Thursday, 5 April 2012

A few lessons

I've learned a few running lessons over the years, most of them the hard way. That's why I know I've learned them. To paraphrase Boss Jim Gettys (Citizen Kane), I needed more than one lesson, and I got more than one lesson. Here is my summary of those lessons which I take with me wherever I go. Pocket sized ideas, very portable and sometimes they even save me money. Here are some of those unwritten rules, written:

Easy runs should be easy: It's usually the simplest rules that get screwed up the most often. To be clear, we are talking about all those miles you run for your warmup, cool-down, jogs in between sets, AND, more importantly, all those times you just go out for a run, easy-peasy. The goal is to come back home feeling refreshed, relaxed and like you could have gone further. THAT'S THE POINT. Run for fun, and at a pace doable for a 100 miles nonstop (I dare you to run that too fast). I wish it were just dumb (and even not-so-dumb) athletes that were doing this, but even some coaches encourage it; there's a special place in hell for these idiots. They're all thinking the same thing: how will slow running possibly improve my/their mile performance? Funny you should ask, 'cause going 6:00/mile 'easy' (or whatever is too fast but just barely do-able) while making yourself feel like shit each after every day has been proven by scientists to be much less productive. I lied; it wasn't science that said that, it was common sense. Did you know having fun and losing track of time while doing something is the first step to greatness? Easy runs comprise 80-90% of all your running. If you screw this part up, you have already screwed up pretty much everything, no? These days I only look at my watch if I'm going to be late for something after my run (it's not like I'm going to accidentally run 4 hours; that only happened once :). For those of you in the habit of pushing your easy pace, I'll bet you a shiny nickel that running slower for the first time will feel harder. This might hint how much you have left to learn.

Don't run angry: Some argue that running is a good way to let off steam. I disagree. If you're still angry after a couple miles, the damage is already done to your run. First relax, then run. Take a long walk before running; walk three or four miles even. I mean it, as I have tried both and walking is much better both physiologically and psychologically at curing anger/frustration/etc. Angry running makes you run too fast, hence violating the previous rule.

Long runs are best done on weekdays, not weekends: I was experimenting with this and I am convinced it's true. Why then, do all running books seem to advocate a Sunday long run? Simple, they are marketed to the weekend warriors. Even the good ones. You can't sell a book just to elite runners you know; recall the very best running are the ones trying to sell books in the first place. So in the back of (almost) every manual, you will find a schedule including a Sunday 10-20 miler. And now good runners do it too. Two things. One, running high mileage means you will actually be doing this sort of volume every day, making a Sunday a long run almost redundant. A pro going 140 miles a week means they run -on average- 20 miles on days that end in 'y' (and they have less other work to do, so days of week for them are almost meaningless; Radcliffe lives an 8-day week, for instance). Some elites don't technically even do a long run, for instance El Guerrouj. Second thing: Sunday, for me at least, is a day to rest (not religiously, but them folks have got something going there). I do a lot of walking, even on rest days, and Sunday is also when I go shopping, walking around downtown, getting groceries, making food for the week (tons of standing in kitchen). Saturday also involves chores. None of these things are compatible with an exhausting long run (afterwards you need to be sitting on a couch, not walking all afternoon at a street sale or whatever. Trust me on this). John Lofranco, my coach, brilliantly pointed out Monday is a much better day for long runs, and it made plenty of sense. Sit most of the day at work/class, run a bunch of miles in the evening, come home, eat prepared leftovers (that's what you spent Sunday doing, remember?), then sleep. Long runs in the dark are amazing: have you ever tried?

There are no superfoods: I hate to be the one breaking the news, but beets will not make you faster. Nor Greens+, nor any other 'super' 7-systems vitamin mix of whatever B-vitamin blend. Sad but true. To argue the opposite is ludicrous. Imagine you tell me, excitedly, that beets make you run faster. I will then say "I believe you". This I will say so that next time when we are at a race or workout together and you are without beet juice (it will happen at some point), you will logically deduce that your performance shall be hindered. If beets make you faster, not having beets will make you slower, correct? So, psyching yourself out because of your expected performance loss, I will then do better relatively speaking, and mostly because I feel better than you. I do this without taking a sip of your placebo cocktail. The human body is meant to have certain minimum thresholds of vitamins and minerals, but thereafter is not the rate-limiting step in your performance. Taking in enough fuel is really your only goal as an athlete, and after the workout (carbs, not protein shakes, silly). It's pretty easy to do; it's why so many cultures get by on so many diets. Eating healthy is good for you, of course, and it should be intuitive (eat fibrous things with fat and vice versa, plus fruit, some meat or beans and so on). There is no such thing as eating super-healthy. Please, please don't bring up Linus Pauling and his Vitamin C crusade; his theories were disproved, like, years ago (read Bad Science by Ben Goldacre, for one). So stop sprouting your own beans and eating everything raw unless it's fun for you. Not a winning formula in itself. Just remember nature is more redundant than you think. Aside: do you think you put every effort into that big race? This memorable scene from Ghost in the Shell demonstrates what giving 100% would actually look like if your brain/body gave you the chance (5:00 minutes in, if you're in a hurry).

There are superfoods, sort of, but they're illegal: A corollary to the previous point, if we are supposing a super food did exist, it would be immediately placed on the banned substance list. Blood doping and steroids: these things work a little too well. That's why they're banned. Beets are not banned from competition because they do nothing special expect make your poo purple. Gym rats, the ones without the 'connections' or money, probably take most of those supplements hoping something 'extra' was sprinkled in there, like pot laced with acid. To the serious athlete: stick to regular food, dummy.

Stretch after, not before, runs: Simple enough. I find stretching before a workout is a real time waster, for starters, and you lose your warmup jog momentum. And thanks to good research it's been proven time and again that it won't make you faster for the workout, either. Never stretching, which I tried once recently, is also dumb. You get knots in your muscles. Logically then the best time to stretch is after a run. Any run. Doesn't matter how fast you went. They don't have to be painful to work (though sometimes uncomfortable). Saves you tons of money on massages the next day. The Running Room 'Learn to Run' groups do the same. Competitive runners can sometimes learn from the amateurs. It happens.

Altitude is bullshit: A great way to divide the haves and have-nots in the running world is altitude training. It's like you're fifteen again and while you're mowing lawns all summer your rich friend is touring Europe. You suck! Yeah, altitude training does certainly make you feel like shit when you're not invited to that special camp in the sky. They're all up there having a great time, literally looking down on the rest of us chumps. Don't bother paying attention. I hope that it's becoming clear nowadays that training camps make you faster, not altitude (so yes, you might still be left out). I was at sea level in San Diego for a week. No laptop, no distractions, and I felt energetic. I wanted to run twice a day, and I wasn't even in great shape. Happens every time I go to one of these things (never often enough); focusing yourself works like a charm.

Wear medium, light, and superlight shoes, depending on the run: This rule is tricky, because it depends entirely on your personal background. Wearing really heavy shoes with a huge heel raise is always a bad idea (anything costing more than $150 is a good clue it's not for you). Barefoot is impractical, and though Vibrams are fun (I have a pair), they must be used with extreme caution. Weak feet cannot be suddenly burdened with a huge payload. And it takes years to correct. I'm not kidding. I used to wear heavy shoes. My feet are gradually getting stronger, maybe. I already broke one foot bone trying to rush it. If you grew up barefoot all your life, you will transition to light, but padded, shoes. Canova, a very smart coach, has his Kenyan elites use cushioned shoes on longer training runs, so he says (heavier than racing flats, that is). Also note that most marathon elite racing shoes are somewhat padded. The New Balance RC1400 is worn by some of the best marathoners during races and does not look like a minimalist shoe. Of course for 10,000 meters or below there's almost nothing on your heel (or forefoot) in races. The least padded shoes are for 1500m and below, i.e. the fetishistically light Nike Victory. All depends how much your heel is used and whether a little extra muscle fatigue is good or bad (it's a tradeoff). So, barefoot people transition to spikes for intervals and some (non-negligible) padding for long runs. Medium length, easy runs are a mix of light and very light shoes, I suppose. Shod folks must learn to run in superlight/barefoot shoes for very short periods to gradually strengthen feet (a full season or a couple years), building up to maybe 8-12 miles (something you would call medium-long). Meanwhile don't throw away your (reasonably) padded shoes, especially to supplement those days of running tiny amounts in minimals. Long runs always demand some padding, so I have learned, unless it's on soft dirt the whole way (obviously soft dirt is the padding). Training footwear is surprisingly important, and yet 'merely' supposed to not interfere with your stride. Yet it always affects stride, somehow. It's a tricky business. Aside: superlight shoes, especially Vibrams, are great for hiking (Less chance of an ankle twist than a boot plus your feet feel more in tune with nature, though there's higher odds of a stubbed toe. Pick your poison). So let's admit it right here, right now: running shoe companies have us by the balls. But at least your running stuff will eventually take up less room in the den... probably not.

If a shoe sales(wo)man tries to give advice on over/under pronation, or tells you that shoes are no good after 600 miles of wear, ignore them immediately: This last rule is here to save us all some money and valuable time. Do not hear them out on either explanation. Nothing special happens to a shoe at 600 miles; you will find no science behind this claim, only sales tactics. Shoes are good until they visibly wear out, as should be self-evident. Good shoes don't wear out fast enough for some salespeoples' liking, so they invented this rule. They are being deceitful, and most of them know it. I feel bad for the sincere ones. Now as for over/under pronations advice, your feet are just so damn complicated. Changing shoes changes your stride which changes your foot strike in a feedback loop that becomes hard to predict. Custom shoes are more complicated than custom eyeglasses in certain ways (more variables and feedback loops to contend with), and I doubt you would trust a guy working at your local sports store with your eyeglass prescription. Only a very, very qualified expert should give this advice. Even most orthopedic experts cannot be trusted as unbiased, especially when selling you $500 foot wedges covered by insurance. The results for glasses are far more obvious. It is a complex, new area in research, and most of the best work has yet to be done. Be extremely careful when listening and buying into explanations. Many experts will never do a follow-up appointment. I got a pair of custom wedges (covered by insurance) that were never given a second look. I doubt that guy was all that interested in me after I paid. To summarize about shoes and wedges: If they still feel better (compared to what you had before) after many miles of running, keep using them. If not, throw them away (or return them, if possible).


  1. Wow, how about the rule "don't blog angry"? This is a good one, Graydon! All true things. I do enjoy the NB RC1400s, too!

    Steve Magness just did a little article about the long run, and while he didn't mention which day to do it on, he does mention putting "stuff" into it, something else we do on Mondays.

    1. I thought blogging tipsy was the real faux pas. I didn't insult anyone directly, right? This felt like a step down from my last post. Runner's high has nothing on writer's high. But thanks for the feedback/link!