With Memorial Day upon us, the shorter road and track & field seasons have begun in earnest.  The Bolder Boulder 10K and the inaugural IAAF World Road Relay kick off the summer action this weekend in Colorado and the Bahamas. But there remain several 26 & 13-milers in California to round out the first half of  the 2014 marathon season, beginning with this weekend’s Cliff Bar MountainS 2 Beach Marathon & Half Marathon from Ojai to Ventura.

Yet with the completion of the spring marathon season we still tend to see many new runners step away to return to their “normal” routines before gearing up for their next long marathon build-up in the fall.

For the last several years my wife Toya has been helping San Diego TC Coach Paul Greer prep hundreds of mostly new local runners for the June 1st Suja Rock `n` Roll Marathon via the club’s Rockin’ & Runnin’ Program. But Toya has several other clients running the Mountains 2 Beach Marathon this Sunday, as well. Since most of her clients are relative newcomers to the game, the following advice she sent out this week was a good reminder of how many of today’s runners remain tethered to either the half or full marathon as the sole expression of their running.  But how, with a little encouragement, they might broaden their horizons and find new challenges to take on.


Boston Marathoner Marla Nelson with Coach Toya
Coach Toya with 2014 Boston Marathoner Marla Nelson

I know most of you need a break after all the marathon/half marathon training, but I wanted to touch base with you regarding maintaining your incredible fitness after this spring marathon season.  Don’t make the mistake of taking a lot of time off after you just spent months getting in to shape. 

This is where goal setting comes in. Instead of planning for yet another half or full marathon, switch gears and start training for a cross country series this fall. You will still see the same friends training in the park and trails. If you want to lose weight and get lean, cross country training/racing will do it. Marathon training does not allow us to do a lot of high intensity exercise, and as a result you don’t lose as much fat as your metabolism is not as high.

Cross country training builds enormous strength: The hills and dirt develop power and resilience in your calves, hamstrings, and quads. The uneven ground strengthens your feet and ankles.  Keeping your balance through all the twists and turns and dips is tremendous for your core strength. The challenging terrain makes you lift your knees, and that works your abdominal muscles and improves your technique. And the stress and recovery as the hills roll by will do wonders for your stamina.

Beyond that, the soft, forgiving surfaces not only increase resistance, making you stronger, they also reduce the jarring effect on your body. We have seen how effective this has been over rte years for the top Kenyan runners. Remember, when something makes you work harder yet reduces your risk of injury, that’s a good workout.

Because you are forced to work much harder in cross country, your heart rate goes up.  And that’s a huge benefit. Off-road racing is a very effective way to develop your cardiovascular system, producing a powerful heart, an efficient set of lungs, and a dense network of capillaries to transport oxygen to the muscle fibers.

Jesu & Toya after half-marathon PR
Toya & Jesu-Cristina Claridad after half-marathon PR

Just as the physical stresses are tougher in cross country racing, so are the mental stresses. Many times you will say to yourself, ‘If I can just get up this hill without stopping!’ At this stage you’re not even thinking about whether you can finish the race. Maybe you’ll think about that when you get to the top of the hill. For now, you’re just seeing if you can make it up this one hill without walking. That’s really quite tough—you don’t usually get that feeling in a road race!

Trust me, runners who have done cross country have the sort of strength necessary to cope when the going gets tough on the roads. Endurance running is largely about how you cope with these feelings. Mental strength is not about being fitter than the other guy; it’s about learning to suffer and dig deeper. When you overcome these hardships, you develop the confidence, the drive, the fierceness, and the aggression to really get the most out of all the physical training you’ve done.

So think about joining our group starting in mid-June for the training. After the cross country season you can sign up for a marathon and get your big PR!  Let me know if you want to join us and I will give you a post marathon/half marathon recovery schedule for the entire month of June preparing for cross country. 


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The big driver in what came to be known as the Second Running Boom was the introduction of a less stressful competitive environment.   But just as completing a marathon opens new horizons, so, too, can the gradual introduction of a more competitive challenge bring out aspects of one’s personality that were heretofore unmet.  It is a natural step, then, to ask, “how much better can I be now that I have accomplished something that I first thought was beyond me?”

Sometimes long time runners forget how intimidating it is to step to a starting line with your heart in your throat and the unknown staring back from the abyss. Coaches like Toya are helping bring more new-era participants into the competitors’ ranks where a whole new set of challenges and rewards await.

Good luck to all in Ventura and Rock `n` Roll.



  1. Yes, I agree…this is excellent info. So, I write: “Great comment, Toya!” This is your blog, but Toya wrote the letter. And kudos to you, Toni for publishing it as she wrote it. “Great post, Toni”, “Great call, Toni”? Yeah, great call on publishing Toya’s well-written and knowledgable letter to her clients, and for giving her the credit.

  2. Great call Toni, trail running is an excellent and invigorating alternative to the roads… and as Toya points out, it’s a much less punishing undertaking. As demanding as the hills and the varied terrain can be, I find that the calming effect of running in nature (particularly here on the West Coast) really helps to build mental strength, and to silence the persistent voices that tell you you’re too exhausted to keep going.

    If all your training and racing is done on pavement, then you’re definitely missing out on a whole other (and in some ways more gratifying) world of running.

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