Havana Marathon Training Tips

Photo credit: Jenny Hadfield

By coach Jenny Hadfield

Start from where you are, rather than where you want to be. If you’re new to the endurance running world, finding and following a training program based on your fitness and experience level is vital to your success. The key is matching the first week of the training plan closely to where you are when you begin. In other words, don’t jump from running three times a week for 3 miles into a training plan that starts off at five times a week for 7 miles. This will set you up for burnout, frequent crabbiness, and aches and pains. Start training from where you are, even if you are a little behind the eight ball. This will allow your body and mind to evolve safely, with less risk of injury. If you are a seasoned endurance athlete and looking to improve your performance through increased training, a solid strategy is to modify a few core areas of your plan and progress season to season. You can progress by including speed intervals, tempo runs, hill workouts and shorter long runs (8-10 miles) that include race effort miles.  The key is to evolve your training plan from one season to the next with gradual progressions so your body can adapt more readily.

Create a plan that meets your needs, and tailor it to your life. Many times, we find a training plan and make changes to meet the specific details of that regimen. But that isn’t always the best way. A training program on paper is a great way to start, but don’t stop there. Tailor it to your life, age, and interests. The more you customize it, the more effective it will be in the long run (pun intended☺). A few examples: If you prefer to cross-train with cycling, elliptical, yoga, Zumba, or cross-fit, great! Plug those into your weekly training regimen and alternate three to four running workouts with other modalities. Or, if you work the nightshift four days on, four days off, tailor your core workouts around your strongest physical days. That might mean you get in your long training runs every eight to ten days instead of every week. Training needs to fit your lifestyle and unique challenges. When it does, it will seem almost effortless.  

Train by feel rather than pace. The number-one mistake most runners make when training is to run too hard on their easy or long workouts, and too easy on the hard ones. You can spend hours trying to come up with complicated calculations for pace and even heart rate—but you don’t have to. The secret to training optimally and getting the most bang for your buck is so simple, you may not even believe me: train by feel, by your body and breath. This is likely the way the Cuban runners do it, as they don’t have the fancy gadgets we do (yet). They are at an advantage, to some extent. I’m the first one to tell you how much I love running gadgets like GPS and speed-and-distance monitors. However, if you let them tell you how to train, you will come up short, as the data is meant as the outcome, not the target. Here’s one example: Let’s say you go out to run your ten miler this weekend at your estimated long run pace of ten minutes per mile. You end up running at that pace, but it is against a 20 mph headwind—which puts you in the red zone for training intensity. Because you run harder than expected, it takes longer to recover, and your energy level drops to the ground for days after. You continue to train according to schedule, and progressively move into an energy debt. This happens when you train by the watch, rather than effort level. Life happens, and when you train according to how you feel on the day and in the correct effort zone or level, your body will readily recover and progress. When recovery is compromised because of an out-of-the-zone workout the quality of your training will suffer. Keep it easy, train by your body, and tune in to your breath. It will tell you everything you need to know. 

Mix it up. A variety of ingredients play a role in preparing for a long-distance race. Some are more obvious: long runs, short runs, faster-paced runs. Others include total body strengthening, flexibility, and cross-training. Strength training as little as twenty minutes two to three times a week will build a solid foundation that will aid in reducing injuries caused by muscle imbalance and overuse, and improve running efficiency, body composition and more. Weaving in five to ten minutes of flexibility (foam rolling, stretching) after your workout can relieve muscle tension common in repetitive sports such as running.  Including low-impact activities such as cycling, elliptical, swimming, yoga and others can keep your program fresh, balance impact on the body, and reduce wear and tear. Cross-training is also an effective way to train for the hills without the impact forces. For example, a hill climb interval workout on the bike or elliptical will build stamina, especially if you live in an area without hills. Think of it as your favorite recipe: it’s the balance of the ingredients that makes the meal.  

Make friends with hills. The Marabana Havana Marathon is a hilly course.  You’ll run along the beautiful Malecón through the first 7k, but after that, you’ll roll up and down through town. Hilly courses can make or break you. They “make” you if you follow a wise hill strategy. They “break” you when you try to maintain your pace or conquer the hills as you run or race on them. Think Everest, and, like a mountain climber or cyclist, use your gears. Most runners tackle the “up” hills and expend all their energy so they can’t take advantage of the “down” hills. Wise runners run hills by effort rather than pace, and maintain an even effort level going up (slowing pace), conserve their energy, and make the most of gravity and the downhill.  When you do this, you can end up running faster than on a flat course because you’re mixing up the muscle groups and conserving precious energy. Practice this in your next hill training session, whether on the roads or on  actual hills. When you use your gears, you will learn to love hills and run them faster and stronger than you’ve ever imagined. Weave in hill workouts once a  week if you’re new to them, and more if you live in a hilly area and are used to running on them.  [How to Run Hills Video]

Invest in rest. Can you imagine life without sleep? Sleep and rest are vital for healthy living and optimal performance because they help the body and mind rejuvenate, recover and grow strong. Endurance runners need two kinds of rest: active and passive. Active rest involves cross-training with lower-impact activities, such as cycling, swimming, yoga, and strength training. You are actively resting from the impact of running, and using other muscles in a variety of movement patterns. This gives your body a break from the repetitive nature of right, left, right, left. The variety also keeps your mind fresh.  Passive rest is just that: little to no activity to completely and thoroughly allow downtime from the demands of a long-distance training regimen. It’s a good idea to include both types in your weekly training and periodically throughout the season. Many programs build in two- or three-week cycles and then cut back in volume to allow the body to adapt. Rest is an important ingredient in your training recipe. Use frequently and repeat.  

Get specific. Every long training workout is a dress rehearsal for the big race in Havana, and the perfect time to test your shoes, apparel, and pre-race nutrition, and prepare for the terrain, heat, and fueling on the go. Water and a sugar-water product are served in plastic tubes that look like giant freeze pops. Many runners are sensitive to different types of sugar and products, and there’s no opportunity to train with this drink ahead of time, as many suggest. One thing you can do is plan to carry a hydration system (fuel belt, Nathan vest, or hand-held water bottle) and bring a powdered version of your go-to sports drink to add to the water you’ll receive along the course.  Another option is water, gels or other energy products, such as NUUN or FIZZ (effervescent tabs placed in water to provide needed electrolytes).  The key is to develop a plan for Havana’s specific conditions and practice this during the season. Keep a log to track what works and what doesn’t, from shoes to nutrition. You’ll have a solid personal recipe for success, which will serve you well as you head into race week.

Review the course map. The Marabana Havana Marathon is a two-loop course that winds through town and along the waterfront (the Malecón) and includes both flat and hilly terrain. Review the map to familiarize your mind with the course layout.  It’s a great way to remain mindful of the sights and scenes along the way, and more important, an effective way to create a plan for race day. Break the distance into smaller, more digestible checkpoints (aid stations, interesting sights, or kilometers) and you’ll have an instant game plan. Another advantage to familiarizing yourself with the course is that you can simulate it in training runs, in loops and on flat and hilly terrain.

Train mindfully. The training plan you know today on paper most likely won’t look like the one that appears in your training log come November, when we’re headed to Cuba. That’s because life happens, and workouts are missed or modified. It’s important to know this because it’s not about perfection; it’s about optimizing. That is, making the most of your time along the way. Listen to your body. It is a better communicator than Twitter or Facebook. Ease up on the intensity or volume when fatigue sets in; add a rest day, or cross-train for several, if aches and pains arise. It might seem like a detour at the time, but making small modifications is a wise way to stay in the training season and avoid getting sidelined by injuries or illness. 

Evolve like a fine wine. I asked 50k American world-record holder Josh Cox how he trained to break the record. He said, “I started when I was in high school and evolved slowly every season to this point in my career.” Whether this is a new distance, a new experience or your hope for a personal record, let your training and racing evolve like a fine wine, over time and with patience.  

Pace yourself. The secret to any race is to run by your inner GPS and pace yourself early. It’s not about speed, but effort. When you follow a strategy that conserves energy for the later stages, you’ll finish strong. A simple way is to break the distance into three equal parts. Think yellow, orange and red.  For the first third, run in the yellow zone, or at an effort level that allows you to talk and hold a conversation. (Better yet, practice your Spanish and talk to a local runner along the way.) When you reach the second third of the race, step up to the orange zone, or an effort level where you can hear your breath, but are not gasping for air. For the final third, run in the red zone, pushing hard and ready to cross that finish line. Good things come to those who wait, and racing a long-distance event is all about the patience to plan your finish line photo. Practice this in training and you’ll always pace yourself to a strong finish and fantastic-looking photo.

Share the love. Celebrate the finish. Many local runners, spectators and kids show up at the start of the race. It’s the perfect time to give spare running shoes, club shirts or any other gift you want to share. One young participant shadowed an American runner last year for the entire marathon course just to receive his running shoes. Although it is optional, if you bring gear, this is the perfect time to share it, and a great opportunity to appreciate all we have. Although it’s not a personal record-making course, it is one that will have a profound effect on your running life forever. And that is why we run: to explore, evolve, and connect with like-minded people. [So tempted to change “people” to “souls.” Or “soles.”]

Photo credit: Jenny Hadfield

If you’re a distance runner, and have always wanted to visit Cuba, we invite you to join us for a momentous journey to Cuba to make running history.
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