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

Monday, May 22, 2017

Coaching Error: Parsing bad data

This post is controversial.

When trying to formulate a plan for reaching a goal, it's natural to look at the work of those who've come before, to find the commonalities between successes. This has some drawbacks.

The 8-2-5 syndrome:

You plan 8, do 5, call it 5.

Most runners overestimate what they do, though a few dramatically underestimate. You'd think that GPS would greatly improve things, but I'm currently doing a stair workout in a ravine and the error in distance is 100%, the error in elevation (notoriously bad with GPS) 200%.

Runner's schedules when reported are often an ideal week, rarely if ever achieved and give no indication of how it was approached or if there were recovery weeks. Sometimes coaches and athletes simply lie about what they do, not wanting to give away their "secrets" or trying to convince their competition that they do much less or much more than they really do.

Runners are not independent. Just as you are looking at what others have done, so have they. Looking at marathoners, you may see that all the successful ones ran a long run every week and think that that's a necessity, overlooking that there have been exceptions. Grete Waitz set a world record in her first marathon, never having run more than 13 miles in training before that; later she changed to more "traditional" marathon training and improved by a few minutes, about what one could expect just from gained experience. The first volume of Fred Wilt's "How They Train" (long out of print, but partly covered in Noakes' "Lore of Running") showed that runners used extremely varied approaches to achieve similar results, but by the 3rd volume, they became more homogeneous. As information spreads, varietydecreases; with the internet, information spreads rapidly.

There is a common error in believing that this increased homogeneity is the result of improvements in training knowledge. New records are smaller improvements than in the past, so we must be getting ever closer to perfected training, right? Instead, I believe that it is a statistical phenomenon; there are simply more performances by more individuals, so there's a greater likelihood of more extreme performances. The marathon record keeps lowering, but the 10 mile record stays relatively constant, as there are few races at that distance, few who do them and there's little importance given them, as the races have no prize money and are not an Olympic distance.

Jason Koop's "Training Essentials for Ultrarunners" has an anecdote about coaches arguing about minutiae in an athlete's training. One pointed out that they were arguing about less than 0.5% of the total. Another pointed out that 0.5% is the difference between an Olympic gold medal and no medal at all. The implication was that they had perfected training down to 0.5%. This is preposterous. The placebo effect is 30%, so 30% of winning is the belief that you are going to win because you are the best and have trained best. That's what the coaches were doing in the anecdote - convincing each other and the athlete that they have it all worked out - the placebo effect.

Looking at a week's or a month's training is like looking at a rainbow. There's a continuous spectrum, but we instantly divide red from yellow from blue. If you ask where red ends and yellow begins, you insert orange. If you ask where orange becomes yellow, you might create yellow-orange and orange-yellow. If you look extremely closely at the spectrum, there are indeed gaps, due to atomic spectra being based on quanta. Similarly, a week has discreet workouts, but several years form a continuum.

Or should.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Coaching error: the workout collector

In my last post, I meant to warn against the idea that just because someone is successful, they're a knowledgeable exert. I also made a comment that, if misconstrued, could lead to another error. I said that what particular training a runner did does not matter; what someone else does should not matter to you, but what particular training he did was important to him and what particular training you do is important to you. The "It's all good" comment one often hears is misleading - all training is not equal.

I know several accomplished runners, including a national-class master, who say one just has to "keep changing things up, keep the body guessing, keep the muscles confused, never do the same things." This can work fairly well for runners so gifted that they can succeed without a plan. It also works well for beginners, for whom every workout is new and therefore equal. Many successful high school coaches use this method; teenagers prefer the novelty of always running new workouts and, because any one workout will work well for a few runners, fairly well for many and a little for most, constantly changing workouts gives everyone on the team some of what they need most, leading to an improvement in the team as a whole.

There are entire industries based on the "workout collector." People take classes in yoga, tai chi, Pilates and so forth - all useful disciplines - switching from one discipline to another or one instructor to another, always seeking the next challenge, never thinking about what they should do, never planning. Running magazines, and now websites, are based upon promoting the latest crazes and, if you jump on every bandwagon, you get a continuously varied approach, which, with enough followers, ill have its success stories (which are invariably reported).

Change is necessary. One needs to do a variety of workouts. What I'm advocating is to not have those changes be random, but evolutionary. Yes, evolution in nature involves random changes; in the same way, you need to select those changes that lead to success. Change without direction is chaos.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Mistakes Every Great Runner Makes

I recently read an autobiography by a top runner and it was like most. To paraphrase: "When I started running, I tried A and it didn't work. Then I heard people had success doing B, C and D, so I started doing those and started to improve. Then I followed a rigorous plan of B, C and D diligently and improved quickly. When my progress started to slow, I wondered if I was missing something. I heard about E, added it and had peak performances, so E is the secret to success; if I had been doing E from the start, I would've been even better. Then I added F, but not only didn't I get better, I got worse, so I went back to what I had been doing earlier, but I kept getting worse - F killed my career. Never do F. If you follow what I did, you'll have the same results."

It doesn't matter who the athlete is or what A through F are. This is simply a description of a running career. Little success at first, then fast results, then diminishing returns and then a trailing off. That's my story, that's your story. The whole argument is fallacious.

1) If something doesn't work, perhaps you didn't give it enough time. Perhaps you didn't do it properly. Perhaps you needed to do it after doing something else first.

2) If something works, it works temporarily. Perhaps something else would've worked as well. Different things work at different times.

3) What works for one doesn't work for all and doesn't work equally when training for different events.

When you train, try something for 6-8 weeks. Then make a significant but not complete change; you might add something or change something or remove something. Then try 6-8 weeks under the new plan; if things don't improve, go back to what you did before for another 6-8 weeks and then make a different change.

Monday, May 1, 2017

2017 Chippewa Moraine 50K Race Report

"At dawn the running crowds set our planet going." - Tomas Tranströmer, Streets in Shanghai

For me, Chippewa was a debacle. What I do now will decide whether this race is a tragedy or merely the prelude to a transformation. Maybe I'll know by the time I finish writing this post.

I'd had several weeks of excellent training in January and February and entered a bunch of races in expectation (or perhaps just hope) of a return to ultramarathoning. March and April, however, found me back where I'd started. Easy workouts, when I could do them at all, were slow and usually terminated early. Along with the usual injuries (Achilles tendinosis, plantar fasciitis), something structural in my left knee had given way and I couldn't diagnose it; rest did not help. Then I developed prostatitis, a condition more uncomfortable and embarrassing than painful - long runs were punctuated by urinating more often than a woman in the late stages of pregnancy. A week prior to Chippewa, I caught a cold that's been going around and I just lazed about, hoping to recover enough to be able to race.

Frankly, I was worried. This was not just my first ultra since DNF'ing at the same race in 2013, but this was my longest run since then and perhaps the first time I'd go beyond 20 miles in the past 6 years.

It was cool race morning, 41 degrees in St. Paul at 4 AM, but not raining, as had been a possibility. I drove through Wisconsin, calling "moo" to cows left in pasture overnight (including some Brown Swiss, which mean a true dairy) and listening to the lyrics of songs to see if there were any portends.:

"I feel faint like an old ass flashlight
I don't remember how I got there" - Atmosphere, "Ringo"

"I feel empty, I feel tired, I feel worn
Nothing really matters anymore" - Ryan Adams, "To Be Without You"

I really should develop a pre-race playlist. This is bad juu-juu.

Stopped to pee twice, which I hoped was more coffee than prostate. Otherwise, the trip was uneventful. Sand Creek is a town you don't need to visit.

Right away, Bob Marsh got a photo of me in a typical mood:
Did my left knee bend backward? That explains a lot.
I caught up briefly with a bunch of people, some of whom I hadn't seen in years and one guy who lives 1/2 mile from me (we should've car-pooled). I had the same pre-race jitters I've had since, well, 1969. We got lined up for the start, were given instructions and no one wanted to be up front, as usual.

The start is down a long hill that's a killer when finishing. At the bottom of it, I found myself by
a bunch of runners that would finish two hours ahead of me even if things went well.
Between Kim Holak and John Storkamp. That didn't last long.
[Photos are by Mike Wheeler, unless noted otherwise.]

This wasn't so much a ridiculous fast start as it looks, though it was faster than planned and ultimately ridiculous. I eased back, waiting to be passed by people until I was more where I belonged. I did the first miles just ahead of Timothy Owata and one of the first women finishers, recalling Tim had done Afton in about 5:10, so thinking that a typical slowdown for me would bring in me in about 6:00, which was what I expected. I checked my heart rate monitor, expecting 145-150 and it was 155-160 between 2.5 and 5.0 miles, so I was working way too hard on the downhills (not letting my heart recover) and I decided to shift back yet another gear, knowing early errors are deadly.

Tim starting to outdistance me.

The course has few landmarks, particularly in the first and last 10 miles, all run up and down moraines and along kettle ponds (and you should know what a kettle moraine is - essentially tiny glacial lakes with ridges in between).
Because there's no real natural landmarks, you start to think in terms of bridges and road crossings. A week after the race, you'll remember maybe 3-4 roads though there may be 8, and 2-3 bridges, though there are two dozen.
There's only one place on the course you need to boulder with a cat. [Not Mike's photo]

My left knee was making a "clicking" sensation, as if a tendon were sliding from one side of a bone to another - impossible, yes, but I can't say what it was - it wasn't a problem if I thought about landing with my left foot toed-in slightly and if I didn't lift the foot medially past mid-line on the upswing. This isn't a big deal, but it required diligent concentration (for hours).

There is one grassy area among all the hills, at about 10 miles, which I think of as "the meadow," though it's not a meadow and there's a long gravel road downhill past that. This is the focal point of the race. From there to the turn-around, the terrain becomes much tougher - the hills steeper, longer and a little more technical. So, the plan is to run the first 1/3 in control, focus on working the hills in the middle and, once back to the meadow, if possible, race the last 10 miles.

I was starting to feel the uphills a bit at about 10 miles, at least it seemed like they affected me more than others. Bill Pomerenke passed me at almost exactly the same place he had in 2013 and went on to a very solid finish, about where I hoped to be for the Afton 50K in July. I hit the 25K turn-around in 2:45 and felt pretty good, considering, and thought a sub-6 finish was not unlikely.

I let a few people pass me between 16 and 20 miles, feeling a slight unease. I was starting to go downhill with my legs landing straighter and stiffer than they should, a sign of serious muscle fatigue. Things went downhill in more ways than one. Between 19 and 21, my pace slowed, though my heart rate remained the same, the sign that a major problem was coming. This turned from a slow race to a training run just like that.

It was here I tripped for the third time - no falls, so my balance has improved! - and my hamstrings took a serious blow keeping me upright, aching with each step for a bit.

At 21, I hit death march. Survival shuffle.  Same pace up and down hill, with heart rate slowing continuously to what I felt I should be able to maintain for 100 miles. My heels were hurting, as were my plantar fasciae. I also noted that I hadn't had to pee during the race, so I was probably dehydrated as well as having run out of muscle glycogen. I was starting to feel overdressed as well (I'd thought before the race that, if I tanked, I'd need more clothes to keep warm; I was wrong). My back didn't hurt, so all the work I'd done on posture helped.

I was getting passed by a continuous stream of people, the first expected and then some that have never been anywhere near me in a race. I ran mostly by myself, which was what I wanted, because I needed hard focus to keep the pain manageable. Oddly, my mood wasn't bad. I actually thought: "my mental health is a lot better than it used to be." If I hadn't hurt so much, it would've been enjoyable. This was not conveyed by my appearance; after the race, one told me "I didn't think they'd let you continue at the last aid station." Oh, come on, it wasn't that bad.

What a course record finish looks like.
After the race, people immediately started to greet me and I just needed a few minutes to decompress. [Sorry, Bill, silence is better than anything I would've said just then.]

Before. Photo by Chase Nowak

After. That's a world of pain right there.
I didn't even break 7 hours (7:00:58, I think). Personal worst by almost an hour. The next day, I was still hurting, but able to go down steps forward. Today, only my right hamstring's really sore. I may run tomorrow. This is where a decision gets made: I don't want to hurt like this again and there's two different ways to ensure that: 1) Stop running. 2) Train better.

"I can crank out 19 minute miles like no one's business" - me, to John Storkamp. [He laughed.]
"The first ultra back is always tough." - John, to me.

Monday, April 24, 2017

How Many Hills Are Enough Hills?

When I first started thinking about the Superior 100 Mile (more than a decade ago), the prevailing thought was "If you can run up Buck Hill 30 times, you can finish Superior." Superior has 20200 feet of elevation (the sources saying 16800 must be from the course when much was on road and 21000 seems to be rounding up) and Buck is a little over 300 feet and a little less than a half mile long, or about 1.5 times the average steepness of Superior. Thirty repeats would be half the elevation of the race, which, figuring that the course probably has some flat [damned little, as it happens] and some steeper sections, this seemed like training for the harder part.

Then Buck Hill was closed to runners and hikers. It's been re-opened and closed so many times and it's so far from me that I just stopped thinking about it.

The popular choice for hills became Hyland, where the south ski hill is about 140 feet of elevation and 7 repeats is about 2 miles (2.5X as steep as Superior)Runners were doing 60-70 repeats, again about 10000 total feet of elevation.

Then I started seeing scientific reports on delayed onset muscle soreness. Because gravity is an acceleration, the impact forces increase by the square of the distance. If Buck was 1.5 times as steep, then 1/(1.5x1.5) times 20200 feet gave 30x300 ft repeats - what people did! But this would give only 23 repeats at Hyland, a mere 6.5 miles. If one went by distance run, rather than by elevation, one gets Hyland being 103.3/(2.5x2.5) or 16 miles, which is 56 repeats, about what people did. This same measurement for Buck, however, gives 46 repeats.

Looking at my favorite hill, Snake, it has the same grade as Superior with 174 feet elevation change in .435 miles. It's 116-119 repeats, by either method of calculation. Doing 13 repeats in two hours, I've thought about doing that 9 times over - at that pace, I'd set a record!

Going back to the one meter box jumps used for DOMS studies, assuming a two foot jump out (you need space for your legs), the two methods give 90 repeats and 150 repeats. The method used in the studies was 100.

I did 100, which took about 50 minutes (where I do it has a long ramp). The next day, I was sore in my piriformis, gracilis and abductor magnus and a bit sore in the hamstrings and quads and was surprised by pain along my spine (probably lats, but maybe erector spinae), all the things that go wrong for me when doing ultras.

Then I went to Snake Hill to find out how many steps it takes me to do repeats (just over 600 down, just over 800 up), which means I drop 3.4 inches with each stride when tired. Plugging that into the equations, Superior is equivalent to 150 box jumps, as one method above had it.

The problem with box jumps is that one lands on both legs, which is not like running. If one were to do one-legged landings, far far fewer would be possible. Seeing how far forward I would bend when doing them - sometimes I braced myself from falling with my fingers - explains why I have back troubles. Landing straight-backed would be preferable, which is essentially doing squats.

My God, squats. Now I'm thinking like everybody else!

Monday, April 17, 2017

Polarized Training for Ultrarunners

Most studies that advocate some radical method of training are based on a few untrained athletes over a short period of time. They don't mean much, but they get a lot of attention. Not long ago, there was a study of more than a hundred trained endurance athletes from a variety of sports that compared different training protocols. It last nine weeks, which was as long as they could get athletes to abandon what they were already doing and why several sports were involved. Each group had two weeks of hard training, followed by a recovery week, repeated three times. One group did a version of high intensity interval training, one did a lot of lactate threshold training, one did solely long slow endurance and one did "polarized" training which involved both very long endurance and maximum VO2 uptake interval sessions. The polarized group ended up with the greatest change in VO2max and endurance, which one would expect, as that's what they trained for, but they also improved their lactate threshold more than those who trained specifically for that. It's unknown whether adding specific lactate threshold runs to polarized training would be even better or not.

The training regimen immediately made me think of ultrarunning schedules. Here's what I'd come up with:


M off
T 90 minutes total averaging 75% max. heart rate, with half at lactate threshold
W 20 min warm-up, 4x3min hill at 90-95% max heart rate, 35 minutes cool-down, 4x3min hill, 15 minute cool-down (120 minutes total)
Th repeat Tuesday workout
F off
Sa 240 min trail run at 75% max heart rate, with 6-8x 5 sec. uphill sprint roughly every 20 minutes.
S 150-240 min, done as on Saturday.


M off
T 4x3 min hill
W off
Th 90 min, half at threshold
F off
Sa 120-180 min
S off

To this, I'd add strength training, which I think I described once before on this blog, done as 100 1-meter box jumps. This is the protocol used in studies to generate delayed-onset muscle soreness. I believe that, if one can get to doing those box jumps without DOMS, from training effects, one could probably handle the worst terrain in trail races.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Not Universal, Not Unique

I was thinking of a quote from Brad Hudson's book "Run Faster" during today's run. He said: "Ever notice that when running intervals the first one or two are never the fastest?" And I remember thinking, "No. That's not my experience, because I go into interval workouts rested, I do a proper warm-up and I'm running a challenging pace." I get what he was saying - it's a common experience - it just isn't mine.

Among other aches and pains, I recently developed pes anserine bursitis. It's a pain below and medial to the knee, where you think there isn't anything. If you ask experts, they'll tell you that it takes 4-6 weeks to recover, with no running. I'd had it before, knew what caused it, knew how to treat it (stretching hip adductors and hamstrings, and correcting some running form errors that came from running tired and babying other injuries) and I was recovered in three days. That's unusual, but not unique. I wouldn't tell others to expect a 3 day recovery, however.

Today was a day of hard hill repeats. I was worried, because I'd had two weeks of poor training and a bunch of minor aches and pains, including the bursitis just mentioned, which running fast and on hills could cause to become worse. I'd run the Snake Hill in 3:58-4:14 (four repeats) earlier this year, but my pace had slowed down to about 5 minutes of late and I was hoping to run 4:05-4:12.

I did the first one in 3:37. Oops! All the nervous energy from fearing that I wasn't ready to run fast had me go out too fast. I intentionally slowed the second one. I ran it in 3:40. This was going to be a major problem; I knew I wasn't in good enough shape to maintain that (there's always the thought "hey, maybe I am that good," which usually leads to disaster. So I slowed down, way way down and just "jogged" the next one... in 3:53. The fourth one had me falling apart and I ran about 4:25, barely able to keep from quitting. I couldn't do a fifth one.

So, no... I didn't notice that the first one or two were not the fastest. If I'd the first one in 4:10-4:15, maybe I would have. That's just not the way things work for me.