photo by daniel canogar

Today was my second outing on a bicycle. Not ever, of course. But since I resigned myself that the injury I have is not going away any time soon. It’s not painful. There’s just a lack of confidence, for lack of a better description in some tendon or fascia or something, on the outside of the leg, from the ankle up. It’s weak. I thought it was just a strain. Perhaps it is. Certain it just needs time.

Cycling is weird. My legs are working pretty hard, but my lungs are just cruising along, no problem. I consulted with someone more experienced in such things and he advised more cycling. And, doing intervals to make it more aerobic. This makes a lot of sense, since my legs are not up for long hard rides yet.

This is a classic of example of too much, too soon, too old — after a break of a few weeks, combined with a lack of strength work. The too much section was an intense 3 hills workout, plus some hill bounding up a long asphalt “hill”, somewhere in there was the ankle roll. Then an all-day meditation (!) retreat where I was sitting all day with the legs tucked under, ankles flexed straight behind. Then returning, thinking I was ready, a rocky trail run. I guess I just did in the old ankle.

With a little luck I’ll be up and running in 4-6 weeks.

Oh. My.

It’s been quite a while. I’ve been in one of those slumps that sometimes hit post-race, but the race was in May. Around that time things were kind of becoming a little tense with coach, and then, to the astonishment of our running group he stopped showing up at all. Sure we see him in the park from time-to-time, in which case he grits his teeth, mutters things under his breath, “Oh, for goodness sake!” But essentially he seems to have gone AWOL. It is a little confusing, crazy, and sad. So, this is a little more than a post-race slump. There’s some mourning involved, I’m afraid. Not that he might not ever return. But if he did, that would be a different chapter.

In a slump, the running is not automatic. It requires motivation. This is a somewhat alien state affairs for me and requires skills I don’t usually have to apply to running. The running magazine lays on the table, untouched. There is no beet juicing. The mind is not awash in fartlek, long runs, or tallied mileage. What is my mileage?

No one from the group showed up this morning. I took my camera and hiked up two very steep mountain ridges, in the style of the group, taking a few pics here and there. This is out-of-breath, legs go to wobble hiking — no Sunday stroll in the park. Cardio and strength. Half way up the second ridge I was drenched in sweat. I jogged back down the winding trail and down a side trail we call “ankle breaker” (aptly named), watered at the over-pressured fountain, then headed home.

Form Work (or Running Fewer Miles and Why It’s Okay)

I’ve been working on form. Really my “coach” has been working with me on it, berating, spluttering, uncompromising, head shaking, but always ready to start again next time. There in the park, every day. When the form work intensifies, I tend to feel that long runs are not really in the cards. There are a lot of drills, and though the routes are generally short, the intensity is high. The impact of drills will sneak up on you. Something’s got to give. I’m in my late forties, and wary of getting injured. Not being able to run? That would be torture. I can do a long run, but it compromises the intensity of my group runs. So the miles have dropped off. I’d been running about 30 miles a week, and that generally feels good for me. Last few weeks: Just under 20 miles.

In the past, I’ve really struggled with this. Because I want miles. The body drinks them up. There’s nothing quite like that groove of running a little more mileage than you’re used to. The legs start to feel a little heavy, but strong. But I’ve had an intuition that the form work is coming along nicely (“his knees were releasing today!”), and so I just let the miles go for the moment. I’ve got no immediate race (there’s a half in May 2014). And I’m pretty sure if I clean up my form, I’ll get some “free speed.” Recent easy runs seem to confirm this. When I focus on form, even in an offhand way, the pace picks up.

Today I arrived in the park, my first day this week. Six-thirty a.m. No polar vortex, but it is chilly. The runner nearest to me in age and speed has a scab healing around his knee and is walking his dog today. The two fast runners are no show. So two other runners and myself are given marching orders. Essentially two steep hikes, one right past Bee Rock and then another up a sheer hill along a service ladder. Blood is pounding in my head by the end. Then a winding downhill, essentially for recovery and loosening up before the training.

Coach and one of the other runners meet me below one of the main water tanks that dot the park. They both make an unusual comment, “Hey, you look pretty good.” Coach adds, “of course you knew I was going to be watching you.” Coach is a curmudgeon, but I take the compliment. One thing about this group: They will never tell you you’re doing great out of kindness or politeness or some notion of being encouraging. Coach has me run down a steep bank off the main trail, a place we call Piney Slope, and has me run two short, very steep sprints. I imagine this is to activate the muscles or nervous system or something, but I don’t ask a lot of questions. The last thing I need to do is overthink it. I’ve been observing this guy for a year and have concluded he really understands body mechanics, among other things. So I trust.

I make back up to the main trail with some nods of approval. Next he has me run some short downhill sprints. A couple things he wants me to attend to. The right foot is always an issue. Coach and one of the other runners reckon it points out at about 1 o’clock position. I venture a guess of 12:30, shot down. “No way is it 12:30.” Before it was at 2 o’clock position. The other thing is holding the chest and neck high, neck straight. (I was having the hardest time with this until a couple weeks ago when one of the runners gave me a physical prompt, she held my jaw and pressed my forehead back. Something clicked.) And pushing the hips through. And as much as anything else, getting a nice forward lean. I can’t really explain mechanics very clearly. I am kinesthetically challenged. We do a few of short sprints. Coach will sometimes ask me to stop after the first few steps, “No!” You’re doing blah blah. Try this. Let’s try again.

Next, we do a series of short races, about 15 seconds each. We are still focusing on form here, but it’s more an integration of what we’re working on – a race is a race. At this point it’s just me and another runner who’s a little slower. To compensate, coach puts her way out in front. She’s about 10 or 15 meters ahead. Just by feel, I can see that it’s going to be a struggle to catch her, but within reach. For the first few I catch her, and he keeps increasing the head start. He’s happy with what he sees today. “You got up to about 6 steps per second. If we can just get you to relax your back and lift – you should be able to get to 7-8 steps, easy.” I don’t catch her on the last couple. By the third to last race I’m shot, and my arms are doing weird things. “You’re doing that dead bird thing again. You must be tired.” Then we walk for a bit and the talk turns to cooking (certain topics are standard recovery cues — or that the workout’s over, it’s never clear which. Another common topic is football. That usually means the workout is done.)

I don’t catch the other runner for the last race either. But after the workout coach says my knees were really coming up quite high and forward, unusual for me and something we’ve been working toward. The posture was good, erect. Hips coming through. For some moments today I had a good lean forward and imagined I might even resemble an athlete. This is very gratifying as previously my form was very jogger-ish. I’m simply not someone that ever thought of myself as an athlete.

“That was some pretty good running.”

Lost for Words

Excited about my training – sort of lost for words, but long runs are averaging roughly 7:30 min/mile pace now (see previous post) and mileage is creeping slowly up. The rest in pics.

The time graph is kind of cool. Possibly more telling than actual mileage. Oh, and the pace chart, yes pleased about that one.

Otherwise, see Twitter!




Rethinking the Long Run

Short version: I’m increasing the base pace for my long runs. It should be okay, so long as I am disciplined about running my recovery days as slow as necessary. The real topic of this post is agonizing over details.

It occurs to me that maybe I should be running my long runs faster. I’ve just gotten back to them, after an injury or two in July I wasn’t doing them. Now I’m up to 8 miles. I was reading up on Lydiard (as one should from time to time) and saw something about “it’s not Long Slow Distance it’s Long Steady Distance.” I dutifully consulted some pace charts. I could run my long runs a little faster, I mused.

This against the background of my coach who just shakes his head when people talk about long runs. Because usually they are, in his opinion, talking about slow running. And his assertion has always been that such running just teaches you to run slowly. Of course, that has to be right on some level. Coach may be a tad dogmatic — fanatic even — but he knows his stuff. “At a certain point you’re not doing anything in those 10 milers.”

The most recent spark was coming across a table of paces (p. 82) in the Hansons Marathon Method: A Renegade Path to Your Fastest Marathon. (I freely admit that I mostly bought the book for its various tables, pace charts, and such. I have no immediate plans to train for a marathon.) I noticed it indicates, for my goal of a 1:30 half marathon, long runs at 7:42 min/mile pace. This surprised me a little. Maybe I haven’t been attending to my running goals much recently. I looked over my (not very well kept) records. I’ve only run a handful of long runs under 8:00 min/mile pace and most of them were actual races. The other two exceptions were time trials the week or two preceding a race.

Is this a limiter in my training? I’ve run perhaps a half dozen 15-milers. Pace often around 8:30 min/mile or slower. Possibly it’s because I’m relatively new to this — have only run 4 half marathons. (Times roughly: 1:54, 1:43, 1:33, 1:35.) I’ve mostly been focusing in distance in my long runs, assuming that the tempo runs and speed work would take care of the pace. Maybe this will give me that little boost? I think it may very well.

But the initial realization led to a kind of dizzying, fortunately not-too-time-consuming, reappraisal of everything. I think this is because I’m bothered by the arbitrary nature of selecting a goal pace. You might say it’s not arbitrary, it’s based on your race results. True. But how do you know those are good results? So much of how we judge our results is based on assumptions. And assumptions drive me crazy. So I decided to consult a few of my favorite running books. I noted that since I’m not running anything even remotely like high mileage (nor have I ever) that leaning on a Lydiard-type philosophy for my training assumptions didn’t make much sense. I found some cool quotes, like this one from Matt Fitzgerald’s Run: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel:

In fact, lately I have noticed a trend among runners of trying to put a positive spin on their suffering avoidance by couching it in terms of a Lydiardian training philosophy. High-intensity training is risky, even dangerous, they say, and therefore its place in the training process must be minimized to prevent injury and overtraining. It’s not that these athletes are afraid of the intensity of high-intensity training. They’re just being smart.

and another quote:

So your natural pace does have a place in your training. However, natural pace becomes a limiting comfort zone for many runners.

I decided to read that book again. It is so good. And I continued to peruse the handful of books. I have included some of my findings from those book below, under “Ancillary Materials.” In the end, I got too into details, but I noted a few things.

  1. There is more than one way to skin a cat
  2. Long runs often include an important hill component — especially at the end — and thinking back, this is part of what kept my pace down in quite a few of my long runs
  3. Increasing my long run pace is probably a good idea — so long as I include rest weeks and a variety of approaches
  4. Pace, like distance, for the long run depends on the race for which you’re training.
  5. It is the tempo run which most bedevils me.
  6. For variety, I’ve already started consulting with a favorite freebie from Jason Fitzgerald’s Strength Running website, a pdf entitled: 52 Workouts, 52 Weeks, One Faster Runner. It’s worth a look. Recommended.
  7. You’ve got to trust your gut about what you can do. And face up to the fact that you can probably run faster, it’s about whether you’re willing to suffer enough to run to your potential. Fitzgerald, in particular, writes engagingly on this topic.

For the moment, I’m going to focus on running a solid, convincing 5k time. I really need to improve on my 20:11, which was done on a quite hilly course. Anything 19:30 or better should not be a problem. Ideally, I’d like to run it without my Garmin (or at least with pace not displayed), and really run hard. See what happens. You do not bonk on a 5k. Then, I’d like to use that as motivation/justification for pursuing my next goal: 1:30 for the half marathon.

(It is even possible I might sharpen that goal, but one thing at a time.)

Ancillary Materials:

Run Less, Run Faster (apparently referred jokingly in some circles as Run Less, Get Injured More) has a slew of paces in its various pace charts. Here you come to the problem of scale. While training for a 5k they suggest 5 miles at “mid-tempo” pace. If the goal is a 19:30 5k (roughly equivalent to a 1:30 half marathon) then that mid-tempo pace is 6:49 per min/mile pace. For a 10k, the long runs are done at “long-tempo” pace — 7:04 min/mile. For a half marathon, the suggestion for most of the training, is to run half-marathon pace + 20 seconds per mile — in this case around 7:11 min/mile (which just so happens to be “marathon pace”). For the marathon, they advocate training that starts about a minute faster than marathon pace (8:11 min/mile and gradually closing the gap. Marathon pace + 45 seconds, marathon pace + 30 seconds, etc.). This gives you a 3:08:20 marathon. The bottom line with the Run Less, Run Faster crew, is that your long run pace varies according to race. Not something I’ve given much thought to — but then again — can’t say there’s much to argue with there.

Brad Hudson’s Run Faster: From the 5k to the Marathon (a personal favorite) to my surprise, mostly advocates easy long runs for 5k training, adding progression runs for the 10k, half and marathon. The emphasis throughout seems to be finishing moderate for the last 10 – 20 minutes, and then progressing to finishing hard for the last 10 – 20 minutes. As the runs get longer, this only seems to make sense.

Matt Fitzgerald’s Brain Training for Runners (a book with a really long subtitle), another longtime favorite, tackles the issue in terms of “base pace,” defined as “more or less the pace you adopt naturally when going for a training run of a particular distance.” For my last half-marathon time, this range would be 8:44 – 7:53 min/mile. Which feels just about right. I’ve often noticed when going on a moderate, easy run, my pace often falls around 8:40 min/mile. For the race I’d like to run, the base pace is listed as 8:20 to 7:31 min/mile. Note that there’s a little overlap there. At the faster end, it’s not an easy pace for me, there’s some effort involved.

Finally, but not the least in any way, I checked the McMillan Pace Calculator. It gave me a range of 7:35 to 8:52 min/mile for long runs. So there it is. The 7:42 pace might be a little aggressive, but it’s not outlandish.

Mental Toughness

(I wrote this at the end of April, but it never made the light of day, for some reason.)

Now down to 8 days, 16 hours until the Santa Barbara Wine Country Half Marathon, which I will run. My first half in two years.

I’m pretty sure the fitness is there. Now I just have to see if I can cash in on the right mindset, the mental toughness. As I tweeted a while back, the body is something of a bullshit artist — you realize this when you get your second wind. But it’s really the mind that’s the bullshitter, of course. Matt Fitzgerald has written a lot about this. (I direct you to Brain Training For Runners as well as, Run: The Mind-Body Method of Running By Feel.)

Yesterday’s workout, a 13-mile progression run was hard, but by the afternoon I had pretty much forgotten about it. No race effort there. But I’m a bit bothered by how the mind convinced me to back off by the end of it. (Today, however, the body definitely reminded me that I’d done some running yesterday. Not so fast, partner.) Tomorrow I’m running some sort of tempo workout, I’ve not settled on the details yet.

Here are three articles I’ve thoroughly enjoyed on the mental part of the game:

Marathon Training: Is Your Goal Pace Too Easy?

Feeling good, being uncomfortable and suffering.

I Know Mental Toughness When I See it.

A Small Triumph

I feel that I am at some kind of turning point in my running. I am very excited, yet I am full of dread. I am accruing very few miles, but my workouts have increased in intensity (largely due to my running group). I am carrying a raft of injuries (left ring finger, left groin, right middle toe, right hamstring, right shoulder), yet I’ve never been stronger. It could be that the turning point involves my body just exploding in some kind of incandescent flowering of middle-aged hubris, defeated. Or it could be that I get stronger, faster. Part of the fun is that I’m just unsure. But my intuition is that if I stick with it, I’m moving in the right direction.

Today, for instance, was curious. Fully expecting a nice, rigorous hike with hill pushes up onto the high ridge, the backbone of the park, with a long loping return — instead, we head over to what my group calls “piney slope.” This is a couple of loose, dusty, rocky trails, covered in pine needles. From top to bottom, the elevation gain is probably 200 feet. I feel resentful. This is going to be hard work. (The hiking and pushes though also hard, heart-pounding work, are less technical, and you can get more into the flow of running.) It is going to involve 15-second relaxed sprints to warm up. There is already some talk of body mechanics — “you want to spend some energy raising your upper body, from T12 up [coach is very anatomy oriented], so that your hips can release. You want to unload your hips.” The 15s will be followed by form drills on the way to the main event, and then downhill racing and then some sprints on the flat. I do not feel up to it. When a hawk alights on a nearby telephone pole, I am fascinated. But the drills come. Single leg hopping uphill. 10 at a time. Then switch legs. Then bounding. More bounding. Then the deliberate hike to piney slope.

There, the uphill workout include one coach* has us doing recently, to increase upper body strength. We run on hands and feet, punching our fists into the pine needles (and pinecones, and rocks), putting as much weight as possible from the upper body to the hands, it lasts about 10 seconds. The other sprints, too, last about 10 seconds. These involve various form cues and ad hoc races: Keep your right foot pointed forward! Pump your arms quickly, don’t try to long-arm it! Your first footfall should be here, the second here! See what his feet are doing? Don’t do that! How much of a lead can I give him so you’ll have trouble catching him? Coach is, in my opinion, great with this stuff.

My performance on the hill sprinting today was not very good. The week after straining my left inguinal tendon, I was tentative, uncommitted to all-out effort. Coach thinks I worry too much about “injuries” and coddle myself. This is true. But his passion sometimes, I believe, crosses over into the irrationally exuberant. Yesterday, for one of the first times ever, I saw a glimmer of concern. He might have overdone it last week. We had done speed sessions both days. And he was goading us. “I don’t think Magnus will *ever* catch you from that far out.” Right toward the end of Sunday’s workout I strained something. An adductor? No. “It’s the inguinal tendon at the insertion point. Don’t run for 3 days.”

Since he never says things like this, I listened.

“It’s a sprinter’s injury.”
“Does that mean he was running fast?”
“No, it means he was running wrong.”
This week he was more toned down. “Can you run 15s?”

Today, the downhill races were frankly, bad. Never super confident on the downhill, I was tentative and lame. Paired with another injured runner we coasted in to finish like we were headed to hospital. I regained a little momentum during the last few sprints, on the flat.

Occasionally, at the end of one of these workouts we go to a set of stairs. If you know Griffith Park, these stairs, which lead up to the area of the Old Zoo, appear to be made of old railroad ties. Big blocks of lumber. We hop these stairs, a few at a time. When I first came, hopping three at a time was a challenge. A few months ago, I was surprised to find I could, even once, hop four. Today I hopped four, without much trouble. Previously, I viewed hopping five of these steps as something out of my realm. I’ve watched a couple younger, very athletic guys hop five steps. I don’t really consider myself as particularly athletic. I viewed these guys as a different breed, fast-twitch type athletes (which, actually, I’m pretty they are). One of them, for instance, loves the 800 meters. He has explosive power. I’m never going to run the 800 meters. It would be silly. Coach stops me. “I think you can do five.” I shake my head. Five? It took a few times. Coach prodded a little. “Ye have little faith.” I did it. It was a little sloppy, but clearly it was more about confidence than technique. Five has become the new four.

Whatever my limitations, at 47, today I feel like I’ve (almost radically) expanded my belief in what I can do. That’s a surprising and good feeling. Who cares about piney slope.

*deserves a post