The Science of Running - Fitness Week on BTR


photo taken from WikiMedia Commons

In approximately two weeks, I will run my second marathon. My first was five years ago in Long Beach, CA, and though I finished at a decent time (4:03), I swore I’d never do it again. I could think of no sane reason in favor of another, and a slew of arguments against it. The agony of knowing how far I had left at every mile marker; the nausea of watching people on the sidelines, cheering you on as they sipped pink lemonade from cushioned lawn chairs; the sense of doom perpetuated by the prevalence of fallen runners scraped off the ground by paramedics. There seemed to be no justifiable motivation.

Then it hit me – I’d never tried the beer. At mile 23 of my premiere race, they’d offered joggers a shot of beer to chug as they dragged on towards the finish line; at the time, it sounded repulsive so I passed. In retrospect however, I think this could have been my little spark of power. So when, a few months ago, my daily mileage increased to the point where I could feasibly train for another, I figured I might as well.

I called Gail McCaslin, a schoolteacher in North Carolina (my former second grade instructor) and long-time marathon runner for some tips. McCaslin is in her mid-60s and will run her 51st marathon next month in Oregon. She recently completed marathon #50 in Alaska, and has aims to run one in every state within her lifetime, a slightly more profound goal than my own. To chart her progress and build skill, McCaslin keeps all her race and training times in a spreadsheet, noting her pace and location, and using these figures to devise a rigorous schedule that will help her achieve personal expectations. She asked me if I also did this in my training, and I said I’d never thought of that.

I asked her about the beer.

“You mean after the race?” she replied, surprised they’d even suggested it. We went on to discuss more suitable forms of nourishment.

“When I was younger, I mostly drank water during races,” she explained. “But now, I’ll take a fanny pack and bring along about 4-5 packs of liquid goo and gummy bears…I recently tried this new product called Sparks; it’s like a spoonful of honey, but it’s a little too sweet, I think.”

A marathon severely depletes runners of energy and nutrients, putting them at risk for dehydration. McCaslin’s choices fall along the lines of most runners, who refuel periodically throughout the 26-mile excursion on anything from Gatorade to granola bars to nuts.

“On race day, simple sugars can give a boost,” explains Justin, a family medical practitioner, certified personal trainer and member of the Road Runners Club of America. Justin’s site,, maps out a series of programs with techniques to help runners prepare for varying courses, all available for download into mobile devices. “Electrolytes like sodium and potassium play a critical role in keeping an athlete hydrated and keeping muscles working their best. Runners can lose electrolytes through sweating so it’s important to replenish those along with drinking water. Sports drinks contain carbs, water and electrolytes.”

Training for great distances is typically a progressive journey, with daily runs averaging from 3-8 miles, and long runs on the weekend building to about 20 miles before tapering off towards race day. My particular routine wasn’t as strategic as most. I kept my usual runs to about 9 miles a day, but followed a planned schedule for long runs as recommended by experts. To keep muscles in good form, cross-training activities like swimming and hiking are also advised.

“I like to do water running,” says McCaslin. “You avoid the impact, but get all the same benefits. Basically, 30 minutes in the water is the equivalent of one hour on the road.”

Justin advises all the above, along with dedication and perseverance. “Most good runners run or work out 5-7 days per week, and eat a healthy diet all the time. Interval training, pacing workouts and long distance runs are all important parts of a good training program.”

At this point, I feel I’m in pretty good shape for my forthcoming excursion in the San Francisco. I’ve been training in the New York summer humidity so welcome the cooler, lighter environment and more picturesque setting for my run. Incidentally, McCaslin feels weather affects her most, deeming the Grandfather Mountain marathon in North Carolina her most difficult race yet due to heat and humidity. Her fastest time has been 3:37, roughly 7.2 miles per hour. My goal with San Francisco is 3:45, a feat McCaslin didn’t seem too confident I could accomplish.

“That’s thirty seconds off every mile,” she replied. I explained I was shooting for the moon. “Well, that’s okay, but you should have your A, B, and C goals. A being the moon, B more likely, and then C, you know, just what you’d be happy with.”

In other words: A – 3:45; B – Not worse than Long Beach; C – Still able to walk.

Goal A may be lofty, but I am fairly certain, with the help of that beer, it is not out of reach. I also asked Justin if he thought the ale was a good idea.

“Probably a bad idea,” he responds, “but which marathon was it? I’d like to try that one.”