days a week.  Once or twice a year I would throw in the occasional 5K (and might even pick up an AG award) but that was the extent of my racing.  Running schedule?  Please.  I wanted my freedom.  I couldn’t be tied down by mileage or set running days and I loved that I didn’t have a coach telling me what to do anymore.   I ran when it was convenient and when I wanted to run.  Early morning run in the dark? Not going to happen.  Too cold or too hot outside?  I don’t think so.  Too tired?  I’ll just go tomorrow.  It’s not that I was a wimp or couldn’t run any further or faster than I did.  I simply chose not to and I was at peace with that decision.  Improving my running was not a priority.  Just running was just enough.

Everyone has a reason to run and this reason changes as you go through different phases of your life.  I’ll be honest, my main motivation for running in my 20’s was to lose baby weight.  I had my first three babies in my 20’s so working in a competitive running schedule was not very realistic.  I needed a break from that.

After Race for the Cure 5K in 2005
2006- right after Anthony was born
2008- Anna is here!

Right around age 30 I started running to train for a race.  This is a different phase and one that was much more motivating to me.  I was not training for a certain time but I was running for completion.  I had no idea what a good time for a half marathon was and I didn’t even care.  I just wanted to follow my basic half marathon training plan so I would feel prepared on race day.  And I was.  I felt great the entire race and as soon as I crossed the line I knew I wanted do do it again.

My first half marathon- 2:12 with John

After that half marathon I was hooked and ready to enter into another phase of running. This is the phase I have been in ever since- Running to Improve(Well, except for the serious training break I took when I was pregnant with baby #4!)  When you are committed to improving as a runner you find yourself doing things you never thought you’d do.  I started waking up earlier to get in more miles.  I went from being a fair-weather runner to someone who ran regardless of the weather.  When we went on vacation I actually found ways to get a workout in.   I started reading books about running and got serious about following a training plan that would help me get my times down.  Every time I saw improvement it encouraged me to keep working even harder. 

Recently I’ve had a few people recently ask me on my Arkansas Runner Mom Facebook page about how I’ve improved my race times from 2012-2013.  At the start of 2012 my fastest marathon was a 3:45 and my 5K time was right around 20 minutes.  Let me state for the record that I am no expert but here are a few things that I’ve done differently.  This may or may not help you so please take it for what’s it worth.

1. I run more.  Sounds simple enough but this has been a very gradual process.  In 2011 I had my last baby soon followed by my first major running injury- a sacral stress fracture.  I had tried to come back too quickly and my body couldn’t handle it.  So I was forced to stop running and after several weeks I was able to ease back into it.  You can read more about this disaster in the appropriately titled post- How NOT to train for a Marathon.  After I recovered and started running I slowly increased from 1 to 2 to 3 days a week.  That fall I moved from running 3 days a week to 4 days.  In 2012 I went from running 4 days a week to 5 days a week.  I had a lot of 40-50 mile weeks that year.  In 2013 I started running 6 days a week.  Increasing my mileage (slowly and safely) has been a big part of my training.  Generally I like to run close to 60 miles a week but some weeks it’s lower and during peak marathon training it is higher.  (I’ve never done more than 80 in a week.)

After my last long run in peak training week for the Boston Marathon- April 2013

2.  I’ve added in speed work.  Once I made the decision in 2009 that I wanted to qualify for Boston I hit the track for the first time since college.  My first track workout was 4 x 800.  My goal was around a 3:30 marathon so I aimed to hit 3 minutes and 30 seconds for my 800 m repeats with a 3 minute and 30 second break between sets.  I had read about this workout (Yasso 800’s) in a Runner’s World book about running and it seemed like a good idea.  I also started doing some marathon paced runs.  Since my first marathon training cycle I have added in all other kinds of “fun” speed work: tempos, fartleks, hill repeats, interval repeats (200, 400, 800, 1K, 1 mile, etc) .

3. I keep my easy days easy.  During any given week I have a set number of “quality” workouts.  These are the workouts that I really have to focus because they challenge me physically and mentally.  Quality workouts usually include some form of the speed workouts listed above.  In order for my body to do the best it can on those days my body needs to take it easy on the easy days.  This being said, every runner has an “easy range” pace.  One runners easy pace could be very different from another runners easy pace.  How do you determine your easy pace?  When I was in college our coach would tell us that if you can carry a conversation throughout the entire run then it was an easy run.  Personally, I like to use the McMillan pace calculator to determine many of my training paces. For example, right now according to McMillan my “easy pace” range is 6:50-7:50.  (This is paced on recent race times.)  I usually run in that range but most of my runs are on the slower side these days- at least in the summer heat and humidity.

Last easy run with friends before NYC Marathon

4. I race more.  During my “Just Running” years I ran in one to two 5k’s a year.  I did not race any other distance.  Once I started running to improve I started adding in races of all distances and throughout the calendar year.  In 2012 I ran: 4 marathons, 1 half marathon, 1 15K, 2 10K’s, 1 4-mile and 10 5k’s.  Yikes that’s a lot of 5K’s!  In my defense, the majority of those 5K’s were local and my family participated in a few of them as well.  Personally, I love adding in a 5K as a form of speed work during marathon training.  Racing often helps me practice competing in different weather, on different courses and is a great workout for my mind.  I get so nervous before any racing event but afterwards I’m always glad I put myself out there and did it. 

Little Rock Marathon- Mar. 2013

go!Mile (1 mile race)- June 2013
Fast Firecracker 5K- July 2013

5.  I run my pace.  Long before GPS watches I ran every run based on feel.  I really only raced one distance (the 5K) so my race pace was all the same.  When I ran a 10K in high school I paced the first half of the race at my usual 5K pace and pretty much died the last half.  I had so much to learn about pacing… Once I got my first Garmin watch in the summer of 2009 I was hooked.  Having a watch that calculated my pace and distance was a dream come true! Right now I know my pace for just about every training run and current race distance.  When I race I try to set a realistic pace goal. Running the right pace can mean the difference of a great race or a disaster.

Boston- 2013 is my best paced marathon to date.  Very even splits and I didn’t hit “the wall!”

6.  I keep trying.  Not every run is great.  Not every race is a PR.  There are many times I question why I train this hard and why I keep competing.  I’m a 34 year-old mother of four so what am I doing at the track at 5:30 in the morning running mile repeats?  Why do I wake up early on a Saturday morning to run 20 miles in the cold of winter?  There are plenty of runs that go wrong but the ones that go right make it all worth it.  The sense of accomplishment after nailing a hard workout reminds me that I can do this.  It’s that moment in a race when you realize it’s not a question whether or not you PR it’s a question of by how much.

D&L Heritage Marathon- 2012

Right now I’m running to improve.  I know I will not always be in this phase but it’s where I am right now so I am embracing the challenge.  My ultimate goal is to do the best I can using the talents God has given me. 

This summer was a big summer as far as running goals.  I put a lot of time and training into the Fast Firecracker 5K to break 18 minutes and Go! Mile to go sub 5:20.  Looking back, I should have worked in a few recovery “just running” weeks.  Sometimes after a big build-up of training our body needs some down time- even from the shorter distances.  I didn’t think a 1 mile race and a 5K would take so much out of me physically or mentally but it was the equivalent to the afterwards feeling of a marathon.  Honestly, it’s taken about a month to recover from my summer racing season.  Sometimes in order to improve we need to relax, regroup and “just run.”  I feel like I am just now ready to move on and move forward.

And speaking of moving forward…

Guess who started school on Friday?  Yes, Friday is kind of an odd day to start but I’m telling you- it works! The kids got a feel for what they are getting into and then a whole weekend to get ready for the real thing.  I now have a 4th grader, 1st grader and my baby girl started kindergarten.  She made the saddest face in her first day picture but she is a mama’s girl and wants to be with me 24/7. 

Who would take such a picture?  Let’s just say the photographer was a first grade boy and making his sister smile was not a priority….

Her teacher said she did great the rest of the day so I’m hoping that this coming week will be smooth sailing.

All smiles after the first day

Enough rambling for this post!  Any other thoughts on just running or running to improve? 

18 thoughts on “Running to Improve VS. Just Running

    1. I know! As soon as I saw this my immediate thought was, “We need to do a retake!” But there was no time and the fact is THAT is reality right now. She is having some time adjusting so hopefully it will go better. She’s just a mama’s girl at heart.

  1. The only other thing I had in my program when I was running well (for me) was weekly hill sessions. They were so hard but they built leg strength and that makes you just that little bit faster.

    1. Char- you are so right about that. I have been slacking on those until about a month ago and my new coach is a big time believer in hill repeats. Right now they are EVERY Monday morning. They are TOUGH but I keep telling myself they will help me get that sub 3 hour marathon this fall!

  2. I’m a huge believer in just running to run. And it’s possible to run decent times with that mindset as well. I have never followed a training program. Ever. Yes, I sprinkle in a few training “tips” here and there, but I never hold myself to them. I went from a 4:20 marathon in 2011 to a 3:29 BQ last spring. I’ve been told that I’m running on my natural talent (some just have the ability more than others no matter what). Yes, I work hard, but my number 1 training plan….just run. Now, I know if I want to improve some more then I need to tighten the buckle some more. Some things will likely have to change. But I never want to lose my love & freedom of just running. It’s who I am & I’m ok with that no matter what the clock says.

    My baby, literally my last baby, starts kindergarten tomorrow. Yikes! I’m sure she’ll be fine, it’s me I’m worried about!!!!

  3. You may be my new idol!!!! I am just entering mommy-hood myself, and I did manage to keep running through my entire pregnancy (and even went to the gym the day I went into labor).

    Anywho, this is an amazing post, and one I’ll probably be referencing numerous time in the coming months. I am working towards a BQ myself….I saw your upcoming races you were doing Memphis…me too! It looks like you’ve done it before, so any helpful hints would be much appreciated. I might also be interested in the Arkansas Marathon if it isn’t too hilly (no good hills to train on here in flat ol Houston).

    I look forward to reading and learning more about you.

    1. Hi Crystal! Sorry I am a bit behind in responding. I wish you the best on your BQ journey. Are you doing St. Jude full? It is a great course and very BQ- friendly. 🙂

      I’m going to check out your blog!

  4. A little behind on reading, but I love this post. I had a very similar running phase in my 20s and post-baby got the racing bug! Like you, sometimes I wonder what in the world I’m doing working so hard… but the bottom line is that I love it. And I know I won’t be in the “improving” phase, like you said, forever… so for the next few years, I’m excited to see where it can go. You made some awesome points! I was just working on a post where I was looking back over how far I’ve come, and I’ll have to link to this post, too… so many great tips. I’m using the same things to get stronger and faster!

    1. Thanks Laura! No matter what phase you are in you’ve been such a great influence to so many moms in the fitness world! I love the way you’ve incorporated nutrition into your running blog too.

    1. Hi Laura, Sorry it’s taken me a few days to respond. I have been doing some sort of core routine for almost 2 years now (ever since my stress fracture). I do not do it every night but 4-5 nights a week I do push-ups (combo of girl/ boy ones)and some variation of ab exercises. About a month ago I started doing running form drills a few days a week as well as strides. I would like to add in some light weights on a consistent basis but I have yet to do that. (I’ve been very sporadic about weights!)

  5. Thanks for sharing this – it’s kind of cool to read your journey. I think I’m in the running just to run phase. I may always be there actually. I only started running about 6 years ago. I don’t really enjoy racing and am really lazy about speed work. But I love to run, I do love to push myself, test my limits. It was great meeting you this weekend!

    1. Thanks Heather! There are probably more “phases” I just shared a few I’ve gone through at different times. I hope your PF heals so you are able to enjoy your longer runs.

      I enjoyed meeting you too!! Maybe I’ll see you again at a race soon. 🙂

  6. HI! I found your post via Laura over at Mommy, Run Fast. This was a really encouraging read. I love to read about runners’ journeys and how they’ve improved. Looking at your upcoming races I noticed that you are running St. Jude in December. I’m running it as well. It’ll be my first marathon! 🙂

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