My Body Experiment: NYC Marathon

The background

"Sports and fitness are not unfamiliar to me. And swimmers do a ton of volume, so working out and racing for two or three hours is not that shocking."

I played a different sport every season from the age of four or five through high school. I started swimming when I was seven. In high school, I realized I had an aptitude for it, so I gave up all the other sports and focused on swimming, eventually competing at a college level (I was an All-American 50m swimmer, completing the distance in 20 seconds).

Meanwhile, my dad introduced me to strength training in my early teens, and that was always a literal strength for me. People weren't lifting weights as much back then so being strong was a huge advantage. In college, I decided to pursue it on more of a scientific level so I got my degree in kinesiology and nutrition. I’ve now been a personal trainer for 12 years.

So, sports and fitness are not unfamiliar to me. And swimmers do a ton of volume, so working out and racing for two or three hours is not that shocking. I can even remember in college going out for a 10-mile run with a friend who was running the Marine Corps Marathon. I had no training volume but I could just go out and run with him because I was so fit with lifting and swimming. But 12 years later, at age 35, with 10 or 15 pounds of added muscle to my body and not a whole lot of running experience, it’s a lot more pounding and grinding.

The training: running

I'm a numbers and metrics guy. Part of our Tier X assessment process is an active metabolic or VO2 max test. We didn't have that technology in college so you just swam intuitively and knew your rate of perceived exertion. But having that science and those numbers allows you to be more objective and smarter about the process. It was helpful to have my colleagues take me through the test and put heart rate zones very specific to me into my training program. For example, I learned to keep my heart rate in the 160s (if I go above that I'm going to get into an anaerobic point where I'm not going to be able to sustain the pace). I also learned I need to bump it up to 170 towards the end if I'm going to push it and have some kick. [Note: these numbers will be unique to everyone. If you’re interested in getting a unique workup, check out the Tier X page here.]

Initially, I had this expectation that I should be able to run an eight-minute mile for 20 miles. But when I got out there, I said to myself, “No, you're a 180-pound weightlifter who sprints all the time.” At first, it was a 9:30 mile. Then I got down to 9:00, and then 8:30s. But when you extrapolate that over a marathon, maybe a 9:15 pace is more realistic.

"It was great to see progress as I went along. In weightlifting, I'm closer to my ceiling because I've been working on it for a while. Running distance was like a gap to close."

Each week, I had a low-volume, high-intensity speed run, a mid-volume, moderate-intensity tempo run, and a high-volume, steady state distance run. (I'm a big fan of quality over quantity, and allowing the body to adapt and respond and recover in between runs.) It was great to see progress as I went along. In weightlifting, I'm closer to my ceiling because I've been working on it for a while. Running distance was like a gap to close. As I inched closer to that goal, it was cool. I realized why people get into this. My shins hurt at first, and then they didn't hurt anymore. My feet would be stiff and sore, and then that went away. You build a tolerance. But you have to be smart about it; I was able to listen to my body, and not train some days if I didn't feel great, and push myself on others.

I did the Rock ‘n' Roll half-marathon in Brooklyn on October 14th and I felt really good—I was able to attack the finish. I thought, "Wow, this is great. My marathon's gonna be awesome." But, there is a big unknown after mile 20. I only trained up to 20 miles. It's going into uncharted territory…

The training: strength

I'm not going to become a runner forever so I didn't want to lose what I had worked on for so long—my strength—just to be able to do this marathon. Plus, it's very motivating to go out on the race day and know that I'm strong—maybe stronger than my competitors.

But, your body doesn't want to carry a lot of extra cargo for a marathon. So I cut back on upper-body training since the ability to produce speed comes from lower-body strength and power work.

Early in my marathon training, I was still doing heavy lifts like deadlifts, overhead presses, pull-ups, and rows. Four weeks out, I transitioned into power endurance with dynamic kettlebell movements like swings and plyometrics. Core exercise was a constant as that’s so important to keeping runners healthy and injury-free. I did Pallof cable presses, cable chops, plank variations, and ab wheel or TRX rollouts.

"I’m not going to become a runner forever so I didn't want to lose what I had worked on for so long—my strength—just to be able to do this marathon."

The Food

Training for this race has been like an evolution in eating for me. I focused more on holistic aspects of food (quality, micronutrients) instead of muscle-building (protein, protein, protein).

I ate a little more instinctively. For instance, I typically eat 20 to 30 percent carbs and I took that up to about 40 percent. I don’t count calories but instead shoot for two palm-sized portions of protein at every meal, two palms of high-fiber starchy carbs, one to two palms of greens, and one to two tablespoons of fat. Breakfast varied between sourdough breads with grass-fed butter or oatmeal with nuts and berries and a plant-based protein shake with super greens and l-glutamine amino acid supplement. And a few shots of espresso. Snacks were nuts, bananas, rice cakes, avocados, olives. Lunch was often leftovers from dinner: quinoa salads, sweet potatoes, squashes, bean salads, and salads with broiled or roasted meats, often pork tenderloin or chicken.

I emphasized anti-inflammatory foods and supplements, like that l-glutamine as well as ginger, garlic, and turmeric. I’ve been on a big gut health kick which also helps with inflammation in addition to immunity, cognitive health, and the GI distress that is common during intense training. I ate a lot of probiotic-rich foods like sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha, sourdough breads, and a daily probiotic supplement.

Surprisingly, my body composition changed very little over the course of training. I lost about two pounds of fat and two pounds of muscle. Some have commented I look leaner, but my body fat stayed consistent with a good protein and calorie balance.

The Recovery

I committed to a major training program, so I needed to commit to the recovery side, as well. Your training is only as good as your recovery. I wanted to take care of myself so that I wasn’t one of the people who get injured participating in a running program. I didn’t want to be one those people suffering and walking at the end of the marathon.

In addition to getting eight to nine hours of sleep most nights (thanks to my wife for taking care of our baby!), I added in sports massages three times a month with Roxanne Peniche, a master therapist at Equinox Columbus Circle. Sometimes, they were beat-down sessions where she was really digging in and it was uncomfortable, but it was therapeutic. I planned to meet with her a few days after the marathon, too, for more of a full-body flush to promote circulation and reduce the inflammation and swelling. [If you ran the New York City marathon this year, you can get 20 percent off a 50- or 80-minute massage at The Spa at Equinox before 11/30/2017. Just bring your bib or race medal to the appointment.]

I was also working with Tier X resident chiropractor Vladimir Friedman, DC, using a technique called Graston, which is a fascial remodeling therapy that helps with mobility. He would reinforce this work with KT tape (particularly on my calf), to improve proprioception and motor control.

I used swimming to aid in recovery as well—it felt good to do some swims in between my runs and it really saved my legs. Other cross-training was a sort-of yoga, flow-type practice with the ViPR.

The Race

At the start line, I thought, "All right, I'm about to embark on a four-hour journey and I don't want to let everyone down who's been following me or let myself down from the four months of training and sacrifice." It was intimidating, but also motivating and exciting.

The first half felt good. The energy in Brooklyn was amazing. I was on pace to hit my goal and decided that if I felt good after the Queensboro bridge, I would start to push it a little. Fourteen or 15 miles in, I realized I didn’t have it. I just started to feel tight, and my stride got short, and I just couldn't open it up. I knew I was going to finish, but I just didn't have the mechanical strength to push it. Ultimately, I finished in 4:21.

In hindsight, I may have set an unrealistic goal based on my level of commitment and running history. There were runs that I missed, and tempo runs I didn't feel like holding my threshold pace. I could have dropped some muscle mass to feel lighter, the weather could have been cooler and dryer. That's the hook for these events—the multiple variables and draw to continue to improve.  Given the amount of time I was able to train specifically for this, while also maintaining other elements of fitness that are important to me, I’m ultimately pleased with finishing healthy and checking off a bucket list item, even thought the competitive athlete in me also set a more competitive goal. This time, I am ok with the participation medal. 

And I’m just amazed that I ran from Staten Island to Central Park. I just ran 26.2 miles. The crowd and all the other participants really pull you through the course. That's really inspiring and awesome, and it makes you want to do it again. I was surprisingly overwhelmed at all the support and random texts and phone calls before, after, during. It was incredible.What did I learn? I learned that, if you put your mind to it, you can improve in something that you are not exceptional at. I also set a new threshold for mental toughness. Maybe next I’ll swim around Manhattan, an eight-hour feat I trained my uncle to complete in 2015. Although I am more of a sprinter, it’s been an interesting challenge to pursue some longer distance events.

I also train a lot of marathoners and IRONMAN competitors, so it was helpful for me to get some insight into how the body responds and what I can expect to hold my clients accountable for. It gave me more empathy and respect for the process.

It's too early to say whether I’ll do this again. It's such an amazing experience. But it takes a toll, it's a huge commitment, and it's not my strength. I like training for four or five hours a week and staying lean and strong—and not feeling overwhelmed. Still, I feel good about the running base that I've created. I would love to do some shorter distances. To me fitness is training for the ability to participate in a variety of events on a moment’s notice.

If I can do this, which is what I consider a weakness for me, anyone can. The New York City Marathon is such an incredible event; the energy, the enthusiasm, the 2.5 million spectators, and the 55,000 participants. But you need to be smart about it. Assess your life and make sure that you have room for it. And do it for you. If you don't have that intrinsic motivation, when you wake up on a rainy Sunday and you've got to go out for a 12-mile run, you're not necessarily going to do it. But if it’s an experiment you’re up for as well, consider yourself challenged.

"What did I learn? I learned that, if you put your mind to it, you can improve in something that you are not exceptional at. I also set a new threshold for mental toughness."