A comeback from Pittsburgh Marathon overtraining

Last week I reported on running Just A Short Run, my first half marathon in nine years. One very real concern I had when I put this race on my calendar a month ago was that recovery from it might interfere with my marathon training. Although I did not race Just A Short Run all out, I did put in a hard effort, and sure enough I did end up having a really tough training week afterwards.

But the overtraining this week was partly my doing. Here I explain how I ended up feeling like I was falling apart, and how I recovered and felt pretty good during today’s long run.

Pittsburgh Marathon Warmup on Walnut run

After the half marathon

As I mentioned in my report, I had some issues after the race: my right lower calf/Achilles area seized up for a bit, and also my right second and third toes did as well.

Sure enough, a day later, I was feeling very sore in my right lower calf and second toe. I should mention that I have Morton’s toe on both feet, although my left second toe is only barely longer than the big toe, while it is my right second toe that is noticeably longer than the big toe and therefore has a real tendency to cause me some problems:

My Morton's toes

So I did take a day off running after the half marathon.

Monday: trying to be careful

But even on Monday, I was still feeling sore. I decided that I should do some light running anyway, to avoid two days off completely from running.

Also, I very much wanted to finally start running in my new Luna Sandals, which I had received last week but put aside because of the half marathon. These are the Venado with ATS laces and MGT footbed:

Luna Sandals: Venado, ATS laces, MGT footbed

I ended up running just an easy 2 miles on the treadmill in the morning in my Vibram FiveFingers Bikila LS shoes, and then after work, running 1.5 miles in the Luna Sandals.

Tuesday: new shoes

Tuesday, I was still not yet completely recovered either from the half marathon, but I felt I was ready to go for a normal run. I decided to do a real run in the Luna Sandals and did 5 miles.

I encountered various problems while trying out the Luna Sandals, beginning to break them in. I got chafed in various places from the straps and buckle:

Feet chafed

Side view

Feet in

View of heel

And it was tricky keeping the sandals on at all. I fidgeted a lot with the laces to try to keep my heels from slipping. I kept on having problems with my right heel slipping.

Meanwhile, although my calf was healing up, I was more worried about my right second toe, which seemed sore and sensitive. I noticed that my tendency to impact the second toe (after all, it is my longest toe) was causing trouble. I had not really encountered any problems until after the half marathon, but the intensity of that effort, and the fact that my Bikila LS shoes were getting worn down at the toes, must have exposed this biomechanical weakness finally.

Wednesday: overexcited

Wednesday, I was excited about running, and used the Luna Sandals again. I still had slippage and chafing issues, but figured that there was a break-in process. The soles were starting to shape to my feet, for example.

Unfortunately, I accidentally (because of taking impromptu routes in Homewood Cemetery) ran 9 miles when I had originally intended to run more like 7.

My second toe was startling to tingle and really complain: even normal walking triggered pain.

Thursday: admission of overtraining

Thursday was one of those days when I truly had to ask myself three questions. I was simply feeling exhausted.

I forced myself to completely take Thursday off from running (or strength training, for that matter), while evaluating my situation. This was no longer just about my toe, but about my overall fatigue.

Meanwhile, I had to fix this toe problem somehow, and soon, because I had a long run planned for Saturday. So I observed myself closely while walking. I noticed that I had a tendency to do a weird retracting motion on the toe when walking, a motion I do not use on my left foot. I questioned the purpose of this reflex. I found that I could choose not to perform the retracting motion. It was difficult to make this choice, but if I really focused, I could control how I used my foot. I remembered lessons from Alexander technique about observing and unlearning habits.

Furthermore, I discovered the reason my right hip has sometimes felt sore: my right hip has sagged in my posture. I also found that correcting this shifted the balance of weight on my right foot, and alleviated the pressure on my second toe, shifting more weight where it should be, more toward the big toe under the ball of the foot. These were very interesting discoveries.

In any case, I felt so tired that I decided to go ahead and cancel my Sunday plan to play in the final round of the Pittsburgh Chess League season; I had really wanted to put in one final appearance for our team, after not having actually played for us since last November, because something kept on coming up every month since then, but I had little confidence that I would be mentally alert on Sunday.

Friday: still playing it safe

Friday, I was feeling energetic enough to run, but I forced myself to take another day off for the sake of my right toe. It was not easy, but I reminded myself that not being able to do my long run was not worth one more missed day of training.

Instead of running, I did one rep of the Cathedral of Learning stair climb, just to get some activity in.

Saturday: my 14-mile long run

Saturday morning, I felt my right toe had recovered sufficiently that I was going to be OK doing my planned long run.

The Steel City Road Runners had a 10-mile run lined up starting in Shadyside after a program of dynamics warmups by Dr. Vonda Wright, “Warmup on Walnut”, outside of sponsor True Runner. My plan was to skip that program, but create a 14-mile run by running 2 miles from home to the Shadyside point and then joining the group run and then running 2 miles back home afterwards.

Here is the 10-mile loop:

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My goal

My goal for this long run was to make it a “fast finish long run”. In particular, in planning my run, I had noted that the last 5 miles of the course involved a steady uphill as well as a steeper uphill through Oakland on Forbes Avenue. In the 2003 Pittsburgh Marathon ten years ago, this uphill had proved a bit discouraging to me (because I had, frankly, gone out too fast). In any case, for psychological and physiological reasons, I wanted to do this whole uphill fast and strong in this particular workout. In the actual marathon in a month, of course, I don’t plan to run it as fast, but I did want to remember the landmarks and mental state of doing something difficult but in a relaxed way. I wanted to focus on applying my newly discovered knowledge about my posture and stride asymmetry and “run tall” up the hill, with balanced hips, while monitoring my right second toe to make sure it did not get battered.

I was still not comfortable with the Luna Sandals, so I fell back to the shoes I’ve been wearing for almost all of my runs in the past three months, the Bikila LS shoes.

Showed up late

Unfortunately, I strangely miscalculated my departure from home to run 2 miles to Aiken Avenue and Walnut Street, and showed up 4 minutes late, just as runners were already heading off. I grabbed a printed map and picked up the pace so that I could try to catch up to the 10:00 pace group. I did, realizing of course that I was making my task in the final miles of my run more difficult as a result.

Conquering the Oakland hill

I managed the Oakland hill pretty well, being very focused. I continued going hard all the way back to True Runner in Shadyside. Near the end, I felt my calves getting tight, just as in the half marathon last week when my right calf seized up after I was walking after the finish line. I thought it was very useful to have triggered this exact sensation and knowing where it was, because it meant that maybe I would be able to train my body to accept that state of fatigue (after running 12 miles) and continue. Also, the feeling cleared up fairly quickly after I stopped to walk, so I think last week the real trigger was my pointless little sprint near the end. If I avoid any sprinting during the marathon, I might well be able to avoid cramping. At least, that is the plan.

A decision about Gatorade

I drank some more Gatorade back at Walnut Street, then ran home. I was really quite tired by this point and my stomach wasn’t feeling so great. I ate some actual food and eventually recovered.

During this run, no gels were provided, so I drank Gatorade as my only fuel.

Here is my final conclusion, solidifying a thought I had last week in the half marathon: Gatorade is bad for me, and I should completely avoid it in future runs and in the Pittsburgh Marathon! It was good to learn this for sure now. In fact, it is quite possible that some of the issues I had in the 2003 Pittsburgh Marathon were a result of Gatorade.

GU gel works OK for me, but according to the official Pittsburgh Marathon fluid station table, GU is provided only starting at mile 9.7. Therefore, I am going to pack some gels to ingest during the first 10 miles of the marathon! I will not drink any Gatorade!


After some ill-advised overtraining and injury this week after my half marathon, I forced myself to take two days off to recover, and used the time to diagnose possible causes of my biomechanical problems. I found some good hypotheses and possible solutions, and managed a high quality “fast finish long run” and am optimistic about my continuing training for the Pittsburgh Marathon.

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