Trends come and go, but despite a balky economy running events throughout the country have continued to experience a wave of women participants as the overall numbers in the sport show steady improvement year to year. According to Running USA, women filled 53% of event fields in 2010, men only 47%, a sea-change from the statistics found in the early years of the first running boom of the late 1970s and early 1980s. 

     Notwithstanding this participation boom, and despite the fact that the world’s best runners have continued to produce faster and faster times at the tip of the running spear, there has been no echo boom in terms of competitive improvement in the everyday runner.  Participation alone has become the mantra of the masses.  

But as I found out when my wife Toya began coaching local runners in San Diego this year after receiving her ACE-certification in personal training and exercise science certification from UCSD, there are still runners who have an old-school desire to seek out their limits and discover what literary critic Harold Bloom calls “the difficult pleasure”.

     A mid-30’s marathoner with a demanding full-time job, Jesu Claridad was in many statistical ways today’s typical female runner.  She had run seven marathons with a PR of 4:50. Then she met Toya.

     “Most people are comfortable with just doing the marathon as a bucket list activity,” said Toya as we flew across the Pacific toward Hawaii and this Sunday’s 39th Honolulu Marathon. “While I do think that’s an accomplishment, this is an athletic endeavor that needs to be respected as such. It’s got to be more than running in memory of someone or fighting cancer for others, because with that mindset you’ve already told your body that it’s not an athletic event, and your horizon has already been lowered. If it’s going to take you more than five hours to finish, then the marathon should not be the event for you to begin with. Not because people are less talented, but because this is a serious distance that needs to be taken seriously. Why not walk/jog a 5k or a 10k that’s not as hard on the body, then build up to the marathon? No wonder so many people only want to do one. They haven’t properly prepared.”

Coach Toya

     Toya’s philosophy – developed not just in school, but through many years of competitive running under tutors like Paul Greer, Steve Scott, and Joaquim Cruz –  is to treat all her runners like athletes, regardless of their ability. Accordingly, she incorporates core exercises, warm up and cool down drills, intervals, tempo runs, gym work, circuit training with plyometrics, marathon progression runs, all in line with the individual athlete’s fitness level and goals.

     “So many people jump into a marathon program without ever assessing their structural issues. Can they even handle the distance? They should be strengthening their weaknesses first, starting with form and function. Do their feet pronate or supinate? Are their hips out of line? You have to begin with structure and form before building out. Are your glutes and hips tight, because that may well manifest itself in knee pain, because the knee isn’t tracking correctly. What we are talking about is really tough. You take a soft runner and give them circuit training, and they look at you like, “What?!” But everyone can improve. But that means that the marathon should not be your first race.”

     From being punctual to workouts to showing respect for the workout and the coach, what’s often missing in most newbie training programs is something as simple as taking a serious approach to the process.

     “It can all be fun,” says Toya, “but it still takes is a more focused approach rather than this one-size-fits-all method.  For instance, all my athletes are required to buy the Grid foam-roller and are given a thorough lesson on how to use it. A lot of recreational runners don’t have the time or money for weekly massages. The foam roller is the next best thing, daily, before and after every run. Nine times out of ten your hamstring or calves are too tight, and you won’t realize it until you put your body weight onto the roller and work it out. You have to think of your body as an integrated machine, calves, quads, hamstrings, IT Band, lower back, shoulders. You can’t just go out the door and run. A lot of these athletes have never been to a gym to make sure they are strengthening their weaknesses and imbalances or adding more strength and power to their running muscles. Everything is integrated. A weakness in the upper body will eventually affect the efficiency of the lower body.”

     For beginning athletes who have little background in training Toya begins with heart-rate-based training, using a max-HR field test and resting HR calculation.

     “Unless you are an experienced runner you need to find out what heart-rate correlates to what effort. These people have full-time jobs, families, school. So how much energy do they have in a given day? Heart-rate training gives you real-time data specific to their effort. So when some program says ‘do your 5k pace’, what does that mean to a person who hasn’t run a 5K in the last two years? More importantly, if today is supposed to be a speed day, and your heart rate shoots up to 174 when you begin, that tells you you’re a little fatigued and your effort needs to be adjusted to maintain the same heart rate. You are still getting the speed effort, but you’re staying within the proper HR zone. This is why so many triathletes use HR training, because it’s all endurance based.”

Jesu & Toya after half-marathon PR

     Over time as an athlete learns to feel the effort, training switches to pace-based workouts, and they begin to take ownership of their training, because they have learned it from the inside out.

     In her eighth marathon Toya’s athlete Jesu took 50 minutes off her old PR at last weekend’s California International Marathon in Sacramento. At the same time, she never ran more than 44 miles in any one training week, took two days a week off from running because of the demands of her job and her school work toward earning a master’s degree, and spent another day in the gym cross training on an elliptical or recumbent bike, again to save her legs the pounding while maintaining her aerobic endurance.

      “All it took was a structured, integrated approach,” said Toya. “The key to her improvement was incorporating speed into almost every workout, whether strides after an easy run, typical mile repeats on the track, or marathon progressions runs with strides at the end. Most programs are so generic they fit a very small percentage of the population.”

     Jesu came out of Cal International a little disappointed for not dipping under four hours (4:00:14). But she stayed on pace the entire way, didn’t walk after 22 miles for the first time ever. Just couldn’t switch gears at the end, as she had trained to do, because the weather was too cold, and she got locked into a 9:00 pace. But with a 50 minute PR behind her, she’s already gearing up for her next marathon. As she wrote to Toya before the C.I.M., “regardless of how I do I’ve already won. Thank you for helping me to live past mediocrity and reach my full potential both as an athlete and as a person. I’ve had the most exciting five months, and the best is yet to come!”

     “If you don’t give yourself a shot because it’s ‘too daunting’, you are shortchanging yourself,” believes Toya. “There is so much more within people that they don’t realize, or try to uncover. But they have to approach it as an athletic endeavor not a bucket-list activity. Without the drive to improve, a major element of the sport has been eliminated.”

     The current trend toward huge, slow moving parties over the marathon distance is bringing more and more people into the activity, which is a good thing. But simply existing at the surface of effort misses out on the visceral experience that testing your limits and striving for excellence can bring. There is another you down deep who you’ve never met. Don’t just do a marathon. Release the athlete within!



  1. Well done, Toni and Toya! This article needs to be out for the mainstream population to read! I agree with the “lowering of the horizon” thinking. So many people from other countries easily show Americans what can be done while we rest on excuses. It’s all about a mind set!

  2. You just wanted to show off your cute wife, Toni! 🙂 Love her approach! I’ve only done 21 marathons, but tried to run ’em all as well as I could. I’m 43 & slowing down (Chicago was a disappointing 3:01:00 for me). My 2:48+ days are likely behind me. So I’ve been toying w ultras. If I’m gonna be slow I want a good excuse! Otherwise I’m not a runner, I’m just a “jogger.”

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