After cutting last week’s long run short at 13, bonked and exhausted, it was clear I had been training too much in some way. The mileage wasn’t necessarily the problem.
My midweek runs are now extended to about 8 easy miles along a hilly route several times during the week, and each of these feel reasonably comfortable, even tired at the end of a workday, even with walking up to 3 miles during work breaks throughout the day in addition to the runs after work.
Lately I’ve repeatedly come back to the work of John Hadd (RIP), an old running coach who in the early 2000’s dropped into the old Let’s Run message boards and dropped a ton of wisdom on keys to successful marathon training. This lengthy collection of posts have since been compiled into its own website, and PDF/Word copies of the posts are also floating around the internet.
Hadd basically preaches a more specific, codified version of Phil Maffetone’s MAF method, the latter of which is mostly just a simple directive to keep your running easy, below an aerobic threshold heart rate. The idea is that your aerobic fitness, whether in general or to race at all distances, depends on continuous easy sustainable aerobic training. Most runners run too hard in their basic or easy runs, and this prevents the body from reaching the best state for mitochondrial aerobic fitness adaptions.
Hadd doesn’t dwell on the science so much as he goes off his lengthy experience training runners, that the common thread of many is their expected performances drop off as the race distance lengthens, indicating a general lack of aerobic endurance. Hadd goes on forever (the site and documents show his writing is a substantial wall of text and analysis), but eventually leaves you at the conclusion that the best, most reliable way to improve race performances is to train aerobically below a defined threshold for most of your workouts, at as many miles as you can capably, comfortably run per week. Most of his suggested sample workouts are in the 60-90 minute range, which various research shows is the sweet spot for max aerobic development, with a 2-3 hour long run on the weekend.
Like Maffetone, Hadd expects your aerobic threshold to be about 75% of your maximum heart rate, and he wants you to stay below this in most of your running. Twice a week Hadd’s approach has you do a similar run at a bit higher HR, but typically no higher than 80% of max (a bit below what many would consider marathon effort). Only after you’ve seen progress over doing this a while does he recommend adding any speedwork or tempo work, but his approach has you avoid any sort of pace or tempo work entirely.
In my experience, my fitness peak in Chicago coincided with my lengthy 60-75 minute postwork run commutes. I always ran these easy with little interest in pace. I was basically making sure to get some miles while getting to Point B, whether that was home or an accordant train station for a ride the rest of the way. Sure, I sometimes worked out speed or tempo with the Fleet Feet Racing Team on Wednesdays, and sometimes I dropped into a Monday fun run and would do those with a bit more intensity, plus of course I went on weekend long runs. But for the most part, my training came from these 4-8 mile postwork easy runs back home.
Without any mind to any thresholds or limits, I basically was (somewhat inadvertently) following the advice of people like Hadd, Maffetone, Matt Fitzgerald and his 80/20 cohorts, Hal Higdon, and so many others who tell you that lots of easy, regular mileage is your bread and butter to race fitness.
So, as I progressed through the initial stages of Higdon’s Intermediate Marathon program, I eventually discovered I wasn’t running as long as frequently as I could, so I pivoted to more of my own plan.
I went on easy, hilly 8 milers after work and found I handled these well. My fitness improved until I hit the wall last Saturday at mile 13 of my planned 17, and then basically took four days off (granted, Las Vegas had unusually high winds those days, with unusually cold air, so some of that was waiting that out) before resuming training. As I spent the last few days re-figuring the layout of my workouts, going back through this research, my training history, etc, to figure out how to balance more volume with my fitness capability… I planned this weekend to take an easy Saturday run, then run long Sunday.
I went out yesterday with a new plan. Last weekend’s long run ended with my heart rate in the 150’s (zone 3 marathon pace type effort, way more than I planned), me breathing hard, feeling bonked despite fueling and hydrating during the run, and very tired. This weekend I wanted to actively keep my heart rate lower, and not worry about pacing at all. I would revert back to v1.0 of my running self and run as absurdly slow as I needed to in order to keep my heart rate below 140 bpm.
My Runalyze VO2max estimates (V) have shown that my V drops if I do an easy run higher than 140 bpm (75+% max). It goes up if I’m slow and easy but I keep my average HR in the low 130’s or below. The message there is clear: Going harder is not going to benefit you if you stress your cardiovascular system too much for an easy run. It’s a Training 201 message I should know by heart, but sometimes you need a reminder.
I wasn’t feeling great Saturday and I hadn’t slept great despite not training Friday. I went out late morning having decided I would run easy in my neighborhood for 30-60 minutes, but shut it down as soon as my HR jumped to 140. That would be my kill switch. In fact, I moved my Garmin past the paces, power, run time, and switched to the heart rate screen, never moving from that. I hardly ever do that, only checking heart rate every so often, but this time it would be the only screen I planned to look at.
I was surprised to notice that almost an hour in, despite warming conditions and abundant sunshine my heart rate not only didn’t pass 140 but never went higher than 136, and actually drifted down instead of staying there and rising as it tends to do on many runs. I also didn’t feel bad at all. Back at the ranch for a quick water break, I realized that after an hour I may not be as fresh for a Sunday long run as I was right now, and this run was going great.
I decided on a hedge: I would fuel and make this the long run. I would run as long as my heart rate stayed down below 140, whether I only lasted another 30 minutes or was able to go 2+ hours. I’d run easy and let heart rate be my guide. My circuitous neighborhood route kept me close to home, so if I decided to end the run anywhere on the route the ranch was less than a mile away. Plus this allowed for a water and fuel break at least every 30-60 minutes as desired.
So I ran. I got to about 90 minutes, fueled up again. I actually went fairly long after this, and not stopping for water/fuel at 120 minutes might have been why I slowed up dramatically about 10 miles in. But my heart rate was still in the low/mid 130’s. I decided to roll with the possible bonk and keep going. The long mild uphills felt brutal, and my pace had slowed more than it had in a long time, but I didn’t care. I wanted to keep going, and soon “go as long as you can” became “try to make 16 miles”.
I had not run farther than the half marathon distance at any point in the last year. My farthest run aside from that was the 2019 Vancouver Marathon. Injuries derailed my Indy training last year before I could get past 13 miles. It had been a while. But I felt I certainly had enough to at least drag my ass 16 miles. The experience would help battle-harden the next long run attempt.
I got to 13.6 before I fueled and hydrated again, and I knew one of the nearby loops was about 2.2 miles, very close to 16 miles, and only having to finish one loop instead of getting creative was motivating. My drag-ass pace was somewhat improved once I got back out for the final assault, and I took a dog-leg side route to the loop to milk the extra 0.2 miles needed.
But now my heart rate was finally cruising in the high 130’s, threatening 140. I decided at this point I could accept passing 140 for the final couple miles. And for someone 3 hours into a brutal drag-ass run I actually felt somewhat good and certainly strong.
I hit 15 miles, my HR was finally tipping into the 140-141 range. I decided to go as hard as I reasonably could the last mile, everything else be damned. I switched my watch to the standard screen to track the distance (just to make sure I wasn’t short when I got back). Part of this route was slightly uphill, but I hammered down the final stretch, took the last loop and returned at 16.22 miles without any significant distress beyond the obvious fatigue and soreness.
One key benefit of the ranch over my usual routes was I could prepare and eat something as soon as I returned, which was important after a barnbuster effort like that. I stretched and had a small meal right after, a slightly bigger meal a half hour later, hydrated quite a bit of course, and took it easy the rest of yesterday.
Laying out afterward, it finally all clicked what I hadn’t been doing, and what I needed to do in my base workouts going forward. I didn’t have to cut mileage, add any easy interval workouts, reframe my training goals or any other calculated setbacks.
The way I handled this long run is the way I need to handle most of my easy runs going forward. I need to ignore pacing, power, distance (though Garmin of course will track all this valuable info), and focus solely on keeping my heart rate below the aerobic threshold on most of those 8 milers. I need to do the same on my long runs, and any incidental work break recovery runs. Getting to 20+ miles on a long run by hook or by crook will be the main goal, and then I can improve the quality of these runs as my body builds the aerobic and muscular capability to comfortably handle them.
For up to a couple midweek runs, I can focus more on maintaining a minimum effort pace or power, and let my heart rate go wherever it may. This will provide the “quality training” that most would use tempo or speedwork sessions for. If I really want to, I can plug an easy interval session in here or there to really work on speed or marathon pace (I probably will test pace in sections HR permitting, find good pace and practice this late in training). But otherwise I’m going to hammer these aerobic sessions and get my endurance back to where it needs to be.
After a whole bunch of adjustments, I’ve landed on a simplified approach to aerobic marathon training that appears to work well.
- For typical runs, run long and aerobically easy. Max out these easy runs at 90 minutes.
- Do a couple of more pushy 90 minute runs focused on power or pacing, ignoring heart rate.
- Be willing to bail on or shorten any of the easy midweek runs as needed. If the HR gets past 140 (or whatever the aerobic threshold is at a given time) before 90 minutes, cut the run short and head home.
- Do an aerobically easy long run and try to stretch it out as long as possible. Like the easy runs, keep the HR below 140 and end the long run if you pass 140 and can’t get it down.
- Rest the day before and the day after the long run. Exception: If the long run was cut very short, less than 3 hours, it’s okay to do an easy run the day after.
A typical week would look like this:
- Monday: Pushy run
- Tuesday: Easy run
- Wednesday: Easy run
- Thursday: Pushy run
- Friday: Rest
- Saturday: Long run
- Sunday: Rest or easy run
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