11 mins 35 secs faster

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I ran my first half marathon (13.1 miles) on May 1, 2005 with a 2:10:41 run time. Back then, I was 29 years old with a body that was more resilient and definitely lighter. On Oct 17, 2021 I ran another half marathon with a 1:59:06 run time. Now, I am 45 years old with a body not as resilient and weigh around 200 pounds. To my delight I was 11 minutes 35 seconds faster and finished strong.

Sharing a few tools/techniques I deployed, which might benefit other amateur runners like me.

Setting context: Not a born runner

Growing up, in school and college, I competed in many sports. However, distance (>3 miles) running was not fun for me. It was a punishment that my dad or my cricket/soccer coach imposed on me! I am flat footed (very low foot arch) and mentally carried all the negative connotations associated with it. I started distance running after moving to the US in 2004 and never been formally coached or trained.

2005 Vs 2021

Tools/Techniques Used20052021
Static StretchingYesYes
Dynamic StretchingYesYes
Cross Train – Bicycling & YogaNoYes
Strength & Stability TrainingNoYes
Cadence MonitoringNoYes
Running BuddyNoYes
Whole30 EatingNoYes
Training PlanYesYes
Focussed Core WorkoutYesYes
Trail RunningNoYes
RICE Recovery (from Injury)YesYes
Run for a Cause/CommunityNoYes
Running with Race PacersNoYes
Fore Feet RunningNoYes

my top 5 highlights

1. Strength & Stability Training

After training and running two full marathons, I was aware of my left tibial tendons being susceptible to injury. However, I never took any professional help. This year, when I started running 7 miles, I could feel the onset of discomfort, some tenderness accompanied with light swelling in my left inner ankle area. Thankfully, good sense prevailed and I reached out to my general physician – Dr. Alin Abraham – who sent me over to a sports doc – Dr. Brian Babka. After assessing my situation, he was confident that I had not developed any acute injury and would be able to complete my race. He did say “I don’t promise a Personal Best (PB) finish”.

My therapist for this recovery was James (Jim) Beitzel (ATC, PES, CI), a sports therapist. He was highly recommended by Dr. Babka and with 30 years of experience in the field, he brought to table deep knowledge and calm confidence. During my first session with him, he wanted to assess strength for 8 muscle groups which help us run. These were; Quads, Hip Flexion, Hip Internal Rotation, Hip External Rotation, Hamstrings, Hip Adductors, Glute Medius and Glute Maximus. The medical assessment of my injury was Left Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome, Initial Encounter & Left Tibialis Posterior Tendinitis. So, on day one, Jim had determined the following:

  1. With 10 weeks to race day, he was confident I will cross the finish line
  2. My strength scores for 3 muscles were not at par with others and we needed to focus on them – Hip External Rotation, Hamstrings and Glute Maximus
  3. I had to commit to carefully following his instructions at their center and at home
  4. He assured that I will run stronger (may not happen in my immediate race, but by 2021 Winter for sure)
Screen Grab from Jim’s Medical System

Looking back, the work Jim put into me certainly paid dividends. I will like to now call him the ‘Run Whisperer’. He had a very unique working style, of getting in close proximity and almost whispering his instructions. Not sure if any of his patients have ever mentioned this to him or not, but that close interaction style and his calm confidence got me to listen carefully and follow through. I want to formally thank him and others (Scott, Sam and Max) who supported and encouraged me – 2 sessions per week for 10 weeks.

The table below lists the exercises and tools that helped me improve my strength and stability scores.

ExerciseTools Needed
Hip External Rotation Stretch (Piriformis Stretch, Quadruped Figure 4 Stretch)None
Kneeling Adductor Stretch with Hip External RotationNone
Posterior Chain StretchNone
Side Plank with Clam and ResistanceBand
Modified Side Plank with Hip Adduction and ResistanceBand
Side Stepping with Resistance at FeetBand
Lean on Wall Single Leg Raise – Run PositionNone
Balance Pad Lunge with Weights – 3 positionsBalance Pad
One Leg Raised Lunge with Weights – 3 positionsDumbbell/Kettlebell
Hamstring CurlGlute Ham Roller
Highlighting Exercises that I was Weak to Begin

I did buy resistance bands (with varying resistance levels) and a balance pad to continue these routines making it part of my home workouts.

2. Cadence Monitoring

I had never paid great attention to my running cadence, even though all running watches record and highlight them. Running cadence is recorded as SPM (Steps per Minute) and my average was 157 SPM. There is NO ONE SIZE CADENCE for all runners, because it depends on height, body weight, running form and much more. If you Google the term, many posts will suggest a 180 SPM cadence as a good benchmark.

Jim set for me a 165 run cadence goal and we trained to progress toward it. He also suggested that I invest in a ‘metronome’, which a small device you can strap along for your run and it emits loud ticks. I swiftly progressed from 157 to 160 to 163 to 165. The objective is to get your feet off the road/trail quickly so your entire body weight is not absorbed by your feet and legs on every step. In my case, this would reduce the wear and tear (stress) on my tibial tendons.

For me, this was a new chapter in my run routines. It certainly helped my feet and also got me to run a bit faster, mind you, that was not our stated goal. You do have phone/watch apps for metronomes, however I don’t use any headsets during my runs, hence bought a physical metronome which I would strap along. Depending on the surroundings you can adjust the volume if it makes you too conscious.

On race day after crossing mile 8, I could feel (a bad tingle) in my left tibial tendons and a sense of dread was beginning to creep in – ‘was I going too fast and would I have to stop on account of my still recovering tendons??’ Thankfully, I shifted my attention to the ticking of the metronome and focussed on getting my foot strike in sync with it. Soon that dreadful feeling was lost and I was back in the moment enjoying the race, supporters and cheering.

If you have an SPM <170, I would highly recommend using a metronome. My personal goal is to have a 175 SPM cadence in the next 12 months.

Metronome – Clip On Type

3. Running Buddy

Talking on the run is not my forte, I use my runs to unplug and declutter my mind. So I have seldom run with a regular running buddy. Chitra (my wife) and I have run a few times, however she can’t stand my habit of spitting on the run and “may have” “punched me” in the chest as a reflex act!

Enter Rob Fascia, who lives in our cul-de-sac. We had interacted in a limited capacity. I had, however, seen him running a few times. In one of our block parties, I asked him if he was open to tag team on some runs. He immediately agreed and we did our first run on the morning of May 12, 2021. No, I don’t have an awesome memory, just referred to our text messages!

Thankfully Rob is a talker, I am a better listener and more importantly he was fine with my spitting on the run. As a matter of fact, he deals with a sensitive sinus and my spitting was complemented with his nose blowing, making our run a wonderful sight or as Chitra would say “yikes!!”.

When working towards race day, I get very disciplined and planned. However, having a run partner only added to my enthusiasm, even on those ‘OFF’ days. We both are early to rise, would get done with our runs by 7:30 AM and ready to take on the remainder of our day feeling awesome.

Rob is a BIG CHICAGO BEARS fan!! – Photo by Connor Martin on Pexels.com

I have to admit, being a first generation American citizen, I have peppered Rob with many questions on cultural nuances and his open/honest responses only encouraged me to ask more. So Rob, if you ever this read blog, you are to blame yourself!

When I was running solo, I had many of my routes mapped out and the mind gets into a steady rhythm. Rob helped me explore newer routes and that kept my runs fresh. More importantly I have stopped planning my route, because I always ask him “which route” and just follow along. That means my brain has little time to sync and prepare. This may sound silly, but honestly it helps when you are running multiple times in the week.

I want to formally thank Rob for being my run buddy and helping me clock PB race time.

4. Trail Running

We are blessed to be living in a neighborhood where, in a 1 mile radius, we can access multiple trails. Most of these trails are paved and open to cyclists too. Last winter, after reading about the advantages of true trail running (unpaved and a bit wild), I invested in my first pair of trail running shoes – Salomon, and located a trail route close to home.

I start my run from our cul-de-sac and after a mile enter this unpaved section where I can clock around 4 to 8 miles. As soon as I enter the trail, a tree canopy swallows me. In the summers, the temperature would drop a few degrees and so would be the case in the winter with wind gusts. My senses (sight, hearing), general awareness and feel for the ground jumps up. Every foot strike is different, engaging various parts of your feet and legs.

You are constantly looking for roots that are jutting out, branches that may be in your way and at times finding a way around fallen trees. The unpaved surface and relative (in this trail) up and down slopes gets my heart rate beating faster and I have to better control my breathing. I am no longer on “cruise mode” and my body is working differently.

I have been doing this trail for a year, across seasons, and loving it. Sharing a compilation of few GoPro videos to get some of you excited for exploring true trail running in your Neighborhoods.

Trail Running In Naperville, IL, USA (Click Here)

5. Run for a Cause/Community

If you are someone who spends a decent amount of time on self introspection and is a tad more critical about self performance, you will relate to this section. I do fall into this category and it is something I am not very proud of. Yes, I want to prepare and plan well, but once my action for the event/goal is over, I want to move on quickly.

Last year when the pandemic (COVID-19) was at its peak, we educated ourselves about Naperville Education Foundation (NEF) and its work in our community. We were impressed to see how NEF operates, supporting students in need, so we made our first donation to them and added them to our family’s annual donation list. During my Naperville Half Marathon registration, I had the option of running for NEF. For the first time I selected to be a charity runner for Naperville 203 School District. The goal was for each Charity Runner to fundraise a minimum of $203.00. Chitra decided to sponsor me with the minimum donation cap and I reached out to a few families in our community who have or had their kids in the district.

With Chitra’s contribution, I had zero pressure nor did I want to follow-up or send reminders to people. To my surprise, I reached out to 14 families and 11 made very timely and generous donations. In a few days we had raised $1,106.50. It was humbling to witness this generosity and I was more motivated (at times under pressure) to finish strong.

During my injury phase, I would constantly think about this generosity and it created enough positive pressure for my body to recover fast. Since these were folks from our community, I would see them often during my training runs and with every wave or smiling nod, there was good energy exchange. There were a couple of the families who also kept tabs on my training schedule…ensuring their donations were being “run” well!!

So thank you to each of these families and I take the liberty of naming them below (in alphabetical order):

Families Donating for NEF

I write this post in early December and many of us will be making resolutions for a new year. If running a race is on your list, I wish you a memorable experience and hope this read can inspire you to a better finish. Happy running!

Related data points:

  • Northwestern Medicine (www.nm.org)
  • Naperville Education Foundation (www.nef203.org)
  • Naperville Half Marathon (www.runnaperville.com)