Spring Running: Top Ten Training Tips to Ace Your Next Race

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Dimity McDowell and Sarah Bowen Shea, two of more grounded, sane, and organized parents I know—and accomplished competitive runners and book authors to boot. Their first book, Run Like a Mother, became a wildly successful motivational bible for mama athletes trying to figure out how to stick with the sport they love while parenting little people. 

Last week they came out with their second book, Train Like a Mother. TLAM takes the original premise to the next level, offering detailed, practical training plans for busy parents who want to run a 10K, half marathon, or marathon. The book is packed with smart tips and hard-won strategies for prepping for a race, whether it’s your first or your 50th, whether you’re just hoping to finish or gunning for a PR. 

I called Dimity and Sarah to get their secrets for setting personal athletic goals and seeing them through—even with high-energy kids in the picture. Selfishly, I hoped I would pick up a few pointers for the Jemez Mountains 50K trail run I’m prepping for later next month (gulp). Not unlike parenting itself, my “training” has been inconsistent and scattershot at best, so I was relieved—and a little chastened—when they revealed their top 10 training tips, which says Dimity, “work for both men and women, and busy people, too, not just parents.” Check out the book—there’s plenty more where these came from. 

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1. Commit to your goal. 
“The secret weapon is making the race a priority,” says Sarah. “You have to commit to the goal and find the time to train. This absolutely means checking in with your spouse, and telling him [or her]: ‘This is my priority for the next 14 weeks.’ I keep my training plan for Boston on a bulletin board in the kitchen, so my husband and kids can see it.” 

This may sound obvious, but I can say from recent personal experience that if you don’t have a plan of attack, it’s easy to get sidelined by doubt and start waffling. Says Sarah, “My plan makes me feel accountable—it’s right there in black and white. When I tally up mileage from the week, I feel a huge sense of accomplishment.” That alone can keep you going until next week. (Here's hoping that my strategy of increasing my long run by half an hour each week will be enough of a plan.)

2. Don’t rock the boat.
“It’s really important to get your training while making the fewest ripples in your household,” says Dimity. “This is one of the things we believe in most. You have to balance running with the other parts of your life: parenting and working.” Get your kids and partner on board with a plan that works for you—and them. At the same time, saying no is essential. “Too often we’re hesitant to put ourselves first, but to stick with a longer training plan, you have to be what society deems ‘selfish,’” says Dimity. “You have to be willing to say, ‘I’m not going to host book group this week’ or be OK with buying pre-baked goodies for the bake sale. It’s OK to put your running near the top of the list.” 

3. Get up early. 
There’s no getting around it: To get your miles in, you’re going to have to wake up early. “I have to be home by 7 to get lunches ready and the kids to school,” says Dimity. “So I work backwards: If I need to run an hour and a half, I’m out the door by 5:30.” If you’re worried about running solo early in the morning, enlist a friend. He or she doesn’t have to be on your same training plan, or running the distances you are. “Sometimes I’ll pick up a friend at mile 5,” says Sarah. “It doesn’t mean finding another marathon mom.” But you will have to go to bed earlier. “It’s hard telling parents that they need more sleep,” says Dimity, who tries to be in bed by 9 most nights when she’s training. “There’s always going to be another Facebook post to check or TV episode to watch. But to run your best, you really need to sleep.”

4. Train your spouse. 
Getting your partner’s buy-in might take a race or two, but once he’s on board, he can be your biggest ally. “Jack doesn’t gripe nearly as much as he used to about my training,” says Sarah. “I’ve even trained him to ask me ‘How was your run’ when it used to be that I’d come home from a long run, and he acted like all I’d done was go out to the mailbox.” This goes back to #1, but put publicize your goal and training regimen in a place where he can see it, read it, and, yes, bow down to it on a regular basis. 

5. Go shorter but faster.
Interval training is great for days when you only have a small window in which to get your workout in. “You can be done in 45 minutes if you do 10 hill repeats,” says Dimity. Speed work is terrific for road races from 10Ks to marathons, though less essential for ultra-distances of 50K or more (phew). “Trail races are really about going long but slow.”

6. Use tools—wisely. 
Apps from Map My Run and USATF can help you plot your training routes in less time (no more driving them beforehand). For trail running, figure out how long it takes you to run a mile—maybe 2 minutes longer than on roads—and go by time instead. Garmin GPS watches track your distance and pace. “Keeping a training log can be helpful, too,” says Sarah. “Remembering how you felt after a long run can have a big effect on your next one.” But don’t let your tools get in the way. Dimity’s a big advocate of “running naked”—without any gadgets except maybe a watch—so she can tune in to how her body’s feeling. Ditto.

7. Divide and conquer?
Both Sarah and Dimity advise against training with your spouse for the same race because one of you will need to watch the kids and, explains Sarah, “you’ll both be tired and dragging after your long runs.” Says Dimity, “Trading off really makes sense.” Maybe from a practical standpoint, but I’m not sure I totally agree. My husband, Steve, and I are both training for the Jemez 50K, and not only is it nice to have the moral support, but our long Sunday runs are some of the only daylight hours each week when we’re alone together, without kids. Sure it means getting creative with childcare—we’ve been swapping kids with our friends, who are also prepping for a race, and I know we’ll have to pony up for weekend babysitters in the coming weeks—but there’s no one I’d rather run (and suffer) with than Steve. 

8. Know when to let go. 
Life with kids throws up plenty of unknowns on a daily basis, so while it’s key to set a weekly goals, it’s essential to roll with the curveballs. That’s why all eight of TLAM’s training plans have a weekly “bail” workout that you can jettison if you have to. “We kept an eye on the fact that life is not clean and tidy and sometimes things slip,” says Dimity. “But we’ve also flagged workouts that are essential—the one run a week you shouldn’t miss.” Training smart means knowing when to let yourself off the hook and when to push through. 

9. Feed your body. 
“It’s really important to pay attention to taking in good carbohydrates and staying hydrated,” says Sarah. “Not going from lunch until dinner without drinking something.” (Guilty.) During training, Dimity tries to eat protein at every meal, recommends “good” carbohydrates like brown rice and quinoa, and swears by chocolate milk and peanut butter sandwiches as post-run recovery food. “You don’t have to spend money on fancy sports drinks. You just need to find food with the right carbs-to-protein ratio.”

10. Run for the right reasons. 
“A lot of women are serial racers. They do race after race, and that’s great,” says Dimity. “It’s good to have a goal once in a while, but it doesn’t have to be a 50K.” (Point taken.) “I ran the Austin Half and missed a PR by a minute and was so disappointed. I moped all afternoon. The training cycle robbed me of the joy of running, but I learned my lesson. I’m almost 40 and my body is injury prone. I could run in smart ways and not push it, or I could rip it up in one race and potentially be done. For me, it’s an easy choice. Do what feels good for you right now.” 

11. “Don’t think, just go.”
These is Dimity's mantra. When in doubt, get out the door and run. End of story. 

 —Katie Arnold


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