October 17, 2019

Race Expectations: How to Find One, Register, What to Expect on Race Day, Training, and more

Race Expectations: How to find one, register, what to expect on race day, train, and more

For those of you that have walked or run races before, then you can probably skip over this post. Sometimes when I talk about running with people (parents of my cross country kids, for example) I forget that some of them don't know how road races work. A lot of people don't even know how many miles a 5K is!

So, for people who are curious for one reason or another, I thought I'd dedicate an entire post to what to expect at your first road race (as well as some other common questions and tips about running).

Before you read this post, I'd head over to a post called Running Lingo--if you really don't know anything about running, it helps to know the "language".

First, let's start with race distances when converting from metric to imperial. (K is for kilometer, which is equal to 1,000 meters or 1.6 miles.) For reference, the inner lane of an outdoor track around a football field is 400 meters (about 1/4 mile). A mile is equal to 1.6 kilometers (or 1,609 meters; about four times around the track). Is that totally clear? Good.

Here are some of the most common race distances:

1 mile = 1.6K
5K = 3.1 miles
8K = 5 miles
10K = 6.2 miles
10 miles = 16.1K
Half-Marathon = 21.1K or 13.1 miles
Marathon = 42.2K or 26.2 miles)

(Anything that is longer than a marathon is referred to as an "ultra" or "ultramarathon")
50K = 31.1 miles
50 miles = 80.5K
100K = 62.1 miles
100 miles = 160.9K

Most people start out with a 5K race (3.1 miles). It's a challenge for total beginners, but definitely do-able and it's such a common distance that you can find local ones nearly every weekend. In this post, when I use the word "race", I'm implying a road race, NOT a trail race. Trail races are a completely different category altogether. A road race is done on pavement. (Here are tips for training for your first 5K)

Now that we've covered race distances, let's go through the entire process of signing up for a race all the way up until you get in your car to head home from your first race:

1) Choosing a race.

There are SO MANY races happening all the time and you may not even realize it. I never knew that there were local races around my town until I started running them. A lot of times, we learn of these races by word of mouth from other runners, or we've done them in the past. But there are some resources you can use to find local races.

One of them is called Race Find. It's very simple and fast to find races near your city, and you can filter out races by distance, dates, and cities. And the best part is that they have links to the race's website.

From the race's website, you can find the date, time, and location of the race; the distances offered; whether or not there are medals, trophies, or prizes; if the race has a theme; and all the other details you'll need. Another consideration is how hilly the race is--hills are tough! So you can view the course as well to decide if it's right for you.

*Note: You may hear of a race that is referred to as "chip-timed". This means that your bib (the number you wear on your shirt on race day) has a special chip on it that will keep track of your time as you hit certain spots in the race.

When you cross the starting line, for example, the chip will note that your race has started. If you are running a long race, like a marathon, you may cross over mats throughout the race at the 5K spot, 10K spot, etc.

The chip on your bib will keep track of when you reach these spots. This is done for a couple of reasons:
  1. So people don't cheat (there is a woman who is notoriously known for taking a train during a marathon, and then jumping back into the race about a mile from the finish line. She actually won the race, and it was later discovered how she cheated). 
  2. So, your race starts when YOU cross the starting line. In a race of 35,000 people, for example (like the Indianapolis 500 Festival Mini Marathon), it takes a good 20 minutes from the start of the race just to get to the starting line when you're in the back of the pack. With chip timing, your own timer doesn't start until you cross that starting line mat.
  3. This also ends your race the second you cross the finish line. Because of the chip timing, you will know exactly how long it took YOU to walk or run the course.
Most races these days are chip-timed, but not all of them are. I think it's preferable to have a chip-timed race, so I personally won't pay for a race without chips. But it's up to you to decide. When I ran the Chicago Marathon, I had to cross several mats--and they recorded my time at each, based on my chip.

2) Register for the race.

Once you find a race that suits you, it's time to register. I highly recommend registering BEFORE you start training--knowing that you're signed up and you've paid money for it may help you to stick with the training schedule.

On the race's website, there is usually a tab that says "Registration" or "Register Online" or something to that effect. Click on that link and just follow the prompts for the race you choose to do.

Sometimes, usually in a large race, the registration will ask what your expected pace or finish time will be. While you may be ambitious, it's always best to err on the side of slower than you expect. The race director asks this to know where to "seed" you--in other words, the faster you are, the closer you will be to the starting line when the race begins. So, be very honest about it when you are filling this out.

You will probably have to pay online for the race, and there is usually a "service fee" like anything else (I find these so annoying--why not just add it to the cost of the race?). Races are usually priced by popularity and by distance--the small, local 5K races with a couple hundred people might cost $15-20, while the cost of running the NYC Marathon is a whopping $255.

You can expect to pay less for a 5K than for a marathon. Also, the pricing can depend on what you receive--a shirt is commonly given out just for doing the race, and most races now give out finishers' medals (a medal to every participant who finishes the race). If you receive shirts and medals, expect to pay more than for a race without any bling.

A lot of races have early bird discounts, so that if you sign up by a certain date, you pay less than if you wait. It gets more expensive as the race gets closer (another reason for signing up right away!).

3) Choose a training plan.

Of course, I highly recommend one of mine (haha!) but you can find tons of different plans on the internet as well as in books.

There are a few considerations when choosing a plan:

How many days per week can you devote to training? (I suggest a minimum of three days a week for ANY distance, but in general, the longer the race distance, the more training you should expect).

Are you planning to aim for a specific finish time goal? Or are you planning to train just to cross the finish line in one piece? (If you're aiming for a time goal, then you'll want to choose a plan that includes speed work--which I'll explain below. If you just want to finish the race regardless of how long it will take you, then I would choose a plan that doesn't involve speed work.)

Note: Most runs on training plans are called "easy runs". These are VERY important to training (read this post about why). They should be run at a pace that is, well, easy. You should be able to hold a conversation with a running partner, and shouldn't be very out of breath or pouring sweat.

"Speed work" is just what it sounds like--running that helps you to work on building your speed. There are numerous types of speed workouts, but the most common is probably intervals/track repeats. Intervals are where you do a warm-up jog, and then run at a very hard pace for a particular distance or time, and then slow to a jog or walk to cool down for a specific distance or time. And then you repeat the hard pace/slow pace intervals for as many times as your training plan calls for. It is commonly written like this:

10 min warm-up
8 x (400 m fast with 200 m recovery)
10 min cool down

This would mean that you jog at an easy pace for 10 minutes to warm up before starting the speed work. Then, you run very fast for 400 meters (one time around the inner lane of a track); then you jog or walk for 200 meters (half the track). You repeat this seven more times, so you do a total of eight intervals. Then you jog easily to cool down for 10 minutes. This should be a very tough workout--speed work isn't supposed to feel easy!

An early speed workout at the high school track...

Another common speed workout is called a "tempo run". This is a run that is done at a faster pace than your easy runs, but not as hard as your intervals or at a pace that makes you feel like you're going to die.

Technically, a tempo run should be done at a pace that you could hold for a 10K--but since you're a beginner, you don't know what that pace is yet. On an effort scale of 1-10, a tempo run should be at a 7 or 8. It should feel uncomfortable and like you want to slow down or quit, but you know that you can keep going to finish the workout. A training plan may include tempo runs (usually no more than once a week).

There are lots of other speed workouts that I won't get into on this post, but intervals and tempo runs are the most common. When choosing a training plan that incorporates speed work, I would certainly choose one that has some sort of interval training as well as a tempo run here and there.

Something else to consider when choosing a plan is how much time you'll need to prepare. If your race is in six weeks, for example, you'll obviously not want to choose a plan that is 12 weeks long.

4) Make time to train

Once you choose your training plan, make the time in your schedule to do the workouts as written. If plans are written correctly, then each and every workout is important. If you don't do the work, you will be unprepared for the race on race day, and believe me, it's NOT fun.

If you have a hard time getting and/or staying motivated, think about what motivates you and make it happen. Maybe if you sign up for the race with a friend, you could meet your friend on run days to make it more fun. Think of ways to reward yourself for each week or month of your schedule that you complete. Or plan on having a special treat once a week after a particularly hard run (I used to love getting carrot cake on my long run days).

5) Get proper shoes

Go to a running store and get fitted for a proper pair of shoes. A good running store will look at your gait (the way your body moves when running) to see what shoes may be best for you. The wrong shoes can definitely be a cause for injury while training.

So can ice ;)

6) Clothing

You don't have to spend a fortune, but it's worth the investment to buy some running clothes that are comfortable, fit well, and moisture-wicking. Wearing cotton while running is very uncomfortable--it gets heavy and sticky, whereas moisture-wicking clothing does just the opposite. I wrote a post including all of my favorite running gear, including clothing.

My very favorite running tights! Wish they looked like that on me today. They don't ;)

7) Be prepared for race day.

Know ahead of time exactly what you plan to wear, and make sure it is something you've done some training runs in. Race days are not the time to try out new shoes or clothing. Also, if you're running a distance longer than 5K or 10K, you'll want to try out different forms of running "fuel" (food, drinks) to consume while running.

If you drinking nothing but water while training, for example, you're not going to want to try drinking Gatorade during the race. Any fuel choices you make should be practiced with ahead of time. Here, I wrote a post all about fueling for runs.

It's always good to check the website for information about aid stations. Aid stations are tables that are set up at certain points during the race where volunteers hand out cups of water or Gatorade, and sometimes (for longer races) packets of Gu or other running fuel. The race's website will usually tell you if and where there are aid stations during the race. This can help you plan on whether you need to carry food or drink with you.

This was a very small race, so not much of an "aid station"... but Eli helped pass out water to the runners. So cute!

8) Race week

So, you're registered for the race, you've been training for weeks or months, trying out the clothes and shoes you're going to wear on race day, and you've been finding the right fuel you'll need. Next, it's time for the days leading up to the race...

Usually a day or two before the race, the race will have a "packet pick-up" and/or an "expo". A packet pick-up is simply where you go pick up your race "packet"--your bib, your shirt (if included), maybe some local running store coupons or ads for other races, a course map, safety pins for your bib, etc. The packet varies by race. Some races will simply hand you a bib and a shirt!

Some races will have packet pick-up a day or two before the race, and some will offer it the morning of the race. Just make sure you check out the times on their website that you can get your packet before the race.

Other races, usually large half-marathons or full marathons, may have an "expo". At the expo are lots of booths set up from different companies that runners may be interested in--everything from running clothing to sweat headbands, from phone straps to samples of nutrition bars. Most of the booths give out free samples of things or have sign ups for drawings to win items. It's basically a way for companies to advertise their products to tons of runners in just one weekend. At the expo, you can also pick up your runners packet.

This is Rik and me at the Detroit Marathon expo... they had a huge map for picture taking.

Make sure that you are hydrating well for at least few days before the race. It's nearly impossible to have a good race when you're dehydrated. Drink water throughout the day for the days leading up to the race.

9) Food

Regardless of how long the distance of your race, you'll definitely want to take into consideration what meal you eat the night before. I wouldn't recommend going out for Mexican food and margaritas the night before the race. Some distance runners like to "carb load", which just means eating a meal containing a lot of carbs the night before the race--pasta is a favorite! This isn't necessary for a 5K, but even if it's not necessary, it's fun to have a special meal the night before the race ;)

10) Nighttime prep

Before bed, lay out all of your clothing. Attach your bib to your race shirt. Lay out any fuel you plan to bring with you, and charge your running watch (if you have one). Have everything as prepared as possible so that you can wake up and get dressed without having to search for things or forget things at the last minute. Make sure you have directions to the race location saved on your phone or at least written down.

This is a terrible photo, but I had all my stuff laid out in my hotel room for the Chicago Marathon.

11) Get some sleep

Go to bed early if possible so that you can get a good night's rest. If you've done the training, and you've got your stuff ready to go, then there isn't anything to worry about before the race. Set your alarm so that you have plenty of time to get dressed, eat breakfast, go to the bathroom (pooping is every runner's top priority on race day).

This is *technically* a picture of me finally getting some sleep after a Ragnar Relay (overnight race, and I was up for about 40 hours at that point!). But we'll pretend this is pre-race.

12) Ready to race

When your alarm goes off, get up and ready to race! Drink lots of water to be well-hydrated. Hopefully you won't feel rushed because you'll have prepared the night before.

Make sure you leave the house with enough time to find parking (remember, depending on the size of the race, you may need extra time). I prefer to get to the race rather early than to get there just before starting time. That way, you can pee one final time before it's time to line up.

By the way, if racing is going to become a regular thing for you, make sure you get used to using porta-potties. I despise using them, but that's pretty much your only choice while racing.

13) Starting line

About five or ten minutes before the start of the race, you can head to the starting line and find your spot to start (large races may have corrals, and your bib will usually have your corral assignment on it). If there aren't any corrals, and it's a smaller race, then line up about where you think others will be running the same pace. Unless you're running 5-minute miles, don't line up at the front. If you're walking, make sure you line up at the back.

This was a small race, but I just made sure to get ahead of the people who had strollers and people who looked like they were walking.

Some races will have "pacers"--a pacer is a runner who holds a sign stating his or her pace for the race, and they run that pace the entire time.

For example, a half marathon might have a 2:00 pacer (a goal finish time of two hours). If that's the goal you've been training for, you may want to stand near the pacer and run close to them throughout the race. They are trained to run at that pace, and will usually finish within 30 seconds or so of their stated time.

If you're very unsure where to start, ask a few people around you what their planned pace is; then just line up accordingly.

14) It's Go Time!

This is when you'll probably be the most nervous. Usually, there will be a race announcer who will speak of any info you need; there may be music playing over loud speakers; and someone may sing the Star Spangled Banner. It all depends on the race itself. But once all that is done at the starting line, the announcer will trigger the starting gun, and the race begins.

This is the starting line of the Detroit Marathon.

Depending on where you're lined up (and how big the race is) you may end up shuffling your way toward the starting line. Remember, if it's chip-timed, then your personal clock won't start ticking until you cross the mat at the starting line.

Once you cross the mat, you are probably going to start running way too fast. It will feel like everyone around you is flying past you and you may feel a little bit panicked. Don't let anyone intimidate you--just go at your planned pace, and you'll be passing them a mile into the race ;)

I ALWAYS have a dry mouth (from nerves) for the first half mile or so, and I like to bring a starlight mint or a Jolly Rancher to suck on. You might find that the first mile goes by really quickly because it's a new experience and you're running with a ton of people all around you. It's a lot to take in! On the other hand, the first mile might feel like it takes forever because you probably started out too fast and you're trying to set your pace.

15) Settling into a rhythm

Your nerves will eventually settle down after a mile or so. From this point on it depends on how long your race is. If you're doing a 5K, you're already 1/3 of the way done! If you're doing a 50K, well... you've got a bit longer to go ;)  Just trust your training to get you through it.

16) Lay it all out there

When you see the finish line, or you know you are about 0.2 miles away, go all out and give it everything you have left in you until you cross the finish line. You will think you are going to die (and if you don't feel like you're going to die, then you're not running hard enough at the end) but you can do it! DON'T slow down before the finish line--wait until you've cross the line to slow to a walk. I can't tell you how many times kids in cross country get passed at the very last second of a race.

In this photo, you can't tell, but I felt like I was going to DIE. It was awful! But my best (PR) personal record to date!

17) Don't pass out

Once you cross the finish line, it's important to keep moving so you don't pass out. There is usually a finisher's chute that you will follow--and most likely, there will be water and some sort of food (bananas, bagels, cookies, etc.). A volunteer will probably be handing out medals if those were included, too.

Some of the bigger races, particularly half and full marathons, will have a "post-race party". Usually, this consists of a beer garden, maybe a food truck or two, music, and a tent with race memorabilia for sale.

18) Congratulations!

You completed your first race! Hopefully all of your hard work paid off and you feel good about your finish. ALWAYS wait until safely after you cross the finish line to stop your running watch. Getting finish photos of pressing your watch aren't very fun.

October 12, 2019

Cute and Creative Homecoming Proposals!

This is just going to be short and (quite literally) sweet. I just wanted to share Noah's homecoming proposal to his girlfriend, Ashley. I've been dying to post a photo of it for days, but he hadn't asked her yet, so I didn't want to spoil the surprise.

Since Noah and Ashley both attend the Middle College (where students from all over the county attend) they actually have three homecomings they could attend--Noah's high school (it's technically his high school, but he doesn't go there); Ashley's high school; and the Middle College they both attend.

So, Ashley's high school's was first, and she came up with the cutest idea to invite Noah to her homecoming! It was very elaborate, so I made sure Noah did something just as elaborate for her.

Anyway, Ashley wrote on a poster board, "Out of all the fish in the sea, will you go to homecoming with me?" and gave him a TON of fish-themed items--including a betta fish! She put it in a tank and explained how to care for it, because I'm clueless (and she asked my permission first, which was nice).

Estelle hasn't moved from this spot for two weeks now. She's obsessed with the fish!

When Ashley gave it to him, she and her mom came over and stood on the back deck (with all the stuff) while I made an excuse for Noah to come outside. He was shocked and excited, and of course he said yes. (And yes, out of everything in the picture, the betta fish was just out of sight on the far left, haha)

For the dance, I found this tie for Noah and thought it'd be perfect in respect to Ashley's theme:

Now, for Noah's proposal...

I told Noah that girls like to have things they can post about on social media to show off to their friends, so it should be something fun and creative. I remembered my mom putting together clue hunts for church when I was a kid, and she did something with candy bars (arranging them in order to make sentences or something like that).

I thought that would be a great idea, so I asked Noah about it, and he loved it. It was easy, too!

Step 1: Look up a list of candy bars and start choosing ones that you think would make sense in a proposal. Also make sure that are fairly easy to find.

Step 2: Write up a rough draft of what you want it to say, finding ways to add the candy bars into the proposal.

Step 3: Type the paragraph out in a word document at the font size you think it'll need to be (and in the font you want).

Step 4: Cut out the words and place them on the board, adding in the candy, so you can see how it all fits on there. Some of the candy is really big, so it takes some maneuvering to place it where it fits nicely.

Step 5: Once it looks how you like, then print it all again--this time on sticker paper. (Sticker paper is literally just white paper with an adhesive backing that you can print stickers on).

Step 6: Cut out the words from the sticker paper and place them where the rough draft ones were, trying to keep it as neat as possible.

Step 7: Glue the candy onto the cardboard. This was the hardest part! We tried tacky glue, super glue, and rubber cement, but some of the candy was still falling off. I thought a hot glue gun would melt the chocolate, so I wasn't sure we should try it, but it was our only option (other than taping the candy on, which wouldn't have looked good). The hot glue worked perfectly, and I don't think it stayed hot long enough to melt any chocolate.

(This is the final product--everything glued in place):

Here is a translation, if you need it:
"I hoped it would be a Chunky Payday when I first saw you looking like $1,000,000. There are Good & Plenty of men out there like Clif, Heath, and Mr. Good Bar. Even Airheads and Nerds like Mike and Ike. But I knew I would hit the Goldmine if you would be my Honey Bun. Of all the Smarties and Sweetarts in the Milky Way, I only want *YOU* to be my Hot Tamales and go to homecoming with me. I don't want to Twix your arm, so take a Fast Break if you'd like--heck, Take 5 if you need to. But I promise Extra Mounds of Almond Joy and lots of Chuckles if you'll throw me a Lifesaver and say you'll go... What are my chances from Zero to 100 Grand?"

Step 8: Come up with a cute way to show the proposal poster. I texted Ashley's mom to let her know what we were doing, and Ashley saw Noah standing in the front yard holding it when she came over.

Super cute, right?! (And, of course, she said yes.)

And here are a couple of pictures from the first homecoming (Ashley's). The next one is next weekend!

October 11, 2019

How I Escaped an Ice Cream Pig Out; and My Running Review: 3-3-3 Week 2

This morning, I was dying for a pint of Ben & Jerry's Chubby Hubby. It was my turn to carpool for school, and I thought I'd stop at the store on the way home to buy some and have a relaxing day because I've been so busy all the time!

I knew I didn't want to sabotage my efforts lately, and I tried to come up with reasons NOT to buy the ice cream. Right now, the only thing that I enjoy more than eating ice cream (this is sad, I know) is going to Lowe's and planning a new project, hahahaha. Thankfully, Lowe's is open so early. I chose to go there instead of buying the ice cream, and as I drove, I planned on what project I could work on.

Our laundry room is the last room in the house that I haven't redecorated, and it's going to be a total pain in the ass to work on. First, there is a hole in the ceiling that has been there since we switched to a tankless water heater. The drywall in that section is a mess. I always picture spiders getting into the house from that hole, too; not to mention, it's just plain ugly.

I'd recently bought a small piece of drywall to patch the hole. It was roughly a 10-inch diameter circle. I had no idea how to patch holes that big. I finally googled it and found super easy instructions (on the Lowe's website of all places). I cut out a square from the drywall piece and then used that piece to trace on the ceiling I cut out the hole in the ceiling (butchered is more like it--I didn't have a drywall knife, so I had to improvise).

Then I screwed in the furring strips and attached the drywall square into place. I was so proud when I was done!

I don't want to show photos until I'm done, and then I'll do a big reveal. This room looked the worst of all the rooms in the house. Tomorrow, I'll have to tape and mud all the drywall seams.

I took a photo of all the drywall dust from scraping off the textured ceiling. It's SO heavy! I don't understand why they put that on there. BUT, that was the last of it. It completely filled two plastic grocery bags. I have NO MORE CEILING TEXTURE! :)

(That's a 10" drywall knife, for size reference).

And when I was done scraping the ceiling, the area just outside of my laundry room looked like this:

Since I don't want my house being a huge mess again, I'm going to move this project along as quickly as possible.

I bought the stuff to make custom shelving when I was at Lowe's, and once I get the boring stuff done (taping and mudding), I can get to the fun stuff!

Anyway, instead of caving to the Ben & Jerry's I followed my own advice for keeping from binge eating and I found something else instead :)

The rest of this post will be rather boring. I like to provide that disclaimer before posts like these!

I explained what 3-3-3 running is last week (it's not a "real" running method; just something my friend Thomas made up to get me back into running). Literally, this is all it is: running 3 miles, 3 times per week, for 3 months. 3-3-3.

It's more about forming a habit than anything else. Once I got out of the habit of running, I can't even begin to describe just how hard it is to get back into it! I ran for seven full years, and then took a long time off--which I don't regret. I wanted to do what made me happiest, and running was not making me happy at the time.

Eventually, though, I started to miss it. I even wrote a whole post called "5 Things I Miss About Running (and they're not what you may think)". So, I want to get back into it, but all I can say is that it's HARD. Running at an easy pace used to feel so... well, easy!--and that was at a 10:00-ish minute mile. Now, to run at an easy pace, it's been in the 14:00's!

As I also mentioned before, I'm using the MAF (maximum aerobic function) heart rate training during this 3-3-3 running. The first two runs this week were frustrating for me. I literally couldn't run any slower, and I really didn't want to walk (I was on the treadmill). So, I lowered the incline by 1% to make it easier and bring my heart rate back down.

I feel like my running gait suffers a bit when I run so slowly, too. Hopefully, the MAF training will do its thing and I'll be running faster at the same heart rate soon enough.

I've been listening to several interviews with Dr. Maffetone about the MAF training, and a common question is whether you are supposed to subtract a heartbeat each time you have a birthday (since the formula is 180 minus your age).

I always assumed you did, and that's why my current MAF rate is 143 (because I'm 37). However, he says no--when you find a heart rate that works for you, you can stick with it until it's just not working anymore. When I was training for my 10K, I had phenomenal results with the heart rate of 146 bpm.

Starting next week, I'm going to increase the heart rate to 146 bpm (it's only a 3 beat difference, but I'm curious how it'll feel). This week, however, I stuck with 143 bpm for comparison's sake.

Anyway, here is the lowdown on this week's runs:

Monday - I chose the treadmill. Last week, I did treadmill on Monday and Wednesday, and then outdoors on Friday; so, I decided to do the same thing again this week (again for comparison).

I started the treadmill at 4.7 mph, hoping that I could maintain that speed. But I quickly realized I had to lower it because my heart rate just went up too high. (By the way, my Garmin isn't sensitive to speed changes at all. 4.1 mph might as well be 4.5 mph. Especially when I mess with the incline. I'll just look for a pattern over time.)

Wednesday - I was SO tempted to postpone this run until Thursday. I had told myself that I WILL run on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday each week so that I don't procrastinate.

One of the boys on my cross country team refuses to run without constant walk breaks and water stops. He's perfectly capable of running at least two miles on his own, but he refuses to do it. So, I was thinking I would skip Wednesday and then wear running clothes to practice on Thursday and run with him--to make him do it!

It sounded like a legit excuse, but I knew that if I made an exception to my MWF rule, it would be the start of constant procrastination (or quitting altogether). So, I put on my running clothes, turned on an episode of 24, and hopped on the treadmill. The first mile went by rather quickly, but still--I had to lower the pace to 4.1-4.3 mph several times, and decrease the incline to keep my heart rate down.

Still, I got through the three miles while keeping my MAF heart rate where I needed it to be.

Today - I actually chose to run outside. It looked like it was drizzling a bit of rain, which sounded nice (after working with all that drywall dust!). So, I dressed in my running clothes and headed out. For some reason, it felt kind of easy today.

I didn't look at my watch at ALL during the run, so I had no idea what my pace was. There were very few times that it beeped because I was going too fast, so I just ran at a speed that felt comfortable (slowing if the watched beeped at me for high heart rate). And it felt slightly faster than before.

I was surprised when I was done. Finally--a pace in the 13:00's! (Well, since last Wednesday.) Here are my last six runs:

My heart rate has been nearly identical for every run, but my pace hasn't been consistent. (Except for Monday and Wednesday this week--my time was off by ONE SECOND. There is no way I could plan that if I wanted to! Today, my outdoor pace was about 40 seconds per mile faster than last week's outdoor run! I have no idea why. But it will be interesting to see if there is a trend!

October 09, 2019

Born To Run (a super simple book review) and a giveaway!

Born to Run paperback

So, for YEARS I've been saying that I was going to read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. I bought the paperback copy so long ago I don't even remember buying it. I took it on airplanes with me, I tried reading it when I was between other books, but I just couldn't get into it!

As a runner, I felt it was a rite of passage to read that book. It's been on my list forever, and when I was able to borrow it from the library and read it on my Kindle instead of the paperback, it seemed much less daunting.

And it was! Once I got about 50 pages in, I could definitely understand the appeal. I happen to forget books as soon as I read them, so this isn't really going to be a real review. I'll just write the gist of my thoughts on it and include some parts that I highlighted. (I love that on the Kindle, you can highlight things and have them all emailed to you!)

Let me first apologize if I don't have everything EXACTLY perfect on this post. I finished the book about a month ago, so the details are a little fuzzy. I wrote this based on my notes and on what I found most interesting in the book.

In a very small nutshell, the book is about a running tribe called the Tarahumara that is so remote in Mexico, they seem non-existent. Very exclusive, and despite the fact that they are literally some of the fastest long-distance runners in the world, they are very humble and don't travel around, running races. They just run for fun amongst their community.

The author of the book, Christopher McDougall, spent some time trying to track down anybody he could to learn about this mysterious tribe. Once he finds them, he learns all sorts of running tips and techniques from them. He meets an eccentric man named Caballo who lives among the Tarahumara who comes up with a plan to have a real race in the tribe's home turf. He invites some of the best runners in the world, including Scott Jurek--and he accepted!

While I thought the race preparation was very interesting, I was mostly interested in how the Tarahumara run, which is what I'll focus on here (because that's mostly what I have highlighted).

Here is what McDougall was told about running the Tarahumara way:
"Think Easy, Light, Smooth, and Fast. You start with easy, because if that's all you get, that's not so bad. Then work on light. Make it effortless, like you don't give a shit how high the hill is or how far you've got to go. When you've practiced so long that you forget you're practicing, you work on making it smooooooth. You won't have to worry about the last one--you get those three, and you'll be fast."
The Tarahumara seem to run with no effort at all, and I'm talking dozens and dozens of miles at a time. They have races that seem to go on forever--FOR FUN.
"...the only way to truly conquer something, as every great philosopher and geneticist will tell you, is to love it." 
Since the Tarahumara love running so much, they've got it conquered. Without sponsors or coaches or even running shoes, they are some of the best runners in the world.

When this book was first published, it started the big "barefoot running" trend. I was never on board with it (then again, I'd never read the book). I can totally see why people started running barefoot! The Tarahumara run barefoot or close to it (flat-soled sandals that are strapped on).

Something that I found very interesting was about easy and hard runs. I'm always preaching about the importance of easy runs, and Ken Mierke (developer of Evolution Running, a method of staying injury free) says of this,
"Nearly all runners do their slow runs too fast, and their fast runs too slow. So they're just training their bodies to burn sugar which is the last thing a distance runner wants. You've got enough fat stored to run to California, so the more you train your body to burn fat instead of sugar the longer your limited sugar tank is going to last."
Perhaps that is why when I switched to running VERY easy 80% of the time, I dropped to my lowest weight almost effortlessly and my body fat was as low as it's ever been. I was eating a lot of calories, but I was running very slowly 80% of the time and VERY hard 20% of the time.

Another interesting note about the Tarahumara is about their diet, both for running and health: Eat like a poor person (eat less). Also, the more generic, "Eat better". In this case, eating better is referring to building our diets around fruit and vegetables instead of red meat and processed carbs (nothing new).

The Tarahumara tend to eat pinto beans, squash, chili peppers, wild greens, pinole (a sweetened flour made from ground dried corn mixed with flour made from mesquite beans, sugar, and spices--this seemed to be very popular throughout the book, something that was eaten daily), and LOTS of chia seeds. I admit, I ordered some more chia bars from Amazon after I read this, haha.

I don't want to spoil the race itself in the book (the entire book is leading up toward this unofficial race full of elite runners and the Tarahumara.

Finally, about the barefoot running...

I always thought it seemed so dumb. A passing fad (which it kind of was). However, I did take something from it in this book that I think makes a lot of sense.

Running shoes these days have a LOT of support. However, our bodies weren't made to have all that support under our feet, so our feet have adapted to require it. The benefit to running barefoot is that it strengthens all of the little muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones that make up our feet.

When all of those things are tough, as they are meant to be, we don't need all the support from running shoes. We may want to protect our feet from things like rocks and debris, but the added arch support is only there because we've adapted to it.

I did learn all about this when I went to the Runner's World headquarters and listened to Golden Harper, founder of Altra running shoes (I wrote an interview with him here). And I believed everything he was saying about the shape of our feet and having less support is actually a good thing (in context).

However, when I got the shoes (a cushioned, but flat running show, without arch support--basically barefoot only with padding), I switched to them immediately. I did not, as recommended, *gradually* make the switch as recommended.

I wound up injured, and I wondered if it was the shoes. I believe, after reading Born to Run, that my feet weren't strong enough to just switch to running without any support. The solution to this? Run barefoot every once in a while for a very short distance (a quarter mile or so) until your feet get adjusted to it. Each time you run that way, you're strengthening your feet to use less support from shoes--which will in turn make you a better runner with less injuries.

I decided to try it out a couple of times. The first time, I was running (in shoes) on the treadmill and my knee started hurting after two miles. I have no idea why! Remembering the book, I kicked off my shoes to run just a short distance (0.25 miles) and my knee pain went away!

I had to put my shoes back on to finish the run (running without the shoes was tiring on my feet and the book recommended only doing it for shorts periods of time as you adjust), but it was interesting to see how much my gait had changed when I took off my shoes. I was landing on the balls of my feet, which I don't do in shoes.

And I have to say, the following day, I was SO SORE. Just that short, easy run without shoes definitely used muscles that I wasn't used to. So, I'm hoping that doing that once in a while will strengthen my feet.

I've even had my cross country kids take off their shoes and socks after practice and do about 0.12 miles (across the field and back) with their bare feet. I tell them to run naturally, and not sprint. Just run however it feels comfortable. They said they love the feeling of the grass on their feet, and taking off their shoes feels great after running 3-4 miles in them.

I'm hoping that by doing it now and early, while they are young, they won't need so much support in running shoes when they are older. I hope that their bare feet will be nice and strong to help prevent injury. And besides, running barefoot is actually pretty fun! ;)

So, now that I've finally finished Born to Run, I can say that I actually recommend it. It took me a long time to read far enough into it to really get invested, but once I did, I found so much of it fascinating. It's a funny read, and reading it on the Kindle made it go by so much faster than the paperback! (Read how much I love my Kindle Paperwhite on this post. I can't say enough good things about it!)

Since I love my Kindle so much, I still have this paperback copy of Born to Run that isn't going anywhere. It's not brand new (like I said, I started it 8 million times) but I'd love to give it to someone who would like to read it!

So, if you live in the U.S. and are interested in reading Born to Run, just fill out the Google form below. You don't have to jump through hoops by posting on social media and all that jazz (although it would make me feel good if you followed me on Facebook or something; even though I rarely post there! "Fans" have been dropping like flies, hahaha).

Just fill out your name and email address--it will be for my eyes only--and I will select a winner via random.org on Monday, October 14th at 1:00 pm ET. I will email you if you're selected :) And let's pay nicely, kids--one entry per person. I hope you enjoy the book! I really did like it a lot once I got into it.

(Ugh, apparently I didn't change a setting when I posted this, and the form wasn't working. It should be working okay now!)

October 08, 2019

Having My Dad Teach Me to Change the Oil in My Car (a 40 Goals by 40 Years Old Goal)

40 x 40 Goal: Having My Dady Show Me How to Change the Oil in My Car

For those of you that read my previous post in its entirety, props to you! Hahaha, I have never written a post that long before without breaking it into different segments, but I hope that it will be helpful to anyone that coaches cross country or is interested in coaching cross country. It explains a lot of what I do during the months of July through October!

Today, I had such a great morning with my dad! I got to cross off one of the goals on my list of things I'd like to do before I turn 40 years old (in January 2022): Have my dad teach me how to change the oil in my car.

It sounds like an odd goal, but my dad has been an auto mechanic for his entire life; even now that he's retired, people still prefer to bring their cars to him. I wouldn't trust anyone else with my car!

Because of his expertise, I've saved literally thousands of dollars over the years by having him do the work (for free, because family discount, haha). My dad is getting older (so is everyone, obviously, but working on cars isn't as easy on his body as it used to be. He's not going to be around forever, so I wanted to learn how to do things for myself. (I also asked him today if, when he dies, I can have his garage full of tools! 😂)

I literally knew NOTHING about changing oil going into this. I may have learned something in Auto Shop class in high school, but mostly what I remember of Auto Shop was leaving class to get fast food with my friend Jake. (Our teacher was a first-year, and sadly, we took full advantage of that).

First, I had to buy the oil and filter. My dad explained that it would either be in the car's manual or I could look it up in a book at the store (they have books for a few different brands at the store so you can conveniently look up by car make, model, and year to get what you need.

Unfortunately, my car (a 2015 Jeep Renegade) called for an expensive oil: 0W-20. They didn't sell it in the big containers, so I had to buy several quart size ones (I bought five but it turned out that I needed 5-1/2, so I still have to add half a quart as soon as I can get one). My dad said next time, I can buy the 5W-20 instead, which will work just fine and and be much cheaper.

Expensive 0W-20 oil

Sometimes my dad is very patient and sometimes not so much. I was glad he was very patient with me today, because I learned so much! He taught me how to check the levels of brake fluid, antifreeze, washer fluid, oil, air in my tires, the condition of the brake pads, fan belt, engine filter, and more. The engine filter was filthy! He said I should probably buy a new one, but for now, he used a high pressure air hose to clean it out. That's what I'm unscrewing in this photo:

unscrewing the filter

He told me to wear clothes that I didn't mind getting messy, and once I got started, I discovered why. There is a lot of lying on the ground (he has carpets outside to make it a little more comfortable, but they aren't the cleanest, either).

After checking all the fluid levels and filling what needed to be filled, we got to work on the oil. After checking the oil level, he was shocked at how low it was. He said it wouldn't have lasted a couple more weeks and would have done some serious damage. Yikes!

Anyway, he said the very first thing I should do is open a window in the car so I don't somehow lock myself out. (Smart. He remembers all the times he had to rescue me in high school when I either ran out of gas or locked myself out of my car).

Then, he showed me where to put the jack lift under the car to raise the car up.

lining up the jack lift under the car

When I was a kid, I remember playing with the jack lift--one of us kids would stand on it and the other would jack us up, hahaha. The lift seemed so much bigger back then! I specifically remember one time I was standing on the jack, chewing root beer bubble gum (with a liquid center--ew! and some of the liquid dripped on my thumb. Apparently, a bee was attracted to the syrup I was stung. It's funny, random the things you remember.

Once I got the lift in position, it was time to jack it up. This is basically a good arm workout, pumping up and down until the jack lifts the car off the ground high enough to get a one of those small jacks underneath it.

jacking up the car

Once I had two jacks under the car (one on each side) as well as the jack lift, I prayed that the car wouldn't fall on me while I was underneath it. My dad's been doing this for 40 years and has never had a car fall on him, so I was pretty confident.

Unfortunately, I don't have a photo of the messiest part--removing the old oil. I had to unscrew the old filter and the oil came gushing out (it's not just a drip when you remove the old filter--it gushes!) into an oil pan, but while I was unscrewing the cap, the oil was pouring down my hand. My dad has a dozen (well used) towels lying around, thankfully.

Once the oil had all drained into the pan, I had to screw the new filter in. Thankfully, I'd bought the correct size! If it hadn't fit, I'd have to go buy another (with someone else's car). Screwing in the new filter was messy, too, because there was still a bit of oil dripping down into the pan (and all over my arm). After that, the mess wasn't too bad.

getting read to empty the old oil

Once the new one was screwed into place, it was time to lower the car. Basically, I did everything backwards. I lifted the car just a touch so that I could remove the jacks, and then I slowly (well, he told me to go slowly, but it was tough to keep it from dropping down quickly!) lowered the jack lift.

With the car back on the ground, he said it was a good time to check the the air in the tires (which I did, and they were all at 30 psi--and they needed to be at 35 psi, so I added some air. Then he said it was a good time to check all the lights (headlights, brake lights, etc.). I checked them all and they all worked except for one fog light, which I'll have to replace (although I rarely use the fog lights).

If you have a Jeep Renegade, here's a short tip. Even after changing the oil, the oil change light will still come on when you start the car. To reset this, you just turn the key halfway (to where it's just the battery on) and then pump the gas three times within 10 seconds. Turn the car off. Then start the engine, and voila! No more change oil light.

Other than the air filter, the only other thing that needs replacing is my tires. I'm dreading it, because it'll cost a fortune, but it must be done. Preferably before winter.

Anyway, I'm glad to have knocked another goal off my list, and this was a fun one! I got to spend some quality time with my dad and learn all about my car. And now I'll be able to change my own oil the next time it needs it :)

Dad and me

October 07, 2019

Everything You Need To Know About Coaching Kids' Cross Country Teams

Everything you need to know about coaching kids' cross country teams

... Also known as the longest post I've ever written.

I'm always surprised at how many people are interested in my posts about coaching cross country. I don't mean my personal cross country team, but coaching kids in general. They are (surprisingly) my most popular pins on Pinterest! To be honest, coaching kids is a bit of a challenge compared to high schoolers.

This is probably my longest post ever, and I thought of splitting it into two (or ten) posts, but I'd like all of the information in one single spot, and I hope it will be helpful to other coaches. If you're going to read it, make sure you're comfy with a cup of tea or glass of wine before diving in (and taking notes!).

I've coached cross country for five years, with kids ranging from second grade through sixth grade. (I've also coached adults who are looking to getting started running or run personal records.) I'm very confident in my ability as a coach, and I love to see some (if not most) of the kids I've coached go on to run in middle school (and even high school!).

That said, coaching kids isn't exactly a cake walk (literally). It's tough!

Challenges of Coaching Kids

1) They are younger and aren't sure of what sport they're "into" (if any at all). Many of them were made to sign up for cross country by a parent, and some of them don't want to be there. It's my job to (hopefully) make it fun enough that they will enjoy the season.

2) Kids get bored EASILY. You have to keep them interested enough to want to continue the season and hopefully join again the following year. One of my favorite moments this season was when a boy on my team came to his first practice and said afterward, "I love cross country! I want to join again next year!" (We hadn't done sprints at the track yet, so maybe he'd spoken too soon, haha)

This photo was on a crazy hot day when I told the kids if they did extra sprints, they could dump ice water on my head. They clearly chose to do the extra sprints!

kids pouring water on coach's head

3) While high school kids tend to find motivation in their own running goals and personal bests, we all know that elementary school kids need a little more push. That means you have to get creative with ways to motivate them (which I'll share later in this post).

4) Kids have very short attention spans. While it's easy to tell a high schooler to go run five or six miles, getting a fourth grader to run a quarter mile without dancing around, grabbing leaves from trees, and walking when they should be running is another story.

5) Trying to explain the complexities of competitive running to young kids would probably be comparable to a NASA physicist explaining rocket science to me. There are way too many technicalities that come into play with running, a trillion different training techniques, and SO many reasons for doing things the way they are done.

But there ARE reasons. I was very lucky to be invited by Runner's World magazine to their headquarters and learn tips from some of the best runners in the world! When I started using the techniques I learned, I became a much better runner (and coach). I also read pretty much any book I can get my hands on about different training methods. I even recently wrote a post about "How To Breathe While Running" about a seminar I sat in at RW headquarters. 

6) Kids never want to go for an "easy run". And I can't stress enough how important the easy run is! (Please, please read that post.) When kids first start running, they love to either sprint or walk, and nothing in between. As coaches, we know that the best runners utilize many different paces during training.

In fact, the biggest challenge I have with first year runners is trying to get them to learn to pace themselves appropriately. "What's the fastest pace you can run for an entire mile?" "What's the fastest pace you can run 100 meters?" There is a big difference between those two distances, but the kids will give a single pace answer, not two ;)

7) The long running can get boring during practices, because with little kids, you can't let them out of your sight. So, we have to stick with short (1/4 mile to 1/3 mile) loops in order to be able to watch all the kids at the same time. Running the same loop over and over isn't the best--I know that! Ideally, we'd go to a park and run a 3-mile loop--much less boring--but it's just not possible when you have elementary kids of all ages. So I try to find other ways to make it fun.

8) Some kids, no matter how badly you want them to succeed, will just NOT do what you ask them to do. I have heard every single excuse in the book about why they can't run that day: sore throat, foot hurts, leg hurts, ate too much dinner, stomachache, headache, too hot, too cold, too tired, etc. (Hint: 99% of those are simple excuses--I'm tough on my runners, and I *rarely* accept an excuse not to run.)

My philosophy is: If they can't run, they shouldn't come to practice! (I also try to find out from the parents whether they tend to be dramatic or if those excuses should be taken seriously.) We had a crazy hot race last weekend, so I brought a bottle of water to spray on the kids at the starting line. They loved it!

Coach spraying water on the kids before a hot race

9) This one is a bit of a sore spot for me, especially now that I'm coaching without Renee... Our "club" (since the kids aren't yet in middle school, and the elementary school doesn't technically have a team, we are considered a club) isn't taken very seriously by the senior coaches at the school:

 I hate to use this word, but I almost feel like the senior coaches think of our team as a "joke"--where I am a babysitter rather than a coach. Which is unfortunate for them, because the kids on my team will be the ones to be on their team in a few years! Haha ;) I feel like I go way above and beyond for our team, but it would be nice if the senior coaches recognized that. (I'm sure they have no idea how much work I do.)

 We don't have a budget to get the things that the middle and high schoolers have--such as our own tent for the meets (the other teams have tents (like these) set up as a meeting space and to keep their gear). See those tents in the background? Every team has one except for us! This year, I bought the wagon; next year I'll buy a tent.

 Unlike the older kids, we don't get singlets, but rather t-shirts instead (a t-shirt is great, but a singlet would make them feel like they are more a part of the "real" running teams at meets. Not to mention, they'd be more comfortable.

 For me, coaching is a volunteer position; I don't mind this at all, because I love doing it, but I do end up spending much more of my own money than I probably should. I had to buy a wagon to carry our gear (Renee had one last year, but since I'm coaching solo, I had to purchase my own).

 I also bought several of the prizes before creating the Amazon Wish List (these are unnecessary, of course, and I obviously don't expect the school to buy them, but it shows that I am passionate about the team).

 I have to pay to get into the Metroparks where a couple of the races are held (the passes are $10 each)! It would be nice if I didn't have to cover that expense. To be fair, I'm not sure if the other coaches are paying out of pocket; but the middle and high school coaches have paid positions.

 This year, because I was coaching without Renee, I chose to have just fourth and fifth graders on the team (which literally cut the potential team in half, from 24 to 12). I didn't understand that this would be a problem, but I've since learned that the races are paid for by the school per TEAM and not per RUNNER as I'd thought. So, the senior coach wasn't happy with me regarding that decision. Next year, I will include 3rd graders again.

 However, due to the smaller team this year, I was able to concentrate on coaching each kid much more personally--focusing on strengthening their weaknesses and playing up their strengths. It's hard to do that with 25-30 kids on the team (past numbers). I believe I can have a much larger team next year; this year was a nice way to ease myself into coaching alone.

This is my team this year (don't worry, I got permission from their parents to post this)--we started with 12, but one of the girls quit coming, so we are down to my very favorite number ;)  Next year, I'll try to get 33 😬

My current cross country team

 I miss Renee (we had fun coaching together, and we started the team together!), but I do enjoy coaching alone, as I am definitely a bit bossy. I didn't realize or truly appreciate just how much "behind the scenes" work she did until I started to do it myself this season.)

Helpful Tips for Coaching Kids

So, as you can see, there are many more challenges when coaching little kids than when coaching older kids. I could coach a middle or high school team no problem and they'd do great! But coaching young ones is a different ball game (err, race course, rather).

Here are some things I've learned over the last five years of coaching that may be helpful for those of you who are coaches and feel as lost as I did when I started. I was used to coaching single adults who had a race goal--and then my friend Renee and I started our elementary school team.

1) Find a place to practice that has the following conditions:
 Grassy (or at least unpaved) because cross country races are not on pavement 
 A smaller loop where the entire thing is visible, roughly 1/4 mile (so you can keep track of the kids without losing anyone 
 Doesn't have a lot of traffic--people, dogs, bikes, etc. coming through

2) Get the following necessities to make your (coaching) life much easier:
 A water cooler big enough for the team (kids are always forgetting water bottles--I tell them to bring them, but the cooler is for refills and for the kids who forget). I have a five gallon one which is way too big--three gallons would be perfect, even for a team twice my size. 
 A collapsible wagon for getting your stuff to and from your meeting locations (I'll explain why you'll need it later, when I describe all the stuff you need) 
 A huge tote bag, similar to this (or two--in my case, I've acquired three!) 
 A 3-ring binder for all the necessary paperwork (as well as the not-so-necessary nerdy spreadsheets that I love). 
 A whistle (you know, for authority and stuff--haha)! 
 A stopwatch app on your phone, or an actual stopwatch. My app is cleverly called Stopwatch+ on iOS.
(There will be several more things ("luxuries" listed below); but these above are necessities, in my opinion.)

3) Luxuries to have, if possible:
 Garmin (or other GPS) watches to track distance and pace. I was lucky enough to have a few blog readers send me their old Garmins and I LOVE USING THEM. I used to use a rubber band system to keep track of distance (I'll explain below) but I found that some of the kids would "accidentally" run less than they said they did. Having the watches is proof! ;) 
 If Garmins aren't a possibility, which I'm sure they aren't for most people, I used a rubber band system. Each rubber band was equivalent to one lap around the park. On some days, I would give each kid a particular number of rubber bands (based on their ability) to put on their wrist. Each time they finished a lap, they would remove one rubber band, until they'd finished removing all of them. 
Sometimes, I would do it in reverse. For long run days, for example, I'll have them collect a rubber band for each lap instead of removing one. This way, they just keep running until I tell them to stop. (Otherwise, some kids will do the minimum that you give them and not aim for anything more.) But beware, they will ALWAYS ask how many more laps!
 This year, as I will explain later in the post, I acquired some running parachutes. These are SO fun for the kids and make sprints very hard work! 
 Items to use for an obstacle course (I've done obstacle courses once in a while when we have a race the following day; that way, they are moving and getting exercise, but aren't pushing themselves too hard before the race). I'll post ideas for that later.

4) Choose the days of the week and times you want to have practices. 

Usually, I am a people pleaser and do everything I can to accommodate everyone else; but when it came to practices this year, I chose what was best for ME and my family. I'm a volunteer coach, so I don't get paid for my time. I choose to practice three evenings a week, and I am done by the time Jerry is home from work and showered. I also chose a location that is close to home. That way, I can spend the evening with my family.

5) Don't baby the kids, especially from the very beginning.

As soon as you fall for one of their excuses, you're a goner ;)  (Kidding, but you do have to be tough about the rules, otherwise they will walk--or run, rather--all over you).

Shirt- our blood, our sweat, your tears

6) Develop a game plan:
 Short, tempo run once a week (tempo pace = harder than easy pace, but not quite race pace) 
 Speed work at the track another day (super hard! I'll have some ideas below) 
 Long runs on another day (for my kids, this is anywhere from 2.5-5.5 miles) 
 And if you're fortunate enough to have 4-5 days a week for practice, I'd throw in some extra easy runs to get in more mileage.
(It's okay to vary from the schedule, of course; if my kids have a race on Tuesday, I'm either going to cancel practice for the Monday before or we'll do a very easy, fun workout, like the obstacle course.

7) Start each season with a time trial (a timed one-mile run on an outdoor track). 

Since cross country starts in the late summer, ideally, practices should start in early summer (right when school gets out, or at least by July). Go to a local school track when nobody is using it, and time the kids for a one mile run (four laps around the inner lane).

I use an app on my phone where I press a "lap" button after each child finishes, and it marks each of those times while the timer is still going. (Again, mine is Stopwatch+).  Practice with it several times before you use it for the time trial!

During the trial, the kids take a number as soon as they are finished--that number correlates with their finishing order (so that I know which lap time belongs to each kid). If they finish their mile in third place, for example, they take the number 3 (written on a post-it) and hold onto it until everyone is finished (it helps to have a parents or assistant coach hand out the post-its while you time them). When the trial is over, I will look at lap 3 on the stopwatch to see that person's personal mile time. I wrote more detail about this on this post.

The reason for starting the season with this time trial is so that at the end of the season, you can repeat it and see if the kids' times have improved. (I don't think I've ever had a kid NOT improve throughout the season). It's a confidence boost to them. And to me, as their coach! These stats are after just one month.

time trial improvements

8) Try to have either an assistant coach to help out OR a parent who has no problem with allowing you to be the one to take charge and control the practices. 

I've found that when parents stay at practice, one of two things tends to happen:
 They are way too hard on their kids--they tell them to run faster and harder when I might be coaching an easy run that day, for example. I'm an experienced certified running coach, and I know what I'm doing! Last year, I had a parent who just broke her daughter's spirit by being so tough on her. Her daughter chose not to continue XC in middle school. 
 On the opposite note, the kids may get a little babied by the parents, which makes coaching tough. You can't be a babysitter and a coach at the same time if you intend to help the entire team become better runners. As I get to know the kids, I know who can be pushed and who just needs a little encouragement. I tailor my ways to the best of my ability. My goal is to keep running fun but also to make the kids better runners. 
That said, I always tell the parents they are welcome to stay if they wish! But I don't let it affect how I coach; I don't go easier on the kids just because they may have a parent there. I have no problem yelling across the football field during a time trial, "IF YOU'RE TALKING, YOU'RE NOT RUNNING FAST ENOUGH! GO FASTER!"

I'm a relatively tough coach! And proud of that ;)  If the kids do what I say, they will become better runners. Usually, I am a humble person; but I am pretty badass when it comes to coaching people (not just kids) who want to become better runners.

9) If you're a numbers nerd like me, create some spreadsheets to get organized and put in your binder. If you're familiar with spreadsheets, I can email some to you. But it'd be easier to create your own and tailor them to your team's goals.

After the initial time trial, I gave the kids the goal of bettering their time by 10% (likely), 15% (tough, but doable), or 20% (a "superman" goal).

goals for the kids

10) Super important: This will likely be required by your club or school, but make sure you get waivers signed before any practices.

If you're not working with a school, liability insurance is a great idea, too. Kids are resilient, but things happen, and it's good to be prepared. On the front cover of my binder (inside the clear plastic) I keep a list of names, emergency contacts, phone numbers, allergies, and any health conditions for easy reference. I have two kids with (non-epileptic) seizure disorders, and their parents have given me instructions on what to do if it should happen during practice.

11) For some reason, the kids always want to take breaks after each (1/4 mile) lap. *sigh* 

Since our laps are only 1/4 mile, this is a problem! If I can run three miles non-stop when I'm this out of shape right now, they can certainly run the 2-4 miles I assign at practice. This has been a problem every year, so this year, I came up with a solution: handheld water bottles.

Since the one that I have and love (Amphipod) is super expensive, and so are others like Nathan's brand, I had to find something I could afford. I bought a couple packs of these water bottles and a few packs of these handles to go on them. This way, they can carry their water with them while they run--no excuses. It has cut down the walking/stopping quite a bit.

hand held water bottle

However, several of the kids have complained that they are heavy, so they choose not to use them. A few people donated some small wrist water bottles that the kids went nuts over--they love them! So, if you're feeling generous and would like to donate something to our team, here is the link on Amazon for the water bottles on our wish list.

12) Form a Facebook group for all the parents.

When you have a lot of information to give at once (about the meets, for example) I like to post it all on there. I post race maps, where to meet, what time to meet; in addition to information, the parents share photos from races, etc.

I also have a group text where I remind the parents of any information on practice days and ask who will be there. On race days, I remind them of the times/location and to make sure their child is hydrated, etc. I like to keep the texts short and to the point. Thankfully, all of the parents have Facebook, so I sometimes just text them to check Facebook for important info.

Making Running FUN

Have an incentive program:

The incentive programs for my team have varied throughout the years, depending on what works and what doesn't (and how expensive it is). This year, thanks to my super generous readers, has been (by far) the best! This incentive program can be very expensive if you're not getting donations or a budget from a school to use, so if you can't do it, I have other ideas. But here is what I'm doing this year:

Points system with awards: I created an Amazon Wish List for our team, and I was shocked at how many people donated. That (and the donations for Mark when he was dying from cancer) are the two most generous things people have ever done for me, and I can't express my gratitude enough. Really. (Anything leftover or donated post-season will go toward next year's season.)

Mushy stuff aside, here is how it works: In a nutshell, the kids earn points and the points are like "money" to buy prizes. I have found their favorite prizes to be novelty compression socks (the size S/M works out great for the kids! I was worried they'd be too big), wrist water bottles (mentioned above), headbands/sweatbands, and a few other things.

This is the same photo from earlier, but I wanted to show off the socks that the kids are wearing--those are a VERY hot item that they like to spend their points on!

my kids cross country team

I bought a Garmin (new in the box for $25 on Facebook Marketplace!) with my own money at the beginning of the season to use as an incentive, which started this whole idea. If you look at the Wish List, you'll see the things we use.

The kids earn points for things like:
 Doing their best at practice (I can always tell who is working hard and who is not)
 One point for every mile run
 5 points for each mile run without stopping or walking
 20 bonus points when they hit a cumulative 20 miles for the season
 30 bonus for 30 miles, etc. (One of my kids has run over 80 miles so far!)
 They get 20 bonus points each time they run their fastest mile pace at a race or time trial.
 And once in a while, I'll give out bonus points for things like running extra laps when they are done with their workout, or for doing a couple of extra interval sprints, things like that. I keep track of all the mileage, points, and race times on spreadsheets (again, I'll share those later).

Some other incentive ideas:

 Last year, I did a "token" system (which were basically different color charms, but I called them tokens so that the boys didn't feel like they were too girly). I bought them on clearance and I made the wrist keychains from old pairs of jeans. Each token represented a different accomplishment: running a mile under 10 minutes, under 9 minutes, etc. Running a personal record. Beating the seasonal goal I gave them. Hitting a certain number of miles run. I wrote all about that in this post.

"token" awards for cross country

 This one is totally free, and quite useful: A leaderboard. This works for kids who are competitive. Before each practice, I write down on a dry-erase board a list of the kids' names in order of who has the most cumulative miles or who has the most points. For some reason, just seeing their names made them want to climb to the top of the list.

leaderboard for cross country

 Another is candy. Yes, this is more of a bribe, but it's come in useful, too. I bought a large bag of Jolly Ranchers and the kids who participate as I ask during practice will get a Jolly Rancher when practice is over. You would be amazed at how much a single Jolly Rancher inspires the kids to work harder!

The candy actually works two-fold; when the kids are doing a long run during practice, they may ask for a Jolly Rancher to keep their mouth from getting dry as they run. Since I totally understand how this feels, and I want to encourage them from stopping for breaks, I allow them to have one or two if they are really trying their best.

Workouts That Kids May Enjoy

Let's face it--running, by itself, just isn't fun! But there are ways to make it fun, and I've come up with lots of ideas over the last five years.

Parachute Sprints:

This year, a few of my blog readers donated (from our Wish List) some running parachutes. The kids LOVE THESE. You strap it to your waist and then run as hard as you can (against the wind) and the force of the wind resistance in the parachute really strengthens their legs.

running parachute

Fast Finish Runs: 

The kids run their usual laps, but on the last lap, they run as fast as they can get it done without stopping or walking. This teaches them to finish strong on tired legs. Sometimes I'll offer extra points if they really push hard on that last lap.

Obstacle Courses - When the kids have a race the following day, to avoid burning them out and using up all their energy, I've created an obstacle course for them to do at practice. I usually find things around the house or garage that I can set up. Some ideas:

 Hurdles (I made some with these and these from Lowe's. You just stick two sign stakes in the ground next to each other a few feet apart, and then thread this driveway reflector through the holes.) I make some higher ones for them to jump over and lower ones for them to crawl under. Not the fanciest, but they were super cheap.
 A pillow case to put both feet in and hop to the next obstacle
 A giant pair of Jerry's work boots that they had to quickly put on and run with them to the finish (it was much harder than I expected!)
 Running 100 meters with a running parachute
 Kicking a kick ball 100 meters
 Rings for quick steps
 Cones to zig zag

Basically, just look around the house and get creative ;) For the obstacle course, I have all the kids complete it on their own while I time them; then at the end, I announce the winner. I gave 30 points to the first place winner, 20 to second place, and 10 to third place.

obstacle course run

Running with Jerry's work boots was surprisingly very difficult for most of the kids!

running with men's boots

The Marbles Game (this is great for running sprints on the track; on a hill is even better! And the kids love it):

This game is best for a hill, but you could modify it for 70-ish meter sprints on flat ground, too. I bought two bags of marbles--one blue and one green. The blue marbles are worth 3 points, and the green marbles are worth 1 point. You place a bucket with all the green (1 point) marbles halfway up the hill, and a bucket with the blue (3 point) marbles at the very top of the hill.

marbles for running games

Divide the kids into two teams of equal ability, and when you blow the whistle, all the kids (the entire team) run at the same time up and down the hill, picking up only one marble at a time and returning it to the bottom of the hill into their team's assigned bucket.

They can choose to get the 1-point marbles by only having to go halfway up the hill, or they could choose the 3-point marbles by going to the top of the hill. At the end, total the points for each team, and the team with the most points is the winner.

Connect Four Game (again, for sprinting or hills):

I bought a Connect 4 board game, and our team uses that in a few different ways. There is a hill in one of the parks where we practice, so to get the kids to run hill repeats, we place all of the game pieces (the little red and yellow discs) on the top of the hill. Then I hold the game board at the bottom of the hill. We divided the kids into the yellow team and the red team (trying to make them equal based on how fast the kids are).

Each team lined up at the bottom of the hill, and when I blew the whistle, the first person on each team ran to the top of the hill, grabbed one game piece, and ran back to the bottom to put their piece on the board. When they reached the bottom, the next person from their team headed up the hill. This went on until one of the teams got four tokens in a row! We usually fit in two or three rounds of this game.

connect 4 running game

Another way to use the Connect 4 game is to do a relay like I wrote above, only instead of a hill, they can run a straight line or in a loop.

Musical Hula Hoops:

This is basically musical chairs, but instead of putting a bunch of chairs in a circle, I put a bunch of hula hoops in a giant circle in the field. For 20 kids, I started with 8 hula hoops and allowed 2 kids per hula hoop.

hula hoop running game

When I blow the whistle, the kids start running a circle around the circle of hoops, just like in musical chairs; and then when I blow the whistle again, they have to scramble to find a hoop to stand in. Only two kids were allowed per hoop, so the leftover kids are out.

Then I take away one of the hoops, and continue. We do this until there were two kids fighting for one hoop. Last one standing is the winner. With fewer kids this year, I used more hoops (the same hoops I used for the obstacle course that I linked to above) and each kid must find his/her own.

Sharks & Minnows:

This is a game that the kids actually taught me. Using orange cones, we set up a large rectangular play area. You choose two kids to be "sharks", who start in the center of the rectangle. The rest of the kids are "minnows", and they line up across one end of the rectangle. The goal is for the minnows to get from one side of the play area to the other without getting tagged by a shark.

When I blow the whistle, the kids all run as fast as they can to the other side, and try not to get tagged by a shark. If they get tagged, they become "seaweed" and they have to sit down on the spot they were tagged. The seaweed can then tag minnows as the minnows run by, but they have to stay seated. You do several rounds of this until there is only one minnow left standing, who is the winner.

We use this as a game, but the kids get a TON of running out of it!

sharks and minnows running game

Scavenger Hunt:

This was a little different than your average scavenger hunt. I bought about 10 small buckets from the dollar store, and a large package of plastic toy food items. On index cards, I wrote down the name of each food item. Then, I placed 3-4 items in each bucket, and placed all the buckets spread across the field randomly. I divided the kids into two teams, and they lined up relay-style. I handed each kid one of the index cards with an item written on it.

When I blew the whistle, the first kid from each team ran off to look in the buckets for their item (if they were lucky, it would be in the first bucket they checked; but if not, they had to keep searching). When they found their item, they ran it back to the team, and the next person took off. The first team to find all their objects was the winner. The kids are allowed to help their teammates--if the first kid, for example, saw the banana in one bucket and knew their teammate was going to be looking for it, they could tell their teammate what bucket the banana was in.

Matching Card Game:

I bought a few packs of Matching Game cards from the dollar store (the deck consists of cards with pictures on them, and each card has a match). I would have the kids run their laps and collect ONE card after each lap (without peaking at the cards). They were divided into two teams, and each card they collected was put in a pile for their team. Once all the cards were gone, the teams got together to see how many matches they made. The team with the most matches was the winner. The kids learned that the faster they ran, the more laps--and therefore, more cards--they would get.

This can also be played on a hill, with the cards at the top of the hill and the kids running up to grab a card then bringing it down to the bottom.

Simple Sprints (I like to do these on the track):

Set up two cones about 50-100 meters apart on the track. If you have a large group of kids, you may want to separate them into "waves" that start about 10 seconds apart so that they aren't getting trampled.

When you blow the whistle, the kids sprint as hard as they can from one cone to the next. Then, they turn and walk back to the first cone. Repeat for the number of times that is appropriate for your group. For my 3rd through 5th graders, I have them do twelve 100-meter sprints and they are TOTALLY wiped out. But several of them do extra, because I offer 3 extra points per sprint ;) 

Animals (for speed control--teaching easy running, moderate running, tempo running, and sprints):

I made little signs, each with the name of one of four animals on it--turtle, pig, horse, or cheetah. I put the signs on cones that were set up in their loop where they run laps. Turtle means walk; pig means jog slowly; horse means run steady; and cheetah means sprint. Each time they come to a cone, they have to run like the speed of the animal on the cone. When they reach the next cone, they change it up. I have eight cones total, with two of each animal.

speed work idea for kids

Water Bucket Sprints:

I bought four 5-gallon buckets (two filled with water and two empty--the empty ones were the kind you find in the paint sections at Lowe's--they have measuring marks on them). I give each of the kids an empty cup and separate them into two teams. When I blow the whistle, the kids fill their cup with water from the full bucket and run 100 meters across the field to the empty bucket and pour it in. Then run back and get more. Over and over until the team who gets to four gallons first wins (Trying to scoop out five gallons of water from a five gallon bucket is challenging, so we just go up to four). 

Ice Block Relay:

On one very hot day of practice, Renee brought a couple of large ice blocks (she filled a couple of milk cartons with water and froze them in order to make the blocks). Then the kids did a relay race, carrying the ice block and passing it to the next kid in the relay. They loved doing this!

To end the season, I always like to give recognition to the kids who really went above and beyond during training. I create award certificates for the kids and print them out on nice card stock, each saying something to recognize a particular strength they had. Here is an example:

running achievement award for kids

The kids seem to like the recognition, and I hope that it encourages them to join again next year! We usually have a pizza party "awards ceremony" as well.

Well, I realize this is a doozy of a post. I've been working on it for days (literally, probably 30 hours total). I'm wiped! But I hope it's helpful to have all of this info in one place.

I may add to this post here and there as I think of more. I feel like I'm forgetting things. But it's nearly midnight, and I have to get up at 6:00, and I really want to get this posted! If you made it through this whole post, congratulations! Hopefully, if you're a coach (or prospective coach) you'll find it helpful :)

Anyway, good luck coaching!! It's been super fun and rewarding for me.

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