Balestrini goes distance in running, research

Debora Van Brenk//Western NewsChris Balestrini, BSc’15, MSc’17, a former USPORT All-Canadian, now assistant coach of Mustangs Cross-Country team, is training for the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, an Olympic-qualifying race, on Oct. 20.

A typical morning: Roll out of bed. Work out the kinks in his quads and calf muscles. Go for an ‘easy shakeout run’ of 8 kilometres. Grab some breakfast. Race to a lab meeting.

Yes, marathon runner Chris Balestrini does more before 8 a.m. than some of us do all day.

But he is not done.

He then attends classes or labs until 5 p.m. Helps coach the Mustang Cross-Country teams. Hits the road for a 90-minute run. Then hits the books before calling it a night.

In the world of elite running, his athletic regimen is pretty standard. For Balestrini, though, juggling marathoning with his PhD/MD studies is a bit more complex.

But fear not, he takes the workload in, ahem, stride.

“The key is maximizing the time I have for school and trying not to be distracted by it when I’m not at school,” he said. “Once you’re into a routine, it doesn’t seem there’s that much to balance.”

Already in the top ranks of Canadian male marathoners – even though he has just one under his belt – Balestrini is shooting for a 2020 Olympic berth at the national qualifying Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon on Oct. 20.

Coached by Mustangs Head Coach Guy Schultz and London-Western Track and Field Coach Dave Mills, who has trained some of Canada’s top marathoners, a typical week sees Balestrini running 195 km, although he has tapered to 160 km/week in preparation for the Toronto race.

Until this year, his speciality had been the 10,000-metre run, which “is fun and it’s fast and you get to prove yourself on a track,” he said. His personal bests include 14:19 in the 5,000 metre and 29:22 in the 10,000 metre, both last year, as well as a 1:05:30 in the half marathon this year.

His heart, however, is in the long race with the 2,500-year-old history – one that drew international attention this weekend when Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge, already the marathon world record holder, ran the 42.195-kilometre race in under two hours in Vienna, Austria.

“There’s something about the lore of the marathon that draws me in,” Balestrini said, citing the physical and mental differences from the 10K.

“In the marathon, you build for weeks, you get two or three a year, and there are a lot more things that could go wrong. In a marathon, a couple of seconds or kilometres too fast can ruin the race, whereas in a 10K you might be able to hold on (despite) a couple of extra seconds of mistakes.”

During a 10K, for example, he could run the whole race without refuelling. In a marathon, he fuels up every five kilometres.

In Rotterdam in April, he was on pace to finish the marathon in 2:14, but errors in hydration cost him, he figures, about eight minutes. He learned from that experience and is shooting for 2:14 in Toronto.

The top-placing Canadian male and female finishers in Toronto could earn a berth in the Tokyo Olympics with solid times, while others can earn a spot based on a ranking formula that takes into account times in Toronto and other qualifying races.

But Balestrini is setting aside formulas and focusing on running his race.

“The best chance that I have of making the Olympic team this cycle is if I run as fast as I’ve prepared to, regardless of what (times) other people are training for.”

At 27, he hasn’t yet reached the age when most marathoners peak.

The London, Oct., native began his sporting career with the Garneau-Quebecor Professional Cycling Team in 2009. After beginning Western, he pivoted towards running, where he was an All-Canadian in Cross-Country for the Mustangs. He has also been an assistant coach for the team since 2017.

Now completing simultaneous MD/PhD degrees in Medicine and Neurobiology, Balestrini, BSc’15, MSc’17 (Clinical Anatomy), combines his passion for endurance sport with a keen interest for physiology and human performance.

Today, his close friendships include high-calibre runners, several of them USports champions, who call themselves the Backroads Bandits. Together, they run about 35 kilometres on Sunday mornings.

Sponsored by New Balance, he favours rotating through a variety of shoes while training, on the theory that using slightly different footwear reduces the incidence of stress-related injuries.

“I have about 20 shoes on the rotation – seven or eight different models with different ‘drops,’ sole patterns, midsoles, that kind of thing. New Balance gives me the opportunity to switch shoes often and stay injury-free.”

Balestrini’s research training also inform his athletic training. While other runners are raving about the latest tool, nutritional brand or recovery technique, he questions the claims a bit deeper.

“If there’s a kind of research, anything to do with physiology and training, I’m usually reading the abstract, at least. I’m more in the category of questioning what you see in the magazines and looking for the paper to see its methodology.”