Ask Amanda: An Elliptical Matter

When I was consulting with my investors to outfit my boutique gym FIT N’ FRESH here in Singapore, I had some very clear requests when it came to cardio machines:

  1.  Two treadmills; one rower; one stairmill.
  2.  No bikes or recumbent bikes.
  3.  ABSOLUTELY NO ELLIPTICAL MACHINES.

And if all caps in typing stands for YELLING, that’s accurate – because I nearly screamed when I walked into my beautiful new gym this past January and saw – gasp! –  a freaking elliptical, right there in the middle of the gym floor, taking up precious space.

The investors argued that their equipment providers – i.e. salesmen just trying to unload the most amount of product at the highest margins possible – said that “no one will go to a gym that doesn’t have a bike or an elliptical machine.”  I tried so hard not to roll my eyes that I think I popped a vessel.

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Beast Mode does NOT happen on indoor cardio machines

From a trainer’s perspective, let me offer you this: if a gym is stocked with rows of elliptical machines (and even worse, recumbent bikes, but that’s a blog for another time), it is very likely a gym that doesn’t focus very much on functional, movement-based training (or is at least is a gym that has a ton of money to throw away on useless, clunky cardio equipment).

Think about some of the best movement-based training modalities out there: CrossFit. Parkour.  Orangetheory.  OCR.  Aquastrength.  F45.  What do they have in common?

ZERO ELLIPTICALS.  ZERO INDOOR BIKES.  And more importantly, they’re jam-packed with functional (and often less expensive) equipment like kettlebells, bars, rings, and ropes.  They have “toys” that teach your body how to respond, how to adapt, and how to perform – not just how to move your legs and arms in meaningless circles (also my problem with high-rep, micromovement-based “baby weights” programs like Tracy Anderson, but AGAIN, I digress).

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Putting the “fun” in functional fitness.

So why do I hate the elliptical machine, specifically, so much?

Ok, sure – moving is better than not moving, and I would never discourage your mom or your grandpa or your friend with the arthritic knee from hopping on the elliptical for a short go (although even so, I’d recommend all three of those people work with a certified personal trainer!) – but in terms of movement patterning, calorie burn, and actual fitness gains, elliptical machines are just about the least effective thing you can do in an exercise environment.

Elliptical machines teach your body to repeatedly move your legs – without lifting them from the ground – in a weird, flat oval pattern (not useful for running, jumping, skiing, or really any other activity outside of…elliptical-ing), often far too quickly to maintain proper joint alignment.  And speaking of joints – the separate-pedal movement of an elliptical machine (unlike that of a bike, where the hips and torso are stabilized on a seat) can exacerbate already loose or misaligned joints, such as hips, especially for those with joint replacements, those who are pregnant, or those with ACL/MCL injury.

Elliptical machines are also less weight-bearing than treadmills or stairmills (don’t confuse this with low-impact, by the way – climbing up stairs and walking on an inclined treadmill are also relatively low-impact but produce far greater fitness results) and the ones without moving handles – you know, the ones you see people leaning on to read magazines – teach your core muscles to turn off, encourage crap posture, and burn just next to zero fat (again, compared to “real” cardio like HIIT or circuit training).

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If you can do this much while exercising, you’re not quite exercising.

At this point you might be wondering – if I can’t just hang out on the elliptical anymore and call it a workout, what should I be doing for cardio?

Snarky answer: you actually don’t even need to DO cardio, or at least the “cardio” that we’re talking about here (steady state, indoor, low-impact, etc.) to get fit and lose weight. Read more about that here, if you don’t believe me.

More useful and trainer-like answer: there are better ways to elevate your heart rate, develop cardiovascular fitness, burn fat, and lose weight than the elliptical machine, and here are a few of them:

The take-away I want to leave you with is this: there is no “bad” workout.  There is no completely useless exercise.  There is no time when I would prefer you stay sedentary rather than move your body.  However, if you’re looking to maximize the short time you have to work out, lose actual weight and body fat, and gain functionally effective fitness – the elliptical machine isn’t going to get you there.  Truth.  #themoreyouknow

What is your favorite way to build cardiovascular fitness, in the gym or outside?

Ask Amanda: Weighty Issues

I was going to hijack my own post this week to talk about my fury over the post-Superbowl Lady Gaga body shaming, but you know what?  It’s still too soon.  I’m going to let that one simmer in the pot for a while before I just let the vicious a*sholes that broke her down have a piece of my (rational, inclusive, empowered) mind.

But I digress.

Today’s post is about something near and dear to me: the idea that you can get fit anywhere, anytime, and at any price point.  I recently opened two private fitness studios in Singapore – a small boutique gym called Fit N’ Fresh and a one-on-one transformation and weight loss institute called DISCREET – both of which are premium (read: not inexpensive) facilities.  That being said, I am a huge believer in bodyweight (equipment-free) workouts, and it is in fact on those workouts that I built my business back in 2009.

At that time, outdoor bootcamps were still very up-and-coming, and my business partner and I were determined to offer safe, effective, creative outdoor workouts – using absolutely nothing but our clients’ own bodies.  We wanted to redefine the concept of “exercise” not as something you do for a half an hour within four walls, but as something you practice in the pursuit of making your body a functional machine – no small feat, to be sure.

My personal training clients’ top excuses for not working almost undoubtedly fall into one of the following categories: no time, no space, no gym access (this includes the recurrent excuse of “travel,” which never ceases to frustrate me since I’m pretty sure you didn’t forget to pack your own human body on your trip), and/or not sure what to do when they’re on their own.

I’m gonna give you an early Christmas present and solve all of these at once.  BEHOLD:

AMANDA’S BODYWEIGHT EXERCISE BUFFET

Buffet, you say?  Yep, I’m talkin’ about a full feast of fitness, ripe for the picking – so pack up your plate if you wish (i.e. try all ten exercises) or pick & choose the faves that are right for you and your ability level (i.e. choose five and repeat them) and get ready to sweat it out in ONLY TWENTY MINUTES – no matter where you are in the world.  Perform each exercise for 45 seconds, resting for 15 seconds before moving onto the next exercise. Repeat the set (two total rounds) for the full 20-minute challenge.  

Easy, right?  Talk to me after it’s over. 😉

BURPEES.  My absolute favorite full-body bodyweight move and silver bullet of trainers everywhere, this one attacks all your major muscle groups while building cardiovascular endurance and warming you up (and um…don’t forget the push-up at the bottom, ok?).

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A REAL burpee includes a push-up (4).  Otherwise, it’s just a squat-thrust.

PUSH-UPS.  The best part of a burpee is the push-up, amirite?  Ok, maybe you hate me now.  But given that there’s literally hundreds of push-up styles, they’re one of the most versatile bodyweight exercises available.

SQUATS.  Like push-ups, there are about a thousand varieties of squats in the world, and lots of them don’t involve a lick of equipment – so push that booty back, get those quads ready, and work all the big muscle groups of your lower body in one swoop.

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LUNGES.  Speaking of…um…swooping?…lunges are another fantastic way to work the legs without any weights or equipment.  Step ’em forward, move ’em back, go sideways, or even jump it out – you’ve got so many ways to get lean, toned legs from this single move.

PLANK-UPS.  Perhaps the distant cousin of the push-up, plank-ups are often an easier movement for beginners and a great twofer when it comes to working arms and core at the same time.  Caveat: you gotta keep your hands under your shoulders and your butt out of the sky to make this one work (see form below):

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Butt down, hands under the shoulders.  Check yo’ self.

KNEES-TO-ELBOWS (three ways).  Traditional knees-to-elbows means connecting the knee to the elbow while holding a plank position (shown below).  I also count bicycle crunches as a variation on knees-to-elbows since the twisting and core engagement is similar, and it’s an easier modification for folks that need to build core strength.  And if you want to amp it up a bit – try mountain climbers, the plyometric version of this move.

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Try to actually contact the elbow with your knee if you can.

BACK EXTENSIONS.  We all get so caught up in training the front side of the body (think six-pack abs, a nice rounded chest, bulging biceps) that we forget that the back side is actually what takes the brunt of our poor posture, constant sitting, and core instability.  Whether it’s Superman holds, swimmers, or prone rows, integrating spinal strengthening movements into your bodyweight program is a necessity.

JUMPING JACKS.  Laugh all you want (but not at its extensive history), but this cardio move gets the heart rate up, shakes out the lactic acid from the limbs, and tones up your calves by hopping lightly and continuously on the toes.

REVERSE CRUNCHES.  Another one with lots of variations (leg drops, hip lifts, toe touches, and decline bench drops are a few of my faves), the reverse crunch works the rectus abdominus (lower abs) while allowing the neck to rest comfortably.

ISOMETRIC HOLDS.  Isometric exercises mean you hold a contraction for a specified period of time (rather than the contract-release pattern of traditional exercises).  Planks are perhaps the most diverse of this group for their many variations, but glute bridges (below) and chair sits are just as effective – as are the more advanced hollow holds (if you’re seeking six-pack status, this one is a must).  If you choose this type of exercise, try and hold it for 45 seconds straight – no cheating!

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Booty booty booty booty poppin’ everywhere.

So there you have it, folks – ten exercises, twenty minutes, zero equipment, and one hundred percent effective.

In case you’re wondering why I didn’t mention pull-ups, triceps dips, step-ups, box jumps, or a host of other very functional exercises that I also use on a daily basis – the answer is because they all use equipment (even simple stuff, like benches or chairs) and I wanted this piece to be LITERALLY about what you can do with your own body – and not a thing more.

All it takes to get – and stay! – in shape are consistency, determination, and focus.  There are no excuses – only priorities.  Make yours getting in a workout today.

Did I miss one of your favorite at-home exercises?  Share with me in the comments!

Ask Amanda: Spin Me Right Round

I’ve met so many of my best clients – and likely readers of this blog! – from the first actual fitness “thing” I was certified to do – teach Spin!

Spin, a fancy term for indoor cycling, is a highly addictive, super-fun, and calorie-blasting cardio workout that gets your heart racing, spirits raised, and body sweating from start to finish.

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Teaching outside = best best best

For some reason, however, I find that so many newcomers are intimidated by Spin classes – maybe it’s the combination of loud music, screaming instructors, and flashing lights that makes the whole thing seem like a sensory overload chamber trying to pass off as viable exercise, or maybe it’s the way people drag their sweaty carcasses out the door, dripping, red, and panting, after a single 45-minute workout that scares ’em off – but whatever it is, I want to make it clear that Spin really is for every level of exerciser – you don’t even need to know how to ride an actual bike!

Perhaps it’s somewhat ironic that I’ve decided to write this post now, as it is the first time in over a decade that I’m actually not teaching Spin – but hey, I’ve got a lot of experience from over seven different gyms and studios to share, so better late than never, right?

The first rule of Spin class is: you don’t stop in Spin class.  What I mean by that is, you can always ignore the instructor’s cues to stand up, pedal faster, or add resistance, but what you should not do is stop pedaling entirely.  Remember that these are stationary bikes, and thus do all the balancing for you – whether or not you pedal, the bike will stay upright.  This is not an excuse to get lazy.  You are there to get a workout, and by pedaling through the entire class, you’ll keep your momentum, heart rate, circulation, and calorie burn going, plus reduce the risk of injury and blood pressure drops from sudden stops.

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Yeah but for real though, don’t stop.

The second tip I’d give a newcomer is to make sure the instructor sets up your bike, and make sure it feels comfortable once they do.  There is an actual science to the geometry of any bike, and because of the various positions used in Spin (seated, standing, aggressive), the setup is crucial to your safety and comfort on the bike.  If the instructor doesn’t offer a setup right away, ask for one – it’s her/his job, and she’ll be happy to do it for you.

Next, arm yourself with the proper gear, equipment and fuel.  You definitely want to make sure you’re wearing capri pants, tights, or bike shorts for your first ride (chafing on the seat can make the entire experience feel like military torture, and floppy shorts/ loose pants can get caught in unsafe and unflattering ways in the bike mechanisms).  Never be ashamed if you need to add a padded seat cover for your comfort (some of us have more sensitive rears than others, ok?), and bring enough water or an electrolyte beverage to replenish the massive amount of sweat you can plan to lose (remember, you’re biking in a dark studio with 30 other people – no nice cool breeze and wind in the hair in there).

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Pad yo’ biznizz – all the cool kids are doing it.

Finally, modify the workout as you feel comfortable.  Your instructor may be barking out tasks like a power-hungry sociopath, but you don’t need to go for the gold on your very first session.  Listen to the instructor’s cues about proper standing form, aggressive posture, proper RPM cues (cadence/pace) for sprints, and heavier resistance cues for hills.  Learn what each of these skills “feels like” before you try to perform them, and don’t be afraid to ask after class if you don’t think you’re doing something right.  There are no dumb questions – only dumb-looking people with horrific form on a Spin bike:

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Don’t be that guy on the left.  Don’t be that guy.

In summary, don’t let Spin class intimidate you – it’s been around since the 90s, and there’s a reason so many people continue to try it and love it.  Indoor cycling is easy on the knees, good for the spirit (instructors typically teach with a motivating, positive attitude), and fantastic for heart health – all great things on their own, and combined with a 300-800 calorie burn in about an hour makes Spin one of the best cardio workouts in town.

Have you tried a Spin class before – or would you?  What’s your best tip for newbies?

Ask Amanda: Stretching, The Truth

I talk a lot about fitness on this blog, and truth be told, I talk a lot about the “hardcore” type of fitness.  I tell you to lift (heavy) weights, do HIIT, check out a killer interval class, try some circuit training, and attempt all sorts of other sporty stuff – some of which, admittedly, I know may be intimidating for a lot of you lovely readers out there.

So today, let’s shift gears.  Downshift, more specifically.

I want to talk about one of the most ignored components of a holistically fit lifestyle – flexibility.  So many of us (*pointing finger directly at self*) eschew stretching almost entirely in favor of strength, speed, power, agility, endurance – basically any other type of training besides the kind that actually does the most long-term good (d’oh).

Flexibility training is like boiled brussels sprouts for serious fitness freaks.  We all acknowledge that we need to keep it in the regular rotation, and we’ll even tell other people they should include it, but truth be told, we rarely commit to it ourselves.  Do as I say, not as I do – and I am one of the guiltiest of all when it comes to this fitness sin.

There was a time – granted, it seems like a lifetime ago – when I was doing yoga religiously, 2-3 times per week.  I had a Bikram phase (ended abruptly by the fact that Bikram himself is a giant a*shole who deserves zero dollars from any thinking person), a Kundalini phase (summary: lots of chanting), a restorative phase (aka “assisted sleep”), a basic bitch power yoga phase, and even a wonderful (if far too short-lived) running-plus-yoga phase called Detox/Retox wherein you ran two miles, did 90 minutes of Vinyasa flow, and got a free beer afterwards.

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Long story short, I am no stranger to the concept of stretching.  I simply don’t do it anymore.  And at age 33, I am quickly losing the luxury of being able to do such a thing.

A loyal reader asked me what the most “important” types of stretches are, and I figured I’d use our little space this week to not only answer that question, but also give you an insight into what types of stretches I utilize with my own personal training clients and why I really do believe – despite my own shortcomings – that stretching matters.

Stretching can relieve stress, decrease the risk of injury, improve energy flow, increase range of motion and athletic performance, encourage better circulation, reduce chronic pain, and even help to manage cholesterol levels.  Stretching after workouts reduces inflammation and soreness and makes it easier to continue being active the next day – important stuff for those of us who don’t like to take a “DOMS day” off.

But let’s be real – all of that is well and good, but when you only have 5 minutes to soak in all those amazing benefits, how should you spend your sacred stretch time?

First of all, attack them hammies.  If you sit a lot, your hamstrings are probably tight.  If you run a lot, your hamstrings are probably tight.  If you lift a lot, your hamstrings are probably tight.  Sense a theme?  I like to get my clients into a supine position, have them hold a towel or band, and lift one leg, knee straight, through their reasonable range of motion, as shown below:

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This is a reasonable range of motion for her – but like, not me.

Next, loosen those glutes.  Your backside is the biggest muscle group in the body, which means it holds the key to a lot of lower body tightness and imbalance.  When I’m with a client, I’ll assist their supine stretch (pic below), but if you’re on your own, why not take the glorious opportunity to drop into a pigeon pose and completely bliss out for a minute?  Yasssss.

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Third on the docket is a nice juicy hip stretch.  Women especially hold a lot of stress and pain in our hips, and the mere structure of men’s narrow hips means they are typically tight – good reasons both to ease yourself into the aggressive-but-effective lizard lunge:

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Fourth, if you’ve been squatting, kicking, or just doing a lot of anterior-chain work, it’s worth a quick run through the quads.  Side lying stretches can be really effective here (right pic below), as can assisted prone stretching with a trainer (left pic below), and both types give a little extra bonus length to your lower back, which no one is mad at.

Speaking of that lower back, if you’re already down on the ground, you may as well roll your spine into some gentle twists.  Twisting in yoga is considered detoxifying in and of itself (think of the concept of wringing out a rag in relation to getting rid of pain and waste) and damn it, it feels amazing:

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Finally, don’t forget that upper bod – the back and shoulders are the two areas most likely to be carrying most of your tension up there, and they’re easily and effectively stretched with an arm-linked forward fold (just hold opposite elbows if you can’t link your hands):

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Knees slightly bent, please.

 

 

There are, of course, a million more muscle groups to stretch and even more ways to stretch them – but the point of this little piece was to highlight the most important ones, give you some guidelines for stretching alone or with your trainer, and remind you that yes, flexibility is just as vital and important a marker of fitness as all that other fancy jazz I talk about here on the ol’ blog – so stay well, TFB-ers, and let’s get bendy in 2017!

What are your favorite feel-good stretches?  Do you make time for flexibility in your routine?

Ask Amanda: The Half Of It

Hey, did you guys know I ran a half marathon this past weekend?  

I’m almost kidding, since I feel like I posted it all over every social media platform I had – but who can blame me*?  The race went great, the location (Angkor Wat Archaeological Park; definitely worth your visit) was incredible, and the training I put into the effort was top-notch.

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All the amazing kweens of the 2016 Angkor Wat International Half Marathon (me, far right)

*I almost turned this post into a mini-rant to counterpoint OTHER peoples’ mini-rants about how “annoying” it is to post your workouts on Facebook; a habit which I not only have NO problem with but find encouraging and inspiring – but I digress; that’s not what today is about.

Today is about half marathon training, my friends – or really, any endurance event training, since I’ve been doing a lot of those things of late.  How do I train for a long-distance running or obstacle event?  What are the keys to success in these cray-cray distances?  And how can you avoid some of the common mistakes new racers make?

First of all – and I stress this so much to clients it’s almost a joke – I don’t run that much.  Ok, before that seems absurd, let me clarify – I absolutely do run more than your average person not doing half marathons.  But I do NOT run every day, every other day, or really anything over 15K (9.3 miles, American friends) unless I am training for an actual full marathon.  What I do do is make every single run count – I hit one speedwork, one strength/hill run, and one distance run per week when I’m in endurance training.  The speedwork usually involves a legit rubber track; the strength involves hills (if I can get ’em outdoors), treadmill inclines (if I can’t), or tempo work (like this); and the distance run starts at just 5 miles (8K) and grows to a max 15K (in this hot and humid weather, I find it is more than enough to get a sense of what race pace and fatigue feel like, and also enough to test nutrition and fuel options).

Which brings me to my next point – the centrality of proper nutrition.  Hate to be a downer, but guys, it’s not just the big fun carboload meal you eat before the race that “counts” (and for the record, my favorite pre-race meal is NOT a big plate of pasta, but rather, a big slab of red meat – either a burger and fries or steak and potato), but in fact the nutrition program you use on a day-to-day basis throughout training and during the actual race that matters most.  I do intermittent fasting each and every day of the week, but I also limit my carb intake in the week leading up to the race.  Two days prior, I start to add refined carbs back in force, and then the night before the race, I give myself a healthy dose of simple carbs and animal protein – and believe me, this method makes me feel like I have a jet pack on my back.

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As for race-day nutrition, everyone is different – so it is crucial that you find a strategy that works for you well before the actual day.  For me, I have trouble eating in the morning due to a mixture of nerves, lack of appetite, and fear of pooping my pants, so I like to load up a later dinner the night before and race on coffee, water, electrolyte beverages, and GU gels alone.  Other athletes I know like to wake up with a hearty bagel or muffin, then hit some chews throughout the race; even others I know carry actual food with them on the course (believe it or not, I know one gal who legit races with a cooked sweet potato in her pocket).   Lance Armstrong was renowned for taking in nearly 20 PowerGel packets (!) during the 26.2 miles of the NYC Marathon the first time he ran it.  Summary point: it does not matter what you need to do for race-day eating; it DOES matter that you practice, practice, and practice again eating EXACTLY what you’re going to eat in EXACTLY the conditions you’re going to eat it to make sure it doesn’t cause you any hassle, GI distress, or general discomfort when the big day comes.

Besides nutrition, the biggest advice I can give new endurance runners is to cross-train with weights.  You heard me – don’t be afraid of getting bigger, be focused on getting stronger and more indestructible.  Sure, there’s something to be said for being light and fast on your feet, and I absolutely do recommend finding a healthy race weight and adjusting your nutrition program to help you reach it – but there’s also a great deal of value in being powerful (this was the first half marathon in six years that I was able to PR, and I attribute it to a killer kick that allowed me to drop two fellow female competitors that had led me for the entire race in mile 11), recovering easily, and finishing strong.

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So what do I mean by cross-training with weights?  I mean 2-3 sessions of dedicated, structured resistance training per week.  Perhaps for you that’s a bootcamp-style workout, or a circuit training class, or a TRX session – all great options.  Maybe you’re the type who likes to follow a traditional training split (like back/biceps, chest/legs) in the gym alone.  A third option may be to join a CrossFit or obstacle-racing gym (depending on your goals) and practice functional skills like flipping tires, kettlebell swinging, or rope climbing.  Whatever your preference, make sure you’re lifting with proper form (a session with a personal trainer can be an awesome investment here to master the basics), lifting heavy, and lifting with a focus on core development (i.e. choosing free weights or a barbell; not relying on gym machines to do the stability work for you).

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Finally, and this underlies all of my advice above – make sure you have a plan.  Serious runners get coaches; if you can’t afford one, get yourself a solid running plan online, make your runs and workouts as serious as your work appointments or meetings, and stick to it.  I advise 12-16 week plans for new half marathoners; 16-20 for new marathoners.  For shorter distances, allow yourself at least 8 weeks to fall into a focused run-and-resistance  training routine, and for obstacle racers, make sure you’ve got race-specific (like the aforementioned rope climb) training at least once per week in the 4-5 weeks leading up to race day.  And as always – listen to your body.  Even the best runners on the most finely-tuned programs get injured when they build mileage too quickly, skip their cross-training, “forget” to stretch or do yoga, and stop sleeping enough to recover fully – so make sure you’re keeping your self-care intact as you ramp up your endurance work, too.

How do you train for a long-distance race?  What are some of your time-tested tips?