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Just a Million Easy Steps to Reach Your Potential
Kevin Beck
November 2005
Florida Running & Triathlon

"Some say there's no magic formula. I say there is. It's just that the magic is different for everyone." - Keith Dowling, 2:13 marathoner

Distance runners whose habit clearly spills beyond the bounds of pursuing health and fitness are often asked: Why? It's a simple but challenging question, sometimes posed by the same wags who say I get tired just driving 26 miles at once har- har-har. And even those of us eager to supply answers are frequently at a loss to capture concisely all that running adds to our lives.

Having experienced the gamut of polar opposites with which our sport imbues the spirit - triumph and disappointment, implacable drive and inexplicable surrender, competition and camaraderie, injury and invincibility, darkness and light - I find that a simple one-liner from the late George Sheehan sums up the panoramic picture: "I run to find out who I am."

I was a soccer player as a New Hampshire middle-schooler. At 14, when my mother suggested I join the cross-country team, I thought she was trying to get me to trade in my downhill skis for a flimsier pair. Once I figured out there was a sport by that name that didn't involve snow, I reckoned I'd give it a try and conned my best friend Ricky into joining as well.

We were the only two freshmen on the Concord High School team. I ran 21:06 in my first 5K race and Ricky beat me every race that season. I left high school with a 15:57 best and no additional losses to the Rickster. This didn't happen by accident; I wasn't the most gifted runner out there, but discovered I possessed a mountain of aptitude for it, and by local standards became a high-mileage guy as soon as this was prudent.

I loved the numbers and the quantifiables, the solitary release of tearing through the forest, the empowerment engendered by claiming a 10-second personal best, and moreover, the innumerable madly whirling angles of the whole protracted pursuit of improvement. At 35, those same factors are what get me out the door.

I ran semi-seriously in college, but didn't recapture a consistent rhythm of training and racing until I was 24 and entering graduate school. In 1994, I gradually built up to weeks in excess of 100 miles for the first time as I prepared for my maiden marathon voyage and found that I was physically suited for such training. Since then, I have, with few exceptions, remained injury-free. This is more a function of luck, i.e., basic biomechanics, than savvy, although I do make an effort to avoid pavement whenever possible - a real challenge in South Florida. It also means I have little to share about cross-training, as I've never been forced into alternative exercise modalities.

If you live in hillier regions, finding soft surfaces to run on becomes even more important. Runners across the size and ability spectrum invariably report that they can increase their workloads without incurring nearly the usual amount of joint and muscle soreness by forsaking pavement - no surprise in light of how the human chassis is constructed. If seeking out grass or dirt surfaces means you need to drive an extra fifteen minutes each way, give yourself that gift.

In terms of my "training philosophy," I offer nothing novel, just the results of an experience-of-one founded on the basics extolled by the sport's guiding lights throughout the past hundred years. I have found that alternating longer periods of higher mileage that include relatively few structured workouts or races with shorter periods of reduced mileage that include frequent structured workouts and races has provided a recipe for success.

This has never meant adding miles at the expense of faster sessions; rather, it means balancing all of the elements required for success in my event of choice, which has typically been the marathon. Since everyday American runners typically hold out in the false hope that lots of speedwork can compensate for a lack of aerobic strength, this has meant apportioning my training in such a way as to present a monomaniacal, junk-mileage-laden regimen. Learned observers know better.

Here is a typical week pulled from the heart my training for the 2001 Boston Marathon, which I finished in 2:24:17. Both races were build-up races I obviously did not rest for. Note that I touched upon a range of faster paces, not just one or two.

Week of March 19

Mon: am-7 miles easy; pm-11 miles easy

Tue: am-7 miles easy; pm-11 miles including aroad workout: mile-5:07, 1 min rest, 880-2:33, 1 min rest; then 400 (67), 600 (1:43), 600 (1:45), 400 (70), 600 (1:43), 400 (67), 200 (30) with 1 min rest after the 400s and 1:30 min rest after the 600s

Wed: am-7 miles easy; pm-11 miles including 5M in 29:45

Thu: am-7 miles easy; pm-10 miles easy

Fri: 5 miles easy; pm-12 miles including indoor 3K in 8:53.9

Sat: am-6 miles easy; pm-10 miles easy

Sun: 23 miles including 20M race in 1:50:33

Total-127 miles

In my approach I am not alone. At times, I have balanced steady "two-a-days" with 50-hour work weeks. Throughout, the biggest issue has never been training too little, but recovering too little. I'm not one for sleeping a lot by nature and this has probably hindered my progress at times, although after years of half-hearted trying I have curbed my caffeine intake to some extent. That's another lesson worth highlighting: No matter how seasoned we fancy ourselves as athletes, there's generally a number of things any of us, after some honest introspection, could do in order to improve our running and our general health.

Patience , trust, resilience, and the ability to learn from past experience are the greatest psychological determinants of success in long-distance running, just as they are in other realms. The greatest physical determinants are, regardless of your event, an aerobic base developed through years of accumulated mileage and - just as important - consistency (a by-product of resilience, both physical and psycho-emotional). Believe this philosophy, scrawl it on the inside of your eyelids, live it, and regardless of your inherent abilities, you'll look around one day and be pleasantly astonished at your own improvement and achievements.

As my friends would rush to say, I'm no genius; I'm just one more person with a hobby and a voice. I haven't invented or perfected anything and have made plenty of mistakes. But despite obligatory setbacks, I've paid attention to obvious patterns, made every effort to view them in the simplest, purest light, and passed them on to others wherever applicable. The upcoming paragraphs will cover this.

If you feel your training has shortcomings, you may simply be neglecting the basics - the elements which, in spite of individual variations in the "magic formulas" quote noted by Keith, are common to distance runners around the globe.

Perhaps you're not running enough. What's the highest mileage level you have reached and maintained for a three-month period? Got it? Okay, why did you stop "there" instead of at "there plus ten?" Probably because you were bored, wanted to race, tired, or saw no immediate (therefore no worthwhile) results. Scads of easy distance is critical, although as Keith suggests the "perfect" amount varies from person to person. It also depends on whether you plan to be at your racing best in three weeks or three months.

At this point, if you're not sold on the idea, you might say one of three things: "I don't have time to run more than I do," "I'll get injured," or "Joe Slack only does 20 miles a week and he runs a 17:45 5K." If you're in the first camp, well, that is unfortunately some people's reality. If you're in the second, how do you know? Most people convinced that running "X" miles per week will lead to certain injury or breakdown; they're merely repeating what they've heard elsewhere.

I have known very few people truly unable to survive a gradual, sensible increase in their daily workload. If you're in the third group, I ask you: So what? The running world is filled with people doing more than you with less work. This vexing inequity spans athletic, financial, cosmetic and other realms. You may never beat Joe Slack, but do you want to be the best runner you can be? This should be your only area of concern.

Running too fast too often. One of the most common questions thrown around the running community is, "How fast should I run on my easy days?" Evidently there are limitless correct answers, because for every method that's been tried, I can name at least one person who swears by it. "10K pace plus 60 (or 90, or 45.4) seconds a mile; 75% (or 82%, or 61.6%) of maximum heart rate."

Answering this question requires defining an "easy run." In short, it's any workout without a specific time (or effort) goal. During a period involving lots of speedwork or racing, a day without a pace or effort goal should remain just that. If you're in a period of training without immediate racing goals, you can run as fast as you want to every day as long as your rate of recovery, on the whole, outstrips your rate of breakdown.

There are no magical programs or formulas when it comes to building strength in the off-season. Run as much as you can as often as possible, and run like hell when you feel like it. This seemingly oversimplified piece of advice is not a spitting in the face of science or specifics; it's a real prescription for long-term success.

During a period of serious racing, the variables change. Here, you should almost certainly be running slower on non- workout, non-race days than you think you should. Recovery days are so named for a reason; they're not called "slow, but no slower than eight-minutes-a-mile-'cause-that's-too-slow" days for the same reason. I rarely time my easy days. I do a lot of recovery running at around 8:00 to 8:30 pace with others who reliably stick to this range, and this practice of "putting a governor on the engine" has helped me tremendously, particularly when important races are looming. I wished I'd learned it when I was younger, but it's been an important part of improving into my mid-30s.

Not preparing specifically enough for races . Some believe that doing long runs at 8:00 pace and repeat miles at 6:00 pace is a reasonable way to prepare for a sub-3 hour marathon (just under 7:00 per mile). Others seem to think the ideal way to duck under 20:00 for 5K (just under 6:30 per mile) is to bang out 400s and 800s at 5:50 pace and do daily runs at 7:30 pace. The apparent rationale behind these approaches is that the body can somehow "average out" these paces on race day and yield the desired results.

Alas, the body is not a mathematical equation. It is, however, extremely adept at adapting to specific physiological stressors. With this in mind, someone shooting for a 40:00 10K might do three- to four-mile runs at 6:30 pace, or perhaps five repeat miles in 6:20 each with a two-minute rest, not 10 x 400 in 80 seconds with a 400 jog. There is a role for "supramaximal" speed sessions, but they shouldn't account for the bulk of your intense preparation.

Neglecting tempo runs. These are really basic extensions of plain old "hard aerobic" runs, only nowadays they have a name. They're discussed in detail all over the Internet.

Pared down to the essentials, hard work and confidence are all a distance runner truly needs. I have found that regardless of whatever permutation of miles, intervals, tempo runs, hill workouts, and long runs I settle on for any given stretch of training, the thing that matters most is nudging your total time spent training ever higher until you find your personal "sweet spot" and only then, when you're ready to attack a period of racing, become truly concerned with intensity.

If you give this a try and in the first two, three, six, or twelve months weather some lackluster races, fine. You'll need them. Only if you then quit will you have paid your dues for nothing. If you stay healthy and train consistently for a period of years, you will reach or exceed your purest of goals. It won't happen every time, but often enough to make it worth it. You'll be beat up and on top of the world.

2005 Disney World Marathon runner-up and Florida's Finest team member Kevin Beck of Plantation is a senior writer for Running Times Magazine and the editor of Run Strong, a training book scheduled for publication in March by Human Kinetics. A competitive runner for over 20 years, his personal bests include 14:58 for 5,000 meters, 1:08:22 for the half-marathon and 2:24:17 for the marathon. He placed second in the 2004 USA Track & Field 50-kilometer Road Championship. Visit Kevin on the web at www.kemibe.com and www.distancecoach.com

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