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Sunday, January 17, 2016
There is no simple answer to this question. In part, that is because runners have different strengths and weaknesses. Even so, I do believe that there are some basic answers to this question that apply to any runner trying to qualify for trials … or for Boston or to run a personal best or whatever.
(1) Time. There are no shortcuts and you cannot speed up the amount of time it takes to build the strength, the fitness, the speed, and the racing savvy it takes to reach a high level of performance. My personal opinion is that it takes a solid year of focusing on a single goal to reach it, or to come as close as possible. I believe this applies to any distance. Your body can only adapt at a certain rate. For example, your red blood cells live for about 90 to 120 days. Training in a way that causes your body to produce more red cells and ones that will carry oxygen better takes at least three or four cycles of training. If each cycle is a few months, you are talking about a year just to increase the efficiency of your oxygen transport system. The same rules of physiology apply to all of the other cells in your body.
(2) Completeness of training. Every runner trying to reach a high level of performance needs to train more than just foot plant. You have to train your entire body. You have to train your entire body for that one specific type of performance. You would not bulk up for a body building competition if your goal was a marathon. But, you also have to consider all the areas that will be stressed. That includes everything from muscle strength to stride length to metabolic efficiency. You can just go out and run if you’d like, but it takes very, very, very specific and detailed types of training cycles to improve, and you need to know WHAT needs improving or you’re just “pissing in the wind.”
(3) Caution. The absolute worst mistake you can make is getting yourself injured. You cannot train if you are injured. And, most runners will try to come back from injury too soon and never reach their true potential. It’s hard not to do that, though, because you know your time is limited; you don’t have forever before you’ve lost your prime. Time feels like your enemy when you’re injured. You also need to understand that there is a difference in cardiovascular fitness and musculoskeletal fitness. You increase cardiovascular fitness much more easily and much more rapidly. Also, you have greater feedback mechanisms for cardiovascular fitness – so, the result for many runners is that they “feel” so much more fit and they increase their effort and training load before their muscles, ligaments, tendons, bones, etc. catch up. They end up injured. My coach used to say, “don’t get greedy, just be patient.”
(4) HARD work. Reaching your top, your peak, your best possible level is hard. It takes hard work physically and mentally. You have to push through workouts and fail at them … many times. You have to have races go wrong, but finish them anyway. You have to learn how to put all the pieces together by doing them wrong, trying again, getting it to work better, tinkering, and getting it right. My coach always made me finish workouts. Just because it wasn’t going well was never a reason to stop. I’m not talking about running through a stress fracture or something like that, but just because my workout was going badly, he made me go through anyway. It was humbling. I hated it. I would be in tears sometimes by the time I finished. But, I became comfortable being me in front of my coach. I could be exactly what I was, exactly where I was, in front of my coach. I never had to pretend to be doing better or sandbag so I could pat myself on the back later. I worked so hard in workouts sometimes that I would puke or end up with diarrhea later. I would be exhausted sometimes. Something was always sore. I ran at least 100 miles per week for months on end.
(5) Race. My coach did not tolerate dropping out of races. Learn to race correctly. Learn to race well. If you have to finish a race dragging in because you went out too fast and totally fell apart on the end, you learn a very important lesson. I have dropped from races because of low blood sugars a few times, but only once from stupid racing strategy. If you are going to race, then race. My coach did not believe in “training through a race.” Races are for laying it on the line. You put your best possible effort into any race you run. If you cannot do that, then do not race. Go out and run a tempo run or something instead. Racing is what you are training to do, so never allow a race to be treated as something less important than it is. Not every race will go well, though, and that’s part of the learning curve. It’s hard when a race goes badly, especially when you don’t know why. But, that’s why you have practice – they call it practice for a reason.
(6) Eat well. The harder and longer you’re training, the more food and nutritional supplements you will need. Yes, I have heard many times, if you eat right, you don’t need any supplements. Well, maybe that’s true for the average person, but that is not true for the runner qualifying for Olympic Trials. Period. I added protein shakes and a variety of vitamins and minerals like iron, B vitamins, potassium, magnesium, and vitamin D. I also went for regular medical check-ups with labs. At 5′ 6″, I usually weighed about 110 pounds while training hard and could drop to 106 by the end of a hard season. But, I would easily go up to 115 to 120 on off periods, maybe even more. I sometimes ate as much as 4,000 to 5,000 calories per day in the midst of a hard training phase.
(7) Find inner peace. This sounds so silly, but you have to be okay with the self-centered and isolated life you will live during the time you are training and racing at such a high level. People you know – family and friends – love it when you race well, when you have great rankings, when you’re on the cover of magazines … but, they are rarely supportive of the time and effort that has to go into your training for all of that to happen. They think that you are being selfish, that you are inconveniencing them, that you are overtraining, that you are wasting your time and their time as well. You have to find a way to shut all of that out. I quickly learned that sharing my excitement about getting through 40 and 50 mile runs did not get the same response from my husband as from myself. To him, I had just wasted an entire day that I could have done something with him or when I could have done something else useful. Plus, I had the recovery time over the next couple days when I was dragging, quiet, and moody. So, I figured out that the best way to deal with the problem was to “sneak in my training.” I stopped talking about the quantity and quality of my training with anyone but my coach. I snuck in my long runs by taking a day off during the week and running the entire day while he was at work, then putting in extra time finishing work by getting up early on rest days and getting some things done over the weekend. I learned to downplay the time, effort, and exhaustion. I found a greater sense of peace in my life when I did not have to deal with caustic responses from people about the level of work I put into my training. And, I practiced taking a deep breath, counting to ten, and smiling and just nodding my head when people wanted to tell me how I SHOULD be doing things.
(8) Train, train, train. This will be a post all by itself. I still have all of my logs from my years of training. I rarely ever look at them anymore. With the health problems that took me out, it’s still too hard to look at them. But, I will. I’ll share my training. There was a lot of training, though, so I’ll have to think about how to do that. I’ve let people sit down and look through my training logs. It’s fine; there’s no secret formula except for hard work.
Well, for now, I’ll just let that settle in.