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.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Running Excellence More Than Records

Once I got rid of my cable television...actually, once Suzanne helped me realize we could live without cable television...things became a little more peaceful, even focused around the household:  we're less likely to adjust (or curtail) our exercise, dinner, or sleep habits because there's something on the tube one or both of us want to see. If we really feel the need to check out a live broadcast, say, of a sporting event, we'll make an evening of it at the local family sports pub just up the block. Otherwise we stick to video-on-demand.

In the case of track and field, which in the case of the States needs a serious re-work, video clips on the internet are the best way to go. In the case of the Boston University indoor invitational almost a month ago, the world and national record-setting performances by three Nike Oregon Project runners were up the following evening. If the two races, a men's 5,000-meter run and the women's 1,000 meters, don't motivate you to run a couple of hard workouts, they might possibly teach you what it takes to run an outstanding performance.

The first quality which caught my attention, patience, is one which cannot be over-stressed. There's no such animal as an overnight success in most human endeavors. Athletic excellence is the residue of long hours of work, sacrifice and toil. Pundits and commentators often disagree with a coach's strategy:  succeed, and everything was timed perfectly. Fail, and the chances are the timing was too aggressive. We all feel there needs to be a plan, and there needs to be something done, right away.

Doubters only need to look at the cover of any running magazine or the link to any article in their e-mail...the one often titled, "Your Best 5K In Six Weeks (Or Your Monkey Back)." Are you doing the exact same thing you did last year? And the year before? If it didn't help you then, why should it be of benefit today? I have friends who tell me in November after the last local "turkey trot" race they intend to do what it takes to be a better runner the following year; they'll drop those extra ten pounds, cut back on the beer, and run speed workouts every weekend. Come January and the first "party races" those plans are all by the wayside.

To watch Oregon Project member/Olympic medalist/American indoor 5K record holder Galen Rupp is to see (in my humble opinion) the polar opposite of the last-touted "Great American Distance Running Hope," Alan Webb. Webb's "Be There Now" mentality made him a less-than-perfect protege for several notable coaches, to include Rupp's coach (for the past dozen years) Alberto Salazar.

If you're healthy and racing well at shorter distances, such as the 5,000 or 10,000 meters, and enjoying yourself, why sacrifice time and innate speed on the altar of strength and endurance just so you can place a 26.2 sticker on the bumper of your car? Salazar's main focus in training an athlete includes always keeping a bigger picture in mind.

I reviewed the lap splits for Rupp and Oregon Project teammate (and Canadian indoor 5K record holder) Cam Levins, and was amazed to see how consistent the times for each 200-meter lap after the first 400 meters. A 13-minute 5K requires a 31-second lap: in the case of an indoor 200-meter track; 25 of them.

Let's make this something most of us mortal runners, or runners over the age of 40, can understand. If you were to say a person over 40 was a decent runner, you would assume they can run 40 minutes for 10,000 meters. That's 1:36 per 400-meter lap on the local training track. Many of us could, on a good day, do 5, 10, perhaps all 25 at that pace, with a little recovery time in between. The genius comes in being able to tie all 25 of them together.

But to return to those 31-second 200s...most likely there were more than a few sessions of training where the repetitions were as fast as (or faster than) 27 seconds per 200 (Flotrack video of the workout immediately following the meet showed Mssrs. Rupp and Levins running at...yep...27 second pace. Every once in a while this ol' coach guesses right.).

The principle of specificity states in order to improve as a runner it is necessary to run; thus, to be able to run fast times (regardless of the distance) it is necessary to run fast. Faster repetitions, which ideally include acceleration drills, can mean the difference between being outkicked at the end of a run and being the one who does the outkicking. It takes a little practice to learn how to run fast in a relaxed manner...relaxed is smooth, smooth is fast. You learn where the form breaks down (say, a left elbow going wide, a shortening of an arm swing, a rising of the shoulders...) and what things need to be done to forestall the form break. It also makes those other "boring" workouts like overdistance and tempo training seem much more comfortable in comparison. Nothing breaks down a mental barrier like the occasional challenging speed workout which pushes just a little farther than you initially thought you could go.

Sometimes you need to train solo. But there are workouts and races where you aren't going to make the goal on your own. There were two pace-setters slated to work for Levins and Rupp over the first 2,000 and 3,000 meters, but in the end the record-setting performances (and the excellent workout efforts which followed) came as a result of synergy, shared effort and sacrifice. The pacesetter slated to work to 3K faltered and dropped back behind the two OP athletes, leaving them to take the record-setting effort pretty much by the scruff of the neck. Could Rupp have run his AR, or Levins his national record, without the other's support? Possible, but the gap between the old record and the new would most likely have been smaller.

As an aside, these same observations in my humble opinion are as applicable, or could have been as easily borrowed from Trenier Clement-Moser and Mary Cain's 1000-meter race, where Cain nipped Moser at the line and broke the World Junior Record, missing the AR by five seconds.

But there's time and time and time, as Parker once wrote, in the case of a 17-year-old, the hard work in the bank and the support of someone around your ability level. We don't have to be chasing records to desire running excellence...but the hard work is all the same for us citizens.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Welcome to the Cruise (Intervals)

This week, it appears that patience and its virtues have begun to reward me:

I finally managed to get more than 30 miles, a mix of road and treadmill running. More importantly, I'm not limping or walking like a person two decades my senior.

This means I can begin to train toward a couple of 5,000-meter road races. (Sure, I did that one on Thanksgiving Day, but it was more like three one-mile repeats and a 187-meter sprint to keep from looking too slow for the photographers...that one doesn't count.)

So, I decided the third day of each three-day run cycle would be my "speed" day, as long as it didn't occur on a Sunday, which is my "sorta-long" day. To see whether my body was really prepared to handle shorter, but more-intense efforts, I tossed a few 400-meter, kilometer, or mile repeats on at the end of my 5-mile treadmill runs. Those were fun, but the most fun workout so far is the one I did last Friday. For lack of a better term, I'll call it a "progressive tempo" run; two one-mile repeats at long run pace to warm up, followed by 20 minutes of slow acceleration from long run pace up to where my heart rate was just below 160 beats per minute.

Dr. Jack Daniels' and Jimmy Gilbert's research of distance runners of all ability levels back in the late 1970s spawned an abundance of pace calculators and charts in print and on the world wide web; utilized by many running coaches to guide their own training intensities. The charts enable runners to take the performance from race distances as short as 1500 meters or as long as a marathon and determine the maximum amount of oxygen they use in an activity, measured in liters per kilogram of body weight. That ballpark measure of physical potentiality (The potential for physical performance is definitely NOT the same as the ability, as many coaches will tell you.) aligns to, in many cases, a second chart of pace ranges to focus on specific training benefits. Daniels, in his Running Formula, recommends a person who starts back into a race training regimen (like me) to work to raise the lactate threshold, then to improve the VO2 max, and finally, to improve running economics and speed.

In Running Formula, Daniels states that a runner's lactate threshold - the measure of exercise intensity above which more lactate is produced than can be utilized for fuel - is improved by training runs at what he calls "T"-pace. These training runs can be "cruise intervals" of several minutes in duration - between a kilometer and a mile in distance - with very brief resting periods (which, frankly, I was already doing as part of my training), all the way up to sustained runs of a "comfortably-hard" nature of an hour. The tempo workout is one where, as Daniels says, going too fast is not as good as running the correct pace for the workout. Go either too high or too low and you're running what he calls "quality junk" mileage.

Tempo runs are a good reason to own and use a GPS (or accelerometer) -enabled training watch, or at least a running watch and a course with known distance splits. In the case of road or running path courses, I like one with scenery I can enjoy, not so much to take my mind off the discomfort, but to reinforce a comfortable state where I'm still working hard (a tree-lined, smooth out-and-back from the CBD through the Lower Garden District to Audubon Park is one of my favorites in my recent memory). But if you live in an area where weather conditions are variable or less-than-optimal during certain times of the year, or training is constrained by time, or (in my case) need to manage variables (e.g., potty breaks and injury risks) a treadmill can help make sure the effort is within the "sweet spot." Tempo runs can be as short as 20 minutes or as long as an hour...even a little more, but a pace which can be sustained for longer than 70 minutes is most likely too slow.

So what constitutes a "reasonable" tempo run pace? Folks who don't feel inclined with looking at pace charts can always take their 5K pace and add about 25 seconds per mile; the average 10K pace also works well. Runners who haven't run either of those distances recently can always use the very subjective ratio of perceived effort. Tempo run pace would be about an eight or nine on the one-to-ten (one equals "too-easy," ten equals "my-chest-will-explode-in-three-steps") scale...just about 90-percent of maximum heart rate for most experienced runners.

Some software programs, such as TrainingPeaks, over time, can calculate and adjust the average pace or heart rate for a 45-to-60 minute continuous run, based on heart rate and pace data uploaded over time. Not too surprisingly, the pace at which my heart rate was at threshold aligned dead-on to the ideal "T" pace recommended in Daniels. And yes, the tempo felt the blend of both comfortable and hard; a pace I felt I could have maintained for an addtional 20 minutes had I not already done 20 as a warm-up and planned to stop.

Effective run workouts don't necessarily have to be hard, all-out efforts. It depends on the desired goal of the workout; are you working to improve your body's ability to process lactate as fuel, are you looking to improve your body's ability to take in oxygen, or do you want to get faster with what you already have? Are you patient enough for the adaptations to come?

Thursday, January 2, 2014

A Hunger

We're hip-deep into January; Suzanne replaced the old (tattoo) calendar on the kitchen wall with one filled with motivational quotes. I took fifteen minutes after the first run of the new year to copy my old training spreadsheet, and place the previous year's on the hard drive.

I even began to think about what I could do differently this year, as a coach, a husband, a co-worker, and all those other roles I play. And if your gym is anything like mine, the elliptical trainer machines and treadmills will be in short supply until the end of February.
None of this disappoints me in the slightest. Why?  We're safely in January and I can see glimpses of the old, kind-of-motivated, 'hungry-to-run-well' me starting to pop up.

Charley, one of my regular Sunday morning "breakfast club" runners, mentioned the other Sunday he wanted to put together a team for a 5,000-meter road race held on the first weekend of May.

This was both encouraging and frustrating: The encouraging part was this idea came from a guy who in the past would more likely have run dressed as one of Monty Python's 'Spanish Inquisition' skit.

Yep, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

Frustration came when I pressed for details. "Who" I asked, "do you want to be on the team?" He mentioned a short list of "breakfast club" group participants, none with us at that moment either by choice or circumstance. Some, in the professional football parlance, were 'physically unable to perform' after a night of end-of-year revelry.

Frankly, it's been a long time since I raced at a level where I felt I was at the leading edge. When I did there was always a sense of frustration at my fellow running enthusiasts, folks who were part of a "team" with which I trained, who seemed less mindful of the "team" construct.

My old coach didn't push it. Occasionally one or two persons would express interest in a relay event, but he knew the group would have to be, more or less, of a single mind.

That's the reason many quit playing team sports; the good athletes didn't like the thought of being dragged down. The less-than-gifted persons (like me) hated busting their chops at every practice just to sit on a folding chair or wooden bench.

Many persons are drawn to running because of the challenge, especially as time progresses, to continually improve ourselves. The first days, weeks and months are giddy as we gain fitness and set personal bests without appearing to try. After a while, though, we either become less hungry to get better, or the big improvements become smaller and smaller.

The races where we drop tons of seconds off our previous bests are past history. The PRs, when they do come, are more gut-wrenching and measured in seconds rather than minutes, portions of an inch, halves of a pound. Scarce as hen's teeth.

While listening to public radio broadcast this morning there was a discussion about how the poor and the wealthy may be more alike than we think. Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, in their book "Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much," say some interesting things about why we focus most on the element we seem to have the least of, and yet we waste it once it's in our hands.

We are at our most efficient when we are focused on what we lack. Take a twenty-percent hit to your income, like we did this summer, and you might begin to make some very strong decisions about where to spend your money:  Goodbye, premium cable television. So long weekly Sunday champagne brunch.

When there's no looming deadline on the horizon we're more likely to put off stuff and procrastinate:  It's a good reason to go ahead and pencil in a "C" race a few months after you cross that marathon finish line; if nothing else you're not going to stay on the couch and let your hard-won fitness go out the back door. More likely, you're going to take a week, perhaps two, of easy running, then get back on the chain gang and start looking at the training schedule.

Mullainathan and Shafir write that if we become proccupied with our present state of scarcity, say, in this case, financial difficulty, we will be burdened by thoughts of it; how are we going to pay that bill, what will happen to us if our income is not restored, and so on. That preoccupation is not something we can turn on and off at any particular time.  No, it's something that affects our ability to think with longer-term vision or insight on other things.

In the running sense, we can become so fixated on trying to improve that 5K personal best time, or to win that grand prix competition, that we start thinking less about easy runs, rest days, stretching, strength training, nutrition.  All we want is FASTER and we want it NOW, at the expense of all the other benefits of being a life-long athlete and healthy person.  This fixation can lead to one or more traps which are almost impossible to free one's self from without a conscientious, well-laid-out plan of action and milestones; even with a good plan the mindset is a hard one to break. Injuries of an acute or a chronic nature, like plantar fasciitis, achilles tendinosis, stress fractures, shin splints are one thing. How about plateaus, overtraining, or burnout?

There's nothiing wrong with having the hunger for running excellence, but you don't want to be consumed or blindsided by the efforts to satiate that hunger.