What can you learn from one of America’s best marathoners?

nate jenkins marathon trainingWhat can one of America’s best marathoners teach you about how to train and prepare to run your best marathon? The short answer—absolutely everything!

In this interview, we’re going to pick the brain of 2:14 marathoner Nate Jenkins. Nate is the epitome of what a runner can do with hard work and intelligent training. A good but not stellar runner in college, Coach Nate focused his training post-collegiately and patiently ascended to one of the top runners in the United States. In 2007, Nate finished 7th at the US Olympic Trials with a time 2:14:56 in a field that is widely considered the best field of American runners ever assembled.

Nate is going to share how he learned to stop burning himself out and getting injured, adapted the training of famous coaches to crush his first marathon, the lessons he’s learned coaching non-elite runners, and the mistakes he’s made to prevent you from repeating them.

Here are the actionable highlights from the interview:

1. Consistency over months is more important than one or two big weeks of training.

Nate was infamous for having one or two awesome weeks of training and then spending the next month injured. In his own words: “I couldn’t resist touching the stove to see if it was still hot.” It wasn’t until Nate finally started working with a coach who convinced him to be patient with his training that he started to see meteoric improvements.

Take Action:
Month after month of consistent training and mileage is better in the long-term than two or three weeks of hard training and then getting injured. Don’t be afraid to start slow, take down weeks when needed, and be patient with your training.

2. Marathon workouts don’t always go perfectly.

The first time Nate trained for a marathon, he struggled to hit the very difficult workouts. While it was disconcerting at first, he adjusted the recovery and was able to race well during his build-up and record a four-minute half marathon PR and debut at 2:15 for the marathon while his time in the half marathon when he started the training cycle was only 1:07:30.

Take Action:
Nate cautions marathoners to not get too worried if they struggle during their marathon training. If you’re building the fatigue from workout to workout, you sometimes cross the line and get a little too tired. Don’t let this fatigue shake your confidence. As Nate says, “I’ve never had a marathon cycle where I hit every single workout.”

3. Keep everything positive.

“You’re as good as your greatest day, even if you haven’t had it yet.” Don’t focus on the bad days; shake them off, learn a lesson, and put it behind you. Making this mental shift helped Nate overcome the fear of the daunting paces he was trying to hit and develop the confidence to race against the best runners in the world.

Take Action:
Keep everything positive. Never say anything bad when talking about an upcoming race, keep your notes in your training log positive, and “fake it until you make it” in regards to confidence.

4. Teach your body to burn more fat while running at marathon pace.

Nate believes that teaching your body how to burn a greater percentage of fat as a fuel source is one of the most critical aspects of running a great marathon. Nate covers exactly how many calories your body will burn, why you can’t put it all back in with energy gels or Gatorade, and what workouts to run to improve your efficiency and ability to burn fat.

Take Action:
You need to teach your body to burn less glycogen and more fat. Simply running long and slow does not accomplish this task as efficiently as specific long runs and workouts designed to target this system. One workout Nate mentions is the alternating tempo, which teaches your body to conserve glycogen by burning more fat.

5. Don’t forget about core strength and speed development work.

Nate feels he left his best marathon times behind him because he didn’t focus on the little things like core and ancillary work. This lack of focus caused a herniated disc and forced Nate out of the marathon. Likewise, Nate feels that missing out on strides and short, explosive speed work once or twice a week prevented him from getting faster at the 5k and 10k distance, which would have made him faster at the marathon.

Take Action:
Sometimes strides, hill sprints, and core work seem like the “extra, if I can get to it” type of work that is easy to skip. Those types of workouts are just as important in the long term as the miles and hard workouts.

This is an awesome interview, especially if you’re trying to improve your marathon PR or training to finally get that Boston Qualifier. Get ready for some specific and actionable lessons you can apply to your training today!

Watch this week’s show now

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Read the Transcript

 Jeff: Hi, Nate. Welcome to the show. Thank you for taking the time to be our guest today. I really appreciate it.[0:00:05.8] Nate: Hey, thanks for having me, Jeff. I am excited.

[0:00:08.1] J: Good, great. Obviously you have had a lot of success in the marathon, so we want to have you on the show today so you can teach our readers about what they can do if they  hit that plateau in their marathon training, if they have been struggling to break through for the last couple of years, some advanced tips and tricks that they can use and also some of the marathon basics that a lot of the beginners can go through, including how to handle their nutrition, what types of gels, waters, those types of things they should be using, going through some of the long runs and the specific workouts that you like to do. We are going to cover all that in the interview today and, to get started, I want to just have you talk a little bit about your progression from – probably many would call it a mediocre high school career, you were not an all-American high school runner and then to a pretty good college runner, but nothing that would suggest that you are ready to run at the elite level and then again kind of moving in to a progression as an elite runner and your success at the marathon trials and the marathon in general. Talk to me about that progression a little bit.

[0:01:23.0] N: Let me say that I was a decent, but not exceptional high school runner. I was good on a local level. I think today with how good high school kids have gotten, I would have been really far down in a poll or whatever.

[0:01:34.7] J: Yeah, I feel the same way about my high school career. I thought I was pretty good and now…

[0:01:42.4] N: I can remember in high school, looking at results from the late ‘70s and say: oh my God, these guys were insane. They were so much better. Now, I think these kids look back like: what was the big deal with the late ‘70s? I worked the high school program, but I think it was a bad program or it did not work for me. It was a lot of intervals and a lot of speed, but not a lot of long term. I ran very well quickly. I hit good times as an 8th grader in the junior-senior high, but I did not progress much up until my senior year and at that point I started doing some more miles and I think maybe I have done one 90 mile week on April vacation or something like that, but for the most part maybe 60-70 miles per week, which does not seem that high, but at that time, there were not a lot of kids really pushing volume.

[0:02:32.2] J: Yeah, that is pretty high for a high school runner.

[0:02:35.1] N: For a high school runner, I know that I heard once in a while now, I have seen about a high school kid running 100, you know, exceptional high school kids running 100 miles per week or something like that. I did not see something like that there at that time, of kids doing that.

I went to college and, at that point, I improved more between my junior and senior high school than I had done in the previous 3 years and I thought, ‘hey, you upped your miles and you got faster’, so I went a little crazy and I had a college coach who was OK with my mileage, he was kind of old-school and he was kind of old, so he let me kind of go wild and then he started realizing that I was really getting out of control and tried to get me to back off and I was doing secret runs and all that stuff. I went home for Christmas break and I did 126-127 miles a week, which was a lot.

[0:03:27.9] J: This was your freshman year in college?

[0:03:33.3] N: Freshman year in college, yes, first fall. My shins started hurting that week and within a couple of weeks I could not really walk on them. I tried to keep running and I was on crutches for the rest of the day, a little stretch, that did not work too well. Then, for me, college became a series of that: me touching the stove, burning myself and then waiting a little bit and saying: ‘hm, maybe I can touch that hot burner again’. I only competed in two full seasons in my first 3 years of college out of the possible 9.

[0:04:09.8] J: Wow, I think it is an interesting lesson, probably for a lot of our readers who really struggle with, you know, everybody tells them they need to run faster and they need to run more mileage and then they try to run more mileage and then they get hurt. It is good to hear that you went through the same struggle yourself as an athlete with doing the same thing when you were young too, and not like when you were 45 years old.

[0:04:32.1] N: Yes, I was not 37 or 47 or 57 and trying to up my mileage and I do think that the big thing is that you have to do things in an intelligent manner and at your own pace and if you do build intelligently, there are no limits. I hate to hear someone say: ‘I tried 60 miles a week and I got hurt. I cannot do 60 miles a week.’ Well, you couldn’t, but maybe you have done 2 years of 45 miles a week since and you are that much stronger.

Then my second college coach came in and him and the last coach had a really nice transition and they sort of worked together to get me under control and I had a year when the only goal was to stay healthy for the year. There were times when I was training harder and I had a couple of 100 mile weeks in that year, but I had a stretch in the winter. I think I was running about 35 miles a week and I was hurting. I was just sore and banged up, but they got me through without any significant time off and I ran a lot faster. I have been managing through a lot of cross training and decent training while I was healthy and I have got a little faster since high school. My brother ran about 16 flat for 5k and now I have gotten down to like 15:20, but at the end of this year, staying healthy, I ran a bit under 15 minutes, which for me was a big barrier. I saw the 15 minutes as being good training shape. You are good enough to train with people.

Then I went home, I got a good sensible – at that point I was ready for summer, I was doing 90-110 miles per week and I got that in and I came back in next year, again training more sensibly. I was still pushing it a little bit and getting banged up, but I ended up running a lot better that year, I qualified for Division 2 nationals, which is nothing like qualifying for Division 1 nationals, but for me at the time that was the goal. That was the big step. I have now been healthy for more than a year and I was really doing well and I had run, I think I had run 14:31 5k, so about a year and a half – 18 months, or a little bit less, I got down a minute in my 5k, which was the event I was running more often than not at that point, but I had taken 2-2.5 minutes off my 10k time in the same period, but the 10k, going in, I knew that it had soft PR and it was not going to be representative.

[0:06:59.5] J: I am sorry, just to interrupt really quick, you kind of attribute most of the success that you had in that latter stage of your college to more the consistency, as opposed to a hard crazy workout and mileage.

[0:07:12.1] N: A lot of times I speak at summer camps and the thing I always tell the kids is to go home and train for the summer. If you take two identical twins with the exact same genetic makeup and one of them goes home and for 14 weeks at home, he averages 30 miles a week for the whole summer and gets it in and the other twin does the same exact number of miles, but he packs it all in the last 3 weeks of the summer, the one who did the 30 a week all summer will be better in the fall. Consistency is more important than anything else in the sport. If you can manage to run consistently and to touch on as many parts of your system as possible, you are going to improve. Definitely, I think that getting consistent was the best thing that ever happened to me. It is also easier mentally. When you are healthy, you are running well, you are excited, but when you are hurt and everything falls apart it is a tough thing.

[0:08:11.8] J: I am sorry, one more, just to expand on that a little bit more, so in terms of that consistency, you said you had a new coach that came in and was he pretty instrumental in holding you back? What was the kind of trigger that finally stopped you from burning your hand on the stove all the time?

[0:08:29.4] N: I think I had taken about all I could take of failing and getting hurt so that held down my stubbornness a little bit. I think the combination of my original coach George Davidson, who is a very good coach having been telling these things for years and now transitioning in with Gary Garter, who is an excellent coach who came in and said the same things. Gary dealt with me better as a person. Me and Gary get along tremendously well. He understood me better and he was able to talk to me in a way and make me understand things. We had a really good back and forth and that was really important, but I think hearing it again and again was what started me to see things through. I tend to be thick-headed to the extreme. Sometimes it just takes me a little bit longer to get some things than it does for most people.

I had a year left in grad school and I just decided that I want to find out what I can do and I was really excited about Arthur Lydiard and I tried to do a perfect Lydiard year. This was my plan and I was going to break through and bring those medals.

[0:09:43.3] J: For the readers who do not know, what does an Arthur Lydiard system look like? What are the principles?

[0:09:53.6] N: A big base, you are looking at about 10-12 hours a week of steady running plus an extra easy running next for 16-20 weeks, then a hill phase and sprinting. That was maybe 4 weeks. Then 4-6 weeks of a lot of anaerobic work and another 4 weeks of bringing it all together with more race-specific type workouts and then a period of about 6 weeks with almost no training. You are racing a lot and do a lot of strides and your mileage is down from where you might be doing 160 miles a week. You would be running about 30-40 miles a week.

[0:10:38.3] J: So kind of a big pyramid.

[0:10:39.3] N: Big pyramid, exactly. I kept doing the base and then I hurt my IT bands trying to do one of the exercises he liked for the hill phase, which was down-hill sprinting and that did not line up with my IT bands at all. It is just an exercise. I have tried it since and it always agitates me. I insisted on them. I would not miss much time. I missed 2-3 days or I had to run light for a week and I would lose all my confidence and decide that I need to go back to the beginning. I restarted this base phase about 3 times. If you sort of fast forward now it has been more than 1 year, I finished up grad school and I decided that I am going to keep the part-time jobs I have and try to get a shot at American qualifier and in this long extended base phase, I averaged about 145 miles a week for about 18 months and I have learned, you know 13:40 for 10k which was good for me. I think I ran a 14:35 road and that was a little bit better than my track and I thought I would give the marathon one try, but I also knew I needed to come up with a different plan in terms of getting ready for marathon because Lydiard’s guys, if you look at their times on the track, they would still be at least national class today. If not even world class certainly at 800 and 500 meters, but his marathoners though he had Olympic medals with them, their times were anything up to the standard of the other events. Barry Magee ran 2:16-2:17 and when you compare that to the other guys, he is coaching guys in their 13:20s, high 27 for 10k. It just did not line up.

I ended up finding [0:12:30.9 – unintelligible] schedule for Rodgers Rop and I did my normal Lydiard base about 10 weeks up to my marathon trying to do the schedule with the times adjusted for me. What I found out is that Rodgers Rop 2:08 marathoner in New York City could recover a whole lot better even when I adjusted the efforts to line up to me, so I had about a 12 week cycle of workouts where I was supposed to go hard 2-3 times a week where I managed out of, I think I had 21-22 planned workouts and I completed 3.5.

[0:13:07.4] J: That is not a good ratio.

[0:13:08.5] N: No, it was not a good ratio, but I did all the moderate work in there that I was supposed to do, which was something – I had 2 speeds prior to this where I just went hard for a workout or I went for an easy run, now with the [0:13:22.0 ?] stuff, there was some stuff that was in between. It was a session that was definitely harder than you wanted to go on an easy day, but you could still do it again the next day. It clicked for me. The combination of the base I had going into it, finally doing something to wake up some of the systems and I raised twice during the specific base. I did a 3k on the track and it was horrible. I had worked out 2 days before and I remember trying to put the spikes on and my feet were shaking after the warm-up. I was so tired and fatigued and I still managed to run the second or third fastest 3k I had ever run and I thought that was alright, but I am working so hard and I am kind of expecting more, but the workouts have worked much better than I expected. Then I went down and did a 3.5 marathon and I ran a huge PR. I took about 4 minutes off my half-marathon best. I remember setting my 8k and 10k bests in route and I was looking at the clock sort of in disbelief, like ‘how can I run that kind of time easy?’ At that point I sort of realized that this stuff is the direction to head to and I ran my debut marathon a few weeks after that and I ran 2.15, which, at the start of my cycle, my half best was 1:07:30-something, so I basically took my half-marathon and doubled it in an 8 week phase.

[0:14:46.4] J: Wow! And during that specific phase you were talking about, you said you were having a hard time hitting a really high quality workout, but you were still kind of getting in the moderate type stuff?

[0:14:58.6] N: Yeah, and I did 3 very solidly – the high intensity workouts, but the thing was that it took me where on Rodgers Rop schedule he was doing 1-2 of these a week. For example, one of the workouts that I actually did do, I did a 10k in the morning. I wound up doing 2-3 miles. I did 10k light tempo in 34 minutes. I took a 5 minute standing break and then another 10k tempo in 31:40. My goal for that was to actually run about 32:50. I was looking for 2:20 marathon pace and I only had markers every mile and, by the time I hit the mile, I was well ahead of that and I thought that this is just a good rhythm and I will probably come apart. I did not come apart so then I thought maybe that is goal marathon pace if I could do that, but then I cooled down, I went to work, I came from work and did the second half of the workout, which is another warm-up, another 10k tempo of 34 minutes – I ended up at 32:50 and then I was supposed to do 10X1000 in 3 minutes and I did the first 9 average 3 minutes and the last one came completely off  and I ran like 3:13 or something, but I cooled a mile down back to the house and I actually almost fell down trying to walk up the stairs, my legs were so wobbly. It was 14 km of really good effort running along with another 6-7 maybe 8 miles of easy running every single day.

I believe on the schedule I had copied, I was supposed to go again maybe 6 days later or 4 days later and it took me about 2.5 weeks to recover from that effort, but I think that doing the moderate sections and allowing my body actually to recover from the big efforts really unlocked areas in my fitness that I had not touched on.

[0:17:03.1] J: Yeah. I think you kind of have two great points in that story about that phase of training in terms of how you can relate it to the audience, because I am going to say that they are not going to do…

[0:17:15.0] N: Yeah, I don’t assign that one to many people.

[0:17:16.2] J: I can imagine, but I think there are two important points there and one I think in marathon training you can tell me how you feel about this, but I tell people that in marathon training they are not going to get every workout perfectly because you are carrying over that fatigue and carrying that fatigue is an important part of the training and it is a kind of a hard concept to grasp that you are still making progress and you are still getting a good workout even if you did not hit the goal. Do you find that to be the same?

[0:17:47.5] N: Yeah, 100% true. I never had a cycle where I did all the work-outs. I had stretches, maybe 3-4 weeks, but it is so hard to schedule it perfectly because you do need these workouts to really take you to the edge of the fatigue. It is not like a 5k where you just need out the lactic acid or you need the 5 km of work at pace and that sort of thing. You need to prepare yourself for the final 10 km and that is the point where your body is shutting down, so you need to do these workouts where you are shutting down and you may think that it is going to take a 30 km run to shut your legs down and you are too tired going in, so it took only 20 km. Just because the workout was not what was scheduled, you got the job done. You ran as hard as you could and you were hitting the pace and then also in the terms of recovery, I think a lot of times people see what someone who does – you know, some of my schedules when I was really clicking, I might do 7 or 8 very hard workouts in a 6 week buildup to a marathon with maybe 10 smaller medium efforts mixed in there.

Frankly, if you are in a 3 hour marathon shape, which is good shape, you are not going to be able to do that; you are not going to recover from that thing. That comes with years of backup, much like I am not going to recover some of the workouts like some of the guys who run 2:04 or 2:03. Their fitness has been taken to another level and you do not just do your workouts faster. You just recover from the same effort quicker.

[0:19:28.1] J: Yeah, that was actually going to be my second point. It was adjusting and adapting the recoveries because I think one of the problems with using generic marathon schedules is that everybody recovers at a different rate and that is going to be based on their pace, the individual recovery rates. Some people just recover faster. The older you get, the longer it is going to take and I think adjusting the recovery times is really important, so I think it is great. It is a great example of how you took that schedule and realized kind of quickly that you are not going to be able to recover from that and made those adjustments to be able to get in the work and make sure that the important workouts got in even if you are killing them, so I think that is a good point that you brought up.

[0:20:16.4] N: Some of it was doing a good job, some was some good advice from Gary who was kind of helping me with this experiment and some was just dumb luck. I am not going to lie. I have a number of workouts that I tried to start and I would go out there and I thought that I am ready and recovered. I am ready to do 6 5.5k at 15:50 or 16 flat, no problem. I do one and it was all out and my day was over. If you listen to your body, even if you are a little slow on the uptake with it like I was, you can get through and learn a lot from it.

[0:20:56.4] J: So when you struggled with those workouts in the marathon cycle, I guess there are 2 things. I know a lot of people struggle with that. How did you bounce back mentally and still have that confidence like ‘wow, I can run well’ and I guess over time that has changed because you have done it so many times, there is that in-built confidence where you have lots of years to look back and see that you are used to this, but for a beginner marathoner, how can they boost their confidence mentally if they are not hitting their workouts and kind of go on from there? Did you have any struggle with that?

[0:21:28.1] N: Yes, I have always struggled with – probably I shouldn’t say always. Once I finished high school and did not become a star, I started to struggle with my confidence a lot and I always had a lot of doubts and definitely one of the great things about the marathon was that after succeeding the first one, you realize that you only need a couple of these good workouts to really show that you are ready. That gave me great confidence and I think that one of the things that all American runners can really use to learn from the Africans is that you are not – we have a mentality that ‘you are as good as your last race, or as good as your last work-out, or as good as yesterday’ and you talk to these Kenyan guys and that is bullshit as far as they are concerned. They think you are as good as your greatest day, even if you have not had it yet.

I think it is important when you look at a training block and you are trying to figure out what you should race, don’t look at the bad days. Look at the best days. You are looking for a maximum effort of your days. Look at what the maximum effort was. You still can learn from the bad days. It is important to see that you are tired, maybe you need to change things up and move things around to accomplish something, but in terms of what your potential race performance is, you need to own a key-in on your best work-outs because you are going to rest up after a race. You are not going to run 70 miles a week going into a marathon and go on with 70 miles per week. You are going to rest, you are going to come in fresher, you are going to have one of your better days. I think that is important for the confidence. Sometimes you just need to have faith in people around you. Confidence is one of those things that, without it you are up a creek, but if you do not have it, it is hard to get it. I am a big believer in ‘fake it until you make it’.

This is a non-running story. When I was in college I could not buy a date to save my life. Everybody said that it is all about confidence and I was like ‘confidence? How am I supposed to be confident? I have not had a date in a couple of years.’ I ended up reading this really trashy book about how to get a date and how to come like a ladies man and the whole thing was about that it is not about being confident. Just present confidence. How you do that is ‘lo and behold. I have all this bunch of BS, but I started being more confident, I started getting some dates and then the confidence goes to where you don’t have to fake it anymore. It becomes real confidence. I follow a bunch of stupid little rules and they seem silly but they come so ingrained that it is really good. When you are talking about an upcoming race, never say anything negative. If someone says to you, ‘man, it looks like it’s going to be hot on Saturday for the marathon’, you say ‘well it will be easy to stay –‘ always turn everything into a positive and the thing is that it is not that the turning into positive is really going to help, but turning everything into a negative will hurt you because you are going to have times in your training circle where it is not going well. You are going to have a bad patch and if you are not sure at that point that it is going to go well, you will packet it and you will break. There is no shame in it. It is going to happen, but if you can turn a thing into a positive and say, ‘yeah, it’s 16 miles and I am hurting. It’s OK, I have hurt like this before.’ I should be hurting. It has been 16 good miles. Make everything into a positive or at least a neutral. It goes a long way and sometimes it is fake it till you make it. You don’t have to necessarily believe it. Even though you are lying to yourself, it can still help you pick it up a little bit.

[0:25:25.9] J: That is a great tip. I think a lot of people could use that, especially in terms of fake it till you make it and turning all those negatives and never let the negatives creep in your head. It is a great little tip.

[0:25:37.7] N: Yeah. I think it is one of those small things that everybody can do and you can carry over to almost anything and it seems silly, but there is so much negativity out there, even in running. People are very down on themselves. It is a humbling sport, so I think it is easier to see your own limitations, but also I think that going to the message boards sometimes, you can see the best in the world and you just get ripped apart. I think you need to approach it with a different mentality. If you don’t believe you can do it, you cannot.

Just because you believe that you can do it may not be enough to get you there, but it is one of the pre-requisites. It is required, so start believing.

[0:26:18.4] J: Yeah, that is a great point. I have logs of all my turning around’s since I was in high school and I used to write them in little graphic notebooks and then I would go back and read some of them and it is amazing how depressing and negative I am about my own training. I read them now and I look back and I am like ‘was I like completely depressed?’ I read them and I think like I was going to jump off a cliff. I even had pretty good workouts and I have been like ‘that workout sucked. I couldn’t hit the last 3’ and I was so negative and I read something that you wrote from a site about your own training and you said that you never tried to put something negative in your log. I thought that was very interesting because it was so different from what most of my logs looked like ‘felt like crap, you sucked’. You went so far and you said ‘if I did put that, I felt really bad, or something negative, it must have been really bad’ I thought that was interesting. I thought that was a good play on yourself, especially if you look back at your logs to gain confidence from your workouts to race well.

[0:27:28.0] N: It is interesting and funny. My high school logs look exactly like yours. Early college logs, same thing. It did not matter. I did 25X400 in my freshman year in college and managed them all in 70, which, at the time, I was not in just the best work-out of my life, but probably the best running effort in kind of my entire life and I got beat up pretty bad on the last 2X400 and that is what my comments were about in the log. Like: I need to find a finishing kick. I can’t even finish workouts.

I made that a new rule and changed and it is funny reading my logs of the Olympic trials and that was my best race by far ever. I had a bunch of things kind of go wrong in August and September and I was heading towards the meat of the preparation and everything had gone really well from February – March on and then I hurt my Achilles’ and missed 4-5 days, but thought I was going to miss more. It was a surprisingly quick turnaround and then I came back a little quick and I sort of hurt an abductor muscle and it was another couple of days setback and then I got a good workout and then I got food poisoning. So this is 2007. I have not thrown up since 1992 and I was throwing up for 2 days and, as I am going through this cycle, every comment, when I look back on it, it is amazing because now you are looking at 4-5-6 weeks when I should be having my best training and I have had zero good workouts and every comment was like ‘yes, I had to abort today’s workout because of stomach illness, but feeling good for the part I did. Really fit. I just need a couple and I will be OK’. It was just this continual theme of: mileage has been low over the last month. It does not matter. The mileage for the months before was great and everything is coming around. I just need a couple of workouts. There was this sort of expectation that it was going to be OK and having my head in the right place and looking back and reading the log is really surprising me because I was struggling with a lot of different things and I was having a really bad stretch in my personal life and if you read this log, you would think it was the greatest 2 months of my life in every way.

It is important, I think, when you are training hard, it is easy to be tired and sore and down all the time, so if you start writing those comments, I will look back and it is going to sound like you were suicidal. People will be ‘why do you run?’ ‘Listen, most of it is great. It is just that you are really-really tired and you generally write the log at the end of the day.

[0:30:23.4] J: Right, it is a good point. I am glad you opened up about that. I think that is a great lesson that people can learn and use over and over in their own training. Moving forward, I want to talk a bit about marathon specifics, getting into some specific workouts, that kind of thing. Starting at the beginning, how do you first start constructing a marathon plan? Do you start with your long runs? Do you start with the mileage? Where do you start and how do you start building something like that?

[0:30:55.3] N: I see the marathon in two separate ways. For a first time marathoner, who is looking just to finish, it is all about building the distance. I construct everything around the idea of building the ability to continue to run for 26 miles. Pace is irrelevant; it is just about building your general fitness and building a time on your feet. In their case, it is a count back from how much time you have before the race and how we are sensibly build you up to the point where you can run, either 2X10 mile runs in a day or 18-20 miles single run so that I feel confident that you can go into the marathon to beat the rest and the adrenaline will get you the extra 10k and you can finish feeling as strong as one can feel finishing something like that. No one finishes a marathon thinking ‘I’ll just run back to the start to get that hat I threw on the ground’. It is not like that, but for everybody else, once you start, time becomes a factor; everything is focused entirely around specific haste workouts. The marathon, in terms of your max potential is like every other event from 3k up. It is based on your lactic threshold, your ability basically to process oxygen as efficiently as possible and process any acid that comes into the blood out. The thing that makes the marathon different is that if you are not efficient enough at those paces, you will come apart even if your fitness indicates a much better performance because you run out of glycogen. By running different workouts that are focused on your goal pace – and it has to be a sensible goal pace that lines up with your other times and your date fitness, but by doing workouts that are tagged directly on that, you can teach your body to basically burn more fat at the same pace as you would – you know, a lot of times when you talk to a runner and you are like ‘I did a 30 mile long run and I felt strong at the finish. How come 22 miles into the race you are telling me I am running out of fuel and that is why I am running 10 minute idle pace , 12 minute mile pace, 15 minute mile pace instead of the 6s and 7s I was aiming for or the last 4-5 miles’ The thing is, when you are walking, 60-70% of the fuel you are burning is fat. When you are sprinting, 90% of the fuel you are burning is carbohydrates, glycogen. You want to change that balance at your marathon pace. As you get fit, your marathon pace is a relatively explosive pace, even 7 minute mile pace, which to an elite runner does not sound like you are flying or anything, but 7 minute mile pace is a relatively explosive activity and for a lot of people it is a very explosive activity and that is going to burn a lot of glycogen, so you need to teach the body to burn less glycogen.

One way to do this is to just try and continue to run further and further distances, but the reality is, to really embarrass the system, to really show your body its problem, you need to run 20-22 miles at that pace in a steady way. Frankly, I cannot run 22 miles at marathon pace in a workout. I don’t know many people who can and at that point you are going to just be transitioning the workout in a way that is going to make that happen, whether it is – if you are a real volume hog, I mean, one of the first rate marathon specific workouts that I have seen sort of looking back at running history is Kenny Moore who would do a 30 mile easy run, as easy as 30 miles can be and then he would run 10k at his marathon goal pace – 6 miles at his marathon goal pace. If you run 30 miles, your body will be pretty out of glycogen so it is going to be careful to conserve glycogen no matter at what pace you start running and this would work. Kenny was one of those guys whom you never saw fade at the end. He was always running at the same pace at the end. I tend to look more towards repeats of 20-25 km, 12-15 miles of repeats at the marathon pace with long but relatively quick breaks, so if you are a 7 minute miler, we are going to have you do 5 by 3 miles at 7 minute pace – that is your goal marathon pace – with 1 mile breaks at 7:30, so only 30 seconds a mile slower.

[0:35:45.9] J: Right, so that is not really a rest, they are still moving.

[0:35:49.2] N: It’s not a rest, exactly and you are not going to enjoy it. You are going to feel like you are doing a steady run, but it will give you just enough energy back, because 3 miles at marathon pace is not going to be that hard and you are going to be ‘Oh, I got a little bit of break’. Of course, by the last break, you are like ‘that was not a break, this is not fair’

[0:36:08.6] J: ‘This coach is mean.’

[0:36:09.0] N: Cursing coach Jenkins out, that is fine, that is acceptable, but the reality is that it is going to get you extra miles in and it is something about the shifting of the pace generally. It teaches your body to run at a faster pace in a very similar energy expenditure rate as when you are running at slower pace and the chances are at 30 seconds slower per mile, you probably burned glycogen efficiently enough to get you through the marathon, but the big thing about doing this is that small changes go a long way, so if you are at my weight, you are burning 140 calories a mile. That is pretty consistent across the speed, small differences. If you naturally burn 120 of those from glycogen and 20 from fat, if you can make a difference in training and teach your body to burn 20 less, so now it’s 100 in carbs and 40 in fat, over 20 miles you are going to get an extra 400 calories to play with. At 140 per mile, you have almost 3 miles there which is found with just that small shift. It is difficult to eat. If you figure the walls at 20 or 22 miles, you are looking at a deficit of carbohydrates that you need to make up of close to 1000 calories. It is difficult to ingest 1000 calories over the course of the race. The other problem is that your body is going to designate those calories to go to your brain first because your brain will shut off without carbs and your body, as much as you want that marathon time and you may say: ‘I am willing to go a little brain dead for this’, your body will not agree with the deal. It just won’t.

Glycogen is muscle-specific, so you need to go to the right muscles and you might have enough carb sitting in your gut and, as you get tired, your gut is going to shut down. Less and less blood is going to go there, it will digest slower and slower. You can teach it to digest some, but the reality is that you don’t want to have to try and make up 1000 calories just in fuel. If you need 100 calorie boost, well, then a Goo or a Gatorade, that is a good idea, but the idea that fueling is somehow going to get you from your cracking at 20 miles to finishing with strength and power is just not realistic.

[0:38:35.7] J: Right, because you are saying, just to recap because that was phenomenal the way you explained that was really great and for everybody that is listening or reading, go back and listen to that over again because nutritionally, energy-wise for a marathon Nate just nailed it. You cannot digest the total amount of calories that you need to…

[0:39:05.0] N: To make up the gap between the glycogen stored in your legs and the glycogen needed to finish the marathon at your normal metabolic rate at that pace.

[0:39:14.6] J: Right, and I think a lot of people get it wrong because they just assume that they can keep taking gels and the problem is, as you were explaining, that the body will not digest it anyway. You can put it in and some of it will go, some of it will be digested. Some of it will not be digested or processed and once you get that 50% of it processed – that is a made up number – 20% of it is going to go to the brain because that is the first place that gets to keep you functioning and thinking and now you have 30% of it left and you just have to hope that 30% of that 100 calories that you got in through the Goo actually goes to the running specific muscles, so you are talking about every Goo you take maybe only 30 calories of it actually going towards your marathon pace or your ability to continue to run and, as Nate said, you are probably going to be in about 1000 calories deficit, so you need about 1000 calories. Obviously, that is quite a few Goo’s.

[0:40:16.3] N: Yeah, it is not going to be sufficient to solve the problem and that is not to say: 1. You can train your body to digest more and to digest further into the race and certainly if you are going to run the heat, you are going to train to take in a lot more fluids as you go in for the race [0:40:31.7 ?] spends the 91 or 93 world championships. He reportedly could drink 13 ounces of water in a single sip and he drinks so much during a marathon, which is still the highest heat they have ever had for a championship marathon, be it Olympic or world championship, he drinks so much that he actually had to pee as soon as he finished and he was peeing during the race because he was taking so much fluid. That is impressive that his body could want to take it in and to process it. I am running in marathon and it was rough. I trained and practiced taking in fluids and I still could not get to that point, but you can teach the body to do some interesting things with that and get yourself a little more help, but the reality is that the most direct way to fix a problem is going to be teaching the body to burn more fat at that pace.

It is not like a magic trick. It is easy to do and there are probably a dozen different kinds of workouts that will do this. The repeats at a specific pace with the quicker rest, long runs, finishing fast when you are running your marathon pace or slightly quicker, when you burned a lot of glycogen, running close to but not quite at marathon pace, let’s say 10% slower for a significant amount of time. Then you run 25 miles at 90% of your marathon pace. That is a brutal workout, but if you are a very fit person, you can handle long runs and we have people who at least will run part of it with you and that type of workout is an option. Then, runs where you sort of vary the pace, but keep touching on your marathon pace are also good for this. If you live in an area where you can do it, you can do something like that. Let’s say that you do 10k at 80% of your marathon pace, which would be comfortably quick and maybe you do 10k at marathon pace, 5k recovery and then maybe another 10k at marathon pace. Now you have done 35 km, which is a good long run. You can finish with 5k, another 3 miles uphill. We are doing this in miles. Instead of 10k, 6 miles, so you are now like 21-22 miles. If you run another 3 miles uphill, uphill burns carbohydrate calories like it is going out of style. That is going to swing you to 100% glycogen burning, but you are so tired that your body is going to fight that and resist it and it really teaches your body, it embarrasses the system and it says ‘you need to keep more glycogen in our system for this length of time. If you can do that, you are really going to see results. If you figure out your paces and you look at your half-marathon and you are running more than 5% slower for your marathon, and 90% of the people I talk to are, you really need to change your marathon workouts.

[0:43:54.6] J: Yeah, that is probably a pretty good way for people to determine where their weakness might be in a marathon and, as you said, for most people that is the case, but a good way is to see your half-marathon time and then you add 5% and double it and if that is faster than your marathon time, then the problem is more than likely related to burning too much glycogen and not being efficient enough at burning fat as a fuel source.

[0:44:18.9] N: Absolutely.

[0:44:21.1] J: That is cool. That is a great way for people to determine when they are going to be able to improve and I like those 4 workouts that you gave as examples for people to implement workouts and long run type deals. In terms of going into the nutrition thing, you said you can train your body to do it. Is there a specific way other than just continuing to try and force yourself to eat and drink?

[0:44:45.5] N: I think that a big part of it is practicing and forcing yourself to eat and drink. There are a few small tricks that are important and everybody can do and they should do prior to their marathon. The day before, you want to keep all your meals to 700 calories or less. I don’t care if you eat a bucket of pure carbohydrates, after 700 calories it is fat because your body cannot process it as glycogen quick enough so it has to change it into fat and store it as fat, which makes it unavailable the next day. Eat a lot of small meals of 500-600 calories over the course of the day and you can really load up a lot of extra glycogen into your muscles and into your system.

Some of that glycogen is going to get loaded into the muscles in your arms and it is not going to do you any good on the race day, but if your arms are loaded with glycogen and you are taking a Goo during the race, your arms are not going to steal any of the carbs from it. It is not necessarily ineffective, plus there is no way to avoid it. The second thing is that you do not want to eat for 4 hours before the marathon. I don’t even want you to drink any Gatorade. Nothing with calories in the 4 hours before. Get up early, eat a good breakfast, but 4 hours before. This is when the body goes a little bit into its conservation – starvation mode. You are not doing much in those 4 hours so you are not burning any energy, so don’t worry about it. It is just your guts are going to be empty, which tells your body: ‘hey, we don’t have a lot to work with here. Be a little more efficient’

[0:46:14.4] J: Interesting. I have never heard that theory before.

[0:46:16.7] N: I did it for my marathons by accident. If I eat in the 4 hours before a hard race, I get to have that again later. I did not do it on purpose but I had seen a thing where [0:46:37.6 ?] was talking about it and then when I was in the world championship team and they gave us all they wanted us to do, things that people from the University of Georgia had for timing up the fueling.

[0:46:51.9] J: I am sorry, we are kind of going to that because like I said, for a lot of marathoners, their biggest question is: ‘should I take a Goo?’ If you look at the starting line of a marathon, a minute before you would see people downing Goo’s like there was no tomorrow.

[0:47:09.5] N: Yeah, Gatorades, their special mixes. In terms of prepping yourself, you want to think about your race and when you are going to take fuel. Some people have a spouse or friend who is just outrageously accommodating and you will meet them every mile somehow, like they have a bike with them, I don’t know and in that case, sure, you have unlimited options to go for it, but most people, even at elite level, they tell you before the race: every 4 miles there will be a stop and this is what will be there and your bottle will be there, or every 3 miles, wherever they set it. Whenever you are training, you want to practice taking fuel at those breaks in every run, in every long run, I don’t care how easy, and every specific workout. Every time you run at marathon pace, if you are going to get Gatorade every 5k, I want you drinking Gatorade every 5k. Get used to that rhythm. Teach your body that that is how fuel comes in and this is what you will have to work with on the race day. More than that, if that race gives out Powerade and you are going to be taking Powerade, drink Powerade in the workouts. If at all possible, drink the same flavor. Same thing with your Goo’s. There are a few reasons for this. Different people react to different things in different ways. You don’t want to take Goo’s and find out that power gels that they are getting out give you diarrhea. You don’t. It ruins 6 months of prep and it is just an unpleasant experience, but also you want your body to be very used to those exact type of calories and it will learn. Your body wants to succeed and to improve. If you teach it what is going to happen, it will likely thrive. A lot of it is just repetition of the same things. Personally, I was more of a water guy. I would only take anything with fuel maybe once in a marathon, but it was unusual. For the most part, I would take a bit of water and that was it. For coffee drinkers, you need to have something with caffeine somewhere between 15 and 20 miles. Whatever you have to do to get it, get it. You had your coffee 4 hours before race, your system was juiced at the start, you were good. Now you are 6 hours out and your caffeine is starting to wear off and you do not want that caffeine crash which changes the way you burn glycogen, which changes your mental aspect and outlook and it is just a bad thing. Somewhere between 15 and 20 miles, get some caffeine in, whether it is Goo with caffeine, whether it is flattened Coca Cola. It sounds stupid, but I will tell you, on my world championship team, 3 different people of the 5 of us took flattened Coca Cola late in the race. It works. It has caffeine and once it is flat, it goes down pretty easy despite the acidity. Whatever it is, if you can stomach black coffee late in the race, sure. I wouldn’t have it hot, but whatever it is, you are going to need to get some caffeine and if your body is used to having caffeine in the system, you need it. If you are not used to caffeine, I would not do this just because it can make you jittery and throw up, that sort of thing.

[0:50:41.9] J: Right. I think it goes back to the whole ‘don’t do anything on race day that you have not done before’

[0:50:50.0] N: If you are not a coffee drinker, I don’t drink coffee or caffeinated tea anymore. I still do the day of races or before. If I was doing a marathon, I would actually drink something with caffeine late in the race, but I know my stomach handles it, so I would experiment with it in training.

[0:51:08.7] J: Cool. Those are some fantastic tips. I think you are spot on in terms of getting people prepared for the nutritional and physical aspect of the marathon. I think they go very hand in hand. I think that was really helpful. Kind of closing in, I think that maybe the last big question that I would like to ask and I like to ask this to a lot of the former elite runners that we have had on the show: if you could go back to your 22 old self, what would you say? What was the biggest mistake that you feel that you have made in your training or your build-ups? What would you change?

[0:51:45.1] N: I really think that a lot of people have to think about this, but this one for me is extremely easy. There are only 2 things: my marathon career has been essentially ended by a herniated disk in my back, which was from poor posture, but also weak core strength. I hate the gym, I hate cross-training, so I did not do any. I would say: ‘don’t be a jerk. 4 minutes a day of pedestal is not going to kill you’ For those of you who do not know, the pedestal is a routine of abs that is just awful. You know, basic series. That would be the first one, because I felt that I left my best fitness years. I was not even able to run a marathon because of it. Since I had surgery, I am hoping that at some point the nerve damage in the leg will sort of right itself and I will be able to get back out there, but that would be a big one. The other thing is that I have, in the last few years seen how important touching on speed more regularly is. I would maybe do a set of strides in tweak and I would say, if you really look at my schedule of a year, maybe it was 45 weeks out of a year, so maybe 50 sets of strides over the course of the year. I would massively change that. I would touch on speed all the time. [0:53:12.8 ?] has an article about [0:53:14.9 ?] and he mentions in that that essentially for 4 years after she got to college, they did something for speed every single day and they basically took her 3k pace and made it her 10k pace in a 4 year span. If I was able to do that, I would have run sub 28 and I did not come anywhere near. I think that is important more than anything else. It improves your efficiency over all distances, but also it really improves your injury prevention and durability and I think I could have run a lot faster at 5k and 10k having been doing that. Even touching it, I started kind of doing it when I was 28-29 years old and I started to realize that my minimal speed that I had was disappearing and it made huge differences and I ran the best 5k and 10k of my life off of not impressive cycles. I think that is a huge-huge thing and it is the area that I think I missed more than anything else. I did a tremendous job developing my aerobic system from sort of all angles, but I did not develop the muscular system to go with it and I think I left a lot of time on the table because of it.

[0:54:37.5] J: Yeah, I am glad you brought that up because it is something I probably feel a bit about myself as well. I think a lot of it is the way training theory has changed over the last 10 years or so, but I feel the same way and I think when athletes stride into a lot of schedule that I built and I see them a lot in just schedules in general and I think it is something that a lot of athletes skip over and I think that it even goes to the core work that I think you were talking about, the core, the pedestals and those types of things. I think athletes see those on the schedule and they see the run and they say: OK, I got my run in and the strides and the core, all of it seems like kind of extra. ‘I’ll do that when I can, when I am on vacation’. I think it is good to point out that it is important and it is there for a reason. Going back, it could be a big boost.

[0:55:26.6] N: Yeah, I think looking back I have looked at a schedule and I thought, ‘there is 150 miles here. That is priority 1. Priority 2 is going to be whatever workout is on the schedule. There is maybe one workout that is going to be priority 3; it is the next hard effort, maybe the long run or whatever and strides and core was sort of ‘well, hopefully I can get that done’. Anyway, it is real life and things are going to get missed. When I look at my schedule now, I say, ‘OK, in this schedule, number 1 priority is going to be that I touch on the speed. If my miles for the week are a little bit lower, well, I have a heck of a lifetime basis at this point, so mileage in of itself has become a little less important, but I would at least say that if I went back in time, it would be of equal importance to touch on the speed and the muscular stuff. I see this stuff where kids are coming in a college system that does not do a lot of speed, but it is a big jump in their mileage and you see their fitness overall improve massively, but there are times on the track only improve incrementally because they are losing, they came from a high school program that was all speed all the time, which I am against, but it is tremendous muscular work, so now they are getting muscularly weaker while they are getting a little bit stronger. There is no reason for it because you can do muscular work a-lactic. It will not tire you out. If anything, it will make you feel better and, on top of that, when it is combined with your aerobic work, the rate of improvement can just be started. It really can. If there is a “magic training”, I think it is a balance between those 2 things and everything else is the frosting.

[0:57:29.0] J: Talk a bit about what you are doing now. I know you are training, who you are running for, those kind of things.

[0:57:38.9] N: I am running for a race menu. It is basically different ways for races to create a social media aspect, but also just do their entries and sort of the day to day, stuff like that. It has been a really neat experience, a fun group of guys. They saw a need in the sport and decided to go get it. They can do this better than other people, in a different way. They have a lot of new fresh ideas. They have been great and really supportive.

[0:58:19.3] J: So people are signing up for a race like a local 5k or something like that.

[0:58:28.3] N: What they do is, if you are putting up a local 5k, you can hire them to be in charge of your on-line registration and that sort of thing. They do a couple of other things around that and if you live in the North-East, you have probably signed up for a race that they do. They do a lot of the races up here. Sometimes you realize it because you found it through their website, which has all their races and all other events and stuff going; other times you may not even realize. They have some neat ideas with how to tie entries with the social media and stuff like that, which is fun. You don’t really appreciate it until you get them. It’s like chip timing. No one really thought anything of it until all of a sudden, the guy who was losing 30 seconds every time he started a local 5k because he started at the back. He realized he just got a 30 second PR because there is a chip mat at the start. This is wonderful. Now, I don’t care what race you go to, there will be someone in the back, a high school 5k complaining that it’s going to take him 3 seconds to get to the line in the 3rd row and there is no chip mat down there. I think some day we will all expect that the result instantly pops up on Facebook the moment we cross the finish line and things like that.

[0:59:51.0] J: Very cool. Is there anything else? I think I kind of interrupted you there as you were going on.

[0:59:55.9] N: I have been able to work out a deal where, while running for race menu, I am competing for [0:59:59.8 ?] for the first time since my first marathon. I grew up in Central Massachusetts and I always sort of idolized some of the guys who are now on the master squad and that has been fun. It is fun to have a team again. There is a reason in showing for a race when you are not in the best form: ‘I am going to pick up some points for the team’, which I like. I like that aspect of it. Particularly at this point, my career where I am not hitting the marathon and not leading and stuff that I enjoyed gives me an outlet that makes running a 30 more minute 10k worth it. It would just be something for me to write nasty bad words in my log about it.

[1:00:45.9] J: That is cool. I appreciate you Nate, taking the time to talk to us about marathon training. I think that the information you gave us is phenomenal. Everybody is going to benefit from it and we wish you the best of luck in terms of coming back and hopefully being able to race another marathon someday and obviously everything that you are doing with the 5k and 10k, locally for now.

[1:01:06.9] N: Yeah, thanks. I have a lot of fun doing this and thanks for having me.

[1:01:12.0] J: Alright, Nate, thanks so much.

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8 Responses on “What can you learn from one of America’s best marathoners?

  1. Wow! This is the best article yet that I’ve come across. It’s perfect as I’m only in my 3rd week of training for CIM (12/2). The insight is an eye opener. Like for instance, training the body to use fat as fuel efficiently–I’ve read that many times before, but it didn’t click as you guys broke it down in laymen’s terms. Another one is staying positive on your log. I’m guilty of harping on the negatives in my training. come race day, I’m full of doubts and I trick my brain into thinking I won’t break four hours. I’ll be sure to incorporated the alternating tempos in my workouts and stay positive when reflecting on my logs.

    Question. Would it be a good idea to do gradual work on the alt/ tempo by starting say 1/2 miles alternating, then two weeks later, 3/4 miles? then two more weeks increase it to 1 mile alternating tempos?

    Again thank you so much for sharing the interview.

    • Hi Aileen,

      I am glad you enjoyed the interview and article. I think your plan to start with 1/2 mile alternating and then progress to 3/4 and 1 mile alternating is a great idea. That should get you where you need to be within 3-4 weeks and would be a nice gradually introduction. Good luck with your next marathon!

    • hi tejan,

      nate munchkins is a great marathon runner. he would be a really good inspiration to younger people who actually want to become popular and get some dignity and respect for themselves that are really into sports.

      Hope you could understand


  2. First let me say that this podcast episode was PHENOMENAL and I have listened to it multiple times. I understand the concept of what Nate is talking about when he discusses his long run with 3 miles at MP and 1 mile at MP+30 intervals (in order to teach the body to burn more fat); but I’m missing where he gets one of his numbers from. At about the 37:30 point, he talks about a “1000 calorie” deficit of carbohydrates; but I can’t understand where this 1000 cal number is coming from. Can you clarify that to me? Thanks Jeff!!

    • Great question, Brad. I think what Nate means here is that you burn about 140 calories a mile when running at marathon pace. The 1000 calorie deficit number comes up because he talks about how many calories you have to ingest to get from 18-20 miles (when you run out of muscle glycogen) to the finish. When you run out of muscle glycogen at 18-20, you still have 6-8 miles to go and that glycogen has to be found somewhere (either by ingesting it or teaching how to burn less carbs per mile)

  3. Pingback: Túlértékeled a hosszúfutás szerepét a maraton felkészülésedben? | Blogarak

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