Pro runner and future running mom Neely Spence Gracey has been checking in with Women’s Running since she announced her first pregnancy in January to provide updates on how running continues to factor into her life as an expectant mother—one who has her sights set on competing in the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. We last spoke with Neely in Boston the day before the 2018 Boston Marathon, when she was offering last-minute Marathon Monday advice to several of the runners she coaches through her online coaching business, Get Running. Several weeks later, Neely still sounds impressed by the efforts her athletes put forth during that race—especially considering the harrowing weather conditions of the day. We touched base with Neely last week to learn about the work she’s putting into her coaching business, the extent to which running remains part of her daily life and how she’s feeling generally with just two months of her pregnancy remaining.
How are you feeling?
It’s been a whirlwind since Boston. We left straight from that exciting weekend to Europe for a week on our babymoon. We did six countries in eight days, so it was a rushed and organized but no-time-to-spare type of trip. But we had a great time. I came home and was back in Colorado for a day before my sister went into labor, so I flew back to Pennsylvania for a week. I realized that it’s a lot more fun once [the baby is] out and you can play with them, so now I’m over the being pregnant part.
What does your running and general daily fitness look like now?
I’m seven months in, and I think I’ve run twice in the last month. Running isn’t going fantastic. It’s not necessarily that I feel terrible while running, but it’s that I feel so exhausted after running. I know I don’t have the fitness that I’m used to having, so why force myself to keep going when it doesn’t make sense?
I’ve been doing other things: I did go for a long hike, and I think I overdid it. It was too long and really hot. The rest of the day, my heart rate was really high, and I just felt off. So I feel like maybe that’s not a good idea, either. I’m sticking to more low-key exercise, and the last month I did this exercise program with 16-minute exercises, four days a week. It’s been perfect, because I’ve been traveling so much. I wake up, do my 16-minute workout, and I feel like I’ve earned a shower, accomplished something and can start my day. It didn’t require any gym or equipment; you can just do it anywhere. I enjoyed having that routine. I’ve also been using the ElliptiGo once or twice a week to just get in an aerobic session, and I bike with my husband while he’s running. Now that it’s getting nice out, I enjoy that.
How are your energy levels? Are you feeling as fatigued now as you were at the start of your pregnancy?
I feel like it’s evened out. A couple days I’ve needed a nap here and there, but it hasn’t been the same fatigue level it was early on. The heat is making things a little more challenging. I get more fatigued from being outside in the sun, and I get hot really quickly.
Focusing on hydration has been really helpful. There were a couple of times in Europe on our trip when were were walking around, exploring, and I was just like, “We need to sit down in the shade for like an hour and just relax.”
How much of your time is currently devoted to your work as a coach?
A lot more. I have been dividing my time between my personal coaching business and working for Runcoach. Runcoach is a online coaching app, and they partner with a bunch of different races throughout the country. They work with a whole host of individuals who are everything from very new to running and just learning about the sport to very serious and competitive racers. That’s been a lot of fun, and a completely different avenue of coaching. With Get Running, it’s extremely individualized, catered to every individual’s needs and goals. Runcoach is mass coaching. There are 27,000 runners that it works with across the country. It’ been awesome to see how that type of model can be super successful for people. It depends on the individual and what you want out of your coaching. I feel fortunate that I get to see both ends.
How many clients do you have currently?
I have 65. I have had as many as 80 in the past. I don’t really advertise; it’s much more of an organic process.
What did you learn from a coaching perspective from this year’s Boston Marathon?
I had 25 athletes who ran the Boston Marathon, and three who ran the 5K. Those who chose the 5K had great weather. Those who were in the marathon had more of a challenge. It was really interesting: There were a lot more PRs and successful races in this year than there were last year at Boston. I was thinking about it, and 1. I think the heat [that Boston Marathoners experienced in 2017] is something that people don’t adjust for as they should. It can come back to really affect and hurt you in the end. With the cold and rain and wind, people are much more cautious and recognize it’ll be slow. They can’t focus on their splits as much. Those that overthink pacing throughout a race actually fared much better and ran hugely successful PRs and races.
I had one woman run a 31-minute PR at Boston this year. They learned, “Hey, I just have to listen to my body and run off of feel.” That made such a difference because they weren’t overthinking or overanalyzing things. Another part was the biggest question: What do I wear? How do I dress? I told my athletes, “Make sure you wear layers you can throw off. You can always take a layer off, but you can’t add a layer once you’re out there.” It was neat that I got to be there and be part of it. There were a lot of unique situations that typically wouldn’t happen in a race environment that became necessary, given the circumstances.
You’ve said before that you’re constantly learning as a coach. What’s one of the more recent insights you’ve gleaned?
One of the things I’ve been looking into and adding for some of my clients who I’ve worked with for a long time is getting a stronger base. It’s really hard to get someone who’s paying you to give them workouts to recognize that you don’t need to run every single day.
I had a girl recently run in the winter, she ran 2:56 for her first-ever marathon. This spring, she ran 2:46. It was so exciting to see how she figured out what works well from the past, what her weaknesses and strengths are. That was fun to be part of her journey. She wants to qualify for the Olympic Trials; she’s just over a minute off. It’s obviously realistic, because she just ran a 10-minute PR. But what can we do to improve her strength and improve her weaknesses to take that to the next step? The thing we were talking about is, we have six months from now until her race to rally and put together a strong, solid buildup. What it needs to look like is not workouts from the very beginning; it needs a strong foundation. If we can do eight to 10 weeks of strength building, that’s going to carry her through. That’s something I’ve been incorporating and encouraging my athletes to buy into: The idea of a solid foundation to build a season upon.
Every person’s goals, once they meet them, are equally as exciting for me. One of my athletes, the woman who ran the 31-minute PR, her goal was just to finish. She didn’t have a time goal or anything. She’s from Florida, and I was like, “Really? How did she do that well in completely different conditions than what she’s used to?” That was inspiring to see her rise to the occasion.
Many runners are starting to prepare for the fall marathon season. What advice would you offer runners preparing to tackle their first 26.2?
I think the biggest thing is to be patient early on. So many people get really excited about marathon training. Go all in, but not all in in terms of training. Go all in in terms of, this is a great time to focus on strength training, core work, cross-training, making sure that your body is firing on all cylinders. Making sure you’re getting enough rest and recovery in between runs, because right now your volume is not going to be at its highest. You have a lot of time and energy to put into these other things that will pay off and help you get through the season. You can only perform well on race day if you’re feeling fit, fast and fresh, mentally. If you go too aggressively too early in the season, you can burn out mentally and you’re at a higher risk for injury. Ease into it, and take the extra time that you have to put toward focusing on the important little details of training.