Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Rethinking How to Train

My training philosophy is shifting.

For the last four years, I trained like a mule. I focused on two things: piling up weekly mileage and tempo runs. The virtue of my plan was that it was simple. Run as much as you can and then do some faster stuff on tired legs. Every now and then I would make a half-hearted foray into hills or some mile repeats, but mostly I just piled up easy volume and moderate tempos and fartleks, week after week.

Ain't nothing wrong with a mule.
This approach got me post-collegiate PRs at every distance. I got stronger and faster. It worked, in a way. But a few things began to bother me.

First, my marathon only improved a little over 2 minutes--a mere 4 seconds a mile--over the course of 4 years [if you are doing the math, that is one second per mile per year!], even though I had essentially doubled the volume of running that I was doing. Second, I wasn't making legitimate progress towards the two goals I had when I started this whole project back in 2007: beat my college PRs and run under 2:30 in the marathon. Third, I was dealing with a series of nagging injuries and daily fatigue that was at levels that didn't make me feel great. Fourth and finally, there was the sinking revelation that if I was going to take my marathon PR to another level I would have to do MORE than what I had done before. Yikes!

So, for the first time in way too long, I listened to my body (and mind) and shut it down. I stopped worrying about my weekly volume. I took days off. I stopped thinking so much about my racing goals or fitness and slipped back gently into the steady thirty or so mile per week routine of the runner who runs because, well, he enjoys it.

I stayed there for about 9 months. Then, out of the blue, a couple of months ago, I was invited to race in a cross-country race. Turns out it didn't go great, but it didn't go too badly either for a guy who wasn't really training. More importantly, it ignited once more The Itch.

But this time around, I am going to be smarter. I swear.

Training, like living, is an art and a science, with both quantitative and qualitative dimensions.
A quick word about my dumbness: Like many of you, the internet resources on running were a revelation to me. I got on sites like and and saw what others were doing--elites and normal runners--and it literally blew my mind. I saw that I could be working harder, smarter, better. Doing things differently.

But I also believe that I over-reacted a bit to the prevailing internet wisdom, which was that running volume is the key to success. 100 mile weeks. Or at least I misunderstood what that meant. I read it as a shortcut, which is a sort of strange way to put it because you wouldn't normally think of running 100mpw as a shortcut. It sounds like something that takes a lot of discipline and hard work.

It was a shortcut, though, because what I proceeded to do was throw most of what I had learned in 12-15 years of running out of my mind and just try to get to where I could run 100mpw, mostly in easy mileage, because that was the sum of internet wisdom (or at least how I read it.)

I had some success doing this, but one fact haunted me--the simple fact that I ran quite a bit faster on 60mpw in college. Not just that, but this training felt different than it did when I was making progress as a young runner. I felt tired a lot. I felt slow. I did not feel sharp. I did not want to race frequently. It took me a while (maybe too long because I am a stubborn person and also because I wanted to see the experiment through) to come to the realization that this was a shortcut. That maybe it would take me 5 years of time to get to where I could run 100mpw and feel sharp doing it. That even though I ran in college and was a "good" runner, did not mean that I could just do the 100mpw thing. Even though the key to running fast is aerobic fitness, that the method to becoming aerobically fit meant paying more attention to development than to volume.

Sounds good in the abstract, but what does this mean in the concrete? I am trying a few new things.
1) Short doubles. My easy days are broken into two 5 mile runs. This gets me to a sweet spot in volume for me (70ish mpw) with minimal stress.
2) A regular day off. I am shooting for the 8th day or so. I get in a full "week" of 75miles, then take a day to absorb it.
3) For now, limiting the long run to 10-11 miles.
4) Running two workouts a week. Thus far, these have been aerobically oriented, but one workout does include a hard mile. Workout #1: 6 x mile w/90s easy run (hitting 5:45-5:30). Workout #2: One mile w/u, 5 miles tempo (~HM-MP effort), 1 mile easy, 1 mile hard (under 5:30).

I am about 6 weeks into this training, and I am going to race a 5 miler this weekend, so we will see how it goes. I have been feeling strong on my runs and have noticed a few things that are promising. It takes me almost no time to feel warmed up (I can run 7:00 pace out the door), and my nagging injuries are gone. I feel perfectly healthy for the first time in 4 years. Perhaps most promising, I can begin to feel a little power back in my stride.

It feels good to feel good again, if you know what I mean.

(For a three month update on this, read: Rethinking How to Train, Continued and a six month update, read 5 thoughts on how training for a 5k can help your marathon.)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Looking Back

I've never done one of these sorts of posts, but I've had a chance lately to go back through the logic to think about some of the better pieces I've written over the last couple of years. Since I started writing the blog, I've written 130+ posts--most of them over the last two years--and run over 5000 miles.

Anyhow, here are some of what I consider the highlights:

How it works
This is how it works:

Training is doing your homework. It's not exciting. More often than not it's tedious. There is certainly no glory in it. But you stick with it, over time, and incrementally through no specific session, your body changes. Your mind becomes calloused to effort. You stop thinking of running as difficult or interesting or magical. It just becomes what you do. It becomes a habit.

Workouts too become like this. Intervals, tempos, strides, hills. You go to the track, to the bottom of a hill, and your body finds the effort. You do your homework. That's training. Repetition--building deep habits, building a runner's body and a runner's mind. You do your homework, not obsessively, just regularly. Over time you grow to realize that the most important workout that you will do is the easy hour run. That's the run that makes everything else possible. You live like a clock.

After weeks of this, you will have a month of it. After months of it, you will have a year of it.

Then, after you have done this for maybe three or four years, you will wake up one morning in a hotel room at about 4:30am and do the things you have always done. You eat some instant oatmeal. Drink some Gatorade. Put on your shorts, socks, shoes, your watch. This time, though, instead of heading out alone for a solitary hour, you will head towards a big crowd of people. A few of them will be like you: they will have a lean, hungry look around their eyes, wooden legs. You will nod in their direction. Most of the rest will be distracted, talking among their friends, smiling like they are at the mall, unaware of the great and magical event that is about to take place.

You'll find your way to a tiny little space of solitude and wait anxiously, feeling the tang of adrenaline in your legs. You'll stand there and take a deep breath, like it's your last. An anthem will play. A gun will sound.

Then you will run.

Why I Run
I can't speak for anyone else, but at a certain point the experience of running surpassed in value, and by a pretty wide margin, my desire to make sense out of it.

I don't know why I run. I don't know why I race. I don't know why I compete. I don't need to know. Because running means more to me than curiosity. It goes deeper than knowledge. I run. I compete. I move on down the line. I'm a runner.

For us runners, the question of “why” is pretty moot. Not because it may not be interesting, or important, from a certain point of view, but because we’ve left the question of the meaning of running behind. After all the questions have been asked, and all the answers given, in spite of the disagreement on essences, physiology, rationales, training strategies, trail running, road racing, i-pod wearing, mid-foot striking, turnover cadences, arm carriages, Jack Daniels, Arthur Lydiard, 20 miles a week or 100, 5k or the 50k, whether it's really the Miles of Trials or the Trial of Miles, after all the words have been spoken and keyboards have been pounded, meanings given and ideologies subverted... After all this, we runners bend down and tighten the laces, open the door, brace for the cold and are renewed: another godawful, glorious, and meaningless 8 miler.

Lords of the Sidewalk

The Tempo Run as Art

The Sickness of Running
We have the health of endurance, the ability to go on, the strength to not only run for hours, but toenjoy our bodies and the sensations they give us when they are working. We need almost nothing at all to find our happiness: only a few hours, a stretch of road, perhaps a friend, or even better a competitor. We hide in our spindled chests an unusually large and heaving heart--and in our heads a warbled tune, a song, as we move on down the road. Do you know the feeling I know? When your legs have disappeared, and there is only your heart, your lungs, and your eyes skimming disembodied through the air? We are Aristotle's featherless bipeds, we runners. Though we have no wings, we have taught ourselves to fly.

Passion and Discipline

Half-Steppers, etc

Understanding the Body, Becoming a Body

And, one that I did not write--written by Guest Blogger Scout7, which remains uber-popular:
How to Run Like a Stoic

Thanks for reading! And keep running!


Monday, October 17, 2011

Staying Motivated

Something I wrote a while ago on staying motivated on our local message board is being passed around online (just recently on the I <3 to run facebook page.) Thought I would claim it for posterity, though of course like all good thoughts, this is not just mine.

* * *

There are no tricks. Run because you have to. Run because you love it. Run because you want to be fast. Run because you want to be skinny. Run to find some quiet time. Run to sweat. Run to eat. Run to hear your heart pound in your ears. Run because you're a runner. Run because you gotta keep the streak. Run because you don't know why the hell you're running. Run because you fought with your partner. Run because your job is shitty. Run because you got no money. Run for the sunrise. Run for a race. Run because it's impossible. Run because it's easy. Run instead of doing the laundry. Run instead of watching TV. Run because no one else understands. Run because the cool kids do it. Run because you're tired of talking. Run for numbers. Run for feel. Run to prove something. Run because it f***ing hurts. Or don't run. If you got something better to do.

* * *

As for me, right now I am in a groove and can find many reasons to run. Hope you are running well too!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Good Run.

Good runs happen when you least expect them, and sometimes when you most need them. Tonight was a good one.

Lately I have been feeling knotted up in my running. My body seems to be working at cross-purposes, the muscles creaking, inflexible, and out of order. I can sense strength beneath all the struggle, but it rarely shows itself. My psyche gets like this, too, its different parts at war with itself. So much energy is wasted on unseen and absurd battles, inchoate and internal strife.

The incredible thing about a great run is that the body simply loosens up and begins to go. The feeling is effortless because there is no internal resistance. These are the moments in which we feel as if we are born to run. What we mean by this is simply that running can be a state in which living is not a chore or a task, but simply a happening. Instead of fighting against life, we are born into it and "borne" by it, floating upon it. Experience responds to effort in harmony, as in a song. Effort is rewarded by speed, life gives back what we put into it, and we capture a glimpse of what it means to be free.

It is tempting in these moments to say: this is why I run.

But I guess I also want to think that these moments are created by the blockages. As we are blocked up, energy is being held in reserve, like water in a reservoir. Suddenly, these dams can break, and we are caught up in the exhilaration of flow. Tonight I could roll because I had been getting out there on weary legs, despite being tired and less full of running. Because of the fight, I was able to be free. I'm not sure how far the analogy can be extended beyond running. Do the difficult moments in life prepare us for happiness? Is joy funded by torment, anger, and despair? Is the faith that we place in life deepened and enriched by our deepest doubts?

In an essay I read this morning, Jonathan Lear describes Socratic irony as a practice of wisdom. He says its function is to reveal the difference between pretense and aspiration. In each activity that we undertake, we carry some sort of pretense. We act as if we are intelligent. We act as if we want justice and truth. We act as if we are happy, strong, and in control. We act as if we love our friends and companions. This is pretense. Of course, we also aspire to these things, and to take up a philosophical attitude is to inquire into whether we really are intelligent, whether we really do want justice and truth, whether we really are happy, strong, and in control. Whether we really are capable of love. Philosophy checks our pretenses against our aspirations: it tries to find the reality beneath appearances, and to release it.

This is difficult. The aspirational attitude of philosophy is difficult to maintain, and it can wear us down in its constant scrutiny of pretense. And even when we uncover our own pretenses, it can be more difficult to change them. Fortunately, the rawness of experience sometimes bubbles through in its glorious and sometimes painful intimacy and reminds us that there is something beyond the difficult and ideal dialectic of pretense and aspiration. The good run shatters the distance between the runner we pretend to be and the runner we aspire to be, and we simply find ourselves as the runner we are.

Afterwards, perhaps, the traces of power that we felt during the gift of the good run can rekindle the spark of aspiration. These traces challenge us to fashion a gift of our own to return to life: a body and mind capable of enjoying more fully the unexpected gifts of experience.

The good run is a blessing. If it could speak, it would say: "May your as ifs turn into really ares."

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Running and Two Aspects of the Body

ESPN recently published its body issue, which has some pretty amazing photos of athletes in the nude. The pictures are a reminder of how the activities that we do form and shape our bodies--and how our bodies also move us to certain activities.

Runners are pretty body-conscious folks. This can be positive and negative. Being more attuned to our bodies means that we are more reflective about what we put into them, how they are resting, whether they are gaining or losing weight, how they look in a mirror, etc. This attentiveness to the body can be healthy. It can also be unhealthy, as the high incidence of eating disorders among competitive runners sadly attests.

One way to frame this attention to the body is through the concept of control. Distance runners are, in a certain sense, making an effort to control their bodies. Through training we sculpt and shape the body around a very particular purpose: running fast over a long distance. As every runner knows, the body is not always a compliant partner in this task. Like every object, it rebels to a certain extent from our efforts to control it, "liberating" itself from our attempt to dominate it and turn it to our purposes through injury, fatigue, depletion, and weakness.

We cannot dominate our bodies, this is one thing that running teaches. We have to interact with them, perhaps as an artist interacts with a piece of wood. (Incidentally, in this prefab world, this sort of intimate relationship with objects is increasingly rare, and the chance to regain this relation may be one reason we love to run.) Through this interaction, we don't precisely control the body, but perhaps we organize it along certain lines and through certain habits.

Gilles Deleuze helps us think about this notion of bodily organization through his concept of the "body without organs." This concept struck me as totally strange when I first encountered it. What could he possibly mean by a body without organs?

Deleuze is drawing on the Greek etymology of organ, from organon, which means something like "tool" or "instrument." "Organs" and "organization" both derive from this prior root. An organ is essentially an object that has been organized by nature or habit along certain lines for a particular function. The actuality of the body is its present organizational structure; its habits, traits, feelings, and emotions that it normally presents. This is the body with organs, the body as we see and understand it, the normal body with its normal organization.

The body without organs refers to the virtual dimension of the body. This is the part of the body that is the bodies we might become, the things it is possible for us to feel, the not-yet-organized parts of ourselves. It is strange to think of the body along these lines because we are so used to seeing our bodies and the bodies of others as clearly demarcated objects with very particular capacities. Our bodies seem very concrete to us, but Deleuze's concept reminds us that they are in-formation and in-decay at all moments. We have at every instant both an actual body and a virtual body. A body that is organized and a body that is becoming, in movement and in a kind of fertile or dangerous disarray.

Here, perhaps, you can see the body without organs emerge.
In my last post, I wrote about how racing tough requires breaking out of our preconceptions. There is a connection to be drawn here to Deleuze's concept of the body without organs. I think that in the latter stages of a race, we encounter our bodies in just this way: disorganized, dispersive, vague, whirling, and utterly strange. The virtual aspect of the body, the body without organs, overwhelms in a certain way the actual aspect. This is a pretty rare occurrence in everyday life, as normally we monitor the edges of our bodies cautiously so that their smells, movements, and functions do not bother us or other people. The community event of the race is a rare social moment when the task is not to monitor, but to let go of the body, to see if it could be something else, something different than it was before.

To return to the ESPN body images, these strike me as very classical shots. They present the body in various ideal forms and to a large degree present the body as an object that can be controlled and organized along very precise lines. However, these images disguise the virtuality of all of these bodies. We don't see the grimaces, the ice baths, the pain, the pills, the effort that went into the making of these bodies. We don't see the decline that they are bound to pass through. They are bodies that are perfect in their actuality, but invisible in their becoming.

I think this is why I find the pictures quite fragile in their beauty. If we remember the body without organs as we gaze upon these perfectly organized bodies, we become aware of the fact that a strong and able body is actually one of the rarest things in the world. When it is possessed, it is only for moments and instants, in the freeze frame of a camera. The rest is the wild and relentless urge, the body without organs, a teeming and pushing potentiality beneath the frozen frame of the actual.
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