I was a runner before Runner’s World existed. We welcomed the magazine, which long ago joined the likes of Track&Field News, the “Bible of the Sport”, which offered no training tips or advice. Runner’s World rushed into that niche along with early coverage of road races and even publication of local results.
As the sport has grown and embraced an incredible number of women runners, it has also forced magazines like Runner’s World into something of a recycling mode. There is always a need to advise new runners, yet it is also important to educate long-standing veterans. What advice can you possibly give them that they have not already heard, ten times over?
The other challenge in this long cycle of information is that fact that almost all of the advice you have ever gotten from publications like Runner’s World is sooner or later contradicted. That’s true about carbohydrates, once the binge food of the running community. Same goes for hydration. It’s now known you can have too much water in your system. And running shoes. How many times are we going to go around about that?
One could argue that Runner’s World, like any general advice or news magazine, is designed more as an echo chamber than any sort of groundbreaking news outlet. Running publications have the same problem as Time magazine, which run editions bearing provocative headlines like, “Is God Dead?” in hopes of selling more issues. But when you read the articles they really offer nothing new. Their purpose is to provoke everyone and offend no one. That’s pretty much the publication game in a nutshell.
The Basics still work
So I thought back to the early advice I got from coaches in the 1970s, and whether it still applies. All of it still does. My coach Richard Born at tiny little Kaneland High School handed out a training guide at the start of the cross country season. I have looked at that advice over the years and it all still makes sense. It told us not to drink fizzy, sugary drinks Coke because they have caffeine and can cause sideaches. It also told us to avoid sulphury foods like eggs before races for the same reason. And forget about eating donuts entirely. Some of this sounds basic, but it was groundbreaking to a bunch of 15-year-olds training every day for the first time in our lives. And speaking of training, the basics in that regard still apply. We ran a combination of distance, fartlek, long and short speed intervals, and did race rehearsal practice. As a result, we all improved and won the conference meet for the first time ever as a school. Results speak loudly.
Long on experience
Since that time I’ve run more than 50,000 miles and had success well into my 50s as a runner, still winning age group awards and a 10K down near 40:00. So what I’m about to share may not be found in the pages of Runner’s World or their online edition where they throw just about everything that doesn’t fit into the magazine. All these new conventions are a convenient way to cover your bases, but I’m not sure people are really learning anything more for all the additional information. That requires some unconventionality.
So, what I’m about to share may not be found in the pages of Runner’s World or even online. This is unconventional wisdom. But it works. All of these are focused on making you a faster, strong, healthier runner. Just like Runner’s World always promises. But doesn’t always deliver.
10. Slow your ass down on long runs, and then kick at the end
While training with a group of Philadelphia runners in the early 80s, I learned the hard way that the distance training I’d been doing through college was too hard and too fast. Running with a group of talented (29:00 to 30:30 in the 10K distance runners) showed how the faster guys get stronger and faster. We ran 20-milers at a slow rate, from 7:30 to 8:30 per mile for 17 miles, and then ran the last three miles at 5:00 – 5:30 pace. Talk about teaching your body how to respond when tired! More runners should do workouts in that structure, and triathletes too. Forget about those stupid brick runs you do. Go long and slow, and then finish hard. Race pace hard. Running slow brick runs at the end of a long bike ride doesn’t really help you either. Better to get off your bike and do two miles all out than plod along until you feel better. That’s just self-congratulatory. It tells you nothing and does even less for your ability to perform in a race.
9. There is no substitute for speed on the track, but do it right
You can fool yourself into thinking you’re going to run faster any number of ways. But until you go to a running track and plan a workout in which you run at speeds a minute faster pace than you expect to be racing in competition, you’re not doing the job right. If you race at 7:00 pace, then you need to do your intervals at six-minute pace for 400 meters, and so on. If you plan on racing a 10K, you will need to do about four miles of training broken into intervals below race pace. If you want to get faster, you need to run faster. And here’s a hard truth: If you can’t run fast enough to do intervals a minute faster per mile than your race pace, then you need to work from the ground up. Start with shorter intervals at the target pace and do them until you can run that fast. Then you can start to improve your tempo and efficiency at longer distances. That may sound like unconventional wisdom, but it’s the God’s Honest Truth.
8. Do strength work two times a week, minimum.
At any age, strength work is the Magic Injury Preventer. Yes, it can help you get stronger, but the more important benefit is stabilizing weak points that lead to compensatory injuries. Here are the basics: Use the leg press at a gym and do single-leg, isolated presses with your body weight (and above) on one leg. That’s a simple enough formula, right? It helps your hips too, and rehearses the fact that you run on one leg at a time, not both. Then do ab work and some squats. Curls can help your arms, and shoulder presses too. All this can be done at home as well, with two simple 25 lb. barbells. Hold both barbells and do one-legged squats. The benefits are amazing. And cheap. You won’t regret it, and 15 minutes a day works wonders.
7. Age is just a number, but it’s an important one
It’s nice to believe we don’t slow down as we age. But the fact that everyone from world
class runners to back-of-the-packers sees a steady decline in race times after the age of 40 means you do have to adjust your expectations to some degree. The only exception to this rule is people who don’t start running until the age of 40. Then you might expect improvement for a few years. And then the inevitable starts to happen. You hold your own a year or two, and then it gets tougher and tougher to do workouts you once did, or match the times you once ran or did in triathlon. But don’t beat yourself up about this stuff.
There will be days when you feel young and fresh. You might even exceed a performance or train with vigor for days or weeks. But the secret to not feeling your age is simply not acting it. There’s no reason you can’t train long and hard if you accept the need to recover adequately as well. And if it isn’t fun and does not make you happy, step back and take a look at what you’re doing. Our minds change as we age. We value different things. The same old approach may not be working for you. But there’s always shorter races, or longer if you need and want to slow down and take it all in for the experience. The rules you make are your own to keep.
6. Stop with the Half Marathon and Marathon races all the time
Training for half marathons and marathons only makes you slower. There, I’ve said it. Those of us who raced hard in the 80s, when packs of sub-elite runners often completed 10K in under 32:30, simply did not run half marathons or marathons all the time. To get faster, we raced 5Ks and raced them hard. Then we took what we built from those races and applied it to five miles, then 10k. And once every three months or so, we’d race a 10-miler or possibly a half marathon. Once a year some of us would run a marathon, but that was burning matches. This abiding obsession with super long races, and that’s what halves and marathons actually are, is perhaps good for the running industry, but not all that good for your native speed. The same holds true with triathlons. If you want to get faster at the Half Ironman, then you need to do faster sprint tri’s, and do them hard. Then move up to Olympic, and when you’ve actually improved at that distance, then you can expect to improve on a Half Ironman. Otherwise, you’re fooling yourself. You can’t set PRs by training (or racing) longer and longer and slower and slower.
5. Don’t hydrate yourself to death
While one must respect the need for hydration in distances over 10k, there’s absolutely no reason to grab water or Gatorade or whatever during a 5K. Even a 10K is stretching it if conditions are not warm outside. We all ran plenty of 10Ks under 33:00 without sipping a drop of water during the competition. If the advice on super hydration were so potent, there would be 15-20 runners under 33:00 minutes at 10Ks these days. But that’s not the case. It’s even rare for the winner, hydrated as hell we must suppose, to break the 33 mark.
So here’s the simple advice: If you drink a bit before the race, and not too much, you might have to pee at the start. That’s your cue that you’re ready to go. Running longer than 10K? A few fluid ounces at three and seven miles should do you. If you run a half marathon distance you do need to drink. And drinking during a marathon goes without saying. Every three miles or so. Drink. But don’t hydrate yourself to death. People with flighty stomachs know there’s a tradeoff to that. Just enough to do the job. Anything more is a waste. Yes, this is seemingly unconventional thinking. But the hydration push that started perhaps a decade ago in mags like Runner’s World has ultimately been met by information that says too much hydration is as bad or worse than too little. Between the two runner’s worlds sits reality.
4. Expect that you’ll always be a “fixer-upper.”
If you’ve ever owned a home or a car, be it new or old, then you know there is no such thing as a house that stays fixed or a car that runs without maintenance. But you can get the impression from all those glossy magazine articles that if you do your strength work and stretching, your body will transform into this Temple of Fitness. But that would be very wrong.
Every athlete on earth is a “fixer upper” from the time they start until the time they retire. You would be shocked to know the level of maintenance world class athletes do to keep their bodies in working order. They are not gods or blessed as you might think. But if you don’t read between the lines of the slick profiles on their achievements, you might come to believe that gal with the sharp abs and razor cut thighs (even perky breasts!) never wakes up sore or lame. Or that the guy with the long legs who looks like Ryan Gosling actually has very flat feet. Their perfect qualities are all an illusion. Don’t believe in perfection. It does not exist. We’re all fixer-uppers. Every one of us.
3. Running shoes are prettier, but not that much better than 40 years ago
Having run in shoes so minimal they barely qualify as shoes, and having worn clompers as thick as bricks, I’ve seen the extremes in running shoes. That’s just shoe companies trying to sell you whatever they can convince you to buy. That’s not to say the technology in today’s shoes is worthless, but the fact that running shoes 40 years ago lasted just as long, if not longer than current models by the same companies should tell you something.
Let’s examine the evidence. You no longer even see shoe companies marketing the idea that you can run 1000 miles in their shoes, do you? That’s because they’ll get sued. Instead, shoes are sold on very short-term benefits like shock absorption during their lifespan, and perhaps some motion control too. That’s about it. Yet for essentially the same or less wear time, we’re now paying 100% more per pair.
For $160, your shoes should last all year, right? Well sadly, that’s not the case. More money does not lead to shoe longevity. As runners in the 70s, we made a science out of making our shoes last longer than any runner today. We used athletic tape on the heels to keep them from wearing down. We alternated shoes quite frequently too. Having two pairs makes complete sense. But with running shoes priced at $160, it’s too expensive for most runners to use this common sense approach to shoes. So we wear out one pair at a time, and you need to replace them every three months or so.
The entire push toward minimalism proved the point that running shoes are actually only about 1/10th of the formula in successful running on any surface. Personally, I think pure minimalism is insane, and I’ve always been light on my feet with a midfoot stride. We raced barefoot in college and quickly learned the returns are far less valuable than the costs. For one thing, it didn’t make us any faster. The truth about running shoes is therefore something much simpler. Shoes are principally there to protect your feet from sharp objects and to shield your feet and legs from shock and wear from hard surfaces.
There can also be some benefit to the construction of the shoe in terms of footstrike and propulsion. But every shoe, regardless of expense and technology, begins to lose these benefits the minute you start to use them. Even the most sophisticated pairs of shoes wear out 300-400 miles into their life. So we’re talking a stopgap solution between new pairs, and nothing more. The souls wear down on the heels or whatever, and then your biomechanical flaws are eventually revealed and escalated. Your old shoes become a worse problem than no shoes at all. So get used to the idea that you have a $600 a year habit. That’s not that much compared to golf and other money-suckers. But we’re all still money suckers when it comes to running shoes.
2. Race doesn’t matter in running
It’s a convenient belief that African runners, especially Kenyans, Ethiopians and Moroccans, to name a few, are superior runners due to genetic advantages. The feats of all these runners are a beautiful, inspiring thing to watch. But there are still runners of all sorts of ethnic and racial backgrounds who can run with these elites. There are cultural drivers to their success, and competition as well. But the human race is still essentially equal when it comes to running. Runners with talent who do the training and are smart will always be able to compete.
1. Gender doesn’t matter in running
This is a somewhat different issue than race, and perhaps more important in terms of consideration in the efforts of runners. While women’s records at all distances do not match or exceed most men, it’s not a result of being “the weaker sex” as it was once portrayed. There are many races and millions of examples in which women exceed the efforts of their male counterparts. Only at the extreme elite level do times have any bearing on this measurement of effort. Happily, the sport has evolved to the point where women regularly train and compete with men, and there are few issues of concern about that on either side of the equation. Women are welcomed as equals in the sport, and there are now as many or more women runners and triathletes involved in their respective sports as men. This is a healthy thing, affirming gender equality in the most empirical way.