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This conversation is with renown insta-runner Kimberly Underwood about all things running training. Kimberly recently dropped her Marathon personal best time from 3:38 to 3:11 in under 2 years with a few simple changes under coaching guidance of Elite Half Marathoner Ryan Vail. Kimberly and Ryan have taken a much more relaxed approach to training in many ways: they no longer count mileage, they no longer shoot for PR’s in every workout and they make sure they train with other runners as good as them.. something Kimberly learnt from talking with elite African athletes.

Don’t forget to check out our new book: Eliud Kipchoge – History’s fastest marathoner: An insight into the Kenyan life that shapes legends

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Podcast Transcription

Matt Fox @ Sweat Elite: Hi Kimberly. Thanks very much for joining me today. You’re over in San Diego, in California right now, and I’ve asked to chat with you today because you have plenty of excellent running training advice coming through from your Instagram account, which relates very closely with, I guess, the experiences we’ve had talking to a lot of the elite athletes we’ve been meeting with and talking with over the last couple of years. So, thank you very much for joining us, and… Yeah. I’m looking forward to the conversation about your training and many other things that you’re, sort of, aiming towards in the future.

Kimberly Underwood (@trackclubbabe): Thank you so much for having me, Matt. I’m super excited to chat!

Matt Fox @ Sweat Elite: Cool. So, right now, you’re training towards the California International Marathon this December. Is this the first time you’ll be running that event?

Kimberly Underwood (@trackclubbabe): No. I ran it last year, after I basically took a 22 month break from the marathon, and it was my first marathon after almost two years. I ran it in December, and that’s where I had my breakthrough race, at the 3:11 marathon.

Matt Fox @ Sweat Elite: Awesome. And that’s your personal best to date?

Kimberly Underwood (@trackclubbabe): Yes! It was my personal best, and after… I’ve had a string of 6 marathons in 23 months, and my last three were 3:47, a 3:39 and a 3:38, so after that last one, I was, like, ‘I need to take a break and I need to regroup.’

Matt Fox @ Sweat Elite: And you really came back and improved a lot on that.

Kimberly Underwood (@trackclubbabe): Definitely. I’m really grateful that things finally turned around.

Matt Fox @ Sweat Elite: Awesome. So, I guess this is a perfect time to talk about what you changed in your training, or mentality, or whatnot, to see that sort of improvement. Because that’s a massive jump. As I’ve already said at the start – for anyone that isn’t already following Kimberly, whose Instagram handle is @trackclubbabe. It would be really cool to speak a bit more about, yeah, what you’ve changed in your training, your mentality, to allow that sort of improvement to happen.

Kimberly Underwood (@trackclubbabe):  Yeah. So, you know, I…  I had one tough marathon, and then, after it, I was just, you know… ‘I need to get back out there and do this again!’ And it’s really tough, coming into the next marathon cycle, kind of, with, like… I don’t want to say ‘loser’s mentality’, but just, like, trying to prove something and kind of…

Matt Fox @ Sweat Elite: Sure.

Kimberly Underwood (@trackclubbabe): Feeling really defeated. And I basically went into three full cycles with that mentality. And, after the last though marathon in Tokyo, you know… Initially, after the race, I said ‘I’m not doing another race for a really long time, I need to get things… Like, something needs to be sorted out.’ And then, like, the next day, I told my husband – ‘You know what? I’m just going to sign up for this marathon in two months because I need to prove that I can do Boston again.’ Because I already qualified for Boston two times, but then I started regressing and doing poorer performances than I had done, and, luckily, Tyler – my husband – said, ‘Nope, you’re not signing up for that race. You’re doing the break you said you’re going to do. We’re going to get, like, you back on track.’ You know? And… You know, sometimes, when you’re second day of the cycle, it’s easy to try to, like, keep trying to put yourself out there, to try to prove yourself again… But I think it was really helpful for me to, you know, just take my pride and ego out of it, and just say, ‘I’m going to just sit back for a while and not do any marathons, and not feel the need to prove myself…’ And, so, just having a more patient and humble mindset with my running really helped me to take that step back. And then, from there, I… I just, literally, changed everything about my training, everything about the way I thought. Some of the main things that I changed were: I started running with people, you know, in all those training cycles before, I pretty much isolated myself and ran alone because of… Like, I was embarrassed because I felt like my running was poor, so I kept my running poor because I refused to be challenged by other people. But that was, you know, tough and…

Matt Fox @ Sweat Elite: I think that’s something a lot of people experience, as well.

Kimberly Underwood (@trackclubbabe): Totally. It’s a really tough cycle, because you’re, like, feeling insecure and embarrassed about how your running is, but, in order to get better, it’s ‘Iron sharpens iron.’ So, if you’re not putting yourself out there in the mix and challenging yourself… You know,the first couple of times, it might be tough, you know? And you have to really check your ego, because… Because you’re running with other people, who are at different levels, and… But the way you get better is by throwing yourself into the mix. And so, you know, putting myself… Running with other people just made the process so much better, and it made me become a quicker runner, it made me enjoy the process more, you know… I learned so much from them, so that was something that was huge. You can’t… I mean, you can do it alone, but I just don’t think you should.

Matt Fox @ Sweat Elite: Absolutely. And one of your Instagram posts from a couple of weeks, or potentially about a month or two ago – sorry – you said, ‘The piece of advice I heard most often from the Ethiopian runners was that it was impossible to improve on your own.’ And the quote you’re mentioned there is, ‘Training alone is just for health. To be changed you must learn from others.’ And I really agree with that, having spent quite a bit of time in Africa, with some elite running groups, it is absolutely… What they do there, they train in groups, and I think a lot of people listening or reading this would definitely relate to that, and… I guess, I’d like to know: how did you solve that in your own mind? To go from running on your own to going, ‘Right, I’m going to join a group and actually train with people.’ It must have been a big step.

Kimberly Underwood (@trackclubbabe): It really was. Honestly, my husband had told me for a while that I needed to do it, and then I had a friend who really was, like, ‘You need to be running with people. You can’t be doing these workouts alone.’ And so, then, one day I finally got up the courage to text my friend, Shambra, and just say, ‘Would you want to do a workout with me?’ You know, and that’s, like… It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it was a huge deal for me then. And, you know, we got some other girls, and, you know, our training cycle towards the CIM was just amazing because of the synergy of our group, and… You know, I think that taking that first step and just putting yourself out there, and finding people to train with… It’s just so amazing for your running.

Matt Fox @ Sweat Elite: Absolutely. And which is the group that you train with there, in California?

Kimberly Underwood (@trackclubbabe): Well, right now, my husband belongs to a sub-elite team called Prado Racing Team, so I’ve been doing all my workouts with them, and they are so quick and all so talented, so I’m fortunate to even just be able to get my training in with them.

Matt Fox @ Sweat Elite: For sure. And I guess this is a good time just to briefly touch on the sort of training that you have more specifically been doing, you know, whether it’s mentioning the training program that that group does, or probably, more specifically, what you’ve been doing. Because of, linking back to that improvement, it would be cool to hear what you do on a weekly basis – what your typical Monday looks like, typical Tuesday, because you have seen this massive jump, and, although a lot of it is psychological, you’ve probably – as you’ve mentioned already – you’ve changed your training a lot. So, it would be cool to hear a bit more about that.

Kimberly Underwood (@trackclubbabe): Yeah. So, I also started working with a coach last November, October, I believe. Ryan Vail – he actually just ran 1:02:19 at the Great North Run, which is amazing, such a fast time.

Matt Fox @ Sweat Elite: Wow. That’s very quick.

Kimberly Underwood (@trackclubbabe): But he’s, you know, he’s a phenomenal elite athlete, and I love his approach to training. It’s super conservative. When I started working with him, I kind of told him my parameters. Like, when I had to regroup two years ago, and take a break from the marathon, I changed everything. So, I went from just, like, overtraining and running way too much, and just doing all of these miles that were not… They are counterproductive. And I… My boundary was, I wasn’t running more than five times a week. So, going from doubles to only five runs a week was a big shift for me. And, you know, I could have made the choice to add more days as I got better, but my philosophy has been, like, ‘As long as it’s working, let’s keep it here.’ You know? And so, we kept my training at five days a week, because I think that this works for me and I don’t want to overload myself. So, basically, Monday is an easy day. Tuesday I have off. Wednesday I do a track workout, and Thursday is another easy day – you know, just running, like, six miles. Friday I take off and do strength, so my off days, I to strength work, just with, like, weights. And Saturday, I do a tempo long run combo. So, I did twenty miles this Saturday with, like, five mile warm up and eight by one mile repeat, and then finished it off with a cooldown. So they get to be pretty big days, and then Sunday is another medium long easy run.

Matt Fox @ Sweat Elite: Sure. Yeah, I did see a post on your… A really good post on your Instagram, about the twenty mile day that you did recently. It was very well explained, and if anyone is interested in hearing more about that particular workout, I would recommend going to check that out. It would be good to hear a little bit about the Wednesday, when you said you do… I think it was Wednesday you said you did track.

Kimberly Underwood (@trackclubbabe): Yeah.

Matt Fox @ Sweat Elite: What are a couple of key workouts that you’ve been doing, or maybe some of your favorites, on the track?

Kimberly Underwood (@trackclubbabe): Yeah. So, I’ve been really enjoying the track, it’s fun just to be out there with all the girls, just running fast. I think one of my favorite workouts, just because it’s been so… They’ve gone so well when I’ve done them, has been four by mile on the track, and the most recent time I did four by mile a couple of weeks ago, I did, like, a ten second mile PR as my first mile in the workout, and it’s just the synergy of running with these really incredibly talented girls, just pulls you along, and just helps you find your own potential. So, yeah. I really enjoy mile repeats on the track, or, you know… I also enjoy the short intervals, too, because I like running fast.

Matt Fox @ Sweat Elite: Yeah, absolutely. And when you’re doing these mile intervals there, are they around, I guess, maybe, a half marathon, or 10K half marathon to marathon pace? Somewhere in there?

Kimberly Underwood (@trackclubbabe): No. The mile intervals are all at mile PR pace. My training is just a little bit different, because my husband, like, laughs at… Like, when we try to, like, describe pacing for my workouts, because… I think, because of where I am, which is not extremely fast, that my speed workouts can be a lot faster than, say, an elite athlete would be paced at, if that makes sense. So, just because, like, the more amateur the runner, the more spread out all of those times seem to be. So… Because I’m improving so quickly, it’s also, like… If I say ‘half marathon pace’, it’s kind of, like, ‘Well, I had to run a half marathon to make capability, so which pace are we talking about?’ It kind of makes everything a bit confusing.

Matt Fox @ Sweat Elite: Absolutely. No, I understand. That’s really interesting, thanks for sharing that. Another really good post of yours, which I’d like to briefly touch on – because this is something that we’ve definitely learned from speaking with athletes such as  Eliud Kipchoge over in Kenya [more info here], and from Mo Farah’s training group [more info here].. the header of the post is ‘Why every workout isn’t a PR workout?’ You briefly talk about… one quote from there is, ‘I’m realising I need to relax my standards for a good workout, and not limit good workouts to ones where I can run faster than I previously ever had in a workout, because that’s not necessarily the point of them.’ I think this is something that a lot of people, again, do accidentally. They really try, and maybe it’s not an accident, but they try and push themselves too hard in every single workout. So, it would be really good to know how you discovered this kind of idea, and what you think about this topic…

Kimberly Underwood (@trackclubbabe): Yeah. Well, I think that it’s… You know, a lot of maybe really type-A people gravitate towards running because it’s such a quantifiable activity.

Matt Fox @ Sweat Elite: Absolutely.

Kimberly Underwood (@trackclubbabe): You know, and so, it gives you kind of that gratification that you need out of something, because you can quantify it – there’s paces, there’s, you know, all these types of things you can measure. And so, that’s why a lot of people like me tend to gravitate towards running. The bad thing is, though, that we use these measuring standards to tell us if we had a good or bad day, which is not totally fair.

Matt Fox @ Sweat Elite: Absolutely.

Kimberly Underwood (@trackclubbabe): There’s so many variables that go into it, and the point of some workouts may not be to have the very fastest, you know, 800 you’ve ever ran in that workout. There’s just so many different things that go into a full training plan. And so, I think that realising the purpose for workouts, and realising that everything fits into a puzzle, and that it doesn’t have to be your very best day every single time you go out to have a workout is super helpful. It’s definitely something I’ve still been trying to grasp as, like, an amateur runner. My husband, Tyler, he’s a 2:18 runner, so he’s extremely fast, and he also just has a more laid back personality, so I think being around him has helped me to take a better approach to things, because he can go to a workout and not have executed all the fastest K repeats, thousand repeats, you know, he’s ever done, and he can say, ‘It was a good workout. It did what it was supposed to do.’ And so, I’m learning that that’s the approach I need to take for longevity. The way I’m looking at it as, like, success or failure, is just too hardnose to make this a really enjoyable, you know, and successful approach to, you know, training for races.

Matt Fox @ Sweat Elite: Absolutely. And this is something that we spoke very briefly about with Patrick Sang, who is Eliud Kipchoge’s coach… (article of interview with Eliud Kipchoge’s coach on training here). He mentioned that, in the work… Within his group, there are a few people that are, sort of, this personality, and they really like to try and smash themself on… In every workout, and try to improve themlself, and it’s interesting…

Kimberly Underwood (@trackclubbabe): Yes!

Matt Fox @ Sweat Elite:  He mentioned something along the line… This is a year ago now, last August we were over there, he went something along the lines of, it’s interesting for him to see a large group of people that… There’s Eliud on one end of the spectrum, that’s completely contempt with going out and doing a session where he’s nowhere near hitting his best times because he knows it’s part of a bigger picture… And then, there’s athletes in there that are trying to improve themself every session. And he mentiones something like, ‘It’s funny how all of the faster athletes, at the end of the day, are towards Eliud’s side of things, where they don’t necessarily track how they’re comparing each workout, and they just turn up, they get it done, and when the time is right – which is often three to four weeks before a big race – they really try and hit the session then. But when they’re three, four, five months out, it’s not overly important. So, it’s really interesting to hear you discover that on your own, as well, because I think it’s something that a lot of people never figure out. 

[Link to full Eliud Kipchoge Training Log in e-book here]

Kimberly Underwood (@trackclubbabe): Totally. And I think that it’s… I mean, it’s such a key part to us, honestly, just enjoying this process. Because, if we’re looking at every single workout as an opportunity to succeed or fail,  it’s, honestly, way too much pressure to put on ourselves, it can lead us to being overtrained, or just stressing us out too much, you know? And it really is just showing up every day and being faithful to the work that day, not having to knock it out of the park every single time, you know, you go out and run.

Matt Fox @ Sweat Elite: For sure. And I guess this is a perfect way to transition to another part of… I liked a lot, which the header was, ‘I don’t… Why I don’t get hung up on mileage anymore’.

Kimberly Underwood (@trackclubbabe): Yeah.

Matt Fox @ Sweat Elite: And the first thing it says, ‘Mileage is sexy. What’s not sexy is doing a conservative amount of miles with a lot… At an easy pace.’ So, yeah, it sounds like you’ve learned a lot of lessons on the way here, and I think they’re lessons that a lot of people are still learning right now, so it would be good to hear a little bit more about your opinion on the topic of mileage.

Kimberly Underwood (@trackclubbabe): Yeah. You know, I think that… You know, while you’re going through these lessons, you’re like, ‘I wish that I had figured this out, you know, a different way, where I didn’t have to be learning the lesson the hard way.’

Matt Fox @ Sweat Elite: Yes.

Kimberly Underwood (@trackclubbabe): But, you know, in the grand scheme of things, I spin around it for about…

Matt Fox @ Sweat Elite: I think that’s how you learn best, through – when they hurt you the most.

Kimberly Underwood (@trackclubbabe): Exactly. And, you know, in the grand scheme of things, I’ve been a runner for six years, so I guess it didn’t take me twenty years to learn some of these lessons, and if I can now take the super conservative approach to my running, you know, to the rest of the time I’m running, then, you know, it’s a well-learned lesson. But, yeah, I… You know, I think that I belong to this Instagram world of running, and it’s so easy to get caught up with what everybody else is doing, and… You know, I don’t know if elites post their trainings so much, or really care about what other people are doing, but, you know, in our little world, it can be easy to get caught up in what other people are doing, and then compare what your training is… And, honestly, after I got burned after Boston, you know, I did eighty mile weeks for, I think, six weeks straight. And I was so burned from that, and I took such a conservative approach that I really don’t care what everybody else is doing, because I’m over here, doing pretty much the max I can do without burning myself out. So, there would be no possibility of me doing more, you know? And I think that’s what every person needs to find, just like, what’s the sweet spot for you? And the sweet spot should be: what has you improving, you know, and progressing at a steady rate? What has you feeling good and not completely overloaded? And just stick with that. If somebody else is able to do a hundred mile week, that’s great. That’s amazing for them. But, you know, for me, I’ve had to realise that being able to hit that kind of high mileage takes years. And for you to try to rush the process and at high mileage, and workouts… I mean, it’s not a great recipe for a successful running career.

Matt Fox @ Sweat Elite: No. And one really good quote you have on the same post is, ‘If you do not have the proper base foundation, then too many miles may be counterproductive.’

Kimberly Underwood (@trackclubbabe): Absolutely. I mean, when I was training for Boston, I was so focused on the mileage I was hitting each week. That was, literally, what my posts were about. Like, ‘I hit eighty miles!’ And all of my workouts during that time were suffering. I wasn’t hitting paces, I… During my tempo runs that are supposed to be, you know, not stopping – so it’s, let’s say, six miles, you’re not supposed to stop one time, I’m having to pause my watch multiple times to take breaks, because I’m, like, totally winded. You know… And I was just so blinded by this, like, idea of mileage, and just this, like, status of mileage, that I was neglecting the huge red flags that were coming up. You know? I’m not hitting any paces, this should tell me that this is not working out for me. But I just thought mileage overruled it. Like, even though I’m not hitting paces, it’s OK – I’m hitting the miles. And, you know, now I’ve learned, you can hit all the miles you want, and you’ll probably not hit that marathon out of the park if you’re not hitting any of your paces in any of your workouts leading up to it.

Matt Fox @ Sweat Elite: Absolutely. That’s really interesting. And I think, again, it’s another lesson that a lot of people take a while to properly learn.

Kimberly Underwood (@trackclubbabe): Oh, absolutely.

Matt Fox @ Sweat Elite: Well, thanks very much for all of your advice here. I think… One of the last things I’d like to ask you is about an interesting post that you posted about sugar.

Kimberly Underwood (@trackclubbabe): Oh, yes.

Matt Fox @ Sweat Elite: Yeah. So, you’ve been experimenting, it sounds like, with no or very low sugar. You mentioned that you’ve been using Hammer nutrition gels, which have a little bit of sugar… Yeah, I’d love for you to talk a little bit about this, because I think it’s something that… It’s a great experiment to run, and I’d like to hear about your experience here.

Kimberly Underwood (@trackclubbabe): Yeah, absolutely. So, basically, I had gone a year without sugar back in 2013, and, you know, when I was on it, that whole year I, you know, didn’t crave it, and I loved it. And I slowly started introducing it back in, and then, you know… It’s like a weed, you can’t get it out once it’s there. So, in April this year, I decided to, you know, to try to stop sugar, you know, cold. And I did, like, a no sugar April type of challenge, and , you know, the first day or so was a little bit tough, mostly in just figuring out what to eat. Kimberly Because, you know, you go through your day, and you have, like, your routine of what you typically eat. And if you look at your routine, there could be a lot of sugar in just, like, even health foods, you know? So, I was realising that, you know, my proteine bar in the morning had twelve grams of sugar, or my  Kombucha in the afternoon had, like, sixteen grams of sugar… And, you know, it all starts adding up, and so, I just started finding good substitutes for things that I was already eating, that had hidden sugars in them. And I just created a routine that was sugar-free. And, so, after April, I’ve, you know, allowed myself to have treats now and then, but it’s basically… Like, I just have, like, a sugar-free routine, so if something comes up that I really want to eat, it’s not a part of my daily life, but I can enjoy a treat now and then. So, I feel like that’s a better way for me to live.

Matt Fox @ Sweat Elite: Sure. And I’m sorry if you just briefly touched on this, but I may have missed it – what initially got you interested in trying this experiment? Was there any particular reason or was it just you wanted to run an experiment with it, or…?

Kimberly Underwood (@trackclubbabe): Yeah, so, I mean… I think that there’s way too much sugar in all of our foods, and, you know, I think the real travesty is that a lot of health companies market things ‘for athletes’, or just as health foods, and they have so much sugar in them. Sugar is just not good for our health. I think the excess consumption of it can just do so much damage to so many different things, and so, because of that, I really wanted just overall health, you know? I’ve taken the last couple of years to really just build myself into the right athlete through just a bunch of different means, and so… Nutrition has been one avenue, and my sugar consumption has been one thing I want to get under control, because, you know, excess sugar feeds inflammation in your body. In order to help your body heal and recover better, it’s better to do, you know, less sugar. And so, like, the most elite athletes aren’t eating all the doughnuts and all the pizza that all of us, you know, Instagram runners are posting about. So, I just wanted to kind of clean up my diet and help my body to handle the pressure of running with just better fuel. So, yeah… I just decided to try to see how going low to no sugar would be, and I started that in April, and I’ve continued it ‘till now. And, you know, my performance has only increased, and never… You know, I had people expressing concern that I need sugar, and I was, like, ‘I don’t think I do.’ And, you know, I still feel great not doing it, and… Like I mentioned in that post, you know, for a race or for a super long run, I’ll take a gel just so that way I’m giving my body what it needs at the moment, but I… You know, I wasn’t trying to address, like, those type of things when I was going no sugar. I’m trying to address the 99% of the time sugar that you’re doing, you know?

Matt Fox @ Sweat Elite: Sure.

Kimberly Underwood (@trackclubbabe): Taking gels at a race happens so infrequently that, you know, I can take those and I’m not really that concerned about it. But, I don’t need to be just having brownies for breakfast like I had been having.

Matt Fox @ Sweat Elite: Awesome. Well, yeah, thank you very much for joining us today. It’s definitely been a lot of top advice there, and I recommend anyone listening to this, or reading this, to check out Kinberly on Instagram. She’s got a lot of very good posts, with a whole lot of very good advice that I came across a couple of months ago, and I felt like more or less all of it was very much related to a lot of the advice and information that we’ve come across and discovered through our time interviewing and speaking with a lot of the other elite athletes that are featured on this site. So, all the best in your preparation towards the marathon in December. What is your goal?

Kimberly Underwood (@trackclubbabe): My goal is to run sub three this December.

Matt Fox @ Sweat Elite: Another big jump.

Kimberly Underwood (@trackclubbabe): It’s been a… It’s been a goal of mine for a while, and, you know, I wanted to set myself up for it well last year, so I took a huge chunk of time off  last year, and I know that I’m capable of taking another big chunk off this year, and then seeing where I can go from there.

Matt Fox @ Sweat Elite: Absolutely. Cool. Well, thanks again, and all the best for the race in December.

Kimberly Underwood (@trackclubbabe): Thank you so much, Matt. I really appreciate it.

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