"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Monday, October 7, 2019

Day One... Yet Again

For those who haven't followed my illness saga this year, I was diagnosed with "severe persistent asthma with exacerbation" and then developed nasal polyps that completely blocked breathing through my nose and had to be surgically removed - but I also had to have a deviated septum repaired in order to get to the polyps.

I ran what I could when I could.

I was given the go-ahead for "light exercise" this past weekend, so Sunday I ran my first run in two weeks: 2.5 miles in 20:14. I had to stop because of wheezing, so I don't have the medications nailed down yet - and won't for a while, as I have steroid implants in my sinuses for the next 5-6 weeks, then go through a protocol to determine what meds I need.

But, here's my running plan:

5 days running per week, aiming at 7-8.5 miles at 8-8:15/mile each time, with one (or two) hard run(s) each week of hill repeats. I'm running as many times up a short steep hill as possible (say 12-16 times the Ramsey Hill, which is 0.2156 miles long and 117 feet high). Then I'll switch to long hill repeats (Ohio Street, 0.4345 miles and 174 feet of climb, 6-8 repeats). Then I'll switch back to the shorter hill, but try to run the uphills at 1 mile race equivalent effort. Then I'll switch back to the long hill, working the uphills as 5K (or faster) efforts. At this point, I should be in racing condition and am aiming for an indoor mile under 5:30 and an outdoor 5K under 19, both of which would put me in the top 10 for my age class in Minnesota. These age-grade to 81.75% and 82.26%, which would match my bests in the 1980's.

Monday, September 30, 2019

The Long Road Home - Individual Lessons

I think I'll bring this series to a close (before I start talking about new plans) with a few things I learned along the way, usually painfully.

Because everyone asks a runner about marathons, I've trained for quite a few and never run a good one. I've spent decades finding ever better ways for a 5K specialist such as myself to run them, but the fact remains that I'll never be good at them. And 100 milers are much worse. Typically, people who can run a marathon in 3:00 can run a mile in 5:30; for me, three hours is more equivalent to breaking 5:00 in the mile, which is much, much harder. Currently, most people who break 3 in the marathon can also break 5 in the mile, but that's because they could run a 2:45 marathon, but don't train or race hard enough. And that seems to be a generational thing - I get it: you don't get anything extra for running 2:45 that you don't get for running 3:00 (or 4:00... or 6:00), so what's the point of killing yourself?

On the other hand, training for 1500/5000m, which is probably where I'm best, I always get hurt, take a long time off, start over, get hurt again. All the years of training have shown me something: I do best with few hard runs, though I LOVE to run fast. Coming off an injury, I don't know what shape I'm in, so I run what feels good, surprise myself, and repeat that for another 4 days. It turns out that I can run hard 5 days in a row; but then I get hurt. Long-term, I can only run hard twice per week (and a long run, for me, counts as a hard run). Earlier this year, when I thought of running short track races, I was running hard all the time and it didn't work. It's standard to run hard on Tuesday and Saturday, but then try to squeeze in a "moderate" day on Thursday and an "easy" long run on Sunday, but for me, that's 4 hard runs.

My best mile races came off 3-4 weeks of specific training, mostly time trials, trying to figure out what kind of shape I was in. If I'd had racing opportunities, that'd be enough.

What I need to do is run what feels easy most days, with a couple of hard runs each week (which, at my age, are mostly hill repeats) and race 1500-5000m frequently when I feel I'm in shape to race.

That, obvious as it is, only took 100000 miles and 40 years to figure out.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The Long Road Home - Record Keeping

It's a good idea to keep detailed records of one's running, because one's memories may not match the facts. I kept sketchy records for long periods and I really wish I had what I needed, but I have to make do with what I have.

I would say that in my best years of running, my best race was always my first of the year. Spring comes suddenly in Minnesota and, not running on snow and ice and wearing two or three fewer layers, it was hard to know just what shape I was in when I'd start that first race, so I'd go with the leaders and hang on as long as I could. One year, I memorably beat a world record holder, a 2:09 marathoner, an Olympian and several college All-Americans in a 5 mile in March, setting a personal record, even though I wasn't in the top 50 finishers! Then, discovering I was in better shape than I thought, I'd ramp up my training and would quickly fall apart, just as allergies and hot weather set in.

The records show something entirely different.

The year of that fast 5 mile, I set a PR at 10K three months later and had several good races through the summer and into the fall. I did no formal speedwork, as I was trying to get ready for a marathon and all I cared about was running high mileage (not the 85-110 of a few years later, but in a six week cycle of about 70, 85, 85, 70, 55, 45 miles, with races in the last two weeks) and getting in long runs of 21-24 miles. All of it's written on one sheet of paper! Except for races, I only ran fast a few times, usually before races and always marked "6 miles fast" which would've been under 6 minutes per mile, but not 5 1/2 per.

The high mileage, the hard speed sessions, none of that actually happened in my two best years. It was early enough (age 19-21) that I was improving, no matter how I trained and I felt "well, I know better now" a few years later when I had changed how I trained. But... I didn't run as well.

This has me re-thinking what I'm doing now.

Monday, August 26, 2019

The Long Road Home - Experiment

Imagine you've been running the same distance at the same pace every day and you decide to train for a marathon. You know one of the challenges is running the distance, so once per week you run longer, adding a mile per week. If you run at the same pace, you're going to have a problem going further, so you run slow enough to get your long run done. If you do these slowly enough, with bathroom breaks and/or walking stretches, you might actually lose fitness by your weekly average getting worse. [I've done this, training to run 100 miles.] If your fitness is actually improving, you should find that you're running faster on the other six days, or at least running the same pace more easily.

Now imagine that you've heard about doing short hill sprints and you want to know if that will improve your marathoning. You need something measurable, not just "run short hill sprints," so you use the same hill, with landmarks for the start and finish and measure the time it takes you to finish, say, 10 repeats, including the time spent going downhill. Assuming nothing goes wrong (bad weather, injury), you'll probably improve the second and third time you do them, just from learning how to do them.

These hill sprints have reportedly been very beneficial for some marathoners. Let's consider why they might help. 50% of cases could be coincidence or placebo effect, but that still means that it works for some. Brad Hudson has said that a 1% improvement in 100m sprint time means a 1% improvement in marathon time (all other things being equal). This is not true. As in all things, a few runners will improve greatly, most will see a very small improvement and some will see no improvement or even get worse. There are mechanisms that might apply, however. High mileage runners after a number of years tend to develop a slower step cadence, lessened knee lift and less flexion of the ankle at push-off, all of which have to be corrected to sprint well uphill. Less seasoned runners don't seem to respond as well.

But will it work for you? If after doing the first few sessions of hill sprints your improvement stalls, it probably won't. But maybe you keep improving, maybe dramatically; even then, there's a problem. Consider this: there are multiple barriers that keep you from being a world-class marathoner, but it's the one you hit first that keeps you from improving and it's probably not the same one that keeps you from being a world-class sprinter; you know this intuitively, as there's no overlap between world-class marathoners and world-class sprinters. So, maybe improving your hill sprints just makes you a better sprinter. The way you know is the same as what I said about the long run - if your other runs get faster too, this was your barrier. If they get worse, it's probably because you're improving at this one thing at the expense of your other runs, either by inadvertently taking it easy the day before and "keying yourself up" for the sprints, and/or running slower the next day or two, trying to recover.

When you find what works for you, stick with it until it stops working. Then experiment with something else.

Monday, August 12, 2019

The Long Road Home - Empirical Evidence

I learned a lesson or two recently, after 40 years of running, but I think it will take a few posts to explain.

The first data available for what runners actually did came from the world record holders who were asked how they trained. Fred Wilt (who I was lucky enough to meet) compiled a lot of this into three books called "How They Train" - long out of print, but some reprinted in Tim Noakes' "Lore of Running." The first volume, covering up to about World War II, showed a wide variety of training methods; by the third volume, it all started to look the same. Some would say that, as times lowered to a theoretical limit, that training also edged toward a singular best method. I think that the spread of information just got people to do what had worked for others.

The next empirical data I got came when a survey was sent to finishers of the 1974 Portland Marathon. Instead of just the most talented runners, this gave a spread from 2:20 to about 5:00. They found that those who had finished a marathon previously ran 15-20 minutes faster than those who hadn't and posited that the experience caused them to run faster. Instead, I think that those who ran well at a marathon ran another, while those who had a terrible time (I mean that two ways) decided not to run another. For the record, my first 5 finishes were 3:20, 3:19, 3:05, 3:41, 2:42.

In the 1980's, I was beating 2:30 marathoners in short races, but couldn't break 2:40 (except once, on a short course). Allan Lawrence published three training manuals then - again, long out of print - the first one covering the marathon, with what athletes he coached did, with finishes spaced every 10 minutes from 2:20 to 4:00. I couldn't do any of the workouts in the 2:30 schedule, or the 2:40. I could only do the easy runs in the 2:50. I could do all the runs in the 3:00, but not as frequently as his runners; for example, in the first week of marathon-specific training, he had a sub-3 marathoner run the following week:

M 16x200in 38- 200
T 10 miles in 70
W 3x1600 in 6:00 - 800
Th 6
F  10 in 70
Sa 1/2 marathon race in 1:25:15
S 18

I could do the 200's in 31 or 32 and the miles in 5-5:10, but 10 miles at marathon pace meant at least four days of recovery for me. Running almost a half marathon at race pace every other day, PLUS a long run PLUS speedwork? No way.

I could do all of the 3:10 schedule. His runner had run 3:12 previously and finished in 3:06, which to me just means an easier course or better weather. Remember, I ran under 2:45 on this training. Was coaching just finding runners who underperformed by a minute per mile?

Now we have all kinds of data available online. Strava compiled data and found that the average runner using Strava that broke 3:00 in the marathon ran an average of 50-55 miles per week, almost all at 7:30 per mile. Lawrence, typical of coaches in the 1980's, would have them run 60-70 miles per week at 8 minutes per mile (for the longer runs and recovery runs).

I never ran what I considered a great marathon, because, simply, I'm not a marathoner, but a short distance runner. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses and my weakness is being unable to hold a moderately fast pace for a long time - in other words, marathoning. But I ran my best short races when training for a marathon and that's got me thinking...

Monday, July 15, 2019

Read, Then Ignore

It's impossible to keep up with all the scientific articles about training, but sometimes one experiment leads to a blog post, then a magazine article, then a training fad, then a book and then several years of trying to explain why it's mostly nonsense. Still, I go back and read the original work. Here's why it's usually pointless.

Experiments are generally done at universities, so the people available for the studies are 18-22 years old and generally fit. Decreasing the number of variables helps in getting publishable results, but while the general populace fits a normal bell curve, the studies are looking at only the exceptions at one end of the curve. But maybe you're in that small section because runners are self-selective; most sports require 100% effort for seconds or minutes, but those who are poor at those find themselves doing well in endurance sports.

Studies generally go for 6-12 weeks, because that's as long as you can get volunteers. No one addresses the fact that the results may not be constant, that runners tend to train for months and years. Almost anything that can be tried has been tried, repeatedly, by a large number of people, over the past century of running. If there were something revolutionary in training, everyone would've switched over eventually. How many elite runners do you find doing training significantly different from others (and, if you're going to say "Imagine how much better they'd be if they switched?" I can tell you that it's been at least looked at, and probably tried and quickly abandoned)?

Is it reproducible? Researchers can only get funding for original work, so studies don't get done twice, but that's an important factor - the original results might have been a fluke. Thus, a good study has the participants go through whatever routine they prescribe, then switch to something else, then go back, to see if the results are reproducible. This almost never happens.

A typical study will have one group of runners do one exercise and a second group do another, with their average results compared. Let's say group A improves an average of 5% in some measure and group B improves 8%. You'll see headlines that say that B is better than A. The truth is usually more individualistic. Submit any group of runners to a new exercise and you will have most making a minor improvement, but there will also be super-responders who do unusually well and non-responders who do unusually poorly. Super-responders are the people who tell you that they've "found the secret to training success" and write a book, become coaches and get paid to speak at conventions. Non-responders might simply be over-trained or injured, but also might be predisposed to do poorly at that task.

Sometimes what works at one point in your running career doesn't work in another. A classic example is the soccer midfielder who starts running to improve his endurance and then finds that he's (or she's) a talented runner. Having this person do sprint training will not improve their performance, because they've done so much sprinting in their other sport. Over time, however, that effect diminishes and, their training and racing stagnating, they might need to do sprint work.

Still, sometimes there's an interesting idea involved. That's why I read the articles. Most runners, though, just want to know what's the most efficient use of their training time - or "what's the absolute least I have to do to meet my goals?" which is the question coaches hate the most.

If you really want a simple answer to improved performance, I find most people run best when they've had adequate sleep. If you're only sleeping 4-5 hours per night, there's nothing you can do in training that will help more than sleeping more.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The Experiment, What I Learned and Where We Go from Here

After months of illness, I had no ability to run any distance (a mile was a lot), but I felt I could maybe train to run short track races like I did in high school. I'd noticed that since starting running ultras, and especially after getting hurt, that I'd lost my top-end speed and I wanted to see if I could get it back. The idea was to run a variety of short sprint workouts and see just what I could do.

I could run 100s and 200s well, but anything beyond that was bad; eventually I got up to 300m, but that was about it. And these were good for a 6 minute miler in training, not racing good. I still didn't have the speed I used to: I recently hit 4:08 pace, downhill, but I was doing 3:35-3:38 a decade ago and 2:55 a decade before that. This doesn't seem like normal aging. It was something else.

One of the results of very slow ultrarunning (as opposed to trying to win a 50K) was that my stride rate had dropped to as bad as 145 steps per minute. I'm back to 158 or so, for short runs and it's about a minute per mile difference. There's still something else.

My first few runs back from illness on the track left me with odd muscle pains, particularly in my calves. What I think was happening was increasing "stride stiffness" - you can read up on that in Brad Hudson's book - instead of absorbing shock, I was doing more of a springing motion and that was getting me moving faster. This goes back as far as Lydiard having athletes doing "hill springing" rather than just hill running, where they exaggerate the push off from ankle flexion.

After that, I had quad issues, pain and eventually minor injury. Running at top speed requires more from the quads than usual - and downhill running does not seem to help much in developing specific quad strength for that. There's a stronger upward knee lift, greater impact from a longer stride and a stronger back kick, all of which are slightly damaging to quads not used to it. Over a few weeks, however, I discovered that my stride was starting to return to what it had been before long-and-slow were everything.

Big questions

What would make me happy? What would I need to do to get there? and hardest of all: How could I make what I do look like what others would have me do?

At my age, a sub-21 minute 5K would be good; I'd be happy with that, even though it takes 18:30 to win anything in my age group (for comparison, I ran 22:12 last year). Training for sub-21, I could probably also run a sub-6 mile and that'd be a nice thing to do again. Training for these means easy runs in the 8:30 range, 9 at the worst, when I'd been running much much slower than that the past couple of years.

So, the past two weeks, though I haven't run more than 4 miles at a time, I've been running 8-8:30 pace again. When I can do that comfortably, daily, for a few weeks, I'll move on to the next step.

But you know me. I'll get distracted and think "I should run a marathon!" sometime soon.