Ask Amber, Running Coach: 30th September 2022

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Amber Sayer is a USATF-certified running coach, and has been training runners for 13 years. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics, and is also a NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer.

As a runner herself, Amber has PRs of 17:07 in the 5k, 28:52 for 5 miles, 1:20:19 in the half marathon, and 3:01:02 in the marathon.

Amber enjoys working with runners of all levels and helping them achieve their goals.

We asked our readers to send her their training questions for her to tackle!

For this week’s installment of Ask Amber, we have three runners who have questions about races, weight gain, and cross-training workouts.

runner tying their shoelaces

Question 1: Do You Need to Race to Be a Runner?

Hey Amber,

I have a question for your column or maybe you can answer it here if it doesn’t make the cut. A little about me – I am a slow runner approaching 40. I’ve been running for almost 6 years. I run 5 days a week and usually about 5 miles a day with a long run of 8 miles.

The thing is that I have never run a race. I was going to run a 5k in the spring, but I backed out at the last minute. I got too scared!

I guess part of me feels like an imposter since I run but don’t do races. Am I missing out? Is it better to train for a race or is it fine to just run every day? 

Thanks!

Janice Sanders, Vancouver, BC, Canada 

running on asphalt

Hi Janice!

What a great question; thanks for writing in.

The most important thing to establish here is that running can take on whatever meaning and format you want in your life. There’s absolutely no “right” or “wrong” way to train.

Furthermore, you’re certainly not an imposter just because you don’t compete in races. If you run—no matter how slow or how short—you are a runner.

If you really have no interest in racing, then by all means, there’s zero need to race.

However, I wonder if you might like a race more than you imagine.

You self-describe yourself as a “slow” runner, and perhaps there’s some degree of self-consciousness or anxiety about not being “good enough” to run a race.

This couldn’t be farther from the reality, however.

Races draw runners of all levels and speeds. Many participants actually walk the entire race, particularly with the 5k/10k distances.

Except for a handful of the top competitors, almost every runner on the starting line of a race isn’t there trying to win the race; rather, they are there to use the race environment to test themselves to be their best. 

In this way, running races really are a race against yourself in the company of others who are simultaneously pushing themselves as much as you are at the same time.

Runners in a race share a common goal, so it’s a really uniting, supportive environment.

I think you might find you enjoy the atmosphere, and it sounds like you do quite a lot of running—roughly 28 miles per week—so you’d be able to run a 5k or 10k pretty easily.

Additionally, if you choose to train for a race, you might consider using a training plan with structured workouts rather than regular distance runs. 

This type of variety in your training can help you become a faster and stronger runner, though it’s important to note that you don’t have to do workouts tempo runs or speed workouts to run a race, so if that’s the main deterrent, don’t avoid doing a race just because you only want to do steady-state runs.

A good percentage of the runners in any race have never done an interval workout of any type!

No matter what you decide is best for you, just remember that you’re in control of your running journey; you’re just as much of a runner as someone with 50 medals to their name.

Let us know if you decide to try a race!

Amber

Question 2: Aqua Jogging vs. Swimming

Hi Amber,

I saw your response to another Marathon Handbook fan last week about aqua jogging and I have a follow up question. Which is better, aqua jogging or swimming? Or is there a better cross-training workout for runners? Like my fellow injured poster, I am in a boot for 6-8 weeks for my foot and can’t run. My doctor said to work out in the pool but maybe there’s something else I can do too. Thank you.

Miriam 

two women running

Hi Miriam,

Thanks for reading the column and following MH! 

I’m sorry to hear you are dealing with an injury; unfortunately, I know how frustrating injuries can be. I know this probably isn’t what you want to hear, but I always try to look at the lessons in the injuries—what might have caused the issue, how can I prevent this from happening again, etc.?

I’d be happy to chat with you about your training and/or potential muscle imbalances or weaknesses that might have played a role in developing the injury in the first place.

That aside, let’s answer your actual question

Firstly, I’d say if your doctor recommended pool workouts, we should stick with that. 

Your email didn’t specify your actual injury, but particularly if it’s a bone/stress injury, your doctor might want you to be fully non-weight bearing, at least for now.

Later in your recovery, you might be about to do the bike, but you should seek clearance for that first.

In the meantime, in terms of aqua jogging vs. swimming, I’d suggest doing whichever form of exercise you can do more intensely, which, for many runners, is aqua jogging.

Swimming is very technique-driven, so unless you have a background in swimming, it might be difficult for you to swim fast enough and long enough to replicate your running workload.

If you have a waterproof heart rate monitor, you can gauge the relative intensity of your pool workouts.

Keep in mind that your heart rate response in the water is usually blunted by about 10-15 bpm compared to exercising on land due to the cooler temperature in the water and the buoyancy.

Therefore, if your average heart rate while running is 170 bpm, it’s normal to see numbers closer to 160, or even 155 bpm, in the water.

Aqua jogging better simulates the actual mechanics of running, and many runners find it easier to replicate their training plan aqua jogging rather than swimming, but either activity will work well. 

You can also benefit by mixing it up by doing some of both, either in the same workout, or on alternate days.

Swimming will work more of your upper body, but you can also get a good total-body workout with pool running, especially if you use resistance. I like the Fluid Running system.

Feel free to email me again at amber@marathonhandbook.com if you want to discuss your injury or cross-training further.

Good luck!

Amber 

man running on trail

Question 3: Gaining Weight from Running

Hi Coach Amber,

I don’t know if you will answer my question since it’s more of a diet question than a running one, but here it goes.

I’ve been running for about two years. I have been training for a marathon in November but I keep gaining weight. I’m already a little overweight, so I’ve been trying to cut calories a bit. Before I started gaining weight, I wanted to lose about 15 pounds but I’ve gained 8 pounds since the end of July. I’m running more than ever. Help!

Much appreciated,

Gabby E., St. Louis, Missouri 

runner silhoutted by sunset

Hi Gabby,

Thanks for emailing; I’m more than happy to answer diet-related questions, though it’s important to note that I’m not a registered dietitian. I do have my Health Coaching certification from the Integrative Institute of Nutrition and my master’s degree in Exercise Science and Nutrition, but you might want to consider working with an RD to get a tailored nutrition plan.

With that said, I have a few thoughts:

A surprising number of runners (particularly women in my experience, though this isn’t always the case), do notice they gain some amount of weight when they start training for a marathon.

However, gaining 8 pounds since the end of July seems a bit more significant than I’ve encountered with other runners, because that’s about two pounds per week.

For some runners, trying to fuel well before and during runs leads them to take in more calories than they need. Moreover, there can be a significant rebound in appetite after running, where the hormone ghrelin increases and people end up eating back more calories than they burned. 

Another contributing factor can be added water weight, especially if you’re eating a lot of carbohydrates. 

Your body stores a couple of grams of water for every gram of glycogen you store.

I’d be interested to know if you’re tracking your calories (in and out).

If you’re not tracking calories, I’d start there. There’s a good chance you’re eating more than you think, in which case, we can discuss dietary swaps to help you feel nourished and satiated on fewer calories.

If you are diligently tracking calories and still gaining weight, you might want to see your doctor for a workup to check things like thyroid, etc.

Let me know and we will take it from there!

Don’t lose hope; we will get to the bottom of this.

Amber

Send us your questions! Email Amber at amber@marathonhandbook.com.

lady running and happy
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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