Friday, April 15, 2011

Training by stones and pebbles

The start to my racing career is pretty simple.  I ran the Lawyers Have Heart 10K in 2007.  Had to walk.  Then I decided to run a 5K a month later because I could probably finish that without walking.  Ran the Cure Autism Now 5K.  Walked twice.

Then I decided to buy a ton of books and do some researching, all with the goal of learning how to train (so I could run a race without walking).   And a few things jumped out to me.  For one thing, people who train for marathons frequently experience great performances at shorter distances, post marathon.  Another was that higher mileage generally correlated with better performances.

From my previous history riding horses competitively, I understood that athletic success required consistent training day in and day out, over months and years.  This understanding, when combined with what I read in Lydiard, Pfitzinger, Jack Daniels, and others, indicated that running once or twice a day each day, for high mileage (most at a very easy pace), was the way to advance.  No individual workout needed to be that spectacular; what mattered was the consistency over time.

And it worked quite well for a while (consistent PRs).  Until it didn't (consistent injury).


Thing is, so many of us (especially those of us who maintain detailed training logs) end up seeing our training as an empty glass that needs to be filled each week.  And so you check off your miles, and your yoga classes, and your supplemental weight-training, so that each week you can report back that the glass has been filled with the sand of your training.

The training log becomes a bucket list.  And bucket lists are silly things that make people run just one race (usually a marathon) and then shift their focus to learning how to skydive (so they can do that once too). 

(A visit to the Great Wall of China fits in there somewhere too).

And eventually, if you're not careful, the training log shifts from documenting your training to driving it.


Since my injury, I've come to understand that while there is still a bit of a "bucket list" aspect to training, not all categories are equal.  You need to train, and you need to work hard, and you need to do it consistently.  But you also need to do it intelligently, with the focus being on the overall goal, not the weekly report.  A drive to fill the glass no matter what leads to poor performance.

While my training log is still a glass, I'm no longer filling it with sand, but rather with larger stones and smaller pebbles.  In a non-racing week, the largest stones are my key workouts.  Tempo, interval, long run.  Those are my A priorities -- the workouts that MUST fit in my glass.

My other land-run, my pool-runs, weight training, and yoga -- these are all smaller stones, of various shapes and sizes.   I fit in as many as I can, where and if I can, but only if they don't prevent me from nailing the workouts.  If I'm feeling a bit tired, or a bit of a muscle strain, I skip in favor of recovery, to make sure that I  get to do the workouts, and maximize my shot of doing them well.  Sometimes it really is better to skip yoga to go to bed early.

It's a similar reasoning process for my overall season.  Races are the larger rocks, and so I do the best workouts that I can (best doesn't necessarily mean hardest) that do not interfere with my races.   And on an even larger scale, I view my overall racing future as the largest rock of all, avoiding races and training cycles that might interfere.

This is a surprisingly hard mindset to achieve. I understand (as my coach has emphasized to me) that mileage does not necessarily equal fitness, and that running fitness is the ultimate goal.  Still, it takes a lot of self-confidence and poise NOT to rely on the totals in one's training log as a reflection of one's work ethic; to focus on the ultimate end, rather than the weekly report. 

Pool-running has assisted with the transition to this mindset.  I assign "miles" to my pool-runs, though I know there's no such thing.  The "miles" are by duration, with no difference between "easy" and "recovery."  This fiction makes it possible to recover AND have a pretty training log, by keeping the effort very easy when that's what needed, or by making me more willing to sub in pool-running for land when I feel an injury coming on.

Thus, the pool-running becomes a bit of a crutch -- hopefully one that I'll eventually be able to do without.  I'm not quite there yet.   But working towards it. 


  1. awesome post.
    Part of this whole process is trial and error and trusting yourself.

  2. "And eventually, if you're not careful, the training log shifts from documenting your training to driving it." That's so true. Very well stated. I really, really like this blog and the ideas/approach you bring up. I think part of the reason we want to "fill" our logs so badly because it's very easy to say "the more miles, the fitter I will be." But it's not that cut and dry. :-)

  3. This is such a completely true and awesome post. When I started training with CAR, this:

    "In a non-racing week, the largest stones are my key workouts. Tempo, interval, long run. Those are my A priorities -- the workouts that MUST fit in my glass."

    mindset became so hard to grasp. I love your rocks and pebbles analogy. So true.

  4. This is a fabulous approach to training, I love it. I think a tough lesson to learn as you get more efficient at your sport is quality over sheer quantity. Sheer quantity will take you far....but only so far. Fascinating.