EVERY RUN COUNTS
There are no junk miles. If you’re not injured so badly that you’re altering your form, or so sick that you feel much worse after running, then it’s all good. Even if you think a run doesn’t advance your fitness, it has other benefits — promoting blood flow, clearing your mind, getting you away from the computer, burning calories, getting you out in nature, helping you spend time with friends, maintaining the rhythm of good training, and infinitely so on.
It’s not uncommon to go to bed thinking, “Darn, I should have run today.” It’s not common to go to bed thinking, “I shouldn’t have run today.”
When you’re feeling flat, a little fast running is often the best cure. A slow 5 miles might leave you feeling more lethargic. Instead, throw in some random short pick-ups, or do a set of striders on your street once you’ve done your normal loop. See “Managing Muscle Tension” here for an explanation of why little bursts of fast running can help you surpass sluggishness.
Multipace training is, of course, the key to top performance regardless of your target race distance. But that’s not the only reason to regularly do all sorts of workouts, from long runs and basic speed sessions to slow recovery runs and tempo workouts. There’s no better way to keep your running interesting than to have peaks and valleys of intensity and duration woven throughout your training weeks.
Not every “hard” workout has to be a killer session. You can sneak in more quality without going to the well by stopping by a track or hill or obstacle-free stretch of road toward the end of a run and doing a few up-tempo repeats of between 200 and 800m.
Finish some of your longer repeat workouts, like miles or kilometers, with a few 200s or 300s. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how fast you can run the short segments once you’re fully warmed up. I once set a 200m PR on the last of four 200s done impromptu after a set of six 800s.
WORKOUTS IN TRANSLATION
When you hear elites talk about their training, translate their workouts into efforts relative to race pace. A 20-miler with the last 8 miles at 5:00 per mile sounds really fast — and it is — but for an elite man, it’s a long run with the last portion at marathon race pace. You can and should do such a workout regularly before your next marathon.
It’s also helpful to understand elites’ recovery paces relative to race paces. A national-class woman who runs easy mileage at 7:30 per mile is doing those recovery runs more than 2 minutes per mile slower than her 10K race pace. Do you?
At least a few days a week, decide what course you’re going to run, and then leave your watch at home. Other days, run wherever, guided by total time on your watch. The thing to mostly avoid is timing yourself over the same courses day after day. That way lies the madness of beating yourself up for running slower than you “should” or forcing yourself to pick it up because you’re 6 seconds slower at your 45-minutes-into-it checkpoint than you were yesterday.
When you’re hurt and have to cross-train, try to spend more time on it than you do your running. After all, you can get in a decent run in 30 minutes, but you’re not going to find lots of cyclists who would consider half an hour anything but a warm-up. Make the time go faster on individual workouts by translating your usual hard running workouts — VO2 max sessions, tempo workouts, etc. — to the pool or bike or elliptical or wherever you’re spending your non-running time. Structure cross-training weeks like your running weeks; the variety will help your time in injury limbo pass faster than if you do the same medium-effort waiting-out-the-clock workout every day.
When you feel like you’re in a rut, make a deliberate effort to shake things up. Head out the door without the slightest plan of where to run. Run at an unusual time of day. Drive to run somewhere different. Even wearing crazy clothes can be enough to reboot your mental approach.
Look, you know you’re going to run. So don’t waste time and mental energy staring out the window at the horrible weather.
Look through your old logs once in a while. Even when you were running PR after PR, things were never as effortless as you now remember them. And when you were hurt or struggling, you got through it, just like you will the next time you hit a roadblock.
We find time for the things that are important to us. Period.
Avoid tying your training to arbitrary numbers. As Don Kardong once noted in relation to weekly mileage, 88 is a much rounder number than 100. (Besides, can you honestly say that all your courses are precisely calibrated?) This notion also applies to numbers outside of weekly volume. “One mile” and “10 percent” are meaningless constructs to your body, so why would “Increase your mileage by no more than 10 percent per week” have any relevance to how you can safely progress? Similarly, 8:00 or 7:00 or whatever number you’ve decided is the pace per mile at which anything slower is a waste of time might mean something to your head, but not to your body.
Always get a run in before getting on an airplane.
Behavioral economists talk about the importance of choice architecture, or the environment in which we make choices. The classic example is the difference between an employer-matched retirement fund where participation requires choosing to enroll versus enrollment being the default option. In the latter case, more employees participate. The gist of the field’s teaching is: Make it easy to do the right thing. Choice architecture is huge for daily and long-term success in running. Whether it’s establishing that the default Sunday morning option is meeting your group to go long, or keeping your stretching rope in plain sight in an area you frequently pass, or having healthful post-run snacks on hand for when you’re famished, or packing your running gear in your carry-on luggage, make it easy to do the right thing.
Do almost of all your tempo runs off the track. When was the last time you got 400m splits on a perfectly flat course in a 10-mile race or a marathon?
Become a student of the sport. It ruins none of the magic of self-discovery to learn that thousands of others have gone before you and experienced every challenge and joy that you have. Take advantage of the lessons others have drawn from their mistakes so that you don’t have to repeat them.
NEED FOR SPEED
Always stay in touch with your basic speed. You’ll spend a lot more time just getting back to where you were if you ignore it for weeks at a time than you will tending to it once or twice a week throughout the year. You don’t need to do hands-on-knees sets of 200s every week to maintain your speed. Fast, relaxed striders toward the end of an easy run or immediately following one will go a long way toward preserving your turnover and the increased range of motion that comes only with running near top-end speed.
Think of ancillary matters — flexibility work, core strengthening, form drills — not in either/or terms in relation to your running, but in terms of “yes, and … ” That is, they’re not replacements for running, but a form of insurance policy that will allow you to better pursue and enjoy your running at whatever level you choose to. Even if they don’t improve your performance — and they almost certainly will — when done correctly they’re going to make the simple act of running feel better, especially the older you get and the longer you’ve been running. Most of these activities are easy to sneak in throughout the day in little clumps of activity.
Something is almost always better than nothing. There will be days when some aspect of reality intrudes and you have to scrap your ideal-world training plan. That doesn’t make scrapping the whole affair the logical conclusion. A 4-miler is much closer to a 10-miler than it is to 0 miles for the day.
Many of us are in shape to get in shape. Put another way, many of us have never really tested the limits of our running potential. Remembering being tired during that 70-mile week you tried once doesn’t count as “high mileage doesn’t work for me.” You know from your early running days that, once you make a fitness breakthrough, it’s easier, not harder to train at higher levels of volume and intensity. Of course you’re free to run at whatever level you want and that you think the rest of your life allows. But don’t mistake that choice for confirmation that your current level of performance is the best you’re capable of. How will you know unless you try?
If you were healthy and at a good weight when you were 25, there’s almost never good reason to be significantly heavier than that. Even if you’ve tacked on muscle — which, come on, is usually not the case — the extra weight is almost certainly making you slower, not faster. As runners, we already live in ways contrary to accepted beliefs on what aging is supposed to be like, so why not take that attitude toward weight as well?
Don’t believe everything you read. It is indeed possible to run — long and fast, for months on end — on a stress fracture. Rest doesn’t cure all injuries. Great races are possible when you’re deep into heavy training. Less is almost never more. And here’s the real upender: Haile Gebrselassie jogs in place at stoplights.
Relax, it’s just running. Of course it can be the most intoxicating, captivating, meaningful part of your life. But it’s still just running. Nobody’s making you do it, and you’re not going to save the world doing it. So find what you enjoy about running, and then follow your bliss.