Friday, April 14, 2017

Technology and Data in Training

It is impossible to stay current with training trends nowadays without hearing about the latest technology, gear, and how to use and interpret your data in order to get the most out of your running. Elites and even non-elites get their VO2max tested, their lactate threshold tested, know their resting heart rate, their maximum heart rate, and their hemoglobin levels. They utilize the latest technology, such as GPS watches, heart rate monitors, compression apparel, and take exotic supplements and the latest superfood fads. You might be wondering how much of this you need.

None. You don't need any of this in order to run well. While you definitely need to know some information about your body and its fitness, and some technology will help, you can still be a very successful runner by following a very simple, very ancient training philosophy. It can be summarized as running a lot, and doing some faster running, and letting your body recover. Every single training program in the entire world is based on those three tenets; it's just the details that change.

One of the great things about running is that it is a very simple endeavor. Humans are meant to run, and you don't need any special gear in order to run. Really, all you need is some comfortable clothes and shoes (and some would say you don't even need those). You don't need a watch, or a special fuel belt, to go for a run around your block. Running is the purest of activities, in that you truly can do it without any gear or implements.

Now, as I said before, data and gear can be very beneficial. It's good to know how far or how long you are running. Having quality shoes is crucial, and having comfortable clothes that don't chafe can make running much more enjoyable. But whenever you feel tempted to buy something new, or incorporate more data, ask yourself what you are getting out of it. You can go to a sports physiology lab right now and get your VO2max and lactate threshold tested. But what will that tell you? You can come pretty close at estimating those just by running a 5K this weekend instead.

Likewise, you can buy the latest and greatest GPS running watch with a heart rate monitor that also tracks your cadence, ground contact time, leg speed velocity, and vertical bounce for $1000. Or, you can get a cheap stopwatch and run around the track, which is more accurate than a GPS anyway, and take your pulse the old-fashioned way. As for the other metrics, they are completely unnecessary. The very best runners in the world all have varying levels of cadence, ground contact time, and vertical bounce, so knowing your's serves no purpose whatsoever. It's just noise. You can try to improve one of them, but all that really matters to us is one thing: your speed over a certain distance.

Having so much information can take away from the actual intent of training. To my previous point, in a race, your body and brain only know what effort you are running, and for how long. It doesn't know or care about any other measurements. In training, therefore, we need to increase the speed at a certain effort. So one could argue that the best way to do this is by training at effort. In fact, some of my best fitness has come after a block of doing nothing but effort-based workouts. In other words, instead of running 800m repeats at 5:20 pace, I would do 3-minute surges at 5K effort with no indication of distance or pace. This means the actual pace changes from day-to-day, and even within the same workout, depending on any myriad of factors: wind, temperature, elevation, fatigue, etc. But rather than suffering because of the lack of data, I contend that the workout, and the realized benefit, is actually enhanced because of it. We learn to run by feel instead of relying on outside feedback, and that is key to actually racing well.

As I said before, running is a simple sport. Needless complication serves no purpose other than to sell goods and services. What made Bill Rodgers, Frank Shorter, and Joan Benoit-Samuelson so good in their days? It wasn't GPS watches, silver-infused socks, or beet smoothies. It was good old-fashioned hard work. It may not be glamorous, it may not sell gear, but it gets the job done. So next time you head out the door, pause before lacing up your shoes and ask yourself what you really need. If you're anything like me, you may find that running is much more enjoyable when you have nothing to distract you from the rhythm of your feet on the ground and the wind in your hair.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Training gems from Ed Whitlock

For those of you who don't know, Ed Whitlock was one of the most impressive runners in the past few decades. Despite finishing far back in the pack, he obliterated age-group records by running under three hours in the marathon at age 73 with a phenomenal 2:54:49, and still ran under four hours at age 85. Sadly, he passed away yesterday after fighting prostate cancer.

There are many, many memorials that are written about him, and since I never met him, I can only urge you to read what other people have said if you are interested. But in reading The Morning Shakeout by esteemed coach Mario Fraioli this morning, I came across some very interesting quotes from Ed that really appealed to me.

I like racing and setting world records, but I find training is a bit of a drudge, from this interview after his 3:56 marathon at age 85.

If somehow or other, I could race well without doing any training, that would be ideal. I find this training a bit of a drudge really. I don’t suffer from runner’s highs in training and that kind of thing. It’s all a bit of a chore, really, but I have to [put in a lot of time running] if I want to run well. He said this to Runner's World after his 1:50:47 half marathon, again at age 85.

 I don't particularly enjoy this daily drudge, it's something that has to be done if you want to run well. I suppose it's the sense of satisfaction to be able to keep going for one thing. And to run well, for another (reason). I suppose I'm results-oriented, I'm mainly running for certain times in races, setting records, that sort of thing is what gives me my satisfaction I guess. And I find for me the more running I do the better I'll race. That's the incentive. Ed admitted this several years ago.

To me, these quotes describe the very essence of distance running, or really any endeavor that requires lots of time and effort. Very few competitive runners enjoy every moment of training. Of course, most of us run because we enjoy it, but once you set a goal and start a plan, your training no longer depends on your mood. If it's cold and rainy and miserable outside, but you have a 20-mile long run scheduled, even the most motivated and dedicated racers will entertain the idea of not running. 

The difference is that the truly successful runners banish those thoughts and put in the work, despite the weather, or their mood, or an invitation to a happy hour the night before. I will be the first to admit, that many times, I do not enjoy putting in the miles, especially in the thick of marathon training where everything is layered under a haze of chronic fatigue. But I still go out there and put in the work, because I want to achieve my goals more than I want to take a day off. The end result is more important to me than the day-to-day ebbs and flows of motivation. The trick is to keep that goal in mind and remind yourself of how bad you want it. 

As you progress through your training, you too will undoubtedly encounter periods of low motivation, or fatigue, or ask yourself if it's really worth it. It's just another aspect of training that many people fail to recognize. Convincing yourself that the daily grind is worth it, and that the end result is more important, is a key component of training.

There are various tricks and methods you can employ to keep yourself motivated during these times, such as making a training goal. For instance, your performance goal could be to qualify for Boston. In order to keep yourself on track, you could then have a weekly mileage goal, or to run at least 5 days a week. Hitting these little, interim goals will give you a confidence boost and help you stay motivated. Realizing that the mental aspect of training and the persistence needed to perform at a high level will do wonders for your performances. As Ed Whitlock demonstrated, running around a cemetery for hours every day, while not exciting, resulted in his incredible performances. We can learn a lot from him.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Injury strikes again

Odd-numbered years are bad for me, apparently. Two years ago I suffered a bout of hamstring tendinopathy that sidelined me for almost the entire year. I was able to come back in 2016 and race a good marathon in December, but shortly thereafter hit another bump.

While running on the slippery sidewalks, I aggravated my hip flexor, which made running painful. Being mindful of how minor injuries can turn chronic, I prudently took a few days off, but my hip flexor was still sore when I tried running again. I took a few weeks off, but saw no improvement. Finally, I was starting to feel better, but a yoga class pissed off my tendon again.

After three more weeks of no running, I said screw it, and tried jogging two miles. While I was as sore the next day as after a marathon, my hip did feel mostly OK. I ran another 2 miles a few days later, and even though I swore I was dying, there was no pain.

So, 11 weeks after my supposed minor injury, I am just now starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I have lost all of my fitness from the past year, and my goal of breaking 16 minutes in the 5k is still on hold. But at least I am running again!