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Semper Fly: How to Go Fast in the Marine Corps Marathon 2011

Posted by on Tuesday, October 25, 2011 @ 9:28 am | 1 Reply

by Natural Running Guru, Mark Cucuzzella MD FAAFP, lovingly reposted from The Natural Running Center

As a Lt Col in the U.S. Air Force, I have been an Air Force Marathon Team Member since 1988. This will be my 20th Marine Corps Marathon with two Masters wins and two top-five overall finishes. This Sunday, I will be competing again in the Marine Corps 26.2-mile race which is held in D.C.

While I will be speaking on Barefoot Running Style at the AMAA Sports Medicine Symposium the day before,  please allow me to share some of my own training and racing experience, and perhaps you too can follow some of these recommendation as you prepare for your own race. wherever or whenever that happens to be.

As you enter the week prior to the race here are a few visualizations to help you set your plan.  Running your bestmarathon is part art, science, guts, faith in what you can do, and a little luck.  Running your best 10k is mostly about fitness. The best analogy I can think of is this: if you have trained your body properly with the right mix of aerobic level training and some up tempo stuff in recent weeks, you have built your efficient hybrid engine ready to race the marathon.  Many of you have driven in a Prius and watch the subtle shifts between gas and electric on the screen.  You do not perceive these shifts. Your engine runs on gas, electric, or a mix- depending on the effort.

You are starting the race with one gallon in the tank- assuming you have eaten a nice meal the night before with a breakfast top off.

  • If you are in all gas mode, your engine will run about 1.5 hours at a strong pace….then you are out of gas.
  • If you are mostly electric you can run all day, but maybe maybe not so quickly.
  • If you are using the proper mix you will go quick and efficient for duration of your event, and you can even do some topping off along the way.

The glucose utilizing pathway is the gas. This is your stored glycogen and blood glucose (pasta meal and breakfast) – easy to access for ready energy.  The fat utilizing pathway is the electric.  In marathons you must be in hybrid until the last few miles.  Hybrid is where your energy  is coming from both sources.

Many runners are in great “10k shape” (an all gas event), then run their marathon in the gas mode- and usually crash.  Glycogen sparing strategy need not apply in races of less than an hour as long as you had a good pre-event meal to fill the tank. In marathons and ultras- top end fitness matters little and can only be applied very near the finish. Glucose gives 36 ATP per molecule, fat 460 ATP per molecule.  You must tap into the fat burning tank. Now you know how a bird can migrate 7000 miles without an energy bar.

So how do you know you are running in your best hybrid mode?

This is difficult because the sense is not as profound as aerobic/anaerobic.  A slight increase from your optimal pace will switch you from hybrid to all gas without you realizing it, and the effects are felt miles later. Charging up hills early will tap your gas quickly.  If you want to speed up early…don’t. Relax and maintain effort, not speed.

You must rehearse a bit in training.  I focus on relaxation and breathing.  If I’m breathing one cycle to 5 steps, then I’m hybrid.  If I’m breathing faster I’m using mostly glucose as fuel.  Belly breathe- allow lower belly to blow up like a beach ball on inhalation and pull your belly button back to your spine on exhalation.  Then you will fill the lower lung areas where oxygen exchange occurs. Notice the breathing efforts of those around you and many are rapid breathing- they tend to suffer somewhere past half way.  Rehearse complete relaxation from the top down- eyes, jaw, shoulders, allow your legs to relax and extend behind you, relax and soften your knees and ankles.  Find you own cue for this.  If you use the Heart Rate Monitor in training strongly consider one during the event.

In a marathon, the last 3-4 miles you will be all gas to maintain the same speed as fatigue sets in.  The breathing is usually on a 3 to 4 steps per breath cycle- that is OK.  Still stay relaxed and use the cues that you have rehearsed to keep your form. Your heart rate is higher now.  Speed up only when you can “smell the barn”, maybe after 20 miles.

Land softly, especially on the early downhills.  I run with a forefoot/midfoot landing harnessing elastic recoil. Focus on posture and hip extension. Use a slight forward lean from the ankles.  I’m never sore after marathons now and feel I can keep doing them until I enter the retirement home. I won the Air Force Marathon in 2:38 four weeks ago and feel fine now for another effort.  With good form it is “No pain…thank you”.

Your shoes matter too.  I will be running in the zero-drop Newton MV2, which I wore with comfort and success at the Air force Marathon. Not that you are going to change your shoes in the next day based on my advice, but make strong consideration to not running in minimalist racing flats, unless you have trained substantially in them and adapted to a natural barefoot style gait. I advocate gradually adapting all of your training in the more minimal and level shoes.   If you relax your lower legs and load the springy tendons in your feet and Achilles, then these shoes with no heel elevation put you in perfect position to allow natural elastic recoil of plantar fascia, Achilles, calf muscles, and hip flexors.

New research and runner’s experience is now making the case for running with a more efficient stride and questions modern running footwear. The evolving world of modern sports medicine is going back to the future too and rediscovering what evolution has taught us.

Now a few extra ways to get from start to finish quicker on the same gallon.

  • If you can add a little gas along the way then you can go more into gas mode.  This works a little at best.  If running too fast you shunt all blood to working muscles and nothing digests.  If you are in hybrid the early going you can continually add fuel- the key is not only the correct fuel, but the right pace.  An energy gel  every 25 minutes is easy to digest and tops off the tank.  Carry them with you at the start.  The weight is nothing compared to the benefit you will get.  If you do the gels then you can drink water instead of the energy drinks which are often less predictable on the run. Marine Corps has a gel station at Mile 9, 13, and 23.  Carry 2 gels at the start (one every 3-4 miles or so) and top-off  along the way.
  • Maintain effort on uphill.  Your pace will slow. You can easily use all your gas here if your effort increases.  Shorten your stride, relax, and use your arms.  Then allow gravity to take you down. The first hills in Arlington and Georgetown can feel “easy” but if run too hard can drain your gas quickly; so go easy up them.
  • If it is windy get behind a group.  This can save lots of physical and mental energy.
  • If you are having a “bad patch” – try to refocus on relaxing, fuel a bit (sometimes a blood glucose drop triggers the sense of doom), and have faith in your training and race plan.  Another nice trick is when you hit mile 21 it is not 5 miles to go, it is 4 and change. Mile 22 is 3 and change to go.  Just run to the next mile marker and count them down one by one. Smile and enjoy the party in Crystal City. This gives you some mental refreshment after crossing the lonely bridge from 20-22 miles.
  • Do not over drink water. This can lead to a dangerous condition called hypontremia and severe electrolyte imbalance.

The fun of the marathon is that we are always learning and enjoying the adventure of it.  I’ve done over 70 marathons now with a couple under 2:25 in my younger years.  (i just turned 45.) I’ve had the pleasure of running this race 20 times representing the US Air Force.  My only misses were for military duties and a foot surgery many years ago.  We learn from experience, taking chances, and occasional failures. My first marathon was the 1988 Marine Corps was 2:34, when I could run about 30 minutes for 10 kilometers. Twenty-three years later I hope to get near this time again and my current 10k is about 35 minutes.   In the last 23 years I’ve run a marathon under 2:40 every year except for my year of medical internship when there was no time to find a race. Twenty-one of those years were under 2:35.  I’ve learned a few things in 20 plus years on how to train and race efficiently and economically, but still there are uncertainties every time you line up.  So relax, taper up, and seize the day.

I’d like to especially thank all the Armed Forces Members around the world who sacrifice daily in the service of their country and for all the volunteers who make the Marine Corps Marathon an incredible event.  Thank the Marines you see around the course and that in itself will give you added spirit.

 

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Winning the Air Force Marathon: Natural Running Center’s Dr. Mark Cucuzzella, 44, Placed First in 2:38

Posted by on Monday, September 19, 2011 @ 10:54 am | Leave a reply

Reposted with permission from the Natural Running Center

When I got the email late Saturday morning from Mark with just two words in the subject line, “I won!”, my digital jaw dropped in astonishment.  Just a few weeks shy of his 45th birthday, Mark topped a field of 2,500 runners at the 2011 Air Force Marathon, which  started and finished at the Wright-Patterson Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio on September 17.  In addition to being fleet of foot, Mark is a Professor of Family Medicine at West Virginia University School of Medicine as well as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force Reserves. Wanting to know more about his amazing victory — he won by five minutes in a time of 2:38– I fired off several questions to Mark and he  quickly responded.  So without further delay, here’s our exchange. But first, all of us who are involved with the Natural Running Center, are extremely proud of the NRC’s co-founder and executive director who showed that age should be no barrier or hindrance to performance. — Bill Katovsky

You last won this race in 2006.  What were the differences between now and then in terms of your training?

I last won this race in 2006 just shy of my fortieth birthday.  In 2006 life was a lot less busy.  I had time then to focus more on my running and do some of the harder sessions necessary to run fast.  Currently running fits 100 percent  in the relaxation part of my day; if it did not the running and life in general would not be sustainable.  In 2006 I would do marathon pace 2 hour runs in the 6 weeks leading into a marathon.  Now my long runs are all relaxed and low heart rate, and no more than 2 hours.  I did no traditional interval sessions then and I do not do these now either.  I do really short neuromuscular work several times a week with 4 short 50 meter strides and light skipping drills to wake up the recoil and springiness in my stride. In 2006 I started to run in level shoes, now I run barefoot or minimalist in training. So that’s another progression.

How many times have you done this race?

Looking back this was my eighth race and sixth in a row.  I was second in the inaugural race losing to a college rival runner Andy Herr out of NC State.  He beat me in college XC and translated that to the marathon.

Here are the years, times, and place

1995                  2:32                  2nd

1996                  2:34                  3rd

2006                 2:31                  1st

2007                 2:34                  5th

2008                 2:39                  6th

2009                 2:44                  4th

2010                 2:42                  5th

2011                  2:38                  1st

 

One other note. Out of close to 80 marathons that I have raced, only have 2 have been over 2:45 and 24 of last 25 years with a marathon under 2:40, 22 of the years under 2:35.

Mark was flying in his new 5-ounce, zero-drop Newton MV-2's.

What shoes did you wear in 2006? And in Saturday’s race?

In 2006 I was wearing a Brooks Burn. I was sponsored by them at the time.In 2011 I wore the new Newton MV2.  This is a 5-ounce zero-drop shoe which is firm and responsive.

Given that a majority of your training is barefoot, what are the differences in racing shod?

I want something with a close to barefoot feel; that is a firm shoe with no heel elevation.  Also need a nice toe-box so I can use my “Correct Toes”. These keep my big toe in the right position for stability and spring.  You can run faster on this course in shoes than barefoot.  There are lots of rough stretches of pavement which would be tough at 6 minute pace in bare feet.  To race a marathon you need to be in total relaxation mode and let it go.  Barefoot on unfamiliar textured terrain is a challenge in itself.  You can go more reckless in shoes too as you can get away with flying down the hills, and which is a good thing in a race.  The Newtons are different as they are not traditional soft foam, but rather a firm TPU membrane with recoil properties.  To me this enhances efficiency, and does not sap it away like traditional EVA.

Will you ever run a full marathon barefoot?

Sure, I need to find a nice scenic course with a good smooth road.  I would not “race” this either and rather focus on smooth technique and enjoying the day.  I ran Big Sur several years ago.  This would be a nice barefoot run, or Napa Valley and finish with a nice glass of red.

How many miles do you train per week? And do you do any other sports or physical activities?

I probably log 50-60 miles with a long run of 1:45-2 hours.  I play in the backyard often with my dog and kids.

With your incredibly busy schedule of being a family physician, owner of Two Rivers Treads, and frequent travel to speak at sports medicine conferences and clinics, how do you even find time to run?

I run when there is opportunity, often very early in the morning and sometimes at lunch.  The beauty of running is that you can run anywhere and anytime.  I have a headlamp for running in the dark

Does everyday stress ever affect your training?

I use my running (and deliberately shun the word “training”) as the daily reset button.  The harder and busier the day is the more I need to do an easy run.  This relaxation counters the sometimes toxic levels of stress that comes with being overextended.  If running were another stress it would not be sustainable, therefore all of my running is relaxed. Often people read schedules developed by elite athletes and they have weekly strenuous sessions. Now if you are an elite athlete and the rest of your day is the relaxing part then you can add frequent stressful workouts.  For 99.9 percent of all runners this is not the case.  We all have busy and stressful lives and the running must fit into the “yin” of the “yin and yang” circle.

How did you celebrate after the win? Were your legs sore?

I have a trace of soreness now 24 hours after the race.  At the post-race tent I celebrated with teammates with a few beers, a pizza, and later  2 glasses of wine (good mixed fat, protein, and carb recovery).  When I got home that night my family had a nice Boston Crème pie waiting.  This was the real celebration.  To my two kids, it was if I had won the Olympics.  I brought home a really big trophy and they loved it. They made me congratulation cards with crayon drawings of Daddy leading the pack. On Sunday morning I ran 40 minutes barefoot and felt really good considering the hard 26 yesterday.  I even mowed the grass too for an hour with a push mower.

What was it like to be out in front the entire race? Were you in a state of suspended disbelief, thinking “where is everyone?”

When you run a marathon you just focus on your own pace and feeling.  I had plenty of company with a police lead car and 4 Military Police on bikes next to me.  So at least I felt safe and did not need to think about turn. I just looked ahead at the car.  There were tons of spectators out in the towns, at the aid stations, and on base. So it was never lonely.  At least 20 bands too and since I was the first runner they really cranked it up.  Heard some AC/DC, Zeppelin, Elvis, and lots of other spirited tunes to give me a little boost.

How many other runners in their 40s in the U.S. can go sub 2:40?

There are quite a few 40 year old runners who can run this time; at 45 years, not too many

How was this race different than Boston 2011 when you ran 2:37?

I consider the solo 2:38 yesterday a better performance.  In Boston we had a nice tailwind, there are no turns, and there is always either a group to break the wind or another runner you are chasing.  To solo run a 2:38 on a course with several hills takes more effort.

Some of the runners in the Air Force marathon were half your age!  Yet, you were able to flick on your afterburners for  26.2 miles and they weren’t.  Why is this so?  How does one build up endurance and speed?

Running is all about efficiency and economy, a term Dr. Phil Maffetone calls “aerobic speed”.  This is the speed you can achieve while still in your true aerobic zone (where a good portion of fuel is fat).  Go a little faster than this and you are burning all glucose/glycogen.  We only have an hour and a half of glucose/glycogen in the tank so this strategy does not work for a marathon.

I do almost all my running is very relaxed at a  heart rate  of about 145 or lower and do supplemental short 50 meter sprints and light plyometrics to keep the range of motion and “quickness”.  You want to be able to run “fast” without running “hard.” That is the secret.

I work on kinetic chain strength and stability also by spending a lot of time standing on one leg.  I do not have a chair at my desk and do most of my working at a stand up desk.

The day before the race you were on your feet the entire day giving talks on footwear education and running. What were some of the topics you covered? And, weren’t you tired by the end of the day? So much for taking it easy the day before the race.

Yes it was a busy couple of days giving talks at the expo and speaking with fellow soldiers about their running.  I covered the basics of a program we are about to launch called “Efficient Running”. We are tasked to build self instruction modules for soldiers on aerobic development, core strength for running, and running mechanics.  The talks brought much interest and curiosity.  Runners cornered me for an hour after each of these talks to get advice on their injuries.

What did you eat the morning of the race? Did you eat or drink anything during the race?

My usual breakfast is several cups of good coffee (this is normal for me), a couple bagels with peanut butter, and a banana.  I eat about 2 hours before the start and then have a Power Gel at the start.  I use a Power Gel every 30 minutes during the race and take only water.  I do not drink beyond what my body senses. So maybe 20 ounces along the way yesterday.  It was cool.

Dr. George Sheehan, the late philosopher king of running, dealt with his declining marathon times by cutting back on the frequency of runs per week. Instead of going five miles a day, six times a week, he reduced that amount to running three times a week while boosting his mileage to ten miles per run. He was still running thirty miles per week, but it was offset by additional rest days. He stuck to this training regimen for three years, and at the age of sixty-two, Sheehan set a personal best in the marathon by going 3:01. Can you see yourself going even faster in the marathon in years to come?

I think I could run faster if I chose a goal race and life calmed down enough to do some of the necessary harder sessions to really get into “race” shape.  Currently, there’s not enough time to sleep and recover so the running can only be easy.  With the right prep and the right race I think I can go under 2:30 again.  I’ve run under 2:25 a couple times in my 20’s, but doubt I’ll get there again.  But really the times don’t matter.  I’m happy to be able to wake up and run pain free even if I never raced again.  In some ways though I feel obligated to jump into the races since a big mission of the Natural Running Center, Two Rivers Treads, and the United States Air Force Efficient Running is sustainable running. If I were just another “former runner” trying to tell folks what to do it would have no credibility or relevance.  I’m learning and experimenting everyday too.

 

What’s up next on Dr. Mark’s race calendar?

The biggest running challenge is a race where I’m not running but directing.  On October 1, we’re hosting nearly 3000 runners in Shepherdstown with Freedom’s Run (www.freedomsrun.org).  I direct the race and believe me that when I say running a marathon is easy; you just show up. Finally, come see our new Two Rivers Treads blog calledRun Shepherd. We just posted a short video of one returning Freedom’ s Run competitor, Don Taylor, who is 80 years old!

I have Marine Corps Marathon late October. I will be part of Air Force team.  This will be my nineteenth Marine Corps. This was my first marathon in 1988 and I ran a 2:34. It would be fun to achieve that time again. I will run the JFK 50 mile in November to finish the fall running season.

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