Slow Down to Go Fast

Slow Down to Go Fast
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In the movies, coaches say things like “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose!” or watch intently as their athlete sprints by on the track, and you know they’re silently willing them to go faster, faster!

In real life? If you’re an endurance runner working with a coach, chances are they regularly instruct you to do just the opposite: slow down.

In fact, slowing down might be the one thing standing between you and the stronger, faster runner you could be.

slowdowntogofast

One of the most common mistakes runners make is push too hard on all of most of their runs. It’s only human: you’re out there running, which means you’re out there working, which means you better work it, right?

The problem is, if you push hard all the time, your body will at some point give in. The consequences are no fun, ranging from overuse injuries, getting sick too often (a compromised immune system), and inability to sleep well, to the worst of all: losing your running mojo and, eventually, giving up on running altogether.

All of the above are symptoms of overtraining and, more often than not, overtraining is a direct result of working too hard, too often.

How do you know if you’re running harder than you should? There are complex ways to determine this, using heart-rate data and software like Training Peaks, which has charts that look like this (I kid you not):

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And there are simple ways, like asking yourself these questions:

1. Do I run all my runs at the same pace?
If you answer Yes, you are either not running often enough to improve, or you are pushing harder than you should — or both. Don’t get me wrong, running two-to-three times a week is totally OK for the recreational runner who either doesn’t race, or does so with no time goals in mind. Chances are, this person has other, more enjoyable hobbies or fitness passions: weightlifting, Cross Fit, Zumba, you name it. Nothing wrong with that! But, continually improving as a runner and knocking out those PRs requires more planning — and more running.

2. Do I need more than three rest days each week to recover from my runs?
If the answer is yes, then you are running too hard. Training for a long-distance event like a marathon, or even a half marathon, requires you to peak at anywhere between 35 to 60 miles a week (even more, for competitive runners). This is hardly achievable with three to four weekly runs. Not to mention, if you need a rest day after every single run, you are missing out on valuable adaptations your body would make if you went out and did a recovery run on tired legs. Again, in order to do this, you will have to introduce some easy-run days into your schedule.

3. Do I obsess over each run’s mile splits and feel unaccomplished if they are slower than usual?
If yes, you most surely are running each run too hard. And it’s hardly breaking news that, if you try to better your time or mile splits on each run… well, sooner or later you will fail. That sort of mindset is almost a guarantee for reaching a point where your relationship with running turns sour.

4. Do I usually feel tired, spent and unable to run another mile at the end of each run?
It’s OK to feel that way at the end of a hard run (a long run, a tempo run, speed work). But all runs? You are running them too hard.

So, what is an easy run and why do them?

The “Easy” Run is:

  • Run at a significantly slower pace than your 5K, 10K, half marathon, or even marathon pace. The delta could be as wide as a full two minutes between your 10K and easy-run pace – and around a minute slower than your marathon pace. And plus-minus 40 seconds on top of that, depending on how you feel that day!
  • Run at a pace that allows you to comfortably chat with a running partner, or…
  • Sing. The test I often recommend is Adele’s “Hello” – if you can hit those high notes while running… well, you should probably be on The Voice, actually. But pace-wise, rest assured that you’re taking it easy.
  • And, finally, at an easy-run pace, you could finish your run – then turn around and do another one of the same distance or duration, right away. At that pace, you could run every day if need be, or even twice a day. It’s slow enough to barely get you to sweat, but still, you are building mitochondria –and that’s pretty much the main goal of easy runs.

Why run easy?

Easy runs are typically scheduled on days immediately following hard workouts or long runs. An easy run done on the day after hard work will force you to run on tired legs – which will give you valuable coping skills for those final miles in a race. It will also help your muscles loosen up. (Seriously, try going on an easy run if your legs are sore — they will feel better after a few miles!) Not least, slow running trains your aerobic system, gradually making your body more efficient at burning fat for energy, rather than carbohydrates.

Reading

If you’re reading this and asking yourself, Why would I listen to some random crazy person with a blog? — well, I don’t blame you. I never take advice from strangers with unknown to me background and credentials — why should you?

So here are a couple of books I hope will give you all the information you need to make your own decisions:

  • Matt Fitzgerald’s book “80/20 Running” cites numerous studies supporting the “run slow to get faster” theory. Interesting read, too!
  • Phil Maffetone’s overview of aerobic vs anaerobic training. Although his 180-minus-age formula for determining target heart rate is questionably simplistic, I admit to roughly sticking to it during my offseason and the initial base-building period each year. It drives my coach absolutely nuts, as he – like many coaches and endurance professionals – find it hard to take the work of Dr. Maffetone seriously because, for one, he is not really a doctor. But that is a different story. I still think his book, “The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing,” provides one of the most digested (if not simplified) overviews of how the body uses its energy systems in training and racing.
  • Lore of Running” by Tim Noakes has everything you would ever need to know about running, including a wealth of studies and information on high- vs low-intensity training. Make sure to get the 4th Edition, which has a new chapter on The Central Governor (fascinating stuff).

Make slow runs a part of your training schedule and enjoy them! You are doing work that is benefitting your running — even if the mile splits are nothing to brag about.

The Hardest Part of Training for an Ironman…

The Hardest Part of Training for an Ironman…
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I am now less than three weeks out of my first Ironman and as such, naturally I’m the know-all expert on Ironman training! Right?

I joke, of course, I know nothing. I follow a training plan my coach gives me weekly. That is all.

Yesterday, I finally learned that this weekend will be my last seven-hour (100 mile-plus) ride. That’s after two 100-milers plus a few 80-milers, plus a bunch of 17- and 18-mile long runs, plus I don’t even know how many laps in the pool.

So, the hardest part is over, right?


 
No, let me tell you what the hardest part of training for an Ironman is. (But here’s what it isn’t, first.)

  • The hardest part of training for an Ironman isn’t riding your bike for so long that your nether regions go numb, or running for hours on legs that feel like wooden logs. It isn’t even having to accept that you’re getting slower in the pool despite swimming 10,000 yards a week, because your body is exhausted and you can’t keep your butt up in the water and it sinks.
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  • The hardest part of training for an Ironman isn’t fitting 18+ hours of training each week; nor even the guilt of all this weekend time spent away from your family.
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  • The hardest part of training for an Ironman isn’t the training itself — or the effort you have to put into all other everyday tasks after this training. When simple things like focusing on work for two and a half hours are harder than the two and a half hours you spend running that morning.
  •  

  • It isn’t any of that.

The hardest part

Those things you can handle, ultimately, if you figure out these two:

1. Getting enough food.
2. Getting enough sleep.

Those are the two hardest things about training for an Ironman.

Now, you think, how can food be a problem — you can always eat more, right?

Well, yes. Counting calories to make sure you’re getting at least 3,000 is admittedly a better problem than counting calories to make sure you don’t exceed 1,500.

Worst case, you can always make more protein pancakes.

Unless you’re too tired to bake pancakes — then you dump the protein powder in some almond milk, shake it and drink.

Unless you’re too tired to make a shake — then you grab whatever you find in the snack cabinet.

Unless what you grab are those delicious Trader Joe’s Mango Joe-Joe’s, which are pretty much empty calories with so much sugar that half an hour later you’re even hungrier.

But by then, you’ve already gone to bed. It’s past 8 p.m., after all. So now you have to decide between going downstairs to eat something (and what would that be?) — or trying to go to sleep anyway because next morning you’re up at 5 a.m. to swim.

Except once you’ve thought about food — forget about sleep. So you make a sandwich, with avocado and mayo, because it’s the quickest thing to throw together, and has lots of good fat (and some not so good fat, but who’s counting). You eat it, but then you see popcorn and throw a packet in the microwave — and then put a movie on because can you eat popcorn without watching a movie? no.

And before you know it, it’s 11 p.m. and that plan to get 8 hrs of sleep has yet again gone out the window.

You see?

1. Getting enough (good) food.
2. Getting enough sleep.

So when you tell people that you’re training for an Ironman and they think your main job is trying to get enough of this:

Image source: TriRadar.com
Image source: TriRadar.com

You should probably clarify that, mostly, your goal is to get enough of this:

Man-sleeping-and-snoring-overhead-view
 
Because, friends, training for an Ironman is… trying to decide between going to sleep at 8 pm (so tired) and making one last trip to the kitchen (so hungry).

Usually, hunger wins.

Training for an Ironman is... trying to decide between going to sleep at 8 pm (so tired) and making one last trip to the kitchen (so hungry). Usually, hunger wins.

The Power of Positive Thinking in Training and Racing

The Power of Positive Thinking in Training and Racing
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“Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.”
– Henry Ford (attributed: The Rearder’s Digest 1947)

When we spend four months training for a marathon, during all those long runs, recovery runs, tempo runs and rest days, we are not just training our legs and hearts. We’re training our brains, too.

Blah blah. Inspirational cliches. Blah blah.

But really, they’re not! There is actual science behind everything I’m going to say here. Since I’m not really good at explaining science, though, I suggest that you read Matt Fitzgerald’s book How Bad Do You Want It? It’s a series of stories of athletes overcoming physical and mental barriers to win and it’s as entertaining to read as it is educational, and inspiring!

One of the book’s early chapters is dedicated to coping strategies for overcoming perceived physical limitations in racing — which are often more mental than physical. For example: you are running a marathon. At mile 21, you hit the wall and feel like you can not go another step. Somehow, with the encouragement of other runners and spectators, you pick yourself up and continue. Then finally, you see that finish line and – go figure! – you find in your legs the strength and ability to sprint.

Hitting the wall is, simply put, the brain going into self preservation mode. Ever felt strong all through mile 21 or 22 of a marathon, and then found yourself slowing down and starting to question why you’re even doing this to yourself? Yeah, that’s your brain telling your legs to slow down because it senses your low glycogen stores, or that you’re dehydrated, or overheated… Or your brain is just tired! It’s no easy to stay focused for 3-4 hours at a time, right? But do you really need to slow down, or can you squeak another [however many miles] of struggle from your legs, knowing that your heart and lungs would likely not explode?

One of the coping skills used to achieve this is acceptance: you know you will suffer physically, so brace yourself and expect that there will be pain.

Another is the power of positive thinking. Again: if you think you can, you are probably right. If you think you can’t… you are probably right! Positive thoughts can take away some of the suck and, next thing you know, you relax yourself into your stride again and carry on to the finish.

I’ve been practicing those two things on my long runs and workouts, which have been getting progressively harder in the past few weeks. Last week, with two weeks to go until the Boston Marathon, I had to complete my hardest long run yet. It wasn’t even the longest in this training cycle, and it was a repeat of a long-run workout I had done three weeks earlier. With all the work my legs have been doing in these past months, though, it definitely felt harder.

This was the workout: start with a two-mile warmup easy. Then do four times of five minutes at tempo pace (7:40 – 7:25), with one-minute recovery. Follow that with 70 minutes steady, with some hills. Finish with another four times of five minutes at 7:40 – 7:25, one minute recovery. Total time: around 2:20.

As soon as I started my first four tempo sets, I realized those would be more challenging than I thought. I was tired already! I didn’t enjoy running at this moment. I just couldn’t. It sucked! Then I caught myself and realized that if I kept going like this, I would either flake out on the workout (worst case), or just have a really, really miserable 2 hrs 20 minutes.

Then something gave me my mojo back. I remembered that this very same morning, a bunch of friends were running the hilly Rock’n’Roll San Francisco half marathon. That’s a tough course! So I thought, maybe for each ounce of suffering I have to suffer, it would only be fair that they feel the exact opposite. Maybe my suffering was translating into running awesomeness for them?

And so for each of the four five minutes of suck I had to endure, I decided to think of a friend running that race — and send all the running mojo and awesomeness I could imagine to this friend. Then spend 70 minutes thinking about everyone running on that day, at that time, and how they are enjoying a beautiful day out and incredible views, and earning awesome medals and drinking beer at the finish line.

And that is how my “Newton’s (totally made up) Fourth Law of Motion” was born:

FourthLawMotion

And guess what: I was in it again! The second set of five-minute tempo intervals was hard, no question. But it wasn’t sucky and miserable. I just did my best to stay focused and get it done. And so I did :) (Also, all of my friends at RnR SF had an awesome time!)

And that was my blabber of the week. Maybe the next time you’re having a tough run, think that your suffering is helping power another runner somewhere out there: it might help!

Other than that, I’ve had a solid two weeks of training:

Boston Marathon training, two weeks to go

Monday:
Easy recovery run, 30 minutes; 3.2 miles. I’ve been calling these my “Rest Day” runs because they really are that: a relaxed, meditative stroll to shake off the fatigue of the week before and get ready for another week of awesome training!

Tuesday:
Structured fartlek: 10 minutes easy, 10 min moderate @ 8 min/ mile; 10 min easy, 10 min steady @ 7:30 min/ mile; 10 min easy, 10 min hard @7:00 min/ mile. A total of 7.5 miles in an hour. Felt surprisingly easy and fun!

Wednesday:
Broken tempo run, 3x 2-mile intervals with 5 minutes easy recovery in between, start at 7:45 and descend a bit with each 2-mile set. My paces were 7:45, 7:39 – 7:29, 7:26 – 7:40, 7:40. I guess I took the middle set too fast and ran out of steam for the third. Still, a solid run: 9.2 miles in the bank.

Thursday:
Easy pace on a hilly trail route, 6.8 miles and 1020 ft of climbing in 1:06.

A photo posted by Aleks Todorova (@aleksruns) on

Friday:
Easy run, 4.8 miles in 47 minutes.

Saturday:
Easy trail run with some pick-ups: every 10 minutes, pick up the pace for 30 seconds, then settle into a steady pace for another 3 min or so, then slow back down to easy. Ran 6.5 miles in an hour.

Sunday:
Long run with tempo intervals workout described earlier. 16.7 miles in 2:22.

Total miles: 55

One week go to!

Well, it really is two weeks, because the Boston Marathon is on a Monday – so the following week will be “race week plus one day.” Still, this was my last week of hard work before I begin tapering for the race!

Monday:
Easy recovery run (or “rest day”): 35 min, 3.6 miles.

Tuesday:
Steady-pace run in the heat. I was supposed to run 60 min to 1:15, and normally, I would go for the top of the range. But it was hot, I didn’t bring any water, started out faster than I probably should have, and decided to call it quits after 1:09. Well, another 8.3 miles in the Boston Bank!

Wednesday:
Easy run, 4 miles.

A photo posted by Aleks Todorova (@aleksruns) on

Thursday:
A short run with some faster miles: 10 min easy, then 25 moderate @ 8:15 to 7:45 pace. Then 4x 30-second strides.

Friday:
Whenever I see “strides” on my schedule, I know the following day will be hard. Sure enough: I had 2 miles easy warmup, followed by 10 miles at 8:10-7:50 (aka race pace). My final long(ish) run before Boston! It wasn’t easy-breezy, but I did it! I had to really focus on my form and pace 6-7 miles in, as there were some rolling hills to get through. I simply imagined I was running on a track and ticked off those miles quarter by quarter, picturing in my head running the curves, then the straights, and then again – lap after lap. It helped!

Also: Here is me and my Boston Strong ProCompression socks. I love the color, but it matches nothing I own. So, now I guess I will have to compose an entire new running outfit for Boston around the color yellow. Any suggestions? (All along, I had been planning to run in the new Free Love print from Skirt Sports – photo below – but now I’m thinking the Tantrum print… Is it bad luck if I wear the same skirt in two consecutive marathons? #RunnerProblems #AmIRight?)

A photo posted by Aleks Todorova (@aleksruns) on

But first… it’s taper time!