Tag Archives: Run Faster

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.

The Seventh Thing

I had listed 6 things I’m thinking about leading up to my next race, the Santa Barbara Wine Country Half Marathon. But there is a seventh thing.

7. Specificity, particularly regarding the topic of running surface. Specificity is the idea that you should train for your race by duplicating, as much as possible, the conditions you will face on race day. It’s a broad topic, and arguably includes much of training (pacing, distance, even time of day or temperature). And specificity should increase as training progresses. Your workouts should be becoming more specific to the task at hand. (The idea is beautifully articulated in Brad Hudson and Matt Fitzgerald’s book, Run Faster, highly recommended.)

Since my race is mostly if not entirely on asphalt, and I tend to be religiously dedicated to avoiding running on asphalt and concrete (more on this, below), I feel that it only makes sense for me to run on some asphalt, at least toward the end of training. Indeed, with that in mind, most of my long runs have been on asphalt in the last month, and some of my tempos.

Another argument for doing some running on asphalt (among other things) is to obtain a muscle tension appropriate to your race. I’ve only heard about this idea from one source, a very interesting Steve Magness article, published here in Running Times. The idea is that proper muscle tension has as much an impact on racing as other important factors such as pacing, nutrition, tapering, etc. Moreover, muscle tension can be tuned up or down according to the needs of the race — shorter races, as you might guess, requiring higher muscle tension, and longer races, less so. According to Magness, muscle tension can be increased by sprinting, strength training, faster-paced intervals and ice baths, (to name 4 of 8 methods he lists in the article.) Magness includes a list of activities to increase and decrease muscle tension as well as a few workouts, it’s worth a look — check it out.

For a half marathon, I’m not going to need a lot of muscle tension, but I want to make sure not to get flat on too much long running, do a little speedwork, and do it on asphalt.

I think most runners will recognize, in the diligent avoidance of hard surfaces, a desire avoid wear and tear to the body. I had pretty much accepted as fact, nay, gospel, that hard surfaces, such as asphalt and especially concrete, take a toll on the runner’s body, especially over a period of years. (The Kenyans, supposedly avoid running on roads at all costs — clearly they have other, perfectly adequate, methods of adjusting their muscle tension.) And, naturally, wanting to preserve my ability to run as long into life as possible, I avoid these ghastly surfaces. And so I was very interested to read in Alex Hutchinson’s Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights? some research that calls into question this idea.

Without going into too much detail, the studies suggest that the body is able to somehow compensate with the differing impacts of running on these surfaces, and when force detection plates were placed in the shoes of runners, the difference of the forces detected on the different surfaces were minimal or quite modest. This is one of those counter-intuitive results that one marvels in — but I’m left a little perplexed. I don’t doubt that the body isn’t able to reduce the difference in these forces, but at what cost? That is to say, aren’t the muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments undergoing some extra effort to reduce the impact forces? So perhaps the cost is no longer a direct result of the impact forces involved, but the efforts deployed to lesson those forces?

Research will probably continue to tease out the complexities of this issue. In the end it may not matter too much one way in the other for practical purposes — it still makes perfect sense to train for your race by duplicating as many conditions as closely as possible, including the surface. And maybe I’ll be just a little less religious about running on dirt trails.

[Since writing this post, I was referred to a cool blog that just so happened to have a post, “Why You Should Run On Soft Surfaces.” Worth a read.]