Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Art or Science?

A couple relatively new runners have recently said to me, "I never knew there was so much to learn about running." I understand the surprise, and as is true for most things, there are many ways to approach this sport.

For the most part, I have experienced running as an art form, certainly not for the way I run because that is not very artistic, but for what occurs when and where I run. It's the thinking I do, the beautiful things I can see in nature, the creative energy that gets aroused in me, and the relationships that are formed that seem like art to me. It's when I am on the track doing speed work, or in Baxter Woods doing intervals, or doing anything repetitive for strength and speed like hills, that I consider the science of running. Or, in marathon training.

As we know, the marathon is all about endurance. The science that explains a body's adaptation to and capacity for endurance training is exercise physiology. The Road Runners Club of America teaches there are five key physiologic factors that influence running performance:
  • Aerobic capacity
  • Energy system use
  • Muscle fiber makeup
  • Blood lactate levels
  • Running efficiency
and, five key training adaptations that occur in the body:
  • Muscles
  • Circulatory
  • Pulmonary
  • Skeletal/Connective tissue
  • Neurological
So you see, running is highly scientific. All of these keys areas overlap and are intertwined and have a definite affect on one another. Therefore, what I think is important to understand in lay-people's terms is that in order to run an injury-free marathon, one has to train properly. And training properly, whether deliberate or not, accommodates each of the areas above. I can't possibly cover it all here.

Simply, proper marathon training requires having a running foundation, that is a base of miles under your belt that has occurred over the course of months or years, and then allows for four to six months of focus, specifically on the marathon goal.

There are three progressive phases to this training: base-building, sharpening, and race preparation/tapering. A prospective marathoner should have a plan or a schedule which includes these three phases, and builds in intermediate and short-term goals and strategies, meaning, the "how to" move through each phase.

The singular comment that provoked this blog came from Joe. He plans to run a 3:30 marathon, an 8:00 minute pace per mile. His base building mileage includes progressively longer runs at a slow pace. This is called Long Slow Distance. :) Joe should be doing his LSD at a 9:30 minute pace per mile to race at an 8:00 pace. His lament was, "I can't stand running that slow!" I totally get this experience, but here is where the science factors in.

The reason for the backed off long runs, is that you want to train at about 70 per cent of velocity of VO2 maximum. And this maximum is typically determined by most recent best race times or a two-mile time trial, for example. (That might be how Joe came up with his marathon goal, figuring what is reasonable given his current fitness.) If he plans to run an 8:00 minute pace for a marathon, it's figured that that is about 84 per cent of velocity at VO2 max.

Why do you want to train at 70 per cent and race at 84 per cent? Because you're not going to run 26.2 miles at 100 per cent. That does not consider all the science that is referenced above. Each of those areas is a system, if you will, and each has a unique function. Specific marathon TRAINING is a fine art and creates a capacity to do an amazing feat - that is, stay on your feet, for 26.2 miles, at a good clip relative to your body and fitness. It's personal.

It's during the slow runs that the body adapts. It does this beautiful processing whereby it figures out how to use fatty acids as its primary energy source and saves the glycogen for when it's needed later during more intense periods. Granted, after a couple hours, most runners will need to supplement their natural energy stores. But think about it, you can go for a very long time and distance - naturally, with good training.

In the sharpening phase, runners continue to build base, but might add in race pace runs (for Joe 8:00 minute miles.) This prepares the body for race conditions, though shouldn't be practiced for longer than 15 miles, and should replace the long run for the week. This pace could be used in shorter interval periods to establish body muscle-memory and simulate the race experience. Runners should also be practicing re-hydrating and supplementing during these runs in advance of the race.

There's a lot to this running stuff. I wish I could over-simplify even more than I have. Sometimes it comes down to trust: trusting reliable sources, trusting your body to perform what is best for it, and trusting yourself to listen to your body. Most of all, enjoy the process and make your art!


joewmaine said...

I agree that my long runs should be slower, to avoid injury, the dreaded overtraining, and to reduce recovery time so that I am ready for the next hard workout (after a rest day on Monday). I also agree that my pace for long runs should be 9:30 per mile - which means I am training for a 3:30 marathon at the end of May. I get to that from the few bits of information from recent races and workouts: my times in the 10 mile winter classic and the Polar Bear 5K, and last week's long run from Peak Performance. The race results, when typed into the McMillan running calculator at his web site, reveals an expected pace under 8 minutes/mile. Last week our pace hovered around the 8 min mile for 15.5 miles. Although that pace was too fast for my long runs, generally, I will consider that run as an early dress rehersal for the marathon, with a hopeful result, because I felt I still had enough in the tank to go farther.

Today, my long run day, I took your advice (which wasn't hard because I had 21 miles on my schedule). The schedule comes from Pfitzinger and Douglas' "Advanced Marathoning" and their book aslo recommends 9:36 per mile for a 3:30 marathon, but they also recommend that the runner gradually increase pace to end at 8:48 per mile. "This makes for an excellent workout and provides a strong stimulus for physiological adaptations." I think that means it gets your body used to gradually picking up the pace, even when you are tired.

Although I came in at 3 hours 23 minutes for the whole 21 (a 9.6min/mile pace), I did not do this "gradual increase" correctly; I ran the first 11 miles in 2 hours and 4 minutes - with whopping 11.2 per mile, and the last 10 in 1 hour and 19 minutes 7.9 minute miles! Its nice to know I can pick it up for the last half, even when tired, but I've got to even things out a bit.

Thanks for your thoughtful and informative post; I did not mind being the guinea pig running through your calculations. I look forward to more in the future.

Jeanne said...

Hey Joe,
Hope you don't feel too bad about being the subject of my blog. I left your last name off with the hope to not incriminate:) But seriously, you are in a position to share the richness of your preesent marathon training experience.

Firstly, congratulations on an amazing run today. Twenty plus miles by yourself is awesome, and, on your training pace! Great job.

Secondly, as you continue to put the miles in the bank, rest and recover adequately, eat well and keep a sense of balance, and listen to your body and deal with what it tells you, you are lining yourself up for a successful outing in May.

Lastly, understand that you are participating in the marathon experience: challenging yourself, exploring the unknown, learning as you go, improving yourself in more ways than one, being responsible by avoiding injury, and remaining optimistic.

It's all good.