Archive for marathoning

Triathletes: Have We Needlessly Overcomplicated Training Intensity?

"K.I.S.S."  - Just about every experienced smart person ever 

Back in the late 90s, in my very early days as a triathlete, I worked with Coach Troy Jacobson. Troy taught me a lot about how to train. One of my earliest “lessons” came when I went to one of his (well-known at the time) weekend triathlon workshops in Baltimore. The weekend began with a Friday evening gathering. It started out friendly enough - you know, the usual (slightly forced) smiles, hand shakes, and nervous chatter.

Not long into our evening however, things started to get serious. “Up on the wall,” he said - for a winner take all, wall-sit. His intent was clear: to find out who was REALLY serious about improving - who was willing to suffer and hang on until no one else was left.  (I managed to be the last one "sitting" that night on the wall. Somehow. I mean, you know….he didn't know me. And since I’d recently hired him as a coach, I wasn’t about to give in or give up. He needed to see I was ready to get to work to do whatever it was going to take).

The fun got even more serious the next day when Troy led our group out to a rather “famous” hill (to his previous campers and the local riders) for some all-out, no holds barred, bike hill repeats. It was a massively steep hill that was about 200-300 yards long. It’s all a little bit of a blur as I look back, but I have vivid memories of three things (beyond that I suffered immeasurably):

The first was Troy speaking to the group beforehand with a very serious tone – everyone was nervously staring as he said “your goal today is to go as hard as you can up the hill, in the biggest gear you can turn, and then turn around and get down as fast as possible so you can do it again. Keep going until you can’t go anymore.” Naturally there were a lot of nervous laughs in the group – everyone knew ahead of time what was in store. There was no hiding.

The second thing I remember was him riding alongside of me up the hill literally screaming at the top of his lungs for me to go harder. And I mean screaming. No mercy. He spent his time during the repeats, circling up and down the hill encouraging all of the riders. (It’s worth noting that at the time, Troy was the top amateur at Ironman Hawaii and one of the best long course triathletes in the country; he'd soon become the half-iron national champ. And his strength as a triathlete was cycling. Bottom line, the guy was fit and could ride!).

Not that it matters to this blog post, but I was the last one left that day.

So what was the third thing I remember? He gathered the group together afterward and congratulated everyone, then looked at me with a grin and said, “well, Al, I guess there are some hills up in Connecticut, huh?”


Learning How To Train

That weekend taught me a lot about what it meant to go HARD. But that’s not all I learned. It also taught me about what it meant to go very easy, too.

You see, Troy had 28+ mph half-iron bike speed in his legs, but despite that bike strength, he’d also be very comfortable in an easy ride situation averaging 15 mph or so. On a flat road no less. We had the occasion every so often to do these kinds of rides together in those early years, during which we discussed how important it was to keep it easy in those kinds of situations. In other words, he knew when it was time to keep it EASY and was very willing to do it.  He didn't let ego lure him into a too hard effort. And similarly he also knew when it was time to go HARD. He taught me the difference between the two, in real time.

The same lessons were emphasized in running. And in the pool.

Differentiating intensity. Making sure easy was easy. And making sure hard was….well…VERY hard.  Not just giving the concept lip service, but actually putting it into action on a daily basis.

Of course, I’d learned the value of differentiating intensity and effort from my competitive running years much earlier. The difference with triathlon is important though – with a higher overall workload with more training hours and more skills to develop, the risk of training at the wrong intensity carries with it greater consequences: Over-training, staleness, injury, and sub-par race day performances, to name a few. All of which leads me to the title of this post:

Have we made training intensity too complicated? 

Troy had a very simple system for setting up heart rate and RPE based training zones. He used the simplest possible approach, using basic colors we're all familiar with to represent THREE different intensities.

  • Blue was aerobic (which is easier than most endurance athletes think!).
  • Red was HARD (which I’d guess many have never really experienced in the way I did on that hill).
  • Gray was the dreaded "no-go" zone in between the two.

You're Getting Tired, But Are You Improving?

He and I discussed this gray zone quite a bit. This is the intensity you generally want to avoid like the plague. It’s the intensity that will tire you out and that feeds your ego, giving a short-term ego boost, but in the long run (no pun intended), isn't likely to help you reach a new, higher level of fitness and performance.

Here's a couple of examples:  (You'll have to adjust pace based on your own fitness level right now - regardless, I hope you get the point).

  • How about going out and running a 5k race and averaging a 7-minute per mile pace. Then going out in training and doing the majority of your “aerobic” running at around 8:30 pace.  Assuming that 7-min average was on a fair course and your best effort, your true z2 pace is much closer to 9:00 (or slower), than to 8:30.
  • What about going out for a group ride on a course you know you could honestly ride at ~16 to 17mph average speed and have it be truly, comfortably “aerobic,” yet the group you join has some stronger riders with egos (doesn’t every group?) so you work hard to hang on the back of the group and end up averaging 18 or 19mph for the ride. Sounds like you’d improve from that, right? I mean, you worked very hard, right?

I think it's fair to say you deserve some kudos for hanging on. You certainly went hard enough to tire yourself out. But the really important question to ask in my opinion is, did you go hard enough to truly lift your fitness to a new level after some recovery? I'd bet my wallet that Troy would say no. And I’d agree with him.

So what are a few of the most common training errors I see that are related?

  • You could guess this one: turning “aerobic” z2, into semi “tempo” or moderately hard.  (Ego, ego, blah, blah)
  • Not making easy z1, easy enough.
  • Not taking time to warm up into sessions from the start. Your first mile should be your slowest, most of the time. (The exception might be a “race specific” session where you’re working on a specific skill or ability that dictates you go harder from the beginning).
  • Letting ego or your training group dictate how you train.
  • Not running or pedaling or stroking easily enough during "recovery" intervals that separate "work" intervals.

Most folks will read this and nod their heads. “Yup, I guess that makes sense.” But very honestly, most will only give it lip service in the heat of the moment, because egos are powerful! 😊


Troy was one of the best triathletes in the country at the time I worked with him and he ended up giving me my start as a coach when he created the Triathlon Academy. He's one of so many that have taught me so much along the way.

Above all else though, he reinforced in me a concept that I’ve repeated a thousand times to others as a coach:

The hard days should be easy, and the easy days should be hard.

In other words, when you train easily on the days you should, you’re actively resting and preparing for the next hard effort, when you’ll be ready to go, precisely BECAUSE you didn’t go semi-hard the day before.

Similarly, after a truly hard day (like it was for me on that hill), you’ll be forced to go easily the day after. And because of the effort you expended, that “easy” session will actually feel hard. You’ll run “slow,” pedal “slow” and feel like you’re moving through molasses.

All you need is some smart recovery and you’re ready to get back after it, bringing everything you’ve got and getting every ounce of benefit out of the session in the process.


Sometimes Simpler IS Better

Despite all the cutting-edge graphics and charts on platforms like Training Peaks and others, all of the discussion among coaches and athletes about TSS (Training Stress Score) and the detailed zones courtesy of Andy Coggan et all, the reality is...some things don't change as much as we might thing, as time goes on. And sometimes, simpler is better.

Blue is blue. Red is red. Gray is gray.

The take home? Spend most of your time being blue. When you are red, you should be ready to rock, so don't hold back. And, avoid the gray as much as you can.

Train smart!

To your success,
~Al

Boston Marathon Race Week: Old Habits Die Hard!

"Mistakes are the portals for discovery."  - James Joyce
"There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order to things." - Niccolo Machiavelli
"The obstacle is the path."  - Zen aphorism 


Spring is in the air in New England. And it's April. That means it's Boston Marathon time. One of the most important races in my own journey as a runner - I always miss it when I'm not there lining up in Hopkinton!

Today's post isn't about this year's race, or the bombing from a few years ago. It is about training for the marathon, or any other long distance race. Because when it comes to LONG RUNS prior to a marathon, Ironman, or some other long distance race or run, old habits sure die hard.  

What's the old habit I'm referring to? Running your last long run 3 or even 2 weeks out from race day.   

Its amazing to me that in this day and age, with all we've learned about how our body functions best, the idea of doing a "longer" run within 3 and even 2 weeks prior to a marathon is still very prevalent out there in the running community. As the title of this post states, old habits (like being afraid of doing any strength training, or counting mileage as the primary predictor of performance!) die HARD!    

So When Should You Do Your Last Long Run? 

I was first exposed to research about the amount of time it actually takes for deep cellular tissue (muscle) damage to heal (from training) around 1990.  That's 24 years ago. One study, conducted at Harvard at that time, showed that tissue remained significantly damaged even after 4 or 5 weeks of "recovery" after that "long" run.

After learning about that study and then discussing these concepts with our former podcast guest and running expert Owen Anderson, PhD (who at that time was the editor of Running Research News) I decided to adjust my own training to reflect that longer taper period prior to race day. I immediately felt the benefits of it with my first 2:40 marathon in 1991.  To that point, I'd been able to run a 2:50, but with this new approach to tapering, I ran a full 10 minutes faster and felt better on race day.  I don't necessarily credit that taper and distance between the last long run and race day as the sole reason for the 10 minute drop, but I do believe it was a huge factor.

Without a doubt, I am convinced that a huge percentage of the runners who are running marathons in this day and age, and in fact many of those lining up in Boston next Monday, toe the line with "still damaged" muscle cells from a longer run, too close to race day.  Maybe its me, but it always made sense that if I wanted to have an opportunity to run my best on race day, that my legs needed to be healed from what I had done to them in training. That might sound like a simple concept, but again, old habits die hard.

Keep in mind as you think about this, that a "long" run can mean different things to different runners. Someone running 90 miles per week can run longer, relatively speaking, than can someone who can only handle 30 miles per week. But in my opinion, even on an elite level, a lot of the country's best marathoners are still running too long, too close to race day, even with their lofty weekly mileage totals. I've employed this taper strategy or some variation there of, with every person I've coached since I began coaching, and as I mentioned, used it myself since the early 1990s.

Obviously, doing this requires that you do GET IN those longer runs early enough in your preparation. But even if you fall short in either the number or length of those longer runs, trying to "squeeze in" one last long run too close to race day, ensures that you will toe the line with less than 100% of your capability that day, and that's a shame. The best chance any of us have to run our best "on the day," is to show up 100% healthy and healed and motivated to do well, with a solid strategy in place.  The key words are "100% healthy." If you're not, even with the best training and highest levels of motivation, you will very likely do less well than you might otherwise be capable.

Why Do Runners Continue To Run Long Too Close To Race Day?

Big Confidence Boost?: At first glance that close-to-race-day long run seems like a smart idea. Many runners believe they need to prove to themselves that they can go the distance on race day, and what better way to show you’re ready than to knock off a 20-miler just a couple of weeks before you go to the starting line! What a great shot in the arm to your confidence, right? Wrong.

It might sound logical to lay one last long run down to boost confidence, but that would be a mistake, and the reason is simple: You need recovery after your long runs.

Many runners dismiss the amount of pounding we put our bodies through running those miles. As I often say here in our Lab, a mile of running is the equvalent of 1500 one-leg squat jumps! That's a lot of repetitive trauma.

In an article Owen wrote in RRN some years ago, he referenced research conducted by Dutch exercise scientists with a group of marathon runners. "About two thirds had significant signs of muscle injury on the morning of the race, before they had run just one mile of the marathon!" According to the study, "the reason for this muscular mayhem, for the most part, was the long running the Dutch had carried out during the month before the race. The Dutch-athletes’ muscles were totally non-recovered on race day." The Dutch researchers found that training runs with durations longer than 15 kilometers (~ 9.3 miles) were the ones which seemed to produce the greatest amount of muscle damage. Below 15K, little muscle damage accrued.  (The reason why I started back then, making 9-10mile runs my longest within four weeks of the race).

The BIG Myth.

The biggest myth that exists out there among runners getting ready for the marathon is that a long gap between the last long run and the actual marathon will make our body "forget" how to run long.  Going a full four weeks without a true "long" run, will cause our body to lose its ability to efficiently cover the distance, right?  Not so much! The truth is that provided you've done the necessary periodic long runs prior to that 4 week period and built to a distance of 20-22 miles on average, your body will not "forget" how to complete the distance on race day.   

In fact, if you approach your training in the right way, you can use this long-run-free four-week period to truly boost fitness and be more prepared than ever for a great race day! As your muscles heal and recovery progresses, you can...

  • step up the intensity of your training, allowing you to do more of the kinds of training sessions which will have a direct impact on marathon readiness. Those are sessions focusing on lifting vV02max, running economy, and threshold.
  • focus more time and energy on your overall fitness, specific mobility and flexibility needs, and topping off your running specific strength.

Most runners are so used to running on battered and bruised legs and being exhausted, that they never actually FEEL what it feels like to run on legs that are recovered and 100% healthy. What a shame!

The Bottom Line?

A smart marathon or long distance run training plan is one that builds fitness progressively and THEN ALLOWS for adequate recovery prior to race day. Many typical race training plans I see on the internet or written by other "experts" often leave out this critical recovery aspect, having runners run long 2 or 3 weeks out from race day. As a result, the runners following those plans or trusting that guidance end up toeing the line with damaged muscles, even though they "believe" they are 100% ready to have the best race possible.  If you're reading this thinking "that guy is an expert running coach," or "my fast friend does it this way," stop and think for a moment.

Simply put, 3 weeks isn't enough time for healing for the majority of runners, and 2 weeks is flat out absurd under normal circumstances. The exception might be if your weekly mileage totals are over 80 to 100 per week.  If your weekly mileage is below those numbers, you'll be very smart to leave at least 4 weeks from the last long run you do until race day. Train smart in this way, and you'll feel better and run faster as a result!

~Coach Al 

036: Listener Questions! Last Minute Marathon Tips! [Podcast]

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Play
 

 

Coach Al at mile 13 of the 1988 Boston Marathon

Coach Al at mile 13 of the 1988 Boston Marathon

 

In today's podcast, Coach Al goes solo to tackle a couple of listener questions, as well as sharing some "last minute" tips for marathoners everywhere, including those toeing the line this coming Monday for the 118th running of the Boston Marathon.

Among the topics discussed...

* What causes the burning sensation you get in your legs when you train?

* What causes cramping?

* Should you run the day before the marathon or take it completely off?

* What's the biggest mistake most marathoners make?

* When should I return to running after the marathon?

* And tips on including speed work if you're training for an ultra.

* And much more!

Best of luck to all of the Boston Marathon runners and especially to those TEAM HOLE IN THE WALL runners! Have a great race!

                                                                                  All the best,

                                                                                  ~Coach Al

 

Boston Marathon Race Week: Old Habits Die Hard!

"Mistakes are the portals for discovery."  - James Joyce
"There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order to things." - Niccolo Machiavelli
"The obstacle is the path."  - Zen aphorism 


This year's Boston Marathon, which will be held next Monday April 21, will be among the most significant and historic in that race's storied history, in part because of the bombing events from last year's race. Today's post isn't about the bombing or about THE Boston Marathon per se.  It is about the fact that when it comes to LONG RUNS prior to a marathon, Ironman, or some other long distance race or run, old habits sure die hard.  

What's the old habit I'm referring to? Running your last long run 3 or even 2 weeks out from race day.   

Its amazing to me that in this day and age, with all we've learned about how our body functions best, the idea of doing a "longer" run within 3 and even 2 weeks prior to a marathon is still very prevalent out there in the running community. As the title of this post states, old habits (like being afraid of doing any strength training, or counting mileage as the primary predictor of performance!) die HARD!    

So When Should You Do Your Last Long Run? 

I was first exposed to research about the amount of time it actually takes for deep cellular tissue (muscle) damage to heal (from training) around 1990.  That's 24 years ago. One study, conducted at Harvard at that time, showed that tissue remained significantly damaged even after 4 or 5 weeks of "recovery" after that "long" run.

After learning about that study and then discussing these concepts with our former podcast guest and running expert Owen Anderson, PhD (who at that time was the editor of Running Research News) I decided to adjust my own training to reflect that longer taper period prior to race day. I immediately felt the benefits of it with my first 2:40 marathon in 1991.  To that point, I'd been able to run a 2:50, but with this new approach to tapering, I ran a full 10 minutes faster and felt better on race day.  I don't necessarily credit that taper and distance between the last long run and race day as the sole reason for the 10 minute drop, but I do believe it was a huge factor.

Without a doubt, I am convinced that a huge percentage of the runners who are running marathons in this day and age, and in fact many of those lining up in Boston next Monday, toe the line with "still damaged" muscle cells from a longer run, too close to race day.  Maybe its me, but it always made sense that if I wanted to have an opportunity to run my best on race day, that my legs needed to be healed from what I had done to them in training. That might sound like a simple concept, but again, old habits die hard.

Keep in mind as you think about this, that a "long" run can mean different things to different runners. Someone running 90 miles per week can run longer, relatively speaking, than can someone who can only handle 30 miles per week. But in my opinion, even on an elite level, a lot of the country's best marathoners are still running too long, too close to race day, even with their lofty weekly mileage totals. I've employed this taper strategy or some variation there of, with every person I've coached since I began coaching, and as I mentioned, used it myself since the early 1990s.

Obviously, doing this requires that you do GET IN those longer runs early enough in your preparation. But even if you fall short in either the number or length of those longer runs, trying to "squeeze in" one last long run too close to race day, ensures that you will toe the line with less than 100% of your capability that day, and that's a shame. The best chance any of us have to run our best "on the day," is to show up 100% healthy and healed and motivated to do well, with a solid strategy in place.  The key words are "100% healthy." If you're not, even with the best training and highest levels of motivation, you will very likely do less well than you might otherwise be capable.

Why Do Runners Continue To Run Long Too Close To Race Day?

Big Confidence Boost?: At first glance that close-to-race-day long run seems like a smart idea. Many runners believe they need to prove to themselves that they can go the distance on race day, and what better way to show you’re ready than to knock off a 20-miler just a couple of weeks before you go to the starting line! What a great shot in the arm to your confidence, right? Wrong.

It might sound logical to lay one last long run down to boost confidence, but that would be a mistake, and the reason is simple: You need recovery after your long runs.

Many runners dismiss the amount of pounding we put our bodies through running those miles. As I often say here in our Lab, a mile of running is the equvalent of 1500 one-leg squat jumps! That's a lot of repetitive trauma.

In an article Owen wrote in RRN some years ago, he referenced research conducted by Dutch exercise scientists with a group of marathon runners. "About two thirds had significant signs of muscle injury on the morning of the race, before they had run just one mile of the marathon!" According to the study, "the reason for this muscular mayhem, for the most part, was the long running the Dutch had carried out during the month before the race. The Dutch-athletes’ muscles were totally non-recovered on race day." The Dutch researchers found that training runs with durations longer than 15 kilometers (~ 9.3 miles) were the ones which seemed to produce the greatest amount of muscle damage. Below 15K, little muscle damage accrued.  (The reason why I started back then, making 9-10mile runs my longest within four weeks of the race).

The BIG Myth.

The biggest myth that exists out there among runners getting ready for the marathon is that a long gap between the last long run and the actual marathon will make our body "forget" how to run long.  Going a full four weeks without a true "long" run, will cause our body to lose its ability to efficiently cover the distance, right?  Not so much! The truth is that provided you've done the necessary periodic long runs prior to that 4 week period and built to a distance of 20-22 miles on average, your body will not "forget" how to complete the distance on race day.   

In fact, if you approach your training in the right way, you can use this long-run-free four-week period to truly boost fitness and be more prepared than ever for a great race day! As your muscles heal and recovery progresses, you can...

  • step up the intensity of your training, allowing you to do more of the kinds of training sessions which will have a direct impact on marathon readiness. Those are sessions focusing on lifting vV02max, running economy, and threshold.
  • focus more time and energy on your overall fitness, specific mobility and flexibility needs, and topping off your running specific strength.

Most runners are so used to running on battered and bruised legs and being exhausted, that they never actually FEEL what it feels like to run on legs that are recovered and 100% healthy. What a shame!

The Bottom Line?

A smart marathon or long distance run training plan is one that builds fitness progressively and THEN ALLOWS for adequate recovery prior to race day. Many typical race training plans I see on the internet or written by other "experts" often leave out this critical recovery aspect, having runners run long 2 or 3 weeks out from race day. As a result, the runners following those plans or trusting that guidance end up toeing the line with damaged muscles, even though they "believe" they are 100% ready to have the best race possible.  If you're reading this thinking "that guy is an expert running coach," or "my fast friend does it this way," stop and think for a moment.

Simply put, 3 weeks isn't enough time for healing for the majority of runners, and 2 weeks is flat out absurd under normal circumstances. The exception might be if your weekly mileage totals are over 80 to 100 per week.  If your weekly mileage is below those numbers, you'll be very smart to leave at least 4 weeks from the last long run you do until race day. Train smart in this way, and you'll feel better and run faster as a result!

~Coach Al