Why race again after so many years?
It’s curious how life will sometimes toss a bone your way. In some cases it turns out to be just a dry bone lacking in marrow, and is better passed over. Other times, though, you gnaw on it a little, hesitantly at first, a bit distractedly, and then find, perhaps despite yourself, your appetite is whetted. Then with a little more nibbling and tentative chewing, the juices begin to flow.
What you might have viewed at first as something not really worth the extra bother, you begin to embrace. Then as time passes, you find yourself pursuing it with an extra enthusiasm you had tabled or forgotten. And you outstrip the original idea and begin taking it further than originally intended.
This happened for me recently when the idea of running a local 5K road race together “just for fun” was suggested by a running friend of mine. For a dozen years, I had been content to run a couple of days a week for fitness and general enjoyment, because I had always loved running and training just for their own sake. In earlier years, I had been involved in high-level competition — for several years in high school and college, and for another period in my mid-30s — but thought that “fire” had been burned through already. I did not anticipate ever competing again.
For the last three years of this most recent stretch of a dozen years, one of my weekly workouts had sometimes been run with this friend who was a former teammate of mine in high school. We did so on a sporadic schedule during the warmer months, when the piercing winter temperatures were not an issue and he was more motivated.
Training by myself had always been my native modus operandi and suited me just fine. But it could also be enjoyable doing some running with a partner if they were someone I felt simpatico with. And I was happy to support and encourage my friend in taking up running again, since he seemed to find it a helpful motivator.
Then perhaps a year and a half ago, he suggested it would be fun to sign up for a local 5K race. Just to participate, for the fun of it, not to compete like we had done in school many years ago. After all, it was understood, we were pushing 60. He was a fun-loving guy. Why not do it simply for fun?
At first I said, yeah, okay, maybe, in a kind of noncommittal way. Because I was happy enough with my efficient weekly routine, and not sure I really wanted the bother and extra time commitment that going to the trouble of entering and running a race would require. Not to mention the early Saturday-morning wake-up time and round-trip drive time halfway across our metro area and back that something like this would require. And also because, I suspected, one race might lead to another, and we could end up running one of these things every so often, not simply once, multiplying the extra time involved.
Since being squeezed for time is, for me, the bane of modern life, avoiding extra time commitments is something I am always keen to avoid — unless they bring a truly worthwhile reward or experience. Now of course, viewing the potential event by how much time it would consume was an indicator perhaps I didn’t think it would actually be that much fun, or might be just “going through the motions.”
Also, I wasn’t sure I wanted to approach entering a race as just another in a horde of hobby joggers. According to most accounts that I had seen on forums on sites like letsrun.com, the hobby jogger onslaught of recent years had gotten to the point it was clogging everything up and ruining races for others who wanted to approach the events seriously. Having once been a very competitive runner myself, I was not enthused about contributing in any way to the tide that had turned too many road races into just another type of “social media event” for selfie-photo-snapping dilettantes.
At any rate, once every couple of months, my friend would bring up the idea, to be met with another of my amiable but noncommittal replies, politely if passively nudging the idea aside. It is not that I wouldn’t have done it had he taken the initiative to set things up himself. But he was putting the ball in my court, and at that point I would not have looked into our area’s racing event calendar myself to pick out a race for us to enter. And this limbo is where things might have remained.
Unexpected return of a lost experience from ye olde days
Then one day another bone skittered across my path along the local neighborhood streets on which I was running. In having followed a repeating training routine over some time, I had begun to feel — I am not sure — either a bit like a horse put out to pasture, or perhaps bored or frustrated with again hitting an improvement wall with the every-second-week four-mile tempo runs I had been doing. So to change things up, I decided to scale back the tempo runs for a while, and increase the length of my every-second-week longer run instead.
After very gradually increasing its length over a period of several months, so as to keep any potential leg-injury issues in check (for me, the biggest bugaboo as I have aged), at a certain distance I crossed a threshold where I just began feeling better. Not only feeling in better shape, but feeling better health-wise. And this was at a distance that was not yet actually very long.
This was not something I had expected, or at least had forgotten about from the considerably longer runs I had done when much younger. Previously, as I had gotten older, I didn’t seem to have the same energy or get quite the same feeling from training runs as I had when younger. Until this point where I began adding a longer run and gradually increasing the distance, I had thought maybe aging was why running did not feel quite as good physiologically as when I was younger. But it turned out I just had not been running long enough for that experience to kick in.
Even with this rekindling of an aspect of the running experience that had gone AWOL from my younger years, though, I was still not thinking of competing again. I was happy just to reclaim a rewarding aspect of the training experience, and to find my general health and resilience improved.
“Critical velocity”: a key way to reframe the training puzzle
Sometime not long after this, however, yet another bone came my way: I happened to read an article about the training approach of distance-running coach and exercise physiologist Tom “Tinman” Schwartz, the coach of recent prep phenom Drew Hunter, who set a new national high-school indoor mile record his senior year.
What was particularly interesting about this to me is that everyone — including both Schwartz and Hunter himself — agrees his true potential lies more in the 5,000m range, rather than the mile. But Schwartz’s approach has developed him into a very good and well-rounded competitor all the way down to the 800m, where he ran times that put him near the very top of the national high school performance list his senior year.
Schwartz did not make his reputation among insiders just on a single, highly visible athlete, however. It simply brought him more recognition outside that circle, although he is still relatively unknown. (He remains something of a “well-kept secret,” in my opinion.) He also does coaching behind the scenes working as an advisor to collegiate and elite-athlete coaches, as well as serving as coach for both younger age-group athletes and master’s athletes.
Schwartz is just as interested in what works for athletes of average ability and across a wide range of talents, not simply those who have hit the genetic jackpot in running ability. With his approach, he’s had considerable success across a full spectrum of talents and ages, not just with elites — some of the latter of whom are so gifted that they would likely improve greatly under almost any system of training. To me, being able to successfully coach all up and down the talent range is one of the real tests of a truly knowledgeable, worthy coach.
His approach and views also put into sharper focus for me why my own running career when younger had been so up and down, and why I never came as close to reaching my potential as I thought I could have. (See My Distance Running Story: The Bridge from Past to Present for the story on that.)
Based on both his coaching experience of over 25 years now, as well as his exercise-physiology studies, Schwartz believes that both higher-speed intervals and the overall volume of interval training are typically overdone by most competitive distance runners, and overstress their ability to adapt optimally. At the same time, he has zeroed in on a critical component of fitness that targets what I would term high-end, race-ready endurance that he calls “critical velocity,” or CV, training. While intervals are involved, they are somewhat slower and longer, and less stressful so the body doesn’t get beat down from them and recovers much more quickly.
They are unlike higher-speed interval training that focuses on highly stressful VO2max development (typically 5K race pace or faster) where the improvement produced soon typically hits a wall during any given season’s training. The issue here — and this is my observation — is that as a result, such VO2max interval work has to be done in seasonal cycles, after which the body’s thereby overstressed metabolic and hormonal systems need time to rest and recover (get a “reset,” so to speak) before gearing up for the next season and cycle. (Intense racing, or at least more than a certain amount of it in a given time period, also contributes to this need for seasonal cycling and recovery, of course.)
In contrast, the type of race-ready, high-end “critical velocity” aerobic training Schwartz focuses on — which is performed at about one’s current 10K race pace or a little faster — does not overstress the body when kept within reasonable bounds. Runners typically look forward to it, feel good doing it, and do not burn out from it.
Speaking from my own experience so far, it is somewhat challenging, but not overly so, and therefore something you enjoy. This is unlike VO2max intervals that you have to really steel yourself mentally for, and about which I can testify from long experience make you nervous and that you dread somewhat whether or not you are going to be able to hack the more intense level of pain involved.
The rationale behind CV intervals is that they focus on one of the two types of so-called “anaerobic” fast-twitch muscle fibers — fast-intermediate (or Type IIa) as opposed to fast-explosive (Type IIx). Unlike what used to be believed about fast-twitch fibers, the former turn out to be malleable enough they can develop significant aerobic capacity given an appropriate training stimulus, unlike the other fast-twitch type. (That’s the nontechnical explanation. For more on this, see Drew Hunter’s Coach Tom “Tinman” Schwartz Explains “Critical Velocity” and Type IIa Muscle Fibers.)
When you think about it, imbuing endurance in muscle fibers that are typically thought of as speed-oriented fibers — that contract more quickly and fire at a faster pace than purely endurance-oriented slow-twitch (Type I) fibers — adds something you don’t get from either pure endurance training or speed training: not simply endurance, but a type of race-ready stamina that comes into high demand and significant play at the higher speeds encountered in distance races, including those as short as 800 and 1500 meters, not just 5Ks and 10Ks and longer. Schwartz has also found this type of aerobic development is susceptible to continuous long-term improvement without the need for a seasonal training cycle that requires downtime and a lengthy rebuilding period in between, and can be engaged in weekly almost indefinitely.
“Tinman” training insights: opening up my own past to me
Schwartz’s approach doesn’t just focus on CV training, though. The CV intervals serve as a kind of fulcrum or midpoint around which other training is balanced — but the overall system incorporates multi-pace training year-round on top of a substantial mileage base. One of his fundamental observations is that the more intense the training, the more of a double-edged sword it is and the more quickly performance improvements max out.
One key here (at least my interpretation of what he is saying) is, first, to find an optimum training stress level — which is significantly less than most athletes and coaches think is necessary in terms of its overall intensity. Most just can’t seem to bring themselves to believe this. There is a very prevalent, highly ingrained attitude in the distance-running community that the individual with the ability to “suffer the mostest” in their interval workouts is going to “progress the mostest.”
Most high-level athletes these days would say they are well aware of the need to steer clear of overtraining. However, if one carefully analyzes what Schwartz is saying, it is very possible — in fact, based on my own experiences and listening to the stories you hear on running forums, probable — that even without falling into overtraining, the majority of competitive runners probably push themselves too hard in interval workouts.
And while you can recover from this and prevent overtraining syndrome with adequate recovery days, you still undermine progress by simply overwhelming the body’s ability to adapt because the stimulus applied is too intense. I.e., it forces the body to apply its resources repairing too much damage, so that you “hit a wall,” leaving little headroom to adapt successfully (supercompensate) toward a higher performance level. One might here rework Nietzsche’s famous dictum that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger into, “What does not kill me might still cripple me (i.e., the potential training benefit) instead of make me stronger.”
Another key here is to “keep the ball rolling,” as Schwartz puts it, looking toward steady, if incremental, long-term gains rather than the high/low amplitude that results from a more strictly periodized, seasonal approach such as Lydiard training. In other words, keep the long-term development going without short-circuiting it by too much stress that tears you down almost as much as it builds you up, which is what many competitive athletes inadvertently tend to fall into and get trapped by. (Here’s looking at you, self!)
In a related vein, the “Tinman” approach is at the same time also old-school in emphasizing a substantial mileage base — and not cutting it too much during the competitive seasons. Here again, though, the approach is not to overdo the pace, and to keep the bulk of one’s mileage runs at an easy to moderate effort. Simply because the easier the pace, the more mileage can be done without overstressing one’s capacities.
And the goal and effect of mileage training — the development of an extensive capillary network, and increasing the numbers of (aerobic) mitochondria and the levels of aerobic enzyme activity — depend primarily on putting in the time, rather the pace those miles are run at. (A judicious amount of tempo running for the sustained faster-pace component of training one’s endurance is incorporated into the multi-pace approach separately.)
Revisioning my own past. This particular take, emphasis, and approach to putting everything together has really helped crystallize for me why I had not performed to my potential when younger, and had often felt lousy in races. To perhaps oversimplify things, in my prime I was doing too many shorter, faster, highly stressful intervals and not enough longer, slower ones. Often I was already tapped-out when meets came along, and in need of rest and recovery, not racing. Not only that, during the competitive season, the stressful interval work came at the expense of the aerobic distance base I had built during the off-season.
It was no wonder my performances had been so hit-and-miss. Or why, even when older, I tended to fairly quickly hit a performance wall I couldn’t get past when focusing the “business end” of my training on either intense intervals or too-hard tempos.
Finally, with the new perspective offered by having stumbled across Schwartz’s work, all the pieces were beginning to fall into place.