Category Archives: Training

Thoughts on the Thompson New Intervals approach to speedwork

I have all sorts of thoughts on the New Intervals approach, which basically says to do your recovery intervals/jogs in speed workouts at a harder intensity. The link is Matt Fitzgerald’s write-up on the method.

I hated this 24 hours ago when I first read this. I saw a recipe for injury and burnout. Given more time to read it over and think about it… not only do I think it’s a good approach to speedwork, but I realize this is a speedwork version of what I’m doing with my 55-5 Long Runs. Given the parameters, it’s actually quite hard to overrun the workout, and in fact it prevents a lot of the overrunning of conventional speedwork.

This is basically sets of mixed-tempo cruise intervals. It’s written as sets of 4-6 reps of 400m intervals, but since each 100m “roll-off” cooldown is done fast, those roll-offs are basically part of the reps… making each set one long rep.

The key to this approach, as Fitzgerald mentions, is that your fast “reps” need to be dialed back so you can maintain the pace for each one in the set.

The volume of the speed reps you do in this workout needs to be less than a typical speed workout with such reps. Observing Daniels’ caps on rep/interval level speed workouts… you now need to observe the effect of the roll-off portion, which would previously be ignored since they were recovery intervals. Here, those “recovery” portions are more intense and basically part of the set, and thus should be considered part of the volume.

Conversely, most runners’ problems with speed workouts is that they slow to a stop or walk between reps in the first place… which happens mostly because they’re doing the reps too fast and too hard so they’re forced to stop. This sort of workout at least will prevent that. To stop or walk with New Intervals is to effectively cut the set short. It makes cheating the workout difficult.

90% of 90% of people’s problems with speed-rep workouts is that they’re going all out trying to beat a clock that no one’s keeping score of, instead of giving a controlled-fast effort where they work on running economy. This would pretty much eliminate that, though now you need to be careful of booking too hard of a workout since these are basically 1-2 mile reps broken into mixed tempo sections.

If interested in the New Intervals workout, it may be best to start with an easy workout with just 1-2 of them, to see how you handle it and to get used to the mechanics. Also, sampling the workout like this is an easy chance to see if you just hate it without completely tanking your workout plan.

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A Better Long Run: The 55-5 Long Run Method

road nature trees branches

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

As with a lot of training approaches, runners have a very polarized approach to how they handle long runs.

Either they do a simple easy run over a long distance, or they add in some tempo with the long run (either trying to run the whole thing at a tougher moderate pace, or mixing in tempo segments with easy running), turning it into a grueling exercise.

Both polarized approaches have substantial drawbacks.

The long easy paced run may develop long aerobic endurance, but it also accustoms you to only handling your longest distances at an easy pace. Any attempt to race longer distances thus becomes a huge struggle, because you haven’t practiced running faster at max distance.

The mixed tempo run may address that issue, but creates another issue: It asks you to work especially hard at points on a run that is already fairly difficult due to its duration. This increases the burnout and injury risks, and at the least makes long runs such a miserable experience that many just forego any sort of intermediate tempo work on those runs. (It’s the biggest issue with the Daniels Marathon Plans. Those quality long runs are super-demanding. Few outside of elites and hardened distance running vets can consistently handle them.)


Regular readers can probably sense where I’m going with this point: There is a vast and mostly-unexplored middle ground to long runs that will allow you to work on and develop aerobic strength (aka the ability to maintain faster paces over longer distances), without demanding so much from you.

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On measuring cadence instead of pace in tempo runs (when pace isn’t possible)

Yesterday I had a scheduled M-pace training run, the first in a while and the first of many in the Vancouver training cycle.

I also had to do it after work, and nowadays for a variety of reasons taking transit home and trying to do the workout at 6-7pm is not ideal.

I haul-run home from work in part to not pay for an extra transit fare home from work (I already take the bus into work), and the later in the evening I run the later I may get to bed and/or the harder time I’ll have getting to sleep. Finishing my runs before 7pm has been very beneficial to my sleep.

Also, I carry stuff to and from work in a backpack, and everything together weighs about 15-16 pounds. This is not a huge deal on regular runs (in fact it adds a bit of a strength component), but for any tempo training it definitely slows down and compromises the workout.

Nearly all of my needed running the last few months has been easy, and now I need to do more speed and tempo running. So haul running home every weekday isn’t necessarily the best decision.

I partially get around this by sometimes driving in, parking on the free curb a bit away from work (which does not have freely available parking), stowing stuff and then running in a nearby park… which allows for gear-free faster running. I got a 3/1 mixed tempo run in last week this way.

Meanwhile, I did try a Fartlek workout as a haul run, and it has reasonably solid results. Measuring the pace was a fool’s errand. The key, it turned out, was focusing on cadence.

Most runners maintain roughly the same cadence in every tempo they run. They just push off and stretch out a little farther on faster strides. I typically slow things down on run-commutes due to fatigue and due to carrying weight. To step as quickly as I do when empty-handed can cause an everyday workout to be a lot more taxing than it needs to be. In my races and tempo runs, I simply step more quickly.

Fitbit tells me that on most easy runs, I take about 760-810 steps every 5 minutes (about 155-165 steps per minute). On faster runs, I’ll take more like 820-850 steps (165-170), and I’ve gotten the wheels to turn 870ish times per 5 on occasion. I’m not at a place where I can comfortably take the fabled 180 steps per minute (900 per 5). You want your legs to turn over light and quick without straining, or it defeats the purpose of a faster cadence.


So then… if I need to haul run home on a day I have a scheduled tempo run, and I can’t or shouldn’t start the workout later in the evening when empty-handed… what if I did the tempo run as a haul run, but focused on sticking a fast cadence instead of on how fast the actual run was?

The few resources that calculate weight’s effect on your run pace go all over the place on exactly how much extra weight affects your pace per pound. And all such calculations assume body weight gain, rather than whether or not you’re carrying external weight, as I am in haul runs.

There’s a difference between gaining 15 pounds of fat and what it does to your running… and picking up 15 pounds and putting in on your back. Both affect your pace in substantially different ways. That 15 pounds of fat is spread rather evenly around your entire body. Its effect on your pace is far less than a lump of 15 pounds strapped to your shoulders and back.

For the physically strongest of us, the difference of extra carried weight is probably minimal. But most human beings will notice more of a difference than the 2-4 seconds per mile per extra pound that most calculations predict.

Yesterday, I hauled 16 pounds away from work (I had to make a purchase at lunch during work), warmed up for about 25 minutes, and then immediately quickened my cadence before holding that faster cadence for 30 minutes.

I used the step counter on my Fitbit tracker, which was conveniently right at 1000 steps when I began my pace run. Knowing that 170 steps per minute was my higher end of fast cadence, I previously calculated that over the 30 minutes I scheduled for M-pace, which came out to 5100 steps.

I rounded that down to a goal of 5000 steps at that cadence. At the 1000-step starting point, I knew my goal was to go until the counter read 6000 steps or more. I didn’t pay much attention to the time reading, and knew at worst I’d have to M-pace a bit longer than 30 minutes.

This was much easier to track mentally and physically than to monitor a clock, or look at a faulty pace reading that was only going to tell me I wasn’t going fast enough.


After a bit over 3 miles, the counter topped 6000 steps and I slowed to an easy run. The haul run M-pace workout was a success. And I didn’t feel terrible during any of it. The workout was challenging but comfortably hard.

Ideally, I don’t have to do this for every M-pace workout. Maybe I can drive in and do them at the park some days. Maybe I can get home early and get the run in with enough time to spare that I can cook/eat dinner and get to bed before 10pm. The hope is, as summer approaches and the sun comes up earlier, I can get outside and get runs in by 6am, and I can knock the M-pace runs out then.

But, if I’ve got to haul run home, and I’ve got an M-pace run scheduled that day, I now have a solid approach that allows me to get them in without compromising my training.

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How I use the weather forecast to inform my training

For those of us who don’t live in a perpetually hot and sunny climate, the weather plays a sizable role in how we run outside.

Many up north during winter condemn themselves to the limits of the treadmill, with its varying benefits and drawbacks. But many either don’t have or refuse to use a treadmill, and need to work with what nature gives us.

I live in Chicago and do all my running outside. This winter in particular started out very mild and stayed that way until mid-January… when suddenly: Heavy snowstorms, -50°F windchills, perpetually icy conditions, brutal windstorms, unpleasant cold rain that the frigid temps made sure to ice over afterward, and so on. This obviously affected how much running, and what kind of running, this region’s people can do outdoors.

This is nothing new. Chicago weather’s just as important a factor during summer. When Chicago weather gets hot and muggy, or we get the occasional severe storm, that changes the scope of any outdoor training workout. In some cases, it limits how much time you can spend outside (some will run through it but there’s a variety of reasons I avoid running in substantial rain, plus unless you like being an electricity conductor you should never run when there’s lightning). In most cases, it affects your performance, how much hydration you need, etc.

It occasionally surprises me how taken-aback locals are by incoming severe weather, before I realize I pay closer attention to day-over-day forecasts than most people.

Whether you run or not, you honestly should review the weather forecasts every day and know in advance what weather and temperatures are coming. Weather should rarely take you by surprise.

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A new 10K strategy, and a 2019 Mardi Gras Chaser 10K race recap

Yesterday I ran the Mardi Gras Chaser 10K on the Chicago Lakefront Trail, experimenting with a different race strategy based on my training. It worked remarkably well and at 52:40 I PR’d by about 32 seconds.

In fact, given better training and circumstances, I could have possibly run this race another minute or more faster. To PR so well despite no specific endurance speed workouts during the past month, despite extreme cold setting back some workouts, was pretty remarkable. I came into this race a little more speed-rusty than I would have liked.

This strategy allowed me to run probably the most evenly paced race-level effort I’ve ever ran. I may have run one or two better races in my time, but this was the most sustainably strong and even effort I’ve given over any full race distance beyond 5K.

I hit the turnaround (the course was an even out and back) at 26:24, meaning I ran the last half of the race at 26:16, a slight negative split.

So how did I do it?

BACKGROUND

Throughout the (better parts of) winter I had done some 10K-specific training, most specifically The McMillan 10K Workout. That workout is simple: 3 long cruise reps of 2 miles each at 10K pace, with a few minutes of active recovery between. If you manage your desired pace during the reps, you can probably nail the pace in your 10K.

I did the workout every fortnight or so during the early winter, before the F3 Half, the start of my Vancouver Marathon training, and the brutality of Chiberia all intervened. Even then, conditions on the track were often icy enough to slow my desired pace, so I had to focus more on fast cadence and not worry as much about splits.

Other than that, I did no real tempo running outside of the races I ran (Tour De Trails, and the F3). Thanks to the Half and the weather, I went about a full month without doing the workout. Even if I felt confident about my ability to hit a 10K tempo, coming into this 10K I wasn’t convinced I could hold anything close to it for a full, uninterrupted 6+ miles.

THE PLAN

MardiGrasChaser10K

The 2019 Mardi Gras Chaser 10K course. (The organizers ended up nixing the shortcut on the way back at the sharp Montrose turn, so it was an equi-distant out and back course.)

The course was a simple setup, with two tables along the course serving as double aid-stations: The first table out was the 1st and 4th water station, and the second table was the 2nd and 3rd water station.

Some approximate measurements indicated the tables were about 1.3 miles apart, with the 1st table being about 1.28 miles from the start line… meaning it was also 1.28 miles from the finish.

By simple math and inductive reasoning, knowing the turnaround would be exactly 5K away (3.11 miles), the turnaround was 0.53 miles from the 2nd table, meaning about 1.06 miles of running from station 2 to station 3.

Despite knowing I could comfortably hold an 8:25ish pace over 2 miles, I didn’t know if I could sustain that pace over 6.21 miles without having trained at speed at all over the last month.

I decided to hedge my potential lack of ability to maintain pace over the distance by turning the race into a long version of the McMillan workout:

Run at race pace until reaching Aid Station 2. I planned to start at race pace, moving my feet light and quick and sticking with it for the 20 or so minutes it would take to reach the 2nd aid station, about 2.6 miles away. This was just a bit longer than a McMillan rep, but from my experience I always finished those workout reps strong, and maintaining the cadence/pace for an extra 3-4 minutes wasn’t that big a deal.

I would blow past the 1st water station and keep moving. The plan was to get to the 2nd aid station before I would…

… slow down, take fluid, and run easy for 1 minute. Previously in races, I would either try to keep pace while taking fluid at stations, or slow outright to a walk and take it easy until I drank what I needed before speeding back up.

I had never tried the middle ground, and I was going to. Slow down to a regular running pace, something like 10-11 minutes/mile, while taking and drinking water. Even after finishing, I would run at this pace until a minute had passed, and then resume running at pace.

This was very similar to the workout, as during my recovery intervals in the workout I didn’t stop. Instead I ran easy around the track and kept moving. This would basically be a slightly higher intensity of the same thing. Once the intervals were finished I was always ready to go again at full speed, and I felt I’d be able to do the same here.

Resume race pace, and keep it until Aid Station 4. This particular “rep” would not be as long as the first, at about 2.3 miles or so (after the recovery interval) instead of 2.6. And that was fine, because fatigue should begin to set in down the stretch, and it would help to finish the 2nd stretch a little more quickly than the 1st.

I’d circle the turnaround, skip past the 3rd aid station, and plan to slow for fluid at the 4th and final station.

Again, slow to a regular run for 1 minute at Aid Station 4 while taking fluid. I would repeat the process for fluid, finish and make sure I got in one minute of easy running, before…

… resume race pace, and finish the race strong. At this point, there should only be about 1.1 miles left, far less of a chunk to run at race cadence. And that never minds whatever kick I could give at the end.

THE PLAN WORKED!

I stuck to the plan, to the letter, up until the 4th aid station, where I felt strong enough that, after a moment to take fluid, I just resumed race pace without any more rest, and finished the race from there. That might have shaved a few seconds off of what was ultimately a sizable P.R., so no regrets about that decision.

The whole race felt surprisingly easy. This wasn’t entirely because of the plan itself: I did focus more on a light, quick cadence and not falling into the trap of straining or overstriding for extra pace. That kept me from unduly wearing myself out in the early and middle miles.

But the plan also gave my effort clear boundaries. I knew that, no matter how badly things were feeling, I only had to get to the 2nd or 4th aid station before I could relax a bit. I knew my training had prepared me for 20 minutes of solid race-pace effort at a time, and for multiple reps of that same 20 minute effort.

It may not be how most people run a race, but this approach gave me the ability to run a better race than I otherwise would have.

DO I RECOMMEND THIS RACE PLAN?

This is honestly a perfect approach for any race where you don’t feel comfortable with your ability to run the entire race strong, from the 5K to the marathon. By building in recovery intervals around your visits to key aid stations, you can ensure you maintain an even, strong race effort to the finish.

There are two key caveats:

1) Obviously, you need to have the aerobic endurance to run the desired distance.

I consistently run 4-7 miles in workouts, plus do longer runs beyond that distance, plus on speedwork days (between warmups, recovery runs and the actual workout) I may log over 10 miles. You don’t need to run that much to do well in any distance below the Half… but no plan will work for you if you don’t safely run several days a week, and you ideally should run a weekly mileage of at least 3 times the race distance.

2) You need to do workouts where you practice this approach.

This plan worked for me because I was experienced with the McMillan 10K workout, which basically follows the same pattern. The plan obviously is based on the workout.

If you’re not used to running at your desired pace for at least a couple miles, this plan is going to be very difficult.

The plan can be adapted to where you slow to a regular run for one minute at every aid station, which allows for about 1.2-1.4 miles at your pace. But you still need to be able to run at race pace for reps lasting that distance, several times a workout.

However, that’s still a lot easier than trying to hold such a pace for an entire race without stopping… especially if you’re not used to doing it.

IN CONCLUSION

While ideally I can run races without having to do this every time… this is a fine fallback option for any race where the confidence to run the full distance at pace isn’t totally there.

And it can be adjusted for any distance: For example, I could decide to run a 5K as two 2500ish meter reps, taking fluid at the one water station and going easy for one minute before picking it back up and finishing strong. Or I could run a marathon as a series of very long 3-4 mile M-pace reps, taking 2-4 minutes of easy running (and, as needed, hard fueling) at key aid stations.

Even if your race has no aid stations or they’re spaced very far apart, you could bring hydration and just decide to go a set time period, like 20 minutes… then slow to a regular run, drink from your stores and go easy for 1-2 minutes before resuming for another 20 minutes. In fact, if you carry hydration you could do this even if the race has aid stations. You decide on your own how far to go during each “rep”.

Who knows… maybe I’ll do this at Vancouver this May. Or Chicago Marathon this October. Or next month at the Lakefront 10 Miler. Or maybe I feel much stronger for those races and don’t do it at all.

But The Plan worked! And now I have a proven, workable fallback plan for every race where I don’t feel fully confident in my ability to race.

 

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Training volume is about more than mileage

One runner does a 12 mile run on the weekend. The only other run he does is a 6 mile run on Wednesday night.

One runner runs 3 miles every day, except for a rest day on Sunday.

One runner does a 5 mile run Tuesday and Thursday, then she does a longer 8 mile run on Saturday.

A sprinter practices 3200 meters of reps plus 2 miles of warmup and cooldown jogging on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. On Tuesday and Thursday she does an easy 3 mile run. She takes the weekend off.

All of these runners run the exact same mileage every week (18 miles). Would you consider their training equal? Do you think they’ll all develop their running ability the same way?

More importantly, is it accurate to cast a firm judgment on the quality of their training largely based on the fact that they run 18 miles a week?

I would say not. And yet that’s the pedestal on which so many runners and coaches put weekly mileage.

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Endurance is best built through your regular runs, rather than your long run

Runners understandably focus on their long runs while training for races from the 5K to marathons and ultras. Your ability to run long determines how well you run your longest races, and long runs help build the aerobic capability that carries you through races of all distances.

However, the long run also receives too much focus. I’m not going to call the long run overrated, because long runs definitely are not overrated. They’re important. But long runs are one component of a successful training plan, and building your aerobic endurance and performance requires more than getting your long run in every week.

And no, I don’t mean doing your speedwork. In fact, improving your aerobic capability requires no speedwork at all (though speedwork can certainly help your running economy, and is valuable for maximizing your race day speed).

We fixate on the length of our long runs. We fixate on the speed at which we run our speedwork. But we don’t pay much attention to the length of our regular runs, and it turns out the latter is as important (if not more important) to developing our aerobic endurance.

To briefly summarize and blow over a ton of science:

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Winter long run struggles

I’ve faced an odyssey of problems with my long runs over the past month due to Chicago’s extreme turn of winter weather.

Getting long runs in hasn’t been the problem. In fact, I’ve been more consistent with my weekly long runs over the past several months than ever before. The issue is that weather and other concerns have made those long runs more difficult. Last weekend’s 2 hour run was a snow stomping slog through an obstacle course of unplowed snow, standing ice and other issues.

This past weekend’s 2 hour run battled a stiff 30 mph crosswind that not only made maintaining a straight path difficult but also sent broken tree branches and other debris flying across the lakefront.

I haven’t focused as much on stretching out or improving training pace/cadency because just managing to stay upright and run in itself was already a huge challenge in the conditions.

It was almost a blessing in disguise that I had to run the F3 Half during the early portion of my training cycle. Racing 13 miles right off the bat meant that stretching out wasn’t a concern. And forced downtime the following week (due to extreme cold and -50°F windchills) allowed for some needed recovery after the race took quite a bit out of me. And it assured that by my early base phase I was already able to run 2 hours at a harder pace.

So effectively the first half of Vancouver training has been largely a base phase built around mixing challenging volume with recovery. The hope is that this builds strength with my endurance, while also adding extra recovery between key workouts.

Sure, it’s a bummer that the key workouts have been more about fighting through tough conditions than about speed or showing out pace, or that the quality has to be a tradeoff for a lesser quantity of mileage.

But, even if winter and the harsh conditions stick around longer than we’d want, hopefully this allows for volume building and longer base workouts, and the payoff is a good long run in Vancouver this May.

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Long Walks as Recovery Day training hedges

To save money, I’ve been walking home from work on days where I don’t haul run or drive home (yes, even in cold Chicago winter weather; when it’s not -16 degrees outside the conditions aren’t that bad). I have the luxury of living about 5K from where I work, and this while time consuming isn’t all that bad.

One great feature of Ventra Chicago’s web platform is it shows you your historical usage of your transit card. Thus I saw about a month ago that even though I was paying $105 a month, I wasn’t using $105 worth of transit (based on a value of $2.50 per trip) each month.

So I stopped my pass autoload and set up a cash autoload. This now saves me about $30-40 a month.

Since every use now costs actual money, I take fewer incidental trips and now have incentive to find other ways to and from work… especially since (being 5K away) I have several commuting options.

While I could just haul-run home every weekday… I’m also undertaking a training plan with built in rest days, and at this stage I’d rather not beat myself up with carrying 10-15 extra pounds several miles while running (for various reasons I have to carry stuff to work) at the end of every workday, while dodging vehicles, other commuters and incidental harassment.

Thus I’ve been walking home from work, and while this can take over an hour it’s a relaxing low-intensity form of aerobic exercise. Incidental walking shorter than 30 uninterrupted minutes isn’t really exercise, but anything beyond that starts to require extra aerobic effort.

Without wearing and tearing your body you get a little extra aerobic benefit from a long walk. You also get the fat burning benefit from walking several miles, though this is a tangential benefit. Walking is such a beneficial low-key exercise that most brolifters swear by walking as a key cardio component, and Hal Higdon considers it a form of beneficial cross training.

So if I’m not planning to run on a given day, or if I’m not feeling well enough to run a few miles… I’ll opt to take a long walk instead. It’s not that stressful, it helps get your circulation going, and provides a bit of aerobic benefit.

Long walks are a fine hedge for physical activity on a recovery day. And even if I’m not running home from work, at least I’m walking home instead. Ditching my transit pass didn’t just save me money, but also helped me add some extra training.

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KINeSYS: The best running sunscreen I’ve ever used

Before last year’s ill-fated Vancouver Marathon, I visited the race’s Expo and did some opportune shopping for in-race items I would need, such as Clif Shot Bloks.

I also needed sunblock, but was wary of being suckered in when I encountered the people selling KINeSYS, a Vancouver-based brand of sunscreen. However, it had several qualities that quickly drew me in.

  • It didn’t contain the highly reactive and dangerous carcinogens oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate.
  • It sprays on, like other athletic sunscreens.
  • But! It doesn’t leave the tell-tale disgusting film that other sunscreens do. Since it’s oil free, it absorbs into your skin leaving it feeling far more normal, and doesn’t smear all over your clothes or getting into your sweat and your eyes.
  • Because of that liquid consistency, it sprays directly toward your skin, more like a liquid than an aerosol. You won’t lose valuable sunscreen to the air, or end up breathing any of it in.
  • It’s also fragrance free, so you don’t end up with an overt weird sunscreen smell.
  • It comes in a portable 1oz spray bottle that can easily be carried on your person at the race, allowing re-application in mid-marathon to be easily done. It’s also a travel-acceptable size, allowing you to fly with it.
  • It didn’t cost too much more than typical sunscreens. The $8.99 listed on the company’s Amazon page is pretty much what I paid in Vancouver BC (in Canadian currency). They have other types they sell at different prices, but the base $8.99 variety worked just fine.

Since I don’t need to use sunscreen terribly much, I still have the original 1oz bottle I bought back in May 2018. But if I needed more sunscreen I absolutely would order this again.

Those of you who run a lot in sunny, hot climates, and want to improve the quality (and lower the health risk) of the sunscreen you use, I’d absolutely recommend trying KINeSYS.

Funny how the Canadians do sunscreen better than we do.

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Feast or Famine Winter Training: A blessing in disguise?

Chicago’s freezing weather has forced me to hibernate for days at a time. Last week’s brutal -50°F windchills knocked out a couple days, and this week a combination of sub-10°F temperatures with stiff 20-30 mph winds have compelled me to flex in a couple of days off.

This has led me into a feast/famine schedule, where I’ll run 4-5 days in a row, then run very little for a few days, then repeat. If Chicago’s weather can stabilize into something consistently tolerable, I’ll resume a more normal training schedule.

But I realized this schedule is very similar to one that emergency workers (hospital medical staff, firefighters, law enforcement) follow, along with to some extent expo workers.

They work long hours for several days in a row, then they get several days off in a row. In the case of emergency staff, working a regular 8 hour shift is often impractical when attending to real-time emergencies. In the case of expo staff, they work when convention services are needed, and those periods often come in peak-season blocks rather than everyday on a 40 hour schedule.

Obviously, there are drawbacks to life with such a schedule. No one ever argued this was an optimal schedule. However, not only do workers put in entire careers on such a schedule, but (taking a bit of a logical leap here) it’s entirely possible that runners could to some extent do fine on the same schedule.

In fact, runners kind of do. We train hard for goal races in 8-24 week cycles… then we take longer breaks before resuming training for the next goal. Even the famous elite Kenyan runners take weeks or months off following their marathons.

We couldn’t train as hard as we do unless we took breaks at some point. Sometimes, injuries or life force those breaks. But many end up taking them by choice or other willing circumstance. It’s during these breaks that the body and mind rebuild, allowing us to train hard the next time around. You don’t grow stronger during training, but during the recovery between bouts of training.

So back to this strange-to-many feast or famine schedule: Imagine 4-5 days straight of moderate running, with a long run at some point, perhaps a speedwork session early on… then 3-4 days of no training, or perhaps a short run or two during that period… before another 4-5 days straight of moderate/long running.

That moderate period might really beat you up, but then you get that long subsequent period to heal up from all that work. You’re possibly almost chomping at the bit to get back at it two days before you resume training. By the time you get back to longer runs, you’re physically and psychologically fresh.

The latter situation is actually the idea behind a marathon taper. You spend months grinding yourself to get ready for the race. Then you scale back your training to too-little-running, so that your body and mind can heal up and running can become fresh again once it’s time to run the actual race.

I won’t go as far as to say everyone should do this. If I had it my way, I’d have trained normally over this past month, instead of having to stall training for 2-3 days due to severe weather.

But in a way the severe weather was an opportunity to rest up and recover. So long as I maximize the time to train while the weather is good, the time off could maximize the recovery and growth from that training.

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Finish strong at races by training with fast finish runs

You should never do in races what you don’t work on in training. Runners want to negative split and finish strong. But then they do all their runs at an even pace. Or the only time they run fast is when they do speedwork.

In so many other ways, runners do most of their running in an entirely different pattern of behavior, routine and other fashion than they intend to do so in their races.

This is not to say your workouts should all be dress rehearsals for your races. In many cases (like a marathon) this is impossible. However, in sports a typical practice usually works on specific elements and routines that athletes will utilize in the actual competition. A workout should whenever reasonable provide opportunities to work on things you will need to do specifically in a race.

Obviously a regular run works on running. But races are run at a harder pace than a regular run. Of course, you can’t just race all your workouts without risking injury or burnout. And of course you do want most of your running to be easy intensity for the same reasons.

Still, you can work on one key pattern of behavior that you will utilize in a race: You can work on finishing a typical run faster and stronger than you did the rest of the run.

The value: As you tire in a race, you have to work harder to maintain your pace later in the race than you do at the start. Thus it helps to practice giving more of an effort at the end of a run to simulate this demand and help you practice working within that state. It doesn’t unduly tax you to do it in the final few minutes of the run, the way it would for you to run hard the entire length of the run (as you would in a race).

An easy example: You go on a 45 minute run. You start easy and do most of the run easy. But in the final mile or the final 10 minutes, you pick up the pace to something “comfortably hard”, fast and a little challenging, but something you can steadily maintain for a mile or so. You stay at that pace or better until your run is done.

This fast finish run isn’t unheard of. In fact, a lot of coaches recommend it. Hal Higdon’s advanced 3/1 runs are basically this. Matt Fitzgerald’s training plans feature lots of fast finish long runs.

I actually used to do this when I first started seriously training. When I used to listen to music while running I’d go for a run set to LCD Soundsystem’s 45:33, with the goal to return to my starting point by the end of the 46 minute track. Sometimes, with the song approaching it’s end I’d be a little too far from the finish and I’d feel compelled to speed up to get there in time.

Turns out, without my realizing it, I was basically doing the fast finish run. It’s probably one of many key factors that led to my substantial improvement.

So, whether or not you want to time it to music, a great way to practice race-day running is to finish some (not all, but some) of your regular runs a little faster. Practicing that end-of-race “kick” in workouts will better prepare you to kick for real at the end of your actual races. Plus, it’s a sneaky way to work on “speedwork” without having to devote an entire tough workout to it.

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The FIRST Marathon Training Approach: Who’s it good for?

first

I want to talk a bit about the Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training‘s unique training program, known mostly as FIRST.

This is not a review of Run Less, Run Faster… the book that Runners’ World eventually put out about the method, though if this approach works for you then I recommend you check out the book. This is more of a review of the method itself.

The Basics of FIRST, in a Nutshell

  • Over 16 weeks you only run 3 days a week, with 1 day between the workouts plus 2 days off from running after the longest one.
  • All of the workouts are quality workouts. There is a speedwork session, a tempo run, and a long run. None of the workouts are a simple distance run. Every running workout has a specific challenge, and is intended to be difficult.
  • You are expected to cross train aggressively two additional days each week, most typically the day after the first two workouts.
  • Speedwork sessions are track style reps ranging from 400m to 1600m. These sessions are fairly light for speedwork: You’re never asked to do more than 12 reps, and that’s for the 400m repeats. These workouts shouldn’t last more than 45 minutes.
  • Midweek tempo runs range from 3-8 miles, and are done around 10K-15K pace.
    The paces for the long run are rather fast compared to other methods, run about 30-45 seconds faster than your 10K pace. This is approximately close to most methods’ marathon pace, so you are effectively doing your long runs as marathon-pace workouts.
  • The long run starts at 10 miles, peaks at 20 miles, and the average long run is around 16 miles, which incidentally is around the max long run of some methods. Because of the hard pace demanded, they’re designed not to last more than 2.5 hours.

Who Does the FIRST Approach NOT work for?

People who don’t do speedwork. FIRST is not for a speedwork beginner. All of the workouts demand some degree of tempo running, so you need to be comfortable with hard, pace-centered running.

Winter runners. Icy conditions do not lend themselves to hitting goal tempos, and FIRST demands you do every run at a tempo. You need traction with the ground to run fast, and slippery winter conditions don’t allow it. FIRST is best done during a conventional warmer season.

People who do best with lots of easy running. Every single workout is a higher intensity workout. If you prefer to run easy in workouts, do another plan. Don’t come near this one.

People who don’t want to cross train. One of the hidden keys to FIRST’s success is the low intensity cross training sessions you’re supposed to do between run workouts. This is where aerobic fitness is low-key developed. If you just do the run workouts, that aerobic fitness likely doesn’t develop fully (though, if you handle the entire plan, your anaerobic fitness should be vastly improved). And FIRST is adamant that you’re not to do any running on the non-run days. You’re basically doing another plan if you do.

People who want to log heavy miles. Because you only run three days a week in FIRST, and two of those workouts are somewhat shorter than typical marathon training runs, your total mileage is capped fairly low. If you feel you train best with a high mileage volume, you’ve got to do another plan.

Runners whose race pace is fairly close to their everyday running pace. If you’re more of a casual runner, FIRST is already a pretty tough fit for you. But if your race pace is fairly close to your regular running pace, you’re not going to get much more value from this plan than any other random running plan… most of which will do more for you than FIRST. You probably need more frequent, everyday running than anything else.

Injury or burnout prone runners. Because every FIRST workout demands a high level of intensity, and you’re assured of three challenging workouts every week, it’s very likely someone not equipped to handle the training load will get hurt or burn out.

Runners who lack cross training options. You need to be able to cross train to do FIRST effectively, and this requires you have access to a bike, a pool, a gym, etc. If you don’t, you may as well pick a plan that only asks you to run.

Who Does FIRST work for?

Experienced runners who do best with intense sessions. Similar to people who swear by Pfitzinger, highly trained runners who thrive in hardcore run workouts will probably get more out of FIRST. They may not be fond of the lack of running on off days, but perhaps the hard cross training makes up for it. Speaking of which….

Triathletes. Because FIRST demands cross training, triathletes who like to train in other aerobic disciplines (cycling, swimming) will enjoy the ample opportunity to work on their other sports… or at the least use those other sports as a recovery/development break from marathon training.

Hardcore runners who don’t have a ton of time. Someone who has a busy life but likes to train hard will like having a schedule of only three workouts per week. FIRST is more easily fit into a busy schedule.

Older experienced race runners. Athletes who like training hard but find age catching up with them could find FIRST ideal. Older athletes tend to do best by cutting back on volume and getting the most bang for their buck on less frequent workouts while perhaps cross training on the side. FIRST does not mess around with junk runs, and older athletes may get growth from the less frequent but more focused run schedule plus the cross training sessions.

Experienced runners who struggle with hitting goal times. To be honest, many experienced runners who struggle to nail a goal time could find substantial growth from FIRST’s focused, tempo oriented workouts. If your every workout demands a particular tempo, then you have no choice but to learn to hit tempo. You will find out early if a goal time is unrealistic, and can build subsequent workouts around a more feasible goal time. But the most important part is that a runner will get better at running at a goal pace.


No verdict. FIRST can be a quality training method for some runners, while it’s a bad idea for others.

Personally, I’m intrigued by the method, but the necessity of quality cross training makes it a no-go for me. I’m currently not part of a gym, and don’t own a bike. My cross training is limited to walking, mild strength training, and other physical errands. Also, it’s currently winter in Chicago, so if I was going to do it at all it would need to be during the peak summer season.

Also, for older and injury prone runners, Don Fink’s IronFit marathon method may be a better fit for this sort of training. While it similarly asks for three quality workouts per week, the pace demands aren’t as strict, and IronFit provides the flexibility for you to run on non-quality days if you prefer over cross training.

Still, Furman tested this method on various randos years back and those runners found immense marathon success with it… even without the cross training.

If you think FIRST can work for you, check out their book on the method, Run Less, Run Faster.

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So you want to run the Dopey Challenge?

As part of Walt Disney World’s Marathon Weekend (yes, for those who didn’t know, Disney World hosts an annual marathon!), they hold a series of preliminary races: A 5K on Thursday, a 10K on Friday, a half marathon on Saturday, and the full marathon on Sunday.

Imagine someone trying to run all four races on the exact same weekend. Well, not only do people do it, but Disney’s race organizers actually award people medals for doing it. They call it the Dopey Challenge (I presume the eponymous dwarf’s name is used to reflect how smart of an idea they think it is), and they award large medals to anyone who successfully completes the Challenge.

You may ask: Who in their right mind has any business doing this? Presuming you think you could do it… how could someone train for this as something more than a masochistic exercise? Is there a best way to train for it? Is it possible to race the Challenge, rather than just trying to survive it?

Hal Higdon is the only person of any kind to actually put forth a training plan for the Dopey Challenge. And his traditional-style plan is fairly basic, asking for a series of progressively longer runs every fortnight to prepare for the races. Pretty much all the prescribed running is easy, the focus being on developing the aerobic endurance for the Challenge through sheer volume, at the expense of any sort of performance.

As he would attest, there’s a lot more to the Dopey Challenge than meets the eye:

Continue reading

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Learning race pace with an accessible mixed-tempo long run

In light of my previous thoughts on tempo running… here’s an idea for a long run workout. Basically, it’s like a long, stretched out low key speed workout.

  • Warm up with easy running for about 1 mile.
  • Run 10 minutes at your desired marathon /half/15K/whatever tempo, or (if conditions won’t allow it) at a similar relative intensity
  • Then run easy for 5 minutes.
  • After that, again, run 10 minutes at tempo.
  • Then, again, run easy for 5 minutes.
  • Repeat until finished.

It’s pretty simple in structure, even if in practice it’s not so easy.

  • This is basically an interval workout built into a long run.
  • You can practice race pace or intensity within the challenge of a long run, without having to hold that pace for the entire run or build the entire workout around it.
  • Later tempo reps in the workout help simulate the fatigue of later miles in an injury-safer controlled setting.
  • You challenge yourself for a few minutes at a time, then catch your breath and recover with easier running.
  • And throughout all of this, you’re also getting the important aerobic development of a long run.
  • This workout is a fine middle ground for intermediate runners training for a 10K or longer race, who want to improve their race times or hit a goal time.
  • It may be more productive and efficient than doing a hard midweek speedwork session, and then a separate long slow run on the weekend.
  • Even if you fail in some way at running your desired pace… you still get all the benefits of a speedwork session AND a long run, without unduly taxing yourself.

In fact, if you don’t have a ton of training time during the week, doing this on the weekend as your only non-easy workout might work best for you. It can be your one key workout, while you can mix in whatever easy running you can do through the rest of the week. It takes a lot of pressure off of training, while ensuring you still do quality training that can prepare you for race day.

Another great aspect about this approach is, for most mid-pack marathoners, the tempo segments usually line up perfectly with the amount of time it takes to run between water/aid stations. You can carry hydration or other fuel, and practice fueling/drinking every time you hit a rest interval.

Sure, the easy run intervals are much longer than it would take you to get through an aid station. But this is not a full practice for a race, and you don’t want to subject your body to a full race during a workout anyway.

The easy running not only pads this into a true long run, but gives you ample time for your body to recover for the next bout of tempo.

If you want to seriously practice race fueling during this workout, you can take a swig of water/fuel right at the end of an easy segment, and make sure to hit a full dose once the tempo segment ends.

Or, if you plan to keep running hard while drinking/fueling at aid stations, it may be best to fuel in the middle of a tempo segment, to practice doing so at full speed.

 

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Injuries, your aerobic fitness, and your neuromuscular fitness

person seating on bench while holding knees

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Most common injuries happen because your aerobic fitness improves before your neuromuscular fitness does. You aerobically can run faster, but your bones/muscles/tendons/etc can’t handle running faster yet.

This is actually one (of many) reasons many running minds oppose tempo running. You’re often asking a lot from your body’s structure before it’s built up strength to handle it. While I don’t consider that a damning argument against tempo running, that’s a valid point.

This is also a key reason most recommend you do most of your running at an easy pace. You may be aerobically able to run faster, but that doesn’t necessarily mean your body is ready to run faster. The best way to help your body build the strength to run faster over time is to ask it to run a lot, rather than to ask it to run faster.

The high volume of lower stress running builds the strength and endurance that will facilitate faster running later. Obviously it’s still a good idea to do some faster running, but not too much.

If you struggle with shin splints, IT band issues, knee/ankle/hip problems or muscle injuries… you may want to keep running, but slow way down.

You also will want to work on your form and make sure you’re not slamming your feet into the ground, unnecessarily torqueing your body or bearing weight on your joints, etc. This is to some extent a contributing factor to recurring injuries.

But for the most part, your recurring injuries are from running too hard too much too soon as your aerobic fitness grows ahead of your neuromuscular fitness.

If you want more info on the relationship between aerobic and neuromuscular fitness, the book Build Your Running Body is a great all-around running resource for this and other subject. It’s definitely worth a look.

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