Over the past few months I’ve conducted an unintentional experiment with which you may be familiar, but don’t always abide.
It’s called doing a legitimate warmup.
On runs, this means taking the first two miles no faster than your body wants to go. As I’ve aged that pace means running 10:00 per mile on average. Frankly, I don’t think my body will allow me to run any quicker those first 3,520 yards or 10,560 feet. It simply won’t do it.
So go slow, and let it flow.
Running slowly at first is a really beneficial thing to do. It allows the body to produce additional blood flow, pushes oxygenated blood out to vital muscle groups and enables the heart to adapt to an increase in beats per minute. Lacking a decent warmup, the body reacts in adverse fashion. The rest of the workout can be compromised.
After two miles of slower running, it seems like miracles begin to happen. On the way back today after two miles of running at 10:00 pace I ran successive miles of 8:30, 7:55 and 8:03. And it all felt effortless.
What goes around…
The same principles apply to cycling and swimming. Last weekend we rode thirty miles with friends at just over 15 miles per hour into a north wind. Nothing about that riding was hard. By the time we turned around our bodies were well tuned to faster pedaling and when I split off from my wife, who was doing eighty miles to my sixty, I rode back averaging 20 mph through the northerly crosswinds. That felt effortless too.
But warming up is most important in the sport I have done the least. That is swimming. Being patient enough to warm up properly in the pool or open water is absolutely vital to success. For me, it’s the difference between feeling crushed in the water or having a positive experience.
The reason I share all this “news” about warming up is that there is a temptation for all of us athletes to go too hard, all the time. I once trained with a guy who went out the door running at six minutes per mile. He always had injuries and could never figure out why.
Watch it now
These days the pressure partner is our watch. Getting done with a workout and finding our pace per mile was slower than we wished is the constant bummer of this data-driven world. I spoke with a well-known triathlon coach recently who mentioned that she’d ditched her Garmin for most running workouts. “It’s too much,” she observed, holding up her regular watch for proof that running sans data device is good for you.
I did the same for an entire year on the bike. Never even put a computer on the headset. Just rode whatever pace I felt like doing and in group rides committed to pulls mostly on feel. Did I make a few mistakes? Sure. But the self-awareness gained from riding without the persistent pressure to drive myself was healthy.
Not every workout is a race
I know there are theories that riding with a power meter is the answer to understanding actual output and endurance. I’ve never had one, so I don’t know. What I do know is that the few cycling and running pros with whom I’ve trained or consulted do not go blasting out the door like a race just started. They warm up, often for long periods, before doing any type of quality work. That’s what pros do.
If you want proof, take a look at the cyclists on their bikes before a time trial in a major race. They spin and spin and spin until their muscles are thoroughly enervated.
When I ran with a group of national class distance guys out east in the Philadelphia area, they started out long runs of 15-20 miles pretty much jogging. Then they finished off the run with a string of three sub-five-minute miles.
Building toward speed
That’s how the pros do it. They build toward speed, but don’t rush it. We can all do a better job of that. And if you’re average pace on a six mile run seems slow because you’re only jogging to warm up, tell your average pace to go fuck itself. You’re in this for quality, not the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am temporary thrill of a Strava Kudo.
The pros know you don’t have to go hard all the time.