Tag Archives: speedwork

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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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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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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Quick thoughts on a slippery 10K track workout

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In the sunset darkness of the Wilson Track, with snow pellets coming down, there was one set of footprints coating the growing frost in Lane 3. That was me.

I ran 3 x 2 mile repeats last night at the Wilson Track. The 3x2mi is a 10K workout from Greg McMillan that while demanding will clearly show the pace you’re capable of running in a 10K. I’m not only training for the Tour De Trails 6 Miler but also the Mardi Gras Chaser 10K in early March… along, of course, with the Vancouver Marathon.

Thanks to snow flurries and general cold overcast throughout the last 24 hours, the track had some dubious patches of water and generally required some caution for use. I stuck to lane 3 as that was the inside-most lane enough to use in its entirety; even then, I had to ride the outside edge in some spots along the home stretch to avoid overlapping inside puddles.

However, snow pellets came down as I began my 2nd rep. Never mind hitting me in the face on the front stretch… pellets began coating the track surface, limiting traction and slowing me down while demanding more of my lower body to maintain form and movement. Nothing keeps your stride compact quite like trying to run tempo reps on a frosty track.

Most would have stopped a speed workout in this situation, unable to meet pace expectations and fearing falls and injury in the conditions… especially in footwear like mine: I was wearing my Topo Athletic ST2‘s, flats primarily intended for racing and speed running. I had the added bonus in wearing the least suitable running footwear for icy conditions!

However, along with knowing how to run in snow and ice, I also realize a tempo workout can still serve my desired purpose in less than ideal conditions. They’re about more than hitting a goal time.

Instead of disappointment in reps at a pace below my PR time, I see I can capably run a 10K at a pace 20 seconds slower than my PR in icy, increasingly slippery conditions.

Plus, with three trail races still to come, I also need to prep for running fast on uneven, probably slippery conditions… as I had to in the Tour De Trails 3 Miler a couple weeks before. Maintaining the best pace I could on a frosty track that didn’t provide great traction helps develop lower body muscles that will need to do serious work in next month’s 6 Miler plus the longer trail races beyond.


Now, not everyone should do this, and I wouldn’t keep a speed workout going every time ice started coating the surface. There are a lot of winter days where I’d bag a planned speed workout and do something else.

But this was one day where, as the conditions grew farther from ideal, the workout still provided growth opportunity and still served its purpose. Quality workouts intend to prepare you to race, not just hit a goal time.

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The Best Running Technique for Speed

So you want to run fast? Can’t blame you. We all do. I’ve talked about this before but I’ll make a point of it again:

The mistake most people make when they try to run faster than usual, such as in speedwork and in races, is to a) run physically harder, as in put forth more effort, and b) to reach farther with their steps and try to cover more ground with each step.

All the above serves to do is tire you out more quickly, and while this may be great for sprinters who need only maintain this effort for a few seconds… this is not a good way to run a race farther than, say, 400 meters. And pretty much every race you pay to run is a lot farther than 400 meters.

What you want is to maintain efficiency, while repeating your most efficient running motion faster than usual.

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Volume: The key to base training

Most training plans, whether or not they map it out, follow at least three general phases.

  1. There is a base training phase, where you establish the volume and habits you will generally follow throughout the training cycle.
  2. There is a fundamental phase, where you develop speed and aerobic endurance.
  3. And then there is the final sharpening phase, where you work more specifically on preparing for your goal race as well as taper to heal up in the days/weeks before that race.

(Some split that 2nd phase into separate development phases, one where the 1st part is speedwork-centered, and the 2nd is built around tempo and endurance with that tempo.)

Most people follow a pre-written training plan, which usually starts with a minimal weekly mileage that gradually builds throughout the plan. The base training may establish an initial pattern of speed/tempo workouts, but the volume typically is low and increases during the life of the training plan.

I do think we get it backwards.

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Chops: A personal statistic for tracking training volume

Chops

A snapshot of my Google Docs training log, which outlines mileage, time spent in “hard running”, time spent doing hard exercise or similar labor, estimated walking distance, lifetime training miles since 2016, and my personal stat “Chops”, described below.

I keep a Google Doc spreadsheet log of all my training sessions: Mileage, any speedwork mileage, time spent in strength training plus other active/intentional physical effort, and estimated distance walking.

I also track known lifetime training mileage, and a self-created stat called Chops.

Chops is named after the musician term chops, which describes a performer’s current musical skill. Similarly, my Chops number provides an estimate of how many miles I can comfortably run at full strength over the following week.

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