Rethinking How to Train, Continued

"The true romance which the world exists to realize is the transformation of genius to practical power." --R.W. Emerson, "Experience."

One of my fundamental philosophical convictions is that intelligence is primarily about attention. The reason why attention is so important is because we have limited "bandwidth" for processing. Sure, people who score high on the SAT maybe have a bit broader (or more intense) bandwidth than the rest. However, given the amount of information that we all have at our disposal for living, the relative difference in processing power among individual minds pales in comparison to the question of what those minds decide to process. This question of what we decide to devote our minds to is essentially the question of attention. Since this is such an important question, it's important that we turn a bit of our bandwidth to it every now and then.

Yeah, I'm basically talking about thinking outside the box. Or at least in a different box. [A thought to chew on: when we do philosophy, what we are doing is creating new modes of attention.]

Concepts are the means through which we focus our attention, which is why they are so important for analysis. They are basically names for the content our attention takes up. When we argue about the fundamental concepts of training, what we mean by "fundamental" is something like "that which we ought to turn our attention towards most fully." Quality, volume, variation, form, pace, long runs, weekly mileage, aerobic development, speed, interval training, specific fitness, general fitness, strength, VO2max, lactic threshold--each of these concepts turns our attention to some aspect of the training process. The invention of a new concept invites a new mode of attention for intelligence.

In a late October post, I talked about shifting the focus of my training away from the concept of mileage and more towards the concepts of recovery and development. Before this shift, my primary question when planning my week or my day was, "How many miles can I get in?" Sure, I also tried to get in a harder session a week, but this was an afterthought. Even races took a back seat to the mileage. I would "train through" both workouts and races, often doing a double the day before them. This was because I took weekly mileage to be the primary organizing concept of training. It's what I paid attention to: putting in the work.

Since I have turned my attention to recovery and development, the primary question I put to myself every week is something like: "How is my training progressing?" This question puts me in a very different mindset than the prior sort of question. Building on what came before may mean an easy week to absorb some prior work. It may mean pushing my tempo pace down 5 or 10 seconds. It may mean lengthening intervals or reducing recovery between them. But the primary difference between this sort of question and the prior question that oriented my training is that it requires that I position myself squarely in the "present" of my training. Instead of repeating a process mindlessly that could happen at any time to anybody, I have to imagine myself as a runner with a past and a future and ask, simply: "How does the present fit into that past and future in a progressive way?" Instead of looking for the final answer about The Right Way to Train, I ask smaller, melioristic, questions like, how can I get a little faster this week? The latter is a much more intelligent way of framing the attention.

In a recent message board post the Lydiard disciple Nobby Hashizume described training as a kind of wave: "Training and training effect is series of applying stress and your base fitness level going down; and taking recovery and let the base fitness to come up and go beyond. It's the wave of this activity." He's right; training is like riding a wave. You've got to constantly evaluate where you are on the wave, where you are headed, and try to figure out how to take that wave to the crest. Most fundamentally, Nobby reminds us, training is an interaction, a method of call and response.

If we don't attentively frame our training in the right way, we miss this interaction. That's what I called "training like a mule" or "taking shortcuts" in my last post. It's unintelligent training because it sees training as repetition, but ignores difference. Both repetition and difference must be balanced. Otherwise, we are simply applying a stimulus and hoping that it is the correct one, or that the body will respond in equal measure to the stimulus applied. This is stupidity masquerading as toughness, pig-headedness disguised as an iron will.

Since I reframed the basic questions with which I approached my training, I have had some success. I ran 26:53 for 5 miles in our local turkey trot, which is just about equivalent to my best racing at higher mileage levels. Plus, I closed my last mile in 5:04, which bodes well for future racing. Equally importantly, I have more energy for work during the day--as well as more excitement to RACE than I did when I was grinding out the miles. These are no small achievements, especially since running is only part of who I am.

Tomorrow I take a shot at running under 16 minutes on the road for the second time since college. It's going to be tough, and I'm not sure if I am ready for it just yet. But, if I don't make it, I already have in mind a few things I can do to keep riding the wave upwards. If I do run under 16 minutes, then I will find myself in a place I haven't been in quite some time: as fast as I've ever been and with possibilities for getting a little faster.

If this approach to training interests you, you might like this piece on how training for 5k can help your marathon.


  1. Thanks to you, Joshatalie for reading! Best of luck in your training and racing. --Jeff

  2. Enjoyed it!

    Tim Tebow

  3. I've been pretty much doing the same thing for a few months, and I've been PRing just about every time I run a race. I had to stop logging my miles (that's why my mileage has been so sparse, in the weird, unlikely chance you happened to look at my training calendar) so I wouldn't be tempted to run just to make the graphs look pretty.

    Also, I feel fresh. Maybe that's from paying better attention to recovery as a result of *not* focusing so much on the quantity of miles.

    Anyway, I enjoy implementing many of your (and your guest writers) ideas into my training. I had no idea fast could be so much fun.

  4. Interesting. I had to read it twice but it makes sense to me. Thanks.

  5. @Josh, I am glad your running is going well. I see you've broken 3 hours in the marathon--nicely done! I'm sure something like this idea of interactivity is at the heart of the barefoot movement movement as well. There's something about a bare foot that represents the idea of sensitivity and response quite naturally. Just watch out for those acorns!

    @Paula, thanks for reading twice. I hope it was worth it! I tell my students that the first step in philosophy is learning to read slowly. It just so happens that this is the first step in running too--slow down and pay attention!


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  7. Thanks for treating the subject of attention as intelligence from another angle, Jeff. Great post.

    I accept the concept of buildup and recovery conceptually. But, I tend to feel like I'm "missing out" on a training opportunity when I'm actually backing off a bit. I am really impressed by the successful runners who take *weeks* of zero running after a big race. For many of us, it's train hard, get injured or semi-injured, forced down time, fresh legs, repeat.

  8. So, the race went well: 16:02. Not quite sub 16, but not so bad! I think the second mile marker was a little off as well, so that kinda threw my pacing.

    I am happy! Thanks everyone for the comments.

  9. Jeff really liked the two entries on re-evaluating your training. Congrats on the new found energy and solid performances. I'm always at odds with myself regarding miles vs effort vs time vs recovery vs life.. Also like the term "training like a mule, I've always used the phrase "running for the log" for those days when you're doing 10 miles when you know 8 would do.

  10. I enjoy the way you explain your thinking as an organic process.

  11. I gotta drop by LLD more often, thanks for yet another great post. Nobby is wise and is certainly a RunningAHEAD favorite, and those descriptions apply to you as well Jeff.

    This was a helluva year for you, hope the new year is even better!

  12. Old posts but interesting. Do you give any thought to Heart Rate? Or train by feel?


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