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Race Autopsy, Part 1: Training

February 10, 2013

calendarHow did training go?

I couldn’t wait to come back and tear this race apart, mostly because I wanted to talk about how we trained for it. I’ve been waiting to talk about it since October because I knew we were taking a big risk, and a small part of me thought there was a chance we would crash and burn at the race. Now that the race is behind us, and Little G and I proved with our execution that the training was more than adequate, I feel confident to share how wonderfully complicated and simple our training was.

In October, Little G’s old physical therapist agreed to meet with us to give us some wisdom and insight into our training schedules. As runners, Little G and I knew we’d come to the end of our own wisdom. Over the years, we’d always cobbled together our own training plans, using everything we’d learned from books, magazines, and experience. But we seemed to have hit a plateau in our times, and we longed for more. Neither one of us has money in the budget for a traditional coach, so Fern agreed to meet us and give us some advice.

At that initial meeting, we both brought our training logs for the past two years. She asked about our injury history, our racing patterns, and our cross-training habits. She asked what our preferences were regarding running days and frequency, and then she asked about our goals. The next day, she sent us a training schedule for the next four months that was designed to get us across the line of the Tallahassee marathon in 4:15 or better.

Fern had listened to and honored our many requests, chief among them respecting Sunday as a total Sabbath from training. But she also had some insights for us that would require changing how we trained. Chief among them: Fern’s assertion that in order to get faster, we needed to run, and race, a lot less.

For me, the idea of running almost half the number of miles I was accustomed to, as I trained for the longest distance in road running, was mind-boggling. I was worried about how my body would respond to running only three days a week, instead of four or five. But I knew what I was doing was no longer producing results. I knew that at the end of the last two training seasons, I had been injured, or nearly so. I made the decision to give this year over to Fern’s experiment. I would follow her schedule wholeheartedly, and give it a fair test by running the Tallahassee Marathon. One year. The year of training dangerously.

How was training different this year?

First, like I said, we just ran less than we usually do. While training for a half marathon, I regularly run 40 miles a week, sometimes more. While training for marathons, my highest mileage to date has hit the mid-50s, which is considered pretty low among competitive recreational runners. Under Fern’s plan, our highest mileage week capped at 36. Most weeks we ran about twenty miles.

I also violated my formerly cardinal rule of long runs. I’d been told all my running life that the risk of injury increases dramatically when the mileage of the long run is more than 50% of your total weekly mileage, and that, ideally, it should only be about 30%.  But under Fern’s plan, our long runs were regularly half of our weekly mileage, and on our high-mileage weeks, it was more.

However, though we were running less, we were also running much harder, and much more specifically. Fern was sure that to run faster, we’d have to give up the idea of just running easy for many miles, especially as we got older. Now in my upper 30s, I’m in a highly competitive age group, and with Little G fifteen years my senior, it just makes no sense to keep pounding our knees into the pavement.

Fern’s training plan was beautiful in its simplicity. Each week, we dedicated one day to a speed-sharpening session, one day to running easy, and one day to a long run. Our fourth training day was to be spent cross-training.

It was also simple in its monthly structure. In October, we ran hills, strengthening our legs with seemingly endless repetitions of steady-pace runs up our local drawbridge. We increased the repetitions each week until we were ran that bridge twelve times. In November, our focus moved to pure speed, and we ran the fastest, shortest intervals either of us had ever run in training. Under Fern’s tutelage, we learned to run 200 and 100-meter intervals. Each week, we faced a new combination of lung-sucking repeats. In December, we ran tempo runs at 10- and 5k pace, finding that “comfortably uncomfortable” pace and learning to hang out in it. We ran shorter tempo runs in January as we entered our taper period and got ready for the race.

Fern also changed the pace of our long runs. Prior to meeting her, Little G and I had run our long runs at about ten-minute pace. We had lots of time to build up our long runs–Little G and I had wrapped up a 14-miler on the day we met with Fern for the first time–so Fern’s training plan alternated between true long runs and cut-back mid-long runs. But she tasked us with running the midlength runs a lot faster–between 9:15 and 9:30–and the double-digit runs between 9:30 and 9:45.

How did we respond to the training?

It was hard at first to stay in bed on our rest days instead of heading out for a run. Fern had given us freedom to add in another easy 4- or 5-miler if we wanted to, but Little G and I wanted to stay true to the plan, and it wasn’t long before we discovered that between cross-training and the killer speed workouts, we were getting worked pretty hard.

We each had things we loved about the plan and things we hated, and we were honest with Fern about them, as we met fairly regularly for coffee and debriefing, usually after our long runs. She would grin with fascination as she heard about our struggle with a workout and how the speed was kicking in. She knew results would come. I was hesitant, if not downright afraid, about the 26.2 distance. By the time I stood on the start line at Tally, it would be almost four years since I’d run my first, so this was like my first go-around at the distance. Fern listened to my doubts, but she insisted, looking at my times on the workouts, that the 4:15 would come easily.

Fern’s plan was working, and we couldn’t deny that. Under her guidance, our times across the board dropped. We were still carrying on conversations on our training runs, but our slowest long run averaged 9:30–and that was a 23-miler. Even our easy pace dropped, probably as a result of fresh legs. November, usually a heavy racing month for us, came and went, and we skipped all but one race and pushed on.

In the end, the best evidence for how we responded to the training is this: on February 3, intending to run 26.2 miles at 9:44 pace in order to cross the finish line in 4:15 or better, I ran the first 21 miles at 8:51 average pace, until I was stopped dead in my tracks by paralyzing cramps. Even humbled, in pain, and forced to walk for some of the last five miles, I still finished in 4:06, a 9:25 average, and well below our goal time of 4:15.

I considered the possibility that the cramps were a result of poor pacing, that I simply started out too fast, and that’s certainly possible. But most marathoners do their long runs a minute slower than their long run pace, and our 9:20 long run pace certainly supported an 8:50 pace. Considering how I felt during and after the race, I think it far more likely that I was simply dehydrated, something I should have been more prepared for since I know I am a heavy sweater.

Was the cramp-fueled slow down a consequence of the lower-mileage training? After all, we did attempt to run a marathon on training of 100 running miles a month! I don’t think so. Little G, who submitted to the same one-year experiment I did, ran five minutes faster and finished exhausted, but cramp-free. She slowed down herself after mile 22, as most marathoners do, and we think for both of our issues a tweak of our nutrition is what’s needed.

Would you train this way again?

Yes, when I’m ready to train for another 26.2, I’ll be returning to this schedule, or something like it. Standing at the start of a race with fresh legs is a wonderful feeling, and a fast time at a race is more important to me than hitting a certain number of miles for the month. For now, I’d like to choose my races carefully and perform very well at them–I feel like I’ve got another PR or two left in these legs. By the way, I owe that to Fern! At the end of last season, I thought my days of chasing after faster times were probably over, but she’s reawakened my zeal for speed, and I am eager to circle one or two races on the calendar, train wisely, and see if I can’t get those numbers even lower.

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