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

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Lessons 35 Years in the Making

In 1982, I went from a 3:05 marathon to 2:42 and it felt so easy, I was sure I could soon break 2:30. The following spring, doing non-specific marathon training (65-85 miles per week at 6 3/4 - 7 3/4 minutes per mile, long runs of 18-21 miles), I ran an 8K in 25:29 and a 10K in 32:46, making me think I was on my way to a fast marathon. In May, I did an easy dry run marathon in 2:52, then my first goal marathon... also in 2:52. After a summer of decent racing (15K in 51), I ran a fall marathon in 2:43.

This was the era of training schedule books being published for the running boom. I bought one by Allan Lawrence (bronze medal at 5K in 1956 Olympics) that had training schedules for every 10 minutes in goal times from 2:20 to 4:00. I looked at his plan for 2:30 and I couldn't do any of the workouts, including the recovery days. This was not good news. I then looked at 2:40 and I couldn't do any of those, either. At 2:50, I could at least run the paces, but not for any length of time; if there were eight miles at a given pace, I could run maybe 3 or 4. At 3:00, I could run the workouts, but not every day as written, but needing a week's recovery for each. I could run the 3:10 plan, but then again, I could run a 3:10 marathon on any given day without thinking about it.

I was thinking that coaching was a scam. You found someone who ran a 3:15 marathon when training to run run 2:40, found them an easier course and, when they ran a 3:09, called it a major breakthrough. It took a long time for me to realize that I was what everyone else would consider an overachiever, though I was running as hard as anyone else - just differently.

Speed runners vs distance runners

Most coaches don't recognize that there are sub-types of runners, thinking that what worked for them will work equally for everybody. There aren't many of my type in distance races and I can pick them out when coaching with one simple test: after a hard workout, given a choice of running one more mile faster than what they'd been running or running two more miles at any pace, almost everyone opts for an easy 2 mile cool-down. I will ALWAYS run one fast mile instead.

Besides being better the shorter the race, speed runners show other characteristics: they're breathing hard in the first mile but don't breathe any harder throughout a race, they go out fast and die (if they try to run a slower even pace, they just run slower and die sooner - at the same amount of time, but fewer miles) and they have unusually high VO2max values compared to what you'd expect from their performances.

Strengths and weaknesses

A question that always bothered me in training was: do you go with your strengths, or do you try to shore up your weaknesses? As so often happens, the answer turns out to depend on what you mean. I hope the rest of this post will clear it up.

What if I trained specifically for a short race? Several times in the past 15 years, I've tried to get in shape to run a fast mile. Unfortunately, after three weeks, my heels would hurt so much I couldn't even walk. It took until two years ago that I started to find a way to fix my aching heels. This year, I started training to run a mile, using a plan that I could do year-round, as long as I had access to a track once per week (that turned out to be problematic). I started in terrible shape, but figured I'd improve quickly at first and then get diminishing returns. Instead, I progressed glacially and never got in the shape I feel I need to be in to race at that distance.

I noticed some odd things. Though I could run 4 repeat 400s at 800 pace, I couldn't run 600m once at that pace in training. I had a weekly 3 mile tempo run that I could never finish, always bailing at 2. I was experiencing the same thing as 35 years earlier, but at much smaller distances (and, given my age, slower paces).

Burying the lede

But wait a minute! I ran really good 5-6 mile races when training to run a marathon in 1983. In 2007, training to run 140+ miles in 24 hours (I failed miserably), I jogged an easy 30K in 2:05. I run really well at short distances when training to run much longer races. Though I'm terrible at long distances and especially if trying to run quick paces for any length, those are the very workouts that make me faster!

I abandoned what worked. Run long and slow, but race short and fast. Maybe it'll work again.

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