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

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Breaking My Own Rules #1

The first step in running as a sport is deciding what you want to do. If you've been running for years, it's not as difficult as when you start, but setting goals is a challenge in itself. I believe in having a reasonable short-term goal and a completely unreasonable long-term goal and I hope I can explain the reason.

Races have gone from competitions to participatory events and it's difficult to bridge the gap between the two ideas. At Afton this year, Chad said, "I didn't realize people raced these things." In long trail races, it's common to have someone who finishes year after year in about the same time and they're there because it's a chance to see friends who also run it every year just to be there; they never wonder just how fast they could do it if they really pushed - it's a very different mindset from those who compete. In the competitive runner's world, the night after a race, the thoughts start, "I think I could've shaved some time off by... I think I need to do more (whatever) in training... I got passed by so-and-so, but I think I can beat them at the next race if I just..."

"A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or else what's a heaven for?" - Robert Browning.

If you don't strive to do better than you've done before, you'll never know what you're capable of doing; on the flip side, you're also a lot less likely to spend your life frustrated and injured. I know someone who's incredibly consistent in her races and also in her training and she's quite content with trotting easily through a marathon, knowing that it won't interfere with her 10 miler the next day. I prefer that when people think of me, they say, "When he's on, he's unbeatable. It's really something to see. But it doesn't happen often, so you probably don't have to worry about him. Still... you can't write him off." Two different worlds.

So, I think one should aim really high and, when one doesn't quite make the goal, one's still way ahead of everyone who never tried. I'm always a little embarrassed that my official best marathon was a 2:41, done when I was in 2:25 shape (I fell apart late in the race and thought I'd have many more chances to break 2:30), but few people thought I could run as well as I did and 2:41 is far better than most people will ever do. If I'd been satisfied with the 3:20 and 3:17 of my first two marathons, I could've run that fast forever.

Reasonable goals

My thought is, "You didn't train perfectly for your last race, so if you train to do better what you already can do, you'll improve." If you can run a 10K in 40 minutes, don't train to try to run one in 38, but in 40; just train smarter. There's some obvious problems with this; for example, you need to race before you train for the race you're training for - it's a vicious circle! You can race right now; it probably won't be pretty, but you can finish a 5K without training and there seems to be one every weekend, at least in this area.

But... what if you want to run a 100 mile race? You can't just run 100 miles without training. You can race acceptably well (i.e. finish, usually) a distance twice as long as you train to do. So the process starting from scratch would be to run a 5K, train to run 5K, race 10K, train for a 10K, race a 1/2 marathon, train for the 1/2, race a marathon, train for the marathon, race a 50 miler, train to race 50, race 100. Then you can train to run a fast 100. Generally, upon hearing that, people stop listening to me and find someone else who'll tell them what they want to hear.

Breaking my own rule

I'm training without starting with a race to find out what kind of shape I'm in. That's because I push so hard in races, even races I try not to care about, that I run a really high risk of injury. If I'm injured, I won't be able to train at all. Fortunately, decades of training allow me to be able to assess what kind of shape I'm in from my training. Last week, I ran up my favorite training hill 5 times in 47.5 minutes and I figure that puts me at about 6:27 for 1 mile on a track. Yesterday, I did the same workout in 44.5 and that equates to 6:19. That one workout doesn't tell the story, though. Each hard run and the weekly averages paint a more accurate picture, one that would take forever to explain. For most runners, if you keep a training log you can compare training sessions to the races that followed them and, if you run consistently for several years, you can make predictions of the type "I'm running the same interval workout I did last year, but the times are 5%faster, so I should be able to race 5% faster."

So, right now my goal is just to generally improve in the workouts I'm doing, without trying for any specific goal. That's reasonable. I'm also thinking about running fast again, perhaps uncorking a fast indoor mile this winter. Maybe 5:30, maybe under 5 minutes - and that's completely unreasonable, given where I am now. But, without the dream, I'm just a guy running hard for no reason.


Anonymous said...

Out of curiosity, I am wondering why your times have slowed. My guess is the constant injuries and asthma are crimping your training. Age cannot account for such a big drop off because someone of your caliber should be running sub 5 minute miles with a couple months of training, and getting close to state age record times if you put in a solid 4-6 months of work.

As for training, isn't the over all purpose to increase the amount of energy flow one has? The increase in energy will correlate in a feeling of well being and strength, which, if one decides to run a race, will lead to a better time than if one had just sat on a couch for the 3 months leading up to it. If one does not run a race, the training is not in vain, as it leads to an increase in quality of life.

As for over training, that is a simple thing to gauge if one looks at training as a way to increase energy - if the levels are dropping over a period of a few weeks, the training is no longer helping because it is making life more difficult than if one had not trained at all.

In your case, is it too little training due to injuries/asthma, or too much training, leading to fatigue and a loss of overall energy? If you were hitting the happy middle ground, you no doubt would be running sub 5 minute miles with regularity.

Basing my thoughts on the information you share on your blog, it is my best guess that if you were to improve your overall health and sense of well being (find a way to decrease the asthma, and an improvement in the running related injuries, which is making your body expend energy because it is trying to heal itself), you would begin to see the return of your running talent, not to mention feeling closer to 35 than 55 :)

Chad Walstrom said...

Hey Steve! I'm sure I said it in conversation, but I certainly understand why people race these things. Perhaps I am influenced by my own current state of fitness, and my jealousy is reflective. Being impatient and a bit of a dreamer, wanting to complete rather than compete longer and longer distances, has me throwing wisdom of your approach in favor of my own flavor of accomplishment.

Your guidance sounds reasonable and wise, but as you predicted, I'll be silly and reach for those distances before working on speed. Perhaps after Moose Mountain, I'll dial back the distance and speed it up a bit. It's been, sheesh, 21 years since I've broken a 5:15 mile. It'd be nice to see if I could do it again. Can't let it stop me from finishing a 100 miler before I'm 40 (July 2014)! :)

Regarding your own training, it sounds like you've happened upon new understanding of your own psyche. Good luck! Let me know if you want a younger and slower runner to train with!