Q&A with Coach: The Skinny on Carb-loading, Strength Training, and Walking Breaks

For the first eight years of my running career, I was fortunate: at least three coaches were always available to answer all my questionsRunning Question.

But if you didn’t run in high school or college, that luxury isn’t available.

And unfortunately, most training advice is terrible and makes me cringe. It leaves runners with no direction, skipping from one random workout to another.

Those in my 1-on-1 coaching program know that I’m their “personal running consultant” and always available for questions. Run Your BQ athletes also get to chat during our video calls and in our forum.

Instead of limiting the dialogue to just those two groups of runners, I asked fans of Strength Running on Facebook and my Twitter followers if they had any specific questions about running.

Here are the top four questions and my answers. Enjoy!

How do I load up on carbs before a race?

Jason asks: “When carb-loading in the 2-3 days before a race, should you use various carb sources? Or just Pop-tarts? 🙂

More than just Pop-tarts!

In all seriousness, yes of course you should eat multiple types of carbohydrates before a longer race. But first, let’s clarify what carb-loading is and when you should do it.

Carb-loading is the process of maxing out your muscle’s glycogen stores by eating more carbohydrates in the days before a race. This enables you to be fully fueled so you avoid the “bonk” so famous at the 20 mile mark in marathons.

Now, you don’t have to formally load up on carbs for shorter races. It’s really only necessary for races lasting longer than about 90 minutes. For most people, that’s a half marathon or longer race.

So what should you eat? Let’s focus on the most common race distance for carb-loading: the marathon. In the days leading up to the race, shift your calorie intake to be a higher percentage of carbs. A good guideline to follow is 7-10 grams of carbohydrate for every kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight.

This is a lot of carbs so you’ll need to eat a variety of sources:

  • Eat carbs at every meal: oatmeal, rice, quinoa, bread
  • Snack often: pretzels, energy  bars, fruit, some chips
  • Drink regularly: Gatorade, fruit juice

Marathon preparation requires some extraordinary efforts and carb-loading is one of them. You likely won’t feel great with all these carbs, but it’s necessary.

In fact, researchers from England followed over 250 runners at the London Marathon. They found that only a fraction of them consumed enough carbohydrates before the race – and those that ate enough ran an average of 13% faster!

It’s one of the reasons why I barely slowed down at the Philadelphia Marathon and ran a 5+ minute personal best.

Should Ultra and Mid-Distance Runners Strength Train?

Strength Training

Nate asks: “What lower body strength training should an ultrarunner do?

and Kerri asks: “Do you recommend doing weights for a mid-distance runner?

First, many ultrarunners do virtually no strength work aside from planks and other ab-focused core work. In fact, Bryon Powell’s book Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons has no mention of strength training! (if I’m mistaken, let me know – I’ve read it cover to cover and referenced it with no luck)

Of course, the rule of specificity says you need to focus on your particular sport if you want to get better at it. If you want to be a good runner, then you have to run.

But ancillary work like lower body strength training can help prevent injuries and ensure your engine doesn’t outpace your chassis. I firmly believe that every runner – even 100 mile ultrarunners – can benefit from strength exercises.

First I’d start with a simple but foundational core circuit like the Standard Core Routine that includes leg work. Then a more advanced strength circuit like the ITB Rehab Routine (not just for those with ITBS!) can build your leg strength.

Ultrarunners don’t need much more. However, I’d also recommend training on hilly terrain for even more strength gains.

For mid-distance runners (which I’ll label as someone training for 5k – 10 miles), then I think you can benefit from a more advanced lifting routine that includes weights in addition to the routines above.

Stick to basic exercises like compound, multi-joint lifts: dead lifts, chin ups, bench press, step ups, military press, lunges, squats, and pull ups. Lifting heavy for 4-6 reps is ideal to build strength. Make sure you take 2-3 minutes of recovery in between each exercise.

Recommended resources:

Should My Long Runs Mimic My Race?

Chris asks: “I’m not ready to run 13.1 miles non-stop yet. Should my long runs mimic my race strategy, which is to run 5k, then walk the aid stations every 2 miles?

This would look like: run 5k, then walk for about 30 seconds at each aid station at the 3, 6, 8, 10, and 12 mile markers.

If Chris can’t run a half marathon without stopping, then this is a good strategy to get him to the finish line confidently. But during training, Chris should gradually work on increasing his ability to run longer without stopping.

Given enough time, his progression of long runs could look like this:

  1. Run 3 miles and then walk 30 seconds every 2 miles until you finish 13 miles (his original plan)
  2. Walk 30 seconds every 3 miles until you finish 13 miles (four walking breaks at miles 3, 6, 9, 12)
  3. Walk 20 seconds every 3 miles until you finish 14 miles

That progression will gradually make him more comfortable with running longer distances without stopping. If he’s able to practice several long runs like this, he can be more aggressive during the half marathon and walk less.

Shorter mid-week runs in the 4-8 mile range can be done with no walking breaks to support his long run efforts. After a few months of smart training, Chris will probably be ready to tackle 13.1 miles with no stopping.

Next stop: the marathon!

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Thank you Jason, Nate, Kerri, and Chris for submitting your questions. I couldn’t answer all of them but I’ll save them for next time!

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