Blog Subtitle

Reverse-engineering the Ultramarathon

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Training Talk, Part 2 - A More Excellent Way

Dark Shade Creek (near Windber, PA) - Thanksgiving morning, 2011

In Part 1 of this topic I shared something of my training history and results prior to my first ultra.  The conclusion of that story was that a change in my training was badly needed.

Well I made one, and here for comparison are the results:

This chart shows all of my data - from the start of my 2011 training up to the end of last week.  The new training regimen began in earnest the week of November 13th - two weeks after my second 50k in a month at Mendon Ponds.  It's the first bar that breaks (for the first time in my life) 40 miles-per-week.

The week after that was Thanksgiving week - and the chart shows that I hit another new high of 47 miles that week.  And that number doesn't include an additional 11 miles of hiking with family the same week - 58 miles on my feet in total!

I've switched the shorter moving average in this chart from a 4-week period to a 3-week period, which produces a smoother curve given that I'm now running in 3-week cycles instead of four.  The 3-week moving average broke 30mpw that week of Thanksgiving and except for a brief pull-back around Christmas has increased steadily since - breaking over 50mpw last week.  The 12-week moving average just broke 40mpw.

The 'secret' of successful training:

What happened?  Did I suddenly become immune to injury or something?  What changed?  Simple: I started running slower - on purpose.

Anyone who is a seasoned runner who has followed a well-designed training program can probably stop reading here.  You probably already know what I am about to say.

For anyone left, here is the secret to running lots of miles and avoiding injury while you do it: run most of those miles really slowly.  Here is the same data, shown in my RunKeeper fitness report with average pace plotted as a line:

Notice the pacing data from the week of November 13th - which had the slowest average per-mile pace I've ever run.  A few other key things to know/notice about this data:
  1. Most of this mileage was on pavement - and mostly on a flat course.  Those are the same conditions as in my running at the beginning of last year, prior to my injury.  In fact, most of it was on exactly the same course.
  2. Notice that average pace is following a consistent slow down-trend after November 13th  (i.e. it's getting faster).
  3. Realize that even with that pace improvement I am still running about 1.5 to 2 minutes per mile slower than I was this time last year.
So - mileage is going up and pace is going down.  Is anything staying the same?  Yes: heart rate.

I am training to a heart rate target.

The light finally dawns:

This all actually began one day back in September, when there had been a discussion on the Ultra List about running more miles as the best way to get in shape for ultras - sort of a 'duh' piece of advice as far as I'm concerned, but for some reason it never fails to generate a lot of debate on the list.  I joined in to say that I'd always wanted to be able to run more miles, but that injury always stopped me when I started approaching 30mpw.  One response to me, from a very helpful and experienced ultrarunner named John Price, was simple:

"Look at how you are running those miles and slow everything down about 1 or 2 minutes per mile, even if you THINK you are running things slow enough right now... I think you'll find you can run quite a bit more NOW than what you believe..."

I had heard such advice before: run slower, do most of your running at a conversational pace.  Even some of the best, most accomplished runners on the Ultra List would occasionally say something like, "I rarely run faster than 10:00 miles."  This time I was just desperate enough to actually try it.

Putting it into practice:

The discussion on the list moved on to target heart rates and use of a monitor with an alarm to enforce the slower training pace.  I wasn't ready to make a major change to what I was doing before my fall races, but immediately afterward I located and dusted off my old heart rate monitor and set out to try it.  First, I had to calculate the correct target heart rate for me.  The formula I was given was:

RHR + 0.75 (MHR - RHR)

That is, take the difference between your maximum heart rate and your resting heart rate, take 75% of that and add it to your resting heart rate.  That is your target.  Set your HR monitor to beep at you if you exceed that target and (at least during the base building phase) run every mile at or below that target heart rate.  Do not worry about how far below the target you go.

I measured my RHR by taking my pulse prior to getting out of bed in the morning.  I found this very challenging to do because my pulse was frustratingly hard to find at that time, and usually by the time I was sure I could feel it well enough to count it accurately the movement and frustration of finding it had elevated it.  At any rate, I came up with 48.  For my MHR I used the standard formula of 220 minus my age (50), giving an estimated MHR of 170.  Plugging these numbers into the formula gave:

170 - 48 = 122 * 0.75 = 91.5 + 48 = 139.5

I rounded that up to 140, set my HR monitor's alarm there, and started always running with the monitor.

I have to say, when I first started this it was one of the most frustrating things I have ever done.  I started thinking of the HR monitor as my ball and chain - the annoying thing strapped to my wrist that started beeping any time I started having fun!  I could run no faster than 13:00-14:00 without tripping that stupid alarm!  I wrote John complaining about it and looking for reassurance that this would indeed lead somewhere.  He advised me to be patient and things would improve over the course of a few weeks.


He was right.  In a short time the feedback from the monitor taught me how to move more efficiently - to move forward at a slowly improving pace while maintaining the same level of effort.  And this wasn't all just subtle changes in form that improved running economy.  My body significantly improved.  Faster running began to actually require less effort.  And here, I think, is the key thing: recovery was easy and complete.

I had developed a healthy respect for recovery some years ago when I began weightlifting.  Many bodybuilders make the mistake of working too hard - thinking that the benefits come from the work.  That's intuitive, right?  Well it may be intuitive, but it is wrong.  The benefits of exercise come not from the exercise itself, but indirectly - from recovering from the exercise.

Exercise (any exercise) tears down the body.  It damages muscles, ligaments, even bone.  The body then has to repair the damage.  Improvement in fitness for the type of exercise that we do comes from the fact that the body's repair mechanisms tend to over-build in response to the damage that we do.  The body assumes that we may call on it to perform the same task again and it acts defensively - to make us stronger than we were and hopefully prevent damage the next time.

I believe that the biggest mistake anyone can make in training is to train again before the body has had time to complete the repair process.  The next training stress short-circuits the over-build process (or even the repair process itself if we train again even sooner) and we simply do not get the intended benefit out of much (or at worst even any) of the training that we do.

I understood all of this, conceptually, but I simply had no idea how much running was too much - or, more to the point, how much running intensity was too much - and how I was keeping myself almost constantly in that state of wearing down during all my previous phases of training.

All of this is getting rather long-winded, but the real message is in the data anyway.  Where before I was afraid of breaking at 30mpw, as of this moment I have run an average of 40mpw for the last 12 weeks!  In just the last two weeks I have run close to 125 miles, and March 2012 has a very good chance of being my first 200-mile month.

Even better, I have enjoyed running more these last four months than I have at any point in my life.  It's not wiping me out.  I don't find myself dreading the next training run on my schedule, but eager for it.  I don't end every training run totally depleted and barely able to walk, but energized.  My training is no longer a brutal cycle of discomfort and slow decline, but a thoroughly enjoyable process of building up.

And speed is slowly but surely returning.  I've recently added a once-a-week tempo run in which I can now run four miles at the fastest pace I ever was able to run four miles before - and complete the session without even being out of breath.

And what about endurance?  Yesterday I ran 21 miles - slowly, at an average pace of only 11:52 - but I negative split the distance.  I ran 10K splits of 1:12:33, 1:11:56, and 1:09:45 - not anyone's definition of fast, but the key thing is I was getting stronger as the run continued, and I followed the last 10K with my second-fastest 5K of the day.  If I could continue that performance for another 10 miles I could complete a 50K in under six hours.

The future's so bright (I have to wear shades):

View from the Point: near Murrell's Inlet, SC, March 5, 2012.
Halfway through a 13-mile beach run -
first of many during my first-ever 60+ mile running week.
In short (and finally) new horizons in running are opening up to me.  I am really beginning to believe in my goals for this year and next.  I am really beginning to believe that, Lord willing, I have years of improvement ahead of me, even at my age, and I am looking to that future with considerable anticipation.

Here's to running slow!

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