Ask Amber, Running Coach: 6th October 2022

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: Breathless While Running Fast

Hi Amber,

I have been running for a little over a year and started at a real zero level (could barely run for 30 seconds). I have managed to progress to run for 10k without stopping but I am still struggling with my breath. I want to increase my speed but I immediately start huffing and puffing. Unless I go really slow, I can’t seem to get it under control.

Do you have any suggestions?

Thanks!

Kim

Hi Kim!

Thanks for reaching out. Congrats on the amazing progress you’ve made running so far!

What you are experiencing with the breathlessness it’s definitely not unheard of. Any time we run faster, breathing gets faster, deeper, and more labored.

This is for two reasons: the faster you are running, the more rapidly your muscles need to produce ATP (energy), so they need more oxygen.

They also produce carbon dioxide more quickly, as it is a byproduct of energy metabolism. 

It is actually usually the rise in concentration of carbon dioxide during hard exercise that is particularly responsible for increasing your respiration rate.

Some people are more carbon dioxide sensitive than others.

You can assess your carbon dioxide sensitivity with something like the BOLT test. You just need a stopwatch.

Here’s how to do it: 

  1. Sit upright in a comfortable position.
  2. Take a normal breath in and out through your nose.
  3. As soon as you’ve exhaled through your nose, pinch your nose to prevent any more air from entering your lungs through your nose and start a timer.
  4. Keep the timer running while you hold your nose and do not breathe.
  5. As soon as you feel the first sensation that your body wants you to breathe, stop the timer.

Make sure you stop the test the second your body first signals you to breathe. 

You will know you stopped at the right time if your first breath after you stop the test is normal; you shouldn’t feel like you’re gasping or taking a big breath.

The more sensitive you are to carbon dioxide, the shorter your hold time will be. 

None of this is going to help you while you’re running, but I’m explaining this process so you understand why it’s happening, and so you can monitor your improvements over time by redoing the BOLT test.

The good news is that in much the same way that strength training makes your muscles stronger, you can gradually increase your tolerance to CO2 and strengthen the lungs in general with breathing exercises like the Wim Hoff method, breathing through your nose, and box breathing. 

For example, try performing a simple box breathing exercise a few times a day. Inhale for 4 seconds, hold the breath for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, and hold completely exhaled for 4 seconds.

Box breathing can be used to reduce anxiety, and it can also help your body get better at breathing more efficiently.

Additionally, some amount of getting better at running faster is just a matter of pushing through and doing it. 

I’m not sure if you’re currently doing any kinds of workouts other than regular distance runs, but you can start by just adding 4-6 strides (30 seconds each or so) of fast running after your distance runs, resting in between each.

Then, build up to trying progression runs, where you start to gradually ramp up your pace in the last few miles of a run.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning the breathlessness to your doctor. You might have exercise-induced asthma, in which case, an inhaler or certain medications may help.

Good luck and let us know how it goes!

Amber

two women running

Question 2: Trouble With Hills

Hey Coach Amber,

I love your column! Here’s my question. I ran a 10k last weekend and I was really happy with my pace until I hit the hilly section in the second half of the race.

The hills killed me! I went from averaging 9:20 pace to 11:40ish. The hills weren’t very long or very steep at all but it’s just that the downhill wasn’t until the final half mile of the race. After the hills were over, I had 2 miles left and I felt totally out of gas. My pace was still around 11 minutes. I do hills in training once a week. 

My last 10k was flat and I ran 4 minutes faster.

Thanks!

Hills hate me, Jill

running on asphalt

Hi Jill!

Thanks for reading the column and for your support. 

Hills can definitely be tough so firstly, understand that you’re not alone.

My first instinct was that you ran the first half of the race too fast, so you were a bit gassed by the time you got to the hills, but after thinking about it a bit more, it also sounds like the hills might have been super tough for you no matter when they had occurred in the race.

This is definitely not a knock on your fitness, and it’s something you can definitely work on.

I have two strategies to help, and I’d suggest trying them both.

The first is to shift gears a bit with your hill workouts, at least occasionally.

Most basic hill repeat workouts just involve running up the hill, turning around, and walking or jogging back down before doing it again.

This is a good start, but it’s also good to practice pushing up and over the top and then continuing on the flats. 

It sounds like in the race you just ran, the road leveled off after the hill rather than gifting you with a downhill right away.

More often than not, this is actually the case, even though we tend to run hill workouts as if we will get to stop immediately at the top of the hill. 

I like to do this workout I call hill crests.

You attack each hill repeat as you normally would, but instead of turning around as soon as you’re at the top, you keep running hard for 30 seconds.

The hills should be run hard and the part at the top should be super fast like the kick at the end of your race!

After your warm up, find a fairly steep hill that takes 30-45 seconds to run at 5k-10k pace. 

Charge up the hill and at the top, continue running for 30 at near top speed.

Turn around and jog back to the start.

Use good form and only do as many reps as seems appropriate for your fitness level (something like 6-10 for beginners, 8-12 for intermediate runners, and 12-16 for advanced runners).

The second is to make sure you are implementing strength training workouts, particularly focusing on the lower body. 

A lot of runners assume that they don’t need to do very many leg exercises because running is a lower-body dominant activity, but it is for that reason that strengthening the legs is especially important for improving performance and reducing the risk of injuries.

Exercises like squats, lunges, single-leg glute bridges, single-leg Romanian deadlifts, and especially step-ups are particularly effective for improving hill running ability. Lift heavy weights, such that you can only do 8-12 reps max with good form.

Perform 2-3 sets, and try to do 2-3 strength training workouts per week.

If you have questions about how to do any of these exercises, I am more than happy to help you. Just send me an email again at amber@marathonhandbook.com.

Don’t be hard on yourself; you’ll conquer the hills!

Amber

runner silhoutted by sunset

Question 3: Carb Loading for a Marathon

Hi Amber,

I have been advised to take 10g carbs per kg of body weight on days 3 and 2 before race day and 7g carbs per kg of body weight the day before…. I found it really difficult to consume this amount for my last marathon (though I did not run out of energy during the race at all!!) and wonder what your thoughts are?

I have another marathon at month end and I am dreading the carb loading 

Thanks Debbie 

man running on trail

Hi Debbie,

Carb loading before a marathon aims to achieve glycogen supercompensation, which essentially refers to oversaturating the normal glycogen storage capacity of your muscles and liver so that you have enough carbohydrates on board for the marathon.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an endurance-trained athlete can store up to 1,800 to 2,000 calories of fuel as glycogen in the muscles and liver. Smaller runners might store closer to 1,500 calories or so.

This is usually only adequate for 90-120 minutes of marathon-effort running, depending on your body size.

The advice you’ve been given to have 10g of carbs per kg of body weight, and then 7g/kg, is about on par with what the Mayo Clinic recommends, which is 8-12 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight for 1-3 days before the event.

However, there’s a couple things to consider. Are you doing a glycogen depletion phase before the carb loading phase? From day six today three before the event, you can follow a very low carb diet to maximize the effectiveness of the carb loading.

Secondly, think about how many carbs you normally eat. If you tend to follow a fairly low carbohydrate diet, the 7-10 g/kg can be super aggressive.

It might be more comfortable for you to just think about the overall macronutrient ratio of your diet rather than exactly how many grams you need.

Most experts say the carbo-loading phase of glycogen supercompensation training should involve a diet that provides about 70% of the calories from carbohydrates, 15% from protein, and 15% from fat.

For every gram of glycogen at the body stores, it also holds about 3 to 4 g of water, so carb loading can lead you feeling super bloated.

Frankly, I would sort of encourage you not to do it for this race. It doesn’t sound like it worked very well for you, and every runner has unique biochemistry and metabolic needs. 

You might do fine just upping your carbs a bit two days before and then trying to make sure you’re getting in enough glucose during the race.

If you do want to carbo load, I would suggest 5-6 g/kg at most.

Let us know how you feel this time around! Good luck!

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, and contributes to several fitness, health, and running websites and publications. 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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