Matt Fitzgerald was in the best shape of his life when three quarters of the way through a final, difficult mile of speedwork last August he felt a horrible, gut-wrenching sensation in his groin. The 46-year old nutritionist and author took another step and the searing pain only worsened. With no choice in the matter, he stopped in his tracks, certain that his fall marathon plans were over.
The entire training cycle had gone like clockwork up until that point, but it was also part of a grand, fascinating experiment in which Fitzgerald was the lab rat. Always a strong runner—he set his marathon PR of 2:41 at age 37 and ran 2:49:14 to win the masters division at the 2017 Eugene Marathon on May 6—Fitzgerald took advantage of an opportunity to train like and with the pros as an honorary member of the HOKA Northern Arizona Elite team. His goal: to see what would happen if an “everyday” runner trained like a pro, all with his eyes on the Oct. 8 Chicago Marathon.
“Running is my passion,” he says, “and like most runners, I share a fantasy about making running the center of my life.”
In addition to that, he was curious. “The assumption is that you need the right genetics to train like an elite,” he says. “I wanted to challenge that assumption. I’m well above average but I’ve never been an elite.”
He admits to being injury prone in the past, but in the last few years, he’s had a better handle on that. “I thought that maybe it’s not too late to improve,” he says.
In June, he began a two-month cycle of remote training with a schedule from HOKA NAZ. Then in early August, along with his wife and dog, Fitzgerald packed up his belongings and headed to Flagstaff, Ariz., to live and train with the pros.
Sweating the Details
Guided by coach Ben Rosario, Fitzgerald’s every move has had a purpose over the past few months. That means his days consist of all the perks enjoyed by the elites. Not just specific, tailored training, but massages, naps, ready access to sessions with a PT or sports psychologist, and customized strength training. His schedule is also noteworthy for what it doesn’t include: all the day-to-day tasks of normal living, like a job, family responsibilities, cooking, cleaning and the like.
Fitzgerald points out that with an environment dedicated to nothing but training, he also does the “little things” he might otherwise forego on his own. “I wear compression boots in the evenings to aid recovery, take an iron supplement, do a long warm up before getting into a workout,” he says. “All those things you know you should do, but don’t.”
When it comes to the actual training, it has been intense, but also quite different from how he trained back when he set his marathon PR in 2008. “I’m not training harder,” Fitzgerald points out. “When I ran my PR, I was hitting around 80 to 85 miles per week, and this has been similar.”
However, Fitzgerald describes the training as “gentler” under Rosario’s plan. “When I was 37, I hit the track fairly often and ran at 5K to 10K pace,” he explains. “This time through, it has been more mileage at half- to full-marathon pace. I’m not as wiped out and tolerate the mileage better.”
In addition, he has benefited from bigger periods of rest on the elite training plan. “The coach makes you do what you need to do, which means big workouts, but bigger periods of absolute rest,” Fitzgerald says. “It’s a great balance.”
That said, Fitzgerald is quick to point out that while his training is hard, it’s not on par with that of the elites in the HOKA NAZ program. “Ben customizes the workouts for each athlete, and he is not training me like a 28-year old elite,” he says. “I get more rest than the pros.”
Because he is a nutritionist, Fitzgerald already had sound dietary practices in place before he began the training. Still, he has made a few tweaks here and there to go along with his more dedicated approach. “I’ve just tightened things up,” he says. “It’s not a diet devoid of pleasure, but I’ve cut down on sweets, alcohol and cheese.”
The Setback and the Comeback
The August day of that frightening injury, which turned out to be acute tendonitis, Fitzgerald wasn’t sure if he’d be able to continue on toward Chicago. “Ben immediately shut me down for three full days—no running or even crosstraining,” he says. “On the fourth day, I did a very gentle test run with walking breaks.”
In addition, Fitzgerald was able to tap into a local group of PTs, chiropractors and the like to “throw everything” at his injury. “I was also surrounded by a team for emotional support, and I’m confident that expedited my recovery beyond what it would have been on my own,” he says. “Without Ben, I also probably would have done too much too soon.”
Since he eased back into training under his coach’s watchful eye, Fitzgerald is now soundly back to the fitness level he had achieved in August. “Over and over again during recovery, I heard that I wasn’t losing much fitness,” he says. “But in my mind, I wasn’t moving forward either, which was hard. Still, I think I have a good chance of achieving my goal.”
As he tapers down and preps for Chicago, Fitzgerald has had time to reflect on the overall experience of living like a pro, and he’s made a few observations. “The biggest mistake recreational runners make is going too hard on easy days,” he says. “The pros spend much more time at a lower intensity, building a better foundation.”
Fitzgerald says that he will take a few things home with him when the whole process is finished. “I will spend more time thinking about running and planning for it,” he says. “I will get massage more often, rather than only when I’m falling apart. It’s a matter of will and requires some inertia, but it’s worth it.”