Blog Subtitle

Reverse-engineering the Ultramarathon

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Training Talk, Part 1 - A Hacker's Approach

This blog is named "The Running Hacker" for a reason.

The reason is that unlike a lot of people trying to run ultras, I have no background in running.  No experience.  I came to this knowing pretty much nothing about training for endurance.  A lot of people figure they should run a marathon before even thinking about moving up to ultras.  Many in the sport are long-time marathoners or triathletes.  Many are former high-school and college track competitors who have been running all their lives.

Me?  I'm a life-long non-athlete.  In high school I was in the band.  My only history with running is that I ran everywhere when I was a kid (think short sprints, not long slow distance) and later in life I always gravitated to running during my brief periods of 'getting in shape.'  I never ran much in terms of weekly mileage, and I never kept it up for long.

The Hacker's View of Training:

All of this non-experience affected my view of how to train to run.  I thought it was simple.  I thought you just went out and ran as fast as you could for as long as you could - and if you kept doing that regularly you would gradually get faster and be able to run longer.  I mean, it's running, right?  What could be more simple than that?

Now even though that's what I thought, I am an engineer - and engineers can't just do things (even if they think they are simple) without reading the relevant literature.  So while I did just start running, I also started reading.  I pretty quickly discovered the huge body of theory out there on how to train for endurance events.

The big names are everywhere: Arthur Lydiard, Jack Daniels, Phil Maffetone, Pose Method, Chi Running.

You can pretty quickly get lost in a world of new terms: base training, 'tempo' runs, 'strides' and 'fartleks'.  There's this thing called 'speedwork'.  All of these are defined in terms of pace you might run them at: 5k pace, 10k pace, half-marathon pace, marathon pace, 'threshold,' aerobic, anaerobic - on and on it goes.

How am I supposed to know what 'marathon pace' means if I've never run a marathon?

The thing is, all of these are meaningful to people who are real runners, people who have actually run competitively - maybe even been coached at some point in their lives.  They are not meaningful to a running hacker (at least not immediately meaningful).

So I handled the overwhelming volume of information in classic hacker fashion.  I concluded that if you wanted to be an elite runner somewhere up at the front of the pack then you needed to know all of this, but if you were just a hacker like me - not trying to squeeze out the last 20% of possible performance - then none of it mattered.  Just go run.

A Hacker's Reward:

How did that approach work out for me?  Last year's training record is an illustrative example:

Now, appreciate that having this kind of data is a very new thing for me.  What you're seeing there is the very first training data I have ever kept in three years of trying to run seriously.  The cycle is pretty typical of what I've experienced though, I think.

Blue bars show weekly running miles.  Grey bars show weekly walking miles.  The red line is a 4-week moving average of running miles, and the black line is the 12-week moving average.  The dotted line is the 4-week moving average of the walking miles.  This shows all of my training leading up to my first ultra at Oil Creek.

What you can see is that I started the year following a very regimented plan for building weekly mileage.  It was presented as a 'base-building' plan for runners coming back from injury or a layoff for any other reason.  Since I was coming off of a three-month hiatus, it sounded like a good plan for me.

I hit it using my general training philosophy.  I ran the prescribed miles on the prescribed days and I ran them as hard as I could each day.

For a while it worked.  Distances increased.  Pace improved (somewhat) - but it was hard!  I had to drop the weight training program I was still in the final weeks of because I just couldn't handle the added training volume.  By the second cycle I could hardly wait for the down week to come.  By the end of the third cycle I had to take two down weeks.

And by the end of the fourth cycle I had developed pain in my right shin that was bad enough to have me limping during the day - diagnosis: a tibial stress reaction.  I lost the next three months of running training.  Fortunately I was able to fill that gap with a lot of walking and elliptical trainer workouts to keep up my aerobic fitness - but my training plan for Oil Creek was completely blown out of the water.

I ended up running Oil Creek with my 4-week average weekly mileage just barely in the 20's - and only two thirty-plus mile running weeks ahead of the race.  Honestly, I had no business being there and no reason to expect that I would finish it.  I guess at the 50k distance it's possible to replace proper training with stubbornness and still get it done, however slowly and painfully.  But this is not the way I want to run ultras.

Getting back to the bigger picture on training, I said that my experience last year was typical.  In what sense? It's that cycle of train hard, break down, recover, and start over again.  For three years it's pretty much been two steps forward, and two steps back - or maybe something like one-and-a-half steps back.  I've made progress, just painfully slow progress.

Something had to change.

And something did change.  In the next post I'll talk about what I've been doing since Oil Creek - and how it is turning me into a real runner.

No comments:

Post a Comment