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Eyes on the Pack: How Meb Keflezighi Will Blitz the Boston Marathon

American marathoner Meb Keflezighi doesn't wind up on the podium—including the top spot at the 2009 NYC Marathon—from sheer luck. It requires months of hard training, perfect pre-race preparation, and some smart strategy once the race starts. That combination has helped him claim third place at Boston in 2006. He'll be back in the hunt this year. We caught up with the 38-year-old to learn how he watches, waits, and makes his move to victory.

The Start:

I definitely like to be in the front, hopefully not in the lead. It’s a narrow start. You don’t want to get stuck in the middle. This year, the start is going to be very emotional.

If the Early Pace Is Slow:

You have to wait. Somebody will go. Kenyans usually hammer early, so you have to know their background. A couple days before the race, I’ll study names and numbers. If three or four take off, I have no choice but to go with them—just make sure those guys are legit. One might falter, two might survive. Or vice versa, but that one guy has it won already. Ethiopians will never take the lead. Never. They’re going to wait till the last 5K, the last mile, even the last 500 meters.

Once the Pack Shrinks:

You’re trying to beat their psyche. You have 25 miles to solve it.

If Ryan Hall Starts Singing Like He Did in the 2011 Chicago Marathon:

I always believe as elite athletes, we should make it very comfortable through 18 or 20 miles at whatever pace it is. But if he’s singing at mile 23 or 24, then he has the energy to do whatever he wants.

Where to Make a Move:

The course can’t tell you. No way. It depends who’s in the mix and what their strengths and weaknesses are. That’s where the intelligence of competition comes.

Read the Competition:

You have to test them uphill, downhill. Study their mechanics. If they’re leaning back going downhill, you know they’re fried. Uphill, if they put their head down, okay, he’s trying to do everything he can just to pump.

If they’re right behind you, they’re trying to draft off you. Somebody trying to draft will clip your feet. It happens all the time. That’s a sign of fatigue. They cannot concentrate enough to stay away.

If they are not next to you, they’re struggling. When they’re struggling, take advantage of it—whether it’s 10 miles to go, five miles to go, or three miles to go. You just have to make a calculated decision.

Once you get to those Newton hills or Heartbreak Hill, take advantage of your strength. If they let you go, you gain confidence, spread the gap, and you’re going to be home free.

In a marathon, if you have [created] 20 feet or 20 meters [of space]—it’s hard to make up with two miles to go. In a 5K or 10K, you can probably pick it up, but in a marathon, your mind says Go, your body says No, thank you.

The Gap:

If I’m in the lead and people cross the road right behind me, I know I have a good gap—because otherwise they would be courteous to let the runner go first. If you hear less people cheering after you went by, you know you have a gap. If you hear someone saying their name and ‘Come on!’ it’s very close.

I’d rather do anything and everything to get away from everyone with a mile to go versus making it down to the last 400 to 500 meters.

Nobody likes to lose, nobody likes to get passed. In 2010, I spent every ounce of energy I had with a ruptured quad and I finished, but Ryan [Hall] passed me. He played it smart. But misfortunes do happen. Unless it threatens my life—if I fall and I’m bleeding, then I have to think twice. But if I can manage to go at a decent pace, I’m gonna go. Even if you’re hurting, it’s hard to stop in Boston.

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Don't Do It Alone

I’ve fallen victim to those one-step-ahead runners who feel the need to demonstrate their superiority. I’ve been the pace-breaking partner who promises an eight-minute recovery pace and somehow tricks you into shaving minutes off each mile. I’ve shown up late, been ditched, chattered nonstop when peace and quiet were desired, cringed for talkative miles when all I wanted was peace and quiet, coerced a longer route into the works on a short route day, and turned long runs into single-digit endeavors.

To sum my confession up, I’ve sometimes been a horrible running buddy. And I need help. Which is where Jerry Macari, founder and coach of New York City’s RunUrban training programs, comes in. He’s here to make me—and you—into a much better runner partner.

When you schedule a workout, show up. Accountability is a virtue. So show up, no matter the weather or daily crisis. Despite life’s disasters, when you lace up your shoes, your outlook will change. “Running with a partner is what gets you out the door—you look forward to seeing them,” says Macari.

Allow for spoken—and unspoken—bonds. When your workout partner needs to talk about the misadventures of their day, listen. Colorado fitness blogger Kelly Stevenson puts it perfectly: “Know when to shut up and let them talk it out.” More often than not, partner runs become much more than just that: they become an important opportunity for conversation, venting, and pseudotherapy.  

When you agree to a distance and a pace, stick to them. Spontaneity may be the spice of life, but it doesn’t make for a particularly sweet run. When you’re planning on a six-miler at 8:30 pace, run a six-miler at 8:30 pace. Not only does that ensure your own racing progress, but it also prevents those last-minute decisions that can undermine any training plan.

Be a motivator—and a fan. When that last mile repeat seems insurmountable, encourage. One of the biggest benefits of have a partner is having a motivator. “It works because, when one runner isn’t feeling so great, the other one is; when one runner is having a hard time going, the other one can keep pushing,” Macari explains.

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Row the Distance Without Carbs

If rowing across the Pacific Ocean with your significant other doesn’t sound tough enough, how about doing it without any energy gels, granola bars, or sports drinks?

Fueling a massive endurance effort with almost no sugar or carbs isn’t the most traditional route for athletes, but Sami Inkinen and Meredith Loring want to prove that it can work. This June, the married duo plans to go from San Francisco to Honolulu as part of the inaugural Great Pacific Rowing Race—and to see that through on a diet of fat and protein. (Inkinen and Loring believe sugar and processed carbohydrates only hinder athletes.)

This unconventional approach is reminiscent of the increasingly popular paleo and low-carb diets, which have been embraced by CrossFit addicts, dieters, and triathletes alike. Whether the low-carb craze is the best approach for active individuals (let alone endurance athletes) remains controversial. Some nutritionists have embraced the high-protein, high-fat approach, asserting that it reduces inflammation, stabilizes blood sugar, and eliminates the need to eat regularly during distance exercise. But other scientists say our bodies need carbohydrates during exercise to avoid muscle depletion, to keep metabolism functioning properly, and to achieve optimal performance.

“Carbs are like super-high octane fuel for athletes,” says Matt Fitzgerald, author of Racing Weight, as well as the upcoming book Diet Cults. “The best endurance athletes in the world—runners in East Africa—eat a very high carbohydrate diet.

The dissenting opinions carry over to Inkinen and Loring’s planned ocean crossing. Stephen Phinney, the pair’s nutritional advisor and a physician-scientist who wrote The New Atkins for a New You, has become an advocate for the low-carb approach for endurance athletes, explaining that the diet reduces inflammation and muscle soreness. Phinney believes Inkinen and Loring will have no trouble fueling their long-distance row with a diet that contains just 10 percent carbohydrates—and that they’ll be able to avoid energy swings and experience faster recovery rates.

“If Sami and Meredith were racing in a five-kilometer event, a well-formulated ketogenic diet might not be the best strategy,” Phinney says, referring to a high-fat, low-carb diet. “But they’re going to be rowing 12 to 14 hours a day, for 45 to 60 days, at relatively low intensity.”           

Other sports scientists, however, state they’d never recommend a low-carb approach during an endurance competition, even if the athletes are exerting at a steady rate. Michael Joyner, a physiologist at the Mayo Clinic, says most top distance athletes consume carbs when they’re racing because that’s what improves performance. Carbohydrates boost the central nervous system, keep metabolic pathways working, and provide energy, Joyner explains. Fitzgerald also advocates carb consumption for athletic competition, adding that such food offers a superior energy source during exercise stress.

Despite the controversy over the low-carb approach for exercise, Inkinen and Loring are certain the fat-and-protein diet they’re signing on for is the one that will best serve them for the 2,400-mile ocean crossing. They plan to race 14 other boats, singles, pairs, and fours among them. Along with safely completing the crossing, the couple hopes to set a record for the fastest Pacific Ocean crossing for a pair.           

The ocean menu will include nuts, coconut butter, salmon, dehydrated vegetables, lard, macadamia nuts, and, as a treat, unsweetened dark chocolate. They won’t consume any caffeine because they believe it will hinder sleep during the two-hour breaks. Per day, Inkinen will consume about 9,000 calories, and Loring will total about 5,000—so they’ll carry about a million calories’ worth of food in the boat.

“We see this adventure as a way to prove that you not don’t need sugar in real life, but you also don’t need it in exercise,” Loring says.

Loring first adopted a low-carb, low-sugar diet in 2004, with Inkinen following suit a year and a half ago. Inkinen believes the dietary change made him less prone to illness and improved his performance in distance triathlons. Both say they don’t need frequent snacks during exercise because they’ve trained their bodies to run on fat stores—and that, as a result, they feel better while racing.

“We don’t have sugar crashes, so we don’t have to eat as often,” says Inkinen. “We no longer have to rely on gels every 30 minutes.”

Read more about Sami Inkinen's and Meredith Loring's journey.

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Go Fast to Get Faster, Marathoners

True speed work—training your maximal velocity—belongs in every runner’s training program. (That includes you, marathoners.)

You have to go fast to get faster. That sounds like common sense, but runners still trap themselves into training with threshold runs and lots of mileage. Only the combination of both speed and pace work will guarantee your ability to change gear. As the 2004 Olympic Trials marathon winner Alan Culpepper told Runner’s World, he’s at his marathon-best when he’s in 5K and 10K shape.

And track work can do more than help you change pace: it frees you up to thrive over those final meters of any race. Most runners typically learn this the hard way. After “hitting the wall and running in slow motion on the homestretch” at the end of a race, Jeff Galloway, a member of the 1972 U.S. Olympic team, began to focus on the importance of pace work to boost neuromuscular fitness—something he’d eventually integrate into his coaching practice.

Tim Cary, training manager and coach for Fleet Feet Sports St. Louis, explains to his athletes that varying heart rates through different speeds during workouts is imperative for effective marathon pace work. “You have to hit the heart-rate zones that mimic the spikes you’ll reach during races,” he says. “At the height of Boston training, we do a 16-miler at one minute less than race pace, and then a 16-miler at race pace the following day,” Cary explains. “And we do one track workout a week that targets anywhere from a two-mile to a 10K pace.”

Galloway advocates gradually increasing speed through stride length, foot return, and foot pushing during runs. This allows feet and legs to adapt to the new forms of motion, letting you go from feeling like you’re running through gum to feeling downright bouncy.

Incorporating six to eight 50- to 80-meter “striders” after three workouts a week is a good starting point, says Cary. Striding, which is running at the maximum relaxed speed, is like pedaling a bike downhill: you’re flying without having to work at it. Fartleks are another old standby for speed play, but taking that to the track pretty much guarantees slowdowns and speedups. Jog the first 100 meters, stride the second 100, sprint the third 100, and walk the last 100. You’ll knock out four paces in one lap, while allowing your body to adapt between all of them.

During marathon season and beyond, it’s easy to get stuck in the pace rut. But your legs can do so much more than race pace, and working more pace variety into your workouts can lead to a faster, more reliable race pace than ever before. Now—go conquer Heartbreak Hill without a huff or a puff.

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Training and the Average Runner's Heart

The fact that running is good for you may not sound like news, but researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital have found that even if you’re a regular runner in good shape, training for a marathon still has significant benefits for your heart.

Though in the past studies have focused quite a bit on elite runners, less research has gone into the health of more casual runners, which is increasingly important as marathon-running has undergone a surge in popularity over the last ten years, at least partially because of more participation from the middle-aged. “Most ‘recreational runners’ train with the goal of safely finishing the marathon and usually train less than their elite competitors,” says Dr. Jodi Zilinksi, the lead investigator of the study.

The researchers also focused on middle aged men because previous studies had found that population has a significantly higher heart attack risk while running a marathon than other populations.

The team followed 45 male recreational runners between the ages of 35 and 65 who were preparing to run the Boston Marathon on a charity team (they didn’t have to qualify to run, though about half had already run three or more marathons). The runners were provided with a training guide, nutrition tips, pacing advice and regular correspondence with coaches and asked to run between 12 and 36 miles per week. About half of the runners also had one risk factor for heart problems, like high cholesterol or blood pressure.

At the end of the 18-week program, runners saw significant changes in the factors for cardiovascular risk. Bad cholesterol fell by 5 percent, total cholesterol by 4 and triglycerides dropped by 15 percent. BMI also dipped slightly, while peak oxygen consumption went up four percent. “Even in a population that was relatively fit at baseline, they gained additional benefits from marathon training,” Zilinksi says.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to prep for one for heart health. It’s likely that running about 25 miles a week—however you do it—might give you the same effect. “Observational data has suggested that moderate, not extreme, amounts of physical exercise promote optimal long-term health,” Zilinksi says.

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