Matt Fitzgerald – 80/20 Endurance

Matt Fitzgerald

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 livescience.com, “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. 

Genius! 

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.

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

Push-Up

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

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0MhElJ779AU

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

Pull-Up

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

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SFimi5d3tt8

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.

Trainability

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!

Durability

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

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!

Cycling

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

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.

Other

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.

Sigh.

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, runnerworld.com 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

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:

MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
Run

 

Easy

Bike

 

Easy

 

+ Transition Run

Run

 

Intervals or Tempo

Bike

 

Hills, Intervals, or Tempo

 

+ Transition Run

Run

 

Easy

Bike

 

Long Ride

 

+ Transition Run

Run

 

Long Run

Swim

 

Intervals or Tempo

StrengthSwim

 

Tempo or Intervals

StrengthSwim

 

Endurance

 

MonTueWedThuFriSatSun
Bike

 

Easy

 

+ Transition Run

Run

 

Intervals or Tempo

Bike

 

Hills, Intervals, or Tempo

 

+ Transition Run

Run

 

Medium Long

Bike

 

Easy

 

+ Transition Run

Brick

 

Medium-Long Bike + Medium-Long Run

Easy Ride, Easy Run, or Rest
Swim

 

Intervals or Tempo

StrengthSwim

 

Tempo or Intervals

StrengthSwim

 

Endurance

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:

EAT EVERYTHING

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.

EAT QUALITY

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.

EAT CARB-CENTERED

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).

EAT ENOUGH

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.

EAT INDIVIDUALLY

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:

Foreword

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!

Amazon.com

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:

5K

Warm-up

5 x 1 km @ goal pace with 200m jog recoveries

Cool-down

10K

Warm-up

6 x 1 mile @ goal pace with 200m jog recoveries

Cool-down

Half Marathon

Warm-up

8 miles @ goal pace

Cool-down

 

Marathon

Warm-up

16 miles @ goal pace

Cool-down

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

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 full 26.2 miles. They’re also less risky if you don’t train to your limit in the cycle leading up to a marathon. I used to wonder how some of the top ultrarunners get away with competing as often as they do. Then I trained for a 50-miler and realized it’s because the body doesn’t need deep rest as often if almost all of your training is done at low intensity. I ran the Boston Marathon 15 days after my 50-miler and it went just fine because although the ultra itself had thrashed my body, the training leading up to it hadn’t.

There’s a reason nearly all professional runners specializing in the marathon distance run only two or three marathons a year. These folks need to be at the very top of their game when they compete and it would seem that two to three times per year is as often as they can achieve a true peak performance level at this distance, not so much because of that the race does to the body as because of what the training does.

Lately, though, this orthodoxy has been challenged to an extent by a few noteworthy mavericks. Last year, for example, American Sarah Hall placed fifth in October’s Frankfurt Marathon (2:21:21) and won the California International Marathon just five weeks later (2:28:10). And this year’s Boston Marathon was won by Japan’s Yuki Kawauchi, who completed 12 marathons last year, winning five.

I wouldn’t put too much weight on these special cases, however. The most important thing to keep in mind is that bounce back marathons are inimical to the goal of developingas a marathon runner. Although it is possible sometimes to turn around quickly after a marathon and perform satisfactorily in another one, you will not get better at marathoning this way. Developing as a marathoner demands that you take a break after each marathon, intentionally giving away some of that hard-earned fitness, and then start a fresh training cycle. This is the true way to “take advantage” of all the hard work you put into preparing for each marathon.

Recently one of the athletes I coach (we’ll call him Scott) came to me with some concerns about the results of his latest DEXA scan and weigh-in. Although he had lost both overall weight and body fat, he had also lost some muscle mass, and the body-fat percentage in his arms had increased slightly. Scott wanted to know if he should add biceps curls and triceps dips to his strength workouts to correct these last two items. I told him absolutely not, and here’s why.

First off, it probably goes without saying that, although biceps curls and triceps dips are effective exercises for improving body composition in the arms, they achieve this effect by increasing muscle mass, and muscle mass—particularly in the arms— is dead weight for the long-distance runner. It can only slow you down.

I speak from experience. Last summer, when I trained with the Northern Arizona Elite team in Flagstaff, under the guidance of strength and conditioning coaches AJ and Wes Gregg I reduced my strength training frequency from three sessions per week to two and removed upper-body movements such as push-ups from my strength workouts. The resulting loss of upper body mass made a small but vital contribution, I believe, to my setting a marathon PR at age 46. (I promise to stop bringing this up after the one-year anniversary passes.)

Hardly shocking. But what may surprise you is that muscle mass in the legs is also dead weight for the long-distance runner. In 2004, exercise scientists at Ball State University examined the contractile properties of individual calf muscle fibers in college cross country runners over the course of a full cross country season. They found that the cross-sectional area of the runners’ muscle fibers decreased during this 12-week period, meaning their calf muscles shrank. That sounds bad, but the ratio of force-generating capacity to cross-sectional area of the muscle fibers increased during this same period, meaning that, pound for pound, their muscles got stronger.

The human body is not stupid. When you subject it to a specific type of training in preparation for a specific type of competition, it adapts in appropriate ways, even if certain adaptations seem negative at first glance.

Muscle tightness is another example. It is not uncommon for runners to go from being able to touch their toes when they start training to being unable to touch their toes after a few weeks or months of progressive running. An individual runner who experiences this change might think, “Oh, no! I’m losing flexibility!” But, like the decrease in muscle mass we just discussed, this tightening of particular muscles is also a beneficial adaptation to training.

It’s not tightness per se that you want as a runner but stiffness, which comes with tightness. The legs function as springs during running. Half of the energy that propels a runner forward comes from the ground as an equal and opposite reaction to the impact force delivered from the foot to the ground with each landing. A stiffer spring/leg is able to capture and reuse more of this free energy than a looser leg, improving running economy. A new study by researchers at the University of Calgary reported that greater Achilles tendon stiffness was associated with better running economy in a group of 46 elite runners, and prior research has shown that elite runners are generally less flexible than nonelite runners.

The bottom line is that if you are a runner seeking better race performance, you need to keep your eyes on the prize. Stay focused on the overarching goal—increasing the speed you are capable of sustaining over a given distance—and don’t get distracted by secondary goals such as maintaining muscle mass and flexibility. This is not to say that strength training and stretching should be avoided entirely, but these practices should be incorporated in targeted ways that contribute to the only thing that really does matter.

The weekend before last I did a 10-mile run. Under normal circumstances, such a workout is no big deal, but I am coming back from an injury and this one did not go terribly well. Having done a succession of eight-mile runs every other day over the preceding week, I was hoping to feel comfortable, both fitness-wise and pain-wise, going a little faster over a slightly longer distance in this particular session.

This didn’t seem like too much to ask. Having averaged about 8:15 per mile in my last eight-miler, I was hoping to knock that down to 8:00. But as it turned out, my groin let me know in no uncertain terms that going any faster than 8:20 per mile would be dangerous. And while it certainly was not a strain to maintain this pace, I felt as though I were running quite a bit faster. I kept glancing at my watch, convinced I was speeding up, only to find that I wasn’t.

In the face of my thwarted expectations I became frustrated and began to contemplate cutting the run short. Accustomed to completing 10-mile runs in 75 minutes or less, I almost couldn’t bear the thought of needing a full 10 minutes more to slog through this one. My mood turned dark, my self-talk negative. But then something happened. One moment my consciousness was wholly absorbed in these dark emotions and negative thoughts. The next moment I was mentally removed from them, observing them from a separate level of consciousness. This new perspective allowed me to judge them for what they were—unhelpful—and intentionally choose alternative emotions and self-talk.

I chose, specifically, to be grateful that at least I was able to run, however slowly, whereas just a few weeks ago I was unable to run a step without significant pain. I told myself to embrace the necessity of going slow for now, reminded myself that today’s restraint would be rewarded tomorrow (or eventually). Like a pedestrian dodging raindrops to who discovers the futility of staying dry and begins dancing through puddles, I suddenly went from being irritated the large numbers on my watch display to being amused by them. The second half of the run was infinitely more enjoyable than the first.

This little anecdote is an example of metacognition, or thinking about one’s own emotions or thoughts. This (almost) uniquely human capacity plays an important role in endurance training and competition. Some athletes are more skillful users of metacognition than others, and those who use it well are able to control their thoughts and emotions in ways that enable them to make better decisions and perform at a higher level.

As athletes, we tend to regard our thoughts and emotions as effects of how the body is feeling and performing. If you feel lousy and are off pace at the midpoint of a 10K road race, for example, you are likely to experience negative thoughts and emotions as a result of your bodily situation. But research has shown that the causal loop goes both ways—that thoughts and emotions also affect perceptions and performance. A 1988 study by Damon Burton at the University of Idaho identified a strong negative impact of anxiety on performance in swimmers. And a 2013 study by Samuele Marcora at the University of Kent found that two weeks of training in positive self-talk increased performance in a time-to-exhaustion test by 17 percent.

What makes metacognition so powerful is that it allows us to choose our thoughts and emotions to some degree. Without it, your mind is totally at the mercy of your body. Only by taking a mental step back from the present contents of your mind can you clearly see what’s going on and actively choose more helpful thoughts and emotions.

Like any mental ability, metacognition comes more easily to some than it does to others. But anyone can develop it through practice. That’s what mindfulness meditation is all about. There are other ways, though. Indeed, it’s enough just to start every workout and competition with the intention of “catching” negative thoughts and emotions and choosing more helpful alternatives. Initially, you may find yourself brooding on a negative thought or feeling for a while before you snap awake and take a mental step back from it, and even then you may struggle to find a helpful alternative (for you cannot simply lie to yourself, saying, for example, “My foot doesn’t hurt” when in reality your foot doeshurt), but with practice you’ll get better and better at this process.

Another personal example of metacognition at work—and one where there was a lot more at stake than in the previous example—is something that I experienced during Ironman Wisconsin back in 2002. My lowest moment of that race was the first few strides of the marathon. I’ll never forget the fear and dismay I felt when I discovered that, with 26.2 miles of running ahead of me, my legs were as battered and depleted as they had been when I finishedmy last standalone marathon, perhaps more so, as the damage resulting from a severe calf muscle cramp suffered two minutesinto the swim had, during the bike leg, morphed into a pins-and-needles sort of pain affecting almost the entire front leg. I thought, ‘How the hell can I possibly do this?’

But in the next moment I took a mental step back and reminded myself that I was hardly the first athlete in this position, and that I had prepared for this race in more or less the same way thousands of others had done before me, athletes who had grinded through the discomfort I was feeling now and finished strong. And that is precisely what I proceeded to do, even pulling off the relatively uncommon feat of even-splitting the marathon, the mantra Trust your training looping through my head the whole way.

That’s metacognition for you!

Here is an interesting scientific paper on the role of metacognition in endurance performance.

Unless you’ve been hermetically siloed within the endurance space for as long as you’ve been exercising, you’ve probably heard of muscle confusion. Popular in the vanity-oriented fitness realm, muscle confusion is the idea that muscles undergo the greatest adaptation to training when they are subjected to constantly changing stimuli, and the corresponding practice of mixing together highly varied workout types for the purpose of maximizing muscular development. Tony Horton’s blockbuster P90X program is the best-known example of a system based on this principle.

Does muscle confusion work? It depends on what you mean by “confusion” and also on what you mean by “work”? If “confusion” means varying workout types almost randomly, with no thought given to the direction they take collectively, and if “work” is defined as achieving a specific objective such as maximizing muscle strength or size, then no, muscle confusion does not work. Any serious bodybuilder or powerlifter will tell you that the best results come when workouts are varied, yes, but within fairly narrow limits, and when they are carefully sequenced so that each session (or week) builds on the preceding.

The same is true of endurance training. To develop maximum fitness for a specific race, you need to subject your body to a limited variety of stimuli repeatedly, giving the process direction by increasing the challenge level of the same stimuli as your body adapts and by giving greater and greater emphasis to the most race-specific stimuli. Injecting extra variety for variety’s sake into this process won’t help you get where you’re trying to go.

While there is something to be said for introducing little wrinkles into training for the sake of fine-tuning the race fitness of advanced and highly fit athletes, in most cases it is possible to prepare optimally for any race with a limited variety of bread-and-butter workout types. In the case of running these are easy runs, long runs, short intervals, long intervals, hill repetitions, tempo/threshold workouts, and also race-pace workouts if these aren’t already covered by the other categories (as would be the case for a runner preparing for a marathon). The rest is details: designing specific workouts and sequencing them in the best way to maximize race-specific fitness on a particular date.

I’ve never encountered a runner who includes too much variety in his or her training. A much more common problem is failure to vary one’s training stimuli enough. Just look around: In the environment where you train, are the other runners you see not all doing pretty much the same thing? How often do you pass by someone running hill repeats?

One way to add the requisite variety to your training is to follow a structured training plan. And, to be honest, that’s pretty much the only practical way for most runners who aren’t knowledgeable enough to be coaches themselves to avoid the pitfall of excessive workout monotony. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a convenient way for athletes to select well-designed workouts to follow on an a la carte basis, so that they could vary their training stimuli in sensible ways even outside the context of a formal training plan?

Well, now there is! (You knew this was coming, didn’t you?) 80/20 Endurance Coach David Warden recently completed a Herculean effort to convert every single individual swim, bike, and run workout included in our online training plans into a discrete .FIT file that can be downloaded onto your Garmin device and taken on the go. This complete library of 80/20 workouts allows you to select the perfect training stimulus for every circumstance and receive step-by-step guidance from warm-up to cool-down. And combined with a calculator, this unique resource allows you to easily create your own 80/20 training weeks or plans.

What’s the cost, you ask? They’re free! Learn more about our new 80/20 Workout Library here.

We live in a highly individualistic society, a situation that has both pluses and minuses. On the plus side, our children tend to grow up with a sense of freedom to choose their own path in life. On the minus side, a growing percentage of us are burdened by feelings of loneliness and isolation that make us unhappy and have proven consequences for our physical health.

As an endurance coach and nutritionist, I see our society’s hyperindividualism manifest in a sense of exaggerated specialness and uniqueness. Take the “I can’t eat that” phenomenon, for example. Although food allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities are real, these conditions are claimed far more often in some societies and groups than in others—specifically in the most individualistic societies and groups. Asserting the need for a special diet is in many cases a way of asserting personal specialness.

I see individuality overemphasized to some extent in the training realm too. In the 35 years I’ve been involved in endurance sports, I’ve observed a growing receptiveness to the notion that individual athletes training for the same event (e.g., a marathon) should do so in different ways based on genetic differences that affect how their bodies respond to various training stimuli. Contributing to this trend are studies such as one that was conducted by Canadian researchers and published on the online journal PLoS One in 2016, which found that when subjects were placed on an all-low-intensity exercise program for three weeks and, separately, on an all-high-intensity exercise program during a second three-week period, some subjects exhibited improved fitness only after the former and others only after the later, while only a few improved on both programs and no subject failed to improve on both.

Should we conclude from such findings that individual athletes should indeed take radically different approaches to training for races? I think not. The problem with a radically individualized approach to endurance training is that in essence it amounts to training for what you’re good at rather than training to be good at the specific event for which you are preparing. To return to our earlier example, a marathon is a very long race undertaken at a low to moderate intensity. No matter what your genetic makeup is, you won’t be optimally prepared to run a marathon unless your training features lots of running and frequent prolonged efforts at low to moderate intensity. Training for a marathon with a heavy emphasis on short, high-intensity intervals because you happen to be highly responsive to this type of training is only slightly less absurd than training for a marathon exclusively by chopping wood because testing has demonstrated that you are most responsive to this type of training.

But wait: If your body simply doesn’t adapt to low-intensity exercise, as the above-mentioned study suggests is the case for some individuals, then what benefit can these folks get from this type of training even if it is a marathon they’re preparing for? Good question, the answer to which is that of course every athlete really is capable of adapting to high-volume low-intensity exercise. The Canadian study cited above measured a few select variables such as VO2max and lactate threshold. But a marathon is not a VO2max test. So-called non-responders to low-intensity exercise who do not experience an increase in VO2max in response to this type of training but who do a bunch of it any way will undergo a host of other adaptations, including increased fat-burning ability and heightened resistance to impact-related muscle damage, that are crucial to marathon performance.

This is to say nothing of the neural and psychological adaptations. A runner who routinely does long training runs at low to moderate intensity will see improvements in central fatigue resistance and inhibitory control that he couldn’t gain any other way. Physiology aside, the experienceof going long is an essential contributor to the capacity to go long.

The same principle holds for supposed non-responders to high-intensity exercise. A runner of this type who includes a small amount of high-intensity exercise in his training despite deriving no boost in aerobic capacity from it is sure to come away with other benefits, such as increased perceived effort tolerance, that will translate into better performance in real-world competition.

I don’t want to overstate my case. It is undeniably true that each athlete is unique and responds somewhat differently than do other athletes to the same training stimuli. But this individuality is itself overstated in some quarters, and again, even to the extent that athletes are different they must consider the specific demands of the event they’re preparing for before they consider their particular athletic type in deciding how to train.

The proper way to individualize training, therefore, is not to start from scratch with each athlete, inventing from whole cloth the method that is uniquely optimal for that individual. Rather, all athletes should begin by training with the methods that have proved most effective with athletes generally (80/20, etc.) and then fine-tune their formula based on how their body responds to these methods. And fine-tuning never means replacing running with chopping wood.

If I could clone myself a few times for the sake of taking different paths in life, I would definitely dedicate one of my clones to the pursuit of sports science. This being impossible with current technology, I choose instead to live vicariously through the individual sports scientists who are tackling the questions I would be most interested in tackling if I had my own lab.

One such question (or line of questioning, more accurately) is this: If you could do only one thing right in your training as an endurance athlete, what should it be? In other words, what is the single most beneficial training practice you could employ as an endurance athlete seeking improved performance? And if you were already doing this one thing, what then is the next most impactful method you could incorporate?

If we were to pursue this line of questioning all the way through to the end, we would end up with a sort of hierarchy of endurance training needs. How useful that would be! Well, guess what? This hierarchy already exists, created by one of my very favorite sports scientists, Stephen Seiler, who drew upon his encyclopedic knowledge of research on endurance training practices to perform the exercise I just described. With a nod to Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of psychological needs, Seiler’s Hierarchy of Endurance Training Needs ranks eight fundamental training practices in order of proven impact. If there’s a more helpful tool for understanding the big picture of endurance training, I haven’t seen it. So, let’s go through the hierarchy (see Seiler’s own graphical summary at the end of this post):

  1. Total Frequency/Volume of Training

According to Seiler, the single most beneficial thing you can do to improve your performance in endurance racing is to train a lot. The fine print is that in training a lot, you must be sure not to train too much, and you can train more without training too much if you train at low intensity, so what Seiler really means here is that the single most beneficial thing you can do to improve your performance in endurance racing is do a lot of low-intensity training.

  1. High-Intensity Training

 Although doing a lot of training exclusively at low intensity will make you fitter than doing a small amount of any other kind of training, you will get fitter still if you combine a little high-intensity training with a lot of low-intensity training. Seiler rates this fact as “well established” in the scientific literature.

  1. Training Intensity Distribution

Seiler made a name for himself by discovering the 80/20 Rule of endurance training, which posits that endurance athletes improve the most when they do roughly 80 percent of their training at low intensity and the remaining 20 percent (give or take) at moderate to high intensity. So, the next most impactful thing you can do in your endurance training—if you’re already doing a lot of low-intensity training and a little high-intensity training—is to fine-tune the balance of intensities to bring your training in line with the 80/20 Rule.

Let me add here that applying the 80/20 Rule is usually the first change that I make to the training of the athletes I coach. The reason is that the average recreational endurance athlete does close to 50 percent of his or her training at moderate intensity—way too much. Training more won’t help an athlete who is caught in the moderate-intensity rut because it only exacerbates an existing problem. There is much more to be gained from redistributing the training he or she is already doing and then taking advantage of the reduced stress and fatigue levels resulting from this shift to train more.

  1. General Periodization Details (Annual)

 Periodization refers to the practice of evolving one’s training over the course of the year in specific ways intended to cause fitness to continually increase. Seiler rates this practice as “likely overrated.” By this I don’t think he means that training shouldn’t evolve over the course of the year but rather that the details don’t matter much. If that’s the case, then I agree wholeheartedly. What does matter is that 1) the overall training workload (which is a function of both the volume and the intensity of training) increase and 2) your most challenging race-specific workouts come later on, when your fitness is near peak levels and it’s getting close to time to race. But the relevant research has shown that within these broad parameters, different periodization practices yield similar results. In other words, where periodization is concerned, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

  1. Sports-Specific and Micro-Periodization Schemes

 According to Seiler, the particular ways in which endurance athletes chose to sequence workouts from day to day and week to week has a “likely modest” effect on fitness. In other words, it doesn’t matter too much whether you schedule recovery weeks every third week or every fourth week. Of course, it’s vitally important that you balance hard work and rest/recovery in such a way that your body neither accumulates fatigue over extended periods nor detrains between challenging training stimuli, but as with macro-periodization, there’s more than one way to achieve this balance.

  1. Training-Stimuli Enhancement

 “Training stimuli enhancement” refers to practices such as training at high altitude and training in a glycogen depleted state. Seiler believes that such things are worth doing but that the effects are “individual and condition specific.”

  1. Pacing Training

Fitness is not the only determinant of race performance. To get the most benefit from any level of fitness in competition, an athlete must pace himself or herself effectively, and this objective is aided by practicing pacing in training, which may also serve to stimulate pace-specific fitness adaptations. Seiler rates this practice as “potentially decisive if everything else is done right.”

  1. Training Taper

Although your fitness level won’t change much in the last week or two before a race, no matter what you do, what you do in the last week or two before a race can have a big impact on how you perform nevertheless. Tapering is the art (Stephen Seiler might say science) of altering your training prior to competition to ensure that you’re rested—but not too rested—and physiologically primed for a maximal effort. Science has shown clearly, for example, that endurance athletes race better when they include high-intensity work in their taper than when they do everything at low intensity. Seiler rates tapering as “potentially decisive if you have one isolated competition. . . and everything else is done right.”

Learn more here: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Stephen_Seiler/publication/310725768_Seiler%27s_Hierarchy_of_Endurance_Training_Needs/links/583590c208ae004f74cc51f5/Seilers-Hierarchy-of-Endurance-Training-Needs.pdf

Recently I received an email message from an athlete who is following one of my online training plans. In it, he asked, “Why do you only have one day off every three weeks?”

Although I did not ask the athlete why he asked this question, my assumption was that he was accustomed to training plans that include at least one day of rest every week and he was unsure if the plan he was following would afford him enough recovery. This question speaks to a general lack of understanding among athletes about the difference between rest and recovery that I would like to address here.

The purpose of a rest day—defined as a day on which no formal workouts are undertaken—is to promote recovery, or the processing of fatigue induced by prior workouts. But absolute rest is not always necessary for recovery. Often it is enough for an athlete to merely do less exercise than he or she is accustomed to doing on a daily basis. For example, if your average daily running volume is 6 miles, you may get enough recovery to process a week’s worth of accumulated fatigue by running 3 miles on a given day instead of resting outright.

Doctors use the term “relative rest” in reference to the practice of exercising some parts of the body while allowing an injured area of the body to rest for the sake of healing. For example, swimming would constitute relative rest for a runner with an injured knee. But I use the same term to refer to the practice of recovering from prior training by exercising less than normal instead of not at all. To go back to the example I gave in the last paragraph, a 3-mile run constitutes relative rest for a runner who normally runs 6 miles a day.

It goes without saying that the fitter you are, the more you can train on a designated recovery day without spoiling the intent of that day’s exercise. The professional runners I trained with in Flagstaff last summer often went several weeks without taking a day off from running. But a beginner or other athlete with a low fitness level may need to take a full day off from training at least once a week to avoid falling behind on recovery.

Triathletes can get relative rest from cycling and (especially) from running through swimming, both because it is a nonimpact activity and because it is an arms-dominant activity, whereas cycling and running are both legs-dominant. Bodybuilders achieve relative rest in a similar way by training different muscle groups each day. One study even found that inserting a swim between two runs actually accelerated recovery from the first run compared to resting outright between the two runs. For the most part, the notion that “recovery” sessions promote recovery is a myth (their true function is to provide an aerobic training stimulus in a way that does not impede recovery from prior training), but this is one exception.

Of course, you don’t need to be a triathlete to exploit relative rest in this fashion. Runners can split the difference between resting and running by doing a nonimpact cross-training activity such as riding an ElliptiGO. Why not simply rest? Because fitness is largely a function of training volume. The more you train (within your limits), the fitter you will get. For this reason, you don’t want to rest any more than you need to. This point is the final piece of the answer to the question I referenced at the beginning of this point.

American diet culture has been macronutrient-obsessed for decades, and I’ve been exasperated by this obsession since I first started paying attention to it in the late 1990s. During this period, efforts to identify the “best” diet and the “right” way to eat have been narrowly focused on carbohydrate, fat, and protein. Which of these calorie sources are “good”? Which are “bad”? What is the optimal balance of macronutrients for health and fitness?

The reason these never-ending debates exasperate me is that it has been obvious to me from the beginning that, despite the disparate conclusions the various diet schools have came to, they all rest on the same false premise, which is that healthy eating is defined by macronutrients. Well it’s not. A healthy diet can be high- or low-carb, high- or low-fat, and high- or low-protein. To define healthy eating on the basis of the diet’s macronutrient composition is to bark up the wrong tree.

So, if macronutrients don’t matter, then what does? Quality. In the general public, the concept of quality as it relates to food is typically associated with grades of fineness, as in, “This is a high-quality cut of beef.” But nutrition scientists define quality differently. Simply put, a high-quality food type is one that is broadly associated with positive health outcomes and a high-quality diet is a diet that combines high-quality food types in a way that minimizes the risk for all diseases and conditions that have a dietary connection and maximizes longevity and other indices of good health.

What epidemiological diet research has consistently shown is that all of the food types that are commonly consumed by humans all over the world are good for us, but only when they are consumed in natural, unprocessed forms. Vegetables are good, fruit is good, nuts and seeds and plant oils are good, whole grains are good, dairy is good, and unprocessed meats and seafood are good. Processed versions of all of these foods, such as fried potatoes, are bad.

I must confess that I do enjoy it when a major scientific study comes along to validate my position and shatter the ideologies of folks like anti-carb zealot Gary Taubes who think it’s all about macronutrients. And it’s even more enjoyable when the study that does so was initiated by Gary Taubes himself!

The specific study I’m referring to is the latest in a series called the DIETFITS Randomized Clinical Trial. What’s distinctive about the study is that, although it was funded by Taubes’s Nutrition Science Initiative, which is on a mission to prove that high-fat, low-carb (HFLC) diets are healthier than other diets, it was very well designed and executed and in no way put its thumb on the scale (so to speak) to favor HFLC.

A large subject pool consisting of 609 overweight adults was separated into two groups and placed on one of two diets for 12 months: high-fat low-carb or low-fat high-carb. Importantly, though, both diets were high quality, meaning that whether they restricted fat or carbs, all of the subjects ate mostly unprocessed foods. Also, calories were not restricted, and therefore any differences in outcomes between the two diets would be directly attributable to their macronutrient composition.

The purpose of the study was to compare the effects of the two diets on insulin levels and body weight. Taubes’s pet theory is that carbohydrate causes obesity by flooding the body with insulin, which promotes fat storage. This theory would predict that the HFLC group would exhibit reduced insulin secretion and greater weight loss, with a strong correlation between these two outcomes.

That’s not how it worked out. At the end of the 12-month intervention, weight loss was significant and about equal in the two groups, with members of the low-carb group shedding just over 13 pounds, on average, and members of the low-group group dropping a little less than 12 pounds. While individual weight loss differed drastically within both groups, there was no relationship between changes in insulin secretion and weight loss in either group. In short, everything that supporters of the carbohydrate-insulin hypothesis of obesity would have expected to happen (other than weight loss within the low-carb group) didn’t happen.

There are two possible explanations for these results. One possibility is that both diets produced equal amounts of weight loss for completely different reasons—that, in other words, reduced fat intake caused weight loss via one mechanism and reduced carbohydrate intake caused weight loss via another. The other possibility is that factors common to both diets caused weight loss across groups. While the first possibility can’t be ruled out, the second possibility is much more plausible. Energy intake decreased markedly and equally in both groups despite the absence of explicit calorie restrictions, suggesting that by replacing processed (low-quality) foods with unprocessed (high-quality) foods, low-carb and low-fat dieters alike were able to fill up on fewer calories.

Predictably, the unreachable tinfoil hat-wearing anti-carb crusaders out there are now racing around with their hair on fire, crying out to anyone who will listen that this study was not a fair test of the carbohydrate-insulin hypothesis because carb intake was too high among subjects in the HFLC group. It’s true that, while these subjects did start at a very low carbohydrate intake level (just 20 grams a day), their carb consumption increased over the course of the study, ending at just over half of baseline daily carb intake for all subjects. My response to this objection is twofold:

  1. It smacks of desperation and faith-based belief. Statistically, there is enough in the results of this study to demonstrate that carbs per se are not THE cause of weight gain.

 

  1. The reason the subjects on the HFLC diet started eating more carbs was that they found 20 grams per day unsustainable. Even if we granted that HFLC is singularly effective for weight loss in theory (which it isn’t), how effective is it really if it cannot be practiced by real people in the real world? I’m reminded of the way that, several years ago, barefoot running fanatics defended the theory that running barefoot prevents injuries against a tidal wave of injuries caused by barefoot running. Do you remember what they used to say? “Barefoot running works if you do it right. It’s just that nobody does it right.”

If you’re like many other endurance athletes, you have probably followed a readymade training plan at one time or another. Perhaps you found it in a book, or maybe you purchased it online from a website such as Final Surge or TrainingPeaks. If so, then you know that readymade plans are generally classified by race distance and level. For example, if you’re a relatively new runner interested in training for your first marathon, you will likely choose a beginner-level marathon plan.

Choosing the right level is not always easy, though, especially when there are a lot of levels. I have online running and triathlon plans that come in as many as 10 levels at each major race distance. Not a week goes by without my receiving at leas one email from an athlete asking, “Which level should I choose?” These athletes always tell me a little about themselves so that I have something on which to base my recommendation. More often than not, the information these athletes choose to share with me is either their time goal for the distance at which they intend to race or their best or most recent time for the same distance. This has always seemed odd to me, because time goals are almost completely irrelevant to training plan selection.

To understand why, consider the hypothetical example of a runner who wants to run a marathon in 3:45. If this runner should come to me and ask which level of marathon plan I recommend for a runner who has this goal, and his name is Wilson Kipsang, I will tell him he does not need to train at all, because I know that Wilson Kipsang has run 2:03 for the marathon on four separate occasions, and a man who is capable of running a 2:03 marathon can run a 3:45 marathon on no formal training whatsoever.

Now suppose instead that the runner targeting a 3:45 marathon who comes to me for help with training plan selection is not Wilson Kipsang but a 44-year-old woman who has run six past marathons and has a current PR of 4:22. I would need a little more information to be sure, but it is likely that I would tell this athlete that no training plan could possibly deliver her to a 3:45 marathon. She could quit her job, send her children to live with their grandparents, and devote her life to pursuing this goal and never achieve it.

What this rather extreme hypothetical example demonstrates is that there is no single training plan that fits all athletes pursuing any given race performance goal. So if time goals are not the appropriate basis for training plan selection, what is? Simple: training history.

Numbers aside, the goal that every athlete shares is improvement, which tends to occur in modest increments and is made possible by modest increases in training load. Your next training plan should therefore be one that administers a training load that is slightly greater than the highest training load you handled successfully in preparing for a prior race of the same distance you’re targeting this time around. For example, if you built up to 45 miles per week in preparing for your last marathon, build up to 50 miles next time.

Note that increasing the training load is not the only way to improve, so you shouldn’t feel compelled to keep training more and more each time you set your sights on a PR. You can also improve by making better use of the volume of training you’re already doing, for example by doing less training at moderate intensity and more at low and high intensities.

Indeed, if your current training formula is already a good fit for you, you can improve without changing it at all. That’s because you are not the same athlete at the end of a training cycle as you were at the beginning. For example, if you complete an 18-week marathon build-up, then take it easy for three weeks, and then repeat the same 18-week cycle, you will start the second cycle fitter than you did the previous one, so the same training will develop your running ability even further.

I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent so I’ll just stop here.

Eating too much is a widespread problem in America. That’s why more than 70 percent of men and women over the age of 20 are overweight or obese. And while there are plenty of clowns running around blaming individual nutrients or food types for these numbers, the simple fact is that overweight and obesity are caused by eating too much.

Because overeating is so common, little thought is given to the possibility of undereating, which is very real for endurance athletes given the high energy demands of their training and their interest in being lean not just for reasons of aesthetics and health but also for reasons of performance. And rare indeed is the endurance athlete who considers the fact that habitual undereating is more detrimental to performance than is its opposite.

Think about it. 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 to 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.

An interesting new study by Danish and Dutch researchers investigated some of the negative effects of within-day energy deficits in endurance athletes. A within-day energy deficit is a short period (we’re talking hours) where the body’s energy needs exceed the supply of energy from recently consumed food. It is possible to experience one or more within-day energy deficits of lesser or greater magnitude even if you get enough to eat over the course of the day as a whole.

Scientists from the University of Agder and the University of Copenhagen looked specifically at associations between within-day energy deficits and suppressed resting metabolism and hormone levels in a group of 31 male cyclists, runners, and triathletes. They found that 20 of the athletes had suppressed resting metabolic rates (RMR), meaning their bodies did not burn as many calories at rest as they should have; the remaining 11 athletes exhibited normal RMR. Interestingly, although all of the athletes ate as many calories as they burned over a period of 24 hours, those with suppressed RMR spent almost double the amount of time in energy deficits exceeding 400 calories (20.9 vs. 10.8 hours, on average). Additionally, higher cortisol levels and lower testosterone levels were found in the athletes who had the largest within-day energy deficits.

What these results tell us is that not eating enough throughout the day as an endurance athlete is a form of self-sabotage. Undereating actually makes it harder to achieve and sustain a lean body composition by reducing resting metabolism. Athletes with suppressed RMR also tend to have trouble marshaling energy for intense workouts. To make matters worse, undereating compromises recovery from and adaptation to training by increasing catabolic hormone levels and reducing anabolic hormone levels. And it’s worth underscoring that the athletes in this study did eat enough to meet their energy needs when the day was considered as a whole. They only fell behind during specific periods during the day.

In summary, being too restrictive with your calories is a great way to hold yourself back as an endurance athlete.

Most runners target a single intensity in all of their workouts. Either it’s an easy run or long run at a slow and steady pace or a tempo run with an effort at lactate threshold intensity sandwiched between a warm-up and a cool-down or an interval session featuring a set of a certain number of repetitions of uniform length or duration all done at the same high intensity or—you get the idea. But there is something to be said for doing the occasional workout that includes a range of different intensities.

First of all, multi-pace workouts are a literal change of pace, and as such they’re an effective way to keep your training fun and interesting. Multi-pace workouts are also a good way to get appropriate doses of different intensities. For example, if you’re at a point in your training where you can benefit from a little work at VO2max intensity—but only a little—why set aside an entire workout for it when you can incorporate that work into a session focused on an intensity you need more of—say, lactate threshold intensity?

Yet another benefit of multi-pace workouts is that they help teach effective pacing. Can you shift accurately from half-marathon pace to 10K pace to 5K pace by feel? Most runners can’t, but runners who do workouts that include efforts at all three of these paces can. Finally, multi-pace workouts that put the fastest work at the end develop the capacity to dig deep and finish strong in races.

Here are three multi-pace workouts to try:

Intervals + Time Trial

This type of workout serves most of the purposes mentioned above. The interval segment provides the primary training stimulus and it should target a high aerobic intensity close to the lactate threshold. The closing time trial should be fairly short in order to serve the purpose of providing a modest exposure to VO2max and to get you suffering a bit. As a whole, an Intervals + Time Trial workout is very taxing and you shouldn’t attempt them very often. The specific session described below is one I did with NAZ Elite during my time in Flagstaff.

1-3 miles of easy jogging

Drills and strides

7 x 1 km @ lactate threshold pace with 1:00 standing recoveries (2:00 after the last rep)

1500-meter time trial

1-3 miles of easy jogging

30-20-10 Run

A few years ago, a team of Danish researchers led by Jens Bangsbo set out to see if they could come up with a high-intensity interval workout that was more enjoyable than standard formats without being less effective. They tested a variety of designs before settling on one that fulfilled their hopes: the 30-20-10 Run. After learning about it, I gave it a try, made a couple of tweaks, and started incorporating the workout into the training plans I create for my clients. I like to schedule 30-20-10 runs during recovery weeks and during the final weeks of preparation for longer races as a way to expose athletes to a range of intensities without making them go to the well. This workout is also a great way to teach better pacing. Here’s the basic format:

1-3 miles of easy jogging

5 x 1:00 with the 30 seconds at marathon pace, the next 20 seconds at lactate threshold pace (i.e., the fastest pace you could hold for one hour), and the last 10 seconds at a relaxed sprint. No recovery—just cycle right into the next interval until you’ve completed all five.

Complete three cycles of five 30-20-10 intervals with 5 minutes of jogging after each.

1-3 miles of easy jogging

Tempo + Sprints

As a long-distance runner, you should sprint, but not a lot. Because any sprinting you do in a race is likely (one hopes) to occur at the very end of a race when you’re tired, it makes sense to sprint on tired legs in training. In the Tempo + Sprints workout, you will do just that.

1-3 miles of easy jogging

Drills and strides

20:00 at lactate threshold pace

2:00 standing recovery

8 x 200-meter relaxed sprints with recovery by feel (i.e., go again when you’re ready)

1-3 miles of easy jogging

Regular readers of this blog are probably sick and tired of hearing me yammer on and on about the differences between professional and recreational endurance athletes. But that’s my shtick. I’m all about helping recreational athletes improve by doing things more like the pros.

Not all of the differences between elites and age-groupers are methodological. Some of the most striking and consequential differences are psychological. When I was in Flagstaff last summer training with NAZ Elite, I had regular appointments with a sports psychologist affiliated with Northern Arizona University, Shannon Thompson. During one of these appointments Shannon observed that in her experience, nearly all elite runners tend to make very good decisions both big and small, from choosing whether to follow a competitor’s surge in a race to choosing a coach. I told Shannon I had noticed the same thing among the elite runners I was training with every day.

I remember talking to Scott Fauble after a hard interval run on Lake Mary Road, Flagstaff’s famous proving grounds for runners. He explained to me that he had abandoned the workout two reps shy of completing it because he was battling a head cold and didn’t want to risk exacerbating the illness. I was struck not only by Scott’s ability to ditch a workout he was not even performing badly in but also by how comfortable he was with his decision. For most runners, bailing out of a workout would strike a blow to their confidence, but Scott kept things in perspective, telling me that his training was going well overall and his illness was minor, so he fully expected the truncated session to be nothing more than a hiccup, and that’s exactly how it turned out.

I saw examples like this time and time again in Flagstaff. The elite runners around me there were consistently and strikingly rational when they needed to be. Recreational runners, by contrast, very often make decisions based in fear and insecurity. It’s not that they don’t have the ability to be rational, but when the pressure is on they allow panic to seize the wheel from reason.

Recently I received a visit from Georgie Fear, who coauthored my Racing Weight Cookbook, and her husband Roland Fisher, with whom Georgie operates a successful online nutrition coaching business. During the visit, Roland talked a lot about his current fascination with decision theory, which is the formal study of how human decisions are made and which decision-making processes are most likely to yield desired outcomes. His intent is to use this material to tweak his and Georgie’s coaching model to achieve better outcomes for their clients. Naturally, I shared with Roland my observation that elite endurance athletes tend to be very good decision makers.

“Of course they are,” he said. “That’s how you become elite at anything, not just endurance sports. Mastery is the result of a lot of good decisions.”

One area where I see recreational athletes struggle particularly to make good decisions is performance weight management, or the pursuit of racing weight. I see people making bad decisions in goal-setting (fixating on a certain weight or body fat percentage they want to reach instead of letting form follow function), method selection (trying extreme diets instead of emulating the proven eating habits of the most successful athletes), and execution (breaking their own rules and giving in to temptations more often than they can get away with without sabotaging their progress). When I left California for Flagstaff last summer I weighed 150 pounds, which has been my racing weight forever. But I was open to the possibility of getting a little leaner before the Chicago Marathon, and as it turned out I raced Chicago at 141 pounds—the lightest I’d been since high school, lighter than I thought I would ever be again, and a weight that certainly made a positive contribution to my performance. I was very intentional about the decisions I made in pursuit of getting leaner. Here are the key decisions that went into the positive outcome.

  1. I didn’t set a weight-loss goal. My focus was entirely on the process. The approach I took was to train and eat smart and see where it got me weight-wise.

 

  1. I relied on my stepped-up training load to do half the job for me. In the dieting world, it is often said that weight loss is 90 percent about diet and 10 percent about training. But that’s not the case for competitive runners. Because it’s critically important that you eat enough as a runner to adequately fuel your training, you can’t rely much on calorie-cutting to shed fat.

 

  1. I made a few small tweaks to my diet to rid it of wasteful calories. My diet was already quite healthy before I relocated to Flagstaff, but like everyone else I get some calories from energy-dense sources that I can easily do without. In my case, I cut back on beer, cheese, and chocolate. These tweaks were easy to make and did not leave me feeling deprived.

 

  1. During the two-week training taper that immediately preceded the Chicago Marathon, when I was running progressively less, I carefully reduced the amount of food I ate. I continued to make sure I got enough to fuel my training adequately, but I put up with just a bit more hunger throughout the day. This final measure alone resulted in four pounds of weight loss.

And that’s an example of good decision-making in the pursuit of better running performance—and proof that even non-elites can do it!

During the 13 weeks I spent training with the NAZ Elite professional running team in Flagstaff last summer, I did a few workouts with Sarah Crouch, not a member of the team but an accomplished pro with a 2:32 marathon on her resume. During a couple of these sessions, it was apparent to both of us that Sarah was working harder (i.e., suffering more) than I was, which seemed odd to me because my goal was to run 2:39 at the Chicago Marathon, whereas Sarah hoped to run 10 minutes faster. Any knowledgeable observer of these workouts who knew nothing about Sarah’s and my respective backgrounds and ambitions would have predicted that I would beat her in Chicago, but in fact she beat me by 63 seconds, and would have finished even farther ahead of me if she hadn’t run the first half in 1:16:00 and then cratered.

Afterward, I couldn’t help but wonder: Is Sarah just plain tougher than I am? Is it possible that she is able to do more with similar physical capacity because she is able to run harder and push closer to her limit? Although I like to think of myself as one tough sonofabitch on the racecourse, I couldn’t dismiss this hypothesis, in part because I had no better explanation and in part because I’ve seen a good deal of evidence that elite endurance athletes are exceptionally tough mentally. Indeed, their next-level toughness is one of the reasons they’re elite.

Some of this evidence is scientific. In a fascinating 1981 paper published 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. More recently, a team of researchers that included my friend Samuele Marcora found that professional road cyclists scored significantly higher than recreational cyclists on a test of inhibitory control, or the ability to resist immediate temptations (such as the desire to slow down or stop to avoid the suffering of hard exercise) in favor of staying focused on a long-term goal (such as getting to the finish line in the least amount of time possible).

Other evidence of the superior mental toughness of elite endurance athletes is anecdotal. If you spend a lot of time interacting with both elite and nonelite endurance athletes, as I have done, you notice a clear difference in how the two groups (with some individual exceptions, of course) view the pain that their sport inflicts. Elite athletes tend to embrace the pain, or at least accept it. As NAZ Elite member Scott Fauble said in the documentary film 183.4, “I can put myself super deep into this well [of pain]. This is something I’ve known from a young age I was good at. As I’ve kept exploring deeper and deeper for longer and longer periods of time, I’ve just found more and more space there to be myself and live. That is a place where I am at home.”

By contrast, recreational endurance athletes tend to fear and resist pain. For them it is a problem to be avoided, wished away, and at most tolerated, but only up to a point, whereas for the elites it is information and an integral part of the racing (and training) experience. The title of this article is taken from a famous quote from Percy Cerutty, a legendary Australian running coach from the mid-20th century, who often harangued his athletes with the phrase, “Faster, it’s only pain!” as he stood trackside watching them suffer.

If you want to be as mentally tough as the elites, your first step is to recognize the deep truth hidden in Cerutty’s directive. Pain is not proof that you can’t go faster, nor evidence that you’ve reached your physical limit. It’s an illusion. You can go faster. All you have to do is try, and accept the extra pain that comes with it.

These ideas are explored in depth in Alex Hutchinson’s new book Endure, which I haven’t read yet but is next on my list. Based on the extensive writing Alex has already done on this subject, though, I do not hesitate to encourage you to check it out. I’ll share some thoughts about it in this space after I’ve gone through it.

These days lots of endurance athletes are supplementing their endurance training with CrossFit workouts, or are interested in doing so. Whenever one of these athletes comes to me for coaching, I try to talk him or her out of it. I do this not because I think CrossFit is intrinsically bad or because I believe that CrossFit negatively affects endurance performance. Rather, these persuasive efforts are based on the fact there are simply more effective ways for endurance athletes to strength train and cross-train.

It is an obvious point, but worth mentioning nevertheless, that CrossFit was not created to serve as supplemental training for endurance athletes. There is no reason, therefore, to expect CrossFit to do the job especially well. As a supplemental training modality for endurance athletes, CrossFit has several drawbacks:

First, CrossFit workouts are very intense. Endurance fitness and performance improve most when high-intensity work accounts for about 20 percent of total training time. Incorporating CrossFit into an endurance training program therefore reduces the amount of high-intensity training an athlete can do in his or her actual sport and increases the risk of overtraining. Traditional strength workouts that avoid sustained elevation of heart  rate do not compete against endurance training in this way.

Second, CrossFit workouts are highly taxing, generating significant levels of fatigue and muscle damage and thereby often compromising performance in subsequent endurance workouts.

Third, many of the strength exercises done in CrossFit workouts are not functionally specific to endurance sports. Handstand push-ups, for example, are a waste of time for cyclists and runners. Look at the physiques of top competitive CrossFitters. Do you want to haul around all that beef in your next race?

Fourth, CrossFit workouts do not include any of the corrective exercises that endurance athletes need to do in order to iron out muscle imbalances and strengthen important stabilizing muscles so they can swim, bike, and run more efficiently and with less risk of injury. Nobody wants to watch athletes do side planks on television, but no strength workout for endurance athletes is complete without such exercises.

Fifth and finally, many CrossFit workouts involve the use of rowing machines. Rowing is great exercise, but it doesn’t do much for most types of endurance athletes. Runners in particular who want to supplement their running with nonimpact endurance training are better off choosing an activity that is much more similar to running itself, such as outdoor elliptical biking.

There, I’ve said my piece.

As a sports nutritionist, I observe the diets of lots of endurance athletes. After more than a decade of doing so, I can say that perhaps the most important pattern I’ve noticed is that athletes whose diet is consistently working for them (i.e., delivering the results they seek) pay relatively little attention to the details of nutrition, whereas athletes who struggle with diet-related barriers to better fitness tend to be hyper-focused on nutritional minutiae. I’m not saying that all athletes who micromanage their diet struggle with such barriers or that all athletes who struggle with such barriers micromanage their diet, but the pattern I speak of is clear and pervasive. Why?

I believe that excessive attention to detail thwarts the very thing it is meant to promote—consistent healthy eating—in two ways, one practical and the other psychological.

The practical issue is that, for the most part, it is not necessary pay attention to the details of nutrition to maintain a healthy diet that supports the pursuit of fitness goals. If your personal dietary philosophy is nothing more than a general effort to eat a balance of mostly unprocessed foods of all types in the amounts your body wants (versus those your head may desire), you will almost certainly get the results you seek from your diet. There is simply no need to know (for example) how much folic acid you require or even what folic acid is to get enough folic acid if you eat according to this basic principle. With few exceptions, such details will take care of themselves.

The extreme alternative to this top-down approach to diet is what we might call radical reductionism, which entails figuring out how much of every nutrient you need and building from the bottom up a diet that delivers the right amounts of everything. Not only is this approach wildly impractical and unnecessary, but it’s also more likely to result in nutritional error because in focusing individually on each nutrient in isolation, you are continually not focusing on everything else. It’s like juggling six balls by trying to look at each ball in turn—doesn’t work. As any juggler will tell you, the way to juggle six balls is to focus not on balls but on juggling.

I don’t think anyone has ever really attempted to practice radical dietary reductionism, but plenty of athletes practice a moderate version of it that has similar consequences. I once coached a recovering vegan who wanted to add more protein to her diet—easy enough in principle, but she had the hardest time actually doing it because she couldn’t resist trying to quantify the cascading effects of adding specific protein-rich foods to her diet. On the one hand, if she simply supplemented her existing diet with such foods, she would be eating too many calories. On the other hand, if she replaced one or more low-protein foods in her current diet with high-protein alternatives, she would lose all the nutrients in the food she replaced. The poor lady was almost paralyzed by such overthinking.

Which brings us to the second, psychological, reason excessive attention to detail is the enemy of healthy eating. Why do some people, like this recovering vegan athlete, obsess over nutritional minutiae while others, for whom health and fitness are no less important, do not? The answer, I believe, has to do with self-trust. Like all personality traits, self-trust exists on a spectrum in the human population. People with a high level of self-trust feel that they can rely on themselves to make good decisions for themselves, while those with a low level of self-trust tend to doubt their instincts when making decisions.

When self-trusting individuals pursue a goal such as getting fitter, they stay focused on the big picture, rigorously filtering the relevant information sources they are exposed to. Their attitude is this: ‘I know what I’m doing and what I’m doing is basically working, so I’m not going to let myself get pulled in a new direction unless something really leaps out at me.’ Psychologists refer to this mental stance as psychological distance, and it’s something that individuals who lack self-trust struggle to maintain. Never fully confident that what they are doing is right or working, they constantly sift the sand for The Answer, hoping in a sense that they can make up for the lack of a philosophy with an accumulation of knowledge.

Now, you might be asking, ‘How can too much knowledge ever really be a problem when it comes to diet and the pursuit of health and fitness?’ That’s a very good question, and the answer is that it’s not really knowledge per se that’s problematic but rather the basic orientation toward habit building and habit maintenance that leads some people to keep searching and searching for a better answer instead of choosing a course and staying with it, thereafter making only small corrections based on new information that distinguishes itself from the usual noise.

What I see over and over again in athletes who lack self-trust is that they are erratic in their eating habits. One week they’re convinced they need to eat more fat because of something they heard on a podcast, the next week convinced they need to eat less fat because of something a training partner said on a group bike ride. Lacking the wherewithal to keep a firm hold on the wheel of their destiny, they seldom stick with anything long enough to determine whether it actually works for them, nor do they have much confidence in their ability to determine what works for them anyway.

I find such athletes are very difficult to help. Convinced that they just haven’t found what works, I don’t know how to tell them they have already repeatedly rejected what works (eating a balance of mostly unprocessed foods of all types in the amounts the body wants) in multiple ways. The true way out for such folks is not more information but a serious effort to develop the self-trust that I see in almost all of the fortunate athletes who are consistently happy with the results they’re getting from their diet.

I’m no psychologist, though, so here’s a referral to an authoritative resource on cultivating self-trust: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/creative-development/200901/shaping-self-trust

If you ask the average running coach what good running form is, he or she will probably answer with phrases like “midfoot strike,” “high stride rate,” and “low vertical oscillation.” It is true that these and other form characteristics are common in top runners and less common in slower runners. But there are exceptions. Meb Keflezighi won the 2009 New York City Marathon as a heel striker, Ryan Hall set an American record of 59:43 in the half marathon with an unusually bouncy stride, and Mo Farah won 10 Olympic and World Championships gold medals with an exceptionally low stride rate.

On the basis of the fact that no two champion runners run the same way, I would argue that no specific movement pattern defines good running form. What, then, is the true essence of good running form? One possibility is efficiency. This idea has a lot going for it. After all, what is it that you really want your running form to do as distance runner? Not maximize power–that’s for sprinters. Rather, you want your running form to minimize the energy cost of running so you can go faster and farther before you become exhausted. It doesn’t matter how you minimize the energy cost of running, biomechanically, but only that you minimize the energy cost of running. Obviously, some movement patterns are generally more efficient than others, which is why most of the best runners are midfoot strikers. Nevertheless, each body is unique, so we shouldn’t expect every runner to minimize energy cost in the same way.

As sensible as it seems to define good running form as that which maximizes movement economy in an individual runner, however, I think this definition misses the mark as well. The true definition of good running form, I believe, is the particular way of running that feels easiest to an individual runner. I can’t claim to have come up with this theory. I got it from Samuele Marcora, father of the psychobiological model of endurance performance. Here’s an excerpt from an email message Marcora wrote to me about his perception-based theory of biomechanics:

“Many specialists in this area. . . still think that the [central nervous system] controls locomotion to optimise energy. They envisage an optimal solution in which the CNS senses energy expenditure and adjusts locomotion parameters (e.g., step frequency) to minimise energy expenditure. There are some basic neurophysiological problems with this proposal. However, the biggest problem is that there are several instances in which the CNS chooses locomotion parameters that optimise perception of effort at the expenses of energy expenditure (e.g., walking to running transition). When energy seems ‘optimised’ this coincides with the optimal perception of effort as well. So perception is always optimised but energy expenditure is often not. The. . . conclusion is that the CNS optimises perception of effort rather than energy expenditure.”

Energy expenditure and perceived effort are closely linked. For the most part, movement patterns that reduce energy expenditure also make running feel easier. It is very likely that the evolutionary reason individual runners adopt the particular way of running they do is to minimize energy expenditure. But it is perceived effort that actually controls this process. In other words, running in the way that minimizes perceived effort is the means by which runners achieve the end of minimizing energy expenditure.

Consider what happens when you’re running along and you turn into a strong headwind. You hunch forward, don’t you? This natural adjustment reduces the surface area of your body and minimizes the energy cost of running into the wind. But the choice to hunch is made consciously, and what you are really doing as a living organism is trying to make running feel as easy as possible despite the headwind. What Marcora and I are suggesting is that this is what runners are doing all the time, although mostly in subtler ways not involving headwinds.

Perception of effort is tied to brain activity. In crude terms, the harder you have to think about your movements, the harder those movements feel. So your goal as a runner is to run as thoughtlessly and unconsciously as possible. This is why consciously changing the way you run is such a bad idea. No matter what you change, you will have to think more about what you’re doing because what you’re doing is unnatural, and this will make running feel harder.

This does not mean you are stuck with your current stride forever. Every runner’s stride evolves gradually over time as the CNS learns through repetitive practice how to move in ways that feel easier (and that usually also reduce energy cost). Consider something like running with a higher stride rate. If you force yourself to run with a higher stride rate right now, running will feel harder (if only very slightly) and you will probably also be less efficient because you have to think about what you’re doing. But guess what? If you just leave your stride alone and keep training, it is probable that your stride rate will increase somewhat over time, and this natural evolution will be associated with reduced perception of effort and likely also with increased efficiency. You have to earn your stride changes.

Evidence that thinking about your running is bad for your running comes from studies in which researchers look at the effects of attentional focus on running economy. A series of experiments conducted by European researchers has shown that runners become less efficient when they focus their attention internally versus externally, even if their internal attentional focus does not involve any effort to alter their running form. Let that sink in for a minute.

I only wish these researchers had measured the effect of attentional focus on perceived effort as well, because it is perception of effort, not physiology, that directly limits endurance performance. Becoming more economical doesn’t do a runner any good if this benefit comes at the cost of increased perception of effort, as no runner can run faster than he feels he can run. And based on his understanding of what good running form really is, Marcora believes it would be a mistake for runners to try to increase their economy through interventions requiring conscious form changes (i.e., internal attentional focus, i.e., thinking), even if these interventions actually worked. “What happens to perception of effort if we make people run in the way that gets the lowest energy expenditure?” he asked in our email exchange. “I bet it would go up considerably.” And when perceived effort goes up, performance goes down, because the definition of good running form is the particular way of running that feels easiest to an individual runner.

The strength-training methods I use today are different from those I practiced before I spent 13 weeks as a guest member of Hoka One One Northern Arizona Elite, a professional running team, in the summer of 2017. It’s not that I lacked commitment to strength training prior to this experience. As a self-coached athlete I hit the gym three times a week for 20-minute full-body strength sessions. But my Flagstaff experience resulted in changes that have enabled me to strength train more effectively.

The NAZ Elite team meets every Thursday for a one-hour strength workout designed and overseen by brothers AJ and Wes Gregg at Hypo2 Sport. Runners are expected to do a second, similar strength workout on their own, something I chose to do on Mondays. My very first team strength workout was embarrassing and eye-opening. I came into it thinking that strength was my strength, so to speak, but that first session just about killed me. I realized then that I had been coasting through my solo strength workouts—just checking the box by doing the same, familiar, comfortable exercise again and again in a half-assed sort of way.

Two separate factors made these professionally designed strength workouts tougher. One was exercise selection. Many of the exercises required balance and challenged important stabilizing muscles that are underdeveloped in most runners—including me, apparently. An example is the single-leg reverse deadlift, which entails standing on one foot and reaching a dumbbell toward the toe of that foot with the opposite hand by tilting the torso forward and kicking the non-supporting leg out behind. A muscle-bound bodybuilder might sneer at the puny size of the dumbbells we used to perform this exercise, but when he tried the exercise himself and couldn’t complete two reps without losing balance and touching the other foot down, he would cry like a little baby, and when he woke up the next morning feeling sore in muscles he never knew he had, he would cry all over again.

The other factor that made pro-style strength training tough for me was the intensity of the sessions. Virtually every exercise was done until it hurt. For example, when I saw side planks listed on the workout sheet I was given at the start of my first team strength workout, I celebrated, because I did this exercise at home—one 30-second hold per side, three times per week. I was forced to do three 75-second holds per side, and it was the single most painful thing I did in Flagstaff, including all of my run workouts.

It’s impossible to quantify the benefits I derived from this hard work, but I’m certain I benefitted. Within a few weeks of arriving in Flagstaff I felt like a different runner—tighter, lighter, more athletic, even younger. One of the main purposes of strength training as a runner is injury prevention. I did not escape Flagstaff without injury, but that’s what the second component of pro-style strength training is for: rehab.

The same guys who administer the strength workouts for NAZ Elite—the aforementioned Gregg brothers—are also chiropractors who function as full-service physiotherapists. I dealt with two minor injuries and one major one during my summer with the team, and each time I got dinged up, AJ gave me corrective exercises intended to restore function and prevent the problem from recurring. A typical exercise entailed lying face up on the floor with a resistance band looped around my feet and pulling my right knee toward my head while keeping the left leg straight. Collectively, these exercises made my body more balanced and functionally symmetric, and enabled me to overcome the breakdowns I experienced and race well at the Chicago Marathon.

I’ve incorporated much of what I learned about pro-style strength training into my new 80/20 Strength Training Plans, available here: https://8020endurance.com/strength-training-plans/.

There is virtually no evidence from controlled scientific studies that high-volume training is optimal for developing endurance fitness.

High-volume training is optimal for developing endurance fitness.

Both of the above statements are true. The reason there is virtually no evidence from controlled scientific studies that high-volume training is optimal for developing endurance fitness is that it’s almost impossible to design and execute a study that properly tests the effects of high-volume training on endurance fitness.

Here’s why: In order to properly study the effects of high-volume training on endurance fitness, you need to start with previous untrained subjects. Of course, untrained individuals cannot handle a large volume of endurance training. So it’s necessary to start them off at low volume and gradually increase the amount of training they do until they stop improving, comparing their degree of improvement along the way to controls who train differently (the obvious alternative being a low-volume, high-intensity approach).

Judging by real-world evidence, it would take years for previous untrained subjects undergoing such a protocol to reach a training volume that ceased to provide additional fitness benefits. Paula Radcliffe is a great example. It took her 14 years to build up from running 30 to 40 miles per week to running 140 to 150 miles per week, at which volume she achieved her finest performances. It goes without saying that most people could never handle 140 to 150 miles per week of running, but nevertheless we can be certain that it would take years for even the average person to build up to his or her individually optimal volume of training. It is simply not practical for scientists to rigidly control the exercise patterns of volunteers for such a long period of time, and thus it has never even been attempted, and thus there is virtually no evidence from controlled scientific studies that high-volume training is optimal for developing endurance fitness.

What scientists do instead of devoting years to properly testing the effects of high-volume training on endurance fitness is compare different intensities of exercise in short-term studies. But such studies are inherently biased toward high intensity because although previously untrained individuals are not capable of training at high volumes, they are fully capable of training at high intensities in small doses. These comparisons therefore invariably conclude that a minute of high-intensity exercise has a bigger impact on endurance fitness than does a minute of low-intensity exercise. As valid as this conclusion may be, it is completely irrelevant to the interests of endurance athletes seeking performance in the real world.

I suppose if you only have a few minutes a week to train for a marathon, you’re better off sprinting. But if you only have a few minutes a week to train for a marathon, you’re better off not training for a marathon. Otherwise, you need to look to real-world best practices, not to science, for guidance on how to build fitness.

To realize your full potential as an endurance athlete, do like the pros: Start by doing 80 percent of your training at low intensity and 20 percent at moderate to high intensity in an overall amount that is challenging but manageable for you. Over time, as your tolerance grows, gradually increase your training volume, being sure to maintain an 80/20 balance, to reduce your volume for recovery in every third or fourth week, and to take one or two good, solid breaks each year. Continue this process until you feel that increasing your training volume any further would provide no additional benefit.

Science, shmience.

Running is a hobby for the vast majority of runners. Only for a tiny fraction of the runner population is the sport a livelihood. Because the pros depend on their race performances to put food on the table, they typically do everything in their power to maximize their performance. This no-stone-unturned approach to running is what I call the livelihood mindset.

Even the most competitive recreational runners can’t always justify doing everything the pros do to maximize their performance—things like flying to Phoenix for an appointment with physiotherapist-to-the-stars John Ball or doing three weeks of altitude training in Mammoth Lakes, California. They have to set limits on the lengths they are willing to go to run faster. I call this the hobby mindset.

The thing is, competitive recreational runners often exercise a hobby mindset unnecessarily, not doing things they easily could do to improve. But they set these artificial limits only half-consciously or even unconsciously, unaware that they are making a hobby-minded choice when they have the opportunity to make a livelihood-minded choice that would help them get to the finish line of their next race faster.

I’ll give you a personal example. This past summer I spent three months in Flagstaff training with HOKA One One Northern Arizona Elite, a team of top professional runners. The whole point of this experience was to treat running as if it were my livelihood for a short period of time. Prior to relocating to Flagstaff, I had pretty much given up on seeking medical help for running-related injuries. It was just too much of a hassle. But during those three months of living like a pro I made liberal use of the resources available to me. I dealt with two significant injuries while in Flagstaff and I am certain that my experiment would not have ended as successfully as it did (with a PR at the Chicago Marathon) had I tried to manage these problems on my own as I do at home.

Among the most common situations in which I see recreational runners exercise a hobby mindset unnecessarily, and to their own detriment, has to do with marathon fueling. One thing I’ve noticed in interacting with elite marathon runners is that they all take in lots of carbs during races in the form of sports drinks and gels. On the one hand, this fact is unremarkable. Research has proven beyond any doubt that the more carbohydrate a runner consumes during a marathon, the better he or she performs. But on the other hand, the fact that all elite runners consume lots of carbs during marathons is noteworthy when you consider that many recreational runners take in little or no carbohydrate because sports drinks and gels don’t agree with them.

Where are the elite runners with whom sports drinks and gels don’t agree? They do exist. But they consume large amounts of carbs during marathons anyway, either by simply putting up with GI discomfort or by relentlessly experimenting with different products and fueling strategies until they find something that works for them.

Consider Shalane Flanagan. In 2010, Shalane made her marathon debut in New York. At the first elite aid station, located at 5K, she drank a few ounces of the sports drink she had chosen for the event. Unfortunately, it upset her stomach to the point that she was unable to drink any more for the remainder of the race, finishing second nevertheless.

All too many recreational runners who have this type of experience decide that taking carbs on the run just isn’t for them and fuel subsequent marathons with water only or with dubious alternatives such ketones or medium-chain triglycerides. In more extreme cases, they may go on a high-fat diet to ensure they don’t “need” carbs during marathons (a misguided notion if there ever was one, as all runners benefit from taking in carbs during marathons regardless of their fat-burning capacity—it’s not about “needing” them).

Shalane, however, understood that her livelihood depended on finding a way to successfully absorb more carbs during future marathons and she put a lot of effort into this project. I know because I happen to be one of the experts she sought out for advice. When Shalane returned to the New York City Marathon in 2017, she consumed four ounces of Gatorade every 5K and a gel packet every 45 minutes—and, of course, she won the race.

There are lots of other ways in which recreational runners routinely hold themselves back by exercising a hobby mindset when they don’t need to. Among them are doing strength exercises (e.g. chest press) that make a person look better and run slower, racing too often, avoiding unpleasant workout types, and overdressing for cold-weather races. I’m not saying that any of these performance-sabotaging choices is inherently bad. I’m just saying that you should make them with open eyes, fully aware that you are sacrificing performance for something else (such as comfort in the case of overdressing).

Occasionally the pros slip into a hobby mindset too. When I was in Flagstaff, NAZ Elite member Rochelle Kanuho confessed to me that she had always wanted six-pack abs, not because they would help her running but because she liked how they looked. In pursuit of this look, she did a ton of core work. No matter how hard she tried, however, she couldn’t get her abs to show. Frustrated, she stopped doing core work, which caused her core to weaken, which caused her to develop a low-back injury.

We’re all human!

Easy runs get no love. Whenever a video is made of elite runners in training, it’s always some type of workout that’s filmed (a track session, hill repetitions, a long run at marathon pace), never an easy run. This is the case despite the fact that easy runs are the foundation of any good training program and collectively contribute more to race-day performance than any other type of run.

The tendency in our sport to take easy runs for granted has practical consequences. These runs are considered so basic that no one can possibly screw them up, and yet no run type is screwed up more often or with greater consequences. I’m referring to the moderate-intensity rut, of course—the almost universal tendency of runners to do their easy runs too fast, slightly above the ventilatory threshold (VT), making each session more stressful than it should be and creating a chronic burden of fatigue that inhibits fitness development and compromises performance in runs that are intended to be harder.

But I’m sick of talking about the moderate-intensity rut. Today I’d like to talk instead about another important element of easy run execution, which is allowing your easy run pace to vary wildly from day to day and even within individual easy runs based on how you’re feeling. Contradictory though it may seem, only by pacing yourself inconsistently in your easy runs will they consistently serve their intended purpose, which is to ensure that your overall training workload is close to, but within, the limit of your body’s present tolerance for training stress.

Erratically paced easy runs are essentially a method of ensuring that a good training plan is correctly applied. Before you start to train for any important race you should, of course, devise (or choose) a training plan. Your overarching goal in developing this plan is, as I just suggested, to prescribe a workload that is near to, but less than, the limit of your body’s tolerance for training stress. To achieve this goal, you need to decide on an appropriate volume of training, design key workouts that are hard but not too hard, and determine the right target paces for these key workouts.

If you are experienced and knowledgeable enough, it’s not too difficult to come up with a training plan that fits. But no matter how experienced and knowledgeable you are, you cannot design a plan that prescribes the perfect workload every day for its entire length. This would require an almost godlike degree of foresight. The power of planning is limited by the impossibility of knowing exactly how your body will respond to the training you plan. Therefore your plan must have built-in flexibility, allowing for a certain amount of responsiveness in its execution.

It’s best not to change things unnecessarily, though. You had specific reasons for deciding how much running you would do and what your key workouts would be and how fast you would run in those sessions. These elements of your training are not the first ones that you should alter in response a discrepancy between expectation and reality, such as not feeling good in several consecutive runs. A much better way to tweak your training on the fly is to adjust your easy run paces to ensure that your workload is at every point high enough but not excessive. This approach makes a lot of sense because whereas no single easy run is terribly important, collectively easy runs account for the bulk of your total training stress, so they present a lot of opportunity to fine-tune your workload.

The way to do this is to try to maintain a consistent comfort level throughout all of your easy runs regardless of pace. Ideally, you will feel very comfortable from the beginning to the end of every easy run you do. On days when you are carrying fatigue from recent hard training or you’re just feeling flat for no particular reason, staying comfortable may require you to run one or even two minutes per mile slower than your ventilatory threshold pace. And on days when you’re feeling good, your legs may want to carry you right at VT pace, and there’s no reason not to do so in this situation. And if you’re like me and you often feel bad and good at different points within a single easy run, you should allow your pace to fluctuate.

How you feel during your easy runs is not arbitrary. It’s information about how your body is doing and what sort of training stimulus is appropriate. By allowing comfort to set your pace, you will not miss out on opportunities to run faster and get a bigger training stimulus when your body’s up to it but at the same time you will avoid overtaxing your body when it requires a gentler training stimulus. And the long-term effect will be that your overall training workload is in the Goldilocks Zone—high enough but not too high.

The pros practice erratic easy run pacing. For example, during an easy run I did with the Northern Arizona Elite team a few weeks before the Chicago Marathon, Aaron Braun observed that as his key workouts were getting faster and faster, his easy runs were getting slower and slower. (I think we were jogging at just under 8:00/mile at the time, or more than 2.5 minutes per mile slower than Aaron’s VT pace.) Of course, Aaron wasn’t slowing down in his easy runs because he was physically incapable of going faster. He was slowing down because he chose to, and he chose to because like most pros he habitually paces his easy runs by feel, aiming to maintain a consistent comfort level throughout all of them.

Now you try it!

 

 

 

 

A friend of mine ran the California International Marathon recently. CIM is known for producing more Boston Marathon qualifiers (relative to field size) than any marathon other than Boston itself, and indeed my friend’s goal was to BQ. As a 40-year-old male, he needed to finish in 3:12, give or take, to claim a slot. He stayed right on pace through 22 miles, but then cramped up and faded to 3:18—still a PR, but not what he was hoping for.

Afterward, my friend and I had a conversation about what had gone wrong. He had no clue beyond the fact that he had cramped. I asked him how he had trained for his qualifying attempt. He told me he’d run four times per week: three six-mile runs during the workweek and a long run of up to 22 miles on the weekend. I told him the reason he’d hit the wall was obvious: He hadn’t trained enough!

I’m aware that some marathoners don’t have time to run more often than four times per week or more than 40 total miles in a single week. But this wasn’t the case with my friend. It just hadn’t crossed his mind to train more. I see this all the time as a coach—runners who could achieve more if they trained more set an arbitrary cap on their training volume that is not based on how much running they have time for or how much their body can handle.

Coincidentally, the day after CIM a new study on the differences in training patterns between slower and faster marathon runners was published in the Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine. Researchers from the Cambridge Centre for Sport and Exercise Science gathered comprehensive data on the training regimens of 97 recreational marathoners. To no one’s surprise, I’m sure, they found that faster runners trained a lot more than slower ones. The following table summarizes their findings.

Marathon Time

2.5-3 Hours

3-3.5 Hours

3.5-4 Hours

4-4.5 Hours

4.5-5 Hours

Average Runs per Week

5.7

5.0

4.1

4.9

4.4

Average Miles Per Week

56.9

50.5

38.7

34.8

27.2

 There are two ways to interpret this information. On the one hand, it might be looked at as evidence that faster marathoners are faster because they train more. On the other hand, the same evidence might suggest that faster marathoners tend to train more. I think it goes without saying that the first interpretation is true to a certain degree. The more we train as runners, the faster we get. But I think it’s also true that faster marathoners choose to train more because they are faster. Why, though?

Human nature is the short answer. People tend to invest more time and effort in activities they feel they’re good at. It doesn’t take long for each new runner to get some sense of his or her natural ability level. Those who have a knack for it are prone to keep piling on the miles in pursuit of their ultimate limit, whereas those with average or below-average speed are more likely to decide that their ability level is not worthy of an investment exceeding 40 miles per week. This calculus is seldom conscious, but it’s no less real for that. I’ve interacted with thousands of runners over many years and the pattern is clear: Less gifted runners typically hold a tacit belief that they do not deserve to train a lot.

Personally, I feel that passion, not talent, should determine how hard a runner trains. If you love running enough to want to find out how good you can be, even if you’re really not that good, then you should go for it. I’m happy to say that I communicated this message to the friend of mine who fell short of his goal at CIM and he has committed to step up his training for the next marathon. How about you?

Many runners don’t know how to train during the winter. They know that they should train, but they lack a clear sense of the purpose of winter workouts. And if you don’t know why you’re running, it’s difficult to determine how to run.

Assuming you wish to be in good racing shape for one or more spring events, then your winter training has not one but three distinct objectives: developing general fitness, increasing durability, and improving body composition. Let’s take a look at each of these objectives.

Developing General Fitness

When you’re training for a specific event, you want to develop a type of fitness that is specific to that event. Although a 100 km mountain race and a 5000-meter track race both qualify as distance-running events, each demands a specific type of fitness that is very different from what the other requires. During the winter, however, when your next race is many weeks away, you want to be pretty good at everything rather than great at one thing. Therefore your training should be balanced, featuring a mix of easy runs, long runs, and faster runs at every intensity from marathon pace to full sprints, as well as a little hill work to boost your stride power.

While some runs should be harder than others, none of the runs you do during this period should be more than moderately challenging. For example, a good peak workout to do before a 10K race is 6 x 1 mile at 10K race pace with 1-minute passive recoveries between efforts. A more appropriate workout targeting the same intensity during the winter would be 6 x 1 km at 10K pace.

Increasing Durability

In order to get in peak shape for a race or series of races, you have to take some risks in your training. More precisely, you must train close enough to your limits that there’s a chance you might get injured or (less likely) become overtrained. One of the major objectives of winter training is to reduce the likelihood that you get injured or burn out later by increasing your body’s durability.

The most effective way to do this is to gradually increase your running volume until it reaches a level that is at or near the highest level that is indefinitely sustainable for you. If you plan to peak at 50 miles per week right before your next race, for example, build gradually up to around 40 miles per week during the winter.

What most runners fail to recognize is that, whereas running injuries are caused by running a lot (obviously), running a lot is also the best way to prevent running injuries. That’s because running increases the body’s ability to withstand the stress of running. Think of it this way: Who is more likely to get injured trying to run 50 miles in one week—a runner who routinely runs 40 miles a week or a runner who has never run more than 20 miles in one week? The answer is plain. The key to increasing durability through winter running is to find a mileage sweet spot that is relatively high for you but at the same time well within your body’s limits.

You can also increase your injury resistance through strength training and mobility work. You should do these things throughout the year, of course, but the winter is a good time to prioritize them because doing so will make your body more balanced before you start really piling on the miles. It is beyond the scope of this short article to offer detailed guidelines on strength and mobility training, but there are many good existing sources available. One that I recommend is Jay Dicharry’s book Running Rewired.

Improving Body Composition

You can’t race your best without being lean. Where body composition is concerned, form follows function, so you will tend to get leaner automatically as you train for peak performance. But the best time to prioritize shedding excess body fat is during the off-season, before you begin a race-focused training cycle. The reason is that when you are taking on training workloads that are close to your limit, you need to make sure you are eating enough to maximize performance and recovery. Attempting to sustain the sort of daily calorie deficit that is needed to shed body fat relatively quickly could pull the rug out from under your training. But during the winter, when your workloads are lower and you’re not concerned about maximizing performance, intentionally eating 300-500 fewer calories per day than your body uses will stimulate fat loss without negative consequences other than a little hunger.

Strength training also promotes a leaner body composition by increasing resting metabolism. The best types of exercises to use for this purpose are compound movements involving large muscle groups and performed with heavy loads. Examples are deadlifts and back squats. These are not the best exercises to do during race-focused training, when you’ll want to focus on movements that increase stability, but during the winter these bread-and-butter heavy lifts should come to the fore.

Pacing is the art of getting to the finish line of a race in the least amount of time possible given the current state of your body (fitness and fatigue levels, etc.) and external conditions. Generally, this requires that you distribute your effort quite evenly throughout the race and that this evenly distributed effort leave you tired enough in the approach to the finish line that you are able to speed up a little but not much.

It has been my observation as a coach that most runners aren’t very good at pacing. Knowing a thing or two about the science of pacing, I am not surprised by the pervasiveness of this weakness. There is no test, calculator, or device that can tell a runner how to pace a race optimally. Pacing is and always will be a form of guessing based on subjective perceptions. Specifically, pacing entails using perception of effort, or your global sense of how hard you are working, to adjust your speed so that, at every moment throughout a race, you feel you are running at the highest speed you can sustain to the finish line. In other words, pacing is a skill that requires you to interpret a feeling (perception of effort) through the lens of external information (your conscious knowledge of how far away the finish line is) to make a prediction (whether you can sustain your current speed to the finish line) that could yield disastrous consequences if it is even slightly inaccurate. Not easy.

Like all skills, though, pacing ability can be improved. As a coach, I try to help my athletes become better pacers by incorporating simple pacing games into their workouts. Each of these exercises offers an opportunity to practice linking perception of effort with external measures, which is the essence of the skill. Give them a try!

Human Autosplit

Turn on the autosplit function on your running watch so that you are notified when you’ve completed each mile (or kilometer) of a run and the time is captured. Throughout your low-intensity easy runs and long runs, when you hear your watch beep to signal a completed mile or kilometer, try to guess your split time to the exact second before you look at the display. If you do this consistently, making it a habitual component of every low-intensity run, you’ll get really good at it.

Metronomic Repeats

In workouts that feature intervals or repeats of a uniform distance, try to run precisely the same time (down to the tenth of a second in shorter intervals) in all of them. For example, suppose your workout comprises 6 x 1 mile at 10K race pace with 1:00 rests between repeats. If you happen to run the first mile in 6:22, do your best to run each subsequent mile in 6:22 also. Obviously, to get the desired training effect from such a workout, it’s enough to just be in the right ballpark with your interval times. But by raising your standard of consistency, you will get a second benefit from the workout, which is improved pacing ability.

Thin-Sliced Cutdowns

Cutdown intervals are intervals of a uniform distance or duration in which you try to run each one a little faster than the one before. Cutdown interval workouts that feature a large number of intervals offer an excellent opportunity to refine your control of effort.

One such workout, which I learned from HOKA One One Northern Arizona Elite coach Ben Rosario, consists of 10 x 1:00 uphill, where you are required to cover more distance in each rep than you did in the one before, finishing with an all-out effort. Obviously, you could cheat by walking the first rep, then speed-walking the second, and so forth. But the idea is to do the first rep at an honest effort that leaves just enough room to increase your effort nine notches more through the remainder of the session.

When I do this workout, I carry an extra pair of socks. At the instant I complete the first 1:00 hill repetition, I toss down a sock as a marker. In the next rep, I toss down the second sock, hoping to get about 10 feet beyond the first sock when a minute is up. Then I pick up the first sock while jogging back down the hill to my starting point, and so on.

Research suggests that all runners get better at pacing automatically through the process of accumulating training and racing experience. Indeed, there is no substitute for experience when it comes to mastering the skill of pacing. However, you will improve more quickly if your consciously and routinely practice your pacing through games like those I just described than you will if you just train without ever really thinking about pacing.

One of the hottest areas of research in exercise science lately concerns the effects of low-carbohydrate, high-fat (LCHF) diets on endurance athletes. The latest addition to the literature on this subject comes from a study led by A.J. Heatherly at Middle Tennessee State University and published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

Eight middle-aged, recreationally competitive male runners served as subjects. After being weighed and completing an initial performance test consisting of a 5 km road time trial, all eight volunteers were placed on a LCHF diet in which 70 percent of daily calories came from fat and carbohydrate intake was limited to 50 grams per day or less. At the end of the three-week intervention, the runners were weighed again and repeated the performance test.

On average, the men lost 2.5 kg (5.5 pounds) on the LCHF diet. Their 5 km performance did not change significantly, but the average time in the second time trial was 28 seconds faster.

At first blush, these results would appear to indicate that it is a good idea for runners to adopt a LCHF diet. But in fact it is not, for two reasons. The first and smaller reason is that the study was not controlled. All eight subjects went on the diet under scrutiny and none stayed on their normal diet for comparison’s sake. For this reason, the study design failed to account for the well-known familiarization effect. Any time a runner does the same time trial twice in three weeks, he can be expected to run a little faster the second time even if he hasn’t changed his diet or training because he knows the course and has a preexisting mark to aim for.

The bigger reason that the results of this study should not be interpreted as a win for the LCHF diet is that the runners failed to improve very much despite losing a substantial amount of body fat. A runner who loses 5.5 pounds of blubber should run much faster over 5 km regardless of any effect that the specific diet used to stimulate the weight loss might have on metabolism. The fact that the subjects in this study did not get much faster suggests that the benefit of losing weight was counteracted by something else. And from prior research we know what that something else was: High-fat diets are proven to impair carbohydrate-burning capacity and increase the energy cost of running at any given speed. In other words, they make runners less efficient and strip them of their highest gears.

If a LCHF diet were the only way to lose weight, then it might still be worth considering based on these findings. But it’s not. I can guarantee that if the same eight runners had simply improved the overall quality of their diet without changing the balance of macronutrients in it, they would have lost a comparable amount of weight without impairing their carbohydrate-burning capacity or their running economy in the process. Indeed, I myself recently lost 9 lbs in precisely this manner and it was a major contributor to my setting a marathon PR of 2:39:30 at age 46.

Lastly, let me just say this: Thank goodness the LCHF diet is not the optimal diet for endurance performance, because it is a tedious, ultra-restrictive, and no-fun way to eat!

There are two rationales for changing the way you run. One is to improve performance by reducing the energy cost of running at any given pace. The other is to reduce injury risk. Scientific research going back decades has consistently shown that when runners intentionally alter their natural running form, they do not become more economical. In fact, they often become less efficient. But a separate thread of research has demonstrated that certain changes in running form do reduce the risk of particular injuries.

A new study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine is the first experiment I know of that has investigated the effects of altered running form on both efficiency and injury risk in the same group of subjects. Sixteen runners, all of them heel strikers and all suffering from patellofemoral pain (a.k.a. runner’s knee), participated. Half of them were trained to switch from heel to forefoot striking while the others served as a control group. All of the runners were subjected to tests of running economy and were asked to subjectively rate the level of pain in their knees during running. Switching from heel to forefoot striking was found to have no effect on running economy either immediately following gait retraining or after one month of practice, but it did reduce knee pain.

These findings affirm the advice I’ve been giving runners for years: Don’t change the way you run for the sake of improving your running economy and performance. It won’t work. Instead, alter your running form only if you have suffered an injury that was caused by a correctible “flaw” (scare quotes used because it’s only a flaw if it causes an injury) in your running mechanics, the heel striking-runner’s knee link being one example.

Now, every time I make this argument, at least one skeptic counters that a month (or six weeks, or however long it is) is not long enough for the energy-saving effects of a form change to manifest. Runners, they say, need more time to adapt to their new running style. There are two problems with this objection. The first is that there is simply no evidence to support it. Studies lasting as long as 12 weeks have shown that the loss of efficiency resulting from modified running form persist despite continued practice. How long is enough? Six months? A year? What is the basis for the faith that switching to a forefoot striking pattern or reducing stride length or reducing vertical oscillation will eventually pay often when it has never been found to do so?

The other problem with the common objection to my advice on running form is that running form tends to improve over time in all runners. Coaches who do teach “proper” form have told me that in their own long-term testing they have observed improvements in running economy in runners whose form they’ve modified. But what these coaches don’t realize is that these runners would have become more efficient anyway, and in fact it they probably would have improved more if their form had been left alone to evolve naturally.

This is precisely why no runner should change his or her running style for the sake of performance. The human running stride is a self-optimizing system that advances automatically toward maximum efficiency through simple repetition. You can’t make it happen any faster through conscious manipulation. Like growing a beard, you have to just let it happen.

When you wake up on race morning, you’re either physically prepared to achieve your goal or you’re not. There is nothing you can do to change your fitness level in the final hours before the gun goes off.

Your mind is another matter. Recent science has demonstrated that the thoughts and emotions a runner experiences immediately before and during a race strongly affect performance and outcomes—for better or worse. As a runner, you want to control your race-day thoughts and emotions in ways that produce the best possible results.

Here are five specific science-backed mental strategies to use in your next race.

Brace yourself

The direct limiter of performance in distance-running events is not physiology but something called perception of effort, which is a runner’s global sense of how hard running feels at any given moment. Every runner has a maximum tolerable level of perceived effort, just as every person has a maximum pain tolerance. But certain factors can increase this limit and thereby boost performance, while other factors can enhance performance by reducing the level of effort a runner perceives at any given pace.

One of these factors is expectations. Runners tend to be less bothered by a high level of effort and less likely to slow down in response to it when the feeling does not exceed the effort level they expected to experience at that point in the race. So one way to harness the power of your mind to your advantage on race day is to consciously expect the race to be very hard—a strategy I refer to as “bracing yourself”. 

Turn anxiety into excitement

Psychological experiments have demonstrated that when people tell themselves they are excited rather than nervous before a challenge such as speaking in public or taking a math test, they perform better. This technique has not yet been tested in an exercise context, but it’s reasonable to assume that it would work just as well before a running race because anxiety is known to increase perceived effort. And even if it doesn’t make you run faster, turning anxiety into excitement will make the pre-race experience less unpleasant for you.

Embrace your effort

Perceived effort is distinct from pain, but similar. Many factors that increase pain tolerance or reduce pain sensitivity have similar effects on perceived effort during exercise. For example, studies have shown that people who adopt an attitude of acceptance before experiencing a pain stimulus (“I know this will hurt, but I can handle it”) are able to tolerate the pain better than people who adopt an attitude of resistance (“I hope this doesn’t hurt”). 

Psychologists use a technique known as acceptance and commitment therapy to teach people to embrace the unpleasant aspects of pursuing behavioral change and goals. In a 2014 study, Elena Ivanova of McGill University found that teaching beginning exercisers to accept the discomfort of exercise through this method resulted in a 55 percent increase in time to exhaustion in a high-intensity endurance test. These subjects weren’t any fitter than before; they simply had a higher tolerance for perceived effort because they embraced it. Do the same in your next race!

Stay on task

There are two directions in which you can channel your attention while running: internally and externally. Generally speaking, when your attention is focused internally, you are concentrating on how you’re doing, and when your attention is focused externally, you’re focused on what you’re doing. Studies have shown that runners experience a lower level of perceived effort at any given pace and perform better when they keep their attention externally focused, on the task at hand.

How do you do this? Try concentrating on task-relevant stimuli such as other runners (e.g., put a target on the back of the runner in front of you) and your pace (e.g. check your watch at regular intervals and make adjustments as necessary to stay on track toward your goal). When you find your attention turning inward toward negative feelings (discomfort) and emotions (self-doubt), make a conscious effort to shift it back to the task at hand.

Stay positive

When experiencing discomfort during a race, it is normal to think negative thoughts such as, “I’m going to hit the wall!” But some runners consciously arrest these thoughts and replace them with positive substitutes like, “Just be patient.” A 2013 study by Samuele Marcora at the University of Kent demonstrated that this practice, known as positive self-talk, reduces perceived effort and enhances endurance performance.

The next time you find yourself entertaining negative thoughts during a race, quickly replace them with a more helpful alternative. With a little practice you will find specific phrases that work especially well for you. Among my personal favorites are “Relax, you’ve been here before” and “How bad do you want it?” (which happens to be the title of my book on mastering the psychology of mind over muscle).

Arguably the greatest runner in history is an Ethiopian man named Haile Gebrselassie. He broke nearly 30 world records in a career that spanned from the early 1990s through 2015. He has won eight World Championships gold medals, two Olympic gold medals, and numerous major marathons. Now at least 38 years old (it is widely believed he is actually three or four years older), Gebrselassie remains among the fastest distance runners in the world.

In the early part of his career, Haile Gebrselassie was believed to be dominant simply because he had more natural talent than other runners. But the longer his reign of dominance has extended, the more apparent it has become that Geb’s success has as much to do with his mental attitude as with whatever genetic advantages he may have.

Gebrselassie set his first marathon world record in Berlin in 2007. After crossing the finish line he was swarmed by reporters. The first words they heard him utter were these: “I can run faster.” The following year Geb returned to Berlin and set another world record, bettering his own mark by 27 seconds. He immediately set about trying to run even faster.

Haile Gebrselassie is the greatest runner who ever lived not only because he is extremely talented but also because he is never satisfied. This is a hallmark characteristic of champions in every sport and of successful people outside of sports as well. Mediocre performers in sports and beyond pat themselves on the back when they achieve goals. Champions don’t. Not even one minute after doing better than they ever have before (perhaps even better than any human being has ever done before) they decide that they could have done better—and will do better.

People who don’t have this mindset often assume that an athlete who is never satisfied is an athlete who never allows himself to enjoy his sport. This is not true. You can have a never-satisfied mentality and simultaneously maintain a great passion for your sport or entrepreneurship or whatever else. In fact, Haile Gebrselassie is beloved by runners around the world because he never stops smiling and because his passion for running is always so evident. His inability to ever be content with anything he achieves does not get in the way of his passion for running—it is an expression of his passion. He has an insatiable hunger to reach higher. He loves trying to reach higher, whether he succeeds or fails.

No matter what your passion is, you will get both more success and more enjoyment from it if you are never satisfied.

The phrase “comfort zone” has mostly negative connotations. A comfort zone is generally understood to be a metaphorical place where a person clings to familiar routines and avoids embracing the new challenges that stimulate growth. One is never advised to stay in his or her comfort zone. The advice is always to get out of one’s comfort zone.

I won’t deny that improvement in any part of life—sports, business, relationships, you name it—is impossible without discomfort. As Friedrich Nietzsche put it, “What does not kill us makes us stronger.” But I believe that comfort itself also plays a valuable role in the pursuit of improvement. After all, in order to get out of your comfort zone, you must first have a comfort zone to get out of! In sports, for example, a comfort zone is a set of routines developed over time that work well for an athlete. The athlete draws comfort from those routines precisely because their effectiveness is well proven. Without such familiar habits an athlete has no foundation from which to push himself or herself through discomfort to new levels of achievement.

All great athletes know the value of a good comfort zone. The great American marathon runner Joan Benoit Samuelson once said, “Becoming a champion requires that you are comfortable when and where you are training.” Throughout her brilliant career, which included a victory in the 1984 Olympic Marathon, Samuelson trained alone in her home state of Maine. Her sponsor, Nike, tried to coax her into moving to Oregon to train with other top runners but she refused. Although in theory it would have made sense for her to take advantage of Nike’s resources and coaches and team environment, Samuelson liked where she was and believed in what she was doing, so she stayed in her comfort zone and the results of that choice speak for themselves.

Of course, Samuelson knew how to step outside of her comfort zone as well. She trained extremely hard and continuously challenged herself to achieve greater and greater goals. But those uncomfortable challenges always occurred in the context of a favored environment and a custom-fitting training system developed over many years—a comfort zone.

Every athlete knows that success comes through hard work. But there are many different ways to work hard and no single way is right for all athletes. No less important to success is discovering one’s own best way of working hard. Athletes aren’t robots; they’re human beings. To become the best athlete you can be you have to consider everything that affects you as a person. If you are a happier in person in Portland, Maine, than you are in Portland, Oregon, then you will probably work harder and more consistently in Maine and thus improve more.

What’s true in sports is true in the rest of life. As a professional writer, I have cultivated a unique way of working, one full of all kinds of idiosyncrasies, that suits me. Without this a comfort zone I would not have the confidence to challenge myself to do things as a writer that I have never done before.

Take some time to think about the elements of your comfort zone as an athlete, entrepreneur, or whatever else. Is anything lacking? Don’t be afraid to do things ever more your way.

Most people need to be pushed to exercise. Endurance athletes, however, are not most people. As a coach, I have consistently found that endurance athletes need to be held back far more often than they need to be pushed. Don’t get me wrong: The willingness to work hard is an essential ingredient to success in cycling, running, and other endurance disciplines. But it’s not the only ingredient. The most successful athletes also have the restraint required to back off their training when they realize they’re doing too much.

So, how do you know when you’re doing too much? Here are the top five indicators to look for.

Tanking Performance

The whole point of training is to get fitter. Thus, if you’re training and getting less fit (e.g., you’re unable to hit your usual power numbers on the bike or bonking after 14 miles of running when you were knocking out 17 miles without a problem several weeks ago), you know something is wrong. Loss of performance can result from a variety of factors, including illness and nutrient deficiencies. But in most cases, if the only thing that has changed recently is your training, the cause of a performance decline is training too much.

Feeling Crappy

For decades, scientists have searched for the most reliable objective biomarker of overtraining. Everything from the amount of cortisol in the blood to the amount of testosterone in the saliva has been considered. But a 2015 review by Australian researchers concluded that athletes’ own subjective assessments of how they feel are a more reliable indicator of overtraining than anything that can be measured in bodily fluids.

It makes sense, right? An athlete’s internal perceptions of physical well-being are not arbitrary. There has never been an athlete who was totally crushing all of his or her workouts and yet feeling consistently washed out. Unlike hormones and other biomarkers, how you feel represents the totality of what’s going on in your body. So, pay close attention to how you feel both during and between workouts and give yourself extra rest if it becomes normal to feel bad.

Changes in Heart Rate

A higher-than-normal morning pulse rate is a classic indicator of overtraining. To make use of this indicator, you’ll need to get in the habit of measuring your heart rate every morning as soon as you wake up. A single morning where the result is a few beats per minute above normal is nothing to worry about, but if this becomes a trend you may need to cut back on exercise for a little while.

A fancier measurement called heart rate variability (HRV) can also be used to identify overtraining. HRV refers to subtle variations in the rhythm of the heart’s contractions. Endurance training tends to increase HRV, whereas overtraining has the opposite effect. Many heart rate monitors measure HRV and provide training recommendations based on the results, as do apps such as the popular HRV4.

Workout Dread

When your performance is tanking and you’re feeling crappy, it’s natural to start dreading workouts. According to exercise scientists, loss of motivation for training is an almost universal symptom of overtraining. So, if you find yourself looking for excuses to skip workouts, don’t blame your lack of discipline. Blame your excessive training load and pare it down to a level that brings the hunger back.

“Easy” Days Aren’t Easy

One of the most overlooked effects of endurance training is its impact on the relationship between work rate (or how fast you’re going) and perception of effort (or how hard it feels to go that fast). When your training plan is working and you’re getting fitter, the same level of output—whether it’s 200 watts on the bike or a 9:00/mile running pace—feels subjectively easier than before. When the opposite happens, and even your easiest workouts start to feel kind of hard, you’re probably training too much.

This was shown in a study conducted at England’s Birmingham University. Cyclists performed two weeks of normal training followed by two weeks of double their normal training. At the end of each two-week period, the cyclists were asked to rate their perceived effort level on the Borg Scale at a work rate of 200 watts, which was a fairly low intensity for them. On average, they rated this “easy” effort as being 8.9 percent harder when they were overtraining.

The lesson here is simple: pay attention. Even your gentlest workouts offer valuable information about how your training is going. Indeed, avoiding overtraining generally is all about paying attention.