So, How Many Hats Do You Wear?

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Pensacola, Florida, United States
Husband. *Dog Dad* Training Specialist. Runner. Triathlete (on hiatus). USATF LDR Surveyor. USAT (Elite Rules) Certified Official, Category 2. RRCA Representative, Florida (North). Observer Of The Human Condition.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Speed First, or Endurance?

"So, what is it you guys do on Saturday morning?"

After eighteen months of "social" training and a year of "un-retiring," the question comes from Teri, my wife's friend.

I shoehorn in a brief statement about "perceived effort" before a friend at the table breaks into the conversation with a "typical champagne brunch" topic. The specifics of my workouts can be explained in 25 words or less, fortunately. The method behind the madness, on the other hand, takes a little longer.

There are two schools of thought in the running world when it comes to run speed and endurance: One faction believes endurance is the Aristotlean prime mover; the other states that endurance is merely speed extended. I used to be in agreement with the first group; now I find I'm of the latter.

Why do I believe the "first comes speed, then comes endurance" order of business? Regardless of the pace, all runners start off running for a short period of time, then stretch it out as they learn the pace necessary to complete the duration. Both speed and endurance can be built upon and improved, given enough persistence and patience.

The endurance-first school looks at a person who runs four-to-five hours a week, like Teri, and says consistent running leads to small increases in fitness over time. Laid out on a graph with the x-axis (floor) representing time and the y-axis (wall) representing fitness - defined as any number of things...VO2 max score, resting heart rate, 5K time, and so on - the line will markedly jump in favor of the 'y' right off the bat, then jump less markedly until a steady state is reached.

All other factors being equal, and they rarely are unless you live in a laboratory, this increase on the y-axis will happen until about six weeks. At that point there is no more benefit to gain. I know many runners who are pleased to stay at the plateau point of their fitness. However, a runner who wants to leave the plateau and increase their fitness some more needs to change the stress - lengthen the time or distance run, find more challenging terrain, or increase the intensity (speed).

Each of the "stress changes" have their benefits and drawbacks; most persons who take up running as a fitness activity already have the majority of their day-planners booked-up with other things. There's only so much time that can be taken up by running that does not infringe upon the other activities which enable us to be responsible adults, as well as eat and sleep indoors.

When I use the term "challenging terrain," I mean terrain changes, such as hills. Persons who live in urban areas, or parts of the country which lack major elevation changes often have to make do with the use of treadmills or man-made structures.

So for me, the integration of speed training is the most-efficient means to increase running fitness. This can be done through unfocused "speed play" as part of one or more of the week's runs, or it can be a planned-out once- (or twice-) weekly session.

Local runners look at the description of the workouts from the outside, when I've posted what the group ran, and think the training is difficult. Then, they watch the group going through their paces and believe the workouts to be easy. Really, it's a blend of both.

Let's go back to the speed versus endurance argument. I'll assume you're an experienced runner, able to run at least a 5K. If I assign a workout, and say you're going to do three miles at a pace that's faster than you could maintain for a 5K race, you might probably get back in your car and leave. 'I'm going to break down,' you'd say.

But what if I tell you you're going to three sets of 10 x 160, at a pace a little faster than you can hold comfortably for 5K, with some easy jogging or walking between each repetition? You might stick around; you'd probably make it through the workout and perhaps be a little tired at the end. Were I to pick you up the next day, take you to the track, and ask you to do the same workout...you probably could.

In a couple of weeks I might throw in some 200s, and later on some 300s, and even later on some 400s...just to keep things interesting.

In about six to eight weeks you might even decide to jump in a 5K and WOW! Perhaps you lowered your best 5K time, or you ran more or less the same time but felt less drained. And you didn't have to resort to the classic "quarter mile repeats until you lose your lunch" workout we almost forgot from high school days.

It doesn't take too much work to gain some free speed; perhaps as little as three miles of speed-focused work during the week, in little pieces.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Winter Always Getting Your Hopes Up

Winter running, especially winter in the 'more temperate' regions of the U.S., is etched deeply into the lore and literature of running. It's not surprising to me, come to think of it, that the author of the most-widely read running cult novel written in the English language spent his early running years here in the (occasionally) Sunshine State of Florida. Every autumn when I pick up my copy of "Once A Runner," it is not long before I get to the part of the tale where Quenton Cassidy muses about the overcast, wet and oft-times windy conditions known to be part and parcel with life in the central portion of the Florida peninsula. My friend (Captain) Steve Kessler down in the Keys does not have to worry so much about any climatic condition which vaguely resembles anything near those in the remainder of the Republic. Truth be told, holiday lights and decorations are gorgeous, but tinsel appear as out-of-place in Key West as a distance runner appearing...

I was going to say "all-you-an-eat buffet," but John L. Parker's tale, about my old coach (Jarrett Slaven) in the follow-up novel, "Again to Carthage," put that analogy to rest.

I think you understand what I mean. We all have conditional challenges as runners which require regular confrontation. Could be heat. Could be elevation changes. Could be wind or rain. There are some conditions for which you can prepare by adjusting the terrain or the time of day when the workout occurs. My Louisiana friends who use bridges for hill training do this quite often.

Winston Groom's fictional "Forrest Gump" described the universe of rain with nuances which approached what snow is to the Inuit and "shiggy" is to the experienced hasher. A late-autumn drizzle affects the psyche of the distance runner differently than does that of a mid-summer "cow-pee-on-a-flat-rock" downpour which happens every one-o'clock in the afternoon in Tampa or Orlando.

Weather phenomena isn't only a varying degree of annoyance, it can be double-edged in nature. The same 15 mile-per-hour breeze (Growing up in southern New Mexico a day with wind less than 15 miles-per-hour was considered "calm.") which kicked you in the teeth on the way out also moderated your body temperature. Turn for home, though, on an out-and-back, and you have both a ten-second-per-mile negative split and a ten-degree increase in the "feels-like" temperature.  Loop courses aren't always the solution for windy climes; on the really bad days it's a crap shoot on whether you get a headwind the entire time. I once had a 50-mile training ride in dreary, windy conditions where I swear I rode into the teeth of a 20-mile-per-hour headwind the entire time. I'd approach a turnpoint with a sense of relief, only to have that, 'oh, no...' moment as the breeze kicked up again. 

There is nothing else an athlete can do to train for those conditions, other than to get out into it on occasion. I believe training in conditions which are less-than-optimal provides the athlete more than just the physiological benefits of whatever the assigned workout focused.

The runner who learns to train with efficient form and calm mind on the nasty days; not exerting needless energy (Matt Fitzgerald, in his book on the 1989 "Iron War" Ironman world championship, called it "burning matches.") by struggling against the weather, is the athlete who is "miles ahead" on the race day. I'm not saying they don't want to complain on race day, but they're less likely to do so. They've been out in this "soup" before; it's a familiar "meal," and they'll find nourishment in it.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Yule Be Sorry...Give That Runner A Better Gift

If you're paying really close attention to this post, especially in the days before Christmas, it's likely you are one step out from going into the doghouse; deep enough you'll mistake it for a covered bridge. It's a sure guarantee my children, my grandchildren and the friends who don't drink that much beer with me will either give me a gift card to a restaurant or to the local running emporium. Frankly, I'm appreciative but a tad underwhelmed. Certainly it is better than shaving soap and a moustache trimming kit, but let's just say it lacks a little bit of imagination.  Especially when I only grow my 'stache during Movember. 

If I were going to play Santa but only had a few dollars left to spare because the last good pair of running shoes took up a healthy chunk of my athletic budget, here are some of the things I would consider for the running enthusiast on my list...

A race number belt. Most multisport athletes swear by these things, and the latest iterations come not only with a means of clipping on the racer's ever-important race (bib) number, but also have small storage zipper pouches which can hold keys, identification cards, folding money, plastic-wrapped baggies of toilet paper...ten to fifteen bucks, tops.

Shoe pocket. Those zipper belts are great, but perhaps you don't really need to carry a lot, or all you want to carry is a car key. Or you need a different way to attach one of those wonderful accelerometer "footpods" to your running shoes. Nothing says "love," or at least "security," like hook-and-loop fasteners. You can probably find a good pocket for the cost of a Papa John's large one-topping pizza.

Ankle reflectors. There are people who actually don't mind running at all hours of the day or night. In some places it's just too darned hot to run at any time while the sun is out, anyhow. But that's another story.

Running without lighting, reflective or light-colored clothing after dark is just asking for a world of trouble; turning a training run into a hood-ornament modeling session. Once again, a good one is made with spring-loaded plastic, lined with terry-cloth...ten bucks each. So for a Jackson you might be able to keep your running friend from being part of a Lincoln.

Another interesting gift concept:  How many times have you been on a training run, come back to your car, and been in need of a cold pack. But you don't want to buy a bag of ice from the local Quickie-Mart...or the local Quickie-Mart is miles away? A box of single-use chemical cold packs could save the day. Break the bag separating the two chemicals, shake, and you have cold therapy at a moment's notice for your bruises, aches, and dingers. It might not be as good as a bag of frozen peas, but at a buck a whack it can't hurt.

At least until you can buy a big slushie.

Here's the last one for now, and another one for which we have triathletes to thank...

Shoelaces are wonderful devices, but they can be a royal pain in the back-side if not at the right tension. Provide a little too much slack and the shoe flops about...or you hit a mud puddle and the shoe stays while you continue onward. Too tight a lace job and the foot doesn't have enough mobility. Either way you end up miserable. And there is nothing worse during the course of a race than to have your shoe's laces decide to not stay the way you set them at the beginning. A pair of elastic laces not only help to keep the shoes at the optimal tension at the beginning of the run, but as your feet swell (mine do, I'm certain yours do too) the shoe still expands, without you having to stop and re-tie. And, they do come in a variety of colors, just in case you're in the mood to match or accessorize your kicks. Depending on the conditions, a single pair of elastic laces can last during the life span of two pairs of shoes.

I hope these few small holiday recommendations help you think about some of the little - and highly needful - things which are important to a running enthusiast. Most, if not all, of these items can be found at either your local running or triathlon shop, or at the major sporting goods chain store. 

Have a fantastic Christmas holiday and if you don't have a replacement sockliner for your shoes, that fruitcake is not going to work. You can send it to me; I happen to like the stuff.

So Ya Wanna Be A Coach?

We all want to leave something permanent after we, er, "leave," something which says "this is my essence. This is what I'm about." The fortunate often have the knowledge others enjoyed the fruit of our labor; something as brief as a three-minute guitar solo, enduring as a social policy or a book, or ephemeral as a philosophical stance. A swim coach friend reminded me years ago, 'Mike, everyone likes the idea of having an event named after them, but they forget that in most cases for it to happen they have to DIE.' Psychologist Erik Erikson described our lives as stages which continually needed resolution, with the eventual development of virtues like hope, will, purpose, competence, fidelity, love, care and wisdom.

At this coach's stage the conflict between generation and stagnation comes to the fore: Some call it a mid-life crisis. I prefer to call it a desire to pass what little I've learned to someone else. The young man on whom I've focused training this past year, Ashley, says he wouldn't mind coaching other runners. I wondered how to talk about this until re-reading a piece written by chef/writer/travel program host Anthony Bourdain...so you really want to be a coach, eh?

First off, I love coaching. I learned to love it from coaches who invited me onto their teams, spent their free time running, drinking coffee, Gatorade and...yes, the occasional beer...with me. That kind of love gets me through days when athletes crash and burn spectacularly for no apparent reason. The rare public compliment and thanks from the athlete for, say, helping them to qualify for Boston, or run a personal best, or finish a marathon or an Ironman triathlon outweigh any paycheck I could imagine receiving. If I were to hire an accountant to determine the benefit and the cost, I probably spend more money and invest more resources into working with others than I receive.

Nobody in their right mind - from the volunteer track coach at the local high school all the way up the food chain to Alberto - goes into coaching with the express intention to make money. Coaching to get people through the door of your business? Do you plan to work with elite athletes, or up-and-comers? I guess if you are in the running biz you'll get to rub shoulders with the elites, who are, from my limited experience, really neat people.

Unless you go into coaching after collegiate or post-collegiate elite running, or your mission is like Alberto's, the Hanson brothers', and a few others, you'll most likely work with people with real lives, 40-hour-a-week demands and limited resources. Like panning for gold, working with the citizen-athlete involves lots of digging for that one little sparkle which vindicates all the effort.

How to get in? If you're affiliated with a college program, or a really good high school program, or a really good citizen-athlete program, communication with the coaching staff is most likely the foot-in-the-proverbial-door. Ask if you can help out, observe how the staff work with the athletes, ask lots of questions about what they believe and how they came to that point. Most importantly, listen. Training seminars through USA Track and Field (USATF) and the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) provide a certain cachet and networking opportunity, especially if you plan to work with citizen-athletes.

Every coach has a short list of titles which they've read and learned the basics of running form, physiology, psychology, which lays the foundation of how to work with athletes. Visit the local bookseller and perch in the coffee shop to thumb through ones you don't have yet; make friends with the local used bookseller to keep their eyes out for your wish list. I've purchased books from authors with whom I've fervently disagreed, but I read it to know what the rest of the world thinks. And not just training books, or books on physiology and fitness are my grist. Biographies of athletes and coaches provide great insight into what worked, what failed, and what failures...when modified, worked in a different situation.

Did I ask whether you were prepared to spend every weekend, or every evening, standing along the edge of a track facility when your spouse and kids wanted to do something else...with you in attendance? Sacrifices sometimes have to be made. Speaking of sacrifices, how about your own training? The coaching act is more zero-sum than most think. And will you run the same races as your athletes or stand along the side imploring them to go one second faster? What about the moments when the athlete just doesn't have the day which you or they hoped, and they hear the snarky comments? The coach needs to exhibit a grace bordering on being thick-skinned and deaf toward those persons criticizing the training and the athlete from the outside, as well a sense of empathy and compassion to those inside the group. And when the athlete decides it's time to move on to another group or another coach, it's especially more important to exhibit both empathy and the grace.

Ask any guy or gal who has been addressed at least once as "coach," who has stood along the side of a roadway, a track curb, or a finish chute if they'd want it any other way. Most likely they'd tell you 'no.'

Monday, December 16, 2013

Swifter, Higher, Stronger...More Aware

It's dark, chilly and (sometimes) difficult to remain motivated about running at this time of the year. Thank goodness for YouTube and its seemingly-endless treasure trove of running clips. When I get tired of watching track races I'll pull up cross-country skiing, biathlon, and speed skating videos. After an evening of watching biathlon or cross country skiing I am less likely to complain about forty-something-degree weather on a Sunday morning; at least there's no snow. Snow is perfectly fine; I've lived in areas of the world where it tends to accumulate, the reason I'm in Florida.

The scientists and nice people in white lab coats have all the impresive numbers about cross-country skiers, that they're blessed with the ability to perform sustained exercise far beyond the rest of us mortals. Numbers don't always tell the entire story, especially when a cross country skier or biathlete boogies up and down hills for anywhere up to three hours...until they cross the finish line, when they collapse like they were struck with a pole-ax.

That tells me the brain plays more in this "swifter, higher, stronger" equation that we care to admit, my friends.

Last night I watched what I believe to be a two-pronged object lesson: While there are two different forms of cross-country skiing - classic and skate - and races - the mass-start (where everyone goes off the line at the same time; first one to the finish wins) and the pursuit (where each skier leaves at thirty-second intervals) - long-track speed skating is a two-person (at most) event, with the slowest seeded skaters going first and the fastest going last.

On top of the obvious conditions - those of a frozen, nearly-traction-nonexistent surface below - the skater must change lanes over the course of each 400-meter lap; if they skate on the inside lane this lap, they'll be on the outside lane on the next. If the pace between the two athletes racing in the pair are nearly alike, a skater can benefit, for brief periods, from decreased wind resistance.

And since each skater goes off either alone or with one other person, feedback from the coach about previous split, form reminders, encouragement to go faster, and the like is crucial. Especially in the longer distance races, where if not for the fact the skater is going fast for a sustained period, and making left-hand turns, they'd most likely "go to their happy place" until the race end.

The last heat I watched had the world record holder for the distance. The pair went off, and after several laps the skater was ten seconds ahead of the other skater on the ice, and the fastest skater in the competition. Victory was certain with a couple of laps left. The skater finished 250 meters ahead of his opponent, but they were both in the same lane; one of the two failed to switch lanes some time during the race.

After the finish a replay showed the lead skater had one of those "happy place" moments, drifting to the outside lane...and thought they were supposed to stay to the inside for another lap. Because the skater was so far ahead one of the two coaches didn't realize until it was too late and the judges were huddling to ensure they made the right call. The skater was livid, slinging his glasses across the track interior. No victory, no competition record, all because of a momentary lapse of attention. Minutes later along the track interior, the athlete sat sulking as he removed his skates; yards (and worlds) away, the coach knelt, punching a text message on a phone and most likely wishing the earth could swallow him whole.

Not much you can say during a high-profile event when you've prepared an athlete for everything but that one little thing which is certain to bite you in the behind. And more often than not that little thing lurks somewhere between the ears.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Your Running Dollar...Spend It Wisely

Have you ever had one of those weekends where it seemed like EVERYONE had a race going on?  You know, ones that without the benefit of cloning (or violating the laws of physics) it would be impossible to be everywhere? 

We all get 'em.  If you're in a metropolitan area it's a given. 

For guys like me on the Florida Gulf Coast it's more like the stories my old coach used to tell about the running circuit in southern Ohio.  I guess, back in the day, there were enough little races giving out cash money to top finishers that guys would get up early enough to drive from one race venue to another to see who had showed up.  Once they found a race where they felt they had the chance to win some money they would stop and register.

We don't have cash prize money being given out at races, but every so often there can be as many as five or six races of varied size and quality in a 30-minute drive of my house.  This last weekend there were five; three of which were brand new events fresh out of the box.

The irony of the weekend, to me, had to be what I guess can only be called "A Tale of Two Races."  One race was a first year event which drew over 500 participants.  The other was a third year event which had less than 100...after a debut race with nearly 600 and a follow-up participation of 200 runners the next year.  I can't say, much like the three most-important qualities in real estate (location, location and location), that successful race promotion boils down to marketing, marketing and marketing.  I can say, having been a race director and a race participant, there are things I've found which are most important to the individual participant.

First, have an interesting race concept.  I've done the only age-graded pursuit event in the area; once the individual runner has an idea what it means and the light bulb goes off in their head, they either register or go on to another event.  The race which had 500 this year was able to run their course on the runway of the local airport...a first-time occurrence.

Second, have a USATF certified course.  I'm particular about this.  I measure for certification; I don't run on courses which aren't certified.  They don't have to be my courses, contrary to what my local running friends might say, but they better be certified.

I tell race directors, 'if you have a certified course place the number on all the materials related to the race.'  The certificate number has the two-digit state abbreviation, a five-digit number starting with the year of certificate, and the initials of the state/regional certifier.  So, a course in Florida certified this year (a certificate is good for ten years, with a few exceptions), would have a certificate number of FL13XXXEBM.  To see a list of certified courses you can go to the USATF web site, click on the "Products and Services" tab, select the "Road Course Certification" link and then the "Find a Certified Course" link.  You can search there for any active certified course of any distance in any state.  A table comes up as part of the search result with links to the course map, which can be printed for use.  Just because you didn't measure the course yourself doesn't mean you can't use it...but I'd recommend thanking the person or group who paid for it in the first place.

If you're not going to use a certified course, then make certain the course is accurate.  In case you didn't know, a 5,000-meter road race is not 3.1 miles (add 37 feet), nor is a marathon 26.2 miles (add 100 feet).  This last weekend the 500-person race had a course which was billed as a 5K and was closer to 2.9 miles, according to the most liberal GPS measurement.  The race that had less than 100?  It had a certified course.

Third, how about an interesting T-shirt?  A good t-shirt with a catchy design gets worn throughout the year, especially if it's not a season-specific (long-sleeved with seasonal artwork) design.  Find a decent artist, do a shirt in technical fiber, use a color which isn't often used...let your imagination be your guide.  I know some running clubs do not place the event sponsor information on their shirts.  I've been a sponsor without "shirt recognition," and I've tried to get as many of the sponsors on a race shirt.  Kind of a no-win situation for the RD.

Fourth, communicate the cause.  As a race director it's the best way to get both sponsors and participants.  As a potential consumer it could mean the difference between me doing your race and that of the person down the street.  I'm likely to look at participating in a fund-raising event than a for-profit run...it's not always that way but close.

Fifth, what's the value-added?  Everyone wants to know 'what's in it for me?'  Will there be a good post-race party?  What is the potential award structure?  I don't mind bringing my own cooler of beer so I can crack one open at the end while I'm cooling off...but in that case the other factors better be quite good.

A good value-added example I've seen was a nearby running club's Thanksgiving Day "Recycle Run."  This race is an event my wife and I have run almost every year since before we got married.  For a ten-dollar entry fee we received our choice of leftover / recycled run t-shirt, an accurate (now certified) and scenic 5,000-meter road course, use of a publicly-maintained bathroom facility near the finish line, munchies and a kegerator of quality beer provided by the local running emporium.  Award winners receive their choice of cast-off awards or award remnants from previous club events.  It's almost a certainty we're coming home with at least one and often two coffee mugs or beer glasses.  To us, it's become a holiday tradition, complete with Waffle House on the way back home, so as to keep from eating too much turkey later in the day.

It doesn't hurt, running enthusiast, to take a closer look before you buy into an event; make certain you're paying for what you feel is the most important quality of your running event.  And race director, if you find your event is dying on the vine, it's probably because either you're not providing what the running community wants.

Michael Bowen is a training specialist/running coach who lives and trains in the Pensacola, FL area.  He works with runners of all ability levels, in-person and remotely.  He and his wife, Suzanne travel frequently to New Orleans to participate in and support running events and triathlons.  He also writes two 'blogs, "If I Were Your Coach..." and "Red Polo Diaries."

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Keeping Me On My Toes

Coaching is not strictly a one-way relationship, strictly limited to the administration of varied degrees of physical discomfort.  A smart coach, in the words of some, is able to work themselves right out of the job description.  One coach mentioned that the ideal coach/athlete relationship can transform from one that is prescriptive to one that is more-collaborative in as little as one year's time.  I welcome the occasional good question from an athlete...one which not only encourages me to stay on my toes, but to elaborate (in a Twitter-like (25-words, more-or-less) mode) my coaching philosophy.  The post-marathon recovery-slash-prepare-for-an-upcoming-half-marathon-cycle has sparked at least one really good question from one of my athletes:

"How do you determine exactly what particular workout to run, specifically the distance and intensity?"

The answer depends much on the focus.  If the athlete focus is on 5K and 10K races, events which can be trained for in five-to-six hours a week, the repeats during a workout range from 200 meters to 20 minutes, at intensities as high as nearly-all-out all the way down to anaerobic threshold pace. I usually keep the duration of each set in the workout limited to the same 20-minute rule of thumb. Depending on athlete level of experience (and other subjective conditions) I may assign three or four sets during a workout.

Intensities and distances during the time of year from late November-to-early January are maintenance, where I ask the athlete to pretty much place a check-in-the-box on the training calendar with efforts at 50-to-60 percent of maximum effort.  Starting in January effort, distance, duration, amount of recovery and a couple of other variables adjust upward and downward in varying degrees until a six-to-eight week stretch (where the big racing happens) is reached in mid-April...after which the maintenance cycle begins again until early August.  The August-to-November progression has cycles about a week shorter than that in January-to-May, but the difference between the two is otherwise negligible.  If there's a half-marathon or a marathon on the horizon, then the classic "look at the target date, move back 16-to-24 weeks, start your training" plan is added to the mix.

When it comes to marathon training runs, in fact, when it comes to most all of the training...nearly three-fourths of the training run miles during the cycle are (ideally) run at paces which are SLOWER than my typical track workout repeat. The other 25-percent can be almost evenly divided between three workouts; two which are self-mediated and one coached by me.

To teach an athlete to become an active participant in their own training it takes a blend of art and science, discussion and debate, and in some cases a bit of trial and error.  Several great reference books, thoroughly read, can provide the basic principles by which to effectively train.