Gina Kolata states the bleedin’ obvious

This article appeared in yesterday’s New York Times: Proper Training Is Critical to Athletic Success

No disrespect to Ms. Kolata is intended. The sad thing is that this needs to be stated at all. And yet, it does!

For the past couple of years I have followed the online exploits of several runners who claim to want to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Yet, year after year, they fail to do so. Not only that, but they never get any closer. Sometimes they get farther away. And they seem to find their lack of progress a huge mystery.

What are they doing wrong? Well, perhaps most critically, they’re failing to train properly. Many are “training” in the sense that they are following some sort of plan. But they’re running the same speeds they ran three years ago, for example, and wondering why they’re not getting any faster. Or they’re running the same low mileage and bare minimum number of long runs and wondering why they bonked at 18 miles again.

Kolata’s article (which perhaps should be thought of as a public service announcement for runners) is just a longer way of stating one of my all-time favorite running quotes, which comes from Kathrine Switzer: “Training works.” But it goes a step further and says “Consistent, rigorous, event-specific training works.”

I’m not sure that I buy the idea that one necessarily needs to join a training group or hire a coach in order to approach one’s running potential. But if your problem is chronic lack of progress, then it sure can’t hurt. What’s most important is working hard, working hard often and regularly, and working progressively harder with each new training cycle.

Now is that such rocket science?

10 Responses

  1. Got to disagree with you on this one. Not the obviousness of the piece’s advice but the “train hard” meme. It’s working hard and smart.

    • I don’t see the difference, as I don’t think anyone would advocate training hard and not also training smart.

      • I doubt any of your readers would think it, but I’m sure there are those whose training is “run as hard as I can every day and I’ll keep getting better.”

  2. There’s someone I know who’s been saying to me “you’re getting so much faster, I don’t know how you do it.” though it’s certainly no mystery, every step I take is documented. Meanwhile, I look at her training and see 3 major things that, if she’d change, she’d get much faster, too. But one suggestion was met with resistance, so whatever…keep wanting to be fast, but if you don’t follow the line to get there, either it’s not going to happen or it’s going to take a loooong time.

  3. Kathy Switzer is one of my personal heros. Reading about how she trained leading up to her win at the NYC Marathon, with her doubles, track workouts, etc was a major factor in making me understand what I would need to do to improve as a runner.

  4. I’ve encountered these folks on the web too. They’ll find all sorts of strange resons why they fail, like electrolyte imbalance or some such, when they were running 30 mpw and skipped some of the long runs.
    I don’t meet these folks in real life, though. Runner who race regularly, or mix with other runners who do, get to know this stuff.
    As far as professional coaching goes, I’m sure it’s more efficient, but for some of us self-coaching is an integral part of running as a recreation. But ask me again next year…

  5. I think you got it right when you said these runners [failed Boston qualifiers] are failing to train properly.

    Many of them would follow the same plan year after year. The plan needs to progress in some way – more miles, faster speeds, longer tempo runs, better consistency.

    It’s very easy to fall into a ‘comfort zone’ of training. We forget how uncomfortable running was when we first started!

  6. I found the article pretty thought provoking. And I think there’s a distinction between a) discussing the importance of proper training; and b) discussing the importance of having a coach.

    With regard to the second point, my take is that, in the vast majority of cases, the athlete is not as good at assessing their own strengths and weaknesses as is an educated outside observer. So, in almost all cases, a person, even a smart person with access to all the books and bulletin boards, will do better when trained by an excellent coach. The independent, third party analysis is crucial.

    I am not saying that you can’t improve substantially when you’re self-trained. I am also not saying that any coach is beneficial — there’s a lot of crappy coaches out there. But the best case scenario for improvement is to work with a top coach who is a good fit for you.

    I believe that I would be a much better runner if I worked with one of the good coaches in my area, and that my failure to get a coach is holding me back.

    That being said, I have opted not to get a coach for two reasons.

    1) Part of the fun for me in this sport is mapping out my training, reading books, and seeing what works for me. If I let someone else do that, I’m essentially ceding away part of what I enjoy about the sport.

    2) I used to compete at a pretty high level in another sport, and eventually burned out badly. Part of that burnout was due to always feeling like my every move was dictated by someone else, and out of my control. I’m simply not ready to start taking instructions and criticism from someone else, and would rather continue to enjoy running, even if it means my training is not as effective as it could be. I’m not trying to turn professional in this sport — I’m just having fun.

  7. Darkwave — nice to see you over here. :)

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I agree with you that a good coach can make a huge difference. I improved a lot on my own, following a book plan, and probably could have continued to improve. But one terrible marathon (“terrible” in terms of experience, although I did get a big PR despite that) convinced me that with the right help I could probably improve at a faster rate as well as avoid some of the issues that led to such a miserable race experience and the training that led up to it, which never felt quite right.

    I have been very lucky in that I’ve found a great coach in Kevin Beck and I am improving at a rate that was faster than I’d hoped for.

    I respect your reasons for not working with a coach, but if I may: A good coach will work with you to map out your plan. You know what has worked for you (and where your weaknesses are). You also know your environment, schedule and local things (like races that would work well as training runs or tuneups/time trials). These are contributions you can and should be making.

    Moreover, a plan should work for you. Meaning it should be flexible enough so that you can adjust it in order not to feel dictated to or, worse, get to a point where you’re burned out. You should always feel in control of your training — I’ve questioned a lot of the workouts that were given to me, I’ve rearranged things, swapped runs and miles, tinkered, etc. And I plan to start annoying Kevin with some techniques I’ve read about recently (like you, I read everything) to see if it makes sense to incorporate them into future training plans. (See also: Billat’s surges, Hudson’s hill sprints, Berardelli’s 30k runs with intervals, etc.)

    Finally, what I like most about having a coach is the perspective I get. I have to say that I have never felt criticized. In fact, I tend to be harder on myself than is reasonable, and my coach has been able to point out that something I thought went badly actually went very well. In other cases, he’s warned me ahead of time of possible problems I might have, tricks my mind my play, etc. Stuff I never would have anticipated on my own. The genuine encouragement I’ve received (and honest assessments of where I am fitnesswise) have been invaluable.

    So, this is a longwinded way of saying that, while you are already well aware of what working with a coach can help you accomplish in terms of performance, you may want to reconsider what the quality and dynamic of that relationship can be like as well. If your past experiences were negative, consider that they need not always be. In other words, you may be able to have your cake and eat it too.

  8. I’m not a runner but that does seem obvious. If you never reach higher than you currently are, you never go further. Doesn’t seem like such a “radical” idea.

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