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
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
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
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
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
Sat: am-6 miles easy; pm-10 miles easy
Sun: 23 miles including 20M race in 1:50:33
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
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
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
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
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