Ward Nicholson

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Running renewal at age 59: turning over a new leaf with “Tinman” training, Part 2

Continuing our look at the training approach of Tom “Tinman” Schwartz, and its clarifying, rejuvenating effect in motivating my return to racing after many years away.
Be sure to check out the Tom Schwartz training info links at the bottom of Part 2 here, which point to articles, podcasts, and videos exploring his approach in more depth. If you find yourself drawn to train the “Tinman” way, don’t overlook the very helpful training calculator tool on his coaching site that’s linked to below as well.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2

The art of “Tinman” training: putting the pieces together

Other than perhaps his take on “CV” intervals that purposely target Type IIa fast-intermediate muscle fibers to significantly increase their endurance (covered in Part 1), Tom Schwartz isn’t promoting anything completely new, of course. But then again, no one can really claim that mantle.

Most competent coaches and training systems these days incorporate multi-pace training year-round now, for example, varying the mix depending on the season. But the way Schwartz balances all the different elements is, if not unique, rare these days, and he consistently offers interesting, outside-the-box insights you tend not to find elsewhere, as well as simple, practical ways to apply them to training. And his deep knowledge of the history of training systems, his extensive education and training in exercise physiology, 25+ years of coaching experience commencing very early as an undergrad, and holistic grasp of how everything works together in concert — or should — is unparalleled.

Here are a few high points and key takeaways, to expand a bit on what was covered in Part 1.

VO2max intervals: easy does it. Schwartz does employ VO2max intervals as part of the overall system, but carefully and judiciously, specifically eschewing too many of them, at least by prevailing standards, even during the peak season. They are done less frequently, over shorter distances, and in significantly less volume per workout than insisted on by most coaches. This runs very much counter to the “conventional wisdom” these days.

But Schwartz has found through experience that most distance runners do not need much of this type of training to perform at a peak. A little goes a long way, and it is easy to overdo and burn athletes out. And besides, races themselves in the 1500m to 5000m range hit the body’s VO2max physiology hard as it is. Depending on how often an athlete races during the season, little additional VO2max-specific training may be needed beyond racing itself.

Remember: races are themselves VO2max training. Athletes often seem not to be able to comprehend, or else completely forget, that races are themselves a training stimulus — and a very intense and demanding one at that. I know when I was a younger athlete, I tended to put everyday runs and workouts into one mental box labeled “training,” while races went into another box labeled “racing,” without realizing those are really just names, and both are part of the very same continuum.

In truth, it would be a lot more accurate, for the purposes of understanding how everything fits together into one’s total training plan, if the second box were instead termed “super-duper-intense training” rather than “racing.” Especially if you are racing every week (and sometimes doubling in the same meet) — with perhaps two meets some weeks — you are already getting a significant amount, and highly targeted form, of VO2max training, before you ever even consider interval work on the training track.

With the often-excessive racing schedules of university athletes in America, who may be forced to double or triple in meets to score team points, this is a particularly important perception. And it’s not just athletes who don’t “get it” here, either. Too many collegiate coaches seem blind to the fact that racing at middle distances on up to 5000m constitutes highly intense VO2max training on its own. They therefore often run their athletes into the ground by not only overracing them, but then piling lots of VO2max interval work on top of it.

VO2max training and burnout. For slightly different reasons but with the same unfortunate result, some elite coaches who deal only with elite-level athletes also don’t seem too concerned about burnout. Perhaps they don’t fall prey as much to excessive racing, but in Schwartz’s view still focus too much on VO2max training, and then combine it with too much other hard training as well. Because a certain number of successes are practically guaranteed since their proteges are so genetically gifted, any elite-level coach will have prominent successes.

More telling, however, is to look at the string of athletes who may be left littered behind them, ignored by fans and other onlookers because of the coaches’ high-profile successes. Even the checkered, inconsistent careers of quite a few of their successful athletes often suggest all is not necessarily right.

The successes that these coaches do have (which are not necessarily a very high percentage of the athletes who come to them) are highly visible, so there will always be another athlete coming down the pike as a result. Schwartz does not have that luxury in dealing with the runners he coaches, who come to him from all points up and down the spectrum of ability. He knows through long experience that for the vast majority, especially those without “superhero” genetics, putting a big focus on VO2max training is not a fruitful path.

Training volume and “filler miles.” You also will not find Schwartz mindlessly following the typically seasonally cycled approach where a big base of higher mileage is built in the off-season, only to let that crucial aerobic base gradually wither as the stress of excessive interval work during the racing season forces a reduction in mileage. With that approach, athletes lose the big base they have built just as the most important end-of-season championship races are approaching, and often fail to perform up to expectations. Instead of being able to “pour it on” in the concluding half of races and put to use their increased anaerobic development, they “bonk” in the latter stages because of diminished aerobic capacity, despite how fit they may otherwise be.

Many athletes and coaches seem to regard what Schwartz nonjudgmentally calls “filler miles” as “junk training.” But this blind, “no gain without pain” ethos ignores the insight from exercise physiology (and backed by experience as well) that the benefits of volume training aren’t dependent so much on its intensity, but primarily on the volume itself.

So, Schwartz balances training so that a substantial mileage base (tailored to the capacity of the individual athlete, and not overdone) is maintained at all points during the season but at very reasonable, easy to moderate paces. By slowing the pace, mileage can be maintained while still reserving ample energy to parcel out over the remaining elements of the athlete’s training in a sustainable fashion with carefully managed doses of tempo and threshold runs, CV intervals, VO2max reps, hill repeats, strides, etc.

As a bonus, injury rates are reduced because the athlete is always in touch with at least a certain amount of faster training year-round. There are no jarring seasonal shifts from slower training to faster interval work before the athlete’s muscles and tendons are ready to withstand it. They have been conditioned to it all along.

No counterproductive superhero training that undermines long-term progress. Absent from the Tinman system is the hard-line attitude you so often find of attempting to crash through barriers, or using some kind of unforgiving superhero approach to certain workouts that typifies so many coaches’ modus operandi, even and perhaps especially renowned elite-level coaches. Why? Because even if the latter types of workouts do not end up overwhelming the body’s ability to adapt successfully with an increase in fitness, which they often do, they use up so much of its energy to adapt in such a brief period of time, the improvements quickly stall out and progress is short-circuited anyway.

I would also interject here that the only reason many high-end elite athletes are able to engage in some type of superhero regime or another is because of performance-enhancing drug (PED) use. Anyone who is interested in finding out more about this underbelly of elite sport soon learns that significantly enhanced recovery capacity and the ability to sustain higher workloads is one of the primary effects of PEDs.

Absent PEDs, the improvements to be had with such an approach max out quickly — and even with PEDs can be risky. But even assuming successful results with PEDs, the athlete and coach are still forced to take regular breaks or a down period from such training (as well as cycle off the drug-taking) to let the body regenerate or renormalize its metabolic and hormonal systems before starting another training cycle all over again.

Also, as with shifting training too rapidly through intense phases, the superhero approach of frequently pushing one’s limits all too often leads to injury. Schwartz prefers instead to take the more measured and intelligent approach of “keeping the ball rolling” (as mentioned previously), stressing the maxim “don’t get injured,” focusing on staying healthy, pushing the body gently but consistently over time, and building a momentum that leads to continued incremental gains that mount up as sustained progress over the long-term.

Just scratching the surface

I’ve really only scratched the surface of Tinman’s approach here. There is considerably more to his multifaceted and multi-paced system than the bare-bones outline I’ve provided. This includes:

  • Ways of individualizing the approach based on whether you’re more of a “fast-twitch” or “slow-twitch” runner, or respond differently to certain workouts than most.
  • Very helpful adjuncts that can be employed, such as his rule of thumb for how to utilize short time trials to sharpen for races.
  • The use of race-substitute workouts to stay race-ready when formal races aren’t available, but that take much less out of you.
  • Tailoring the training for different race distances.
  • What’s most important to focus on during periods when you have limited time.
  • The importance of employing multiple paces in a single workout.
  • Fitting in hill repeats and strides.
  • Tips for master’s athletes.
  • And more.

To pursue things in depth, look into the links at the end of this post, particularly the vast archive of posts in the coaching and training forum on Schwartz’s site, TheRunZone.com. You will have to dig and read through numerous posts to find information on the points referred to in the preceding bullet-point list. But it’s well worth the time if you’re serious about training and competing. You’ll come away with a valuable education in having done so.

Even if you can’t go back in time, you can always go forward

Unfortunately for me — or for all of us, as far as that goes — the past is the past in certain irretrievable regards. I had always had regrets about my running career when younger: that I could have performed better if I had known more and trained smarter. Unlike some events that occur earlier in our lives, however, I could not go back and retroactively somehow “make it right.” I could never go back and see what I really could have done in my prime.

That part was and always will be frustrating. As I pondered things further, though, I began to consider, so what? I found myself getting enthused about the possibilities after delving into the “Tinman” approach. Not only the potential for seeing long-term improvements as a master’s age-group athlete, but just as importantly, the scenario of actually looking forward to and enjoying interval training done this way — to enjoying all aspects of my training on their own terms, rather than dreading the interval side of it to some degree. Why not have fun trying to implement these insights now?

For another thing, why not simply start from my current baseline, wherever it is, and see where I can go from there? Wherever you currently are, where you are starting from is always right now, here. One needn’t compare to bygone days. Like all things, running is primarily in the doing, which is enjoyed in the here and now, today.

Also, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that despite the lure of improvement in results by approaching training differently, really this is all about engaging in a process as much as it is about the results — about what could be termed “mastery.” And mastery, I think, is what those of us who engage in a long-term discipline are actually after, more than just results.

Mastery is about continually learning, adapting, and refining how you approach something. It is about what you do with that knowledge and experience to widen and deepen your control over what you are pursuing, so as to bring about a continuing evolution in the depth of your engagement with that discipline. And of course, it is about the challenge, the inner satisfaction, and fulfillment you get from it. Results may be very important to you as well, as they are for me, but, ultimately, they are secondary.

Another thing, though, is when it does come to results, these days one of the measuring sticks in running that one can use to gauge longitudinal progress, or the lack thereof, to see if what you are doing is working (because negative feedback is just as important as positive) is the master’s age-grading tables available.

Today, one can compete with themselves even as aging takes place, thanks to these rating tables. They are the result of statistical analysis of the performances logged over the last several decades by multitudes of track and field athletes that show the relative worth of a performance based on your age. So you can assess your ongoing results compared to baseline when beginning a new training approach, even as you slow down due to age, as you continue to engage that process or evolve your approach. (Of course, we don’t all necessarily age at the same rate, but that’s another issue. The age-grading tables at least give you some kind of gauge to work with here.)

Unexpected but welcome renewal

So I’ve come back around with another turn of the spiral to the things I have always enjoyed and found challenging about running and competing, but with something new to try. I believe it will be fun working to put the pieces of the training puzzle together differently this time. And whatever happens, there will likely be something new or unpredictable to be learned from the process.

I’m curious to try combining longer, slower mileage training with judicious intervals in manageable dosages in a targeted, controlled way, rather than the full-on, maximum-effort approaches that left me all over the map performance-wise or burned out when I was younger. Slower/easier but longer than before on distance days. Leaving more energy to funnel into the interval workouts that are done, but done at more manageable and enjoyable paces that result in physiological changes that correlate more highly with race performance than the gut-busting interval approach of yore. Looking toward more mastery and grace in the approach as much as the results. Banking and husbanding energy more carefully as opposed to squandering too much of it unproductively.

And this unforeseen turn of events has been thanks to a few stray bones thrown my way: A friend wanting us to run a 5K race simply for the fun of it. Unexpectedly finding I felt better after increasing the length of my longest weekly run, when that wasn’t the original objective. And an article that came my way about Tom Schwartz’s “Tinman training” approach that supplied some valuable, missing pieces of the training puzzle, but that I hadn’t expected to re-motivate me the way they did.

It’s good to have something new to chew on, crunch through, and get some added juice from once again.

End of 2-part article

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Tom “Tinman” Schwartz training links

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Go to: Part 1 | Part 2

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