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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?

Kibet, Kwambai and Claudio Berardelli

Anyone watching the Rotterdam Marathon this year saw one of the closest finishes in marathon history, with Duncan Kibet nipping James Kwambai in a finish so close that they were both credited with a time of 2:04:27. But, perhaps more important, we witnessed two of the fastest times in history — just third behind Haile Gebrselassie’s two world records at the distance.

With this race a new era has dawned, at least in men’s marathoning. The bar has been raised and, as so often happens, it’s a good bet that runners will rise to the challenge in the coming months and years.

What’s also notable about the two performances in this race is that both men are coached by the same man, Claudio Berardelli. His fellow Italian coach, Renato Canova, is a frequent (and eagerly received) contributor to LetsRun.com. In this recent thread he provides insight into the training that Kibet and Kwambai are doing. Unfortunately, English is not Canova’s strong point, so understanding his posts takes some effort and reading between the lines. But it’s mental work worth doing.

Jonathan was so curious about how these training concepts translated into his own race goals that he created this basic spreadsheet [updated 4/19/09]. Using the examples that Canova provided as a source for calculations and ratios, the spreadsheet can be used to calculate workout paces for any marathon goal. I refined it to make it a little more user friendly.

I had to rename the extension from “xls” to “doc” in order to upload to WordPress. So you may need to change it back to “xls” in order for it to open in Excel. To use, enter your goal time in the blue box at top left — you actually update it in Excel’s formula bar, with (x, y, z) being hours (x), minutes (y), seconds (z). Your paces will be calculated automatically. In order to understand the sets of workouts (Fundamental, Special, Specific), you should read through the thread linked above. You should read through it anyway, actually, as it’s full of interesting ideas and, unfortunately, lots of unanswered questions.

The usual caveats apply: This was created by a couple of amateur schlubs using information off a message board. So you get what you pay for.

It is amazing to think that these guys are doing workouts like these (4 x 7K intervals?). But they apparently work.

Have fun!

Getting professional help

I hired a coach about two weeks ago: Kevin Beck. He was one name on a short list of other possibilities, all of whom I ultimately rejected for various reasons. More on that in a moment.

Why did I hire a coach?

But first a note about why I decided to work with a coach. Over the last couple of years that I’ve been training for and racing marathons, my finishing times have steadily (and dramatically) improved. But something went very wrong for the last race, in terms of the training and my experience of the race itself. I never felt adequately rested during training, nor did I feel that my “quality” workouts were going well. For months I had a nagging suspicion that I wasn’t as fit as I wanted to be, something that was confirmed on race day when I succumbed to fatigue in the last eight miles of the race.

A few years ago, a friend of mine went to see a strange Russian man whose business was helping people to stop smoking once and for all. The “treatment” consisted of going into a room with five or six other clients, handing the Russian a crisp, new $100 dollar bill, closing your eyes, and hearing the Russian say to you, “When I snap my fingers, you will have lost all desire to ever smoke again.” Sounds hokey (and a little shady), but it worked for her.

The reason I share this story isn’t because I think there was anything magical the Russian did. The effectiveness of the treatment had everything to do with the power of suggestion. Going to see some weird Russian to stop smoking, deciding to go to a therapist for help, hiring a coach — they all share the element of a catalytic action, and the raised expectations that come from having taken it. In some ways, I feel that’s just as important as the guidance you get. And, in the end, you’re the one doing all the work. Sometimes the thing you need most is for someone to say “go.”

Why did I hire Kevin?

I don’t know how you people shop for goods and services, but here’s what I tend to do: I decide I want to buy something. Then I look at what’s usually a pretty small universe of candidates. At some point fairly early in the shopping process, some thing (or combination of things) tips my interest in the direction of one candidate. At that point, although I’ll continue to do some research on the others, that activity drops off a cliff and I’m basically looking for reasons not to go with my favored choice.

I had a few leads on other coaches, some of them quite well-known, but I rejected them all for various reasons, including:

  • A young woman posted to LetsRun.com about her experience of approaching one of the coaches on my list and offering to pay him upwards of $500 a month for his services. His response was to suggest she work with one of his runners instead. Her response? I want an actual coach, not another runner helping me.
  • One of the coaches I was considering wrote a recent article that was so poorly written that I actually complained to the editor in chief. If I’m going to work with someone remotely, he or she needs to be a skilled and conscientious communicator.
  • I checked out the “remote coaching” site for another well-known person, but (and this will sound odd), it just looked too slick. My impression was “coaching mill.” I just got the sense that I’d get a training plan that might be slightly more individualized than what I’d get out of book, but not much more.

While I was busy rejecting the other candidates for these and other reasons, I had other forces tipping me toward Kevin. They included:

  • The fact that another writer/blogger whom I respect, Matt Fitzgerald, had also decided to start working with him. Realizing that a guy who writes books about training is working with a coach was sort of equivalent to the time I read about the fact that Adam Clayton (U2’s bassist) still takes bass lessons.
  • Kevin coaches through Pete Pfitzinger’s online DistanceCoach site. Pfitz’s book with Scott Douglas, Advanced Marathoning, is (in my humble opinion) one of the best training books ever written. Using it resulted in my best marathon experience (and biggest PR) thus far. So Pete, and anyone associated with him, can do no wrong.*
  • I have enjoyed Kevin’s writings over the years, most notably in Running Times. Here’s a particularly good article, but a Google or Running Times search will yield other goodies too. I also loved this page on his site for the clues it yields on his approach to running (and, presumably, coaching), specifically this snippet (emphasis is mine):

There will always be those who do not adopt mad training regimens simply because they do not want to. There are no demons flitting about compelling them to do more, ever more, and to make running a top priority in the face of swirling relationships, occupational and scholastic concerns, and what have you. These are legitimate issues often at odds with consistent training. And I do not believe that a runner can be taught to hunger the way some of us do. It may be as innate as the color of our eyes. It is not something upon which judgment need be placed or for which merit points ought to be allotted. There are runners and there are competitive runners, and there are racers.

Don’t get me wrong. I love running for its whole spectrum of benefits and the range of experiences I’ve had, many of them outside the competitive milieu. But I have one basic reason for doing what I do. The rest is gravy, basting the raw, tough, but often tender and delicious meat of competing against the rag-tag army of my alleged constraints — going into some awful yet welcoming zone, headed straight into downtown Hell to rip it up yet another time.

Once I’d gotten to the point where I was ready to look for reasons not to hire Kevin, I submitted him to a grueling litany of emailed questions. He answered them all in great detail (and with humor and humility, which was a bonus). Besides, he’s a writer. So he likes to write and writes well. As a writer myself, I’ll always be biased toward a writer in any area where I have a choice. The pre-PayPal phone call sealed the deal.

What did I get?

My next marathon is roughly seven months away, so I wasn’t ready to leap into a 31-week training program. Instead, I asked for a plan to rebuild my mileage over the next couple of months to lay the groundwork for the eventual training plan I’ll get. And I’m glad I did. The plan is radically different from what I designed for myself last time around: it’s high mileage, but with almost no doubles. It features lots of longer runs, pretty much every day, and a ton of shorter, faster work incorporated into at least three runs per week. Matt F. has a good summary (although, obviously, his plan has been customized in ways that are quite different from my own).

Three days in and so far, so good. I’m handling the challenging runs (despite running with the tail end of a cold) and feeling better than I did when I was grinding out doubles every day. On the other hand, I’m coming off five weeks of recovery, so come back in about a month…

*Incidentally, Kevin’s also written a book, Run Strong, which I have not yet read, but I will soon.

Fall Training: Week 8

Week one of my “build” period of basebuilding went off with a bang — and ended with a milestone: I ran just under 97 miles this week, which is the most I’ve run in a week. Ever.

There was a lot of variety this week, with no less than four quality sessions* including an experiment with a relatively unsung method for improving VO2 max (more below). I also did two harder workouts back to back on Tue/Wed, just to see how I’d feel later in the week.

I know this week’s cumulative mileage, combined with some harder workouts (and the back-to-back sessions), was enough to facilitate some adaptation because I had two incidences of the dreaded DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) late in the week, back to back (surprise, surprise). This happened in the early days of hard training for my spring race, but it eventually went away, so I’m not worried about it. Unfortunately, it always seems to strike in the dead of the night, which totally disrupts my sleep cycle. It’s annoying, but I’m not annoyed enough to shift my harder runs to late in the day.

A look back at the week:

  • Monday: 6.1 miles recovery pace (AM); 5 miles recovery pace (PM)
  • Tuesday: 11.8 miles easy pace with speed intervals on the track
  • Wednesday: 15.2 mile long run (steady pace)
  • Thursday: 6.1 miles recovery pace (AM); 6.2 miles recovery pace (PM)
  • Friday: 10.1 miles easy pace with Billat surges (AM); 4 miles recovery pace (PM)
  • Saturday: 6.2 miles recovery pace (AM); 6.1 miles recovery pace (PM)
  • Sunday: 20 mile long run with 4 miles at marathon pace

Total mileage: 96.8 miles

Paces this week:

  • Recovery: 9:10 – 10:33
  • Intervals: 6:46 – 7:02
  • Easy: 8:02 – 8:58
  • Long: 8:32
  • Marathon pace: 7:25

Although I’m much better acclimated to the heat and humidity (and it was bad early in the week), my reaction to it seems very inconsistent. For example, on Tuesday I really struggled with doing intervals (1200m), when the temp was 75 and the humidity 85%. I’d planned to do 4-5 at 4:55-5:10 each, but ended up doing 3, dropping the workout when I had legs of lead midway through the 4th. It was quite uncomfortable running in the heat, and a brisk wind of around 10mph on the backstretch was also a factor.

The combined heat and humidity was even worse on Wednesday (same temp, but 87% humidity), yet I managed to run an 8:32 pace over 15 miles (less than 24 hours after speedwork, no less), with no water stops. I’ve always been better at long running, but I was very surprised by how easy the run was, and even pleasant at times. It was so bad out that I could actually wring sweat out of my shirt when I got home.

On Friday I did an easy run over 10 miles and threw in something I’d like to experiment with: I call them “Billat surges” (maybe other people do too, but if they do I’m not aware of it). What are Billat surges? They are a series of surges of faster running at V02 max, broken up with recoveries of equal time length at 50% of V02 max. They are based on several studies by French researcher (and 1:18 half marathoner) Veronique Billat. Information here and here.

In my case, this worked out to running for 30 seconds at around 6:20 per mile pace, followed by 30 seconds at 9:30 pace. It’s a great idea, but unfortunately my execution was lousy. I attempted to do this along Pipeline Road, a long, unsidewalked stretch of road that runs between Scarsdale and Hartsdale train stations (and the only way to get from the south to the north paved pedestrian path). It was rush hour (which means lots of crazed SUV drivers who can’t be bothered to slow down and move over 12 inches to keep from killing me) plus there was construction going on, so it was pretty chaotic.

Also, I’ve discovered that the Garmin takes just about 30 seconds to figure out what pace you’re running, so it’s very difficult to know if you’re going too slow, too fast or just right. The result was a series of 12 on/offs at anywhere from 5:55 to 6:45 pace for the “on”s. Not exactly on target. I want to incorporate these workouts into fall race training, so I’ll probably end up going to the track and doing them there, where I can put down some sort of markers for distance and just use the watch as stopwatch.

The muscle soreness appeared at 3:00AM on Friday night and then again, like clockwork, at 3:00 AM again last night. So I’ve gotten around 11 hours of sleep between those two nights. And yet, despite that, I felt pretty good this morning. Good enough to do a 20 miler inside on the treadmill with miles 16 through 19 at a pace equivalent to a 3:15 marathon (7:27ish — nothing’s exact on the treadmill).

I started this training cycle two months ago at 3:18 paces and guessed that I could move down to 3:15 at this point. Now I’m thinking I should move down further, since my heart rate for the marathon pace miles was between 81-84%. Pretty low effort. So I’ll start training (at least inside, where it’s not insanely hot) at 3:12-3:13 paces for the next few weeks as I attempt to work my way down to 3:08 training paces for October.

My, how the mind wanders while running 20 miles inside. Over the years, when trapped in a tedious environment, I’ve made up a little mental game of thinking up names for nonexistent rock bands (here are three: Girl in Trouble, Shudder To Think and Gay Baby). I thought up a good one for a band consisting of runners today: Cardiac Creep.

To further fill the three hours of tedium in my little room of torture, I listened to a newish mix of mp3s while watching parts of various movies. If you’ve never combined random music as background to popular movies, it’s time you tried. You could probably skip the next Whitney Biennial because you will hit on something approaching art, since wildly incongruous pairings of musical and cinematic artistic expression can result. Some of the odd (and, I suppose, ironic) pairings this morning included:

  • “Let The Good Times Roll” (The Cars) playing behind a scene from “Cape Fear” (the remake) in which Robert DeNiro takes a chunk out of poor Ileana Douglas‘ cheek with his bare teeth.
  • “More Human Than Human” (White Zombie) playing behind a scene of Edward Norton getting the crap beaten out of him in “Fight Club”.
  • “Highway To Hell” (AC/DC) playing behind a scene of Molly Ringwald sewing what looks like a pink potato sack prom frock in “Pretty In Pink”.

What else is there to say? I’m a strange person.

Coming up in Fall Training Week 9: I hold the pace at 97 miles, but with a little less intensity. I’ll do another attempt at the Billat surges, another set of hill repeats, and a little more marathon pace running. All capped by the first 22 miler in about four months. This is assuming my legs don’t explode in the middle of the night first.

*Probably too many. But, hey, I’m excited.

Fall Training: Week 1

I’m going to count this most recent week as week 1, since the real week 1 turned out to be a weak one. Ha ha. Isn’t that clever? It’s no wonder I get paid the big bucks as a freelance copywriter.

Recap of recovery — plus a race!
Here’s a high-level view of what I’ve been doing to lead up to rebuilding (and adding to) my mileage base:

April 6: Ran the More Marathon

Next, I spent a few weeks doing lots of very slow running to recover. But I did a tempo run during the second and third of these weeks in order to prepare for a half marathon in early May.
Week of April 7: 21 miles
Week of April 14: 42 miles
Week of April 21: 56 miles

Cut down the mileage a bit and capped the week with a fast (for me) half marathon on May 4.
Week of April 28: 47 miles

Lots of recovery again, to bounce back from the half.
Week of May 5: 59 miles

Then some travel, but a week with lots of quality miles jammed into just six sessions.
Week of May 12: 49 miles

Finally, the week of May 19, I’m ready to start basebuilding in earnest. I will be training for the Steamtown Marathon on October 12.

How to get faster
It’s always struck me as odd that no matter how many books or articles you read about training, no one ever tells you how to actually get faster. They’ll tell you how fast to run today based on your last race time. But they don’t tell you how to get faster, say, from one year to the next.

Since getting steadily faster is one of my goals, I’ve been left to my own devices to figure out how. The strategy I’ve used (and which seems to work), is this:

1. First, get a clear idea of what your fitness level is today, based on one or two very recent races (assuming the races went well and there was nothing artificially influencing the outcome for better or worse, such as headwinds, crowding, lots of hills, or — on the positive side — a big tailwind or miniature jetpacks attached to your ankles.)

2. Using something like the Macmillan calculator, map out a series of paces that are slightly faster than what you’re running today.

For example, my last half marathon time was deemed equivalent to a 3:20 marathon. I mapped out paces for a 3:18 marathon, so I’m pushing myself from the start. Here’s what they look like (along with the heart rate ranges I use for each):

Recovery* 9:00-10:30 60-68%
Long 8:05-9:05 72-83%
Easy 8:05-8:35 75-85%
Hills 8:05-8:35 75-90%
Mpace 7:34 82-86%
Tempo 6:50-7:10 86-88%
Speed TBD** 94-98%***

*Recovery times may be slower than this if I’m very tired. I go by heart rate always, so it’s not unusual to find me running 11:00+ minute miles some days.
**Since I run different interval lengths over different sessions, I figure out the speedwork paces before I head to the track by looking them up in a table in the back of the book “Advanced Marathoning” by Pete Pfitzinger and Scott Douglas.
***When doing shorter intervals, my heart rate may not get anywhere near this range; it will get up there doing 1000+ meter intervals, though. I stick to the paces recommended so I’m not running the shorter ones too fast.

3. Now spend a week or two running your workouts at those paces. Can you hit them within the target heart rates? Do they feel too easy? Too hard? Make adjustments downward or upward if so.

4. Next, pick your goal marathon pace (Mpace). This is the pace that you’d like to be able to run in the race that you’re training for and which is ideally about 4-5 months in the future. The pace you choose should be something that’s both aggressive and achievable (with hard work and consistency, natch). Set up a series of paces for that. Those are the paces you’re targeting to work your way down to as you get closer to the race.

5. If your first set of paces is “just right” in the Goldilocksian sense, then train at those paces until they start getting too easy (meaning you’re hitting the faster end of the pace spectrum at the lower end of the heart rate spectrum). When that happens, it’s time to adjust your time goal downward and start training at faster paces.

6. Monitor how you’re doing during the entire training cycle. You should be steadily working your way down to your second set of paces. If you’re having trouble getting there, you may need to adjust them to something less dramatic. And, perhaps more importantly, revisit your training to see what’s not working.

One good aspect to using this approach, which is really more art than science (since it’s all based on trial and error), is that you become very familiar with what your capabilities are. So much so that you can probably toe the line of your goal race with the knowledge of how fast you can run over 26.2 miles within a range of about 5-10 seconds per mile. This fact alone will give you an advantage that the vast majority of the runners around you will not have.

I’m neither a coach nor an exercise physiologist. But this method has worked for me.

The week that was
This week I reacquainted myself with the sensation of always either going out for or coming back from a run. Most weeks from here on out I’ll be running 11-13 times per week. I should also note that I’m building my base up to around 95 miles a week, and I’ll average 90 during the actual training phase, which starts in early July.

A look back at the week:

  • Monday: 6.2 miles recovery pace (AM); 4.9 miles recovery pace (PM)
  • Tuesday: 6.9 miles recovery pace (AM); 4 miles recovery pace (PM)
  • Wednesday: 9 miles easy with speedwork: 5 x 600m
  • Thursday: 6.1 miles recovery pace (AM); 3.7 miles recovery pace (PM)
  • Friday: 9 miles easy pace
  • Saturday: 5.0 miles recovery pace (AM); 5.2 miles recovery pace (PM)
  • Sunday: 20.2 mile long run (steady pace)

Total mileage: 82 miles

Paces this week:

  • Recovery: 9:20 – 11:00
  • Speed: 2:24 per 600m
  • Easy: 8:24
  • Long: 8:15

Something to note is that my long run pace is pretty fast; it’s only 10 seconds slower than the bottom of the pace range. Some training philosophies call for doing your long run 1:00 to 1:30 per mile slower than your goal marathon pace. I don’t agree with this.

Here’s why: The long run is the foundation of marathon training, and as such needs to be exploited for its potential to facilitate real improvements in running fast over a long distance. Doing faster long runs introduces a particular kind of stress and forces adaptation to that stress week after week. A runner doing high mileage will already be doing a ton of slower miles during easy and recovery runs every week. It doesn’t make sense to me that you’d add in yet more slower miles on long run days.

The caveat to this is that, for a runner who is new to long distances, the weekend long run should probably be on the slower side, since the goal is to build endurance and prepare the body for harder training later on. But for someone who’s done that foundational work already, continuing to run long, slow distance seems like a lost opportunity.

Anyway, I’ve found the most success by doing all my long runs at a relatively fast clip (either as progression runs, long runs with lots of marathon pace miles at the end, or steady pace runs done at a quicker pace like yesterday’s).

Coming up in Fall Training Week 2: A jump to 88 miles.

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