My biggest Chicago training mistake

Hindsight is typically 20/20 when it comes to training mistakes. Often you couldn’t have known at the time you were making a mistake, as experience afterwards is what ultimately taught you that what you thought was right turned out not to be right.

I trained a lot in Chicago as a runner, and I got into pretty good condition for where I was at. I learned how to prevent and safely work through injuries, and I logged a substantial volume of miles while running in dozens of races during the few years I seriously trained.

Looking back, I realize that something I did at every speed or tempo workout was actually counterproductive to my recovery and growth. It was hard to miss in large part because most of the people I trained with made a habit of the same thing, and even coaches didn’t realize this was counterproductive.

But the mistake inadvertently slowed my growth from these workouts, and had I know not to do it then I likely would have recovered more quickly and grown stronger workout-over-workout than I ended up doing. It may have made a substantial difference in how I performed in marathons and other key races.

The big mistake I made was to go on extended cooldown runs after every speed or tempo workout.

We don’t think of this as a mistake. You’re supposed to cool down dynamically after key workouts, if not after all workouts. And everyone knows that an easy jog is the best way to cool down after a hard workout, right?

Well, it turns out that for most people, aside from elite athletes, a run of any length beyond a few minutes after a speed or tempo workout actually flushes key anabolic recovery hormones from your bloodstream, and drives additional inflammatory stress in your body that undoes a lot of the benefit of the key workout.

They’re replaced by cortisol and other inflammatory stress markers that, at best, will help spur aerobic mitochondrial creation… but you could have gotten the latter with far less damage and stress had you just skipped the speed workout and gone on a regular run. You do speed and tempo workouts to get specific endurance benefits from speed and tempo work. And inadvertently those get wiped away during what is supposed to be a simple cooldown run.

While a jog can help you cooldown, that jog shouldn’t be more than 5-8 minutes, and only if a jog is in fact easy for you (for many slower or novice runners, their easy pace is still rather challenging; these people should just walk, and only 5-8 minutes). Even then, you should totally stop and rest after 5-8 minutes.

The reason coaches have runners do longer cooldown runs/efforts after workouts (and admittedly this is a mistake even made with elites) is the same reason they make a lot of coaching mistakes: They just cross-apply their observations and techniques used with elite runners over to all other recreational runners. If the methods see results with the best, it should work for everyone else, right?

But recreational runners operate out of a far different context than elite runners, meaning the things that benefit elites don’t necessarily benefit recreational runners. In fact, in many cases these practices can hurt the growth of recreational runners.

For example, consider the high mileage volume of an elite runner. Rec runners may try and match that volume, not realizing the elite runner’s elite speed is a key reason that volume is not only possible but to some degree necessary. They run easy distance let alone faster runs at far faster paces than other runners.

An elite runs a 7 mile midweek run in 49 minutes because they can run 7 minute miles at recovery effort. If a rec runner who can coast at 10 minutes a mile does the same 7 mile workout it will take them over an hour. A 70+ minute endurance run is a much different workout and produces much different physiological effects than a 49 minute endurance run, even though in this case it’s the exact same distance run (for this example) at the same intensity.

A training plan that prescribes that same midweek 7 mile run is going to produce a much different experience for each of those runners. The rec runner will be highly taxed, stressed and fatigued by a run where an elite may barely break a sweat… even though, again, the run is the exact same distance at the same intensity.

An elite runner runs 80 miles, but their pace may allow them to finish all that running in about 9 hours a week. 5 days a week they run for an hour. 1 day a week they run super long, perhaps 2-3 hours. Perhaps they do a rather long speed workout of 90 minutes.

All of this also never minds that most elite runners have some degree of privilege and lifestyle that facilitates this much training. Top elites are sponsored and have everything paid for. All they have to worry about is training, eating and resting. Even among working class elites, their lifestyle often has more flexibility in various ways… plus many elites are young, in their 20’s, and can bounce back quickly from volume and intensity that would slow most older or less skilled runners down.

In any case, a slower rec runner would need 13-14 hours of training to match that 80 miles a week. Short of constantly brutal, long workouts everyday (barring likely injury), there’s no way they can match that volume. Their natural speed and build does not allow for it. To try and match the effort will likely only lead to burnout, if not injury.

So, back to the issue with speed workouts. I ran with a training group who met up about a mile or so from their bag-drop base, and about 2-3 miles from where I lived. There was nothing out of the ordinary or improper about our group. They had a group speed or tempo workout once a week on Wednesday nights.

For these, I often just went home after work, then dressed for training and ran easy to meet them there. Then I would jog back following the workout.

I didn’t realize the jog back was actually flushing away most of the regenegrative hormonal benefits from the workout I had just completed with the group. In fact, many of the rec runners in the group didn’t realize their shorter 1 mile run back to the store was also triggering the same aerobic stress reactions that muted or even undid the benefits of their workout.

This was admittedly a product of circumstance. Typically, the group couldn’t store their bags near the workout spot, and many came to the store straight from work. Walking back was not only impractical, but (despite being easier) also an extended easy aerobic activity that would have further exacerbated the problem. They had no choice but to jog back.

Now, remember those elites I mentioned? Our group had several elite-caliber runners, and most of the coaches themselves were of that caliber. A jog back didn’t hurt them at all, because the run back took 5-7 minutes. It was hardly an effort at all for them, and was effectively the cooldown they needed. That was not the case for the others.

Unbeknownst to me, I had a choice. I could have walked or jogged a few minutes to a nearby bus stop on Clark or Sheridan, and then caught a bus home. This would have allowed the anabolic hormone reactions in my body to maintain their presence in my bloodstream, and my sleep that night would have generated much faster recovery and better incremental improvements in the following days.

Now, again, there is nothing nefarious about my training group. They were mostly great people to run with and I ultimately got a lot out of training with them. The only thing is, hindsight being 20/20, I realized that I could have seen substantially better growth had I only known to just shorten any cooldown efforts to a brief walk to the bus stop… maybe brought a protein snack with me to hit my bloodstream with some quick recovery fuel.

Knowing this now, I now realize my best approach with speed workouts is to keep them localized to a location where I can quickly rest and fuel up once I reach the end. Carry some fuel, end the workout near my car or a doorstep to some place with recovery food, and make sure the cooldown is just an easy walk and some dynamic stretching. This keeps the beneficial hormone reactions in my bloodstream and drives recovery once I rest and/or get to bed.

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