Marathon Training/ Recent/ Running

Q&A with a Zap Fitness elite runner, Nicole DiMercurio

I am SO happy to welcome professional runner Nicole DiMercurio to the blog today! Nicole runs with Zap Fitness in Blowing Rock, NC and took SIXTH place at the 2018 Boston Marathon in those crazy conditions!

She has some seriously amazing PRs:

  • 5,000m – 16:14.21 (’18)
  • 10k – 34:02 (road) (’15)
  • Half Marathon – 1:13:15 (’18)
  • Marathon – 2:36:01 (’17)

And I’m also obsessed with her instagram – it inspires me, makes elite running seem relatable and makes me love Boone even more than I already do! Plus, Nicole is just so dang positive and it comes through her posts.

We’ve tried to get together on my last few trips to Boone but it hasn’t worked out — yet! But hopefully soon!  Thanks to all of you who submitted questions for Nicole and a HUGE thank you to Nicole for taking the time to provide such thoughtful answers! I told her I wished I could have done this in podcast format. I’ve wanted to start a podcast for years, but this post especially made me wish I had one up and running!

zap fitness reebok

Tell us a little bit about you. (where you’re from, how you got into running, where you train, etc.)

I’m originally from Atlanta, Georgia. I lived in Georgia 23 years of my life, and until I moved to North Carolina I didn’t realize how brutal the summers in Atlanta actually are! I now live in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, where I run for ZAP Fitness. So, how exactly does someone get up and leave their hometown to run full time? I’ll try to explain as best I can.

I got into running because of my dad. I was big into figure skating and tennis at the time, so running was a foreign concept to me. While I didn’t like running when I first started, it was something my dad and I got to do together. What I did like about running was the more I ran, the more I could run. It almost seemed like immediate results! One day I could run 5 minutes at a time, the next week I could run 7 minutes. I was used to practicing my skating technique or slice serve for hours on end and hardly improving. And I got addicted to how I could improve my running, even slightly, in a short period of time.

One of my favorite things about running was that my satisfaction was entirely personal. Sure, my dad could run a 6 minute mile and I ran a 10 minute mile. But, my 10 minute mile was the best I could do and it was much better than when I first started. I ditched figure skating (let’s be real, I’m 5’8 and highly uncoordinated, that stint went on way longer than it needed to) as well as tennis. Then I tried out for my high school cross country team and made junior varsity and that was enough for me. I had a place to start, and that was all that mattered.

zap running

What does a normal day look like for you at Zap Fitness?

  • We typically have practice at 8:15, so I’ll wake up at 7:00 to eat breakfast and catch up on whatever I need to do for work. This can be anything from answering convos, listing items, or posting to social media.
  • Depending on what practice is that day, it can last anywhere from an 1.5 – 2.5 hours. After practice and grabbing a snack, I’ll do some core and strength work. I’m usually done with that around noon (and probably starving!) so I’ll eat lunch and again catch up on anything new that’s happened with work.
  • If practice was a workout or long run, I try take a short nap after I finish lunch. If it’s a day where I don’t take a quick nap, I’ll work on whatever needs to be done around ZAP. During camp season we have various jobs to do that can be anything from helping our chef to guiding campers on runs. On a normal day we eat dinner around 6:30.
  • After that I catch up on anything pressing and then probably watch whatever Netflix show I’m hooked on at the moment! I’m trying to go to bed earlier, so I’ll shut Netflix off around 9 and read a book and try to sleep by 10.

What do you do to stay injury free?

  • Nutrition

Fueling often and properly gives my body the opportunity to recover and as prepare for the next run. Fueling often means eating three smaller (but substantial) meals and three snacks a day. I have breakfast when I wake up, a snack immediately after I run, lunch, an afternoon snack, dinner, and a snack before bedtime. I do this instead of eating three large meals a day for three reasons.

  1. So I don’t overwhelm my body with a significant influx of calories at one time.
  2. So I don’t take in a large amount of food and then take a large break from food before my next meal.
  3. Minimizing the time between meals helps ensure my body doesn’t go into starvation mode. Once the body goes into starvation mode, it’s more likely to hold onto any extra energy consumed at the next meal in fear of not knowing when the next meal will be.
  • Supplements

I am religious about taking Vitamin D, Iron, Magnesium, and Calcium. Vitamin D helps absorb Calcium, which in turn helps with bone strength. I take iron for carrying oxygen throughout my body and Magnesium for recovery.

  • Quality Sleep

Sleep gives our body and mind the rest and therefore the recovery we need. Unfortunately quality sleep is incredibly hard to come by in this day and age. My best advice for getting quality sleep is to not look at any sort of screen for at least thirty minutes before sleeping. I am a big fan of reading, and in my personal experience I have gotten my best sleep after reading a couple of chapters of whatever book I’m into at the moment.

What are your pre-race routines? Go-to pre race meal (breakfast) and mid-race fueling strategy?

In the words of Micheal Scott: “I’m not superstitious, but I’m a little stitious”. Back in high school I used to be extremely strict about my pre-race routine. I had to wear the same shirt, eat the same food, breathe the same number of times, listen to the same song, you name it. Once I graduated and got into the real world (and figured out life doesn’t work that way!) I became a lot more flexible pre-race.

Sometimes you just don’t have access to the exact type of food you ate or routine in general as the last time you PRed. With that said, my go-to pre-race meal would be oatmeal or bagel with almond butter and honey. There have been a couple of times where I’ve had to improvise and eat dry cereal and almonds and that worked just as well!

Basically I just go for some sort of carb and some sort of protein and don’t overthink it.

After breakfast, I drink Generation UCAN’s “pre workout” mix with water about thirty minutes before the start of the race. This holds me over for an hour and a half, so if the race is any distance less than a marathon I usually won’t take anything other than water during the race. However, if it is a marathon, I’ll take another mix about an hour into the race. After that second drink mix, I won’t take anything else. [I’ve been dying to try Generation UCAN!]

What’s your favorite long run workout?

I really enjoy surges within my long run. I feel like it helps break up the run and makes the the fact you’re going to be out there for well over an hour less intimidating.

Our coach, Pete, usually wants us to start our surges about 50 minutes into our run and take 7 to 8 minutes in between surges. The surges can be anywhere from 1 minute to 7 minutes, depending on the workout. The surges are designed to start out gently and get naturally more aggressive as the workout progresses. The 7-8 minutes in between each surge are also intended to be a touch faster than the previous set, not a complete jog or total rest.

An example of a long run I did recently:

  • Surges were (in minutes) 1-1-2-1-3-2-1-1 and I took 7 minutes in between each surge.
  • I think the best thing about this workout is that everything is on feel. Some days your surges are faster, some days your surges are much slower. It all depends on how you feel, and you end up getting a great workout in regardless.

What was your favorite part about running Boston this year?

The spectators! I couldn’t believe how many of them there were! I was soaked to the bone and colder than I have ever been in my life, but I felt like I signed up for it! And I honestly don’t know what I would have done without the positive energy every spectator brought. It really helped knowing that people were cheering for me when all I really wanted to do was walk off of the course and find a dry, warm place and a very large cup of coffee.

It felt like every spectator was personally cheering for each athlete. They took the time to read our names on our bib and yell the names of every individual that went by them. It was such an amazing experience, and I now understand why people have a special place in their hearts for the Boston atmosphere. [Uh, Nicole – you looked a lot better at the finish than I did!]

boston marathon elite field 2018

How do you calm pre-race nerves?

I will let anyone reading this in on a little secret: I’ve had the incredible opportunity to have conversations with some of the fastest, most elite women runners in the country — and every single one of them have admitted that they still get nervous before a big race.

I really think it helps me to calm by nerves by giving permission to myself to be nervous and remember that everyone is nervous. We all hear the advice “don’t be nervous!”, but in my mind it’s almost impossible to not be nervous.

It’s how the nerves are handled that makes the difference.

Instead of succumbing to nervousness and taking yourself out of a race, try to think of the positives and how hard you’ve worked to get to the start line. I like to look at each race as a challenge and view it as a way to show off all of my hard work.

zap fitness

How do you recover? Total day off? Stretching? Yoga? Foam rolling?

I have found my best recovery days have been when I’ve told myself I don’t have any plans. I make sure I get at least 8 hours of sleep, and once I wake up I decide what I’m going to do. As someone who plans everything, this can be a little challenging. However, through my 17 years of running, I have found that when my body needs full recovery it doesn’t need it in the same way every time. Sometimes it is a full day off, some days it’s a short run at a slow pace. [I love this approach!!]

How important is nutrition to your training? Do you do anything specifically to manage your nutrition?

Nutrition is incredibly important to my training, second only to sleep. I wouldn’t say I do anything specifically to manage my nutrition. I obviously try to eat as healthy as possible, but I definitely don’t limit myself or have foods that are off limits. As a runner, I love to eat. I love trying new things and (trying) to come up with new and fun recipes. With this being said, I do focus on getting the most vitamins and minerals out of my meals. This requires some thought most of the time.

Some foods “cancel” out the benefits of others. For example, calcium blocks the absorption of iron. If I want to up my iron with a piece of steak and I have a baked potato on the side, I will avoid putting anything with calcium (such as cheese or sour cream) on the baked potato. Vitamin C increases the absorption of iron, so I’ll add a vegetable high in vitamin C (such as spinach or broccoli) on the side as well.

As with anything, moderation is key. I love dessert, cheese, burgers, fries, all of the “unhealthy foods.” I also drink wine and beer. These things are fine as long as they’re in moderation. I just don’t eat the whole cake, supersize my orders, and don’t binge drink. Running is fun, and we train hard. Sometimes it’s nice to refill those calories we’ve burned with something we truly enjoy eating!

Do you play any mental games when things get really tough during a race?

Yes! Mental games have gotten me through all of my recent races. My favorite way to do this is finding multiple points on the race course instead of counting miles or constantly checking my time. The points I choose can be anything, I won’t know them until I see them in the race. I’ve chosen mailboxes, water bottles lying on the ground, people in banana suits, honestly anything that sticks out to me.

When I pick a point, I’ll tell myself that I’m going to be the best racer I can be until I get to that point.

Once I come up to the point, I’ll pick another point and race the same way to that point. I’ve found this is an excellent way not to stress about times or worry about how many miles there are left in the race.

How do you recover – physically and emotionally – from a really disappointing workout or race?

It’s human nature to be disappointed in a workout or race when it doesn’t go your way. The best advice I could give is to not think about it too much.

Being a runner is only a tiny part of who I am, even if it’s hard to remember that sometimes.

I try to remember that my family still loves me, my coach still believes in me, and my friends don’t care how fast I run. I also think about how I still get a fitness bump with even a bad workout or race. Plus, I probably learned something about myself that day that will help me know what not to do in future workouts and races!

What do you think elites do differently than the average runner?

I really don’t think elites do anything much differently than the average runner — it’s just have the time to focus on running and recovery. I’ve met some of the most dedicated runners that work full time jobs or are full time parents. These men and women are up early in the morning to squeeze in a run before work, and then running again after work. They go home and cook, clean, take care of children, or even head to a second job. On top of that it’s hard to get the proper amount of sleep when balancing full time work and home life.

It’s also difficult to get the correct nutrition when you have to squeeze your lunch into 15 minutes a day. Before I ran full time for ZAP, I found myself eating in the car, not able to take snack breaks, and relying on coffee as a lifeline. I believe elites just have the time to do the extra things. Instead of fitting in a run, running is the job. It’s an elite runner’s job to get the rest and recovery needed to perform at the next big race, and I always joke that races are like job reviews.

What are your hobbies outside of running?

One of my main hobbies is working on my Etsy shop. It was something I started when I graduated college as a way to make money on the side while I looked for a “real” job. I always thought that Photoshop was a skill I would love to practice and (hopefully one day) master. I love motivational quotes, and I wanted a way to share what motivated me in a creative way. So, I decided I wanted the main message of my shop to be uplifting, motivational, and often sarcastic quotes in picture form. While I briefly strayed from this idea about a year ago and went into the wedding invitation market and it was fun for a brief stint (and I learned a couple of new skills from it), I went back to motivational quotes pretty quickly!

I also really like to practice modern calligraphy, which I do on my iPad with an apple pencil as well as with a stylus and ink. Probably 90% of my Explore page on Instagram are profiles that have absolutely mastered this skill. It’s so satisfying to watch! I have yet to understand how they make it look so easy.

I also love to cook, and I like trying to make challenging recipes. I’m not the best at it, but practice makes (sort of) perfect! Just don’t ask me to bake anything – I always add too much or too little of something and there’s no going back in baking.

Favorite thing about NC?

Moving to NC was an adjustment to me, especially living in a remote area. I’ve always considered myself a city girl, and maybe I still am, but right now that’s not where life has taken me. I’ve learned to love the peace and quiet that comes with living out here. I also absolutely love the scenery, especially in the fall.

zap fitness camp

Favorite place to eat in Boone or Blowing Rock?

Blowing Rock and Boone have some amazing places to eat! I love sushi so my favorite place is probably CoBo. If I’m looking for something a little more filling, I’ll probably head to Coyote Kitchen, and if I’m looking for live music I’ll go to The Local. There are really no bad options!

I agree! I love those places too and it’s hard to go wrong in Boone!

Nicole, thank you SO much for sharing all your expertise and wisdom! I’m excited to continue following your career and meeting you in person SOON!

Readers – if you have more questions for Nicole, she’s graciously offered to answer them so leave any questions you have in the comments!


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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Michelle Baxter

    You need to try UCan, Teri! It’s amazing! Also try Nanohydr8!! I just discovered it, and it worked wonders!

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