Josh about to pass his grandpa

Josh about to pass his grandpa
Here, at age three, Josh regularly runs a mile or two with me--and I have to work hard to keep up!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Notes for an Aspiring Ultrarunner #3: Vary Everything -- Distance, Speed, Routes, Terrain, and Mental Engagement

This is a basic principle of biological and ecological health, including the ecology of your own life.  For biologists and ecologists, biodiversity--both within the genetics of a species and in the complexity of a whole ecosystem--is essential to long-run survival.  And for athletes and trainers, cross-training--combining the benefits of complementary forms of exercise--is one of the secrets of durability and resistance to injury.
     Probably the most basic variable in your training is the distance you run each day.  A successful pattern for many runners is to go short to moderate distances (5-10 miles) five days each week, and one day a week go long (15-30 miles).  To illustrate the importance of that weekly long run, consider two different patterns, each totaling 60 miles for the week.  The first is to run 10 miles a day for six days, then take a day off.  The second is to run 8 miles a day for five days, then 20 miles on the sixth.  While both yield the same total mileage, the first pattern never takes you past the point where you're running low on muscle glycogen and need to adapt to more efficient fat-burning metabolism for endurance.  The second takes you past that four times a month, or about forty  times in the year or so you'll be training for your ultra.  While there's no difference between these two patterns in total mileage, the second one provides a huge advantage in training effect.
       Varying speed is also important.  Here, too, a tried-and-true pattern for most people would be to run at slow-to-medium speeds four to six days a week, and faster for one or two days.  To try running fast more than once or twice a week is to invite injury.  "Fast" is a relative term, and in your first year of training for an ultra, it would be prudent to limit your fastest running to the taper phase (Note #2, below), and use more low-key variations of speed during base-building.  These broad categories ("slow" days, "fast" days) can be further broken down as you gain experience.  The "slow to medium" pace can vary from a lazy lope on some days to the pace you might actually hope to run a 50-kilometer race, on another.  Remember, running at ultra race pace doesn't mean you're doing a hard workout, if you're only holding that pace for 8 or 10 miles rather than 50 kilometers or 50 miles.  When you do intervals (again, not necessary at all during a first year of base building), there's no need to time them as you would if you were training for the 1500 or 5000 meters; what's important is simply to run fast enough to be breathing hard and making your heart beat fast.  An alternative to regular intervals such as you'd do on a track might be to run a longer stretch of several miles fast (a "threshold" run as described in Note #2), then slow down just long enough to recover before doing another several miles fast.  A third alternative is what Scandinavian athletes call fartlek--highly irregular shifts of speed within a single run so that you're trying to "surprise" your body and build its resilience and adaptability along with aerobic capacity.  The logic of these patterns is that if you train your body to run fairly often at faster-than-race pace, then "dropping down" to race pace will enable you to feel very comfortable at that pace (an important goal) on the day of the big race.  In the fast-pace training, rather than rely on stopwatches, heart monitors, or other techno-assists, practice relying on your own developing ability to "listen to your body."  With practice, you won't need electronic monitors to tell you what's happening with your heart, lungs, hormones, and metabolic waste.  And in the long run, it's better if you don't.  You do value independence, don't you?
       Varying routes (and thus terrain) is important for both physical and psychological reasons. Uphill and downhill running put different stresses on the muscles and tendons, and both differ from running on the flat.  A runner I know who had no hills near his home trained for a mountain ultra by doing long sessions on a treadmill raised to steep-climb settings.  He thought that as long as he could handle the climbs, the descents would be a breeze.  But when he ran the race, the miles-long descents were murder on his quadriceps which get the lion's share of downhill braking.  Unfortunately, none of the treadmills I've seen have steep downhill settings.  If you don't have hills or mountains near home that are comparable to those you'll  encounter in your race (look up the elevation profile on the race website), you can train just about as well by running up-and-down repeats of a smaller hill.  But again, try not to use just one route.  Different grades of climbing or descent, like different speeds, use different combinations of muscle fibers.  In training, run as many different  hills, of different steepness, as possible.  And for similar physiological reasons on a more "micro" level, seek out different surfaces as well.  Pine-needle paths, dirt, gravel, grass, rocky trails and pavement each put different stresses on the feet and legs (and even on the core muscles used for balance), and you need to feel at home with all of them when you  race. 
       As for mental engagement, experienced runners often distinguish between "associative" running, in which you are focused on all the physical and environmental factors affecting you performance, and "dissociative" running, in which you're not consciously paying attention to the running but are letting your thoughts wander.  Both have their place.  It's important to sometimes focus on the running itself, so that you are well attuned to the progress of your conditioning and so that you can consciously practice (or "visualize") racing conditions.  But there are also times when it's important to let running be an escape from the stresses of the workplace or home, or our troubled world.  On some days it may be better for your mental and physical health to let yourself recall what you said in a conversation that's bugging you, and then fantasize about what you'd like to have said, than to be thinking about your stride length or tempo.  The more practiced you become, the more the running can take care of itself for hours at a time, while your mind takes care of business.  There's also a kind of engagement that's neither associative nor dissociative, but an integration of both--occasioned by a run in a beautiful place, or past an inspiring scene.,  If you come over a mountain pass and see an amazing cloud formation and feel your spirit lift, it's a chance to feel your body lifting at the same time; you can be light on your feet and psychologically energized by the scene.  It's especially rewarding to integrate both physical and mental experience with the environment you are traversing.  That's a big reason why millions of people in the past twenty years have shifted from the roads to the trails--and why most ultras are now on trails.

          --Excerpted from an Appendix to the forthcoming book The Longest Race:
             a Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon, and the Case for Human Endurance,
             coming in October.   Copyright 2012 by Ed Ayres

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