Post Magazine: Marathon training with the pros

Lenny Bernstein, Helen Beven and Matt Centrowitz
Monday, May 3, 2010; 12:00 PM

Washington Post fitness columnist Lenny Bernstein had run marathons before, but wasn't happy with his finish times. But what would happen if the 51-year-old ordinary athlete trained with professionals? Bernstein set out to see if 14 weeks of workouts in the gym, on the track and on the trail could shave significant time off his personal best. The journey and his results are the subject of a Washington Post Magazine cover story, "A Dreamer's Run."

Bernstein was online May 3 to talk about his training. He was joined by the pros who put him through his paces: Matt Centrowitz, coach of the American University track team and a two-time Olympian, and Helen Beven, an elite masters road racer who specializes in physical training for runners.

The transcripts is below.


Lenny Bernstein: Greetings everyone: I'm joined today by Matt Centrowitz, coach of the American University track team and a former Olympic distance runner, and Helen Beven, of The Royal Workout physical training, who specializes in working with runners. You have access to the best advice imaginable over the next hour, so fire away. And I'd be happy to talk about my story in yesterday's Washington Post magazine if you have questions about it.


Washington, DC: Lenny, Congratulations on the big PR at Boston. That's terrific, especially so soon after National Marathon. As someone who knows all 3 of the experts with whom you worked, I can say you did a great job of assembling a Dream Team.

Do you think you've absorbed their principles and can carry on now with guiding your own training and nutrition, or do you think you'd be better off continuing to be coached in each area in order to improve more?


Dave Haaga American University and MCRRC

Lenny Bernstein: For the time being, I'm going to work out on my own, using what Matt, Helen and Stacey Snelling (the nutritionist) taught me. I'm running on a track weekly, and using medicine and balance balls in the gym. I'd never done either before in any concerted way. That said, you can't reach the same level of intensity, or hold yourself to the same standards when working out on your own.


Fairfield, CT: I am a 43 year old woman who discovered a love of running late in life. I wish someone had told me, decades ago, about this "sport" where you only compete against yourself! My question is about how to avoid injury as you increase mileage. Two years ago I tried to train for a marathon and ended up with severe back problems that took me out of commission for over a year. More recently I've hurt my I-T band. Sometimes I wonder if I'm just too old to run long distances, and I should play it safe so that I can at least maintain my current level. Thoughts?

Helen Beven: Cross training is the answer to avoid injuries. I often tell clients who are training for marathons to try swimming and biking. Also you need to slowly increase your weekly mileage by about 10% each week so that your body can adapt. You also need to strengthen the core. The problem is that most people equate "core" with abs only. The reality is that your core includes your upper back muscles (head carriage), gluteals (pelvis stabilization), oblique and what you consider "abs"

Matt Centrowitz: No you are not too old to complete a marathon. It sounds as though you may have some muscle weaknesses that are usually pretty easy to strengthen up if you have the physical therapist. Try contacting your local running club in Fairfield and ask them to refer you to a good physical therapist.


probashi: Re: the footnote about Boston marathon, did I miss something -- how did the author qualify?

Lenny Bernstein: This was an oversight on my part. We should have explained in the editor's note that I received a "sponsor's exemption"--essentially a free pass--to Boston. I had a friend who knew someone in their marketing department and offered it to me. Since I'll probably never qualify legitimately, I decided to go for it, and I had a fantastic time. You can also get in by running with one of the many charities.


Washington, DC: Basically, training strategy comes down to three elements: time, intensity, and structure. How many hours are you going to put in? The longer, the better, as long as you don't overtrain. During those hours, how hard are you going to work? You're never going to be fast if you only plodding around at 12 minutes a mile, no matter how many hours you spend. The more you push yourself, the better - again, up to the point of overtraining. Finally, there the structure: are you going to just jog, or mix in strength training or weight work? If so, what specifically will you do?

Obviously coaching will help with structure, but it seems that signing up with coaches also increased your time and intensity, which you (in principle) could have done on your own. Is that true?

Matt Centrowitz: The majority of adults wont stay committed to a program unless they have a structured training environment, including a coach. Running is easier when you are part of a team, organization, or group because you are being held accountable by others. By not putting in the time and intensity when you are a part of the group you are letting them down. At American University the team holds the individual accountable for attendance and appropriate effort.


Auburn Hills Michigan: Was there any focus on running technique or stride analysis?

I see many sports therapy groups are offering gait studies and many people are trying fore foot running in search of improvments.

Thanks, E

Helen Beven: Strength training , flexibility and muscle memory will improve your running form, stride length and explosiveness, which will mean faster race times.

The down position of the lunge for example duplicates the airborne position in sprinting. This exercise will also stretch the hip flexors.

Matt Centrowitz: With only a 10 week training program we did not focus on improving running mechanics. By running faster we increased efficiency, which improved his form.


Baltimore, MD: As a 56-year-old woman who took up bicycling at age 50, I think the most important part of your story is that you started working out and got much fitter after age 50. I see so many people my age and younger who can hardly walk up a flight of stairs. Getting fit makes life more enjoyable. Your body: use it or lose it!

Helen Beven: You said it - but exercise is important at any age from 8 - 80. You need to fit it in daily to any busy lifestyle.

Matt Centrowitz: I agree with your statement and that is why I enjoy working in the fitness arena.


McLean, VA: Did Lenny receive a VO2 Max test? Wouldn't that be a better indicater than "Mind over Body" to prove his capacity to break a 4:30 marathon time?

Lenny Bernstein: I took a VO2 max test last year, for my Misfits column and scored pretty well. Of course my body fat percentage was hideous. You can find the column in the Post's online archive.


NYC : Hi! Just a comment for Coach Centrowitz. My name is Jessica Chamberlin. I ran one season of cross country at AU for him. I just want to say that his wisdom is still with me 13 years later. I've finally learned to "slow down."

Matt Centrowitz: Thank you for the compliment! My coaches were a big influence on my life, I'm glad I could be of help. Continues success, the old coach.


Alexandria, VA: I found the article really motivational. How do you keep track of your pace during races? I almost never notice mile markers.

Lenny Bernstein: Good question. I've measured runs near my home with my car's odometer. A lot of folks in my running group wear wristwatch GPS devices that measure distance, time, speed etc. (I haven't bought one yet). And some trails, like the Capital Crescent and the C and O Canal towpath do have mile markers.

Helen Beven: Most races these days have mile markers and so it is easy to keep track. You are obviously really focusing on your running stride!

Matt Centrowitz: Racing awareness is something that we stress in training and you become attentive to that detail. Through constant pace training we develop an internal clock that helps us on race day.


Arlington VA: Lenny -- congratulations on the National marathon and Boston. I ran Boston this year as well and finished in just under 3:05.

More a comment than a question -- the official marathon distance (26 miles 385 yards or 42 KM and 194.5 meters) was established for the 1908 London Games, so that the course finished at Windsor Palace. The Marathon to Athens run may have been 42 KM, but there is another route that is hillier but shorter (35 KM). Plutarch is the source for the Marathon to Athens run, but Herodotus claims the run was from Athens to Sparta and back and was much longer (240 KM or so). It also seems more likely that someone would drop dead after a much longer run than a marathon length distance.

Lenny Bernstein: Good points all. I received an email about this as well. I knew about the controversy over Pheidippides' run, as well as the adjustments to the marathon course length over time. I just didn't have the space in the story to go into it. But thank you for giving our readers the details.


DC: What are the biggest differences in your approach(es) to helping to train a novice runner for their first marathon and in training an elite runner trying to go faster?

Matt Centrowitz: There are many factors that will influence an athlete's progression. Some of them are talent, consistency and athleticism. There really isn't any shortcuts to distance running, despite what many magazine articles will tell you. The main difference is that a beginner will progress at a slower rate and we watch their development more closely than an elite athlete.


Fells Point, MD: Kudos to Lenny! I am a casual runner, 2-3 miles a few times a week, 32, in decent shape, and have sometimes wondered if I wanted to get more serious about running. After reading this article, my answer is, absolutely not! I'm sure it has its rewards, but I am happy to forego them. But, keep up the good work!

Lenny Bernstein: Don't let my obsessiveness deter you. You don't have to run marathons. But if you want to run farther, or run more often, or run faster, why not give it a try?


Germantown, MD: When my wife was a student at American, Coach Matt saw her on a run near campus and recruited her off the street. She works with other runners now and uses everything he taught her. Some runners ask frequently about form. Is it true that if you can run without pain that changing your form to improve performance may do more harm than good?

Matt Centrowitz: It definitely may do more harm than good. I believe you can fine tune form but changing form is not a good idea. It usually results in major injuries.


Toledo, OH: Is it ever too late to start training like a professional athlete?

Matt Centrowitz: It is never too late to train like a professional athlete, but prime distance running is anywhere from 20-35 years old depending on the person and their desire.


Arlington, VA: For Matt C.

'The mind controls the body'. Sounds great. What does that really mean, practically, when the wheels start to come off in an endurance event like the marathon?

Matt Centrowitz: With proper training and preparation the wheels should never come off. In the longer distances its easier to become negative about your performance and training and it will affect you on race day. Like every other sport, running has plateaus, slumps and off days. How you cope with that is a big key to success for a runner.


Washington DC: Mr. Bernstein,

Can you talk about the roles of your experts--particularly Centrowitz and Beven--not so much from their knowledge base but from the perspective of their ability to connect with you, to motivate you and to instill a sense of pride/fear/inspiration? I am curious to see how much you would weigh this part of their coaching versus just their knowledge.

Thanks for a great piece

Lenny Bernstein: I was hoping someone would ask this. Matt is larger-than-life character: loud, funny, gregarious. You can't help enjoying yourself around him. That said, he is deadly serious on the track. He's been doing this so many years, that he just picks up on things and tailors his advice to the individual. It's pretty much instinctive. I was worried that he was going to grind me down, but in fact he took it easy on me. Helen knows so much about training, but she's quieter, the "silent assassin" type. I did not expect her to be the one who put me through the ringer. But that's what happened. Over the 14 weeks I came to admire them both enormously and I consider them friends. Their constrasting personalities also made just the right mix for the story.


McLean, VA: What is the 1 thing you would tell a beginner marathoner to help him (that is, me) complete his training and be ready for his first marathon in October?

Matt Centrowitz: Don't do too much too soon. Getting to the starting line and staying healthy is most important for the success of your first marathon.


Harwood, MD: So, Lenny, how would you answer the question: was it worth it? Even though your time went up, you are clearly in better shape than you were before starting hard training.

I doubt you'll inspire other people to do the same, however. That routine sounds brutal! Good luck to you in your future races.

Lenny Bernstein: Completely worth it. First off, I met Helen and Matt, terrific people with great expertise. I learned a lot from each of them, which I will use from here on. (For example, I am still doing repeats on the track each week and working out in the gym with medicine and balance balls). And the experience itself was eye-opening. I really wanted to lower my time, but that did not prove to be the only important part of this.


Washington, DC: I worked with a man for many years who ran marathons in around 2:45. I never realized, this is very good, right? Unfortunately he was mugged in Golden Gate Park (even though he had nothing on him but his hotel key), broke his shoulder and never ran competitively again. I feel as if I should track him down and offer my belated congratulations.

Lenny Bernstein: That's a terrific time, regardless of age.


San Francisco: I started running last fall and have since completed several road races, including a 10-miler. I've signed up to run a full marathon in October -- is that realistic? While reading about the author's efforts to improve his time was motivating, I don't care so much about time as finishing ...

Matt Centrowitz: There are several factors to consider when answering this question including, age, athleticism, and dedication to training. Sometimes juggling a career as well as running is very difficult. Traveling for work and seasonal work are some of these factors that may affect your training outcome.


MD: Hello. when running a marathon, how many miles do most runners do before "hitting the wall"?

Helen Beven: "Hitting The Wall is basically about running out of energy,"

If you are well fueled and hydrated this should not happen to you. Hitting the wall is caused by the depletion of glycogen stores in the liver and muscles, which causes fatigue and loss of energy.

Matt Centrowitz: The average is anywhere between 18-22 miles. Obviously later is better.


Come Back: I have run around half a dozen marathons and I am taking some time off because of pregnancy. My goal is to run a marathon 10 months after I give birth. Do you think this is a reachable goal, and how should I get back in shape for running?

Matt Centrowitz: Without knowing your age, I would take a longer range approach. Were trying to make a commitment to life-long fitness. Begin with shorter distances, maybe run a race every 3-6 months, and work your way up. I certainly believe that in your second year back to running a marathon would be no problem and would make the training and race much more enjoyable.


Washington, DC: Lenny,

Congrats on the two races. As someone who has also run two marathons in the past year and also experienced hitting the wall at 20 miles despite drinking at all the aide stations, is it possible I just can't get enough liquids into my body over the course of 26.2 miles (FYI, I run at 8:50/mile pace).

Lenny Bernstein: I'm no expert on hydration or anything else, but I did a lot better in Boston and I changed only one thing: I ate salt throughout the race. (Also it was a lot cooler.) My brother (a kidney doctor) suggested that if I really was taking in enough fluids perhaps I was sweating out too much salt--ie sodium. That would explain that horrible feeling and the back and leg cramps. I didn't have anything to lose, so he did some calculations and I ate crumbled bouillon cubes the whole time. Yes it was disgusting (I tried to wash it down quickly with water) but I never cramped.


Washington, DC: "The main difference is that a beginner will progress at a slower rate and we watch their development more closely than an elite athlete."

I always thought it was the opposite because beginners have so much more potential to improve. It seems like it would take a lot less work - and time - to go from a 4:30 to a 4:20 marathon than it would to go from a 2:30 to a 2:20.

Matt Centrowitz: Good thinking, but in most things I've discovered that the beginner is more likely to make mistakes and is unsure of themselves in any field. Elite athletes have experience, positive and negative, which is a great teacher. There are exceptions to the rule but those are not that common.


Kensington, MD: For Helen: Do you offer workouts for groups, such as boot camps? If so, when and where?

Helen Beven: I do some weekly running groups during the week (running combined with core exercises) and I also offer a British BootCamp on Friday mornings. YOu can find details on my website


Washington, DC: Lenny,

I couldn't tell for certain from the article, but it sounds like you started the race at a faster pace than you had planned and so hit the wall. Is that true? And that you may have stuck to it better in Boston. Generally, what lessons did you learn from your Washington race that you translated into greater success in Boston?

Lenny Bernstein: There's probably a little bit of truth there. It's so hard to hold back at the beginning of a race, when that adrenaline rush starts. Matt drilled me on this constantly, trying to teach me to hold a pace by listening to my body. But I don't think that's the most salient factor here. Boston is largely downhill for the first 13 miles, so you'd think that's where I'd have more trouble holding back. I think the weather was better in Boston, I added salt to my intake on the course and it being my second marathon in four weeks, I probably couldn't have gone much faster if I wanted to.


But if you want to run farther, or run more often, or run faster, why not give it a try? : One good reason -- if you want to run longer, as in more years. I am also a middle-aged casual runner, and suffered injuries until I cut back to 15 miles/week. I'd rather keep my current routine as long as possible, rather than trying to run faster, longer, etc. now. I will not only never run a marathon, but I will not even run a 5K race!

Matt Centrowitz: The first rule is to enjoy your running, and you can't enjoy it if your not healthy. A lot of people aren't built for long distance racing and training. There are plenty of other physical activities to challenge yourself while achieving the same fitness goals.


Weather: Hi - I ran my first race recently and I prepared well, but did not expect the heat wave that occurred on race day. It was 82 and sunny with high humidity. I turned in a time slower than my goal and felt awful during the race. How can I better prepare for unexpected weather changes besides running when it's hot/cold outside?

Matt Centrowitz: Unfortunately with racing its the luck of the draw. With my athletes, I usually have a secondary race lined up in case the conditions on race day are not favorable to their goals. With the distance runners, we will stop at the halfway point or not even begin the race if its not possible to hit their goals.


Cardio, nutrition, strength, rest: Thanks for the excellent article and insights on this chat. If your goal is to do a marathon every 2 - 3 years while remaining well-conditioned for 10k's and half-marathons in the off years, do you recommend alternating running days with strength + flexibility workouts? What are the absolute minimum calories needed for a male 6'2" doing some form of running & strength training 5 - 6x a week who wants to lose a little weight but not lose muscle? Also, is building in 1 rest day per week a good idea?

Matt Centrowitz: Great questions. The most important thing is to make your running program fun. I certainly believe that one day a week off is not going to have harmful effects on your program and will help to keep your enthusiasm up for many years to come. The more variety you can put into your program will keep your appetite for training and running at its highest. The analogy I like to make is if you ate your favorite meal every day, I guarantee this would no longer be your favorite meal. Variety will help you stay interested in your program and give you something to look forward to in the course of your training.

Helen Beven: I don't like the idea of counting calories but generally speaking a man of your size should be eating at least 2000 a day particularly if you are running and strength training 5 -6 times a week. Every pound of muscle gained through resistance training increases your resting metabolic rate by about 35-50 calories per day which will allow you to eat more daily!


DC: Are any of you big proponents of running on a treadmill rather than pavement/trails? I am one month into a beginner marathon training program and need to lose a bunch of weight to be ready for my marathon in November. The treadmill is way easier on my knees at this point as I am beginning to increase my longer runs. Am I just being a wuss, or is this a sound strategy?

Helen Beven: Running on a treadmill feels somewhat easier physically because the ground is being pulled underneath your feet and there's no wind resistance. Running outdoor demands more from your body because you're propelling your body forward stride for stride. Many treadmills are padded, making them a good option if you're overweight or are injury-prone (especially with knee issues) and want to decrease the impact.

I always suggest to clients by setting your treadmill at 1% incline you can better simulate outdoor running.

Also I think you have to be mentally tougher dealing with the monotony of the treadmill as opposed to running outside.

As you are training for a marathon you should try to train outside as much as possible to get prepared for race conditions.


Kensington, MD: I average about 35 miles per week running, just signed up for my first marathon for the Marine Corps in October. I have a hard time getting myself to take days off, just how important is it to take days off and how often should you take one?

Helen Beven: Taking time off is very important when you are training, especially when you are training for a marathon. Everyone varies in the amount of rest and recovery they need, but you should be taking at least one day off per week. You also need to listen to your body - it will tell you if you are over training.


After Pregnancy: I am in my early 30's and in good shape. I have been able to continue swimming and walking during my pregnancy. Two years seems like a long time...I miss my long runs!

Helen Beven: I don't recommend any form of exercise other than going for a nice, daily walk until you get your six-week checkup and your doctor or midwife gives you the ok.

Once you get the OK you should build gently with the running. Continue with the swimming and incorporate some strength and resistant work to build up your core.

Invest in a baby running stroller if you can!


Matt Centrowitz: After 40 years of being involved in running, I still enjoy working out every day and helping other runners reach their goals no matter what their ability level. It has always been fun to be a runner. Thank you for your questions and good luck with your running.

- Coach Matt


Lenny Bernstein: Thank you all for the great questions and for spending an hour with us. I hope the advice has been helpful. Keep up your fitness routines, whatever they may be.


Helen Beven: I really enjoyed working on this "project" with Lenny. He was a great student, very obedient and hard working! I hope his story inspires others.


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