Why academic and physical endurance are not the same

Matt Imhof giving his lecture on how to run a marathon or half marathon (credit: Andy Birla/) Matt Imhof giving his lecture on how to run a marathon or half marathon (credit: Andy Birla/) Imhof explains both the physical and mental preparation behind running a marathon to a small crowd in McKenna in the CUC. (credit: Andy Birla/) Imhof explains both the physical and mental preparation behind running a marathon to a small crowd in McKenna in the CUC. (credit: Andy Birla/) Imhof explains both the physical and mental preparation behind running a marathon to a small crowd in McKenna in the CUC. (credit: Andy Birla/) Imhof explains both the physical and mental preparation behind running a marathon to a small crowd in McKenna in the CUC. (credit: Andy Birla/)

Students at Carnegie Mellon are not strangers to endurance. For 30 weeks of the year, they go through grueling homework and stressful midterms only to be confronted by a barrage of hellish finals at the end. Running 26 miles, then, should be a feat far easier to accomplish. The only problem, however, is that it is really not easy.

This week at Carnegie Mellon, Matt Imhof gave a talk to students and faculty about how to train for a Marathon/Half Marathon. Imhof is a USA Track and Field Certified Coach and has been an ACE Certified Personal Trainer for over 20 years, during which he has coached hundreds of adult runners to their first half or full marathons. He was formerly the Head Track and Cross-Country Coach at Kean University in New Jersey and currently works as the Director of Training Programs at Elite Runners and Walkers in Pittsburgh.

Imhof truly is a coach at heart, as both his most memorable running moments and his source of continued motivation are the joyous faces of the athletes he has coached upon their completion of their goals. Imhof first picked up running in his middle school years as he didn’t see himself as a traditional team sport kid. Over the years, life has thrown him many curveballs and challenges that have forced him to take extended breaks from running. Coming back to the sport meant he had to face the weight he had put on and the fitness that he had lost. However, having always managed to get back on his feet (literally and metaphorically) every time tells us that Matt knows a thing or two about how to stay motivated through the thick and thin.

Imhof dispensed a lot of well-structured advice during his talk. His first question was about the goal that everyone had in mind. Whether merely finishing the marathon and having fun, or running it in a specific time, your goal will always determine your training. According to Imhof, “If you’re training for a time goal, every workout has a purpose. If you’re running for fun, well just make sure you have fun.”

With a goal in mind, Imhof advises runners to start 20-26 weeks in advance (15-16 weeks for a half marathon) to go from scratch to being able to run a marathon. He feels that this will give people a chance to let their bodies adjust to the strain of training and still get enough rest to recover. “The challenge is as important as the rest,” Imhof said when asked why he feels that runners shouldn’t run their everyday runs faster than their easy pace. “Something that most people don’t realize is that something that feels easy may not be physiologically easy.”

The goal of your training is to strengthen your body from your bones to your muscles and glands. “Strengthening requires time,” Imhof said.
He stressed the importance of creating a game plan, sticking to it, and reviewing it with the passage of time, in order to adequately strengthen one’s body without straining it too much. The key factors in a workout plan that one can change are time/distance, pace, and frequency. Imhof is a strong believer in the 10% plan, a plan where a runner may increase his or her pace or distance by no more than 10 percent each week with a down week every third week. When asked what running plans he recommends, Imhof advocated for Hal Higdon plans and the plans given by his company, Elite Runners.

Imhof revealed later in a personal interview that the reason he stresses on the importance of goals stems from experiences he has had with running. “Running can make you selfish, and I was for a long time. I have learned that there is a better way. I need to enjoy it when I can and accept that my fitness and performance goals will have to be modified at this time. I need to enjoy my boys and everything they bring to my life.”
Apart from setting goals and planning for them, Imhof stressed the importance of a support system, both physically and mentally. Imhof explained that this is the reason he has a Sunday morning group. “Getting up on a cold Sunday morning to run 13 miles every week is far less preferable than merely turning the snooze off and going back to sleep. If you know you have someone waiting out there to run with you, it makes it far harder for you to turn that snooze off.”

Having three kids, however, Imhof likes his downtime and recognizes that runners need to balance their alone running time, their internal motivation, with group runs, their external motivation. He recommends that runners get their friends and family involved to help them reach their goals. He noted that his performance on race day has fluctuated based on how much support he got from his friends and family. Additionally, Imhof feels that 80 percent of being able to run a marathon is between one’s ears and only the remaining 20 percent is reliant on physical fitness. Having a positive mindset and keeping oneself driven are key to being able to run a good marathon. Equally important is being able to think while you run and have a back up pace and goal, should the conditions on race day be critically different from training conditions. Imhof says that one must be willing to change and let go of the ego that comes from having trained so hard.

Physical support includes everything from the right apparel to the appropriate nutrition and even running form. Running 26 miles takes a long time. No one wants to go a long time in shoes that are uncomfortable or aren’t suited to their feet. No one wants to feel cold, itchy, wet or inflexible for that time span either. “Take the time and money to invest in good running gear. Acquire some running fuel such as goo, Gatorade or even Power Bars and test your body’s response to them before running the marathon,” said Imhof. Repeating a certain movement for a long expanse of time can have a grave toll on one’s body if one doesn’t make sure that one has the right form. Things to focus on according to Imhof are lean, cadence (foot strike rate), core, and arm movements.

Imhof recommends professional help when it comes to the physical support section, as dealing with one’s body requires unique advice that should be given by someone with the relevant knowledge so that one may avoid injury and achieve one’s goals with comfort.

By focusing on all of the above things Imhof believes anyone can have a happy marathon and achieve their goals. All of the above points are equally important and no one factor can make up for another. Imhof’s final comments on running a marathon were: “You are out there running with 20,000 of your closest friends. It is a great social experience and provides a lot of motivation. Take in what’s around you and enjoy what you are doing.”