Matt Fitzgerald, Author at 80/20 Endurance

Matt Fitzgerald

Have you ever tried intermittent fasting, or considered trying it, as a way to improve your endurance performance? Then you’ll be interested in a new study that just came out of UC Davis. Led by nutritionist Ashley Tovar, it aimed to determine the effects of a 16/8 “time-restrictive feeding” (i.e., intermittent fasting) program on body composition and performance in runners.

Twenty-seven male runners between the ages of 21 and 36 participated in the experiment. Each subject completed four weeks of eating within an eight-hour window each day (16/8) as well as four weeks of eating on a normal 12/12 schedule, the order of these two schedules being randomized. The runners were instructed to eat the same types and amounts of food as normal on either schedule, so that only the timing differed.

Before and after each four-week period, the subjects underwent body composition testing and ran a 10K time trial. It was found that body fat decreased slightly, from 16.8 to 15.8 percent, on the time-restricted feeding program, while no change occurred on the normal eating schedule. Improvement in 10K times was about equal on both diets.

It’s easy to draw the wrong conclusion from these findings. In order to draw the right conclusion, we need to understand that it’s not easy to lose body fat and yet fail to improve running performance. That’s because shedding body fat boosts running economy. The fact that time-restrictive feeding failed to improve 10K performance more than normal eating despite triggering fat loss indicates that something about it counteracted the boost in running economy the runners got from getting leaner. In other words, intermittent fasting seems to have made these runners less fit at the same time it made them leaner.

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The authors of the study speculated that reduced carbohydrate availability may have been the main factor neutralizing the expected performance-enhancing effect of fat loss on the time-restrictive feeding program, writing, “Extreme depletions of carbohydrate availability have been shown to limit catecholamine responses, suppressing the effect of epinephrine in inducing glycogenolysis and the formation of lactate. The hypothesis that this effect was demonstrated in this investigation may be further supported in that suppression of catecholamines as a result of a persistent lower carbohydrate availability may reduce oxidizable fuels and lead to decreases in VCO2, as observed in this experiment.”

The authors went on to suggest that the self-sabotaging underfueling effect of intermittent fasting is likely to have even greater negative consequences on fitness and performance at race distances both longer and shorter than the 10K distance used in this study, explaining, “The indication that a [time-restrictive feeding] diet may lower lactate at higher intensities (90% VO2peak) suggests that performance during longer duration events requires a greater total contribution of carbohydrate as a fuel. Therefore, a ≥21.1 km race, and shorter duration events requiring a higher reliance on glycolytic type IIa muscle fibers, such as a 5 km race, may be more affected by the 16/8 diet.”

If all this talk of glycogenolysis and catecholamines is a bit over your head, here’s an analogy: Practicing time-restrictive feeding is like racing with a carbon-plated super shoe on one foot and a hiking boot on the other. In this analogy, the super shoe is the equivalent of the fat-loss effect of intermittent fasting and the hiking boot stands for its glycogen-depleting effect. One makes you faster, while the other makes you slower, and the net result is that you’re neither faster nor slower.

If TRF were the only way to lose body fat, certain athletes might still want to consider it as a way to improve, and least in races of moderate duration. But there are in fact other ways for athletes to lose body fat that do not leave the body underfueled and thus actually improve endurance performance. Improving overall diet quality and practicing intuitive eating are two such methods, which, unlike time-restrictive feeding, are practiced widely by elite athletes to promote a lean body composition without robbing the muscles of precious fuel.

I look forward to the time when the intermittent fasting fad has run its course in endurance sports. In the meantime, as an individual athlete, you can use it to your advantage. While others jump on the time-restrictive feeding bandwagon for reasons they believe are rational but are in fact psychosocial, and are fooled into thinking the diet has benefited them because they’ve lost a bit of body fat when in fact this would-be benefit has been neutralized by a form of semi-starvation, you can do the rational thing and simply emulate the less gimmicky eating habits shared almost universally by the world’s best endurance athletes and get both leaner and faster.

How helpful are athletic coping skills really in helping us deal with life adversity?

One year ago today—on October 6, 2020—I had a bad run. It was the type of run I would have really enjoyed had I been on my game: 6 x 1,000 meters at one-mile race pace on a minute’s rest. I hit my target pace (1:52) in the first rep, but it felt harder than it should have, and things went downhill from there. I don’t quit a lot of workouts, but I’m disciplined enough to do so when I need to, and after the fourth rep I quit this one, little knowing it was likely the last speed workout I would ever do.

It took me close to a week to figure out that my poor outing wasn’t just one of those days—that something was seriously wrong with my body. Many more weeks passed before I figured out what that something was: long covid. Scientists aren’t exactly sure what this debilitating chronic illness is, but expert opinion seems to be coalescing around the notion that it is an incurable post-viral autoimmune disease. One thing is certain: After one year, many of my symptoms—including fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, paresthesia, insomnia, exercise intolerance, and cognitive impairment—are as severe as ever.

This isn’t the first bad break I’ve suffered in my life, nor the worst. Thankfully, being an endurance athlete has instilled in me some coping skills that come in handy whenever I get blindsided by hard luck. In 2017, during a brief interregnum between one life-changing calamity and the next, I summarized my mindset as follows: “One of the biggest mistakes you can make in a marathon is to expect to keep feeling great when you’re feeling great—to stop bracing for the worst. I won’t make this mistake in my life. There will be more bad days, I know. Days of loss and grief, if not of trauma and violence. I don’t want to face these days. But when they come, I want to face them like a marathoner.”

I confess that I did not see long covid coming when I put these thoughts down on paper, but it hardly matters. All personal tragedies are the same in the sense that each of us possesses but one set of coping tools to apply to them. For me, therefore, no special effort has been required to fulfill my vow to face my present ordeal like a marathoner. The question is, how useful have my athletic coping tools actually been in their application to this health crisis over the past year?

The answer to this question varies based on which specific tool we’re talking about, as some have been more useful than others. Starting on a positive note, I have done a good job of staying in the moment throughout my waking nightmare, and I believe that doing so has tempered my misery to a degree. More than a quarter century of endurance training and racing taught me to always run the mile I was in, not getting ahead of myself mentally or drawing too many conclusions from present circumstances. If I hit a bad patch during a race and things weren’t looking good, I would remind myself that I had experienced exactly the same thing before and come out just fine. Just put your head down, keep putting one foot in front of the other, and see what happens.

The same coping mechanism has served me well during the past, lost year. I don’t waste time and energy looking back or forward, focusing instead on making the most of what my body gives me each day. I know other long haulers who have only amplified their wretchedness by looking backward, wishing what’s happened to them hadn’t, and looking forward, hoping for a miracle cure that might never come.

Other skills that endurance sports have taught me, and that I’ve leaned on heavily in this living death, are tolerance for discomfort and self-reliance. The importance of these coping tools in endurance training and racing is obvious. As former American 5000-meter record holder Bob Kennedy said, “One thing about racing is that it hurts. You better accept that from the beginning or you’re not going anywhere.” As readers of How Bad Do You Want It? and Life Is a Marathon know, I had a hard time accepting the pain of racing when I was young, but through dogged persistence I executed a slow, 180-degree turnaround, arriving eventually at a point where I regarded toughness as my greatest competitive advantage.

As for self-reliance, one of the ways in which I’ve always been best suited to endurance sports personality-wise is that I keep my own counsel and I like to figure things out for myself. Decades of experience as an endurance athlete have only strengthened this tendency. But long covid is different enough from a marathon that being tough and self-reliant hasn’t always worked to my benefit in my current situation. During periods when my misery level is especially high and I probably ought to seek medical help, I more often than not just try to ride it out the same way I do a bad patch in a race. This grin-and-bear-it approach to surviving long covid has undoubtedly resulted in missed opportunities for symptom relief through therapeutic intervention.

The athletic coping skill that has perhaps proved most maladaptive in the context of my ongoing illness is what I call mission focus. One thing I’ve always found appealing about endurance racing is its sheer simplicity. In each event, I did absolutely everything in my power to reach the finish line in as little time as possible. All other objectives were subservient to this overarching mission. If a certain nutritional product tasted awful and turned my stomach but got me to the finish line quicker, I’d use it. I didn’t give a fuck how I felt; only the clock mattered.

As you might imagine, applying the same mission focus against long covid and hasn’t served me particularly well. I should have thought it through, but instead I acted on reflex, responding to feeling terrible all the time not by taking measures to feel less terrible but by doing absolutely everything in my power to maintain the same high level of productivity I enjoyed in full health despite feeling terrible. On paper (so to speak), I’ve largely succeeded in this mission, having written three new books in the past year. The problem is I’ve had zero fun doing it. Driving myself to produce like a healthy man when in fact I am far from healthy has made my work joyless, and because work dominates my life more than ever (given my inability to exercise or do much else), my entire existence has become joyless in equal measure. The only times I ever feel any peace during the day are when I’m just chilling with Nataki and Queenie, and yet I keep failing to take the hint because, frankly, I don’t know how to take it.

So, what’s my point? My point is that, although life truly is a marathon, it’s also not a marathon. The coping skills that athletes like me cultivate through training and racing help us in many ways when we encounter adversity elsewhere in life, but they aren’t always the perfect tools for every job. While I don’t regret facing my latest challenge like a marathoner, with one year’s hindsight I do wish I’d been more strategic in selecting which specific tools to use and which ones to leave in the toolbox. I encourage you to do the same the next time something big goes wrong in your life. To the extent you can, avoid reflexively coping with whatever it is the same way you cope with a bad break in sports. Use only the tools that apply, saving the rest for the competitive arena.

Fortunately, adaptability is also a coping skill that endurance sports cultivate. Plan A never works out in endurance training and racing, so to succeed you’ve got to get good at falling back to Plan B or Plan C. My goal for year two of long covid is to do just that, specifically by working a little less and chilling a little more. Hold me to it!

In any relationship, disagreements are bound to occur. These moments of friction are not limited to differences of opinion, such as whether dogs are better than cats or vice versa, but may also include discrepancies in how reality is perceived. Perhaps you and your spouse disagree on whether aliens walk among us in human disguise, for example.

An athlete’s relationship with his or her training devices is like any other relationship in this regard. There are moments when the information provided to the athlete by a device—or at least the athlete’s interpretation of the information provided—is at odds with the athlete’s own perception of what’s happening. Heart rate data is perhaps the richest source of such dissonance. Raise your hand if the heart rate reading on your device has ever told you that you’re working hard (or easy) while your subjective perception of effort said the opposite? Thought so.

Each conflict of this sort must be resolved in one direction or the other. The athlete must either overrule the device and act on her own perception of reality or acquiesce to the device’s take on reality and obey its dictates. In my experience as a coach, athletes with a high degree of mental fitness almost always overrule their device in these situations, whereas athletes with work to do in their mental game usually acquiesce and obey.

Actually, it’s not just in my experience that this division is seen. A number of studies have shown that higher-performing athletes tend to be a lot more selective in their use of device features and real-time data during workouts and races. In other words, higher-performing athletes exert greater control in their relationship with their fitness devices. You might say that they play the parent role, while their watch is confined to the child role, whereas with less successful athletes the inverse is true.

There are two reasons for this. The first is related to the fact that, in endurance sports, performance limits are determined by perceptions, not by physiology. An athlete who feels he can’t continue at his present effort level is always right, regardless of what any objective measurement says. Because of this, every athlete who has enough experience to know her limits should trust her perceptions more than she trusts her device. But not all athletes are equally self-trusting. Athletes burdened with relatively low levels of self-trust tend to look outside themselves for guidance and assurance, allowing themselves to become subservient to and overdependent on their devices, as was demonstrated in a study led by Pierluigi Diotaitui and published in the journal Psychology in 2020. And that’s the second reason that higher-performing athletes veto their device’s opinion virtually every time in contradicts their own: they are blessed with a high level of innate self-trust.

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Recently I came across another interesting paper that sheds light on this topic from a different angle. Written by a four-person team led by Fabian Otte of the Institute of Exercise Training and Sport Informatics, it bears the colossally descriptive title, “When and How to Provide Feedback and Instructions to Athletes?—How Sport Psychology and Pedagogy Insights Can Improve Coaching Interventions to Enhance Self-Regulation in Training.” The argument that Otte and his coauthors make is based on the premise that success in sports is dependent on athletes’ ability to self-regulate their performance, which is something that coaches neither can nor should do on their athletes’ behalf. The coach’s role is not to teach sports skills but to facilitate athletes’ learning of sports skills. Otte and colleagues write, “An increased amount of feedback and instructions (in terms of information quality and quantity) likely is not more beneficial for athletes. In contrast to the common notion, ‘the more, the better,’ athletes at particular skill developmental stages actually benefit more from self-regulatory approaches and minimized explicit feedback and instructions used sparingly.”

For self-coached athletes, fitness devices largely take the place of a coach. But existing products are not designed to inform and instruct athletes in a manner that is consistent with how the most effective coaches do their work. This was noted by the authors of a recent observational study of device usage by runners, who advised manufacturers to start making products that give runners more control, providing “meaningful running-related data presentations at specific moments in time to comply with runners’ needs, wishes and goals, rather than a technology-pushed presentation of specific sets of data.”

In the meantime, it’s on you to assert more control in your relationship with your fitness gadgets. Step one is accepting it as an explicit goal to overrule your device (almost) every time it disagrees with your perceptions. Let your watch know who’s boss!

I’ve been learning about learning lately. My teacher is Jake Tuber, who, when he’s not organizing and hosting Endeavorun athlete camps, is studying toward a doctoral degree in adult learning and leadership at Columbia University. At the recent Endeavorun camp in Boulder, I was impressed by the way Jake incorporated his knowledge of adult learning and team building into the experience. It resulted in deeper levels of self-reflection than occur at most other camps, such that many of us came away with a better understanding of where we are in our athletic journey, where we want to go, and what’s holding us back.

Jake’s thinking in this area is heavily influenced by Jack Mezirow, a giant in his field who designed the doctoral program Jake’s undertaking and who developed a model of adult learning known as transformative learning theory. In one of the many papers Jake has shared with me since becoming my unofficial tutor, Mezirow defines transformative learning as a “critical dimension of learning in adulthood that enables us to recognize and reassess the structure of assumptions and expectations which frame our thinking, feeling and acting.” In plain language, if you’ve ever found yourself saying something along the lines of, “I used to believe X, but then I experienced Y, and now I believe Z,” then you’ve experienced transformative learning.

Jake believes that endurance coaches should operate as guides to transformative learning, and I’m persuaded he’s right. Another paper he shared with me is a PhD thesis written by Timothy Gillum of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, who tracked the learning experiences of four runners as they trained for and completed a marathon. Gillum found that “the participants’ learning included more than accomplishing their pre-determined goals. The participants challenged at least one of their existing paradigms that included how they viewed themselves as runners, spouses, friends, and parents. This challenge was triggered with a disorienting event and subsequent self-reflection and conscious choice to accept the learning.”

Amby Burfoot said it well: “As we run, we become.” Or at least we have opportunities to become. The role of the coach is to help athletes recognize emerging opportunities to challenge and revise their assumptions about who they are and how things are. More broadly, the coach bears the responsibility of coaxing athletes toward seeing their athletic growth as intertwined with personal growth. Competitive athletes in particular may tend to think of the pursuit of personal growth through sport as an alternative to chasing competitive ambitions, but in fact they go hand in hand. Athletes develop most athletically when they consciously use sport to become better versions of themselves.

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Admittedly, a person can have only so many epiphanies. Yet I believe that training as learning operates at a more quotidian level as well. There’s a sense in which every single workout an athlete does can be seen as a learning session. From this perspective, an athlete doesn’t train for a successful Ironman finish or a sub-three-hour marathon but rather learns how to finish an Ironman or run a sub-three-hour marathon. Simply stated, the process we normally describe as physiological adaptation can be recast as somatic learning. The changes the body undergoes in response to training are its way of learning how to do more effectively what you’re asking it to do.

More than a matter of semantics, this redefinition of training has important practical implications. First, it ties together everything an athletes does toward the end of achieving their competitive goals into a cohesive whole. Training is only one of several elements of race preparation. Others include diet, recovery, injury prevention, and mental training. From a training-as-learning perspective, all of these elements—including training itself—are paths of learning, similar to the different classes a student might take toward earning her medical degree. An athlete who embraces this perspective is likely to invest greater effort in each of them because they are all equally part of the same mission.

Another important difference between the traditional view of training and the training-as-learning perspective is that training is outcome-focused, learning process-focused. When training is merely training, then in a very real sense it has served no purpose if the athlete falls short of his goal on race day. But when training is learning, then mastery is the goal and the athlete is achieving his goal continuously as long as he is learning, hence moving toward mastery. It’s all about winning the process, an orientation that is proven to yield greater improvement and better outcomes.

I’m happy to have a whole new area of knowledge opening up to me at age fifty, and eager to see how it moves me closer to mastery in my coaching work. I hope you’re among the athletes who benefits from these intellectual adventures in the months and years to come.

I’ve always considered myself an injury-prone runner. I used to half-jokingly say that I had suffered more running-related injuries than any runner my age in the history of running, and it wouldn’t shock me if this turned out to be true. Between the ages of 28 and 48 I picked up no fewer than four major injuries—right knee, left Achilles, right hip flexor, and left hip flexor—that each kept me out of competition for more than a year. And those are just the big ones. I’ve dealt with dozens of smaller breakdowns that have sidelined me for days or weeks.

Early on, some of my injuries were caused, at least in part, by training errors. But while I may be slow to learn, I do learn, and eventually I stopped making stupid decisions in my training. I did not stop getting injured, however. Clearly, then, training errors were not the real reason for my proneness to injury.

In the early 2000s, a structuralist paradigm of nontraumatic sports injury became ascendant. According to this model, so-called overuse injuries are caused by flawed movement patterns which are in turn caused by musculoskeletal imbalances, particularly overly weak and overly tight muscles. The way to prevent such injuries, according to this model, is to iron out such imbalances through strength and mobility training.

It was all very pat, and I bought in completely, doubling down on strength and mobility training in a quest for corporeal balance, but all for naught. The injuries kept right on coming, same as before. So I wasn’t too surprised when the structuralist just-so story began to fall apart, with study after story failing to validate the model’s predictions. Just recently, for example, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise published a study by Irish researchers titled “Do Injury-Resistant Runners Have Distinct Differences in Clinical Measures Compared with Recently Injured Runners?

The short answer was no. Two hundred and twenty-three runners, including 116 who were recently injured and 61 whose last injury was at least two years past, were subjected to a battery of tests of musculoskeletal balance. The only difference observed was slightly greater hip abduction strength among recently injured runners, causing the researchers to conclude, “Commonly used clinical measures of strength, joint motion, and functional foot alignment were not superior in injury-resistant runners compared with recently injured runners, questioning their relevance in identifying future injury resistance of runners.”

So it appears that my ongoing susceptibility to injury is caused neither by training errors nor by musculoskeletal imbalances. What, then, is the true culprit? A clue comes from the fact that all of my major injurious have been tendinous. I’ve never experienced a nontraumatic bone injury and I can count on one hand the times I’ve strained a muscle over the past 50 years. Yet this clear pattern escaped my notice until 2015, when I stumbled across an article about the genetic underpinnings of injury in The Atlantic.  From it I learned about a gene called COL1A1 that affects the consistency of collagen in connective tissues, certain variations of which are underrepresented in frequently injured athletes. I’d be willing to bet my life savings I’m one of them.

Mystery solved? I’m not so sure. Lately I’ve been taking a deep dive into pain science as I collaborate with Ryan Whited on a book about self-managing athletic pain and injury. One of the things I’ve learned is that the vast majority of nontraumatic athletic injuries aren’t really injuries. They’re pain experiences. In other words, the pain is real but there is no significant underlying tissue pathology. Upon learning this I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I’d had imaging done on three of my four multiyear injury sites, exploratory surgery done on the fourth, and in all four cases no significant tissue pathology was found. I was in pain but not injured.

Ryan subscribes to a biopsychosocial model of pain which holds that pain experiences are always multifactorial, with nontraumatic musculoskeletal “injuries” being no exception. There is almost always some kind of tissue insult at play, but psychological and social factors are involved as well. As many readers of this blog know, my wife, Nataki, has bipolar disorder. Throughout the long period when most of my injuries occurred, I was under tremendous stress as Nataki and I struggled together to manage her condition. But in 2013, a few things fell in place, our lives gained a level of stability they’d lacked for more than a decade, and my injury rate subsequently plummeted.

I’m not blaming my injuries on Nataki’s mental illness, mind you. I’m attributing my frequent pain experiences to life stress and to my inability to manage it. Pain and stress are almost the same thing, as psychiatrist Claire Lunde and pain scientist Christine Sieberg of Boston Children’s Hospital explain with great cogency in this review paper. Others have described pain as a cup that’s running over. The cup itself is your physical and mental stress receptacle. Stress of all forms ranging from marathon training to trying to keep yourself and your spouse safe in the midst of a mental health crisis go into the stress receptacle. When it fills up and begins to flow over, you become symptomatic. Anything you can do, therefore, to keep new stressors from entering the cup or to siphon existing stressors out of the cup will reduce the likelihood of symptom manifestation. Thanks to fragile tendons and a high-strung personality, I may have a smaller cup than other athletes, but I have less life stress going into it and therefore my tendons don’t hurt as much.

Do you consider yourself injury prone? You might actually be pain prone. And there might be more you can do about it than you think.

Many moons ago, I wrote a post for this blog that bore the title, “The Human Body Is Not a Smartphone.” In it I argued that endurance training methods cannot advance indefinitely in the way that technologies such as smartphones can. “Once the best ways to train and fuel the human body for distance racing have been discovered,” I wrote, “it is impossible to improve upon them further until and unless the human body changes enough for different methods to become optimal.”

Even as I composed these lines, I knew they weren’t completely true. The idea that, given enough time, the optimization of endurance training methods is more or less inevitable is based on the notion that endurance sport operates as a self-organizing system. “A what?” you say. A self-organizing system.

Data scientist David Green of Monash University defines self-organization as “the emergence of pattern and order in a system by internal processes, rather than external constraints or forces.” Natural evolution is the best example of a self-organizing system, but computer scientists and engineers are able to create artificial self-organizing systems that are capable of evolving optimal solutions to real-world problems such as managing runway traffic at airports. If you place a graph representing such an evolutionary process next to a graph representing improvement in, say, the men’s marathon world record from 1896 to today, the two curves will appear uncannily similar in shape—a compelling illustration of endurance sport’s self-organizing behavior.

There are important differences between human endurance sport and computer models of airport throughput, however. Most notably, endurance sport is a social system nested inside the larger societal system, and as such it is subject to certain braking forces on its evolution that manmade self-organizing systems are not. Tradition is one such factor. In my experience, the top endurance coaches don’t put as much effort into innovating as they might, and I think that’s simply because, as human beings, top endurance coaches are deferential to “the way things are done” in the sport, no different than how teachers are deferential to the traditions of the institution where they teach. Consequently, opportunities to do things a little better sometimes wait a little longer to be discovered than they do in tech.

Which brings us to the topic of this article. The innovation known as block periodization originated in the weightlifting realm, where the practice is widespread. In the endurance realm, the term carries a slightly different meaning and the practice is not as widespread. As it applies to endurance sports, block periodization entails separating the volume and intensity elements of training. For example, a runner might do a block of three high-intensity workouts one week and a block of six longer low-intensity workouts the next week.

The developers of block periodization saw it as a way to make training harder without making it more stressful. They presumed that elite athletes were already training as hard as they could in the traditional way, where high-volume, low-intensity interval training and high-intensity interval training are mixed. It seemed plausible that by separating these two different types of training, athletes could do more of both without necessarily doing either in excess. During high-intensity training weeks, athletes would not be limited by fatigue induced by long workouts at low intensity, and during volume weeks, athletes would not be limited by fatigue induced by high-intensity intervals workouts.

Among the leading scientific investigators of block periodization in endurance athletes is Bent Rønnestad of Inland Norway University. In a 2019 meta-analysis of his and others’ work in this area, Rønnestad and colleagues concluded, “Block periodization is an adequate, alternative training strategy to traditional periodization as evidenced by superior training effects on VO2max and [maximal power output] in athletes. The reviewed studies show promising effects for BP of endurance training; however, these results must be considered with some caution due to small studies with generally low methodological quality.”

The most recent study of the effects of block periodization was conducted by Polish researchers and published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health last month. Twenty competitive mountain bikers were separated into two groups. For eight weeks, members of one group followed a traditional periodization model where each week included a mix of low-intensity riding, high-intensity interval work, and sprint interval training, while the second group followed a block periodization model where 17-day blocks of low-intensity riding were alternated with 11-day blocks of HIIT and sprint interval sessions.

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Both groups underwent physiological and performance testing before and after the eight-week training period. Improvements were about equal in the two groups in all measures except VO2max, where the traditional periodization group experienced bigger gains, going from 3.66 to 4.2 L∙min−1 compared to 3.75 to 4.0 L∙min−1 in the block periodization group.

Where does this leave us? For better or worse, training innovations that are disruptive to existing best practices need to have a better story to tell than “possibly slightly superior in some metrics according to some but not all studies” if they are to overcome the inertia of tradition. I stand ready to be an early adopter of the next such innovation that comes along, but block periodization probably ain’t it.

I don’t look sick. To the contrary, I look like I could run a marathon, or so I’m told. In fact, though, the last time I tried to run I couldn’t get out of bed the next day. This isn’t a figure of speech—I could not get out of bed the next day. And it wasn’t a marathon that put me on my back. It was a single, 10-minute jog on a treadmill.

The doctors call it post-exertional malaise, and it’s common among folks with chronic fatigue syndrome, as well as for those like me who suffer from post-acute COVID-19 syndrome. So, how is it that a person who can’t jog for 10 minutes without incapacitating himself for 36 hours still manages to maintain the appearance of being fit enough to run a marathon? The answer to this question is worth sharing, I believe, because it delivers a useful general lesson about effective weight management.

Let me start by saying that vanity always ranked low on my list of reasons for training before I was forced to stop several months ago. My wife and I agree that I look best with a little more meat on my bones, and what meat I once had was stripped away when I became a hardcore endorphin junkie in the late 1990s. I trained hard because I enjoyed it and it made me feel good and it taught me a lot about myself and I grew as a person through the process and I derived tremendous satisfaction from chasing improvement and competing, and I didn’t particularly care how training make me look so long as it checked all of those other boxes.

Still, I am human, and all humans are vain to some degree. Hence, when I was forced to stop training and lost its many benefits, I rediscovered the reality that I actually did sort of care about my appearance. In particular, I began to worry about gaining weight. This might sound laughable to those who’ve only ever known me as a beanpole endurance athlete who can wrap the index finger and thumb of his right hand around his left wrist with an inch of overlap between the two digits. But there was a time in my life when I struggled with my weight and lacked the wherewithal to do much about it.

I hit my lifetime peak weight of 206 lbs during my sophomore year in college. All the excess poundage glommed around my middle. Even then I could have worn a woman’s wristwatch, but I carried a sloppy old beer gut bookended by stretchmark-festooned love handles, the sight of which disgusted me. I remember arriving at the Haverford College dining center one morning determined to break the dietary habits—salad avoidance, second helpings, keg party attendance—that had added 68 pounds to my former runner’s body in the span of 18 months. But upon entering the cafeteria I discovered it was omelet day, game over. The cheese-heavy three-egger I requested tasted quite scrumptious, but I didn’t enjoy it, burdened as I was by the realization that I lacked the willpower to do what was necessary to lose weight and that I would always be fat.

This pessimistic outlook on my body’s future was based in part on the assumption that I would never run again. When I did get back into running a few years later, the weight came off very easily. What’s more, my desire to improve as an athlete motivated me to make better food choices in a way that my desire to look good naked hadn’t, and I cleaned up my diet quite a bit. Still, the large volume of exercise I did routinely allowed (and in fact required) me to eat a lot, and I worried about what would happen if a major injury or other setback forced me out of training for an extended period of time. I believed that, even if I continued to choose healthy foods, I wouldn’t be able to muster the restraint necessary to reduce my intake sufficiently to avoid gaining weight.

I should have known better, and in fact I did. Both scientific and real-world evidence indicate that weight management is easier overall at lower volumes of exercise. Sure enough, when I stopped running, my appetite decreased significantly, making reduced food intake almost as easy as listening to my body. Currently I weigh 148 pounds, or 2 pounds less than I did when I stopped running.

Eating less isn’t the only reason I haven’t put on a spare tire, though. In fearing weight gain, I underestimated the power of high diet quality in managing a stable body weight. In my beer-belly days I was living on bagels and pizza (and beer), but my current diet, which features a balance of unprocessed foods, fills me up with far fewer calories. What’s more, the practice in dietary self-discipline I got from bumping up my diet quality has proven to be more transferable to regulating overall food intake than I expected. Whereas when I was still running I truly ate as much as I wanted, I now put up with a little more unsatisfied craving than before (and all the more so since I was placed on a medication that increases appetite as a side effect), and it’s not a problem.

Many years ago I created a set of integrated training and diet plans for endurance athletes seeking to improve their body composition. These short (four- to eight-week) programs were designed to help people shed a bit of excess body fat relatively quickly outside the context of race-focused training cycles, when fitness and performance are the priority and any improvement in body composition that occurs during the process is incidental. The specific methodology that made up the substance of these plans was based on a combination of mainstream science and real-world best practices. I never actually followed one of them myself for the simple reason that my weight never varied much, but ironically the formula for holding steady on the bathroom scale that I’ve defaulted to in response to my current health situation looks a lot like my old Racing Weight programs.

For example, these programs were heavy on strength training, which facilitates body composition improvement by increasing basal metabolism. Lucky for me, even in my present decrepitude I am able to tolerate a decent amount of strength training, perhaps because, unlike aerobic experience, it is discontinuous in nature. I lift weights for about 20 minutes every day, and doing so has contributed considerably to my successful weigh management. Seeing this effect has also confirmed for me that I was not doling out bad advice to my fellow athletes through my Racing Weight plans.

Inspired by this experience, I’ve created a new set of online Racing Weight plans for runners and triathletes. Six weeks in length, these plans come in four levels for each sport. You can learn more about the training component here and the dietary component here, and you can preview them here. To be clear, these are not “beach body” programs. They are practical, scientifically informed programs for performance weight management intended for use by athletes who care more about how they feel and function than about how they look. God forbid you should ever have to rely on one to merely look like you could run a marathon when in fact you can barely climb a flight of stairs!

Every once in a while an athlete asks me why cadence is never prescribed in the cycling workouts included in our 80/20 triathlon plans. I fear that I will soon hear this question more often than once in a while, as I’m currently building a full selection of 80/20 plans for various types of cycling events (Gran Fondos, gravel races, time trials), and I’m choosing not to prescribe cadence in any of these offerings, either. The purpose of this article is to forestall the anticipated deluge of cadence questions by answering them once and for all.

Let me start by flipping the question around. Instead of asking why cadence is not prescribed in our cycling workouts, let’s ask why it would be prescribed. As I see it, several conditions would have to be satisfied in order for prescribed cadences to be justified. For starters, the optimal cadence for cycling would need to be known, and known not just for one type of rider and one type of ride but for all types of riders and all types of rides. Additionally, we’d need certain knowledge of the benefits of pedaling at various cadences (hence the purpose of specific cadence targets). Then and only then would it be possible to prescribe cadences that fit both the rider and the workout and reliably produce the desired outcome.

Well, guess what: None of the prerequisites for cadence prescription has in fact been met. It’s harder than you might think just to define optimal cadence. As Anthony Whitty of Australian Catholic University and colleagues wrote in a 2017 paper, “[T]he determinants of the optimal cycling cadence are multifactorial and not completely understood.” Is the optimal cadence the one at which blood lactate accumulation is minimized? Or should we be looking instead at oxygen consumption? How about perceived exertion? Mechanical torque? Time to exhaustion? Time trial performance? Research has shown that cycling cadence is optimized at different rates depending on what’s being measured, which doesn’t exactly provide firm footing for prescriptions.

The term freely chosen cadence (FCC) refers to the pedaling rate that individual cyclists naturally adopt when performing a given cycling task. FCC varies between individuals based on experience, fitness, sex, age, size, and strength, and varies within individuals based on intensity and topography. Experienced cyclists with a high level of aerobic fitness tend to choose a cadence that is considered close to the energetic optimum during high-intensity tasks, but in most other circumstances, most cyclists do not.

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In my view, the ultimate test of a particular cadence’s effectiveness is performance. The whole point of cadence selection, after all, is to get to the finish line of races and time trials in the least time possible. Yet you wouldn’t necessarily know this from perusing the scientific literature on cycling cadence. Research in this area is frustratingly sparse and inconsistent. The clearest through lines are as follows:

  1. Elite cyclists prefer higher cadences (90-100 RPM),
  2. Performance is not improved in elite cyclists forced to pedal at rates above or below their FCC
  3. Less fit and less experienced cyclists prefer lower cadences, and
  4. Less fit and less experienced cyclists often do perform better when forced to pedal outside their FCC range, and more often than not it’s a lower cadence that yields better performance.

The picture remains fairly muddled, however, and most experts agree that we are very far away from being able to calculate an individual cyclist’s optimal cadence based on the factors (experience, fitness, etc.) that appear to determine it.

Then there’s the whole question of whether optimal cadence changes over time, and whether this happens automatically or it must be encouraged, and whether certain training methods can be used to change optimal cadence beneficially over time. In the Whitty study I quoted from earlier, 16 competitive male cyclists were separated into two groups, one of which completed 18 low-cadence (20 percent below FCC) intervals over a period of six weeks while the other group did an equal number of high-cadence intervals (20 percent above FCC) over the same span. In post-intervention testing, FCC was found to have increased in the high-cadence group, while the low-cadence group showed bigger gains in time-trial performance. There was no control group, however, so it’s tough to know what to make of these findings other than that low-cadence training produces different effects from high-cadence training.

The long and short of it is that, if we were to include cadence prescriptions in our 80/20 cycling workouts, we would be unable to defend their appropriateness for every cyclist, nor would we be able to predict their effects on fitness and performance with any confidence. I think you will agree that this is a rather flimsy foundation for prescribing cadence.

My default approach in dealing with all thorny training questions is to copy the elites, insofar as this is possible. One thing experts are reasonably confident of is that cadence is broadly optimized among elite cyclists. How do they get to this point? I believe that no fewer than four factors contribute to the optimization of cadence in elite cyclists:

Factors contribute to the optimization of cadence in elite cyclists

  1. Experience. Through voluminous exposure to pedaling, elite cyclists learn how to tune their pedal stroke to achieve optimal outcomes in various types of rides.
  2. Variety. Elite cyclists train in a more well-rounded wat than do most recreational cyclists and thereby accelerate the optimization process.
  3. This is what I call somatic intelligence, which is the ability—shared by nearly all elite endurance athletes—to feel one’s body in a highly refined way that allows for greater goal-directed control of movements.
  4. Fitness. The process of building fitness seems to go hand-in-hand with the process of optimizing cadence, and elite cyclists are as fit as it is possible to be.

On the basis of these facts, I advise cyclists looking to optimize their cadence to ride a lot, include a lot of variation in their training, learn to read their bodies better, and focus on getting as fit as they can.

I have a theory about athletic greatness, or more specifically, about what it takes to achieve greatness as an athlete. It’s quite simple. There are two mental traits that I see again and again in athletes of the highest caliber. One is a drive toward greatness that has the untamable ferocity of a full-blown disorder. In other words, great athletes have a screw loose—not in the sense of being certifiably insane, mind you, but rather in the sense of being unbalanced in a way that serves them well on the racecourse but not always so well away from it. The other mental trait I see again and again in the greatest athletes is a kind of self-mastery that blends together good judgment, strong discipline, and self-control. In other words, great athletes have their shit together.

There are exceptions—great athletes who have a screw loose but don’t have their shit together and athletes who have their shit together but don’t have a screw loose—but I see these rare exceptions as proving the rule. It is only a mild exaggeration, therefore, to state that if you want to achieve greatness as an athlete, you’d better have a screw loose and your shit together.

I am by no means the first person to propose that great athletes tend to have a screw loose, nor am I the first to note that, by and large, they have their shit together, but whereas others observers always focus on either the one or the other, I stand apart in pointing out that, more often than not, these two traits are combined in the greatest athletes.

When I think about the screw-loose part of the mental formula for athletic greatness, I think of something that six-time Ironman world champion Mark Allen said in an interview for LAVA magazine back in 2011: “If you dig deep enough into the life of any of the top athletes who are pushing their bodies to the absolute limits, you’re going to find a story. You’re going to find something that those athletes are trying to make up for that they didn’t get when they were younger. Something that hurt them.”

The limited scientific research in this area backs up Allen’s claim. At the 2012 Olympics, psychologist Mustafa Sarkar and colleagues at the University of Gloucestershire conducted interviews with eight gold medalists and then looked for themes in their remarks. In a paper titled, “What Doesn’t Kill Me: Adversity-Related Experiences Are Vital in the Development of Superior Olympic Performance,” Sarkar reported that “the participants encountered a range of sport- and non-sport adversities that they considered were essential for winning their gold medals, including repeated non-selection, significant sporting failure, serious injury, political unrest, and the death of a family member. The participants described the role that these experiences played in their psychological and performance development, specifically focusing on their resultant trauma, motivation, and learning.”

Having a screw loose isn’t always the result of life experience, though. Some people are born with a screw that is not fully tightened, and many such individuals go on to become great athletes. We need look no further for an example of this type than Mark Allen’s archrival, Dave Scott, who seems to have emerged from the womb with an insatiable drive to keep moving and to test his body’s limits. A self-described “endorphin lunatic,” Scott once said of his superhuman appetite for physical exercise, “If I don’t get it, it just makes me go haywire. It rules my life. It’s a powerful drug for me. It’s huge. It’s gigantic.”

Yet Dave Scott, like all great athletes, had his shit together in most ways. Smart enough to earn a master’s degree in exercise physiology, he almost singlehandedly invented modern triathlon training methodology and was a brilliant tactician on the racecourse. In this respect, Scott was utterly typical of his ilk. Research involving elite athletes has demonstrated that, as a group, these performance outliers are way above average in certain mental traits, especially those having to do with self-regulation, or the ability to regulate one’s thoughts, emotions, and behavior in pursuit of goals.

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Study after study has found that elite athletes are better at self-regulating than lower-level athletes, and that lower-level athletes are better at self-regulating than nonathletes. What’s more, longitudinal studies have shown that self-regulatory capacity in youth athletes predicts subsequent rates of improvement. If you’re interested in learning more about this research, check out the new book The Genius of Athletes, coauthored by Noel Brick, a sport psychologist and leading expert on how elite endurance athletes think, and veteran running journalist Scott Douglas.

While the two mental traits I’ve identified as definitive of athletic greatness—having a screw loose and having one’s shit together—might seem to pull in opposite directions, an intriguing 2020 study led by Gro Jordalen of the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences indicates that they are actually complementary. Jordalen’s team conducted in-depth interviews with five female Olympic and world championship medalists in which these athletes were invited to reflect on their evolving motivations and self-regulatory practices over the course of their careers. What emerged from these interviews was evidence of intensive interaction between these factors, with shifts in motivation triggering changes in self-regulatory practices and vice versa. It’s no wonder, then, that a loose screw (which manifests athletically as an insatiable motivation to achieve) and having their shit together (which manifest as an extraordinary self-regulatory capacity) are the two hallmark mental traits of the greatest athletes.

This is one of my blog posts that have no practical value whatsoever. Even in the unlikely event that you accept my theory of athletic greatness, there’s nothing you can do with it to benefit your own sporting pursuits. Informing you that the greatest athletes have a screw loose and their shit together is about as useful as informing you that they all possess a certain gene you lack. Be that as it may, I believe that truth has inherent value, and you never know where a truth revealed might lead. . .

Raise your hand if you’ve ever gotten nervous before a big workout.

Whoa, that’s a lot of hands! I guess it’s a universal experience.

Here’s another question: Why do big workouts make you nervous?

Chances are it’s for one of two reasons: Either you fear the suffering you anticipate experiencing during the workout or you fear failure. The first of these reasons is natural and healthy. Some of the greatest champions get nervous when they know they’re headed deep into the pain cave in training. The second reason is equally natural but not healthy. By and large, the most successful athletes don’t suffer from performance anxiety before workouts—and that is what we’re talking about here: performance anxiety.

Also referred to as stage fright, performance anxiety is defined by Good Therapy as “fear about one’s ability to perform a task.” I’ve seen it in a number of athletes I’ve worked with over the years, and I find the phenomenon both strange and interesting. To me it almost seems as if these poor folks are projecting an “OR ELSE!” onto the performance standards I give them in workouts.

For example, if I write up a workout that says . . .

2 km easy

Drills and strides

1 km in 4:15

1:00 rest

2 km in 4:10

1:00 rest

1 km in 4:05

2 km easy

 

. . . the athlete sees this instead:

 

2 km easy

Drills and strides

1 km in 4:15 OR ELSE!

1:00 rest

2 km in 4:10 OR ELSE!

1:00 rest

1 km in 4:05 OR ELSE!

2 km easy

 

I know this looks kind of funny, but I’m being 100 percent honest when I say that some athletes behave as if those two threatening all-caps words are really there in my workout descriptions. They worry for hours, sometimes days, before the workout, and if, heaven forbid, they fall short of the times I’ve given them, they are deeply shaken. It’s as though their inability to hit one or more of those numbers brings down upon them some kind of final judgment on their total being.

Here lies Joe Smith, who missed his time in the final rep by two seconds.

Most of the online writeups on performance anxiety you’ll find on the internet stress how common the phenomenon is, and in so doing they gloss over the fact that not everyone experiences it. So what’s different about those who do? The bad news here is that anxiety of all forms has genetic underpinnings. Worse, studies have shown that athletes who possess high numbers of “anxiety genes” don’t perform as well in competition. The sad irony is that no actor is more likely to go onstage and bomb than one who’s terrified of doing just that.

Performance anxiety isn’t all genetic, though. In a previous blog post I wrote about the link between performance anxiety and the so-called fixed mindset. This term comes from psychologist Carol Dweck, whose research has shown that people who look at challenges (like big workouts) as steppingstones toward betterment tend not to get anxious about them, whereas those who look at them as tests tend to dread them. Every athlete I’ve ever coached who routinely experienced performance anxiety before big workouts clearly viewed them as tests.

Low self-esteem also predisposes people to performance anxiety. It makes sense, right? Individuals with low self-esteem worry a lot about failing to measure up. Consequently, anything they do that could possibly be used to evaluate their worth is likely to cause anxiety. Low self-esteem doesn’t come from nowhere; it typically comes about through a process of internalizing negative judgments imposed upon the individual during childhood by parents and others whose good opinion is important to the individual. Sadly, sports are often used by unskillful parents and coaches as a measuring stick of overall worth in young people, which carries lifelong consequences. All too often, when an athlete looks ahead to a big workout with dread it’s because, on some level, they fear that performing poorly will prove they are a worthless human being.

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That’s pretty heavy stuff for a lowly endurance coach like me to deal with, but I enjoy doing so. It’s beyond my pay grade to work on building self-esteem, but there are a couple of coaching tools that I have found useful in helping athletes overcome workout-related performance anxiety. One of these is switching from performance-based metrics such as pace and power to other metrics such as perceived effort and estimated time limit. For example, instead of asking a runner to run at their lactate threshold pace, I might instead ask them to run at RPE 6 or at their perceived one-hour max pace. More often than not, athletes who do these alternative workouts perform at just as high a level as they would in standard workouts but without the anxiety.

As effective as this switch from performance-based workout metrics to subjective metrics often is, I don’t like to see athletes remain permanently reliant on this alternative. No athlete should be content with being unable to handle the pressure of performance standards. To me that’s the mental equivalent of resigning oneself to training and competing forever with pain in a certain area of one’s body. In competition, there’s no avoiding performance standards. (Well, there is, but it’s called giving up!) An athlete who doesn’t set and pursue performance goals in competition is not really an athlete. So it’s necessary at some point for athletes who suffer from performance anxiety to get back to the practice of facing performance standards in training.

When this time comes, I make it very clear to the athlete that they must not project onto me the “OR ELSE!” they attach to the performance targets I give them. I personally couldn’t care less if they hit their marks. If an athlete wants to impress me, they can do so by executing the workout with good effort and good judgment. They simply cannot impress me with their performance itself.

No matter how clearly or how often I communicate this message, it takes a while for athletes to start believing it. The roots of performance anxiety run deep and cannot be choked off by a single pep talk from their coach. But I have found that if I keep hammering this message over and over, athletes do slowly shift from a self-sabotaging focus on outcomes toward a healthy focus on the process.

If you’re self-coached, this shift might be more difficult to effect, as it requires deep and sustained self-reflection. Ask yourself the following sequence of questions:

Do I get really nervous before big workouts?

Is it a fear of failure in particular that I’m experiencing?

Am I attaching an “or else” to my performance targets?

Where does that “or else” come from?

What are the real consequences of not meeting my performance targets?

What would happen if I continued to try to hit my targets but stopped caring whether I actually succeed?

I’ll answer this last one for you: You’d no longer get nervous before big workouts!

It’s been nearly a decade since I coined the term “moderate-intensity rut” in reference to the widespread habit among recreational endurance athletes of doing a plurality of their training at moderate intensity. At that time, very few athletes were even aware of the existence of the problem. But much has changed since then. The books 80/20 Running and 80/20 Triathlon, through which I endeavor to save athletes from the rut, have sold a combined 90,000 copies, and online versions of the books’ training plans have sold close to 70,000 copies. And these numbers only hint at the ripple effect of broadening awareness of the moderate-intensity rut.

But one thing hasn’t changed, and it’s this: The vast majority of recreational endurance athletes are still doing a plurality of their training at moderate intensity. The latest bad-news report from this front comes in the form of a study led by João Henrique Falk Neto and published in the journal Sports. Nine recreational triathletes kept detailed training logs during the final six weeks before an Olympic-distance triathlon and for two weeks afterward. They also completed questionnaires intended to assess their health and well-being, including the Training Distress Questionnaire and the Training Stress Recovery questionnaire.

The main purpose of the study was not to identify the training intensity distribution of these athletes but rather, as the authors put it, to “assess how their preparation for a triathlon influences their health and their levels of fatigue.” I’m not sure what Neto’s team’s hypothesis was, or if they even had one, but if they hoped to find that the subjects’ health or well-being suffered during the eight-week observation period, he was disappointed. No significant changes were seen in any of the relevant measures.

Personally, I’m happy about that, but I’m less happy about the way these athletes trained. The most surprising finding was that their training loads fluctuated drastically from week to week. One would expect some variation in training stress, of course, but these folks took it to an extreme, with all nine subjects literally doubling their training load from one week to the next at least once. What’s more, Neto’s team was unable to identify any coherent logic or pattern to these fluctuations. They had every appearance of utter arbitrariness. My own best guess as to why training loads were so erratic in this group is that they trained too much in their “up” weeks and had to compensate by scaling way back in the weeks that followed.

As the 80/20 guy, I was most interested in how these athletes balanced their training intensities. If Neto and company’s findings regarding training loads were surprising and head-scratching, their findings on intensity balance were predictable and dismaying. Perhaps I was naïve to hope that the 80/20 message had achieved statistically meaningful penetration in this population, but it clearly hasn’t.

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As most studies of this kind do these days, intensity was divided into three zones. Zone 1 is considered low intensity, and is bounded on the upper end by the first ventilatory threshold, which corresponds to 77-81 percent of maximum heart rate. Zone 2 is moderate intensity, and has an upper limit marked by the second ventilatory threshold, which corresponds to 91-93 percent of maximum heart rate. And Zone 3, high intensity, is everything above the second ventilatory threshold. On average, the subjects were found to have completed just 47 percent of their combined swimming, cycling, and running in Zone 1, and in only two weeks of the eight for which data were collected did they spend more than half of their training time at low intensity.

I should mention that these findings are skewed somewhat by the fact that they were based on session RPE ratings rather than on heart rate data. Subjects were asked to assign an intensity rating of 1 to 10 for each session as a whole, and so, for example, a 50-minute workout containing 25 minutes of work in Zone 3 would be considered a 50-minute session in Zone 3 if the athlete assigned it a session RPE of 7 or higher. Even accounting for this rather sloppy approach to measuring intensity distribution, though, we can be certain the athletes in this study were doing nowhere near 80 percent of their training at low intensity.

I feel two ways about this study. On the one hand, I’m sad that so many recreational endurance athletes are training in a self-sabotaging manner. On the other hand, as a cheerleader for athletes in the 80/20 Endurance community, I see this widespread self-sabotage as a competitive advantage for “my people.” Competition does not begin when the starting horn blares; it begins on the first day of training. If you exhibit the judgment to find and use the most effective training methods and your competition doesn’t, so be it. Exploit your advantage to the fullest possible extent, and in the meantime I’ll continue to work on trying to reach the lost sheep.

A few months ago, “Kevin” posted a concern about his training in the 80/20 discussion forum. He explained that lately his heart rate had seemed rather high relative to his pace, and the VO2max estimates he got from his watch had dipped slightly. A newer runner, Kevin was becoming discouraged and beginning to doubt the 80/20 method’s effectiveness. In my reply, I asked Kevin how he actually felt while running, and whether he would be noticing anything amiss if he ran without his watch.

“Now that you ask,” he answered, “I think I feel fine while running, maybe even good, but when my pace is right and my heart rate seems high, I feel down about it and frustrated during my run and also after.” Just as I had suspected, Kevin’s supposed fitness crisis was in fact an entirely emotional phenomenon triggered by information that had a variety of possible explanations, all of them more plausible than the one he’d assumed in defiance of how he was actually feeling and performing.

The story of Kevin’s illusory fitness crisis is an example of what I call a measurement problem, or a fake problem created by measuring. If you’ve ever had the Check Engine light come on in your vehicle and taken it in for service only to discover that the problem was with the Check Engine light, not the engine itself, you know what a measurement problem is.

The physicists reading this article know all about measurement problems. Indeed, in physics there is something known as the measurement problem, which has to do with how wave functions behave when observed. Simply put, wave functions behave differently when observed than they are believed to behave in the absence of observation. This problem is famously exemplified in the thought experiment known as Schrödinger’s cat. In it, a hypothetical observer opens a box with a cat inside and discovers that the cat is either alive or dead, but until the box is opened the cat is both alive and dead.

This paradox sounds crazy if you’re not familiar with quantum physics, but a good many physicists believe that wave functions really do exist in an indeterminate state until they are forced essentially to “choose” a definite state upon being observed. What is certain is that, as German physicist Werner Heisenberg articulated in his eponymous Uncertainty Principle, you cannot measure any system from the outside, hence to measure something is to change it. An amusing example from the realm of physical exercise is the discovery that male subjects in exercise science studies give lower perceived effort ratings when the researcher collecting the data is female. Ah, men. We’re hopeless!

Most of the measurement problems I see in endurance sports are caused by heart rate monitors—or rather by athletes’ failure to recognize the flaws and limitations of these devices. All too often athletes treat their heart rate monitors like the voice of God, when in fact they’re more like the voice of a bossy backseat driver with macular degeneration, giving you too much information, much of it unreliable. The most common example of a heart rate measurement problem relates to cardiac lag, or the delayed response of the heart muscle to changes in exertion. I’ve lost count of the number of athletes who have told me that, no matter how fast they go, they “can’t get into Zone 5” during a 30-second Zone 5 interval. It’s all I can do sometimes not to ask these folks, “Did it not cross your mind that if you’re running literally as hard as you possibly can, then you’re probably not in Zone 2, or that if your pace is consistent and your heart rate is changing, it’s probably your pace that’s telling you the truth about your intensity, not your heart rate?” But that would be mean.

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Heart rate doesn’t have a monopoly on measurement problems in endurance sports, though. I’ve heard a number of athletes express genuine worry that they’re losing fitness, despite feeling fantastic and crushing their workouts, because their Chronic Training Load (CTL) score on TrainingPeaks has declined. CTL is a mathematical construct—an abstract measurement of fitness, not fitness itself—yet many athletes put more trust in it than they do in the evidence of their own senses. To me this makes about as much sense as skipping dinner despite a rumbling stomach because your glucose monitor says you’re not hungry.

In all seriousness, I am equal parts fascinated and horrified to look on helplessly as growing numbers of athletes increasingly accept technological measurements as more real than the physical things they measure. An athlete who is running as fast as he can but believes he’s running at low intensity because his heart rate monitor says so is an athlete who believes his heart rate measurements are more real than his own body. Likewise, an athlete who is crushing workouts and feeling great yet believes she is losing fitness because her CTL says so is an athlete who believes that this technologically mediated variable is more real than her lived experience.

The next time one of the fitness devices or apps you use signals a potential problem, do me a favor. Ask yourself the same question I asked Kevin: If you weren’t using that particular technology and were judging your training the way all athletes did before this tsunami of gadgetry came along, would you still see a problem? If not, then there is no problem.

 

German-born Canadian spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now has sold more than three million copies. I know this because it says so right on the cover. In the book, Tolle encourages readers to “Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have.”

If this advice sounds familiar, it’s because it is. First popularized by the Buddha in the fourth century BCE, the idea that happiness and enlightenment are to be found in the act of letting go of the past and ceasing to yearn for a better future has been a consistent theme in alternative spiritual doctrine in the West since the hippie era. Indeed, The Power of Now is in some respects a rehash of Ram Dass’ 1971 bestseller Be Here Now.

Living in the moment has a lot of merit, not just for spiritual seekers but also for athletes. Mindfulness training, which entails practicing being wholly present in the now, has been shown to alter brain function in ways that enable athletes to recover and perform better. A study conducted by Chinese researchers and published in Neural Plasticity, for example, found that five weeks of mindfulness training improved aspects of executive function in the brain (executive function being the faculty that allows us to override the desire to quit when we’re really suffering in a workout or race) and increased performance in a time-to-exhaustion test compared to controls.

As a coach, I routinely see the harm done by athletes’ failure to be here now—the discouragement an aging runner needlessly causes himself by comparing his current abilities to his lost youthful capacities, the anxiety a triathlete gins up within herself unnecessarily by brooding on how much work she has to do before she’s ready for her race, etc. Here’s the thing, though: Aren’t cows really good at living in the moment? No, seriously! While I recognize the value of mindfulness and I embrace the science showing its benefits for endurance athletes, I often see athletes sabotage themselves by living too much in the moment, forgetting to make use of the uniquely human capacity to consider now in the context of the past and future.

 

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The most troubling manifestation of this phenomenon that I see in my coaching work is something I call workout myopia, where athletes forget the context of today’s workout and consequently inflate its significance, overanalyze it, and draw too many conclusions from it. A properly planned workout is just that—part of a larger plan—and is worth lingering on only to the extent that either A) the athlete’s performance falls below expectations in a way that demands modifications to future steps in the plan or B) something of such significance is learned in the workout that  subsequent training modifications are called for. Relatively few workouts meet these standards for qualifying as worthy of analyzing and drawing conclusions from, but athletes prone to “cow consciousness” linger on many if not most workouts, as I suppose any athlete would if they forgot they had ever done a workout previously and that they had many more workouts already planned for the future.

The consequences of this maladaptive form of living in the moment are many, and include seeing small problems where there are none, perceiving small problems as big ones, worrying when there is no need to worry, and wanting to change things when there is no need to change things. For athletes afflicted with workout myopia, a middling or poor workout is always an unprecedent crisis. If they feel a bit flat, they’re out of shape; if their times are a tad slow, the plan isn’t working; if their tummy is a little off, they need to radically overhaul their diet; if they feel a touch of pain, they’re permanently broken. Yet I’ve also seen athletes behaving myopically in relation to especially good workouts. An athlete experiences one of those rare and wonderful sessions where they feel like an Olympian, only to tear their hair out afterward trying to figure out how they can catch lightning in a bottle and replicate the experience in every future workout. Was it the breakfast I ate? That nap I took? The socks I wore? No, silly, it was the result of your coach methodically balancing hard work and recovery over time in such a way that you’ve gotten incrementally fitter without ever falling behind on recovery, a process that maximizes the likelihood of experiencing workouts like today’s but does not make their occurrence predictable or controllable in the mechanistic way you’re looking for.

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As a coach, I sometimes struggle with this type of athlete because it’s almost as if we’re seeing two different realities. Think of the training process as a human form, where the head represents today’s workout and the body represents the temporal context in which it occurs. I look at each workout straight on, seeing mostly body (context) and less head (present moment). Athletes afflicted with workout myopia seem to look at their workouts from above, a vantage that distorts the form so that it appears to be almost all head. Left to their own devices, such athletes train erratically, continuously overcorrecting their training in exaggerated response to workouts interpreted out of context.

What is the solution to workout myopia? I’ve had some success with simply explaining the phenomenon to its sufferers just as I’ve explained it to you here. It’s much easier to fix a problem you’re aware of than a problem whose very existence you’re oblivious to because you’re too busy being here now. You’re welcome.

There are two kinds of endurance athlete: Those who don’t know what heart rate variability (HRV) is and those who are about to find out.

For as long as hearts have existed, these vital organs have contracted at a slightly erratic tempo, and it is this slight play in rhythm that we measure as HRV. A much newer phenomenon is the active monitoring of HRV by endurance athletes, which is done because heart rate variability itself is variable in individuals, and these changes contain information about health, fitness, stress, and recovery.

So, that’s your primer on HRV. If you’re interested in learning more about the basics of heart rate variability, just Google the term—there’s plenty of good (and some bad) information online. The purpose of this article is to tell you about a new HRV-related study that grabbed my attention. Conducted by an international research team that included Marco Altini of HRV4 fame, the study was actually a single-subject validation test of a new functionality incorporated into the HRV Logger app.

In a previous study, Bruce Rogers of the University of Central Florida, who was also involved in the study under discussion, identified a specific HRV correlate of the aerobic threshold (aka first ventilatory threshold, or VT1) as determined through laboratory testing. The mathematics involved are highly advanced and far beyond my depth, but I’m confident that others who are good with numbers will test the validity of Rogers’s calculations. In the meantime, what he and Altini have done with them is pretty cool. As you may know, the aerobic threshold represents the dividing line between low and moderate intensity. So, the new functionality that’s been built into HRV Logger enables the app to pinpoint an athlete’s current HRV and track intensity distribution in real time. Specifically, a prior validation study linked the aerobic threshold to a DFA-alpha1 measurement of 0.75.

There are multiple advantages to this functionality. One is that the measurement involved is a better representation of global physiological demand than heart rate (or just about any other measurement that can be taken during exercise in the field). Another is that it obviates the need for formal testing outside the context of normal training. A third advantage is that the app’s aerobic threshold estimates track day-to-day and even within-session changes in your aerobic threshold. A lot of athletes don’t recognize that the physiological events such as VT1 to which we fix our training zones are themselves not fixed, but tend to float. Zones based on testing don’t float, but HRV Logger’s estimates do. Also, these estimates are impervious to cardiac drift and other factors that warp the linkage between heart rate and true physiological intensity. And finally, DFA-alpha1 estimates of aerobic threshold are transferrable to any aerobic exercise modality. Whether you’re cycling, running, or cross-country skiing, your VT1 is 0.75.

Anyway, the validation protocol—which was completed by a 41-year-old male former professional triathlete—consisted of three sessions. The first was a standard graded cycling test to exhaustion. This was followed by a non-exhaustive stage test in which the subject completed four, six-minute stages at incrementally increasing power outputs spanning from below to above the aerobic threshold. The final session was an hourlong easy ride. The results obtained by the HRV Logger app were compared against an analysis of the raw HRV data using Kubios HRV premium software and also against the results of a laboratory VT1 test. When the numbers were crunched, Altini and his collaborators found a “reasonable clinical agreement between conventional retrospective calculation of the HRVT derived through Kubios HRV software to that of a real-time app” and a high level of agreement between the app’s estimate of the subject’s aerobic threshold and the VT1 power and HR values of 220 watts and 148 bpm obtained through laboratory testing.

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As the 80/20 guy, I’m most excited about DFA-alpha1’s potential use in enforcing a prescribed intensity balance. With habitual use, athletes can track accumulated time and percentages of weekly training time at and above low intensity. This information will be especially helpful to athletes in special situations, such as off-road triathlon specialists who have no hope of staying at low intensity during long rides on hilly trails and want to incorporate them in a way that doesn’t skew their overall intensity balance.

I know this article reads like an infomercial for the HRV Logger app, but I assure you it’s not. Although I have corresponded a bit with Marco Altini in the past, I have no relationship with his company and nothing personal to gain from promoting his app. What I do have is a long history of promoting products I come across that, in my opinion, meet unmet needs for athletes. Speaking of which, have y’all shelled out for an ElliptiGO yet?

Every once in a while a podcast host will ask me to name my favorite writer or to recommend a book to listeners. It’s always an awkward moment for me because it all but forces me to admit that I don’t read many books about endurance sports. Almost none, in fact. To be clear, I love to read and I do so voraciously, but I’m mainly a fiction guy.

I’m also an endurance guy, though, and when I read fiction I often discover surprising relevancies to sport. One example is a priceless bit of prose that I ran across in the novel Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy: “There has to be some way to be a father and a good man, and still be me.” As good fiction so often does, these words capture a sentiment I’ve often felt but with a degree of precision that my own experience lacked. Whenever I stumble upon a passage that hits me in this way, it alters my future experience of the same phenomenon, lending it a degree of depth and clarity it had previously lacked, and this has certainly been the case with McConaghy’s gem.

Since my arrival at middle age I’ve thought a lot about the burden of personality. Through these reflections I’ve come to see my own psychological makeup as being like a set of ingredients that don’t quite match the dish I’m supposed to make with them. In this analogy, the individual ingredients are elements of my character, and the dish I’m supposed to make with them is my definition of a good person. For example, I am extremely self-absorbed by nature, and have been for as long as I can remember. How the heck am I supposed to cook up a good person with this dubious constituent?

The obvious solution of not using an ingredient that doesn’t belong in the dish you’re trying to prepare isn’t an option where personality is concerned. As another great fiction writer, Amor Towles, put it in reference to a character in his novel A Gentleman in Moscow, “Nina Kulikova always was and would be a serious soul in search of serious ideas to be serious about.” Nina could no more expect to “cook” without her inborn seriousness than I can expect to “cook” without my hardwired self-absorption. Nor is it a viable solution to add ingredients to those you were given at birth or developed in youth. A man who has been utterly lacking in patience for the first 50 years of his life, for example, cannot hope to suddenly acquire it at 51.

If it sounds like I’m suggesting that each of us is stuck exactly as we are, I’m not. Quite. Although we humans are required by the laws of psychology to cook up the best version of ourselves using all of the personality ingredients we currently possess and only these ingredients, it is possible to learn to fiddle around with portions and combinations and to process ingredients through life experience in ways that enable us to become better and better versions of ourselves. A list of ingredients is not the same thing as a recipe, after all, and each of us has the power to create the optimal recipe from the ingredients we’re stuck with.

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You might be asking yourself what all of this has to do with endurance sports. (It’s funny how often I am obliged to pose this question on my readers’ behalf some 500 words into a blog post!) The goal of succeeding as an endurance athlete is not so different from the goal of being a good person. Both require a degree of conformity to standards that seldom align perfectly with one’s nature. For example, success in endurance sports demands an application of discipline and consistency that doesn’t come easily to some. In fact, this post was inspired by my work with an athlete I work with who has a restless spirit and struggles to stay in a smooth groove in her training. She has many of the ingredients that are needed to succeed as an endurance athlete: passion, talent, toughness, intelligence. But it’s fair to say of this athlete that she always has been and always will be an impulsive soul in search of impulses to act on impulsively.

This is not a criticism. Few athletes possess the perfect character for success in endurance sports, whatever that is. As long as you have enough of the right ingredients and not too many of the wrong ones, you can cook up a rewarding athletic career. But to do so you need one thing besides enough of the right personality traits and not too many of the wrong ones, and that’s self-knowledge. Specifically, you need to recognize your strengths and weaknesses so you can exploit the former and mitigate the latter. To this end, I recently had a frank conversation with the aforementioned athlete about these matters, out of which came a heightened self-awareness on her part and a better shared sense of how to work with what she’s got.

On a practical level, this mutual understanding manifests in a variety of ways. For example, in the past we treated each of her sudden larks—buying a used van and embarking on a weeklong solo road trip, making a quick stop in Iceland to bang out a race on her way to France for her most important event of the year—as a one-off, the relative wisdom of which we would assess on its own terms. Now it is understood between us that she must indulge in a certain number of these larks to be happy with her running, and like any runner she must be happy with her running to run well. But we don’t try to kid ourselves that such whims don’t come at a cost, so we greenlight just enough of them to keep her happy.

Your personality and goals may be completely different from my athletes’, but the general concepts I’ve discussed in this post apply to everyone. Study yourself. Identify your key ingredients, and assess whether each contributes to or thwarts your success as an athlete. Then come up with a recipe that optimizes these ingredients, training and competing in a style that exploits your strengths and mitigates your weaknesses. Don’t worry about whether the recipe you come up with is abnormal.

To close with a cliche: Just be yourself. Do YOU.

I’ve been rubbernecking lately at a Twitter debate between scientific experts on human metabolism and obesity, on one side, and keto diet advocates on the other. The spectacle is both entertaining and tedious, and also revealing. What I’ve realized in observing it is that even I knew nothing about human metabolism and obesity, I would come down on the same side of the debate I’m already on based on what I do know—the scientific side—based instead on my judgment of the credibility of the two factions.

Those representing the scientific side, including NIH senior investigator Kevin Hall, PhD, and The Hungry Brain author Stephan Guyenet, PhD, are impressive communicators—dispassionate, precise, and careful. The keto faction, meanwhile, whose frontline warriors include journalist Gary Taubes and The Big Fat Lie author Nina Teicholz, communicate with a mixture of sweeping generalizations, emotionally overheated language, and bug-eyed conspiracy mongering that could scarcely paint a starker contrast to their opponents. It is so glaringly obviously that the keto defenders want to believe what they believe, and that the scientists believe what the evidence persuades them to believe, that—again, supposing I knew nothing at all about the substance of the debate—I would judge it highly likely that the keto crowd was wrong and the scientists right by style alone.

Elsewhere I have written about carbophobia, or fear of carbs. Today I’ve got a new one for you: miscarbohy, or hatred of carbohydrate. It sounds silly, but millions of everyday folks, including a great many endurance athletes, are infected with this prejudice. Like other prejudices, miscarbohy leads people to do irrational, and sometimes even self-sabotaging, things. For example, it causes a lot of ultrarunners to restrict their carbohydrate intake during races and to reflexively scapegoat carbs when they experience GI distress during competition.

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A new scientific review led by Soledad Arribalzaga of the University of Leon shows just how self-sabotaging these particularly manifestations of miscarbohy are. Arrizabalzaga’s team searched the literature for past studies that had tracked measures of fatigue and gastrointestinal distress among runners competing in ultradistance trail events. They found 25 relevant studies, nine of which satisfied their inclusion criteria. Carbohydrate intake rates varied widely between individuals in all of these studies, but all found that only a small minority of runners met the recommended intake level of 90 grams per hour. According to Arrizalbaga and her colleagues, “The main reasons why athletes referred to this complication regarding [carbohydrate] intake were as follows:

  1. The difficulty in eating all the required food or supplements and
  2. The persistence of GI symptoms and/or appetite suppression.”

Gastrointestinal complaints were indeed common, affecting between 45 and 75 of participants in the various studies. However, the likelihood of experiencing debilitating symptoms was found to be linked not to the amount of carbohydrate consumed but rather to other factors including speed (faster runners being 2.5 times more likely than slower runners to have GI problems) and elevation. What’s more, a couple of the included studies reported that runners who had previously engaged in gut training (i.e., practicing higher levels of carbohydrate intake during training) experienced fewer GI symptoms. These runners gained a significant advantage from refusing to take “no” for an answer from their intestines, as the most consistent finding among the nine studies analyzed was that the runners who consumed the highest amounts of carbohydrate exhibited the lowest fatigue levels across all measures, from subjective ratings of perceived exertion to blood levels of creatine kinase.

In my experience, the practical difficulty of meeting recommended carbohydrate levels and the GI issues that sometimes attend higher intake levels are not the only reasons ultrarunners and other endurance athletes don’t consume enough carbs during competition. Another is miscarbohy, which prevents runners who are biased against carbohydrate from even trying to take in enough. Prejudice is such a funny thing. If some other nutrient were discovered that offered precisely the same mix of pros and cons as carbohydrate in the context of endurance racing, anti-carb athletes would be all over it. As it is, however, no amount of evidence or reasoning can persuade the majority of these athletes to overcome their double standard and stop sabotaging themselves in races by taking in more carbs.

Chances are this article is being read by some athletes who have an anti-carb prejudice and some who don’t. Members of both groups, according to the review just described, tend not to consume enough carbohydrate during long races. The best way to punish miscarbohy that I can think of is for those athletes who aren’t biased against carbs yet do not consume enough carbs in competition to increase their carb intake and kick the asses of the biased.

In the 1990s, philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers introduced the concept of extended mind, which proposes that the acts of thinking and feeling do not occur entirely inside one’s head. If you’re not familiar with this concept, it might sound plumb crazy to you, but if you give it a chance, you’ll see it actually makes a lot of sense.

Consider sheet music. Musicians use sheet music as an extension of their own internal memory capacity. Exploiting this tool requires a mind that is capable of remembering some things for itself (like how to read sheet music), but if this basic requirement is met, sheet music greatly expands the repertoire of music that a musician can perform. In this way, sheet music may be described quite reasonably as an extension of the human mind.

The operative mechanism in this example is cognitive outsourcing, or offloading a task from the brain to an external tool. Our capacity to outsource mental work, and some of the specific ways we do, have both advantages and disadvantages. I’ve hinted already at the advantages. One disadvantage is the use-it-or-lose-it factor. Take spell check, for example. My father and I, both experienced professional writers, have shared the observation that we’ve become worse spellers since the advent of spell check. We no longer have to remember how to spell, so we’ve forgotten to a degree.

As a coach, I see smart watches and other sports trackers doing something similar with respect to athletes’ ability to pace themselves. Earlier this year, I wrote about a study by a pair of Italian psychologists on device dependency in runners. In a sample of 111 athletes, these researchers observed a high level of device dependency among less experienced runners in particular. While this particular study did not delve into the practical consequences of such dependence, a new study conducted by Dutch researchers and published in the journal Sensors does.

The purpose of the experiment, as stated in the abstract, was “to explore the roles that sports trackers and running-related data play in runners’ personal goal achievement.” The subjects were 22 competitive recreational runners recruited through Strava and other online platforms. The researchers collected information about their experiences with sports trackers through a combination of interviews and diaries. Their unsurprising main finding was that the devices were used for the primary purpose of logging data for later review—a classic example of cognitive outsourcing.

Sports trackers were also broadly relied on for the regulation of pace during runs, and here’s where the problems came in. A majority of the runners reported that the devices failed to supply enough contextual guidance to allow them to completely turn over control and run on the ambulatory equivalent of autopilot. At the same time, though, in relying on their devices to a certain degree to tell them how they were doing and what to do, the runners sacrificed the self-reliance they would have needed to maintain consistent control in their relationship with their devices—unless they ignored them altogether, which in fact is exactly how some chose to resolve the conflict. “I feel horrible when seeing that I am not keeping up with a pace that I planned,” one runner said, “so I start thinking if I should push myself harder on the next kilometer or punish myself by running slow . . . So you just avoid looking at it at all and check once you’re done because it influences me in the wrong way . . . It’s just not that helpful, is it?”

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The authors concluded their report of their findings by recommending improvements to sports trackers’ design and functionality. “We propose that technology developers should be aware of the psychological effects of running-related data on runners,” they wrote. “Future research could examine how sports technology facilitates ignorance of data while still informing the runner that some data are important to track and be aware of, especially when these data are of considerable importance because they relate to their goals.”

I like this direction. Sports trackers are not intrinsically helpful or harmful to athletes, but they have the potential to be both, and existing products very much are both for many athletes. The athletes who use their devices most effectively are those who remain in total control of all pacing-related decision-making, relying on them merely as a source of data that informs their choices. For them, sports trackers serve as a sensible and selectively used extension of their minds. For too many other athletes, alas, sports trackers are being used as an outright substitute for their minds, which no amount of advancement in design and functionality will ever allow them to truly be.

When things aren’t going your way in a race or during a training block, it is helpful to remind yourself how much worse things could be. A lot of athletes who engage in this mental exercise choose prisoners of war specifically for such perspective-shifting comparisons—folks like Admiral James Stockdale, the U.S. Navy Admiral who spent eight years inside the infamous Hanoi Hilton during the war in Vietnam and is perhaps best known for blinking the word “torture” in Morse code during the filming of a hostage video by his captors.

As a person who prizes mental strength, I like to know that folks like Admiral Stockdale exist, but more than that, I want to study them so I can be more like them. To this end, I try to dig beneath their heroics and learn what makes them tick, unearthing the how behind their awesome feats of resilience. In the case of Stockdale, everyone who has read the bestselling business book Good to Great knows the secret to his perseverance. In interviewing the Admiral for the book, author Jim Collins asked him directly who among his fellow POW’s cracked even as Stockdale himself continued to hold himself together.

“The optimists,” he answered readily. “Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

Very early in my now nine-month struggle with post-acute COVID-19 syndrome, I started telling friends and relations that I believed I might not ever get better. I did so for two reasons:

  1. I believed I might not ever get better.
  2. My gut told me I would cope with the experience more effectively as it unfolded if I did not lie to myself and pretend I somehow magically knew I would get better.

Most of my friends and relations weren’t having it. They went ahead and pretended they did somehow magically know I would get better. And not only that, but they went a step further and cajoled me to be less pessimistic about my own prospects for recovery. “You’ve got to have faith,” they said.

Do I, though? Not as I see it. Optimism is fetishized in our culture, but it’s never made much sense to me personally. I catch a whiff of Pollyannaish denial when optimism is expressed in situations of dire uncertainty. For a person to say that everything is going to work out just fine when they have no legitimate basis to make such a claim seems weak to me, a childish attempt at self-delusion motivated by a fragile inability to handle the truth.

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The problem with the optimistic impulse is that it originates from an external locus of control, or a habit of making success dependent on factors that are outside one’s sphere of influence. The optimist thinks, I believe the weather forecasters are wrong, and it’s not going to be hot on race day, so I can have a good race. The athlete version of James Stockdale, by contrast, thinks, Well, it looks like race day’s going to be a scorcher. I’m going to prepare myself as best I can mentally and physically so I can have a good race regardless. When it turns out that race day is indeed a scorcher, the unprepared optimist freaks out and has a bad race and the Stockdale type takes advantage of his non-dependence on luck to have a good race, all things considered.

In Good to Great, Stockdale is also quoted as saying, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

The Admiral’s use of the word “faith” sounds a lot like optimism, but in fact it is anything but. Stockdale is talking here about faith in one’s own ability to persevere in the face of an unfavorable reality, not the usual wide-eyed optimistic happy-talk about reality pivoting providentially in one’s favor. As readers of my book The Comeback Quotient will know, my term for those who possess “the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be” is ultrarealists, and the great athletic masters of mental fitness, those who are capable of pulling off seemingly miraculous comebacks, are just that—ultrarealists—not optimists.

The former type coped far better than the latter during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the optimists were saying, “I just know the races will come back in the fall,” and were subsequently soul-crushed when the races did not come back in the fall, the ultrarealists were saying, “I have no idea if the races will come back come fall, so I’m going to concentrate on making progress as an athlete regardless, and if the races do come back, so much the better,” and when the races didn’t come back, these stronger men and women were not soul-crushed.

I’ve seen the same thing happen with some of my fellow long-haulers. They have a few good days and they just know they’re on the path toward full recovery, then they suffer a setback and are devastated. Or they hear reports that some long-haulers are getting symptom relief from the various coronavirus vaccines and they just know that their first or second shot is going to be their silver bullet, and when it isn’t they despair. To be perfectly honest, I too have allowed hope to sneak in and set me up for a few falls over the past nine months, but never again.

Yes, I am familiar with the research on optimism. A certain kind of optimism does appear to serve some people well as a coping mechanism. But the point I’m making is that optimism is not an effective coping mechanism for many others, and it is not the only way to get by in this hard world, either as an athlete and as a human being.

Anyone who has ever used a piece of cardio equipment at a public gym has some notion of exercise intensity zones. Here’s an example of a chart you might see stuck to an elliptical trainer at your local health club:

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Example of Exercise Intensity Zones

Athletes scoff at such simplistic, one-size-fits-all guidelines. For starters, they are based on the supposition that every human has a maximum heart rate equal to 220 beats per minute minus their age in years, which is very far from being true. My own maximum heart rate at age 49, for example, was 181 BPM, or 220 – 39. These charts also convey a misleading impression that individuals with any particular health or fitness goal should do all of their exercising in the zone associated with that goal, which is also untrue. I can assure you that doing 100 percent of one’s cardiovascular exercise at 60 to 70 percent of maximum heart rate is not the most efficient way to control one’s body weight. Those nice round numbers—50 to 60 percent, 60 to 70 percent, etc.—are a bit suspect as well.

A variety of more sophisticated zone scales—not all of them heart rate-based—have been developed for use by endurance athletes. Of these, Joe Friel’s is perhaps the best known and most widely used. David Warden and I created our own zone scale for athletes who wish to train by the 80/20 method. All of these intensity rating systems—or most of them, anyway—share certain characteristics that make them better than the ones you see at the gym. In particular, individual zones are linked to key physiological thresholds that vary with fitness and require testing to determine.

Athletes put a good deal of trust in the 80/20 zone scale and others, and rightly so—they work quite well. The funny thing is that very few elite endurance athletes use intensity zones of any kind. Take runners, for example. In any type of high-intensity workout, an elite runner is likely to try to hit a certain target rather than stay within a zone. For instance, a runner might do a set of 1-km repeats at critical velocity, which is the fastest pace that can be sustained for 30 minutes. Or a triathlete might do a long ride featuring alternating 10-minute blocks performed at Ironman power +10 watts and Ironman power -10 watts. Low-intensity sessions, which dominate the training schedules of all elite endurance athletes, are governed neither by zones nor targets but are done entirely by feel.

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The core of my endurance training philosophy is that athletes of all experience and ability levels should train the same way the pros do, albeit scaled to their level. But if that’s the case, then why do I prescribe intensity zones to nonelite athletes when elite athletes don’t use them? The short answer is that, precisely because any person who has ever exercised in a public gym is familiar with the concept of zones, this tool is helpful in facilitating correct workout execution for less experienced athletes. The way the pros regulate intensity is difficult to do unless you really know yourself as an athlete.

When I trained with the NAZ Elite team in 2017, Coach Ben Rosario always gave each athlete a precise pace or time to hit in each workout, and he was able to do so because he knew his athletes thoroughly. For example, one day he had Kellyn Taylor complete a 4 x 300m cutdown at the end of a workout. He asked her to complete the reps in 52, 51, 50, and 49 seconds, basing these numbers on her known one-mile race pace of 50 seconds per 300. She hit these numbers dead-on.

Chances are, you don’t know yourself well enough as an athlete to train with such precision, which is why you need zones. No problem. Because I truly believe that all athletes should train like the elites as much as possible, I try to have it both ways in the new 80/20 run plans I created earlier this year. Yes, the workouts use zones, but in many of them the workout descriptions instruct athletes to aim for a particular target within a zone.

An example is lactate intervals. This workout type (there are nine separate levels) features sets of 30-second intervals that are meant to be run at the fastest pace a runner can sustain for 15 minutes. In zone terms, it’s a Zone 4 session, but the specific pace target falls smack in the middle of this zone for the majority of runners. Less experienced runners are free to just think of the session as a Zone 4 workout and trust they will get the desired benefit regardless of where they land inside this zone, while more experienced runners can try to nail their 15-minute pace with Kellyn Taylor-like exactness and benefit that much more. With time, of course, runners can graduate from the first approach to the second, and from there they can advance to signing a running footwear endorsement contract and going to the Olympics.

As a runner first and a triathlete second, I am attuned to the differences between the two sports. One difference is that many recreational triathletes think nothing of working out twice a day, whereas very few recreational runners engage in this practice.

There is an obvious reason for this difference: Triathletes have three separate disciplines to worry about. A triathlete who wants to train just three times per week in each discipline has to “double” twice a week—three times if they want a day of complete rest.

But having only one discipline to worry about isn’t the only reason so few runners ever work out twice in one day. Runners also feel that they lack the time to double, that their body couldn’t handle doubling, and that two-a-days aren’t worth the bother, except for the elites. In this article I will address these concerns, make a case for the use of doubles by recreational runners in training, and offer guidelines for the practice.

Yes, You Can Run Double

Recreational triathletes who routinely double on one or more days each week and recreational runners who never double are the same people. They all have jobs, families, and other responsibilities—in other words, they’re all busy. Triathletes don’t have more time to train than runners do—they just choose to train more. Runners can make the same choice. It’s an adjustment, but doable for everyone except those with the craziest schedules.

Understand also that doubling isn’t necessarily an all-or-nothing commitment. If you go from seven workouts per week to eight workouts—a 14 percent increase in training volume—guess what? You’re doubling. What’s more, doubling need not be something you do all year, but perhaps only during the 16 weeks you’re ramping up for an A race.

There’s no rule that says those extra workouts have to be runs, either. If you’re concerned about injuries, add nonimpact cardio sessions on a bike or elliptical trainer instead. In fact, you can even reduce your run frequency when making the switch to doubling. For example, you could go from running six times per week to running four times and cycling four times. You’ll get fitter and lower your injury risk simultaneously.

Is it really worth the bother? Only you can decide how much your running performance matters to you, but from a pure performance perspective, the answer to this question is a resounding “yes.” High-volume training is incredibly powerful. That’s why it’s practiced universally at the elite level. Sure, you can realize most of your potential with a fairly low-volume running plan, but to run your best race you need to put in some serious hours. It’s the secret to achieving the “tireless state” of conditioning that Arthur Lydiard aimed for with his runners.

There is, of course, a law of diminishing returns at play in the relationship between training volume and fitness. The second hour of training you do each week is not as beneficial as the first, the third hour doesn’t do as much as the second, and so forth. But this also means that the next hour you add to your current training load will help you more than the next hour after that. So a modest increase in training achieved via doubling just might lead to a performance breakthrough in your next race.

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How to Execute Running Doubles

The two most effective ways to improve running performance are (1) increasing the volume of training and (2) balancing the intensity of training more effectively. The second of these two methods should always come first. In other words, you should not increase the amount of training you do if the intensity balance of your current training is not optimal.

Recent studies have shown that runners of all ability and experience levels improve most when they spend about 80 percent of their total weekly training time at low intensity (roughly between 60 and 75 percent of maximum heart rate) and the remaining 20 percent at moderate (roughly 76-90 percent of HRmax) and high intensities (roughly 91-100 percent of HRmax). The typical competitive recreational runner does about 45 percent of his or her training at low intensity, another 45 percent at moderate intensity, and the rest at high intensity. So it’s very likely that you can and should seek improvement by breaking out of the “moderate-intensity rut” before you consider increasing your training volume and doubling.

Even when it is appropriate to increase your training volume, you can do it without adding a second workout to one or more days of the week. Instead you can simply lengthen the workouts you’re already doing. If the average duration of your daily workouts (excluding your Saturday or Sunday long run) currently is less than one hour, I suggest you lengthen them to one hour before you add doubles. If you’re already training about an hour or day (excluding your long run), then the best way to increase your volume is by introducing doubles.

Why not just lengthen your once-a-day workouts to 75 or 90 minutes? This is an option, but not the best one for most runners. It’s not an accident that elite cyclists ride once a day for a few hours, whereas elite runners run twice a day for about an hour at a time. It is evident that running for one hour twice a day is less stressful than running for two hours once a day.

The best time to add one or more doubles to your weekly routine is not during a race-focused training cycle but rather during the pre-base training period that immediately precedes a formal ramp-up for racing. You want your body to be fully adapted to the higher workout frequency before such a build-up begins.

Naturally, it’s important to avoid making huge leaps in overall volume. But this does not necessarily mean that you must limit yourself to adding just one or two workouts to your weekly routine at a time. You can jump straight from six or seven workouts per week all the way to 12 or 13 workouts without overwhelming yourself provided all of those additional workouts are very easy—that is, low intensity and relatively short. In fact, regardless of how many workouts you add, they should all be easy.

Another big decision to make is how many of these workouts will be runs and how many will be nonimpact cardio workouts. I can tell you this: You can attain just as much running fitness—or very close to the same amount—on a schedule of three runs per week plus X nonimpact cardio workouts as you can on a schedule of X + 3 runs per week. So if you are concerned about injuries or about general wear and tear, take the cautious route and keep the number of runs you do relatively low (one a day or less) and rely heavily on cross-training. If you’re durable and you much prefer running to any form of cross-training, then you may forego cross-training and just run.

Even if you decide to make liberal use of doubling in your training, be sure to alternate hard and easy days in your schedule. Do no more than three hard workouts per week and separate them from each other by at least two days. If you double three or fewer times per week, those days should generally coincide with days when you do hard workouts so that your easier days are much easier.

Training to run on doubles

 

Pick Your Double

Here are three examples of training schedules that include two-a-day workouts. Choose the schedule that is most appropriate for you and modify it as necessary.

Schedule A

This schedule is a good fit for runners who have never doubled before and are prepared only for a modest increase in overall training volume.

Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun
A.M. Cross-Train

 

Easy recovery workout in nonimpact activity

Hard Run

 

(Tempo, hill reps, intervals…)

Easy Run or Cross-Training session Easy Run or Cross-Training session Hard Run

 

(Tempo, hill reps, intervals…)

Easy Run or Cross-Training session Long Run
P.M Cross-Train

 

Easy recovery workout in nonimpact activity

Schedule B

Use this schedule if you have time and energy to double on multiple days of the week but aren’t quite ready for Schedule C.

Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun
A.M. Cross-Train

 

Easy recovery workout in nonimpact activity

Hard Run

 

(Tempo, hill reps, intervals…)

Easy Run or Cross-Training session Easy Run or Cross-Training session Hard Run

 

(Tempo, hill reps, intervals…)

Easy Run or Cross-Training session Long Run
P.M Easy Run or Cross-Training session Easy Run or Cross-Training session Easy Run or Cross-Training session

Schedule C

This is the schedule that most elite runners follow. In their case, most or all of the workouts are runs rather than cross-training sessions. But you don’t have to have elite talent to use and benefit from this schedule. You just need a solid background in training and racing and a strong desire to be the best runner you can be.

Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun
A.M. Cross-Train

 

Easy recovery workout in nonimpact activity

Hard Run

 

(Tempo, hill reps, intervals…)

Easy Run or Cross-Training session Easy Run or Cross-Training session Hard Run

 

(Tempo, hill reps, intervals…)

Easy Run or Cross-Training session Long Run
P.M Easy Run or Cross-Training session Easy Run or Cross-Training session Easy Run or Cross-Training session Easy Run or Cross-Training session Easy Run or Cross-Training session Easy Run or Cross-Training session

 

If you read my book Running the Dream: One Summer Living, Training, and Racing with a Team of World-Class Runners Half My Age and found yourself wondering what happened on the days not included in the journal-style narrative, here’s your answer! Sort of. What follows is a chapter I wrote for inclusion in the book but eliminated in a late effort to reduce the book’s heft. Enjoy!

***

Like many people, I eat lunch every day. Most days, it’s just lunch. Today, though, it was an experience. The food itself had almost nothing to do with the meal’s specialness, the company and setting almost everything.

My companions in bread breaking were four members of the Sonoran Distance Project, a team of sub-elite female runners who share a goal of qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon, and their coach, John Reich, himself a former sub-elite runner; the location a remote cabin in the woods where John hosts the team’s annual summer training camp (a three-day affair, as most of the roster works full-time in jobs completely unrelated to running). The invitation to drop in on the group’s midday repast came about when John, having read one or two of my books, learned I was coming to Flagstaff and got my contact info from Coach Ben (everyone knowing everyone in the local running community).

Warned by John not to bother with Google maps, I drove to the cabin with printed directions resting on my lap, a highly descriptive set of cues (“At about 6.5 miles into the forest the good gravel will turn right but you will continue straight”) I received from him via email. It was slow going, and rather unkind to the Fun Mobile in certain sections, but eventually I did reach Elk Park meadows, an off-the-grid settlement of rough-hewn houses and glorified huts strewn across a gash-shaped clearing enclosed by pristine forest little changed since white men first laid eyes on it. The very last line of John’s document instructed me to look for the “Reich” sign on Raccoon Drive. Seeing it, I veered left onto a narrow drive, passing a pair of catatonic horses, heads hanging over a slatted fence, before parking beside three or four cars lined up against a second fence marking the perimeter of the front yard of a squat cabin. John met me at the gate.

“Any trouble finding us?” he asked, eyeing the mud-spattered Mazda.

“Not really,” I said. “Just one wrong turn.”

John ushered me into the yard and introduced me to the runners. Natalie Cuomo, a medical student in Phoenix with a marathon PR of 2:48:08, established herself as the group’s extrovert, stepping forward with a winsome smile and an extended hand. Autumn Ray, an emergency medical physician in Phoenix who competed in the 2016 Olympic Trials, said something nice about my most recent book. Tanaya Gallagher, a bespectacled massage therapist and yoga instructor from Sedona who’s into meditation and recycling, fended me off with a wave, as though she had a cold she didn’t want to pass on to me. And, lastly, Amy Cole, who lives in Tucson and has a PhD in psychology, greeted me with a look of incipient hilarity that made me wonder if my fly was open.

Sonoran Distance Project

John handed me a bottle of water and invited me to sit on a camp chair facing the house. The others arranged themselves in a loose circle around me, Autumn and John in low chairs to my left, Natalie on the porch (where she massaged her legs with a medieval-looking device made by Roll Recovery), Amy in a beach chair on my right side, and to her left, prostrate on a yoga mat, Tanaya, whose husband, Josh Esquivel, knelt on the grass beside her.

I sat back in my seat and exhaled hugely, soaking in the primordial serenity of my surroundings. The air was warm and dry, stirred by a gentle breeze out of the northeast that carried on it a hint of the sweet fragrance of ponderosa pines. A broad-winged bird of prey glided far overheard, perhaps interested in the deer femur currently being gnawed at by one of five dogs lazing about the lawn. A vast silence surrounded us.

“Shall we go inside and watch TV?” I joked.

“There is no TV,” John said. “No electricity, either.”

I remembered suddenly a famous quote from the great American miler Marty Liquori:

“You’ve got to be a little bored to be doing really good training.”

The runners proceeded to grill me about my fake pro runner experience, their curiosity—like my friend Teresa’s—tinged with envy. August asked me, half-serious, if I’d gotten any good dirt on the team. I told her they’d been on their best behavior so far, wondering even as I spoke if this might actually be true—if things weren’t as perfect as they seemed within NAZ Elite. Amy followed up with a question about whether I felt accepted by my new teammates, and I told her I did.

“Take today’s workout,” I said. “I had sixteen miles with an eight-mile cutdown from 7:10 to 6:20. Ben Bruce, who’s coming back from an abdominal strain, paced me through most of the cutdown, and it was his idea; I didn’t even ask.”

“Here’s something I’m curious about,” John said, and we all turned to him. “You intend to write about this experience, correct?”

“That’s correct.”

“What happens if you have a bad race in Chicago? That wouldn’t make a very good ending to your story.”

I reminded John that George Plimpton experienced a similar letdown in the process of creating Paper Lion. The climax of his story was supposed to have been the moment he came off the bench to play a full set of downs as quarterback of the Detroit Lions in a preseason matchup against the New York Giants, but at the last minute his coach decided against putting him in. Nevertheless, Plimpton’s book sold a million copies and became a hit movie, starring the author as himself.

“He couldn’t have known that at the time, though,” John countered. “He must have been shitting his pants when it happened.”

“And I will shit my pants if I run poorly in Chicago,” I conceded.

“Are you ready for some lunch?” Tanaya asked.

It was the custom of the runners of the Sonoran Distance Project to take turns preparing meals, and today’s chef was Tanaya. Having come to Elk Park Meadows with the expectation of feasting on something like grilled chicken breasts, a mixed greens salad, and couscous, I was instead given a choice between peanut butter and jelly and grilled cheese. I chose PB&J.

“Seriously, though,” I said while I chewed, “what the hell do you all do around here? Where’s the zip-line?”

“If you weren’t here we would be napping,” Natalie said frankly. “You should be napping too. You ran 16 miles this morning.”

“I don’t nap,” I said.

“What?” Tanaya said, incredulous. “Why not?”

“Whenever I nap, I feel sluggish the rest of the day. I never recover.”

“You told us you were going all-in on the professional running lifestyle,” Amy said. “Professional runners nap. You need to do it!”

Cowed by the vehemence of these objections, I promised I would nap. And then I turned the tables.

“What about you guys?” I asked. “You’re all busy professionals chasing the dream. It must be hard to give your running the attention and space you’d like to. Do you ever wish you could run full-time—to have this training camp lifestyle be your everyday lifestyle?”

“Yes, definitely,” Amy said. “The simple life of run, eat, sleep, repeat is very appealing to me. I’m not one who thrives on being busy.”

“I love my time at the cabin,” Autumn seconded. “When all there is to do is sleep and read, you actually get enough rest. Otherwise I find all sorts of useless chores to do. In my experience, both your brain and your body need the rest.”

Aware now that I was keeping the women from their hammocks, or whatever the hell they slept on in this odd Xanadu, I rose to leave. During the long drive back to Matt’s house I pictured my new friends packing up tomorrow to return to their normal lives. A quick bit of mental arithmetic revealed to me that in 78 days, I will do the same. From one perspective, this seems like a long time; from another, as brief as a pleasant dream in an afternoon nap.

Last year I took part in an online roundtable of running experts. I was the only coach in the group; the others were physiotherapists, kinesiologists, and strength and conditioning specialists. Toward the end of the overlong session, when everyone was a little punch drunk, the conversation degenerated into a sour-toned airing of grievances concerning the inexcusable failings of running coaches. The words “evidence based” were uttered so many times in the course of this verbal savaging of my profession that if the roundtable had been a drinking game with “evidence based” as the trigger phrase, I would have ended up in the hospital with acute alcohol poisoning.

The problem these folks had with running coaches, near as I could tell, was that we aren’t very good scientists. I was strongly tempted to point out that running coaches aren’t scientists at all, in fact, and we should not be judged by the standards used to judge scientists, but I knew that I’d only invite a pile-on if I did so. As it was, the experience left me feeling out of sorts for days. It bothered me that these experts thought they were right about my colleagues when in fact they were so terribly wrong. A phrase came to me—tyranny of evidence based—and it thereafter echoed continuously in my head throughout this period of brooding. I started to feel better only when I googled the phrase and came up with a bunch of links to articles and papers about—are you ready for this?—the tyranny of evidence-based medicine and other clinical practices. I wasn’t alone!

In one such paper, Australian physiotherapist Dave Nicholls wrote, “In recent years, a number of authors have offered significantly more critical commentary on [evidence-based practice]. Spence recently claimed that ‘Today EBM is a loaded gun at clinicians’ heads. “You better do as the evidence says,” it hisses, leaving no room for discretion or judgment. EBM is now the problem, fueling overdiagnosis and overtreatment’ (Spence, 2016), whilst Trisha Greenhalgh et al argued that ‘The evidence based “quality mark” has been misappropriated by vested interests’ (Greenhalgh et al, 2014).”

In a recent blog post of mine, I discussed the difference between knowledge and thinking. Some people are better at absorbing and applying knowledge, I proposed, while others are better at solving problems and figuring things out, and a special few are good at both and an unlucky handful aren’t good at either. Certain professions, including physiotherapy, kinesiology, and strength and conditioning, tend to attract knowers–rote learners who are good at following if/then instructions and who function essentially as body mechanics–whereas other fields, including elite-level endurance coaching, tend to attract thinkers. A large fraction of the body mechanics I’ve dealt with are paint-by-numbers types. They lean hard on evidenced-based practice, in part because they genuinely believe in it but also because they are largely incapable of solving problems creatively and figuring things out for themselves.

2

Nearly all of the elite-level endurance coaches I’ve ever known are completely the opposite. They don’t know a ton of science, but they can almost always find a way to guide their athletes from point A to point B regardless of how many, or what kinds, of obstacles stand in between. A lot of body mechanics observe these coaches with a mixture of bafflement, disdain, and insecurity. In their minds, endurance training ought to be scientific, and these science-dependent individuals are deeply bothered, sometimes outright threatened, by the fact that the most effective endurance coaches operate more like artists. A certain number of these folks are sufficiently threatened that a one-sided turf war has erupted in and around endurance sports, wherein body mechanics like those participating in the roundtable I just described publicly chastise endurance coaches for being bad scientists in an effort to . . . I don’t know, actually. Take over?

The irony is that these body mechanics would themselves make terrible endurance coaches if they were to steal our jobs. They would be paralyzed by every tricky problem lacking any obvious evidence-based solution that arose in an athlete’s training–and as every coach knows, such problems arise often. They would never innovate or experiment or even treat each athlete as unique because by definition none of these practices can ever be evidence based. Their athletes would come to despise these coaches, who in always deferring to the secular higher power of evidence would lack the charisma—the guru factor—that makes great coaches great, each in a sui generis sort of way. Much of the fun would be drained out of the training process, which would lack any spontaneity or specialness or differentiation from the cookie-cutter training prescribed by every other coach manacled to the immovable steel post of science.

Athletes excel when they believe their coach has a “secret sauce.” If every endurance coach were a body mechanic, there would be no secret sauce. And there would come a time when each athlete confronted their coach, saying, “I swear to God, if you say ‘evidence-based’ one more time . . .”

Here’s an interesting idea for a study: Two dozen coaches and their athletes would be monitored for a period of several months. During this period, researchers would track how often each coach used the phrase “evidence based” in communicating with athletes, who in turn would undergo regular testing to track changes in their level of fitness. I’d bet the farm that the coaches who used that kitten-killing phrase least often would produce the greatest fitness gains in their athletes. And from then on it would be considered an evidence-based practice to avoid saying “evidence-based” in endurance coaching!

If the fastest swimming, cycling, and running you do is in races, you’re not training right. Every triathlon training program should include speed work, or efforts that exceed race intensity. Speed work not only changes your perception of race intensity, making it feel more comfortable, but it also enhances fitness in ways that slower training does not.

There are right and wrong ways to incorporate speed training workouts. Doing speed work the right way is not difficult. A top triathlon training tip is to copy how professional triathletes go about it (which is not to say you should try to go as fast as they do!). Incorporating speed exercises all comes down to obeying these three simple rules.

Rule #1: Do some speed training workouts year-round.

Speed training workouts can be done year round

The term “periodization” refers to the practice of dividing the training process into phases and assigning a distinct fitness objective to each. Traditionally, the first phase, known as the base phase, is all about building general aerobic fitness and endurance through large and increasing amounts of low-intensity training. Speed work is excluded from this phase because maximizing overall training volume is easier when intensity is kept low.

These days, however, most elite triathletes include a small amount of high-intensity swimming, cycling, and running in the base phase, and you should too. The reason is that when speed work is completely eliminated from training, the athlete loses the dimension of fitness that comes from speed work and makes it harder to get it back in later phases.

Just one small dose of high-intensity swimming, cycling, and running per week during the base phase will enable you to avoid digging this all-too-common hole. I recommend doing very short efforts at or close to maximum intensity, such as 8 x 25-yard sprints in the pool and 8 x 20 seconds uphill on the bike or the run.

Rule #2: Keep your total volume of speed training workouts low.

mattia cioni fmybGXO4G3s unsplash 1

After the base phase of training comes the peak phase. During this period, which should begin 6-12 weeks before a race, you will want to increase your volume of speed work while keeping your overall training volume steady. But even at this time, speed work should account for no more than 10 percent of your total training volume.

Again, let the pros be your guide. In 2012, Iñigo Mujika of the University of Basque Country monitored the training of elite triathlete Ainhoa Murua as she prepared for the London Olympics (where she placed seventh). He found that she spent 10 percent of her total swim training time, 2 percent of her cycling time, and 7 percent of her running time at high intensity. These numbers are normal for elite triathletes and they should be the norm for you too.

While a little triathlon training for speed goes a long way, more than a little is counterproductive. This was shown in a 1999 study involving elite middle-distance runners. For the first several weeks of the study period the runners completed six runs per week, all at low intensity. Then they switched to a schedule of five low-intensity runs and one high-intensity run per week for a few weeks. Finally, they switched to a schedule  of three low-intensity runs and three-high-intensity runs per week. The runners produced the best results in a fitness test when they were doing one run per week at high intensity and got the worst results when they did speed work three times per week.

Here’s an example of a sensible breakdown of training intensities during the peak period of training:

Monday: Rest

Tuesday: Swim 1500 yards w/ 3 x 200 at moderate intensity

Wednesday: Bike 50 minutes w/ 8 x 1 minute at high intensity

Thursday: Run 45 minutes w/ 6 x 3 minutes at high intensity

Friday: Swim 1500 yards at low intensity

Saturday: Bike 70 minutes + run 10 minutes at low intensity

Sunday: Run 10 miles at low intensity

Rule #3: Make your speed work increasingly race-specific as the training process unfolds.

swimming for speed training workout

The format of your speed workouts should evolve from week to week as the training process unfolds. The idea is to make your high-intensity sessions increasingly race specific. What does this mean exactly? It means that your intervals should become longer and slower (while remaining faster than race speed). The reason is that the true goal of speed work is not to make you faster—it’s to increase your fatigue resistance at higher speeds.

In the pool, I suggest starting with 25-yard sprints and moving step by step from there up to 200-yard repetitions. You should include longer intervals in your training as well, but these don’t count as speed work. On the bike and on the run, start with 20-second hill sprints and transition incrementally to intervals of 3 to 5 minutes. Don’t completely give up the really short stuff, though. Sprinkle in a few sprints even during the last few weeks before a race to maintain your highest gear.

Love it or loathe it, speed work is a critical component of effective triathlon training. But there are right and wrong ways to go about it. Now you know the right way.

Recently I received an unexpected phone call from Travis Macy. If the name is familiar, it’s because you know Travis as an inveterate ultrarunner and adventure racer and author of The Ultra Mindset: An Endurance Champion’s 8 Core Principles for Success in Business, Sports, and Life. I know Travis only slightly beyond this thumbnail bio. We started corresponding by email in 2013, when he first got the idea for his book. We now share a literary agent, and earlier this year I appeared on Travis’s podcast with my wife, Nataki.

The purpose of Travis’s call was to check in on my mental health. He didn’t put it quite so bluntly, but it was clear he was doing just that. Not a random check-in but a targeted one instigated by a red flag he’d identified in my response to an email check-in the previous week. I’ll go ahead and share with you what I shared with Travis in that message:

Alas, I’m still struggling. I feel like Paul Newman’s character in the prison-yard fight scene in Cool Hand Luke (my favorite film).The other day Nataki said to me, “Don’t give up, baby!” I told her, “I’m not, Kittycat. This is what not giving up looks like when you’re losing!”

You know those movies where things keep going from bad to worse for the main character? (The Martian comes to mind as one example.) Just when you think the hero has finally hit rock bottom, a trap door opens underneath him and he falls even further. And then it happens again. And again.

That’s what my life has felt like for the past eight months. I was seven months into the living death that is post-acute COVID-19 syndrome when I hit what I naively thought at the time was absolute bottom. I was laid out on a sofa at home, nearly paralyzed by a fatigue so intense that it was a kind of agony. Imagine burning alive, then replace “burning” with “exhaustion.” I’m not exaggerating. Yet at the same time I was maddeningly bored, because it was ten o’clock on a Tuesday morning and sleep was not an option and working was completely out of the question and I lacked the mental wherewithal even to focus on some dumb Netflix time-killer. The only thing that offered any sort of relief was listening to Yanni. That pretty much sums up my predicament right there: I needed Yanni.

It was then I decided to stop waiting my proper turn to get my first coronavirus vaccination and roll the dice, having heard reports of some long-haulers gaining a measure of relief from their jabs for reasons that baffle scientists and doctors. An hour later, Nataki and I were queuing outside the Modesto Civic Center with other responsible citizens. The next day Nataki found me sprawled naked on the floor of the master bathroom, hyperventilating, unable to answer her panicked questions, having crawled out of the tub after discovering I was too weak to make a fist and feeling myself slipping under à la Whitney Houston.

This wasn’t a matter of the usual side effects. My first Pfizer shot had simply worsened a chronic illness already bad enough to cause me to reach for the music of Yanni as a lifeline. A new bottom. Still, I held out hope for my second shot, having heard reports that other long-haulers had, like me, gotten worse after the first shot but then felt better following the second.

Two nights after my second jab, I was awake in bed, desperately fatigued from prior sleep deprivation and knowing with 100 percent certainty that I would not sleep a wink that night. Inoculation number two had further intensified several of my symptoms, including insomnia, tingling in the lower legs, fatigue, brain fog, and chest pains. The 10 out of 10 pins-and-needles pain in my legs alone would have kept me up, but an even greater issue was the hyperadrenalized jittery sensation in my chest. It felt as if I had drunk five cups of strong coffee and then narrowly missed being crushed by a falling piano after hopping off a rollercoaster.

Next night, same. Last night, same. I don’t remember what it feels like to have a clear head. The other day I tried to fill a water bottle by holding it against a light switch. I swear I’m not making this up.

It’s impossible to suffer this much for this long and retain perfect mental health. The toughest part for me has been not so much “depression, “anxiety,” or any other such diagnosis but rather the general strain and enervation of having to fight nonstop for my happiness and sanity all day every day. I’ve largely succeed in holding it together, but I am doing so at a tremendous cost that continues to grow every single day with no end in sight.

Very early on in this process I made a conscious decision to share what I’m going through with friends, work associates, and the public. I did so for three reasons: 1) I share (some would say overshares) everything, good and bad. It’s how I’m wired. 2) I don’t think there’s anything to be ashamed of in experiencing mental health challenges. And 3) I’d done it before and discovered that it’s extremely helpful.

On this last point, my 2018 memoir Life Is a Marathon tells the story of the long and painful battle Nataki and I have fought with her bipolar disorder. I held back nothing in those pages—not even my own 2007 suicide attempt. When the book was released, Nataki was justifiably terrified about how the reading public would perceive her, but the response she got couldn’t have been more different from her fears. Praised for her strength, courage, resilience, and spirit, Nataki now has a little fan club of her own known. Indeed, that’s partly why Travis Macy wanted her on his podcast.

So that’s one benefit of sharing your mental health challenges: People (enough of them, anyway), respond with love. Another is that the connections you create go two ways. Everyone is either going through, or has gone through, something, and when you open up, the person you open up to often follows suit, and you end up helping each other.

By now we’re all familiar with the public-service message, “It’s okay to not be okay.” Individuals who are currently struggling with mental health challenges are the main targets of message, I assume, but the greater numbers of folks who might know someone who’s not okay need to hear it and take it in too. Travis is clearly a kindhearted person, but I can’t help but wonder if he would have reached out to someone he knows as glancingly as he knows me if the okay-to-not-be-okay meme hadn’t begun to permeated the zeitgeist.

I will say this: That first step can be awkward on both sides. I think that people like me who are currently struggling bear some responsibility to make it less uncomfortable for the listening ears. That’s why I begin Zoom work meetings sometimes by matter-of-factly informing my colleagues how my cognitive and emotional difficulties are currently impacting my productivity. It’s why I’ve candidly informed the hosts of podcasts, before they press Record, that I’ve been dealing with social anxiety and mental confusion and may require rescue at some point. It’s why, when neighbors ask me how I’m doing, I tell them exactly how I’m doing. The fact that we need help doesn’t mean we’re helpless. In being upfront, unembarrassed, and unapologetic about my immediate state of mind, I’m training others to feel less awkward when their next turn comes to be a listening ear. You can do the same.

If you’re going through something and, after reading this, you’re still not ready to let others know you’re not okay, try journaling or art therapy. Expressing your feelings is half of expressing your feelings to others. I’ve written a lot of poetry since my life became a waking nightmare, and it’s been cathartic. I leave you with a poem that addresses my own occasional ambivalence about opening up. As you read it, do your thoughts drift toward someone in your life who might also be the feeling this way? Reach out. Is that person you? Reach out.

 

I Am Suffering

I was going to say something to
you but I decided against it.

It seemed unseemly to speak for no
reason other than to elicit sympathy.

But wait: Am I trying to have it
both ways, saying it by not saying it?

That idea doesn’t sit well with me.
Neither, though, does the idea
of saying nothing.

Perhaps I need only speak it—
not to you but to God, or a bird,
or a stone. Maybe that’s enough.

Forgive me, I’m thinking out loud.

But no, having thought about it,
I can say for certain it is not
enough. I need you to know.

Can you do that for me? Can you
let me say it, let me let you know,
and promise not to feel sorry for

me?

On September 21, 2015, Cameron Bean was struck and killed by a passing car while running in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. He was 28 years old.

I’d met Cam four years earlier while visiting the ZAP Fitness (now ZAP Endurance) compound for a writing assignment. A dead ringer for Conan O’Brien, Cam was a likeable fellow with an inspiring personal story. An unremarkable 9:01 steeplechaser at little-known Samford University, Cam called ZAP coach Pete Rea soon after graduating and begged him to let him join the team, even though his time did not meet ZAP’s black-and-white qualifying standards. Pete told Cam the same thing he’d told dozens of other runners who’d come to him previously with the same petition.

“If you move here on your own,” he said, “and find your own place to live and a part-time job, I’ll let you train with us.”

Four weeks later, Cam called Pete again.

“I’m in town,” he said. “When’s practice?”

Not only did Cam eventually earn full membership on ZAP, but he became one of the team’s strongest performers, lowering his steeple time to 8:32.57 and qualifying for the final of the men’s steeplechase event at the 2013 USATF Outdoor Championships. In so doing, he became a living example of just how far pure passion can take an athlete—until, all too soon, Cam was no longer living.

The driver who struck him fled the scene but was later apprehended and sentenced to four years in prison. She claimed that the accident was caused by the blinding effect of solar glare, but the authorities dismissed this excuse on the grounds that the sun couldn’t have been in her line of sight at the time the incident occurred. It seems more likely to me that she was distracted somehow.

running on the side of the road to avoid accident

Distracted Driving

As you are no doubt aware, distracted driving has become a huge problem. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the phenomenon was responsible for 3,142 deaths in the U.S. in 2019. Many endurance athletes function in a constant state of low-grade fear of meeting a fate similar to Cameron Bean’s when out training on the roads. Yet despite being at greater risk of being the victims of distracted drivers, endurance athletes are just as likely to attend to their phones instead of the road in front of them when they’re behind the wheel.

I’m no exception. On shorter drives, I tend to be pretty good about ignoring my phone, but on long road trips I often slip up. As the hours pass, I can almost feel the notifications piling up, and every so often I can’t resist the temptation to take a peek to see if anything important has come in. It so happens that I am about to set out with my wife on a cross-country road trip. We’ll cover about 3,500 miles over the course of nine days. That’s a lot of time behind the wheel, hence a lot of opportunity to hurt myself, Nataki, or someone else by driving distractedly.

Application that saves lives

To forestall such a tragedy, I’ve downloaded a smartphone app called This App Saves Lives, which I learned about by its creator, Ryan Frankel, a fellow Haverford College alum who played baseball there but got into running and triathlon afterward. From the press kit Ryan sent me: “This App Saves Lives (“TASL”) is a mobile app-based solution that rewards drivers who abstain from phone-based distracted driving. With TASL, drivers earn rewards points for time spent driving undistracted and these points are redeemable for amazing rewards from our nationwide community of merchant partners. In doing so, TASL gamifies and incentivizes safe driving behavior to replace a dangerous habit with a far more rewarding and addictive one.”

It’s easy to use—so easy, in fact, that “using” isn’t even the right word. That’s kind of the point. Once the app is installed on your phone and you’ve changed your settings to allow TASL to access your whereabouts at all times, it knows when you’re driving and begins monitoring your phone usage (and nonuse) automatically. For every minute you leave the device alone, you gain a point. Each time you slip up, you lose a point. So far, I have a 100% undistracted rating and 281 points. If I’m good, I’ll have more than 3,000 points by the time I reach Rhode Island.

The best part is, these points aren’t just “points.” They are redeemable for purchases from a slew of major retail, restaurant, and service partners including Picky Bars, Urban Outfitters, and Philadelphia Runner. Actually, no—the best part is that you’re helping keep your fellow athletes safe out on the roads, but the rewards program is pretty cool.

I’m going to stick my neck out and suggest you have no good excuse not to download and start using this free app that literally saves lives and rewards you for it . . . and was created by a member of the endurance community and a Haverford College alum. Go, ‘Fords!

Training plans are great. If I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t have built a company that sells them! Not a day goes by that I don’t see the proof of the usefulness of training plans in the feedback I see and hear from athletes who have gone from training without a plan or with a dodgy sort of plan to training with an 80/20 running plan or triathlon plan and experienced significant improvement.

Prebuilt training plans have obvious limitations, however. They have a fixed duration, a fixed weekly workout schedule, a fixed volume progression—everything about them is fixed. If it were possible to build an infinite number of such plans, then in principle there would be a training plan that fit the needs of each athlete. Alas, this is not possible.

Well, actually, it is. Training plan generators powered by computer algorithms or artificial intelligence can indeed create training plans for every athlete. Technically, though, these plans aren’t prebuilt, and we’re talking here about prebuilt plans, which for the moment remain more widely used that plan generators. So, back to the topic at hand . . .

Training Plan Limitations

If you spend time on this website’s forums, you will quickly learn the specific limitations of prebuilt plans that athletes encounter most commonly. Issue number one is that the plan is X weeks long, but the race the athlete is preparing for is either more or less than X weeks away. In other words, the plan is of the “wrong” length. Perhaps the second most common issue is that the athlete wants to do more than one race, whereas our prebuilt plans necessarily lead up to a single race at the end. The question in these cases is either “When is a good time within the plan to do a ‘B’ race?” or “How do I adjust the plan to accommodate my other race(s)?”

A third type of limitation has to do with how to string plans together over time for the sake of long-term progress. Most athletes want to not just do their best in their next race but get better year by year, and individual prebuilt training plans have nothing to say about that. In order to be as inclusive as possible, all of the plans we build for general use assume the athlete is starting at a fairly low level of fitness relative to their personal peak. This makes the early weeks of training “too easy” for some athletes in certain instances.

When I sat down to write this article I intended to provide specific guidelines for working through these various limitations. I realize now, however, that to do the job properly I would have to write the longest blog post ever written. After all, the whole issue is that you’re trying to individualize something that was not created for any single individual. Each case is unique. Whenever an athlete asks me for advice on how to modify a plan or a sequence of plans to make it better fit their unique circumstances, the answer I want to give is to go inside the plan, perform surgery on it, and then point at the result and say, “Here’s what I recommend.”

I suppose there are some broad guidelines that can be applied to these issues. Scheduling “B” races is relatively straightforward. The ideal timing for them is in recovery weeks, where they simply replace the workouts planned for that particular weekend. The two days preceding the race should also be replaced, specifically with lighter training, and the three days immediately following the race should be replaced with a combination of rest and lighter training. Things get more complicated, though, when a planned “B” race does not align with a designated recovery week in the plan, and when the athlete wishes to do more than one “B” race, and when a “B” race falls earlier within a plan than is ideal. . .

Scheduling "B" races into your training plan

The coach in me can’t help but want every user of the training plans offered on this website to get as much out of it as my individual clients get out of the plans I create for them. To this end, I’ve lately been thinking a lot about how to create a more customized experience for users of our prebuilt 80/20 endurance training plans. Here’s what we’ve got in the works:

Long Term

We’re in the early stages of developing a proprietary 80/20 Endurance coaching certification for in-person and online run and triathlon coaching. Once we have a critical mass of trained and certified coaches, we will begin to offer a new level of our subscription service that includes coach monitoring of training and run and triathlon training coaching. Whenever you need a plan adjusted, just let us know and one of our certified coaches will assist you. An expansion of our custom training place service is also likely.

Medium Term

If you liked the sound of an AI-driven training plan generator when I brought it up earlier, I’ve got good news for you. Well, not really. What I meant to say is that I will soon have good news for you on this front. That’s all I’m allowed to say at the moment, but stay tuned.

Short Term

In the meantime, keep doing what you’ve been doing, which is using our forums to ask questions about plan adjustments whenever necessary. My goal is to collect a few specific case studies over the next few weeks and mold them into a standing resource document that actually delivers on the promise hinted at in the title of this post!

Wisdom is the principle thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting, get understanding.–Proverbs 4:7

The best teacher I ever had was Mark Gould, a sociology professor at Haverford College. I’ll never forget the first meeting of his Foundations of Social Theory class in the fall of 1989. The bearded professor (whose sundry idiosyncrasies included wearing a dog leash as a belt) leapt straight into a group exercise in which he presented a hypothetical scenario of a man throwing a rock through the window of a parked car and then invited us, his bright-eyed, barely-adult students, to imagine why this event had occurred.

Someone raised a hand and proposed that the stone hurler was a criminal who stole car stereos to finance a drug habit. Another student said he was a teen hooligan causing mischief. Still another said he was a good Samaritan rescuing a dog trapped inside the vehicle on a hot summer day. Yet another said he was an embittered jilted lover lashing out at an ex. And so on.

As each volunteer offered their take, Gould wrote down a word or two on a whiteboard: “utilitarian theft,” “vandalism,” “altruism,” “revenge,” etcetera. After collecting about a dozen different scenarios, the teacher put down his marker and announced to us that we, his fresh-faced pupils, did not know how to think, not through any fault of our own but simply because we had never been taught how to think, and that his primary goal for the coming semester was to teach us how to think.

I don’t remember how much I took away from that first lesson, but it was more than nothing. For me, the process of learning to think had begun, a process that would continue over the next five years as I took other courses with Gould (including one audited post-graduation) and was mentored by him outside the classroom as well, mainly over deli sandwiches. The difference between thinking critically, as this great mind-molder taught me how to do, and thinking in the lower-primate way I had before, is roughly analogous to the difference between information and understanding. Information is knowing. Understanding is knowing what to do with what you know, particularly in the absence of complete information. A man throwing a rock through a car window is information. Having the sense to pass no judgment and take no action until the why is revealed—recognizing, in other words, that not all rocks thrown through car windows are the same—is understanding.

Information is easy. Understanding is hard. I think that’s why, of the roughly two dozen students who attended that first Foundations of Social Theory class session in the autumn of 1989, only eight returned for the second meeting, which took place in the shabby snuggery of Gould’s living room. The life of a human being can be seen as a series of decisions. Information makes decisions easier, and indeed when complete information is available, our decisions are effectively made for us. This is precisely what is meant by the term “no-brainer.” But in many fields of endeavor, including endurance training, decisions must be made routinely with incomplete information, and understanding makes this possible by empowering creative problem solving. If you’ve ever dealt with someone who seems unfazed by uncertainty in the face of a pressing decision, you’ve dealt with a person who knows how to think and not merely how to assimilate information.

As an endurance coach and writer, I try to pay Mark Gould’s gift forward by teaching athletes how to understand the training process. “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day,” goes the old maxim. “Teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” Allow me to give you a concrete example of the difference between the two that is relevant to your interests as an endurance athlete.

Recently two writers penned articles about the book Out of Thin Air: Running Wisdom and Magic from Above the Clouds in Ethiopia, which documents the 15 months that Scottish anthropologist and runner Michael Crawley spent experiencing and absorbing Ethiopia’s elite running culture. One article is titled “8 ways to train like an Ethiopian distance runner,” and it describes (you guessed it) eight distinctive features of Ethiopian-style run training. This article is almost entirely devoid of contextualization or an analysis. Are the methods are necessary or optional? More effective or less effective than what the reader might be doing currently? By what criteria should a runner choose from among them? The article does not answer these questions, nor even hint that they might be worth asking. Little more than an annotated list—thoroughly SEO vetted, I’m sure—it is pure information. A hunk of fish.

The other recent article on the same topic couldn’t be more different. It begins by explaining the idea that there are certain methods every runner must practice to realize their full potential in the sport, yet within this framework of unbreakable rules, there is plenty of latitude to train in different ways based on personal preferences, cultural norms, and so forth. In support of this contention, the writer adduces scientific evidence that there is indeed more than one way to skin a cat in endurance training.

The article then goes on to describe three of the specific features of Ethiopian-style run training described in Crawley’s book that appear to be radically different from what most non-Ethiopian runners are accustomed to. But on closer inspection, the writer reveals, all of these practices turn out to be entirely consistent with core, universal principles of optimal endurance training. They are different only superficially, in the way that injera (a traditional Ethiopian bread made out of teff) is different from oatmeal, a nutritionally identical food eaten in other places where injera is probably considered “weird” by a lot of folks.

This second article does not merely present information about Ethiopian-style run training. It equips readers with a way of thinking about the training process that they can use in the future to conduct their own analyses of any other novel training methods they might encounter. It is, in short, a lesson in how to fish.

I think it’s a safe bet that the Runner’s World article got many more views than my article. But I’d like to think that perhaps mine made a deeper impact on the readers it did reach. There’s nothing wrong with providing information, but as valuable as this service is, it just doesn’t excite me. I much prefer the more challenging task of trying to help athletes better understand training (and nutrition, and mental fitness development . . .).

Sometimes I wonder how Mark Gould felt about the attrition that occurred between the first and second meetings of his Foundations of Social Theory class. I know he took great satisfaction in tinkering with willing young brains like mine. But did he also feel a little sad about the far greater numbers of students who weren’t interested in what he offered? I’ll admit, I feel a little sad on occasion in my own job—lonely even. How about you—are you one of the sixteen, or one of my eight?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

How to start running again

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

1. Use the 48-Hour Rule

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

2. Lean on Cross-Training

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

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

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

3. Listen to Your Body

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

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

4. Focus on Now

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

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

5. Keep it Fun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

First Rule

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

Second Rule

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Dear Dr. Young,

The good news is I have heart disease . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The underlying concept here is that of holding yourself to a high standard. There was a time when this concept had a high degree of cultural currency—when it was common for people to think and talk about the importance of setting an example with one’s conduct at work, in relationships, and as a member of the community. The Stoics of ancient Greece were big on this idea.

As the great Stoic philosopher Epictetus put it,

“Imagine for yourself a character, a model personality, whose example you determine to follow, in private as well as in public.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everybody we knew who had already been through what we were about to go through warned us that it would be even more challenging than we thought.

Their counsel reminded me of something my friend Bernie said to me before my first marathon:

“No matter how hard you think it’s going to be, it’s going to be harder than that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Negative emotions

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

When I design maintenance training plans for my fellow endurance athletes, I generally try to include one high-intensity stimulus, one moderate-intensity stimulus, and one endurance stimulus per week. These stimuli can and should be quite modest because;

  1. Again, it doesn’t take much of these things to preserve fitness that’s already been earned and
  2. You’re not really trying to preserve 100 percent of peak fitness in maintenance training anyway; you’re trying to do just enough to set yourself up for a smooth transition back to race-focused training when the time comes.

Here’s an example of a week of maintenance training for a runner:

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
Rest Fartlek Run

 

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

Easy Run

 

45:00

Easy Run

 

45:00

Fast Finish Run

 

40:00 easy + 5:00 @ critical velocity

Easy Run

 

45:00

Depletion Run

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

Mindfulness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It all started with a single bad workout…

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

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

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

3-Step Process in facing reality

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

Step 1: Accept Reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step 2: Embrace Reality

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

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

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

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

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

Step 3: Address Reality

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Read related posts here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. It’s bad
  2. It’s complicated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(If you want to read other books check out here.)

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

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

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

Fitness Building and Athletic Development

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

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

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

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

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

QED.

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

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

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

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

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

The Science of Running

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s science.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A: Throw out the pizza and bake a cake.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Endurance Bike Easy Run Swim

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

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

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

Fifty is the new forty?

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

I see three reasons:

1) more talent competing in the older ranks of endurance sports,

2) better methods and practices, and

3) the reinforcing psychosocial effect of raising the proverbial bar.

Let’s take a quick look at each.

Reasons why older endurance athletes perform at levels unseen in athletes their age

1. More talent

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

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

2. Better methods

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

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

3. The Bannister effect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2:00 high/1:20 low

1:00 high/0:40 low

0:45 high/0:30 low

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He did not raise his hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

80 Days to Chicago

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

“Hi, Matt,” he said casually.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know how you do it,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” I said. “Let’s hear it.”

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

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

“I don’t train,” the runner told him.

“What do you mean?” Rivers asked.

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

“What kind of work?”

“I’m a porter.”

“What’s a porter?”

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

“We?” Rivers asked.

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

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

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

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

“I get it now,” I said.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11:00 acceleration from jog to full sprint

30:00 rest

6:00 acceleration from jog to full sprint

30:00 rest

3:00 acceleration from jog to full sprint

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

15:00 warm-up

11:00 acceleration from jog to full sprint

15:00 jog

3:00 acceleration from jog to full sprint

15:00 cool-down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Types of Dietary Self-Sabotage

Perfection Targeting

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

Giving Up

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

Mirror Enslavement

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

Fad Chasing

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

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

The Keto Diet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How’s it going?” He asked.

“Terrible,” I said disgustedly.

“Really? Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to transfer the pool workouts

Safety First

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

Technology to the Rescue

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

The Stroke-Count Hack

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

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

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

Don’t Forget to Drill

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

Lemonade from Lemons

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

Don’t Overthink It

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

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

93 Days to Chicago

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

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

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

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

“Garage is open,” she said.

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

“We dodged a bullet there,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strength Training 

Cross-training
Strength Training 

Cross-training
Easy Run
8 miles easy 

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

Cross-Training
Strength Training 

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

Cross-training
Strength Training 

Cross-training
Cross-training 2x Long Run
23 miles easy
Cross-training 2x Easy Run
8 miles easy 

Cross-training
Steady State Run
8 miles including 6 miles @ marathon effort 

Strength Training 

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

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

Strength Training 
Cross-training 2x Strength Training 

Easy Run + drills and strides
Strength Training 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Augment Your Home Gym

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

Expand Your Healthy Cooking Repertoire

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

Bone Up on Your Sport

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

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

Build Better Sleep Habits

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

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

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

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

Runners in Kenya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Option 2: Replace your swim training with Dryland Training

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

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

Bent-Over Two-Arm Pull with Resistance Cord

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

 

Screen Shot 2020 03 13 at 10.57.07 AM

Prone Flutter Kick

Lie face down with your arms relaxed at your sides, palms on the floor. With a slight bend in the knees, contract your buttocks to lift your knees off the floor and begin to execute a tight flutter kick at a natural tempo. Continue for 30 seconds.Screen Shot 2020 03 13 at 11.07.10 AM

Bent-Over Alternating Single-Arm Pull with Resistance Cord

This exercise is identical to the Bent-Over Two-Arm Pull with Resistance Cord execute you pull with one arm at a time while keeping the other extended overhead. Continue alternating left-arm and right-arm pulls for 30 seconds.Screen Shot 2020 03 13 at 10.56.53 AM

Supine Flutter Kick

Lie face up on the floor with your legs fully extended and your arms relaxed at your sides. Tighten your stomach muscles, lift your heels off the floor, and begin to execute a tight flutter kick at a natural tempo. Continue to 30 seconds. To make the exercise more challenging, do it with your arms extended overhead, the backs of your palms two inches above the floor.Screen Shot 2020 03 13 at 11.03.34 AM

 

Resuming Your Swim Training After Time Away from the Pool 

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

Dip your toes

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

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

8 x 25m drills

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

4 x 25m kick

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

Focus on drills

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

Listen to your body

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

Build a Bridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tips on dealing with cold feet during Race Days

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

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

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

2. Give yourself an out.

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

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

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

3. Challenge yourself

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

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

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

My Takeaways

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endurance racing is a spiritual experience for many athletes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Difference between endurance racing and traditional spiritual tools

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

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

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

Swim, Bike, Bonk: Confessions of a Reluctant Triathlete

Will McGough

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

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

Carrie Jackson Cheadle and Cindy Kuzma

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

Kaizen-Durance: Your Aerobic Path to Mastery

Shane Eversfield

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

Endurance Performance in Sport: Psychological Theory and Interventions

Carla Meijen, Editor 

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

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

Sue Reynolds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The All-or-Nothing Angle

Sleep is a mysterious phenomenon that has long eluded scientists’ efforts to fully explain it. As neuroscientist Michael Halassa confessed in a 2017 article published on 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.

How to overcome Stadephobia

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:

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

 

If you would like to read a book related to 80/20 training, you might want to check our published 80/20 endurance books here: www.8020endurance.com/all-books

“Running” Indoors

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 faster outdoors 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.

Conclusion

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 study on 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 your pre-race taper. Is this insane? It might sound so, but there’s a difference between sound and substance. While training in 100-degree heat might be uncomfortable, it’s not going to kill you, and which would you rather do: 10 days of heavy, peak training in 100-degree heat or 10 days of lighter, taper training?

That being said, I don’t recommend that you try heat training for the first time before an important race. Instead, test it out early in a training cycle to see how it affects you. It won’t be wasted even then, because if it works it will give your subsequent training a nice boost.

I can’t help but wonder if doing one hot workout every week or so throughout a training cycle might have similar benefits. Personally, I would find this approach easier to manage. Heat training could then be used in much the same way carb-fasted workouts are, and perhaps the two methods could even be combined to minimize the number of training days that need to be set aside as “special” sessions. Can I get a real exercise scientist to look into this?

This document covers how to use your free strength training plug-in. For support on your Premium Strength Training plan, see Understanding Your Premium 80/20 Strength Training Plan.

If you have not done much strength training recently, or if many of the exercises in your 80/20 Strength Training Plug-in are new to you, we recommend that you perform each exercise just one time (one circuit) in each of the first four sessions (two weeks).

All of the workouts in your 80/20 Strength Training Plug-in are intended to be done as circuits. This means you complete each exercise one time before going back and repeating the full sequence. Research suggests that 80 percent of the potential strength gains associated with doing any particular exercise come from the first set, so if you’re tight on time and/or you don’t enjoying strength work, don’t feel compelled to do more than one circuit. But if you do have time and interest, we recommend that you advance from one circuit to two in your third week (seventh session) and from two circuits to three in your fifth week (11th session).

The workouts are designed in such a way that you are never challenging the same muscle groups in consecutive movements. This allows you to move from one exercise to the next with minimal rest. Don’t rush the workout, but do recover just long enough between exercises so that your performance in the next is not compromised.

In exercises involving external resistance (e.g., dumbbells), choose a weight that you could lift twice more than you are actually required to. For example, if a given exercise calls for 10 repetitions, choose a weight you could lift 12 times with perfect form. Increase the resistance in small increments as you get stronger. The same loading principle applies to bodyweight and timed exercises. For example, when doing Side Planks, hold the position about 90 percent as long as you could.

Your 80/20 Strength Training Plug-in comprises three separate workouts: a Preparation Phase Circuit, a Build Phase Circuit, and a Competition Phase Circuit. Each workout consists of 10 exercises, but the exercises are different in each workout. Always perform new movements with minimal loads until you get the hang of them.

Each exercise description is followed by a link to a video demonstration from a third party. It is very important that you do all of the exercises with correct form. To this end, we encourage you to get help from a strength and conditioning coach or personal trainer if you have any doubt about whether you are doing a particular exercise correctly.

Please note that the Strength Training Plug-in plan should be applied using the same start date as your primary plan. In many cases, the first strength workout of the week will fall on the primary plan’s scheduled Rest Day. Although this takes away the complete rest day of many plans, endurance strength training is light enough that it will not interfere with your recovery on that day. You also have the option to move this strength training session to the next-easiest day of the week, but we recommend it remain as scheduled.

Required Equipment

The full spectrum of exercises within the Strength Training Plug-in requires the following equipment:

  • Kettlebells, various weight
  • Dumbbells, various weight
  • Swiss ball
  • Stability ball
  • Exercise bands OR cable/pulley machine
  • Exercise step or chair
  • Medicine ball
  • Exercise mat

Preparation Phase Circuit

1. 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:

2. 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:

3. 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:

4. 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:

5. 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:

6. 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:

7. 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:

8. 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:

9. 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:

10. 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

1. 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:

2. 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:

3. 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:

4. 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:

5. 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:

6. 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:

7. 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:

8. 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:

9. 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:

10. 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

1. 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:

2. 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:

3. 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:

4. 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:

5. 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:

6. 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

7. 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:

 

8. 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:

9. 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

10. 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.

4 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.

Benefits of marathon workouts

In my experience, marathon workouts offer a couple of benefits:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Why trust Professionals for Sports Nutrition Guidance?

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.

The benefits

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 too conservative.

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!

Or grab our 80/20 books here! (We offer free shipping nationwide! *winks*)

 

*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 Moment is 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 not known 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 a