Matt Fitzgerald

Among the first books I read after graduating from college (and thereby gaining the freedom to create my own syllabus) was Richard Rorty’s Truth and Progress. It served as my introduction to pragmatic philosophy, and I liked it. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition that—very broadly—understands knowing the world as inseparable from agency within it.” To the pragmatist, truth is not an abstraction. When a belief solves a problem or is otherwise useful, it is true. There is, from the pragmatic perspective, no other viable standard by which to judge the veracity of an idea.

When I discovered pragmatism at age 22, I couldn’t have imagined how profoundly this way of thinking would influence my future work as an endurance coach, but it has—and for the better, I believe. There is a ruthlessness about pragmatism that I find comforting. Every move I make, or even consider making, as a coach is judged by the sole criterion of how well it works (within the parameters of legality and ethics). I don’t care what it is, where it came from, or how disruptive it might be to my existing beliefs—if it works better than any practical alternative, I apply it.

But doesn’t every coach do this? Hell, no! A lot of coaches spend zero time reflecting on their criteria for selecting methods to apply. If you ask a randomly selected coach to explain the standards they use to determine which methods to employ and which to disregard, there’s a good chance they will struggle to answer, because they’re never asked themselves this simple question. And when you lack a clear, conscious understanding of your selection criterion, all kinds of other standards besides practical utility sneak in.

One example is the credit criterion. Many coaches—often without conscious awareness—want to take all of the credit for any success their athletes achieve. This makes them territorial, unreceptive to ideas and expertise that come from outside themselves. Suppose a runner who has a history of hitting the wall in marathons mentions to her coach that she has a friend who overcame the same problem through the use of back-to-back long runs, and asks him (her coach) if he thinks the same method might also help her. The territorial type of coach who needs all of the credit is likely to reflexively dismiss this idea, not on its merits but simply because it wasn’t his idea.

Another common mistake of this general sort that some coaches make is refusing to change their mind in response to evidence that they were wrong about something. When Emerson wrote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” he was referring to this form of prideful stubbornness, which can be quite damaging when exercised by people in positions of authority. As a person in a position of authority myself, I understand the temptation to keep giving athletes the same bad advice even after it has been revealed to me that a particular piece of advice I’ve been giving, thinking it good, is in fact bad. It’s embarrassing to admit you were wrong. Still, though, I’d rather live with some embarrassment and give athletes good advice going forward than continue giving them bad advice for the sake of sparing myself a little embarrassment.

The most embarrassingly bad advice I’ve ever given to athletes is Chapter 5 of Brain Training for Runners, where I essentially argue that there is only one correct way to run and I provide detailed guidance on how to run that way. I don’t know what drug I was on when I wrote that chapter, but the spell broke soon afterward and I awoke to the truth that each runner has their own optimal stride and that the best way to achieve it is to simply run without thinking about your form. I wish I could track down and burn every copy of Brain Training for Runners, but that’s impractical, so I’m doing the next best thing, which is admitting my error.

I realize that most of the folks reading this article are not coaches, but single-minded pragmatism is every bit as useful for the self-coached athlete as it is for coaches. The best way to get started with it is by considering why you do what you do as an athlete. For example, do you do CrossFit workouts because elite endurance athletes strength train that way (they don’t) or because it’s there? Do you put more time and energy into your strongest triathlon discipline than your weakest one because that’s the most effective way to elevate your overall triathlon performance (it’s not) or because you least enjoy training in your weakest discipline?

I’m not suggesting that every recreational endurance athlete should feel 100 percent obligated to always do what works best. If you want to race so often that you never race at your best because you enjoy racing frequently, go for it. All I’m saying is that you should make all of your training decisions with completely open eyes and that, to the extent that you do care about performance, pragmatism should be your sole selection criterion in your athletic decision making. Give it a try. I’m confident you will find that, at the very least, coaching yourself the Richard Rorty way brings a comforting level of clarity to the process of choosing what to do and what not to do as an athlete.

There’s a good chance you came across the following headline, or another one like it, a couple of weeks back: “Too Much High-Intensity Exercise May Be Bad for Your Health.” These click-baiting newsflashes referred to a new study out of Sweden’s famed Karolinska Institute that looked at the molecular and metabolic effects of a HIIT program in previously casual adult exercisers. Eleven unlucky volunteers were subjected to an utterly brutal regimen that ramped up to five HIIT sessions per week within three weeks, each session comprising a mix of four- and eight-minute intervals performed at maximum intensity. The consequences of this diabolic torture program included severely compromised mitochondrial function and erratic blood sugar levels.

My first thought on reading the above-referenced headlines was duh. In more than 20 years of serious endurance training I never attempted anything approaching the savagery of what those poor, unsuspecting guinea pigs underwent in a state of woeful unpreparedness. I know with 100 percent certainty that the same routine would have utterly steamrolled me even if I’d gone into it at my absolute lifetime peak of fitness. Hilariously, though, the negative effects seen in this study’s subjects were referred to in one article as “unexpected.” Is the popular media really that clueless? I guess so!

Coincidentally, these shockingly predictable fresh findings from the Karolinska Institute came fast on the heels of a highly complementary recent study by scientists at the University of Guelph. For this experiment, 23 overweight, sedentary men were separated into groups, one of which did three HIIT workouts per week on stationary bikes while the other did five longer, low-intensity workouts. Versions of this format had been used in many prior studies, but what was different this time was that the two exercise programs were not matched for total workload (i.e., total energy expenditure).

The purported rationale for matching workloads in past research was fairness. The scientists conducting these experiments wanted to see whether low-intensity or high-intensity exercise was more “effective,” and in their minds this required that total energy expenditure be held equal. In my mind, however, the format unfairly disadvantaged low-intensity exercise, for the thing about HIIT is that a little goes a long way, so of course it’s going to seem more effective if a little HIIT is compared against a little low-intensity exercise, which only has a chance to really shine in large amounts, which (unlike large amounts of high intensity) are well tolerated by the human body.

Anyway, in the new Guelph study, common sense prevailed at long last, and the low-intensity and high-intensity programs were balanced in a more realistic way. And wouldn’t you know, the low-intensity program kicked the HIIT program’s ass in terms of health benefits, yielding bigger improvements in body composition, lipid metabolism, blood pressure, and blood sugar regulation.

I’m now waiting for it to finally cross the minds of exercise scientists to investigate the health effects of mixing together workouts of different intensities as we endurance athletes do. Up to this point, researchers interested in the health effects of aerobic exercise have focused entirely on trying to figure out which intensity is “best,” but to me that’s a little like trying to determine which of a baseball pitcher’s five pitches is his best pitch with a view toward having him throw only that pitch going forward. What would happen in this scenario, of course, is that hitters would know exactly what was coming their way every time the pitcher wound up, and all of a sudden his best pitch wouldn’t be so effective anymore!

Okay, that’s a poor analogy, but you get my point. Sometimes things work better in combination than they do in isolation. And we already know this is true of exercise intensities when they are assessed according to their effects on fitness. Specifically, we know that an exercise program comprising an 80/20 balance of low intensity and moderate/high intensity yields greater gains in endurance fitness and performance than a program consisting entirely (or even mostly) of work at either low intensity or moderate/high intensity.

Would an 80/20 program also yield greater health benefits than the alternatives? It seems likely to me that it would. It’s been shown, for example, that 80/20 training yields greater improvements in aerobic capacity than does any other way of balancing intensities, and we know that aerobic capacity is a strong predictor of health in old age and longevity.

What are the chances, though, that 80/20’s factual superiority will result in its popularization beyond the endurance community? Rather slim, I would imagine. One of the reasons HIIT became so popular is that interval sessions are sexier than slow-and-steady aerobic workouts. Can you picture a bunch of folks gathering for a group fitness class where the instructor pedals nice and easy for 80 minutes straight and invites everyone else to do the same? Yeah, me neither. But one can dream.

Phil Maffetone is nothing if not consistent. In 1995, I copyedited his book Training for Endurance, a pro bono task I was given by my boss at Multisport magazine, the late Bill Katovsky, who was a close friend of Phil’s. At that time, I was just beginning to ease back into running after a seven-year layoff, and the book inspired me to give heart rate training a try for the first time. The other thing I remember about the experience is Phil getting miffed at me because I misspelled his full first name on the cover page, inserting an extra “L” in Philip!

Anyway, my point is that Phil was then teaching the same phillosophy—sorry, philosophy—of endurance training he is today. Same maximal aerobic function (MAF) concept, same 180 – age formula, same emphasis on avoiding overstressing the body. What has changed is the context in which Phil teaches his method. I’m thinking of one change in particular, which is the popularization of the 80/20 endurance training method that is practiced by most elite endurance athletes and that I myself promote through this website and the books 80/20 Running and 80/20 Triathlon.

The vast majority of nonelite endurance athletes spend way too much time training at moderate intensity. Both the Maffetone and 80/20 methods take direct aim at this error, requiring athletes who adopt them to slow down to one degree or another. An unfortunate consequence of this overlap is that the two methods have been lumped together in the public consciousness, regarded as all but interchangeable. I’ve even encountered athletes who mix and match the two, for example by using Phil’s zones with an 80/20 plan.

In fact, though, there are important differences between the Maffetone and 80/20 methods, beginning with their origins. The Maffetone Method, as its very name indicates, is the invention of one man. It did not exist, and was not practiced, anywhere on earth until Phil created it and began to teach it to athletes. Like many popular diets, this method was arrived at via a process of nonempirical inference grounded in mechanistic physiological reductionism. With diets, this process typically goes something like this: “Because carbohydrates have biochemical effect A on the body, and fats have biochemical effect B, and proteins have biochemical effect C, the optimal human diet must therefore comprise X percent carbohydrate, Y percent fat, and Z percent protein.” When applied to endurance training, the same approach looks like more this: “Because low-intensity exercise has biochemical effect A on the human body, and moderate-intensity exercise has biochemical effect B, and high-intensity exercise has biochemical effect C, the optimal endurance training program must therefore comprise X percent low intensity, Y percent moderate intensity, and Z percent high intensity.”

This is essentially the type of argument Phil Maffetone uses to persuade athletes that they should completely avoid what he calls anaerobic training until they have fully conditioned their aerobic system through low-intensity training and are almost ready to race. In an article appearing on his website, Phil cites three specific physiological mechanisms that support this argument:

  • Anaerobic activity can lower the number of aerobic muscle fibers, sometimes significantly.
  • Lactic acid, produced during anaerobic work, may inhibit aerobic muscle enzymes necessary for aerobic function.
  • Anaerobic training increases the respiratory quotient (a measure of fat- and sugar-burning) indicating the body is burning less fat.

What is lacking from this argument is any concrete evidence that training exclusively at low intensity for a long period of time before adding in a bit of work at higher intensities for a few weeks yields better competitive results than other training methods. It’s a classic example of a biological plausibility story standing in the place of complete science. This doesn’t mean the Maffetone Method isn’t effective; there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that athletes who transition to it from the moderate-intensity rut yields good results. Personally, though, I need more than an intriguing hypothesis and a bunch of testimonials to entrust my own fitness to a training system, diet, or other method that promises to make me better.

The funny thing is, if you want to know which method of balancing of low, moderate, and high intensities is optimal for building endurance fitness, you don’t really need a physiologically grounded hypothesis. Heck, you don’t even need to know that lactic acid exists! All you have to do is look at what actually happens when athletes train with various intensity distributions.

Which brings us to the origin of the 80/20 method. Unlike the Maffetone Method, 80/20 wasn’t invented by anyone. Instead it evolved through a decades-long process of collective trial and error, in which elite endurance athletes tried different methods and retained those that proved more effective while discarding those that proved less effective. By the time exercise physiologist Stephen Seiler observed in the early 2000s that elite endurance athletes across disciplines and geographical boundaries adhered to an 80/20 intensity balance, these athletes had already been doing so for quite a while, and without having the foggiest idea why it worked. In fact, although controlled experiments have since demonstrated that an 80/20 intensity balance is optimal as well for mere mortals like you and me, we still lack a complete physiological explanation for its effectiveness. And that’s fine by me. I’d much rather know what works, but not why, than know why something might work but not whether it actually does.

Ironically, the original version of the 80/20 method, loosely speaking, was the training system developed by Arthur Lydiard in the 1950s. Like the Maffetone Method, Lydiard’s system entailed training exclusively at low intensity for an extended period of time before transitioning to phases featuring workouts at higher intensities. A big improvement on the interval-focused programs that had dominated the sport previously, it revolutionized endurance training, lifting elite performance standards to a whole new level. Over time, however, other coaches found ways to improve the method, most especially by allowing athletes to perform modest amounts of moderate- and high-intensity exercise throughout the entire training cycle—in other words, by further evolving the Lydiard/Maffetone approach into the 80/20 approach—and in so doing lifted elite performance standards higher still

The bottom line is that the Maffetone and 80/20 methods are similar but not the same. The table below summarizes the key differences.

Maffetone 80/20
Is there a place for moderate- and high-intensity training? Only in the last few weeks before competition. Yes! Up to 20% of training is done at these intensities throughout the training cycle
How is low intensity defined? Through a one-size-fits-all heart rate formula of 180 – age Through validated field or lab tests aimed at pinpointing an individual athlete’s current ventilatory threshold
How is training intensity monitored? Heart rate Take your pick: Heart rate, pace, power, perceived effort




I’ve never seen more runners starting over than I have within the last year. Many, like me, have had to start over after a bout of Coronavirus. Others have had to do so after race cancellations robbed them of motivation. Even outside of pandemic years, though, starting over is a common phenomenon in running. More often than not, injuries are the reason.

Endurance athletes of other types have to start over too sometimes, but running’s high-impact nature makes it special. Numbers don’t lie: Runners get injured far more often than swimmers, cyclists, rowers, cross-country skiers, and stand-up paddleboarders, and the comeback process is trickier. As someone who has been through this process more times than I care to remember, and has also coached many other runners through it, I know the do’s and don’ts. Here are my top five do’s for starting over with running:

1. Use the 48-Hour Rule

If you’ve gone more than three weeks without running, you can trust that the tissues of your lower extremities have lost some durability—a classic case of “use it or lose it.” To regain this durability, you need to expose your legs to repetitive impact, but you also must give them sufficient time to adapt to this stress between bouts. Hence the 48-hour rule. In the first two weeks of your return, limit yourself to every-other-day running. This will help you avoid shin splints and other issues that commonly set runners back when they’re starting over.

2. Lean on Cross-Training

 If you limit yourself to doing only as much running as you can without undue risk, you won’t get fit very quickly. Thankfully, there’s a plethora of low- and nonimpact options for cardio exercise that you can use to supplement your running and accelerate your fitness development. These options include cycling, elliptical running, and uphill treadmill walking.

You can further accelerate your comeback by doing some work at high intensity. There’s a tendency among runners who are starting over to do everything at low intensity under the assumption that, when your fitness level is low, you can’t handle high intensity. This isn’t true. Research has shown that even elderly cancer patients can handle and benefit from high-intensity exercise. Sure, you might not be very good at high-intensity exercise when you’re just starting over, but that’s not the same as being unable to handle it.

In fact, in one sense, there’s no better time for high-intensity training than when you’re starting over, because a little goes a long way. A good starting point might be two light interval sets per week, such as 6 x 20 seconds in Zone 5 and 4 x 1 minute in Zone 4.

 3. Listen to Your Body

It’s okay to have a plan for your running comeback, but know that your body is going to have the last word regardless. High energy levels and low levels of pain and soreness indicate that you can safely increase your training load, while fatigue and moderate to high levels of pain or soreness are cautions to take it slow. Don’t make too many assumptions about what your comeback will or should look like. Be willing to take the occasional step back in response to pain or fatigue to spare yourself from a greater involuntary setback.

When I was coming back from COVID in the spring of 2020, I went out for a 23-mile run that became a 12-mile run when I discovered it just wasn’t my day, and I’d be foolish to force my way through the planned distance. Four days later, I tried again and succeeded. Who knows who deep a hole I would have dug for myself if instead I’d forced it the first time. Let that be a lesson to you!

4. Focus on Now

Runners who are starting over after extended time away from training often get stuck in the past or in the future. Some beat themselves up by comparing themselves unfavorably to the runner they were in the past, while others fret over how far they have to go to reach their desired level of fitness. Both of these orientations drain all the fun out of training and lead to poor decisions. In particular, runners who fail to embrace where they are in the process tend to try to rush it, which never ends well.

When an athlete I coach starts looking back or ahead in unhelpful ways, I tell them this: “As long as you’re training, you’re either already fit or getting fitter, and neither is bad.” Those who take my advice find that, by focusing on the present, they are able to enjoy getting fitter despite being unfit just as much as they enjoy being fit. Now you try!

 Keep it Fun

Speaking of fun, I strongly believe that enjoyment should be a top priority at all times in training. It’s hard to improve when you’re not having fun, and it’s equally hard not to improve when you are having fun. At the beginning of a comeback, many runners make the mistake of thinking, “If I can just get through this awkward first phase, I can start enjoying my training again.”

Wrong attitude! The first phase will be far less awkward and more fruitful if you make enjoyment a point of emphasis. Do whatever it takes to stay positively engaged in the process, whether it be by mixing up run formats and venues to running with people (or pets) whose company you enjoy.

Some of my fondest running memories are of times when I was starting over after an interruption. The same can be true for you if you practice the tips I’ve just given you.

The body is smart. When you increase your habitual activity level, your body consumes more energy and therefore requires more energy input from food to meet its elevated needs. No problem. Our bodies are outfitted with internal sensors capable of detecting such caloric deficits and ratcheting up appetite in response.

Same thing when your habitual activity level decreases, as mine did recently when I stopped running after I was hit with the double whammy of post-acute COVID-19 syndrome and the diagnosis of a heart condition. At the time I made this decision, I was mildly concerned about gaining weight as a consequence of my more sedentary lifestyle. I should have given my body more credit. As it turned out, my appetite decreased proportionately to my activity level, so that I am now perfectly sated by a sharply reduced level of food that serves to maintain a stable weight.

The process isn’t always quite so automatic, however. Our modern environment is radically different from that in which our appetite regulatory system evolved. Some of these differences, such as social pressure to maintain a thin appearance, cause many of us to lose the ability to read internal signals of hunger and satiety or to simply override them consciously or unconsciously. In my many years of coaching, I have worked with a handful of athletes, all of them women, whom I couldn’t just assume would eat more as their training load increased, and the consequences were never good. This phenomenon (which does affect male athletes too, though not as many) has become alarmingly widespread and is drawing increasing attention from the scientific community.

Within just the past couple of weeks, two new studies on undereating in women runners have been published. The first of these was conducted by an international team of researchers led by Karine Schaal of UC Davis and published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. Sixteen eumenorrheic runners were subjected to four weeks of intensified training (131 percent of their baseline running volume) followed by a two-week recovery (65 percent of baseline volume). Calorie intake and markers of overreaching were monitored throughout.

Of the 16 subjects, nine were able to adapt positively to intensified training (meaning their running performance improved), while the other seven experienced a reduction in performance, indicating a state of nonfunctional overreaching. As a group, the runners who adapted positively succeeded in maintaining adequate energy availability despite their sudden increase in energy expenditure. In other words, they ate enough extra calories to make up for the extra calories they were burning. Among those whose performance declined during the four weeks of stepped-up training, however, calorie intake barely budged, creating a persistent energy deficit that would explain their struggles.

But that’s not all. The two groups also showed significant differences in ovulatory function, with no changes occurring in the well-adapted group and members of the maladapting group showing a decrease in the hormone estradiol and a shortening of the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle. What’s more, and counterintuitively, the runners who ate more in response to increased training lost a greater amount of weight than the runners who failed to keep up with their elevated caloric needs.

Which brings us to the second study. This one was led by Johanna Ihalainen of the University of Jyväskylä in Finland and published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. Thirteen female runners and eight nonrunner controls were monitored over an entire year. All of them completed the Low Energy Availability in Females Questionnaire and submitted to anthropometric, energy intake, and peak oxygen uptake assessments at four time points throughout the year. Although, as a group, the runners were found to have energy availability equal to that of the nonrunners, eight of the runners were amenorrheic, and these runners were more frequently injured than the five eumenorrheic runners and their performance did not improve over the study period, whereas the others did get faster.

Together, these two studies add to an existing trove of evidence that it is critically important for runners and other athletes to eat enough to fully meet their body’s energy needs. Many are fortunate enough to be able to do this automatically, without really thinking about it. But what if you’re not?

I’m not a big fan of counting calories in general, but I concede that it is a useful practice for those who struggle to eat enough. It requires that you put a consistent effort into calculating your day-by-day calorie burning and keep a running tally of food calories consumed throughout each day, aiming for equal totals on both sides of the ledger. The two big problems with calorie counting are that, 1) unless you happen to live inside a metabolic chamber and own a bomb calorimeter, it is impossible to do so with scientific accuracy, and 2) it’s a pain in the rear, so I encourage even those athletes who tend to undereat to treat it as a temporary crutch.

Your ultimate goal should be to retrain yourself to eat mindfully. This is how those of us who consistently eat the right amount manage do so automatically, and it’s a fundamental human ability that everyone is born with and anyone who has lost touch with can reacquire by working at it. For more on how, read this past article of mine.


Every once in a while an athlete asks me if the training plans offered in one of my older books such as Braining Training for Runners or Triathlete Magazine’s Essential Week-by-Week Training Guide are still relevant or have been rendered obsolete by the 80/20 training plans I peddle today. My stock answer to this question is that my overall training philosophy has never changed; it just has a name now. In other words, my older training plans are 80/20 plans in all but name.

Let’s not forget how the whole thing came about. In the early 2000’s, exercise physiologist Stephen Seiler set out to quantify the training practices of elite endurance athletes in various disciplines and geographical locations. His main finding was that, across the board, these athletes do about 80 percent of their training at low intensity and 20 percent at moderate to high intensity. But it’s not as if they only started training this way the day before Seiler showed up with his calculator. As I point out in 80/20 Running, four-time Boston Marathon and New York City Marathon winner Bill Rodgers did about 80 percent of his training at low intensity in the 1970s, as did 800m and 1500m Olympic gold medalist Peter Snell in the 1960s. As a high school runner in the 1980s, I was trained by coaches influenced by Snell’s coach, the legendary Arthur Lydiard, who pioneered the high-volume, mostly low-intensity approach to endurance training we call 80/20 today. I’ve never known any other way.

So, the only thing that’s really new is the phenomenon of nonelite endurance athletes consciously trying to adhere to an 80/20 intensity balance in training. Predictably, some of these athletes have become somewhat obsessive about the 80/20 Rule, going to great lengths to make sure they don’t deviate from it and fretting about the potential consequences of straying accidentally. Online 80/20 forums are rife with questions from athletes who seem to invest these numbers with an almost totemic authority. “Just tell me what to do, oh mighty 80/20 Rule!”

Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit, but I do see a fair number of athletes overthinking the whole 80/20 thing, and it concerns me. Here’s something I would like these athletes to know: Today’s elite athletes still don’t consciously adhere to an 80/20 intensity balance. Just as Bill Rodgers and company did 40-plus years ago, the champions of our time practice the 80/20 method by default, using other rules of intensity balance that, in practice, result in 80 percent of training being done at low intensity. As a nonelite athlete, you can employ the same rules to make 80/20 training easier, or to rescue yourself from the rabbit hole of overthinking intensity balancing.

The first rule is this: Be sure you’re actually at low intensity when you intend to be. Elite athletes never fail in this regard. Their easy swims, rides, and runs are truly easy, by which I mean that they are performed entirely below the first ventilatory threshold, which falls between 77 and 81 percent of maximum heart rate in most athletes. In contrast to this, most recreational endurance athletes do most of their easy training slightly above the VT1, which is technically moderate intensity, and creates a significantly greater fatigue burden.

Rule number two is this: Devote roughly one out of every three training sessions you do to moderate or high intensity. Again, this is how elite endurance athletes and their coaches balance training intensities. The typical elite runner, for example, runs 13 times per week and three of those runs are set aside for focused work at moderate to high intensity. By planning at the level of session types in this manner, elite endurance athletes end up spending very close to 80 percent of their training time at low intensity without ever actually thinking about time-based intensity distribution. If you train less frequently—say, six or seven times per week, as a plurality of recreational endurance athletes do—applying the same rule yields two moderate/high-intensity sessions per week. Pretty basic.

You can fine-tune intensity balance within this framework by adjusting the duration of individual sessions. Bigger tempo and interval workouts will make a bigger contribution to the moderate/high-intensity side of the ledger, while smaller ones will make a smaller contribution. There’s no need to get overly fussy in adjusting the size of your “quality” sessions for the explicit sake of nailing an 80/20 intensity balance for the week. Instead you can simply plan workouts that make sense in the overall context of your training, trusting that by doing so you’ll end up close to 80/20.

If you are the type of athlete who tends to lose the forest of training principles for the trees of quantitative minutiae, consider zooming out in the manner I’ve just suggested. Forget about 80/20 per se and concentrate instead on planning out your weeks by session type and on ensuring that you remain consistently at low intensity when you intend to be. If this approach seems rather inexact to you, well, this just means that exactitude is overrated!

In his classic political manifesto Civil Disobedience, Henry David Thoreau writes, “That government is best which governs least.” It’s an interesting idea. Thoreau does here not deny that government serves a necessary function, but he does contend that it performs this function best when it does the bare minimum for the citizens it serves and gives them the freedom and the responsibility to handle the rest.

At the risk of undercutting the very point I’m about to make concerning endurance coaching, I would like to point out that, according to the most rigorous available social scientific research, smaller national governments do not, in fact, produce better outcomes for their people than large ones. It’s actually quality that matters in government, not size. But if less is not actually more in governance, I believe it is in endurance coaching, which topic I will now turn to.

I am by no means alone in this belief. Recently I came across the following tweet: “The goal in coaching is to develop self-sufficient[,] adaptable athletes prepared to thrive in the competitive cauldron. Give your athletes the mental and physical skills. Get them to the point where they trust in their preparation and let them go.” These words were written by Vern Gambetta, an elder statesman in the area of track and field conditioning, and they sound a lot like something Thoreau might have written had he been a coach instead of a philosopher. A pair of small word substitutions–“That coach is best who coaches least”–would have spared the transcendentalist thinker from being dead wrong.

The best coaches, Vern and I and others like us agree, take a hands-off approach to guiding their athletes. Sure, there are some successful coaches who take the opposite approach, authoritarian micromanagers who do everything but train and race for their athletes, but I see them as exceptions that prove the rule, and they are only successful in a limited sense. The infamous Chinese running coach Ma Junren is an extreme case. Junren ruled his stable of women athletes with an iron fist, controlling every aspect of their lives—how they trained (roped to a motorcycle sometimes), where they lived (all together in a barracks), when they slept, whom they dated (no one), what they ate (caterpillar fungus, among other things), and which performance-enhancing drugs they took. He even told them exactly what to think during each segment of a race. The results were a few drug-tainted world records, a lot of unhappy runners who would carry the trauma of Junren’s (sometimes physical) abuse for the rest of their lives, and a giant cheating scandal that put a quick end to the sad saga.

Again, this is an extreme example, but milder forms of overcoaching are extremely common in my profession. A lot of coaches assume, quite naturally, that the job of a coach is to coach. From this perspective, a coach is only doing their job when they are actively coaching an athlete. “Do, this, don’t do that.” I believe that the proper job of a coach is to coach as necessary–to give athletes all the guidance and support they truly need and not a lick more, because the more athletes do for themselves, the better prepared they will be to cope effectively and make good decisions in instances where their coach can’t help them. To simultaneously exaggerate and oversimplify the point: Bad coaches try to make themselves indispensable, while good coaches try to put themselves out of a job.

I’ll give you an example of what this kind of coaching looks like. Recently, one of my athletes texted me to report that she had felt surprisingly good in performing a set of critical velocity intervals that morning, and to ask if I thought she should accept or turn down an invitation from her roommates to do an unscheduled easy double that same evening. This runner had recently returned to serious training after an extended, burnout-induced break and was now regaining fitness very quickly, and loving it. I was loving it too, but I was also a bit concerned about her getting carried away, and I sensed that she sensed the same risk, and I further intuited that in asking her question she was actually looking for permission to skip the double. Despite believing this was indeed the right call, however, I judged it better in the long view to let her make her own call. Here’s how our text exchange went from there:

Me: Is there a small voice in the back of your head warning you not to let excitement turn into greediness and greediness into unnecessary risk-taking?

Her: I feel like I know it’s unnecessary and while I love the headlamp jogs with my roommates, it might be a little greedy.

A single instance of enabling an athlete to see her own way to the right move instead of making it for her doesn’t mean much, but with repetition such instances produce a more “self-sufficient, adaptable” athlete, to again use Vern Gambetta’s words, hence a more successful athlete. And shouldn’t that be every coach’s goal?

I don’t want to give you the wrong idea here. My image of the ideal coach is not one who is largely passive and does the bare minimum for athletes. There’s a lot to be said, for example, for cultivating a strong relationship with each individual athlete and letting them know you care about their success and well-being, objectives whose fulfillment requires proactive behavior on the part of the coach. I myself do this in ways that range from texting “Safe travels!” to an athlete who’s making a long drive on a given day to sharing studies, articles, and videos I come across that are germane to something we discussed in a recent video consultation. The overarching principle is that of doing everything possible within the coaching role to help an athlete succeed. The point I’ve endeavored to make here is that oftentimes not doing something for (or to) an athlete is more helpful than doing it.

I once coached a runner, let’s call him Kevin, who used the word “easy” more often than any athlete other I’ve ever worked with. It was like some kind of verbal tic. He deployed the adjective at least once in almost every post-run comment he left on his online training calendar. Granted, “easy” has some relevance in this context; it would have been a lot weirder if Kevin had instead dropped “procrustian” almost daily. Still, the frequency with which he trotted out this particular five-letter sequence far exceeded the bounds of normal. But whereas the tic jumped out at me almost immediately, it took me a while to suss out the underlying psychology.

The crucial clue lay in how Kevin tended to use the word. There was a boastful, crowing quality to it. “I averaged under 7:30 per mile and it was so EASY.” That sort of thing. Over the years I’ve encountered many athletes, almost all of them male, who can’t fully accept where they stand on the athletic pecking order. Simply put, they aren’t as good at their sport as they would like to be and it bothers the hell out of them. To cope with their disappointment, these men redefine “winning” in ways that make them feel less like losers. One example is what I call sour grapes syndrome, which I touch upon in The Comeback Quotient and is addressed more fully here. Another is Kevin’s pathological overuse of the word “easy.” The conclusion I came to was that he’d sort of convinced himself that his marathon PR was actually better than your faster marathon PR because his felt easy whereas yours felt hard.

In the hope of helping Kevin gain greater self-awareness, I challenged him one day to go for one month without using the word “easy” in any of his post-run comments. To incentivize his acceptance of this challenge, I promised Kevin I would discount his next month’s coaching fee by 25 percent if he fulfilled it. There was just one other rule: He couldn’t ask why the forbidden word was forbidden. My goal here was to stimulate inner reflection on his compulsive use thereof.

To be honest, I wasn’t sanguine about Kevin’s prospects for becoming conscious of the self-deceptive nature of his use of “easy,” but I didn’t want to just leave the matter alone, either. I view it as a big part of my job as a coach to cultivate mental fitness in my athletes, and as any reader of The Comeback Quotient knows, I define mental fitness as the willingness and ability to face reality. I truly believed that Kevin would become a better and more satisfied runner if he fully accepted that he wasn’t the world’s greatest runner. But he just wasn’t up to it. Although he earned his discount, I saw no evidence that any self-reflection occurred during the monthlong challenge.

Ah, well: You win some, you lose some. That being the case, I haven’t abandoned the practice of tabooing specific words for the sake of influencing the psychology that animates their use. In fact, I’m practicing the method on myself right now with the words “hope” and “wish.” Two factors led me to banish (at least temporarily) these words from my vocabulary. One is the chronic health condition I developed a few months back after recovering from COVID-19. The other is the publication of the aforementioned book, which has inspired me to walk the talk of facing reality with even greater vigilance than before.

“Hope” and “wish” are all about refusing to accept reality. To say “I wish I didn’t have a chronic health condition that causes me to feel bad all day every day without a moment’s respite” is to say “I refuse to try to make the best of the reality that I have a chronic health condition that causes me to feel bad all day every day without a moment’s respite.” And to say “I hope I recover eventually” is to say “I choose to make my happiness dependent on things that are largely outside of my control.” I won’t go so far as to say that “hope” and “wish” are inherently bad, but it is undeniably true that their use is consistent with a helpless, dependent mindset and that pausing the use of these words forces one to be more self-aware concerning this mindset, and with self-awareness comes the potential for change.

One thing you’d quickly realize if you chose to forbid these same words is that you use them constantly—and so does everyone else. It’s been a few weeks now since I stopped using them, and in the early days especially I had to catch myself repeatedly when I was on the verge of deploying one or the other of them. For example, I nearly wrote, “I hope your stomach settles down for tomorrow’s long run” in a message to an athlete, but I caught myself just in time and instead went with, “It will be nice if your stomach settles down for tomorrow’s long run.” The difference between these two sentences is more than semantic. They represent radically different mindsets.

A few weeks back I lay supine on a CAT scan table with sensors all over my chest and an IV needle jabbed into the crook of my left elbow, injecting dye into my circulatory system. Within a few seconds I would be slid into the machine, whose job was to assess the health of my heart. My last thought before this happened was a jolting realization that I felt completely unafraid and even indifferent as to whether the report I received from the cardiologist afterward was good or bad. I would be okay regardless (and the the report was in fact bad) because I had learned to define “okay” in a way that does not depend on having things my way. I’m not trying to impress you. I’m just making the point that it is fully possible for a normal person to become nondependent on things they can’t control. Nor am I suggesting that my tabooing of “wish” and “hope” was entirely responsible for this evolution in me, but it certainly has accelerated the process.

What do you say? Want to give it a try? I say go for it! See if you can make it for one entire month without using “wish” and “hope” in your speech or writing. You won’t regret it.

Ah, “regret.” Now there’s another one . . .

Dear Dr. Young,

The good news is I have heart disease . . .

These are the actual first words of an email message I sent to my primary care physician a couple of weeks ago. I had just undergone an angiogram to determine the source of an abnormality seen in my EKG reading during a prior exercise stress test and learned that my calcium score was 363, which, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center website, means, “You have heart disease and plaque may be blocking an artery.” Now, it so happens that I have no blockages. That’s likely because the same thing that caused the plaque buildups in my coronary arteries—decades of punishing my body with hardcore endurance training and racing—also blessed me with arteries the size of sewer pipes that can (at least for now) accommodate all that calcium. This silver lining is one reason I was in a mood to joke about my diagnosis.

But there’s a second reason, which is that I believe in the importance of joking about everything, including one’s own potential death by heart attack. If you know your Bible, you may be familiar a proverb that begins, “A merry heart does good like a medicine.” The phrase “merry heart” is sometimes also translated from the Hebrew as “laughter,” and it’s scientifically accurate. A study published in Psychosomatic Medicine in 2016 reported that, within a population of 53,556 elderly people tracked over a 15-year period, women who recorded high scores for the cognitive component of sense of humor in a standardized questionnaire were significantly less likely to die from cardiovascular disease or infections, while men with similar scores were also less likely to die from infection.

Laughter has an instantaneous healthful effect on mood and physiological stress levels. But mirth is more than just a salutary state. As a psychological trait, a sense of humor is an effective way of coping with challenges. The 18th century German poet Novalis wrote, “After losing a war, one should write only comedies.” My response to this advice is, “Why wait until the war is lost?” Laughing amidst a losing battle will take some of the sting out of defeat and may even improve your chances of turning things around and winning.

In my latest book, The Comeback Quotient, I describe how humor helped me cope with serving a drafting penalty during Ironman Santa Rosa 2019 after having dealt poorly with the same situation at Ironman Wisconsin 17 years earlier:

In 2002, while serving my penalty, I argued with the referee who had flagged me for drafting until she threatened to disqualify me if I didn’t shut up. This time I cracked jokes with the two officials stationed at the penalty tent (“Dang, these are longer than church minutes!”), not only because I didn’t want to be disqualified but also because I knew they had an unpleasant job (thanks to athletes like the one I was 17 years ago), and I wanted to be a bright spot in what was surely otherwise a largely trying day for them. And also because I knew I would feel better and probably even finish the ride stronger if I kept my sense of humor. Before my five minutes were up, I peed myself, unaware that doing so was a violation of the rules punishable with a DQ. I got off with a warning, however, and I can’t help but think the officials’ leniency was a karmic reward for my having treated them like human beings.

See how that works? The lightheartedness that I carried into this triathlon, signaled by my quip in the penalty tent, enhanced my enjoyment of the overall race experience and very likely also aided my performance. And there are a million other situations where having a sense of humor can benefit an athlete in similar ways. Just recently an athlete I coach, we’ll call her Cindy, found herself struggling to perform hill sprints in tough winter conditions while wearing ice shoes. In the past, Cindy might have allowed her frustration to get the best of her, ruining the workout, but this time she didn’t.

“It was comical trying to pick up speed,” she reported to me afterward. “I think I worked harder for those six sprints than any I’ve done before. As difficult as it was, I know I got the intended benefit and oddly really enjoyed the challenge of doing something almost impossible. I laughed out loud during every recovery.”

In addition to supplying a terrific example of how maintaining a sense of humor can benefit an endurance athlete, Cindy is also living proof that a risible mindset can be cultivated over time. You don’t have to be Rodney Dangerfield to laugh at your own losing battles.

But wait: If discovering I have severe plaque buildup in my coronary arteries was the good news that I reported to my PCP, what was the bad news? It was, simply, that the new diagnosis offered no explanation for my chronic fatigue, brain fog, orthostatic intolerance, and other symptoms (of post-acute COVID-19 syndrome, I’m about certain) that caused me to seek medical care in the first place. So, in a sense, I went to the doctor with one ailment and came away with two. Which, now that I think about it, is itself kind of funny.

There is a consistent pattern in my coaching of endurance athletes that I wasn’t conscious of until quite recently. When I coach amateur runners for marathons, more often than not I increase their training volume relative to their past habits. But when I coach amateur triathletes for Ironman events, quite often I have them train less than they have in the past. Upon reflection, I recognize that I do so for the obvious reason: I see a lot of marathon runners who, in my assessment, can both tolerate and benefit from training more, and I see a lot of Ironman triathletes who, I believe, would feel better, recover better, and ultimately perform better if they trained less.

Obviously, the two events, marathon and Ironman, are far from equal. In the former, you run 26.2 miles. In the later, you also run 26.2 miles—after swimming 2.4 miles in open water and bicycling 112 miles. Because an Ironman is significantly bigger and more challenging than a marathon, it selects for a different population of participants. Generally speaking, Ironman participants are willing to invest a lot more time and effort into training than are marathon participants. Not infrequently, I encounter runners who want to qualify for Boston yet balk at the idea of running more than four or five times a week. No less frequently, I encounter triathletes whose marriage is under stress because they habitually spend all of Saturday riding their bike instead of taking the family to the county fair.

I don’t mean to paint with too broad a brushstroke. There’s plenty of overlap between the two populations. Many a marathon runner signs up for a marathon in pursuit of a fresh challenge. Typically, when an athlete makes this leap, they increase their training volume, which is sensible. Indeed, they more or less have to train more, given the three-discipline nature of triathlon. But they are also able to training more, as both swimming and cycling are less stressful physiologically than running is. Ten hours per week of balanced triathlon training are not as hard on the body as 10 hours per week of running.

The mistake that a lot of triathletes make, though, is assuming they will get the greatest possible benefit from the highest volume of training they are willing to take on. If 14 hours per week doesn’t get them to Kona, they try 16 hours, taking it as a given that the increase will yield improvement. If 16 hours per week doesn’t get them to Kona, they try 18 hours, and so on. Experience has taught me that this approach is flawed. I firmly believe that athletes should feel pretty good most of the time throughout the training process, and in case after case, triathletes I work with feel better when I reduce their training volume from the level they had tried to maintain before I got my hands on them.

And wouldn’t you know it, a new study in the journal Physiology & Behavior offers empirical validation of my experience. Ninety-nine triathletes completed a survey comprising questions about training, experience, anthropometric characteristics, and other factors prior to their competing in an Ironman triathlon. The respondents were statistically separated into three groups: those who trained less than 14 hours per week, those who trained between 14 and 20 hours per week, and those who trained more than 20 hours per week. Check out the average finish times for members of the three groups:

<14:00/week 11:28:46
14:00-20:00/week 11:37:31
>20:00 week 11:30:18

That’s right: No differences! What does this mean? A scientist would be careful topping out that it could mean any of a number of things. But I’m not a scientist, so I’ll go ahead and tell you what it means: It means that 14 hours of training per week, give or take, is the optimal amount for most amateur triathletes. In fact, the scientists who conducted this study came to the same conclusion, noting that subjects who reported unintentional weight loss, lack of energy, and decreasing performance before the race recorded significantly slower finishing times.

Interestingly, the authors also found that more experienced triathletes achieved faster Ironman times regardless of how much they trained. One possible explanation for this finding is that, through trial and error, these athletes had found their individual sweet spots for training volume. That was certainly the case for me when I prepared for Ironman Santa Rosa in 2019. Although I had done only one prior Ironman, I had been training for and competing in endurance events of various kinds for many years, and I knew my body well. Based on this knowledge, I maintained a consistent training volume of 14-18 hours per week, with only one week exceeding 20 hours (and just barely). I felt consistently good throughout the process, and upon completing the race and looked back, I felt confident that I would not have fared any better if I’d trained more.

I’m not suggesting that the above numbers represent the sweet sport for all recreational triathletes during Ironman training, though I would speculate that they fall close to the median. The take-home lesson of this article isn’t that recreational triathletes should never bother training more than 14 hours per week during Ironman prep. Rather, it’s that you should be wary of training at too high a volume, as many triathletes appear to do. You will perform best in your Ironman events if you train at the highest volume at which you consistently feel good, whatever that number may be.

In last week’s post I discussed the idea that innovation in endurance training methods obeys the Law of Good Enough, as I call it. This simply means that elite coaches and athletes identify and adopt better training methods at a pace that is no faster than is necessary to succeed again existing performance standards. An important implication of the Law of Good Enough is that, at any given time, there exist available methods that could give athletes an advantage but are not adopted merely because it is possible to succeed without them—at least for now.

There ideas were still fresh in my mind when I read a new study that might be a case in point. Conducted by a team of Spanish researchers led by Jose Gonzalez-Montesinos and published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, this study investigated the effects of a novel method of respiratory muscle training (RMT) in competitive cyclists. Respiratory muscle training entails training the breathing muscles independently of the rest of the body for the purpose of removing respiratory muscle performance as a limiter to overall endurance performance. RMT has been studied for many years, with mixed but largely positive results. Despite these findings, though, RMT hasn’t caught on among serious endurance athletes.

Why not? Existing RMT require that athletes perform workouts for their breathing muscles at rest, outside of their normal whole-body workouts. It’s easy to see how this requirement could be perceived as onerous, not worth the bother if it’s possible to succeed without adopting the practice. The new study by Gonzalez-Montesinos et al. aimed to lower this barrier by combining respiratory muscle training with whole-body endurance training.

Eighteen elite cyclists were separated into an RMT group and a control group. The two groups completed identical nine-week structured training programs overseen by a Spanish national cycling coach. Members of the RMT group performed all of their rides while wearing FeelBreathe nasal restriction devices, which look a lot like Breathe Right strips but work in the opposite way, constricting the nostrils instead of dilating them. Members of the control group, obviously, trained without the device. Various physiological and performance measurements were taken on both groups before and after the nine-week training period.

In a word, FeelBreathe worked. VO2max increased by an average of 1.8 percent and power-to-weight ratio by a whopping 14.3 percent in the RMT group, while the corresponding numbers in the control group were -0.4 percent and 3.0 percent. The improvements seen  in members of the RMT group were directly attributable to changes in breathing characteristics—specifically minute ventilation, breathing frequency, carbon dioxide output, inspiratory time, and expiratory time. On the basis of these findings, the authors concluded that “RMT using [FeelBreathe] seems to be a new and easy alternative ergogenic tool which can be used at the same time as day-to-day training for performance enhancement.”

If this article is beginning to sound like a sponsored post, I assure it’s not. I’d never even heard of FeelBreathe before I read this study. In fact, even if my goal in writing this post were to sell the product, I wouldn’t know where to send you to purchase it. Go ahead and Google it yourself. The only links that come up are for the study I just described and a couple of previous studies involving the same device.

But the inaccessibility of FeelBreathe might not be the only factor that stops this new form of respiratory muscle training from sweeping endurance sports. Another, as I’ve already suggested, is the Law of Good Enough. To be clear, I am not ready to conclude on the basis of a single study that this new form of RMT works definitively enough that every athlete should start doing it. But even supposing it does, there are inertial forces operating in endurance sports that could prevent it from catching on for some time to come. To the extent that the nasal restriction approach doesn’t require separate workouts, the barrier to adopting RMT has been lowered. It remains to be seen, though, whether it has been lowered enough.

So, what’s my point? I guess my point is this: Don’t be afraid to be the athlete who tries something first. Not every athlete cares about performance enough to leave no stone unturned in pursuit of improvement, but if you do, then try to remain aware of the Law of Good Enough and how it might be holding you back unnecessarily. Be skeptical and selective in deciding what’s worth trying, but also be openminded and independent. And if you figure out where a man can buy a pack of FeelBreathe strips, let me know.



I’m not a total science geek, but I do take an interest in certain scientific fields, including evolutionary biology. My brother Josh, who is a total science geek, being aware of my more casual interest, suggested recently that I check out a book called Good Enough: The Tolerance for Mediocrity in Nature and Society. Written by natural philosopher Daniel Milo, the book is a critique of certain dominant interpretations of evolutionary theory.

Milo’s fellow philosopher (and fellow Daniel) Daniel Dennett has referred to this theory as “Darwin’s dangerous idea,” and with good reason. After all, it is a theory based on concepts that are inherently squishy, hence open to—indeed, requiring of—interpretation. What’s more, these concepts have deep relevance to our lives, and can influence or values, decisions, and policies for better or worse depending on our preferred interpretation. The great cautionary example of an unfortunate interpretation resulting in a damaging application of evolutionary concepts is eugenics, that equal parts vile and idiotic policy aiming to “improve” humanity by exterminating particular segments of it.

The particular interpretation of evolutionary theory that Milo goes after in his book is not nearly so vile and idiotic—merely wrong, in his view. He argues that our prevailing interpretation of evolutionary theory has placed too much emphasis on notions of fitness and function, an overemphasis that in turn is rooted in an inflated understanding of the importance of natural selection, which in turn is rooted in the excessive attention Darwin devoted to the phenomenon of domestication in developing his theory. What gets lost amid these biases, Milo contends, is the degree to which biological features that serve no useful function or confer no survival advantage are retained through sheer accident in the evolutionary process. In order to avoid getting weeded out, a given phenotype need not be better than others; it need only be good enough—and lucky.

The purpose of this article is not to provide a full description of, much less to defend, Milo’s critique of evolutionary theory. It is, rather, to hint at its relevance to endurance training. Because that’s exactly where my brain went as I started reading Good Enough. If you’ve read books of my own including 80/20 Running and The Endurance Diet, you know that I look at endurance sport as a self-organizing system, where competition operates as a ruthless selection mechanism causing training methods and other methods of improving fitness and performance to evolve toward optimum. The point I keep making over and again in my work is that the various major endurance sports have existed long enough, and the competitive stakes have become great enough, that training methods utilized at the elite level have evolved nearly to the point of full optimization, which is to say, to the point where there is very little room for further refinement.

But Milo’s book has shifted my perspective somewhat. Why have world records come down slowly and gradually, for the most part, over many decades? The current men’s world record for 10,000 meters, for example, set last year by Uganda’s Joseph Cheptegei, is 26:11.00. By definition, it is humanly possible to run 10,000 meters this quickly. Cheptegei proved it. Why, then, was Emil Zátopek’s 10,000m world record of 28:54.2 lowered by just 14 seconds in 1956 and not all the way down to where it currently stands? Part of the reason, of course, is that Sandor Iharos, the Hungarian runner who bested Zátopek’s mark, was himself not capable of running 26:11. But what Daniel Milo would point out is that it was surely also because elite endurance athletes are always, in ways they don’t entirely recognize or control, endeavoring not to achieve the limit of human possibility but to be good enough to win today. It can’t be any other way, because endurance sport is subject to the same natural laws that govern all self-organizing systems.

Which makes me think that perhaps there’s a little more room for innovation in training and other methods than I had previously assumed. In fact, this possibility had already been suggested to me by the manner in which the COVID-19 pandemic shook things up within the elite stratum of endurance sport. In a previous blog post, I wrote about how the constraints imposed by this crisis all but forced elite coaches to try different things, some of which led to breakthrough performances and are likely to be retained in the future, long after the limitations that gave rise to them have relaxed. These occurrences showed me just how much complacency and conformity exist in the methodologies used even at the highest level of sport at all times, lockdown or no lockdown.

Let’s not get carried away. Becoming aware of the fact that the Law of Good Enough governs progress in endurance sport does not empower us to operate outside that law and start making giant leaps forward. A law is a law. But for me, at least, I hope this shift in perspective allows me to become a bit more creative and experimental in my coaching. Indeed, I believe it already has.

A few years ago, New York Times writer Gretchen Reynolds penned an interesting article titled “Running as the Thinking Person’s Sport.” It focused on a then-recent study by neuroscientists at the University of Arizona in which it was shown that high-level distance runners had significantly higher levels of connectivity in certain parts of the brain compared to nonrunners.

In interpreting these findings, Reynolds wrote that “running seems to be a kind of mobile math puzzle,” an idea that the study’s lead author, Gene Alexander, expanded upon, saying, “It requires complex navigational skills plus an ability to plan, monitor and respond to the environment, juggle memories of past runs and current conditions, and also continue with all of the sequential motor activities of running, which are, themselves, very complicated.”

If it’s true that, as this study indicates, running makes people smarter, then it must also be true that smarter people make better runners. There is no consensus definition of “intelligence” among scientists, but I like the one proposed by David Krakauer, an evolutionary biologist and president of the Santa Fe Institute, who has said, “Intelligence is making hard problems easy.” The reason  this way of looking at the phenomenon appeals to me is that it’s inclusive and pragmatic. It recognizes that intelligence is not some global aptitude that one either has or doesn’t have but is rather a diverse collection of mental skills, which different people have in different degrees. No person is capable of making all types of hard problems easy, and very few people are incapable of making at least one type of hard problem easy.

Top athletes are among those who count as highly intelligent by Krakauer’s definition. As he explained in a 2015 interview for Nautilus, “Something that we’d find tremendously difficult—skiing downhill at a very high velocity or getting a small ball into a basket or getting a ball over a net at over 70 miles an hour, things that we struggle with . . . they make look effortless. And that’s not really that different from a mathematician effortlessly solving a theorem, or a musician remembering a symphony. The difference [exists in] the part of the brain that stores the relevant information, and for some reason when we’re talking about the motor system, it’s not intelligence. I think part of the reason for that is because it’s not exclusively human, because marine mammals make swimming look effortless. Birds make flying look effortless—we can’t do that. And surely that can’t be intelligence because we can’t do it.”

Krakauer continues, “If you reduce the theory to intelligence to, on the one hand, this notion of efficient solutions to hard problems, and simultaneously think about it in terms of the energy and resources that neurons require to solve the problem, then in fact, the motor system is arguably more intelligent than the frontal cortex.”

Long before I met David Krakauer at the 2015 Goldlab Symposium and learned about his take on intelligence, I had already become convinced that certain types of intelligence are vital to success in endurance sports. Pacing is arguably the defining mental skill in endurance racing. It is not easy to get from the start line to the finish line of a 10K or a marathon in the least time possible. While physical fitness determines the highest velocity you can sustain over a given distance on a given course on a given day, this number is fundamentally unknowable. Discovering it as you go is the job of your brain, and it is a job that most athletes suck at. Effective pacing requires intentional practice, but it’s also a matter of natural aptitude, as is the case with all mental skills. My advice to athletes is that you exploit the advantage of natural pacing ability if you have it and that you take pacing skill development more seriously than most athletes do regardless of your innate aptitude.

Pacing is one form of self-regulation. Another form of self-regulation that impacts endurance performance is restraint. All athletes understand the value of hard work, and a majority of serious racers are willing to work hard, but in my experience, relatively few of those who are willing to work hard have the restraint to consistently resist working hard when doing so is unwise. Forcing it in workouts where the target splits are out of reach, sticking to the training plan instead of dialing back in the face of excessive fatigue, grinding out the last mile of a 20-miler despite red-flag pain in your knee—such behaviors are the norm among competitive runners, not the exception.

As the saying goes, “It’s easy to train hard, but hard to train smart.” Hard trainers are a dime a dozen, but where smart training is concerned, the bar is low. This state of affairs represents a golden opportunity to gain an advantage over other athletes by taking pride in exercising restraint throughout the training process. It can be hard at first, but if you persist in the effort it can become your special thing. Instead of rushing to reclaim a Strava segment from a local rival who makes a point of taking it from you, laugh privately and take your revenge in the next race.

A third form of intelligence that aids the athlete is the ability to learn and adapt through trial and error. Athletes who are smart in this way pay attention to cause and effect in their training, figure out what works for them and what doesn’t, and adjust accordingly. I can think of a number of noteworthy examples of athletes whose training evolved over the course of their career and who performed better because of the changes they made. One example is the legendary triathlete Mark Allen, who overcame a propensity toward injury early in his career by swapping his favored low-volume, high-intensity training approach for a high-volume, low-intensity approach under the guidance of coach Phil Maffetone.

In summary, if you’re smart, take full advantage of this gift in your training and racing. And if you’re not so smart (and let’s face it, most of us aren’t so smart), emulate those who are and you’ll at least have an advantage over other not-so-smart runners who make no effort to get smarter.

In 2013, Maria Kang became an overnight sensation when a photograph that showed her posing underneath the caption “What’s your excuse?” clad in shorts and a sports bra, her chiseled abs bared and her three young children surrounding her, went viral. The reaction was mostly negative, critics accusing Maria, an attractive 32-year-old with a well-toned body, of fat shaming and placing unhealthy pressure on busy moms.

I got to know Maria three years later when she reached out to me for guidance while training for her first marathon. Despite her quasi-villainous reputation, I found her to be an intelligent and thoughtful person, so I wasn’t at all surprised when, in 2019, she apologized publicly for her “What’s your excuse?” poster, writing on Instagram, “I’m sorry for my presence—for unconsciously normalizing an unnatural body standard, not expressing my challenges with body image and not being strong enough to [fix] this years ago.”

I applaud Maria for her better-late-than-never show of contrition. At the same time, though, I think there’s a piece of her original message that’s worth preserving. I see nothing wrong with wanting to be an example to other people, as Maria did. Nor do I think there’s anything wrong with using shame to motivate others to follow your example. But you need to go about it the right way. If your desire to help others is genuine—if you want to actually succeed in motivating others to make positive changes—then you must not be overt or in your example-setting. In other words, don’t tell folks what to do; instead, just show them what they could also do if they so chose. In Maria’s specific case, I believe she could have avoided the backlash she provoked and succeeded in getting more of her fellow busy moms to improve their fitness if she had simply presented herself as an example of a fit mother of three and left it at that.

What I’m saying is, if you want to use shame to motivate others to make positive changes, refrain from saying, “What’s your excuse?” Instead, keep your mouth shut and let them ask themselves, “What’s my excuse?” Demonstrate what is possible for people like them so that they are no longer able to use “can’t” as a valid reason for not doing what you’ve done.

As an athlete, I have benefitted greatly from what I like to call benign shaming. When I encounter an example of an athlete who has demonstrated exceptional courage, grace, resilience, discipline, intelligence, or some other admirable quality in overcoming an extraordinary challenge, I ask myself, “What’s my excuse?” The way I see it, all it takes is one case in which an athlete holds himself or herself to the highest possible standard of character in a tough spot to deprive me of any excuse for not doing the same. Mind you, I’m not talking about qualities like physical strength that cannot be emulated but about character qualities like courage that can be.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Gabe Grunewald, an American professional runner who fought a long and ultimately losing battle against cancer, passing away in June 2019 just shy of her 33rd birthday. Gabe displayed tremendous generosity of spirit in her final years, striving to make her illness bigger than herself and to make something positive come out of it. She also showed awe-inspiring tenacity in the fight she put up against her disease, running her final race during a two-week break between chemotherapy treatments. Whenever I’m tempted to give in to the poor me’s in my struggle against a far less serious condition—post-acute COVID-19 syndrome—the thought of Gabe and others like her shames me into staying positive.

The underlying concept here is that of holding yourself to a high standard. There was a time when this concept had a high degree of cultural currency—when it was common for people to think and talk about the importance of setting an example with one’s conduct at work, in relationships, and as a member of the community. The Stoics of ancient Greece were big on this idea. As the great Stoic philosopher Epictetus put it, “Imagine for yourself a character, a model personality, whose example you determine to follow, in private as well as in public.”

In American society today, unfortunately, the concept of holding oneself to a high standard is largely ignored, and inasmuch as it is not ignored, it is laughed at and ridiculed, dismissed as naïve, corny, and weak, a form of self-handicapping, something that only a sucker would do. Just look at the way boorish behavior is glorified in reality television. The subjects of these programs have no shame, and are adored for precisely this quality. Collectively, such pop culture inputs effectively train our young people to regard themselves as perfect just as they are, and to pursue happiness by imposing their will on the world rather than through any kind of introspection and self-betterment. Good luck exploiting people’s natural, healthy capacity for shame to motivate positive changes in a culture that has neutered this very capacity!

This is why it is all too easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater in a case like Maria Kang’s. As she herself recognizes, saying “What’s your excuse?” was not a skillful way to inspire positive self-change in others. But in all honestly, I don’t think her message was rejected entirely for good reasons. I think it was rejected partly because people do not want to be reminded that they should hold themselves to a high standard. Everyone wants to feel better nowadays, but very few of us genuinely want to be better.

Callum Hawkins came into the 2018 Commonwealth Games Marathon in Australia with high expectations. Having set a national record of 1:00:00 for the half marathon and finished fourth in the World Championship Marathon the prior year, the 25-year-old Scotsman was supremely confident in his ability to claim a gold medal for his small, proud country. His strategy–despite expected temperatures in the mid-80s–was to run hard from the start and demoralize the other contenders. This bold but risky plan played out exactly as Callum imagined it, and with just 2 miles left in the race he held a commanding 2-minute advantage over defending champion Michael Shelley of the host nation.

And that’s when the wheels came off. Trapped inside his body by the ambient heat of the day, the metabolic heat generated by Callum’s hardworking muscles, having accumulated steadily throughout the marathon, crossed a dangerous threshold as he approached the 40 km mark. He began to weave back and forth across the road like a blindfolded drunk in a hurricane. It was only a matter of time before he went down, but he managed to stay upright far longer than an actual blindfolded drunk in a hurricane would have done before pitching over onto a grassy verge on the side of the road. Spectators watched with a lack of visible alarm that I can’t imagine myself showing in their place as Callum tried repeatedly to hoist himself upright, now looking like a boxer trying to beat a 10-count, succeeding on his third try.

Still leading, he lurched along in a grotesque approximation of human bipedal locomotion for another couple of hundred meters before collapsing again, this time smacking his head against a metal railing and staying down. After an unforgivably long delay, medics came to Callum’s aid, ending his race officially. When he came to later in the back of an ambulance, the young runner croaked out words expressing his only concern: “Did I win?”

In a recent podcast interview, I was asked whether I thought mental fitness was something people were born with (or not) or something that could be developed over time. I was thinking of Callum Hawkins when I answered that I’d be lying if I said that mental fitness was not partly innate. Exertional heat illness had reduced Callum to a beast of basic instincts in the crisis phase of his 2018 Commonwealth Games Marathon performance. He most certainly was not making considered tactical decisions when he kept running well beyond the point where most runners would have quit, or when he got up and kept running after his first fall, or when he refused medical assistance initially after his second fall. Heck, he doesn’t even remember doing these things! He just did them.

Even more revealing is that moment in the back of the ambulance. Not yet out of danger and barely coherent enough for speech, he asked not “What’s wrong with me?” or “Am I going to be okay?” but “Did I win?” There’s something almost Shakespearean about the scene I picture when I read accounts of this moment. Rarely do so few words say so much about a person. Thank goodness people like Callum Hawkins exist.

As for the rest of us, we just need to accept that Callum and athletes like him have something we lack and can never acquire. But that’s okay. The answer to the nature/nurture question is seldom either/or, and mental fitness is clearly something that any athlete can cultivate over time, even if the very highest level of mental fitness is attainable only by those who are born with this potential. In this respect, mental fitness is very much like physical fitness.

We all know that only a tiny percentage of the human population possesses the genetic potential to reach the elite level of endurance sports performance. But this knowledge does not make the rest of us throw up our hands and say, “What’s the point?” That’s because even the least talented among us have the capacity to increase our endurance fitness markedly through training, and there is tremendous satisfaction to be had in earning such improvement.

It’s the same with mental fitness. I myself was born with a very low level of mental fitness, as evidenced by the various stunts I pulled to escape the pain cave as a high school runner—faking an injury in the middle of a 2-mile track race, hiding in the woods and missing the start of another 2-mile track race, etc. But years of consciously working to raise my mental game transformed me into a completely different athlete, one who is utterly fearless on the racecourse. I can’t see myself ever waking up in an ambulance and asking “Did I win?”, but I’m okay with that, just as I’m okay with not being able to attain a VO2max of 80 ml/kg/min.

No matter what your starting point is with mental fitness, accept it and focus on getting better.

It’s hard to believe it was this year—January 21st, 2020, to be exact—that my mom came to stay with my wife, Nataki, and me. She has Alzheimer’s disease (my mom, not my wife) and had deteriorated to the point where my dad was no longer able to care for her on his own. I couldn’t bear to see her placed in a facility just yet, so after consulting with Nataki, I offered to take her in.

Everybody we knew who had already been through what we were about to go through warned us that it would be even more challenging than we thought. Their counsel reminded me of something my friend Bernie said to me before my first marathon: “No matter how hard you think it’s going to be, it’s going to be harder than that.”

Bernie was right, and so too were the people who gave us a reality check concerning our reverse-parenting intentions. I recognized going in that much of the burden would fall on Nataki, who doesn’t work and who therefore has more time for such things as making sure elderly houseguests don’t accidentally set fire to the kitchen. But the reason Nataki doesn’t work is that she has bipolar disorder and can’t handle a lot of stress in her life, and the stress of looking after her mother-in-law quickly proved to be unacceptably harmful to her mental wellbeing. So, after just six weeks, we shipped mom back to Rhode Island.

By this time I was sick, having picked up a certain virus on a trip to Atlanta. The worst symptom was a relentless, racking dry cough. In the most hellish stretch of my monthlong illness I coughed for 30 minutes nonstop as soon as I got up in the morning and for 30 minutes again right before I went to bed at night, often disgorging blood, or bile, or both. One time I coughed so violently that I injured several ribs. Prior to that moment, the most excruciating pain I had ever felt was when I suffered a third-degree ACL tear playing soccer at age 14. My rib injury hurt just as much, and every single subsequent cough (20 coughs per minute times 30 minutes equals . . .) hurt that much again. To get a better sense of how it felt, stab yourself in the lung with a letter opener 600 times. Fun stuff.

A few weeks after I recovered (temporarily, as it turned out) from the virus, George Floyd was murdered. Having married into a Black family in 2001, I take racism a bit more personally than does the average white guy, and I took this latest atrocity very personally. But what really sent me over the bend was the ugly backlash against the social justice movement that came out of Floyd’s lynching. A poisonous mix of indignant fury and helpless dismay ate me alive as I watched American racism skulk out of the shadows and become “cool” again, unprovoked verbal and physical assaults on people of color who were just minding their own business becoming as commonplace as rain. Unable to think about anything else, I put more energy into angry tweeting than I gave to my work, which was already suffering as a consequence of the pandemic-induced recession. A big chunk of my income comes from selling online training plans to endurance athletes who are preparing for races such as the Boston Marathon, and, well . . .

In August the wildfires hit. Where I live in California’s north Central Valley there’s little risk of losing my home, but this year the fires were close enough and extensive enough for the smoke to make outdoor exercise impossible for weeks at a stretch. I adapted as best I could by running and cycling indoors, even wearing a mask (luckily I had plenty of those lying around) for some workouts. On the (literal) darkest days, my eyes stung and my head throbbed and my esophagus burned regardless, effects that, unpleasant though they were, I accepted as a passing nuisance and that’s all—certainly nothing that might change the course of my life.

October 6th is the date the course of my life changed. A single, random poor workout became a bad patch in my training, which became a downward spiral in my fitness and health, which became a chronic condition that shows no sign of abating almost three months later. Crushing fatigue, extreme exercise intolerance, shortness of breath, brain fog, tingling extremities, wild fluctuations in heart rate and blood pressure, phantom smells, and other symptoms indicate post-acute COVID-19 syndrome, which normally manifests immediately after acute COVID but appears to have existed as a latency in me for six months until activated by inhaled smoke particulates. Many long-haulers are being diagnosed with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), an incurable autonomic nervous system disorder often brought on by viral infection. Key symptoms are crushing fatigue, extreme exercise intolerance, shortness of breath, brain fog, tingling extremities, wild fluctuations in heart rate and blood pressure . . .

As I sit here at my desk with a numb left foot on the morning of December 31st, I find myself becoming a bit nostalgic already for this crazy year, and I’m certain this feeling will only intensify in the years to come. Ever since I was a wee pup I have craved intense experience. As painful as it is, I love endurance racing because it is freaking intense. I feel so damn alive when I’m immersed in that acid bath of purposeful suffering. And for me, 2020 was nothing if not intense. Sure, I suffered a good deal, but because much of the suffering I experienced was unfamiliar in nature, I found it interesting and challenging, a new place to explore and learn. A bad trip is still a trip, after all.

Novel challenges also present rich opportunities for self-discovery and growth. The moment that sticks out came in late March, during one of my nightly coughing spells, when I was shocked by the sudden realization that I felt a pinch of disappointment when this particular episode turned out to be not quite as unbearably awful as preceding ones. Am I a masochist? I wondered before concluding that, no, I’m just a person who has been through enough in life that I rely heavily on toughness to cope, and coughing violently for 30 minutes straight with injured ribs was, if nothing else, a terrific opportunity to test and hone my toughness. I’m not saying this is a good thing or a bad thing. It’s just something I learned about myself that I wouldn’t have learned had 2020 been smooth sailing.

I tried to find—and largely exceeded in finding—the opportunity in each of the challenges I faced  this year. Although I hated to raise the proverbial white flag so soon after bringing my mother into my home, I will forever treasure those six weeks, during which I was able to express my love for her in ways I never had before. And although at times the surreal mainstreaming of white supremacy made me want to go live in a cave, it also gave me a chance to listen to and encourage a college-age cousin on Nataki’s side whose diapers I used to change and who is now active in the fight for social justice. And although it sucked to lose a month of running to my initial illness, I relished the subsequent comeback, learning valuable lessons about the possibilities and limitations of accelerated fitness building in the process of going from bedridden to a 2:54 virtual marathon in six-and-a-half weeks—lessons that I can pass on to the athletes I coach, even if my own marathoning days are over.

Having said all of this, I will also say that I hope next year is nothing like this year. But I would say the same thing if 2020 had been smooth sailing start to finish. I mean, who the hell wants to live the same year twice?

I am often asked if the 80/20 rule of intensity balance applies to athletes who train at very low volumes. It’s a fair question. We know that low-intensity exercise doesn’t do a lot of good in small amounts, whereas high-intensity exercise does. It is plausible therefore that, below a certain volume threshold, doing less than 80 percent of one’s training at low intensity will yield better results than sticking to the 80/20 rule.

A new study by Luca Festa of the University of Verona and colleagues addresses this question—sort of. The subjects were recreational runners with at least four years of experience. For eight weeks, half of them followed a “polarized” training program in which 77 percent of training was done at low intensity, 3 percent at moderate intensity, and 20 percent at high intensity, while the other half maintained a 40/50/10 intensity split (“focused endurance training”). Volume was adjusted to ensure that the total training load (intensity and volume combined) was equal for the two groups. This required runners in the polarized group to run slightly more than runners in the focused endurance group, though volume was quite low in both groups, averaging out to 3.73 hours per week and 3.1 hours per week, respectively.

Physiological and performance measures were taken on all of the subjects before and immediately after the eight-week training intervention. The table below summarizes the results.

Polarized Focused Endurance
Fat Mass -12.7% -8.6%
VO2max +1.2% +0.9%
Velocity at VO2max +3.2% +4.0%
Running Economy +5.3% +7.0%
Average Velocity in 2K time trial +3.5% +3.0%

As you can see, they’re kind of a mixed bag. The polarized group saw bigger improvements in body composition, VO2max, and (what is arguably the only result that matters) time-trial performance, while the focused endurance group experienced bigger gains in running economy and velocity at VO2max. None of these differences was judged to be statistically significantly, however, so Festa’s team concluded that “Focused Endurance Training obtains similar improvements [as] Polarized Endurance Training[,] saving 17% of training time in recreational runners.”

There you have it: 80/20 training is a waste of time. You get equal results in less time by doing half of your training at moderate intensity, which is precisely the opposite of what 80/20 advocates like me tell athletes not to do.

But wait—there’s another interpretation. Remember the commonly asked question I mentioned at the top of this article? We started out with the premise that it is likely that, below a certain threshold of training volume, an 80/20 intensity balance might not yield optimal fitness benefits. The results of Festa’s study suggest that this threshold is very low indeed, if indeed it exists at all. Members of the polarized group and the focused endurance group ran just 32 minutes and 27 minutes per day, respectively, during the eight-week study period, and improved by roughly equal amounts. So it’s safe to say that you would have to run less than 25 minutes a day, on average, for a more intense training approach to possibly produce better results than the 80/20 method, emphasis on “possibly.”

It’s also worth drawing attention to the fact that the only performance test included in Festa’s study was a 2 km time trial. That’s pretty short. Why 2 km? Because Festa and his colleagues wanted to set up the focused endurance group for success, that’s why! Clearly, a short performance test was going to give the group doing shorter runs the best chance of equaling the improvement of the other group. Even then, though, the polarized group improved slightly more. And although the difference was statistically significant, meaning it could have happened by chance, I’d be willing to bet that if this same experiment were rerun 100 times, the polarized group would improve more with a frequency that exceeded chance, hinting at the beginning of a trend that would only grow as the distance of performance tests increased.

Furthermore, although Festa’s study itself was quite short, its brevity was appropriate in the sense that it doesn’t take long for a training program of such low volume to yield the full measure of its potential benefits. In other words, had the experiment lasted longer, it’s unlikely that either group would have improved much more. But suppose you were to actually follow one of the two programs involved in this study, getting whatever benefit you could squeeze out of it in 8-10 weeks, and then decided that you wanted to improve more going forward.

Here’s what would happen: If you were on the focused endurance plan and you proceeded by gradually increasing the volume of training you did at the same 40/50/10 intensity ratio, you would gain fitness at a gradually decreasing rate for a little while before reaching a point of negative returns at a still fairly modest volume level. That’s because any training done above the first ventilatory threshold—whether moderately intense or highly intense—is significantly more stressful to the body than training done below the VT1, and on this program you’re doing 60 percent of your total running above that threshold. Festa’s team collected data on perceived effort from their subjects but did not report it, and again, I’d be willing to bet that members of the focused endurance group perceived their training to be harder than members of the polarized group perceived their training to be, even though mathematically their training loads were equal.

But if instead you went through the same process on the 80/20 program, you would continue to improve for a very long time, albeit at a diminishing rate, not reaching the point of negative returns until you’re doing a ton of running. And that’s because training below the first ventilatory threshold is so gentle on the body that even the average athlete can handle (and benefit from) massive amounts of it. I would only add that, whereas in this study almost all of the 20 percent of training done above the VT1 was done at high intensity, a runner training at ever-increasing volumes would be wise to gradually shift minutes from the high-intensity bucket to the moderate-intensity bucket as volume grew.

Festa and his colleagues admit that it is a well-established fact that an 80/20 intensity balance provides the best possible results for athletes who train a lot, writing, “several studies have shown that it allows them to achieve greater improvements in performance,” and that “this distribution is necessary for athletes who perform a large volume of training, to prevent overtraining or steady state of performance.” What this new study shows is that the 80/20 approach is also at least as effective as a more intense training approach at a very low training volume of around 30 minutes a day. In other words, the title of this article is a joke.

Try not to react merely in the moment. Pull back from the situation. Take a wider view. Compose yourself. –Epictetus

Have you seen that television commercial for Advil, the one targeting active folks like us, with the tagline, “When pain says you can’t Advil says you can”? This slogan encapsulates everything that is wrong about the modern medicalization of pain, reinforcing the notion that pain is a bottomless precipice when in fact it is a tool and strengthening our dependency on doctors, medicines, and therapies to manage pain. It is the same message that made possible our current opioid crisis.

Not all athletes have been successfully brainwashed by this sort of messaging, thankfully. There are many who deal with pain the same way everyone used to deal with it before its modern medicalization, which is by using it as information about the relative proximity of physical limits, working around and through it to gain fitness while respecting those limits. Such athletes use pain the way a person might navigate through a pitch-black maze by tracing a hand along a wall. In this metaphor, the wall, which symbolizes pain, is not saying “You can’t,” it’s saying, “I’m afraid you can’t go any further in this direction, but I can show you a way forward.”

One thing about pain that is common to the experience of all athletes is that it gets their attention. Some react to it skillfully, others less so, but all athletes react to pain consciously and overtly in one way or another. Not so with negative emotions. Very often athletes get trapped inside negative emotions such as worry and discouragement. In other words, they experience these feelings without seeing themselves experience them. Or, put yet another way, they feel worry and discouragement and so forth the way animals do instead of gaining perspective on them. Any old beast can feel, but only humans (and chimpanzees, and dolphins) are capable of thinking about their feelings, or metacognition, but we don’t exercise this capacity as often as we might.

Negative emotions are both caused and causal. For example, a bad workout might trigger worry in an athlete, and this worry might in turn cause the athlete to repeat the workout two days later in search of a better experience. In this way, negative emotions are much like pain. They signal a problem, affording the athlete an opportunity to fix it. However, when athletes experience negative emotions only from inside them, these emotions end up controlling their decisions. Emotion-driven decisions aren’t always bad decisions, but they aren’t considered decisions. By contrast, when athletes gain metacognitive distance from their emotions, the possibility opens up to consider various responses. Obviously, your chances of taking the best course of action are better if you select the most promising of, say, three options than if you automatically do the one thing your ruling emotion tells you to do.

I’ll give you an example from my personal experience. In the early spring of 2019 I received reports from other triathletes planning to participate in Ironman Santa Rosa that the water in Lake Sonoma, where the swim leg of the race would take place, was frigid. Folks were freaked out and began to hope that the lake would warm significantly in the remaining weeks before the event. At 0.001 percent bodyfat, I can’t stand cold water, but at that time I was neck-deep in writing The Comeback Quotient and I had a new appreciation for the importance of not allowing my emotions to rule me. So instead of freaking out, I simply braced myself for a cold swim, enjoyed others’ anxiety as a competitive advantage given to me on a silver platter, bought a better wetsuit, and made a couple of trips up to the race site to practice swimming in the frigid water there. I am certain that my response to the situation helped me swim better than I would have otherwise, and that many of the worriers were harmed by their emotion-driven response.

I don’t mean to boast about how awesome my mental game is so much as make the point that real, positive change in how negative emotions are handled is possible. Some athletes, it seems, are practically born treating negative emotions the same way they do pain. I’m not one of them. I got to the point where, save for the occasional lapse, negative emotions never rule me by working at it consistently over time. And you can too.


No athlete can get fitter year-round, and no athlete should try. But letting yourself go completely is not the only alternative to actively pursuing peak race fitness. It is possible to maintain a solid foundation of fitness with a training pattern that is infinitely sustainable, allowing you to transition smoothly back into progressive, race-focused training when you’re ready.

In maintenance training, the stakes are unquestionably lower than they are when you’re pursuing peak race fitness. If you’ve got an important event in front of you, you want your training to be as close to perfect as possible. In the off-season, though, your training need not be optimal; it need only be good enough. But even so, there are more and less effective ways to approach maintenance training, so why not do it right?

As I see it, there are three basic ways to screw up maintenance training. One is to train too hard. No matter how motivated an athlete you are, you need to make your maintenance training light enough that you could sustain it indefinitely without draining your physical or mental batteries. The second way to screw up maintenance training is to train too lightly. Athletes who lose motivation and train erratically or not at all in the off-season are well aware of the mistake they’re making. Those who make the mistake of doing 100 percent of their maintenance training at low intensity, however, might not realize they’re shortchanging themselves.

Which brings us to the third way to screw up maintenance training, which to fail to vary your workouts sufficiently. Many endurance athletes share a tacit assumption that any workout other than a basic, slow-and-steady aerobic swim, ride, or run has to be really hard. Says who? Spicing up your maintenance training with small doses of work at higher intensities allows you to preserve a well-rounded fitness base through this period without pushing outside the Goldilocks zone of overall training load.

The nice thing about high-intensity training is that a little goes a long way. In a recent blog post, I described a study by Norwegian researchers showing that professional cyclists who added a handful of 30-second sprints to just one ride per week were able to maintain their fitness in the off-season despite a 60 percent reduction in training volume. Equally important, they got this benefit without increasing their scores in a standard “Athlete Burnout Questionnaire.” These findings are in line with the results of past studies showing that athletes can hold on to their fitness for many weeks after a sharp reduction in training volume as long as they do a modicum of high-intensity training.

When I design maintenance training plans for my fellow endurance athletes, I generally try to include one high-intensity stimulus, one moderate-intensity stimulus, and one endurance stimulus per week. These stimuli can and should be quite modest because 1) again, it doesn’t take much of these things to preserve fitness that’s already been earned and 2) you’re not really trying to preserve 100 percent of peak fitness in maintenance training anyway; you’re trying to do just enough to set yourself up for a smooth transition back to race-focused training when the time comes. Here’s an example of a week of maintenance training for a runner:


Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
Rest Fartlek Run


45:00 with 8 x 1:00 @ VO2max pace sprinkled in

Easy Run



Easy Run



Fast Finish Run


40:00 easy + 5:00 @ critical velocity

Easy Run



Depletion Run


1:30:00 easy, no calories before or during


I want to stress that this is just an example. Simply repeating this workout sequence every week for eight weeks (or whatever) would not quite qualify as optimal maintenance training. In addition to including some variety within the week, as this example does, you’ll want to vary your training somewhat from week to week. Swap out the fartlek run for hill repetitions; replace the fast finish at critical velocity with a slightly longer fast finish at lactate threshold pace; substitute the depletion run with a long (but not too long) trail run—you get the idea.

The one thing you don’t want to do in the effort to vary your maintenance training is train progressively as you would within a race-focused training cycle. Instead, keep the overall training load fairly consistent from week to week. If you’re coming off a break from training and you plan to get pretty serious pretty quickly after you transition from maintenance mode to race-prep mode, then it’s okay for your training load to trend gently upward during this period. Just don’t lose sight of the fact that the operative word in maintenance training is maintenance.

I’ve been learning a lot about pain lately. My sudden interest in the topic was sparked by the collaborative work I’m doing with Ryan Whited on a book about self-managing athletic pain and injury. The new science of pain is utterly fascinating and completely contrary to prevailing beliefs about the deceptively familiar phenomenon.

I credit my ongoing crash course in pain science for the lack of surprise I experienced in reading a new study on knee pain in runners that may surprise many others. Led by Shahabeddin Bagheri of the University of Nahavand in Iran and published in the Journal of Athletic Training, the study investigated the effects of mindfulness training on “pain severity, knee function, fear of movement, and pain catastrophizing” in female runners dealing with patellofemoral pain.

A few definitions: Mindfulness is an intentional mind state that involves being maximally present in the moment and accepting of one’s thoughts and feelings as they are. Fear of movement (aka kinesiophobia) is just that, but it is also a vastly underappreciated contributor to the pain experience. Fear of movement literally creates pain. Finally, pain catastrophizing is a “tendency to magnify the threat value of a pain stimulus and to feel helpless in the context of pain.” Based on past research demonstrating that the pain experience is every bit as much psychological as it is physical, and that psychological interventions including mindfulness training can be helpful in pain management, this new study sought to determine whether supplementing traditional training modifications with mindfulness training could improve outcomes in athletes dealing with one of the most common running injuries.

The subjects of the experiment were women runners with an average age of 28, all dealing with persistent PFPS. Half of them were assigned to a standard, 18-week exercise treatment program focused on symptom control. The other half completed the same exercise program as well as an eight-week mindfulness intervention that started four weeks earlier and thus overlapped with the exercise program by four weeks. At the beginning, middle, and end of the 18-week exercise program, all 30 subjects rated their pain level at rest, during stepping, and during running, provided information of functional limitations of the knee, and completed questionnaires designed to assess fear of movement, pain catastrophizing, and pain coping strategies.

In a word, the mindfulness intervention worked. At 18 weeks, the subjects who received mindfulness training showed a 15.8 percent greater reduction in pain during running, an 8.2 percent greater improvement in knee function, a 20.8 percent lower fear of movement, and a 40.9 percent lower level of pain catastrophizing compared to the subjects treated with exercise only. Members of the mindfulness-plus-exercise group also demonstrated greater reliance on the coping mechanisms of ignoring pain sensations and distancing from pain.

The funny thing about this “new” way of managing athletic pain is that it isn’t new at all. Rather, it represents how everyone used to deal with pain before it became medicalized in modern society, transformed from a normal part of everyday life, like appetite–mere somatic information that’s useful in choosing appropriate subsequent goal-seeking actions–into a cataclysm to be feared and avoided at all costs. The catastrophizing of pain and the fear of movement that mindfulness helped the subjects of this study overcome are modern creations. When an 18th century rancher developed knee pain, they worked around it and through it quite adeptly without giving it more thought than was strictly necessary and certainly without complaining about it to anyone else. But when a 21st century runner develops knee pain, they freak out and stop cold and run (sorry, walk) to the doctor.

Don’t get me wrong—it’s nice that we have doctors. What studies like Bagheri’s are showing, however, is that we need to start to undo the damage that the medicalization of pain has done to the athlete’s psyche without throwing away the evidence-based diagnostic tools and treatments that help athletes get past the few nontraumatic injuries they aren’t capable of managing outside of the clinical context. Ryan Whited and I are doing our part to push what we both perceive as a coming revolution in the management of athletic pain. While our book is still at least 18 months away from publication, I’m certain I’ll be sharing more of what I learn about the subject here in the interim, so keep an eye out.

In December 2011, Manhattan-based psychologist Bob Bergeron put the finishing touches on a book titled The Right Side of Forty: The Complete Guide to Happiness for Gay Men at Midlife and Beyond. To mark the occasion, he posted the following cheerful announcement on his website: “I’ve got a concise picture of what being over forty is about and it’s a great perspective filled with happiness, feeling sexy, possessing comfort relating to other men and taking good care of ourselves.” Three weeks later, Bob Bergeron took his own life.

The tragic irony of this story is glaringly obvious, but for folks like me, Bob’s startling final act is also a stark reminder of how difficult it can be to practice what one preaches in the domain of self-help. Having learned about Bob from a terrific posthumous profile that appeared in The New York Times in April 2012, I’ve been thinking about him often lately in the leadup to the release of my new book The Comeback Quotient: A Get-Real Guide to Building Mental Fitness in Sport in Life. In it, I preach the importance of making the best of the challenges we face as athletes—and as humans—by facing reality fully. It’s a message that I genuinely believe in and try to practice in my own life, but doing so has never been more testing for me than it is in the context of my present situation.

It started with a single bad workout—a set of 600-meter intervals that I was forced to abandon because I just didn’t have it that day. But it didn’t stop there—not by a long shot. Within a couple of weeks I had completely eliminated fast runs of all varieties as well as long runs from my training schedule, leaving only “easy” runs that felt anything but easy, even at a pace that was 90 seconds per mile slower than normal. By then I was feeling lousy not only during runs but also at rest. The first thing I noticed was a persistent run-down feeling. This symptom was followed in short order by a host of others, including erratic pulse, shortness of breath, tremulousness, excessive thirst, headache, lightheadedness, numbness, sleep changes, brain fog, memory loss, and affective symptoms such as anhedonia, anxiety, and withdrawal.

Nearly two months have passed since that single bad workout, and I remain wholly unable to train in any meaningful sense of the word. Treadmill walking accounts for the majority of my exercise. I risk running outside only when I can’t bear another hour on the old hamster wheel. The last time I did so my heart rate climbed to 173 BPM at 8:40 per mile. My maximum heart rate is 181 BPM, and the last time I pegged it prior to unraveling was at the end of a 4:55 mile. I never know what I’m going to get on a given day. Last week I did exactly the same treadmill walk-run session on consecutive days. My heart rate was 40 beats per minute lower in the second session, yet I felt equally short of breath in both. It’s as if my autonomic nervous system has forgotten how to communicate with my cardiorespiratory system. In fact, I believe that’s precisely what’s happened—a phenomenon called dysautonomia.

Far from just sitting back and hoping the problem goes away, I’ve been pursuing a proper diagnosis as aggressively as though my livelihood depended on my ability to run, which it sort of does. My hunch is that I have post-acute COVID-19 syndrome, triggered somehow by exposure to wildfire smoke (which would explain the condition’s unusually belated onset in my case). The symptoms certainly match those reported by known PACS sufferers, and I was down with a very COVID-like illness for a full month after returning from the Atlanta Marathon in early March. Trouble is, I wasn’t able to get tested then, and by the time I got an antibody test in July the negative result meant little. Bloodwork shows nothing amiss, my lungs look good, and my heart checks out, and I now stand only one specialist away (neurologist) from perhaps being told—like all too many PACS patients—that there’s nothing wrong with me. It won’t be the end of the world if this does happen, however, because there’s little that doctors can do to treat the syndrome.

So, here I am, mired in the worst health situation I’ve ever confronted at just the moment I’m coming out with a book in which I tell other people how to deal with bad situations. As I said before, I earnestly believe that facing reality is the only way to make the best of any bad situation. That’s reason enough to practice what I preach in attempting to come back from this thing. But The Comeback Quotient gives me a compelling second reason, which is not being a lousy hypocrite!

In the book I explain that facing reality is a three-step process. Here’s what the process looks like for me as I work to practice privately what I preach publicly.

Step 1: Accept Reality

It’s difficult to express how important running is to me. I’ve been doing it for more than 30 years, having started at age 11 under my father’s influence—a wonderful bonding point in my relationship with him. My two brothers run as well, and I could probably write an entire book (I promise I won’t) about all the ways the sport has brought us together over the years. I make my living by coaching runners and by writing about running, and remaining an active competitive runner myself has been a crucial source of the both experience and the sense of credibility I bring to these roles. Running is also my place of worship, the center of my spiritual experience, my prayer closet, where I feel closest to the divine. It is my greatest source of inner strength and self-discovery, without which I would literally be dead, as I’ve disclosed previously. All of this has been taken away from me.

I mean, I can still run a bit, but not in the way that matters. For me, running’s true richest are revealed only through the testing of physical and mental limits, pursuing mastery. When I have a big race in front of me that I’m focused on and progressing toward, everything else in my life lines up in a way that’s impossible to explain, and when that polestar is lacking for whatever reason, I feel adrift. Dave Scott said it better: “When I’m on, and when I feel good about my exercise and I’ve been on a good wave, I feel invincible. I can handle any kind of hurdle and I can meet any kind of challenge head-on. And when I don’t have it, when I don’t have that morphine-like endorphin feeling that resonates throughout my body, it affects everything. It affects my personality, it affects my confidence, it affects my ability to interact with other people.” Amen.

Recently I had a phone call with Jordan Metzl, an eminent sports medicine specialist I’ve known casually for some years, who I reached out to after I saw a piece he wrote for The New York Times about returning to athletic training after coronavirus. He told me that, although I needn’t worry that exercise in general is exacerbating my condition, as I have feared at times, under no circumstances should I attempt to actively progress in my exercise regimen until I’m feeling better. This advice would be easier to accept if I perceived I was on any sort of trajectory toward feeling better.

Running aside, I feel crappy to some degree all day every day. In my best moments, I barely notice my condition—unless I stand up, or walk, or climb a flight of stairs, when shortness of breath hits me with a gentle reminder, “Still here!” Other times it’s bad enough that I just have to stop whatever it is I’m trying to do and lie down. Evenings are the worst. When I sit in the living room with my wife, Nataki, sipping Sleepy Time tea and winding down, it sometimes seems as if an invisible giant has placed a thumb on the crown of my hard and begun to slowly squash me into the floor. At night I sleep so hard that when I wake up in the wee hours needing to use the bathroom I can barely peel myself off the mattress.

The docs seem most concerned about the numbness I’m experiencing. They’ve ordered an MRI of my cervical spine, suspecting, I suppose, that there’s a tumor or something lurking in there. I myself am less concerned about this particular symptom, which appears to be common in those with PACS, except when it’s at its most severe, like when I woke up in bed a few nights ago to discover that my entire left leg “gone to sleep” with that tingling, pins-and-needles sensation, frighteningly intense.

Before the headaches and brain fog hit, I used to tell Nataki, “Well, I might not be able to run, but at least I can still work.” Ah, those were the days! Reported almost universally by PACS sufferers, the brain-fog symptom is almost impossible to describe in a way that anyone who hasn’t experienced it can appreciate. Sometimes I come to with a start having heard Nataki say something to me and discover we’re in the care together or out walking. It’s like returning to reality from a trip to another dimension. How the heck did I even get here?

The other day Nataki accompanied me on another visit to the hospital, where I got an echocardiogram, after which we decided to pop into Costco to pick up a few things. When I pulled into the Walmart parking lot, Nataki gently asked what I was doing. We haven’t shopped at Walmart in years, making a special point of avoiding the store. Such cognitive glitches have struck a devastating blow to my confidence. Lately I’ve been entertaining fantasies of retiring. They’re only fantasies, but if I could afford to take some time off I would. I can’t, though, so instead I’ve scaled back my work activities where possible, saying no to stuff I would have said yes to before. I dread Zoom calls and regular business-related phone calls and, frankly, any contact with people other than my family and closest friends.

On November 22nd, 60 Minutes aired a segment about a special research and clinical-care division for so-called “long-haulers” that has been created at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Thousands of patients have sought treatment there already. At the end of the segment, interviewer Anderson Cooper asked Dayna McCarthy, one of the division’s staff doctors, who herself has PACS, how many of those thousands had made a fully recovery so far. The answer was zero.

All of this is enough to make a stronger man than I am feel a little sorry for himself. But I refuse to go down this path, because ultrarealists—the masters of facing reality I describe in my book—don’t. Among these ultrarealists is Jamie Whitmore, a former world champion off-road triathlete who came back from a horrific cancer ordeal to win a gold medal in cycling at the 2016 Paralympics. When I sat down to interview Jamie last summer, she said to me regarding the darkest days of her ordeal, “I would allow myself to feel sorry for my situation or be angry at it for 15 minutes a day. After that, it doesn’t get you anywhere.”

To accept a bad situation is to resist actively wishing that things were otherwise. The more time and energy you give to wishing for a different reality, the less time and energy you are able to devote to changing that reality. Jamie Whitmore understood this, and I figure if she could limit her indulgence in self-pity to 15 minutes a day in a situation far worse than mine, then I certainly have no excuse for playing the pointless “Why me?” game.

In fact, I’m going a step further and resisting even hoping I get better. That might sound crazy to you, but think about it this way: When you’re 23 miles into a marathon and suffering like a dog, how much good does it do to hope the last 3 miles are easy? Less than none. You’re much better off accepting that it’s only going to get worse going forward and finding a way to cope with your suffering. Likewise, although I certainly do want to get better, there’s no telling how much longer I will continue to feel crappy, so instead of actively hoping I wake up one morning and don’t immediately feel short of breath on standing, I’m trying to be as okay as possible in my present state.

Step 2: Embrace Reality

Embracing the reality of a bad situation means committing to making the best of it. What stops a lot of athletes from embracing realities they have at least managed to accept is an all-or-nothing attitude toward their goals and wants. If their original goal falls out of reach, they struggle to muster the adaptability needed to come up with a fallback goal.

Ultrarealists can. Jamie Whitmore told me that her most satisfying athletic achievements were those she achieved after cancer because they required more of her. For ultrarealists, the true goal is always to make the best of the situation; hence, surviving in a bad situation can be every bit as satisfying as winning in a favorable situation.

I am embracing my current situation by looking at it as an opportunity to raise my level of mastery of endurance training. How much fitness and enjoyment of the process can I preserve despite my severe limitations? Doing my very best to stay as fit as possible and to enjoy exercise as much as possible for as long as I remain the way I am will demand degrees of creativity and resourcefulness that were never demanded of me in better times. In this effort I again draw inspiration from Jamie Whitmore, who in an interview she gave in the midst of her own travails said, “If someone tells me it’s impossible, I refuse to believe there is not another way to do things. . . Maybe I will not be able to get from point A to point B in a straight line anymore. But I will still get from point A to Point B.”

One of the ways I’ve found to get to Point B is indoor walk-run sessions. By walking 4 minutes for every 1 minute I jog, I get the emotional boost of knowing I haven’t abandoned running entirely in a way that doesn’t set me back. And by doing it on the treadmill, I can read as I go, and if there’s one thing I enjoy more than running, it’s reading.

Perhaps this seems rather pathetic, but what’s the alternative? I have faith that there is real satisfaction to be had in watching myself grow in other ways even as I regress physically.

Step 3: Address Reality

The well-known expression, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” is all about the three-step process of facing reality. To admit that life has given you lemons is to accept reality. To commit to making lemonade from those lemons is to embrace the reality. And to complete the process by actually producing lemonade from those lemons is to address reality.

Two things are needed above all to succeed in this final step: effort and judgment. In sports and elsewhere there tends to be too much focus on the role of raw effort and not enough on the equally important role of sound decision making in overcoming challenges and setbacks, and in my book I take pains to correct this imbalance. Nevertheless, if in the present context I could share only one element of the approach I’m taking to addressing my ongoing health woes, it would be the motivational element that fuels the effort I’m putting into it.

Every athlete, every human, is capable of great efforts. All it takes is the right motivation. The more it matters, the harder you’ll try. In the depths of my battle with coronavirus in the spring, I couldn’t wait to get back to training and racing. I wanted it for myself, and I was motivated enough to go from my first tentative test run to a 2:54 virtual marathon in just six-and-a-half weeks. (Here’s where the troll-minded decide I brought this thing on myself by coming back too quickly, to which I say, not so.) But this time is different. This time my will to overcome is fueled by a heartfelt desire to help others. At least 10 percent of people who get COVID-19 and survive will be left with long-term effects, and a certain percentage of this percentage will be fellow athletes. In coming back from PACS, I want to create a road map for others to do the same.

What I’m going through right now has caused me to reassess a lot of things on a deep level. In various past writings and interviews I’ve been candid in admitting that I’ve been driven by a desire to impress people for as long as I can remember. Earlier in my career, I much preferred being told that something I’d written was good than that something I’d written had done somebody some good. Lately, though, I feel myself letting go of this compulsion—or perhaps, better said, I feel it letting go of me. I do hope—in principle, not actively—that I get my health back, but at the same time I hope that I don’t go back to being the same person I was before. Whether I achieve the first hope is largely outside of my control. The second, however, is up to me, and I am determined not to let myself, or you, down.





Sports comebacks come in infinite varieties. They range in nature from falling down during a race, getting back up, and winning despite the mishap to going off the rails with alcohol or drug abuse, cleaning up, and subsequently attaining new heights of performance. Underneath all of this apparent variety, however, lies a consistent pattern, which is this: Every athlete who overcomes a major setback or challenge does so by means of the same, three-step process of accepting, embracing, and addressing reality.

Or so I argue in my soon-to-be-released book The Comeback Quotient: A Get-Real Guide to Building Mental Fitness in Sport and Life. I wrote this book to address what I perceived to be the failure of existing efforts to explain what makes great comebacks possible for those who achieve them, hence what it takes for any athlete, including those who don’t yet have what it takes, to overcomes setbacks and challenges. The fatal flaw in these failed explanations, in my view, is that they focus too much on psychological attributes and not enough on behavior. They credit qualities such as resilience for making comebacks possible, but to me these explanations aren’t explanations at all but tautologies. After all, how does resilience manifest except through resilient actions? To say that resilience explains an athletic comeback is akin to saying that “soporific qualities” are responsible for a sleep aid’s effectiveness.

Also, what is an athlete to do with the knowledge that resilience or some other psychological attribute is responsible for other athletes’ great comebacks? How does this information help you overcome the next setback or challenge you experience? I don’t think it does you any more good than it does for a basketball player to know he would probably be a better basketball player if her were taller.

Far more instructive is the behavior of athletes who achieve great comebacks. In The Comeback Quotient I analyze a number of historical examples to show that such athletes truly are doing the same thing every single time, which is to fully face reality in three crucial steps: 1) accept, 2) embrace, and 3) address. Among these case studies is Kenyan runner Geoffrey Kamworor’s comeback from a fall at the start of the 2016 World Half Marathon Championship to claim victory in dramatic fashion. To pull off this remarkable feet, Geoffrey first had to accept the reality of his situation, then embrace it by committing to making the best of it despite, and then address it by putting himself through a world of hurt to catch back up to the lead pack and by then smartly swapping his normal front-running racing style with a patient sit-and-surge strategy.

Sounds simple enough, but I can assure you that very few athletes would have done the same in Geoffrey’s situation. Instead they would have failed to accept its reality by either panicking (a form of denial)–curling into a self-protective ball while they lay on the ground being trampled underfoot by other runners–or else catastrophizing the situation, deciding wrongly that their race was over before it even started. Or, if they did accept the reality of their situation, they would have failed to embrace (i.e., failed to commit to making the best of it), completing the race in a rattled or demoralized state. Or, if they did both accept and embrace the situation, they would have failed to address it as Geoffrey did, either through unwillingness to put themselves through the necessary suffering or in failing to be flexible in their racing tactics.

My name for athletes like Geoffrey Kamworor, who are able to make the very best of the very worsts situations, is ultrarealists, and they are rare. As the great modernist poet T.S. Eliot wrote, “Humankind cannot tolerate very much reality.” Or, as the great endurance masochist David Goggins put it, “Believe it or not, most people prefer delusion.” Facing hard realities is, well, hard, and it is our nature as humans to avoid what is hard. Also, it is possible to get by in life by facing reality only to the degree that is absolutely necessary. But in sports the goal is not merely to get by but to excel, and to excel an athlete must face reality fully.

The good news is that any athlete can get better at facing reality. The most effective way to do it, in my experience, is to consciously emulate the behavior of the ultrarealists in bad situations. You don’t need to have a ton of resilience or whatever already to intentionally make your best effort to accept, and embrace, and address the next bad situation that crops up in your athletic life. And by going through this process in every bad situation, you will not only get better and better at making the best of such situations but you will also cultivate the general psychological qualities that support ultrarealism.

I want to make it clear that facing reality is helpful in more than just dire circumstances such as, say, starting over as an athlete following a major illness. At any given moment, most athletes are dealing with some sort of challenge that demands skillful mental coping, be it pain, menstruation, a bad workout, flagging motivation, life stress, time pressure, unfavorable weather—the list goes on. I’ll give you one timely example of how facing reality can benefit an athlete 365 days a year.

Imagine you’ve been training hard for a marathon that is canceled two weeks before race day due to the pandemic. Having known this might happen, you kept in your back pocket a fallback plan of running a solo marathon time trial in place of the real race. Now that you’ve been forced to activate this contingency, however, you’re finding it difficult to muster the same level of excitement for it.

Here’s what an ultrarealist will do in this situation: First, they will accept the fact that, although they would rather run a real race, they don’t have to run a solo marathon and are doing so of their own free will, because they want to. Next, they will embrace the project of making the best of the situation, perhaps by consciously challenging themselves to see how hard they can push themselves in the absence of the usual excitement. And finally, they will pull every available lever to make the best of the situation, levers that may include such creative measures as letting all of their local friends know when and where they’ll be running and inviting them to come out and cheer for them (with masks and appropriate physical distancing, of course) at some point if they so choose.

Now here’s what everyone else will do in the same situation: Failing to fully accept the cancelation of their race, they will go ahead and run the solo time trial but with a bad attitude, as though someone else were forcing them to go through with it even though, like the ultrarealist, they are actually doing it because they want to. They will brood and complain about their lack of excitement as if there were nothing they could do about it instead of accepting the emotion as natural and thereby gaining some cognitive distance from it and opening up the possibility of finding some productive use for it. And finally, because they are essentially running under protest, they won’t make the effort to set themselves up for success in every way possible, and they won’t respond well to the inevitable difficult moments that come in the back half of any marathon, and consequently they will perform poorly and come away from the experience with a bad feeling.

I know it seems I’m being rather critical of the majority of athletes who aren’t ultrarealists, but everything I’ve just described is perfectly natural, and it’s a path that’s almost inevitable to go down for anyone who wasn’t born with an ultrarealist mindset or hasn’t consciously worked to cultivate it. The good news, again, is that the ultrarealist’s response to the situation I just laid out is open to anyone who simply recognizes its possibility and decides they want it for themselves. And again, the situation I just laid out is merely a topical example. Opportunities to fully face reality present themselves to athletes every single day, and those who learn to take advantage of them will get much further in their athletic journey and have a far different, and better, overall experience of the sport they love than will those who keep muddling along hoping everything will always go their way.

On May 5, 2019, Stephanie Bruce won the USATF Half Marathon Championship by 21 seconds with a time of 1:10:43. The following day, she asked her coach, Ben Rosario, for permission to compete in a 5000-meter track race on May 16th. Ben gave her his blessing, and 10 days later Steph set a new personal best and an NAZ Elite team record (since broken) for 5000 meters, clocking 15:17.76. Afterward, she said to Ben, “When you’re fit, you’re fit!”

Ben likes to share this story as a way to make the point that optimal fitness for any given race distance isn’t so different from optimal fitness for any other distance, and that optimal training for any given race distance, therefore, isn’t very different from optimal training for any other distance. Running is running, after all, and, as Steph put it, when you’re fit you’re fit.

Not everyone agrees. There are those who believe that in order to perform optimally at a given race distance, a runner must tailor their training to the specific demands of that event. To the average runner, this approach probably seems more sophisticated than Ben Rosario’s approach of training more or less the same for all race distances. The logic goes something like this:

Short races and long races are different enough that one can imagine racing a pretty decent (if not quite optimal) 5K off a training program consisting of lots of speed and tempo work and not a single run longer than 7 miles. Likewise, one can imagine running a pretty decent marathon off a training program consisting of tons of easy running, including plenty of long runs, and no speed or tempo work whatsoever. And if one can imagine these things, then one can easily imagine that if Runner X moves toward optimal 5K training from the extreme I’ve described, and Runner Y moves toward optimal marathon training from the opposite extreme, the two runners will arrive at their respective optimal distance-specific training formulas well before they meet in the middle. In other words, Runner X will still be doing significantly more speed work and less volume/long running than Runner Y when each has completed the process of optimizing their training for their targeted race distance.

As sensible as this line of reasoning seems, I’m with Ben. Like him, I believe that runners should train in more or less the same way for all race distances, especially in the general preparation phase. Runners training for 5K’s should run almost as much and almost as far in individual runs as runners training for marathons because doing so will make them more fatigue resistant at their goal 5K pace, despite its relative brevity. Similarly, runners training for marathons should do almost as much speed and tempo work as runners training for 5K’s because doing so will increase their aerobic capacity and thereby increase the speed they can sustain for the full marathon distance, despite its relatively low intensity. Only in the specific preparation phase, encompassing the last eight weeks or so before competition, should the training formulas of runners aiming at different race distances diverge, and even then they shouldn’t diverge drastically.

Ben Rosario is hardly alone among elite running coaches in subscribing to the “when you’re fit, you’re fit” philosophy. Indeed, it has become the norm within the sport’s highest echelon. This was shown in a 2011 study published in the International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching. Norwegian researchers collected comprehensive training data from six elite runners, three of whom specialized in shorter events (3000 and 5000 meters) and the others of whom focused on longer events (half marathon and marathon). Members of both groups were found to have done about 80 percent of their training at low intensity and 20 percent at moderate to high intensity in all phases of the training cycle. Both groups also trained at high volume, with track runners logging between 92 and 104 miles per week in the various phases and the road racers logging between 107 and 116 miles per week. The main difference was that each group focused a little more on intensities close to their respective race pace, especially in the competition phase of training. But even then, the difference wasn’t extreme, with the track runners spending 19.4 percent of their weekly training time at marathon to half-marathon pace and 8.9 percent at 5000m to sprint speed during this period and the road racers spending 29.7 percent of their weekly training time at marathon to half-marathon pace and 5.2 percent at 5000m to sprint speed.

Also included in the study were sample training weeks from both the preparation phase and the competition phase for each of the six athletes. A close inspection of this material reveals that, for the most part, the short-race specialists and the long-race specialists were pulling their tools from the same toolkit. For example, in his preparation phase, Runner B, a track athlete, did a workout consisting of 12 x 1000 meters at altitude-adjusted marathon pace (3:13 per km), while Runner F, a marathoner, did a workout consisting of 16 x 1000 meters at sea-level marathon pace (3:25 per km) during her preparation phase.

In the concluding section of their paper, the researchers wrote, “The main finding in this study . . . was that a relatively high training volume at low intensity (62-82% of HRmax) combined with training just below and at the anaerobic threshold (82-92% of HRmax) was beneficial for the development of running performance in six Norwegian male and female track and marathon runners competing at top European level.” Notice that these statements apply to both the track runners and the road racers. The same training formula appeared to these scientists to be equally beneficial to all of the runners.

It so happens that I’m currently collaborating on a book with Ben Rosario. This post was inspired by two separate bits of this book: 1) Ben’s telling of the Stephanie Bruce anecdote I’ve retold here and 2) the training plans I’ve created for inclusion in the book. These plans cover every race distance from 5K to 100 miles, and I myself have been struck by how similar they are in terms of volume, intensity distribution, and workout types. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that you could prepare optimally for a 100-miler with one of the 5K plans or vice versa, but as a collective the plans really are consistent with the “when you’re fit, you’re fit” philosophy Ben and I share. Online versions will be available here soon.

(Yes, this entire article was nothing more than a buildup to a product tease.)

Is perfectionism a good thing or a bad thing? If you Google the word and browse through the results, you’ll come away with two different impressions of perfectionism:

  1. It’s bad
  2. It’s complicated

When I conducted this search myself just now, the top results included a 2018 BBC article titled “The Dangerous Downsides of Perfectionism” (“It’s bad”) and a 2003 article on the American Psychological Association website titled “The Many Faces of Perfectionism” (“It’s complicated”). And if you take this process further, actually reading these articles, and then reading the research they cite, and then reading the more recent studies and reviews in which this research is cited, these mixed impressions will not be resolved but instead will only deepen.

In short, the question I posed at the outset is not easy to answer. Endurance athletes, however, can ask a simpler question: Does perfectionism aid or hinder performance? And the answer to this question is a clear and resounding yes—perfectionism can either aid or hinder performance. Whether it does the one or the other depends on the type of perfectionism that predominates in a given athlete. In a 2006 paper, Joachim Stoeber of the University Kent identified two major strains of perfectionism: perfectionistic strivings and perfectionistic concerns. The first orientation is about aiming toward perfection, whereas the second is about escaping imperfection.

Five years later, in a review of existing research on perfectionism in athletes, Stoeber argued that perfectionistic strivings tend to aid athletic performance and perfectionistic concerns to hinder it, writing that “perfectionistic concerns show unique positive relationships with competitive anxiety, fear of failure, and avoidance goal orientations. In contrast, perfectionistic strivings show unique positive relationships with self-confidence, hope of success, approach goal orientations, and performance in training and competitions. The findings suggest that only perfectionistic concerns are clearly maladaptive, whereas perfectionistic strivings may form part of a healthy striving for excellence.”

Subsequent research has bolstered Stoeber’s contentions. In 2019, for example, British and Canadian researchers studied the effects of perfectionistic striving and perfectionistic concerns on putting performance following “failure” in a group of 99 college golfers. In the first part of the two-part design, each golfer was pitted against another (who was actually a confederate of the researchers) in a putting contest. No matter how well the subjects performed, they were told they were behind by 17 percent after 10 putts. They then completed 10 more putts and their performance in this second trial (measured as cumulative distance of the ball from the hole) was compared to their performance in the first trial.

A statistical analysis of the results revealed that golfers who measured high for perfectionistic strivings in a questionnaire completed before the putting trials performed better in response to “failure”—but only if they did not also score high for perfectionistic concerns. Those who exhibited high levels of both perfectionistic strivings and perfectionistic concerns performed worse in the second trial. In an interview for Medical Xpress, lead author Mick Lizmore commented, “Athletes are likely to continue to perform poorly after substandard performance if they have a rigid perspective on the meaning of failure, and are unrelentingly unforgiving of themselves when they fall short of heightened standards. There’s a difference between seeking and rigidly expecting perfection.”

So, what are the practical implications of this research? The thing about perfectionism is that it’s a trait. Like confidence, neuroticism, and other psychological traits, perfectionism is woven into the fabric of one’s personality—or else it’s not. The take-home lesson of the above-described study is not that you should have perfectionistic strivings and abandon perfectionistic concerns, therefore. You can’t just flip a switch and make these things happen.

Also, it’s important to recognize that you don’t have to be a perfectionist of any kind to perform to the best of your ability as an athlete. For every Tom Brady who achieves greatness via perfectionism there’s a Usain bolt who achieves it as a free spirit. Acquiring perfectionistic strivings wouldn’t necessarily make you a better athlete even if it were possible. But the obverse is not also true of perfectionistic concerns. If you “rigidly expect perfection,” you are almost certainly holding yourself back and you almost certainly would perform better if you were able to tamp down your fear of failure. The question is, is this even possible?

I think so. There are notable examples of athletes saddled with perfectionistic concerns who have bootstrapped their way beyond them and benefitted thereby. Your homework assignment is to read Chapter 4 of How Bad Do You Want It?, titled “The Art of Letting Go.”

Last year I was contacted by a very interesting person, we’ll call him Brad, who became a professional skateboarder in his teens, then transitioned to professional snowboarding, and then made a go of qualifying for the PGA Tour (making is as far as the Nationwide Tour), and subsequently started getting into triathlon. Now in his 50s, Brad told me he aspired to reach the elite level of Ironman racing despite his age and despite a total lack of endurance training experience. He further explained that he had no interest in short-term competitive goals except inasmuch as they might helped him get to the elite level.

After taking all of this in (and you must admit it was quite a lot to take in), I told Brad that my advice for him was to proceed as if his actual motivations were flipped on their head, which is to say, as if all he cared about was training for and completing races and wasn’t at all concerned about where it all led. Before I explain why I said this, let me tell you about another triathlete, “Mark,” to whom I recently gave similar advice.

Mark is a 40-something triathlete who is chasing the goal of qualifying for the Ironman World Championship and has been held back by a comparatively weak run leg. When I started coaching Mark this summer, we decided to address his Achilles heel by completing a run focus phase culminating in an attempt to break three hours in a solo marathon time trial. A few of weeks ago, after a mildly disappointing marathon-pace training run, Mark realized he wasn’t on track to clock 2:59 on the scheduled time-trial date and asked me what I thought about delaying the attempt several weeks to give him more time to get fitter. I told him I thought this was a bad idea and urged him to stay the course, arguing that doing so would better serve the greater goal of becoming a better runner.

Now to explain. Both Brad and Mark were struggling to conceptualize the difference between fitness building and athletic development. We all know what building fitness is—it’s a process by which progressive training is used to stimulate physiological adaptations that increase an athlete’s performance capacity. This process is distinct from the process of becoming a better athlete, which is what athletic development is all about. It goes without saying that you can’t become a better athlete without getting fitter, but the two phenomena operate on different timescales. An athlete cannot build fitness uninterruptedly for more than 24 weeks, give or take. Athletic development, by contrast, can continue for years and indeed requires years to complete.

It’s not a perfect analogy, but the relationship between building fitness and athletic development is similar to the relationship between recovery and building fitness. The physiological adaptations that serve to increase fitness are largely extensions of acute post-exercise recovery processes. Similarly, athletic development is, to a large degree, an extension of fitness-building processes. But here’s the key: You can’t just keep getting fitter and fitter by imposing ever greater recovery needs through larger and larger training stresses. The body needs a reset every now again, during which period some hard-earned fitness is voluntarily given away so the body can achieve a deeper level of recovery than it can during times when fitness gains are actively pursued.

Imagine a runner who completes a well-designed, progressive, 14-week half-marathon training program, races a half marathon, and then takes it easy for two weeks before repeating the same 14-week half-marathon program and racing a second half marathon. I can all but guarantee this runner will perform better in the second half marathon than in the first. Why? Because although the training is the same, the runner is different. By virtue of having gained a lot of fitness in the first training cycle, and having given up only some of it in the following rest period in exchange for deep recovery, the runner will start the second training cycle at a higher performance level than they did the first and will therefore complete it at a higher level than they were at when they completed the first.

Exercise scientists typically measure fitness through inputs. Commonly used measures of endurance fitness such as Training Impulse (TRIMP) and Chronic Training Load (CTL) are calculated as rolling averages of recent training volume and intensity. By such measures, therefore, a runner who completes the same 14-week training plan twice will attain the same level of fitness at the end of each. Yet we know the hypothetical runner in the example I gave above will be a better runner at the end of the second cycle, and that, in a nutshell, is the difference between building fitness and athletic development.

It’s also why even the athlete who only cares out long-term development should focus on short-term fitness just as much as the athlete who can’t wait for the next racing opportunity. And it’s why our hypothetical runner is better off completing two separate training cycles separated by a rest period over the next 30 weeks than trying to develop at a sustainable rate over that same period, and why I told Brad to train for and compete in two to three Ironmans a year even though he had no chance of achieving the sort of results he dreamed of in the first several, and why I told Mark to finish what he’d started with his run focus phase and move on.


“We can neither deny what science affirms nor affirm what science denies.” I forget who said this, but whoever said it, it’s true. If you’re not so sure about that, it’s likely because you’re misinterpreting the statement as meaning that science is always right about everything. But that’s not at all what it says. What it says is that if you want to be “right” about anything, you must use the scientific method to address whatever it is you want to be right about. For example, if the scientific method is used to arrive at the conclusion that earth’s climate is changing, and that human activity is the primary driver of that change, then no one should put any stock in a denial of this conclusion unless it, too, is arrived at through the use of the scientific method. Even if it turns out that earth’s climate is not changing or that human activity is not the primary driver of that change, a person whose reason for denying the current scientific consensus on this matter is that it snowed in April one time last year is not really “right,” or is right only in the sense that the stopped clock is right twice a day. Indeed, the only way it could really “turn out” that earth’s climate is not changing or that human activity is not the cause of that change is for science itself to come to this new conclusion.

The scientific method is really nothing more, and nothing less, than intellectual integrity. By nature, individual human beings tend to form highly biased beliefs. A highly biased belief can be true, but in general, biased beliefs are unreliable. The scientific method was developed as a way to remove bias from the process of belief formation as much as possible. It is by no means a perfectly reliable method of forming beliefs, but it is more reliable than any other method.

Granted, the applicability of the scientific method is limited. It cannot be used to settle questions such as whether the Beatles are better than the Rolling Stones or whether prisoners should be allowed to vote—in other words, aesthetic or moral questions. Science is also of limited value in the domain of real-world problem solving. For example, I’d put more trust in an experienced general with a record of winning battles to win the next battle than in a scientist who came up with a new strategy for winning battles by running a bunch of computer simulations.

Endurance sports training is another example. Historically, elite coaches and athletes have been way out ahead of the scientists with respect to identifying the methods that do and don’t work. The crucible of international competition is not a controlled study, but it’s enough like one in its ruthless determination of winners and losers to have given lower-level coaches and athletes like me a high degree of confidence in their beliefs about the best way to train. In contrast, it’s actually surprisingly difficult to design and execute a controlled scientific study that has any substantive relevance to real-world endurance training. For example, one of the greatest certainties of endurance training is that high-volume training is essential to maximizing fitness and performance, yet there is virtually zero scientific evidence to support this certainty because it’s impractical to execute the kind of strictly controlled, long-term prospective study needed to supply such evidence.

But things are changing. The advent of wearable devices has made it possible for sport scientists to take a “big data” approach to investigating what works and what doesn’t in endurance training. In this approach, scientists dispense with the familiar tools of generating hypotheses and then testing them by actively intervening in the training of a small group of athletes and instead just collect relevant data from very large numbers of athletes and use statistical tools to quantify correlations between particular inputs (e.g., training volume) and specific outputs (e.g., marathon performance). While this approach lacks the tidiness of the traditional controlled study, it has the potential to yield results that have equal empirical validity by virtue of the sheer volume of data involved. And because these studies are done in situ, they do not share the controlled prospective study’s questionable real-world relevance.

As an experienced endurance coach who respects science, I have long been highly circumspect in using science to inform my coaching practices. I always check new science against what I know from real-world experience before I incorporate it into my coaching practice. But studies based on the big-data approach are my kind of science because they’re really just a formalized version of the learning we coaches do in the real world.

So I was particularly excited to see a new study titled “Human Running Performance from Real-World Big Data” in the journal Nature. It’s a true landmark investigation, drawing observations from data representing 1.6 million exercise sessions completed by roughly 14,000 individuals. Its authors, Thorsten Emig of Paris-Saclay University and Jussi Peltonen of the Polar Corporation, are clearly very smart guys who understand both statistics and running. The paper is highly readable even for laypersons like myself, and it’s also available free online, so I won’t belabor its finer points here. What I will say is that its three key findings squarely corroborate the conclusions that elite coaches and athletes have come to heuristically over the past 150 years of trying stuff. Here they are:

Key Finding #1 – Running More Is the Best Way to Run Faster

One of the key variables in the performance model developed by Emig and Peltonen is speed at maximal aerobic power (roughly equivalent to velocity at VO2max), which they are able to “extract” from race performance data. The collaborators found that the strongest training predictor of this variable was mileage. Simply put, runners who ran more were fitter and raced faster. Emig and Peltonen speculated that high-mileage training achieved this effect principally by improving running economy.

Key Finding #2 – There Is No Such Thing As Too Slow in Easy Runs

Another clear pattern in the data collected by Emig and Peltonen was that runners with a higher MAP speed tended to spend more time training at lower percentages of this speed. In other words, faster runners tended to train slower relative to their ability. As an example, the collaborators tell us that a runner with a MAP speed of 4 meters per second (6:42/mile) will do most of their training between 64 and 84 percent of this speed, whereas a runner with a MAP of 5 meters per second (5:21/mile) will cap their easy runs at 66 percent of this speed. Here we have clear validation of the 80/20 rule of intensity balance, which I always like to see.

Key Finding #3 – Training Load Is Not the Gift That Keeps on Giving

Perhaps the “freshest” key finding of this study is one that validates the practice of training in macrocycles not exceeding several months in length. What Emig and Peltonen discovered on this front was that individual runners appeared to have an optimal cumulative training load representing the accumulated seasonal volume and intensity of training that yielded maximal fitness and performance. Runners gained fitness in linear fashion as the season unfolded and as they approached this total, but when they went beyond it, their fitness regressed. In short, training is not the gift that keeps on giving. Runners can train only so much and get only so fit before they need a break.

That’s science.

Something is wrong with my body. I don’t have a diagnosis yet, but I think I might be iron deficient. Other possibilities are burnout, a low-grade viral infection, low blood pressure, stress, and vitamin D deficiency. What I know for certain is that I feel terrible when I exercise, and particularly when I run.

I began to suspect something was amiss a couple of weeks ago, when I gave a subjective rating of “Poor” to a string of runs recorded in my online training log. I wasn’t yet performing much below standard at that point, but I didn’t feel as good as I normally do when running. The following week, though, I was forced to abandon consecutive high-intensity interval runs—something I hadn’t done in as long as I can remember, perhaps never. Both times my body just didn’t have it.

Things went south from there. Although I continued to feel fine at rest, I decided that I needed to take a break from intense exercise while I tried to figure out what was going on. My plan for my next easy run was to coast along at a pace that felt comfortable, no matter how slow it was. That pace turned out to be 8:40 per mile, or well over a minute per mile slower than my usual pace in easy runs. What’s more, my heart rate hovered around 160 bpm at that pace, whereas typically it’s in the low 130’s at 7:00 per mile. Time to panic!

Not really. I’m very slow to panic. But it was time to course correct, and specifically to eliminate all high-intensity efforts from my training and to reduce my run frequency from every day to every other day (while continuing to do some form of exercise twice daily, not including the two-mile walk I do with my wife each morning) until I’d identified and addressed the cause of my indisposition. In other words, I went into a kind of holding pattern in my training, similar to when I shift into maintenance mode after completing a big race and before starting to ramp up for the next one

Coincidentally, the very next day after I made this decision, I stumbled across a study newly published in Frontiers in Physiology that was highly relevant to my situation. An international research team led by Nicki Winfield Almquist of Inland Norway University of Applied Science investigated the effects of including a single session of sprint intervals in the off-season training of elite male cyclists. Sixteen cyclists were separated into two groups. For a period of three weeks immediately following the conclusion of a competitive season, both groups reduced their overall training volume by 60 percent, but whereas one group did all of their cycling at low intensity, the other group swapped out one weekly easy ride for a session that included three sets of three 30-second sprints.

Almquist’s team was interested not only in how the sprints would affect the cyclists’ fitness but also in how it would affect them psychologically, as mental recovery is a major objective of off-season training. If the sprints benefited the athletes’ fitness at the cost of compromising the recharging of their emotional batteries, then using the method in off-season training would not be advisable. But that’s not what happened. Testing conduced at the conclusion of the three-week intervention revealed that the sprint group performed better in sprints, as would be expected, and also exhibited smaller declines in 20-minute time trial performance and fractional utilization of VO2max compared to the control group while recording similar scores in a standardized Athlete Burnout Questionnaire.

One thing I noticed during the first bike ride I did after deciding to switch into maintenance-training mode was that I didn’t feel any worse climbing up the lone hill in my neighborhood than I did noodling around on the flats. Thus, after reading this study, I decided to insert some 30-second hill sprints into my next ride. Granted, this wasn’t exactly the use that Almquist et al had in mind for the method, but I survived the sprints just fine and, if nothing else, doing them made me feel a bit better about my situation—that I was doing one more thing to limit its impact on my fitness.

The next time you find yourself in maintenance training mode, try throwing some sprints into the mix. Again, the cyclists in the study I described did just nine, 30-second sprints once a week. Far from interfering with your need to get away from hardcore workout suffering for a few weeks, these sprints may in fact become something you look forward to on Tuesdays (or whenever you choose to do them), much as I am looking forward to my next sprint set.

By the way: You will no doubt be infinitely relieved to hear that, since I started writing this post a few days ago, I’ve begun to feel better, and I think I’ve identified the culprit behind my bad patch, but that’s a topic for another day. . .

I belong to a generation whose every member has seen the movie Meatballs. Among its most famous scenes is the one where Camp North Star head counselor Tripper Harrison (played by Bill Murray) delivers a fiery motivational speech to his young charges on the eve of North Star’s annual beatdown at the hands of rival Camp Mohawk in a multi-event “Olympiad” sports competition. Harrison’s impassioned soliloquy culminates in the refrain “It just doesn’t matter,” which becomes a chant that the campers take up and repeat as they charge out of the cabin, fired up to compete and not caring if they win or lose.

Echoes of this chant still reverberate in my head at key moments in training and competition. “It just doesn’t matter” has become a personal mantra that I used to lighten up and relax whenever I catch myself feeling anxious about the possibility of failing to achieve a goal. For example, I might be 2 miles into a 10K race and find that I’m just barely on pace to achieve my goal and have no margin to slip, yet I’m already working harder than I feel I should be at such an early point in the competition. My awareness of the situation is likely to trigger a strong feeling of worry—the kind of worry we all experience when facing intense suffering for a lost cause. But if I’m on my mental game, I will not merely experience this emotion but also realize I’m experiencing it, which affords me the freedom to do something about it. And, more often than not, what I will do with this freedom is say to myself, “Who cares? It doesn’t matter! Let’s just be smart and brave, take one step at a time, and see what happens. And if what happens is that I fall short of my goal, it’s not the end of the world.”

Perhaps this all sounds to you like a self-deceiving way of giving up. In fact, it’s the farthest thing from waving a white flag of defeat. When I quote Bill Murray to myself during races and workouts, I’m not trying to convince myself that I don’t care about my goal. Rather, I’m simply getting rid of my anxiety. The thing we tend to forget in such anxious moments is that it is fully possible to try as hard as you can to achieve a goal that is meaningful to you, and to face intense suffering in the process, and to do so knowing that success is unlikely, without feeling anxious about the whole thing. The anxiety part is a choice. But it does not become a choice you can reject unless you do something akin to what I do with my Meatballs-inspired mantra.

Our emotions are largely reflexive. If a dog lunges at you unexpectedly, you will probably experience fear. And if you see a goal sliding out of reach in a race that is far from over, you will probably experience anxiety. Snuffing out this feeling requires an affirmative metacognitive act such as telling yourself, “It just doesn’t matter.”

Anxiety is deeply unpleasant. But this is only one of two reasons you should snuff it out in such situations. The other is that you will perform better. Anxiety is a proven performance inhibitor. Thus, although it may seem counterintuitive at first blush, relaxing your grip on your goal and thereby canceling the anxiety it gives rise to is a skillful means of preserving your chances of achieving the goal. And that’s why it’s the farthest thing from quitting!

In team sports, it is widely acknowledged as a good thing when a team appears “loose” before an important game. Relaxed, upbeat, frisky behavior by players in the leadup to a high-stakes matchup are indications that, while they want to win, they don’t see their lives as depending on winning. They are free of anxiety, and as such they are in a proper state of mind to perform to the very best of their ability, which is all that any athlete can ask.

The bottom line is that fretting over the possibility of failure is harmful to performance and, to a large degree, fixable. My Meatballs mantra—“It just doesn’t matter!”—is one instrument that can be used to fix this particular problem, but there others. Indeed, if you have a trick of your own that you like, I’d be keen to hear about it.

Let me start with an apology. This post is not about sex. It’s actually about hermeneutics, or the discipline of textual interpretation, as it applies to endurance training. I knew that if I promoted a post about hermeneutics on social media, no one would read it, so I deliberately mislead you. Dastardly, I know, and I won’t hold it against you if you stop reading right here and move on with your day. If, however, you are open to learning more about hermeneutics as it applies to endurance training (or if you are embarrassed at having fallen for such shallow clickbait and now feel obliged to redeem yourself by suffering through this boring, sexless post), I welcome you to stay with me.

Interpretation is an integral component of all communication. Every spoken message is interpreted by its hearers and every written message is interpreted by its readers. If human language (including nonverbal communication) were not inherently ambiguous, there would be no need for interpretation—each message would have only one possible meaning that every hearer or reader understood. But language is messy, and therefore everything is open to interpretation. For example, I might say to a pair of twins, “You two look like you could be twins,” and whereas one of them might interpret the remark as a silly sarcastic joke, the other might interpret it as evidence of my stupidity.

Hermeneutics comes into play when the need arises to determine whether one interpretation is better than another. It is self-evident that, like anything else, interpretation can be done either poorly or well. What does it mean to be good at interpreting? Philosophers, religious scholars, and others have been discussing this question at least since Aristotle penned On Interpretation in 360 BC.

You might be wondering what the heck any of this has to do with endurance training. A lot! Human beings are meaning-making machines. We find meaning in absolutely everything we experience, and this includes our experiences as athletes. We find meaning in every workout and in every race. But we don’t all do it in the same way. Like those hypothetical twins I mentioned earlier, any two athletes may interpret the same experience in highly disparate ways. The most successful athletes are adept at finding helpful ways to interpret what they perceive and feel, less successful athletes not so much.

Take choking, for example. Athletes who tend to choke in competition do so because they give the race a meaning that place them under undo pressure not to fail. In How Bad Do You Want It? I share the example of Siri Lindley, a professional triathlete who choked in a pair of qualifiers for the 2000 Olympics because she suffered from low self-worth and chose to believe that she had to succeed as a triathlete in order to see herself as a person of valuable. Only after she realized this and relaxed, choosing to strive for success in triathlon purely because she enjoyed it, did she rebound to become world champion.

The importance of athletic hermeneutics is not limited to big moments. It extends to every moment of every training session, and indeed to every moment in which you are operating in an athletic mode. Here’s a recent personal example: A couple of weeks back I performed a bread-and-butter moderate-intensity run that I revisit a few times each year: 2 miles easy, 6 miles at lactate threshold effort, 2 miles easy. Having suffered a foot injury eight weeks before this particular revisitation, and having returned to full and unfettered run training only two weeks earlier, I knew that I would not feel as good or perform as well in the session as I had when I last did it. This tamping of expectations was a way of contextualizing the workout to ensure I interpreted my subsequent experience of it in the most helpful possible way.

Sure enough, I felt meh throughout the threshold portion of the run and my average pace was a good 10 seconds per mile slower than it had been the last time. As a coach, I can tell you that most runners in my place would have let the situation get to them. They would have pouted internally about how meh they felt and repined over how much fitness they had lost in the past two months. I did not. The temptation was certainly there, but I made a conscious effort to resist it by reminding myself of the context; by drawing encouragement from the fact that, thanks to aggressive crossing-training during my injury recovery, I hadn’t lost even more fitness than I had; and by telling myself that the next time I did this workout I would surely reap the rewards of having muddled through it this time. “This is a steppingstone,” I said to myself, over and over.

It worked. I didn’t enjoy the run as much as I enjoy most runs, but I enjoyed it more than I would have done otherwise, and I finished it feeling good about how I had hadn’t it mentally. This is hermeneutics at work in the endurance training context. Now it’s your turn. As you move forward with your training, don’t allow yourself to lose sight of the fact that you always have the power and freedom to interpret what you’re experiencing in manner of your choosing, and your choices have consequences. Your goal is to become a better athlete. Becoming a better interpreter will help you become a better athlete.

Originating in ancient Samaria more than 4,000 years ago, the seven-day week has become a standard calendrical feature throughout the world. Most athletes in most sports adhere to this convention as well. I recall noting this during my time with the HOKA Northern Arizona elite professional running team in 2017. Unlike the majority of us, who have to balance training with school attendance, office jobs and such, the gifted young members of this club didn’t have to do their long runs on Saturday or Sunday, yet they did anyway.

The number seven is not arbitrary. By this I don’t just mean that seven days is the length of each of the four lunar phases. After all, the ancient Samarians didn’t have to base their calendar on the moon. One “sabbath” every seven days is also about the right frequency of rest to keep laborers from breaking down or going crazy. (Two-day weekends are a relatively new convention, remember.)

Endurance sports training is another kettle of fish, however. In the labor realm, the goal is to get by, resting often enough to keep muddling along through life. With endurance sports training the bar is higher. The goal is not only to rest with optimal frequency for physiological recovery but also to expose the body to the various types of training stimuli with the optimal frequency to maximize event-specific fitness for competition. Who’s to say that once every seven days is the optimal frequency for long runs, for example?

Well, real-world evidence suggests that, with appropriate attention to the details, a seven-day microcycle can work extremely well. At the elite level, virtually every great performance ever achieved in endurance sports was achieved by an athlete who trained on a seven-day microcycle. There are exceptions, such as Paula Radcliffe’s recently eclipsed marathon world record of 2:15:25, which capped a training cycle made up of Paula’s preferred eight-day microcycles. But these exceptions are certainly no basis to conclude that longer microcycles are somehow better.

Aging endurance athletes who find they don’t recover from big workouts as quickly as they once did often wonder whether they should lengthen their microcycles as a way to spread these workouts out a bit, and some actually follow through. But there are other options. At age 49, I myself do not recover from big workouts as quickly as I once did. What’s more, as a self-employed work-from-home type, I have the freedom to do any type of workout on any day of the week. Yet I’ve chosen to keep doing my longest rides and runs on the weekend, for the most part, and am adapting my training to my changing body not by lengthening my microcycles but by doing smaller big workouts.

For example, recently I did the following session: 2-mile warm-up, 3 x 1 mile descending on 1:00 rest, 2-mile cooldown. In the past, any time I did mile repeats I did at least six of them. My thinking was that if my body wasn’t up to doing six to eight times one mile fast, then it wasn’t up to doing mile repeats at all. But I’ve since discovered, through trial and error, that a little bit of speed work is way better than none, and also that, the older I get, a little speed work is also better than a lot! I still do some giant workouts, but sparingly, and almost always on the weekend.

The general point I’m trying to make is that there are enough other levers to pull that virtually any runner of any age can make a seven-day microcycle work more or less optimally. But this is not to say that an extended microcycle can’t work just as well or better in certain cases. For those whose life schedule permits it, a nine-day cycle in which each a hard session of any type is followed by two easy days establishes a nice, sustainable rhythm. Not infrequently, I hear from masters athletes who have purchased one of our 80/20 training plans and report feeling overwhelmed by its seven-day microcycles. “How do I extend my weeks without spoiling the 80/20 intensity balance?” they ask. An impish impulse inside me always imagines the following exchange before I answer for real:

Q: How do I turn this pizza into a cake?

A: Throw out the pizza and bake a cake.

Seriously, though, microcycle length is such a fundamental ingredient of training plan design that it’s almost impossible to retrofit a plan built with microcycles of one length to accommodate extended weeks. I mean, you can do it, but to do it right you have to change so much that you really are just starting over the hard way. But let’s say for the sake of argument that you’ve purchased a plan and you find that, although you can handle even the most challenging workouts, they come at you too quickly for you to stay on top of your recovery, and for whatever reason you insist on adapting the plan you have rather than starting over. In this scenario, I would suggest rearranging the workouts in the plan to fit into the following framework:

Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5 Day 6 Day 7 Day 8 Day 9
High Intensity Easy Easy Moderate Intensity Easy Easy Endurance Easy Easy

From here, the devil is in the details. For example, after taking this step, you may find that you recover more quickly from moderate-intensity workouts than from high-intensity workouts, and/or that you can handle bigger moderate-intensity workouts than you can high-intensity workouts, hence that your plan requires additional fine-tuning to yield optimal results for you.

If you’re a triathlete who trains in three disciplines and exercises twice a day some days, you will have some decisions to make about how to make the above framework accommodate these exigencies. I would recommend as a starting point that you count all swims as easy sessions, because they really are, and alternate hard days between cycling and running, as in this example:

Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5 Day 6 Day 7 Day 8 Day 9
High Intensity Bike Easy Run Swim Moderate Intensity Run Easy Bike Swim


Endurance Bike Easy Run Swim

Any additional easy rides or runs you might wish to do can slot in wherever. Or you can just hired me to create a custom training plan for you with extended microcycles, which I would be more than happy to do.

The 2020 Antrim Coast Half Marathon was exceptional simply by virtue of happening. It was one of the first sizeable road running events to take place after the COVID-19 pandemic swept the planet. But the race became even more exceptional when 60-year-old Irishman Tommy Hughes crossed the finish line in 1:11:09, smashing the age-group world record for the half-marathon distance.

You’re seeing this type of thing more and more these days—men and women redefining what’s possible for older endurance athletes. And it’s not just athletes like Tommy Hughes, who competed in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, who are getting in on the action. At 49, I myself am doing things at a lower rung on the talent ladder that I wouldn’t have believed possible for me. This year alone I have finished second overall in the Orange County Half Marathon in 1:15:30, finished 14th overall in the Los Angeles Marathon in 2:46:59 (on a course with more than 1,800 of elevation gain), run my fastest mile since high school (4:55), and run a 10K time trial in 33:25 (beating my official PR by nine seconds). None of these performances is anywhere near as impressive as Tommy Hughes’s world record, but that’s not the point. The point is that, as seems to be the case with so many older endurance athletes these days, age is not slowing me down nearly as much as it is supposed to be doing based on historical standards.

We’ve all heard the expression “Fifty is the new forty,” and variations thereof. It makes a cliché of the observation that older people—or subgroups of older people, anyway—are behaving or performing or presenting themselves in ways we are accustomed to seeing only younger people do. The phrase makes no effort to explain the cause or causes of the phenomenon. So, let’s ask now: Why are lots of older endurance athletes these days performing at levels heretofore unseen in athletes their age?

I see three reasons: 1) more talent competing in the older ranks of endurance sports, 2) better methods and practices, and 3) the reinforcing psychosocial effect of raising the proverbial bar. Let’s take a quick look at each.

More talent. When I say there is more talent in the older ranks of endurance sports, I mean this in two ways. First, surveys like this one are reporting that there are simply more men and women over 40 participating in running events and triathlons, in particular. Additionally, a greater number of the most talented young endurance athletes are choosing to continue competing past 40. In the old days, most of the top endurance athletes in the older age groups were late starters—folks who in their 20s were working in offices rather than racing in the Olympics like Tommy Hughes.

Case in point: When I raced the 2017 Chicago Marathon at 46, one of my goals was to not get beaten by anyone older than me. That goal was made a mockery of Martin Fiz, 54, who clocked 2:28:09 to my 2:39:30. Fiz was the 1995 marathon world champion and set a PB of 2:08:05 in winning the 1997 Lake Biwa Marathon–a top professional run in his prime still at it well into middle age.

Better methods. It’s not just over-40 endurance athletes who are performing at historically high levels. So are active professional athletes over 35. Last year’s male winner of the Ironman World Championship (Jan Frodeno) was 38 years old. This year’s winner of the U.S. Olympic Trials Men’s Marathon (Abdi Abdirahman) was 43.

Professional endurance sports careers are getting longer, and they’re doing so largely because athletes are doing more to take care of their bodies. In past generations, a lot of elite athletes ate whatever, overtrained, and eschewed ancillary practices like mobility work. Nowadays, the typical pro place as high a priority on this stuff as they do on workouts, and the rewards are plain to see. The good news for recreational athletes is that they can reap the same rewards by prioritizing these same practices. Indeed, I believe that my longtime habit of mimicking elite methods of taking care of the body is the number-two reason I’m aging more successfully as an athlete than I expected to.

The Bannister effect. Athletic performance is psychologically limited by current standards. A higher level of performance that is possible physically doesn’t seem possible to an athlete if nobody around them is actually performing at that level. But when, for whatever reason, one or more athletes break through to attain that higher level, the proverbial floodgates open. This happened famously with the quest to break the four-minute mile barrier in the one-mile run. It took nine years for Roger Bannister to lower the world record from 4:01.3 to 3:59.4. In the next 18 months, 12 other men ran sub-four-miles. I think something similar is happening now among older endurance athletes generally.

The best part about this phenomenon is that you don’t have to be a record-setter to get in on the fun. I’m no record setter, but to no lesser degree than the likes of Tommy Hughes, I’m taking advantage of the 50-is-the-new-whatever phenomenon to achieve things I never dreamed I would be able to achieve at my age. And you can too, if you’re interested (and old).

Lastly, I mentioned above that better methods are the second-biggest factor in my successful aging as an athlete. Perhaps you’re wondering what the biggest factor is. I’ll tell you: Passion! My insatiable hunger to test my limits, more than anything else, I believe, has kept me from slowing down as much as I thought I would. But the very potency of this passion has a recursive effect. By this I mean that doing better than expected for my age fires me up to keep doing better. If I could speak only two words of advice to any athlete who wishes to age successfully fitness-wise, they would be these: Stay hungry!

Recently I created a custom training plan for an Italian ultraendurance cyclist who was preparing for a pair of multiday, multi-thousand-kilometer bike tours, and who told me in the onboarding questionnaire he submitted that increasing his functional threshold power (FTP) had been a major point of emphasis in his training.

For the runners in the room, FTP is intended to serve as a proxy marker of lactate threshold intensity on the bike. It is, by definition, the highest power output a cyclist can sustain for one hour (this being the average amount of time a trained cyclist can sustain lactate threshold intensity in a laboratory setting) and is determined through a 20-minute time trial, where the average wattage sustained in this test is multiplied by 0.95 to arrive at a final result.

Again for the runners in the room, an FTP test is essentially the equivalent of a 5K running time trial, which takes 20 minutes to complete, give or take. So, tell me: If you were training for a seven-day running event that would cover many hundreds of miles in total, how concerned would you be about lowering your 5K time?

It’s not that FTP is completely irrelevant to the kind of fitness needed to excel in a multiday event. It’s just that other things are more relevant, and therefore treating FTP increase as a point of emphasis amounts to taking your eye of the ball. But I’ll go even further and say that obsessing over FTP increase is a counterproductive distraction if you’re training for anything other than an FTP test. In fact, even if you are training for an FTP test, increasing your FTP should not be your top priority throughout the process.

That FTP has become the standard measure of cycling fitness is more a matter of historical accident and exigency than any intrinsic superiority of FTP relative to other measures. Research has shown that various tests and measures, including ventilatory threshold, respiratory compensation point, respiratory exchange ratio, maximal lactate steady state, maximum power in a graded exercise test, power-to-weight ratio, and VO2max are about as good at predicting real-world cycling performance. The only reason FTP rather than any of these other things is the bright, shiny object that cyclists and triathletes can’t seem to take their eyes off is that the other things aren’t as practical outside of the exercise lab.

The same principle holds for any test or metric you might use to measure fitness or a component thereof in the training process. Among athletes there is an unfortunate propensity to seek continuous improvement in any test or measurement you put in front of them, no matter how tangential it is to the specific type of fitness they need in order to excel on race day. I’ve seen athletes sabotage their own progress by overemphasizing everything from VO2max to body weight to barbell squat performance.

I get it. If a given metric is performance-relevant, it’s easy to assume that improving that metric will always translate to better performance on the race course. But it doesn’t work that way, because there’s no such thing as general fitness. Each event demands a very specific type of fitness, and the goal of training is to be good at that, not good at every conceivable proxy. For example, if your VO2max is increasing in the late stages of training for an ultramarathon, it’s likely because you’re not doing the necessary training to increase your respiratory exchange ratio, which has greater relevance to ultramarathon performance.

The time to see your VO2max increasing in training for any event that is likely to take more than an hour to complete is early in the process, before you shift your focus to more race-specific fitness priorities. In fact, if you’re a more experienced athlete, you could successfully gain in the type of fitness you really need for a particular event without seeing any change in your aerobic capacity. The typical elite endurance athlete attains a lifetime peak in VO2max in their early 20s, and then continues to improve on the race course for another decade. Kellyn Taylor, my former honorary teammate on HOKA Northern Arizona Elite, recently set a 10,000m PR of 31:07 at age 34. It’s very likely her VO2max was higher at 24.

There are some things you might measure in the training process that, in some cases, should decline in the late stages of preparing for a race. Examples:

  • If your sit-and-reach performance (i.e., hamstrings flexibility) declines ahead of any running race, that loss of flexibility indicates that your “leg stiffness” is increasing and your running economy improving, which is a good thing.
  • A 2004 study by researchers at Ball State University found that the calf muscles of college cross country runners got weaker and smaller over the course of a competitive season, which sounds bad, but the muscles actually shrank more than they weakened, which means they actually got stronger relative to their size, which is a good thing for a distance runner.
  • Similarly, when I was training for Ironman Santa Rosa in 2019, my anaerobic capacity decreased in parallel with gains I made in aerobic fitness and endurance, which was good for my Ironman performance prospects.

It is useful and all but unavoidable to measure things during the training process. But it’s important to maintain perspective on the numbers as you go. The goal is not to get better at everything all the time. The goal is to maximize race-specific fitness on race day. Achieving this goal will require that you prioritize different components of fitness in the proper order and that you hold steady in certain metrics and be content to go backward in certain others in some periods. In short, govern the metrics, don’t let the metrics govern you.

Recently I had the opportunity to read a prepublication copy of a book by Bryan Green, who ran with Meb Keflezighi at UCLA and now cohosts (along with retired elite middle-distance runner Jon Rankin) the Go Be More podcast. Titled Make the Leap, the book is based on the premise that, as Green puts it, “the better we think about our training, the better we will train.” He writes, “The workouts are not the problem. Having a better mental framework to understand training is what’s missing. It doesn’t matter how good the training plan is if you’re holding yourself back mentally.”

I think he’s right. And I also think the same truth holds for diet. In my experience, what distinguishes athletes who are happy with the results they’re getting from their diet from those who aren’t is not so much what they eat as how they think about food and eating. Science backs up this notion. Consider the following studies:

Canadian researchers reported in the journal Personality and Individual Differences in 2007 that, within a population of 364 college students, emotional intelligence was a strong positive predictor of healthy diet strategy.

Seven years later, in the same journal, scientists at Laurier University and Gettysburg College reported that trait-level mindfulness was strongly associated with healthier eating.

In a 2015 study published in Psychology & Health, Researchers in Florida reported that, within a population of 5,150 adult subjects, those who scored high for neuroticism in a standard test of personality traits had a significantly higher body mass index.

Another 2015 study, this one done by an international research team and published on PLoS One, reported that the well-established relationship between eating consistency and successful weight management was mediated by the personality trait of self-control in a group of 164 women.

Finally, New Zealand researchers reported in a study published in the journal Appetite in 2014 that “[p]articipants with a weight-loss goal who associated chocolate cake with guilt were less successful at losing weight over a 3-month period compared to those associating chocolate cake with celebration.” This effect was mediated by lower levels of perceived behavioral control over eating.

I’m not suggesting that the food a person eats doesn’t matter. As you well know, there’s tons of research out there showing that the healthiest people tend to eat lots of certain kinds of foods and small amounts of certain other kinds of foods. But who is it that actually consistently eats a lot of healthy foods and not a lot of unhealthy foods? People who think a certain way about food, that’s who!

I’m not an expert in food psychology, so I probably won’t get this right, but in my experience as an endurance coach and nutritionist (which is extensive), I see two types of individuals as far as thinking about food is concerned: those who problematize eating and those who don’t. To problematize a thing is to make a problem of it even though it doesn’t need to be. Healthy eating comes easily for healthy eaters. That’s because, on a purely practical level, healthy eating really is easy.

This doesn’t mean it’s your fault if you’ve struggled to find and stick with eating habits you’re fully satisfied with. Things like neuroticism and non-mindfulness that make healthy eating difficult for many people aren’t flaws to be ashamed of but limitations to work on. The message of this post is that if you really want to reach a point where healthy eating is easy, stop searching for the right diet (which has been right in front of you for your entire life) and take steps to improve how you think about food.

One way to do this is by practicing mindful eating. There are several smart phone apps, including the popular Am I Hungry? app, that can help you in this process, as well as books like Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life by Thich Nhat Hanh and Lilian Cheung.

As for improving how you think about training—I’ll revisit this topic when Bryan Green’s book is released. Promise!

I’m working on a new project involving artificial intelligence and endurance training that I could tell you about, but I would have to kill you. Just kidding—it’s not that secret. In any case, the project has got me thinking about fundamental questions in endurance training. For example: What is training?

Don’t snicker. The answer is surprisingly nonobvious. If I were to ask ten coaches to define endurance training, I would probably get seven or eight different responses, and they would be telling. Ten coaches who have seven or eight different conceptions of what training is are likely to coach athletes in seven or eight (at least slightly) different ways. After much pondering (in truth, it came to me in the shower), I’ve settled on the following formulation: Training is goal-directed, principle-guided experimentation.

Goal direction is what distinguishes training from exercise. Most people who exercise have some kind of goal, but one can achieve the goal of, say, keeping one’s weight under control by running for 40 minutes at low intensity every other day year-round. Exercise, in other words, is a fixed routine, like dental hygiene, whereas training is an evolving process. Exercise becomes training when you set a goal to achieve peak performance in an upcoming race. Doing the same, easy to moderately challenging workout over and over will not suffice to deliver you from the Point A of your present fitness Level to the Point B of optimal race fitness. Unlike exercise, training aims toward a specific destination.

Principle guidance is a set of tools and rules that are deployed for the purpose of getting the athlete from Point A to Point B. As part of the project I’m working on, I’ve taken some time to create an exhaustive list of the tools and rules that I use (unconsciously, for the most part) to train the athletes I work with. There are surprisingly few of them. Here are some:

Start where you are: The initial training load must be equal to or slightly greater than the athlete’s recent training load.

Purpose-structured workouts: Endurance fitness has multiple components that (for the most part) must be developed individually by workouts of different types that are structured specifically to fulfill a given purpose.

The 80/20 rule: Except in the early base (90/10) and taper (70/30) periods of training, the athlete must spend about 80 percent of their weekly training time at low intensity and 20 percent at moderate to high intensity.

Step cycles: The training process should be broken into three-week step cycles, in which the Week 1 training load is slightly higher than that of any preceding week, the Week 2 training load is slightly higher than that of Week 1, and Week 3 is a recovery week, where the training load is 10-20 percent lower than in Week 1.

The hard/easy rule: The more challenging a workout is, the more time should be allowed before the next challenging workout.

The foregoing principles, plus a few others, are sufficient to generate a complete, customized training plan for a given athlete aiming toward a particular goal. But the plan won’t be perfect, because the athlete is sure to respond to it in unexpected ways and unexpected events are certain to occur. The athlete may experience a week of heavy fatigue and poor performance, or suffer an injury, or gain fitness faster than anticipated during a particular period, or encounter any of a number of other eventualities that require the plan to be adjusted in order to keep them on track toward their goal.

Indeed, such adjustments are so inevitable that it is arguably unnecessary to create a plan in the first place. Instead, the training process can be treated as an experiment in which the next step is always determined by the results of the last step, and by the goal, and the aforementioned principles. As a matter of fact, as I’ve mentioned in past posts, I gave up planning my own training in any detail long ago, and my competitive results have not suffered as a result. In fact, they’ve gotten better. And I take the same approach with the athletes I coach.

The defining error of inferior coaches, in my opinion, is putting too much faith in planning. Athletes, too, for that matter. Everybody wants to believe they can know ahead of time where they’re going to end up, but you can’t really control that. What you can ensure is that you make progress in the general direction of where you’d like to end up, and this is best done by conceiving of training as process of goal-directed, principle-guided experimentation.

Can artificial intelligence do this as well as, or better than, a human coach? Not yet. The AI experts I deem most credible tamp down expectations, suggesting that in this context it will never do more than help human coaches do their job better. In the meantime, anyway, I’m at least having fun trying to put myself out of a job.

These are exciting times to be an endurance training geek. We seem to have entered a new period in which exercise scientists are taking the lead in coming up with innovative new workout formats. It makes sense. For many decades, humanity knew so little about how to train optimally for endurance performance that the majority of innovations simply had to come from folks in the trenches—namely coaches and athletes—throwing stuff against the wall and seeing what stuck. The role of scientists was to come along afterward and confirm that what seemed to work best in the real world really did, and to explain why.

In the past several decades, however, the pace of innovation has slowed greatly, a sure sign that we’ve gotten pretty close to the point where training methods cannot be improved any further. Being close to this point is not the same thing as being at this point, however. There’s still room to innovate, but it’s more a matter of fine-tuning now; the days of radical tacking are gone for good. A different sort of expertise is required for this task—a sort that scientists are showing themselves to be well suited for.

Specifically, exercise scientists have lately been using their knowledge of why some training methods work better than others to create workout formats that work better still. True to their nature as scientists, they are very focused on measurable fitness variables such as VO2max, Their way of innovating, therefore, is to in seek out ways to enhance he fitness benefits of training without simply making workouts harder. Most of the new workout formats I’ve seen in the past few months have been designed specifically to boost the amount of time an athlete spends above 90 percent of VO2max in an individual session—known to be an especially potent fitness-boosting stimulus—as compared to a traditionally formatted workout of equal workload and/or perceived difficulty.

The latest offering comes from a trio of researchers working at the University of Udine, Italy. Their idea was to design an interval session featuring high-intensity work bouts that steadily decreased in length throughout the session. The rationale behind this design, as noted in a study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, was that past research had shown that longer intervals at high intensity allow athletes to reach VO2max quickly, whereas short intervals allow them to continue longer before reaching exhaustion. Would a set of decreasing intervals offer the best of both worlds, comparing favorably to a set of long intervals and a set of short intervals in these respects?

To find out, the researchers had 12 cyclists complete the following three workouts:

Short Intervals Long Intervals Decreasing Intervals
0:30 @ high intensity/0:20 @ low intensity repeated to exhaustion 3:00 high/2:00 low repeated to exhaustion 3:00 high/2:00 low

2:00 high/1:20 low

1:00 high/0:40 low

0:45 high/0:30 low

0:30 high/0:20 low repeated to exhaustion


In all three workouts, the high-intensity efforts were performed at the highest power output each individual cyclist could sustain for 5 minutes and were repeated to exhaustion. Each subject completed all three workouts in random order on separate occasions. On average, the cyclists lasted 13 minutes and 20 seconds and spent 5 minutes and 12 seconds above 90 percent of VO2max in the decreasing intervals workout, compared to 11:54/3:02 in the short intervals workout and 11:04/2:59 in the long intervals workout.

The researchers concluded that “despite the higher stimulation of VO2, the rate of perceived exertion and the other physiological parameters at the end of the exercise were not different compared with long- or short-interval HIIT, suggesting that [the decreasing intervals format] was not more demanding. In light of the favorable or similar physiological and/or perceptual

responses to [decreasing intervals] compared to the other protocols and given the improved capability to prolong the time close to VO2 peak, it could be used as a preferable method to elicit similar or greater physiological adaptations.”

Sound like decreasing intervals are simply better, right? And if so, they should completely displace short- and long-interval VO2max sessions in the training process, right? Not so fast. As interesting as it is, this study falls far short of constituting a total contextual evaluation of these three interval formats. It’s important not to lose sight of the fact that doing five 3-minute intervals at your 5-minute maximum power is a different experience from doing decreasing intervals. The suck that you feel toward the end of the former is more similar to the suck you’re going to experience in races, and I think there’s a lot to be said for that. Therefore I have no intention of expunging traditional VO2max interval workout formats from the training I prescribe for the athletes I coach or for myself.

Still, I’m excited about decreasing intervals, and indeed I’ve already begun to prescribe them to athletes I coach and to practice them in my own training. They can be done either on a bike, as originally designed, or as a run. If you do them on a bike, complete the high-intensity intervals at 117 percent of the average power output you achieved in your most recent 20-minute FTP test. So, if your 20-minute power is 293 watts, do the high-intensity intervals at (293 x 1.17 =) 342 watts. If you choose to do decreasing intervals as a run, complete the high-intensity intervals at maximal aerobic speed (MAS), which is the fastest pace you could sustain for about 6 minutes.

Note that the subjects in the study I described performed decreasing intervals to the point of exhaustion solely for the sake of determining which of the three formats allowed them to continue the longest. When doing decreasing intervals as a part of your normal training, you may want to stop short of exhaustion. Specifically, I suggest you complete the sequence just once on your first try to get a feel for it. If you’re game for a tougher challenge, the next time you do decreasing intervals, go back to the top of the sequence immediately after the 20-second recovery and continue until you can no longer hold power on the bike or until you’ve “had enough,” if you’re running. On average, the study participants were able to complete only one full circuit plus part of a second 3-minute effort, so don’t expect the fun/suffering to last too terribly long.

Currently I’m reviewing the copyedited manuscript of my forthcoming book The Comeback Quotient: A Get-Real Guide to Building Mental Fitness in Sport and Life, which is available for preorder. (Subtle, eh?) Chapter 6 tells the remarkable story of Jamie Whitmore, a dominant professional off-road triathlete in the 2000’s who later overcame a Jobian cancer ordeal to win a gold medal in cycling at the 2016 Paralympic Games. One of the things that makes Jamie’s story so instructive for other athletes is the can-do attitude she brings to bear in dealing with setbacks. “I’ve always been the type to say, ‘What can I control?’” she said when I interviewed her just over a year ago. “Even with cancer, it was, ‘Well, what can I do?” Because there’s so much you can’t do.”

When something is taken away from you, it’s natural to think about and regret what’s been lost. But beyond a certain point, this natural response is unhelpful, standing in the way of making the best of the situation. Successful athletes like Jamie Whitmore do not waste time and energy brooding on what’s been taken away from them. Instead, after acknowledging what they can no longer do, they identify what they can do and then do it. In this way, if their problem is solvable, they solve it faster than the brooders do, and if it’s not solvable (like the permanent damage done to Jamie’s body by her cancer surgeries), they at least make the best of the situation.

The most common type of bad situation endurance athletes encounter is injury. Most athletes get upset when an injury takes away their ability to train normally and remain in a funk until they’ve fully healed. Indeed, this reflexive emotional response to injury is so normal that a lot of athletes assume it’s ineluctable, but it’s not. Some athletes don’t get upset, or at least don’t remain in a funk, when they get injured. After an initial pout (which is only human), they pivot from a problem focus to a solution focus.

I like to say I’ve suffered more injuries than any runner my age, and over the years I’ve come a long way in terms of my ability to manage injuries emotionally. I’ll never forget the 2002 Boston Marathon, which I watched on television, grief stricken, having suffered a hip injury in training just 10 days before, when I was fitter than I’d ever been and couldn’t wait for Patriots Day to roll around so I could prove it. I remember thinking (naively) that I’d missed a chance I might never have again, little knowing that my lifetime-best marathon still lay 15 years in the future.

From where I sit today, I find it hard to believe that grief-stricken runner was me. I suffered my latest injury—an acute strain of the peroneal tendons in my left foot—three weeks ago, and it really hasn’t bothered me in the slightest on an emotional level, even though this one happened during a marathon PR attempt coinciding with another magical fitness peak. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’ve been indifferent to the injury. It hurt quite a bit for quite a while, and I’ve missed running, but overall I’ve maintained emotional equanimity by doing what I now always do when I suffer any kind of setback, which is to emulate the can-do attitude of the likes of Jamie Whitmore.

Specifically, in this case, I cross-trained with a mix of bicycling, elliptical biking, stand-up paddling, and deep-water running. I modified my strength workouts to work around my pain and consulted my friend Ryan Whited of Paragon Athletics in Flagstaff, who guide me through some diagnostic tests via FaceTime and showed me some rehab exercises that would not only help me get back to running but also reduce my risk of suffering future injuries resulting from lack of mobility in my left ankle. Additionally, I signed up for a 40K cycling time trial race to give my damned-up competitive drive something to focus on and alleviate the emotional burden of knowing I was losing running fitness.

In the first couple of weeks after the injury occurred, friends and family members asked me frequently how my foot was doing, and when I told them I was still limping, they expressed sympathy. But while I appreciated their concern, their underlying assumption that because I was in pain and limping and couldn’t run I was upset was erroneous. Sure, I heard from that fearful inner voice telling me I should be deeply worried about the lack of improvement in my symptoms, but whereas 15 years ago that voice might have gone unchecked, I was now able to tune it out, knowing the injury would heal in due time, as injuries always do.

And it did. Three weeks to the day after I suffered the injury, I completed a short, slow test run on my treadmill, pain free. Injuries happen to everyone; they’re part of the sport. But not everyone copes with injuries equally well. Next time you get hurt, channel your inner Jamie Whitmore and negotiate your way through it with maximum aplomb by manifesting a can-do attitude.

Leon Fleisher died recently. Man, what a life! Born in San Francisco in 1928 to Jewish immigrants, he started playing the piano at age four, and by nine he was proficient enough to become a student of renowned teacher Artur Schnabel. At 16, Fleisher made his Carnegie Hall debut, and by his mid-20s he was widely considered one of the greatest pianists in the world, if not the very best.

Then, at 36, Fleisher mysteriously lost the use of his right hand. That would be a lot for anyone to deal with, but for him it was cruelly devastating. Yet Fleisher persevered through the affliction with admirable resilience and adaptability. Predictably, he shifted some of his energies into teaching and conducting, but he also continued to play the piano, albeit one-handed. In interviews he often suggested that losing the use of his right hand expanded his creativity and forced him to think more deeply about music, saying in one interview, “Limitations are the food of the creator” (a line he attributed to the great German writer Johann von Goethe, though I’ve found no evidence he actually said it).

My refamiliarization with Fleisher’s story was timely. The day he died, I took part in a “Fireside Chat” on Zoom that was hosted by the online running club Endeavorun and featured elite miler Kyle Merber as guest speaker. Among the things Kyle talked about was how he’s adapted his training and overall approach to running in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He told us he’s been experimenting with higher mileage, and the results have been so positive that he fully intends to continue running more than he used to even after things get back to normal. Kyle also said that training with less structure has given him the freedom to force things less than he used to do when he trained with teammates under a coach’s eye every day—for example, easing into hard intervals on the track rather than pushing to keep up with whoever had the best legs on a given day—and he hopes to be able to carry this adjustment forward as well.

In this analogy, the pandemic is the equivalent of Fleisher’s paralysis and Kyle’s training innovations are the equivalent of Fleisher’s becoming a brilliant left-handed pianist and learning to think more deeply about music. And Fleisher is hardly alone in his Fleisher-like response to the Coronavirus crisis. In fact, pretty much every elite endurance athlete and coach resilient and intelligent enough to meet the challenge has done so in similar fashion.

Take Ben Rosario, for example, my friend and coach of Hoka NAZ Elite. Ben has come up with a couple specific ways of adjusting to life without racing opportunities that he intends to continue using with his runners even after the races return. The one I find most interesting has to do with the fact that, for NAZ Elite, being stuck in place has mean being stuck at 7,000 feet of altitude, where it’s tough to do race simulation-type workouts because runners can’t run as fast up there. To make the best of the situation, Ben tested out what he calls “squeeze-down intervals,” where instead of trying to hold a steady, aggressive pace throughout an interval, runners start on the slow side and accelerate in increments. For example, instead of running a 1500-meter interval at 4:15 pace from start to finish, the male runners on the team might run the first 400 meters in 75 seconds, the next in 70, the next in 65, and the final 300 in 45 seconds. Ben tells me that these tests have gone well—so well that he plans to keep squeeze-down intervals in the mix, in part because they happen to do a good job of simulating championship-style racing and in part because they have him feeling less compelled to get out of Flagstaff for certain training stimuli.

When I discussed these matters the other day with my friend Mike, he mentioned the story of the London Underground strike of 2014. Highly disruptive to the millions of Londoners who relied on the tube for their daily commute and other routine activities, the strike turned out to be a blessing in disguise in the sense that it impelled many to find alternative ways to get around town that they ultimately deemed preferable, hence retained after the strike ended. In an academic paper on the phenomenon titled “The Benefits of Forced Experimentation,” a team of economists concluded that “individuals seem to under-experiment during normal times, as a result of which constraints can be welfare-improving.”

In other words, it is human nature to get comfortable with existing routines, even in high-stakes forums like elite running, where the potential competitive benefits of successful experimentation are great. Disruptive events like the current pandemic have a way of forcing the experimentation athletes are reticent to self-initiate. This reality puts us in the odd position of hoping for disruptive events—which, let’s be honest, tend to be more cloud than silver lining—to strike us every now and again.

Or does it? First off, I should note that not all athletes and coaches are equally able to turn crises into opportunities. Nor are all athletes and coaches who are able to turn crises into opportunities equally dependent on external events to trigger innovation. With the right mindset, it’s possible to seek out disruption by self-imposing constraints or placing oneself in an environment or circumstances that will all but necessitate adaptation. One random example is relocating to Kenya for a training stint, something that many pro runners and even some recreational runners have done with great success, a success that comes not despite but because of its necessitation of running on bad roads at high altitude, adopting a very limited (but very healthy) diet, doing without your $1,000 compression boots and a whole lot else, and adjusting to the Kenyan training approach.

If you were to actually do this (as I myself have done), I can guarantee you’d return home a changed runner and eagerly incorporate some of your “Kenyan ways” into your regular routine. And there are a million other ways to force experimentation as an athlete, any of which may yield an improved routine, and all of which will render you better prepared to make the best of the next unchosen disruption.

By the way, Leon Fleisher gradually regained the use of his right hand in the 1990s and died as he’d (virtually) been born: a two-handed pianist.

In March 2017, I gave a talk at Run Flagstaff, a running specialty store located in the city whose name it carries. During the talk, I mentioned an occasion when I got to hang out with 2:19 marathoner Yoko Shibui and her teammates on the Mitsui-Sumitomo women’s professional running team in boulder, Colorado.

“Are there any men in the room who have run a faster marathon?” I asked rhetorically, a laugh-line I delivered every time I told this story. “If so, raise your hand.”

Too late, I remembered where I was—a true Mecca for American runners, where a lot of very fast men and women live and train. And the room was packed. And, sure enough, among those in the room, although I hadn’t noticed him yet, was Tommy Rivers Puzey, who had recently completed the Phoenix-Mesa in 2:18:25.

He did not raise his hand.

Interesting choice, no? I think it’s safe to say that most runners, male or female, who had just set a marathon PR of 2:18:25 would have been inclined to express their pride in the accomplishment, especially when invited to. But Rivers elected not to draw attention to himself in this way. I can’t say I was surprised. Rivers just doesn’t crave Strava kudos and the like as much as other people do.

Last weekend I participated in a very small and informal marathon in San Jose, California, that was organized by a friend of mine who heads a local running club. I was something of a guest of honor for the occasion. I’d brought signed copies of some of my books for the others and, right before we started, my friend made an announced my goal of beating my personal-best time of 2:39:30. I enjoyed the attention.

Less than half a mile into the race, my left foot exploded in pain. I tried my best to run through the discomfort, motivated by the fact that I was running in honor of Rivers, who at that moment lay in an ICU bed in a coma battling a rare and aggressive form of lung cancer, and also by a desire to spare myself a walk of shame back to the start (it was an out-and-back course, so the bathos of my swift failure would be noted by all of my fellow runners, one by one). I kept telling myself to do what Rivers would do in my situation, which was to keep fighting. But then, suddenly, I remembered that moment at Run Flagstaff when Rivers did not raise his hand, and I realized that, in my situation, he himself would not fear the walk of shame that followed quitting. So I quit, knowing it was the smart move, and thinking, Who gives a shit if people lose a bit of respect for me, or even have a private laugh at my expense? I know who I am, and that’s all that matters.

Everyone cares what other people think of them. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar. Even Rivers cares. One time an online troll called Rivers “a washed-up subelite with a disdain for clothing.” I know this because Rivers told me about it, and he told me about it because he hadn’t forgotten it, and he hadn’t forgotten it because it stung.

Caring what other people think of you is an ineluctable part of being a member of a social animal species. What people actually mean when they offer the trite and shallow advice not to care what other people think is that there are good and bad ways of caring what other people think of you, and you should concern yourself only with the good ways. Rivers is on a mission to inspire other people through his example. You cannot possibly pursue such a mission without thinking a lot about how others are perceiving you. Yet this is an undeniably healthy and altruistic way of caring what others think.

We seldom reflect on this side of the equation, though. That’s only to be expected, as most of us routinely fall into the trap of caring what others think in bad ways. Is my PR impressive enough? Is my car better than yours? Am I skinny enough? Did my last Facebook post get enough likes? It’s only human to worry about such things to a certain extent, but if they represent the full extent of your concern for what others think of you, you’re in for a rather empty life.

I myself have always craved the praise of others to an inordinate degree. As I describe in my book Running the Dream, I believe this is because I grew up sharing my father’s passions for writing and running, and he took such evident delight in my successes in these endeavors that I began to seek similar reactions from everyone. I will never outgrow this psychological conditioning, nor do I even want to, but I do believe it is in the interest of my personal maturation process to become more balanced. Having friends like Tommy Rivers Puzey, who are farther along in their spiritual journey, is helpful in this regard. Had it happened ten years earlier, that walk of shame I did after aborting my recent marathon probably would have caused me to feel no small amount of shame, but in fact it didn’t.

And guess what: Afterward my friend who organized the event applauded me for setting a good example for his club members by making a prudent decision under pressure and not acting all prideful and embarrassed about my failure. Ironic, no? By finding the wherewithal to care less about what others think of me, I just might have gotten them to think of me in a way that actually benefits them while also making me feel good about myself in a way that impressing people doesn’t. Thank you, Rivers!

This article is about endurance sports, I promise. It’s just going to take a minute to get there.

Are you familiar with Calvinist doctrine? At its heart is the concept of predestination. Calvinists believe that, at the beginning of time, God selected a limited number of souls to grant salvation and there’s nothing any individual person can do during their mortal life to alter their eternal fate. Either you were chosen or you were not chosen, and that’s all there is to it.

Now, you might think that a person who subscribed to this doctrine would see no point in trying to live a righteous, sin-free life. In fact, though, the opposite was true. For, although no amount of righteous, sin-free living can change God’s mind about you, the surest indicator that you are not among the chosen is sinful living. Thus, if you want to go to heaven, you need to live a righteous, sin-free life and hope for the best.

I myself don’t believe in this sort of predestination, but I have observed something not altogether unlike it in my time on earth. Raised without formal religion, I became a regular churchgoer as an adult after marrying a Baptist. In the beginning, the whole experience was so novel to me that all I could do was absorb impressions without drawing any conclusions. But as time went by, I began to notice a striking pattern, which was that while my wife, Nataki, was changing for the better (i.e., maturing) under the influence of preaching and praying and scriptural reading, few of our fellow congregants seemed to be doing the same. For whatever reason, the Christian message just wasn’t taking for them the way it was for her.

Nataki had a volcanic temper when we met. There came a point, however, where she consciously recognized the conflict between this element of her disposition and the teachings of Jesus, vowed to work on it, worked on it, and made astonishing progress in reining in her temper. This transformation made her something of a unicorn in the context of the church we attended, where we were surrounded by people who were exposed to the same teachings but were not noticeably changed by them (something our pastor commented on explicitly from the pulpit on more than one occasion). I don’t think this phenomenon had anything to do with church per se. Rather, it had to do with human psychology. The specific context merely revealed a general truth, which is that not all humans possess the psychological wherewithal to purposefully change ingrained habits of mind. In Calvinistic terms, not everyone is graced with the capacity to transform on a deep level.

Indeed, I’ve noticed something similar in endurance sports, where many athletes are stuck in habits of mind that hold them back in one way or another. They deal poorly with psychological challenges such as starting out or starting over, failure, performance pressure, suffering, uncertainty, and injuries and other setbacks. In each specific instance of unskillful coping, the root of the problem is either bad judgment or poor emotional self-control. I know I’m sounding rather critical here, but all I’m really saying is something everyone agrees on: endurance sports are challenging. We wouldn’t describe endurance sports as challenging if most athletes were up to the challenge most of the time.

As a coach, I put a heavy emphasis on mental fitness, and I think I’m pretty good at teaching it. Nevertheless, I often feel the way the pastor of my wife’s and my old church seemed to feel. It’s not that athletes don’t understand what I tell them about mental fitness; they clearly do. Nor is it that they don’t accept what I tell them; they do that too—for the most part, anyway (after some initial resistance on certain points). Rather, it’s the final hurdle they trip over: changing in accordance with the truths they’ve understood and accepted. You can lead a horse to water, as they say, but you can’t make it drink, and you can show an athlete how to make good decisions and manage their emotions better, but you can’t make them actually do these things. Mental fitness is just one particular application of general psychology, after all. Most people who have anger issues at age twenty-five still have anger issues at age fifty-five, even if they are aware they have anger issues and want to gain more control over their temper. Similarly, most athletes whose confidence level is currently far too dependent on how well their last workout went are likely to have the same hang-up ten years from now even if they know they’re holding themselves back needlessly.

Most isn’t all, however. Some athletes do have the potential to make a lot of progress in the areas of decision making and emotional self-control, and you never know who does until it happens. It behooves you, therefore, to assume you are a “chosen one” who has the potential to attain the highest level of mental fitness, much as it behooves the Calvinist to behave as if they have been preselected for salvation. Transforming your mind is hard, and the only way you’ll be able to pull it off is to assume you are capable of doing it and commit to the process as if success is assured. And in a sense it is. For, whereas salvation is binary—either you’re saved or you’re not—mental fitness has many degrees. Becoming a true master of the mental game may or may not be within your power, but improving your mental game to some extent is guaranteed if you do the work.

Following is an unpublished chapter of my book Running the Dream: One Summer Living, Training, and Racing with a Team of World-Class Runners Half My Age. It features my friend Tommy Rivers Puzey, who a couple of weeks ago sent me a series of alarming voice messages from a hospital ICU in Flagstaff, where he lives with his family. Even scarier, Tommy remains there today, on a ventilator, suffering from a COVID-like but undiagnosed respiratory illness that has severely damaged his powerful lungs. It hurt me to cut this chapter in an effort to shrink my book down to a readable size, but I’m pleased to have this opportunity to share it now in Rivers’ honor. I’m confident you’ll come away from reading it with an understanding of why this guy is so special and why everyone who knows him personally is reeling right now. As you can imagine, his medical bills are piling up. A Go Fund Me page has been set up to assist him with these. I’ve donated to it and I urge you to do the same.

80 Days to Chicago

Two miles (give or take) into this morning’s Bagel Run I heard footsteps approaching from behind. Seconds later a bearded runner wearing a hydration pack on his bare back pulled up on my left side, breathing heavily from his pursuit.

“Hi, Matt,” he said casually.

I gave the runner a second look and realized he was none other than Tommy Rivers Puzey, one of the famous Coconino Cowboys, a group that has been described by its marquee member, Jim Walmsley, as “a bunch of reckless runners and best friends from Coconino County . . . united by the desire to push each other in training and learn to embrace the suffering.” Though Walmsley is by far the most celebrated Cowboy, for my money Rivers is the most interesting. Name any country at random and Rivers can probably tell you a story about having run there. I first met him two years ago in Provo, while participating in James “Iron Cowboy” Lawrence’s mind-blowing 50th Ironman triathlon in 50 days (in 50 states!).

“You’re looking fit,” Rivers said. “I was checking out your legs while I was chasing you down.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ve lost a bit of weight.”

Thirteen days ago, when I left California, I weighed 150.6 pounds. Today I am five pounds lighter, and the change is noticeable. The man I saw in the bathroom mirror this morning was all veins and striations—much more so than the guy I’m used to seeing. I attribute the sudden drop mainly to my efforts to eat like Matt Llano (less beer, bread, and cheese, more variety in my starches and veggies), though Faubs tells me everyone loses weight at 7,000 feet because the resting metabolic rate is higher up here.

“So, what have you been up to lately?” I asked.

Rivers and I last crossed paths in March, at a book signing I did at Run Flagstaff, the local running specialty store. That was only four months ago, but four months is an eternity in a life such as his.

“I’m tired, man,” Rivers said tiredly. “When I saw you in the spring I’d just gotten back from Salamanca, where I did a mountain race.”

I remembered this, but the rest of the story was news. A few days after our book-signing encounter, Rivers jetted off to Italy, accompanied by Caleb Schiff, a big name in the local cycling community and owner of Pizzicletta, a bike-themed pizza joint. The pair spent a week touring the mountains of Tuscany and the trails of Cinque Terre, fueled by focaccia, kinder, cannoli, fried calamari, and other street foods. The following week, Rivers (who has an enviable set of abs) modeled for the clothing retailer H&M in the quarries near Carrera, where Michelangelo got his stone and where Caleb got the marble for the countertops in his restaurant. Home just long enough to catch up on sleep, Rivers then flew to Boston to participate in a certain marathon. On arriving there, he began a 48-hour fast, dropping 12 of the 18 pounds he gained in Italy, and finished 16th in the world’s most hallowed footrace with a personal-best time of 2:18:20. Two weeks later, Rivers finished third in the Calgary Marathon. Four weeks after that, he found himself in Auburn, California, having been enlisted to pace Jim Walmsley through the last segment of the Western States 100, beginning from the American River crossing at mile 78. Favored to win the race, Jim overheated and dropped out—at mile 78. This was a month ago. Last week, Rivers completed his doctorate in physical therapy. He has three kids.

“I don’t know how you do it,” I said.

We’d covered four miles at this point and it was time for me to turn around. Apprised of this, Rivers elected to turn with me.

“What about you?” he asked. “How has the pro running experience been for you so far?”

“It’s been great,” I said. “I’ve run 74 miles in the past week—more than I’ve done in eight years—and I feel terrific. There’s a long way to go still, but right now my legs are handling the work easily.”

“Interesting,” Rivers said. “Why do you think that is?”

“At the risk of sounding like some wide-eyed mystic,” I said, “I honestly think the environment has a lot to do with it. For whatever reason, running 74 miles in seven days in a beautiful place surrounded by teammates is less stressful to my body than doing the same thing alone back home.”

“I know exactly what you mean,” Rivers said. “Did I ever tell you about my Costa Rica experience?”

“No,” I said. “Let’s hear it.”

In 2009, shortly after Rivers and his college sweetheart, Steph, were married, Steph was accepted into a master’s degree program in conflict studies in La Paz, Costa Rica. Never one to miss an opportunity for adventure, Rivers (who had previously done missionary work in Brazil) took a leave of absence from his undergraduate studies in Hawaii to accompany his bride to Central America, where he immersed himself in the country’s thriving mountain running scene, which revolves around a celebrated 20-mile race to the top of a 12,500-foot mountain. Confident he could contend for the win, Rivers spent six months training for the event only to have his ass handed to him, finishing 45 minutes behind the winner in 24th place.

Humbled, but also curious, Rivers (who speaks fluent Spanish) quizzed one of the top finishers about his training.

“I don’t train,” the runner told him.

“What do you mean?” Rivers asked.

“I don’t have time to train. I have too much work to do.”

“What kind of work?”

“I’m a porter.”

“What’s a porter?”

“We climb the mountain every night. We carry the gear for the tourists who are going to climb it the next day so it’s waiting for them when they make it to the top. Then we run back down.”

“We?” Rivers asked.

“All of us,” the porter said, gesturing toward some of the other top finishers.

Now thoroughly intrigued, Rivers returned to La Paz determined to become a porter himself. He befriended a few of the local runner-porters and spent the following summer trekking with them by moonlight to the top of the mountain and running back down, abandoning his normal training routine. A few weeks before he and Steph flew home, Rivers ran a solo time-trial up the mountain, retracing the racecourse that had humbled him several months before, reaching the top 30 minutes faster.

“That’s really cool,” I said as Rivers and I cruised the last few blocks to Biff’s Bagels. “But what does any of it have to do with me and Flagstaff?”

“Those porters were training,” Rivers said. “They just didn’t think of it as training. Going up and down the mountain was part of their life, something they accepted without questioning or resistance. Even though it was physically demanding, it wasn’t emotionally draining. They were at home on the mountain and with each other. They raced well because everything was in synch: their work, their group, their environment, and their lives.”

“I get it now,” I said.

Recently I received a text message from Matt Chittim, host of the Rambling Runner podcast. In it, he informed me that he is several months away from turning 40 years old and he wants to mark the occasion by pursuing the goal of breaking 40 minutes for 10K. His purpose in texting me was to ask if I thought “Mastering 40” was a good name for the project, which he wants to invite other runners to follow.

I told Matt I liked the name. And not only that, but I also think the project is a great example of creative goal setting, as distinct from what I call selective goal setting. A selective goal is one that you choose from among a set of preexisting options, whereas a creative goal is one you make up out of thin air. Examples of selective goals are making the varsity roster of your high school cross country team and qualifying for the Boston Marathon. Oftentimes, such goals are almost chosen for you, lying dead ahead on your athletic path. For example, if you completed a 5K road race in a new PR time of 20:36, of course you’re going to try to break 20:00 in your next 5K.

Creative goals, by contrast, are ideas. They come to us from the same source that supplies musicians with original melodies, chefs with inspirations for new recipes, and so forth—call it the Muse. In the Age of COVID, endurance athletes who are naturally wired for creativity are better positioned to stay motivated because they are easily able to come up with creative goals, hence less dependent on the mass-participation events that supply most selective goals. It’s been fun to see some of the goals that such athletes have cooked up in recent months. My Facebook friend Zach Bush, for example, has taken to pursuing training PR’s such as completing his longest training run (40 miles) and his heaviest week of running (110 miles).

Observing the manner in which creatively minded athletes have rallied in the face of current constraints has also reminded me of the fundamental purpose of all goals, which is to motivate. The true purpose of trying to make your high school cross country team is not to make your high school cross country team; it is to make you want to run tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. The same truth holds for qualifying for the Boston Marathon and any other goal you can name. Whether or not a given athletic goal—be it creative or selective—is actually achieved completely beside the point. If pursuing the goal keeps you engaged in the process of chasing improvement, it’s doing its job. Even weird goals are good goals if they have this effect.

Recently I looked up the single-age 10K world record for 49-year-old women. (Yes, such records are kept.) I did so because I’m 49 years old and my training has been going well and I had a hunch this record, though not relevant to me qua record, would be close to my current 10K performance potential, hence that trying to beat it might be a fun creative goal to pursue. Sure, my preference would have been to test my fitness in a real 10K road race, but this alternative was still something I could get excited for.

You might be wondering how I knew that the single-age 10K world record for 49-year-old woman would be close to my own ability as a 49-year-old man. It’s simple, really: I’ve been competing against fast women throughout my entire athletic career. Indeed, the very first serious 10K road race I ever ran (I had jogged another one years earlier) was an event that took place in my home state of New Hampshire back in the summer of 1986, when I was 15 years old. I ran a well-paced race and was closing hard on the homestretch when I caught the lead woman, whom I dueled to the finish line and just barely beat with a time of 35:48, if I remember correctly. It’s been like that ever since. In my second marathon (Long Beach 2001), I ran several miles with the eventual women’s winner, trading turns as wind breaker, before I blew up, and in my second Ironman (Santa Rosa 2019), I caught and passed the lead woman about 15 miles into the marathon. Of course, in major running events like the Boston Marathon I get utterly destroyed by lots of women (including 2015 Boston winner Caroline Rotich, pictured above after she kicked my ass in a training run in New Mexico in 2017), and in most of the local events I do I’m well ahead of the top female competitors, but there’s been a clear pattern over the years of finding myself pitted against strong women runners and triathletes.

I want to make it clear that I don’t mind being beaten by women. All I care about is performing to my potential. If I run a great race and am passed by either a man or a woman in the final 50 meters and end up second, I’m happy. If another athlete of either sex is better than me, that doesn’t make me any less good. But it so happens that keying off fast women helps me stretch myself toward my full potential, and that’s why I do it. And, sure enough, when I looked up the women’s single-age 10K world record for 49-year-olds, I discovered that it was 33:38—very close to the number I thought I was capable of hitting at this time.

Nine kilometers into the time trial, I glanced at my watch and saw an elapsed time of 30:12. This gave me 3:25 to complete the final kilometer. I had been averaging 3:21 per kilometer up to that point, but I was on the rivet already, and I suffered as much in those last few minutes of running as I have in the waning moments of any real race. In other words, my goal stretched me to my full potential, just as it was intended to do. As it turned out, I stopped my watch at 33:25, but I would have been just as happy if I’d suffered equally and missed the mark by a second or two.

Something else that would make me happy (and proud) is if this article motivates a gifted masters runner somewhere in the world to lower the women’s single-age 10K world record for 49-year-olds to below 33:25.

There’s a runner I coach, we’ll call him Jeremy, who’s concerned about his weight. It’s not that he’s overweight and worried about developing type 2 diabetes or heart disease. Rather, Jeremy is light and lean but just not quite as light and lean as the elite trail runners whose ranks he aspires to join—and it bothers him.

In our most recent weekly call, Jeremy was out of sorts because he had just hopped on the scale for the first time in several weeks and discovered his weight hadn’t budged despite an increasing training load and consistent healthy eating. At one point he asked me, “Do you think there’s any way I can get to their level [referring to the top trail runners] without getting down to their weight?”

I explained to Jeremy that he was looking at it all wrong. “The question you should be asking is whether you will ever become the best runner you can be,” I said, “and the answer to that question is an emphatic yes, because it’s almost entirely within your control. If you just focus on the process, training right, eating right, progressing sensibly, and learning and adapting as you go, you will realize 100 percent of your God-given ability. Whether you will lose a few more pounds along the way is unknowable and beside the point, hence a complete waste of time worrying about.”

Okay, I might not have said “hence,” but the rest is pretty accurate, and my message was well received. Jeremy understood there was no rational reason to be anxious about the uncertainty surrounding whether he would need to lose weight to achieve his goals and whether he even could lose weight if he did need to. I had reminded him that there is no uncertainty whatsoever about the process a runner needs to follow to become the best runner they can be, and that a runner who simply follows this process without looking ahead is all but guaranteed to realize their full potential. There is no more reason to presume that success in this effort depends on attaining a certain weight than it does to presume that it depends on attaining a certain VO2max, running economy, respiratory exchange ratio, lactate threshold—you get the idea.

The importance of maintaining a process focus in the pursuit of athletic ambitions is well established, and yet most athletes struggle to do so with any real consistency. Jeremy is by no means an outlier in this respect. A huge part of my job as a coach is to herd athletes back to the path of process focus when they stray from it, seduced by the bright, shiny object of outcomes. It is for this reason that I see the current Coronavirus pandemic not as a good thing, certainly, but as a bad thing with a silver lining, at least.

The near-total erasure of the 2020 race calendar has all but forced athletes to focus more on the process of getting better than they are normally wont to do. Some have adapted to the situation better than others, and by and large, few athletes have adapted better than the pros, who tend to be very process focused at all times. It hasn’t surprised me at all that a number of great performances have been achieved by elite runners during this strange period, including Donavan Brazier’s PR 3:35 1500 meters, Keira D’Amato’s breakthrough 15:04 5000 meters, and Shelby Houlihan’s stunning 14:23 5000m American record.

I myself have found the lack of normal racing opportunities oddly beneficial. By nature I love to compete, and in normal times I am, throughout the training process, constantly looking forward to my next race. One might have expected, therefore, that the present moratorium on mass-participation events would deal a blow to my motivation, but what I’ve found instead is that, without conscious intent, I’ve simply transferred the anticipation I normally direct at races to my training. Whereas previously I looked ahead to workouts primarily as stepping stones toward the real prize, I now look forward to workouts as ends in themselves.

This has turned out to be a very good thing for my fitness. Honestly, I’m astonished by how far I’ve come since missing an entire month of training due to illness between early March and early April. When I ran the 2017 Chicago Marathon at the tail end of my fake pro runner experience, I consciously viewed my PR performance as a swan song of sorts. At 46, I fully accepted that my best days as a runner were now surely behind me. Now, three years later, I find myself as fit as I was then, possibly fitter, and in less than two weeks I’m going to take a crack at setting an unofficial marathon PR in a solo time trial. Certainly there is more than one factor playing in to the fitness renaissance I’m experiencing, but this enforced process focus is, without a doubt, a major one. Take heed!

In 2015, economists Daniel Hickman and Neil Metz conducted an interesting study on the effect of pressure on performance in professional golfers. Data from the final hole of PGA tournaments taking place between 2004 and 2012 was analyzed to determine the effect of financial stakes—specifically how much money was riding on draining a putt—on performance. Hickman and Metz found that for every additional $10,000 a putt was worth, the likelihood of a player making it decreased by 0.18 percent.

So, there you have it: Pressure harms athletic performance.

Or does it? The limitation of this study is that it looked only at the general effect of pressure on performance and did not consider individual effects. But other research has shown that, whereas a plurality of athletes perform worse under pressure, some perform better. In a 2006 study, for example, scientists at Victoria University measured basketball free-throw performance under two conditions: low pressure (where the shooter was observed by a single research assistant) and high pressure (where the shooter was watched by an audience and also videotaped, and a financial reward was attached to their performance). Of the 66 subjects, 35 were less accurate under pressure, seven performed about the same, and 24 shot better.

It would be interesting to know what, if anything, was different between the subjects who choked under pressure and those who thrived under pressure. Well, the Victoria University researchers looked at this too, and found that personal self-consciousness (defined by as “the tendency to focus on oneself from a personal vantage point and attend to aspects of the self that are not readily apparent to others, such as one’s thoughts and feelings”) and somatic trait anxiety (defined by Wikipedia as “the physical manifestation of anxiety”) explained 35 percent of the variance in performance under pressure. If you have an aversion to pressure in the sporting context, you may have one or more of these two traits and need to address it/them to become cooler under fire.

At the other end of the spectrum are athletes who not only thrive under pressure but actively heap pressure upon themselves for the sake of its performance-enhancing effects—athletes including my favorite of all time, Muhammad Ali. Throughout his storied career, Ali used trash talk as a way to heighten the personal stakes of his bouts, making bombastic public promises that would come back to embarrass him if he failed to back them up. A few examples:

Before his first fight with Sonny Liston: “He might be great, but he’ll fall in eight.”

Before fighting Buster Mathis: “I will do to Buster what the Indians did to Custer.”

Before fighting George Foreman: “George can’t hit what he can’t see.”

Sure, Ali had other reasons to deliver lines such as these in the lead-up to fights. They expressed a frothing, youthful élan that he couldn’t bottle up even if he wanted to. They also increased interest in his bouts, which helped his bottom line. But on a pure athletic level, Ali talked trash to put even more pressure on himself than was already tied up in fighting for huge prize purses on national television, and he did so because he knew it would make him fight better.

I’m no Muhammad Ali (duh), but I’ve taken Ali’s example to heart. Ever since the rise of social media, I’ve used the medium to share my athletic goals as a way to compound the cost of pressure and thereby increase my chances of succeeding. Most recently, I set a goal to run a sub-5:00 mile for the first time in 32 years. It was a stretch, but despite the risk of making a fool of myself, I broadcast my intention on Facebook and Twitter and ginned up a fair amount of interest.

My first attempt was an utter disaster. I knew during the warm-up that I didn’t have the legs, and when I hit the 800-meter mark of the mile well off pace and redlining, I pulled the plug. I won’t lie: It was embarrassing to fail so spectacularly with so many folks paying attention, but I did not regret my choice to put my goal out there because I knew that my doing so would increase my chances of achieving it eventually. So I channeled my embarrassment and my hunger for an equally public redemption into my next attempt three weeks later and dropped a 4:55, and boy did it feel good (after the nausea passed)!

The word “pressure” carries more negative than positive associations, but it has proven positive potential for athletes. If you tend to have an aversive reaction to pressure, get to work on the anxiety and self-consciousness underlying this aversion. And if you are the sort of athlete who (so to speak) hits more free throws with an audience and cameras rolling and money on the line than without, consider seeking out sensible ways to add pressure to your pursuit of important goals, not for its own sake but for the sake of your performance.

Like many other endurance athletes, I’m adapting to the COVID-19 era by the seat of my pants, seeking ways to maintain my normal level of enthusiasm for training without races to look forward to and without a playbook. The pattern I seem to have fallen into—which has been working better than I would have imagined—is one of gamifying my training by injecting elements of the racing experience into some of my workouts.

Within the past few weeks alone I’ve done four ass-kicking workouts I had never done previously in my 30-plus years of running. Most recently, I completed a workout that I call Billat’s Analog Wind-Up. It’s named after French exercise physiologist Veronique Billat, who created the workout and whose book The Science of the Marathon I reviewed in last week’s post. More accurately, I completed a modified version of the workout Billat describes, which is unconventional to the point of being impractical. The original version is structured as follows:

11:00 acceleration from jog to full sprint

30:00 rest

6:00 acceleration from jog to full sprint

30:00 rest

3:00 acceleration from jog to full sprint

Billat makes no mention of a warm-up or cooldown, but presumably these are intended. In any case, I didn’t want to spend 60 minutes of an 80-minute workout just sitting around, and I also didn’t want to overwhelm myself with my first taste of this type of training, so I chose to do this instead:

15:00 warm-up

11:00 acceleration from jog to full sprint

15:00 jog

3:00 acceleration from jog to full sprint

15:00 cool-down

You’re probably wondering about the rationale for this unusual format. Billat offers several. The most obvious one is that, unlike traditional, “quantum” interval workouts, which expose the body to just two discrete intensities, Billat’s analog accelerations expose the body to every intensity of running from the very lowest to the very highest. It’s a type of challenge that a runner never experiences in the course of executing a conventional training program, and as such it simply must trigger some adaptive benefit. I can’t say whether incorporating this type of session into your training will make you fitter, but I can say for certain that it will change your physiology.

Another, and even greater, benefit of this workout is that it’s terrific pacing practice. The vastly underappreciated art of pacing is all about calibrating subjective perceptions (effort, pace) against objective performance metrics (time, distance, velocity). As you can probably imagine, executing a smooth, gradual acceleration from a jog to a full sprint over the course of 3, 6, or 11 minutes is extremely challenging, requiring intensive engagement of the mind in reading subjective perceptions and calibrating them to the objective metric of time. Pacing competence comes through experience and intentionality (actively trying to get better at pacing). I have a lot of both, and I therefore consider myself to be pretty good at pacing, but my first crack at Billat’s Analog Windup would be a real test.

The most likely way to screw it up would be to accelerate too quickly and redline prematurely. That’s because the relationship between running velocity and the duration that a given velocity can be sustained isn’t linear. On fresh legs, I can sustain a pace of 7:30 per mile for about 5 hours, a pace of 6:30 per mile for about 3.5 hours, and a pace of 5:30 per mile for just 30 minutes or so. Hence, effective execution of the workout would require that I backload the windups, accelerating very gradually, so I didn’t paint myself into a corner.

Even with this awareness, I painted myself into a corner in the first, 11:00 acceleration—not too badly though. With a minute to go I was suffering mightily and had very little room to speed up any further. I pinned the needle around the 10:40 mark and was probably losing momentum when I hit the end of my cul-de-sac at 10:54 and was forced to stop a few ticks early. I felt completely wrecked and feared the 3:00 acceleration would be truly ugly, but it actually turned out to be somewhat easier, which, in retrospect, I should have anticipated. Normally, a 3:00 maximum effort would be more painful than an 11:00 maximum effort, but the acceleration format flips normal on its head. Even in my fatigued state, I didn’t start to taste blood (metaphorically speaking) until around the 2:15 mark of the second acceleration.

It’s fascinating how quickly the learning process can unfold in a test of this sort. I did a much better job of pacing the 3:00 windup than the 11:00 windup, and not only because it was shorter. It was mainly because I was able to apply the bit of experience I’d gained to avoid painting myself into a corner a second time.

In addition to confirming that Billat’s Analog Windup is an effective tool for developing pacing skill, this initial experiment convinced me that the workout is also a solid fitness builder. There’s just no way a workout that causes so much suffering could not be beneficial. It’s not a very race-specific workout, however, so I think it’s best used in the late base or early specific phase of training, when you’re at least eight weeks out from racing. I will definitely do it again when the timing is right, and when I do, I’ll take the full plunge and so all three accelerations.

I first discovered the work of Veronique Billat in 2002, when I was working on my book The Cutting-Edge Runner. That’s a long time ago, but in retrospect I’m somewhat embarrassed that I hadn’t known about her even earlier, as she was then already well on her way toward titan status in the field of exercise science.

If you’re seeing Billat’s name for the first time, don’t be embarrassed. It’s not the job of everyday endurance athletes to maintain an up-to-date mental Who’s Who? in the area of sports science research. Now in her late 50s, Veronique is a Frenchwoman with a half-marathon PR of 1:18 who teaches at the Interdisciplinary University of Paris and has authored well over 200 scientific papers focusing primarily on the optimization of training methods in distance running. In 2018, she published a book titled Révolution Marathon that I never heard about because it was written in French. Correction: I hadn’t heard about the book until recently, when Johnathan Edwards, who is studying for his PhD under Billat, emailed me to ask if I would be willing to review an English version of it that he’s working on.

The answer was yes, of course, and within 24 hours I had a digital copy of the manuscript on my laptop. I’m not sure exactly what I expected, but The Science of the Marathon, as Edwards has rechristened the book, isn’t it—in a good way. Billat’s thesis is simple: The most effective way to run a marathon is not at the steady pace that is commonly advocated but at a variable pace, and by extension, marathon training should emphasize variable-pace running instead of being dominated by steady-pace running as it is for so many runners.

Billat makes a compelling case for this approach, beginning with the observation that the fastest marathons are run at variable speeds, and most often feature a fast start, a slower but oscillating middle, and a fast finish. She concedes that some of the underlying physiology that makes the variable-pace approach effective for the best marathoners in the world is absent in slower runners, but contends that a version of the same strategy is best for us mortals as well.

Why? A few reasons. First, Billat argues, starting fast allows a runner to get ahead of their goal time without putting themselves in a hole that they can’t climb out of, provided they slow down after 2 km (1.2 miles) or so. A fast start also primes the body and mind in ways that make the slower running that follows easier. Additionally, by generating high levels of lactate, starting fast creates a biochemical milieu in the muscles that stabilizes pH, preventing fatigue and making subsequent accelerations possible.

Furthermore, oscillations in pace allow runners to utilize more of their physiological toolkit than is possible when they lock into goal pace. They can, in a manner of speaking, rest one metabolic engine while firing another, generating a lot of lactate during surges and burning that lactate during slower segments. Managed properly, fluctuations in speed enable the marathoner to maintain a consistently comfortable effort level that all but ensures they are able to make a hard push in the final kilometers. I must confess, whereas some of the physiology Billat gets into flies over my head, this last rationale makes a ton of sense to me, as I know from studying Samuele Marcora’s psychobiological model of endurance performance that running performance is ultimately determined by perceived effort, and I know from personal experience that if you keep your pace steady in a marathon, your perceived effort level will fluctuate, and if you run by feel, your pace will fluctuate. As Billat puts it, by taking her approach, “You will no longer run to maintain a speed but rather run to maintain a feeling of racing intensity consistent with an ‘average’ effort on the marathon.”

The book mentions a 2006 study by Billat which showed that pacing by feel, hence variably, is more effective than steady pacing even at shorter distances. Subjects completed a 10K time trial by feel, and all of them exhibited fluctuations in pace. Later, the subjects were asked to complete a second 10K time trial running steadily at their average pace from the first. Amazingly, few of them were able to hold this pace longer than 7K.

It so happens that, when Edwards sent me Billat’s book, I was about six weeks away from taking a crack at running a 2:38 solo marathon time trial. My plan was to run 26.2 consecutive 6:04 miles. I am now considering the possibility of replacing my usual pacing strategy with a variable-speed approach. Having completed well over 40 marathons, I have some opinions of my own about how best to train for and execute a race of this distance, and I don’t intend to completely abandon my formula in favor of Billat’s. For example, she takes a dim view of high-volume training, whereas I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that high volume is critical to maximum marathon performance for me. But I have found her argument convincing enough to tweak my training according to Billat’s recommendations to prepare for this style of time trialing.

My first test was a 13.11-mile marathon-pace run, which again, I would normally have attempted to run at 6:04 per mile from start to finish. Instead I aimed to start with a pair of 5:52 miles, then run seven 6:10 miles, and finish with a cutdown from 6:02 to 5:56 over the closing four miles. In a word, it did not go well. After completing the first two miles in 5:49 and 5:51, feeling pretty comfortable, I slowed down to 6:10 pace expecting it to feel like an utter cakewalk, but it didn’t, and indeed I never really settled in at that slower pace. I was only able to cut down to 5:59 for the last mile, and doing so required a near-maximal effort (though I was slightly ahead of my target by then and wound up completing the run with an average pace of 6:03.5 per mile.

I’m smart enough not to conclude from this one experience that Billat’s variable-pace strategy doesn’t work, though at the same time I most certainly can’t conclude that it will work for me. Here’s the rest of my After Action Report on the test:

It was a hot day and I didn’t have my best legs going into the run. It’s possible I would have struggled even if I had used my usual steady pacing approach.

I’ve spent a lifetime making steady pacing second nature for myself. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the variable-speed strategy was a shock to my system. In the next test I will know better than to expect the slower running that follows the fast start to feel absurdly easy. I’ve done enough reading in exercise science to know that perceived effort is highly influenced by expectations. A relatively easy effort will feel harder if you expected it to feel easier.

Though Billat herself would probably disagree, at 49 I think I might just be too old to use the variable-speed approach effectively. In her book Billat points out that her strategy requires a large speed reserve. Her rule of thumb is that your maximum running speed must be at least double your marathon speed; otherwise the fast start and later surges will crush you. I’ve been working pretty hard on my speed lately because I’ve been participating in virtual mile races, so I’m already doing what I can to maximize my speed reserve, but it’s obvious that age has stripped me of my highest gears and they’re not coming back.

Be that as it may, I am at a point in my athletic career where nothing really matters all that much and I’m willing to take chances I would not have taken when I was younger. So I fully intend to continue guinea pigging Veroniqe Billat’s variable-speed marathon pacing strategy, and I’m confident it will be fun and interesting at the very least. More to come.

I don’t really consider myself an expert on anything, but I do know a thing or two about endurance nutrition and training. Nevertheless, I choose to coach on the training side only. If an athlete approaches me with a request for nutrition coaching, I refer them elsewhere. The reason is that I have found nutrition coaching to be frustrating and unrewarding. Whereas training right and eating right are both fairly simple in principle, in practice, eating right appears to be much harder for many athletes. All kinds of self-sabotage keep athletes from locking into a consistent set of healthy and effective eating habits. I’d like to briefly review the major forms of dietary self-sabotage in this post, with a special focus on a new study relating to one of them.

Perfection Targeting

We all know the expression, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.” Well, in the diet realm folks do this all the time. Who is more likely to eat an entire sleeve of Oreos in one sitting: a person who tries to never eat a single Oreo ever or a person who allows himself or herself to eat one Oreo every day? Science tells us it’s the latter. People who aim for dietary perfection (which is not even definable) tend to exhibit more erratic eating behavior and less -dietary self-control than people who merely aim for “good enough” in their eating habits.

Giving Up

We mustn’t overlook the fact that the single most common form of dietary self-sabotage, even among endurance athletes, is the virtual opposite of perfection targeting: giving up on trying to eat healthily. For most of us, eating healthily requires a concerted effort to break away from the Standard American Diet (SAD), which is the most convenient and comfortable way to eat in the U.S. and, increasingly, around the world. This effort proves to be too much for many athletes. It’s not a crime to eat too much fast food and sugar and not enough vegetables, but it does have consequences, and the one thing I really don’t like to see is athletes convincing themselves that they aren’t paying a cost for giving up and eating the SAD.


Mirror Enslavement

“Mirror enslavement” is my name for a form of dietary self-sabotage that entails focusing too much on outcomes and not enough on process. Scale enslavement is another version of the same phenomenon. Too many athletes decide that, either for performance reasons or aesthetic ones (or sometimes a muddle of both), they need to look a certain way or achieve a certain body weight by any means necessary, and the means they often choose is undereating. It’s much healthier to focus on building and sustaining eating habits that are proven to optimize health and fitness and trust that wherever these habits lead in terms of appearance and weight is where you need to be.

Fad Chasing

A lot of athletes are restless eaters—continuously bouncing from one fad diet to the next, one supplement or superfood or other nutritional magic bullet to the next. These athletes typically assume that the reason they’re always searching is that they haven’t yet gotten the results they want from anything they’ve tried, when in fact it’s the other way around: They haven’t gotten the results they want because they’re always searching. In other words, the true problem is not the diets themselves but the underlying restlessness.

This is not to say that specific fad diets are not also problematic sometimes. The fad diet that’s been causing the most problems lately for endurance athletes is the ketogenic diet, which systematically sabotages the fitness-building process by robbing the body of an essential energy source. Yes, I know that social media is teeming with testimonials from endurance athletes crediting keto for all kinds of miracles, but that ain’t science, and actual science tells us that adopting the keto way of eating as an endurance athlete is the dietary equivalent of riding a bike with square wheels or running with ski boots on your feet.

The latest scientific takedown of the keto diet is a study led by the legendary Louise Burke of the Australian Institute of Sport and published in PLoS One. Burke’s team actually repeated a previous experiment they’d done involving elite racewalkers, adding a twist that was intended to address criticisms of the original study lobbed by keto advocates who didn’t like the findings. Twenty-six elite race walkers were separated into two groups, one of which was placed on a high-carb diet (8.6 grams per kilogram of body weight daily) and the other on a ketogenic diet (<50 total grams of carbs daily) during a 25-day period of intensified training. Physiological and performance testing were done on both groups before and after the intervention.

What was different about this experiment was that, instead of doing the second performance test immediately after the “fat adaptation” process, the keto athletes were given 2.5 weeks to replenish their muscle glycogen stores by eating more carbs. In principle, this enabled them to have the best of both worlds, retaining the increased fat-burning capacity they’d earned through keto eating without being hamstrung by low carbohydrate availability.

The keto diet did achieve its objective of increasing fat-burning capacity in the athletes who followed it, their peak rate of fat oxidation during exercise jumping from 0.6 g/min to 1.3 g/min over the course of the 25-day intervention and remaining elevated through the replenishment period. However, as in the first experiment (and in other studies), this seemingly beneficial adaptation was not really beneficial at all, resulting in a sharp increase in the energy cost of walking at race speeds. On average, performance in a 10K racewalk event improved by 4.8 percent among athletes who followed a high-carb diet and decreased by 2.3 percent among those who were fat-adapted. Oops!

Long story short, be wary of fad diets. Elite endurance athletes eschew them, for the most part, and I encourage you to do the same. Indeed, emulating the core eating habits widely shared by elite endurance athletes (as described in The Endurance Diet) is a great way to avoid all forms of dietary self-sabotage.

Injuries are the bane of the runner’s life. More than any other impediment, they thwart the efforts of runners to build fitness and achieve competitive goals. For this reason, injury risk management is a critical component of the training process. If there is a way to reduce injury risk, you want to know about and, if possible, implement it.

A new study in the International Journal of Sports Medicine sheds new light on how manipulating your training workload over time can help you avoid injury. A team of Dutch and German researchers enlisted 23 recreational runners to keep detailed training diaries for two years. An analysis of the data collected revealed that increases in the acute:chronic workload ratio predicted injury, where acute training load (ATL) was calculated as the average of running duration multiplied by intensity over a period of one week and chronic training load (CTL) was calculated as the average of running duration multiplied by intensity over a period of four weeks. What this study found, essentially, was that when a runner’s acute training load exceeded their chronic training load by 10 percent or more, the likelihood of an injury occurring within the next two to three weeks spiked.

The phrase “keep the ball rolling” is a summation of a training philosophy shared by a lot of today’s top running coaches that relates to the study I just described. I reflects the belief that the training process should aim toward slow, steady progress and avoid sudden leaps. Of course, a runner must first get the ball rolling in order to keep it rolling, and there’s inherent risk in this critical phase. But once you’re past it, the goal is to reduce the risk associated with workload increases as close to zero as possible without allowing progress to stall out altogether. This approach works best if you generally keep your chronic training load close to the highest sustainable level, which is to say the highest level you could keep up more or less indefinitely without burning out.

This study helped me better understand something I’ve noticed about my own running, which is that I don’t get injured as much as I used to. I’ve come to think this is largely because I keep the ball rolling. In the past, I kept repeating a cycle of getting injured, taking time off and losing fitness, getting healthy again and resuming training, going after big race goals, and getting injured again. I seldom took foolish risks in ramping up my training, but I reckon my ATL was more than 10 percent greater than my CTL more often than I realized. In any case, over time I learned what my body could and couldn’t handle, what it likes and doesn’t like, and today my personal training formula consists almost exclusively of what my body likes and can handle.

Keeping the ball rolling, for me, entails doing 14 hours per week of training in 12-12 sessions as a baseline. I repeat this routine week after week, with the majority of sessions (a lot of one-hour easy runs, uphill treadmills walks, indoor and outdoor bike rides, and elliptical rides; 30 minutes of strength training every third day) never changing. What do change are the key workouts: the higher-intensity runs and long runs. These become gradually more challenging and more race-specific as I get closer to my next targeted “peak.” The training load does increase, but very gradually, which keeps me healthier than I used to be and is okay from a fitness perspective because it’s pretty high even at baseline (except when I get COVID-19 and am out for an entire month).

Although I rely mainly on experience and tacit knowledge to keep the ball rolling in my training, there are some rigorous, quantitative online tools that runners of all experience levels can use to manage their injury risk by properly managing their training load. One is TrainingPeaks’s performance management chart, which tracks acute training load (“fatigue”) and chronic training load (“fitness”) continuously as you upload your training data. Another, which we’ve told you about in previous newsletters, is PWR Lab, an app that app analyzes smartwatch data to monitor injury risk and help runners make smart training decisions to stay healthy. PWR Lab is offering a coupon code that members of the 80/20 Endurance community.

Every runner should have a collection of mantras to use as appropriate in both training and racing. Add “Keep the ball rolling” to your collection.

Confidence, which defines as “belief in oneself and one’s powers and abilities,” is critical to athletic success. We all know this. Yet we seldom pause to reflect on the nature of confidence or to think about how best to manage it. This leads to some bad assumptions about confidence—such as the notion that more is always better—and poor confidence-management practices. The goal of this article is to give you a slightly different perspective on confidence that will help you manage your confidence better.

There are two major sources of confidence: external and internal. The main external source of confidence is experience. Like most other kinds of belief, “belief in oneself and one’s powers and abilities” requires an evidentiary foundation. Through the training process we learn what we are capable of, and in learning what we are capable of we set goals, and in pursuing these goals we look to the training process for evidence that we are moving toward them.

This component of confidence is—or should be—entirely rational. Confidence is beneficial only inasmuch as it serves to coax the best out of us, and your confidence will only coax the best out of you if your beliefs about what you are capable of are accurate. It does no more good to believe you can do more than you really can than it does to believe you can’t do as much as you really can.

This was shown in a study conducted by researchers at Michigan State University and Brock University and published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise in 2017. Seventy-five subjects answered questions designed to assess their self-efficacy (“an individual’s belief in his or her capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce specific performance attainments”) before being asked to hold a prone plank as long as they could. Those who scored either very low or very high on the self-efficacy test failed to hold the plank as long as they expected to, whereas those in the middle matched their expectations. When the plank test was repeated, the subjects with both low and high self-efficacy scores improved, whereas those in the middle did not, indicating that only the individuals possessing realistic initial expectations for their performance had given their best effort the first time around.

It’s not at all difficult to imagine what it was that only the subjects with a realistic sense of their planking ability performed up to their potential on the first try. Those who underestimated their ability simply quit when they had done as much as they’d thought they could, while those who overestimated their ability became frustrated when they discovered planking was harder than they thought  and quit for that reason. Do you believe you can fly? Then get ready for a hard landing. As these findings indicate, contrary to popular conceptions of confidence, you cannot believe your way to optimal performance. You achieve optimal performance by being right about what you’re capable of.

That being said, there is a role for positivity in managing confidence. Now we’re talking about confidence’s internal source. All athletes have good workouts, bad workouts, and average workouts. Insofar as confidence is necessarily dependent on proof of one’s capabilities, it is possible and not uncommon for individual athletes to experience significant fluctuations in their confidence level from workout to workout. A good workout boosts confidence, a bad workout lowers confidence, and an average workout has no effect.

The most successful athletes don’t operate this way, however. Instead, their confidence level is anchored specifically to their best recent performances, and therefore it fluctuates less and is generally higher than the confidence level of athletes who give equal weight to every single workout in assessing their capabilities. Perhaps this sounds like blind optimism to you, but in fact it is not, because an athlete’s best workouts are actually the most accurate indicators of their current fitness level and performance capacity.

Think about it: No athlete can perform beyond their physical capacity in a workout. If you do something in a workout, it is because you are fit enough to do it, period. There are no miracles or flukes. Bad workouts are a different story. It is quite easy, and even unavoidable over the course of intensive training, to perform below the level of your fitness in a workout due to fatigue carried from prior training. Therefore it is simply rational to look to your better training sessions only for evidence of you current fitness level and performance capacity, and by the same token it is irrational to allow your confidence to take a hit when you have a single bad workout. And here we arrive at the title I’ve chosen for this post: If one bad workout lowers your confidence level, you weren’t confident in the first place!

To the extent that confidence is an internal psychological trait, it consists in precisely this: a resistance to letting fear, insecurity, and other irrational factors influence one’s assessment of one’s powers and abilities. The older I get and the more I experience I acquire as an athlete, a coach, and a student of endurance, the more convinced I become that good, old-fashion level-headedness is probably the single most underappreciated contributor to success in endurance sport.

I ran my first Boston Marathon in 2009. Although I came into the race super fit, having just lowered my half-marathon PB, I knew within 12 miles that I was in for yet another long and disappointing day at the 26-mile, 385-yard distance. At 16 miles, I saw my family, who, at great inconvenience to themselves, had come out to stand in the rain for a glimpse of me. My brother Josh broke form the curb and ran alongside me for a few seconds, checking in.

“How’s it going?” He asked.

“Terrible,” I said disgustedly.

“Really? Why?”

“Because I suck at running marathons!” I barked.

This was not mere tantruming on my part. I really did suck at running marathons. I’d run my first one ten years earlier, starting out at 2:45 pace, hitting the wall at 18 miles, walking for a while, and ultimately finishing in 3:38. My next marathon followed the same pattern, though I was able to improve my time to 3:11. When the 2009 Boston Marathon took place, my PR was down to 2:41, but my times at shorter distances suggested it should have been closer to 2:35. True marathon mastery still eluded me, a fact that was underscored by my performance in Boston, where I finished in 3:18, having been reduced to walking yet again.

Things didn’t change until 2017, when I ran eight marathons in eight weeks as part of an adventure that I documented in my memoir, Life Is a Marathon. Only the last of these events—the Eugene Marathon—was run as an all-out effort, but by the time I got to Oregon I was no longer the same runner who had fallen short of his potential in every previous all-out marathon. I finished that race in 2:49, well shy of my PR, but I was 46 years old then and exhausted from eight weeks on the road, and my training had been far from optimal during that time (featuring no speed work whatsoever, for example). What mattered to me was not my time but how I had executed the race. When I reviewed my performance afterward in my mind, I realized I hadn’t made a single mistake in my pacing, nutrition, self-talk, or any other dimension of race execution, and that I had therefore, for once, done the very best I was capable of that day.

Five months later, at the Chicago Marathon, I set a new PR of 2:39, confirming that, at long last, I had mastered the marathon distance.

Fast forward to this year. Two months shy of my 49th birthday, I completed the brutally hilly Atlanta Marathon in 2:46:59, feeling very much on top of my game still. But then the bottom dropped out. I returned home from Atlanta carrying a virus that would lay me low for an entire month, decimating my fitness. When I was finally healthy enough to contemplate an athletic comeback, I quickly decided to race a virtual marathon that was then 5.5 weeks away.

It was a crazy idea, but somehow it just felt right. Only after it was behind me did I fully understand why. It’s no fun to suck at something, of course, but being so good at something that it’s no longer challenging and/or you’re no longer improving isn’t much fun either. I think I looked at the challenge of seeing how well I could prepare for a marathon in 5.5 weeks, and how well I could execute a marathon with questionable fitness, as an opportunity to test and stretch my marathon mastery. And it proved to be just that.

About halfway through the condensed training process, I got myself into a bit of a hole. A planned 23-mile run turned into a 12-miler, and my next two runs weren’t much better. I felt like a zombie. Having planned the most aggressive training ramp-up I thought I could handle, I knew it was highly likely that I would have to make some adjustments along the way to avoid burnout and injury. So that’s what I did, and eventually I got out of the hole.

When race day rolled around, I had only the vaguest sense of what sort of marathon performance I was capable of, hence how to pace myself. Different components of fitness are gained and lost on different timescales, and I was aware that I’d regained a lot more speed and aerobic capacity than I had raw endurance. Frankly, I would have been much better off racing a virtual 5K than a virtual marathon. The best plan I could come up with was to run the first 10K at 6:49 per mile (setting myself up for a sub-three-hour finish, barring disaster), then assess.

I started a little hot, completing the first mile in 6:44. The textbook move at that point would have been to forget about those five seconds and make sure to run the next mile in 6:49. But my body was telling me something else. Based on the nearly 50 previous marathons it had absorbed, my body knew what to do, and I knew to trust it. Long story short, I went on to complete the marathon in 2:54:42, averaging 6:40 per mile for the full distance. My half-marathon splits were 1:27:51 and 1:26:41. My last two full miles were my fastest, but not by much—6:29 and 6:31—indicating flawless pacing. I neither ran out of gas before I finished nor finished with gas in the tank but ran out of gas as I finished.

If it sounds like I’m bragging, it’s because I am. I was on Cloud 9 for the rest of the day, as high as I’ve been after any race, not because I’d lit the world on fire with my performance but because I’d been literally coughing up blood just eight weeks earlier. Later in the day, after my third or fourth beer, I recalled something Dave Scott said to me during a weekend I spent shadowing him in Boulder, Colorado, while working on a profile for Inside Triathlon. Dave had won the Ironman World Championship six times, yet he told me that the two races he was most proud of were both losses—his second-place finish in 1994 at age 40 after a five-year retirement and his final Ironman two years later, in which he overcame a disastrous bike leg to move up from 26th place to 5th during the marathon. After my virtual marathon experience, I understood more deeply why Dave looked back on these achievements so fondly. More than any of his victories, they tested and validated his mastery of Ironman.

Mastery is a mindset. When you possess this mindset, you aren’t really focused on outcomes; you’re focused on the process. Outcome goals are merely a facilitator of the true goal, which is to get better and better at the skill of racing (or playing the violin, or brain surgery, or whatever it is you’re trying to master). Mastery-minded athletes would rather be stretched in the process of losing than win easily, and they get more satisfaction out of making the best of bad circumstances than achieving a goal only because everything went their way. They’re also more likely to regard sucking initially at some skill—like racing marathons—as a reason to keep trying, not a reason to try something else.

Which is why I now want to master ultramarathons, which I suck at as much as I once sucked at marathons.

Pools are closed, but the weather is warming and athletes in many places are gaining access to venues for open-water swimming. Perhaps you’ve thought about take advantage of such an opportunity, but aren’t sure how to transfer the pool workouts you’re accustomed to doing to open water. Here are some tips.

Safety First

Much has changed in the past few months, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the rulebook for safe open-water swimming. For starters, don’t swim in any body of water where swimming is not currently permitted. Check before you go. When you do go, make sure to swim with at least one partner or with at least one observer on shore, if there’s no lifeguard on duty. Make sure also that you are aware of and prepared for the conditions (water temperature, currents, surf, etc.).

Technology to the Rescue

Although they were designed for pool use, our online library of 80/20 swim workouts can be used in open water. Just download the workout(s) you’re interest in doing and switch your device to open-water mode before your start. Your watch will then guide you through the workout using haptic feedback (i.e., vibration). Note, however, that it is not always easy to feel these signals, so be prepared to resort to another option if you have difficulty.

The Stroke-Count Hack

A low-tech way to convert structured swim sets to open water involves counting your strokes. To make use of it, you need to know either your average strokes per minute (SPM) or your average strokes per lap (that is, per 25 yards/meters or per 50 yards/meters, depending on your pool size). Some devices count strokes per minute automatically, so learning your stroke rate might be as easy as looking at data from past swims.

Suppose your stroke rate is 50 SPM and you wish to do a 300-meter interval at an intensity that equates to 2:00 per 100 meters. It will take you 6 minutes to complete this interval, or about (50 x 6 =) 300 strokes. Now all you have to do is count to 300!

Here’s another example: Let’s say you normally swim in a 25-yard pool and you know that it takes you 24 strokes to cover this distance. Using this number, you can calculate distances prescribed in any swim set you care to do.

Don’t Forget to Drill

Unless you’re already a highly advanced swimmer, the single most beneficial part of any pool swim you might do is the drill set. Athletes seldom bother with drills in open water, but there’s absolutely nothing stopping you from completing a more-or-less normal drill set in a lake, reservoir, or ocean. And, for that matter, there’s nothing stopping you from doing kick and pull sets as well!

Lemonade from Lemons

If you’re a triathlete, you seldom if ever compete in the pool. The vast majority of triathlon swims take place in open water. For this reason, open-water swim practice is a crucial part of preparating for optimal race performance. And for this reason, having no choice but to train in open water is as much an opportunity as it is a limitation. Take advantage of this opportunity by working on open-water swim skills such as beach starts and exits, sighting, and bilateral breathing. Hitting the lake (or whatever) is also a chance to work through any fear you may have of swimming in open water and to get more comfortable in your wetsuit.

Don’t Overthink It

There is, of course, a limit to the degree to which swim workouts designed for the pool can be recreated in open water. Don’t waste energy worrying about this limit. Open-water swimming is still swimming, and as such it’s way better than not swimming at all, or any dryland swim substitute. Even if you skip the drills and intervals and just put in 20 or 30 minutes of steady Zone 2 freestyle, you’re moving in the right direction compared to where you probably were a few weeks ago.

Here, for your free reading enjoyment, is the first chapter of Matt Fitzgerald’s book Running the Dream: One Summer Living, Training, and Racing with a Team of World-Class Runners Half My Age. If you decide you’d like to read the rest of it, please consider purchasing a copy from your local bookstore. Explore other options here.

93 Days to Chicago

Nine sets of (mostly nonmatching) running shorts and tops. A rainbow assortment of running socks. Running tights in two thicknesses and an old pair of half-tights worn down to gossamer in the seat area by unnumbered washings. Running gloves, running arm warmers, and a thermal running hat for cold days and a performance rain jacket for wet ones. A couple of warm-up suits. Three pairs of size 11.5 running shoes. Eight or nine running-themed T-shirts, some of them mementos of past races, others bearing the Hoka One One Northern Arizona Elite professional running team logo. Seven pairs of Runderwear brand athletic boxer briefs.

I stuffed these items into the larger of two well-traveled Samsonite suit- cases when I packed last night, having waited until my afternoon run was out of the way to do laundry. Into the smaller suitcase went an assortment of other essentials: energy gel packets, gel flasks, a canister of powdered sports drink mix, effervescent electrolyte tablets, a handheld drink flask, energy chews, energy bars, a hydration belt, an iPhone armband, wireless sport headphones, sport sunglasses, a roll of kinesiology tape, and a GPS running watch with charging cord.

Lacking both space and need for much else in the Fun Mobile (my wife Nataki’s name for our Mazda crossover), I crammed the gaps around our bags this morning with a few more items I wouldn’t dream of leaving behind, including compression boots for post-run recovery and a vibrating foam roller for the same use. Oh, and our dog, Queenie.

We hit the road at eight o’clock, right on schedule, traveling precisely one block before I realized I’d forgotten my driving shades. Annoyed beyond measure (time waste is a trigger for me), I pulled a violent one-eighty and sped back to the house, stopping hard at the curb instead of pulling into the driveway. I’d just succeeded in fumbling the house key into the front door lock when, hearing my name, I turned around to see Nataki gesturing casually in the direction of the garage, which was blocked from my view by a corner of the house.

“Garage is open,” she said.

Moments later I was back in the driver seat, buckling up with the forgotten eyewear perched on the crown of my head.

“We dodged a bullet there,” I said.

Indeed we had. Nataki and I were leaving home for thirteen weeks, an entire summer, to fulfill a dream—my dream—of living the life of a professional runner. That’s an awful long time to leave your garage door open.

Driving off again, I pressed the Fun Mobile’s voice command button and recited the home address of Matt Llano, a member of NAZ Elite and my teammate for the next three months. A vaguely feminine humanoid voice informed me that the drive from Oakdale, California, to Flagstaff, Arizona, would take ten hours, thirty-one minutes. Matt rents out rooms in his house to athletes visiting Flagstaff for high-altitude training. Most if not all these folks are not middle-age amateurs like me but real pros like Sally Kipyego, an Olympic silver medalist from Kenya, who recently slept in the same bed Nataki and I will share during our stay. It is unlikely that a slower runner than me has ever lain on that particular mattress.

Obeying our android guide, I headed south on Geer Road—a two-lane country highway choked with trucks driven by agricultural workers on their way to an honest day’s labor—to Turlock, where we picked up Route 99 and continued south through the Central California eyesores of Fresno and Visalia and Bakersfield before bending east. The dashboard temperature reading rose steadily as we pressed inland, peaking at an astonishing 122 degrees in the town of Needles on the Arizona border. We then began to climb, reaching 3,000 feet on the approach to Kingman, 4,000 feet near the Yavapai County line, and 5,000 feet as we skirted Seligman, the mercury falling in proportion to the Fun Mobile’s ascension. Between Ash Fork (5,160 feet) and Williams (6,766 feet), our rocky brown surroundings gave way to the lush verdure of the Coconino National Forest, in which Flagstaff nestles like a jewel on a bed of green velvet.

A pale late-afternoon sun was dipping languorously behind us when we hit the city limit. Canceling the navigation, I skipped Matt’s exit, took the next one, and cruised along South Milton Road, Flagstaff’s main drag, until I spied a Chili’s restaurant on the right. Minutes later we were enjoying an early dinner of burgers and fries (and beer, for me)—a sort of last hurrah. For the next ninety-three days, until the Chicago Marathon on October 8, I will do everything the real pros do and make every sacrifice they make in pursuit of the absolute limit of their God-given abilities, dietary sacrifices not excepted. From what I’ve heard, Matt Llano himself eats like a saint and has never tasted alcohol in his entire life. I don’t know if I can match his standard, but I’m going to try.

At six o’clock, our promised arrival time, I rang the doorbell of a newish home in the upscale Ponderosa Trails neighborhood, sucking on a breath mint. The door swung open and Matt appeared at the threshold. If I hadn’t known he was a world-class runner, I would have guessed it just by looking at him. His twenty-eight-year-old body has an avian economy, a built-for-flight appearance that is only hinted at by the tale of the tape: five-foot-nine, 125 pounds, 6 percent body fat.

“You made it!” he said, exposing a set of almost luminously white chompers. “Come on in.”

“We brought pluots!” I blurted in reply, handing Matt two large cloth bags filled with the ripe fruit Nataki and I had pulled off a tree in our backyard yesterday. Taken aback by the near-industrial volume of produce being foisted on him, Matt stared at the bags for an awkward second before accepting them.

“I love pluots!” he said, recovering. “I’ll do some baking with these.”

Matt led us upstairs and showed us our room, which we discovered to be about half again the size of our own master suite. I hauled our stuff in from the car while Nataki went to work unpacking and arranging. When this was done, I went downstairs to be sociable. I found Matt sitting at his kitchen breakfast bar eating a salad of kale, broccoli, shaved Brussels sprouts, cabbage, radicchio, avocado, cranberries, roasted pumpkin seeds, and apple cider vinaigrette topped with roasted chicken breast—a fairly typical dinner, he explained. Also present were his full-time housemate, Jason Blair, a local policeman with whom Matt went to high school in Maryland, and Jen Spieldenner, a professional triathlete from Ohio currently occupying a smaller guest bedroom on the first floor.

“What does Ben have you doing the next few days?” Matt asked.

Ben Rosario is the coach of NAZ Elite and a big reason I’m here, having responded with a surprisingly unhesitating “yes” when I emailed him eight months ago to ask if I could spend a summer as an unofficial member of his team and write about the experience.

“Not much,” I grumbled. “No run today, four miles tomorrow, six miles Sunday, and then I start running with the team.”

“That’s good, though,” Jen said. “Seven thousand feet is no joke. You have to ease into training at this elevation. Even if you feel good, it’s important to hold back. I made the mistake of doing too much too soon the first time I came here, and I dug a hole for myself that I never got out of.”

“It’s not just your running that’s affected,” Matt added. “When I moved here in 2011, my appetite went crazy. I would lie awake at night in the fetal position, miserable, too hungry to sleep and too exhausted to go upstairs to the kitchen for food.”

“And if you have any kind of open wound, it will never heal,” Jen piled on. “Last year when I came here, I had a sore on my lip. When I went home after three weeks, I still had it.”

Suddenly sleepy, I said goodnight to my new friends and shuffled off to bed, wondering what the hell I’ve gotten myself into.

We’re all familiar with the phenomenon of cramming. You fail to attend any of your American Civilization 101 classes or to do any of the required reading all semester, and then, with one week remaining before the final exam, you hit the books and burn the midnight oil in a heroic effort to catch up enough to escape with a passing grade.

Although stressful, cramming can work for students with good knowledge retention. The brain is an amazingly adaptable organ, capable of assimilating tremendous amounts of information in very little time given intensive exposure. Heck, you can learn a whole new language in a week if you fully immerse yourself in it and you’re good with accents.

It’s a different story with the rest of the body. The muscles and cardiovascular system are also highly adaptable, but they change on a much slower timescale than the brain does. You can’t cram for a marathon in the same way you can cram for a college exam. But a form of cramming is possible in marathon training under certain circumstances. Under normal circumstances, runners in marathon training build fitness at a leisurely rate, because in doing so they minimize the risk of injury and burnout and maximize the likelihood of successfully attaining peak fitness for race day. It is possible, however, to purposely build fitness more quickly, and even to aim to build fitness at the maximum rate achievable, and indeed this is precisely what I am doing now. 

Here’s how I ended up here: This past winter I was on a roll—training consistently and intensively and racing well at distances ranging from 5K to the marathon. Then I got sick. Really sick. Between early March and early April I did virtually zero exercise, and as a result I hemorrhaged fitness. It wasn’t until April 8th that I felt ready to try my first tentative test run. It went okay, and so, being who I am, I immediately set about making plans to get back to racing.

In the early days of my illness, when I assumed it was going to be the usual mild flu, I committed to all four events of the Rambling Runner Virtual Race Series: a 5K in late March, a 10K the following week, a half marathon in mid-April, and a marathon in mid-May. By the time I was back on my feet, the first two events had already past and the half marathon was just around the corner, and I was nowhere near ready for it. But I had five and a half weeks from the date of those first six 10-minute treadmill miles to prepare for the marathon. Could I pull it off? I decided to give it a shot.

The goal for me is not to achieve the sub-2:40 time I believe I would have run in the Modesto Marathon on March 27th if COVID-19 hadn’t hit and I hadn’t gotten it. I just want to embrace the physical and mental challenge of seeing how far back I can come in such a short period of time. I’m approaching it as a test of my knowledge, experience, and judgment more than anything.

After surviving a handful of slow but increasingly normal-feeling jogs, I decided to sit down and create a plan for the last four weeks of my marathon cramming. I know this sounds like an obvious step, but I normally train without formal plans. I’ve been running long enough that I am generally able to train very effectively by creating a loose mental road map and filling in the details as I go. In this case, though, I felt the need to take a more conventional approach.

The key decisions I made are as follow: 1) I would run every other day. I was doing this even before I got sick, as I often do when some pesky sore spot in my much-abused body makes it unwise or impossible to run more often. 2) I would make every run count, alternating long runs and quality runs so that I was doing one of each every four days. And 3) I would do a ton of cross-training (indoor and outdoor cycling, steep uphill treadmill walking, and elliptical biking) to maximize my aerobic fitness  development without the heightened injury risk that would attend running more. I kicked it off with a 14-mile run on April 17th, one month out from the virtual marathon. Here’s the rest of the plan (runs appear in bold):

Week of April 19Week of April 26Week of May 3Week of May 10
Hill Reps
10 x 0:30 hard uphill 

Strength Training 

Strength Training 

Easy Run
8 miles easy 

Cross-training 2x
Cross-training 2xSpeed Intervals
10 x 1:00 @ mile race pace 

Strength Training 

Marathon Pace Run
14 miles including 10 miles @ marathon pace
Long Run
17 miles easy
Cross-training 2xTempo Run
10 miles including 6 miles @ half-marathon effort 

Strength Training 

Cross-training 2xLong Run
23 miles easy
Cross-training 2xEasy Run
8 miles easy 

Steady State Run
8 miles including 6 miles @ marathon effort 

Strength Training 

Cross-training 2xCritical Velocity Reps
4 x 1 mile a little faster than 10K race pace 

Progression Run
8 miles with the last 3 @ 80%, 85%, and 90%

Strength Training 
Cross-training 2xStrength Training 

Easy Run + drills and strides
Strength Training 

Long Run
20 miles easy
Virtual 1-Mile Race + 2-mile tempo 

Depletion Run
20 miles easy, no carbs before or during
Easy Run + drills and strides

As you can see, it’s quite aggressive, especially considering the thinness of the fitness base it builds on. But it’s not reckless. It represents the limit of what I think my body can adapt to, no more. And if it turns out to be too much at any point, I can always dial back. And if I fail to dial back sufficiently or in time and I get injured and have to take a little time off from running and delay my next race, so what? I’ve survived worse.

One of my biggest pet peeves is the phrase “proper running form.” I can’t stand it. Why? Because it implies that there’s only one correct way to run, and nothing could be further from the truth. Even worse, it implies that good running form is defined by how the stride looks, which further implies that the most effective way to improve the running stride is to consciously endeavor to make it look a certain way. Again, nothing could be further from the truth.

Studies have shown repeatedly that when runners are asked to consciously alter their natural stride to make it look more “textbook,” they become less, no more, efficient. The well-known POSE Method is all about trying to make the stride look a certain way. A 2005 study led by George Dallam of Colorado State University-Pueblo found that 12 weeks of supervised training in the POSE Method left a group of eight experienced triathletes with less efficient strides.

The issue is that good running form is determined not by how the stride looks but by how hard a runner’s brain has to work to generate and sustain a given running velocity. This might sound weird, but it’s actually how skill in any motor activity, from archery to drumming, is defined. The more skilled you are in a given activity, the quieter your brain is when you do it. Conscious efforts to make the stride look a certain way are counterproductive because they unnecessarily increase the amount of brain activity required to run.

Okay, so where does this leave us? If the monkey-see-monkey-do approach to running more efficiently doesn’t work, what does?

Practice is the number-one factor. How do you get better at juggling? You juggle. It’s the same with running. Throughout every run you do, your brain is in constant communication with proprioceptive nerves in every part of your body, looking for ways to trim waste from the motor program it uses for running. This process is unconscious, automatic, and highly effective. In a 2012 study, Sharon Dixon of the University of Exeter in England measured changes in a number of stride features as well as changes in running economy in a group of 10 beginner female runners. These women trained for 10 weeks without any technique instruction. They just ran. During that period their running economy improved by 8.4 percent.

There is evidence that, although this process does slow down, it never stops. Indeed, ongoing, practice-based improvements in stride efficiency are probably the main driver of performance gains in runners who have already maxed out their aerobic capacity and other major fitness components. A 2011 study conducted at the University of New Hampshire compared various fitness measurements and also running economy in runners representing three different age ranges: 18 to 39, 40 to 59, and over 60. Unsurprisingly, they found that VO2max, maximal heart rate, maximal speed, strength, and power all declined with age. But guess what? Running economy did not. And because factors such as muscle strength contribute to running economy, these findings suggest that, on a neural level, the oldest runners were actually more efficient than the younger ones.

In short, efficient running comes from experience, and experience takes time. There are certain ways to accelerate the process of becoming a more efficient runner, however. One such method is uphill interval training. A 2013 study led by Kyle Barnes of the Sports Performance Research Institute New Zealand found that six weeks of high-intensity uphill interval training improved running economy by an average of 2.4 percent in a group of well-trained runners. It has been speculated that uphill interval training serves as a kind of movement-specific strength training that enhances the springiness of the legs.

Springiness? Yes, the human body operates as a spring during running, and just as a pogo stick with a stiff spring will bounce higher than a pogo stick with a loose spring, a runner with greater leg stiffness is able to capture more of the “free energy” that rebounds from the ground into the foot after impact and use it to propel forward motion. Certain forms of strength training (particularly high-load weightlifting involving the legs) have been shown to improve running economy specifically by increasing leg stiffness on impact. Plyometrics training (i.e., jumping exercises) are also effective in this regard. A 1999 study by Leena Paavolainen and colleagues that reported significant improvements in 5K race times and in running economy after nine weeks of plyometric training also found a significant reduction in ground contact time, lending support to the spring theory. 

Core strength training has been shown to enhance running economy in a slightly different way. Efficient running depends partly on efficient transfer of forces between the upper body and lower body. (This is one reason it’s essential to move your arms in opposition to the legs when you run). Core strength training aids this transfer and may also mitigate the negative effect of trunk muscle fatigue on running economy. A 2019 study appearing in the journal PLoS One reported that eight weeks of core strength training reduced oxygen consumption at a moderate running velocity by 4.6 percent in a group of college athletes.

Related to plyometrics are form drills—high knees, butt kicks, and so forth—which isolate and intensify certain elements of the stride. There is no scientific proof that doing form drills regularly has any beneficial impact, but the fact that they are almost universally practiced by elite runners says something. What you will discover if you do practice form drills regularly is that you aren’t very good at them initially but you get better over time. This improvement almost has to translate back to your running. And even if you can’t measure the effect, you can certainly feel it. Runners who make the effort to master form drills often report feeling more athletic.

Another proven way to improve running economy is barefoot running. When you run without shoes, you run differently. And if you do enough barefoot running, some of those differences transfer back to shod running. A small 2013 study conducted at the University of New Hampshire found that a 10-week barefoot run training program improved running economy by 4 percent.

Barefoot running has drawbacks, however. It’s impractical and even dangerous in many environments and requires a long period of adaptation that can be highly disruptive to the flow of training. An alternative to barefoot running that may offer the same benefits without the disadvantages is a clever little product called ShoeCue. ShoeCue is a unique, textured insole that fits inside any running shoe and works by enhancing proprioceptive feedback from your feet to your brain during running. Essentially, ShoeCue tells your brain when you’re landing too hard, allowing you to adjust your stride automatically as you go. 

One final method of accelerating the process of becoming a more skillful runner is cadence manipulation. Each runner has a natural stride rate that tends to gradually increase with fitness and experience. As a general rule, it’s best not to interfere with this process, particularly if the interference involves forcing yourself to consciously think about your step rate. But there is a way to get a little practice at a slightly higher step rate that may soon be natural for you without turning your attentional focus inward, and that’s by running with a metronome set at 110 percent of your natural stride rate and matching your steps to the beat.

It’s best to do these “cadence runs” on a treadmill, as there is a natural tendency to speed up when trying to achieve a higher stride rate. Step one is to download a metronome app onto your smartphone. Next, hop onto a treadmill, start running at your normal easy pace, and adjust the tempo of the metronome to match your step rate. Now increase the metronome tempo by 10 percent, adjust your step rate to match it, and complete the run at this higher cadence. Do this one a week or so.

As you see, there are ways to become a more skillful runner, they just don’t include trying to look like Genzebe Dibaba when you run.

Currently I’m working on a book called The Comeback Quotient, in which I attempt to answer a very simple question: What is it that enables some athletes to overcome major setbacks and make the very best of the very worst situations?

The answer I offer will surprise many. Comebacks come in infinite varieties, but the one thing that every athlete is doing in every improbable comeback is fully facing reality. To make the very best of the very worst situations, I argue, an athlete must first accept their current reality, then embrace it, and finally address it to the best of their ability. In the terms of a popular expression, the athlete must first face the fact that life has given them lemons, then commit to making lemonade from those lemons, and then actually make lemonade. Fully facing difficult realities is way harder than it sounds, and this is why only a small fraction of athletes are truly able to make the very best of the very worst situations. I call these athletes ultrarealists. 

I do not make this argument merely because I think it can sell books. I really believe in it, to the point where, as an athlete myself, my entire mental approach to training and competition is focused on facing reality fully. It’s difficult to overstate how helpful it is to me to consciously endeavor to first accept, then embrace, and finally address reality each time I face a major challenge or setback. Like right now, for example. 

Few setbacks I’ve experienced have been greater than my recent monthlong battle with an illness that I’m 99 percent certain was COVID-19. Never before have I been so sick for so long, or done so little exercise for such a long period of time. I was in really good shape when I got sick, having just finished 15th overall at the Atlanta Marathon. Then the bottom fell out. During the worst period of my illness I went 13 straight days without doing any exercise. I couldn’t even walk the dog some days. It’s difficult to quantify how much fitness I lost, but I can tell you that when I did the first outdoor run of my comeback a couple of days ago my Garmin 935 rated my Performance Condition at -9 and told me to rest for 3.5 after I completed seven miles at 75 seconds per mile slower than my former easy pace.

The big mistake that a lot of athletes make when they’re in a situation like mine is to compare their current selves to their former, fitter selves throughout the process of coming back, which breeds discouragement. That’s a failure to accept reality, plain and simple. As a coach, I’m always telling athletes to look at it this way: As long as you’re training, you’re either already fit or you’re getting fitter. Neither of these things is bad. Yeah, being out of shape kind of sucks, but improving is fun, so if you’re out of shape but improving, focus on the latter part. That’s what I’m doing here in the early stages of my comeback.

After acceptance comes embracing. If I hadn’t gotten sick, I would now be pursuing the goal of winning my age group in some ultramarathon. Instead I’m pursuing the goal of rebuilding my fitness to the point where I can contemplate setting an ambitious competitive goal of some kind or another. I’m embracing my situation by finding as much enthusiasm for my actual goal as I would have had for the goal that was obviated by my illness. I’m genuinely eager to see how quickly I can get fit again. 

Champions are really good at embracing Plan B when Plan A goes out the window. One of the athletes whose story I’m telling in The Comeback Quotient is Petra Majdič, a Slovenian cross-country skier who came into the 2010 Winter Olympics as a favorite to win gold in the women’s sprint event. That goal went out the window, however, when Petra flew off course while warming up for the qualifying round and fell into a 10-foot gulley, breaking five ribs. Incredibly, she still competed, though her goal now was not to win a gold medal but to try her best and not give up. Even more astonishing, Petra advanced from qualifying to the quarterfinals, from the quarters to the semis, from the semis to the final, and came away with bronze—all in the span of four hours and despite suffering a punctured lung during her semifinal—and she did it because she not only accepted her freak setback but embraced the new situation it put her in.

Accepting that life has given you lemons and resolving to make lemonade from them do not guarantee that you’ll end up with lemonade. Athletes often fail to successfully address the reality of a bad situation through failures of will and failures of judgment. Either the reality they confront in the effort to make the best of the situations is too much for them or they misread the demands of the new reality and apply the wrong solution. Petra Majdič did not do the impossible when she won a bronze medal with five broken ribs and a punctured lung. She simply accepted a level of pain that very few athletes could. It so happens that I injured several ribs during my recent illness as a result of violent coughing, and they still hurt like hell when I run, and I can tell you there’s no freaking way I would be able to force myself to produce four all-out cross-country ski efforts with the injuries Petra had!

I will, however, be willing to do the hard work necessary to regain my lost fitness as quickly as possible. The thing I mustn’t do is try to do it more quickly than possible. I will need to exercise discipline and restraint throughout the process, making smart and sometimes disappointing decisions to minimize setbacks. Too many athletes try to make the best of bad situations through brute force alone. They want the solution to be, if not easy, then at least simple. Like all forms of wishful thinking this is a denial of reality.

In a way, it is actually very simple. No matter what sort of setback you’re trying to come back from, the way to do it is to fully face reality in three steps: accept, embrace, address. In short, be an ultrarealist!

There’s a moment in the film It Might Get Loud, a 2008 documentary centered on guitar heroes Jimmy Page, the Edge, and Jack White, that has stuck with me over the years. It’s the part where Jack is discussing the rationale behind his minimalist musical style, and in so many words he explains that making things harder for himself artistically forces him to become more resourceful in the creative process, thereby enabling him to come up with stuff he would never have come up with otherwise.

There’s a deep human truth embedded in this mindset, which is that with constraints come opportunities. When something is taken away from you—like, say, your ability to train and compete in groups because of a viral pandemic—it is natural to regret the loss. But the most resilient among us quickly pivot from focusing on what we can’t do to what we can do, and that’s exactly what many athletes are doing in response to the current crisis. If you’re open to turning the lemon of coronavirus into lemonade, here are four potential ways to do so.

Augment Your Home Gym

The day I learned that the health club I’m a member of would be shutting down, I went online and bought a 45-pound kettlebell. It was the one piece of equipment I felt I needed to perform at-home strength workouts that were just as effective as the ones I normally do at In-Shape. (I already had a Swiss ball, a pair of 35-pound dumbbells, TRX straps, resistance bands, and slide disks.) It doesn’t take a lot of dough to create a home strength-training set-up that is in no way limiting compared to what can be done in the gym. If you don’t already have all you need to do challenging and well-rounded strength workouts at home, take this opportunity to fill the gaps.

Expand Your Healthy Cooking Repertoire

By coincidence, my sister-in-law Jennifer gifted my wife and me with a delivery of Hello Fresh! meals three weeks into the shelter-in-place period here in California. In case you’re not familiar with the service, Hello Fresh! home-delivers fresh ingredients and original recipes for meals that customers then cook in the comfort of their own kitchen. The timing couldn’t have been better for us. With more time to cook and with restaurants closed and trips to the supermarket being risky, we recognized Jennifer’s thoughtful gesture as a great way to not only survive the pandemic but turn it into an opportunity. I’m not trying to sell you on Hello Fresh! specifically, but I am trying to sell you on the idea of using this challenging time to expand your repertoire of healthy homecooked meals.

Bone Up on Your Sport

If you enjoy reading, the natural thing to do when you’re stuck at home more than usual is to accelerate your reading rate. And if you’re an endurance athlete who likes to read, a great way to make productive use of extra time at home is to educate yourself about your sport. I’m mainly a fiction guy myself, but I recently enjoyed and learned a lot from Tait Hearps’s and Matt Inglis Fox’s charming little book Eliud Kipchoge, which describes the authors’ experiences inside an elite Kenyan running camp in the summer of 2017, and next up for me is The Athlete’s Gut by Patrick Wilson.

If I may make a somewhat self-serving book recommendation (and I may, because this is my damn blog), consider preordering a copy of Running the Dream: One Summer Living, Training, and Racing with a Team of World-Class Runners Half My Age. I wrote it in the hope of entertaining, inspiring, and edifying my fellow runners all at the same time, but I’ll let you judge whether I pulled it off.

Build Better Sleep Habits

For as long as I can remember, I have utterly refused to compromise on my sleep. I get eight-plus hours a night year-round. But most adults in the U.S. and a lot of other places are chronically underslept, and endurance athletes, being busier during the day than most adults, are even likelier to sleep too little. This isn’t good, because endurance training increases sleep needs and exacerbates the costs of under-sleeping. 

Chances are the current health crisis affords you more time to sleep than your normal lifestyle facilitates. If you’re among the majority of athletes who don’t sleep enough, take advantage of this opportunity, not just by sleeping more now but by doing so with a view toward establishing a new routine that you can carry forward after this nightmare has passed. And, for that matter, be sure also to carry forward the Jack White mindset that with ever constraint comes the potential to discover new ways forward.

Runners are goal-oriented by nature. It goes without saying that the pursuit of goals requires planning and a certain degree of control. It’s difficult to pursue the goal of, say, lowering your half-marathon PB if you don’t have a specific half-marathon event on your calendar and if it’s beyond your power to put one there.

The ongoing COVID-19 (aka coronavirus) outbreak has placed runners all over the world in a position where they are unable to do much planning and they have less control over their path forward in the sport than they are accustomed to. This semi-helpless situation is the source of a great deal of anxiety for many. As a runner myself, I am in the same situation, and not only that, but I’ve been quite sick (and yes, I’m about certain it’s COVID-19, though I’ve been unable to get tested) for the past three and a half weeks, hence even more helpless and unable to plan. To cope with my unhappy circumstances, I’ve been channeling my inner Kenyan, something I’ve done when dealing with setbacks and uncertainty ever since I spent time in Kenya five years ago, and I encourage all runners to give it a try—starting today.

During my time in Kenya I was profoundly struck, and ultimately quite humbled, by the easygoingness of the people. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that nothing ever rattles or worries a Kenyan. Throughout my two-week stay in the country, few things happened on time, just about everything that could have gone wrong did, and no one minded. I was most impressed by Francis, the driver who was hired to transport my group from place to pace. One night, on our way back to Nairobi from Iten, we hit a traffic jam caused by a tractor trailer and a bus that had gotten stuck side by side on a narrow bridge, creating an impassible barrier. Smiling his ever-present smile, Francis hopped out to join the scrum of men discussing possible solutions to the conundrum, a discussion that was remarkably devoid of acrimony. From my distant vantage, they might as well have been talking about the weather.

Eventually we made it to the other side of the bridge. But the next day, our van broke down in a remote area. Francis’s smile never faded as he went through a multi-hour process of trying and failing to get the vehicle repaired so we could complete our journey. Eventually, the leader of our group hired another driver and Francis was left behind to continue dealing with the situation, still smiling.

The rest of us had been back in Nairobi for 24 hours when we saw Francis again, looking like he’d just won the lottery. I asked him how his misadventures had ended and he proceeded to explain that he never was able to get the van fixed, or at least not properly, and he got home by driving 30 mph the whole way—the highest speed the vehicle could sustain without falling apart. I pictured myself in the situation he’d just endured, and what I pictured was a wild-eyed man pounding the steering wheel, barking four-letter words, and visibly shaking from an endogenous cortisol overdose. 

Kenya’s runners share the broader culture’s laissez-faire attitude. This attitude is well captured in Tait Hearps’s and Matt Inglis Fox’s little book Eliud Kipchoge, which describes the authors’ experience inside an elite Kenyan running camp in the summer of 2017. The authors were shocked by how every run was loosely scheduled, few began at the originally scheduled time, and many were compromised by rain, poor roads, and other vagaries of the environment. And yet, they write, “None of this inconsistency and unpredictability appeared to perturb the athletes. They were habituated to it, and it appears not to be a part of the culture to be stressed or rushed in Kenya. Whenever they received bad news about new developments they never complained. They would pour another cup of chai, and keep chatting amongst themselves.”

Hearps and Fox go on to note, “This relaxed attitude and loose structure, although somewhat difficult to work with from our point of view, is quite refreshing once one adjusts to it.” I would add that, not only is the mellow Kenyan disposition refreshing for the openminded outsider, it’s also extremely healthy for and helpful to those who possess it. Their near-total immunity from anxiety enables the runners of Kenya to cope more gracefully with setbacks in training than most runners do, keeps them from wasting time and energy on vain efforts to control the uncontrollable, is a major reason they almost never choke in big races, and makes the whole athletic journey more enjoyable and less stressful.

When I left Kenya, I did so with the conscious intention of taking a piece of the country with me, on the inside. In moments when I catch myself slipping into a state of anxiety in response to some contretemps affecting my running, I make a conscious effort to call upon my inner Kenyan—to essentially do what Eliud Kipchoge would do in my place. Never have I needed this tool more than in the present COVID-19 crisis, not only because I’ve been stripped of my ability to plan out my running future but also because I actually have the virus (or something very much like it), and have been stripped of my ability to exercise, my fitness, and my health. It sucks, but after a brief initial pity party, I’ve been coping with a fair degree of poise, and I’ve done so simply by refusing to allow myself to worry about the future, as the people of Kenya seem to do instinctually.

As chance would have it, I’m currently reading the autobiography of Katherine Grainger, a legendary British rower. There’s a particular passage in the book that has supplied me with an additional tool to use in my effort to handle my present situation like a Kenyan, and I highly recommend you give it a try as well. Katherine herself learned this tool from Chris Shambrook, British Rowing’s team psychologist. In a meeting between Chris, Katherine, and her coxless pair crewmate Kath Bishop ahead of the 2003 World Championship final, Chris offered the rowers an image to use to keep their thoughts in the present moment during the race. Katherine writes, “Chris described having a trampoline at the finish line, turned on its side so that any thought that jumped to the finish or the outcome was immediately bounced back to the present moment we were in.”

I love this image, which an athlete can use whenever future-directed thoughts cause worry or frustration. So, the next time you catch yourself feeling anxious about the uncertainty of your immediate running future, do two things: Picture a tipped-over trampoline and ask yourself, “What would Eliud Kipchoge do?”

The concept of peaking in endurance training goes back many decades. It’s essentially the art of timing your next big race to coincide with an ephemeral highpoint in performance capacity that is achieved through careful manipulation of training load and sequencing of training stimuli. A critical belief (or assumption) underlying the practice is that endurance athletes are only able to achieve the very highest level of performance possible for them every several months, and actually attaining this level requires that we plan and execute our training just right. Failure to get it just right will result in peaking too early (reaching a fitness highpoint before race day and subsequently becoming “overtrained”) or arriving at the start line with room still left to get fitter.

But is peaking really a thing? In other words, is it actually true that peak performance potential is only possible in a handful of 24-hour windows each year, and that traditional methods of peaking are the only way to each these highpoints? I’m not really sure, honestly. 

One thing that is certain is that performance potential does tend to reliably increase as training loads increase (assuming adequate recovery) and as key workouts become more race-specific. It is also certain that athletes can only increase their workload (or train above a certain threshold) for so long before their fitness stops increasing and their performance drops due to excessive fatigue. These two facts would seem to require that athletes who wish to perform at the very highest level they’re capable of in certain races stick to a traditional approach to periodization.

There are, however, some noteworthy examples of athletes who defy this tradition without apparent consequence. One example is marathon world-record holder Eliud Kipchoge, whose training practices have been widely shared on the Internet. In analyzing them, American running coach Steve Magness was struck by how they flouted certain rules of peaking—particularly in their lack of a gradual increase in workload of a multiweek pre-race taper. “He appears to simply get in a groove and stay there,” Magness writes.

One thing that is not captured in the training logs Magness analyzed is Kipchoge’s conscious awareness of where he is in his training in relation to the race (in this case the Berlin Marathon) he’s training for. When athletes know that a race is far away, they tend naturally to hold back a little in training, preserving motivation for when it’s really needed. As race day draws closer, they allow themselves to go deeper and deeper into the pain cave in key workouts. In this way, a training program that may appear unchanging on the surface may in fact be progressive.

In short, peaking appears to be largely a psychological phenomenon. Further evidence of this comes from a 2010 study in which it was reported that runners at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point exhibited no significant increases in fitness measures over the course of a cross country season, and yet performed better in late-season races. Also, a 1981 study found that pain tolerance increased markedly in national-class swimmers over the course of a season, a possible sign of increasing motivation levels.

Another thing Magness observed in Kipchoge’s training is that, while the workload was heavy, it wasn’t extremely heavy, noting that “there ae very few mind-blowing workouts.” Kipchoge himself has said of his training, “I have been doing all things at 80 percent.” In this way I see Kipchoge not as an aberration but as part of a growing movement away from traditional periodization at the elite level. I was first awakened to the concept of what I now like to call the “always-ready” approach to training periodization by professional triathlete Meredith Kessler. When I interviewed her for Triathlete a number of years ago, Meredith said to me in reference to her training, ““I can drop in an Ironman at any time of the year if I want to. I’m even-keeled the whole year. I don’t have an off-season. I don’t really even taper. It never feels up or down. When [coach] Matt [Dixon] tells me, ‘You have a 10-day block,’ I look at it and say, ‘That looks like the same thing I just did.’”

I used the always-ready method myself in training for last year’s Ironman Santa Rosa, and it worked very well. The key is to find a level of training that’s high enough to allow you to perform at close to peak level whenever you please yet low enough that it’s more or less indefinitely sustainable. Of course, no serious athlete wants to perform at close to peak level in their most important races, but the always-ready approach is not about lowering the bar. To compete at a true peak level using the always-ready approach, all you have to do is A) rely on your conscious awareness of when your next big race takes place to enable you to take advantage of the psychological dimension of peaking and B) increase your training load for the last several weeks before event.

In my case, I found a groove at a training volume of about 16 hours per week, which I was able to sustain for many months without any sign of impending burnout. In the last six weeks before Santa Rosa, I gradually bumped this number up to 21 hours per week, tapered one week, and raced feeling fit and fresh. I’ve since used the same approach to enjoy a successful fall/winter “season” of running events ranging in distance from 5K to 100K. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the already-ready approach to periodization is “better” than the traditional, peak-focused approach, but I do believe it’s a legitimate alternative. If you want to give it a try, be prepared to experiment a bit before you find your personal maximal sustainable training load. And one final thought on the subject: Even with the always-ready approach, I think it’s necessary to take a break from serious training at least once a year, as I’m doing right now thanks to a mystery illness whose symptoms include a dry cough and shortness of breath. . .

If you are like most triathletes, swimming is a challenge right now, and by “challenge” we mean completely unavailable. Unless you are fortunate enough to have access to a private pool or a Vasa Ergometer, maintaining swim form is tough. Fortunately, there are some options to come out of this situation mitigating the damage to, and possibly even improving, your swim fitness.

Option 1: Replace your swim training with Cycling, Running, Strength Training, or Rowing

1. Replace approximately 50% of your swim volume with at-home strength and flexibility training or rowing. While there is very little evidence that strength training or rowing will help on the swim, lower body strength training will help you on the bike and run. Flexibility, on the other hand, will directly improve swimming.

2. Replace approximately 30% of your swim with volume with cycling.

3. Replace approximately 20% of your swim volume with running.

For example, a week with 3 hours scheduled swim might look like this to replace 2 of those 3 hours (the other hour still dedicated to dryland training in Option 2 below):

– 2×30 minutes strength and flexibility
– 35 minutes additional cycling (of which 7 minutes are at Zone 3 or higher)
– 25 minutes additional running (of which 5 minutes are at Zone 3 or higher)

Option 2: Replace your swim training with Dryland Training

Use this workout as an alternative to regular swimming. It can be used in combination with Option 1, where some swim workouts are replaced with cycling and running and the balance replaced with swim-specific dryland training. The only required equipment is a resistance cord such as the FINIS Dryland Cord. The workout consists of four exercises arranged in a circuit format. Complete each exercise once, rest for 30 seconds, and then repeat the entire circuit a total of 4 to 12 times (10-30 minutes).

To replace the swim workouts in your 80/20 plan, consider performing this workout 4-6 times a week, which would supplement 40-180 minutes of swimming. For example, if your 80/20 plan called for a total of 2.5 hours of swimming in a given week, performing this workout for 30 minutes a day for 5 days would meet that requirement.

Bent-Over Two-Arm Pull with Resistance Cord

Attach the middle of the resistance cord to a pole or other secure support at roughly waist height. Stand with your feet slightly more than shoulder-width apart with a slight bend in the knees. Hinge forward at the hips (not the waist) until your torso is at roughly a 45-degree angle to the ground and extend both arms directly overhead in line with your torso, one hand on each handle of the resistance cord. There should be light tension in the cord to begin. Contract your back muscles and draw both handles down to your hips, keeping your elbows high just as you would when executing a normal freestyle arm pull. Return to the start position. Continue pulling at a steady, unhurried rate for 30 seconds.


Prone Flutter Kick

Lie face down with your arms relaxed at your sides, palms on the floor. With a slight bend in the knees, contract your buttocks to lift your knees off the floor and begin to execute a tight flutter kick at a natural tempo. Continue for 30 seconds.

Bent-Over Alternating Single-Arm Pull with Resistance Cord

This exercise is identical to the Bent-Over Two-Arm Pull with Resistance Cord execute you pull with one arm at a time while keeping the other extended overhead. Continue alternating left-arm and right-arm pulls for 30 seconds.

Supine Flutter Kick

Lie face up on the floor with your legs fully extended and your arms relaxed at your sides. Tighten your stomach muscles, lift your heels off the floor, and begin to execute a tight flutter kick at a natural tempo. Continue to 30 seconds. To make the exercise more challenging, do it with your arms extended overhead, the backs of your palms two inches above the floor.


Resuming Your Swim Training After Time Away from the Pool 

Here are some basic guidelines for getting back into swim training after you’ve been out of the pool for a while:

Dip your toes. If you really wanted to, you could probably jump right back into the pool and repeat the last workout you did before your swim training was interrupted. It sure wouldn’t be much fun, however, and you might not be able to get out of bed the next morning. You’ll get back into a groove much quicker if you practice some restraint in the beginning. Keep your first swim short and easy, doing just enough to wake up those dormant swim muscles and begin the process of regaining your feel for the water. Here’s an example:

4 x 50m in Zone 1-2 with 0:10 rest

8 x 25m drills

2 x 50m in Zone 3 with 0:15 rest

4 x 25m kick

4 x 50m in Zone 1-2 with 0:10 rest

Focus on drills. Technique drills are always important and are too often underemphasized by triathletes. And when you’re getting back into swimming after a break, they become even more important. As much as half of the time you spend in the water in the first couple of weeks should be spent on drills. Although it might feel counterintuitive, you’ll regain your prior form faster with this approach than you will if you put more emphasis on normal freestyle swimming.

Listen to your body. The question every athlete in this situation asks is, “How quickly can I ramp up my swimming?” The answer is different for each athlete. If you’re younger and/or a more experienced swimmer, you might be able to ramp up very quickly. If not, you might need to go a little slower. Either way, your body will tell you. No matter how gentle that first swim is, you will probably feel some soreness the next day. Use this information and other internal signals (such as pain during swimming) to determine the appropriate rate of increase in your swimming volume. As a general rule, it’s best to start at a more conservative rate and adjust upward than the other way around.

Build a Bridge. If your ultimate goal is to resume or restart an 80/20 Triathlon Plan that you were forced to abandon or defer when you lost pool access, think in terms of building a fitness bridge that enables you to merge into this plan at the appropriate time. Once you have a good sense of the rate at which you are safely able to increase your swimming volume, start to look ahead and consider how long it will take for you to reach a level that will enable you to begin following the prescribed swim sessions in your chosen plan. You can then plan out the rest of your fitness bridge to ensure you’re ready to make that jump when the time comes.

The latest edition of the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism features a study that will be of interest to any runner seeking to perfect his or her race fueling practices. Conducted by scientists at the University of Bath and the University of Nottingham, the study compared the performance effects of consuming carbohydrate in small doses at high frequency and consuming an equal amount of carbs in one big lump at a crucial juncture during a treadmill run to exhaustion.

The subjects were six well-trained runners who ran as long as they could at a moderately high intensity on two separate occasions. On one occasion, the runners consumed 5 grams of sucrose every five minutes until they had taken in a total of 75 grams. On the other occasion, they consumed 75 grams of sucrose in a single dose 75 minutes into the run. Now, I know what you’re thinking: What runner in their right mind would gobble 75 grams of carbs all at once? Of course the first fueling protocol is going to yield better performance! But from an abstract physiological perspective, there’s no reason to make this assumption. That’s because the body of a well-trained runner stores enough carbohydrate to last more than 75 minutes at a moderately high intensity. So, in theory, the runners were getting that big lump of sucrose in time to preserve their ability to keep going at the same intensity.

Nevertheless, your assumption is correct: On average, the subjects lasted 105.6 minutes when given small, frequent doses of carbs compared to just 96.4 minutes when they had to wait 75 minutes for one big lump. But not all of the runners benefitted equally from the “carbohydrate drip” fueling approach. The researchers found that performance was most positively affected in those runners whose rate of stored carbohydrate use was reduced the most by frequent carb intake. This finding suggests that glycogen sparing was the mechanism by which frequent carb intake improved performance. But other research has shown that consuming carbs also boosts endurance performance by reducing perceived effort, so I’m sure this was a factor as well.

Granted, there is quite a bit of space between 5 grams of carbs every 5 minutes and 75 grams of carbs after 75 minutes. In the real world, runners are more likely to consume a gel packet containing 20 to 25 grams of carbs every 30 minutes or so. It would be interesting to see how this real-world fueling schedule compares to the carbohydrate drip approach. My hunch is that the closer a runner can get to a continuous, slow infusion of carbs during a race, the better. That’s why, when I take a crack at running a 2:38 marathon on March 29th, I will practice my version of the carbohydrate drip approach.

Here’s how it works: The Modesto Marathon (which is the event I’m competing in) has 13 aid stations, or one every 2 miles, give or take. I will grab a cup of Gatorade at each of them. Between aid stations, I will sip from one of two small flasks (as pictured above) containing a mix of Hammer Gel and water. These sips will be small and frequent—every 5 minutes or so. Between the Gatorade and the Hammer Gel I will take in 160 grams of carbs over the course of the race, or approximately 60 grams per hour. By executing this fueling plan, I should get more out of this amount of energy intake than I would if I took in the same amount in larger, less frequent doses, thanks to both glycogen sparing and a reduction in perceived effort. I have also found that the carbohydrate drip approach minimizes the GI discomfort that commonly attends energy intake during intense and prolonged running. What’s more, with the flasks I don’t have to worry about carrying sticky empty gel packets in my hand until I reach the next garbage can.

I should note that I am treating Modesto as a kamikaze marathon, meaning I intend to sustain my goal pace (6:04 per mile) until I reach the finish line or keel over. There will be no adjusting the pace based on how I feel as in a normal race. This makes it effectively a time-to-exhaustion test not unlike the one that was done in the study I described at the beginning of this article. It’s also the same strategy Eliud Kipchoge employed in his two sub-two-hour marathon attempts. Wish me luck!

I’ve finally gotten around to reading Graem Sims’s excellent biography of Percy Cerutty, Why Die? One of the things I like about it is how liberally it quotes from Cerutty’s writings, which are of mixed, yet surprisingly high, quality. I’ve highlighted a number of passages, including this gem: “To race superlatively I hold that one has to feel extreme ferocity. That this is directed against ourselves is the sublime part.”

Many athletes get angry at themselves when they perform poorly, deriving from this anger motivation to perform better in subsequent competition. I deal with this phenomenon in Chapter 6 of How Bad Do You Want It?, where I write:

Robert Wicks, a psychologist and author of the book Bounce: Living the Resilient Life, has referred to this type of angry resolve as “sweet disgust.” The phrase aptly conveys the idea that there is an element of healthy wrath in the fed-up mind state that fuels positive change. Sweet disgust is really the opposite of defeat. It is a determination to fight back, something that is hard to do effectively without anger. All else being equal, the angrier party in a fight wins. In psychobiological terms, sweet disgust enhances performance by increasing potential motivation, or the maximum intensity of perceived effort an athlete is willing to endure.

In 2000, Sabine Janssen and colleagues at the Dutch University of Leiden induced anger in volunteers and then subjected them to a test of pain tolerance. On a separate occasion, the volunteers took the same test in a neutral emotional state. Janssen’s team discovered that the subjects’ pain tolerance was significantly greater when they were angry. In 2010, English researchers found that inducing anger markedly improved performance in a hand-grip strength test. Pain is not quite the same thing as perceived effort and strength is different from endurance, but they are similar enough that we should expect anger to affect perceived effort and endurance performance in much the same way.

Recently I had direct experience of sweet disgust in my running. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you may know that on February 15 I dropped out of the Black Canyon 100K (my first attempt at the distance) at mile 38. Although my choice to throw in the towel was probably wise, it was, in fact, a choice, and it left a bad taste in my mouth. More precisely, it left me angry with myself, and desirous of exorcising the weakness that possessed my normally strong mind at the very next opportunity by means of a punishingly hard race effort.

Lucky for me, such an opportunity was close at hand, for I was scheduled to run the Atlanta Marathon just two weeks later. The catch was that I came away from the Black Canyon debacle pretty beat up, hence unsure that my body would be capable of running an all-out marathon so soon, and on a course that featured terrible roads and more than 1,800 feet of elevation gain. The other catch was that I was traveling to Atlanta as a special guest of Kerri Dienhart, founder of Destination Miles, a travel service catering to endurance athletes, to whom I had offered to pace one of her paying guests through his or her (presumably slower) marathon. But I really needed to get that monkey off my back, so I emailed Kerri and told her that A) I might not be physically able to fulfill my pacing commitment, and B) even if I was, I might be mentally unable to resist going for broke.

A competitive runner and triathlete herself, Kerri was understanding on both counts. Even better, my body recovered surprisingly quickly, and by the time I boarded my flight to ATL, I was both physically and mentally ready to test the performance-enhancing power of sweet disgust.

Let me pause here to give Kerri and Destination Miles a heartfelt plug. Race aside, I am almost willing to say, based on the experience I had in Atlanta, that I never want to travel to a race event any other way. It wasn’t just the VIP treatment—the airport pickup, the hotel pre-check-in, the swag bag, the private gear-drop area at the race venue, etc. It was also, perhaps even mainly, the group that made the experience so wonderful. I don’t need to tell you that runners, by and large, are great people, and I had an absolute blast with those I met and hung out with on this unforgettable weekend.

As for the race, what can I say? Sweet disgust really works! Before the race, I went out of my way to talk big, telling the group I wanted to finish the race as the first master with a time between 2:44 and 2:49. The point of this swaggering was to leave myself with no out when things got hard during the race and my inner wimp started trying to talk me into giving less than 100 percent. And that’s just what happened. Things got hard soon after the half marathoners peeled off and I confronted yet another challenging climb. At that moment my inner wimp cleared his throat in preparation for one of his sermons on the virtues of staying in one’s comfort zone, but that’s as far as he got. Remembering my big talk—and remembering also the way I felt after quitting Black Canyon—I slapped my inner wimp across the face, and did so several times more in the ensuing miles, as my suffering intensified.

If this sounds masochistic or self-spiting to you, you’re not quite understanding. The thing you should know about the self-directed anger that fueled my performance in the Atlanta Marathon is that it’s different from other forms of anger because it’s actually enjoyable. That’s why Wicks calls it sweet disgust. It’s the better part of you taking revenge on the part of you that let you down two weeks (or however long) before. There’s no real fear or anxiety in this particular flavor of anger because how you actually perform is of secondary importance. What matters most is something that is entirely within your control, and that’s how hard you push yourself.

In mile 17 I was passed by a guy with flecks of gray in his goatee. If I’d had to guess, I would have pegged his age at 40. This meant I was no longer leading the masters division of the race (assuming I had been up to that point). I spent the remainder of the race chasing the dude, turning myself inside out to reel him back, not because the masters title really mattered to me but rather as an excuse for ensuring that I left absolutely everything I had to give out on the pothole-studded streets of Atlanta. In a race where I averaged 6:22 per mile (finish time 2:46:59), I covered the last full mile in 5:58 in this ultimately doomed effort, crossing the line seven seconds behind Mr. Gray-Flecked Goatee (who did indeed turn out to be 40 years old), my face looking as you see it in the photo above.

That is one ugly face, folks, and I am as proud of it as I am disgusted by the face that looked back at me from the bathroom mirror after I dropped out of the Black Canyon 100K. I hope you never let yourself down (again) in a race, but if you do, then by all means, get angry, and enjoy it!

A study just published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology caught my attention, and I’d like to tell you about it. Conducted by researchers at the University of Worcester, it compared performance, pacing strategy, perceived exertion, and affect in a 10K solo time trial and a 10K race in a group of 14 male runners.

Half of the runners performed the time trial before the race (on a separate day) and the other half performed the time trial after the race (also on a separate day) to ensure that the order of the two events did not skew the results. As you might expect, most of the runners covered the 10K distance faster in the race context than they did in the solo time trial. The average time in the latter was 40:28, compared to 39:32 in the former—that’s a 2.3 percent difference.

Pacing strategies did not differ between the two events. Most of the runners started and finished both the time trial and the race faster than they ran the middle part. Nor was perceived exertion different. By and large, the runners felt they ran equally hard in the race and the time trial. But there was a significant difference in reported positive affect. Simply put, the runners enjoyed the race more, and the authors of the study believe it was this bump in positive affect that the runners got from the competitive environment that accounted for their superior performance.

There’s nothing new in the finding that runners run faster in competition than they do against the clock. One important implication of this fact is that, if I were to ask you to run a solo time trial as a way to gauge your current fitness level so that I could assign appropriate pace targets for your training, I would get a somewhat inexact picture of your current fitness level. The result wouldn’t be completely worthless, as it would know it was about 2.3 percent slower than you could have gone in a race, but still a race would be better.

Time-based time trials (e.g. 30 minutes rather than 10K) I trust even less. They work well enough in cycling, where fitness testing is done mainly indoors, but runners aren’t accustomed to thinking in terms of duration when trying to pace all-out efforts. The typical competitive recreational runner is simply more likely to botch the pacing of a time-based trial than of a distance-based time trial or race.

Lab-based physiological tests such as lactate threshold tests and VO2max tests I trust even less. They look so scientific, what with the breathing mask and the blood draws and all, but studies have shown that small adjustments to the design of these tests yield significantly different results. For example, a traditional VO2max test features an open-loop design, meaning it continues until the subject quits voluntarily. But a closed-loop alternative created by Lex Mauger and Nick Sculthorpe at the University of Bedfordshire results in far greater VO2max scores in most subjects. (It bears noting that a race itself is a closed loop.)

For all of these reasons, when I want to know how fit a runner is, I either ask the runner for a recent race result or I request that the runner complete a race. In the latter scenario, I specifically ask the runner to do a 5K race. 

The 5K distance is preferable to other standard race distance in a number of ways. For starters, it’s by far the most popular race distance, so it’s usually no trouble to find a local event to do. Additionally, a 5K race is more doable for runners at all levels of fitness. Many beginners can’t even run 10K, let alone race that distance. Even advanced runners, meanwhile, need less recovery time after a 5K than they do after a longer race, so jumping into a 5K for testing purpose is less disruptive to the flow of training.

Finally, I find that a 5K race result generally offers a more reliable basis for prescribing appropriate target training paces than do results from longer events. That’s because both aerobic and anaerobic fitness factors contribute to 5K performance, whereas anaerobic factors make very little contribution to performance at 10K and up. A 5K performance typically gives me a good sense of where to start with an athlete pace-wise with everything from short repeats at 1500-meter race pace to sustained steady-state efforts.

So, if you want me to create a training plan for you, be prepared to give me a recent 5K time—or to jump into your next local 5K!

During my flight from Oakland to Phoenix last Friday, a mantra for the following day’s Black Canyon 100K trail run came to me: Stay positive. I realized instantly that it was the perfect choice for the occasion because it made me feel more relaxed about the looming challenge. 

I don’t really get anxious before big races anymore. In the two weeks leading up to both the 2017 Chicago Marathon, where I broke a nine-year-old PR, and last year’s Ironman Santa Rosa, where I blew away my one previous Ironman performance, I felt only excitement and eagerness to get out there and get after it. But this one was different somehow. At the time, I attributed my unwonted anxiety to the fact that Black Canyon played into a number of my weaknesses—namely, running extreme distances, downhill running, and running on technical terrain. Only later would I discover that I was apprehensive not because the race was different from others but because I was different.

From my current perspective, I see clearly that all of the ingredients necessary for a successful race were in place—except for one. From the first few steps I felt terrific physically—light, speedy, and indefatigable. When my friend Bob Tusso (who stepped in heroically at the last minute to crew for me) refilled my hand flask with Roctane at the Bumble Bee Ranch aid station at 19.4 miles, my legs felt the same as they had in those first few strides—not a hint of soreness or fatigue in them. On the long climb that came immediately after the checkpoint I passed a half dozen runners, all of them breathing audibly; I wasn’t.

I had a good race plan and was executing it to a T. Ninety percent of runners start too fast in any given ultra, but at Black Canyon this almost universal error is exacerbated by the relative friendliness of the early miles, which are mostly downhill. Determined not to make this mistake, I started conservatively and let the clowns gallop ahead, knowing I would see most of them again in due time. I moved up from 65th place at Bumble Bee to 41st at Soap Creek (31.2 miles) to 34th place at 37 miles. My fueling plan was also working perfectly. I was taking in 24 ounces of Roctane and one Hammer Gel per hour like clockwork and suffering no GI discomfort beyond the occasional belch.

So, what went wrong? In mile 24, I simultaneously turned my left ankle and jammed my right big toe against a rock, pitched forward, and drove my right kneecap straight into another rock. Some injuries you can run on, others you can’t. I could run on these, so I did, albeit in a good deal of pain. Then, approaching the Black Canyon City checkpoint, at 37 miles, I fell again, spectacularly. This time I didn’t—couldn’t—get up right away. When I did, I noticed that something was wrong with my left shoulder. I felt a stabbing sensation deep inside the joint each time I swung the arm back. I must have hit the same knee again, too, because it hurt even more, and I couldn’t put any pressure on my right big toe.

Fortunately, the checkpoint was only a quarter mile away. When I got there, I told Bob I was done for the day. “Really?” he said. “You look okay to me.” (God bless Bob Tusso. You can read more about him, and our friendship, in Running the Dream.) In reality, I looked like I’d been dragged behind a horse. When I showered at the hotel later, I discovered caked-in dirt on the back of my neck.

I would love to tell you that I quit the Black Canyon 100K because I had no choice, but I would be lying to you if I did. As I write these words 48 hours later, I’m still really sore, but I can tell that none of the injuries I sustained was serious. Even before my second fall, I was losing the battle to stay positive. While power hiking up an absolute killer of a hill around 35 miles, I did some mental math and realized I had more than four and a half hours of suffering ahead of me still, and I realized something else: My heart wasn’t fully into this race the way it had ben with Chicago and Santa Rosa. When I fell again soon afterward, I felt more relief than frustration or disappointment.

In a 1998 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, renowned psychologist Roy Baumeister looked at the effects of emotional exertion on physical stamina. Sixty college students were required to watch a movie featuring disturbing content. A third of the subjects were asked to suppress their natural emotional response to the material, another third was asked to do the opposite, and the remaining third was asked to express their natural response. All of the students completed a test of muscular endurance both before and after watching the movie. Remarkably, the two groups asked to manipulate their natural emotional response to the film showed a drastic decline in physical stamina, whereas the control group did not. The conclusion? Emotional exertion negatively affects endurance performance capacity.

Twenty-five days before the Black Canyon 100K, my mom, who has Alzheimer’s disease, moved into my home so that my wife and I can care for her. As you might imagine, it has been an all-consuming and emotionally intense experience. The last thing I did before leaving the house to catch my flight to Phoenix was spend 20 minutes on the phone arguing with a local elder care manager about the Kafkaesque struggle I’ve had cutting through red tape with insurance companies and caregivers and doctors and whatnot. I was angry, stressed out, overwhelmed, and not thinking about my race.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no regrets about the choice I’ve made. My mother is more important than my hobby. The point I’m trying to make is that attaining peak performance in endurance events requires more than just peak fitness, good pacing, and a dialed-in fueling plan. It also requires that you start the race with full emotional batteries. And if that’s simply not possible, it’s helpful to at least understand that you are compromised no less than you would be if your training had gone poorly. I’m pretty sure I would have stood a better chance of salvaging my race if I’d had this level of awareness about my situation. 

In any case, I’m grateful that, as and endurance coach and writer who enjoys a platform for sharing the lessons I learn in my athletic journey, I am able to pass on the specific lesson I learned this weekend. Make no mistake: I’m going to carry a monkey on my back from this failure that only the next successful race performance can remove. But even if I never have another successful race, I will not look back on what I went through on the Black Canyon Trail as a waste.

As I write this, I’m just over a week out from the Black Canyon 100K, the longest running race I’ve ever attempted. My previous longest was a 50-miler that just about killed me. It’s fair to say that ultramarathons in general are not my strength. I think it’s because I land heavy. When I run really far, my legs get beat up long before I get tired. Another weakness of mine is downhill running, which exacerbates the tendency of my legs to get beat up by long distances, and the Black Canyon 100K racecourse features a ton of descending. It won’t help me that I’m a little underprepared for this one, a chronic groin issue having prevented me from starting to get serious about my training until 15 weeks before race day.

To topic it all off, I’m going into the race all wrong from a planning and logistical perspective. Recently, my mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease, moved into my home so that my wife and I can care for her. This new situation has made travel very difficult. I can’t justly burden my wife by leaving her alone with her mother-in-law for long periods of time, so it is necessary that a professional caregiver be brought in to assist while I’m away, and that’s expensive. So, for this race, I’m going to drop in the night before it starts, catch as much sleep as I can, and leap into the abyss the next morning without a support crew, drop bags, or any idea how I’m going to get back to my rental car after I finish.

For all of these reasons, I don’t expect to be particularly competitive at Black Canyon, and I expect to suffer tremendously. But you know what? I’m okay with it. I believe the race can be a satisfying experience for me nevertheless, precisely because of these low expectations. As a coach, I often tell athletes that, while there are times when it is simply unwise to do a particular race, by and large, any race has the potential to come out as a success if you go into it with appropriate expectations. 

This is easier said than done for many. Too often, athletes start a training segment with a certain goal in mind for their “A” race and refuse to modify it—at least in their heart, if not in their mind—after subsequent events render that goal unrealistic. They thereby set themselves up for almost guaranteed disappointment. In these situations, it’s far better to come up with an adjusted definition of success based on current realities, because doing so gives you a chance to come away thinking, “Hey, that went pretty well, all things considered.”

Expectations are powerful. Psychologists use the terms “maximizing” and “satisficing” to refer to two different mindsets toward outcome expectations. Maximizers tend to seek perfection when making choices and decisions, whereas satisficers tend to be content with anything that is “good enough” or better. Research has shown that maximizers are more prone to second-guessing, disappointment, and regret, and are less happy in general compared to satisficers. 

True, maximizers are also more successful, by and large. One study found that, in a sample of recent college graduates, the maximizers among them took jobs with 20 percent starting salaries than the satisficers did. They just weren’t any more content with their bigger paychecks.

What are the implications of all this psychobabble for endurance athletes? It is normal and even expected, to a degree, for competitive racers to set lofty goals for themselves. As an athlete myself, I aim for nothing less than 100 percent realization of my potential on the racecourse, and as a coach I encourage my athletes to have the same mindset. But you can bring a satisficer’s mindset to the pursuit of ambitious athletic goals; it’s what I do, and I encourage this as well.

There are some athletes who essentially refuse to be satisfied with the outcome of any race unless they achieve their “A” goal, even if circumstances beyond their control make this goal impossible to achieve. For example, a runner might have her heart set on breaking 3:30 in her next marathon, but race day turns out to be hot and she runs 3:32 (still a PR) and is devastated. Or she might even refuse to adjust her race plan in consideration of the heat, blow up at 18 miles, and end up in the med tent. It happens.

There’s a want of wisdom in this attitude, in my opinion. To me, the greatest satisfaction lies in making the best of each racing opportunity. When circumstances are favorable, doing so may indeed result in achievement of an “A” goal, but when they’re not, there’s just as much satisfaction to be had in seeing what’s possible regardless—if you have the right attitude.

A small part of me wishes I were better prepared for the Black Canyon 100K, and could afford to arrive a day earlier, and had a support crew, etc. But it’s only a small part, I swear. Because I know that, even despite the imperfect circumstances, I have an opportunity to make the most of what I’ve got, and I’m excited for the challenge.

Rob Krar competes in—and often wins—100-mile ultramarathons. When training for these events, he never runs farther than 35 miles. From a purely mathematical standpoint, a 35-mile training run might seem like inadequate preparation for a 100-mile race. But there’s a reason Rob and other champion ultrarunners cap their training distance at or near 35 miles: The human body simply can’t adapt to anything longer. You will gain no more endurance from covering 40 or 45 miles in training than you will from covering 35, give or take, so there’s no point. In fact, it’s actually counterproductive to exceed 35 miles, because as fitness returns diminish (and ultimately peter out altogether) with increasing run distance, injury risk increases. Put another way, beyond 35ish miles, running ceases to be training and becomes punishment.

There’s not much scientific validation for this claim—it’s a difficult thing to validate scientifically—but we can be quite certain it’s true. Athletes have a way of figuring out what does and doesn’t work before scientists prove it. If you’re an ultrarunner and you want to optimize your training, you’d be well advised not to wait for science to catch up and instead follow the example of the likes of Rob Krar by capping your long runs around 35 miles. And if you’re significantly slower than Rob (and nearly all ultrarunners are), you should mix in some hiking with your running whenever you cover this distance and avoid doing pure runs lasting longer than 4.5 hours or so, which is about the amount of time it takes a Rob Krar to jog 35 miles.

That being said, I do believe there are psychological benefits associated with running farther. In particular, it gives you a taste of the suck you’re going to experience on race day. But because runs longer than 35ish miles are punishing, it’s best to attempt them only within the context of races. For example, if you want to be at your best both physically and psychologically for a 100-miler, consider doing a 50-miler eight to twelve weeks before it.

There are certain things you can do in training to further boost your endurance without defying the 35-mile rule. I’ve already touched on one of them: mixed run/hike sessions. By inserting hiking segments into a long run, you can spend upwards of five hours on your feet without crossing the training/punishment threshold—assuming you’ve built up to it.

A second option is back-to-back long runs (e.g., 20 miles on Saturday followed by 20 miles on Sunday). This method allows you to experience running on tired legs in a way that isn’t as risky as an extremely long single run. The magic happens in the second run of the two, which you will start with a certain amount of fatigue in your legs from the prior day’s run. I like to do single long runs and back-to-back long runs on alternating weekends during ultramarathon training.

Fasting offers another way to enhance the training effect of long runs. When you withhold carbohydrate in particular before and during long runs, your muscles are forced to rely more on stored fat to supply the energy they need. When done with some regularity, so-called depletion runs increase the overall fat-burning ability of the muscles and thereby increase endurance. In addition, when you run long in a fasted state, your muscles reach a deeper level of glycogen depletion than they would in a normal long run. This triggers genetic adaptations that improve aerobic capacity.

Finally, if you enjoy riding a bike, you can use what triathletes refer to as brick workouts to build endurance without defying the 35-mile rule. A brick workout is a bike ride followed immediately by a run. For ultrarunners, the bike portion serves to prefatigue the muscles for the ensuing run, but in a nonimpact manner, allowing you to get as tired as you would from a run longer than 35 miles while sparing your legs from the punishment that would come from actually running that far.

Last week a package was delivered to my front door. Inside it was a shoebox, and inside the shoebox was a pair of snazzy pink running shoes in size 11.5. Yes, they were Nike Vaporfly Next%’s, the footwear at the center of a raging controversy about what runners should and shouldn’t be allowed to wear on their feet during competition. 

I haven’t run in them yet, but I have tried them on and walked around in them and I can tell already that I will be faster in these shoes than I’ve been in any other shoes I’ve worn in my 27 years as a runner—even faster than I was in the two pairs of Vaporfly 4%’s I’ve owned since they were brought to market. They really do feel sort of like cheating, but I don’t feel like a cheater when I wear them, because I’ve never been the sort of athlete who has personal ethical qualms about gaining a performance advantage through safe and legal means. 

For example, I did almost all of my training for last year’s Ironman Santa Rosa on a set of Zipp wheels that came stock with my Felt IA2 triathlon bike. Then, two weeks before the event, I had a new pair of top-of-the-line race wheels installed. Instantly I rode about 1.5 mph faster at the same power output. As with my Nike’s, riding on these wheels feels felt sort of like cheating, but the performance advantage they conferred did not make feel like a cheater because the wheels were legal.

The difference between my triathlon race wheels and the Vaporfly is that the latter might in fact be banned by the International Amateur Athletics Association. They’re considering the matter now. Personally, I have no opinion one way or the other on the matter. I understand that a line has to be drawn somewhere. Just as recumbent bikes are not allowed in triathlons, shoes that run for you should not be allowed in running events (or in triathlons, for that matter). But I have no clear sense of precisely where that line ought to fall.

People I respect come down on both sides of the debate. Brian Metzler, who wrote the book Kicksology: The Hype, Science, Culture & Cool of Running Shoes, has called the push to ban the Vaporfly as “the dumbest take in running right now.” Meanwhile, sports science researcher Yannis Pitsiladis has called the shoe “the opposite of athletic integrity.”

I’ll leave it to them to fight it out. What’s far more interesting to me is who chooses to purchase and wear the Vaporfly and similar shoes and who doesn’t. In a word: faster runners do and slower runners, by and large, don’t. But why should this be? In absolute terms, the shoes offer an even bigger advantage to slower runners. A 4-hour marathoner who gets a 1 percent performance boost from them will shave 2:24 off his finish time, whereas a 2:30 marathoner who gets the same 1 percent performance advantage will save only 90 seconds. Sure, the shoes are outrageously expensive, but faster runners don’t have more disposable income than slower runners do.

The real reason slower runners tend not to shell out for Vaporfly’s and similar kicks is the same reason they’re less likely than faster runners to run doubles and to spend 20 minutes every evening doing corrective exercises: They don’t feel they’re good enough at running to deserve to. It’s basic human psychology—in selecting and pursuing vocations and avocations, people tend to invest the most time and energy in the things for which they have the greatest aptitude. In other words, talent and passion are deeply connected. And yet they’re not the same thing. It is possible, and indeed not all that uncommon, for people to have a great passion for some activity they have no special talent for.

I’m one of them. My passion for endurance training and racing far exceeds my talent. I try almostas hard to realize my full potential as elite endurance athletes do (indeed, I once spent an entire summer training with a team of professional runners, an experience you can read about here), and I don’t believe that even one iota of the time and effort I’ve invested in this quest has been wasted. Slower athletes are no less rewarded than faster athletes by the choice to pour all the passion they have into the quest to find out how good they can be.

As a coach, I’m all about getting passionate everyday endurance athletes to think and behave like passionate elite endurance athletes. Success in this endeavor requires that I convince the athletes I coach that they deserve to do what it takes to realize their full potential, regardless of their degree of talent. It’s not always easy. Heck, when I tried on my new pink shoes for the first time, I briefly wondered, Am I too slow to be seen publicly in these things?, before dismissing the thought as inconsistent with my core convictions. The real me would like nothing more than to see runners far slower than I am wearing Vaporfly’s and similar shoes at races.

To be clear, it’s not all about the shoes. I place far great value on getting slower runners to train more like faster runners than on getting them to wear the shoes faster runners are wearing. But until and unless they are outlawed, I will encourage runners of every speed to seize the advantage these products offer.

We’re all familiar with the phenomenon of cold feet. You want something very badly until you’re on the brink of getting it, then suddenly you’re not so sure you want it anymore. Usually associated with nuptials, cold feet strike not only brides and grooms on their wedding day but also endurance athletes on race days. You want very badly to do a certain race and achieve a particular goal right up until you open your eyes on the morning of the event, then suddenly you’re not so sure you want to go through with it.

I’ve been racing for more than 35 years, and in all this time I’ve never outgrown race-day cold feet. I don’t get them before every race, but I got them before my last one, which was a half marathon in Southern California. My goal was to complete the distance in 1:16:50, a time that was meaningful to me because, although it was a lot slower than the personal best of 1:13:15 I’d set 11 years earlier, it was faster than I’d been able to run since then. But when I woke up on the morning of the event, I found myself thinking this goal might be too ambitious.

It didn’t help that everything had gone wrong the day before. My wife and I drove down from NorCal and got stuck in an L.A. traffic nightmare, resulting in my spending a lot more time trapped in a vehicle than I’d planned on. Worse, ours is an electric vehicle, and it needed charging when we finally arrived in the OC, a chore I took care of in the evening after dinner when I should have been relaxing at the hotel. Nor did it help matters that I felt terrible during my pre-race warm-up—fat, old, and beat-up.

Here’s my advice for you when you find yourself in a similar situation:

1. If you’re prone to race-day cold feet, expect them.

The first step in turning things around for myself on the morning of the Irvine Half Marathon was recognizing exactly what was happening. I’ve experienced race-day feet so many times that, in this instance, I was able to quickly diagnose and contextualize my sudden faintheartedness in the hours before the start of the event.

Specifically, I reminded myself that I’d gone on to complete many successful races after suffering a bout of race-day cold feet and that there was no reason to assume my legs weren’t up to my ambitions on this occasion. I reminded myself that how you feel during a warm-up is a poor predictor of how you will feel and perform during the ensuing race and told myself to keep an open mind. If it wasn’t my day, it wasn’t my day, but at the moment anything was possible.

2. Give yourself an out.

When the race started, I quickly settled into a pace that felt like it matched my goal pace of 5:51 per mile, but when I stole a first glance at my GPS watch, I discovered I was actually running 5:40 per mile. This gave me a jolt of confidence that my goal was achievable after all. But when I came to the official one-mile mark a few minutes later, the elapsed time on my watch was 5:51. I’d been having some accuracy issues with my device recently, and I realized then that I wouldn’t be able to trust the information it was feeding me during this particular race. It appeared, in fact, that I was running slower than it was telling me, a discovery that brought my prior doubts roaring back.

I then did what I often do in these situations: I gave myself an out. Specifically, in this case, I told myself that if I let go of my goal and focused on just finding a pace that was comfortable enough to sustain the rest of the way, I could avoid blowing up and still probably achieve a time that was better than any half-marathon time I’d achieved since running my PR, even if it wasn’t sub-1:17.

In truth, I had no intention of giving up on my goal just yet. However, allowing myself the option took some pressure off me and kept my emotions from turning negative at a time when the risk was high that they would. This trick of giving yourself an out that you don’t really intend to exercise is a well-known psychological coping mechanism with applicability to a wide variety of situations, and in my experience, it works quite well to manage race-day cold feet.

3. Challenge yourself

About four miles into the race, I caught a lead pack of four guys and essentially blew it up, moving right through it and taking the lead briefly before one of the four former pacesetters latched onto me. I assumed it was only a matter of time before this fellow realized he was overmatched and fell off my pace once and for all, but instead he found another gear and cruised ahead of me at a pace I couldn’t match, leaving me alone in second place.

Approaching the midpoint of the race, with the leader still in sight, I came to a long false flat that directed me straight into a headwind, and I started to feel lousy. I checked my watch and saw my pace creep up from 5:45 to 5:50 to 5:55 to 6:00. (Yes, I was still paying attention to the numbers even though I doubted their accuracy.) The combination of feeling lousy and slowing down caused my cold feet to return yet again. With more than six miles of running still to get through, I feared I might come unraveled. Indeed, several years before, I had started a half marathon with precisely the same time goal, felt precisely how I felt now midway through the race, and wound up dropping out at 10 miles. I felt strongly tempted to stop worrying about my pace and time, take my foot of the gas, and coast to the rest of the way to prevent a repetition of this catastrophe.

Instead, though, my inner drill sergeant barked at me, “None of that! Fight for it soldier!” So I made a spontaneous commitment to not allow my pace to creep above 6:00, no matter what kind of effort it took. I would deal with the consequences later. The effort this commitment required was unquestionably greater than I could sustain the rest of the way, but I knew the into-the-wind false flat I was currently struggling along wouldn’t last forever, and when my watch showed 6:05 briefly, I dug even deeper.

To achieve the best performance you’re capable of in any endurance race, you have to challenge yourself in certain moments. As I explained above, there are times in races when the smartest thing you can do is be gentle with yourself and give yourself an out, but there are also times when it becomes necessary to go all drill sergeant on yourself and refuse to give yourself an out. Endurance racing is tough, and success therein demands toughness. You will never cross a finish line knowing you did the very best you could if at some point during the race you don’t spit in the face of your fears, consequences be damned.

That’s what I did halfway through the Irvine Half Marathon (and again at a couple of later points), and it paid off. I crossed the finish line in second place with a better-than-expected time of 1:15:30. More satisfying than those numbers, though, was the knowledge that I hadn’t let race-day cold feet get the best of me.

I have too many ideas. I could write two books a year for the next 100 years and still not get around to writing all the books I have ideas for, let alone execute on my non-book-related ideas. I even have an idea for a book called 100 Books I’ll Never Write. Yeah, it’s that bad.

Still, I’d rather have too many ideas than not enough. In this post I would like to share one of the ideas I don’t have time to do anything about in the hope that it will inspire someone else (maybe you!) to take it up. You already know what it is because I put it in the headline.

So, to begin: Chances are you have a Strava account, and if you don’t, you at least know what Strava is: an online platform that allows endurance athletes to share their training and racing exploits with other endurance athletes. It takes advantage of the fact that most endurance athletes are proud of their workouts and races and want other people to know about them.

In my view, though, the best use of Strava is not bragging about your own training and racing but following the training of highly successful athletes. As long as you do so in an intelligent way (not a monkey-see-monkey-do way), observing how the best athletes approach fitness development can serve as a useful source of information to guide your approach to same. This is especially true if you follow a number of such athletes, as clear patterns will emerge (e.g., adherence to the 80/20 principle of intensity balance). Most of the best endurance athletes do most things right in their training, so you can trust that these patterns represent true best practices in endurance training.

For some time now I’ve wished that there existed a dietary analog to Strava. I think it could help athletes in a way that’s similar to what I just described on the training side. Just as most athletes fail to follow best practices in their training, most athletes also fail to eat optimally. The most common mistake is simply eating too much junk food and not enough healthy food (i.e., the same mistake most nonathletes make with their diet), but a lot of other athletes make something close to the opposite mistake of being too restrictive with their diet. Indeed, if I had a nickel for every athlete I’ve encountered over the years who paid a significant cost in fitness and/or health resulting from being too restrictive or obsessive with food in one way or another, I would live in a much bigger house.

Elite athletes seldom make this mistake. There are exceptions, of course, but the vast majority of elites, particularly those who perform at the very highest level for extended periods of time, tend to follow a balanced and inclusive that is basically “normal” except in its overall quality. If you’re interested, you can learn more about the characteristics of this way of eating in my book The Endurance Diet. In any case, the point I wish to make here is that it would be really helpful if large numbers of elite endurance athletes were among those sharing the specifics of their daily eating with other athletes on a Strava-like platform.

If you’re a cynic, you’re right now thinking that it’s a lot easier to lie about what you eat than it is to lie about your training, and that people are highly prone to lie—even to themselves—about what they eat. I agree. As yet, there is no dietary equivalent of a GPS running watch that automatically uploads the details of your last meal or snack, and any nutrition scientist can tell you that dietary self-reporting is notoriously unreliable. There’s no denying these facts, but I believe it’s possible to account for them in a manner that would preserve the potential value of a Strava-for-diet type of service.

Photos would be a piece of it. If you can’t upload photographic evidence that you ate what you say you ate, then you didn’t eat it. This would do nothing to address the problem of not sharing the things you eat that you don’t want others to know you eat, but the platform could do so fairly easily by recognizing a small number of its participants as “verified influencers.” These individuals would be recruited from among the platform’s most widely followed participants and would be offered modest compensation in exchange for agreeing in writing to provide complete and accurate information about their diet. This mechanism would serve not only to give participants confidence in the information presented by the influencers but would also incentivize aspiring future influencers to provide complete and accurate information about their own diet.

I’m not so naive as to think a Strava-for-diet platform that included such measures would spare every athlete from going down the wrong path with their diet. But I do believe its net effect would be positive, because it’s a simple fact that most of the most successful endurance athletes eat in a healthy way that’s not too restrictive, and the platform I envision would make this fact apparent in a way that it’s not currently, So, anyway, if you like this idea and you’ve got time on your hands and some capital, make it happen.

Eliud Kipchoge is known chiefly for two things: winning and breaking records. He has won eleven of the twelve marathons he’s raced (finishing second in the only one he didn’t win). In 2017, he made the first formal attempt to cover the marathon distance in less than two hours, shocking the running world by coming up just 25 seconds short, and two years later he tried again and succeeded, covering 26 miles, 385 yards in 1:59:40. While this feat doesn’t count as an official marathon world record, Kipchoge owns that mark too, having clocked 2:01:39 in winning the 2018 Berlin Marathon.

In light of these facts, you might assume that Kipchoge is extremely focused on numbers and trophies, but he’s not. “I believe in a philosophy that says to win is actually not important,” he said in a 2016 speech at the Oxford Union. “To be successful is not even important.” What isimportant to Kipchoge is self-mastery, for which running marathons serves as a vehicle. “Only the disciplined ones are free in life,” he told his audience in the same address. “If you aren’t disciplined, you are a slave to your moods. You are a slave to your passions.”

When Eliud Kipchoge talks about running—not just in this instance but in general—he sounds more like a spiritual leader than some dumb jock. “It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles,” is a proverb attributed to the Buddha. Substitute “marathons” for battles and you have another Kipchoge quote.

There’s nothing unique about Kipchoge in this regard. Endurance racing is a spiritual experience for many athletes. Indeed, it’s almost impossible for a spiritually sensitive person to experience endurance racing non-spiritually, which is why spiritual leaders including Sri Chinmoy, an Indian-born advocate of meditation and running influential in the U.S. in the late 20th century, have promoted it even to nonathletes. “The inner running and the outer running complement each other,” Chinmoy wrote. “For outer running, we need discipline. Without a life of discipline, we cannot succeed in any walk of life. So when we do outer running, it reminds us of the inner running.”

With the proper attitude, any activity—eating, gardening, you-name-it—can be undertaken as a spiritual exercise. But endurance racing is unique in that its spiritual aspect is almost inherent, so that even people who don’t initially pursue it for spiritual reasons end up doing so. Why is this?

Recent science guides us toward an answer to this question. It is evident to any athlete who has ever done an endurance race that the experience is challenging both physically and psychologically. In the past, exercise scientists believed that the limits athletes encountered in endurance races were physical in nature, and that the psychological challenges associated with approaching these limits were mere epiphenomena. The idea was that mechanistic factors such as lactic acid buildup in the muscles and depletion of muscle glycogen fuel stores prevented athletes from going faster and farther than they did. But we now know that this is not the case. While physical limits do exist, they merely constrain performance instead of limiting it directly. The limits that athletes encounter directly when racing are psychological.

What makes endurance racing different from sprinting is that, in a endurance race, the fastest way to get from the start line to the finish line is not to go as fast as you can. No human is physically capable of sustaining a true 100 percent effort longer than about 45 seconds. Therefore, in longer events, athletes must pace themselves, which means holding themselves back to a speed that can be sustained for the full distance. And pacing is done consciously, through a combination of cognitive and perceptual process. 

In particular, pacing is a form of predictive processing, where athletes continuously estimate the highest level of output they can keep up from their current position the finish line, adjusting accordingly. These estimates are based on perceived effort (or the athlete’s sense of how hard they’re working relative to maximum), past racing experience, and conscious knowledge of the amount of distance or time remaining n the race. Relying on these cognitive and perceptual factors, the athlete seeks to avoid 1) reaching exhaustion ahead of the finish line and 2) reaching the finish line before the point of exhaustion.

It’s important to note that when athletes do miscalculate and reach exhaustion ahead of the finish line, it is seldom because they have hit a hard physical limit like glycogen depletion. Rather, it is because they have reached the highest level of perceived effort they are willing to tolerate. They may feel physically incapable of continuing, but in fact they aren’t. Carefully designed studies have demonstrated that, at the point of quitting any type of endurance test, athletes always possess reserve physical capacity.

The psychological limit of perceived effort tolerance is no less real than the physical limits it protects athletes from ever actually encountering, but its nature is different. Imagine a row of weights arranged in order of increasing heaviness. Your task is to lift each weight in turn until you get to a weight that is too heavy for you to lift. When you do reach this point, there’s no doubt about it. You either can or can’t lift the next weight in the sequence.

By contrast, maximal perceived effort, similar to maximal pain tolerance, is mutable. This was shown in a study performed by Australian researchers and published in Pediatric Exercise Science in 2013. Thirteen children between the ages of nine and eleven years were asked to run an 800-meter time trial on three separate occasions. Because this was a novel distance for the kids, they were expected to improve their times over the three time trials through improved pacing strategy. And they in fact did improve, but not through improved their pacing strategy. In all three time trials, the kids started too fast, slowed significantly, and then sped up again toward the end. Their performance improved, rather, simply because they ran harder. In the first time trial, they ran as hard as they felt they could, and it hurt. But in the second one, having a bit of experience under their belts, they felt they could push a little harder and hurt a little more, and in the final time trial, knowing the second trial hadn’t killed them, they felt they could push harder still and hurt still more.

Experienced and highly motivated endurance athletes are capable of tolerating levels of perceived effort that are almost indescribably unpleasant. Because of this, and because the psychological limit of maximum tolerance for perceived effort is fuzzy, endurance athletes tend to find themselves in a special state of consciousness in the late stages of races. It’s essentially a shouting match between two distinct inner voices representing disparate aspects of the self. One voice, representing the instinctive desire to avoid discomfort that we all possess, is begging the athlete to quit, or at least slow down, while the other, representing the factors that motivated the athlete to pursue a goal that cannot be achieved without discomfort, is ordering the athlete to press on. Ambivalence occurs routinely in everyday life, but the internal dividedness athletes experience in the crisis moments of races is uniquely pure and intense.

Spirituality means different things to different people, but self-mastery is foundational to all spiritual paths. To live on a spiritual plane, whatever this may mean to you, is to live in accordance with your highest values, and this requires that you cultivate the ability to subsume your “lower” impulses to these values. In short, it requires self-mastery.

For millennia, humans have used tools such as fasting and meditation to pursue spiritual growth through self-mastery. These tools serve to foment a state of internal dividedness that presents the spiritual seeker with an opportunity to work at self-mastery. Traditionally, the inner battle that occurs during fasting or meditation is conceived of as being fought between flesh and spirit. From a scientific perspective, the battle is actually between different aspects of the mind rooted in different parts of the brain. The main battleground is an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which is active in resolving ambivalence. Studies have shown that the ACC is exceptionally strong in both meditators and endurance athletes.

Both endurance athletes and meditators also score high on tests of inhibitory control, or the ability to override impulses through conscious restraint (a task that is handled by the ACC as well). Inhibitory control is not self-mastery itself, but it is one mechanism by which self-mastery operates.

One key difference between endurance racing and traditional spiritual tools of self-mastery is that endurance racing is competitive. It’s tempting to assume that the competitive drive stands in opposition to spiritual experience, and it certainly has this potential. For some athletes, racing is an largely expression of ego. But for others, competitive goals are merely a pretext for pursuing self-mastery. It’s a well-proven fact that athletes are able to push harder in a competitive context than outside of it, and the harder an athlete pushes, the greater self-mastery he or she attains. This is precisely why a spiritually sensitive athlete like Eliud Kipchoge who doesn’t believe that winning is important tries so hard to win.

Another key difference between endurance racing and traditional spiritual tools of self-mastery relates to the role of the body. In some spiritual traditions, there is a tendency to derogate the body and instinct. One of the reasons endurance racing appeals to me personally as a spiritual endeavor is that it celebrates our embodiment and places biology and instinct in the service of the quest to live in accordance with our higher virtues. Endurance racing certainly isn’t for everyone, but as a spiritually sensitive person who enjoys having a body, I’m very glad it exists!

Looking for a good endurance-related book to give to yourself or another endorphin junkie this holiday season? I’ve got you covered. Here are five such books I’ve read and enjoyed recently. I’m confident there’s at least one in here that you’ll enjoy also.

Swim, Bike, Bonk: Confessions of a Reluctant Triathlete

Will McGough

Every triathlete wants to write a book about his or her first Ironman, and many do. The results are rarely interesting to anyone other than the author. But here’s an exception. Will McGough is a travel writer, and what makes Swim, Bike, Bonk work is that he writes about triathlon as though it’s a weird foreign country he’s visiting. His humorous, skeptical outsider’s perspective allows insiders like me to see the sport with fresh eyes and appreciate it in a new way.

Rebound: Train Your Mind to Bounce Back Stronger from Sports Injuries

Carrie Jackson Cheadle and Cindy Kuzma

I reviewed this book earlier this year, and I haven’t changed my mind about it in the intervening months. Getting injured as an athlete affects the mind as much as it does the body, and it’s important to attend to both whenever you suffer a breakdown. Rebound is the definitive guide to addressing the psychological aspect of sports injuries. Check out my full review here.

Kaizen-Durance: Your Aerobic Path to Mastery

Shane Eversfield

This book is actually a couple of years old, but this is my holiday reading list and I can do whatever I want with it! Author Shane Eversfield takes a quasi-spiritual approach to endurance training that I find quite appealing. His core concept is something called kinetic intelligence, which is essentially the body’s innate wisdom concerning movement. It may sound far out, but the book is actually science-based and practical, offering readers concrete techniques they can use to unlock this wisdom and learn to move with “effortless power.”

Endurance Performance in Sport: Psychological Theory and Interventions

Carla Meijen, Editor 

Now is an exciting time to be alive if you’re interested in the role of the mind and the brain in relation to endurance performance. There’s a ton of cool science being done in this area. If your interest in this stuff is of the what’s-in-it-for-me variety, you can learn all you need to know from books like Alex Hutchinson’s Endure and my own How Bad Do You Want It? But if you’re interested in the science for its own sake, get a copy of Endurance Performance in Sport, which is a collection of monographs from today’s top researchers in the field of endurance sports psychology, including my personal favorite, Samuele Marcora.

The Athlete Inside: The Transforming Power of Hope, Tenacity, and Faith

Sue Reynolds

In February 2015, Sue Reynolds emailed me with a unique question. She was then 61 years old and had recently lost 175 pounds through triathlon training and sensible eating, but the transformation had left her with a lot of loose skin, and she wanted my opinion on how it might affect calculations of her optimal body composition. Sue and I have maintained an ongoing correspondence ever since, during which time she’s lost another 25 pounds and finished as high as sixth in the ITU Age-Group World Championships. The full story of her journey from lifelong overweight couch potato to elite athlete is truly remarkable, and she does a terrific job telling it in this book, which, unfortunately for you, will not be publicly available until April. But you can pre-order it now.

Recently my brother Josh sent me a link to a fascinating article in Quanta Magazine about neuroevolution, a subdiscipline within the field of artificial intelligence. Like other approaches to AI, neuroevolution is all about creating mathematical algorithms, but whereas traditional approaches attempt to create algorithms that solve problems efficiently, neuroevolution seeks to create algorithms that maximize novelty and diversity and then tries to figure out what they might be good for.

This is exactly how evolution works in the natural world. Bioevolutionary processes don’t happen for the purpose of solving the survival problems that species encounter in their environments. They happen because they happen, and every once in a while they just so happen to solve a problem along the way.

A key concept in neuroevolution is the steppingstone principle. In natural evolution, morphological features arrived at through random genetic mutations may not only be useful in themselves but may also serve as steppingstones toward solutions to other problems. For example, biologists believe that feathers were first put to use as insulation before they were used for flight (although they did not evolve foreither purpose).

Neuroevolution uses the steppingstone principle in a similar way to solve problems by not trying to solve them. An example given in the aforementioned Quanta article concerns a maze that wheeled robots were tasked to find their way out of. Both traditional and neuroevolutionary approaches were used to evolve algorithms for this purpose. But whereas the traditional approach entailed trying a bunch of sensible strategies and then retaining and “breeding” the most effective ones for multiple generations, the neuroevolutionary approach simply went for maximum diversity of escape strategies, selecting for novelty rather than effectiveness. 

Each approach was tried 40 times. Traditional AI succeeded in evolving a robot that escaped the maze three times. Neuroevolution succeeded 39 times. The reason? The traditional approach was too focused on early success, going all in for promising escape strategies that often led to dead ends. By casting a much wider net, neuroevolution traded early partial success for ultimate total success.

In reading about neuroevolution, I couldn’t help but wonder if the steppingstone principle might not also apply to running, and if so, how. My hunch is that it does. Artificial intelligence is really artificial learning. Biological evolution can be thought of as species learning—learning to adapt to the environment. And training for distance running can also be thought of as a form of learning—learning how to run better. It’s from this perspective that applying the steppingstone principle to running begins to make sense.

To suggest that the steppingstone principle does apply to running is to suggest that not trying to get better at running is an effective way to get better at running. Clearly, this can only be true to a certain extent. Running is without question the most effective way to get better at running. More than that, specific run training methods, such as the 80/20 rule, are known to work optimally to maximize running performance. These best practices are the products of a multigenerational, global process of trial and error that looks a lot like traditional AI, where different techniques have been tested and then either discarded if they proved ineffective or retained if they proved effective.

You need only compare the performance level of today’s top runners to the performance level of the top runners from 80 or 90 years ago to know that this approach to solving the problem of maximizing running performance has worked exceptionally well. But it is plausible that it has also resulted in a dead-end effect similar to the one I described in relation to the wheeled robots in the maze. A runner who relies entirely on proven best practices to seek improvement does not expose his or her body to a lot of novel challenges, and as neuroevolution has shown, novelty and diversity are rich sources of new learning.

How might a runner incorporate novelty in a sensible way into his or her efforts to become a better runner? Perhaps the least risky way to do so is to run in a variety of environments. Have you ever done a long run on a technical trail after an extended period of training only on the roads and/or on nontechnical trails and then woken up the next morning feeling sore in muscles you never knew you had? That’s novelty at work. When you run on different types of terrain and in different conditions, your neuromuscular system is forced to explore new ways of getting the job of running done, and the resulting discoveries might make you a better runner in any environment.

Non-running activities can take this effect even further. We know that activities such as strength training and dynamic stretching can improve running performance by enhancing some of the underlying physical qualities, such as muscular endurance, that contribute to running performance. But I suspect that such activities and others may also improve running performance by exposing the body to less familiar movement patterns that, in effect, add new tools to the toolbox the body draws from to push back performance limits in running.

Supposing my suspicion is correct, this way of incorporating the steppingstone principle into your running could be exploited by continuously mixing up the strength and mobility exercises you do and perhaps also by dabbling in stuff like snowboarding, surfing, and basketball. It’s not as crazy as it might sound. There’s quite a bit of research showing that early specialization in a single sport is bad for long-term development. Youth athletes who lock in on one sport before high school are more likely to get injured and burn out. I think there’s a little bit of the steppingstone principle at work in this phenomenon as well, and while adult runners who want to realize their full performance potential most certainly should specialize in the sport, there’s good reason not to go too far in the direction of specialization at any age.

Again, all of this is highly speculative. But I’m confident it can do no harm to your running and may do it some good to continuously run in a variety of environments, to constantly vary the strength and mobility exercises you do, and to dabble in activities like climbing or line dancing or horseback riding or yard work or kayaking or whatever floats your boat, because becoming the best runner you can be is not that different from escaping a maze designed for wheeled robots.

In last week’s post, I addressed a fundamental question: What are the major objectives of an endurance athlete’s diet? In this post I would like to tackle an even more basic question, which I’ve already given away in the title. Namely: Which is most important for endurance fitness and performance—training, diet, or sleep?

As you’re about to see, there’s no simple answer to this question. But attempting to answer it is nevertheless a worthwhile exercise, because it yields clarity on the role of each of these three factors in relation to your athletic ambitions.

The All-or-Nothing Angle

Sleep is a mysterious phenomenon that has long eluded scientists’ efforts to fully explain it. As neuroscientist Michael Halassa confessed in a 2017 article published on, “It’s sort of embarrassing. It’s obvious why we need to eat, for example, and reproduce . . . but it’s not clear why we need to sleep at all.” What isclear is that we literally can’t live without sleep. The longest any human has been known to survive without sleep is just 11 days.

Arguably, this makes sleep even more important than food. The average person can go about 40 days without eating before succumbing to starvation. 

As for training (i.e., exercise), it is, of course, not required for survival, though a case can be made that some amount of physical activity is needed to achieve a normal lifespan, as people who are unable to move their bodies (i.e., sufferers of paralysis) don’t live as long as people who are.

In light of these facts, we can say definitively that if you were going to attempt to complete an endurance race either without training, without eating, or without sleeping, your best move would be to skip the training in favor of eating and sleeping.

The Realistic Angle

Thankfully, you will never have to make the choice I just presented. We live in a relatively stable society in which most people have plenty of food to eat and a comfortable bed to sleep in. So, let’s now approach the question of whether training, diet, or sleep is most important for endurance fitness and performance from a more realistic angle. 

Although I just got through saying that in our society most people have a comfortable bed to sleep in, the modern lifestyle is such that a large fraction of us do not spend enough time in bed and do not get enough sleep. Research suggests that the kind of chronic, mild sleep deprivation that is so common in our society has a bad effect on endurance performance. A 2016 study by researchers at UC San Francisco, for example, found that cyclists whose sleep was restricted to four hours per night for three nights experienced a 2.9 percent decrease in maximal aerobic power and a 10.7 percent decrease in time to exhaustion at VO2max. True, few athletes get only four hours of sleep per night as a matter of habit, but it’s reasonable to assume that longer periods of milder sleep deprivation probably have a similar effect.

Similarly, although most athletes get enough to eat overall, a majority of athletes also fall well short of eating optimally to support their fitness and performance. Common mistakes include poor diet quality, overeating, and within-day energy deficiencies, all of which are proven to negatively affect endurance fitness and performance.

And then there’s training. What’s different about training, from the realistic perspective, is that, whereas everyone sleeps and eats, only a minority of adults in our society exercise regularly. This makes the transition from sedentariness to endurance training a rather common phenomenon. Thus, in the case of training, the realistic scenario isn’t all that different from the all-or-nothing scenario.

There’s plenty of research on how the transition from sedentariness to endurance training affects endurance performance. One example is a 2019 study by Spanish and German researchers, which found that 12 weeks of endurance training increased VO2max by 11 percent and time to exhaustion by 14 percent in a group of previously sedentary adults. Those are big numbers. And it should be noted that sedentary individuals can’t exactly leap straight into heavy training workloads right off the couch. The subjects in this study completed just three low-intensity sessions per week totaling 2.5 hours. Given what we know about the dose-response relationship between endurance training and fitness and performance, it’s safe to say that these folks would have experienced vastly greater improvements over time if they had continued to train in a progressive manner.

Indeed, studies investigating the effects of different training programs in already-fit athletes show tremendous potential for improvement in going from imperfect training to optimized training. A 2014 study conducted at Salzburg Universityreported improvements ranging from 6.2 percent and 17.4 percent in time to exhaustion among experienced endurance athletes placed on one of four different training programs for nine weeks.

Comparing the above-referenced data on sleep, diet, and training leads us to the conclusion that, in the realistic scenario, training offers far greater potential for improvement in endurance fitness and performance than does either sleep or diet. In other words, if you are a typical athlete who doesn’t get quite enough sleep, has a mediocre diet, and trains less than optimally, and you can only change one of these things, your best move is to optimize your training.

The Bottom Line

So, which is most important: diet, sleep, or training? The answer, we now see, is that training, on the one hand, and diet and sleep, on the other hand, are important in different ways. Most athletes place greater emphasis on training, and they are right to do so in the sense that, realistically, getting the training piece right will have a greater impact than getting either the diet or the sleep piece right.

However, as we saw in exploring the all-or-nothing angle, diet and sleep are more foundational than training. Fitness is really just an extension of health, and diet and sleep are more important to basic health than training is. Therefore, any athlete who wishes to get the most out of optimized training should make every effort to get the diet and sleep pieces right as well.

When news broke recently about the fat shaming and related psychological abuse that was suffered by members of the Nike Oregon Project and by members of past British Olympic track and field teams at the hands of their coaches, I, like so many others, found the alleged behavior unconscionable. But I also found it absurd.

Let’s be clear: Fat shaming any athlete (or nonathlete, for that matter) is unconscionable. But fat shaming an elite athlete whose body is finely tuned to perform at the very highest level is both unconscionable and kind of ridiculous.

I’ve always had an absurdist sense of humor. So, it wasn’t long after I read these disturbing reports that I found myself imagining the absurd scenario of a thickheaded coach trying to distance himself from the likes of Alberto Salazar and Charles van Commenee by announcing that he only fat-shamed athletes who actually were fat. It amused me to picture a coach so utterly clueless about what is actually wrong about fat shaming that he believed his behavior (fat shaming only truly fat athletes) was materially different from the behavior described in the reports (fat shaming finely tuned elite athletes).

Now, it so happens that I myself am an endurance coach and writer who has written extensively on the topic of performance weight management. In consideration of this fact, I got it into my head to post a tweet in the character of a thickheaded coach who thought the crime that the accused coaches committed was not fat shaming per se but fat-shaming athletes who weren’t fat. So I did, and let’s just say that the joke was not well received.

As the pile-on continued, I thought about what went wrong, and I came to the conclusion that my chief mistake was to assume that my Twitter followers had sufficient context to appreciate the joke as it was intended. On further reflection, I decided the same joke probably would have gotten a few more laughs and a little less criticism if it were delivered as a set piece in a television show or film, where a good comedic actor delivered the very same words I used in my tweet in a manner that invited viewers to laugh at his thick-headedness. But that’s neither here nor there, because I am not a screenwriter, I’m an endurance coach with a Twitter account.

I don’t think the context issue was the only factor involved in the joke’s flat landing, however. Rather, I think the negativity directed at me has been fueled in part by an ongoing backlash against our focus on body weight in endurance sports. As the author of the book Racing Weight, I am keenly aware that a growing contingent within the endurance community believes that, misfired jokes notwithstanding, the topic of performance weight management ought to be more or less taboo. Long before I posted my tweet, it was suggested to me, more than once, that I did something wrong in writing Racing Weight.

The specific accusation is that in discussing weight management as a tool for performance, folks like me contribute to an unhealthy fixation on weight in endurance sports that motivates some coaches to fat-shame and psychologically abuse athletes and causes some athletes to develop issues such as eating disorders and body dysmorphia even without a coach’s overt influence. The solution, therefore, is to avoid discussing performance weight management except for the sake of actively discourage athletes from focusing on it.

The intent here is unimpeachable. Eating disorders, body dysmorphia, and over-fixation on body weight are huge problems in endurance sports, and anyone in a position to do something to fix them has an obligation to chip in. As one who is very much in such a position, I try hard to do my part. I think the Twitter critics who read my tweet literally—who actually think I fat-shame some athletes—would be surprised to see how I counsel the athletes I coach on these matters. I never encourage athletes to lose weight, I preach caution to all of those who set their own goal to lose weight, and I talk to them a lot more about the importance of having a healthy relationship with food than I do about the mechanics of shedding body fat. I’m proud to say I’ve brought a few athletes back from very dark places through these means.

Having said all of this, I must also say that I disagree with those who believe that the topic of performance weight management ought to be taboo, for two reasons. The first is that, in my experience, forbidding an open, rational discussion of the topic only drives athletes’ efforts to manage their weight underground, which greatly increases the likelihood that they’ll go about it the wrong way. It’s sort of like the argument that is often made for teaching sexual education in school. Folks are going to do it regardless of whether you tell them not to, so why not talk openly about how to do it and how not to do it?

The second reason I deem the racing weight backlash misguided is that, as a general principle, I believe that truth is the only road to effective solutions for all problems. I think we do athletes a disservice when we assume they can’t handle the truth. A small minority of athletes, those who have a history of disordered eating or who are at high risk for developing an eating disorder, do need to be steered away from giving any mind space to their weight and body shape. I half-jokingly tell the athletes I coach who belong to this minority, “My one and only prescription for you is to spend 80 percent less time thinking about food.” But I think it’s a mistake to establish general rules for the discussion of performance weight management based on the vulnerabilities of this small group. Instead, in my view, the “standard” approach to dealing with performance weight management should be based on facts and truth. And here are the most relevant truths, as I see them:

1. Body weight and body composition can affect endurance performance both positively and negatively.

2. There is nothing intrinsically wrong or dangerous about actively managing one’s weight and body composition in the pursuit of better performance.

3. There are safe, healthy, and effective ways to pursue one’s optimal racing weight and there are unsafe, unhealthy, and ineffective ways.

4. The desire to actively pursue optimal racing weight should come from the individual athlete and should never come from a coach or anyone else.

5. Athletes who express such a desire should receive (ideally professional) guidance that is evidence-based and that is informed every bit as much by psychological concerns as by physical ones. For example, it should be drilled into athletes’ heads that optimal racing weight is determined functionally (i.e., by how the athlete feels and performs), not by the scale, and least of all by arbitrary numerical goals.

6. Athletes who have expressed a goal to actively pursue their racing weight and who start heading in a bad direction, either physically or psychologically, despite qualified guidance, should be supported in letting go of weight management as a performance tool and encouraged to focus instead on some of the many other available tools. . .

. . . like performance-enhancing drugs!

Ah, Lord help me. 

Stadephobia is not a real word. I just made it up. It combines the ancient Greek words stade, which was a unit of measure used in footraces (1 stade = 180 meters), and phobia, meaning fear, and it’s my name for the phenomenon of fear of distance. In general, phobias are irrational fears of things like spiders and open spaces, but in endurance sports many athletes experience a perfectly rational fear of longer race distances. The Ironman race distance, for example, can be quite intimidating for the athlete who has not yet mastered it.

As natural as such fears are, they shouldn’t be allowed to get out of hand. In excess, stadephobia sabotages athletes by tempting them to make poor training decisions out of an insecure need to prove to themselves that they can successfully complete the distance they’ve signed up for. It also causes athletes to start events in a state of high anxiety and low confidence that is intrinsically performance-hindering. So, how do you manage fear of distance? Here are a few suggestions:

Trust the process.

You are not the first athlete ever to attempt to complete whichever race distance you’re currently preparing for, whether it’s a marathon, an Ironman, or even a 100-mile ultramarathon. Keep this fact in mind throughout the training process. If you follow a training plan that is similar to those that athletes like you have used successfully in the past to successfully complete the same race distance, you have every reason to believe that it will do the same for you.

Don’t look up.

One of the big mistakes I see athletes make when they are training for a race distance that intimidates them is to base their assessments of their ability to complete the distance on race day on their current fitness. A triathlete training for an Ironman might, for example, struggle to complete a 75-mile bike  ride 12 weeks before the race and think, “There’s no way I can ride 112 miles and then run a marathon!”

Well, no shit. Even a professional Ironman racer cannot and should not expect to be ready to perform at peak level 12 weeks before an event. You aren’t supposed to be ready before it’s time to be ready! By looking too far ahead in the training process you will achieve nothing more than creating a lot of unnecessary anxiety.

Whether you’re a first-timer or a pro or anything in between, what matters is not where you are fitness-wise but which direction you’re going. How fit you are today is not important. What’s important is that you are getting fitter. So, instead of comparing yourself to the athlete you will need to be on race day to achieve your goal, compare yourself to the athlete you where when you started the training process. If you’re fitter now than you were, say, four weeks ago, then your training is working and you can expect to keep getting fitter in the weeks to come, so that when it’s actually time to be ready, you will be.

Accept uncertainty.

At the root of stadephobia is anxiety about uncertainty. No race distance is inherently scary. Rather, a race distance is only scary to the degree that an athlete doubts his or her ability to complete it successfully. But some athletes are naturally more comfortable with uncertainty than others. Given two athletes training for a 100K ultramarathon, both of whom rate their chances of completing it successfully at 75 percent, one might be completely freaked out about those odds while the other is only mildly anxious.

If you tend toward being uncomfortable with uncertainty, work on it. Champions don’t mind risking failure. In fact, they deliberately set goals that carry a high risk of failure. The whole point of doing endurance sports is to challenge yourself, and you’re not challenging yourself if you know for sure you’re going to succeed. Obviously, you don’t want to take on tests that you know you’re going to fail, either. There’s a happy medium. But the point is to train your mind to be happy in that middle state, where it remains to be seen whether you’ll make it to the finish line until you actually do.

In 1997, when I was a struggling young poet (don’t laugh) in San Francisco, I wrote a letter to Dave Eggers, who was then merely a local literary celebrity whose reputation rested on his work as founder and editor of MIGHT magazine and not yet the international literary star he became three years later with the publication of his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. In the letter, I pitched Dave on the idea of including a poetry page in future issues of MIGHT and commissioning me to serve as the magazine’s poetry editor.

To my mild surprise, Dave wrote back and said he was open to the idea. This led to a phone call, during which we developed the idea further. MIGHT folded soon afterward, though, and that was the end of that.

Later, when Dave was an international literary star, I read an interview in which he explained that he had a policy of always trying to say “yes” when somebody asked something of him. It was part of his personal code of ethics to help out and lift up others when he could, a principle that was based on a karmic sort of belief that spreading the wealth did not diminish but rather increased his own (metaphorical) wealth. In other words, Dave has what’s known as an abundance mindset, and it explains why he said “yes” when I pitched my stupid poetry idea to him.

Dave’s words resonated with me because I, too, try to say “yes” to everything. For me, it seems only right, because (as the story I just shared demonstrates) I ask other people for things all the time. And so it was that, when a runner named Jake Tuber contacted me in the summer of 2017 to ask if I would be willing to coach him pro bono in support of a fundraising challenge, I said, “No.”

Just kidding. Actually, I said, “Not right now,” because at the time I had my hands full with my own project, which entailed living the life of a professional runner with the Northern Arizona Elite team in Flagstaff. I asked Jake to circle back with me in October, when I was home again in California, and he did so, and I coached him for the next several months.

During this period and beyond, Jake and I talked a lot about my “fake pro runner” experience, as I like to call it. He was enamored of the whole idea, and wondered if there might be a way to enable other amateur runners to experience something like it—some sort of next-level running camp. I told Jake I would gladly involve myself in anything he cooked up, and then he sort of disappeared for a while.

Turns out he did so for a very good reason: because he was busy cooking! The result of all that hard behind-the-scenes groundwork is Endeavorun, the world’s first start-to-finish, comprehensive running program that enables everyday runners to experience a professional-style training season like I did with NAZ Elite in 2017. Endeavorun 2020 kicks off next July with a five-day, four-night retreat in Eugene, Oregon (a.k.a. Tracktown USA). There you will meet, run with, and learn from me and other top experts, including current top professional runners and a sports dietitian.

But that’s just the beginning. During the camp you will sit down with me or another coach for a one-on-one consultation to review the custom training plan we’ve built for you. Tailored to your schedule, goals, and abilities and delivered through a free account on TrainingPeaks, this plan will culminate with the Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas event (with 5K, 10K, half-marathon, and marathon race options) in November, where Endeavorun athletes will reconvene for a VIP experience that includes race entry, hotel stay, sponsor perks, and an after-race party.

And that’s not all. Between the camp in Eugene and the race in Las Vegas, the Endeavorun experience will continue online through live virtual coaching, accountability partner check-ins, virtual team workouts, massive discounts from premiere partners (just like the pros get), and more. There’s nothing else like it out there, and I encourage every runner who has fantasized about what it would be like to go all the way with their running to take advantage of this unique opportunity.

I’m pleased to be able to offer a VIP early-bird discount to members of the 80/20 Endurance community. Just use this link to visit the Endeavorun website and learn more about the program, then enter coupon code 8020ENDURANCE to get 15% off the cost of registration and a free pair of running shoes of your choice, which will be waiting for you at our Kickoff Retreat. We’re capping registration at 120 runners, so act soon to avoid missing out on your chance to train like a pro in 2020!

The question that serves as the title of this article is one that comes up often in discussions of the 80/20 method of endurance training. It’s a natural question to ask. Common sense suggests that a person can make up for exercising little by exercising hard. Heck, there’s no bigger proponent of the 80/20 approach than me, and even I would admit that if you’re only going to exercise for five minutes at a time, three times a week, you’d be wise to spend most of that time at high intensity.

But what about more realistic scenarios? As far as I know, there are no endurance athletes who train just five minutes a day, three times a week. There are, however, some who train less than everyone else. Is it right to advise these athletes to follow the same 80/20 approach that is known to work best for moderate- to high-volume athletes? 

Science has not yet pinned down this threshold definitively. The best evidence we have comes from a 2014 study conducted at the European University of Madrid, which found that recreational runners who trained just under four hours per week for 10 weeks improved their 10K time more with an 80/20 intensity balance than they did with a more intense training program. These results indicate that if there is a threshold of training volume below which an 80/20 intensity balance is less effective, it’s probably lower than 33 minutes of exercise per day.

Just for the sake of argument, let’s say the bar is only slightly lower—perhaps 25 minutes a day. I’ve got to say it, folks: If you’re not willing to train 25 minutes a day, why the heck do you even want to be an endurance athlete? I’m sorry if this sounds snarky, but I really mean it. The World Health Organization recommends that people get at least 150 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week if they wish to maximize the basic health benefits of exercise. So, even if you have no interest in participating in endurance races but simply want to live a long and healthy life, you should be working out about 21.4 minutes per day (give or take). And, for all we know, even at that level you will gain the most fitness from an 80/20 intensity balance.

While we wait for science to nail down the threshold below which an 80/20 intensity balance is no longer optimal, we have real-world evidence to hold us over. You don’t have to have been coaching as long as I have to realize that there’s only so much improvement you can gain from training harder versus more, and that a ball-busting 20-minute interval workout can’t really substitute for a 20-mile run. But don’t take my word for it. There’s no greater expert on this subject than Stephen Seiler, the exercise physiologist who discovered the 80/20 rule. Recently I emailed Stephen to ask the question that serves as the title of this post, and here’s how he responded:

Yeah, that is a good question, meaning that I have no data to throw down here. I think when you get down in that two to four training sessions per week range, there are a number of ways to optimize. For example, at three days a week, I would shoot for two low-intensity and one high. But I would really try to stretch the duration as much as possible on one of those low-intensity workouts. So, for a lot of people, that itself would make that low-intensity session pretty tough.

At four days a week, I would experiment with three low and one high versus two low and two high(-ish). My gut says that at four days a week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, for example), the athlete might benefit from doubling up and making that Friday some kind of HIT session, then doing a “long” low-intensity session the next day. That would perhaps help to optimize the adaptive signal of that long session due to muscle glycogen levels being still depressed.

If I could only train two times a week, I would probably end up combining some high intensity and low-intensity work in both sessions, aiming to try to stimulate every muscle fiber I could, as much as I could!

All of this sounds pretty sensible to me, and if you turn Stephen’s ideas into percentages, you’ll find that only at two days per week are we looking at an intensity balance that doesn’t hew pretty close to 80/20. And again, if you’re only going to practice your sport twice a week, may I suggest golf or skiing rather than long-distance running or triathlon?

Overuse injuries such as Achilles tendinosis and runner’s knee are very different from other “health problems” such as migraine and flu. Whereas the latter cause all-day physical discomfort, most overuse injuries hurt only when you try to do the specific activity that caused them. And yet they bother you just as much, don’t they?

The point I’m getting at is that sports injuries are more psychologically than physically harmful. If you didn’t mind not running for a month, plantar fasciitis isn’t a big deal. The same cannot be said of irritable bowel syndrome. As an often-injured athlete, I know this as well as anyone, and I have a strong appreciation for the importance of addressing the psychological dimension of injury.

That’s why I’m so excited about the new book Rebound: Train your mind to bounce back stronger from sports injuries. Coauthored by mental skills expert Carrie Jackson Cheadle and running journalist Cindy Kuzma (who happens to be a friend of mine), Rebound functions as a kind of mental training plan for the injured athlete. Most athletes just kind of muddle through the mental aspect of injury. This book offers a far more effective alternative that will help you be less miserable the next time you get injured and also get more out of that next injury.

Cheadle and Kuzma identify 15 mental skills that are essential to injury recovery:

Confidence: “Belief and trust in your ability to accomplish your goals”

Focus: “Capacity to direct or redirect your energy and attention to what’s relevant and constructive”

Goal-setting: “Ability to define what you want to accomplish and create a plan to achieve that target”

Motivation: “Drive and desire to put in the work and push toward your goals and aspirations”

Stress management: “Proficiency at using coping skills and strategies to eliminate stressors when you can and to regulate the stress response when you can’t”

Attitude: “Positive approach and mindset to facing adversity, challenges, and setbacks”

Communication: “Competence at clearly expressing your opinions and ideas—and ability to hear and understand others’ perspectives”

Emotional intelligence: “Ability to recognize emotions, discern their origins, and understand how they affect behavior”

Self-awareness: “Conscious knowledge about how you operate, including how you think, feel, and react”

Visualization: “Skillfulness at creating and recreating vivid, controllable images in your mind”

Discipline: “Persistence in pursuit of longer-term goals and deeper values”

Generosity: “Willingness to extend grace toward yourself and others”

Mindfulness: “Adeptness at keeping you consciousness in the present moment—or at bringing it back there—and acting as an objective observer of your own experience”

Psychological flexibility: “Willingness and ability to adapt to changing circumstances by shifting your reactions, behaviors, and perspective”

Resilience: “Power to bounce back from hardship or adversity and thrive despite setbacks”

Rebound shows athletes how to strengthen each of these mental skills. One of the things I like most about the book is the authors’ recognition that each athlete is unique and should therefore take an individual path toward becoming more adept at dealing with injury. In reading Rebound, I recognized that I’m not very skilled at practicing generosity. More specifically, I tend to get angry at my body when it breaks down. Cheadle and Kuzma suggest that athletes like me write a sympathy card to themselves as a way of fostering a more generous mindset. I gave it a try and found it surprisingly comforting.

Another strength of the book is its abundance of inspiring and edifying examples of athletes who have used the very same tools Cheadle and Kuzma teach to bounce back stronger from injuries. Collectively, these illustrations show fragile athletes like me that they are not alone and they need not reinvent the wheel to get better at dealing with injuries. One of my favorite case studies is that of Amelia Boone, a champion ultrarunner and obstacle racer who turned a small quad injury into a major career interruption by allowing that voice in her head to talk her into hurrying the recovery process. She learned from the experience, though, and eventually returned to the top as a wiser athlete who is unlikely to ever make the same mistake again.

There’s no doubt about it: “Injuries Suck.” (This is the literal title of Chapter 1 of Rebound.) But I promise that if you read this much-need and well-executed book and put its guidance into practice, your injury experience will suck less, and you will love the sport you love all the more.

One of the more persistent myths in running is the idea that running on a treadmill is “easier” than running overground. Here’s a typical formulation of the myth, which I found on the website of the Houston Chronicle

Running on a level road or trail is not the same as running on a level treadmill. The combination of a moving belt and the lack of air resistance makes a level treadmill run easier, allowing you to run at a faster pace at the same effort level. A study done in the United Kingdom found that you have to set the treadmill at a 1 percent grade in order to replicate the energy cost and speed you would run outdoors.

While it is true that, at faster speeds, the energy cost of running on a treadmill is lower than the energy cost of running overground, it is not true that this results in a lower perceived effort level on the treadmill. In fact, precisely the opposite is true. Studies have shown that running on a treadmill at any given pace feels harder than running outdoors despite the fact the cardiometabolic demand is lower.

How is this possible? It’s pretty simple, actually. Heart rate is not the only determinant of perceived effort. A variety of other factors, including psychological factors, also affect how hard it feels to run at a given pace. Indeed, a 2011 study by Brazilian, Italian, and American researchers found that overground running feels easier than treadmill running simply because it’s more fun. But I happen to think there’s another factor at play, which is the slightly greater degree of control one has when running outdoors. 

When you run outdoors, your pace is never perfectly steady. Even when you’re trying to run at a perfectly steady pace, there are micro-fluctuations in rhythm, whereas on the treadmill you are locked into a rigidly unvarying rhythm. There is evidence that this lack of freedom slightly increases perceived effort. For example, a study involving rowers found that perceived effort was lower when a certain wattage was maintained voluntarily than when the same wattage was automatically enforced.

What’s more, because perceived effort has a much stronger effect on performance than heart rate does, runners are also fasteroutdoors than they are on the treadmill. Don’t believe me? Too bad! It’s a proven fact. In a 2014 study by researchers at the State University of Maringa in Brazil, 18 recreational runners were asked to perform one-hour time trials on a treadmill and on an outdoor track. On average, they covered 11.8 km on the treadmill and 12.2 km on the track. In other words, they performed 3.3 percent better outdoors. Yet their heart rates were lower on the treadmill.

Somebody reading this post is thinking, “Treadmill running may be harder and slower than outdoor running for most runners, but I’m an exception. I know from experience that I can run faster at a lower effort level on a treadmill than I can outside.”

The problem with this objection is that it’s based on the assumption that the speed/pace data you see on the treadmill’s information display is accurate, and this is seldom the case. Most treadmills are poorly calibrated. If you pick a treadmill at random, step onto the belt, and set the speed at 7.0 mph, you might actually be running at 6.6 mph, 6.9 mph, or 7.3 mph. I own a treadmill of reasonably high quality, and its speed readings only remain accurate for about six months after each calibration. My service plan limits me to one “free” recalibration per year, and by the time the tech comes out to my home, the speed is usually off by about 3 percent—and always in the same direction. Specifically, it’s telling me I’m running 3 percent faster than I really am. So a runner who used my treadmill in this uncalibrated state and didn’t know it needed calibrating might think that he or she is able to run faster more easily on a treadmill than outdoors.

It’s not really time but usage that causes a treadmill to lose calibration. My wife and I use our machine anywhere from three to ten hours per week. Consider how much more usage the typical fitness club treadmill gets. Unless these machines are serviced every other week or so (and most aren’t), they are likely to provide unreliable speed/pace information. You truly never know what you’re getting on a fitness club treadmill. It would be a fun experiment to go to a gym wearing a properly calibrated running accelerometer and run on five different treadmills, each set at 7.0 mph. I wouldn’t be surprised if your device gave you five different pace readings.

Don’t get me wrong: Treadmill running is real running. Heck, Christine Clark won the 2000 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon after training almost exclusively on her home treadmill. But you can’t trust the speed/pace information a treadmill gives you, and even on an a well-calibrated treadmill, you can’t compare your speed or pace to your performance outdoors.

The August 2009 issue of Triathlete Magazine featured an article titled “The end of Running Injuries.” Written by yours truly, the piece introduced readers to the Alter-G antigravity treadmill, which, I claimed, “has the potential to completely eliminate traditional injury setbacks from the life of any runner (or triathlete) who has access to a machine.”

This hyperbolic-sounding statement was based on my personal experience of testing an Alter-G at a Los Angeles physical therapy clinic. While on the machine, which allows the user to run at anywhere between 20 and 100 percent of his or her full body weight, I could not imagine a single injury I’d ever suffered (and I’d suffered them all) that I couldn’t have trained through uninterruptedly with one of these babies. Of course, injured runners can usually ride a bike and can almost always run in a pool, but unlike these traditional cross-training activities, running on an antigravity treadmill is not an alternative to running—it is running!

The one big drawback to the Alter-G, as I noted in the same article, is accessibility. Although the cost of the cheaper consumer models has come down substantially over the last decade, they’re still far more expensive than a regular treadmill. You can rent time on a machine at some high-end endurance training facilities and physical therapy clinics, but that cost adds up too. Plus it’s a hassle. I’d have to drive 20 minutes each way to access the nearest machine in my area.

Not long after my Alter-G experience, I read a scientific paper that inspired me to try steep uphill treadmill walking as a sort of poor-man’s version of antigravity treadmill running and found that it worked pretty well. It gets your heart rate up, the movement pattern is very similar to running, and it’s a low-impact activity rather than a nonimpact activity, so it helps maintain tissue adaptations to repetitive impact, making for a smoother transition back to normal running than you’d get from cycling or pool running.

While training for a recent Ironman I did a ton of steep uphill treadmill walking because, yet again, I was unable to run due to injury. As race day drew closer and closer and I kept failing the occasional test runs I did, I became increasingly worried that I was running out of time to get my running up to snuff. That’s when I got the idea to try steep uphill running. At a steep enough incline, running generates scarcely more impact force than walking does. My plan was to first see whether my injury could handle a slow jog at a 15 percent incline, and if it could, to then gradually run faster at progressively lower gradients until I was able to run normally again. In this way I wouldn’t have to wait any longer to start building up my running fitness but at the same time I wouldn’t hinder the healing process.

Long story short, it worked. Twelve weeks before my race, I took the final step in the process, from running at a 4 percent incline to running outdoors. Even then, though, I was unable to run faster than about 9:30 per mile without pain. Knowing I wasn’t going to get very fit running 9:30 miles, I continued to perform my higher-intensity runs on the treadmill, which I could do without hindering my recovery if the incline was sufficiently steep. Six weeks before the Ironman, I ran the Modesto Marathon, finishing in 3:30:46 (8:02 per mile) with moderate pain. Two weeks later, I ran the Boston Marathon in 2:54:08 (6:39 per mile) with only mild pain. Two weeks after that, I won a half marathon in 1:17:58 (5:56 per mile) with zero pain. And two weeks after that, I raced Ironman Santa Rosa, completing the marathon leg in 3:17:02, which was about what I would have expected if I had never gotten injured in the first place.

To be clear, a lot of the actual fitness that enabled me to make such rapid progress came from cycling. I was on my bike seven to nine hours per week throughout this period. But I doubt I would have performed as well as I did in the Ironman if not for uphill treadmill running, which functioned as a bridge back to normal run training. Neither walking nor elliptical running nor pool running would have done that for me.

Want to give steep uphill treadmill running a try? Excellent. First, go and get yourself injured. Next, hop on a treadmill and find the shallowest incline that allows you to run without pain. If it’s quite steep (15 percent or close to it) and you’re not a very fast runner, you might not be able to run at any speed without workout really hard. In that case, start with intervals, alternating short running bouts with walking. When you feel ready, lower the belt angle a few degrees and give that a try. If you can run pain-free at this new incline, do so until you ready to lower the belt again, and so on until you’re back to normal running. 


I am not an exercise scientist, but I do have a strong interest in the science of endurance exercise, and every once in a while I speculate on the kinds of questions exercise scientists like to explore experimentally. For example, back in 2004 I found myself wondering if training in a hot environment might improve endurance performance in a temperate environment, sort of like how training at high altitude improves endurance performance at low altitude. My curiosity led me to put the question to famed sports science researcher Tim Noakes, who, in his prompt and courteous reply, dismissed the idea as “too bizarre to consider.”

Six years later, sweet vindication came my way in the form of a study appearing in the Journal of Applied Physiology under the title “Heat acclimation improves exercise performance.”

Led by Santiago Lorenzo of the University of Oregon, the study involved 20 highly trained cyclists, who were asked to complete a performance test in temperate conditions on two occasions separated by 10 days. Between the tests, all 20 cyclists completed a prescribed training program, but 12 of them did it in a controlled, hot environment (100 degrees Fahrenheit) while the other eight performed their workouts in the same temperate conditions (55 degrees) as the performance tests. The 12 cyclists who underwent heat acclimatization improved their performance in the temperate performance test by a massive 7 percent, while the control group showed no improvement.

Lorenzo’s team attributed the performance-boosting effects of heat acclimatization on endurance performance in cool conditions to improved efficiency in heat dissipation and increased blood volume. They also found evidence that it caused some changes in muscle cell enzymes, which may have contributed to the effect as well.

Several subsequent studies have mined the same vein vein more deeply. The most recent studyon heat training in endurance athletes, published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, offers important guidance on how best to use this method in real-world settings. Led by Mark Waldron of Swansea University, the experiment aimed to track the time course of adaptations to heat training.

Twenty-two male cyclists were separated into experimental and control groups. Members of the experimental group cycled indoors at 100 degrees Fahrenheit while members of the control group did an equal amount of cycling at 68 degrees. Waldron’s team measured VO2max in both groups before the intervention, on days five and ten of the intervention, and on days one, two, three, four, five, and ten afterward.

The results are interesting. Both groups exhibited an initial decrease in VO2max during the 10-day training period that was followed by a rebound beyond baseline afterward. The peak increase was higher in the heat-training group, but not until four days after the last heat-training session, with some variation between individuals. VO2max then began to trend toward decline in this group, though the amount of decline that occurred between day four to day 10 post-acclimation did not reach statistical significance.

In a nutshell, these findings suggest that if you’re going to use heat training to increase your endurance performance, you need to time it to end about four days before you race. This means that your heat training is likely to overlap with you pre-race taper. Is this insane? It might sound so, but there’s a difference between sound and substance. While training in 100-degree heat might be uncomfortable, it’s not going to kill you, and which would you rather do: 10 days of heavy, peak training in 100-degree heat or 10 days of lighter, taper training?

That being said, I don’t recommend that you try heat training for the first time before an important race. Instead, test it out early in a training cycle to see how it affects you. It won’t be wasted even then, because if it works it will give your subsequent training a nice boost.

I can’t help but wonder if doing one hot workout every week or so throughout a training cycle might have similar benefits. Personally, I would find this approach easier to manage. Heat training could then be used in much the same way carb-fasted workouts are, and perhaps the two methods could even be combined to minimize the number of training days that need to be set aside as “special” sessions. Can I get a real exercise scientist to look into this?

This document covers how to use your free strength training plug-in. For support on your Premium Strength Training plan, see Understanding Your Premium 80/20 Strength Training Plan.

If you have not done much strength training recently, or if many of the exercises in your 80/20 Strength Training Plug-in are new to you, we recommend that you perform each exercise just one time (one circuit) in each of the first four sessions (two weeks).

All of the workouts in your 80/20 Strength Training Plug-in are intended to be done as circuits. This means you complete each exercise one time before going back and repeating the full sequence. Research suggests that 80 percent of the potential strength gains associated with doing any particular exercise come from the first set, so if you’re tight on time and/or you don’t enjoying strength work, don’t feel compelled to do more than one circuit. But if you do have time and interest, we recommend that you advance from one circuit to two in your third week (seventh session) and from two circuits to three in your fifth week (11th session).

The workouts are designed in such a way that you are never challenging the same muscle groups in consecutive movements. This allows you to move from one exercise to the next with minimal rest. Don’t rush the workout, but do recover just long enough between exercises so that your performance in the next is not compromised.

In exercises involving external resistance (e.g., dumbbells), choose a weight that you could lift twice more than you are actually required to. For example, if a given exercise calls for 10 repetitions, choose a weight you could lift 12 times with perfect form. Increase the resistance in small increments as you get stronger. The same loading principle applies to bodyweight and timed exercises. For example, when doing Side Planks, hold the position about 90 percent as long as you could.

Your 80/20 Strength Training Plug-in comprises three separate workouts: a Preparation Phase Circuit, a Build Phase Circuit, and a Competition Phase Circuit. Each workout consists of 10 exercises, but the exercises are different in each workout. Always perform new movements with minimal loads until you get the hang of them.

Each exercise description is followed by a link to a video demonstration from a third party. It is very important that you do all of the exercises with correct form. To this end, we encourage you to get help from a strength and conditioning coach or personal trainer if you have any doubt about whether you are doing a particular exercise correctly.

Please note that the Strength Training Plug-in plan should be applied using the same start date as your primary plan. In many cases, the first strength workout of the week will fall on the primary plan’s scheduled Rest Day. Although this takes away the complete rest day of many plans, endurance strength training is light enough that it will not interfere with your recovery on that day. You also have the option to move this strength training session to the next-easiest day of the week, but we recommend it remain as scheduled.

Required Equipment

The full spectrum of exercises within the Strength Training Plug-in requires the following equipment:

  • Kettlebells, various weight
  • Dumbbells, various weight
  • Swiss ball
  • Stability ball
  • Exercise bands OR cable/pulley machine
  • Exercise step or chair
  • Medicine ball
  • Exercise mat

Preparation Phase Circuit

Split-Stance Dumbbell Deadlift

Stand with your left foot half a step behind your right foot and your right foot flat on the floor beneath your hip and only the toes of your left foot touching the floor. Begin with a dumbbell in each hand and your arms relaxed at your sides. Now bend at the hips and knees (not the waist) and reach toward the floor with the dumbbells, stopping when the weights are a few inches from the ground. Pause briefly and then press your right foot into the floor and return to a standing position. Concentrate on contracting your right glutes when executing this motion. Complete 8 to 10 repetitions and then reverse your stance and repeat the exercise.

Video Demonstration

Side Plank

Lie on your right side with your ankles together and your torso propped up by your upper arm. Lift your hips until your body forms a diagonal plank from ankles to neck. Hold this position for about 90 percent as long as you could, making sure you don’t allow your hips to sag toward the floor. (Watch yourself in a mirror to make sure you’re not sagging.) Switch to the left side and repeat the exercise.

Video Demonstration

Bent-Over Row

Stand with a dumbbell in each hand and your arms hanging at your sides. Bend both knees moderately and lean forward about 30 degrees from the hips (not the waist), allowing your arms to hang toward the floor like plumb lines. Pull the dumbbell toward a spot just outside your lower ribcage, keeping your elbow in. Now slowly lower the dumbbell. Complete 10 repetitions, then reverse your stance and switch arms.

Video Demonstration:

Stability Ball Hamstring Curl

Start in a bridge position, face up, with your head and shoulders on the floor and your heels resting on top of a stability ball, your body suspended in a straight line between these points. Contract your hamstrings and roll the ball toward your rear end. Pause briefly and extend your legs, rolling the ball back to the starting point. Don’t let your hips drop. Complete 10-15 repetitions. If this exercise is too easy, do a single-leg version, elevating one foot above the ball and pulling the ball toward your butt with the other leg.

Video Demonstration

Stability Ball Roll Out

Kneel on the floor facing a stability ball, lean forward slightly, and place your forearms on top of the ball. Pull your belly button toward your spine. Slowly roll the ball forward by extending your forearms out in front of you and allowing your body to tilt toward the floor. Concentrate on maintaining perfect alignment of your spine. Stop just before you’re forced to arch your back. Hold this position for 3 seconds and then return to the start position, exhaling as you do so. Complete 12 repetitions.

Video Demonstration


Assume a standard push-up position with your hands just outside shoulder width. Imagine your body being a straight line from ankles to neck; don’t allow the hips to sag, or your butt to stick up too high. Tuck your chin so that your head is close to being in line with your body. Lower your chest to within an inch of the floor. Look straight at the floor the entire time, and keep your core braced tightly. Press back to the starting position. Complete 20 repetitions or 2 fewer than your max, whichever comes first.

Video Demonstration

Standing Heel Raise

Stand normally with your arms at your sides and a dumbbell in each hand. Contract your calf muscles and lift your heels off the ground as high as possible. Pause briefly at the top of the motion and then return to the start position. Complete 12 repetitions.

Video Demonstration

Standing Cable Trunk Rotation

Stand with your left side facing a cable pulley station with a handle attached at shoulder height. Grasp the handle with both hands and both arms fully extended. Begin with your torso rotated toward the handle and tension in the cable (i.e. the weight stack is slightly elevated from the resting position). Rotate your torso to the right while keeping your arms fully extended and the handle in line with the center of your chest. Keep your eyes focused on the handle as you rotate and your hips pressed forward. Return to the start position without allowing the weight stack to come to rest. Complete 12 repetitions, then reverse your position and repeat the exercise.

Video Demonstration

Reverse Wood Chop

Connect a D-handle to a cable pulley station at ankle height. Stand in a wide stance with your left side facing the cable pulley station and most of your weight on the left foot. Grasp the handle in both hands, beginning with the handle just outside your knee. Using both arms, pull the cable upward and across your body, keeping your arms straight and finishing with your hands above your right shoulder. Avoid rounding your back. Return smoothly to the start position. Complete 10 repetitions.

Video Demonstration

Split Squat Jump

Start in a split stance with your right foot flat on the ground and your left leg slightly bent with only the forefoot of your left foot touching the ground a half step behind the right. Lower yourself down into a deep squat and then leap upward as high as possible. In midair, reverse the position of your legs. When you land, sink down immediately into another squat and then leap again. Complete 12 jumps in each position.

Video Demonstration

Build Phase Circuit

Reverse Lunge

Stand normally with your arms hanging at your sides and a dumbbell in each hand. Take a large step backward with your left foot and then bend your right knee until the thigh is parallel to the floor. Keep your trunk upright and your weight on your right foot. Now press your right foot into the floor and return to the start position. Next, repeat this sequence with the other leg. Complete 10 repetitions with each leg.

Video Demonstration

Stirring the Pot

Assume a plank position with your feet on the floor, spread apart by at least 12 inches, and your forearms resting on a stability ball. Keeping your body in a straight line and your hips stable, use your forearms to “draw” a small clockwise circle on the ball. Complete 10 circles at a rate of about 1.5 second per circle and then draw 10 more circles in the opposite direction. If your abs aren’t burning yet, repeat the whole exercise a second time.

Video Demonstration


Grab a pull-up bar with an overhand grip and your hands positioned slightly more than shoulder-width apart. Begin from a full hang. Pull your body upward until your chin clears the bar, then lower yourself back to a full hang. If you cannot complete at least eight pull-ups on your own, have a partner assist you by pushing you upward from a standing position on the floor as necessary. Complete 8 to 12 repetitions or two fewer than your max.

Video Demonstration

Single-Leg Reverse Deadlift

Stand on your right foot with the knee slightly bent and a dumbbell in your left hand, left arm relaxed at your side. Now tilt your trunk forward and at the same time extend your left leg backward and reach toward the toe of your left shoe with the dumbbell. Do not actively squat or rotate your torso to get the dumbbell closer to your shoe. Think of this as more of a balance exercise than a flexion/extension exercise. Keep your core and your scapula tight and your whole body stable outside of the forward tilting of your torso. Pause briefly at the bottom of the movement and return to the start position. Complete 10 repetitions and then repeat the exercise with your left leg.

Video Demonstration

Stability Ball Hip Rotation

Lie face up with your knees bent 90 degrees and your lower legs resting on a stability ball. Rotate your hips 45 degrees to the right, tightening your abs to control the movement. Pause briefly and then rotate your hips to the left, again stopping when your thighs are at a 45-degree angle to the floor. Complete 8 to 10 movements in each direction.

Video Demonstration

BOSU Ball Push-Up

Assume a standard push-up position with your hands gripping the edges of a BOSU Ball. Imagine your body being a straight line from ankles to neck; don’t allow the hips to sag, or your butt to stick up too high. Tuck your chin so that your head is close to being in line with your body. Lower your chest to within an inch of the ball. Look straight at the floor the entire time, and keep your core braced tightly. Press back to the starting position. Complete 12 to 16 repetitions or two fewer than your max.

Video Demonstration

Eccentric Heel Raise

Stand normally and contract both calves, raising your heels as high as you can. Now lift your left foot off the floor by bending your knee slightly so that you are supported by the toe of your right foot. (Use a wall or other stable structure for balance.) Now lower your right heel slowly to the floor on a six count. When your right foot is flat on the floor, place the left foot next to it and raise your heels again, then repeat the slow lowering of your right heel to the floor. Complete 10 repetitions and then switch to the left foot.

Video Demonstration

Wood Chop

Stand with your left side facing a cable pulley station with a D-handle attached at shoulder height. Bend your knees slightly and place your feet a little more than shoulder-width apart. Grasp the handle in both hands. Your arms should be almost fully extended with your trunk rotated to the left. Now pull the handle from this position across your body and toward the floor, stopping when your hands are outside your right ankle. This is a compound movement that involves twisting your torso to the right, shifting your weight from your left foot to your right foot, bending toward the floor, and using your shoulders to pull the handle across your body. Concentrate on initiating the movement with your trunk muscles. At the bottom of the movement, pause briefly, then smoothly return to the starting position. Complete 10 to 12 repetitions, then reverse your position and repeat the exercise.

Video Demonstration

Dumbbell Power Snatch

Stand with your feet far apart and your toes turned slightly outward. Hold a dumbbell in your right hand. Sink your butt toward the floor until the dumbbell is at or just below the height of your knees and hanging between your legs. Press your heels into the floor as though you intend to jump, but instead use the momentum to lift the dumbbell straight overhead. Finish the movement in a full standing position with your right arm extended straight toward the ceiling. Concentrate on making the dumbbell travel upward in a perfectly straight line and using your legs and hips more than your shoulder to get the dumbbell overhead. Now lower the dumbbell to your shoulder and from there return to the start position. Complete 8 to 10 repetitions and then repeat the exercise with your left arm.

Video Demonstration

Single-Leg Box Jump

Stand facing a plyometrics box or stacked aerobics steps on your right foot only with your left knee slightly bent. Squat down slightly as you naturally do when jumping for height and leap onto the box, landing on your right foot. You may also find it natural to swing your arms back and then forward while jumping. Immediately jump backward down to the floor, again landing on your right foot. Complete 10-12 jumps and then do 10-12 more on your left leg.

Video Demonstration

Competition Phase Circuit

Rear Foot Elevated Lunge

Stand on your right foot with your left leg extended behind you and the top of your left foot resting on an exercise bench. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your arms relaxed at your sides. Bend your right knee until your right thigh is parallel to the floor, keeping your torso upright and your weight on your heel. Now press your heel into the floor and return to the start position. Complete 10 repetitions and then repeat the exercise with your left leg.

Video Demonstration

Stability Ball Reverse Crunch

Begin in a prone position with the tops of your feet resting on a stability ball, your palms on the floor at shoulder width, and your body forming a straight line. Now contract your stomach muscles, bend your knees, and roll the ball toward your chest. Pause briefly and roll the ball back until your body forms a straight line again. Complete 12 to 20 repetitions.

Video Demonstration

Inverted Row

Lie face up on the floor underneath a bar. Grab the bar with both hands positioned slightly farther than shoulder-width apart. Keeping your body in a perfectly straight line, pull your chest up to the bar and then return smoothly to the start position. Complete 8 to 10 repetitions.

Video Demonstration

Kettlebell Swing

Stand in a broad stance with your toes pointed outward slightly and your knees bent about 30 degrees and your trunk bent forward at a similar angle from the hips, not the waist. Begin with both hands on the handle of a kettlebell in an overhand grip, elbows straight and the weight hanging between your knees. Swing the kettlebell gently and forward to generate a little momentum for the first full swing. Keeping your spine neutral, snap your hips forward and raise your arms until the weight comes to eye level. Now reverse this movement, bending your knees and hips and allowing the kettlebell to swing between your legs. Use the momentum of the backswing to prepare for the next swing. Complete 12 repetitions.

Video Demonstration

Medicine Ball Trunk Rotation

Sit on the floor with your knees sharply bent, your trunk tilted back 30 degrees, and a medicine ball resting on your belly between both hands. Now twist to the right as if you’re going to place the ball on the floor next to your right hip, but don’t go quite that far. Now twist to the left. Complete 12 twists in either direction.

Video Demonstration

Stability Ball Push-Up

Assume a modified push-up position with your feet together, your body forming a perfectly straight line, and your palms positioned slightly more than shoulder-width apart on a stability ball. Bend your elbows and smoothly lower your chest to within an inch of the bench. Immediately press back upward to the start position. If you have difficulty doing a full push-up, do a half push-up, bending your elbows only to 90 degrees before pressing upward. Complete 12 to 20 repetitions or two fewer than your max, whichever comes first.

Video Demonstration

Isometric Heel Raise/Toe Walk

Stand normally with a dumbbell in each hand and your arms relaxed at your sides. Now lift your heels and stand on your toes for 30 seconds. If you lose balance and have to touch your heels to the floor, just pick up where you left off in your counting. An alternate version of this exercise entails walking around on your toes for 30 seconds.

Video Demonstration

Kettlebell Pull Through

Assume a push-up position with a kettlebell positioned on the floor to you left and in line with your chest. Pick up your right hand, reach under and across your body, grab the handle of the kettlebell, and drag it back across your body, leaving it to the right of your body at chest level. Now put your right palm back on the floor and repeated this sequence using your right hand. Complete 8 to 10 pulls each way.

Video Demonstration

Squat Press

Stand with your feet slightly father than shoulder-width apart and a dumbbell in each hand. Begin with your elbows sharply bent and shoulders rotated so that the dumbbells are at shoulder height with your palms facing forward. Now sink your butt toward the floor 6 to 10 inches, drive your heels into the floor, and straighten your legs forcefully, using the upward momentum to press the dumbbells overhead until your elbows are fully extended. Finally, lower the dumbbells back to your shoulders. Complete 10 repetitions.

Video Demonstration

Toe Tap

Stand normally with a plyometrics box or stacked aerobics steps in front of you. Run in place by alternately touching the toe of your right and left shoes to the box. Try to maintain a rapid tempo for 20 seconds.

Video Demonstration

Unless you fell onto this blog through a trapdoor and you have no clue what you’re doing here, you know that I am a proponent of the 80/20 training method, which entails spending about 80 percent of your training time at low intensity and the rest at moderate and high intensities. This does not mean that I believe every athlete should always do exactly 80 percent of his or her training at low intensity. There are more general, non-quantitative ways of stating my core philosophy of endurance training that do a better job of getting at its essence. For example:

Intensity balance is the single most important variable in endurance training. The single most beneficial thing you can do in your training is to consistently maintain an intensity balance that is heavily weighted toward low intensity yet does not neglect high intensity. The single most common and costly mistake that endurance athletes make in training is to spend too much time at moderate intensity, way too little time at low intensity, and also too little time at high intensity.

These statements are strongly supported by both real-world evidence and scientific research, and the last of them in particular has gotten further scientific support from a cool new study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Conducted by a team of researchers at Belgium’s Ghent University led by Jan Boone, the study involved 11 recreational cyclists training for a mountain-climb event. Over a 12-week period, each subject trained as he or she saw fit while wearing a heart rate monitor to collect data that was then passed on to the researchers. Before and after this 12-week period, all of the subjects underwent testing to assess various aspects of their fitness level.

The main purpose of the study was to test the power of certain ways of measuring training load to predict changes in fitness. Training load is a function of both the volume and the intensity of training. Because there was a great deal of variation in the volume and intensity of the training that the 11 cyclists involved in this study did in preparation for the mountain-climb event, it was expected that there would also be significant inter-individual differences in the amount of fitness they gained. What remained to be seen was how well the four ways of quantifying training load that were being put to the test in the study were able to account for these differences.

I don’t want to get too deep into the mathematics involved. If you’d like to go deeper on your own, open up a web browser and run a Google search on training impulse (TRIMP), of which there are four competing versions. These four methods of calculating TRIMP were the specific tools used by Boone’s team to quantify training load. What’s important to know is that all four of them allow athletes to achieve equal training loads, hence equal levels of predicted fitness, through different combinations of volume and intensity. For example, a cyclist who increases the average intensity but not the volume of his training might end up with the same TRIMP score as a cyclist who does the reverse. The Ghent researchers questioned the validity of this allowance, and the results of their experiment justified their skepticism. While the cyclists did demonstrate improvements in power output at the aerobic and anaerobic threshold and in maximum power, these improvements correlated weakly with changes in TRIMP values.

In addition to tracking TRIMP, Boone’s team calculated the relative amounts of time each athlete spent at low, moderate, and high intensity. Interestingly, this data proved to be a better predictor of fitness gains. In particular, those athletes who spent the least time at moderate intensity exhibited the greatest improvements in power output at the anaerobic threshold. Combining the data on training intensity distribution with the data on training load accounted for almost all of the inter-individual variance in fitness improvement. The authors concluded that the TRIMP formulas should be modified to factor in training intensity distribution.

The lesson for you, as an athlete who cares most about your fitness improvement, is that increasing your training load won’t do you a heck of a lot of good unless you’ve got your intensity balance right. By taking some of the time you’re currently spending at moderate intensity and moving most of it into the low-intensity bucket and the rest into the high-intensity bucket, you will feel and perform better without increasing your training load. And by continuing to apply the 80/20 rule as you add minutes to your weekly training, you will ensure that those minutes aren’t partially wasted.

What does it mean to have a talent for running or cycling or other endurance sports? Generally, we think of it as a natural capacity to maintain high speeds for prolonged periods of time, a capacity that is physiologically rooted in what we can loosely call aerobic power.

There is no question that you aren’t going to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon or become a Cat I cyclist without exceptional natural aerobic power. But I don’t believe that aerobic power is a complete definition of endurance talent. Indeed, I can name three other talents that, if not quite as important as aerobic power, also make a significant contribution to endurance performance. These are trainability, durability, and racing sense. Let’s briefly review all four kinds of endurance talent.

Aerobic Power

Recently, the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine published a comprehensive review of past research on the genetic underpinnings of elite marathon performance. A team of scientists led by Hannah Moir of Kingston University identified 16 polymorphisms in 14 genes that appear to have a strong association with elite marathon performance. Ten of these genes “code for transcription factors and coactivators primarily involved in metabolic pathways (i.e. adenosine triphosphate (ATP) generation, glucose and lipid metabolism, mitochondrial biogenesis, thermogenesis, angiogenesis and muscle fibre type composition).” In other words, these genes support the physiological machinery that enables a runner to release energy from metabolic fuels at a high rate with the aid of oxygen.

Three of the remaining four genes “code for enzymes involved in cardiovascular function such as blood pressure and vasodilation.” This essentially means they also support aerobic power but do so through a different type of mechanism. Only one gene among the 14—COL5A1—contributes to marathon performance in a way that has nothing to do with aerobic power. Specifically, it endows elite marathon runners with the stiff joints that enable their legs to function as highly efficient springs.

The authors of the review stress that what we currently know about the genetic underpinnings of elite marathon performance is a drop in the bucket compared to what we don’t yet know. Nevertheless, it’s clear from what we do know is that it’s mainly about aerobic power.


There’s an important distinction to be made between what I call built-in fitness and trainability. Built-in fitness is the baseline performance capacity that is conferred by certain combinations of genes. In other words, it is pre-training fitness. Trainability is the ability to gain aerobic fitness in response to training. The genes that confer trainability are distinct from those that underlie built-in fitness. Some athletes have a high level of built-in fitness and yet training doesn’t make them much fitter because they lack the genes for trainability. Others have a low level of built-in fitness but get a lot fitter through training. Still others have neither built-in fitness genes nor trainability genes, while elite endurance athletes, of course, have both.

The good news is that scientists have determined that trainability genes are quite widespread in the human population—much more widespread than the gene combinations that confer a high level of built-in fitness. In one study, a team led by Claude Bouchard of the Pennington Research Centre’s Human Genomics Laboratory created a system for scoring trainability based on how many of the relevant genes an individual had. While there was a high degree of interindividual variation, a significantly greater number of subjects (52) had the highest possible score than had the lowest (36).

Other than genetic testing, the only way to find out if you have a lot of trainability is by training progressively over a long period of time and seeing what happens. I advise all athletes to assume they are highly trainable until and unless events prove otherwise!


Having a high level of trainability won’t do you much good if you can’t stay healthy long enough to take advantage of it. Although many overuse injuries are caused by correctible factors such as inadequate rest and excess bodyweight, research indicates that some athletes are more predisposed to injury than others. For example, some studies have found that different variants of the COL5A1 gene mentioned above predispose athletes to joint injuries, and a 2013 study found that certain variations were associated with the risk of muscle cramping in a marathon.

Other research suggests that differences in neuromuscular control also play a role in injury risk. Specifically, some athletes exhibit a greater degree of variation in their movement patterns than others do, a characteristic known as redundancy. Neither conscious nor noticeable to the naked eye, these variations spread around the stress of a repetitive activity such as running, reducing the likelihood of tissue breakdown.

Obviously, if you have particular genes or neuromuscular wiring patterns that predispose you to injury, there’s nothing you can do about it. This is frustrating for injury-prone athletes like myself, but instead of brooding on it, take advantage of all the factors you can control to minimize injury risk. These include cross-training, not training through pain, and using the right gear in the right way.

Racing Sense

The most overlooked and underappreciated endurance sports talent, in my estimation, is what I call racing sense, which is the ability to distribute your effort over the course of a race in such a way that you reach the finish line in close to the least time possible given your current physical capacity. It is a largely psychological talent that depends on the ability to 1) comprehend abstract distances (a horse may have horse sense, but it could never pace a marathon effectively because horses lack the brain power to comprehend abstract distances), 2) interpret perceived effort in a highly nuanced way (e.g., knowing how you should be feeling 83.77 miles into the bike leg of an Ironman), and 3) suffer.

Racing sense is generally thought of as a skill, and it is, but it’s a skill in the same sense that being able to throw a football through a 20-inch ring from 25 yards away is a skill. Sure, everyone gets better at it with practice, but some folks are just naturally good at it—better than others with any amount of practice.

As a coach, I never cease to be amazed by how bad most endurance athletes are at pacing. I’ll give you an example. Back in August I attended an annual adult running camp hosted by pro runners Stephanie and Ben Bruce. On the afternoon of the first full day, all 35 attendees ran a short time trial up a steep hill. None of us had ever run the hill before, but we did get a chance to size it up when we rode up to the finish line in vans and then jogged down to the start line. On the word “Go!” we launched. Two young bucks took off at a dead sprint, an insanely stupid decision, in my judgment, given the length (about 700 meters) and pitch (about 12%) of the hill. Meanwhile, I felt my way to the highest speed I felt I could sustain the whole way, passing the young bucks in the final 100 meters and winning a race I almost certainly would have lost if every runner had equal pacing sense.

So, What’s Your Point?

Too many endurance athletes believe or assume they don’t have talent. This bothers me, because I think it’s a self-limiting mindset that often lacks a solid basis in fact. As we’ve seen, endurance sports talent is not one thing—it’s four things, and chances are you’ve got at least one of them in some measure. My hope is that, in reviewing the four endurance sports talents with me, you will better appreciate your talent(s) and perhaps shift your approach to chasing improvement as an athlete.

Recently one of my custom training plan clients emailed me with a question. He was three weeks out from the marathon he’d hired me to prepare him for and was somewhat alarmed to see that I had scheduled a 20-mile run featuring 16 miles at his goal marathon pace at the end of the current week. His question was, in essence: Is two weeks enough time to recover from such a big workout?

In reply, I told my client that if he couldn’t recover from such a big workout in less than two weeks, he had greater problems than a coach who doesn’t know how to plan a proper pre-race taper! A cheeky answer, I know, but I receive versions of this same question so often that my patience is wearing thin. That’s why I’m writing this article, in which I hope to dispel the widely held notion that it’s necessary to cut way back on training for a long time before an important race.

As chance would have it, the email exchange I just described happened around the same time a relevant new study appeared in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine in Sports. Authored by Bent Rønnestad of Inland Norway University and Olav Vikmoen of the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, the study looked at the effects of two different tapering protocols on “physiological and psychological variables of endurance performance” in elite cyclists. 

Nine athletes completed a traditional 11-day taper that maintained the normal frequency of high-intensity interval training and reduced overall training volume, while eight others did six days of stepped-up “overload training” followed by a compressed five-day taper. Testing was conducted at three points: immediately before the 11-day interventions, again on Day 7, and once more on Day 11. Cyclists in the compressed taper group exhibited significantly greater improvements in peak oxygen consumption (4 percent vs. 0.8 percent) and one-minute peak power output (5 percent vs. 0.9) and a slightly greater improvement in power output at lactate threshold intensity. In short, the compressed taper worked better than the traditional one.

This study was actually a follow-up to a small pilot study done two years before by a research team that included the same duo plus two other scientists. And when I say “small” I mean small: It was an individual case study involving an elite male cross-country mountain biker. During a two-week interval between World Cup races, this athlete underwent seven days of overload training followed by a five-day taper. Both objective and subjective measurements were taken throughout. As expected, the cyclist felt like crap and exhibited compromised physiology on Day 1 of tapering, but by Day 4 he reported feeling good and his numbers were well above baseline. And two days after that he felt like Superman.

This compressed tapering protocol was developed specifically for use by endurance athletes like mountain bike racers on the World Cup circuit with tight competition schedules. It’s simply impractical for these athletes to follow a traditional protocol, and these two studies show they can have their cake and eat it too—that is, work hard enough to stay fit and recover sufficiently to race on peak form—by stacking short periods of overload training with compressed tapers. But what the same experiments also indicate, more broadly, is that it just doesn’t take very long to recover from peak training loads.

Real-world evidence supports these findings. While most elite endurance athletes practice some version of the traditional tapering protocol, others have found success with a compressed taper. Triathlon legend Dave Scott, for example, didn’t lighten up his training until three days before the Ironman World Championship, and that didn’t stop him from winning it six times in the 1980s!

When I try to make the case for short tapers with individual athletes like the custom training plan client who emailed me about his big marathon-pace run, I often ask them the following question: “How do you typically feel and perform when you’re in a period of heavy training and you do a challenging workout that is preceded by two very light days?” The answer is always the same: They tend to feel good and perform well. So, then, I point out (springing the trap), if two easy days during a period of heavy training usually suffice to make you feel and perform well in a hard workout, how much more time do you really need to taper down for a race?

To be clear, I’m not trying to argue for a two-day taper before an event such as a marathon or an Ironman triathlon. My point, simply, is that the optimal pre-race taper is not as long as many athletes seem to think. So, if you ever hire me to create a custom training plan for you and the last big workouts seem dangerously close to race day, keep those worries to yourself and do as I tell you. You won’t regret it!

To train with maximal effectiveness, you have to be mean to yourself. And you also have to be kind to yourself.

Every week I do two full-body functional strength workouts at a local gym. The specific exercise selection evolves over time, but there is one exercise I never fail to include among the dozen or so that make up each session: side planks.

“Why side planks?” you ask. “Is it because they’re so effective you consider them indispensible? Or do you just love side planks?”

Neither. The true reason I do side planks every single time I hit the gym is that I hate them. A properly executed side plank is quite painful. About halfway through each 75-second hold I begin to feel an unpleasant burning sensation deep inside my mid-back area on the floor-facing side, a burning that gradually intensifies through the remainder of the hold. And when I work my weak (left) side, my body begins to literally quiver with fatigue in the last few miserable seconds.

No doubt there are other, comparably effective core exercises that I would find less dreadful, but I force myself to keep doing side planks because I believe it’s good for an endurance athlete’s mind to do some things that suck for the suck’s own sake. It’s a bit like the practice of taking cold showers to build mental toughness. Although some folks claim that cold showers confer physical benefits, the real point of the practice is to do something not necessary that sucks. Endurance racing is extremely uncomfortable, and to do it well you must be comfortable being uncomfortable. If you suffer in training only as much as necessary, you won’t reach the same level of mental toughness you’ll get to if you sometimes do the exercise equivalent of taking a cold shower.

On the flipside, one element of my training that I really enjoy is running laps. For me, going around in circles is sort of the opposite of doing side planks. Unfortunately, the running tracks in my area are protected like Fort Knox, so the laps I run are on roads and bike paths in my neighborhood. There happens to be a circuit of precisely two miles’ length that starts and ends at my front door. I use it way more often than necessary and in ways few other runners would. For example, if I have a 20-mile run with alternating easy miles and marathon-pace miles on my schedule, it’s likely I will set up a little makeshift aid station at the end of my driveway and run 10 laps around this circuit. I think a lot of runners would rather drink paint, but I love going in circles and I have no qualms about indulging this predilection in my training.

As with my insistence on doing side planks every time I hit the gym, there is a principle behind my heavy use of lap running, and that is the belief that it’s good for an endurance athlete’s mind to do some things that are enjoyable for enjoyment’s own sake. In much the same way that physical preparation for racing requires a balance of hard days and easy days, mental preparation for racing requires a balance between misery and fun. There is no single perfect way to train for any given event. Among the various options that will yield similar results, you should feel free to sometimes pick the option you most enjoy.

A runner I coach currently absolutely loves running uphill. Even though she doesn’t run hilly races, I give her more hill work than I otherwise would because A) it yields more or less the same benefits as “flat” workouts done at the same intensity, and B) it keeps her happy, and a happy athlete is more invested in the overall training process. This is just one example of the many ways I incorporate methods that aren’t strictly by-the-book into the training of the athletes I coach for the sake of a psychological benefit.

There’s another athlete I coach who loathes track workouts, not because they hurt but because his times are always slower than he thinks they ought to be. To his credit, this athlete recently told me he wants me to give him more track workouts. As a trail runner, he could get away with making only occasional visits to the track, but he wants to do more than the minimum because he recognizes their physical and psychological benefits. Track workouts are his side planks, if you will—his cold showers.

How about you? Which part of the training process do you hate the most? Do it regularly. And which part of the training process do you most love? Do it often.

This week, Matt writes for the TrainingPeaks Coach blog and his article can be found here.

If you’re a relatively inexperienced runner, or a back-of-the-pack runner, stop reading now. This one’s not for you. Unless you’re just curious—then go ahead and keep reading.

For most experienced competitive runners, a marathon is a race. You sign up, pin a number on your belly, and go for broke. The workouts that serve as preparation for the marathon—long runs, tempo runs, steady-state runs, etc.—are completely distinct in form from the event itself. But they don’t have to be. I routinely runs marathons as workouts in preparing for the marathons I race. Crazy as this practice may sound, I find it effective and enjoyable, though not without risk, and I hope this article persuades at least one person to try the method.

The way I typically do it is quite simple: I run 26.22 miles (a marathon is NOT 26.2 miles, folks, and those extra couple of hundredths make several seconds’ difference!) about 10 percent slower than I could or than I hope to run in the race I’m targeting. So, for example, if I’m hoping to run my next marathon in 2:38:50, I might run a marathon workout in 2:54:43, give or take.

In fact, I am hoping to run my next marathon in 2:38:50, and it so happens that I ran a marathon workout last weekend (eight weeks out from the event). My goal in this case was a little more conservative—2:59:50—on account of the summer heat wave that swooped in just in time for the session, but I felt good despite and cruised to a time of 2:57:11. 

There’s a huge difference between running a marathon at 100 percent effort and running a marathon at 90 percent effort. If you go all-out, you can’t walk down a flight of stairs the next day. But I feel absolutely fine the day after my latest marathon workout, completing two short, easy runs the very next day.

In my experience, marathon workouts offer a couple of benefits. One is that they’re a little different from any other workout, being long and moderately aggressive in pace. As such, they occupy a sweet spot between normal long runs, which may cover the full marathon distance or more, and marathon-pace workouts, which are done at goal marathon pace but are necessarily shoulder. None of the more common workout types provides quite the same stimulus as a marathon workout.

A second benefit of the marathon-as-workout is that it can be a great confidence builder. Because these sessions are done a little slower, but only a little slower, than marathon race pace, you can finish them with a pretty solid time and plenty of running left in your legs. When they go well, they make your goal time seem more attainable.

Obviously (at least I hope it’s obvious), you need to be in very good shape before you attempt such a workout. How good? If you can run the full marathon distance at your normal easy run pace and feel no worse the next day than you do after a much shorter easy run, you’re ready. I typically do my marathon workouts between eight and three weeks before a “real” marathon. If you do it any earlier, you may risk peaking too soon; but do it any later and you risk interfering with your taper. And yes, one marathon workout per training cycle is plenty!

Marathon workouts can be done solo from home or in the context of a formal event. I’ve done both many times. The advantages of the latter include the motivation provided by other runners and spectators and also the fact that your nutrition is taken care of. Plus, you get an official marathon finish to add to your resume. The main disadvantages of doing a marathon workout in an actual marathon are the relative inconvenience compared to the solo option and the risk of getting caught up in the excitement and running too fast. Indeed, in my experience, most runners who have the fitness to do a marathon workout don’t have the discipline to hold back 10 percent if they attempt it in an actual race environment.

My own cautionary example dates back to 2008. I was in the best shape of my life and targeting a sub-2:40 performance at the Sacramento Cow Town Marathon. But a couple of weeks before the event I developed a hot spot in my right foot that curtailed my training, so I decided to run it as a workout and make the Silicon Valley Marathon my “A” race, giving me two more weeks to get sharp. I ended up cruising to a time of 2:46:58 in Sacramento, but by the time I got to Silicon Valley I was overcooked and only managed to run four and a half minutes faster, falling short of my goal. I realized too late that despite the injury setback I was already too close to peaking to delay my “A” race and should have gone ahead and taken my shot in Sacramento.

The lesson here is that, although runners who dismiss the marathon-as-workout as crazy in its very essence are wrong, there are plenty of crazy ways to run a marathon workout. So, if you’re experienced and fit and adventurous enough to try this method, plan and execute it with prudence. (I love it that I just ended an article on running marathons as workouts with the word “prudence.”)

This week, Matt writes for the TrainingPeaks Coach blog and his article can be found here.

I’m working on a new book on the psychology of endurance sports. It’s titled The Comeback Quotient and it’s a sort of sequel to How Bad Do You Want It? As part of my research, I’ve just read Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. You may be familiar with Dweck’s work, which has been mainstreamed by a 2014 TED talk and a 2016 NPR interview, not to mention by her 2-million-copy-selling book. 

For decades, Dweck has studied the practical effects of different attitudes toward challenges. She has found that some people harbor a belief that intelligence and other abilities are essentially fixed (“fixed mindset), whereas others believe these abilities can be developed through hard work (“growth mindset”). Those with a fixed mindset tend to dislike challenges because they view them as permanent judgments on their ability. Those with a growth mindset, on the other hand, tend to like challenges, because whether they do well or poorly, they see a challenge as a stimulus for improvement. As Dweck puts it in her book, “The fixed mindset makes you concerned with being judged; the growth mindset makes you concerned with improving.”

As to the practical effects of these two mindsets, Dweck’s work has shown that, as you might expect, the growth mindset leads to greater success. In one study, for example, Dweck and her colleagues looked at the independent and combined effects of poverty and growth mindset on academic achievement in Chilean children. They found that, whereas poorer children were less likely than their wealthier peers to have a growth mindset and that they tended not to perform as well in school, “students in the lowest 10thpercentile of family income who exhibited a growth mindset showed academic performance as high as that of fixed mindset students from the 80thincome percentile.”

But wait: Isn’t it possible that it’s actually greater ability that engenders a growth mindset rather than a growth mindset that, over time, yields great ability? Dweck’s research suggests not. In another study, her team distributed jigsaw puzzles to a group of four-year-olds and later offered them a choice between redoing an easy puzzle or trying a harder one. As expected, some kids (fixed mindset) elected to redo an easy puzzle while others (growth mindset) to try a harder puzzle, but there was no correlation between these choices and the kids’ initial puzzle-solving ability.

Dweck’s research has been criticized by other psychologists for being non-replicable. My own critique is that, to me, the mindset construct seems over-general, collecting a variety of disparate psychological “fish” (self-efficacy, optimism, etc.) in the same net. Nevertheless, my coaching experience indicates there is definitely something to it.

I have worked with a number of athletes over the years who clearly viewed their harder workouts, if not all of their workouts, as tests, the results of which passed judgment on their fitness and perhaps even their ability and potential. These athletes tend to look ahead to their more important workouts with anxiety, to push harder than they should to hit their numbers on days when circumstances are against them or their body just doesn’t have it, and to hit the panic button when a session doesn’t turn out well.

It should be noted that endurance sports select for individuals who possess at least some degree of growth-mindedness. I’ve never met an athlete who did not believe he or she could get fitter and perform better through hard work. But some athletes are a lot more growth-minded than others. These individuals view workouts more as stimuli than as tests. Hence, they don’t get as anxious before important sessions, they don’t force things unwisely when circumstances are unfavorable or their body just doesn’t have it, and they are less prone to panic when a session goes poorly.

There are three ways I try to help my mixed-mindset athletes shift toward a growth mindset. The first is education. I explain to them, and thereafter constantly remind them, that no single workout defines their limits, that today’s limits are not their final limits, and that they will eventually get closer to their final limit with a growth mindset—all of which happens to be true.

The second thing I do to help these athletes is exploit their dependence on external validation. Initially, they want and expect me to praise them when they crush workouts, but I thwart this expectation by chewing them out when push harder than they were supposed to and reserving my praise for instances when they exhibit good adherence, discipline, and restraint.

Finally, I give my fixed-mindset athletes little mantras to use when they experience anxiety caused by approaching hard workouts as tests. One of my favorites is “Just do the work.” It’s an excellent reminder that the true value of a workout lies in the benefits it yields, not in what it says about your fitness or talent level, and that you get the benefits just by completing it, regardless of how good you feel or how well you perform. Feeling good and performing well are just gravy.

If you’re interested in the effects of diet and nutrition on endurance performance, you’ll be interested in a study that was just published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness. Italian researchers recruited 40 student-athletes from the University of Bergamo and separated them into four groups. Two of the groups were made up of kickboxers, so we’ll ignore them. The other two were made up of runners, half of whom received nutritional counseling for three months while continuing to train normally, the other half of whom served as controls.

The runners receiving nutritional counseling were specifically instructed to bring their diet more in line with Mediterranean diet standards (which emphasize vegetables, fruits, herbs, nuts, beans, poultry, seafood, and dairy, roughly in this order). Before and after the three-month intervention, all of the athletes were subjected to various fitness tests. While both groups improved, the runners receiving nutritional counseling showed significantly greater improvements in VO2max and body composition.

Scientists are careful not to overgeneralize the conclusions they draw from individual studies, but I’m not a scientist, so I’m going to go ahead and do it. The lesson here, for me, is that if you improve your diet, you will probably run better, and that if you wish to improve your diet, your best move is put yourself in the hands of a credentialed sports nutrition expert with mainstream scientific training. Too many athletes who are motivated to improve their diet instead adopt fads such as ketogenic diets and intermittent fasting, and although some who go down this road end up satisfied with their results, it’s way riskier than the road I recommend.

Another advantage of the real experts is that they are full-service diet coaches, whereas their fraudulent competitors typically have just one limited shtick. In addition to supplying less risky (if also less sexy) dietary counsel, a legitimate sports nutritionist can help you customize the general principles of sound nutrition to your particular needs, preferences, and lifestyle, and help you solve special problems such as dialing in your race fueling.

I am reminded here of a 2014 study, conducted by researchers at Denmark’s Aalborg University, that is sort of the race-fueling equivalent of the general diet study I just described. In this one, 28 runners training for the Copenhagen Marathon were separated into two groups of equal ability based on their performance in a 10 km time trial. On race day, one group used their own “freely chosen nutritional strategy” while the other group applied a “scientifically based nutritional strategy,” consuming carbs on a schedule of 60 grams per hour, which prior research indicated was optimal for endurance performance. On average, the runners who executed their own freely chosen fueling plan took in 38 percent less carbohydrate during the race. They also finished an average of 10:55 or 4.7 percent slower than the runners of equal ability who fueled scientifically.

Scientifically based guidance on diet and fueling is best, and if you want it, your best move is to hire a credentialed sports nutrition expert—which is precisely what professional endurance athletes—who can’t afford to play games with their eating and fueling—do. A good example is the great Ethiopian runner Haile Gebrselassie, who, after a brilliant career on the track, moved up to the marathon, where he struggled at first (by his standards), winning only one of his first three attempts at 26.2 miles and falling short of his time goals. Realizing that his inability to tolerate large amounts of fluid and carb intake during longer events was holding him back, Gebrselassie sought help from world-renowned endurance sports nutrition researcher Asker Jeukendrup of the University of Birmingham (who wrote the foreword to my book The Endurance Diet, which I like to think makes up for my own lack of professional training in sports nutrition–oh, the irony!). In his next race, the 2007 Berlin Marathon, Geb consumed two liters of sports drink and water and six carbohydrate gels and broke the world record.

Given all of this, why would any athlete who cares about their performance seek nutritional guidance from any other kind of source? I think it happens for three reasons. First, most athletes—actually, all of them, I think—have been eating their whole lives, so they don’t see diet management as requiring any sort of special expertise. Heck it’s just food, right?

A second reason few athletes think to seek nutritional guidance from a credentialed sports nutrition expert is that their fraudulent competition has better marketing. Keto-friendly anti-vaxxer Ben Greenfield has books, a podcast, and a Twitter account with more than 73,000 followers. The typical sports dietitian just sits around waiting for the phone to ring. 

Reason number three (and there are probably others) is that there’s a sucker born every minute. The sad truth is that, if you give the typical athlete with a mediocre diet and love handles an option between eating fewer processed foods and adopting a sexy name-brand diet that’s promoted in spam emails and on “The Dr. Oz Show” and on the covers of glossy magazines in supermarket checkout aisles, odds are they will choose the latter. And get what they deserve!

Let me be clear: Many if not most endurance athletes race too often. I consider over-racing to be one of the most common and costly forms of self-sabotage in endurance sports. Check out this past post of mine for a full rant on the topic. But in this post I’m going to toss a curveball at you by talking about the benefits of selectively racing at certain times when common sense might say you shouldn’t.

I’m talking about rust busters, as they are commonly known. The ideal time to do a rust-buster race is at or near the point at which you transition from base training to specific training in preparation for an important event. At this point you are fit enough to compete without hurting yourself yet still far from peak fitness. In terms of distance, rust busters generally should be relatively short so they don’t take too much out of you. For example, if you’re doing an 18-week marathon buildup, you might do a 10K at the end of Week 6.

What are the benefits of this practice? I can think of four:

1. See where you are

Late base training is a time when many athletes aren’t sure how fit they are. At this juncture it’s been a while since your last peak race, which presumably was followed by a break from formal training and then the laying of a new fitness foundation. Athletes may be particularly clueless about their fitness when the present training cycle has a different focus than the last, as is the case for me now. Having raced an Ironman triathlon a couple months ago, I’m now targeting a marathon. I therefore threw myself into a 10K road race last week to get an assessment of my current running-specific fitness level. I will use my result to set appropriate pace and time targets for important workouts in the weeks ahead.

2. Shock the system

To find success as an endurance athlete, you need to be good at suffering. Some athletes are naturally better than others in this regard, but research has shown that even the toughest athletes aren’t equally tough all the time. Rather, individual athletes experience circumstantial fluctuations in mental toughness. Generally speaking, athletes show more toughness and more resilience as they get deeper into their training closer to competition. 

On the flipside, we are seldom weaker as athletes than at the end of base training, when our last race is far behind us and our hardest training still lies ahead. Racing at this time can serve as a remedial course in suffering. Even if you don’t perform especially well (and you shouldn’t expect to), going through the experience may help you dig deeper in, and get more out of, the training that follows.

3. Scratch the itch

One of the reasons so many endurance athletes over-race is that they love racing.  Another benefit of rust-buster races is that they provide a non-self-sabotaging outlet for competitive hunger. By scratching this particular itch at a relatively early point in the training process, you’re likely to be less tempted to disrupt your specific training with ill-timed competitions later on.

4. The post-race bump

Building fitness is seldom a linear progress. More often it’s what the biologist Stephen Jay Gould called a punctuated equilibrium, where periods of relative stasis are broken up by abrupt leaps forward. It has been my consistent experience, both as an athlete and as a coach, that rust-buster races precipitate forward leaps. This makes sense, right? After all, from a physiological perspective, a race is just another workout, only harder, hence a more potent training stimulus.

There, I’ve given you four good reasons to plan and execute rust-buster races. Now go find one!

Exercise scientists have two basic ways of measuring performance in their studies. One is a time trial, where subjects are asked to cover a specified distance in as little time as possible (or cover as much distance as possible in a specified amount of time). The other is a time to exhaustion test, where subjects are required to sustain a fixed work rate (speed or power output) as long as possible.

In the real world, most runners approach most marathons as time trials. In my coaching role, I generally advise runners to take this approach because it offers the best odds of a satisfying outcome. The idea is to choose a time/pace goal that is challenging but realistic, start the race at this pace, and then make adjustments along the way based on how you’re feeling. The advantage of this strategy is that it limits the risk of hitting the wall. When a runner is even slightly too aggressive in the early part of a marathon, he is likely to slow down precipitously in the later part and consequently fall not seconds but minutes short of finishing the race in the least time possible—if he finishes at all. To avoid “wasting” a marathon (not to mention the months of preparation leading up to it), a runner must be a little conservative, choosing a target pace that he’s very confident of being able to sustain for the full distance and relying on a fast finish to avoid leaving time on the table if it turns out that the target pace is a tad tooconservative.

This fall, Eliud Kipchoge will make a second attempt to break the hallowed two-hour marathon barrier. He got very close in his first attempt, covering 26 miles, 385 yards in a time of 2:00:25 in Italy in 2017. Of necessity, Kipchoge approached this bid to make history not as a time trial but as a time to exhaustion test. Aided by a phalanx of pacers, he set out at 4:34.5 per mile (1:59:59 pace) and held on as long as he could, which turned out to be about 18 miles, at which point he began to slow involuntarily, despite his best efforts to hold the required tempo.

In his second sub-two bid, which will take place in late September or early October, Kipchoge will take the same approach, as indeed he must, for such an ambitious goal cannot be achieved in any other way. Avoiding the wall is not a concern, because anything short of sub-two is failure. Whether Kipchoge hangs on almost all the way and ends up clocking an excruciating 2:00:01 or blows up at 35K and literally crawls to the finish line, the two-hour barrier will remain in the realm of the impossible for the time being. Thus it makes no sense for Kipchoge to adjust his pace as he goes based on how he feels. If 1:59:59 (or better) is indeed possible for him, he will only get there by forcing himself to hold that 4:34.5/mile pace no matter what.

My (possibly politically incorrect) term for a marathon that is run as a time to exhaustion test is kamikaze marathon. Inspired by Eliud Kipchoge, I have decided to run a kamikaze marathon of my own this fall. A sub-two-hour marathon being slightly out of my reach, I will attempt to sustain a pace of 6:04 per mile as long as I can in the context of the Pacific Northwest Marathon on September 21. The fastest pace I’ve ever sustained for the full marathon distance is 6:05 per mile, at the 2017 Chicago Marathon. I was 46 years old then and am 48 now, a difference that is far more consequential as it relates to performance decline than is, say, the difference between 36 and 38. What’s more, I spent the summer of 2017 living in Flagstaff and training with Northern Arizona Elite, a huge advantage that I will be lacking this time around. In consideration of these facts, I think I’ve got about as much chance of achieving my goal as Kipchoge has of achieving his, which is to say close to none. But that’s the whole point of a kamikaze marathon. You choose a goal time that you think is probably-not-definitely impossible for you and go for it! If you plan and execute appropriately, there’s about a 90 percent chance you will implode painfully in the late miles of your chosen race and a 10 percent chance, give or take, that you’ll achieve something special that you would not have been able to achieve with the usual time-trial approach.

So, what do you say—are you in? Before you blurt, “Hell, yeah!”, understand that Kamikaze marathons are appropriate only for seasoned marathoners who don’t mind possibly “wasting” a marathon. But if you fit this description, do consider joining Eliud Kipchoge and me in running a kamikaze marathon this fall. Put some thought into coming up with a time/pace that is probably-not-definitely impossible for you and then find an appropriate event. (I chose Pacific Northwest because the course is net downhill and mostly flat and the weather is reliably perfect every year—oh, and because my brother Josh is running it). Also consider recruiting a pacer who can easily run the time you’re hoping to run. Tommy Rivers Puzey, a 2:16 marathoner, has agreed to serve as my pacer (though there’s a chance he’ll have to bail out at the last minute due to sponsor obligations).

If you accept the kamikaze marathon challenge—and I hope you do—be sure to share the journey (Strava, Twitter, etc.) as I will be doing in the months ahead. Let’s make this a thing!

At some point during the three-hour drive I undertook with my wife, Nataki, from our home in Oakdale, California, to Santa Rosa last Thursday I came up with a motto for the Ironman I would race two days later: Don’t panic. The phrase arrived out of the blue, as they say, but it did not come out of nowhere. For I have long believed that the primary job of an athlete’s mind during an endurance race is to accept, embrace, and address reality as it prevents itself, and panicking is pretty close to the opposite of that. One of the biggest mental mistakes a racer can make is to hope everything goes his way and then wish things were going his way when they inevitably don’t. This is all the more true in an Ironman.

Sure enough, lots of things did not go my way on Saturday. The first notable setback befell me midway through the swim, when my calves cramped (an all-too-common occurrence for me), resulting in a second-loop split (34:03) that was waaay slower than my promising first-loop split (31:49). Remembering my motto, however, I brushed off the disappointment and moved on to T1, where I spent a freaking eternity wrestling a pair of thermal sleeves onto my wet arms. After experiencing a close brush with hypothermia during a reconnaissance ride of the bike course two weeks before, I thought that packing the sleeves in my transition bag was a smart idea. In hindsight, it was not. Not only did the effort to don them inflate my swim-bike transition time to a humiliating seven minutes and change, but I ended up overheating fairly early in the ride because of the damn things and scrunching them down to my wrists, where they created a noticeable amount of wind drag.

This happened after I discovered that ALL of my Maurten energy gels had fallen out of my tri suit pockets and before I was flagged with a five-minute drafting penalty. Regarding the latter, let me just state for the record that I did not draft with cheating intent. The violation (which I do not dispute) occurred when a fellow racer overtook me on a hill climb and then sort of bogged down in front of me. At that point the only way I could stay within the rules was to essentially stop pedaling and allow six bike lengths to open between us, but I REALLY didn’t want to stop pedaling on a relatively steeply pitched ascent, and I figured you can’t gain much of a slipstream advantage on a climb anyway, so I stayed close behind the other guy until we summited and then let him drift ahead. And that’s when the course marshal pulled up next to me.

Still, I didn’t panic. By way of making the best of the five-minute forced intermission (which did not actually take place until I came to the next penalty tent, positioned at Mile 91—some 40 miles beyond where I received my blue card), I gobbled a few PowerBar slices and peed in my shorts. Someone’s five- or six-year-old son was hanging out under the penalty tent and saw the puddle forming at my feet.

“Someone spilled something,” he said innocently.

“It’s called multitasking, kid,” I said.

When at last I reached T2, another kindergartener fetched my run bag for me, except it was not my run bag but another athlete’s. I may have shouted a little in repeating my race number to the well-meaning but perhaps underqualified towhead (he’d heard 1625 instead of 1645 the first time), but I swear I wasn’t panicking. Nor did I panic when, less than a mile into the marathon, I developed intense pain on the bottoms of both feet. I’ve never experienced anything like it, and the only possible explanation I can come up with is that it was a bad reaction to the carbon plates embedded in the midsole of the Nike Vaporfly 4% racing flats I was wearing, though I had no issues with them in the two interval workouts and the half marathon I’d run in the same pair. Whatever the reason, I felt as if I were running on matching sets of 26 broken bones. Not a pleasant experience, to be sure, but I told myself that I wasn’t actually injured and if I could simply tolerate the pain I’d survive.

From that point on the only significant challenge I faced was the one that every Ironman participant faces: mounting fatigue. I sensed early, however, that I was at no risk of hitting the wall as long as I paced myself sensibly and kept on top of my nutrition. I covered the first half marathon in 1:37:00 and lost only a little momentum over the second half, which I completed three minutes slower. This got me to the finish line in 9:48:06, good for 50thplace overall and seventh in the insanely competitive men’s 45-49 age group.

A part of me would love to have a second chance at this one, but a bigger part of me is quite satisfied with both my performance and the overall experience. I was almost totally in control of my thoughts and emotions from start to finish, and I used this control not only to make the best of an everchangingly imperfect situation but also to maximize my enjoyment of the race, and I truly did enjoy myself out there. To have attained this level of self-mastery in competition is especially satisfying for me given how mentally weak I once was, as any reader of Life Is a Marathon knows.

As old as I am, and as long as I’ve been training and competing, my passion to test my physical and mental limits remains undimmed, in part because I believe I can go even further in this journey, at least on the mental side. I’m already plotting my next adventure, but that’s a story for another time.

This week, Matt writes for the TrainingPeaks Coach blog and his article can be found here.

As a youth runner I never got injured. But then, what young runner does? Kids are made of rubber.

Act Two of my life as an endurance athlete has been a different story. Since I got back into racing in my late 20’s (I’m now 47), I have experienced four separate multiyear overuse injuries (in addition to countless briefer breakdowns). The first was a nasty case of runner’s knee that struck me in January 2001 and kept me from racing seriously again until 2005. The next was what my sports medicine specialist at the time insisted was a minor Achilles tendon tear but that nevertheless prevented me from racing at all (save for one ill-fated half Ironman) between April 2009 and February 2012. The next was a never-diagnosed issue (X-rays and a CAT scan found nothing wrong) on the right side of my groin that sidelined me from February 2012 to November 2014. And the latest is a pesky case of tendonitis on the left side of my groin that has kept me from racing seriously from December 2017 through today.

I’m not looking for anybody’s sympathy. I learned long ago to accept the reality that I fall apart easily and recover slowly. My point is simply that I have a ton of experience with injury-related pain. The silver lining of all this experience is that it’s taught me a lot about how to interpret and respond to pain so that I get injured less often and am able to return to full training more quickly.

Except it hasn’t. In truth, what 25 years as an injury-prone have taught me is that pain is mercurial and unpredictable, making it highly resistant to clear interpretation and to easy management.

Let me give you a very recent example. For the past 15 months, I’ve been caught in a frustrating cycle with my current groin injury where I suffer a setback, take time off, cautiously ease back into running (being very careful not to push through anything more than mild discomfort), suffer another setback anyway, and start a new cycle that ends the same way. Ten months ago, or about five months into this process, I registered for Ironman Santa Rosa, which takes place on May 11. As you might imagine, the nearer I get to this date with destiny, the more panicked I become about my failure to break out of the recurring cycle I just described.

Also on my calendar for the past many months has been the Modesto Marathon, which took place last weekend, and which I intended to cruise in just under 3 hours and 20 minutes, which is my marathon split time goal for Santa Rosa. But that plan went out the window in the weeks leading up to the event, when I found myself unable to run faster than nine minutes per mile without receiving red-flag warnings from my groin. So instead I started the “race” with the intention of simply covering the distance—running as slowly as necessary to avoid a setback, fully expecting to be out on Modesto’s country roads for close to four hours.

I completed the first mile in 8:49, which was about what I expected, but less expected were the degree and the location of the pain I felt. Instead of being very mild and concentrated in my groin, as it had been in recent days, the discomfort was moderate and radiated along the entire length of my left hamstring. Yet this very changeability in the injury’s symptomology was consistent with my overall experience of pain as mercurial and unpredictable. Long-term injuries seem almost to have moods, and you just never know what mood you’ll find your injury in on a given day.

In fact, more often than not, the long-term injuries I’ve experienced change moods even each individual training run, and that’s precisely what happened in the Modesto Marathon—in an extreme way. I don’t know if it’s because I had a number on my belly or for some other reason, but a few miles into the race I found myself pushing my tempo just a bit more than I’d dared to do in a long while, and what I discovered was that, far from exacerbating my tendonitis, running faster reduced my discomfort.

To make a long story short, I accelerated very gradually for the remainder of the marathon, covering mile 10 in 8:15, mile 15 in 8:00, mile 22 in 7:29, and mile 26 in 6:51. In the five months preceding this event, the fastest mile I’d run was a 7:41, and that mile aggravated my injury and set me back. In the Modesto Marathon, I covered five miles at a faster clip, some of them significantly faster, and instead of setting me back, my crazy experiment (if we can call it that) did just the opposite. In my next long run, which occurred six days later, I completed 15.5 miles at an average pace of 7:47 per mile with minimal discomfort.

As incredible as it sounds, there is no escaping the conclusion that hard running, which was unquestionably the original cause of my groin injury, also sort of cured it. If this strange episode were unique, I might dismiss it as just that—a random miracle from which it is impossible to draw any conclusions. But I’ve had many similar experiences. For example, with two miles to go in the 2016 Modesto Marathon, I suffered an acute knee injury that I suspected was a meniscus tear. Having no choice, I took the next 11 days off before trying a little test run, which I was forced to quit after 10 minutes with significant and steadily worsening pain. The very next day I completed a 50-mile ultramarathon with nary a peep from my knee.

Where is the lesson in all this? The only lesson I have been able to take away from my vast injury history is that, with pain, you just never know. Pain is not always bad in any simple sense or something that should always been avoided. You have to keep an open mind when you’re injured and, without being stupid, take a few risks, experiment a bit, and never give up.

Forget everything I’ve ever written about diet and nutrition. It’s utter garbage—all of it! Racing Weight? Garbage. Diet Cults? Rubbish. The Endurance Diet? Pure crap. I’m a new man with a new message, one that is powerfully encapsulated in my astonishing new book, Celebrity Miracle Breakthrough Keto Revolution!

That’s right: I’ve gone full keto, betting all my chips on the ultra-low-carb ketogenic diet that is sweeping America like the Charleston did back in the 19-whatevers.

I understand this announcement might come as a bit of a shock to those of you who regard me as “that pro-carb guy,” or as “Mr. Anti-Fad Diet.” To be honest, I’m more than a little surprised by my own change of heart. But what can I say? I would rather suffer the embarrassment of admitting I wasted years, decades even, propagating harmful lies than go to my grave having never discovered the error of my ways or taken the opportunity to right the terrible wrongs I’ve done.

Perhaps you’re wondering how this dietetic one-eighty came about. Did some new study come along and change my mind? Did the high-carb diet I enjoyed for so long finally catch up with me? Did a silver-tongued keto advocate make the case in just the right way to overcome my longstanding biases?

Nope, nope, and nope. What actually happened was that I started getting tons of keto diet spam in my junk email folder. You know what I’m talking about: messages with subject lines such as “Keto Ultra Burn Protocol” and “Rapid Keto Torch Secret.” Like most people, I deleted these messages reflexively, the way one squashes a mosquito. But they just kept coming, and over time their relentless anti-carb drumbeat began to penetrate my brain in insidious ways. The effect was oddly similar to that of a hypnotist’s swaying pocket watch—something you regard with dismissive skepticism at first, and then next thing you know you wake up wearing a clown wig and barking involuntarily every time someone says “bacon.”

Anyway, to make a long story short, there came a point when I started to think that 7 billion spam emails couldn’t possibly be wrong. My conversion from carb booster to carb blaster was not quite as sudden, perhaps, as the awakening that transformed Saul into Paul on the road to Damascus, but I assure you it was no less absolute. I’ve gone from eating oatmeal for breakfast to picking fights with oatmeal eaters on Twitter, from snacking on bananas to telling a friend (or former friend, I should say) she was a terrible mother for packing a banana in her eight-year-old son’s school lunch.

I realize I’m rather late to the keto party. Does the world really need another keto advocate? What more can I possibly contribute? After all, existing champions of the cause have blamed carbs for everything from climate change to the Holocaust (something to do with Hitler being a vegetarian). No proselytizer for the ketogenic diet, however, has gone so far as to accuse carbs of being THE DEVIL incarnate–until now! In Celebrity Miracle Breakthrough Keto Revolution! I do just that. You’ll have to read the book to get the full argument, which only a fool could fail to be persuaded by, but I’ll give you a brief tease here:

Q. What did the serpent use to tempt Eve in the Garden of Eden?

A. Fruit!* Nature’s candy. Pure sugar lurking inside a harmless-looking skin.

It’s a bold gospel I preach in Celebrity Miracle Breakthrough Keto Revolution!, and there may be some who read it and decide I’ve lost my marbles. But I’m proud of this book—as proud as I am now ashamed of everything that came before it in my misguided career. My only regret is the timing of its release. True, today is the first of April, but I assure you this is no April Fool’s joke. My latest and greatest literary offering is very real, and if you click here you will be able to purchase your very own copy. Do it!


*Although the fruit of the Tree of Life is almost always depicted as an apple, the Bible doesn’t specify the type, and I suspect it was actually . . . a BANANA!

As part of my ongoing quest to qualify for the Ironman World Championship, I am working with a company called INSCYD (pronounced “inside”), creators of a physiological performance software tool that helps endurance athletes like me identify specific ways to improve their fitness.

A few weeks ago I performed a sequence of bike tests that are used to generate the data that the program uses to assess cycling fitness/performance. They were pretty tough, comprising a 20-minute time trial that I had to start with a 60- to 90-second all-out effort, a four-minute time trial starting the same way, and a handful of seated 15-second sprints in a high gear ratio. What’s special about INSCYD is that it uses performance data not only to measure performance variables such as anaerobic threshold power but also to estimate physiological variables such as VO2max with an impressive degree of accuracy.

My results seemed spot-on to me. According to INSCYD, my VO2max, or aerobic capacity, is 62 ml/min/kg (about average for an athlete of my performance level and age), my VLamax, or anaerobic capacity, is 0.23 mmol/l/s (extremely low, which is actually good for an athlete in Ironman training), and my weight-adjusted anaerobic threshold power is 4.5 watts/kg (extremely high). All of this was explained to me by INSCYD’s Greg Hillson when we went over the results over the phone. Greg further explained to me that, based on these results, my best opportunity to increase my cycling performance ahead of Ironman Santa Rosa is to increase my VO2max.

Sounds great in theory, but the best most effective ways to increase aerobic capacity are to train a lot and to perform brutally hard high-intensity interval workouts on a regular basis, both of which things I was already doing before I was tested. Referring to these methods as low-hanging fruit, Greg suggested I look to some next-level ways of boosting aerobic capacity a bit, including a particular carbohydrate-restricted workout protocol that was shown to increase cycling efficiency, cycling time to exhaustion at peak aerobic power, and 10K run performance among triathletes in a 2017 study.

I gave it—or a version of it—a try recently. Normally I start my afternoon workout between one and two o’clock, but on this occasion I waited until four o’clock to do an indoor cycling workout containing four, eight-minute efforts at threshold power and lasting 80 minutes in total. After showering and changing, I ate a low-carb dinner of salmon, eggs, and a green salad with oil-based dressing. This ensured that I went to bed with reduced glycogen stores and woke up the next morning even more depleted.

On any other day I would have made breakfast my first order of business, but in obedience to the protocol I instead hopped on the treadmill and ran for one hour at an easy pace. Done by 6:30 am, I then enjoyed a high-carb breakfast (whole-grain, low-sugar cereal with whole milk and fresh raspberries, orange juice, and black coffee).

I now have super powers. Just kidding. I won’t know what effect these sessions have had (and I plan to do one per week from here on) until I repeat the INSCYD tests between two and a half and three weeks before race day. But I trust the science and there’s really no risk. While you might expect a fasted morning workout to be rather miserable after a one-two punch of hard intervals and carbohydrate restriction the evening before, I felt completely normal.

Another next-level method of nudging aerobic capacity upward that Greg Hillson recommend I try is sauna training. And I’m totally game, but that’s a topic for another time. . .

3 Benefits of Narrativizing Your Athletic Journey

On March 26, my latest book, Life Is a Marathon: A Memoir of Love and Endurancewill be published. It explores what running does for the people for whom running does the most—those men and women who are able to say, “Running changed me,” or even, “Running saved my life.” I am one such person, and my book shares the story of my journey as an athlete, which is inseparable from the story of my journey as a human being.

It is, fundamentally, a story of redemption, perhaps a little like Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, which is about a young seaman who is serving as first mate on a steamer ship when it begins to sink (except it doesn’t actually sink) and he abandons it, leaving the passengers to drown, an act of cowardice that he spends the rest of his life trying to atone for. In my case, the act of cowardice that caused me to lose respect for myself was failing to show up for the start of a 3200-meter track race in my junior year of high school. Now, you might be thinking, ‘Gosh, Matt, aren’t you being a little hard on yourself? You chicken out of one little race and then spend the rest of your life trying to atone?’

But this act of cowardice did not occur in isolation. It was part of a general unraveling associated with an inordinate fear and loathing of the pain of racing that ultimately led me to quit the sport a year later. And yes, I am being hard on myself. But that’s what men and women of character do. I may have been mentally weak as a young athlete, but at least I wasn’t okay with it. Plenty of mentally weak individuals are okay with it.

Anyway, the point is that when I got back into endurance sports in my late 20s, I had a monkey on my back that I was determined to pry off.  More important to me even than fulfilling the athletic potential that I had left unfulfilled as a teenager was becoming a brave competitor, because, I discovered, there is no separation between the athlete self and the overall self. A coward on the racecourse is a coward off it, and I did not want to see myself as a coward.

I was a few years into this quest and making decent progress when my wife, Nataki, was struck by a severe mental illness, which proved to be a far greater test of mental fortitude, inasmuch as I was affected by it, than I had ever faced in competition. If you want the full story, you’ll have to read the book. But the upshot is that, in an odd sort of way, my use of endurance sports as a vehicle to become the person I want to be prepared me to handle the much bigger challenge of being Nataki’s husband and primary caregiver post-diagnosis. More oddly still, fighting for Nataki strengthened me further, and this new strength transferred right back to the race course. I don’t think I would be quite the fearless racer I am today if my personal life hadn’t taken the turn it did. It all fits together, you see, almost as if the whole thing were scripted. . .

Not every athlete has the opportunity to write down his or her story and share it with the world in book form, but any athlete can consciously view his or her athletic journey as a story. This is known as narrativizing, a natural human propensity to understand our lives as plotted. Some people are more prone than others to see themselves as the authors and/or heroes of an unfolding, three-dimensional tale. Interestingly, top athletes typically are strongly prone to narrativizing. Psychologist Mustafa Sarkar, among others, has noted in particular that these individuals often look at their lives as stories of overcoming.

How does it benefit an athlete to understand his or her pursuit of sport not merely as a series of events but as a story? In three ways. First, when you turn a series of events into a story, you infuse those events with meaning that they would otherwise lack. It’s really a way of making your pursuit of the sport more significant, in both senses of the word. Running or cycling or whatever becomes not just something you do but a part of your identity, and when this happens you invest more of yourself in it and get more out of it.

Narrativizing the athletic journey also boosts motivation. Every story needs a happy ending. With rare exceptions, athletes who do narrativize see their happy ending as lying ahead of them, not behind. There is something they must achieve in order to make the whole tale hang together. This perceived need to write an as-yet-unwritten happy ending to the story of one’s athletic journey is inherently motivating—another way of inspiring greater personal investment and of bringing about the rewards that come therewith.

Finally, narrativizing sport fosters a sense of agency, of being in control of what happens next in your athletic life, in much the same way that a novelist controls the fates of his or her characters. It is difficult to overstate the value of this feeling of free autonomy, of making things happen rather than being merely a puppet of fate, an object to which things happen. For as long as I can remember, I have naturally regarded life is a blank canvas that I can color in any way I please (within certain constraints), and I can say with certainty that I wouldn’t be where I am today, as an athlete and a person, if not for this creative perspective on life.

One of the more common forms of self-sabotage perpetrated by endurance athletes is racing too often. Now, before I go any further, let me state quite clearly that racing often is not necessarily a mistake . . . if you don’t particularly care about achieving peak performances in competition. For many people, athletics is more of a lifestyle than a sport, and these folks simply enjoy the lifestyle more when they race often. If this enjoyment comes at the cost of performance, then, oh, well. But others who do genuinely desire to realize their full athletic potential race too often without even realizing they would perform better if they raced less.

The reason racing is the enemy of training is that, in order to race well, you need to lighten up your training beforehand, and in order to recover properly from racing, you need to lighten up your training afterward. This makes racing highly disruptive to the flow of training. A single race won’t gum things up, and in fact it may give your training a boost by pushing your body a little further than any workout does, but it’s just not possible to pack multiple races within a fairly short span of time and still do the training required to attain peak performance in any single race. Either you find yourself doing little else besides tapering, racing, and recovering, or you try to train normally despite racing often and your races become nothing more than hard workouts done with a number on your chest. Yippee.

Of course, some athletes, particularly those who compete for school teams, have no choice but to race frequently. In such cases it’s up to the coach to make the best of an imperfect situation, but there’s only so much that even the best coach can do. This was shown in a 2010 study involving members of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Men’s Cross Country Team. Exercise scientists Corey Baumann and Thomas Wetter measured runners’ anaerobic power, VO2max, running economy, ventilatory threshold, and lactate threshold at the start of the season and again at the end. Anaerobic power was found to have decreased over the course of the season while all of the other variables were unchanged. In other words, the runners did not get fitter, and the likely reason is that they raced too often to be able to train progressively.

At the elite level, the very best performances, particularly at longer distances, usually come after limited racing. When a new American or world record is set at any running distance over a mile (sprint races being far less stressful and disruptive), it almost always occurs in the athlete’s first or second attempt at the distance in a given season. A classic example is Chris Solinsky’s American record of 26:59.60 for 10,000 meters, set in 2010. This was not only Solinsky’s first track 10K of the 2010 season but his first ever! What was Solinsky doing in the leadup to this breakthrough performance on May 1st? Training, training, training. His only prior races of the year were much shorter and many weeks earlier—an indoor mile on January 30 and an indoor 3000 meters on February 27.

I’ve heard athletes come up with all kinds of excuses for over-racing: “I need to race in order to know where I am with my fitness.” “I always seem to choke when I put too much focus on any single event.” “When I go for long periods without racing I tend to overtrain.” But these excuses are just that. I know you’re very special, but you’re still human, and what works best for the likes of Chris Solinsky works best for you too, trust me.

All I’m asking is that, if you are an over-racer, you give my way (i.e., the elite way) a try. If you decide afterward that you’d rather do a lot of races at 90 percent instead of a few at 100 percent, then more power to you. But I think you will find 100 percent hard to let go of.

One of my all-time favorite short stories is “Fantastic Night,” written by the great Austrian fiction master Stefan Zweig in the early 1920’s and set in late Bell Époque Vienna. It concerns a wealthy 35-year-old baron, an orphaned inheritor of a large fortune and dedicated gentleman of leisure who leads a pleasant but unfulfilling life of bohemian comfort that is blissfully interrupted one fateful night in June 1913, when a chance series of events triggers a dramatic internal transformation. Of his pre-awakened self the baron writes, “I can say with certainty that I felt myself by no means unhappy at the time . . . But the very fact that I had become accustomed to getting all I asked from destiny, and demanded no more, led gradually to a certain absence of excitement, a lifelessness in life itself.”

The baron’s transformation begins during an afternoon at the horse track, when the baron comes into possession of another man’s betting slip and finds himself suddenly and uncharacteristically caught up in the excitement of the particular race it pertained to. That the horse chosen by the rightful owner of the betting slip wins only intensifies the strange spell he’s under, an intoxication of the spirit that sends him careening through the seedier parts of Vienna, hobnobbing with prostitutes and shakedown artists and eventually giving away all his money to strangers as he wanders home in the wee hours.

“There was some kind of delirium in me, an outpouring like lovemaking,” the baron recounts, “and I knew a freedom I had never known before. The street, the sky, the buildings, all seemed to flow together and towards me, giving me an entirely new sense of possession and belonging: never, even in the most warmly experienced moments of my life, had I felt so strongly that all these things were really present, that they were alive, that I was alive, and that their lives and mine were one and the same, that life is a great and mighty phenomenon and can never be hailed with too much delight. It is something that only love grasps, only devotion comprehends.”

Ostensibly written four years after these events took place, the baron reports that the spell he fell under on that night never abated, but was only the beginning of a permanent awakening. What’s most interesting to me about the tale is that, according to the baron, this internal transformation led to no outward changes in his lifestyle. He continued to live the same dissipated life of play, following the same routines he had previously, and yet he experienced them entirely differently, relishing the same experiences that before had just barely sufficed to ward off ennui.

In glib modern terms we might refer to the narrator’s new mindset as an attitude of gratitude. At any given moment in our lives, some things are good and others not so good. There may be five good things and five not-so-good, nine good things and one not-so-good, or one good thing and nine not-so-good. The point is, as long as you’re still breathing, there’s at least one good thing about your present situation. And regardless of the balance between good and not-so-good, each of us has the power to focus more on the good than on the not-so-good. This is the attitude of gratitude, and when you have it, any situation you may find yourself in will be more pleasant, and not only that, but the situation will be more likely to improve.

I’m not just making stuff up. The effects of expressing gratitude have been heavily researched by psychologists, and the benefits are clear. For example, a 2015 study conducted at UC Berkeley found that counseling coupled with “gratitude writing” improved mental health in college students seeking psychotherapy services more than either counseling alone or counseling coupled with “expressive writing.”

I myself got a powerful lesson in the value of gratitude during my first Ironman in 2003. Everything went wrong in that race. Less than a minute into the swim, my watch was torn off by a flailing competitor. Less than a minute later, I suffered a vicious calf cramp that brought me to a dead stop in the water. A few miles into the bike leg, I was hit with a bullshit three-minute stand-down drafting penalty. By the end of the bike leg, the pain in the calf muscle that had cramped earlier had spread throughout my entire right leg. During the subsequent marathon, the pain intensified before slowly morphing into a sort of scorching numbness, like when a limb falls a sleep. I got so bad that I couldn’t feel my foot touching the ground and had to run looking down to keep from falling.

In short, I was pretty miserable. But at some point my better self slapped my self-pitying self across the cheek and said, “Get ahold of yourself!” I made a conscious effort to catalog the aspects of my situation that were good. I felt gratitude for the lovely September weather in Madison, Wisconsin, for the pleasantness of the racecourse, for the cheering spectators, for my fitness, and for the presence of my family, who had flown in from all over the country to support me. At that moment my perception of the race changed completely. I started having fun, and I pulled out of my performance nosedive, managing to complete the marathon with dead-even splits.

Ever since that day I have made gratitude an everyday tool in my personal sports psychology toolkit. When I start to brood on what is not so good about a workout or the state of my body or whatever else, I shift my attention instead to what is good, and it helps every time. Do you express as much gratitude as you could in your athletic endeavors?

When I trained for my first ultramarathon (the American River 50 Mile Endurance Run) over the winter of 2015-16, I had an Achilles tendon injury that prevented me from doing any training that was faster than marathon pace, give or take. Fortunately, I had no limitations on how far I could run, and took full advantage of this freedom by completing individual training runs of up to 37 miles.

When I arrived at the start line of AMR50 on April 2nd, I was definitely fit, but not as fit as I would like to have been. A crucial piece was missing; my legs felt the lack of faster running in a way that’s hard to define. This feeling was validated not only by the ensuing race, in which my performance was humdrum, but in my next ultra, which I won following an injury-free buildup that including regular doses of moderate- and high-intensity work.

Many ultrarunners voluntarily eschew such work, having little taste for it and assuming it makes no significant contribution to success in low-intensity races that require many hours to complete. But a recent study says otherwise, further validating my experiential sense that fast running is a vital component of effective ultramarathon training.

Conducted by Spanish scientists and published in the European Journal of Sport Science, the study involved 20 “ultra-endurance runners” with an average age of 40 years. For 12 weeks, half of these subjects followed a “threshold” training program in which two-thirds of total training time was spent at low intensity and the remaining one-third at moderate intensity (i.e., roughly lactate threshold intensity), while the other half followed a “polarized” training program with an equal overall workload but in which 80 percent of total training time was spent at low intensity and 20 percent at high intensity. Both groups lost body fat during the 12-week training period, but only the polarized group showed improvements in running economy and in running time to exhaustion.

Do we conclude from these findings that ultrarunners should never do any training at moderate intensity? Of course not. The purpose of the study was to compare the contributions of moderate- and high-intensity running to fitness development within the context of a mostly low-intensity training program, not to identify the optimal way to train for ultramarathons in the real world. But what we can conclude from the study is that ultrarunners should do a significant amount of training at high intensity.

If this finding seems counterintuitive to you, it’s probably because you don’t fully understand how high-intensity training works. The purpose of doing fast workouts is not, in fact, to get faster. Rather, it is to enable you to use more of the speed you already have in races, regardless of distance. High-intensity running does this in a variety of ways, including by increasing aerobic capacity, improving running economy, and even elevating pain tolerance. You only have one body, and it is this one body that is altered by any sort of training you do. Thus, even though a set of hard intervals on the track doesn’t look much like a 100-kilometer trail run, it will help you perform better in such a race by altering your body in beneficial ways that complement the benefits of longer, slower training runs.

This is why the 80/20 ultramarathon plans that I’ve just created for TrainingPeaks include speed work—not a ton, to be sure, but enough to give you better results than you would get from a training plan that did not require you to test your higher gears. There are eight plans in total: four levels each for 50 miles/100K and for 100 miles. Check ‘em out!

Readers of my work often assume that I mostly read the same kinds of books I write, but this isn’t the case. Of the 40 to 50 books I devour each year, about 90 percent are novels. I can’t help it—my father is a novelist and I was a diehard fiction junkie by the third or fourth grade. Lately I’ve been on a Paul Auster kick; you should check him out.

When I do read nonfiction, it’s almost always in the name of research for a book of my own. (You might wonder why I don’t write novels since I like reading them so much. The answer is that I have no imagination and am only capable of telling true stories.) Over the last few months I’ve been doing a lot of reading in the areas of decision theory and behavioral psychology, and that’s because I’m in the very early stages of working on a sort of follow-up to How Bad Do You Want It?Most recently, I read my Facebook friend James Fell’s new release, The Holy Sh!t Moment: How Lasting Change Can Happen in an Instant, and I think you should consider reading it too (either before or after you give Paul Auster a try).

The book grew out of an observation Fell made as a weight-loss coach, which was that people who succeeded in making a healthy lifestyle change were often inspired to do so by a sudden epiphany—i.e., a holy shit moment. I’ve observed the same thing as an endurance coach and nutritionist. Whereas those who coach healthy lifestyle changes often act as if success depends on going about the process correctly, the real-world fact of the matter is that lasting change usually occurs only when an individual is properly sparked. It’s not that how you go about developing healthier habits is unimportant but that the process part has a way of working itself out when a person is hypermotivated.

Fell’s curiosity about this phenomenon led him to dig into the relevant psychology research, examples of which his book is chock full. Among these is the work of psychologist William Miller, father of the motivational interviewing technique. Miller conducted dozens of interviews with men and women whose lives changed radically for the better after they experienced some kind of epiphany or sudden insight and found a number of consistent patterns that helped define this type of event as a real and indeed rather common thing.

One of these patterns is the bolt-from-the-blue nature of such events. In most instances, epiphanies come out of nowhere. This presents a difficulty for those who might like to experience a holy shit moment of their own to stimulate positive change. The bulk of Fell’s book is devoted to addressing this challenge, using a combination of science and anecdote to show readers how to meet their epiphany halfway, as he puts it.

Among the handful of specific measures Fell discusses is that of shifting one’s environment. He notes that, although readiness for change comes from within, operating in a familiar and unchanging environment can retard this process, whereas forcing yourself to adapt to something new—by traveling, changing jobs, pursuing or terminating a relationship, or developing a creative passion—can hurry it along. This advice, like much of the other guidance in the book, resonates with my experience. Although I’ve never experienced a life-altering epiphany and I can’t say I’m really looking for one, I do want to keep moving forward as a writer, as a coach, as an athlete, and as a person, and I have found that trying new things and challenging myself in different ways keeps me from standing still in any of these roles.

The fundamental agenda of The Holy Sh!t Momentis to explain and show change-seekers how change really happens. What makes the book so potentially helpful is that much of what is now known about this is notknown to most laypeople, beginning the fact that healthy change very often begins with a sudden epiphany.

I went through a meathead phase between the ages of 17 and 25. Having burned out on running, I threw myself into weightlifting, repeating the same four-day workout cycle over and over and over again with almost no variation. Predictably, I gained a lot of strength and muscle mass initially, then plateaued. Naïvely, I kept expecting another breakthrough to happen despite the static nature of my routine, but of course it never did.

That is, until creatine came around. Intrigued by the hype that surrounded the supplement’s arrival on the market in the late 1990s, I started taking it, hopeful but not expectant. Almost immediately I became stronger than I’d ever been. There was no doubt in my mind that the stuff worked. A controlled study my situation was not, but in an informal way, it was actually pretty darn close because creatine was the only change from before.

Sports supplements that not only work but are so effectively that an athlete can feel and measure the difference they make, are exceedingly rare. More common are supplements that provide a tiny little boost that an athlete couldn’t possibly confirm experientially—you just have to trust the research. More common still are supplements that show some promise in early research but are ultimately determined to be ineffective.

To the best of my knowledge, there is no creatine equivalent for endurance athletes. I’ve tried various candidates over the years without finding any that I believed in enough to continue using. But a new study has inspired me to go back on one of these: beetroot juice.

I first tried beetroot juice supplementation several years ago after reading about studies demonstrating a positive effect on endurance performance that is mediated by the juice’s high concentration of dietary nitrates, which are known to dilate blood vessels and increase blood flow. Although I never felt a beneficial impact of beetroot juice on my own performance, that’s not why I stopped supplementing. The effect size of the performance boost seen in experiments was small enough that I didn’t expect to notice whatever boost I might be getting. Rather, the reason I stopped was that subsequent research indicated that beetroot juice supplementation was effective only in individuals with low fitness levels and in hypoxic (low-oxygen) conditions.

The new study, led by Torben Rokkedal-Lausch of Aalborg University in Denmark, looked at the effects of chronic high-dose beetroot juice supplementation on performance in well-trained athletes in both hypoxic and normoxic conditions. The subjects of the experiment were 12 male cyclists with an average VO2max of 66.4 ml/min/kg. They performed simulated 10 km cycling time trials in four separate conditions: while breathing normal air after seven days of beetroot juice supplementation, while breathing deoxygenated air after seven days of beetroot juice supplementation, while breathing normal air after seven days of placebo supplementation, and while breathing deoxygenated air after seven days of placebo supplementation. Average power output after beetroot juice supplementation was about 5 watts higher in both normoxic and hypoxic conditions. The authors concluded, “Our results provide new evidence that chronic high-dose [nitrate] supplementation improves cycling performance of well-trained cyclists in both normoxia and hypoxia.”

I don’t consider this study to constitute conclusive proof that beetroot juice supplementation will enhance my own performance, but it’s enough to have inspired me to take a small leap of faith and resume the practice. Conveniently, I found a mostly full canister of powdered beetroot extract in a kitchen cupboard at home. I mix it with tart cherry juice because, well, that’s a story for another time. In a few days I will repeat the functional threshold cycling test that I do every few weeks. Of course, any improvement I achieve therein cannot automatically be attributed to supplementation, for the simple reason that, in contrast to my meathead phase, my triathlon training is progressive, and as a result I’ve been improving in this test all along.

Even if this concoction doesn’t give me a measurable performance boost, I will at least have the confidence of knowing that, unlike many other supplements, beets and cherries are food—healthy food with lots of good stuff in them. So, no matter what, I will get more out of my new daily elixir than expensive urine.

At the 2016 World Half Marathon Championships, held in Cardiff, Wales, young Geoffrey Kamworor gave the running community an object lesson in keeping calm during a crisis. The Kenyan upstart came into the race having talked a lot of smack about one fellow competitor, Mo Farah, who was almost universally recognized as the best runner on the planet and whom Kamworor had never beaten, only to slip and fall on the start line and get trampled by a handful of the thousands of amateur runners stampeding from behind. After spending the longest seven seconds of his life sprawled face-first on the tarmac, Kamworor got up, barged through the scores of slower runners now in front of him, caught Farah and the other leaders around 1 kilometer, and went on to win the race.

It was a remarkable feat that caused a sensation among running fans that was stoked in part by the serendipitous existence of a video clip capturing the early moments of Kamworor’s recovery. It wasn’t merely a remarkable physical feat, however. There can be no doubt that Kamworor won the race despite his traumatic fall not only because he’s really fast and fit but also because he didn’t panic.

I believe that the ability to stay calm under stress is one of the most important psychological characteristics of successful endurance athletes, and that the lack of this ability—in other words, a susceptibility to panic—holds athletes back more than just about any other mental trait.

The panic mechanism, as scientists refer to it, is natural and universal. As psychologist Randolph Nesse wrote in a 1987 paper titled “An Evolutionary Perspective on Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia,” “Panic, when viewed ethologically, is not pathological in itself; it is rather an adaptation that evolved to facilitate escape in dangerous situations.” The problem is that panic is only useful in situations of mortal danger, yet most of us also panic in less serious situations that are not helped by this response, including a variety of stressful situations that we face as athletes, such as bad workouts, injury, and mid-race setbacks like flat tires.

High-performing endurance athletes are typically slow to panic, as Geoffrey Kamworor was at the 2016 World Half Marathon Championships. After the race, he said of his disastrous start, “It was really tough after that fall to catch up but I fought hard.” This terse description of how Kamworor experienced the race from the inside is almost laughably banal, but it perfectly conveys the take-it-in-stride mentality that he used to make the best of a bad situation. Contrast this demonstration of poise under pressure to my own behavior in the 1987 New England High School Cross Country Championships, in which I hit the deck early and, despite rising and continuing, remained rattled by the fiasco through the remainder of the race, unable to put it behind me and make the best of my own bad situation.

I’ve been using the term “panic” rather loosely. A true panic response lies at the very extreme of the spectrum of anxiety states. Far more often than we panic, endurance athletes experience anxiety. But even these episodes are frequently out of proportion to their cause and make the overall situation worse instead of better. Another personal example involves my swimming. I’m working hard to improve my swimming for an upcoming Ironman, and although I have made a fair amount of progress over the past few months, I have good days and bad days in the pool. Last Wednesday, in fact, I had another a bad day, and I failed to keep calm, instead becoming so frustrated by and obsessed with figuring out why I’ve gone backwards that I abandoned my planned workout and spent the rest of my time in the pool tinkering around with my technique, which never works. I’m quite certain that if I were less emotionally thrown off by such setbacks, the arc of my improvement would be smoother and I would enjoy the process more.

How does one get better at staying calm in the face of crisis moments in training and racing? I think it’s all about intentionality. The essential trigger of anxiety in these situations is surprise. We are caught off guard by an unexpected turn of events and don’t know what to do. While you can never know in advance that you’re going to fall down at the start line and be trampled by dozens of your fellow runners, you can develop a sort of general readiness for and way of responding to such scenarios.

Psychotherapists treat diagnosed cases of panic disorder by recreating the symptoms repetitively in a controlled manner. This teaches the patient that the symptoms are not dangerous and that the patient has a certain amount of control over them. You can do something similar in the athletic context by training yourself to recognize that you are experiencing an anxiety response to a stressful situation. This puts you outside the response to a degree and allows you to make choices that you would not be able to make if you responded reflexively, simply acting on your anxiety.

The next time I have a bad swim, for example, I can remind myself that I’ve had many prior bad days at the pool and none of them put a permanent end to my progress as a swimmer. At that point I can make a rational choice about how to deal with it. Based on the patterns I’ve observed, my most likely choice will be to return to the drills and technique cues that led to my biggest steps forward and that always seem to do a good job of resetting my stroke whenever it reverts in some way. In fact, this is precisely what I did when I went back to the pool last Friday, and I had one of my best swims yet.

A few weeks ago I was working out in the functional strength room at the gym I go to when one of the facility’s personal trainers entered with a new client, an overweight middle-age male. I did not intentionally eavesdrop on their session, but I couldn’t help overhearing the duo’s interactions during the next half-hour. Clearly unmotivated, the client kept cheating on his rest breaks between exercises by going to the water bubbler or tightening his shoelaces, exasperating the trainer.

As a coach, I identified with the exasperated trainer more than with the unmotivated client, even to the point of imagining what I would do in the trainer’s place. And I’m pretty sure what I would have done is fired the unmotivated client, refunded his money, and told him to come back to me if and when he actually wanted to work out.

Thanks heavens I’ll never find myself in this position. The very thought of working as a personal trainer depresses me. Forcing exercise on people who don’t want to exercise—this is my conception of what it means to do this job. Although coaching athletes looks a lot like personal training from 50,000 feet, it is completely different in this regard. One of the things I love about coaching endurance athletes is that, for the most part, they love to work out.

Of course, “for the most part” means not always. It’s normal for even the most passionate endurance athletes to go through blah patches of flagging motivation. But these are rather different from the personal training client’s general aversion to exercise. The other day I had a conversation with an ultrarunner who was going through such a blah patch. He spoke to me in a complaining, almost self-loathing tone, describing the situation he found himself in as “a problem.” I’m not so sure it was a problem, though. Who says an endurance athlete has to be highly motivated to train and compete all the time? Isn’t it possible that, just as an athlete can handle higher peak training loads if he treats every third or forth week as a recovery week, an athlete can attain higher peak motivation levels when he allows himself periodically to slack off a bit?

I’ve gone through periods of low motivation as well, and although I can’t say I’ve enjoyed them, I haven’t thought of them as a problem. In fact, when I do experience the blahs, I don’t even think of myself as being unmotivated to train; rather, I think of myself as being motivated to not train. This may sound like a joke, but the distinction is neither semantic nor self-deluding. Oftentimes—not always, but often—perceived motivation problems are the result of conflating what one wants with what one thinks he ought to want. If these two things are disambiguated, the motivation problem goes away.

The worst athletic blah period occurred six years ago and was brought about by a combination of a nagging hip flexor injury and a mental health crisis that my wife, Nataki, was going through. Exercise certainly helped me deal with the stress of the latter, but I lacked the desire at that time to do anything more than an hour per day of steep uphill treadmill walking, during which I escaped reality by reading novels on my Kindle. Throughout this period I hoped and expected to make athletics a higher priority in my life again at some future date, but I made no effort to rush or force the matter.

If I could sit down and have a chat with that personal training client who didn’t want to work out, I would ask him what he did want. Probably he would answer that, although he did not want to exercise, he did want the benefits of exercise. Or perhaps (if he was wiser than the average bear) he would say he wanted to want to exercise, a desire I would translate for him as wanting to enjoy exercise. Either answer would represent a step toward a better solution than wasting his money on personal training sessions that he half-assed and hated—not a perfect solution, maybe, but a better one. More specifically, the clarity gained through such introspection might lead this individual to focus more on diet initially, or on forms of exercise (dog walking, pickup basketball) that don’t feel like exercise.

The next time you find yourself struggling for motivation, take a mental step back from your situation and try to separate what you really want from what you think you ought to want. Oftentimes—not always, but often—the way out of a motivational blah period is simply to let go of what you’d rather not do and embrace what you’d rather do instead.

The other day I had an interesting conversation with an athlete I coach who is training for an Ironman 70.3 event that will take place on the same weekend as the Ironman race I’m training for (specifically the weekend of May 10-11, 2019). In explaining to me why he had done the bare minimum of swimming within a range of options I gave him during a holiday trip, he said that the hassle of doing more didn’t seem worth the extra second or two per 100 meters he might gain thereby.

Although I found no fault with this reasoning as it applied to my client, when I turned it around and applied it to myself, it struck me that my attitude is rather different. Simply put, I am fighting for every possible second in my  preparations for Ironman Santa Rosa. Whether it’s through training, nutrition, equipment, psychology, logistics, or you-name-it, if there’s something I can do (safely and legally) to shave even one second off my finish time, I’m doing it.

Why the no-stone-unturned approach? Several reasons. One is that I feel I must take this approach to achieve my goal of earning an Ironman World Championship qualifying slot. I am not talented enough, nor is the competition weak enough, for me to be able to coast to Kona. Indeed, in my first Ironman I missed out on the last qualifying slot in my age group by 23 seconds! Another reason is that I enjoy the challenge of trying to identify and execute all possible means of improving my performance. For me it makes the preparatory process a more stimulating game than it would be if I were to set a lower bar. And, unlike my client, who travels a lot for work and has a new child, I have the time and opportunity to fight for every second. I’m not a parent and I don’t hold a real job, and indeed it’s sort of my job to train and compete, so, why not?

In this post I thought I would share a few examples of what I’m doing in the effort to shave every shavable second off my Ironman Santa Rosa finish time.


Swimming is my weakness as a triathlete. But nor am I a beginner, and the experience I do have gives me advantage of knowing that the most effective way to become a better swimmer is to focus intensively on technique improvement by working one-on-one with a good coach. I’ve been fortunate to find a very good coach in Mandy McDougal of Mind Body and Swim. Her pragmatic methodology suits me well and reminds me a lot of my own coaching style. She’s big on evolving the stroke you have rather than imposing some one-size-fits-all notion of perfect technique, prioritizing the most impactful changes and making them stick through basic drill sequences.

Here are a couple of her videos that concern technique elements I have benefitted from especially:


I make a four-hour round-trip drive every two weeks or so to benefit from Mandy’s instruction. Whatever it takes!


The primary application of my no-stone-unturned approach to cycling has been spending lots of money. My main expenses so far have been a high-end indoor power trainer (Wahoo Kickr Core) and a high-end time-trial bike (Felt IA2). Past experience has taught me that I get a lot more fitness per training hour when I do most of my cycling indoors, where I can perform very precisely controlled workouts. Already I’ve seen benefits from using the Kickr two to three times per week.

As for the time-trial bike, as much as runners like me like to think it’s all about the engine, it’s really not. Outdoors I travel 3-4 mph faster at the same power output on the Felt IA2 than I do on my road bike. I’ll likely gain a few more tenths when I shell out another couple of grand on race wheels. And, to further ensure I get the most out of my new machine, I’ve had not one but two professional fittings done at Revolutions in Fitness in Palo Alto.


Running is supposed to be my strength, but a nagging groin injury has made it anything but that lately. Fortunately, the injury does not stop me from running; it just prevents me from running fast (for now). Fortunately as well, I won’t need to run particularly fast in my race to achieve my goal. If I swim and cycle as I hope to in Santa Rosa, a marathon split of 3:20 should get the job done. That’s 7:37 per mile. In the next-to-worst case scenario (the worst case being that the groin degenrates over the next four months), I will run no faster than this in training and enter the race with one-dimensional running fitness—plenty of endurance but no speed.

I take some comfort from having been in this position before. When I trained for my first 50-miler in 2016, a bothersome Achilles prevented me from doing any faster training until within a few weeks of race day, and I still did okay. In a nutshell, leaving no stone unturned in the running dimension of my preparation for Ironman Santa Rosa will entail doing very large amount of very slow running.

One of my major training goals in general is to make the Ironman distances seem completely unintimidating. In 2017, I ran eight marathons in eight weeks, and by the end of this experience 26.2 miles was ho-hum—a major reason I was able to set a marathon PR later in the year. I’m now attempting to do the same thing with all three triathlon disciplines in my current Ironman preparation, for example by doing 100-mile-plus bike rides two to three times per month.


Obviously, nutrition and weight management are hugely important in Ironman training and racing. But I’m not doing anything extreme in these areas for the purpose of shaving seconds off my finish time at Ironman Santa Rosa. To the contrary, I am studiously avoiding doing anything extreme. In my experience, triathletes who otherthink nutrition, become weight-obsessed, and/or go in for unbalanced diets such as the high-fat low-carb fad more often get slower instead of faster. So, for the most part, my approach to nutrition and weight management will consist in simply continuing to eat like the pros, as described in my book The Endurance Diet.

Course familiarization is another element of my strategy of fighting for every second. I plan to make two trips to Santa Rosa ahead of race weekend to ride and run the course, and I’m even considering renting a small boat and paddling the swim course as soon as the buoys go up a couple of days before the event so I can capture a clear picture of what I will see from the surface during the swim.

From my inspection of the online course maps, it appears there’s a fairly lengthy run—likely on concrete—from the swim exit to the transition area. If I’m able to confirm this, I’m going to practice a little barefoot running on concrete to callous the bottoms of my feet, enabling me to shave a few seconds there. And, of course, I will practice mounting my bike with my shoes already clipped in the pedals and dismounting barefoot, as the pros do.

Not for Everyone

By no means am I recommending my no-stone-unturned approach to Ironman preparation to everyone. But I am having a blast with it and I wouldn’t want to see any other likeminded age-group triathlete shy away from it just because he or she is not paid to race. I mean, so what?

Suddenly the word “triggered” is everywhere. The Urban Dictionary defines it as “An emotional/psychological reaction caused by something that somehow relates to an unhappy time or happening in someone’s life.” I would add that the term may also refer to stimuli affecting some personal vulnerability that is not strictly related to a past time or happening. For example, my saying “You look like you’ve put on a few pounds” could be a trigger for someone who has a history of disordered eating (not that I would ever say such a thing to someone I wasn’t 100 percent sure wouldn’t be triggered by it!).

Ubiquitous on social media these days, “triggered” is most often used jokingly. Several times recently Twitter followers of mine have told me, tongue-in-cheek, that they were triggered by something I posted. But before it became a meme, “triggered” was almost always used in earnest, and it is still often employed in non-ironic ways. Indeed, not long ago a Facebook commenter claimed to have been triggered by my blog post titled, “Are You Uncoachable?”

Let’s be clear: Emotional triggers are a real phenomenon. That being said, it has been my observation that the people who use the word (in earnest) most often do so as a means of cultivating a victim identity and of exacting a sort of passive-aggressive revenge on people whose perceived strength threatens them. The present era of pop psychology and self-help has fostered a kind of cult of victimhood that is all too attractive to some who find it easier to weaponize their weaknesses than to overcome them.

If you have triggers, it’s certainly best to recognize them. But the proper use of recognizing your triggers is not to build a shrine to them, enjoying the fleeting sugar highs of offloading responsibility—and blaming others—for your thoughts, feelings, and actions. Rather, it is to gain greater control over your thoughts, feelings, and actions. You’ll be a much happier person in the long run if you choose the latter course.

You’ll also be a better endurance athlete. The phenomenon we’re really getting at here is what psychologists call locus of control, which Wikipedia (I know, I know) defines as “the degree to which people believe that they have control over the outcome of events in their lives, as opposed to external forces beyond their control.” Individuals who have an internal locus of control—that is, who believe they have the capacity to achieve desired outcomes—tend to be more successful in the world. It probably goes without saying that the triggered mentality is associated with an external locus of control and less worldly success.

Some interesting studies have been done on locus of control in athletes. In one such study, Canadian researchers found that, within a population of 145 injured athletes, those who scored high on a test of locus of control were more complaint with their treatment program. This particular study did not look at whether greater compliance was associated with better outcomes, but other research has shown that athletes who do as their doctors and physical therapists say do tend to return to play more quickly.

As an often-injured athlete, I take special note of this finding. For well over a year  I have been dealing with a groin injury that impacts my run training, and I am very consciously endeavoring to maintain an internal locus of control in managing it. Whenever I catch myself fretting about the situation, I tell myself that overcoming the issue and achieving my goal for the marathon leg of Ironman Santa Rosa on May 11, 2019 is within my control. All I have to do is stay patient and not force things, taking every inch my body gives me and not an inch more.

It helps that this is actually true. My groin injury is not serious enough that overcoming it is beyond my control—requiring surgery or whatever. But given my historically brittle nature, I am aware that some other breakdown may occur between now and race day. It would be very easy for me to live in constant fear of the next injury and feel like a victim of a mutinous body, but I refuse to, because I understand it’s not helpful. I choose instead to believe that whatever happens, I can figure it out and get past it sooner or later, one way or another.

If you tend toward an external locus of control—whether or not you toss around the word “trigger”—try to make a similar shift in your thinking. It will take some work, but this work will be rewarded. Be the trigger, not the triggered!

Recently my brother Josh sent me a link to an article on the John Templeton Foundation website that I found quite interesting. Titled “Sanctifying Everyday Difficulties: Motivational Consequences of Sanctifying Difficult Experiences,” it concerned the work of Daphna Oyserman, a professor of psychology at USC.

Oyserman has spent a number of years studying ways in which concepts of identity can be harnessed to supply the motivation needed to do hard things. Quite unexpectedly, these inquiries led her to observe that some of the most successful overcomes of difficult experiences regard them as ennobling—which is to say, as something that helps them become better versions of themselves or makes their lives more meaningful or brings them closer to God.

As unscientific as this idea may sound, we all know people who function in this way. Indeed, it has been my own observation that great endurance athletes tend to bring identity-based motivations to their sport. A quote from six-time Ironman world champion Mark Allen comes to mind: “The shorter races are a little more physical. Once you get into the longer races, it become more a test of you as a person on top of a test of you as an athlete.”

This is how many if not most (maybe all) great endurance athletes see their sport: as a means of testing and refining what they’re made of. They raise the personal stakes of competition far above the level of just trying to achieve goals and get better. For them, the ultimate failure is not falling short of particular outcome goals but falling short of their personal character standards in the pursuit of such goals.

Of course, everyone who takes up endurance sports is looking for a challenge. Relatively few athletes, however, consciously frame their chosen challenge the way the great ones do: namely, as the whole point of the undertaking.“To win is not important,” marathon world record holder Eliud Kipchoge said in a 2018 address to the Oxford Union Society. “To be successful is not even important. How to plan and prepare is crucial. When you plan very well and prepare very well, then success can come on the way. Then winning can come on your way.”

Kipchoge and his ilk see no separation between sport and life, between athlete and human. How they handle themselves in the heat of competition matters to them every bit as much as how they handle themselves in the difficult situations they face in everyday life because both types of challenge reveal who they really are. “Only the disciplined ones are free in life,” Kipchoge said in the same address. “If you are undisciplined, you are a slave to your moods. You are a slave to your passions.” As an athlete, Kipchoge does nothing less than strive to perfect himself. Monks talk the same way about their own efforts at self-mastery, for they’re doing the same thing.

To some athletes, Oyserman’s difficulty-as-sanctification approach to sport may seem like taking a mere game too seriously. I get it. Some of us prefer a moderate challenge—something less than a quest for ennoblement. If you’re in it mainly to enjoy being outside or doing something positive with friends, Kipchoge’s talk of discipline and slavery may come off as rather intimidating.

Having said this, though, let me just add one caveat, which is this: It’s a mistake to think that athletes who put everything on the line when they race are bleeding all the fun out of endurance sports. To the contrary, it’s the athletes who pin all their hopes on achieving goals such as breaking 3:30 in the marathon who more often end up disappointed. Whereas athletes who instead use endurance sports as a vehicle to become a better version of themselves are all but destined to succeed because seriously trying to evolve as a human being is pretty much all it takes to succeed in doing so.

Make that two caveats. The second is this: It’s a mistake also to think you have to be a great athlete to pursue sanctification through endurance sports. I know this because I’ve done it myself. As a young runner I failed to measure up to my personal character standards in a way that has haunted me ever since. When I got back into running (and branched out to triathlon) in my late 20s, I came to regard endurance sports as a means to transform myself into the man I want to be. Not long afterward, a personal challenge far more difficult than any marathon entered my life. Only then did I begin to appreciate that the value of the self-work I did as an athlete extended beyond the racecourse.

If you’re interested in my full story, check out my forthcoming memoir, Life Is a Marathon. It makes the best case I know how to for approaching endurance sports with the difficulty-as-sanctification mindset.


One hundred years ago, Scandinavian athletes dominated elite distance running. They trained rather differently from today’s elite runners. Hannes Kolehmainen is a good example. His primary fitness activity during the long Finnish winters was cross-country skiing, and even in the summer he did more walking than running. He was, however, among the first elite runners to adopt the then-innovative method of interval training, and that’s a big reason he was arguably the best runner in the world in the late 1910’s.

Fast-forward to 50 years ago. By then, the Lydiard revolution had occurred, and most of the top runners around the world were running 100-plus miles per week, mostly at low intensity. If this formula sounds eerily similar to how today’s top runners train, that’s because it is. Although some innovations have occurred within the past half-century (among them vastly improved strength-training techniques and depletion workouts), the pace of evolution in best practices in endurance training has slowed markedly since Kolehmainen’s day.

This was only to be expected. The human body is the human body. It’s not changing (much), and for this reason endurance training methods can’t just keep getting better and better ad infinitum. But this doesn’t mean they can’t get a little better than they are today. So, what might be different in 2068-9?

Let me begin to answer this question by stating what won’t be different. A high-volume, mostly low-intensity approach will still rule, because it simply cannot be improved upon. The only real alternatives—training less and doing everything fast—have been tried and they don’t work as well.

When making any kind of prediction about the future, the tendency is to assume that science and technology will be the main drivers of change. This could well be the case with respect to endurance training. For example, imagine a technology that dramatically accelerates recovery from training stress and thereby increases overall training tolerance (so that athletes can train even more). Earlier this year I tested a product that is supposed to do exactly this by sending energy impulses into the body. Does it work? Probably not. But it’s entirely possible that something along these lines that doeswork will come along.

As a coach, I’m especially hopeful that advances in science and technology will enable both coaches and athletes make better decisions about how to individualize, plan, and adjust training. Some experts anticipate improved genetic testing to revolutionize training program individualization, but I’m not among them. Genes  tell us surprisingly little about what works best for an individual athlete. A much better picture is provided by starting an athlete off with a program that is based on what works best for athletes generally and then customizing and adjusting it based on ongoing measurements of how the athlete is doing. Already it’s possible to do this quite effectively by simply paying attention to performance in key workouts and how the athlete is feeling. But there’s certainly room for improvement.

For example, through proteomics, coaches and athletes might be able to determine when an athlete is heading for a setback and take measures to avoid it. More immediately, products like PWR Lab are using a similar approach (ongoing collection of vast amounts of relevant data) to predict when injuries are likely occur so that these can be minimized.

On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that the most impactful innovation in endurance training methods will be low-tech, albeit informed by science. These types of advances tend to come out of left field. In 1968, nobody imagined that intentionally depriving the body of carbohydrates before and during select workouts would be a best practice. Who’s to say that sleep-deprivation training (doing select workouts after skipping a night of sleep) won’t be a thing in 1968, having been found to upregulate certain genes related to mental fatigue resistance? Or perhaps endurance athletes will sometimes perform heavy deadlifts in place of active or passive recoveries between high-intensity intervals. And don’t rule out the possibility that elite runners will do some or all of their runs wearing weight vests of gradually decreasing weight over the course of a training cycle.

Unlikely, I know. If I had to wager on the endurance training innovation that is most likely to gain traction at the elite level within the next 50 years, I would put my money on some form of brain training. Specific contenders including zapping the brain with electromagnetic energy before hard workouts, performing mental exercises during certain workouts, and doing similar exercises at rest, between workouts.

May we all live long enough to find out!

Imagine you are completely sedentary and you have been for some time. Then one day you decide to train for a 10K running event. The specific training method you choose is Yoga—30 minutes a day, six days a week. To assess the effectiveness of this program, you actually do a 10K beforeyou start on it and then repeat the race eight weeks later. On this second occasion, you cover the distance more than five minutes faster than you did the first time.

When you tell a runner friend about your success, she says, “Yoga? That’s a terrible way to train for a 10K!”

“Obviously not,” You retort. “Did you miss the part about me lowering my time by more than five minutes?”

As absurd as this hypothetical scenario is (absurd but not unrealistic–a previously sedentary person who did a ton of Yoga would substantially lower his or her 10K time), I see athletes commit the same logical error in slightly less absurd ways all the time. It just doesn’t seem to cross the minds of some athletes that there’s a difference between effective and optimal. I’ll give you three concrete examples of methods that typically yield some improvement for the athletes who adopt them but not as much improvement as they would give from adopting proven best practices.

HIIT-Focused Training

In 2013, fitness writer Christopher Solomon wrote a feature article for Outside on his experience of training for a marathon with the CrossFit Endurance method, which relies heavily on high-intensity interval training. Having run a 3:45 marathon five years before, Solomon set a goal of running 3:20 after 13 weeks of CFE training and wound up completing his target event in 3:39.

“Did CFE deliver?” he wrote. “Yes, mostly.” . . . “Would I use CFE to train for my next race? Yes, mostly.”

When I read this article I felt a powerful urge to contact Solomon and offer to train him for his next marathon with the 80/20 method that I favor. It was obvious to me that Solomon had committed the mistake of conflating effective with optimal method and I was quite certain he could get much better results from adopting the endurance training method that has been proven both in the real world and in controlled scientific studies to yield better results than any alternative: 80/20.

The reason athletes often do improve when they switch from their current training approach (which, for the typical recreational endurance athlete, consists of spending 50 to 60 percent of total training time at low intensity, 40 to 50 percent at moderate intensity, and 0 to 5 percent at high intensity) to a HIIT-focused method is twofold. First, this shift often corrects, at least partially, the common and costly problem of getting stuck in the so-called moderate intensity rut. Second, athletes who are stuck in the moderate-intensity rut typically do little to no training at truly high intensities, which are beneficial and which HIIT-focused training methods require.

But again, just because athletes often improve a bit when they try a HIIT-focused training program doesn’t mean they wouldn’t improve more on an 80/20 program. This was demonstrated in a 2014 study conducted by researchers at Salzburg University, who found that athletes who trained in the moderate-intensity rut for nine weeks saw their performance in a time-to-exhaustion test improve by 6.2 percent, whereas athletes who did HIIT-focused training for an equal period improved by 8.8 percent in the same test, and those who did nine weeks of approximately 80/20 training improved by a whopping 17.4 percent—almost double the amount that the HIIT group did.

Low-Carb Diets

It is my belief, based on my observations, that a majority of endurance athletes who adopt very low-carb diets have a bad experience and soon abandon them. But some report getting good results, and many who do wrongly interpret these results as proof that low-carb diets are best for every endurance athlete, or at least for them individually.

In the typical success case, the athlete who goes low-carb loses a substantial amount of weight and achieves a nominal to modest improvement in performance. These anecdotal reports are backed up by some formal studies, including a 2017 study out of Middle Tennessee State University in which eight middle-aged, recreationally competitive male runners lost an average of 5.5 pounds and lowered their 5K times by an average of 2 percent after three weeks on a low-carb diet.

Why isn’t this proof that low-carb diets are best? Leaving aside the fact that this particular study lacked a control group, a runner who loses 5.5 pounds by any reasonable means should lower his 5K time by substantially more than 2 percent. The fact that these runners did not indicates that some negative effect of the low-carb diet partially counteracted the performance benefit of losing weight. Other research indicates this negative effect is impaired exercise economy.

If a low-carb diet was the only way to lose weight, it might still be the best diet for endurance athletes. But it’s not the only way to lose weight. Athletes can enjoy the advantages of both weight loss and adequate carbohydrate intake simply by reducing their intake of low-quality carbohydrate sources (e.g., refined grains) and other low-quality food types (e.g., foods with added fats) and continuing to eat high-quality carb sources (e.g., starchy vegetables). This high-quality, carbohydrate-centered approach to eating for endurance is what the pros do and is, in fact, the best diet for virtually all endurance athletes.

Meathead-Style Strength Training

Recently I created a custom training plan for a client who had a background in personal training but had recently gotten really into running and wanted me to help him achieve a sub-three-hour marathon. Unsurprisingly, his existing strength-training routine relied heavily on exercises such as bench presses and dumbbell shoulder presses that are counterproductive for runners and was utterly lacking in single-leg exercises, balance work, and exercises targeting small but important stabilizing muscles such as the hip external rotators. When I suggested to my client that he modify his strength workouts to make them better resemble those that elite runners do, he pushed back, saying he had good reason to believe he was benefitting from the workouts he was doing.


Now, I will admit that it’s hard to prove that the strength-training methodology practiced almost universally among elite runners today is optimal and that alternatives such as bodybuilding-style strength-training and CrossFit are suboptimal (it’s very tricky to execute a study that would do the job), but I’m confident these things are true. A runner who replaces bench presses and the like with more functional options will lose excess upper-body muscle mass and thereby lower the energy cost of running at any given pace. And a runner who strengthens important but neglected stabilizing muscles will be rewarded with a boost in running economy and reduced injury risk.

No recreational endurance athlete should feel obligated to do things the most effective way. If you want to do HIIT-focused training because it’s fun or adopt a low-carb diet because it’s trendy or lift weights like a bodybuilder because you like how it makes you like with your shirt off, be my guest. But if you want to realize your full potential as an endurance athlete, understand that there’s a difference between effective and optimal and keep this distinction in mind when making decisions about how to train and eat.

Lieutenant Commander Spock is one of the most iconic nonhuman (well, technically half-human) characters in television history. When I watched Star Trek as a child, my understanding was that Spock’s lack of emotion made him really smart. I’m not sure if this was Gene Roddenberry’s actual intent in creating the character, but regardless, my impressionable young mind’s exposure to him left me with the idea that emotion is the enemy of reason.

As an adult, I learned that the truth—at least for humans—is more complex. It was the work of neuroscientist and author Antonio Damasio in particular that cured me of the fallacy I’d absorbed from Spock. The reality is that a brilliant mathematician would be incapable of solving complex problems if he didn’t feel unsettled while the problem remained unsolved and didn’t experience a burst of  euphoria (“Eureka!”) when at last he solved it. People who lose their capacity to emote as the result of brain damage also lose the ability to think logically, because it turns out human beings can’t think logically if they can’t feel sadness, joy, and all the rest.

Be that as it may, in everyday life emotion gets in the way of rational decision-making all the time. I see this particularly with athletes. Consider, for example, a runner in his 40s who refuses to do a certain kind of workout because he can’t hit the times he used to hit when he did it in his 30s. Doing the workout anyway would help him run to the best of his current ability nevertheless, and on some level he knows this, yet still he refuses to do it.

As an athlete myself, I try to be vigilant in my efforts to avoid making similar mistakes, but I don’t always succeed. Here’s a recent example: I was in Rhode Island, visiting my parents, and I had an 18-mile run on my schedule. My brother Josh was also in town and planned to run 10 miles on the same day. So I decided to start ahead of him and run eight miles alone, then finish up with him. At the time I was recovering from a groin injury that was more sensitive to pace than to distance, and during the first part of the run I got a little frisky, running a 7:17 mile that aggravated the injury.

I should have bailed out right there, but I don’t get many opportunities to run with my brother, so I forged ahead, rationalizing my emotional decision by telling myself that it wouldn’t be a problem because Josh runs a lot slower than I do. Trouble was, Josh had gotten a lot fitter since the last time I ran with him, and he was joining me with fresh legs and some excitement of his own about running with me. And so, those last 10 miles were only slightly slower than the first eight and my groin became more and more painful as we went. Six weeks later, I’m still recovering from this boneheaded misstep.

One group of athletes that does a really good job of putting reason ahead of emotion in the decision-making process is the professionals. If you haven’t spent a lot of time around elite endurance athletes, you might assume that the biggest difference between them and the rest of us, psychologically, is that they are more driven, perhaps also tougher. But I have spent a great deal of time with the pros, and based on this experience I believe that the biggest difference is that the pros have better judgment. You might say they are better able to channel their inner Spock.

Just the other day I saw an Instagram post from Northern Arizona Elite coach Ben Rosario that speaks to this point. The post shared a bit of the backstory behind NAZ Elite runner Stephanie Bruce’s decision to run the California International Marathon (which doubled as the 2018 U.S. Marathon Championship) just four weeks after racing the New York City Marathon, a gamble that paid off in the form of a second-place finish and a new PR of 2:29:21. Recalling the moment Steph proposed this gamble, Ben wrote, “My initial reaction was that she was thinking emotionally, rather than rationally. She assured me that was not the case, however, and laid out her reasoning in a very calm manner.”

Ben didn’t get into the details of the case Steph made, but I can make some educated guesses. She probably noted that, since the 2018 season was essentially over either way, it didn’t much matter if she thrashed herself a bit in Sacramento, as she had the whole winter to regenerate and build a fresh base. She may also have noted that it didn’t much matter either if she raced poorly in Sacramento, as she’d had a great season and wouldn’t weaken her professional stock by laying an egg in a situation where she would have every excuse for so doing.

After the decision to go forward was made, coach and athlete continued to make smart, rational decisions. “We took a week totally off after NYC,” Ben wrote, “followed by a week of very easy running. Then we did 4 workouts in the 2 weeks leading up to CIM.” In other words, the Ben and Steph did not compound their gamble by taking an aggressive approach to training.

Avoiding irrational, emotion-based decisions as an athlete is easier if, like Stephanie Bruce, you have a coach. If you’re self-coached, making good decisions will require that cultivate your inner Spock—an internal voice of reason that plays the same role that a coach would play on your behalf if you did have one. This works best if, when you step into this role, you regard the athlete-you as a different person, someone whose best interests you have at heart but who has more at stake than you do. When I perform this exercise, I sometimes pretend the athlete-me is a character in a book I’m reading, a protagonist I’m rooting for but with a degree of detachment.

Have you ever been in a bad relationship that everyone close to you knew was bad and yet it took you forever to see the truth for yourself? This happens to almost everyone, because it’s harder to see things as they are and to think and behave rationally with respect to your own life than with respect to other people’s. That’s why cultivating an internal Spock is an effective way to make decisions as an athlete.

It’s a long process, though. Achieving the same level of judgment the pros have will require that you train yourself to take a mental step back from your situation each and every time an impactful decision is to be made, such as “Do I rest this sore foot or go ahead with today’s scheduled run?” or “Do I race that half marathon three weeks before my marathon or bunker down and train instead?” You’ll have to do this again and again and again before it becomes instinctual and you consistently make decisions that subjugate emotion to reason. But you won’t regret the effort.


Recently in this space I wrote about a study in which French researchers looked for associations between “psychosocial factors” and the likelihood of failing to complete a 140-km ultramarathon. My focus then was the finding that runners who scored high on measures of self-efficacy were more likely to reach the finish line. What I did not mention is that another factor, “intention to finish,” was determined to be an equally strong predictor of actually finishing.

At first blush this finding seems almost laughably uninformative—almost tautological. Who the hell starts a 140-km ultramarathon without intending to finish it? But the truth is that there are degrees of determination to finish, and it is an important fact that those athletes who bring the highest degree of determination into a race are most likely to see it through. As my brother Josh told me on the eve of the 2017 Modesto Marathon, “I don’t care how ugly it gets tomorrow—I’m going to finish that f—ing marathon.” That, folks, is intention to finish! (And, yes, it did get ugly, but yes, he finished.)

Every athlete depends on two things to complete a race or achieve some other race goal: his or her effort (controllable) and luck (not controllable). It goes without saying that all the determination in the world won’t enable an athlete to finish a race if he goes down halfway through it with hyperthermia or a broken ankle. But some athletes rely on luck more than others do, often without realizing it. A runner who wants to finish a race but who stops short of saying, “I don’t care how ugly it gets—I’m going to f—ing finish!” is counting on things to go more or less his way during the race, and will drop out if his luck is too poor. By contrast, a runner who is maximally determined to finish accepts in advance that things might not go his way and has decided in advance that he will finish regardless (unless his poor luck takes the form of force majeure—hyperthermia, a broken ankle, etc).

What we’re talking about here, essentially, is a no-excuses mindset. An athlete who adopts this mindset says not “I will achieve my goal unless [fill in the blank]” but “I will achieve my goal no matter what.” Now, the athlete could very well be wrong, falling short of her goal for any of a number of reasons. But that’s not the point; the point is that an athlete who takes a no-excuses attitude into training and competition is more likely to achieve her goal.

To the athlete who is not accustomed to it, the no-excuses mindset seems scary. After all, no excuses means no one and nothing to blame but yourself. But in fact the no-excuses mindset is very freeing. When you’ve truly embraced it, everything just kind of rolls off you. An old shoulder injury flares up in the thick of your triathlon training? No biggie. Just swim with one arm for a while. Heat wave hits during your peak training period for an early fall marathon? Fine. Do it anyway, albeit a little slower and a lot less comfortably.

To embrace the no-excuses mindset is to be tough on yourself, but not in a brainless, macho way. Nothing is more reassuring than believing in your own strength, trusting in your ability to figure it out, whatever “it” may be. In banning excuses from your thoughts you are treating yourself as a strong individual who can figure it out, and it’s actually quite a pleasant place to be.

Can I persuade you to make 2019 your Year of No Excuses? I’ve already made the commitment, and I’d love it if you joined me. My big goal for the year is to qualify for the Ironman World Championship at Ironman Santa Rosa on May 11. To give you a sense of what my no-excuses approach looks like with respect to this goal, I will share an anecdote.

A couple of weekends ago I did a long bike ride with a local friend, Keith, and about an hour into it we got to talking about my goal.

“How many Kona slots are available in your age group?” Keith asked.

“I don’t even know,” I told him. “All I know is that the guy who won the men’s 45-49 category last year went 9:29.”

“I figure there has to be at least three,” Keith mused.

“Honestly, I don’t even care,” I said. “I’m focusing on myself, acting as if there’s only one slot and it’ll take something close to 9:29 to claim it. I want to get as fit as possible and try to beat everyone. I figure if I do that, the rest will take care of itself.”

No excuses!

On October 3, 2018, published an article titled, “Galen Rupp: American Record Could Go Down in Chicago.” In its ninth paragraph, after providing some background on the existing American record for the marathon and Rupp’s buildup to the 2018 Chicago Marathon, writer Sarah Lorge Butler hedged, “To be clear, Rupp says, he’d rather win in Chicago than run a record and lose.” When I read the article, I thought nothing of this remark, accepting Rupp’s attitude as a given in a top professional distance runner, not to mention the defending champion of the Chicago Marathon. But at the bottom of the page I discovered a reader comment that made my mouth fall open: “He would rather win in a slow time then [sic] get the American record and lose? Seems like he has his priorities backwards.”

Prior to October 3, 2018, I had wondered often whether professional running and amateur running were even the same sport. This comment, insofar as it is representative of amateur thinking, confirmed for me that, in fact, they are not.

Imagine a basketball star saying before an important game, “As long as I score the most points, I don’t care if the team loses.” You can’t, can you? And that’s because everyone knows that the fundamental point of a basketball game is to win! Why should running be any different?

What many amateur runners fail to consider is that before the advent of modern timekeeping, all running races were very small—limited to a handful of participants, and often just two (match races). Mass participation made no sense in the days before races were timed. If you did not have a legitimate chance of winning, there was absolutely no point in lining up. But timed mass-participation running events been around have long enough now that runners who are too slow to win and thus care only about their times have forgotten that nothing has changed for those runners who do have a legitimate chance to win competitions like the Chicago Marathon. The point of racing remains to win.

There’s nothing wrong with running for time. The pros care too, albeit secondarily, and as an amateur runner myself, racing for time is mainly what I do. But what isa problem is that, because professional runners and amateur runners operate in separate bubbles, the latter don’t learn much from the former and consequently rely on inferior methods in their pursuit of improvement. While the typical elite runner does 80 percent of her training at low intensity, eats a high-carb diet, and does functional strength training, the typical amateur runner does 50 percent of his training at moderate intensity, eats a low-carb diet, and either doesn’t strength train or does CrossFit.

As an endurance sports coach, nutritionist, and writer, I consider it my mission to bring elite practices to the masses, because they work better than the alternatives, whether you’re fast or slow, and whether you race to win or race for time. That’s my one and only shtick. This is why I’m so jazzed about Ben Rosario and Scott Fauble’s new book, Inside a Marathon. Ben is the coach of the Northern Arizona Elite professional running team, Scott one of its members, and their book offers a fascinating peek behind the veil that divides our sport’s elite and recreational chambers. It weaves together the journals that coach and athlete kept separately while Scott trained for the 2018 New York City Marathon, where Scott finished seventh (second American) in a PR time of 2:12:28. It also includes detailed training logs and superb color photos taken by Ben’s wife, Jen.

It works on every level. You can read it as a story, experiencing the highs and lows Ben and Scott experience as they work together toward the big climax. But you can also read it from your perspective as a self-interested runner who doesn’t give a crap how Scott fares in the Big Apple and cares only your own running. What you’ll see when you do is that preparing for and executing a successful marathon at the sport’s highest level is really one big exercise in problem solving, and the key to success is making good decisions all along the way.

One of my favorite chapters is Chapter 18, titled “Two Beaten Down, Exhausted Skeletons.” It deals with a point in Scott’s training when he is riding the fine line of overtraining. Halfway through a workout that is not going well, Ben pulls Scott aside and suggests he bail out. Scott protests, and after an honest and open exchange between the two men, they compromise. Scott does the next part of the workout and then calls it a day, skipping the last part. They both feel good about the decision and the ensuing days and weeks validate it as the right call.

This stuff is pure gold—a living example to all runners striving to “solve the problem” of getting faster. If you’re looking for a good running-related book to read, you can do no better than Inside a Marathon. It will not only entertain you but also influence you, so that a year from now you may find yourself doing the very same sport the pros do.

Order your copy of Inside a Marathon here.

I came home from my time with the Northern Arizona Elite professional running team last summer convinced that every serious athlete should carve out a little time each day for what I will loosely classify as physical therapy. I’m talking about foam rolling, mobility exercises, and other activities that help put the musculoskeletal system in balance, keep it healthy, and improve functional movement capacity. Very few athletes do this stuff with any consistently, nor did I before my fake pro runner experience. But my whole purpose in going there was to do everything the real pros do, including daily physical therapy, and I believe it made a significant contribution to the improvement I experienced in those 13 weeks.

I get it: We’re all busy. None of us has enough time for everything. Physical therapy seems like more of a luxury than a necessity. Plus, it’s not the sort of thing you can manage entirely on your own. You need to be taught what to do, as each body has distinct needs. The temptation to skip PT in favor of flossing your teeth is great, but I think it’s a mistake.

I speak as someone who has made this mistake even after he knew better. After returning home to California last October, I started slacking on the PT work I’d done so religiously in Flagstaff. Then I transitioned back into triathlon training, and soon afterward my body fell apart. Realizing my dream of qualifying for the Ironman World Championship at Ironman Santa Rosa next May might depend on it, I visited Revolutions in Fitness, an athlete-oriented physical therapy outfit and Palo Alto, and put myself in the hands of PT Meghan Taff, who gave me some new exercises to mix in with the old.

The total time commitment required by these exercises is small. Some of them have been inserted into the twice-weekly strength workouts I was doing. These include some unloaded movements intended to reconnect my brain with my lower trapezius and rhomboid muscles, whose dormancy, according to Meghan, is negatively affecting my swim stroke. Others I do as mobilizers before workouts. Specifically, I do some foaming rolling to open up my chest and mobilize my thoracic spine and ankles before I swim and some band work to open up my hips before rides and runs. The rest I bang out at night while winding down before bed. This takes about six or seven minutes.

I’ve been on this new regimen for less than three weeks and already I am noticing a difference. For example, my calf muscles no longer cramp when I swim, as they used to nearly every time I got in the pool. I credit the ankle mobilizations Meghan taught me for this improvement. I’m telling you, folks, this stuff is worth the commitment!

The hardest part is getting started. That’s because, as mentioned, the specific exercises you do need to match your needs, and also because many of these exercises are rather esoteric and/or require special equipment. For example, I do a couple of foot-strengthening exercises that require the use of toe separators. So it’s best that you begin by making an appointment for a functional movement assessment with a good local PT like Meghan who really knows athletes. There are some decent quasi-do-it-yourself alternatives to this, however. One example is the Saucony Stride Lap app.

As chance would have it, a writer friend of mine contacted me the other day asking if I could contribute a good runner-specific New Year’s Resolution idea for an article she’s working on. Guess what I told her.

Every endurance athlete is familiar with the idea that certain physiological tests can be used to predict endurance performance. For example, the classic VO2max test is a very reliable way to assess how well an athlete is likely to do in a race or time trial. Other examples are the Wingate test and a simple maximal velocity test.

Increasingly, though, scientists are recognizing that certain psychological tests are also strong predictors of endurance performance potential. Collectively, recent studies in this hot area of research are showing that the mind is not merely a passenger in races and tough workouts but an active contributor to performance. Among the mental attributes that have been positively linked to endurance performance are pain tolerance, emotional intelligence, self-efficacy and inhibitory control. Let’s take a closer look at each.

Pain Tolerance

Scientific evidence that a high tolerance for physical pain aids endurance performance goes all the way back to 1981. That year, in the British Medical Journal, Stirling University psychologists Karel Gisbers and Vivien Scott reported finding that pain tolerance was higher in elite swimmers than in club swimmers and higher in club swimmers than in noncompetitive swimmers.

Fortunately, pain tolerance is trainable. Gisbers and Scott found that pain tolerance increased in their subjects over the course of a season. And in a 2017 study, British researchers found that whereas a high-intensity training program and a moderate-intensity training program increase aerobic fitness equally in a population of healthy nonathletes, the high-intensity program increased cycling time trial performance by a greater amount, an advantage that was linked to a larger increase in pain tolerance.

Emotional Intelligence

According to Psychology Today, “emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others.” Like all human traits, this one exists on a spectrum. Some people have low emotional intelligence, others high, while most fall somewhere in the middle. Psychologists use standardized tests to assess the emotional intelligence, and the results are highly correlated with real-life outcomes. Studies have shown, for example, that men and women who test high for EI tend to be more successful in their careers and are less likely to get divorced.

And guess what? A recent study by Italian researchersfound that emotional intelligence was highly predictive of half-marathon performance in a group of 237 recreational runners. In fact, EI scores were more closely correlated with finish times than training variables were. It makes sense, right? Endurance racing presents an intense emotional challenge. It’s only to be expected that athletes who are well able to identify and manage their emotions will race more successfully.


Self-efficacy is a general belief in one’s ability to achieve goals. Whereas all of us tend to have a high degree of task-specific self-efficacy for things we’re good at, some people have an above-average belief in their capacity to achieve all kinds of goals, and according to a new study by French researchers, these individuals make better endurance athletes.

The subjects were 221 participants in an ultramarathon. Before the race, they all “completed a survey that included measures of: (a) motivational variables (self-determined motivation, basic needs satisfaction, achievement goals), (b) theory of planned behavior constructs (attitudes, subjective norms, self-efficacy and intention to finish the race), and (c) coping strategies in sport.” After the race, the researchers found that the runners who scored highest for self-efficacy were least like to drop out.

Inhibitory Control

Psychologists use the term inhibitory controlto denote the ability to override impulses and stay focused on a goal. Inhibitory control comes into play anytime you want two or more contradictory things simultaneously and have to choose which one you want more. During races, athletes experience a conflict between the desire to reach the finish line as quickly as possible and the desire to spare themselves the discomfort that comes with pushing for maximum performance.

And guess who else scores well on these tests? High-performing endurance athletes. In a 2015 study, Italian researchers found that faster runners significantly outperformed slower runners in a standard test of inhibitory control, and the following year a different team of researchers reported a similar finding in cyclists.

Want to be a better endurance athlete? Work on your pain tolerance, emotional intelligence, self-efficacy, and inhibitory control. And, oh yeah, your VO2max.

My 2010 book RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel includes a chapter titled “Winging It” in which I advocate—for experienced athletes only—the practice of training without a formal plan. I don’t go as far as to recommend that athletes completely make up their training as they go along. Rather, I suggest they establish certain parameters based on accepted best practices and their individual training history and then fill in the details as they go along, based on where their body is at the moment.

This is exactly the approach I’m taking to preparing for Ironman Santa Rosa 2019. I have an implicit understanding of the path I intend to take over the next six months, but I do not have a single session scripted in advance on my Final Surge calendar. I am fully aware that this approach is not one a majority of athletes could pursue successfully, but I’m confident in it for myself because I’ve been doing it for years, albeit mostly in running.

A number of years ago—in fact, around the same time RUN was published—I profiled professional triathlete Meredith Kessler for Triathlete. I spent a day with her in San Francisco, and over dinner she told me something I’ve never forgotten: “I can drop in an Ironman at any time of the year if I want to. I’m even-keeled the whole year. I don’t have an off-season. I don’t really even taper. It never feels up or down. When [coach] Matt [Dixon] tells me, ‘You have a 10-day block,’ I look at it and say, ‘That looks like the same thing I just did.’”

It’s not the only way to train for Ironmans, but Kessler’s always-ready method really worked for her, and I’m adopting a version of it in my current preparations. Even though my race is more than half a year away, I’ve done three 100-mile bike rides in the past six weeks. The idea is to make the Ironman distances seem ho-hum, something I can do comfortably any day I please.

The one bit of structure that is absolutely vital if you’re going to make a good go of always-ready, winging-it Ironman training is a sensible weekly workout routine, or microcycle format. The one I’m using is actually two weeks in length, and it looks like this:

Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun







+ Transition Run



Intervals or Tempo



Hills, Intervals, or Tempo


+ Transition Run






Long Ride


+ Transition Run



Long Run



Intervals or Tempo

Strength Swim


Tempo or Intervals

Strength Swim




Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun




+ Transition Run



Intervals or Tempo



Hills, Intervals, or Tempo


+ Transition Run



Medium Long





+ Transition Run



Medium-Long Bike + Medium-Long Run

Easy Ride, Easy Run, or Rest


Intervals or Tempo

Strength Swim


Tempo or Intervals

Strength Swim



You’ll see that a two-week microcycle is necessary for me because I wish to bike every other day and run on alternate days, such that I bike four times and run three times and bike three times and four times in alternate weeks. A two-week microcycle is also required by my preference to do a long bike ride and a long run every other weekend and a long bike-run brick in place of separate long rides and runs on alternate weekends.

Another salient feature of this schedule is that I do a transition run after every single bike ride. I see this practice as a powerful and efficient way to boost triathlon-specific running fitness. I haven’t actually begun to put this practice into effect yet because I’ve been hobbled by a groin issue that affects my running and because it’s early, but I’ll start soon.

Of course, I won’t do exactly the same workouts in every microcycle. You can’t get fitter by doing the same thing over and over and I’m currently far from the fitness level I plan to be at next May. My cycling volume is already fairly high, but my swimming and running volume are not and will have to increase significantly in the months ahead. My moderate- and high-intensity sessions in all three disciplines will also get a lot harder. It probably goes without saying that approximately 20 percent of my swim, bike, and run training will be done at these intensities!

I’ll probably peak somewhere around 9,000 yards of swimming, 200 miles of cycling (in four-ride weeks), and 50 miles of running (in four-run weeks) per week. Not super-high volume, but as a highly experienced, older, injury-prone athlete, I neither need nor can tolerate super-high volume.

So, that’s the plan.

“Hard fun.”

In my opinion, this two-word phrase constitutes the ideal description of an endurance training program that’s really working.

As a coach, I can’t think of anything I would rather hear an athlete say in response to the question, “How would you describe your experience of the current training segment?” than “Hard fun.”

Why? Because an endurance training program must be both hard and fun to be optimally effective, and if it is both hard and fun, there is nothing more that it should also be.

The job of any endurance training program is to improve your fitness by the maximum amount possible within a certain span of time. An endurance training program can’t fulfill this objective unless it features a number of workouts that test your current limits and an overall workload that does the same. And a training program that does these things will be experienced as hard.

At the same time, though, emotions are important in shaping the outcome of the training process. Numerous studies have shown that the more an exerciser enjoys an exercise program, the more likely he or she is to stick with it. By logical extension, the more an athlete enjoys a training program, the more he or she will put into it and get out of it.

Obviously, there’s a chicken-and-egg factor to consider. When the training process is going well (i.e., producing good outcomes), an athlete will tend to enjoy it for that very reason. But, without question, it works the other way around as well—that is, when an athlete is enjoying the training process for reasons that have nothing to do with outcomes, the outcomes will tend to be better. To my knowledge, this has not yet been shown experimentally, but studies have shown that people tend to work harder and perform better in individual workouts they enjoy more.

How hard a training program seems to an athlete is largely a function of what’s known as physical loading, or the volume and intensity of the workload the athlete is subjected to. How fun a training program seems to an athlete is largely a function of what French exercise physiologist Bertrand Baron refers to as affective loading, or the balance of enjoyable and unpleasant emotions experienced in the training process. Factors such as an attractive environment and compatible teammates can make any given pattern of physical loading more enjoyable for an athlete, reducing affective load and improving outcomes. But it’s also important for coaches to consider the affective effects of physical loading itself when prescribing training.

Specifically, training should be prescribed in such a way as to ensure that the athlete feels good most of the time—not all the time, to be sure, but most of the time. And throughout the training process, training should be adjusted based on the athlete’s emotional response to what’s been prescribed. If this sounds rather touchy-feely and unscientific, know that a 2015 review by Australian researchers found that athletes’ subjective ratings of their well-being were better indicators of their training status than were objective measures such as heart rate and blood markers.

The take-home message? To get the best results from your endurance training, make sure the process is hard, but never so hard that it isn’t fun. At the same time, make sure the process is fun, but never so fun that it isn’t hard.

The lactate threshold gets so much attention in endurance sports that, despite its esoteric name, most athletes who have passed beyond the newbie stage are familiar with it. The term “lactate threshold” refers, of course, to the exercise intensity at which lactate, an intermediate product of aerobic metabolism, begins to accumulate in the bloodstream because the muscles are producing it faster than they can use it.

Simple enough. But when you drill down into the concept of the lactate threshold, things get messy. The first wrinkle is that there are numerous ways of defining the lactate threshold. Among them: the exercise intensity at which the blood lactate concentration reaches 4 mmol/L, the exercise intensity at which the blood lactate concentration begins to increase exponentially, and the exercise intensity at which the rate of blood lactate concentration’s rate of increase is greatest. No single definition of lactate threshold is inherently more valid than the others, and when they are applied to the results of a single lactate threshold test, they set the LT at slightly different levels.

A second wrinkle is that, even when you settle on a particular definition of lactate threshold, the specific testing protocol used to determine an individual athlete’s LT will affect the results. For example, an LT test with 4-minutes stages is likely to yield a slightly different result than an LT test with 2-minute stages.

A third wrinkle is that, because the lactate threshold is a metabolic event, it is affected by a variety of factors other than an individual athlete’s current fitness level, such as diet. If you do an LT test after a day of low-carbohydrate eating, you’ll get a different result than you will from an LT test done the day after high-carbohydrate eating.

Then there’s the question of the LT’s practical relevance. Contrary to pervasive beliefs in the endurance sports community, there is no sudden leap in the rate of fatigue when the lactate threshold exceeded. Athletes can sustain speeds/power outputs slightly above LT almost as long as they can sustain speed/power outputs slightly below LT. Nor is training precisely at LT uniquely beneficial. Training slightly above or slightly below this level produces pretty much the same results.

The ventilatory threshold is a different story. It is defined is the exercise intensity at which the breathing rate begins to increase at a faster rate than it does at lower intensities. The reason this happens is that the brain is required to begin to recruit large numbers of fast-twitch muscle fibers in order to meet the desired level of work output. This makes exercising even slightly above the VT is significantly more stressful to the nervous system than exercising even slightly below it. Consequently, training above the VT generates more fatigue and takes longer to recover from.

Research has consistently shown that endurance athletes at all levels gain the most fitness when they do about 80 percent of their training below the ventilatory threshold. Although supra-VT training is important and beneficial, athletes just can’t handle very much of it, whereas sub-VT training is so much gentler on the nervous system that athletes can handle a whole lot of it and must do a whole lot of it to realize its full benefits. The single most important thing you can do to keep your training on track is to know where your personal ventilatory threshold lies and is this knowledge to stay below it about 80 percent of the time.

Now, you might be wondering: If the ventilatory threshold is so much more reliable and important than the lactate threshold, why are our 80/20 training intensity zones based on lactate threshold? The short answer is “tradition.” The LT and the VT are measured in completely different ways. Direct measurement of the LT requires taking of small blood samples throughout an exercise test, whereas direct measurement of the VT is done through a method known as spiroergometry, which entails collecting and analyzing exhaled gases during exercise. It so happens that the LT was first identified in 1930 and the VT almost three decades later, in 1959. Having gotten a big head start, LT testing has remained the preferred method of quantifying moderate exercise intensity, despite its limitations. Hence, all of the commonly used field tests for establishing individual training intensity zones, including those that the 80/20 scale relies on, are designed to determine LT, not VT.

Because there is a mathematically consistent relationship between the two thresholds, however, LT tests can be used to determine VT as well, and this is precisely what the 80/20 zone scheme is set up to do. A new study conducted by Spanish researchers and published in Frontiers in Physiology found that, in a group of 22 trained male runners, the ventilatory threshold consistently fell slightly below the lactate threshold (actually the maximal lactate steady state, in this case) in terms speed, heart rate, and perceived effort, as shown in the table below (Note that MAS = Maximum Aerobic Speed, VT1 = Ventilatory Threshold, MLSS = Maximal Lactate Steady State, HRmax= Maximum Heart Rate, and VT2= Second Ventilatory Threshold, which is the exercise intensity at which hyperventilation occurs).

On the 80/20 intensity scale, the lactate threshold corresponds to the top end of Zone 3, which puts the ventilatory threshold in Zone X, which, in turn, ensures that when you train in Zones 1 and Zone 2—as you will do about 80 percent of the time when you follow one of our 80/20 training plans—you are at low intensity.

Having said all of this, I will also say I am hopeful that one day soon we will be able to develop a complementary alternative intensity scale that is anchored directly to ventilatory threshold testing. Currently I am trying out a wearable device that is capable of measuring the VT through accelerometer technology, specifically by measuring the rate and degree of lung expansion and contraction. Bending to tradition, though, the makers of this device are currently using the device’s VT estimates to determine LT. I’d like to talk them into providing users with their VT value instead, or additionally. Stay tuned.

Ever since my book How Bad Do You Want It? was published in 2015 I’ve received a steady drip of emails from struggling high school runners, and occasionally also from their coaches and parents. Last week I got one from a runner who was frustrated by a seemingly inexplicable cessation of improvement. He couldn’t understand it. He had trained hard all summer, pushed himself daily in-season, set massive goals, taken every race very seriously, and so on.

From my perspective, this young man was answering his own question. Pushing hard all the time on every level is not a formula for sustainable improvement. Athletes are human beings, and no matter how passionate we might be about our sport, we need some kind of balance to avoid stagnation and burnout.

“Macro pacing” is my term for the practice of husbanding one’s emotional energy in ways that best serve the interests of the athlete as a human being. I think I’ve gotten pretty good at it over the years, having developed a reliable intuitive sense of when to go all-in on training and racing and when to step back and prioritize other things. Recognizing the need for this ebb and flow and not trying to resist it are big reasons, I believe, that I am still in love with endurance athletics more than 25 years into the journey.

Currently I’m at an interesting, transitional time in my macro pacing. Last year was my very best as an athlete. Never before have I invested more of myself in sport. The timing was good. Injuries kept me from doing a single race in 2013. In the latter half of 2014, my body started to come around. Through patient persistence, I was able to continue the upward trend throughout 2015 and 2016. That’s when I decided to basically give my life over to sport the following year, which I did by traveling across America in the spring, completing eight marathons in eight weeks, and spending the summer and early fall in Flagstaff, training with a team of professional runners.

Both were incredible experiences, and hard to let go of, but I was wise enough to know that it would be foolish of me to try to keep the momentum going. Another injury ensured that 2018 was a fallow year, but I haven’t really minded being injured because I needed to chill anyway.

Not forever, though. For many years I have wanted to get back into triathlon, and specifically to race another Ironman. In late June, endeavoring to turn my inability to run into an opportunity, I started swimming and biking. Not long afterward, I signed up for Ironman Santa Rosa 2019, which takes place in May, and went public with my intention of trying to qualify for the Ironman World Championship.

Since then, folks following my training log on Final Surge have probably been scratching their heads, thinking, ‘If this guy wants to make it to Kona, he’d better start getting serious.’

I get it. My swim training has been minimal. I’ve been doing all of my cycling on a road bike with no power meter. And, until fairly recently, all of my run training wasn’t running at all but steep uphill treadmill walking. But despite appearances, I know what I’m doing, and that’s pacing myself. Macro pacing.

There’s a reason I signed up for a qualifier that was 10 months away at the time. I had a few major hurdles to clear before it made sense to go all-in with this new quest. My plan was to take a patient, measured approach to the initial phase of my preparation, until I was past those barriers, and then hit the gas. My swim training has been minimalist because I wanted to rediscover the technique I found and lost back in 2003 before I started logging a lot of yardage, as with swimming I believe in the old adage, “Practice makes permanent.” I didn’t buy a triathlon bike or a power meter because I had to identify and address the cause of a chronic cycling-related right knee issue before it made sense to spend the required money. And I walked uphill on the treadmill instead of running because I needed to give my tendonitis-afflicted left hip abductor an opportunity to fully purge itself of inflammation and damage before I could confidently begin to rebuild my running fitness.

I’ll be honest: my Kona quest hasn’t been much fun so far. I hate swimming when I’m not swimming well, I’d much rather have a slick tri bike to ride, and walking on a treadmill is really boring compared to running outdoors. But this early phase of my quest would have been even less fun if I had forced myself to do more despite the various hurdles I’ve faced.

And now things are looking up. Recently I experienced a surprise breakthrough in my swimming, which was the ironic result of a minor shoulder injury that forced me to limit my pool workouts to kick sets for a couple of weeks. Somehow this practice brought about the improved freestyle body position that I’d been previously unable to achieve by other means, and just like that I’m taking two fewer strokes per 25 yards. A combination of taping and wearing a stabilizing brace has enabled me to complete a couple of 100-mile bike rides with manageable levels of knee pain. While I don’t consider this a permanent solution, it’s buying me the time I need to find that solution, which I expect to find in the bike fitting I get at Revolutions in Fitness in Palo Alto less than two weeks from now. And at last I’m running again—16 pain-free miles last weekend!

Very soon now, a mental shift will occur in me. I’ll be all-in for Ironman, enthusiastic, a little obsessed, and enjoying the process, and I’ll have macro pacing to thank for it.

The fall marathon season is upon us, and you know what that means: Thousands upon thousands of runners will hit the wall before they reach the finish line, slowing down precipitously over the final miles of the race and consequently falling short of their goals. But you don’t have to be one of them! A good pacing strategy will reduce the likelihood that you experience this all-too-common phenomenon in your next (or first) tilt with the 26-mile, 385-five yard footrace.

The purpose of this post is to help you take a solid pacing strategy into your fall marathon. It will do so by means of a simple analogy involving the long-running television game show, “The Price Is Right.”

Thought that would get your attention.

So, here it is: As anyone who has watched “The Price Is Right” knows, the competitive bidding that occurs between contestants at the initial selection stage, again at the wheel-spinning stage, and in the showcase round follows a set of rules similar to those that apply in blackjack. If you’ve ever played blackjack, you know that the idea is to accumulate cards whose combined number value comes closest to 21 (that is, closer than the dealer’s hand as well as those of and anyone else playing) without exceeding it. Similarly, on “The Price Is Right,” you win by bidding closest to the actual value of the prize or prize package before you (or by getting closest to $1 through wheel spins) without exceeding it.

In both situations, it is possible, though unlikely, to win despite significantly underbidding, whereas overbidding is automatic death. Therefore a somewhat conservative playing strategy is required.

Marathon pacing is very much the same. Although every (serious) marathoner wants to finish the race in the least time possible, you’re more likely to get closer to that ideal number if you err on the side of caution in your pacing. All too many runners make the mistake of either aiming for a time they are more than 50 percent confident but less than 100 percent confident they can achieve and/or of trying to “bank” time—that is, run slightly ahead of their goal pace—in the first part of the race so that they have a buffer in case they slow down in the later miles.

The problem with this aggressive approach to marathon pacing is that, when you run the first part of a marathon even slightly faster than the fastest pace, you are truly capable of sustaining for 26.2 miles, you do indeed gain seconds in the early going, but you lose whole minutesin the late going. They call it the wall for a reason. As in blackjack and on “The Price Is Right,” “overbidding” in a marathon is death.

In shorter events, the cost of starting out too hard is rarely so extreme. If you run 5 seconds per kilometer faster than you should through the first 5K of a 10K, you may slow down by only, say, 3, 6, 6, 9, and 11 seconds over the last 5 kilometers, finishing 10 seconds behind the time you might have achieved with better pacing. But in a marathon, even a tiny excess of optimism in your goal setting or execution is likely to cause exponential, rather than mere geometric, slowing in the late going.

I know this from experience. In each of my first two marathons, I was way too aggressive and ended up walking. Scarred but smarter, I went into my third marathon with the goal of finishing under 2:46, and I was right on pace through 24 miles. But I had been too aggressive by about a fraction of a percent, and I ended up running the last mile of the race a full minute slower than the previous mile and crossed the line at 2:46:42. I guess I wasn’t that much smarter after all! If I had started the race just a wee bit slower, I might have sped up toward the end instead of slowing down and thereby scared that 2:46 barrier.

There is no test, device, or calculator you can use to establish the perfect marathon time/pace goal and ensure perfect execution. You just have to rely on your subjective experience and on data from past marathons and your recent training to make the smartest “bid” possible. The specific question you want to ask yourself is this: “What is the fastest pace that I am 100 percent certain I can sustain for 26.2 miles on X date on Y course in Z conditions?”

If you answer this question well, you will start the race at a pace that may indeed be the fastest you can sustain for 26.2 miles. And if it isn’t, it will be slower, not faster. And guess what? It’s not the end of the world if you get 16 miles into a marathon and realize you’ve been running more conservatively than necessary. At that point you’ve still got 10-plus miles left to leave everything you have left out on the racecourse. Do this and you will walk away from the finish line knowing you completed the marathon in a time that is very close to the fastest you were physically capable of achieving that day. What is he end of the world is the opposite scenario, where you get 16 miles into the race and realize you’ve been running too aggressively. No correction can save your day at that point.

So, the next time you’re establishing and executing a pacing plan for a marathon, do it as though you are bidding on a showcase prize package that includes a brand-new SUV, a four-night vacation to Bermuda, a set of golf clubs, and free groceries for one whole year.

A few months back, the following tweet from triathlon legend Dave Scott caught my eye:

It always amazes me how folks fear a new paradigm for sports nutrition. Unless you own a sugar-based nutrition company, why WOULDN’T you experiment w/ #LCHF It works when implemented properly … even at high intensities.

I’m not sure whether Dave meant this question rhetorically (after all, there’s no question mark), but I took it literally and personally. As a competitive endurance athlete who takes seriously the role of diet in endurance performance, I had to ask: why haven’t experimented with a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet?

The answer, I decided, could be distilled to a single word: risk. I believe that switching from my current way of eating to LCHF would carry an unacceptably high risk of causing problems. For me, a better question than the one Dave asked is, why would I experiment with LCHF? My current diet does not limit my athletics in any way that I can identify. When I train harder I get fitter and when I rest I recover. I feel good physically pretty much all day every day. At age 47 I am as lean as I was when I was 27. If it ain’t broke, as they say. . .

Meanwhile, on the other side of the equation are a host of negatives outcomes, some guaranteed, others likely, that are associated with jumping onto the LCHF bandwagon. Nearly all athletes who do so feel like crap initially and experience a significant decline in training capacity and performance. Some come out the other side eventually, others don’t. The diet is extremely restrictive and monotonous and socially isolating. (“Hey, Brad! Do you want to come out to dinner with us? We’re going to that Italian place.” “Uh, well, you see. . .”) And the physiology is inescapable: Eating LCHF will make your muscles better at burning fat and much worse at burning carbohydrate, hence more dependent on fat, which requires greater amounts of oxygen to metabolize, thereby increasing the energy cost of moving at any given speed.

Those are the guaranteed outcomes. The potential outcomes that seem to affect some but not all LCHF eaters include unfavorable changes in blood lipids, mood disturbances, vertigo, skin problems, caffeine intolerance, and panic attacks. The long-term health effects of eating in this extremely unbalanced way are largely unknown, but a recent, large epidemiological study found that, on average, men and women who get less than 40 percent of their daily calories from carbs die four years younger than do those who get between 40 and 70 percent of their calories from carbs.

Elite endurance athletes don’t shy away from this diet because they are afraid of news things. To the contrary, no group is more eager to gain a competitive advantage through early adoption of new methods. Instead, the vast majority of pros choose to keep their diet carb-centered because, with their livelihood depending on their performance, they can’t afford to try “new” things with such an obviously poor risk-reward ratio as LCHF.

A recent case study indicates they are wise to do so. For a period of 32 weeks, a professional triathlete who switched from his normal, lacto-ovo vegetarian diet to LCHF was monitored by Spanish exercise physiologist Iñigo Mujika. Within the final third of this period, the athlete raced three times, finishing 18thin a half-Ironman with his worst time ever for that distance, then finishing 14thin a full Ironman with his second-worst time ever for thatdistance, and then DNF’ing his next race. Having had enough of LCHF by this point, the athlete went back to his normal diet. Just five weeks later he took second place in an Ironman.

This case study challenges several tenets of the LCHF doctrine. One of these is the notion that only athletes who, as Dave Scott suggested, fail to implement the diet properly fail to benefit from it. But Mujika’s subject was an experienced and knowledgeable professional athlete with all the attending resources and scientific support. Mujika reported 95 percent compliance with the diet’s strictures across the 32-week period. LCHF advocates also like to explain away the disasters that so commonly befall athletes who try it by claiming they didn’t give it enough time. I’m sorry—if 32 weeks isn’t long enough, then forever isn’t long enough.

The primary reason this particular athlete switched to LCHF was that he suffered from debilitating GI issues during races, and it is another popular tenet of the diet’s doctrine that it cures these issues. The subject of the case study experienced no improvement in GI symptoms during races on LCHF. This shouldn’t surprise anyone, as the two main causes of GI distress during long endurance events are the stress of the events themselves and a genetically-rooted susceptibility, neither of which can be changed by any diet.

Here is where LCHF advocates predictably say, “But this is just a case study. We’re talking about one athlete!” The problem with this objection is that each of us is one athlete with only one body to care for and limited opportunities to compete each year. If LCHF works best for 90 percent of athletes, it is remarkably unlucky that the athlete chosen for this case study was among the few for whom it doesn’t work. Is this the assumption you want to make as an athlete who cares most about your fitness and performance? I think it’s far more reasonable to see this case study as yet more firm evidence that LCHF is risky.

This was not intended to be another one of my rants against LCHF for endurance athletes. The point I want to make in referencing it is that, although this way of eating does appear to work okay for some athletes, it is high0risk. So are a lot of other diets and nutritional measures that endurance athletes try in pursuit of better performance. Reflecting on Dave Scott’s tweet caused me to realize that the approach to endurance nutrition that I advocate is really a risk-minimization approach.

If you adopt and follow the five habits of the Endurance Diet, you will not and, indeed, cannotgo off the rails in the way that so many LCHF athletes, plant-based athletes, and other athletes who choose unbalanced diets of one kind or another do. To refresh you memory, these habits are:


Consistently including all of the major food types in your diet minimizes your risk of being taken down by one of the nutritional holes that open up when things like meat/fish and grains are eliminated.


This habit is about centering the diet on unprocessed, natural food types (e.g., nonfried vegetables) and limiting intake of processed foods (e.g., refined grains). Many LCHF eaters pay no attention to quality, loading up on processed animal products such as cured meats and mayonnaise that have proven negative health consequences.


It’s just a fact: The safest place to start with your macronutrient balance, if you’re an endurance athlete, is carb-centered, which simply means including high-quality carbohydrate-rich foods in most meals and snacks. Lots of LCHF eaters claim they switched to this way of eating because a carbohydrate-centered diet didn’t work for them. This claim never stands up to scrutiny. It was sweetsand refined grainsthat didn’t work for them, not carbs in general. I’ve never dealt with an athlete who couldn’t make a carb-centered diet work for him or her by combining it with Habit #5 (below).


This habit is about relying on the body’s built-in appetite signals to regulate the amount of food you eat instead of counting calories. In my experience, calorie-counters are at much greater risk of eating too little, which is far more detrimental to endurance performance than eating too much.


Most extreme diets are one-size-fits-all. The Endurance Diet is not, and this is another way in which it manages risk. Do grains generally not agree with you? Fine. Then practice Habit #3 (“eat carb-centered”) by getting most of your carbs from fruit and starchy vegetables. Forcing yourself to eat exactly like every other follower of whichever named diet you choose to follow brings with it great risk of forcing yourself to do something that doesn’t work for you individually.

Woven into these five habits are two further principles that also serve to minimize risk in eating for endurance. Framed as edicts, they are (1) Keep things as simple as possible and (2) don’t change anything in your diet that you don’t both wantand needto change. The more unnecessarily complex you make your eating habits (e.g., intermittent fasting) and the more things you change (e.g., completely tossing out your current habits and going all-in with LCHF or some other unbalanced one-size-fits-all) diet, the likelier it is that you will create a health- or fitness-harming new problem that did not exist previously.

A certain amount of risk is inherent in endurance athletics. You have to train hard to attain peak fitness, and hard training brings with it the risk of injury and the risk of illness. Don’t let your diet compound these risks unnecessarily.

There’s no evidence that P. T. Barnum actually said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” But if he didn’t say it, he should have, because it’s true—there is a sucker born every minute.

I encounter suckers almost every day in the domain of endurance sports nutrition. Athletes come to me asking why they’ve lost not only weight but also fitness and performance on a ketogenic diet, what I think of intermittent fasting, which antioxidant supplement is best–suckers, all of them!

It’s tough to know whom to blame. On the one hand, I want to blame the suckers. After all, there was a time when I knew nothing about endurance nutrition, yet I never fell for any of the gimmicks being peddled to athletes in those days (we’re talking late 1990s). My instinct was always to take my cues from elite athletes and mainstream science, and both of these sources consistently led me to focus on maintaining a balanced, inclusive diet based on natural, unprocessed foods and to practice a few fine-tuning measures such as eating within an hour after completing big workouts.

Twenty years later, not much has changed. As I write these words, the whole world is talking about Eliud Kipchoge’s jaw-dropping marathon world record of 2:01:39. I can assure you that Kipchoge does not follow a ketogenic diet or practice intermittent fasting or take an antioxidant supplement.

Whenever I make this point, some clown counters that Eliud Kipchoge and his ilk are so genetically different from the rest of us and/or train so much more than the rest of us do that we can’t possibly use them as dietary role models. This is nonsense. The relatively few genes that distinguish elite talents from the masses have absolutely nothing to do with how food is digested and metabolized. And as for training, there is very solid evidence that athletes with average talent get the best results when they emulate elite training practices except at a different scale, so why shouldn’t the same be true of diet?

Anyway, a part of me wants to say that athletes should know better than to adopt diets and nutritional practices that are followed by cult-like athletic subcultures rather than world champions and supported by stories of biological plausibility rather than real science. On the other hand, I recognize that in our society athletes and nonathletes alike are systematically trained to reach for dietary gimmicks and magic bullets. So a lot of responsibility falls on the shoulders of those who try to make suckers out of us.

As one whose job is to help athletes perform better through better nutrition, I find it frustrating to know that if I wrote a book with a catchy shtick that either capitalized on or anticipated the next big fad, a book that made huge promises but was filled with bad information, hence sure to yield poor results for most people, I would make a lot more money than I would if I wrote a book that offered athletes solid, proven guidance on how best to eat for health, fitness, and performance. Most people don’t want the truth about diet—they want a miracle.

This is why I have mixed emotions concerning Marni Sumbal’s new book, Essential Sports Nutrition. On the one hand, I think it’s a good book—a credible, comprehensive primer on eating for fitness and performance. On the other hand, for this very reason, I fear that the endurance athlete market will, on the whole, pass it over in favor of The Keto Alternate-Day Starvation Breakthrough!

I knew that I was going to like Sumbal’s offering by Page 2, where I encountered the following paragraph:

Yet many athletes are misled to believe that there’s only one “right” way to eat. I often hear from my athletes that dairy is bad or that sugar is off-limits during competition season. Right now, the current sports nutrition trend is to restrict carbohydrate intake. I tell athletes that being mindful of what you eat is important, but adhering to only one set of sports nutrition principles is short-sighted. Applying a restrictive approach to sports nutrition often ignores long-term health and performance consequences—especially if the diet is seen as a “quick fix” to boost performance or change body composition. In this book, I take a more all-inclusive approach. I’ll give you practical nutrition strategies to help you enhance sports performance, fitness, and long-lasting health.

An on the very next page, this:

Eating should never cause anxiety, worry, or frustration.

Can I get an amen?

The book is divided into four sections. In the first, Sumbal provides a basic (for many, remedial) education on human nutrition. Part Two focuses on matters of nutrition timing, such as eating for post-exercise recovery. The next section comprises seven chapters aimed at special populations within the broader athlete community, such as children and those pursuing weight loss. Finally, Part Four presents recipes for pre-exercise, during exercise, post-exercise, and non-exercise days.

If you want to  avoid being the next endurance athlete suckered into adopting inferior nutritional practices, or if you’re tired of being suckered, read Essential Sports Nutrition. Shtick sells, but if you want to get faster, you need to know what’s true and do what works.

An interesting new study by researchers at the University of Western Australia investigated the effects of periodization in the training of runners. Periodization is the practice of sequencing workouts in such a way as to maximize fitness for a race of a particular distance on a specific future date. There are different philosophies and methods of periodization, among them traditional linear periodization, which emphasizes high-volume, low-intensity training in the early part of the training cycle and low-volume, high-intensity training in the latter part, and reverse linear periodization, which does the opposite. This new study, published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, compared the effects of these two approaches as well as unstructured, non-periodized training on fitness and performance.

Thirty recreational runners were separated into three groups. One group practiced linear periodization for 12 weeks, doing high-volume, low-intensity training for six weeks and then switching to low-volume, high-intensity training for six weeks. A second group did reverse, and a third group served as controls, continuing with their normal training routine for 12 weeks. All of the subjects completed a 5000-meter time trial before and again after the 12-week intervention. On average, members of the linear periodization improved their 5K time by 1:16, while members of the reverse linear periodization group saw a bump of 1:52 and controls barely budged, trimming a mere 3 seconds off the initial marks.

The difference between the linear and reverse linear groups’ gains was judged to be statistically insignificant, and so the researchers concluded, “These results do not support linear periodization or reverse linear periodization as a superior method; however, periodized training elicited greater improvements in endurance performance than nonperiodized training, highlighting the importance of planned training structure.”

This is not the only study to have found that the old adage, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat,” seems to apply to periodization in endurance training. Another was conducted by Stephen Seiler and his Norwegian colleagues and published in 2016. This experiment involved a subject pool of 63 cyclists who were also separated into three groups that periodized their high-intensity training in different ways over 12 weeks. One group started with longer intervals and moved toward shorter, faster intervals, a second group did the opposite, and a third group mixed them all together. All three groups improved by equal amounts, and the researchers concluded, “This study suggests that organizing different interval sessions in a specific periodized mesocycle order or in a mixed distribution during a 12-wk training period has little or no effect on training adaptation when the overall training load is the same.”

As surprising as these findings may be to some, they jibe with my experience as a coach. What I have observed is that the one thing a training program must do over the course of time is get harder. And it doesn’t much matter how it gets harder provided certain rules are respected—chief among them, limiting high-intensity work to no more than 20 percent of total training time and punctuating the process with occasional recovery days and weeks. The fundamental goal of training is to build fitness, and workload is the major driver of fitness development. Different combinations of volume, intensity, and workout structure can add up to the same workload, and if they do, their results will be more or less the same (again, if certain guardrails are respected). In the two studies I’ve described, workloads were held constant for the sake of fairly comparing different training sequences, and that’s why the disparate programs yielded similar results.

“But wait a minute,” you say. “In the first study, the two experimental groups improved equally, but they improved without increasing their training workload relative to the control group, which did not improve. So how can you say that increased workload is the alpha and omega of fitness development?”

Excellent point—but you’re forgetting my qualifiers. The vast majority of recreational runners do far less than the optimal 80 percent of their training at low intensity. Before the intervention, virtually all of the subjects in the Western Australia study were likely caught in the so-called moderate-intensity rut. Those subjects who went into both the linear periodization group and the reverse periodization group were given structured workouts with individualized target intensities based on testing—workouts that ensured they were at low intensity most of the time and at high intensity (versus moderate) most of the rest of the time. Meanwhile, members of the control group continued to train as normal, which is to say the continued to slog along in the moderate-intensity rut. And that’s why they didn’t improve, whereas the other groups did.

Once this problem has been fixed, though, the only way to build fitness is to work harder. Obviously, peak performance (which is distinct from peak fitness) requires that an athlete compete in a relatively rested state, which is why many studies have shown improved performance in athletes after a short period of reduced workload, and why a taper period is an essential final phase in the periodization process. But again, increased workload is the one major driver of increased fitness.

Does this mean I put little or no thought into how I sequence workouts in a training cycle, focusing entirely on making sure the training load increases (except during recovery weeks and the taper phase) and the 80/20 Rule is adhered to? It does not. The absence of scientific proof that periodization matters is not proof that it doesn’t matter. After all, there is virtually no scientific proof that high-volume training is optimal for building endurance fitness, and we know with absolute certainty from real-world evidence that it is. Although, as we’ve seen, the relevant science supports my real-world observation that the importance of periodization is widely overrated, I still think it matters a lot more than zero and I put a lot of thought into how I sequence workouts in designing training programs.

Specifically, I believe in the principle of training with ever-increasing race-specificity as the training cycle unfolds. If a runner came to me and asked me to train him to run the best mile he’s capable of, I would design a very different program from the one I would build for the same runner if he asked me to coach him to the best marathon he’s capable of. Both programs would feature a gradual, punctuated build in training load and would respect the 80/20 Rule, but one would get more and more mile-specific and the other more and more marathon-specific. And I don’t care what the science says, I know this runner would not run as fast a mile after following the marathon plan as he would after following the mile plan, nor run as fast a marathon after following the mile plan as he would after following the marathon plan!

Several years ago I got an idea for a book called A High-Mileage Manifesto. The title pretty much says it all: It was intended to be a hard sell for high-volume run training and an antidote to things like CrossFit Endurance and Run Less, Run Faster, which were leading so many athletes down the wrong path at the time.

I come up with a lot of book ideas that I never take beyond the conceptual stage, but this one was an exception. After a brief gestational period, I fully committed to making A High-Mileage Manifesto my next published book after The New Rules of Marathon and Half-Marathon Nutrition, sitting down and scribbling out a chapter outline and then writing a proposal and sample chapters to shop around to publishers. Soon, however, I got stuck. Something just wasn’t right, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. I was on the verge of scrapping the whole project when it hit me: I had it backwards. Instead of telling runners, “You need to run a lot, but in order to make that work, you’ll need to slow down,” what I really needed to tell them was, “You need to slow down, and if you do, one of the benefits you’ll discover is that you’re able to run more.” And thus A High-Mileage Manifesto became 80/20 Running.

The most successful runners run a lot andthey do most of their running at low intensity, but it’s the mostly-low-intensity part that has to come first. Once I got that straight in my head, the book practically wrote itself. This was no guarantee that its message would be well-received, but I’m happy to say it was. Since its 2014 publication, more than 50,000 copies of the print, electronic, and audio versions of 80/20 Running have been sold. Online versions of the plans in the book have also been hot sellers, and there are thriving 80/20 Running Facebook and Strava groups.

Very soon after the book’s release, I began to hear from triathletes expressing interest in a triathlon-specific spin on the 80/20 concept, which applies to all endurance disciplines. Although I recognized the value in a sequel, I was in no hurry to write it, as I had a backlog of other ideas (two of which became How Bad Do You Want It? and The Endurance Diet). In the end I decided that if I was ever going to satisfy triathlon fans of 80/20, I would need to enlist some help, so I asked David Warden, who had already developed a suite of online 80/20 triathlon training plans on my behalf, to coauthor 80/20 Triathlon with me.

There aren’t many people I can partner with successfully on any sort of writing project. I like to be in control, and I have high standards. But David was the perfect pick. He is disciplined and conscientious and has a sharp analytical mind, a great work ethic, and a wicked sense of humor. The last thing I wanted 80/20 Triathlon to be was a find-and-replace version of the original, with “running” substituted for “triathlon” and everything else the same. Thanks in large measure to David’s contributions, I got my wish. While the underlying philosophy is the same, of course, 80/20 Triathlon is a very different book, and I’m proud of it.

It’s been a long time since a seminal triathlon training book was published, and I truly believe 80/20 Triathlon can be just that. There are two reasons for this. One is that the 80/20 method really works, and works better than any other way of training for the sport. Beyond all the scientific proof, David and I know from experience that the 80/20 method is superior to every alternative because hundreds of triathletes have already put the method to the test with our online 80/20 Triathlon training plans, and almost every day we get feedback like the following from Cathy Berry, who recently used one of our plans to win the women’s 45-49 age group at Ironman UK:

“I can’t recommend Matt Fitzgerald’s 80/20 Triathlon training plans highly enough. I have qualified for the Ironman World Championships both times I have followed his plan. Like many triathletes, I juggle work, family, and training; and although I wasn’t always able to follow it religiously, by adopting the 80/20 training approach and the accompanying strength plans I was able to put in a great performance on race day.”

Here’s a breakdown of the contents of 80/20 Triathlon:


The book’s foreword was written by none other than Stephen Seiler, PhD, the discoverer of the 80/20 Rule of endurance training. We couldn’t have asked for a stronger validation of our offering!

Chapter 1: The Most Effective Way to Train

The 80/20 concept is introduced.

Chapter 2: Going Slower to Get Faster

We present eight common barriers to training the 80/20 way and explain how to overcome them.

Chapter 3: The Science of 80/20 Training

In this chapter David and I share some of the science demonstrating the superiority of the 80/20 approach to the various alternatives and explain why 80/20 works better.

Chapters 4-6

These three chapters get down to brass tacks, showing how to apply the 80/20 Rule to swim, bike, and run training.

Chapter 7: Strength, Flexibility, and Mobility Training

Although the 80/20 Rule does not apply to non-endurance training modalities, no triathlon training guide would be complete without a thorough treatment of strength, flexibility, and mobility training.

Chapter 8: Getting Started with 80/20 Training

This chapter walks the reader step by step through the process of creating a fully customized 80/20 triathlon training plan.

Chapters 9-13

Don’t feel like creating your own training plan? We’ve got you covered with these five chapters, which present a selection of 17 training plans for all race distances and fitness levels.

Chapter 14: Race Day

The book’s concluding chapter offers tips on triathlon pacing, or the art of getting from the start line to the finish line in the least amount of time possible.

Order your copy today!

Barnes & Noble


I deal with a lot of athletes—mainly women—who worry a lot about calories. In particular, they worry about eating too much. As athletes, they fear that eating too much will negatively affect their performance. But they also fret about how eating too much will affect their appearance. Most of these athletes fail to cognitively distinguish these consequences, practical and aesthetic, which in my view is the heart of their problem.

As an endurance coach who works remotely with athletes, I find it difficult at best and more often impossible to fix this problem. It seems to require skills and expertise that I lack. All I really know how to do is lay out the facts. Any athlete who truly understands and embraces the facts cannot continue to obsess about calories, but the embracing part has to come from within the athlete and often requires some deep internal work. As they say, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.

Here’s a fact: Not eating enough harms endurance performance more than eating too much does. As I wrote in a previous post on this blog:

Athletes who eat slightly more food than they need every day will tend to feel good and perform well in workouts because they have plenty of fuel available for them, and they will also tend to recover from and adapt well to training because the raw materials that these processes depend on also come from food. The only negative (aside from long-term health issues, which are themselves mitigated by high activity levels) is that they will show up at the start line a few pounds over their ideal racing weight.

In contrast, athletes who habitually eat too little are unlikely to even make it to the start line. Lacking the fuel they need for optimal workout performance and the raw materials they need for recovery and adaptation, they are at high risk of succumbing to overtraining fatigue or injury before race day comes around.

Obviously, maximizing endurance fitness and performance requires that you eat neither too much nor too little. But if you’re going to err, you’re better off erring on the side of eating too much.

Accepting and embracing this fact alone will not break an athlete of calorie fixation. The athlete must also be able to accept and embrace at least one of the following statements:

“My fitness and performance are more important to me than my appearance.”

“My fittest body is my most attractive body, even if it’s not my skinniest body.”

Overcoming persistent worries about eating too much requires a form-follows-function mind-set. You must believe that if you eat and train properly for maximum fitness and performance, your body will end up looking the way it ought to look.

But that’s only half the battle. It’s one thing to be committed to eating the right amount (and at all costs not undereating). It’s another thing to actually eat the right amount day after day after day. At first blush this may seem an almost impossible needle to thread on a consistent basis. Suppose that, through a combination of resting metabolism, exercise, and non-exercise activities, your body burns exactly  2,583 calories today. This, therefore is the exact number of calories you need to absorb from food to meet but not exceed your energy needs for the day. How the heck are you supposed to pull that off?

And yet, there are millions of endurance athletes who succeed in maintaining an optimal racing weight while also fueling themselves sufficiently to train and recover well over periods of weeks, months, and even years. What’s more, the athletes who do this most successfully spend very little time worrying about calories. It’s the ones who spend the most time worrying about calories who tend to miss the mark, either by chronically undereating or by pinballing between overeating and binging. I cannot emphasize this point enough: Worrying about calories is neither necessary nor useful with respect to the goal of eating enough without eating too much.

One reason it’s not necessary is that the human appetite control system works exceedingly well to guide each individual to the appropriate amount of food intake. If you think yours doesn’t work terribly well, it’s most likely because you eat a lot of processed calorie bombs that override that system or because you’ve been trained by society to ignore your body’s hunger and satiety signals. In either case, the problem is correctible. You will find it much easier to avoid overeating if you replace those processed calorie bombs with natural, whole foods, and research has proven that anyone can relearn how to perceive, interpret, and heed the body’s innate hunger and satiety signals through mindful practice.

Calorie counting can help to some degree, but not as much as you might think. It is next to impossible to accurately measure how many calories your body actually burns or how many calories your body actually absorbs from food in a given day. The main benefit of calorie counting is simply that it gets you to pay more attention to what and how much you’re eating, but there are less onerous ways to achieve the same objective.

I think a heuristic, habit-based approach works best. Start by eating in a way that ensures you’re taking in at least as much food energy as your body is burning. (Remember, if you are going to err, it’s best to err on the side of excess, especially if you are a caloriphobe with a history of undereating.) You’ll know you’re getting enough calories if you feel energetic during and between workouts and your weight is either stable or increasing.

If you think it’s likely that you are consuming more calories than you need on this routine, find little ways to cut back. You might, for example, eat 10 percent less oatmeal in the morning, dress your salads with a drizzle of oil, vinegar, and spices instead of ranch dressing, and impose a 7 pm “food curfew” on yourself. Whatever you do, the core idea here is to take only small measures so as to avoid leaping from overeating to undereating. If, after taking one or more such measures, you are still gaining weight or you have other evidence that you are in a state of excess, try something else, continuing this tweaking process until you have a set of eating habits that allow you to train and recover well and attain or maintain your optimal racing weight.

Note that you’ll probably want to have slightly different routines for rest days, light training days, or heavy training days, but don’t overthink the matter. If your eating habits are slightly more consistent from day to day than your training load, you’ll still end up in a state of balance at the end of the week.

The great thing about habits is that they do not require continual reinvention. Once you have a set of eating habits that matches up well with your training habits, just livethem. That’s what the most successful athletes do. There is no need to worry about calories ever again.

It is a proven fact that individual pain tolerance predicts endurance performance. Given two athletes with identical physical traits, the one with a higher pain tolerance will likely outperform the other in competition. It is also a proven fact that pain tolerance is trainable. Exposure to pain tends to increase pain tolerance.

The practical implication of these facts is that, if you want to race to the best of your ability, you need to expose yourself to high levels of suffering in training. There is, in other words, a place for incredibly painful workouts in the endurance training process. But it’s important not to go overboard with this type of training, for three reasons. One is that incredibly painful workouts are very stressful, so if you do them too often you will become overtrained and your fitness will decrease. Also, pain tolerance is only one of many contributors to endurance fitness, and many of the other contributors are best developed through other types of workouts. And finally, it’s hard to get yourself up for intense suffering very often, and dipping into that well too frequently can lead to mental burnout.

This is the problem with programs like CrossFit. The ethos of these programs requires participants to give 100 percent in every single workout. This is impossible, and so what most people end up doing is giving about 93 percent in every single workout and forgetting what it’s really like to give 100 percent. If you truly want the benefit of giving a 100 percent effort, you need to do it sparingly.

Endurance athletes are more likely to completely avoid incredibly painful workouts than to overdo them. The typical recreational runner or triathlete is perfectly willing to do really long workouts that become sort of painful near the end in a slow-burn way, but they fear and dodge esophagus-searing intervals done at or near VO2max intensity, cutdown hill repetitions ending at maximum effort, and the like. And when I talk about incredibly painful workouts, that’sthe sort of workout I’m referring to.

To be clear, even most high-intensity workouts shouldn’t be incredibly painful—just moderately painful to painful. Incredibly painful workouts are a special subcategory within the category of high-intensity workouts. It’s also important to keep in mind that the purpose of these sessions is not to destroy your body but to toughen your mind. There’s an infinite variety of incredibly painful workouts you can do, but to serve their intended purpose they must entail a relatively modest amount of total work so that their intensity is not watered down and they don’t destroy your body.

The shortest incredibly painful workout format I know of is the original Tabata. It consists of 10 times 20 seconds at maximum effort with 10-second passive rests between intervals: 200 seconds of pure misery packed into five total minutes. This session is best done on a stationary bike, but if you’re coordinated and daring you can do it on a treadmill set at a steep incline, moving your feet to the edges of the machine for the rest periods and leaping back onto the belt for the sprints.

The single most excruciating incredibly painful workout I’ve ever heard of people actually doing is a session of descending time trials that was once a favorite of the late English manager/coach Kim McDonald. Here’s how to do it: Visit your local running track and warm up thoroughly with at least a mile of easy jogging, dynamic stretches, and accelerations. Then run four laps around the track (1600 meters) as fast as you can. I don’t mean start at a dead sprint and hang on; I mean treat it as a 1600-meter race, where you aim to achieve the lowest finishing time possible. Rest passively as long as necessary to feel ready for more hard running, but no longer. Then run three laps (1200 meters) all-out, rest, run two laps (800 meters) all out, rest, and finish yourself off with a one-lap (400m) time trial.

You wouldn’t believe how fast some of McDonald’s runners were able to run this workout back in the day. Former 5000m American record holder Bob Kennedy, for example, once completed the four time trials in 3:56, 2:55, 1:55, and 54, and his training partner Daniel Komen, who still holds world records at two miles and 3000 meters indoors and outdoors, ran them even faster.

Obviously, you need to be quite fit to attempt such a session. But again, no matter how fit you are, it’s inadvisable to do more than two or three workouts this agonizing in a single training cycle. In my view, the very best time to do an incredibly painful workout is a couple of weeks before your first race in a while, when you are fit enough to really suffer but may have forgotten what it’s like to really suffer.

The conditions for this year’s Boston Marathon were famously brutal, claiming many victims among the race’s 27,000 participants. Among them was professional runner Kellyn Taylor, who dropped out at 20K with symptoms of hypothermia. In a tweet posted later that day, Kellyn wrote, “I wonder if I just wasn’t tough enough to weather the storm.”

I got to know Kellyn pretty well during the 13 weeks I spent training with her Northern Arizona Elite team last year, and based on this exposure I can assure you that her blunt self-criticism right was right in character. Toward the end of my stint in Flagstaff, Kellyn, who is training to become a firefighter, tweeted out the news that she had “failed miserably” in a standard firefighter physical fitness test, which requires participants to complete a series of tasks in three minutes or less. When I discussed Kellyn’s “miserable failure” with her during an easy run a couple of days later, I learned that she had missed the cutoff by just 12 seconds!

As you can see from these two examples, Kellyn Taylor is highly self-critical, but in my experience she is not unusually self-critical for a champion athlete. Indeed, self-criticism is part and parcel of the champion’s mindset—an essential part of the mental formula for success.

This is not to say that all self-criticism is good. As a form of self-talk, self-criticism can be symptomatic of two very different things: high personal standards and low self-esteem. I believe that too many athletes and coaches view all self-criticism as problematic and fail to properly distinguish low self-esteem and high personal standards.

Low self-esteem is a consequence of caring too much about what other people think—or what we think other people think. When we compare ourselves to those around us and decide we don’t measure up in important ways, we tend to develop a generalized sense of low self-worth that can hold us back in life in a myriad of ways.

I have a runner friend who struggles with low self-esteem. As much as she loves running, for a long time she refrained from investing herself more deeply in her pursuit of improvement because she felt that she somehow didn’t deserve it. Only when she fell in love with a guy who helped build her self-esteem did she break out of this pattern. With her boyfriend’s support, she cleaned up her diet, started foam rolling, and began to do various other little things that she hadn’t done previously because she felt she wasn’t good enough to bother, and her running took off.

But this isn’t an article about self-esteem. It’s an article about the far more overlooked matter of personal standards of character. In my view, there is no better way to feel good about yourself and to have a positive influence on other people than to hold yourself to high standards of character, and endurance sports offer a terrific forum for character development.

What do I mean by character? A grab bag of qualities including discipline, positivity, steadfastness, and courage that contribute to success in life. However much or little you possess of these qualities, their limits will be tested in the context of endurance training and racing, and it is precisely by testing the limits of our character that we strengthen it.

It doesn’t happen automatically, however. What is guaranteed is that endurance training and racing will expose our lack of discipline, positivity, steadfastness, courage, etc. What is not guaranteed is that we will admit these lacks and set about addressing them. This is where self-criticism comes in. If we’re not willing to admit to ourselves the character flaws that hold us back as athletes, these flaws will continue to hold us back.

Ironically, low self-esteem itself is an impediment to healthy self-criticism based on high personal standards of character. That’s because it takes a certain degree of confidence to tune out society’s judgments and be your own judge, grading yourself in areas that do matter (e.g., how steadfast you are) instead of things that don’t matter (e.g., how you look in a swimsuit). So, if you currently lack self-esteem, you may need to work on that before you turn your focus to character development.

In these matters I speak from personal experience. In my forthcoming memoir, Life Is a Marathon, I recount “the day I discovered I was a coward,” which was the day I intentionally missed the start of a 3200-meter track race during my junior year of high school because I feared the pain. I’m sure some people will read this and think I’m being too hard on myself. But I’m glad I called myself a coward, because calling myself a coward was the thing that spurred me to work on gaining courage, and consciously working on gaining courage was the thing that transformed me into the ballsy athlete I am today.

In summary, self-criticism grounded in high personal standards of character is an effective tool for improvement. The proof is everywhere. Let’s go back to Kellyn Taylor. In her next marathon after Boston, Kellyn claimed victory over a strong field and recorded a time (2:24:28) that only six other Americans have ever exceeded. And the next time she took the firefighter physical fitness test, she passed.

Quite often, athletes I coach ask me questions like, “Do you think I could qualify for Boston?” or “Am I kidding myself to think I might still be able to PR at my age?” My answer to these questions is always some version of the following: “You won’t hear me say you can’t. Obviously, we both know you’re not ready to do it today, but if that’s the long-term goal that motivates you, then it’s also my long-term goal for you. So let’s work toward it one step at a time.”

There are no fewer than five reasons I give this answer. Here they are:

  1. I can’t claim to know the limit of what’s possible for any given athlete.

Some things are obviously possible and others clearly impossible. I would consider it obviously possible for a runner who cranks out a 38-minute 10K after six months in the sport to eventually run a sub-three-hour marathon. I would consider it clearly impossible for a runner who, after five years of dedicated and intelligent training, has a 10K PR of 38 minutes to eventually run a sub-two-hour marathon. But any coach who thinks that he can accurately predict the exact limit of any given athlete’s performance potential is deluding himself. I am not such a coach. I know that I don’t know if any given athlete’s dream or “stretch goal” is beyond the limit of his or her capabilities, so I’m not going to claim to.

  1. I don’t see any intrinsic harm in setting impossible long-term goals.

What happens when a runner who is genetically incapable of ever achieving a Boston Marathon qualifying time for his or her age group sets a long-term goal to do just that? In my experience, the runner works really hard and consistently to improve and eventually becomes the best runner he or she can be without ever qualifying for Boston. In other words, setting impossible long-term goals is usually good for an athlete’s development, not bad.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that athletes should set impossible long-term goals. But any athlete whose underlying ambition is to realize 100% of his or her potential should at least set goals that sit at the lofty end of realistic, because that’s just how human motivation works.

Short-term goals are another matter. Athletes who set an impossible goal for their next race tend to overtrain and/or race too aggressively and end up performing beneath their current capacity. Short-term goals must be challenging but realistic.

  1. The most successful athletes believe they can do things everyone else believes they can’t.

I was visiting a certain elite endurance athlete in his home when I asked him for his wifi password. “It’s tokyo2020,” he told me. “Of course it is,” I said.

This episode is perfectly emblematic of how the most successful athletes approach long-term goal-setting. They shoot for the moon. And I do believe this pattern is causal, not merely correlative. In other words, shooting for the moon is part of what makes the most successful athletes successful. Why would I encourage the athletes I coach to do any different  merely because they happen to be less genetically gifted? It’s just a different moon they’re shooting for.

  1. I just don’t want to be that kind of coach.

But wait: What if I’m coaching an athlete who shares with me a long-term goal that I believe he or she has less than a one in a million chance of ever achieving? Shouldn’t I at least tell the athlete that?

Well, yes and no. I am willing to join an athlete in acknowledging that a particular dream or long-term goal is a long shot. This conversation can be helpful in steering an athlete toward a healthy process-focused orientation toward the sport and away from a poisonous dependency on outcomes. But as a general rule I try to spend as little time as possible being the cold voice of reason with respect to an athlete’s dreams and ambitions. There are plenty of other people in the lives of most athletes who are ready and willing to assume that rule. As a coach I just don’t want my athletes to associate me with the set of negative emotions one feels when hearing words like “can’t” and “never.”

  1. There’s no greater shame for a coach than to be called out by a former athlete who achieves something the coach said was impossible.

 This last one kind of speaks for itself. We all know examples of great athletes (and entertainers, entrepreneurs, scientists, etc.) who turn around and say “Ha! How ya like me now?” after achieving something that a former coach (or teacher or other mentor) said he or she would never do. I would just about die if this ever happened to me, and the best way I can think of to prevent it from ever happening to me is to never tell an athlete that something he or she wants to do is impossible!

I’m currently coaching a runner, we’ll call in Dylan, who’s training for the Berlin Marathon. Recently he asked me why I’ve had him run his recent marathon-pace efforts at 6:51 per mile (2:59 marathon pace) when he hopes and (more or less) expects to run closer to 2:50 in Berlin. His concern was that I judged his goal to be out of reach.

I assured Dylan that I do believe his goal is realistic, but that, for the most part, workout pace targets should be based on a runner’s current fitness, not on his goal time. Aiming for pace targets that are based on your goal is a bit like doing your workouts with another runner who’s a little fitter than you and trying consistently to keep up. Assuming the workouts this other runner is doing are appropriately challenging for him or her, then they are almost by definition too challenging for you. Sure, you may survive a few of them by treating them as quasi-races, but in the long run you’ll overcook yourself.

I then told Dylan a story that Ben Rosario told me when I was training under him in Flagstaff last summer. It came from Ben’s time as a member of the Brooks-Hanson team. In the leadup to the 2004 Olympic Trials Marathon, Ben and his teammate Trent Briney were in a small group of athletes aiming for the Olympic B standard of 2:18 (both Ben and Trent had marathon PR’s of 2:21 at the time). Training went especially well for Trent, and a few weeks before the race he asked coaches Keith and Kevin Hanson if he could move up to the 2:15 group, which included Clint Verran and Brian Sell. Feeling that Trent had earned it, the brothers approved the request. Trent’s training continued to go well and in Birmingham he shocked the running world by blasting a 2:12:34, finishing fourth.

Ben told me he was convinced that Trent would not have run this fast if he had trained for a 2:12 all along, nor perhaps even if he’d trained for a 2:15 from the beginning. It was because he was always chasing targets that were appropriate to where he was at each step that he scored his breakthrough. The reason he told me this story was that Ben intended to take the same approach with me during the 13 weeks I trained under him in Flagstaff. I willingly submitted to the plan, felt terrific through the entire process, and ran my own breakthrough marathon at the end of it.

So, that’s the principle: Train as the athlete you are today, not as the athlete you hope to be on race day. The devil, of course, is in the details. Putting this principle into practice requires that you have an accurate knowledge of your current fitness level on which to base workout pace targets. There are three general ways to gain this knowledge: experience, testing, and on-the-fly. They are not mutually exclusive.

Experience: If you’ve been running competitively for a while, you have at least a pretty good sense of where you are fitness-wise at all times. You can use this self-knowledge to estimate your current performance capacity and select appropriate workout pace targets. For example, suppose you’ve just come off a training cycle that culminated in a PR 3:27:43 marathon, taken a week off, spent two more weeks slowly easing back into training, and are now ready to begin ramping up for another marathon PR attempt. In this case, based on your knowledge of how much fitness you’ve given up in past scenarios of this type, you might estimate your current marathon performance capacity to be in the 3:42 range and base your initial workout pace targets on this estimate (using either my 80/20 Zone calculator or Greg McMillan’s Running Calculator).

Testing: Alternatively (or additionally), you can measure your current fitness level more formally by performing a time trial, going in for a lactate threshold test, getting a lactate threshold or VO2max estimate from a device such as a Garmin Forerunner, or racing. Bear in mind that it’s generally not a good idea to race too early in a new training cycle and that testing-based measurements become outdated as your fitness improves, so you will need a means of adjusting them that does not entail doing a race or time trial every weekend! To that end, keep reading.

On-the-fly: The on-the-fly method of setting workout pace targets consists of always doing workouts of a given time at the same effort level and allowing your numbers to slowly improve as you gain fitness. For example, early in a training cycle you might choose to target a pace of 6:56 per mile in a set of lactate threshold intervals based on either experience or testing. An appropriately designed and executed lactate threshold intervals session will feel “comfortably hard” and leave you tired but not exhausted. If you pay attention to your perception of workout and allow it to regulate your pace appropriately in all such workouts, you may automatically do the next workout of this kind in the cycle at 6:53 per mile, the next at 6:51, and so on.

Make sense?

The best teacher I ever had was a sociology professor at Haverford College named Mark Gould. I’ll never forget the first day of the first class I took with him. He basically spent 90 minutes scaring the shit out of the two-dozen 18- and 19-year-old students in the room. He handed out a syllabus featuring an impossible number of books we were supposed to read over the course of the semester. And none of them was Black Beauty. Rather, the included Georg Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit, Karl Marx’sCapital (Volume 1), Emile Durkheim’s Suicide, and the like. Gould told us that we did not know how to think and his job was to empty out all the crap inside our skulls and essentially restart our education from Square One. Eight students returned for the second session two days later.

Mission accomplished, as far as Gould was concerned. Knowing that not every Haverford freshman was teachable—or at least not teachable by him—he made a systematic effort to get rid of the young minds he’d only be wasting his time with before he actually wasted any time on them.

I do something similar as an endurance coach. In my experience, not every athlete is coachable—or coachable by me, anyway—so I engage in some pretty stiff upfront vetting to weed out potential clients I suspect I won’t be able to help.

I’ll give you an example. Not long ago I was contacted by a triathlete who was interested in hiring me to create a custom training plan for an upcoming Ironman. He told me that running was his weakness and he wanted a plan with high running volume, which he viewed as necessary to achieving his goal of breaking 10 hours.

Anytime a potential client tells me how to train him or her, I see a red flag. It’s a sign that the athlete thinks he has it pretty much figured out and will resist making changes I view as necessary to produce optimal results. In this case, I explained to my potential client that loading up on running miles is in fact not the most effective way to maximize Ironman run performance, and that getting really strong on the bike and doing a lot of running off the bike have a bigger impact. My intent was not to get rid of the guy but to let him know that if he wanted me to create a training plan for him, he would need to accept the program I deemed best given his strengths, weaknesses, and goals.

To my mild surprise, the athlete asked me to go ahead and send him the questionnaire that I use to gather the information I need to build a fully individualized program. When I got it back from him, I discovered additional problems. He specified that he wanted a 12-week plan that would begin immediately after he completed an Ironman 70.3 and would end on the date of his Ironman. Additionally, he expressed a desire to complete a number of “B” races (one or two sprints and an Olympic-distance event) within this span.

Pure insanity. This athlete was giving himself 11 weekends to build the endurance he would need to complete an Ironman in less than 10 hours. The first and last of these weekends could be tossed out as opportunities because he’d be recovering from his 70.3 in the first and tapering in the last. And if he did all three proposed “B” races, three more weekends would have to be eliminated, leaving him with six. The icing on the cake was that this athlete only rode his bike twice a week. He seriously thought that his best chance of crushing the marathon in his upcoming Ironman was to run 50 miles per week and cycle twice!

Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with not knowing what you’re doing as an athlete. That’s where coaches come in. But there is something wrong with not knowing what you’re doing and thinking you do. In my next email to this athlete I told him that I thought it was a bad idea for him to do any “B” races between his 70.3 and his Ironman. He never replied, convinced now that he knew better than me. But here’s what I know: that poor fellow is going to have a rough Ironman.

People hire coaches because they need help and they know it. They have goals that they believe they can achieve but are unable to achieve on their own. They know they need to do some things differently. And yet many athletes who reach out for help from coaches prove resistant to making changes. They are either set in their ways (“I refuse to run on pavement!”) or they don’t entirely trust their coach (“I don’t see how doing hard intervals is going to help me run a faster ultramarathon!”) or both. Such athletes are uncoachable—not completely uncoachable, usually, but uncoachable to a degree.

Hiring a coach is an act of humility. But to get the full benefit of working with a coach, you must commit an act of faith by allowing him or her to change things, even if some of the changes seem wrong to you. To do otherwise is to try to have it both ways, refusing the help you’ve admitted you need.

By no means am I suggesting that the coach-athlete relationship should be completely one-sided, with the coach allowing no input from the athlete and the athlete being completely submissive. Any good coach welcomes a degree of skepticism and pushback from athletes and is willing to accommodate their training preferences insofar as they don’t violate the coach’s principles. And yes, there are bad coaches out there who steer athletes in the wrong direction, but it’s the athlete’s responsibility to choose a good coach. Once you’ve made your choice, you need to let your coach do his job. Give him a chance, and if he does steer you in the wrong direction, then move on.

At a more general level, this advice applies also to self-coached runners. Don’t expect to get different results from doing the same training. Be open to the possibility that the reason you aren’t fully satisfied with how you’re performing in races is that one or more of you current training habits are badhabits. Accept that some of your current beliefs or assumptions about how to improve as an athlete are probably wrong.

Whether you have a coach or not, one of the keys to overcoming the obstacles that stand in the way of your improvement as an athlete is a willingness to learn and change. It’s important that you be prepared to let go of practices and ideas that are exposed as potential obstacles by outside experts who have a track record of helping athletes improve.

As an athlete myself, I understand how tempting it is sometimes to defy a coach’s guidance—and how risky. When I trained with Northern Arizona Elite last year, one thing I found strange about how Coach Ben Rosario managed the stable of professional runners training under him was that he really babied them after races, even short ones. When I travelled from Flagstaff to Portland to run a 5K midway through my marathon training cycle, I ignored Ben’s instruction to take the following day off and instead did an easy 12-miler. After all, he wasn’t there to stop me and I felt I knew better. Upon returning to Flagstaff, I suffered a serious injury during my first workout back with the team. Lesson learned.

Recently I tested a prototype of a wearable device that is intended to help runners monitor and control the intensity of their runs. During my back-and-forth email communications with the product’s lead developer, he sent me a link to a study titled “Intensity- and Duration-Based Options to Regulate Endurance Training.” The abstract began as follows: “The regulation of endurance training is usually based on the prescription of exercise intensity. Exercise duration, another important variable of training load, is rarely prescribed by individual measures and mostly set from experience.” Questioning the validity of experience as a guide to training prescriptions, the authors, a pair of Austrian exercise physiologists, went on to try to establish a more scientific method for determining how long individual athletes should train at different intensities.

The product developer who sent me the link was very approving of the Austrians’ approach. In his message to me he wrote, “When [this method is] paired with the individual’s aerobic and anaerobic threshold intensities, then a fairly complete training prescription can be applied to manage overall load and desired training outcome.” I was a bit more skeptical, replying, “Very interesting paper. So much of effective coaching is based in implicit knowledge and intuition. I think we’re very far away from coming up with a formula or set of formulas that can effectively substitute for these things, but as a coach I’m excited to see this line of research progress and further elucidate exactly what it is that the best coaches are getting right in their training prescriptions.”

I never heard from the product developer again. I believe he decided I was an idiot. If so, the feeling is mutual. Just kidding. He’s a very smart guy, but he comes from a mechanical engineering background, and like a lot of engineers he lacks a proper appreciation for complexity, and as a consequence of this lack he underestimates the power of experience and overestimates the power of theory-based predictions as a tool for solving real-world optimization problems such as endurance fitness development.

I use “complexity” not in the colloquial sense but in the scientific sense. According to Wikipedia (I know, I know), “A complex adaptive system is a system in which a perfect understanding of the individual parts does not always convey a perfect understanding of the whole system’s behavior.” Commonly cited examples of complex adaptive systems (CAS’s) are the human brain, developing embryos, and market economies. What all of these phenomena have in common is that even though they are ordered by relatively simple rules, it is virtually impossible to accurately predict their future states even if these rules are fully known and understood.

The inherent unpredictability of CAS’s presents a challenge for those who, for whatever reason, wish to anticipate or control their behavior. Although it seems reasonable to do so by studying the parts and rules that define the system, in practice this just doesn’t work. What works much better is trial and error, a reality that is very hard for engineers and others with a reductionistic mindset to swallow. And what’s even more galling for these folks is that a system really doesn’t have to be terribly complex for reductionism to fail.

Consider aircraft wing design. If you knew nothing about complexity, you might assume that the best way to design the most aerodynamic wing possible would be to use current knowledge of fluid dynamics to predict the design that is most aerodynamic, then build it, test it, and congratulate yourself on being right. In fact, the most aerodynamic aircraft wings in existence today were designed by trial and error because fluid dynamics—as simple as this phenomenon may be compared to an ecosystem—is too complex for reductionism to work.

To be clear, an airplane wing moving through air does not itself constitute a CAS, but it can be turned into one for the purpose of optimizing wing design. This is done through computer modeling. Engineers create simple programs that generate different designs quasi-randomly, test these designs in simulation, retain design facets that work better and discard facets that don’t work as well, then use this learning to produce a second “generation” of wings, and so on, until the process evolvesthe most aerodynamic wing possible. While humans are behind this process, they don’t really control it, and the designs they end up with are different from anything they could have come up with via the predictive method.

What does any of this have to do with endurance training? Heck, it has everythingto do with endurance training! The problem of optimizing an athlete’s training for endurance performance is very much like the problem of designing the most aerodynamic wing possible. The physiology of endurance performance is extremely complex; place this physiology in the context of a living human being with thoughts, feelings, and emotions and you have something even more complex; place this human being in the context of a life with variabilities in work burdens, family stress, health, weather, and so forth, and you have something far too complex to allow any formula to correctly predict the training that will optimize an individual athlete’s fitness for an upcoming race.

This is not to suggest that training program design is always necessarily a complete shot in the dark. What I am suggesting is that, because of all this complexity, effective training is much more a matter of heuristics (learning and adjusting as you go) than of making great predictions before the process even begins.

Returning to the aforementioned study, I actually like the basic idea that the authors proposed therein. I think their tool could be useful for getting each athlete started on the right foot in his or her training. But I would caution against making too much of this tool or any similar one. Using it would not stop all kinds of surprises from popping up as the training process unfolded, and therefore all kinds of adjustments would be still necessary—adjustments that the tool itself can’t help with.

Nor would the tool even be necessary for getting an athlete started on the right foot. This can be done just as effectively with much less scientific tools. As a coach, all I really need to know is the athlete’s best and/or most recent races times and some basic information about his or her training history. By combining this input with my experience, I can design a program that will yield fairly predictable results. But the real work of coaching begins when the surprises come and I am able to rely on my experience to make adjustments in response to both on accidents that may never recur and to things I learn about the individual athlete’s body and mind, whose influence is recurrent.

For example, I might start off giving a certain athlete two easy days after each weekly interval workout and one easy day after each weekly long run, only to discover that this particular athlete, unlike most, recovers more quickly from intervals than from long runs, in response to which I will adjust his or her schedule to better balance stress and rest for this individual. And here’s an even better example: Often I schedule particular workouts at particular times primarily for the sake of boosting confidence, and only secondarily for some physiological benefit. I’m convinced this practice is effective. Can a one-size-fits-all prescriptive formula based on general human physiology do this? I think not.

Perhaps there will come a day when a computer can coach endurance athletes more effectively than an experienced human coach. After all, computers are already better than humans at chess. But endurance training isn’t chess. With its capacity for implicit learning, the human mind is uniquely suited to the job of training endurance athletes. I understand why folks like the developer of the wearable device I mentioned at the beginning of this post scoff at intuition, which seems so squishy and subjective and non-rigorous to the engineer’s mind, but it is immensely powerful as a tool for real-world problem-solving.

I am reminded of these passages from my book, Run: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel:

Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking is essentially a book about intuition. In it, Gladwell mentions another book, called Sources of Power, by Gary Klein, which discusses how high-performing professionals in various fields rely on intuition to make good decisions. Gladwell tells a story he heard from Gary Klein about a firefighter who thought he had ESP because he often knew what was going to happen on the job before it happened. One night he and his men were battling a kitchen fire when he suddenly ordered everyone out of the house. He did not know why; he just did it. As soon as they had escaped the house, the floor they had been standing on collapsed. No wonder the firefighter thought he had ESP! But Gary Klein’s in-depth interview with the firefighter, in which he was asked to recall every last detail of the situation, revealed that the firefighter had subconsciously registered various cues that the source of the fire his company was trying to put out was not in the kitchen itself but in the basement beneath them. Through experience on the job he had learned the patterns of different types of fires. And on that night his unconscious seat of implicit learning was able to recognize the pattern of a basement fire and deliver to the firefighter’s consciousness an urgent, intuitive feeling that he and his men were in serious danger and must flee the home immediately.

This story gives us an idea about how we should make intuitive decisions to build confidence through training as runners. The fireman who saved himself and his men by acting on intuition was, of course, extensively trained in fighting fires and brought a system of firefighting techniques to bear in fighting each fire. Nevertheless, most of what he really knew about fighting fires was learned implicitly through experience on the job. This knowledge existed in his unconscious as a capacity to recognize certain patterns before his conscious faculties did, make predictions based on them, and signal these predictions to his consciousness in the form of gut feelings. Similarly, every runner must learn and apply the principles and methods of training that have evolved over many generations as best practices. There are specific ways of training that are generally more effective than others for all runners, just as there are more and less effective ways to fight fires. But each runner is unique, and every day in the life of a runner presents a novel challenge in the quest to improve. Only by learning through experience can the individual runner gain proficiency in customizing his application of the proven principles and methods of training and in making good predictions about how specific training decisions will affect his fitness development. And most of this learning is implicit, as it was with the firefighter in Gladwell’s book. The runner’s subconscious faculties are usually first to figure out what the runner should do next, and communicate their conclusions to consciousness as feelings and hunches.

This has turned into a really long post. Sorry about that. Anyway, I trust I’ve made my point. Enjoy the rest of your day!



Last week I received an email message from Dawn, a runner who had just purchased The Runner’s Diary, a book I authored back in 2008. Maybe “book” isn’t the right word. As the title suggests, it’s mainly just a training log, but it does offer some training and nutrition tips. Dawn told me that, although she loved “the feel” of the book, she was concerned about how old it was. The purpose of her message was to ask me if the information in it was still current.

The idea that certain training methods and nutritional beliefs become outdated is widespread in the running community. Many runners share Dawn’s concern about following training or nutritional guidance that isn’t “cutting-edge,” so I figured I would address the subject in this post.

It is an unquestionable fact that the phenomenon of obsolescence in training and nutrition practices is real. Scientists, coaches, and elite athletes have been known to come up with new methods that work better than those that are regarded at the time as best practices. However, the mere fact that a certain training method or dietary practice has been around for a long time does not automatically mean it has been improved upon. I suspect that the influence of technology on modern life has given many runners false expectations about the evolution of training and nutritional methods, and I think it’s important to correct this misapprehension because it causes many runners to adopt inferior methods simply because they are (or seem) new.

The next time you’re watching a television news program and you hear something like this—“Researchers believe they are five years away from being able to grow fully viable human organs in vitro,” or “Space engineers anticipate having the technology to execute a manned mission to Mars by the year 2025”—stop and think about it for a moment. Whether or not these specific predictions turn out to be accurate, what is certain is that we can count on technology to get better and better every year. There must be some final limit to innovation, but it’s nowhere in sight. Everyone living in first-world societies today has absolute confidence that the medical, transportation, communication and other technologies that represent the bleeding edge today will be outdated in the future.

It is this environment that causes runners to vaguely expect training and nutrition methods to do the same. But there’s a crucial difference between technological and endurance sports domains, which is that endurance methods operate on the human body, which is not a piece of technology. Although (contrary to what many people believe) our species does continue to evolve, it is a very slow process compared to advancements smartphone features and robotic surgery techniques. For this reason, the optimal methods of maximizing endurance performance cannot just keep getting better. Once the best ways to train and fuel the human body for distance racing have been discovered, it is impossible to improve upon them further until and unless the human body changes enough for different methods to become optimal.

For example, in the 1950s, New Zealand running coach Arthur Lydiard discovered that a training system combining very large amounts of low-intensity work with small amounts of high-intensity work was more effective than any training system that had been tried previously. In the 60-plus years that have passed since this discovery, no other innovator has come up with anything better, and none ever will. Hard limits such as the maximum stress tolerance of various organs and tissues guarantee this.

There’s a parallel situation on the diet side. In The Endurance Diet, I identify five dietary habits that are practiced almost universally by top endurance athletes all over the world. Framed as rules, they are 1) eat everything, 2) eating quality, 3) eat carb-centered, 4) eat enough, and 5) eat individually. The book includes an historical analysis that shows these habits were not universally practiced by elite endurance athletes of past generations. Rather, they spread in much the same way Lydiard’s training approach did as it became clear these habits were essential to the maximization of endurance fitness. And as much as certain fad diet fanatics wish to believe otherwise, these habits will never be replaced by superior innovations, because again, the human body is not a smartphone.

Let me also repeat, though, that small but important innovations in endurance training and nutritional methods continue to occur. Depletion workouts are one example. I encourage athletes at every level to take advantage of any and all such innovations that achieve substantial penetration in the elite echelon and solid scientific validation. Just don’t fall for fads that contradict current core best practices in training and nutrition merely because these fads are (or seem) newer.

Recently I was invited to comment on the standard breakfast menus of several top ultrarunners for an article published on the REI Co-op Journal. Most of the seven athletes who were represented consumed fairly standard high-carbohydrate fare such as oatmeal, cold cereal, and toast for their first meal of the day. The one exception was Jeff Browning, who maintains a low-carb diet and reported that he routinely breakfasts on eggs and bulletproof coffee.

Among the readers who commented on the article was a gentleman who noted that Browning was an outlier in a second sense also: at 46, he is many years older than the other six. The commenter suggest that, because of his age, maybe a high-carb diet doesn’t work for Jeff anymore.

I encounter this general notion—that older and younger athletes/humans have radically different dietary requirements—quite often. Earlier this year a publisher I’ve worked with in the past asked me to write a nutrition book for endurance athletes over 50. I declined, for the simple reason that I see little need for such a book, but obviously the publisher did.

To me, the notion that older and younger athletes/humans have radically different dietary requirements is yet another example of our society’s tendency to grossly overthink nutrition and diet, sacrificing common sense and pragmatism in favor of something that seems more sciency but succeeds only in overcomplicating nutrition and diet and compelling unnecessary changes. Think about it for a moment. Throughout most of history, in every human population on earth, it wasn’t even an option for men and women to change their diet when they got older. And this remains the case in most populations today. There is only one way to eat in these environments and everyone eats that way from weaning to death. They may eat a little less as their appetite decreases, and they may even eschew one or two particular foods that no longer agree with them, but they do not effect any sort of wholesale shift from one diet to another.

I’m aware that “Darwin’s dangerous idea” has been much abused in its popular applications to human diet. Nevertheless, I feel pretty confident in speculating that something humans have almost neverdone—change their diet when they get old—is not something that we have a hardwired biological need for. And indeed the is hard evidence I’m right about this.

For example, in1982, Jonathan Friedlaender and John Rhoads of Harvard University looked at patterns of change in weight and body composition among adults in six different populations in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea with different degrees of exposure to modern industrialized societies. The researchers found that men and women with the least such exposure tended to gain no weight and very little body fat throughout adulthood, whereas those with the most exposure gained significant amounts of weight and body fat.

In short, those islanders who continued to eat the natural, unprocessed diet they were raised on didn’t get fat after midlife. Only if you eat an unhealthy diet when you’re young does it become necessary to change to a different diet when you’re older, but that’s not because of age, it’s because of the diet. Eating “right” when you are young will not require you to eat differently when you’re older.

To be clear, I’m not denying the fact that the body changes over time or that some of these changes may require tweaks to one’s diet. But these changes and their impact on metabolism are greatly exaggerated in some quarters. Take menopause. There are some “experts” who encourage women to adopt a special post-menopause diet, basing this advice on the idea that the post-menopausal body is so different from the pre-menopausal body that the same diet that keeps a woman lean before 50 fattens her up after 50.

But a 2012 review found that menopause per se does not cause weight gain. The hormonal changes that define menopause docause fat storage to shift toward the abdomen, but the actual weight gain that occurs around menopause is caused by the same lifestyle factors that cause younger women and men of all ages to gain weight. Women who avoid these lifestyle factors (poor diet, overeating, and inactivity) tend not to gain weight after menopause. So the idea that the healthy diet that keeps a woman lean during her fertile years must be scrapped after the “change of life” is untrue.

I’ve worked with enough athletes individually on their diet to anticipate that at least one reader of this post is right now saying, “That’s not true–I gained weight after menopause!” I concede that it’s not at all uncommon for both men and women to discover that they gain weight more easily after a certain age, regardless of how they eat. The best way to counteract this phenomenon, however, is not to change the rules you eat by but rather to apply the same rules more strictly. I’ve never dealt with an athlete in this situation who did not have some slack in his or her diet that he or she once got away with and now can’t. Younger and older athletes alike can manage their weight effectively by maintaining high overall diet quality, managing their appetite, and timing their nutrition intake properly. Athletes who gain weight more easily than they used to simply have to do these same things a little more strictly than they did in the past.

Losing weight later in life is a somewhat different matter. This falls under the category of changing your diet so as to reclaim your body after screwing it up with poor diet choices when you were younger. But if you never really “let yourself go,” there will be no more need for you to radically transform your diet at this point in life (whether you’re male or female) than there is for the people of the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea to do so.

I regard myself as a good case study in this regard. In fact, I did let myself go at a certain period, but this occurred when I was still relatively young and I never went completely off the rails. Between the ages of 18 and 25 I did almost no aerobic exercise, ate poorly, and acquired a substantial beer gut and matching love handles. Ate age 26, though, I got back into endurance sports and I’ve been training consistently ever since. It took me a little longer to get around to cleaning up my diet, but by my 30thbirthday I was modeling my eating patterns after those of elite runners and triathletes and 17 years later I’m still doing it.

This is not to stay that I stubbornly resist changing my diet as a matter of principle. The elite endurance athletes whose dietary habits I pattern mine after are always on the lookout for small ways to improve their nutrition and I do the same. Among the more recent changes I’ve made through this ongoing process is reintroducing more high-quality red meat to my diet, which has brought my iron levels up and improved my training. Most of these tweaks have nothing to do with aging, but future ones probably will. Let me emphasize that they will indeed be tweaks, though, never an overhaul. Why fix what ain’t broke?

The term periodization refers to the practice of dividing the training process into distinct phases, each of which is defined by a specific purpose and made up of workouts that are intended to fulfill its purpose. Simply put, an athlete who practices periodization does different things at different points in the training cycle, whereas an athlete who does not periodize his training does the same thing week in and week out.

To put an analogy on it, an athlete who practices periodization is like a farmer, whereas an athlete who does not is like a factory worker. What sort of work does a farmer do? It depends entirely on when you visit the farm. In one season you may find him planting, in another administering pesticides, and in yet another harvesting. No matter when you visit the assembly line, however, you will find the factory worker putting screws in widgets.

Endurance athletes have not always practiced periodization in its current form. Like most modern training methods that we take for granted today, it had to be discovered. The idea that it is beneficial to train in different ways at different times is not terribly intuitive, which is why even now athletes who are not taught to periodize their training don’t.

While it hasn’t always existed, periodization was not discovered as a single event by a single individual—it’s too complex for that to have happened. Rather, it evolved piecemeal over time, with lots of different athletes and coaches representing a variety of endurance disciplines contributing to its development. In running, the most influential periodization model is the one that was created by the legendary New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard. In this model, a phase of base-building that features increasing amounts of long, slow running is followed by a strength-building phase that features lots of hill running, then a speed phase dominated by short, fast intervals and finally a racing phase.

Since this model was developed in the 1950s, coaches and athletes have come to the conclusion that such a strict segregation of training types isn’t necessary. In his Hierarchy of Endurance Training Needs, noted exercise physiologist Stephen Seiler ranks “General Periodization Details” fourth in importance out of eight fundamental endurance training methods, remarking that there is a tendency to overrate the impact of sequencing different training stimuli in one way versus another. For example, some marathoners like to do a little bit of very high-intensity track work in the peak training weeks preceding a race, whereas others prefer to do almost all of their uptempo work at speeds closer to race pace. The evidence suggests that either can work.

Where there is less wiggle room is in how stress and rest are managed. Every runner, even those who don’t know the first thing about periodization, understand that their overall training workload should tend to increase as they move closer to race day. But the best results seem to come not when athletes continuously do about as much as their present fitness level allows, as intuition dictates, but rather when they intentionally do significantly less training than they could handle at some times and intentionally overreach—that is, taking on a training load that would break them if they sustained it for very long—at other times—and this is less intuitive.

Most people exercise with a “get in shape, stay in shape” mentality. In a typical scenario, a sedentary person sees an alarming number of the bathroom scale or has a scary doctor’s appointment and starts working out. Initially, he can’t do very much, but as he builds some fitness he does a little more and a little more until he reaches a point where he’s doing about all the exercise he cares to do. From that point on, he follows the same exercise routine for the rest of his life (slight exaggeration to make a point).

Endurance training doesn’t work like that—or shouldn’t. If your goal is to achieve peak performance in a race, you need to train in a way that, to put it crudely, burns you out, so that after the race you need a break and after the break, having voluntarily give up some fitness, you must ease gently back into a new cycle of training.

Several years ago Stephen McGregor, an exercise physiologist at Eastern Michigan University, shared with me some interesting data he collected from professional cyclists. These were athletes who logged all of their training on TrainingPeaks, whose Performance Management Chart quantifies fitness through a variable called chronic training load (or CTL). In most circumstances, CTL is a very accurate predictor of performance. As a general rule, the higher your CTL is, the fitter you truly are and the better you perform in a races and other endurance tests. But in analyzing the data or professional cyclists, McGregor found that, over the course of a season, their CTL and performance decoupled. Early in the season, as the riders increased their CTL, their performance improved as expected. Then, as they maintained their peak CTL into the racing season, their performance level held steady—for a while. But after three months or so of this, their performance level began to decline even as their CTL was maintained.

In other words, the same training that made the cyclists fitter initially burned them out over time. On its face, this seems like an avoidable mistake, but training less in order to achieve a sustainable CTL is no alternative because in that case their peak performance level wouldn’t be as high. Peak fitness and sustainable training loads are simply incompatible, and this is the number-one reason it’s necessary to periodize.

Always remember, you’re a farmer not a factory worker.

The apprehension runners feel before a race and the suffering they experience during a race constitute a sort of crisis state—a special kind of crisis state that is actively chosen by the runner. Like other crisis states, this one tends to bring one’s personal weaknesses to the fore. If a runner’s mind lets him down in some way before or during a race, it is likely because of a specific mental soft spot he carries inside him at all times and affects his life both within and outside of running.

The epigraph of my book How Bad Do You Want It?, taken from Bryce Courtenay’s novel The Power of One, captures this idea of non-separation between human and runner: “The mind is the athlete.”

Because the mind truly is the athlete, the goal of becoming a better runner is highly compatible with the goal of becoming a better person. Addressing the weaknesses that limit your success in running will make you happier and more effectual in other parts of life. Likewise, becoming a stronger person through crises outside of running will pay dividends on the racecourse.

I speak from experience. The key weakness that ruined running for me as a teenager was good old-fashioned cowardice. I was cripplingly afraid of the suffering that is an unavoidable part of racing. When I got back into running as an adult, I made it a high priority to become a braver athlete. As fate would have it, though, life threw a series of personal crises at me that made the suffering of racing seem laughably minor in comparison, and it was the mettle I developed in facing these crises that turned me into a fearless racer. (I know I’m being somewhat cagey here—that’s because the full story will be told in my forthcoming book, Life Is a Marathon.)

So, that was my big issue. But other runners find all kinds of other issues coming to the surface when they expose themselves to the crisis of racing. One of the athletes I coach struggles with performance anxiety. She kicks butt in training only to crash on race day because she tightens up under the pressure she feels to fulfill expectations. It’s a frustratingly ironic problem, her fear of failure being the very thing that causes her to fail.

My brother Josh, also a runner, struggles with consistency and follow-through. He has a long history of brief habits in all facets of his life, an issue that he has committed himself to working on through running. Having aborted many “comebacks” as a runner over the years, Josh is now on a patient yet persistent mission to qualify for the Boston Marathon. He’s facing as many setbacks as ever before in pursuit of this goal and has as many excuses as ever to abort yet again, but his attitude is fundamentally different this time.

As a coach, I love seeing my athletes embrace growth in this fashion and am disappointed when they shrink from opportunities to move forward as human beings who happen to be athletes as well. I once coached a runner whose biggest hang-up was low self-esteem. By no means did I judge her for being insecure, but what did make me want to grab her by the shoulders and shake her a bit was her unwillingness to use running to work on this issue. I recall putting a palm to my forehead in dismay when I called her to get a report on the 5K race she’d run the day before and she confessed that she had skipped her pre-race warm-up drills because she was too self-conscious to be seen doing them.

Sometimes personal growth may seem to have to come at the expense of running, but even then it doesn’t. When I lived with professional runner Matt Llano in Flagstaff last summer, he told me during one of our deeper conversations that he was so powerfully driven to achieve his dreams as an athlete that he had a tendency to prioritize training and competition at the expense of his personal life. For a long time, he said, he felt that putting more time and energy into other people could only hurt his running, but his mind changed when he ran a breakthrough 1:01:47 half marathon shortly after he entered into a new romantic relationship and was in love and happy. At the conclusion of our conversation Matt and I agreed that even if all you care about is running, you will run better if you care about more than just running.

Some folks reading this post may object to my use of the words “weakness” and “better person,” but I use them with intent. I believe in the value of being brutally honest with oneself, calling a spade a spade, and holding oneself to high standards. When running is approached as a sport, where—like it or not—there are clear-cut winners and losers, successes and failures, it becomes one of life’s best training grounds for life, which can also be rather unforgiving, if you hadn’t noticed. I encourage every runner to take full advantage of this potential. So, the next time you find yourself buckling under pre-race apprehension or mid-race suffering, ask yourself whyand then use the answer to work on a solution. You will be a better runner and, yes, a better person for it.


Many of the posts I write for this blog are inspired by athlete FAQ’s. Well, this is another one. And, quite honestly, I’m note sure why it has taken me so long to write it, because it answers one of the top three most frequently asked questions I get from runners who either have read 80/20 Running or are following one of the 80/20 training plans available on this website. I’ve already let the cat out of the bag with my title, but I will go ahead and present the question anyway:

How do I choose an appropriate goal time for my upcoming race?

Race goal setting is as much an art as it is a science. There is no infallible oracle that runners can consult to obtain a time goal they can have 100 percent confidence in. But there is a way to approach goal setting that will maximize the likelihood of your coming away from the race satisfied with your performance. Here are my tips.

Forget zones.

I must confess that my 80/20 training system leads many runners astray with respect to race goal setting. That’s because this system is all about intensity zones, and as such it tacitly encourages runners to look at goal setting through the prism of my seven-zone 80/20 intensity scale. But as I tell every runner (and triathlete) who asks me which zone they should target for an upcoming race of a given distance, intensity zones are too coarse an instrument to be usefully applied to the precise objective of reaching the finish line of a race in the least time possible.

For example, marathon pace for me falls within Zone X (the gap between Zones 2 and 3), as it does for many runners. When I was training for the Chicago Marathon last summer, my Zone X range was 6:13-5:50 per mile. But based on my performance in training, my coach at the time, NAZ Elite’s Ben Rosario, believed my true marathon pace was precisely 6:05 per mile. It turned out he was right. I completed Chicago in 2:39:30, which averages out to 6:05.005 per mile. If instead of targeting 6:05 I had targeted Zone X, I might have run as slow as 6:13 per mile and finished the race in 2:42:59, disappointed in the knowledge that I could have gone faster, or I might have started the race at 5:50 per mile, blown up at mile 20, and failed to even finish.

Start with pace, not time

Another big mistake that runners make in setting race time goals is, well, setting race timegoals. Too often runners become enamored by the idea of meeting or beating a round number or a Boston qualifying time. But these numbers are at least semi-arbitrary in the sense that, although our minds are attracted to them, or bodies do not operate by them.

There’s nothing wrong with aiming for round numbers and qualifying standards as ultimate goals, but your immediate goal for each race should be to cover the prescribed distance in the least time possible, and in approaching this goal it’s better to think in terms of pace rather than time. Ask yourself, “What is the fastest pace (either per mile or per kilometer) I can sustain over this distance?” The answer to this question should determine your time goal, not the other way around.

For example, if you believe that 6:36 per mile is the fastest pace you can sustain for 10 kilometers, then your goal time should be 41:00. The idea of “breaking 40:00” might be more attractive, but if 6:36 per mile truly is your current limit, it would be foolish to aim for that round number—yet.

Think in terms of incremental improvements.

Here’s the catch: The fastest pace that any given runner can sustain over a given distance on a particular day is fundamentally unknowable. It is not even possible after the factto determine whether a runner succeeded in complete a race in the least time possible. In light of this fact, the most useful way to aim toward completing a race in the least time possible through the goal-setting process is to try simply to improve on your own past performances at the same distance. There is no better source of information on which to base an estimate of your current capacity. The idea is to compare your current training to the training that preceded your last or best performance at the same distance to get a sense of how much faster (if at all) you’re prepared to go.

Rely on key workouts and “B” races.

Obviously, if you’re racing at an unfamiliar distance, or even if you’re racing at a distance you haven’t contested for a very long time, you can’t use the incremental-improvement approach to setting an appropriate race time goal. In this case you will need to rely instead on key workouts and on any races you do at other distances in the lead-up to your peak race. Online calculators such as McMillan’s Running Calculator can be used to generate an estimate of the time you will run at a new distance based on your performance at another distance. Be advised, though, that these calculators tend to overestimate performance at the marathon distance except in the cases of high-mileage runners (70-plus miles per week).

Any sensible training program will include workouts that target the specific intensity of your peak race. This thread of the training process should culminate in a single, peak race-pace workout that serves to dial in your goal for the upcoming race. Here are suggested formats for such workouts for the four most commonly contested race distances:



5 x 1 km @ goal pace with 200m jog recoveries




6 x 1 mile @ goal pace with 200m jog recoveries


Half Marathon


8 miles @ goal pace





16 miles @ goal pace


Consider conditions.

It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that your race goal should consider not only your fitness but the specific course you’ll be racing on and the conditions you anticipate racing in. For example, if you think you’re ready to run a half marathon in 1:21:30 in perfect conditions on a flat course, but you’ll be racing on a course with two big hills in 70-degree air, you’ll want to add a couple of minutes to your expected finish time.

Calculators can’t help you much here, though. What you really need to do is adjust by feel as you go. A half-marathon goal of 1:21:30 is (or should be) based on the belief that you can sustain a pace of 6:13 per mile for 13.1 miles. So what you’ll want to do in this hypothetical example is run at the perceived effort level that is associated with this pace in ideal conditions in the less-than-ideal conditions you’ll actually be racing in. In other words, slow down just enough so that your effort feels the same.

Don’t be afraid to make a mistake.

With pacing, as with so many other things, experience is the best teacher. No runner wants to blow his or her race with bad pacing, but there is really no better way to get your pacing right the next time. As Mark Twain famously put it, “Good judgment is the result of experience and experience the result of bad judgment.”

Basketball players shoot free throws more accurately when they focus on the back rim rather than on the action of their wrist. Weightlifters squat more weight when they think about pushing the floor away with their feet than when they concentrate on contracting their muscles. And runners run more economically when they focus on the road ahead than when they try to run with a high cadence or land on the forefoot or even simply think about their movements without trying to change them.

No matter how you ask your body to perform, your body will perform better if you don’t think about your body. The underlying reason for this seems to be that efficient movement requires a certain degree of receptivity to the environment in which movement occurs. To shoot a basketball well or lift weights well or run well, an athlete’s brain must “listen” to the world as much as it “talks” to the muscles. In the case of running, thinking too much about moving “correctly” makes the body less responsive to the ground, hence more rigid and less efficient in its action.

Many runners find this counterintuitive, but it is a well-demonstrated fact. A recent study by German researchers, for example, reported that recreational runners were more efficient when running while watching a video (external focus of attention) than they were when running at the same pace while thinking about either their movements or their effort level (internal focus of attention).

You can’t run completely unconsciously, however, nor would you want to. There is a minimal degree to which you have to think about your running while you’re running, and at very high levels of fatigue one really seems to have no choice in the matter—or rather, the choice is no longer between thinking and not thinking about your movements but of how you think about them.

As a runner myself, I have developed a few basic personal rules concerning when and how I think about my running while I’m running. In easy runs, which should account for the bulk of any runner’s training, I let my mind wander far away from my body for the most part, but I do periodically “check in” with my body as I go. On days when I’m feeling good, these check-in’s are largely a matter of actively enjoying the act of running—the rhythmic and counterbalanced swinging of my limbs, the sense of floating. On days when I don’t feel great, my check-in’s become more a matter of using my mind to try to increase my comfort level. I do this not by actively changing my form but by trying to find the enjoyment that is being masked by my discomfort and by giving myself little form reminders. More on these in a moment.

When I’m running hard in races and workouts and I (seem to) have no choice but to give more attention to my movements, I employ the very same reminders, but with greater urgency. There are three of them. One is a simple reminder to relax. I find that by telling my body to relax in moments of straining I am often able to reduce my perceived effort level very slightly without consciously altering anything about howI’m running. Perhaps I really am altering something that only sensitive instruments could measure; perhaps it’s entirely mental. But in either case, I think it works.

The second reminder I give myself is to grip the ground and thrust it behind me with my feet instead of passively landing, stabilizing, and pushing off. I think this form cue is more helpful than most because it focuses attention on the point of most direct interaction between body and environment rather than on the body itself. Meeting the ground actively (grip-thrust) versus passively (land-stabilize-push off) tends to minimize ground contact time, which is a strong predictor of running performance and an equally strong indicator of fatigue.

One other reminder that I use both when running easy and when running hard, albeit less frequently, is to run symmetrically. I have some body imbalances that cause me to run with my torso rotated slightly to the left, which causes my arms to do some strange winging as a knock-on effect. Trying to straighten myself out as I run is not something that will help me complete the grueling final miles of a marathon any faster, but there is a place for trying to contain asymmetries and other idiosyncrasies of form that may contribute to injuries, of which I’ve had my share. Unlike the aforementioned reminders to relax and to meet the ground actively, which are universally applicable, this way of thinking about running while running must be tailored to the individual runner. The idea is to think about and correct yourparticular injury-causing stride “flaws,” not anyone else’s.

Trail running is becoming more and more popular—statistics say so. But I don’t need statistics to know that increasing numbers of runners are taking to the trails. I can tell by the emails I receive from advice-seeking athletes, a rising percentage of which are sent by trail runners.

The question that is most frequently asked by this cohort is a version of the following: “I do most of my training in the mountains and I find it difficult to keep my heart rate in Zone 2, especially on steep climbs. How do I obey the 80/20 Rule as a trail runner, or does it not apply to me?”

In case you are unaware, the 80/20 Rule is the idea that endurance athletes in all disciplines and of all ability levels gain the greatest amount of fitness when they do approximately 80 percent of their training at low intensity. On my 80/20 intensity scale, the top of Zone 2 corresponds to the upper limit of low intensity, so in practical terms, applying the 80/20 Rule means keeping your heart rate and/or pace and/or power below the top end of Zone 2 four-fifths of the time when running.

Due to the effect of gravity, runners must slow down to maintain the same physiological intensity when running uphill. Athletes with low to moderate levels of fitness may even have to dial all the way back to a walk to stay in Zone 2 on steeper climbs. Before I move on to talk about what these individuals should do to avoid falling into the all-too-common “moderate-intensity rut” as trail runners, let me first point out that runners at higher levels of fitness need not make any special modifications to their training as trail runners to stay in line with the 80/20 Rule.

I’ll use myself as an example. At my present level of fitness, my Zone 2 tops out at about 6:54 per mile. According to a certain online calculator, the effort level that is associated with running 6:54 per mile on level ground is equivalent to the effort level associated with running 9:32 per mile on a steep hill with a 10 percent gradient. So all I have to do to avoid creeping into moderate intensity in a hilly run that is intended to be done entirely at low intensity is keep my pace slower than 9:32 per mile on 10 percent inclines and make similar adjustments on hills with other degrees of slope. It’s just a matter of being aware and disciplined.

Now, I grant that most runners cannot ascend a 10 percent hill in Zone 2 without shifting to walking. So, then, what should you do if you’re in this group? My first suggestion is that you use a run power meter such as Stryd to monitor and control the intensity of your runs. This tool will give you a more reliable picture of how you are distributing the intensity of your training than will either pace or heart rate. Unlike your pace at the top end of Zone 2, your power at the top end of Zone 2 doesn’t change with topography. If your Zone 2 power tops out at, say, 220 watts, it does so regardless of whether you’re running uphill, downhill, or on level ground.

It’s true that your Zone 2 heart rate range also does not change with topography, but the trouble with heart rate is that it lags behind changes in intensity, so when you’re running on highly varied terrain your heart rate monitor is continually giving you yesterday’s news, so to speak. It can work, but not as well as a power meter.

My other bit of advice is that you match your workouts with your training venues so that you avoid spending more than 80 percent of your training time above Zone 2. One way to do this is to avoid challenging trail routes when doing runs that are intended to be done entirely at low intensity. A second, and complementary, way to achieve the same objective is to budget “unavoidable” time above Zone 2 into your weekly allowance of moderate- and high-intensity running. For example, suppose you like to run up a mountain and back down once a week and you’re above Zone 2 during the ascending portion of the run no matter how slow your pace is. Let’s supposed further that it takes you about one hour to get to the top and 35 minutes to come back down. There’s no reason you can’t include this workout in your weekly training schedule provided that the 60 minutes you spend above Zone, combined with any other moderate- to high-intensity running you do during the week, does not represent more than 20 percent of your total training time for the week.

There, I’ve taken away any and all excuses you might have had for falling into the moderate-intensity rut as a runner who trains primarily on trails.

In the context of endurance racing, pacing can be defined as the skill of distributing one’s effort across a defined distance in such a way that the distance is covered in the least amount of time possible. Although the body does the visible work in any kind of endurance race, the skill of pacing is entirely mental. There are three distinct psychological qualities that feed into it:

Intelligence. A certain kind of intelligence is required to comprehend abstract distances and use this understanding as a factor in implicit calculations of the fastest rate of speed the athlete can sustain over the remaining distance of a race. Any animal predator can pace itself appropriately in relation to a target it can see, but only humans have the brain power to do so in relation to targets too distant to see. And human studies have shown a clear relationship between intellectual capacity and pacing ability. Like it or not, you have to be a certain kind of smart to pace well.

Sensitivity. Pacing is done by feel. Although speed and power meters can be used as supplemental pacing tools, perception of effort gets the first in final say in determining how quickly an athlete covers a given race distance. To pace well is to know how you should feelat any given point in a race. This is a big reason why pacing ability automatically improves with experience. A really good pacer has an incredibly high level of sensitivity to perception of effort. If you ask the typical elite runner to give you a 6:00 mile, you are very likely to get something between 5:59 and 6:01, because these athletes can feel the difference between 5:58 and 6:02.

Guts. As I suggested above, pacing decisions are the results of implicit calculations. The main inputs to these calculations are knowledge of the remaining distance and perceived effort. These two inputs are factored together in a way that is intended to ensure that the athlete does not hit his limit before he reaches the finish line. But what is the limit? Not anything physical. It is simply the athlete’s sense of what he can and cannot do. As such, the limit is mutable, labile. Two athletes of precisely equal ability may have different limits because one believes he can’t go any faster and the other does, and only the other is right. Those athletes who have the highest performance limits relative to their physical ability simply have more guts. They aren’t afraid to push a little harder and find outif they fall apart or can keep it together.

A notably large fraction of the runners I interact with as a coach struggle with (i.e., suck at) pacing, and it is my perception—true or not—that this fraction is larger than it used to be. If so, why? I think a number of factors are at play. One is that today’s adult runners tend to be less experienced in the sport, having taken it up asadults instead of in school. Another is that kids have become less active generally, hence less sensitive to and tolerant of perceived effort throughout their lives. A third factor is that modern running gadgetry distracts runners’ attention from their bodies, creating a dependency on external feedback that further numbs sensitivity to perceived effort and ties runners to artificial limits.

This last factor affects even some elite runners, as Flagstaff-based 2:32 marathoner Sarah Crouch will tell you. But Sarah also offers us a good example of how to overcome this dependency. Her case study centers on the 2018 USATF 25K Championships, held on May 12. A few days before the race, Sarah announced that she would run it without a watch, citing frustration with her recent performances (she’d completed three half marathons in 2018, all more than five minutes slower than her PR of 1:12:10, which was set back in 2014) and the need to shake herself out of the rut she’d gotten stuck in. “I feel that when I’m wearing a watch and I’m constantly looking at it,” she said in an interview on the eve of the event, “I’m far too much in my own head. So the goal tomorrow is to race just by instinct, guts.”

Intrigued by the experiment, I made sure to watch the USATF 25K Championships live on the internet, and I’m glad I did. Last year I did some training with Sarah in Flagstaff, but the Sarah Crouch I saw on my computer screen on May 12thseemed like a different woman. She ran with a striking combination of aggression and serenity, her chin up and her eyes seemingly miles up the road as she dragged eight-time national champion Aliphine Tuliamuk behind her. Incredibly, Sarah passed the half-marathon point of the race in 1:12:45 on the way to finishing the race in third place.

Afterward, I contacted Sarah with a few questions, her answers to which, I felt, would help complete the lesson of her wildly successful gamble. If you struggle with pacing, pay attention!

Q: What is the precise nature of the problem you sought to address by racing without a watch last weekend?

A: As months and then years began to pass without a personal best at any distance, I became more and more obsessed with my pace during races. This year I’ve run three half marathons, each slower than the last, and I started to feel like I couldn’t break myself of the habit of looking at the watch every few minutes. During these races, the moment that my pace began to slip even a little, I fell apart, devastated that I was unable, yet again, to clip through miles at the same rhythm I’d managed easily earlier in my career. I finally realized that this was becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy in my races and I was reaching a point where something had to change. Choosing to abandon my watch at the 25K was honestly just a reflection of me reaching the boiling point and trying something new out of desperation.

Q: It seems to me that, in order for your experiment to work, you needed to have just the right mindset going into the race. Is this true, and if so, how did your specific mindset set you up for success?

A: That is absolutely true. This is going to sound nuts, but I almost had to separate the two people I’d become. The part of me that was growing larger and more powerful was the part of me that didn’t want to race, didn’t want to suffer anymore and didn’t believe I’d ever see another PR after almost half a decade of disappointment. That voice in me had grown so loud that it had almost completely drowned out the other voice, the one that I could barely hear anymore, the one that was dying to be let loose and compete. That part of me used to race recklessly, unafraid of anyone, and was always in pursuit of gutsy races and the pure joy that followed at the finish line. That part of me would literally eat a bowl full of dirt to beat the person next to me at the end of a race and frankly, that part of me does not need a watch.

During my warm-up for the 25K, I made a very deliberate decision to bring that voice back to the forefront, to let it make the decisions during the race, almost giving it its own personality and the permission to guide me through the race. I had no intention of leading until the moment that the gun fired and then all bets were off. My gut not only said to lead but to push the pace and try to break apart the lead pack as soon as possible. I was about 99% sure I was running a suicidal pace but I couldn’t have cared less. For the first time in four years, I felt like me again. Turns out, I almost had the fitness to back it up as I couldn’t match the move made eleven miles into the race, but I wouldn’t go back and change the way I ran for anything. I wouldn’t go back and sit comfortably in fourth or fifth and try to progress with 10K to go, which, on paper, may have been the smart thing to do. Sometimes you need to do the brave thing, not the smart thing.

Q: You ran faster than you had in a while. One might assume that, to do so, you had to suffer more. But was that really the case, or did your mental approach somehow enable you to run faster without feeling “worse”?

A: No, I did not suffer more, but my willingness to suffer was greater. I do think there is something to the notion of dwelling less on the pain and more on the product of it when you feel like you’re having the race of your life. Perhaps focusing on the end rather than the means is made easier when the end is decidedly worth it. I’ve described the feeling before as the fingers of human experience outgrowing the glove of human flesh. It’s incredibly difficult to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it, but pain with purpose is far easier to accept than the pain that accompanies a poor race.

When your incentive to hurt is higher, it not only permits you to drag yourself deeper down the rabbit hole of pain, it adds the remarkable sensation of life, raw life, into the experience. Humming under the strain of the pace out there, I felt very aware of my surroundings, the bright green of the trees, the sound of my competitors’ shoes slapping the pavement, the scent of rain in the air. Yes, it may have hurt like hell, but I feel bad for those who have never pushed themselves past their limit to find out what was on the other side because the other side is spectacular.


If these words do not leave you ready to eat a bowl of dirt to beat your previous best self, check out Sarah’s powerful post race interview here.


There is a strong case to be made for making sure you consume plenty of carbohydrate before endurance training, and also during longer workouts. You will feel better and perform better, especially in harder sessions and in sessions that are begun in a prefatigued state during heavy training periods.

But there is also a strong case to be made for withholding carbohydrate before and during endurance training. These is mounting evidence that exercising with low levels of glycogen in the muscles—which is what happens when carb restriction and prolonged exertion are combined—triggers specific physiological adaptations that enhance subsequent performance.

So, then, what should endurance athletes do: consume carbs before and during workouts or withhold them? Why not both? More and more elite-level coaches and athletes and sports scientists are thinking along these lines. But the devil is in the details. Precisely howshould athletes balance high-carb and low-carb training? A new scientific paper by researchers at Liverpool John Moores University takes us a step closer to answering this question. Titled “Fuel for the Work Required: A Theoretical Framework for Carbohydrate Periodization and the Glycogen Threshold Hypothesis,” the paper was published on the online journal Sports Medicine in February and you can access the full text for free here.

In it, the authors propose that there exists a certain critical range of muscle glycogen concentration—specifically, 100–300 mmol/kg dw—that enables athletes to have it both ways in the specific sense that it is low enough to stimulate the above-mentioned physiological adaptations yet high also enough not to impair performance. By manipulating their carb intake before and during workouts in such a way that muscle glycogen levels end up in this range, athletes can gain the maximum benefit from every session. This requires that they consume plenty of carbs before and during their most challenging workouts and go low-carb before and no-carb during the lightest ones.

This approach differs from other “train low” protocols in a couple of respects. First, there is no distinction between fueled workouts and depletion workouts. The fueling objective for all workouts is the same: to provide the muscles with just enough carbohydrate to get the job done. Second, workouts themselves are not manipulated for the sake of achieving some particular metabolic objective. Rather, athletes who follow this approach simply train the same way they’ve always trained and tailor their fueling to the workouts.

The authors of the paper offer a hypothetical example of how their proposed “fuel for the work required” approach might work in progress. It consists of four days of training and fueling in the life of a professional cyclist, summarized in the table below.

It bears mentioning that fuel for the work required will look quite different when applied to a typical low-volume recreational endurance athlete. For this person, nearly every day would feature low to moderate carbohydrate intake, with only one or two key sessions per week requiring high carb intake before and during.

Whether rigorous application of this approach yields superior results in terms of fitness and performance for either elite or everyday athletes remains to be seen. The authors of the study cite the need for future research to rigorously quantify the “glycogen cost” of different workouts, so that the amount of carbohydrate required can be accurately calculated, and to determine how much inter-individual variation there is in the glycogen levels that elicit the desired benefits.

For my part, I’m not 100 percent convinced that athletes need to reach this glycogen level in every single workout to maximize these benefits. It won’t surprise me if it is eventually discovered that interspersing a few low-glycogen sessions into an otherwise high-glycogen regimen does the job. On the other hand, some of the research on low-glycogen training has shown beneficial effects on body composition, so it’s possible that the fuel for the work required approach could benefit athletes mainly by reducing body fat (as low-carb diets do) without compromising fitness and performance (as low-carb diets also do).

Stay tuned.

There are lots of running-related techniques and methods that are widely known to be effective but that achieve their effects in different ways than most runners believe or assume. For example, drinking water and consuming carbohydrate during endurance exercise are known to enhance performance and are believed to achieve this effect by limiting dehydration and supplying energy to the muscles, respectively, but in fact drinking water enhances endurance performance by reducing the sensation of thirst and consuming carbohydrate does so by acting directly on the brain in a manner that reduces perceived effort. Actually, I lied: these two measures enhance endurance performance in all of the above ways, water by limiting dehydration and reducing thirst and carbohydrate by supplying energy and reducing perceived effort, but you get my point.

Here are three more interesting examples of techniques and methods that don’t work entirely the way most runners think they do.

High Intensity

Science has supplied iron-clad proof that high-intensity exercise is an essential ingredient of any program intended to optimize endurance running performance. Although high-intensity work should account for only a small fraction of a runner’s total training time, it is impossible to achieve the same level of competitive performance without it.

Why? Most runners believe or assume that high-intensity exercise complements low-intensity exercise via purely physical mechanisms, such as increasing aerobic capacity and lactate tolerance. And it does. But research suggests that the most important difference between high intensity and low intensity may be psychological.

In a 2017 study, British scientists divided 20 healthy volunteers into two groups. For six weeks, one group engaged in an exercise program consisting entirely of high-intensity interval workouts (HIIT) while the other group did an equal volume of exercise exclusively at low intensity. Testing performed both before and after this six-week intervention revealed that although the two exercise programs resulted in roughly equal changes in aerobic fitness markers, members of the high-intensity group exhibited significantly greater improvement in a time-to-exhaustion test and, separately, in a test of pain tolerance.

The researchers concluded, “The repeated exposure to a high-intensity training stimulus increases muscle pain tolerance, which is independent of the improvements in aerobic fitness induced by endurance training, and may contribute to the increase in high-intensity exercise tolerancefollowing HIIT.”

Depletion Workouts

A depletion workout is a workout undertaken without any carbohydrate intake either before or during. For example, you might run 16 miles first thing in the morning on no breakfast and consuming only water as you go. Most runners who are familiar with this practice believe its intent is to enhance the fat-burning capacity of the muscles.

Again, this is true but not the whole story. Although studies have shown that depletion workouts enhance the fat-burning capacity of the muscles, this effect has not been linked to any performance benefit. But other research has demonstrated that the specific stress imposed by training in a low-glycogen state upregulates certain genes involved in mitochondrial biogenesis, and this adaptation does increase endurance performance. In plan English, depletion workouts add horsepower to the body’s aerobic engine. That’s why high-intensity interval sessions, in which glycogen and glucose supply almost all of working muscles’ energy—even when they are done in a carb-restricted state—work just as well as long endurance sessions as depletion workouts.


Plyometrics is a form of training that consists of various jumping exercises such as hopping up into a box on one foot. It tests an athlete’s ability to produce power, or rapid application of force, and for this reason it is widely believed that the purpose of doing plyometrics as a runner is to increase stride power.

This is true for sprinters but not so much for long-distance runners. In distance runners, plyometrics training has been shown to enhance stride stiffnessand thereby increase running economy. The type of stiffness I am referring to is the type that physicists talk about in relation to springs. The human body functions as a sort of spring during running, and just as a pogo stick with a stiff spring will bounce higher than a pogo stick with a loose spring, a runner with greater leg stiffness is able to capture more of the “free energy” that rebounds from the ground into the foot after impact and use it to propel forward motion.

Certain plyometrics exercises, including the drop jump, which entails stepping off a box and landing on the floor below, increase legs stiffness without increasing leg power. The fact that they, too, enhance running economy shows that, for distance runners, plyometrics really is about enhancing stiffness, not power.

On April 24, eight days after American running star Galen Rupp dropped out of the Boston Marathon in the 20th mile with hypothermia and breathing problems, organizers of the Prague Marathon announced that Rupp had been added to the start list of their event, to be held May 6, a day shy of three weeks after Boston.

When I saw this news I thought, ‘I can relate.’ I’ve come away from several disappointing marathons hungry for another try, and on three occasions I have acted on this hunger. Indeed, the phenomenon of the “bounce back marathon” is quite common, and understandably so. It takes a long time to prepare for a marathon, and there are so many things that can go wrong on race day that it’s unsurprising runners are often tempted to redeem a poor performance—whether it’s due to unfavorable weather, GI issues, or whatever—with a quick next marathon instead of sticking to the original plan of taking a break and starting a whole new training build-up. But are bounce back marathons a good idea?

It depends. Recently, an athlete I coach performed below his expectations in a marathon due to an ill-timed health setback that prevented him from eating anything on the day before the day before the race. Afterward, he told me he wanted to do another marathon as soon as possible in order to “take advantage of [his] fitness.” I talked him out of the idea, saying it was too risky. Subsequent events revealed this to be sound advice. Even after a week off followed by a week of very light training, this runner felt sluggish and beat-up during his runs and it took him a couple more weeks to get his feet back under him. If he had attempted a bounce back marathon instead of taking a break, it would have been a disaster.

As a general rule, attempting a bounce back marathon is a bad idea if A) you truly peaked for your last marathon (that is, you trained pretty much as hard as you could without overdoing it) and B) you ran the marathon as hard as you could and finished it. In these circumstances, your body needs a break, whether you realize it or not.

Two of my own three efforts to get right back on the horse after a disappointing marathon ended in injury. After the 2006 California International Marathon, where I aimed for 2:39 and ran 2:47, I returned to heavy training within a week and immediately developed a hamstring injury. Three years later, after the Boston Marathon, where I aimed for 2:37 and ran (and walked) 3:18, I started the Orange County Marathon 13 days later and quit halfway through with a bad case of plantar fasciitis. Only once did I get lucky, after the 2016 California International Marathon, where I aimed for 2:45 and ran 2:58 and 13 days later solo time-trialed a 2:49 marathon around my neighborhood. (Crazy as this was, I must confess it was quite satisfying.)

Bounce back marathons are less risky if you DNF your first marathon for a reason other than injury, as in these cases your body emerges less wrecked than it would be if you’d covered the ful