by Mark J. Fine

Last time we discussed a plan that runners can use to train for marathons.

A few things have changed since then, mostly driven by the bane of many distance runners: blisters.

Blisters are caused by friction against the skin. They are nature’s way of saying, “Keep this up and your skin will fall off.” Your body reacts to the friction much like a burn. It generates fluids to cushion and protect the sensitive lower layers of skin as the upper layers take the brunt of the abuse and possibly die off.

In the runner’s case, loosely fitting socks or shoes that don’t fit properly can cause friction to occur quickly. Those that are training for long distance runs can experience friction-related problems just from the repetitive nature of running at a higher rate of speed or from running distances that are significantly longer than usual.

In my particular case, the blisters are forming on the balls of my feet and began after I hit nine-mile runs. So, this seems to indicate the latter, although the shoes I just got in December are starting to wear at the outer heels and will have to be replaced.

How runners get blisters
How runners get blisters (courtesy The British Mountaineering Council)

The good news is that hopefully the blisters will become callouses and will lessen in severity over time – although they seem to just be spreading outward from the older ones. This essentially becomes part of the training where you toughen up your feet to withstand the pressure of the actual race.

The bad news is that this is something that hadn’t been planned on – a good example of why it’s a good idea to build time into your training schedule to account for setbacks due to minor injuries. Because, let’s face it, we all have Arsenal DNA.

It’s also good to re-evaluate your training plan for contingencies such as this as well: The three-run-a-week schedule described previously has been modified to account for this problem.

The new schedule now has one distance run on Sundays, which will still increase by a half-mile each week as planned. This is the run that’s most likely to cause any further blistering and will need at least four days recovery time. That means the soonest a much shorter pacing run can be scheduled is Thursday – an optimum choice, since it leaves a couple of days rest until the next long run.

What productive things can you do in the meantime?

Walking isn’t really an option while you’re trying to recover from blisters. You can do core strength exercises the remaining four to five days. That would be good for maintaining tone, but that might not be as helpful for the leg strength and conditioning that a third run and/or an extended walk could provide.

There is another option that began to occur to me as I was cleaning the garage earlier in the spring – something I hadn’t done since around 1976…

Getting reacquainted with a bicycle

Way back in the day, I had a real sporty bike. It was red. It had a banana seat and a sissy bar that rose majestically from the rear tyre. I called it the ‘Mach V’, because the hottest show on TV was Speed Racer (keep in mind this was the first run of the show – the good one).

I was quite proud of that bike. I used to ride it literally everywhere a precocious seven/eight year old could think of in late-1960’s Queens, New York… that is, until one day it was stolen from the apartment building. We moved to New Jersey soon after that so it was never replaced.

It was devastating, but I got over it.

Flash forward to about six/seven years later, whilst in high school and part of a prototypical garage band. One of the guitarists was fairly local, but the remaining members were from the next town over.

Practice was at my house, so I didn’t have to worry about going anywhere. Plus, I had everyone’s stuff right there, which made it easy to teach myself to play. This worked out until my basement flooded and we moved everything to the drummer’s house, some five miles away.

With no driver’s license (wasn’t yet old enough) and zero transportation, I ‘borrowed’ my brother’s bike, which wasn’t getting used anyway. In sun, wind, and rain I rode down and up the sides of overpasses onto Route 18 to get to Mike’s house in Marlboro.

Unfortunately, all of that youthful exercise ended as it usually does – with a driver’s license and a car.

That was the last I saw of any bicycle – until just about a month ago, after getting the idea to try to adjust my wife’s 18-speed and make is usable again. Part of the idea came from cleaning the garage and thinking ‘what if…’. Starting to use it came from hearing from a number of people on Twitter who do quite a bit of riding themselves.

Bicycle riding is excellent leg strengthening training for any runner
Bicycle riding is excellent leg strengthening training for any runner

It may be a women’s 26-inch road bike, and it might look a little silly for me to use, but it was in fairly good condition to use in a pinch. It just needed some air in the tyres (they were flat), handlebars adjusted, some oil here and there, and the gear cables and stops needed a bit of adjusting. Once that was done (also with a lot of help from friends on Twitter) it was good to go.

It’s really true when they say, “It’s like riding a bike. Once you learn, you never forget.” After a span of almost 40 years, I was getting reacquainted with riding a bicycle again.

What started as more of a curiosity, has since become almost a regular afternoon thing. Not having a helmet, I’ve restricted myself to riding just up and down my road for now.

By itself, my road is around a 60-foot climb and a half-mile stretch. From a standing pedal, it provides an excellent workout for your quads and hamstrings that couldn’t have been done as efficiently whilst running up the same hill. There’s also no crown of the road to deal with, so the calves get a more even workout as well.

During just this limited time I began to notice that this was having a direct impact on my running. In the past two weeks, the extra leg strength has cut between nine to ten seconds per mile off my running pace.

This is a pretty significant improvement that will hopefully continue over the next few months, as race day gets closer.

More importantly, bicycle pedals put pressure on your foot’s arch, not the balls of your feet. Therefore, it is an extremely productive activity that won’t aggravate any blisters as they heal.

Bottom line, bike riding has become a new, significant, and welcome part of my leg strength training that can be done in lieu of walking when you can’t run.

Last Week: Five ways to prepare for marathon training

Next Week: Race Training – Six Lessons Learned