Saturday, January 23, 2016

What's the point? Considering the various reasons to go for a run

Do you understand why you go running? I don't mean on a philosophical or motivational level; I mean on an actual performance-related day-to-day level: do you know why and how going for a regular run (as opposed to an interval workout or a specifically-paced tempo session) helps you run faster?

If you know your physiology— or if you've read my book, Modern Training and Physiology—you can probably rattle off a number of reasons.  Increased red blood cell count, more mitochondria, deeper capillary beds, et cetera, et cetera.  All of this improves your aerobic capabilities, and this is why the first thing to do in order to get faster is to run consistently, and run more.

If you approach the question of why you should go for a run with the mindset of a complete novice, you'll realize there are some obvious points to consider.  How far should you run? How fast should you run? Should you run the same speed every day, and the same speed year-round?

"Going running" is the staple starch of a distance runner's training.  But I've come to realize that a lot of athletes can't articulate what purpose the plain old boring run serves in training.  They know VO2 max, they know lactate threshold, they know marathon pace and critical velocity and hill sprints and creatine phosphate sprints and any number of other highly technical tools of training, but have only a vague inclination of the purpose of just going for a run.

Part of why this question is a little tricky to answer is because the standard run has a number of different uses.  This leads to confusion about how fast to run, how far to run, and so on.  In order to get a better intuition about the purpose of running generally, and easy running specifically, it will be instructive to look at the range of uses of the "regular run."

Going for a run to improve your aerobic fitness

First, a thought experiment: If a total newcomer to the sport—say, a high school boy who runs 5:30 for the mile in gym class with no running-specific training—starts running 30 minutes at an easy effort every day, will he improve? Certainly, yes.  The new stress on his body will stimulate a physiological response in the form of improvements in the "oxygen delivery system"—all those physiological markers of performance that you read about in textbooks.

The same high school runner, a year later, decides to start training harder.  He still runs 30 minutes per day, but increases the effort level, running at a moderate to fast pace at least 4-5 times per week.  Will he improve? Again, yes.  Though the volume of training is the same, the intensity is higher.  This, again, creates a new, stronger stimulus on the aerobic system, which responds in turn.

Now consider an alternative: Instead of running faster, our runner decides to run 60 minutes per day, still at the same easy effort as before.  Will he improve? Yes.  A new and greater stimulus leads to a proportional increase in fitness.

Finally, a third situation: our runner, a year after starting his training program, decides instead to keep doing the same thing—running 30 minutes per day at an easy effort.  Will he still improve? Maybe a little bit...but eventually, his aerobic fitness will not get any better.  This is one mistake that die-hard Lydiard fans often make—believing that the same training (e.g. 100 miles a week) can produce improvements in aerobic fitness forever.

In reality, of course, high schoolers often do continue to improve year after year with the same training, because they're maturing and developing, which also contributes to performance.  And our simplistic thought experiment doesn't take into account the effects of workouts and races.  If your workouts are progressing over time, in volume, speed, intensity, or some combination thereof, you can improve your performances even if your off-season training is the same, but that's outside the scope of our topic for today.

So, we might conclude that the purpose of running—in the off-season at least—is to produce a new stimulus on the aerobic system in order to improve our fitness.  This is correct, but it's only part of the purpose of the easy (or not-so-easy) run in training.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

How to break the marathon world record in Atlantic City, New Jersey

Welcome to our special coverage of the "World's Fastest Marathon" presented by Johnson & Johnson, I'm host Tim Hutchings here with co-commentator Stuart Storey, broadcasting live from beautiful Atlantic City, New Jersey.  Conditions could hardly be better—as we approach our 8 p.m. start time, the temperature has sunk to a chilly 36° Fahrenheit, and there's hardly a ruffle of wind blowing off the ocean.  Runners from the 10k community race held earlier tonight are touring the newly-revitalized Revel Resort, enjoying the post-race entertainment and placing their bets on the outcome of the upcoming professional races. 
 Floodlights illuminate the ten-kilometer loop course, which the competitors will run criterium-style—four laps for the full marathon distance. 
 The start of our men's race is only a few moments away; the women's field will start two minutes later.  The men's pacers will look to hit halfway in sixty-one minutes flat, and the women have asked for just over sixty-seven minutes at the half.  The goal for both races: the fastest marathon in history...

Does this sound like an impossible dream? Well, read on, and let me convince you.

We are currently living in a golden age of marathon running.  Paul Tergat's 2003 world record has been bested forty-one times in barely twelve years—an unprecedented occurrence, especially considering that top marathoners typically only race one or two marathons per year.  Performances that, only a decade ago, would be earth-shattering are now relegated to also-ran status.

There are a number of reasons why elite marathon times are routinely three to four minutes faster than a decade or two ago: more young, talented runners are moving to the marathon in their prime running years; prize money and appearance fees have never been higher at big-city marathons; track 10,000m events are rare and not profitable to run anymore; and top African runners and their coaches have discovered new training methods that push the body to find new sources of energy, creating a breed of what coach Renato Canova calls "turbo-diesel" runners. 

The relative importance of each of these explanations for the current banner crop of sub-2:05 marathoners is up for debate, but analyzing these is not my goal today.  Instead, I want to outline how current champions can go even faster.

It doesn't involve drugs, and it doesn't involve any changes in training.  Instead, making a number of alterations to the actual marathon event itself should do the trick.  Modern marathons are still conducted according to the logistical needs of a big-city event that caters to the general population, and sometimes, this doesn't result in ideal circumstances for running as fast as possible. 

Attempts at distance world records on the track are planned months in advance: the entire field consists of world-class runners, expert pacers are enlisted to ensure the pace is spot-on, and the venue is selected only after careful consideration of things like temperature, wind, and quality of the running surface.  In the future, marathon world record attempts will look very similar.

Big-city marathons that have played host to world record attempts, like Berlin, London, and Rotterdam, still have a number of deficiencies which could be costing elite marathoners precious seconds over the course of the race.